Ephemera: Chapter 8

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At first, Anders couldn’t quite believe it was over. He felt a little as if he was coming up from under the ground, choked with soot and dirt and blind to the world above him, until the first cold fingers of its light lanced his eyes… although, of course, there was no sunlight, and no feel of wind in his hair or warmth on his cheeks.

Instead, he simply exchanged the dim gloom of the inventory offices for the slightly less morbid gloom of the rest of the Tower, and it worried him to realise just how much of a relief that was. He’d never imagined being so glad to see things as humdrum as the threadbare rug on the third floor landing, or even to taste the horrific sponge pudding that got served up in the refectory, and which could probably have doubled as mortar if the Tower’s masonry ever needed repointing.

That said, a week’s worth of stocktaking and inventory left everything tasting like dust and, when Anders actually was allowed to leave, his first thoughts weren’t really about food.

He bumbled through going back to his dorm, freshening up, then calling in to the office of each enchanter whose classes he’d missed and handing over the relevant notes, having them signed and having yet more admonishments piled upon the stern frowns and chiding looks—tsk, tsk, you see how poor behaviour is its own punishment, young man, see how long it’ll take you to catch up on this work, spending your breaks at the books blah blah blah—and finally, finally, being released.

It was late afternoon, but the rest of the day was his. He was supposed to use it for study, but they could shove that.

Anders spent a little while mooching around the corridors, doing pointless things like watching dust motes spiral in the shafts of thin daylight that came through the high windows, or counting the number of cracks in the flagstones as he stepped on them, hopping from foot to foot as he idled his way past the endless, silent, stone walls.

He was up by one of the potions laboratories when the students started to spill out. Everything smelled of elfroot, vilneas gum, and the occasional tang of copper and boiled knitbone. Herbs were interesting, he supposed. Useful, if you ever needed healing… and there were meant to be some that could yield really interesting effects when chewed or cut in a pipe. There had been a dog-eared book about it in the library, but one of the senior enchanters had found it and locked it away. Shame, really… although Anders reckoned he could probably get hold of some cloutweed if he tried hard enough. That was meant to be good stuff, from what he’d heard.

The various apprentices leaving their classes and lecture halls flowed around him like a robed, murmuring stream, all absorbed in their own lives, their own discussions. They just parted around him, and he didn’t see anyone he knew well enough to nod or smile to. Anders wasn’t sure, but he suspected they might have ignored him, even if he had.

He found Karl outside the lecture hall on the northerly side of the upper floor.

His class had obviously recently finished, but it could have been any subject, any day. He was just standing there, smiling and talking to a redheaded boy in senior apprentice robes, and he looked like nothing could shake him, and everything was right with the world. The redhead had an Aequitarian pin on his shoulder, and a bridge of freckles marching across his cheeks and nose. Anders had no idea who he was, but he wanted him to curl up and die on the spot, like a scorched rose. Karl looked happy. Relaxed but alert, like they’d just had a really interesting lecture and he’d understood every single bloody word of it.

He glanced up as Anders drew to a halt on the fringes of the scattered apprentices, an awkward outsider in the midst of all these busy, chattering people.

Suddenly, time slowed down, and all the things Anders had been running over saying in his head bundled up uselessly on his tongue and refused to come out.

“Er… hello,” he said instead, and even that managed to sound all wrong, all sullen and difficult and stupid.

Karl smiled at him. “Hello yourself.”

He didn’t seem too put out. He looked like he meant the smile, anyway, and that was a good start. Anders cleared his throat. The redhead touched Karl’s elbow and muttered something about seeing him later, at which Karl nodded and waved him off with a farewell. Anders tossed a suspicious scowl after the boy, then shifted uncomfortably, and rubbed his left foot against the back of his right calf. He winced as Karl looked expectantly at him.

“I-I… I’m… um, y’know.”

Karl raised an enquiring brow. “Sorry for being a complete prat?”

Well, I deserved that one.

Anders shrugged. “Yeah. Prob’ly.”

Karl grinned and glanced over his shoulder. Most of the other apprentices had already dissipated, or were heading off to their next classes or study periods now, leaving just a few talking quietly in the lee of the great, changeless stone walls.

“Heard about your week with the Tranquil,” he said quietly, stepping closer, the laughter dropping from his eyes. “Was it awful?”

Anders set his jaw, meaning to brazen it out and say something non-committal, maybe just grunt a bit and try and look as if he hadn’t cared, but his chin dimpled and, before he could stop himself, he was nodding fervently. “Yes. I-I don’t ever want to be like that. It’s horrible. The worst thing is that they almost seem content with it. I mean, they’re not—they can’t be, that’s the whole point—but, they say it themselves, they just are… and….”

He shuddered and pulled a face, and he knew from Karl’s expression that he understood. Karl understood a lot of things. He was good at it, and Anders very much wanted to be comfortably, deeply embedded in his arms, and leave all the understanding completely, one hundred percent, to him.

“Can I see you?” he murmured, lowering his voice and hating doing it, hating everything being a whisper and a secret.

That familiar mischief touched Karl’s face. “Hmmm. You can see me now.”

Anders groaned in frustration. “Karl…!”

“All right, all right.”

His eyes softened, blue steel turning to deep velvet and, despite the rumpled, wavy hair that framed his clear, square face, he seemed less boyish somehow. There was an air of confidence, of calm assurance, that brought him far closer to being a man than Anders had ever felt, and he was reminded suddenly—with a swift, aching pain—of the years between them. Karl wasn’t all that much older than him, but it was enough to matter… enough to make a difference.

It was enough to make him feel small, and stupid, and worthless.

“I just wanted to see you,” Anders mumbled, frowning at his feet. “To say—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Karl said gently. “Already forgotten.”

Anders glanced up sharply. Was it? Is it really that easy?

He didn’t believe it could be—or should be, even. He’d been intentionally cruel to Karl, albeit in the cloudy, abrupt way of his ridiculous tantrums, where his blind anger made everything seem impossible. That shouldn’t be so simple to forgive.

“But—”

Karl cleared his throat. “Look… I have a meeting with Enchanter Belling in a minute, then I’m sitting in on one of Petroc’s seminars. Spirit healing. I’ll be out late, but I could meet you at chapel tonight. We could… talk afterwards, maybe?”

The words were innocuous enough, but there was blatant deviousness in his face, and Anders smiled, saturated with relief. He knew what that meant. Just one dull sermon to sit through, and they could sneak away, sneak off up to the old supply room, perhaps. He’d missed that so badly… missed Karl, though he didn’t know how to say it.

“Yeah. I s’pose. That’d be good.”

“Good,” Karl echoed, grinning. “I had something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway.”

“Oh?”

He didn’t offer any more details; just shook his head and let that smug, undeniably appealing smile cement his mystery.

Anders bit his lower lip, pulling the soft flesh tight and wishing the single, small lance of discomfort it caused was enough to cut through all his confusion. Karl’s face softened, his eyes turning warm and gentle as he held Anders’ gaze. For a moment, it felt like there was a kiss hanging between them, a weight of possibility that tugged so hard that Anders swore he could already feel Karl’s mouth on his.

It didn’t happen, though, and then Karl had to go, and he was just left standing there feeling stupid and embarrassed.

Chapel was ages away.

Anders ended up trying to catch up on the work he’d missed during his punishment week, despite all his determination not to do it. The templars were out in force. Ser Rylock had been seen striding the corridors, talking with great seriousness to one of the Marchers that had come with the visiting enchanter from Starkhaven, and Anders hated the alacrity with which he scampered out of their way. He didn’t want to be afraid of them. He wasn’t afraid of them… not much. But they were inconvenient, what with all their tendencies to want to know what you were doing, where you were going, and why you had a quarter of a pound of cheese in your pocket.

So, he ended up slouched at a desk in his dorm, looking up only when Mr. Wiggums stalked past the open door, tail held high and crooked. There were a handful of other apprentices sitting around, playing chess or Fox and Geese, or sitting on their bunks reading. One of them hurled a piece of crumpled paper towards Wiggums, and laughed when the cat hissed and ran away.

Anders scowled at the boy, but said nothing, and went back to doodling on the margins of the essay he was supposed to be writing. It was dull, and he hated the study of entropy, and he hated everything. He missed Karl, and touching, and kissing, and staring out of their window at the gold-toned sky, and the gently rippling planes of the lake.

It was the nearest thing there was to freedom.

~o~O~o~

Anders was waiting for him when he got to the chapel, and the simple fact of the way he stood warmed Karl’s heart. He was loitering by one of the statues of Andraste that flanked the doors, looking despondent and tired and vaguely at a loose end, as if he’d finally run out of things to be annoyed about.

He looked up at Karl’s approach and smiled timidly, all doe-eyes and sweetly curled lips, and Karl rather wished he could ignore the things it did to him.

“Hey,” he murmured as he drew closer, and they both segued into the knots of people moving towards the chapel’s gilded doors.

Karl moved closer, close enough to brush against Anders’ shoulder, and to smell the scent of soap and ink that clung to him. It was a good smell. A clean one, and familiar, and yet underscored with his own scent… a quiet wildness that made Karl’s blood quicken, and made him eager to do so much more than just walk close beside him, wishing that all these people would just go away.

Anders beamed at him, but any further shared moments were disrupted by a templar at the back of the crowd, stamping his sabaton on the flagstones, and demanding they all got a move on.

Obediently, they filed into the chapel and slipped into the pews. The eternal flame burned brightly, its glow echoed by the torches on the walls, and the evening shadows drew long against the flawless marble cheeks of Andraste as she gazed impassively down at the congregation.

The gentle mutterings of people settling abated, and Karl glanced around the pews. He was next to one of the pillars, about five rows from the front, and in clear view of at least three templars, and Enchanter Wynne, who was standing near the west door. To make matters more inconvenient, the pew behind him was full as well, so there was no chance of anything illicit. Karl exhaled tightly, and shot Anders a sidelong look of disappointment. His hand was resting on the edge of the pew, half-curled around the age-smoothed lip of the dark wood. Karl let his settle beside it, allowing his fingers to nudge against Anders’, and was quietly thrilled when one long digit hooked itself over the tip of his little finger.

They sat there like that, not quite touching and yet not quite apart, and Karl supposed there was almost a kind of serenity in it: a kind of frustration that pushed the mind beyond the simple bounds of wanting. They were both there, weren’t they? Anders was back, and unharmed, and that was enough. It was enough, and yet not enough… and yet there was as much comfort as there was dissatisfaction in this small, awkward, empty way of sitting, where he could not even touch the one he cared for without risking censure.

It was a strange way of thinking, a strange way of being, and Karl wondered at the things the Circle did to them. Sometimes, he thought Anders was right about everything… not that it would have done to actually tell him that.

The Revered Mother was caning the Canticle of Transfigurations again. Karl wasn’t entirely sure she knew anything else. He’d read the Chant in its entirety—the official version anyway, without any of the Dissonant Verses, although copies of those could be found in the Tower’s library, and made for exceptionally interesting study—and he suspected that the portions of it quoted at apprentices reflected a distinctly conservative view on Her Reverence’s part.

“The one who repents, who has faith,” she intoned, bony hand clenched on the air as if clinging to an invisible rock-face, “and is unshaken by the darkness of the world, / She shall know true peace. / For many are those who wander in sin, / Despairing that they are lost forever….”

Karl caught his breath as Anders’ little finger slipped stealthily between his own and his ring finger, sliding with distinct suggestiveness over the ridge of his knuckles, and rubbing at the valley between the two digits.

It was a curious, highly charged sensation. His skin tingled with each tiny motion, and the hair rose on the back of his wrist as Anders touched him slowly, gently… delicately.

He didn’t dare look. He just knew that Anders would be sitting there, completely impassive, his face a picture of blank innocence.

Karl flexed his hand, allowing Anders deeper into his grip, fighting the urge to seize hold of him, or to slide his own hand over, lay hold of a wrist of thigh. The tiny movements—the ballet of implication between their hands—were enough to distract him completely, and his mind filled with the possibilities of what Maya had offered.

He’d ask Anders tonight. After chapel. Maker only knew, all this suggestiveness aside, whether he was ready. Karl suspected so, but it was hard to tell. Anders was too damn good at putting on a front. As far as the rest of the world could see, he was brash and blasé, and he didn’t bat an eye at bullshitting his way through anything… but the veneer was thin, and Karl couldn’t stand the thought of being the one to crack it and lay all the vulnerability beneath open to hurt.

“But the one who repents, who has faith,” the revered mother continued to quote, “Unshaken by the darkness of the world, / And boasts not, nor gloats / Over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight / In the Maker’s law and creations, she shall know / The peace of the Maker’s benediction….”

Karl held his breath. Beneath the blessedly baggy swathes of his robes, arousal heated his flesh. He shifted, leaning forward a little bit to try and disguise his burgeoning stiffness, and hoped no one thought he was really that interested in the priest’s sermon.

Beside him, he thought he heard Anders chuckle softly. His touch tightened a little on Karl’s hand but, as he turned his head, Anders was already looking away, staring up at the great marble Andraste, and the flickering light of the holy flame in her outstretched palm. He moved his hand slightly, sliding it away from their clandestine touch, and Karl felt the loss keenly, though he fought the urge to chase after Anders’ fingers with his own, and clenched them instead on the edge of the bench.

“The Light shall lead her safely / Through the paths of this world, and into the next,” the Revered Mother continued. “For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water. / As the moth sees light and goes toward flame, / She should see fire and go towards Light.”

I already am, Karl thought ruefully, taking a deep, slow breath. The whole chapel smelled of furniture polish and candle wax, with a suffusion of warm fabric and end-of-the-day students, some of them readier than others for a bath. It struck him how unnatural it was; this room, this strange, quiet corral full of celibate men in metal suits, and celibate women in silken robes, and dozen upon dozen of young people who should be out there in the world, blossoming forth like green, ripe vines, and forging their own ways into the future.

He risked another glance at Anders, from the corner of his eye. He was pretending to listen—Maker, perhaps he even was, although it seemed unlikely—and the look on his face was almost genial. That made Karl think he wasn’t listening at all, and had retreated into some kind of inner fantasy world. Memories, maybe.

Karl wished he knew more about Anders’ life before he came to Ferelden. He’d talked of it a bit, spoken of a village like a lot of other villages… intimated that his family had either come from somewhere else, or perhaps moved around, possibly trying to evade the templars. He seemed to remember parents: a mother he’d clearly loved very much, and a father who appeared to have been more peripheral. Maybe there had been brothers and sisters, maybe not. Karl had no idea, but he wanted to know. He wanted to see inside that enigmatic, fervid little brain of Anders’, and probe the memories that he wouldn’t talk about. The things that had happened, the things he’d seen… were they so terrible, or was he just an ornery bastard from the start? What was there, inside that remarkably dense little skull, that meant he couldn’t keep from making life harder for himself?

And why can’t I keep away?

Karl let his gaze fall to the back of the pew in front of him, forcing himself to study the grain of the wood and the decades of polish ground into the softly waving lines. There was a girl sitting almost directly in front of him, with two pigtails of blonde hair hanging down her back. She shifted delicately in that ‘numb backside’ kind of way, and he watched her hair brush against the dark wood, and smelled some kind of floral water—lavender, maybe—rising up off her as the warmth of so many bodies pressed in together lent the chapel a sort of condensed odour that had very little to do with sanctity.

As the moth sees light and goes toward the flame….

Karl smiled to himself as Anders stretched subtly, flexing first one shoulder and then the other, and tilting his long neck to the side. The old bag couldn’t possibly bang on much longer.

“The Veil holds no uncertainty for her, / And she will know no fear of death, for the Maker / Shall be her beacon and her shield, her foundation and her sword….”

Funny, he thought, how the Chant seemed to want everyone to be a warrior, and demanded sacrifices as hungrily as a dragon.

Still, it wasn’t his place to question.

~o~O~o~

Anders almost held his breath as he followed Karl out after the service. He’d been convinced the priest was never going to shut up, and they were all going to be there forever, gradually turning to dust and bones as the cobwebs wrapped around their necks like shrouds.

But, it was over, and it didn’t take all that much just to quietly, subtly, slip from the throng and turn aside, into the shadows. Karl glanced over his shoulder to check Anders was with him, and they walked calmly, slowly and nonchalantly towards the end of the hallway, and the narrow stairs. There were knots and gaggles of apprentices, and mages and templars alike milling around. The trick was to walk as if you had a sense of purpose, and were meant to be going somewhere important. It helped if you had a piece of paper to carry, and then everyone seemed to think you were running an errand for one of the enchanters.

Anders wasn’t sure if that worked as well for the older apprentices, but it certainly did the job for him… and nobody could possibly doubt that Karl knew where he was going.

He was striding ahead, calm and unruffled, and he didn’t even flinch when one of the Marcher templars clanked past, scowling.

They waited for the templar to pass, then dived off to the side, crossed the corridor, got to the disused stairway—and exploded in a breathless burst of movement, running, and stifling gulps of laughter as their slippers slapped against the steps. It was dark, and chilly, and Anders didn’t care. Their breath echoed on the stones, panting giggles and gasps, and he cannoned into Karl from behind as, halfway up the staircase, the last of the light from the corridor below gave out, and they entered the shadow realm of the Tower’s forgotten byways.

“Steady,” Karl protested, grabbing at the pitted stonework of the wall. “You’ll have me over and all!”

Anders slipped both arms around his waist and buried his nose in the back of Karl’s shoulder. Everything seemed more intense in the dark; sight, sound, and smell. Karl’s robes smelled of candle-wax, ink—that whole atmosphere of dark wood and chalkboards that the upper lecture rooms had—and, beneath all that, him. Anders was standing two steps below him, which made their minimal difference in height seem a little greater, and as Karl twisted his body, lifting one arm to peer back at him in the gloom, Anders found he rather liked that.

“I was thinking about this all week,” he murmured, mounting the shallow steps so he could press even closer, flattening his hands to the embroidered panels of Karl’s robes. “I… I missed you.”

Karl snapped his fingers, and the soft glow of magical light flared, hovering above his cupped palm. It splashed back across his face, making his eyes look dark and shadowed, and painting valleys into his cheeks.

He reached up and, very gently, traced his fingertips along the line of Anders’ jaw. “I missed you, too.”

Anders grinned stupidly as his stomach performed a particularly athletic somersault, and the part of his brain apparently hard-wired to his little head suddenly seemed to take over control of his mouth.

“Are we going to do it? I really want to. You know I want to. And you did promise,” he added, aware of the way the words were rushing out without him, spooling into the staircase’s dark, shadowed quiet.

Karl’s evident surprise faded fast, lost in an embarrassed sort of half-smile, and he tugged ineffectually at Anders’ wrist, dropping his gaze to the steps.

“Come on. Let’s get… well, we’ll talk about this in a minute, yeah?”

Anders shivered, the warmth of Karl’s fingers on his skin doing little to dispel the chill. So, he wanted the security of their little eyrie? Fair enough. It was safer than groping on a dark staircase, where they were just as liable to break their necks as find themselves discovered.

He didn’t move at first, though: just stayed there stubbornly as Karl tried to pull away.

“Karl? You promised. Remember?”

Karl sighed, and the little ball of magical energy rose above his palm, crackling around his head and making that halo of rumpled curls glisten. “Anders—”

“Please? I want to. I want it to be with you.”

“We will. Honest. But—”

He strained against Anders’ arms, trying harder to pull away, and it felt like rejection, no matter how soft and troubled the look on his face. Anders folded his lips into a tight line, drawing back as Karl moved up another step, the staircase a space of awkward negotiation, a place of arguments shrouded in shadows.

“I told you I didn’t want to rush it,” Karl murmured, moving slowly up the last few stairs… slowly away from him. “Not with you.”

Anders gave him a sulky, pouty glower. “Are you sure you even like me?”

The look Karl shot him was withering, even in the half-light of the pale globe fizzing about his head. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Well? You won’t touch me. You don’t want to—”

“Shh!” Karl glanced nervously at the dark walls, and winced at the sound of their voices humming tinnily against the stone. “Come on,” he said again, holding out his hand, the little orb of light nestling once more in his other palm. “Anders. Please?”

Well, there wasn’t much refusing that.

Anders acquiesced gracelessly, thrusting his hand into Karl’s and allowing himself to be pulled up the last two steps, into the shadowy emptiness of the narrow landing.

Karl looked at him wordlessly for a moment, the dim and unnatural glow of his light picking out thin highlights across his face and leaving his eyes dark as wells.

“Silly sod,” he muttered, and squeezed Anders’ fingers lightly before turning to lead him into the old supply room.

Anders pouted again, but sloped obediently after him.

There really wasn’t anything else he could possibly do.

~o~O~o~

It would have been nice to make it up there in time for the sunset, but they’d missed it, and Karl regretted not seeing the symphony of reds and golds… or, at least, not watching Anders see them. The world beyond their little window was dim, painted in blacks and greys against a dark sky and the dark lake, each band of darkness touched by the pallid streaks of clouds and reflections, stippling the soft night.

Anders grinned like an idiot when Karl relayed Maya’s plan to him, his whole face suffused with a hopeful, grubby kind of joy.

“So…? Really? We’d be completely… undisturbed?”

Karl nodded. “Mm-hm.”

“Ooh.” The smile grew wider—if that was even physically possible—until it was disrupted by a small frown. “Why does she— I mean, what does she want in return?”

“Dunno.” Karl shrugged dismissively. “I’ll probably have to pay it back somehow, but… does that matter?”

“Nope.”

He laughed softly, warmed by Anders’ huge, ridiculous grin, and by the anticipation in his eyes. “Well, then. That’s good.”

They seemed closer then than they had a moment or so ago, and Anders’ breath had deepened out into a long, slow, uneven rhythm that fanned gently against Karl’s face.

“We could always get some practice in, before—”

“Don’t tempt me,” Karl chided, leaning in to kiss him. “Wicked creature.”

Anders tensed briefly, just before their lips met, and Karl wondered if he’d accidentally hit on some old, cruel slight, some insult that had been bandied around in the past… or if it was just the tension aching between them.

It didn’t seem to matter much, though, because then every ounce of his awareness was full of Anders—his taste, his smell, the feel of his mouth—and the happy little noises breaking against Karl’s tongue made him shiver with pleasure. It would have been easy to let it happen, he supposed… and Anders probably wouldn’t have regretted it. Not too much, anyway.

All the same, he broke the kiss and stepped back, away from the luring heat of the long, lithe body beneath those warm, slippery robes. Karl swallowed heavily, and tried not to stare too hungrily at that flushed, breathless face, those eyes glistening like two hunks of dark, polished amber.

Anders gazed hazily at him, then smiled uncertainly, fingers picking at the sleeve of his robes. “What?”

Karl shook his head. “Just you.”

The smile went loose and bit wobbly at the edges, and Anders stuck out his hand. “C’mere.”

Karl hesitated, not sure he wanted to be drawn into another kiss, but then he obediently slipped his hand into that warm, firm grasp and, as Anders’ fingers laced through his, he found himself being pulled up onto the crate that stood next to the window… pulled close as they both scrambled up to the aperture, leaning on the stone sill as the cold air painting ghosts on their skin.

Karl stared down in vague wonderment at their hands. So firmly joined as they rested on the rough stonework, and yet it seemed such a casual gesture. He tried to choke the idiotic smile from his lips, and didn’t quite manage it—not that Anders had even noticed.

“Look out there,” Anders said, nodding at the hazy bounds of the lake. “Do you know what’s out there?”

Karl squinted. Well, they were facing southwest, so….

“The docks, I suppose. That way a bit. And, eventually, Recliffe, and the castle, where the arl’s seat is. I think there’s a village or two. The Imperial Highway runs parallel to—”

“Not what it says on the map,” Anders said witheringly. “I mean, like… trees. Birds. Grass. Taverns and villages and farms, and… life. Proper life. Real people, real places.”

Maker, he’s got that tone in his voice again….

Karl frowned. He would have thought a week’s punishment down in the bowels of the Tower would have subdued Anders a little bit, but apparently not. His frown deepened as he wondered whether—for all the enchanters’ thinly veiled threats and displays of power—it hadn’t just made it worse.

“Are we not real people, then?” he asked dryly.

The grip on his hand tightened, and Anders shook his head emphatically. “No, you know what I mean! Places that are free. Not like this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, hmm? Being out there, free like that?”

Karl turned his head—frightened by that open, hungry look that Anders got at moments like this—and squinted out into the dimming, lilting light. The lake’s surface twisted and glimmered in pale, shifting shards, turning to shadows as the light winked away, and the hazy, distant faces of cliffs seemed to bound everything like the very edges of the world.

He tried not to think of things like mud, disease, poverty, and all the other manifold dangers of the mundane world that the Tower protected them from. Or… that the Tower told mages it protected them from, perhaps.

Damn. He’s got a bloody point, hasn’t he?

“A—” Karl cleared his throat. “Are… are you talking about escaping?”

“That’s part of it. Being free. We will, you know,” Anders said confidently, squeezing his hand again as he looked out over the lake. “You and me. We’ll go somewhere they’ll never find us.”

Karl blinked, then turned his head and stared at him for a moment.

“What?”

Anders wasn’t looking at him. He was staring out into the dusk, the angles of his face breaking to taut planes, and that impatient, ravenous look in his eyes seemed to erode away the last remaining softnesses of his youth.

“Have you ever been to Nevarra?” he asked, and he might as well have been addressing the air itself, his tone airy and speculative. “I haven’t. Did you know, they don’t burn their dead there?”

“I….” Karl began, but Anders apparently didn’t need a response.

You don’t learn, do you? You never learn, you mad sod. You can’t get away, you know. We’re in the middle of a lake. They’ll catch you, and they will do so much worse than send you down to file card catalogues….

He didn’t say it. Didn’t bother saying anything.

“They build great big tombs for them instead,” Anders said conversationally, “and they actually start their own while they’re alive. Yuck! Morbid, isn’t it? Mind you, I suppose it’s a bit like us, y’know? Walled up in here, like a living tomb. We’d probably fit right in. I don’t think I’d ever want to be buried in a tomb like that, though. No more walls. Don’t want to be walled up. I think I want to be burned and scattered on the wind.”

Oh, Andraste, give me strength….

“You’re babbling,” Karl said softly, tugging on his hand.

Anders looked at him then, eyes wide and his face painted with shadows. He seemed so pale, so vulnerable, and Karl ached to kiss him, to soothe him until that veneer of calm was back in place.

“Am I?”

“You do it sometimes,” Karl admitted, raising his free hand and stroking his fingertips softly along the outline of Anders’ cheek. “I wouldn’t worry. I quite like it, actually. Kiss me?”

“Come with me,” Anders whispered tensely, no trace of mockery in his face. “Just say you’ll come with me.”

“Yes.” Karl smiled. “Of course. I’ll always be with you.”

He hadn’t quite meant to say that, but somehow it popped out. He might have felt embarrassed, or perhaps regretted the words, only Anders gave him a look of such starry-eyed, shy sweetness that the whole world turned a bit softer, and absolutely nothing mattered except drawing him close and tasting the chill of the night air on his lips.

Karl closed his eyes as he felt Anders melt a little against him. He was so lovely… and he knew it was just talk, didn’t he? All these dreams, these make-believe plans, they wouldn’t come to anything. They couldn’t… not that knowing that would stop the idiot from dreaming. And it shouldn’t, Karl supposed.

He wouldn’t be Anders anymore if that happened.

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Chapter 9
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