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First Step in Faith

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The day he walks through town and leaves the tower, Ephrim can feel the eyes of the community on him. He feels it the way he imagines being covered in a swarm of bugs might feel. 

He moves alone. It takes him the better part of the day just hauling everything over to his little plot on the edge of the settlement and stacking boxes in the front room, just him, his arm still not quite what it used to be. Ephrim falls asleep that first night on the floor, his bed in pieces leaning against a wall, the smallest of the loveseats dragged from his University tower buried beneath pots and pans and a bag full of vegetables. 

He’s doing the right thing, though. He hopes. 

 

Throndir arrives with little fanfare months after Ephrim moves. He doesn’t even knock, just startles Ephrim by walking right in one day. Ephrim, who was in the middle of making dinner, drops one pan onto the floor, curses, and brings the other, empty pan into the front room with him as an improvised weapon. 

“...I don’t know what you think that’s going to do to me,” says Throndir. 

Ephrim laughs self-consciously. “You just walked into my house without knocking. What was I supposed to think?” Throndir shrugs. “Also, why are you here?” 

“I thought you’d like the company,” explains Throndir. 

Ephrim narrows his eyes. Throndir had been… upset, when he’d heard about the Understanding. He wouldn’t think that Throndir would be that considerate towards him, after that. But then, Ephrim remembers, Throndir had become an understanding kind of person. And they had spent the Long Winter together, had gotten close in a way that no one else could really understand. Throndir knew things about Ephrim that most people didn’t. 

He sighs. “You’re right,” Ephrim admits. “It’s been lonely. Come in. I’m making dinner.” 

Throndir smiles.

 

Ephrim doesn’t go out often. He gets his groceries and whatever else he needs and he quickly goes back home, because even after months there are some townspeople who eye him with distrust or even malice. (He keeps a wide berth from where Hadrian lives, because Benjamin had been so furious over the Understanding.) 

Throndir thinks this should change. 

“We went ice skating during the Long Winter, we had a good time, Ephrim, remember?” He prods. “This seems to be just like that, except wheeled shoes instead of bladed ones because it’s not winter. It’ll be fun. We had fun before.” 

Ephrim frowns. “I’m just not sure. People still don’t like me, Throndir.”

Throndir lets out a long sigh. “Ephrim. I think part of it is that you’re still shutting yourself away.” Ephrim starts to interject, because he doesn’t , he goes out to get supplies and go on guard duties, but Throndir waves a hand to cut him off before he can start speaking. “Really go out and be part of the community. Not just when it’s necessary. Because you want to.” 

He considers this. “Fine.”

 

People do give him looks. But he has a good time anyway, skating around with Throndir. He’s lost the knack he’d had for the ice skating, and this is a little different anyway, and Throndir pulls him around the rink for an hour before Ephrim really figures out how to move. It’s nice, his hands in Throndir’s. Really nice. 

Hadrian is there with Rosana. Hadrian doesn’t skate, but Rosana does, and she gives Ephrim a kind smile. He relaxes, under it. After everything, Rosana is still Rosana. 

 

“I don't know how to talk to Hadrian.”

Hella says it from Ephrim’s couch, perched big and awkward on the edge of it as though it were something fancy and brocaded rather than the same sort of furniture everyone else at the Last University has. She’s in her old armor, hadn’t even taken it off when she’d come in, and it clinks as she shifts nervously. 

Ephrim shrugs. “I mean, you don’t have to. You can just stay here with us for a week.” Throndir shoots him a look. Ephrim kisses him. 

Adaire mutters something scathing about displays of affection. Unlike Hella, she’s made herself comfortable, sprawling across the couch with arms spread wide. “And why would we want to do that,” she comments dryly. 

What Ephrim diplomatically doesn’t say is, because me and Throndir are maybe the only people in town who don’t hate you for your involvement in the Understanding . What he does say is, “because we’re friends, Adaire. Aren’t we friends?” Adaire scowls. 

“I dunno,” Hella continues, still staring at the floor and seemingly oblivious to Adaire’s demeanor. “I just miss him. But his kid hates me.” 

“Benjamin is young,” Throndir says diplomatically. “He hates a lot of people.” 

“It’s been a year.” Hella sounds despairing. 

“And he still hates me ,” Ephrim adds, “and I’ve been here. You, on the other hand…” 

Throndir eyes him again. “Ephrim.”

What? It’s true. 

“It’s true,” Hella says gloomily, as though repeating Ephrim’s thoughts. “We haven’t put in the work.” Adaire, in a shocking display of tact, reaches over and puts a hand on Hella’s back. “But I don’t know how to start,” continues Hella. “I heard about how people were to you, Ephrim. I don’t know how to - agh!” She cuts herself off with a frustrated shout, kicking the base of Ephrim’s couch. Ephrim tries very hard, and he thinks he’s successful, to not let his mouth twist at that. “I’m going to - I’m going to go outside to cool off,” Hella says stiffly, standing and walking out Ephrim’s back door. 

 

He goes after her, because he knows he should. 

“Hella,” he says over her. She’s sitting on his back doorstep all curled up into herself, still in her armor but looking smaller than Ephrim’s ever seen her. 

“What if he hates me now,” Hella mutters, not looking up to him at all. 

Ephrim sighs and sits down next to her. “At the end of it all,” he starts, taking Hella’s hand in his own, “you have to… listen, you and Hadrian were good friends.” Hella nods, looking uncharacteristically as though she’s about to cry. “And you miss him.” 

“I miss him,” she repeats. 

“He probably misses you too - in fact, I know he does,” Ephrim corrects. “He talks about you, and about everything that happened before the Spring. He will want to mend things, Hella.”

Hella inhales. It’s shaky. He’s never seen her like this before. “Yeah?” 

“Yeah. You just have to be the brave one and reach out first, because he’s not going to.” Ephrim pauses. “And also he doesn’t know you’re in town, I don’t think.” 

She laughs. “Yeah, Adaire and I only sent a letter to you.” Hella looks up and their eyes meet, finally. “So I have to just get over myself and go knock on his door, right?” 

Ephrim offers her a wry smile. “And I’ll let you know when Benjamin won’t be home. In case you’d like to avoid him. Y’know.” 

 

In the end, Hella stays a few extra days. Adaire heads back to Rix and Roe, wherever she and Hella had settled. Adelaide makes a brief appearance, the first night Hella stays at Ephrim and Throndir’s house alone. Ephrim doesn’t much know what to do with her. 

Hella spends most of her waking hours with Hadrian and Rosana. She doesn’t venture any further, not this time, but when she comes back in the evenings she promises Throndir, softly, in the kitchen when Ephrim is almost asleep but not quite, that she’ll come back again and be a little braver at that time. 

When she leaves, she tells Ephrim she’s glad she took his advice. 

“Just passing it on,” Ephrim says, and smiles.