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even as a shadow

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When Runaan finally makes it home — when he half-staggers up to the threshold and pauses there, leaning one shoulder against the doorjamb — he is barely recognisable. There are scuff marks and scars all over his face and neck. His body has withered from powerful and lean and solid, to something haggard and pale under the loose rags of his clothing. He is wraithlike in the late afternoon light.  

“Runaan?” he hears from within the room.

Even though he thought he had no reserves of energy left, he smiles. To hear that achingly familiar voice again. To warm himself by the disbelief in it, the hope, when he left hope by the wayside many a footstep ago. 

He’s tempted to close his eyes and rest his head against the wall; it feels so heavy. But he needs to look up. He needs to relish this moment, as the person he thought he would never see again leaps up from his workbench, knocking various tools and materials to the ground, and nearly tripping himself up in his rush.

Runaan would laugh at the endearing display of clumsiness, if he had it in him. He doesn’t. He hasn’t spoken for most of the journey back into Xadia. His whole chest cavity feels empty of words and sound.

So instead, he only smiles wider, feeling the stiffness of his cheek muscles, tasting the blood that wells up from his dry, cracked lips.

The next thing he knows, he’s enveloped in his embrace and is breathing through a faceful of hair. You’ve gotten shaggy, he thinks fondly, and brings up his remaining arm to press him closer.

Neither of them wants to let go. Instinctively, Runaan pats his back. He surprises himself. He forgot he could be so gentle.

He’s subsided into gentle strokes with his thumb by the time the other elf pulls back, just enough to take him in more carefully. He watches him take in his appearance, his bearing, his expression. He waits — and sees the moment when he notices the missing arm, its absence hidden initially by his baggy garments.

He doesn’t recoil. He only blinks, rapidly, and swallows twice, reaching out to grasp Runaan’s shoulder and move a trembling hand gingerly down to where his upper arm ends. He opens his mouth to ask, but then shuts it. He understands. They did talk about it, after all, the assassin’s binding. Runaan even remembers showing him the ribbon when he asked about it: how his eyes widened with horror, despite himself. How Runaan kept it hidden in the training compound thereafter. 

Perhaps it’s the exhaustion finally sinking in. Perhaps it’s the sheer force of his relief when Runaan sees the acceptance in his eyes. Probably, it’s both. Runaan wobbles, nearly buckles at the knees, and immediately feels his arm tighten around his waist, feels him take some of his weight. Have you always been so strong? he wonders at him silently. 

“I’ve got you.” But they don’t go in yet; they pause so he can adjust the position of his arm to support him more.

“Okay?” he asks, and watches for Runaan’s nod. Somehow he’s already intuited that he can’t speak yet, can’t risk breaking the spell of being back here. Safe, impossibly.

Runaan doesn’t remember much for a while after that point. He retreats somewhere deep in his own mind and just lets himself be handled. Lets him scoop broth out of a simmering pot — likely the beginnings of a stew for dinner — and leave it for Runaan in the bowl he favours. Lets himself be cajoled into drinking a few spoonfuls, while he bustles around heating water for a bath.

Since he’s distracted, Runaan takes the opportunity to reach into his sleeve and lightly squeeze the stump his arm now ends in. It’s wrapped in layers of by now filthy bandages, so he barely feels the pressure of his own fingers.

But he needs it there anyway, needs to remind himself that no matter what his brain is telling him, his left arm isn’t still there, and it definitely isn’t still hurting him.

He takes a deep breath and releases it again. When that doesn’t soothe the phantom pain, he lets himself be distracted by the room instead. He takes it all in: the homemade shelves and cupboards, the familiar crockery and cutlery. Even the stool he’s sitting on, which, yes, still has uneven feet and rocks from side to side as he shifts his weight.

Rayla used to love rocking on this stool. Even when she was too little to see over the top of it, she would clamber up and find her balance. At first on both feet, firmly planted, but later on just one foot. She called it her self-devised training exercise long before she even started training formally. They played along, only stopping her when she wanted to try it with only two toes, or two fingers.

Runaan sobers as he’s pulled out of nostalgia and back into the present. He stops rocking. Oh, Rayla.

His fingers clench more tightly around his upper arm as he thinks of the danger she is likely still in. The last time he saw her, she was actually defending the human princes. She defied him; she even fought him, to stall for them.

Another throb of pain goes through his non-existent arm as he processes this thought. He forces himself to let go, making a fist on the table instead.

This whole time, he’s been driven by the distant prospect of seeing them both again. They’re the closest thing he has to a family. But clearly, Rayla isn’t here. And she wasn’t in that dungeon with him, nor did the humans taunt him by saying they had captured her. Which means she must have… followed the humans, followed the egg of the dragon prince, disobeying his order to go home by herself if the others never returned.

But no matter her insane recent actions. At this point, all he’s worried about is whether she’s safe. He has every confidence in her abilities: her speed, strength, and training. Unless — the binding… 

“The bath’s ready.”

He’s spoken quietly, but Runaan still startles. The movement jolts his injury and he flinches, despite himself.

Thankfully, the other elf doesn’t comment, even though there’s no way he didn’t notice. He only comes to his side with quick strides and offers his arm again.

As he accepts it, Runaan thinks quickly. He’s not so bullheaded as to insist that he’s in any condition to go after Rayla right now. And where would he even begin? How could he, since he can’t even walk across a room without help?

Runaan glances at his support. That would have been his first thought, he realises with a sinking feeling: Where’s Rayla? Because Runaan would never have come back alone. Not unless something happened to her. And even if it had, he would have found a way to bring her back onto Xadian ground.

What scenarios has he already imagined? Is he keeping them to himself because he’s trying to give Runaan reprieve?

He has to tell him what he knows.

They’ve reached the area they use for baths at home. The moment he’s seated again, Runaan taps the back of his hand to get his attention.

“She’s alive,” he says, or tries to say. His voice doesn’t quite come. 

He clears his throat and tries again. This time he’s actually audible. “She’s alive. As far as I know.”

A whole range of emotions passes over the other elf’s face. Relief, and worry, probably at the implication of the words As far as I know. Then confusion. 

“Y-You didn’t know she wasn’t here? You didn’t just get separated?”

Runaan bows his head and lowers his gaze. The enormity of the choice Rayla made is too overwhelming. And he’s too tired, too broken down by everything that human mage did to him. He can’t — he can’t do anything to help her, he can’t even say what’s happened… 

“Okay, easy, easy.” Soft shushing sounds, as if he were a child in need of soothing. “We’ll take one thing at a time.”

His hands are gentle and slow as he starts to remove Runaan’s clothing. Runaan tenses up when the last layer falls away, revealing his bandaged limb for the first time. He starts to shift, futilely, as though he could hide it from view. 

He stops himself, but not before the other elf notices. “I’ll just go burn these rags,” he says lightly, and only half-jokingly. Runaan approves, anyway, although he knows he’s just stalling to give Runaan time to mentally prepare himself for what comes next. 

He returns with an old, soft tunic of Runaan’s, and his own sleep pants, the pair Runaan sometimes steals. He sets the fresh clothes down to one side, then perches opposite him. “Ready?”

Honestly, no. But Runaan focuses on keeping his breaths steady and regular, as he begins unwinding the soiled cloth. There’s a certain reek coming off it — not the kind that comes with infection, as Runaan did keep the site clean. But it’s still there, a natural side effect of travelling roughly and furtively, having to hide from all humans and even some elves.

He knows what the stump looks like, as well as what it means to anyone who recognises what it is. An amputation by binding is a stigma, a mark of disgrace, of having failed in his sworn duty. 

That won’t matter to the elf he loves, and who loves him in return. He knows that, too. But it’s enough to make him look askance as the last length of bandage comes off.

Runaan waits. And then waits some more.

After a long moment, he looks up at him.

There are tear streaks down both his cheeks. He hasn’t made a sound; he’s just been silently shedding tears, staring at the still raw skin. Its crinkly or scabby texture, its purple-pink hue.

Runaan leans forward and cups his cheek. Part of him wants to hug him again. But it’s too awkward from where they’re each seated, and he doesn’t trust himself not to fall over if he stands up to do it. He tries to convey all the comfort he can, through that one small point of contact.

His phantom limb throbs even more. He ignores it.

But the pain must show on his face, because he hears him ask, very quietly, “Does it hurt?”

Runaan tries to find a way to answer that without lying outright, or making it worse. He settles on: “It’s not always like this.” 

Through his tears, he blinks at Runaan, and then nods slowly. “One thing at a time,” he repeats from earlier, this time to himself. 

He rinses the healing wound first. He does a more thorough job than Runaan ever managed by himself on the road, and it’s with probably the cleanest water to touch the site so far, so Runaan relaxes and lets him.

Then he goes to start bathing him. “Wait,” Runaan says, “I can do that myself, you know.”

The look on his face makes Runaan regret stopping him, almost immediately. “Let me take care of you,” he murmurs. “Please?”

There’s something in his tone that conveys how much he needs this, needs to make sure himself that Runaan is alright. 

“Okay,” Runaan agrees. “But tell me about what you were making.” To get his mind off the arm, and because he’s missed getting to hear about his latest crafts. He always gets so impassioned when he talks about his work. 

“Hm. Just now, you mean? It’s a betrothal necklace.”

Odd to think that normal life has continued while he’s been away in the human kingdoms. Odd in a good way. “Ah, that scamp’s finally making her move?”

“It’s high time,” he agrees, chuckling and reaching for more water.

These aren’t normal circumstances, and even Runaan’s voice is weak, but he’s glad that he’s playing along and having this everyday conversation. 

After a moment he continues, “She wants it to be just right for her, too. She comes nearly every day to check on it and ask if it can be even finer, even more delicate-looking. I keep having to go back to my workshop for smaller tools.”

“Why don’t you just work in your workshop?” 

Runaan hears the breath catch in his throat ever so slightly. “Your hair, next, I think,” he says, and Runaan obligingly turns around to let him untangle the messy braids. He knows that if he gives him space, he’ll eventually answer the question — and he’s right.

“I’ve been keeping the front door open,” he admits sheepishly. “I even moved one of my workbenches over. Just… just in case you were coming home. I wanted to make sure I saw you as soon as I could.”

He touches the base of the horn Runaan has lost. “You’ve… you’ve suffered a great deal. Physically, and deeper too, I can tell. But today, you actually did appear in that doorway. That’s all I was holding out for.”

It feels like there’s a lump in Runaan’s throat. He starts to say his name, is about to comfort and reassure him, but he’s cut off.

“And since I’m giving away secrets… Want to hear another one?” 

Runaan manages a strained, “Sure.”

He lowers his voice conspiratorially. “The other elf also wants me to make her a betrothal necklace. They’re planning to propose at the same time!”

Runaan lets out a single, hearty peal of laughter. It’s a strange sound, one he hasn’t made in what feels like a long, long time. “How have they not seen each other around here?” he asks, still smiling. 

“I’ve been telling one of them to come to the workshop, and the other to come to the front door.” 

Runaan turns around and narrows his eyes at him. “You’re a mastermind.”

He gives a mock bow, even though it’s bittersweet and there’s still sadness etched into the lines around his eyes. “I try. I made you laugh, didn’t I? It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.”

“It is a lot,” Runaan says. “It’s you. That’s enough.”