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To Find Absolution

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In his office, Cullen stared down at yet another pile of reports. Between the Hissing Wastes, the aftermath of Adamant, Cadash's recent withdrawal into herself in the aftermath of Blackwall's deception, and attempting to ensure all forces were trained appropriately, he had little time to so much as think.

Or, if he were to ask Dorian, little time to think, bathe, eat, sleep, drill properly, or “enjoy Dorian's delightful company.”  

He wanted it to be a relationship, but was it yet? They enjoyed spending time together. Sometimes it was a bit more than that. He wanted it to be something even more. If he had to put a name to it, he’d say he was falling in love with Dorian, but couldn't shake the feeling that he didn't deserve to have the affection of a mage. Not after... 

The door to his office creaked open and he scowled, not looking up. “Now is not the time,” he growled. It’s always something, isn’t it?

“I'm sure you've got the time to talk to an old friend,” a woman's voice drawled. 

He glanced up and frowned at a woman cloaked in brown, hood pulled over her head. Water dripped off of her and started to pool inside the door as she shook her cloak out. He wondered who could have let her in here and considered calling for the guards. “I don't have any old friends. Get to the point.”

She shut the door behind her and crossed her arms over her chest, her hood still in place. “Cullen.”

The papers fluttered from his hands onto the floor, recognition dawning on him. It couldn't be.

She reached her hands up to lift her hood and Cullen stared. Of course it would be her. Alistair, left in the Fade. She'd come to... What had she come to do? Find out what really happened to her husband?

The years had changed her, her brown hair reaching partway down her back in a braid and a wisdom in her green eyes that he hadn’t seen before. Even so, he couldn't ever not recognize Audra Amell, the Hero of Ferelden.

“Audra,” he blurted, stepping backwards into his chair and knocking it into the wall with a clatter. 

“Cullen,” she repeated, a slight smile on her lips that didn't touch her eyes. “You... you look good.”

He fought to control his reaction. For years she had haunted him, part of the demonic prison he'd suffered at Kinloch Hold. Memories he tried to forget but that haunted him every day, every time he remembered that Dorian was a mage and that Cullen had no right to touch a mage, not after the things he’d said and done. “You, too.” He fought for a deep breath as he walked around his desk, uncertain. He’d loved her, once. Or thought that he had. The years hadn’t helped him understand, leaving that time of his life a tangled ball of regret and pain that he put off sorting out.

She stepped towards him, pulling herself up to her full height even though it didn't bring her much farther than his chin. He started to step back but her hand snapped out to grab his wrist, and she pulled him into a rough, awkward hug. His armor formed an uncomfortable barrier between them, but her head tucked under his chin.

Cullen remembered Alistair's words. She forgives you. You need to forgive yourself. He raised his arms, wrapping them around her. If nothing else, he could try to provide comfort, despite everything that had happened in the middle. She’d called him an old friend; he didn’t know if he’d earned that, but a gratefulness swelled in his chest at the gesture of acceptance. “Audra, are… you okay?” He almost cursed. “I mean, I know that you can’t be-”

“I know. It’s…” She shuddered. “I’m fine. Or not fine. I’m a bit of a mess on the inside.” She stepped back out of his arms. “Alistair did pass on what I said, didn't he?”

“Yes, but... Maker, Warden Commander, how can you be so calm?” 

She snorted. “You just said it. I'm Ferelden's Warden Commander. It's calm or die these days.” Unclasping her cloak, she flicked it off her shoulders and hung it on a peg by the door. Under the cloak she wore simple brown clothing, not even carrying a staff, no doubt to blend in as much as she could.

Bending down to pick up the papers, he straightened them into a pile and put them back on his desk. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s… complicated.” Drawing a deep breath, she shrugged. “I received word about Alistair from your Inquisitor.” Her eyes were sad. “I’d asked her to keep him safe.”

Cullen felt a stab of indignation for the implication. “She did the best she could under the circumstances. It was an impossible situation.”

“I’m not angry, Cullen. I’m sorrowed beyond all belief, but there’s more to the situation.” She paused, then paced near the fire and rubbed her hands together to warm them. “It’s more complicated than I can explain right now.” She put her hands against her face and Cullen realized she was wiping away tears.

He felt awkward, unable to help. “I’m sorry. He was… a good man.”

“He still is a good man.” Audra turned to look back at him. “You have no idea how much it means to me that you're doing well, do you? I heard you're not a Templar anymore.” She cocked her head at him. “But you still wear armor everywhere.”

A warmth flushed his face. “Not… everywhere.”

“You need to sleep sometime.” Her eyes still shone with unshed tears but she’d composed herself. Cullen didn’t think he’d ever seen her cry, and he was somewhat surprised she’d do so in front of him.

“I don’t.” He sat back down in his chair and gestured at her to sit across from him. “When did you get here?”

“Ten minutes ago, more or less.”

“And you came here first? Why?”

“I saw Leliana before you. That’s how I even got past your guards, she got me this far.” She took the offered seat and sat on the edge, not quite comfortable. “Of everyone here, you were the one I didn’t want to find out that I was here through rumor. I wanted you to know from me.”

It seemed dangerous for her to come to Skyhold, now that he thought about it. “Are you okay here? I know there is a false Calling, from Corypheus.”

“It’s… manageable.” Wincing, she rubbed at her temple. “It’s faint, and I came ready to deal with it. Not thinking too hard about it helps.” She managed a smile. “Leliana tells me that you've found someone?”

He felt a blush creep into his face again. “I don't think it's Leliana's business. Or yours.”

A sudden full out grin crossed her face, so unbelievably Audra that he wasn't sure he was reading her correctly. “That... is somewhat true. I'll bet she's pretty. You always had good taste.” 

He didn't want to explain the details that Leliana clearly left out. “Maker, Audra...!” 

“Relax. I'm teasing. And thank you for leaving my title alone this time.” She leaned back in the chair, folding her hands in her lap. “I’m glad you’ve got something good in your life. And that you’ve walked away from…” She trailed off but he could read her meaning well enough.

She doesn’t trust Templars. He started straightening the piles of papers again, struggling to find a change of topic. It started to occur to him that she was one of the few people that knew how horrible he’d been then, the things he’d said to mages. That he’d gone on to do. He suddenly thought of Dorian and wanted to undo the things he’d said. Maker, I hope that Audra and Dorian never get a chance to compare notes. Or Hawke, for that matter. Then again, perhaps Audra of all people understood what he’d been through, and if she could forgive him… Maybe there was hope for him. “By all rights you should hate me for what I said.”

“Maybe I did for a time. But that’s what life does to you sometimes. You see terrible things, and you see beautiful things, and somewhere you find the line. You learn to understand what to let go. And Hawke said that you learned to see reason in your time in Kirkwall.” She pushed a piece of wet hair out of her face. “I’ve had no room in my heart to keep hating you, Cullen. We were kids, kids that went through traumatic and shit things that we had no choice in. We walked away and did something about the messes we made.”

Garrett Hawke, also of the Amell line and Audra’s second cousin, a fact that had explained many things when Hawke had told Cullen. “You saved Ferelden and killed an Archdemon. I…” He shrugged. “Well. I’ve changed, anyway.”

“You’re doing a hell of a lot more than that here, if Leliana is to be believed.”

The knock at the door startled both Audra and Cullen and they got to their feet. The visitor did not wait for an answer, and Cullen breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of not continuing down that topic. That is, relieved until Dorian's voice called out through the opening. “Dinner and charming company! Also very wet company.” Dorian pushed the door fully open, pausing when he saw Audra. He smiled at her. “I see some charming wet company has beat me here.” He set the tray down on Cullen’s desk and turned to Audra, taking her hand and lifting it to his lips. “Dorian Pavus, at your service.”

Cullen noted that Dorian no longer stated “of House Pavus” any longer, as if he'd left the house behind but still took pride in the name. He found himself unable to take his eyes off of Dorian, any time he entered a room. While it wasn’t the distraction from the conversation that he would have chosen, he never regretted a chance to look at Dorian.

Audra giggled - Maker help him, the Hero of Ferelden giggled at Dorian - and took his hand in both of hers. “A pleasure, ser.” 

Rubbing at the back of his neck, Cullen tried to hide his blush by ducking his head. Damn his fool face. “Dorian, this is Audra Amell, the, uh...” 

Audra winced and reached out to snag a piece of cheese, gesturing at him with it. “Don't you dare, Cullen Stanton Rutherford.” She shoved the piece of cheese in her mouth, looking ridiculous and so much like the girl he’d known at Kinloch Hold that he had would have laughed if he wasn't already mortified.

“Audra, everyone knows who the Hero of Ferelden is, there’s no use in not mentioning it.”

“Oh, never mind that part.” Dorian waved his hand dismissively. “I’m much more interested in hearing a story about the undoubtedly blushing young Templar from back when-” 

That was the last thing Cullen needed. “No,” he said, perhaps more sharp than he intended.

Dorian arched an eyebrow. “Cullen, you take all my fun away. Now eat.”

“I'll make it up to you later.” The words spilled out before Cullen could stop them, and he groaned, finally sitting down in his chair and covering his face. When he uncovered his face, his eyes slid past Dorian to Audra, who had a growing smirk. He titled his head at her in silent question. She pointed to Dorian, then at Cullen.  

The look on his face must have confirmed her suspicions as she covered her mouth with a hand, her eyes bright with amusement.

“Oh now what did you do, Audra?” Dorian asked, looking at Cullen. “He's more red than usual.” 

A laugh bubbled up out of Audra. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-” 

“Make him blush? Yes well it's one of his many...” Dorian pushed his lips together. “Talents.” 

“You people are going to be the death of me,” Cullen grumbled, pulling the tray towards him. He trusted Audra to not say anything terrible, but he hadn’t planned on her finding out about Dorian. At the same time, a sense of relief came over him. Audra’s face showed nothing but support and joy for him, and somewhere in his mind he felt lighter for that. He just wished that Alistair were here to share in all of it.

“Mmm.” Dorian turned back to Audra, this time taking her hands in his. Cullen noted that her fingers were stained with ink, as if she’d been writing a great deal recently. “As to why you're here... I'm sorry. For what's happened.”

Audra pushed her lips together for a moment before speaking. She stared down at Dorian’s hands, then up to his face. “Why did it have to be him?”

“Oh, he and Hawke fought about it.”

“Of course they did. Both damned fool stubborn assholes.” Audra shook her hands free and started pacing. “Were you there?”

“I was. He gave his life against a demon for the rest of us to survive.”

Cullen looked from Dorian to Audra. “He was a hero.” From the first time Cullen had met Alistair, that much had been obvious, even in Cullen’s state at the time. “He’s always been a hero.” 

“Is. He is a hero.” She turned back to Dorian, studying him. “You’re a mage. Tevinter, by the accent?”

“Yes. You have a discerning ear. But wait a moment.” He shook his head. “You said is. By any chance have you… had some dreams lately?”

Audra’s mouth set into a hard line. “How would you know-“

“About Alistair. That he’s alive. But you don’t think they’re just dreams. As to how… well.” Dorian shook his head. “I think it’s time you meet our Inquisitor.”

Cullen frowned, wondering what Dorian was getting at. “What are you both going on about?”

Dorian ran a finger along his moustache, a gesture that Cullen found distracting because it always led to him studying the shape of Dorian’s nose. Every time. “It’s ill advised to leave a person physically in the Fade. Especially if they’re alive. I was there, I don’t know how he could have survived, but-“

“He’s tough, and a Grey Warden. We survived the Archdemon together.” She reached up and unconsciously tugged at her necklace. “I will need to speak to your Inquisitor, but I have something I need to attend to first. I need to talk to Garrett, and determine where my mabari went.”

“Hawke is probably drinking with Varric. I can take you to him,” Dorian noted.

“It might be better to bring him to her,” Cullen said, stepping around his desk and picking up a cup of water. “We don’t need to cause a scene.”

“I’ll start with finding Diablo then. Fang has probably already found Garrett.” She stretched. “But I could also use something to eat. It’s a long way from where I came. I have my ways, but…”

Cullen blinked a few times. “Fang?”

“His mabari. Hawke left him with me when he teamed up with Alistair to come out here.”

His eyes narrowed, the pieces starting to come together. He hadn’t realized the extent to which they’d associated with each other. He stood up. “What else did Hawke leave with you?”

“A bar tab, and a nasty hangover.” Audra glared at him in challenge. “I know quite well what you’re asking. And I’d rather this reunion not be soured by this conversation at this point, Cullen. Please.” She grabbed her cloak from the peg by the door and pulled it closer around her.

“Fair enough.” He didn’t like where this was leading. The implication is that if she had Hawke’s mabari, she’d been in close enough contact that she’d also been in contact with Anders. And if she was in contact with Anders, it wouldn’t bode well for any of them. He had never answered for his crime in Kirkwall, and there were many who would never let that go. Cullen included.

She clasped her cloak. “Wonderful. Now that we’ve got that sorted out, I’m going to find my dog, get dry, and get the dogs fed.”

He suddenly felt awkward about the situation, and he wished he hadn’t brought up Anders at all. “I… need to finish these reports.”

Audra nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so harsh. It’s just…” She paused. “Kirkwall was hard on everyone.”

“We can talk later.” Cullen picked up a pile of reports and started reading them. This was the last thing he needed.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Warden Commander,” Dorian added, taking Audra’s hands in his own. “Do you need any assistance?”

“Please, Audra is fine.” She smiled at him. “And the pleasure is all mine. I’d prefer you stay here, as I’m glad that Cullen isn’t all alone in the cold up here.”

Dorian snorted. “Oh, no, never that. I need something to keep me warm in these dreadful nights in the mountains.” He winked. “He even takes his armor off.”

“You two are going to be the death of me, and you’ve been here less than a half hour.” Cullen set down the papers and started eating a piece of bread.

“I’ll see you both later.” Audra exited through the indicated door, and Cullen sat down, shaking.

Dorian was immediately at his side. “Are you alright? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” He reached down and laid his hand on the back of Cullen’s neck, running his fingers through his hair.

Cullen closed his eyes and leaned into Dorian’s touch. It soothed him, calmed him in ways that nothing else could. He reached out and wrapped an arm around Dorian, his fingers tangling in the mage’s robes. We’re here for each other. The thought steadied him. “That was… difficult.”

“She seems charming enough.”

“She is. You know what she meant to me back at Kinloch. But now…” All the memories of Kirkwall started flooding back. “I can’t stop thinking about all of the dead we dug out of the rubble in Kirkwall, and I’m worried she’s protecting the man that caused all of that death and destruction.”

“I know what Kirkwall cost you, Cullen.” Dorian leaned down and kissed his cheek. “Do you think you can focus on work?”

Cullen opened his eyes and held up his hand, feeling the tremor there. “No.” His eyes drifted up to Dorian’s face, reading the concern. “But I’m not sure I’m in any state to do you any justice, either.”

“Then how about this,” Dorian offered. “Eat something, then let’s curl up by the fire and see what happens. Fair enough?”

Cullen managed a small smile as his stomach fluttered. He wasn’t sure what this was between them. He wasn’t sure he deserved it. But he wanted to be the man that deserved it. He reached his hand up to wrap around the back of Dorian’s head, curling his fingers into his hair. He marveled at the darker tone of Dorian’s skin, of the warmth of him under his own hand. The moments like this, where the world nearly faded away, and it was just them…

Those moments were everything. Cullen pulled Dorian to him and kissed him, then cupped his hand along Dorian’s cheek, letting his thumb trace the bridge of his nose. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Dorian smiled at him. “Now finish eating before you collapse. You won't be of much good to me or the Inquisition laying on the floor.” Dorian chuckled. "Although I'm sure I could find a use for you on the floor."

Cullen would have eaten all the food in Skyhold if it meant Dorian would keep smiling at him like that. “Dorian, I…” I love you. I love you more than I know how to tell you, and every day I’m afraid you’ll find out the truth, of the people I’ve hurt, and I’ll lose you. He took a breath. “I appreciate it. You. All of… this.”

Laughing, Dorian directed Cullen back into his chair and sat down across from him. “As well you should appreciate me.”

I do. More than you’ll ever know. He didn’t have the nerve to say it, so instead he ate and hoped for the day when he’d have the courage to tell Dorian everything. Soon, he promised himself. Soon.