A Canticle of Arguments: Chapter 6

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After Selby leaves, Anders decides on an early night. She hugged him when she left, and he held on for all he was worth, that momentary sourness of disagreement forgotten. She still thinks he’s a fool, he suspects, but he knows there’s no other way around it. He is aware of the contradiction she so gracefully delineated—

So, let me get this right: you’re prepared to take him into the mouth of the templars’ den, where death is very likely to await you, but you won’t bed him in case it doesn’t work out? Tch. And I thought you were the smart one, boy….

but she doesn’t understand. Hawke may not even come. He may refuse to enter The Gallows, and Anders would quite understand why… but he doubts it.

This is placing too much trust in an idea, a hope. Nothing more. I shouldn’t second-guess him. There’s no knowing what he’ll do.

No. I don’t know. But I believe he’ll do it. I have faith in him.

He smirks a little bit at that, because faith is one thing Anders has never really been overburdened with. Even in the Tower, when many of the apprentices clung to the sweet incense and comforting words of chapel services, hoping to find their redemption in the Maker’s eyes, the priests’ sermons always struck him as hollow.

He can accept a degree of it: the being nice to each other and not lying, cheating, stealing or killing (except when it’s really, really necessary) parts seem logical, but the gloss of allegory and self-aggrandisement the Chantry slaps onto everything like a coat of cheap paint feels wrong, and it wears just as patchily.

Religion, Anders thinks, as he stretches out on his narrow pallet, the woollen blanket pulled up to his chin in deference to the night’s cool dampness, is fine until it becomes political… or until it becomes zealotry. He’s seen that fire too often in the eyes of templars, and every one of them has ended up dead. He doesn’t know how many, he realises, and that knowledge shames him. He tries to keep in mind that they were all men—all someone’s son, someone’s brother, like Carver is Hawke’s brother, and Tobias hasn’t stopped caring about him just because of the stupid metal suit—but the only memories of those encounters Justice has left him with are the feel of flesh tearing and crushing beneath his hands, and the taste of warm blood spattering his lips.

His stomach convulses slightly at the memory of the first time it happened… that terrifying, unreal moment of coming back to himself when it was over, and not knowing what he’d done. Not believing it, even though he could see the bodies in front of him.

Anders breathes deeply, and lets the thoughts seep away. He can feel Justice’s torment, and the twin impulses of rage and apology that flow through the spirit. They are his, aren’t they? They must be. They are his emotions, his reactions to all that death… and they are warping Justice a little further every day. He blinks, and takes a visual inventory of his tiny den, noting the familiar shapes of his coat hanging on the back of the chair with the broken leg that he really must get around to fixing; the stack of papers on his trunk, and the books beside him, where the candle is flickering and throwing shadows against the rough wooden walls.

He remembers a wooden hut, and his mother; also his father, and siblings… and other relatives, other children in the village. Walls like these, with firelight and candles making shapes that danced while there were stories and stew. Justice pokes at those memories sometimes, but Anders clamps down on them, jealous and guarded. They are his, and his alone. Not even for his own mind to touch. They are already so distant, so formless, that he isn’t sure how real they are, and he can’t bear the thought that they might shift and change beneath him, or that he might lose them completely.

Sometimes, he can feel Justice trying to soothe him, trying to yield up some kind of comfort into the recesses of his mind. He turns in towards the spirit then, blindly seeking the consolation and warmth that he has no other source for anymore, but it is clumsy and fleeting, and it always leaves him bereft.

Anders is used to being on his own. One normally is, when one is running, and that has always been his speciality. Thing is, he used to have his memories to keep him company, to entertain him on the long evenings… and, all right, occasionally to pass the time on the equally long journeys back to the Tower, manacled to Ser Rylock or whichever other templar had been tasked with the dreary duty of dragging him, kicking, screaming, and swearing, back into the Tower’s shallow grave.

Rylock asked him why he kept doing it, once. He smiles as he remembers her scowl, her clear, sharply drawn face, and her eyes full of stubborn insistence and annoyed curiosity. She thought him a wretch—a childish, idiotic, selfish brat—but she still wanted to take him apart and find out how he worked.

Oh, everyone needs a hobby, he’d said chirpily, and jangled his shackles.

He hadn’t thought a frown like hers could get any deeper, and yet it had. Yours will get you killed, fool.

Anders had shrugged nonchalantly as he met her gaze, enjoying the utter confusion he could cause in her rigidly defined, damnably inflexible world.

Then I’ll die knowing I did something, rather than just settle to a living death.

It’s what it was all about, he supposes. The way he lived in those snatches of time he was free. All those things he did—those stupid, hedonistic, selfish things that felt good, and reminded him he was actually alive—used to leave behind the soft imprints of memory that sustained him. They used to keep him going when the templars caught up, as they inevitably did, and the world closed over him again. He misses that.

Anders would turn to the comfort of those memories now, but they haven’t been the same since Justice.

He tilts his head, watches the stub of candle on the upturned crate beside the bed throwing an oval of warm orange light on the wall. It dances sinuously, but when he puts the bodies of women he’s had to the curves and subtle movements, he tastes ashes on his tongue instead of their sweetness. Guilt plays against his flesh instead of the remembered embraces of lovers… as if he had wasted his time, or wasted theirs, or been somehow false or selfish, because to Justice nothing exists except that central impulse that defines his very being. There is nothing but Justice, and the outrages against which he must stand. Vengeance, and the wrongs he must right, although Anders is aware the spirit dislikes this epithet strongly. Vengeance is the canker that grows where justice rots, uncontained and humming with wild, brutal power. It is not the same, but it seems as good a name as any for the thing that lurks within—

I, it, us, we, him

and words are only words, after all.

Anders blinks, decides he ought to conserve the candle, and leans over to blow it out.

The darkness is thick, soft… it seeps into everything, and it takes a while for his eyes to become accustomed to the dimness, and for the initial cramp of discomfort to ease out of his flesh. This is not bad darkness. It is full of familiar things, and he is fine. Everything is fine.

He stifles a yawn. It has been a long day, among other long days, and he is tired. Truly, deeply, tired, right down to the bone… but, again, he cannot sleep. He should know better, he supposes. If he doesn’t rest enough, this happens. Justice rears up within him, catching the scent of the world like a dog, and he keeps pushing and pushing for more, forgetting that bodies need rest, and that all things have their limits.

Anders rolls over, thwacking his thin pillow into fresh submission, and rubs absently at his arm. It is not as cold as it has been, or as it could be, but he is uncomfortably aware of the particular warmth he lacks.

He doesn’t really want to think about Hawke again, but it happens with tiresome regularity. He lies here, and his fingers of his left hand curl against his right arm, and the touch feels strange, like it could almost belong to somebody else. Maker, but he misses just touching someone… the casual tenderness of a hand on an arm, shoulder, or thigh; the small, shared delight of a glance, a smile; a kiss.

Justice doesn’t understand why it matters, because it doesn’t, to him. Anders supposes, one day, it will probably stop mattering completely, just the way that, one day, there may well be no more of him left. Only Justice, or Vengeance, or whatever he has become by then. The spirit will consume him, if the taint—damn you, Caron, damn you to the fucking Void—doesn’t take him first. Maybe the two things will fight it out for the last shreds of him, and he will meet his end torn between them, a blighted ghost that is no more a man than Kristoff was, lurching around with the smell of decay rising from his flesh.

The thought terrifies Anders, and he feels he is at the mouth of a tunnel, staring down into the darkness with just the stale wind of dead air blowing back to greet him.

He thinks of Hawke’s venture with the old mine, and the way Varric kept winding him up about being a ‘legitimate businessman’, and—oh, Maker—then it’s as if he never blew the candle out at all, because he can see Tobias’ face right before him, clear as day.

Anders bites his lip and squeezes his eyes tight shut. It doesn’t help, and Justice’s prurient blend of curiosity and mild disapproval just makes things worse.

It doesn’t stop him thinking about it, though. Aching for it. Far too long, Anders thinks, since he’s touched someone else in tenderness. Far too long since he’s felt another’s body against his… someone he actually likes, not just an evening’s entertainment. Maker, it’s been years, hasn’t it? Not since his sixth escape from the Tower, when he’d met another apostate on the run near the Frostbacks. Keryn was her name. Dark hair, dark eyes, sun-burned skin and a laugh like wine hitting glass. Allying together was easy enough—they were both on the run, two heads were better than one, plus pooling resources and equipment made sense—and somehow it became more than that. They made it nearly three months, staying ahead of the templars at every turn… only, when the bastards did catch up, he got ready to run, and Keryn got ready to fight.

That never used to be Anders’ first choice. He didn’t expect it to be hers. He didn’t expect her to know the kind of magic she did, either, and he would have thought he’d have been able to tell. He’d always thought that… as if blood mages would give off some kind of dark, unpleasant aura that would send little alarms bells pealing in his head.

They don’t, of course. Look at Merrill. To all intents and purposes, she’s as dangerous as cress growing on a wet flannel—right up until the moment she splits you in half.

Anders sighs. He is restless. Justice is restless.

He rolls over onto his back again, and lets his hand settle on his chest, fingers splayed out against the thin fabric of his shirt. He misses it. Touching. Just… human contact. Strong, warm hands, cupping his face as kiss after kiss plunders his mouth, palming their way across his flesh, searing promises into his skin. Oh, but he needs that… needs to be held, desired, wanted. Just for a little while, to be a man again, not a monster, and to have just one train of thoughts in his head: one bright, true beacon of desire.

Hawke.

Anders stifles a small groan. It’s not fair. He’s not the only man in Kirkwall, but it feels like it sometimes… as if no one else really exists, really matters. Not next to him.

This probably means that Justice and Selby are both right, and he is the worst kind of distraction imaginable. Anders wonders briefly if—should that be the case, and those two arbiters of his life are truly in agreement—Selby is actually another part of him, and she has somehow escaped his consciousness and is at large in the mortal realm when she should not be. It is a mad, absurd thought, and it makes him grin into the darkness, and he wants to laugh but he doesn’t, because as he smiles, warmth starts to creep back into his body, and he’s almost teetering on the edge of a dream where he could tell Tobias about these stupid, insane things that hammer around his head. He would laugh.

If he didn’t think I was crazy. Huh… maybe I am crazy.

It doesn’t matter, either way, because Anders is given over to the thoughts of him now. All the things Selby said echo back to him—the way he looks at you, have a little fun—and the frustration wells up in him like a fluid-filled blister that throbs and aches until it is lanced, and Anders thinks he won’t breathe again unless he does something.

Of course, it’s difficult ministering to his own requirements when he can feel part of himself being quietly, politely appalled by it.

Anders burrows down into the narrow space of his bed, blanket over his head and hand wavering indistinctly between his thighs. This is maddening. It infuriates him. He’s never been furtive, never been ashamed—always stuck two fingers up at the bloody templars and their rules and regulations, the ways they had of trying to mess you up—and now look at him. Everything feels wrong, and here he is, wound tighter than a cranequin, and barely half-hard for the resistance he feels within himself.

It is wrong, to put these images to that man.

It isn’t. It’s normal, natural… it’s everything that is aching to happen between them, and the only wrong thing is choking it back the way he’s been doing.

In the still, small space of the night, Anders is convinced of that. He’s emboldened by it, practically convinced that—at first light—he’s going to march up to Tobias’ door and, the moment it opens, he’s going to grab him by the buckles of that dyed leather jerkin and pin him against the wall.

The fantasy is familiar, like a dream he’s often tried to have, although the scene frequently changes. Places don’t matter. Only he matters.

Hawke is a few years younger than him, Anders thinks, though he’s not sure by how much… still young enough to be sensitive about his age, anyway, as if he has something to prove, or thinks he’ll be considered callow. It doesn’t matter. Age is only a number, but nevertheless it means—in the semi-privacy of Anders’ head—that he’d be a vibrant, passionate, enthusiastic lover. Hands, lips, teeth, tongue… all of him, full of that heat and drive he brings to life.

In tonight’s imagining, the wooden wall has stayed. It is rough as Tobias pushes him against it—oddly enough, the inverse of his first thought. Anders doesn’t pause to speculate. He squeezes his eyes shut in the darkness, until light bursts behind them, and he tries to make-believe that his own touch feels the way Hawke’s would feel, though it probably doesn’t. He hears Tobias’ voice, hears the lust-soaked burr in it that he has never heard but knows will be there, and if Justice could peel away from his flesh and go and stand nonchalantly at the other end of the clinic, whistling, the spirit definitely would.

He can’t, of course, so he retaliates the only way he is able. He seizes at Anders’ memories—or perhaps it is Anders himself that does it—and he breaks them open, flings the most secret, intimate parts of them into the searing heart of this new desire.

And what of Karl?

Anders swallows heavily, curling around himself, and the choked air beneath the blanket is hot and stultifying. That was different. Whatever the memories feel like, whatever ragged sense of betrayal now tugs at him—

Karl is dead.

You loved him, yet now you lust for Hawke.

No. Yes. It was a different kind of love. A different time, a different place… two very, very different people to the men they became. That’s what ruined everything.

Anders wets his dry, cracked lips. He knows his sins. He knows he hurt Karl well before he failed him, and he does not need reminding, though the memories pour through him. Even so, they don’t quite wash the ache away; they don’t quite obliterate his desire for someone who is so different to and yet, sometimes, so very reminiscent of Karl.

Love changes. People change. It had been over for a long time before he died, anyway, a long time before—

Then nothing lasts. Your definitions of emotions—your immutable, permanent love—is as fleeting as a mayfly.

No one likes a killjoy. Stop it.

Then you do not love him. Hawke. You want only to sate your urges, and—

he deserves more than that. No. Yes… I mean… I do. I—

Oh, Maker, it’s all there… all laid out in his flesh and his heart. Anders trembles with the thing that is not quite a realisation, because he’s known it for a while, even if he has been trying so very hard to pretend it isn’t true.

oh, sod it—

Hawke’s touch, his kiss… the feral, violent slaking of lust, the temptation of which has the power to shake the air between them: he wants these things with a desperate, physical need, but they are not all he wants, not all he aches for. Anders’ deepest desires are simpler, less easy to quantify, and yet they burn even brighter.

I love him.

It’s liberating, just thinking the words, though that first gulp of exultation is soon tempered by frustration. He flings himself into the need, into the keen blade of want that is carving at him, gnawing with its years of recrimination and denial, and his mind is a compellingly potent thing. He can conjure the man he wants, feel the heat of his skin, the desire and the unyielding, unflinching closeness that lurks beneath the surface, ready to become a searing bond the moment they give in to this shared weakness… because, surely, no one would ever let a man like Hawke go.

It is those thoughts that swarm behind his eyes, the fantasy of that frenetic coupling: his face pressed to the wall, or the bed, and Tobias’ hot breath panting in his ear, his touch a brand of ownership, of—yes, of possession.

Anders spills with a whimper, and the pleasure is punishment enough. Chafed, with the spasms of his flesh giving way—after that single, short lurch of elation—to a shamed, guilty tension, he clings to his own body, hugged in on himself and with the blanket pulled tight around him. The sound of his breathing seems loud and ragged, but he’s glad of it… glad of something that sounds like life, and living.

When the daylight comes, and brings with it easier, calmer times, he will go to Hawke. He will ask him to join the mission into The Gallows, to find proof of Ser Alrik’s plan, because that is all that matters—or all that should matter. The cause. The truth.

Justice.

That, he can have, and he can hold it close, treasuring the time they share, even if it is drenched in blood and chaos. A stupid dichotomy, perhaps: dragging Hawke into danger with him just to prove that loving him is dangerous… clinging to the refusals so tightly that, somehow, he hopes they will weaken and break.

If Anders cannot give Hawke his love, he will make a gift of his trust, complete and unconditional.

It is not enough, but it is something. 

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