"Rayek, look at this!" Grabbing his hand, Leetah pulled him to the wall of her hut. "Isn't it pretty? Have you ever seen anything like it?" Hundreds of small white ovals dripped from the edge of her window, softly gleaming like strange new jewels.
A memory teased the edge of his mind. He'd found something very like it once… He frowned, wishing he could pin it down.
Leetah scowled, her hands on her hips. "I give up on you!" she announced with a toss of her head. "How can you frown at something like this?"
"What is it, Papa?" he'd asked, staring intently at his discovery, knowing if he just looked hard enough, or from the right angle, he'd find the answer.
Ingen had sighed, a frustrated sound the young Rayek knew well. His attention snapped to his father. The older elf wasn't frowning at him but at the mound of small white things. The child watched, not understanding as Ingen irritably scrubbed the tears of frustration from his eyes. Seeing the question in his son's eyes, Ingen answered, his mouth twisting bitterly as he spoke.
"…It is trouble," Rayek responded shortly.
Leetah laughed. "Oh, you old gloomer. How can it be trouble?"
Eyes narrowed in irritation, Rayek shook his head at her frivolity and naiveté. "When watcher-bugs lay eggs like this, it is a sign of drought."
"Oh." Leetah sobered briefly. "I know the stories about the last one." Then she beamed at him, a smile he would have walked the dunes barefoot for in other circumstances. "It will be okay," she said confidently. "You will take good care of everyone, just like you did before and droughts don't last forever."
No, Rayek thought darkly, remembering lips cracked from thirst, and a world baked to dust in unrelenting heat. It just seems like forever.
Someone was calling his name. Further listening brought Leetah's voice on the wind and he lengthened his stride, hoping to be out of sight before she could reach him. "Rayek!" she called; it was clear from the testiness of her tone she'd been trying to get his attention for some time now. Knowing he'd never hear the end of it either way, Rayek sighed and paused, leaning on his spear.
"There you are!" she puffed up the trail. "You could have walked a little slower, you know. I almost didn't catch you."
Not needing to argue with her right now, Rayek bit back his retort. "What do you want?"
"Don't take that tone with me," she snapped back, offended.
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I beg pardon," he said. "I am in a hurry."
"That's why I wanted to catch you before you were gone again. Ruffle and Vurdah say they can't find any more rabbit's-ear and I wanted to ask you to look for some." She dipped her head, looking up through her lashes and smiling winningly. "You know how I love that scent and I'm almost completely out."
"This isn't a pleasure walk," he said peevishly. "The prey animals are getting scarcer and the predators are getting bolder. Some days I am lucky to come back with my skin intact, let alone with anything for us to eat."
"I know." Pouting just so, Leetah leaned closer. "It's just that it's such a lovely scent for massages." Moving around him, Leetah slid her hands over his shoulders, expertly kneading the stiff muscles she found there. "Don't you think?"
Tired and worn out as he was, it was a struggle not to melt into her arms right there. "…Very well," he acceded grudgingly. "I will look for your rabbit's-ear."
"Thank you! I knew you would," she said cheerily. With a quick peck on his cheek, she headed back to the village.
Conscious of having been consummately manipulated, he cursed himself for eight kinds of a fool. "When I am ready!" he shouted after her. Her laughter drifted back to him on the breeze.
Rayek found his path into the mountains blocked by an irate healer. "Why won't you stay with me tonight?" she asked, hands on hips.
Slowly, as though explaining to a small child, he answered. "I have to hunt."
"You hunt every night and sleep all day," she huffed, stamping her foot.
"Yes. I like to eat. I thought you did too."
"I do! I just like other things too!"
Rayek rolled his eyes. "Some things must come before others."
"But I never see you anymore!" His eyebrows arched in surprise at her outburst and Leetah spun away, arms folded in embarrassment. Tucking the moment away in his mind for later gloating, he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I miss you too," he said softly. "But I am needed; I cannot shirk my duty."
Leetah swung back, grabbing his hand and gesturing passionately. "We won't starve in one night! Surely you can grant yourself some small rest?"
He hesitated. Time with Leetah was precious; time when she sought out his company was doubly so. But… "Perhaps another night," he offered weakly.
Leetah searched his eyes and then nodded, her eyes sad. "Another night." As he disappeared into the rocks, she knew she'd not see him again until the drought was over.
"Get up! Get up!" Someone was shaking him. Rayek snarled something incomprehensible and tried to pull the blanket over his head. "Get up! Rayek, it's raining, get up!"
The words barely registered. "Can't hunt in the rain, go away and let me sleep!" he muttered.
"You silly!" The blanket was flung away. "You don't have to hunt. It's really, really raining!" Sitting up to go after his missing blanket brought him face-to-face with an unbearably excited Leetah. "Come on!" she squealed, grabbing his hands and trying to drag him out of bed. "I'll drag you if I have to!"
He went completely boneless. Leetah glared down at him indignantly and he smirked back. "Fine," she shrugged. "Have it your way." Adjusting her grip on his wrists, she braced herself and PULLED. He slid a finger-length along the cave floor. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself and pulled again. He slid a little further along the floor. She narrowed her eyes at him; he smiled mockingly back. Setting her chin determinedly, Leetah set herself and dragged him a little at a time all the way to the mouth of his cave. They were both chortling helplessly when she was finally done.
"Wow," Leetah said, looking out through the downpour. "You almost can't see the village through the rain!"
Rayek watched the rain with mixed feelings. The end of the drought was a blessing long awaited but he didn't relish the return to being unnecessary.
Suddenly Leetah pulled away. Arms outspread and head tipped back she spun out into the rain. Jumping and twisting as though she were dodging the raindrops, her curly red hair was soon plastered to her head and her flowing skirt slapped wetly around her ankles but she didn't seem to mind. "This feels wonderful!" she laughed. Returning to the cave entrance, she held out her hands invitingly. "Come dance with me, Rayek."
Rayek hesitated. He wasn't really interested but Leetah's eyes glowed with such exuberance and her smile was so alluring… and there wasn't anyone else around to see…
So he did.
All of this flashed through his mind in one achingly sweet burst as he stood in the mouth of a cave in the Badlands, farther away from that moment in space and time than his younger self could ever have conceived.
He shook his head to clear it. "I am sorry, Ekuar. What did you say?"
"Have the rains passed yet?"
"Ah." He turned back to the cave entrance and once again drank in the distinct scent of desert rain. "Almost." Winnowill would be sure to start in soon but he refused to care. Closing his eyes, he stole another moment of memory.