The war may be over, but it's left its fair share of marks and scars. It's difficult to escape anything unscathed, especially something so terrible and large. No one is quite as whole as they were when they started out, pieces are missing, people are lost, places are broken. They're all far, far away from the point where they began. The world fell off its axis and they all had to keep on living like it was still spinning. And now that they're here, now that they're safe and it's started to spin again, no one really knows what to do.
They get to relax now, get to exhale. But it feels foreign and strange. They spent so much time moving, forward forward forward. They thought only of tomorrow and what it would bring, it was just the next battle and then the next. They couldn't afford to pause, there was never a moment to waste. Their muscles were tensed and now that they rest? They're sore. Sometimes it's easier when you don't have time to think about the aching.
But the war is over, and they have to keep on living, like they always have. But that doesn't mean it comes easily.
Beverly shoots up from sleep, heaving. The floorboards of the Stormborn creak beneath him as he moves. Tears pool quickly at the corners of his eyes and he frantically tries to blink them away but whenever his eyes shut he just sees everything all over again. His father's lifeless eyes, cold and dead and empty as he swings his sword down into Bev with zero hesitation and zero recognition. Hardwon crumpling to the ground in a heap, Zalek standing over him and sneering, lance extended and dripping with bright red blood. Thiala blasting down all of his friends with radiant energy, that horrible second where he was the only one still on his feet, alone. Just a kid standing before a god and trembling ever so quietly. Erlin, body still beneath Bev's glowing hands, dead, no matter how many times Bev heals him he doesn't wake up, he's just dead.
The air leaves his lungs quickly, and they ache and burn in his chest but the pain is good, the pain is grounding, it reminds him that he's here, everyone is still here. Nevertheless, his fingernails dig into the wood of the floor and his breath stays heavy and uneven.
Besides him Erlin stirs, blinking awake slowly and sitting up on the floor next to Bev, curls falling over his eyes. They must've fallen asleep here last night, he thinks. They were filling another journal, together this time, with adventures they shared. It felt good to be around him again. He doesn't feel good right now, just... afraid. He knows logically that he shouldn't be. The war is over, Thiala is dead, Akarot is gone, everyone is fine. But still, he struggles to breathe, gasping as tears spill over, falling down his face like rain.
"Dude?" Erlin's voice is gruff with sleep. He reaches out a hand slowly, like he's trying not to startle him. And Bev feels suddenly embarrassed, heat rising to his face. He's killed gods, why is he letting nightmares get to him?
Erlin gently pulls his fingers from where they grip the floorboard. His hand is soft against Bev's. "Are you okay?"
Beverly doesn't have the breath to answer, he just tries to regain control of his breathing as Erlin brushes his tears away with his thumbs.
"I'm here, Bev," he says, and his voice tugs at Beverly, pulling him closer to ground. "You're safe, I've got you."
"I-" Bev tries, but the words die in his throat. Erlin shushes him softly, then grabs his hand and presses it against his chest, taking exaggerated breaths.
"Just breathe with me, dude."
Beverly complies, taking choppy but large gulps of air, gripping Erlin's hand like a lifeline. It takes a while, or it feels like one anyway-time sort of alludes him at the moment-but eventually his chest rises steadily, and all the energy has drained right out of him. He slumps against Erlin.
"'M sorry I woke you up."
"Don't be." Erlin pulls Bev into a hug, kisses his forehead, "I'm glad you're okay now." He pushes Bev away from him, hands on his shoulders, eyes searching him for anything else that could be wrong. Bev just watches him. "Do you wanna talk about it?"
Beverly shakes his head, leaning into Erlin's shoulder, just taking him in for a moment.
"It's just hard sometimes," he says after a pause. Erlin hums. "We were fighting for so long. Now that we're not it feels... different." He twirls a piece of Erlin's hair between his fingers. "Not bad, but different. I think it was easier when we didn't have to think about the bad stuff that happened, just the next bad stuff, the stuff we had to stop."
Erlin just pulls him in closer. "I-I get it, dude. The war is over but it's still scary."
"I guess I just sort of wish things would stop being so weird." The words hang in the air for a moment.
"They will," Erlin says, with surprising conviction. "Maybe it'll take time, but they will."
Beverly sighs, squeezes Erlin's hand. "You're so cool, dude."
Erlin laughs, pressing a kiss to the top of Bev's head. Beverly laughs too, feeling drained and exhausted, but for the moment, a little less weird.
"You're such a dork," Erlin mutters, then breathes for a moment. "I love you."
Bev pulls himself away, "I love you too," he says, then kisses him lightly and slumps against him once again.
Hardwon Surefoot has been through his fair share of battles. Gods, devils, angels. You name it, he's probably killed it. This is something that he takes great pride in, he likes being able to stick up for himself, to stand up for others. Moonshine calls him a hero.
That being said, Hardwon is no stranger to death. He's met that cruel gray and turned his back on it several times before. When life is flagging or life his gone, he somehow manages to stand back up again. He's built resiliences over the years, he guesses this is another one of them. But he knows he can't cheat death forever. He knows that long before all of his friends move on from this plane, he'll be in the ground. And that doesn't bother him. But it bothers them.
He sees the way they're quietly gentle with him. They think they're being discreet, but he knows his family better than anyone in the world. He can see through their bullshit in a second. He appreciates it, he really does. And he lets them have it. For their own sake, to ease their worried minds. He sees the pain in Moonshine's eyes whenever she discusses her mortality, or lack thereof, the way she winces and won't meet his eyes. He sees the way Meemaw glances from Moonshine to Hardwon and gives a sad little smile. He's not sure if Bev thinks about it too much, but he's watched the kid stare down evil before, the way he hardens his jaw and stands up taller, to hide the fear. Whenever the topic is death his eyes jump to Hardwon and he takes his stance.
They beat Thiala. They ended a war. But they will never really stop being afraid. When things go back to normal they all have to figure out what normal is again. This worry is just another facet of that. The war left fear in the hearts of his friends, fear for him, and he will never forgive Thiala for that.
Hardwon knows that he will die someday, sooner than they'd all probably like. So for their sake, he's careful. For their sake, he's gonna try to hold onto life for as long as he can. And when he sees Beverly smile that big braces filled grin, or Moonshine laugh loud and carfree, Pawpaw in her lap, he'd do anything to keep them that way forever.
The sun sets slowly over the horizon, colors bleeding into each other like watercolors in the sky, pink, orange, purple. Clouds block the sun, blurring the image, but Moonshine doesn't mind, she only watches for a moment, anyways.
She feels a palpable sort of relief, a weight lifted off of her shoulders. The war is over. They won. Thiala is dead. And she knows that's not the end of it, not really. They've got more work to do. But for today she'll let herself celebrate, today she is a victor.
As her attention falls away from the sinking sun, it quickly latches on to a figure staring off into the distance, a fuzzy look in her eyes. It's bittersweet, a melancholy sort of happiness. Moonshine walks up beside her.
Jaina Bronzebeard startles, eyes going wide as they bounce away from the sky and onto Moonshine. "Oh, uh. Moonshine." She clears her throat, "hey."
Moonshine smiles softly at her flustered state. "Hey." She echoes.
"You were-" she starts, then reconsiders, "you did well today. I suppose I should thank you for saving Bahumia." she says. Moonshine meets her eyes, deep, dark brown.
"Excuse me if I'm overstepping my boundaries," she says, "but you don't really seem to be in the mood for givin' thanks."
Jaina seems dumbfounded for a moment, lips parted, she sputters. "N-no it's- you're right," she sighs. "Don't get me wrong, I am grateful. Thank you, really. You're a hero, you all are."
Moonshine nods. Though she doesn't feel any sort of strong connection to the word personally. Her friends are heroes, she doesn't doubt that. They're the best people she knows. But she only ever does what she thinks is right. She doesn't really know if that makes her a hero or not. She's just an elf who fights for the people who can't.
"It's just- it feels selfish for me to celebrate. Not because I'm not happy, but because-" she pauses, tearing her eyes away from Moonshine's. "Not everyone is here to see this."
Moonshine feels a little ache in her chest, just a pang of empathy. She tries not to think about everything she's lost on her path to victory, everyone. "It's not selfish Jaina. Maybe it feels a little bit wrong. To be so happy even though something's missing." She thinks of Marybelle. She thinks of Deadeye. "But it's not selfish."
Jaina looks at her curiously for a second but quickly sobers. "I know that. But I can't feel it. I just wish-" she snaps her mouth shut, lips forming a firm line.
Moonshine gently tucks Jaina's hair behind her ear, lets her hand rest against her face, and her voice comes out more tired than she thought it would. "What do you wish, Jaina?"
Jaina blinks hard. "I wish Gemma was here," her voice shakes, and blush spreads across her face. Her eyes are watery. Moonshine's lungs feel hollow, and her chest is hot. She speaks through the lump in her throat.
She shakes her head furiously. "It's not. It's my fault she's not here. I can't be happy because she can't be."
Moonshine sighs. "Oh, Jaina," she gently pulls her into a hug, and Jaina dissolves into tears. A beautiful mess of quiet sobs. Moonshine holds her tight, fighting off a similar fit. She's more of a private crier.
"Gods," Jaina mumbles, the sound muffled from Moonshine's shoulder, "this is ridiculous, you're the greatest hero in Bahumia. You shouldn't have to deal with this."
"No," Moonshine says, "Stop that, you don't get to go around declaring what it is I do and don't want. I'm here for you, Jaina, because I want to be."
"You're a really good person, Moonshine Cybin." Moonshine feels blush rise to her cheeks.
"Well thank you. What happened to Gemma wasn't your fault. Your sister's death was a tragedy. Maybe one that we could have prevented. But we didn't. Sometimes bad just happens. It's the natural order of things. We may not like it, but we have to accept it because that's the way the world works. And Jaina?
Jaina wipes the tears off her face and Moonshine grips her hand, "yes?
"She is here. Just because we can't see her face doesn't mean that she's not cheering right along with us in Morriden's Great Hall."
Jaina nods slowly, "thank you, Moonshine. It-it means a lot."
Moonshine smiles, but before she can reply, Jaina jumps forward and kisses her. It's quick but Moonshine feels every second of it. She opens her mouth to speak but Jaina darts away. Leaving Moonshine with her thoughts, the blush on her cheeks, and the sunset.
Erlin lays alone on the deck of the Stormborn, eyes up. The sky is sprawled out in perfect view above him, crystal blue with pretty little clouds, like wool tossed up into the air. The breeze tousles his hair gently, the wind kisses his face, and the sun beams down with kind heat that warms his skin. He knows that the gods are watching after him, he knows from the way the mushrooms sprout from the wood instead of dying out in the dry heat.
This does nothing to ease the sick feeling in his stomach. It does nothing to wipe the tears from his cheeks.
Maybe he’s just weak. He’s never been as tough as Beverly, as brave as his friends. Maybe he’s just not strong enough.
A part of him thinks it’s justified, the weakness, the fear. Being alone has been scarier since getting out of that damn gem. Isolation sends icy spikes of terror down his spine, makes his hair stand on end. He feels like a kid again, dumb and afraid, wishing someone was there to hold his hand. But he deserves that at least, doesn’t he? Hasn’t he earned a little cowardice?
It was only a few hours. Moonshine, Beverly, and Hardwon were dropping in someplace, checking up on friends and allies they collected on their journey. They let Erlin stay on the ship for one reason or another, and out of nowhere, he was reminded of just how terrifying it is to be alone. He couldn't be below deck, it was too small. The walls were too close and the ceiling was too low and he was all by himself. He got to the upper deck as quick as he could, breathless and shaking, tears pouring from his eyes. He laid against the wood and let them fall, breathing slowly, in and out and in and out.
He hears the commotion as his friends returning, and his heartbeat picks up, but he doesn't have the energy to move, so he doesn't, just remains on the floor. The noise dies down as soon as they see him, and he can tell they're having a silent conversation.
Beverly gives a look to Moonshine and Hardwon, but Erlin isn’t quick enough to catch it. All he knows is that Bev walks towards him and his scoutmasters walk the other way.
Bev sits beside him, wood creaking beneath the weight. “Hey, dude.” He tries to say it casually, but it just comes out careful, like he’s trying not to step on broken glass. He studies Erlin’s face intently, like he’s looking for something.
“Are you” he pauses, considering what to say next, “good?”
Erlin doesn’t answer, just stares up at the sky. He doesn’t want to meet Bev’s eyes. Doesn’t want to see whatever emotion is swimming in them. Because he’s afraid. He’s always so afraid.
Beverly pauses, and Erlin can hear him thinking, he can feel the gears turning in his head. It’s comforting. To know that he’s not alone anymore. That Bev is next to him with his loud thinking, his scrunched eyebrows. It makes his stomach squirm to think that he can’t handle himself, but he’s comforted anyway. Bev looks at him again and the thoughtful look drops off his face.
“Erlin, you’re crying.”
He blinks, reaches up and brushes tears off his cheek with the back of his hand. He takes a breath, heat already rising to his cheeks.
“Uh. Yeah man, I was just below deck by myself, and I got a little spooked. I-I don’t do so well in small spaces, you know, crystal and all. And it didn’t help that I was-“ he clears his throat, “-alone. It’s no big deal. I’m fine now.”
Erlin goes to turn away, but Beverly catches him. He grabs his shoulders and sits him up, meeting his gaze. There’s a quiet sort of fire in his eyes, determination
“It’s okay if you’re not, dude. You know that, right?”
Erlin sighs. “I do.”
But he doesn’t, really. He’s internally divided. He feels that he doesn’t deserve his own fear, especially considering everything Beverly went through, everything his friends did. What does it take to earn the right to be afraid?
Bev looks at him for a moment longer, and Erlin can hear him thinking again.
“You’re not alone anymore, Erlin.”
He just nods.
“Okay,” Bev says, dropping the subject, though it’s obvious he’s not convinced. “Good.” He leans forward and kisses his cheek, “but I’m here for you if you need to talk, okay?”
And Erlin is grateful for him all over again. His heart swells a bit in his chest, “okay.”
Bev shoots him a little smile. “Turn that frown upside down, dude,” he says, “I can’t see your freckles through all the tears and honestly that’s a criminal offense.”
He reaches out and brushes the remaining tears away, and Erlin laughs a little. He doesn’t feel good, but he doesn’t feel as bad. And that may not be much, but it’s something.
Egwene knows strength. She's learned it, and she's practiced it for as long as she can remember. Putting on a brave face, taking action in spite of fear that eats away at you, standing up straight when all you want to do is collapse. Egwene wears her strength like a mask, holds it in front of her face like a shield, to hide herself. What did Hardwon say? Walls up.
Caring too much is a sign of weakness, and being afraid is too, so she gave up both of them. No matter how many times she gets hit, she doesn't flinch, no matter how much she loses, she doesn't shed a tear. If she stays brave, maybe Erlin will be safe, maybe she can actually protect someone for once.
As soon as the war is over and the heroes return, she charges up to them, searching for Beverly, searching for her brother. When she sees them all the strength she has falls away, she pulls them into a crushing hug, tears in her eyes.
"If you ever do that again," she whispers to Erlin, "I swear to Pelor I will fucking kill you."
He laughs, and Bev does too, and she doesn't let them out of her sight. She let her guard down once before, and she's not going to make that mistake again. She holds her brother a little closer and a little tighter than she did before.
Her parents are gone. She can't save them. Red and Gunther are too. So the responsibility to be brave falls to her. It's not easy but Egwene is used to being strong, and she's not going to stop now.
The world can be a cruel, unforgiving place. Sometimes that's just the way of things. Sometimes there's just no way for everyone to win, there's no happy ever after waiting at the end, no matter how much you sacrifice. It's probably better that way, it keeps people in their place, keeps the heart of the world beating with the same rhythm. But that doesn't mean it doesn't still hurt, that the things that you lose don't come back to haunt you, don't sting and ache like a wound that will never fully heal.
Sometimes a happy ending for someone else means that you don't get to have yours, and that's okay. Some people are just meant to be borrowed.
Hardwon has the letter in his hands. He's holding it more delicately than he's held anything before, but there's a little shake, a tremor in his fingers. Moonshine squeezes Beverly's hand tight, a reassurance. Neither of them really know who it's for. They're all fighting back tears, trying to be strong. Balnor wouldn't have wanted them to mourn, he's not even dead, really, just gone. But it hurts anyway. It hurts to miss people. They've all missed people before, but this feels different, it is different. Because there's no getting him back. There's no saving him because he doesn't need to be saved. He's back with his real family. He's happy. It's just that his new one misses him, and sometimes they wish they were allowed to be a little selfish. But they know what's right for him, and they aren't it. So they just sit by the fire and reread the letter, the last piece left behind. They hold it close, try to pretend he's still here. And he is, in little ways. He exists in every part of them that he changed.
Sometimes it's better to let go. It takes time and care, and it's not easy. But it's better. Losing people never stops being hard. The gap in your chest will never be filled up again, that's the sad truth. But you've got to be grateful, even when it feels like the world is ending, and everything is falling apart around you, you've got to be grateful. After all, you had them for a while, for a stretch of time, they were all yours to love. And what's luckier than that?
The war is done. And maybe once they thought that that would be the end of it. That victory would be theirs and everything would be okay again. Everything is not okay. Maybe it never was. But it's on its way. And for now? For now, that's enough.