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Cartographer

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I traced a map upon your skin
Marked patterns, landscapes, tributaries
When I last drew your blessed form
It was Pangaea and now is not
Tectonic plates pushed us apart
A fault, though real, is not our own
Cartographer is my profession
Allow me to chart your heart


 

He looks older.

This is the first thing Erlan thinks when he sees Beverly again:

He looks older.

Followed by:

He looks sad.

Beverly is wearing dark grey armor, dusty and coated in dried fluids of an indeterminate source. His hair is longer, curls weighed down with dirt and sweat. His face is thinner—not sallow or wan, but longer and more angular. The sword at his hip is a different blade—sharper and humming with an energy that resonates the desire to save—but his hand grips the hilt with practiced ease. His eyes are darkened, tired and worried, with lines creasing his forehead in new ways and dark ash smudged about like hastily applied makeup. They constantly scan the world around him. They never rest.

He looks tired.

He looks older.

He looks sad.

Alongside him, Moonshine and Hardwon are different too, and there's an older halfling with a gun and a sword. The halfling isn't Bev Sr.—he's more angular than the softer man Erlan grew up with, his salt and pepper mustache well-kept but not waxed, in opposition to Bev Sr.'s clean-shaven face and military haircut—but he seems to understand this isn't his place and wanders off and sits down, pulling out a sandwich and chowing down. He seems wholly at ease, which is odd because even Beverly is still alert, eyes searching for some unseen assailant. For some threat he hasn't beaten.

Like some sort of caged animal just set free. Harrowed.

Moonshine is no less kind looking than before. Her face—also caked with grey dirt and blood and streaks of what might be salt lines left behind by tear tracks—is still smiling but it is...less. That hurts to see. The less in her smile. And the large possum she carries around with her is larger somehow, more grimy, but no less happy and self-assured than before. She's wearing a pinstripe vest that's barely holding together, well-worn and stitched back, and inside her overall bib is also a severed hand?!

Hardwon is worst somehow? He is pale and washed out, dark skin a pasty grey and darker hair a silver that reads as regal instead of old. He is leaner and more contorted, curled in over himself as if he wants to disappear. He smiles with his mouth closed and has a large axe at his waist. His eyes are red—literally, crimson instead of whatever color they had been before, not that Erlan can remember, which is...sad somehow—and the bags beneath them are heavy and dark. Darker than they should be, it seems, but also...also—? Looking at him feels like looking at a very large animal. A lazy, predatory thing. Something that is hungry and isn’t moving because it’s too much effort.

(It’s weird and he hates it. He liked—likes! Present-tense—Hardwon. He doesn’t like feeling afraid and uneasy around him.)

Beverly doesn’t move. There is a long and tenuous pause before Erlan himself is running forward to embrace him. When Erlan’s arms wind around Bev’s waist, he feels him tense and is filled with an inexplicable sadness. He’s forgotten how to relax. He’s forgotten how to feel safe. I want him to feel safe. Then Bev wraps his arms around Erlan and pulls him closer. He smells of dust and iron. He smells of salt and fire. He smells of something foreign and Erlan wants to make this smell his home again.

“I missed you,” Erlan whispers. Beverly doesn’t reply. He lets out a low keening sound.

(It’s okay though. He doesn’t need a reply. He just needs him here.)

“I’m glad you’re here,” Erlan adds. Still no reply. He continues, “I’m glad you’re safe. Welcome home.”

Beverly cries.

During this, sometime between Erlan embracing him and Beverly breaking down, Moonshine and the others walk off. Well, the new, older halfling is still sitting off to the side, eating some kind of mayo-drenched sandwich, but he seems to be minding his own business. Moonshine and her possum and severed hand—which is something he will revist when he has the time to process it—wander off to do something else. Hardwon, however, gets a faint distance in his gaze, turns into a fucking bat, and flutters off. That is also something that will be revisited later. When he can muster the energy to pursue that line of thinking.

Beverly sobs for a long time, until his voice is scrubbed raw. Then, when he is out of tears, he begins to talk, to apologize. “My birthday was last week,” he says, like he should be sorry about that. Like he should be apologetic about being on another fucking plane of existence for his birthday instead of here, with him. “It sucked hard.”

“Yeah?”

“Found out my dad is...is as good as dead. I—,” he hiccups hard, body wracking with the motion, “—I have to tell my mom he’s gone.”

Is it kindness that motivates what he says next, or selfishness? Either way, Erlan finds his mouth moving as he says, “You don’t have to talk about that right now. Why don’t you tell me about your adventures? You look like you’ve been through the wringer. Plus,” he says with a hint of the younger shyness of a boy who didn’t watch his city burn, “I can redo your paint and catch you up on what’s been going on here.”

Bev nods and that is enough. The nasty, selfish monster inside of him hums, satisfied, and curls in on itself. And they talk. And they stargaze.

And he finds new scars to trace, new patterns on Bev’s skin, and commits them to memory. He maps out the new man before him and wonders if he, too, has changed like Beverly has.

And he wonders if he will ever be able to protect Bev the way he wants to—selfishly and without abandon.


 

I traced a map upon your skin
Inkblots now mar my pristine work
I retrace steps I took before
And wonder if you map me too
Am I a world worth exploring?
A landscape that demands a lark?
Or am I just a passing place
And you and yours a wandering sort?