It’s not like Rayla’s not used to the cold.
She’s done worse than this, for one, and she’s spent enough time standing guard on the Storm Spire that she’s grown used to the bitter weather that comes with the altitude. She’d spent days on the snowy alps of Katolis in nothing but her assassin’s gear, once upon a time, and only a week or two after that, she’d leapt off the Pinnacle and faced the chill of the wind rushing through her hair as she fell to what she’d been certain, at the time, should have been her death.
No, the cold certainly isn’t a bother to her, but there’s always something different about the way it blows as the year begins to close. Perhaps it’s the snowfall that comes with it, heralding the return of winter. Maybe the frost it brings just reminds her of her childhood in the Silver Meadow, and of warm flavoured milk between her hands. Maybe she’s just looking forward to another Winter Solstice at the Banther Lodge with Callum and Ezran.
It’ll be her fourth one this year.
She doesn’t ask for leave often, and the few times she does, Queen Zubeia is more than happy for her to go. She likes to think that it’s because of what she was willing to give to keep Zym safe all those years ago, but more likely it’s because Zym has obvious favourites, and she’s never really been able to say no when he wants snacks or attention.
He’s a fair bit bigger now. Rayla kind of misses the days when he used to fit in her lap. In theory, he can - he’s just four times as big as he used to be and it’s not nearly as comfortable. He’s taller than her now, if he stands on his back paws, and either his connection with Ez is stronger than she thinks it is or he just enjoys being a little bit of a brat, because his obsession with jelly tarts can’t be good for a growing dragon like him.
Still. She supposes she can’t complain.
Her only job is to keep him out of trouble. Rearing him must be worse.
He’s being mischievous again today. Rayla can hear him scampering around his mother’s chamber from all the way out here, and Queen Zubeia might be bigger, sure, but he’s a fast little bugger and she’s not nearly as young as she wishes she was.
She shouldn’t laugh - and she isn’t - but that, too, brings back memories, this time of the days she and Callum spent wandering through Xadia to bring him home, and those are almost as warm as the winters with his family.
She hides a smile in his scarf. He lets her keep it when he and Ibis have to be away for days at a time on training excursions, and it clashes a little with her Dragon Guard uniform but no one else seems to mind so she wears it in his absence. It’s probably not appropriate that he spends all of his off-time at the Storm Spire with her, but there’s history there that can’t be argued against.
Zym likes him.
Zubeia likes him.
He’d been the one to return Zym with Rayla all those years ago.
He’s more than capable of being part of the Guard too, now that Ibis has trained him up a bit, but he’s a human ambassador first. His prowess as a Sky Mage is just an added perk that lets him hang out far more often than the average visitor.
“He’s due back soon then?”
Varsha sounds unimpressed, but then, Rayla thinks, she always is. She’d joined the Dragon Guard shortly after its reformation - top of her class in everything, she’d boasted, could best anyone in archery and in stealth, and that she was the most skilled Skywing elf in the world.
Rayla thinks she’s insufferable. So far, there’s been no proof. Her arrogance irks her, and what’s more, she’s openly not fond of Callum and his presence at the Storm Spire. She’s just jealous, Rayla chides herself. To Varsha, Callum is, by all definitions, an outsider, and yet, he’s been allowed to learn the deepest secrets of the Sky Primal, and from Ibis , no less, over her. It’s a poor excuse for her attitude, but it explains it all nonetheless.
“Soon enough,” Rayla answers, fingers fiddling absent-mindedly with Callum’s scarf.
Varsha wrinkles her nose in disdain. “I think pining is unbecoming,” she sneers.
“Good thing I don’t care what you think,” drawls Rayla. She rolls her eyes. This is not new behaviour for Varsha, but it is childish, and Rayla has no patience for it today. Callum’s training excursion has gone on for longer than usual - he’s been gone about a week, and a long week, at that. Rayla likes to think she’s not normally so antsy, but it’s rare to be on shift with Varsha, and rarer still when she has to be on shift with Varsha while Callum’s away.
She sighs into his scarf, grateful for the warmth over her nose and lips; the soft material strangely reassuring; the scent so familiar that it that soothes the tension in her back.
She does miss him. She misses his warmth at night, and the way he folds his wings over her shoulders when he’s being cute and overly affectionate. She misses his company; his gentle teasing; his eyes and the way they shine in the early mornings; his smile whenever she suggests something less than appropriate -
Moon and Stars, what she wouldn’t give to see him appear on that horizon tonight. This is supposed to be his last extended lesson before he and Ibis break for the winter, and in a week, Rayla’s usual leave begins, and they can be on their way again for a month’s worth of shenanigans at the Banther Lodge for this year’s Winter Solstice.
They call it something else. Yule, she thinks, and it’s not really quite the same. For them, it’s a sort of Winter Festival to celebrate something in Katolan mythology that she doesn’t fully understand. A hunt or something. Callum and Ezran have never really cared for the nuance of it all - for them, it’s just an excuse to drink cocoa and exchange gifts.
For her own people, it’s a celebration of the longest night of the year. One that involves weaving crowns of snowdrops and winter jasmine and dancing in the moonlit snow. Mum and Dad used to come home for it every year, and then… things got complicated.
Their names have been cleared now. Callum and Ibis had found their coins, lying half embedded in the dirt after Viren’s fall all those years ago. It had taken… a fair effort to pull them out. Magic well beyond even her own comprehension. Some combination of the Earth and Moon Primals, Rayla thinks. Zubeia had given them her gratitude after Callum had shown her what happened, and they were welcomed home as heroes when they went back to the Silvergrove with an also-freed, single-armed Runaan.
Rayla… hasn’t been home at all. Not since that day she came back with Callum and found herself ghosted by her own people.
They write to her. Runaan, and Ethari, and Mum, and Dad, she means. They come to see her at the Storm Spire every now and then, their faces clear, their smiles warm, with promises that she can come home now - that she’s no longer a ghost to anyone in the Silvergrove, and that they’re all so, so proud of everything she’s done.
But they still did it, didn’t they? thinks Rayla. Mum and Dad, she can’t blame so much. They weren’t there. They’d been ghosted too, and their visits are generally lovely.
But Runaan had killed Callum’s stepfather, even after they’d shown him the egg; after they’d demonstrated a chance - a real chance - at peace. She gets it. Callum gets it. They had a mission, and it was the death of one versus the slow and painful loss of twelve limbs. But Callum still hasn’t really forgiven him for it because - well - how can he?
At least Rayla had made a choice. A far braver one, he says, than Runaan’s.
And Ethari - Ethari loves her like a daughter, she knows it, and yet… he’d still done it. He’d still ghosted her after her supposed failure. Without even taking the time to consider what else might have happened. He’d blamed her when Runaan’s lily sank and hers didn’t, and she knows in her head that it wasn’t a conscious effort; that he, in his words, hadn’t done so out of malice, but…
Rayla shakes her head and stares at her shoes.
She’s not angry at them. They’d done what they thought was right. She’s just… not ready to go home yet.
Beside her, Varsha shifts. She squints at the horizon, a hand over her brow to shield her eyes from the setting sun, and bristles.
“I’m done for the day,” she grumbles, turning before Rayla can even object. “No one’ll want to be out here in a minute anyway.”
Rayla scowls at her. Their shift ends in half an hour, and for someone who claims to be ‘easily the most proficient warrior on the Guard’, leaving early without a reason is neither professional nor a demonstration of this ‘proficiency’ she’s so proud of. There’s a protest building in Rayla’s throat, but Varsha waves vaguely at the horizon and draws Rayla’s attention to two little blips gliding across the bleak, darkening sky.
She squints, but the red and blue of Callum’s tunic and overcoat is unmistakable, and Rayla feels whatever complaints she might have die on her tongue. Her lips tilt upwards from behind his scarf, but she keeps the rest of her face clear and void of the warmth rising in her chest. Varsha’s smug enough without witnessing that.
“Fine,” says Rayla. “There’s nothing to handover anyway.”
Varsha snorts. Rayla catches the roll of her eyes as she steps back into the depths of Zubeia’s antechamber but she says nothing else, so neither does she. Instead, she tugs Callum’s scarf back under her chin, her grin wide as his silhouette grows bigger against the sky.
He’d land on the Pinnacle, usually, but he spots her at the mouth of the antechamber long before he even has to descend. The smile on his lips is blinding, and oh, how she’d missed it. It’s been such a long week without him, but already her mood is lifting.
He veers away from Ibis’ path, his priorities clear, his hair whipping in the wind as he draws nearer, and he lands with learned grace before her, not two feet from where she stands.
“Hi there,” he says, ruffling his feathers. “I’m here to see my girlfriend? She’s the best one on the Guard.”
“You just missed her,” teases Rayla. “Varsha’s just left.”
Callum makes a face, horrified by the very concept, and Rayla lets out her laugh at last. She steps away from the mouth of the antechamber - it’s fine now that they’re both here - they’re more than a match for anything that makes it up mountain, assuming that anything’s coming to begin with. They can afford this one distraction. “Surely you don’t mean me ?” she asks, her smirk coy.
He chuckles. “Only the true best of the Guard would be so modest.” He spreads his wings out for her and beckons her closer with his chin. “Do I get a kiss now or what?”
Rayla grins at him, but he doesn’t need to ask twice. She steps towards him, his wings folding around her shoulders in a great feathered hug that buffers the cold. “Hi,” she murmurs, pressing a kiss against his lips. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too.” Callum breathes into her hair, his lips cold against her cheek
He’s taller now, although not quite taller than her ( horns count, she insists). The Skywing garb suits him and fits well against his frame, but he’s still first and foremost a human ambassador, so his tunic remains Katolan red, and his outer coat still the blue of his birth father’s home. He still carries his sketchbook around with him - the binding’s a little ratty now, but it’s otherwise in good nick - and while his jaw is sharper and his shoulders are broader, his eyes and his smile and even his pout are still the same.
Rayla sighs against him. “How was the thing?”
Callum huffs. “Frustrating. Ibis thinks I need a staff but involves making my own Primal Stone and it’s… harder than I ever thought it would be.”
“Fancy,” says Rayla.
“Mm.” Callum pauses. “There’s something else.”
“Oh?” Rayla pulls back a little. It doesn’t sound like anything to be concerned about, but there’s something about the way he says it that makes her frown. “What’s wrong?”
Callum says nothing for a while. He purses his lips, and rolls his shoulders, and presses one last kiss to her forehead, before he heaves a sigh and lets the feathers fall from his arms at last. “Runaan came to see me,” he says finally. “He wants you to come home for the Solstice.”
Rayla stares at him.
Her face is hard to read, even to him, but there are so many questions in her eyes that he has a feeling she just doesn’t know where to begin. In perfect honesty, Callum doesn’t really know how to feel about it either - Runaan had come to him . It’s unlike him to forgo talking to Rayla first. It’s not like she’s ever gone out of her way to avoid letters from home. She relishes them, in fact - they’re the one reminder of the Silvergrove she’ll allow herself even though she refuses to go back.
“Where were you, exactly?” she asks at last.
Callum shrugs a little, taking her hand in his to lead her back to the mouth of the antechamber so he can take Varsha’s post. “We were chasing storms,” he tells her. “There was one… a little way out from the Silvergrove. I didn’t go,” he adds hastily. Not that he has any particular reason to without her anyway. “They must have seen the magic or something.”
“You didn’t catch it, then.”
“Trapping a blizzard is harder than it sounds, you know.” He flashes her a smirk, enjoying the mischievous little twinkle in her eye. It fades after a moment though. There’s a discussion in the air. “They miss you, Rayla.”
She shifts uncomfortably. “They can come and see me at the Lodge.”
“ Rayla. ” Callum lets out a sigh, reaching across the space between them to take her fingers in his. “It’s been four years.”
“So?” It comes out terse. Stubborn. She purses her lips. “It’s not like they haven’t seen me. They can come and visit any time they like.”
“It’s not the same, and you know it.”
She rounds on him. “Why do you want me to go all of a sudden?” she grumbles. “We already have plans to spend the Solstice at the Banther Lodge with Ezran and your Aunt Amaya. Are you suggesting we don’t do that this year?”
Callum gives her a look . “I’m asking why you won’t consider doing both.”
Rayla bristles. There’s a moment where she hesitates - Callum sees it in her eyes. There’s no real reason they can’t - not really. She’d been pardoned along with her parents, and her family’s been waiting for her to come home for some time now. She just… won’t. Callum thinks he gets it. Somewhere along the line, her disappointment in herself had turned into a sort of resentment for her village - for their… less reasonable customs and traditions. He’d been mad too, when she told him they’d banished her for not dying like the others on her mission. But that was a long time ago. Things have changed. And Rayla… refusing to face them isn’t such a healthy mindset.
She shakes her head, her eyes hard. “You know that Runaan -”
“I know,” he says sharply, because he does. Things might have changed for her, but Runaan is still responsible for his stepfather’s death, and he still has issues about, yes, but it’s unfair of her to use that as an excuse to avoid her own problems. He relents with a sigh. “They’re your family, Rayla. You miss them too. I know you do. And we don’t have to be there for long.”
“ We? ”
He chuckles. “I know how you feel about all this. You didn’t seriously think I’d make you go home on your own, did you?” He presses a kiss into her knuckles and offers her a smile. “We don’t have to go. I just… want you to consider it. I know you miss them. I know you miss home too. Just know that,whatever you decide, I’m with you.”
They lapse into silence. Callum releases her hand at last and holds both of his own behind his back - an honorary member of the Dragon Guard, standing at the ready at the mouth of the Queen’s antechamber. Rayla says nothing else until the next shift arrive - two Sunfire elves volunteered by Janai from Lux Aurea. Her best, she’d said.
Rayla hands over quickly. Nothing to report but Zym being a nuisance to his mother. He’s still a baby. It’s understandable. They nod, their amusement clear in their eyes, Rayla’s shoulders slump at last as she leads Callum back down the mountain.
“If we go,” she says at last, quietly, like she’s hesitant to admit she’s even thought about it. “I’m not saying that we will yet. But if we did. We won’t stay long. We leave as soon as - as -” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but she doesn’t really need to for Callum to know what she wants to say.
“We leave as soon as you want us to,” he promises. “Rayla.” He stops her along the stairway with a hand at her elbow. “We don’t have to do this.”
“No,” she says. “We don’t. But… they’re my family. And I do miss them. I’m just… afraid.”
Of what she doesn’t say, but Callum thinks he knows that too. Things have changed a lot over the four years she hasn’t been home. She’s changed a lot. There’s still a lingering sort of fear there that she won’t be welcomed back, even after all this time. That she might have changed too much for the rest of her village and she might not be welcomed back at all because of who she is now.
“Good thing you’re the bravest person I know,” he says, kissing her brow gently. “I love you, Rayla. I’m with you, no matter what.”
She breathes a sigh and kisses him back. Just a little one on his lips. “I know. Thank you.”
It’s not a decision. But it’s not a no , either.
A little progress is better than none.