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steady your breath, honey, lower your spear

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   “You taste like rain,” he breathes into her mouth, ragged as they tumble in out of the drizzle. 

   She laughs, free and soaring; teases back, “You like it.”

   Sometimes Vax looks at her like she's the sun, like she's the highest damn form of good he's ever seen, actively building her an altar in his mind and approaching it empty-handed and unworthy—and she hates it. This, gentle and teasing, tripping all over themselves to get closer to each other, these are the best moments. Utterly mortal and alive— and if her gasps crackle with the faintest lightning, if he still smells of tomb, it's all drowned out by the overpowering smell of wet leaves and growing things and life.

   Keyleth wakes alone, breathless and hot. The window has blown open; rain is pouring in and Vax is four years dead.

   The next morning, she goes and picks a fight with a roc.

   Yeah, it’s not really a great week.

---

   Two days post roc-fight, one of which she spent holed up in the remains of a giant nest trying to work up the energy to find a tree back to Zephra and the other spent being poked at by the healers in Zephra, Keyleth steps through the Sun Tree. She’s balancing a brightly wrapped present in one hand and extricating herself from a knot of worried Air Ashari with the other, tossing a smile over her shoulder that might make it through before the tree snaps shut.

   Her ribs give a painful twinge and she takes a second to rest her forehead against the trunk and breathe. And to will away the lingering aches and pains and push the concerned looks her father had given her out of her mind. Even the raven that had shown up on the infirmary windowsill had cocked its head at her and croaked in as pointed a way as she’s ever heard a bird croak.

   The branches of the Sun Tree rustle around her, light filtering softly through the leaves. It’s nearly an embrace. The smile on her face starts feeling more honest. She remembers that she’s happy to be here, somewhere after passing the temple to the Raven Queen that’s unfortunately on the way up the hill to the castle.

   When Vesper slams into her legs with all the force a three year old can muster Keyleth lets herself tumble to the ground, entirely bested by a little girl and entirely content to listen to her talk about the party decorations and the people and the cake, she gets to have a whole piece of cake all to herself, does Keyleth know? Does Keyleth know it’s her birthday party? 

   “Well,” she laughs, “who could this present be for?”

   Vesper’s eyes go wide and eager, looking at the shiny paper and ribbons that Keyleth sends fluttering with a little gust of wind, which is great because she’s just put an elbow on a bruise and Keyleth doesn’t want her to worry about the flinch.

    “Vesper?” she hears Percy calling in the distance, just a trace of worry in his voice. It’s enough for her to do a quick little acrobatic move, hauling herself upright and getting Vesper settled on her back in the next moment, the present held in front to prevent any early opening. Keyleth trudges the rest of the way around the castle, back to the gardens, as Vesper continues to chatter in her ear.

   It’s good to be here. It feels even better than she thought it would, when she catches sight of the rest of Vox Machina scattered amongst streamers and flowers and a gaggle of Whitestone residents. Vex is queenly, sitting at a small table with Tary and another man while Trinket rumbles his way around with children on his back. Pike and Scanlan are smiling at each other by the punch bowl, poking at the various hors d'oeuvres with increasingly funny comments. Percy can’t hide his smile while he ‘sternly’ asks if she’s seen his daughter, both of them valiantly ignoring the giggles coming from Keyleth’s mantle before Vesper loses interest in the game and demands to be let down.

   “Everybody’s here, huh?” she says, as Percy takes the present from her hands and starts walking for the gifts table, sure that she’ll follow. She does, of course.

   “Mm,” he nods. “Grog’s out a little farther, by the bench near the trees, but I’m sure he’ll be back in time for cake. He spent all morning reminding me that the Grand Poobah is a very important figure at Whitestone celebrations, you know.”

   “Well, I hope you found a good hat for him.” She’s imagining it now, something festooned with feathers and ribbons, maybe bells. Her face is already getting sore from smiling. 

   It’s been too long since they’ve all been together, really. Keyleth’s got a ten-gold bet going with Scanlan that half the reason Vesper’s third birthday became such an occasion was to get a little Vox Machina reunion going. Vex and Percy usually keep it smaller, just the two of them and their daughter on the day, with various members of their ragtag family popping in throughout the month. This time the invitation came six weeks in advance, gilded, asking for an RSVP. 

   (Keyleth had agreed immediately, of course, and then she’d kept it to herself so she wouldn’t have to bring a guard. Until this morning, that is, when she’d had to shake loose the aforementioned tangle of Air Ashari. Derrig wasn’t going to be super happy with her, but that was a problem for Future Keyleth.)

   “Who’s that with Tary?” Keyleth asks, when it becomes clear that Percy’s going right from the gifts to his wife. “Tell me we haven’t met before.”

   “His plus one,” Percy says, “someone from Wildemount, something with an L. Didn’t catch the whole name before Vex hauled them off for a catch-up.”

   “Oh, that’s nice.” Keyleth thinks about settling down at a table with Vex and Percy, blissfully happy, and Tary and the plus one important enough to put through the gauntlet of Vox Machina, and abruptly wants somewhere else to be. It’s not that she feels unwelcome, unwanted, it’s not. Three nights ago her dream had Vax’s voice, though, and she’s a little banged up in a way Vex will definitely pick up on, and it’s. It’s.

   “Want me to go find Grog?” she offers. “Seems like you’re gonna want cake sometime before the sun goes down.”

    “Please,” Percy says, and off she goes.

---

   She loses the smile somewhere on the walk. The glow of seeing everyone doesn’t fade, exactly, but when she gets to the clearing it’s tempered a little by sadness. 

   She sees Grog before he sees her. He’s standing behind the bench, hands resting on the back of it. There’s a glorious confection of a hat hung on one corner, bells and all. The air is very still and Keyleth almost feels like an intruder, half-hiding in the treeline.

   Grog gives one enormous sniff, scrubbing a hand across his face. 

   “Y’oughta see them,” he says, “you’d be real proud.”

   Keyleth’s heart re-breaks along familiar lines. She doesn’t cry but the grief hits her, almost sends her bending double. It’s horrible, she’s so happy to see everyone and it’s horrible that he’s gone, that he can’t be here to braid Vesper’s hair, that he can’t be here to hold Keyleth’s hand or play a prank on Grog or, or anything. It’s been four years but it could be a century and it would still be just gut-wrenching, that Vax isn’t here with them. That they all have to just, just keep going on with their lives without him. Surely that can’t be right.

   She must make some kind of sound, because by the time she blinks enough to clear her eyes Grog’s turned just enough to look at her. He jerks his head, raises one arm in invitation. She tucks herself under it, leans on him. Friendship, with Grog, comes with a physicality. There’s a weight to it between them, built up through throwing each other into battles and his grip on her hand after Raishan’s reveal. And she knows that if she wanted to cry, he’d let her stay in the warm spot against his side and wouldn’t say a thing about it to anybody.

   She doesn’t want to cry, in fact, and she doesn’t end up doing so. There’s just a few minutes of the two of them pressed close enough to feel each other breathe, to remember that they’re both still alive, that neither of them is grieving alone.

   “Percy wants to do cake soon,” she murmurs, breaking the silence. “I heard the Grand Poobah’s supposed to be there for that.”

   “It’s part of my Official Duties,” he tells her, capital letters audible. “You good to go back?”

   “Yeah.”

   He picks up his hat, gently pinches at one of the bells, and snaps the fastening with barely a squeeze. He leaves it sitting on the bench and she wonders if he’s done that before, left a little offering, made a little connection. If that’s how he remembers. Ravens don’t visit Grog, from what she knows. She wonders if it’s better that way.

   On their way back to the party she puts a foot wrong, twisting a recently-healed ankle and hissing as the pain sparks its way up her leg.

   “Fucking rocs,” she offers as an explanation, and Grog nods like that’s just business as usual. 

   “Everybody you take with you alright?” he asks, reaching up to rearrange his feathers as much as the hat lets him. “They can get a little soft, up there on your mountain.”

   She’s quiet for a few beats too many.

   “Somebody die?” he asks, stopping their walk to look at her more closely. “Because Pike’ll come up, she can fix it for you.”

   Keyleth swallows. “No, nobody died or anything. I didn’t—I didn’t take anybody with me.”

   “You went by yourself.” He’s frowning, and there’s a flatness in his voice. “Nobody would help you?”

   “I didn’t ask.” He’s still frowning. Keyleth scrambles for something to say, something that’ll let them both go back to the party smiling. “I can handle a roc just fine, y’know. I can turn into a dragon.”

   “Yeah,” he says, eyes going a little distant for a moment. Normally that’s a sign that Grog’s let an idea drop; unfortunately, it’s not this time. He refocuses.

   “We’re gonna be late for the cake—”

   “They can’t serve it without me. Why were you fighting alone?”

   She doesn’t know what to say. It feels far away now, for all that she’s still a little sore. How do you put “had a dream about Vax that got me wound up then I woke up and remembered that he’s dead (again) and then somewhere the wires got crossed because wound up became heartbroken became too angry to think then I went out and found the biggest thing I could find to kill and I killed it” into words that would make sense to anyone, let alone Grog? It barely makes sense to her. She imagines explaining it and decides not to in the same moment.

   “I wanted to test myself,” her mouth says, and Grog looks unmoved.

   “Doesn’t seem like a good test,” he grumbles, but he finally lets it go.

   They get back to the party for much smiling and cake-eating and gift-opening. Keyleth meets Lawrence and does the obligatory don’t-you-dare-hurt-him speech that she’s pretty sure Vex has already delivered much more effectively, though hers still leaves Tary misty-eyed and proclaiming something to Doty about the benevolent hand guiding the next generation of Ashari that Keyleth just knows is gonna turn up in his next book. 

   Eventually, once the guests all go home and Vesper is tucked in bed, Scanlan owns up to the fact that Kaylie’s been giving him fiddle lessons and Percy has one dragged out of storage somewhere. So there’s music, under their quiet conversations in the big Whitestone dining room, and at one point Percy and Vex are just swaying in each other’s arms while Grog spins Keyleth around with abandon, Pike on his shoulders. And Keyleth’s face is so sore now, her smile unabated, nearly everything in the world in the right place for a night.

   Tomorrow she’ll have to go back through the Sun Tree and deal with Derrig’s rare anger and her father’s worried eyes and a considerable hangover, if the dusty Marquet bottle Pike’s broken out is any indication. Tomorrow she’ll have to leave Whitestone and the part of her life that she absolutely knows how to navigate, in favor of the unending, uncertain aspects of building stronger relations between the Ashari tribes and assisting the governments of Vasselheim and Emon. Tomorrow a raven will visit.

   Tonight Pike’s hand on her shoulder is warm and ungauntleted and half there for balance, Scanlan giving her a broad wink. Tonight Percy looks at Vex like he always does, and Vex is smiling back and urging him to use those dance lessons he suffered through for something a little more ambitious than a sway. Tonight Grog’s arm around her waist is the most dependable thing in the world.

---

   The letter comes two weeks later, dropped into her lap in a flash of unfamiliar arcane fire. She’s reaching for her staff in alarm before she recognizes the handwriting; big, blocky letters, each laid down with incredible care. Grog doesn’t write to her very often—thinking about it, she’s never gotten a letter from him. Last Winter’s Crest he’d written name tags for each of their gifts; the year before that he’d shown her the pages in his notebook where he was working on vocabulary, under the condition that she not tell anybody, because he was working on writing out his song for Scanlan and he knew she’d remember the words. She had. He’d been happy.

   No, she’s never gotten a letter from Grog. She doesn’t know if anyone has. It makes her feel warm, the idea that she’s his first correspondent. It makes her feel important.

    KEYLETH, the letter begins.

    HOW ARE YOU? I AM FINE. PIKE IS FINE TOO.

   I AM CHAMPOIN CHAMPION AGAIN. KERN IS MAD.

   HERE IS A MAP. MEET ME HERE IN 2 DAYS TO FIGHT. BETTER THAN A ROC.

   YOUR FIREND FRIEND,

   GROG

   What. Um, no seriously, what?

   Keyleth’s reaching for a scrying focus to find him, to go and shake answers out of him, almost before she’s done reading. Then she stops. Then she reads it again. And she stops, thinks about the frown on his face when he found out she went off on her own, thinks about how she’s so, so angry that Vax is dead, angry enough to drown in it. How she felt pretty good for like three days, one of which was spent entirely in the company of Vox Machina but one of which she spent covered in her own blood and laying between giant bird droppings and various unidentifiable animal corpses. Thinks about the release it had been, to just turn into something with wings and claws and tear at the giant bird, to bleed and fight and be alive. 

   (It’s possible that she’s fallen back into the ‘anger’ part of grief. It’s possible that she never left it, that she’s been angry since her mother vanished, angry since Pyrah burned. It’s possible that you can’t actually divide it into easily-understood parts.)

   She thinks about Grog fighting the Empyrean in Pandemonium. She thinks about him now, fighting in the arena in Vasselheim, and it almost seems like a waste. How can somebody like Kern the Hammer even touch him now, and he won’t fight Pike, and he must be so bored. 

   She clears her schedule on the day, takes the map and the pebble that came with the letter and scries on the vast tract of rock and earth north of Vasselheim instead. There’s a treeline in the distance, and she picks one of them out in enough detail.

   When the raven comes that night, she grins with all her teeth, instincts buried by administration all slowly waking up and stretching. Keyleth spends the vast majority of her time not being too strong, not being too unsettling, working to get her ideas heard with the least amount of ruffled feathers all around. Grog’s never given a shit about ruffling feathers.

---

   “There’s got to be rules,” Grog says.

   Keyleth blinks, mind already buzzing with anticipation, the taste of adrenaline in the back of her mouth. The land around them is as close to barren as you’ll find within a couple days of Vasselheim; Thordak burned great swathes of it in celebration upon his escape from the Fire Plane, and damage like that doesn’t heal in five or six years. Dragonfire lingers in a really nasty way, makes scars more than it makes burned patches of land. If there were ever farmers here, they haven’t returned.

   “Keyleth.” Grog waits for her to focus in on him. “There’s got to be rules. That’s how you keep the arena safe. It’s how we keep each other safe.”

   She nods immediately. She wants—over the past two days, Keyleth’s come to terms with the fact that she wants to fight Grog. It was a weird revelation for the first, oh, four hours. Then it was a guilty feeling, because you’re not supposed to want to fight your friends, she’s pretty sure of it, but you’re allowed to cut loose with them, right? And this is that, she’s pretty sure. This is Grog giving her a release valve, this is Grog seeing her bottle all the rage up and letting it build, and throwing her into the fray. He’s just, he’s just in the fray opposite her.

   It’s an old promise, back from the days of their alliance with Raishan. She’d nearly forgotten it, but of course Grog hasn’t. He never would.

   So, she wants to fight. She wants to fight Grog. And it feels like an oxymoron, but she doesn’t want to hurt him. She definitely doesn’t want to kill him—the idea literally makes her feel sick.

   “No killing,” she says, abrupt and absolute. She doesn’t expect him to disagree, but his immediate nod still feels good. Like they’re building the framework of this thing together.

   “Anybody taps out, they’re out,” he adds. “Don’t have to go unconscious to quit.”

   It feels right. It kinda feels like everything? Keyleth can’t think of anything—wait.

   “No beard targeting,” she offers with a grin, and he gives an appreciative laugh.

   “How about for this first one, not much magic. Like, turning into animals and stuff is fine, but, y’know. Maybe don’t make a bunch of lightning.” He waits for her to agree, and it seems like it makes him happy, too.

   (In the back of Keyleth’s mind, she wonders how they’re gonna explain this to the others when they inevitably find out. “Yeah, me and Grog go out to the desolate land north of Vasselheim and beat the shit out of each other sometimes” sounds... it’s gonna be a weird sell for sure.

   The back of Keyleth’s mind is already sure that this is gonna happen again.)

   They go over a couple more things, limiting the area and a few more rules, before Grog grins and offers her a handshake to start the fight. And he flings her straight up, her arm wrenching for a brief uncomfortable moment before she’s sailing up, up, up—a hundred feet high, he put all his power into it.

   She hears the crack from far below as he crashes the Titanstone Knuckles together, and at the highpoint of the throw she curls her limbs in and shifts, skin to rock and blood to stone, everything else melting away inside.

   She falls, a meteor. The rumbling in her chest is a rock’s best attempt at laughter.

---

   Two months later, Keyleth’s gone out to meet Grog four more times and they just beat the absolute crap out of each other. She’s gone Keyteor, pulled out Minxie and her fire hands and at one point just started punching to see what the hell all the hype was about. They make each other bleed and it hurts but it’s a good pain, a whetstone kind of feeling. She’s getting sharp again, battle instincts she hadn’t even realized were atrophied getting worked until sore.

   It’s having the same effect on him, she’s pretty sure. She takes advantage of an opening in their second match that sends him sprawling, but by the third time the weak spot has vanished entirely. And even better—he starts bringing new things, things he’s picked up watching Earthbreaker Groon, and the fights become puzzles with relentlessly high stakes. Grog’s not a monk, Keyleth’s never fought a monk, but he starts to move differently and she starts working out how to adapt.

   It’s the closest thing she’s felt to progress in, hell, probably two years, when she got her people to agree to expand the network of crisis orbs. 

   They develop a post-fight ritual, sitting in whatever crater they’ve carved. Clinking healing potions in a toast and tossing them back, the bitter-sour taste of the herbs making her nose wrinkle. Keyleth creates a quick stream of water, fills them each a tankard from the set Grog keeps in his bag, and they both just wait until their breathing’s evened out. And then, they talk.

   Vax hasn’t come up in conversation yet; grief has settled back into a familiar shape for Keyleth to navigate, and she doesn’t want to poke at it in Grog. But they talk about the others, Pike’s work in Vasselheim and the question of moving back to Westruun; Scanlan’s continued work collecting tales about Vox Machina and sending the best ones to Grog; various arguments Keyleth’s witnessed on the council of Whitestone, as Percy and Vex turn their focus to other, more personal things and Cassandra has to cover both their roles. And they talk about themselves sometimes too.

   “Kern’s always askin’ me about things,” Grog says, leaning back slowly so as not to irritate the recently-closed claw marks on his back. “Never thought I’d be a teacher, y’know?”

   “I know. You’ve always been a good one, though.” In the distance, the sun is just starting to brush the treetops. Keyleth smiles and turns her face into the warmth of it, watching the sky change colors.

   “I have?” There’s something vulnerable in Grog’s voice, a rare note of uncertainty.

   Keyleth reaches over and grabs one of his hands, still watching the sunset. It takes a lot for Grog to show things like this—it’s easy for them to hit each other with bone-cracking force, easy to swing an axe or a maul or whatever the weapon of the day is. It’s difficult for him, letting any of them see a flinch. Vesper’s birthday was something of a rarity, and even then she’d expected him to immediately cover it, to pull up bravado or mock-offense.

   “Grog, you’ve taught me tons. Do you remember—” her voice falters. He squeezes her hand. So many of their memories have become bittersweet.

   “Do you remember,” she continues, forcing the words out, “when they made me the Voice of the Tempest? I had to make a speech in front of everybody.”

   “It was great,” he promises. “Really, don’t care what anybody else says, you’re a good speaker. You’ve got guts.”

   “And I said something about everybody, even Scanlan, even though he was gone at the time.”

   Grog makes a small grumble, still a little unhappy at the reminder. It’s a deeper scar than they pretend it is, that Scanlan left. It’s something that’s had years to heal and has healed, but it remains tender.

   “But I talked about you first, you know. That I wanted to be strong and loyal because of your strength and loyalty.” She turns her head away from the sunset and finds him looking at her, something entirely open in his expression, something she doesn’t have the words for. She swallows, maybe a little overwarm from the hours in the sun and the exertion of the fight. “That’s—I meant it. I learned that stuff from you.”

   He looks at her, silent, and she realizes that she’s turned his hand over in her grip, that she’s tracing the network of lines and scars and recognizing them by touch alone. Gods, but she knows him so deeply. Gods, but part of her wants to stay here in this crater until the sun is gone, wants to curl up against his side pointing out stars and remembering things, wants to trap this moment somewhere and spin it out for forever—

    Too much sun, that’s all it is. She lets his hand go, face burning under his gaze.

---

   Somewhere in the subsequent months, Grog and Pike move back in with Wilhand Trickfoot and Keyleth finds herself in the garden of the Westruun home more often than she means to be. Not enough to distract from her duties—she is diligent to a fault if you ask her father, who never stops worrying about the late nights she spends burning candles down and trying to sketch out a future for the continent that’s good, that’s worth all the sacrifice—but two or three or five times a month, on non-fighting days.

   Pike takes the news of their recent activities extremely well, in Keyleth’s opinion, but then she is the co-champion of the Crucible. When it comes to cutting loose, Pike gets it. And she needs to cut loose lately; it’s a lot of work, taking care of Wilhand. Not work Pike would ever begrudge, not work she’d ever hesitate to do, but. Keyleth has the vague feeling that she should invite Pike along but there’s an issue—she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to, to share. 

   Still, she’s coaxing a tomato plant to life and working up the resolve to do it, push away her own weird possessiveness of the fights (surely it wouldn’t hurt to offer, and Pike would probably say no anyway, she won’t fight Grog in the Crucible, right?) when the wooden bell tied to the garden gate gives a hearty clank-clunk. Keyleth looks up, not expecting anybody back so early. Pike’s off with Wilhand at the market, getting something to cook up with the tomatoes that will be ready by the time they get back, and Grog’s pitching in to help repair a roof two streets over. 

   It’s Scanlan, hair freshly combed and looking a little startled to find her here. There’s a pack on his back, enough stuff to go somewhere and stay there a while.

   “She know you’re coming?” Keyleth asks, after they’ve hugged and done the obligatory oh-it’s-been-too-long thing that Vox Machina does these days. 

   “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m getting a room at the inn. Thought it was time to do a little residency, let my fans come see me perform, you know how it is.”

   Keyleth hums in understanding, returning to the tomato plant and giving it another little jolt of magic. “It’s good that you came.”

   “Yeah?”

   “They miss you a lot, I think. Grog talks about you almost as much as he talks about her.”

   Scanlan’s quiet behind her for a couple long moments. The tomato plant twitches, fruit finally beginning to ripen under Keyleth’s attention.

   “You two’ve been talking a lot?” he asks at last, entirely casual in the way that Scanlan’s entirely casual—that is to say, he could be thinking literally anything.

   Keyleth blinks. “Yeah, we’ve been hanging out more. It was... it was too long since we’d seen each other, at Vesper’s birthday. Now we do a couple times a month.” Plus these days, her brain pipes up, so maybe more like five or six. Or ten.

   “That’s great,” he says, and Keyleth feels herself smile. It is.

---

    Hi Keyleth, Pike’s voice says in her head, jolting her from an exhausted sleep. Too many council meetings and not enough rest, these days. She’s at her most relaxed when she and Grog are sitting in a new crater or out back of Wilhand’s house; besides that there’s the work, and the work doesn’t laugh or tell jokes. It doesn’t even have the decency to throw a punch for her to practice blocking.

    Well, the twins are coming! Us three are heading there, Grog reminded me to tell you. Not sure how long it’ll be! Wish— the message cuts off.

   “I’ll do better than wish you luck,” Keyleth mutters, rolling out of bed and grabbing her staff. “See you in a couple minutes; I’m first on Percy-watch.”

   (On the wonderful day of Vesper’s birth, Percy spent a great deal of time oscillating between Vex’s bedside, where he was almost entirely composed, and the long hallways of their house, where he’d paced and swore and started threatening gods just in case anything went wrong.

   They’d worked it out once Vesper and Vex and Percy were all asleep, that it would be good to have someone keep an eye on him. That maybe it would be good to have four people keep an eye on him on a rotating schedule, just in case the aforementioned gods took offense and they had to fight one.)

   So Keyleth spends four hours following him, staying out of the way as the midwife orders everybody around and staying out of the way when Vex sends him to get water, to eat breakfast, because apparently one of them should do it and it wasn’t gonna be her, darling. Scanlan took an extended turn at Vex’s bedside, weaving as distracting a tale as he could weave, letting her crush his hand until Percy and Keyleth got back having eaten. 

   Pike’s on standby in case something goes really bad somewhere, but she’s not a midwife and makes it a point to not get in the way either. And Grog’s... where’s Grog, actually?

   Keyleth’s turn on watch ends and Vex waves a hand at her to go, her face tight. So Keyleth goes looking for Grog.

   She knows where he’s going to be, actually, but still.

---

   Grog’s sitting on the bench, this time, and Keyleth doesn’t wait in the trees. She walks up right behind him, sure he knows she’s there—she’s so conscious of him, now, knows how he moves; it must be happening for him too—and waits for him to finish the story he’s telling. It’s one she recognizes, after all.

   “And then Kern says, So there’s no secret? And he’s really pissed about it, you know,” she can hear the smile in his voice, “says he’s been training like I told him but it wasn’t working, and then I said Well, go and kill a dragon and then you can complain about it!”

   He’s silent for a beat, giving, giving the story a space to land. Giving time for a laugh at the punchline. Keyleth thinks she hears a bird squawk, somewhere in the trees. Maybe it has a meaning, maybe the quiet of the forest is the answer, maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe it’s just a bird. Sometimes it’s just a bird.

   It still strikes Keyleth, sometimes, that this is as close to a grave as Vax is ever going to get.

   Keyleth puts a hand on his shoulder and Grog leans back, his head resting against her torso. His eyes are closed.

   “And then Kern said,” Keyleth finishes, something fragile in the stillness of the clearing, “I will.”

   Oh, but she knows him now, maybe better than she ever has. Maybe better than she knows anyone, anymore, with all her family a step from scattering back to the wind. Here is Grog, as present as he is on the battlefield, leaning on her with his eyes shut and his neck tilted back. Her hand is so near to it and he’s seen her kill, seen her bring down the very sky with her anger, but there’s not an ounce of hesitation in him. There never is, not in Wilhand’s garden or outside Vasselheim or anywhere else, not for years. She’s not sure when she figured that part out, where in their fights and conversations the puzzle pieces fit together. But then, she doesn’t remember memorizing this mundane story about him and Kern, either.

   “I miss ‘im,” Grog says, eyes still closed. 

   Keyleth’s experimented with all sorts of metaphors for grief. She’s heard that it’s a twisting road, that it’s a gaping wound, that it’s a stone with sharp edges, that it’s a ball bouncing around in a box. That it gets easier to bear and that it doesn’t, that you learn to navigate around it or you don’t, that time makes it fade or time makes it stronger. 

   What she knows: it’s too much for words to hold. There are no adequate maxims.

   What she knows: in a few hours, Vex and Percy will have two more children that will never know their uncle, outside of imperfect stories.

   What she knows: every day, no matter where she goes, a raven comes to visit.

   “Yeah,” she says, soft, and they stay in the clearing for another ten minutes, breathing, listening. There are no other birdcalls. 

   He opens his eyes, looking up at her face, and her hand has been resting against his shoulder long enough for them to come to the same temperature. 

    I could see him every day, Keyleth realizes, and I’d be happy.

   What she knows: Grog.

   She can feel his eyes on her all the way back to the castle.

---

   The music must be loud enough to hear everywhere in Westruun; it’s a pretty small town, and Doctor Dranzel’s troupe has only grown in size since Keyleth last saw them. Kaylie’s fiddle sings out into the night, pulling all of the instruments into the song behind her. She’s very impressive, at center stage on the hastily-erected platform in Wilhand’s backyard. 

    (Let’s have a party, Vex’s letter said, let’s just... let’s just have a party. I don’t want to go to the Vasselheim thing, it’ll be boring. Let’s get a group together somewhere that’s ours and have a party.

   Six years ago today, Vecna was defeated.)

   Lights bob around the sky, soft purple and golden-white in the twilight. Keyleth is warm, flushed from dancing with Vex and with Pike and with Percy, light and airy and laughing. All the plants in the garden are blooming, even those very much not in season; she’s happy, she can’t hold it in. She’ll put it back in order later this week, probably.

   She disentangles herself from the dancefloor, gets four steps from it when Grog clears his throat beside her. 

   “You done dancing?” he asks, something quiet in his eyes. 

   Later, they’ll have a drinking contest and none of them will walk away from it feeling great. Later, they’ll both wind up in Whitestone so Percy can take Vex on the camping trip he’s planning, assuring him of the city’s security. Later, they’ll make a pre-dawn trek to the bench, shivering in the morning, and fill Vax in on every story he’s missed.

   She shakes her head, smiling. “Not if you’re going to start.”

   He grins, pulls her back out onto the floor. They whirl, dodging between other dancers, sweating in the crush of the party that’s drawing in all of Westruun. Neither of them are about to win any awards for it—they’re not Percy, who spent however long with a dance instructor, and they’re not Vex, who loves things like that—but it’s Keyleth and Grog and movement. That’s a striking combination, on the battlefield or the dancefloor.

   Eventually they find a spot, when Kaylie relinquishes leading the band and gives Dranzel a turn to set the tone. The music slows, people drawing closer together. Grog offers his hand, pulls her in with all the care he uses to write letters. 

   “I love you, y’know,” Grog says, arm around her waist. He’s watching her like she’s the sunset.

   “Yeah,” she says, throat aching. “I love you, too.”