“Um,” says Runaan, after the door closes behind Tiadrin and Lain.
He had braced himself for tears, tantrums — any sort of fuss, really, that a toddler can kick up. But Rayla had been serene as she bid her parents farewell for the day, only giggling a little as they ruffled her tufty hair.
Surely that bodes well. Surely.
You are one of the Silvergrove’s finest warriors, Runaan tells himself sternly. You can handle babysitting your best friends’ toddler for one afternoon.
Rayla looks up from her toy. She watches him with huge, expectant eyes.
“Um,” Runaan says again. Sitting across from her, he’s suddenly realising that he has no idea how to talk to children. Sure, he’s interacted with Rayla before. Plenty, in fact. But it was always with someone else around, whose lead he could follow.
Awkwardly, he crosses his arms over his chest, then un-crosses them again.
Rayla cocks her head at him. “Thawi?” she asks. At least, he figures it’s a question, since her voice goes up at the end of it.
It takes him another moment of staring at her blankly before he understands. “You want to know where Ethari is?” Runaan ventures.
By way of answer, she leans forward to deposit, in his hastily cupped hands, her toy — a small wooden dragon that Ethari whittled for her. Runaan smiles as he recalls how painstakingly he’d worked on it in the weeks leading up to Rayla’s birth.
Runaan would be sparring with Lain when he would wave, and Runaan would turn around to see Ethari lounging in the shade of a nearby tree, using a small knife to coax, from a block of wood, the curve of a dragon’s neck or the fine tessellation of its scales. Ethari spent ages childproofing his design — rounding off any bits that jutted out, sanding everything down to perfect, splinter-free smoothness.
That’s Ethari, though: always putting his whole heart into his craft. It’s one of the reasons Runaan, ahem, admires him so much. And shows up at his workshop with some regularity for advice on proper weapons care (as is only prudent). And trips over his own feet sometimes when he notices Ethari watching their practice sessions. Which, okay, is somewhat embarrassing. Especially when Lain elbows him, or exchanges a look with Tiadrin.
Runaan clears his throat and wiggles the toy dragon at Rayla. “Ethari is busy today,” he tells her, “but we’re in his workshop anyway, since your mum says you like it here.”
Rayla perks up at the mention of her mother, and scrambles to her feet. Runaan watches, bemused, as she runs to a low shelf and tiptoes to retrieve something from it. He lets her, because he knows Ethari wouldn’t keep anything dangerous within Rayla’s reach, not when she comes by so often.
Besides, Runaan is pretty much subconsciously attuned to anything even vaguely weapon-like. He could disarm Rayla of a hazardous object in a heartbeat.
It looks like he won’t need to, though. Rayla returns brandishing two twigs, both filed blunt at the ends. More of Ethari’s handiwork, Runaan would wager.
She leaps about in a very, very loose interpretation of the basic drills she must have seen her parents performing countless times. Her face is scrunched up in concentration, and she exclaims, “Yah!” occasionally to punctuate a motion.
At the end of the display, Rayla holds a pose and looks up at him for approval.
Runaan holds her dragon aloft and bows his head. “Well done, young warrior,” he intones gravely. He suspects she might get a kick out of that.
He suspects right. Rayla lights up, grinning at him, and the thought flashes across Runaan’s mind that Well, you’re not Favourite Toy-Making Uncle, but maybe you can be Serious But Nice Uncle.
Even as he contemplates the implications of this stray thought — is he jealous that Rayla probably likes Ethari more? is he already so wrapped around her finger? — Runaan reaches out and ever so slightly adjusts her stance. He smiles at her to take any sting out of the criticism.
Rayla smiles back cheekily, then puts on her serious face again and waves her twigs at him. She doesn’t come close to landing a hit, so when she very deliberately pokes him with one of the sticks, Runaan makes sure to flail dramatically and fall over, crying defeat.
His eyes are closed, but he can hear her chuckling to herself as she clambers over his legs and flops down on the floor next to him. She pulls lightly on his hair, and he cracks open an eye to peer at her suspiciously.
She remains fixated on his hair, though, perhaps because it’s longer than that of her parents. Runaan gives a mental shrug and resigns himself to lying there on Ethari’s workshop floor, letting a tiny child play with his hair. It’s a pleasant enough, albeit surreal, way to spend an afternoon.
Rayla seems to be attempting a braid of some kind, but her fingers are too stubby for her to manage it. After a while, Runaan props himself up on one elbow so he can see what she’s doing and give her the occasional pointer.
Instead of undoing her flubs, Rayla just moves on to another section of hair, leaving little twists and knots and frizzy locks everywhere. Runaan distantly notes that he would not put up with this from anyone else in the world. And then he continues to let it happen.
And that’s when the door to the workshop opens, and Runaan looks up to see Ethari standing in the doorway.
He freezes — which goes against every principle of his training. He’s simply so mortified at how he must look right now, in front of Ethari of all people, that it takes precedence over everything else. Rayla yells, “Thawi!” and runs over to him, and Runaan is still just frozen in place, gawking at Ethari, thoughts stuck on But he was supposed to be busy today and Oh stars, my hair looks like a moonberry bush.
To his credit, Ethari takes it all in stride. He smiles at Runaan, amused but kindly, and then goes, “Oof,” as Rayla bodily slams into his legs.
“Hello, Rayla,” Ethari says. “I see you’ve had a fun morning.”
Runaan picks himself up off the floor as Rayla nods fervently. “With Wunie!” she chirps.
Ethari makes a noncommittal noise and leans over to place his shoulder bag on a nearby stool. “Oh yes. But are you sure he wouldn’t prefer to be called Wunaan?”
Rayla tilts her head back to check with Runaan, who finds himself somewhat helplessly shaking his head.
“Wunie says no,” she reports.
“Alright then,” Ethari says mildly. There is the faintest hint of a smile playing over his lips. Runaan is momentarily entranced by it.
Ethari retrieves a jar from his bag. “How’s about some of your favourite Moonberry Surprise?”
Rayla’s squeals of joy could probably be heard from the top of the Storm Spire. Ethari sends her off to search a cubbyhole for cups, and sets about unpacking the rest of his things. From the look of it, he’s been around the village, trading for supplies and materials. Just watching his calm, systematic mannerisms sets Runaan at ease.
Which is why he takes a moment to react when Ethari indicates the jar and says conversationally, “Tiadrin sprinted out of the council meeting to give this to me. She was oddly insistent that I leave the rest of my errands be, and go back to my workshop to enjoy it.”
A creeping suspicion sidles into Runaan’s mind.
Ethari continues, nonchalant. “It would’ve been Lain, I think, but I doubt he could’ve kept a straight face.”
Runaan blinks. “What do you mean?” he asks, half-sure he knows the answer but needing to hear it from Ethari. To gauge his reaction, and to be sure this isn’t all wishful thinking on his part.
Ethari bends down to accept two cups from Rayla, who can’t hold a third one at the same time and has to go back for it.
“I mean,” he says after another moment, “that I think we’ve been set up.”
Try as he might, Runaan can’t read much from Ethari’s neutral tone and facial expression. He’s implied that he knows their friends think… well, that there’s something between them. But is it a one-sided something, or is it reciprocated? Runaan still doesn’t know, not for sure.
He formulates — not for the first time — a dozen different ways to ask. He rejects each of them in turn. Also, obviously, not for the first time. The silence stretches on until he’s saved by Rayla returning with the last cup.
Which seems to have been custom-made for her small hands, as he absently notices. Ethari really does spoil her.
He pushes away the accusatory thought: So do you.
“Up?” Rayla asks Ethari hopefully, and he sits down on one of the stools so he can hoist her up onto his lap. For a moment, Runaan doesn’t so much envy his easy way with her, as wish he got to observe it more often.
Among the Silvergrove elves, Runaan has noticed, Ethari’s relative pacifism means he avoids publicly showing this side of himself. This truth about himself, which Runaan sees anyway, in glimpses: empathy and kindness, rather in excess of what Moonshadow society approves of.
All the while he’s thinking this, Ethari is bouncing Rayla up and down between sips of her Moonberry Surprise, making a game out of it. The sight of them playing, and the sound of her laughter, are beyond endearing to Runaan.
Then Rayla notices him watching and holds out her little arms to him. “Up!” she demands.
Runaan spares a moment to reflect that there was definitely a time when he was not a total pushover. Then he stands and lifts the tiny elf girl up onto his shoulders.
Ethari helps settle Rayla securely on her newfound perch. “Hey! When did you get so much taller than me?” he teases her, prompting another brief giggle.
His hand rests on Runaan’s shoulder as he speaks. Probably accidentally. Runaan tries not to think about the warmth of his touch, or wonder whether it lingers a moment longer than it has to.
He holds on to Rayla’s ankle, wary of dropping her. “Don’t squirm,” he warns.
But Rayla is already distracted by everything she can see from so high up. She pays him no heed, listing from side to side as if wanting to touch all the things on Ethari’s workbenches and shelves. When Runaan doesn’t immediately move toward the objects of her curiosity, she makes a pathetic whine in the back of her throat.
“You’re like a Moonstrider pup,” Runaan informs her, even as he obliges and takes a couple of steps forward.
Rayla just burbles and pokes at something shiny sitting on top of a cabinet. When Runaan peers closer, he sees that it’s one of a pair of horn guards — and that there are several more beside it, in various stages of completion. Of course. Although the elves of Silvergrove primarily go to Ethari for weapons (his are the most versatile and perfectly balanced), they also seek his services for engagements and jewellery in general.
Runaan gently nudges aside Rayla’s hand. “Careful,” he admonishes, but without much heat. “These are delicate.”
He glances at Ethari, who shrugs.
“I don’t make anything purely ornamental,” he says, then turns to address Rayla. “Wunie’s right, though; these do mean a lot to people. I have some other things you might like, over here.”
Runaan follows him to the far side of the workshop, where Ethari takes down a plain box and sets it on the table. Still seated on his shoulders, Rayla leans forward in anticipation, inadvertently pushing against Runaan’s head.
He laughs at how eager she is. “Alright, little one,” he says, and carefully sets her down.
They both watch as Ethari snaps open the catch on the box, and lifts the lid.
Inside is a collection of — Runaan doesn’t even have the words. Rationally, he recognises that these are ordinary household items. Small plates, hair clasps, buckles for securing supplies when travelling. They’re functional. But they’re also beautiful: engraved with swirls and curves, never a straight line anywhere. The silvery patterns remind Runaan of the way water moves in a river or brook under moonlight. They look like art, and yet they’re also textures begging to be touched. With careful hands. With reverence, or love.
Sitting cross-legged on the counter, Rayla’s eyes have gone wide.
“I didn’t know you made things like this,” Runaan says in awe. “Out of — what, scrap metal? Left over from your main work?”
Ethari shakes his head. “Not for these. Sometimes... people bring me weapons I can’t fix. Or won’t. Fine blades ruined because they were wielded improperly. Daggers they want to dispose of, that have drawn innocent blood.”
The mood turns sombre between them. Things happen. They both know it.
Ethari continues, “I never destroy them. I melt them down and reshape them.”
Runaan reaches out and runs his fingers over a hair clasp. It moves him, he realises: how much beauty Ethari sees in the world — even in the ugly, discarded parts of it — and brings out through his craft. Which he does, not out of obligation or necessity, but simply for the joy of creating something special out of something unwanted.
He remembers, abruptly, Ethari knocking on his door over a year ago. It was pouring rain and Ethari had been as sodden as the shivering bundle of fur cradled in his arms. The abandoned Shadowpaw pup had grown up hale and hearty under his care, after that first night when Runaan invited him in, offering him hot tea, blankets, a place by the fire. And — surprisingly, in retrospect — no questions as to why he showed up there.
He sees, with sudden clarity, that Ethari has always had a penchant for taking lost and broken things, and making them feel needed and whole.
“They’re amazing,” Runaan tells him, and bites back his next words. You’re amazing.
Instead of responding to the compliment, Ethari clasps his hands together nervously. “I, ah. I made that for you, actually.”
“What?” Runaan does a double take and stares at him. His fingers go still on the hair clasp. His heart thuds in his chest, thunderous.
Ethari quite deliberately unfastens his hands from each other. Pausing only to glance at Runaan, as if asking for permission, he leans forward and tucks a lock of Runaan’s hair behind his ear. The gesture is tender and shockingly familiar, as if he’d done it a hundred times before.
“It’s your heart,” Ethari tells him simply. “That’s what inspired me. You scowl and bluster, and goodness knows, you fight like a raging storm. But you also lay on the floor playing with a child because it makes her happy. You turn down the honour of joining the Dragon Guard with your best friends because you would rather stay and protect your home.”
He touches his shoulder. “Your heart is kind. It deserves something just as beautiful.”
Silent, stunned, Runaan watches him for a moment longer.
Then he surges forward and kisses him.
It’s only the briefest press of lips. He registers closeness, warmth. A huff of air from Ethari; he’s taken him by surprise. The other elf only begins to kiss back when Runaan is already pulling away again.
He gulps, instantly panicky. How many times has he dreamt of doing what he just did? And there he goes, rushing through it and probably ruining everything. He never even explained—
“I was wondering if you’d ever do that,” Ethari breathes.
Runaan blinks. “You knew?!”
Coming from a normally mild-mannered person, the look Ethari gives him then is exceedingly sassy. “Runaan, you come into my workshop with requests three times as often as any other elf. You volunteer to test out my weapon designs so we can talk shop and you can compliment my work, because you can’t figure out how else to express affection.”
He smirks at Runaan, but his voice is indulgent. “I love you, but you can be a real idiot sometimes.”
“Oh,” Ethari mutters. “That just slipped out, didn’t it?”
And he rests both hands around Runaan’s neck, and pulls him into another kiss. This one is deeper, longer. Runaan is still stunned, but he quickly relaxes into the embrace. Just for a moment, he lets himself melt.
They only break apart when Rayla makes an indignant noise at no longer being the centre of attention.
She holds up some sort of rectangular, metal item from the box. “Mine?” she asks.
“What is that?” Runaan wonders aloud.
“A harness buckle,” Ethari supplies. He wags a finger at Rayla. “Maybe when you’re old enough to ride.”
Rayla makes a moue.
Runaan sighs as if very put upon by her (in all of two seconds, yes). “I’ll teach you,” he promises.
“Softie,” Ethari teases.
Runaan smiles lopsidedly. “I do my best.”
The rest of the afternoon passes in a blur. They find ways to entertain Rayla, or more often, she comes up with them. At one point, having refused for over an hour, Rayla finally dozes off for her nap, curled up among some soft cloths Ethari uses to clean filigree. While she sleeps, Runaan and Ethari tiptoe around, putting things to rights around the workshop. Ethari offers him a comb he finds lying around, and shakes his head fondly when Runaan mouths the words, “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
By the time Tiadrin and Lain return from their meeting, Rayla has roused from her nap to sleepily play a little more with her toy dragon. Lain picks her up without any bother from her. Leaning over her father’s shoulder, she waves goodbye to Runaan and Ethari.
Runaan waves back until she looks away to nuzzle her face in the hollow of Lain’s neck. Lain coos softly at her. It still surprises Runaan how differently his jokester friend behaves around his daughter.
He turns his attention to Tiadrin, who is hanging back. There’s a tension around her eyes that wasn’t there this morning. “Everything alright?” he asks, worried.
She hesitates, but nods briskly. “It will be. How was Rayla?”
“A perfect angel,” Runaan starts to say.
At the same time, Ethari nudges him and says, “Utterly spoiled by this one.”
Tiadrin tilts her head at them both, visibly taking in how close together they’ve subconsciously begun to stand. Runaan is struck by how much Rayla is picking up her mannerisms. They have the same intelligence behind their bright eyes as they puzzle him out.
“So,” Tiadrin says slowly, beginning to smile at them.
Runaan narrows his eyes. “So,” he says back at her.
On some level, he does mean for that to serve as confirmation of Tiadrin’s suspicions. Watching the way she glances between him and Ethari, looking genuinely pleased for them, Runaan knows she’s gotten the message.
Tiadrin lowers her voice. “You do realise Lain is going to be unbearable when I tell him that his ridiculous plan actually worked.”
“Was it really orchestrated by you two then?” Ethari asks.
She shrugs. “We just figured if we could find you an excuse to spend an afternoon in close quarters… you might work out the rest. Finally.”
“‘Finally’?” Runaan repeats. Tiadrin raises an eyebrow at him. Ethari holds up his hands in the universal gesture for I’m not getting into this.
Runaan groans. “Was I seriously the last one to know?”
“Seriously.” Tiadrin winks at him; she knows one of his pet peeves is when people answer rhetorical questions.
She moves toward the door. “You’re welcome,” she calls back over her shoulder as she leaves.
And Runaan is left in the same position as a few hours ago, when this whole adventure began. Only this time Ethari is standing right by him, close enough to touch, and he can do that now. He can stop wondering what that would feel like; he knows.
He also knows what it feels like to hear him speak the words I love you.
Runaan just isn’t as emotionally open as he is. He’s not built that way, no matter what Ethari may believe about his heart.
Ethari seems to know, somehow, what kinds of thoughts are running through his head. Quietly, into the hush of a room suddenly bereft of Rayla’s boisterous energy, he says, “You don’t have to say it back.”
Runaan looks at him. He… he wants to. He just doesn’t quite know how.
Biting his lip, he picks up the hair clasp from the table. The one Ethari said he’d made especially for him. Beauty out of broken bits. Something soft out of loss.
Runaan holds it out to Ethari. “Mine?” he says wryly, mimicking Rayla earlier. And all the while thinking, How do I tell you I love you?
Whether or not Ethari understands what he thinks but does not say then, Runaan may never know. But Ethari smiles, takes the clasp from him, and threads it gently through his hair. “Here,” he says. “I’ll teach you.”