Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 38

If Wishes Were Horses

Anders glanced up from healing some sweet-looking, filthy child while his parents wrung their hands. He’d known I was coming and his own freshly-scrubbed face shone in the light of his magic.

The tableau showed me a dedicated healer exhausting himself in the service of others, but I couldn’t help but suspect he’d arranged it for my benefit. It echoed the scene in which we’d first met so closely that it seemed precisely the sort of obvious ploy Anders would try.

The image of the endearing bumbler couldn’t stand up, however, to the fact that this was yet another attempt at deception. He might as well have put up a shrine to Andraste in one corner and a choir or urchins in the other. I crossed my arms and leaned against a nearby table to show that I wasn’t fooled.

Anders quickly finished and sent the child off with its grateful parents. After shooing his fawning helpers out he closed the clinic drawer and stood before me, contrite but determined. He kept his head down but his eyes pleaded with me from beneath his brows.

I shifted my weight to my other leg impatiently. “What?” My frustration showed clearly in my voice and my body and Anders frowned a little at both, more sadly than with any calculating intent.

“Hawke, I…I have one more favor to ask you. I need one more thing for this, uh, this potion and I can only get it from the Chantry.” His earnest face turned up to me, begging me to take his words at face value. “I just need you to distract the Grand Cleric while I get it.”

A rude noise escaped me. “You want me to use my familiarity with Elthina so that you can, what, steal some finger bones or a swatch of Andraste’s undertunic? And you still expect me to believe this is for some potion you’re going to drink?”

His face fell as I continued. “You’re a terrible liar, Anders. Just tell me what’s going on and let me decide for myself.”

He seized my hand desperately. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “You mustn’t know; no blame can attach to your name. This is my responsibility and mine alone.” I thought he might cry. “I’d never endanger you, Hawke. This isn’t your battle, you’ve made that clear. But I can’t do this alone. Please, if you were ever my friend…”

Such a heartfelt plea, yet still he managed to twist the knife. I pulled my hand from his. “Friends don’t just blindly follow, Anders. They expect honesty when they’re asked for help, not guilt and manipulation.”

Oh, that face! Now I was the one wielding guilt like a weapon but I couldn’t just agree to some mysterious errand in the hope that he wasn’t endangering himself or the mages in the tower.

“You’re using me,” I snapped, looking out the window of his hideaway at the sobbing statue in place to guard Kirkwall. What a perfect symbol for this city and for this moment. Anders’s anguish, so clear on his face, pushed at me to give in just to ease it. My anger ebbed into sadness. “You’re using our friendship to force me to do what you want.”

I tried a gentler approach and looked back into the weight of his gaze. “There’s no potion, is there?” He shook his head miserably, like a child admitting having broken his mother’s favorite piece of crystal. “Just tell me what you’re doing, Anders. I can’t agree just because I care about you.”

His eyes lit for a moment at that and then went flat. No blue glow showed but I could nearly feel Justice building a wall between us inside his head. The spirit whispered distrust and jealousy in his mind, probably repeating its warning that I was a distraction from its lofty goals and reminding him that I consorted with Templars and a mage-hating elf.

If only I could have felt sure that the task would actually help him reach those goals I might have agreed. Justice had shown time and again, however, that it possessed no patience with or understanding of how the physical world and the people in it worked. It had killed, it had taken over Anders’s body when he proved reluctant, it had raged unreasoning against the very institution Anders was asking me to help him secretly enter.

How much of this plan came from Justice and how much from Anders? I feared my friend’s sudden return to calm had come at a serious cost to his control over the spirit. Before I could question him, he turned and stalked across the room. His pleading had been replaced with fury.

“I’d have thought you’d trust me to do what’s best for mages.” He spoke coldly. “And with a sister under the thumb of the Templars I thought you might want to help her. But clearly you pay lip service to caring about their inhumane oppression only when it doesn’t require you to do anything.”

In the face of such an unfair accusation I could do little more than shake my head. “Anders, if you stop listening to Justice and start thinking for yourself you’ll remember more than one occasion when I stood at your side against Templar abuses. I’ve smuggled mages out of the Gallows with you. I’ve killed my share of cruel or stupid knights hurting their charges.

“But I’ve also found a dozen mages behaving as badly as Meredith accuses them all of being. I’ll not leap into some half-baked plan just because you throw Bethany in my face. If you refuse to tell me what you’re up to then I can’t help.”

He flicked a dismissive hand at me. “Go, then. You won’t believe I’m trying to protect you, you won’t trust me. I’ll find a way to do it alone.”

I tried one last time. “Anders, please, let me in; let’s talk it through.”

He laughed bitterly. “I think I’ve let quite enough in to know how well that turns out for me.”

More than ever I wanted to hide him away, to find a place for him where no mages, no Templars, none of the inherent unfairness in the world would needle Justice. By the Maker, the man had paid enough for his foolish optimism in the face of his displaced friend’s need. Kirkwall had to be the worst place in all of Thedas for them to stay.

We looked at each other for a long moment, the absurdity of our argument hanging between us. “It truly is safer for you not to know about this. I have to do this and it has to be me that carries the responsibility.” He sighed. “I wish there were a potion,” he said quietly, searching my face. I hoped my concern for him was clear.

“I wish there was, too.” That seemed inadequate. “I wish a lot of things.”

Anders walked back across the room to me and brushed a hand across my cheek. “Go on before I pitch another fit.” He offered a lopsided smile by way of apology. “We’ll calm down once we’ve got this last thing done.”

I turned away before he could see my reaction to the pronoun. He’d never spoken of himself and Justice as a unit before. I resolved to keep a better eye on him, lest his idealism and his passenger run away with his better intentions.

For months I did. As the weather turned from winter’s chill toward the heat of summer I made excuses to bring him out of the broiling stone of Kirkwall into the freshening winds of the Wounded Coast, where bandits marauded once more.

I hauled him up Sundermount and even off to a distant estate for a job that I’ve not room to tell, here. The farther we got from Kirkwall the more his mood lifted. He even managed to flirt and joke a little, charming the elf who’d hired us but who had turned out to be something very much not what we’d expected.

Varric and I visited Anders once a week or so and cajoled him into spending the evening at the Hanged Man with the rest. Though he never returned to his light-hearted self for long neither did he brood as much as he had in the darkest days just after I’d been named Champion.

He never mentioned his secret mission in the Chantry. I allowed myself to hope that meant he’d abandoned the plan as unworkable. Certainly Sebastian wouldn’t consider helping and who else could he ask?

In truth he and Fenris acted to balance my life. The balls and feasts had tapered off and I found myself with plenty of time on my hands. Aveline kept finding new bands of miscreants for us to chastise and Isabela could always be counted on to find some trouble but the two men tied up the loose ends of my days as often as not.

I had grown comfortable living alone in the mansion, outnumbered by my putative servants that generally went about the business of running the place without much input from me. After a few tentative attempts, and hearing how Bodahn politely told me off for the state in which I brought back my armor and weapons, Orana had grown into quite the tyrant. She scolded me mercilessly.

“You may not care, miss, but what would your mother say at seeing you ruin the furniture she chose so carefully for you?”

“The floors of your ancestral home certainly appreciate the symbolic donation of blood, miss, but those of us charged with removing it would appreciate your leaving your boots in the entry hall.”

“I’m sure I’m thrilled to be working for so popular a woman but might you ask your friends to try for once not to spill wine all over the best table linens?”

I met each of these with a laugh and a promise to do better but I enjoyed seeing this terrorized young lady learn to stand up to people and she knew it. Even my Mabari bowed his head sheepishly after another tirade about paw prints on the bed, as though anyone but me ever saw the damned thing. One of these days she’d go too far and we’d have to talk but for now her sharp comments made for good stories between reading sessions at Fenris’s.

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