A/N: **Updated for minor revisions and chapter divisions.**
This story stands alone, but overlaps slightly with characters, timelines, and universes from my DA2 stories Ephemera (Anders/Karl) and Justice in Surrender (m!Hawke/Anders). Broadly, it rambles through parts of Act II, as Anders sidles up to his feelings for Hawke, and tries to reconcile them against living with Justice, and his involvement with the Mage Underground.
Also, I take liberties with Mistress Selby's backstory, Anders' smutty reading material, and a few other things.
He watches Hawke go; something he does on a depressingly regular basis.
Oh, it's not that there isn't anything to be said for watching the man walk away… but it still means him leaving, and Anders being left with nothing but the smell of boiled elfroot and piss, and the complaints of patients ringing in his ears.
He lingers by the clinic's doors, gazing after the tawny, leather-clad figure as it recedes into Darktown's crawling throngs, and he clenches his jaw against a small, wan sigh of frustration. The bastard doesn't even look back. Not one glance.
He shouldn't expect it, he supposes. Shouldn't hope for it.
It's just a distraction.
That's true… but that's what Anders wants. He wants to remember that there's more to living, more to life, than the dim, oppressive rat holes he's come to call home. More than the stink, the constant keening of crying children and frightened old men, the filth and the fear, and the ever-present edge of death bearing in on all of them like a great, dark wall.
Is distraction, in that case, so very wrong?
He is, he knows, supposed to be more than a loose ball of desires and urges and impulses—
Which is all anyone is, if you think about it. I mean, we're only people, after all.
—and he has risen above it, flung off his selfishness and his immaturity and accepted that there is a need he must minister to. Some things are greater than any one person; those universal principles that demand sacrifices, like hungry gods to be appeased by the faithful, as if pouring the blood and flesh of devotion, of service, might somehow stem the tide of suffering. There are things that matter more than him.
Anders knows that, with a knowing that runs bone-and-soul deep.
He just doesn't like it.
He blinks, and tears himself away from staring off down the tunnels like a lonely puppy. Stupid, anyway. What are you, twelve? He runs his tongue over the backs of his teeth, tasting the rime of unwashed, dishevelled decay, and promises himself a rendezvous with a tin of dentifrice when they've closed up shop for the night. There are not many luxuries to be had in Darktown, and he carefully husbands the ones he has managed to find.
"Has he gone?"
Anders blinks again, his mind dislocated and blurred. He's still thinking of a lop-sided, dry smile, of eyes as green and hard as two polished chips of agate, and of that leather jerkin that Hawke wears, which leaves his arms bare and lets the light gild the swells of his muscles.
He glances at the small, skinny girl standing nervously beside him.
She nods to the tunnel beyond the doors, her wide, round face—like a paper fan, he thinks, the skin drawn tight by hunger over high, broad cheekbones—etched with a look of wary concern.
"Serah Hawke. I-I know I shouldn't listen, but I heard you talking, and—"
Anders' lips twitch. Bugger.
It's like the Circle, really. No privacy. Ever. She'd know about that… she's a runaway herself. Of course, Kirkwall's mage tower is more a fortified prison than the ivory enclosure Irving had always wanted to pretend Kinloch Hold was. Anders reckons Eryn is probably about fifteen, and more used to having her privacy invaded by beatings and abuses than the apprentice gossip that he always found so intrusive. He was fortunate, all things considered, and he'd never known how much so. Not until it was too late.
It's still on wrong on principle. If they weren't given that power, it wouldn't corrupt them. No man should have the authority to command another so, based only on the strength of what he is….
Anders clears his throat, as if it might drown out the thoughts. They aren't even really thoughts: just the mingled threads of a reaction that bobs up, familiar and unwelcome, and never goes away completely. It's like he has an ill-healed wound, a half-scabbed sore inside him, and the whole world is a rough seam, rubbing and rubbing at it.
Eryn is a sweet girl, and promises to become a good healer, but sometimes just looking at her makes him so bloody angry.
He tells himself it's not him, it's Justice, but that's not true. They are the same. They are he, it, I, we… and everything happens in his head at once. He sees everything, feels everything and, to part of him, it is terrible and confusing. Yes, his anger—that old anger of his, born of outrage and spite and frustration—has changed the spirit within him, but Justice has changed him too. He doesn't think any of it has been for the better, though it pains him to admit it. Justice is hurt immeasurably by the sense that this body, this soul, wishes it had never welcomed him.
Anders tries to focus on the girl he is sheltering.
"Sorry," he says again, and he really, truly is. "What, um… what was…?"
She twists the hem of her dirty apron with herb-smudged fingers. "You're not really going to, are you? Bandits and that? Only, the coast paths are so dangerous, and I don't know if I can manage if you're not here, and… and I am grateful for everything you've done, ser, really I am, but—"
Anders sighs wearily. Nearby, an argument is breaking out between two of his patients over who arrived first, and thus is more deserving of treatment. Neither of them is as sick as some of the other people here. One has a broken wrist, the other phlegm on his chest that won't clear. Anders wants—Justice wants—to roar at them both with outraged anger, and make them all wait until he has seen to the old man in the corner, whose mind has gone and who is afraid, because he is dying and he wants to hold the hand of a wife he doesn't remember passed away five years ago. His daughter sits by his bedside, her smile a rictus, and the man has no idea who she is.
Anders turns back to Eryn, rubbing absently at his forehead with one hand. It doesn't help the pressure building there, but it's becoming a nervous tic.
"You don't need to call me ser. And don't worry. Hawke and I have worked together before. I'm surprised any bandits still use the coast, what with him around. It's safer than it sounds, I promise, and people like that can't be left to prey on the weak, anyway. It's… it's not right." Anders frowns slightly, the burn of angered righteousness shifting in him at the thought. Justice would see every single petty thief and cutthroat face a final penalty for their crimes, even if it took a lifetime. "Um. Now, have you prepared the batch of embrium I asked you to? We'll need some hot poultices, and some pulmonaria, too. About two ounces, I think, from the back cupboard."
Her mouth twists reluctantly, like she wants to argue, but she nods, and the mundanity of work closes over him again as he follows her back to the cramped rows of beds and pallets.
Anders is grateful for that, in a small way. It helps.
He could be angry with Hawke, if he let himself. Angry that he comes down here—maybe helps roll a couple of bandages, smiles at a few elderly ladies and makes them giggle like coquettes—and then just walks away again.
Hawke always leaves. When he's here, the world seems fractionally more bearable, and he must be a distraction, because that's how he makes Anders agree to do things he knows he shouldn't do, like messing around with derelict mines, or chasing bandits along the Wounded Coast, when he's not a bounty hunter, and anyway he's needed here…. And then, every time, the bastard goes again, and abandons Anders to this frustrated, peculiar limbo, where he is so very lonely, and yet never quite alone.
It is a busy day. Time wears on, and brings him a child with a broken collarbone, four venereal cases—two of them Madam Lusine's girls, one with her face half-covered by a scarf, as if she can pretend she isn't really here—three abscessed gums, and an old man with bleeding haemorrhoids.
For a while, it stops him thinking. Healing does that. Anders just looks at what needs to be done, and then he puts his mind somewhere else, opens up that still, breathless void of concentration, and channels the power that Justice lends him. It's easier than it ever was in classes, back in the Tower. Then, he used to struggle to hold onto the spells, to keep everything smooth and strong and calm, the way healing has to be.
He got better at it during his time with the Wardens, but more from necessity than any natural blossoming of skill or talent. There comes a point where you have to learn, or die. His education on the way people's insides are meant to work was rapid, and visceral, and frequently smelled bad, but he learned more about patching up wounds at Vigil's Keep than he would have done from a hundred dry old tomes.
Anders forgets, though, that a well can run to empty. Sometimes he puts himself too far away, and Justice sees all this misery and fear and pain, and he won't stop until it's mended… and sometimes people can't be mended. Certainly not just with healing. That leaves Justice confused, and Anders is afraid that, one day, he'll have put himself too far away to come back and stand between the spirit and this world that he cannot understand.
As it is, he has to rein in a lot of the things he wants to say to people, and he knows he's getting tired when the odd brusque, waspish comment slips out, and pinched, offended faces glare at him.
The old man dies that afternoon.
He feels it just before it happens—Justice feels its—and he looks up from the broken bone he is setting, which belongs to a careless dockhand, and there is no discernible change in much, except a certain quality of stillness… and then the man's daughter begins to wail.
Anders knows he needs to be kind to her, and gentle, and careful. He tries—he tries so hard—but he can't stop the raging anger that wells up in him, because this man was a blameless Fereldan farmer, and should not have ended his time in this dank place, this city where there are no fields and no rolling hills, pressed in amongst the jostling of people and voices, and poxed whores with their smallclothes down to their ankles.
On top of that—that anger that is his, and is Justice's, and is this terrible, growing canker they share—he feels the spirit's confusion. He has seen death before, so often before… but to Justice this natural ending, this quiet stilling and slow receding into sleep, is both unfamiliar and frightening. It is different to the kind of death that slakes Vengeance—that is blood and fury and leaves cold places behind it—and he finds it unnerving.
There isn't much that can be done until the clinic clears a bit. They cover the body over with a sheet, and Eryn consoles the weeping woman, which Anders is glad of, because he doesn't know how to do it. He remembers compassion, and patience, but the shapes of the words won't come.
Later, when things are quieter and they are laying out the old man's body for his daughter to have taken to the paupers' field, Eryn cries too. Anders wants to comfort her, but he's numb and silent, and too tired to try.
At least, he supposes, it stops him thinking about Hawke for a while.
That riles him, that small, snide, sly thought, and he feels anger thread through his flesh… anger at himself, and anger at those echoes of someone he used to be, who'd palm off a joke like that and use it as a sharp, dark blade against the sorrow.
It's been too long since he could laugh through the bitterness. When you stop doing that—when you stop showing the pain that you can be its master—it's dangerously easy to begin buckling beneath it.