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How lucky to be alive

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The two of them were lucky to be alive. That was what Sigrun said when they reunited with her.

Emil believed it.

It had been a cloudy, drizzly day. Not the best for visibility. But several days had passed since they'd last had luck with scavenging. After the last attempt had gone pear–shaped, they had stopped, taken a while to regroup. Now she'd decided that it was time to try again.

The building was sound, or so they thought. Or so it looked. But when Emil and Lalli crossed the broad floor together, they discovered otherwise.

They hadn't expected the floor to cave in under the weight of two people.

They hadn't expected the fall.

They hadn't expected what they found in the dark.

It was Lalli who held it off. Somehow. Emil didn't know how. He hadn't looked. Hadn't taken that risk. Only groped for his gun and tried not to panic, wanting to reach for his explosives and blow the troll to smithereens but knowing that it would bring the entire building crashing down on top of them.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw light, and heard Lalli's voice call out.

That was when his hand closed over his gun. And that was when he turned around. That was when he emptied the entire clip into the troll that loomed over his friend, held back by – what? Something he couldn't see.

Then there was blood, and silence, and darkness, until the thin finger of light from Sigrun's lantern dipped into the hole they had fallen through.

"We're alive," Emil called up to her, catching Lalli as he slumped against him.

"You guys have to get out of here, now. Do you see a way out?"

The stairs were still sound after a hundred years. The damp hadn't got to them, unlike the floor. Lucky for them.

Sigrun didn't have to say anything else. Emil knew the order; she didn't have to give it. She ushered them out, practically shoved them away, aborting the mission when it had barely started.

Lalli leaned on him. Emil said nothing.

It was only after they were away and safe that Emil allowed himself to wonder about what he had seen down there in that cellar. Light. Bright, white light. And Lalli's hand outstretched, as if to ward the thing off with nothing else.

He hadn't been holding a lantern.

Emil thought about it.

There had to be some explanation. Something mundane. Something ordinary. A small light, maybe. Something portable, meant to fit in a pocket, bright enough to blind even a troll. Something like that.

But if that were the case, why was Lalli so exhausted? Why did he collapse, as if he had been used up? And as much as Emil would like to guess at it, a tool like that was specialized and expensive. Not something Lalli was likely to carry on him.

The question welled up in Emil's mind, but he shoved it away, locked it in the back of his thoughts. It wasn't that he couldn't ask. Tuuri might know. But he had a feeling that he wouldn't like the answer.

Emil kept his questions to himself. Tended to Lalli, even if it wasn't as bad as the last time. Not as bad as that snowy day when Lalli had disappeared only to return bleeding from the eyes and practically dead on his feet. Emil cleaned him off, rinsed him, tried not to think about how Lalli allowed himself to be nudged about like a rag doll. Tried only to be grateful that he was cooperative rather than limp, that his eyes were open and clear, that the half–there look he had was only the look of someone utterly exhausted, not someone completely incapacitated.

"He'll be fine! Don't worry about him. You already know that this kid's tougher than he looks." Sigrun's words were followed by a pat on the shoulder. As if this was nothing.

Maybe it was nothing.

That didn't stop Emil from worrying. It didn't stop him from keeping close to Lalli, either.

Lalli didn't go out that night. Not the first night. He made an attempt, rolling out from his space under the bunk, but as soon as he tried to rise, a look crossed his face. Emil met his gaze. Neither said a word, but they didn't have to.

Emil handed him a biscuit and watched him roll back under the bunk.

The next day was the same. Lalli slept, stayed where he was, and it was only with reluctance and shoving from Sigrun that Emil left his side.

"Let him sleep," she said, nudging Emil out the door. "He won't get back to his old self with you hanging over him."

She was right, and he knew it, but it didn't stop him from glancing back as he left, and it didn't stop the worry from lurking in the back of Emil's mind throughout the day as they picked their way through derelict buildings.

When they finally returned, Emil was quick to get on his knees, quick to dip his head under the bunk, quick to check that everything was all right. "Lalli?"

Two eyes blinked open, staring dozily at him from the shadows. Then, slowly, a long–fingered hand slipped out, palm up. Waiting.

Emil slid his fingertips along that palm, then grasped Lalli's hand. Squeezed it. Kissed it. Knitted their fingers together. Lalli's grip was cool but strong, and that was reassurance enough. Lalli wouldn't go out that night. He couldn't. But that was fine. He would be fine.

He dreamed of magic that night, a dream that was more like a memory. Bright light. Lalli's voice. And he knew it was rubbish – even in his dreams, he knew it was nothing but stories – but the dream was like a thick comforting blanket over his shoulders.

All would be well.

All would be well.