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Up the Trunk, On a Branch, Swaying in the Breeze

Chapter Text

Erik’s hair is thick and coarse, the texture just on the gentle side of straw rough, and Eleven finds his fingers drawn to it habitually the way they’d been drawn to bales of hay and the thick stalks of wheat Gemma’s grandfather always kept in a decorative bowl by their front door. Sturdy, he thinks, his fingers catching on the stiff ends, the pads of them scraping against sword-worn battle-won callouses, so much unlike his own waif-like hair, quick to float aimlessly at even the softest breath. Sturdy. Stubborn.

Erik lets out a contented sigh from where he lays, head laid on the meat of his shoulder, ear squished firm to the soft bit between shoulder and chest. ‘I can hear your heartbeat,’ he’d said, and Eleven had scoffed and poked his cheek and said, ‘in my armpit?’ and Erik’s sharp false anger had been enough to distract them both, their laughing and roughhousing sending a nearby flock of birds to flap nervously away. He knew he was telling the truth before, and knows just as much now, the lazy smile on his face and steady tap-tap-tap of his finger fuelling and matching the thumping of his heart.

Doing Mia’s hair was calming, the rhythmic pull of the brush through her long, thick hair, the way she’d hum contentedly—so much like her brother in the smallest of ways—and the way the long strands would feel as he worked his hands through them, parting the sea of her untangled locks into enough sections to braid. It was like that, sitting on the ground with her cross-legged in front of him, that he thought he understood properly the urge that had come over his grandfather when he’d pulled him out of that river. She was no giggling baby, but her proud smile when she jumped to her feet, braid bobbing in time with the eager bounce of her legs was just as radiant, and Eleven felt fit to burst with happiness, with hope, with love.

He couldn’t do Erik’s hair. Too short, too stiff, too determinedly spiky. His hands gravitated towards it anyway, ruffling it when he walked by, running his fingers through it when they kissed, tugging it when he wanted Erik to give him something a little rougher. Now, he settles for digging his fingers into the roots of it, nails scratching light against his scalp, pulling pleased little shivers from the body of his husband where he lays on him. Occasionally, a shorter hair will escape his movements, catching on his finger and scraping lightly against it, and Eleven will shiver right back, a full-bodied thing that starts in his hand and carries all the way to his head and his toes, tingling the whole way. If Erik notices, he doesn’t comment, too busy melting under the steady beat of Eleven’s heart and the slow, focused movement of his hands.

“What’re you thinking about?” One of Erik’s hands settled on his cheek, the line between leather and skin dragging against the flush there. The touch guided him out of the peaceful trance he’d fallen into, and Eleven nuzzled into it, turning to press a kiss to his covered palm.

“Nothing, really,” he replied, voice muffled against his hand. Erik’s tongue clicked disapprovingly, and before he could chastise Eleven for holding his thoughts heavy behind his tongue he continued, scratching at his scalp the whole while, “just thinking about how I wish I could braid your hair, like Mia’s. It’s nice. It feels nice.”

“…You want me to grow it out?”

‘No,’ was halfway out of his mouth before he could stop it, his tongue catching on the end of the word, a strangled, “nnn,” all he managed before he bit it down entirely. Erik huffed in response, a bitten off laugh in the same vein, and moved to tilt his head back against his shoulder, their eyes meeting. Eleven’s fingers splayed out at the back of his neck, stroking the peach fuzz there, imagining it long enough to settle between his fingers. He sighed. “If you wanted to,” he admitted, “I think you’d look good. I’d like it. I’d like it a lot.

“Yeah?” He felt Erik hum against his chest, a lazy reverberation that passed between their bodies. “Maybe I’ll let it grow out. Like you. You’d braid it for me?”

Eleven imagined it, having Erik settled in front of him, imagined brushing his hair back and combing his fingers through it, the smell of his shampoo lingering on Eleven’s fingers after, the way he’d sigh contentedly at his every touch. “Mmhm,” he said, and tried not to think of how clear the strain in his voice was, even when he caught Erik grinning knowingly at him.

“Everyone’s gonna try and chop it off before it grows out properly,” Erik said, kissing Eleven’s jaw, “Amber and Gemma will sic Mia on me. And someone,” he jabbed a finger into Eleven’s side at that, “thought it was a good idea for her to have knives. As if we didn’t save the world so she wouldn’t have to.” Guilty as charged, Eleven could only smile at him, ignoring the long-suffering expression on his husband’s face as he continued, “But my sister has knives, and so,” he paused, voice taking on a magnificently inflated grandiosity, “the duty falls upon you, my dear, great hero. Can you protect my precious locks?”

Shamelessly fast, Eleven nodded his head like it was a serious quest, as important as any number of countless tasks he’d been assigned as the Luminary. Erik scoffed, good natured, and shifted to kiss him just once, just briefly. “I’ll hold you to it then.”

“You always do,” Eleven replied, the words whispered against Erik’s lips. The hand still in his hair shifted, laid flat against the back of his head, and as he guided Erik closer once more he imagined the way his hair would spill out from between his fingers, and how he could card his fingers indulgently through the full length, and he sighed, the sound mirrored by Erik, his eyes falling peacefully shut.

Chapter Text

Jasper was many things.  Proud, witty, clever, quick, resilient, beautiful.

But delicate was not a word Hendrik would ever have used to describe him – especially not when thinking back to the belching contests they had often had as children, or how many times they had trudged back from wet, autumn morning drills together caked in muck.  Jasper hefted his armour on with practised ease, took to the front lines in step with Hendrik, and got injured alongside him – Hendrik couldn’t help but smile fondly at remembering when they had both ended up with broken arms at the same time and decided to train with their off-hands instead.  In the end, it had only worked out for Jasper, and now he swung his twin swords with a skilful fervour that spoke to years of muscle memory trained in actual combat.

Jasper was hard-working.  Jasper was stubborn.  Jasper was tough.

But Jasper was also, as Hendrik was now discovering, very delicate indeed.

That this change had occurred without him noticing shouldn’t have surprised Hendrik.  After all, he hadn’t seen the myriad changes that had gone on underneath his nose until it was almost too late.

Or perhaps it wasn’t a change at all.  Perhaps Jasper had always been more refined, more sensitive, and Hendrik had always been blind, naïve to think that he could be remotely similar to someone so bright and brilliant.  Perhaps Hendrik had been foolishly clinging to his sleeve, like he had done so often when they were young, when Jasper had chided him for crying and blazed ahead, fearlessly illuminating the way through the dark and banishing the nightmares.  Perhaps he had never stopped clinging.

Whatever the reason, now Hendrik could see.  Now that the darkness had been dispelled for good and the light had returned to his world, Hendrik couldn’t stop seeing.

He would watch – every morning, without fail – Jasper doze, in that comfortable and lazy space between true sleep and full wakefulness, his features soft in the shadow of dim pre-dawn but as utterly clear to Hendrik as if he were glowing. 

It had been a novelty at first, to regard Jasper like this: at peace, the years of weariness and stress that were etched into his face smoothed into gentle vulnerability.  Hendrik had never imagined him as a creature of anything but purpose and drive, who never stopped, never slowed.  To have him there, still and silent save for even, dreaming breaths…Hendrik had been afraid to move, to even breathe, lest he be too clumsy as always and shatter the illusion.  Any more moments between them lost would have been more than he could bear.

But now, Hendrik reached out, brushed Jasper’s golden hair back from his face and traced the line of his jaw down, then back up.  Fingers skimmed the stud in his ear as Hendrik cupped his face and leaned in to press a single kiss to his forehead, the touch of his lips as feather-light as his hands had been: careful, learned, comfortable.  Jasper snuffled – adorably – and curled closer, tucking himself into Hendrik’s chest, and Hendrik stroked through his hair and down his spine and wondered if the rhythmic beat of their hearts pressed together was lulling him back to sleep proper.

They still attracted a crowd when they trained together.  Even those who had been swayed by hearsay and were wary of Jasper upon his return watched in nervous, excited groups as the Twin Eagles of Heliodor sparred.  For all of Hendrik’s strength, it was usually Jasper who won these bouts, and this time was no different; his speed allowing him to duck and dodge around Hendrik’s wide, arcing greatsword swings as elegant as if he were dancing, and his cunning shining through as he feinted a strike and instead swept Hendrik’s legs from under him to send him tumbling to his knees.

Knowing as he did now that Jasper had always hated his smaller stature, blinded by envy to its boons, it delighted Hendrik to see him finally embrace his own strengths, running circles around his partner’s lumbering frame.  An arrogantly pleased grin pulled at Jasper’s flushed cheeks as he drank in the whoops and cheers from the onlookers, and Hendrik could do naught but smile too.

Jasper extended a hand, and Hendrik reached to take it – and pulled him down, delighting in the graceless yelp that left him as he stumbled, armour clanking, into Hendrik’s waiting arms.  (His strength still won out in some scenarios, it seemed.)  Almost kissing, but not quite, not in front of all these people, but close enough that their laughter hung intimate in the air between them, blistering over their lips in a promise of soon.

Jasper’s hands were very, very soft.  Softer than they had any right to be, considering he wielded a sword in each, but Hendrik had taken to noticing how he always trained wearing gloves, and seemed to carry on him at all times a small vial of lotion, which he would produce at random intervals and massage into his hands.  The action would always mesmerise Hendrik – the rhythmic gliding across his knuckles, into his palms, between his fingers – and the scent of it would follow him for hours after, shadowing his every move.  Spring flowers, which once reminded him of Jade as a young girl, thrusting picked posies of pink and yellow into his hands, now only made him think of Jasper.

They were small, too – Jasper’s hands were slender, almost dainty in their shape, his thin fingers eclipsed by Hendrik’s handspan when pressed palm-to-palm.  Hendrik pushed forward, manoeuvring Jasper’s fingers apart to hold his hand proper, marvelling at how he mirrored the action automatically in response.  A tight grip, as always.

“What are you doing?”

Hendrik blinked, raising his eyes to Jasper’s face, coloured with amused puzzlement.  Still holding his hand.

“Ah,” Hendrik said.  “I was…thinking.”


Hendrik cleared his throat.  “…Your hands.”

One of Jasper’s eyebrows rose into a perfect, golden arch.  “My…hands,” he repeated, slowly.

Hendrik nodded, wordless and flustered like a child caught staring, and Jasper moved to reposition himself from where he’d been propped up on pillows beneath him.  His hair spilled loose and enticing over his shoulders as he leaned upwards to nuzzle into Hendrik’s jaw.  He murmured, voice low with heavy implication, “Anything in particular you were thinking about them?”

The timbre of the question had Hendrik shuddering, the movement jostling both him and Jasper, who chuckled against his lips with the satisfaction of another victory.

But Hendrik, ever earnest, ever honest, answered as such: “I like holding them.”

Now it was Jasper’s turn to falter.  He drew back to scrutinise Hendrik’s face for any sign of mirthful dishonesty – as if there would be any – and, when he saw none, he slowly began to turn red.  Hendrik watched the colour take to his pale skin: it spread blotchy over his chest and rose up the tense line of his neck to settle with embarrassed, shining finality in his cheeks.  His shoulders locked with a nervous tightness as his eyes darted to the walls, to his knees, to anything but the excruciating, fond sincerity in Hendrik’s eyes.  It was all Hendrik could do to keep still, to not kiss Jasper’s trembling lips and ruffle him further, and to let his hand be crushed in his lover’s petite, powerful grasp.

“F-Fool,” Jasper hissed, voice shaking.  His knees shook too, as he drew them together, suddenly and endearingly shy.  “Do you even hear yourself speak?”

Hendrik dropped his hand then – but only to instead scoop him into his arms, and Jasper went willingly, grousing but pliant, folding himself small and butting his face into Hendrik’s shoulder like he was trying to hide.  Hendrik kissed the crown of his head, and Jasper muttered something that sounded like another insult, but it was muffled and lost against Hendrik’s skin.  The pink sheen to the tips of his ears, however, was entirely obvious.

Jasper was delicate, but it wasn’t a delicacy born of weakness.  After all, he was stronger than anyone Hendrik had ever known, and definitely far stronger than Hendrik himself…even if he couldn’t always see it.

Jasper’s delicacy was gracefulness, sensitivity, and emotion.  It was being kind to children, and feeding stray cats.  It was the high standards he held himself to that left him fragile and teetering, and the constant striving to improve that blinded him to the incredible feats he had already achieved.  But it was also an innocent and sweet thing at times: small hands, and blushing cheeks, and soft, secret kisses beneath a shared blanket.

And if Jasper saw his delicacy as a weakness, then Hendrik would just have to remain by his side to protect him, and to prove him wrong.  And he fully intended to.

Chapter Text

“Through here,” Eleven whispered. His breath curled past his lips in a lazy wisp of warm air, and rose up into the cool dark of a dry winter night. He handed off his lantern to Erik, and, rather than climb down the well as they had before, in a moment that felt like a lifetime ago, he moved with sureness to step among the crumbling stones of a fallen kingdom, leaving footprints in the light dusting of pristine snow.

He held his hand out once he’d stepped over the rocks, patient, and once Erik had handed back the lantern he took that very hand, letting Eleven hoist him up and over the rocks. Eleven squeezed him once, when they were settled on flat ground, and kissed the crown of his head. “Easier than going through the well, right?”

His hair had grown so long, Erik noted absentmindedly, watching the way his bangs cradled his face, hugging the curves of his cheeks, sharper now than before—the last of his baby fat worked away by puberty and a too-hard life—but still soft, still beautiful. The rest was done up in a ponytail, a small braid on both sides tucked into the ribbon holding it in place.

Erik’s fingers tingled, remembering the way Eleven had ducked his head so shyly, asking for something a bit more elegant, more refined. It might have been nothing more than a grubby street boy who’d done him up, but he looked every bit the image of a lost prince as he walked among the remains of his ruined kingdom, toeing aside rubble, his posture tall and sure.

Dundrasil looked beautiful in the snow. Even as it was—crumbling and long past broken, vines and moss climbing the stonework and reclaiming the land—there was something majestic about it. Something serene. Eleven fit among the would-be castle, moving with a quiet purpose. If Erik squinted just right, he could almost imagine floors waxed to a shine and sleek tall windows, and Eleven, stood on the balcony of his castle, the moonlight catching silver in his hair.

In that world, he wondered if they’d have met. If, under better circumstances, he might have found himself in a similar position, two steps behind his Luminary, tucking himself into his shadow to hide from the gravity of what they were about to do.

They probably would have, he decided, when Eleven looked back at him and smiled, something small and soft and sad. He still could’ve met the Seer, in another time. Maybe he’d have gotten himself locked up in Dundrasil instead, for demanding an audience with the prince. Eleven would’ve come to see him anyway. He always had a soft spot for people who made stupid requests of him.

“Will you help me?” He was pulled from his thoughts by the man in question, settled on his knees before that familiar headstone. The lantern was set at the base of it, radiating warm light on the words carved into the stone. The snow at the base began to melt from the warmth, and Erik bent down to brush it away entirely before it could soak into the rock and turn to ice.

Eleven moved with familiarity after that, his eyes downcast. He handed Erik items from his bag, and arranged them before the grave with a perceptible gentleness. He was quiet the whole while, save for his breathing, his hands steady as he laid the items before the final King and Queen of Dundrasil.

Irwin’s helmet, gleaming under the flickering fire. The Princess’ Pledge, leaned gently against its shining head. The lantern, still at the centre, casting a small warmth among the scene. Finally, a bundle of herbs, laid before it all. Hawthorn, rosemary, sage, thyme. (Eleven had picked them himself a week ago, from the forest surrounding the Tor, and Erik had set them to dry above the stove, the smell wafting through the house whenever he cooked.)

Erik sighed, watching Eleven lean back and settle onto his knees. His fingers itched to cross that distance between them, to cradle Eleven in his arms and have him sigh all his words out into the crook of his neck, rather than into the silence around them. Instead, under the watchful scrutiny of his ancestors, Erik laid his hand atop his, and the two of them looked to the sky.

“Mum, Dad,” Erik twitched at the sound of Eleven’s voice, instinctively pressing closer to him in the cold, sharing his warmth. Eleven pressed back, entwining their fingers, his thumb stroking slow over Erik’s skin as he spoke. “Rab wants to start rebuilding the castle in the spring. Once the snow’s all gone. He’s started going to visit people who might be able to help while everyone’s spirits are high. Says all the wine and good cheer can get people to agree to anything.” Erik scoffed, amused, and felt Eleven’s shoulders shake with his own quiet huff of laughter.

“I’ll be able to visit a lot more,” he continued, “because I agreed as well. I’m not… I don’t know if I want to be King, when this is all over. But I want to see it rebuilt. I want to call Dundrasil my home. And, I brought someone who’s going to come with me. I mentioned him before, and I said I’d bring him to meet you.”

For a second, Eleven glanced away from the sky, a shy grin on his face. “This is… Erik. The one who saved me, when Mordegon had me put in the dungeons. I wouldn’t be here without him. I wouldn’t be here in front of you or… Alive, probably. He’s been with me since pretty much the start, and I don’t know if it was Yggdrasil, or some other divine intervention, but I’d never have it any other way.”

He pressed closer to Erik, and Erik wrapped an arm around his side, bringing them flush together. He’d been resisting the urge to shove his way into Eleven’s space since they’d sat down, and gave in too easily now, hiding his warm cheeks in the crook of Eleven’s neck. In response, Eleven turned towards him once more, his lips pressed to Erik’s temple with reverence, words whispered against his skin.

“He takes good care of me. I don’t know what I’d do without him. You’d like him a lot. Erik is… Loyal, and kind, and smart. He put his trust in me, way back when, and he made me laugh. Even if all I wanted to do was lay down and cry, he could make me laugh,” curled against him, Erik shuddered at the affectionate tone of his words, and felt Eleven hold him that little bit tighter in response. “Rab tells me a lot about both of you, when I ask, and he said that he knew you loved each other because dad, he said you always made mum laugh, even when she was stressed out.”

Eleven’s voice pitched low and private, and Erik burrowed his face more incessantly against him, listening more to the low rumble of his speech than the words themselves. He’d been invited, but it still felt too intimate a moment, too private. A conversation that he ought not to have been privy to, even if he was.

He didn’t need to hear the words to understand it anyway, the affectionate lilt of Eleven’s voice saturated in every word, and if he were being brutally obvious with himself, he’d admit that it may just have been hard to accept such adoration was in service of his name.

He wasn’t sure how long Eleven spoke. More than usual, he was sure, but he knew full well what it was like to try talking to someone who couldn’t answer back. It was nice anyway, listening to him, only picking up on half of what he said, a stray ‘Jade’s really taken with the idea of learning how to work with stained glass,’ and, later, ‘now Mia’s really insistent that I take the throne so she can be a princess, which is entirely Jasper’s fault,’ pulling Erik’s lips up into a sleepy grin. Then, slowly, he tapered off, the pauses between his stories growing longer until he ceased speaking at all. The lantern flickered before them, the oil burning low, and a breeze rustled the dried herbs up, their smell sharp like the crisp winter air.

Eleven shifted, slow and precise, wrapping both arms around Erik. He kissed the side of his face, brief, fluttering touches. “Erik,” he said, the words spoken against his cheek. Erik hummed, and felt Eleven smile, kissing him again, “do you want to say anything to them?”

“What?” He replied, his sleepy complacency torn from him. He jerked back from Eleven’s neck to look at him, feeling his own heartbeat pickup, his hand reaching up to grip his chest automatically. The whole while, Eleven’s smile remained, gentle and encouraging, and when Erik searched his eyes he couldn’t find anything but that open honesty he’d fallen so hard for what felt like a lifetime ago. It made him fluster, eyes flitting between the gravestone and Eleven’s face, his teeth gnawing at his lower lip.

“Talk,” he said, his voice raising with something like panic, “to your parents?”

Eleven nodded, as patient as ever.

His nerves silenced under the look on Eleven’s face. Like Erik had hung the stars in the sky just for him, like he’d chased him through lifetimes just to see him smile, and having done all that surely he’d be able to manage this. And Erik hadn’t done any of that, but he would, goddess knows he would for him, and so he nodded, bending effortlessly under the weight of Eleven’s eyes on him.

He put some space between them, shifting up onto his knees and scooting a scant hands width away. Even that far he was left bristling at the winter chill that scraped incessant and biting where Eleven’s touch had warmed him, but he swallowed it down, bracing himself.

He couldn’t help feeling distinctly silly as he looked up at the full moon, especially with Eleven’s eyes so obviously on him, making him fight down the urge to squirm with embarrassment.

“Eleanor, Irwin. Can I call you that? Shit—your Majesty and your Highness?” Erik clicked his tongue, squeezing his hands together that much harder. “I’m not very good at this whole afterlife-souls-magic thing, but.” He paused, licking his lips. “I wanted to let you know, I love Eleven. More than I’ve loved anyone, really, ‘cept my sister. He means the world to me, and I’m going to protect him, and make him happy. I promised a few pretty important people I would, after all, the two of you included.”

He smiled to himself, voice dropping into a whisper, “if you’d been—been here, I would have asked your blessing to be with him. I can’t really, and you wouldn’t be able to stop me anyway, but, wherever you are, maybe you can give it anyway. If you want. Thanks.” His voice tapered off, the last word barely an exhale.

When he turned to look at Eleven, he wasn’t surprised to see him staring, his pretty face frozen into stunned, gaping silence. It still made him flush, huffing out a breath as he cast his own gaze downwards. It meant he missed Eleven ducking his face away as well, missed him wiping furiously at his eyes, and only looked back up when solid arms wrapped around him, guiding him closer.

“I love you too,” Eleven whispered. His fingers, soft despite their rough, sword-worn texture, guided Erik’s chin up. He kissed him, holding him delicately by the chin, and Erik melted into it. The touch passed calmness between them, familiarity dulling their anxious flitting until Erik had all but sunk into Eleven’s arms.

He looked forlorn when Eleven broke the kiss, even as his finger came up, brushing Erik’s bottom lip.

“Thank you. For talking to them. And for coming with me. Even if you don’t get this ‘afterlife-souls-magic thing,’” Eleven teased, lips quirked up in a grin.

“Don’t be a dick,” Erik replied. He settled his head onto Eleven’s shoulder a moment later, closing his eyes. “Do you really think they’d approve of me?”

“…Yeah,” Eleven whispered, kissing the top of his head, “did I ever tell you all the stories about my dad? According to Rab you were kinda like him, when he was our age… Maybe a bit more of a scoundrel.”

“You like scoundrels.” Erik replied automatically.

Eleven snorted out a laugh. “I do,” he said, voice rich with emotion. And Erik found himself reminded again what it was like to be around someone who knew love so well, and who felt it so brightly. Who was surrounded with it near everywhere he went—not just as the Luminary, hero of the world. But as Eleven, kind and soft-hearted and resilient. It made his chest ache that even with all that love available, he sought out Erik’s first.

His throat felt tight, one hand tangling in the fabric of Eleven’s winter coat, the other splayed out on the ground beside them. He didn’t need to see Eleven’s face to know he was smiling, could feel it perfectly well where his face was pressed against Erik’s skin.

“Will you come back with me again next week?” Eleven asked, voice soft. Erik nodded.

Chapter Text

Eleven was bad at keeping secrets.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  He was good at keeping big secrets; like his time travel escapades, and his foreknowledge that King Carnelian was possessed by Mordegon...and his plans to propose to Erik.  That had come as the biggest shock of all, and Erik still looked awestruck at the matching bands on their fingers every day, like he expected them to just disappear.

But little white lies were not where the Luminary’s talents lay.  When Mia knocked over a precious ornament that Amber had owned longer than Eleven had been alive, she had come sniffling to him and he and his soft heart had tried to cover for her, but he had stumbled over his words until Mia herself had stepped in and confessed to save him from further embarrassment.  

When one of the village children had innocently questioned him about a hickey on his neck he had forgotten to hide, he had been so unable to come up with an excuse that he had just clammed up as if he had shypox, and Erik had to invent on the spot a fake allergic reaction to a bug bite.  

And now, there was this.

“Heading out again?”

Eleven froze with his hand outstretched towards the doorknob.  He turned woodenly and met Erik’s eyes with a strained smile.  He nodded.

“Another evening stroll?” Erik asked.  Eleven nodded again.  Goddess above, he made it so easy.  As terrible as his lies were, staying silent like this was just as telling.  That he was so self-aware of his lack of fibbing skills that he would choose instead to not say anything at all was adorable though, Erik had to concede.  He always wanted to kiss his husband, but he wanted especially to do it when he was being cuter than normal.  Which was, admittedly, frequently enough that “cuter than normal” was starting to just become the new “normal.”

Honestly, it was incredible enough that Eleven had even managed to come up with the cover story of going out for a walk every evening.  Like clockwork, once they had eaten dinner and cleared up, he would disappear for an hour or two on the basis of his flimsy excuse.  And it was a flimsy excuse, when Cobblestone was so small that Erik could walk the length of it and back in under fifteen minutes, and when it was obvious Eleven wasn’t venturing outside the village because he never took a weapon with him.  He had taken a bag the first night, bulging with something that barely fit inside its small confines, but every night since he had left empty handed and returned just the same, albeit with a layer of sweat and a little grime caking his pretty face.

It would be suspicious to anyone who didn’t know Eleven as well as Erik did.  But while Erik couldn’t figure out why he was doing it, he knew exactly what it was that his husband was sneaking off to do every night.

He was forging.

Even if Erik hadn’t figured it out as soon as he clocked that the Fun-Size Forge had conveniently disappeared from where they kept it in their home when Eleven left that first night, he would have known as soon as he heard the distinct and familiar sound of hammer meeting magical forge that rang out across the village.  Cobblestone was a quiet place even during the peak of the day, never mind in the peaceful evenings when wispy plumes of smoke rose from chimneys as people began to wind down for the night, leaving nothing but the winds rustling the grass and the sounds of the animals to carry through the silent lanes.  

Plus, Erik was the one who had stolen the forge in the first place.  He knew what it sounded like better than almost anyone, save for perhaps Eleven himself.  He wasn’t going to mistake it for the sound of some other idiot forging in the dimming dusklight.

So Eleven was forging.  That mystery was solved, at least.  

But it raised more questions for Erik: what was he forging, and why was he hiding it from his husband?

It wasn’t nice to mistrust someone you loved, Erik knew, but this wasn’t so much a case of mistrust as it was unbearable curiosity.  Erik was sure Eleven wasn’t doing anything malicious, but he couldn’t help wanting to know what it was that he was doing, and why.  

It also wasn’t nice to follow someone you loved and spy on them from a distance, but that didn’t stop Erik doing that, either.

When Eleven left the next night, after he had mumbled against the goodbye kiss Erik had given him that he’d be back soon, Erik patiently counted to thirty and then slipped out after him.  

It was easy to spot him, casting comfortably clumsy shadows as he passed by a torch outside someone’s home, the shine of his hair catching Erik’s eye like a beacon.  Erik followed in the shadows, quick as nightfall in winter and silent as the grave, years of thievery keeping his footfalls inaudibly light.  

He followed Eleven around to the ladder that led up to the small, elevated nook that overlooked the stream, and therein lay the first problem - even a practised sneak like Erik would have trouble getting up an old, creaky ladder without making a noise.  So he did one of the things he did best: he waited.  

He waited until Eleven had ascended, and he waited until the sound of him working at the forge began to echo out as it had every night for the past week.  And then he waited some more, until Eleven settled into what seemed like a rhythm with the hammer, and only then did he approach the ladder, curling a tentative hand around one rung.  The wood and twine didn’t immediately shriek out his presence as he had half expected them to, and so he raised a foot onto one of the lowest rungs, braced with both hands, and when the hammer struck once more, heaved himself up.

It was slow going, but patience and diligence lent themselves to thieving, and so with every other metallic clang of the hammer that rang out above, Erik pulled himself carefully up another rung.  

Leaning into a rhythm and giving himself over to muscle memory, Erik’s mind wandered, and he found himself wondering how on Erdrea Eleven had even made it up the ladder the first night with the Fun-Size Forge in tow.  It wasn’t an overly heavy piece when shrunken down, but the thinness of the ladder made it an awkward enough climb for anyone taller and less wiry than Erik, never mind someone carrying a miniature forge under one arm.  He knew Eleven had built a fair amount of muscle during their travels and battles, but Erik still couldn’t help but flush at thinking of his husband swinging his way up one-handed.

His distraction meant he missed another figure watching him from the bottom of the ladder.

When he reached the top, Erik held his breath and eased himself painstakingly onto solid ground.  He stayed low and stuck close to the walls, draping himself in safe shadows where the moonlight didn’t reach.

Eleven had clearly had no such intentions when he’d arrived.  With his back to Erik he knelt before the forge in the very centre of the open space where the gentle light was at its strongest, giving him a clear view of whatever it was he was working on.  Not that Erik could see, he realised a moment later with a frown, since Eleven was conveniently shielding the view of what lay atop the forge with his own body.  If he wanted to see, he would have to compromise his hiding spot, and he didn’t really want to be discovered spying on his own husband.

He sighed silently and was about to turn away, branding his secret mission a failure, when Eleven raised his arm and brought the hammer down again, and Erik was distracted out of that thought almost immediately.

He had seen Eleven forge before, of course.  It had been stranger to not see him forging whenever they had stopped at a campsite on their travels.  It was a useful skill he had carefully honed over the months they had journeyed together, and he had quite obviously come to enjoy it as well; hoarding new recipes with a quiet sort of glee and gathering as many materials as his bag could hold before settling down in front of the campfire and engrossing himself in constructing a new helmet for himself, or a magical robe for Serena, or some shiny new claws for Rab (which the old man would accept with entirely too much reckless enthusiasm for someone of his age, Erik always thought).  

Even now that he’d settled back in Cobblestone, no need for extravagant armour or weaponry when the world was saved once more, he still liked to fiddle away and craft pieces of jewellery for his mother and Gemma, and little trinkets for Mia.  He had even begun a foray into an extensive earring collection for Erik, studs and hoops and fancy decorative drop earrings of every conceivable colour and material.  (Erik had joked that Eleven could start up a handmade jewellery business if the whole Luminary thing didn’t work out, and Eleven had seemed to seriously consider it.)

But none of those were things he would hide away in secret to forge away from everyone else, away from Erik, and it only fanned the flames of Erik’s curiosity more.

Not only that, but Eleven looked—well, beautiful out here like this.  No matter how many times Erik had watched this exact scene, whether lit by soft firelight or surrounded by warmth and family in their home, he had never seen it quite like this.  

Eleven worked with a quiet, serene focus clearly formed on the assumption that he was alone, and the moonlight illuminated him in pale, desaturated hues until he seemed to almost glow as silver as the forge he leant over.  The sheen of sweat on his brow was captivating, as was the shift of defined muscle as he raised the arm not holding the hammer to wipe at it, his coat discarded to the side for the moment.  

Erik swallowed, craning forward a little for a better view of his husband at least, if not of whatever he was forging.

He sensed a presence behind him all at once and turned with speed that could have put a great sabrecat to shame.  His eyes widened when he recognised the intruder, but he didn’t halt his movement for even a second, and slapped his hand over his sister’s mouth before she could shriek at being caught and give away both their positions.

Mia gave a muffled squeak, and that was loud enough.  Erik gripped her jaw tighter in warning and briefly glanced towards where Eleven still worked away, undisturbed, before raising an eyebrow at Mia - Understand?  She nodded enthusiastically.

He let go of her gingerly and she rubbed at her face, shooting him a glare but staying obediently silent.  He leaned close, motioning for her to do the same, and when she complied he wasted no time in hissing, “What are you doing here!?”

“I followed you, dummy!” she hissed right back.

“How did you—” get up here without me hearing you, he almost finished, but she didn’t need her ego fed at a time like this.  “Never mind, just...”

“What are you doing here, anyway?” she interrupted to parrot back at him, wearing a sly grin.  “Why are you spying on El?”

“I’m not—!”  Erik winced at the volume of his denial, and yanked his sister further away from Eleven and back towards the ladder, deep into the shadows.  He tried again, quieter, “I’m not spying on him.”

“Stalking, then.”

It was so, so tempting to swipe out and cuff her across the head for that, but she would just yell or leap on him for a counterattack like the gremlin she was, and Erik didn’t really want to have to explain when they inevitably got caught why he was wrestling his little sister as well as spying on his husband.

Not spying.  Dammit.

Rather than respond, Erik elected to shove Mia towards the ladder, gesturing with his chin and his patented ‘obey your big brother or else’ look in his eyes.  Little bastard though she was, she still tended to fold under that look.  This time was no different, and she began to descend the ladder, albeit with a sullen pout.  The old rungs didn’t make a sound under her small, light frame - which at least explained how she’d managed to sneak up on Erik - and she leaped off halfway down, landing with barely a sound on the ground below.  Erik rolled his eyes at her theatrics when she grinned up at him before following her down, at a slower pace and still being careful to time his descent with every strike of the hammer from up above.

It was admittedly surprising that Mia was still there waiting for him when he reached the bottom, and that she hadn’t immediately fled when he turned his back to run to Gemma or Amber or anyone else who bought the frail waif act to shield her from the wrath of her scorned sibling.

He nudged her shoulder.  “Let’s go.”

She followed a few steps behind him as they made their way back home, unusually quiet.  But Erik knew that just meant she was winding up for a barrage of questions; she just couldn’t decide which to ask first.

The best move was to get in before she could.  “So what were you doing, sneaking up on me like that?” he asked, turning his head to regard her from the corner of his eye.

She looked up, a tellingly sheepish smile spreading across her face.  “I was bored, and I saw you sneaking out, so I followed you.  You didn’t even hear me!”  It was obvious that she was preening, fishing for praise from the big brother she so secretly admired.  He ignored her.

The temptation to scold her rose up inside him on instinct, but he smothered it down.  She hadn’t done anything more wrong than Erik himself, after all.  She wouldn’t believe him if he chided her for recklessness, since the village could hardly be called dangerous, even at night; and saying he was meeting Eleven for a private date was not only a bare-faced lie but would almost certainly invite childish sniggering and invasive questions that he didn’t have the energy for.  So he just stayed quiet.

Mia did not.  “You never told me why you were spying on El.”

“I wasn’t—” came out before he could stop it, and he bit his tongue to stifle any more knee-jerk responses.  He kinda had been spying.  “He’s been going up there to forge every night this week, but he won’t tell me why or what he’s making.  I was just curious.”

Mia hummed; a terrifyingly thoughtful noise.  The scuff of her feet picked up rhythm for a few seconds, and then she was beside Erik.  “Why don’t you just ask him?”

It was such a simple, childlike solution that Erik almost forgot to keep walking.  He looked down and met Mia’s eyes.  “He doesn’t know I know what he’s doing.”

“Then I’ll ask him.”

“You will not,” Erik warned.

“Sure I will!  I’ll just say I saw him go out decided to follow him ’cause I was bored, same as I did to you, and then I—”

Erik did stop walking then, grabbing Mia by the shoulder to make her stop too.  He turned her to face him, bending down to her height and bracing his other hand on her opposite shoulder.  “Mia, I’m asking you seriously.  Do not do that.”

She looked at him for a long moment, and then said, “Okay.”

She did it anyway.

“Hey El,” she began the very next morning during breakfast, swinging her legs under the table like the picture of innocence.  “What’re you forgin’?”

Eleven and Erik both choked at the same time.  That Erik reacted to the question at all should have been strange to Eleven, but he was so caught up in his own flustering that he didn’t seem to notice.  Small miracles, Erik thought, gulping down milk to soothe his hacking and glaring daggers at his sister.  She blinked her big, angelic eyes.

“F-Forging?” Eleven spluttered.  “I’m...I’m not—”

“I saw you,” Mia cut through his weak rebuttal as easily as her knife cut through the butter she layered onto her bread.  Then she dropped the utensil and put a hand to her mouth, demurely lowering her gaze.  “I’m sorry for following you, I was just curious…”

Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Erik thought.  (Even still, he couldn’t help but be impressed by her acting ability.  If he didn’t already know for definite she had horns and a forked tail, he would have almost thought he’d seen a halo manifesting above her head.)

“I-It’s fine,” Eleven said, his urge to pacify the poor child clearly overriding his need to try and construct a terrible lie.  “I was, um, it’s...I’m making a-a present for someone.”

As Mia’s cry of “a present!?” echoed excitedly around the cottage, Eleven’s eyes flicked over to Erik for the scantest of moments, barely long enough to blink and then they were gone again.  But in that brief heartbeat, Erik knew for certain, with the heavy weight of guilt settling into his stomach, that the present was for him.

He didn’t follow Eleven again.  He couldn’t.  Even all of Mia’s needling about how she knew Eleven would tell and she wanted to see and didn’t Erik want to see too couldn’t move him.  Guilt lined his shoes like lead, keeping him at home every night for another week, sitting by the window and looking out over the darkened village and listening to the sound of the distant hammering, striking a nail further into his heart with every swing.

(For all her clamouring about it at first, Mia quietened down after a few days too when Erik didn’t rise to her taunting.  She didn’t bring it up again, and as far as Erik knew she never followed Eleven up to his secret little nook again either.  She wasn’t a bad kid, really.)

But Erik had a new problem.  He was certain Eleven was making a gift for him.  He prided himself on knowing Eleven better than anyone else; better than Gemma, better than his mother (although she might disagree with him on that), so even though Mia hadn’t picked up on it Erik had recognised instantly the underlying softness behind the flustering in his face when their eyes met.  Though only for a moment, Erik had seen the look for what it was because he had seen it so many times before—as early as when they had first kissed, high off adrenaline and freedom and newfound companionship, and as recently as on their wedding day, when they had both promised the rest of their lives to one another in floods of tears.  

It was the face Eleven made that said I love you but are you sure I deserve you, fondness and shyness mixed together into a look Erik just wanted to kiss right off him, as if someone who was once a Viking errand boy and a thief could ever think he was owed anything more than a prince and a Luminary and a gentle, wonderful soul as the love of his life.

Erik’s new problem was that he didn’t know why the love of his life was so carefully crafting him a gift.  It wasn’t close to his birthday, and he was sure they didn’t have any anniversaries coming up.  The worry that he should be reciprocating the imminent gift-giving consumed him every hour of every day, so much so that he didn’t notice when Eleven returned one evening a week after the spying incident, looking pleased with himself  and cradling a bag bulging with what was clearly the Fun-Size Forge being returned.  He also didn’t notice Eleven’s newfound lack of nervousness all the next day, or how he kept pressing smiling kisses into Erik’s temple every time he passed.

He only noticed when it came time for Eleven’s usual ‘nightly walk’...and he didn’t leave.

Mia had already bounced out of the house after announcing she’d be having a sleepover with Gemma, leaving the two men alone.  Erik hadn’t thought anything of it at first - Mia was fond of Eleven’s childhood friend, and the more time she spent away meant the more time that Erik could do things with his husband that his sister shouldn’t be privy to - but now that Eleven was hovering in the kitchen doorway instead of leaving on his own mysterious endeavours, it seemed...oddly planned.  Erik recalled how he’d walked in on his husband and his sister whispering between themselves that morning, only to spring apart when they noticed him.  He felt sweat begin to bead along his hairline.  

This was the moment, he realised.

Eleven motioned for Erik to sit at the table.  He did, and Eleven himself followed suit a moment later, taking the seat opposite.  He produced from inside his jacket something of a smallish size and wrapped in layers of cloth, and put it on the table between them.  Erik didn’t touch it.

“You I’ve been forging something?” Eleven spoke up, voice soft and shy.

“Uh, hmm.  Y-Yeah?”  Erik’s voice came out a high, nervous pitch that he immediately berated himself for.  It was just a gift, from his husband, whom he loved dearly and trusted with his life.  He should be excited, not nervous.

“And how I said I was making a present for someone?”

“Mm-hmm?”  Still too squeaky.  He cleared his throat.

“Well,” Eleven continued, “It wasn’t a lie.”  Erik almost laughed.  Yeah, no joke.  “I was just trying to keep it secret because I didn’t want you to find out.”

Erik breathed out shakily, finally able to say the words he had known to be true for a week, “It’s for me?”

Eleven nodded.

“C-Can I open it now?”

He nodded again, and Erik hesitantly reached over and took the gift, beginning to unwrap it gingerly under Eleven’s careful gaze.  It made him even more nervous, being watched like that.  He still didn’t know why the present, couldn’t settle on a distinct reaction because of it; but at least as he continued to unwrap the binding with trembling fingers he was beginning to figure out what the present was.

A knife.  

It was a knife, the handle released from its wrappings before the blade so Erik could hold it comfortably and safely as he finally loosed the last of the cloth and let it drop onto the table.  And comfortable it was, he thought as he tightened his fingers around the grip, testing the feel of it.  It was the perfect size for his handspan, fitting neat and sturdy in his palm.  The handle had been crafted from some sort of dark wood (Eleven had always had a head like an encyclopaedia for flora and fauna knowledge, but Erik couldn’t say the same of himself) and decorated with engraved flourishes of a blue light enough to stand out but not too pale as to look oddly stark against its rich background.  It looked...fancy.  So fancy that Erik would have been convinced that Eleven had just shelled out their joint savings and purchased it from a boutique in Puerto Valor if he hadn’t heard him painstakingly forging it by his own hand night after night.

And all of that was without even mentioning the blade itself.

It was gorgeous, with a thin and dangerous-looking edge that came to a deadly point, and made of a material so dark it was almost black.  Something about it, the coating perhaps, shimmered softly under the light with a blue sheen to match the carvings on the grip.  Erik touched the flat of the blade.  His fingertips tingled with the telling mark of an enchantment, though of what kind he couldn’t tell.

He looked up at Eleven, who was nervously picking at the skin around his thumbnail.  Their eyes met.  Eleven looked like he was searching Erik’s gaze for the answer to an unasked question.  Erik asked a different question entirely: “El...what is this?”

“Do you like it?” Eleven blurted out in reply.

“Wha—  Yeah, of course, of course I like it, but wh—”

“It’s dieamend.  The, the coating I mean, the actual blade itself is made of platinum, but I wanted to make it special, like a good luck charm, so I thought covering it in dieamend would be perfect, and it looks nice too, right?”  As Eleven babbled on, the words pouring out of him faster than they ever had before, Erik stopped listening, casting his eyes back down to the dagger in his hands instead.  He turned it over, admiring it from every angle.  Dieamend.  A stone that warded off death magic, often used in charms made to wish one a long and happy life.  His fingers trembled.

Eleven was still going.  “I got the basic shape of the blade down first, and then I had to try and melt the dieamend and set it against the platinum without it losing any of its magical properties or its colouring, and—  O-Oh, but you probably aren’t interested in any of that.”  He laughed, bashful and self-conscious, and when he stopped his smile remained a tight, shaky line across his lips.  “ like it?”

Erik let out the breath that had stuck itself in his throat.  “I love it,” he reaffirmed, and was glad for it when Eleven’s posture softened, “but what’s it for?”

“Um, decoration, mostly.  I’d be glad if you just kept it with you.”

“N-No, I mean...what’s the occasion?”

Eleven immediately tensed again.  His gaze flicked away.  “O-Oh, there...there isn’t one.  I just wanted to give you a present.”

Erik put the knife down.  “You’re a horrible liar.”

Eleven jumped, and this time when their eyes met his were steeped in grey guilt.

Erik sighed.  He rubbed at the back of his neck.  “I just want to know if I’m forgetting an anniversary or something…”

“You’re not!”  Eleven was hasty to correct him.  “I-I mean, I suppose it’s kind of an anniversary, but it’s not an important one, and I don’t even think it’s worth remembering, honestly....”

You remembered it,” Erik pointed out, “so it must be important.  So I should remember it, too.”  His voice dropped into softer tones.  “Tell me.”

Eleven spluttered for a moment, his mouth opening and closing around words he wasn’t sure how to voice.  He looked away again, but for shyness rather than untruth.  “It’s...the first time we...made love.”

“Oh,” Erik said.

“Yeah,” Eleven agreed.

“ do you even remember that?”  The longer he thought about it, the more it seemed funny and sweet rather than embarrassing, and an amused smirk tugged at the corner of Erik’s mouth.  “I can’t even remember how many times we’ve done it this month.”

Eleven snorted at that, and Erik was pleased to see some of the tension leave him.  “Well it isn’t like I’m keeping count!  The first time was just...special.”

“It was a disaster.  No wonder I blocked it out.”

Eleven frowned.  “It wasn’t that bad.”

“You’re right.”  Erik grinned, teasing, and Eleven couldn’t keep up his charade of annoyance, slipping into a smile too.  “It was perfect.  Just like this knife is perfect.  You’re perfect.  I can’t believe you made this just for me.  Just for that.”

Eleven at least seemed to realise the disproportionate grandness of the gesture, a dusting of pink settling over his nose and cheeks.  “I’m just glad you like it.”

“I love it,” Erik said again, picking up the knife once more and turning it over in his hands.  The light seemed to reflect against it like a prism, shifting a subtle spectrum of colour over the blade.  He looked up again at Eleven.  “I love you.  I’m just sad I didn’t get you anything in return.”

At that, something seemed to shift in Eleven’s demeanour, and he stood up from the table to instead lean over it, bringing a knee up to rest against the tabletop and further propel him across it.  

Erik’s first thought was, Amber would kill him if she saw him doing that, and then, Oh, he’s about to take me to bed.

“I can think of something you can give me,” Eleven said, his voice low enough that Erik felt the vibrations of it in his very core.  Gone were all traces of the shy young man he had been mere moments before, replaced instead by a purposeful glint in his eyes and the deliberate way he looked Erik up and down.

Anticipation shuddered across Erik’s skin, but he forced cheekiness into his voice.  “Oh, can you now?  And what might that be?”

“I’ll show you,” Eleven said.

And when Eleven rushed around the table and scooped his husband into his arms, drawing a yelp from him that had both of them descending into giggles, Erik left his new knife behind.  

For as precious as it was, and as much as he fully intended to cherish it for as long as he lived, he had also promised that of something - of someone - that was far, far more precious to him.

And they would both still be there in the morning.

Chapter Text

“When you met me, did you think we’d turn out like this?”

Eleven blinked, his eyelids heavy under the weight of the sunlight, the warmth making him feel lethargic. He squinted at Erik, at his healthy tan and his gentle eyes and the curve of his spine as he sat up, craning to look at El.

He frowned. “Like what? Sunburnt?”

Erik reached out, poking El’s red shoulder. Serena’s sunscreen hadn’t done much for his skin, under the double threat of Puerto Valor’s summer sun and the way it reflected shimmering off the ocean and the white sands. El winced, twisting away, and Erik poked him again despite his grimacing, “leave me out of your bad skin choices. I’m not the cooked turkey here.”

He wasn’t. El sighed, rolling onto his stomach. Erik’s hand brushed across his skin, and he hummed his approval at the cool touch of more of that sunscreen, however ineffective it was.

“I don’t know what you mean then,” he decided, still watching Erik. His tongue was poking out as he worked, and his sunhat was comically big. El loved him.

He rolled his eyes and wiped the rest of the lotion on his knees, flopping himself down against El’s side. It was warm enough that he already felt uncomfortably sticky, especially that close, but Erik curled close anyway, whispering conspiratorially into El’s ear. “Married, babe. Partner. Husband. It’s weird.”

“Good weird?” El prompted.

He pressed his cheek to the side of Erik’s face, and felt the endeared huff against his skin, as well as the warm smile that followed.

“Obviously,” Erik confirmed, “best weird. Never had anything better weird.” El looped an arm around him, approving and possessive. Erik continued, “just… Dunno. You meet a guy in a jail cell—a guy some weird Seer told you to look for—you don’t really go out of your way to start imagining some long, loving future with him. Feels like a weird way to meet your true love.”

El hummed, but there was something uncertain in it, some unspoken disagreement there. Erik frowned, nudging his jaw with his nose. “Come on, out with it. You’re thinking something mean.”

“Am not.”

“You’re thinking something.”

“But it’s not mean!”

“Then what is it?” Erik nudged him again, harder, more incessant, and El turned to bump against him just as aggressively.

It devolved quickly, the two of them butting heads literally, rubbing their faces together with such intensity that it may have looked outright violent, if not for the massive, fond smiles on both of their faces. Then Eleven reached out, grabbing Erik’s cheeks between his sun warmed palms, and it stopped just as quickly with a firm, silencing kiss on the lips.

Erik was still grinning broadly when they parted, his own hands brushing El’s tangled, somewhat sandy hair from his face.

“You have to tell me,” he insisted. El frowned, and his grin grew just that bit more. “Don’t be a chicken about it.”

“You like chicken…”

“I like eating chicken. Come on, speak up. You’re not supposed to keep secrets from your husband, that’s marriage 101. We’re a joint deal now. Partners.”

He sounded so chuffed when he spoke, El could only pout and huff and blow a burst of hot air at his face, making Erik’s hair sway like the palm trees around them. But then he sighed, sufficiently worn down, and tucked his face away into the crook of Erik’s neck, hiding from the too-bright sun. “It’s just… I read a lot as a child.” Erik nodded. He knew intimately about Eleven’s interest in books. “I read a lot of adventure stories,” he added, and Erik nodded again. “And it wasn’t really unusual for the hero to meet their true love somewhere dangerous, or unconventional, so…”

He tapered off, looking away nervously. Erik bit at his lip, trying to stifle another smug, pleased grin. He was pretty sure he failed, if the way El’s face lit up to match his sunburn was any indication, so he let it go with a heady sigh, nuzzling at him. “Am I your true love El?”

“I married you!” Eleven protested, pulling Erik flush to him, “of course you are!” And oh, he sounded so stupidly sure—so much so that he nearly sounded offended. Erik laughed, rather than let himself be carried away by the wave of affection rising in his chest.

Then El kissed his ear, voice falling to a whisper. “I wondered, when I met you, just a little. If maybe we’d end up together. I don’t know if I actually believed it would happen until you, uh…”

“Kissed you,” Erik finished for him. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the way Eleven’s eyes had drifted shut, and how he’d leaned so far forwards on the balls of his feet he’d almost stumbled right back into Erik’s arms. It’d been his first kiss, both of their first kisses, and he was more than happy to have it seared into his memory.

El nodded, hiding his face away again. “So it’s not weird to me. Maybe weird that I met you, and that I got thrown in jail. But not that I fell in love with you.”

Erik hummed. For a minute, he said nothing, basking in the warm sun and the brush of Eleven’s breath against his neck and the gentle lull of waves lapping at the sandy shore. Then he nudged El. “You thought we’d turn out like this?”

Yggdrasil bless him, he turned red all over again, brows pinched together adorably as he shook his head with enough ferocity to send some stray sand flying. Erik shielded his eyes, laughing, and parroted at him, “but it’s not weird.”

“Well I hoped…” Eleven admitted, and then turned away completely at the bold smile that spread across Erik’s face.

“You had a crush on me.”


“Did you dream about our future together?” (And oh, he was throwing some pretty heavy rocks, considering his own fragile glass ego, but it was worth it for the way El lit up like a lighthouse, sitting up just so he could cover his face in his hands.)

“I’m warning you,” he muttered. Any hint of danger in his voice was sorely dampened by the embarrassed whine his words carried.

“I should ask Serena, you two probably compared notes—”

The rest of his teasing was cut off with an indignant squawk as Eleven scooped him up effortlessly, taking long strides away from their blissfully dry beach towels towards the shimmering blue ocean. Erik struggled, and yelled, and struggled some more, but El had a hell of a deathgrip when he wanted to and Erik didn’t actually want to hurt him.

And then he was thrown, with all the grace of an archer, or maybe a catapult, right into the water.

He landed ass first and emerged to the taste of saltwater in his mouth and the warm ringing of Eleven’s laughter in his ears.

Later, when they’d both splashed each other into submission, they dragged their towels down to the rising tide and laid there instead. Erik’s toes were growing pruny and El’s sunburn was going to be even more unmanageable, but the water was soothing and cool where it licked at their thighs and Erik could doze for hours listening to the sounds of the ocean and Eleven’s heartbeat steadily pounding away under his ears.

His fingers were tracing along Erik’s back, and they were pleasantly cool. He hoped it was seawater, and not sunscreen that El was blindly painting figures into his back with. He was too lazy to check either way.

“Hey El?” He asked, voice muffled by his chest.


“Did you ever look at someone and daydream up a fake future with them? Marriage, kids, all that?”

Eleven splashed him in the face in lieu of an answer.

Chapter Text

In a deserted back street of Heliodor, Jasper squatted, extended his hand, dangled his fingers and stilled.  He held his breath as she approached him, not even daring to blink as she stopped before him and raised her dainty head to sniff at his outstretched hand.  The butterfly kisses of her tiny breaths tickled his knuckles.

And then, the cat butted her head gently against his wrist, her eyes closing in greeting, and he breathed out all his tension.
“Hello there,” he said, hazarding a small scratch behind her ears.  She seemed to enjoy that, a rumbling purr starting up in her belly.  Jasper smiled, but it quickly turned into a frown when something else nudged his side repeatedly, mewling for attention.  He looked down, and there was another cat, grey and scruffy with a white patch on its chest.  He rolled his eyes.  “Honestly, Rufus, you would think I never feed you.  Or that nor do half the city, for that matter.”  He stood up and Rufus meowed again, winding himself around Jasper’s ankles and looking adorable.  “Don’t think I don’t know that you follow me back to the castle and weasel fish scraps out of the cooks, you menace.”

“Mrrp,” said Rufus.

“Mrrp,” agreed the other cat.  (She was as yet unnamed, given that he’d only met her a few weeks before when she had padded nervously out of the shadows behind Rufus.  He didn’t like to name them before he could comfortably pet them.  Something about not getting attached, he had reasoned with himself at some point.  That had, obviously, worked a treat.)

Jasper sighed.  “Alright, alright.”  He reached into the satchel he had brought with him and produced two small tins.  Rufus immediately wailed louder, and emboldened by his actions, the new cat did too.  They both sprang up onto their hind legs, pawing at Jasper as if trying to climb him.

“Be patient,” he scolded, but if anyone had been watching they would have seen the fond crinkle that softened the corners of his eyes as he squatted once more, gently nudging the cats aside to open the cans of food and place one before each of them.  Rufus tucked into his with fervour, whereas the new cat took a moment to timidly sniff hers before deciding it was safe and beginning to eat with delicate bites.  Clearly she had more sense and class than her companion.  Jasper liked her.

He sat back on the ground next to the two cats, not caring about dirtying his tunic and content to just quietly observe, here in the back streets where all the strays gathered.  There was probably some irony to that.

The peace didn’t last long.  As it happened, someone had been watching Jasper, and when armour clanked noisily into the narrow street it was difficult to tell who jumped higher in fright - him or the cats.

Back on his feet, Jasper turned fast as the cats skittered away to safety behind him.  He looked for all the world like their protector, the alpha stray standing fast against a threat to let his weaker friends escape.

Except the threat stopped still, hands held up in a show of peace.  Jasper relaxed instinctively even has he went hot with the shame of being caught doing something so below his station as feeding mangy cats.  Had it been anyone else, he would have come up with a story on the spot to explain away his flustered panic and the two half-empty cans of cat food behind him.

But he had given up lying to Hendrik.

“So this is where you got to,” Hendrik said, taking a tentative step forward.  When Jasper didn’t immediately run him through, he lowered his hands back to his sides.  “I was wondering.”

Jasper sneered and looked away, attempting to play off his embarrassment with a haughty huff.  (He saw Rufus peering out from a dark corner, looking despondent at having his dinner interrupted.)  “I’m off-duty.  Surely I can go where I please?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Hendrik said, a note of pleading in his voice that Jasper hated.  “I just—”

“And you?” Jasper cut in.  He gestured to Hendrik’s armour, gleaming as always under the Heliodorian sun.  “I was under the impression you were accompanying the princess today.”

Now it was Hendrik's turn to look away.  "She received...a visitor," he said, voice strained like the very idea pained him, "and requested to be left alone and not interrupted under any circumstances.  It sounded rather like a threat, and so here I am."

“The short one, I take it?”

“Well, she has returned to her appropriate height,” Hendrik pointed out, “but...yes.”

The reluctance with which he conceded had Jasper laughing, the sound a sharp jab to Hendrik's pride.  His words were even sharper.  "I hope you aren't searching for sympathy, because you'll get none from me.  When will you accept that your darling little princess is all grown up?"

"The same time as I'll have to accept that you've become mother of all cats in Heliodor, it seems," Hendrik quipped back, and Jasper fell to quiet seething.  He wasn't wrong, so there was no real way to rebuff him that wouldn't sound like childish denial, and that was the worst part.

Jasper made to turn away, and Hendrik made to catch his elbow, but both of them were interrupted by a small, shrill sound.


They looked down as one, and there standing between them and nuzzling against Hendrik's shin was Rufus.

Hendrik took a step back, startled.  That didn't deter Rufus though, as he followed and resumed rubbing as much of his face as possible against Hendrik's armour-clad leg.  It couldn't have been comfortable, but the cat didn't seem to mind, purring enthusiastically.

"I think he likes you," Jasper said.  Hendrik met his eyes; they shone with mirth.  "But he likes everyone, so don't let it go to your head.  He probably just thinks you have food."

"Ah."  Hendrik looked down at Rufus, still meowing for attention and, probably, tuna.  "I-I'm sorry, I don't have any food for you…"

Jasper swallowed a snigger.  It was really, truly tempting to leave Hendrik floundering and apologising profusely to a cat, but some small twinge of annoying emotion inside him offered an ounce of pity for his poor companion, and before he could really think about it he was scooping up the forgotten tin of food and pressing it into Hendrik's hand.

"Here, give him this.  Just don't blame me if he follows you home afterwards."

Hendrik still looked a little out of his depth, with Rufus all but climbing him now that he held in his hand the glorious sustenance, but somehow he managed to squat awkwardly in his armour and get the food down.  Rufus pounced on it immediately.  Hendrik sighed in relief.  He looked up at Jasper, and Jasper had the awful, gut-wrenching feeling he was searching for some sort of approval. 

He was not going to tell Hendrik he’d done well at feeding a damned cat.

He averted his gaze again pointedly, but his expression shifted from a deliberate scowl to something softer as he saw her: the new cat, poking her head out from a flowerbox that she must have jumped in to hide.  She seemed to look at her own abandoned tin of food longingly, but it was clear she didn’t want to approach the hulking, black-clad creature she wasn’t familiar with.  Honestly, Jasper couldn’t blame her.

With a sigh, Jasper bent down and picked up the second can.  He could feel Hendrik’s questioning eyes on his back, but he ignored the heavy weight of them and approached the cat’s hiding spot slowly, kneeling a safe distance away from her and placing the food back down on the ground.  She remained still for a few more moments, ears flicking; then slowly she emerged, first one petite paw, and then another, and then she was trotting over to Jasper and settling down to eat again.

Jasper glanced over at Hendrik, and Hendrik was still looking at him.  There was another question in his eyes now, but it was different - a childish, innocent longing that was all too familiar, that he had never quite managed to shed completely even all these years later.  Jasper rolled his eyes and gestured with his chin.  Come on, then.  As Hendrik scrambled to his feet, Jasper raised a finger to his lips, eyes narrowing in a glare.  But quietly!

Hendrik nodded obedience, and moved slowly towards where Jasper knelt before the new cat.  It was almost comical, watching him tiptoe towards them and trying to keep his bulky armour from making noise, and Jasper found that he couldn’t look right at him lest he lose the ability to keep a straight face.  His gaze fell back to the cat instead - a pretty little ginger and white thing - and he watched her eat in silence until Hendrik settled next to him.  His armour was warm from the day’s heat, and Jasper could feel it permeate his thin clothing where their arms brushed.  He moved away.  They both fell into silence.

Hendrik was the first to speak up, as he often was.  “Do you...often do this?”

Jasper didn’t look at him.  He focused instead on the cat’s shoulder blades, jutting easily through her fur as she leaned down to eat.  Poor thing, she was thin.

“Yes,” he admitted.  “ cats.”

“I had no idea.”  That was an admission too, and a small smirk came to Jasper’s face, though there was no amusement in it.

“Isn’t that just the way,” he said drily.

Hendrik sighed, the sound rough with sudden frustration, “Jasper, I—”

They had been speaking in hushed tones, but Hendrik’s outburst shattered the spell of quiet.  Immediately, the cat’s head snapped up to them and she went rigid, her ears folding back.  Her tatty fur did its best to fluff up threateningly as she let out a small, startled hiss.

“Quiet, you oaf.”  Jasper’s voice was just as much of a hiss, and Hendrik had the distinct feeling he was being scolded from two different angles.  “You’ve frightened her.”

As if to prove Jasper’s point, the cat turned tail and scurried back into her previous hiding place among the flowers.  Jasper turned an unimpressed look on Hendrik.  Hendrik could almost hear the sarcastic “well done.”

“I, um,” Hendrik flustered, looking from Jasper to the hiding cat, to the food, to Jasper again.  “Can we get her to come out again?”

Jasper eyed him for a long moment.

“Perhaps,” he relented eventually, and dug in his bag to produce a small packet of...something.  When he shook it, whatever was inside rustled, and that had Rufus running over as fast as his little legs would carry and pawing at Jasper’s hand.  Jasper sighed, clearly used to this behaviour, and shoved with an equal amount of exasperation and fondness at the cat’s furry face.  He thrust the packet at Hendrik.

“Here, open this.  They’re treats,” he said, hooking an arm under Rufus’s belly and lifting him into his lap.  Rufus squirmed, because as much as he liked cuddles, he found food much more appealing.  “She might be less afraid if she can associate you with food.  And give me some too, so she can see Rufus eating them.  That might tempt her more.”  Hendrik did as he was told, tearing open the pack and tipping some of the treats into Jasper’s waiting palm.  He barely brought it close enough for Rufus to reach before the cat dove in, wolfing down the treats with as much enthusiasm and as little grace as possible.  Jasper grimaced, tearing his eyes away from the mess of drool and crumbs slowly coating more and more of his hand to look at Hendrik instead.  “And for Yggdrasil’s sake, lose the gloves.  It’s no wonder she’s scared of you when all she can smell is sweat and leather.”

Hendrik could say nothing after such a concise dressing-down.  As silly as it sounded, despite being a proud knight of Heliodor who had once stood side by side with the Luminary, being unable to even befriend a cat left him feeling somewhat...inadequate, especially next to Jasper, who manoeuvred Rufus’s excitable heft with a practised ease.

After unstrapping his gauntlets and removing his gloves to place them behind him, Hendrik tipped some of the treats into his own palm as he had done for Jasper, and then held his hand out towards where the cat was hiding.  She met his eyes, staring at him with round, unblinking orbs.  Jasper, he knew, was also staring.

He shook his hand slightly, rolling the treats around his palm.

“Here,” he said, careful to keep his voice low and non-threatening.  “Look, see?  I-I have food for you.  It’s alright.”

The cat didn’t move.  Jasper adjusted his hold on the wriggling Rufus, who had finished his treats and immediately decided the ones Hendrik had must be for him as well.

“It’s alright,” Hendrik said again.  He took one treat from his palm and tossed it a small distance in front of him.  It landed midway between him and the cat’s hiding spot.  “See, it’s safe.”

This time, he saw her whiskers twitch and her head minutely move to watch the arc of the treat as it travelled through the air.  When it landed, she appeared fixed on it to the point that she poked one paw out, curiosity momentarily overcoming her fear.  But it seemed that even she knew of the old saying about curiosity and cats, and her head snapped towards Hendrik again, eyeing him warily.  He didn’t move.

She did, though, after a long moment that to Hendrik felt uncannily as if she was appraising his character.  The paw that had breached her hiding place came down to rest on the ground, followed by the rest of her graceful form.  She crouched a minute longer, ears flicking as though she was unsure whether to prick them up or keep them swivelled back, cautious but unquestionably interested.

And then, decision made, she walked over to the treat and ate it.

Hendrik released an unconscious breath all at once.  Beside him, Jasper chuckled.  Rufus meowed.

Hendrik’s next angle was to place another treat directly in front of him, so that the cat would have to approach him if she wanted more, but wouldn’t have to let herself be touched yet.

Again, she spent a long time just watching and deciding, but again she came nearer, skirting around the treat a few times before finally lapping it up, too.  Once she swallowed it, she looked up at Hendrik, licking her lips almost expectantly.  He couldn’t help but smile.

This time, he extended his hand down towards her, opening his palm to let her see the handful of treats that he still held.  She backed up a little, nervous, but spurred on by the prospect of more food (and, perhaps, by how her buddy Rufus was now halfway over Jasper’s shoulder and swiping at his ponytail) she stepped forward again, stretching her neck out to sniff at Hendrik’s hand.  Her wet little pink nose brushed over his fingertips one by one, and then she turned her head and rubbed the side of her face against his hand with a vigour he hadn’t expected and that almost made him drop the treats altogether.

That sent Jasper quietly sniggering again, and Rufus’s attention-seeking wailing soon joined in when he realised anew that his friend was being fed and he wasn’t.

“I think she’s forgiven your earlier transgressions,” Jasper said.

“It would seem so,” Hendrik agreed, voice still unusually small and awed as he watched the cat burrow her nose into his palm and start crunching at the treats.  He sat with a forced stillness, but no matter how stiff his legs were getting, folded beneath him in their armour cladding, he held his position as if he’d been ordered to.  Jasper almost couldn’t contain his laughter; he bit down on the inside of his cheek so hard it almost drew blood to keep it in, though his shoulder still shook with the effort of repressing his mirth.

When the cat had finished the treats, she looked at Hendrik one last time as if to ask if he had any more (he did not - the packet sat crumpled and empty behind him) and then turned on her heel and left him for Jasper instead.

He was crushed.  Even after all that he’d just done to earn her trust, his new friend had abandoned him!  ...Until he saw that what she’d actually abandoned him for was finishing off her can of food that she had already left behind twice, and clearly wasn’t willing to ignore any longer.

He sighed, feeling the tension leave him now that the pressure of cat-feeding was lifted from him.

“You did it,” Jasper said, and from any other it would have sounded like a compliment.  From him, though, Hendrik couldn’t shake the feeling that it was supposed to be a taunt of some sort.  “I daresay next time she’ll even look forward to seeing you, provided you come armed with more treats—”

“Next time?” Hendrik asked, and as their eyes met, blue-green upon gold, he saw the exact moment Jasper realised his mistake.

“I-I mean—”  He floundered wordlessly for a moment and looked away, an obvious shade of pink colouring his pale skin.  He’d never taken the sun well, and these days Hendrik was glad for it, if it meant he could watch the slow flush of a rosy glow wash over him whenever he was the slightest bit flustered.

Jasper’s grip on Rufus slackened and he escaped his prison immediately, tearing over to Hendrik and butting into his hands, looking for more treats.  He mewed sadly when his search came up empty, and Hendrik scratched him hesitantly behind the ears.  Rufus purred and lay down.

“We both have the evenings off this weekend, don’t we?” Hendrik suggested, his voice dropping quieter of its own accord as he raised the idea.

“Yes, we do.”  Jasper’s tone was unreadable.  He turned his face low, the locks of his hair he had left loose from the tie falling to shield his expression.

“Perhaps I could...accompany you, if you were to—”

“Why did you come looking for me, Hendrik?" Jasper cut in, slicing through the advance with an abrupt ease.  "Afraid I’d get up to something sinister again if left unattended, hm?”  Hendrik still couldn’t see his face, but there was something new to Jasper’s voice now, something much deeper than the mocking self-deprecation that the words by themselves implied.  It was something sharp, something acidic, but different from Jasper’s usual bite in a way that Hendrik couldn’t name, but that he was instantly, instinctively repulsed by.

It was, if he had to put an image to it, like watching Jasper run himself through on his own swords.

It took a moment for him to compose himself, and to stifle the urge to reach over and gather Jasper into his arms.  He cleared his throat and saw Jasper tense with the anticipation of an imminent answer.

“Can I not just wish to see you?” he asked, voice soft.

That made Jasper look at him, and the way his eyes brimmed and glittered with unrepentantly beautiful melancholy had Hendrik’s heart stuttering, so much that he put a hand to his chest.  No wonder Jasper had hidden his face, he thought, when his expression was one of such raw honesty that his pride would never let him show it.


Jasper turned away again almost immediately.  His hand came up to fiddle with his bangs; an old, nervous tic he had never grown out of.

Hendrik found himself reaching out.  He could slide his fingers into Jasper’s hair, stroking easily through the soft, golden strands and along the sharp line of his jaw, guiding and tilting his head, careful and slow.  And Jasper might even let him, might allow him enough closeness that he could taste the bitter apologies straight from his lips.

Rufus mewled and waved his little paws, wanting to be pet more.  Jasper’s shoulders tightened, and Hendrik sighed and dropped his hand back to the cat’s rough fur.

The moment was gone.

“Does she have a name?”

Jasper jumped.  His hand stilled where he had been stroking along the new cat’s spine.  She had finished eating and flopped before him to clean herself, and despite the awkward silence that had fallen over the two men Jasper had clearly been pleased when she had allowed him to pet her as she licked at her paws.

His head turned towards Hendrik a fraction.  “W-What?”

“Your cat there,” Hendrik clarified.  He was almost wrist-deep in tummy fur now, his palm vibrating with the strength of Rufus’s purring.  “Does she have a name?”

“She isn’t my cat.”  The forceful way he denied it was enough to bring a tiny, fond smile to Hendrik’s face.  He indulged it, safe in the knowledge that Jasper wasn’t looking at him.  “And no, she doesn’t have a name yet.  I was...waiting until I gained her trust first.”

“And now that you have?”

“I...don’t know,” Jasper conceded.  He sounded unsure - and, Hendrik thought, not just because of his indecision.  “I still haven’t thought of one.”

“I see…”

Jasper sat up straighter suddenly, and turned, and then he was very much looking at Hendrik.  “You should name her.”

It took a minute for Hendrik to be able to parse anything beyond the personification of radiance that sat before him.  Bathed in the late afternoon sun that sneaked between the rooftops, Jasper was glowing like he was wreathed in gold.  A blushing tinge to the tips of his ears added a touch of rose to make him brighter still, and even more stunning.

“I—  What?” Hendrik asked, intelligently.

“You should name her,” Jasper said again, quieter this time, like maybe he thought the suggestion was foolish.  He shifted a little where he sat, and his eyes fell to his lap.  “She...trusts you, too.”

He stopped his rhythmic petting of the cat.  She rubbed her paw over her face one last time, then stood up and stretched, and padded her way over to Hendrik.  She rubbed against his knee and meowed softly.

“See?” Jasper said.  “You certainly seem to have a way with strays.”

Jasper watched Hendrik as he fell into thought.  It was easy to map the process, his expression taking on an almost stony quality of focus, his mouth turning down as though something had displeased him.  Wrinkles appeared across his forehead and deepened, and Jasper endured a fleeting thought of reaching out and trying to smooth them.  Hendrik scratched between the cat’s ears as he ruminated on a suitable moniker for her.  

Despondent at finding himself suddenly abandoned by his new friend who was very good at tummy pets, Rufus had prostrated himself before Jasper again instead and was putting up with his distracted tickles along his back.

Eventually, Hendrik spoke up, an idea clear in his mind and decision clear in his voice.


Jasper snorted with such force that he almost choked.  Both cats and Hendrik turned to look at him, though only one of them wore a hesitant expression.

“Gherkin,” he repeated, the word coated in such thick disapproval it would take a man even more dense than Hendrik to miss it.

But still, he affirmed, “Gherkin.”

Gherkin meowed, but whether it was a sound of agreement or refusal it was hard to tell.

“Why...Gherkin?” Jasper asked, and it was only then that Hendrik’s expression turned sheepish.  His gaze flicked off to the side.  His fingers traced down the shape of Gherkin’s small head to settle under her chin, scratching gently.  She closed her eyes and purred.

“I had a cat,” Hendrik said, “when I was young, before…  He was the only cat I was never allergic to.”  His face took on a small, sad smile.  “His name was Pickles.  I never found out what happened to him, but one can assume.  He brought me great joy as a child, and so I...would like to honour his memory, but passing on his name outright feels…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, and Jasper didn’t need him to.  “So that’s why Gherkin.”

“So that is why Gherkin,” Hendrik affirmed.

“An ode to Pickles,” Jasper said.  He watched a gentleness sink into Hendrik’s normally stern features as the newly appointed Gherkin made little noises of contentment under his hands.

When the sun began to dip behind the tall buildings overhead, casting the street in dim shadow, the two men stood.  Jasper wobbled as he worked feeling back into his legs, since they’d been curled beneath him for so long, but Hendrik didn’t dare try to help him.  Some things weren’t worth the wrath of his wounded pride.  

That, and Hendrik still had a cat attached to each leg, both wailing at him for more attention.  Rufus and Gherkin had quickly taken a shine to him, probably for his contentment to sit and pet them as long as they wanted to be pet...or, and Jasper thought this more likely, the way he bowed under their big, cute eyes and most pathetically put-on mewls.  Even now, as they wound loops around his ankles, preventing him from moving, he had that flustered look again.  His hands twitched awkwardly at nothing, like he wasn’t sure what to do with them, and he stood as still as if he’d been carved from stone.

Jasper sighed and approached, making shooing motions with his arms.  “Alright, that’s enough.  Let’s not bully him on his first day.”

The cats backed off but still circled like a pair of adorable, fuzzy sharks entrapping their prey.

And then, Hendrik sneezed.

It wasn’t a surprise that his sneezes were always loud, given his build.  But this one seemed louder still, like it had caught him by surprise and risen up from the soles of his feet to be ejected from him with the force and volume of a thunderclap.  It echoed, bouncing all the way up the walls on either side of them.  Overhead, a flock of birds zipped across the sky, their wingbeats whistling in unison, and Jasper smirked at the idea that it was Hendrik’s sneeze that had frightened them into flight.

The cats scattered and disappeared.

Hendrik looked downright dejected when he realised what he had done, sniffing as he turned to face Jasper and his amused, raised eyebrow.  “...Allergies.”

“So I see,” Jasper said.  He shook his head and went about collecting the empty food cans and treat packet, stuffing them back into his satchel.  “Don’t worry, I doubt that’s enough to scare the greedy little devils off for good.  But maybe next time, take some medicine beforehand.”

His tone had been so casual - carefully crafted that way, Hendrik realised belatedly - that his words didn’t sink in until he had packed his bag up again and stood looking at Hendrik with an expression that clearly said, “Well?


“Honestly, Hendrik, it was your idea in the first place.  Don’t tell me you’re backing out now.”  (Hendrik wasn’t sure it had been his idea, but that wasn’t an argument worth having.)

Jasper’s voice and expression were both coated in arrogance, but if one knew to look beyond the draw of his brows and the unpleasant curl of his lip, they would see the way he gripped his bag strap tight enough to turn his knuckles white, or the near imperceptible shift of his weight back and forth as he fidgeted under scrutiny.

Hendrik knew.

“Of course not,” he said, his agitation lifting from him in a heartbeat.  In its place there grew a lightness, a strange and expanding buoyancy to all his limbs that had him pressing the balls of his feet hard into the stone just to keep himself grounded.  Even if he were to float away, though, he was certain Jasper would dig his claws in and drag him back.  “I’ll come, if you’ll still have me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t word it like that,” Jasper grimaced, but there was no hiding the slow creep of crimson up his neck.  “But yes, I suppose I will.”

They headed back to the main thoroughfare with a distance and silence between them that Jasper had impeccably calculated.

Hendrik breached one but not the other.  “You won’t bring them to the castle?”

“Hm?”  Jasper looked up.

“The cats.  It seems a shame to leave them to fend for themselves on the streets, and they’re clearly fond of you.”  You’re clearly fond of them, too, remained unsaid.  “I’m sure the princess could twist His Majesty’s arm easily enough were you to ask.  At the very least, they could catch mice in the pantry.”

“No,” Jasper said firmly.

It was such an instant, ferocious denial that it took Hendrik aback.  “Why?”

Jasper sighed.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the telltale flick of a grey tail as their secret stalker hid low behind a stack of barrels.  He was going to have to save his leftovers again.

Despite the uncomfortable heat spreading like a rash over his cheeks again - it always plagued him whenever Hendrik was around, curse him - Jasper met Hendrik’s eyes, clenching his jaw in an effort to keep the words trapped on his tongue before they could flee in cowardice back down his throat again.

“You have allergies, and Rufus at least likes to climb all over me, and I would rather not have you descend into a sneezing fit every time you try to get close to me,” he said, managing to keep his voice steady in an impressive display of nonchalance, even if the words themselves tumbled out a little fast.  It was ruined a moment later when his traitorous feet picked up pace, embarrassment clear in the taut line of his shoulders as he stormed ahead, escaping whatever responses Hendrik might have had planned.

“Mrow,” Rufus said, revealing his small furry form from his hiding place.

Hendrik looked down at him.  His dark eyes looked back, brimming with the unyielding wisdom he had garnered from his years as a street cat.  (Or perhaps just brimming with unyielding hunger.  It was hard to tell them apart.)

“I think you may be right, my friend,” Hendrik said to no one but the cat at his feet.  What he had gleaned from Rufus’s insight would remain unknown, but as he leisurely followed Jasper’s retreating form up to the castle, he was already planning what to say to get the king to agree to adopting another two strays.