Justice in Surrender: Chapter 28

In the aftermath of what happened beneath The Gallows, Tobias faces some painful truths.

———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————-

Getting out of The Gallows was harder than getting in, which struck Tobias as sickly ironic. The shouts started to burst against the stones as he and Varric ran through the corridors, tracing their steps back to the old service route and the trapdoor down into the lyrium runs. There were no words, just echoes of alarm: templars giving chase, cell doors slamming, and feet thudding in the hallways.

Shitshitshitshitshit….

They found evidence of the others’ escape on their way; fresh scorch marks lined some of the walls, and the body of a lone guard lay crumpled in one corner of the corridor. Tobias shot a look at Varric, but the dwarf shrugged, and they hurried on. Hard to know who was responsible for the dead templar, or even whether Anders had run this way. Tobias hoped so, though; hoped he’d got out, maybe caught up with the others. Maybe he had. Maybe he was all right… and maybe the girl was, too.

They found the others just at the point where the trapdoor led down into the smugglers’ tunnels, but it wasn’t what Tobias had expected. A gout of fire greeted them, whooshing along the service hall and warming the stones. He swore—almost as loudly as Varric—and leapt to the side, yelling that it was them, and what the fuck did anyone think they were playing at?

“Sorry!” called a voice Tobias recognised as Gethyn’s, though the mage sounded shaken.

As the after-burn of the fire faded from his vision, blue spots giving way to the dimness of the corridor, Tobias realised just how badly things had gone.

Ranulf was holding the trapdoor up while Jarrod and Mina eased the women—and, Tobias was pleased to note, the plump, whimpering wreck of the girl they’d rescued—down the ladder, but the big man had one hand clamped to his eye, blood running down his face, matted in his red beard.

Gethyn darted forward to meet them, looking frantically along the length of the corridor, as if he really thought there’d be a cadre of templars in their wake.

“Get moving,” he said tersely, ushering them to the trapdoor. “Quickly.”

Tobias frowned. “Where’s Anders?”

Gethyn shook his head, his dark, narrow face screwed up into a pinched scowl. “He ain’t here. He might’ve gone another way, or he might be trying to hold them off. Either way, we have to move.”

The possibilities were too horrible to contemplate, and Tobias already had his mouth open to say something hopelessly idealistic about not leaving without him. He stopped as his gaze slipped to the bloody pile of flesh by the wall, crumpled beneath the arcs of soot staining that spoke of how hard the mages had been forced to fight to hold their ground.

“What—?”

He knew what it was. Deep down, he knew. He’d seen it before. That tell-tale twisting of skin and body, corruption blooming out from the centre of a person until it boiled and bubbled, turning flesh to filth and horror. There was nothing there now but a pile of rags and burned meat, obscene in its grotesque malformation.

“Willen,” Gethyn said quietly, following Tobias’ gaze. “He turned. I dunno what those bastards did, but… he just went crazy. Brought a bloody demon down on us. Nearly took Ranulf’s eye out. We had to— well. You can see what.”

He nodded brusquely at the mess, his expression a flat mask of distaste, perhaps more at the fact that a mage yielding to blood magic only proved the templars right, rather than any kind of revulsion for what he’d had to do.

Tobias said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. By the trapdoor, the girl was wailing again, dissolving into paroxysms of panic as she half-fell, half-slid down the ladder. Mina was trying to help her, but seemed to be struggling, and Gethyn swore under his breath.

From somewhere else beneath the fortress—somewhere locked away in these grim, stone corridors—came the sound of shouting, and then screams. The mages’ heads snapped up, each of them straining their senses against the damp, warm air, and each avoiding the gazes of the others… because there was nothing they could do. Somewhere within these walls people were screaming, people were dying, and they were simply going to turn tail and leave. It wasn’t a good feeling, but even Tobias had to admit that there was no other option.

“Bet you that’s Anders,” Gethyn said, his voice dark and yet tinged with something that sounded almost like pride. He stalked across to the trapdoor, slipping his wiry body down to the ladder below, and paused to glower along the corridor one last time. “Bet you he’s giving those bastards what for.”

Tobias felt his flesh turn cold, the sweat that slicked his limbs like ice against his skin. He reached out one last time, desperate to feel the familiar print of Anders’ power somewhere inside the fortress, but everything was clouded. Mana seemed little more than a distant memory. He was exhausted… broken, burned, injured, and too tired for words. Too tired for magic.

Varric nudged him in the back with Bianca’s stock. “Hawke. Come on.

The crossbow butted against the glancing stab wound above his hip, and Tobias winced, properly aware of the injury for the first time. Varric was right, of course: there was nothing he could do for Anders at this point, whether he’d already run from the fortress, or run back into the teeth of it, choosing to throw himself at the templars and give the others the chance for escape.

That sounded horribly like something he would do, and Tobias was fixated by the fear of it, so much so that he was hardly conscious of making his own way down into the lyrium smugglers’ tunnels, helping move the rescued mages—and the poor girl who was virtually hysterical by now—as quickly as possible through the gloom. He felt wrenched in two, as if his mind had peeled away from his body, unable to accept that he could be abandoning Anders this way (if he, in fact, was), and yet unable to think of anything else except the contorted, snarling hatred of Justice’s anger. Dead templars filled his vision, their bodies twisted and mauled, and Anders—Justice—had taken such strutting, proud glee in it all, crowning himself with death like it made everything worthwhile.

Had it? Had killing Alrik helped anyone? Had it made it up for what the man had done to Karl?

Tobias didn’t know. He doubted it.

And yet, maybe that’s what this was about from the beginning.

He stumbled in the dark tunnels, righting himself with a wince and a cuss, and fixing his gaze on the torch that Jarrod carried, as if the single bright flame could burn away all the shadows that clung to him.

It couldn’t, of course. As the Underground limped back beneath the lake, bowed and bloodied, Tobias was fairly sure he’d never feel light or clean again.

~o~O~o~

They took the mages they’d rescued to Selby’s place. She was waiting up, ready to receive them—ready to whisk everyone in through the back door that abutted one of the warehouses, away from prying eyes—and ready with hot water, clean blankets and clothes, and tea sweetened with rum and honey.

Tobias helped Mina settle Leorah, Edda, and the girl—whose name, as she managed to stammer in response to Selby’s quiet but firm requests, was Ella—while Gethyn relayed what had happened.

Selby tutted, her blue eyes narrowed as she poured hot water from an earthen jug into a large, copper bowl, setting out washcloths for the women and fetching a cake of soap before she turned to the messier business of tending to Ranulf’s injury.

The Starkhavener sat on a wooden chair by her fire, holding a cotton pad she’d given him to his eye. He’d been lucky: the wound was just above the eyeball itself, so only the blood trickling from it had blinded him. He would recover, though not without an impressive shiner, a few weeks of squinting and, most probably, a scar that would start a hundred conversations. Selby pulsed little breaths of consternated air through her teeth as she hunched over him, dressing the wound. Her frown deepened when Gethyn explained about Alrik’s death.

Tobias was in the process of handing sweet tea to the templar’s former victims, and he saw Ella’s bottom lip wobble at the mention of the man’s name. She dissolved into tears and—exhausted as he was—all he felt as he looked at her was incredible weariness, and the vague sense of panic that always assailed him in the presence of crying women.

“Um. There, there,” he tried, patting the filthy sleeve of her robe gingerly. “Drink up. It’ll help.”

She sniffed heavily, her round little face streaked with tears, snot, and ash, and grabbed at his hand across the table.

“You saved me, messere,” she managed damply, the fingers of her other hand cupping the mug of tea tentatively. “I didn’t thank you. But you did… you saved my life. I thought they’d do to me what they did to Jenlyn. I heard it. I heard all of it… he said he would. We just wanted to see our families! They wouldn’t let us write, and my mum’s been so ill….”

She lapsed into tears again, though her grip was like iron on his wrist. He sat awkwardly, unsure what to say to her—what could be said that would heal the things she’d been through?—and too tired to try and find answers.

Somewhere at the back of his mind, Tobias knew they’d done something stupid. The hushed tones in which Selby, Gethyn, and Jarrod were arguing supported this suspicion; as if they really thought no one else could hear them. Their voices buzzed in and out of his head, consciousness lapping around him like light surf, and he couldn’t feel sorry that Alrik had died screaming. The only reason they’d gotten into the fortress without having to fight their way through so many guards was the fact that Ser Alrik had invited those guards to play with his toys… and it was a sophisticated game.

He waited until a prisoner had been locked in for a while, whatever their original infraction—attempted escape, like Ella, or perhaps insubordination or so-called subversiveness, like Edda or Leorah—and then he took them out, one at a time. Beatings, rapes… he presided over horrors inflicted by groups of men, because that made it harder for any of them to be disciplined.

Oh, one sadist—one cruel templar, one naughty jailor—could be brought up before the Knight-Commander and made an example of… but how did you punish ten or twelve men, all of whom had different patrol duties, different responsibilities within the fortress? None would grass the others up, because they all knew the same about him. No… from the minute they joined in, those men belonged to Alrik just as surely as his prisoners did. His, to do what he wanted with: to break, and crush, and, finally, to turn Tranquil, causing them to lose their outrage, their indignance at his abuses.

Tranquillity, Ella said, made the people he’d already hurt his pets. He broke you first, then leashed you. He’d told her everything he intended to do to her… every agony and humiliation she would suffer, just as her friend had suffered: the corpse in the other cell. Tobias swallowed heavily as he recalled the discovery.

“And then you came in,” she murmured, alternating between damp sniffs and delicate sips of her tea. Though she was still clutching his wrist, she seemed a little better and, when she looked up at him, her dark eyes appeared a little less clouded. “Andraste herself put you all in that room tonight, messere. I know it. And the way you faced him down…! I’d never seen anyone talk to him like that.”

Tobias managed a small smile, recalling Varric’s line about the Divine and jackassery. The dwarf had not accompanied them to Selby’s place; Gethyn had made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t welcome… not trusted enough, despite what he’d done that night. He hadn’t seemed to take it personally, though the look on his face as he watched them go before turning to head back to the Hanged Man had suggested that he was worried. Tobias suspected he was going to get a serious lecture about his involvement with the Underground, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“We do our best,” he said, watching her sip her tea, her hand only shaking a little.

Ella swallowed, her eyes growing hazy as she seemed to peer into the distance, her face shadowed with the weight of all-too-recent memories.

“I’m glad they’re dead,” she whispered, though she didn’t seem entirely convinced of that fact. Guilt perfumed every word, hanging heavily in her voice and staining her face with regret and uncertainty. “Maker forgive me, but I am glad. I… I don’t know what I’ll do now. My mum….”

Her gaze latched onto his, dark and wide and full of terrible hope, and Tobias felt his chest clench. He shook his head regretfully.

“You can’t go home. You’ll stay here tonight, with the others, and then passage out of the city will be arranged for you, as soon as it can be done. You’ll have to go somewhere new… don’t worry, you won’t be alone. And we’ll make sure you’re as safe as possible. You’ll have money. Maybe—” He cleared his throat, inwardly cursing the idiocy of what he was about to say, and yet somehow unable to stop himself. “—look, maybe I can keep an eye on your family and, once we know where you’re going, I can help them find you. Get them out of Kirkwall… make sure they’re safe.”

For the first time, Ella’s expression was lit with something other than fear and horror, and her mouth fell open.

“Really? Really, messere? Would you do that?”

She gripped his hand tightly, and Tobias shrugged. He hadn’t got a clue why he’d said that. All he wanted was to sleep for a week, to fall into the blessed oblivion of nothingness. Maker, maybe that might even stop the insane drumming in his head: the pulses that echoed to every breath with the question of whether Anders was still alive.

He nodded, aware that he was probably lying to her. She’d said her mother was sick; the woman might already be dead, or about to have her door kicked in and templars run her through because they suspected her of harbouring her escapee daughter. Even if she did survive the aftermath of this little escapade, he couldn’t possibly guarantee to reunite them… but… well, it was worth trying, wasn’t it? Worth paying their passage to Rivain, or Orlais, or wherever the Underground sent Ella.

At least, that way, someone would be getting out of Kirkwall, even if he couldn’t leave.

The girl was blabbering her thanks, and he shook his head, eager that she stop it, because there was nothing to thank him for yet. Over by the fire, Selby seemed to be getting annoyed with Gethyn, which wasn’t terribly unusual, but also didn’t make for a good atmosphere in the poky, stuffy room.

“…so kind to me,” Ella was saying, still steadfastly refusing to take the hint about shutting up. “You’re not like that other… I mean…. The way he— It was so horrible! What… w-what was that thing, anyway?”

Tobias frowned absently. He’d been trying to eavesdrop on Selby and Gethyn’s hushed muttering and, for a moment, he didn’t even realise what Ella meant. As he saw the fear in her face, comprehension opened up in him like a yawning void, and he felt his expression grow stiff and disdainful. He didn’t mean it to—how was she to know everything else that Anders was, if she saw only Vengeance?—but he couldn’t help it, and he couldn’t quite manage to sympathy for the girl’s obvious fear.

“Hey! He’s not a ‘thing’, he’s—” Tobias faltered, wincing. He didn’t have an explanation… not one Ella would understand, anyway. He shook his head, averting his gaze as she looked curiously at him. “He’s a very, uh, troubled man. But, without him, we wouldn’t have been there tonight. We wouldn’t have….”

He let the words trail away, suddenly unsure just how good their nobly intentioned rescue really had been. The girl didn’t seem bothered. She’d let go of his hand, and was drinking the rest of her tea. Further along the table, Leorah and Edda had finished theirs, and were starting to ready the cloths and clean clothes, so he excused himself, not exactly overburdened with the wish to help the women out of their soiled garments.

Tobias moved across the room, nodding curtly at Ranulf, who’d been patched up and was still sitting by the fire, holding another mug… this one full of something rather stronger than Selby’s honeyed tea. A heavy bandage crossed his face, holding more padding in place over his eye, and blood had already begun to seep out into the dressing in tiny spots. The firelight danced in the red of his beard and hair, but the big man’s features sat bleakly beneath the reflection of the flames.

Selby, Gethyn, and Jarrod had retreated to the far corner of the room, still muttering between themselves. Tobias caught the sound of Elias Creer’s name on their lips, and he wanted to know more, but Ranulf tipped the mug towards him, snaring him with a melancholy sigh.

“Makes you wonder what it was all for, eh?” He shook his head bitterly, staring into his mug as his accent looped its way warmly around the words. “We can’t go against them now. With Alrik dead, what are we? Murderers. All the evidence in the world won’t mean a thing. Everything we’ve got… it’ll just be seen as lies to prove ourselves right.”

Tobias bit his lip. Evidence…. Of course. He’d nearly forgotten that. He fished inside his jerkin, wincing at the pull of the movement through his back, and dragged out the battered leather wallet and purse he’d taken from Alrik’s body.

“Here,” he said, brandishing the wallet. The Underground mages glanced at him, the clink of coin and the rustle of Chantry parchment evidently cutting through their own internal disputes. “Um. I, er, I took these… thought they might be important. Some of the papers… I haven’t looked, but I think they’re letters, edicts or something… there’s Chantry seals on some. And there’s this,” he added, tossing the coin purse at Gethyn, who caught it with a look of faint surprise.

Selby crossed her arms, her face pinched into a haughty glare. “Well. Ever the opportunist, ain’t you, Hawke?”

He shrugged, and passed her the wallet. “We did what we had to do, Selby. And Alrik won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her eyes bored twin wells of recrimination into him, and he knew the words sounded hollow. There would be retribution for what they’d done. Alrik’s death wouldn’t go unanswered, and Ranulf had a point: nothing anyone could say now would ameliorate the fact that a group of apostates had broken into the Gallows and torn nearly a dozen templars to pieces.

They had done nothing but cement the very thing the order wanted people to believe: that magic was dangerous, and all mages were potential killers.

“And what about Anders?” Selby demanded, still glaring forcefully at him, instead of the documents in her hands. “Where’s he, eh?”

The rush of guilt burst its way through Tobias’ chest, but it wasn’t him who spoke first.

“I told you,” Gethyn said. “I don’t know. We didn’t see him leave. Don’t know if he stayed to take another crack at ’em, or went out another way. He was… out of control.”

“Aye, and you left him there!” Her eyes blazed, that hard face condensed into white-hot anger. “You left him!”

“He went— he got bad,” Gethyn protested, shifting from foot to foot and trying to lower his voice, with a glance at the women across the room, carefully washing the worst of the blood and filth from themselves. Selby had promised them hot baths in the morning. “You know. Like what they say he done at the Vigil. What he did to Stroud’s men.”

She huffed irritably, turning her face away. “I told him… didn’t I say? I said it was too dangerous. I tole him what Elias said about it all. He don’t never listen….”

Tobias looked between the two of them, recalling the things Anders had confided in him that night at the clinic: those words he’d been afraid were confessions.

I tore those men apart. I… Justice… we…. I don’t know. It was all new, and I didn’t know what had happened until it was over. I lost control.

He’d never realised how intense the spirit’s rage could be, or how hard it evidently was for Anders to keep it focused, instead of just letting Justice give in and spray his ire over everything. He hadn’t imagined it would come so close to injuring an innocent… or that Justice would extend his hatred of templars to the mages who bore the imprint of their systems. Ella was so young. Of course she was a product of the Circle; what else could she be? Could Justice really not distinguish between her and a free mage?

If you hadn’t been here….

Tobias closed his eyes and took a breath, feeling the guilt and the anger wash through him like salt water. He had been there, but it shouldn’t have made a difference. Anders was strong. Strong enough to control Justice… strong enough to make it out of the Gallows alive. He had to have been.

“You need that hand seeing to,” Selby announced, as Tobias opened his eyes. The world swam around him briefly, made dull and grainy by fatigue. He frowned, glancing down at his burned palm as if it had nothing to do with him. She cocked one thin, grey brow. “Anywhere else?”

He started to say that he was fine, but she gave him a look that brooked no resistance, so he admitted to the couple of scratches he’d accrued. Selby nodded, as if he’d somehow proved her right, and pushed up her sleeves, passing Alrik’s wallet to Gethyn.

“Sit down. And take that thing off. Jarrod, fetch us a clean cloth and some woundwort ointment, would you? Gethyn, look in there for anything we can use, and see how much coin that is. Mina, love… there’s more blankets in the chest. I ’spect you ladies’ll want to rest now, won’t you?”

And, with that, Selby took charge, the mistress of her domain. As Tobias stripped reluctantly to the waist and sat in front of the fire, letting her patch up the narrow wound on his back and spread some foul-smelling balm on his burned hand, he considered just how like her Anders was when he was in the clinic. Had he learned it from her, this calm efficiency? Did she use it to mask the same inner turmoil as he did?

He winced at the cold bite of ointment and cloth on his sore, tender places, and tried to stop thinking about Anders being caught by templars, or trapped under the Gallows, succumbing to the corruption that lingered in the stones the same way poor Willen had.

“I reckon Anders got out,” Jarrod said, knocking back a half-mug of the same grog as Ranulf was drinking. He glanced at Tobias, his expression one of total fatigue, threaded through with bitter disillusion. “I bet he did, and I’ll bet he’s back at the clinic now. That’s where he’d go, innit? You should probably track him down, Hawke. Make sure that… thing… hasn’t got the best of him.”

“He’s not a—” Tobias began, the words tripping mechanically from his tongue, but Jarrod cut across him.

“’Course,” he said, shaking his head as if speculating on a sudden realisation, “if that happened, we’d know about it, wouldn’t we? Power that mad sod’s got in him… he’d take half the Undercity out if he went.”

Tobias swallowed heavily, wincing as Selby’s tough, thin fingers jabbed at his flesh, securing a knot in the bandage that would around his waist. “He’s not mad.”

“Yeah, he is.” Jarrod snorted dismissively, and gave another weary shake of his head. “But he’s never been a liability before now. His control… it’s going. And, one day, it’ll be gone completely.”

“You shut your mouth,” Selby snapped, straightening up and tossing Tobias’ jerkin back to him. “You got no idea what you’re talking about, Jarrod.”

The mage shrugged. He glanced at Tobias, his cowl loose and his face devoid of judgement, and drained the rest of his cup in a single swallow. “You should find him, Hawke. He’ll need you.”

Busy with the straps and buckles of his jack, Tobias opened his mouth, but there were no words on his tongue. He looked from Jarrod to Selby, but she’d turned away from him, moving to read over Gethyn’s shoulder. Mina had taken the women upstairs to claim bunks and blankets, and Ranulf was still sitting before the fire, snoring gently through his beard.

“I….”

Tobias faltered once more. He wanted to believe that so much… to believe that he’d go to the clinic, and find Anders there like he was all the time, and that it would be all right somehow. He wanted to believe that he’d be greeted with open arms… that what he’d done within the Gallows’ dark stone walls made everything a little better and a little brighter… but that wasn’t true.

Everything was so complicated, and he was so fucking tired.

He fastened the last of the buckles and stood, brushing himself down with his one good hand.

“I’m gonna go and try to find him,” he said, avoiding the eyes of the other mages. “I’ll try the clinic… if he’s not there, I can speak to Tomwise and Allyn, and the other tunnel rats. I’m sure he’s fine. Let me know if there’s anything… well, you know.”

He gestured vaguely, and Selby nodded.

“Be careful,” she said, and that was really the only farewell Tobias got before he let himself back out into the embrace of Lowtown’s night air.

He didn’t mind. Not really. He was fairly sure he was never going to feel like he belonged among the Underground.

Although, the occasional comforting lie might have been nice.

~o~O~o~

It was good to be topside again, he had to admit. Kirkwall’s air wasn’t exactly fresh, though at least the breeze that came in off the water cut through the worst of the stink.

The darkest part of the night had worn away, though Tobias reckoned there were still a good few hours until dawn. Stars pierced the sky, and the bent sickle of the moon had slipped beneath the silhouettes of towers and walls that made up the city’s stark, grim outline.

He stole a cloak from the washing line behind some poky little poulterer’s yard, wrapping the coarse brown fabric over his shoulders both in defence against the air’s chill, and to disguise the amount of blood that still covered him. Fair enough, Darktown didn’t really care about bloodstains, but Tobias had no wish to actually look any more suspicious than was necessary.

He wanted to keep everything as calm as possible when he caught up with Anders, too… because he had to believe he would. Had to believe he’d got out, and that he was all right.

And yet, as Tobias headed down to the Undercity, every shadow seemed to hold the breaths of memory in it; the echoes of dying templars, and the fear that had swelled in him as Justice rampaged in blood.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen Anders kill anyone before… they had both dealt their share of death and, Maker knew, there had been times Tobias had found the blood-pumping thrill of combat more of an aphrodisiac than he liked to admit. He remembered fighting bandits on the coast, watching Anders strike men down with fire, sparks, and ice, and being so caught up in the action that he’d ended the battle with a bloody nose and breeches so tight it felt like his balls would drop off. He was uncomfortably aware of the dubious moral connotations of those reactions… but what had happened under the Gallows was a whole new level of bloodshed.

Tobias didn’t want to believe what Jarrod had said. He didn’t want to believe it might be true: that Anders was slipping, and a little more of him was being eroded every day, until all that was left would be Vengeance… warping him, and warping Justice. He didn’t believe it, he told himself. It had been the templars, the atmosphere of the fortress—and who hadn’t been affected by it? Tobias had felt himself: that thinning of the Veil that came with blood and death. How many mages had died down there? How many had been tortured until their minds broke, driven to the arms of demons, like Willen, or made too weak to resist Tranquillity… like Karl.

He wondered how much Karl had factored into Anders’ rage at Alrik. He’d sworn to kill the man once before, after all; maybe he’d simply been waiting for an opportunity like the one tonight had provided.

Maybe he planned it.

Tobias shook his head as he picked his way down the old barracks stairway, slipping into the dank shadows of the Undercity, and trying to leave thoughts like those behind him.

No… Anders hadn’t planned it. He’d barely been hanging onto enough control to stop himself decapitating Ella, much less been able to stick to any kind of rationale. It had been blind rage—the most dangerous kind of anger—and, while that couldn’t be dismissed, given everything that he was, and everything of which he was capable, it didn’t make him a sly, canny murderer. Sure, he’d probably revelled in Alrik’s death, but everything that had happened was a demonstration of the loss of control… not the welcome embracing of carnage.

The more he told himself those things, the more Tobias believed them and, as Darktown wrapped its familiar stench of rot and piss and filth around him, he moved grimly through the tunnels, determined to find the healer.

It was quiet. Most of the people huddled against the walls of the tunnels stayed there, either ignoring him or pretending to do so and, as he slipped from the wider routes to the ill-lit, narrow runs, Tobias quickened his pace.

A couple of dwarves—casteless, by their brands, and ex-Carta, by their dark leather armour, which bore the mark of the Red Spire gang—peeled out of one the alcoves and started following him as he got about halfway to the clinic. Tobias sighed laboriously, the sound of his breath echoing through the dimness. A very few torches lit the walls, and a little third-hand moonlight seeped through some of the grates and vents that pocked the tunnels, giving the whole place a dappled, streaked kind of light… as if, down here, not even the darkness was clean.

“Don’t,” he said, slowing to a halt and listening to the sound of not-quite-footsteps behind him: the sound made by people trying too hard to be quiet. “Really. It’d be better for everyone if you didn’t.”

“Gi’s yer purse,” one of the dwarves grated. “Or Nurn here’ll gut ya like a nug.”

Tobias groaned and turned around slowly, drawing his knife. The burns on his left hand still hurt, his back ached from the glancing blow of the templar dagger, and he really didn’t need this. The dwarves’ faces leered hungrily at him from the gloom, greasy, sallow features capped by unwashed braided hair. Their eyes glinted with greedy hunger… and just ordinary hunger, because most of Darktown was hungry, especially at this time of year.

“Look,” he began, letting the thin threads of light glint on his blade, and reaching down deep inside himself for the last reserves of magic, hoping fervently that he had something—anything—left. “I don’t have any coin. You can either believe that, or believe that I will make the next five minutes very unpleasant for you both, if you don’t back off. Understand?”

One of the dwarves curled his lip and started saying something about cocky surfacers, but the other’s expression changed immediately, concern replacing the challenge in his eyes.

“Oh, sod. Hey, Dank… leave him. Let’s just… let’s not, all right?”

The first dwarf looked annoyed at the interruption, but his companion tugged urgently at his arm, and muttered into his ear. Tobias did his best to maintain an intimidating posture, despite the pain screaming in his muscles, and the fact he was frighteningly aware that there was no way he could possibly even dredge up the limpest of fireballs. He had nothing left at all, and this would go badly if they attacked. Very badly indeed.

He held his breath, and picked out the word ‘dragon’ from the dwarf’s mumbling. Apparently, Varric’s stories were already spreading. He was Hawke, the Dragonslayer, and he would have been surprised if, by now, the dragon hadn’t been eighty feet long and had six heads. He tried not to laugh, though the relief that burst through him when the thugs stood down was irrepressible.

The first dwarf grimaced and, with a comment about not wasting time on lousy topsiders, allowed his friend to defuse the standoff. Tobias held his ground until they melted back into the tunnels, and then he let out a long breath, sheathing his dagger again.

Bloody Varric… I owe that dwarf a drink.

Tobias wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, and set off through the tunnels again.

~o~O~o~

The lantern burned above the clinic’s door, though its dim, yellowish light seemed deceitful and cruel. There was no comfort here, no security. The healer was decidedly not in, either, as Tobias discovered after rapping on the locked door and, finally, rousing a sleepy-looking and very confused Saryha.

She got worried when he explained that he was looking for Anders, though her worry was overlaid with a veneer of snippiness: she didn’t seem pleased about being left with the overnight patients, though Tobias suspected she was managing quite well. For all the culture shock that she’d experienced in being transported from the bookish quiet of the Circle’s library to the mess and chaos of the clinic, she was proving to have immense strength of character… and she didn’t shy from cleaning up piss, either.

He promised that, as soon as he found Anders, he’d make sure he came down here to relieve her, and he assured her that, no, everything was fine. It was a blatant lie, but what else was he supposed to say without worrying her unnecessarily?

She shut and barred the doors again, and Tobias stood in the light of the lantern, fatigue pulling at him with a thousand weighted tongues, wondering where in the Maker’s name Anders would have run.

Unless he never ran. Unless they got him… no. No, can’t think like that. He must have got out. Must have done….

He headed down one of the tunnels that led in the general direction of the docks. There had been some flooding here earlier in the year, and part of the wall had slipped, crumbling in a mess of mud and rotted mortar. It had been shored up with supports and boards, and a few of the timbers had symbols carved into them: dwarven runes, Tobias noted, most of which seemed to be graffiti in varying degrees of profanity, along with the old Kirkwall Rebels’ mark, daubed in cracked and muddy red paint. He wasn’t sure what it meant. The symbol had lost most of its original meaning in the city, but maybe some gang or other had claimed it… probably one of the loosely termed militias that wanted to drive mages out and reclaim Thedas for so-called ‘normal’ people. You heard them spouting their claptrap in the market sometimes: magic was corruption, and not even the Chantry could control it. He agreed about that last part—Maker’s balls, Anders would have agreed too; you didn’t have to be a Resolutionist to see that the templars couldn’t keep a lid on every last mage, or that their iron fist was half the problem—but the whole idea of trying to get rid of magic was ridiculous. It was like trying to ban wind. Magic was a part of life, a part of the fabric of the world… and the sooner more people understand that the way mages understood it, Tobias thought, the sooner they might stop viewing them as monsters.

The tunnel was getting dark. He ignored the familiar tug of fear that this sparked within him—ever since the Deep Roads, it had been hard to abide the unbroken shadows—and pushed on, trying to coax a glimmer of magelight from his fingers. It hurt, which was unusual: normally, it was just a swelling of warmth from his fingertips, but Tobias had pushed himself so far that even this simple spell stung, like salt rubbed across dry, abraded skin.

He winced, and swore to himself as his little ball of anaemic light wavered, and then went out.

I need sleep. Just… sleep. For about a month.

Tobias shook out his sore fingers, holding his breath as he strained his ears against the dim quiet. There was someone there, but was it Anders, or just another tunnel rat? He edged further past the remnants of the flood debris and subsequent slippage. It seemed like somewhere Anders would go, if he didn’t trust himself to go back to the clinic. He’d run to his bolthole—to the security of these tunnels, despite their hated darkness—but he’d hide himself away from people… and there were no rough sleepers here, no huddles of the destitute and dispossessed.

Either that, or he’s gone to the docks and he’s already on a boat to Rivain.

The thought struck Tobias coldly. Would he have the money for that? Would he really do it? He wasn’t sure but, if it did prove true, he knew he was quite prepared to track the bloody man across the entire sodding world. That knowledge, bare and unmistakeable in his head, both shamed and irritated him, but he couldn’t deny it.

Tobias wet his lower lip with an uncertain tongue, fingers hovering over the hilt of his dagger. “Anders?”

Something scuffled in the shadows. Tobias pushed his senses against the darkness, and felt something so familiar that it poured through him like silvered rain. Relief almost overwhelmed him: Anders was alive. He couldn’t feel much—his tiredness obliterated most of his awareness, like having his head stuffed with rags and his nerves bound beneath thick leather—but it was there all the same… that sharp, bright, metallic power, shimmering like a hundred tiny lights sparkling on glass.

He’d never realised it before but, beneath the sheer strength of it, Anders’ power felt so fragile. Brittle, almost.

Tobias pulled another orb of light from the air, gritting his teeth against the ache it engendered in his flesh, and let the pale little ball wobble uncertainly on his fingers as he moved through the last few feet of the tunnel.

It came to a dead end in a slide of mud and rock, evidently the remnants of an older slippage, and it was this into that Anders was huddled, curled into a ball and turning away from the feeble light that hovered over Tobias’ hand.

Templar blood still marked his coat, his face, hair, and hands, and his skin was smeared with dirt and soot. He winced, shielding his face with his hand, fingers spread and palm out towards Tobias, who fought the urge to flinch at the gesture. It was a little too easy to recall what those hands had so recently done… and exactly what Anders was capable of.

“Go away, Hawke.”

His voice sounded thin and weak, as much fatigue weighting the words as Tobias felt in himself. He drew to a halt a few feet in front of the healer, gazing down at him wearily, and tried to will his heart not to break.

“No.”

Anders let out a terse, irritated huff of breath, refusing to look him in the face. He hunched his knees up further, curled in on himself with his side pressed to the muddy rocks.

“Anders….” Tobias began, really not sure where to go from there. He knew that nothing he could say could give the man back what he’d had before Justice; nothing he could do could replace the loss of control, the mastery of himself that was slipping away from him, opening him up to such terrible, violent vulnerability. He sighed, and crouched down in front of the healer, still allowing him his distance, the way one might approach a strange dog. “Look… you can’t stay out here. Come on. Come back to the clinic, at least. Selby’s worried.”

Recognition of that name tightened Anders’ face, but he closed his eyes and shook his head.

“I can’t. It’s not safe. I can’t be around people. I—”

Tobias frowned. “The girl’s fine. Her name’s Ella. She got out, with the others, and we took them all to Selby’s. She’ll see ’em right,” he added, thinking maybe the part about Willen becoming an abomination wasn’t worth mentioning. “You saved her.”

Anders scoffed dryly, though the sound was a pale, thin scrape across the air, and the weight of despair hung heavily in his throat. “Saved her? I nearly killed her. I came so close! I nearly—” He broke off and sniffed wetly, turning red-rimmed eyes to the rough-hewn roof of the tunnel. “It’s all gone wrong,” he said, with an oddly resigned kind of bitterness, though he still didn’t meet Tobias’ eye. “Justice and I… we’re a monster, same as any abomination.”

Tobias winced, stung by those words as if they were something physical, some palpable barb or thorn embedded in his skin. Anders looked as if he was going to cry, all the pieces of himself strung together by ever-loosening threads, his every breath traced with despair.

“No,” Tobias protested, shaking his head, and surprised to find anger burning in his chest, along with the pain of empathy and that deep, physical ache that Anders somehow always managed to raise in him, just by the very fact of his presence, and his being so completely bloody impossible. “No, don’t say that….”

“Why not? It’s true.”

The tunnel’s dimness, and the weakness of the light Tobias had conjured, made the shadows seem like live things, thronging his face and painting hollows and valleys into his dirty, pallid skin. Those dark eyes were voids in wide, inky sockets, and Tobias struggled to reconcile the thin, broken man before him with the creature of fury and vengeance that had ripped Alrik’s throat apart. He couldn’t, he decided. They weren’t the same. It was ‘he’ and ‘I’, not ‘we’. And yet, as he crawled across the tunnel’s filthy floor—stones and half-rotted splinters of wood digging into the knees of leather breeches—to grab Anders by the arms, forcibly dragging him into an upright sitting position by the sleeves of that appalling coat, Tobias couldn’t avoid seeing the blood on his hands and face. He smelled of grime and death, and his ridiculous feathered pauldrons were matted and clumped, his whole body apparently little more than bones and rags.

“It isn’t,” he said, and though he wanted to sound forceful enough to banish all this angst and fear from Anders’ face, he knew he wasn’t. The words came out in a small, frightened breath, and Tobias suspected they sounded more like a plea than a refutation.

It wasn’t true. It wasn’t… all right, so Justice was capable of terrible things. Vengeance, unchained, was a dreadful creature… but Anders was still there. He was still fighting for control, still capable of it, and that had to mean something. It did mean something. It meant everything.

Anders flexed against his grasp, head tilting away from him as Tobias tightened his hold, forcing him to look, forcing the eye contact that he seemed so desperate to avoid. “All right, so you were out of control, but—”

“No.” Anders resisted, trying first to pull his wrist away, then turning his head. His mouth twisted, the words coming out thin and tight. “You have too much faith in me. I almost—”

“But you didn’t.” Tobias shook him, hard, and made Anders look back at him, despite the raw ache that those dark eyes raised in him. “You heard what I was saying and you knew, in your heart, that you had to stop. And you did.”

He wanted to shout, shake some sense into that broken, hurting head, but he kept his voice low, kept the words trimmed to calm, stern tones. It seemed to help. Anders’ face grew slightly less taut, as if he was listening instead of just shrinking away from the sound of another human voice, but the tension in his body didn’t lessen.

“You were the only thing that kept me from murdering an innocent girl,” he murmured mournfully, his gaze slowly tracking Tobias’ face, both of them cloaked by the shadows and barely lit by that weak ball of fading light. “Without you, I’d never have known who was there until it was too late.”

Tobias loosened his grip on the healer’s arms, suddenly uncomfortably aware of how hard he’d been holding on… and aware of this new, dark thing that bound them. Gratitude and resentment seemed to be warring in Anders’ eyes, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with either.

“Anders, you’d never have—”

“Yes. I would. I could have… and I nearly did. Very nearly.”

Tobias’ fingers flexed against the worn sleeves of Anders’ coat, the fabric rough beneath his fingertips. He winced at the scrape of it against his burned palm, but shook his head. It didn’t seem possible that so much destruction—so much death, so much cruelty, so much raw, terrible power—could lie within this man, and yet Tobias felt it. He felt it in every breath, every heartbeat… every pore of his skin, drinking it in like bitter gall.

“You didn’t, though,” he repeated, drawing his hands away, reluctantly relinquishing his grasp on the man. “You didn’t.”

Anders lowered his gaze, frowning, and then he reached out and, so slowly, took hold of Tobias’ injured hand. His mouth bowed downward as his fingers moved gently, deftly, over the burns.

“I did this, didn’t I?”

Tobias swallowed heavily, unable to speak. He didn’t want to say yes, because that was admitting, underlining, all of Anders’ destructive potential… but it was true. It was just as true as the fact that, even now, even when both of them were squatting in this filthy tunnel, covered in blood and the smell of death, Anders’ touch set his skin alight.

He tried to pull away, to disguise the severity of the burns, but it was Anders’ turn to hold on, refusing to let go. Tobias smiled weakly. Typical, he thought: so much of the time they’d known each other had been about both of them being too bloody stubborn. Too stubborn to let go, and too stubborn to move away. He watched those long, dirty fingers—the beds of Anders’ nails ingrained with the reddish-brown of templars’ blood, and streaks of pink and red marring the pale skin—move over his flesh, but there was no pulse of healing magic, no soothing glow of light.

The healer was ostensibly still looking at their hands—that ballet of touch and withdrawal, insistence and refusal—and he shook his head slowly. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and quiet, little more than a choked whisper.

“How can I fight for the freedom of mages, when I am the example of the worst that freedom brings?”

Tobias winced. His chest ached dully, as if his heart could fold itself in two; screw itself up like a paper ball, just to get away from this man and his impossible words.

What choice have you ever made that was the choice of a free man, love?

It didn’t seem fair. Everything Anders had ever done—merging with Justice, burying himself in the slops of Darktown—it was all for them. All for the mages, and the cause, and the fight… and now he felt guilty for failing them?

Tobias drew in a deep breath, and shrugged.

“Well,” he said, forcing a dry, arch sarcasm into the words. “You are everything that good little apprentices are taught to fear, as I understand it. Maybe you could travel. Give lectures?”

Anders glanced up, his eyes dull and his chin dimpled, though there was recognition buried deep in his gaze. Tobias sighed.

“All right… you’re right. Mages are dangerous. We can be. You just have to make yourself the proof that we can control our powers.”

And, oh, put like that, didn’t it sound simple?

Anders’ chin dimpled further, his lips moulding into one crumpled line. “I don’t know how,” he whispered, his eyes turning wide and dark in a face drawn to pale, papery distance. “I… I don’t….” He trailed off, shaking his head again, Tobias’ hand finally falling from his fingers. “What if I can’t? What if I hurt someone? I-I can’t heal anymore. Not like this. What if—”

He was beginning to fall away, losing himself in the flight of those thoughts and the bloody spiral of his fear. Tobias cursed inwardly, trying to find a way to break through the fixation, to get his attention again, but the healer’s expression had grown glassy and distant.

“Fenris was right,” Anders murmured. “I’m better off dead. If I died, everyone would be safer, wouldn’t they?”

“Stop it.” Tobias scowled. “Anders… stop it.”

I am going to gut that fucking elf. I’m going to cut the lyrium out of his skin and make him bloody eat it….

“It’s true,” the healer maintained. “I wouldn’t… we wouldn’t be a danger. A-and it might be Justice who rose from my corpse, mightn’t it? My friend, and not that… that creature of vengeance. That would be—”

Tobias shook his head, desperately trying to brush the words away like they didn’t matter, like he could pretend they were meaningless. “Bullshit. Come on… enough. You need to get back to the clinic. All right?”

Anders blinked owlishly, giving him a wide, pupilless stare that, in the gloom, seemed both unearthly and strangely hypnotic.

“I can’t do this,” he whispered.

“You can,” Tobias said, his gaze tracing the tendrils of dishevelled, dirty blond hair that, partially escaped from their bindings, had fallen to frame the healer’s gaunt, bleak face. “You’ve already proved that much.”

Anders looked at him for a moment in the weak, wavering light that barely seemed to hold the shadows back.

“Help me?” he mouthed, the words almost inaudible against the darkness.

Tobias felt himself crumble from the inside out, barely able to breathe through the rushing in his ears. The weight of uncried tears pulled at the bridge of his nose, and he hurt for Anders—hurt in a way he never had before, not even when he’d watched Bethany die, or Malcolm retreat into the grim fall of illness.

“Always,” he managed, choking out a whisper as Anders lowered his head, his shoulders convulsing with a poorly disguised sob.

Oh, Maker, don’t… don’t start that. You’ll set me off.

“Come on,” he murmured, taking hold of Anders’ elbow and trying to get both of them up off the filthy floor of the tunnel. “You need to rest. Sleep.”

Anders shook his head, resisting with the petulance of a frightened child.

“No. Not… I can’t let go again. I-I can’t….”

Tobias wrinkled his nose, pretending he couldn’t see the gleam of wetness on those thin cheeks. “Well, all right. But you still need a bath and a fresh shirt. Come on. Up!”

That firmer tone seemed to work. He half-coaxed, half-dragged Anders to his feet, wincing afresh at the aching throb of his own battle scars, and catching his breath when the healer seemed so desperate to be near him.

“Hawke,” Anders murmured, the word somewhere between a question and a plea, his hand resting on the buckles at the front of Tobias’ jerkin.

It was hard to tell whether he was just trying to hold himself upright, or if the way his body inclined closer spoke of a need to be held, comforted… and all those other things that Tobias wanted so bloody badly, and yet knew he couldn’t take. Not now, anyway. It would have been taking advantage, and he wasn’t about to do that to Anders. Certainly not in the state he was in tonight.

“Come on,” he said softly, taking hold of the upper part of Anders’ sleeve, and squeezing the arm that lay beneath the stiff, blood-spattered fabric. “Let’s get you back.”

Anders nodded, but he seemed unfocused, as if the sharp edge of his self-loathing and anguish was suddenly blunted, the fire falling from him to leave him bare to the unadulterated, crushing exhaustion he must be feeling. Tobias smiled mirthlessly: he could understand that.

He propelled the healer back through the tunnels, grabbing his arm every time he stumbled, and trying not to trip over himself. They were, he decided, probably a horribly comical pair… both staggering along like drunks, weary and covered in blood, with the pathetic little orb of his magelight fizzing about their heads like a fly. He never quite managed to let go of Anders’ coat and, from time to time, the healer muttered small protestations. Tobias wasn’t sure if they were directed at him or Justice but, as they picked their way through the darkness, back to the better-lit runs and the lantern that burned above the clinic’s doors, he grew almost used to Anders’ mumbling.

They stopped outside the doors, and Anders caught hold of his wrist just before Tobias rapped on the peeling wood. Under the yellowish light of the lantern he looked slightly less ghoulish, slightly less inhuman, but the full extent of what he’d done to himself was apparent. The skin beneath his eyes was puffy and bruised with tiredness, and lines seemed etched into his cheeks and forehead, as if he was still seeing the bodies of the men he’d slain in front of him. He probably was, Tobias supposed, and he wasn’t entirely sure whether—when one of those men had been Alrik—it was worth feeling guilty over at all. He didn’t know anymore; all he knew was the beat of his own fatigue, thudding inside him as if every heartbeat was an effort. Anders’ fingers scraped the soft skin on the underside of his wrist, but even that didn’t seem quite real.

“I don’t deserve this,” Anders murmured, looking at him with haunted, bloodshot eyes. “Everything you’ve done…. I have no right to ask—”

“Bollocks.”

Tobias was dimly aware that, perhaps, this was not the height of tender declarations of support and friendship. He didn’t care, however. He was too tired, and scraped too raw by all the hurt in those dark eyes. He pulled his wrist from Anders’ grasp and squeezed the healer’s fingers, hoping that—somehow—that small gesture might carry with it at least a few of the things he couldn’t say.

He knew it wouldn’t be enough, but at least it was something and, for once, Anders didn’t even resist. His lips parted slightly, and his gaze wavered for a fraction of a moment before he swallowed hard, his throat bobbing uncertainly.

“W— Will you stay with me? Please. I… I don’t want to be on my own. I—”

“Stay?” Tobias echoed. “Tonight?”

“Just for a while,” Anders pleaded. “There’s plenty of beds. I just— I don’t want… I mean, I… can’t…. Please. I just don’t want to be left on my own. I know Saryha’s there, but— but she doesn’t understand. Please?”

Oh, Maker….

“Of course I’ll stay.”

Anders’ eyes softened, relief and tiredness pooling on the healer’s face. Tobias stifled a sigh, torn between frustration and the deep, aching need to—somehow, Maker only knew how—protect this man, and soothe away all the fear and pain.

“Thank you,” Anders murmured, and he practically sagged on his feet, so much of that tight-wound frustration and panic sluicing out of him.

~o~O~o~

Saryha didn’t seem to have gone back to sleep since Tobias had knocked last time. She let them in, clasping her hands over her mouth at the state Anders was in, though she’d already set one of the fires and started heating some water. Her practicality was welcome… unlike the stares of a few of the elderly patients, who were waking to the commotion as Tobias dragged his friend into the clinic.

“You see to them,” Tobias told the girl. “I’ll look after him. He just needs to rest. It’s fine. Really, it’s— everything’s fine.”

She gave him a disbelieving look, but didn’t linger to argue. Tobias impelled Anders towards the ragged curtain at the back of the clinic that marked off his little scrape, ignoring the murmured protests about him really being all right.

“Yeah, yeah. Come on,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “Let’s get you settled. You need to sleep.”

This time, Anders didn’t even try to argue.

His little rat-hole was much the same as Tobias remembered it: wonky chair with a broken leg, narrow little pallet with a few blankets and stack of books on the upturned crate beside it; a trunk with sheaves of paper upon it, and an ink well and quills, along with a jar of sand and a pen-knife, wrapped in a small square of sacking. It wasn’t much, but it was Anders’ private space, and it was heavy with the sense of his presence. The scent, the feel of him seemed to linger on the air, and Tobias tried his hardest to ignore it.

He peeled the evil-smelling coat off the healer, who remained limp and pliant, and apparently only partially conscious. It was as if Tobias’ promise to stay—to watch over him, and make sure everything remained safe—had flipped a trigger somewhere, cutting off the flow of all that terror and panic, and leaving room for the fatigue to knock him flat.

Beneath the coat, Anders wore a heavy linen shirt, which had escaped the worse of the blood spatter, apart from at the front. His vast array of pouches and vials hung from a heavy belt around his hips, which was easily removed, although Tobias had to step nearer to do it. He moved close behind Anders, reaching around him to unclip the wide buckle, and carefully drawing the belt away. They really were terribly close, he noted, and the healer’s scent—that rumpled, well-worn tiredness, tinged with smoke and sweat, beneath the grime and the blood—reached out and tugged at Tobias. He inhaled deeply, and folded the coat and the belt across his arm, his free hand moving irresistibly to Anders’ shoulders. Tobias felt the warmth of his flesh through his shirt, and the tension that knotted his muscles. He pressed lightly, digging his fingers into one solid shoulder, the action partway between a caress and gentle guide. Anders was more lightly built than him, but Maker… every last little part of him was sinew and muscle, so tough it was as if he’d been fashioned out of bone instead of flesh.

If he bent his head now, leaned just that little bit further forwards, Tobias knew he could press his lips to the back of Anders’ neck. He’d thought about it so many times: thought about tasting the spice and the sweat of his skin, losing himself in the smell of his hair, and how everything would be so warm and enveloping…. He’d never thought it be quite like this, though. He’d never thought there’d be all the dried blood, and the mud, and the rime of old fear, and he knew he mustn’t do it, however much he wanted to, or however much it felt like Anders needed human contact.

Tobias fought for breath as Anders relaxed under his touch. A soft ‘oh’ left the healer’s lips—barely more than a sleepy mumble as he allowed himself to be propelled towards the pallet—and it was almost too much to bear.

Anders hit the cot with a thump, and from the look on his face he’d just blanked out completely. Tobias supposed that was for the best. He knelt down and unlaced those heavy, slouchy boots, tugging them off one by one to reveal a grubby pair of socks. Anders’ big toe poked through a hole in the left one, and—for some reason—the sight of that made Tobias’ chest clench around a blade of pure agony. It was so stupidly typical of him, wasn’t it? To give everything he had of himself… and yet not even darn his own bloody socks.

Tobias choked all the things he wanted to say—all the things he wanted to feel—down into a ball at the pit of his gut, and bodily lifted Anders’ legs up onto the pallet. He winced as his back twinged and his hand complained, then shook out the blanket that lay folded at the end of the bed and covered the prone body before him over. Anders had already lolled onto his side and seemed to be barely conscious. Whether it was true sleep or just sheer exhaustion was a different matter, Tobias supposed.

He allowed the backs of his fingers to rest for a brief moment against one stubbled cheek, and told himself it was to see if the skin felt hot to the touch. It didn’t. He stroked Anders’ jaw softly, and then dragged himself away, out into the cool breadth of the clinic, his head spinning and his legs trying to give out beneath him.

You need to rest, Hawke. Sit down, before you fall down. And stop being such a bloody fool.

Tobias breathed deeply, his head full of The Gallows and its stinking undercrofts, and the wide, terrified eyes of a screaming girl. Alrik…. Well, Alrik was dead, and seven kinds of shit were probably going to spill out of that sack in the morning.

It occurred to him, as Saryha came over with a bowl of hot water, a blanket and a washcloth, and wordlessly took the bloodstained coat from his grasp, that Darktown probably wasn’t going to be safe for Anders anymore. He was too well-known around the city—the Fereldan apostate who lived in the sewers—and, whether the templars pinned Alrik’s death on him or not, every mage, potential mage, or potential apostate sympathiser was going to have a hard time once the order started seeking revenge.

Maker… Kirkwall itself probably won’t be safe. Not for any of us, if Meredith really gets the bit between her teeth. Shit….

Tobias washed his hands and face gingerly—he’d had a chance to clean up a bit at Selby’s, but it was going to take a scalding hot bath and an hour’s worth of scrubbing before he felt like half the grime was off him—and thought fuzzily of what he ought to do.

There was no easy answer, and certainly no solution he knew he could convince Anders of, so he took the blanket and made his way back to the healer’s little nest.

He was snoring softly, but that was all right, because it proved he was still alive, and not actively being consumed by demons. That meant Justice was still in there, Tobias supposed: damped down and under control, until the next time he broke out, splintering a little more of Anders into pieces as he went.

Tobias wrapped himself in the blanket and settled down at the foot of the narrow pallet, with his back against the wooden wall. It wasn’t comfortable, but he was too tired to care, and he didn’t much like the idea of sleeping on the cots in the clinic. Call it Fereldan superstition, but too many people had died on them. Besides… he wasn’t about to leave Anders’ side. Not tonight.

He fell asleep on those words, bone-heavy fatigue rocking him with its cold, dull fingers. Even so, Tobias’ sleep was fitful. He dozed in bouts of shallow, unsatisfying sleep and kept waking, listening for Anders’ voice, or any odd noises that shouldn’t be there.

He expected nightmares, or wakefulness, only there was nothing. For all Anders’ protestations about not wanting to sleep and potentially relinquish control, he seemed fine. Once, Tobias craned up to peep at the bed and make sure the healer was still breathing, only to find him stretched out on his back, hair tousled and tangled and face lightly flushed, one hand thrown decorously above his head and drooping off the edge of the pallet. The other was clenched in the blanket, which he’d managed to throw half-off, and the trousers and shirt Tobias had left him in were rumpled… even the socks were working their way off.

He knew he looked for longer than he should have, prurient though it felt. All the same, he didn’t dare get up. Didn’t dare scoop up Anders’ extremities and tuck them back into bed, or touch him while he listened to the soft rhythm of his breathing.

Tobias hugged the blanket tighter around himself, trying to trap the warmth between it and his stolen cloak, and wished for sleep. He didn’t remember it coming, but when he awoke again the light was stained a dirty sort of yellow-grey, and he guessed it must be past dawn.

He stifled a yawn and screwed his face up in defence against the comparative brightness—not that Darktown ever got more than third-hand daylight anyway… which meant someone must have been up to light a few candles.

Which meant—

Tobias blinked. Anders was not in his bed. The blanket had been pulled across it, and a bowl of water that smelled faintly of soap stood on the crate beside the pallet. On closer inspection, he saw that it contained yesterday’s bloodstained shirt, which had apparently been treated with some sort of greenish herb, rubbed into all the spatters before being left to soak.

Huh.

Tobias peeled the blanket off himself, groaning and wincing as his stiff, cramped muscles protested any and all forms of movement, and folded the thing before he left it on the foot of the bed.

He limped into the clinic, bleary-eyed and with furry teeth and throbbing head—worse than any bloody hangover, he thought, ruefully contemplating the fact that, usually, feeling this bad was at least preceded by some form of pleasurable indulgence—and squinted at the rows of beds and tables.

The fires were up, bubbling coppers full of linens and the day’s first batch of herbs, and Saryha was bustling along the line of bed-ridden patients, handing out dishes of what looked and smelled suspiciously like oatmeal. Tobias’ gut flipped, despite the fact he knew he needed to eat. Food seemed like a horror beyond all description, and the only thing he really wanted was a hot bath and another, softer place to sleep.

“Good morning,” Anders said, causing him to turn, halfway through the act of scrubbing at his face with the heel of his palm.

He looked… better. He wore a clean shirt and trousers, his hair damp and slicked back, his skin pink with scrubbing and a drying cloth still in his hands, evidently from his recent bath.

The tiredness still lingered in his face, of course. That, and everything else that had been there last night—the fear, the horror, the guilt and pain—but it was lessened, the way the morning can wipe away the terror that hides in the night’s smallest, cruellest hours.

“How are—”

“I’m fine,” Anders said crisply, although without much emphasis. His eyes seemed guarded, but he looked hard into Tobias’ face, and Tobias wished he knew what he was searching for there.

“Good,” he said meekly. He didn’t believe it, but at least Anders was up to lying again, instead of having his every vulnerability laid as bare as it had been last night.

“Thanks for staying, Hawke. For… for everything.”

The words were barely a murmur, but they felt honest.

“Not a problem. Are you sure you’re—?”

“Yes.”

“Mm-hm.” Tobias peered at him sceptically. “Will you be all right?”

Anders shrugged and glanced around the clinic. “I’ll have to be, won’t I? People’ll start showing up soon, and I can’t just—”

“Bugger them. Bugger everybody. Will you be all right? I mean it. Last night, you… you had me worried,” Tobias admitted, lowering his voice. “Not because of what happened. Some of the things you said….”

“I’m all right,” Anders repeated patiently. “Really. It could have been a lot worse. It’s… I mean, it’s thanks to you that it wasn’t.”

Tobias frowned. He didn’t want gratitude. “But—”

Anders shook his head, tossing the towel into a hamper and moving to a nearby chair to pick up his coat, which—Tobias assumed—Saryha had worked a minor miracle on. There were damp spots on it, but it had been meticulously cleaned, and barely any bloodstains were visible at all. A strong waft of elfroot, peppermint, and Old Maid’s Ease drifted over to tickle his nose, and Tobias watched Anders belting the coat around himself, fingers moving deftly over the collar, turning up and adjusting the worn fabric’s rough edges.

It was like armour for him, Tobias supposed: his defence against the day, and the hordes of patients who would soon be arriving.

“You’ll let Selby know you’re all right, won’t you?” he said, his voice a little croaky from the roughness in his throat.

Anders smiled mildly. “Mm-hm. I’ll go and see her later. You should probably go and get some rest. I do it mean it, though,” he added, those dark eyes rising to meet Tobias’, and holding a bruised, tentative warmth in them that made his stomach clench. “Thank you.”

His smile softened a bit at the edges and, before Tobias had time to protest, he found himself being hugged.

It was a sudden, awkward, wonderful thing: his arms were full of Anders, and he felt just as warm and smelled just as good as he did every time this happened in Tobias’ mind… and that gave rise to the horrible feeling he might actually be dreaming. His arms clenched convulsively around the man, his face pressed fiercely to the faintly damp, feathered ruffs of the appalling coat, and Tobias inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of herbs and soot and spice, as if that could expunge the memories of blood, grime, and fear.

He thought, for a moment, he felt Anders tremble a little, and he raised his hand, laying it soothingly on the back of his hair. It was slightly coarse beneath his fingertips, a little damp and rough… but warm. The warmth of Anders’ body seemed to seep through everything. His breath grazed Tobias’ neck, and that was warm too; so warm, and laced with so much promise.

Tobias pulled back slightly, searching his face for some hint of explanation or acquiescence. Anders’ gaze seemed deeper than an ocean, and full of just as many uncharted things, and yet Tobias had never wanted to kiss anyone so much in his life.

Anders wanted it too. That much was virtually palpable: the need rose off him like a summer heat haze as they began to incline together, faces at first just gently turning, each towards the other, then leaning closer, so very slowly.

Tobias could feel the other man’s breath on his lips—lips that ached and burned with a keen, physical eagerness, a desperation almost beyond endurance—and he hardly dared breathe for fear of breaking this perfect momentum. He didn’t care whether Saryha was watching, or what the elderly patients thought. He didn’t care about anything. His pulse thudded dully, and the world closed in until there was nothing but this, nothing but the moment at which, finally, their lips would meet in that small, inadequate start to the expression of the things that lay between them.

Anders’ fingers skimmed his cheek, the smallest suggestion of a sigh breaking from him as—

Maker, no. No, no, no. Please… it’s not fair….

—he pulled away, wrenching himself calmly, and yet so decisively, from Tobias’ arms.

It hurt. It hurt with a gut-churning, crushing, devastating pain that seemed to burn a core right through his chest.

“Anders…!”

The healer shook his head.

“You’d, um, you’d better go,” he said, his voice rough as he stared at a point on the wall about a foot to the left of Tobias’ arm. “Your mother will be worried. I know she… she worries… about you. And you, er, you’re exhausted. You… uh.”

He tugged awkwardly at the front of his coat, straightening it ineffectively, and swallowed heavily. Tobias blinked, not quite able to believe this was actually happening.

“You’re throwing me out?”

“No.” Anders shook his head emphatically, but he was still staring at the wall, defiantly avoiding Tobias’ gaze. “No, I just… I think you should go. Thank you, though. Thank you for… everything.”

“Anders—”

He reached out, thinking that if he could just touch the stupid bastard, it would be real, and there might be something to build from, but Anders swayed away from him, shaking his head.

He murmured something, half under his breath, and though the shape of the word sounded like ‘don’t’, it felt like ‘please’.

Tobias clenched his jaw as his hand dropped uselessly to his side. “Right. Fine. So, you’re throwing me out, and I don’t even get a bath?”

Sarcasm didn’t even start on the road to helping vent his frustration. The whole thing was unfair to the point of making him want to punch something… a wall, or possibly Anders, who was still standing there awkwardly, wincing and looking embarrassed.

“Hawke, don’t. I… I just need— I need some time,” he murmured, his face taut and a pinched little frown on his brow. “I’m sorry.”

“Time?”

Tobias gave a dark cough of laughter. Did the witless bastard even know how long it had already been?

He knew Anders must be struggling with Justice—and there was no doubt far more he had to contend with this morning than just the problems of personal attractions—but, Maker’s holy balls, this was so far from fair that it was a wonder the world hadn’t turned inside out.

Tobias shook his head, scowling bitterly. “Fine. I’ll see you. Take care, all right?”

Anders nodded, still refusing to look at him, and anger blistered in Tobias’ throat. He was sick of mixed signals, sick of being picked up and put down again, apparently at whatever messed up whim Anders was currently indulging, and sick of the frustration.

He turned and stalked from the clinic, not sparing a glance behind him, and his fugue didn’t lift until he hit Lowtown.

———————————
Chapter 29
———————————
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply