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What Comes After

Chapter Text

To think this all started months ago with a dragon, a daring escape and a leap of faith.

Erik remembers settling more comfortably in the creaky chair in the Church nestled in the Foothills of Heliodor, marvelling at the abrupt turn his life had taken. The Seer had warned him, told him what to look for, but half of him was extremely sceptical, and the rest was still back with his sister. It shouldn't have been a surprise, and yet it was. He had been in a dungeon, wiggling his fingers tauntingly and shooting aggravating smiles at the Guards that patrolled outside his grimy cell, itching for the moment when he could slither down the hole he’d been digging. Idly, he'd wondered how the heck he got in this mess. And then somehow he had found himself sat in what passed as a sickroom, watching the Luminary sleep, completely unbroken despite what should have been a plummet to the death.

Now he’s back in that same Church, watching the Luminary again, both of them burned out from saving the world, watching it fall, and saving it again.

Funny how these things turn out.

Erik tips forward in the pew, eyes fixed on the figure talking to the woman who runs the place. A friendly woman, in the habit of helping thieves and people down on their luck, a woman that Erik's gone to for help more than once before, and quietly deceived equally as many times. Not maliciously, just for safety, his and hers. Erik’s happy she survived the mess that followed their last interaction, although the Church is still battered and there are suspicious stains all over the mangled pews that he doesn't want to think about. He watches his friend instead, watches him inquire about a safe place to sleep for the night.

El still doesn’t look like much of a Luminary. He’s still tall and thin, with annoyingly nice hair that looks silky and smooth, something that more than one person has commented on during their travels, much to Erik’s amusement. He remembers thinking, back when he first found El, that there was no way this kid could be the one the Seer talked about. Even now, when Erik thinks of the Luminary, he thinks of battle-worn, rugged men with decadent armour strapped to every inch of skin. He thinks of a red star in the sky. He thinks of the Seer’s words and he feels his gut clench.

This guy had looked nothing like that. He looked like a kid, bright-eyed and determined, but wildly lost, even in sleep, like he was searching for so many things all at once and finding nothing but closed doors and more questions. Physically, there’s not much difference between then and now. If anything, he’s thinner, but then again, they all are. End of the world as everyone knows it doesn't put much food on the table, and it's only been twelve hours since the world began again.

"Oh yes, dear, there's a place not far from here. It was abandoned when I last looked," says the woman, a warble of sorrow in her voice. Her paper-thin skin is wrinkled and her eyes seem tired, but she stands stoic and steady, ready to aid anybody who comes knocking. El's shoulders drop with what might be relief at her words.

El told Erik his name, briefly, in the cells. It was something soft, something that belonged to the valleys and the mountains. Erik has called him El ever since, like the letter, short for Luminary. At first it was because if he thought about that soft name and those bright eyes, he was going to want to keep him safe. And yeah, that was sort of what he signed up to do when they sprinted through a dungeon with clattering Guards and dragon fire at their heels, and but still. It was the principle of the thing, and Erik hadn’t really wanted that. He had been looking for forgiveness, not another burden to bear.

Things really are different now, but El is still El. Erik has other names for him too - names like Favourite Little Leaf and Hero that make him pause and fluster and shoot Erik strange, patient looks that Erik doesn’t understand. Sylv heard him use one, once, and Erik will never live it down. He likes those names, but he always goes back to El.

He sits back again when El turns to face him, and Erik wonders how he could ever have doubted that this was the Luminary. It’s all in the eyes. There’s hope there, luminous. Even now, under the bone-deep exhaustion and the will for things to go back to how they were before, there’s a steady, reassuring determination to trudge along and see things through.

And they have. They’ve seen things through.

Which is why they’re here, in the Church, halfway between Cobblestone and Heliodor, halfway between where things began and where things began to go wrong.

“She says there’s a house nearby?” Erik asks when El joins him in the pew. He doesn’t sit down, and Erik suspects it’s because he’ll fall asleep if he does, just slump there against the dark, battered wood and close his eyes and fade for a bit. He just nods instead, fingers playing with the clasp on his bag, his mind a million miles away.

“Guess we better go and see if it's any good then,” Erik says. His knees crack when he stands. He’s not old enough to have cracking knees. He’s also not old enough to have battled a thousand monsters or have inadvertently turned his sister into gold, or be trailing a list of past crimes as long as The Emerald Coast, but there we are.

They find the house a little further down the road, on the way to the Manglegrove. Walking through the valleys only highlights how much everything’s changed since they started out. There was never much out here, or so Erik thinks, but now even the ruins are ruined. Molten rock simmers in some places, and he can see the threads of darkness that still have yet to fade. Monsters still flitter around, and Erik has to bash a few beasts in the head before they reach relative safety. They should be dead soon, if Rab's opinions and predictions are right.

It’s weird, walking with just El. He's used to having people at his back, chattering and casting aimless spells and generally getting on his nerves. Jade’s at the remains of Heliodor Castle, with Rab and Hendrik, waiting for the rest of the soldiers to lead King Carnelian home from The Last Bastion. Sylvando is escorting Serena back to Arboria via the Salty Stallion, where she can be with her parents before he goes home to see his Papi and his weeping parade - and wasn't that a weird story to be told. Erik’s heart clenches as he thinks of Veronica, and he bangs open the door to the house and stalks towards the fire to give himself something to do, something to distract himself from the pain of loss.

There’s a statue outside underneath a low-hanging branch and the air is warmer here, but not stiflingly so. It feels like a warm blanket, and Erik knows they’re safe from anything that might come a-calling. He still keeps his knives nearby though, as he stares around the hut. It must have belonged to someone because there are belongings littered here and there, but it’s dark and musty, and the bed hasn’t been slept in for a while, by the looks of things. Shattered pots line the walls and several bags are ripped open, and a few books sit crumpled on the shelf.

“Whoever was here, they aren’t here anymore.” Erik grimaces. “Poor sod. Hopefully, they just went off to visit some family members or something.”

El makes a non-committal sound behind him. It’s possible that El knew whoever lived here - he did grow up in these parts, after all. Erik sighs out a breath that feels far too heavy to be healthy, and a flick of a match that he finds in a box on the mantle gets the embers in the fireplace going. It helps, to have something to do with himself. If he stops, even for a second, he's going to have to think.

They need to go back to Cobblestone eventually. El knows this, Erik knows he does, but neither of them has mentioned anything about it since they left the Princess and the old man at Heliodor. There are people scattered all over the world that need seeing to, people they need to check up on, people they've met and want to make sure are okay. Mia is lying on a bed in Sniflheim, still healing, and Erik needs to be there, but at the same time, he needs to be here. Right now, though, he can’t get up the energy to do much more than slump in a nearby chair and watch El stand in the doorway, looking as lost as always.

There’s so much to do.

“We could go back to your home,” Erik suggests, as El shuts the door behind him. “I’m sure Amber will want to see you. Didn't you say she’d have a stew waiting for you? And there’s Gemma and Sandy. Cole will probably want to shout about your heroics.”

Erik knows a lot about El’s life. He knows it because he coaxed bits free during those first few weeks, when they stayed at campsites and watched the stars burn side by side, listening to the flames crackle and the distant wail of monsters. At first, it had been because of boredom and some idle curiosity: the Luminary was a thing of Legend, shrouded in mystery, and Erik wanted to know what he was dealing with. El wasn’t what he expected, though.

He didn't talk much, but when he did, his tales were heartfelt and warm. He spoke of a Grandfather, Chalky, whom everyone loved, and his adopted family, and the way his village huddled together to help each other grow. He weaved tales of their childish adventures, and he told him possibly everything there was to know about Gemma and his mother and Sandy, the dog that they’d rescued, told him enough that Erik began to feel a small seed of jealousy bloom in his chest.

All Erik had when he was growing up was Mia and Vikings, and sometimes the people of Sniflheim, who never cared enough to save them. He had back-breaking work and the terror of being responsible for his sister, and at the time it had been all he had known, and he had loved every minute of being with Mia, although he could have left the rest. And then the cursed relic had turned his sister to gold, Erik had turned his sister to gold, and then he had nobody. He had wandered around, settling in cities and stealing and searching desperately for answers. Listening to El, back then, tell stories of his life and the people he loved, just made Erik ache.

Once he got past that ache, there was another stage - Erik wanted to know everything because El was sort of special, even if you took away the Luminary aspect of him, and Erik felt strange roiling things deep inside every time he managed to wrangle a few words out of him. He wanted to know El, and now, he feels like he does. Maybe not all of him, but he's getting there.

El shakes his head, joining him at the table. He’s still weighed down with armour, and he clatters when he walks like a set of pots falling down some stairs. Erik finds his mouth twitching at the sound, and El must notice because he shoots Erik a wry look.

“All that can wait until morning if you want," Erik offers, lounging back in his chair. "Or later. Whenever. Just get changed out of that gear before I have to laugh in your face, and go and get some sleep.”

He moves to rifle through their bags while El bangs around in their background, shedding his armour and pulling on his old clothes, soft and worn. Erik is very determined not to look as El falls into the only bed, shifting far enough to the side so that there’s room for another person. Erik doesn't linger on what that might mean.

They’ve depleted most of their stock. They’ve got a few herbs left, a few healing bits and bobs, and enough spoils of war to knock out a Jargon with. He spreads everything edible out on the table and puts it into piles, waiting for familiar soft snores to fill the room. The place is still quiet when he’s put everything back into the bags, left the ingredients for broth out on the side, and kicked off his boots. The snores don't come.

Erik turns, rapping his knuckles against the back of the wooden chair as he sighs. El is lying on his back, staring listlessly at the ceiling. Erik wonders what he’s seeing. It could be anything: numerous battles, the ghosts of his family, his friends falling to pieces, the fall of Yggdrasil, or that final moment before the darkness disappeared, before Mordegan disappeared, when they weren’t sure that they were going to make it.

“You should be asleep,” Erik says. It’s fully dark outside now, and the only light comes from the glow of the fire. His voice comes out softer and quieter than he means it too.

El shrugs one shoulder, a little awkwardly since he’s lying down. His hair is all over the place, the pillow caught up under his head. He doesn’t look inclined to move into a more comfortable position, but he also doesn’t look like he wants to go to sleep, either. Erik sighs softly.

“Not tired?” Erik asks, strolling closer.

El shoots him a look so dry that Erik almost turns to sand, right there and then. He chuckles lowly, a bit rueful, and sits on the edge of the bed, turned in so that he can see El. The springs squeak beneath his added weight.

There’s room for him, but it’s a bit weird. They’ve slept near each other around campfires, and in Inns, but there was always space between them. Sylv called them lovebirds more than once, although usually only when Erik could hear, and he liked to get up first in the mornings, looking pointedly at the way they had gravitated toward each other in the night, and wink at Erik until Erik threatened to curse him. El never saw. He was either still asleep or burdened with thoughts of his past and his destiny to the point of being happily oblivious.

“I know it's probably hard right now, but you really need the rest,” Erik says, shuffling around until he’s closer than before. He had planned to pile some blankets on the floor and sleep there, but he can see quite clearly that he’s no longer following through with that.

“Whatever you’re thinking about, it can’t be fixed right now,” Erik adds when El remains silent, still staring listlessly up, fingers threaded loosely on top of his stomach. Erik stares at them, at the mark on the back of his hand that often glowed so sweetly.

Often, he wishes the Luminary had been someone else. He wishes someone else had been born with all of El’s bad luck, that someone else had lost a family and a village and been shoved into a world that wanted to hunt him rather than help him. And then he re-thinks his wish, because selfishly, if it was someone else, Erik wouldn’t have met El. He would have met someone else who had the mark of the Luminary, and he wouldn’t feel all these things for them, he’s sure. He feels these things, these indescribable things, for El, a boy from Cobblestone, and not the fabled Luminary, Prince of Dundrasil. He might be both things, but it’s not the title that sticks in Erik’s chest and makes him want to stay put.

“D’you reckon Sylv’s got them to Arboria yet?” Erik asks. He gives in to his decision to stay and hauls himself into the bed. El makes an alarmed little noise as the mattress shakes, and Erik bonks his head on El’s shoulder before shuffling back onto his side. El’s so surprised that he forgets to answer Erik’s question, so Erik muses aloud instead.

“I think they’re probably there, safe and sound, so that's two down. King Carnelian should have started to march home by now, which means Cobblestone should be empty of pig-headed Royal Heliodorians by morning.”

El snorts softly with laughter. He’s always found it amusing, the way Erik jumps to hold a grudge in his place. Erik will maintain that somebody has to feel the petty emotions that El seems incapable of feeling.

Erik holds his breath when El shifts closer, rolling his head onto Erik’s shoulder. His voice is remarkably calm when he answers El’s silent plea to keep talking.

“Rab and Jade will have to deal with the King and the rest of his loyal beasts. That’ll be a weird reunion, especially with Hendrik there. I wouldn’t want to sit in on that family dinner. Talk about awkward.”

A soft, sleepy sigh sends a flutter down Erik’s spine. Nobody would ever assume that he grew up with Vikings, he thinks to himself, faintly amused. Not if he gets flutters whenever a pretty boy breathes near him.

“I know we’ll see everyone again soon enough, but it’s weird. Sylv’s not going to let us forget about him, and I know Serena wanted to help wherever she could after she’s seen her family for a bit.” He swallows thickly, grateful that El doesn’t seem to be listening anymore, too drowsy to tell the difference between the words escaping him. “They must have missed her. I know I miss Mia. I’ll see her soon, though. Maybe she could come here. We have money, now, after all the fighting we've done, and we could settle down wherever we wanted. Get away from Sniflheim."

El is fully asleep, now. His soft snores fill the room, blending with the sound of chirping bugs outside. Erik thinks he can hear the sound of something scuttling off into the distance, repelled by the statue’s kindness.

It’s odd, to feel safe, after so long. Erik does, though, and he knows that it’s only partly due to the statue.

The rest of it he owes to this boy asleep on his shoulder. He's going to have a dead arm in the morning, but he doesn't care much. He tucks his head against El’s and moves to pull the quilt over them, staring up at the dusty ceiling. All the problems of the world can be fixed tomorrow, he thinks.

“Whatever happens, though. I’m not leaving you. None of us will, but especially me." He smiles slightly, closing his eyes. "You were stuck with me from the minute you started throwing pots around in that dungeon.”

Chapter Text

Stew bubbles on the stove, thick and packed with potatoes. Cobblestone is a little crooked from all the attacks, the houses still crumbling messes and the lands ruined and scorched, but the people here seem cheerful enough. Exhausted, but cheerful. Flags flutter through the window, flags with the symbols of both Heliodor and the Luminary stitched onto the thin fabric. Erik can hear children running and laughing further down the hill.

He leans against the brick wall and watches Amber bustling about in her kitchen. She keeps wiping her eyes and glancing behind her like she can’t believe it. The tearful reunions are over with, and Erik feels a little more comfortable than he did ten minutes ago, watching Amber cry and El quietly console her when there really wasn’t anything he could do.

El drums his fingers against the table, which is missing large chunks of wood, his gaze distant. There’s not much around, just a few shelves laden with some scavenged belongings, and a couple of chairs. Not much to look at, which means El’s looking at the past again, lost in his memories. Erik frowns. He’d thought that bringing El here a few mornings after they found the little house in the Foothills would bring him out of that distant place, but it seems to have shoved him headfirst into it instead.

“Stew smells delicious, Mrs Luminary,” Erik says, his voice too loud, tipping Amber a salute. She chuckles, her eyes flying to her son briefly before she fixes her warm, vaguely critical gaze on Erik. Erin’s used to people looking at him, because no matter how much he might try to stay invisible - being a thief and all - blue hair, a disregard for rules and a sarcastic personality don’t really scream ignore me.

“Thank you love, but you can call me Amber. Anyone who keeps my boy safe has a right to use my first name.”

Erik shrugs one shoulder, tunic slipping down a bit. “I think we kept each other safe, actually, but I won’t argue with a woman who clearly knows her way around a kitchen.”

Amber chuckles again, returning to her task with newly-rosy cheeks, and Erik takes advantage of the distraction to lean over, pressing his knuckles to El’s shoulder and digging in lightly to catch his attention.

“You okay?” he whispers. El gives a half-shrug sort of movement in return, nodding weakly. His eyes crinkle with a small smile though when Erik continues to watch him worriedly, and his expression seems a little less wooden as he listens to his mother explain what’s been going on in the village lately.

Most everyone survived the renewed attacks, they learn. The people that didn't make it have been properly buried in the graveyard near the Falls, and the funerals are done now, small quiet affairs. The tents just outside the main village are still up, full of healing warriors and villagers, but most people seem to be on the mend, and Erik is glad to hear it.

“We’ve mostly been focusing on repairs, now,” Amber says, as she brings out a few battered wooden bowls. “This place and the Church were the first to be fixed up, on account of people needing good food and a place to pray. I’ve been running my legs off tryin’ to feed a whole village, but I don't mind much. Gives me something to do. We’re all working on the other houses now, and then we’ll get the shops up and running again.”

Erik sits at the table just as a bowl is pushed towards him, steam rising off the hot, thick stew. The stool is a little rickety, so he slings one leg over to the side to keep his balance and knocks his thigh against El’s. El doesn’t move away, shuffles a little closer with another small smile, and he feels warm and present in a way that makes Erik clear his throat and look away.

“Thanks, Amber. It looks great.”

She dimples at him, her wide grin filling her face. Her hair is a bit all over the place, falling out of her hat, and her face shines as she hands them both spoons. She hasn’t seemed to notice the looks Erik keeps sending her son, so either he’s doing a good job at hiding them, or she’s particularly oblivious.

“You’re more than welcome, love. Dig in, both of you, while it’s still hot.”

Erik doesn’t need much encouragement. He’s never really been one for cooking, not because he can’t do it, but because there was never much opportunity. He mostly ate fruit he found in the wild and gorged himself whenever he found an Inn or a sympathetic Church. He ate scraps growing up, and he fended for himself when he left Sniflheim. He can make broth, like he has the past few days, but not much else. It’s hard to learn to cook when there’s never much around to cook with, or anyone to learn from.

This, though, is good food. It’s hot and full of flavour and it goes down a treat. Erik’s scraping his spoon against the bottom of the bowl before he knows it, listening to Amber chatter away.

El garbles something around a mouthful of stew that even Erik has trouble understanding, but Amber just hums as she ladles her own bowl full.

“Hmm, what’s that dear? Oh, the battlements. Yes, the King took those down before he left, so Cobblestone could stop being the Last Bastion and start being Cobblestone again. Most of those soldiers were right sweethearts, deep down, and they helped us get things up and running again, like they promised. They’re the only reason this place has a roof over it.”

El tips his head back a little, eyes thoughtful as he surveys the roof. He grew up here, Erik thinks, staring at the not-quite-right walls and the thatched roof. It must be odd to be back, when for a long time he thought he’d never be back at all. El saw the place when it was first ruined by Jasper and his men, and when it was changed into The Last Bastion, and now it’s on its way to being the same old Cobblestone, but Erik has a feeling that El will always look around and see the cracks left behind in what used to be home.

Erik can understand that, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be bringing El back every now and again regardless - at the very least to get him to eat a full meal, like he just did.

“Now, don't forget to see Gemma before you go running off again,” Amber says, as she gathers up their dishes. “I’ve got no doubts that you’ll want to be off having more adventures now, or fixing things up out there, but don't forget that your family is here. Gemma’s missed you, you know. She’s been helping the Healers, but she always visits me to ask if I’ve heard from you.”

Erik feels his mood sink just a tad. He’s heard about Gemma. From what he’s heard, she’s sweet and kind, and El’s best friend. He shouldn’t have a problem with her and he doesn’t, not really, but that doesn’t mean he wants to watch the two dance around each other the way the village seems to imply they will.

He grunts as he gets to his feet, El following him without hesitation.

“I’ll leave you to that, then,” Erik says, jerking a thumb at the door. “I might go and have a look at those Falls you mentioned, see if they’re as beautiful as you said.”

El looks thrown for a second, brow furrowing, like the idea of them not walking around together is inconceivable. He opens his mouth to say something, but Erik ducks outside with a wave and starts walking, heading for the base of the village. It’s a cowardly move, probably, but he doesn’t care, he tells himself firmly. There’s a twinge of guilt in his gut and a bit of an ache in his chest, but he makes sure to whistle extra cheerfully as he follows the worn paths winding their way between each crumbling stone home, dodging the burn marks still etched into the ground and nodding at passing folk.

Cobblestone Falls is loud and larger than life. He’s seen a lot of beautiful places over the years, especially in the last few months, but there’s beauty in the simplicity of this place. The Falls stretch up high and crash down again, filling a smooth lake fit to burst. A wooden walkway juts out into the lake, a prime spot for fishing. Erik finds himself at the end of it, one knee bent up to lean against and the other leg dipped in the water, trousers rolled up and socks and shoes discarded as the water soaks his skin. There are fish further out, and the sun feels warm and welcome against the back of his neck. He hums as he thinks, gently disturbing the water.

He wonders if El wants to stay here in Cobblestone. That must have been the endgame, mustn’t it? Fix the world, and come home. Yeah, things are strange and unfamiliar at the moment, but maybe when he gets used to the way things have changed, he’ll want to stay here to help it get back to normal.

Erik has to leave at some point, to get Mia, but that doesn’t mean he has to stay gone. He doesn’t think he could even if he wanted to. Even if being here was painful, watching El build a house and a family with someone that… someone that wasn’t him, Erik doesn’t think he could stay gone.

Even if it meant watching El and Gemma get together, or fall in love, or build their own home in this little village, Erik thinks, with a begrudging little grunt.

He reckons he’ll always come back to El. Hopefully El will always want him to. Erik blinks at the ripples in the water and frowns, because he hasn’t really thought about what he’d do if El didn’t want him to come back.

A hand lands lightly on his shoulder, where his tunic has slipped again, startling him slightly. Fingertips are soft against his sun-warmed skin, a thumb smoothing a pathway along his shoulder as El sits beside him.

“That took less time than I thought it would,” Erik said, quirking an eyebrow at El. “Couldn’t find her?”

El crosses his legs underneath him and sighs, watching the water. His cheeks are a little pink. Erik follows his gaze to a clear patch in the lake, where a school of fish are more visible, dancing in the sunlight.

“I’m sure she’s around here somewhere,” Erik says, trying to aim for comforting and missing by a mile.

“I am,” Gemma says, from just behind them. Erik startles slightly, splashing water everywhere when his leg jerks.

“He found me alright,” Gemma adds, when Erik just cranes his neck to look at her. She doesn’t seem interested in sitting down, just sort-of smiles all mysteriously, glancing between the two of them. “He says you’ll be off soon, and that you’re going to live out in the Foothills. If you need help tryin' to make things grow out there, just come and get me. We used to have a veg patch round my house."

Erik blinks up at her. "What?"

"It’ll be nice, I reckon but bring him back in one piece every now and again, won’t you? Just so we can make sure he's still alive, and hasn't run off to do more world-saving.”

“Uh, yeah,” Erik says, slightly stunned. It’s not often that he’s speechless. "Sure."

Gemma dimples at him - Christ, is everyone in this town born out of pure sunshine, or something? - and then says a quick goodbye before dashing off, back to the tents full of healing soldiers. Erik thinks he can see a blond blur, a dog with a fluffed up tail, waiting for Gemma further up the bank.

Erik pulls his leg out of the water slowly, wiggling his wet toes in the sunlight. El stays quiet, his own legs drawn up so that his chin rests on his knees.

“She’s not what I expected,” Erik says, after a beat. El snorts eloquently. “I take it she gets that a lot.”

They watch the fish dart about in their schools, learning the paths through the water. He feels oddly light in his chest. El keeps glancing at him furtively, like he’s waiting for Erik to speak. His cheeks are even pinker than before.

Erik waits until he starts to fidget before he says, light as anything, “Oh, and by the way, if we’re going to live out in the Foothills, you’re going to have to start washing the dishes. You might be my favourite little leaf, but I’m not picking up after you, and glowing birthmarks don’t give you a free pass on cleaning.”

El, rather demonstrably, shoves Erik in the shoulder with his glowing birthmark-covered hand, and Erik tips his head back and laughs into the sunlight.

Chapter Text

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.