“Your hair’s getting long,” Callum says to her one day. They’re sitting on the edge of the peak, her fresh off an eight hour shift and him just returned from a lesson. For once the winds up here are gentle, pleasant even. They can enjoy the brilliance of the fading afternoon without worrying about getting blown into the clouds.
They’ve been silent for a bit, so she turns at the sound of his voice. He’s looking at her in that particular way of his. Head tilted, eyes slightly narrowed, as though he’s drawing her in his head and can’t quite believe the picture he’s made. Even now, a whole year after they’d met, the attention never fails to make her blush.
“I guess so.” She hasn’t been thinking about it. Now that he mentions it, she considers the strands that brush her back in the breeze. A few choose that moment to blow right into her eyes. A nuisance, really.
“I should probably cut it,” she says, frowning a little. She’s no hairdresser. She’ll probably make a right mess of it.
As if he’s reading her mind, Callum grins. “I can do it.”
“You sure? Hacking off my hair isn’t exactly the best way to spend your time off.”
Callum’s smile widens. There’s a glint in his eyes that appears only when he’s about to say something horribly sappy.
“But Raylaaa, any time spent with you is the best time.” He punctuates the line by raising their interlaced fingers and kissing the back of her hand. She makes a show of groaning and rolling her eyes, but she can’t help but smile. Incredible, really, how much she loves this boy.
“Okay, lover boy, let’s see how you do.”
She’s sitting in front of their dresser, watching Callum fuss with a blanket and a pair of Ethari’s scissors.
“What’re ye doin? I’m not cold, I don’ need the blanket.” She actually is quite cold, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“It’s to keep your hair from making a mess. You have a lot of it, you know.” With that, Callum sweeps the blanket around her, deliberately brushing his fingers against the exposed part of her neck. The motion raises goosebumps on her skin.
“Stop that, ye big flirt,” she cries, resisting the urge to turn around, which would dislodge the blanket. Callum cackles but obliges, withdrawing his hand. She finds herself missing the contact. Gods, he’s made her such a sap.
“Okay, how short do you want to go?”
Rayla nearly raises her hand to show him before she remembers the blanket. She forces her hands to stay in her lap, fingers twitching a bit. How short does she really want to go? She’s left her hair alone for a while now. Maybe it’s time for a big change.
“To the chin.”
Callum nods sagely, as if he knew that’d be her answer all along, and gets to work. He cuts the strands with an artist’s precision, snipping and stepping back periodically to check his progress. The whole affair is strangely intimate. His breath on her neck. The cool metal of the blades brushing her back and shoulders. The feeling of becoming lighter and lighter under his hands.
When this is all done, she’s going to kiss him senseless. If he finishes before she’s old, that is.
“Yer takin’ awfully long there, my love.”
“Come on, Rayla. You can’t rush perfection.” He pokes her head for emphasis. The nerve of this one. That’s her move.
Rayla scoffs without force and lets her mind wander. An indeterminable amount of time passes, her consciousness adrift in the pleasure of Callum’s closeness and the peace of the day.
Finally, Callum exhales and steps back with a flourish. “All done! You can look now.”
Moving as one, they turn to her reflection. Rayla’s breath catches in her throat. She’s the one looking into the mirror, but the face staring back at her…...
“You look like your mom,” Callum says, hushed. She does. The eye color and markings are different, but the facial structure, the hair--they are undeniably her mother’s. The mother she’d lost. Carved out of her heart. Ghosted.
The bile rises in her throat quicker than she could ever expect. Suddenly she’s dashing to the washrooms, barely making it in time to avoid vomiting all over the floor. She leans over the toilet, coughing and choking and crying, as some distant part of her brain registers Callum rubbing circles into her back and murmuring apologies into her hair. You have nothing to be sorry for, she wants to say, but her voice is gone.
The sun has long since set by the time she is able to breathe again. Disgusted with herself, she uncoils from her kneeling position and stands. Callum rises with her, nervous and concerned and guilty.
“Rayla, I am so, so sorry, I shouldn’t have--”
“Not your fault, Callum.” She has to screw everything up, doesn’t she? Her family, her boyfriend, even a bloody haircut. Ashamed, she moves to turn away, but Callum catches her with a gentle hand on her shoulder and the other on her cheek. There’s a depth of understanding in his eyes that both scares her and warms her to the core.
“It was never your fault either, Rayla.” He’s not talking about the hair.
Like hell it’s not. She’s a poor excuse for a daughter. Getting one parent killed, widowing another, turning her back on the other two. She may have her mother’s face, but she has nothing of her loyalty.
“Rayla,” Callum repeats, more firmly. “Stop it. I can hear you thinking badly of yourself. You didn’t know. You couldn’t.”
She’s not really convinced. Nevertheless, she doesn’t resist when Callum pulls her into a hug, wrapping his arms solidly around her as if to physically ward against the guilt. And if she soaks his shoulder through with tears, neither of them speaks of it.
So much for kissing.
She avoids mirrors for the next few months. Callum notices of course--there’s hardly a thing about her that he’ll miss--but he knows her well enough to not say anything.
When her hair is finally long enough, she goes to him.
“I need your help with my hair.”
“Oh?” he says, a little cautiously.
“Not to cut it,” she responds quickly. She can’t blame him at all for being wary. “I want you to braid it.”
His entire face lights up. She won’t know this for a few years, but he used to braid his mother’s hair. The reminder of those times, here, now, with the love of his life, suffuses his whole being with happiness.
He won’t know this for a few years, but braiding another’s hair is a special brand of intimacy in her culture. In everything but words she is marking him as family, as someone she trusts with all of herself. He has stood by her through her darkest moments. It’s only fair that she gives him this.
“I would love to,” Callum says, his smile impossibly bright.
He gives her a braid that winds down her back like a snowy whip. He tells her she looks beautiful, and she can’t even argue. She feels beautiful. The sway of her braid with her every movement makes her so pleased, it’s ridiculous. How she ever went without it, without Callum, she’ll never know.
Sometimes she’ll catch her reflection out of the corner of her eye and, for a second, she’ll see her mother. The sight whispers betrayal. Failure. When Rayla turns to the reflection in full, though, all she sees is the braid.