Justice in Surrender: Chapter 31

The tipping point is finally reached.

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Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
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He didn’t begrudge helping, though it took up almost all of the rest of the day. It was hard to tell how time passed in Darktown, except by the rate at which the candles burned and, given that those were mostly the cheapest, hardest tallow, the passage of hours could be misleading.

Tobias prepared ointments, salves, poultices and other assorted forms of messy, pummelled, boiled and macerated herbs. He watched Anders and Saryha work their way through the ranks of patients, and he rolled bandages, fetched and carried, and generally attempted to make himself as useful as he could, despite his intense awareness of being a mage with exactly zero talent for healing.

His mind wandered a little as he worked… as it usually did. He found himself thinking about the estate, and the plans for the future, and Bartrand, and yes, about Anders. About the Underground, too, and Creer and Gethyn and Selby and all the others. About Meredith, and the Circle, and whether what they’d found on Alrik’s body would actually prove anything, or get the Grand Cleric to act. It pained him to admit it but, that night, Tobias hadn’t even bothered to read the papers he’d taken from the templar’s corpse. He remembered thrusting them at Selby before he left to find Anders, and he knew there had been letters in there; documents that bore the Chantry’s seals and Maker only knew what kind of evidence… and he hadn’t even looked.

When he got a chance to see her again, he’d ask Selby what was happening, and whether there’d been any possibility of taking the testimony of the mages they’d rescued to the Grand Cleric. That had to count for something, didn’t it? All that they had to say… and all the bruises and scars they bore.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Maybe, with Alrik dead, it would be easy for Elthina’s people to sweep the entire thing under the rug, allowing him to become some kind of scapegoat for it all, as if there weren’t plenty of other sadistic bastards who behaved the way he had. It was difficult to know, but Tobias clung to his dark suspicions, even as he realised how very negative he was being. It was Anders’ influence, he supposed; this inability to trust that Elthina could do anything right, or even find her own arse with both hands and a well-drawn map.

He wished he could see the world the way his mother did. Leandra still believed in things like the sanctity of the Chantry and concepts such as law and order and “the right thing”, but Tobias couldn’t remember the last time he’d indulged in that luxury.

He glanced up from wiping out the wet, smelly interior of one of the coppers, and caught sight of Saryha across the clinic. She looked completely exhausted, but she was ushering the last of the day’s walking wounded out of the doors, and he realised how late it had grown. Anders was fetching clean blankets, settling those who were bedded down for the night—the old, the weak, and one heavily pregnant woman who had a mild fever and a cough, but kept complaining that she was honestly fine and didn’t need to be here—and depositing the assortment of soiled bandages and linens ready for wash. He smiled wearily as his gaze met Tobias’, shambling over to him with the armfuls of grubby cloth while Saryha dealt with the stragglers.

“I’ll get a clean copper,” Tobias said, because one was needed and because it was sensible to get the linens in while there was still hot water… and because he didn’t want to analyse too carefully why he was still here, or why the thought of leaving and walking back to Lowtown seemed so very unpalatable.

Comes to something, doesn’t it, when this shithole is one of the few places in the city that feels like home.

“Didn’t mean to keep you so late,” Anders said, dropping the pile of dirty linens and helping him right the large pot that had been draining beside the fire. It still smelled faintly of the elfroot that had been boiled in it earlier: the same smell that clung to him, beneath the interlaced patterns of different salves and herbs, and the staleness of a long, grubby, difficult day.

Tobias shrugged. “It’s all right. If it helps, then—”

“Thank you.”

He kept his eyes focused on the dark, discoloured belly of the pot, preferring that to the complicated things he knew he’d find if he looked into Anders’ face.

It shouldn’t be so fucking complicated. Should it? It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t be this sodding difficult….

“I’ll, uh… I’ll get the water.”

Tobias made a performance of pouring out the heated water, the ache in his back, shoulders, neck, and arms from hours of repetitive action and lifting making him grit his teeth as he continued trying to avoid Anders’ gaze.

It shouldn’t be this sodding awkward, either. Maker’s cock! I didn’t want it to be awkward. I just wanted— I mean, I still want…. Oh, sod.

He ventured a glance at the healer, taking in the worn, crumpled look he had about him, so far removed from that neatly darned, crisp figure who’d come down to Varric’s suite in the evenings, and while away hours constructing elaborate revenge fantasies with the dwarf; boiling the Knight-Commander in oil, or dipping Bartrand in molten gold. Tobias missed those nights, missed that man… missed those wide, wicked smiles that seemed to hint at so very much.

And now, here they were, staring at each other across a copper half-full of hot water, and Tobias found himself gripping the wooden laundry paddle he held tight enough to turn his knuckles white.

“I wanted to, um… to say I was sorry,” Anders murmured, the herb-smudged fingers of one hand rising to worry at the cuff of his coat. “Sorry for pushing you away like I did. I know y-you only wanted to help, and you did help. You’ve… you’ve done so much. Those papers….”

His fingers plucked more earnestly at the stiff, threadbare fabric of his coat, as if he was caught between trying to adjust his sleeve and actively attempting to pull it off, and he blinked rapidly, his gaze slipping to the side.

Tobias frowned. “What papers? The ones from—”

“Alrik. Yes.” Anders lowered his voice, glancing reflexively down the centre of the clinic, where the elderly in-patients were jovially harassing the expectant mother with assorted old wives’ tales, unsolicited advice, and discussion of baby names. “Selby was down here yesterday. She said you found letters. He’d written to the Knight-Commander. We have it all in writing… all the things he wanted to do… but Meredith said no. The Grand Cleric— They wouldn’t stand for it. Not yet, at least. He was denied.”

The look on the healer’s face suggested he wasn’t sure he believed it, or maybe that he was disappointed by the news. Tobias’ frown deepened. It certainly did take the wind out of the sails of those who’d been so convinced that Alrik was the harbinger of an all-out war… and few had been so vocal as Anders in their belief that his plan could be real. Still, this was a good thing, wasn’t it? It should be a good thing, surely.

“Well, that’s positive, isn’t it? I mean, maybe they can still be reasoned with. We know there are some moderates left in the templars, so—”

“Yes,” Anders admitted, although something guarded lingered in his eyes. “You’re right. You were right, when you said they weren’t all like him. They’re not. And… well, it’s one more rotten bastard down, isn’t it? That much was worth it.”

Tobias nodded slowly. Of course, from Anders’ point of view, being proved wrong wasn’t so much the matter of the dent it had put in his pride, but the fact that everything that had happened—the deaths of the templars, of Willen, and very nearly of Ella—had been for nothing. The potential for negotiation with the Chantry opened up plenty of possibilities, but also threw a sizeable rock in the path of the revolution… whatever form it might have taken.

The Resolutionists won’t like it. Bloody inconsiderate of people to start being reasonable when you’re about to blow them up in order to prove a point.

Across the clinic, Saryha was about to slide the bar down over the inside of the wooden doors. She paused, glancing over to them with brows raised in enquiry.

“Should I finish locking up, messere?”

Tobias blanched, and Anders eased away from him a little, as if their merely standing there by the copper had been something to be ashamed of.

Am I staying, she means. Curling up on your floor to watch you sleep again.

Not that I wouldn’t, but I wasn’t planning on it… unless you ask me to stay. And you won’t do that, will you? At this rate, you’re never going to. And yet I still show up, don’t I? Because I’m a fucking idiot. Come on. Ask me. Please.

The familiar tang of bitterness stung at the back of his throat. Days like this, it felt like nothing would ever change at all, and Tobias couldn’t even find it in himself to be amused at the fact that half of Kirkwall had probably assumed they were already sleeping together.

Anders cleared his throat, fixing Tobias with a gentle, imploring look that was about as easy to refuse as any sentence of Leandra’s that started with the words ‘Darling, could you just…’.

“Stay for a cup of tea or something, before you head back?”

Tobias’ mouth folded around a lop-sided smile that felt like a welcome defeat. It wasn’t exactly an impassioned, desperate plea for him to never leave again—and it certainly wasn’t an invitation to an endless night of debauchery—but, in his mind, it meant that Anders wanted to spend a little longer with him. It was a quiet, simple request for time together, and that meant a lot.

“Sure,” he said, watching those soft brown eyes crinkle at the corners, suffused with the warmth of Anders’ brief, slight smile. “Thanks.”

It felt like something had changed, but Tobias wasn’t sure what… and he wasn’t sure he wanted to question it, either.

~o~O~o~

He ended up sitting at the small, rickety table at the back of the clinic, nursing a cup of tea while Saryha did the rounds with a bedpan and Anders checked on the pregnant woman. Tobias watched him; watched the uncertainty that still hid at the back of his movements, the circumspection with which he touched her.

He was afraid. That much was obvious. Afraid of Justice, or Vengeance, because who was to say what the spirit was anymore… afraid of what it could become and, by extension, the ways it might warp him.

Tobias sipped his peppermint and goldenrod tea, and tried to think happy thoughts about mages who lived long, comfortable lives. He tried not to think about the pointed little jokes Varric made about ‘apostate rebel’ not being a career choice with a good retirement plan. Most of all, he tried not to think about the way Anders had looked in the dark of the tunnels, with magelight splashing pale streaks across his terrified face. Tobias’ chest ached with a keen, physical desire to make sure that he never, ever looked that way again.

Apparently satisfied with his patient’s progress, and with spoonfuls of cough elixir duly administered, Anders moved from the woman’s bedside to blow out a couple of the candles near the doors. He crossed the clinic by way of a few minor, passing chores, and paused to crouch and fiddle with something near one of the broken wall panels that leaned rakishly, its lower end bulging and cracked. Tobias frowned, at first assuming it was a rattrap, until Anders straightened up, brushing his hands against his coat and looking oddly pleased with himself. He seemed aware of the attention, because he glanced up and smiled, and it was such a fresh, honest look. Tobias tightened his grip on his cup and tried to will himself not to react, but it was too late. As the healer sauntered over and sat down, seeming so much more at ease than he had done earlier in the day, every detail about him burned itself into Tobias’ brain. The clumped, ragged feathers at his shoulders, the bags under his eyes… the smudges on his hands and the mess on his boots; none of it should have made him look as good as he did.

“What was that?” Tobias asked, grasping desperately at something to say, though he could hear the slight huskiness in his voice, chafed and grated with this near-constant waiting. “Rat trouble?”

He thought about mentioning Merrill’s reaction to the first time she’d encountered what alienage elves called “city rabbit stew”, but Anders shook his head.

“No. Well, not really. Just putting out some milk. We had a little over and it would only have turned, so I thought it might be worth a try. I miss having a cat around,” he added by way of explanation as he reached to pour his tea. “I have seen a few about, though mostly I think the people down here scare them off… or maybe eat them.” He peered into the distance, his nose wrinkled in momentary distaste, then he blinked and squeezed out a small, bright smile. “Anyway. You never know, right?”

Tobias realised his cup had stopped halfway to his mouth, and he’d merely been watching Anders over the rim of it, an indulgent half-smile on his lips as he pictured him trying to coax one of the skinny, flat-headed feral maniacs that strayed in Kirkwall’s streets into the clinic for a bowl of milk and an ear-tickle.

Nope. You never know, indeed.

“True,” he said, as diplomatically as he could manage.

Anders’ smile widened, some of the heaviness lifting from his face as, for a moment, it looked as if he might actually laugh.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said quietly, suddenly dropping his gaze to the tabletop, those long fingers toying awkwardly with the patchy glaze on his chipped brown cup. “I admit, after— Well, I didn’t expect that you’d….”

He trailed off, feathered pauldrons rustling weakly as he gave a resigned shrug. Tobias sipped his tea and sniffed reproachfully.

“I told you. It’s all right.”

He watched Anders over the rim of his cup, like that little clay vessel was some kind of shield between them that he couldn’t quite manage without. A muscle flicked in the healer’s jaw, and Tobias frowned, residually angry with him for not allowing himself just that small speck of forgiveness. The frown melted away as Anders glanced at him, though, replaced with a smile that hid a whisper of melancholy at its corners.

“Thank you,” Anders murmured, his gaze turning deep and warm. “For everything you did. Really.”

“It’s nothing. You… uh.” Tobias cleared his throat gently, aware of the tension pooling between them like honey, making the air thick and sweet. It wasn’t ever going to be enough, this waiting, but it had been going on so long there was almost a comforting familiarity in it; a dance whose steps they both knew so well, even when they both ached to break out of the pattern and run, barefoot, from the ball. “You matter to me. You know that.”

He waited for the inevitable moment when Anders’ gaze would harden, or he’d blink and look away, hiding himself from the danger of having to admit that, yes, he felt it too… but he didn’t blink. He didn’t look away. The very faintest flush of colour—less a blush than just a healthy pallor—crept into his cheeks, and the suggestion of a smile curved his mouth. His lips parted slightly, as if he was about to say something… and then it was gone, both of them distracted by Saryha coming to sit at the table, her backside thudding against the chair as she collapsed into it, puffing a sigh through her lips. She was a nice girl, and clearly an eager and able assistant to everything Anders did at the clinic, so Tobias felt rather bad about wishing the ground could swallow her up in an immediate and fiery pit.

He noted the slight tightening in Anders’ face, too, though he poured her a cup of tea and asked a brief couple of questions about the patients. Saryha assured him everything was fine, and gratefully accepted the cup he put before her. If she noticed the atmosphere she’d walked into—unlikely, given how exhausted she looked—then she chose to ignore it, and Tobias turned his attention back to his tea, holding the tepid, fragrant liquid in his mouth before he swallowed, trying to let the light, astringent, minty flavour wash away all the temptations he had to let out a huge wordless yell of frustration.

“…should probably make up a few extra, just in case,” Anders was saying. He knocked back the rest of his tea and made to stand up, waving a hand at Saryha as she moved to follow. “No, no. You sit. Rest. I’ll get it. Perhaps, um… could you give me a hand, Hawke? Before you go.”

Hmph. Yep. ‘Thank you for everything’, sheep’s eyes over the tea, and then it’s ‘carry this barrel’ and ‘wash this copper’ again, closely followed by ‘shouldn’t you be getting home? Go on, sod off.’

Right. Fine. Great.

Tobias grunted his assent and stood up, his back aching as he followed Anders to the boarded over little alcove at the rear of the clinic that served as a lockable potions cupboard. The injuries from that night under the Gallows had faded—the dagger wound on his back had barely been more than a scratch to start with, and hardly hurt at all, while the burns on his hand had responded well and were now little more than dry, cracked sheaths of skin—but he still felt them. He still felt the exertions and the reverberations of that night… and he knew Anders did, too.

He watched the healer pull the key from his belt, unlocking the narrow door and edging into the cramped space. Darktown wasn’t quite as rife with refugees these days, but it still had the largest concentration of criminal scum in Kirkwall, and it wasn’t just the grain alcohol that Anders needed to keep under lock and key.

“About four bottles should do it, I think,” he said absently, from within the cramped depths of the store. “Now, where…? Tincture of embrium, Hawke. Can you see it?”

Tobias sighed under his breath, and squeezed in behind him. The rows of bottles—dark glass stoppered with heavy, waxed corks—glinted and clinked in the shelves, and the close, stale air heaved with the smells of a dozen different herbs and preparations. Over the top of it all, there was the smell that always seemed to cling to Anders: that whiff of boiled elfroot, soot, and the miasma of wet dog that rose from his ridiculously feathered coat.

“Tincture of embrium?” Tobias raised an eyebrow. “So this wasn’t just an elaborate ploy to get me on my own?”

Anders snorted, running his fingers over the bottles as he checked the labels. “No. But… I do wish we could have a chance to talk.”

He turned his head slightly, blinking with that kind of mild uncertainty in his face that so often seemed to signify Justice plucking at his mind, and Tobias swallowed hard, caught between the feeling that he should back away from this whole mess… and the undeniable impulse to push just that little bit further.

“Talk?” he echoed. “You can talk to me now.”

He moved his foot, letting the battered, crooked wooden door swing shut behind them, trapping them both in this cramped space that suddenly seemed to grow so much darker, though their way had only been lit by a little second-hand candlelight to start with. The breath seemed to catch slightly in Anders’ throat as he looked towards the rough wood that trapped them here. Tobias snapped his fingers, pulling a dim sphere of light from the air. The whisper of magic rippled between them, carrying with the faintest scent of warm bread and leather.

The magelight’s pale glow streaked Anders’ cheeks and hair, and caught at all the worried, tense places in his face, though he looked nothing like he had a week ago. He shook his head, a small, mirthless smile on his lips as he turned, ostensibly peering past Tobias’ shoulder at the ranks of potions and bottles.

“Hawke….”

The word should have sounded like a warning, but it came out too soft for that, too laced with consideration. It traced a shiver down Tobias’ spine all the same, and the idiocy of this moment struck at him: the pair of them, hiding in the dark, hiding from everything, and yet still contriving time together. It was so unutterably stupid… but, with that wounded, fragmented look on Anders’ face, like the whole world was a maze he couldn’t hope to negotiate, it was hard to stay irritated with him.

He said nothing, waiting for the weight of the silence to pull words from the healer. Anders lowered his gaze as a frown knitted his dark brows, and his fingers twitched lightly, impatiently, at his sides.

“I wish I didn’t want this,” he murmured, the words barely making it past his lips. “I really do.”

Ouch.

Tobias clenched his jaw and tried to pretend that didn’t hurt. Was it so awful, then? This thing that lay between them? The smell of the herbal preparations, and the light, itching hum of the small stack of lyrium potions at the back of the shelf scratched at his senses, but they were as nothing next to the things Anders did to him.

“Oh,” he said, hiding behind the word, a nonplussed grunt.

“It’s so complicated,” Anders protested, shaking his head again, still frowning at the dusty, dirt-packed floor. “It’s never been this— ugh! I… I don’t…. You saw what I almost did to that girl. You’ve seen what I’m capable of.” He looked up, suddenly accusatory, his gaze biting into Tobias’ face. “How can you still—?”

“You know why.”

Anders winced and started to turn his head, averting his gaze, but Tobias stood his ground. The time for pretending was over.

No more games. No more lies. You wanted to talk? You can start by fucking listening.

“Because I care about you. You,” he repeated, tilting his chin, catching Anders’ eye and refusing to let him look away. “The man you are. You know that. You know I—”

“You shouldn’t,” Anders muttered, his brows drawn low and his mouth a hard curl of regret. “I can’t…. I mean, I don’t want to hurt you. I—”

“I’m a big boy,” Tobias said dryly. “I keep telling you I’ll cope.”

Anders screwed up his nose, looking for all the world like someone had passed a dead fish in front of him. “That’s not… I mean, I don’t know— I don’t have the right, Hawke. If… if I let myself, I….”

He shook his head once more, swallowing the words as a look of such resentful sadness swept over his face. The little ball of magelight that hovered above their heads quivered, and Tobias didn’t quite manage to stop himself from reaching out, his fingers closing on the stiff, rough fabric of that awful-smelling coat. Anders glanced down at his hand, but for once he didn’t move away and, when he raised his gaze again, the lost, mournful, hungry look in his face gouged a wound right through Tobias’ chest.

“I’d need you so much,” he whispered, the pale light painting voids of shadow on his face. “I don’t have the right to ask that of anyone. That’s why I hold back… why I’ve held back for so long. You can’t—”

“Anders.”

Tobias didn’t know why he let that name slide from his lips. He didn’t know what he thought it would achieve, or what he meant by it… just that he needed to say it, to reach out as clearly as by the touch of his hand, still loosely curled on the stiff fabric of Anders’ sleeve.

“Don’t,” Anders murmured again, biting his lip, his face pinched and tight. “Please. I—”

Tobias leaned closer, barely inches between them now, the smell of boiled elfroot and the mustiness of Anders’ patched coat mixing with the acidic hint of sweat and grime that clung to them both, and the tar-stained, grit-laden scent of Kirkwall’s dark heart.

“Anders.”

Just one word, barely cloaking a breath; he could hear the need and frustration swelling in his voice. For Anders, the sound of his name, echoing with the ache of everything that had been so long suppressed, seemed to have a palpable effect. He blinked rapidly, his lips parted around a soft, trembling exhalation, and yet he started to move away.

“I-I’ve tried to hold back,” he murmured, turning his head again so he could shy from Tobias’ gaze. “I truly have….”

“Have you?” Tobias tightened his grip on the healer’s sleeve, intent on keeping him here in this cramped, crowded space, among the glistening glass bottles and clay pots of foul-smelling ointment. He couldn’t stand the thought of him running again, the way he’d been doing since the first time they met.

Anders almost flinched… was that apprehension, or real fear? Tobias clenched his fingers on the rough, well-worn fabric of his coat, its years of patching and resewn seams barely holding together.

“Have you really?” he said again, pressing for an answer.

From beyond the rough-panelled, ramshackle walls and the leaning, overcrowded shelves, out in the clinic, there came a burst of laughter. Some of the patients were in good spirits, it seemed, still chatting and joking amongst themselves, and it served as a reminder of just how little privacy there was here.

Anders shook his head dumbly, and Tobias’ raw, guilty sympathy started to give way to irritation. His pulse hammered at the base of his throat, his head heavy and the blood rushing in him as they stood here: so close, teetering on the edge of all the things that he wanted so badly to pull out into the open… and yet was so afraid of breaking. He swallowed heavily, his tongue rough against the roof of his mouth, and wished Anders would stop looking at him with those wide, hurt, disconsolate eyes.

“Because you’ve never once told me to stop. Oh, you back off… tell me you can’t… but you still flirt, Anders. You still…. Y-you mix things up, just enough to make me think you might—”

He broke off, ashamed of what he was trying to do, the things he wanted to say. It was too late, though. They were already half-said, hanging heavily in the air, ripe and bursting.

“I’m still a man,” Anders murmured. “I still….”

“So am I,” Tobias snapped, hating the petulance in his voice, but unable to hold it in check. “I mean—”

“I know.”

Anders looked positively wretched, a deep line of indecision and regret worn into his forehead, his brows pinched together and his whole face drawn tight with this breathless, torturous need. Just sharing the same air with him seemed to make it hard to breathe… and yet Tobias wanted him to look up, wanted to see his eyes again, and wanted every ounce of that bitter complexity.

“Then stop this,” he pleaded softly. “One way or the other, all right? Because it isn’t fair.”

And it wasn’t. Oh, they were still so close…. He could almost taste Anders’ breath on his lips. The healer hadn’t looked up, and he’d gone perfectly still, but for the rapid, staccato blinking of his eyes. His lashes seemed dark against the unhealthy pallor of his skin, the twitches of his still-lowered eyelids like the shallow sleep of an uneasy dreamer. The magelight bobbed above them, catching with its pale threads at the gold in his hair.

It gave Tobias a fleeting pleasure to sink the proverbial knife in deeper, though he hated himself for it.

“If you tell me to leave you alone,” he said, dropping his words to a barely audible whisper, “then I will. Just say it. Go on. If you tell me you never wanted it, that you don’t want it now, then I’ll—”

Anders exhaled sharply; a half a breath quickly caught in his throat, reined back in like a disobedient child.

“Stop it,” he muttered weakly. “Please….”

“Then say you don’t want me,” Tobias challenged, his voice a low burr, the warmth in it spiced with frustration. “Say you don’t want this. Come on. Just say it.”

Anders raised his gaze, those dark eyes glassy voids ringed in shadow, like great pools of need hollowed out of the hardness in his face.

Come on. Admit it. Maker’s teeth, I don’t care how anymore. Hit me, kiss me, but just fucking admit it… please?

Anders’ lips moved, like he wanted to argue or protest, but the only sound that left him was a croak of a breath—hard to tell if it was a groan of frustration or a cry of defeat—and then he was moving… determined, hungry, unstoppable.

He closed the distance that separated them as if it meant nothing. Those long-fingered, white hands grabbed Tobias’ shoulders, and Anders shoved him back against the shelves and the grubby, flaking plaster they were nailed to, the full force of his weight behind the action. It happened before Tobias expected—before he was ready, as if he ever could have been ready for it—and in one electrified moment, he suddenly had Anders’ body pressed against him, and that beautiful, warm mouth on his.

Oh….

He’d been waiting for it so long that it was hard to believe it was real.

Thoughts dissipated, melting from that first glimmer of disbelief into the breathless, incredible potency of the fact it was happening, and Tobias barely noticed the pain shooting up his back from the half-healed stab wound jarring against the rough wooden shelves. Bottles and jars clinked and wobbled, threatening to tumble down around them like shards of rain. The itchy, warm presence of the lyrium swelled, and the air seemed hot enough to burn.

As kisses went, it was complicated, intense, and galvanic—a crush of dry, rough lips, and stubble scratching at his chin—and yet there was something in that simple contact, that long-awaited, ached for embrace that sang through his every nerve, like a small, bright star suspended against the sheer, suffocating heat of suppressed desire given vent.

His back ached dully where he’d thudded against the shelves, and a loose nail jutted out from the wood, somewhere around thigh height. It dug into Tobias’ leg, just one of the hundred tiny things that seemed so significant in that heightened, breathless moment. The mingled scents of boiled elfroot, herbal powders, soot, tallow, lard and sweat, and the wet-dog smell of the awful coat enveloped him, run through with the undeniable warmth and spice of Anders’ skin… and the hot, metallic echo of his power. The shelves around them creaked gently, and their breaths came in full, choked gasps as the pressure of desire deepened the kiss, turning that desperate meeting of lips to a hungry union of mouths, all at once insatiable, frenetic, and yet strangely uncertain.

He groaned his approval as the firm, wet heat of Anders’ tongue touched his, a thread of fire that was complete and absolute in its passion. The hardness of the other man’s body against his—a not inconsiderable weight, despite Anders’ lighter build—served only to intensify everything still further, but Tobias could feel the tension in his frame, as if he was afraid… even now, fighting against all the irresistible impulses that drew them together.

At last, Tobias found his strength and kissed back. He caught Anders’ cheek in his palm, and held him firm when he seemed to want to pull away. The smallest husk of a sound, like a whimper of defeat, broke between them. Tobias wrapped his other arm around Anders’ shoulders, held him fast, and slowed the pace of their kiss, allowing him time to breathe if not to escape.

Not yet… not after all the fucking waiting.

Those ridiculous feathered pauldrons tickled the underside of his bare arm, surprisingly soft, and the coarse fabric of the appalling coat itself chafed beneath his grip as Anders shifted. He didn’t break away, though, and he didn’t resist. Far from it, in fact. He pressed closer, and Tobias shivered a little at the feel of him, the warmth of his body hidden by all those layers of rough, heavy cloth, yet still so easily detectable, with the need and desire crackling off him like sparks.

Tobias felt long, cool fingers rise to cup his face: dry, rough skin and gentle caresses. Slowly, the wet heat of tongues and desperation gave way to the uncertain warmth of parted lips, hot breath, and the prickle of an unshaven chin rubbing against his. Bodies tight together, fused by heat and want, he rocked against Anders, feeling the answering warmth of his form: an unyielding, enticing mirror.

Eventually, Tobias realised that, not only was he hard enough for the confines of his breeches to be painful, he was also fairly sure he’d forgotten how to breathe. Tiny stars littered his vision, and the magelight had sputtered and broken, leaving them both in darkness. He didn’t care. He growled softly into Anders’ mouth, lips seeking just one more embrace before they parted, and Anders did not disappoint. As his thumbs stroked broad fans along Tobias’ cheekbones, he pushed back hard, pressed him flat to the shelves again, and took his breath in one long, renewed, sweeping kiss.

It lasted until they were both panting, gulping at the hot, stale air, and Tobias clutched at the rough seams and hard edges of Anders’ coat, just trying to hold himself upright. Anders nuzzled into his jaw, forehead pressed against his cheek and hands resting on his shoulders, fingers digging into the leather of his dyed hide jerkin.

I’m dead. I’ve died, and this is the Fade. This is the biggest, purplest desire demon ever, and I don’t care. I don’t care, as long as I never wake up. Oh, Maker, don’t let me wake up….

Tobias breathed deeply, inhaling the scent that clung to the dirty blond hair tickling his nose, and wrapped his arm around the warmth of Anders’ tense, taut form. The dry remnants of the burn on his palm scraped painfully against the back of the terrible coat, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore, except this; except them. Anders’ breath puffed against his skin, raising shivers and intense prickles of desire where warmth met sweat, and heat met softness, and Tobias held him tighter, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to consider the fact that, at some point, reality might have to seep back in between them.

It came all too quickly, of course. From the clinic, the sound of voices and the clatter of bedpans… and then Saryha’s voice, surprisingly near to the cupboard that held them.

“Messere?” she called uncertainly. “Messere, I’m sorry, but I need some help….”

Tobias screwed his eyes shut even tighter, biting down hard on the urge to yell and cuss, while Anders let out a desperate groan through gritted teeth. He pressed his forehead against Tobias’ neck as he leaned into him, apparently trying to will the rest of the world to go away, and those long-fingered hands folded into fists over the buckles of his jerkin.

“Just a minute!” he called back, his voice slightly croaky and his tone snappish.

Tobias couldn’t help grinning, even as Anders started to lever himself away, and he stroked the back of that warm blond head.

Well, that ought to convince everyone we were fucking in here….

His vision was blurred when he opened his eyes, spotted with stars and smears of blue in the grainy half-light. Anders stared apologetically at him, guilty and wide-eyed, his lips damp and slightly reddened. He looked every bit as wicked and wonderful as he used to, those nights in Varric’s suite, though there was no cheeky smile here, no glib façade.

“It’s all right,” Tobias promised, though he wasn’t entirely sure what ‘it’ was.

“This is a terrible idea,” Anders said softly, his hands still resting on Tobias’ jerkin, fingers flexing a little against the supple leather as the sound of clattering coppers and the pregnant woman’s coughing filtered through from the clinic.

Tobias shook his head gently. “No, it isn’t.”

“Hawke—”

He bit his lip as those dark eyes rose to meet his, as full and vivid as wide-blown flowers nodding their heads at the last days of summer. Fear twisted a cold blade in his chest, and he lifted one hand to Anders’ jaw, fingers half-curled on the hope, the promise of a caress.

Don’t do this. Don’t bring me this far, just to take it all away. I couldn’t bear it. I truly couldn’t—

“I can’t do this,” Anders murmured plaintively, though the words were barely audible beneath thick, needy breaths, and he made no effort to pull any further away.

“Yes, you can.” Tobias rubbed his thumb along the hard, warm line of Anders’ cheekbone, his lips aching for just one more touch. “If you want. Do you want to?”

He didn’t really want to frame the words, he realised. The possibilities were too frightening. Here he was, with this infuriating man against him, desire branding his flesh like hot coals… and yet, if Anders told him no, he’d go without a word. He would probably never forgive him—or himself—but he’d go, and it would be the end of everything. He’d never felt more vulnerable.

Anders shook his head: an infinitesimal, stifled movement. His stubble scratched at Tobias’ palm, and those long-fingered hands flexed against his chest. “I—”

“Messere!” Saryha called again from the clinic, and a murderous look flickered behind Anders’ eyes.

“Let me come to you,” he said, smoothing his hands over the green leather that encased Tobias’ chest. “Tonight, once I’ve— Let’s find somewhere. What d’you say?”

Tobias blinked, unsure he’d really heard those words, or really seen the glittering, focused desire in Anders’ face.

“Wh…?” he managed, his mouth dry and his tongue flabby. “Uh….”

“Here’s no good.” Anders glanced towards the ramshackle door, leaning heavily on its hinges and barely affording them any privacy at all. “Neither’s your place. Tavern. I’ll come, soon as I can. I promise.” He grinned suddenly, the whites of his eyes and his teeth pale flashes in the gloom, and his whole face lit up with that luscious, beautiful wickedness. “We can… talk. If you like.”

Tobias’ brain finally kicked into gear, and he squeezed out a lop-sided, incredulous smile. The whole world had apparently fractured, and nothing made sense anymore, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter one tiny bit.

“Not the Hanged Man,” he murmured, his hands slipping from Anders’ coat as they parted, briskly brushing themselves down and attempting not to look like two furtive youths who’d been grappling in the bushes. “Ten Bells, by the docks. D’you know it?”

Anders nodded. “By the Port Authority office?”

“That’s it. I’ll… I’ll wait there.”

Tobias felt oddly small and nervous as he made that promise, perhaps because he was aware that he would have to leave here, have to walk away, have to make his way through the night and wait for Anders to follow… and to believe that he would.

He was terrified of being wrong.

Anders nodded again, as if he was reassuring himself. “Right. I— Midnight? Ish. I think. I….” He gestured hopelessly towards the clinic, the patients, and whatever chaos Saryha had got herself into. “I’ll try.”

“Try” isn’t “promise”, love. Please. Don’t set me up to fall. I’ll break if you do.

Tobias knew better than to argue, so he nodded and tried to will his breeches to slacken. Anders reached clumsily past him, grabbing at the bottles on the shelf behind him, and he held them up with a sheepish grin.

“Tincture of embrium,” he said, edging past, towards the door.

Tobias snorted softly, wincing as Anders pushed the crooked wood aside, and the second-hand candlelight from the clinic seeped back in to sting at his eyes. The bastard had probably known where they were the whole time.

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Chapter 32
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