The lower in the Tower he is forced to go the heavier and more suffocating the weight of the levels above him becomes, but the lack of light is a heavier weight in his mind than any amount of stone could ever be.
There is too little of it everywhere, but the solitary floor is the worst; no windows at all, not even high up, and the cells themselves so deep down in the dungeons that he can almost feel the lake that surrounds the island around him. He imagines the layers that trap him; stone, then earth, and water last, painting them in his mind’s eye to distract from the darkness, the first and most suffocating layer of them all. There is no time when wrapped in it, only the slight difference between waking and sleeping, the uncomfortable embrace of the Fade or hazy, muddled thoughts. He needs a distraction from the dark as well as the oppressive loneliness, but the images he calls to mind only add to the weight above him and around and inside, and then all he can do is wrap his arms around himself and try to escape to a place where he can think of nothing at all.
When they let him out again, what light there is hurts both for how unaccustomed his eyes are to it and how it is still too little, too dull. He recalls thinking of it as an eternal dusk when he was younger, eyes desperately searching for windows low enough to let him see sunlight and how he used to climb up to look out of them when he had the chance. Back when he had the energy for such adventures, before solitary and more seeped the fight from his body.
The closest he has to the sun he longs for but now lacks the strength to reach out to is the sun of the Chantry; its sun brands on Tranquil foreheads, Templar sunshields and the red banners emblazoned with the rays of the Andrastian sun. The Chantry being filled with them should make him feel at peace and fill his heart with joy over the reminder of being in the Maker’s light, but it does not, because he is not; cut off from the light of the Maker’s creation, how can he be in His light? The Chant itself speaks of there being no darkness in the Maker’s light, but darkness is a tight knot of constant despair in his chest during the day and a black city at the edge of the horizon in the Fade at night.
Their first meeting was in a hallway, a fellow Anders recognising the meaning of the insults hurled at the templars dragging him along, further and further away from his home. The insults became a little more colourful after that; might as well put all his effort into it, when someone actually understood. Those hallways were in desperate need of some sort of colour anyway.
They start talking because they are both Anders, but that is not why they continue doing so. The language is difficult and he does need Karl’s help, but that is not why he wants to keep talking with him, why he wants his help and no one else’s. It is not simply because it is convenient to talk with someone who is not bothered by his accent, who can help him translate unfamiliar words. It is something in the way that Karl looks at him; fondly, like he belongs in this world after all.
Sitting next to him in the lower bunk to practice his reading is comfortable and safe, making the small space resemble something almost like a home. Karl tousles his unkempt hair and is patient with the tantrums he cannot keep at bay, making him feel less thrown away.
Part of him feels like he is throwing that safe companionship away himself when he throws himself in the lake to escape. It was a short lived freedom, and the tower is greyer than ever when he is dragged back.
He does not expect Karl to offer a hug of welcome with a secret look of better luck next time in his eyes.
His luck is not much better next time as he does get caught eventually, but he did get further away than across the lake, and has had a chance to live more. To see things and people and weather. He likes to think that it has changed him somehow, made him more mature. People are noticing him more, now; they listen to his jokes and his stories, and he feels exciting, the centre of the apprentices’ attention. He himself does not put much attention towards things other than being defiant in whatever ways he can. And Karl, who has managed to grow what he calls a proper beard, and it makes him look just right. Anders is not the only one who has changed; there is something different about Karl as well. Something of that safe, familiar feeling of him is still there, but it is no longer the same as it once was. He somehow stands out more now, he smells nicer and feels warmer as they sit next to each other, shoulders touching, making him tingle and giving life to new thoughts. Not necessarily because he wants things to change or because they need to, but because Karl has been his light in the tower and if there is even the smallest chance to make his life brighter, he will take it. That tingle of strange newness is like a spark he cannot help but ignite into something, whatever it may be, urging him to reach out a hesitant hand to stroke the recently perfected beard.
Then lips meet lips for the first time of so many; too many at the same time as not ever enough, Karl gently resting one hand against Anders’ cheek while the other caresses his hair instead of tousling it. The kiss is a soft one, wetter than he had imagined it would be in the seconds before he went from thought to action. Tongues meeting feel wetter still and strange, but still more right than anything else in this place could ever be.
And at once Karl is no longer safety, because no matter what they do not tell each other, things are no longer the same.
Disclaimer/trigger warnings: This chapter deals with abuse. Nothing is shown but the aftermath, and it can be interpreted as sexual or general physical abuse. This is also the major reason for the alphabet having a bit of a hiatus - this was not easy to write, to the point where it almost physically hurt. But some stories want out, even if they hurt. This is a longer one, so it might be easier to read it on AO3. Thanks goes out to SakuraTsukikage, who encouraged me to post, and helped me with some grammar.
“They kept me silenced. I couldn’t heal it.” His voice is too hollow for his liking and his shoulders tense enough to hurt, but that pain pales in comparison to that on his back and elsewhere, deeper. At least his hands no longer hurt, as ugly as they look.
He can feel Karl doing his best to mend the damaged flesh on his back. Their healing skills are nowhere near evenly matched, but until his own magic is once more within reach it is the best he is able to receive. In a way, having Karl do it for him is a comfort he needs as much, if not more, than the actual healing itself; to be taken care of, be so clearly cared for by someone, and that care is able to diminish some of the pain that healing magic is unable to reach.
As it is, healing magic is not going to be able to take care of his back either, not completely. Too much damage has already been done to it, and been left to scar. He can feel it; his back is forever beyond repair now. He can feel it in the scars and he can feel it in the way Karl carefully cleans off the dried blood; the touch is hesitant, almost afraid to reveal the no doubt unsatisfactory results of his efforts.
And then the silence confirms it beyond any doubt he might have held.
Warnings: This letter contains hinting of abuse, and there is claustrophobia all over the place.
It is not only the confinement of the heavy walls that Anders find maddening, but how isolated they are as well. Tucked away in this tower on a small island only accessible by boat ever since the bridge was allowed to crumble, surrounded not only by water but people who seem to loathe them all as well. Some seem downright disgusted by him, and some seem anything but, only in the very worst of ways. None of them thinks of him as human, as a person. He is something to be used when convenient and then put away, and he is considered too troublesome to be useful most of the time. He has enough potential to be useful to be kept alive, but that is all they allow him; this grey imitation of a life.
Some days there is not even enough light in the world to call it grey. Some days they stuck him into a cell as if they want him to think of the Circle as a prison. It is, of course it is, but in front of so many others they preach and tries to pretend that it is something else. Pointless in Anders’ mind, when it even is in the name. Kinloch Hold. To hold them here, trap them here and take everything they can from them. They even had to take the light this time, as if staring into darkness for days is going to make him behave himself in the future, if he can even call the rest of his life that. Future implies more opportunities than he will be allowed here.
He needs to not count the steps from wall to wall, he needs to not claw at them until his nails are chipped and fingertips bleeding and he needs to stop screaming in something that must not be terror, he needs to not chew at his lips to distract himself from the feeling of the stone above and around him. There is danger in blood, of course, but the wounds on his back are a greater call to demons than what he is able to do to himself short of biting his own arteries open. He does not want them to know how much this is getting to him, that is all.
He needs so much more than to not show them any weaknesses that should not even be considered such. He needs air and he needs sunlight, he needs wind and he needs rain, he needs to feel alive and not buried deep under so much stone like the dwarven dead.
Some mages are able to grow content with life in the Circle, but Anders is not one them, never one to settle for merely being content. Or simply waiting and hoping for change to happen. Doing nothing but hoping for freedom is useless; it is not something anyone is ever going to give to him. Life is not a fairytale where he can sit in his tower and wait for a handsome knight in shining armour to come and save him from this peril. As if he would even want a knight – that shining armour would be much too similar to that of a templar for his taste.
No, he much prefers the scholarly type, like Karl, or whatever type he would have been if he had not been forced to be one by the Chantry. A farmer most likely, as would he, dull and unfitting as it seems. Farmers both, then, but not together.
Without the Circle, it is unlikely that he would ever have met Karl, but not impossible. Even as a free man, Anders suspects that staying in one place all the time would make him itch. It would drive him away, making him utterly unsuitable as a farmer, and perhaps taking him to Karl. There is something about this, this not quite love, this comfortable companionship that feels like it was meant to be. Like no matter which world, which time, which place, Karl would always be there to be the First.
And under different circumstances, perhaps even more.
“Don’t you ever wish for anything better than this? Do you really never hope for more?” Anders asks, head resting on Karl’s shoulder.
“Well,” Karl… hesitates, the focus of his eyes drifting towards the ceiling instead of his friend, but Anders has always trusted him to tell him the truth. “At times.”
Grey eyes meet his own again, so serious and much too sad for Anders’ liking. “But hope is not a promise,” he adds, sounding so many times older than his actual age, and Anders cannot stand it. Life has never promised anyone anything more than the eventual end of it, anyway.
“It does not have to be,” Anders says as he pulls himself up to let their noses touch, the most Anders against Anders. His next words are whispers against Karl’s lips, almost kisses, and even more intimate. “It is just… fuel.”
It is true as Karl says; hope is not a promise. But it is fuel, something to fire his determination.
He does not loathe the standard robes simply because they are ugly. They are, of course, completely hideous and downright visually offensive, but ugly on its own is something he can deal with. He has to, or he would have gotten an aneurysm by now, considering how many times he has been sent to Irving’s office.
What irks him the most is how they all look the same, how they force them to look interchangeable, how they strip them down to nothing more than their rank. Apprentice. Mage. Enchanter. And nothing more. He hates it, the feeling of being forced into some kind of box, the demand to fit the mould of a proper Circle mage as if it was a good thing. To blend in, to become not much more than a slightly more mobile part of the background, to not stand out in any way.
It is unnerving, having them all look like shadows of each other.
There are ways to get non-standard robes, though, once you are Harrowed. Robes like these, dark blue silk and glorious gold thread embroidery, slit sides and feathers. They are beyond all doubt the most beautiful robes in the entire Circle tower. The way they move when he walks is an invitation to dance, to spin around in joy, to move in complicated patterns to some inner tune.
At his request, a recently transferred girl has showed him some steps she knows. It might or might not have started as an excuse to get to know her better, but there is a certain joy in it; moving with purpose, and why he asked to learn no longer matters to him, he is simply glad that he did.
And what matters now is showing off these robes to Karl, to impress him with how well they fit and how much they show of him. Even if he has to pry a book out of his hands to get his attention.
Turns out he has to.
“Anders –“ Karl begins, a protest falling on deaf ears as Anders removes the book from his hands.
“No, no, this is much more important, you have to see this,” he insists as he is backing away, before stretching his arms out to do a little spin, blue silk swirling around his legs, the slits in this robe exposing so much more of them than a standard one would.
“What do you think?” Anders asks as the skirts settles around him. He can guess from the way Karl looks at him, but he would like to hear him say it, as well.
“Yes, yes, very nice,” is the answer, which is not answer enough, longing looks or not. Well, if that is how he is going to be, Anders knows how to deal with it.
“Suitable for dancing, don’t you think?”
Karl raises his eyebrow and voices his doubt, but that does not matter either; what matters now is that a body is meant for moving, and how it was made to move. Complicated steps he knows well enough by now to dare show someone, and the arm movements that goes with them. There is no music in the tower, but he imagines how music meant for these movements would sound, and he lets his body follow the imagined tune, smiling as much to himself as he does for Karl.
What they say afterwards does not matter as much as what they already know, and the smile Anders gives him is not his deliberately seductive, carefully practised one, but the kind one smiles when a dear wish has been granted.
It simply feels like a natural way for their relationship to progress; he does not exactly think of it as a relationship, not in those terms, because there is danger in that. But they are friends and they are about to become more, and that means something, even when there is a limit to what they are allowed to become in the Circle, in general and to each other.
Will they be lovers after this? It seems like a strange word for it, in a way, when they are not allowed love. But there is love involved, and despite it being a different kind of love than the most dangerous one, there are times when Anders tries to pretend that it is not there at all. Not only due to the risk of a templar finding out and using it against them, but because he cannot have anything, anyone, to tie him down here. If he gets too close, he might become content, and while content seems to be the most a mage can ever hope for, it is not enough for him and it will never be. No love of any kind will be allowed to keep him here. Not the kind one might foolishly hold for a lover, and not the one you cannot help but feel for a friend.
Sharing something like this will not change that; whatever else they might become or could have been, they will be friends first. Karl is not The One, because that, the very concept of there even being a The One, is something that cannot exist in the Circle. It is a silent agreement among the mages; for their own protection and for their own good, infuriatingly mirroring the Chantry’s reasons for locking them up in the first place. As if being protected from all choices and options could ever be a good thing.
Karl will not be The Only and he can never be The One, but he will be The First. Anders still has the freedom to chose this, and choosing it feels right.
There are different kinds of escape; not just the one you make from a tower, persuaded by templars sent to rob you of more than physical freedom.
From some things, the slight comfort of closed eyelids is not diversion enough.
But for now, he presses his knuckles against them, hard enough to see colours and sparks. Against his own darkness, they are similar to a night sky scattered with stars, but moving and with so many different hues of light. It is a sight far better than dull stone and old tapestries. Nowhere near as grand as the real thing, but for now it will have to do; a brief escape is better than none at all.
The library is another, with books to devour and be drawn into. While they are meant for studies they still describe the world, and he desperately needs more of it, in any way he can, to be reminded of better things and better places. Descriptions and drawings of plants are not even close to being adequate substitutes for walking through fields and forests, but recalling how doing it felt with the help of old pages will have to do, for now.
Karl is the best one; escaping the cold reality for a while to hide in warm arms can be dangerous with hearts so close together, but to Anders it is a danger that would be even more dangerous to go without. They share touches that are intimate not due to the places touched but the intent behind them, the not so well-hidden care. He needs that care so much that it hurts sometimes, just to feel that he is somehow still needed in this world, no matter what the Chantry says about him being cursed.
Because there is one final way to escape, one that no one could ever bring him back from. The comfort of Karl, no matter how dangerous, still has to be better than that.
The tower is almost completely devoid of natural light; with most rooms lacking proper windows, it is as if the entire building is trapped in an eternal dusk. What light there is, is faint and feels unnatural, clammy, and somehow defiled. The hallways are the worst, the sleeping quarters only slightly better. There, at least, one is expected to close ones eyes, and people will assume that the goal is sleep, and not hiding under the darkness of eyelids; the only escape he has some days.
The library is one of the better places. There are windows placed heartbreakingly high up, but they do let in natural light; a little bit of sun untainted by stone. Out of his reach by normal means, but sometimes he climbs all the way up, to simply sit and watch the light. An act that warrants punishment, of course, but it does not matter to him. He is considered a troublemaker anyway. Mostly because he is still able to find things that are worth getting in trouble for.
There is little wonder, really, that his mood twists and turns at times. Being overcome by despair every now and then is to be expected in a place like this, really. Karl wonders and worries, concerned glances and a wrinkle of worry between his eyebrows, hesitant questions and frantic embraces, as if it is somehow strange to feel like this. Anders himself finds it much stranger that not more mages grows weary or desperate like he does, and tries to escape it. He is sick of being confined in this artificial dusk.
He just wants sunrises and sunsets, to be allowed to watch the dawn turn into a new day, and to be allowed outside to live in it. There is nothing strange about that at all.