Anders had cleared out his desk in the library.
At first, Hawke thought he had just tidied it, which would have been shocking in and of itself. But no, it was empty. There wasn't a single copy of his manifesto to be found, or a quill, or a bottle of ink.
Such a little thing, an empty desk, but Hawke's heart began pounding. She put her hands on the back of the chair for support.
This was bad. This was serious.
Anders had been pulling away from her for some time now, and Hawke knew it. She'd been trying to tell herself that he just needed time, that it was a phase or a problem with the mages that would resolve itself.
But he'd emptied his desk, and there couldn't be any clearer sign. If he didn't think he needed space to write his manifesto here, then he didn't plan to live here anymore.
Tears stung Autumn's eyes, and she fought down her rising panic. She could fix this. It wasn't too late. She would find a way to convince him that she was worth staying with. If she could just find a moment to talk to him, to figure out what she'd done wrong–
Bodahn's voice drifted in from the foyer. "Messere Hawke is in the library, my lady. If you'll just let me announce your arrival–"
Hawke's head snapped up. Who–?
Isabela's voice drifted back. "How many times must I tell you, Bodahn? I'm not a lady."
Isabela. Andraste's teeth. She'd completely forgotten. She'd promised Isabela she'd finally go with her to that ridiculous hat shop she was always on about.
Hurriedly, Hawke tried to compose herself.
The door swung open, and Isabela sailed into the library. She spotted Hawke and stopped, taking in her appearance. Hawke wondered exactly how bad she looked.
Apparently it was pretty bad, because Isabela sighed. "Oh, Hawke," she said, and her tone was so sad it brought the sting back to Autumn's eyes.
"Sorry," Hawke said, struggling for composure. "I forgot about the hat shop. Give me a minute to change and I'll be ready to go."
Isabela walked right up to Hawke and threw her arms around her. "It's Anders, isn't it?" she said. "That bastard. Would you like me to beat him up for you?"
Stiffly, Hawke tried to extricate herself from the embrace. She wasn't ready to talk about this. If she talked about it, if another person knew what was happening, it would be real and not just a private worry. If she just kept it inside, she could pretend that nothing was wrong, that she was just imagining things. "No. Of course not."
Isabela released her from the hug, only to grab her hand and drag her to the sofa. "Come on. Sit down. Tell me what's happened."
Autumn sat reluctantly, staring forward into space. She didn't want to see the compassionate look on her friend's face, or she'd start bawling. "It's fine. There's nothing to tell."
Isabela touched Hawke's face and came away with a tear balanced on her finger, which she held up as evidence. "Now why don't I believe that?"
Hawke realized that she was not going to be able to play this off. Isabela wasn't going to let it drop. And maybe...maybe it would feel good to have someone to confide in.
"It's true," she said. "Mostly. He hasn't done anything. I'm just–I'm losing him, that's all." Her voice broke on the last sentence.
Isabela's eyebrows went up, but she put an arm around Hawke and smiled at her reassuringly. "Impossible. You couldn't lose Anders. He worships you."
Autumn could only manage a whisper. "Not anymore."
"Of course he does. He loves you. He may be acting a bit strange lately, but he still looks at you like you're the only woman in the world. Okay, so he's lost his sense of humor–and he's developed an ill-advised appreciation for the color black–but anyone with eyes can see he's crazy about you."
Autumn fiddled with the hem of her tunic and tried to find the words to explain. "He's avoiding me, Bela," she said finally. "I only see him when there's a job to be done, and then he doesn't talk to me. He stays at his clinic until all hours of the night. He always did that, but–he used to wake me up when he got home, and we'd make love, or talk, or just hold each other until we fell asleep. Now he lays on his side of the bed and pretends I'm not there. He doesn't touch me. And most days he's gone when I wake up."
Isabela's jaw dropped.
Hawke felt another tear start to slide down her cheek and quickly wiped it away. "And he's cleaned out his desk," she added, knowing it wouldn't make any sense.
Isabela recovered quickly. "Okay. So he's got a lot on his mind. You know." She waved a hand dismissively. "Justice for the mages and all that. He's preoccupied. Give it another week or so. He'll be after you like mad."
She wanted to believe it, that it was something external, that Anders was only absorbed with a problem and she wasn't losing him after all. But it didn't make sense. She tried to explain. "That doesn't account for why Anders would stop talking to me. I support his cause, remember? I've spent my whole life in fear of the templars coming to take apart my family." The memories of the late night escapes, her entire family running from home after home with nothing but the clothes on their backs, flashed before her eyes, but she pushed that aside. "If he's just worried about his cause, he could tell me so. I would understand, and he knows that. So why is he avoiding me? Why doesn't he just talk to me about it like he used to?" She shook her head, feeling hopeless. "I'm telling you, Isabela, something else is wrong. And I don't know what to do about it."
Isabela's eyes hardened. "Then he's crazy, Hawke, and he doesn't deserve you. You ought to teach him a lesson."
"How can I do that? He won't even talk to me. I never even see him."
The wheels were clearly turning in Isabela's head, though Hawke had no idea what she could be plotting. "You see him when you have a mission to accomplish. If he's ignoring you, then you should ignore him right back."
Hawke frowned. "That...seems counterproductive."
The pirate waggled her eyebrows. "Pay attention to someone else, instead."
Hawke blinked at her.
Isabela grinned victoriously. "You've got the idea," she said. "Find someone attractive. Someone who seems receptive. Then flirt your tail off with them–right in front of Anders."
"I couldn't do that!"
"Just to give him a little scare," Isabela reassured her. "Make him worry a bit. It's just what he needs to send him running right back to your arms."
"But what if I hurt him?"
"You mean the way he's hurting you?"
Hawke paused only for a moment. "That–that doesn't make it okay. We're in a relationship. He shouldn't have to worry about–"
"About whether his partner is staying out till all hours of the night, neglecting his needs, making him feel worthless?"
Hawke didn't have a response.
"It's just flirting, Hawke. You're not going to cheat on him. You're not even going to leave him, though as far as I'm concerned, if he's ignoring you like this, he bloody well deserves it." Isabela's jaw tightened in anger for just a moment before she went on. "You're just going to remind him that you're not something he has a right to. He's lucky to have you. And if he's not good to you, well, maybe someone else will be."
Autumn thought about it. Was Isabela right? Would a little jealousy help to change Anders's mind and bring him back to her?
On the other hand...if Anders saw her flirt with someone else, would it give him the excuse he needed to finally leave for good?
Isabela was looking at her expectantly.
"Look," Hawke said, standing, "I appreciate you trying to help. But it's out of the question. And it doesn't matter, anyway. I told you, everything's fine. I'll go change my clothes. We have hats to try on, right?"
Isabela looked unhappy. "Think about it, Hawke. Anders would never leave you. He just needs a good kick in the pants."
Hawke pretended she didn't hear her as she left the room.
It was nearing three in the morning when Anders pushed open the door to the estate. His patients had all cleared out hours ago, but he'd waited until he knew Autumn would be asleep before beginning the trek back up to Hightown.
If he were strong, he wouldn't come back at all. He'd spend his nights in the back room of the clinic and give Autumn a chance to move on with her life. But he was too weak, too selfish. He couldn't resist holding onto the last thread of their relationship–even knowing that in just a few weeks it would be severed forever.
Anders trudged up the stairs and quietly opened the door to their bedroom.
Autumn was asleep, her long hair unbound and flowing over the pillow in an auburn wave. She was facing the wall, her back to him, her body curled up under the covers.
Maker, he wanted to touch her. His whole body yearned for her. He wanted to gather her up and make love to her until they were both gasping. He wanted to hold her tight in his arms. He wanted to cradle her against his chest as she slept and never let her go.
He took off his boots, coat, and shirt and got into bed without touching her.
He shouldn't keep up this farce. He ought to let her go now. It would be easier for her to do what had to be done if he wasn't living here, pretending he had a right to stay by her side, letting her think he wasn't a monster. If he really loved her, he should let her go.
Autumn rolled over to face him, and he realized she hadn't been asleep at all.
"You're home," she whispered.
Anders was speechless. Her clear, grey eyes were blinking at him somberly. There was so much love in them, so much forgiveness. Her soft, round lips were parted slightly. The urge to kiss her was overwhelming.
He licked his lips. "I'm home," he said. His voice was hoarse.
"I was starting to worry."
There were dark circles under her eyes. She wasn't getting enough sleep. That was probably his fault. Anders cursed himself for making her worry. She didn't deserve what he was doing to her.
Autumn reached out tentatively and brushed a strand of hair from his face. Her hand lingered on his cheek.
"Anders," she breathed.
It took every ounce of his control not to touch her.
Her hand trailed slowly down his neck to his bare chest. She leaned in closer to him, tilting her face upward for a kiss.
I can't, Autumn. I'm not good enough for you. You don't know what I am, what I've done. If you knew how I've lied, how I've betrayed you, you wouldn't touch me. It would be wrong to let you do this. I can't take advantage of you that way.
He was keenly aware of the lines of her body under the coverlet. He trembled with want.
She leaned closer.
Just as her lips were about to touch his, he turned away.
"I'm exhausted," he said, forcing a light tone into his voice. "The clinic was a madhouse today. Non-stop patients, one after another."
Autumn said nothing.
"I really have to get some sleep," he said. "So I can open the clinic early tomorrow."
A silence. Then Autumn said softly, "Okay."
Anders's heart was pounding so loudly he felt sure Autumn could hear it. "Good night, love," he said. It was almost a whisper.
He turned his back to her and pretended to sleep.
Isabela was halfway through a pint of ale, listening to her poetic admirer recite rather imaginative verse in her honor and trying to come up with a good way to get rid of him, when someone tapped her shoulder. She spun around, grateful for the interruption, to see Hawke standing before her looking miserable.
"All right." She bit her lip. "I'll do it."
Isabela clapped her hands and hugged the warrior. "That's my girl! We'll teach that broody apostate a lesson and have him back in your arms–and your bed–in no time. Now all we need is a suitable subject."
"I'm going to regret this," Hawke muttered.
"You always say that," Isabela said, "but you never do."