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He felt unfocused for days after that. Not that he minded. Not that, immediately afterwards, when he was preoccupied with the necessary stuff (like sneaking back to the dorm and pretending there was a totally valid reason for taking a bath at that time of the afternoon), Anders even noticed he was unfocused. He couldn’t stop smiling, though. And everything felt… different. It was really rather wonderful.
He lay in his bunk that night, staring into the darkness. He was sore in places he hadn’t even known he had places, let alone muscles, and they weren’t even the places that he’d expected to be sore. They were… well, really quite sore, but it had been worth it. Utterly, completely worth it, and so much more worth it, frankly, than he’d expected.
He had to admit, the whole thing had seriously rearranged some preconceptions. And that was good. It really was. Anders struggled to remember the last time life had contained new experiences, or feelings and things that challenged him. That was good. It was… exciting, and the Tower could always use more excitement.
The trouble was, now he missed Karl with a violent, terrible ache that was quite apart from the lingering throb of overused flesh. All the places he’d touched seemed cold, and the air smelled stale without the scent of his skin on it.
Anders sighed and rolled over, turning to face the wall instead of the underside of the upper bunk. The dormitory was subdued tonight; five junior apprentices were apparently sick with a bad fever, and there was a great deal of talk about it being contagious, or possibly deadly. Maybe both. Anders snaked a hand out from beneath the blankets, and traced the worn stones of the wall, relishing the chill of their touch. There were initials carved in here and there, the half-hidden marks of long-gone apprentices, and he tried not to think about it too much, because it led on to wondering how many of them were still around. Some must be full-fledged mages by now, maybe growing grey of hair and saggy of belly… and probably some had transferred away to other towers, because everybody knew that happened. The templars could do that. If you pissed the wrong people off, you might find yourself spirited to some distant corner of Thedas, or so people said. There was truth to it, Anders was certain, because people did disappear, and nobody ever treated it like it was worth noticing. They were just content to accept that it happened… as if it was all right that they weren’t told, that they didn’t expect to be informed.
That was wrong. And it was wrong to transfer people for the reasons rumour said that people got transferred, too. People said it happened if you did poorly with your studies, annoyed the templars too much, or maybe got too close to someone. They didn’t like that. They liked breaking people up, Anders reckoned, just in case that little sniff of happiness might be catching. It might make mages start believing they deserved to be treated like people.
His fingers skimmed the worn graffiti, tracing out the lost edges of letters and the occasional vulgar rune. Maybe some of them were dead, or Tranquil. Same thing, really. He blinked, his eyes used enough to the dimness to pick out all the shades of blue and grey that sheathed the long chamber.
Full moon tonight, probably. It was hard to sneak out of the junior dorms, but Anders wished he could. He wanted very much to sit outside, or at least by a window, and feel the coldness of the night air on his face, and stare up into the stippled wonder of a thousand spinning stars.
Karl said he’d like the senior dorms better. They moved you into partitioned rooms, so apprentices shared six or eight bunks to a berth, and that made it a lot easier to have a little privacy… and to sneak out, with or without your dorm-mates’ complicity.
Above him, Anders was aware of Elric shifting in his sleep. The thin mattress thunked and rustled, and the other boy’s quiet mumbles drifted down to him, sounding stifled and slightly pained.
Anders rolled his eyes. Elric was prone to bad dreams. He didn’t know whether they came from some concrete experience or not but, because of the associations with dreams and the dangers of demons, Elric was very reticent when it came to discussing them. He’d just shrug and pretend not to remember, and that mildly annoyed Anders.
He reached up and jabbed a finger between the sagging bed-ropes and into the mattress, feeling the solidity of flesh through the inadequate cloth padding.
Elric rolled over and mumbled something that sounded like ‘no more shoes’. Two bunks along, one of the other apprentices was snoring like a sawmill—loud enough to stand out amid the dorm’s general nightly orchestra of snorting, shuffling, snoring and farting, and that was saying something—and, about halfway down the chamber, someone else had an illicit glowstone hidden under his bedclothes, and seemed to be reading. Anders poked his bunkmate again.
“Psst. You’re dreaming,” he whispered, but it didn’t seem to do much good.
Elric wriggled and whimpered and, after a moment, it sounded like he’d started to cry. Anders cursed inwardly. If the nightmare got too loud, someone might come in to check… and nobody wanted that. He slipped stealthily from under his blanket and, with his feet still in the bed because, Maker damn it, it was cold out there, pulled himself up as quietly as possible to the level of the upper bunk.
Elric was balled up in the covers, face screwed into a pinched expression and eyes tightly shut, with one arm flung above his head. He flinched when Anders took hold of it—and his skin seemed very cool, more like clammy marble than flesh—but he didn’t wake.
“Will you wake up, you idiot? You’re dreaming,” Anders murmured, pinching the boy’s wrist. “It’s just a dream.”
Elric whimpered. His strawberry blond hair was damp with sweat, and the smell of fear seemed to stick to him. Anders shook him again, harder this time, and his eyes started to flicker open. A look of surprise and incomprehension suffused his face, and Elric started to speak, but Anders let go of his wrist and shook his head, bringing a finger to his lips.
There wasn’t any need to say anything. Anyway, everybody had bad things to dream about, didn’t they? He smiled awkwardly at the other boy, and lowered himself back down to his bunk, glad to slip once more beneath the blankets, even if sleep itself didn’t seem forthcoming.
Elric’s mattress rustled and thunked a bit more, and the nightly orchestra played on.
Anders lay still, relaxing into the boring, repetitive rhythms of the night, and letting his mind wander freely, through the manifold imaginary landscapes and improbable adventures he conjured for himself, simply because he could.
No one could control where he went in his mind.
He didn’t notice sleep starting to sneak up on him and, more worryingly, he didn’t notice it at first when Elric slid soundlessly down from the upper bunk and crawled in beside him.
Anders stiffened, suddenly wide awake again. Had he dreamed that? He turned his head a fraction, and found the smaller boy definitely, irrefutably there, beneath his blanket, just… well, just lying there, pressed up beside him like a puppy. He didn’t dare to breathe for a moment, unsure whether Elric thought he was asleep, or was maybe sleepwalking himself—
Can you do that? Sleep-climb-into-bed-with-people?
—or was just cold, and frightened, and in need of a little warmth. Panic started to coil in him, but it faded as he looked at the mop of hair spilling against his shoulder, and felt the tense, apprehensive weight of the other mage beside him. Neither of them spoke. They didn’t so much as make eye contact, hard as that would have been in the darkness, and Anders supposed that was why he didn’t leap up, or push the boy to the floor, or… well, any of the other things he briefly considered doing. Either way, Elric’s soft, quavering breaths slowed gradually, but still held the remnants of terror and loneliness in their thin, ragged texture. The hand that rested, half-curled, against Anders’ chest gradually began to lose some of its tension, and the fingers softened before finally splaying out, lolling into looseness.
Anders frowned into the darkness, then wriggled, and tentatively put his arm around Elric’s shoulders. The other boy let out a small, comforted sigh, his feet pressing up against Anders’ ankles like needy little blocks of ice.
It was all extremely strange, Anders decided, but—as Elric calmed, and then drifted into deep, apparently dreamless sleep—he found he liked the way it made him feel. There was this wonderful, new, special warmth to two bodies laying close beside each other… real warmth, with life at its centre. He liked being the comforter, too; feeling someone curled into him because he was powerful, because he could protect them, and because he could make the bad things go away.
Anders lay still, and smiled sleepily at the underside of the empty upper bunk. He might not have been entirely sure what had just happened, but he liked it. He liked feeling strong, he realised, and human… and alive.
Elric was gone before the first light of dawn started to lance the dorm. Anders hadn’t been awake when he went, but he woke stiff and sore from being curled up on less than half of his mattress, and the other boy was apparently slumbering peacefully on the upper bunk. He might have wondered if it had all been a dream, but for the faint tang of unfamiliar sweat on his pillow.
They didn’t talk about it. Elric looked at him once, just before Enchanter Wilhemina did the morning head count and escorted them off to breakfast, and Anders returned the boy’s tentative little smile, but that was it.
It might as well never have happened.
Time passed as it always did in the Tower: slow as treacle and broken into a hundred shards. The place was like a prism, Karl thought, because the very fact it was such a closed-off little world made every tiny thing so important. Every shred of gossip, every sniff of scandal or little piece of minutiae was accorded far more importance than it should have been.
Speaking of which, Maya naturally wanted all the gossip about Anders. She practically pinioned Karl in the corridor when they met for Enchanter Uldred’s weekly seminar, and he relented, filling up the cold minutes of waiting with the sketchiest possible details of their time together. She squeaked breathlessly, hand to her mouth and eyes shining.
He smiled lazily. “You’re not really surprised, are you?”
She wasn’t, but she giggled like a schoolgirl all the same. “Dirty beast,” she muttered enviously, swatting Karl on the arm. “Was it—?”
“Amazing,” Karl assured her, a wash of quiet pride and pleasant memories warming his ears.
“And it was really his first…? Y’know?”
The blush deepened a bit. He hadn’t meant to tell her that. “Mm.”
Maya giggled again, turning surprisingly coy, and Karl didn’t share anything more. Barely a few minutes later, Enchanter Uldred swept down the hallway with a gaggle of other students at his heels, his robes flying out behind him like dark wings. They filed into the chamber after him, ready for the morning to be rapidly taken over by his brisk, snappish questions, and a host of complex new pieces of theory.
Karl didn’t get much chance to breathe, let alone think for the rest of the day.
He saw Anders briefly at evening chapel, but there were too many people around for more than a quick wave and a smile. Anders flushed a delicious shade of pink when he met Karl’s eye, though, and the look on his face made up for a lot. Karl hated watching him choke it down, pushing all the gleeful wolfishness and shy longing aside, and sliding into that carefully maintained expression of neutrality that so many mages learned to wear.
There wasn’t anything he could do about it, of course, so he sat quietly in the pew, amid the smell of beeswax polish and other people, and snatched small, wistful glances in Anders’ direction while the revered mother droned on.
It was more than a day until they managed to be alone together.
Karl had begun to fear Anders might be contriving not to be left on his own with him when he showed up outside the library after dinner, looking suspiciously pleased with himself.
“Evening.” Anders grinned, and the slight inclination of his head towards the large statue that stood in a niche in the far wall was fairly subtle, in deference to the templar standing at the library’s doors. “Heading back, are you?”
Karl followed his gaze. The statue was large, bulky, and—judging by the armour—depicted an old templar Knight-Commander. He smiled, and hefted the armful of books he carried. They were all rather dry tomes on the matter of summoning rituals, but Enchanter Uldred had given him a signed permission slip allowing him to borrow one of the more esoteric volumes, and that had a certain cachet to it that had buoyed his mood considerably.
“Mm,” he said, glancing at the oblivious templar. “Could be.”
Anders rocked lightly on the balls of his feet. He was practically humming with cheerfulness, and his skin had an odd freshness to it, like he’d been for a brisk run or something. Karl arched an eyebrow warily, but followed him into the hallway. They made a left by the statue, as if they were heading to the common room, but then Anders grabbed his elbow and dragged him into the niche, and Karl found his back pressed into the rough stonework, with a bit of pedestal in his ribs, and three volumes of The Manner and Magick of Casting Circles crushed to his chest.
“Mmph!” he managed, as the full force of Anders’ dishonourable intentions hit him in a flurry of hungry affection.
It really wasn’t very discreet. Karl was practically certain he heard a couple of young female apprentices giggling as they passed by, but it was difficult to give much of a damn. He juggled the books, trying not to drop anything as he disentangled one hand and cupped the back of Anders’ neck. The tail of blond hair tickled Karl’s knuckles, and a happy little purr broke against his mouth.
“Missed you,” Anders murmured reproachfully as they parted.
“I know. Me too,” admitted Karl, not quite ready to let go of him.
His thumb nudged softly at Anders’ earlobe, and he leaned into the contact, his eyes growing dark and hazy. Karl knew he ought to glance along the corridor and make sure the templar hadn’t moved from outside the library, or that no one else was likely to come by, but that would have involved looking away.
“Come with me?” Anders tugged hopefully at his wrist. “Just for a while?”
Karl broke off without naming their special place, as if doing so might have been unlucky. You never knew when walls had ears, after all. Besides, the old supply room was practically the other side of the tower, and—highly appealing though the thought was—he wasn’t sure they had time… or that he wanted to lug all these heavy textbooks up that many stairs. Anders shook his head.
“Anywhere?” Karl echoed, mildly surprised.
It was to be the first of several surprises, as became apparent when he found himself being dragged into a janitorial closet opposite the service staircase that led down to the inventory stores.
The question went unanswered, and Karl’s books were the first casualties of Anders’ enthusiasm. The closet was dark and cramped, and as they collided in a tangle of elbows and bodies, the unseen shapes of buckets, mops, and brooms fought back with a vengeance, and the tomes clattered to the floor, unheeded.
Anders kissed him breathlessly, pressed close and ever-shifting, his body cleaving to Karl’s, and rubbing frustratingly at him through the slippery layers of their robes. Karl staggered backwards in the confined space, and a collection of cleaning equipment tumbled off a shelf, knocking various other things flying. The handle of a mop, or perhaps broom, thudded painfully across his shoulders, but he was conscious only of Anders fumbling desperately at him… pulling his robes up?
When Anders put his mind to the task, Karl decided, he really was an amazingly fast learner. He shivered at the hot breaths grazing his cheek as Anders’ lips mauled a path along his jaw. If there’d been any light to see by, he supposed they’d have looked ridiculous: two pairs of skinny legs poking out from the voluminous folds of hoisted up robes, and two pairs of hands suddenly, desperately reaching for each other. Anders was already hard, nudging impatiently against Karl’s palm like steel in silk, so soft and yet so unyielding. He sighed roughly as Karl’s fingers curled around him, the tail end of the gasp buried in another eager kiss.
It was clumsy but exuberant, this ungainly handling of each other, and it didn’t last long. Karl wasn’t sure whether it was the possibility of being caught, the novelty of Anders taking the lead this way—and the act itself was still novel, after so long restraining himself for fear of coming on too strong, and didn’t that seem ironic now?—or the simple fact of a hard, hot tug that brought him off so fast, but they appeared to be almost perfectly synchronised.
“Well,” he murmured weakly, the word brushing Anders’ lips in the crowded darkness, every shadow turned sharp by their mingled scent and ragged breathing.
He didn’t know what else to say. It wasn’t what he’d expected from their first encounter since the supply room… and he’d always thought Anders wanted something different, something more than this hasty, desperate kind of contact. Trouble was, there was no denying how good it was; how good it still was, standing here weak-kneed and clutching each other, panting and giggling in the gloom.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” Anders murmured, relinquishing his hold on Karl and allowing their robes to start falling back into place. “Plus, I was really bored… so I thought of something I wanted to do.”
“Oh?” Karl wasn’t entirely sure he liked the sound of that, though his pleasure-soaked flesh and hazy brain didn’t let him dwell on the discomfort. “We used to just talk when you were bored.”
Anders laughed softly as he adjusted his robes, the movement seeming strange and bulky in the gloom. “Mm-hm. We can still do that, though, can’t we? Talk and… you know.”
“S’pose,” Karl agreed, wiping the last traces of stickiness from his palm before he bent to scrabble his books together. “So, where are you—?”
Anders cracked the closet door open and peered into the hallway. The comparative and sudden brightness of the light made Karl wince.
“Dunno,” Anders said, glancing back at him with a shrug. “Can I come with you?”
“I’ll only be in the common room. I have to read these,” Karl added, hefting the armful of books as he followed Anders furtively out into the corridor.
They both looked dishevelled, he surmised. Evident what they’d been up to, for anyone with half a brain or the smallest knowledge of how the tower worked. He didn’t care, he realised. Part of him wanted everyone to know, however stupid an idea that was.
Anders shrugged again, surprisingly diffident now, given how forceful he’d been before. “I don’t mind.”
He fell into step easily beside Karl and, once they got back to the senior common room, he deposited himself demurely in a chair and just sat there, pleasingly close to Karl as he read and made notes. They talked, as they’d so often done, and smiled and laughed and, every so often, Anders would touch him casually—a knee brushing against his, or a hand on a shoulder or arm—and Karl would catch himself holding his breath.
Maker’s arse, what have I done? I’ve created a monster, and its curse is all mine….
It marked the start of a change between them, in some ways. A small change, perhaps, in the great scheme of life, but the Tower’s confines intensified everything, and provided a thick, heavy lens through which it was so damnably easy to over-analyse things.
Of course, they’d known there would be next to no opportunities to spend as long alone together as they had that day in the supply room. Karl had been prepared for that, and prepared for the fact that they’d have to take what crumbs of intimacy they could snatch. He just hadn’t expected Anders to take so readily to… well… all of it. He couldn’t help feeling it was his fault, somehow, as if he’d pulled a lever that had unlocked something in the other mage’s mind. Or maybe something slightly further south.
Anders definitely was… unlocked, however. And, once he’d discovered sex, it proved extremely difficult to get his mind off it.
People talked, naturally, but they’d already been doing that, and Karl didn’t care, anyway. He didn’t think Anders did, because Anders never seemed to care much about what anyone thought, although the sneaking suspicion that this was a front did occasionally tug at Karl’s mind.
He tried to talk to him about a few times, though with limited success. A side effect of the sensual liberation Anders was enjoying was the fact that more conversations than Karl would really have liked seemed to end up muffled in flesh and panting laughter. He couldn’t manage to stay annoyed, naturally… and they did still talk.
Anders still talked about escaping, for example, which worried him.
Karl had thought that idea of his was nothing more than a pipe dream: the two of them running off to be hermits somewhere, like in some ridiculous fairytale. Anders actually believed in it, though. He actually wanted to do it.
“Where would you go, then?” Karl demanded, raising his eyebrows in an incredulous challenge. “Say you did get out of the tower. Where would you go?”
Anders shrugged. It was getting late, and they were holed up in the old supply room, watching the last rosy streaks of the sunset bleed into the coming night. The moon was already up—a day moon, flushed pink and gold like a lover’s sigh—and they were perched precariously on a crate, hands lazily intertwined and legs nudging close together, staring up at the snatch of freedom their little window afforded.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “East, probably. If they didn’t know I was gone, I could get a good few hours’ head start on the Imperial Highway, then bear off north. Head for Denerim, I guess. It’s a big city; people get lost in cities. Maybe I’d get a boat, and go far away. Nevarra, or Rivain, or—”
“You wouldn’t last five minutes,” Karl retorted. “Rivain’s a land of savages. The qunari have conquered most of it, haven’t they?”
Anders frowned. He didn’t understand why Karl was so determined to attack every inch of any possible idea he mooted. That was all they were… ideas. He’d need far more information to actually plan anything, and he’d have thought Karl knew that. Sometimes, he seemed to. Sometimes, he’d play along, and they’d plot out wild and fanciful escape ideas, right down to the details of the meals they’d eat in wayside taverns, and the cities they’d visit as they wandered their way around the big, wide world.
Increasingly, though, that was a game Karl didn’t seem to want to play.
“Not ‘most’, I don’t think,” Anders said mildly. “But I do like the idea of a warmer climate.”
Karl appeared to ignore him. “Nevarra’s full of heathens. And assassins.”
“Hm.” Anders tapped his heels thoughtfully against the crate, thudding out a quiet, rhythmic tattoo. “Everywhere has assassins, and I didn’t think you were terribly religious.”
Karl scowled, which rather took him aback. He wasn’t used to seeing such a dark look on his face, and he didn’t much like it. Anders’ frown deepened, and he glanced down at their hands, resting together on the edge of the worn wood. Karl—his hand broader, thicker, marked by strong fingers with firm, square tips, in contrast to Anders’ narrower palm and large, plain joints—tightened his grip, squeezing his hand almost convulsively.
“It wouldn’t work,” he insisted. “Anyway, they’d catch you before you even got to Denerim. Especially if you used the Highway. Where d’you think they’d look first?”
Anders shrugged. “So? All right, maybe not the Highway. There’s bound to be roads. Villages, little towns. I mean, it’d be easy enough to—”
“They’d find you,” Karl snapped, his hand tightening on Anders’ knuckles. “What d’you think your phylactery’s for, hm? You could get as big a head start as you wanted, and they’d still track you down.”
Anders looked up, his frown slackening as he took in the pained expression on Karl’s face, and the real fear in his eyes.
“And they’d kill you,” he murmured, colouring slightly as he met Anders’ gaze, and then looking away abruptly.
Outside, the sky was darkening, and the smells of the lake drifted up on the cool air: silt, mud, fish, and sewage. It was hardly an intoxicating ballet of fragrance, but at least it was outdoors air, not the stale breath of stone chambers.
“They wouldn’t,” Anders said quietly, beginning to extract his hand from Karl’s grasp. “Not if they couldn’t catch me.”
“Which they would,” Karl repeated, sounding bored and frustrated, “because they would have your phylactery.”
Anders withdrew his hand, and smoothed out a wrinkle on the knee of his robes. He supposed it was stupid, really, to start picking an argument over something that was only an idea… but Karl was being such an idiot about it.
He shrugged. “So? I just wouldn’t stop running.”
“Huh. You could live like that, could you? Until it drove you mad?”
Anders snorted. “No madder than I’ll go in here,” he muttered, and that seemed to infuriate Karl.
“You’re being ridiculous.”
And that was when the mist descended, and Anders found his big, fat mouth running away without him.
“Am I?” He glared at Karl. “So, it’s ‘ridiculous’ to want a normal life, is it?”
“When you’re not normal, yes!”
Anders stared incredulously, even as a look of mild disbelief at what he’d just said started to crease Karl’s brow. “Andraste’s flaming tits, they’ve finally got you, haven’t they?”
“You know what I mean,” Karl said irritably, crossing his arms. “Anyway, just pissing off into the wilderness isn’t normal, either.”
Anders chewed the inside of his cheek, and wondered how they’d gone from a perfectly pleasant time together to this spiky kind of unease. He shouldn’t have said anything, he supposed. He’d ruined everything again. He should just have stayed quiet. Now, they’d have to go back to their dorms soon, and Karl probably wouldn’t even kiss him goodnight. He sighed, and looked for a way to leaven the dark, leaden cloud of tension between them.
“Not really ‘wilderness’,” he said, nudging Karl’s knee with his own. “Denerim’s pretty big.”
Karl sighed too; long and low, in a great rush of breath that sounded full of frustration and fear.
“Whatever,” he said, though he didn’t sound quite as angry. “But it’s still a terrible idea. I mean, you don’t even have a plan for getting across the bloody lake, and— well, there’s just too many ways it could go wrong. I say forget the whole thing.”
Anders stared moodily at the dusty floorboards, and grunted.
A clutch of awkward moments passed, and Karl slipped down from the crate, clearing his throat and brushing off the seat of his robes.
“Well, I have to head back. Maybe see you tomorrow?”
Anders nodded and, with one last look at the dimming sky, the blush-coloured moon fading to silver-white, hopped down after him.
“Karl…?” He caught at the slippery fabric of a bunched-up sleeve, not quite sure where the plaintive note in his voice came from.
“I….” Anders faltered, his gaze dropping to the floorboards as the words skittered away, hiding in the darkest corners of his mind. His fingers flexed on Karl’s sleeve. “I just….”
Karl exhaled slowly. “I know.”
He leaned forwards, and pressed a kiss to Anders’ forehead, which made him look up in surprise.
“’Night,” Anders echoed, faintly perplexed.
Karl gave him an odd, tucked-up kind of smile, and left the chamber. Anders counted to twenty, to minimise the risk of them being seen descending the staircase together—there had already been one near miss earlier in the week—and then followed. He looked back as he left the supply room, frowning slightly at the moonlight skimming the crates and sacks.
There has to be something worth using in there. Somewhere.