Kirkwall is going to hell around him, but Tobias remains preoccupied.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
The following week was not the easiest of Tobias’ life. With the news from the Gallows spilling out through the city in ill-contained rumours and bursts of misinformation, Kirkwall seemed gripped by an even darker sense of rage and distrust. Citizens openly called for a clampdown on mages, whether it was outraged nobles getting up on their hind legs and clucking in the Keep, or gangs of angry men and women in Lowtown picking fights and causing trouble. Hatred ran in the streets like floodwater, and every mage with half an ounce of sense went to ground.
In the old town slums—behind the bazaar and not three streets from Gamlen’s place—a woman whose ten-year-old daughter had been taken to the Circle six months ago had her door kicked in and horribly misspelled graffiti daubed across the side of her house in shit and cat’s blood. An elf who was known to have a sister in the Gallows was killed in a fight down at the docks, and for a day or so it looked as if a riot might break out in the alienage. It didn’t… thanks in part to Aveline sending extra patrols to lock the centre of the district down. Tobias wasn’t sure how he felt about that, though at least it stopped the elves from doing anything stupid. He slipped in at one point to check on Merrill, and found her white-faced and frightened in her house, trying to pretend that everything was normal and her city life was still a grand adventure.
She’d been living a strange, cloistered existence for a while; he noted the books spread all around her dark, cramped rooms, and the chair pulled up close to the smoky fire. She was working on something, but she wouldn’t tell him what, and she closed the door to her bedchamber hastily when she welcomed him in, like there was something there he wasn’t meant to see. He couldn’t tell whether it was elven propriety or a real secret, but he contented himself with knowing she was all right… as far as people who did deals with demons ever were. They drank tea and talked about nothing much. She clearly missed her clan, especially Marethari, though she insisted she liked the alienage, and he was disinclined to argue with her.
When Tobias bade her goodbye, she hugged him and planted a kiss on his cheek, and told him to take care. He nodded, said he would, and privately worried about her with renewed unease. When he left, cutting back across the dirt-packed square, in the shade of the leafless vhenadahl that stood black against the wintry sky, a young man with a long braid of deep golden hair threw a clay jug at him and shouted something abusive about shems making whores of elven girls. Tobias gritted his teeth and headed for the gates, eager to be out of the whole bloody place.
One thing about Fenris still squatting in Hightown, he supposed, was not having to wade through the alienage to get to him.
Of course, that wasn’t to say that the elf was easy to deal with, and Tobias waited as long as he could before broaching the whole qunari thing, hoping vainly that things might somehow calm down in the city, and perhaps make Fenris a little more amenable to a casual jaunt with a mage.
It was a foolish hope, and it turned out to be a waste of time: this wasn’t the kind of anger that was going to fade away fast.
The city was still a mess—just stopping short of open rioting and chaos, but utterly rife with tension—two days later, when Tobias made his way up to Hightown, and the rotting shell of Danarius’ mansion.
He needed to do what Saemus Dumar had asked of him, and he needed Fenris, but just stepping out of his own front door was nerve-wracking. Rumour had it a girl had been killed near the old barracks, because someone had claimed she was an apostate. Templars had been sent for, and it was unclear whether they’d done the deed or been beaten to it by a lynch mob, but either way the word on the street was that the girl hadn’t been a mage at all, and no one was safe.
Tobias didn’t know if the story was true. He wouldn’t have been surprised, he supposed: the air tasted metallic, like violence crowded on a waiting ledge, every inch of the city’s brickwork packed with expectation and grim potential.
It was either going to get worse before it got better, or they’d be lucky and see the city slip back down somehow from boiling point to its usual angry simmer.
Tobias hoped fervently for the latter. Of course, he didn’t find much sympathy in the corner of Hightown that housed his friend’s grubby little squat.
“I heard what happened in the Gallows,” Fenris observed, as they sat in the cool dark of the mansion’s old kitchen, a plate of cold mutton and a bottle of wine between them. This was apparently an early dinner, and Tobias supposed he should be grateful for having it shared with him, even if the glare he was getting from the elf was rather ferocious. “You cannot possibly be surprised.”
Tobias winced. This was one set of stories he’d much rather not have had doing the rounds. Maker only knew how embellished and horrendous they might become, not to mention the whole issue of the Underground not welcoming that kind of attention.
“You weren’t there,” he said, stabbing a piece of mutton with his fork. “You didn’t see what those bastards were doing. Anyway, where did you hear what—”
“Hmph.” Tobias chewed thoughtfully and reached for his wine. He supposed he could count on the dwarf to keep quiet about what needed to stay hidden although, if it came down to it, he’d much rather have let a handful of colourful lies about his involvement continue to circulate than have Anders, Gethyn, or the others implicated in anything. He supposed it was too late to argue. “It’s done with now, anyway.”
“Yes.” Fenris narrowed those pale green eyes, the light from the candles burning on the sideboard bathing his face in warm, flickering orange. “But you can’t think the Knight-Commander won’t act.”
Tobias downed half his cup of wine in a gulp that really just insulted the vintage and shrugged. “I’m sure she’s already plenty of people executed or made Tranquil by now. Bitch is always itching for an excuse. Frankly, short of annulling the entire Circle, I’m not sure what else she can do.”
“Then you are a fool,” Fenris said evenly. “Do you want to see a war?”
“No, but….” Tobias turned the cup in his fingers, rubbing his thumb along the dark, polished edge. It was an elegant, delicate thing, made from horn and ebony and inlaid with some kind of shiny, shell-like stuff in a pattern of diamonds that ran around the swell of the vessel. Danarius might have been a cruel tyrant, but he’d certainly had nice taste in crockery. “Something has to happen. Things are changing.”
“And you believe the best way to effect change is violence?”
Tobias snorted. “Coming from you, that’s rich! No. No, I don’t, but… when you’ve been trying and trying, and nothing else has worked, what choice d’you have but something more direct? Andraste didn’t get anywhere by asking the Imperium nicely.”
Fenris’ expression flickered briefly between dry amusement and stolid disbelief, and he curled his lip. “Then you want a rebellion. An insurrection of mages. Will you rise up against the Chantry, cover half the world in fire? What does that prove, except everything you already claim is untrue?”
“What, you mean a rebellion just proves that we’re dangerous? No. It proves we can be, yes, but so can anyone!”
“Ah.” Fenris nodded, but a smirk played against his lips “‘Beat a dog long enough, and eventually it will cease whining and bite you’?”
Tobias looked reproachfully at the elf across the rim of his cup. “I’m Fereldan. We don’t beat dogs.”
Fenris’ smirk gave way to what, for him, was the equivalent of a grin, and he shook his head, the candlelight catching at his pale hair.
Even as little as a year ago, Tobias supposed, there was no way they could have talked politics like this. Not without everything devolving into an argument, or Fenris just locking himself into a flat refusal to accept that not every mage behaved like a magister.
He was right, though, at least to a degree. If all-out rebellion was what the Resolutionists wanted, it was going to alienate a lot of people. So much of Thedas still bore the echoes of the Blight and the instability it had brought, and rumours from Orlais hinted at a certain degree of dissatisfaction among the nobility. Tobias hadn’t kept up much with what was going on in Ferelden, but some people said the license Queen Anora had granted the Grey Wardens was merely letting the Orlesians in by the back door. War might have been unlikely, but it never did to forget how easily things could escalate… just like Kirkwall’s qunari problem.
The city was on a knife-edge, and it had been for so long that people were beginning to think this kind of tension was normal.
Tobias was grateful for Fenris’ help, however. Grateful enough to steer the conversation back to the shallows before they got stuck talking in circles about mages, and freedom, and what it meant to deserve to be treated like a person.
They met down by the docks the following morning, and headed up to the compound together, feet crunching on the gritty ground, and the cold air pinching at their lungs.
The compound was not Tobias’ favourite place. It was dusty, crowded, and yet the qunari didn’t even have the decency to seem uncomfortable or irritable with each other, the way normal people would have done when pressed together in a confined area.
Everything had its place, and every qunari had his function. Even the converts—most of them elves, and all of them dressed in the same shapeless tunics—moved about the place with apparent purpose, busying themselves with chores and tasks in which they appeared to be totally immersed. It was all far too organised, and it made him think of the things Anders said about the Tranquil, and how much they frightened him.
Fenris didn’t seem to mind it. Tobias often wondered if, privately, the elf had considered conversion. There was a difference in seeming comfortable and actually seeming at home in the place, however, and he certainly noticed the way Fenris’ gaze roved around the compound, trained with a warrior’s alert keenness on every tiny detail of terrain and every broad, grey-and-bronze body.
The Arishok wasn’t exactly cheery, although that was predictable. The aftermath of the business with the poison gas appeared to have convinced him of two things. First, that Kirkwall was a seething mass of corruption and horror—a view with which Tobias wasn’t entirely inclined to disagree—and, second, that the elven fanatics responsible were idiots, given that their people converted freely to the Qun, and, as they were already corralled in alienages and accorded no rights under human law, they had little to nothing of their inferior culture left to defend. Tobias wasn’t eager to get into a debate about any of it; he stuck firmly to the facts and tried not to get accusatory over the fact the Arishok had set him up to dance in the first place. He’d done what he’d said he’d do, and he’d prevented Lowtown having a crater blown into it, largely because he lived there, and also because all the other people who lived there too hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
Beyond that, everything had the flavour of politics and ideology, and he considered that parleying ideals with a people who sewed the mouths of mages shut wasn’t really worth his time. He was happy to let Fenris do much of the talking, even if the elf and the Arishok mainly seemed to communicate through riddles.
The subject of the delegation and the possibility of talks didn’t go down too well to start with, though once Tobias tossed Saemus Dumar’s name around a bit and implied that this was an opportunity to bring enlightenment to the otherwise terminally corrupt dullards of Kirkwall’s nobility, and therefore the city as a whole, the Arishok seemed more interested in the idea.
Fenris worked hard at that, and Tobias gave up trying to follow what he was saying. His voice, in all its gravel-burnished richness, made the qunari words sound exotic and fascinating, instead of like an ox clearing its sinuses, and—against the dusty beigeness of the compound’s sand and wood, with the weak, wintry sun lancing through a grey sky to touch him in pale bands—the elf did cut a very impressive figure.
Perhaps the Arishok thought so too because, after a great deal of wrangling, they wrung an agreement from him. A delegation would go to Viscount’s Keep, and matters would be discussed… not least how the city could help get the qunari back to Par Vollen, and ease the burden of their being stuck here in the meantime.
Yeah. And not kicking off a war while they’re at it is just gravy.
Tobias let out a deep breath as they left the compound, the heavy gates closing behind them with a deep rattle.
“I owe you one,” he promised Fenris, at which the elf merely shrugged.
Who knew? Maybe it just might make the city a better place.
Perhaps. And, for my next trick, getting Orsino, Meredith, and Elthina around a table to play a friendly game of Wicked Grace and abolish the Circle of Magi.
It wasn’t long after midday that he called on Varric, slipping into The Hanged Man on his way back from the market, where a woman had been standing on a box and yelling—albeit in a very impassioned way—about the Maker’s curse being on mages, and how their filth and wickedness corrupted the world. Something about women going missing, body parts showing up under bridges… as if it couldn’t just have been an ordinary nutcase.
“You look beat,” Varric observed cheerfully, as Tobias sloped in. “Pint?”
Tobias nodded. “Been to see the Arishok. I wasn’t born to be a politician.”
The dwarf signalled to Nora with a wink and a grin. “Oh, I don’t know. You’re pretty good at the lying and cheating part, when you want to be.”
“Huh. Normal lying and cheating, maybe. Not this.”
“Sit down, Hawke. Tell me all about it. Did you tell His Horniness all those interesting Fereldan words for ‘asshole’?”
Tobias grunted, but flung himself into a chair anyway. He didn’t really want to pick through it all, though he knew he wouldn’t get a choice. People would hear about it sooner or later, anyway; people heard about everything.
Varric was fascinated to hear of the attempts the younger Dumar was making at diplomacy, and he laughed more than anybody probably should have done at the concept of a qunari peace delegation. Nora brought beer, bread, butter, and meat—it was very likely cold beef, but it was greasy and slightly grey, so it was hard to be sure—and Tobias’ stomach surprised him with a ravenous growl. He ate, and talked with his mouth full and gesticulated with greasy fingers, and, eventually, he felt better about most things.
“Well….” Varric sat back, shaking his head. “There are elements in the Chantry who won’t like it.”
Tobias scoffed. “Just because they can’t cope with losing a few bums on pews to conversions? What’s Elthina going to do, anyway? She never takes action on anything.”
“Eh, maybe you’re right.” Varric peered thoughtfully at him over the rim of his mug. “Still, I don’t know… even Choirboy seems a little prickly around the subject of the qunari and—excepting mercenaries and anyone else who’s tried to kill him—you know how big he is on that whole ‘forgiveness and tolerance’ deal.”
“Sebastian Vael?” Tobias grimaced, pausing to suck the meat grease off his thumb before he reached for his beer. “I thought he was safely tucked up in the chantry again.”
“Off and on,” Varric conceded. “He still comes in here from time to time. I think he’s hoping you’ll notice him and ask him to go bandit-hunting again.”
Tobias groaned. “Not if he keeps praying over the dead bodies. I can’t put up with that.”
The dwarf chuckled, and Tobias cocked his head to the side, debating whether he should really ask the question he wanted.
“Speaking of people who’ve been around…. Have, um, have you seen Anders?”
The smile faded from Varric’s face, and he tapped his heavy golden rings against the side of his cup, fixing Tobias with a weary stare.
“No. Haven’t you been down to the clinic?”
Tobias bit the inside of his lip, shaking his head vigorously. It had been over a week since the Gallows, and the night at the clinic, and he didn’t want to admit that he was afraid of going back… afraid of seeing Anders the way he’d been that night, unless he was allowed the chance to help make it right.
He would have shouldered every burden the healer shared with him, but Tobias wasn’t sure—no matter how worried he was for the man—he could take being pushed aside again.
“I haven’t seen him,” he said, avoiding Varric’s gaze. “I saw Selby in the market, day before yesterday. She said he was doing much better, but we didn’t get a chance to talk. No one’s talking right now. The way things are, the whole damn Underground’s gone into hiding. Nobody wants to risk being seen, or meeting anyone, or…. You know, nothing’s safe. Nowhere is… is safe, so—”
He broke off, taking a swig of the dark, bitter beer and brushing the back of his hand absently across his mouth. Varric was watching him carefully, fingers still tapping quietly against his mug.
Damn it, Varric. You know what I mean. Is he safe?
“You don’t even see Collective men anymore,” Tobias mumbled. “I don’t think I’ve seen a Mages’ Collective mark anywhere in Kirkwall for at least six months. I… I don’t usually ask this kind of thing, ’cause… ’cause you’ve got your business, Varric, I know, and….” He shifted in his seat, squirming against the padded upholstery and trying not to meet the dwarf’s eye. “I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but—”
“You wanna know about the bribes for the clinic.”
Tobias exhaled, relieved that he didn’t have to voice it, but still tense at the subject itself. It had been preying on his mind, with the state of the city the way it was. Anders himself had once said it would only be a matter of time before the templars routed him out—Maker knew they’d come close a handful of times already—and, up until now, he’d been lucky.
Well, it was partially luck. The rest of it was a combination of the fact that the templars generally didn’t give a shit about Darktown, and the fact the clinic was actually doing a good job at keeping much of the mess and human detritus off the streets, Tobias supposed. That… and everything Varric had done to keep their mutual friend safe.
The dwarf sighed, brows raised as he stared resignedly into his mug. “I’ll level with you, Hawke. The way things are right now? It’s… not helping. I can keep the small gangs off his back—that’s not a problem; all they want is back-pocket change—but Blondie draws a lot of notice. Bribing a couple of templars to look the other way is one thing… I don’t know how many more I can pay off. It’s not about the money,” he added quickly, raising a hand to quiet Tobias before he’d even finished opening his mouth. “It’s just that it’s hard to bribe people who are more scared of someone else than they are hungry for your coin. And… then there’s the Coterie.”
“Ah, it’s nothing.” Varric waved the words away. “Just a few more rumblings about protection. They’re pushing their luck, but I don’t see it’s in their best interests to sell him out.”
Tobias frowned. “Not while he’s patching up half of their runners and keeping their whores clean for free, no. But—”
“It’s nothing,” Varric repeated. “I got Edge keeping an ear to the ground. For now, I think Blondie’s safe enough… though I could wish he’d find better digs.”
He smirked dryly, and Tobias returned the expression with a small snort.
“I know what you mean. I s’pose, knowing the tunnels like he does, it gives him chance to run, to disappear before they can catch him, even if they do make it as far as the clinic, but… it’s not exactly healthy.”
Varric nodded, his smile fading to a softer, curious kind of look. He drained the remnants of his beer, tongue probing between his teeth as he swallowed. “Look, Hawke… If you’re that worried about him, maybe you should—”
“I’ll go down there,” Tobias assured, though he didn’t quite meet Varric’s eye. “I will. I’ll… I mean, I….”
The dwarf sighed and shook his head. “All right. Sure.”
Tobias slouched in his chair as he finished his beer. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Anders, or didn’t want to help… but maybe Varric had been right after all. Maybe he should have just taken the hint.
“Anyway,” he said, eager to change the subject now he had Varric’s assurance that, despite the city’s worsening attitude to mages, the clinic’s safety was more or less intact, “you hear anything about Bartrand yet?”
A glittering, dangerous smile spread across the dwarf’s face, and he leaned forward, setting his mug down on the table.
“You know, I’m glad you asked me that….”
Tobias had long suspected that all the brains in the Tethras family tree had gone to Varric. Not only was Bartrand stupid enough to have written to some of his old contacts in Hightown, it really did seem like he was planning on coming back to Kirkwall. Servants had been taken on and, according to Varric, had already begun opening up his house. The preparations were being made discreetly, but they were still being made… he could be in town in as little as a few weeks, allowing time for the voyage.
It would be easy enough to keep an eye on the port schedules, and Varric already had one of the scullery maids on his payroll. They would know the minute Bartrand docked in Kirkwall, and the minute he closed his front door behind him. And that, Tobias thought, was enough to put anybody in a good mood. The waiting game that came before the opportunity for sweet revenge was a little frustrating, but it wasn’t like he was unused to dealing with that.
Sunlight pooled on the rough, plastered walls and dirt-packed streets of Lowtown, the district hazy in the aftermath of a morning’s heavy rain.
Tobias had spent much of the day dealing with matters relating to the estate, and to a very discreet contract he was undertaking for a merchant who didn’t feel moved to pay port fees or Coterie tolls on a shipment of Antivan brandy. Arranging the collection point, the little boat to scull out and meet the cargo vessel, and the cart to move the goods to somewhere safe in Lowtown had not been difficult… nothing taxing.
Taxing. Heh. Smugglers’ humour. Just like the old days, isn’t it?
He wasn’t sure he liked the thought of becoming a complacent old man, sitting around and dreaming about the glory days of his misspent youth… but he was still young, wasn’t he? Still in his prime, Tobias reminded himself, as he headed to the bazaar to find Hubert and check in on his interest in the Bone Pit mine. So far, the bloody place hadn’t paid him a penny, though he’d been landed with dealing with the work force, on account of them mostly being Fereldans.
The merchant was as irritating and shifty as ever, but it was a nice day, and Tobias refused to let any of it mar his mood. Hubert eventually yielded to a little light intimidation, and parted with a small handful of sovereigns that was probably about forty percent of what he owed his so-called partner… but it was something.
Tobias weighed the coin purse in his hand and, as he tucked it into his belt pouch, couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it would probably be well spent in Darktown.
He left Hubert with one final glare and started the walk down there, pretending to himself that it didn’t feel like walking on splinters. For every part of him that had missed seeing Anders in The Hanged Man, missed the Underground meetings and the hours spent in the clinic, rolling up bandages and boiling pans of herbs, there were plenty of reasons Tobias didn’t really want to go.
He knew it was stupid. Anders needed a friend—any mage in this city did right now, and him more than most—and, if Tobias couldn’t put his frustration aside and simply be that, then he knew he didn’t deserve to be anything to the man at all. It just wasn’t as simple as that in practice, especially when he could still almost feel Anders’ breath on his lips, in that one bittersweet moment when the need had been palpable between them… and then it had felt as if the whole world was being ripped away.
Don’t be so melodramatic, Hawke. Really. Pull yourself together.
The clinic was surprisingly busy when he got there. The influx of winter chest and throat complaints had led to a lot of coughing and hacking, and a lot of elderly sick people. The usual mothers with babies and fathers with big, nervous hands on their children’s shoulders were dotted around the place, and there were a couple of labourers from the Foundry District, still stained with soot and singeing. One of them had a bloody gash on his hand—deep, and wide, and rather nasty—and the other clutched a bloodstained cloth to his head. Both of them were elven.
Tobias couldn’t see Anders at first. Saryha was the one dealing with the labourers, fetching bowls of hot water and clean towels, and directing the one with the hand injury to sit with his arm raised while she washed the other man’s wound. For a girl who’d spent her entire life in the Circle, she was adapting impressively, he thought, though the looks that murmured among the patients were clear. There was uneasiness here: a sense of confusion, because where was the healer, and why was he not healing? Tobias wondered how many of them had heard garbled rumours about the Gallows, or been left afraid by Anders’ manner in recent weeks. After all, even he had to admit that his friend’s… problems… had been growing ever more obvious.
Tobias caught himself thinking of Anders’ words the night of the Gallows trip. I am the example of the worst that freedom brings. He couldn’t believe that; wouldn’t believe it. The worst that freedom brought was cruelty—Fenris would have the first to harp on about that—and, whatever else he was, Anders was not a cruel man.
And, as Tobias considered that, there he was. He looked up, catching sight of that familiar figure across the clinic, his movements tired and stiff as he came to Saryha’s side, carrying bandages and potion bottles.
Anders laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder, and they exchanged an earnest few words that Tobias—still lingering by the wooden doors, as if he was afraid to go in—was too far away to hear. She looked worried, but determined, and he understood why when she pushed her sleeves back and laid her hands on the elf’s injury. Light bloomed around her fingers, pale echoes of bluish-white that danced against her dark skin, and her face took on that focused expression that Tobias had seen so often on Anders.
In contrast, he now seemed… empty. He stood there at her side, watching with a weary, unfocused look, and his whole being seemed faded somehow, as if he was a blurred copy of the man he’d been.
Tobias’ chest ached dully, folding itself around the memories of some of the first nights he’d come here, back before the Deep Roads expedition. He’d come, drawn like a moth to a candle, fascinated by all the life and power in the healer… and, yes, it had all been simpler, hadn’t it? He’d wanted Anders, and thought that was all it needed to be: an attraction that had thrilled him by appearing to be mutual, and deserved acting upon as enthusiastically as possible.
He remembered coming here the night he’d learned Bartrand had fixed a date for the expedition to leave… coming down into the dark with some loose idea of seduction, of wanting something more than a trip to the Rose, and wanting, just once, to see laid bare for him all the beautiful things behind Anders’ wonderful, wicked smiles.
Only, it would never have been just once, would it? Tobias had thought that, perhaps, it had been that night he’d realised how much more than ‘once’ he wanted, but that wasn’t true. As he stood in the clinic now, watching Saryha heal the elf with her gentle, steady hands, and watching Anders’ pale, herb-stained fingers clench on her shoulder, he felt the weight of all these long months pile up on each other, pressing down on him. It had been years. Fucking ages… and he’d mired himself in it so deeply, hadn’t he? Like a sheep caught in waist-high mud, that didn’t even have the sense to stop struggling.
He watched Anders smile, squeezing the girl’s shoulder as her magic flared brighter. He could feel it. Her power was nothing next to the great metallic bloom that Anders was able to raise, but there was a studious kind of purity to it, like the clean scent of fresh paper and ink. She reminded him very slightly of his father, Tobias supposed; Malcolm’s magic had always carried with it that dusty feeling, like leather-bound books. Maybe it was a Circle mage thing, something to do with learning that way. He didn’t know. All he knew as he looked at her, and at Anders—standing there with pride and fatigue and regret etched so clearly into his face—was that he’d spent so very, very long knotting himself ever more deeply into his desire for this infuriating, impossible man, that he couldn’t even remember the point at which he’d fallen in love.
And now… now everything was falling apart, and the whole city was going to hell around them, and it hurt just to look at him, because every look made Tobias remember the way Anders had been a week ago, and how he hadn’t been able to do a damn thing to help.
Saryha finished the elf’s healing, dropping her hands to her sides with a soft gasp. Anders patted her back, murmured something in her ear, and turned to the labourer with the injured hand. He didn’t use magic; he bathed and sewed and packed the wound with a dressing, but at least he seemed focused and steady, even if he looked tired.
It was Saryha who noticed Tobias first, skulking as he was by the doors, and the little dishes of copal that were meant to cleanse the air and at least try to hide the worst of the stink. The sharp, astringent scent of the incense made his nose itch, but it was better than pus, piss, and blood. She waved at him, and looked over to Anders, but he was busy with finishing up his stitching on the elven labourer’s hand and, as Tobias moved over to them, he felt awkward and ungainly.
Saryha smiled, and it broke his heart just a little bit to see that she was starting to develop that same worn thin look as Anders had, born of deprivation, constant fatigue and struggle.
Anders looked up then, too, dark eyes shadowed with a fleeting and circumspect warmth that quickly gave way to uncertainty.
I need time. What was that supposed to mean, anyway? Tobias wondered if he should even have been here, and a sudden sense of guilt picked at him. Knowing what he knew about Anders, he should never have tried to push things, never tried to force a response from him… but that familiar tension was already aching in the air again, and Anders nodded very slightly, dropping his gaze as he tied off the labourer’s bandage.
“Anders.” Tobias cleared his throat. “I, uh… I—”
“Checking up on me, are you?” the healer asked, straightening up and brushing his hands against his coat as Saryha ushered the patched-up labourers on their way, and moved to greet a woman with a young boy in tow, his thin body wracking each time he gave a great, rattling cough.
“No.” Tobias shook his head. Yes. Maker, he’d have reason enough, after the things Anders had said last time he saw him. He hadn’t truly believed he’d do something stupid, but… well, he wasn’t going to be the one to mention any of it, no matter how much it had worried him. “I’m not checking up on you,” he protested, reaching for his coin purse. “I just… I had a few sovereigns kicking around, that’s all. I thought—”
“Oh.” Anders nodded glumly. “Right. Thank you.”
“Seems busy,” Tobias observed, glancing around the clinic as he slipped the coins into the healer’s narrow palm. Nearby, the little boy coughed, the breath heaving in him as he hacked and spluttered.
“Yes.” Anders glanced at the child, and at Saryha, who was already looking to him for reassurance. “Embrium,” he told her, “and a hot poultice. We can start there, make him comfortable and see what we can do to help the fever.”
Even his voice seemed thin and faded, though there was no mistaking the core of control left in him. Anders was locked up tighter than Tobias had ever seen him, and he ached for the man who’d been able to sit in Varric’s suite, nurse a half-cup of wine and make dirty jokes about templars while grinning those wonderful, wicked grins.
“Can I help? That’s all I… all I wanted to do,” Tobias said quietly, as Anders gave him a hollow-eyed look, seeming disconnected for a moment before he nodded, and pointed to the bubbling coppers at the back of the clinic.
“There’s a pot of blindweed to come off the boil. Strain it, and mix it one part to three with the hog’s lard mixture in the big grey bowl. Then add about half a dram of the splintwort tincture—it’s on the shelf—and mix until it’s cool. Can you do that?”
Tobias fought the urge to rip off a salute. “Of course.”
Those dark eyes met his briefly, as deep and troubled as pebbles of volcanic glass, and Anders slipped him a small, gentle smile. “Thank you. I know what it’s like out there now. You didn’t have to come.”
“Yes, I did,” Tobias said quietly. “But I didn’t have to leave it so long.”
The thin, bruised-looking skin beneath Anders’ eyes tightened a little, and he lowered his gaze, though the uncertainty that coloured his face didn’t seem to last long.
“It’s all right,” he murmured. “I… I’ve had time to think, I suppose.”
Yeah? All the time you needed?
A spear of selfish hope prodded at Tobias’ chest, but he bit down hard on the words. He wanted so badly to know what Anders meant by that, but now… huh, now wasn’t the time. It seemed sickly ironic, he thought; they never had time, did they? Or privacy, or any of the things that would have made this easier… and yet Anders was still watching him, still holding half a dozen different expressions locked up in his face.
Maker, I should have just stayed away….
Beside them, the child coughed again, so hard this time that he retched, bending double and vomiting over Saryha’s feet. She whimpered, and looked wretchedly at Anders.
He sighed. “I’ll get a mop.”
Tobias hastened to the back of the clinic, and left them to it.