"It's a rock."
He turned it in his hand. A smooth stone, about the size of his palm; flat and speckled with little black dots. Perfect for skipping across the lake. How long it had been since he'd done that he can no longer remember.
"It's a name-day present." Anders explained.
"This is all very thoughtful, but you didn't need-"
"From the seaside."
"You said that if you ever got out of here the first thing you would do is visit the seaside again."
A small smile curled Karl's lips.
"I did say that, didn't I?"
"I would have gotten it to you sooner, but…" Anders' voice trailed off sheepishly.
Karl recalled the last time Anders had escaped. He awoke to a note beside his pillow, and the discovery that his favorite pair of woolen socks had gone missing. "I didn't want my toes to fall off" Anders explained three weeks later as Karl bandaged the lashings across his back. That night he held the young man just a little bit tighter.
Anders' voice pulled him back from his thoughts, blond hair tickling his shoulder.
"It's not the sea," he said, "but at least it's a piece of it."
Karl closed his fingers around the rock, pressing his lips to Anders' temple.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"I'll take you there for real someday."
Even though he knew it was dangerous to dream of such things Karl allowed himself to play along just for a little while. "We can run on the shore." he said. "We can swim, and kiss until the sun goes down."
"And then?" Anders murmured.
"Then," Karl leaned down to claim his lips, "we make love under the stars."
Anders returned the kiss eagerly, rolling atop the other man's chest to press their foreheads together.
"You don't want to make love on the beach." Anders held back a small laugh. "Wyverns."
Karl did laugh.
"What about right here in my bed then?"
With a half-grin Anders nodded, extinguishing the lantern beside them.
Chapter 2: Healing (Rated: G)
Written in response to a "have Karl heal Anders" prompt from TCRegan.
He tells himself he will not laugh. A burning smell filled the empty classroom, smoke still clinging to the air though the worst of the embers were now burnt away. Fire spells; such basic magic. Karl hoped maybe, just maybe Anders would catch on quickly enough. He hadn't. Now where his left eyebrow used to be was a patch of blackened stubble.
"Let me have a look at you." Beneath the grin in his voice was concern. The burn wasn't severe, more wounding to the ego than anything, but still he put his hands on Anders' shoulders to examine the damage. "Well. It's not completely gone."
The younger man pulled away with an exaggerated huff, crossing to a window he was just tall enough to peer out of. At thirteen Anders had barely been in Kinloch hold six months. Between trying to learn the trade tongue, however, and long hours scrubbing pots and pans for breaking rules he was sure didn't exist he was years behind in his studies. The other apprentices barely talked to him, and the senior enchanters never knew quite what to do with him. Karl was the only one who reached out; the only one Anders respected. Usually.
And now he had failed his mentor. Again.
He sank down against the wall, knees to his chest. Tears prickled the backs of his eyes and twisted in his throat. When he looked up to wipe them away Karl was crouched in front of him.
"I'm sorry." He said. "It wasn't my intend to laugh at you. You just…remind me a little bit of myself when I was your age."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
"No, it's true!" Karl rolled up the sleeve of his robe to reveal a white, jagged scar near the bend of his elbow. "Got too close to some chain lightning. Still can't grow hair there."
Anders' eyes widened. "You don’t think this will-"
"Don't worry. Eyebrows tend to grow back."
"Are you sure?"
"Promise." He inched closer, fingers brushing against the burn above the younger man's eye. "Let me at least take the pain away?"
Swallowing, Anders nodded. The cooling sensation of a healing spell was welcome against the warmth of his skin. A smile crept across his lips. "Enchanter Thekla?"
"Yes?" He said, bristling at the title.
"Will you teach me how to do that?"
Healing magic was quite possibly the hardest curriculum the Circle had to offer, and only a select few were truly gifted at it. Karl himself knew enough to mend a small fracture, maybe, but he was by far in no position to try to teach such a thing to another. When he looked at Anders, though, he didn't have the heart to say no.
Chapter 3: Counting Backwards (T)
Rated: T for implied sex
Ten: The number of stairs he climbs to get to the Enchanters' quarters. He sneaks out of bed when the possibility that a Templar might be wandering the halls has passed. Without even a wisp for light he counts the steps as he goes. Bare feet stop just outside an unlocked door. His heart flutters as he opens it.
Nine: The number of times they kiss behind the bookshelves when no one else is looking. When they think no one else is looking. They get caught once. He runs because he knows what will happen if Karl gets caught with "someone like him." When they kiss again it's soft; slow. They're pressed against a mattress that gnaws at their spines, but it doesn't matter because no one will find their new hiding place.
Eight: The number of lashes he gets the first time he escapes. It's before he's old enough to even think about kissing someone. He flings himself into the lake when the Templar on guard looks away for just a moment too long. When they drag him back three weeks later it's Karl who tends to his wounds. He says they will never heal completely, but that it's okay because it shows he's strong. Anders' stomach knots. He doesn't know how he feels. When he throws himself from a window three years later it's because Karl tells him not to get too attached. The icy water stabs the skin that had been caressed only hours earlier. He knows exactly how he feels.
Seven: The number of shapes he can name in the sky on an unclouded night. Grass damp and cool against the skin on his neck he counts them again. A bear. A dragon. A wolf. It won't be long before they catch him again; they always do. He distracts himself from those thoughts, eyes flicking up to the stars again. Two sisters. A great cat. A nug. A griffon. Whatever punishment they have in store for him is worth this temporary freedom. Beginning to invent new shapes he wonders if Karl can see them from where he is too.
Six: The number of times he begs Karl to run away with him. The words are peppered between kisses, a low voice imploring the impossible. He knows what the answer will be every time, though sometimes the words he uses are different. This time it's "I can do more here than I can out there." Losing himself in the moment Anders wonders why he ever thought the answer would be otherwise.
Five: The number of times he finds himself in Karl's bed again after their arguments. It shouldn't be this way, he tells himself. He needs to be stronger. Make Karl see that they only need each other. Biting into the flesh of his own fist, skin damp with sweat he can hardly think at all. They collapse together; a tangle of limbs and robes and heavy breaths. When the sun pours through the curtains the next morning he tells himself someday he won't be in this position again. Someday he won't come back.
Four: The number of months until the letter stop coming. At least, that's what he thinks it's been. The days are difficult to tell apart in his cell at the bottom of the tower. Small slips of parchment tied round the neck of the tower's mouser keep him sane. He clings to each "stay strong" and cries against each "I miss you." Four months and they're gone with the last vestiges of his hope. Karl says he never stopped writing them, Anders' jaw cupped in his hands. He knows he's telling the truth. Karl would never give up on him like that. Ten years later it's what he tells himself when the letters stop coming again.
Three: The number of times Karl makes him cry. The first time is just after his Harrowing. In the flicker of a candlelight he presses his fingertips into the wounds across Karl's back. Had he not been there Anders would be dead right now. The thought eats away at him until tears roll down his cheeks. The second time is before his final escape. He knows he isn't coming back, and he knows he's going alone. Their last kiss tastes like saltwater. The last is against the straw-stuffed pillow of the clinic. Hair undone, palms to his eyes he tries not to look at the knife still covered in his lover's blood. A part of him wishes he were the one left in the Chantry that night.
Two: The number of times they say goodbye. On their final night together they simply sleep. Karl's arms are wrapped around his waist, warm breath at the back of his neck. Anders asks him again to come with him out of habit, but this time he understands when the answer is a whispered "you know I can't do that." With a lingering squeeze of the hand he leaves. When he says goodbye again Karl doesn't say anything. How could he? Through the fog in his head and the shaking in his limbs he knows they have to leave before more Templars show up.
One: The number of times he says "I love you." The words are soft; so soft Karl doesn’t hear them. But he hopes he feels them in the gentle kiss against his neck in the light of a new morning, or in their embrace as they fall asleep in disused classroom so late at night even the Templars have gone to sleep. He hopes he sees it in the way he looks at him, hears it in his voice when he says "I'm sorry." Repeating the words silently in his head as his lover claims another kiss he thinks he knows.
Some post Valentine's hurt-comfort.
But mostly just hurt.
Before him the world was black and white.
A little too jaded for twenty-five he had accepted his life in the Circle. Accepted the classes and lessons. The recited prayers and apologies. The tea they served in the winter that was bitter no matter how much honey he snuck into it. He accepted the Harrowing; and silently pitied the mages who chose Tranquility over it. The shared bunks in tight quarters which turned into lonely rooms with larger mattresses when he was older. He accepted the Templars, and the things they did when they thought no one was looking. Keeping his head down and eyes shut when he was tempted to know just what those things were. He asked one of the Tranquil one day. He wished he hadn't.
Time passed in a blur of greys. Seasons changed sometimes without him knowing. Sometimes he thought about what he would do if things were different. At first he told himself when he got out he would go to the ocean; somewhere where he wasn't cold even under three quilts. Years slipped by and "when" became "if" and "if" became an impossibility. He would die in that place. Sometimes he felt like he was ready to.
And then there was color.
It came in the form of blond hair and a scowl; gauntleted hands holding the arms of a boy no older than thirteen. From his lips fell the sharp words of a language Karl knew to be his own. Though what he said would be enough to make a Chantry sister blush.
"Teach him to talk right." That's what the Templar told him. And left.
With words in a tongue he hadn't used in years he rested a hand on the boy's shoulder.
The boy never told him his name.
"Anders" was what he ended up calling him, and like the people in the country he was from the boy was strong; stubborn. A feral cat who eventually learned to behave the longer he was locked up, or would pretend to until the opportunity arose to run again. He would always be caught. Karl would always be there to pick up the pieces.
And that color painted his world.
He knew it when they kissed that he had fallen harder than he'd intended. Perhaps harder than was wise. The boy who arrived five years prior grew taller than him. Hair longer. Eyes wilder. Karl loved to stare into those eyes as Anders spoke of dangerous things. They were whispered with heavy breaths into the down of a pillow when everyone else was asleep. Promises of where he would take him when he got out; when they got out. It was always "they" even when Karl knew it never would be.
But Anders would never be kept. Five times he thought he lost him. Days later he would be dragged back with the fire in his eyes brighter than ever. Karl was never sure what to feel when this happened, silently fixing his restless lover as he had always done. The sixth time Anders disappeared he was sure he was gone forever. That year was the longest of his life. Hours spent starting at leaves through a barred window, watching as they changed from green to orange to brown until they fell off and their branches turned white.
In the Spring he held him again; all thin-limbed and trembling. He made him a promise that night. That he would get him out of that place. That prison. The seventh time Anders disappeared he never came back.
And everything turned grey again.
Karl never thought himself rebellious. Not on the surface. But that's what they told him he was, though he couldn't remember exactly what he had done. They said to wait in the Chantry. So he waited.
He remembered the Anderfels. Ferelden. The ship ride to Kirkwall. He remembered it made him ill, and that he was moved there for a reason. He remembered getting letters from someone he used to know, but didn't remember what they said now. Why they were important.
And then he saw gold hair and honey eyes. Heard the same voice that had told him he loved him behind a bookshelf in the library, and again in his own bed. That color—that fire—he thought he had lost when they were both a little younger. And for just a few moment the world seemed a brighter, as it had the day he met that boy with no name.
Brighter, until everything turned black.