The words swam like fish in a white sea.
“Give me something,” Erik said. “It can be anything, I don't care what it is. Just give me something to do.”
Eleven peered at him across the table. His hair was pulled back at the side and clipped there with a small, bronze flower. There was a smudge on his nose that might’ve been ink or might’ve been dirt, or might’ve been despair at how long this was taking. Erik was certainly feeling the despair; he wondered if his entire face was smudged, or if it was all in his eyes.
“We still have to get through another six scrolls,” Eleven said. “But I might need a break too -”
“I don't care,” Erik said, cutting across him before buttoning his mouth shut. “I mean, I care that you need a break, that’s not what I’m saying.” Eleven’s eyebrows took a swift hike upwards in amusement, but he carried on. “I don't care about the six scrolls. Honestly, if I see the word ‘decree’ one more time I’m going to set something on fire, and we’re in a very flammable place right now. There’s a reason I never became a lawyer, El.”
“Is it because you’re usually on the other side of the law?”
“That too. Let me tell you, I miss the other side of the law right now. It looks very shiny and appealing.”
Eleven shook his head indulgently, and stretched his arms over his head. There was an audible crack that echoed in the great hall; the Guard stationed nearby winced.
“I want to finish this scroll before I lose my place—”
“And the will to live.”
“—But you go ahead and get some air.” Eleven spread the scroll out over the table and yawned widely, showing all his teeth. “I’ll meet you for dinner, if you like?”
Erik leapt out of his chair and rounded the table, ruffling Eleven’s hair when he was near enough. The clip came loose in his hand, and he laughed at the noise Eleven made, whirling around in his seat.
“Finders keepers,” Erik said, backing towards the door with a victorious grin. “Dinner sounds great. You’re cooking.”
The castle staff would cook, which was precisely why Eleven rolled his eyes and tucked his hair behind his ear, but it was something they said.
“Go and bother some other jewelry,” Eleven said. “You’re a fiend.”
But he was grinning as he turned back to his scrolls, so Erik didn't take any offence. He did take the clip though, rubbing his thumb along the delicate metal work as he walked the halls, whistling lightly through his teeth. He snagged a couple of apples from one of the bowls sitting out on little trinket tables. Castles, he had discovered, were another world altogether. He’d known that, obviously. He had snuck into balls and dark chambers when he and Derk sleuthed their way through Erdrea, but there was a difference between breaking into somewhere and having the key to the Prince of Dundrasil’s fancy, gold-filled boudoir.
Erik pocketed one apple and bit into the other, relishing the harsh snap of waxy red skin. It tasted sour on his tongue, and he hummed as he rounded the corner, only to choke as he slammed straight into a wall.
“Erik,” said the wall stiffly. “May I offer any assistance?”
“Hendrik,” Erik choked out. “Not unless you know how to get half an apple out of my throat. Gimme a sec.”
Hendrik remained where he was, rigid and unmoving as he watched Erik battle with his own windpipe. One eyebrow twitched when Erik let out a hacking cough. When Erik could stand again, he wiped his mouth and regarded the rest of his apple with distrust, before offering Hendrik a sarcastic salute.
“Sorry ‘bout that.”
“I apologise for not being more aware of my surroundings,” Hendrik said. “Allow me to escort you somewhere, as part of my apology.”
Erik rolled his eyes.
“Were you headed for somewhere in particular?” Hendrik pressed.
And there it was. The pushing, niggling reminder that Erik was a thief and Hendrik didn't trust him. The subtle prod at the fact that he didn't belong here. Every time they bumped into each other, every time they crossed gazes, Erik was unkindly reminded of the truth of it all: This wasn’t his place.
“Just needed a break,” Erik said, trying not to grind his teeth. “We’ve been reading scrolls all day, but my eyes are falling out of my ears. El said to come and get him when dinner was ready.”
“Ah, well, I can manage that, I’m sure, if you had some place better to be. And I can still escort you.”
It wasn’t that they didn't get along, it was that they got along so much better when Eleven was there to act as a buffer. Erik didn't like doing it, because the fact of the matter was, Hendrik had spent most of the time that they’d known each other chasing Eleven down. Calling him Darkspawn, tracking him across Erdrea with a ruthless, tireless energy, and fighting him at every given opportunity. You didn't have to be a scholar to see why Erik didn't get on with the guy.
“What, afraid I’m gonna nick the first shiny thing I see?” The bronze hair clip seemed to burn through his tunic, searing his skin, but Erik remained stoic. “This might come as news to you, but I don't have to steal stuff. It’s a hobby, not a curse. Your precious little ornaments are safe from my grubby fingers.”
Hendrik seemed to get even more rigid, though how that was possible, he didn't know. “You say you never needed to steal, and yet you did. That says more about you than it does my assumptions.”
Scoffing, Erik moved around him and set off down the hall. He didn't know where he was going. All he had wanted was a break from the muggy lamplight and the endless reams of ink and parchment, but now he found the chandeliers and polished floors oppressive. He almost turned around. Better to be bored in Eleven’s company than listless without him.
A pair of heavy,warriors boots fell into step beside him.
“You said that you were without a destination,” Hendrik said. “I was gathering a small crew to head out to the Manglegrove. We received word of something treacherous at work in the trees, and the Princess requested that I investigate.”
“A beast, perhaps, or a person without morals. Something or someone that keeps the soldiers from returning to Heliodor.”
Erik chuckled, but there was very little humour in it. People went missing from Downtown Heliodor all the time, but nobody bothered to look for them. But he didn't say that. Eleven might not have been right there, but his disapproval was a weighty thing, and Erik could picture his soft, questioning eyes, his small disappointment whenever they fought.
“You find it funny?” Hendrik’s voice grew chilly.
“Not at all,” Erik said. “Were you inviting me along?”
Hendrik didn't pause in his stride, but Erik could feel his stare on the side of his face. He tipped an eyebrow in Hendrik’s direction, slowing down just to see if he would slow too. He didn't. He kept walking, past Erik, and towards the main stairs.
“Meet us by the doors in ten minutes, if you have nothing better to do.”
Hendrik’s cloak swished around the doors, and then he was gone. Erik stood with his hands in his pockets, touching the cool edge of metal briefly, before he sighed.
“Well, El did say to get some fresh air.”
“Huh,” Erik said, as the bud dipped gently in his direction. “Looks kinda like the old Frostfire plants near home. Hey, Jade. Ever seen a plant like this?”
They were deep in the Manglegrove, and they had left their horses behind to trudge through the thick shrubs and sludge. It wasn’t a horde of soldiers that were accompanying Hendrik to find the mysterious beast, as they’d thought; instead, Jade had slapped them both on the shoulders when they arrived in the Entrance Hall, and told them to get a move on. Jade and Hendrik had overtaken him easily, their back-and-forth impossible to ignore, their feelings painfully obvious.
“Oi,” Erik said, when Jade didn't quite hear him, too busy watching Hendrik argue with some vines in the distance. “It’s like being with Eleven when he’s spotted someone in distress. C’mon, stop gawking and answer me.”
Jade finished biting into the crisp skin of her apple - stolen from Erik’s pocket - and turned at his question. Her dark hair was tied up differently today, swept away from her eyes. It left her expression in plain sight; Erik had a perfect view of the way her eyes widened in disbelief, before her mouth turned down in dismay.
“Erik, don't touch that - !”
But it was far too late.
The bud opened. Petals that should have only been an inch long unfurled like wings, arcing through the sky. They reminded him of waves. He thought of the ocean as he staggered back; a surprised shout fell from his lips, as the bud reared up. The petals were a dark shade of night.
“Princess, step back!”
It was Hendrik, charging out of the bushes and slicing at overreaching vines with his sword. Erik cursed as a petal reached for him, grasping at his wrist. It smoothed along his skin until the veins in his wrist turned an aching, deep blue. No matter how much he twisted and tugged, the petals wouldn’t come loose.
“What is this?” Erik snapped, tugging fruitlessly at his shackles.
Jade rushed towards him, only to be grabbed by Hendrik; they reached him at the same time, both of them skidding to a stop in the mud.
“Princess, you mustn't get too close,” Hendrik insisted. “We don't know what kind of flower that is.”
“We do, actually,” Jade said, freeing her arm from his grip. She turned to Erik then, a strange kind of intensity in her eyes. “Listen, Erik. That’s a Somnus flower. It isn’t deadly, but it is dangerous. I need you to keep incredibly still while I find the root, okay?”
Erik swallowed thickly. The entire stem had grown several more inches in the time she’d been speaking, and now the flower hovered over him like an Elysium bird, intent on turning him to charcoal. It was swaying again, but this time the motion seemed incredibly hypnotic, rather than harmless.
“I can keep still.”
Jade nodded sharply. “Good. Hendrik, move quietly, but quickly. Look for a vine closer to the ground, the same colour as the petals. Cutting it will immobilize the plant, and we can dig up the root.”
“Fine.” Hendrik sheathed his sword carefully, slowly. “So long as you keep your distance, Princess.”
The concern and the eye-rolling would have been worth making fun of, really, if Erik hadn’t been in mortal danger. The petals felt like gloves against his skin, like velvet-soft hands holding him tightly. He didn't pull on them, but it was a close thing.
“Just pretend that you’re in a nice cell, chained to the ground,” Erik muttered to himself. “It’s been a long day of thieving, you got sloppy, and some tin-head with ideas above his station slapped you in shackles. That’s it. That’s all. No murderous flowers, just Hendrik and his chains.”
Jade chuckled from where she kneeled near the flower. “Now, that sounds like an evening I could get behind.”
“Please, Jade, I’m suffering enough here.”
Hendrik made an irritable sound, and then his hair came into view behind the thick stem, followed by his red cheeks. Erik had never seen him look so flustered before, not even when Eleven brought up his reading-genre preferences in front of the party. Jade shot him a look from below, and winked.
Alright, so they were kinda good together. Cute, power-couple, and all that. That didn't make Erik feel any better about being ensnared by a flower.
“So, not that the flirting isn’t really fun to watch, or anything, but I don't suppose you’ve spotted that vine, have you? Only I’d like to get out of here at some point.”
“Shut up, Erik - oh. I think I’ve found it.”
Jade leaned forward, reaching for a small dagger concealed in her skirt, and Erik held his breath. There was a soft snick of metal, and then a rough, sawing sound.
“Damn, it’s tougher than I -”
The flower reared up again, and Jade fell back with a shout, clutching her wrist. The dagger fell to the floor as the stem twisted and writhed.
Hendrik barreled forward, but a petal snagged him by the boot, and he fell forward. Erik wrenched at his wrists and gulped back another shout, his pulse pounding in his throat, but his veins turned as dark as the vast, unsearchable sea.
The petals swarmed him.
In life, we see things, and we ask questions. Our eye finds a plant or an ant or a mountain, and it asks, ‘Where?’ We stumble upon a piece of inexplicably beautiful physics and we ask, ‘How?’ When we look up at the stars we make stories out of them, and then we pass the stories on and on and on until one day, children, everywhere, are looking up too, and asking, ‘Why? Why do we make stories out of stars?’
But in a dream, we do not question why the stars are full of stories. We are too busy building the sky.
Erik heard the voice through a haze of cotton. He felt swamped by the stuff, as though someone went to the trouble of wrapping him up warmly in a hundred thick layers before sending him off to sleep. He cracked an eye open and glared at an oak beam stretching across his vision. Dust drifted down from the creases in the ceiling. Even his tongue felt thick and fuzzy, like cotton, like he’d been sleeping for a long time.
“It’s not like him to sleep in this late, though. I’m going to wake him.”
Too late, buddy. Erik yawned and forced himself into a sitting position, his shirt falling down over his shoulder. The bedroom was familiar in a distant sort of way, like how most Churches felt the same to him. There was that feeling, once the doors creaked open and the scent of dust and candle wax filled your lungs, that Erik always got in a Church, no matter which one it was. No matter whether he had been there before. It was something about the sound that filled such a hollow, vast space that sent his heart reeling and made his mind quiet.
Erik wasn’t even sure he believed in what people pray for there. But the feeling was real enough.
The door to the bedroom swung open as he pushed back the sheets. It didn't feel odd to look up and see Eleven standing there, but his heart stopped in his chest anyway. There was something different about this. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
“Rise and shine,” Eleven said, his eyes sparkling.
“It’s too early to use a man’s own words against him.”
Eleven laughed, leaning against the door-frame. “It’s past noon. Mum was too kind to wake you, but you missed breakfast. And I’m not kind.”
That didn't seem right. Eleven was the kindest person - you didn't get to be the … the…
Erik blinked, and Eleven was there, pressing the pad of his thumb against Erik’s bottom lip. His eyes were soft and questioning.
“Huh,” Erik said. “This is your bed?”
Eleven frowned. “It’s our bed, idiot. Did you hit your head in the night, or is this a punishment for being home later than usual?”
That’s right. This was the bed they shared in Cobblestone, in Eleven’s childhood home, where Amber was letting them sleep while their own house was being built. And Eleven had gone to Heliodor to … to do something important. Erik frowned. To … fetch something?
“I promise I didn't mean to be gone so long,” Eleven said quietly.
He scratched his collarbone absently. Eleven’s eyes followed the movement.
“It’s okay,” Erik said, mouth curving up into a smile that felt a little wooden. Maybe he really had hit his head in the night. “I’ll forgive you, if you make me breakfast.”
“It’s closer to dinnertime.” But Eleven was laughing, and he brushed his thumb along Erik’s jaw before he pulled back, reaching for his hand. “Come on, I’ll see what I can find. But tomorrow, you’re cooking.”
If Erik paid too much attention, he knew something was wrong. The grass was a different shade of green, too bright and vivid. The sky boasted only the whitest, puffiest clouds. There was a river running through Cobblestone, and it shone with a pearlescent shimmer. In fact, when Erik crouched suddenly and dragged his fingers through the water, he touched sand and came away with a palm full of dripping, gleaming pearls.
“That’s lucky,” Eleven said, laughing. He leaned down and plucked a pearl out of Erik’s loose grip, holding it up to the light. He pocketed it, and pulled Erik up by the elbow, adding, “Not the prettiest thing I’ve seen all day, though.”
Erik let the pearls fall back into the river, where they buried themselves in the sand like little anchors of wisdom.
Cobblestone was wrong. It was too bright and too quiet. There were people all around that stopped them to say hello, but their faces were indistinct. Their edges were blurred. Eleven swung a small boy around by his hands, laughing, but when he said the boy’s name, it turned to buzzing in Erik’s ears.
There was something wrong, and Erik was trying his damndest to ignore it.
“You’ve been weird lately,” Eleven said, leading him over the stone bridge by the hand. His fingers were warm and firm, curled around him like they belonged there - and they weren’t the hand-holding type, Erik thought, but he let it happen.
“I’ve been weird?” Erik said. “You’re the one who’s suddenly gotten all touchy-feely. I know I’m handsome, but you can’t seem to keep your hands off me.”
“Are you complaining?”
That stumped him. Erik opened his mouth a few times, but nothing came out. Eleven chuckled and pulled him close, dancing him over the crest of the bridge while Erik muttered furiously about people watching them, and his toes being stepped on, and there was no music, what were they doing…
“You worry too much,” Eleven said, and pressed a kiss to Erik’s cheek.
They tripped together onto the path, and Eleven held his hand again as they wandered through the fields. The kiss burned. It wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong either - it couldn’t be, not when it was Eleven that was kissing him.
“Tell me something about you,” Erik said. “Something I don't already know.”
They were at the sink in Amber’s house. Amber wasn’t there - she had pinched his cheek when she left that morning, and although she was a little clearer than everyone else in Cobblestone, there was still something wavy about her face. Something that spoke of the truth.
Eleven tilted his head, listening as he peeled the skin of a potato away in one long, slow, curl.
“I just feel like we know plenty about each other, but not the usual stuff, you know. I know you favour your right side when you fight, and you won’t eat broth because that’s all we ate when we were camping, and I know you’re allergic to Hammerhood fur. I know plenty of Luminary stuff, and fugitive Eleven stuff, but none of the tiny country El stuff.”
A potato joined the others in a pot of cold water, and Eleven turned properly to look at him, chuckling fondly. He laughed a lot lately. It wasn’t unwelcome, but it was strange to see.
“I was never tiny, so get that straight,” Eleven corrected him. “I have always been, and will always be, a mountain of a man. Colossal, in all senses.”
“You are a stick, and I could snap you in half,” Erik said, prodding him with the blunt end of the knife.
“Is that a promise?”
God, that was too much. Erik ducked his head with a cough and went back to peeling, and when he glanced up, Eleven was watching him with so much fondness that it made his heart race. It didn't matter, he decided then and there. It didn't matter that the world was slightly wrong and the colours were off and the water was full of pearls. If Eleven kept looking at him like that, then Erik would learn to love this new world.
“C’mon, your mum will be back soon, and I’m not doing all the work.” Erik pushed another potato across the chopping board, into Eleven’s waiting hands. “Peel this, and stop looking at me.”
Eleven took the potato, but he didn't stop looking at Erik like that at all. After dinner, he followed Erik into the bedroom and made fun of the way he stumbled trying to get his shoes off. They fell into bed, legs intertwined, and Erik couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t slept yet. He woke up and Eleven was teasing him for being awake, and then it seemed like days had passed, and then—
“Are you okay?” Eleven asked, yawning. He reached up to run his hands through Erik’s hair, soothing away stress as he coaxed a few tangles free. He had nice hands, and the pressure was just right, and whenever he reached the roots he would tug just a little, enough to make Erik melt into the pillows.
“Yeah,” Erik said breathlessly. “M’fine.”
Eleven chuckled sleepily.
He was being stupid, Erik realised. Of course they’d slept, you couldn’t go for days without sleeping, without even realising that you hadn’t slept. It was one big blur because Eleven was there, that was all. He was busy being in love, and dancing on bridges. It was fine.
“Did you sleep well?” Eleven said, and - and Erik’s heart sunk slowly.
Erik swallowed. The light through the windows was different. The room was a little chilly, as though they hadn’t stirred in a while. Eleven still had a hand in his hair, and it had only been a few seconds since he chuckled with so much sleep in his voice, but he looked bright-eyed and awake. He was asking Erik how he slept. And Erik didn't know, because he was so, so sure that it shouldn’t be morning yet.
“Hey,” Eleven said, soft and concerned.
“Yeah,” Erik croaked. “I slept fine.”
“Huh,” Erik said, propping himself on his elbows. “Think it’s worth checking out?”
Nothing had happened, not for - ages. A while. However long it had been since the last time something happened. They had always been the first to step out into an adventure, but Eleven was still strangely reluctant to rise. Erik stuck close to him, trying to coax away his bad mood, and Eleven laced their fingers together while they walked towards the hill. There was almost a sense of urgency to his touch.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Erik said, nudging him slightly. “Just someone who got lost, or a Slime that’s crept in through a hole in the fence or something. You know they like meadows, and they’re slippery bastards. I reckon we can take one or two.”
Eleven smiled at him, but he seemed unsure.
“Seriously,” Erik said, almost amused by how nervous Eleven was, “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry -”
But he stopped dead in his tracks at the top of the hill, and ate his words one by one, bite by bite. Because it wasn’t a lost person, or a curious monster, and it wasn’t nothing to worry about. It was Hendrik, sitting astride a grey-ish horse, staring at them with something of a winded expression.
The people crowded around him dispersed, muttering. One minute they were there, and then they were gone, drifting back down the hill like smoke. Hendrik gripped the reigns as Erik yanked Eleven over to him, and he seemed to come to some conclusion when Erik said, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I see that you are still your usual charming self,” Hendrik said, smoothly dismounting and brushing off his armour. It was as shiny and oily as ever. His hair was the usual flowery purple, and his eyebrows were severe, and not a single thing about him was blurred or hard to see.
The horse jerked, before disappearing. It was such a jarring thing to see, a sudden crack of what must have been magic, that Erik found himself backing up a step.
“Was that even a real horse?” Erik demanded.
“I’m inclined to think not.” Hendrik fisted his hands at his sides. “Are you well?”
Erik blinked at him. “Oh, yeah. Brilliant. Wanna tell me what’s going on, or what the hell you’re doing here?”
“I thought it was plain. I came here to find you.”
The words did nothing to settle his nerves. If anything, Erik felt more jittery, like they were on the cusp of something huge and unfriendly. Eleven stared between them, almost bewildered. He wasn’t letting go of Erik’s hand, but that was okay, because Erik didn't particularly want him to let go.
“Hendrik,” Eleven said, in his usual soft tones. “What’s going on?”
Hendrik looked long and hard at Eleven. He scanned him, from the tips of his worn leather boots, to the roots of his silky, wind-ruffled hair. Then he sighed, and gave Erik a very knowing look.
“I suppose Sylvando was correct then. You have both been dating.”
Erik gaped at him.
“Well, of course we have,” Eleven said cheerily, linking their arms together. “We told you, didn't we? I thought we told you.”
It was like watching chalk be swept off a board. Hendrik’s gaze went blank, and then it seemed to flicker. Hendrik fought with himself, gritting his teeth and fisting his hands until the knuckles went white, and eventually he pried his own mouth open.
“You may have, but the real you did not,” Hendrik managed to get out. “But this accursed dream world wants nothing more than to have me believe it.”
As soon as the words left his lips, the air grew cold. The sky, which had been the same ocean blue since Erik first looked up, bloomed with a sudden darkness.
“Hendrik,” Eleven said cautiously, reaching out his free hand. “You’re not making any sense.”
But the truth was, Hendrik was making a lot of sense. An awful lot of sense that Erik didn't want to examine, didn't want to listen to, didn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole, if he was honest. He had been trying so hard not to think about it, not to poke at the tender part that he was sure would turn into a bleeding wound soon enough. He didn't want Hendrik to make sense, but he did.
“You must know by now, Erik,” Hendrik said. “It is not an easy thing to come to terms with, but I implore you to try. Do you remember the flower?”
The flower. The flower that had been a bud at first - and then petals - and Jade was there, warning him to keep still - dangerous but not deadly - the vine - the flower -
Erik opened his eyes. He couldn’t remember closing them, but Eleven was speaking softly and urgently in his ear, willing him to stay calm. His breath was coming uncomfortably fast, and there was a vice-like grip around his chest. Like a piece of rope, or a vine, squeezing him tightly. And standing there - bold as brass, with only the smallest bit of regret on his face - was Hendrik.
“Things were going fine,” Erik snapped suddenly. “Things were going fine, and then you had to - you just - God. Fuck.”
Hendrik said nothing.
“Erik,” Eleven said. “You have to talk to me. What’s going on? What does he mean?”
Erik ran a hand through his hair. “This is a dream, isn’t it.”
Above them, the grey turned to black. It was night like they had never seen it before. Thousands of swirling stars filled the sky, endless stories woven into the canopy. It was a dizzying array of silver and gold and twilight. Hendrik inclined his head very slightly.
“It is trying to keep you here,” Hendrik said. “I have never encountered the flower before, but Jade called it a Somnus flower. When you disturbed it, I imagine it sent us to sleep, and now we appear to be trapped in our dreams.”
Erik shot him a dirty look for the reminder that this was, technically, all his fault. He didn't really want to think about that.
Warm fingers clutched at his chin and pulled it sideways, and Erik stifled a surprised yelp when he found himself looking into Eleven’s vaguely pissed-off eyes. It wasn’t the same fiery look as when Erik got himself hurt, or in danger, but it was close enough.
“Erik,” Eleven said, enunciating slowly. “Explain to me what the hell is going on.”
His hands felt real. The look in his eyes felt real. There was no way that this person in front of him wasn’t real, and yet Erik knew, on some level, that this was all a dream. An alluring, soft dream that he wanted to sink into.
“Hendrik’s right,” Erik said, swallowing around the thickness in his throat. “This isn’t real. It’s all a dream. You’re just a dream.”
A tense silence filled the air. Eleven’s eyes went wide, and his grip grew suddenly lax. He blinked a few times, like he was trying to free himself from some kind of haze, and for the first time, Erik saw his edges waver. Like ripples in a pond.
“When I left Heliodor, it crumbled behind me,” Hendrik said, gesturing towards the path. “You will need to leave Cobblestone.”
Eleven’s grip suddenly grew tighter again. He pushed close and pressed kisses to Erik’s cheek, to the ridge of his jaw, and his breath was a shuddering thing against his skin. It was as heart-wrenching as it was damning. Eleven wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have held on and asked Erik to stay, because he was so used to doing the hard thing, the good thing, the painful thing, and it was seemingly impossible to break him of his habit.
It was a dream, for sure, but that didn't mean this didn't hurt.
“Erik,” Hendrik urged, sounding uncomfortable.
“Give me a minute,” Erik said tersely.
“We don't know how long it’s been. We might not have a minute.”
Erik was ready to spit fire, but then Eleven let go. He let go of Erik’s collar and stepped back, his hands flat at his side. There was a familiar look on his face, one that said: go on, I’ll do what I have to. Erik hated it. It was his Luminary look, the expression put there by destiny and fate and the weight of the world. It was his ‘I want this more than anything, but for someone else’s sake, I’ll put it aside’ look.
“Go,” Eleven said.
Stunned, Erik raised a hand to his face, to his jaw, where Eleven had whispered don't go.
“If it’s a dream, then there’s another me in the real world, right?” Eleven said, and though his form was shifting like water again, there was something so rigid about his voice. Like he believed it, like he had dredged the words up from some real, earthly place. “I like to think we’re the same people, all connected, even in our dreams. I don't know what this is, but Erik--” and here his face twisted, as the dream took hold of him once more, before he fought it back. “Don't let it win.”
Cobblestone shivered. The grass at his feet turned to ask, slowly and silently. There was no noise, no deafening roar or rumble as the ground caved away. Erik didn't yell. He kept his eyes fixed on Eleven while Hendrik grabbed his arm, and as they were falling, he heard Eleven shout, “I’ll see you on the other side.”
There was an emptiness inside him that he didn't like.
“That was a rough ride,” Erik said, his voice breathier than he would have liked. “Eleven? El, are you here?”
He knew the answer already, but he had to ask. He had to see, to know for sure that he was all alone down here in the dark, that he had left Eleven behind. Even if it was just a dream, it didn't sit right with him. At the end there, he had seemed so real. He had seemed like the Eleven that Erik knew and loved, the real one, not the dreamy, clingy version that… that he loved too.
Doubt shot through him, and Erik had to force his vision not to blur. He wasn’t going to cry, not down here. But he couldn’t help but hear Eleven’s voice in his head, so desperate and determined at the same time: I’ll see you on the other side!
Erik shuddered, clamping his lips shut. He wasn’t going to cry, but that didn't change the truth: dream or not, no version of Eleven should have to be alone.
From somewhere in the distance, there came a pained groan. Erik’s heart leapt to his throat, and he jerked to his feet. It was still too dark to see properly, but he took off running anyway, only to slam into a rocky wall. He cursed as he fell back, clutching his side, and glared around at the darkness.
Fuck, that was going to bruise.
“El!” Erik shouted. “Is that you?”
His voice echoed, tapering off into whispers that were larger than life. It sounded like a thousand ghosts had crammed themselves into this dark space, murmuring El’s name in his ear. He took a staggering step backwards, his boot landing in a patch of wetness.
“Is this a cave?” Erik asked, turning slowly on his heel. It had the cramped feel of a cave, but he couldn’t see how far up it went. His footsteps made more little wet sounds as he walked on the slick floor. Another groan in the distance pushed him forward, until he was ducking under a low ridge of rock, and into a wider part of the cave.
He slid to a stop. “Oh.”
Hendrik leaned against the cave wall. He drew his knees up when Erik appeared, and his tense look faded to something resembling relief, though he was still wary. Erik dropped his shoulders, casting one last look around the cave before giving in. His back hit the cave wall and he slid down to sit reluctantly beside Hendrik.
“You’re not hurt, are you? You were making enough noise for three.”
He felt Hendrik glance at him, but he kept his eyes resolutely forward.
“Falling was simply part of the dream. The transition into the next part, I imagine.”
“Yeah, that didn't actually answer my question, big guy.”
“I am unharmed.”
Erik rubbed his side and leaned back, exhausted. “Great. Can we even get hurt in dreams? Will it hurt us on the outside?” He didn't like to think of Jade watching over them in the Manglegrove, seeing bruises grow on their skin. Or maybe she’d found a way to get them home by now, and they were lying in a bed in the castle, growing thinner and weaker while everyone watched. While El watched.
“You admit that this is a dream, then,” Hendrik said. “It took me far longer to come to terms with it. I spent a long time wishing that it was real.”
“What exactly are you implying?” Erik shot him a glare. “What, you think I care less than you? That I didn't want all of that to be real?”
Hendrik sighed deeply, and the walls sighed back. The sound was so unexpected and vast that they both fell silent, waiting for the noise to fade. Then Hendrik said, quietly, “It was not my intention to accuse you of feeling less. I knew, as soon as I saw you standing there with Eleven, that you felt very strongly indeed.”
“You said we were dating, but we’re not. Not in… not in the real world.”
Hendrik nodded. The silence was oppressive in the worst way, closing in on all sides like a crowd of menacing people, but Erik turned his mind to other things. He thought of the way Hendrik only had to glance at them to know how Erik felt, and it warmed him and chilled him at the same time.
“How did you know?”
Hendrik shifted uncertainly. “Know that?”
“Don't play dumb.” Erik’s cheeks flared red, but he pushed past the embarassment. “How did you know how I felt? How did you know he was keeping me from realising it was a dream?”
“I passed many people on the journey from Heliodor to Cobblestone,” Hendrik said, after a beat. “They called out to me, pleaded for my help, reached out their hands. Some were battling monsters, some were monstrous themselves, but all of them wanted me to return to Heliodor. They had some business there, they said. It was the only way to save them. And I could see none of their faces. They were almost… foggy, as though infected with bad weather. Even in Heliodor, the only bright, clear person there was--”
Hendrik cut himself off abruptly, but Erik wasn’t feeling very kind.
“Jade,” Erik said. “It was Jade, right? She was clear and bright and shiny because you love her, and that’s how you knew I love Eleven, because he was just as bright and shiny. You rode all the way there rip me away from him, and now we’re in this… place. Where are we, anyway? You seem to be an expert on all this dream stuff.”
He got to his feet, brushing off his trousers roughly. Hendrik remained on the ground, hunched over in a way that didn't suit him. Erik felt guilt smudge at the vindictive parts of him, but he didn't apologise. Couldn’t. Not when there was this raw, gutted sensation in his stomach. He kept thinking of Eleven and how clear it was that Erik loved him - so clear that even the most oblivious, stubborn Knight could see it at a glance. He wondered if Eleven knew. He wondered how long he had known.
“You said the Somnus flower was probably keeping us asleep, right,” Erik said, when Hendrik kept quiet. “So, what, it’s… feeding off us? Is that what happened to the others? And - hang on.” Erik turned sharply on his heel and stared at Hendrik. “How the hell did you get here?”
“I told you, I rode from Heliodor--”
“No, not that, not - I don't mean how did you get to me inside the dream, I mean, how were you in the dream at all? The flower grabbed me, not you.” Erik crossed his arms over his chest. “What, did you trip or something?”
Hendrik levelled his usual stern look at the spot over Erik’s shoulder, but even with all this gloom, his cheeks were hot enough to cook an egg on. Erik’s mouth dropped open, and he let his arms fall to his sides.
“I did not trip,” Hendrik said snippily. “I simply attempted to reach the Princess, as she was injured, and the vines attached themselves to my ankle.”
“You ate dirt,” Erik said, with a slow grin.
Hendrik pulled himself upright, and he was abruptly reminded of how much space Hendrik took up. It was like Angri-La and one of the Watcher’s islands had popped out a snooty sprog, and sent him toddling off to irritate Erik. There was no possible, earthly way that he came about those shoulders naturally, but Erik stood his ground.
“The flower released spores that sent us to sleep, as far as I can gather. I imagine our closeness at the time lead to us sharing this dreamspace. The Princess was likely sensible enough to evade the attack, and will have reported the incident.”
“Ha, yeah. She’ll have sliced that flower up into tiny pieces and served it for dinner.”
Hendrik’s face melted with fondness, evident in the slight lowering of his eyebrows. Erik tried not to show his disgust.
“If she knew about the flower, then hopefully she’ll know of a way out of this mess.” Erik squared his shoulders. “So what do we do? Keep walking until we find some sunlight? Because I don't know about you, big guy, but I don't fancy sitting around in this much forever, waiting to be rescued.”
As if the cave had been waiting for it, a sliver of light broke the gloom, slanting down from above. It was a light so clean and bright that it seemed to cut the darkness in two, cleaving through it. Fresh air coursed through the rocks, carrying with it the scent of earth and dew and a clean, flowery scent that made Erik think of quiet meadows filled with starlings. He tipped his head back and caught his breath. He heard laughter - two different laughs, one that he had missed so much and one that he had only just left behind, and both of them grabbed at his heart and twisted.
“Mia,” Erik breathed. “El.”
The light grew wider, throwing the harsh, jagged edges of the cave into view. Without the darkness, the cave seemed like nothing more than a hole in the ground, something he could step out of without a second thought. There was even a thick rope hanging from the light, the ends barely brushing the damp floor.
Erik found himself moving forwards, and it was only when his hands brushed the rope that he realised it wasn’t a rope at all.
It was a thick, black vine.
“Fuck,” Erik said, wrenching himself away. The vine grew darker the further he got, and the shadows peeled away from the cave with a kind of menacing intent. He caught sight of Hendrik walking past him, his heavy boots thunking with every step, and reached out to grab him by the arm. He wasn’t stupid enough to think he could hold Hendrik by pure strength alone, but he needed him to focus for long enough to pull himself out of it.
There was a dreamy, clouded quality to Hendrik’s eyes. He focused on Erik when he wheeled in front of him, placing his back to the vine with some unease.
“Hey, none of that. I’m sure you want nothin’ more than to show off your insane upper body strength, but how about we stay away from any vines?”
“Vines?” Hendrik blinked swiftly, peering down at Erik. “There are no…”
His eyes caught on the rope behind Erik, still illuminated by a shaft of light, and he grew stiff. The light shrunk enough that the space behind Hendrik’s monstrously massive shoulders seemed unusually thick with darkness. Almost like it went… further down. Erik squinted.
“Ah is right,” Erik said. “I don't know what you’re hearing, but I think it’s the flower again. It wants us to go back to the nice part of the dream.”
Hendrik shifted, and Erik belatedly realised he was still holding onto him, trying to block him with his body. He let his hands drop and jerked his head at the dark space, waiting for Hendrik to turn.
“It seems as though we have two options,” Hendrik mused. “Back to the safety of the light, in the very deepest part of the dream, or further into the darkness, and away from the flower’s grasp. An upturned ladder.”
“You should write that down. Very soulful.”
Hendrik shot him a dirty look, familiar in its intensity. It was the most reassuring thing Erik had seen in a while, and he relaxed, letting out a chuckle. The laughter from above faded into nothing, and the light went with it. But the shadowy part of the cave was impossible to miss now, and he stepped towards it with intent.
Something grasped his wrist, and he jerked, expecting to see a vine wrapped around him, only to heave a sigh when he saw it was Hendrik.
“My apologies,” Hendrik said, bowing his head slightly as he dropped his hand. “I simply wanted to say something.”
“You couldn’t warn me first? Clear your throat, maybe?”
“I’ll endeavour to remember that. Erik, our spirits are deep in this dreamspace, entwined.”
Erik pulled a face. “Do me a favour, and don't say it like that. Can’t you just say we got attacked by some plant and now we’re stuck here together? You always have to make things so dramatic.”
Hendrik looked at him askance, and said, “I’m dramatic?”
“Glad we agree. What point were you trying to make anyway?”
“Only that it seems unlikely we will be able to leave each other, now that we have found each other. But the purpose of the dreams seem to be to keep us here, so that the flower may feed on our sleeping state, and the light will keep calling us back. It may show us many things.”
Erik put one hand on his hip, head cocked in impatience. “Your point, big guy.”
“We will most likely see things that we do not want to share with the other. Pieces of the past, and fragments of our innermost thoughts. To make the light, deepest part of the dream more tempting, I expect they will be unpleasant pieces and fragments. Twisted memories, and the like. If there is some way to make it bearable, then I implore you to tell me now, before the flower sees fit to take the choice from us.”
Erik’s past was a shaky business. After everything that had happened, after the World Tree fell and they defeated the Lord of Shadows, after Veronica died and they turned away from the lure of time, it felt like there was nothing of his past left unaired. The party had been privy to most of it - they knew about Mia, about his life with the Vikings, and they knew about the year he spent wandering, searching for forgiveness. There was very little that he hadn’t already shared.
And yet the idea of seeing it with Hendrik, of letting him see one sliver of Erik’s soul, burned him to the core.
“I don't hate you,” Erik said, apropos of nothing, watching Hendrik grow tall and unsure, his jaw tight. “I really don't. But I sure as hell don't like you, either, and I don't like that everyone’s so buddy-buddy with you. If I had to guess, I’d say you felt the same way. There’s nothing we can do about all this plant memory shit, but if I did have a choice, you’d be very far down on the list of people I’d let inside my brain. So let’s just agree not to talk about whatever we see, and find a way out of this place, okay?”
Silence filled the cave. Not even the drip-drip-drip of the water could break it, distant as it was. It wasn’t comfortable, and Erik felt the old smudging of guilt again, but he didn't take the words back. He was cold, his side was starting to throb, and he wanted to see Eleven. He didn't want to stand in a dark cave with a man that he couldn’t bring himself to forgive, let alone trust.
“Agreed,” Hendrik murmured.
If he was hurt by Erik’s speech, he didn't show it. The silence lingered for a moment before Hendrik took the lead, gesturing towards the dark space before marching towards it. They had no weapons, Erik realised, as his hand drifted automatically to his belt, but hopefully they wouldn’t need them.
Hopefully Erik would open his eyes soon, and the dark would fade when it met the light of the Luminary.
The candle juddered in its brass holder. Bits of wax hit the scroll Eleven was leafing through, and he looked up as Jade marched through the door that had just slammed open. She stormed towards him, fiercely intent, and he found himself on his feet immediately, the scroll curling up in his absence.
“Your hand,” Eleven said, reaching for her bandaged wrist, but she grabbed his arm before he could touch her. He made a small noise as she dragged him across the Library, and he took in the sharp line of her mouth, the dirt on her clothes, and wisely didn't ask any questions.
Not until he saw Serena, at least.
“You’re supposed to be in Arboria,” Eleven said. “Did you get tired of teaching the next generation how to cast Heal?”
Serena laughed, but it was at odds with her worried expression. She reached out with gentle hands and disentangled Jade’s fierce grip, while Eleven rubbed his forearm. Jade didn't seem to see them. She stood in the corridor that lead to the West Wing, lost in thought.
“There’s been a bit of an incident,” Serena said. “Jade called for me before she had even left the Manglegrove, and I managed to find someone who was quite handy with Zoom. But I’m afraid this might be a bit beyond me.”
Eleven frowned. “The Manglegrove?”
That jerked Jade out of her trance. Her wide eyes found Eleven’s, and he placed a careful hand on her shoulder, trying to coax her into speaking.
“Sorry,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I know this shouldn’t shake me, not after everything we’ve been through, but I was finally starting to let my guard down. Maybe that’s why… ”
But Eleven refused to listen to ‘maybe’s’ or ‘what if’s.’ He pulled Jade forward by the shoulder and hugged her tightly, not caring about the dirt on her clothes or the way the Guards were watching. She muffled a surprised noise against his shoulder, and fell into the hug.
“I’m not sure how much you know, but I’ll simply start from the beginning,” Serena said, cheerily. “Like I said, Jade called for me, and I arrived at the Manglegrove to find her with two unconscious companions. Apparently, they set out a few hours ago to track down a beast that was making soldiers from Heliodor disappear on patrol.”
“It wasn’t a beast,” Jade said, pulling away and wiping her eyes. “It was a flower, a Somnus flower. I knew of them, but I had never seen one, not until Erik pointed it out.”
Eleven felt the floor drop away. The walls spun, and the exquisite carpet kicked him in the soles of his feet, and some of it must have shown in his face because Serena made a soft, worried noise. He sucked in a harsh breath and stared at Jade, not quite understanding.
“Erik was with you?”
There was no response to the threat, no challenging glint reflected in Erik’s stormy eyes. The hand under Eleven’s didn't move. Erik lay very still on top of the covers, one leg sprawled a bit too close to the edge of the four-poster bed.
“I’ll help, if you like,” Jade said. “I know for a fact that he gets very distracted by legs, so you strip, and I’ll hit him with a stick.”
Eleven put his head in his hands and laughed. It was a distressed, somewhat hysterical laugh, but it broke the solemn film that had coated the air. The room felt stifled and far too quiet without Erik making his usual sarcastic comments.
Jade held his shoulder tightly. “Listen, I’m sorry about before. For some reason I thought Erik might’ve told you where he went, but that doesn’t mean I… I could have been more careful when I told you. I think I might have been in shock, but that’s no excuse.”
Eleven shook his head. It was a perfectly good excuse, and a good explanation too. Hendrik was lying in the other bed; someone had taken his armour off and carefully hung it in the wardrobe, and his boots lay at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t the first time Eleven had seen him like that, having spent a fair while snoring in his presence at campsites, and waking up with mouthfuls of purple hair, but he had never once seen that slack, peaceful expression on Hendrik’s face.
It was no wonder that Jade was so shaken up.
“It’s strange that they’re both so quiet,” Jade said. “People say that Hendrik is stoic and almost voiceless, and it’s true that he keeps to himself at times. But he has an undeniable presence, and he’s never been afraid to speak his mind.”
Eleven snorted into his hands. “Anyone who says Hendrik is a quiet man has clearly never been chased halfway around the world by him.”
Lightly, Jade tugged on his ear, and Eleven came up for air to bat her hands away.
“It’s not like you have much room to talk,” she said, her eyes sparkling for the first time that afternoon. “Erik can only brood in the corner for so long before he has to open his mouth and insult someone, or make an idiot of himself. They’re a lot more alike than they will ever admit.”
“I almost hope they can’t hear you. I don't want to deal with the fallout from that comment.”
Their laughter was interrupted by a voice outside the door. Eleven tensed, but relaxed almost immediately when he recognised the absent-minded musings.
“Gosh, it’s awfully stuffy in here, isn’t it?” Serena said, bustling through the doors with her arms full of vials. “Let’s open a window, shall we? I can think of worse things than birdsong to help us along with all this… speaking of, both of you come and give me a hand.”
The windows were flung open and the room was aired out. A pot of tea steeped on the table where Serena spread out vials and scrolls, a large sackpack still slung over her shoulder; Eleven took it from her and almost buckled in surprise.
“Holy Yggdrasil, that’s heavy. Did you stuff a building in here?”
“Oh, you can blame Jade for the weight! She cut down the flower that put your boys out of action, and sliced it up nice and neatly. I wasn’t sure what to do with it yet, and I know I’ll need to examine some of it, but it seemed a bit impractical to trail dirt all over the castle. You can put it down over there if you like.”
Eleven did like, if only to be away from the thing that had Erik sleeping silently in his bed. He left the heaving sack of roots and mangled vines on a different desk and stood with Jade instead, watching as Serena rifled through the vials and scrolls.
“You were right when you said it was a Somnus flower, but I haven’t seen an effect like this before. Most people who come into contact with the Somnus flower never have much to say, so there are very few recordings. But, I did manage to dredge up a little something on the subject.”
The parchment she pushed into his hands was old and brittle, flecked with spindly letters. Eleven brushed a hint of dust from the top corner and bent over it, taking in every word with an urgent greed.
“It’s an account of an attack, written by a man from Gondolia,” Eleven read aloud. “Wait, that’s not right. Written about a man from Gondolia. ‘Crest laye sleeping in the halls of the Doge for near fourteen candlenights. Found ensnared in the wickede roots of a plant so treacherous, he slumbered as soon as was caught. We butchered the plant to set him free, afore it could sink him into the earth. Dreams plagued him upon our returne to Gondolia; of what sort I know not, but I doubt they were kind. Upon the fifteenth night, he slipped so far into sleep even the Goddess herself could not wake he.’”
Slowly, Eleven lowered the page and stared sharply at Serena. His hands were trembling. She looked at him with a spark of something in her eyes, something sad and knowing.
“He died, didn't he,” Eleven said. “Crest.”
Jade cursed, rubbing at her temples. “What do we do? There must be a way to fix this. We’ve advanced since then, and we know what the flower is, so surely there’s a way to fix this. An antidote, or a spell, or something!”
Serena darted forward and gripped one of their hands each, startling Eleven out of his thoughts. He felt Jade grow still and glanced at her flushed cheeks, her bright, worried eyes.
“Hm! You’re both very quick to doubt me. How long have we been friends now?” Serena tipped her head to the side, a pleasant, confident smile on her face. “You should know better! The answer is in the account, of course. The people who found Crest butchered the plant, likely with fire magic, and so they eradicated the answer before they knew they needed one.”
Her hands were warm, her thin fingers strong enough to ground him to the room. Eleven squeezed her hand with a slight smile, feeling a little foolish for worrying so much.
“I heard that if you cut it at the root, it would release its hold, but now I’m not so sure,” Jade said slowly. “I told Erik to stay still while we tried to find it, but I didn't reach it in time.”
“Which is how you hurt your wrist. Don't give me that look, I know it still hurts, and it’s very like you not to get it seen to properly.” Serena squeezed their hands once more and then stepped back, raising a finger in the air. “Now, here’s what we’re going to do! Jade, you’re going to see a Healer, and eat something, and rest, or I’ll have something to say about it. After that, you can join El and I in the library. We’re going to look for any more information on the Somnus flower.”
Jade didn't look happy about it, but she took her grumblings outside, all while Eleven hid a grin against his hand. The room seemed less solemn with Serena in charge, and the birdsong did help, drifting in through the window on a flowery breeze.
“You really think we can help them?” Eleven said, casting one last look at Erik, lying still on the bed.
“What did I say about trusting me?” Serena nudged him with her hip. “Once we know more, we’ll be able to make a proper plan, but I don't think there’s any point in giving up. Erik never gave up on you, did he?”
“It’s not in perfect condition, but it isn’t destroyed.”
“As much as I would have enjoyed ripping it to shreds, I didn't think it was wise. Not until we knew which bits we needed.” Jade gripped her elbows tightly, staring down at the mess on the floor. “I reserve the right to set it ablaze after all of this, though.”
“Luckily, I know exactly which bits we need,” Serena said, holding up a thin, precise knife. “The root will need to be mashed to a pulp, and I’ll have to extract some of the sap from the vines, and I should hopefully be able to create some sort of antidote out of those remains. But if I’m honest, it’s the petals that worry me.”
Eleven’s brow furrowed as he cast another look over the mess of mud and vines. “But there aren’t any petals.”
“Exactly.” Serena sighed, lowering the knife again. “The petals aren’t petals at all, in fact, but rather a build-up of magic. The roots secrete magic, and it travels up through the stem and into the vines, where it congeals at the ends into a solidified form of magic. Petals. It was a small bud at first, right?”
Jade nodded. “Until Erik poked it, yes.”
“A defence mechanism then. The Somnus flower itself is famously just a bud until it is provoked, and then the build-up of magic bursts forth in a form that we recognise as petals. It’s quite ingenious. It could look like anything, but because the magic is a form of sleep magic, our brains interpret it in a way that makes the most sense to us.”
“Petals,” Eleven said thoughtfully. “That’s… it’s clever, but how is it helpful? And why aren’t the petals there now?”
“Simply put, the petals are inside the victims. The excess sleep magic sinks into the skin until there’s none left, and when there’s none left, there’s nothing for us to interpret anymore. The petals disappear, and the flower goes back to secreting sleep magic until it needs to release it again.”
“And what happens to the victims?” Jade asked, sounding wary. “That amount of sleep magic can’t be healthy, or they wouldn’t be in this state. Does it always end in this?”
“Ah, no.” Serena bit her lip, and then cleared her throat. “Not quite. There is a reason why the soldiers from Heliodor keep going missing. This doesn’t happen very often, you understand - the Somnus flower still takes a long time to secrete that much sleep magic, taking it from the earth at night, when it’s most active. By the time it needs to release the excess magic, it’s usually been a few years since the last time it happened.”
Eleven recalled the account of the man from Gondolia, and a piece sunk into place, creating a horrifying picture. “The writer said they destroyed the plant before it could sink the man into the ground. Does that mean… ?”
“If Jade hadn’t been there, it would have pulled them into the earth with its roots.”
Jade turned a little green, but otherwise kept her composure. “That’s… that’s horrible. All those poor soldiers…”
Privately, Eleven wasn’t quite as worked up by the soldiers. He understood it, he did, and he didn't want anyone to get hurt, but Erik used to pace the room with his fists clenched, spitting out the names of people who’d gone missing recently in Downtown Heliodor.
“But they don't care!” Erik would say, throwing his arms about while Eleven watched. “They don't care because it’s all thieves and homeless people, people that nobody will miss. The bad lot, right? So if nobody’s gonna miss them, why give a shit about the fact that they’re gone? As far as they’re concerned, if it’s not a Higher-up, or all the snooty folk in the middle of Heliodor, then whatever’s happening is just doing everyone a favour.”
“Yes, I don't know if we can save them,” Serena admitted, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. “But! I think it’s worth a try. The only problem is, I don't think I know enough about this type of magic to properly counter the effects.”
El bit down on the sharp burst of panic that shot through him. “So what do we do? What’s the plan?”
“I can still make a potion, but I have something a little different in mind.”
“And that is?”
Serena smiled timidly. “The potion should put you in a sleeping state too, and have you bring back Erik and Hendrik. All you need to do is enter their dreams, find them, and convince them to wake up.”
The mast dug into his spine. Erik wrenched his head from where it drooped like a waterlogged lily against his chest and stared out over the open sea. Except… It wasn't the open sea. Erik blinked rapidly. He had been so sure that he was leaning on the mast of Sylv’s ship, but there was no open sea, and there was no sickening movement of waves beneath his feet, and the mast that dug into his spine wasn’t a mast at all.
It was a pillar of wood, and he was tied to it with thick ropes. They curled around his waist, frayed snakes with a will of iron. Erik tugged on his hands, but it was fruitless. They were tied behind him at the wrists. His skin already felt tender and raw, but before he could dwell on it, he heard footsteps nearby.
“I worried for a moment that we had lost your attention.”
Erik inhaled sharply. Then he spat the breath out again and said, “You!”
Jasper chuckled. It was a vile, silky sound that reminded Erik of oil on the ocean. A film of deceptively bright grease that covered something truly beautiful. He grit his teeth and glared at Jasper as he circled the pillar, the point of his sword dragging against the stone with a grating, harsh whine.
“Me,” Jasper agreed. “Surely that little bump to your head didn't relieve you of your last few brain cells? It hasn’t been that long since we last spoke, thief. I would hate to think I left such a dull impression on you.”
The sword tip came up, glinting like diamonds. Erik tipped his chin back as Jasper tugged it snugly against his neck, and counted in his head. He was trying not to breathe too harshly as he scrambled for his memory.
All of this felt familiar. The pillar in his back, the tattered flags strewn across the stage like burned butterfly wings. Even the salt-stained air was familiar, cool and clear. He could see the vague suggestion of houses and stairs in the distance, and perhaps a bridge hovering somewhere over it all, but even though part of him insisted this was Gondolia, the rest of him wasn’t so sure.
It was like a splinter sitting just under the skin. Maddeningly out of reach.
Jasper dug the sword in ever so slightly, curling his lip. “Even now, I do not have your full attention. Tell me, what exactly is so mesmerising that you cannot keep your eyes off the horizon? Are you hoping that your filthy friends might return for you? In that case, I would tell you to relax. They will have fled by now. It would be foolish to challenge me, especially over a pathetic lowlife like you.”
“They won’t—” Erik bit his lip.
“They won’t what?” Jasper pressed closer, and there was something deeply pitying about the amused chuckle he let escape. “Oh, this is precious. To think that you have fallen so hard for their lies. To think that you thought yourself worthy of them. It almost brings a tear to the eye. Did you truly believe that your snivelling friends would risk their freedom to save you?”
But they already had, Erik remembered, with a sudden surge of relief. This wasn’t real. He could see it clearly, the way Sylvando and Veronica - Veronica, who was gone now but might be here somewhere, in the dream, and wasn’t that something to think about - but no, they had burst onto the stage and thrown fire and charm until Jasper was panting and snarling. And he remembered soft sounds from behind him, and he remembered Serena pulling the ropes free, and he remembered Eleven’s look of relief as the horror washed away.
He had been standing there, tall and bold with a look of fierce determination in his eyes. He could never be cold, not the way that Jasper was, but the fire that burned bright in his eyes could rival it anyday.
They had already saved Erik because this was a dream.
With a gasp, Erik wrenched himself out of the ropes. They fell away like nothing more than pulled thread, and turned to fishing wire as they hit the ground. The sword was gone, and when he looked up, Jasper was gone too. A quick glance proved that this was still some shaky, awful version of Gondolia, but there was no sign of his enemies, nor his friends.
The last thing he remembered was walking through the dark passage in the cave, with Hendrik at his side. One minute he was watching those big, dumb shoulders disappear into the shadows, and the next he was being swallowed up by this heady darkness. It was a swift descent. It was a bit like being drunk, but without all the pleasant bits involved.
“Oh, shit,” Erik groaned, dragging a hand over his face. “Hendrik.”
There was no telling where he was, but if their theories were correct, then they were somewhere in the same dreamspace. Which meant that theoretically, Hendrik was here somewhere. Erik eyed the quiet streets dubiously, but there was no convenient Hendrik-shaped lump on the ground, and no giant purple statues to commemorate his presence.
The mere memory of the statue in Octagonia made Erik wrinkle his nose. He spent plenty of his nights sleeping in the dirt outside, but even he could recognise it as gaudy decor.
“Hendrik!” Erik yelled. His voice echoed strangely - not quite like it did in the cave - with an unnerving density to the words that made him grimace. “Right, well. Worth a shot, I guess.”
He wasn’t one to stand around and do nothing. Erik left the puddle of fishing wire behind and took off through the streets, keeping a wary eye on the shadows in case something dressed in Heliodorian armour came lurching out. But there was nothing. Nothing but shadows and abandoned stalls. The food on display was shiny, like it had been moulded out of wax, and though the delicate cream cakes called out to him, Erik kept his hands to himself. He picked up a knife at the weapons shop and cursed when it turned to ash in his hands, staining his skin with grit. The same thing happened when he picked up a shield, and he tried his luck with another knife, but it blew to ash all the same.
“Alright, alright, I get the hint.” Erik craned his neck to glare at the stormy sky. “You’re really pushing your luck, considering you’re mostly made of sap. Flammable stuff, that.”
He sort of hoped Jade hadn’t sliced and diced the flower to oblivion. He wanted a turn.
A flowery scent drifted across the street. Erik felt warm as he turned, his gaze drawn to the patch of sunlight staining the cobbles gold. Instead of a vine pouring out of the sky, they crept across the floor towards Erik’s frozen feet: frozen because the sunlight stretched upwards, forming a slice in the air, and through the slice he could see Eleven’s smiling face on a quiet hillside.
Eleven’s head was tilted, his eyes scrunched up in glee, and there was a dimple in his upturned cheek. A quaint breeze ruffled his hair, and Erik pictured himself there, ruffling it, sliding his hands down to cup his face.
The light grew brighter. Erik staggered forward three steps before he turned tail and ran.
The streets shifted beneath his feet. It was still this odd version of Gondolia, but around every corner was another corner, and another corner that lead to a set of stairs that led to another corner. Erik kept sprinting, his boots slamming into the stone, and by the time he slid to a stop beside the lighthouse, he was thoroughly winded and cursing himself.
“Goddamn it,” Erik said, wiping his eyes. “Strike a fucking light, as Derk would say.”
At least another one of their theories was correct; the flower really did seem hellbent on tempting them into a deeper sleep. But there was no time to stand about and think, not about that. Erik had a feeling that if he wanted to get out of here, he’d have to find Hendrik. The last time they had met in the dream, and acknowledged it as a dream, the rosy, shiny world he had carved for himself had fallen apart.
A few deep breaths later, and Erik was scanning the streets. There were more of them than usual, but he could still see the layout of Gondolia beneath them. He had covered most of the South side, but there was no telling whether Hendrik had since wandered over there in his absence. His gaze landed on the bridge hovering over the main street.
“Might have a better view,” Erik said, eyeing it consideringly. “If nothing else, it’s the best vantage point. I can keep an eye out for pointy, long-haired bastards.”
It was remarkable how quickly he had fallen back on the habit of thinking aloud. He worked better when all his thoughts were strung together in some semblance of speech, and before he met El, that resulted in a blue-haired youth in a fugitive’s hood, mumbling to himself on street-corners. After he met El, he had someone that spoke back. Derk had always been vaguely supportive in that chuckling way of his, but he wasn’t much for conversation that didn't involve their next heist. But with Eleven, he could talk about anything.
He caught a faint glimpse of gold in the corner of his eye, and jerked himself out of his melancholy remembrance. If the light was going to appear whenever he wanted Eleven, then he was going to have to keep a rein on his thoughts. Or at the very least, spend a lot of time running.
“Here we go,” Erik muttered, and took off down the street. The stairs were further away in the dream, and it seemed more exhausting with every step, but he cursed and kept going. Eventually he flung himself around the corner and down the stairs, only to collide with a solid heap of muscle near the bottom.
“Woah!” Erik grabbed the first thing he found, which was the large imposing chest of the person he’d been looking for. Hendrik steadied him and patted his shoulder awkwardly, before letting go. He was breathing rather heavily, and there was a bruise spreading on his jaw, but he didn't seem eager to move just yet.
Erik could not help himself. He hissed in relief and patted Hendrik’s chest, ignoring the strange sound that came from inside it.
“You know, for such a big man, you’re incredibly hard to find.”
“You seem to have an obsession with my form,” Hendrik said gravely. “While admittedly I have taken note of your humble jawline and sharp wit, I must confess that my gaze belongs entirely to someone else.”
“You—I—” Erik spluttered, ripping his hands away.
The corner of Hendrik’s mouth tilted faintly upwards.
“Oh, I see.” Erik shoved him away, but only succeeded in hurting his hand. “Got jokes now, huh? Well, laugh it up, big guy. If I needed anymore proof that this is one big dream, you just gave it to me, so thanks.”
Hendrik’s not-quite smile disintegrated. He pulled Erik further into the shadow of the stairwell with a grim look, and said, “What do you mean? Speak plainly.”
“Uh,” Erik said, rather blankly. “You, uh, you don't remember? We got zapped by a flower and now we’re stuck in this snooze-fest. This is all a dream.” He gestured wildly at the sky and the shaded street. “All of this, right here. Remember yet?”
Hendrik frowned deeply. Then he jerked like he’d been punched, and his hand ghosted upwards to brush gently against the bruise on his chin, which was darkening to a jewel-like blue. “Ah,” Hendrik said, with no small amount of sorrow. “Merely a dream.”
An impatient noise escaped him. “Yeah, that’s what I just—”
But Gondolia shattered before Erik could finish his sentence.
“There are several tunnels leading downwards,” Hendrik said, from somewhere in the darkness. “I suggest we take the rightmost one. It appears to be the least inundated with animal tracks, which should hopefully put us on the path with the least monsters.”
“Or send us down a path full of flying monsters.”
Hendrik made a small noise of reluctant agreement, but either way, they couldn’t sit about and do nothing. Erik got to his feet and followed the sound of Hendrik’s boots until they were in the mouth of another tunnel. There was a faint red glow in the distance, almost like lamplight, but far more menacing.
“Like a burning ember, beckoning us forth,” Hendrik murmured.
Erik didn't have the energy to tease him for that. He kept walking instead, stuffing his hands in his pockets, and focused on trying to avoid the rather jagged rocks on the ground. He wasn’t afraid, not of a dark tunnel, not after the dungeons they’d crawled through and the monsters they had all fought, but he still had a healthy aversion to collapsing and cracking his head on the ground.
“You seem quiet,” Hendrik observed. “Was there something upsetting in the dreamspace?”
“Nah, just Jasper being his usual charming self. I can handle him. What about you, huh? You didn’t seem to know your ass from your elbows when I found you, and you got a pretty hefty bruise.”
It was Hendrik that started the conversation, but after that he didn't seem to have anything to say. He didn’t look at Erik, steadfast in his silence, and eventually Erik shrugged off his curiosity. They walked in silence through the sloping tunnels until they reached a patch of darker darkness, seething with rose-red, and the dreams washed over them.
“Erik.” A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, shaking him lightly. “Open your eyes. This is a dream.”
“I remember that,” Erik huffed. He still didn't open his eyes. He wasn’t sure that he could, if only because he had a funny feeling about what waited in front of him. He pictured a ramshackle cove boarded over and filled with odds and ends. And then he figured he might as well open his eyes, since he was seeing it anyway.
Sure enough, the only home he had ever shared with his sister was waiting for him. Hendrik had one knee in the snow, his hand hovering near Erik’s shoulder. Their eyes met, and Hendrik frowned, before he got to his feet. The snow was thick and hard to walk in, but Erik managed easily enough.
“The dream didn't fade even though we both acknowledged it as such,” Hendrik mused. “I wonder if it gets simpler to distinguish the longer we remain in this dream state.”
“Makes sense. That flower probably has a bunch of tricks up its … stem? Heh.”
The look Hendrik sent him was cool enough to rival the ice beneath their feet.
“Anyway,” Erik said, shrugging, “it’s not like we can do much except explore, right? We’ll just have to keep an eye out for touchy-feely vines, and find a way out of here.”
It didn't fill him with confidence though. The dreams had vanished the minute they realised what they were, but now things were changing, and Erik didn't like it. He had only just gotten used to the old normal.
“So, it’s like layers of dreams,” Erik said, as they trudged up to the door. “There’s our real bodies, sleeping somewhere, hopefully in good company. And then there’s the caves, which aren’t real, but at least they don't seem to change much. And then there’s this… weird bit. Where it’s all fuzzy like a proper dream.”
With a sharp, false sort of cheer, Erik flipped Hendrik the bird. Then he shoved his shoulder against a particularly weak part of the door and watched it crumble into snow. The snow drifted down to land on his feet, seeping through his boots with an impossibly, icy sort of determination. Erik swallowed in the sudden silence.
“Must be stronger than I look,” Erik said.
“Erik, are you sure…”
Erik didn't wait for the rest of the sentence. He pushed on through, but he only made it a few steps into the hideout before he realised what was wrong. He bit his lip and reached for daggers that weren’t there, a frustrated growl rising in his chest. He could feel Hendrik’s presence behind him.
“What is it?” Hendrik asked, voice hushed. “Do you see something?”
The ground had always been a rough, greyish stone, flattered with the occasional threadbare rug. Now there was no grey. Instead, creeping forward like grasping fingers, the ground was threaded with veins of rich, sparkling gold. Further in it congealed into solid gold flooring, and the walls gleamed too, and the rugs were stiff and shining. Not an inch had been left untouched.
But there was a circle on the floor. A thicker circle of gold, like a raised platform in the middle of all this treasure. In the middle, there were two small footprints imprinted in the gold.
“Mia,” Erik said breathlessly. Then he jolted into action, surging forwards and sprinting through the hideout. He turned and scanned the walls, the hidey-holes, the shimmering shadows. “Mia! Mia, if you can hear me… she has to be here! Help me look.”
The last was aimed at Hendrik, but when he turned again, Hendrik was still standing in the mouth of the hideout. Erik felt a flare of anger before he spotted the tense look on his face, and the anger fled, replaced with curious wariness.
“I cannot move.” Hendrik grunted, shifting in place. “The gold…”
Erik glanced down, and let out a string of curse words. The gold had covered his feet, clinging to him like wet cloth, and as he watched it slung further up his feet until his ankles were submerged. Hendrik twisted, but there was no getting free.
“It’s a dream,” Erik said, striding forward. “It’s a dream, so this isn’t real gold. You only can’t move because you think it’s real gold, Hendrik. It’s not real, and you can move. Take a step. C’mon, work with me here.”
Hendrik glared at him. “As if I want to be trapped in this dismal state. I do not think it matters if the gold is real or not. The dream wants it to be real, and so it is.”
“I turned a bunch of rope into fishing wire, so you can turn this into… I don't know. Something. Something you can break. Something that’s not gold, alright?” Erik snapped his fingers impatiently. “Use your giant head for good and think of something.”
“You are an incredibly unsympathetic individual. Why does Eleven put up with you?”
As if summoned, there was a voice from behind Erik. Merely a whisper of his own name, but it was a whisper he was attuned to. Erik whipped around and laid eyes on Eleven, standing near the raised platform of gold. His eyes were sad, and Erik had to hold himself back. It was a dream, nothing more. He couldn’t soothe Eleven's sadness, because it wasn’t real. But God, his hands still ached to try.
“Erik, why would you come back here?” There was something incredibly painful about Eleven’s voice. “After everything that happened. After what you did.”
“Do not listen,” Hendrik said immediately, but Erik ignored him.
“What do you mean, what I did?” Erik’s heart pounded in his chest. “You know what happened here. I found forgiveness for this, for what happened to Mia. You helped me find forgiveness.”
“Not for this.” Eleven’s eyes softened, so pitying as they glued Erik to the floor. “I don't think anyone could forgive you for this. Not even me, Erik.”
“Erik,” Hendrik insisted, twisting helplessly in his spot. Erik glanced behind him, swallowing the thickness in his throat; the gold was up to his knees now. He wheeled around again and stared at Eleven, his pulse beating like a wardrum in his wrists.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Erik tried to swallow again. “Where’s Mia?”
Eleven’s mouth tipped downwards. “I tried to stop you, but you were so angry, Erik. You stabbed her. Don't you remember?”
The world spun and spun, and Erik was nothing but straw, turning to gold in its wheel. He put out a hand but there was nothing to hold onto. His knees buckled, but he gasped and stayed standing, cold to the bone.
“What,” Erik rasped. “What—I don't. I didn't, did I?”
“Erik,” Hendrik said again, but his voice was so distant and muffled that it may as well have been falling snow.
“Don't you remember?” Eleven said again, and suddenly he did, but it was all wrong.
The memories bled together, sewing at the seams. Erik clutched his head, weaving his fingers into his hair and tugging, trying to rid himself of the false memories. But it didn't work. He couldn’t shake them loose, and he saw it, felt it, experienced it like he was really happening. He saw Mia in her gold form, reaching for him, and he saw the dagger in his hand. He saw where it landed. He saw the others backing away in horror, and he saw Eleven reaching for him but never quite touching him.
“You remember now?” Eleven said softly.
“I think so,” Erik said hoarsely. “Did I really--Mia--”
There was a burst of noise behind him, and Hendrik stormed out of his gold shell. It smashed in the air, pieces of metal melting into the ground. Erik jerked, dropping his hands, and backing away as Hendrik stalked towards him. He heard Eleven make some sort of strangled sound, but then Hendrik was gripping him by the shoulders.
It was enough to startle him into stillness.
“I do not pretend to know what you feel,” Hendrik said, in a voice so strong and sure that Erik had no choice but to listen to him. “I wasn’t there when you discovered your sister, but I heard part of the story from the Princess. She told me that you tried to free your sister, by any means necessary, but that you couldn’t do it in the end. You sacrificed yourself and turned to gold in her grasp.”
The memory flashed to the forefront, and Erik clung to it.
“You would never hurt her, Erik,” Hendrik continued, in a slightly softer tone. “You only ever considered it to save her. But even then, you would have rather died than cause her any pain. You saved her, and you earned your forgiveness.”
Erik let out a shuddering breath. It echoed quietly in the hideout, and he tilted his head as Eleven melted into snow, and the gold turned to dark water. The dream wasn’t shattering, not like it had before. No, it was retreating all around them, until they stood in the darkness of the cave once more.
He was still being held. Not in a comfortable, intimate hold. It wasn’t like Eleven’s embraces or even Sylvando’s full-body squeezes, and it wasn’t gentle the way that Serena was. But Hendrik didn't let go even though his expression was supremely uncomfortable, and that seemed more important. Erik spent half a minute wiping his eyes and trying not to get mad at himself for crying, because the whole party had offered to kick his ass on more than one occasion if he regretted showing emotion.
But eventually he patted Hendrik’s wrist and said, “As touching as this whole thing is, maybe you can let me thank you without holding my hand.”
Hendrik tore his hands away like they’d been burned, and stood to his fullest height, scowling darkly at the spot behind Erik’s ear. It was kinda funny, but the guilt threatened to rear his head, and Erik wasn’t about to ruin the moment.
“Seriously,” Erik said, cutting off Hendrik’s retort. “I don't say it a lot, so savour it, but thank you. I don't think I woulda made it out of that one if it weren’t for you.”
It was like pulling teeth, but it was worth it for the way Hendrik turned bright red and bowed stiffly. Not to mention, Erik wasn’t a complete asshead. He knew when he owed someone, and he owed Hendrik big time.
“Hey,” Erik said, when they’d walked a little more, trying to leave the fairly awkward atmosphere behind them. “I have a question.”
Hendrik glanced at him, faintly worried. The slope was steeper than before, and Erik could feel the darkness growing deeper and more dangerous, but hopefully that just meant they were closer to the root of it all.
“The gold. How did you get out of it?”
“Ah,” Hendrik said, and he almost sounded… flustered. “I simply followed your instructions. You advised me to turn it into something I could break, and so I did.”
“Huh. Yeah, you know, again, that doesn’t actually answer my question. Come on, what did you turn the evil, deadly gold into before it swallowed you whole?”
Hendrik’s sigh echoed off the cave walls. “I turned it into chocolate, Erik.”
Maybe then Jasper wouldn’t be so hellbent on killing Hendrik. Maybe then Jade wouldn’t be lying unconscious on the ground.
But even as he watched, Jade’s form flickered, and she faded from view the longer Hendrik fought.
He didn’t remember the start of this dream, or whether they had spoken at all, but he vaguely remembered being thrown aside when Jade jumped in front of Hendrik, her sharp heels flashing. Silhouetted against the moonlight, Jasper had laughed that same cruel laugh. Then he shot down from the sky, a grisly creature, and Erik must have blinked too slowly, because suddenly Jade was falling to the ground and Hendrik was roaring like a wounded lion.
“We’re nearly at the end now,” Erik muttered to himself. He staggered to his feet, testing his ankle and finding it tender but not broken. He wasn’t stupid enough to throw himself into a fight like this without a weapon, but he scoured the ground for a bit of jagged rock and put two fingers to his mouth.
The piercing whistle drew Hendrik up short.
“It’s your turn to face something now,” Erik called, keeping a wary eye on the sky. “I think we’re almost there, but fighting him isn’t worth a damn if you don't beat him!”
“The Princess,” Hendrik began, but Erik cut him off with a sharp slice of his hand through the air.
“You seriously think she’d let herself be taken out that easily? It’s the dream, Hendrik! She’s not hurt because she isn’t here.”
Jasper descended on them, snarling. His wings were grotesque and as ragged as his mocking smile. The battle was something of a legend on the streets of Heliodor, whispered from drunken idiots to tired barkeeps, to tradesmen and the kids that ducked around their stalls. The Two Knights of Heliodor, split in half by evil.
“Oh,” Erik murmured, as realisation struck. “Oh, goddamn it.”
There was so much more to this than just another random enemy. Erik was so used to seeing Jasper’s glittering smirk and hating him to the bone; he saw nothing but malice and bad intentions there. But it was different for Hendrik, wasn’t it?
“Still you fight to save her,” Jasper said, hovering above them in a pool of black, shivering smoke. “How touching.”
Hendrik let loose an animalistic noise.
“You know as well as I that you will never be worthy of her. You, who turned your back on me when I needed it most. You, who could have saved me, but did nothing!”
Erik didn't want to see this. The raw quality to Hendrik’s voice, the tender, vulnerable look in his eyes; it wasn’t for Erik. He felt like he’d stumbled upon a grief so profound that it was a choking, visceral monster. He felt like he was watching something he needed to earn the right to see. It would have been easy enough to look away, but somehow, it felt more disrespectful to avert his eyes. It felt like abandoning someone in need.
He didn't want to leave Hendrik alone with this.
“Please,” Jasper scoffed. “You can plead all you like, but it will not bring me back, will it? It won’t save what is already lost.”
Erik wanted to tell Jasper to shove it, that he’d had a billion chances and thrown them all away out of some petty need to be better than everyone, but he kept his mouth shut. He was going to go ahead and chalk it up to personal growth. Jasper kept talking, his wings beating currents in the air as he fell slowly towards the dias, but his voice was muffled. Like it was underwater. Erik frowned and reached up to touch his ear, but nothing felt different. Then his eyes caught Hendrik’s lax shoulders, and he startled.
It wasn’t the dream changing; whatever was happening, it was happening inside Hendrik.
“You’re right,” Hendrik said suddenly, quietly, and yet with enough force to cut Jasper off. “I can plead as much as I wish, but you will not listen. I do not know if I am worthy of her, Jasper. But if I know one thing, it is that she will decide for herself what she deserves. And I know that the real you, the true you, the man that stood beside me since we were boys… that Jasper would never allow me to give in.”
It wasn’t quite the same as wanting Hendrik to be happy, but Erik stayed silent anyway. If he’d learned one thing from travelling the world, it was that people loved in different ways, and sometimes those ways were kept hidden from others.
“He would have wanted me to try until I stood where I deserved to stand.” Hendrik lowered his gaze away from Jasper’s incredulous stare. “If that is by Jade’s side, then I will not give in. And I will not forget our past simply because the present keeps pulling me onward.”
There were more words, but Erik didn't hear them. He watched the darkness around Jasper grow and flare, and he watched Hendrik throw his sword down as he shouted to the high heavens, but it was all so muffled by the sound of rushing water. It came from all around and swept them up until the waterlogged picture dried up, and the cave melted into view.
Hendrik leaned against the wall, a heavy look in his eyes. For a minute, there was only silence as they stood together, wrapped in darkness. The air was different, this far down in the cave. They had reached it. Erik could feel it; whatever waited for them in the next passage, it was the last stop on this journey of dreams.
“It was not the Princess that kept me in Heliodor, in that first dream,” Hendrik said, out of nowhere. “I walked through the halls in a daze, and his was the first clear face that I found. That is how I knew how you felt about Eleven. You had the same look on your face as I imagine I did; like the clouds were parting, and you were seeing the sky for the first time. Do not mistake me; my feelings for Princess Jade remain as they have always been, but it is my oldest friend that haunts my every step. It is Jasper that I fear to let down, even after all is said and done. It is his memory that drives me to do better, and yet I fear I fail at every step.”
The words kept coming. Erik let him speak until they were both exhausted, standing on the very edge of thick shadows with nothing more to say. Hendrik spoke of his mistakes, his nightmares, and his history with Jasper. It wasn’t a passionate, detailed novel of his every waking movement, but there was enough there for Erik to get the gist. They had been family, entwined at the heart, and no matter what had happened since, Jasper would always mean a lot to Hendrik.
When Hendrik lapsed into silence, pressing his fist into the cave wall with a firm look on his face, Erik put a hand on his shoulder. And squeezed. And counted down the seconds until Hendrik looked up, and saw the comforting look on his face, and that was that.
“I told you I didn't like you, and that’s still, well… still kinda true. But I don't really know you either.” Erik shrugged, and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s only fair to wait and see whether you’re worth that dislike, otherwise I’m wasting a lot of energy on hating you when I don't have to.”
“Say something a little more eloquent than that.”
“Ah. That seems very reasonable. I do not hate you either.” Hendrik turned to face him, drawing himself up. “I dislike your moral ambiguity.”
“Not too keen on the royal-loyal stick shoved up your ass.”
“Your manners and decorum are appalling.”
“You’re a classist bastard.” Erik waved off the retort and said, “But I think I owe you an apology anyway. I’m not doing it in a cave though. How about we wait ‘til we’re out of here before we buy a couple of drinks and cry about everything we’ve done wrong?”
There was something painfully earnest about Hendrik’s agreement.
“Great.” Erik snorted lightly, shaking his head as his chest thrummed with nerves. “Well, I’m pretty sure this is it. Shall we get this over with?”
The passageway seethed with darkness, but when Erik stepped forward, he didn't feel afraid.
The dream was foggy. El only knew that it was a dream because his hands felt odd. He had long since baffled his mum with tales of how his dreams were always easy to tell apart; sometimes he had seven fingers, and sometimes his palms were purple, and sometimes his thumb was extra long and wriggly. He didn't pretend to understand it, but Gemma had told him that in her dreams, her hair floated around her ears. He learned not to worry too much about the state of dreams.
It was undoubtedly helpful now. He waded through the fog, feeling hard stone beneath his feet, and flexed his hands. They were tingling, the way they did in the mornings when he’d spent all night sleeping on them. Sometimes, if he was lucky, Erik would take his limp, useless hands and massage them back to wakefulness, mocking him gently with his dagger between his teeth.
What he wouldn’t give for that to happen right now.
A figure materialised out of the mist, as though El had called out for him. It was Erik, his blue hair fluffed up on one side, with pillow creases on his cheek and sleep in his eyes. He chuckled softly and reached out, and El reached out too, before jerking away.
It was a dream, he remembered.
The potion Serena had made was good for one hour. It tasted like dirt and mint and something rotten, but the minute he swallowed it down, his eyelids had fluttered shut. It was a good thing he’d taken a seat on Erik’s bed, or he’d be waking up later with a bruised side. He had barely left Erik’s bedside since Serena started mangling the root of the Somnus flower; it would, apparently, give them a gateway into the sleeping minds of its victims without trapping them there too.
More misty figures littered the distance. Serena had warned him about this. The Somnus flower couldn’t trap them there, but it could still manipulate his mind a little. It wouldn’t last, so long as he stayed focused on his goal, but it was enough to catch him off guard.
“Sorry,” Eleven murmured, as he watched another laughing blue-haired figure drift away untouched. “But there’s only one version of Erik I want to see right now, and it’s the one that I’m going to wake up next to.”
He stormed forward through the mist.
Minutes ticked by. There was no way of keeping time, but Eleven knew it the way things are known in dreams. Minutes ticked by as he traversed the foggy wasteland, calling out for Erik, and it wasn’t until the half-hour mark that he finally saw something different.
A line of gold.
It slanted straight down through the air, like a cut. Eleven edged towards it and frowned. It didn't feel malicious, but many things in his past hadn’t, and so many of those things had gone wrong. But another glance proved that there was nothing new on the foggy horizon, so he placed a hand in the gold light and shivered when it disappeared.
It was still there. He could feel it wiggling around. But the air was cool and crisp on his fingers, almost dewy.
And as things are known in dreams, Eleven knew that Erik was on the other side of the gold light, and that was all it took.
Creatures chirped in the trees. Eleven stepped out of the light and checked his belt, but he hadn’t been able to bring anything with him into the dream. He could see Erik from here, sat grumpily under a tree with vines all around him, and the sight arrested him for a moment.
Another minute ticked over, and Eleven took off at a run.
He skidded in the dirt, landing on his knees with a flash of a grin. Erik jerked back, eyeing him warily, and his gaze flicked back to the gold light behind him.
“This again,” Erik said wearily. “Look, El, I know it’s not really you.”
Eleven paused, his fingers barely brushing the vine wrapped around Erik’s wrist.
“So say whatever you have to say, tell me I’m unforgiveable or a disappointment, tell me you’re just desperate to leave, do whatever it is you came here to do, and go. Because I’m not giving up. I’m not going with you into the big, shiny light, no matter how green the grass is on the other side.”
Eleven dropped his hands into his lap and stared, stunned. Tell me you’re just desperate to leave. That couldn’t be right. No matter what this place did, Eleven refused to believe that Erik thought that.
But then he sat back on his heels and really looked at Erik. There were dark circles under his tired eyes, but there was still a fire in them. His hair was messy and tangled, full of twigs and leaves. His hands had vanished beneath the vines, but he was so still that it didn't seem right. Erik was supposed to be full of movement, even when he lay in waiting, biding his time.
“You said ‘this again’ when you saw me,” Eleven said slowly. “This has happened before. I’ve… you’ve seen me in your dreams before?”
A faint flush appeared on Erik’s cheeks, and he started muttering rapidly under his breath: “Oh embarrassment, right, that’s a new trick, but it’s still not going to work, so you can fuck right off, flower.”
“I’ve told you horrible things in your dreams,” Eleven said, with a dawning sort of horror.
Sorrow washed over him when Erik simply stared.
“Where’s my clip?” Eleven asked.
“My clip. You stole it from me in the library and then ran off and got yourself attacked by a Somnus flower. Where is it?”
“You think I know?” Erik huffed, wriggling for the first time, straining against the vines. “I’ve been running around trying to keep Hendrik alive, I haven’t been keeping track of your clip.”
Eleven hummed. Then he reached out and dug through some of the vines until he pulled on the neckline of Erik’s tunic. It hung so low that it was almost obscene at times, and the reason rested solely on the shoulders of the little pocket sewn into the underside, where Erik kept certain precious things hidden. He flipped the neckline and undid one tiny lace, leaning close enough to feel the puff of shocked air on his face as Erik exhaled shakily, his pulse thudding in his chest.
The bronze clip was nestled in the pocket. Eleven took it out and held it up.
“That doesn’t prove anything.” But Erik looked unsure. “It’s my dream, so the flower knows what I know.”
“It’s not all powerful,” Eleven said softly. “It isn’t even here anymore. Sleep magic is keeping you here, and it’s strong, but you can escape it. All you have to do is wake up.”
Erik’s head thunked back against the tree, and moss crept into his hair. His sharp eyes fixed on Eleven’s, and he said, “Do you think I haven’t been trying?”
“I think that this clip proves that I know you.” Eleven reached out and tenderly swept some of Erik’s hair away, securing it into place with the bronze clip. “So many things prove that I know you. I know that you snore, and that you only eat one type of cheese, and that you’re secretly afraid of mice. Not rats, but mice. And you don't have to believe me, but I know you, Erik. I could pick you out from a crowd of a thousand people that look just like you.”
Erik stayed silent.
“The trouble with knowing people,” El continued, even softer than before, “is that they often know you in return. Tell me you don't know me, Erik, and I’ll walk back through the light. I don't know what happened here, and I don't know how terrifying it must have been, but--”
“I don't want to be wrong.” Erik licked his lips, his voice cracking halfway through. “I don't want to look at you and be convinced that it’s you and then be wrong.”
Eleven leaned in and cupped Erik’s face, and brushed a kiss on one of his cheekbones. There, he whispered, “Look at me anyway.”
There was a moment of shuddering silence and shaky breaths. Then Eleven peeled himself away and sat back on his heels again. Erik narrowed his eyes. He was looking at El, in that overwhelmingly sharp way he had of looking at things, like he was evaluating a gem in a display case. It made his neck prickle, but he held still, and he pushed every inch of love and exasperation into his gaze while he waited.
“Oh.” Erik’s eyes widened, and he breathed, “El. It’s you.”
“It’s me.” Eleven’s smile filled the whole forest. “Time to wake up.”
The potion was reaching its end. El could feel it as the forest faded around him, slowly bleeding out of existence like an aged photograph, until Erik was the only bright thing.
“I’ll be by your bedside,” Eleven promised him, his heart aching at the frantic look in Erik’s eyes. “I’m right here. Just wake up and come home, please.”
Erik’s mouth tipped in a pale imitation of his usual cocky smirk. “What, no goodbye kiss? Isn’t that how they do it in the stories?”
Eleven grinned and gripped his hand tightly. “Consider that incentive for when you wake up. Open your eyes, and the first thing I’ll do is kiss you.”
Then his hands faded altogether.
It had been six hours since he woke up, blinking up at the ceiling, and turned to find Erik still asleep beside him. Six mind-numbing hours that slid by with all the haste of an overstuffed armchair. Six hours where he fretted that it hadn’t been enough, alone in the room with Erik and a dozing Serena now that Hendrik had been moved to Jade’s room.
Another snore filled the room, and Eleven laughed again, shaking.
He would have waited a hundred hours, without blinking, if it meant he got to hear that horrible drone of a noise at the end of it.
“Oh, would you look at that!” Serena exclaimed, pressing her hands to her mouth and bouncing on her tip-toes. “They’re waking up! Oh, actually, I don't know if Hendrik’s waking up yet, so I better run and check. Make sure you call for me if anything changes, El!”
Eleven promised he would, but she was already running from the room. When the doors slid shut, Eleven turned to look at Erik, unable to stop his grin as he kept on snoring. He stirred against the pillows, his face set in a pouty frown. His hair was duller than usual, but no less of a mess, and Eleven ran his hands through a few wayward curls while he waited for Erik to wake up.
It took a few more minutes. The bronze clip fluttered into view, and Eleven reached out to disentangle it gently, setting it aside with shaking fingers. When he turned back, Erik’s eyes were open, and he was blinking at Eleven like he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.
“Hey,” Erik said hoarsely. “Wanna make good on that promise?”
“Technically it wasn’t a promise,” El said, a bit breathlessly. “It was an incentive. Also, I can’t believe you. You just woke up after a week’s worth of dreaming and you immediately want to kiss me.”
Erik grunted, struggling to sit up, but El put both hands on his shoulders and pushed him down. He settled into the pillows, but not without several complaints and a lot of grousing.
“Where’s Hendrik?” Erik said. “He’s fine, right? You got him out too?”
“He’s okay. He’s sleeping in another room, but Serena went to check on him a minute ago. Jade was the one to fetch him in the dreams, and he should be okay.”
Erik breathed out a rough sigh of relief. “Good. That’s good. He owes me a drink.”
Eleven eyed him curiously. It was no secret that there was bad blood between the two of them, but maybe things had changed in the dreamspace. Maybe something was different now. Erik had that shifty look which meant it involved feelings and he didn't want to talk about it, so Eleven shelved it for later. Erik would tell him when he was ready.
“Speaking of drinks, you need water. And food, herbs, and a wash.” Eleven hesitated, and then did what he always did best: rushed towards his friends without the slightest regard for himself, or how much it might hurt. “But first, I need to make good on that promise.”
He touched one hand to Erik’s cheek and was rewarded with a firm blush, and an upticked eyebrow. “Thought it wasn’t a promise.”
“It can be whatever you like.”
Erik fisted one hand in Eleven’s collar and pulled him down, pressing their mouths together in a long, sweet kiss. Their noses bumped, and Eleven gasped into Erik’s mouth, but he didn't seem to mind. It was softer than he had imagined it would be, and clumsier too, but it still lit a spark inside him. It still made him feel breathless and full of light, like he was standing on the edge of somewhere high and beautiful.
“As long as it’s real,” Erik murmured against his mouth. “As long as it’s not a dream.”
Chapter 6: Epilogue
Erik dangled one foot over the edge of the building, and bent the other at the knee. The stars were out; night was in full swing, and there was music playing somewhere in the distance, in a room far out of reach. He had woken up an hour ago, wrapped in twisted sheets, covered in a sheen of cold sweat.
There was nothing he wanted more than to sink back into the pillows, and sleep. But he couldn’t. When he closed his eyes, pictures of caves and ethereal meadows ran through his mind. He saw Eleven's pitying gaze as he stood in a room full of gold. He heard Hendrik cry out in the ruins for someone long since lost. The sheets turned to vines on his skin.
Erik swung his foot back and forth gently, digging his heel into the stone. The balcony window was open, letting cold air into the room, but he didn’t care. It was unlikely that he would be sleeping, not with those dreams hovering so close to the surface.
A knock at the window jolted him out of his stupor. He reached for his dagger and relaxed when he felt the cool metal beneath his fingers, relaxing further when Eleven waved from behind the gauzy drapes.
“Knock knock,” Eleven said, a tad belatedly. “Mind if I join you?”
Erik leaned to the side and tugged the window open further. “By all means, step into my study.”
His laugh was the sweetest reward. They settled together on the ledge, pressed together as a chill wind whipped by. It wasn’t cold enough to be a bother, but Erik still leaned in when Eleven shuffled closer.
“What brings you out here?”
“Just a feeling.” Eleven drummed his fingers against his thigh. “I heard Hendrik wandering the halls, and I figured you’d be up too.”
“Mmm. Good instincts.”
“Only where you’re concerned.”
Despite the cool night air, Erik flushed. Since that first kiss on that first morning, Eleven had been freer with his words, and his touches. He pulled him into alcoves between meetings to kiss him hello. He ran his hands through Erik’s hair when they sat in the library, knee-deep in scrolls. He played idly with Erik’s fingers at meals, eating one-handed so that they could keep touching, and making a mess of his roast dinner.
It was deliriously good, bad for Erik’s pulse rate, and sometimes, it felt too giddy to be real.
“You know, it’s okay if it’s not back to normal,” Eleven said, out of nowhere. “You’ve been trying really hard to act like things are fine, and I know that it’s best to keep busy, but you don't have to pretend. It’s okay if it takes a while.”
Erik closed his eyes. It was what he wanted to hear, and not what he wanted to hear. He wanted to be fine enough to sleep through the night, and he wanted to stop feeling sick when he smelled flowers in the breeze. He didn't like watching El walk out of any door, in case he didn't come back.
“And you can talk to me,” Eleven added. “But I won’t be upset if you can’t.”
It wasn’t that he didn't want to talk about it. It just felt like a storm of sad, disappointing, dramatic, confusing messy feelings, and he wasn’t sure what any of it meant. He didn't know how to put the dreams into words. He didn't know if he really wanted to, not yet.
But it was a cool night, and the stars were so bright that they simply had to be real, and Eleven was a warm, comforting presence at his side. He smelled of lavender, which wasn’t quite a flower, and he wore soft clothes made of wool that felt wonderful when Erik wrapped an arm around his waist.
Erik couldn’t tell him all of it, but he had to start somewhere.
“In the dreams, we saw things that we were scared of, I guess.” Erik cleared his throat when Eleven dropped his head down, resting his cheek on his shoulder. “I saw a lot of things, but I only realised what it all meant when I woke up a few nights ago. I had a normal dream, or maybe a nightmare.” Erik cleared his throat again. “It was you, and Serena, and Jade. Sylvando, too. You had enough of me, and you left on the boat, and you never came back.”
Eleven stiffened. But to Erik’s relief, he didn't shoot up and start denying the mere thought. He didn't ply Erik with words when words felt so useless right now. He turned further into Erik’s shoulder and breathed steadily.
“I think that’s what scares me, deep down. The thought of being alone. Before, I would have given anything to never get close to anyone ever again, after what happened with Mia. I didn't want to be given the chance to hurt someone important. But now I’m scared that all the important people will - uh - decide I’m not so important to them.”
The words fell like rain on the quiet night. Erik felt a bit like clouds must feel after a heavy storm; light and free, as though some great weight had been dropped on the shoulders of something far bigger than him. He reached for Eleven’s hand, and Eleven took it without question, holding him carefully.
“I can tell you that you’re important until we’re both as blue as your hair,” El said, startling a chuckle out of him. “But I don't think you’ll believe it for a while. That doesn’t mean I won’t say it, because you’re the - you’re the most important person to me, by a long shot. But you’ve always been more of an action person, so I’ll show you instead. Every day.”
Erik grinned shakily up at the night sky. “Oh, yeah? How are you gonna do that?”
“By staying at your side for as long as you’ll have me. And if I ever need to leave, I promise to always come back.”
Erik barely let the sentence leave Eleven’s mouth before he was covering it with his own. It was still a clumsy kiss, but he was too shaken to really care. It was that giddy feeling again, but without the fear. It was real. He was kissing Eleven, and he was wide away, and nothing about this would fade when he opened his eyes.
“Come on,” Eleven whispered against his mouth. “Back to bed.”
“That’s forward of you.”
“To sleep, idiot. You need to rest.”
Erik grimaced, but let himself be pulled to his feet. Eleven climbed through the window and then reached for him, pressing quiet, loving kisses to his fingers while Erik fumbled his way into the room, all stealth.
“It’s a miracle you ever stole anything, with the noise you make.”
“You haven’t heard anything yet,” Erik promised him, and he only regretted it a little when Eleven shoved him on the bed, immediately whacking him with a discarded robe afterwards.
“No, I haven’t, and I won’t,” Eleven said, with a pointed glare that held little heat. “Not tonight anyway.”
It was Erik’s turn to get flustered. He burrowed down under the covers and shoved one arm behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. He didn't think he would sleep tonight, but already he felt drowsy. Eleven burrowed into the other side of the bed and pressed up against his side, pressing a light kiss to the corner of his mouth, before taking his hand.
“Go to sleep, Erik. I’ll be here when you wake up.”