Justice in Surrender: Chapter 6

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Things were changing in Kirkwall. There were whispers everywhere, pooling out from The Gallows like the shivering breeze across a lake, ruffling all they touched and leaving ripples to spread out behind them.

People said the qunari weren’t waiting for a boat. People said they meant to stay, sucking converts to them and bleeding the city dry in the doing. Bad things were happening in the north, too; Starkhaven and Tantervale were lousy with apostates… and nasty ones, at that. Everywhere, there were murmured suspicions of blood magic, and demons under every pillow.

Naturally, there were those who said such talk was rubbish; nothing but Knight-Commander Meredith seeking to make her hold on Kirkwall even more iron-clad. If Viscount Dumar had half the balls of the average weasel, he’d shake her up and tell her to mind her damn place… yet there were stories.

No one could deny that.

Come sundown, every tavern seemed to hold a dozen men who knew a friend who had a cousin whose sister said she’d had a run-in with a blood mage. They were getting cocky, people said, making forays into respectable ways of life what had nuffin’ to do with filth like that. If it came to it, the templars should crush the lot of ’em. After all, everyone knew what had happened in Ferelden during the Blight. Whole Circle fallen… annulled. Gone to demons, every last dog of them—and darkspawn were basically blood mages, weren’t they? The Chant said something along those lines, or such was the version of it distilled through a couple of pints of ale and an evening full of bellyaching. So, it stood to reason, didn’t it?

Teach the mages their place… the rest of it would follow. Obvious when you thought about it.

Tobias started to watch his step more carefully.

Oh, most of it was nothing more than malcontents. What with the number of Fereldan refugees who’d stayed on in Kirkwall instead of going home (or ‘back where they came from’, as the usual parlance had it), there was plenty of ill-feeling about, and Meredith’s zero-tolerance policies ensured it was directed at mages. Maybe there was a little dinner-table gossip in Hightown—tsk, tsk, terrible thing, state of the world, what was it all coming to?—but the vein of ugly discomfort beneath it all wasn’t down to any one thing. The city groaned under the strain of multiple tensions, and yet the eyes of all nations remained on the piddling little barbarian country that smelled of dogs and ox dung and, somehow, had managed to choke off an entire Blight.

Orlais was jostling like a randy goat, apparently. People said the empress was furious, incandescent at the unbelievable gall and sheer blind luck of a place she regarded as little better than an abandoned colony. Some said there would be a war… which would mean more bloody refugees coming across the sea.

Somehow, that seemed to be the fault of mages, too.

Leandra worried. Tobias suspected she’d have kept him under lock and key if she could have, which hardly eased the pressures at home.

Gamlen, whatever his faults, did seem to genuinely care for his sister—unless it was just the guilt talking—and Tobias sometimes wondered if that was the only thing stopping him from dropping a few choice hints to the templars. The first time he caught himself thinking that, he rubbed his forehead and told himself he was getting just as paranoid as bloody Anders.

No, he’d be fine. He had… connections.

He’d been careful, played his cards close to his chest ever since they got off the damn boat. Aveline, despite their rather terse relationship, was still an occasional visitor to the house—more for Leandra’s sake than his, Tobias thought, though he didn’t begrudge it. There were bonds there… even loyalty, of a kind. Without her, they probably wouldn’t have made it out of Ferelden alive, and without him, she definitely wouldn’t be where she was today.

So, with allies like her, and more importantly like Varric, who could have sold fleas to a dog and made a profit, he knew he was protected. To a degree, anyway… as long as he didn’t push his luck. Not like Anders, who—as Varric had grown fond of complaining in recent weeks—cost him almost as much in bribes to keep safe as Merrill.

The clinic was still running. The healer was, as everyone knew, always there for those who needed him.

That was what bothered Tobias the most. It was almost as if the stupid bastard wanted to get caught.

He went down there, sometimes. Days he could afford the time, or nights when he’d only otherwise have ended up slouched in Varric’s suite, putting away far more ale than was good for him. And he had kept that promise… mainly. He didn’t drink so much. Hadn’t, in weeks.

Life was shit when he was sober.

Still, he’d go… spend a few hours rolling up bandages or boiling something green and sloppy, and watching Anders move methodically through his duty of care to all those patients. So focused, so strong, so… determined. It was like he was pushing towards something, reaching for some goal that Tobias could neither see nor understand.

It didn’t seem to be about the pure, unselfish joy of helping people. Maybe he felt that—Tobias couldn’t have said—but, from where he stood, it looked a lot more as if Anders was trying to lose himself. He worked until he could barely stand, barely string two words together, and he just brushed away any questions or concerns.

“You’ll do yourself a mischief if you don’t slow down,” Tobias warned, the one evening he was able to corner Anders about it.

They were as alone as they were going to be; a woman who’d just been delivered of twins, and a child with ulcerated wound on his leg took up two pallets laid on the floor, their respective relatives crowding around the bedsides. These days, it was comparatively unusual for Anders to have patients staying overnight. He said it meant things were improving. The refugees might be working out as a more permanent fixture than most of Kirkwall’s citizenry would have preferred, but at least their shanties had started to resemble a kind of organised chaos. A better class of desperation, he’d joked.

Tobias had smiled, glad to see him quipping after the blood and panic of the woman’s difficult labour. Glad, too, to think about something other than the red, wrinkly babies swaddled up in clean cloths. He remembered when Carver and Bethany were born, and his father had taken him in to see them for the first time. He’d held Tobias’ hand, guided it up to touch first one tiny face, then the other… told him how special it was that he was now a big brother twice over, and how these little ones would look up to him and learn from the things he did.

He remembered Bethany’s hand, no bigger than a silver piece, clasping his finger, and her mouth flexing as eyes that looked like black buttons in the lamplight swivelled towards him, unfocused but curious.

In turn, the memories led to others. Another hand, mottled and gnarled, that flung his sister’s body down like a wet rag, a discarded and broken toy.

Tobias hadn’t been able to stay, to watch the damp smiles and the tired laughter, or the proud face of the woman’s husband as he gazed down lovingly at the three of them. He’d retreated to the back of the clinic, found something busy to do with the coppers and the fire, and tried to pretend he was useful.

When Anders came over to join him, hollow-eyed and even paler than usual, Tobias hadn’t been able to stop the admonishment popping out. Anders just shrugged. He’d taken his coat off to play midwife, and there was still blood on his shirt, though his sleeves were pushed up to the elbows and his arms scrubbed clean.

“It’s Justice,” he said, his voice low enough not to carry across the dim, cramped quarters. “That’s all. He forgets about limits. About bodies. He never understood that humans have needs. Like, uh, sleeping,” Anders added hurriedly, glancing down at the wooden bench between them, and its array of clay pots and copper pans.

Tobias smiled grimly. “As if I thought you meant anything else….”

It wasn’t a sharp barb. Anders let it slide without comment, though Tobias was sure the texture of the air between them shifted. It was there, that undeniable tension, there all the time, and yet they were supposed to pretend it wasn’t. Tobias hated it, but recognised that—if Anders wanted to make things into a choice between friendship and bitter stalemate—he’d play the model of chaste amity.

Well, almost.

And there was always The Blooming Rose. The Antivan, Esel… he was eager, encouraging, and discreet. The judicious gift of certain salves and potions had cleared up the only obstacle to Tobias’ continued patronage and—even if it wasn’t enough—it was something. He needed that much. A night or two a month to bury himself in a hot, yielding embrace and a cloud of perfumed sin… and someone who didn’t mind what he mumbled into the bedclothes when they fucked.

Tobias shook his head. “You can’t keep on like this, though. I mean, if I knew healing, I’d—”

Anders chuckled wearily. “You?”

“I’d help,” Tobias said, a trifle reproachfully. “Properly.”

Help. Huh….

Anders never wanted him to do that, did he? Always keeping him at arm’s length, refusing to talk about the Underground, or the people he knew in the city’s grimmest, darkest quarters… or the places he went on those moonless nights, just before The Gallows burst out in uproar over some prisoner’s miraculous escape.

Tobias wasn’t stupid. He just wished he knew whether he was being shut out because Anders wanted to protect him… or because he didn’t trust him.

He shrugged. “Well, I could learn how to do something, couldn’t I?”

The tired smile on Anders’ face lingered, curiosity touching those dark eyes. The way they creased at the corners enthralled Tobias, and he blinked hurriedly, feeling small and exposed and stupid.

Anders had said healing couldn’t be learned. Not from scratch. He’d said you either had it or you didn’t… and Tobias had been reasonably convinced that he didn’t. Not like Bethany.

Over on the far side of the clinic, one of the new babies made a small, weak gurgling noise, too quiet to be a real cry. Tobias glanced over at the scene, watched the woman cradle the child to her breast, holding it close and soothing it while her husband held the other.

“I could try,” he murmured.

Anders said nothing. Eventually, the night grew quiet and soft, and Tobias found himself a spare pallet and a blanket, and settled into a lean, uncomfortable sleep. He thought he heard Anders stir in the dark once or twice; mumbled cries and the sound of him shifting on his narrow bed, behind the ragged old curtain.

Tobias lay still, and counted the breaths until the movements seemed to settle. The shadows folded in, and everything was silent again.

Come the morning, he didn’t ask about the dreams. It was a Grey Warden thing, apparently, and more than that he didn’t need to know.

All the same, they joked, for a little while after, about Tobias learning how to heal.

Eventually, on one of those not especially busy mornings—when it was raining hard, plastering Kirkwall’s dust and grime to the city walls like a lacquer of unpleasant memories—Anders made good on it.

The clinic was virtually empty. The last batch of runaways and waifs had gone on their way more than a week ago, leaving Anders devoid of ‘assistants’, and evidently the weather was bad enough to keep even Darktown’s denizens holed up in their tunnels. Everything felt damp and chilly… everything except for the pool of warmth in the palm of Anders’ hand.

He’d summoned a small sphere of pale blue light, its surface crazed with a dancing veil of shapes and patterns, like a film of oil slicking water, and now he held it out to Tobias, nodding encouragement as he did so.

“Go on. Touch it. See how it feels.”

Tobias gingerly extended two tanned, callused fingers, and touched the surface of the sphere. It was just light, just energy. Nothing solid about it, and yet he felt its resistance, felt the strength of the magic… Anders’ strength, he corrected, and the vast weight of his power, like a blazing line of molten steel pouring straight in from the Fade itself.

He tasted something metallic and bitter, and the hairs rose on the back of his neck, and on his bare arms. Being in the same room as Anders when he used magic was… overwhelming. Maker knew, it was bad enough being within a seven foot radius when he cracked open a can of lightning on whatever band of thugs or mercenaries had fallen foul of someone wealthy enough to pay for their removal, but this….

He could have stared into the little ball of light for hours. Could have stood there, drinking in the way it felt, and the gentle throb of energy emanating from that pale, herb-stained hand. It was oddly intimate, this sharing of power, as if Anders was allowing him to touch something private, something delicate… something that only mages could understand.

Tobias had never thought of magic like that before. It was a part of him, yes… it was within him, an essential component of the way he sensed the world, but it seemed different now. It tasted different. And, for the first time since Bethany died, it was something that connected him to someone else, instead of isolating him. That was a strange feeling.

Anders talked about all the aspects of healing. There were ways to take away pain, to soothe and calm and comfort, and ways to induce sleep and stillness, and those all drew on one set of rules. The meat of it—the mending broken bones and closing up cuts and holes in heads—that was more complex. There was no point in trying to regenerate anything if you didn’t know how it was supposed to go back together, for a start. It took study, and book learning, and more glances at the insides of dead people than was generally considered sanitary or proper. Beyond that, you needed to be strong.

All healing, he said, was strength. That, and control. It didn’t surprise Tobias to hear it. He was all too well aware of Anders’ self-control, and the fact horseshoes could have been bent around it. Tobias wondered if he’d been as good a healer before Justice, but he didn’t like to ask.

“I-I can’t,” he protested, shaking his head nervously when Anders first wanted him to try a practical exercise. “What if I blow your arm off or something?”

Anders smiled. “You won’t. Go on. Just try it. Feel it.”

He tried. Absorbed everything Anders said and, after hours of effort, managed to manifest a fizzling squib of energy that didn’t turn into ice, flame, or a spirit bolt the moment he blinked.

“Good!” Anders beamed encouragingly. “That’s it. Concentrating?”

“Nngh,” Tobias managed, through gritted teeth.

The small, pulsing orb of light between his palms flickered, and the feeling of still, soothing warmth against his skin began to cool. He ground his teeth, trying to put into practice everything Anders had so patiently explained, but this wasn’t like the kind of magic he was used to wielding.

Tobias tensed his legs, pushing his feet firmly into the floor, braced for an impact that wasn’t going to come. Magic used to defend himself—fire thrown to fell an enemy, or the force of spirit energy used to stun or knock back opponents—that was predictable. You could feel it, throw yourself against it, and let the waves of its catharsis break around you.

This… this was hard.

He frowned, breathed slowly, and grew ever more aware of the swell of power surging within him. That wasn’t new. It was as familiar as the pulse in his veins and, as he drew on it, pulled it up from the core of his being, it beat with an age-old pattern.

He closed his eyes, listening to Anders’ voice. He was so calm… a low, melodious tone that Tobias could have listened to forever.

“Good. Don’t let it go. Control it… remember, healing is about focusing, about building. You can’t just unleash yourself. Remember how we talked about structure.”

It was almost a distraction. Too easy, with his eyes shut, to let himself lapse into thinking about that voice buzzing against his skin, murmuring his name as its owner kissed his neck, or whispered soft entreaties and encouragements into the night.

Tobias’ palms burned. His arms felt hot, full of long, liquid lines of fire, and he knew that was wrong. Healing was meant to be cool, strong, slow… he was losing his grip. He blinked, caught his breath, his mouth full of the taste of greasy electricity and bitter, stagnant air and, moving quickly, he pushed his hands out in front of him. Twin bolts of energy ripped from them, leaving his vision full of white-hot after-ghosts.

“Shit!”

There was a clatter of tables and things going flying as Anders jumped back then, as Tobias was still rubbing the blue spots from his eyes, rounded to stamp out the flames.

“Oops.”

“No harm done,” Anders said brightly, scuffing a boot over the scorch marks on the wooden floor. “Maybe we should take a break there.”

Tobias shuffled awkwardly and mumbled an apology.

It would be the last time he tried to heal for a while.

Anyway, what with the current climate, learning more magic probably wasn’t a good idea. He stuck to not using it as far as he could, and allowed life to fill him up with its grey, shapeless edges.

Leandra was pleased. She had him playing messenger boy, to and from the viscount’s office every third day… writing letters, sending letters, fetching letters. So much bloody paperwork, and all about the estate, naturally.

Gamlen was taking a keen interest, quite possibly because he thought he’d be moving up in the world with them. Tobias was tempted to roundly disabuse the old bastard of that notion, but it would have Caused A Scene, as his mother told him. No one could pronounce capital letters like her.

He wondered, sometimes, what had become of the impulsive girl who’d thrown away the whole life of nobility and privilege mapped out for her, and chosen to run off with a dusty-footed, penniless apostate. He didn’t remember his mother ever seeming to yearn for the kind of world she’d left behind, but maybe she had secretly missed it. Tobias wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Still, there was no point dwelling. She was just worried about his safety, he knew… and with good reason. Rumours kept buzzing through the city about raids on dens of apostates. Badly copied, misspelled leaflets papered the walls in the markets and bazaars, sputtering bitter, jingoistic proclamations by a furious citizenry against the curse of mages.

Even Varric had to admit that the things Anders talked about in The Hanged Man were beginning to sound less paranoid.

Tobias took to sitting with his back to the wall when he drank with the dwarf, gaze fixed on the door. Most nights, Anders didn’t come, and it would take a couple of pints to loosen him up and stop him thinking that something must have happened. A stupid impulse, given that they usually knew not to even expect him.

Fenris took the city’s shifting mood in stride, at least.

He’d sprawl at Varric’s table, curled around a bottle of wine, and snarl about how the world would be better off with mages choked at heel. Tobias knew of the darkness and pain that had forged such uncompromising hatred, but it didn’t stop him getting irritable.

“If we’re all so appalling,” he snapped, in the middle of one of the elf’s particularly vicious speeches, “why don’t you find some more congenial company?”

Fenris stopped, mid-rant, and met his glare head-on. A long, difficult moment passed, the thick silence that hung between them, overlaying the noise from the bar, broken only by Varric making a show of refilling cups and calling loudly for another pitcher.

The elf’s jaw clenched and unclenched slowly, though those startlingly bright eyes never wavered. Finally, he blinked, the great sweeps of dark lashes brushing his cheeks as he inclined his head ever so slightly.

“I… apologise, Hawke.” The words clanged to the table like lead weights, and Fenris’ brows drew together. “You are not… every mage.”

Tobias snorted. “No.”

He raised his mug, swilled a mouthful of ale, and realised how good it felt to score a point against someone like Fenris. One little chink in that shell of brooding self-righteousness. He swallowed and, not for the first time, thought how phenomenally good-looking the elf was. If it wasn’t for the lyrium brandings, the semi-permanent scowl, and the occasional thin line of a scar, he’d be almost too pretty for a man. It was a special kind of pretty, though, Tobias reflected. Pretty like a fine blade, ground down to a hard, wicked edge.

He grinned and kicked out a foot, striking Fenris on the ankle. A lesser—or slightly more sober—man might have feared having the beating heart ripped from his chest, but the thought didn’t occur to Tobias. He nodded at Fenris’ empty bottle, cuddled protectively in the crook of one gauntlet-less arm.

“Wanna ’nother one?”

It was almost the start of a beautiful friendship… but not quite.

He went to The Rose later that night, pushed a purse of coins into Lusine’s talons, and downed a double whiskey while he waited for Esel.

Same grubby, faded little bedchamber, same smell of musty curtains and rose oil… same smiling face, framed by wisps of blond hair escaping from a hastily scraped back ponytail.

Tobias didn’t leave him time to speak. He smelled of mint leaves and scented soap. Very freshly washed. Tobias wondered, for a few fleeting moments, about Esel’s previous encounter, but he pushed the thoughts away. No point dwelling. No need to think about anything outside this room.

Esel allowed him a kiss as the clothes fell like winter leaves, briskly discarded. Tobias pulled Esel’s hair free of its bindings, raking his fingers through it before he buried his face in the warmth of the other man’s shoulder.

It was embarrassing, this need of his. The whore held him, kissed his cheek, stroked his face… told him how handsome he was. Tobias’ chest clenched convulsively, and he held on, burying himself in Esel’s arms instead of his body. He wanted to be touched, fucked, made love to… but he didn’t know how to ask. Not here, and not from him.

Instead, he spooned up close behind Esel on the bed, took him deep and slow and, with his eyes shut tight, almost believed it was real enough to hold onto.

“So, life is good?” Esel asked conversationally, once he was finished.

They lay under the stale-smelling coverlet, him flat on his back with his arms behind his head, and Tobias hunched a little to the side, eyeing the smooth planes of his chest like a hungry dog.

“Hm?”

“Life is good, for you? I hope so.”

Tobias shrugged. “Can’t complain.”

“Oh, you can.” Esel smiled. “That’s what I’m here for, no? Frustrations and complaints. You come here, and you lose… mmm… all your problems.”

He reached across the bed, trailing his fingers down Tobias’ arm, and gave him a cocky little smile. Tobias shrugged again, mildly irritated by the contact, and yet aroused.

“S’not that simple,” he mumbled.

Esel leaned over and kissed his shoulder, hand slipping south, tracking down over his belly, down to the edge of the coverlet.

“I just… I wish things were different,” Tobias murmured lamely. “That’s all.”

Esel made noises of soothing encouragement, in between kissing his chest. Those lovely, honeyed words tumbled from him as his hand closed around Tobias’ shaft, squeezing out a little bonus thrill and the chance of an extra couple of silvers. He was such a handsome man, such a lover… surely, he could have anyone he wanted.

Tobias frowned glumly, then twitched the coverlet aside and pushed Esel’s head down to his crotch.

Pretty words, but they didn’t feel remotely true.

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