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What Comes After

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If you’re going to have a veg patch out in the foothills surrounded by chunks of molten lava and rubble, you’ve got to do it properly. That’s El’s opinion, anyway, as he wades through mud in his newly-sewn boots to turn a patch of soil that’s apparently going to grow veggies.

Erik decides not to ask. There are weirder things to turn to after the world’s gone spectacularly insane and upturned your life. There are worse things to come out of it than carrots and potatoes.

El insists that he knows what he’s doing, but Erik isn’t so sure. He keeps his opinion to himself, only clucking his tongue a little when El tracks mud everywhere he walks.

The cottage that they live in - just for now, Erik keeps reminding himself, though it doesn’t do him any good when he sees their boots side by side at the door and their clothes hanging together over the chairs - is a bit of a mess. There are things that need fixing, and the land outside is ruined and littered with debris. Places hidden deep in the valleys are always full of old houses and ruined mills, something that Erik didn't really know until El explained it to him. Villages like Cobblestone started off with one or two runaways laying low in the mountains and hills, and ended in the sprawling tapestry of life because those peasants and runaways joined hands and built a little farm. Or something to that effect.

But that means there were all these bits and pieces of houses all over the place, and they were the perfect place for monsters to set up camp and strew fire everywhere.

“Quick question,” Erik says, when El brings back a handful of brown, stringy things and plops them on the table. “What the hell are they? And quick follow up question, are you expecting me to eat those?”

El snorts and flings one of the bedraggled carrots at him. It does not dissolve into a food fight, but only because Erik is far too mature for such things, and there isn’t enough food to throw about.

El explains that it’s only the beginning, and the weeks that follow are filled with more vegetables than Erik knows what to do with. But the problem is still the ground that El is trying to make grow things, because the fire and dark magic seeping into it from the ruins doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It turns every potato into a lump of rock and every parsnip into a ghostly bit of string.

“We could clear it,” Erik suggests.

El examines a map on the table, frowning. He’s circled every area that might need attention, and now the map is strewn with thick rings of charcoal. His hands are black with it too. It looks like he’s wearing gloves made of soot.

“We could,” Erik says, more insistently. “Jade’s supposed to drop by soon, so we can ask her for a few Guards, and maybe someone who knows a spell or two. If we clear away the last of the monster hideouts, and do some holy stuff, maybe that’ll, I don't know, cleanse it. Then you can grow whatever you want to grow, and we might actually be able to eat it.”

The look El aims at him is perfectly sharp and pointed, like a sword. But he doesn’t actually disagree.

Jade arrives with a small horde of soldiers on horseback the following week. She wraps El up tightly in a hug that lasts a long time, and tucks a lock of his hair behind his ear as she withdraws. Both of their eyes are filled with tears by the time they’re done murmuring to each other. Erik doesn’t get the same treatment, but he wouldn’t be comfortable with it anyway. She treats El like a younger brother, and Erik like a nuisance that she’s reluctantly fond of. That’s more than fine in his book. She smiles at Erik and brushes a hand through his hair, ruffling it, and he has to bat her away.

“Ready to go? The woman at the Church agreed to bless the water we had with us, so if we soak the ground around the monster hideouts, it should be enough to cleanse the earth.”

“So we’re watering the bad stuff, and hoping it doesn’t grow.” Erik hums. “Huh. Do we need a can?”

None of the soldiers so much as crack a smile, but El chuckles, so Erik counts it as a win.

There isn’t much to laugh about for the rest of the day. They spent it riding around the foothills and wiping out nests of monsters. By the end of it, Erik feels as though he’s inhaled so much purple ash that he’s going to be breathing embers tomorrow. The coals of his stomach grow warm when they rest for the evening, with El curled against his arm, conversing quietly with Jade.

They don't talk about this closeness that they’ve grown into, but Erik almost doesn’t want to. It might break the spell. It might shatter whatever they’re building, no matter how strong Erik thinks it is.

In the morning, there’s a freshness to the air that wasn’t there before. Plumes of smoke still feather the air in places, but there are no more guttering flames, no more screeches and squawks and roars from the ruins. They ride back as a group, and Jade leaves with a hug for both of them, travelling on to Cobblestone.

“You could go with them, if you like,” Erik says. “It’s only a day's ride with the way that lot move. Goddess, I’m sore.”

El laughs, but he doesn’t quite hide the flicker of insecurity that fills his eyes for a brief, heart-stopping moment.

“Not that I want you to go,” Erik adds, but the quickness of it makes it sound defensive, and El doesn’t respond. They get a little quiet after that, packing away their things and cleaning up to get ready for dinner. Through the window, the grass turns greener and greener as the water seeps through the ground. They’d used a vat of it, but holy water is powerful stuff. Erik expects he’ll see new trees and fruit in the coming days.

And he does, but that’s all he sees. There are no new vegetables in the garden, no shrubs or bushes or flowers. El doesn’t once put on his gardening gloves, and he doesn’t try and pull Erik into the garden to help him grow things. Erik always refused, before, citing a need to stay away from all the dirt and bugs, but now he’s beginning to think that was a mistake.

El wanders, instead. He reads and fixes a the mantle when it falls off, and he sits near the bed and walks around, listless and restless at the same time. It makes something in Erik crack to see him revert back to those first few days, and he finds himself grabbing hold of El one evening, giving him a bracing little shake.

“Okay, what’s got into you? We went out and cleaned up the land so you could keep building your garden, but now you haven’t so much as breathed near a shovel. What’s wrong, El?” Erik flounders for a second, while El trembles in his grip. “What can I do?”

And El breaks. He trembles harder and he talks. He talks. It’s the first time he’s talked properly since the world fell to ruin, and while it’s usually like pulling teeth to get him to admit something, the words stick in Erik’s ears long after they’ve both gone to bed.

I don't know what to do with myself. People expect me to keep being the Luminary, as if that didn't wreck my life and pull me away from the people I loved. As if it didn't take away the people I loved for good. Rab wants to rebuild Dundrasil, and I’m supposed to go back and watch a Kingdom grow and pretend like it doesn’t hurt to be in the place where I should have grown up. Mum wants me to come home, but it hurts there too, in that place, because it’s so different but they want me to be the same person. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do, so I’m growing awful carrots in the foothills with my best friend, and I’m sorry. I just wanted to see if I could grow something, rather than destroy it. I’m sorry.

The words are like birds, pecking at the soft center of his brain.

I can’t stop thinking that if I went back to Cobblestone, you’d be free. And I don't want to leave, but I don't want you to be stuck with me because you’re worried, or you feel like you have to. I don't want you to have to stay just because I’m too scared to go back out there and face the world. And there’s all this stuff inside me that doesn’t make any sense, and I don't know what to do about it, and I don't know how to fix anything, and I’m sorry.

El had cried out that he was sorry, and all Erik could do was look at him and ask why. Because El wasn’t a burden. He wasn’t keeping Erik somewhere that he didn't want to be. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was just trying to live after so long spent scrambling to survive.

Of course it was going to be hard. Erik had expected it sooner, he had expected more of this restless, listless, strange El; it had just thrown him off, the timing of it, after they had seemingly fixed the problem. But you don't get to pick the moment when the grief strikes, or when everything catches up to you. You just get to pick the moment when you deal with it.

And sometimes, you get to pick who helps you deal with it.

Erik gets out of the bed quietly and leaves El sleeping. His face isn’t peaceful or slack the way it used to be, at the very beginning of this. He doesn’t look young and carefree; he looks tired and too young for the lines around his eyes. Erik doesn’t like it. He wants to get El back to himself, but he’s faced with the fact that he doesn’t know quite what that is. Is it the boy from the cell, wild-eyed and frightened, or is it the boy from after, quiet and determined? Is it a boy that Erik never even knew? Or is it this boy right here, sad to the core and exhausted with the weight of his past?

No, Erik decides, then and there. It’s none of those things and all of them at once, but he won’t let that be the last of it. El has already changed so much - they all have, really, even if sometimes Erik feels just as small and foolish and scared as he always did, hiding behind bravado and whatever distance he could cultivate - but that doesn’t mean he can’t change again. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for him to grow.

Erik sweeps up a bag of leather scraps and the sewing kit near the fireplace and creeps out of the door.

He’s never been a homely person. That tends to happen when you’re an orphan with very little home to speak of, when you spent most of your childhood sleeping on a cold cave floor, and when even that gets ripped away unexpectedly. But he knows what he’s always pictured, when he thinks of a home.

He pictures warm stone walls and a roof that never leaks. He pictures cupboards brimming with food and a fire that never goes out. He pictures family and friends sitting together and standing together and laughing together, filling the rooms with noise.

He pictures a garden, a place where things can grow.

Erik sits on the front step for two hours, listening to the night sounds. He sews - badly, pricking his thumb more often than not - until the bag of scraps is almost empty and the needle is almost blunt. When he’s finished, dawn is breaking across the sky, and there are birds watching him from the trees. His head feels quieter, calmer.

And there’s a pair of thick, sturdy gardening gloves in his hands.

Erik spends the morning skirting around the edge of the issue. El doesn’t seem inclined to talk, slouching when he walks and rubbing his eyes as he eats his breakfast, picking at his bowl. Erik leaves him be after the fifth stilted attempt at conversation, and picks up the gloves on his way out of the door.

In the garden, Erik stops and takes stock of things. The cottage used to belong to a little man who knew a lot about horses, and so the garden has seen better days. The fences are all a little worn, but the stable is well-cared for. Most of the area is open and wild, but El has cleared a space to work. There are three rows of neatly-tilled earth, free of weeds, and a few shrunken, shrivelled roots poking out of each dug spot.

Erik slips on his gloves, picks up a shovel, and gets to wood.

The sun slides further and further across the sky. The door knocks open at one point, and Erik hears a noise, like a shaky gasp. El joins him after a while, shuffling across the ground in his boots. Erik keeps his head down, working away at a stubborn weed. It’s not until El kneels suddenly and abruptly in the dirt, like all the air has gone out of him, that Erik looks up with a start.

“Hi,” Erik says, “You look… sad, oh, hell, what did I do? Was this too much?”

He gestures with his new gloves at the garden, freshly tilled and re-planted with new bulbs. He’s marked out places for new flowerbeds, though he’s not even sure if El wants flowers, but screw it. Erik’s always liked lilies. He wouldn’t mind a blossom tree, like the one in Cobblestone either, but he doesn’t want to get too ahead of himself.

El shakes his head, wiping tiredly at his eyes, a small smile on his face.

“I thought we could make honey,” Erik suggests, dusting the dirt off his fingertips. “Faris owes us a fortune and about sixteen favours at this point, and there are these weird bee things in the desert, apparently. Might be able to get a hive or two. I thought they could go near the flowers, or over there.” He points at the cliff rising up not too far from them. “No reason why we can’t expand, right? Make it a real garden.”

Erik catches El’s eye and adds, a little softer than he means to, “A real home.”

El kisses him, there in the dirt. Erik brings his hands up, a soft sound startled out of him, before remembering the mud on his hands. He keeps them hovering in the air until El grasps his wrists and pulls him close, until they’re leaning more than kneeling, until Erik’s gloves skim the edge of his jaw and his cheeks and tangle in his hair. El kisses him like it means something, like everything is just beginning all over again, and it feels like taking a new leap of faith.

Erik closes his eyes, trusting El, and lets himself fall.