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Upside Downtime

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6.22AM, May 16th, 998AB, outside Castle Katol, Central Katolis

The bells rang through the misty pre-dawn, carrying the sound all the way from the castle in the distance.

Rayla could have shielded herself from what it meant, if not for the red ribbon left behind back on the forest trail. She was no-where near skilled enough at illusions to wrap that up in anything else, and so the meaning the sound carried was clear and heavy.

Death.

Before today, that would have sounded so melodramatic to her. Like ‘Death’ in fancy capitalized letters on the page of a storybook or spoken aloud in Runaan’s voice, full of gravitas she hadn’t understood.

But not now.

Now, the way the word was making its way around inside her head, bouncing off the memories of the last day, it didn’t mean some vague, ominous thing but… lots of real things.

It meant that those two boys, fast asleep, missing the sound and what it meant for them… that they had lost their dad.

It meant that she would have to lie to them, from here on out.

And it meant that Runaan was alive and on his way back to Ethari.

How was she supposed to feel about the bells when they meant all of those things?

She knew how she was supposed to feel of course, knew that… that sound should mean triumph.

It didn’t though, not even close, and she didn’t know how she did feel.

Rayla wrapped her arms around herself, keeping out nothing at all, not the chill or the feelings or the bells, still echoing in her head after the real sound had stopped.

The moon set, its soft and comforting warmth leaving and inviting the chill of dawn, which did its damndest to get right into her bones. Its bracing strength left too, and the fatigue that had apparently just been lying in wait, pounced to hit her all at once.

The sun rose, mocking her tired eyes with its stupid, excessively bright rays that weren’t even warm this early, all harsh and throwing the jagged edges of the world into stark relief.

She sat in the miserable cold sunlight for a while, before she roused her travelling companions, huddled together under their cloak with the warm little Sun primal frog. They both looked tired, blinking muzzily at her and the forest around them. She judged it had been five or six hours since Callum had gone to sleep, a bit longer for Ezran.

The sun was up though, had been for a while, and they had to move. For… many reasons.

The younger boy, Ezran, bounced up and greeted her cheerfully. He seemed a whole lot livelier than his older brother, still yawning and trying to extricate himself from the tangled cloak.

“Empty your bags and let me know what we’re working with,” she said, rather curtly, because she really wanted to get away from this place, from that castle in the distance.

Away from the bells for the departed. From the red ribbon.

From… the dead. From the death, real and horrible. From her failure.

Her former team would be on their way now too, and she knew she had to get Ezran and the dragon egg as far away from them as possible. But she knew the path they would take though, and it wouldn’t be hard to avoid them.

Rayla let the boys get their bearings, doing her morning stretches while they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and laid out their supplies like she’d asked them to.

Callum sighed, looking at the meagre contents of their bags. Even upside down in a handstand, she could tell it was not great.

“We have a bit of food,” Callum said, meticulously listing the supplies out loud as he packed them back in their bags. “-thanks to Ezran. Five jellytarts, a jar of raisins and a cheese sandwich. Extra socks, because Ez always jumps in puddles, and I’m sent to fetch him and then we both- uh. Never mind. We have extra socks, was the point. And an extra undershirt, because Ez gets cold. And my cloak. No other extra clothes, because we were going to the Bantherlodge, and there are clothes there.” They just… didn’t need to pack clothes, when they went on long trips? It was weird, thinking that someone could just have that many extra clothes.

Callum had stopped listing supplies though and was just staring at her now, open-mouthed.

Maybe humans couldn’t put their feet that close to the top of their heads? She supposed… most elves couldn’t either, but surely it wasn’t that weird.

Ezran stared too, but it was more unabashed joy on his face than the… whatever it was, on Callum’s. “That’s so cool,” the boy said. “You can really just… almost stand on your own head. While upside down.”

“No,” Rayla smirked.

“But-” Ezran looked confused, pointing at her current position.

Not wavering, she spread her legs slightly to steer clear of the horns, and lowered her feet past the edge of her head, almost touching her ears. “I can stand on top of my head. I don’t, because my boots are dirty and my hair is white.”

“Smart,” Ezran nodded sagely. “Makes sense. I knew it. I told Callum too, that it didn’t make sense that elves would uh ‘wallow in filth’ and never wash their hair, even if the books at the library says so.” Wow. Awesome to know, really, what humans thought of her people. But Ezran was continuing, chatting happily. “That tall pointy man on the battlements? Pretty sure he washes his hair, and takes his sweet time, too.” So very true. But she couldn’t say that. Runaan… those bells were because of him.

She flipped forwards, landing lightly on the grass in front of the boys. “Yep. We work pretty much like humans, I imagine? Put our pants on one leg at a time? Wash in the order of face, armpits, crotch, ass-”

Ezran’s face lit up in a delighted grin. “You said ‘ass’!”

“Ezran, she’s allowed to talk how she wants,” Callum said sternly. “You’re not.”

“I’m not really, either,” Rayla said, winking at Ezran, who was pouting dramatically, clearly not thinking this fair at all. “I just kinda do, anyway. Like I said, I work pretty much like you.”

Callum was still staring at her, though. “I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “That you work like us, I mean.”

She shrugged. “It’s normal? I mean, I’m pretty flexible I guess, but-”

“Uh, no. It’s definitely not normal,” Callum said, still wide-eyed. “I could never do that in a thousand years of training. I can’t even touch my toes, and Soren says I ought to be able to-”

She turned away. It was… technically flattering, what he was saying. But it wasn’t, really. He thought she was… what? Not like him, that was pretty obvious. Intimidating, maybe. Which was also not that flattering.

“Let’s get going,” she said curtly. “Can’t spend all day upside down.”

“The whole night was kinda… upside down,” Ezran said, quiet now. He looked around at the forest, then back at the castle off in the distance. “It’s still a bit upside down. But maybe you get used to it? Being upside down? And it’ll seem the right way up eventually?”

He looked so hopeful it tore at her, because he didn’t even know how much his world was upside down.

She had lost her parents twice, it felt like, even if they still lived. Both times it had turned the world upside down.

She couldn’t tell them.

A kind illusion, Runaan might have called it. But it wasn’t kind, not at all.

That it was kind or okay was an illusion too and she didn’t need that. She knew it was not kind to keep this from them. It was necessary and cruel and horrible.

“Yeah,” she said, and forced a smile. “There’s an upside to things being upside down, you know. A new perspective. Gravity masking your bedhead.” She raised an eyebrow meaningfully at Callum and his lopsided morning floof, but he didn’t seem to catch on. “A rush of blood to the head,” she continued. “Less wear and tear on your boots. I dunno… getting really into the mind of a bat?” Ezran giggled at this, and Callum smiled, and Rayla found her smile was somehow a lot less effort.

“Come on,” she grinned at them, motioning them to follow as they both hefted their bags, ready to go.

It would be okay, she thought. There was a bunch of horrible things that they weren’t leaving behind at all but bringing with them but… there were good things too. They carried a really good and important thing that could turn the world upside down in a good and important way.

“Okay, then,” Callum said, a kinda thoughtful-eager-glint-in-his-eyes look on his face. “It’s upside down time! I’m up for the downtime! I’m down with the upside!” Alright, that was his dumb pun face then, good to know. “It’s up to-”

Callum stopped talking, because he had to run to catch up to her and Ezran, who had collectively elected to leave him to his forest clearing punnologue.

Dork.

Pretty much… like her.

 

Chapter Text



3.45PM, May 16th, 998AB, Forest of Eyham, Central Katolis

Callum was flagging. He wasn’t complaining… as such. Well, he was. His face definitely was. He was trying not to. But neither of the boys were used to this.

Ezran, at least, seemed too excited to whine about his feet, but she was willing to bet he would conk out hard come bedtime. For now though, he had left his brother to carry the seemingly heavy egg and his own pack, so he could climb trees and run ahead and pick flowers. She had offered to carry Ezran’s pack and Callum had said no so… he made his bed. Did he really think she needed him to hand over the egg?

She could take it if she wanted to. She didn’t, that was the point. And if he wanted to carry two packs and whine about it, then pfft... His choice.

Callum flopped down groaning in the grass, when she called for a rest. Ezran followed suit, but didn’t even stay down for one minute, because this random stretch of forest seemed endlessly fascinating to him and he was back off, seemingly examining the plant life.

Ezran was at least fun. He had made Bait a crown of pink flowers with little faces that he claimed went with his normal-grumpy skin color and his ‘vibe’, and now he was bringing back a whole armful of assorted wildflowers, holding them up to her face.

“Callum?” the boy asked, turning to his brother and turning her face around too. “What goes? It’s hard, because her eyes are purple-”

“Lilac.” Callum said, absentmindedly. “They’re lilac. Like the lilac bushes that grew at Aunt Amaya’s old cottage?”

“Yeah. I see it. I don’t have any lilacs though?” Ezran looked through the collection of flowers in his hands, white and light blue and orange. “I need backup suggestions, Callum!”

Callum smiled good-naturedly at Ezran’s intensity. “A shade of purple with not too much blue in it. Or bright yellow, like buttercups. Or white. White goes with everything, but there wouldn’t be much contrast with her hair.”

“Light pink and yellow,” Rayla said, without thinking, an image of Runaan popping into her head unbidden, not the imposing assassin leader full of disgust with her that she had faced on the battlements, but… smiling on Ethari’s birthday, lifting her up to the mirror so she could see herself in the Sundrop flower crown. She had thought those flowers were boring, but Ethari had told her they looked very pretty on her, and she knew he was biased but-

Callum was looking at her too… she didn’t know. He was just looking, and she supposed he had never seen an elf before, or, it seemed, purple eyes. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Pink and yellow would be really nice. Are those your favorite colors of flowers?”

“People have a favorite color flowers?” she snickered. She really hadn’t thought about that. Not like that. It was more to do with a good memory than the colors themselves, why she liked the yellow and pink Sundrops.

“Callum does,” Ezran giggled. “He has a favorite color everything. His favorite color flowers are yellow. His favorite color watercolor paint is like… orangy red. His favorite color clothes is greyish blue. And his favorite color leather is dark red like my shirt, because our mom’s spear was wrapped in leather that color-” Was. Past tense. She had figured but…

Callum was looking down, a bit bashfully. No wonder, really, it was personal, what his little brother was just blabbering on about. She would have been mortified, if she had been him.

“Yeah,” Callum said, twisting the stem of the light purple flowers he was holding. “It’s because surfaces and reflectiveness and saturation and… stuff… matters. So I couldn’t just like the same red hue for watercolors and tinted leather, that would make no sense-”

You don’t make sense,” Ezran laughed. Those words were actually… a bit mean on top, but underneath… no. Not mean. And Callum just kinda sighed, clearly not upset.

Probably a… sibling thing.

She wouldn’t know.

“Why pink and yellow?” Callum asked, smiling, like his brother hadn’t just spilled his life story to a stranger.

“They were one of my guardians’ favorite,” Rayla said, smiling slightly at the memory. It wasn’t as hard as she had thought, to share the personal stuff. The two boys weren’t being judgy or disinterested, quite the opposite.

“Guardian?” Ezran asked. “You’re adopted? Like Callum?” Like Callum… She hadn’t known that, but she could tell him and Ezran looked quite different, even though they were also similar under the different skin tone and hair and nose and general temperament.

She wasn’t though… like Callum. “No,” she said, managing to keep the feelings about that out of her voice, or at least she thought so. “Temporary guardians.” Not very temporary. But it didn’t matter anyway. She didn’t have parents anymore, she had guardians that-

One guardian, at least, still. And she would fix things and-

And she… really needed to change the topic to something more practical and less personal and weird.

“Do your feet hurt?” she asked the boys. Blisters were a concern, if they weren’t used to walking or didn’t have the right footwear for this, and they were better avoided before they became blisters.

“Yes!” Ezran exclaimed, flopping heavily and dramatically backwards in the grass.

Callum hesitated. He was trying not to whine.

“Two yesses then,” Rayla sighed. “Show them to me, then.”

Ezran readily tugged his right boot and sock off, and presented her with a little brown-skinned five-toed foot. That… threw her off. So strange. It seemed like a good, healthy foot though. No blisters. So probably just regular soreness then.

“Your feet have passed inspection,” she declared, a mockery of the tone Runaan used when he addressed the trainees.

She didn’t know what made her run her finger lightly along the soft arc, some curiosity… if human children were ticklish too-

Ezran squealed loudly, flopping back and laughing. “And another pass on the tickle check,” she laughed. She couldn’t help herself, Ezran’s good humor was just so contagious. She met Callum’s eyes, smirking. “Next!”

“For the… uh… tickle check?” Callum rubbed the back of his neck.

She rolled her eyes. “No, I need to paint your toenails with a special elf recipe, to ward off predators.”

“Alright,” he grinned, playing along, a lot of the tension leaving him, as he pulled his boot off. “Purple is my favorite color for that, if the predator-repellant nail polish comes with options.” Like the dark mage girl from the dungeon.

Callum’s feet passed too. One was reddening slightly at the back of the heel, but not a blister yet. He looked weirdly embarrassed though, when she ran her fingers along the area, holding his foot with her other hand. How was he just talking about his mom and his favorite colors like it was no big deal and embarrassed about this? A normal, practical thing when you were travelling? Humans were weird.

Or maybe it was just Callum.  

“You’re fine,” she said. “Just keep an eye on that.”

“I think my boots are fine, it was just the socks bunching,” he muttered, his cheeks still red.

“Okay,” she said, electing to not tease him, because maybe he was sensitive about his feet, although she couldn’t see why he would be, they seemed perfectly fine, weird fifth toe aside. “Tell me if you need to stop and un-bunch your socks.”

“Can we see yours?” Ezran asked. “It’s only fair. Do you have four or five toes?” He looked down at her boots, assessing. “I’m guessing four. Because your feet are narrower than Callum’s, and you’re almost the same size.”

“Six,” Rayla said, deadpan. “They’re just very skinny. Like long, skinny fingers, but on my feet. I use them to grip branches, when I swing through the trees. So it evens out to twenty total digits, same as for you.”

“Really?” Callum asked, looking fascinated. “You swing though the trees?”

“Yeah. My tail is still growing, so I need to rely on those toesies.”

“Tail?!” Callum instantly craned his neck to look at her backside, and an entirely too long moment later, it seemed to dawn on him what he was in fact staring at, and he suddenly found the tree off to the side extremely interesting. “Anyway. Tail. Okay. Cool.”

“No!” Rayla sputtered. “How would I hide a tail in these pants?!” She turned to Ezran, shaking with laughter. “Is he always that dense?”

“Yes,” Ezran said, with very definite emphasis, even though the aftermath of his giggles. “So much yes. It’s tragic.” He gently headbutted Callum’s shoulder, disrupting his grumpy face settling too firmly. It was mostly for show, anyway, she could tell, Callum was already smiling down at his little brother, now leaning his head against his shoulder.

“Sooo… not six long and thin finger-toes either, I assume?” Callum asked. “You really shouldn’t feel obligated to show us your feet just because you’ve seen ours. Ez, you can’t just ask people you don’t know to show you their feet for no reason-”

“Curiosity is a reason!” Ezran argued, crossing his arms.

“It’s okay, Callum,” Rayla shrugged. “You can see my feet, Ezran. I don’t mind. Besides, I know my limits and neither of you would believe me if I told you the sullying gaze of human eyes would make my precious finger-toes wither and fall off, right?”

“Emphatically no,” Callum grinned. “I do, in fact have limits. Besides, we just met. Give me time and then prepare to be seen right through!”

His green eyes caught hers and it was like he was seeing through her.

She… couldn’t do this, that was the point. She had to do better. If they did see through her, they would leave in a heartbeat, go back to their castle to mourn-

Rayla busied herself with the clasps on her boot, because if they were looking at her feet then they weren’t looking at the parts of her she really needed to hide.

The boys both studied the regular old four-toed foot she stuck out to them, Callum tilting his head in rapt fascination, and she hadn’t been self-conscious about it but for some reason she was now. A bit.

Rayla shook her head briskly, pulling her foot back and her sock and boot back on.

“We should get going,” she said, because it was on her now, to be like that. Interrupt the fun and get going because they had to.

She had no parents and no Runaan and no… guidance.

No path to follow.

Just these two boys, trusting her to lead them through uncharted territory and being weirdly friendly and open, especially considering how they had met. But really, even disregarding how they met, it was super weird how they just… talked about stuff and smiled at her like they liked talking to her and-

Really, all this was uncharted territory.

Chapter Text



1.39AM, May 18th, 998AB, East Bank of Arlendis River, Central Katolis

Reluctantly, Rayla went back to the water she had just left behind.

She had to, though. If the blood was allowed to dry fully, it would be way more of a bother. So tired and achy and angry… whatever. She was cleaning up now.

She raised her hand to her temple, where that big human woman’s fist had connected solidly. It hurt, swelling sore skin pulling. A bit of her hair was stuck to her skin. She gingerly traced the edge of a small cut where the woman’s gauntlet had caught her skin. Nothing to worry about.

Her head throbbed dully. Nothing to worry about either.

She poked her nose. Definitely didn’t hurt enough to be broken.

So it was fine.

She was fine.

She tugged at the ragged end of her severed braid. A bit of it was still holding together but it wouldn’t last long without the clasp.

That was fine too.

Even if she couldn’t make another one, because she always made a mess of it when she couldn’t see what she was braiding and Ethari wasn’t here and… that was fine, except now she was thinking about Ethari and his fingers through her hair, and wanting that-

And it was stupid that she did because he was far away and not about to come out of those trees with the candied moonberries he made for her when she’d hurt herself.

So she should stop moping and get going, was what she should do. Definitely wanting Ethari to… what? Comfort her? That was ridiculous and childish, and she had to be better than that. She was an assassin on a mission, she didn’t need Ethari to kiss her owies like she was 5 years old, or tell her that she shouldn’t let some dumb boy upset her. She knew that, and knew how to take care of herself.

There was a smeared streak of red across the back of her right hand, where she had wiped her nose and mouth and the water was right there so… why was she hesitating? At least that thought made her angry enough at herself to defiantly stick her hands under the water’s edge, rubbing at the dried smear. It was stupid too, the irrational thought that something would come out of the water and pull her under-

It was a dumb, regular old human lake. No monsters. No broken bones or anything else wrong.

No Runaan telling her off for striking impatiently and leaving an opening for that fist.

No Ethari fussing over her bruises.

No one who gave a shit about her.

That was fine. She shouldn’t have… expected that.

“Rayla?” Ezran’s voice from behind her. He was upset, she could tell without looking. Of course he was, it had been scary, no doubt, what had happened, and she wasn’t mad at him.

She turned around to look at the boy, holding out a handkerchief. She had do something, because his brow was furrowed and his little round face screwed up with upset.

“Hey,” she said gently. “We’ll be okay here. The current was strong, they won’t catch up for many hours in this terrain-”

He looked at her like she had grown another head. “I’m not afraid of that,” Ezran said. “I’m just here to help you. I’m not Callum, so you can’t convince me elves can see their own faces.” He winced, looking at the face in question.

“You don’t… I’m fine, Ezran.”

But he looked stubborn and not about to leave her alone to be miserable for some reason. “My aunt hit you!”

“Sorry. I’m not really… good company right now.”

You don’t need to be good company, I’m here to be good company because my family hurt you. My aunt and my brother. Callum didn’t mean it though! He’s a jerkface sometimes, but he always figures it out and apologizes! And there’s a dance! Well… for me, anyway. I’ll make him do it for you-”

Ezran kept chatting, outlining some choreographed dance thing, but it was hard to concentrate, with her head pounding and the taste of blood on her lips just… reminding her of what Callum had said… what all those other humans had believed without question.

She wiped at her mouth, trying to get rid of the taste, but the words stuck in her head.

Bloodthirsty monster.

She probably looked like that right now, with the blood from her nose having run across her mouth and chin while she had been tied up. She stared numbly at her fingers, stained red.

“I guess I look the part-” she muttered.

Ezran spun around from where he had been dipping his handkerchief in the lake. He had clearly heard. The old informational nugget of human hearing being vastly inferior to elven might not have been totally correct. And Ezran had… understood, too, because his jaw set and his eyes narrowed at her. “No, you don’t!” Ezran regarded her appearance critically. “You look like a girl. With horns. That someone punched in the face.”

Despite everything, Rayla laughed. “That’s about right.” She would take that.

The boy dipped his handkerchief in the lake, wiping carefully at her face. She couldn’t see her own face and it was helpful to have second set of eyes. She looked down at her lap at her own hands blurring into a blob, letting him do it. Her head hurt and her eyes were itching to close.

Ezran cocked his head at her when she looked back up at him. “You look tired.”

“Yeah, I… am.”

Despite her best efforts, she flinched when he cleaned the swollen, definitely-bruising skin at her temple. And that was no good, because it was worrying Ezran, when it was nothing to worry about.

“Does your head hurt?” he asked, worried.

Yes. “No.”

“Yes, it does.” Ezran said sternly. “Lying is wrong. Even if it’s to make me feel less bad about my aunt hurting you. I’ll make her apologize. She’s really stubborn, like you, but she’s good underneath, and when she knows what she’s done is wrong, she’ll apologize.”

But she had not been wrong. She had attacked a foreign intruder from an enemy nation in her family’s house, using no more force or cruelty than was warranted. She had definitely pulled the second punch, or her nose absolutely would have been broken, she had felt that terrifying strength- “It’s okay. She did what she thought was right.”

“But you’re angry,” Ezran pressed.

“Not at her.” She was angrier at Callum than at his aunt. He had known what could have happened. Hadn’t given a shit about it being dangerous, had wanted that dumb toy anyway.

“At Callum? Yeah, he didn’t really think things through, but-”

“He didn’t care to. Why should he? He thinks I’m- ….never mind.”

“He doesn’t think you’re a monster!” 

She knew that, just… he didn’t think she was like him either. It was hard to make sense of, but she was sure about being mad at him for it.

“I know, but-” she said, searching for words that weren’t coming to her. She wasn’t sure she could explain it to Ezran, when she could barely wrap her own useless, achy head around it.

“It was really dumb, what Callum said, but he really didn’t mean for the humans to attack you. He thought you’d be in more danger if they weren’t afraid of you.”

Rayla cocked her head at Ezran, smirking a bit, without mirth. “Lying is wrong, remember? Even if it’s to make me feel better.”

“I’m not! He was really worried. He still is, just look at him, really look.”

She glanced sideways at Callum, seated against a tree, half-shielded by his sketchbook. She could see his furrowed brow though. His messy hair and charcoal smudge on his forehead, where he had dragged his hand through it. He did it again, just now, his fingers clenching slightly around the strands at the back of his head. His gaze sneaked up to glance in her direction, quick and furtive, back down right away.

He paused, as if frozen. Very obviously realizing she had caught him looking. Then he kinda… purposefully and determinedly kept on drawing.

Dork.

She should probably… talk to him.

 

Chapter Text



8.12PM, May 18th, 998AB, edge of Dimar Mountains, Central Katolis

It was supposed to be fighting stance lessons, not… whatever this was.

Smiling? Talking?

That wasn’t usually a part of these types of lessons, at least… not like this.

Runaan’s tiny smile, when she succeeded at something difficult-

Pah. Callum hadn’t even tried yet, much less succeeded.

It was a fluke anyway, that weird… ba-dump her heart had done when Callum had leaned down next to her on the boat.

So what if humans were cute?

Some of them, at least.

It didn’t… mean anything. Just a very pointless observation that Callum was one of the unfairly cute humans.

And anyway, she was putting those dumb and pointless thoughts behind her, because they were dumb and pointless. But Callum could at the very least have the consideration to stop smiling at her. Because it was not helping.

At all.

Rayla smiled back. Completely… without thinking about it. She still… would have… obviously. Wasn’t like it was weird, smiling at someone who smiled at you.

His hair had shone in warm, golden shades when the sun hit it.

Hers didn’t. Not like that. Why couldn’t his hair be normal and glow in moonlight? She was used to that.

You could want to touch your friends’ hair, right? If it was all floofy and soft-looking? Like… a shadowpaw kitten or an adoraburr?

Yeah. Ignoring that.

And definitely don’t be weird and tell him he’s an unfairly cute human.

“You look like you lost a battle with the firewood,” Rayla said, instead. That was also true, after all. There was a smear of charcoal across his forehead and cheek. Black on his fingers and cuffs.

“Yeah, sorry. I stacked too much and had to remove some of it. It’s burning alright now, though.” And he smiled. Again. That just… wouldn’t do.

She shook her head and straightened up, determined. “Callum, I’ve been neglecting a vital part of your wilderness education,” she grinned. “Sass. It’s important.”

“Wilderness…?” He looked confused. “Uh… well, I consider myself-”

“Shush now. There was a right answer to what I just said, and it was to rightfully tell me I look like I was repeatedly punched in the face and then eaten by a lake monster. And that I smell like fish guts.” She took a mocking bow. Her damp hair flopped into her face, smelling like lake water and electrocuted fish and solidly proving her point.

But he winced, at that. She was really not doing a stellar job at keeping things upbeat, but it was kinda hard when he failed to see the humor in objectively funny things. She frowned a bit. “Fine,” she sighed. “You can tell me I’m awesome instead, if you really must.”

“You’re awesome.” What?! And he was still fucking smiling!

“You don’t speak sarcasm so well, do you?” she scoffed.

“Yes, actually, I do. I just disagree with you. You fought a whole huge lake monster today? How’s that not awesome?”

You defeated the lake monster. I got eaten.”

“And got yourself and Bait… un-eaten. Under water. That you’re scared of.” He looked honestly disbelieving, but-

But it didn’t matter. She knew herself better than he did. And besides, there were things she hadn’t told him that would change his mind about her real quick. So even if he actually meant that, it wasn’t really a reflection of her awesomeness but of his kindness and… incomplete knowledge of her.

And she was supposed to be teaching him to plant his feet, he had asked after she had taught Ezran, now asleep by the fire.

That ‘I’m standing here, you move’ kinda thing feeling inside and the rooted, strong feeling outside? It was a good thing to be able to do, stand unmoving, against scary things.

Rayla picked up the stick-sword she had used to teach Ezran, abandoned on the grass. She shifted it to her right hand. It was fine. She could use it if she had to, and she was not thinking about it now, because it was irrelevant until it kept her from fighting. Hopefully it would be a while till then. It just kinda twinged a bit.

Okay.

Maybe… more than a bit.

But it was definitely manageable.

“Did you get hurt worse than I know? When you fought my aunt yesterday? Or when you fought the lake monster?” Shit. Her face really was like… a useless, whiny, little tattletale with an F in illusions. And that wouldn’t be a problem except he was always looking at her face-

“It’s fine.”

But he kept looking at her, brows furrowing. Suspicious? “That wasn’t really… what I asked. It’s like yesterday. It’s like you’re answering something different than I’m asking. But you actually believe it, even when it’s obviously not true. Like that you’re not awesome. Or that you were fine yesterday.” No, concerned. Worse.

“I was! And I am!”

“You should be allowed to not be fine right after you were beaten and tied up and almost kill-” He swallowed. “I’m not really fine, you know. After just- seeing that. And seeing… other stuff. Earlier.” The tower. He had been there, in the fighting. He had seen things, and he was not used to violence.

Neither was she. Not like this. Not the opponents she had faced the last few days.

The lake monster.

Callum and Ezran’s aunt.

The human soldiers.

The smoke wolves.

…Runaan.

She was outclassed. She was losing.

Had lost, every time.

Her hand went halfway to her temple, still swollen and sore, proof that she wasn’t good enough for what she was facing. Not even close. And without her left hand she would be way further away from being good enough.

She dropped her hand and straightened up. It didn’t matter. She could damn well try her hardest. This was important. Far more so than anything she had done. She had lost every battle so far, but… she hadn’t yet lost the one that mattered, keeping Callum and Ezran alive and getting the dragon egg home.

Callum was still looking at her though, and the needless concern had gone nowhere at all. “You… were punched in the face and eaten by a lake monster and bitten by those wolves… in the last three days. And you were right, yesterday. I missed stuff. With you. You just… you seemed like you could do anything, like you didn’t even get tired or upset or scared or hurt.”

…felt as if you saw me as both more and less than a person, she had said, and he had listened and not gotten mad.

And it was changing. The way he was looking at her now was different.

Or maybe the way she was looking at him?

Both?

He peered at her temple, where her hair was probably only half-covering the evidence of that beating. “It already looks better than yesterday,” he wondered, relieved.

“Close to the full moon. So yeah.” She rubbed the bite mark from the smoke wolves, almost faded. “I heal faster.” It would be half in a few days though. It wouldn’t last, that boost. And her hand wouldn’t get better, it would get worse until-

“I’m glad you’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m sorry I asked to go there. I really didn’t think… yeah. I didn’t think. Of you. Not until it was too late.”

“It’s really nothing,” she said, squirming a bit under his gaze. “Have you never been punched in the face before?”

“No!” Really?! And he was her age. Huh. “Who would hit you?” he asked, looking comically troubled about it.

Maybe she thought her parents had? And yeah, of course that would be different and bad.

“Just sparring partners and occasionally other kids at school,” she shrugged, assuring him.

“I’ve never been to school.” Oh right, he’d said. “It doesn’t sound great.”

“Ah, it’s okay, except for being mostly really boring. Not like I didn’t give as good as I got.” Usually. The last time, right after her parents had betrayed their mission, it had been… different. Different and horrible. It hadn’t been a fight, it had been a vice grip holding her arms fast, Vareil and Emina taking turns just… doing what they wanted. Toying with her.

Ethari had seen it right away, too, when he found her afterwards, because he hadn’t scolded her at all and had whispered something in Runaan’s ear, and then Runaan hadn’t scolded her either.

She shook her head, pushing those shitty memories away. She was fixing things. She would do this and then go home, and it would be better and people wouldn’t hate her anymore.

“Well?” she prodded, turning back to Callum and the thing they had come here to do. “Square up?”

He had asked her but… he was hesitating now. “Um. Maybe- …uh.”

“Callum? Why are you…” Was he actually afraid of her, unlike his brother? Did he think she would hurt him? She had thought, in the boat and just now… that he saw her as a person. A friend, even. You weren’t supposed to be afraid of your friends.

Or lie to them.

Never mind.

But it seemed important that he knew that she wouldn’t hurt him, even if she could.

She had, she knew. She had used her strength and speed against him, chased him, pushed him down, threatened him. She would never do it again, but-

But she had, and he was allowed to still be wary about her, she couldn’t really complain about that. She set her jaw.

“What’s wrong?” Callum asked.

It tumbled out of her, honest and childish. “You’re- you- you’re afraid of me. You’re nervous. I can tell. That’s why you didn’t want to do it before, with me and Ez.”

“No!” That was honest too, and she breathed out in slight relief. “I’m not afraid of you. Really. I haven’t really been, since… well, definitely it was within a couple of hours of meeting you. I’m afraid of… failing.” Oh, how she felt that sentiment in the pit of her soul. “I told you, I’m pretty useless at… most things. I didn’t want to- want you to… think that.” He was looking down at his feet, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“I don’t. And I won’t, even if you’re rubbish at this… I won’t. And I’m pretty sure you won’t be.” He had looked right at her, at her sword at his throat, and told her he was Prince Ezran. He had gone back into that tower for- for the king. It was pretty baffling how he could think he wouldn’t be good at planting his feet in the face of scary things. He was obviously very brave when it came to the people he cared about.

“You think?” He was smiling slightly, hopefully, he wasn’t quite believing it but-

But she did.

“I know,” she said. “Now square up.”

He did, letting her position his body right.

“You have to feel it,” she explained. “That unmoving thing inside you. I know you have it, because I’ve seen it. You just have to get your head in the right place. I saw your drawing of that room, remember? So, I know you can see a place in your head, if you know what it is.”

“Yeah?”

“So, imagine Ez behind you.

He did, she could tell.

“And plant your feet.”

He did.

She lunged at him, putting on her best scary-face.

He didn’t flinch.

He smiled.

Chapter Text

9.20PM, May 19th, 998AB, Dimar Mountains, Central Katolis

The wind was still howling when Rayla awoke, groggy and cold and not at all rested.

Callum had kept the fire going while she had managed maybe an hour of rather fitful sleep, huddled up to the very heavily sleeping Ezran. Her hand was really starting to become an issue, in that regard. It ached now, sharp and constant and she wasn’t even using it.

She sat up, and went to join him by the fire. Might as well, since she wasn’t sleeping anymore right now.

So he might as well.

“Hey?” she said, startling him out of the staring-numbly-ahead half-stupor. “You should sleep. I’ll watch the fire.”

His face got very stubborn, even through the obvious fatigue. “I claimed the firewood. I’m holding you to that. And you didn’t sleep enough at all.”

“Callum,” she sighed. “We both need to be functional tomorrow. You’re tired. You can sleep. I can’t. So you should. It’s not a statement, just common sense.” It didn’t sound like common sense, even to her, it sounded like what is was, someone so exhausted they were desperate to not argue.

“You couldn’t sleep?” Of course he pounced on that part of what she’d said. His gaze went to her left hand, cradled to her chest, carefully clenching and releasing to relieve the stiffness and ache from the inactivity of sleep. “Because of your hand?”

She let go of it, letting it dangle at her side, because that was what you did when it was… okay. “It’s okay. I’m awake so you should sleep, was the important part of what I was saying.”

He didn’t seem to agree with that, in fact he seemed to barely be listening, his gaze fixed on her hand.

She turned away from him.

“It’s not… really, though?” he asked. “Okay, I mean? Is it? If it’s hurting you worse?”

Rayla straightened up, because you shouldn’t be curled around yourself like a wounded little prey creature if you were okay, either.

She didn’t look at him, but he was still looking at her, she could feel his… eyes on her, his attention on her.

“And it’ll keep getting worse… until-” he added.

“I’m…  don’t worry about it,” she said, rather failing at making it all the way to the nonchalance she was aiming for, but she could at very least reassure him so didn’t have to be so upset about it. She turned to look him in the eyes, because this bit she could say honestly. “I’m okay with it.”

How?!” he asked, disbelieving. “Sorry but… that’s nuts! How are you okay with that? It’s not my hand and I’m not okay with it. With you hurting or you-” He cut off, biting his lip.

He couldn’t even say it, and he was definitely even less okay with that, the thought of her losing her hand. She was already dead, Runaan had said. Whatever happened to her now, it would suck, definitely, but it really was okay.

She shrugged. “I was trained as an assassin. I was ready to die, Callum.” He was staring at her, open-mouthed, now. “I’m still ready to die.” He had to get that. This… whatever this was? He would have to get over that, and fast. “You know our mission. You and Ezran are here to deliver the egg to the dragon queen. I am here to get you there. In whatever way I can. And if that means you run and I stay, then you run. You get that?”

“No.”

“Callum, it’s not up for debate.”

“Good. Because I’m not arguing. I’m telling you no. I’m not doing that. That’s horrible.”

“Yeah, of course it’s horrible! Not like I’m hoping it’ll happen. But it might. And it’ll be okay.”

“NO!” he yelled, springing to his feet to stare her down. “It’s nuts, what you’re saying! How can it be okay if it’s horrible?!”

“Sometimes… there aren’t any options that are good.” Rayla rubbed her aching hand. Not like she wanted to lose it. She wouldn’t be able to fight as well, ever again. She might be nigh-useless for a while, if she did. She had spent her whole life training, and- “Sometimes, you have to look at the horrible options, and see which is less horrible. And we definitely agree that my hand is a steal, to buy your brother’s life. And my life is a steal, to end this war.”

He looked horrified, his mouth opening and closing, like he was searching for the words. They weren’t there for him to find though, because she was right-

“You’re a person,” he said, eventually. “Not… currency. You’re… you should be… yours. Your life ought to be yours and no-one else’s. It’s not some… equation. It’s not okay at all. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m right about this. And… Rayla? Me being sure about things…? That doesn’t really happen a lot. But I’m sure about this.” His feet were planted, like she had showed him earlier, on the riverbank.

He didn’t grow up with this. Sacrifice. Maybe he needed time to get used to the idea? And it would be easier for him? And what he was saying was… well, she wasn’t thinking about that, she was tired anyway, and so was he, and it wasn’t up for debate, so arguing about it was pointless.

“Fine. We disagree,” she sighed. He could have his opinion or ideals or whatever, and reality would happen regardless of it. “Think about it, okay? That’s all I ask.”

She slumped forwards, sitting in front of the fire. Even with the ache on the outside and the turmoil on the inside… she was so tired. The orange flames were blurring into the background, her thoughts blurring too, into each other and hard to distinguish.

Callum’s hand on her shoulder startled her out of her stupor. “Hey? Your argument for staying awake is about done for.” He sounded just a bit triumphant. “Sleep? While you can?”

That was the exact argument she had given him. And she was sleepy. She walked numbly to the pile of pine branches where Ezran lay, huddling up close to him on the cold side, away from the fire.

She must have fallen all the way asleep, at least for a little bit, because she woke up halfway when Ezran shifted next to her and the rest of the way when Callum crunched a branch under his foot when he came over to them.

“I’m fide,” Ezran sniffled. “Just a dream. Not even… a really bad one.” That last bit wasn’t quite true, and Callum definitely got that.

Her cracked eyelids showed his hand in Ezran’s hair. Soothing noises.

She could almost pretend it was for her, too.

She was almost asleep again when she felt it, Callum’s warm fingers against her cold and achy left hand, twisted in the cloak. Then he drew away and she missed the warmth she hadn’t missed before.

“I hope I can show you, Rayla.” Callum’s voice in the cold darkness, very quiet but… also filling it, somehow. “That you’re wrong. Or maybe… that’s wrong, too. I don’t… I don’t care about winning, I care about you… and-”

He sighed, his footsteps retreating.

Callum was so weird. You couldn’t just… say you cared about someone.

Pfft. It was temporary anyway. It would last until she told them about their dad. She would have to get used to that.

She should wait long enough for it to not give away that she had been awake and then talk to him because this wasn’t fair at all-

“She is a child, and her punishment will be that of a child.”

“Runaan, I can take the punishment I deserv-”

“No. That decision is not yours. Go home. Leave this place, where you do not belong.”

“But-”

“LEAVE.”

Rayla was vaguely away of the real world, bleeding into cold and painful and… brief… focus, her cold fingers twisting around coarse cloth, her left hand sharp ache, the smell of smoke and Ezran next to her. Then the focus faded again, but the cold and the pain followed her.

“Rayla, just… Go away! Our dad is-”

“Callum, I’m-”

“LEAVE!”

Rayla gasped, sitting up, cradling her left hand to her chest. Callum’s head snapped up from where he had been slumping forwards, hugging his knees by the fire.

She walked back over to him, forcing herself to smile, inadequate as it was.

“Go sleep,” she said. “It really is your turn now.”

“Uh, not even close, you didn’t sleep very long, you know. Or very well, it looked like.”

“Not particularly, but that doesn’t mean you get to not sleep. I’ll be okay. Moon’s still gibbous.”

It was out now, the storm had abated enough for the moonlight to make it through the cloud cover. She could feel its energy, and even diminished by clouds as it was, the strength it lent her would let her stay awake till morning.

“Gibbous is the egg-shaped one, right?” Callum asked. Right, that word wasn’t exactly common knowledge outside of Moonshadow culture. He actually did seem to know it though.

“That least dramatic of moon shapes, yes,” she smirked. “Neglected by fairytale writers but appreciated by my people. It’s objectively the second-best moon-shape.”

He grinned. “It doesn’t figure in elven stories either?”

“In Moonshadow stories it does, but otherwise not so much.”

Callum looked up at the undramatic and fuzzy egg shape of light. The moonlight reflected off his face, but not like she was used to. He didn’t… respond, inside. “Can you tell me one of those stories?” he asked dreamily, then seemed to snap back into reality. “Uh. You don’t really have to tell me…”

She shouldn’t be telling him a story, she should be telling him the truth.

But then he wouldn’t sleep at all, she bet, and he needed to. She couldn’t tell him now, when he was about to keel over and trapped in this cave with her.

“Go to bed and I will,” she said, instead of the full truth he deserved.

He looked stubborn for about half a second, before a yawn split his face. He rubbed his eyes, and seemed to relent. “Alright. Guess I’m… done. Wake me up when you want to sleep more though?”

She really, really didn’t, right now. Even if she had wanted to, her head was reeling and her hand was hurting too much to even relax, much less actually sleep.

A story though? That, she could manage.

Callum laid down with his arms around Ezran and smiled up at her while he listened to the frankly quite boring story. She had deliberately picked a boring one, without a single person being gutted or tortured, so he would fall asleep, but he was paying attention, regardless.

His breaths gradually slowed though, and his eyes closed. When she finished the story, his eyelids cracked slightly open and he gave her a little smile. Then he let go, and was fully asleep.

The warmth inside her lasted the whole walk back to the warmth of the fire and the moonlight.

Chapter Text

5.48AM, May 21st, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

She was almost there, the line of the battlements visible above her.

Well. Not really almost, no. But she would get to almost, and then she would get to all the way there.

And then, she would fix this.

Rayla pushed herself upwards, out of the shaded part of the wall and into the orange light of the moonset.

Her arms were screaming, her breath burning in her lungs, but she could do this.

She thrust upwards another few feet, and hammered the pick-form of her right blade deep into the crumbling mortar of the castle wall.

Not deep enough though. It wasn’t enough.

She wasn’t enough-

No!

She would fix this.

Her right blade was slipping from the wall and she was sliding down but… she could fix this, she had two blades for a reason.

She drew back her left with all her might and struck.

The sound was soft flesh, not hard metal.

And whooshing of air, now.

Just… air… around her.

She reached for the wall plummeting past, the wall that was too far away, her reach not enough.

Her hands tightened around nothing.

No.

Hand.

That was why she… hadn’t been enough. It was… only seconds of nauseous horror, staring at the stump where her left hand had been and then-

Impact ringing through her, a dizzying smack like the ground but worse because it was water, rising up to envelop her, crushing around her, pulling at her, out of her control.

The rock that struck her was a mercy because it was solid, but it was brief comfort, because one hand wasn’t enough to hold on and the not-hand was bleeding now, turning the water around her to red, hot and cloying and choking, all around.

She was yanked every which way by the current, but then she was yanked upwards, and it was not air or water anymore but solid ground, and she almost sobbed with relief until she saw who had rescued her.

“You lied to me.”

Runaan said nothing else, or bothered to even look at her. He just left, disappearing in the trees like he had before.

Rayla curled around herself, hugging the stump of her left wrist close to her chest, but the blood just kept flowing, seeping into her shirt and into the ground beneath her, like the current and the falling… out of her control.

“You lied to me.”

It was Callum’s voice, not accusing like Runaan’s had been, but soft and sad and worse.

His face blurred when she tried to focus on him and then he was gone too.

Rayla shut her eyes. She couldn’t fix it. She couldn’t fix anything.

It was all floaty now. The ground was too soft and the blood was sticky and hot… everything too sticky and hot.

Hot?

That wasn’t-

It wasn’t real.

And then it was.

Maybe?

Rayla’s right hand fumbled in the maybe-realness, catching a handful of damp cloth, slipping against the hot, sweaty skin of her left forearm. Her exploration halted there, before moving down to… well, she didn’t know what, was the point.

Pushing past the childish dread that had made her hesitate, like she wasn’t supposed to, she continued down, her fingers closing around thin cloth and solid, real flesh underneath, where there hadn’t been anything. Shouldn’t have been anything? It felt… not quite real still, though?

She stared at the bandaged left hand that was still there when it shouldn’t be. Not even hurting, even though she was sure it had and still ought to. The gauze was loose enough for her to stick her fingers under it to be sure that binding wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t. Just skin she could feel was still swollen but which didn’t hurt like it should.

There was some thick, slippery stuff too, on her fingers, now. It smelled like the herbs at the Silvergrove Ethari used for healing ointments, and she remembered that Callum had spread it over her hand and wrist and told her she shouldn’t mess with it. Oops.

She breathed. It was real. The gauze was not tight, not like the binding. Callum, soft and gentle, had tied it, not Runaan, strict and demanding.

Her hand was real and there, but… it was stiff and weird, and kinda numb, like some foreign thing, not really hers. Nothing was really hers though, not really. She had bound herself to a task and she had failed to do it and yet she was free now?

She didn’t feel it. Her heart for Xadia, she had said. Her hands had been bound.

That left her head, no prize at the best of times and not working at all now, it seemed. Everything was too hot, like heatwaves in the air that definitely weren’t real but… useless head couldn’t even tell properly, what was. She blinked at the fuzzy outlines of the room.

It was somewhere she didn’t know at all, some ruin of a bedroom, two double beds and Callum and Ezran  asleep in the one she wasn’t in and the wee, newborn dragon prince curled up in Ezran’s arms.

She sat there, looking at the precious beings in the bed opposite, safe and asleep, until she was sure it was really, really real. But it was.

She smiled widely. It was.

Wait.

There was a wolf next to her?

Right. Ava. It was Ava. Not asleep either, the light blue eyes luminous and watching.

Rayla pushed herself up to sitting, the heavy blankets falling away a relief, but the oppressive heat didn’t go away even though the air was cool. 

Ava laid her head in her lap, whining quietly and looking up at her.

She patted the big head, reassuring. Her arms were really heavy though, so only a few pats.

It was a good wolf though. Soft and real and solid in the not-good floaty world. She slumped against the furry body. All of her was so heavy.

She needed water, maybe? There was a basin in the corner and her mouth tasted funny, like… candied moonberries so… maybe she was hurt?

Ethari wasn’t here though, that was silly. And sad, but she wasn’t thinking about that because she wasn’t a kid, kids didn’t bind themselves like she had, that would be really awful.

And her mouth tasted more like gross carpet and dryness anyway, with just like… a hint of candied moonberries.

Right.

Water.

She should… get some.

But Ava nudged her gently with her big nose, pushing her back against the pillows, further away from the water basin, and bounced away.

Rayla sat back up, pushing against downwards pull and away from the sticky, cloying heat of the linens. It wasn’t enough to escape the heat and the heaviness, and her arms weren’t doing their job at all, weird and trembly. Who needed them, anyway? But she had them, both of them.

And Callum was awake now, sitting up in his bed, looking over at her. All sleepy and yawny and cute. Silly wolf had gone and woken him up.

“Hey,” he said quietly, padding over to her on bare feet. “That fever Lujanne warned about, when all the bad stuff in your hand got into the rest of your body? That’s a thing?”

“’m fine,” she said. Her voice didn’t feel right either. “Jus’ sleepy.” She was. Just sleepy. But he didn’t believe her, she didn’t think, because his face got all frowny.

She supposed she had to admit she was sticky too, brushing her hair to one side, away from the damp nape of her neck. Hot. Gross.

“Rayla, it’s okay that you’re not fine yet,” Callum said. Huh? But she was? “I’ll help you until you are. Ez too. We’ll help you.”

Pfft. She could help her. She got out of the bed. She just needed… water. Air. A less gross and damp shirt? She definitely didn’t need help for that. That was simple stuff, really.

The world just had to fall in line and stop spinning for a moment. Yeah.

Oops.

Her butt hit the bed she was sure she had just left.

Callum rushed forward, alarmed, to steady her.

He was… sturdier than she thought. At least sturdier than everything else in the stupid spinny world. “Hey.”  His hand came to rest between her shoulder blades, all solid and real and nice and she didn’t want him to go, but he did. And would. He would, when he knew. “Careful. Okay? I’ll get you some water.”

He did, leaving her sitting on the edge of the bed.

She slopped water all over herself as she drank because her hands were shaky, and her left was still… not achy? But weird. All weird. Prickly. Stiff.

“You see?” Rayla accused, gesturing at her wet shirt, but the motion made the world even more untethered from real, solid things, so she held onto Callum, sturdy and fixed in place. “‘Is all floaty,” she muttered, into his shirt. “I could have been just achy, but noooo… you gave me the tasty painkillers and now m’not. But floaty instead?” And she was so tired and his shoulder was all comfy. “’m tough. Achy s’okay.”

“But I didn’t want you to be achy, Rayla. I know you’re tough, but you’re my friend and I don’t you hurting like you were before I gave you those painkillers. And you said it yourself, you’re very sleepy. So you needed to be less achy so you can sleep, see?”

He got her more water, and steadied her dumb shaky hands as she drank, this time. His hands were big and soft and cool against hers. Gentle. So gentle she wanted to cry. It was all wrong. He shouldn’t be… not when she knew what had happened. About his King-dad.

But she couldn’t tell him now, because she knew… she wasn’t all there right now, and she could at least be there when she told him.

He got a wet cloth from where he had gotten the water, putting the coolness against the back of her neck.

It was nice.

He was nice.

And she was lying so he would keep being nice.

Just pushing it in front of her, the time when it was over and would hate her. And that wouldn’t even matter then, because he would hurt and not smile anymore and-

A great big, ugly hiccupping sob broke the silence of the room.

That was her, wasn’t it? Yeah. Oops. That wasn’t the way to convince him she was okay. So she really had to try harder.

Her useless head was the worst head. Messing with her feelings and the floaty realness and… making her cry for no good reason.

“Hey, it’s okay!” Callum said, his hand at her shoulder, his other, still holding the cloth, wiping away the tears. “You’ll get better! The bad stuff that was in your hand would… kinda disperse, Lujanne said? Your body will fight it, and you’ll get better. I know you feel awful right now, you really don’t have to try to convince me you don’t, it’s… pretty obvious.”

Yeah. She was awful, and it was obvious, and the more awful she was, the nicer he was.

Rayla sat there, for a while, leaning against his shoulder, feeling awful.

 


 

It was light out, when she woke up for the… third time? Fourth? She wasn’t sure, the night had been… off. Stupid, definitely-also-a-sedative, tasty painkillers. The floaty feeling was gone now though, and her hand felt very real and very there and very achy, but way less than it had for days, and also… it was there so she couldn’t really complain when that last bit alone was more that she expected or deserved.

The room was empty except for Ezran, sitting cross-legged on the opposite bed with Bait and Azymondias, looking curiously at her from Ezran’s lap.

“’Mornin’ Ez,” she muttered. Was it morning? She had no idea. She looked up at the sunlight streaming through the ruined roof. Early afternoon, maybe?

“Good morning, Rayla.” Ezran walked over, and the wee dragon wobbled across her bed to gently nudge her face with his nose. Not the worst awakening. The dragon prince was alive and happy and… ridiculously adorable. She hadn’t failed, not yet.

Ezran reached out his little hand to touch her forehead. Oh. Callum would have told him what a mess she had been all night… or day, as it were. Ezran’s round face screwed up in concern. “You were sick,” he said.  “You still are.”

Those big blue eyes were even harder to argue with than Callum. At least Callum could give as good as he got. Ezran was… sensitive.

“I feel way better today,” she said. Not a lie. She took the glass of water Ezran offered her though, and ate the filled bun he handed her, some human food?

“You want to sleep more? Callum is off talking to Lujanne for a bit, anyway. Ellis will help you change if you need help, and her and Ava is getting water from the lake.” Everyone knew what a mess she was, then. Awesome.

“Ez, it’s really okay. You don’t have to stick around. I’ll probably be a bit boring today.”

He patted her good hand. “Yeah, I think you should have a boring day. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve had a boring day.” Oh. It… definitely had.

“And it’s been a while since you had a fun day, right?” Rayla smiled at Ellis and Ava, just entering, carrying empty buckets. “So you and Ellis should explore this place, while you can? It’s Zym’s first day ever, it should be a fun one! I’m going to sleep a bit more, anyway. Wash up. Eat. Boring stuff.”

“Okay.” Ezran looked at her, like… gauging. “Have a boring day,” he said sternly, more like a command than anything. She supposed he would be king, one day. Was alrea- Nope, not going there. “I’ll be back to check on you.”

“That’s no fun now, is it?” Rayla grinned. “Definitely, that shouldn’t be part of a fun day.”

“If you tell me and Ellis a fun story, about the Moonshadow elves who lived here, it will be!”

Fun story? Rayla grinned, wickedly. Yeah, she could change his mind on that prospect. And would. The kids needed their fun day, that didn’t include worrying about her. “Alright. There’s some really interesting lore on the Moon druids. You know they were illusionists, so they could mess with how other people see and hear and feel and smell and taste the world? There was supposedly a human boy that found his way here and broke into the library, and the Moon druids turned him inside out. Guts all on the outside. Really impractical and unhygienic. And they fed him his guts. Of course they didn’t actually do that, they weren’t monsters. People don’t really like being fed their own kidneys or eyeballs, even if it is just an illusion though. That squishy eyeball-consistency? In your mouth? Ew. Anyway, that’s not the story, that would be kinda boring, the story is about this creature that’s all squishy eyeballs, and lure children into hollow trees and eat them. I suppose it wasn’t all squishy eyeballs then, it must have had one mouth? Anyway, it’s a fun story, it’s kinda hard to summarize but it gets gnarly, I can say that much.”

“Awesome!” Ellis squealed, her face lit up. Ezran looked as horrified as had been her aim and Azymondias had cocked his head, looking confused, but Ellis was plenty excited enough to overrule the others. “Let’s go, Ez! Ava will take us on a tour! And we’ll make sure Zym has a fun first day of his life. And we’ll be back to check on Rayla and hear a super-fun story! That’s the perfect day!” Ellis was pulling Ezran out the door as she spoke. There was excited barking and yipping from outside. Then they were gone.

Chapter Text



2.51PM, May 21st, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

Rayla didn’t think she really qualified as clean, but she thought she had at least managed to elevate her smell slightly above dead-squirrel-slowly-decaying-in-a-stream, using mostly her right hand and cold water and Lujanne’s Lunabloom-scented soap.

The hair was an issue though, with her left hand and wrist still bandaged and also a general painful nuisance, even as much better as it was. She could do it, she would just have to actually think while she did and also it would just take a lot longer and… and she was so tired. She had almost fallen asleep leaning against the stone basin where she had had to sit down just to wash, she was so pathetic today-

She blinked. Her cheek had been squished against her elbow, but now it was against poky rock and she was further down than she was sure she had been, just before.

Guess she could strike the ‘almost’ from that ‘almost falling asleep against the basin’ bit.

Yeah. Tomorrow, with the hair. Wasn’t like she was impressing anyone right now, even if her hair had rivaled Runaan’s majestic butt-length swoosh. Or like she had anyone to impress.

But she still sat up straighter, when Callum came up the stairs.

“You’re… bathing?” Callum asked, looking pointedly off to the side, despite her being fully dressed, minus the armor. “Uh. Sorry. I’ll… leave. Sorry.” Huh? Wasn’t like it was her water, Ava and Ellis were the ones that had fetched it from the lake, if anything it was theirs. Some human thing? He seemed weirdly tense, whatever it was. “Let you… uh-” He clumsily made some taking off clothes gesture, as if that was somehow less awkward than just saying it.

“Callum, I’m not undressed, and won’t be, so… unclench please?” she sighed. “I’m just washing the essentials, and I’ve already finished. I’ll take a real bath tomorrow morning. So you can have the water, if you need to?” She hoped he got the hint that she was not the only one in need of a bath.

He turned back to her, relaxing a bit as he seemed to accept that no clothes were currently in the process of being removed. Maybe humans didn’t bathe together? Callum had gotten all embarrassed too, when she had asked about the little sheds in Ellis’ town, and she had gleaned from Ezran that they were probably just tiny, primitive human toilets, so clearly he had weird hang-ups about that stuff, and she shouldn’t judge.

He sat down opposite her, not looking terribly happy, as he looked her over. Well, she felt like an achy and half-soaked pile of elven uselessness, so that made two of them.

“How’s your-” Callum paused. “Everything.”

“Way better. Except living up to those books you read on elf hair care. Was a bit of a hair washing fail, but other than that I’m pretty good.” She waved her bandaged left hand in explanation. It was achy and stiff, and she felt too-heavy and too-hot. Much as she would like to get properly clean, she just couldn’t find the energy.

“I could help you?” he offered, surprisingly readily. For how weird he had been about the toilets and bathing, he was very casual about touching her scalp which was just… way more intimate. “If you want?”

“No!” She was not lingering on the thought of how it would feel like, his hands through her hair, with his extra pinkos and soft, gentle fingers. “No. It’s not necessary. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“You got the bandages wet.” Callum was looking at her left hand, admonishing. “You weren’t supposed to.”

“What else was I supposed to do?” she asked, shrugging. “I smelled so bad.” Would he get the hint this time-

“Ask for help?” he suggested. Pfft, like that was the first, second or fifty-second option.

“Yeeeah, remember those proud Moonshadow traditions I told you about?”

“The ones we agreed belongs on the pile of discarded-because-it’s-dumb-stuff, right next to ‘hating each others’ guts on principle’? Yeah. I do.” He pulled his glove off and brought his hand up to press gently against her forehead. It was cool and pleasant against her heated skin. “You definitely still have a fever.” He sounded unhappy. She had been a big old bother for him last night, and kept him up.

“It’s nothing,” she assured him. “I’ll be fine tonight, I’m sure.”

“It’s not nothing!” He stood up abruptly, glaring angrily down at her.

Then he left, with a frustrated noise and nothing else.

Rayla sank back against the stone edge of the basin, pulling her legs up against her chest.

She messed up. As usual.

And she really wasn’t supposed to get the bandage wet, and now the knot was sticking and she couldn’t get it open with one hand.

She rested her forehead against her knees.

Those tasty painkillers had very definitely worn off and after the not-even-proper-bath she had just had, her hand and wrist was aching again, and at least her head was supposed to be clearer, but it wasn’t even really, because she felt so hot and tired anyway.

She was completely pathetic, and if Callum would have just left her alone to be pathetic, then she could have worked on being less of a mess.

And now he had left. And she had better get used to that, because when she told him about his dad, he might well leave, and never come back. She should… get it over with. It wasn’t fair to let him think she was better than she was.

She would get up, sluggish head and body be damned, go back, find her blades, get the wet bandage off…

And then find Callum. Tell him. Or maybe him and Ezran? Should she tell them both at once? The thought of facing them both was unbearable.

Was it just selfish, the urge to avoid that? They would have each other, then? But Callum knew his brother better and knew how to tell him. And if she told them both at once then Callum would have to comfort his brother when he was upset himself. She wasn’t sure at all what the least horrible way would be.

Her stupid head was not working at all and she wasn’t sure about any of it.

She was sure though, that she was stalling. She had almost told them on the ice, she had so wanted to get it all out then, but now she couldn’t stand the thought of hurting them that badly. They were reeling from the past week, it had been a lot. And they weren’t safe here, in the human lands, and if they were sticking around here because of her, they should at least be allowed to relax.

She ought to patrol the area, keep them safe.

She ought to tell them and stop clinging to the illusion that giving them another day of not knowing was anything but cowardice.

She ought to… do better.

But she didn’t do better, she just hugged herself tighter.

It all blurred together, the heat and the ache and the sick feeling inside that wasn’t even real but just her head messing with her.

“Rayla!” Callum voice was alarmed as he fell to his knees in front of her, his hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong? I mean, know… a lot of things, but-”

“Nothing,” she muttered, not looking fully up because she didn’t trust her stupid tattletale face to sell that illusion.

Callum sighed. Yeah, so clearly her voice and body were also flunking at illusions today. “Rayla,” he said gently. “We literally just had this conversation.”

“You left,” she said, finally looking up at his face, which was not even a little mad, but a lot concerned and she didn’t know what to do about that either.

“To get dry bandages,” he said, holding them up to demonstrate. Oh.

“I thought you were mad.” That came out so childish. How was it fair that she was so bad at illusions and so bad at honesty?

His hand had felt cool against her too-hot face, but it felt warm against her dully aching left hand, still chilled from the water and the wet gauze.

“I can be mad at you and still care,” he said, but he didn’t sound mad anymore.

He sat closer, shifting to take her hand in both of his, starting to work on the knot.

She was so tired, and he was rapidly shortening the time before she could lie down to sleep. She didn’t want to argue with him.

She wanted to… never mind. That was not happening.

He unwound the wet cloth. Her wrist was still bruised in livid purple, but definitely better than yesterday. The chafed, raw skin and swelling had settled down a bit, and the burn from the sunforge blade was healing well enough. Callum didn’t look happy, though.

He brushed his fingers very lightly over the swelling, cupping her hand and wrist carefully in his other hand.

He was always so… gentle with her. She didn’t need it, she could take it.

She would take it, when she told him and broke what made him look at her like she was good. He deserved… the full truth. She would give it to him, and take whatever he gave back, even if it was hatred.

But… not now. She was so tired… so weak. He needed her to be strong, and she wasn’t, right now. He needed her to be okay enough to be properly angry with her.

He rubbed her palm and fingers like he had yesterday, outward strokes… soft. She knew Lujanne had said something about circulation to him. It wasn’t… what it felt like.

It did also hurt a little bit, but not enough so it showed, she hoped, because he periodically looked up at her face, and back down. And the stiffness eased and the cold left, so a pretty good tradeoff.

Then there was the soothing coolness that she knew in her head was the ointment he must have brought, but it felt like… just him.

Huh? It was dark? No, she must have closed her eyes. The feeling of his hands was the last bit of realness.

Rayla opened her eyes half-way. Fuzzy green-ness. Grass? She raised her hand to rub her eyes. Achy whiteness. Dry bandages covering her dumb garbage hand.

Then Callum-ness, bleeding into focus.

He was looking at her. Smiling slightly, seeming far away.

Maybe he was thinking of something nice. Like his dad who was dead, but he didn’t know that, so it would still be nice, to him.

He flushed slightly when he noticed she was looking back.

Oh, she was smiling too.

“You didn’t need to…” she started. To what? Stay here watching her snooze? He could have left her here or poked her until she woke up. “-stay.”

“Ah, I needed to wash up, anyway,” he said, still all… soft.

Did you wash up?” He didn’t really look any cleaner. There was still the same streak of dirt on his nose.

“Uh… no. I kinda… forgot. Zoned out. It’s okay. I’ll do it later.”

He didn’t need to walk her back to their bedroom either, she had really only wobbled a tiny bit when she got up.

“You really don’t… need to do all this,” she said, as she got back into bed for a nap and Callum got her water and a half-dose of the stupid tasty painkillers he had somehow convinced her to take just by looking at her. But she was unable to hold back the sigh of relief as she sank back against the softness that just seemed to reactivate the exhaustion all at once.

 “It’s the least I can do.” He sounded so unhappy it was like… it hurt her. “Not much else I can do, anymore.”

“That’s not true!” Rayla exclaimed hotly.

“It is,” he said quietly. And resignation was not at all better than unhappiness. He deserved way better than both of those crappy feelings. “It’s okay. The primal stone was… a thing, worth it for you and Zym, easy-” …her?

Me?!” What?!

He looked at her, a bit bashful, but he never lied. “Yeah. I mean… You were crying, and your hand had hurt you so bad and you were going to lose it and you thought you’d failed and… you were crying-

“Ez was crying too,” she said, a bit defensively.

“Yeah, but I’ve seen Ez’s crying face a lot, he’s my little brother. Your crying face is new. And really, really sad-looking.”

She had almost cried again last night? Maybe? It was a bit of a hazy blur of heat and the sedative-part of the stupid tasty painkillers. She wasn’t supposed to be crying at all, Runaan had said she was too emotional-

“Don’t get used to it,” she said roughly.

“I don’t want to, that’s my point.

Dummy. It wasn’t on him if she was bawling.

Your sad-face was really sad-looking,” she said. “Just now. When you said… being my nurse or whatever is the only useful thing you could do.”

“Yeah. I… talked to Lujanne, today. She said I’m missing that thing inside me. An arcanum. She said I’d never be able to do magic. So, I’ll just… tag along, when we leave. And you’ll do all the fighting because I would literally do more harm than good, trying to help. I’ll tag along and watch you fight and hurt alone, and be useless except for patching you up afterwards and feeling sick about it-”

Rayla sat up to get into range, and poked his nose, because that shit was a new contender in the already overflowing roster of competitors for ‘dumbest thing Callum had ever said’.

“Hey!” she said, poking his forehead too, for good measure. “You think I exited the womb in a magnificent arc of fetus fluid, doing a triple backflip, severing the cord in mid-air and sticking the landing?!”

“Uh… I hope not because that’s a seriously disturbing image-”

“No! I trained almost every day for ten years! And you’re whining because your instant magic powers are gone? Find something else, or keep trying, if you’re set on the magic! And for fuck’s sake, don’t listen to Lujanne! Actually, don’t listen to anyone telling you what you can’t do. And don’t call yourself useless, that’s a bad word! Pretend it’s some extra-mild profanity like ‘nuts’, that’ll make it real simple for you to never say it.” He was smiling, a bit, even though it was pretty hypocritical to tell someone to not let them tell anyone what to do. But fuck that. She could at least be a self-aware hypocrite. “Listen to me. I’m a wise old pile of floppy, wet garbage, dispensing infinite wisdom to the pilgrims who visit me at my shrine.” She gestured dramatically with her garbage hand at the rumbled bed linens surrounding her.

The smile that had been spreading on his face dropped at her last words.

“Rayla,” he said, very serious. “If I’m not allowed to say mean things about myself that should go for you, too. You’re injured and sick. That’s different.”

“If the garbage bag fits?” She shrugged. “I’m literally too-” -too pathetic to do anything? She couldn’t even wash her hair or do her morning exercises. But she didn’t finish the sentence, because he wouldn’t see it that way, if she did, she thought.

And she didn’t think he was worthless because he had lost his magic. She couldn’t really explain it but… it was different, for him. He was smart and could draw really pretty, and saw all kinds of things she didn’t notice and was so much braver than he knew. It didn’t matter if he ever found some battle thing he was good at, or failed at what he was bad at for long enough to get good. Someone as kind and good like him wasn’t useless.

Her gaze dropped to her lap, along with her hands.

“We’ll remind each other. Okay?” he asked, a gentle smile, as reached his hand out to her, like he had back on the riverbank after the Bantherlodge. That human handshake thing again. He had said it was customary to shake hands using your right hand, but he had reached out his left to her.

She put her bandaged hand in his, and he squeezed it very carefully, but unmistakably a squeeze in that human way that meant… a deal.

What a fucking soft touch, this one.

She smiled though, as she laid back down against the softness.

Chapter Text

1.32AM, May 23rd, 998AB, The Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

Callum had his back turned and she really did trust him to not peek and it wasn’t like she had never been to the bath house during open-for-everyone hours, so there was no reason at all for her cheeks to feel warm when she pulled off her wet clothes, leaving them in the water to soak, held down by rocks.

Rayla splashed cold Moon Nexus lake water in her stupid heating face and scrubbed vigorously at the remaining mud with her right hand, and slightly more carefully with her newly-achy-again left.

Amazing, really. She actually got to have an almost twelve-hour-break from being miserable and achy, her longest consecutive streak since the Bantherlodge, and then bam! Big strong, deceptively fast and flexible lump of an opponent.

She had not seen that kick coming but she definitely felt it, then and now. She carefully ran her fingers along her sore ribs and collarbones. Just sore though. Might bruise a bit but eh… no broken bones, no problem.

Her wrist ached too, it had been getting better but the impact from the blows she had parried had not felt great. Then and now.

She really was grateful that Callum was cleaning her armor and boots, that repetitive scrubbing action would have been unpleasant.

He was still working diligently, definitely not caring that she was naked.

He was very good at it, too, he must have had quite a lot of practice cleaning Soren’s boots and armor.

Soren was an ass. Squire duties, pfft.

What a load of speckled moonoose shit, the smelliest poop known to elf.

Callum was a prince, so that was clearly just meant to push him down. She was really… irrationally angry at the thought of that big ass with ears doing that to him, even though she was not that thrilled with Callum himself either at this particular moment.

…Good elf.

He hadn’t… meant it like that though, she knew Callum was inexplicably fond of the taste of his own feet.

Maybe the fifth toe was-

Never mind.

Callum had given her the sense, before, that he let people push him around. He was so open with his feelings and insecurities, it was cowardly to go for such an obvious target, and she knew exactly the type of ass-with-ears-face that did that kinda thing.

And the sarcasm-deficient lump of a bully was still infinitely preferable to his sister.

As much stock as she put in sarcasm, there were more important things, and Claudia had been the one to see them leave together in what was clearly not a kidnapping and the one to argue that she should be killed in her sleep like she was just some beast to be put down.

Or rather… cut into spell components, probably. That was unnerving to think about.

Callum trusted her though. Liked her, and a lot, too.

“…it’s great, really!” Callum had been saying something. Some wrong thing. It was definitely not great, because it certainly had to do with Soren and Claudia.

“Sorry?” Rayla asked, as she stepped out and away from her liquid nemesis with a great deal of relief, wiping as much water off her skin as she could and stomping to get warm.

The twisty motion when she tried to wring out her clothes was murder on her wrist so she skipped that. They would dry. Eventually. And Callum was talking about the dark mage girl and how nice she was when she wasn’t goading her reluctant brother into killing people in their sleep and that was even less pleasant.

Lujanne’s spare clothes were foreign-feeling and too big, but at least they were dry, which was a big step up from hers.

“You can turn around,” she said, as she smoothed Lujanne’s purple tunic down.

“You ready to go back?” he asked, picking up her wet clothes, starting to wring them out unprompted and unknowing why she hadn’t done that.

“Yeah. I’m done here,” she grumbled, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet and rolling her shoulders, trying to dispel some of the chill from that dumb lake. “And in general. So done.”

“I wish this hadn’t happened,” he said, sounding troubled now, then stopped his train of thought. “You’re cold,” he said, instead.

“It’s a mountain lake in Spring,” she said, through faintly clattering teeth, gesturing at the lake. What a thoroughly unhelpful thing to point out, because now she was just more aware of how cold she was.

“And you had a fever yesterday.” Ugh, he sounded so much like Ethari, right now. “You could have… I don’t know… heated water?”

Now? Callum, I’m tired.”

“I can imagine,” he said, kinda… chastising. “You were patrolling. All night. And fought one of the best warriors in Katolis. And got in that cold lake. And I did mention the fever yesterday?”

“Yeah, I heard you the first two times,” she muttered, wrapping her arms around herself. Not her fault his friends were assholes.

Besides, it was past midnight, so it wasn’t yesterday-

She forgot about the annoyance, because Callum shrugged off his smelly jacket, warm from his body, to hand it to her and that really was very nice of him and made her warm inside before she even put it on. It was too big, but even that was nice, letting her tuck her cold hands inside the sleeves.

His arms were skinny and undefined, but… nice too, really. And reaching for her, smoothing down his jacket, lingering at her upper arms, rubbing briskly up and down to dispel the goosebumps, which was nice, too.

More than… nice, really, but she couldn’t think about the more.

She felt… so much warmer.

Rayla picked up her armor and Callum picked up her clothes, and they started to walk up the stairs back to their bedroom.

“What the white stuff even?” Callum asked, absentminded, ever-present curiosity, looking down at the pile of wet clothes in his arms, her breast bindings tangling with her socks on the top of the pile.

“Humans don’t wear underwear?” Rayla snickered.

“Yes! We do! Sorry for… asking. And sorry I didn’t… bring any. Any… underwear. Dry underwear. Lujanne’s… underwear. So you’re… not… -right now.” He looked pointedly away from her clothes and from her, color rising in his cheeks. Another weird, human modesty thing? They didn’t have public laundries, maybe?

“But I’m wearing regular clothes?” Rayla said, baffled. “You can’t even see I’m not wearing underwear?”

Callum made a choked sound.

She looked down to verify the claim she had made, because it just occurred to her that she was still cold, but… no. The cloth was too thick.

“Can’t you just pretend I am?” she scoffed. “Isn’t an artist supposed to have a good imagination? So, can’t you just imagine big poofy bloomers with a pattern of little Baits and move on with your life?”

Callum sputtered with laughter, and the tension and embarrassment went away, as had been her aim. Even if he was unfairly cute when blushing, she didn’t want him to be uncomfortable.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he grinned, relaxing. “You’re wearing imaginary Bait-undies. Pfft, it’s normal.”

“Do you know about Xadian underwear styles?” she shot back, smirking. “Maybe it is. Maybe glowtoad-patterns are all the rage? Maybe we have big jammie parties with everyone wearing them? Maybe I’m the secret heir to a Xadia-spanning clothes design brand that build their business on an all-glowtoads-all-the-time aesthetic? You don’t know.”

“Ezran would love glowtoad pajamas. He would wear those to court, if Opeli would let him. Which she would not.”

That was news. And weird. They had so many clothes they didn’t need to pack any to go to their lodge, but didn’t actually get to choose what to wear? That was weird.

“You don’t get to choose?” she asked, curious. “Your clothes, I mean?”

“Not really,” Callum sighed. “Not since I became a prince. Well, I can choose from the clothes I have, but I didn’t choose those, I get measured every so often and then they just kind of… show up. I know there are tailor’s shops, but I’ve never been in one. We drove past a really big one in our carriage once, in Duren, but we didn’t have time to go in, even though I really wanted to, because there were so many colors-”

“You with the colors,” she said, smiling. It was nice, how much attention he paid to things she didn’t stop to consider at all.

“Yeah, that’s not a human thing, either,” he said, a bit bashful again. “Just a weird me thing.” She liked his weird him-thing. But she couldn’t say that, because he liked the girl who had tried to murder her in her sleep an hour ago.

“Fitting in is boring,” she said, instead. “I sure never did.”

“Really?” Callum looked genuinely surprised. “I kind of thought you were… cool.” Wow. That was hilarious.

“Oh, I am,” she grinned. “Other Moonshadow elves just have no taste, and want their assassins without the sass, can you believe it?”

“No!” he said, laughter filling his eyes and bubbling out with his words. “Because… you’re just left with an ass… when you take the sass out of assassin!”

Okay, that was funny. And true. And his laughter was contagious, and she had been grumpy almost since she stopped being miserable and she was shaking with it now, the laughter forcing itself out all the way from down in her stomach.

“You… you said… ass-” she snorted, just as it was abating, and that set them both off again.

She stopped laughing though, when they got to the top of the stairs, and Claudia was waiting for them, perched prettily on one of the stone tables.

“Hi guys!” She waved cheerfully at them both, for some reason. “You looked like you were having fun?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Callum nervously rubbed the back of his neck. He was tense again, even worse than he had been about the underwear. “We’re friends, like I said. It really was just a misunderstanding.”

“I know.” Claudia smiled at him, which was clearly making him more tense, not less. “I was just waiting to say goodnight. And apologize for Soren kicking you out, Callum. He was just being a grumpy baby Sor-Bear, because of the mud in his mouth. He got cleaned up though, and is snoring away. And so did you, Rayla?”

“Yep,” Rayla said tersely. She was very much not in the mood for chit-chat with the morally-impaired half of Team Morally-and-Sarcastically-Impaired.

“Sorry about the mud and the magic,” Claudia said, conveniently leaving out the trying-to-kill-her-in-her-sleep that Callum hadn’t witnessed. “Are your hands okay?”

“Okay?” Callum turned to Claudia, upset on his face. “Did you hurt her?”

“I hope not! That’s why I’m asking!” Claudia laughed. “I used a metal heating spell on her weapons to disarm her. It’s a really cool spell, I could teach you, you only need-”

Rayla interrupted, because she did not ask to hear about what parts of magical creatures you needed to burn someone’s fingerprints off. “It’s fine. See? Mud is a heat insulator.” Rayla showed her palms to Claudia and Callum, hoping this would appease them so they could change the subject.

Callum took her hands to inspect them, like the weirdo he was, even though there weren’t even any blisters, just faintly reddened skin at a few of her fingertips and the healing burn from the sunforge blade. She didn’t even feel it, compared to all the other achy bits. Or compared to his warm hands against her skin, still chilled from the water.

“I left the ointment on the dresser,” Callum said. “If you need it.”

“I don’t,” Rayla said, pulling her hands away. She didn’t want to be here, not with her. “And I’m tired. You two can… catch up or whatever. I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”

She made it all the way inside, dumped her armor and was halfway through taking her boots off, when she realized she was still wearing Callum’s jacket. She left it on his pillow and got under the covers of the bed she shared with Ellis and Ava, before the second realization hit her that Callum was still holding her clothes, and humans apparently had weird ideas about underwear.

Whatever. She couldn’t stop someone so determined to be embarrassed.

Rayla stuck her cold feet underneath the warm wolf-body next to her, and tried to sleep.

It wasn’t happening. She could hear Callum and Claudia talking outside, not the words but… talking… and it was irrationally distracting.

Her chest ached where Soren had kicked her and… underneath.

 

 

 

 

Bonus art of Rayla in Callum’s jacket 😊

Chapter Text

 

 

3.02PM, May 23rd, Moon Nexus, Central Katolis

“So, Rayla!” Claudia leant over the table, smiling brightly.

Claudia was like those pancakes she had made, if the pancakes had been a person. Sweet and fluffy and buttery, but… hiding something dark.

It was really annoying that she was so friendly on top that she couldn’t even justify disliking her as much as she did, so much more than her lump of a brother.

The lump had thought she was enough of a person to merit having second thoughts about murdering her in her sleep and Claudia had not. She felt… not right. Especially because she seemed to think… everyone seemed to think, even Callum, that they should just move on and forget everything that happened.

 “Yeah,” Rayla answered. Maybe if she was just really, really boring, Claudia would lose interest and this stupid, fake girl hangout thing would be over sooner?

“I love your hair!” Claudia said, seeming way too suspiciously excited. “I found your braid at the Bantherlodge, that’s how we tracked you here. It was so cute!” That was morbid. Did Claudia even hear what she was saying? I did voodoo on your hair that humans severed by force trying to kill you, but oh what cute hair it was?

“Thanks.”

“Powerful Dark mages sometimes have white hair. I always thought it was so pretty-” Draining the life force of magical creatures like you also drain the pigment from their hair, and that’s just darling to me?

How could someone this annoying be-

But maybe she wasn’t, was the thing. Maybe it was just her? Being biased right the fuck back at Claudia’s stupid prejudiced face.

Callum liked Claudia, and he was a good person. Surely there must be something to like about her? Surely not everything she said was as grating to other people as it was to her?

“All Moonshadow elves have white hair. It’s not- …special.” It was just hair. Was this what girl talk was supposed to be about? Talking about things that didn’t matter very much?

“It is very pretty though!” Ellis said, her compliment without reserve or agenda. “It’s shiny, way shinier than my granny’s white hair. And it glows in the moonlight, and my granny’s definitely doesn’t do that!

“Thank you, Ellis. Your hair’s pretty too,” Rayla said, looking at Ellis’ thick, dark mane, shining warm shades of brown in the sun. “And Ava’s too,” she laughed, a bit of the tension lifting as Ava put her head on top of Ellis’, the thick, grey fur falling over the girl’s forehead like an uneven fringe.

“Feeling suuuper left out!” Claudia laughed, tossing her stupidly-long hair, purple at the ends, over her shoulder, pointedly. “I always thought my hair was one of my best features.”

“I believe it,” Rayla said dryly. Rude, but whatever. She had basically been roped into this stupid thing, Claudia had enlisted Ellis first and cornered her in front of Callum and Ezran. She didn’t want to get to know a girl who saw her as a big bag of potential spell components, thank you very much!

“Thank you! You’re so sweet!” Claudia smiled. Yeah, sooo… subtle insults were not very useful, clearly. She didn’t know if she had genuinely not gotten it, she didn’t think she had been that subtle.

“You’re welcome.” Fuck the fuck off with the illusions.

“Sooo, how about you and Callum?” Claudia asked, still all pretty illusion smiles. What?! “He doesn’t really make new friends much, but you…?”

“Yeah. We’re friends. No kidnapping. Like you saw. And I said. Right before you tried to kill me.”

“Ah, that was yesterday!” It was today, actually, seeing as it had happened after midnight, only a bit more than 12 hours ago. “We all make mistakes! How you move on from those mistakes, defines who you are, right?” And she had moved on by pretending it hadn’t happened at all, like she hadn’t been encouraging her brother to kill her while she had been defenseless. It was like it hadn’t penetrated that it had been a mistake. It wasn’t like it was a accident, like whoops, didn’t see you there, sorry I nearly had my brother impale you-

“Inspiring.”

“So you agree to put that misunderstanding behind us? Great! That’s why I wanted to talk to you girls!” “I rarely get to have girl time, and we’re four of us now! Oh! We should talk about boys!” Why?! That was worse than hair. “Or, you know if you like girls or other genders, that’s cool!”

Ellis looked thoughtful. “I like Ava! But not like… I wanna marry her. I do want to stay with her forever, so that’s basically the same thing, right? I haven’t met anyone else I like as much.”

“That’s cool!” Claudia said. “You have lots of time to decide, right? How about you, Rayla? You’re my age, right? I’m almost 17, should have probably said that.”

“I’m a year younger then. And no. No-one I’ve wanted to marry.”

“Anyone you’ve wanted to, you know… do other stuff with…” Claudia glanced sideways at Ellis, giggling. The usually unflappably cheerful girl looked a bit annoyed, and Rayla couldn’t blame her. Ellis was 11 years old and helped out the village veterinarian, Rayla was pretty sure she knew about the ‘stuff’ Claudia was referring to.

“If you’re asking if I’ve met people I’ve found attractive, then yes," Rayla scoffed. She wasn't about to actually lie about something this dumb, she had lied plenty about actual important things. "I trained every day. With other kids who also trained every day. Fucking physical specimens. Of course we look at each others' butts, elven teenagers aren’t that different. I haven’t met anyone where I was interested in the rest of the person.” Or who was interested in her. The one person who had been interested, had used her parents’ betrayal to justify punishing her for rejecting him. She hadn’t… seen that, but Runaan and Ethari had been very definite that that was what it had been about, when him and his friends had taunted and hit her.

“So, you have one of those physical specimens waiting for you at home?”

“No.” She was an assassin. Even if she had been interested, that would have been cruel, she thought. She was already dead. She had seen, throughout her childhood, Ethari’s pain and worry when Runaan was away.

“Yeah, me neither.” Claudia said. “Was always too busy for that. But at least I have Callum!” She had him? What kinda way was that, to talk about someone who liked her a lot, and was a really good person? Who deserved better than to be had by someone who did not return the favor. Callum didn’t have Claudia.

But he wanted to.

And maybe he would. After tonight. That was… really, irrational levels of unpleasant to think about.

And she couldn’t say any of the things she really thought… couldn’t drag Ellis into her shitty feelings, or sabotage things for her friend, who deserved to be happy and to be with the person he liked.

So she kept being boring for another twenty minutes, until Claudia left, still unflappably cheerful, basically skipping. She supposed Claudia had… a date to get ready for.

Rayla sank forwards. How was she so tired after a half-hour conversation?

Illusions were draining, to her. She really was terrible at being Moonshadow. She wanted… honesty. The full truth. And she hadn’t trusted a single thing that had come out of Claudia’s mouth. How were you supposed to get to know someone or have a chance of growing to like them better, if you didn’t trust them? If you didn’t trust that the nice things they said were nice underneath?

No… that wasn’t quite right. Claudia probably was nice underneath too, to people she considered people. Callum wouldn’t like her so much if she weren’t.

Rayla did trust Callum. And if he would trust her, she could-

He shouldn’t trust her, was the thing. She had lied to him since she met him and still was.

But she was right about Soren and Claudia, and if he wouldn’t listen to that, he could sleep in his fucking tent made of hyper-flammable red flags, for all she cared-

“Ehrm…?”

Rayla snapped around to look at Callum, sitting down next to her. He was fidgeting, very probably having spent the past half-hour driving himself crazy imagining what they had been talking about.

“So, what’s girl talk about?” Callum asked, smiling a bit shakily, failing hard at the ‘casual air’ she could tell he was aiming for but succeeding spectacularly at making her heart flutter.

She did care, was the problem.

Way too much.

About more than his butt.

Chapter Text



9.09PM, May 24th, Moon Nexus, Katolis

When Rayla arched her body, rising up with the swell of the music, she saw him over Ellis’ shoulder, behind the panting, dance-exhausted pile of Ezran, Zym and Bait.

He was half-hidden in the trees, watching the dancing pavilion from the cover of darkness.

She could still see him though. She wondered if Callum remembered that, that darkness wasn’t really dark to her, as it was to the humans.

Rayla placed her wrist against Ellis’, positioning her body and giving Ellis time to get it right too, before she moved in a sweeping half-circle to signify the crescent moon.

She found Callum’s face again, when she came back around.

He looked wistful, but… sad. Tired. Streaks of dried tears on his cheeks. Swollen eyes. Mussed hair.

Ezran would know something was seriously wrong, if he caught even a glimpse.

But Callum had come here, regardless. He had asked to be alone, and she had taken the rest of the crew here so he could grieve for a bit without pretense, but… he had come here too. She supposed the tones of the harp had carried, it had been a pretty bombastic piece before the current one, Ezran and Zym had really given it their all, and were worn out from it, leaving just her and Ellis on the dancefloor.

Rayla twirled, slowly, so Ellis could see, and the girl copied her movements, right on cue with the rhythm.

The lights and music of the forest pavilion was… was it just mocking him? He wasn’t leaving. Just watching from the trees, a lonely figure behind a misty shroud. She couldn’t give him what he needed. Couldn’t even go to him and hug him like she wanted to. It felt so wrong to leave him alone in the darkness that she knew was so much darker to him than it was to her.

But she couldn’t give him comfort or lightness or anything, only continued loneliness.

And distraction maybe, she thought, as she lifted Ellis in a pirouette, finding Callum’s face with every turn.

“Good job!” she grinned at Ellis, as they finished. “You’d make a good Moon sage.” She would, Rayla thought. Ellis had the right kinda head for illusions, except that the skull and ears wouldn’t pass Moon sage inspection.

Those things shouldn’t matter as much as they did.

The silhouette of Callum’s smooth skull was obvious, in the trees. His face was slightly obscured by mist that had rolled in, like he was behind a shroud in some different world, separate from them.

She wanted to go there, but she couldn’t.

The melody ended, and so did the dance. It would be the last one. Big day tomorrow. Old friends to lure into a trap and all.

Ellis was heading towards Ezran and Zym but… Callum wouldn’t be able to see their faces anymore, if they sat over there. And he had come here… she couldn’t-

“I’ll show you how to turn the music down,” Rayla said, gesturing at Zym in explanation, asleep up against a grumpier-than-normal-looking Bait. You didn’t need to actually have a Moon arcanum to operate the harp, just… someone needed to. As long as she was touching it too, it worked, when Ezran ran his fingers along the nocked ridge that controlled the volume.

It had just been an excuse, anyway. Zym wouldn’t have woken up, she was pretty sure.

She guided Ellis and Ezran to sit not where Ezran had before, but the other side of the pavilion, facing Callum.

She found his face between the branches, relieved, she thought. He didn’t want to be alone, or he wouldn’t have come here.

She looked right at Callum’s eyes, holding his gaze, letting him know for sure she could see him if he hadn’t caught onto that yet, he was tragically dense, after all. “It’s nicer over here,” she said.

She smiled.

He smiled back.

 


 

“Bedtime!” Rayla announced, after not very long. “Come on. We’ll take a different route back, I have one last thing to show you, while the moon’s out.” The kids would like the light up runes up along the staircase to the temple, she thought. So would Callum but… he needed space to get back unseen more than he needed his magic curiosity sated-

She didn’t know if he would care at all about those runes, right now.

She turned off the harp, but left the lights in the pavilion, because Callum was still there and… it didn’t feel right, leaving him alone in darkness that was fully dark to him as it wasn’t to her.

 


 

Callum wasn’t there though, when they got back to their bedroom, and didn’t arrive either, as Ezran and Elliz and Ava and Zym and Bait all got settled for the night.

“Where’s Callum?” Ezran asked, as he laid down next to the blanket nest he had made for Zym. More… curious than worried though. Good.

“He went to the library, for a last look,” Rayla said. It would definitely convince Ezran. If Callum hadn’t had other things on his mind, she thought that would be what he would do. “It’s late though. I’ll go check he hasn’t fallen asleep on the floor up there.”

Ezran nodded sleepily. “Goodnight.”

More lies but… at least she knew she was right to lie, now.

Now Callum felt bad about it instead of her.

She didn’t go to the library, but back to the stone pavilion in the forest.

Callum was there, like she knew he would be.

He didn’t protest when she sat down next to him, but didn’t speak either. He skootched closer though, so… he wanted her here.

She broke the quiet, after a while, because he had to know… whatever he needed, she would do what she could. She would be terrible at this, but… she would try, and he wasn’t alone with it, and he clearly didn’t want to be alone.

“I’ll help you, if you want,” Rayla said. “To tell Ezran, I mean. Whenever you’re… ready.”

“Not yet,” he said quietly. It was basically a plea. Full of guilt too. And that should have been hers alone to bear, but now he carried it too. “I can’t-”

“No,” she said gently. “Not yet. It’s okay. You’re doing your best.”

“So are you.” She looked away from him, because her best wasn’t good enough- “You are! You have any idea what you’ve done for me, the past day? I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.”

“Languished in critical sarcasm-deficiency?”

“That too.” He smiled a bit, despite the dried tears still on his cheeks.

They sat for a while in silence. He wasn’t really up for talking, that was obvious. But would he want the music? Or would that just remind him of more things he was upset about, like the magic he didn’t have? Would he want to experiment with the harp, using her arcanum? Would that just remind him harder?

She supposed she could just ask and he would actually give an honest answer. Humans were weird like that. Or maybe just Callum and Ezran.

“Would you like some music to go with the quiet?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “That would be nice.”

“Would you like to choose it? If I touch it while you run your fingers along the ridges, you can choose the melody and volume.”

“Yes and no. Yesterday… would have been a big yes, but-”

“I’ll choose for you,” she said immediately.

“Choose… for you? Your favorite? Not for me.”

She did. He might regret that, but he did say to choose her favorite, and she liked music you could dance to. She picked a slow one though, not too distracting, but still danceable, with flowy ups and downs in the melody.

Callum listened, next to her, without speaking, then a tiny, amused smile spread on his face.

“You… dance. Your feet still want to.”

Oh… she supposed she tended to move a lot, and music like that tugged at her to… and that didn’t really go with the vibe at all.

“Sorry.”

“No! I like your feet! I mean- that your feet… want to dance.”

Rayla relaxed a bit, letting her feet bob and want to dance.

Callum relaxed too, sinking down against her until his head hit her shoulder.

Maybe if he actually fell asleep, she could carry him back without waking him? He really needed to sleep, he hadn’t at all last night, she thought. He had sat on the floor all night and not looked at her and curled into himself and been all alone.

But then the music stopped, and Callum’s head snapped up, stirred into fully awake.

Definitely a cue that it was bedtime though, for him, too.

Rayla nudged him pointedly, then got up to extinguish the magical lights lighting up the pavilion like clusters of tiny stars. She bounced down the steps to the forest floor on the other side of the pavilion, gesturing for Callum to follow her.

Then she was reminded that Callum couldn’t see in the dark when he tripped over the last step to fall forwards, thumping hard against the grassy ground of the clearing.

Shit.

She really was completely useless, she knew he couldn’t see in the dark and how distracted he must be right now.

As if he needed more pain?

She knelt next to him, sprawled on the ground, reaching out to offer a hand to help him up.

“You okay?” Rayla asked, although she knew he wasn’t.

“Yeah… yeah. Just… got… the wind… knocked out of me,” Callum said, gasping as he sat up. “Literally too now, I guess,” he snorted, without mirth. Well he was joking about it so that was progress? Maybe? Or maybe it was just overshadowed by bigger upset.

She plucked a dead leaf out of his hair, as they stood, before slipping her hand into his. “Hold on to me, okay?”

His hand slipped up her forearm instead though, to hook around her left elbow instead. “I don’t want to yank on it, if I stumble again,” he said, in explanation. Why was he… why did her wrist even register on his pain radar right now?

She could feel him against her side, as they walked back together through the silent forest.

“You got here alright though?” she wondered. “You could see, then?

“Yeah, but I was used to the darkness, then. It was different… like pitch black after… sitting in the light, with you.”

 


 

Rayla had very good hearing. She could hear Zym’s snuffling sleep-noises. Ellis’ soft breaths next to her. Ava’s deep rumble, curling around the sleeping Ellis. Bait’s wheezy snore, in sync with Ezran’s breaths.

Callum was still awake. His breathing was too controlled.

She got up, making no sound as she crossed the room.

But his eyes opened to look at her anyway, and his hand gripped hers right away when she touched his.

“Hey,” she whispered. “What do you need?” She stroked across the back of the hand that was still holding hers.  Anything that was in her power to do for him, she would, it tore at her to see those fresh tears welling up now.

He didn’t answer, but pulled her hand close to his chest, still clasped in his.

It was still an answer though. He needed her.

Chapter Text

10.12AM, May 26th, Onboard the Ruthless, Cat Gut Bay, Central Katolis

It was… okay, really.

Not so bad.

Just… surrounded by water. Moving water. Moving the boat. Moving her insides around.

But it was okay. She could-

Whoa. Nope. She could not.

Rayla made it to the railing just in time.

Ugh.

She had better get used to it though. Suck it up, or… chuck it up, as it were.

For two days.

Her wretchedness was interrupted, when Ezran climbed slightly up the railing to look at her, one of the canteens from the Bantherlodge in his hand.

She took it, grateful, and drank. “Thanks.”

“No problem!” Ezran said. “You look really bad.”

“Thanks,” she repeated drily.

“Sorry. I believe in telling the truth,” Ezran said sagely. The full truth… so did she. But Ezran didn’t have it. And she couldn’t tell him now, it was not her place anymore.

“It’s okay. I realize I look like a Banther’s dinner, post-digestion.” She wasn’t supposed to swear in front of Ezran, she had promised Callum.

Ezran patted her hand comfortingly. “Don’t worry! You’re still very pretty, even all barfy.”

She snorted. Ezran was sweet. “I thought you believed in telling the truth?” she grinned.

Ezran looked confused. “You don’t know that? That’s so weird. Soren and Callum really like your butt, you must have noticed that.” Callum?! That was…

That was Ezran being kind. Or Callum possibly still being curious about the tail thing, she wouldn’t put it past him. Even if he was looking at her butt for the sake of looking at her butt, that didn’t mean anything-

“No…” she managed.

“Really? Well, I suppose it makes sense, your back would be turned.”

“I don’t…”

“Yeah, I don’t get it either.” Ezran sighed, stepping behind her, tilting his head slightly as he evaluated the body part in question. “I mean. It’s a butt. Big whoop. Faces are way more interesting.”

Definitely. Ezran’s big blue eyes and freckled nose and smile that lit up his whole face was more interesting than any dumb butt.

Callum’s warm green eyes and pretty, floofy hair and pretty nose and pretty butt… Yeah, okay, that wasn’t part of his face, but so what? She looked at his butt too, why shouldn’t he look at hers? Not like there were a whole lot of other butts to look at, most of the time. It was normal.

She looked out over the ocean, soft little waves like dumb butts, poking at the sky. She should definitely… stop thinking about butts.

Oof. Nausea returning. Butts had been a brief distraction. She breathed deeply, holding onto the wood, slumping forwards.

Okay.

Good.

No more barf.

Right now.

That was good.

Ezran had been patiently waiting, while she had been occupied with her own misery, but he started talking again now, thoughtful. “Rayla? Is Callum… upset about something? He’s all… in his head.”

“Yeah, I mean… he misses being able to do magic.”

It wasn’t… a lie.

But it definitely wasn’t the full truth either.

And she was evidently not done barfing either, the remnants of her breakfast coming up instead of the full truth she couldn’t spew.

Ezran eventually left, on her insistence, to play with Zym in the big rolls of rope on the deck.

And Rayla, the nausea temporarily abating as her stomach had run out of contents to throw up, went to find Callum. Time to talk without Ezran present was hard to come by, and he had… some things to deal with.

He was hiding behind a pile of crates at the front of the ship, looking pensively up at the mast. His eyes were a bit red.

She sat down next to him, nudging him with her elbow. “Hey. Ezran is… occupied. If you want to-”

She was cut off because he hugged her so hard to him their heads bumped together rather harder than was comfortable. He drew back immediately, because of course he worried about hurting her even when he was already sniffling, barely holding it together.

“I’m fine.” She put her arms back around him. There were a few kinda… relieved sobs, against her neck. Then he calmed, just breathing hard.

“Sorry,” he muttered, not letting go of her. “It was just… a long day yesterday.” A long day of holding it together for his brother. And his oldest friends betraying him, and- Yeah. A long and bad day.

“I know.” Rayla stroked across the back of his neck. His hair was soft against her fingers.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, the complete idiot. “On the boat, I mean.”

“Eh, okay. I’m done spewing, for now. How are you feeling?” That would have been a stupid question, but Callum was not Moonshadow, and might actually answer it honestly.

“Not… really great,” he sniffed. “I’m still trying to kind of… understand how I’m feeling. I loved him and… thought of him as my dad. But I don’t know how he thought of me.”

She… felt that. Runaan and Ethari were her guardians, but… but they also weren’t just that. At least, not to her. But there were two sides to things like that, and why wouldn’t Runaan and Ethari have adopted her after her parents betrayal, if they thought of her like-

But she knew they cared about her, or at least, in Runaan’s case… had-

No. She was not thinking about it. She would get home, and talk to them, and Ethari would help her sort it out and they would understand, when she explained it.

“I get it,” she said simply, not looking at Callum because she was meant to be here for him, and she couldn’t sit here and talk to him about Runaan when Runaan had killed his… dad. Callum thought of King Harrow as his dad and… she was sure the king had loved him too, how could he not?

“You do,” Callum said, a bit incredulous but not doubting her. “You actually do. I don’t think… I’ve ever met anyone who did.”

“So we both know it sucks… not knowing. It messes with your head.” She sat for a while, looking out at that horrible butt-water.

Her left wrist twinged in a really distracting way. Runaan had… done that. She still had nightmares about it, waking up sure that the binding was still there or her hand wasn’t there. It had hurt a lot towards the end, and she had thought she could take it, but… it was like her body remembered the pain. And her head remembered Runaan tying it.

She had pleaded with him to bring her. She had asked to be bound. She had chosen the pain.

It didn’t make sense that she felt so… weird about it. About Runaan. More stupid doubt.  

Callum had said that Runaan… that… Claudia had told him the humans got all the elves that attacked that night.

Claudia lied. She would have lied to make Callum like her, she already had. And Callum didn’t know Runaan, didn’t know it was ridiculous, what he had said. Runaan always made it out. He was on his way back to Ethari, alive to feel… weird about.

It was dumb weirdness, anyway. She was not a child, not… his child. It hadn’t been on Runaan to protect her from pain and hardship.

She rubbed the stupid achy wrist, the not-even-really-that-achy wrist. Why was it so distracting?

“Does it still hurt?” Callum asked, concerned, his hand laying on top of hers,

Stupid. It didn’t even, really. It was just her dumb head, remembering how much it had and remembering Runaan. She really couldn’t even be not-pathetic for five minutes, when her friend had just lost his dad.

“It does,” he concluded unhappily, from her non-answer. “Can I have a look?” His fingers hovered over the clasp of her bracer. Definitely not. The bruising hadn’t faded all the way and she didn’t want him to worry about it, when it wasn’t even real.

“It’s… fine,” she said. He had never been quick to believe that from her though, and she thought she should explain that it was nothing but her stupid head messing with her, so he wouldn’t worry. “Just remembering. That it did. Thinking about-”

…about no-one she could talk about right now. Or think about. Because it was pointless when it was nothing-

“You were thinking about the assassin leader? Who… killed him. And bound you. You said, yesterday, that he raised you. And you said now, that you understood.” He was not accusing, even though he should be, would be well in his right to hate Runaan and her by association.

“Yes,” she said, looking away, not elaborating because… he wouldn’t want to hear about it.

“Rayla?” Concern again. His hand curled around hers, engulfing the stupid achy wrist with warm softness that would get inside her if she let it.

“Callum, you don’t want me to talk about him. You’re right. He raised me.” She set her jaw, because whatever else, this was still true without question. “I love him. And it would hurt you to hear, and I don’t want to do that, so please stop asking-”

“I’m sorry,” he said, chewing on his words, thinking. “You’re right. I’m sorry you are but… you are. I don’t want to… I can’t hear about him. Not right now. I hate him, and you… for you it’s complicated. But Rayla? I will. I’ll get there. You deserve to be able to talk about him. I promise. I’ll listen. I don’t want you to hold back or feel bad about loving him. I just c-can’t right now-”

She pulled his shaking body closer. “It’s okay if you don’t get there,” she said quietly, into his hair. “It’s okay if you stay angry.”

“I’m not angry at you. Okay? He hurt you too,” Callum said, anger under the surface, pointedly squeezing her left hand. “He hurt us both. And Ezran, except-” Except he just didn’t know it yet. Callum was choking on those words, he really wasn’t ready to talk about it.

But he could still talk about his dad.

“Callum? Would you tell me? About your step-dad? He had a whole life, before he died.”

“Yeah… yeah.” He smiled slightly. “He did. He told really stupid jokes. A bit like yours but… less funny and more punny?”

Rayla smiled, despite herself, because that sounded a whole lot like Ethari’s jokes. Seriously, that man was too easy to please, humor-wise. “Like…‘I was just trying to go a-boat my business, but I subjected to pier pressure and now here I am?’”

Callum snorted. “Yeah, sorry about the… pier pressure-”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, ship happens-”

“Stoooop,” Callum grinned. “It’s too accurate!”

“Sea what I mean?”

Callum sputtered with helpless laughter, a few tears coming out with it, but then it fell away to a soft smile.

“Yeah, like that. And he’d read stories to Ezran every night, even when he was really busy and had to go back to work afterwards. And I’d… listen too. The last few years, I told him I didn’t want bedtime stories, and pretended I wasn’t listening. But I always did, even when it was a dumb story about banthercubs.” He was sniffling again, hiding his face in her shoulder. “I p-pushed him away,” he sobbed. “I loved him… and I didn’t tell him and I called him King Harrow… and I… I pushed him away-”

She leant her head on top of his.

It was not enough. He needed to know and he could know, unlike her. He had his… closure? Maybe not quite. But there were answers in that scroll he hadn’t opened yet, and she, at least, was sure they were what he longed for.

They didn’t speak for a while, and it wouldn’t last, hiding out here, Ezran would find them at some point and the sky was getting dark in the distance and… she had a feeling the storm was coming.

Callum understood that too, because he straightened up, and splashed water in his face from the canteen she handed him.

“We should… rejoin the others,” he said, and even smiled a bit.

There was one last thing though, before they did that.

“Callum? You should read his letter.” If there had ever been any doubt that he should… there wasn’t, to her. She didn’t want Callum to feel like she did, doubting who he was to the person who was a dad to him. “When you’re ready. I’ll distract Ezran for as long as you need.”

“Not now!” he exclaimed, almost panicked. “I can’t-”

“Not now,” she agreed. “But don’t… don’t stay in it too long… the not-knowing.”

He nodded, understanding.

 

 

 

Bonus art of Callum and Rayla, in the quiet before the storm