He comes back six months later with a knife that's not his, in a car that's not his, with a veritable armament in his backseat. The Citadel is not as he remembers it—greener, already, grass spilling down over the mountain's sides, a soft moss creeping along the edges of the earth—but the shouts and whistles as he approaches are the same even if the paint is different. No white ghosts for them now, not anymore; blood instead, and red paint, vivid violent slashes across every nose he sees.
He cocks the shotgun in his lap. Fair enough.
They're not maddened, though, even as they pound fists on his hood and bellow meaningless phrases as he draws closer to the Citadel's heart. The chained platform hangs at half-mast now, spikes relocated to the outer walls, and he can't help rolling his head on his shoulders as he throws the beaten DeVille into park and cuts the engine. The tattoos pull a bit, as always, and the newer cut on his shoulder blade twinges as he straightens, but that's an easy thing to ignore when the crowd is parting around his car like sand opening at the edge of a pit.
He stretches again, steps out of the car, slams the door closed behind him. The shotgun's in easy view, as is the semi-auto pistol at his hip and his hair too white to be anyone else. The half-lives haven't lived long enough to go grey in decades.
"Hey," she says.
He turns, finger still on the trigger. The dust-browned DeVille is baking against his side. "A new arm, I see."
She flexes it, black gears and oversized fingers reaching nearly to her knee, a dozen serrated steel feathers lining the outer edge of the metalwork to just above her elbow. "Can't have a wing clipped forever. You know how it is."
He does, and the hard grin she gives him has him falling into step with her as they walk together towards the mesa. Water flows in a small, steady stream from the center of the three enormous pipes, become so constant to these people that no one gathers at the base of the spill in desperation.
He knew her when she was Hawke. They call her Champion, now.
There are children in the Citadel. Unpainted, undestroyed. One of them—a small girl, yellow-headed, with dark eyes—smiles at him as they pass.
It unsettles him, and the feeling only worsens when he realizes that they are clean. That everything is clean, the omnipresent dust of their wasteland somehow banished inside this mountain. A guard watches him with a flat, impersonal glare, his heavily scarred chest bare to reveal the iron fittings around his ribs and wrists, the nail-studded mace at his hip; even as clean as they are, he finds it a comfort. At least some things have not changed.
"Here," she says, and pulls aside a curtain to a hall he has never seen. A long table, flat steel benches thrown haphazardly beneath it, and many divots on the floor and table both from a full life of stomping cleats.
"You eat here?"
"When we can. What's left, Rain?"
He turns, startled, to find the slender redheaded woman he remembers from the near-doomed journey in the Rig. She is pale as his memory has it, even in the high-collared green dress she wears now instead of shredded linen, her hair still just as red, her mouth still just as bitter—eyes as familiar as—
He shakes his head sharply as she hands him a tin plate. Two lizards and something small and round and scarlet that he barely recognizes; he says: "What is this?"
"A tomato," the woman says, unsmiling. "Grown here, from our own seeds."
It is—wet. Or, not wet, but—juicy, and sweet, and it is more of a struggle than he expects not to devour the thing whole. It almost hurts to eat the lizards after that, and he finds himself annoyed at the smirk on the Champion's face as he sucks the last of the juice from his marked thumb.
He could stay, for another taste of something like that.
But they don't linger, and when he is finished she hands the plate to a silent man with a red streak across his nose, and she leads him upwards, inwards, to narrow guardless stairways carved from brown stone that spiral higher, and higher, and higher, until the stream's frothing mouth is below them and they are nearer the sky than the earth.
There's a room here, he realizes, small but sound and lightly furnished, with its walls open to two sides and a steady wind passing across their faces. She crosses, picks up a small ceramic ewer and its matching cup from a shelf on a steel tower, and pours him a glass of clear water.
He drains it in two swallows. She fills it again, and then a third time, and then when he wipes his mouth with the back of his gritty hand, she says, "I didn't think you were coming back."
"Neither did I."
She lifts an eyebrow. He holds her gaze, the blue as fierce as he remembers; then a sharp, strange cry yanks his attention to the open wall, and he throws one hand to the grip of the shotgun slung across his shoulders. Two seconds pass, then five, and he realizes she has not moved; instead she's watching him with a look on her face he can't put a name to.
She steps closer, the knotted tail of her hair whipping over her shoulder with the wind. "There are birds here now," she says.
"Birds," he repeats unnecessarily, his voice low, and follows her gaze to the far hill, where a handful of black streaks dart low into the waving grass and emerge again, shrieking, wild, their wings outstretched against the burning sky.
She takes the guns he brings, and restocks him with water and fuel, and three days later he is on the road again, heading south. He is gone for four months, and this time when he returns he brings both bullets and a brokered offer of parlay from the Marchers. They know his face now, these people she's claimed, and they cheer when he arrives.
The water is still flowing.
Days pass. Miles crawl beneath his wheels, the sun up and down and up again and the dust a living weight he carries in every crack in his skin. The old scars ache some days; others are better, when a gang of Vints catches up with the ghost they chase, and he can look them in the eyes and see the moment they realize they're dead men walking. He drives the edge of the salt flats, counts the hours between dusk and dawn. Sometimes he parks in the shadow of a dune and sleeps.
One trade route opens; then a second. He caravans with them a few times as guard and shield, silent escort to the green-feathered Dog Lords from the south with their meats, the eastern Crows in their hooked bird-skulls, and the strange islanders with their blood-soaked spears, grey and giant and silent unless given cause to kill.
He never stays at the Citadel long. Only enough to resupply, only enough to hear from the Champion's tall, sturdy captain-woman the newest troubles she faces. Sometimes he speaks to her directly; more and more often he does not, satisfied to find her at a distance, unharmed in a crowd of her people, her face alight and her winged arm lifted in challenge and rallying cry.
Over and over he tells himself: this is enough. No more. This is the last.
He comes back every time.
She's gone, Vallen says, after a Vint raiding party that attacked a small convoy of pilgrims two days ago. One of the men had made it to the Citadel with a dying woman in his arms, his feet bleeding, his words a doctor's; he'd told them all about the children taken from them in repurposed wagons, bars so tight across the sides not even their hands could have fit through.
She'd taken only a few with her: the doctor, a little man with a crossbow, Rain, The Bell. He remembers Rain, of course, and the last one too, a beautiful dark woman with gold eyes and a smile like a knife. He remembers her fingers, long and dextrous, flipping a razor blade sharp enough to cut bone. She'd laughed when Corypheus had died.
Vallen shakes her head, gestures at the Citadel behind her. Nothing to do but wait, she says. Nothing without proof of death.
She has been gone three weeks.
Eight days later, she returns. The roar of her people is immediate and unignorable; by the time he reaches the open wall of the high, solitary room atop the mesa the cavalcade is already stopped in the arena's center, her iron War Bird with its meter-long feathers the heart of the shouting. Her door opens; she leaps from the driver's seat and scrambles atop the smoking hood of the Bird, shouting something he cannot hear clearly from this height.
It is enough; he knows what she says regardless. The truck behind her unfolds like an opening ribcage, and from its heart step a dozen dirty children, cautious but not frightened. The man who must be the doctor is with them, shepherding them to the endless waterfall.
The Champion shouts again, winged arm thrust into the air. Her people echo the call in great rolling waves, and with every cry she lifts her hand higher, the sun glinting off the steel like fire.
"Vallen said you were here."
"You're wounded," he says without turning from where he leans against the wall at the room's edge. Just below his feet he can see the white spill of water jutting from the stone's face; beyond that sits the doctor at the base of the fall with his head leant back against the bare rock, made blue with the mountain's twilight shadow. The Bell leans over him, her black hair tousled and falling across her shoulders, heavy gold jewelry at her throat and wrists glinting in the oil lamplight as she gestures. The doctor shakes his head twice; she straightens, shrugs, and turns back again to the Citadel.
"You limped. And you favored your right side."
A soft noise as she attempts to cross her arms behind him; he turns in time to catch the full force of her glare. Her sleeveless vest is torn over her right side, the leather dark and stiff with old blood; bruises mark her arms, and one hand has been heavily splinted. Her face is clean enough, obviously rinsed in a hurry, but the heavy discolored scar across her nose is unchanged. Her eyes are still brilliant. "I said I'll live. The doctor patched me up."
He scoffs. "He should have kept it from happening."
"He's a healer, not a warrior. It's not his place."
Like a gunshot: "Yours."
He startles at that, his fists clenching, but she doesn't drop her gaze. He says, abrupt and angry, "I was not there."
"No, you weren't. That's how it works. You don't come, you don't get a say in what should have happened."
He stares; she lifts her chin, eyes blazing, and he finds that his fury cannot match it. There is a long silence broken only by the distant rush of water; then, at last, he says, "So allow me to see it."
Her eyes narrow, but when he steps closer she does not move away, and when he lifts his hands she lifts hers too, the bladed feathers pulling back, sheathing themselves in the steel bones of her arm, allowing him inside her guard. Her vest has four clasps over a long zipper; he is not a careful man, but he finds himself moving—slowly, more slowly than even care would dictate, as he works his way from her collarbone to her waist. The brown leather is hot and gritty from the sun, familiar as his own hands, and beneath it a tight black binding, and then…
Pale skin, paler than he had expected, enough to make the livid gash down her ribs more garish by comparison. The stitches are neat, even in the dimming blue light, even to his critical eye; more importantly the wound shows no sign of infection, its edges clean and well-tended. He cannot help the quick, relieved breath at the sight of it.
"As I said," she tells him, her voice low, close enough he can feel her jaw move over his cheek. "I'm fine."
He raises his fingers instead, washed clean in the wellspring of her home, and strokes them, once, along the skin's edge, just far enough away that he knows she will not be tender. Her breath catches; he strokes again, bolder, and curves his fingers along the bare dip of her waist where there is no wound to trap.
His voice, when he can bring himself to speak, is quiet. "The limp."
"A sprained ankle. Missed the wall I was jumping for."
He laughs. It's a rusty thing, startled out of him like the black ungainly birds that stalk her mountain, but it's true, and then Hawke moves, quick, and her temple is against his and her cheek, too, and her hand is hard around his arm and he realizes she is—leaning on him, allowing him to bear a share of her weight.
He closes his eyes against it, against more the falling dusk and the clouds splitting apart beneath the distant, untouched stars. He cannot bring himself to break this moment any more than she could have left the women behind that first morning; he is lost, here, as lost as he was then, and he can only hope she still knows the way.
They stand there a long time. Eventually he draws in a breath, and he says, "Next time."
She stirs, her hair loose against his throat. "Next time."
"I will be there. To stop—such things."
She snorts. "To have a say, more like."
He laughs again, less rough, and Hawke straightens, her eyes hard and glad and burning. He touches her shoulder, finds the divot where beaten steel meets flesh. "Hawke. I will go with you."
"I'll look forward to it, Fenris," she says, and behind her the birds lift in a wave from the green, rippling grass into the twilight sky, their wings beating an endless rush, like water.