Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
It took weeks to get out. Weeks to get down there, weeks to negotiate the tunnels and the routes… weeks working their way through the thaig. The things they saw—the impossible, profane, horrific, fucked-up things—followed every footstep out of the dark.
He didn’t care to admit it, but the experience bonded them. Marked them indelibly, and linked them together. Him, Varric, and Isabela. Carver should have been there too… would have been, without their mother’s humiliating, impassioned appeal. Right there in the square, in front of everyone. Down on her knees, almost, begging him to leave her precious baby behind.
Begging him to choose, Tobias noted. Not begging Carver to stay. That was the worst thing.
Precious Baby had not, of course, been impressed. Tobias couldn’t blame him, yet he had been unable to refuse Leandra’s appeal. He hated dealing with crying women. If it hadn’t been for the whole expedition staring at them, he and his brother would probably have come to blows, although, if looks alone could have killed….
He’d regretted it, as the descent began. Uneasy, uncomfortable… tense. He should have stuck up for Carver, argued for his right to be a part of this, to be his own man for once.
It hadn’t mattered; Tobias had stacked the regret up with all his other regrets, all the other things he kept thinking he could have done before he left the city. It had been a maelstrom of activity, preparing. As if they could smell the gold on the breeze, they’d all jostled like a pack of hunting hounds, terrified some other bastard would muscle in on the prize before they got their snouts into the best bits. Keeping the Coterie off had been hard enough, not to mention the host of other two-copper guilds and companies, snuffling around like street dogs.
And, as the darkness closed over his head, and the very walls of rock seemed to pulse with heat and energy, Tobias wished there’d been another chance to see Anders.
When they hit the first group of darkspawn, less than three days into the trek, that faint wish twisted quickly into regret at not having dragged him along. Oh, the nobility of respecting his dislike of the Deep Roads, his commitment to his patients—and the possibility of Justice bursting out without control—was all fine but, faced with the filthy, pocked bodies of ’spawn slashing at his flesh, Tobias sorely rued the lack of a Warden.
It got worse, naturally, before it got better.
By the time they finally made it back to the surface—beaten, betrayed, bloodied and really, truly, royally pissed off—he wasn’t sure the rewards were worth it.
“There’s blood on my coat,” Varric said mournfully, fingering one wide leather lapel with his gloved hand. “That’s never going to come out.”
They stood in the winding sidestreets of Lowtown, a little way up from the docks, where the smell of tar stained the air. Salt sluiced through the breeze that lightly ruffled Tobias’ dark hair, grown long enough now to almost reach his jaw. He snorted, eyeing the dwarf’s ruined garment. Bloodstains, ragged tears, rock dust, mould, and all sorts of filth from the dark places he never wanted to think about again marred practically every inch of the leather.
All in all, they were both as much of a mess as each other.
Tobias cocked an eyebrow. “You may actually have to consider a new coat, Varric.”
“Are you crazy?” The dwarf looked up at him, affecting total disbelief. “I love this thing.”
“Hmph. Well, you could afford it, that’s all I’m saying. Whole new wardrobe, if you wanted.”
Varric shook his head. “No. A little specialist cleaning, it’ll be fine. Same goes for me, I guess,” he added, wincing as weak sunlight pierced the clouds overhead. “I’m headed to The Hanged Man. Hot water, a good shave, a bath… a drink. Possibly not in that order.”
Tobias shaded his eyes with one hand, still painfully unused to the brightness, and nodded. Their first day back in the city, and he could think of nothing more than getting clean, getting drunk, and getting home.
Possibly not in that order, he thought, with a smile.
They’d parted ways with Isabela at the docks. It seemed odd to be without her now, after all those endless weeks of circumstance forcing them so close together. He’d distrusted her initially… which he supposed was reasonable, given the fact their first meeting had been marked by her knifing a man in the throat. Still, for all her posing and self-consciously bawdy banter, he’d grown to rather like her. Tobias respected skill, whether it was in a man or a woman, and he’d never been in the business of judging a person’s morals.
Isabela got the job done and, if you were sure you were paying her more than the other side, she was well worth having as an ally. Not that Tobias planned on making the mistake of trusting her.
Still… he suspected he’d seen a little way beneath her shell, some of those nights in the dark. After Bartrand betrayed them, left them shut in and ready to rot, Isabela was the most incensed. Tobias had soon seen why. She guarded little about herself except her freedom and—once that was under threat—only her anger and that sharp whip of a tongue had kept her from going completely insane.
Of course, after week upon week of cock jokes and endless rounds of ‘Have You Ever…’ as they traipsed through the lyrium-lit, red-bloomed darkness, he’d been ready to strangle the bitch.
There had also been the embarrassing incident behind the rockfall, when she’d ‘accidentally’ happened upon him having a piss and—Varric being asleep at the time—had tried to… enliven the journey.
Tobias imagined Isabela wasn’t turned down often. Her sheer aggressiveness probably eroded most people’s defences—and she was an attractive woman, at least in principle. She’d even shown him her tattoos. Eventually, he’d sighed, and slipped her a quick one up against a handy boulder. There had far too many sharp bits of rock, sludgy lichens, and scuttly things in the darkness, and she insisted on scratching and biting like a cat in heat.
It was an uncomfortable, perfunctory experience, and he had the horrible feeling that it was going to come back to haunt him… particularly given the gentlemanly cough with which Varric had announced his presence, just as they were finishing off.
Tobias cleared his throat. It still felt as if he had half the Deep Roads coating his tongue. He squinted at Varric, aware of the sounds of the bazaar drifting down on the air. So much colour, life… so much light.
“S’a good idea,” he said. “I’ll be by later, I expect. After I see Mother.”
Varric’s expression tightened. “Ooh. That’s gonna be messy, Hawke.”
Tobias nodded wearily. “Yes. Yes, it probably is.”
He paced the narrow streets, turned around and overwhelmed by the smells coming up from the market, the feel of the breeze on his face… the whole chaotic reality of Lowtown. He mounted the dusty stone steps, knocked at the cracked, peeling wooden door, and had no idea what to say when she opened it.
Leandra stared, any words she might have had for her son lost in a dry, strangled gasp. She folded against his chest, arms locked so tight around his neck he could barely breathe, and her tears were strangely hot against his skin. Tobias set down the bags and packs he’d been carrying—an uncomfortable thing, walking through Lowtown with this much ill-concealed gold on him—and hugged her to him, tentatively at first, a little afraid… though he couldn’t have said why. She smelled of soap and lavender water, and his chest felt full enough to break as he buried his face in the crown of her hair.
His homecoming was made of tense, difficult hours, rife with resentment and flashes of anger amid the joy and relief. Carver’s fury at his brother’s rejection—that emasculating, humiliating insult—had not lessened. Bitter and boiling with rage, he’d stormed off and, once the expedition had left, lost three days in an ale-soaked binge, returning home only to inform Leandra he had decided to join the templars.
That news shocked Tobias, though he supposed it shouldn’t have. It was the most hurtful, most calculated retaliation Carver could have made… a reaction not just to being left behind this time, but to every abandonment, every moment of isolation they’d ever inflicted on him. What was it he’d said once?
How do you think I felt? A lone blade in a house full of mages. I couldn’t even excel at that for fear of bringing notice.
He must have hated them all, Tobias realised. Sometimes. Poor Carver.
It stung, in any case, and he wondered if it would be possible to patch things up… if his brother would even see him. The letter Carver had left for him hinted obliquely at ‘knowing where his loyalties lay’, and seemed to assure that he didn’t plan on ratting out family, yet Tobias found he cared less about that than what Carver’s leaving had done to their mother. Arrogant of him, he supposed. With the protection he’d had from Athenril’s company long gone, less than ever stood between him and the possibility of templar discovery. Not to mention, coming up from the Deep Roads a wealthy man—just the way he’d promised—was hardly likely to make him less noticeable.
He didn’t know what to do. His mother was still clutching his hand, still running with a near-incoherent stream of news and reaction to Carver’s leaving, and what everyone had thought had been his death. Tobias raised an eyebrow at that, unsurprised to hear Bartrand had come back to the surface weighed down with loot and the terribly tragic tale of how his younger brother and business partner had both been lost to the perils of the Deep Roads.
Gamlen, naturally, was already nudging Tobias’ packs and bags with an inquisitive foot, face lighting up like an eager ferret when he heard the clinking within.
Tobias scowled at the old fart and, extricating himself from Leandra’s embrace, promised they’d talk more once he was cleaned up.
It seemed to take hours to scrape away the grime.
Hot water duly fetched, the luxuries of soap, razor, and washcloths laid out before him, Tobias scrubbed and rinsed, and still felt as if he’d never be clean enough. The stink of the place was branded onto him, he was sure; gouged into his flesh like Fenris’ lyrium markings.
He wondered if the elf was still squatting in Danarius’ mansion, brooding to himself among the shattered glass and blood-soaked stone. It seemed… fitting, he supposed.
Tobias sluiced clean water over his head, and shook like a wet dog as he straightened up, wiping his wrist across his eyes and reaching for a cloth to dry himself. There were a lot of people to catch up with, he realised. Business contacts, sources of information, acquaintances… and even those he loosely termed ‘friends’. He was acutely aware that there weren’t too many of those. His line of work was to blame, probably.
Still… that could change, couldn’t it? He was a man of independent means now—or he would be, once Varric arranged what he called the ‘liquefaction’ of the assets they’d brought up from the Deep Roads.
Tobias scrubbed at his hair with the now-damp cloth, and cast a glowering glance around the poky, wood-walled room that seemed so very empty without all of Carver’s things in it.
First things first: the Void could take Lowtown. They would have the old Amell estate back, even if he had to bribe every notary and clerk in Seneschal Bran’s office—damn it, even if he had to bribe the viscount himself!
Tobias draped the cloth around his neck and frowned at the wall. Not long after their arrival here, Leandra had said that, with Bethany gone, it didn’t feel like the Blight was really over. There were four of us when it began. Tobias winced as he recalled her words, and the hot lance they’d been to his deep-seated well of guilt. Oh, she still blamed him, even if she didn’t say it aloud anymore.
Well, he couldn’t bring his baby sister back, and he couldn’t prise Carver from this new-found vocation (Or could he? Tobias wondered how long the training and initiation took, and made a mental note to drop some coin around The Gallows in return for information… and maybe a little persuasion….) but he might just be able to make sure his mother was safe, comfortable, and well provided for. Gamlen, too, if it came to it. Not that the old bastard deserved it.
Tobias sighed, his shoulders tensing as a fleet of different troubles slipped up on him. For so long, the boundless, faceless stretches of time—where day and night had no distinctions, and it was easy to lose count of their passing—had been filled with the heady problems of staying alive, and finding a way out of the mess they’d been in. Now, faced with the delicate and knotty chaos of family, finance, and all those other comparatively mundane things, he felt lost and unreal… like a ghost in his own existence.
The air was cold on his bare skin, though he hadn’t noticed the goosebumps rising on his arms.
Tobias smiled to the empty room, recalling all the vices he’d promised himself he’d indulge when he got back. Right now, the prospect of getting blind drunk and blowing a handful of sovereigns on the finest service Madam Lusine had to offer seemed like a bloody good idea.
He dressed quickly—same style of leather-patched clothes, though he mourned the loss of his favourite jerkin, which would never be the same again—and stowed the majority of his new wealth under the loose floorboard beneath the bed. Tobias knew Gamlen knew about the hiding place… but his uncle knew he knew, and was also aware of exactly what Tobias had done to the last man who stole from him. Sometimes, you didn’t even need magic to inflict a really imaginative punishment on someone.
Tobias pressed a kiss to the cheek of an indignant and confused Leandra—not home more than a few hours and he was already leaving? Where was he going? When did he mean to be back?—and mumbled something about seeing a business associate.
It was true, in its way.
Just over an hour later, he was sitting on a barstool upholstered in threadbare velvet, while the smell of whiskey and six kinds of cheap perfume tickled his nose. What few windows the place had were covered by tight-drawn red drapes, and the stultifying, dingy interior gave the impression of a sort of permanent midnight.
The Rose was a Coterie operation, but Tobias didn’t much care. Lusine counted many far better known faces than his among her clientele and, as discretion was valued in her business, his patronage passed without incident. Besides, it wasn’t as if he actually worked for Athenril anymore… or as if he’d ever been completely averse to letting a few titbits of information about her schedules slip, should the right person happen to buy him a very expensive drink.
To Tobias’ way of thinking, everyone wanted something. That was the nature of the world. It made sense for him to give a little of what he could to as many parties as possible… particularly if he could do it without anyone finding out. After all, a man never knew when he might need a fresh option.
“Come to a decision yet, my dear?” Madam Lusine oozed, leaning ingratiatingly over his shoulder.
It was amazing how pleasant—or at least a poor facsimile of it—she could be when presented with a neat pile of sovereigns up front.
Tobias stifled a belch, set down the cloudy glass that, until recently, had held a shot of very raw liquor, and nodded. The place wasn’t terribly busy yet, though there were a fair few sots and lechers propping up the bar. He gathered from the looks he’d been getting—and one or two not-so-whispered comments—that his sudden revival from alleged death was going to be the stuff of gossip before tomorrow. At that precise moment, he didn’t care.
“Yes,” he said, glancing towards the blond man at the end of the bar.
They’d exchanged a few words since Tobias had sat down to drink but, in all honesty, he wasn’t bothered about paying to talk.
“Excellent choice,” Lusine drawled. “Esel, you take special care of our guest, won’t you?”
The blond flashed a gap-toothed smile and pushed away from the bar. His white calico shirt, unlaced at the neck, was cut close to show off his broad chest and shoulders, that dense-packed body tapering to slim hips and long, lean legs, encased in dark breeches. Skin the colour of honey, large, pale blue eyes, golden hair… and a mouth that Tobias had wanted to fuck from the first moment he saw it.
Yes, he would do very nicely indeed.
Esel led him upstairs, to one of the small chambers festooned with more musty drapes and crammed with furniture far too ornate to fit the space. The ridiculous curlicues on every bit of wood—along with the sheer number of gold tassels and satin pillows—added to the sense of seedy, underwhelming opulence, like a woman who patched her faded beauty with paint and powder.
Tobias didn’t care. He didn’t care that everything smelled faintly of old sweat and stale attar of roses, although he did care just a little when the door closed behind him. It echoed, and a passing jolt of nausea stabbed him, as he blinked and reminded himself there was no stone, and no darkness.
Paying double was definitely worth it.
Esel stripped him deftly, murmuring all the while in a low voice that had a slight accent—Antivan, perhaps? Kirkwall was a port city—and an oddly calming quality. Andraste’s mercy, look at him, he was such a man, so strong, so handsome… all crap, Tobias knew, but crap that it was quite pleasant to hear. Long-fingered, square-palmed hands smoothed over his flesh, firm and warm and full of comfort, and Esel knelt before him with a bowl of hot, scented water and a washcloth.
Tobias closed his eyes. Rivulets of wet warmth tracked his body, caressing the lines of chest, hips, and thighs. The cloth made pass after pass over his most intimate places, and he slid his fingers into a wealth of blond hair as its softness was replaced with the ineffable sweetness of a hot, talented tongue.
The whore knew his trade, definitely. He teased and licked along Tobias’ length, not swallowing him whole until he was hard enough to beg, and then tormenting him with long, slow strokes that pushed him close to the edge, yet never let him fall.
After several minutes of that game, Esel pulled off abruptly and glanced up at him, eyes heavy-lidded and mouth wet. He grinned that gappy grin of his—Tobias wondered briefly whether the missing teeth had merely been rotten, or actually knocked out—and moved the fun to the bed. Tobias sprawled back on the frayed and shabby coverlet and watched him disrobe properly, the only sound in the room the echoes of revelry and conversation filtering up from downstairs. He propped himself on his elbows and watched the lean, muscular figure move before him, unbinding the blond hair from its stubby ponytail, shaking it out… gazing at him with a blank kind of acceptance in those blue eyes.
Tobias frowned, and reached down beside the bed. Coin was a bloody wonderful thing. There was another bottle here: cheap whiskey, but really quite tolerable. He uncorked it, swigged, gulped down on the burn of it hitting his throat, and leered as Esel clambered onto the bed.
“Oops,” Tobias said, tipping the bottle enough to slosh a splash of whiskey over his chest and the upper part of his stomach. His body tightened at the coolness of the liquid, and the proximity of the other man.
Esel just smiled, bent his head, and lapped at the spilled liquor. Breath hissed between Tobias’ lips as whatever teeth the blond had left grazed his nipple. Swift, firm swipes of mouth and tongue—too fast, too efficient to be kisses—travelled over his chest, and he let his head loll back, spinning lightly in a happy, mellow haze.
It felt good to be taken care of, to be pampered and touched and soothed. It wasn’t enough, though, and eventually Tobias wanted more. Esel appeared to understand… to have anticipated it before he even knew it himself. The blond produced another bottle; this one a small, rounded affair in smooth clay, with a painted stopper. Oil. It smelled of roses, like almost everything else in this sodding place.
Tobias allowed himself to be stroked, anointed and liberally smeared, and watched as Esel prepared himself. He really was an attractive man, Tobias thought, staring blearily at the corn-gold hair and the broad, curved chest, and the pretty, smiling mouth.
Abruptly, he grabbed the blond’s arm and—with a little more vigour than was really polite—positioned him face-down on the bed, pillows gathered in his arms and legs splayed beneath him. His skin was paler on his back, the faint lines of a summer tan marking how he must prefer to wear his shirt, with sleeves pushed up and neck undone. Tobias shied from the thought. He didn’t want to dwell on who Esel was, or whatever joys and sadnesses his life contained. Instead, Tobias parted the cheeks of his round, white arse, and set about methodically fucking him.
The whore made it easy. Of course. He was pliant, loose; a wave of warm flesh and simple pleasures, hot and yielding. He wriggled for Tobias, moaned for him as he was filled, and worked back against him, providing the perfect blend of resistance and submission. The wooden bed frame, with its silly curlicues and grubby drapes, creaked and groaned in time to every movement.
In the next room along, drunken male laughter echoed through the wall. A female voice squealed, giggled raucously, and then whooped as furniture thunked and scraped across the floor. Another door slammed somewhere. Sweat prickled on Tobias’ skin, and he fell down into a crouch over Esel’s body, wanting… closeness, he supposed. Stupid, really. Still, he ran his hand over the bunched muscles of the blond’s arm, and laid his cheek on one hard shoulder blade as he stroked deeper, sinking his cock into a hot, willing grip, and pressing himself against all that smooth, warm flesh.
Esel shifted under the increased weight, moaned a bit, and stretched one hand back to wind lazily in Tobias’ hair. He murmured something that might have been Antivan, and tugged lightly at the dark strands.
Next door, the fuzzy bubble of voices and giggles gave way to the rhythmic thud of bed against wall, interspersed with loud, uninhibited cries.
Tobias closed his eyes, his body jerking against Esel’s, the smell of skin and warmth and sweat all around him, perfumed with oil and sin. It was, he supposed, entirely possible that the blond’s writhings and groans of pleasure were genuine. He decided to believe they were, and lost no time in clamping his body tighter to Esel’s, hips rolling with the ceaseless rhythm of a goal determined, a quest to be fulfilled. Open-mouthed, panting hard, Tobias crushed his face to that tangle of dirty blond hair, parched lips kissing pale neck and shoulders, his hand seeking to lock itself around the long-fingered fist that lay clenched on the coverlet.
Something surged in the pit of his gut—not lust, not desire, but something deeper, something more primal. It was part of the essence of who he was… what he was. Magic permeated everything, the silver thread that ran through the world, and it uncoiled inside him, a dark serpent seeking purchase on slippery, uneven ground. Tobias held it back, the way he always did. If you never showed it, no one knew you had it… or so his father used to say. Sparks blistered beneath his skin, all cold fire and aching want, and he could have sworn he could smell elfroot.
A word that wasn’t a word—a name that wasn’t a name, just a broken, empty gasp of a thing—left his lips, dragged from him like a cry of defeat.
He didn’t last as long as he’d hoped. Ironic, really, given what he’d paid.
Tobias bucked and thrust his way through it all, aware of his hoarse cries and the way that—just for a few precious moments—the world was bright and warm and wonderful. The euphoria pitched quickly into a dead, slimy weight of discomfort once he was done, and the man in his arms no longer felt… right.
He rolled off, sticky and apologetic, and sat dumbly while Esel got up and—in a distinctly leisurely manner—pottered around the room, humming to himself as he rinsed out the washcloth and cleaned them both off.
“You are a very handsome man,” he purred, in those silky, faintly foreign tones. “You come see me again, yes?”
In the next room, the other couple were still going at it. The bed was damn near fixed to burst through the wall any minute, and a loud screech of female laughter echoed, only slightly muffled. It seemed strangely incongruous, and Tobias frowned, suddenly feeling slightly silly.
He dragged his gaze from the crack he’d been staring at in the far wall, smiled tightly at the look in those wide blue eyes as Esel came to kneel on the bed beside him, and wondered why he’d picked this one out of all the faces Madam Lusine had to offer.
He lifted a hand and touched it to Esel’s jaw. It was smooth, like much of the rest of him… like a lot of Lusine’s people. More than just shaving. Caramel, or long hours with a cotton thread, Tobias supposed. Esel didn’t flinch from that small, intimate gesture. He kissed Tobias’ palm, and gave him a long, lingering look designed to smoulder and inflame.
“I think you come see me. I make a wonderful time with you, yes? You forget all about him.”
Tobias’ hand dropped like a lead weight to the coverlet, as if the blond’s skin had scalded him. Esel gave him an amused, guarded look, then shrugged, and took a swig from the half-empty whiskey bottle before passing it to Tobias.
“Nothing,” he said, smiling beatifically. “No one, I’m sure.”
Tobias’ frown deepened. He was, he reflected, drunk. Not drunk enough, but drunk all the same. And bored. Next door, the woman was shrieking and her cully was screaming out to Andraste’s flaming tits, and the bed was thudding against the plasterboard. Tobias lifted the bottle and took a long gulp, while Esel’s fingers traced wordless poems over his skin, and tweaked at his nipples.
A warm, damp kiss planted itself at the point of Tobias’ shoulder. He stood abruptly, shaking the touch away, leaving Esel to sprawl across the bed, that self-satisfied smile still on his face. He laughed softly, and Tobias glared at him, demolishing a little more of the whiskey as he padded, naked, to the various points around the room at which his clothes had been left.
With his immediate needs fulfilled, the shine had worn off this musty little room. The blond on the bed—head propped on his hand, slack cock draped across one firm, powerful thigh, and that bloody grin on his face—was little more than leftovers from a meal Tobias had no desire to finish.
He dressed briskly, left Esel the rest of the bottle and a few silvers’ tip that Lusine didn’t need to know about, and jogged down the stairs.
Funny how expensive it could be to feel so cheap.
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