mine to hold
(Or: the slow burn we all know it's going to be in five takes)
Rayla has nice hands.
It’s something Callum notices when he draws her for the fifth time. He’s been drawing her a lot lately. Her hands and her ears and her horns are fascinating to him, and though his memory has always been eidetic, his image of her takes a little while to perfect. He’s far too used to drawing humans, he thinks, with their rounded ears and their five fingers. She’s still foreign to him, at least from an artistic perspective, so he tries to study her out of the corner of her eye in order to really commit the shape of her horns and the angle of her ears to his memory.
He watches her more often than he likes to admit. He just doesn’t realize exactly how often until she catches him doing it.
“Are you drawing me?”
She’s sitting by the fire with Zym tonight. He’s grown a little and barely fits on her lap anymore, but it doesn’t stop him. He’s lying on his back, tummy up to make the most of Rayla’s affection, head hanging off the edge of her thigh, tongue lolling happily out of his mouth. In Callum’s sketchbook, she’s smiling, content, despite the gravity of the job they’re here to do and the war on either side of them.
He flushes. “Uh - sorry -” he stutters. “I can - I can stop.”
“Don’t do that,” she chuckles, easing Zym off her lap and getting to her feet. “Can I see?”
“Oh - uh - sure.”
She drops to the ground next to him, and Callum’s ears grow warm as she tilts the sketchbook to get a better look. His hesitation feels weird, even to him. He’s never been embarrassed about showing other people his work. He’s good at art - there’s nothing really to be embarrassed about. But she tugs the sketchbook to her and grins, and Callum finds his ears growing warmer still.
“Do I really look like that?” she asks him.
Callum blinks at her. He looks between her and the image on the page and frowns, unsure what she means. Personally, he thinks he’d captured her likeness just fine. “I thought it was okay,” he mumbles, feeling awkward. Disappointed, even, that she doesn’t like his work.
She catches the look on his face and backtracks. “No - I mean -” She purses her lips thoughtfully. “You’ve made me look - I don’t know - happy , I guess.”
“You looked happy,” Callum tells her. “That’s - uh - that’s why I was drawing you. It’s nice to see you… you know… happy . Like we don’t have a really serious mission and you can just be you.” Like it’s an image of what the world could be, he adds in his mind, like he wants to keep it somewhere tangible so he can’t forget why they’re on such a dangerous journey in the first place - but he doesn’t tell her that. Instead, he takes the sketchbook back from her to finish it. “I have trouble with your hands,” he admits quietly. “I keep wanting to draw five fingers out of habit.”
Rayla chuckles. “You could have just asked,” she says, holding one out to him.
“I - uh -” Callum swallows. He’s nervous, he realizes, and it hits him like a punch in the gut. They've never had problems touching each other before. They’re surprisingly close for only having known each other for a few weeks, and he’s grabbed her arm, and she’s touched his shoulder, and they hug when they’re happy or sad or relieved - but this is different. This feels… intimate. Even Rayla seems less confident, like she can't (or maybe doesn't want to) hide behind sarcasm today.
He touches her hand. It feels small under his; her skin soft, despite the years she's probably spent holding her blades; her nails, trimmed short, shiny in the firelight; her knuckles like graceful hills at the base of her slender fingers.
Suddenly she’s too close to him, and he’s too close to her, and his mouth is dry because the idea scares him but being not close at all is scarier still.
But Zym yips, forces himself between them and back onto Rayla’s lap, and the moment is over.
Callum releases the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and eases back.
“Did - did that help?” asks Rayla, not quite looking at him.
He laughs, a little nervous, a little relieved, a little disappointed that Zym has to be so needy. “Yeah,” he says. “You have nice hands.”
He has panic attacks sometimes.
Not often. The last he remembers having was a little after his mother had married King Harrow. Being the son of a noblewoman was one thing, but being the stepson of a king was another. He can’t remember now the exact thing that set him off, but he has a feeling it was something to do with the sudden understanding of what being a prince meant. The meetings, the training, the traditions - he thinks it may have gotten too much at one point, and his breath came short, and it was as if he was drowning under the weight of such a title. He remembers his mother by his side; the softness of her words; the way her hand rubbed gentle circles in his back reminding him that it was okay to be overwhelmed and that all he needed to do at that moment in time was to just breathe .
He tries to remember that now.
He’s in an alleyway in a Xadian city. Callum can’t even remember its name. All he knows right now is the busyness of its streets and the volume of its marketplace and that he’d lost Rayla in its crowd. His chest had tightened, and the noise, and the people - it had been too much. His breath had caught in his throat and had stayed there as Callum stumbled through the marketplace, pushing through the throng of elves and carts trying to find somewhere private - somewhere quiet - where he could pull himself together and just breathe -
But his mother isn’t here this time, and even now, it’s too loud.
He claps his hands over his ears and shuts his eyes tight. His heart is beating too quickly for him to keep up, and he tries to draw in a breath but it’s ragged and shallow and the air doesn’t quite reach his lungs. When he opens his eyes, the cobblestones blur together and darkness begins to creep in at the edges of his vision.
He hardly notices it when Zym appears and yips anxiously at his knees.
“Callum!” someone says, but he barely registers that either.
Zym shuffles away. The someone drops to their knees in front of him and grasps his shoulders. “Callum, hey, it’s me. I’m here, look at me, you’re okay.”
Rayla swims into his vision. Her nails dig into his shoulders as he tries his best to focus on her and the sound of her voice.
“Slow breaths,” she’s saying. “Just one at a time. You’re okay, I promise, just breathe for now. Look at me - breathe.”
He does. It comes in like a gasp, but it’s the first full breath he takes in what feels like far too long, and when it comes out again, it’s heavy and uneven. There are tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, he realizes, but he’s breathing again and that’s all that matters.
“There you go,” he hears Rayla say. Her own breathing is shaky, worried, he thinks, scared , and she presses her forehead against his and takes her next breath with him; a slow, soothing inhale followed by a rush of an exhale. Her fingers loosen at his shoulders, but they slide down his arms to grasp his hands in hers. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I shouldn’t have rushed off.”
“‘S fine,” Callum rasps, gripping her hands back as best as he can. His own fingers are slippery with sweat, his nails tinged blue by the lack of oxygen, but she holds them regardless, her hands fitting neatly within his. “‘M okay now you’re here.”
Her breath hitches in her throat now, and too late, Callum realizes how it might have come out. Vaguely, he registers the twitch in her fingers, like her reflexes are trying to pull her away, but she doesn’t move, and neither does he. Having her so close is comforting, and he’s too focused on breathing again to worry about how it might have sounded. He’d meant it, anyway. He’s okay now, and he’s more okay knowing she’s here with him.
“D’you miss me or something?” she teases, although there’s something in her tone that makes it sound like it’s not entirely a joke.
Callum chuckles despite himself. “A little,” he manages. He means to tease her back at his own expense, but in his state, it sounds like something else entirely. “I’m clearly lost without you.”
She laughs. It’s nervous. Shy.
But she keeps her hands in his and she doesn’t pull away.
Rayla takes a hit for him one day.
It’s the edge of a sword from another Moonshadow elf, aimed at him while he’s preoccupied with keeping Zym out of harm’s way. Rayla jumps between him and his attacker before he even has the chance to draw the beginnings of a rune, and it cuts into her side as she fends him off. Somehow, they get away, Zym clinging tightly to his chest, Rayla with her hand clutched to her side.
They end up in a clearing a little way out of town.
Rayla’s breathing is heavy and laboured as she collapses against a tree. She slides along the trunk with a pained groan and sinks to the ground as blood leaks through the spaces between her fingers, and Zym scrambles out of Callum’s arms at the same moment Callum realizes how badly she’s hurt.
“It’s - it’s fine, Zym,” she manages through clenched teeth. “I’m okay.”
She’s not okay, and it’s obvious even to Zym. He nudges her free hand with his nose and whimpers as Callum fumbles through his backpack for something - anything - that might stop the bleeding. He swears under his breath when he finds nothing and settles for his scarf, tearing it from his neck without ceremony as he heaves Zym out of the way.
“Rayla,” he says, his voice shaking. “Ralya, listen, you have to let me see. We gotta stop the bleeding, okay? C'mon, let me see-” He tugs her hand away from her side and feels his face tighten at the sight of it. Her blood is so red , and there’s so much of it that the terror bubbling in his chest becomes almost unbearable. He forces it away and presses his scarf to her side.
She lets out a cry, and Callum swallows, knowing that the pressure he’s putting on her side must hurt, and the last thing he wants to do is hurt her more than she already is, but he holds it against her tighter still, afraid of the alternative. He feels wetness grow against his palm, knows that his scarf is already saturated and that she’s bleeding too much, and he panics - “Rayla, we have to get help - I can’t stop this -”
“We ca-can’t go back,” she hisses, clutching his arm. She leaves bloody fingerprints against his jacket and gods , he’s scared - he can’t do any of this without her, and the idea that she might not make it out of this is so real that he thinks his heart might actually stop.
“Rayla, we have to -”
“We can’t,” she whimpers, shaking her head. “They’ll - they’ll attack you again and I can’t - I can’t -”
“I’ll take that chance,” snaps Callum. “If it means you’ll be okay, I’ll take it, okay? Rayla, please - ”
“No ,” she whines - sobs. “I can’t protect you like this, Callum, and I can’t -” Her fingers clutch tighter at his jacket. “What if they - ”
The words form on his lips before he even realizes that they have. “I can’t lose you to this,” he whispers. He doesn’t even think about it. He clutches the hand at his sleeve, grips it tightly, smearing blood over his gloves, and presses her knuckles to his lips. It’s a plea more than it’s anything else. He can’t lose her. Not like this. Not because she was trying to protect him from her own people, who’d meant well but just didn’t understand. He whispers against her knuckles, begs her to stay with him, to let him get help, to please, please, please be okay - and then her eyes slip closed, her hand going limp in his. Her head nods to one side, and then he’s not whispering - he’s frantic and all but screaming at her - “Rayla! Rayla, please, come on, stay awake! Stay with me!”
He thinks this might be it. His heart breaks in his chest. Holding her in his arms, losing her like this, her hand still pressed to his lips - it’s more pain than he ever imagined.
A couple of scouts find them. Zym growls and bares his teeth at them, but he’s too small to really do anything about it. One drags Callum away, kicking and screaming and begging for them to help her; the other kneels before her, draws a rune on her skin in her own blood and whispers words Callum can’t hear. When he steps away, Rayla’s breathing is slow, but steady, and Callum stops struggling long enough to stare at them through the tears he hadn’t realized he’d started to shed.
“She needs rest,” says one stiffly, uncertain of him - unsure why a human boy would be in Xadia with a dying elf and a baby dragon to begin with. Something about Callum stalls him though - maybe the blood on his clothes, or on his face, or maybe they’d heard him begging for her to stay awake - he doesn’t know, but they don’t attack him. One lends him a coat and instructs him to keep his hood up and his head down. The other takes Rayla in his arms and leads them back into town.
Callum doesn’t leave her side.
When she wakes later - much later - she notices two things: the bandages wrapped tightly around her chest, and Callum, sleeping against an unfamiliar bed, with her hand clutched tightly in his.
Callum figures it out long before Rayla does.
He thinks, maybe, Rayla has some knowledge of the depth of their relationship, but the understanding doesn’t come until much later. Part of it comes from the way she hides behind a wall of sarcasm and lame jokes, like she knows but just doesn’t know how to admit it to herself. Not yet.
Callum figures it out the day she puts one of her blades in his hand and offers to teach him to spar.
“I won’t always be around,” she says carefully. She moves slower than usual - her side is still tender and tightly bandaged, a fresh reminder of the day he almost lost her. Callum tries not to wince. “You need to be able to defend yourself. Without magic,” she adds sternly, when he tries to argue. “If, for any reason, you can’t use it, you need to be able to fight back.”
There are other words hanging in the air that she doesn’t say, but Callum thinks he understands. He’d want to make sure she’d always be safe too.
“I was never good at this,” he warns her. “Believe me - Soren tried to teach me. I sucked.”
“I’m not Soren,” says Rayla, smirking a little. She flicks her blade into its hook form. “Show me your fighting stance.”
“Uh… okay?” Callum squares his shoulders and bends his knees a little, the way Soren had showed him ages ago.
Rayla makes a face. “You’re too… upright,” she says, studying him thoughtfully. “You have to sort of lower your centre of gravity so you won’t be knocked down so easily. Otherwise -” she jabs his chest with hilt of her blade and hooks her ankle behind his.
Callum feels himself fall backwards, but she catches his shirt before he can even yelp.
“See what I mean?”
Callum nods. He fixes his stance as she instructs and finds himself pleased when she grins with approval.
“Better,” she says. “Now show me how you hold your blade.”
He does. He holds it out in front of him the way Soren had shown him, but Rayla shakes her head and steps closer. “This is better for defense,” she says, flipping his hold on it and putting her hand on his to fix his grip. Her fingers are gentle against his, and he can’t help but smile and enjoy her proximity to him.
“Hm?” Callum blinks at her.
He chuckles, but he doesn’t look away. He doesn’t even blush. Maybe she doesn’t get it yet, or maybe she does but she’s not quite ready, but this is comfortable now. He likes being close to her. He likes being around her. He likes her. As a friend, as a partner, as something more, as all of the above - it’s complicated, he thinks, but in the simplest of terms, wherever she is, he will be, as long as she wants him. As long as she’s happy, and safe, and part of his life, he can’t ask for anything more. “So what if I am?” he says at last. “Is that bad?”
Rayla hesitates. Her cheeks turn a little pink, but she smiles too, squeezes his hand ever so lightly, and says, “No, I suppose not.”
She kisses him .
Callum always thought that, when she was ready, he’d kiss her first, but she kisses him and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Her hands grab at his lapels to pull him close, find their way to his neck and to his face, as if there are a million things she wants to say and this is the best she can do.
He’s startled at first, but then warmth explodes in his chest, and he smiles against her lips.
“You don’t seem surprised,” she says, when she pulls away.
“Why would I be?” he says. “After everything we’ve been through - Rayla, you have to know by now that I - ”
“I know,” she breathes. “And I -”
“I know.” Callum grins at her and presses his forehead against hers. Her hands are still on his cheeks, and he leans into them, enjoying her touch, her presence, her. Love isn’t strong enough a word, he thinks. He could tell her over and over again and it wouldn’t be enough, so he doesn’t and instead, he pulls her close and holds her hands in his.
He's always liked her hands.