He was falling. Hands groping at nothing but the blackness he was hurtling through until he felt something catch him. It was warm and comforting and it had Hawke's face. Anders turned his head to look behind him and there was Cortland, his strong arms wrapped around the mage's chest, his lips smiling fondly.
"H-hey." Stuttered Anders.
"Hey yourself" replied Hawke, in a voice that Anders could quite happily have wrapped himself up in. In fact, he did. Pulling the sound from within its owner and drawing it around him like a blanket as the lips that gave it life hummed gently at his ear.
"Anders. I know."
"All of it. I know what King Alistair asked of you. I know how Sebastian betrayed you. I know you're looking for something that will help you choose a path."
Anders closed his eyes and leaned deeper into the rogue's embrace, feeling strangely at peace.
"No, you don't. You can't possibly know."
A strong hand reached around in front of him and grasped his chin, turning him bodily - as if he were cloud - so that he was now facing Cortland's dancing and appealing eyes.
"Rejoin the circle? What was the man thinking? As if you could ever do that…" A kiss found its way to the end of Anders's nose, and the sound of Hawke's gentle chuckle was intoxicating. Anders smiled back lazily at the man. He knew that he should be feeling more concerned at this conversation, but Hawke's casual manner and loose houserobe were just…bewitching.
"I think I understand what he's trying to do, Hawke. But you're right...how could I go back there after…?"
"After the things they did to you. The things they do to so many. After the pain they caused you. Sebastian told me all of it, Anders."
Hands were gently tugging at his undershirt and breeches, deftly unlacing and pushing material aside. It felt like Hawke must have grown an extra pair of hands, for how could the two he had be…maker…everywhere at once? Anders closed his eyes again, letting the sensation of being utterly but gently dominated wash over him. He was putty in the rogue's hands; mind adrift. He floated, kept aloft by the gentle caresses and strokes of a hundred hands, and they were all Hawke's.
"Anders, what do you truly want?"
"I…to save them. The mages…I…"
"Forget them all, just for this moment. Tell me what you, Anders, what you personally want. For yourself."
From behind his closed eyes, the tears came. But they felt good. They felt cleansing. And as they poured, and as the hundred hands fluttered over his skin, his voice found itself wrapped around selfish words. "I want you, Hawke. I want to stay here with you. I want the circle to disappear. I want the chantry to disappear. I want Kirkwall to disappear." The voice was faltering, breaking a little "I want them all to disappear so that you and I can be together."
A hundred hands became just two again as he felt himself pulled down and enveloped in an embrace. The lips that kissed his hair muttered sshhh sshhh and he felt at peace. Hawke's voice rumbled from the chest against which Anders was pressed, and it was sweet and deep and it was everything he wanted.
"Then let's make it happen. We don't need anyone else. We can be an island in this maddening and hurtful sea. Just tell me you'll be mine."
Anders lifted his head and looked at the chiselled face that poured fondness onto him. He smiled at Hawke and opened his mouth…
Then Hawke's own mouth opened. But it was not a gentle, happy shape that it made. Tendrils of thick black nothing snaked around Anders's wrists and ankles as he was jerked away from Hawke's arms.
"No! No, I want to stay with Hawke. I want to…"
Cortland's eyes rolled back in his head as the tip of a broadsword protruded from his chest, followed by the rest of the mighty blade. Blood arced and pooled in the air around them, floating in bubbles that moved towards Anders and splashed his face. He struggled against his unseen bonds and screamed and screamed. As Hawke's form crumpled, it revealed the translucent, blue figure behind it who had wielded the blade.
"Justice!" Anders let the shout rip free from his burning throat "Justice, what have you done? What have you done!"
And then Justice was on him, blade against his naked throat.
Wake up, you fool!
A gulp for air, a silent scream, and Anders flew upwards, hair plastered to his scalp with sweat. He sat there, panting, chest heaving, for what felt like minutes. Breath came in ragged, sharp bursts as his hands groped at his chest, twisting and balling his damp undershirt in their shaking digits. Finally his lips were able to make shapes and he muttered as he exhaled.
"Maker…what…" He pursed his lips and forced a breath out slowly, closing his eyes and willing his heart to steady. "A desire demon?"
You are a feast for the demons. With your thoughts so confused they see you now as easy prey. The longer you hold me down, the harder it is for me to intercede.
Anders raked trembling hands through damp hair and couldn't believe how close he'd come.
"Thank you, old friend."
His eyes blinked as he took in his surroundings. He was on the floor in the back room of his clinic. That was something at least. Had the fade's visit occurred at Hawke's estate…it didn't bear thinking about. How could he have awoken to Cortland after that?
Anders grasped his head in both hands and gave a whimper. Pulses of spirit energy ran from his palms and into his mind, making his thoughts a little more bearable. The shame he felt at his hidden feelings being exposed and abused like that was palpable.
"What do we do, Justice?"
You know my thoughts.
"And you know mine."
I know that he is a poison in you. I know that your mortal ties to this world prevent true justice. I know that, until you resolve yourself and turn from weakness, you are nothing but bait to the demons of the Fade.
Snatches of last night's internal debate were coming back to the mage. His two parts had been at war after Alistair's proposal. He had been backed into a corner and that was a dangerous place to put a mage. Until the desire demon's visit, Anders would have fallen straight back onto his stubborn denial of Justice's black and white ideas, but memories of those gentle hands still clawed at his mind and his skin. He longed for the peace he had felt whilst in the demon's embrace and he knew that a corner had been turned.
Justice was right.
With a deep and broken sigh, Anders reached for his staff and used it to get to his feet. His body felt so old. So tired. His grey warden calling was years away yet, but the way he felt these days, he had doubts that his body would last long enough to see it. Perhaps that was for the best. He really did hate the deep roads.
Peering behind the dirty curtain that separated his private room from the clinic's heart, Anders spied a few waiting patients dotted around and his spirit sank. How could he help these people? He couldn't even heal himself.
No. No, he wasn't healing anyone today.
A flash of strength fuelled by anger and protectiveness coursed through his veins and he felt his face harden. Bait for the demons, eh? Well, he'd see about that. If one of them tried to take him, if one of them tried to hurt the people he loved, he'd make sure the bugger choked. He'd make them all choke. Adopting the mask of serenity that he wore so comfortably, Anders strode across the clinic's floor, offering a heartfelt apology to the waiting citizens. He had so much to resolve, but one decision was easy. He had to talk to Cortland.
He had to say goodbye.
His meeting with the champion had gone as expected. The man was a Kirkwaller through and through now, but he was capable, very capable, of being a strong beacon for the city and it made Alistair feel grateful and relieved. The man who had felled the Arishok was smaller than Alistair had imagined, but his resolve and courage blazed fiercely in his eyes, and that was all Alistair needed.
He had felt a surge of relief when he'd seen Anders arrive with Hawke, and could have hugged the man when he dutifully played along with the notion that the pair were meeting for the first time, though Alistair's less-than-subtle reminder of the apostate's grey warden status had clearly been taken less as the joke it was intended to be and more as a threat, if the flash in Anders's eyes and his retaliation was anything to go by. Still, the fact that Anders had been there at all was a good sign.
As they'd left the chantry, Alistair had watched the mage part ways from Hawke and walk, dreamlike towards his clinic, clearly still with much to think about. The look on the rogue's face as he watched the apostate leave would haunt Alistair for the rest of his days.
The King had spent a long time convincing himself that Teagan and the others were right. That he was offering mercy to a traitor. That he was offering Anders a chance to continue his work in safety, whether that safety came in the form of the circle under Cullen, or in the security of the grey wardens. And that, in the process, he was also building a stronger alliance in Kirkwall and the Free Marches. But, whatever security and safety he was offering, he was still tearing Anders from the Champion and from the life he'd made, wasn't he? Alistair didn't need to probe too deeply inside of himself to remember the cold fear he'd felt every time someone like Wynne would throw up the future of his relationship with his fellow warden in conversation; the utter dread he'd kept hidden that the world might break them apart, whether they wanted it or not.
Alistair sat back in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Papers were scattered on the desk in front of him, and he felt exhausted. Teagan had of course grilled him for every detail of his meeting with Anders once they'd returned from the chantry to their rooms, and just thinking about the position he'd put the mage in made Alistair feel sick to his stomach. King he may be, but he would never get used to the game of chess that was politics.
He recalled Orzammar and the ridiculous hoops they had all had to jump through to secure Harrowmont's place on the dwarven throne. Back then, he had remained mentally separated from the proceedings. He was a willing sword arm and maybe a warm body for the hero to retire to each night, but the politics of the chapter washed over him like a dream. Beyond knowing that it would help them towards their end goal of turning back the blight, he just hadn't seen the point in the petty arguments and waste of life that was politics. He couldn't help a dry smile finding his lips now as he considered his current position.
It seemed that he was becoming the embodiment of so many things that the Alistair of years ago couldn't fathom or bring himself to accept.
Grimly, he lifted his pen and considered how to start his letter to Elissa.
The knock on the door made him start a little and smudge ink on the page. Muttering a small, childish curse under his breath, he rose to open the door and wasn't entirely surprised to see the Prince of Starkhaven stood there.
"Come in, Sebastian, please."
Sebastian stayed silent as he walked slowly into the King's room, and Alistair let him get comfortably inside before gently closed the door behind him. When Sebastian turned, Alistair had to smile as he noticed the restraint it was taking for the man not to bow or lower his head or any other such nonsense. Alistair had never got on with that sort of treatment. He was always happier enjoying a pint with the guard than holding court, and all this diplomacy on the road was making his head spin. He would also have had to be a fool to miss the subtext printed on the Prince's features. And, contrary to the image he put out there at times, Alistair was no fool.
"You're troubled. Please, sit down. Would you like a drink?"
A look crossed Sebastian's face that suggested his first instinct had been to politely decline, but then he nodded with a curt smile and gave in to the temptation.
"I…I would like that. Yes. Thank you."
Alistair felt relief flood through him as he turned away and reached for glasses and a bottle. Behind him Sebastian mused "I mean, it's not like I have to feel guilty drinking in the morning any more, right? It's not like I'm a priest."
Alistair paused mid-pour and smiled.
"Ah. You've been thinking."
"I have. And you're right. And Elthina is right. And I feel satisfied in where my path lies. I have further things to discuss with the Grand Cleric and I shall be working closely with the chantry on certain matters, but I plan to leave for Starkhaven within the month."
Alistair returned with the drinks and offered a glass to Sebastian, who bowed his head ever so slightly in thanks as he took it.
"I see. I'm happy for you, Prince Vael. You'll be a fine ruler, and you have Ferelden's full support. For now, is there anything I can help you with? You must have a lot of questions. I know how frightening this can be, believe me."
"Actually, I'm here to ask about Anders."
Alistair took a sip of his drink and made a face as it hit the back of his throat. Andraste's ass, what had Oghren given him for the journey this time? Still, it was fortifying enough, and that couldn't be a bad thing. He watched as Sebastian knocked back a gulp of his own drink with barely a flinch, and felt a small pang of admiration. For a moment, he was the Alistair of years past, still impressed by a man who could drink. He smiled to himself and heard the chastising voice of Teagan in his head. Act like a King. Think like a King. Drink like a boy.
"I have felt a great weight on my soul since I left you both in that clinic. Anders and I, we're hardly the greatest of friends, but I respect him, and he…trusted me." Sebastian's face twisted at the words, and Alistair felt his heart go out for the man. "I need to know what you spoke about. Did you invite him back to the wardens?"
Alistair swirled the alcohol in his glass and gazed at the movement. Then he told the Prince of Starkhaven about the deal he had offered Anders.
Hawke wasn't at the estate when Anders arrived. He couldn't work out whether he felt regret or relief at the fact. The conviction he'd had on route started to ebb away the moment he was through that door and was wrapped in the smell, the familiarity of Cortland's home. Bodhan politely informed Anders of new letters arriving and diligently set about lighting candles in the windowless study that Anders had been using over the past few years to write his manifestos. It all felt so natural. So routine. So dear to him. But it was like a dream the moment before waking. It had to end soon. Whatever decision Anders made regarding Alistair's proposal, Hawke could not be a part of it. All Anders could offer the rogue was upset, loss and heartache, not to mention the threat of possession…the bad sort. He shrugged off his jacket and threw it over the banister, savouring the sensation of being able to do so for the last time. Bodhan had said that Cortland was due back any minute, so Anders decided to absorb as much of this place, of the life he desired so badly, as he could in the time he had.
He climbed the stairs slowly, letting his hand trail along the stair rail as he did, and felt a wave of comfort pass over him as he entered their room. Its shapes and shadows were so familiar to him. His eyes fell on the instrument placed by the fire that he had played so very badly one night, to Hawke's delight. His nose breathed in the scented candles that he had insisted they start using to cover the whiff of post-battle man-musk that Cortland insisted was part of his appeal but that Anders found a little off-putting. He let his hands toy with the blanket they'd placed at the foot of the bed for Hawke's mabari to curl up on at night, since Anders had taken his spot next to Cortland. The hound had huffed at Anders for the first week or so, before deciding that actually, the blanket was very comfortable and doesn't kick in its sleep nearly so much as Hawke does, thanks very much.
This room…this room was his as much as Hawke's. His imprint was all over it. He felt the realisation dawn as a sob threatened to choke its way out of his throat. Hawke had offered him his love and his home. And Anders had nothing to offer in return but deceit and silence. There were parts of his life that Hawke didn't know, couldn't know, and yet he had held Cortland close on this very bed as he wept over his Mother's death. Anders had seen the champion's hidden feelings, his weaknesses, and he loved him all the more for them. But there were hidden parts of his own life that could very well pull Hawke down with him, and he couldn't, just couldn't, put Cortland in that danger.
He loved him too much to share his life with him.
Sitting heavily on the bed, Anders pulled Cortland's bedshirt to him and hugged it tightly, letting out a ragged breath. It had been a nice dream. A lovely dream. But better to hurt Cortland now than later. He breathed the room's scent one last time and stood.
At the door, he turned once more to face the den that they had shared for three, wonderful years and whispered hoarsely "I love you" before gently closing the heavy oak behind him and leaning back onto it, facing the landing.
It was as he was descending the stairs that the boy, Sandal, started speaking. And not his usual one-word retorts, but full and frightening sentences in a whispered, harsh voice that made Anders's neck hairs bristle.
"One day the magic will come back, all of it."
Anders stopped in his tracks, one foot mid-step. "Sandal, what did you say?"
The dwarf turned his head and his haunting eyes fixed on Anders.
"One day the magic will come back. All of it. Everyone will be just like they were."
Anders took the rest of the steps three at a time before he came to rest his hands on Sandal's shoulders, his face frantically searching the dwarf's expression for any hint of a joke. There was none.
"Sandal. What are you saying?"
"One day the magic will come back. All of it. Everyone will be just like they were. The shadows will part, and the skies will open wide. When he rises, everyone will see."
"What does that mean, Sandal? What will happen? How will it come back?"
He found himself shaking the boy, whose blank expression only stared back at him, repeating the words that were now etched into Anders's mind over and over.
"One day the magic will come back. All of it."
With a gasp, Anders slipped quietly to his knees in front of the boy, his hands still gripping Sandal's arms. Suddenly everything made sense.
Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.
Sebastian was right; the Maker and the chantry were two different things. Alistair was right; things needed to change…and a war was most definitely coming. And Justice, Justice had been right all along.
You hear him now.
"Oh yes, old friend. Yes, I hear him." Anders tilted back his head to look into Sandal's faraway expression and spoke in a hushed whisper, his heart racing.
"Maker…I hear you."