"What are you doing?!"
Eron, God Paladin and force of righteousness, bane of demons, The Loyal, fell out of a pine tree to crash into a thankfully not-too-pointy bush below.
"...sweet hellion, has anyone ever pointed out that disturbing someone in a tree could lead to them falling out of it?"
Ava glared down at him, hands firmly on hips. "Why are you climbing a tree in the first place?"
"Um...." The God Paladin sheepishly held up some pinecones. There was no way this would end well, and he'd already decided best to simply face Ava's ire.
Ava being Ava, said ire of course did not appear. Oh, her eyebrow twitched menacingly, and she was giving him quite the evil eye, but there was no explosion of words or violence. "You do realize there's plenty of those on the ground, right?"
He carefully extracted himself from the bush. "I needed some that are green. Those are too stiff." Oh dear. He was finally free, but he'd turned to find the full force of her glower upon him.
"You have one chance to explain yourself, Paladin. You've been sneaking out of the castle for weeks at all sorts of odd hours, I've seen I don't know how many messengers going too and from the Citadel, and now you need pinecones?! What. Gives?"
Eron hesitated, and then sighed. He had hoped that it would be ready before she found out, but of course.... "Sweet hellion, there is a tradition that seems to have carried over the years." She stared blankly at him. "In my day, near the solstice – at Yule? - friends would exchange gifts."
"You need green pinecones for gifts? Wait, all the sneaking around is about Yule gifts?" She seemed taken aback.
"Not precisely, and yes. It is not quite prepared, but... would you like your gift now?" He could not quite bring himself to not fiddle with the pinecones, uncertainty and tentative enthusiasm vying for place of honor upon his face.
"You needed green pinecones for my gift?"
As a true bonus, he seemed to have stunned her. That truly did not happen often enough. Those crystal blue eyes went wide, were well framed by her wind tossed tresses – "Ah, yes. I had plans to present it to you after the local celebrations, but -"
"Now is fine. I'd like to see it now." And oh, but how she looked – sweet, not demure but a touch hesitant, a hint unsure of herself. He took her by the hand and led her through the trees, savoring the moments as they followed the small, faint path he had worn over the last few months. Both of them, with only some light leather armor and daggers, comfortable near their home and the people in the small village near it. He had not known he had wanted this, as a God Paladin and companion of Magnus – a life with only occasional battle but a constant companion.
The path led to a small hut tucked up near a rock shelf. Ava stopped and blinked at it. "The groundsman's old drying hut?"
"It's yours, now."
"Gee, thanks." Ah, sarcasm, one of her great skills. Eron politely ignored it, and opened the door. She carefully walked in, ducking to clear the lintel. He followed her in, leaving the door ajar enough so that he had illumination enough to find the tinderbox and begin lighting the candles. Ava cautiously took the obvious seat – the only seat, really – and was staring around. He set the last candle down and shut the door, nearly completing the illusion that they were in a small room, almost a garret, overlooking the city surrounding the Citadel.
"What is this?" Ava asked softly. "It looks like – It looks like I'm at the Citadel."
"That is the theory." Eron took a deep breath and looked around. The small room was divided in half by a wooden wall that mimicked a window with an attached seat. There was a small table tucked near it, holding large candles and a strange crystalline sphere on a low stand. The walls were decorated simply, the wood unpolished. Past the "window" was an unfinished mural of a cityscape, showing the buildings and even the tiny figures of people who would inhabit it. In the uncertain, wavering candlelight, the images of the Citadel seemed almost alive.
"I don't understand," Ava whispered.
Eron looked around, and shrugged. "You've never asked, sweet hellion, what I had been before being a Paladin." He took a deep breath. He hadn't expected it to be so difficult to talk about. "My mother was a cook. I was bon in the inn she worked at, and in my youth, I worked there as well. I was a youth still when Magnus overnighted there, and bought my bond." They sat in silence for a while, she staring around the hut, and he trying to not be lost in memories. He finally shook his head. "I did not mind traveling, nor did I object to the quietude of the wild. But.... I often found myself longing for what I had known, what I had once thought of as home. In particular..."
He turned to the table and moved the sphere towards Ava. "Emila's work. She said that the purple stud began the 'abyssal racket,' green stops it, and red will alter-"
"What kind of racket?"
He gestured, and with a roll of her eyes the Lightbringer smacked the purple button. Noise erupted from the sphere, filling the hut with sounds of dray animals, vendors hawking their wares, and all the chaos of vibrant humanity crammed into a rather small space.
As a particularly colorful bit of language in a man's deep voice cut through the rest of the sound, Ava grinned. "That's Hathen the baker! He used to curse at me like that when I was a child! Eron, this is from the Citadel itself!"
He smiled and shrugged. "I was always most homesick for the sounds of the city."
"Oh- you - Eron!" She grabbed him and tugged him down onto the seat next to her and cuddled close. "I can't believe you asked the queen of Lythia to go out and record the noises around the place."
"I did not. I merely asked her if it was possible, and she said that she was pleased to have an excuse to leave some of her meetings. And even if she had not, that is apparently what minions are for."
"Hah! Sounds like we need some minions of our own!" After spending awhile snuggled together, Ava shook her head. "And speaking of minions, who did you wrangle to paint all this?"
"Ah. Well." He looked away, staring at the cityscape. "I did not."
"Then how - " She blinked and pulled away to stare at him. "Eron? You paint? You paint well?"
"The latter is a question of taste, really. My landscapes are rather nice, but my portraits are still stiff rubbish." He gave her a small smile and a shrug, trying once again to not feel shy as a stripling in front of her. "But yes, I paint. Arton – one of my brothers – made it clear that with immortality ahead of us, it would behoove us to have, ah, hobbies for the rare occasion that we were not busy. I have had much time – though little innate talent – to learn this craft." He could not contain his pride as she looked around again, more closely, studying the details of the place. "I needed the pinecones for some of the more distant figures, and it might work well for the clouds."
"I don't believe this. You did all this for me?"
It was worth it, worth all that and more, for the smile on her face.
Even if the baker was haranguing some fool somewhere. Home – their home, with shades of his and echoes of hers, was best when shared.