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.”
The elf knew how to fight, Hawke would give her that. The timing was suspicious – Tallis turning up just as they were ambushed – but Hawke had made more than one friend who’d turned up at just the right moment, and Tallis had helped them out. She listened to Tallis’s explanations, knowing that Varric, Anders, and Isabela were at her back.
Behind her, Isabela cleared her throat.
At first, Hawke didn’t understand what the pirate was trying to tell her. She glanced back in confusion.
Isabela looked pointedly at the distracted-looking apostate, then at Tallis.
Hawke got it. Tallis, really? Well...she certainly was pretty. She wasn’t Autumn’s type, but then, Autumn’s type was scruffy, blond healers. Named Anders.
Okay, she would give it a shot.
How did a woman even make a move on another woman?
Hawke smiled and tried to look provocative. “I imagine if we did this,” she tried, “it’d be together, wouldn’t it?”
Immediately she wanted to kick herself. What did that even mean? Thank you for stating the obvious, loser.
To her amazement, Tallis smiled back. “That’s the idea,” she said suggestively. “Or did you have something else in mind?
Andraste’s flaming hair, that actually worked.
Behind her, she thought she heard Anders draw in a breath. “I am standing right here, aren’t I?” he said.
Hawke suppressed her grin. This really was working. Anders was jealous. And if he was jealous...maybe Isabela was right, and he did still care about her.
She couldn’t look at him. If she did, she would give everything away. Instead she smiled back at Tallis and said seductively, “I just think we should get to know one another.”
“I think I’d like that,” the elf replied coyly.
As Hawke talked to the red-haired elf, Anders’s mind was not focused on the task at hand. It was on logistics. How to get as many innocents out of the Chantry as possible. How to create the explosion with little damage to the surrounding buildings. How to be a little less the monster he was about to become.
And then he heard Autumn’s voice saying in an over-the-top, sultry tone, “I imagine if we did this, it’d be together, wouldn’t it?” and his head snapped up.
That was his tone. The I-want-you tone Autumn had used on him when they first got together. In six years, he’d never heard her talk to another person that way.
But now she was looking at that elf – Tally or Tallis or whatever her name was – with that familiar, suggestive glimmer in her eye.
What was Autumn thinking? How could she hit on another person right in front of him? Did he mean so little to her that she didn’t care how he felt? Did Autumn even like women?
“I am standing right here, aren’t I?” Anders said to the empty air.
No one answered him.
The elf, for her part, seemed all too pleased by this turn of events. Her body language turned inviting, and she responded to Autumn with something approving and appreciative.
Anders wanted to fry her on the spot.
He understood. It was no less than he deserved. He’d been there so little for Autumn that she had given up on him. She was moving on with her life, and he couldn’t even blame her.
He ought to be happy at this turn of events. It would make it easier for Autumn when things went bad. But all he could feel was hollow, like someone had punched a hole in his chest.
Surely it was obvious that Tallis was all wrong for Hawke. She wanted help to steal a jewel, for Andraste’s sake. Where was the justice in that? Besides, she was clearly lying about something, or she wouldn’t have to be so stingy on the details. Autumn would see that. She wouldn’t be taken in by a pretty face.
But Autumn was smiling at Tallis and going on with the conversation, apparently oblivious to Anders’s distress.
“You look like somone’s taken the wind out of your sails, kitten,” Isabela said casually.
“Leave me alone,” Anders muttered, turning away in frustration.
As soon as she had a chance, Hawke pulled Isabela aside.
“Maker’s breath,” she hissed. “Did that actually work?”
Isabela shook her head in mock offense. “One of these days you’re going to stop questioning my judgement.”
“I highly doubt that.”
“Well, you should. I know what I’m doing.”
Hawke frowned. “You told me Anders only liked men. I believed you for three years.”
“It was what you needed to hear,” Isabela said unapologetically. “You stopped being awkward around him, didn’t you?”
“That’s not the point! Anders liked me awkward!”
“Of course he did, sweet thing. Anders would like you if you had three heads and a tail. That’s what I keep trying to tell you.”
Hawke was rendered incoherent by the pirate’s unwavering logic.
“And you’re doing a great job with Tallis. Did you see Anders’s face? It was priceless!”
Hawke bit her lip. “Maybe this is a bad idea. I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Sweetheart, we’ve been over this. Jealousy never hurt anyone...much. It’s just a little harmless flirting. I told you, he just needs a wake-up call.”
Hawke was unconvinced, but she didn’t press the issue. “What about Tallis? I don’t want to hurt her, either. Don’t you think it’s wrong to lead her on?”
“Oh, honestly, Hawke. Only you would worry about that. I wouldn’t be too concerned. Nobody could look at you and Anders and not know you’re mad for each other. And Tallis clearly has her own agenda. My guess is that she enjoys flirting for the sake of flirting.” Isabela shrugged. “But if you want, I’ll make sure Tallis knows you’re off the market.”
“What? How? You’re not going to threaten her, are you?”
Isabela gave Hawke a disparaging look. “I’m going to talk to her. Really, Hawke what do you take me for?”
Hawke groaned and put her head in her hands. “I’m calling this off. This is crazy, Isabela.”
“Just wait a bit and see what happens before you do anything rash.” She grinned. “If you don’t see an immediate change in Anders’s behavior, I’ll eat my new hat.”
The Orlesian nobility, hunting wyverns. Not as interesting as one might hope.
Anders and Hawke, however? That was incredibly entertaining.
Anders couldn’t seem to stop mooning over Hawke. That was pretty typical for him, actually, but he also couldn’t seem to stop glaring at Tallis. Tallis, for her part, was completely ignoring Anders and giving Hawke coy little glances.
It was almost better than a dirty novel. Well, no, not really. But if one had to be chasing lizards through a forest full of nobles, it was definitely better to have a diversion.
Still, Isabela was a woman of her word, so when the opportunity arose, she broached the subject to Tallis.
“I don’t think you ought to get too attached to Hawke,” she said.
“Oh?” Tallis asked. “And why is that?”
“Because she’s madly in love with Anders. She doesn’t even notice that the rest of us exist.”
“She seems to notice I exist.”
Isabela shook her head. “It’s all about Anders. He’s been ignoring her lately, and she wants to get his attention. I’m telling you, it’s disgusting how sweet they are.”
Tallis pursed her lips. “If he’s ignoring her, they can’t be all that sweet. It sounds to me like there’s an opportunity here. Maybe she just needs someone to show her how she ought to be treated.”
Isabela raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to steal Hawke from Anders?”
“Maybe. Why not?”
Isabela laughed. “That’s your business, I guess. I’m just here to tell you how things are. If you want to throw yourself against a brick wall, that’s your prerogative.” And it should be highly amusing, she added mentally.
“Well,” Tallis replied, “at the very least, I’ll make sure Anders works for it.”
Isabela shrugged. She certainly had nothing against that.
Anders wondered exactly how angry Autumn would be if Tallis were suddenly and inexplicably struck by lightning.
The elf was infuriating. She’d spent the entire hunt so far giving Autumn smug, appreciative glances. As if she were constantly thinking, I could have that if I wanted. Anders had an overwhelming urge to set her hair on fire.
He’d tried to let Tallis know that Hawke was taken in a number of ways. He’d been extra attentive to Autumn, touching her whenever possible, calling her love, anticipating her needs. Autumn had been smiling all day. Anders hated thinking it was Tallis’s presence that brought that gleam to her eyes.
Isabela and Tallis had gotten ahead of them. Anders and Autumn were virtually alone.
Autumn looked amazing. Strong, fearless, untouchable. Beautiful, too, but that went without saying. She was completely out of place among all these poncy Orlesians.
Suddenly he couldn’t stand it anymore, being so close to her. He couldn’t resist the urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless.
Don’t do it, Anders, he told himself. You don’t deserve her kisses. You’ll only end up hurting her. If you give in now, you’ll undo all the distance you’ve suffered to create.
Autumn looked at him and flashed him the most joyous smile.
“Fuck it,” Anders muttered, and pulled her into the cover of the trees.
Autumn blinked up at him in confusion. “What are we–”
He cut her off, gathering her up in his arms and crushing her lips to his.
He wasn’t expecting her reaction. It was immediate and visceral. She moaned and curled her body against his. Her lips parted. Her tongue found his.
Maker, yes. It was so good, so familiar and right. This was where they belonged, in each other’s arms.
Anders thought he should stop, but he couldn’t help responding to Autumn’s urgency, her need. He wrapped his arms tight around her, drawing her even closer. Their tongues danced and teased. Her hands slid up his torso, and he found himself cursing the heavy armor that stood between his hands and her skin.
“Anders.” Autumn sucked his bottom lip into her mouth, then bit it playfully.
“Fuck,” Anders groaned. He was hard as a rock.
“Yes, please,” Autumn murmured appreciatively. Her hands moved to the clasps at the front of his coat and began nimbly unfastening them.
“Maker,” Anders panted. “Autumn. Wait. We can’t–”
Her hands slid under his shirt, splayed against the skin of his belly, and he cursed again.
“I want you, Anders,” Autumn breathed. “Please.”
That please nearly undid him. Autumn began kissing that spot just behind his ear, that spot she knew drove him absolutely mad. It was all he could do to hang onto his control.
“Isabela,” he managed to get out. “Tallis. Orlesians.”
“I think we should leave them out of this.”
Hawke’s hand moved lower, cupping him through his trousers.
“Oh, fuck,” Anders said, and he kissed her again.
The wyverns were completely forgotten. Anders was scarcely aware of where he was. All he could think of was Autumn – her soft skin, her sweet lips, the frustrating barrier of her armor. He kissed along her neck, fingers fumbling with the fastenings of her breastplate. Autumn moaned, her head falling back...
“I’m sure Hawke and Anders were right around here somewhere,” Tallis’s voice said.
They jumped and broke apart guiltily. Anders felt the loss of her touch as an almost physical ache in his skin.
“No, they weren’t,” they heard Isabela say loudly. “They were over there. Way over there. Come on, Tallis. We need to go look for them. Over there. Very throughly.”
Hawke kissed Anders again, and he stifled a moan.
“No, they weren’t,” Tallis said, sounding annoyed. “They were right here. And we don’t have time to waste. I want to get this over with so we can move on to the party before nightfall.”
“I could use an ice spell on her,” Anders whispered against Autumn’s lips. “It wouldn’t kill her. We could thaw her out again.” Or not.
Autumn groaned and pulled back. Her hair was in complete disarray. Her lips were red from kissing. Her eyes were dark.
She was the most irresistible thing he’d ever seen.
“Your hair,” she said, reaching up to fix it.
Anders said nothing as Autumn’s nimble fingers smoothed his hair, tucking the loose stands behind his ears. Her hands were so gentle, and her eyes were so kind.
And he was...what he was.
Autumn must have noticed the change in his demeanor, the way he’d suddenly frozen, because she said, “Anders? What is it?”
“Nothing.” Anders’s voice was hoarse. He turned away.
He’d always been no good for her, and he’d never been strong enough to do the right thing. He hadn’t been able to turn her down all those years ago, and nothing had changed. It was all well and good to pretend to give her distance, but when it came right down to it, when there was a real chance he might lose her, he couldn’t stop himself from dragging her back into his arms and clinging to her for dear life.
Hawke reached a hand towards him, then let it drop by her side.
“There you are!” Tallis emerged from the tree cover with Isabela trailing behind her, looking pissed. “I was afraid I’d lost you for a minute.”
Autumn ignored her. She was looking at Anders, searching his face, her eyes filled with a loss and confusion he didn’t understand.
Then she took a deep breath, turned to Tallis, and put on a dazzling smile. “Oh, you couldn’t lose me,” she purred at the rogue.
Tallis grinned victoriously, slipped her fingers through Autumn’s and led her back the way she came.
Anders absolutely, unequivocally hated Tallis.
They were getting close to finding the wyvern, but that didn’t seem to be Autumn’s concern at the moment. Anders thought that their newest companion seemed to be getting antsy.
“I hope it doesn’t get too late.” Tallis looked at the sky. “We still have to find a good location to bait the wyvern.”
“It’s nice to know how anxious you are to slaughter an innocent creature,” Anders snapped. “But if you think Hawke will allow a mabari to die because you’re on a timetable, then you don’t know her at all. We’ll find that drakevein first.”
Tallis gave Anders a dirty look. “Those ‘innocent creatures’ are responsible for poisoning that mabari, if you remember. They would overrun this countryside if the Orlesians didn’t hunt them.”
“So I guess you think it’s fine to kill something that’s not even bothering you just because it might be dangerous.”
Tallis looked Anders over, from his head to his toes, and said, “Sometimes, if the situation calls for it.”
Anders’s blood was boiling. She wasn’t talking about wyverns anymore. She was talking about mages, and they both knew it. He gripped his staff so tightly his knuckles turned white.
Tallis turned away deliberately and jogged to catch up with Hawke.
Anders glanced at Isabela, then hurried forward just in time to hear Tallis ask Autumn, “Are you married?”
Autumn looked surprised, which was something. Unfortunately, she smiled and asked, “Is that a proposal?”
“It’s just...you’re the Champion of Kirkwall. Big. Important. I don’t know.” Tallis smiled coyly. “Just wondering if there’s a husband behind the throne.”
“Yes,” Anders found himself interrupting. “Who is behind your throne, Hawke?”
Autumn gave Anders a glance, and to his surprise, her expression was guilty. She opened her mouth to speak.
Autumn looked away. “Let’s keep moving,” she said.
Thankfully, after slaying the wyvern, they were given the opportunity to bathe in a building outside the chateau proper. It wouldn’t do to have Autumn and Tallis attending the party smelling like wyvern innards.
Anders and Isabela were allowed to bathe, too, but they would not be at the party. Much to Anders’s dismay, Autumn and Tallis would be attending alone.
Anders paced in the corridor while Autumn finished dressing. Honestly, Anders preferred Autumn in armor, but he’d seen her dressed up, too. She’d kept up with the social functions of the nobility. Her mother would have wanted it. She always brought Anders as her escort, and when he accosted the attending nobles about the plight of the mages, she always took his side.
Yes, Anders preferred Autumn in armor, but it was always a pleasant shock to see her in formal attire. A reminder that even though she was strong and fierce and brave, there was a soft side to her, too, a side that she rarely showed to anyone but him.
But today she wasn’t dressing for him. She would probably pick a gown to impress Tallis, Anders thought, and felt a pang of despair.
Just then a door opened, and Autumn emerged. When she saw Anders standing there, she stopped.
She wasn’t wearing a gown. She was dressed in an elegantly tailored shirt, vest, and breeches ensemble. She had applied a bit of face paint, but her hair was slicked back in the usual ponytail. It was a look that said, I can be social, but I’m someone to be taken seriously.
She was beautiful. Anders loved it instantly. It was perfectly Autumn.
He must have been staring, because Autumn shrugged self-consciously. “I don’t know if Mother would approve, but it’s practical, anyway.”
It took him a few tries to find his voice. “You look amazing.” He sounded huskier than he meant to.
Anders expected Autumn to look away, to make some excuse, the way she usually did when he complimented her appearance. He was startled to see her blink back tears.
“You think so?” she asked softly.
He didn’t understand where this emotion was coming from, but he stepped closer to her, putting his hands on her waist, daring to rest his forehead against hers. It felt so good, so right. Autumn put her hands on his arms and leaned in, sighing.
“Maker help all those poor sods at the party,” Anders whispered. “The men and the women. They won’t know what hit them.”
“I don’t care about any of them,” Autumn murmured. “Anders...I...”
“You got ready fast,” Anders heard Tallis say.
Over Autumn’s shoulder, he saw the elf leaning in a doorway, sizing him up.
“Do you mind?” Anders snapped. “We’re in the middle of something.”
“I can see that,” Tallis replied dryly. “But we do have a party to get to. That jewel’s not going to steal itself.”
Reluctantly, Autumn stepped back.
Tallis looked pretty, too, Anders realized begrudgingly. Like Autumn, she was wearing breeches, but her blouse was more feminine and displayed more skin. She probably did that on purpose. He wondered if Hawke would notice.
Anders felt old and plain standing next to the two of them. He was keenly aware of his ratty jacket, unshaven face, and disheveled hair. Anders would never understand what Autumn saw in him. There was no reason in Thedas why she should choose an unkempt apostate when she could have someone younger, prettier...better. Someone who wouldn’t sacrifice both their happiness for an ideal.
“Wow. Hawke.” Tallis looked Autumn over appreciatively. “You look gorgeous. The suave, sophisticated look suits you.”
Fury coiled in Anders’s belly. “Every look suits her,” he all but growled.
Autumn smiled. She hadn’t smiled earlier, when he had told her she looked amazing. Tallis’s compliments must mean more than his.
“Let’s get this over with,” Hawke said to Anders. “Then maybe later...we can talk.”
Anders didn’t know whether to look forward to that or dread it, but as she walked away from him with Tallis at her side, he felt a sharp stab of fear in his gut.
It seemed that Isabela was right, Hawke thought, and flirting meant very little to Tallis. That made her feel a little better about using the elf to make Anders jealous. In the time since the party had started, Tallis had made overt moves on a guard, a servant, and now Lord Cyril. Although, from the sound of things, it wasn’t going very well with Cyril.
The doors opened, and Tallis emerged, looking miffed. “This is officially my worst night ever.”
Hawke raised an eyebrow. “Not Lord Cyril’s type?”
“Maybe he just doesn’t like elves...or women.” Tallis bit her lip. “Well, you’ve got one of those factors covered. He has the key. Go get it.”
It took a moment for Hawke to realize what Tallis meant. When she did, she was angry.
“What?” Tallis said. “It’s your turn, Hawke. Go on.”
Hawke was fuming. Just because Tallis was willing to use her sexuality in that way didn’t mean Hawke was. Autumn was in a committed relationship--
--which, of course, Tallis would have no reason to know.
“Seems like I could save time and just assume a plan will fall apart from the start,” Hawke muttered.
Tallis gestured vaguely. “It hasn’t fallen apart! It’s just...not entirely cooperating with reality. Just...go try something.”
Reluctantly, Hawke pushed open the door to Lord Cyril’s room.
He rose when she entered. “Tell that elf her pleas are for nothing,” he said immediately. “She’s pretty enough, I suppose. No doubt there are some men who would like that sort of thing.”
Cyril’s eyes slid over Hawke’s body.
In that instant, Hawke knew she couldn’t do it. It was one thing to flirt in front of Anders to make him jealous. But here, like this, with no one else around, it meant something more. Cyril was serious about his interest in her. If she flirted back, he would pursue her.
She couldn’t explain why it was so much more wrong now than it was with Tallis, with Anders right there. But with Tallis, Anders knew exactly what she was doing. If she flirted with Cyril, it would be behind his back. And that was a line she wouldn’t cross.
It was funny, she mused later as she bent over Cyril’s inert form and slipped the key from his pocket, that she found it more ethical to drug a man than to pretend to be interested in him. But that was how it was.
Blasted Orlesians and their blasted endless corridors. Was this a manor house or a maze?
Damn Tallis to the void for getting Autumn caught. Damn her for getting them involved in this whole thing in the first place. And damn Hawke for her need to help everyone who asked her.
Anders knew about prisons. He knew what could be done to a person when they were locked in a cell. And while it was unlikely that an Orlesian noble would take such measures against the Champion of Kirkwall when he caught her trespassing--or so he kept telling himself--still, he needed to get her out of there as soon as possible.
At least this would show her, he thought. When Anders arrived to rescue her from the trap that Tallis had gotten her caught in, she would have to see who the better choice was. She would smile that grateful, sweet smile of hers and slip her arms around him. Maybe she would kiss him the way she had in the forest, like she was starving for him, like he was the only other person in the world. Only this time, it would be right in front of Tallis. There would be no mistaking who had her affections then.
Anders and Isabela rounded a corner. Yes, this was the right place. Anders’s heart leapt into his throat. He could see their cell...
...and Tallis was picking the lock. The cell gate sprung open.
She’d stolen his rescue.
Anders cursed Tallis to the deepest, darkest pits of the Deep Roads. Broodmothers were too good for her.
Hawke wasn’t quite sure what to make of Anders. He’d been very quiet since she and Tallis had escaped from the dungeon. He didn’t seem sad, though. He seemed...furious.
If he was mad at her for flirting, Hawke couldn’t blame him. She wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to leave her when they go back to Kirkwall.
Well, if he left, he left, Autumn supposed. He’d been nearly gone before they ever started this adventure. At least, this way, she’d tried. She’d done what she could to try to re-kindle his interest in her, and if she’d failed, at least she hadn’t let him go without a fight.
She turned to look at Anders and found him watching her. To her surprise, he gave a small smile.
“I always figured you’d be the one coming to rescue me from someone’s dungeon,” Anders said. “I had it all planned.”
Hawke hadn’t expected this topic of conversation at all. She didn’t know what to say. Anders being caught by templars was her biggest, most secret fear. It kept her up at nights, fretting about whether she’d bribed the right templar, or if she’d let something fall through the cracks, or how she would fight them off if they showed up on her doorstep.
The image of Anders being dragged away screaming haunted her nightmares, and Autumn was shocked that Anders had broached the subject here, now, under the clear, open, sunny sky. She had never discussed these fears with Anders--or Bethany, or her father. Such ideas were meant to be locked away in the darkest recesses of her soul.
But Anders didn’t seem to think so, because he was going on almost without pause. “I’d be in the Gallows, templars all around, holding the brand for the rite of Tranquility. Then you’d burst in and break my chains.” One corner of his mouth quirked upwards. “And then it would be all about the best way to show my gratitude.”
Autumn’s words stuck in her throat. She wasn’t the only one who thought about this, who lay awake nights worrying about what the templars might do if they go their hands on him.
Except...it didn’t seem that Anders was worrying. In his version of events, Hawke rescued him. She came rushing in like a knight in shining armor to save the man she loved. Anders might fear being made Tranquil above all things, but when he pictured the worst happening, he believed Autumn would be there to protect him. His faith in her was staggering.
She hoped it wasn’t misplaced. If Anders were captured--she could barely stand to think of it. Maker knew she would try. She would move the Fade itself to bring Anders home safely, and nothing would stand in her way. But she was only one woman.
Anders was watching her. She couldn’t say what she’d been thinking, how terrified of the templars she really was. This wasn’t the moment for that confession, not here in the countryside under a sunny sky, with Tallis and Isabela only a few feet away.
She cleared her throat. “Then I should spend some time working out how to thank you.” He had come to her rescue today, after all.
Tallis made an irritated noise. “Not to come between you two or anything,” she said to Anders, “but you didn’t actually rescue us. I did.”
Anders’s face darkened. “It’s the thought that counts,” he muttered, turning away.
In just a few minutes, Tallis would be gone. Out of their lives.
Tallis looked at Anders. “I can honestly say I’m a little jealous of you right now.”
She was conceding defeat, he realized with surprise. Or maybe she was saying she was never in the running.
A vindictive sense of victory filled his chest and disappeared quickly. It didn’t matter if Tallis gave up. It was what Autumn wanted that was important. And besides, jealousy was a small matter in the long run. Tallis wasn’t the problem between him and Autumn.
“Jealousy never hurt anyone,” Anders said. “Much.”
They were nearly back to Kirkwall when Isabela sidled up to Hawke.
“You did brilliantly, kitten. Anders is like a little puppy dog, ready to beg for whatever scraps you might throw him. Excellent work.”
Hawke frowned at her. “I really think you might be crazy, Isabela. What in blazes am I supposed to do now?”
Isabela blinked. “Just climb into bed with the man and kiss him. Really, Hawke, I didn’t think I’d need to give that advice more than once. Haven’t you figured out how to jump Anders’s bones by now?”
Hawke narrowed her eyes and contemplated the most satisfying way to kill the pirate.
It must have been written on her face, because Isabela laughed. “Don’t worry, Hawke. He’ll be absolutely gagging for it now. You can take things however you want.”
Hawke just sped up her pace, leaving Isabela and her tinkling laugh behind.
It was late at night when Hawke and Anders arrived home and trudged upstairs to their bedroom. And Anders was ignoring her.
Isabela was right. This shouldn’t be so hard. Autumn ought to know by now how to initiate sex with her lover. She’d done it hundreds of times before.
So why did she feel like Anders was a million miles away?
Autumn was still wearing her armor. She felt grimy and sweaty and completely undesirable.
“Anders,” she said softly.
His shoulders tightened.
“I’m...going to bathe,” she said.
Anders nodded and turned away.
When Autumn left the room, Anders let out a shaky breath.
Nothing had changed since meeting Tallis. Anders knew what he had to do, and he knew that Autumn would hate him once it was done. It would be better for her if he was no part of her life.
But he wanted her, now more than he ever. Seeing her give his smile to someone else, knowing he could truly lose her--
It was all he could do to keep from following her into that bath and making love to her this very moment.
He wasn’t strong enough. Maker take it, he never had been. He didn’t want to deceive her, to take her under false pretenses.
But those uncertain eyes, that unconscious pout, were enough to undo him.
This is not just.
He knew it, but it didn’t seem to matter.
When Autumn emerged from the bath, she expected to find Anders already in bed, facing the wall and pretending to sleep, as had become his pattern. She was startled to see him standing before the fire in nothing but his breeches and a flimsy cotton shirt, one hand splayed against the stones of the hearth.
Her heart lifted in hope. She approached him quietly.
“Anders.” Her fingers touched his arm.
“Maker.” Anders’s whole body shuddered, and he pulled away.
Autumn let her hand fall to her side.
Anders took a deep, heaving breath and turned to face her. “I don’t like Tallis,” he said.
Nothing could have surprised Autumn more.
“She’s cocky and arrogant. She’ll put her Qunari ideals before anything else. She’s deceitful and untrustworthy – and you know what the Qunari do to mages.”
Autumn could only look at him as he struggled for words.
“But” – his words were barely a whisper – “if she’s what you want – if she’ll make you happy–”
His form crumpled unexpectedly, legs giving out underneath him. He slumped to the floor.
“I won’t stand in your way. She’s all wrong for you, but you deserve – I shouldn’t –”
Without thinking, Autumn kissed him. She took his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his.
Anders responded immediately. His arms twined tight around her. One hand cupped the back of her head, pulling her even closer. He kissed her like she was the only thing keeping him alive.
Autumn felt dizzy at the rough savageness of it all. She reveled at the way he clung to her, his lips plundering hers desperately. Her hands moved to his shoulders and fisted around handfuls of his shirt, holding him in place as he ravaged her mouth.
And then Anders pushed her back. “Autumn. You need to listen.”
His eyes were wild.
She sat back on her heels. “I’m sorry about Tallis,” she said. “It was a mistake.”
Anders looked taken aback.
“It was all Isabela’s idea. Stupid. Why do I keep listening to her?”
Anders frowned. “I don’t understand.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand to be alone. When I saw you’d cleaned out your desk--”
Hawke stopped and bit her lip. She wasn’t going to cry now.
“I could tell you were leaving, and I couldn’t let you go. I had to try to get your attention again, had to do something to make you notice me. So when Tallis showed up--”
Anders kissed her again.
“I wasn’t leaving,” he said between kisses. “I couldn’t leave.”
“But why...” Autumn drew in a breath as Anders’s lips nibbled along her jawline. “Why were you avoiding me?”
Anders pulled back.
“I don’t deserve you, Autumn. You don’t deserve me. You should have so much better. You don’t know--the mages, the templars, this thing inside me--”
He looked away.
“I’m capable of dark things, Autumn,” he finished miserably.
“So am I.” Autumn’s voice came out harder than she meant it to. Anders looked up with a start.
Dark things. When Anders said things like that, Autumn wondered if he really knew her at all. Sometimes he treated her like she was some sort of infallible Fade spirit, while simultaneously denouncing himself as the basest of creatures for what he’d done with Justice. But Autumn wasn’t perfect. The image of her mother, carved up and stitched together by a madman, flitted across her brain. She’d participated in blood magic to find her--and would have done it again if it could have saved her. She would have done worse. She would have done anything. If she’d been a mage, she would have given a demon a foothold into her mind. The fact that she wasn’t a mage didn’t make it better. It just meant she’d used someone else, and a demon had sunk its claws deeper into another person’s psyche. And now, every time she saw a blood mage who had lost control, she knew that she was no better.
It didn’t matter that she’d been desperate. Most blood mages were desperate, too. When it came right down to it, when her back was against the wall, Autumn had it in her to do monstrous things.
She didn’t say it. They’d never talked about what had happened, even though Anders had been there. He knew what she’d done, and he never brought it up. Maybe they were both trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. But it had, and Hawke could never forget it. She had no room to judge anyone.
She didn’t say any of that.
“Anders,” Autumn said. “I’m in this for good. Maybe I don’t know everything about you. You don’t know everything about me, either. But I know enough.” She found herself moving closer, climbing into his lap. “Do you think I need you to be perfect? That I don’t know you struggle? It doesn’t matter. I’ve made my choice. I’m with you. And whatever that brings me, I’ll take it.”
“Maker help me,” Anders said. “Maker help you.”
He kissed her again.
They didn’t bother with the bed. They collapsed right there on the floor.
There was nothing soft or delicate about this. Anders’s kisses were hard and demanding. His hands were everywhere. Autumn responded in kind, hungry for him after all their time apart.
She wanted him. Maker, she wanted him. She pulled urgently at his shirt, desperate to touch his skin, and somehow managed to get it off. His breeches quickly followed. Her own bathrobe was gone in an instant. Anders’s hand slid down between her legs, and he groaned to find her hot and ready.
He kissed her shoulders, her breasts. His teeth grazed her nipple, then his tongue lapped at it soothingly. His fingers found her center and began to tease at it.
Autumn’s back arched. Anders knew her body intimately, and coaxed tremor after tremor from her taut frame. Her hands clutched at his shoulders, his hair. Anders’s cock pressed hard against her leg. She could feel her climax rapidly approaching.
“Anders, please...” she managed to beg.
Anders knew what she wanted. He moved his head back up to nuzzle at her ear. His cock nudged against her entrance. The hand between her legs let out a tiny wisp of magic. A rejuvenation spell, to increase arousal.
Her body bucked involuntarily. The spell, when she was already so close to orgasm, was almost unbearable. The tingling sensation that came with it nearly made her come right then and there.
“Autumn,” Anders said, and thrust inside her.
Autumn’s body was on fire. Anders was the only thing she was aware of–the contours of his back as she clutched at it, the feel of his lips against her ear. He thrust into her at just the right angle, his pelvis grinding against her center. She couldn’t hold out much longer.
“Come for me, Autumn,” Anders whispered, his own climax clearly approaching.
It was too much. Autumn went over the edge, her body exploding with pleasure.
“Oh, fuck,” Anders moaned, and with one hard thrust he followed her, his body shuddering above hers. Autumn held him tightly, riding out both their orgasms, until he collapsed on top of her.
“That was incredible,” Autumn murmured.
She expected him to smile, perhaps to roll over and clean himself up. Instead, he pulled her tighter into his arms, pressed his face against her neck and heaved a shuddering sigh.
“Oh, Hawke,” he whispered. “I love you so much. Maker help me, but I love you.”
Anders held Autumn as she slept.
Monster. Do you call this justice? This is deceit. She cannot know what you truly are. There is nothing just about what you do to her.
Dimly the apostate wondered whether this thought stemmed from Justice or Anders. It was a disturbing game he sometimes played with himself, to attempt to untangle the origins of his thoughts, to trace this one back to the part of him that had once walked the Fade, smiting inequity, and that one to the man who had huddled in a templar cell, desperate for human contact of any kind. It was a game that got harder and harder to play as time went on.
When it came to thoughts about Autumn, the game was nearly impossible. Both halves of his soul loved her fiercely, and both of them were sick about what he’d done.
As if she could sense what he was thinking, Autumn mumbled in her sleep and tightened her arms around him. Maker, she was perfect. It really was unfair that the Maker sent him this temptation, such a beautiful spirit wrapped in an exquisite body. She never believed him when he told her, but her lithe, muscular form was the pinnacle of his desire.
He had never stood a chance against her.
Because you are weak.
He was something that should never have existed. He didn’t have a right to things like love and happiness. He knew that, but he’d taken them anyway, and Autumn would be the one to pay the price.
Anders started. Autumn was awake, looking up at him somberly.
“Whatever you’re thinking. Don’t. You’re not going to pull away from me again. I won’t let you.”
Anders stared at her. The expression on her face was fierce now, almost the way she looked before charging into battle.
“You love me,” she said, and Anders thought he heard a tremor in her voice. “I know you do. You can’t tell me that you don’t.”
Anders’s throat was dry. “I adore you.” It was all he could say. There weren’t words to explain the depths of his feelings for her.
Autumn let out a shaky sigh. “I choose to be with you,” she said. “All of this, what you’ve been doing–avoiding me, putting this distance between us–something awful is coming, isn’t it?”
“I won’t let you leave me.” Autumn’s fingers tightened around his arm. “I knew what I was doing when I started this. You don’t get to decide for me that the risk is too great. That’s my choice, and I made it a long time ago.”
Her words brought Anders up short. So that was how she saw things. He never wanted to take away her choice, but if he knew he would cause her pain...how could it be right to continue on that path?
“Why?” The question spilled involuntarily from his lips.
Autumn blinked. “What?”
“Why would you choose me? I can only hurt you. I’ve told you that, over and over, from the beginning. Why haven’t you pushed me away? Why do you let me stay with you?”
Hawke gripped his arm a little tighter. “Because losing you is the only thing I’m scared of,” she said.
In less than a week, she would lose him anyway, and it would be far worse than if he’d simply left. But he knew now that he would never be strong enough to willingly give her up. He could hardly believe he’d had the courage to try. He’d offered to step aside for Tallis, but he knew in his heart that had she said yes, he would have fallen on his knees, begging her to change her mind and take him back. He didn’t have it in him to let her go.
“I won’t leave,” Anders said. “I’m yours, Hawke. I’ll be here until–”
Autumn’s forehead creased. “Until?”
Until you kill me.
“Anders?” Autumn gave his arm a little shake. “Until what, exactly?”
Anders let out a breath. “Until you send me away.”
Hawke rested her head against his chest. “That will never happen.”
Anders drew her close, lifting her chin for a passionate kiss.