She aches – that’s the word for it, Hawke decides. It’s a constant thing, and she can’t seem to pinpoint just where it hurts the most, or if the hurt is even a physical thing, but it doesn’t really matter. She has no way to heal either sort.
Victory tastes more like bile than anything else, and she doesn’t know how she’s managed it, but then Hawke has done a great many inexplicable things, and she’s long since stopped questioning how they come about. The demon lies slain some ways off, and before her vision swims a world of green shadows and spirits that laugh and howl their grief for herears to hear, because there’s no one else present to listen. They take on shapes she knows – her family’s old cat slinking at the corner of her vision, across her broken leg on a spirit’s unnaturally quick paws. She thinks she sees Barlin, and a Chantry sister from her childhood, who had caught her using magic behind the farmhouse but never told a soul.
Her mother kneels by her side, and Bethany sings her a lullaby that has Hawke laughing until tears streak across her dirt-stained cheeks. It hurts when she laughs and when she breathes and she doesn’t know if she’s awake or dreaming but can you dream when already in the Fade? Hawke doesn’t know, she only knows the ache and her father’s voice, or is it Carver’s? It’s so hard to tell, and so hard to bear, but she can’t tell if the weight on her chest is due to her broken ribs or her own grief.
She doesn’t see Fenris, and for this she is so, so grateful, because the spirits might be of her own conjuring, but she’ll take this little gift as a sign that his is not a face to be found among her dead.
Speaking of death. “I think I might be dying,” she tells the silence, because she doubts the spirits can hear her, and she has to say this now because she never got around to writing that letter, even if Varric had offered to send it for her so many times. “And that’s not an exaggeration this time.” She tries to smile, but her humour is as lost on the spirits as it is on anyone else, and Hawke is left with her own hollow laughter.
“You’d be so angry if you knew,” she continues, and tries to imagine his frown but fails. Instead she tries one of his rare smiles, finds it in a memory of a sunlit day months ago when her worries were less and her hurts bearable, and when she breathes the ache lessens, if only a little. She doesn’t know if he’s smiling now, wherever he is. She doubts it.
“I’m sorry,” she says then. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come back.” She’d imagined once that her greatest regret would be her inability to clean up her own mess – that she would die leaving the world at Corypheus’ mercy. But in a nightmare realm there is no waking from Hawke finds the only regret in her heart is not having had the chance to say goodbye. I am so sorry, Fenris.
There are footsteps at the edge of her hearing then, and Hawke turns her head. Frowns. The legs that meet her eyes look too tangible for a spirit’s.
“Well,” says a familiar voice. “What have we here? A bird caught in a spider’s net. Or is it the other way around?”
“You,” Hawke croaks, as the witch kneels with more grace than her years ought to allow.
Flemeth guffaws. “You sound surprised.”
At any other time her answer would have been a quick thing, off her tongue with her next heartbeat, but now her tongue feels thick in her mouth, and Hawke can only stare, wondering if she’s somehow conjured this, too. But imaginary or not, “There’s a first time for everything, I suppose,” she manages hoarsely.
The old woman laughs – a cackling trill that almost sounds affectionate. “Ah, there was a reason I liked you. I remember now.”
“What are you doing here?” Hawke asks, a little too brusquely for what is usually her way, but there’s hope kindling in her breast that won’t allow for wit, or even simple civility.
The witch doesn’t answer. Instead there’s something pressed into her hand, and Hawke blinks, shaking fingers closing around the soft scrap of fabric. She doesn’t need to see it to know it, and her voice trembles when she asks, “Where did you get this?”
She’s awarded a droll look. “From two elves demanding I fetch you back. The little one was polite enough, but I’ve seen better manners in the Wilds than what the tall one displayed.” She smirks. “He said it would help, if you needed persuading. Far be it for me to question the gestures of lovers.”
Hope leaps like a wild thing now, and Hawke can barely breathe. “What?”
Flemeth only looks amused. “Time moves differently here, girl. You have been gone longer than you think.”
It’s such a simple utterance, and Hawke tries to wrap her mind around the words, but – fails. There are too many thoughts in her mind. Merrill and Fenris? There’s a sob in her throat, thick and heavy, but not one of grief, this time.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” she asks, for she is nothing if not obstinate. The hand gripping the ribbon is trembling, and she feels overwhelmed, to the point where she finds she doesn’t care if the witch is lying; if she’s another demon clad in a familiar form. Whatever awaits, it must be preferable to a slow death between the visitations of her heart’s many losses, surely.
Flemeth snorts. “Take it from an old woman, and don’t put your faith in truth.”
“No?” She tries to smile, but her mirth slips between her fingers. “What would you suggest I put my faith in, then? I hear the Maker is rather busy these days.”
A raised brow. “You could try an old woman.”
“And is that what you are? Just an old woman?” Hawke remembers a dragon, wings spread wide against a blue sky, and a roar that echoed in the mountains.
Flemeth laughs. “Oh, never just.”
It’s a lot to hinge her trust on, but her options are scarce, and Hawke aches. And she has made stranger deals than this, she knows. She thinks of Merrill. Of Fenris. The ribbon curls between her fingers, deceptively soft, red like her life’s blood still leaping with her pulse. For a little while longer, at least. Perhaps just long enough.
“Alright,” Hawke says then, and wonders what manner of deal she has struck now. One far more binding than the safekeeping of an amulet, but she finds herself willing to make it, regardless. “I was getting rather tired of this scenery, anyway. It gets terribly dull.”
The witch barks a laugh. “A wise decision, if there was ever such a thing.” There are hands below Hawke’s back then, and her vision tilts until she can’t tell up from down. The Fade is a blur of green, but the hands that carry her are solid, blessedly so, and Hawke feels, inexplicably, like weeping. How long has she been here, she wonders. How long with only her ghosts for company? She doesn’t dare ask.
“Why did you go through the trouble of finding me?” she asks instead. “It seems an awful lot of effort, for an old woman.” She cannot help herself, near delirious now with her hurts and the hope beating with frantic wings behind her broken ribs.
“I told you something once,” Flemeth says. “Have you forgotten?”
Hawke frowns, but finds through the haze an old memory — When the time comes for your regrets, remember me.
“You foresaw this.”
Flemeth does not correct her. “I have seen a great many things, girl. Thrones stolen. Broken. Countries laid to waste. And glimmers of light in the darkness. Those who fix the things that are broken. Worlds and torn skies.”
The movement makes her dizzy, but Hawke manages to find her words, somehow. “Is that why you’ve come, then? To bring me back so I can fix things?” She doesn’t know why she sounds bitter.
There’s a chuckle. “So suspicious, I could swear it was my daughter speaking.” Hawke does not know how to respond to that, but the witch does not appear inclined to wait for a reply. “An old woman is allowed her foolish fancies,” she says. “A lad comes to me with a red ribbon, and I am intrigued. I foresaw many things, but not that. And when you see as much as I, it is what you don’t see that is truly worth seeing.”
“Good grief,” Hawke groans. “I got half of that, I think.” But her fingers tighten around the ribbon, and she pictures Fenris, livid as life, proffering it to a dragon. And I’m the one with the harebrained ideas, am I? She wants to laugh, but she’s too tired, and as her eyes slip shut it’s to a darkness free of spirits. And with the witch’s steps her aches and pains become ghosts, and Hawke leaves them behind with the rest.
Flemeth hums. “You’ll find that sometimes, half is all one needs.” There’s a lull, before she adds, “Unless it’s stockings.” She sighs, an old sound that follows Hawke into unconsciousness.
“Stockings should always come in pairs.”