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you're alone 'til you're not alone

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   “Pike,” Vax says. His voice is desperate, like a prayer. “Pike, please.”

   She tries to answer it.

   If they’d been faster—maybe. If they’d been stronger—definitely. If she’d done a blessing—but she’d tried for one, is the thing. She tried and she just...

   Scanlan plucks a string in the doorway. Vax is holding something in his hand, something bloody and shining in the sunlight. Pike feels the last breath leave the small body, stilling under her hands. The child was still alive when they got to the Shale Steps.

   The child is dead when they leave.

   Pike doesn’t feel the journey. They walk for a long time. Everyone is quiet; vengeance simmers unspoken between them all, Vax’s oath following them like a ghost. They must stop to camp, because she comes back to herself sitting on a tree stump, staring into the campfire as Grog drags a log over for more seating.

   When a blessing doesn’t work, you blame the priest.

   Pike stares into the flames. She prays for warmth, for strength, for the return of that spark of divine grace that lets her do her work.

   She tried. She failed. Pike prays for forgiveness.

---

   “You’re glowing,” Vex’ahlia says. 

   She perches on the log across the campfire; a bird at rest, Pike thinks through the fog in her head. Vex is a bird, ready to fly.

   Trinket whuffs down next to the tree stump, blocking the wind with his warm bulk. Pike leans on him, feels him rumbling and alive under her cheek. Vex says nothing, going through her things and digging out a small box. She sets it on her lap before repacking everything in her bag.

   Pike’s seen the box before—a multitude of feathers sit within. Half a dozen kinds or more for fletching. None of them match the ones in her hair; she doesn’t use blue ones for arrows.

   The words sink in. “Glowing?”

   “The firelight, dear,” she says absently. Counting feathers, one after another. She squints, holding one up to the fire and frowning. 

   “Does your head still hurt?” Pike asks, hands twitching. She notices for the first time that there’s blood on them, from—

   There’s blood in the joints of the gauntlets, on the gloves beneath them. Probably on her skin. Grog’s blood, sure, but not just Grog’s blood. She’s used to Grog’s blood. Her hands feel heavy.

   “It’s tolerable. If the weather holds, we can reach Emon by late morning.” Vex is still squinting at the feather, unsatisfied with something about it. It’s just a little white feather, from what Pike can tell.

   A dragon killed her mother. Pike imagines years of study, years of grieving. Vex bent over the books in some noble estate, dragging the most painful moment of her life out over and over again, trying to match it to some dry traveler’s account. No wonder it still hurts. No wonder it causes her pain.

   Vex goes to cast the feather aside and pauses. She rises, walks around the fire to stand next to the stump. Trinket gets up too, going instantly to her side. For a moment, the warm impression of him lingers in Pike’s space.

   Vex touches her hair, lighter than a hummingbird, before turning to go.

   Pike goes back to watching the campfire, a feather brushing her temple as the wind picks back up. And she prays.

---

   Keyleth is standing beside her, fingers twisting together. She’s not sure where to sit yet.

   She came to the campfire with purpose; there’s a beat-up little pot sitting in the flames, pine needles steeping in water. While her hands were busy, Keyleth seemed pretty confident.

   Pike waits. If it takes five minutes for her to decide on the ground next to the stump, it takes five minutes.

   It’s a nice spot, too—it puts them at the same height. Keyleth’s really thoughtful when she has the time to think.

   “Sometimes I forget about the thorns,” she says, so apologetic.

   “You saved our lives,” Pike reminds her. “We’re alive because of you. We can handle a few thorns.”

   “I know, I know you said that, I’m sorry.” Keyleth takes a breath. It’s not enough; she takes another. “What happened to the Shale Steps is my fault.”

   Pike goes from weary to staggeringly coherent. Keyleth can’t take the blame for something that big, it’ll crush her. “No—”

   “No, listen, I shot the dragon with lightning. It got stronger after that, and it, and it,” Keyleth trails off, almost hyperventilating.

    “Keyleth.”  

   Keyleth looks at her, wide green eyes and a trembling mouth. What an awful day. What a shitty thing to carry around in your head for miles. The destruction, the burning rubble—none of that is Keyleth’s fault. Nobody is dead because of her.

   “I’m gonna give you some super secret holy wisdom right now,” Pike promises. “Are you ready?”

   Frantic nodding.

   Pike breathes deeply, takes in the warmth of the fire and the sharp smell of pine. Keyleth starts to copy her, the nodding getting a little less frantic. Slow in, slow out.

    Help me find the words, Pike prays. Something pops in the fire, sparks flying up. Maybe it’s a sign.

   She opens her mouth: “Shit happens.”

   Keyleth blinks.

   Pike forges ahead. “Are you a dragon?”

   “No...” Keyleth bites her lip, glancing around. Looking for a way to make this someone’s fault, to make it her fault. To make it make more sense.

   Pike knows there’s no way to do that. “Then, listen. You didn’t destroy the village. You saved all of us and you’re going to help us see this through.”

   “I just get so worried,” she explains, shoulders shrinking. 

   There’s a hiss, a rush of steam. The pot is boiling over. Keyleth swears, twists her hand in the air and a sturdy vine darts through the flame to pull the tea from the fire.

   “There’s a lot in the world to be sorry for,” Pike tells her once she’s sure there are no burns. “When you’re trying to do something good, just. Don’t apologize for trying.”

   It’s been such a long day. It’s been such a long day. There’s blood under her nails, she just knows it, she just can’t work up the energy to peel all the layers away. And she can’t find the words to make Keyleth stay by the fire.

   The air smells like burnt pine needles. Pike watches the flames alone.

---

   A throat clears at her side. Pike looks up and almost smiles—at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, of course Percy has a clean handkerchief. 

   He hands it to her along with a bowl of water, fresh from someone’s waterskin. Pike scoots over a little, sets both things down on the wide stump. There’s already a smear on the handkerchief from her hands. She stares at it for a second.

   Percy clears his throat again before squatting down at her side. He pushes up his glasses with one hand, the light making the lenses opaque. She has no idea what his eyes look like right now.

   “Let me,” he says abruptly, taking her hands. It’s his way of taking care of her—Percy’s a little snooty, but he does have a heart. He removes the armor with great care and the gloves with a merciful efficiency. There’s nothing intimate about it; he’s clearly thought up a to-do list, and her gloves and gauntlets are just something to check off.

   Pike’s hands feel naked. The night air is cool on her fingers.

   “My shield broke,” she tells him, dunking her hands in the bowl and starting to wipe with the handkerchief. “Just... shattered.”

   “I shot it and absolutely nothing happened.” He’s bent over the armor, wiggling each little plate. Looking for damage in his calculating way.

   “Shit,” she says.

   “Agreed.” He takes a breath, clearly thinking of a cutting remark—

   “Are you okay?” she asks, not interested in a witty observation.

   “You’re too good,” he says, a little like it’s a bad thing. “I’ll clean these up.”

   They’ll be faultless by morning. He takes the gloves, too, and then he’s gone—ducking into the shadows at the edge of their little camp like a hermit crab returning to its shell.

   Pike dunks her hands in the bowl again. She scrubs. It’s dark enough that she doesn’t have to watch the water turn pink.

---

   A little while later, bowl and the handkerchief are whisked away in the flutter of a dark cloak and Pike finds herself holding a thick slice of bread, crumbly and full of seeds.

   “From the bartender’s daughter,” Scanlan winks. “For our dashing adventures.”

   He’s got his lute in his lap, leaning on the side of Pike’s stump seat. His head comes just about to her elbow when he slides down to sit; she moves her arm to avoid getting crumbs in his hair.

   “We got kicked out of that bar,” Vax reminds him, already sprawled out on the log in some quick trick of roguery. “You went back?” 

   There’s a glint of something silver turning over in his hand. Pike doesn’t mention it.

   “What can I say, Vax my man? I love to love ‘em, I hate to leave ‘em,” Scanlan sighs, theatrical and heartbroken. “I’ve written her a sonnet, want to hear it?”

   Pike laughs. Vax and Scanlan share what they must think is a subtle low-five—it might’ve been, if Scanlan hadn’t gotten up from next to the stump to participate. He settles back down beside her, strums something low. The sparks in the air dance a little bit, drawing patterns.

   Vax looks up at the stars, eyes following a constellation.

   Pike eats the bread and watches the fire, feels worn out and weary and just a little bit better.

---

   “I got her,” Grog rumbles.

   Between one blink and the next, the campfire has turned to embers. Her hands are cold. The wind is blowing a little harder, a little less friendly. She shivers.

   “C’mon,” Grog is saying to her, warm and careful like he gets. “Here we go.”

   “I didn’t,” Pike feels slow and tired, a hollowed-out feeling in her chest. “Didn’t set up my bedroll.”

   “S’alright.” Grog’s hand is big and so warm on her back she can feel it through her armor, like sunlight on a windy day. He must be stooping to herd her along.

   Pike forces herself to get up. Pike forces her legs to move. She’s cold and exhausted down to her bones. Pays no attention to the quiet of the campsite, knowing Grog won’t let her trip over anyone. Something to be said for old friends.

    Thank you, she thinks, but maybe she’s still praying. Do the embers of the fire get warmer at her back? She can’t tell.

   “We can share,” he says, and once she’s laying in the middle of his blanket he curls himself around her, the great powerful lines of him all bending into comfort.

   Pike tucks her face into the crevice of his neck and shoulder. She thinks of the dragon, the desolation; Vax’s fervor and Vex’s pain; Percy’s brisk kindness and Scanlan saying whatever it takes to make her laugh; Keyleth, sorrier for thorns than she is proud of saving everyone. Like this, she can feel Grog’s pulse against her forehead. She imagines she can hear the blood pumping through him. She imagines he will always be alive.

   “I wanted to save the kid,” she whispers. “I tried so hard.”

   “I know.” His arm comes up to cradle her back.

   “I failed.” Her whisper cracks. She’s shaking.

   “Happens,” Grog rumbles, and holds her while she cries.