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Before Dawn

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The night is black as long-burnt coals, and as cold. Echoes of singing blades and the empty howls of battle wind their way into Callahan’s ears. He bolts upright— the Beastfolk are upon us! An ambush while we slept! The Jewel of the Sky’s ghostly cerulean eyes sweep the campsite and land on a single Knight of Dragon, alone and unprepared. Callahan ducks down and scrambles desperately for his sword, for an arrow, for a belt knife, or a heavy stick; any kind of weapon with which to defend himself — but his fingers brush only softness within the furs he’s thrown aside.

Movement in the darkness. His wrist has been snatched and is being held, easily, firmly. Eyes wild, he strains his to see his executioner’s malicious grin. A snap of fingers rings through the distant sounds of utter slaughter, followed immediately by a spark. The spark slowly spreads over the logs in the hastily-dug fire pit, reigniting it with not flames, but a soft white glow. The light increases by increments, illuminating the deeply worried lines in Eliza’s face as she holds Callahan’s forearm with both her strong ranger’s hands.

Callahan fights to regain control of his breathing. It starts to come back to him: The battle is long over. Years have passed. His fellow Knights are long dead. He did nothing to help them. He ran away. He hid among strangers. He got a simple job as a clerk in a store. He became intrigued by and then infatuated with the store owner’s daughter. He became... a cat?

Callahan’s stomach pitches, and he leans haphazardly away from the bedroll to empty its contents in the least inconvenient place he can reach. Eliza loosens her grip on his arm so he can lean further, but catches it again before he can reclaim it completely. She feels around one-handed for her cloak and wordlessly offers him her handkerchief from its folds. He timidly accepts it and wipes the corners of his mouth, then looks down between them.

Callahan’s heart skips a beat. She is still holding his hand. Her palm feels rough from the labor of traveling a haunted forest for nineteen months. He feels a sudden pang of guilt, because his palms are much less calloused than they used to be. When did they start to soften? Was it during his work at her parents’ shop? Or was it during the idle months of travel when he barely lifted a paw to even try to help her around camp?

Eliza’s gaze appears to be settled on their clasped hands as well. He wonders if she’s thinking the same things as he is. If she’s realized how terribly selfish he’s been through this whole ordeal. How much longer she’s willing to put up with him.

Unbeknownst to him, Eliza’s thoughts are racing with an entirely different kind of panic. It’s been almost two years of cutting their way through this stars-forsaken, haunted place. Two years of putting up a strong face, and soaking in every trick and tip Callahan could give her about how to live in the wilderness. Two years of trying hopelessly to convince herself she was only helping this fool out of some misplaced sense of duty. Two years of trying to wipe her memory of the warmth of Callahan’s hands, these hands. These hands that had once been drenched in blood... Why was everything always so complicated.

Remembering their surroundings, Eliza scolds herself internally and closes her eyes to reach out with her senses and check for perimeter breaches. Her wards, rudimentary as they are, are all still in place. Nothing has come into their campsite, and she (typically the lighter sleeper of the two) hadn’t been woken by any noises among the underbrush. All is quiet, save the occasional rustle from a mouse or other nocturnal pest, and the ever-present murmur of archaic magic beneath the rotting leaves. She takes a deep breath and opens her eyes. Callahan is staring at her in earnest.

“Is,” his voice cracks. He clears his throat quietly and tries again, “Is everything in order?”

Eliza nods.

“Oh… good. Good, that’s… that’s good.”

A short silence.

“Eliza, I’m… I’m sorry.” He breaks eye contact to gaze into the glow coming out of the fire pit, then slides his hand out from between hers. Her instinct is not to let him, but she decides she should probably reignite their actual fire before her light spell wears off. She isn't sure how long the fire has been out, but this spell doesn't provide the same kind of warmth. The cold is already slipping its tendrils into the disheveled bedroll, and there is little Eliza hates more than cold feet while she sleeps.

Sighing, Eliza turns to the small pile of leaves and branches they’d found along their day’s journey. Picking the driest twigs she can reach without really digging, she starts to set about building up the sort of hollow pyramid of kindling that allows the fledgling flames to grow quickly. As she finishes the pyramid, the steely hiss of flint rings out beside her, making her jump a bit. Sparks from the flint land expertly in the center of the pit. Callahan seems satisfied with himself. Puzzled and slightly miffed that he hadn’t warned her that he would be helping, Eliza turns back to square off with him once again.

“What did you mean, you’re sorry? For waking me up? You and I both know you’ve been having nightmares for months. I’m used to being woken abruptly at—” she glances to the canopy over them, at what few stars can dimly be seen, “—two hours before dawn. The only new part here is that you pawed at me with human claws this time, as I imagine will be the case in the future.” Callahan’s eyes are firmly on the fire. He has no witty remark about her choice of wording, as he usually would, which causes Eliza's brow to furrow slightly. Callahan casually rolls a log the width of his wrist into the pit; it comes to rest annoyingly well-positioned to feed the hungry flames.

“No, you’re right,” Callahan falters for a moment, “but— I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Eliza shakes her head, making her curls dance against her cheeks. “I’m glad. I am sorry for waking you, but… I meant for, well, this.” He spreads one arm to indicate their campsite, the forest, their whole situation.

“It was my vanity and cowardice that got us into this giant mess to begin with. And I was a rooted cat for all of it, up until two days ago. I didn’t — not even couldn’t, didn’t — help nearly as much as I should have been. I’d still be a cat, if this,” he flicks the Hat (which is currently technically more of a scarf, and wrapped around his neck) “hadn’t deemed me worthy to use it and saved my sorry ass.” Eliza bites her lip to keep from interrupting. She’s known how he can get, how much his past hurts him, and knows the best thing she can do at the moment is listen. She almost misses the last part, because he says it so softly: “I’ve treated you poorly.”

Tears sting Callahan’s eyes as his whole life and persona seem to collapse on him at once. Good old despair, always there to keep him humble. And, at the very top of the pile, sifting slowly into his flattened self-esteem like it always did: Doubt.

Carefully, purposefully, Eliza reaches out and offers her hand to Callahan. He looks at it dully for a moment, and she fears he isn’t ready. But it is just a moment; then he shakily clasps it and holds on tightly. Eliza feels him shiver and gives his hand a tug. He sags forward and she moves closer, so he can lean his head against her shoulder.

“You’ve helped me learn so many things, Callie.” She feels his brow furrow against her collarbone at the nickname, but presses on, “So what if I’ve started all the fires, or dug all pits? You taught me how far from camp to dig a latrine— you taught me what a latrine was. I was purely a townsperson before you came along, mostly concerned with my books. So what if we traded what things we were good at for a while? Isn’t that what… uh, companions, do?”

Callahan hadn’t really considered it that way. He’d spent the last couple weeks thinking he had mostly complained this whole time, doing so louder until Eliza figured out what he meant she should do. He doesn’t think of himself as a very good teacher. Eliza lets the silence stretch, enjoying the snap of burning twigs and the earthy scent of Callahan’s hair near her face.

By coincidence, both of their thoughts drift like the idle smoke back to the last time the two of them had been this physically close while they were both non-feline. The tears dry slowly on Callahan’s cheeks, streaking a bit of dirt away.

Eliza whispers, “May I comfort you?” Callahan nods slightly, in a way that also allows him to simultaneously nuzzle closer into her neck. She feels him sigh softly against her skin and tentatively strokes his hair away from his forehead. Only moving when a limb falls asleep or a rock becomes uncomfortable beneath them, they sit like that until the dawn.