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Free as the birds that fly with weightless souls

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“Why ballet?” Kashaw asks. Shuffling echoes through the rehearsal room as he gathers his music at the piano.

Keyleth presses deeper into her stretch, folded nearly in half, and holds it for a moment, silent. The shuffling stops. She rises slowly, pushing her hair out of her face to meet his eyes in the mirror. For a moment they watch each other, he at the piano and she on the ground. Keyleth glances away first. She feels his eyes follow her.

“My mother danced,” she says, swinging a leg out and folding herself down again, rolling forward until she’s flat against the ground in the splits, toes pointed. Her hair spills out beside her, loose from its bun. Kashaw tucks his music into his folder and leans down to pick up his bag. The bench slides on the smooth wooden floor.

“She quit?”

“I don’t know. She left.”

Kashaw zips the bag. “Oh.”

Keyleth comes out of her stretch and pushes herself to her feet. “Yeah.”

“Sorry.”

She shrugs and busies herself with her own bag, fishing out her sweater and pulling it on. It swallows her, sleeves falling past her hands. She pushes them up impatiently. “It’s alright. It’s been a while.”

Kashaw stands and swings his bag over his shoulder. “Do you want a ride home?”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Sure.”

Keyleth flicks off the lights when they leave, and locks the studio behind her. The night air is cold, the parking lot empty. Kashaw waits by his bike with his arms crossed, eyes watching her. Keyleth stares at his distorted reflection in the studio window and sighs.


It takes her a moment to recognize the sound that woke her, blinking blindly in the dark of her room. Her phone buzzes again, faint blue glow pulsing near her head, and she fumbles for it, swiping to answer without bothering to check the ID.

“Hello?”

“Sorry,” says Percy on the other end. “I left my keys in the shop. Can you buzz me in?”

“Yeah. One sec.”

The time glows up at her when she ends the call, 2:26 in thin font, and Percy smiling up behind it, numbers half hidden by the white of his hair. It’s a good picture of him. He doesn’t smile much these days.

Keyleth stumbles out of bed, dragging her blanket with her, floor frigid against her bare feet. The light next to the doorbell blinks red. Keyleth presses the button.

“Still there?” she asks, not-quite teasing.

“Sorry,” he says, voice tinny and distorted. Sometimes he talks about fixing the mic, another project on his endless list. Keyleth will believe that when she sees it. She unlocks the door, and hears it click on the other side.

“Thank you,” he says, and the call cuts out. Keyleth leans against the wall and waits for him to knock.

“I’m sorry,” he says a third time, when she opens the door, and Keyleth rolls her eyes.

“It’s alright.”

“I didn’t meant to wake you.”

“It’s really alright, Percy.”

He sighs and hangs his coat on the neat row of hooks Keyleth mounted on the wall to prove they really live here now, her and Percy and–– Well.

“When do you have to be up in the morning?”

“Early.”

“Keyleth––”

“Do you want some tea?”

Percy huffs. “I’d bloody love some.”

“Come on then.”

She slips through their small, cluttered kitchen, fetching leaves and strainer and setting the water to boil, and Percy sits at their stained, off-white table with the mismatched chairs they bought at a yard sale years ago now and watches her move, all long limbs and flyaway hair and the sort of grace that comes with knowing something so well you can do it with your eyes closed.

“Vex says hello,” he says while they wait, the kettle hissing quietly. “She wants to know when you’ll come by.”

“When I get around to it,” Keyleth says, and the kettle whistles, and for a moment she is busy again.

Then they sit across from each other, silent, watching as the steam rises from their mugs. It smells like apples.

“Kash asked about Mom today.”

Percy’s eyebrows go up.

“Not on purpose. He asked about dancing, but, well, you know.”

“Right.” He frowns into his tea. “You know, if you want to talk about it––”

“I don’t.” She pauses at the sharpness of her voice, speaks around the keen edges caught in her throat. “But, thank you, Percy.”

“I’m not particularly good with these things.”

“Me neither. I guess we’re figuring it out.”

“We’re certainly trying.”

They do not look at the third chair at their little table, or the third mug on the counter, or the third hook on their coat rack, or any of the empty spaces around them. They drink their tea, and they go to bed, and Keyleth wakes with her alarm before the sun rises and goes to work, and that is that.


Allura pops her head in at the end of rehearsal, about a month before the showcase.

“Keyleth,” she says, the hint of a furrow between her brows. “Can I talk with you?”

“Sure,” says Keyleth, in the middle of pulling off her leg warmers. Kashaw watches them go with a cocked eyebrow.

The hall is empty at this time of night. The hall is always empty at this time of night. Classes ended two hours ago, and most of the company rehearses in the mornings.

Keyleth has always prefered to be at the studio when it is nearly empty.

“Keyleth,” says Allura, and already she does not like the tone of the woman’s voice. “We’ve had to switch some things around, since Uriel left. We were hoping you’d take his slot.”

Keyleth’s heart skips a beat.

“I–– You mean the solo?”

“Yes.”

“Allura,” she starts, and the woman cuts her off.

“You’ve been here for two years, Keyleth. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you could do it.”

She feels the panic surge. “Surely there’s someone better,” she says, determined to keep her voice steady. “You, or Kima, or, I don’t know, anyone.”

Allura shakes her head before Keyleth finishes speaking. “We all agreed it should be you. Your piece is innovative and you’re one of the best dancers in the company.”

“I’m not even a professional dancer.”

Allura smiles, wry and tired. “You could be, if you wanted. It’s a great deal of pressure, I know, but given the year we’ve had…”

Of course. The year. It’s been a shit year, hasn’t it. Keyleth isn’t the only one who’s had a hard time of it.

“It would be for him too,” Allura adds, voice turning somber. “Something to pay our respects.”

Keyleth swallows. She can’t refuse that.

“Okay,” she says. “Yeah, okay.”

Relief washes across Allura’s face and Keyleth feels inexplicably guilty for her own grief. It leaves a sour taste in her mouth. Allura rests a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Thank you, Keyleth. Thank you.”

Her voice is gentle, as if she is speaking to a spooked creature, and Keyleth can only nod.

She stands rooted in the hallway long after the woman gone, mind filled with the white haze of panic. Kashaw finds her there, bag over his shoulder, on the way out the door.

“You alright?”

“They want me in the solo slot,” Keyleth says.

“Congratulations,” says Kashaw.

“The showcase is in a month.”

“We’ll practice,” he shrugs, as if it’s that easy.

A wave of fondness sweeps over her, so strong she could drown.

“Thank you, Kash,” she says, and he smiles, a tiny thing just for her. It settles in her chest, warm and aching.

“Same time Thursday?” he asks, and she nods. For a moment they stand there, and Keyleth thinks she should go, but she doesn’t want to leave quite yet. The warmth in her chest makes a nice change from, well, everything.

“Well,” he says into their crooked silence. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” says Keyleth, and she watches him stride down the narrow hall. He hesitates for a moment in the concrete-and-metal stairwell, the square line of his shoulders silhouetted by the flickering yellow bulb. It pools past him, gold brushing his hair and transforming this old, peeling building into something almost beautiful, almost gentle, almost warm.

The heavy door swings shut behind him. The plaster-and-corkboard hallway is grey.

She turns off the lights and locks the studio behind her. The parking lot is cold. Percy waits in their shitty car, headlights blazing.

Keyleth spends the ride home thinking about the yellow heat of stage lights and Kashaw’s smile.


Keyleth dances like the elements. She is flickering fire and grounded earth and weightless air and flowing water. That is what he said, at least when he wrote this music for her.

“Something for a princess to dance to,” he called it when he gave it to her, sheafs of sheet music neatly wrapped, and she had cried, and promised to dance to it. He had grumbled about the fuss, she remembers. He always grumbled about fuss, as if he didn’t appreciate it. She had hugged him and thanked him a dozen times, and he had hugged her in return, and shushed her, and told her he couldn’t wait to see her dance.

Two weeks later he left for home to see to his family’s affairs at the behest of his father, and then he died, and she will never see him again.

So she has his music, and her dance. A foolish part of her wonders if it will hurt less, once she performs it.

It doesn’t matter. She likes to keep her promises, that’s all.


“Are you alright?” she asks when he stops playing for the fourth time to rub his arm with a scowl. He rucks up his sleeve as he does it, revealing the collection of neat scars across his forearm that he once told her never to ask about.

She hadn’t been planning on it. But things had been awkward and sharp when they met. They are still awkward, sometimes, but softer, the sort of warm-worn understanding that comes from time together, a casual sort of familiarity. Keyleth tries not to think about it too much, because it makes her feel air-light and stone-heavy at the same time, and it is hard to dance when she is caught between the two.

“Fine,” he grunts, letting go of his arm. “Want to go again?”

“I’d rather not,” she says, and he sees right through her.

“Don’t stop on my account.”

Keyleth frowns. “You’re hurting,” she protests. “I, um, have some advil? If you want?”

His hand drifts to his arm again but he stops himself short, shakes his head. His hand on the piano is a tight fist.

“Nah,” he says, and she hears the lie in his voice. His shoulders tense. “Nah, it’s fine, I’m just... remembering.”

Keyleth stands on the other side of the piano, looking at him through the frame of the raised lid. He looks tired, bruises beneath his eyes and hair limp. There’s a dusting of stubble on his jaw, and she has never seen him anything but clean shaven.

“Want to talk about it?” The words tumble out of her mouth before she can stop herself, and she receives an unreadable stare in return. Then he huffs out a sigh and pinches the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. The ache in Keyleth’s chest thrums.

“My ex was a pretty fucking awful person. It’s our anniversary. I don’t like talking about it.”

“Oh,” says Keyleth. “Sorry.”

“Yeah. So, can we keep going?” He pulls his hand away from his face to look at her, eyes tight. Keyleth lets it go.

“Oh, yeah. Sure. Right. Uh, from the top?”

He rubs his arm one last time before placing his hands on the keys. He sighs with his entire body, tension rolling off him, and she wants to help but she doesn’t know how. “Ready when you are.”


The letters glow up at her, white on green. My father’s plans have changed. I must stay through the new year. I’m sorry, princess.

Keyleth sighs and exits the conversation. The clock on the microwave blinks down at her, red numbers accusing. 2:04. At the door, a key turns in the lock.

“Do you want some tea?” Keyleth asks when she hears the door click shut behind him.

“Alright,” says Percy.

The kitchen smells like apples, and feels empty.


She leaves him a tin of lotion, the next time. It’s not quite enough, she thinks as she sets it on the piano bench, but it’s something. An invitation, maybe.

She says nothing about it when he arrives, and his eyes flick towards her but he too stays silent as he examines it, small and silver in his hands. It smells like lavender when he opens it.

He finds a note tucked in the lid, written in neat, slanted handwriting. For old aches and pains. My mother’s recipe. I hope it helps.

“Thanks,” he says as they leave, the tin nestled in his bag alongside his music. He stares at her with something she does not quite recognize, and she tries to ignore the warm, familiar ache in her chest.

“You’re welcome,” she replies. His fingers on the handlebars tap along with her humming when he gives her a lift home that night, and when he leaves her at the front door she finds herself smiling.


The memorial is a cold Sunday in November. The entirety of their small family comes out for it. The twins stand wrapped around each other, silent. Vax’s face is damp with tears while Vex watches everything with a tired, distant eye. Pike offers soft smiles and gentle words. Scanlan’s jokes are in short supply, the man solemn in a way Keyleth rarely sees. Percy does not leave her side.

She says something at the service. She know she does; she remembers the suffocating fear of standing before everyone and talking about him. She remembers the sea of faces, and the sweat down her back, and the hot pounding of her heart. She remembers the weight of stone within her chest, a grief too heavy to carry that she carries anyway.

She remembers Kashaw’s face at the back of the audience, mismatched eyes watching her with an expression she cannot read. She remembers a strange mix of feelings caught up in her ribcage to see him there, warm and anxious and thankful and guilty and a dozen things in between. Her chest doesn’t ache, though, not today. She is too empty for that.

She doesn’t remember what she says. She hopes it was good. She hopes she didn’t embarrass herself.

She hopes she didn’t embarrass him.

She thinks he would forgive her if she did, but he isn’t here anymore to ask, so she isn’t sure.

She misses her mother.


“I’m sorry,” says Kashaw when she is late to their next rehearsal. “I know you were close.”

“It’s alright,” she says.

“Keyleth––”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Kash.”

“Alright.” He hesitates, fingers ghosting over the keys. “Well, if you do––”

Keyleth tries to smile. “Thank you.”

It is a slow, somber rehearsal, and Keyleth feels exhausted afterwards.

Kashaw gives her a ride home. She holds on tight as they wind through the dark streets, pools of amber lamp light casting long, sullen shadows in the night. The wind whips through her hair, and the rumble of the bike’s engine drowns out even her own thoughts, except for this: it is nice to have something solid to cling to.


“It’s just a mess,” Keyleth tells Vex. Vex places her drink on the counter.

“It’s not that much of a mess, darling,” the woman says placatingly. “Just talk to him.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Keyleth says, adding cream to her coffee. “You’re good at talking.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Vex shrugs. “And I mean it. Even if it’s all a mess, at least you’ll know where you stand. You’ve got to stop thinking about it all the time.”

“I’m just–– there’s so much going on.” She stirs her drink, refusing to meet Vex’s eyes. The cream swirls in gentle circles. “The funeral was just last week and there’s still work and Percy and the performance, and making rent, and Dad wants me to come home to help for the holidays, and I just, I don’t know what he’s thinking but he’s always there and I like him a lot and I don’t know what to do. Everything’s hard enough already.”

“Keyleth,” says Vex, low and soothing. “Talk to him. It’s there anyway, darling. You’ve got to deal with it sooner or later. You’ll feel better.”

“I suppose,” Keyleth allows, and Vex pats her arm with a brusque sort of comfort and drifts off to help the customer waiting at the bar.


Kashaw plays like the river, smooth and flowing, and sometimes it surprises her still. He’s a doctor in his daily life, an awkward and unyielding man, but put him in front of a piano and he plays like he was born to it, feeling the notes and the moments that catch in between, and Keyleth can’t imagine dancing with anyone except him.

It wasn’t so easy in the beginning, when he was hard-headed and unimpressed with her idealism. It wasn’t so easy when she was anxious and stubborn and hated the way he dismissed everything.

But then there was the music, like fire and earth and water and air, and it filled the gulf between them and sanded out their edges, and now they fit together, and the thing they create together is more than either of them, and Keyleth sometimes thinks this might be what love is.

Sometimes, she is afraid she will lose this too.


The sound of the teakettle whistling wakes her. Her phone reads 2:21. She rolls out of bed.

“Tea?” asks Percy, but he’s already poured two cups. Keyleth cradles hers mug between her hands until the heat hurts.

“Do you think everyone will come over for Christmas again this year?” she asks him.

“I thought we might go to my family’s house, actually,” he replies with the ghost of a smile. “Cassandra suggested it. It, ah, might be good to go back there again.”

The kitchen smells like apples, and when she smiles back, it does not feel quite so stretched and crooked.


Pike drags her along to see one of her coworkers play Jazz Night at the Laughing Lamia––and Scanlan too, Keyleth supposes, but she’s fairly sure she’s here as protection from their friend as much as she is to support him––and there is a familiar man sitting at the piano, fingers dancing over the keys.

Keyleth freezes.

“Oh good, we didn’t miss him,” Pike says as she picks her way through the crowd, and Keyleth trails in her wake, craning her neck to stare. He sits at the bench in a suit jacket and jeans, hair tied back and eyes half-closed as he plays. Her mouth is uncomfortably dry. She should buy a drink. Many drinks.

“You know him?”

“Kash?” asks Pike over the hum of the crowd and the music. “Yeah! Isn’t he talented?”

“Yeah,” Keyleth agrees as they sit to listen, paying only the slightest attention to Pike ordering for them. She stares at Kash as he plays.

This more than a river; this is creeks and brooks and rapids and everything between. Her foot taps along beneath the table. Her chest feels warm, light. She wants to dance.

After the set, Scanlan jumps up on stage to thank Kashaw and ask for tips with his usual panache, and then a giant of a man with a fiddle hops up on stage and starts sawing away, and Pike waves Kashaw over.

“You play so well!” the tiny woman enthuses. “You should have said something before!”

“Um, thanks,” says Kash. “I don’t usually–– Keyleth?”

“Kash!” She gives up on hiding behind her drink. “Hi!”

“I didn’t know you knew each other,” says Kashaw. Pike beams.

“She’s one of my closest friends.”

“Oh. Cool. That’s–– cool.”

“Kash is my pianist,” Keyleth tells Pike, and the woman seems to get even brighter.

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I can’t wait to see the two of you perform. You’re both so talented!” Her eyes shift across the crowd and her brilliance shifts to a wry amusement. “Oh, there’s Scanlan. If you’ll excuse me…”

She slips away from the table, weaving through the crowd to the night’s emcee, and Keyleth stares at Kash.

“Do you want a drink?” she blurts out. He raises his eyebrow. His eyes are bright in the dim light of the bar.

“Sure,” he says over the dull roar of the crowd and the music. “I could use some air, though.”

“Outside?” she suggest. “I’ll buy.”

He huffs a laugh. “Can’t say no to that. Gimme a minute, I gotta say hi to Zee first.”

“Alright,” Keyleth says, and elbows her way up to the bar to pay for a pair of beers.

Kashaw meets her out front a few minutes later. They have their choice of tables, most patrons driven inside by the cold. Keyleth likes the bite of the wind against her flushed face. It grounds her.

“Hey,” says Kash, and Keyleth passes him his beer. He drinks long and deep and wipes the foam from his lip. The yellow light from the bar pools past him, gold catching in his hair, and for a moment the cold, crips night feels soft.

“Hi,” she says, and faced with him in person, sober and expectant, she finds herself tripping over the words that catch in her throat. “You, uh, play good.”

“Thanks,” he says. He glances at the steaming windows of the bar. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”

Keyleth’s fingers tap along the side of her beer. “Pike made me come. I’m third-wheeling.”

“On purpose?”

Keyleth pulls a face. “Yeah.”

“Right.” Kash takes another drink. Keyleth mirrors him. The man two tables down knocks his bottle over and it crashes onto the sidewalk with a sound like a gunshot.

“I’m sorry,” she blurts out. Kashaw’s eyes snap from the shattered glass to her face.

He looks nonplussed. “For what?”

“For–– oh, I don’t know. For being me?” Her face burns in the cool night air.

He’s still staring. “Oh.”

“Um.”

“I–– I mean, you don’t need to apologize?”

“I just thought–– I don’t know.” She opened her mouth and now it’s all muddled up.

“Right.”

She sighs and puts her drink down. “I’m terrible at this.”

“I–– a little,” he allows, and Keyleth looks up to see him staring at her, eyebrows raised, one corner of his mouth twitching upwards. “It’s not just you,” he promises, and she laughs.

The wind picks up, tossing her hair into her face. Kashaw is staring at her, still wearing his almost-smile. He reaches out carefully to tuck of lock of hair behind her ear.

“It’ll be okay, you know.” His mismatched eyes are open and guileless, and he looks soft without his usual cynicism. The ache in her chest thrums, so strong her breath catches.

“What?”

“The performance.” He puts his drink down. His hand is still at her ear. “You’ll be fine.”

“Oh.”

“You’re beautiful when you dance.”

The flush on her cheeks isn’t from her drink.

“Thanks.”

He clears his throat and drops his hand, staring down at the table.

“Yeah. Welcome.”

Keyleth stares at him while he isn’t looking, soft and warm, and lets herself enjoy the breathless swelling of her heart.


She’s still awake when the key turns in the lock. The microwave clock says 2:46. There are photos spread across the table. The kitchen lights spill into the hall, gold against the shadows. She hears Percy drop his keys on the table in the entryway.

“Tea?” he calls down the hall, and Keyleth calls back, “The water’s already on.”

The kettle hisses quietly on the stove. Percy joins her, and only pauses momentarily when he sees the photographs.

“I wish he could come to the performance,” she says, and Percy slumps into the chair across from her. She thumbs through a stack of pictures of the three of them, a vacation to the amusement park. Not much of a vacation, but they were young, and broke, and the day still tastes like cotton candy and sun in her memories.

“I know,” says Percy.

“I wish I had missed him more when he was away.”

“I know.”

The kettle sings. Neither move to get it.

“It’s not your fault,” he says. Keyleth nods.

“I know.”

“Mourning is healthy.”

Keyleth looks at him with something that could be charitably called a smile, and her eyes are wry. “Is it, Percy?”

He straightens up, and Keyleth waits for him to pick his words. “I know I’m not the best source of advice on this,” he begins, and stops short. “If I had known then what I know now–– Facing it is better, I think. Don’t let it consume you. Don’t let it smother you. We’re all here, you know.”

“I know,” says Keyleth, and she does. She stands to turn off the stove, and pours the water. Apple-scented steam drifts through the kitchen, curling and twisting like a dancer.

“He was your friend too,” she says by way of apology. Percy smiles.

“He was. We’ll miss him together, I suppose.”

“I suppose,” says Keyleth. The tea is warm and soothing, and the steam fills the empty space around them.


The showcase is the third Friday in December, and there will be a party afterwards. Formal dress. It’s so close Keyleth can taste it.

It’s good, she thinks, to have a deadline. To know it will be over. And then… well, she hasn’t thought that far yet.

The other thing about deadlines. It’s hard to imagine what comes next.

“Keyleth,” says Kashaw on a frigid Thursday evening a week before the showcase, at the very end of rehearsal. “I can’t make the performance.”

Keyleth freezes, folded nearly in half, and the world tilts beneath her. She sits up slowly.

“Oh.”

“I’m on call,” he says, and Keyleth feels like someone has dumped ice water down her back. She knows he has a job, just like she has a job, but she’s never really thought of it before. This time, this space, it is theirs, and she has grown comfortable with their worn-warm edges, with the ache in her chest. It’s hard to imagine an afterwards, but she’s always known what the performance would be––him, and her, and the music, and the feeling in her chest between vertigo and flight, and she had just assumed––

Well. That’s why there’s a saying about assumptions.

“Right.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“It’s just––”

“I get it.”

“Alright.”

Keyelth starts unlacing her flats. She feels his eyes on her and cannot bring herself to meet them, so she speaks to her knees. “There’ll be a company pianist anyways.”

“Yeah.”

“It’ll be fine.”

She hears the rustling of his music as he straightens the pages. “Keyleth.”

His mismatched eyes stare at her when she meets them in the mirror, face inscrutable.

She purses her lips.

“I understand,” she tells him. They have jobs. They have lives. Sometimes they see each other outside this room, when chance wills it, but she should not trust in that.

They have these little moments. That’s it. That’s alright. The almost-magic that fills the spaces between them exists within this room, not outside it. She’d forgotten, maybe. Or hoped.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. It’s only a dance.

“I’ll see you next week,” she says, and watches him leave. When he’s gone she folds up on herself, knees pressed up to her forehead and arms wrapped around her legs, as if she could hold herself together. She tells herself the ache in her chest is foolish. She tells herself she’s a fool to have been caught up in it, to have hoped when she knows that everything goes away in the end.

She tells herself she shouldn’t cry over one dance. It’s only a dance.

She tells herself all this, but the tears come anyway.


There is a put-in rehearsal the Friday of the showcase with the company pianist. He is a nice young man with round glasses and a nasally voice that rings with uncertainty, and he plays everything with the accuracy of a metronome, without flow or shift or feeling, and Keyleth feels empty and cold running through the piece. It’s fine. It’s clinical, and clean. She hits the beats with metronomic precision and it feels wrong, cold and empty, and she’s tired of cold and empty, but everything has been cold and empty since he died so why shouldn’t his dance be too? Fitting, she thinks, almost cruel, and the thought sits heavy in her stomach.

So what if it loses the emotion, the fire’s burn and the water’s flow and the air’s weightlessness and the solidity of the earth? It’s fine. She’s a good dancer. It will be alright.

It’s not what he envisioned when he wrote the music, but it will be alright.

There are people missing, but it will be alright.

It has to be alright.


It is a long, long day, grey and cold, and Keyleth waits, and worries, and wants.


The stage lights beat down, hot and heavy on her shoulders. The almost-hush of the audience is white noise beneath the sound of her heart booming in her ears. A bead of sweat drips a lazy line down her back.

For a moment, she is at the memorial, staring at a sea of faces drawn with grief. But no, this is different.

Honoring him, they call it. Keyleth isn’t sure the dead can feel honored. Keyleth is fairly sure things like honor and remembrance are for the living.

But that’s alright. He can’t see this anyways. He isn’t here.

The murmur of the crowd falls silent, and the lights shift, red and orange splashed across the stage, and for a horrible moment her mind goes blank, and she cannot remember the steps she spent so long learning, cannot remember the flow of the music or the shifting pull of the dance. She stands upon the brink, and she is empty, small and still and solitary upon the stage.

Then the piano sounds, familiar chords flowing and solid and echoing in her bones and blood. Sound washes over her like a river, like whitewater rapids and curling creeks and babbling brooks, without the slightest hint of the cut-stone rigidity she expects, and as if in a dream she moves, months of rehearsals coming to her, and her mind is smooth like glass, empty and summer-lake calm, and she dances, and he plays for her, and the music fills the spaces between them and they are beautiful together, and the ache in her chest is the feeling of growth, of practice, of learning to walk and run and dance, and she thinks, this is what love feels like.


“You came,” she says when she finds him afterwards. Everyone is dressed for the afterparty, all suits and flowing dresses and coats hung up in the coat room of this upscale bar that none of them could afford if the company weren’t paying for everything. Kash looks distinctly self-conscious in his neatly-pressed jacket. Keyleth isn’t surprised to discover he cleans up well.

“I called in a couple favors,” he says, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets.

“Why?”

“I knew you wanted me to.” He frowns. “Is that okay?”

Keyleth laughs, and hugs him, all sharp angles and far too tight, and it is funny that someone so graceful can be so awkward too. His arms slowly come up to hold her, and it feels right.

“Yes,” she says into his shoulder, and blinks back tears. “Yes. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he says, and she hears the smile in his voice.

She pulls back enough to stare up into his face––jaw clean shaven, yellow-and-blue eyes watching her, wearing an expression caught somewhere between exasperation and fondness––and kisses him.

“Thank you,” she repeats when she pulls away. He stares at her, and there is such awe on his face she does not know how she has not seen it before, does not know how he has kept it hidden.

“Sure thing,” he says, dazed. Keyleth blushes and forges ahead. She hasn’t pictured an afterwards, but  this–– This could be a good one.

“Do you want to get a drink?”

“Sure,” he says, and then shakes himself a little. Keyleth steps back, self-conscious. “I mean, yes,” he manages. “Yes, I would. Properly. You and me. At a bar. Or a coffee shop? I guess I could do a coffee shop.”

Keyleth laughs and offers him her hand, and he takes it carefully. They fit together neatly, long pianist’s fingers holding hers tight, and Keyleth smiles bright enough to light the room.

“He’d have been proud,” Kash says softly. “Your friend. You looked like a princess up there. Y’know. Regal.”

He is dead, a small part of her says. He cannot be proud.

She hushes that voice. Pride and honor may be for the living, but Keyleth does not doubt Tiberius’ love for her. She has kept her promise to him and her heart is lighter for it, and she knows her friend would be glad to know that.

“Thank you,” she says, and she means for more than just the music. Kash grins, yellow glow of the lights catching against his hair and pooling behind him, and it turns the room beautiful and gentle and warm.

She moves through the crowd, side-by-side with Kashaw, and they are dancing.