“Of all the irresponsible, hypocritical -- I swear, she is the most stress-inducing--”
At eighteen and having known her for several years, he should somehow guessed this might happen.
“Easy, Callum,” Corvus was a calm voice in the wind beside him. Callum didn’t glance at him, keeping his narrowed eyes on the sky before him. He could see Corvus flying on Ventus out of the corner of his eye. “Rayla’s more than a match for any enemy she meets. And she has Luna. She’ll be fine.”
“That’s not the point though,” Callum argued. He let out a growl, his grip tightening on Ciceros’ saddle. Beneath him, grey and teal, Ciceros made a noise and shifted so Callum could see one concerned green eye. Callum patted his side. He sighed. “She said it was a suicidal mission. She said I shouldn’t go out there.”
“Don’t know why you’re surprised.” Soren caught up on his right with Avias. “She told you that she wanted to go.”
“And I asked her not to! I can’t go on a possibly suicidal mission, but she-- oh, she can go on any dangerous mission she wants.”
“She is an assassin.”
“Not the point. She tells me not to and when I ask her not to, she goes out anyway. Without telling anyone no less. What kind of stunt is that?” Callum looked at each of them.
“And you know Rayla. She’s smarter than that,” Corvus said. Ventus made a noise of agreement, Callum wasn’t sure if that was to Corvus’ comment, the pat he received from his rider or both. “She’s not just going to leap into a situation.”
“No, but she might as well be inviting trouble.”
For once, Soren sounded sympathetic. “You know, she was probably just trying to help you out.”
“By making me want to pull hair out.”
“By checking out the enemy territory so you don’t have to. She’s stealthier, Luna goes invisible. If you think about it, she’s the one for the job.” Soren shrugged. “Besides, you’ve been… stressed out lately.”
Callum said nothing to that.
“He has the right of it.” Ezran and Aanya had been listening this entire time. He could just hear Aanya straightening in Solene’s saddle like the royal she was. “We all can see it. You’re overworking yourself.”
“Thank you, Aanya,” Callum tried not to grumble. “But I’m not over-worrying. I’m just-- I’m just focused. Tyrus is out there planning something. And he knows we’re not ready for it.”
“You don’t know that. And Aanya’s right, you are worrying yourself into a rut,” Ezran finally said from Zym’s back. He was older now and Callum tried to remember that. After all, he was fourteen years old and the rightful king of Katolis. But, to Callum, it was difficult to remind himself that this wasn’t just his baby brother.
“We don’t know anything,” Callum snapped.
“Which is why you staying up all hours of the night pouring over maps and plans to combat what Tyrus could be up to isn’t good for you,” Ezran said kindly, but firmly. “Rayla’s seen it more than anyone else. She knows you.”
Callum didn’t take his eyes off the sky ahead. “We just need to be ready for anything.” He caught sight of a very familiar figure moving around on a grassy sea stack not too far from them. “Down there.”
Ciceros landed with a slight urgency that Callum only knew could be his concern for Luna. On cue, as soon as Callum dismounted, Luna uncloaked herself and raised her head from the patch of grass she was resting in.
“See, she’s fine,” Callum said absently, stroking Ciceros as he passed by. It would have been a gentler response on most occasions, but Callum had his eyes set on the white-haired elf giving him that look from across the way.
“Sure took you long enough,” Rayla quipped. She played with the small knot of hair at the end of her ponytail, the clasp tied at the very ends of her medium-length hair. She kept it pulled over her shoulder and Callum sometimes found himself playing with it, too, when he was enjoying or engaged in whatever conversation they were having. Not today. Not as he walked toward her and that smug, pretty face of hers. “I was starting to think I was actually going to get back home before you showed up. Didn’t think you’d bring everyone though. I’m impressed. Anyway, here’s what I gleaned from--”
“Rayla, what was that?” he demanded.
She raised her brow. “Well, it was about to be that recon report you were dying to go out and get yourself, but I--”
Callum frowned, stopping in front of her. “No, I mean what did you think you were doing? I thought I asked you not to go out there. Then, I get up and not only did you go, but you didn’t even tell anyone!”
She blinked, then narrowed her eyes. “And, yet, you’re here.”
“Because I figured it out. Of course I was going to know where you were going. We had a whole conversation about you not wanting me to go because it was basically a suicidal mission and--”
“It was a suicidal mission for you, but Luna and I are way stealthier than you and Ciceros. She’s a Moonshadow dragon. This was right up her alley.”
“Oh, was it now?”
“Yes, it was.” Rayla put a hand on her hips. “We got in. We got out. And now we’re here.”
“That’s not the point, Rayla.” Callum pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Then, what is the point? Do you want this report or not?”
“No-- yes. No! I mean--” He growled. “You should have told someone where you were going. You shouldn’t have even gone at all! Rayla, I rely on you. How can I trust you if you’re just going to get up and do whatever you want anyway?”
Rayla raised her brows, something like hurt flashing in her eyes. It was her turn to frown now. “Trust me? Callum, there have been times where I’m the only one you’ve trusted. So, don’t go there.” She took a step toward him. “As for this mission, I did it because who else was going to? You clearly feel like we to keep our eyes on Tyrus. And I don’t totally disagree with you, so, I took it upon myself to do it so you didn’t have to.”
Callum shook his head,. “It’s not your job to take care of me.”
“Then, who else is going to do it? You certainly don’t.”
He walked away from her. She hated that, but the space between them was making him restless. The idea that she needed to put her life on the line to keep him afloat didn’t sit well with him. Not at all. Not for a couple reasons.
“That still wasn’t your call.”
When he turned around, she took that step back, but also raised her chin and squared her shoulders. “You’re right. It wasn’t. You’re our leader and I’ve always acknowledged that.” It was something they’d never spoken about. Not really, anyway, and it was strange to hear her verbalize it. It made him turn all the way around. “But you’ve got no right asking me to just sit back and let you worry yourself into a rut. I won’t do it.”
Callum looked back at Ezran who, to his credit, met his gaze without so much as a flinch. Zym whimpered under him.
“Okay, easy does it, you two.” Corvus stepped between them and Callum could feel Ciceros nudging his hand. Corvus put a hand on Callum’s shoulder. “She’s not wrong.”
Callum sighed and dragged a hand down his face. “Tyrus has been quiet. Too quiet. And--”
“And what? Do you expect to go out there and take him down by yourself?” Rayla put both hands on her hips.
“I could say the same thing about you!”
“I went for a short mission, Callum. I wasn’t even gone an entire day. You’ve been like this for weeks. Months, even. All of us have seen it, but you won’t listen.” Her shoulders slacked. “Not even for me.”
Callum stiffened. He didn’t like the way she said that and, yet, he had no real answer for her. Nothing he could say with full confidence. “I have to do these things, Rayla.”
“Why?” she demanded.
“Because that’s just the way it is!”
Soren joined Covus now. “Hey, you two--”
“Because that’s how it is.” He ran a hand in his hair. “Not because I decided. Not because I want it like this, just-- just because that’s how it has to be. But you can’t just go off on your own.”
Rayla shook her head at him. “That’s not an answer Callum. And the last time I checked, I’m the best equipped to go off on my own.”
Ezran and Aanya stood on the opposite side of Soren and Corvus and everyone, now, was right next to them. It suffocated Callum. He ran a hand through his hair again. His jaw tensed.
“That’s enough. You two need to stop arguing,” Ezran said calmly, albeit a plea in his voice. “Callum, Rayla was just trying to help.”
“I don’t need help.”
“But we’re on your side--”
“I said I’m fine, Ez--”
“Don’t interrupt me.” It was a clear, tight voiced order. “We aren’t your enemy.”
There was a brief pause before Callum whispered. “I know that.”
Rayla’s voice softened just a bit. “We’re all here to help you, but you won’t see it. I know you don’t like what I did, but you’ve been worrying us all to death. Don’t forget. We rely on you, too.”
“I know that,” he whispered again. He frowned, not quite being able to look at any of them. They were all so close, breathing down his neck and looking to him for answers. To have all the plans and all the results.
He just needed time.
Time, time, time.
Time and strength, he just never had enough--
Ciceros nudged his hand, a whimper like noise grinding out of throat. He could feel his dry scales against the pads of his fingertips. Callum stroked them for something real to feel.
He turned heel and walked away from them all, mumbling. “I need… I need some air.”
Rayla’s chest ached watching him leave.
Guilt panged where that ache was.
Perhaps, she had caused this. Is this what he felt when he realized she wasn’t there? Panic had risen in his eyes despite how he tried to avoid looking at her and she knew if he stayed much longer he might have said something he regretted. He always regretted it in the end.
He regretted so much.
Aanya had come to stand beside Rayla, golden eyes solemn as she, too, watched Callum walk away from them. “He thinks he has to do this all on his own.”
Ezran followed up. “He’s afraid.”
“Of what?” Rayla asked aloud. She wasn’t sure if she expected a real answer.
“Losing us. Losing you.”
That pang in her chest became a throb.
“You know, you kind of did him dirty. If you really think about it.” That voice aggravated Rayla more than anything sometimes.
“Shut up, Soren.” Rayla turned around to glare at him. “Now’s not the time.”
“What?” He shrugged, finding a rock to sit on. “I’m just saying. He has a point. You went off on your own and now we’re all out here looking for you.”
Rayla growled. “I did it for him. He’s the one who thinks that he has to carry the world on his shoulders.”
“Well, he kind of does, doesn’t he?” Soren shrugged sympathetically. “And how is he supposed to be sure he doesn’t have to do it all by himself if you disappear like that? You can’t just say it. You have to show him, too.”
Corvus raised his brows and crossed his arms. “Wow, Soren. That was actually… rather profound. I’m impressed.”
Soren sniffed proudly. “Hey, what can I say? I’m a pro at finding deep stuff in these situations.”
Rayla heaved a sigh, throwing her head back. “Why is he so difficult?”
“Callum will be fine,” Ezran said, trying to smile. “He just needs time to clear his head.”
Luna’s head bumped against Rayla’s back. She groaned softly and Rayla reached behind, to pat her head. “It’s okay, girl. He’s just stubborn, sometimes.”
Luna trilled at her, wrapping the length of herself around Rayla’s feet.
“You’re right. More like all the times.”
“Do you think I was too hard on her?”
Ciceros snorted, lolling on the grass at Callum’s feet. Callum sat with his legs drawn up and apart, his elbows resting on his knees.
“She could have gotten hurt and I wouldn’t have known until it was too late. I mean, I know she’s the best out of all of us, but she can’t just go off like that. You know?”
Ciceros groaned, a non-committed noise. Apparently, his dragon’s slumber was more important than his rider’s personal issues.
“Don’t get me wrong. I trust her. Of course I do! I just… don’t want to feel like she’s going behind my back.”
Ciceros didn’t move his head to look at Callum. He sideyed his human with the distinct appearance of someone who had been through this kind of conversation before. His nostrils flared once as his body rose and fell with a pronounced tiresome quality.
Callum rolled his eyes. “You know, you’re not helping.”
The dragon likewise rolled onto his side, untaunted and unperturbed. He wiggled a little into the earth, cozying himself in that spot.
“You’re acting like a lizard.”
Ciceros scrambled onto his belly, he raised his head with a look of borderline outrage. He growled at Callum lightly, looking away and sticking his tongue out repeatedly as if to actually see if he did resemble a lizard, concerned and indignant. Callum snickered. He shook his head and glared at Callum, that little growl rising out of his throat again.
“What? You’re related. There’s bound to be a resemblance.”
Ciceros’ look went flat, unamused, but he rolled his neck and jeered, his mouth opening and moving his head side to side in that way he did when he felt like imitating -- mocking, usually -- human speech.
“Since when do I sound like that? You can’t even talk.”
Ciceros just continued to jeer except this time he rolled onto his back right at Callum’s feet and Callum reached out, scratching Ciceros belly until the dragon was back to his wiggling in the grass. Callum laughed a little when Ciceros started purring.
“Mock me all you want, but I know where you like your scratches so I suggest you be careful.” Callum smiled as Ciceros got back onto his belly and proceeded to wrap himself against his rider’s body, head resting on Callum’s feet. Callum sighed. “I’m being a jerk to her aren’t I?”
Ciceros snorted again, this time, more sympathetically. He groaned and rubbed the side of his head against Callum’s shins beneath his boots.
“Yeah. I know.” Callum leaned against the boulder at his back. “I just don’t have all the answers, yet.”
Nearly a half hour passed and Callum just let the time slip by for a bit. There was something to be said about letting their dragons rest when they so chose to. Eventually, Callum had Ciceros go back. Both because he knew Ciceros wanted to check on his mate, too, and because it would let the others know that he was about ready to come back.
After thinking about it for some time, perhaps, he had been working himself too hard. And maybe he was being paranoid, but…
What else was he supposed to do?
They had enemies. Between Viren and Tyrus, things were more dangerous than before that was for sure. They still had to be careful flying in or even near Katolis skies. Thankfully, with Soren on board, it made predicting their flight patterns and patrol routes a lot easier than before. But still, if they got caught…
It was those thoughts that kept him up at night and kept him pouring over those maps and plans and backup plans.
Ezran would be killed fullstop. It was always a gamble when it came to him. Always. Even with Zym to protect him. The rest of their team would be imprisoned or killed as well, but with Ezran as the rightful king of Katolis, it would be the solution to many of Viren’s problems.
A chill settled in his chest.
She would be tortured for information on Xadia. Runaan was one of Xadia’s best warriors on dragonback and if anyone could glean or remember that Rayla had one of the few, precious personal connections to him they would exploit that without a second thought. Or kill her trying.
Callum took a deep breath, steadying himself against a boulder before standing upright.
He just needed time to figure out their next move.
It just felt like they had no moves to make until their enemies made one first.
That unnerved him among other things.
When Callum came back, Rayla stood to face him but found neither of them could really look at each other. There was a moment of awkward silence.
It stretched thin between them until they both broke the silence together. “I’m sorry.”
They stared at each other, wide-eyed. Each of them blinked. She sighed.
“No, stop,” she interrupted him. “I’ll go first. I’m sorry. You were right. I shouldn’t have gone off on my own like that without telling anyone. It should have been mutual decision. Not one I just decided was the right one.”
“I’m sorry, too.” He said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I was too hard on you. I just… got scared when I realized you were out there by yourself. But I’ve trusted you with everything else in my life. I should trust you to take care of yourself.”
Rayla smirked now. “Well, at least now you’ll never doubt me again.”
The amusement wasn’t entirely reciprocated. His eyes retained some uncertainty. "I promise, I’ll figure out our next move and tell you as soon as possible.”
She shook her head. “Callum, see, that’s your problem. It’s always you need to figure out our next move. You never learn, I swear.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Rayla, someone needs to come up with a plan. Unless you have a better way of doing this.”
Near them somewhere, Soren was throwing up his hands. “Oh, here we go again.”
They ignored him.
Rayla pinched the bridge of her nose. “You are the most stressful-- Callum, listen to me” She pleaded with him. “You don’t have to go about it like this. You're exhausting yourself in every way and I know you don’t want anything to happen to us if anything goes wrong, but we also don’t want anything to happen to you. You know that, right?”
Callum said nothing, he looked at them all. Each of their faces reaffirmed what she said.
She gestured to them, still face to face with him. “We’re all behind you. I’m behind you.”
Those last words had been a softer plea. From herself to him. His shoulders relaxed just a little and he let out a breath.
“I know you are,” he said softly. Callum pulled her into an embrace. Felt her arms wrap around him as they hooked under his. She rested her head in the crook of his neck as he enveloped her, the white fur of her hood soft soft against his fingers. “I just… forget sometimes.”
“Well, don’t,” she mumbled against his collarbone. “Because I’m here to stay.”
“And so are we,” Ezran beamed at them proudly standing next to them. “Can you promise to calm down a little now?”
“Well, you know what this calls for. Group hug!” Soren swepty the three of them up in a tight hug much to Rayla’s chagrin. “Pile in, everyone!”
Aanya wasted no time jumping in and Corvus wasn’t deign to reject the offer when she pulled him along. The dragons gathered around, groaning and purring at whatever was making their riders so touchy feely all of a sudden. They spread their wings in support.
“They’re happy we’re happy,” Aanya said, looking up.
“Dragons are like that, sometimes,” Callum added as he was released from the hug. “They’re usually pretty empathetic creatures, after all.”
He and Rayla still hadn’t entirely let go yet though and she smiled at him again. “You ready?”
He returned it. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
Come what may, he still had them all right now.
“Good. Now, do you think Ciceros would mind giving me a ride? “I think Luna could use a break from carrying me. Right, Luna?”
Luna purred knowingly.
Callum hummed. “I don’t know. What do you say, Ciceros? Can she come along for the ride?”
Ciceros moved and groaned in agreement. He nuzzled Rayla’s side.
Rayla smirked, taking Callum’s invitation to sit in front. “See, the very idea is exciting to him.”
Callum sat snug against her. “Mm-hmm.”
Soren rolled his eyes as he followed everyone and mounted up. “Ugh, okay, would you get a room or something?”
“Did anyone hear that?” Rayla looked around. “Huh. Must have been the wind in my ear or something.”
Callum shouldn’t have laughed at that, but he did. “Alright, that’s enough you two. We’re going home.”