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Callum barely has the time to think when the elf appears.

 

It(he she they?) comes out of nowhere, leaping out of the shadows. Wary eyes fixate on him, on the dragonling he carries in his arms. Nevermind that he’s traveling with another elf - he’s human, so he must be evil, right?

 

(He understands how Rayla felt now, back when they were still in Katolis).

 

He doesn’t note much of the elf’s features(dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, dark dark dark ) and the only thing he can truly think to do is drop Zym, hands out to attempt to protect himself despite the bare minimum of spells that he knows.

 

He doesn’t have to.

 

Within an instant, there’s a blur of motion and then Rayla is in front of him, her blades crossed defensively. She says something that Callum doesn’t understand - some form of elven language, probably - and her tone is more biting than he’s ever heard. The foreign elf gives her a chilly look but backs off, understanding the threat in Rayla’s words.

 

As soon as the elf is gone, Callum breathes a sigh of relief, kneeling down to apologize to Zym for the fall. “That could’ve been disastrous, thank you Rayla.”

 

She doesn’t answer.

 

Callum extends an arm to Zym, but the dragonling dodges his searching hand in favor of whining and stumbling over to Rayla. It’s only then that Callum glances upward, wondering what was going through his companion’s head that would cause her not to answer.

 

What he sees makes his heart drop.

 

Rayla has all but collapsed, leaning against a tree with a hand pressing against her stomach. Red seeps from between her fingers, staining her outfit. Zym is nosing at her legs, climbing up into her lap to worry at her free hand.

 

“I’m okay, little one,” Rayla says to Zym, but the words come out breathy and strained, color draining from her face.

 

Callum can’t move fast enough, instantly at her side while tugging his scarf off of himself. It’s the only thing he can think of to stop the bleeding on such short notice - he doesn’t have anything else.

 

“Rayla- Rayla you’re going to have to move your hand, I have to see,” he fumbles with his words, even as he gently pries her fingers away from the bleeding gash. Before he pulls all of her fingers off, she complies, readjusting her hand to allow the red-stained skin to fall limply into her lap.

 

It’s bad.

 

Callum can hardly see the wound itself - his eyes focusing on the red red red seeping from the gash - and it is a struggle to press his scarf against it, shaking hands clutching the fabric like a lifeline. They don’t have any actual medical supplies( he never thought they would need them ) and he’s not strong enough to carry Rayla into the nearby village for help.

 

The scarf soaks through in a matter of minutes, despite his increasing pressure. The few times he affords to glance away from his own hands, he can barely meet Rayla’s eyes - they’re glazed over in pain, her breathing shallow and strained.

 

She’s not going to make it, a small voice inside of him whispers, you’ve just lost another person you care about.

 

“Rayla,” Callum whispers, unsure of what else to do. What can he do? He can’t leave her, he can’t carry her, he can’t fix her. All he can do is stare, and apply more pressure, and beg for a miracle.

 

“Rayla,” he repeats, glancing up to watch her lavender eyes shift from the ground to meet him. Despite her condition, she gives a weak smile, her fingers curling together.

 

Then, her eyes close, and her body sags against the tree even more, curled fingers falling to the ground. Zym whines again, nudging at her fallen hand.

“Rayla!” Callum’s heart shatters as his breathing picks up, a black hole in his stomach consuming his thoughts until there’s nothing left, “wake up, please, wake up! I can’t… I can’t lose you, not like this!”

 

Not when all she’d done was protect him from her own kind. Not when she didn’t deserve a fate so cruel. Not when they were so close to their destination.

 

“Please, please, don’t… don’t leave, you can’t leave, not now,” he begs, grabbing at her limp hand desperately, “Rayla… please… please .”

 

He doesn’t sense the presence behind him, not until hands gently push him away from Rayla, sending him toppling to the ground.

 

Callum jumps to his senses, frantically scrambling back to his feet. An elf crouches next to Rayla, his back to Callum and blocking his view. At this point, Callum knows better than to make himself known to the elf - instead, he crawls over to the side, scooping Zym into his arms and watching the elf work with wide eyes.

 

The elf has drawn a small series of runes into Rayla’s blood, directly on the wound. Callum’s scarf lay fallen to the side, dripping. The elf’s lips are moving, although the ringing in Callum’s ears proves too loud to hear anything.

 

After a couple of heartwrenching seconds, the wound seems to close, and Rayla’s breathing evens out, her expression relaxing minisculely.

 

The elf then surprises Callum - he scoops Rayla into his arms, pressing a light kiss to her forehead in the process.

 

“Come with me, human,” the elf speaks, his voice warm, “draw your cloak over your head and follow.”

 

Well, Callum can’t argue with that - especially since this elf still has Rayla and he refuses to abandon her - so he complies, drawing Rayla’s cloak that he may or may not have borrowed over his head and tucking Zym into his arms before standing.

 

The elf leads him into the nearby village and to a small inn. Eyes follow them, but Callum doesn’t turn his head to see - instead keeping his gaze fixated on the elf and Rayla. The elf’s dark hair - messily cut and windblown - almost blends with his darker skin, and even though Callum hasn’t met very many elves, he knows this isn’t a moonshadow elf. It contrasts so much with Rayla’s light hair and sun-tanned skin, he can easily see the lines where the two of them meet.

 

He’s also acting like he knows her.

 

Maybe he does.

 

Whatever may come, Callum follows the taller elf into a small room, empty save for a bed and a desk with a rolled parchment atop it. The elf gently eases Rayla onto the bed, tugging the blankets around her.

 

“Why are you helping us?” Callum finds his voice, asking as the elf kneels to rummage through a bag in the corner.

 

“I’m helping her,” came the voice, as warm as before, “helping you is merely a bonus.”

 

“But why? Who are you?”

 

The elf sighs, standing and turning to face Callum. His eyes are soft, his lips pursed, “I should’ve known that she wouldn’t have mentioned me. Oh well.” He turns, “my name is Tikaal. I’m one of her… guardians, of a sort.” He laughs, “I would ask who you are, but I already know. Prince Callum of Katolis, correct?”

 

Callum stares, “how did you-”

 

“My husband did his research well, and he rambles when he’s stressed out,” Tikaal explains, “I believe I know more about you than you do me because Rayla is the opposite. She’d rather hold everything in until it bursts than talk about her feelings.”

 

“Your… husband?”

 

“Aye. Does it surprise you that I’m married?” Tikaal pulls out a rag and a roll of bandages, returning to Rayla’s side to gently mop up some of the blood. Callum scrambles over to her as well, fingers itching to help.

 

“Is she going to be okay?” He ends up asking, taking one of her hands into his own as he kneels beside the bed.

 

“She’ll be fine, Tikaal says, almost fondly, “she just needs rest.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Rayla wakes slowly, her chest aching like she’d been laying down for too long. Sunlight streams into her face, causing her to blink her eyes open and then wince at the brightness.

 

“Ugh,” she groans, attempting to lift a hand to rub the light out of her eyes. This backfires, though, because for whatever reason her hand is pinned down to the bed, heavy and unmoving. She frowns, attempting to tug at her hand, to no avail.

 

Finally, the light dims enough that she can actually see, and her heart flutters at the sight of Callum, kneeling on the ground slumped against the bed, her hand securely grasped in his.

 

“He was really worried about you,” a familiar voice says from the other corner of the room, and Rayla inhales softly, turning her head to look at the speaker.

“Tinker?” She mumbles, because surely it couldn’t be him, he lived far too faraway from the little village she knew they were close to, surely she was hallucinating…

 

And yet, the sight of her uncle’s face greets her, his eyes twinkling with parental fondness as he approaches and kneels.

 

“What are you doing here?” She asks, surprised at how raspy her voice comes out.

 

Tikaal gestures to a rolled up piece of parchment sitting on the desk - one she’s very familiar with, “I saw that you had entered Xadia again,” the without Runaan goes unsaid, “and I thought I could meet you halfway. Imagine my surprise when I find you half-dead with a human prince and a baby dragon for company.” His voice is warm but laced with question.

 

Rayla swallows, “it’s… it’s a long story.” She glances down at Callum again, “how long was I out?”

 

“Long enough to send the poor thing into a heart attack,” Tikaal laughs, “you’ve been asleep for almost two full days. He hasn’t left your side at all - I’ve had to persuade him to eat and drink on occasion. Your dragon also hasn’t left your side much.” He gestures to the empty space next to Rayla on the bed, where Zym is curled up, nuzzling into her side.

 

There’s so much to be said - about the mission, about Runaan, about Callum - but Rayla forgets all of that when Callum stirs, his head lifting from the bed, sleepy green eyes meeting hers.

 

“Rayla-?!” He perks up almost immediately, his hand squeezing hers, “you’re awake!”

 

“Good morning,” she says simply, for lack of a better response.

 

Luckily, Callum just laughs, and stands, moving to sit on the bed rather than kneel before it, “you scared me so much,” he breathes, his free hand moving to - perhaps unconsciously - brush hair out of her face, “don’t ever do that again.”

 

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, even though she really doesn’t regret her actions. If keeping her dumb human safe comes with the cost of her life, she’ll pay tenfold. She vows this to herself even now, when Callum smiles at her apology and gives her that fond look that she both loves and hates.

 

There’s still so much to say - to Callum, to Tikaal - but she can’t find the words. Instead, she relaxes against the bed, comfortable with the silence.