Erlin watches Bev’s body fall to the ground, a sword through his neck, in slow motion. He watches the army push forward, too desperate to try to heal one halfling boy bleeding out on the ground, and everything else fades as he runs to him and falls to his knees and presses his forehead against Bev’s and fumbles with the holy symbol around his neck and yells the words to Revivify as loudly as he can so that Pelor can hear them over the thunderous footsteps of war and feels the light suffuse him and surround Bev and Bev’s eyes start to open and then Egwene yells his name and he’s up and running again and he doesn’t know if he’s managed to save him but it has to be enough please god let it be enough.
It’s all over. The end of the world has come and gone, and they’re all worse off for it. They’ve barely seen each other since Hilholm, since Beverly had broken his best friend’s heart, since the last time that any of them had been anything remotely resembling safe. Except for now. It’s almost impossible to believe.
Even back in Hillholm, standing under the tree that he and Erlin had carved their initials into years ago, Beverly feels naked without his evil sense active. It’s all he can do to not have his hand gripping the hilt of the sword, to be constantly turning his head to look over his shoulder.
He’s sure Erlin feels the same.
And that’s the crux of it. The two had walked from Beverly’s grandmother’s house, at Beverly’s request. Neither of them had mentioned that Erlin was taller now, and his hair was longer, and that he had plate armor, too, and it was just as dented as Beverly’s. Neither of them mentioned that Beverly had new scars, that the deep brown of his eyes had faded ever so slightly from losing most of his soul. Neither of them was brave enough to say anything, nonetheless something as intimate as that.
“I’m sorry, dude” Beverly says. He’s practiced it over and over, in his tent to himself, to Moonshine and Hardwon, to Paw Paw, to Balnor, to his father, whispered into the pages of the book that Erlin had written. His voice, no longer as high as it was when they had first admitted to loving each other, breaks through the crickets which have emerged to welcome the setting sun.
“I know.” Erlin doesn’t make eye contact. His voice is steady. He, too, has run this moment in his mind over and over and over. The desperation of trying to survive has only been matched by the desperation of wanting his best friend back. But he’s grown, and he knows his own worth, and as much as he wants it to be that easy, it can’t be.
“I’ve never –” Beverly pauses, swallows, tries again. He can’t mess this up. Moonshine and Hardwon have told him that it’s okay and he doesn’t need to be with the first person he’s ever been with forever, but Erlin is his home. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone else. Everyone at school would be talking about crushes, and who they wanted to kiss and, like, who they wanted to share a cabin with at camp or whatever. And I just remember thinking that I didn’t care about any of that, as long as I had you it would all be okay.”
Erlin gives a little, nods. The rhythm of Beverly’s speech is rushed, sounds more thought out than usual. Erlin knows him well enough to know how hard that means he’s trying. There’s another pause, and the sound of the crickets comes back. There had been a time when they never ran out of things to say to each other.
Eventually, Beverly breaks the silence again. “I only kissed him because he reminded me of you. Because you’re my home and I was so far from home and I didn’t know if I’d ever make it back and there was something wrong with my dad and I thought that when I did get back, you’d be old. Or tired of me. Or – ” He doesn’t finish the sentence, but they both know what he means.
“I was far from home, too.” This is what hurts Erlin the most. He had been writing everything down for Beverly to read, just to have some semblance of closeness, and Beverly had kissed someone else the first chance he’d gotten. Erlin had grown up knowing deep down in his bones that he wasn’t good enough for Beverly, and even now that he knew that he was, all of this had just felt like confirmation that he had been right. But he couldn’t say that. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to say that.
“You had Egwene,” Beverly says. “And you were at least in the same world.” He realizes what he sounds like and stops, tries again. There’s a lot of trying again today. “I don’t know, man. I’m not trying to say you would have done the same. You probably wouldn’t have. You’ve always been better at being good than me. I’m just trying to say there is no world in which it happens again. I saved this.” The last two sentences come out all in a rush as he reaches into his bag and pulls out the notebook Erlin had thrown to him month ago. The spine is cracked and there are some pages that, if you place it on a table, the book will fall open to of its own accord. “If you want it back, I understand.”
“I don’t want it back.” Erlin can’t draw his eyes away from Beverly’s hands, knuckles clenched white around the book. He doesn’t even think Beverly is aware he’s doing it. He has no doubt that Beverly would have returned it, but he also has no doubt that it would have shattered him. Beverly is in his full armor, even now, even in this place with Thiala and Ilsed both dead.
Of course, so is Erlin.
“What do you want from this?” It sounds more confrontational than Erlin means it to.
“I want to try again. I want to try again but I understand if you don’t and that’s okay but if you don’t I want to be friends again because I love you so much, dude, and I know we won and we saved everybody but I’ve died one too many times to not at least try to get my best friend back.”
Erlin wants to say that he knows that Beverly had died. He wants to say that he had never felt fear like he had when Bev’s body had crumpled, and it had been up to him to save him. But that is a conversation for another time. Instead, he steps forward, and notices Bev’s flinch, and feels a sadness deeper than any sixteen-year-old should ever know. He reaches one hand out to cup Bev’s cheek, pausing with it centimeters from his skin until Bev nods that it’s okay. Touch is a minefield, in the weeks after the war.
Erlin leans in, and before their mouths meet, he sees Bev’s eyes open wide and fill with tears. The kiss tastes like salt and fear and everything that they’ve ever lost.
But it also feels like hope.