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Upside Downtime

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6.22AM, May 16th, 998AB, outside Castle Katol, Central Katolis

The bells rang through the misty pre-dawn, carrying the sound all the way from the castle in the distance.

Rayla could have shielded herself from what it meant, if not for the red ribbon left behind back on the forest trail. She was no-where near skilled enough at illusions to wrap that up in anything else, and so the meaning the sound carried was clear and heavy.

Death.

Before today, that would have sounded so melodramatic to her. Like ‘Death’ in fancy capitalized letters on the page of a storybook or spoken aloud in Runaan’s voice, full of gravitas she hadn’t understood.

But not now.

Now, the way the word was making its way around inside her head, bouncing off the memories of the last day, it didn’t mean some vague, ominous thing but… lots of real things.

It meant that those two boys, fast asleep, missing the sound and what it meant for them… that they had lost their dad.

It meant that she would have to lie to them, from here on out.

And it meant that Runaan was alive and on his way back to Ethari.

How was she supposed to feel about the bells when they meant all of those things?

She knew how she was supposed to feel of course, knew that… that sound should mean triumph.

It didn’t though, not even close, and she didn’t know how she did feel.

Rayla wrapped her arms around herself, keeping out nothing at all, not the chill or the feelings or the bells, still echoing in her head after the real sound had stopped.

The moon set, its soft and comforting warmth leaving and inviting the chill of dawn, which did its damndest to get right into her bones. Its bracing strength left too, and the fatigue that had apparently just been lying in wait, pounced to hit her all at once.

The sun rose, mocking her tired eyes with its stupid, excessively bright rays that weren’t even warm this early, all harsh and throwing the jagged edges of the world into stark relief.

She sat in the miserable cold sunlight for a while, before she roused her travelling companions, huddled together under their cloak with the warm little Sun primal frog. They both looked tired, blinking muzzily at her and the forest around them. She judged it had been five or six hours since Callum had gone to sleep, a bit longer for Ezran.

The sun was up though, had been for a while, and they had to move. For… many reasons.

The younger boy, Ezran, bounced up and greeted her cheerfully. He seemed a whole lot livelier than his older brother, still yawning and trying to extricate himself from the tangled cloak.

“Empty your bags and let me know what we’re working with,” she said, rather curtly, because she really wanted to get away from this place, from that castle in the distance.

Away from the bells for the departed. From the red ribbon.

From… the dead. From the death, real and horrible. From her failure.

Her former team would be on their way now too, and she knew she had to get Ezran and the dragon egg as far away from them as possible. But she knew the path they would take though, and it wouldn’t be hard to avoid them.

Rayla let the boys get their bearings, doing her morning stretches while they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and laid out their supplies like she’d asked them to.

Callum sighed, looking at the meagre contents of their bags. Even upside down in a handstand, she could tell it was not great.

“We have a bit of food,” Callum said, meticulously listing the supplies out loud as he packed them back in their bags. “-thanks to Ezran. Five jellytarts, a jar of raisins and a cheese sandwich. Extra socks, because Ez always jumps in puddles, and I’m sent to fetch him and then we both- uh. Never mind. We have extra socks, was the point. And an extra undershirt, because Ez gets cold. And my cloak. No other extra clothes, because we were going to the Bantherlodge, and there are clothes there.” They just… didn’t need to pack clothes, when they went on long trips? It was weird, thinking that someone could just have that many extra clothes.

Callum had stopped listing supplies though and was just staring at her now, open-mouthed.

Maybe humans couldn’t put their feet that close to the top of their heads? She supposed… most elves couldn’t either, but surely it wasn’t that weird.

Ezran stared too, but it was more unabashed joy on his face than the… whatever it was, on Callum’s. “That’s so cool,” the boy said. “You can really just… almost stand on your own head. While upside down.”

“No,” Rayla smirked.

“But-” Ezran looked confused, pointing at her current position.

Not wavering, she spread her legs slightly to steer clear of the horns, and lowered her feet past the edge of her head, almost touching her ears. “I can stand on top of my head. I don’t, because my boots are dirty and my hair is white.”

“Smart,” Ezran nodded sagely. “Makes sense. I knew it. I told Callum too, that it didn’t make sense that elves would uh ‘wallow in filth’ and never wash their hair, even if the books at the library says so.” Wow. Awesome to know, really, what humans thought of her people. But Ezran was continuing, chatting happily. “That tall pointy man on the battlements? Pretty sure he washes his hair, and takes his sweet time, too.” So very true. But she couldn’t say that. Runaan… those bells were because of him.

She flipped forwards, landing lightly on the grass in front of the boys. “Yep. We work pretty much like humans, I imagine? Put our pants on one leg at a time? Wash in the order of face, armpits, crotch, ass-”

Ezran’s face lit up in a delighted grin. “You said ‘ass’!”

“Ezran, she’s allowed to talk how she wants,” Callum said sternly. “You’re not.”

“I’m not really, either,” Rayla said, winking at Ezran, who was pouting dramatically, clearly not thinking this fair at all. “I just kinda do, anyway. Like I said, I work pretty much like you.”

Callum was still staring at her, though. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “That you work like us, I mean.”

She shrugged. “It’s normal? I mean, I’m pretty flexible I guess, but-”

“Uh, no. It’s definitely not normal,” Callum said, still wide-eyed. “I could never do that in a thousand years of training. I can’t even touch my toes, and Soren says I ought to be able to-”

She turned away. It was… technically flattering, what he was saying. But it wasn’t, really. He thought she was… what? Not like him, that was pretty obvious. Intimidating, maybe. Which was also not that flattering.

“Let’s get going,” she said curtly. “Can’t spend all day upside down.”

“The whole night was kinda… upside down,” Ezran said, quiet now. He looked around at the forest, then back at the castle off in the distance. “It’s still a bit upside down. But maybe you get used to it? Being upside down? And it’ll seem the right way up eventually?”

He looked so hopeful it tore at her, because he didn’t even know how much his world was upside down.

She had lost her parents twice, it felt like, even if they still lived. Both times it had turned the world upside down.

She couldn’t tell them.

A kind illusion, Runaan might have called it. But it wasn’t kind, not at all.

That it was kind or okay was an illusion too and she didn’t need that. She knew it was not kind to keep this from them. It was necessary and cruel and horrible.

“Yeah,” she said, and forced a smile. “There’s an upside to things being upside down, you know. A new perspective. Gravity masking your bedhead.” She raised an eyebrow meaningfully at Callum and his lopsided morning floof, but he didn’t seem to catch on. “A rush of blood to the head,” she continued. “Less wear and tear on your boots. I dunno… getting really into the mind of a bat?” Ezran giggled at this, and Callum smiled, and Rayla found her smile was somehow a lot less effort.

“Come on,” she grinned at them, motioning them to follow as they both hefted their bags, ready to go.

It would be okay, she thought. There was a bunch of horrible things that they weren’t leaving behind at all but bringing with them but… there were good things too. They carried a really good and important thing that could turn the world upside down in a good and important way.

“Okay, then,” Callum said, a kinda thoughtful-eager-glint-in-his-eyes look on his face. “It’s upside down time! I’m up for the downtime! I’m down with the upside!” Alright, that was his dumb pun face then, good to know. “It’s up to-”

Callum stopped talking, because he had to run to catch up to her and Ezran, who had collectively elected to leave him to his forest clearing punnologue.

Dork.

Pretty much… like her.

 

Chapter Text



3.45PM, May 16th, 998AB, Forest of Eyham, Central Katolis

Callum was flagging. He wasn’t complaining… as such. Well, he was. His face definitely was. He was trying not to. But neither of the boys were used to this.

Ezran, at least, seemed too excited to whine about his feet, but she was willing to bet he would conk out hard come bedtime. For now though, he had left his brother to carry the seemingly heavy egg and his own pack, so he could climb trees and run ahead and pick flowers. She had offered to carry Ezran’s pack and Callum had said no so… he made his bed. Did he really think she needed him to hand over the egg?

She could take it if she wanted to. She didn’t, that was the point. And if he wanted to carry two packs and whine about it, then pfft... His choice.

Callum flopped down groaning in the grass, when she called for a rest. Ezran followed suit, but didn’t even stay down for one minute, because this random stretch of forest seemed endlessly fascinating to him and he was back off, seemingly examining the plant life.

Ezran was at least fun. He had made Bait a crown of pink flowers with little faces that he claimed went with his normal-grumpy skin color and his ‘vibe’, and now he was bringing back a whole armful of assorted wildflowers, holding them up to her face.

“Callum?” the boy asked, turning to his brother and turning her face around too. “What goes? It’s hard, because her eyes are purple-”

“Lilac.” Callum said, absentmindedly. “They’re lilac. Like the lilac bushes that grew at Aunt Amaya’s old cottage?”

“Yeah. I see it. I don’t have any lilacs though?” Ezran looked through the collection of flowers in his hands, white and light blue and orange. “I need backup suggestions, Callum!”

Callum smiled good-naturedly at Ezran’s intensity. “A shade of purple with not too much blue in it. Or bright yellow, like buttercups. Or white. White goes with everything, but there wouldn’t be much contrast with her hair.”

“Light pink and yellow,” Rayla said, without thinking, an image of Runaan popping into her head unbidden, not the imposing assassin leader full of disgust with her that she had faced on the battlements, but… smiling on Ethari’s birthday, lifting her up to the mirror so she could see herself in the Sundrop flower crown. She had thought those flowers were boring, but Ethari had told her they looked very pretty on her, and she knew he was biased but-

Callum was looking at her too… she didn’t know. He was just looking, and she supposed he had never seen an elf before, or, it seemed, purple eyes. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Pink and yellow would be really nice. Are those your favorite colors of flowers?”

“People have a favorite color flowers?” she snickered. She really hadn’t thought about that. Not like that. It was more to do with a good memory than the colors themselves, why she liked the yellow and pink Sundrops.

“Callum does,” Ezran giggled. “He has a favorite color everything. His favorite color flowers are yellow. His favorite color watercolor paint is like… orangy red. His favorite color clothes is greyish blue. And his favorite color leather is dark red like my shirt, because our mom’s spear was wrapped in leather that color-” Was. Past tense. She had figured but…

Callum was looking down, a bit bashfully. No wonder, really, it was personal, what his little brother was just blabbering on about. She would have been mortified, if she had been him.

“Yeah,” Callum said, twisting the stem of the light purple flowers he was holding. “It’s because surfaces and reflectiveness and saturation and… stuff… matters. So I couldn’t just like the same red hue for watercolors and tinted leather, that would make no sense-”

You don’t make sense,” Ezran laughed. Those words were actually… a bit mean on top, but underneath… no. Not mean. And Callum just kinda sighed, clearly not upset.

Probably a… sibling thing.

She wouldn’t know.

“Why pink and yellow?” Callum asked, smiling, like his brother hadn’t just spilled his life story to a stranger.

“They were one of my guardians’ favorite,” Rayla said, smiling slightly at the memory. It wasn’t as hard as she had thought, to share the personal stuff. The two boys weren’t being judgy or disinterested, quite the opposite.

“Guardian?” Ezran asked. “You’re adopted? Like Callum?” Like Callum… She hadn’t known that, but she could tell him and Ezran looked quite different, even though they were also similar under the different skin tone and hair and nose and general temperament.

She wasn’t though… like Callum. “No,” she said, managing to keep the feelings about that out of her voice, or at least she thought so. “Temporary guardians.” Not very temporary. But it didn’t matter anyway. She didn’t have parents anymore, she had guardians that-

One guardian, at least, still. And she would fix things and-

And she… really needed to change the topic to something more practical and less personal and weird.

“Do your feet hurt?” she asked the boys. Blisters were a concern, if they weren’t used to walking or didn’t have the right footwear for this, and they were better avoided before they became blisters.

“Yes!” Ezran exclaimed, flopping heavily and dramatically backwards in the grass.

Callum hesitated. He was trying not to whine.

“Two yesses then,” Rayla sighed. “Show them to me, then.”

Ezran readily tugged his right boot and sock off, and presented her with a little brown-skinned five-toed foot. That… threw her off. So strange. It seemed like a good, healthy foot though. No blisters. So probably just regular soreness then.

“Your feet have passed inspection,” she declared, a mockery of the tone Runaan used when he addressed the trainees.

She didn’t know what made her run her finger lightly along the soft arc, some curiosity… if human children were ticklish too-

Ezran squealed loudly, flopping back and laughing. “And another pass on the tickle check,” she laughed. She couldn’t help herself, Ezran’s good humor was just so contagious. She met Callum’s eyes, smirking. “Next!”

“For the… uh… tickle check?” Callum rubbed the back of his neck.

She rolled her eyes. “No, I need to paint your toenails with a special elf recipe, to ward off predators.”

“Alright,” he grinned, playing along, a lot of the tension leaving him, as he pulled his boot off. “Purple is my favorite color for that, if the predator-repellant nail polish comes with options.” Like the dark mage girl from the dungeon.

Callum’s feet passed too. One was reddening slightly at the back of the heel, but not a blister yet. He looked weirdly embarrassed though, when she ran her fingers along the area, holding his foot with her other hand. How was he just talking about his mom and his favorite colors like it was no big deal and embarrassed about this? A normal, practical thing when you were travelling? Humans were weird.

Or maybe it was just Callum.  

“You’re fine,” she said. “Just keep an eye on that.”

“I think my boots are fine, it was just the socks bunching,” he muttered, his cheeks still red.

“Okay,” she said, electing to not tease him, because maybe he was sensitive about his feet, although she couldn’t see why he would be, they seemed perfectly fine, weird fifth toe aside. “Tell me if you need to stop and un-bunch your socks.”

“Can we see yours?” Ezran asked. “It’s only fair. Do you have four or five toes?” He looked down at her boots, assessing. “I’m guessing four. Because your feet are narrower than Callum’s, and you’re almost the same size.”

“Six,” Rayla said, deadpan. “They’re just very skinny. Like long, skinny fingers, but on my feet. I use them to grip branches, when I swing through the trees. So it evens out to twenty total digits, same as for you.”

“Really?” Callum asked, looking fascinated. “You swing though the trees?”

“Yeah. My tail is still growing, so I need to rely on those toesies.”

“Tail?!” Callum instantly craned his neck to look at her backside, and an entirely too long moment later, it seemed to dawn on him what he was in fact staring at, and he suddenly found the tree off to the side extremely interesting. “Anyway. Tail. Okay. Cool.”

“No!” Rayla sputtered. “How would I hide a tail in these pants?!” She turned to Ezran, shaking with laughter. “Is he always that dense?”

“Yes,” Ezran said, with very definite emphasis, even though the aftermath of his giggles. “So much yes. It’s tragic.” He gently headbutted Callum’s shoulder, disrupting his grumpy face settling too firmly. It was mostly for show, anyway, she could tell, Callum was already smiling down at his little brother, now leaning his head against his shoulder.

“Sooo… not six long and thin finger-toes either, I assume?” Callum asked. “You really shouldn’t feel obligated to show us your feet just because you’ve seen ours. Ez, you can’t just ask people you don’t know to show you their feet for no reason-”

“Curiosity is a reason!” Ezran argued, crossing his arms.

“It’s okay, Callum,” Rayla shrugged. “You can see my feet, Ezran. I don’t mind. Besides, I know my limits and neither of you would believe me if I told you the sullying gaze of human eyes would make my precious finger-toes wither and fall off, right?”

“Emphatically no,” Callum grinned. “I do, in fact have limits. Besides, we just met. Give me time and then prepare to be seen right through!”

His green eyes caught hers and it was like he was seeing through her.

She… couldn’t do this, that was the point. She had to do better. If they did see through her, they would leave in a heartbeat, go back to their castle to mourn-

Rayla busied herself with the clasps on her boot, because if they were looking at her feet then they weren’t looking at the parts of her she really needed to hide.

The boys both studied the regular old four-toed foot she stuck out to them, Callum tilting his head in rapt fascination, and she hadn’t been self-conscious about it but for some reason she was now. A bit.

Rayla shook her head briskly, pulling her foot back and her sock and boot back on.

“We should get going,” she said, because it was on her now, to be like that. Interrupt the fun and get going because they had to.

She had no parents and no Runaan and no… guidance.

No path to follow.

Just these two boys, trusting her to lead them through uncharted territory and being weirdly friendly and open, especially considering how they had met. But really, even disregarding how they met, it was super weird how they just… talked about stuff and smiled at her like they liked talking to her and-

Really, all this was uncharted territory.

Chapter Text



1.39AM, May 18th, 998AB, East Bank of Arlendis River, Central Katolis

Reluctantly, Rayla went back to the water she had just left behind.

She had to, though. If the blood was allowed to dry fully, it would be way more of a bother. So tired and achy and angry… whatever. She was cleaning up now.

She raised her hand to her temple, where that big human woman’s fist had connected solidly. It hurt, swelling sore skin pulling. A bit of her hair was stuck to her skin. She gingerly traced the edge of a small cut where the woman’s gauntlet had caught her skin. Nothing to worry about.

Her head throbbed dully. Nothing to worry about either.

She poked her nose. Definitely didn’t hurt enough to be broken.

So it was fine.

She was fine.

She tugged at the ragged end of her severed braid. A bit of it was still holding together but it wouldn’t last long without the clasp.

That was fine too.

Even if she couldn’t make another one, because she always made a mess of it when she couldn’t see what she was braiding and Ethari wasn’t here and… that was fine, except now she was thinking about Ethari and his fingers through her hair, and wanting that-

And it was stupid that she did because he was far away and not about to come out of those trees with the candied moonberries he made for her when she’d hurt herself.

So she should stop moping and get going, was what she should do. Definitely wanting Ethari to… what? Comfort her? That was ridiculous and childish, and she had to be better than that. She was an assassin on a mission, she didn’t need Ethari to kiss her owies like she was 5 years old, or tell her that she shouldn’t let some dumb boy upset her. She knew that, and knew how to take care of herself.

There was a smeared streak of red across the back of her right hand, where she had wiped her nose and mouth and the water was right there so… why was she hesitating? At least that thought made her angry enough at herself to defiantly stick her hands under the water’s edge, rubbing at the dried smear. It was stupid too, the irrational thought that something would come out of the water and pull her under-

It was a dumb, regular old human lake. No monsters. No broken bones or anything else wrong.

No Runaan telling her off for striking impatiently and leaving an opening for that fist.

No Ethari fussing over her bruises.

No one who gave a shit about her.

That was fine. She shouldn’t have… expected that.

“Rayla?” Ezran’s voice from behind her. He was upset, she could tell without looking. Of course he was, it had been scary, no doubt, what had happened, and she wasn’t mad at him.

She turned around to look at the boy, holding out a handkerchief. She had do something, because his brow was furrowed and his little round face screwed up with upset.

“Hey,” she said gently. “We’ll be okay here. The current was strong, they won’t catch up for many hours in this terrain-”

He looked at her like she had grown another head. “I’m not afraid of that,” Ezran said. “I’m just here to help you. I’m not Callum, so you can’t convince me elves can see their own faces.” He winced, looking at the face in question.

“You don’t… I’m fine, Ezran.”

But he looked stubborn and not about to leave her alone to be miserable for some reason. “My aunt hit you!”

“Sorry. I’m not really… good company right now.”

You don’t need to be good company, I’m here to be good company because my family hurt you. My aunt and my brother. Callum didn’t mean it though! He’s a jerkface sometimes, but he always figures it out and apologizes! And there’s a dance! Well… for me, anyway. I’ll make him do it for you-”

Ezran kept chatting, outlining some choreographed dance thing, but it was hard to concentrate, with her head pounding and the taste of blood on her lips just… reminding her of what Callum had said… what all those other humans had believed without question.

She wiped at her mouth, trying to get rid of the taste, but the words stuck in her head.

Bloodthirsty monster.

She probably looked like that right now, with the blood from her nose having run across her mouth and chin while she had been tied up. She stared numbly at her fingers, stained red.

“I guess I look the part-” she muttered.

Ezran spun around from where he had been dipping his handkerchief in the lake. He had clearly heard. The old informational nugget of human hearing being vastly inferior to elven might not have been totally correct. And Ezran had… understood, too, because his jaw set and his eyes narrowed at her. “No, you don’t!” Ezran regarded her appearance critically. “You look like a girl. With horns. That someone punched in the face.”

Despite everything, Rayla laughed. “That’s about right.” She would take that.

The boy dipped his handkerchief in the lake, wiping carefully at her face. She couldn’t see her own face and it was helpful to have second set of eyes. She looked down at her lap at her own hands blurring into a blob, letting him do it. Her head hurt and her eyes were itching to close.

Ezran cocked his head at her when she looked back up at him. “You look tired.”

“Yeah, I… am.”

Despite her best efforts, she flinched when he cleaned the swollen, definitely-bruising skin at her temple. And that was no good, because it was worrying Ezran, when it was nothing to worry about.

“Does your head hurt?” he asked, worried.

Yes. “No.”

“Yes, it does.” Ezran said sternly. “Lying is wrong. Even if it’s to make me feel less bad about my aunt hurting you. I’ll make her apologize. She’s really stubborn, like you, but she’s good underneath, and when she knows what she’s done is wrong, she’ll apologize.”

But she had not been wrong. She had attacked a foreign intruder from an enemy nation in her family’s house, using no more force or cruelty than was warranted. She had definitely pulled the second punch, or her nose absolutely would have been broken, she had felt that terrifying strength- “It’s okay. She did what she thought was right.”

“But you’re angry,” Ezran pressed.

“Not at her.” She was angrier at Callum than at his aunt. He had known what could have happened. Hadn’t given a shit about it being dangerous, had wanted that dumb toy anyway.

“At Callum? Yeah, he didn’t really think things through, but-”

“He didn’t care to. Why should he? He thinks I’m- ….never mind.”

“He doesn’t think you’re a monster!” 

She knew that, just… he didn’t think she was like him either. It was hard to make sense of, but she was sure about being mad at him for it.

“I know, but-” she said, searching for words that weren’t coming to her. She wasn’t sure she could explain it to Ezran, when she could barely wrap her own useless, achy head around it.

“It was really dumb, what Callum said, but he really didn’t mean for the humans to attack you. He thought you’d be in more danger if they weren’t afraid of you.”

Rayla cocked her head at Ezran, smirking a bit, without mirth. “Lying is wrong, remember? Even if it’s to make me feel better.”

“I’m not! He was really worried. He still is, just look at him, really look.”

She glanced sideways at Callum, seated against a tree, half-shielded by his sketchbook. She could see his furrowed brow though. His messy hair and charcoal smudge on his forehead, where he had dragged his hand through it. He did it again, just now, his fingers clenching slightly around the strands at the back of his head. His gaze sneaked up to glance in her direction, quick and furtive, back down right away.

He paused, as if frozen. Very obviously realizing she had caught him looking. Then he kinda… purposefully and determinedly kept on drawing.

Dork.

She should probably… talk to him.

 

Chapter Text



8.12PM, May 18th, 998AB, edge of Dimar Mountains, Central Katolis

It was supposed to be fighting stance lessons, not… whatever this was.

Smiling? Talking?

That wasn’t usually a part of these types of lessons, at least… not like this.

Runaan’s tiny smile, when she succeeded at something difficult-

Pah. Callum hadn’t even tried yet, much less succeeded.

It was a fluke anyway, that weird… ba-dump her heart had done when Callum had leaned down next to her on the boat.

So what if humans were cute?

Some of them, at least.

It didn’t… mean anything. Just a very pointless observation that Callum was one of the unfairly cute humans.

And anyway, she was putting those dumb and pointless thoughts behind her, because they were dumb and pointless. But Callum could at the very least have the consideration to stop smiling at her. Because it was not helping.

At all.

Rayla smiled back. Completely… without thinking about it. She still… would have… obviously. Wasn’t like it was weird, smiling at someone who smiled at you.

His hair had shone in warm, golden shades when the sun hit it.

Hers didn’t. Not like that. Why couldn’t his hair be normal and glow in moonlight? She was used to that.

You could want to touch your friends’ hair, right? If it was all floofy and soft-looking? Like… a shadowpaw kitten or an adoraburr?

Yeah. Ignoring that.

And definitely don’t be weird and tell him he’s an unfairly cute human.

“You look like you lost a battle with the firewood,” Rayla said, instead. That was also true, after all. There was a smear of charcoal across his forehead and cheek. Black on his fingers and cuffs.

“Yeah, sorry. I stacked too much and had to remove some of it. It’s burning alright now, though.” And he smiled. Again. That just… wouldn’t do.

She shook her head and straightened up, determined. “Callum, I’ve been neglecting a vital part of your wilderness education,” she grinned. “Sass. It’s important.”

“Wilderness…?” He looked confused. “Uh… well, I consider myself-”

“Shush now. There was a right answer to what I just said, and it was to rightfully tell me I look like I was repeatedly punched in the face and then eaten by a lake monster. And that I smell like fish guts.” She took a mocking bow. Her damp hair flopped into her face, smelling like lake water and electrocuted fish and solidly proving her point.

But he winced, at that. She was really not doing a stellar job at keeping things upbeat, but it was kinda hard when he failed to see the humor in objectively funny things. She frowned a bit. “Fine,” she sighed. “You can tell me I’m awesome instead, if you really must.”

“You’re awesome.” What?! And he was still fucking smiling!

“You don’t speak sarcasm so well, do you?” she scoffed.

“Yes, actually, I do. I just disagree with you. You fought a whole huge lake monster today? How’s that not awesome?”

You defeated the lake monster. I got eaten.”

“And got yourself and Bait… un-eaten. Under water. That you’re scared of.” He looked honestly disbelieving, but-

But it didn’t matter. She knew herself better than he did. And besides, there were things she hadn’t told him that would change his mind about her real quick. So even if he actually meant that, it wasn’t really a reflection of her awesomeness but of his kindness and… incomplete knowledge of her.

And she was supposed to be teaching him to plant his feet, he had asked after she had taught Ezran, now asleep by the fire.

That ‘I’m standing here, you move’ kinda thing feeling inside and the rooted, strong feeling outside? It was a good thing to be able to do, stand unmoving, against scary things.

Rayla picked up the stick-sword she had used to teach Ezran, abandoned on the grass. She shifted it to her right hand. It was fine. She could use it if she had to, and she was not thinking about it now, because it was irrelevant until it kept her from fighting. Hopefully it would be a while till then. It just kinda twinged a bit.

Okay.

Maybe… more than a bit.

But it was definitely manageable.

“Did you get hurt worse than I know? When you fought my aunt yesterday? Or when you fought the lake monster?” Shit. Her face really was like… a useless, whiny, little tattletale with an F in illusions. And that wouldn’t be a problem except he was always looking at her face-

“It’s fine.”

But he kept looking at her, brows furrowing. Suspicious? “That wasn’t really… what I asked. It’s like yesterday. It’s like you’re answering something different than I’m asking. But you actually believe it, even when it’s obviously not true. Like that you’re not awesome. Or that you were fine yesterday.” No, concerned. Worse.

“I was! And I am!”

“You should be allowed to not be fine right after you were beaten and tied up and almost kill-” He swallowed. “I’m not really fine, you know. After just- seeing that. And seeing… other stuff. Earlier.” The tower. He had been there, in the fighting. He had seen things, and he was not used to violence.

Neither was she. Not like this. Not the opponents she had faced the last few days.

The lake monster.

Callum and Ezran’s aunt.

The human soldiers.

The smoke wolves.

…Runaan.

She was outclassed. She was losing.

Had lost, every time.

Her hand went halfway to her temple, still swollen and sore, proof that she wasn’t good enough for what she was facing. Not even close. And without her left hand she would be way further away from being good enough.

She dropped her hand and straightened up. It didn’t matter. She could damn well try her hardest. This was important. Far more so than anything she had done. She had lost every battle so far, but… she hadn’t yet lost the one that mattered, keeping Callum and Ezran alive and getting the dragon egg home.

Callum was still looking at her though, and the needless concern had gone nowhere at all. “You… were punched in the face and eaten by a lake monster and bitten by those wolves… in the last three days. And you were right, yesterday. I missed stuff. With you. You just… you seemed like you could do anything, like you didn’t even get tired or upset or scared or hurt.”

…felt as if you saw me as both more and less than a person, she had said, and he had listened and not gotten mad.

And it was changing. The way he was looking at her now was different.

Or maybe the way she was looking at him?

Both?

He peered at her temple, where her hair was probably only half-covering the evidence of that beating. “It already looks better than yesterday,” he wondered, relieved.

“Close to the full moon. So yeah.” She rubbed the bite mark from the smoke wolves, almost faded. “I heal faster.” It would be half in a few days though. It wouldn’t last, that boost. And her hand wouldn’t get better, it would get worse until-

“I’m glad you’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m sorry I asked to go there. I really didn’t think… yeah. I didn’t think. Of you. Not until it was too late.”

“It’s really nothing,” she said, squirming a bit under his gaze. “Have you never been punched in the face before?”

“No!” Really?! And he was her age. Huh. “Who would hit you?” he asked, looking comically troubled about it.

Maybe she thought her parents had? And yeah, of course that would be different and bad.

“Just sparring partners and occasionally other kids at school,” she shrugged, assuring him.

“I’ve never been to school.” Oh right, he’d said. “It doesn’t sound great.”

“Ah, it’s okay, except for being mostly really boring. Not like I didn’t give as good as I got.” Usually. The last time, right after her parents had betrayed their mission, it had been… different. Different and horrible. It hadn’t been a fight, it had been a vice grip holding her arms fast, Vareil and Emina taking turns just… doing what they wanted. Toying with her.

Ethari had seen it right away, too, when he found her afterwards, because he hadn’t scolded her at all and had whispered something in Runaan’s ear, and then Runaan hadn’t scolded her either.

She shook her head, pushing those shitty memories away. She was fixing things. She would do this and then go home, and it would be better and people wouldn’t hate her anymore.

“Well?” she prodded, turning back to Callum and the thing they had come here to do. “Square up?”

He had asked her but… he was hesitating now. “Um. Maybe- …uh.”

“Callum? Why are you…” Was he actually afraid of her, unlike his brother? Did he think she would hurt him? She had thought, in the boat and just now… that he saw her as a person. A friend, even. You weren’t supposed to be afraid of your friends.

Or lie to them.

Never mind.

But it seemed important that he knew that she wouldn’t hurt him, even if she could.

She had, she knew. She had used her strength and speed against him, chased him, pushed him down, threatened him. She would never do it again, but-

But she had, and he was allowed to still be wary about her, she couldn’t really complain about that. She set her jaw.

“What’s wrong?” Callum asked.

It tumbled out of her, honest and childish. “You’re- you- you’re afraid of me. You’re nervous. I can tell. That’s why you didn’t want to do it before, with me and Ez.”

“No!” That was honest too, and she breathed out in slight relief. “I’m not afraid of you. Really. I haven’t really been, since… well, definitely it was within a couple of hours of meeting you. I’m afraid of… failing.” Oh, how she felt that sentiment in the pit of her soul. “I told you, I’m pretty useless at… most things. I didn’t want to- want you to… think that.” He was looking down at his feet, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“I don’t. And I won’t, even if you’re rubbish at this… I won’t. And I’m pretty sure you won’t be.” He had looked right at her, at her sword at his throat, and told her he was Prince Ezran. He had gone back into that tower for- for the king. It was pretty baffling how he could think he wouldn’t be good at planting his feet in the face of scary things. He was obviously very brave when it came to the people he cared about.

“You think?” He was smiling slightly, hopefully, he wasn’t quite believing it but-

But she did.

“I know,” she said. “Now square up.”

He did, letting her position his body right.

“You have to feel it,” she explained. “That unmoving thing inside you. I know you have it, because I’ve seen it. You just have to get your head in the right place. I saw your drawing of that room, remember? So, I know you can see a place in your head, if you know what it is.”

“Yeah?”

“So, imagine Ez behind you.

He did, she could tell.

“And plant your feet.”

He did.

She lunged at him, putting on her best scary-face.

He didn’t flinch.

He smiled.

Chapter Text

9.20PM, May 19th, 998AB, Dimar Mountains, Central Katolis

The wind was still howling when Rayla awoke, groggy and cold and not at all rested.

Callum had kept the fire going while she had managed maybe an hour of rather fitful sleep, huddled up to the very heavily sleeping Ezran. Her hand was really starting to become an issue, in that regard. It ached now, sharp and constant and she wasn’t even using it.

She sat up, and went to join him by the fire. Might as well, since she wasn’t sleeping anymore right now.

So he might as well.

“Hey?” she said, startling him out of the staring-numbly-ahead half-stupor. “You should sleep. I’ll watch the fire.”

His face got very stubborn, even through the obvious fatigue. “I claimed the firewood. I’m holding you to that. And you didn’t sleep enough at all.”

“Callum,” she sighed. “We both need to be functional tomorrow. You’re tired. You can sleep. I can’t. So you should. It’s not a statement, just common sense.” It didn’t sound like common sense, even to her, it sounded like what is was, someone so exhausted they were desperate to not argue.

“You couldn’t sleep?” Of course he pounced on that part of what she’d said. His gaze went to her left hand, cradled to her chest, carefully clenching and releasing to relieve the stiffness and ache from the inactivity of sleep. “Because of your hand?”

She let go of it, letting it dangle at her side, because that was what you did when it was… okay. “It’s okay. I’m awake so you should sleep, was the important part of what I was saying.”

He didn’t seem to agree with that, in fact he seemed to barely be listening, his gaze fixed on her hand.

She turned away from him.

“It’s not… really, though?” he asked. “Okay, I mean? Is it? If it’s hurting you worse?”

Rayla straightened up, because you shouldn’t be curled around yourself like a wounded little prey creature if you were okay, either.

She didn’t look at him, but he was still looking at her, she could feel his… eyes on her, his attention on her.

“And it’ll keep getting worse… until-” he added.

“I’m…  don’t worry about it,” she said, rather failing at making it all the way to the nonchalance she was aiming for, but she could at very least reassure him so didn’t have to be so upset about it. She turned to look him in the eyes, because this bit she could say honestly. “I’m okay with it.”

How?!” he asked, disbelieving. “Sorry but… that’s nuts! How are you okay with that? It’s not my hand and I’m not okay with it. With you hurting or you-” He cut off, biting his lip.

He couldn’t even say it, and he was definitely even less okay with that, the thought of her losing her hand. She was already dead, Runaan had said. Whatever happened to her now, it would suck, definitely, but it really was okay.

She shrugged. “I was trained as an assassin. I was ready to die, Callum.” He was staring at her, open-mouthed, now. “I’m still ready to die.” He had to get that. This… whatever this was? He would have to get over that, and fast. “You know our mission. You and Ezran are here to deliver the egg to the dragon queen. I am here to get you there. In whatever way I can. And if that means you run and I stay, then you run. You get that?”

“No.”

“Callum, it’s not up for debate.”

“Good. Because I’m not arguing. I’m telling you no. I’m not doing that. That’s horrible.”

“Yeah, of course it’s horrible! Not like I’m hoping it’ll happen. But it might. And it’ll be okay.”

“NO!” he yelled, springing to his feet to stare her down. “It’s nuts, what you’re saying! How can it be okay if it’s horrible?!”

“Sometimes… there aren’t any options that are good.” Rayla rubbed her aching hand. Not like she wanted to lose it. She wouldn’t be able to fight as well, ever again. She might be nigh-useless for a while, if she did. She had spent her whole life training, and- “Sometimes, you have to look at the horrible options, and see which is less horrible. And we definitely agree that my hand is a steal, to buy your brother’s life. And my life is a steal, to end this war.”

He looked horrified, his mouth opening and closing, like he was searching for the words. They weren’t there for him to find though, because she was right-

“You’re a person,” he said, eventually. “Not… currency. You’re… you should be… yours. Your life ought to be yours and no-one else’s. It’s not some… equation. It’s not okay at all. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m right about this. And… Rayla? Me being sure about things…? That doesn’t really happen a lot. But I’m sure about this.” His feet were planted, like she had showed him earlier, on the riverbank.

He didn’t grow up with this. Sacrifice. Maybe he needed time to get used to the idea? And it would be easier for him? And what he was saying was… well, she wasn’t thinking about that, she was tired anyway, and so was he, and it wasn’t up for debate, so arguing about it was pointless.

“Fine. We disagree,” she sighed. He could have his opinion or ideals or whatever, and reality would happen regardless of it. “Think about it, okay? That’s all I ask.”

She slumped forwards, sitting in front of the fire. Even with the ache on the outside and the turmoil on the inside… she was so tired. The orange flames were blurring into the background, her thoughts blurring too, into each other and hard to distinguish.

Callum’s hand on her shoulder startled her out of her stupor. “Hey? Your argument for staying awake is about done for.” He sounded just a bit triumphant. “Sleep? While you can?”

That was the exact argument she had given him. And she was sleepy. She walked numbly to the pile of pine branches where Ezran lay, huddling up close to him on the cold side, away from the fire.

She must have fallen all the way asleep, at least for a little bit, because she woke up halfway when Ezran shifted next to her and the rest of the way when Callum crunched a branch under his foot when he came over to them.

“I’m fide,” Ezran sniffled. “Just a dream. Not even… a really bad one.” That last bit wasn’t quite true, and Callum definitely got that.

Her cracked eyelids showed his hand in Ezran’s hair. Soothing noises.

She could almost pretend it was for her, too.

She was almost asleep again when she felt it, Callum’s warm fingers against her cold and achy left hand, twisted in the cloak. Then he drew away and she missed the warmth she hadn’t missed before.

“I hope I can show you, Rayla.” Callum’s voice in the cold darkness, very quiet but… also filling it, somehow. “That you’re wrong. Or maybe… that’s wrong, too. I don’t… I don’t care about winning, I care about you… and-”

He sighed, his footsteps retreating.

Callum was so weird. You couldn’t just… say you cared about someone.

Pfft. It was temporary anyway. It would last until she told them about their dad. She would have to get used to that.

She should wait long enough for it to not give away that she had been awake and then talk to him because this wasn’t fair at all-

“She is a child, and her punishment will be that of a child.”

“Runaan, I can take the punishment I deserv-”

“No. That decision is not yours. Go home. Leave this place, where you do not belong.”

“But-”

“LEAVE.”

Rayla was vaguely away of the real world, bleeding into cold and painful and… brief… focus, her cold fingers twisting around coarse cloth, her left hand sharp ache, the smell of smoke and Ezran next to her. Then the focus faded again, but the cold and the pain followed her.

“Rayla, just… Go away! Our dad is-”

“Callum, I’m-”

“LEAVE!”

Rayla gasped, sitting up, cradling her left hand to her chest. Callum’s head snapped up from where he had been slumping forwards, hugging his knees by the fire.

She walked back over to him, forcing herself to smile, inadequate as it was.

“Go sleep,” she said. “It really is your turn now.”

“Uh, not even close, you didn’t sleep very long, you know. Or very well, it looked like.”

“Not particularly, but that doesn’t mean you get to not sleep. I’ll be okay. Moon’s still gibbous.”

It was out now, the storm had abated enough for the moonlight to make it through the cloud cover. She could feel its energy, and even diminished by clouds as it was, the strength it lent her would let her stay awake till morning.

“Gibbous is the egg-shaped one, right?” Callum asked. Right, that word wasn’t exactly common knowledge outside of Moonshadow culture. He actually did seem to know it though.

“That least dramatic of moon shapes, yes,” she smirked. “Neglected by fairytale writers but appreciated by my people. It’s objectively the second-best moon-shape.”

He grinned. “It doesn’t figure in elven stories either?”

“In Moonshadow stories it does, but otherwise not so much.”

Callum looked up at the undramatic and fuzzy egg shape of light. The moonlight reflected off his face, but not like she was used to. He didn’t… respond, inside. “Can you tell me one of those stories?” he asked dreamily, then seemed to snap back into reality. “Uh. You don’t really have to tell me…”

She shouldn’t be telling him a story, she should be telling him the truth.

But then he wouldn’t sleep at all, she bet, and he needed to. She couldn’t tell him now, when he was about to keel over and trapped in this cave with her.

“Go to bed and I will,” she said, instead of the full truth he deserved.

He looked stubborn for about half a second, before a yawn split his face. He rubbed his eyes, and seemed to relent. “Alright. Guess I’m… done. Wake me up when you want to sleep more though?”

She really, really didn’t, right now. Even if she had wanted to, her head was reeling and her hand was hurting too much to even relax, much less actually sleep.

A story though? That, she could manage.

Callum laid down with his arms around Ezran and smiled up at her while he listened to the frankly quite boring story. She had deliberately picked a boring one, without a single person being gutted or tortured, so he would fall asleep, but he was paying attention, regardless.

His breaths gradually slowed though, and his eyes closed. When she finished the story, his eyelids cracked slightly open and he gave her a little smile. Then he let go, and was fully asleep.

The warmth inside her lasted the whole walk back to the warmth of the fire and the moonlight.

Chapter Text

5.48AM, May 21st, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

She was almost there, the line of the battlements visible above her.

Well. Not really almost, no. But she would get to almost, and then she would get to all the way there.

And then, she would fix this.

Rayla pushed herself upwards, out of the shaded part of the wall and into the orange light of the moonset.

Her arms were screaming, her breath burning in her lungs, but she could do this.

She thrust upwards another few feet, and hammered the pick-form of her right blade deep into the crumbling mortar of the castle wall.

Not deep enough though. It wasn’t enough.

She wasn’t enough-

No!

She would fix this.

Her right blade was slipping from the wall and she was sliding down but… she could fix this, she had two blades for a reason.

She drew back her left with all her might and struck.

The sound was soft flesh, not hard metal.

And whooshing of air, now.

Just… air… around her.

She reached for the wall plummeting past, the wall that was too far away, her reach not enough.

Her hands tightened around nothing.

No.

Hand.

That was why she… hadn’t been enough. It was… only seconds of nauseous horror, staring at the stump where her left hand had been and then-

Impact ringing through her, a dizzying smack like the ground but worse because it was water, rising up to envelop her, crushing around her, pulling at her, out of her control.

The rock that struck her was a mercy because it was solid, but it was brief comfort, because one hand wasn’t enough to hold on and the not-hand was bleeding now, turning the water around her to red, hot and cloying and choking, all around.

She was yanked every which way by the current, but then she was yanked upwards, and it was not air or water anymore but solid ground, and she almost sobbed with relief until she saw who had rescued her.

“You lied to me.”

Runaan said nothing else, or bothered to even look at her. He just left, disappearing in the trees like he had before.

Rayla curled around herself, hugging the stump of her left wrist close to her chest, but the blood just kept flowing, seeping into her shirt and into the ground beneath her, like the current and the falling… out of her control.

“You lied to me.”

It was Callum’s voice, not accusing like Runaan’s had been, but soft and sad and worse.

His face blurred when she tried to focus on him and then he was gone too.

Rayla shut her eyes. She couldn’t fix it. She couldn’t fix anything.

It was all floaty now. The ground was too soft and the blood was sticky and hot… everything too sticky and hot.

Hot?

That wasn’t-

It wasn’t real.

And then it was.

Maybe?

Rayla’s right hand fumbled in the maybe-realness, catching a handful of damp cloth, slipping against the hot, sweaty skin of her left forearm. Her exploration halted there, before moving down to… well, she didn’t know what, was the point.

Pushing past the childish dread that had made her hesitate, like she wasn’t supposed to, she continued down, her fingers closing around thin cloth and solid, real flesh underneath, where there hadn’t been anything. Shouldn’t have been anything? It felt… not quite real still, though?

She stared at the bandaged left hand that was still there when it shouldn’t be. Not even hurting, even though she was sure it had and still ought to. The gauze was loose enough for her to stick her fingers under it to be sure that binding wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t. Just skin she could feel was still swollen but which didn’t hurt like it should.

There was some thick, slippery stuff too, on her fingers, now. It smelled like the herbs at the Silvergrove Ethari used for healing ointments, and she remembered that Callum had spread it over her hand and wrist and told her she shouldn’t mess with it. Oops.

She breathed. It was real. The gauze was not tight, not like the binding. Callum, soft and gentle, had tied it, not Runaan, strict and demanding.

Her hand was real and there, but… it was stiff and weird, and kinda numb, like some foreign thing, not really hers. Nothing was really hers though, not really. She had bound herself to a task and she had failed to do it and yet she was free now?

She didn’t feel it. Her heart for Xadia, she had said. Her hands had been bound.

That left her head, no prize at the best of times and not working at all now, it seemed. Everything was too hot, like heatwaves in the air that definitely weren’t real but… useless head couldn’t even tell properly, what was. She blinked at the fuzzy outlines of the room.

It was somewhere she didn’t know at all, some ruin of a bedroom, two double beds and Callum and Ezran  asleep in the one she wasn’t in and the wee, newborn dragon prince curled up in Ezran’s arms.

She sat there, looking at the precious beings in the bed opposite, safe and asleep, until she was sure it was really, really real. But it was.

She smiled widely. It was.

Wait.

There was a wolf next to her?

Right. Ava. It was Ava. Not asleep either, the light blue eyes luminous and watching.

Rayla pushed herself up to sitting, the heavy blankets falling away a relief, but the oppressive heat didn’t go away even though the air was cool. 

Ava laid her head in her lap, whining quietly and looking up at her.

She patted the big head, reassuring. Her arms were really heavy though, so only a few pats.

It was a good wolf though. Soft and real and solid in the not-good floaty world. She slumped against the furry body. All of her was so heavy.

She needed water, maybe? There was a basin in the corner and her mouth tasted funny, like… candied moonberries so… maybe she was hurt?

Ethari wasn’t here though, that was silly. And sad, but she wasn’t thinking about that because she wasn’t a kid, kids didn’t bind themselves like she had, that would be really awful.

And her mouth tasted more like gross carpet and dryness anyway, with just like… a hint of candied moonberries.

Right.

Water.

She should… get some.

But Ava nudged her gently with her big nose, pushing her back against the pillows, further away from the water basin, and bounced away.

Rayla sat back up, pushing against downwards pull and away from the sticky, cloying heat of the linens. It wasn’t enough to escape the heat and the heaviness, and her arms weren’t doing their job at all, weird and trembly. Who needed them, anyway? But she had them, both of them.

And Callum was awake now, sitting up in his bed, looking over at her. All sleepy and yawny and cute. Silly wolf had gone and woken him up.

“Hey,” he said quietly, padding over to her on bare feet. “That fever Lujanne warned about, when all the bad stuff in your hand got into the rest of your body? That’s a thing?”

“’m fine,” she said. Her voice didn’t feel right either. “Jus’ sleepy.” She was. Just sleepy. But he didn’t believe her, she didn’t think, because his face got all frowny.

She supposed she had to admit she was sticky too, brushing her hair to one side, away from the damp nape of her neck. Hot. Gross.

“Rayla, it’s okay that you’re not fine yet,” Callum said. Huh? But she was? “I’ll help you until you are. Ez too. We’ll help you.”

Pfft. She could help her. She got out of the bed. She just needed… water. Air. A less gross and damp shirt? She definitely didn’t need help for that. That was simple stuff, really.

The world just had to fall in line and stop spinning for a moment. Yeah.

Oops.

Her butt hit the bed she was sure she had just left.

Callum rushed forward, alarmed, to steady her.

He was… sturdier than she thought. At least sturdier than everything else in the stupid spinny world. “Hey.”  His hand came to rest between her shoulder blades, all solid and real and nice and she didn’t want him to go, but he did. And would. He would, when he knew. “Careful. Okay? I’ll get you some water.”

He did, leaving her sitting on the edge of the bed.

She slopped water all over herself as she drank because her hands were shaky, and her left was still… not achy? But weird. All weird. Prickly. Stiff.

“You see?” Rayla accused, gesturing at her wet shirt, but the motion made the world even more untethered from real, solid things, so she held onto Callum, sturdy and fixed in place. “‘Is all floaty,” she muttered, into his shirt. “I could have been just achy, but noooo… you gave me the tasty painkillers and now m’not. But floaty instead?” And she was so tired and his shoulder was all comfy. “’m tough. Achy s’okay.”

“But I didn’t want you to be achy, Rayla. I know you’re tough, but you’re my friend and I don’t you hurting like you were before I gave you those painkillers. And you said it yourself, you’re very sleepy. So you needed to be less achy so you can sleep, see?”

He got her more water, and steadied her dumb shaky hands as she drank, this time. His hands were big and soft and cool against hers. Gentle. So gentle she wanted to cry. It was all wrong. He shouldn’t be… not when she knew what had happened. About his King-dad.

But she couldn’t tell him now, because she knew… she wasn’t all there right now, and she could at least be there when she told him.

He got a wet cloth from where he had gotten the water, putting the coolness against the back of her neck.

It was nice.

He was nice.

And she was lying so he would keep being nice.

Just pushing it in front of her, the time when it was over and would hate her. And that wouldn’t even matter then, because he would hurt and not smile anymore and-

A great big, ugly hiccupping sob broke the silence of the room.

That was her, wasn’t it? Yeah. Oops. That wasn’t the way to convince him she was okay. So she really had to try harder.

Her useless head was the worst head. Messing with her feelings and the floaty realness and… making her cry for no good reason.

“Hey, it’s okay!” Callum said, his hand at her shoulder, his other, still holding the cloth, wiping away the tears. “You’ll get better! The bad stuff that was in your hand would… kinda disperse, Lujanne said? Your body will fight it, and you’ll get better. I know you feel awful right now, you really don’t have to try to convince me you don’t, it’s… pretty obvious.”

Yeah. She was awful, and it was obvious, and the more awful she was, the nicer he was.

Rayla sat there, for a while, leaning against his shoulder, feeling awful.

 


 

It was light out, when she woke up for the… third time? Fourth? She wasn’t sure, the night had been… off. Stupid, definitely-also-a-sedative, tasty painkillers. The floaty feeling was gone now though, and her hand felt very real and very there and very achy, but way less than it had for days, and also… it was there so she couldn’t really complain when that last bit alone was more that she expected or deserved.

The room was empty except for Ezran, sitting cross-legged on the opposite bed with Bait and Azymondias, looking curiously at her from Ezran’s lap.

“’Mornin’ Ez,” she muttered. Was it morning? She had no idea. She looked up at the sunlight streaming through the ruined roof. Early afternoon, maybe?

“Good morning, Rayla.” Ezran walked over, and the wee dragon wobbled across her bed to gently nudge her face with his nose. Not the worst awakening. The dragon prince was alive and happy and… ridiculously adorable. She hadn’t failed, not yet.

Ezran reached out his little hand to touch her forehead. Oh. Callum would have told him what a mess she had been all night… or day, as it were. Ezran’s round face screwed up in concern. “You were sick,” he said.  “You still are.”

Those big blue eyes were even harder to argue with than Callum. At least Callum could give as good as he got. Ezran was… sensitive.

“I feel way better today,” she said. Not a lie. She took the glass of water Ezran offered her though, and ate the filled bun he handed her, some human food?

“You want to sleep more? Callum is off talking to Lujanne for a bit, anyway. Ellis will help you change if you need help, and her and Ava is getting water from the lake.” Everyone knew what a mess she was, then. Awesome.

“Ez, it’s really okay. You don’t have to stick around. I’ll probably be a bit boring today.”

He patted her good hand. “Yeah, I think you should have a boring day. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve had a boring day.” Oh. It… definitely had.

“And it’s been a while since you had a fun day, right?” Rayla smiled at Ellis and Ava, just entering, carrying empty buckets. “So you and Ellis should explore this place, while you can? It’s Zym’s first day ever, it should be a fun one! I’m going to sleep a bit more, anyway. Wash up. Eat. Boring stuff.”

“Okay.” Ezran looked at her, like… gauging. “Have a boring day,” he said sternly, more like a command than anything. She supposed he would be king, one day. Was alrea- Nope, not going there. “I’ll be back to check on you.”

“That’s no fun now, is it?” Rayla grinned. “Definitely, that shouldn’t be part of a fun day.”

“If you tell me and Ellis a fun story, about the Moonshadow elves who lived here, it will be!”

Fun story? Rayla grinned, wickedly. Yeah, she could change his mind on that prospect. And would. The kids needed their fun day, that didn’t include worrying about her. “Alright. There’s some really interesting lore on the Moon druids. You know they were illusionists, so they could mess with how other people see and hear and feel and smell and taste the world? There was supposedly a human boy that found his way here and broke into the library, and the Moon druids turned him inside out. Guts all on the outside. Really impractical and unhygienic. And they fed him his guts. Of course they didn’t actually do that, they weren’t monsters. People don’t really like being fed their own kidneys or eyeballs, even if it is just an illusion though. That squishy eyeball-consistency? In your mouth? Ew. Anyway, that’s not the story, that would be kinda boring, the story is about this creature that’s all squishy eyeballs, and lure children into hollow trees and eat them. I suppose it wasn’t all squishy eyeballs then, it must have had one mouth? Anyway, it’s a fun story, it’s kinda hard to summarize but it gets gnarly, I can say that much.”

“Awesome!” Ellis squealed, her face lit up. Ezran looked as horrified as had been her aim and Azymondias had cocked his head, looking confused, but Ellis was plenty excited enough to overrule the others. “Let’s go, Ez! Ava will take us on a tour! And we’ll make sure Zym has a fun first day of his life. And we’ll be back to check on Rayla and hear a super-fun story! That’s the perfect day!” Ellis was pulling Ezran out the door as she spoke. There was excited barking and yipping from outside. Then they were gone.

Chapter Text



2.51PM, May 21st, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

Rayla didn’t think she really qualified as clean, but she thought she had at least managed to elevate her smell slightly above dead-squirrel-slowly-decaying-in-a-stream, using mostly her right hand and cold water and Lujanne’s Lunabloom-scented soap.

The hair was an issue though, with her left hand and wrist still bandaged and also a general painful nuisance, even as much better as it was. She could do it, she would just have to actually think while she did and also it would just take a lot longer and… and she was so tired. She had almost fallen asleep leaning against the stone basin where she had had to sit down just to wash, she was so pathetic today-

She blinked. Her cheek had been squished against her elbow, but now it was against poky rock and she was further down than she was sure she had been, just before.

Guess she could strike the ‘almost’ from that ‘almost falling asleep against the basin’ bit.

Yeah. Tomorrow, with the hair. Wasn’t like she was impressing anyone right now, even if her hair had rivaled Runaan’s majestic butt-length swoosh. Or like she had anyone to impress.

But she still sat up straighter, when Callum came up the stairs.

“You’re… bathing?” Callum asked, looking pointedly off to the side, despite her being fully dressed, minus the armor. “Uh. Sorry. I’ll… leave. Sorry.” Huh? Wasn’t like it was her water, Ava and Ellis were the ones that had fetched it from the lake, if anything it was theirs. Some human thing? He seemed weirdly tense, whatever it was. “Let you… uh-” He clumsily made some taking off clothes gesture, as if that was somehow less awkward than just saying it.

“Callum, I’m not undressed, and won’t be, so… unclench please?” she sighed. “I’m just washing the essentials, and I’ve already finished. I’ll take a real bath tomorrow morning. So you can have the water, if you need to?” She hoped he got the hint that she was not the only one in need of a bath.

He turned back to her, relaxing a bit as he seemed to accept that no clothes were currently in the process of being removed. Maybe humans didn’t bathe together? Callum had gotten all embarrassed too, when she had asked about the little sheds in Ellis’ town, and she had gleaned from Ezran that they were probably just tiny, primitive human toilets, so clearly he had weird hang-ups about that stuff, and she shouldn’t judge.

He sat down opposite her, not looking terribly happy, as he looked her over. Well, she felt like an achy and half-soaked pile of elven uselessness, so that made two of them.

“How’s your-” Callum paused. “Everything.”

“Way better. Except living up to those books you read on elf hair care. Was a bit of a hair washing fail, but other than that I’m pretty good.” She waved her bandaged left hand in explanation. It was achy and stiff, and she felt too-heavy and too-hot. Much as she would like to get properly clean, she just couldn’t find the energy.

“I could help you?” he offered, surprisingly readily. For how weird he had been about the toilets and bathing, he was very casual about touching her scalp which was just… way more intimate. “If you want?”

“No!” She was not lingering on the thought of how it would feel like, his hands through her hair, with his extra pinkos and soft, gentle fingers. “No. It’s not necessary. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“You got the bandages wet.” Callum was looking at her left hand, admonishing. “You weren’t supposed to.”

“What else was I supposed to do?” she asked, shrugging. “I smelled so bad.” Would he get the hint this time-

“Ask for help?” he suggested. Pfft, like that was the first, second or fifty-second option.

“Yeeeah, remember those proud Moonshadow traditions I told you about?”

“The ones we agreed belongs on the pile of discarded-because-it’s-dumb-stuff, right next to ‘hating each others’ guts on principle’? Yeah. I do.” He pulled his glove off and brought his hand up to press gently against her forehead. It was cool and pleasant against her heated skin. “You definitely still have a fever.” He sounded unhappy. She had been a big old bother for him last night, and kept him up.

“It’s nothing,” she assured him. “I’ll be fine tonight, I’m sure.”

“It’s not nothing!” He stood up abruptly, glaring angrily down at her.

Then he left, with a frustrated noise and nothing else.

Rayla sank back against the stone edge of the basin, pulling her legs up against her chest.

She messed up. As usual.

And she really wasn’t supposed to get the bandage wet, and now the knot was sticking and she couldn’t get it open with one hand.

She rested her forehead against her knees.

Those tasty painkillers had very definitely worn off and after the not-even-proper-bath she had just had, her hand and wrist was aching again, and at least her head was supposed to be clearer, but it wasn’t even really, because she felt so hot and tired anyway.

She was completely pathetic, and if Callum would have just left her alone to be pathetic, then she could have worked on being less of a mess.

And now he had left. And she had better get used to that, because when she told him about his dad, he might well leave, and never come back. She should… get it over with. It wasn’t fair to let him think she was better than she was.

She would get up, sluggish head and body be damned, go back, find her blades, get the wet bandage off…

And then find Callum. Tell him. Or maybe him and Ezran? Should she tell them both at once? The thought of facing them both was unbearable.

Was it just selfish, the urge to avoid that? They would have each other, then? But Callum knew his brother better and knew how to tell him. And if she told them both at once then Callum would have to comfort his brother when he was upset himself. She wasn’t sure at all what the least horrible way would be.

Her stupid head was not working at all and she wasn’t sure about any of it.

She was sure though, that she was stalling. She had almost told them on the ice, she had so wanted to get it all out then, but now she couldn’t stand the thought of hurting them that badly. They were reeling from the past week, it had been a lot. And they weren’t safe here, in the human lands, and if they were sticking around here because of her, they should at least be allowed to relax.

She ought to patrol the area, keep them safe.

She ought to tell them and stop clinging to the illusion that giving them another day of not knowing was anything but cowardice.

She ought to… do better.

But she didn’t do better, she just hugged herself tighter.

It all blurred together, the heat and the ache and the sick feeling inside that wasn’t even real but just her head messing with her.

“Rayla!” Callum voice was alarmed as he fell to his knees in front of her, his hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? I mean, know… a lot of things, but-”

“Nothing,” she muttered, not looking fully up because she didn’t trust her stupid tattletale face to sell that illusion.

Callum sighed. Yeah, so clearly her voice and body were also flunking at illusions today. “Rayla,” he said gently. “We literally just had this conversation.”

“You left,” she said, finally looking up at his face, which was not even a little mad, but a lot concerned and she didn’t know what to do about that either.

“To get dry bandages,” he said, holding them up to demonstrate. Oh.

“I thought you were mad.” That came out so childish. How was it fair that she was so bad at illusions and so bad at honesty?

His hand had felt cool against her too-hot face, but it felt warm against her dully aching left hand, still chilled from the water and the wet gauze.

“I can be mad at you and still care,” he said, but he didn’t sound mad anymore.

He sat closer, shifting to take her hand in both of his, starting to work on the knot.

She was so tired, and he was rapidly shortening the time before she could lie down to sleep. She didn’t want to argue with him.

She wanted to… never mind. That was not happening.

He unwound the wet cloth. Her wrist was still bruised in livid purple, but definitely better than yesterday. The chafed, raw skin and swelling had settled down a bit, and the burn from the sunforge blade was healing well enough. Callum didn’t look happy, though.

He brushed his fingers very lightly over the swelling, cupping her hand and wrist carefully in his other hand.

He was always so… gentle with her. She didn’t need it, she could take it.

She would take it, when she told him and broke what made him look at her like she was good. He deserved… the full truth. She would give it to him, and take whatever he gave back, even if it was hatred.

But… not now. She was so tired… so weak. He needed her to be strong, and she wasn’t, right now. He needed her to be okay enough to be properly angry with her.

He rubbed her palm and fingers like he had yesterday, outward strokes… soft. She knew Lujanne had said something about circulation to him. It wasn’t… what it felt like.

It did also hurt a little bit, but not enough so it showed, she hoped, because he periodically looked up at her face, and back down. And the stiffness eased and the cold left, so a pretty good tradeoff.

Then there was the soothing coolness that she knew in her head was the ointment he must have brought, but it felt like… just him.

Huh? It was dark? No, she must have closed her eyes. The feeling of his hands was the last bit of realness.

Rayla opened her eyes half-way. Fuzzy green-ness. Grass? She raised her hand to rub her eyes. Achy whiteness. Dry bandages covering her dumb garbage hand.

Then Callum-ness, bleeding into focus.

He was looking at her. Smiling slightly, seeming far away.

Maybe he was thinking of something nice. Like his dad who was dead, but he didn’t know that, so it would still be nice, to him.

He flushed slightly when he noticed she was looking back.

Oh, she was smiling too.

“You didn’t need to…” she started. To what? Stay here watching her snooze? He could have left her here or poked her until she woke up. “-stay.”

“Ah, I needed to wash up, anyway,” he said, still all… soft.

Did you wash up?” He didn’t really look any cleaner. There was still the same streak of dirt on his nose.

“Uh… no. I kinda… forgot. Zoned out. It’s okay. I’ll do it later.”

He didn’t need to walk her back to their bedroom either, she had really only wobbled a tiny bit when she got up.

“You really don’t… need to do all this,” she said, as she got back into bed for a nap and Callum got her water and a half-dose of the stupid tasty painkillers he had somehow convinced her to take just by looking at her. But she was unable to hold back the sigh of relief as she sank back against the softness that just seemed to reactivate the exhaustion all at once.

 “It’s the least I can do.” He sounded so unhappy it was like… it hurt her. “Not much else I can do, anymore.”

“That’s not true!” Rayla exclaimed hotly.

“It is,” he said quietly. And resignation was not at all better than unhappiness. He deserved way better than both of those crappy feelings. “It’s okay. The primal stone was… a thing, worth it for you and Zym, easy-” …her?

Me?!” What?!

He looked at her, a bit bashful, but he never lied. “Yeah. I mean… You were crying, and your hand had hurt you so bad and you were going to lose it and you thought you’d failed and… you were crying-

“Ez was crying too,” she said, a bit defensively.

“Yeah, but I’ve seen Ez’s crying face a lot, he’s my little brother. Your crying face is new. And really, really sad-looking.”

She had almost cried again last night? Maybe? It was a bit of a hazy blur of heat and the sedative-part of the stupid tasty painkillers. She wasn’t supposed to be crying at all, Runaan had said she was too emotional-

“Don’t get used to it,” she said roughly.

“I don’t want to, that’s my point.

Dummy. It wasn’t on him if she was bawling.

Your sad-face was really sad-looking,” she said. “Just now. When you said… being my nurse or whatever is the only useful thing you could do.”

“Yeah. I… talked to Lujanne, today. She said I’m missing that thing inside me. An arcanum. She said I’d never be able to do magic. So, I’ll just… tag along, when we leave. And you’ll do all the fighting because I would literally do more harm than good, trying to help. I’ll tag along and watch you fight and hurt alone, and be useless except for patching you up afterwards and feeling sick about it-”

Rayla sat up to get into range, and poked his nose, because that shit was a new contender in the already overflowing roster of competitors for ‘dumbest thing Callum had ever said’.

“Hey!” she said, poking his forehead too, for good measure. “You think I exited the womb in a magnificent arc of fetus fluid, doing a triple backflip, severing the cord in mid-air and sticking the landing?!”

“Uh… I hope not because that’s a seriously disturbing image-”

“No! I trained almost every day for ten years! And you’re whining because your instant magic powers are gone? Find something else, or keep trying, if you’re set on the magic! And for fuck’s sake, don’t listen to Lujanne! Actually, don’t listen to anyone telling you what you can’t do. And don’t call yourself useless, that’s a bad word! Pretend it’s some extra-mild profanity like ‘nuts’, that’ll make it real simple for you to never say it.” He was smiling, a bit, even though it was pretty hypocritical to tell someone to not let them tell anyone what to do. But fuck that. She could at least be a self-aware hypocrite. “Listen to me. I’m a wise old pile of floppy, wet garbage, dispensing infinite wisdom to the pilgrims who visit me at my shrine.” She gestured dramatically with her garbage hand at the rumbled bed linens surrounding her.

The smile that had been spreading on his face dropped at her last words.

“Rayla,” he said, very serious. “If I’m not allowed to say mean things about myself that should go for you, too. You’re injured and sick. That’s different.”

“If the garbage bag fits?” She shrugged. “I’m literally too-” -too pathetic to do anything? She couldn’t even wash her hair or do her morning exercises. But she didn’t finish the sentence, because he wouldn’t see it that way, if she did, she thought.

And she didn’t think he was worthless because he had lost his magic. She couldn’t really explain it but… it was different, for him. He was smart and could draw really pretty, and saw all kinds of things she didn’t notice and was so much braver than he knew. It didn’t matter if he ever found some battle thing he was good at, or failed at what he was bad at for long enough to get good. Someone as kind and good like him wasn’t useless.

Her gaze dropped to her lap, along with her hands.

“We’ll remind each other. Okay?” he asked, a gentle smile, as reached his hand out to her, like he had back on the riverbank after the Bantherlodge. That human handshake thing again. He had said it was customary to shake hands using your right hand, but he had reached out his left to her.

She put her bandaged hand in his, and he squeezed it very carefully, but unmistakably a squeeze in that human way that meant… a deal.

What a fucking soft touch, this one.

She smiled though, as she laid back down against the softness.

Chapter Text

1.32AM, May 23rd, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

Callum had his back turned and she really did trust him to not peek and it wasn’t like she had never been to the bath house during open-for-everyone hours, so there was no reason at all for her cheeks to feel warm when she pulled off her wet clothes, leaving them in the water to soak, held down by rocks.

Rayla splashed cold Moon Nexus lake water in her stupid heating face and scrubbed vigorously at the remaining mud with her right hand, and slightly more carefully with her newly-achy-again left.

Amazing, really. She actually got to have an almost twelve-hour-break from being miserable and achy, her longest consecutive streak since the Bantherlodge, and then bam! Big strong, deceptively fast and flexible lump of an opponent.

She had not seen that kick coming but she definitely felt it, then and now. She carefully ran her fingers along her sore ribs and collarbones. Just sore though. Might bruise a bit but eh… no broken bones, no problem.

Her wrist ached too, it had been getting better but the impact from the blows she had parried had not felt great. Then and now.

She really was grateful that Callum was cleaning her armor and boots, that repetitive scrubbing action would have been unpleasant.

He was still working diligently, definitely not caring that she was naked.

He was very good at it, too, he must have had quite a lot of practice cleaning Soren’s boots and armor.

Soren was an ass. Squire duties, pfft.

What a load of speckled moonoose shit, the smelliest poop known to elf.

Callum was a prince, so that was clearly just meant to push him down. She was really… irrationally angry at the thought of that big ass with ears doing that to him, even though she was not that thrilled with Callum himself either at this particular moment.

…Good elf.

He hadn’t… meant it like that though, she knew Callum was inexplicably fond of the taste of his own feet.

Maybe the fifth toe was-

Never mind.

Callum had given her the sense, before, that he let people push him around. He was so open with his feelings and insecurities, it was cowardly to go for such an obvious target, and she knew exactly the type of ass-with-ears-face that did that kinda thing.

And the sarcasm-deficient lump of a bully was still infinitely preferable to his sister.

As much stock as she put in sarcasm, there were more important things, and Claudia had been the one to see them leave together in what was clearly not a kidnapping and the one to argue that she should be killed in her sleep like she was just some beast to be put down.

Or rather… cut into spell components, probably. That was unnerving to think about.

Callum trusted her though. Liked her, and a lot, too.

“…it’s great, really!” Callum had been saying something. Some wrong thing. It was definitely not great, because it certainly had to do with Soren and Claudia.

“Sorry?” Rayla asked, as she stepped out and away from her liquid nemesis with a great deal of relief, wiping as much water off her skin as she could and stomping to get warm.

The twisty motion when she tried to wring out her clothes was murder on her wrist so she skipped that. They would dry. Eventually. And Callum was talking about the dark mage girl and how nice she was when she wasn’t goading her reluctant brother into killing people in their sleep and that was even less pleasant.

Lujanne’s spare clothes were foreign-feeling and too big, but at least they were dry, which was a big step up from hers.

“You can turn around,” she said, as she smoothed Lujanne’s purple tunic down.

“You ready to go back?” he asked, picking up her wet clothes, starting to wring them out unprompted and unknowing why she hadn’t done that.

“Yeah. I’m done here,” she grumbled, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet and rolling her shoulders, trying to dispel some of the chill from that dumb lake. “And in general. So done.”

“I wish this hadn’t happened,” he said, sounding troubled now, then stopped his train of thought. “You’re cold,” he said, instead.

“It’s a mountain lake in Spring,” she said, through faintly clattering teeth, gesturing at the lake. What a thoroughly unhelpful thing to point out, because now she was just more aware of how cold she was.

“And you had a fever yesterday.” Ugh, he sounded so much like Ethari, right now. “You could have… I don’t know… heated water?”

Now? Callum, I’m tired.”

“I can imagine,” he said, kinda… chastising. “You were patrolling. All night. And fought one of the best warriors in Katolis. And got in that cold lake. And I did mention the fever yesterday?”

“Yeah, I heard you the first two times,” she muttered, wrapping her arms around herself. Not her fault his friends were assholes.

Besides, it was past midnight, so it wasn’t yesterday-

She forgot about the annoyance, because Callum shrugged off his smelly jacket, warm from his body, to hand it to her and that really was very nice of him and made her warm inside before she even put it on. It was too big, but even that was nice, letting her tuck her cold hands inside the sleeves.

His arms were skinny and undefined, but… nice too, really. And reaching for her, smoothing down his jacket, lingering at her upper arms, rubbing briskly up and down to dispel the goosebumps, which was nice, too.

More than… nice, really, but she couldn’t think about the more.

She felt… so much warmer.

Rayla picked up her armor and Callum picked up her clothes, and they started to walk up the stairs back to their bedroom.

“What the white stuff even?” Callum asked, absentminded, ever-present curiosity, looking down at the pile of wet clothes in his arms, her breast bindings tangling with her socks on the top of the pile.

“Humans don’t wear underwear?” Rayla snickered.

“Yes! We do! Sorry for… asking. And sorry I didn’t… bring any. Any… underwear. Dry underwear. Lujanne’s… underwear. So you’re… not… -right now.” He looked pointedly away from her clothes and from her, color rising in his cheeks. Another weird, human modesty thing? They didn’t have public laundries, maybe?

“But I’m wearing regular clothes?” Rayla said, baffled. “You can’t even see I’m not wearing underwear?”

Callum made a choked sound.

She looked down to verify the claim she had made, because it just occurred to her that she was still cold, but… no. The cloth was too thick.

“Can’t you just pretend I am?” she scoffed. “Isn’t an artist supposed to have a good imagination? So, can’t you just imagine big poofy bloomers with a pattern of little Baits and move on with your life?”

Callum sputtered with laughter, and the tension and embarrassment went away, as had been her aim. Even if he was unfairly cute when blushing, she didn’t want him to be uncomfortable.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he grinned, relaxing. “You’re wearing imaginary Bait-undies. Pfft, it’s normal.”

“Do you know about Xadian underwear styles?” she shot back, smirking. “Maybe it is. Maybe glowtoad-patterns are all the rage? Maybe we have big jammie parties with everyone wearing them? Maybe I’m the secret heir to a Xadia-spanning clothes design brand that build their business on an all-glowtoads-all-the-time aesthetic? You don’t know.”

“Ezran would love glowtoad pajamas. He would wear those to court, if Opeli would let him. Which she would not.”

That was news. And weird. They had so many clothes they didn’t need to pack any to go to their lodge, but didn’t actually get to choose what to wear? That was weird.

“You don’t get to choose?” she asked, curious. “Your clothes, I mean?”

“Not really,” Callum sighed. “Not since I became a prince. Well, I can choose from the clothes I have, but I didn’t choose those, I get measured every so often and then they just kind of… show up. I know there are tailor’s shops, but I’ve never been in one. We drove past a really big one in our carriage once, in Duren, but we didn’t have time to go in, even though I really wanted to, because there were so many colors-”

“You with the colors,” she said, smiling. It was nice, how much attention he paid to things she didn’t stop to consider at all.

“Yeah, that’s not a human thing, either,” he said, a bit bashful again. “Just a weird me thing.” She liked his weird him-thing. But she couldn’t say that, because he liked the girl who had tried to murder her in her sleep an hour ago.

“Fitting in is boring,” she said, instead. “I sure never did.”

“Really?” Callum looked genuinely surprised. “I kind of thought you were… cool.” Wow. That was hilarious.

“Oh, I am,” she grinned. “Other Moonshadow elves just have no taste, and want their assassins without the sass, can you believe it?”

“No!” he said, laughter filling his eyes and bubbling out with his words. “Because… you’re just left with an ass… when you take the sass out of assassin!”

Okay, that was funny. And true. And his laughter was contagious, and she had been grumpy almost since she stopped being miserable and she was shaking with it now, the laughter forcing itself out all the way from down in her stomach.

“You… you said… ass-” she snorted, just as it was abating, and that set them both off again.

She stopped laughing though, when they got to the top of the stairs, and Claudia was waiting for them, perched prettily on one of the stone tables.

“Hi guys!” She waved cheerfully at them both, for some reason. “You looked like you were having fun?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Callum nervously rubbed the back of his neck. He was tense again, even worse than he had been about the underwear. “We’re friends, like I said. It really was just a misunderstanding.”

“I know.” Claudia smiled at him, which was clearly making him more tense, not less. “I was just waiting to say goodnight. And apologize for Soren kicking you out, Callum. He was just being a grumpy baby Sor-Bear, because of the mud in his mouth. He got cleaned up though, and is snoring away. And so did you, Rayla?”

“Yep,” Rayla said tersely. She was very much not in the mood for chit-chat with the morally-impaired half of Team Morally-and-Sarcastically-Impaired.

“Sorry about the mud and the magic,” Claudia said, conveniently leaving out the trying-to-kill-her-in-her-sleep that Callum hadn’t witnessed. “Are your hands okay?”

“Okay?” Callum turned to Claudia, upset on his face. “Did you hurt her?”

“I hope not! That’s why I’m asking!” Claudia laughed. “I used a metal heating spell on her weapons to disarm her. It’s a really cool spell, I could teach you, you only need-”

Rayla interrupted, because she did not ask to hear about what parts of magical creatures you needed to burn someone’s fingerprints off. “It’s fine. See? Mud is a heat insulator.” Rayla showed her palms to Claudia and Callum, hoping this would appease them so they could change the subject.

Callum took her hands to inspect them, like the weirdo he was, even though there weren’t even any blisters, just faintly reddened skin at a few of her fingertips and the healing burn from the sunforge blade. She didn’t even feel it, compared to all the other achy bits. Or compared to his warm hands against her skin, still chilled from the water.

“I left the ointment on the dresser,” Callum said. “If you need it.”

“I don’t,” Rayla said, pulling her hands away. She didn’t want to be here, not with her. “And I’m tired. You two can… catch up or whatever. I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”

She made it all the way inside, dumped her armor and was halfway through taking her boots off, when she realized she was still wearing Callum’s jacket. She left it on his pillow and got under the covers of the bed she shared with Ellis and Ava, before the second realization hit her that Callum was still holding her clothes, and humans apparently had weird ideas about underwear.

Whatever. She couldn’t stop someone so determined to be embarrassed.

Rayla stuck her cold feet underneath the warm wolf-body next to her, and tried to sleep.

It wasn’t happening. She could hear Callum and Claudia talking outside, not the words but… talking… and it was irrationally distracting.

Her chest ached where Soren had kicked her and… underneath.

 

 

 

 

Bonus art of Rayla in Callum’s jacket 😊

Chapter Text

 

 

3.02PM, May 23rd, Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

“So, Rayla!” Claudia leant over the table, smiling brightly.

Claudia was like those pancakes she had made, if the pancakes had been a person. Sweet and fluffy and buttery, but… hiding something dark.

It was really annoying that she was so friendly on top that she couldn’t even justify disliking her as much as she did, so much more than her lump of a brother.

The lump had thought she was enough of a person to merit having second thoughts about murdering her in her sleep and Claudia had not. She felt… not right. Especially because she seemed to think… everyone seemed to think, even Callum, that they should just move on and forget everything that happened.

 “Yeah,” Rayla answered. Maybe if she was just really, really boring, Claudia would lose interest and this stupid, fake girl hangout thing would be over sooner?

“I love your hair!” Claudia said, seeming way too suspiciously excited. “I found your braid at the Bantherlodge, that’s how we tracked you here. It was so cute!” That was morbid. Did Claudia even hear what she was saying? I did voodoo on your hair that humans severed by force trying to kill you, but oh what cute hair it was?

“Thanks.”

“Powerful Dark mages sometimes have white hair. I always thought it was so pretty-” Draining the life force of magical creatures like you also drain the pigment from their hair, and that’s just darling to me?

How could someone this annoying be-

But maybe she wasn’t, was the thing. Maybe it was just her? Being biased right the fuck back at Claudia’s stupid prejudiced face.

Callum liked Claudia, and he was a good person. Surely there must be something to like about her? Surely not everything she said was as grating to other people as it was to her?

“All Moonshadow elves have white hair. It’s not- …special.” It was just hair. Was this what girl talk was supposed to be about? Talking about things that didn’t matter very much?

“It is very pretty though!” Ellis said, her compliment without reserve or agenda. “It’s shiny, way shinier than my granny’s white hair. And it glows in the moonlight, and my granny’s definitely doesn’t do that!

“Thank you, Ellis. Your hair’s pretty too,” Rayla said, looking at Ellis’ thick, dark mane, shining warm shades of brown in the sun. “And Ava’s too,” she laughed, a bit of the tension lifting as Ava put her head on top of Ellis’, the thick, grey fur falling over the girl’s forehead like an uneven fringe.

“Feeling suuuper left out!” Claudia laughed, tossing her stupidly-long hair, purple at the ends, over her shoulder, pointedly. “I always thought my hair was one of my best features.”

“I believe it,” Rayla said dryly. Rude, but whatever. She had basically been roped into this stupid thing, Claudia had enlisted Ellis first and cornered her in front of Callum and Ezran. She didn’t want to get to know a girl who saw her as a big bag of potential spell components, thank you very much!

“Thank you! You’re so sweet!” Claudia smiled. Yeah, sooo… subtle insults were not very useful, clearly. She didn’t know if she had genuinely not gotten it, she didn’t think she had been that subtle.

“You’re welcome.” Fuck the fuck off with the illusions.

“Sooo, how about you and Callum?” Claudia asked, still all pretty illusion smiles. What?! “He doesn’t really make new friends much, but you…?”

“Yeah. We’re friends. No kidnapping. Like you saw. And I said. Right before you tried to kill me.”

“Ah, that was yesterday!” It was today, actually, seeing as it had happened after midnight, only a bit more than 12 hours ago. “We all make mistakes! How you move on from those mistakes, defines who you are, right?” And she had moved on by pretending it hadn’t happened at all, like she hadn’t been encouraging her brother to kill her while she had been defenseless. It was like it hadn’t penetrated that it had been a mistake. It wasn’t like it was a accident, like whoops, didn’t see you there, sorry I nearly had my brother impale you-

“Inspiring.”

“So you agree to put that misunderstanding behind us? Great! That’s why I wanted to talk to you girls!” “I rarely get to have girl time, and we’re four of us now! Oh! We should talk about boys!” Why?! That was worse than hair. “Or, you know if you like girls or other genders, that’s cool!”

Ellis looked thoughtful. “I like Ava! But not like… I wanna marry her. I do want to stay with her forever, so that’s basically the same thing, right? I haven’t met anyone else I like as much.”

“That’s cool!” Claudia said. “You have lots of time to decide, right? How about you, Rayla? You’re my age, right? I’m almost 17, should have probably said that.”

“I’m a year younger then. And no. No-one I’ve wanted to marry.”

“Anyone you’ve wanted to, you know… do other stuff with…” Claudia glanced sideways at Ellis, giggling. The usually unflappably cheerful girl looked a bit annoyed, and Rayla couldn’t blame her. Ellis was 11 years old and helped out the village veterinarian, Rayla was pretty sure she knew about the ‘stuff’ Claudia was referring to.

“If you’re asking if I’ve met people I’ve found attractive, then yes," Rayla scoffed. She wasn't about to actually lie about something this dumb, she had lied plenty about actual important things. "I trained every day. With other kids who also trained every day. Fucking physical specimens. Of course we look at each others' butts, elven teenagers aren’t that different. I haven’t met anyone where I was interested in the rest of the person.” Or who was interested in her. The one person who had been interested, had used her parents’ betrayal to justify punishing her for rejecting him. She hadn’t… seen that, but Runaan and Ethari had been very definite that that was what it had been about, when him and his friends had taunted and hit her.

“So, you have one of those physical specimens waiting for you at home?”

“No.” She was an assassin. Even if she had been interested, that would have been cruel, she thought. She was already dead. She had seen, throughout her childhood, Ethari’s pain and worry when Runaan was away.

“Yeah, me neither.” Claudia said. “Was always too busy for that. But at least I have Callum!” She had him? What kinda way was that, to talk about someone who liked her a lot, and was a really good person? Who deserved better than to be had by someone who did not return the favor. Callum didn’t have Claudia.

But he wanted to.

And maybe he would. After tonight. That was… really, irrational levels of unpleasant to think about.

And she couldn’t say any of the things she really thought… couldn’t drag Ellis into her shitty feelings, or sabotage things for her friend, who deserved to be happy and to be with the person he liked.

So she kept being boring for another twenty minutes, until Claudia left, still unflappably cheerful, basically skipping. She supposed Claudia had… a date to get ready for.

Rayla sank forwards. How was she so tired after a half-hour conversation?

Illusions were draining, to her. She really was terrible at being Moonshadow. She wanted… honesty. The full truth. And she hadn’t trusted a single thing that had come out of Claudia’s mouth. How were you supposed to get to know someone or have a chance of growing to like them better, if you didn’t trust them? If you didn’t trust that the nice things they said were nice underneath?

No… that wasn’t quite right. Claudia probably was nice underneath too, to people she considered people. Callum wouldn’t like her so much if she weren’t.

Rayla did trust Callum. And if he would trust her, she could-

He shouldn’t trust her, was the thing. She had lied to him since she met him and still was.

But she was right about Soren and Claudia, and if he wouldn’t listen to that, he could sleep in his fucking tent made of hyper-flammable red flags, for all she cared-

“Ehrm…?”

Rayla snapped around to look at Callum, sitting down next to her. He was fidgeting, very probably having spent the past half-hour driving himself crazy imagining what they had been talking about.

“So, what’s girl talk about?” Callum asked, smiling a bit shakily, failing hard at the ‘casual air’ she could tell he was aiming for but succeeding spectacularly at making her heart flutter.

She did care, was the problem.

Way too much.

About more than his butt.

Chapter Text



9.09PM, May 24th, Moon Nexus, Katolis

When Rayla arched her body, rising up with the swell of the music, she saw him over Ellis’ shoulder, behind the panting, dance-exhausted pile of Ezran, Zym and Bait.

He was half-hidden in the trees, watching the dancing pavilion from the cover of darkness.

She could still see him though. She wondered if Callum remembered that, that darkness wasn’t really dark to her, as it was to the humans.

Rayla placed her wrist against Ellis’, positioning her body and giving Ellis time to get it right too, before she moved in a sweeping half-circle to signify the crescent moon.

She found Callum’s face again, when she came back around.

He looked wistful, but… sad. Tired. Streaks of dried tears on his cheeks. Swollen eyes. Mussed hair.

Ezran would know something was seriously wrong, if he caught even a glimpse.

But Callum had come here, regardless. He had asked to be alone, and she had taken the rest of the crew here so he could grieve for a bit without pretense, but… he had come here too. She supposed the tones of the harp had carried, it had been a pretty bombastic piece before the current one, Ezran and Zym had really given it their all, and were worn out from it, leaving just her and Ellis on the dancefloor.

Rayla twirled, slowly, so Ellis could see, and the girl copied her movements, right on cue with the rhythm.

The lights and music of the forest pavilion was… was it just mocking him? He wasn’t leaving. Just watching from the trees, a lonely figure behind a misty shroud. She couldn’t give him what he needed. Couldn’t even go to him and hug him like she wanted to. It felt so wrong to leave him alone in the darkness that she knew was so much darker to him than it was to her.

But she couldn’t give him comfort or lightness or anything, only continued loneliness.

And distraction maybe, she thought, as she lifted Ellis in a pirouette, finding Callum’s face with every turn.

“Good job!” she grinned at Ellis, as they finished. “You’d make a good Moon sage.” She would, Rayla thought. Ellis had the right kinda head for illusions, except that the skull and ears wouldn’t pass Moon sage inspection.

Those things shouldn’t matter as much as they did.

The silhouette of Callum’s smooth skull was obvious, in the trees. His face was slightly obscured by mist that had rolled in, like he was behind a shroud in some different world, separate from them.

She wanted to go there, but she couldn’t.

The melody ended, and so did the dance. It would be the last one. Big day tomorrow. Old friends to lure into a trap and all.

Ellis was heading towards Ezran and Zym but… Callum wouldn’t be able to see their faces anymore, if they sat over there. And he had come here… she couldn’t-

“I’ll show you how to turn the music down,” Rayla said, gesturing at Zym in explanation, asleep up against a grumpier-than-normal-looking Bait. You didn’t need to actually have a Moon arcanum to operate the harp, just… someone needed to. As long as she was touching it too, it worked, when Ezran ran his fingers along the nocked ridge that controlled the volume.

It had just been an excuse, anyway. Zym wouldn’t have woken up, she was pretty sure.

She guided Ellis and Ezran to sit not where Ezran had before, but the other side of the pavilion, facing Callum.

She found his face between the branches, relieved, she thought. He didn’t want to be alone, or he wouldn’t have come here.

She looked right at Callum’s eyes, holding his gaze, letting him know for sure she could see him if he hadn’t caught onto that yet, he was tragically dense, after all. “It’s nicer over here,” she said.

She smiled.

He smiled back.

 


 

“Bedtime!” Rayla announced, after not very long. “Come on. We’ll take a different route back, I have one last thing to show you, while the moon’s out.” The kids would like the light up runes up along the staircase to the temple, she thought. So would Callum but… he needed space to get back unseen more than he needed his magic curiosity sated-

She didn’t know if he would care at all about those runes, right now.

She turned off the harp, but left the lights in the pavilion, because Callum was still there and… it didn’t feel right, leaving him alone in darkness that was fully dark to him as it wasn’t to her.

 


 

Callum wasn’t there though, when they got back to their bedroom, and didn’t arrive either, as Ezran and Elliz and Ava and Zym and Bait all got settled for the night.

“Where’s Callum?” Ezran asked, as he laid down next to the blanket nest he had made for Zym. More… curious than worried though. Good.

“He went to the library, for a last look,” Rayla said. It would definitely convince Ezran. If Callum hadn’t had other things on his mind, she thought that would be what he would do. “It’s late though. I’ll go check he hasn’t fallen asleep on the floor up there.”

Ezran nodded sleepily. “Goodnight.”

More lies but… at least she knew she was right to lie, now.

Now Callum felt bad about it instead of her.

She didn’t go to the library, but back to the stone pavilion in the forest.

Callum was there, like she knew he would be.

He didn’t protest when she sat down next to him, but didn’t speak either. He skootched closer though, so… he wanted her here.

She broke the quiet, after a while, because he had to know… whatever he needed, she would do what she could. She would be terrible at this, but… she would try, and he wasn’t alone with it, and he clearly didn’t want to be alone.

“I’ll help you, if you want,” Rayla said. “To tell Ezran, I mean. Whenever you’re… ready.”

“Not yet,” he said quietly. It was basically a plea. Full of guilt too. And that should have been hers alone to bear, but now he carried it too. “I can’t-”

“No,” she said gently. “Not yet. It’s okay. You’re doing your best.”

“So are you.” She looked away from him, because her best wasn’t good enough- “You are! You have any idea what you’ve done for me, the past day? I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.”

“Languished in critical sarcasm-deficiency?”

“That too.” He smiled a bit, despite the dried tears still on his cheeks.

They sat for a while in silence. He wasn’t really up for talking, that was obvious. But would he want the music? Or would that just remind him of more things he was upset about, like the magic he didn’t have? Would he want to experiment with the harp, using her arcanum? Would that just remind him harder?

She supposed she could just ask and he would actually give an honest answer. Humans were weird like that. Or maybe just Callum and Ezran.

“Would you like some music to go with the quiet?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “That would be nice.”

“Would you like to choose it? If I touch it while you run your fingers along the ridges, you can choose the melody and volume.”

“Yes and no. Yesterday… would have been a big yes, but-”

“I’ll choose for you,” she said immediately.

“Choose… for you? Your favorite? Not for me.”

She did. He might regret that, but he did say to choose her favorite, and she liked music you could dance to. She picked a slow one though, not too distracting, but still danceable, with flowy ups and downs in the melody.

Callum listened, next to her, without speaking, then a tiny, amused smile spread on his face.

“You… dance. Your feet still want to.”

Oh… she supposed she tended to move a lot, and music like that tugged at her to… and that didn’t really go with the vibe at all.

“Sorry.”

“No! I like your feet! I mean- that your feet… want to dance.”

Rayla relaxed a bit, letting her feet bob and want to dance.

Callum relaxed too, sinking down against her until his head hit her shoulder.

Maybe if he actually fell asleep, she could carry him back without waking him? He really needed to sleep, he hadn’t at all last night, she thought. He had sat on the floor all night and not looked at her and curled into himself and been all alone.

But then the music stopped, and Callum’s head snapped up, stirred into fully awake.

Definitely a cue that it was bedtime though, for him, too.

Rayla nudged him pointedly, then got up to extinguish the magical lights lighting up the pavilion like clusters of tiny stars. She bounced down the steps to the forest floor on the other side of the pavilion, gesturing for Callum to follow her.

Then she was reminded that Callum couldn’t see in the dark when he tripped over the last step to fall forwards, thumping hard against the grassy ground of the clearing.

Shit.

She really was completely useless, she knew he couldn’t see in the dark and how distracted he must be right now.

As if he needed more pain?

She knelt next to him, sprawled on the ground, reaching out to offer a hand to help him up.

“You okay?” Rayla asked, although she knew he wasn’t.

“Yeah… yeah. Just… got… the wind… knocked out of me,” Callum said, gasping as he sat up. “Literally too now, I guess,” he snorted, without mirth. Well he was joking about it so that was progress? Maybe? Or maybe it was just overshadowed by bigger upset.

She plucked a dead leaf out of his hair, as they stood, before slipping her hand into his. “Hold on to me, okay?”

His hand slipped up her forearm instead though, to hook around her left elbow instead. “I don’t want to yank on it, if I stumble again,” he said, in explanation. Why was he… why did her wrist even register on his pain radar right now?

She could feel him against her side, as they walked back together through the silent forest.

“You got here alright though?” she wondered. “You could see, then?

“Yeah, but I was used to the darkness, then. It was different… like pitch black after… sitting in the light, with you.”

 


 

Rayla had very good hearing. She could hear Zym’s snuffling sleep-noises. Ellis’ soft breaths next to her. Ava’s deep rumble, curling around the sleeping Ellis. Bait’s wheezy snore, in sync with Ezran’s breaths.

Callum was still awake. His breathing was too controlled.

She got up, making no sound as she crossed the room.

But his eyes opened to look at her anyway, and his hand gripped hers right away when she touched his.

“Hey,” she whispered. “What do you need?” She stroked across the back of the hand that was still holding hers.  Anything that was in her power to do for him, she would, it tore at her to see those fresh tears welling up now.

He didn’t answer, but pulled her hand close to his chest, still clasped in his.

It was still an answer though. He needed her.

Chapter Text

10.12AM, May 26th, Onboard the Ruthless, Cat Gut Bay, Central Katolis

It was… okay, really.

Not so bad.

Just… surrounded by water. Moving water. Moving the boat. Moving her insides around.

But it was okay. She could-

Whoa. Nope. She could not.

Rayla made it to the railing just in time.

Ugh.

She had better get used to it though. Suck it up, or… chuck it up, as it were.

For two days.

Her wretchedness was interrupted, when Ezran climbed slightly up the railing to look at her, one of the canteens from the Bantherlodge in his hand.

She took it, grateful, and drank. “Thanks.”

“No problem!” Ezran said. “You look really bad.”

“Thanks,” she repeated drily.

“Sorry. I believe in telling the truth,” Ezran said sagely. The full truth… so did she. But Ezran didn’t have it. And she couldn’t tell him now, it was not her place anymore.

“It’s okay. I realize I look like a Banther’s dinner, post-digestion.” She wasn’t supposed to swear in front of Ezran, she had promised Callum.

Ezran patted her hand comfortingly. “Don’t worry! You’re still very pretty, even all barfy.”

She snorted. Ezran was sweet. “I thought you believed in telling the truth?” she grinned.

Ezran looked confused. “You don’t know that? That’s so weird. Soren and Callum really like your butt, you must have noticed that.” Callum?! That was…

That was Ezran being kind. Or Callum possibly still being curious about the tail thing, she wouldn’t put it past him. Even if he was looking at her butt for the sake of looking at her butt, that didn’t mean anything-

“No…” she managed.

“Really? Well, I suppose it makes sense, your back would be turned.”

“I don’t…”

“Yeah, I don’t get it either.” Ezran sighed, stepping behind her, tilting his head slightly as he evaluated the body part in question. “I mean. It’s a butt. Big whoop. Faces are way more interesting.”

Definitely. Ezran’s big blue eyes and freckled nose and smile that lit up his whole face was more interesting than any dumb butt.

Callum’s warm green eyes and pretty, floofy hair and pretty nose and pretty butt… Yeah, okay, that wasn’t part of his face, but so what? She looked at his butt too, why shouldn’t he look at hers? Not like there were a whole lot of other butts to look at, most of the time. It was normal.

She looked out over the ocean, soft little waves like dumb butts, poking at the sky. She should definitely… stop thinking about butts.

Oof. Nausea returning. Butts had been a brief distraction. She breathed deeply, holding onto the wood, slumping forwards.

Okay.

Good.

No more barf.

Right now.

That was good.

Ezran had been patiently waiting, while she had been occupied with her own misery, but he started talking again now, thoughtful. “Rayla? Is Callum… upset about something? He’s all… in his head.”

“Yeah, I mean… he misses being able to do magic.”

It wasn’t… a lie.

But it definitely wasn’t the full truth either.

And she was evidently not done barfing either, the remnants of her breakfast coming up instead of the full truth she couldn’t spew.

Ezran eventually left, on her insistence, to play with Zym in the big rolls of rope on the deck.

And Rayla, the nausea temporarily abating as her stomach had run out of contents to throw up, went to find Callum. Time to talk without Ezran present was hard to come by, and he had… some things to deal with.

He was hiding behind a pile of crates at the front of the ship, looking pensively up at the mast. His eyes were a bit red.

She sat down next to him, nudging him with her elbow. “Hey. Ezran is… occupied. If you want to-”

She was cut off because he hugged her so hard to him their heads bumped together rather harder than was comfortable. He drew back immediately, because of course he worried about hurting her even when he was already sniffling, barely holding it together.

“I’m fine.” She put her arms back around him. There were a few kinda… relieved sobs, against her neck. Then he calmed, just breathing hard.

“Sorry,” he muttered, not letting go of her. “It was just… a long day yesterday.” A long day of holding it together for his brother. And his oldest friends betraying him, and- Yeah. A long and bad day.

“I know.” Rayla stroked across the back of his neck. His hair was soft against her fingers.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, the complete idiot. “On the boat, I mean.”

“Eh, okay. I’m done spewing, for now. How are you feeling?” That would have been a stupid question, but Callum was not Moonshadow, and might actually answer it honestly.

“Not… really great,” he sniffed. “I’m still trying to kind of… understand how I’m feeling. I loved him and… thought of him as my dad. But I don’t know how he thought of me.”

She… felt that. Runaan and Ethari were her guardians, but… but they also weren’t just that. At least, not to her. But there were two sides to things like that, and why wouldn’t Runaan and Ethari have adopted her after her parents betrayal, if they thought of her like-

But she knew they cared about her, or at least, in Runaan’s case… had-

No. She was not thinking about it. She would get home, and talk to them, and Ethari would help her sort it out and they would understand, when she explained it.

“I get it,” she said simply, not looking at Callum because she was meant to be here for him, and she couldn’t sit here and talk to him about Runaan when Runaan had killed his… dad. Callum thought of King Harrow as his dad and… she was sure the king had loved him too, how could he not?

“You do,” Callum said, a bit incredulous but not doubting her. “You actually do. I don’t think… I’ve ever met anyone who did.”

“So we both know it sucks… not knowing. It messes with your head.” She sat for a while, looking out at that horrible butt-water.

Her left wrist twinged in a really distracting way. Runaan had… done that. She still had nightmares about it, waking up sure that the binding was still there or her hand wasn’t there. It had hurt a lot towards the end, and she had thought she could take it, but… it was like her body remembered the pain. And her head remembered Runaan tying it.

She had pleaded with him to bring her. She had asked to be bound. She had chosen the pain.

It didn’t make sense that she felt so… weird about it. About Runaan. More stupid doubt.  

Callum had said that Runaan… that… Claudia had told him the humans got all the elves that attacked that night.

Claudia lied. She would have lied to make Callum like her, she already had. And Callum didn’t know Runaan, didn’t know it was ridiculous, what he had said. Runaan always made it out. He was on his way back to Ethari, alive to feel… weird about.

It was dumb weirdness, anyway. She was not a child, not… his child. It hadn’t been on Runaan to protect her from pain and hardship.

She rubbed the stupid achy wrist, the not-even-really-that-achy wrist. Why was it so distracting?

“Does it still hurt?” Callum asked, concerned, his hand laying on top of hers,

Stupid. It didn’t even, really. It was just her dumb head, remembering how much it had and remembering Runaan. She really couldn’t even be not-pathetic for five minutes, when her friend had just lost his dad.

“It does,” he concluded unhappily, from her non-answer. “Can I have a look?” His fingers hovered over the clasp of her bracer. Definitely not. The bruising hadn’t faded all the way and she didn’t want him to worry about it, when it wasn’t even real.

“It’s… fine,” she said. He had never been quick to believe that from her though, and she thought she should explain that it was nothing but her stupid head messing with her, so he wouldn’t worry. “Just remembering. That it did. Thinking about-”

…about no-one she could talk about right now. Or think about. Because it was pointless when it was nothing-

“You were thinking about the assassin leader? Who… killed him. And bound you. You said, yesterday, that he raised you. And you said now, that you understood.” He was not accusing, even though he should be, would be well in his right to hate Runaan and her by association.

“Yes,” she said, looking away, not elaborating because… he wouldn’t want to hear about it.

“Rayla?” Concern again. His hand curled around hers, engulfing the stupid achy wrist with warm softness that would get inside her if she let it.

“Callum, you don’t want me to talk about him. You’re right. He raised me.” She set her jaw, because whatever else, this was still true without question. “I love him. And it would hurt you to hear, and I don’t want to do that, so please stop asking-”

“I’m sorry,” he said, chewing on his words, thinking. “You’re right. I’m sorry you are but… you are. I don’t want to… I can’t hear about him. Not right now. I hate him, and you… for you it’s complicated. But Rayla? I will. I’ll get there. You deserve to be able to talk about him. I promise. I’ll listen. I don’t want you to hold back or feel bad about loving him. I just c-can’t right now-”

She pulled his shaking body closer. “It’s okay if you don’t get there,” she said quietly, into his hair. “It’s okay if you stay angry.”

“I’m not angry at you. Okay? He hurt you too,” Callum said, anger under the surface, pointedly squeezing her left hand. “He hurt us both. And Ezran, except-” Except he just didn’t know it yet. Callum was choking on those words, he really wasn’t ready to talk about it.

But he could still talk about his dad.

“Callum? Would you tell me? About your step-dad? He had a whole life, before he died.”

“Yeah… yeah.” He smiled slightly. “He did. He told really stupid jokes. A bit like yours but… less funny and more punny?”

Rayla smiled, despite herself, because that sounded a whole lot like Ethari’s jokes. Seriously, that man was too easy to please, humor-wise. “Like…‘I was just trying to go a-boat my business, but I subjected to pier pressure and now here I am?’”

Callum snorted. “Yeah, sorry about the… pier pressure-”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, ship happens-”

“Stoooop,” Callum grinned. “It’s too accurate!”

“Sea what I mean?”

Callum sputtered with helpless laughter, a few tears coming out with it, but then it fell away to a soft smile.

“Yeah, like that. And he’d read stories to Ezran every night, even when he was really busy and had to go back to work afterwards. And I’d… listen too. The last few years, I told him I didn’t want bedtime stories, and pretended I wasn’t listening. But I always did, even when it was a dumb story about banthercubs.” He was sniffling again, hiding his face in her shoulder. “I p-pushed him away,” he sobbed. “I loved him… and I didn’t tell him and I called him King Harrow… and I… I pushed him away-”

She leant her head on top of his.

It was not enough. He needed to know and he could know, unlike her. He had his… closure? Maybe not quite. But there were answers in that scroll he hadn’t opened yet, and she, at least, was sure they were what he longed for.

They didn’t speak for a while, and it wouldn’t last, hiding out here, Ezran would find them at some point and the sky was getting dark in the distance and… she had a feeling the storm was coming.

Callum understood that too, because he straightened up, and splashed water in his face from the canteen she handed him.

“We should… rejoin the others,” he said, and even smiled a bit.

There was one last thing though, before they did that.

“Callum? You should read his letter.” If there had ever been any doubt that he should… there wasn’t, to her. She didn’t want Callum to feel like she did, doubting who he was to the person who was a dad to him. “When you’re ready. I’ll distract Ezran for as long as you need.”

“Not now!” he exclaimed, almost panicked. “I can’t-”

“Not now,” she agreed. “But don’t… don’t stay in it too long… the not-knowing.”

He nodded, understanding.

 

 

 

Bonus art of Callum and Rayla, in the quiet before the storm

Chapter Text


4.32PM, May 26th, Scraggy Rock Isle, Cat Gut Bay, Central Katolis

“If you die out there, I swear I’ll kill you,” Rayla shouted, at Callums retreating back. He turned back around half-way and there was a tiny little smirk on his face and…

Ba-dump.

Again.

It was… yeah.

You didn’t fantasize about smooshing your friend’s dumb idea face, she was pretty sure.

And he was gone now, lost in the heavy rains out there, but it was like his presence was still here, making her heart pound against her ribcage and her cheeks sizzle against the drops of cold rain.

Completely pointless, and worse than that, because-

Because Ezran had been next to her, but he was gone now too, and now the dread was rising-

“Ezran!” she shouted, over the din of the rain, panic bubbling up in her chest to push away that useless fizzy flutter Callum had left.

He wasn’t on the deck and she didn’t think he would go below deck without telling her and leave her up here alone in the rain, that was not at all what he was like-

He hadn’t… gone after Callum? In the storm?

But he hadn’t, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she saw him, coming back towards the ship now, across the mooring bridge, completely soaked but smiling, his arms full of little yellow flowers.

“Come inside you lunatic,” Rayla chided, mostly just relieved, ushering Ezran below deck.

Villads had lit the fire, and they would soon be warm and wet instead of cold and wet. Regardless, she helped pull off Ezran’s sodden clothes, wrapping him in a blanket from the bed.

She pulled her own clothes off too, caring little for the other two people present. Ezran was certainly not old enough to potentially find her body any kind of interesting, and Villads was blind. Callum-

Nope. Not going there. Definitely not going to the place she was apparently already at, whether Callum would find her body… interesting.

Such a wholly unnecessary tangent, really.

Her cheeks burned, despite the chill of the rain still clinging to her.

Villads approached, as if on cue offering her a distraction as well as a scratchy woolen sweater. It was warm and dry though, and she got used to the scratchiness pretty quickly.

“Oh! The buttercups!” Ezran said, jumping up from where he had been warming himself in front of the fire to retrieve them.

“What possessed you to go pick flowers in a thunderstorm?” Rayla asked, shaking her head.

“Buttercups! And they were going to get all trampled by the rain anyway, so I picked them. Remember back after we left the castle? Callum said buttercups would look nice on you. With your purp-” Ezran cut off, glancing at Villads. “-perfectly ordinary human eye color!”

Villads didn’t seem to catch on, seeming to be busy pulling his boots and hat off, probably getting ready for a nap, now the ship was moored.

Ezran twisted the stems of the little yellow flowers into her damp hair, occasionally asking Bait’s opinion on placement. It was nice. She hadn’t had anyone touching her hair since Ethari had braided it the morning they had left.

It was good, having a distraction from the worry. Ezran needed one, definitely.

And she needed a distraction both from the worry and from her definitely not-just-friendship-feelings for Callum. Because they were definitely… there. Had been, for a while. They were just kinda getting… harder to ignore. When that lightning had struck, lighting up his dumb idea face in harsh black and white… there was just no denying the more-than-friendshipness of that feeling.

It was worse than that, even, becauseshe was pretty sure it was more than crush feeling, too. Ethari had described what being in love felt like once, when she was 11, and she had rolled her eyes and pretended she wasn’t interested. But she had paid attention.

And this was it.

It wasn’t even… new.

She had known back on the last boat, that Callum was a very cute human, really, unfairly so, when she was trying to be grumpy and he was being all… impossibly cute. And his cute hair and butt. And his big hands with the pinkos that were always so gentle when he touched her. And-

So many things.

But it was like that lightning strike had made her so much more aware of it, throwing his ridiculously kissable dumb idea face into stark relief against the stormy skies.

And now he was off doing something really dumb, and she was just supposed to wait, and not freak out and upset Ezran.

She could do this, though. Just… pretend like he didn’t make her heart go ba-dumb when he touched her or smiled at her or looked at her.

Simple.

Wasn’t like those were things likely to happen every five minutes for the next several weeks or anything.

“There!” Ezran announced. “Done! It does suit you! Callum is really good with colors.” And he had thought about which color of flowers would suit her-

Yeah, because he thought about everything, looked at everything, paid attention to everything-

She wasn’t special, was the point. And she needed to get a grip. Callum was grieving. He needed a friend. And him and Ezran both needed her to not be some love-struck idiot pining for a boy who was not interested.

Ezran needed her now. Because now that he was out of buttercups to keep his hands busy, he was twisting his fingers together, nervously.

“Hey! Callum will be okay!” Rayla said. “He’s a dummy, but Zym is with him.”

Ezran didn’t look convinced. “I don’t know. It’s a big job, stopping Callum’s dumb ideas. And Zym is… he’s just a baby-”

“I know. And Callum is a big brother. So he’ll be one, and keep being one, and be okay, for you and for Zym.” She pulled Ezran into her lap, and he immediately put his arms around her, putting his head on her shoulder.

“You’ll go find them… right?” Ezran said quietly. “If they don’t come back?”

“Yes,” Rayla said firmly.

Ezran nodded, relaxing against her.

Then he went completely slack, just… all at once. He just fell asleep? That quickly?

Rayla had to tighten her arms around him, to prevent him slipping to the floor.

Bedtime, she supposed. At least for a few hours, while their clothes dried.

Then… she would go look for Callum and Zym, if they weren’t back. That had been very definite even before Ezran had asked.

She got up, lifting Ezran with her and walked to the bed to put him down.

He was kinda… hugging her though. His little hands were twisted in the sweater. And he made a little whiny sleep-noise into her shoulder when she tried to gently extricate herself. Should she twist out of his grip anyway? She had to get Bait, grumbling on the floor, or he would just keep moaning. She really didn’t want to wake Ezran though-

“You seem to be stuck, lass.” Villads commented, from the other bed where he was sitting.

“Just a bit,” Rayla said, softly, as to not wake her clingy little adoraburr.

“But a good kinda stuck, aye?” Villads smiled in the firelight. “Sometimes, the world… and the people in it… tell you things. Like where you belong. What you mean. Who you are. People tell you who you are to them, if you listen. That’s a good thing to have, if you aint so sure yerself.”

Rayla swallowed the lump in her throat. How could he… how could he just… know that? Know what he said would mean… to her.

She didn’t answer, because she was afraid she would say way too much if she did, just with how her voice would sound.

But Villads was a good listener, even to silence, and came over, bending down to lift Bait into the bed with them.

Rayla laid down, pulling Ezran close. She might not know who she was, but she knew where she was supposed to be right now.

Bait settled his warm little Sun primal body at Ezran’s feet.

Villads pulled the blanket up to cover all of them.

It took Rayla way too long to realize that his hands had been very close to her horns, very close to knowing more than he bargained for about who she was-

No. Not who.

An elf… a Moonshadow… an assassin… or a failed assassin, anyway… that was what she was. Who she was… was different.

And… she wasn’t sure about the who. Not at all.

There was a floppy buttercup right in front of her face that had probably fallen out of her hair, bright yellow contrasted against Ezran’s dark curls.

She hadn’t intended to sleep, but… everything was so slow… heavy… but… light…

Wait.

Villads was blind.

When he had said… listen… he meant…

You could listen to a buttercup, the way Villads had meant it.

She relaxed against the pillow and listened.

The buttercup blurred into a strangely comforting yellow blob and Ezran’s slow and trusting breaths against her chest into some feeling that wasn’t fluttery at all but… steady and warm.

 

 


Bonus edit of Rayla and Ez and the buttercups, because I wrote part of this chapter waaaay back when I was putting all the tdp characters in flower crowns.

Chapter Text



7.20PM, May 27th, Pattok Village Outskirts, Eastern Katolis

Rayla smiled brightly, relishing the feeling of food in her stomach.

It was magical, this, no nausea at all anymore, for the first time in days she actually felt like a person and not a pile of barf flavored wet garbage. Even with the rain enhancing the smell of the woolly human pets and their weird little poops, this was just so amazing.

They were staying in the house of the woollies, after all, and they got to smell up their own house, that was only fair.

She felt a bit bad, since she wouldn’t have minded sharing their living quarter, they looked like very cuddly and huggable pets, especially the little ones, but they had scampered and not returned.

She didn’t feel bad enough to stop smiling though, contentedly leaning back against the pile of hay.

Callum was staring at her. Weird. Maybe she had food on her face or something.

“Do I have food on my face?” she asked.

“Uh, no?” He looked confused. “Do you want to?”

“I think we’re out,” she said, slightly regretfully. She had been hungry after two days of keeping almost nothing down. But they couldn’t light a fire here, and they’d eaten all the food they bought at the seaside village, except the lentils, which were no good raw.

“You can have the rest of my peas,” Callum offered. “I don’t like peas much, anyway.”

Yeah, that was a sweet lie, but an entirely unconvincing one. Besides, who didn’t like peas? They were all cute and came in their own little packets. And they were the tastiest of the strange human food, by far.

“The full truth, Callum,” she smirked. Not quite. Ezran didn’t have it. But in regards to peas, definitely.

“Okay. I like peas fine. But you like them more, I could tell.” A soft smile was spreading on his face. She returned it, before she could help herself.

Really? So what if he had been watching her eat and apparently noticing her favorite food. It had probably been hard to ignore her, because she had been stuffing her face like a starving barbarian.

Watching her stuff her face like a starving barbarian did not mean undying love, she was pretty sure even humans weren’t that weird.

“And you need them more,” he continued, a bit of stubbornness in his face now. “You do all the scouting and fighting and stuff. And you’ve been puking for two days, you need to eat more than I do.” So yeah, he had noticed the barbarian way of eating.

It was okay really, she wasn’t hungry… exactly.

But he was already pulling gently at her hands, forming them into a bowl so he could deposit his peas there. He held them for too long, looking down at their mismatched hands.

“I’m…” he started, searching for the words. He was grieving. He was looking for comfort, looking for a friend, because he couldn’t even talk to his own brother about it, and she was reading into things just because she wanted him to- He couldn’t even talk to her about it, right now. Ezran was too close, talking to a lone woolly baby, a little way away under a tree. “I’m glad you’re here.”

He wasn’t allowed to just say stuff like that! Back home, no one just said things, and now she knew why, because there ought to be a rule against making her heart such a useless, fluttery thing in her chest.

“I’m…” he started, again. His hands shook like his voice had, and she cupped them in hers instead of the peas he had intended. He was glancing at the distant lights of the port town, a little way down the hillscape. He and Ezran could have been down there. And they not, they were up here, in some damp, smelly lean-to, because an inn was too risky, with her in tow. “I’m not… comfortable. Here.”

“Hey, there’s a farm.” She pointed at the cluster of buildings, just off the field. “I bet Human-Rayla would be a hit! We might be allowed to sleep in the barn? It’ll be warm-”

“No!” He looked horrified. “No. That’s worse! Way worse.” He breathed in, pulling one hand out of hers to run through his damp hair, making it stick up at the side. He was worried, and she didn’t fully get why, but she did get that she had to fix it. Make him smile again, like he had when he had offered her his peas.

His free hand left his hair to clutch at a handful of grass, instead. He really wasn’t… comfortable.

“Pfft, we’ll be fine here,” Rayla said, gesturing at the field, empty except for the woollies, huddled together under  the trees and in another lean-to a bit away. “We can take those fluff balls, if they try to reconquer their home-”

He didn’t look at all put at ease though, and his fingers twisted the tuft of grass so tight it tore loose from the soil. “We’re… too close.” His voice was tightly coiled, like the grass around his fingers. “Just… I can’t do anything. If those humans take you-”

“Hey, I’m just a simple human girl, if anyone asks,” Rayla said, clapping his shoulder in reassurance. “Just minding my business, sleeping out here because I just love smelling like the woolly human pets and their funny little poops, it’s musky doncha know, makes all the young humans go mad with- ”

“YOU’RE NOT HUMAN!”

She backed up, taken aback at his outburst.

“Yeah, trust me I noticed,” she snapped, not quite sure why that had… hurt like it had, to hear. Not like she wanted to be human. She just…

She wanted Callum to see her as… more than ‘not human’. It was the first thing anyone saw, here. ‘Not human’ and then straight to the pitchforks.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to… not like that… just... You’re not. It’s not… bad that you’re not. Just… dangerous. And it’s really obvious that you’re not. To me, at least. Your hair. Your skin. Eyes... You’re all… you look too…”

“Too weird,” she scoffed. Jerk. He could at least not point it out like that-

“No!” he burst out, sounding a bit miffed, actually. “Too…” He looked down, shaking his head. “Too bright.” That was… different to weird. “You don’t… blend in. You’re so much brighter than anyone around you, no matter where you are.”

Her cheeks were heating now. At least he couldn’t see in the dark like she could.

It was silly, anyway. He didn’t mean that like her stupid fluttery heart had heard it, most humans didn’t have white hair or were as pale as she was. That was what he meant, he just said it weird because he was weird.

She tugged self-consciously at a strand of too-bright white hair.

He was bright too, to her. Green eyes bright and observant. Bright mind thinking about everything. It was pretty crazy that other humans didn’t seem to see it. Or elves. Lujanne was so wrong that he had no spark inside.

“I’m-” she started, but cut off. What did you even say to that? Thanks? A yawn, forcing itself out, saved her. “I’m tired,” she said. She hadn’t slept all that well on the boat, it wasn’t wrong. Just not the dominant feeling right now.

“Eat your peas first,” he said, mock-sternly, actually making it as far as giving them to her, this time.

Rayla ate the peas, even tastier than hers had been, and then laid back against the hay pile. She really was tired. The moon was almost a sliver, that always-

Oh… what had she-

She blinked sleepily at Ezran, in her line of vision, pulling their cloak up to cover her, a tiny smile on his face that was… bright nonetheless.

Callum had turned away, looking down over hillscape again, his sketchbook open.

The sparse moonlight lit up the fine, misty raindrops, outlining the silhouette of his back in bright silver.

Chapter Text

5.29PM, May 28th, Corenthia Pass, Eastern Katolis

There was a twisting feeling, low in Rayla’s gut.

It could have been many things, but it wasn’t, not when she could feel it too, the barely-sliver of stupid new moon.

She knew what it meant, and she had had supplies for it, had had stock of the potion that stopped it from happening while you were doing things like trekking across the human kingdoms, and now… she barely even had extra rags or anything, and her search of the bags was not miraculously turning up anything but what she already knew wasn’t there. It was going to be so inconvenient, and she was also definitely not telling her travelling companions.

They were probably unlikely to understand anyway. They were boys, and who knew if it was even a thing, for humans?

No, it probably was. She was pretty sure humans made babies the same way elves did, she had heard something to that effect from a young couple getting all frisky against the pile of boxes she had been hiding behind, back in the port town.

She literally just stopped feeling nauseous yesterday. The world clearly hated her.

“Hey!” Callum’s too chirpy voice. She smiled back at him before she even realized she was doing it. She was trying to be grumpy, damnit, why was he making that so hard? “Looking for anything in particular?” Rags to stuff into her underwear? Yeah. The perfect answer.

“Rags to stuff into my underwear.”

Callum’s mouth opened slightly, but she wasn’t confident he quite… got it.

“New moon stuff,” she elaborated. “You know, the bloody nuisance.” He probably still didn’t, but… whatever. Let’s gross him out, too, because without any supplies this was gonna be gross.

He did look a bit embarrassed, although not actually grossed out. “Yeah, uhh… I do know. Not about the… new moon thing. Or calling it a ‘bloody nuisance’. I think those are more of those… Moonshadow elf things… but... the thing, yes. Menstruation. Yes. I read some medical books. And my aunt told me. She said that was part of ‘the talk’, too. That I should know.” He looked down, bashful, but he was not leaving her to it for some reason. “You need… help? I mean… obviously not with the… underwear. I hope!” Oh, there went the full-on blush. “Or… or if you do, that’s okay! I meant… to find stuff. For your… u-underwear.”

She felt bad now. He was being nice, even though he was getting more and more flustered. What right did he have to look so cute when his cheeks were all red?

He was also clearly mostly embarrassed because of the underwear part, and that tangent her mind took was just… no. She knew from back at the Nexus that he had weird and restrictive ideas about modesty, it had nothing to do with it being her underwear in particular. 

“You have stuff?” she asked, suspicious. She knew he didn’t, knew what was in his and Ezran’s bags. The bandages from Lujanne was the best bet, and it would not be enough and also… they might need those bandages and need them to be clean.

“I can find it!” he said eagerly. “We passed that boggy place just a little way back. I can get you fluff-weed. I use it for watercolor painting, to soak up excess water. And Amaya saw me use it once, and she told me it’s also used for the… bloody nuisance. It’s nice and soft.”

Was he just… on a mission to make her not grumpy? It was definitely working, because what he was offering was so much better than she could have hoped for and she wouldn’t have to sneak around or pretend her womb wasn’t tearing itself apart.

 


 

“Do you feel okay?” Callum asked, as they walked. “I can go alone, if you don’t feel good. My aunt said it was different for everyone, but that most felt some kind of achy and tired…? But I don’t know about elves-”

“Yeah, that’s about the gist of it, for elves too, me included,” Rayla grumbled, plodding along the path they had just taken, earlier. “I’m okay though. I’d rather come with you. I don’t trust you near sinkholes.”

“Probably wise,” he snickered, just taking it without sniping back. “Ah, it’s pretty badass, bleeding for days days straight and just going about your business and not dying or anything.”

She snickered. “Yeah, you get used to it. I sure wanted to die, the first time. I was training and bled through my pants and Runaan stopped the sparring match because he thought I was hurt. I don’t think you can possibly fathom the embarrassment of a group of teenagers all stopping what they’re doing to stare at your bloody crotch.”

Somehow, she wasn’t even slightly embarrassed now. Callum was both too kind and too familiar with embarrassing moments judge someone else’s embarrassing moments and it was kinda… freeing, to just talk about this stuff.

“Uh, you have met me, right?” he laughed. “I can fathom a lot of embarrassment. I know Claudia told you about the… uh… drawing contest that ended with me face down in my own pee-snow.”

“I have, she did, and I stick with my assertion. You were what? Six? Too young to have reached the adolescent pinnacle of embarrassment-capacity,” she said sagely. And oh how he agreed on that, she could tell.

“Yeah, but I was a special case,” he grinned. “I peaked young, with the embarrassment-capacity. And then… yeah, found out there was another, higher peak, behind what I had naively thought was the pinnacle.”

“What was the second peak?” she asked, before she realized what she was asking was rather personal. But embarrassing personal stories seemed the order of the day.

“Uh. Claudia-stuff. Sorry. You don’t like her and I don’t either, anymore.” Oh?

“Callum, it’s okay if you do. Just because I don’t, doesn’t mean-”

“I don’t,” he said firmly. “I thought about stuff after… we left the Nexus. I don’t know. It was like… foggy. Foggy, rosy feelings, ignoring all the things about her that were-” He looked her in the eyes, his jaw set. “You were right about how she saw you. Spell components. And me. Maybe not as spell components but still… as some tool to get what she wanted. And I’m kind of glad. I pined for her for years, I could have gone more years. But it was like… I got snapped out of it all at once. She made her choice and it was like I was free to choose too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she was. He had liked her a lot and she had hurt him.

“It’s okay. I don’t miss her like I miss-”

His dad.

But he turned to her and smiled, shaking his head like… not now.

You couldn’t be sad all the time, she did get that. Sometimes you needed to not talk about things, too. And he had been sad all the time pretty much since the Nexus and… he needed a break.

So she steered back to most embarrassing childhood moments, which was a font of entertainment that was not even close to empty, on her part. Or his, it turned out.

“I’ll go get it,” she said, as they arrived, looking out over the bog Callum had talked about, tufts of some grassy weed poking out of the water, with bits of white fluff wafting in the breeze. It really did look like a good solution, considering the available alternatives.

“I said I’d get it for you!” Callum said, seeming almost a bit insulted.

“My boots are fully waterproof. Magic. I bet yours aren’t. In fact, because of your previous soggy disaster, I know they aren’t.”

Callum looked at her boots, gauging, then at the swamp. “Your boots don’t go high enough, at the back. So you’ll be as soggy as me.” He looked pensive for a moment. “We could both go,” he suggested, shrugging.

She scoffed. “What would be the point of that?”

“Solidarity?” he grinned. “Soggy solidarity? Soggy socky solidar-” He cut off to a squeak when Rayla elected to just drag him into the soggy disaster with her.

The cold bog water flooded her boots immediately, and yet she found she was laughing and so was he, and it didn’t feel like a disaster at all.

The little fluffy bits at the end of the grass were indeed soft. And Callum’s smile was soft, when she looked over at him, meticulously gathering fluff into his bag.

She turned to look out over the forest, the sun low in the cloudy sky, even the light, soft.

Then grunts and splooping sounds interrupted the softness and she whipped her head around to Callum, trying in vain to extricate himself from a particularly boggy bit of bog.

“Rayla! I’m stuck!” he wailed, trying to free one foot but just getting the other stuck further.

She sighed. “Stay put, I’ll come get you out. But one word along the lines of ‘stucky, soggy, socky disaster’, and I’m leaving you here!”

He stopped struggling and just stood there, ankle-deep in bog water, smiling gently, his hand stretched out for her.

The softness returned with a vengeance, all-encompassing and powerful.

The light of the sunset was soft yellow and pink today, reflecting off the water and the white fluff and off of Callum’s hair and skin. The light pink and yellow like the Sundrops looked… nice on him, too.

She moved forward towards him, through the water and mud and it felt like… exaggerated slowness, some frozen moment.

It broke though, when he took her hands, and she managed to yank him onto slightly higher ground with a sploopy, slurping suction-y sound.

Callum, grinned in relief, opening his mouth to say something, surely about to blatantly defy her warnings, but then… he stopped. He squeezed her hands, still engulfed in his, much bigger and softer than hers… like his heart, too big for the rest of him.

“Thank you,” he said, with feeling.

She was standing ankle deep in a bog, her gut twisting with the impending bloody nuisance and they had just talked about pee and menstrual blood. It was very possibly the least romantic situation anyone had ever conceived of.

Her heart didn’t care at all, it all fell away.

She just felt his warm hands and heard her own thundering heartbeat and saw his sweet smile and smelled his past-ripe scarf and tasted… words on her tongue she couldn’t say.

 

Bonus doodles:

Chapter Text



9.29PM, May 29th, Corenthia Pass, Eastern Katolis

Rayla squirmed uncomfortably, having gotten no closer at all to sleep over the past half-hour.

She knew she was supposed to sleep.

The forest was barely visible behind misty haze of rain, even to her. It was unlikely anyone would find them here. Or want to look for them. The rainwater was dripping, collecting in a stream off the edge of the cave opening.

How was she even supposed to sleep, anyway? She ached all over from the latest in a long line of fights she had lost, the uneven rock under her was digging painfully into her hip where Soren had kicked her, and she couldn’t roll over because then she would be able to see Callum, and turning to lay down in the opposite direction would just be pointless because none of it should matter in the first place. Your eyes were supposed to be closed when you slept, but she couldn’t sleep and so they weren’t, and she definitely couldn’t sleep while looking-

Fuck this whole mess, and Callum in particular.

The rock underneath her was hard and the air around her cold. Stupid new moon, not giving any warmth at all.

Stupid bloody nuisance too. Her… whole insides seemed twisted in a knot. All the way from the familiar feeling low in her gut, up to her chest and throat, an unfamiliar and so much worse feeling. Like a big fist, clenching and squeezing.

And Callum’s occasional mutters seemed so much louder than they ought to be. And… echoing. Sticking around after they stopped, bouncing around inside her skull and just… rising in… not volume but… intensity?

She knew it wasn’t even that loud, but it felt loud.

Really, who would have been able to sleep?

She sat up abruptly, grabbed their canteens, and went back out into the rain, with a curt explanation to Ezran.

She should… patrol, anyway. And change the fluffweed, which had kind of slipped her mind. And she had to pee. Get water. Get food, if she could find any. It was too risky to light a fire, and their only rations left were dry lentils.

Really, lots of reasons to not be here.

Callum wasn’t, he was somewhere… uncomfortable.

And he had damn well chosen that, and she didn’t need to sit around in his annoyingly loud mutters that echoed inside her skull and stuck around when they shouldn’t because he had-

Done that.

And now he was paying for it.

 


 

“Go sleep, Ez,” Rayla snapped, as she returned to the cave, wetter and with no food, but at least water in their canteens as well as running down her spine and into her underwear.

Not like she wanted to be anywhere near Callum right now, but she couldn’t let a 10-year-old stay awake when he was this tired, and she was awake anyway.

“No!” Ezran glared at her, clamping down on the yawn that had been escaping. “Callum needs me!”

“Callum would agree with me.”

“But I’m not tired!” Ezran claimed stubbornly. “And I want to make sure he’s okay!”

“Callum has been… out… for a while,” she said. “No change for ages. I’ll wake you if there is change. Okay?”

Ezran looked stubborn for another half second, before another yawn split his face. “You wake me if anything happens,” he said firmly. Then the determination seemed to leave him, and he was a scared little brother. “Will you tell us a bedtime story?” he asked, looking up at her with those unfairly enormous blue eyes. “I don’t know if Bait can sleep, otherwise.”

Bait. Ezran would have made a terrible Moonshadow, maybe even worse than her. Illusion fail, right there. Even Bait seemed to agree, grumbling like he was insulted at the implication.

Rayla nodded, relenting, because there was no pretending she wasn’t going to fold like a wet blanket, faced with Ezran upset. “Fine.”

Ezran laid down, right next to Callum, Bait and Zym cuddling up to him.

Damnit.

Wasn’t he… gonna be woken up? Callum was muttering and stuff.

“I’ll make you a bed further away, so you can sleep,” Rayla offered.

Ezran shook his head, the defiance firmly back. Did he… not trust her to look after Callum? That hurt more than it should have. She was mad, but of course she wouldn’t…

“Fine,” she said, short and curt.

“You’re angry at me now,” Ezran said, very sure. She wondered how he could tell, when she was so angry just… in general. “And you’re angry at Callum. I’m angry at you too, you know. You’re being really mean, when Callum was just trying to protect you and the dragon-”

“Yep. I’m angry at Callum.” She hesitated, before continuing. “But Ezran, I will watch over him.”

“Of course you will?” Now Ezran just sounded confused. “You carried him all the way back here. I know you wouldn’t let him be- Wait. That’s why you thought I wanted to go to sleep here? You really hear things all wrong sometimes. And like… wrong in the same way? Wrong in the way of people thinking worse of you than they actually do? Like back when Aunt Amaya hit you-”

“Stop it, Ezran!” It burst out of her. She couldn’t hear that right now! It was her fault, didn’t he get that?! And Ezran was 10 years old, and his brother was way out of it and she had to keep it together.

She bit hard into her lower lip, looking away. She had to keep it together.

Ezran’s soft little hand slipped into hers and squeezed. “Okay. Not now. Just listen, okay? I’d like to sleep next to Callum because maybe he can feel me and know I’m here and feel a bit better? And I’d like you to tell me a goodnight story here, too, where Callum can hear it. Because maybe he’ll hear you, and know where to go, to come back to us? He’s trapped inside his head, and you’re really good at making him come out. Really good.”

Pfft. She wasn’t good at all. And Ezran… didn’t know about the red ribbon. He didn’t know and she couldn’t tell him. Now would be the absolute worst time for him to find out.

The world… and her… was different than Ezran thought but-

Not now.

Now, she sat down, and told Ezran the story about the littlest adoraburr that didn’t stick to the others.

Where Callum hear her.

Except he couldn’t because he wasn’t here.

Rayla bit into her lip again, disguising it as a pause for dramatic effect. Ezran was almost asleep, anyway.

And then she waited, in the cold and hardness and so very loud moans and mutters.

 


 

Callum had been quiet for ages.

Ezran wasn’t here at all.

And he was… he wanted to be alone.

His dad was dead and Runaan had killed him. He… really hadn’t fallen. That had been an illusion, not kind but selfish. Meant to shield herself, not anyone else.

And Ezran had left and he definitely didn’t want to see her.

She was just… setting a record for worst and most mess-ups in a single day. She could still see his face, like it was stamped onto her thoughts. The tears bubbling out as the realization settled, the heartbreak-

It would… Ez would be back, and they could talk. He just needed… a bit of time. She couldn’t do nothing but hurt him more. Could do nothing for Callum either, so still now that she missed the overly loud muttering, because now she really… she kept looking over at him and he wasn’t doing anything, but how was she supposed to know if he got worse when he was so still-

She felt nauseous.

Probably the bloody nuisance.

She blinked at the light, bright and… did she sleep?!

She snapped her head up immediately, looking around her.

The human scout, cross-legged and alert, making himself useful, unlike her.

Callum, unchanged, too still.

Ezran… not there.

She was still sitting up so… at least she didn’t sleep for long.

She really… was supposed to have slept earlier, she knew she couldn’t pull all-nighters during new moon.

Pah.

She was already no use to anyone, what did it matter?

“How long was I out?” she demanded, turning to the scout, still hanging around.

“Out? 30 seconds? Maybe?”

Ugh. So useless. Even a useless amount of sleep, doing nothing but push the nausea further up her throat.

She turned back away from the scout, looking out over the forest instead. The rain had stopped, and the smell of wet poky trees was rising. Stupid human poky trees with no leaves and nothing edible. All they could do was smell nice, which was just mocking the vibe of this whole situation.

They would shield Ezran, hopefully, who was out there, alone.

Callum was… who knew, except not here. Certainly, nowhere nice. Probably not even any poky trees for shelter. Alone in the dark.

And now the stupid fist inside was just squeezing and twisting away, like her guts and heart was sodden laundry.

“Miss? Would you care for a bite to eat?”

“Huh?” Rayla snapped out of the half-stupor. The scout had been looking out, and watching Callum, too. He was his prince, after all. No need for her to be alert, and the sounds Callum made were so loud, anyway, like… an instant attention grabber. She was… selectively alert.

“Food?” the scout tried again, in simpler terms.

She numbly took the rations he handed her. Some compressed thing of grain and dried fruit and fat, maybe? It was a bit dense and pretty weird, but good. Like Callu-

Nope.

She looked out at the forest, where the sun was glittering off the wet pokies.

She looked down, where her fists were clenched in her lap. Shaking. She breathed and released them.

It was fine. It would be fine. He would be fine.

Without thinking, she slid her finger along the scraped knuckles of her left hand, but she became very aware of it when she grazed the place where Callum had kissed her. He had been far away in some other place, not answering the things she and Ezran had said to him but going off about sacrifice and paths and taffy.

He hadn’t meant to do it, probably, he was just so fucking determined to make mush of her insides it had worked even when she had been furious at him and he had been so delirious he probably thought he had been kissing Ezran’s taffy hippo creature.

She had held her hand out for him to take, and he had… given her something she had wanted, instead.

Pah.

He hadn’t known what he was doing. Certainly hadn’t even known it was her.

He hadn’t known, but he would, because she would tell him when he woke up, because it was… funny, really. Ridiculous.

And he could damn well get better so she could yell at him for what he had done and give him shit about the absolutely ridiculous hand-kissing.

 


 

The scout had left.

Ezran had left long before.

Bait and Zym were huddled up in the nest of branches and dry grass Ezran had made for them the first night they had stayed here.

Callum was… unchanged.

Except he had.

Was.

His breath was different. Uneven.

And it was on her now. There wasn’t anyone else. Just them. It wasn’t enough, she wasn’t.

Callum gasped, some scared sound, and her head whipped around to look at him properly.

She hadn’t before, not really. Not… fully.

“Help-” he whimpered. It tore at her. Tore… something loose.

Who cared what he had done, he needed help, needed her. And she needed him. She scrambled over to him, stroking across his forehead, brushing away the limp and sweaty hair.

“You’ll make it through this,” she said, because he had to. He couldn’t hear her, and the last thing she had said to him that he had heard was what? Calling him a sack of chatty flour and told him to get moving?

The corruption, the darkness, was clear in his face. Dark veins under his eyes, unnatural pallor.

“You big, dumb human.”

He gasped a few uneven breaths.

Come back to me.

But the words stuck in her throat, even though they would have been the first true thing she hadn’t said to him in ages.

She put her hand against his chest. Thumps against her palm. She couldn’t tell if it was weaker than it was supposed to be.

She pulled his right glove off to put her fingers against the pulse point at his wrist. A little flutter, like a fragile, tiny heartbeat. Too fast.

“Help-” he gasped, again.

But she couldn’t.

 


 

She had told him to run and he had told her he wouldn’t. And he hadn’t, he had planted his feet and clenched his fist around that slug and… squeezed.

She slipped her hand into his, the hand that had squished the slug, that had dripped with dark purple energy.

And that had also touched her cold and aching hand in the darkness of the mountain cave.

That had steadied hers, shaky and heavy, as she drank.

Had carefully spread Lujanne’s ointment over her bruised wrist.

Slid across her cheek while he told her that her courage and her heart were what made her strong.

Given her peas… and soft fluff for her underwear and soft kindness… for her.

Now, it was clammy and limp, not responding to her touch. He had never… never not responded when she had reached for him.

This didn’t feel real. Didn’t feel like him.

He was in there somewhere, trapped in his head, Ezran had said.

“Callum?”

He had chosen to do it, to go… there.

She needed him, didn’t he understand that?

No. Of course he didn’t, because she had been thoroughly awful to him. Why would he?

She stroked across his clammy forehead. “Callum? I know you can’t hear me, but I… I didn’t mean it. What I said. Or I did, and I was wrong. Probably that last one. I know you’re good inside… that’s why I got so angry. Because I know. You’re so much better than the things you did… for me.” Better than this, Runaan had said. Better than her, was what sprung to mind. But she didn’t say that, because he didn’t agree, she knew.

Maybe she should have. Maybe he would… sit up and correct her?

Pah.

That was horrible, expecting things from him when he was… always giving her things. Always answering an outstretched hand with-

She should be helping him now, and she wasn’t!

“I’m not worth your life or your soul, dummy! Not even close! This mission… this world needs you, needs Ezran! Do you really not get that?!”

She was an assassin, even if she was a spectacularly bad one. Already dead.

Why didn’t he get that?!

Why wasn’t he waking up?!

Why-

His gasping breath stopped.

Chapter Text



3.03AM, May 31st, The Breach, Katolian side

“You’re a mage now.” Rayla said. He was, she could… tell, somehow. The wind was pulling at her, for one, while he seemed unaffected.

“I’m a mage!” Callum whisper-yelled, like he had in the dungeon on the day they had met. He grinned brightly at her.

“There’s no one here, you know,” she smiled. “You can be a louder mage if you want.”

He smirked lightly. “Nah, I feel secure in my mage-hood… or… mage-dom? Magery? Magickery-”

“Idiocy works.”

“Well, now you’re just cramping my understated, cool and collected mage-style!” he mock-pouted.

“Cool?” she snickered fondly. “Yeah, I don’t think the Sky Arcanum changes people in quite such a fundamental way-”

“Ah, as long as you still like me, I’m good with not being cool.” The smile he gave her was not mocking at all, but wide and genuine and warmed her all the way to her toes. And his words… warmed her cheeks.

He had no idea how much she liked him, cool-ness level was completely irrelevant to how much she liked him.

No.

Loved him.

She had almost said it. And now he wasn’t dead, and that was just… embarrassing. And the feelings definitely hadn’t gone anywhere. Wasn’t like they were new, either, she was just clearly done denying their existence, because there was no denying what she had almost said, the words had been on her tongue, had been real and acknowledged inside her for that moment before he had taken that blessed, gasping breath.

“And you’re a healthy, happy mage?” she asked lightly, returning his smile. She needed to know. She also didn’t want to… kill the mood. She wasn’t mad at him, she was immensely relieved and happy he was okay and he was happier than he had been since the Moon Nexus.

“Yep! I feel really good actually!” He bounced on the balls of his feet. He was possibly… just a bit euphoric. And would eventually crash. She wanted him to be happy, but also to not fall into the lava when they were going to cross the Moonstone Path. So she would watch him. But… subtly. He deserved to be happy.

“I’m glad,” she said, genuine relief.

“Do you feel good?” he asked.

Well… no. Objectively, at least, no. Her hip still hurt where Soren had kicked her and the sun would soon rise on the third consecutive day without sleep and it was close enough to new moon that the bloody nuisance was still an ongoing thing.

But also… yes. So much yes. Because he was not dying, he was a happy, healthy mage.

Possibly dangerously euphoric right now, but she could deal with that.

“I feel really good,” she said, completely truthfully.

They had to get to the Moonstone path before dark. She didn’t want to worry him, as long as they made it, they were good, but there had been a lot of soldiers who had seen her, and she didn’t want a fight.

They couldn’t dally though, and the pace she set was somewhat faster than she would prefer, as exhausted as she was right now, but curiously, Callum was keeping up without any apparent effort. That… Sky energy was still in him. He was all… bouncy.

It would have been cute, if she hadn’t been so tired.

Alright. Maybe it still was.

Zym was happy too, that Callum was okay, the little dragon had never been short of energy ever. He was bouncy too, zigzagging ahead of them, sniffing every tree they passed, looking for bugs.

“Uh, Rayla?” Callum asked. “Are we… okay?”

“Yeah. Of course we are.”

“Just… the… thing. The thing I did.” He looked down at his hand. It had been one action. One moment.

“We’re okay,” she said firmly. That was important for him to know. The rest… could wait.

“You want to… talk about it?”

No.

Absolutely not.

It had been horrible, and she didn’t think she could talk about it without… giving away how horrible it had been and… surely it had been worse for Callum? He was the one it had actually happened to. Absolutely not now.

Besides, they had to get to the Moonstone Path before Moonset because those humans might follow them, or she would have called for a stop, given him time to rest… and her, to be completely honest. She was at least a bit aware that two nights of no sleep was pushing it, even if it hadn’t been during new moon. And Callum had not really… slept so much as been unconscious for the better part of a day.

He seemed to do okay though, still. And at least the terrain was not too-

Her foot snagged on something, and that shouldn’t have happened, and if it did, she should have caught herself. But it did, and she didn’t, she hit the ground gracelessly, with a surprised noise that even didn’t sound like her.

Rayla sat up, spitting out a little bit of loose moss. Ugh. Just what she needed.

Callum dropped to his knees next to her, actually looking worried, even though nothing had happened, and the ground was just mossy forest floor. “Hey, you okay?” Zym mimicked him, a kinda questioning whine.

She looked away, embarrassed. She really had to keep it together, she was just tired, he was the one who had almost died and Zym was a baby and shouldn’t worry at all. “Fine. Just clumsy. Evidently.”

“You. Clumsy? You?” He sounded not overly convinced.

His hands found her shoulders, a gentle weight, urging her to stay down. He brushed off her clothes, pulled a twig from her hair. His fingers slid lightly over a bit of torn skin at her elbow, which wasn’t even from this tumble, but from the fight with the human soldiers and already healing.

“Sit with me?” he urged, so sweetly it was… why was it so hard to say no to that? “Just… for a few minutes. Or lie down maybe? It’s pretty flat and soft here.” It was. It had been a good place to stumble, all things considered. There was moss across the forest floor like a pillow, and it didn’t seem to be wet.

Yeah. Maybe just… for a minute.

She laid down on her back, the yielding moss seeming to rise up to shape around her, really just kinda… highlighting how exhausted and sore and tense she was.

She looked up at the starry sky and moon peeking out from the clouds. It was a thin sliver of waxing crescent she had barely felt while they had been moving, but it was there, balmy warmth and bracing strength.

She felt Callum next to her, too, even before his hand found hers.

“You’re the most graceful person I’ve ever met. You’re absolutely not clumsy, that’s my thing. Don’t take my thing, Rayla.” She snickered, despite herself. “And you’re good. And needed. That’s why I did it. It was my choice. It’s okay if you’re mad at me for it, for a bit. You’re alive. That’s… way more important.”

She couldn’t… she couldn’t talk about it. She needed to tell him she wasn’t mad at all, not even a little bit, but… her throat felt too tight.

But Callum didn’t push it, seemed content with saying his piece. His thumb brushed across her knuckles, where he had kissed her yesterday. She doubted he remembered, he had been really out of it.

“You ever had that bubbly wine grown-ups drink at New Year?” he asked, giggling, a bit of that euphoria bubbling back up in him, as he relaxed too.

“No,” she said, thinking back to the Moonshadow feasts and dances. She would miss the dance to welcome the Summer, it would be any day now, or maybe it had already happened. It wasn’t a set date, but happened on the night of the day the grass in the meadow bloomed into golden, fragrant tiny flowers. “I’ve never heard of that,” she continued, pushing the thoughts of the dancing she wouldn’t be doing away. “And I wasn’t allowed wine. Just cider, and only a few cups, at special occasions. The cider is bubbly. The wine isn’t. And we have bubbly berry juice stuff, without any alcohol. I liked that better, anyway. It’s fizzier than the cider, even. And fruitier. You can try it, when we get to my home.” She turned to look at his face, contentedly smiling at the sky. “What about this situation made you think about bubbly wine?”

“My stomach,” he laughed.

“You hungry?” Of course he was. They were out of luck though, she was saving the last rations from Corvus until shortly before the Breach, they really didn’t need any hunger-induced lightheadedness when crossing lava. And the berries they had seen around here weren’t ripe. At least Zym had managed to turn over a piece of rotting wood with fat grubs under it and was not going hungry. They could eat those too, but-

“No. I mean like… it’s like there’s bubbles in my stomach. Fizz.”

“Bubbles are made of air?” she grinned. He deserved his bubbly happiness. His Sky magic. “Maybe that’s what a Sky arcanum feels like?”

He sputtered. “Pfft. I kinda hope not! It’s pretty distracting! Maybe just… a mix. Of new Sky magic. And you.”

Me?” What-

“Yeah! I get really happy and fizzy inside when I see you… alive. Here.

Fizz rose in Rayla’s stomach too, as if on cue. No Sky arcanum required, just him.

Rayla pushed herself up, because clearly it was on her to be sensible right now, and they really did need to get to the Breach and not frolic on a mossy pillow, lost to their bubbly insides.

She got off the ground with ease, feeling so much lighter, carried upwards by the fizz she had maybe unfairly derided. She couldn’t help but smile, looking down at Callum, a beautiful, utterly filthy, rumbled and sweaty vision, sprawled against the green moss. She reached down her hand to pull him up, and it closed around hers, solid and real and warm.

Here.

Chapter Text

3.56PM, May 31st, Duleac Gorge, Xadia

“Rayla, we need to stop! You can’t keep going like this-”

Showed what Callum knew.

She definitely could.

Rayla didn’t look at him and didn’t stop, but kept her gaze ahead at the green in the distance, where they needed to get to.

Her head hurt though, and her right foot hurt every time she pushed off the rocky ground and the world was… fuzzy.

Pah. It was fine. Just the sun and the heat getting to her. The lack of water. And food. And sleep.

She looked at Callum and then wished she hadn’t. His face made the… fineness… harder to hold onto.

But it really was, he was just… not used to this stuff.

She remembered the panic on his face when he had pulled at the rocks, his shaking hands against her face coming away red. It certainly looked worse than it was.

It was a waste of energy she didn’t have to try to convince him of that, he was ridiculously stubborn sometimes. She just had to show him that she was fine.

They kept moving.

She barely registered the whole… thing of walking, except that it was something she needed to do. The stupid sunlight was all poky and sharp, and made her head hurt more and made everything swimmy like… when you hadn’t had not enough food or… something… which they also hadn’t but… it was worse than it should be and… she shut her eyes some of the time. It was fine. Callum would make sure they were walking in the right direction. But it poked through her eyelids too.

There was a shift in the light.

Blessed darkness.

Or… not really darkness but… respite from the bright pokiness, at least.

Not from the rest of it, but… like darkness, it was relative. It hurt less than her hand had. Less than it would have if she had broken bones or something like that. So it was okay, except Callum clearly didn’t think so, his frowny-worried face in her line of vision now.

“It’s shaded here,” he said, all wound up tight, like he got. “Sit down for a bit”

“Not yet.”

“You’re hurt,” he said, unwinding into being… so upset, but… she couldn’t entertain his softness when they weren’t safe. “I c-can’t-” His voice shook and he couldn’t go all frantic on her now, they didn’t have time for his hurt either.

“Don’t be such a bleeding heart,” she said roughly.

“So what if I am!” he shot back, angrily. “Still puts me ahead of you in the ‘bleeding body parts’ game!” He gestured at her arm where red was mixing with brown dirt, and her head that she couldn’t see but… definitely feel. Savage and unlike him. He was better off angry though. Anger could keep you moving and doing what you needed to when you were upset. “You don’t get to tell me how to feel.”

“I get to tell you to feel it later, when we left an angry dragon back there!” she snarled. “I’m absolutely telling my own shit body the same right now, believe me.”

They kept moving, leaning on the anger.

She leaned more on him, as the anger dissipated in the heat and the haze.

It wasn’t a long-lasting thing, anger. Not for him, either, she could feel him… caring too, through it.

The landscape shifted, although she was barely aware of it.

“I wish I was strong enough to carry you,” Callum said, his voice full of not-even-close-to-anger but… a lot of sappy contrition that wasn’t necessary, because he wasn’t strong enough to carry her, not as far and as fast as they needed to go. His skinny arms around her were trembling as it was, he was clearly already carrying as much of her weight as he could and he was tired too.

“’s okay-” she hissed, through clenched teeth.

“I know… you’re hurting way more than you’re saying.”

Weren’t everyone doing that? Like, obviously she couldn’t be whining about things when they needed to be moving, what good would that do?

The world had somehow… narrowed around her, to just him and the next step, and when they stopped moving she almost collapsed fully against him without the familiar rhythm, and that wouldn’t do at all.

He lowered her gently down to the ground, which wouldn’t do either, because they weren’t there yet, but her body had gone all dumb and floppy with the relief of… not-standing-up.

Oh… ow. Without any distractions it was… ow-

The sound of running water made it through the painful haze.

Water. They hadn’t had any since before the breach.

So, they needed to stop. Drink. Made sense.

It didn’t make sense that she was lying down, flat on her back against the grass.

She looked up into the blue sky, squinting against the stupid poky sunlight and pushed herself upwards.

It went fully dark, suddenly, and when the light returned, she was back against the grass and Callum’s anxious face was hovering right in front of hers and Zym was nudging her, making little whining noises.

“Rayla? You… fell asleep?”

Nope, she had passed out. Without a doubt, that had not been falling asleep. But he really didn’t need to know that, he was clearly plenty worried already. “Yeah. Just closed my eyes for a bit.” She stroked Zym’s mane to assure him, where he had squeezed his head up and under her right hand, still whining.

“You feel nauseous? Dizzy? Your head hurt?” Callum peered closely at her. Yeah, all of that, duh, a rock had hit her head, that was normal and nothing to worry about.

“I’m fine. Don’t worry. Got off easy. Just slightly crushed, remember?”

“No, Rayla!” he snapped. “In fact, I don’t remember that. I remember you saying that-“ He cut himself off, the worry encroaching on the defiance. “Never mind. I’ll just… get you some water. You rest.”

He… thought she wasn’t okay enough to argue with? That was just offensive. She could damn well prove that wrong too-

Except it disappeared in fuzzy haze, whatever it was she had been so determined to do.

Then the feeling of the cool metal of the canteen against her hand.

Callum’s hands, cold from the stream, guiding hers.

Cool water against her dry lips, her parched mouth.

Callum’s gentle hands, stroking across her calf, as he very carefully put her throbbing foot on top of his bag, elevating it.

Callum’s voice, close now. “Rayla. How bad is this really?”

She could see him, he was not part of the haze but his own. “Nothing broken. Slightly crushed.” She grinned, or… tried anyway. It wasn’t totally successful, and Callum definitely noticed, because he didn’t seem mollified at all, and she really had to do better-

“I should take your boot off, take a look-”

“Nope,” she said firmly. “Boot stays on until we reach the giant ferns.”

“Why? Rayla, we have ten minutes, okay? We need ten minutes. I do, and you definitely do.”

“Because you said it yourself, Callum! You can’t carry me, and my foot is already swollen enough that the boot won’t go back on once it’s off. So it stays on until we can rest for significantly more than ten minutes, get it?!”

He got it, but… he also didn’t.

His jaw set though, determined despite the upset. “Okay. I’ll do what I can for you in those ten minutes, then.”

He should be resting too. He was exhausted, had been shaking under the weight she had leaned on him, and he had almost died yesterday- But she was too tired to keep arguing right now.

Callum’s back was rigid. Hands clenching. Shoulders tense.

But he got moving.

“We lost the pot… somewhere.” Callum’s voice in the haze. And that wasn’t good but… it was far away. There was shuffling… clanking… like… looking for something.

His light touch brought her back to him.

He had filled the canteens again, and was wetting a piece of bandage. “There’s a lot of dirt in the cuts here…” His fingers brushed her upper arm. And he hesitated, even though that was all the more reason to clean it. “It’ll hurt.” Such a bleeding heart.

“Do it anyway. It’s fine.” She closed her eyes again and gritted her teeth, as he began. It did hurt. It was fine.

“It’s not!” Callum said emphatically, even as she could feel his hands still working, still gentle. “Shit, it’s bleeding again now, maybe I shouldn’t have-” Pressure. That was… good. What you were supposed to do, with bleeding things like arms and hearts

“Better… to clean it. It’ll stop again.” Just an arm. Definitely one up on a heart. “It’s not that deep.”

He was tying the bandages, when she got clear of the haze to see him. His mouth was tight and determined, but… his eyes and hands and everything else betrayed him.

F in illusions.

She reached for one of his shaking hands, as he finished. “Hey. I’m fine. We’ll make it. Sol Regem won’t-”

NO TO ALL OF THAT!” he snapped. “You’re not! We will! But it’s not on you right now, to make sure we do!”

He breathed hard, composing himself.

“I should have a look at your forehead,” he said calm now, at least on top. “If it’s still bleeding. It was earlier… a lot.” Yeah, she had a suspicion that it hadn’t all been sweat, running down her face. Callum’s horrified expression when he had pulled at the rocks to get her free, had… given her an idea of that. She had been pressing Callum’s handkerchief against it as they walked, and it was kinda… stuck now.

Callum used the water to gently dissolve it, so he wasn’t tearing.

The world was fuzzy, fading again. Callum’s green eyes, peering at her forehead, close, was the only clear thing. Worried and unhappy. She really… needed to be more okay, because it wasn’t okay that he was worrying when he had almost died yesterday.

“It’s swelling, and I think the swelling is kinda… pressing the cut shut?” Callum ventured, unsure.

“Well, see! That’s good, so it worked out,” Rayla said, reassuring.

What?! Rayla! That’s not good! Swelling is not good! You hit your head. That’s bad. You fell asleep… really fast, in a way that’s not really- You need to rest. And this is not resting. At all. You comforting me right now is absurd, you do see that? Please? Just… close your eyes? I’ll clean you up a bit, just… stop fighting for the rest of the ten minutes… please-”

A few minutes was… fair. Okay. “Okay.”

The world faded quickly away when she closes her eyes, let her shoulders relax against the grass.

She did feel Callum moving. And cool wetness, him wiping at her hands and arms and face.

She could feel him hesitating before the sting of the contact when he got to scrapes or bruises, but he didn’t stop, and she didn’t flinch and-

Ow.

So much for not flinching.

And for him not stopping.

“I’m so sorry, Rayla.” He sounded so soft she wanted to cry.

She was so tired, and it hurt really quite badly now, and the memory of him dying in her arms was still way too close to the surface, and he was not at all safe now and she couldn’t protect him like this and… and didn’t he understand how much harder it was to ignore all that when he was making her feel it all, and all at once? And he stroked carefully across her knuckles and it was definitely not helping, the tears were rising in her throat-

She managed to not sob… exactly. It became a hiss of pain instead, when the weird hiccuppy not-sob tore at her battered body. But it was tears, slipping down her temples, so… very much a failure at the not-crying.

“Oh Rayla.” His fingers against her temples, wiping the wetness away. Then across her cheeks with no pretense of function besides comfort. “It’s okay.”

No, it wasn’t, not at all.

It was very much not okay that that she was worrying him and carrying on like a child just because she was too tired to deal with things.

She was so tired though. She hadn’t really slept since… the night after they had gone to fetch her fluff weed, she thought? It felt so long ago. She felt too brittle, like … if he kept touching her she would crumble completely.

And she couldn’t do that, she needed to be better than this.

“We need to get to the gorge,” she said roughly, pushing herself out of the weird brittle feeling and up on her elbows. Callum got her the rest of the way to sitting.

Oh this was… really awful, compared to lying down.

She let herself slump against Callum’s shoulder and be as miserable as she felt… for ten seconds. She counted, but inside her head, because she didn’t think he would like that.

The world swam, more than before, when she rose the rest of the way to standing. She should never have sat down in the first place because now she felt everything, the pain and the exhaustion pulling her down and dizzy nausea pushing up through her throat.

There was nothing to throw up though, which was probably another one of those things Callum wouldn’t agree was good.

They were in Xadia now, they were not safe at all, they left an angry dragon somewhere behind them, they were out of food and… and Callum and Zym needed her to be okay.

So, she damn well would be okay.

 

 

 

Bonus sketch. I might share more of these, even when they're rough and unfinished like this one, if people like the addition :)


Chapter Text

2.13PM, June 1st, Duleac Gorge, Xadia

“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.”

“Hggnn?” Oof. Waking up was still… so unpleasant.

Callum made it better though, smiling at her from where he had been sitting, drawing.

He looked comfy and relaxed, sinking slightly into the giant Sunleaf that was their camp. Rayla could barely feel the achy bits right now, either, just the pleasantly warm leaf under her, yielding and shaping around her battered body, and Callum’s soft smile, smoothing out the poky edges of the world.

She rolled onto her side to face him fully, wincing at the movement, as her foot banged against her other heel, and some faintly tearing feeling at her shoulder and upper arm as she shifted.

Really though, she couldn’t complain, she was full and rested… or… she ought to be, anyway. If it was really afternoon then she would have slept maybe 16 out of the past 20 hours.

So how was it possible that she was still tired?

Zym nudged her lightly with his snout, but no claws or pouncing or zappy kisses, because Callum had told him very sternly that she was hurt and he needed to be gentle, and Zym was definitely understanding that, as young as he was.

She patted his sweet little head.

Her body was so heavy. The world was fading away again, as Zym cuddled up to her chest.

Rayla was vaguely aware of time passing, and Zym’s snuffling noises and Callum moving, she wasn’t quite all the way gone, just kinda stuck in the borderlands between sleeping and waking, except these borderlands were soft and comfy, and not a river of lava.

A haze, like yesterday had been after the rocks hit her, but this one was… nice.

Callum’s hands reached through the haze… he really was… magic. His touch was so light it didn’t hurt, it just made her sleepier, leaving soothing coolness in his wake across her forehead and arms as he spread more of the very gloopy healing-promoting leaf goop they had gathered.

The cool feeling on the surface triggered something warm inside her.

Still so… sleepy though-

But then she was abruptly pulled out of the sleepiness, and squealed, when the light touch slid along the soft part of the bottom of her right foot.

“Sorry!” Callum held his hands up in defense when she glared sleepily down at him. He didn’t look sorry. He looked like he was swallowing laughter. “On the plus side… you also passed the tickle check?” he snickered.

She groaned, nudging his arm with her good foot.

“I’ll finish, then you can go back to sleep, if you want. We agreed about not doing anything that wasn’t strictly necessary, today,” he said firmly, somehow feeling the need to remind her, even though she remembered their previous conversation just fine. He went conscientiously back to goop duty, gently spreading the transparent turquoise across the livid purple bruises spreading across her arch, ankle and lower shin. Annoyingly, she flinched at even his light touch. “Rayla…” he sounded troubled now, the levity gone. “Are you… sure there’s nothing broken or sprained here? It looks-”

“It’s annoying, that’s for sure. But it’ll be fine in a few days.” Probably, it would stay annoying for longer than that, but once she could get her boot back on and walk without wincing, he didn’t need to know that. “I might have to thank Ethari for my boots though, because… yeah, my foot might have been… maybe moderately-to-severely crushed, without the magic dispersing the impact-”

“What would you consider severely crushed? Just curious.”

“Like… I suppose… if you’re not wondering whether you have broken bones, because you can see the bones-” Callum looked like he might gag. “You asked! You can’t ask and then go all squeamish on me!”

“I was just… I’m glad you weren’t… more crushed. I’m sorry you’re… this crushed.”

“You better get used to it,” she said roughly. “We’re in danger when we move on. There might be fighting. I’m not killing anyone, but… I might have to slightly crush some other elves, or you might.”

She would have asked him to run, once, but she knew by now that he wouldn’t.

As long as he got behind her… she could deal with it. She really had to get better fast though. They seemed safe enough here, not many people came this far out but... no. Not safe enough. If it had been just her, safe enough. But not with a human prince and the dragon prince. Not with… these princes, not when she couldn’t protect them-

“You do realize it’s not the… ‘bones on the outside’ bit… that’s messing me up?” he asked. “It’s the you bit. That it could have happened to you.” Oh. “How do you feel?” Callum asked seriously. “And I would really like… the full truth.”

“Now? Lying perfectly still? Alright.” She sat up, tentatively stretching. “Moving? Like complete shit,” she snickered ruefully. And oh, she really had to pee now, too, even that slight movement made that a fairly pressing issue. “But I’ll be okay.”

“Are you well enough for a hug?” he blurted out, then blushed, seeming to realize what he was saying. Really, who just asked for a hug, like that? “I would like to hug you for a long time,” he said firmly, seeming to set his mind, not apologizing for his wants, but making them clear. “If you’re okay with it. If… you want… that… too-”

“Yeah!” she said quickly. She couldn’t… well she could think of things she would rather do, she thought, looking at Callum’s reddened cheeks and his teeth nervously worrying his bottom lip. But hugging him was… pretty high up on the list. “Yeah, I’d… like that too. Just… you can’t squeeze me until after I’ve peed!”

Wow, such a charmer she was. Here he was, being ridiculously sweet, even if it was also just… ridiculous. And she had to say that. But she really did have to pee, and wetting herself would even more aggressively unromantic than just-

Ugh. She was completely hopeless, and she clearly also needed the time away from him to control herself, because she could feel her own cheeks starting to heat up, and she quickly turned away, slipping down off the giant leaf they had slept on and onto the moss-covered floor of the fern forest.

Oh, moving really wasn’t fun. Complete shit might have been an understatement. Her whole body seemed to just feel… wobbly. Her foot was achy and stiff. Her head throbbed when she moved out of the shade.

But pee would out, sooner or later, so she limped behind the nearest other Sun Fern.

“I’m good and empty now,” she announced, as she returned. May as well lean into it. “Ready for squeezing.”

Callum didn’t want to hug her much after all, it seemed. His touch was so… barely there.

It was… weird. Maybe? She wasn’t sure what this was, except that it was frustrating and insulting, like this was all he thought she could take without breaking.

“You’re treating me like I’m fragile,” she grumbled, annoyed. “I don’t like that. I’m not.

“What?!” He drew back a bit to look at her. “Fragile? You?! No, Rayla, I don’t think someone who walked away from being crushed by a pile of rocks, blood dripping down her face and making jokes about being slightly crushed, is fragile. How would that make any sense?”

“Then why are you being so… careful? Not hugging me properly.”

“I’m careful because you need care right now. How is that not obvious to you? I know you’re in pain right now, so I’m not holding it against you too hard, but do you know you’re also a pain?”

“I’m-”

“And you also don’t tell me when you hurt, so how would I even know if you had broken ribs and was just sucking it up?!” he accused, and clearly some frustration-floodgates were open now. “You were so tired you… we should have had a longer break before Sol Regem or before the Breach, you know that! You slept so long, today, you were so tired. And I saw your hip when I helped you, earlier, and not only was it… colorful… it wasn’t from the rocks, I can tell because it’s older and also there was a right angled mark like from a weapon or a boot so it was from back when you fought the soldiers… and you didn’t tell me that either. You can’t tell me it didn’t hurt to walk on that. We walked all night, too and you fell and I don’t know if that was why-”

“We needed to get to the Moonstone Path,” she said, defensive. There really were a lot of times, most of the times, really, when sucking it up was just what you did. “So what good would it have done, telling you? And if you recall, you were a whole lot worse off after that fight. Having you kiss my owies wasn’t exactly a priority.”

He froze, and didn’t move or talk for a while, but she could feel the heat from his cheek where it pressed against hers.

They didn’t break the hug either, though, just slowly relaxed back into it. The annoyance melted away to something warm inside.

For her, at least-

He sighed against her neck, pulling her closer.

But… just maybe for him, too.

 


 

Rayla was almost asleep, when she sat bolt upright so fast the world swam.

She pushed past the dizziness, pushed off the leaf, pushed off the grassy forest floor hard, then past the pain when her foot and head and whole body protested against the dead sprint.

It didn’t matter, she ran, because that was… a scream… and it was… Callum-

 


 

Rayla wiped the blood away to inspect the damage, the skin split and swollen at his lower lip.

“Sit still,” she ordered, as she smeared goop into the split. She wet a bit of the cleanest bandages they had left and pressed the wadded cloth to his mouth. “Now you sit there, not trying to pet wildlife you don’t know,” she said sternly. It really shouldn’t need saying. She knew Lunar Squirrels were cute but… damnit, Callum. He could really have done without an up-close demonstration of what it was like to be hit with a brute force illusion.

At least Zym had entirely missing the ordeal, blissfully asleep in Callum’s backpack. It had been plenty upset and fear for him already the past few days. Zym was little, but he was very good at picking up on her or Callum’s feelings, she was very happy he was not awake to pick up on theirs right now.

Rayla knew how scary it was to lose sight and hearing at once, she had cried on Ethari’s shoulder all the way home when it happened to her. But she had been 5 years old, not almost 15, her dumb little butt could be excused!

“And don’t smile or anything dumb like that that’ll tear at it,” Rayla added to her previous instructions, because Callum was inexplicably looking like he might, and there was no excuse for his dumb, cute, little butt.

His fingers grazed hers, unintentionally, when he raised his hand to hold the cloth.

But it had to be intentional, how his other hand held hers, how his eyes held hers. Surely, he couldn’t just be making such a squishy mess of her insides on accident?

She was getting really annoyed actually, because what gave him the right to do that when he clearly wasn’t even trying-

Then his hand trembled in hers, and she just wanted him to be okay.

She stroked her fingers carefully across his palm where she held it, unable to look away from the drops of blood remaining on his chin and staining the blue cloth of his right sleeve. His sweaty hair sticking to his forehead. His gaze still flickering, aftereffects of that panic he had been in. Poor Callum. This was not how she wanted him to see Xadia, as scary and dangerous. It was, of course, but it was so much more.

She would show him though. They were already wasting time because of her stupid body crapping out on her, they could waste a bit more on his account.

It felt important, that he saw the Xadia she knew was there, that she knew he would love. Her home. She smiled, thinking about the melodaisies and the fart flowers and… the meadow. She would show him all of it.

He was smiling at her now, like she had explicitly told him not to. She sighed, fixing him with a glare that was rather unsuccessful, what with her insides all mushy.

“Stop smiling, dummy,” she said, reaching out to pinch his nose.

“Stop making me smile,” he accused, smiling wider, and he tried retaliating, but injured or not, she was faster and could see in the dark, evading easily on instinct. He missed not just her nose but her entire head, and stumbled forward unbalanced.

She shifted to catch him, also instinct, but he was too heavy and he landed rather painfully on top of her.

She barely noticed though, because his head was against her chest and giddy laughter was shaking both of them, but then he… stopped. His hand shifted to touch her face and the starlight reflected off his eyes and… it wasn’t funny anymore-

His face… his lips… were so close. Bloody and chapped and swollen around the tear and she still wanted to kiss them. Carefully, so it wouldn’t hurt him but-

But it was passing, sensations returning. It wasn’t a very comfortable position at all, in fact, ow-

And oh he had noticed, she had ruined it and he was pulling away now.

Stupid care. She would have gladly taken a bit of pain to get to stay in that-

 


 

Rayla remembered back… right after they left the castle, she had thought he was weird for blushing just because she had been touching his foot but… damnit. Her cheeks were warm now.

It was fully dark now, to him, at least, so he could see it. It hurt less, meaning there was less to distract her from his warm hands on her skin when he spread the goop. And it was… there was something else, too. Something different.

She had been pretty resigned to the fact he would never see her the way she saw him. But when he had opened his eyes after he could see again… the way he had looked at her.

Bah. She was probably kidding herself.

She reached out to take his hand, still shaking a little bit. She had touched his hand before, lots of times.

But he blushed, this time.

She was probably kidding herself.

Not… definitely.

He didn’t let go though. It had been bad, what had happened to him. It had been bad in general, what had happened over the last couple of days.

And it was like… it was over but it wasn’t? It was like it was still bubbling right underneath the surface, all the time, his ragged breaths drawing to a halt, him choking on nothing-

She didn’t think he realized how terrified she had been then, or an hour ago, when he had screamed like that. He probably didn’t realize he had screamed like he had, he wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

“It is okay if I… come closer?” Callum asked, hesitant.

He did, shifting to put his arm under her achy head so she could lean comfortably against his shoulder.

With her head resting against his shoulder and chest, she could hear his still-too-rapid heartbeat.

“You’re shaking,” Callum said, after a while, although so was he.

Damnit, she was, it was not just him. And there was no passing it off as cold, when they were snuggly warmed by the Sun Fern underneath them. “You scared me… a bit,” she mumbled. If she couldn’t be strong, she could at least make the weakness as little as possible.

“You scared me a lot,” Callum said, sounding relieved to say it. “Yesterday and… before. It’s been kind of… a lot.

It really… had been yesterday.

Today, Callum had run afoul of the single most panic-inducing Moon primal not-spell.

Yesterday, a dragon had dumped a pile of rocks on her and almost burnt all three of them to a crisp.

The day before that, Callum had been choking on nothing, dying in her arms.

Maybe it really was okay, staying here for a bit. And okay to take the long way round on the way to the Silvergrove.

Yeah.

Tomorrow, they would visit the Amar falls, where floating fish swam though the mist at the bottom of the crashing water.

The day after tomorrow, they would reach Aergeid Forest with its giant mushrooms and general abundance of fun plant life, and she would show Callum how beautiful and amazing Xadia was.

The day after that, she would be home, and she could hug Ethari, and Runaan too, if he had made it home before her and was ready to talk to her, and Callum would meet them and they would get it, when they met him.

She looked at his face, lit by starlight. They would get it. How could anyone not? Callum was as far from a monster as it was possible to be. They would see how beautiful and amazing he was.

Callum, unlike her, had actually been awake and doing things over the past day, and as the aftereffects of the panic left his body, the exhaustion hit him. His breaths slowed. His heartbeat was calm against her ear now.

It was quiet, just them and the starlight.

She wasn’t really tired, because Callum had just… let her sleep all day, the dummy. Or rather… she was tired, just not sleepy, which was different. It was nice though, lying here, warmed by the leaf underneath them, and the crescent moon above them and even more by Callum next to her. His body was like a stove, seeming to leave pleasantly warm spots everywhere his skin touched hers.

Callum tugged her closer in his sleep, his fingers curling and grazing her bare upper arm, leaving those little warm spots.

Her face was smushed kinda… into his neck and hair, now.

He smelled really bad.

But also… not.

It was weird, because objectively speaking, it was definitely bad. Unwashed-teenage-boy-smell was pretty universally bad across cultures and species.

But she snuggled her face into his smelly neck anyway.

Her hand closed around Callum's smelly scarf she was somehow still wearing because he hadn't asked for it back.

It was soft.

 

 

 

Bonus art of well-deserved leaf cuddles

 

Chapter Text

5.15PM, June 2nd, Amar Falls, Xadia

“I should go get our clothes,” Callum said, regret in his voice. It was nice here on the lakeshore with him, drying off in the sunshine after a very, very needed bath.

“Yeeah, let’s go get ourselves less-naked,” Rayla snickered.

Callum paused in mid-movement, flushing a bit. Pfft, him and his fussy human sensibilities.

Rayla did her best to not look, when Callum got up. She never wanted to make him uncomfortable, regardless of how weird his underwear hang-ups were.

Their wet clothes were up the hill in the stream just before the waterfall, weighed down by rocks in the strong current in an attempt to wash out the stink without soap.

So there was good reason for their half-naked forest walk, it really wasn’t weird at all. Long as she kept her gaze up, it wasn’t weir-

She gasped, when her bruised foot hit a piece of branch.

Yeeah, that kinda thing happened, when you went about looking up, you should look where you were going and not spend your entire attention not-looking at your half-naked friend, it really shouldn’t be so hard to not look at someone-

And Callum had snapped around now, at her yelp, and was looking and she could tell the exact moment he realized he was looking because he looked very deliberately and determinedly up at her face.

“I’m fine,” Rayla grinned at him, reassuring. “Just a bran-”

There was a crunching sound, and the treetop next to her rustled, as the Sun Rowan shook off its dead leaves.

Callum jumped, moving quickly in front of her and Zym, hands outstretched.

“It’s a tree. Not dangerous,” Rayla said, shaking her head. Now that she thought about it, none of the trees in the human lands had ever done that, so she supposed it was understandable- Wait.

She crossed her arms, because it just dawned on her what he had just done. “What was that, Callum?!” she demanded.

“Uhm, sorry. Not the right battle stance, I panicked a bit and just… reacted-“

“Yeah, I have bigger fish to fry with you. You just jumped in front of me. You don’t do that! What if that had been something actually dangerous?!”

“Then… I was in front of you? Isn’t that… good? You’re still hurt-”

“I can fight. I walked here, didn’t I?”

“You limped here,” Callum corrected her, defiance entering his expression. He planted his feet, ironically a perfect battle stance. “Leaning on me at least… a quarter of the time…?”

He couldn’t just use that against her when he had offered and smiled the way he had, that wasn’t fair at all-

Rayla abruptly turned away, and so did Callum, continuing up the hill to where their clothes were.

She didn’t go after him. Clearly, he didn’t need her.

Instead, Rayla limped back to the pool at the bottom of the falls, going to the water’s edge to sit. After slight deliberation, she stuck her sore foot into the cool water.

It was nice, except for being so wet. And except for the talk her and Callum just had.

The sunshine was bouncing off the calm surface of the water, Zym occasionally making little splashes when he hunted for food at the little sandy bit of shoreline.

It was nice. There was no reason for her to be in a bad mood.

Callum was taking ages. It shouldn’t take nearly this long, fetching their clothes, even taking into account that he might also wring them out and hang them up to do some Aspiro-enhanced drying.

She was just about to go look for him, when he plopped down next to her.

“What were you doing up there?” she muttered sulkily, as she pulled on the shirt and leggings he had brought back for her, barely even damp because of course he had dried them, he was perfect.

And she knew she was being childish and this was her wounded pride talking and he didn’t deserve it but- Ugh. She was in the most beautiful and romantic place ever, with the sweetest and most beautiful boy ever, and all she could do was be grumpy and useless.

“Getting us a bigger fish to fry,” he quipped, grinning a bit triumphantly and gesturing at the fish in question, laying in the grass behind her. Damnit. Ruining her bad mood, as per usual.

Especially because it really was a big fish he had caught, and an actual tasty one, unlike the mud-flavored monstrosity his patented Fulminis-fishing method had produced yesterday.

Zym, apparently having also had a productive electricity-powered fishing trip, plopped his head down on her lap to deposit a slightly slimy shellfish, very dead.

Colluding to ruin her bad mood.

Pfft.

Rayla caved under the pressure, under the force tugging at her lips, and laughed.

She ruffled Zym’s mane, and then Callum’s hair.

It really was all soft, like a shadowpaw kitten, when it was clean-

Well, as clean as it got, with no soap and cold water. They could have a proper wash when they got to the Silvergrove, day after tomorrow. Ethari would very likely insist.

It was too bad she couldn’t bring Callum to the public baths, he would have liked those, with their big pools and fragrant, magical bubbles. Rori was a master at olfactory illusions.

Ethari’s scented soap was nice too though, the they would get to smell nice and eat Ethari’s warm stew and hug him… if he-

No.

She would.

“I didn’t mean to be a pain again,” she said. “I just… I don’t want you to get hurt on my account. You understand?” He already had once and… she wasn’t thinking about that because it was still such a raw feeling inside her when she did.

“No, I don’t,” he said, very firmly. You’ve gotten hurt on my account! Multiple times! On Ezran’s and on Zym’s! You are, at this very moment, hurt on account of me and Zym. Rayla. Accept the bounty of seafood and cuddles that are all we can really-” Cuddles? Callum seemed to catch on too, to what he was saying, and his cheeks reddened. “Uh. I meant… from Zym.”

They had fallen asleep touching each other every night for three nights now. It was… not just Zym. It felt so natural, touching him, she didn’t even think about it most of the time, except that once in a while when her body became hyper-aware of his touch, like right now, his shoulder against hers.

“I just don’t want you to get hurt again, okay?” he added. “I would rather it was me-”

“It doesn’t work like that! I could avoid an arrow that would have stuck you straight on! I’m still faster than you and wearing armor!” Not that she had been, back there, they hadn’t even been wearing clothes, but-

“I know. In my head, I know that. I didn’t… it just wasn’t my head reacting… back there.” He was raw on the inside too, but it was visible on the outside now, his hands twitching, twisting in the fabric of his trousers.

“I know,” she said. “I do. Like… things like… well, pretty much all of the past days? Your body remembers and just act all on its own.”

“That’s part of it but-”

She shifted to place her finger on his lips, lifting Zym onto her lap with her other hand.

She pointed, not making a sound.

A massive flowermoss elk had made its way to the water to drink.

Callum’s eyes widened. Even Zym watched quietly and intently, unmoving, as the large animal bent to drink.

She felt Callum’s inhale against her finger, when the moss on its antlers brightened as it drank, then flowered in tiny specks of pink against the green.

He laughed, bright and happy, as soon as the elk had retreated. “That was amazing!”

“When the sun sets, lots of animals come here to drink. If you can curb your loud mage self, we’re in for a treat over the next few hours.” She smiled. “That’s why we’re still here.”

“Rayla,” he sighed.

“Fine. And my foot still hurts and I didn’t relish the idea of a full day’s walk. Are you happy?”

“No! Of course I’m not hap-”

He stopped, because the speckled lunalynx was a sight to behold, its shiny spotted fur shimmering in the orangey-pink light of the setting sun.

They stayed quiet this time, after it left, some unspoken agreement to just… be.

A whole family of really… just ridiculously round, pink and orange soladucks waddled down to the water, so close to them they could see the texture of the fluffy baby-down.

The stripey ducklings were absurdly cute of course, but… Callum’s barely-contained-squeeing face might just be cuter, his own hand pressed to his mouth and his eyes wide.

When he could breathe again and the ducks had left, Callum quietly got the cube from his bag next to him, pointing at the Sky symbol, raising his eyebrows in question.

Rayla shook her head, turning the cube to Sun.

Moon and Sky lit up together, under their hands and there was like some…tingling feeling.

He turned back to watching the pond, but Rayla couldn’t look away from the cube, from her smallest finger brushing against his hand, the blue and silver mingled light shining between the gaps between their fingers.

Electricity and balmy warmth, at once.

Callum was starting to shiver as the sunshine faded. She just got warmer; the waxing crescent was only a few days from half.

They drew closer, like it was natural.

 


 

“We should make camp,” Rayla said, eventually. The sun was fully down and peak wildlife hours past. There was no reason for them to sit around here on the edge of the glittery pool, she didn’t even like water and yet… she was sad to interrupt… what? The mood? The quiet? She had never had an issue interrupting quiet in her life.

I should,” Callum corrected. “We agreed.”

“I can-”

“I know you can. You’re tired and injured and I’m not, and you don’t have to. Rayla? Why are you so unwilling to let me do things for you? You’ve done things for me. Lots of things. Protected me when I couldn’t fight.” He looked a bit upset now. “I trust you to-”

“I trust you!” she said quickly. That was not in question. “You’re smart and brave and you can do… so much. It’s not you. I just… it makes me feel… really bad, that I can’t protect you and Zym. Can't do-” Vulnerable. Small. It was why she was here in the first place, and if she couldn’t even do that, then what was the point-

She looked down at her hands clenching in her lap, clean now, even under the nails, but that just made the marks of… doing things, stand out, green and yellow of a fading bruise across the back of her right, pink of new, healing skin at the knuckles.

Doing things was what she was meant for, not just… being.

“Rayla… you’re so much more than the things you can do? You know, when I look at you, being able to do awesome backflips is on the ‘Reasons Rayla is Awesome’ list, but it’s not like… the most important part or anything. Remember my letter? The one I wrote back at the Nexus, when you said I should add ‘quite daring’ to your list of fine qualities? Remember what the first things were? Kind and good. That’s… something you are.

Never mind not blushing, clearly a lost cause. “I… I’m not really… used to that. Of thinking about things… me… like that.” Runaan frequently praised her, but it never felt half this good, or… good at all, really. His praise was always about what she could do, and she already knew she was good at backflips and-

And it hadn’t been what she had wanted to hear from him.

Her throat felt tight, and she bit into her lip. Callum already worried overmuch about her, she couldn’t just-

She had her eyes squeezed shut, and didn’t see it, just… felt it… a gentle touch, tracing her lower lip, and she released it from between her teeth out of pure surprise, her eyes snapping open.

“Hey. One split lip between us is enough.” He smiled slightly, before his gaze went to her lips and his eyes widened.

“Ehrm… sorry… uh. Getting… ahead of- Sorry.” She wanted to tell him it was okay but… her stupid, improperly-water-sealed face was in dire danger of leaking and she couldn’t speak.

“I’m-” She couldn’t say what she was, because she would be making it worse, making it more real what might-

“Rayla, it’s okay.”

It wasn’t but… it was better than she thought. And it would be okay. “I know,” she said.

It would be.

She would… be.

For the rest of today, at least.

Chapter Text



6.31AM, June 4th, Aergeid Forest, Xadia

Streaks of warmth and light through the morning mist, woke her up.

Rayla usually didn’t like the sun, but today it was welcome. The night had been damp and cold, and this was so much better.

She wasn’t really cold at all now-

Oh.

Callum was pressed against her back, his arm loosely around her, his face against the back of her neck. They had only had the one cloak and Callum had let her have it because he said his jacket was warmer than her clothes and the moon had been behind heavy clouds all night.

Dummy.                                                                                

It hadn’t been warm enough for him, clearly, and she was so warm right now her cheeks were burning with quite a lot of excess heat.

She managed to twist out of his grip without waking him, even with Zym in her arms, because it didn’t seem fair for her to be enjoying it quite so much, when he had just been cold.

He whined pathetically in his sleep when she drew away though, and his arms reflexively tightened around air where she had been.

Damnit. Why was he so cute? She had known that for ages, but it was getting so much harder to ignore lately, maybe because… she was getting pretty sure… he liked her, too.

She placed the still-sleeping baby dragon in the vacuum she had left, and settled the cloak, warm from her body, over them both.

She went to sit on a log in a bright spot of the morning light, looking down at him, snuggling his face into Zym’s mane and relaxing a bit now he was warmer. Damnit. Way to make him look even more cute.

And he was waking too now, not at all helping the cuteness when he yawned and blinked at the light, even less so when he saw her and a slow, unguarded smile spread on his face.

He got up, lifting the still-sleeping Zym up against his chest and keeping the cloak slung across his shoulders.

“Cold morning,” he said, sniffling a bit but smiling sleepily at her as he sat down next to her, lifting part of the cloak in invitation.

She pressed close, so all three of them could fit under it.

She wrapped her arm around his back, and he did the same. It made sense, was more comfortable, really, when they had to share a one-person cloak.

“It’ll get warmer,” she smiled. Pre-dawn was the coldest part of the night, which he well knew, after weeks in the wilderness.

It did get warmer, almost immediately, but maybe it was just helping being three under one cloak.

It was like a trance, sitting there with them in the warm cloak-coon as the forest lightened around them, the mist clearing.

Callum moving pulled her out of it.

“Rayla?” he asked, hesitantly, and she turned to look at him. He was smoothing down his tangled mop of hair and rubbing his muddy hands off, amazingly not on his trousers, which had been his go-to apron for weeks, but on a pillow of dewy moss. “How do I look?” He blushed slightly, as soon as he realized what he had been saying. “I mean. I’m meeting your family today. And I haven’t really… seen myself. Since the Moon Nexus.”

She looked up at his face, so close. The full truth of how beautiful he looked in the morning sunlight, reflecting off his warm brown hair and warm golden skin and glittery green eyes… that was probably… yeah, that really had to stay inside her.

She wasn’t sure he felt like she did, and that would definitely and without a doubt give away her feelings, because who called their platonic friends ‘beautiful’?

“You look fine,” she said, trying to keep it light but still reassuring him. “Don’t worry. Ethari doesn’t judge stuff like that.” Runaan was a different matter, but he might not have made it home yet, and if he had, Callum’s messy hair was not the biggest issue they would be facing. “You only look like you fought a tree and it was kinda… a tie? While I’m pretty sure I look like I lost and was then stomped on for good measure. Not that I know… either.”

“Lovely…” he said, absentmindedly. “Lovely morning! Right?!”

He gestured at the forest, the dappled sunlight catching on every surface, the rain like a glaze enhancing everything. It was lovely, but sheesh, he was distractible.

Ugh, she… ridiculously wanted to ask too, wanted Callum to like what she looked like, which was ridiculous. She had been too distracted to make use of the reflective water yesterday, but she knew enough of what she looked like. What she could see of her arms and hands were scuffed and bruised and she knew her foot was still all kinds of colors. She tentatively felt along the torn skin at her forehead, the sore skin surrounding it. Probably colorful too. Ugh, never mind what Callum thought, Ethari would tut.

“Hey? What’s wrong?” Callum asked. “Does it still hurt?”

“You ran out of questions yesterday,” she sighed. She felt a bit sad about that. She still… wanted to know him better.

I ran out,” Callum smiled, catching on to her regret. “You still have all five of yours.”

Oh. It wasn’t over. Not at all. Her stomach fluttered helplessly. “Yeah, you blew your load early,” she smirked. “Some people just don’t know how to pace themselves.”

“So?” he grinned fondly. “You have a-” He paused, clearly diverging down a classic Callum brain tangent. She smiled before she could help herself. “Would you say four?” he asked. “As a kind of… I don’t know? Special default number? Is five and ten like… a human thing? Because we have two times five fingers?”

“I get five questions!” Rayla protested. “You said!” He didn’t get to change his mind, and it was super unfair that she should get fewer questions because she had fewer fingers!

“Yeah!” he agreed hurriedly. “Of course! I was just… thinking-” His hand found hers, spreading his fingers to place his palm against hers.

She forgot whatever she had been thinking, up to that point. “What?” she asked numbly, everything like vague background stuff compared to his palm against hers, his fingers curling to intertwine just slightly with hers.

“If you would say… four and eight? As kinda default numbers?”

“Yeah, of course. Well, we would say four and ten. But ten is your eight. Why would we say five? Humans count all weird, I had to learn that in training, to get to go to the human lands on mission. Imagine misunderstanding human intel and getting caught and ground into Dark magic spell components because you didn’t know twelve was actually fourteen or thought that nine was a kinda weird human food? Pretty good incentive to learn your weird numbers.”

“So there’s no nine. And… twelve is fourteen so six is seven?”

“No. Six is six.”

He looked confused, and she really couldn’t blame him, she had been too. She supposed the weird counting made sense to him.

She spread his big hands with their twelv- ten fingers out, to demonstrate how it worked, counting along the tips of his fingers, letting him count along hers.

He got it way easier than she had. His mind was curious and bright and open to different perspectives, he was nothing like she had been told of humans.

“You owe me five questions,” she said. And something else too, after last night, that made her flush. “And a kiss… remember-” she added, haltingly. Maybe he didn’t, maybe it didn’t mean to him what it had to her, maybe he thought she just went around and kissed her friends’ cheeks and hands-

“Yeah… I do,” he said, full of warmth. He did. He hadn’t taken it lightly. “I don’t… uhh…” He looked around frantically, at their intertwined fingers and the forest dappled with morning sunlight and…

And she was… pretty sure he liked her, but he wasn’t ready to say it and it hadn’t sunk in that she liked him. But it would.

“Um. Sorry for… derailing, there,” he said, turning back to look at her, composed again. “Do you have a question?”

“Pfft. Weren’t you listening? I’m pacing myself.”

She did, scootching closer and leaning her head on his shoulder, instead of kissing him like she wanted.

He leant his head on top of hers, his soft cheek against her forehead. His arms around her were gentle, even though she was barely even sore anymore.

Then his lips, so natural that it took a bit to sink in, brushed lightly against her forehead.

He abruptly stiffened, drawing away from her.

“Sorry! I was just… getting even? Uh. No. That came out wrong. You owed me a kiss and… uh. No, uh…” His face was lit up like a beacon. “I didn’t want to… no. I did… want to. That’s why I did it-”

She took his flailing hands, and smiled up at him, her own cheeks feeling likely to catch on fire, but it didn’t matter. “I get it. You were getting even. So the next time we kiss it won’t be to settle a score.”

Rayla grinned lightly, clapping his shoulder, ignoring her flailing insides that weren’t keeping it cool at all, her heartbeat so loud she thought it a wonder she was talking.

He had to realize it. He would. It would sink in, no one could take what she had just said as anything but that she wanted to kiss him again.

And she could no longer take what he had said and done as anything else. He had kissed her and said he wanted to and blushed when she touched him…

He did like her like that.

And she would take him home today and he would meet her family and they would see how amazing he was and how precious Zym was and Ethari would listen and understand why she had done what she did, and when her and Callum were both ready, they would kiss each other with no illusions as to why.

Chapter Text

8.58AM, June 5th, The Silvergrove, Xadia

Streaks of sunlight, annoying and harsh, felt though the illusory moonlight, woke Rayla up.

It was a weird feeling. It smelled… familiar. Felt familiar. And yet not.

The living room was empty, and too quiet.

It was hardly ever quiet when she got up, Runaan was an early riser and would shuffle about in the kitchen making breakfast while Ethari burrowed into the indent he had left in the bed and Rayla lounged in this couch, getting to all the way awake.

But that was… a different life. Not hers anymore.

Rayla groaned against the couch cushions when she was, really very rudely, shaken out of the pleasant half-sleep.

“It’s time for school, Rayla.”

“I don’ wanna,” she grumbled, pulling the nearest couch cushion over her head.

The cushion was abruptly lifted, her with it because she wasn’t letting go of her only shield against the evils of the octal system. Her legs dangled in the air.

To let go would be defeat.

A kick, he would expect.

She twisted her body up, hooking her legs over Runaan’s arm before letting go with her hands and arching her back to level a punch at his throat that she stopped less than an inch before it connected.

‘You did well’, he had said, and she had smiled, because his compliments had still made her happy, then.

Rayla pushed herself upright, away from the smell of stupid remember-y couch cushion, to look around the room, Zym curled up in the armchair opposite her and Callum, fast asleep on the floor next to her.

He might wake up if she moved him to the couch? Yeah, probably better to let him sleep. Get preparing.

So she went to the bathroom.

Passed water.

Cleaned her teeth with the familiar little seedpods you chewed and then spat out.

Splashed cold water in her face.

She sat down on the little bench to remove the poultice Ethari had wrapped around her bruised foot, because they were moving on and it wouldn’t fit in her boot. It twinged inside her, when she removed it.

Her fingers clenched around the edge of the bench when Ethari used the dreaded disinfectant.

She let go to wipe her eyes with her fist.

“It’s okay little one.” But it wasn’t. It hurt and she couldn’t train for ages now and it was her FAULT. She had been reckless and had slipped up, Runaan had said so. And Ethari hadn’t been there, and Runaan HAD. Ethari didn’t know. “I’m almost done, and the stitches will hurt less.”

She wanted to lean forward and put her arms around his neck and cry and be all whiny like she wasn’t supposed to.

But she hadn’t, she had clenched her teeth and Ethari had continued, and she had pretended his big, gentle hands against her ankle was a tiny hug.

She thought now… it had been.

It was like… his love in those herbal-smelling bandages she left in the laundry basket, something of him that was going away. One more thing.

Her hand went to the moon opal around her neck, but she stopped herself before she touched it, because she caught a glimpse of her own sappy-sad-face in the bathroom mirror and she wasn’t being like that.

She stood up instead, to regarded her reflection in the mirror critically, seeing herself clearly for the first time in weeks. Her hair had been some degree of dirty for so long it felt almost weird now, fluffy and clean and sticking up in one side where she had slept on it while it was damp. There were yellowing bruises spreading across her forehead. Sunburn across her nose and cheeks. The cut near her hairline was healing, but it would scar, certainly, because Ethari had tutted about it being too late for stitches.

A complete mess. Inside and out.

She brushed her hair mechanically, not even quite realizing she was doing it until she hit a tangle. Mostly it was easy going, though. Ethari had brushed it thoroughly, the night before.

“What happened here?” Ethari traced the healing cut at her hairline.

“Some rocks.”

“And here?” Her temple.

“A fist.”

“And here?” The too-short strand of hair where her braid had been.

“An arrow.”

Ethari had inhaled sharply at that last bit, his hand tightening around her shoulder.

Pah.

She was almost 16 and could brush her own damn hair-

“Good morning.”

Rayla almost jumped when Callum spoke, right next to her. His fingers brushed against hers, briefly, before she flinched away. She couldn’t- didn’t want his unnecessary fussing right now. She had whined plenty last night.

Rayla abruptly stalked out of the bathroom, back to the kitchen. She wanted to get going. Away from this place where she didn’t belong anymore.

“Let’s get preparing,” she said to Callum, who had followed her, gesturing at the dining table, where a spread of items were laid out. Their clean and dry clothes. A better backpack for her. A small camping stove. Cloth bags of Moonshadow field rations. She explained the purpose of the items to Callum as she went over them. “-and there are two flavors of the rations here, don’t mix them even though they’re the same grain. One’s with dried berries and honey, nuts and a few spices, that one’s for breakfast. The other’s with dried mushrooms and -cheese and herbs and stuff. We just add water and heat them. Simple.” It wasn’t. Nothing was simple anymore. “And the stove doesn’t need fuel or wood, it has Sunfire runes, see-”

Callum didn’t seem as distracted by the magical camping stove as she had hoped, he was still watching her, all… apprehensive. Worried.

He shouldn’t be, and he had better not keep it up because she was going to be fine, and it was really hard to be fine when he was treating her like she wasn’t.

She turned away from him, packing briskly.

Her swords looked shiny and new and very clean. She flicked them out. Not a scratch. The little nick she had made trying to cut the chains holding the dragon was smoothed out.

There was breakfast too, porridge kept magically warm in a pot on the stove and jars of honey and compote and nuts to go on top.

Callum ate with such gusto it almost made her smile. She let him have most of it, he was sufficiently focused on eating that he didn’t notice, and she really wasn’t very hungry and Callum clearly was.

Callum looked up from his dinner, seeming to catch on that he was the only one still stuffing his face.

“I’m… sorry,” he said, coloring a bit. “I’m done.”

“No, no! Please eat all you can! Be assured that elven teenagers are also bottomless pits.” Ethari looked over at her, his eyes twinkling, but she COULDN’T- “At least usually.” He nodded meaningfully at her plate, the uneaten food there, his gaze familiar gentle firmness.

Rayla took another bite. Ethari’s mushroom stew was her favorite, but it seemed to grow in her mouth. She might never eat it again, and she couldn’t even enjoy it.

“It’s really good,” Callum said earnestly. “Mushroom-y. I have much room for mushrooms-”

Ethari laughed, soft and gentle, the grief lifting and revealing a glimpse of the man she knew that was really just-

Callum’s spoon clanked against the bottom of the bowl.

There was a little plate of candied moonberries, too. For her, she knew. Because she’d hurt herself, and Ethari always made that for her when she did.

She couldn’t say that to Callum. He wouldn’t eat them if he knew they were intended for her. And she couldn’t eat them, because even the smell was making her throat close up.

And since bawling for hours was very much not on the table, those berries couldn’t be on the table either.

“You have them.” she said. “They’re really good, but I eat them all the time.” Definitely not, since she was good at what she did, and injuries were signs of failure. Just… there had been a lot of failures lately-

“But it must have been a long time since last time,” Callum pressed on. “Since we didn’t have them last night. And you didn’t eat that much breakfast, either.” Shit. She needed to be more okay, eat like she was actually hungry and most importantly stop moping.

“It’s fine,” she said. “I don’t really like that kinda porridge. I’ll just eat some fruit.” She took a piece from the bowl in the windowsill and ate dutifully. Callum didn’t look completely convinced, but he did eat the moonberries. And he enjoyed them, she could tell.

She packed up the rest, without another word, as he finished eating.

Then all there was left to do was get dressed and saddle up the mounts. And then they would… leave this place.

Rayla looked out over the tidy kitchen she left behind.

The empty kitchen.

Empty house.

Ethari was… at the market, because he had some errands. And of course, they couldn’t just wait for him when they had a dragon prince to return-

She felt very definitely that she was too old for illusions like that.

But she felt too young for… everything else.

And that stupid little-kid-illusion didn’t account for Runaan who was dead, and there was no way to say he was at the market, because they had to pass by the lotus pond on their way out of this place-

Callum was looking at her again and he was reaching for her hand now, clenched so hard around the back of a chair her knuckles were white.

It wouldn’t do at all. She was never great at illusions, had never managed a tangible one in her life, and if Callum touched her, then this one, holding one by its fingertips, would shatter into a whole lot of bawling and they would waste time on something that wasn’t important.

She backed away, fumbling for something… anything.

She couldn’t do what she needed to, like this, and what she needed to do… was all she had left. So, there was one thing to do now, which was put the useless feelings away like Runaan had-

“I-I’ll go change!” she burst out, when her fumbling hands found the pile of her clean clothes.

She scooped up the clothes and nimbly sidestepped Callum, before he could react.

She didn’t look back or… at all, really, habit carrying her up the stairs. The door to her room closed behind her, and she slid down it to sit on the floor, leaning against the door.

Her palms scrambled against the floorboards, her mind and feelings scrambled for purchase that wasn’t there.

A while passed, she thought. Callum would come, eventually, she had just left him down there in the kitchen.

She didn’t know what possessed her to pull a box of the stuff she was too old for out from under the bed.

There were painted patterns on the lid, her dad’s work. She knew that because she had been told, she didn’t remember. He must have been patient and have had steady hands, she thought, running her fingers along the meticulous, curving lines.

She remembered her own hands being smaller than they were now, and following that same path, but not his.

It was just a box, anyway. Boxes were really… about what was on the inside of them.

Mrs. Snuggaburr, a giant stuffed adoraburr her mum had knitted for her, because she had whined and pouted about the real adoraburrs not being allowed in the house after bedtime, and also being too small to hug.

Her mum had been a very angry knitter, attacking the yarn like she was stabbing it into submission, Runaan and Ethari had said. But she didn’t remember that either, just the story.

It didn’t matter anyway, they had left.

A chipped wooden sword Ethari had made her, ridiculously small in her hand, but properly weighted, with a metal rod embedded inside.

Rayla lunged with her new sword, striking true between the second and third rib.

“AaarAArrrrghh…ghhh…” Runaan’s death rattle was so silly-sounding she giggled, which assassins really weren’t supposed to.

You did not take a life lightly. That had to mean no giggling right after you murdered someone.

Dried sundrop flowers, twisted into a crown, the yellow and pink faded.

Runaan lifted her up so she could see herself in the mirror.

Ethari would like it, she thought. The little flowers got prettier the more you looked at them, they had little details you didn’t see at first, like the pink spots at the edges. And Ethari looked carefully at things.

Letters she hadn’t been able to throw out.

Happy Birthday, sweetheart!

The word ‘sweetheart’ tasted all funny in her mouth.

Like they knew her better than she knew them and yet not well enough.

A fur-lined winter hat, with an embroidered pattern of moon vine flowers. It was too small for her by far, her current horns would tear it apart. She had hidden it, she remembered, when she got too big for it, because Ethari had been giving her old clothes to little Elenei next door and she had wanted to keep this one because it had hurt to think of it being refitted for Elenei’s horns, Runaan had bought it for her and he never bought her anything that was just… pretty and soft, like that, and it had felt important, when he had brought it home for her from Lux Argenti.

It wasn’t something you would buy your best trainee, but your daugh-

She smoothed out the soft fur, wet now, placing it back in the box.

Callum’s footsteps squeaked on the stairs, and she stiffened, but they stopped outside the door.

Rayla paused, her hand flat against the wood. He would know, if she opened it now, and some desperate part of her wanted him to, wanted to crumble into him, let him touch her-

“Rayla? Are you okay in there?” Callum’s voice though the door

No. “Yeah.”

“Can I come in?”

NO! “Sure. Just… give me a minute. I’m changing.” He was weird about underwear, that would buy time to… get to being okay enough to look okay so they could get going.

She rubbed her stupid, treacherous, leaky face. Her stupid, treacherous, thundering heartbeat and shaky breath was harder and Callum would notice, he always fucking noticed and she had thought it meant… that they might… but…

But no.

Callum was good and kind and absolutely didn’t need her weighing him down and screwing up his life like she had screwed up her own and so many others’.

He was too close. It was her fault he was, she had taken his hand and called him her best friend and pressed close and repeatedly failed to keep any kind of distance. It would be harder and more hurtful now, but that was her own stupid fault.

She changed into her clothes, the only thing she was supposed to be doing up here.

“Rayla?” Callum’s voice was soft and… close, somehow. Like he was pressed against the door. Like he was touching her-

She bit her lip so hard it hurt, to keep in the sob he would definitely hear.

She pushed the box back under the bed where it belonged.

Pushed the shutters closed.

Pushed her hair out of her face.

Pushed the feelings down and away.

And opened the door.

 

 

 

Bonus art of wee Rayla in her fancy hat (Runaan done goofed, looking at that face and seeing assassin material, lol) and not-so-wee Rayla with her fancy hat:

 

 

Chapter Text



4.43AM, June 6th, The Oasis, The Midnight Desert, Xadia

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She really was a screw-up in every conceivable way.

And they weren’t going to talk about… that, she had been really firm about it, but what good was it to have forced through that agreement, when she could feel Callum thinking about it from here.

Rayla pulled her knees into her chest tighter. She could always pretend it was because of the cold. It wasn’t even wrong, it really was cold this far away from the embers and her blanket and Callum-

Yeah, she was thinking about it too. There was no way she was getting her blanket because she would have to go over to where Callum was sitting to get it and… no way.

Really, he could at least have the courtesy to pretend to be sleeping or something, so they could maintain their illusions and ignore each other until morning without actually acknowledging that they were ignoring each other.

Clearly, he was not Moonshadow.

At all.

Because he was not ignoring her at all, he was looking at her.

And she knew he was looking at him because she had also looked at him and-

She groaned into her knees, sticking her cold fingers into the black sands, still holding onto a bit of warmth from the sun. She wished she could sink into those sands entirely. Go away.

And Callum was moving now, she could clearly recognize his gait. She ignored it. None of her business if he needed to take a leak or stretch his legs. Long as he wasn’t talking to her, she could still ignore him with the ignoring only like… half-acknowledged.

He was close now. And then one of the blankets were settled around her shoulders. She stiffened, because she really didn’t want to talk to him when she was the one that had been unreasonable and read things wrong. He should not be making amends to her just because she was carrying on like a child.

She couldn’t be a child anymore.

She was no-one’s child anymore.

Her fist clenched so tightly it hurt around handfuls of sand, but at least she managed to not cry again.

She finally turned around to glance over at him. He had gone back to where he was sitting before, and was looking at her, apprehensive, but when he saw her turn around, he set his jaw stubbornly.

“It’s not a peace-offering,” he said firmly. “It’s not amends.” He remembered? Back at the Nexus, when he had brought her a towel while she had been covered in mud and seething mad about Soren and Claudia. “You’re my friend and you were cold. And I care about you, and care if you’re cold. Okay?”

Rayla breathed out, more relieved than she realized that he still wanted to be her friend even after she had fallen completely to pieces and been a pathetic, weepy mess and kissed him when he hadn’t wanted her to and yelled at him afterwards, and gotten Zym kidnapped.

That he still… cared.

“Okay,” she affirmed, all she could get out with her throat closing up. “Thanks.”

She drew the blanket around herself against the lonely cold.

Nothing to do but wait out the night.

 


 

The sky was changing, and they would ride at first light.

Rayla stirred the pot, heating their breakfast, without a word.

No time for talking, anyway. It was normal, just… watching the food cook without-

No.

It wasn’t normal at all. And it really sucked, actually.

She snuck at glance at Callum, and he blushed and looked away.

She had really screwed up-

But then he turned back, his cheeks still flushed, but his gaze unwavering.

“Uh? Rayla?” he asked, not hesitant but… soft. “I hate not talking to you. I don’t just care that you’re cold, you know that, right? I care that you’re upset, that I-

“That’s talking about it!” she burst out. And they had agreed, or rather, she had insisted and he had agreed, that they wouldn’t. “I’ll talk, okay? But not about… that.”

“You still have five questions,” Callum suggested. “That way you decide?”

“I suppose…” She hadn’t really slept at all. She was rarely at a loss for words but now? The only ones that came were the ones she didn’t want.

Why did you say what you did?

She pushed that question aside, because that was firmly within ‘talking-about-it’ territory.

Why don’t you like me-

Way worse. Guilt-trippy and pathetic and meaningless in addition to being about the thing she didn’t want to talk about but apparently couldn’t stop thinking about. There were so many reasons why he wouldn’t like her like that. He had said those reasons didn’t matter, that she was good and strong and beautiful and-

And she had been kidding herself for too long, and really needed a topic change.

The right question.

A really dumb question, with no risk of going… there.

She looked around her, at the sweeping dunes of black sand beyond the wonderwall.

The Midnight Desert.

Or… Midnight Dessert, as she had read it as a child, practicing her letters on Runaan’s big map of Xadia.

She had begged to go here, because she thought it was some wonderful place where you were allowed to eat Moonberry Surprise as your midnight snack, which was definitely not the case in her house.

But it wasn’t her house anymore, and Runaan would never-

She was not thinking about that now, because the point was that that definitely fulfilled the ‘dumb’ requirement of the question she needed.

“What’s your favorite dessert?” she asked. “You know mine. But I just know… you don’t like things too sweet. Or too squishy.”

“You remembered?” he wondered. “I said that… so long ago.”

“Three weeks. Almost exactly.”

“It feels longer. It feels like I’ve known you-” No! He was… she couldn’t hear it!

“Dessert! Your favorite dessert! Not… any of the other stuff. You promised!”

“Uh. Summer fruit. Just… fresh fruit. Pretty boring, I guess. And I like crunchy stuff, long as it’s not too sweet? Like extra-crunchy jellytart crusts and crackers and toasted nuts with caramel. Or the dark chocolate from Evenere, that’s good too.”

Pfft.

Clearly a heathen. None of that came close to describing the smooth texture of Moonberry surprise, the layers of tart berries and rich, whipped moonose milk and the sweet surprise-

She sniffed.

Another thing that… she was leaving behind. It wasn’t even that important, dessert, that was the entire reason she had asked the question, and anyway, you could get Moonberry Surprise in places other than the Silvergrove, they just weren’t as good.

Runaan had bought her a really fancy one, once, when they were visiting Lux Argenti, with twisty, sparkly shapes of spun silver Moon Maple sap and pink flower petals on top.

It hadn’t been as good as Aileana’s aunt’s-

Aileana hated her, anyway. Had banished her, like everyone else. And Runaan-

“Sorry this trip is probably ruining your favorite dessert,” she said, because she was absolutely not thinking about… anything that… meant anything and especially not… last night. “We’ve eaten a bunch of pretty bad and not that ripe fruit.”

“That’s okay! I don’t mind. You know I don’t… I haven’t hated it. This trip. Not even when it was hard.” She looked away, but Callum kept talking and… he wasn’t talking about the thing they had agreed to not talk about so… she had no right to stop him. “There’s a bunch of good memories. Even to do with unripe fruit. You remember back in Katolis? Ez picked a bunch of pears, standing on your shoulders? And we ate them, even though most of them weren’t quite ripe. You didn’t like them, I could tell. Your face scrunched up. But you got a ripe one, towards the end, and it was really juicy and the juice ran down your chin and you smiled because it was sweet and I remember how sweet you-”

Rayla deliberately clanked the stove, interrupting that… that. Whatever that was. He didn’t like her like that so why did her persist with… that?

She gestured at the stove. “Watch it,” she said curtly, getting up. She should… go wash off that whole ‘night of wallowing, bawling and general patheticness’, anyway. “And when it’s done and we’ve eaten, we leave. Immediately.”

She didn’t look back at him, just headed back to the water’s edge, walking briskly past the point under the palm tree where that had happened and pointedly not thinking about… that.

Chapter Text



0.34AM, June 7th, The Midnight Desert, Xadia

Rayla leant back against the side of the saddle and against Callum, leaving her hand resting against his chest.

She could feel the thumps against her palm, feel his breath against her forehead where his head rested on top of hers, feel her own deafening heartbeat thudding against her ribcage.

“I’m really sorry it took me so long to catch on,” Callum said, and though she had been dumb too, yeah… she had to agree he had been pretty dumb. How could he possibly have been surprised that she kissed him after he- Never mind. Didn’t happen. “I’m just… I don’t know how to communicate the magnitude of my stupitude, except through dance, words are just not sufficient… I’m…”

“The densest substance known to man or elf?” she snickered.

“Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

But no wonder he was dense, with so much kindness and goodness inside him. “I like you, though,” she said, very redundantly, considering they had just kissed for an hour straight. “The way you are. Dense and clumsy and smart and thoughtful and brave and wonderful.”

“Stubborn and strong and kind and oh-so-daring.”

“But you kissed me first,” she smiled, a subtle reminder that yesterday didn’t happen. “That was pretty daring. And you climbed the ambler. And the tree.”

“You rubbed off on me, I guess,” he grinned.

“Not yet I didn’t,” she laughed, pressing close, rubbing her face against his cheek and temple, bumping her nose softly against his.

He laughed out loud, his arms coming up around her to pull her closer.

Without his arms for balance, he toppled again, thumping against the wicker floor, looking up at her like a beautiful vision, a wide, happy smile on his lips and his hair spread around him.

“Oi! Lovebugs!”

Fucking hell!

But she breathed deeply, because arguing with overgrown pigeons was not how she wanted to spend her time right now.

Rayla placed her hand on Callum’s mouth, smoothing out his brows, already knitting in annoyance.

“Don’t engage,” she said. “You’re more important. This moment is more important. She’s the one choosing to insert herself where she doesn’t belong, we can choose to not-”

“Violation against subclause 15 to rule 3 of this transport: keeping it vertical!”

“Wind your neck in!” Rayla yelled, her cheeks burning. “Sleeping is horizontal, unless you’re a pigeon!” Wow, never mind not engaging, such expert keeping-it-cool.

“But sleeping together was covered under rule 2, ‘not that kind of ride’!” Oh, why was she getting so embarrassed, they weren’t… they weren’t even nearly doing anything like that, but- “You can be horizontal or you can be touching! Not both!”

“Hey,” Callum said, sitting upright, looking adorably rumpled. Nyx really didn’t get what she was demanding, how hard it would be. His hands, pleasantly cool against her flushed skin, came up to cup her cheeks. He kissed her forehead and nose and lips. Like… a goodnight? Her whole body protested at the thought of not touching him for hours until they were off this stupid thing. “I’d rather be vertical… with you… than horizontal apart.”

The blush deepened under his fingers.

Nyx made gagging noises from her perch.

He was ridiculously wonderful, but really, it was also just ridiculous, because he clearly needed to sleep for real, it had been a long and rough day’s ride, and he had been awake most of last night, they both had.

She couldn’t feel the exhaustion herself right now, but rationally, she knew it had to be there somewhere, under the bubbly layer of fizz.

So she shook her head, smiling at him as she laid down, patting the space next to her.

He laid down too, carefully not touching her, Zym settling in the gap between their legs.

Not touching him was also pretty distracting though.

How were you supposed to sleep when your heart was pounding up a storm in your ears and your head was all fluttery and floaty and the fizz was going nowhere at all and some warm and tingly feeling was pooling and spreading from the inside out.

And Callum wasn’t helping matters at all, not sleeping either but lying on his side looking over at her, his head propped up on his arm and a wide, beautiful smile on his face.

The pigeon had no idea what she was asking.

“Hey,” Callum said, still smiling, undeterred in his relentless sweetness. “While we’re not kissing, I can use my mouth to-”

“NoooOOOOO!” Nyx wailed, making him jump. “Accepted uses of mouthes are: Drinking, but nothing alcoholic, because feathery flying fucksticks do you two not need less inhibitions. And also… not sharing.” She took a long swig of some bottle. Rayla got the definite feeling it wasn’t moonberry juice, and not her first or second swig either, because she was slurring a bit as she continued. “Eating, and only eating in and only things on my shortlist of accepted substances. Talking… but-”

“Then I can use my mouth to tell you how beautiful and amazing you are,” Callum continued, defiantly looking away from Nyx and back at her. “That’s just talking, so I can do that.”

“Fuck me!” Nyx swore, groaning. Then there was a suspicious kinda pause, before she continued. “Except no. None of that, we covered that. Not that kinda ride, yada-yada.” She sounded choked. “Agh. Go on, you sappy little ball of fluffduck-down.”

Callum didn’t go on though, even though Nyx turned away with her bottle.

“You stopped talking,” Rayla said, because he was just staring now.

“Yeeeah, so… do you think you could be less pretty for a little bit, so I can concentrate on telling you how pretty you are?” he snorted, dissolving into giggles that were very contagious, and really, she got what he was saying because what were words and how did you use them?

And her cheeks were burning again, but in a kinda gentle, warm way that reverberated throughout her whole body.

“The blush… really isn’t helping the cause of looking less pretty,” he continued, as he got his laughter under control. Pretty was hardly the word she would use to describe herself on a normal day, much less right now, when she was sweaty and dusty and bruised and sunburnt, but he really seemed to mean it. “You could try closing your insanely distracting, huge, shiny eyes?” he suggested.

“Okay,” she said, obliging him and closing her eyes, because maybe not smushing his face would be easier if she couldn’t see it.

“Um…” he started, sputtering. “So… I don’t know how I thought that would help, considering I was… not very functional during that time back on the leaf when you slept all day and kept doing super-distracting stuff like… wrinkling your nose and… and breathing, which I really can’t ask you to stop doing… please keep breathing. But really, how am I supposed to do this… not touch you?” His voice was close, like his face was hovering over hers. His breath ghosted across her lips. “She just has… no idea what she’s ask-”

Rayla opened her eyes, pushing determinedly up to her feet and dragging Callum bodily up with her, away from anything remotely horizontal, away from stupid pigeon-rules-

And his arms came up to hold her and his chapped lips softened under hers like pure magic and everything fell away.

And there was a tingling feeling, radiating from everywhere he was touching her, from the pressure of his hands she could barely even feel through the armor and from his lips and all the way down to her toes-

Wait.

That was Zym’s zappy kisses against her calf where her boots didn’t cover.

Rayla snorted with laughter, right into Callum’s mouth, which made him laugh, and she supposed the tingly moment was over, which was probably good, because she had been so close to breaking at least a few of Nyx’s unreasonably uptight rules. Who had just no morality at all , but got weird about them getting just a little bit carried away?

She turned to acknowledge their wee, attention-starved dragon, but dropped her hand to Callum’s, unwilling to let go of him completely. His hand tightened around hers right away and oh… the non-zappy tingle was back.

Zym looked so thoroughly confused it was comical, and she laughed again, or maybe it was just… needing to laugh, after the last few days.

“We were just…” How did she explain what they were doing to a 2-week-old dragon? She didn’t want to bring Zym back to his mother all corrupted with unseemly knowledge, two days of Zym being exposed to Nyx’s vocabulary was bad enough. “We’re… we were-”

“They were sucking face like the fucking hormonal wee baby barbarians they are!” Nyx shook her bottle at them, before turning back to Zym. “Come up here and join aunty Nyx, I’ll shield your innocent virgin eyes from the desecration of all that is good and pure going on down there-”

Zym hissed angrily, managing a pretty impressive zap in Nyx’s direction, and she flinched a tiny bit, not quite managing to shield it with another swig of decidedly not-juice. Except if it was stupid-juice. Then yes, juice.

Callum looked… there was a tiny bit of something-wrong in his eyes, like he might overthinking whether he was doing something bad to her.

Rayla frowned, angry at the pigeon, who could stick her rights to being referred to as anything else now, for putting stuff like that in Callum’s head. “Don’t listen to the pigeon, okay? Zone her out. She can stick her dumb opinions up her pigeon-ass where they belong!” Rayla squeezed his hand, and he shook off the hesitance, and straightened up, defiant. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, okay, she just drank a whole lot of stupid-juice.”

“Nah, it was an enema,” Callum giggled. “Because she’s a great, big pigeon-asshole, get it?”

She sputtered with laughter. Wow, the pigeon wasn’t wrong about his lack of inhibitions today, only about it being a bad thing. Rayla smiled brightly. “You said ass,” she said, rather proud.

“I know!” he said, triumphant and grinning widely. “Ez isn’t here and… I dunno… you just make me feel… free? I’m not supposed to be doing any of this, you know? But it feels really good! And you and Nyx-”

“Callum!” she laughed, shaking her finger at him in mock-reproof. “Pigeons don’t have names!”

“Wait? Are you really saying I should dehumanize an elf-”

“No. I’m saying you should call a spade a spade and a pigeon a pigeon and an asshole an asshole.” Callum was entirely too nice, sometimes.

“Okay.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, you’re right. You and the pigeon both swore at each other whole bunch, earlier. And I’m owed some swearing? I’ve been… a good kid, you know? I mean like… I was never good at the things I was supposed to, and I didn’t do a good job paying attention to the things I was supposed to be interested in but… I did my best to behave and be a good brother and… a good prince.” He didn’t say ‘son’, and she saw the flash in his eyes and moved to hug him because she didn’t know what to say, but he shook his head and looked back up at her, smiling. “I don’t need to be anything right now. There’s no pressure. I can do what I want without some… shadow of what I’m supposed to be doing, weighing me down? You know?”

“Yeah… I know.”

This really wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing either; while Runaan had not exactly forbidden her to fool around with the other young elves in assassin training, he had definitely… discouraged it.

And it still hurt to think about Runaan, but she really, really needed a break from being sad, so she looked back at Callum, who she couldn’t look at and be sad, at the same time right now.

And oh, did she ever know what he meant, feeling free. It was like she was not even feeling regular old gravity. Maybe some of that tiredness that she ought to be feeling, mixing with the fizz and making this floaty feeling.

Callum put his head on her shoulder, smiling softly up at her, and she leaned into him and the uncomfortable wicker wall of the saddle, resting her head on top of his very dusty hair.

It was infinitely better to be vertical with him.

And she knew what she wanted, some of it, at least…

The world was blurring, swaying, but the knowing and the want was firm and didn’t move anywhere.

And she wanted him to know that she knew-

She blinked muzzily. Brown. His soft hair tickling her nose.

“I have… ‘nother question,” she mumbled sleepily. She had four more, really, but… she just needed one. It shouldn’t really need saying after communicating it physically in such a very thorough way, but Callum was historically dense about picking up on her very obvious cues that she liked him, not that she had been that much better, in that regard. “You… know I really like you, right? For a long time. And you know I’m sure about that?”

“Yeah, I know.” He said it right away, and that… was good. Important.

A while passed, and she was halfway back to sleep, when he spoke again.

“I can’t believe you used one of your questions just to reassure me,” he snickered.

“Next one… jus’…you wait-” That didn’t sound even remotely threatening, what was he doing to her?

“I like you too,” he said. “A lot. And I like this.

Rayla breathed in the this-ness, tasting like dry desert air and fizz and happiness and love.

Yeah…this.

Chapter Text



2.32PM, June 7th, Criochad forest, Xadia

They had kissed… quite a lot, yesterday.

Rayla still wanted to kiss quite a lot.

What if… Callum didn’t though? What if he wasn’t in the mood?

It had been all romantic on that ambler, with the moonlight and him. Minus the pigeon, sure, but… everything else had been floaty and unreal-feeling, like a bubble full of fizz and sparkly Lunabloom petals.

This was just… a regular day. Regular and real. The sky was cloudy and undramatic, the forest was just trees with no fun glowy mushrooms or singing flowers. They were cooking lunch on their little stove, and when they had both gone behind separate bushes to pee, it had been way more awkward than it needed to be, because really, they were used each other’s daily bodily functions at this point, but Callum had way overexplained what he was doing, feeling the need to point out that he only had to pee and wouldn’t be long, as if that was information she needed to have.

And now he was picking twigs out of Zym’s mane, also not a romantic endeavor, but her head turned it into one somehow, with the way he pushed his hair out of his face and the way the soft, ambient cloud-light fell on his cheekbones and-

And very clearly, all these kissy-vibes were just in her head, every time she looked at Callum, it was ‘hello and good morning to you, chest-moon-moths and head-fizz and warmth pooling in belly and wait, what were we doing, again?’ and he was just smiling, chill as anything.

He finished the dragon-grooming, and Zym bounced off to acquire new twigs probably, and Callum leaned back against the broad, smooth trunk of the big tree they had used as a shaded site for their lunchbreak.

It was a nice sturdy trunk. The bark was not rough. It wouldn’t… hurt him, if she pushed him up against that tree trunk, and kissed him until he was breathless, until he gasped in that… way… he had made her gasp yesterday, when he had kissed her right beneath her ear…

Her fingers, acting of their own accord, came up to brush the spot where he’d kissed her and she almost gasped again.

She… really wanted to push him up against that tree trunk.

But… it really might hurt him… she might hurt him, if he didn’t want to. She was a lot stronger than him, he couldn’t stop her. And that felt… important. She had to make sure he wanted to, before she did things like that.

She couldn’t just… ask, though. That would be so weird.

Super weird.

Rayla went over to sit next to him instead, because no ways she could just keep looking right at him, leaning against that damn tree trunk, all sturdy and suggestive with its perfect, non-poky bark.

She took his hand, and he smiled, wide and sweet and holding nothing back… unlike her, about to explode with all the holding back she was doing, with all the tree-trunk-shoving she wasn’t doing.

But he didn’t kiss her, and she didn’t kiss him.

And why was his nose so pretty, with golden skin and little tiny freckles she was sure hadn’t been there when they met? Hers was sunburnt, she knew, and certainly not as alluring to him as his was to her, which didn’t seem fair at all.

And oh gods she wanted to kiss him, so much. His thumb brushed her cheek, not a kiss but…? Was he asking? With his fingers? She nodded, breathless.

But he either didn’t see it or didn’t get it or… it hadn’t been what she had thought it was, which was probably the most likely-

His fingers brushed her knuckles, too. Her fingertips. Traced a light, tickling path across her palm.

Then, he had to move, to stir the pot, because this whole situation was so normal, and really not romantic at all, except in her head.

His other hand that wasn’t stirring leant against the ground next to her bare, right foot, his palm against the side of it, and she was very… aware of that single point of contact.

Her foot twitched and she squeaked, involuntarily, when he moved his hand and it kinda… stroked along the side of her arch.

Callum snapped around abruptly to look at her face, then dropped his gaze to her foot. He took it gently in both hands, supporting her ankle. Right. It twinged occasionally. Or it had. It was mostly fine now, yellowing faded bruises all that remained of the angry purple swelling there had been.

And she should tell him that, that it was fine, but… words-

His fingers brushed very lightly along the bridge of it. Slowly and even gentler across the worst of the remaining bruises. She inhaled sharply. It was… definitely not pain, but somehow similar.

His fingers continued upwards, to her ankle, tracing an old silvery scar on the side of it. A question?

“It was… a sparring accident.” Why did she sound so breathless? He wasn’t even… doing anything.

“Oh yeah, I have one of those too.” He shrugged his jacket off - how was that helping?! - to show her, a curving line near his elbow, much newer than hers. “But it was more like… I bumped into the weapons rack by accident, I just happened to be sparring at the time.”

She reached out to trace the pink line. He stayed very still. He had bruises too, nothing too horrible, but quite a lot of them. She brushed her fingers along his upper arm, lightly across the worst one, still purple and green.

When had that even happened? They hadn’t been there when they had been bathing and he hadn’t really been in any fights since then-

Oh. The riding. He had fallen almost completely off, twice. Half-fallen off many more times than that. Bumped against branches, against trees, against the ground.

And she had seen it but it hadn’t quite… registered, at the time. She had been so far away, locked inside her head. He had even told her that on the worst day of his life, he had fallen off a horse. And she had just been so up her own miserable ass, she-

The apology got stuck on her tongue because words of any kind weren’t happening for her, but maybe it would work without words? Her fingers stroked up both his arms to his shoulders.

Or maybe it was an excuse, whatever, it was hard to care or focus, when his breath was so close she could feel it on the side of her face, against her ear, ragged and uneven. His hand shook as his breath had, when he reached out to touch her in turn, her palm, the sensitive inside of her elbow, her bare upper arm.

The side of her neck, then sliding gently up, to that spot beneath her ear.

She couldn’t grab him. She was stronger, he wouldn’t be able to pull away. She stepped as close as she could instead, her chest pressed against his, his breaths against her lips now. Her thigh brushed his, her bare foot against the side of his. His cheeks were very red. He gasped, like she had, though she hadn’t kissed him like she wanted to.

Like she… really wanted to.

She leant forward-

The clank from the lid of the camping stove startled her so much she jumped.

It smelled… not good. Burnt.

Zym had helpfully toppled the lid off, trying to get their attention to that fact.

Rayla swore under her breath as she tended to the burnt food, spurred into action. They hadn’t even been doing anything and still got so distracted they burnt the food, leaving the responsibility of the sustenance they needed to live on a 2-week-old baby dragon. This… not-kissing was possibly more distracting than…

Callum was watching her scrape out the pot, sitting very upright and rigid.

“Sorry,” she said. “I should’ve…” She looked down. “Been less… yeah.”

“Uh, I was as… as much as you were.”

Oh.

He… was? That didn’t seem possible, but… she trusted him, and she loved him, and he was so beautiful right now, smiling gently at her, giving her no reason to doubt her.

She touched his upper arm. “Then… I’m sorry… about that at least. I was so… far away? It doesn’t matter what I was, my head was up my own ass, and I should’ve ridden Moirhea, not you-”

“You were hurting,” he corrected her, his soft palm coming up to cup her cheek. “You were grieving. Or… are. And that’s okay, this is okay. You’ve taken much worse, anyway, on my account, and Zym’s and Ez’s…”

He reached out, the soft back of this fingers brushing the pink, new skin at her upper arm, her nose, her temple, her forehead, lightly across the still-tender, raised line of the healing cut there, the down against to her other arm, where the smoke wolf had left its bite mark, long gone, but Callum remembered. His hand closed gently, but pointedly around her left wrist.

Callum remembered and paid attention and cared.

He pulled very gently, not so much a tug as an urge, echoing a thousand-fold inside her, and she moved forward, into the waiting circle of his arms, his warm chest against hers.

It was like a cocoon of soft, happy warmth, so different from that tense, unfulfilled need she didn’t know what to do with, and it was just… so weird that the same person could give her… all the feelings.

Rayla laid her head against his shoulder, pressing as close as she could with the dumb armor between them.

Callum’s hands rested chastely against her waist and back, not straying, respecting boundaries that weren’t here there, on her part.

And he didn’t kiss her and she didn’t kiss him.

But she sighed, relaxing into him, satisfied.

Chapter Text



6.53PM, June 8th, The Spire Plains, Xadia

Rough scratchy bark.

Weird uneven lumps.

Vines that gave you a rash.

It was harder than you’d think, to engineer a perfect, spontaneous romantic moment? That Callum probably had some idea was coming, because he kept glancing back at her and grinning all… doofy.

She had to… pick the right tree? Right? She wanted him to like it, not get cut up by too-rough bark or get stabbed by a branch.

And it couldn’t be too far away either, or it wouldn’t be spontaneous and romantic.

Callum looked back at her again, smiling. His gaze flicked off to the side. Yeah, there was a good one, there. It was too far away from their path to fulfil the requirements though.

Damnit, Zym was asleep in the saddle bag too, it would have been perfect timing-

Fuck it.

Rayla slid off the Shadowpaw, turning to look up at Callum’s smiling face, leaning against the side of the saddle, going for… casual. Cool. Not at all bursting with mushy feelings brought on by the way the sun reflected off his hair or way his smile tugged at his cheeks-

From his higher vantage point, he leaned over to kiss the top of her head, which she barely even felt with her hair in the way and how gentle he always was but… she felt it. Like warmth spreading from his touch. His fingers grazing the length of her ear… very different warmth and the surprised little meepy sound she made was just embarrassing but then Callum lost his balance, never his strong suit, and toppled forwards towards her, sliding off the Shadowpaw.

Rayla caught him round the middle, pushing him back upright.

She didn’t let go. Her face was kinda smushed against his chest, and his arms came round to embrace her, the whole thing different with him higher up, and his hand came up to cup the back of her head, tilting it upwards-

Damnit.

The plan was tree shoving kisses not… whatever this was. He was always bloody derailing her plans with his… relentless sweetness.

Sweet wasn’t in the itinerary right now, Callum just oozed it all over everything.

“Stop derailing things,” she said, mock-sternly, wagging her finger at him. “It’s important to stick to a plan. You’re so damn distractible-”

“Me?!” he laughed. “You’re the one who’s being all distracting! You can’t blame me for that!”

“I definitely can! The blame for all the mushy sweetness is plainly on you! I’m an assassin, Callum!” Or… ‘was’.

She looked up at him, gauging. She supposed she could still… throw him over her shoulder or something. Take him to the tree. He had been pretty clear that he wouldn’t mind that.

But she reached up to give him a hand down instead, and kept his hand in hers as she led him away from the Shadowpaw and Zym, towards the pivotal part of the original plan.

She positioned him carefully, guiding his shoulders to rest against a smooth part of the trunk, before pushing him firmly back against it, covering his mouth with hers.

He was ready, his arms coming up to embrace her, but the stupid rigid armor didn’t let her feel his hands, only insufficient, vague pressure.

She let out a frustrated groan, into his mouth.

Callum got it, shifting his hands to her hips where there was just the thin fabric of her leggings in the way, then her bare arms, upwards, softly across her cheeks and ears.

“What about… the- mhmm… element… of surprise?” he gasped out, in-between kisses. “I though- …you were…”

“Overrated.” She pressed closer to him, breathing hard. “And you were expecting it anyway, so… and if you think I can’t still surprise you?” Her hands slid up the side of his ribcage under the bulky jacket. “You’ve got another thing com-”

He kinda… sucked in a breath and caught her lower lip.

Oh, this was… the best feeling ever. How did adults get anything done when they could be doing this instead?

His warm lips, warm and soft, left a tingling trail from her mouth to her ear.

His hand hesitated though, the back of his fingers stalling, resting against her cheek.

“Can I touch you…?” he asked, hesitant. Dummy. They kinda already had. His gaze flicked down. “I mean… not your butt or anything! Uh. Sorry. I mean… can I touch… anywhere your clothes don’t cover?”

“For starters,” she smirked. He went very red. “It’s not quite a fair exchange though,” she pouted. “You’re way more covered up than me.”

His fingertips and head were all the bits of him she had, by those rules, with the bulky jacket and scarf and gloves, not fair at all, even if they were… good bits. Very… good… “Mhhmm,” she exhaled as he pressed a soft kiss to her mouth, officially fair game at this point.

“I can take the jacket off,” he offered, breathless against her lips.

She shook her head because she was out of breath too. She could make it work.

She drew back to look at him, gauging her point of attack.

His scalp was too… familiar. Too intimate. She didn’t know if it meant the same to humans, when they didn’t have horns, but to her? No. Not yet.

She brushed her fingers along his jawline instead, along his smiling lips.

He kissed her fingertips. No fair at all, again with the bloody oozing of the sweetness that made her all melty inside-

She nuzzled her face into his neck. He smelled much nicer since the Silvergrove. And he’d washed, with soap and everything, this morning, even though he’d also washed up the night before.

That was basically an invitation, she thought, to sniff his hair and neck and rest her head against the sun-warmed skin that smelled like… bread? But nice? And the herbal soap from Ethari. And something uniquely him.

He sighed against her neck. The little exhale of air… she felt it all the way to her toes. The little kiss he planted against the spot his breath had hit, the spot she was so extremely aware of…

Well, it was a good thing her arms were around him and his was around her.

Her pants were muffled against his neck, and it didn’t matter anyway, Nyx wasn’t here anymore, and they might… they might not have a lot of time.

“We’ll be at the Spire. Really soon.” And things would change. They wouldn’t be just them… whatever they were. He was her moonberry surprise but that didn’t seem at all… adequate… to describe what he was to her. She tentatively licked where she had kissed. He tasted slightly like sweat but… Whatever that was, it was overruled by the sound he made, not gasping like she had but like a shuddering rumble from deep through him. His hands fell from his embrace, his head going slightly limp against her shoulder.

“Rayla-” he pulled away, his face like a beacon. “Um. I… That was…”

“Too much?”

“Not… exactly. I definitely… liked it, just-”

He was almost a whole year younger than her. And neither of them had a clue what they were doing.

“Sorry. I’m…” She was afraid. Afraid that this would be it. That they had until they arrived at the Spire and then-

She couldn’t say of it out loud; she didn’t want to. Their time of uncomplicated good feelings would be up soon enough as it was.

“No.” Callum cupped her face in his hands, still slightly breathless and still very flushed, but he wasn’t looking away from her. “No,” he repeated, very firmly. “I’m not sorry if you’re not.” He cocked his head and it was like… he saw right through her. “We have time. I’m not going anywhere. I get that… stuff might change. Soon. But not me. Not how I feel about you.” How could he possibly-?

He stopped her, when she stepped forward to hug him, flustered. “Um. You…” He laughed nervously. “You… also can’t squeeze me until after I’ve peed. I mean… it’s not really acute but… if it’s a long hug, which… I’d like… It would be nice to pee first instead of after-”

She sputtered with laughter, with release of the tension she didn’t want anyway. At least they were even now.

It was very definitely overkill on the mush, to kiss someone goodbye and hold onto their fingertips, just because you were going behind some trees to take a leak… right? And she should tell him that, that there were limits to how sappy they could go around being, because at some point, other people would have to be able to stand being around them, and anyway, she was a warrior and… never mind, actually, because the soft kisses he pressed against her lips and hands made her… so tingly and bubbly inside there was no room for anything else. It was really just… ridiculous that something this nice was just… a thing now? A thing she got to have.

Rayla sank down against the tree, smiling widely and helplessly, as Callum left.

She loved him, and of course she couldn’t say that to him, because he was actually awake now, and not dying and that was just… too soon. Way too soon.

They had time.

Chapter Text



11.47PM, June 9th, The Storm Spire, Xadia

The back of Callum’s hand brushed against hers, as the stairs to the pinnacle narrowed, forcing them closer together. An accident?

Her hips bumped surreptitiously into his. Very much not an accident.

He held her elbow gently, for a moment, when he passed her.

She caught up to straighten his scarf, brushing his cheek with her thumb.

He pressed a daringly long kiss to the corner of her jaw, during a brief window of time when none of the rest of the group was looking, and she had to clamp a hand to her mouth to not inform Ezran of their thing in possibly the most embarrassing way imaginable.

He danced away, grinning triumphantly, evading her stunned and belated grasp for him.

This was payback for that ‘zesty’-thing, she just knew it.

And he thought he had won but she would show him.

When the path curved enough to bring the rest of the group out of eyeshot, she fully let go of the coy pretense and pushed him against the stone wall for all of three seconds of fevered kisses before abruptly stepping away grinning, charging up the stairs to catch up to Ezran, leaving him all debauched-looking and confused.

When he caught up to her, he looked determined though, his eyes full of mischief and defiance.

“That was cheating,” he whispered, into her ear, his warm breath ghosting across the sensitive skin.

“We didn’t establish any rules,” she smirked, even though she knew… there were rules, or at the very least, boundaries that they were both respecting. “But if you want rules then…” She put her finger to her lips, then to his, warm and soft, and a smile spreading under her touch.

His smile was agreement enough.

No talking.

Laughing wasn’t talking though, so that was okay.

“You guys are in such a good mood,” Ezran commented happily, from up ahead. “It’s nice!”

They both succumbed to more helpless giggles.

Walking slightly behind her, Callum ran the soft back of his fingers up her arm from her hand to the little bit of bare skin at the back of her shoulder.

She shivered, because it was such a light touch it almost tickled and if he got closer to her armpit you could definitely strike the ‘almost’.

She glared back at him. No tickling. That should be a rule.

No talking either though. That was the only established rule of whatever game this was.

At the next place where the steps flattened to a ledge, she motioned, still unspeaking to stop for a break.

Now, a break was needed, to be fair, but it also provided entirely new opportunities.

She placed a fake-casual hand on Callum’s knee when she lowered herself down next to him, stroking his knee through his pants.

He leant against her minutely, just… looking at her.

He couldn’t just look at her like that. There definitely ought to be a rule against that. But he wasn’t breaking eye contact, just… looking. Smiling all doofy. Not even touching her or anything.

Damnit, he was winning this sappiest-of-staring-contests, wasn’t he?

She looked down, heat rising in her cheeks. Yeah, he definitely won that one.

She could… turn this upside down on him though. She bloody well had to, she could lose like this!

Ezran had said once, that Callum liked her butt? She hadn’t really believed him at the time but… it was worth a try?

Zym was on the other side of Callum, the cutest little excuse ever, and Rayla lunged at him like she did in their very regular and normal hunting game, reaching over Callum to catch him in her arms.

She hugged the captured baby dragon to her chest, collapsing on her stomach down across Callum’s lap, leaving her butt front and center for him.

And oh, it was working! His cheeks were all red and he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. She wiggled a bit, hiding it as tussling with the squirming baby dragon.

Oh.

What was she doing?

She had no idea at all, no idea how far she was really ready to go and-

She was losing, that was what she was doing, because her face was heating worse than Callum’s, or at least it definitely felt like that from the inside.

She let go of Zym, and scrambled out of Callum’s lap and well away from him.

It was a very good thing Ezran was occupied with an extremely distracting and affectionate baby dragon, because she had just thought of a more embarrassing way for him to find out.

Bait was staring at her, all judgy.

She could win that staring contest though, wasn’t like it was hard, looking at people, just… hard looking at Callum. When he was looking at her like that.

She jumped, when Callum touched her arm.

“Hey,” he said gently. “I’m sorry.” What?

“Uh, I escalated things,” she said, confused.

“We both did.”

“Game over, then?” she sighed, a bit regretful. It had been pretty fun, for a while.

“Only if you want it to be,” he smiled. “It’s cold, right?”

It was a bit chilly maybe, this high up but not cold as such-

“Yeah, you look cold,” he grinned, that mischief back on his face. “Me too.”

Callum got his cloak out from his bag and spread it across both their laps, scooching closer to manage it.

The back of his hand bumped against hers under the cover of the cloak, like the touch that had started the game, but most definitely intentional this time.

Rayla threaded their fingers together, and met his smile with no pretense at all.

Chapter Text



8.32PM, June 10th, The Storm Spire

Ibis waved his arm magnanimously, too dramatic really, for what it was. An empty stone hallway. Doors.

He pushed one open, revealing spartan living quarters.

Bed, desk, cupboard. Empty and anonymous-looking, not the quarters of anyone in particular but a rotation of people… of Dragonguards.

“You can sleep here, for as long as you plan to stay at the Spire,” Ibis said, his gaze going to her and Callum with some disapproval. “There are similar quarters along the hallway, so you can have private quarters.”

Yeah, that wasn’t happening.

Ibis left, and they went to scavenge the other quarters for extra mattresses and blankets.

 


 

It had changed, when they reached the pinnacle, she had been right that there was an expiration date on that uncomplicated giddy happiness.

Callum was smiling at her now, and if it had been a few days ago, she would have smiled back and scrambled over to him and… pushed him against the wall behind him and kissed that ridiculously kissable sweet smile.

A few days ago, there had been no Ezran trying to cheer up Zym with an elf-food tasting game

No Ibis, coolly observing everything they did.

No Queen Zubeia, here but also… so far away from her kid who needed her.

No familiar painted patterns on a stone door, mirroring the ones on her old storage box and on the headboard of Ethari and- Ethari’s bed.

Those patterns had stopped her in her tracks, while they had been blanket-scavenging, and she had stared at them too long, made it as far as grazing the curving lines with the tips of her fingers… before Callum and Ezran had turned around and she’d jumped away from it.

They had been painted by someone with a steady hand and patient demeanor, she thought. But it was all speculation, really. Probably, that was what her dad had been like, it fit with what Runaan and Ethari had told her about him. Fit with her own scant memories, him guiding her own little hand across the patterns of her then-toy chest, explaining their meaning.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen her dad at all in recent years but… not for long enough for the… visitor-ness to wear off.

Callum and Ezran clearly knew she was… what? In a funk, she supposed.

They were too, it was not like anyone was in a good mood. Zym was whiny and fussy. His mum, that they had brought him all the way here to get to, was… asleep?

Her mum was… had been behind that door, and the signs of her would still be in there, maybe.

It was… complicated, how she felt. She would never see them again, they had left their mission like they had left her. That was the only answer she was ever getting, that she had been less important to them than the task they had up and left at the first sign of trouble.

She deliberately released her fists that had clenched around her knees.

It was in the past. There were lots of things happening right now she should be focusing on.

Wasn’t like she should give a shit, when they hadn’t.

 “Let’s play a game!” Ezran’s cheerful voice interrupted that really dumb and sad brain tangent and… good. Shaking her head, determined, Rayla smiled back at Ezran’s beaming face, as he looked from her to Callum, lifting Zym into his lap. “I kinda just skipped over all the Xadia-adventures,” he said. “And I wanna know about all the cool things you did!” It seemed to occur to Ezran just then, that it had not all been cool. “You can skip the really scary stuff if you don’t wanna talk about it! And the kissy stuff! Especially, please skip the kissy stuff!”

Callum snickered. “But there’s just so much of it! Kissing Rayla’s pretty hair up against a tree, and kissing Rayla’s beautiful lips on a huge camel creature-”

“Lalalalaaa!” Ezran stuck his fingers in his ears, humming, and Rayla laughed, and the heaviness actually lifted for real.

“-and kissing Rayla’s cute little hands,” Callum continued, looking at her all… looking at her. “And kissing her-”

Her cheeks felt warm, and Callum stopped, very wisely, she thought.

“Are you done?” Ezran asked, pulling his fingers out of his ears to sternly cross his arms.

“Yeah, yeah,” Callum grinned, sending her a tender little smile that made her cheeks feel even warmer. “I mean, not forever but… for now, I’m done.”

“You can have five questions,” Rayla suggested, smiling at Ezran. He should get to hear about their adventures, wasn’t at all fair he had been in prison while they had had… well… an extremely wide range of experiences and emotional highs and lows. “We both got five, only fair you do, too.”

Ezran bounced excitedly. “Yes! I have… soooo many questions! Okay, okay, number one! What was the cutest animal you guys met?”

“That’s a really hard question Ez,” Callum snickered. “I mean, nothing is cuter than Rayla’s little ear twitches-”

“Callum, you promised!”

Callum laughed. “Sorry. For me, it was probably the adoraburrs. I met a very cute-looking Lunar Squirrel, such a fluffy tail, you just had to touch it… so I touched it. Don’t touch Lunar Squirrels, Ez.”

“Duh. I met one of those. It told me not to touch it. Tell me more about the adoraburrs. Rayla just said they stuck together.”

“They’re all kinds of colors. Little balls of fluff, but they stick to everything. And they’re cuddly and friendly, and squeak in a really cute way when you pet them! And they’re stackable!”

“I used to play with them as a kid,” Rayla said, remembering. “I had to go to the meadow though, to do it, because they weren’t allowed in the house. They got into the food cupboards one too many times,” she giggled. “They’re stackable, like Callum said. They stack themselves and make chains to get leverage and then they get in and eat everything that’s not in sealed jars.”

“Couldn’t you just lock or seal the cupboards?” Ezran asked.

“Sure. They got in… somehow.”

“You unlocked the cupboards for them, didn’t you?” Ezran asked, grinning widely and knowingly.

“Yeeeah, I did. I wasn’t a very obedient child.”

“I bet you were the most wholesome rebel ever, though,” Callum smiled. “Like Ez. Hiding wounded animals under your bed and stealth-gardening and stealth-helping-younger-kids-with-their-homework.”

Oh no… she had done that first one at least twice. And the last one at least once, she distinctly remembered Runaan had telling her to focus on her own studies and-

And that was the past too.

“Okay, so… question two,” Ezran continued. “Did you meet any fun elves?”

“No.” Rayla said flatly.

“Okay, so I have question three right away,” Ezran giggled. “Which elf sprang to mind when you said ‘no’, just now?”

“Nyx,” Callum answered. Not that the faceless Silvergrove elves had been fun either, but yeah… Nyx was a special case of not-fun. “A Skywing elf we met, crossing the Midnight Desert. She had wings and a boomerang staff and a giant camel-creature called an ambler that we all rode through the desert.”

Ezran’s eyes were wide. She supposed that did sound fun, from that surface-level description. It really hadn’t been, although to be fair, not only because of Nyx.

That’s the least fun elf you met?!” Ezran complained. “That’s just not fair!”

“Yeah,” Callum laughed. “She also kidnapped Zym and stranded us alone in the desert and… and uh-” She could see the mental gymnastics Callum was doing, trying to explain the crime that had been the barrage of utterly mortifying sex jokes to his little brother.

“She’s an overgrown pigeon,” Rayla said, smiling over at Callum, deciding to help him out and challenge him both. “It’s a metaphor.” Callum liked metaphors and had a creative mind, he could make this work.

“Yeah!” Callum grinned, his eyes lighting up. “A winged menace, rooting around in the gutter and constantly making annoying noises to interrupt private conversations.”

Rayla snickered, then smiled widely, completely helpless to the force tugging at her lips, when she looked at Callum’s face. It was really so cruel that she wasn’t allowed to kiss him right now, when he looked all kissable and pleased with himself, but they had both promised.

Callum smiled back like… yeah, he was feeling the kissy vibes too-

“Question four!” Ezran interrupted, so loudly that she thought he might be picking up on the vibes too. “What’s the most exciting thing you did?”

“We climbed the biggest tree I’ve ever seen, and rode a giant spinning seedpod thousands of feet down through the air-”

Rayla snorted. Leaf riding was just Tuesday things. Callum was too easily impressed. “We made a daring escape from a giant, fire-breathing dragon, too?”

Ezran laughed. “I know that, I was there-

“Yeeeah, different dragon. Bigger. Much, much bigger. The arch dragon Sol Regem, destroyer of the city of Elarion, older than the Breach itself.”

“Rayla wins,” Ezran said, very definitively.

“Sorry if I don’t consider that… exciting so much as… terrifying.” Callum said, glancing sideways at her, his fingers tightening around hers.

“Zym told me stuff,” Ezran said, looking seriously up at her. “That you were hurt and he had to be careful and no-pouncy-zappy-scratchy with you for a while. And then he said that then you were really sad after you-”

“Y-yeah,” Rayla choked out. She didn’t want to hide things from Ez but… one of the things that had made her sad was… pretty raw right now, freshly reactivated from when they had walked past that door, and she didn’t want to start crying in front of him either, he was sensitive and-

“That’s what I mean! And that’s my last question, and I’m sorry if it’s a hurt-y one, but… Zym doesn’t understand the complicated things yet, and I’d like to know, so I can be careful too.”

“Ez, you don’t need to be careful with me, really. A dragon dumped some rocks on me, I was slightly crushed, but I’m fine now.” Her voice had shaken, and it hadn’t been convincing at all and- “R-really.” Yeah, worse.

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Ezran said, his voice firm, but his little hand sneaking into hers was soft.

“I… know.” She breathed, that soft little hand more steadying than made any sense at all. “It’s a long story, Ez. And… it’s… well, partly, at least, about… the man who… killed your dad. He was… I knew him and… Ezran, are you sure you want to hear it?”

“It will hurt you to tell and hurt me to hear. I get that.” Then Ezran nodded, his round face determined, as he shifted to sit on her other side, never letting go of her hand. “I got that before I asked it. And I still asked.”

Zym bounced from Ezran’s lap into Rayla’s, boxing her in entirely on all sides.

She breathed deeply, squeezing both the princes’ hands.

“Okay.”

Chapter Text



8.48PM, June 11th, The Storm Spire

Rayla leaned into Callum, ignoring her usual hang-ups about getting physical in front of an audience, in favor of feeling more of him, of closing the distance, soothing that raw feeling from earlier today.

The had torn into each other. She had told him he didn’t know her at all, and he had told her it was just pride making her want to stay and fight. It had been wrong and hurtful things. Hurtful, coming from him. And her, she bet.

And Callum felt the same, she could tell, threading his fingers through hers, twisting to kiss the top of her head where she was pressed into the crook of his neck, raising the hand he held to kiss her palm, leaving tickly warmth that lingered and spread.

“You guys are so gross, I don’t even know how you can stand to be around yourselves,” Ezran groaned. “At least I get a break once in a while. I mean, I was expecting it from Callum, but you, Rayla? Really? I mean, I still blame Callum, that’s only fair.”

“How is that fair, again?” Callum asked.

“You ruined her, like I said. You were always sappy, Rayla at least used to be cool. I read some of one of the books you had on your nightstand-” Oh thank you, Ezran. Always reliably handing her all the teasing ammunition she could want. “So much kissy stuff. All the time. How do the book-people even think that’s important, when they’re about to die, or they just almost-died or they think they’re dying?”

Well-“ Callum started, looking a bit sheepish.

“Callum, no!” Ezran groaned. “You didn’t?!”

“What, really?” Rayla snorted. “When?”

“After the dragon dumped rocks on you? And after the leaf ride where I thought I was going to die. And-” And earlier, when she had told him she was staying here to die alone, and… she wasn’t thinking about it, and she could see Callum pulling back too.

They were both still here. They might not be, in a few days, but right now they were, and she wanted to feel it and-

And he felt the imminent-death kissy vibes too, apparently a thing outside of storybooks, and tugged her upwards, his kiss soft and tender, but ending with a little sigh against her lips that made her toes all tingly and curly-uppy, and-

“Wow… you guys really are… together.” Soren still sounded too surprised about that for her liking, and Rayla drew back from Callum to glare at him. She hadn’t liked either of the things he, to be fair, hadn’t said earlier, but had thought, that she was apparently simultaneously out of Callum’s league and not suitable for him because she was an elf.

How did Soren even fit both those things in his head at once? They really didn’t go together.

But she forgot about it, at least for a while, because ‘what constituted bread’ was a discussion where her Xadian perspective was gravely underrepresented, and it needed her full attention.

 


 

“I’d like to talk to Soren a bit longer,” Rayla said, as Ezran’s faint snore signaled the end of the night, and Callum hoisted his brother up on his shoulder with a bit of a grunt but… much less effort than he had back in Katolis. He was stronger here at the Spire, the Sky Nexus affecting him like the Moon Nexus had her.

Callum looked… hesitant. Or protective, maybe? But he said goodnight and left with Ezran, and Rayla turned to glare at Soren, still by the fire, so pointedly not looking at her feet it was actually less subtle than the staring.

“You’re an ass,” she said.

“I know, I tried to kill you like… three times.”

“Yeah, lots of people have tried to kill me, it’s old hat and not why you’re an ass. You’re an ass to Callum.”

“I know,” Soren said seriously and did seem like he meant it, but… she wasn’t done, and she sure didn’t trust that he really did know.

“What do you even mean I’m out of his league?! You’ve known him his whole life almost!” How could he have known him that long and not seen how amazing he was. That was just offensive and needed correcting without Callum here to hear more of that baseless crap he seemed to actually believe to some extent.

“I don’t know. It popped into my head. Because you’re all tough and like… really, really bendy? And he’s like… kinda a nerd.”

Kinda a nerd? He’s the biggest dork I’ve ever met.”

“Right? So you get it!”

“No! Why is that bad? That he thinks about stuff and always wants to know how things work and… cares so much?” Oops, she was smiling. He gave her a gift like no one had before, because he had pushed and thought and cared. He gave her a whole different future when he cast that spell. Freedom inside her head, to make a choice that was actually a choice.

“You really like him?” Soren asked, grinning a bit now.

“Yes,” she said, firmly and defiantly. She was not comfortable being so open about this stuff, but the guy who had pushed her boyfriend into horseshit and then made him clean his boots afterwards was… the absolute last person she would ever pretend she felt anything less for Callum than she did.

She loved him and had known that before she even kissed him.

“He really likes you, too,” Soren said. “I mean, I know I’m kinda slow and kinda… missed some stuff.” Like that cuddling for half an hour, her sticking her foot in Callum’s face and him yelling at Soren on her account… probably meant they were more than friends? “But now I know, I see it. I do know him, you know. He was like my little brother, except I was mean a lot of the time. But he never really did shit like yell at me. Not even when I called him the mis-step-prince in front the princess of Del Bar.”

Really? That was… really? Callum was kind and patient but… he also got really angry. And he had never pushed back?

She looked into the flames, pensive. He had… just taken it? That made her angry but also sad.

“What are you thinking about,” Soren asked. Who just asked that? What kinda question was that even? Who just answered that?

Soren, probably. And Callum, too.

Not her though. None of Soren’s business.

“Aren’t you gonna tell me to treat him right or else?” she asked instead, smirking slightly. “If he’s like your little brother?”

“Uh, no? I mean, that would be hypnosis.” What? Another weird belief about elves? A really stupid one, too.

“Like… you can’t actually make me do what you want by talking to me all weird and slow? You do know that, right?”

“Yes!” Soren said proudly. “I do know that!”

“Sooo… hypnosis?”

“Yeah! You know! I can’t really tell you to treat him right because I didn’t treat him right?”

“…hypocrisy?” she ventured, after chewing on it for a bit.

“Yeah, what I said.”

Rayla sighed, standing up to pick up Zym, asleep by the fire. At least the meaning behind the wrong word was right.

“Isn’t it weird, having less toes?” Soren asked, because she had walked past him and apparently brought her bare feet back into his sphere of attention. “You really don’t think it’s weird?”

“No! From my perspective, human feet are weird, how is that- Shit, how are you even walking and breathing at the same time?!”

“Claudia,” he answered, and with a big release of… guilt?

Soren wasn’t subtle, his feelings were all over his face and-

Claudia had… what had she done? Rayla had been pretty preoccupied at the time, but she had seen Soren take a bad hit from Pyrrah’s tail and she was honestly surprised he had been walking and breathing when she saw him again and… this wasn’t good at all.

Soren might not know hypnosis from hypocrisy, but he knew right from wrong, unlike his sister.

And he was doing the right thing now.

 


 

Callum wasn’t quite asleep when she got back to their room.

He had left space for her on the big bed next to him, and smiled sleepily when she entered, and didn’t stop smiling even when she stuck her bare feet, the soles cold from the walk from the kitchen, under the covers and up against him.

His arms wound around her, just a bit too tight to be chill, the tension from earlier still in him.

She stroked through his hair at his temple, steering clear of where his horns would have been even though… it probably didn’t mean what it did to elves.

He definitely needed a bedtime distraction, and it just so happened he had given her one, a while back.

“You still owe me three questions,” she said.

“Okay,” he agreed, immediately, even though he could definitely have bargained, there, considering he had shared his last two. “You can ask me anything, really. We might not… you might as well.”

They were staying here to face an army, was what he wasn’t saying.

All of them were staying. They might not-

“I’ll ask you one a day,” she said firmly. “First one today.” The army was two days out, according to Soren, and in three days, it would be over, one way or the other, and…

And she would ask that last, fifth question, but right now she would ask the third.

Not about the past, like they had before, with Callum’s last two questions. Not now.

Or rather, yes now. That was the point. The question should be about now. Something happy. Light. This whole day had been… so very long and heavy.

Runaan had taught her, she should know her opponents’ weaknesses, assess the optimal point of attack. A question he would answer… that was a fucking goldmine, in that regard.

It was just tactical thinking, really, to ask about that. Not mean or unfair at all.

“Where are you the most ticklish?” she asked.

A comically horrified expression spread on his face.

Yeah… tonight was for enjoying the present that was now.

Chapter Text

10.45PM, June 12th, The Storm Spire

She couldn’t ask him about the future.

She wanted to, though.

She wanted to go into battle knowing.

But he… he didn’t, she thought. Couldn’t. He couldn’t have that future in his head, where they might both die tomorrow, where she might still die. He had made it very clear that he wasn’t about to accept that future easily.

Rayla wanted to ask but… maybe it would just hurt him, if she did, if they talked about a future that was horrible and maybe wasn’t even going to happen.

She still had two questions left though. Enough to ask something else now and still have one left.

She knew what she had to ask… about the past. It wasn’t fun at all either but… she wanted him to think about it, so he never did it again.

She snapped out of her reverie as Callum came back from the bathroom, getting into the big bed next to her and leaning over to press a sweet little kiss to her cheek, then her temple, lingering.

“You look…

“Like a tent?” Rayla snickered, looking down at her oversized Dragonguard nightshirt.

“A pretty tent,” he laughed. “But I meant to say that you look… like you have something on your mind.”

“I have a question for today, remember?”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “Second-to-last-one. So, make it good.”

“I have one, that’s… what I was thinking about.” Not just that, but- “Why didn’t you push back? When Soren pushed you? He said… you’d never yelled at him like you did yesterday. You have enough of a temper, you’re not a pushover and you can definitely out-argue Soren. So why?

“I didn’t… I did… snap a bit. I wasn’t a complete push-” He cut off, grinning a bit in self-reproach. “Okay. I was.”

He thought for a while, frowning.

She drew close to hug his floofy head to her chest, burying her hand in his soft hair at the back of his head. His arms came up to wrap around her back.

“I don’t think I really… felt it?” he said, like he was tasting the words. “I was used to it, maybe? It just felt like part of life. Wasn’t like I liked hearing it, but… it was true? To me?”

“You weren’t even all that insulted that Soren said I was out of your league, but you snapped because he called my feet weird?”

“Well yeah! That’s just not true!”

“No, it isn’t. You’re amazing. And I’m glad I’m with you. You make me so happy. And you’re so… so much stronger than you think. Don’t let him… or anyone… say things like that to you, okay? Get mad if they do, like you do for me. Because they’re mean and wrong.”

“You’re kind and right.”

“Pfft, you’re sappy.”

“You’re important.” Oh, that was… very pointed.

“You’re derailing.”

“You’re brave and good.”

“You’re stronger than you know.”

“Your feet aren’t weird, they’re beautiful.”

“You already said that,” Rayla smirked… although her lips were tugging at her to smile for real. “So that’s gotta mean… you lost the game.” She had to at least try to keep it together-

“Wow, no.” He looked at her in mild disbelief and strong… everything else. “I don’t know what game you were playing. I won mine.”

 


 

Callum was asleep, snoring softly against her.

She couldn’t… she hadn’t been able to ask about… the future. What he wanted, after. And she couldn’t now. The had agreed to stay and fight. She might not live to ask that last question and that hadn’t been how she had wanted to spend what might be their last night.

And she had to ask it right. Nothing like… to do with her. If she wasn’t there to ask the question, then it would just upset him. But it was still important, the future. And he was important, and he really didn’t get that properly.

Her bare feet hit the cold stone floor, and she walked over to the desk without making a sound.

There was paper there, and ink, and a faintly sparkling light blue feather quill.

All the things she needed, really, except… the words. The courage.

She looked back at Callum, sleeping, his face all slack and cute and… trusting. Innocent. Stronger than he knew. A gift, and not just to her.

She would ask the same question that had been on her lips when she had asked about the past instead. And she thought… she knew how. It was about him, anyway. That’s how she would ask.

Rayla unfolded the parchment and dipped the quill. Runaan had been strict about writing neatly and she mostly hadn’t seen the point, but she was at least glad now that… this wouldn’t be all messy.

Callum,

I have another question for you. I had one left, you know that, so here it is:

What do you want the world to be like?

I don’t mean like some philosophy thing. I mean YOUR world. Your life. Because whatever the answer is, you deserve it, and you can have it, and you can MAKE it. You did that, already, making yourself a mage. But you can do so much more. Just think about it. Take your time. Make that world inside your head. And then make it REAL.

I love you.

But she didn’t write that. If she was dead then… she wanted him to look ahead, that was the whole point of writing this. That last, selfish bit, could stay inside her heart where it belonged.

She rolled up the parchment, as it was, and stuffed it down at the bottom of his bag.

She would ask him that last question.

One way or the other.

 


 

“Rayla!” Callum shook her shoulder, abruptly waking her.

“Good morning,” she muttered sleepily.

“Not really, no.”

“I know, the… battle.” She sat up to look at him, his furrowed brow and troubled eyes-

“Yeah, that’s not what I meant,” he said, waving a very familiar piece of parchment at her.

Oh.

Shit.

“You-” She fumbled for words. “You weren’t meant to read that yet!” Pathetic! That was really the best answer she had?

“I’m not meant to read it at all! You hear me?! Rayla, WHAT WAS THAT?!” He shouted the last bit, gasping for air.

She buried her face in her hands. They both knew exactly what that was.

These were the last precious minutes they had together and she had messed it up.

She hadn’t… wanted him to ever read that, she had wanted to… to be there to ask him and be with him, and make that world with him.

She could hear his rapid breaths. He was fuming, but then he took a deep and deliberate breath. Seemed to… make a decision.

“It’s okay,” he said, some strange and sudden calm. “You asked your question early. We’ll probably be… busy tonight, anyway. I’ll give you your answer early too, then.”

He peeled her hands away from her face to look at her. Kissed her lips softly. “Stay with me?” he said. “After? That’s what I want. The world I want. That really, really horrible… past-tense-ness aside, I liked your question. And I’d like your answer to it, too. We can… find the answer, maybe? We can decide together? With Ez, too? But we stay together. Okay?”

Her hear thumped so loudly in her chest she could barely think. Barely talk, either. She nodded though. “Yes. We stay together.”

The words she hadn’t written in the letter stuck on her tongue, but she didn’t say them. She couldn’t lie to him and… pretend what he wanted wasn’t her dream, too. That he wasn’t.

But it was not over yet. This… right now? This really might be… the last time.

And now, she wanted to forget about the past and the future both, and just be here with him in the present.

It was really not too bad of a last time, she thought, as they drew closer and their lips met and his hand slid up her back, warm and real and close, without the dumb, stiff armor she usually wore.

His lips moved too, his other hand sliding into her hair.

The present was a very good place to be, for several long minutes.

Then, sharp knocks on the door announced the future.

Chapter Text

7.39AM, June 14th, The Storm Spire

They soared with the rising wind.

The flight was all lightness and effortless grace and his lips against hers and the whoosh of his wingbeats carrying them upwards.

The landing… not so much.

It took three passes and some skidding along rough stone and probably some bruises but… at the end of it, they were on solid ground and none of them were chunks of very-dead teenager at the foot of the mountain, so… a roaring success for Callum’s first landing, Rayla thought, and his laughter set off hers, free and loud and triumphant.

She looked down at him, grinning widely, still bubbling over with relieved laughter. The first rays of the setting sun were catching in his hair and lighting up his smiling face, full of love that she knew now was… how he felt, too.

He loved her. He really did!

Reality did make a brief appearance when she pushed off the ground to sit up, and her left wrist sent spikes of pain up her arm like it hadn’t since the Moon Nexus, but it was still a distant sensation compared to the euphoria.

They were both… alive. Here. Together. He had not died for her. Those brief moments where she had been sure he would, were still ringing through her, the acceptance of her own death clashing into the very definite and impassioned ‘absolutely fucking not’ feeling that his impending death had brought out.

Neither of them were dead, but those feelings had still been there, filling all of her, and they hadn’t exactly… gone away, just retreated under the surface of overwhelming love and relief, too far away to feel but close enough to know they were there.

And Zym seemed okay too, bouncing towards them and pushing his snout against their hands, a bit tired and clingy, but… seemingly okay for whatever Viren had done to him.

“We’re okay,” Rayla said to the little dragon, because… sometimes illusions could be kind things to protect those you loved. “Ezran is still down on the battlefield, he’s… probably coming up though. Bait is inside the Spire. Are you okay to go check on him?”

Zym yipped in affirmation, and bounced down the stairs, which was good, because someone needed to check on Bait after that kick, and her legs weren’t cooperating right now, numb and useless lumps of jelly under her.

Callum sat up too, looking a bit dazed, but opening his wings in invitation, like the cutest and most amazing tent ever, which was the point when another bit of reality announced itself… that she was… she must be cold to be shivering?

She put her arms back around his neck, and he put his wings around her.

His cheek was warm where her cold nose pressed into it, his jaw and mouth warm against lips, tingly heat spreading from every point of contact with him, her body seeming to press closer of its own accord.

He was warm, and she was so cold, that was a thing that was very much starting to register. Her clothes were soaked from the melting ice prison, and the wings were keeping away the gusts of wind, whipping the frigid dawn air around them. And the fact that it was Callum, that it was his wings… that was keeping away all the other bad things.

But… no one was shielding him. He was shaking against her, his lips desperate and wanting, unlike any kiss he had ever given her.

His wings slipped against her head, accidentally buffeting her horn, and he drew away, glaring at the feathery appendages in annoyance, clearly having missed the lesson about how to make the wings go away.

“Sorry,” he said, beginning to snicker a bit as he waved one wing to absolutely zero effect. “I really want to touch you, hold you and…” He snickered again, but it was off. 

He was off.

She reached out to stroke his face. It left a streak of blood across his cheekbone. It was hers though, his was more brownish red, so it was okay, not like it made much of a difference, insofar as them both needing a wash.

His snickers became raucous laughter, but Rayla didn’t laugh with him this time.

Then his laughter, very fast once the first little hiccup broke free, became sobs against her shoulder.

The wings fell away on their own somehow. Maybe because his mind was… not soaring anymore.

He clutched her hard with human hands, his fingers twisting in her clothes and hair as his sobs became wails, unrestrained, horrible, pained noises.

It was fading, but too slowly, into ragged gasps for air, as she stroked his hair and neck and face.

“Shhh,” she said gently, against his ear.

“It’s okay.” But maybe that was a lie.

“I’m okay.” Almost certainly a lie, but it was hard to say. She was pretty sure… she just couldn’t feel it yet, not like he could.

“You’re okay.” Definitely a lie.

“You’ll be okay.” True, because he would, she would make sure of it.

He wasn’t okay though, not at all, even as his gasps stilled, his hands were still desperate fists in her clothes, his embrace tighter than was comfortable.

Rayla turned, at the sound of something skidding against the stone ground.

It was… Pyrrah? Ezran, Soren and Amaya dismounted, Amaya setting off in a run towards them, falling to her knees with a pained grimace.

She smelled like smoke and blood. And from the way she had moved she was… not okay either. Her breastplate was dented and charred so… probably cracked ribs. At least.

But she reached out to tip Callum’s tearstained, bloodstained face up to meet hers, cupping his cheeks, as gentle as Rayla had ever seen her.

Rayla didn’t understand what she was signing, but she thought she could guess, and she could tell it was a question, from Amaya’s face.

She made sure to look in Amaya’s face and speak clearly. “Don’t worry, it’s my blood. He’s not hurt, that I know of. He’s… shocked. I pushed Viren off the mountain. And Callum jumped after us. For me.” Rayla didn’t even know how to say it. How to feel about any of it. “Viren is dead. He fell.” The next bit came out very… choked. “I killed him.”

Amaya signed something else. Rayla still didn’t understand, but she got the feelings. Affirmation. Relief. Regret.

Amaya pointed at the… edge. At the battlefield.

Of course. She had to go back, there was still the army, and probably Claudia, down there.

“Go,” Rayla said. “I’ll take care of him, I promise.”

Amaya clapped her shoulder. Kissed Callum’s forehead. And left to do what she had to.

She signed something to Soren, as he neared with Ezran in tow. “Soren, Amaya says you should stay up here, to guard me and Callum as is the duty of a Crownguard,” Ezran translated.

Soren’s face was wrought with pain, tears streaked though the grime. Guarding Ezran was not why Amaya had asked him to stay up here, Rayla knew a kind illusion when she saw it.

Ezran ran up to them now, horrified, putting his arms around them both as best he could.

Soren looked at them, gauging and all… soldiery, like he sometimes got. He was deceptively competent, she knew that very well by now. “Are either of you hurt?” he asked, nodding at Callum’s face pointedly.

“That’s mine,” Rayla said, again. “And no. Not badly,” she added. “Not phy-physically.” Her teeth were clattering. She must be colder than she could feel. She was okay though? She was pretty sure she was okay.

“Yeah, I’m not really sure you’re a good judge of that right now,” Soren said.

“She’s never a good judge of that,” Ezran said, very sure and a bit accusing. “She said she was fine when her hand was falling off.”

“Come on, let’s get you both inside. Get you looked at. Warm you up, at least.”

Ezran’s hand was very warm against her cheek. Or maybe she was colder than she thought?

Callum wasn’t letting go though. He was pressed tight, his arms rigid and locked around her. “Hey buddy,” Soren said, peering at his pale face, pressed into her neck again. “Let go. You guys need to be not hugging while I do the triangle thing I need to do.”

“Triage?” Rayla asked. She wasn’t sure she trusted someone to triage her or worse, Callum, who didn’t actually know the word.

“Yeah, what I said. The making sure you’re not dying-thing.” She didn’t think Callum heard any of this, he wasn’t reacting at all. Soren reached out to shake his shoulder, as he realized this too. “Callum! You need to let go of her, okay? We need to get you both inside, it’s fucking freezing up here.”

Soren had to physically pry Callum away, but he let himself be led, at least. Soren gave him a quick once-over, seeming satisfied he wasn’t dying.

Rayla’s cutoff for satisfaction was rather higher, when it came to Callum, but not-dying was a good start.

Then the man turned to her, tipping up her face to inspect some… well, maybe the ice cut her, she supposed, and looking her over, pausing at her right hand. Right. There had been red mixing with the meltwater when she had punched the ice. It wasn’t that bad, she thought, just split knuckles that looked dramatically bloody but didn’t hurt, really. Or… it was a vague, distant sting, maybe.

At the very least, she was sure she wasn’t dying, and that her hand wasn’t falling off this time, and Soren seemed to agree, pulling both of them to their feet.

Whoah.

She really… couldn’t feel her feet at all. She stumbled, staggering forward. Probably she should… hold onto someone, going down those narrow stairs.

Everything felt a bit off. Numb and trembly.

Callum was warm though, coming forward to steady her. He still wasn’t… fully aware, she could tell, but he was much steadier on his feet than she was.

She kissed his warm cheek, and smiled.

And her heart lifted, because he smiled back, a bit more there-ness and… Callum-ness in him, as he reached out to brush her cheek with his fingers, warm too.

Then he frowned, worried. “You’re cold.” It was the first thing he had said since he had started laughing. He sounded hoarse from crying.

His face was streaked with her blood, with his tears, with dirt. Bruises were peeking out over the edge of his scarf. When she pushed it aside, she could see the darkened marks of someone’s very large and strong hands, that someone had tried to choke him-

She couldn’t think about that because he didn’t need her anger, he didn’t need her to hurt whoever had hurt him, he needed her to help him hurt less.

“You’re cold,” he repeated, more insistently, because she hadn’t answered him.

“Yeah, a bit. It’s windy and I’m wet.”

“You’re wet?”

“Yeah, ice spell. I’m okay. Let’s get inside, alright? You can w-warm me up?” She smirked slightly, but her flirting attempt was very possibly foiled by her genuine primary desire to warm up.

Nonetheless, it spurred Callum into action, and he started moving down the stairs, his arms tight around her, which was good because her clumsy, numb feet were falling over themselves and the steps.

He wasn’t letting her fall though.

Hadn’t and wouldn’t.

Chapter Text

 


10.23AM, June 16th, The Storm Spire

Rayla slid her feet into the warm water as she sat on the edge of the pool.

A proper bath was really… way overdue.

It was a real luxury of a bath house Ezran and Bait had found while exploring, with the pumps and water heating both operated by Sky magic. They had notified the armies of course, but those remaining to care for the injured and bury the dead were mostly camped down on the plains and people didn’t generally want to climb a whole-ass mountain for a bath, so she thought they would probably get it to themselves for now.

It was weird… being protected. Being considered a child. She was supposed to be the protector. Be an assassin.

But Amaya had told them all to stay up here, along with a few people that Callum and Ezran knew and trusted, who were not vital to the military or coordinating effort.

Corvus the scout, doing… perimeter checks and such… when he wasn’t telling Ezran stories about animals and plants and just generally being a sensible and reliable kinda person, which were not qualities to be scoffed at when the world was crashing around you.

Barius the baker, currently doing his best in the kitchen, swearing so much about the Skywing not-really-flour that Callum had elected to take Ezran elsewhere, despite his impatience to sample Barius’ baking.

A Sunfire lieutenant and her Inferno-toothed tiger, carrying messages between the pinnacle and the plains.

Amaya herself was seeing to things down on the plains. There was a lot of coordinating to do, large tents set up, healers called from far away to see to those too injured to travel to the nearest hospital, regiments returning to Lux Aurea and Katolis and Duren.

The captured monster soldiers.

The dead.

But… Rayla was accepting as much of the protection so as… to not think about the dead and their children and partners and… and no, she wasn’t thinking about it, not when her head was so full-up thinking of the not-dead.

Claudia.

And Viren… maybe.

They hadn’t found his body or his clothes or the crown… nothing.

Callum’s hand on hers brought her out of the heavy thoughts. The others were already in the pool, having wasted no time taking advantage of it after Callum had fulminis’ed it into steaming heat.

Bait was froggy-paddling happily. Ezran was playing with the magical bubbles from some sparkly blue bath product he had found. Soren was scrubbing vigorously at furthest side of the pool, all muscly and hairy.

You could almost think everyone was alright and that Ez hadn’t started crying this morning when he dropped a cup of flour on the floor. And that Soren wasn’t thinking about it being his sister’s birthday today. And that Callum-

“You want to join us down here?” Callum asked diplomatically. She was the only girl, which didn’t bother her, and it was water which… nah, not that either when it was just a big tub.

It was… well, apart from all the things that were still wrong… she probably needed help, at the very least if she was planning on washing her hair. And she very much did want to wash her hair, it felt all greasy and gross. She looked down at her hands, at the bloodstained gauze around the split knuckles of her right hand, and strips of Callum’s cloak steadying her probably-sprained left wrist.

And… she could just ask, really. She hadn’t, back at the Moon Nexus, but… things were different.

They trusted each other, now.

She still blushed when she did ask, because this was… very intimate. And something new. “Callum? Would you… help me? Wash, I mean?”

He leant forward to kiss her knee. It was just a knee and it still tingled all the way up her spine. “Of course,” he said. “I was… I figured you wouldn’t-”

He lingered, his cheek against her thighs. She leant forward to kiss the top of his head and lingered too.

“You’re really bad at this,” Soren commented, unhelpful as ever. He had finished washing himself, his hands currently burrowed wrist deep in the foam-tower that was the current state of Ezran’s voluminous hair.

“Aww, but we’re not in a hurry?” Ezran asked, just a bit pleading. “We’re just… waiting around for the army to get ready.”

They… were just waiting. And she didn’t know for what, and that was another thing infringing in her head that… she didn’t know where to go after this. She would come with Callum if he went, not like… she had anyone else. And she would stay with him here, if he wanted that.

She didn’t mind doing what he wanted, it just… didn’t feel good to have no path of your own, except that annoying, nagging tug at her that the path she started when she pushed Viren off the pinnacle… wasn’t ended.

She hadn’t asked Callum what he wanted to do, because… she had meant to let him have one decent night’s sleep before she started asking him complicated, life-changing questions. And that… hadn’t happened yet, two days after the battle.

Callum got started and… she didn’t know what she had expected, really? For him to be brisk and no-nonsense and efficient about it? That had never been him.

Callum was patient and thorough and oh so gentle. Especially with her. Always, with her.

Tension she didn’t even know she was holding, melted away as his hands, slick with soap, slid across the sore bottoms of her feet, tense and overworked calf muscles, her shins, her knees. Her thighs. Another thing she had failed to consider. Did Callum know what it did to her, to her imagination, to see and feel those big hands she loved slide up her legs, slick with soap?

She bit her lip. Soren and Ezran were here, and she couldn’t really follow her wants, no matter how nice it would be to press close to him and push the bad feelings into the background with good feelings, like they had this morning.

And it wasn’t like he was being… forward. He was stopping before anyone could call it inappropriate.

Well, maybe Runaan-

Nope.

Rayla shook her head, and scooched forward, slipping into the water fully.

Even with not being overly fond of water, she could relish the feeling of warmth on her battered body and sore muscles.

Callum reached out to cradle her injured hands carefully, pointedly. “You should probably keep your right completely out of the water, he said. “If you can manage it.” Yeah, probably a good idea. Knuckles were just starting to heal, no good getting an infection from dirty bathwater or reopening them by soaking too long.

He washed her everywhere but… steering clear of invisible boundaries they hadn’t discussed, but… certainly, he was well clear of hers.

Her hair was a different kind of boundary, but they had already crossed that one, the night after the battle. He was gentle and diligent as he always was, rubbing the soap into her scalp, around the base of her horns.

The tension bled out of her. But that tension had also kept her going. Kept her from falling apart.

But by the time she realized this, it was too late. His softness had made it inside of her.

Her right hand, clutched high to her chest, shook so badly it almost slipped below the waterline she had carefully kept it above.

At least it wasn’t sobbing and just tears, even if there were no hope of stopping them.

At least, as long as she kept still, Callum couldn’t see, because he was behind her.

But Soren could.

Had.

And Ez too now, because Soren kinda… nudged him.

Her throat was too closed off to speak, to tell them it was okay, that she was okay. She wasn’t but… Ezran was too young for the full extent of how not-okay she was.

“Rayla…?” Ezran said cautiously, his face awful and horrorstruck all over again, and tears welling up in his big blue eyes.

Callum had stopped washing her hair and suddenly his face, full of concern, was in her line of sight, his fingers tipping her chin up to look at him properly, then across her cheeks, wiping at the tears that just kept coming.

He couldn’t stop them either.

He didn’t try, because he didn’t do that, he… just less her be as pathetic and weepy and scared as she was, and pulled her into him, instead.

The world retreated, somehow. Narrowed to just him, just the warm water and his warm skin.

It was a while, that passed, but she didn’t have a good idea of it. It was weirdly Callum’s awkward scrambling to keep her hand above the water that… gave her an idea that time passed.

Then she felt his hands at her waist and… she was out of the water, back sitting on the edge alone, but not for long, because Callum climbed up to sit next to her, and Ezran too, on her other side.

She blinked at the room, at the world, returning.

“You were… really upset,” Callum said. “I didn’t… I didn’t know what to do.”

“Me neither,” she said hoarsely. “It’s not really… something you can do something about.”

“But if there is something… I’ll do it, okay?”

“A joke?” she snickered, although it felt and sounded devoid of mirth.

“Sheesh, you’re demanding,” Callum said, smiling gently at her. And she was, was the thing. Lightness took effort today, it was just… one of those days where it wasn’t coming naturally to anyone, not even Soren or Ezran.

“Ah, I have faith in you,” she managed. It very much didn’t come naturally. “Doesn’t have to be a good joke. Your bad jokes are so bad they kinda transcend the badness and come out the other side and are funny again.”

“Oh!” Ezran exclaimed, excited. “Rayla! Thank you! That’s been a mystery of my entire life, and you just solved it?! Humor being like a… thing where you reach the extreme of one end and it flips on you? That makes total sense. When a joke is too perfect… it isn’t actually funny? And our dad… he told the worst jokes. But I always laughed.”

Ezran sniffed, leaning into her, and she put her arm around him.

This was a day where things kinda… flipped upside down. It had really mostly flipped one way, so far, but… maybe it was worth a try.

“Hey, maybe we should talk about something terrible then, and it’ll flip to being funny,” she said, squeezing Ezran gently.

“Okay,” he snickered. “But… the little terrible things, like our breakfast. Not the big ones. I think some things are too heavy to flip.”

“Little terrible things,” she agreed. “Like our breakfast. Soren really tried to deep-fry some crusted, day-old porridge?” She giggled at the thought. Such a terrible idea. And Soren had still eaten it. “And you shaped a mixture we use for kinda salty snacks that need to be thin and crispy, into a jellytart shape and baked it?”

“And you made purple juice with lumpy bits in it-”

“Yeah,” Callum agreed thoughtfully. “And that was a really nice meal. Not the food, that was all awful, but… that meal was the most fun I had in days.”

“So… this is all too nice?” Soren asked, a bit confused. “All the comfy warm water and soap that smells like flowers and shit?”

“Yep,” Rayla grinned. “So if you feel like releasing an eggy fart to make it terrible, we’ll all appreciate it.”

“I would, but I really don’t think I have a fart good to go right now,” Soren said, fully serious and contrite about being unable to come to their aid with egg-farts.

“Wow, I… really need to explain sarcasm to you,” Rayla snorted, but laughter was bubbling out too. “If we’re going to be friends… I have to.”

Soren smiled widely, at that.

And it was light and easy to exist, for a bit.

 


 

“Soren, can you take Ez to go see if the hopefully-buns are ready?” Callum asked. “We still have some hair-washing to do, on our end.” Right… hers was still all soapy. And Callum’s was still unwashed, the top part greasy and the tips wet and floppy. But she knew, that wasn’t why Callum had asked that.

Soren nodded, and no-one spoke while him and Ezran got dressed, that… heavy, exhausted feeling that took effort to break, somehow settling back.

Hopefully-buns would hopefully help. And Barius had said he had a funny story for them, along with the buns, if they left him alone to struggle with the elven ingredients. His stories were terrible, Ezran had promised, so they were in for a good time.

“You want to talk about it?” Callum asked, as they left. “Now that you won’t upset Ezran. I know you hold back around him. I’m not going to tell you not to… I do it too. But you don’t need to, with me. And we agreed, remember? No suffering for no reason. Not if I can help it.”

“They haven’t found Viren. Or Claudia. There was no body down there- and Ez… he saw all those… things. Bodies. And you… you’re not okay. And… I’m-”

She breathed hard, wrapping her arms around herself. She wasn’t at all sure she would make it through rinsing the soap out her hair without another round of bawling-

“Rayla, it’s okay,” he said, like he had in the Oasis, but she didn’t pull away, this time, when he reached for her, she unfurled enough to hug him, instead.

“I’m scared,” she said, slightly muffled because her face was pressed into his chest, but… aloud. And that was okay too, to him.

She was scared. Of everything ahead of her, all the unknowns and the things she didn’t know how to do… if she could do. It was taboo to admit that, but she was no assassin.

She was barely even Moonshadow; the ‘ting’ wasn’t the important part of that, it was the community, the culture, the… connection. Cut off from her now.

Callum had forged his own though.

Maybe… she could, too.