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To Find Absolution

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“Well, Varric,” Garrett Hawke said, sitting a mug of ale down in front of each of them. “I’m planning on leaving Skyhold in the morning.”

Varric smirked, leaning forward. “Actually leaving, or putting it off another day?”

“Actually for real leaving.” Hawke took a big drink of his ale. “I miss home.” I miss Anders. He didn’t bother to say it out loud, but he missed his mage with his golden hair and beautiful eyes. It generally had served him better not to bring it up, even if it hurt. It hurt to love someone so much and hardly get to talk to anyone about them. Even to a friend as close as Varric had been. Zaire had been kind enough to listen and had seemed sympathetic, but it had taken a lot of thought on his part before he’d been willing to talk to her.

The dwarf across from him took a drink of his ale. “Where is your home, these days? You’ve never told me.”

“I’m not falling for that trick, Varric.” It was better if no one else knew where he’d been holed up with Anders and the few Grey Wardens. Far away from Corypheus’s reach. He raised his mug towards Varric. “Let’s toast to me fading back into my obscurity where I can’t fuck up anything else.”

Varric lifted his mug and clicked it against Hawke’s. “How about toasting to the Champion of Kirkwall instead.” He set the cup down. “Are you still blaming yourself for-“

“Yes. And you would be blaming me, too, if you have any sense.” Hawke sat back, regarding his friend. They’d been the best of friends since shortly after they met, after Hawke arrived in Kirkwall, but what had later happened with Anders and the Mage Rebellion had caused some tensions between them and Hawke had kept his distance since, out of respect for Varric. “Maybe I saved Kirkwall, but accidentally helped blow it up. I released Corypheus, then we killed him, then he came back. Now? I tried to fix that, and Alistair had to one up me.” He shook his head. “Figures.”

Varric shook his head. “Come on, Hawke. That’s not really how you look at it, is it?”

Hawke rubbed at his beard. “He was my cousin’s husband, Varric.” It felt like a rock settled in his stomach, at how he’d feel if he’d lost Anders. He just wanted to get home and hug Audra and tell her that he was sorry. That this wasn’t what he wanted. “I’ve fucked up her life, too.”

“Self pity doesn’t suit you. It could have been a lot worse.”

“No, Varric.” Hawke remembered the last time they’d tried to talk about Anders, shortly after he’d arrived. They’d had a night to catch up over drinks, very similar to the night they were currently having. Hawke had laughed it off then, but couldn’t find the energy to do anything other than try to shut the conversation down. “We’re not going to talk about Anders again.”

“What do you mean, again? You barely mention him to me.”

“You think I don’t hear your comments?” Hawke snorted. He supposed the one thing more painful than not being able to talk about Anders was not being able to talk about him to someone who had been there through it all, who had called them both friends. Varric had been there when Hawke had stumbled into the Hanged Man to drink one night, after another frustrating night where he’d left the clinic wanting nothing more than to drag the healer back to his mansion, and Anders steadfastly putting his duty first. “Varric, I love you like a brother, but you’ve made it clear that you think I’d be better off far away from him.”

“Would you? Can you tell me that you’re happy with a man that killed that many innocents? In my home?”

That’s enough of that. “What are you talking about, Varric? We routinely sacrifice innocents now, every other week. It’s how we have quality time.” Hawke slammed his mug down on the table. “So, if you want to know?” Hawke took a deep breath. “At first, after we got out of Kirkwall, I wondered if that love I had for him would fade, if resentment would start to build. I waited for it. I waited to get really mad. Not just mad like I was, but really mad.” He’d been mad at being lied to, and he’d been lied that he’d had to flee Kirkwall. Mad that he’d had to leave everything behind. He’d effectively lost his home in Ferelden, and then his home in Kirkwall. “And it hurt. I tried to laugh it off, I tried to joke, but I watched Anders retreat into himself. I wanted to be mad, then. Just to be able to have it out.” The depression had started to crush Anders from the inside out, and Hawke hadn’t known how to help him. The memory caused his chest to tighten up. “He fought against Justice constantly, as Justice wanted to keep fighting, and Anders was ready to give up.” More than just give up the fight; Anders hadn’t planned on surviving that long. He hadn’t thought about what would come next, how he’d move forward. Anders came out of it not knowing what he would say to Hawke, what they’d do with their lives, because he’d assumed that Hawke would just move on after Anders was gone. I loved him too much to ever let him go.

“I didn’t hear any reports of explosions, so I’m assuming he landed on some variation of giving up?”

“Not on my watch.” Hawke took another drink from his mug, fighting to control his voice. “Would it make you feel better to know it was weeks before we could touch each other? Before we could be anything other than two people on the run?” It had been some of the worst weeks of his life, separated from his sister, his friends, and finally, his lover. There had been days when he’d just watched Anders sleep, wanting so bad to just hold him but not knowing how to bridge the gap. “Justice and I fought, in the spaces between. Anders stopped caring so much that half the time, I was arguing with a spirit that couldn’t and would never be able to understand what I was trying to say.”

Varric waved to the barmaid for more drinks. “Come on, Hawke, it was doomed from the start.”

Finishing his drink, Hawke put the cup down and put his elbows on the table. “Challenge accepted.” Those were rough days, for them both. There were times when he wouldn’t see Anders for days at a time, but Justice kept following Hawke for Anders’s sake, or so he said. “We stuck together. The best we could. And then…” Hawke hesitated. These days with Anders were the most private that he had, and few people knew. He looked around to make sure that no one was listening. “We had taken refuge somewhere far away, I’m not even sure where. We were both growing beards that would put your average dwarf to shame. He was losing so much weight and hadn’t been eating.” Hawke paused, remembering the haunted look in Anders’ eyes, during the times he remained. “But something started to change. The farther we got from Kirkwall, from the Templars, that drive to fight just sharply faded. I felt like Anders had started to withdraw so far, just to protect himself from how much he hurt.”

“He wasn’t the only one.”

“Yeah, well, a lot of people hurt him to get him to that point. Have you ever seen how many scars he’s covered in, Varric?” Hawke could picture each of them in stark relief in his head. Anders remembered the source of every one of them and had recited them to Hawke once. I wanted to take them all away for him.

The dwarf fell silent as the drinks arrived, and he pushed one to Hawke. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Tell me that anyone deserved that. Even him.”

“Of course not, but that doesn’t undo what he did.”

Hawke got halfway out of his seat, his patience wearing thin. Why am I even having this conversation? “Do you want to hear what happened, or do you want me to leave? I can do that.”

“Sit the fuck down, Hawke.” Varric gestured at him with his hand. “You know me, I’m always being an asshole.”

“We used to all be assholes together.” Hawke dropped back into his seat, closing his eyes. “Finally it was me and Justice and I was starting to worry if Anders was coming back. I went looking for my cousin. She had another Warden with her, by the name of Nathaniel Howe. And he looked at Anders or Justice or whoever he was… and he spoke directly to Justice and said that he’d forgotten what he’d told him. Justice reared up, and then was… silent. They were both gone.” Hawke wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but at the time he’d been terrified. “I was left with some Wardens and a shell.” He’d held Anders to him whispering at him to wake up. Through all that time in Kirkwall, Hawke had never once felt like he was completely losing his mind. The moments after Anders collapsed challenged all of the composure Hawke thought he had. “Nathaniel told me that he’d known Justice and Anders both, before they’d merged.”

Varric almost dropped his drink. “Can you set me up an interview with this guy?”

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” Hawke rolled his eyes. “He’d once talked with Justice about the ethics of joining with a living host. They’d discussed the right circumstances for it. Life. Love.” Nathaniel’s explanation made a lot of things more clear about Anders and Justice both, and having the perspective of someone that knew them separately had been immensely helpful to Hawke. “That together, perhaps spirit and host could do together what they could not do alone. ‘If you gave instead of taking, I would consider you no demon’.”

Reaching into his pocket, Varric fumbled something out and bent over it. After a moment, Hawke realized what he was doing. “Did you really just write that down?”

“Damn right I did. But you still haven’t told me why I should drop my grudge.”

“Varric, I swear to the Maker…” Hawke sighed. “You know what? I don’t care if you write this all down anymore. Have at it.” He would just leave out the best bits. “I spent almost a week waiting for either of them to come back. Anders would thrash around, then fall still. We hid with the Wardens, and I waited for him to come back, for either of them to.” They’d laid him on a bed, and Hawke was certain they were just waiting for him to die. There was a stream of visitors, as it turned out that despite Anders having considered himself no longer a Warden, he still had friends within the order. Including Hawke’s own cousin, the Hero of Ferelden. “My cousin poured healing magic into Anders, trying to do anything to bring him back, but finally determined that his body was fine, it was his mind that was gone. So I waited.”

Varric had gone still. “Did he…?”

Hawke realized that he’d gone from mad to enjoying dragging Varric along on a story for once. “Wouldn’t you hate if I just ended the story here?” Grinning, Hawke finished the ale. “It’d be what you’d deserve.”

“You wouldn’t.” Varric looked down at his ale and back up to Hawke. “I want to believe you that things have changed. I don’t want to hate him. But look at what you both left me: a city in ruins, a trail of dead bodies, a traumatized Templar made Knight Commander, who was living in just as much horror realizing what the Templars had done. Some people around here are still cleaning up that mess.”

“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Dorian, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He pondered. “Do you really care if Anders woke up or not? You could go on with the rest of your life thinking he died, and you could write it in a book, and everyone would believe it.”

Shaking his head, Varric looked at Hawke with a surprising amount of sympathy. “But he didn’t.”

“I waited every day. We tried everything, we even brought him cats.” In fact, Audra had managed to get a hold of Anders’s friend in Amaranthine and get back the cat she had given Anders as a kitten, Ser Pounce-a-lot. They still had the cat, even, and as soon as she’d brought the cat back he started shamelessly bossing the dogs around. “And every evening, I’d… sit with him.” Holding Anders’s head in his lap, his fingers on the mage’s face. Come back to me, he’d whispered. We’ll work this out. He didn’t know how he’d feel when Anders woke up, but he wanted to know. Who would be the man that would greet him? Would it be the one he’d fallen for in Kirkwall so many years ago? The angry apostate that destroyed a chantry? The broken man in a constant war with the spirit within him? The spirit that Hawke had fought with? “After a couple of weeks, he opened his eyes and looked at me. He said he was hungry, and…” Hawke paused dramatically. “That his ploy for cats had succeeded.”

Nearly spitting out his ale, Varric set his cup down onto the table, hard enough that someone at the neighboring table jumped and looked over at them. “No! No way, Hawke.” He started laughing. “No way. I don’t believe you.”

“Hey, you could ask him yourself if you… well. Ever talked to him.”

“I’d buy him a drink for that comeback.”

“Well, don’t get too excited.” Hawke winced. He wouldn’t be able to explain the rest of it, not to Varric, but he’d always remember. Anders’s eyes sparked blue, and Justice shifted into his place. He apologized to Hawke, who didn’t flinch, but just kept running his fingers over his cheeks. We’re going to have to work together, Hawke told him. For all of our sakes. Justice agreed. “We said a lot of apologies. Anders, me, and Justice.”

“Justice… apologized to you.”

Hawke nodded. “Yes. Then Anders preceded to eat his weight in broccoli.”

“Bullshit. He hates the stuff.”

“Apparently that changed.” Hawke shrugged. “He was still Anders, but… he was Justice, too. Not locked into a fight, but some kind of coexisting. And vegetarian.” Hawke winced.

“That’s… Hawke. You’ve got to be shitting me.” Hawke I know you’re shitting me. Vegetarian?

“I cannot tell a lie on this one, Varric.” It had been the least of the oddities that had followed. There had been a lot of fights in the meantime, trying to determine who had dominance when, how they managed to rebuild some sort of life. Hawke would never be able to explain out loud what it really meant to move forward from that moment, but he didn’t have to. That crossed the line of where no one else beyond Hawke, Anders, and Justice needed to know. It had been like falling in love with the man all over again, but now going into it knowing what he was in for… and accepting it, fully. He felt that he’d done Justice a great disservice by not recognizing the degree to which he had a relationship with them both. They had been merged so long that there was not one without the other. Hawke made the decision to love them both. He would never admit that to Varric. “But by their nature, they needed something to fight towards. Other than not eating cows, which we had to all compromise on.”

“Don’t tell me you’re a vegetarian, too?”

“Oh fuck no.” Hawke winced. “I’d do just about anything for him, but that compromise was that the rest of us kept eating meat, but make an honest effort to eat… some other stuff.” He made a face. “If I see another piece of spinach I might lose my mind, but…” Hawke shrugged. “It’s a small price to pay, in the big picture. They settled on helping the Wardens find a cure for the Taint. The Wardens have done a lot for mages that otherwise would have been made Tranquil, or killed.” It wasn’t always perfect, but time had taught him that Anders and Justice had the ability to learn who needed to be in the forefront when, and that Hawke had to trust them. They’d worked out a balance, the three of them. “They determined that coming home to the Wardens was a worthy cause.”

“And has there been any progress on that cure?”

“After a fashion. They’ve determined that there’s some tie to the Fade that’s gotten them closer to a solution, which has made Justice a valuable resource.” Hawke downed more of his second drink, wishing the ale would go to his head faster. “So, here we are. I learned to forgive. I had to fall in love with him all over again. We had a chance to have that without the pressure of Kirkwall.” He looked at Varric. “I don’t ask you to forgive him. He wouldn’t ask it of you, either. What happened there had to happen, somewhere, or the problem would get pushed under the rug over and over. For what it’s worth, he’s sorry it was Kirkwall.”

“Not as sorry as I am.”

“You don’t even have to give him a chance. I just need you to understand that things are very different now, and Kirkwall is very far away. We’ve spent some time traveling and healing, like he used to do with the clinic. He doesn’t ask for anything.” Hawke couldn’t bring himself to tell Varric that he’d come to the eventual conclusion that it wasn’t Justice or Anders that corrupted the other – it was that the injustices done to mages corrupted them both, combined with the impact of the Taint.

Varric sighed. “Fine. If I ever see him again, I won’t shoot him. Fair enough?”

“Good enough for me.” Hawke leaned back, content with that for now. “You asked if I could be happy. And Varric…” He took a deep breath and looked at his friend, who looked back at him and smiled. “The answer to that is that I can be, and I am. It’s the hardest thing to be away from him, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t sure I’d be coming back, and I feel like perhaps my work here isn’t done. I still feel as if-“

A commotion from near the entrance caused him to pause and look over, as his and Alistair’s mabari edged their way around tables to where he and Varric sat.

“Fang! Akeva! They’ll let anyone in here!” Hawke grinned as the two mabari made their way through the tavern, with the Inquisitor in tow. The dogs jumped up, one on each side of him, and started licking his face. “Hey now, hey, I just showered a couple of days ago. You’re getting slobber in my beard.” He didn’t push them away, though. Wrapping an arm around each dog, he pulled them into a hug.

Varric held up his mug. “Well, they let you in, Hawke! Inquisitor! Welcome!” He handed the mug to her. “I’ll get another one.”

He got up to get another drink, and Zaire sat down across from Hawke, pushing back her hood and taking a drink of the ale. “Can you explain why there’s two mabari roaming Skyhold?”

“Only two? Sounds like a slow night.” Hawke let go of the dogs and settled for scratching them behind their ears in turn. “This is my mabari, Fang,” he said, indicating the mabari Zaire had found outside of the tavern. “And this is Akeva. She’s… she was…” He picked up the second drink that had arrived and slammed a good portion of it, setting the mug down hard, then threw both arms around Akeva.

“Alistair’s.”

“It should have been me.” Hawke scratched behind Akeva’s ears more. “I’m sorry, girl. I tried to talk him out of that stupid shit but we both know how reasoning with him goes.”

Akeva whined softly and sat down, putting her head in Hawke’s lap.

“You seem awfully familiar with her,” Zaire observed.

“Living together in one keep will do that to you.” He dropped a hand onto Akeva’s back, running it over her fur. “I’m used to smelling like wet dog.”

“Oh, I’m sure Blondie loves that,” Varric added, bringing back two more ales and putting one in front of Hawke. He sat down next to Zaire.

“I’m not sure I follow.” Zaire wrapped her hands around the mug.

“Picture a bunch of Wardens and a pack of dogs. Now add me.” His hand stayed on Akeva’s back. Poor girl. I’m so sorry.

Fang crawled under the table to come up on the other side of Varric, sitting next to him. He reached a paw up and copied Varric’s stance, glancing sideways at him. “Are you mocking me?” Varric asked.

Tongue hanging out, Fang looked over at him and Hawke started laughing. “Good boy.” He looked over at Zaire on Varric’s other side. “Where did you pick up these louts?” He didn’t want to let himself get too much hope, but if they were here, it meant that Audra was also here, and possibly Anders. Although that, certainly, would have its own complications. He started to wonder if it meant that there was a chance that Alistair lived. If anyone could outdo a giant spider demon, it would be a man that survived an archdemon.

“I’m not sure.” The dwarf’s Marcher accent always surprised him. “I assumed one was Alistair’s. She… Akeva, you said?” Hawke nodded. “She found Blackwall and I, and looked sad about… well.” Zaire shrugged.

“Oh so you two are talking again?” Varric asked. “Good for you!”

Hawke chuckled, winking. “Maybe they weren’t talking, Varric.”

“Talking,” Zaire said firmly, sipping at her ale and looking at Hawke over the cup. “For now.”

Varric started laughing. “Will you stop talking to him, or will Dennett be back to wondering why the horses are-“

“Varric,” Zaire warned, shaking her head. “I think we’ve got bigger things going on than that. I’d like to get back to the question about roaming mabari in Skyhold.”

Hawke realized that he wasn’t entirely sure, either. “I was serious when I said I’d expect three. Fang, Akeva, Diablo are almost always together.”

“Diablo?” Zaire asked.

“Audra’s.”

The dwarf sighed. “Then that confirms what I think is happening. I just don’t know why.”

“We probably won’t figure it out waiting here.” Hawke pushed the rest of his drink towards Varric. “Think you can handle this for me?”

“Can I handle another drink?” Varric snorted. “When did you become such a lightweight?”

“If I had to guess, probably about the time I stumbled around in the woods for months.” Hawke tried to force a smile but didn’t entirely feel it. If Audra had come to Skyhold, something big was happening. And was Anders with her? He wanted to ask the dogs, but also didn’t want to tip Varric off if that were the case. He’d take him at his word that he wouldn’t make an issue of it, but there was a big space between talking about Anders and actually seeing Anders.

“Sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Varric asked.

“Let me figure out what the hell is happening, and I’ll let you know.” Zaire finished the ale and set the cup down, getting to her feet. “Well, then, let’s go work it out.”

Hawke lead the way out of the tavern, looking at her after they’d passed through the door and were into the open. “Are you worried she’ll be mad about Alistair?”

“Why wouldn’t she be mad? She asked me to look after him. And I cocked that up.”

“We can both own that, then.” He pulled his hood up over his head, although the rain had slowed to almost nothing. “That should have been me.”

“We can debate who should have been left behind, or we can get this over with.” She looked over at Hawke. “I think he’s alive, Hawke.”

“Coming here to mount a rescue would be more Audra’s style than anger,” Hawke commented. He didn’t add that a rescue effort changes everything, at least in regards to Anders. He couldn’t imagine a scenario where Audra came to rescue Alistair and didn’t bring Anders with her. However, Anders’s presence at Skyhold would be an issue for certain, and Hawke wasn’t ready to open that can of worms. “Let’s get to Audra. Ok, dogs, show us the money.”

“You said you expected one other dog?”

“Diablo. I assume he’s with Audra, but…” He paused, hearing shouting. “Something’s up.”

Zaire came to a stop and listened. “That doesn’t sound good.”

A dwarf scout came out of the darkness towards them and Zaire hailed her. “Harding, do you know what’s going on?”

Harding looked grim. “Inquisitor. One of the patrols just came back. Hit hard by Venatori. Five injured.” She winced. “Burns.”

“Damnit.” Zaire frowned. “We’re stretched too damn thin. I’ll put out a call for more supplies. Give them everything we’ve got.”

Hawke hoped against all hope that Anders wouldn’t come out of hiding if he were here…

On the other hand, he wouldn’t be the man that Hawke loved if he didn’t.

Over his shoulder, a voice said softly, “The hurt peels away like a burn, one becomes two or two become one… or are three now two? Blinded by the blue. Whole.”

Hawke swore and looked over his shoulder at Cole. “Cole, what did I say about sneaking up on me?” It happened frequently enough that Hawke had come to be used to it, especially as Cole always had something insightful to say that made Hawke miss Anders. Cole seemed to have an uncanny grasp of the situation.  

Cole stilled and peered at Hawke from under his hat. “The lyrium burned in them, they hurt us. We can’t be them. Be more.” He looked out towards the infirmary. “Spirit calls to spirit.” He looked back to Hawke. “We answer the call to fix the hurt.”

He’d had enough conversations with Cole to be able to parse that, and it didn’t bode well. He swore a couple of more times for good measure. Without a doubt, Anders and Justice were in Skyhold. “Take me there.”

Nodding, Cole started towards the infirmary. Zaire shook her head. “Hawke. I’m going to put this together as being a comment about being hurt by Templars. The implication is…”

“Yes. That’s exactly what he implied.” Something told him this was about to go horribly wrong. He set his mouth in a grim line as they followed Cole into the darkness.