Justice in Surrender: Chapter 22

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The Bone Pit wasn’t all that far out of town. Clearly, Tobias decided, the Imperium had foregone preserving any pretty vistas in favour of reducing cargo costs from the quarry, and the network of mines and caves that ran off from it. Besides, the smoke that Kirkwall’s Foundry District belched out easily masked any unsavoury smells of industry that might have wafted in. They could still see the smog laying over Lowtown’s terraces like a grey shroud as they left the city behind them: him, Fenris, and Isabela, plus a couple of bulky lads she’d shown up at The Hanged Man with.

He hadn’t been sure he’d wanted to cut her in on the job, but she’d pouted and dropped heavy references to a shipment coming in at the week’s end that, with the guard’s recent arrests of certain smuggling cartels—Tobias couldn’t imagine where the Coterie’s spy had found his information, naturally—was wide open for interested parties to take a share in.

He’d been tempted; he could admit it. He still had plenty of contacts, after all… still knew where to shift hot merchandise, and the right people to fence things further afield than grubby tavern back rooms.

It was a good offer. She knew it, and she knew that he knew she knew it. So, he’d sighed, and agreed to take her and her boys along.

Typical Isabela. She always did know how to strike a deal.

Nevertheless, it gave Tobias a feeling of old times, and he clung to that, just as tightly as he clung to the morning’s brightness, and the feel of the cold air on his skin. The smell of a fresh challenge seemed to hang over everything. It tasted like warm steel and a cold salt breeze, and he pulled it right down into his lungs, eager to savour it and hold it tight.

They were quiet as they walked, taking an old cut up past the cliff path towards Hubert’s mine, leaving the lower terraces of Kirkwall spread out below them, spilling from the city walls like the teeming of dusty beetles. Beyond the jagged shapes of towers and roofs, and the great hard line of the Keep, the ocean daubed a band of hazy greyish blue that met the sky, and a couple of ships coasted lazily against it. Tobias squinted as he looked out across the horizon, a little amazed at how warped and strange the perspective seemed from up here. The coastline cupped a natural harbour, and layer upon layer of the cliffs seemed eaten away, pitted and wounded in the truest sense… just as the name of the place suggested.

Sundermount rose at their backs, though he didn’t turn to look towards it. He had no wish to let his mind drift to the Dalish camp, or any of the other weird things hidden up on those slopes. Instead, he walked on, leading his little group along the rough, sandy path. It was cold, but not properly cold. Not a proper winter at all, in his opinion. He’d never thought it would be the case, but he missed Fereldan mud, and rain, and even snow. Satinalia was less than two weeks away, and it didn’t feel right without at least a proper thick frost on the ground.

“I’m surprised Anders isn’t with us,” Isabela said cheerfully, increasing her pace a little to saunter beside him. “Would have been useful, wouldn’t it? Bring the healer along when you’re poking through forgotten underground ruins?”

Tobias winced. The last time he’d been underground with her had been the Deep Roads, and he had no wish whatsoever to recall it.

“Well, we’re not intending to be down there long. We’d better not be, anyway,” he added, narrowing his eyes. “I didn’t bring a change of smallclothes.”

Isabela grinned happily, the weak sunlight spearing off her jewellery. “Oh, well. Maybe you won’t need them. You never know your luck, after all!”

One of the bulky lads she’d brought made an obligatory ‘hur hur’ noise, and Tobias rolled his eyes.

“Still,” he said, ostensibly to himself, “it might seem like a long trip….”

Fenris snorted. “Longer still if we had the abomination to lecture us throughout. I would rather take my chances with whatever is down there than listen to another diatribe on the woeful lot of mages.”

He still said the word with the same kind of disgust as most people might reserve for having dog shit all over the bottom of their sandals, but Tobias chose to ignore it, and to concentrate instead on the slow, rhythmic thud of feet on the sandy ground. Isabela peered back at the elf, her lips lightly pursed, then elbowed Tobias sharply in the ribs.

“Ow. What?”

The breeze licked around his shoulders, and it lifted her hair slightly where it cascaded from beneath the cloth bandanna she wore.

“No, really….” She lowered her voice as she looked sidelong at him. “Is he all right? Anders, I mean. Especially after that business at the Rose?”

Tobias frowned. “What business?”

The Rivaini’s expression flickered from surprise to salacious glee. “Oh! Oh? You didn’t—? I thought you were there last night.”

A deeply uncomfortable sensation, like the slow percolation of dread and nausea, filtered through his gut. “Who said I was? Why?”

Isabela waved a hand impatiently. “Oh, you go with Jethann. So do I. I was there for breakfast this morning, and you know how word gets around.”

“Hnnmm,” Tobias mumbled, looking away as he tried not to simultaneously recall the taste of the elf’s skin, and the feel of Isabela’s fingers digging into the back of his neck as he thrust grimly against her in the dark. His frown deepened. “What… what about—?”

“Lusine threw him out, apparently,” she confided, leaning a little closer as they walked. “Anders. He was supposed to be taking care of one of the girls, but something went wrong. He didn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it, I don’t know. Jethann didn’t know.” The conspiratorial tone faded a little from her voice, and she looked briefly concerned. “I just hoped he wasn’t having problems. You know… more than usual.”

Tobias glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t tell if any of the others had overheard. Isabela’s big, stupid, brawny lugs were talking amongst themselves, and Fenris was glaring up at the cliffs as if he could scowl them into submission. He probably could, Tobias decided, if he was given long enough. The breeze still tasted of salt, but somehow everything was bitter.

Obviously, he knew what Anders did for the girls at the Rose, and at half a dozen of the cheaper, less pleasant brothels in the city… not to mention plenty of women from the slums who, married and unmarried alike, had found themselves on the receiving end of unwanted male attention or, sometimes, simply couldn’t bear the burden of another mouth to feed. It was just that actively thinking about it made him feel slightly sick. And the thought that Anders had argued with Lusine—over anything, much less that—was unsettling, because Madam liked to get her way, and people who didn’t cooperate tended to find the Coterie breathing down their necks.

“When… when was this? Last night?”

Isabela shrugged. “Yeah. Late. I don’t know when, exactly… but it was quite the gossip this morning. Madam was livid, apparently. When Jethann said he’d seen you last night, I just assumed—”

“No,” Tobias said distantly, staring at the gritty path, littered with small stones and the glimmer of mica among the rough sand.

“Oh. Because I thought you and Anders—”

He wished she’d shut up, but tact and restraint weren’t exactly Isabela’s strong points.

“—Or,” she corrected herself speculatively, “should I say, you, Anders, and Justice? I mean, I was curious about that. It must be exciting. You know what they say: two’s company, but three’s better, right?”

Tobias grimaced. “I don’t think whoever said that had a Fade spirit in mind.”

“No?” She shrugged. “Whatever you say. I just thought you were quite interested in his, uh, spear of righteousness. That’s all.”

High above them, the sharp black shape of a gull wheeled against the sky, like an embroidered motif picked out on watered silk. The quiet gnawing of waves against the ragged shoreline tugged at the air, and Tobias groaned through gritted teeth.

“‘Spear of—?’ Isabela, I swear, if you don’t stop it—”

“What?” She mugged at him, barely stifling her giggles. “You’ll spank me? Promise?”

He sighed wearily. “No. Anyway, we’re not…. It isn’t like that.”

“It isn’t?” Isabela echoed, that curl of mirthful mockery still on her lips. “Really? You could have fooled me. You’re practically panting every time you see him, and he looks at you like he’s never seen biceps before.”

“He doesn’t,” Tobias muttered automatically, then paused as he glanced out across the ocean. Small caps of white dotted the dark, grey-green waves, and low clouds chased across the hazy sky. They were nearing the mine now; the big, burly lads were getting skittish, the way horses start to shy at the scent of a strange dog on the breeze. He frowned, and peered suspiciously at Isabela. “Does he?”

She laughed, and the sound was like a clay mug shattering. Her mouth spread into a wide grin, the pale glint of a blade against her dark skin, and she shook her head slowly.

“Hopeless. Bloody hopeless…. Hey, maybe he thinks you’re too good a person, so he’s not willing to, uh, smite you.” Her grin widened even further as Tobias pulled another face. “Ooh, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Everyone deserves a good smiting now and then. Matter of fact, I could use one right this minute….”

~o~O~o~

Tobias could cheerfully have throttled her by the time they arrived at the Bone Pit… especially when he saw the welcome party waiting for them.

He’d arranged to meet Varric up there: it had seemed sensible to have a cart, maybe a couple of the Carta hired hands the dwarf was on such easy terms with, and other such things as came in useful when one was clearing out a suspicious—and potentially lucrative—area. After all, if Tobias’ suspicions were correct and it was slavers or lyrium smugglers hiding down there in the tunnels, scaring the workers off, then there was no sense whatsoever in just turning their merchandise over to the authorities. Not at the price that stuff sold for.

So, Tobias had expected to see Varric on the ridge above the mine face, and he’d expected the ox cart with the whining driver complaining about being kept waiting, and he’d expected the two heavily armed dwarves who sat nearby, idly throwing dice on a conveniently flat rock… but he hadn’t expected Anders.

“Hawke!” Varric called out as he strode to meet them, every inch the merchant prince in his cuffed leather boots, wide-lapelled coat, and heavy gloves, his gold chain and earrings glinting in the sunlight. Bianca sat across his back, her brass fittings just as highly polished as his jewellery, and he gave Tobias a disarmingly wide grin. “You’re late. And with so much company.”

“The more the merrier, that’s what I always say,” Isabela chimed in brightly, nodding her head at the lunks she’d brought with her. “Mostly. Anyway, I heard about this little trip, and I just couldn’t resist. You know, there was a brothel on the sunny side of Antiva City called The Bone Pit.” She craned her neck, peering past Varric to the worn duckboards, overturned carts and debris evidently abandoned by the fleeing workers, and the eerie crevasse of the mine’s opening itself. “Hmph. Wasn’t a bit like this, mind you….”

Tobias blinked hurriedly. He hadn’t been listening. He’d been looking past the dwarf, and the cart, and not even at the mine’s entrance, but at the lone figure standing away to the side and staring out towards the thin slip of the sea that was visible between the rocks and the rise of the quarry’s steep sides. The salt breeze ruffled the feathers on Anders’ appalling coat, and caught at his hair, teasing a few strands loose so that they whipped across his face. He looked pale, tired, and surly, his whole face crumpled into a blank kind of frown but—in the instant just before Varric called out, just as they were coming down the approach path—he’d turned and looked up, and a weak recognition that was maybe even something close to cheerfulness had seemed to wash through his expression. They’d looked at each other—felt each other, Tobias thought to himself, immediately chastising his own brain for coming up with such stupid, insipidly sentimental crap—and, just for a few seconds, it had been lovely.

And now… now Isabela was grinning at him again, and he just knew she hadn’t missed the look that had passed between them, and he sneered as he turned awkwardly away from Anders, even though the healer had already begun to walk towards them, crossing the distance in slow, loose strides, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his coat.

“Didn’t think you’d mind if Blondie tagged along,” Varric said, with something serious in his meaningful nod that Tobias gathered alluded to whatever had happened last night at the Rose. “Always worth having a healer on hand, right?”

From somewhere behind Tobias, Fenris scoffed loudly. He ignored the elf, and nodded his agreement, forcing himself to concentrate on the task in hand, and to take a quick inventory of what they had, and how they were going to approach the job.

Varric had procured a map of the mine and its associated shafts from the foreman, who’d apparently last been seen in the Hanged Man, quivering behind a pint and muttering about ‘’orrible noises in the dark’.

The general consensus was—as one of Isabela’s boys put it—that this was merely what Hubert got for relying entirely on a workforce composed of ‘dog-lords bastards what was all superstitious and fick as pig shit’, but he shut up after his captain waved one of her daggers under his nose and pointed out that Hawke was a dog-lord bastard, and might just rip the arms off anyone who defamed his homeland.

Tobias decided that his reputation evidently preceded him, because the threat seemed to be taken relatively seriously; he wasn’t sure whether he was really that imposing, or whether Isabela’s lunks were just dumb enough to believe the stories Varric told about him.

Who knows? Maybe it’s both….

The little strategy huddle broke, and, as they began to get the hired thugs and the gear together, Tobias caught Anders’ eye for the first time. He’d been hanging back, deliberately absenting himself from the discussion and barely coming near the others. Now, he stepped slightly closer, deigning to dip his head in greeting. He seemed… ethereal, somehow. Apart from the rest of them, like he wasn’t fully concentrating on the world.

“Hawke.” His mouth twitched briefly before he spoke, the word falling from it as lightly as an afterthought.

“Morning,” Tobias said brightly, trying to make the word sound casual—too casual, he thought, cringing at his own clumsiness. “Um… afternoon?”

Anders smiled, but it was a weak, vacant expression. He looked terrible: unshaven, unwashed, and as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

“You all right?” Tobias asked quietly, not really meaning to, but not really able to avoid saying anything, either.

The healer shrugged. “Mm. Long night, that’s all.”

Tobias caught himself taking a deep breath, trying to find the familiar tang of boiled elfroot, soot, and wet dog beneath the salty air… trying to place it against that fleeting moment at the Rose, and embarrassed by it. He cleared his throat, wary of letting on that he knew anything about the problems Isabela had mentioned.

“Uh… I didn’t know Varric was bringing you. I mean, it’s no bad thing, obviously, but—” He lowered his voice, anxious of the wind snatching it away and leaking his words to the others. “It’s underground. I know how you feel about that.”

Anders glanced up and, very briefly, Tobias rejoiced in the warmth of gratitude in that lean, hard-worn face. It was, however, quickly subsumed by the realisation that Anders looked even worse than he’d thought: paler than usual, drawn, and with dark circles and heavy bags beneath red-rimmed eyes. His lips were dry and peeling, his skin dull, and his hair looked greasy and lank.

“Figured it was sensible to have a healer on hand,” he said, his voice quiet and burred with a dry kind of roughness. “Just in case. I stayed at Varric’s suite last night, so… he suggested I tag along, and it seemed like a good plan. You don’t mind?”

“Never.”

“Good.”

Tobias coughed gently. “You, uh…? Were you drunk? I thought you said Justice—”

“He doesn’t. It was a very, very bad idea.” Anders smiled mirthlessly, and squinted across the stony ground towards Isabela. “You know I, um… got myself in trouble last night?”

The big, brawny lads were unloading torches, ropes, sacks, and assorted other bits and pieces from the cart. Varric clearly had no intention of being caught unprepared for anything… certainly not after the Deep Roads, Tobias thought with a shudder.

He nodded tentatively, watching Anders’ face for any suggestion of the truth behind the tale. It was blank, mask-like; as if there wasn’t anything left in him. He looked at a point a few inches to the left of Tobias’ shoulder when he spoke, his eyes unfocused.

“She was only fifteen, at most. Nearly five months gone, though she was hardly showing at all. Skinny little thing. Hadn’t said anything to anyone, because she was afraid Lusine would throw her out. She… she wanted to keep it. I said it was too late, and anyway, I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t want me to, and… and the old cow was furious.”

Tobias winced, his head full of things he didn’t want to think about, and his fingers itching on the empty air as he fought the temptation to reach a comforting hand to Anders’ sleeve.

“Well, that was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? I mean—”

“Was it?” Anders exhaled sharply, a bitter breath puffing between his cracked lips. “I stormed out in the end. Said I didn’t care what she threatened me with. But she’ll only have someone else do it, won’t she? Elina, from the alienage, or old Mrs. Slope, who can’t even see the end of her own nose. And that girl… she’ll die, and it’ll be my fault. And… and it’s not right.”

He frowned slightly, his face tightening with that particular inward look that spoke of Justice moving beneath the surface. Tobias had learned to identify the marks of inner struggle, like the dark switches of a fish under murky water, and they usually preceded Anders making his excuses and going home; scurrying back to his bolthole like a rat running through the shadows.

Only, instead, he was going into an unpredictable and probably dangerous situation… and, for the first time since he’d known the man, Tobias found himself wondering if Anders could truly manage it. He seemed dislocated, unfixed, and that was frightening, when any lapse of his usually ironclad self-control could be so potentially destructive.

And there is no way to say anything at all about it without it sounding like I think he’s crazy. Great.

Tobias cleared his throat, awkwardly groping for something to say.

“Uh…. You did what you thought was right. No one can blame you for that, can they? And— well, I could talk to Lusine, maybe. I mean, once she’s calmed down—”

“Oh,” Anders said, looking up, his eyes beginning to clear a little as he met Tobias’ gaze. “Yes. Of course. You’re quite the regular there, aren’t you? I almost forgot.”

There was a dry edge to his words; something that, in someone who didn’t sound so tired, could easily have been mistaken for bitter malice, and his upper lip curled slightly as he resumed his snideness.

“Madam’s valued customer. Especially now you’re better off. Nothing but the best in aged Antivan brandy and well-trained tarts for you, eh?”

It stung. There was no denying that. And yet, Tobias swallowed the immediate flush of humiliation and shrugged, looking steadily into those dark-ringed eyes.

“Sometimes,” he said dully, not sure where this sudden, sullen impulse to be such a complete bastard came from. “I mean, I do like nice things. Not the girls, though. There’s this elf. A redhead. He’s got the most amazing—”

“I’m sure he has,” Anders said, his tone practically arid. He glanced over his shoulder, to where Varric and the others were inspecting the mine’s entrance. “Well… shall we?”

Tobias frowned. “Are you sure you’re—?”

Anders had already turned away. “Yes,” he said, the word tightly clipped.

But you’re not, are you? You’re not all right at all.

~o~O~o~

It wasn’t too bad to begin with. Tobias didn’t know much about mining—as far as he was concerned, men went down and stuff came out, and somehow a lot of people made a lot of gold in the process—and, at first, he thought the whole of the Bone Pit would be like the open pits and quarries that marked the front end of the site.

He wasn’t really expecting how small, dark, and tight the tunnels would get as they worked deeper into the labyrinthine passages, and he certainly hadn’t pictured the gloom, the dust, the dampness, and odd sounds that lurked in the shadows.

“They say,” Varric began conversationally, as one of Isabela’s boys ventured ahead a few paces with a torch, the oval of firelight illuminating great, scarred walls of rock and the pitted frames of timber supports, “that there are all manner of little demons and imps and whatnot that live in mines. They’ll steal your tools if you whistle, drop rocks on your head if they don’t like your face… that kind of thing. Very superstitious bunch, miners.”

“I thought dwarves had a different religion,” Fenris said, padding behind him with his shoulders even more hunched than usual, and casting wary looks at the packed dirt and stone above them. “Don’t you venerate the earth or something, instead of fearing demons? And isn’t there something about ancestors?”

Varric shrugged. “How in the hell would I know? Topsider my whole life, my friend.”

The Carta dwarves snickered, and one of them turned around to give Varric a gap-toothed grin before nodding at Fenris.

“Paragons never did shit for me,” she said, her voice the only marker of her gender, apparent for the first time beneath shapeless padded armour, a leather helmet, and the heavy black brand on her cheek. “What do I got to thank ’em for? The Stone ain’t looked after me, either. I’ve done all that myself.”

Tobias chewed the inside of his lip thoughtfully as a little desultory discussion between dwarves, elf, and humans filled up the dank passageway. As far as he could see, most gods served the same purpose, and he thought briefly of His Royal Shininess, clinging to his Chantry vows and the saintly odour of piety… hiding behind it for comfort and succour. Maybe he really even believed in it. But what good did that do him? Gods, religions… they were either there to keep people in check, or to keep people believing that they were valid, and safe, and that it was all right to ignore everything in the world that wasn’t safe. Even the dwarves, with the Stone at the centre of their culture… it wasn’t the same Stone for rich and poor. Tobias might never have been to Orzammar, but he knew that much. Their whole world was based on strict castes and classes, as immutable and immovable as the rocks around them. They didn’t need the Chantry, because being a dwarf was practically a religion in itself.

And these superstitions… who needed those? Why fear shadows and strange noises in the dark, when you didn’t even need to be a mage to know that demons were real?

He suppressed a shudder, and glanced towards Anders. He hadn’t spoken since they entered the mine. He walked stiffly, his eyes alert and his gaze darting to every shadow, every corner… like he was waiting for something horrible to happen.

Well, it usually does when he’s around me. Guess I really know how to show a man a good time.

The prickle of anticipation ran down Tobias’ spine, an unscratchable itch between his shoulder blades that grew worse with every crunch of footsteps on the gritty soil. He lengthened his stride, moving to the front of the group, listening to their movements behind him and yet feeling as if he was being drawn deeper into the mine, his face fanned by a warmth that seemed to come from deep within the darkness.

“Who wants to play I Spy?” Isabela said after a while, eliciting a chorus of groans. “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with—”

“Rock,” Varric said shortly. “The answer is going to be ‘rock’, Rivaini.”

She pouted. “It might not have been.”

Tobias took a deep breath. The air was stale, foul… hot. The torch that Isabela’s lad was carrying guttered and went out, to a series of curses and complaints. He started fiddling to relight it, but hadn’t got halfway through the task before Anders had pulled a bright ball of magelight from the air. It cast an eerie, pale glow around the tunnel, highlighting the fading echo of panic on his face—a look that Tobias felt strangely comforted to see, because it matched his own lurch of terror so well.

Ever since the Deep Roads, darkness had felt so much heavier. He caught Anders’ eye briefly, and knew that he understood that feeling, and knowing that helped just a little bit.

He cleared his throat. “Let’s get those torches lit. We’ll want all the visibility we can get. It’s not smugglers… if it was smugglers, or slavers, or even those bloody qunari outcasts, we’d be seeing more mess down here. There’d be bottles, or noises… something to show where they’d been.”

“Hawke’s right,” Isabela agreed, though he wasn’t entirely sure why she felt she had to say so. “You two—get those lights up!”

The female Carta dwarf looked nervously up and down the tunnel, her face lent a greenish hue by Anders’ magelight, and her eyes were like dark saucers.

“If it ain’t that,” she said tentatively, “what is it?”

The smell of sulphur flared against the rocks as Isabela’s boys struggled with their dwarven matches, finally coaxing two fresh torches into flame.

Tobias tilted his head, peering into the blackness ahead of them.

“Dunno,” he said. “But let’s hope it bleeds.”

~o~O~o~

The first hints were the bodies. Some of Hubert’s workers, probably—and quite possibly a few other unfortunate souls—reduced to dismembered, charred pieces of flesh, with the whitish ends of bones poking out through piles of scorched meat, and other, older skeletal remnants crushed to powder beneath them.

“Something feeds here,” Fenris observed darkly, wrinkling his nose at the sour smell that hung in the air.

The torchlight glimmered on his pale hair, shadows shivering against the rocks that surrounded them. Varric said something dry about messy dining, but Tobias wasn’t listening again. He was aware of Isabela’s lads looking scared and sullen, and the Carta dwarves getting shifty, eyeing up the way they’d come—and any other possible exits to dash for in a hurry—and he was very aware of the pallid, sweaty cast to Anders’ face.

Dark. Dark and heavy and thick, like it’s choking you and you can’t get out… you’ll never get out. Never get out again. Maker… pull yourself together! Don’t need both of you curling up in the corner, gibbering….

“Darkspawn do that,” one of the brawny lunks said, his fingers whitening on the torch he held, and his eyes glittering like nervously flitting chips of quartz in his craggy face. “They pull people apart an’ eat ‘em. What if the miners broke froo into the Deep Roads, eh? Whole place could be swarming with the buggers….”

“Darkspawn don’t eat people,” Anders said quietly. “The taint sustains them. They do… horrible things… but not this. This was something else.”

The lunk narrowed his eyes. “How d’you know what darkspawn—”

“He spent a long time in Ferelden,” Tobias cut in. “That’s sort of what we do there. Dogs, cheese, and Blight lore. All right?”

The man looked slightly sulky, but he shut up, even if there were a few stifled mumbles. Tobias was fairly sure he caught the word ‘robe’. It wasn’t the time or place to do anything about it, however, and he motioned towards the fork at the end of the tunnel, where the stale billow of air spoke of another ventilation shaft, and possibly the junction of another cut back up towards the surface.

“This way. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than a deepstalker, so let’s keep our eyes open.”

They found it right down in the mine’s guts, well past the main shafts and chambers. The Bone Pit had grown and changed over time, a grossly attenuated tangle of tunnels and hollowed-out places, and there were all manner of shafts sunk down from the quarry levels, honeycombing the entire place. According to Varric’s map, they led out eventually to the other side of the cliff, where rumour had it that a series of ledges and cuts led down to the shore, making the mine—like so many others in the area—a prime site for smugglers and slavers.

Businessmen like Hubert spent a great deal of coin on paying people like Hawke to clear such places out, and, in many cases, it wasn’t worth the smugglers’ trouble to come back too often… but, in this instance, it looked like the last cartel to try their luck had met a very nasty end.

They unearthed another feeding site, or killing ground, or… something. It was hard to tell exactly what it was through the number of bits of limbs and splintered bone. Several bodies, quite well decomposed, littered a small cavern, and there were a number of weapons either broken or discarded and half-rusted, half-buried in the filth. Varric toed through the mess, and gave his opinion that—whoever the poor bastards had been—they’d died armed to the teeth. The discovery of a huge haul of lyrium, a little further back, packed into a hollow that had been cut from the rock, seemed to suggest that they hadn’t been killed for their stock.

“Huh.” Varric wrinkled his nose. “I owe you a beer, Hawke. Looks like there were lyrium smugglers down here after all. There’s crates of the stuff back here. Potions, dust… gotta be at least three hundred pieces’ worth, in market prices,” he added thoughtfully, with the kind of look on his face that spoke of brief but intense mental arithmetic.

“Much more than that, if you know who to sell it to,” Anders said, his tone bitter and hollow. “Half of the tunnels under the bloody city were built by smugglers. I’m not surprised to see nests this far out, too. I bet people like Hubert turn a blind eye.” He looked up, throwing a baleful glance around the group. “You know the Chantry finances it, don’t you? It’s the templars. They crave the stuff, and if they get cut off… well. Not much they wouldn’t do to get it. They get addicted. Drives them mad.”

The Carta dwarves fidgeted awkwardly, and Isabela’s boys didn’t look much happier. Fenris muttered something about it being ‘no great wonder, given that templars are tasked with keeping mages in line’, and Tobias fought the urge to start smashing heads together. The darkness down here felt thick and cloying, and the lyrium was probably the source of the mild prickling he felt beneath his skin. He wasn’t unfamiliar with its call: the hum that was just a little too disturbing to be called a song.

“Let’s just get on with this, shall we?” he said brusquely, pushing his way past the others, and pushing on towards the acrid sourness that, he fervently hoped, was the way out.

A little after that, they found ventilation shafts, and the site of an older part of the mine that had once extended even further down. Warm air belched up from it, up towards the rocks and ledges that arched away, leading towards the surface… and something else seemed to curl up from the depths, too. There were low, echoing sounds, like growls or deep, roiling breaths, and it caused some consternation amongst the party. Isabela’s boys started muttering about darkspawn again, and Varric had to get sharp with the Carta dwarves when the male started to panic.

Privately, Tobias thought the dwarf had good reason because, as soon became apparent, the thing making the noises turned out to be a dragon.

An actual, Maker-sworn bloody dragon.

A fucking big dragon, made entirely of talons and horns, and teeth almost as long as a man’s arm.

Tobias didn’t waste precious minutes on speculating how it had got down into the mine, although later—once the screaming and the fire and the whole potentially-imminent-death thing was over—it seemed logical that it had come in through the cuts from the rear side of the cliffs, probably from the higher reaches of the mountains, and been drawn to the warmth in the mine’s lowest pits. From there, it had risen to feed… and possibly to get annoyed when it couldn’t get out.

Either way, it wasn’t in the best of tempers when it confronted them. They fought it on a ledge of solid, flat ground at the neck of the cavern it seemed to have made its home, with torchlight glaring off the quartz in the walls, and gouts of flame lighting up the tunnels.

It was a hard fight, too. Hard enough to make the memories of killing an ogre seem like child’s play… not that Tobias made the comparison at the time. He was busy drawing the creature along the cavern, trying to make it stretch its neck out until he could get in one good force blast and slam its head against the rocks.

Unfortunately, a stunned dragon proved to be an angry dragon, and one not without the use of its wings. It tried to take off, and the sheer strength of the movement knocked most of them flying. A few good shots from Varric—and the nasty little explosive canisters Bianca was packing—tore a hole in one wing, but as the beast came down it got a hold of one of the Carta dwarves, and she ended up tossed across the floor in two pieces.

Isabela danced distraction while Fenris went for the dragon’s underbelly, his lithe, white-blue form a smoke of lyrium and danger that ghosted against the darkly burnished scales. Anders worked its head, bolt after bolt of magic popping at its eyes to keep it blind, while the rest of them followed the elf. Tobias could almost taste the power that flared from his brands, and he was grateful for the steel in his fist, relying on it more than his own magic as he rushed again at the dragon’s massive body.

It wasn’t impenetrable. It couldn’t be. If Nevarran dragon-hunters had brought the bastards to near-total extinction, logic said you could kill them. It was merely a matter of perseverance.

Of course, that wasn’t a comforting thought… particularly when Fenris went flying across the rocks, his sword flung from his grasp, and blood pouring from his nose. Tobias yelled for him, aware of one of Isabela’s boys going down too, and aware of the terrible scream the dragon gave—a roar of such condensed fury that he suddenly wondered whether it was the only one of its kind down here—but there was little he could do. His whole world had been reduced to the greyish-red scales and thrashing body ahead of him, with the rank heat of the creature’s breath and its occasional flames toasting the stone beneath him. The stale air burned his bare arms, and the smell of singed hair filled his nostrils. A flare of light behind him made him turn, and he could see Anders—a slim, fair figure lined with electric blue, wrapped in a haze of terrible power—as he worked on Fenris.

Tobias bared his teeth in a grim smile. If the elf lived, he’d be really pissed off about that.

If any of us live, mind you….

With that thought, Tobias gripped his dagger with renewed force, thrust it into the meat of the dragon’s inner thigh—aiming for its softer parts, unshielded by the tough scales on the outer side of its body—and dragged it as far as he could, opening up a long wound that gushed thick, bright blood. The creature’s roar made the rocks shake and, as the great horned head swung around to face him, he balled up every last fibre of his power, pulling the greatest force magic he’d ever known from the utmost pit of his ability.

It felt like he’d ripped his own body into pieces, and he heard Isabela swear as she was knocked on her back and winded, caught in the peripheral blast of the spell, but still… a full-grown dragon’s head could hit the ground much harder than he could hit it, and it bought them a few seconds. Varric howled with glee as one of his arrows took out the dragon’s left eye and, with the mutilated socket bleeding copiously, it struggled to fend them off.

Tobias had the killing blow, if such a thing could be delineated amidst the messy, torturous business of bringing the beast down. His dagger could barely tear deeper than the skin, but Fenris’ sword—a far bulkier weapon than he was used to although, he found as he picked it up from where it had fallen, much lighter than it looked—proved the perfect depth of blade. It was just a matter of avoiding the crippled beast’s last dying flames, and piercing through the back of its skull. Repeatedly. And messily.

Not quite the dramatic end the bards would have people believe, Tobias thought, as—weak-kneed and with a patter of unexplained little lights dancing at the edges of his vision—he half-climbed and half-fell off the back of the beast’s neck… only to find that everyone was watching him.

He swallowed heavily, aware of how thoroughly drenched he was in sweat, and glanced over his shoulder at the enormous corpse. The smell of blood hung over everything in the cavern; even the rocks looked wet with gore.

Panting, Tobias jerked his head towards the dragon. “Is that pissing thing actually dead now?”

“Pretty thoroughly, I’d say,” Isabela observed, wiping the back of her wrist across her forehead.

Like the rest of them, she was smoke-streaked, bloodstained, and knackered. And they were the lucky ones. Tobias looked to the rock behind which Anders had dragged Fenris, but neither was there. The elf had staggered to his feet, and was surveying the aftermath. Tobias held out a hand, offering him his sword back.

“S’lighter than I thought,” he said, noticing the unsteadiness with which Fenris came forward to take it, clutching at the blade like it was the only anchor in a bobbing world.

“It is well balanced,” he croaked, his face sheened with sweat, and those pale green eyes unfocused. “You… finished it.”

“Don’t sound surprised.” Tobias tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace, his lungs burning for air and his head still spinning. “S’what I do, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Varric?” He turned to the dwarf. “Kill unexpectedly aggressive things that are bigger than me? S’my… wotsit… thing. Thing I do.”

Varric gave a short, bitter chuckle. “Huh. Yep… this is going to outdo that ogre story, for sure.”

Tobias nodded hazily, trying hard to hold onto what was real. He suddenly seemed so incredibly thirsty, and he tried to wet his lips with a parched tongue.

“You all right?” he asked Fenris, squinting with concern at the elf’s blurry face. “You were—”

Fenris’ mouth tightened, his eyes growing cool and guarded in spite of his evidently lingering injuries. “Yes. I’ll be fine.”

“Anders,” Tobias murmured, half to himself as he turned, peering around the cavern.

The familiar flare of healing magic called to him through the puffy clouds of this swift and overwhelming fatigue, though he stumbled a little bit on his way across the blood-slick ground. Voices jumbled in Tobias’ ears, and he winced at the sight of the Carta dwarf’s corpse. Varric stood next to her surviving comrade, his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.

“What d’you want to do, Leske? We could take her back.”

“Nah.” The Carta dwarf shook his head, his face a curious mix of sorrow and complete pragmatism. “What’s the use in that? Leave her here. With the Stone.”

Varric nodded. “All right. Is there… anything specific you need to do? I don’t know, a pile of rocks, or a prayer, or—”

“Huh? How the rut should I know?”

“Well, don’t ask me. You were born in Orzammar, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but….”

Tobias left them to it, and moved unsteadily to where Anders was healing one of Isabela’s boys.

“’nything I can do?” he offered.

Anders glanced up, his expression oddly impersonal, and nodded curtly at the ground. “Sit down. Before you fall down. I’ll get to you in a minute, once I’ve set this leg.”

Tobias opened his mouth to protest, only to find that he was already obeying.

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Chapter 23
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A Canticle of Arguments: Chapter 3

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He meets Hawke on the coast path, as arranged. It’s early morning, and the clear, sunlit sky is wide and vividly blue. There is quite the hunting party gathered: Varric is fondling his crossbow affectionately, and Isabela sits on a nearby boulder, sunning herself while Hawke scowls out at the ocean. 

Anders doesn’t really want to notice the way the wind stirs his hair, or to look too closely at that hard, proud profile. He doesn’t need to, unfortunately; it takes barely a breath, and every detail of the scene is committed to memory. His stomach tautens as Hawke turns his head and smiles, and for a very brief moment a look passes between the two of them that makes Anders want to whimper aloud.

It was bad enough that time after the Deep Roads when Hawke got drunk and got himself mugged outside the alienage. He was lucky to be alive when Merrill brought him to the clinic. He still doesn’t know—and Anders is damned if he’s going to be the one to tell him—just how much he owes his life to her accursed blood magic. It’s one of the only reasons Anders tolerates her… that, and it’s hard to really dislike Merrill, even if he wants to physically shake the stupidity out of her.

But, that night, having to strip Hawke down, heal him, and bandage him… Maker, that was difficult. Seeing him like that, bloodied and vulnerable, brought home just how much Anders fears the things that could happen to him—and how much he would give to protect him.

So, he doesn’t mind the fact that Hawke can convince him to make trips out to the coast like this. He doesn’t mind that he is a distraction, and a potent one at that.

Not really, anyway.

They find the bandits that Hawke wants to claim the bounty on. They don’t put up much of a fight, especially when they realise they’re being confronted by two mages, in addition to Varric’s nasty little grenades, and Isabela’s quick, vicious daggers. One pleads for his life, and gets a crossbow bolt through the neck for his trouble, while two more try to run. Hawke brings them down with a telekinetic force spell that Anders privately considers quite impressive. His clenched fist rips through the air, sending both bandits crashing to the ground. One appears to be broken against a rock, his body turning limp as his neck lolls at an unnatural angle. The other is winded, but struggles up and, with a look at his comrade’s corpse, roars and charges Hawke, blade in hand.

Varric is reloading, and Isabela is busy with her own quarry, but Anders has his hands full of flame. He’s ready to cremate the bastard where he stands, rather than let him touch Hawke, but Tobias himself evidently has other ideas, because then he’s running, and the glint of steel in his hand gives him away. He punches the man across the face—it’s a bloody good left hook, too, and Anders hears the crunch of cartilage from where he’s standing—and then the knife is in. It’s a quick, clean, business-like shivving, straight up under the ribs. Hawke, after all, really does know how to stick a knife in someone.

As the body crumples at his feet, he is already shaking out his scraped knuckles and swearing, his blood-smeared blade hanging loosely in his fingers. Anders is fairly sure he shouldn’t be as attracted to the man as he is right at this moment. He is standing amid a pile of bodies, and what they have just done is murder. Yes, there were crimes to be paid for, but it does not feel like justice to all of him.

Damn,” Hawke says, looking up. “Think I broke one. Anders, would you…?”

He flexes the hand with the bloodied knuckles, and Anders goes to him—

Like a lapdog.

and gently places his fingers on the tender flesh. The tanned, strong hand is relaxed in his grasp, and Tobias is right: he has broken a knuckle and fractured his finger. Anders presses carefully, assessing the damage, and his gaze flicks to Tobias’ face as he winces and draws a hiss of breath over his teeth.

Ouch.”

S’what you get for showing off,” Anders says mildly, curving his thumb into the hollow of that firm, callused palm.

Tobias grins that sarcastic, lop-sided grin of his, and his eyes fill with an undeniable warmth that nearly makes Anders forget there’s a dead man at his feet.

Mm. Suppose that means I’ll have to stop bringing you along, then.”

Anders’ jaw tightens. “I’d be more impressed if you didn’t need healing every five minutes.”

He takes a breath, and tries not to watch the way the pulse beats steadily at the base of Tobias’ throat. The man’s gentle laughter caresses his ears as magic swells between them, and Anders starts to heal the breaks.

True,” Hawke says quietly, as the blue glow of light subsides, taking with it that faint smell of warm bread and copper, “but I did get to hold your hand. Now all I need is a groin injury, and—”

Anders snorts, and tries to pretend it’s in disapproval instead of amusement.

Varric ambles over, having already started looting the bodies, and the two of them break apart, like they were doing something to be embarrassed by. Anders clears his throat and asks if everyone else is all right. They are, though Isabela does suggest he gives her a quick rubdown just to be sure. He politely declines, and they set to going through the bandits’ camp.

Anders—Justice—has mild qualms about stealing from dead men, but whatever they had they don’t need any more, and looting is one of the prime perks of bounty hunting. Besides, he has uses for the coin. The Underground needs it, the clinic needs it… and there are too many other good causes that go under-funded in Kirkwall.

~o~O~o~

 

When they get back to the city, Varric suggests a drink. Tobias smells of sweat and salt and blood, and Anders is tired. He can almost taste the other mage’s power—he’s sharp, and sweetly sour, like the scent of wood sap and clean linen, underscored with something dark and rich, reminiscent of the oaken smoothness of aged wine—and it’s too much. 

What he wants—what he really, really wants—is to go to The Hanged Man with them, get completely and utterly smashed, and take Tobias bloody Hawke to bed in an uninhibited, drunken fugue that will result in bruises, bite marks, and broken chairs, but the first thing Anders had to give up because of Justice was drinking.

It is a poison. You have but one body. Why would you poison it? And why do you wish to impair its function? How is this pleasurable?

He tried to explain, tried to demonstrate, but lowering his inhibitions meant losing control and—back at the Vigil, when the templars were poking into everything—that ended up not being good.

Now, Anders starts to feel wobbly on just half a cup of wine, and Justice manages to make him nauseous on anything more than that, just in case they both do something he regrets. It’s a terrible thing, but probably not as terrible as the things he could do.

So, he excuses himself as they near the tavern, and says he needs to get back to the clinic. Isabela and Varric bid him farewell, but Tobias follows him into the mouth of the alleyway he means to cut through, and Anders curses silently at the sound of his footsteps.

Anders.”

He turns. Tobias is holding a leather pouch, but Anders isn’t looking at that so much as the bare arms and the green eyes, and the unbearable way the man has of just being there, and making the air itself feel like sparks on his skin.

Hawke wants him too, impossible as that is to believe. He’s actually said as much, actually laid himself at Anders’ feet… not that it ever needed putting into words. It has lapped up around them from the very first, flowing between them, pulling them back to each other when the only sane thing to do—the only rational, sensible thing—would have been to shy away.

It won’t work, though. It can’t. There’s no possibility of it, naturally. Not with Hawke. He remains strictly off-limits. In fact, the whole thing is… no, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Tobias holds out the pouch. “Here. I want you to take this.”

Anders frowns, nonplussed.

Don’t tell the others. It’s only twelve sovereigns, but it’ll buy some bandages or something, right?”

That lop-sided grin is back, but it’s a poor disguise. Anders knows he is far more keenly aware of the value of coin than that. Comparatively, it’s a lot of money. Still just a drop in the ocean, and not enough for everything his patients need… but it will bring in some much-needed supplies.

You’re giving me your share?”

Hawke shrugs. “Not all of it. Anyway, I still have the bounty itself to collect. You’ll get your fifteen percent. This—” He jingles the pouch for emphasis. “—this is gravy. So take it. As a gift.”

Anders steps forwards and, reluctantly—although he can’t deny that Tobias is right, and obviously he is going to take the money and put it to good use—he grasps the pouch. Of course, their fingers brush as he does so. He expected nothing less, and yet it is a jolt, as if some arcane bolt passes between them.

Thank you.”

He lifts his gaze and it feels as if, just by looking, he is touching the planes of that handsome face, pressing his fingertips to the hard places of cheekbones and jaw… exploring the softness of lips and cheeks.

Three nights’ time,” he says quietly. “The safe house in the Foundry District. I’ll meet you behind Hamren Orgood’s warehouse, we’ll go from there.”

Tobias nods, looking wonderfully determined. “Right.”

Anders smiles thinly.

He may not be able to take Hawke as a lover, but he has fallen upon his friendship like a starving dog on a side of meat… and they will always have the Underground.

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Chapter 4
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Justice in Surrender: Chapter 7

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“It’s a letter from Carver!” Leandra cried gleefully, waving the grease-smudged envelope like a pennant.

Tobias, unshaven and hungover, squinted muzzily at her from his seat at the rickety table by the fire.

“Hnngh?”

Gamlen sneered. “He doesn’t want money, does he?”

Tobias slipped his uncle a bloodshot glare. The old fart was just as worse for wear as him this morning, though for somewhat different reasons. Where Gamlen was nursing a black eye and two fractured knuckles as a friendly warning not to welsh on debts to ‘One Punch’ Riley, one of the old city’s more tolerant numbers runners, he had been sampling the delights of Hightown until the small hours.

Fenris might have said that all Tevinter wines were made from the blood and tears of slaves, but it wasn’t stopping him, Varric, and Tobias from methodically drinking their way through the remaining contents of Danarius’ cellar. It had been much more fun than he’d thought, too… the weekly diamondback nights at the mansion were becoming something of an event.

“He talks all about the training,” Leandra said, unfolding Carver’s letter reverentially as she crossed the dimly lit room. “Oh, my poor baby… he’s still not enjoying the food…. Do you think I should send more dried beef and seed cake?”

Tobias grimaced. “Don’t templars have their unshakeable faith and self-righteousness to keep them feeling all full and cosy?”

She frowned and pursed her lips. “Don’t talk about your brother that way. If you’d let him have more say in that expedition of yours, he wouldn’t have run off to join up the way he did.”

Gamlen sniggered, then winced and pressed a hand to his swollen eye. Tobias gaped, not completely able to believe what he was hearing.

“If I—? Mother, it was you who didn’t want him to go. As I recall, you begged me to leave him behind. Right there, in front of Bartrand and everyone. Even whatsit, that merchant’s idiot son… Sandal… right, even he was laughing at poor old Carv.”

She flicked him behind the ear in passing—the sharp snick of a fingernail cracking against his skull—and he flinched.

“Ow!”

Should have expected it, he supposed. It was worse when she had a thimble on. He reached up and rubbed the sore spot, with a reproachful frown at his mother.

“That is not the point,” Leandra said coolly. “Anyway, he needs more socks and smallclothes. You’re going past the market, aren’t you? You can get me some wool.”

Tobias sighed. “Yes, Mother.”

“Thank you, dear. And don’t slouch.”

He groaned.

Carver’s letter didn’t say much about the state of affairs inside the order, though he alluded to divisions in the ranks. Tobias had been hoping for a whisper of gossip, a sniff of rumour concerning Meredith. People said she and First Enchanter Orsino weren’t even bothering to keep up a pretence of civility these days… not that Tobias had a great deal of familiarity with matters concerning the Circle.

As far as he was concerned, the Circle still held the dark and oppressive taint his father had painted it with, not to mention the suspicion associated with authority. Tobias had been brought up to fear it, and even now—though he was aware that things were more complex than his assumptions allowed—he found he still thought of the Circle mages as ‘them’.

The things Anders had talked about didn’t exactly help alter his opinions.

The healer had never shared much of his past—as with everything else, dragging the information out of him was like getting blood from a stone—but he’d mentioned enough. Templars who played petty, cruel mind games with their charges or, in some cases, indulged less subtle sadisms. Beatings… rapes.

Tobias supposed he must have looked horribly shocked at that. He recalled the coy reassurance with which Anders had shaken his head and said he’d been lucky… only to go on and, in the very next breath, talk of a whole year spent in solitary confinement. Tobias couldn’t imagine it. He didn’t want to, either, and he’d burned at the… well, the injustice of it.

Anders had just smiled thinly and changed the subject, and Tobias had known from the slightly strained look on his face that he was having trouble keeping himself under control. Well, himself, or Justice. It still seemed to Tobias that there was a distinction between the two, and that—whatever Anders said about the greatest scholar finding no division of their thoughts or feelings—the healer and the spirit were separate entities.

He wondered, sometimes, if he just told himself that—made himself believe it—because he needed to think Anders was a man, the same as him… the same as anyone. Stupid, really, Tobias reflected. It would have been easier to pretend he really was the abomination Fenris and Carver had both called him. A monster, a… thing, instead of an imperfect human soul, capable of love and crying out for it, railing against the loneliness and the fear.

Tobias blinked, aware of having broken his own rule. There was a four-letter word there he didn’t allow himself to touch on, and he pushed it away, choosing to focus instead on cold, decent practicality.

He didn’t know what it was like for Anders. He couldn’t conceive of what it must be like to live with memories of the Tower like that, knowledge like that, and to have an awareness—a living, sentient consciousness—such as Justice sharing the same head. It was a wonder the man hadn’t gone crazy, Tobias supposed, and the thought snaked a chill along his spine.

It had been a while since he’d been to the clinic. He should head down there, make sure everything was… all right.

As ever, there were errands to run first.

Letters had to be taken to the viscount’s office, papers to be delivered for copying and then copies to be picked up and brought to the notary…. The whole song and dance irritated Tobias beyond measure, but Leandra never seemed happier than when she was talking about the estate. She’d get a nostalgic sort of look in her eyes, and drift off into some rambling story of something that had happened when she was a girl, and her voice would lose that hard, sharp edge it so often had these days.

So, he did what had to be done.

He trod a path through the bazaar with a light cloak about his shoulders and his eyes fixed on the paving stones, quite content for no one to recognise him, and made his way up to what Varric quaintly described as the gold-arsed end of town.

Seneschal Bran wasn’t in much of a mood for small talk when Tobias finally arrived in his office.

He snorted at the sheaf of papers tossed onto his desk, and didn’t even bother to look up.

“Serah Hawke again, isn’t it?”

Tobias propped a hip against the ornately carved desk and smiled sardonically down at the burnished crown of the older man’s head.

“The very same. If you don’t mind, Seneschal, I’ll wait while you sign the receipt.”

Bran glanced up at him, quill stilling in his ink-smudged fingers, and an expression of intense suspicion on his square, sharp-featured face.

“Did you bribe your way in here again? We have due process for the submission of—”

Tobias shrugged. “I got bored waiting.”

They both knew he dropped a couple of sovereigns to skip past the queues every time he came here. He wasn’t the only one… though, admittedly, most of the well-heeled gentry who clogged up the viscount’s waiting rooms with their petitions, complaints, and appeals were not also known to have had quite so much personal involvement with Kirkwall’s seamier districts.

Tobias suppressed a small smile at the thought of some of the chinless wonders he’d seen downstairs getting their pretty little hands dirty with the blood of slavers and Carta thugs. If his reputation did precede him, it certainly seemed to make the clerks that little bit keener to allow him access to the inner offices. That wasn’t a bad thing, was it?

Seneschal Bran narrowed his eyes. The older man took little trouble to disguise his dislike, though Tobias wasn’t sure whether it stemmed from personal or political motives.

“I don’t see why the Amell estate is so important to you,” Bran said, unfastening the tie that held the papers. “It’s a crumbling ruin. Wouldn’t someone like you do better to pour that new-found wealth into a more, ahem, impressive prospect?”

Tobias arched an eyebrow, but kept his face locked into the same default mask of mildly sarcastic nonchalance. So, that was it, was it? Plain and simple distaste for the nouveau riche dog-lord getting his sticky fingers into old Kirkwall. He watched the seneschal thumb through today’s batch of papers—yet more notarised copies of the deeds, the will, and sworn statements from Gamlen renouncing his claim to the estate, and disputing the legality of the gamble he’d lost it on in the first place—lip curled as if the parchment was sticky.

“Maybe. Still, say what you will about the old place,” Tobias added airily, tilting his head just enough to start making out some of the other papers on Bran’s desk, “but I rather think I’ll settle in well. When we finally get there… of course.”

The seneschal exhaled a short, stiff breath, and hastily pulled a blotter over the exposed paperwork. Tobias smiled, fairly certain he’d caught sight of an imperial Orlesian seal. Interesting. Bran scrawled a hasty receipt on a blank piece of parchment and signed it with a flourish.

“Here.” He pushed it towards Tobias. “Get that stamped. You know where. You’ll receive notification when the viscount’s office has officially logged and reviewed your request.”

“Again?” Tobias sighed wearily. “This is third time we’ve submitted the sodding paperwork.”

“It’s due process,” the seneschal said smugly, meeting his gaze directly for the first time. “And there are some distinctly dubious aspects to the case. One could argue the rightful owners are in fact—”

“If you say those bastard slavers,” Tobias snapped, his veneer of sardonic calm well and truly fractured, “by Andraste’s tits, I will spike your hand to this bloody desk.”

Seneschal Bran rose slowly from his seat, eyes twinkling with a not altogether pleasant humour, and that broad face set into a predatory smile. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, Tobias had to admit, as far as bureaucrats, or men old enough to be his father, went… and part of him did enjoy getting to lock horns on these visits.

“Ah, yes.” The seneschal bit his lower lip thoughtfully, his voice caressing the words like the hilts of weapons. “One almost forgets. Serah Hawke, whose righteous anger awaits the unjust of Kirkwall, wherever they are to be found. Foe to slavers, swindlers, and bandits, and champion of the subjugated. You have such a fondness for the dispossessed, don’t you, messere?”

His sarcasm dripped like honey on the air between them. Strong sunlight, slanting through the leaded glass windows of the chamber, threaded golden highlights through his dark auburn hair, and picked out the scattering of freckles on his redhead’s skin.

“And not just the refugees,” Bran went on. “That, I could understand. Solidarity, and all that… but it’s more, isn’t it? Seems there isn’t a minority in this city you won’t associate with. Elves, criminals, known Raiders, foreign fugitives—”

Tobias sighed inwardly. Aveline had told Fenris his occupancy of Danarius’ mansion had not gone unremarked, either by the guard or the rest of Hightown. He set his jaw, refusing to give away any glint of recognition.

“—even apostate mages,” the seneschal said smoothly, that golden-brown gaze lancing into him with the accuracy of a well-guided blade.

Tobias felt the corner of his left eye twitch, and stifled the urge to swear.

“I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about,” he said, flexing one shoulder into a nonchalant shrug. He cleared his throat. “You, uh, you should open some windows in here, let the air blow through. It’s really very stuffy. Can’t be good for a person.”

Seneschal Bran’s expression didn’t change, though his jaw tightened just a little.

“Take your receipt, serah. Your claim will be revised and reviewed in good time and—when it is possible—you may even receive your audience with Viscount Dumar. Your mother… she keeps well, yes?”

The sudden transition of tone almost threw Tobias further off-balance.

“As well as can be expected,” he said, letting all the references he could have made to Lowtown and the old city slums hang, unsaid, in the air.

“Good. Then I must not keep you. Good day, Serah Hawke.”

Tobias bowed his head stiffly, the gesture just shallow enough to fall shy of proper respect.

“Seneschal.”

Arsehole.

Naturally, there was more waiting in line to do. More paperwork. More clerks and desks and the infernal scratching of nibs on parchment…. Eventually, Tobias wearied of being made to jump through hoops. He leaned ostentatiously against a wall outside the notary’s office, cleaning his fingernails with the point of his very plain, very well-used dagger. All the nice, respectable members of the gentry, and the representatives of guildhalls and merchants’ companies who passed by the hallway stared at him, eyes wide and mouths pursed. Eventually, the clerk came running out to see the common thug who was putting the wind up his well-heeled clients.

Tobias got what needed signing signed, and listened to the blithe assurances that the appeal would be processed with the utmost haste and diligence.

They couldn’t parcel him out of there fast enough. He was merely surprised that no one tried to make him use the back door… he supposed the keep must have one.

It was late afternoon by the time he slipped down into the Undercity, navigating the maze of tunnels and ruined passages as easily as if he was one of the poor bastards who actually lived there.

Even the smell didn’t seem as bad as it used to. He wondered whether he ought to be concerned by that, but there was actually something comforting about it.

Tobias whistled cheerfully to himself as he picked his way through to Anders’ clinic.

As ever, the lantern was lit, and knots of people passed in and out of the wooden doors. The dim, pungent air held traces of sawdust, sweat, piss, blood and vomit, along with the scent of herbal liniments and boiled elfroot, and Tobias couldn’t stop the smile creeping over his face.

There was so much about Kirkwall that he hated. It was a pig of a city, rife with crime, cruelty and casual violence. He loathed its double standards, its blind eyes and uncaring, corrupt systems. He loathed the way the city-states of the Marches, by their very nature, felt more selfish than Ferelden ever had. There was no sense of national identity, none of the muddy, squint-eyed pride that his home country had… and Tobias missed that more than he’d ever expected.

Still, it seemed strange to him that—amidst all the demons, the politics, the bureaucracy and the cheap, nasty gang wars that ripped through Kirkwall’s -underbelly—this should be the one place in the whole damn town where it felt most like he belonged.

Stupid thoughts, he told himself, as he edged around two women arguing outside the doors. Stupid, hopeless thoughts tied up with all the stupid, hopeless things he kept wanting… and kept coming back for.

You’re a fool, Hawke. And you don’t learn, do you?

It surprised him to spot a familiar face in the middle of the clinic’s busy thrum. Not Anders… Tobias’ eye was drawn to him immediately, of course, the pale figure at the centre of the throng, blond hair pinned at the back of his head, a few loose strands tucked neatly behind his ears, and a tired smile on his face. The whole place tasted of the bittersweet, metallic tang of his magic, the way frost rimes the very air in winter.

There was another figure, though… standing in front of him, hands on her hips, dark hair spilling down the curve of her back, her white tunic a stark contrast to the deep brown of her skin.

Anders glanced over Isabela’s shoulder, acknowledging Tobias’ approach with a slight nod and a widening of his smile. He turned his attention back to her and—with a glint of mischief in his eyes—raised his voice just enough to draw Tobias in on the meaning.

“Just don’t come running to me next time you pick up one of these diseases,” he said, handing over a small, squat clay pot.

Tobias was familiar enough with the type, and the contents. He’d had a jar or two of ointments for unpleasant rashes from Anders although—thank the Maker—he’d never caught a dose of anything nasty enough at Lusine’s to warrant dropping his trousers for a full inspection.

Isabela took the pot and arched one thin brow coldly. “Isn’t that the point of magic?”

Anders just grinned as, with a haughty sniff, she tossed her hair and strode from the clinic, sweeping past a crowd of waiting patients with all the arrogant grace of a woman who hadn’t just had her smallclothes around her ankles. Still, Tobias thought, nodding in response to the icy glower she gave him on her way, it wasn’t as if Isabela was often far from that state.

He tried not to think about that time in the Deep Roads. There hadn’t been a repeat of it, although she had propositioned him once or twice… the way she did everyone. He hadn’t put much store by it.

Anders, now wiping his hands on a wet rag, snorted with ill-concealed amusement. Tobias caught his eye and, for one brief moment, wondered if he’d— no, he wouldn’t have. Would he?

The fleeting visions of white skin against dark, twisting bodies and panting breath—riven with all those ale-drenched stories of the whorehouse in Denerim, and the debauched promiscuity of Anders’ early apostasy—ripped a raw, gaping wound of jealousy through Tobias’ chest. It was sudden, violent, and unexpected, and he gathered from the broad grin that spread over Anders’ face that he must look shocked.

He blinked, wrinkling his nose as if he was merely contemplating the practicalities of Isabela’s visit.

“I don’t even want to know,” Tobias said laconically, which got another grin from Anders.

Maker, that smile….

The familiar ache of desire plucked at him, and he did his best to ignore it. He smiled back, and stepped aside to allow a woman with a small child wrapped up in her shawl to pass, already clamouring for healing and attention.

Anders shot him a regretful look and jerked his head towards the back of the clinic, where the usual rank of boiling pots and anonymous assistants were making up potions and poultices.

“Sorry, Hawke. I don’t suppose you could…?”

Tobias nodded. “Sure.”

“Thanks. I won’t be long. It shouldn’t— yes, I know,” he added, addressing the woman with the child. “No, it’s not… he’s not going to— look, if you’ll just listen….”

Tobias edged away and left Anders to deal with her panicky entreaties. He looked tired again, but when didn’t he?

It was just as the shadowy, untraceable Elias had said: the people were getting used to his presence. They had taken the Darktown healer to their hearts, yes, but their loyalty bore the price of expectation. Maybe Anders had gone to the slums to hide… but they thought they owned him now.

Tobias greeted one of the anonymous assistants—a girl of about thirteen, this one, pale-faced and struggling to wield the copper full of boiling spindleweed—and tried to make himself useful. Even after all these visits, he still knew little about herbs and poultices, however hard he’d tried to learn.

He occupied his hands with stirring and lifting and pouring, as directed by the thin, nervous girl-child—even her bitten fingernails and ink-stained, scholar’s hands seemed to shout ‘Circle runaway’—and watched Anders work through his patients.

He’d said, once, that Karl was the reason he’d come to Kirkwall… that his letters had told of concerns for the safety of mages in the city.

Anders still bore the scars of that night at the chantry, Tobias suspected… still held on to the guilt of not having been able to save his former lover, and the pain of Karl’s betrayal. He didn’t speak of it—they’d never spoken of it in any detail, though there was much Tobias yearned to ask—but the signs were there. Maybe he’d sought penance in the work he was doing here. Maybe he was just trying to blot out everything.

Maybe, next to his great cause, beside the whole whirling torrent of ideals and desperation, memories of someone like Karl stopped mattering.

Tobias wondered, and yet knew he wouldn’t ask. He remembered when the spectre of Bethany’s death stopped preying on his every waking moment. There had been the guilt at the fact he’d let it happen, when—just like his mother said—he should have protected her, should have saved her, and then there had been the guilt over daring to feel less guilty. It was a strange and vicious cycle.

They’d talked about the Circle, when they were children, him and Bethany. She’d gone through a phase of wondering what it was like, and almost beginning to imagine it could be preferable to a life on the run. Tobias had thought that quite possible; somewhere safe, where you didn’t have to worry about where the next meal was coming from, or hide from templars… where there might be other people like you. Malcolm had knocked those notions out of them soon enough. Whenever the Circle had been mentioned in his hearing, his expression had grown tight and dark, that smiling mouth thinned to a taut line, his blue eyes grown hard and uncharacteristically cold.

Tobias shook the thoughts, packed them away for another place, another time, and worked on in companionable silence until Anders was finished.

He came over once the clinic emptied out a bit, nodded to the skinny girl-child, and gave her the brass key that opened the cupboard on the far wall. She smiled, scurried off, and went to deal with dishing out salves and potions to the walking… well, if not wounded, then at least moderately itchy. Obviously a healer of promise herself, Tobias decided, noting the approval with which Anders watched her go.

He sniffed, scrubbed one stained hand over his hair, and raised an eyebrow at Tobias.

“So, how are you, Hawke?”

Tobias shrugged. “Can’t complain.”

“No?” Anders cocked his head to the side. “You look a bit rough.”

“Well… it was a heavy night. You should come by the mansion sometime. Boozing, gambling… proper boy stuff,” Tobias added with a grin.

It raised a smile from Anders, albeit a slightly wan one. “I thought you were supposed to be laying off the sauce.”

“More or less. But I’m weak.” Tobias shrugged slyly. “I need you there to keep me in check.”

Anders winced. “I doubt Fenris would welcome my presence.”

“Ah, he needs to lighten up a bit.”

“Mm. It surprises me that you still… associate with him. Or he with you. The, er, mage thing doesn’t…?”

There seemed to be something slightly odd in Anders’ tone, but Tobias struggled to identify quite what. He wrinkled his nose.

“Wee-ell,” he said slowly, “I don’t know. He never mentions it. I suppose we have a… tacit understanding. I think, had I endured what he has, I’d probably think the same way.”

Anders’ expression stiffened and darkened. “You don’t think his hatred is dangerous, not to mention irrational? He’s like a wild dog, snarling at everything… he’s barely capable of control. I just—”

His mouth snapped shut abruptly, and he shook his head, obviously unwilling to say whatever it was he wanted to.

Tobias’ frown deepened. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have said Anders sounded jealous. Of course, that was ridiculous. Utterly, completely… daft.

“You just what?” he prompted.

Anders shrugged, his gaze dropping to the floorboards as he crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

“I… worry about you. From time to time. The things you do, the people you—no, forget it. Sorry. It’s not my business.”

Tobias tilted his head to the side, curiosity piqued by Anders’ sudden tight-lipped quiet.

“I know you and Fenris don’t see eye-to-eye,” he said, carefully probing the silence. “But I don’t think he’s… well, y’know… he’s got reasons to be the way he is. We all have.”

“Have we?” Anders said hollowly, staring at the floorboards.

Tobias cleared his throat, uneasy at the tension on the other man’s face. He hated it when Anders was like this; he didn’t know what he was supposed to say, what he wasn’t supposed to say… nothing he did seemed to be right.

“So, uh, we… we haven’t had much chance to talk in a while,” he said, not allowing himself to admit that he’d been avoiding Anders a little, as if he really could lull himself into some kind of numbness. “H-how are things?”

How are you? It was what he meant. Justice… the whole situation. There just didn’t seem to be a way of asking that didn’t sound awful, as if he was checking whether the insanity had kicked in yet.

Anders snorted, but he sounded more tired than actually irritable.

“Oh, you know… everything’s great. I just love what Knight-Commander Meredith’s done with the city.”

Tobias winced. That bitterness, roiling on the edge of his words, sounded strained and tight, as if he was fighting to hold on, to keep control. Tobias glanced at him, not liking what he saw. Anders’ fixed, pinched glower was unfocused, his anger apparently directed inward, a struggle within himself… a struggle with Justice, Tobias supposed. He wondered what that felt like, having the spirit’s thoughts and feelings interlaced with his—did a creature of the Fade actually have feelings?—and how hard it was to identify the different consciousnesses within your own head. It scared him, the thought of what it must be like to lose yourself that way… but it wasn’t his problem, he reminded himself.

“Curfews, midnight raids on mages’ families.” Anders curled his lip, as if the words themselves tasted foul. “Everyone I know, forced into hiding so they won’t be made Tranquil.”

No matter how he tried to hide it, his breathing was speeding up. He cleared his throat, a frown passing across his brow as he shook his head, evidently trying to steer himself away from the things to which he wanted to give vent.

Tobias noticed the white arrow of his throat flutter a little where it rose from his coat, and the hand that he lifted to his hair—smoothing down those errant few strands that always seemed to be poking free—appeared to tremble, albeit almost imperceptibly.

“Anders,” he began, aware something more than the usual must be wrong. “Wh—?”

“I-I had templars here the other night. Practically on the doorstep.”

“What?” Tobias frowned, jerked into sharpness by a sudden, cold lurch of fear. “They were after you?”

Anders shook his head again. He looked up, met Tobias’ gaze, and that moment of emotion slid away once more, tucked beneath the glib, glassy façade that he seemed to hide so readily behind.

“Me? No, not specifically. They were just checking the refugee camps. There’s a whole shantytown out there in the tunnels. But… it’s not like this place is a secret. It’s only a matter of time, I suppose,” he added, sounding strangely contemplative.

Tobias watched his brow tighten, and wondered if he was imagining the sense that Anders might be weighing something up, as if the prospect of arrest by the templars was a factor in some kind of fated game of chance.

Dread clasped his heart in a dry, rough grip, and squeezed.

“Shouldn’t tell me things like that,” he mumbled. “I might have to lock you up to keep them off you.”

Shut up. Stop talking, right now… oh, sod. Still, could have been worse. I could have said tie up.

Unbidden, tantalising thoughts pricked at his mind, and Tobias shoved the sinuous shapes away, back into the dark spaces reserved for his solitary, silent nights.

Evidently distracted from whatever he’d started to think about, Anders gave him a small, sad smile.

“Well, they’re not so much interested in me as destroying my kind and all I represent,” he said, though the glibness had started to fail, and his face darkened. “Meredith’s out of control. Even her own people have been talking about it. I don’t suppose you’ve…?”

“Carver?” Tobias shrugged. “We just had a letter from him, as a matter of fact. He doesn’t write much, but I have been getting the feeling things are… strained within the order.”

Anders nodded slowly, and he looked fleetingly apologetic, as if he regretted bringing up the name.

“I’m not surprised. Things just keep getting worse, and the templars just keep—”

Whatever had happened had him more rattled than he was admitting. There was that nervous hair-smoothing thing again, the faint quiver in those long, stain-smudged fingers. Before Tobias realised it, he’d stepped closer, reached out and laid his hand on Anders’ sleeve.

“If they want you,” he said, his voice low and steady, husky against the quiet of the almost empty clinic, “then they’ll have to come through me.”

Anders blinked, and a look of incredible peace touched his eyes. It didn’t last long, but it softened his face immeasurably, and seemed to melt away the distance between them.

Not for the first time, Tobias fought the urge to pull the other man into a hug. It didn’t have to be a full expression of anything—no grinding passion, no desperate heat—just the simple warmth of an embrace. He wanted to feel Anders’ head on his shoulder, and to hold him until the world started to seem like a safer place… however long that took.

It wasn’t his right, though. He couldn’t demand it. And now Anders was looking down at the hand on his sleeve, and Tobias just knew he was going to move away, and it was going to hurt like a knife to the gut when it happened.

It did.

Anders extricated himself delicately, shook his head, and cleared his throat.

“You’re at as much risk as I am,” he said, not quite meeting Tobias’ eye. “I know you said Carver wasn’t in the business of ratting out family, but if—”

He broke off, staring at the floorboards with a pinched, worried expression.

“What?” Tobias cocked an eyebrow, hiding the ache of loss behind a mask of scepticism. “Not worried about little old me again?”

Anders smiled wearily, raising his head to meet Tobias’ gaze, and shrugged.

“Maybe,” he admitted. “A bit.”

The wide, triumphant grin that spread over Tobias’ face earned him a reproachful look from Anders, tinged with the playful wickedness he didn’t think he’d ever get enough of seeing. It faded, though, and Anders’ face grew serious… solemn, even.

“This is your fight, too,” he said softly. “One day, the world must see us as people, not just mages. You believe that, don’t you?”

The question took Tobias aback, and he shot a nervous glance across the clinic. The girl-child apprentice was still dishing out salves and potions, though all but the last few patients had left.

“Hawke?”

Tobias blinked guiltily. “Well, yes. Of course I—”

“Then help me make it happen.”

He stared. There was such a wash of belief in Anders’ face, of impassioned conviction and bright, pure idealism, that Tobias wasn’t sure how to respond. He swallowed heavily, unable to see much beyond the dark eyes fixed on his, twin pools of need and… trust?

It was almost too much. He didn’t know where it had come from, this moment, but he was terrified of letting it go. He nodded clumsily.

“Mm-hmm.” Tobias cleared his throat hurriedly. “I mean, I… yes. Anything you want me to— anything I can do.”

Anders smiled, and that subtle curve of his lips sent shivers skittering through Tobias’ flesh. He wet his lower lip with the tip of his tongue, prepared to pledge everything he had to any cause Anders wanted to name.

It wouldn’t have been a choice. It was as easy as breathing. So much easier than having to say his chaste goodbye and walk home to a cold bed, wondering whether why they kept doing this to themselves, when it was all so bloody stupid.

“I know you’ve been asking questions,” Anders said softly. “About the Underground.”

Tobias supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite its size, Kirkwall really was a peculiarly small town sometimes. He curled his lip.

“Mm. Didn’t turn up many answers, though.”

Anders shrugged dismissively. “Don’t take it to heart. They’re very secretive. That is, we…. Look, you’ve done a lot for mages in this city. The boy, Feynriel, and all the others you’ve helped instead of turning in. I know you mean well, Hawke, and you’re a good man. We need people like you.”

He fixed Tobias with a deep-eyed look, as if there was some sacred meaning to the words, but all Tobias could hear thrumming in his veins was I need you. It wasn’t quite what he’d said—maybe it wasn’t even what he meant—but it was close enough, for now.

A small smile curved the corner of Anders’ lips, though it didn’t seem to reach as far as his eyes.

“There’s a meeting in three days. In the Undercity. I won’t say where but, if I take you with me…?”

Tobias nodded fervently. He didn’t know whether it was an expression of trust, or whether he’d passed some clandestine test or something. Frankly, he didn’t care.

“Yes! I mean—”

Anders’ smile grew a little firmer. “Right, then.”

And so it was decided.

Later, back home in the quiet of his bunk, with Gamlen snoring in the next room, Tobias would wonder whether Anders was manipulating him intentionally. If so, it was cruel… and he didn’t seem like a cruel man. Of course, people would do damn near anything for something they believed in, Tobias reflected.

He knew he would.

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Chapter 8
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Justice in Surrender: Chapter 5

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The following months seemed to improve things, in their way.

No worse for wear after his encounter, Tobias healed. Life continued much as it had been before the Deep Roads, but with the comparative security of wealth behind him. Days and weeks were lost in a comfortable minutiae of letters to the Viscount’s office, bureaucratic replies and copies of more letters from the seneschal’s assistants… and Varric’s frequent assurances that the buyer he had lined up for the best of the artefacts from the ancient thaig was ‘due from Orzammar any day’.

Still, that was fine. Leandra appeared to be recovering from Carver’s departure; all the more eager to fuss over Tobias now he was the only child she had left to coddle. He bore it with gritted teeth, and as much grace as he could manage, and held onto the thought that, once they did reclaim the Amell estate, it might even be big enough to misplace her in.

There was still work. Still people who wanted certain delicate jobs done… as there always were in Kirkwall. Tobias hadn’t sprouted enough pride to turn his nose up at them, especially now they were asking for him by name. He could pick and choose, though, and that was a nice change.

The only dead end he kept hitting—well, all right, one of the only two dead ends—was the Underground. Every enquiry he made, every word tossed into a darkened corner in The Hanged Man or the back end of The Gallows, and it got him nowhere. Nothing. No one would even admit to knowing a man named Elias, though the denials stank of falsehood.

Tobias didn’t know what to do about it. Openly showing his hand after so long hiding what he was did not come naturally. Malcolm’s voice seemed to gnaw at the back of his mind, murmuring warnings and reproaches. Admittedly, there were plenty of people in the city who knew Tobias for an apostate, but he didn’t relish the thought of the knowledge becoming widespread, especially not with the possibility of reclaiming the estate still on the table. And he definitely wasn’t prepared to push the information out there, where it could end up being used against him, simply in order to trade it for answers to questions he shouldn’t be asking.

No. If he wanted to know what Anders was involved in, he ought to approach Anders himself… which was a problem. He hardly seemed willing to talk.

That, of course, led to the second dead end: an infuriating, maddening brick wall of a man whom, despite everything, Tobias couldn’t quite bring himself to leave alone.

Anders drove him crazy. There was no point denying it… and it wasn’t just, as Carver had so eloquently put it on that Void-taken night at the chantry, like that.

It was, Tobias admitted ruefully, everything. The contradictions, the hidden things… the power. The more Anders had kept himself withdrawn, shut up in his clinic and barely seeing sunlight, the more fascinating he became. Equally, with every crumb of information he dropped about Justice, Amaranthine, the Wardens, or any of the other myriad things he seemed to so hate mentioning, Tobias wanted to dig for more.

It seemed, over time, as if his wish was gradually being granted.

Anders appeared, if not exactly to loosen up, then at least to make more of an effort at not keeping himself in total isolation. As good as his word, he even started showing up at The Hanged Man every so often. They all gravitated there, Tobias and his eclectic band of sometime followers… something about the attitude of the place, he supposed. Like Varric said, the bar was special.

The beer was dreadful, most of the wenches were ugly, and on any given night of the week you could find at least a dozen criminals, reprobates and mercenaries getting steadily bladdered at the rough wooden tables, but it had its charms. More than that, it was a space apart. Tobias had no idea how many bribes Varric had been required to pay for the privilege, but the city guard rarely looked any further than the front door, and none of the big rackets had a foothold inside, either.

You were just as likely to see Coterie faces drinking at the bar as any other outfit, or any number of independent mercenaries or… contractors, as Tobias liked to term it, foreign or Marcher. Yet, in here, their loyalties were their concern and no one else’s. Turf fights stayed outside, and any business transactions happened in the strict privacy of back rooms. If there were fights, the clientele would generally study their drinks with intense interest until the noise died down, whereupon Corff, the barkeep, would tut gently about the mess and toss a bit of sand over the bloodstains. It took at least three stabbings and a decapitation before the patrons of The Hanged Man would make much of a fuss.

So much more laid-back, Tobias thought, than the taverns further downtown, where the dockworkers and the labourers drank, and everything was divided by the intense loyalties of which street you lived on, or who was the better Wallop player.

Often, they’d take over Varric’s suite for the night, and the dwarf would get to play the magnanimous host and sprawl back in his chair, telling stories that made Merrill’s eyes grow even more enormous. Isabela would be there, smelling of cheap ale and whiskey, and Fenris, knocking back drink after drink that, very gradually, would start to erode his aura of portentous brooding. Occasionally, even Aveline might look in, and they’d all pull themselves a little more upright and smile glassily, then breathe a sigh of relief when she went. (Tobias respected the woman, but she cast a damnable pall over a great deal of his business, and she’d never made any secret of her disapproval, which annoyed him immensely. He also struggled, even now, to look at her without remembering the flight from Lothering, and all the things he’d so badly wanted to leave along that blighted roadside.)

They were good times, made better by the fact that things were truly looking up. It might not all be sunshine and roses just yet, but life was finding balance. Tobias was glad of it. And then, into all that, in would walk Anders, with his terrible coat and his tired eyes and—Tobias was a little surprised to discover—a wicked, filthy sense of humour and an ease among people that he’d never expected to see. He’d thought, he supposed, the man would be timid, awkward… unused to company. Maybe that he’d brood and keep himself at a distance, the way Fenris did (at least until the second bottle), but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

For a start, he knew a lot more dirty jokes than Tobias expected… and some of them were apparently drawn from personal experience.

“I’ve got it!” Anders exclaimed suddenly, on one particularly boozy evening, thumping the table with the flat of his palm then pointing at Isabela. “The Pearl, in Denerim. Wasn’t it?”

Tobias frowned, catching at the loose threads of conversation that had been floating around him like jetsam. Ah, yes… Isabela had mentioned that she felt as if she knew Anders from somewhere. There had been a general muttering of laughter, and the suspicion voiced that this was merely one of her varied pick-up techniques. Varric had chastised her for a lack of originality—but it now seemed there was actually a grain of truth to it.

She held her mouthful of ale, eyes widening and cheeks puffed out for a moment, then swallowed and nodded emphatically.

“Yes! You know, you’re right….” A predatory grin curled her lips as she tipped her head to the side, gold jewellery clinking, and regarded Anders in open appraisal. “Mmm. It is you.”

“What pearl?” Merrill piped up, from the end of the table. “Who had pearls? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Isabela wearing pearls.”

“Only as a necklace,” Varric muttered into his pint.

“What?”

“Drink your beer, Daisy,” he said kindly.

The elf looked confused, thin fingers curled around her mug. “Did I miss something dirty?”

Tobias, legs stretched out and feet up on a spare chair, chuckled. He most definitely wasn’t going to be the one to explain it to her. Besides, he was distracted by the knowing smirk Anders was giving Isabela and—as he brought his mug to his lips—busy attempting to convince himself that the twinge at the base of his chest was utterly, definitely, not jealousy.

Anders’ smirk widened into a flat-out dirty grin. “Yeah. You really liked that girl with the griffon tattoos, didn’t you? What was her name?”

Isabela smiled and traced a finger suggestively around the rim of her mug. “Ah… the Lay Warden. She was special. And you….”

The finger was raised, levelled at Anders, and then wriggled lewdly. It never failed to amaze Tobias just how obscene the woman could make virtually any simple word or gesture seem, purely by intonation or expression. It was probably a gift.

“…you were that runaway mage who did the electricity thing. I remember that.” Isabela picked up her pint, took a sip, then sighed happily. “Mm. That was nice.”

Tobias coughed, ale dangerously close to making a painful exit out of his nose. He’d almost mastered his splutters when Merrill frowned, evidently more confused than ever.

“What electricity thing? I saw one of those mages we fought in the caverns up in Sundermount use an electricity spell. That wasn’t very nice. Took weeks for my eyebrows to grow back.”

Varric put a hand to his forehead and rubbed wearily at his brow, shoulders vibrating a little until he got control of his sniggers.

“Oh, it’s not the same, sweet thing,” Isabela said, leering at the elf over her pint. “Not the same at all.”

“Isn’t it? Oh. But—”

“Here you go, Daisy.” Varric topped up her ale from the earthenware pitcher that sat in the centre of the table. “I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”

Merrill’s clear, soft brow furrowed, and she looked as if she might protest, but then she lapsed into mildly perplexed silence. Isabela lifted her greasy mug to knowingly curved lips, dark eyes fixed on Anders with a stare part nostalgic warmth and part speculative hunger, and chuckled to herself as she sipped.

He just grinned, and went back to nursing the same half-empty tankard he’d had all evening, gaze dropping to its scummy innards and pale fingers worrying at the handle. Tobias tried nominally not to stare, but now there was a whole new edge to that sharp profile, backlit by warm firelight and torches smouldering smokily in their sconces. He didn’t think he’d be able to imagine Anders in a whorehouse—for what else could they possibly have been talking about?—especially given how disparaging he was of Kirkwall’s red lantern district, but maybe it wasn’t so improbable. He’d known pleasure for pleasure’s sake once, hadn’t he? A man who hadn’t ever been carefree couldn’t possibly look as weighed down by life as Anders did. Only prisoners who’ve known freedom can truly feel the pain of its loss.

Tobias’ thoughts wandered lazily as he looked at the other mage and—not for the first time—touched on who he might have been, before Justice. He’d have liked to know him, he decided; to have met the man who lived on in those brief flashes of wicked, playful glee, and dirty jokes about templars, tarts, and priests.

“You should explain it to Fenris,” he said idly, causing Anders to glance up at the mention of the name. “Might convince him mages are good for one thing, at least.”

Isabela gave a throaty laugh, but Tobias wasn’t looking at her. He was watching the unabashed, delicious grin spread over Anders’ face, and the amusement dancing in those dark eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, meeting Tobias’ gaze levelly. “I can think of six or seven, easily.”

The close, rich air of the suite—thick with grease, ale, sweat, soot and spices—seemed to press in just that little bit more. A blade of unsullied, pure want skewered Tobias right through his middle, leaving his gut clenched and his breeches slightly pinched.

He shouldn’t keep doing this, he told himself. It wasn’t the first time. More importantly, it wasn’t fucking fair.

Anders only ever drank a quarter of what the rest of them put away, but he was always the life and soul of the evening for the time he was there. It was like watching the years peel away, as if his troubles could lift off him as easily as grime, and he’d suddenly seem so light and happy… a different man entirely, but for that same core, that same dark fire that burned within him, intense and unwavering.

And they kept doing this. The flirting. Tobias would catch himself starting it; throwing out some double entendre or gaudy quip as bad as one of Isabela’s. Anders would bat back something flippant, and then they would grin at each other, and the air would grow heavy… just like it was now. And neither of them would seem to want to look away.

The first few times, it had been fun. Tobias wasn’t used to seeing Anders so relaxed, and he liked it. He enjoyed the freedom, the warmth of this glittering, winking flame of a man who felt so familiar—as if, just for once, magic wasn’t a barrier between him and the rest of the world, but a common ground he could share with someone—but it never bloody came to anything.

Now, he could feel Isabela’s gaze on the back of his neck. He blinked, and Anders looked away first, a small smile tucked at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head and drained the last of his mug.

Tobias buried himself in his own ale, and tried to avoid catching Isabela’s eye.

He didn’t listen to much more of the conversation, such as it was. She had another lead on her damn relic, so she said. Varric had heard more rumours about various things… but then he always had.

The night slipped on and, eventually, they went their separate ways. Merrill left first, with the customary jokes about bits of string. The rest of them got in another round and, once Corff had called time and the regulars were being poured out of the doors, Tobias supposed he must have been drunk enough to think it was a good idea to engineer leaving the tavern at the same time as Anders.

It was late, and dark, and outside The Hanged Man, cool air blew down the alleyways, a thin lance to an otherwise rather sultry night. Tobias still couldn’t get used to how much warmer it seemed here than in Ferelden.

Varric had offered him use of a bed, but he’d gracefully declined, protesting that he should get back to Leandra before Gamlen actually gambled the house away from under her.

Anders, naturally, looked practically sober. The light breeze ruffled the shoulders of his coat, and he was already a few paces ahead of Tobias.

The alley smelled mainly of piss and slops. Tobias quickened his steps to catch up, wondering which route Anders would take back to Darktown. If he only had his company for a handful of cross-streets, it didn’t give him much time… though time to do what, he hadn’t quite worked out.

Fully caught up, walking side-by-side, Tobias staggered, throwing a hand out to the wall for support, his body lolling closer to Anders as he sagged. Lovely stuff… just the two of them, weaving an unsteady, companionable path into the night. His palm grazed rough stonework, other hand brushing against Anders’ arm for support. Anders stumbled, but didn’t bow, and gave him a mildly reproachful look, mouth loosely wreathed in a smile. Tobias breathed in that familiar, sharp scent; herbs and grease, overlaid with beer and the piquant ambience of the tavern. The murky light—just the yellow-edged sickle of a pale moon, and the few torches burning at the end of the street—picked at the hard lines of Anders’ face, and set twin points of silver in his eyes. There seemed to be the faintest sheen of blue to the dimness that shrouded his cheekbones, and his lips… and it didn’t seem awfully difficult to believe in possibilities.

“You’re drunk,” Anders observed mildly.

“Co-rrrrect!” Tobias grinned, straightening up. “You should try it sometime. Bugger Justice.”

“That… isn’t quite how it works, but— You know, you’re going to have a terrible head tomorrow.”

“Don’t care,” Tobias said solemnly. “Tomorrow’s not here yet. Livin’ for the moment, that’s me. Hedonisis… hedon… thing. Fun. Speaking of which, you’re very handsome. Anyone ever told you that?”

There. They were out there now, those words. Buzzing free between them, batting at the silence as softly as moths. The corner of Anders’ mouth tipped further into an excruciatingly appealing smile, and an undeniable warmth touched his face as he looked away, his gaze turning hazy.

“You really are going to regret all this in the morning, aren’t you?”

Tobias shook his head. “Not everything. Not the things I actually mean.”

“You drink too much,” Anders countered, still ostensibly studying the wall. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

Footsteps scuffed at the end of the alley. Tobias dismissed them as some lone drunk or streetwalker, fuzzily aware that, if they did turn out to be anything violent, Anders could explode with raw blue fury at them. Except he couldn’t, could he? Justice wasn’t a tap he could turn off and on, but a force that burst from him when all other control was lost.

Tobias wondered if it was very wrong that, just briefly, he found that thought arousing, but he didn’t waste time considering it. He shrugged.

“I don’t. You just always happen to see me when I’m drunk.”

The footsteps passed on a bit further, then stopped, replaced by the sound of a man relieving himself noisily against a wall. Anders shot him a look of mingled amusement and reprimand.

“It’s not good for you,” he remarked, as they walked on. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Tobias snorted. “Advice on clean and healthy living? From you?”

“Healer,” Anders reminded him, holding up a hand, index finger slightly extended. “Right here?”

It earned him another snort. Tobias stuck his thumbs in his belt loops, allowing his boots to scud the ground comfortably as he walked; long, loose steps with the darkness flowing around them, elastic and beautiful… and Anders almost close enough at his side. He turned his head, forgetting to speak for a moment—so busy just watching the way the moonlight made the other man seem smoother, younger, maybe even happier—and then, when he did find the words, they came out slightly jumbled, falling over each other in their impatience to get out of his mouth.

“You don’t… I mean, it’s not— You barely leave that bloody clinic,” Tobias managed as they crossed the expanse of the bazaar, eerily empty in the night and devoid of everything but the black skeletons of stalls, and a couple of derelicts bedded down in the doorways. “Getting you out tonight was rare enough. You don’t visit the whorehouses, or so you say—”

“It’s hard to see the attraction once you’ve seen the pustules,” Anders said dryly, though his voice lacked any real emphasis.

Tobias wrinkled his nose. He’d had occasion to use the redblossom salve Anders had given him after all, as things had turned out, and would rather not have been reminded.

“P-point is,” he tried, as they cut across another sidestreet, which opened out onto a flight of wooden steps that would lead down to the mouth of the Undercity. He could have turned off by now, he supposed. Gone home. Didn’t need to keep following Anders. He was still doing it, though. “Point is… what you do isn’t good for you. Keep yourself shut up… shut away. All alone.”

The steps were treacherous. Tobias had to concentrate on the way down. At the bottom, Anders turned suddenly, and they almost collided next to the damp, salt-stained stonework of one of the old dockers’ colonnades that led off into Darktown’s mess of tunnels and rats’ nests. He stopped, almost stumbled… and not by design this time.

This particular stratum of the city overhung the docks. The faint sound of waves, and the tar-streaked scent of the sea, floated up to take the edge off the filth. A rat the size of a small cat scampered along the bottom of the wall, and Anders started to turn away, ready to start heading back to his own little bolthole.

“Good night, Hawke.”

“Wait.”

Tobias’ hand shot out, grabbing at his wrist, surprising them both with the speed and accuracy of his reflexes. He let his fingers flex on Anders’ skin, aware of the supple warmth, the light, fast pulse, and the firmness of corded sinew and bone beneath the slim bounds of flesh.

Green eyes met dark, and the clouds in Anders’ face nearly frightened him.

“Isn’t there ever… y’know?” Tobias shrugged one shoulder, trying to make himself understood. “Something for you?”

Anders stared at him for a long, complicated moment, then shook his head.

“You’re drunk,” he muttered, turning once more to go, tugging a little at the grip still enfolding his wrist.

“Anders….”

“Really. I-I can’t— I’m sorry. It’s a bad idea.”

“What is?” Tobias demanded. “Hm?”

Anders gave an exasperated sigh. “You know exactly what I mean.”

“It’s not healthy,” Tobias warned. “Shutting yourself away from everyone. It won’t help keep Just—”

“And what do you know about it? You… you have no idea. All right?”

Anders pulled his wrist away, hard, and Tobias was sure he felt—just in that fleeting moment—the sharp prickle of magical energy nip at his fingertips. Like electricity, almost. He couldn’t help thinking of Isabela’s words, and a beery grin slid across his face.

He moved, shuffling around clumsily, insinuating himself between Anders and the wall, blocking his exit and making sure to be in the damn way whichever direction he turned.

“Oh, come on…. Why not just once, hm? The way you were talking tonight, with Isabela, I—”

“I’m not that man anymore,” Anders muttered. “You know that. You know what I am.”

“I don’t care.”

“It—”

Anders broke off, his lips thinning to a tight line as he glared at Tobias.

They were close then, facing off in the alleyway with barely inches between them. The familiar scent of the man grazed Tobias’ nose, and he ached to close the distance between them. He could do it, he knew… and he half-wanted to, itching for the chance, and almost hungry to see Anders fight back.

He wouldn’t, though, would he? Wouldn’t fight. He wanted it too much. That was evident from the look in those dark eyes, and the way his mouth had softened, lips tensely curved now, parted in something not entirely a sneer. It seemed so ridiculous to keep pretending, Tobias thought, to keep clinging to the lie that it didn’t matter, this heat and this desire… that they weren’t real, or important.

Sometimes, he wondered if Anders thought he was too good for it. Maybe he did; maybe everything took second place to his precious cause and his lofty ideals. Sober, Tobias knew it was something different… something he couldn’t understand, because he had nothing to judge against. All he knew of spirits of the Fade were whispers and things he’d learned to ignore, to guard against from the dark spaces of his dreams. His father had been adamant on that point. You never even gave them the chance to speak. That way they couldn’t corrupt you.

Not that Anders seemed corrupted. Many things, but… no. Nothing that burned as brightly as he did could be so polluted as to be beyond saving. Tobias believed that more strongly than he’d ever believed anything… which scared him a little.

“I want you,” he murmured, feeling the tension and the longing crack around them, breaking like the dark, foam-topped waves that crashed against the city’s feet on squally nights.

Anders hardly seemed to be breathing. He blinked, and a hoarse, dead gasp of a noise left his throat.

“You’re a pushy bastard when you’re drunk, aren’t you?” he muttered, his voice low and husky, marked with an odd, dry bravado.

A pang of regret prodded Tobias, and he wet his lips, almost sorry for causing that tangle of discomfort and desire written so plainly on Anders’ face.

“I do drink too much,” he said, with a small, nonchalant shrug. “Apparently.”

Anders scoffed incredulously. He didn’t seem angry, though. Just so tired, and sad.

“Justice… doesn’t understand things like this. He—I can’t… I can’t,” he repeated, little more than a whisper.

Tobias let himself sway just that little bit closer. He probably shouldn’t, he supposed. He should back off, stop all of this. It would be better for both of them. He was making a complete arse of himself—pushy, like Anders said—and trying to force inept, stupid demands on him that weren’t even all that much to do with what Tobias wanted in the first place. And yet, he didn’t seem to have control of his own mouth, or the words slipping from it, or even that ale-roughened burr he found himself using as a weapon, low and seductive.

“Maybe,” he purred, “Justice could use some instruction.”

Anders swallowed heavily, throat bobbing. When he spoke, the words were tight threads, pulled near to breaking over the things he seemed to want to say instead.

“It’s hard enough to keep control. You don’t… you don’t understand. I couldn’t ask anyone to—”

“You keep saying how terrible you are,” Tobias murmured, knowing his breath would be tickling Anders’ lips, in just the same way as he could almost taste the other man’s barely suppressed groan of need. “I haven’t seen the evidence.”

He leaned in then, so ready, so eager… and so not expecting Anders to flinch away, breaking from him with a sudden burst of fresh determination.

“No.”

He said it forcefully, but without resentment. Tobias expected the dark pull of magic to crackle between them—black fire burning in sweet spirals under his skin—but it wasn’t there. Not from Anders, anyway. Just… perfect control. Complete resolve. He turned from Tobias, turned to face the long, dim tunnel back to Darktown, leaving him with nothing but the view of that ragged, feathery pelt at his hunched shoulders, and the back of a bowed head, touched by the light of a pitted, waxen moon.

Tobias sighed, feeling foolish and clumsy. “I’m… sorry.”

The stubby ponytail twitched a bit as Anders shook his head, and let out a short, terse breath.

“If I’d met you a year or so ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation.” The tatty pauldrons shifted over something that looked, to Tobias’ bleary eyes, like a resigned shrug. “Huh… probably wouldn’t have bothered with any conversation, at least for a while. But it’s all different now. Everything’s changed.”

Tobias frowned. There was something about the quality of those words… the way Anders said them. It reminded him of—what did the Dalish call her?—Asha’bellanar. The witch with the amulet, and those strange and cryptic riddles of hers. Something about not being afraid to leap into the precipice of change. Well, that was fine… if you knew there was going to be something soft there to land on.

“Anyway,” Anders said dully, “that part of my life is over.”

He was trying to keep his voice firm, even… like he really thought that was true, and wasn’t worth regretting. All the same, there was no disguising that broken, discordant note of remorse, or the hollowness in his tone that spoke of more than just unnecessary melodrama.

Tobias puffed a long, resigned breath out through lips that felt loose and flabby, and decided he should probably lay off the drink for a while. Anders was right; he’d regret this one in the morning.

Still, if he was already going to regret it… well, in for a silver, in for a crown.

Tobias reached out, laying his hand gently on the back of Anders’ waist… or where it would have been, somewhere beneath the hard-edged fabric of his coat.

“Fine,” he said quietly, feeling him tense at the uninvited contact. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. Forget it. Doesn’t matter. But… as your friend? You’re too hard on yourself. Justice might not be human, but you are.”

Anders raised his head, turning to look at him, mouth half-open and the seed of some argument or rebuttal probably already prepared, but Tobias was ready. He leaned in, swift and brief, and pressed a light kiss to Anders’ cheek.

“You are. So, be careful,” he said, pulling back as Anders stared, blinked… and looked so ball-churningly lovely with that mix of confusion and affronted pride on his face. “Please?”

“Wh—”

Tobias shook his head. Everything seemed crowded and dizzy, and he could still feel the prickle of beard growth against his lips, the firm warmth and the undeniable scent of Anders’ skin.

This was it, he told himself. Starting tomorrow, no more drink.

He moved away, awkward and clumsy, turned, pointed himself back at the steep rank of rough, wooden steps, and forced unwilling legs to start making the climb. The night air felt cold… cold right down his bones. Tobias had made it halfway back up to the street before he raised one hand in a gesture of farewell to the man he’d left behind him.

“Night, Anders,” he called, not bothering to look back. Didn’t trust himself to, in all honesty.

He didn’t listen for a reply. Just walked away, unsatisfied longing beating a violent tattoo at the base of his gut, and his skin tingled in the cool air.

Tobias’ feet found their usual stride and, before long, Lowtown’s familiar streets and walls and landmarks were slipping by, and he didn’t even have to think about it… just as he didn’t have to think about the ache of loneliness and the sting, not of Anders’ rejection, but of realising just what it was he wanted from the man, and how badly he wanted it.

You’re an idiot. A prize-grade, first-rate fucking idiot, Hawke.

At least, Tobias supposed, with Carver off playing soldiers with the templars, he had the bedroom to himself. Easier to whack off in the dark and pretend it solved the problem… pretend it was just bodies, just the lure of forbidden fruit that appealed to him so.

Maybe he could make himself believe it.

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Chapter 6
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