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a brother's burden

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“Hey, Callum?”

Callum looked over at Rayla, her expression serious, and quirked an eyebrow. “What’s up, Rayla? You’re looking a bit down.”

The ends of her lips twitched as she took a seat next to him. Ezran and Ellis provided a backdrop of soothing noise as they chattered with the mysterious moon mage who enveloped Cursed Caldera with her creepy illusions. Her name, apparently, was Lujanne. Azymondias, the dragon prince, snored on Ezran’s lap. The odd purple lights faded from the sky, and, for a moment, Callum expected to see Claudia or Lord Viren climb up the passage way as the color reminded him of their magic.

“When we met, you said something to me that I’ve been thinking about lately,” Rayla explained softly, wary of being overheard, and Callum tilted his head. “When I, uh, asked who Ezran was…why did you tell me that you were Ezran?” Callum blinked, unexpecting the question, and Rayla continued: “I mean—for all intents and purposes, I was going to kill you had, well, the real Ezran not interrupted.”

“Um,” said Callum.

“It was an extremely brave thing,” Rayla added, and then she narrowed her eyes, “but very dangerous. So…why?”

Callum opened his mouth to respond, but the words refused to fall from his lips. Rayla blinked, imploring him to continue with her eyes alone, but Callum found himself swallowed by his thoughts.

Because…

“He’s my little brother,” he finally explained, but something sour danced on his tongue as he spoke. “It’s my job to protect him, you know?”

Rayla hummed, but she looked pleased with his response.

That’s not quite right, Callum thought to himself. It’s because…

“Hey, Rayla, Callum!” Ellis jumped in place, waving her hands to grab her attention. “You guys want some dinner? It’s my big sister’s special recipe!”

“It’s really good,” Ezran exclaimed through a stuffed mouth. Azymondias roused from the noise and nipped Ezran’s ear, who sputtered at the unexpected, playful assault. Ellis’s laughter bounced in the air, and Callum snickered.

Rayla rolled her eyes, exasperated, but there was still a smile on her lips. Lujanne covered her mirth at the sight by turning to her bird, ruffling its’ feathers.

“Well,” Rayla said, “Guess it’s time for you humans to eat.”

Callum snorted, but his mind was elsewhere.

I told you I was Ezran because…

“There’s plenty of soup for everyone,” Ellis said cheerfully. “Even for you, Miss Moon Mage!”

Lujanne’s eyes crinkled with her smile as she kneeled beside Ellis. “I would be honored to try such a delicacy.”

As Callum ate the soup amidst warm chatter and teasings, his mind floated back to Rayla’s question. He found himself staring at Ezran, outlining his laugh and his smile. His little brother took after their father in looks, but his personality screamed their late mother, Sarai.

Callum swallowed around the lump in his throat, and quietly ate the rest of his soup.

 

Still though…

…that’s not…

…my words still

…weren’t quite right…

 

 

~*~

 

This was not the first time Callum had almost died for his little brother.

It wouldn’t be the last, either.

 

~*~

 

 

On the eve of Callum’s tenth birthday, he almost died.

A noise woke him in the middle of the night, but he disregarded it as he sat upright. It was Bait, probably, as he sometimes rolled off the bed during the middle of the night. He yawned and slid off his bed, his throat parched to the point where it was uncomfortable. Slipping into his slippers (castles were cold at night, okay?), Callum got ready for a quick trek down to the kitchens for a midnight glass of water.

He almost missed the still shadow in the corner.

His yelp of surprise was cut off by the intruder covering his mouth, and Callum drunk in their appearance. Small scars littered their face, but a large one scrawled over the bridge of their nose. Callum’s heart rattled in his chest as the intruder stared him down and, from the corner of his eyes, the glint of metal caught his eyes.

A sword…

Callum’s stomach sunk underneath the ground. An intruder with a sword, in the tower that held the princes’ bedrooms? They were no mere intruder looking for gold and treasuries.

They were looking for a life to steal.

“G—!”

The assassin’s hands curled around his neck, lifting him up into the air, and Callum whimpered for breath. “Where is he?” they questioned, breath hot against Callum’s nose, voice a mere whisper yet it sounded like a roar to Callum. “The crown prince: Ezran. Tell me where he is.”

If Callum made the even smallest of noise, Ezran would amble out of his room. He would assume Callum was having a bad dream and would try to comfort him. Callum could only thank the starts that Ezran had not decided to wiggle his way into Callum’s bed during the night like he’d normally do if he had a bad dream and didn’t want to walk all the way to their father’s chambers. If this man discovered Ezran, sleepy, cranky, bratty, vibrant Ezran with Bait curled in his arms, he would die. He would die and then Callum would lose his mother and his little brother within a year.

“I will not ask again,” the assassin hissed, fingers tightening. “Where. Is. Ezran?”

Callum wheezed and clawed on the assassin’s hands. “Can’t br—.”

How were they expecting Callum to respond if he could barely breathe?

The assassin huffed, slightly loosening their grip on his throat, and ragged coughs threatened to wrack through Callum’s body. He swallowed the urge with a sputter. He had to be quiet. He had to keep Ezran safe.

“Well, child?” the assassin said. “The crown prince?”

Callum squared his shoulders.

 No matter what happens, his mother had once told him, please look after your brother.

“Me,” he croaked out in a soft whisper. “I’m Ezran.”

The assassin’s lips curled upwards.

“Just,”—he tried to swallow his fear and winced at the thundercloud in his skull— “make, make it quick.”

“Don’t worry,” the assassin assured, the blade of their sword a daunting glint underneath the moonlight. “You won’t feel a thing. I promise.” 

Callum couldn’t help the noise of fear when he felt the sword (dagger, he noted) spilling out of his throat

“CALLUM—GUARDS! GUARDS! THERE’S A MURDERER!”

 A  white haze of pain overwhelmed Callum, then; a gaping maw of agony threatening to swallow him whole, but the world slowed down before him, and Callum remembered life in three scenes: Ezran, so small and terrified, Bait a dark red in his arms; the assassin, whirling around to shut Ezran up via death, presumably; and Callum, surging forward, despite the sheer agony rippling through his chest, despite the blood, and tackling the assassin to the ground with a guttural scream.

The doors slammed open, and guards rushed in.

Callum remembered nothing after that.

 

~*~

 

When he woke, in the castle’s infirmary, Ezran refused to leave his side.

“Don’t do that ever again,” his brother ordered in a high-pitched, hysterical tone. “Don’t—you’re not allowed to die, Callum! Ever!”

Neither are you, Callum wanted to say, but the bandages wrapped around his throat made speaking difficult. He settled for a nod, instead.

“Callum,” his father, Harrow, spoke, eyes rimmed red and so very dark, carded his fingers through his hair. “I commend you for your bravery, but, please, let’s not do something like that ever again. Promise?”

Callum nodded.

He would do it again, he knew. If it meant Ezran would live, Callum would gladly put himself in the middle of the crossfire. Time and time again.

“Jerk face,” Ezran sniffled against the crevice of his neck. “So stupid.”

Callum fell asleep to the rhythm of Harrow’s fingers playing with his hair.

 

~*~

 

The truth of the matter is this: Callum had always been prepared to die for his little brother.  

“Where is Prince Ezran?” the moonshadow elf had growled, and Callum had already made up his mind before she finished her question. The bite of her blade nicked the skin underneath his chin, and he swallowed his terror in the face of death.

There were more important things – lives – at stake.

“I am Ezran,” he had said, his expression unyielding at the sight of the assassins’ blade, at the knowledge of whose life she had come to steal. “I’m the one you want.”

Regret and worry simmered in the assassin’s eyes, but she had squared her shoulders and fastened her grip on her blade. Callum closed his eyes and quietly prayed Ezran would not be the one to find his corpse.

“I’m sorry,” the assassin said, remorse and relief dripping from their lips.

I’m so sorry Ez…dad…but we all know my life isn’t as important.

“Justice will not be denied.”  

(these would have been his last thoughts, if the portrait had not spoken.)

 

~*~

 

“Rayla,” Callum said before they packed up for the night. Ellis would stay behind for her village, but she wished them well travels to Xadia. “I kind of…lied to you, when you asked me that question, because I wasn’t really prepared for it.”

Rayla quirked an eyebrow and placed her hand on her hips. Callum vaguely wondered if this was what having a sister was like.

“I told you my name was Ezran,” he started, slowly, quiet so that said prince wouldn’t overhear, a sort of bitter smile on his lips, “because one day, if it comes down to it, Ezran’s life will always go before mine.”

Rayla stared, before she shook her head. Respect glimmered in her eyes when she punched his shoulder and sighed. “Humans,” she muttered. “Brave, but so, so stupid.”

Callum sputtered.

“Hey, no fighting,” Ezran called. “We don’t have enough arms to carry Callum!”

“Hey!”

Their laughter floated in the air, and Azymondias squawked his own amusement, though Callum was sure the baby had no idea what was going on since, well, it was a dragon that couldn’t understand human speech.

“You’re a good brother,” Rayla told him, a soft smile on her face, before she poked his chest. “A good heart, too.”

Callum smiled. “Yeah, I guess I—.”

“Come on!” Ezran hollered a few feet away from them, a mildly irritated pout on his lips. Ellis giggled at is ruffled expression. “Xadia isn’t gonna wait all day, you know?”

Callum and Rayla shared an exasperated, fond look, but walked forward.

From now on, all Callum could do was walk forward. War was full of uncertainty, after all, and there was no time to trace backwards.

“Come on, little Mage,” Rayla said.

Callum grumbled. “I’m not little.”

It was about time he walked tall as well.