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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Justice in Surrender: Chapter 21

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He left the Keep in a blind fugue of anger. One of Seneschal Bran’s minions—a thin, pale little clerk clutching a scroll embossed with Viscount Dumar’s seal—scurried out to intercept him, thrusting the papers towards him with a breathless litany of how terribly important they were.

Bugger off,” Tobias snapped, stalking his way down the corridor.

The clerk kept wittering on. It was something to do with the qunari, and diplomacy, and some delegation or other… building bridges, appeasing the Arishok…. Tobias didn’t care. He hadn’t forgiven the qunari bastards for the poison gas business—or, more precisely, for setting him up to watch him dance through it all. They’d wanted to see how he handled it, what he did, how he coped… like it was all a game, and never mind the people who’d choked to death, or the fact that half of Lowtown could have been blown sky-high.

Fuck ’em. Fuck everybody. And fuck Aveline. In fact, fuck Aveline with extreme, unlubricated prejudice. Bloody woman….

Not interested,” Tobias grunted, pushing his way past the clerk and out into the main foyer.

A few of the fat-cheeked, well-heeled patrons and plaintiffs turned to gawp at him, and one of the guards near the doors tightened his stance, but Tobias scowled a path through the lot of them. He wanted to be out of the stultifying opulence of this bloody place, and out of Hightown, and out of sodding everywhere.

He half-contemplated going to the Rose, but the all too recent memory of what he’d caught there put him off, despite the enticing prospect of soft towels, hot baths, and a friendly hand to ease his frustration. It wouldn’t change anything, anyway. No, because nothing ever seemed to change… no matter how hard Tobias tried to convince himself that it did.

Well, maybe that wasn’t strictly true. After all, things would change for Feynriel now, wouldn’t they? That was something. Off to the wilds of Tevinter, and Maker help the poor bastard then.

Tobias shook his head as he walked, dislodging the thoughts and leaving them like streaks of dust along the high, white walls. Everything was full of familiar rhythms; turnings and cross-streets taken without thought, and he realised that he probably knew Kirkwall better than any place he’d ever lived before.

His whole life, the family had moved on with depressing regularity, putting this town or that village behind them as quickly as the whisper of suspicion settled around their door. Malcolm had been careful to the point of paranoia, not that anyone could have blamed him. Lothering was supposed to have been the place they’d call home indefinitely, or so they’d all hoped; small, but not so small they’d have neighbours breathing down their necks, and with enough trade traffic moving through to keep both news and population fresh. The Chantry might have had a presence there, sure, but the local templars had mostly been a fairly even-handed bunch… and it should all have been so perfect. It should have worked, should have lasted. It almost had, hadn’t it?

And now, he moved through this hard-hewn stone of a city like a fish slipping through ripples. He knew the cobbles, and the pavements, and the taverns, and the whores… and he still didn’t feel quite like he belonged.

What a bloody laugh.

It was ironic, Tobias supposed, and yet he couldn’t help thinking of Anders. All the things he said, especially when he was really giving vent—about how mages had to rise up, how the whole order of things had to be overturned, the world shaken out of its sleep until people truly saw what was wrong with everything—all seemed to make such perfect sense. Tobias found himself believing the words more and more, and not just because it was Anders who said them. Well not entirely.

He glanced up, still frowning, and found himself at the junction of the old mansion gardens and the back end of the courtyards behind the bazaar. A high, mortared wall curved away to the right, marking the boundary of some noble’s overgrown garden—one of the houses that went unoccupied for most of the year, probably while the family sunned themselves in Antiva or Nevarra—and the smell of rampant honeysuckle and stocks lanced the air. The shapes of buildings crowded against the sky, and Tobias gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want this life.

He turned sharply, hugging the wall as he crossed behind the rambling old houses—and yes, he’d learn these secret little places too, wouldn’t he, once Leandra got her way and got them moved into the estate—and picked his way to the other end of the interwoven courtyards.

Danarius’ old mansion huddled at the edge of the estates, past the mossy, cracked edifices of fountains and broken pavers. Very few finely dressed ladies and gentlemen promenaded in these streets.

Funny, Tobias thought, as he rapped on the peeling wood, and leaned his shoulder against the cool stonework, waiting for Fenris to rescue him from his thoughts. Funny how, when you got close, you could see how weathered the white stone was, and how deep the weeds grew in the cracks between the paving stones. Funny how close Hightown was to the slums, even in a city where the hierarchy of peaks and terraces was so strictly observed—and the piss really did wash downhill in Kirkwall, that much was true—but oh, Maker, on days like this it felt as if the hypocrisy was thick as fog, and he was half-afraid he’d gag on it, that it’d strike him like chokedamp and he would just drop dead in the street, clawing at his own throat as he gargled his last.

Should have gone to the Rose, shouldn’t I? Needed to. Need it. Need something, anyway….

He was still lolling against the wall, scowling at the world in general when Fenris cracked the door open.

Hawke,” he observed, with that familiar blend of mysterious inflections.

Fenris,” Tobias batted back, though he never could manage to imbue a single word with so many things.

Today, it was ‘why are you here’, with hints of ‘I’m not sure I want to see you’, ‘what do you want’, and ‘you look terrible’… or so Tobias decided. He never had been sure whether he was reading the elf right.

Those pale green eyes narrowed, and a small crinkle appeared briefly at the top of Fenris’ nose. A moment of stiff, full silence followed, and Tobias cleared his throat uneasily.

So, um…?”

Fenris jerked his head towards the dank interior of the mansion, the hallway illuminated only by the thin threads of daylight bravely making it through the few small cracked and clouded windows. “You’d best come in.”

He turned and stalked off, not waiting for a response. Of course, he never waited for anybody, so it was hard to take it personally.

Tobias stepped inside and closed the door behind him, trying to adjust his nose to the mansion’s pervasive smell of damp, rotten cloth and stale air. Although… either it was his imagination, or it didn’t seem as bad as it had done. He took a few surreptitious squints around as he followed Fenris to the centre of his nest—the suite that had probably once been Danarius’ library and withdrawing rooms where, for all Tobias knew, the elf had waited on his master, and been subject to the manifold dark whims at which he’d sometimes hinted.

He suppressed a shiver as his feet echoed on the cool flagstones. There was, to his mind, such a thing as keeping the past too close.

All the same, it looked as if Fenris had been doing a little housekeeping. The air smelled fresher, and there seemed to be slightly less broken furniture and bits of masonry strewn around the mansion’s hallways. The room into which he led Tobias—decked sparsely in old but mostly intact wooden chairs and tables, and a couple of trunks that looked new, standing beneath windows that were, for the first time, fully unshuttered—was much more hospitable than usual.

This is… nice,” Tobias said carefully, eyeing the old wine stains on the walls, from the elf’s numerous bottle-flinging episodes. “You’ve changed things around.”

Fenris grunted, and flung himself into one of two chairs strewn with cushions that sat across from a low wooden table. Tobias lowered himself into its companion, taking mental inventory of all the things that had changed since the last Diamondback night Fenris had hosted.

Finally won enough coin off Varric to refurbish, then, did you?”

One dark brow flicked almost imperceptibly, and the elf’s long fingers curled on the carved arms of the chair. He wore simple woollen leggings and a clean, but faintly threadbare shirt: his usual comfortable, indoor clothing, and yet he always seemed to give the impression, even in those informal garments, that he could be armed and armoured in moments. There was an air of readiness that clung to the elf, and Tobias always had found it mildly unsettling. Fenris crossed his left leg over his right knee, and fixed him with an unblinking stare.

I chose to be more comfortable while I await Danarius’ next move.”

Oh.”

Not really putting the past behind you, then, I see.

Tobias didn’t like to say so aloud. The weight of Fenris’ gaze felt oppressive, and he struggled not to let his discomfort show. Silence settled in between them, as if they were both determined not to be the first to show the weakness of breaking it.

Really, really just should have gone to the whorehouse. I’d have got a much nicer reception….

You think he’ll—?”

He will never stop,” Fenris said darkly. “He wants his property back… whether I am attached to it or not. Preferably the former, I imagine. I would be less entertaining to torture, were I already dead.”

Those pale green eyes narrowed again, and he scowled at the floor violently enough that Tobias was surprised it didn’t melt a hole in the stones.

Well, it’ll certainly be interesting,” he said dryly. “And I do like a challenge.”

Fenris blinked, his gaze flicking back to Tobias’ face, his expression momentarily one of puzzlement. Tobias smirked. He found it amusing that, even now, Fenris struggled to understand the concept of his protection. Not that, if Danarius was half as powerful or as ruthless as the elf said, it would necessarily do either of them any good, but still… his word was his bond.

What?” Tobias shrugged, his hands spread in a gesture of innocence. “Didn’t I say, after everything you’ve done to help me out, I’d make sure I had your back when that bastard came sniffing around? I’m distinctly sure I said it. You weren’t drunk, were you?”

Fenris curled his lip, but the surly sneer became a smile. “I suspect you were,” he remarked coolly. “But… thank you. I appreciate it.”

Tobias nodded, satisfied with the admission, and for a moment the two of them fell silent. An open bottle of wine stood on one of the low tables, dust riming its neck and its label yellowed with age. Tobias could almost smell the expense of it from where he sat, and caught himself wondering just how much coin the vintage might fetch. Everything was slow this time of the year. Kirkwall was drawing itself in for winter, and the dwarven merchants who thronged the city weren’t much interested in pricey wines and poncey trinkets but—come next year, come the summer—there’d be nobles from Antiva and Nevarra, and some of them were quiet ardent collectors. They paid silly money for the strangest things. Tobias had occasionally been asked to supply certain… novelties… during his time with Athenril, and old booze had always been a favoured weakness.

The thing was, it was amazing how many sickly children could have been treated, how many mages given safe passage across the mountains, just with one little bottle of wine.

He frowned, wondering where those thoughts came from. He never used to think like that. He’d never thought like that when he sat here with Fenris before, methodically demolishing Danarius’ cellar, and laughing while the heat of the fire bathed his face, and their card games rolled to high stakes and slippery losses.

Why are you here, Hawke?” Fenris asked, breaking the quiet with measured, flat tones.

I—”

The elf rubbed his knuckles thoughtfully, slowly, against his palm, watching Tobias with those pale eyes, his mouth still bent into an echo of distaste.

Do you expect me to pander to your insecurities? Tell you that you did the right thing for the half-blood boy?”

A muscle clenched briefly in Tobias’ jaw. He felt it leap, and looked away from that hard, shimmering gaze. If they’d been playing at cards now, he’d probably have had to go home without his shirt.

I wanted to say that I appreciate what you did,” he said, staring at the floor, which, if it had not been recently swept, at least did not appear to have accumulated any more layers of dusty grime. “I had no right to ask you to take part in Marethari’s ritual. I had no right to expect you to use your abilities the way you did… but I’m grateful.”

He’d seen Fenris’ lyrium brands glow before: usually in the heat of battle, when he flashed bright white and blue, then quivered and vanished like a ghost, moving faster than any living creature should, and cleaving men down with a blade that looked too heavy for someone as lithe as him to even lift.

If Tobias hadn’t been a mage, he suspected he’d have found it terrifying. Fascinating, maybe, too… but terrifying. As it was, Fenris’ abilities made him dizzy and blind, and filled his head with wet linen and the taste of metal. He wondered, as he sat here now, how hard it would be to wake the lyrium in the elf’s skin. He couldn’t quite stop himself from looking up, his gaze tracing the lines on Fenris’ throat, and maybe he even stretched out a little with his senses, seeing if he could taste the lyrium’s bitter song.

He blinked guiltily, unsure whether Fenris felt it. Did the brands give him a mage’s sensitivity? It seemed unlikely, and Tobias had to admit to a mild curiosity over what it was like to feel the physical presence of lyrium without having it hum in your blood. There was a science to the stuff, as much a mystery—the dwarves’ trade told that—but Fenris and his strange, geometric scars… that was a whole different enigma.

Anyway, Tobias didn’t really want to dwell on the lyrium, intriguing though it was. That way led to memories of the Deep Roads, and the weird shit they’d found down there, and also to more recent recollections of the Dalish camp, and the Keeper’s dim aravel. It was hard to forget Fenris standing behind her, with his body glowing white and a flask of brilliant blue burning in his hands, as the Fade tugged at Tobias’ mind, and the world seeped away around him, and he had fallen into dreams… dreams that had been so painful, and so vivid.

Fenris cleared his throat. “It was your fault,” he observed coolly. “Your fault that Merrill succumbed to the demon. I was surprised it was not still in her when she woke.”

Tobias winced at unbidden visions of a Merrill-abomination rising in fury, with the horrible power of blood magic whipping around her like black vines, but the wince was quickly replaced by a frown. “Pardon?”

Fenris seemed impassive. He shrugged artlessly, his mouth a slight curve of distaste. “You should have killed him. The boy. He was a danger, and he will remain so.”

Well… you don’t mince your words, do you?

Tobias sighed, and rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m not having this argument with you,” he said flatly. “All right? I’m grateful for your help, but it’s done, so don’t—”

Fenris grunted. “Hm. You sought me out, Hawke. Did you think I would praise your actions? I merely hope you will be happy with the monster you create. Do not imagine Tevinter will leave the boy… unmarked.”

Tobias, forehead still propped in his hand, squinted at the brands that snaked down the elf’s throat. If he hadn’t known better, he might have wondered if that was a joke. Maybe it was. Admittedly, it could be hard to tell with Fenris.

It’s the best option Feynriel has,” he said, repeating the words sullenly, just like he’d repeated them to himself, over and over again, ever since he’d pushed the money into Gethyn’s hands. “It was all we could do.”

The curl of Fenris’ mouth deepened, like he found the conversation itself disgusting. “I do not know why you choose to discuss this with me. I imagine you and the abomination share… similar views. Go to him if you wish to dream of the delights Tevinter has to offer.”

Tobias sighed inwardly, trying to swallow down the familiar irritation that plagued him when Fenris started this.

Anders is not an abomination,” he said dully, the words blunted with repetition. “And he—”

He would have done well to be born in the Imperium,” Fenris continued, his tone laced with bitterness. “As would you, I’m sure.”

Oh?” Tobias snorted. “Maybe. No Circle. No templars,” he added, half to himself. “No running and hiding.” He raised his head, squinting as he glared at the elf. “You know, you and I want the same thing, Fenris. We both want to be free of all this. We want fresh starts.”

The elf said nothing. The dimness of the broken, cracked walls seemed oppressive, the mansion’s damaged shell casting shadows across the floor between them. Fenris shifted in his chair. His feet were bare, Tobias noticed: long, low-arched feet, and raw-boned toes with thick, bowed joints. A couple of small scars marked the rough skin, and the faint glimmer of lyrium brands peeked from beneath the bottom of his leggings.

They really do go everywhere, don’t they? Poor bastard.

Fenris took a long breath, turning his face away as he stared accusingly at the floor… or possibly deep into his own memories.

I do not want a fresh start,” he said eventually. “I want an end to what I already have. I want to finish this.”

Tobias sighed tightly. It was hard not to recall a conversation they’d had before, when Fenris had admitted to him that he didn’t know how to begin anew, how to make a life when he’d never had the experience of having one of his own. It bonded them, in a strange way, Tobias supposed. Fenris knew nothing except slavery and the repudiation of Danarius’ ownership, and he knew bugger all except running and surviving… only that wasn’t really true.

No matter how much it felt like it, it wasn’t true, because every time he tried to believe it was, years’ worth of old memories would come bobbing back to the surface. He’d see his father’s smiling face as Bethany took her first toddling steps, or remember smelling hot pork pies on market day in Lothering, or jumping naked into the river up past old man Barlin’s field with Carver and then doubling back to nick Carv’s clothes before he got out, and Leandra giving them both a thorough scolding when they got home, wet and, in Carv’s case, highly embarrassed, and— And he’d remember that there had been, even if just for a little while, a life that was theirs.

All gone now.

Now, there was nothing but trying to keep going, balancing safety and survival; being defined by what he was, and living under the burden of it.

Tobias closed his eyes, suddenly tired. He didn’t remember thinking about magic so often in Lothering. All right, it had always been there—always the “don’t show it, never tell, never use it” of Malcolm’s teachings—but it had never been at the forefront of his mind the way it was here.

Kirkwall took everything, he decided. Took it, screwed it up, and pushed it into black and white… made it all simpler than it should have been, made it all more intense. Made you think that there was only one way to do things, only one way anything could possibly turn out, and wasn’t that ironic? The templars’ hold on power—Meredith’s ambition and desire for control—felt like it had leaked over the entire city, staining it all with the same greyness, and making everyone think the same rigid, stale, narrow thoughts.

It won’t change anything,” he said, glancing at Fenris. “Think about it. All the running, the hiding… the fighting. Say he does come here. Say you fight him, and you win. Will it all actually end if you kill Danarius?”

Fenris looked up sharply, his mouth curved in mild disdain, and then an odd look seemed to pass across his face, like a blend of anticipation and bitterness.

We will have to see, won’t we?” the elf said dryly. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” His fingers flexed against the carved arm of the chair, as if he was picking at the pattern in the wood. ”Perhaps some other magister will decide I am a worthy quarry. Mages scent power like dogs do offal. Scrabbling and dribbling,” he added, wrinkling his nose.

Tobias bristled slightly. “We’re not all power-hungry demon-lovers, you know. And I doubt every single mage in Tevinter is a crazed psychopath… I mean, not all mages use blood magic.”

Fenris glared at him, head snapping up immediately, his fingers whitening faintly against the arm of the chair.

In Tevinter,” he countered, his voice low and dangerously level, “magisters do anything they must for power. Those who do not subjugate others are themselves beaten down… controlled, devoured. They will do anything to survive, anything to win dominion over each other. It never ends. That is the nature of mages.”

No,” Tobias protested. “No, that’s just—”

He stopped abruptly. That’s just human nature. Somehow, that didn’t seem like a helpful point. He shook his head.

That’s not true everywhere, though. I mean, if we didn’t have the Circle, we wouldn’t have to be like Tevinter. No one’s saying blood magic isn’t dangerous, or wrong, or that—”

Mages are mages,” Fenris growled. “If you do not keep a fire in check, it will consume a whole house. To argue that the fire might govern itself is to pretend it does not wish to burn.”

He slumped back in his chair, glowering at Tobias, all his poise and elegance momentarily fractured.

You have so far proved yourself different from the mages I have known before, Hawke… but it cannot change what you are. It cannot change what you sent that boy to become.”

Tobias let out a breath, all his arguments and protestations suddenly deflated and defeated. It no longer seemed to matter whether this really was all about Feynriel and the Dalish, or about the Underground, or Danarius, or just mages in general. Between Aveline telling him he should be locked up because he wasn’t really human, and Fenris effectively saying he’d either signed Feynriel’s death warrant, or taken the first step on the road to creating a monster, Tobias was fervently wishing he’d never gotten himself involved in any of this.

Look,” he said, before the silence swelled up between them and threatened to coax him into breaking it with words he might regret, “let’s just… let’s not talk about this anymore, all right? I didn’t come here to argue with you, Fenris.”

The elf narrowed his eyes. “No?”

Tobias ignored the dig. “Let’s talk about the Bone Pit job. Are you on for that? I want to do it soon, before Hubert starts thinking he can beat me down on the payment.”

In truth, he was eager to change the subject and, while he had no great wish to head into the old mine—it was underground, after all—the venture did promise to be profitable, and to put some much-needed distance between him and the Dalish.

Anyway,” he went on, “it’ll be easy. Just scout through the mine, clear out whatever’s got the yokels rattled… it’s quick coin. Will you come?”

Fenris appeared to consider the prospect for a moment. “If it is as easy as you think, why has the merchant not paid some other fool to investigate? You know why they call it the Bone Pit, don’t you?”

Tobias shrugged. “Well, not specifically, no… but it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s probably just smugglers. Qunari renegades, or some two-bit street gang who want a shiny new hideout.”

A dark look filtered over Fenris’ face. “In the time of the Imperium, they used to throw slaves off the minehead. Thousands of them died there.”

Tobias felt his carefully controlled expression of nonchalance begin to stiffen.

Oh, sod. Does this mean more demons?

It always meant more demons. Kirkwall seemed to be built on a solid bedrock of slaves’ bones, and if he’d been a religious man Tobias would have been convinced that the whole city was overdue a priest’s blessing or maybe just razing to the ground.

He smirked, affecting an only partially successful shrug of unconcern.

Well, it’s not like we can’t deal with a few ghosts. Give me a day to get the gear together. I’ll cut you a good share. C’mon,” he added, wheedling as Fenris sneered doubtfully.

From outside the mansion, beyond the high, tiny windows, faint sounds of the street could be heard: unusual, really, for this end of the city. Even Hightown’s quiet, disregarded plazas of forgotten decadence were generally unmarred by the thrum of life, but there were people, all the same. Footsteps, voices—the plumy quack and high-pitched giggle of an upscale courting couple, Tobias suspected. He spread his hands wide and fixed the elf with his best convincing grin.

Have I ever steered you wrong before, eh?”

Fenris took a breath, but didn’t get a chance to speak.

Not often, right?” Tobias put in quickly. “Not often at all. So… what d’you say? Big, fat ten percent? Yes? Plus all the intrigue and glamour of whatever we might find down there? Diamonds, rubies—”

Unlikely.” Fenris shook his head and exhaled resignedly. “But, all right.”

Good.” Tobias sat back, slapping his palms against his knees. “Day after tomorrow, then? Say, meet you midday by the postern gate?”

The elf nodded reluctantly, and Tobias wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the strength of their uneasy friendship that had him agreeing, or just the possibility of cold, hard cash. Maybe it was simply curiosity.

Either way, as he left the mansion and sloped idly back towards the general direction of the market, he was grateful for it. No matter what nasty surprises the old mine undoubtedly held, Tobias was looking forward to the prospect of a job… and a fight. Something to blow the cobwebs out. Something to get the blood pumping, and his head back into the game.

Aveline came to the house that night.

At first, he thought she was there to apologise, but it was soon clear she was merely visiting his mother. Leandra received her with open arms and her usual cheerful smile, and that made Tobias feel very slightly sick. She didn’t know about the Fade, of course. He hadn’t said anything, and there was no sense worrying her by trying to explain now.

So, he quietly absented himself, and left them to talk. It was already dusk, and the fire burned brightly, with a couple of candles pushing back the shadows. Aveline, as usual, had turned up in her uniform, and he was fairly certain the armour had actually been welded to her skin. Caught in the candlelight, she practically glowed red and gold, like the silken glimmer of a Chantry sister’s robe. He almost smelled the incense.

Leandra poured tea, and they talked about the who-said-what of the keep’s gossip, and discussed details of city ordinances and plans to do with the blasted estate and he slipped quietly from the house, not bothering to take a cloak, despite the evening’s chill.

It was almost dark. Tobias didn’t really look where he was walking.

He wasn’t going to go to The Rose, he told himself. He was going to break off all those bad habits, and stop doing all the things that he did to plug the gaps in life, and make himself believe there was something keeping the days greased and turning that was more than just the fear of stopping… because that was what it was, wasn’t it? And it wasn’t even Kirkwall that had done it to him.

Oh, the city did screw people up. Made you tread water, made you stagnate in the same old sewer… too many hills and terraces, too many rigid hierarchies and stupid protocols. There never seemed to be a way out of anything, and so you just reached for the nearest thing to plaster over the irritation.

Everything was about ticking through the days like clockwork, like some bald-toothed cog locked in repetitive motion.

Even his footsteps seemed to echo with measured, unbreakable rhythms.

Some little prick jumped out of the shadows at him not far from the Chantry courtyard; Tobias could hear the muffled sound of the quarter-hour bells, just as clearly as he heard the shuffle of inexpertly silenced feet on the flagstones. He sighed inwardly, and sidestepped as the assailant lunged, then extended a leg for the cloth-swathed figure to stumble over. It was both gratifying and depressingly predictable to watch the would-be cutthroat sprawl face-first onto the cracked pavers.

Between the darkness and the loose, heavily draped clothes that were apparently de rigueur for street criminals these days, it was impossible to tell the age or gender of the figure, though the surprised “oof!” sounded either like a woman or a young boy. Tobias brought his foot down across the prone body’s back anyway; hard enough to shake the kidneys up a bit, but not hard enough to break much. A blade skittered from pathetically flexing fingers, and he stooped to snatch it up, and to unceremoniously grab the back of the cloth-masked head.

The would-be mugger whimpered and mewled a bit… and smelled like lavender water and old sweat. Tobias exhaled wearily as he placed a knee in the small of what felt like a rather skinny back.

How many of you?” he asked, eyeing the dark spaces of colonnades and doorways.

It was a redundant question, really. A proper gang would have been on him at once… and this poor specimen probably wouldn’t have passed the initiation for one, anyway.

Well, maybe the Dark Spire lot. Are they still going? Haven’t heard anything in a while. Oh, Hawke, you’re so out of touch!

The not-terribly-talented-cutthroat mumbled and wriggled, and a distinctly feminine voice managed to spit out a few profanities. Tobias knelt harder on her and, tossing away the worn, thin-bladed knife he’d confiscated, pulled up the sleeve of a flailing right arm.

No mark, then,” he observed, peering at the thin band of grubby, pale, but unblemished skin. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you really don’t have the skills of an… independent agent. At least think about joining a gang. One of the small ones. You could be the one who gets picked off first in an ill-advised ambush.”

He got off her, and she scrambled to her hands and knees, coughing and gasping—and still swearing. He picked out the words “arrogant bastard” and “gut you like a fish”, and he grinned in the coolness of the night’s breeze.

The girl glared at him, all that was visible of her face just the narrow strip between her brows and the bridge of her nose, the rest of her anonymous beneath the drapes of cloth. They were probably blue eyes, Tobias decided, though they looked dark in the gloom. Dark and full of hatred, hunger, and viciousness. She crouched, like some scared, cornered beast, and he was both ashamed of himself and physically, vitally alive, revelling in the feeling of his body, and his reflexes, and everything that it was to sense, and fight, and breathe. He felt powerful, without magic—without even thinking about needing magic—and that was something he’d always treasured.

But there was something else, he realised. He looked down at her, and envied her. It wasn’t just pity, or black humour, or the sudden, electric moment of having had a knife pulled on him and avoiding it with such blessed, easy, elastic grace… he missed this. More than he’d cared to admit.

The streets were quiet. Hightown was sleeping, and those who weren’t were decent enough folk to be quiet and discreet about it. Up the hill, the chantry was carrying on its own muffled internal rhythms and, spreading out below it all, the rest of the city kept beating like the dark, grim heart it was.

The only sound here, in this lonely, pressed-in little spot, was the girl’s ragged breathing, and the moment seemed to stretch to eternity.

Her knife lay on the stones, its blade glimmering dully in the shreds of second-hand light cast by the moon and the occasional lantern. Tobias stretched out his foot, and toed the thing back towards her, sending it scudding across the pavers.

Go on.” He nodded back towards the bazaar, and the warren of streets that led off from it. “Bugger off. I’ve got enough to worry about.”

He turned, feeling quite the roguishly magnanimous gallant as he made to walk away, the night air still crisp in his lungs.

He thought she’d crawl off and lick her wounds. He thought she’d be cowed. He didn’t think that, her knife in her hand again, she’d spring up and come after him, roaring like an angry ox. He didn’t think at all… just as he didn’t think in the blink of a moment in which, turning fluidly, he drew his dagger like a whisper of silk, and met her in full collision.

Tobias was rather glad of the darkness. It made it harder to see her eyes—he still couldn’t tell whether they were blue or brown, and it was never going to matter now anyway—and harder to see the way the cloth moved against her mouth as she tried to gurgle out some dying curse. Warmth spread over his hand. She sagged, and the knife clattered from her fingers a second time.

She really never was any good at this. Poor kid.

He pushed her away, bending briefly to wipe his dagger on her loose clothes before sheathing it and glancing along the empty streets. There was no one around. No guard patrol, though one probably would be by later—Aveline’s many reforms had seen patrols rolled out right to Fenris’ forgotten corner of the estates, and even as far as some parts of Lowtown—so it would be sensible to get moving.

Tobias wiped his hands absently against his breeches, and then glanced down at his front, and muttered a cuss. The suspicion of something that might be a bloodstain shimmered slightly in the gloom, and he touched his fingers to the leather of his jerkin.

Sod it,” he said, to no one in particular, and walked away from the crumpled corpse on the flagstones.

He’d told himself he wasn’t going to go to The Rose… and yet he found himself there anyway.

The same porticos and colonnades stood like broken ribs, with the same vines and ivy scrambling up the same dirty-white, cracked walls, and the same strings of lanterns slung between the windows, glimmering down on the same grubby streets. The same broken flagstones, the same tired old whores pacing the alleys… the same jaded, dirty little corner of Hightown, pushed into the shadows and quietly ignored.

No wonder he felt at home here, Tobias supposed.

It was a slow night. Mid-week often was. No one stopped him or greeted him as he entered the bar at the front of the house, heavy with its smells of cheap perfume and musty upholstery. Near the far door that led off to the kitchens, two women were leaning on one of the tables, each cradling a mug of grog as they talked quietly. Their voices stilled as he walked in, glancing up to see if he was worth approaching. On one of the plush seats beneath the staircase, an elven girl with red hair was making up to a fat man with a grey beard and a blue velvet doublet. She even giggled coquettishly when he groped her breasts.

Tobias caught Quintus’ eye before he’d even made it halfway across the room, confused for a moment by the way the big man’s face stiffened, and the meaty hands engaged in the futile task of polishing grubby mugs came to a sudden halt on cloth and pewter.

Catching sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar soon solved that query.

Oh. Right.

There wasn’t much blood on him, but it was enough to be noticeable. Tobias peered guiltily at his jerkin, and gestured vaguely at himself as he looked up at Quintus.

Took the pretty route here,” he said as he reached the bar. “Bit of local colour, that’s all. Not looking for trouble.”

Quintus’ eyes narrowed, but he seemed to accept the story.

Right you are, Serah Hawke. Should I tell Madam that you’re—?”

No,” Tobias said quickly, his fingers flexing involuntarily on the bar’s greasy surface. “No, thanks. I just… I just want….”

He faltered, feeling suddenly a little light-headed, as if he couldn’t remember how he’d come to be here, or what he wanted.

A bottle of whisky and a nice, hot bath?” suggested a familiar voice. “Makes everything better, dear. Usually.”

Tobias glanced up wearily at the mirror, watching Jethann’s reflection sashay towards him. He hadn’t seen much of the elf since the encounter that had led to his… little problem… and while it was pleasant to see a familiar face, he couldn’t deny that this felt immensely awkward.

Ah. Er—”

The elf leant casually on the bar beside Tobias, his lithe body decked in tight breeches and loose, flowing linen shirt. His red hair hung down to his shoulders, and a scent of sandalwood and rose oil seemed to rise like a heat haze from his skin. He smiled in a display of dextrous, well-practiced, and yet still rather appealing charm.

Maybe a little beef stew and some crusty bread? Or cold mutton?”

Tobias frowned. The Rose didn’t usually lay on food for customers who weren’t staying all night. The elf seemed aware of his confusion, and shrugged cheerfully.

Well, I owe you a little something, don’t I?” He flashed another winning smile. “A little treat or two. Just a small token of apology.”

Quintus had gone back to polishing mugs, and smirking behind his bushy moustache. Tobias scoffed.

What… an ‘I’m sorry I gave you the clap’ hamper?”

The elf didn’t even bat an eye. The corner of his lips curved gently, and he nodded to Quintus.

I’ll take care of him. No need to bother Madam when she’s busy. Hot water, bottle of brandy, and a few nibbles to number four? You can take it off my tips,” Jethann added, lowering his voice a little, with a great deal of the swish and flounce gone from his words. “All right?”

Tobias wasn’t sure if the elf was talking to him or Quintus but, somehow, he felt himself being gently, easily guided away from the bar, and towards the staircase. Jethann’s hand rested lightly on his arm, and his skin felt comfortingly warm.

The pervading smells of rose oil and cheap perfume, old curtains and white soap all seemed to blend and swirl around his head, and he allowed the elf to lead him… blindly, resignedly.

There just didn’t seem to be much point in protesting.

I killed a girl tonight,” Tobias said dully, as Jethann shut the door of one of the larger bedchambers behind them.

It had a small window, shuttered and hung with heavy red drapes, and a rather battered paper on the walls that repeated the over-used motif of vines and roses, this time in shades of brown and faded red. A large wooden tub stood at the end of the room, beside a washstand and low table, but it was the bed that Jethann drew him towards: wide, and covered with an array of embroidered throws and blankets, presumably to disguise the darned sheets and threadbare canopy. The familiar sounds of occupancy from the room next doorthuds, giggles, and a few gruntsechoed, muffled, through the thin walls.

Really?” Jethann said absently, like it was an answer to a comment about the weather. He stopped in front of Tobias, those impossibly big, impossibly blue eyes widening in mock reprobation as he surveyed the bloodied leather jack. “My dear… you have been in the wars. I hope nothing vital got scratched.”

Tobias shrugged resignedly. “Nah. She tried to spring me, but she didn’t get far.”

I’ve heard most people don’t,” Jethann purred, stepping closer, his hands moving to the first of the jack’s buckles.

Tobias stayed still, pliant numb. There was a good couple of inches difference in height between them, but he liked the closeness of Jethann’s face as he worked. With his eyes downcast, the gentle puffs of his breath fanned Tobias’ throat. He smelled warm, and rich, and not at all like the rest of the city.

I wasn’t going to do this again. I wasn’t even going to be here….

I’ve been hearing an awful lot about you recently, as it happens,” Jethann added, raising those searing eyes for a brief moment of effect. “The alienage is alive with stories of the shem who went to the Beyond and back for the People.”

He pulled the jack’s first strap free of its buckle, and the fitment jingled lightly. Tobias glanced up sharply, a frown already embedded in his brow, and the icy wash of dread spilling through his stomach.

Fuck. So much for my low profile.

Stupid, he supposed. Marethari might have been prepared to keep his involvement quiet, but Arianni had probably been blabbering her relief and gratitude all over the place… daft cow. He narrowed his eyes.

Oh? I wouldn’t have imagined you spend much time there.”

The elf lifted one shoulder in an unconcerned shrug, his fingers already moving to the next buckle.

I have family there,” he said, grimacing over the word as if it tasted foul. “A pale, dull slug of a wife, and her hideous mother.”

Wife?” Tobias echoed, unable to keep the sharp burst of disbelief from his voice. “You?”

Jethann wrinkled his nose and slapped Tobias’ stomach playfully through the dyed leather. “I keep my options open, my dear. I always have! Besides, it was an arranged match. We were children, practically but that isn’t my point, and don’t you dare try to deny anything.” He leaned closer, his eyes pools of vibrant, terrible fascination, and his soft pout curled into a harsh smile. “I heard what you did. I didn’t know for certain you were

One of those’? Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Mage. Robe. Freak.

Tobias swallowed hard, his tongue feeling thick and his throat dry. “I don’t like people knowing,” he said shortly. “It can lead to complications.”

That much was true: complications for him, and for more other people than he dared to contemplate. A dozen different ways this conversation could end were already playing out in his head, and he didn’t like the way most of them sounded. All right, so Jethann probably wasn’t likely to report him to the templarsMaker knew Lusine had enough apostates of her own under the Rose’s roofbut Tobias didn’t like the smug curve of the whore’s smile, and he wasn’t convinced that he’d shy from blackmail.

Jethann’s smile widened as he pulled open the third buckle of Tobias’ jack.

Well, your secret’s safe with me, dear. For what it’s worth,” he added, fingers tugging at the tough yet supple leather, beginning to bare Tobias’ chest to the room’s warm air, “I think it’s exciting. I mean, there have been rumours about you for years but knowing for sure is different.”

Unease crawled between Tobias’ shoulder blades, and the air seemed to stick to his skin like wet sand. He sneered, trying to paper over his discomfort with sarcasm, but everything felt dry and forced.

Rumours?” He snorted. “Gossips’ whispers. Probably all bollocks, anyway.”

Jethann’s smile widened further, and he pulled the jack open, his clever fingers tugging the leather aside with a strength of grasp that belied his gentle touch. The buckles jingled softly, and Tobias felt oddly vulnerable.

A knock on the door interrupted whatever the elf had been about to say—if there would indeed have been words—and two girls entered, laden down with buckets of hot water, a platter of food, and a bottle of Antivan brandy. Tobias didn’t pay them much attention, except to notice that one looked tight-lipped and worried. Jethann waved them over to the tub imperiously, and seemed almost annoyed by their entrance.

And who kicked your grandma?” he demanded of the pale, tight-lipped one.

She shook her head violently, and the other girl answered for her.

He’s here,” she said, the words a coarse stage-whisper in a flat Kirkwall accent. “They’ll be startin’ before long.”

Jethann narrowed his eyes. “Shh! Go on… get on with you.”

Wh—?” Tobias began to frame the question as the girls prepared the bath, but the elf didn’t leave him much opportunity to ask anything.

Long, talented fingers stroked his face, wove themselves into his hair, and caressed his throat. Jethann leaned close and kissed him—a real, sweet kiss that tasted faintly of almonds. The tenderness came almost as a surprise, but it was too pleasant to resist and, somehow, the whole notion of refusing the embrace seemed to ebb out of Tobias’ head, his thoughts fuzzy and the tickle of magical power rising under his skin.

It was, he realised dimly, the first time he’d ever kissed a man who knew he was a mage. The first time someone who knew had still wanted to touch him.

As the door closed quietly behind the girls, he pulled back and frowned at the elf. Jethann just smiled angelically, and Tobias realised he didn’t want to question… he didn’t want to question any of it. Not when it was as easy as this, and it was so blessedly easy. It was easy to shed the rest of his clothes, and easy to climb into the tub, like sinking into a blissful pool of quiet.

We get more in than you’d think, you know,” Jethann observed, setting a small dish of oil on the low table beside the tub. “Ones who live free, ones who’ve just broken out… ones on the run. I suppose it can make for a lonely life.”

Mm.” Tobias grunted noncommittally, still unsure of how to navigate this new feeling.

All right, so a handful of people knew. People he’d fought with, people he’d worked alongside. This was different. As Jethann dipped the washcloth into the dish of rose-scented oil and began to apply it to his skin in gentle, massaging circles, Tobias caught himself examining the elf’s movements, seeking out something new in his touch, as if he expected to find hesitancy or revulsion there.

“’Course,” Jethann said, lifting Tobias’ arm gently by the wrist, and massaging oil into the sun-browned skin, “we get templars too, and a fair few Chantry brothers, not to mention sisters and mothers. Equal opportunities, I always say. Come one, come all… as it were.”

He smirked, and Tobias couldn’t help grinning.

It was so awfully easy to lie in the hot water, watching his flesh pinken and the steam curling up from his skin as the little globules of rose oil floated and bumped against the tub’s scummy sides. It was easy to relax into Jethann’s touch, too… easy not to think about the dead girl on the flagstones, or about Feynriel becoming a magister, or about Fenris screaming as molten lyrium burned its way into his flesh. It was easy not to think about all the things that went wrong, even when his intentions weren’t all that bad to start with.

Jethann hummed slightly; just a soft, gentle noise, right on the edge of hearing. He hummed, and dipped the washcloth in the little dish of silky-smooth oil, and rubbed gently at the knots of tension and guilt and rage that tied Tobias’ back so tightly. His hair fell forward a little as he worked, and his eyes grew half-hooded.

Maker, he really is lovely.

I think they’re wrong about you, though,” Jethann said quietly, moving around to begin tracking the cloth from left to right in pleasingly repetitive motions over Tobias’ chest.

Mm? Who?”

His touch was light and yet so reassuring, and the bloom of power seemed to follow it beneath Tobias’ skin, like something in him ached to respond in a way he’d never responded—never allowed himself to respond—to anyone.

He wondered what that would be like… whether it was even possible. Having magic, as his father had always taught him, was to keep a part of yourself locked up, always. Malcolm’s teachings had been strict on that point. Tobias had never once let that side of his nature go completely, not even when he’d come as close as he ever had to truly losing control. Even in his most vulnerable moments—the times of nakedness that went far beyond just skin—he’d never let that part out. He didn’t know if he could, he realised.

Can you? Magic in the sack? It wouldn’t be safe, surely…. Even the tiniest mistimed fireball would do way more than just kill the mood.

It was an enthralling thought, though: making love like a mage. Maybe other mages already knew all the tricks. Maybe, when two of them were together—

Maker…!

The elf shrugged and dipped the cloth back into the little dish of oil.

People,” he said vaguely. “The people who say you’re too well-known. That your reputation makes you… unpredictable. Makes you a threat.”

Tobias’ frown deepened, and the bathtub suddenly seemed like a much less safe and relaxing place. “What p— Do you mean who I think you mean?”

Jethann dropped the washcloth into the tub. It splashed into the water like a limp fish and floated there, a pale and bloated thing. He leaned forward, as if he was afraid of being overheard, and his expression seemed oddly subdued.

I may not be a mage,” he said quietly, that blue gaze almost circumspect, “but I do know what it is to be an outsider. I believe you and I have mutual friends…. People who help people?”

Tobias leaned back against the edge of the tub. “That’s who I thought you meant.” He squinted suspiciously at Jethann. “So who’s been bad-mouthing me?”

The elf wrinkled his nose. “That’s a strong word. I just… heard… that your involvement with the Dalish hasn’t gone down too well in certain quarters. That’s all. That… certain people… are worried you’ll bring too much attention to their work. We’re talking about a man who likes to keep himself hidden, after all.”

Tobias nodded slowly. Elias Creer, no doubt.

He wasn’t surprised. It had been a while since Anders had invited him to a meeting of the Underground—not least, Tobias suspected, because the healer had been having his own disagreements with his so-called friends. Oh, he hadn’t said anything, because Anders never said anything. No, Maker forefend he should actually tell anyone what was going on… but they had seemed to close ranks. It had been irritating for Tobias. His money was readily accepted—snatched up, even, the way Gethyn had so gladly taken the gold for Feynriel’s safe passage—but his attempts to ask questions were treated with scorn and annoyance. And it wasn’t just because everyone was safer if they kept secrets, either or was it? Maybe he had expected too much, too soon, from his tentative involvement with such a sensitive organisation.

Presumably, Jethann was right. Presumably, Anders himself had been referring to the same thing when he’d teased Tobias about his ‘hob-nobbing with the nobility’.

Just be careful. That was what he’d said. Not that it was wrong for the Underground to be suspicious of an outsider—especially one throwing gold around like water, and so pathetically keen to be accepted into their ranks—but… all the same. It was frustrating, and he still had the niggling sense that, somehow, he was being played for somebody’s fool.

He just hoped it was Anders’, and not Elias Creer’s.

Tobias sighed. The bathwater was cooling rapidly. Jethann’s fingers twitched uncertainly; the first piece of uncertainty he thought he’d ever seen in the elf. Still, whatever Jethann’s motives in telling him this, it didn’t feel safe to discuss it any further.

Didn’t have you pegged for a sympathiser, that’s all,” he said, watching those blue eyes widen incredulously.

Darling,” Jethann chided, taking up the washcloth again, “I’m made of empathy. Charity is my single weakness.”

Tobias snorted derisively, and the elf flicked the cloth playfully over his nipple.

Well, all right so maybe I don’t like what the Knight Commander’s done to this city. And maybe I don’t think people deserve to be treated badly because they’re different.” His face grew almost serious for a moment, the mirth in those blue eyes beginning to dim. “Maybe I’ve seen enough of that to judge a little more lightly.”

Tobias smiled, and it was a ridiculous, stupid, awkward thought to have, but he couldn’t help wishing he could repeat those words to Anders, just to show him there were people in the world who thought right, whatever it felt like sometimes.

Yeah. Can’t even picture how to start that sentence.

He wanted to say something, maybe thank Jethann for that brief burst of faith, but all the words he could think of felt foolish and clumsy, so he reached out one wet, rose-scented hand, and gently cupped the side of the elf’s head, guiding him close.

You, uh, you don’t mind this, do you?” Tobias murmured, just before he touched those soft, pliant lips.

Jethann chuckled gently. “Of course not.”

Good.”

He still tasted of almonds. Tobias kissed him thoroughly, slowly; luxuriating in the lazy sensuality of a warm mouth and warm air against his cooling, moist skin.

He got out of the bath, and let Jethann wrap him in soft towels. He reclined on the bed and picked at the plate of cold meat, bread, cheese and apple slices, washing it down with Antivan brandy, while Jethann lay beside him, idling along his body with lazy mouth and hands.

Once his leisurely meal was finished, Tobias worked up the enthusiasm for a much more energetic bout. Usually, he’d been content to let Jethann please him—and it wasn’t as if the elf lacked either repertoire or creativity—but, tonight, there was something profoundly exciting about just having him in the simplest, most direct manner possible.

It wasn’t merely the desire to truncate any pillow talk, either or, at least, it wasn’t entirely that. Jethann had, all things considered, always been pretty good about it, never prodding for details Tobias didn’t want to share, or asking clumsy questions and casting around for crumbs to send back to Lusine.

Tobias didn’t flat-out trust him, but nor did he distrust the elf and, damn it, maybe he really did have a little honest affection for him. Maybe, he thought, as he pinned Jethann’s hands above his head and set about trying to nail him to the mattress, that was as much love as he world had to offer him.

Maybe that was enough.

Unf!” Jethann exclaimed, pushing his ruffled red hair out of his eyes and surveying Tobias from the wreckage of the bed. “Well quite the endurance athlete, aren’t we? All better?”

Tobias lay on his back, shoulders dug deep into the thin pillow, the rime of sweat on his skin turning the scent of rose oil sour. His breathing was still fast and shallow, but the bite of triumph and pleasure had washed from his blood, leaving a sense of hollow dissatisfaction only slightly numbed by sensation.

I didn’t think you were complaining.”

The elf treated him to a sultry, self-satisfied smile as he pushed back into a cat-like stretch. It was always difficult to tell whether he enjoyed it as much as he seemed to; Tobias liked to think so, though he was under no illusions about his own prowess.

There’s a directness about you that I like,” Jethann said, patting his knee. “And now I know just how a blacksmith’s anvil feels. Why don’t you bring that hammer over here again?”

He crawled across the bed, dropping kisses to Tobias’ thighs, interspersed with happy little sounds of interest, but Tobias had already started rolling over, reaching for the bottle of brandy.

Bugger,” he announced, on discovering it was almost empty.

Jethann sighed, and rolled onto his back, falling against the covers with a soft thump. “Been there, done that. Have you ever tried an Orlesian Canary?”

Tobias swallowed the last dregs of the brandy, frowning in confusion that seemed marginally hazier than normal.

I wasn’t going to be here. I wasn’t going to do this. I wasn’t going to drink like this oh, sod it.

A what?”

Canary,” Jethann repeated, staring at the ceiling. “It’s a type of wine. It it has bubbles. You hold in your mouth and, well, you give your friend an Orlesian kiss. It feels amazing.”

Tobias let the empty bottle fall to the floorboards, and wondered how it was physically possible, in that instance, to suck someone off without drowning.

Huh,” he said instead. “Why why is it called ‘canary’?”

Jethann shrugged. “I don’t know what the word means. It just sounds like ‘canary’. It’s not like I read labels,” he added, turning his head to look thoughtfully across the bed. “Do you want to go again, or not?”

It was tempting. It was so tempting, after the past few days, and the Dalish, and the painful rejections and accusations of people he’d wanted to think of as friends but Tobias shook his head. It was already latelater than he’d meantand he was drunker than he’d intended to be.

Already, the guilt was rippling back under his skin, flooding in where those precious few flashes of freedom had been.

Nah. I I can’t.”

Bet you could,” Jethann said, eyeing his crotch with an interested half-smile. “If I just—”

Another time,” Tobias protested. “Really. How much do I—?”

The elf waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, all right. Be boring, then. Call it a crown, seeing as it’s you.”

Tobias swung his legs out of bed and groped for his breeches before digging around for a few coins. He tossed two sovereigns onto the pillow.

One for you, one for Madam. Take a couple of hours off on me.”

Jethann snorted, though one slim hand shot out to grab the money. “Trying to buy up all my time already? Jealous thing.” He smiled lazily as he sat up, looking thoroughly dishevelled and really quite lovely… at least until he fluttered his eyes and pouted. “Next, you’ll fall into fits of pining for me until you’re simply beside yourself. You’ll know no rest at all until you spirit me away to a sun-soaked palace in Antiva, so you can have me all to yourself… you beast, you.”

Tobias chuckled, but the smile stuck to his face, half-formed and not quite as easy as it should have been.

Take care,” he said, squeezing Jethann’s ankle briefly before he stood, pulled on his breeches, and set to picking up the rest of his clothes.

When he got downstairs, he saw the place had filled up, which meant it was easy to slip out of the front door without catching anyone’s eye. He recognised a few facesmerchants, one of the Formari traders from The Gallows, and a selection of upstanding citizens who were all doing their best to ignore each other, alongside the Rose’s more honestly seamier denizensand, for a moment, Tobias was almost convinced he caught a whiff of soot and elfroot. He nearly froze at that. Encountering Anders here would have been a hundred times worse than the night he’d bumped into Gamlen, especially with his hair still damp from the bath, the scent of rose oil still on his skin, andTobias suspected, as he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bara sheepish countenance that said he might as well have had ‘freshly fucked’ painted on his forehead in rouge.

He shuddered, and pressed on, out into the street.

Bloody Anders. Finds his bloody way into bloody everything. Wouldn’t have gone to talk to Aveline if he hadn’t told me to. Wouldn’t have had to hear her tell me I should be locked up in the name of public safety that I’m not fucking human. Well, sod Aveline. And sod him. Sod everyone.

Yeah.

He stopped in an alleyway at the corner of the square, and held onto the wall until the cobblestones stopped spinning, and his late supper stopped threatening to make a re-emergence.

There were no more girls with knives on the way home. No more death. When he got back to the house, Aveline was long gone, and the fire was cold. The light of a candle came from under Leandra’s door, and Tobias crept to his bed with his breath held, praying she wouldn’t come out to check on him.

She didn’t. He climbed into bed, put his head under the stale-smelling pillow, and tried to pretend he couldn’t hear her crying.

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Chapter 22
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Amantis verendum: IV

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It is not simple. He has tried to explain it, but no one really understands.

It isn’t like he can have a conversation with Justice. The spirit is a part of him, and everyone has multiple facets to themselves. There is, for example, the part of Anders that—though he has always been a little afraid of most animals, and the tendencies they have to possess teeth and claws and the desire to hunt prey, which you can easily be mistaken for when you are on the run in unfamiliar woodland—nevertheless wrinkles up and grins when he sees a cat playing with a skein of yarn. There is the part of him that warms in an entirely different way when he sees a pretty girl, or a good-looking man, and idles in pleasant bedchamber thoughts, even if he has no intention of approaching them.

There are parts of him that worry about things he can’t control, and things he can but doesn’t, and parts that are made of fear, or logic, or anger, jealousy, apathy… and more besides. There is a part of him that, though he has not seen his mother since he was fourteen years old, continues to think like her son, and sometimes repeats silly, idiosyncratic things he used to hear her say, or words of her native tongue, to which he is no longer entirely sure he is putting the right meanings.

And, now, there is a part of him that is Justice. Just as some of those other old thoughts and feelings rise up—the way his self-doubt tugs at him, or his libido nudges him at inconvenient moments—he feels the spirit move in response to certain things… but it isn’t a conversation. It isn’t something he can control, anymore than he can stop associating lamb and pea stew with the first tavern he ever stayed at, back when he escaped the Tower successfully for the first time, only to end up captured again after the girl he spent the night with stole his money and his clothes while he was sleeping. A man really cannot be on the run in the nude. It makes him far too easy to spot. Still, she had a beautiful smile and immaculate breasts, and Anders thinks of her every time he smells that particular dish cooking.

The clinic is busy that morning. People expect him to stride between the pallets, giving orders and presenting solutions. He is meant to be in charge here, isn’t he? For a moment before it all begins, in those few seconds when the doors are opened and he sees the people waiting for him, sweat pricks his back and his stomach turns to water. He is almost paralysed with fear, because he’s sure he can’t do it. This isn’t him. He has stumbled, somehow, into some other man’s life, and he needs to find the way back… but there isn’t one, and he has no choice but to roll up his sleeves and get on with it.

He tries. He tries very hard, and he waits for Justice to rise up in him and grant him that power, but it never quite happens, and he still feels so horribly adrift.

Hawke arrives while Anders is setting a child’s broken leg. It is a bad break, and there is a lot of crushing around the wound, because the boy was caught beneath some barrels when a cart overturned near the docks.

Anders knows from the way people are looking at him that they expect him to wave his hands and make it all right with magic. He is the healer, and that is what he is supposed to do. It was for that ability that Darktown took him to its heart and, in the years since, it has protected him. Well… Darktown and Varric’s briberies, and he knows who he has to thank for that.

They don’t understand, though. They don’t know what might happen if he does it, if he lets the power out… if Justice catches the scent of it on the air, like a hound tasting blood. He doesn’t even dare reach out to the Fade, because what he pulls through may not be the small, sympathetic, curious wisps of spirits that want to help. He isn’t even sure he can control that much anymore.

So, he is relying on his skill with the poultices and potions that his apprentices have made up, and the deft, careful touch that is part knack and part years of experience.

It is a simple enough matter to reset the bone, once the surrounding damage has been addressed. He binds it and splints it, and knows without looking up when Hawke has crossed the clinic, moving from the doors to the rows of boiling coppers near the fires at the back. Part of Anders wants to throw down the plaisters and poultices he is working with and run to him, but it is only a small part—that small, impulsive part that he has so determinedly starved for so long—and, besides, he is aware that despite his efforts, this young boy will probably always walk with a bad limp.

He would not if you used magic. Reach deep, draw upon your power, and you can cause the healing to be quicker, the bone to be straighter…. You could take more of his pain, lessen the chance of infection. You could—

just as equally end up unleashing something appalling on an entire roomful of people. What if he’s “not worthy” of healing?

He is a child.

Yes. Everyone is, once. What if he grows up to be a templar? A sadistic bastard like Alrik?

Then… then he will be a templar with a limp.

Anders presses the back of his hand to his forehead, trying to calm the not-really-a-conversation he isn’t having with himself. It is done. The child is still snivelling a bit, but he is being carried away by a grateful father; a heavily bearded man who doesn’t look Anders in the eye, or really listen to the half-shaped words he realises he is mumbling about keeping weight off the limb, and allowing the splint to do its work. The knots of people are dispersing, and that feels like a relief, like he is finally exhaling… and yet he doesn’t want to be this alone.

He wants to rub his eyes, but his fingers are still coated with the lard and herb mixture he used on the boy’s leg, and he blinks a bit in confusion when a cloth appears in front of him. It is being held by a familiar hand, and Anders smiles faintly as he takes it.

“This is early for you,” he observes mildly, wiping his hands on the cloth.

Tobias gives him that look that is one part withering scorn and three parts naked desire. Anders is surprised by that, because he hasn’t seen it in a while. At the beginning—in those first few weeks when they barely seemed to come up for air between kisses—it was a familiar sight. Tobias would grab any opportunity to pin him against something and give him as thorough a going over as he could without dropping his pants. Anders was no better, either. He can’t even remember the number of times he palmed off care of his patients and his clinic to one of the assistants, and pretended to himself (or maybe to Justice) that it was mostly because he was afraid of healing again, when all he wanted was just to run away.

He abandoned his responsibilities readily, or near enough; snatching nights to spend in his lover’s arms, and not regretting a minute of it. Hawke filled his head like fog then, choked him with the obsessive need to prove it was all real, and that it was really happening. It was intense, incredible… and, yes, worth every moment. Easily.

He hadn’t believed it would be possible for that bare blade of want to diminish, for them to feel sated enough with each other—or secure enough, perhaps—to allow things to calm. It has, though. They don’t tear at each other with such regular hunger, their desperation blunted by knowing that there will be a tomorrow. Of course, if he’s honest with himself (and, ultimately, he has little choice), Anders knows that his tomorrows are limited. Tobias hasn’t fully grasped that yet, no matter how hard Anders has tried to explain it.

Mind you, he can’t quite believe it is real. He can’t quite believe he’s as happy as he feels… even if part of him resents that happiness. It isn’t that Justice doesn’t want him to be content; rather that he doesn’t see things the same way.

Hawke is the problem, of course, because he always is. This man, right here, has the power to make him deliriously happy… so happy that he doesn’t just forget to be angry at the world, but that he could almost forget there is a world. That’s frightening, really.

It’s exactly what he does now, as Anders finds himself dragged into a shadowy corner, behind one of the rough-cut doors that leads to the potions cupboard.

“What—?”

“Just a minute. I need to talk to you.”

Anders is contemplating protesting, but then Tobias kisses him, hard and unyielding, and his embrace is perfumed with desperation. He murmurs small, thin words into the space between them—a breathless ‘I love you’, and then a soft, sweet endearment that makes Anders’ stomach tighten, because he’s never been anyone’s ‘darling’ before in his life—and the breath leaks from his lungs unsteadily.

“That’s not really ‘talking’,” he murmurs weakly, because if he tells Hawke he loves him now, he’ll say it a dozen times, and he may not be able to stop. “Not that I’m complaining… but what’s brought this on?”

Tobias pulls back and looks at him sadly, something bitter and ragged lancing his eyes.

“Are you happy?” he asks, his voice low and thick. “I mean, are we…? Is everything all right?”

Anders winces, and tries to pull out a nonchalant reply. “What, apart from Meredith, and the Circle, and the grand cleric, and—”

“Please, just…. That’s not what I mean.”

He pulls a folded scrap of paper from his pocket, smoothing it out between his fingers, and Anders frowns as he begins to suspect he knows what’s on it.

“Oh.”

“Is it about us?”

Tobias looks so terribly worried, and Anders shakes his head vehemently. “No. Well… no. Not really.”

“‘Not really?’ Huh. How come I heard ‘yes’ when you said that?”

Anders folds his hand over his lover’s, feeling the broad ridges of knuckles tense beneath his grasp. “All right. Yes, and no. It means….” He fingers the edges of the paper, and is reminded in painful clarity of the night he wrote it, when it was raining and the air smelled of copper, and it was a choice between bleeding his anger and frustration onto the page or taking a hatchet to his own head. “It means things are never going to be the way I wish they were. And I hate that. I truly do. If I could change things, I’d want it to be so we could have a normal life… a good life.”

“We can,” Tobias protests, but Anders knows he doesn’t believe it.

There will always be Justice, and the brooding threat of disquiet, whether Kirkwall tumbles into the abyss or not. As long as there is unfairness and injustice in the world, there will be no honest peace, no calm or quiet.

“Come to the house tonight,” he murmurs, tugging at Anders’ wrist. “Please?”

“What’s wrong with the Bells?”

“I want you in my own bed,” Tobias says softly. “Our bed.”

Anders nods dumbly, despite the fact that he dislikes the draughty mansion and the icy politeness of Hawke’s mother, who always manages to look at him with accusation in her eyes. He can’t really argue with the sentiment.

Satisfied, Tobias smiles, and he is quite content to busy himself trying to be useful until the last of the patients are cleared. He rolls bandages, stirs boiling coppers… flirts with rheumatic elderly ladies. More than once, Anders catches himself watching him, and the months don’t seem to have passed at all. He thinks he will never tarnish the way he feels for this man… and then the murmurs of the dreams come back on him, and he’s cold all over again.

It is late when they finally retire to Hightown, and they sneak into Tobias’ house like thieves, padding up the stairs to his chambers on pointed toes. Briefly, Anders wants to giggle, because it’s like being back in the Tower, finding secret hidey-holes the templars don’t know about, and using them to surreptitiously smoke and drink and screw. Then, he doesn’t want to laugh, because his head is full of templars who aren’t the cartoonish, draconic dullards of his youth, who passed down few greater sentences than detentions and slapped wrists.

He almost freezes up for a moment, but Tobias leads him on, up into the plushness of his room.

Our room. Is it our room? I didn’t know it was our room.

That seems to be what he wants. Anders doesn’t wish to complain. He can’t quite see how his few scribbled lines of execrable, angst-fuelled poetry have got them here, but here they are. They reach for each other with desperation as the door clicks shut, but it’s not the desperation of impatience; more a new need for affirmation. Full up with loving and fearing in equal measure, Anders squeezes himself into the kiss that passes between them.

When they part, his lips sting and his breaths taste of Hawke’s mouth.

Tobias pulls loose the laces of his shirt, and slowly tugs the heavy linen over his head. He drops it to the floor—with his usual disregard for his belongings, of course, not to mention whoever has to clean up after him—and he watches Anders all the while… just stares levelly at him, with those hard green eyes.

He is beautiful. The line that marks where the sun touches him shows the contrast between his tanned, strong arms and the paler planes of his chest, normally hidden beneath the tough hide jerkins he wears. Between broad, thick shoulders, his neck rises as a corded column, and his jaw is square and firm. His body is padded with thick, solid planes of flesh, his muscles gentle swells rather than sharply defined peaks, for his is a kind of strength that comes with the business of being strong day after day, as natural as breathing.

Anders reaches for him, and his fingers shake a little as he lays his hand against that wide, lightly curved chest. It is like a shield, and it’s easy to believe that he could find there all the shelter he’s ever sought.

Tobias touches his cheek gently, questioningly, and Anders allows himself to be guided into the kiss. It is sweet and slow this time—just the dry warmth of lips and the soft graze of breath—and his fingers tense on his lover’s body. As their mouths continue this quiet, indulgent dance, his hand slides south, trailing down the centre line of Tobias’ torso, where the hardness of muscle becomes the softness of his belly, and he knows he whimpers a little when his fingers meet the rough leather ridge of Tobias’ belt. It is both encouragement and defeat, frustration and need; tenderness and the admission that he is afraid of the depth of everything that lies between them. Anders closes his hand into a fist, digging his fingertips into the belt, into the fastening of the breeches beneath it, and his knuckles rub against the silken skin that marks the lowest part of Tobias’ stomach, where the crisp curls of dark brown hair begin to rise.

The kiss deepens, filling with urgency and fire in a way it hasn’t done in months. At first it is a slow crescendo, but he finds every ounce of his desire echoed in Tobias, and he is terrible at patience. As the dams break, the flood of complicated, unsettling things is mingled with relief and hunger, and a kind of want that is satisfyingly simple.

Those sun-touched, wind-blasted arms fold around him and, as he feels himself clutched and so very eagerly groped, Anders’ other hand knots itself in Tobias’ short, messy hair. He tugs roughly at it, as roughly as their mouths now move against each other, their soft breaths turned to damp, ragged grunts and, when they break to breathe, Tobias’ teeth snatch at his lower lip. It is a gentle act, cloaked in the playfulness of passion. He grazes, but does not hurt, and yet it is the possibility of pain—the stretching of the tender, sensitive flesh, the sharpness of his bite, and the strength that lies behind it—that makes Anders catch his breath. It doesn’t last long. It is a mere second or two in the ballet of the kiss, and then it is over, wreathed in their small, intimate smiles, and the soft, panting laugher that echoes between their mouths.

By the time Tobias had divested himself of his breeches—and oh, Maker, whenever he is naked there should be a poet in attendance, just to write verses about his thighs—Anders has stripped. He isn’t so bad to look at himself, he knows, though the bloom of his youth is gone, and he is no longer the vain dandy he was at the Vigil, when he had more luxuries than he’s ever had in Kirkwall, even in the security of Tobias’ home. Still, he is the leaner and wirier of them, and he is very pale next to Tobias, not that this seems to be something he finds unattractive.

They clamber into the bed instead of falling upon it, and Anders thinks there is a pleasing kind of domesticity to this. Of course, it may just be the fact that it’s a cold night, and the estate does hold a chill in its stone walls. Beneath the covers, Tobias kisses him again, over and over, and Anders holds him so tightly it’s as if he’s afraid he’ll slip away. They make love like that, just touching and pushing against each other, moving and always moving, locked together in low, urgent gasps. The bed creaks violently, and probably anyone in the house will know what’s going on, but they don’t stop until they are both sweat-damp from head to toe, and liberally smeared with more plentiful libations. Anders’ legs shake a bit as he leans against his lover and pants, waiting for the spots to clear from his vision. Twice without stopping takes it out of him more these days. He worries he’s getting old… or maybe that Justice is cramping his style.

Tobias shivers as Anders’ breath skims his wet skin, and he strokes his hair gently.

“I won’t leave you,” he murmurs. “I promise. I won’t leave you, darling.”

Anders closes his eyes, screws them up tight until bright shapes dance in the blackness inside his head, and as he presses his cheek to Tobias’ chest he can hear the steady pound of his heartbeat. The bed is warm, and the air is close and stifling and smells of sweat and sex, and he cannot possibly have the right to be this happy… but is it happiness, when it tastes so much like fear?

He holds on tight, and exhales slowly as Tobias’ arm wraps around his shoulders.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he says, so quietly as to almost just mouth the words.

If Tobias hears, he probably doesn’t understand. They lay there, comfortably tangled in each other, and it feels like a resolution. It feels like there are promises and perfect vows keeping the future safe and honest, but Anders knows better.

Whatever happens, there will be nothing easy in this.

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Amantis verendum: III

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Tobias sits at his writing desk, frowning at the half-crumpled piece of paper. From the look of it, he imagines Anders screwed it up, then smoothed it out before tucking it into the book. He must have been debating whether to leave it there for Tobias to find… or perhaps he just forgot about it.

That seems unlikely, but then this is Anders, and it’s hard to tell. Tobias traces the spidery black shapes of the words with the tips of his fingers, and the writing is so much like Anders himself, full of the dichotomies of strong, hard angles, and the reaching idealisms of long, sketchy lines.

He’s not sure whether it is truly a poem, or simply thoughts set to the fragments of words. Maybe they are the same thing, maybe not. Either way, Tobias reads it over and over again, and his frown grows deeper.

we are the wave, you and I,
pulling on an empty tide.
your breath breaks across me,
the grey water ripples,
and black gulls scream above us.

under full skies we teem,
blood and salt, sand and mud,
and there are things we do
that cannot be forgiven.

I meet you in the even light,
and hide my heart
in broken spaces,
but there is no shelter
from an unending storm.

 

He doesn’t know whether he finds it beautiful or terrifying. It is about them… probably. It may not be. The paper is undated—and Tobias is very aware that he is not Anders’ first love. He struggles with that occasionally, and perhaps in a rather immature, self-indulgent sort of way. He wishes he didn’t, but he can’t help it, because he has never had anyone this close to him before.

There was never the opportunity, back in Ferelden. For most of Tobias’ life, his family was either moving around, or so centred on itself that he rarely had the chance to have more than fleeting contact with anyone outside it. Besides, Lothering was a small farming community—not even the great trade outpost it had been in years past. It wasn’t exactly overburdened with potential lovers.

There were a few boys with whom Tobias skirted the shores of erotic discovery… one of whom he thought he loved, but who shrank from him, horrified, when he found out about the mage thing. Tobias, frightened the templars would come for him (although they never did, and Cal simply took to pretending he didn’t exist, instead of reporting him) never pushed his luck again. Then, of course, Malcolm died, and life got harder… and then there was the Blight.

Anders, obviously, grew up in the Circle. For all he hears about how awful it was, Tobias rather envies the idea of proximity. All those other people who are like you. Not being a minority, not being alone… and Anders wasn’t alone. He had Karl. Tobias has heard quite a bit about those years, in small dribs, drabs, and snippets, because—when he can do it calmly, without letting the anger, guilt, and regret that those memories engender take over—talking about it seems to help Anders.

He loved Karl. Loved him the giddy, intense, desperate way that first love fills a person up, and it’s obvious from the way he talks that Karl loved him just as much. Anyone would, Tobias supposes, and the mental picture he has of Anders at sixteen—all elbows, knees, and rebellion—makes his heart ache a little.

He wishes he’d known him then… known him sometime before the Grey Wardens, and Justice, and the cares that weigh so heavily on him now. He wishes he’d been that first love, Tobias supposes, and he acknowledges that he is jealous of Karl, and jealous of all those unnamed lovers who came later. He doesn’t like that some of them were women, either, though he couldn’t possibly tell Anders that. Anders would think him narrow-minded, because he just doesn’t see those kinds of distinctions.

Tobias has never been interested in the fairer sex. He can perform, but it is a perfunctory act, like the grim, breathless rutting he shared with Isabela, down in the Deep Roads when they both thought they were going to die. Generally speaking, women’s bodies hold no allure or mystique that enthrals him, and while some of them are very nice people, he doesn’t see the attraction of wanting to share a bed, much less a life with one.

Anders, however, has been known to wax lyrical about breasts, and the delights of sweetness and curves, and it makes Tobias restless and uneasy… although he knows it shouldn’t. He should be secure in Anders’ love, because he has pledged it completely and, anyway, it’s highly unlikely that anyone else could give him what Tobias does. They have been through enough together that Anders trusts him—trusts him with his secrets, with his beliefs, and with his struggles. That is the part of his burden Tobias gladly shoulders. He can’t change what has already been done but, when Justice is prowling and rattling at the bars, he can talk Anders down. He can calm him the way no one else can, and that means a lot.

So, this thing—this poem, this cry from the depths—it seems it is about them, or it at least might be, if it is about anyone at all. It was in the book that Anders gave him, and Tobias doesn’t know what to make of that. Had it been there all along, or has it been slipped in recently? It’s difficult to tell.

Either way, he thinks it is beautiful. More beautiful than terrifying, probably, yet it is beauty that is sharp-edged and ruthless, and he wounds himself on its blade. Is this what Anders really thinks? How he feels when they are together? There is a sense of hopelessness about that which frightens Tobias… like a breath of apology, secreted behind the words.

He chews his lip thoughtfully, and slides the paper back between the leaves of the tome. It is late enough to be early in the morning. His eyes ache, his head hurts, and he wishes he’d stayed in bed.

He crosses his too-big-bed-chamber, crawls under the covers, and lets the orb of light he conjured wink out. The moon has grown thin, its light weakening, and Tobias supposes he will lay here and watch it turn to dawn, but at some point he closes his eyes and, when he opens them again, a much brighter light is streaming through the gap in his curtains.

He blinks, and winces, and wonders why he can’t remember having any dreams.

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Amantis verendum: IV
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Amantis verendum: II

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It is a dream. It is a dream like any other, and it is pleasant enough. He is walking on the shore of a beach—a rocky, grainy kind of beach, because this is the Fade, and the things that live here never really manage to make a proper facsimile of the mortal world—and the salt wind catches at his hair. He tastes the ocean on his lips, and feels coarse sand yield in soft ridges beneath his boots. A little way ahead, on the shore’s curve, there is the black mouth of a cave facing out to the grey-capped bob of the waves.

Anders smiles. He’s had this dream before.

In the cave—and it’s amazing how he reaches it so quickly, as if he’s flown the distance—he is waiting. Anders grins breathlessly at the sight of him, and his pulse skitters.

He is naked, sprawled out on the sandy floor with his back resting against a rock, that cocky smile on his handsome face. Dark chestnut hair, with hints of that very Fereldan reddish hue, sits in soft waves at his temples, cut short and slightly tousled, the way it always is. There is a day or two’s stubble on his chin, and his green eyes dance with some unspoken smart-mouthed comment. He holds out a hand, and that is all he has to do.

Anders folds into his embrace, the world collapsing around him as it does in dreams, because only the moment—only the action, the feeling—matters. He has the fullness of those firm, dry lips against his, his fingers kneading smooth, warm flesh. Strong arms slip tight around him, and somehow Hawke manages to murmur his name while kissing him.

I knew you’d come.

Anders doesn’t mind about the impracticalities. He wants to make love, right here, because in dreams the sand doesn’t matter and won’t get anywhere painful. The tide can’t come in and wash them away and—even if it could—he wouldn’t care if he drowned, as long as he was with him.

They touch each other in that luxurious, time-elided way of dreams, and Anders gets what he wants. He’s naked, somehow, and those lean, tanned hands caress his body, trembling just a little… the way Tobias trembles when he’s dizzy with want and hunger, and begging for release. It’s something Anders has always loved, doing that to a man like him. Watching someone so sure of himself, so given to cynicism and sarcastic arrogance, bite his lip and stifle a sob of need as he’s slowly impaled.

Tobias loves to be fucked. He loves the slow, gentle exchange of power and pleasure, giving himself over completely as he surrenders his body… and sometimes he loves to fuck hard and raw, when their kisses bruise and their ecstasy mixes in one blinding star that slices through the night in golden howls of joy.

He gives as good as he gets, too, and he has quite the weapon to do it with. The first time Anders let Tobias have him, it was like the sun itself exploded inside him, although he is one of those rare men who does not do what he does to Anders by virtue of his physical gifts alone. He is handsome—and he is fit, and well-built, and yes, slightly better endowed than Anders is himself—but not stunningly so. He is not the kind of man at whose entrance an entire tavern will stop and stare… but he does have charisma. Anders thinks so, anyway.

Tobias has an irreverent wit, underscored by a compassionate nature he does his best to hide, and they think alike in many ways. They share enough common ground to feel so at home in each other’s presence that sometimes Anders forgets his lover does not understand everything that exists in his world. He knows he gets frustrated then, and he snaps and lashes out, and Tobias grows moody and withdrawn, and yet it doesn’t matter. After a few days, one of them will go to the other, and they will make their peace like swans in courtship dances, bowing and swaying around each other until things are mended.

What they have is imperfect, but it is more than Anders has ever dreamed of.

They fuck, hard and hungry, on the floor of the cave, and Tobias pulls back to look at him with those beautiful green eyes, his mouth a bruised curl of soft adoration. There is love in his face… and it is the real, honest love that he speaks of in the waking world, when he says the bad things don’t matter and that, whatever happens, he will never leave.

Anders has yet to truly believe him, deep down.

The dream echoes with memories then: the low murmur of a voice in a cheap tavern bedroom—neither of them are well equipped to entertain in the places they call home—and the feel of warm skin against his, and a broad hand splayed on his back.

I love you, Anders. I don’t care what you are, what you do… I love you, and I’ll be here.

It is everything he wants to hear, and yet everything he fears. It fills him up until he can’t breathe, and his love for this man overwhelms him, seeping into every crack in his soul even though he knows it is a dangerous folly. He folds against the strong, solid body, his lips cleaving to a mouth that mirrors his own in its need and desire. The comforting touch of familiar fingers soothes his cheek, and he feels himself begin to slip, everything that rises up within him gradually eroding the tentative threads of control.

He feels so much more than he used to. He supposes it was a defence mechanism, once; that glibness of his cut him off from the pain the world dealt him, and he could simply hide within the shell he made for himself. It doesn’t work now. Sometimes he doesn’t understand how people can keep it all inside them. He veers between being so tired that he’s numb, and feeling so much that he thinks his skin is going to burst.

He can’t do it, can’t hold it in. The love he feels is terrible, terrifying: it is the raw edges of lust and soul-deep need, whetted by bone-worn affection and loyalty, and yet it is also a fierce, desperate possessiveness, a hunger that tears at him and can’t be denied. It is a resentful, fearful, jealous anger, because this man must be his and his alone, and yet he can’t believe that they could share this bond to begin with, much less that he is worthy of it. He is afraid, afraid of the depth of his feelings, and of the confusion they engender. This love is not something pure or righteous. It is not a simple concept, distilled the way a spirit’s essence can capture a virtue. It is not—at least not entirely—the kind of all-encompassing, beautiful love that is unconditional and perfect, and resonates at the core of life itself. It is unconditional, yes, but not because that is right. It is unconditional in the same way as breathing is if you don’t want to choke, and this frightens him all the more.

He can’t say it, though. It spills out of him, in the dream, as they make this fierce, clutching love on the sand, and he can’t control himself. He is burning with it, panting and crying out, and his lover writhes beneath him as ecstasy turns to agony, and then someone is screaming. It is Hawke, and the world has turned to the translucent, whitish-blue of a lyrium haze. Anders can feel everything, see everything… it is all too much. He burns with it, feels it break from him—this light, this rawness of life that is too powerful to keep chained—and his very skin starts to fracture, his flesh mutating in boiling masses of crackling power and roiling, blackened blood.

It hurts worse than anything he could imagine—worse than darkspawn spears, worse than templars’ steel, worse than Karl dying in his arms—and when it is over, he is cradling Tobias’ scorched, lifeless remains to his chest, and he can’t wake up. He knows it’s a dream; he has had this dream before, and he thought he had learned all he needed to from it, but it won’t let him go.

Anders must hold his lover’s corpse, and his own twisted lips—pulled back now, like withered darkspawn flesh, as if the taint has swallowed him up and spat him out, this creature that is part ghoul and part abomination—rove over blistered skin that sloughs off at his touch. His knotted, crabbed hands stroke the remnants of dark chestnut hair, and as he finally wakes, the sobs that wrack him are all too real.

He curls up on his side, shivering beneath the blanket and trying to stifle his breathing so he won’t wake anyone. Beyond the ratty curtain hung on a broom handle that marks out what passes for his private space, there are patients in the clinic. There are his apprentices—the ones he shelters for the Underground, until passage can be bought for them somewhere safer than this pig of a city—and he has to show them that he is in control. He must be the example of what an apostate can be, because if he fails, everything fails, and he merely proves the templars right.

That is what Tobias told him, on one of the dark nights when everything was too difficult, and it was all he could do to walk from the door to the edge of the bed.

You’re more than this. From what you told me, you offered what you did to Justice to save him—

Is that true? He can’t quite remember. There were other reasons, maybe… the spirit said there would be advantages, that he would lend a great deal of power to Anders’ mortal body, and of course there were the templars, overrunning the Vigil like rats. They probably had something to do with his decision, but he’s not sure anymore, because he remembers it both from his perspective, and from Justice’s, and the spirit’s view is tinged with this terrible hunger, this fear of—what? Dying? Perhaps so, perhaps not—and this need to know, to understand the mortal world better, and to bring to it what he believed it needed. Justice… huh, well, that was the theory. Trust Hawke to somehow twist that into a fairytale.

—you didn’t do it for your own gain. You’re not an abomination. And look at everything you do here, all those people you’ve saved, people you’ve healed… how can you think, even for a moment, that we’d cope without you?

He closes his eyes, and remembers the comforting warmth of Tobias’ arms, and the curious innocence in his face, like he honestly believes Anders is a good man.

I wouldn’t. I need you. You know that.

He doesn’t, Anders is sure. He shouldn’t, anyway.

It doesn’t matter. Tobias is a better role model than him, a better example… and that’s what people should see. He is a mage who lives free. He has had dealings with the qunari Arishok, and Viscount Dumar, and he is uncowed by the nobles, and the guard. He is brave and honest—mainly, at a basic moral level, most of the time—and he doesn’t hurt anyone… not unless he’s been paid to, anyway. Usually. Or unless they’ve done something to offend or annoy him.

That is not a correct definition of ‘honest’. Nor of ‘good’ or ‘just’.

Anders sits up slowly, his narrow pallet creaking beneath him, and rubs his forehead. He knows that. Tobias’ contradictions cause him plenty of problems… they always have. Things like laws aren’t where justice is, though. Not true justice. There is a more fundamental level than that, and it is that pared-back way of looking at things that frightens him.

So much frightens him now. Things that never used to… and even the things that shouldn’t.

 
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Amantis verendum: III
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Amantis verendum: I

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He wakes, drenched in sweat. The sheets are damp ropes wound around his legs, his skin bare and chilled. When he opens his eyes, the dream is still a patchwork of searing colours against the darkness, and the shadows come pouring in to fill a new reality that feels stark and unnatural. His own flesh, touched with thin highlights of bluish white from the high, small window, seems strange and leaden, and the echoes of that mournful voice roar in his ears like the sound of the ocean trapped in a shell.

You can’t save me, Hawke.

Tobias rubs a hand across his face. It’s a dream. It’s only a dream. Now he’s awake, it’s receding back into the Fade, into the timeless world where things that aren’t real go—the place that dreams come from, and the place where the demons wait—and he knows it doesn’t matter. It’s all right. Everything is all right.

He murmurs the words under his breath like a mantra, but they don’t do much good. He’s cold now, and he reaches for the blanket he must have kicked to the floor.

It doesn’t feel right. This bed, this room… this house. It is all empty stone walls, and it is too big and too cold. The Amell estate, everyone still calls it, because that’s what it is, and what it always will be. His mother’s old family home, not his. He never wanted it; he still doesn’t.

They’ve not been in that long, so it has yet to really feel like home, and Tobias doubts it ever will. If he’s honest, he knows there’s only one place in this city that does feel like home, though he would rather not admit it, even to himself.

The Ten Bells is the cheap dockside tavern where he goes to leave the world behind him on those glorious, stolen nights. From the moment the door closes until the hour of the sunrise—which he watches filter through the grimy window, its pale rays kissing the blond head on the pillow beside him—he is safe, warm, and happy.

He wants to believe Anders feels the same way, because he so badly wants to believe that he is the one thing in the healer’s life that gives him solace from all his agonies… and Tobias knows that is an arrogant thing to wish.

He doesn’t care, though.

They have been lovers for less than six months. Some days it feels like barely a breath of time has passed, and some days it seems an eternity. He wouldn’t change anything, however. All that time they spent, for their own stupid reasons, not acting on the things they wanted to… he hated it. Hated the waiting and the yearning, and the way it felt as if he was missing someone he’d never even had close to him in the first place. Still, it brought them to this point. They trust each other now… Anders trusts him. He understands, at last, that Tobias has neither underestimated nor been put off by the ghosts—or, rather, the spirit—he carries around his shoulders, and he is opening up, although it is happening slowly.

Tobias huddles under the blanket, and frowns at the empty side of his bed. The heavy velvet curtains are drawn but, as is his custom, he has left a chink between them through which moonlight seeps to illuminate the room. Since the Deep Roads, Tobias can’t bear the unbroken dark.

The silvery light touches the place where Anders ought to be, yet very rarely is, and Tobias’ frown deepens as the frail tongues of the dream swipe at him, thick and clouded.

There was the great grey swell of the ocean, and it washed through the streets, pushing the tide of Kirkwall’s iniquity ahead of it. People screamed and, when it broke through the gates of the alienage, it tore down the vhenadahl tree. Merrill was there, saying something about needing the blood of ten thousand slaves to replant it, and Tobias remembers seeing Aveline swallowed by the water as she stood before the wave, her sword drawn, shouting, “I am not my father’s daughter”.

He ran through Lowtown, only just keeping ahead of the flood, and he wanted to find Anders, somehow assuming that the water hadn’t already taken Darktown. He wasn’t where he should be, and Tobias was running and running, trying to reach him. He turned out to be at the centre of the chantry courtyard, his arms flung wide as the tide bore down on him, but when he turned he wasn’t Anders. The bright blue glare that burned from his eyes was Justice, completely unchained, and that unimaginable power welled in him, violent and unstoppable.

His hands blazed with twin flares of light, sparks dancing in his hair and magical energy rising off his skin like a heat haze. Tobias called his name, but he didn’t respond. He just rose up and up, until the toes of his boots barely scraped the flagstones and, his arms outstretched, he tipped his head back to the sky and roared. The light filled him then… or perhaps flowed out of him, like a burning pillar. It was too bright, too painful to watch, and it was like that time beneath The Gallows, when Tobias tried to stop Anders—no, tried to stop Justice, because he does still believe there is a difference between them—from killing an innocent girl. In the dream, he ran across the courtyard, but his hands met raw power instead of flesh or cloth, and that terrible, scything fire scorched his palms, leaving welts and the terror of failure behind it.

Anders pushed him away, the wall of force a frightening, alienating thing—like a blade coming down across the thousand tiny threads that tie them together—and, as the ocean tore through the streets, washing all of Kirkwall before it, Tobias saw him burn. The blue fire, that energy that Justice brings from the Fade, like some pure current of lyrium-infused power, consumed him completely and made the flood waters boil… and that sad, low voice whispered to Tobias as they both drowned:

You can’t save me, Hawke.

But it’s just a dream. It isn’t real. The city is not flooding, and there is no choking scar of water and loss in his lungs.

Tobias takes a deep breath, just to prove this point, and he starts to feel better for it.

He rolls over, props his chin on his knuckles, and snakes his free hand across the bed, where he traces the place that Anders should lay. Tobias has never known the feeling of missing someone to be like this before. He misses his father, and Bethany, and even Carver, despite the fact his joining the templars was an agonising betrayal, as well as a two-fingered salute to everything that Tobias is, and he knows that’s just how his brother meant it. Still, those are soul-true aches that are with him every day… but they are inside him. They do not creep out into his very flesh, tracing the lines of his body like the melancholy kisses of a lover who knows he has to leave. He does not shiver as if physically chilled when he thinks of his sister, or of Malcolm. His chest twists on the memories, sometimes, but this is different.

This… this is something else entirely.

Tobias’ fingers flex ruefully on the empty sheet. Anders is busy at the clinic, as he has been for weeks. Despite what he said after the business with the girl beneath The Gallows, he has trusted himself to heal, although he relies more on potions and poultices than magic now. One of the boys he has been sheltering for the Underground has proved a talented healer, so there is that excuse to hide behind. Anders is fond of excuses.

He doesn’t come to the estate often, anyway. He doesn’t feel comfortable here, maybe because Tobias doesn’t feel comfortable… but more likely because Leandra is here too, and although she is the soul of politeness to Anders’ face, she doesn’t approve of him. She doesn’t approve of what she calls Tobias’ choice, and he is aware that she’s angry because she didn’t know… because he never told her, and she feels embarrassed. That doesn’t ameliorate or change a thing, however.

She wanted him—no, expected him—to make a nice, respectable marriage. Nothing too fancy: minor to middling gentry, perhaps. She told him so. She probably already had a girl in mind; no doubt one of the daughters of the interminable succession of people she was suddenly inviting to dinner as soon as they had the dustcovers off the new furniture.

The first thing she did, as soon as they moved in here, was put him on the meat market. She wants him to continue the Amell line, provide grandchildren, and live like a wealthy man. He suspects she has her eye on being Lady Hawke—or maybe Amell, because sometimes it’s almost like his father’s name is suddenly an irrelevance to her—by next Wintersend.

She turned quiet and withdrawn when he got angry about it, refused to go to some stupid ball and push insipid, over-rouged young women around the floor for the evening… told her why. He will never consent to a marriage he doesn’t want, with a woman he could never grow to love, in a city he doesn’t wish to call home. He hopes he doesn’t have it in him to cloak himself in that many lies. He’d like to think so, anyway.

Anders doesn’t know he is a bone of contention between mother and son, although he has probably guessed. Every time he has spent the night here, a kind of coldness seems to linger in the house afterwards. So, it’s easier to keep going to the tavern when they want time together. Tobias prefers it, at any rate. It feels honest, even if it is stolen time, and even if they’re skulking around like two thieves, plotting in the shadows.

It’s not often enough, though. And he wants—like he wants right now—just to be able to reach out and touch the man he loves. He needs to prove to himself that Anders is there, that he’s all right, and that everything is still under control. He needs not to miss him this way.

Of course, he’s too awake now. Too awake to sleep, too fidgety to lie quietly.

Tobias swings his legs out of bed. The room is still moon-shrouded, but that is not enough light for what he wants, so he flicks his fingers and pulls a small, pale orb from the air. It circles his head as he pads to his writing desk, retrieving a dressing robe from the floor on the way, and slipping it over his naked body as defence against the night’s chill. He cinches the belt tight, and lets his hand rove over the paperwork on the desk. There are letters, bills, receipts… a few books he’s started reading. There is an old copy of Anders’ bloody manifesto in one of them, and Tobias smiles as his thumb brushes the ragged edge. He likes the paragraph that begins, “We who are the subjugated shall no longer acquiesce beneath the Chantry’s yoke”.

Tobias doesn’t necessarily agree with the more radical end of Libertarian politics, though he supports the principles… but he loves it when Anders gets polemical. He flares with something bright and righteous, and it’s beautiful to watch.

There is another piece of paper tucked into one of the other books. It is a new one, a gift for no reason other than the pleasure of giving. Tobias’ smile widens as he flips open the cover of An Introduction to the Healing Arts—and it’s instant death-by-templar if anyone finds this tome in his possession, because who else but a mage would own an instructional volume on healing magic—and the scrawl on the flyleaf fills him with a flush of warmth.

T: Because you need all the help you can get. – A.

They have this running joke, he and Anders, that Tobias’ natural magical gifts are restricted purely to force spells and the occasional fireball… that he is the blunt instrument of mages, useful only for unjamming stuck doors, or removing recalcitrant tree stumps from gardens. His adventures in healing have been almost unilaterally disastrous, though Anders does occasionally try to teach him, and he is eager to learn, albeit terrified of the possible consequences. He once almost set the clinic on fire, so he doesn’t like to imagine what he could do to a live person.

Tobias turns past the diagram of a dissected body, flicks a few more pages, and finds the slip of paper that caught his attention. The scrawl is familiar, but the words are not.

Gradually, the smile drops from his face.

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Amantis verendum: II
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Justice in Surrender: Chapter 20

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There was a commotion going on at the Keep. Apparently, some minor lord—a weedy, pale-faced creature with ruched knee-length pants and very little chin—had been kept waiting to see the viscount longer than he felt was acceptable, and the sound of his displeasure carried through the main reception hall like the quacking of an injured duck.

Tobias recognised one of Seneschal Bran’s clerical minions trying to calm the man, while several of the other well-heeled plaintiffs and appointees muttered in disapproving consternation. A couple of the guardsmen on duty stood by the doors, looking bored, and as if they rather hoped they’d get a chance to throw the irritating sod out on his ear.

Tobias smirked as he hugged the outer edge of the chamber, slipping past the opulent tapestries and well-polished wood, leaving the drama to attract the attention and quietly making his way down the corridor towards the barracks chambers.

It was surprisingly easy to get into the insula of the guardroom. Admittedly, Aveline had been keeping a tighter ship than her predecessor, and a number of the small storerooms, side-chambers and other quiet, dark corners that had previously housed ‘liberated’ contraband, dice tables, or any of the other myriad sidelines guardsmen had enjoyed under Captain Jeven’s rule had been cleared out. That meant there were fewer people hanging around in the rabbit warren beneath the keep—more boots on cobbles, as Aveline said, as if Kirkwall’s simmering tensions could really be quelled by the presence of a few patrols—and thus fewer people to notice an interloper… right up until Tobias got nearer to the wardroom, anyway.

“Oi, what you doin’ down here?”

Tobias halted on the last step of the staircase that led down to the open area from which the mess, bunkrooms, and wardroom itself led off, his shoulders tensing involuntarily at the sound of the loud, gravelly voice.

Under Jeven, the City Guard had been frequently corrupt and occasionally sadistic, though there had been enough honest men and women to make Aveline’s reforms possible. Nevertheless, his involvement with Athenril’s operation had seen Tobias fall foul of the flatfoots far too often, and he’d spent many a busy night pelting down darkened streets and alleyways with the thud of studded boots in hot pursuit. The man who now darkened the doorway beside which the duty roster was pinned up—a great big bear of a fellow, with his armour half-fastened, a stained rag in one hand and a very serviceable shortsword in the other—was a stranger, but his type was horribly familiar.

And yet you’re not that petty little thief anymore, are you? No more dark nights, no more oilskin packages stashed under barrels on the dockfront. No more scufflehunting and cold, uncomfortable meets at low tide.

You’re an independently wealthy man of means. The viscount knows your name, and you are a personal friend of the Guard Captain… however inconvenient that is for her.

The thought made him smile, and he straightened his shoulders, meeting the man’s eye with a cocky grin.

“Me? I’m here to see the Captain. In her office, is she?”

Tobias gestured to the heavy, iron-bound door that led off the far corner of the insula, and readied to take a step towards it. Of course, the guardsman moved at precisely the same moment. Over his shoulder, the sounds of voices and the quiet bustle of movement bubbled from the break room, and the man’s broad face creased into a frown, the sword lifting almost imperceptibly.

“Just a minute. The Captain’s not to be disturbed. We don’t just let anyone walk around down here, you know.”

Tobias glanced over his shoulder at the empty corridor, and the rank of neat, well-polished, tightly locked doors.

“No,” he said. “Evidently.”

That earned him a proper scowl, but he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face.

No… no more dank little dockside deals. And you miss them, don’t you?

Never knew there was so much to be said for running full tilt across a rooftop in the dark, waiting to see whether you’re going to get a blade through the ribs and a mouthful of broken teeth.

“Name?” the increasingly terse guardsman grunted.

Tobias’ smile widened ever further. “Hawke,” he said, watching the flicker of recognition in the man’s expression, and the way his sword suddenly wavered to half-mast.

“Oh.”

Tobias gestured to the door again, and raised his brows enquiringly. “So, she’s in, is she?”

Amazing what one little word can do, isn’t it? Amazing who knows your name.

And… it’s amazing how it doesn’t even feel like it’s anything to do with you, isn’t it?

The guardsman nodded hesitantly, then lurched towards the door as Tobias began to cross the floor. His boots clicked gently against the tiles—an old Tevinter mosaic, by the looks of it, with the serpents of some forgotten magister or noble family’s crest picked out in dusty shades of long-worn grey and green—and the guardsman practically flung himself in Tobias’ path.

“I’ll, er… I’ll just give her a knock,” he said apologetically, hauling himself into some semblance of attention as he strode past and rapped smartly on the outer door of the Guard Captain’s office.

Tobias fought to contain the urge to snort with laughter, reminded of nothing so much as an overgrown puppy eager to protect its master. He wondered whether Aveline knew she inspired this kind of loyalty in her men… or what in the Maker’s name they thought she needed protecting from.

Surely not little old me. Surely?

He pondered the idea as the guardsman announced his presence and, judging from the pained look the man developed at his captain’s muffle response, Tobias supposed he was clear for entrance. He smiled brightly, denying the temptation to say something caustic about devotion to duty, and allowed himself to be ushered in by the zealous guardsman, ducking under one heavy arm as the man held the door open for him. He glared at Tobias through narrowed eyes, and the smell of leather polish and starched shirts seemed to rise off him like a gritty haze.

“Serah Hawke, Captain!” the guardsman boomed abruptly, just as Tobias stepped into the room.

The parade-ground crispness of the words cut into Tobias’ nape, and he flinched before he could stop himself, silently cursing the bastard for it.

The room wasn’t large—at least, not large in the way the clerks and notaries’ offices upstairs were—but the big, ornately carved desk and chair at its centre, and the rows of bookcases and shelves flanking the walls served to make it look smaller. The tiny, high windows didn’t help, allowing only a few chinks of grubby daylight to filter down onto the stacks of papers and the rows of immense, cloth-bound books and ledgers.

The whole room stank of dust and parchment, with undertones of leather and metal polish, old socks, and pipe tobacco… which struck Tobias as odd, because Aveline didn’t smoke it. Such was the strange bouquet of power, he supposed, for much of Kirkwall was run from this overstacked room.

Things were so crowded that, at first, it might have been easy to miss the tall figure in gleamingly well-polished armour and dark russet cloth that stood at the far side of the office, near one of the towering shelves. She had her back to them, and she didn’t speak.

The guardsman ripped off a salute, but she barely seemed to notice him.

“Very good, Corporal,” Aveline muttered, not bothering to turn around, and simply lifting a gloved hand in acknowledgement.

Tobias frowned. Something didn’t feel right. Perhaps, for all the fun he’d been privately making, the Guard Captain’s lapdogs had good reason to be protective of her.

“Ser…,” the guardsman began.  

Aveline straightened up as if a string drew her spine, and at once she started to look more familiar to Tobias. Her broad-shouldered frame was leant as equal weight by the armour she wore as by that painfully sharp military bearing of hers and, as she turned to dismiss the man, her face was a taut skin of stern authority.

Thank you, Corporal.”

“Yes, ser,” the man said meekly, heels snapping to attention before he retreated back to the insula, closing the heavy door behind him.

The thick wood moved silently on its hinges, yielding only a quiet click as the latch snicked into place and, at that sound, Aveline let out a long sigh.

She seemed to sag on her feet, and her shoulders appeared hunched beneath her broadly padded leather and plate armour, though the russet cloak she wore still hung in long, perfectly neat folds down her back. It occurred to Tobias that he’d barely ever seen a hair out of place on the woman since they’d come to Kirkwall… as if she waged as stern a war on dirt and grime as she did disorder. And yet, now, she looked pale and haggard. Dark smudges were worn in beneath her eyes, and every freckle lightly scattered across her cheeks seemed to stand out darkly against skin that looked papery and dry.

He hadn’t come expecting to be angry with her, he realised. That had all pretty much dissipated after he’d spoken with Merrill… and Anders. The healer’s words tugged at Tobias—that Aveline, of all people, wouldn’t understand what had happened in the Fade—and he found himself feeling unexpectedly sorry for her.

“Aveline,” he said, by way of clumsy greeting.

She bowed her head, not quite meeting his eye. “Hawke. I thought you might come. I… I hoped you would. I wanted to say I, well, I apologise for leaving the camp like that.” She bit her lower lip, rubbing one gloved hand across the elbow pad of her other arm as she shook her head. “I should have at least had the courage to stay and say I was sorry for… you know.”

“Trying to kill me in the Fade?” Tobias supplemented, knowing even as the words left his lips that his intended brittle sarcasm would come out twisted and unpleasant.

It did, and they both winced. He shrugged and cleared his throat, wishing he hadn’t made himself sound like such a prick.

“Well, uh… y’know. It’s all right. That’s what demons do. I… I thought I should come by, just so—”

“Thank you,” she said, a little too brusquely.

She looked away, frowning at the dark, wide boards of the floor. No Tevinter mosaic in here, Tobias noticed. Or, if there was, it had been deemed sufficiently inappropriate to be covered up years ago. There were plenty of places in the city where the old rulers’ marks had been hacked away: friezes and reliefs of slaves or blood rites replaced with innocuous vines or flowers, and statues of magisters with their noses and faces chiselled off, still waiting some officially sanctioned replacement to be carved. It was a wonder, when he thought about it, that the great bronze monoliths in The Gallows—the statues of collared and despairing slaves—hadn’t been torn up and melted down, but he supposed it would be sacrilege.

Whatever else it was, Kirkwall was not a city foolish enough to pretend its origins had never happened.

“Look, Aveline… are you all right? You don’t look quite… um… yourself,” Tobias hazarded cautiously.

He was wary of saying anything. Being nice to Aveline was, frankly, a bit of a tar pit. He remembered giving her a gift, a year or so ago: a shield he’d found (well, all right, looted from a bandit camp on the coast path, not that it made any difference), which was embossed with the face of a lion, and some Orlesian motto that, according to Varric, recalled the story of Ser Aveline, the famous chevalier. He’d thought she’d like it or, at the very least, be pleased he’d thought about her.

All it got him was a mouthful of sternly worded reproach and the drawn-out story of how she’d resented all her father’s plans for her… didn’t like the name, never wanted to be a soldier, hated anyone referring to the whole chevalier legend. It was a colossal mistake, and one Tobias had been careful not to repeat.

Aveline looked suspiciously at him, her eyes narrowed. They seemed sunken, deeper set in her face than usual, as if she was physically shrinking back from the world. She certainly didn’t look like she’d slept since the Fade.

“It’s just a bit cold,” she muttered, glancing at the small woodburning stove in the corner of the office.

No fancy fireplace this close to all the paperwork, Tobias supposed. And what a terrible shame it’d be if all these records of crimes and punishments went up in smoke….

Aveline’s sandy brows knitted as she stared at the stove’s black belly, presumably greased and polished by one of the barracks’ elven lackeys that morning. Tobias wondered idly if she’d put as much effort into cleaning out the ranks of the servants as she had the guards themselves. He hadn’t realised it before knowing Merrill, with her alienage connections (however tenuous they were), but elves really did get into everything… and no one ever stopped to give them a second thought.

“Is it cold in here?”

She blinked, and looked uncertainly at Tobias. As usual, his arms were bare but for his bracers, and he shrugged apologetically at her. She must, he thought, have been wearing at least three layers of shirt and padding beneath her breastplate… and winter wasn’t quite upon them yet.

“I’m having trouble staying warm,” Aveline admitted, dropping her gaze to the floor, her voice growing uncharacteristically small and hesitant. “Ever since the Fade, and that… thing… inside Feynriel.”

Tobias folded his arms across his chest. So, here was the crux of it.

He could, he supposed, have told her to keep her chin up and not think about it, and maybe drop by the house to see Leandra. He was tempted to, in all honesty… and yet he had the worrying feeling that Aveline wanted to talk to him. A mage’s perspective, he guessed, allowing himself a small moment of pride in that. Just for once, he knew something she didn’t.

He raised an eyebrow. “Any ill effects, then?”

Aveline shook her head, as if she was trying to dislodge an uncomfortable thought. She moved slowly to the desk—Jeven’s desk; one of the few things she hadn’t gotten rid of, and Tobias wasn’t sure why that was. A series of intricate knotwork designs roped the edge of the thing, curling down around its legs, which ended in cat-like paws. It looked Orlesian, in his opinion: frilly and fancy, far beyond anything practicality demanded, despite the heavy, dark wood. Maybe it had been a gift to the old captain, or maybe it had been imported, the way so many of Kirkwall’s noble families hoarded foreign curiosities… like Antivan walnut dining chairs, Tobias thought ruefully. He suppressed a shudder.

“I don’t know,” Aveline said quietly, trailing her gloved fingers along the edge of the desk, skirting past the piles of papers and documents that rested on the dark wood. “It keeps drifting back. I can feel the… the ‘want’ of it.”

Very little sound came through the thick door, but Tobias could make out the shuffling of footsteps on the tiled floor: the movements of guardsmen going out on and returning from patrols, people checking the duty rosters, and maybe the soft murmurs of voices. He hoped they weren’t gossiping about her. That would have been the last thing she needed.

He sniffed philosophically. “Well, it was strong. Had to be, to turn you, didn’t it?”

He meant it as a kindness, but she just grimaced.

“Strong’s not the word.” Aveline shook her head again, her face still screwed up in distaste. “I can deal with strong. It wasn’t…. I mean, it took a memory I was at peace with and it just…. well, you know what it did, don’t you? You were there, and I saw what it did to you.”

Tobias blinked rapidly. He hadn’t really wanted to think about that. He flexed one shoulder dismissively. “Oh. That. Yes, well, it wasn’t—”

“No. I saw. I… I was there, and I felt it. Yet you resisted, didn’t you, Hawke?”

He winced reflexively. Tobias wasn’t sure how much of his own temptation had been visible to the others. He remembered the vision, yes—in painful, aching clarity—but he’d thought it had been like Merrill’s: just words, just things the demon did to his mind, and safely located in his mind. It was the way it happened for mages… wasn’t it?

“It was only words,” he said doubtfully. “I mean, yes, it… it was…. Uh. Did I say something, then? I mean, it was like with Merrill, wasn’t it? You didn’t actually see—

Aveline shook her head, but her gaze lingered on him, sad and oddly focused, like there was something new about him she hadn’t seen before. She looked… sorry for him, he realised, and he hated that. It would have been easier to take anything than it was to accept her pity.

“Well, it was saying things,” she said carefully. “You know. Asking what you wanted, trying to tempt you. All those things about gold, and… well, you remember, right?” She arched her eyebrows, obviously not eager to repeat the demon’s words precisely.

Tobias recalled them all too clearly. The words, and the things it had dangled in front of him.   

Supple, smooth leather against your skin, the warm burn of liquid amber on your tongue, and a pair of strong hands against your flesh.

Not just any hands, though. His hands. His touch, his kiss… and it had all seemed so horribly real. Wonderfully, maddeningly, agonisingly real.

Right now, the dark heaviness of the Guard Captain’s office seemed to make the room feel smaller than ever, and the smell of paper and dust seemed stronger, and Tobias really just wanted to be anywhere else.

Anywhere at all.

Aveline folded her arms across her breastplate, seeming awkward and uncomfortable as she avoided looking at him. “We didn’t see any visions, not like…. I mean, you just stood there. It said something to you, and it got closer and closer… whispering. I thought you’d strike it, but you didn’t.”

And you think I should have done? Or that you should have?

If she had an opinion, Aveline didn’t voice it. She just recounted what she’d seen in a quiet, even tone, as if she was trying to rationalise it, even now. Tobias wondered at that. It was like trying to read words in the stars; why would she even still be making the attempt?

Somewhere out beyond the office’s door, a couple of guardsmen were talking and laughing, their voices muffled and the words inaudible, just echoes against the barracks’ thick walls. She didn’t look up, didn’t give any indication of having heard them.

“You went all still,” she said thoughtfully, “like Merrill did, and I knew you were seeing something the rest of us weren’t, and then….”

Tobias wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He didn’t want to ask, and the word came out small and choked. “Then?”

“It was the way you said his name,” Aveline admitted, not quite meeting his eye. “Just one word, but… well, it was enough.”

He said nothing, and fought against the sensation of heat rising to prickle at his neck and jaw. She lifted her gaze to the coat of arms that hung on the far wall—Dumar’s badge, Tobias thought, as he’d seen it in the rooms the Seneschal and his notaries used—and frowned at it.

“So, I… I know you understand how I… felt, when I saw— well, when it did… whatever it did.” Aveline cleared her throat awkwardly, her gaze faltering back to the floor as her frown deepened thoughtfully. “You know what it’s like to have someone you love used against you.”

Tobias opened his mouth to argue, but found his throat dry and his tongue rough against the inside of his lips. There were no words of protest, because they’d only have been lies.

And now, here he was, naked as a newborn babe, and bare as a fool.

“I….”

“That’s what it did,” she said coolly, suddenly fixing him with that no-nonsense, level-eyed stare of hers. “Wasn’t it?”

Tobias withered under her tired, shadow-laden gaze. She looked exhausted, and confused, and he knew there wasn’t really much point in saying anything.

And there is a small, comfortable cottage, in a quiet little place where there are no wars, no templars… no darkspawn or Wardens or refugees clamouring for attention. There is just them, and there is him, and he kisses Tobias softly, because they have all the time they could possibly want. There is the heat of his lips, and the coolness of the pillow, and the smell of his skin… and the look in his eyes when he smiles.

There is all of this, and the yearning reaches out from his heart with tendrils as thick as vines, until it aches in his chest and his arms and his fingertips, until he is choked and dizzy with how much he really does want it, and just realizing that is terrifying.

Tobias swallowed heavily and frowned at the floor.

“Mm,” he murmured, as non-committally as he could.

Aveline sighed, but he didn’t look up. He heard the gentle creak of leather and the clink of her mail and fitments as she moved around the desk, her arms hugged tightly across her middle, and propped her hip against one ornately carved edge.

“You know, I thought I was at peace with what happened. I really did. I mean,” she added, glancing up briefly, her eyes shaded with a quiet, stern kind of regret, “I miss Wesley. Of course I do. And… and I wish things had been different. I wish that—”

Aveline broke off, and the words she hadn’t said hung far heavier in the stilted, thick air of the office than anything she had chosen to say.

Tobias shifted uncomfortably, unwilling to admit how bad she’d already managed to make him feel, without raising the spectre of her husband’s death. It was too easy to remember that moment, kneeling in the blood-stained dirt, with his throat full of the smell of decay, watching the film of sweat on the templar’s pallid skin as he begged for death.

No one should have had to die like that, but it had been better than leaving him there; better than letting the darkspawn tear him apart, or allowing their corruption to bleed through him until he turned into Maker only knew what.

Even so, Aveline didn’t think that way. She hadn’t then, and she didn’t now… not deep down. He knew that. He didn’t expect her forgiveness, though he’d expected her to be enough of a soldier to understand that he’d done her a favour—and it was better him, wasn’t it? Better that he’d put the knife in Wesley’s heart, rather than make her do it. Nobody should have to do that for someone they loved… and, unbidden, the memory of the night at the chantry came flooding back behind Tobias’ eyes.

He should have seen then, he supposed, that Anders had loved Karl. The way he cradled him as he died, the shock and anger in his tears… but he hadn’t been thinking clearly; blood pounding from the templar ambush, the shock of Karl’s complicity in it—that they could use a Tranquil like that, and that the man had truly seemed to believe it was somehow for the best—and, really, it was just the way it had been when Wesley died. A rush of chaos and quick, clumsy decisions… had he even truly thought about it?

Several times, Tobias had told himself there was no other option. Not with Karl, not with Wesley. There hadn’t been, but it still felt like an easy answer, an amelioration of what they’d had to do. All the finer points of the memories were lost, anyway; Karl’s death was shrouded in the blood and confusion, and Wesley’s in the horror of the flight from Ferelden, and the rawness of Bethany’s death and Leandra’s screams.

Nothing’s ever fucking simple.

It must have felt that way for Aveline too, he supposed. She and Wesley had been fighting since Ostagar, and the things they’d seen there didn’t bear thinking about, either. Still, that one loss must have overshadowed everything, the way Bethany’s death had for him; the one dark wave that came back in the night, over and over for the best part of a year, until the Deep Roads, when fresh nightmares came to push out the old.

He’d wondered, briefly, why the demons of Feynriel’s dreams hadn’t shown him Bethany. He struggled to really imagine what it had been like for Aveline—to see Wesley as he had been, as he should have been—and yet to know that he was dead.

Such was the essence of a lost loved one, he supposed; to take the maybe and the might-have-been, and hold it close against the fire of all knowledge and clear fact, because those things didn’t matter… not next to the memory of what had been. That was how the demons got you, wasn’t it?

He felt guilty, in a way, he supposed. His dream—the beautiful, perfect serenity of a life he could never have—had been nothing to do with his family. Nothing to do with Bethany, or Carv, or Leandra’s happiness. It was selfish and, next to Aveline, whose single desire had been redemption for that one thing she believed she’d failed in—not the pain of a lost love, but the shame of a death she hadn’t prevented—he felt grubby and profane.

A difficult, weighty silence had settled between them, and Tobias ventured a look at her. A wisp of red hair had escaped from her ponytail, and it hung over the band she wore around her forehead, reaching almost to the middle of one pale cheek.

It was hard for him to feel sorry for Aveline. She made everything difficult, and she’d so resented the ways he’d tried to be kind. She’d always been there, ever since the day the world had crumbled around him, always ready with some disapproving comment or stern scowl… always griping about the work he did, or the people he met with, the places he frequented.

Almost like a spare version of Mother, really.

He cleared his throat. “Look… if it makes you feel any better, I don’t think there could be a better reason for reacting like you did. I mean, if you’re going to give in over anything, let anything turn you… better it’s something good, right?”

Aveline raised her head. She didn’t look happy.

“Good?”

“You know what I mean. It got to you because of good things. Because of… love,” Tobias said awkwardly, uncomfortable with both the word and the sentiment. “Redemption. That’s a purer motive than power, right? Maker, even Merrill gave in because she wants to save her people. You can’t blame someone for that.”

Aveline looked wearily at him, her face shaded with fatigue and concern. “Perhaps not, but if that’s what mages have to contend with….”

She trailed off, her brow furrowing anew, and her gaze slid back down to the floor. He couldn’t make out whether she didn’t want to look at him, or truly couldn’t.

“What?” Tobias prompted, worried by the unsettled look in her eyes.

Aveline shook her head bitterly. “Well, it makes me less opposed to The Gallows, for one thing.”

Her words fell into a deep, perilous silence, and he blinked, uncertain he’d really just heard them.

“What?” he repeated, his voice husky with the effort of holding back the invective he wanted to spill.

How in the Maker’s name could she say that? Was she blind? No, she wasn’t, was she? She was just stupid and afraid, like every thick-headed peasant and every cruel, small-minded little nothing who blamed mages for all the dark in life. Tobias knew he should have expected it. He did expect it—every day, every week, waiting on the folds of fear and the possibilities of being caught just being alive—but he hadn’t expected it from her.

“Less opposed,” Aveline repeated, eyeing him carefully… almost as if she thought he’d blow up and start flinging fireballs. “I’m not saying—”

She straightened up, no longer leaning against the desk, though her arms stayed crossed defensively over her breastplate, and she moved behind the desk as Tobias strode towards it, the weight hanging uncertainly on her back foot, almost as if she thought he was going to start flinging fireballs. Oh, he wanted to… he wanted to yell and shout, but garrison walls frequently had ears, no matter how thick the stone and the ancient wood. Instead, he drew breath, and his words were low, short strikes against the air.

“You think the answer is locking us up?”

“I didn’t say that. But—”

“You think,” he said, leaning forwards, his palms flat on the warm wood of her desk, the orderly piles of paperwork rustling as he brushed by them, “that I should be locked up?”

Aveline winced, as if that was exactly what she was saying, but she just didn’t want to admit it.

“I-I don’t know,” she murmured, shaking her head. “No. But… but who could resist that? To live with those… those things getting at you all the time. I don’t see how anyone could resist it. Anders didn’t, did he? He even seems quite proud of the fact.”

There was a core of something in her voice that Tobias hated. Something judgemental, and laced with fear and suspicion. It roused a clear, dark anger in him, and he snapped a response without even thinking.

“That’s different.” Tobias frowned, a little annoyed by the way he leapt so immediately to the man’s defence. He almost bit back on the words, unwilling to let them out, but it was too late. “Anyway, that’s not what we’re talking about.”

“Isn’t it?” Aveline’s eyes were muddied with tiredness and the shades of uncomfortable thoughts. She shrugged, and her guardsman’s plate clinked gently. “Anyway, Merrill aches for some sort of bargain. That’s obvious. And what I felt… what that thing did to my head…. No. What happened in the Fade leaves me no choice but to think that either mages are wilful in a way I can’t understand, or… well, just not mortal.” She looked apologetically at him. “I don’t find either thought comforting.”

Tobias pushed away from the desk, anger clouding the back of his throat like smoke. If he said anything else to her, he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t end in shouting. How could she say that? She’d benefited more than most people from his magic… not to mention Flemeth’s deal. Not so quick to condemn mages when they were saving her life, was she?

Aveline sighed. “Look, Hawke—”

He could feel her gaze on him. He gritted his teeth, hoping she wouldn’t try to back her way out of what she’d said.

“Don’t bother, Aveline. You’re entitled to your opinions.”

“That’s not what—”

“Forget it.” Tobias shook his head briskly. “You’re not the only one who thinks that way. And you’re right: mages do have to be strong. But believing every mage is just waiting to fall is like believing every citizen is just waiting to commit a crime.”

He glared at her, and she met his eye sullenly. Tobias grunted an acknowledgement.

“All right, yeah. Fine. Kirkwall might be a bad example. But we’re not the enemy. For Andraste’s sake, even Feynriel managed to get his powers under control, with a bit of help. D’you really think shutting people up is a better alternative to educating them?”

Aveline set her jaw, her eyes narrowed, but said nothing. The breath leaked slowly from Tobias’ lungs, and he knew it was pointless to fight. Not now, not over this… not like this.

At this moment, in this room, there wasn’t a damn thing he could say that would change her mind. And he’d come here to let her know he forgave her for what had happened—wasn’t that a laugh?

Yeah. Bloody hilarious.

He sighed wearily. “Let’s just forget it, shall we? I’ll leave you to it. You’re busy.”

After an awkward moment of silence, Aveline nodded slowly. Her expression eased, as if she was glad to have the excuse to cling onto, and he supposed it was foolish to expect anything else.

“Mm. I… I should get on. Thank you, though, Hawke. For… for what you said. Perhaps,” she added, her voice rising a little in pitch as he moved to the door, “perhaps you could let your mother know I’ll be round later this week? I… I’ve been meaning to call in, and—”

“Sure.”

Tobias nodded without bothering to turn around. He acknowledged her simply with a wave of his hand as he moved to the door; the both of them as far apart as they’d been since the very first.

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Chapter 21
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