Actions

Work Header

The Sun Always Rises

Chapter Text

Grog is awake. Pike can hear his thundering footfalls pacing the length of the kitchen downstairs. A cursory glance at her phone, still placed haphazardly next to her head where she dropped it last night, says that it’s 5:45 am. She groans, dropping the phone and curling back into her blankets. Sleep has rarely been kind enough to arrive upon request, but Pike is nothing if not optimistic; she closes her eyes and wills it back.

Downstairs, the melodious voice of Scanlan Shorthalt starts up. Pike smiles. It’s the same song that Grog plays every morning: “The Goliath Fight Song”, a track off Scanlan’s first album that has always been his favorite. Scanlan has written many songs for Grog through the years, but her brother, secret sentimentalist that he is, loves this first one the best.

Pike knows it by heart.

Well – she knows every Scanlan Shorthalt song by heart, and somewhere between the ending chords of “The Goliath Fight Song” and the opening ones of “Wild”, she dozes off again.

The next time she awakens is not so pleasant. Her phone’s alarm blares right next to her ear, and she jolts upwards, eyes blinking and bleary. Right. There was a reason her past self kept insisting it was crucial to take the extra effort and move her phone to the nightstand before passing out for the night. Noted. Her head nods tiredly. Very, very noted. Grumbling, she regains enough sense to grab her phone and, with only minor fumbling, turn off her alarm.

The house is quiet now. Grog must have left to the gym then, she reasons, as she double checks the time – 6:15 am – before depositing her phone on the nightstand where it belongs. She lingers for a moment, half risen from the bed, before flopping back into her sheets. Late night phone scrolling aside, she did remember to set out her dress before bed, as well as pack her gym bag, and her sermon notes are pinned to her mirror. A couple more minutes wouldn’t hurt. If anything…

There is a break in her curtains, and sunlight streams in, streaking across her chest, tickling her chin. Despite the late winter chill that yet tarries, she feels the warmth of the new day fill her. Encouraged, she pushes the curtains open further. She cannot see the sunrise from where she lies, but she closes her eyes and envisions it cresting over the eastern mountains. Light washes across the town. The first rays hit the Temple of Sarenrae and then the modest Trickfoot household not long after.

Still, she lingers.

The sunlight builds, creeping up her face.

Her 6:30 alarm goes off eventually, too.

She waits for Wilhand to knock and tell her not to worry about the sermon today; he’ll handle it. It’s a deep and treacherous hope, but she waits in it until the blaring of her alarm becomes too much.

With a centering breath, taken and released, she sends thanks to Sarenrae and welcomes the new day.

☼ ☼ ☼

Pike remembers the first sunrise she witnessed as a child.

Papa Wilhand bundled her, six years old and half-asleep, into his truck and drove them across town. There, in the eastern preserve, he carried her up a miles long hiking trail until they reached their destination: a lookout point with a clear view of The Temple of Sarenrae. She remembers being placed onto his shoulders and told to watch, quite a task for a six year old, but she did it. She placed her chin on the top of her grandpa’s head and watched as the sunrise’s first rays shone across town and descended mountain peaks, treetops and the tree line, until it hit the temple.

“You know why I built that temple there, Pike, right on that hill above town?” Wilhand asked. Pike hummed for a moment, dazzled by the sparkling blue of the stained glass windows, evident even from here, before shaking her head. “Redemption and second chances, Pike! That is Sarenrae’s doctrine, you remember, yes? And, what better embodies that than a sunrise. A new day’s light.” Wilhand jostled Pike in his enthusiasm, but she only giggled and clung onto him tighter. “Remember, my little dear: Sarenrae’s grace will always guide you, just as the sun always rises.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Now, standing at the temple doors, welcoming the parish, Pike spares a glance in between greetings to the stained glass windows she saw all those years ago. They are still dazzling, their light blue and gold tint mixing with the natural morning light within the high-domed hall. Together, their light grants the temple a serene glow – gentle and welcoming too, she would say, but she is marginally biased.

She sees someone approaching out of the corner of her eye and turns to greet them just as they say in a low familiar voice,“Hey, stranger.”

Dressed in his Sunday’s best and standing with his arms open expectantly is Vax’ildan. His dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail and, to perhaps mask his usual ‘just rolled out of bed’ aesthetic and the fact that his Sunday’s best is one of only three button-downs he owns (Pike’s counted), there is a polished gold sun brooch pinned over his heart.

Pike jumps right into his arm. “Vax! Oh man,” she gushes. Her nose crashes right into his shoulder but she doesn’t mind. It’s been nearly three months since she saw him last. A crushed nose is a minor consequence compared to a good hug from a good friend. She laughs and clings tighter as she’s pulled onto her tiptoes when Vax hugs her in return. “I didn’t know you were back in town!”

Vax lets her drop back onto her heels, a hand staying clasped on her shoulder. “Yeah, I rolled in last night,” he pauses a moment, looking her over,“How are you?”

“Great!” She replies without hesitation. A nauseous coil remains in her stomach, leftover from this morning, but she ignores it. “How are you?”

“Great.”

It’s a lie; she wonders if Vax knew she was lying too, if calling him out on it would only lead them down a path that – frankly, no one wants to trek this early in the morning. As the silence builds between them, Vax flashes her a toothy grin, and Pike scrambles to the next topic before things become less companionable, more awkward.

“Have you been to visit the de Rolos yet?”

“Ah, yes,” Vax says, raising a finger. “A clarification: I rolled in late last night, so I have been sadly bereft of a chance to drop in on my dear sister and her mister.”

“Percy was asked to speak at the high school last week. He built a legit rocket and broke a window,” Pike supplies helpfully.

Vax grumbles. “That bastard always does the coolest shit when I’m gone.”

She’s about to quip back when Kristopher, her associate cleric, waves to her from the side hallway. He gestures to his watch when he sees he’s caught her attention, and Pike smiles at Vax, apologetic.

“Duty calls.”

“It always does,” he says and ruffles her hair. “Good luck.”

☼ ☼ ☼

There is a room behind the main dais in the temple, a glorified closet really, with a mirror and a small shrine to Sarenrae. It’s where Pike dons her robes while Kristopher talks through announcements and, occasionally, begins a prayer or two.

During her first year, she had an assistant with her in the cramped space for help, but now, three years in, it is only her and the gentle building music beyond these walls. She knows the process by heart. She knows which of her many accouterments is best put on first, which way this or that sash must fall across her chest. She even knows the names of the very specific fabrics her robes are made from and when each fabric is best worn depending on her prepared sermon for the day.

In this way, donning her robes has become cathartic, a ritual in which she has the utmost confidence. In that cramped room at the back of the temple, Pike finds peace in the last, quiet moments she has alone with Sarenrae before she must ascend to her podium and share the grace of her lady with the rest of the parish. The act of preaching is a privilege, she knows. It is one she relishes on her best days when she has felt as if it was the very hand of Sarenrae that slide the heavy silk of her robes onto her shoulders and not her own, significantly less cool and less righteous hands.

Today is not her best day. The silk weighs her down, pulls her deeper into a quiet but building want to keep her bond with Sarenrae within herself, only for herself. The luxury of being just another worshipper in the pews. As she adjusts her holy symbol to rest centered on her chest, Pike stares imploringly at the statue of Sarenrae positioned above the mirror.

“Forgive me for today,” she whispers to the empty room, fingers still pressed to the symbol. “I will do better tomorrow.”

There is no reply.

Then – a soft knock on the door.

Pike’s heart lifts before she remembers where she is and squares her shoulders, leaving the room and her reservations behind.

Vax is sitting in the front row next to Wilhand. They smile at her as she approaches the podium; she smiles to the room.

Breathe in. She’s done this for years now. Breathe out. Check her notes and adjust her tome. Smile big – Bigger than that. Make them believe in it. Crinkle the nose and scrunch the eyes.

Right, just like that.

Now – begin.

“Hey, everyone, nice weather today, huh?”

☼ ☼ ☼

When Grog left competitive fighting three years ago, he rented out an empty lot in downtown Westruun and converted it into a personal gym. There was still hope then that he might soon return to the fighting circuit, and his coach, Groon, urged him to keep up with his training regiment. Of course, at the time, there was no gym in Westruun quite as well-equipped as the one Grog once frequented in Vasselheim, so a place was found, bought, and named: Gym Strongjaw.

Not the most creative name, but much better than Scanlan’s suggestion of ‘Grog ‘Two-time Heavyweight Champion’ Strongjaw-Trickfoot’s Magnificent Gym Jamboree’ – which Grog rejected on the basis of it being “too long to fit on the sign”.

Naturally, despite best efforts to the contrary, the gym lacked the established grandeur of Vasselheim’s MMA gym. Still, Grog and Pike spent hours outlining floor plans, discussing renovations to the space, and putting it all to rights.

It was their space, and that made it special.

Two months in, the first hopeful showed up at the door, begging for a chance to train alongside The Grog Strongjaw, two-time Crucible champion.

Two months and one week in, Grog decided to open the space to the public and invite any who felt worthy to come and prove it.

Now, Pike, fresh off her day at the temple, (politely) pulls Grog away from his most recent hopeful and to the line of punching bags along the far gym wall. It’s where the two of them have most of their chats – one holding the bag in place while the other strikes, usually subconsciously or very consciously trying to knock the other over as well.

“Vax is back in town,” Pike says in between punches once their last conversation has faded, a curious inquiry on Pike’s part of whether or not Grog’s newest client will survive the week. Answer? Probably not. They allowed Grog’s attention to be pulled away far too easily. No backbone at all.

“He got that cask I asked for?”

Pike laughs, her next punch a little wayward for it. “You know, I didn’t have time to ask him, unfortunately.” Grog pouts obviously unaware that Pike can still see him, on separate sides of the punching bag or not. “I’m sure he got it, though! I bet it’s back at his shop right now.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah! We could go by on the way home, if you want.”

“I would like that,” Grog says, pleased.

Pike winds up big for her next punch and knocks Grog onto his heels and the smile askew on his face. A laugh rumbles from his chest as he readjusts, placing more of his weight against the bag as his smile returns, wider than before.

“I’d like to see you do that again.”

It’s a challenge Pike is willing to accept, and the next few minutes are spent in gleeful, frenzied activity as she lands punch after punch. None budge Grog again, but she swears she sees him react a couple times, a huff or a flinch, and that’s accomplishment enough. As another lull settles between them, Grog speaks up,

“Hey, Pike, you remember my buddy Scanlan, right?”

A Scanlan Shorthalt song plays over the gym’s speakers even now, and Pike smiles. As if she could forget him! Still, she humors Grog, pretending to contemplate the name for a minute, pausing with one hand leaning on the punching bag and the other rubbing her chin.

“Your old college roommate turned pop star buddy Scanlan?”

Grog brightens and nods. “Got a message from ‘im today. Said he wants to come to town for a visit.” Grog explains, shifting from one foot to the other in a barely contained bounce of excitement. “Think he could use the spare bedroom at the house? Promise he won’t be a bother. He can be a bit of a diva – ya know, ‘pop stars’ – but I’ll give ‘im a talkin’ to before he arrives.”

Scanlan saying he wants to come for a visit is a rather common occurrence. Him actually acting on those words, less so. Pike responds as she always does though, happy to see her brother happy. “I don’t see why not, but, uh, let’s ask Papa Wilhand when we get home, yeah?”

“After the shop?”

“Yes, Grog,” Pike says, fond,“after we stop by the shop.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Good news – Vax did manage to find Grog a vintage ale cask while on this last picking trip.

Bad news - Pike has to instruct Grog through the door when they get home, because Grog refuses to stop gleefully hugging the cask in front of him despite the lingering redness of his nose from when he bumped into the doorframe leaving the shop.

Great news – Dinner is already on the table when they finally manage to maneuver into the house, and Wilhand greets the idea of a potential visitor with guarded cheer, his specialty.

“I don’t see why not,” Wilhand guffaws before wagging a finger at Grog. “But, you’ll have to make sure he picks up after himself. Celebrity status is null in this house. You know that best, I’m sure.”

“’Course! He’ll be on his best behavior,” Grog says with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old agreeing that he’ll help take care of the new family puppy, and, just like that five-year-old’s parent, Wilhand lists off all the household chores he expects Scanlan to help complete. His own, mostly.

Pike watches the conversation – the same one they have every time Scanlan almost visits – and hopes that this time, for Grog’s sake, that Scanlan will come through.

If it brings a change of pace, then – Sarenrae, be kind – she hopes for her own sake, too.

Outside, the sun is well on its way to setting, but Pike pushes away from the table in a rush.

“I’m going on a walk.”

☼ ☼ ☼

A good 45-minute hike from the Trickfoot household, deep in the western preserve, is a lookout point from which the whole of Westruun is visible. When Pike reaches it, she walks past the polished wooden bench and right to the thigh-high gray brick wall that secures the edge; there is a plaque embedded within the top that reads: Greyskull Keep.

Her friends and her named it that nearly twenty years ago.

She places a hand over the worn metal and lets her eyes scan the horizon. During her walk, the sun dipped below the western peaks to her back, leaving only a residual pink-purple color to the sky and the moon rising steadily in the east.

The day is over.

The thought warms her, and she breathes deep to embrace it, to pull the comfort in deeper. She wants to reach that pit in her stomach that still lingers – soothe it, destroy it.

Tomorrow is another day.

She closes her eyes. The wind chills her skin, but she counts her blessings. Spring is here, and this chill will relinquish. If the weatherwoman is to be trusted, it’ll be gone for good by mid-week. That’ll make her feel better, she thinks, and tomorrow is spring festival planning at the temple. Scanlan, because this is her optimistic reverie and she’ll be optimistic as she pleases, is coming to town soon, and that’ll be fun!

Things will be better tomorrow.

Pike breathes deep, releases it, and opens her eyes.

The sun will always rise.

Chapter Text

SHORTHALT CALLS IT QUITS?

Rumors that beloved pop star, Scanlan Shorthalt’s, long-awaited fourth album will never come have circulated amongst the music industry for over a year now…recent developments claim that those rumors may hold truth. An inside source claims that, last month, Shorthalt and his producer, Dr. Dranzel, cut ties, and Shorthalt has called it quits…The radio silence across the pop star’s social media, on which he is usually quite active, only adds to these speculations…

Pike exits out of the article and frowns. Across the kitchen table, Grog chomps loudly on his cereal, brow scrunched as he looms over his bowl and does his best to herd the last stray bits onto his spoon. Wilhand fell asleep in his armchair again last night, and, even with Grog’s chomping, Pike hears him snoring in the next room. The familiarity of the scene allays her nerves and, with only minor shuffling to prepare herself, she pipes up,

“Hey, Grog…Scanlan hasn’t…told you why he’s visiting, has he?”

Grog’s pinched brow deepens for a moment before he rumbles,“He needs a reason?”

Pike presses lightly,“Of course not, but it seems odd of him to visit now, doesn’t it?”

“…It does?”

“Well – It’s just – he usually tries to come during holidays, so maybe…,” Pike trails off, taking in the innocently curious look on Grog’s face. She realizes two things in quick succession then: one, Scanlan truly hasn’t told him anything, and two, she cannot be the one to worry him. They’re only rumors, after all. Just silly rumors, and nothing’s wrong. Waving her hand as if to banish the thought, Pike hastily backtracks. “ – you know what? Nevermind! I’m overthinking it…I think I’m just getting caught up in disbelief that he’s actually coming. He’s talked about it for years.”

Grog follows the change in subject, much to Pike’s relief. Ever since Scanlan confirmed his arrival earlier this week, Grog’s jumped on any opportunity to talk about his buddy’s visit. Any chance to remind everyone that The Scanlan Shorthalt is his buddy, and that he’ll be coming to stay with them. Yeah, like, no big deal. It’s chill.

“He’ll be here tomorrow,” Grog reminds her with a wide grin, and Pike nods. “Tomorrow.

“How early do you have to leave to make it to Emon?”

“Gotta be out of the house by 5:30, so I set my alarm for 5,” Grog says, putting special emphasis on ‘I set my alarm’. He must have known that Pike intended to remind him. She offers her approval with a smile. “Did you want to come?”

Pike hesitates.

She would, but…

“I have another festival planning meeting tomorrow. Besides, I wouldn’t want to ruin your bro day. Which reminds me – ” She raises a finger, and Grog slouches in his chair in preemptive shame. His fear delights her. Taking on her best ‘I mean business’ posture, she wags her finger and says,“Wilhand’s cooking a special welcome dinner, so no shenanigans. You pick him up, have some bro time, and then come right back home.”

“But – ”

“Nu uh. Let me hear you say it.”

“No shenanigans,” Grog repeats, dejected.

“And if Scanlan tries to talk you into anything?”

“I call you for backup.”

“That’s right!” Pike asserts cheerfully. Pushing away from the table, she gathers up their empty bowls and lets her momentum carry her along,“Now, let’s get moving. Up – up! I need you to drive me to the temple today.”

Not willing to incur her wrath, Grog immediately hops to attention, and they make it out of the house in record time. Pike almost forgot that she was worried about Scanlan, about what he’s doing and where they fit into all of it. Almost. Her phone buzzes as she climbs into the passenger seat of Grog’s truck with a push notification from Twitter, one from a familiar but recently silent buddy of her brother.

@scanlanshorthalt: Anyone have any tips on how to fit 3 suitcases worth of stuff into 1? Asking for a friend! ;)

As they pull out of the driveway, Grog turns on “The Goliath Fight Song”, and – Well, she smiles.

☼ ☼ ☼

The welcoming of spring is a time-honored tradition of Sarenrae’s faithful, and every year, mid-March, for as long as it has stood, The Temple of Sarenrae has hosted a spring festival – a full blown, day long, open aired festival with games, stories, and baked goods.

Pike went to her first when she was 5, her parents having dropped her off at Wilhand’s for a week visit that turned into two. She spent the time cheerfully aiding the temple staff in preparations by offering morale-building thumbs ups and cartwheeling in the lawn while the festival gradually built before her eyes. She doesn’t remember much of the actual festivities. Wilhand says that she spent most of the time wandering behind him like a faithful duckling, giving out free smiles and asking – “Are you having fun? How can I help you have more fun?”.

Even back then, she embodied the heart of the festival, spreading cheer and good tidings.

With the brunt of the planning upon her shoulders since she assumed the mantle of head cleric at the temple, Pike takes great pride in assuring that her dedication to the festival and the happiness of its attendees continues.

On most days, at least.

Today, she’s…absent. That feels like the apt word for it.

The first half of her day offered little challenge. The work she does around the temple on ordinary, non-mass days is routine enough that an airy mind does not hinder her progress. However, as soon as she descended into the temple basement for the planning meeting, the holes in her attention were harder to ignore. So, now, well…

She taps her pen on her notebook, where she should be taking notes on what Kristopher is saying right now, and thinks about Scanlan. She wonders if he has similar days, where his music – his livelihood and passion – dragged on his heart like a chore. Maybe that’s why –

“Pike?”

“Huh?”

Pike blinks and takes in the room. Kris and the others on the planning committee are staring at her, mostly expectant but mildly concerned.

“Oh, uh…” Pike glances down at her notes for a clue she already knows is absent. They were talking about the bake sale last time she contributed, before the daydreaming and the absentness. Kris said something about how they need to recruit more participants if they want to top their charity goal from last year. She thinks. “Donuts!” She says, blushing as she’s met with blank stares. “We need someone to bring donuts…”

“That‘s – “ Kris starts, frowns, and starts again. “Of course. It might help motivate people if we give them options on what to bring…”

“Yes, exactly! That’s what I originally meant to say, but…” Pike gestures about vaguely and ignores the look of growing concern on Kris’ face. “Sorry,” she says with a laugh. “I’m having a weird day.”

Kris smiles encouragingly before he turns to address the group. Prompted by Pike, everyone else gives suggestions for what else they’d like to see being sold. Pike slouches down in her chair with a sigh.

A weird day, huh? That’s certainly another word for it.

It doesn’t help that Vex keeps texting her.


FROM: Vex
i’m walking the western preserve rn. come out!!

FROM: Vex
[attachment: an image of Trinket peering up at the camera with his big dark eyes that Vex knows weakens Pike in her resolve because they’re so gosh darn cute]

FROM: Vex
even Trinket thinks u should come! u wouldn’t disappoint Trinket would u?

Sparing a glance at Kris, still talking away, Pike types out a reply:


TO: Vex
give me an hour

FROM: Vex
♥ ♥ ♥

FROM: Vex
txt me when ur on ur way. let’s meet by the lake!

Pike lingers on her phone a moment too long, and she feels Kris’ stare even before the words reach her.

“Pike? Everything alright?”

Her response is immediate, pre-prepared on the tip of her tongue. “Yes – ,” but she catches the rest. Swallowing any doubt, she gathers her bag, phone and all, into her hands and stands. “Actually, no…I’m sorry. My friend – Well, there’s an emergency.” The others start, shifting in their chairs as if ready to get up and help, and Pike stumbles to recover. “Oh. No, no, nothing serious! Everyone is totally whole and well in body and mind and spirit. I just – I gotta go. I’m so sorry!” As she hurries out the door, she calls over her shoulder to Kris. “Just send me the meeting notes with whatever you guys decide; I trust you completely.”

The door closes on Kris, hand lifted in a confused half-wave, with a gentle click.

☼ ☼ ☼

Vex came to town 5 years ago. She works as a park ranger and, during the summer, was stationed in the depths of the eastern preserve on fire watch. Of course, nothing says ‘home’ for a park ranger quite like a town surrounded by mountains, so when her watch ended, she moved to Westruun and settled in.

In her wake followed the biggest dog that Pike has ever seen, a boyfriend with Shakespearean wit, and a twin brother who worked as an antique picker and was somehow not the oddest of the bunch.

Pike actually met Percy, the boyfriend, first.

The couple had moved into an apartment above an old, long-closed bicycle repair shop, which Percy remodeled and reopened. After nearly a week, since the sign in the shop window listed the hours as ‘whenever’, Pike finally caught the man at work. Literally. He was nose deep in a project when she walked in, never looking away, even when she came to stand beside him and asked:

“What kinds of things do you fix?”

Percy said nothing, only held a hand out to her, palm up, and beckoned when she hesitated. Cautiously, Pike placed her phone into his hand. Cracks branched across the screen in an erratic spread. She’d dropped it from the roof while cleaning out the gutters earlier last week. Okay, that’s a lie. It fell. Out of her pocket. Onto the driveway….while she was on the roof cleaning the gutters.

It was not her finest moment.

Thankfully, Percy did not ask questions.

Unfortunately, he asked nothing at all.

He took one look at it, placed it off to his left, and returned to his current work – a radio of some sort from what Pike could see now. “Give me three days. Five, at most. I don’t yet have a gauge on how long it takes to ship materials out here.”

Pike hummed, crossing her arms and casting a glance at her phone. “That was no good, you know.”

For the first time since she stepped into the shop, Percy stopped and looked at her. His eyes blinked owlishly behind the frames of his glasses, and Pike’s grin bordered on impish as grabbed her phone back and held it up for him to see.

“Your business model needs some work,” she teased,“but I think I can help. Introductions first, right?”

With a self-conscious push at the bridge of his glasses, Percy chuckled and turned fully in his seat to face her. “Of course.” He gestured towards her. “Enlighten me.”

By some miracle, Pike avoided telling Percy the full story behind the embarrassing damages to her phone and also talked him into giving her discount for, you know, all the great business advice.

As she headed for the door, a voice rang out from the stairwell situated behind the shop’s main desk:

“Percy!” Vex always said his name as if it were a beloved song, lilting and fond. “Is that a customer?”

“Yes, dear.”

Pike turned as she heard the trot of footsteps down the stairs, just in time to see Vex appear in the doorway. A pause as their eyes met, and then – Vex gasped. She rushed around the desk to Pike’s side, a hand over her heart and a wide grin on her lips.

“Oh. Thank god! You would not believe how many things weird, old men break. I was beginning to suspect this town might not actually have any people my age.”

“Perhaps your problem, dear, was in relying on my shop as means of gathering friends,” Percy supplied helpfully, voice lighter from Vex’s presence. Vex simply rolled her eyes and shared with Pike a Look. Pike smiled and nodded sympathetically. Somehow, she understood despite the current 10-second duration of their acquaintance.

“I’m Vex’ahlia. Vex. Whatever you like.” Vex offered her hand, chin high and eyes bright. “And, because he probably forgot to tell you, that unfortunate but handsome devil back there is my boyfriend, Percy. Found him in the woods. Can you believe that?” From his workbench, a faint snort of laughter could be heard as Percy lifted a hand in acknowledgement. Vex went on,“So…! Would you like to go for coffee sometime?”

Pike laughed. She wasn’t sure what else to do, equal parts amused and dazed by the scene.

“I’m Pike, and yeah, um…sure!”

☼ ☼ ☼

Trinket, in all his big Newfoundland glory, nearly knocks Pike right off her feet when she arrives at Cobalt Lake. Pike doesn’t mind. In fact, she welcomes it! After all these years, it’s routine, and she throws her arms wide open as the barreling lump of fluff hits her square in the chest with his paws. A burst of wheezing laughter follows, partially genuine and partially forced from her lungs, as she staggers back and catches herself.

“Hey there, buddy,” she coos and scratches behind his ear. Stood up like this, Trinket is nearly a head taller than her, so it’s a bit of a reach. Short stature is a Trickfoot family trait. Being big and fluffy is just a Trinket thing.

“You need to stop encouraging him,” Vex warns. “One of these days, he’ll actually knock you over and crush you.”

“If that’s how I go, then I accept my fate,” Pike declares while nuzzling against Trinket’s face. She laughs when she receives sloppy, wet kisses in return but immediately regrets it, sputtering and pulling away as a little too much dog slobber and tongue goes right into her mouth. Still, she keeps laughing. Laughs uproariously as she falls onto her butt and then her back as Trinket, well, crushes her.

Distantly, she hears Vex yelp.

Trinket’s weight disappears moments later.

“Pike, are you alright? On a scale from 1-10, how damaged are your internal organs?”

Vex’s face appears above her, worry melting into exasperation when Pike, ruddy and giggling, gives her a thumbs up.

“A hysterical thumbs up. That’s a solid 3,” Vex mutters then heaves a put-upon sigh. “Okay, come on, let’s walk it off.”

Vex pulls Pike to her feet, a measure of difficulty added to the task as Pike works out the last of her laughter. It takes Vex pulling on her arms and Trinket pushing against her back for Pike to regain balance on her feet, but, once settled, the two set off on Vex’s route, arm-in-arm. Trinket lopes ahead of them, leading the way further into the park, stopping every now and then to make sure they are following.

It has been a while since Pike’s had time to do more than her usual walks to Greyskull Keep, so the walk does much to rejuvenate her mood. With spring’s arrival, the greenery has returned, filling in the gaps and stillness left by winter. Gone is the eerie stretch of the bare woods. Here are the budding flowers and breezes that do not bite. Already her fingers itch to grab out her phone and text Kristopher new ideas for the festival. A scavenger hunt for the kids might be worthwhile, and maybe she can convince Scanlan to play a couple songs. That would really boost their attendance! If he stays that long, that is.

Except for some minor infractions, like a couple of teenagers fishing without permits who try to cry their way out of a lecture, the walk is uneventful. They talk about developments and theories for their favorite TV show. Pike read a theory about which character will die in the season finale, and she enjoys watching Vex’s face twist with distaste for the whole idea. Vex clues Pike in on the newest developments in ‘The Window Incident’ saga, and Pike pointedly does not talk about work.

By the time they loop back around to the lake, Pike feels lighter than she’s felt all week. Between readying the house for Scanlan’s visit and planning the festival, she neglected to take time for herself.

That must be it, she thinks.

Breathing deep, she tilts her face towards the sun.

She’s glad that’s all it was.

As they hit the main trail again, Vex finishes her story,“Percy offered to install the new window, but naturally, the principal is wary.”

“Yeah, building rockets and launching them through school windows can do that…What was he thinking anyway?”

“My husband is an Icarus, Pike, and far too clever for his own good. Every now and then, he gets burnt, and I have to field angry phone calls from the school board,” Vex explains. Pike gets the sense that she’s complaining, but she does not have the tone for it. With a small smile, Vex pats Pike’s hand where it rests in the crook of her arm. “Word of advice, darling: Don’t marry an Icarus.”

Pike tampers down a grin, shooting back playfully,“Where’s the fun in that?”

“You say that now, but then you marry someone you found in the woods and he builds window-breaking rockets even though you told him it was a bad idea,” Vex says, slumping further against Pike’s side with a melodramatic sigh. Pike snickers. ‘I found him in the woods’ was Vex’s go-to story about how she met Percy. Pike isn’t sure if it is a long-running gag between the two of them or just a stretch of the truth. By this point, she likes the mystery.

“Alright, alright,” Pike pacifies. She opens her mouth to ask her if Percy might be available to help build some arches for the festival when she catches sight of a familiar head of red hair in the distance, emerging from a smaller, overgrown trail: One of her childhood friends – “Keyleth!”

Keyleth, who was currently in the middle of trying to free her patchwork maxi skirt from a bramble bush, whips around at the sound of her name. She blinks once – twice – then breaks out into a huge grin with a slightly shrill, “Hey, guys! Fancy meeting you here!” Pike can see that she is still kicking subtly at the bush with her foot. “Well, I mean, of course, I expected to see you here, Vex. You work here, around here, but – Pike!” Keyleth’s kicking grows more pronounced. The whole bush shakes. “I got your text. I’m totally free for drinks on Saturday. I still can’t believe you’ve got The Scanlan Shorthalt coming to stay with you. That’s crazy! I’ve never met a famous person in my life, and yet, here you are…” Pike spares a glance at Vex to see if she notices the frantic flailing of Keyleth’s foot. Vex does. Pike’s grin widens to match hers. “Oh, except Grog. I know him...but he’s only famous for some people, you know? But, Scanlan Shorthalt! Everyone knows him!”

Perhaps to spare Keyleth the embarrassment of having them watch her struggle and perhaps because she really did remember, Vex turns to Pike. “That’s right!” She says. “Percy and I will be coming, too. I gotta see if Scanlan’s really as ridiculous as he seems and as short as I’ve heard.”

“He is, and he is,” Pike confirms breezily. “He’s as short as I am. You could never tell from the pictures of us that I’ve taken because he always stands on his toes.”

“On his toes?...Really?”

“Yeah, if he needs to convince someone that he’s taller than he is, he’ll show them pictures of us together and say that I’m Grog Strongjaw’s sister…which is true, but…”

“He plays into people’s preconceptions that you must be his biological sister and tall like him as well.” Vex reaches her point for her, and Pike nods. “Hm, clever though ultimately useless.”

“That’s what I told him,” Pike says with a shrug,”but then he just said – ” Clearing her throat lightly, she does her best to take on the flippant quality of Scanlan’s voice – “Any picture of us, babe, is a picture worth having. No matter what.

Oh – wait, maybe she shouldn’t have said that part.

The impish curling of Vex’s lips worries Pike, and she’s thankful for Keyleth, who, now free from the bush, trots up to them. Pointing at the messenger bag swaying at her side, Pike asks:

“Out collecting, Keyleth?”

Glancing down, as if she forgot it was there, Keyleth brightens and hugs her bag close to her chest. “Yes! Now that spring’s here, I want to be aware of where all the plants are.” Vex, with her finger raised as if she planned to call Pike out on changing the subject, suddenly shifts from one leg to the other, eyeing Keyleth instead. Pike breathes a sigh of relief. Keyleth, on the other hand, panics, hugging her bag tighter. “I mean, no!”

“You do remember I’m a park ranger, yes, Keyleth? If you’re disturbing the plant life, I’ll have to write you up,” Vex sing-songs. As if this were a planned maneuver, Trinket noses Keyleth’s messenger bag, snuffling loudly. “But, you wouldn’t be doing that, right?”

“Of course not!” Keyleth squeaks and fumbles a notebook out from the front pocket of her bag. “I was only cataloguing them in my field notes. See?”

Vex takes her time flipping through Keyleth’s notebook while Keyleth insists that she was definitely, for sure, not doing anything illegal - Girl Scout’s Honor! Finally, with a slow, decisive movement, Vex hands the book over and says:

“Alright. You’re free to go…On one condition!”

“Of course!”

“You join Pike and I for drinks.”

Keyleth agrees in a heartbeat, and Vex preens as she grabs Keyleth and links arms with her as well. “Then, it’s settled! Let me wrap things up here, and – “

“Actually…” Keyleth and Vex turn to Pike with matching pouts. “I have to get home for dinner. I promised Wilhand I would ready the guest room for Scanlan’s visit. My day is packed tomorrow, so I won’t have time to do it then…” Clasping her hands before her, Pike offers them both her most apologetic smile.

In the beat of silence before Vex speaks, Pike sends a quick prayer to Sarenrae.

“Oh, fine.” Vex relents. “I guess we are going out for drinks in a couple days, but!” There’s a keen glint in her eyes, and Pike knows all too well what it means. Her prayer was too late. “I am driving you home, so that still leaves us plenty of time to talk about that Scanlan thing.”

Pike nods, lifts her chin, and accepts her fate.

☼ ☼ ☼

Pike’s welcome home is the sound of a pan clattering to the ground, followed by a cacophony of other metals and a creative string of curses.

Wilhand must be cooking.

Toeing off her shoes, Pike exits the laundry room into the kitchen just in time to see Wilhand, crouched on the floor with arms full of pots and pans, cautiously maneuver them one-handedly towards the open cabinet. The collected metals rattle ominously. One shift – then another – and Wilhand curses and drops them again. Pike winces and hurries to help him.

“You know, using a different pan won’t ruin the recipe,” Pike says as she takes notice of the red pan that Wilhand clutches possessively in his left hand while collecting the others with his right. Grog must have accidentally placed Wilhand’s favorite pan at the bottom of the pile in the cabinet.

Wilhand grumbles,“Better safe than sorry!”

Pike hums softly, humoring him. “Alright. Well, here, leave these to me. You worry about cooking.”

With a huff and a helping hand on his elbow from Pike, Wilhand stands and bustles over to the stove. Pike is halfway through reorganizing their pots and pans in the cabinet when Wilhand says,“Kris called me today.”

Pike fumbles a pan. “Oh?” She quickly shoves it onto a shelf, head bowed. “Is everything alright?”

“That’s what he asked! Said you ran out earlier because there was some emergency.”

“Oh, right,” Pike feigns remembrance, hitting the palm of her hand against her forehead. “Yeah, Vex needed to talk to me about something. Super personal stuff.” She shoves the rest of the pans into the cabinet and snaps it shut. “I’ll give Kris a call. Let him know everything’s good.”

Pike brushes off the knees of her pants as she stands. She hears the sound of Wilhand hitting the wooden stirring spoon against the rim of the pan, hears him hum, and when she lifts her gaze, he is watching her curiously.

“What?” She laughs, nervous and half-hearted.

“You need a break,” he states, and Pike feels her heart drop. “I’ll let Kris know he should take over the rest of the planning.”

“No!”

Wilhand startles.

If she’s being honest, she startled, too.

Wringing her hands, Pike shakes her head and says,“Sorry! It’s just – I…Yes, I was a little stressed, but I’m okay now. I can handle the festival planning.” Wilhand’s brow furrows. He doesn’t believe her, so Pike smiles brightly and makes him. “I promise, Papa Wilhand. Please don’t worry about me.”

Wilhand stares her down for another tense couple of second before nodding. He turns back towards the stove, grousing,“Alright, alright…No need to get keen. Your grandfather’s not got much left in this world other than worrying about his little girl, you know.”

The heaviness in her heart does not lift, but Pike hurries, lead-footed, over to Wilhand and presses a quick peck to his cheek. “I know. Thank you.”

Her smile wavers as she leaves the room, but she keeps it firmly in place until she is on the second landing, tucked away and safe from any eyes that may wonder why it is so sad, why she breathes a sigh of relief when she finally lets it go.

☼ ☼ ☼

Pike goes to bed early in hopes that the extra sleep will ease the heaviness that has returned to her heart. Instead, she awakens hours later, sullen and tempered by sleep that won’t return. She lies in bed, staring out her window at the moon as it rises over the mountains and high into the sky.

She wants to do something.

She’s not sure what, only recognizes the want.

Worst - it’s not an unexpected feeling, not unfamiliar or surprising, but the last time she felt this way, she was younger and had far less responsibilities to consider. Back when she was fresh out of high school, when Wilhand still led the temple and Grog just began to rise in the fighting world.

Wanting is easy.

But, a mark of true strength is knowing when to act and when to maintain, and she is far beyond the age of following whims where they may take her.

Rolling onto her other side with a huff, she snatches her phone from the nightstand and succumbs to her usual late night scrolling habits. There’s a push notification from Instagram waiting for her. Scanlan posted a selfie with him posing before an unpacked mess and at least two suitcases, but she swears she sees another peeking in from off-screen.

She smiles and reconsiders Grog’s offer from this morning.

Right – now that was a want she could act on.

Tossing her blankets aside, Pike sets off to find her brother, who’s probably still awake, knowing him.

☼ ☼ ☼

Sure enough the lights are off downstairs, but Pike follows the muted sound of mashing buttons and finds Grog in the living room, eyes glued to the TV screen and game control in hand. Wilhand is asleep in his armchair, snoring. Pike regards the scene with a sleepy smile as she leans against the doorway.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” She wonders aloud.

Grog curses and fumbles the control. “I was, shit, I was just about to go up,” he asserts at a whisper.

“Uh huh.” Pike says, arms crossing to fight the chill of being away from her warm bed. “Have you slept at all? You have to be up in five hours.”

“I know,” Grog mumbles but the alarmed look in his eyes says that he didn’t. Pike graciously pretends not to notice him not-so-inconspicuously checking the time on his phone. “Five hours of sleep is totally acceptable,” he tacks on for good measure.

Pike watches as Grog exits his game, and as the screen of the TV goes dark, Pike asks:

“Actually…About tomorrow, did you still want me to come with you?”

Grog tosses the TV remote aside, rising from the couch with a considering purse to his lips. “You don’t gotta worry, Pike. I’ll make it there okay.” Pike’s stomach swoops unpleasantly. It isn’t that, she wants to say. She wants to go. She wants to do anything other than spend her day in the temple, planning her sermon and nitpicking festival details. But, she can’t say it, loses any chance of it when Grog ruffles her hair as he passes by her. “You plan your festival. I’ll bring the party!”

Pike laughs for his benefit. “Alright. Okay!” She brightens her tone. “But, remember – ”

“Back for dinner! I know…” Grog pouts then adds at a mumble on the crest of a yawn as he trudges up the stairs,“Goodnight, Pike…”

“Night, Grog.”

Pike stands in the darkness of the living room for another moment, breathing deep. As her eyes adjust to the din, she can see the small shrine to Sarenrae on the fireplace mantle; the moonlight is scarce, but her lady’s eyes seem to shine – even now, even on her.

The weight of the want in her heart intensifies but so does the guilt.

She bows her head and apologizes.

When she looks up once more, Sarenrae’s eyes still shine.

It’s enough for now.

Chapter Text

The sun has not yet risen.

Grog is awake. He trudges past her bedroom door on his way downstairs. In the early morning stillness, she hears him singing “The Goliath Fight Song” under his breath. She smiles.

For the briefest moment, she entertains the idea of hurrying out and asserting that she will be coming along, responsibilities be damned! Only briefly, however. It was a restless night. The tiredness in her bones does not take long to convince her once more that it is best to stay here, squeeze in a couple more hours of sleep, and then have a hectic yet quiet (so quiet, she thinks) day at the temple.

Rolling onto her side, away from her door and towards the window, she stares out into the darkness. The sun has not yet risen and will not for another couple hours. Curling and pulling her blanket tight around her chin, she closes her eyes.

Swaying between sleep and consciousness, her fingers slowly curl around her holy symbol. She usually hangs it from the corner of her vanity mirror, never far and always visible from where she rests her head. But - after last night, after this stressful week, she could not stomach the thought of parting with it for the night and, thus, it stayed – resting gently in the center of her chest as she fell asleep last night. Each time she awoke throughout her tossing and turning, she’d sought its familiar shape.

It soothed.

Might have succeeded in soothing her again if it were not for the distant sound of Grog’s truck rumbling to life.

That terrible feeling of loss sweeps over her, of ‘oh, but I wish I had…’, and Pike sighs, sitting up in bed with a grumbling pout. With her blanket falling to the wayside, she pulls open her window, screen and all. The sound of birds twittering rushes in, followed shortly by a mild chill, but she does not bother with her blanket and grabs her pillow instead. She situates it in her windowsill.

Grog has already pulled out of the driveway and started down the block by the time Pike settles on her stomach, chin rested on her folded arms that rest on her pillow. Behind her, her feet kick lazily in the air.

She watches Grog’s car travel down the street from high aloft in her perch. The imagery helps tamper down the feeling that builds as her eyes fix on the bright red of his taillights as he turns a corner and disappears from view. She’s not sure how to place the feeling. It might be something like disappointment, if she didn’t think that would a little drastic of her. Him and Scanlan will be back this evening, after all. That’s barely any time at all! Especially with such a full day to keep her busy. So, maybe it’s just…Who even knows! She buries her face in her arms and groans – melodramatic and pitchy because even she is afforded time to be petulant.

It’s too early for crises.

The sun has not yet risen, and few people roam the streets at this hour.

Under the orange glow of the streetlamps, the young woman from two houses down walks her puppy, Berry. The dear thing is still working out the finer points of its puppy training, thus an early morning walk with less people has been the ideal schedule for the past month.

Some 10 minutes later, old man Jonesy from the block over meanders down the middle of the road, smoking his usual morning cigar. Pike’s nose scrunches when the breeze kicks up and wafts the acrid smell closer. She ducks her nose into her arms until he passes.

She waits for more people to entertain her, but besides a handful of cars and a wandering tabby cat, Westruun sleeps.

Ducking back inside, Pike grabs her phone from the nightstand to check the time.

The sun has not yet risen, but it will soon.

In less than an hour, at that!

Which gives her plenty of time to jog up to Greyskull Keep, and if she’s quick about it, she could probably squeeze in an enjoyable lap around the lake before she has to come home and get ready for work.

Rejuvenated by the new, bright potential for her morning, Pike springs out of bed and throws open her closet doors with a flourish. She turns on “The Goliath Fight Song” while she dresses. In his hurry to leave, Grog neglected to play it, and Pike can admit that, when it comes to the whims of the world, she’s pretty lost, but even she knows that a morning without a Scanlan Shorthalt song is a morning that’s just asking to be morose.

As the first notes play, Pike smiles and sings along.

The sun is about to rise.

☼ ☼ ☼

The sun is well above the eastern ridges by the time Pike turns back towards home. She may have been a little leisurely about her lap around the lake, but she picks up her pace now to make up for it, traveling alongside the main road to save time.

It usually wouldn’t really matter if she were a bit late to the temple. Flexible hours are one of the many perks of being part of the clergy, though – technically – she is never off the clock. Every moment, every decision, every silence must be dictated and appreciated in accordance to the will and light of her lady, Sarenrae. Lest she stray and, thus, lead those of her parish astray as well…dooming them all to uncertain tidings and divine abandonment…But! Following Sarenrae’s example has never felt like work to Pike, so all that doom is completely hypothetical….

Anyway!

Where was that train of thought going again? Right. Flexible hours, usually, but festival crunch time has set in, and the temple will be a hub of activity for the next two weeks with the youth ministry constructing necessary booths and signs, choir practice, final pushes for bake sale participants, and sermon preparations.

She needs to remember to grab her tome before she leaves the house. It was in the –

Honk!

Pike yelps, catching the back of her leg with her foot mid-stride. Aided by a curse and a flail, she rights her footing and whips around to face the approaching car. Its window rolls down slowly, tauntingly as it creeps to a stop and a familiar voice calls out a familiar greeting.

“Hey, stranger!”

It takes a moment, mouth agape, for Pike’s scrambled mind to realign and process the scene. The car, white with ‘forest preserve’ written across the side in a woodsy green, carries only one passenger – a dark-haired, sharp-eyed woman with an ever-preening smile.

“Vex – holy shit!” Pike wheezes, throwing her head back and breathing through the residual panic. “What are you doing?”

Vex does not laugh, but she does oh-so-casually fold her arms on her steering wheel and tilt her head oh-so-slightly to one side. “I’m working, darling. What are you doing?”

“Well, I was,” Pike gestures vaguely in the direction of her house, still a bit winded. “You know.”

“You wanna ride?” Vex poses it as a question, only to punctuate it by reaching across the passenger seat and pushing open the door.

How can she say ‘no’ to such a clear, concise argument?

Pike bounds to the door and hops in.

☼ ☼ ☼

Turns out that Vex meant “ride” in a broad, general sense and not in the directed, “I’ll take you home” sense. A fact that Pike quickly discovers when Vex, instead of continuing straight at the next intersection, turns left and remains along the border of the forest preserve. Throwing a glance over her shoulder as her neighborhood – so close but so far – disappears from view, Pike turns back to Vex with a shake of her head and a smile of acceptance. Vex smiles back, and she tells Pike all about how Trinket didn’t tag along because he opted instead to indulge in a lazy cuddle day with Percy who apparently spent all night working on something or other in his workshop, and - Hey, how is the festival planning going? She wants all the details, the play-by-play, and actually maybe they should have a dinner date sometime next week...Is Tuesday good?

Pike enjoys the normalcy, the warmth that radiates from a caring friend. As the trees whiz past and the sun rises further above the mountain ridges, she settles into that warmth and she forgets the time entirely.

“So, Scanlan Shorthalt, huh?” Vex prompts, and Pike has to stifle a laugh.

“Yep. Grog should almost be to Emon by now.”

“Excited?”

“Of course!” Pike chirps. Vex looks poised to quip something else, so Pike, smile bright and toothy, reaches out a hand and pushes Vex’s chin until her eyes meet the road – as they should. It does not deter Vex. Of course not, little does, but it does give Pike a minute of relative peace before Vex turns towards her again.

“How well do you know this Scanlan guy anyway?” She asks - genuinely curious, probably, but Pike can see the cogs in her mind whirling. “I’ve known you – what? 5 years? And you’ve rarely mentioned him.”

Pike lifts a hand, delighted when Vex, with a roll of her eyes, reluctantly turns her head forward. “We’re…,” but no word readily comes to mind. Her smile slips. Scanlan and her are not friends – well, not in the way that she is friends with Vex or Keyleth or even Percy. He’s only ever been ‘her brother’s old college buddy’ in her mind. The one whose ridiculously catchy songs brighten up and underlay every moment of her life. Someone close but inexplicably removed. So, she supposes, maybe, they’re - ”...acquaintances,” she decides uncertainly. The word leaves a bad taste in her mouth, and a grimace where her smile once sat.

It doesn’t feel right.

Vex, cheeky as ever, does not allow her much time to ruminate.

“Right, and does this acquaintance flirt with you often?”

Pike’s response is blithe and sweet and said with only the slightest shake of her head. “He flirts with everyone often.” Scanlan is neither a friend nor an acquaintance, but he flirts like Vex simpers and Vax broods and Keyleth rambles; she knows that much. Vex hums disbelievingly, and Pike insists,“You’ll see when you meet him. It’s – “ Her nose crinkles with her smile as she seeks the right word. “Ridiculous – in the most wonderful way!” Vex eyes her, eyebrow raised, and Pike titters. “It’s him.”

As Vex turns to regard the road, Pike can hear the mutter of “Acquaintances” that she pulls inquisitively under her breath.

Heat rises in Pike’s cheeks and tickles the tips of her ears. Shifting in her seat, she tries crossing her arms and then uncrossing them and then resting her elbow on the car door and then not as she transitions – seamlessly, casually – into safer (for her) waters:

“So – How’s Vax? He have any plans to head back out on the road soon?”

Vex scoffs. “Plans? What plans?” Pike’s not afforded the chance to reply as Vex huffs on,“I mean it, Pike. I don’t know what he’s doing. Lord knows he never tells me anything…!”

“Oh, well – ”

“No, listen to this: So, he shows up at the apartment the other night, right? At fuck all o’clock, and he has me sit there while he pontificates at me about how we always said it was gonna be just the two of us, unbeholden to anyone, and so on and so forth he misses me and yada…,” Vex sighs, visibly wilting. “I love my brother, but…!”

“Of course – ”

“ – He can be so frustrating! – ”

“Siblings usually are.”

“ – It’s like he’s never forgiven me for running off.” Vex takes one hand off the wheel to air quote ‘running off’. The exaggerated, full-body eye roll that accompanies the movement is impressive, if not slightly worrying. “But – ugh, I’m sorry. Forget it. I don't wanna worry you with my problems…but fuck him! He’s so – ”

“Frustrating?”

“Yeah.”

The time, deep set in the car’s dashboard, glares at Pike, but Vex’s fingers are curled around the steering wheel, knuckles paling. She cannot leave now. Straightening in her seat, Pike raises her chin. “Worry me, girl. I demand to be made the most worried person in – this – town! Give me the details!”

Vex’s laugh borders on pained, but her grip loosens. “Get ready to regret those words, darling.”

Pike does, a little, but she loves it.

She loves even more that, by the time she drops Pike at home, Vex smiles, wide and untroubled.

☼ ☼ ☼

“Vax! What are you doing here?”

After a shower and a frantic scramble to find the dress she planned to wear today, Pike walks to the temple and arrives far later than intended. She spots Vax descending the temple steps as she hurries up the path. He looks sullen – an observation that she cannot help but doubt briefly and wonder if she only thinks that because Vex put the idea in her head. The doubt fades as she moves in closer. Vax’s chin hangs low to his chest. His shoulders are bunched up and tight. When Pike calls to him, he walks on for a few more steps before reacting.

“Pike,” he greets but his smile does not reach his eyes.

Pike resists the urge to skip past pleasantries and proceed straight to hugging the sad right out of him. With great reluctance, she settles for her softest tone as she bustles up to him at the bottom of the steps. “Hey - What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Vax says, and his brow scrunches before he admits, “Yeah, I just…I was actually hoping for your counsel this morning…”

“Oh.” She overenunciates, lips opening around the sound before pulling into a grimace. With a ‘hm’ and a solid clasp of her hands before her chest, she laughs nervously. “I’m so sorry! I meant to be here earlier, but I woke up and went on a run, and I got home late, because – Well, that’s neither here nor there…Really, it’s just that Papa Wilhand took the car to go to the grocery store – I’m guessing, I don’t actually know...but, yeah, so I had to walk here.” Vax’s smile turns a shade lighter during the course of her verbal stumbling, and Pike’s stress levels drop accordingly. She places a hand on his arm as she finishes with – “I have time now, of course!”

Vax’s smile promptly turns sour once more. “I have to get to the shop, unfortunately.”

“I’ll go with you then,” Pike asserts. “Let me just tell Kris that I’m – ”

“Pike, it’s fine. I promise you: it’s nothing to worry over. We can – …” Vax hops down from the final step, shoulders still bunched and hands in his pockets. “We can talk another time.”

As he begins to step around her, Pike follows the movement. “Are you sure? Because, really, I – ”

“Pike!” Kris, bright-eyed and zealous, appears at the top of the steps. He waves. “There you are! Thank Sarenrae! The choir can’t find the sheet music and one of the kids accidentally locked himself in the storage room.”

“Oh – Hey, Kris,” Pike greets with a halfhearted lift of her hand. “That sounds…so…fun…? Can you, uh, give me a minute? I need to – “ She gestures towards Vax. “Just a sec!”

Kris blinks, and his quizzical look is enough to make Pike turn back around to –

“Vax?”

He’s gone.

☼ ☼ ☼

“Oh – Pike! You’re still here?”

After Vax left, after she stepped into the temple, after she got swept up in the chaos, after, after, after, Pike lost track of the time. At some point, an hour ago or maybe two, she escaped to her office to attend to the scatter of paperwork that has been strewn across her desk since the end of February. It’s from that scatter that Pike looks up to see Kris, who stands in the hallway before her door, in the process of slinging on his jacket. He offers her a smile which Pike does her best to return, despite the fact that it feels like her face forgot how to emote sometime after some after.

“Huh?” Well, look, she did try!

“Didn’t you say you had company coming tonight? That Shorthalt fellow?”

Oh.

Oh!

Pike scrambles for her phone, which, with her mind right now, is most likely tucked into some manila folder that she filed away twenty minutes ago. “Shit – I mean, shit, what time is it?”

“A little after 6 – ”

“What? You’re kidding! Oh, man, I gotta go…He’s gonna be here – Ah-ha!” From under a loose pile of papers, Pike finds her phone. A quick glance shows that she has five missed texts – four from Grog with various updates on their ETA and one from Scanlan that says ‘Be seeing you soon!’ with far too many kissy face emojis. Pike’s feet tip tap against the ground as she gathers up the rest of her things, a low hum building in the back of her throat. She sweeps past poor Kris, pausing only briefly with a wild grin to clasp him on the shoulders. “Scanlan’s here!”

She rushes off before he can answer and, per usual, disappears out the temple doors to the soundtrack of Kris’ hurried calls of “Have a good night!” and “See you Sunday!”.

☼ ☼ ☼

Pike Trickfoot, darling of Sarenrae, respected religious leader of her community, sprints full speed down the street. With her shoes in hand, her bare feet strike the pavement of the sidewalk while the blue skirt of her dress whips about her knees and thighs. There is a glowing smile upon her face even as her hair, messily tied into a formless bun, unravels and blows into her face. People watch curiously, peering out their windows or double-taking on the sidewalk, but Pike rushes past them all with breathless ‘hello’s.

In the driveway of the Trickfoot household sits Grog’s old truck, and Pike gives it a tap as she bounds past on her way to the side door. Her tumble into the laundry is less than graceful. The screen door slams behind her with a clatter, and she nearly knocks over the shoe rack when she chucks her flats aside, but she spares only a momentary, wincing glance before swinging her way into the kitchen.

Winded with her hair askew, Pike skids to a stop in the doorway and gasps around her smile,“Scanlan!”

Standing in the middle of her kitchen, eyes darting about while he talks to Grog and surrounded by, sure enough, three suitcases is Scanlan Shorthalt, exactly as she remembers him. His chestnut brown hair is perfectly coiffed. He wears a familiar purple, deep v-neck shirt – one of the dozen that she knows he owns because he confessed to her that he was drunk shopping and accidentally typed twelve instead of two. She smiles, breathes deep, and stutters on a giddy laugh as Scanlan spins around on a heel and that beautiful smile of his turns two notches brighter upon seeing her.

Scanlan throws his arms open wide. “Pike! Oh - “ He places one hand over his heart briefly, as if beautifully pained, before sweeping it back out. “ – Beautiful Pike – light of the world – I have missed you!” He sings.

Typical, she thinks, typical Scanlan Shorthalt!

She loves it.

Pike lingers in the doorway, pressing a hand into her lips to suppress her delight as she pretends to consider his offered hug. But, Scanlan does not waver, only wiggles his fingers and quirks a brow, and Pike’s steps are quick when she crosses the room and into the welcoming circle of his arms.

She has always enjoyed hugging Scanlan. He’s her height, if not just that much shorter, making him one of the few people in her life that she can hug without being crushed into a shoulder or collarbone or forcing the other person into an awkward hunch. Also – Pike gleefully rests her chin on Scanlan’s shoulder and squeezes him tight until she hears a choked gasp and feels his hand patting her shoulder in surrender – she gets to do that.

She relents but does not pull back. “It’s so good to see you, Scanlan.” She breathes it more than says it, still slightly winded from her impromptu run. Scanlan’s hold tightens, and she lingers for a beat more than she intends. “How was your flight? Did Grog and you have a good day? No shenanigans?” She asks, smoothly transferring her attention from Scanlan to Grog as she steps away from Scanlan, who looks down at his now empty arms and pouts. Her brother is not a subtle man. If shenanigans were had, she’ll know. But, she sees only that Grog is waiting patiently for his ‘welcome home’ hug, and she gladly gives it.

“The flight was long. Emon was superb, as always. Your brother and I had plenty of respectable, within-the-limits-of-the-law fun, but – ” Scanlan waves his hand. “Enough about all that...Let’s talk about the us and the now, hm?” He winks at Pike, a puckish glint alight in his eyes. “The me and the you?”

Pike laughs and shoulder checks him while, from at her side, Grog booms: “Hey!” Scanlan pales, and Pike doesn’t even need to look to know that Grog has leveled him with a thunderous scowl. “Watch yourself.”

“Of course, of course!” Scanlan recovers, smile back in place and swagger renewed. “I hope you can forgive me, dear Pike, for my grievous misstep.”

“Hmm, I’ll think about it,” she drawls. When Scanlan smiles then, she cannot help but smile back. Any attempt at being teasingly blasé forgotten.

Before Scanlan can resume his flirting, as he is always apt do despite Grog’s warnings, Wilhand bustles between them with a covered dish in hand and a huff blowing from his chest. Pike blinks, centering herself in a mildly bizarre ‘late to the party’ moment, and finally takes in the wonderful aroma wafting throughout the kitchen and spies the spread of dishes set out upon the counter. Wilhand really outdid himself this time.

“You!” Wilhand says, shuffling up with a dish that he holds out towards Scanlan. “Take this to the dining room.”

“Yes, sir!” Scanlan says. He whisks the dish from Wilhand’s hands, smiling cordially and lifting it closer to his nose. “Ah-ha, chicken – my favorite! My, Wilhand, Grog and Pike have spoken highly of your cooking, and – Well, of course, I shall hold my fullest praise until I have tasted it – but I can already tell that they have not spoken hastily.”

Wilhand guffaws and reddens at the praise. With a dismissive wave of his hand and a slight, chuckled ramble about ‘how pretty words don’t work on him!’, he clears his throat and turns on Grog. “And – you!” Grog snaps to attention despite Wilhand’s failure to carry any stern weight behind his words. “Take these suitcases upstairs! Come on, come on, dinner’s ready, and I will not have it grow cold over chitchat.”

Grog sweeps up two of the suitcases and high knees up the stairs, and Wilhand shuffles back to the counter, leaving Scanlan and Pike alone, in the smallest sense.

Scanlan holds his smile until Wilhand’s gone and fully distracted before leaning towards Pike and whispering, “Right. Where’s – ”

Pike points to the left and Scanlan winks by means of ‘thanks’ and saunters off.

She watches him as he circles around table, eyeing and considering which spot feels right for the dish. As if it were an exact science, as if it were of the utmost importance to him that Wilhand approved of where the dish was placed.

“I’m glad he’s here.”

Pike looks back at Grog as he hoists up the last suitcase on his shoulder, a content smile lightening his naturally rough features. She pats his arm and grabs the plate of mashed potatoes that Wilhand passes off to her. With a smile of her own, she chimes back,

“Me too.”

Though the sun had just about set, as Pike maneuvers around Scanlan in the dining room, listening to him hum and harmonize and coordinate dish placement, she cannot help but feel that a new dawn has already arrived.

Chapter Text

Scanlan arrives home from his afternoon touring Westruun with Grog and promptly commandeers the upstairs bathroom. Pike spent her afternoon aiding Wilhand with chores around the house and, either by mere coincidence or the great grace of Her Lady Sarenrae, managed to squeeze in a shower and snatch her makeup essentials before they stormed the house. Her impeccable timing coupled with Grog’s stern belief that showers are an every other week necessity means that Scanlan’s obsessive grooming needs leave the house relatively unscathed.

His decided outfit for the night is another topic entirely…

Pike slips into the bathroom when Scanlan finally opens the door 30 minutes before they’re due at the bar. The steam hits her first then the outfit…An open-chested (a Scanlan staple) lavender shirt over dark jeans. It was rather…

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

Scanlan pivots on a heel, away from the mirror in which – Pike can only guess – he was admiring himself. For a moment, his mouth hangs open but no words leave him. Stunned is not a word that Pike would normally use to describe someone as quick-witted as Scanlan, but it seems apt. She arches a brow, but before she can ask, he clears his throat and glances down at his person. “What? Too much?”

“Not enough,” Pike shoots back easily. She steps up close enough to grasp a shoulder of his shirt and pinches the fabric. Silk, of course. “You know…Lavender is my favorite album of yours.”

“Really? I pegged you as the Royal sort,” Scanlan comments, leaning into her touch when she smoothes out her hand on his shoulder. “You always surprise me.” The statement punctuates with a quirk of his lips and the placing of a hand on the counter right above where her hip touches. Pike knows a Move – capital ‘M’ Move – when she sees one, and, after one last appreciative pat, she breezily removes her hand from his shoulder. Scanlan takes the hint. He sighs as he turns back to the mirror and resumes his earlier presumed preening. “About the outfit – if you don’t mind. Not enough? More chest, maybe?”

Is there more chest he can show without it being illegal?

Now, that's a thought.

(and, a fun experiment for later.)

Pike bites back a laugh and says as evenly as she can,“No, no, I think we’ve plenty of that. I – Well, Vex and I were kinda hoping for the leather pants.”

With a comb now in hand, Scanlan’s eyes never leave the mirror as he coifs his hair and replies,“Funny story: I don’t actually own any leather pants, personally. They’re more of a tour costume.”

“Really?" Pike sighs melodramatically, leaning back against the counter with a pout. She catches Scanlan, still combing away, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. She intensifies the pout. "Not even one pair?”

That gives him pause, and his combing becomes second priority to casting her a bright smile. “For you, Pikey? I‘m sure I could arrange something…”

Flirting – Pike thinks as she scrunches up her nose at him and Scanlan twirls his comb, a wink not far behind – it’s what Scanlan does.

Pushing aside the truly ridiculous pile of brushes and combs next to the sink, Pike hops up to sit on the counter. Soon enough, Grog will stomp up the stairs to look for them and whine about the wait, but for now, she takes the chance that she has to be alone with Scanlan. Partially because she enjoys his company and has barely seen him today except for breakfast this morning. Mostly because he always turns up the dramatics when she's around, and that's a game she loves to play.

“So – no leather pants, but…What about some eye makeup?" She baits, reaching across the sink to grab the makeup bag she spies. "You definitely need some extra flair, and I can do a mean smoky eye.”

“You – ” A half-smile crests on Scanlan’s face. “Well, not to be forward, dearest Pike, and correct me if I’m wrong, but are you asking to do my makeup?”

With a grin that twitches towards impish, Pike lifts the bag in her hand so that it is within Scanlan's eyeline and slowly unzips it. A look crosses Scanlan's features then, a 'maybe I shouldn't encourage this' type of look. Pike’s grin widens.

“Why, yes, I am, Scanlan,” she replies cheerfully. She drops her gaze and the bag to her lap as she pulls out his palettes and brushes.

A smoky eye might be a little much, she considers, but he definitely needs something with a touch of drama – to fit his personality. Oh! With accents of purple. She can see he has a color that would match his shirt perfectly. She looks back up at Scanlan, while popping open covers and testing the bristles of brushes, and comments off-handedly,“If that’s alright with you, of course…”

“Of course,” Scanlan parrots back immediately, previous apprehension forgotten it would seem. He discards his comb to the side with a flick of his wrist. “I want to look the part for your friends, after all. You are far more aware of their aesthetics than me.”

For a few terrifying but hilariously so moments, Pike imagines the glorious horror that would be Scanlan successfully meshed with all of her friends’ aesthetics. Flashes of flower crowns, dark lips, less sleeves, and more black everything cycle through her mind like a bad clipshow. “Oh no – ” She giggles behind a hand. “This is entirely for my benefit, but – ” She places a hand on Scanlan’s arm and pulls him closer to stand between her knees. “I promise they will still enjoy this.”

“I have complete faith in you.”

A creeping sensation wriggles up the back of Pike's neck. Scanlan's hand, which was innocently placed upon her knee a few seconds ago, has begun to climb. Without looking up from where she is sorting through the makeup or missing a beat, she chirps around a smile,"On the counter, please."

"Right. Yep. That's what I was doing."

"Mmhmm..."

Placing aside the eyeliner for now, Pike double checks the eyeshadow color she’s chosen by holding it up next to Scanlan’s shirt.

Yep – good to go!

With a grin and a wiggle, she takes Scanlan’s chin in hand and gently curls her fingers along his jaw to hold him still. Not that she has to do so. He barely reacts when she presses the brush against his left eyelid. She imagines that he must be used to being made up by this point. What with the touring and the costumes and the, well, makeup. A flicker of disappointment catches in her chest. Scanlan is drama and flirting and not – this. Still. Calm. Serene, of all words comes to her mind. The word ‘unnerving’ follows soon after.

Hoping, she moves her hand further up and cups his cheek. His eyelids flutter. His jaw works. A pause – then Pike feels the warm gust of his breath on the inside of her wrist. Satisfied, she gives his cheek a soft pinch and, when he cracks open an eye, she happily resumes her work as if nothing happened. The crinkle of Scanlan’s smile causes an unexpected wrinkle in her work, but she quickly smudges it away with a thumb, too pleased to be bothered by it.

As she nears the end of her eyeshadow work, she places a coaxing hand on his hip and pulls him in closer to be sure of the details.

Their closeness in the moment is not awkward. It's really not.

Until it is.

Scanlan braces himself with his hands on either side of her body to keep steady. A huff of surprised laughter ghosts across her skin, and the shiver that washes down Pike’s spine is, uh...unexpected. The whirl of the overhead fan feels closer, and - How did she not notice that before? Was it always this loud? Shifting in attempt to ease the rising tension in her shoulders, she hastily finishes.

“Good?” She asks, moving her hand away from his face and leaning back.

Still braced against the counter, Scanlan leans over to glance in the mirror.

“Amazing,” he says. He tilts his chin this way and that to better admire the angles of her work. “Not as over-the-top as I thought you were going to go."

"You thought I might David Bowie you and you still let me near your face?"

"Who am I to pass up an opportunity like this?" Scanlan replies with an easy smile. He does not mention the closeness, but Pike knows he means the closeness. Also, the touching, probably. The fan still sounds way too loud around her. "Anyway, even if you did, I'm sure it would be equally amazing. I could expect nothing less of you."

“I used to do my friend, Keyleth’s, makeup all the time before we went to school dances and such, so – not to boast or anything, but yeah, I’m pretty good,” Pike explains while grabbing up the eyeliner pen.

“Keyleth…,” Scanlan tests the name, considering it. “Will she be there tonight?”

"She will.” Pike moves back in, taking a moment and a breath before she places her hand on his cheek. “Good to go?”

“For you? Always.” Pike anticipates the wink that follows but laughs anyway.

Despite the eyeliner pen’s close proximity to his eye, Scanlan finds the courage to divide her attention by asking, “If you don’t mind…Grog gave me a rough idea, but do you have some advice for me regarding your friends?”

Pike takes a moment before answering. “Some advice? You mean how to handle them.”

“Precisely!”

“Well – ” Pike trails off. “Let’s start with the basics, right? There’s the twins, Vex and Vax. Vex is the girl. Vax is the boy. There’s no clever way to remember the difference. You just gotta try your best. Keyleth – tall, red hair – I’ve known her since…geez, kindergarten? A long time! Oh, and Percy. He’s married to Vex. Glasses, white hair, looks like he’s always trying to figure something out. Can’t miss ‘im.”

Scanlan’s head nods slightly as she lists off her friends, his brow scrunching as if he’s mentally cataloguing all he can. Which is equal measures endearing and risky considering their current activity. For the benefit of his face, aka not wanting to smudge eyeliner all across it, she completes the preliminary draft of her masterwork before continuing:

“Now, what you really want to know…The twins are probably gonna try dressing alike, switch places, you know, twin stuff. Keep them in check, and there won’t be a problem. Keyleth…she’s gonna be a little bit starstruck at first which will cause her to ramble which she does a lot. A lot. Don’t lose track of her train of thought!”

Scanlan is nodding again, Pike notes. His deep brown eyes, now able to focus on her without the fear of any makeup implements coming towards them, are bright and eager, like a straight ‘A’ student at the front of every class, ready to learn. Pike leans forward, places a hand on his shoulder, and offers him a teasing smile. “Would you like to take notes?”

“I know you’re teasing me, Pikey,” he replies with playful indignation. “I assure you. I will be able to remember.”

“Oh – kay,” Pike placates, patting his shoulder. She waits another moment, eyeing him expectantly, but he holds resolute. “Well..Where were we? Right – Percy! So, Percy’s a little…odd…but smart but calculating – in a generally amiable way. Listen – what I mean to say is that he’ll probably ask you a lot of, let’s say, fielding questions. Just answer as best you can and remember that he’s only half as inscrutable as you think he is.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it!”

Scanlan hums, a cocky grin overtaking his features. “Doesn’t sound too hard…,” he muses. “To be honest, I’ve been given worse rundowns before Big Music parties, but…,” his expression shifts towards – Pike nearly doesn’t believe it – coy. “If you would do me the honor of remaining by my side for the evening, I would be much obliged.”

“What? Afraid they’ll eat you alive at the first show of weakness?”

Scanlan laughs. “Gods, I hope not! Still, if I need an out – I won’t, but if I do, Grog would be too busy laughing at me to help. However, you – I trust that you’ll get me out.”

“You don’t think I’ll also laugh?” Pike asks, adding on sweetly, “I love laughing.”

“Oh, no, you will. It’s just that you’ll also help me.”

Oh. A warm swirl in her chest follows his words. She’s supposes she’s – What’s the right word?...Charmed? She glances off, just to let him stew. (And to let herself have a moment, but that’s a whole thing). “Well – ” She fiddles with the eyeliner, twirling it around her knuckles. “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask. I want to make a good first impression, after all, and I can’t do that if I make a fool of myself. I mean, I won’t – ”

“ – Of course – ”

“ – But, if I do – ”

Scanlan’s hands drum against the counter. An anxious wobble catches in the wide curl of his smile. He’s nervous, she realizes. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen him be that. She didn’t think he was capable of it. Too endeared to resume her teasing, she waits until his gaze meets hers and says,“As soon as I finish laughing, I’ll have your back.”

Scanlan relaxes. He goes to speak, but Pike cuts him off. “Now, hold still, I need to do the finishing touches before Grog storms the bathroom out of sheer boredom.”

As if on cue, an unmistakable stomp of footsteps sounds down the hallway. Pike blinks and the space where Scanlan once occupied is empty. He stands beside her, back before the sink, rubbing his chin and admiring himself, just as Grog appears in the doorway. He looks pleadingly at them. When neither she nor Scanlan react accordingly, he heaves an exaggerated sigh and grumbles,

“I’m bored. Are you guys ready yet?”

Pike shares a look with Scanlan, who glances down at the eyeliner still in Pike’s hands. She smiles.

“Yeah, Grog, give us just a sec.”

☼ ☼ ☼

“Oi, Pike.”

Scanlan stops her as she heads out of the bathroom. He looks ridiculous, stood there by the sink in a lavender shirt with eyeshadow to match, somehow making it work, but Pike holds back her giggles long enough to nod to him.

“You look stunning.”

Oh.

Pike waits for the lackadaisical shrug, the ‘by the way’, the buffering comment that keeps his flirting from becoming too real.

It does not come.

Wordlessly, Pike ducks her head, twirls, and hurries from the room.

☼ ☼ ☼

The chosen bar of the night sits on the opposite edge of town from the Trickfoot household, closer to the main departing highway. It's the first alcoholic line of defense the town has, as Wilhand always likes to say. Unlike the more modern bars within the heart of the downtown, The Sunkissed Tavern has seen some years and the patrons can occasionally (usually) be less than savory, but, as far as Pike and the gang are concerned, that only adds to its merit and character. It's where Pike had her first (legal) drink, and where Grog, instead of hosting in Vasselheim, held his first win's celebration party. As such - and maybe also just a little bit because the owner sometimes gives them free drinks to encourage their loyalty - it's been their go-to spot for years.

Thanks to Scanlan's grooming habits and Pike's enabling of said grooming habits by doing his makeup, they're a good 20 minutes late.

Grog swings his truck into the first parking spot he sees. Curious, Pike peeks out the window at the yellow line that they are very clearly overlapping. Her brother's driving habits have always been a bit...wayward. She remembers riding in the backseat during his student driving years, cheering and laughing while Papa Wilhand tried his very best to teach Grog the basics. Mostly, he prayed to Sarenrae constantly with a wild, cornered look in his eyes.

Pike turns to inform her brother of his line violation, but before she can, he throws open his door, narrowly missing the car next to them, and bolts to the bar entrance.

As she gathers up her purse to follow, Scanlan leans onto the divider next to her from the backseat.

"He does realize that I need to be there for him to introduce me, right?"

When Pike looks to Scanlan, she sees the same fondly amused love that she feels, that she imagines must be mirrored on her own face. Not for the first time since his arrival and certainly not for the last, Pike is glad that Scanlan is here. A feeling warms in her chest, and –

A muffled cheer, one that sounds distinctly like it probably came from her brother, comes from the bar. Pike breaks her attention from Scanlan, laughing,

"We better hurry before we ruin his punchline."

☼ ☼ ☼

As it turns out, they step into the bar right on cue:

" – an international pop star legend and my best friend, The Scanlan Shorthalt!" Grog announces, arms outstretched.

One problem: they're stood behind him.

Follow-up problem: they're both small enough – and Grog big enough – that no one can see them.

There's a moment, a pause, some murmurs.

With a stage-whisper of "Scanlan?" and a side-step, Grog spots them. A delighted gasp provides the comedic overlay needed to mask his quick scramble to resume his former posture of ‘valiant presenter’, back straight and chin high, as he gestures to Scanlan, pleased as can be. Or, he tries to gesture to Scanlan, but Pike is the closest to him. With a good-natured shrug, Pike passes on the gesture to Scanlan, who, like a true performer, bows.

"Good evening, it is an honor to be had!" Scanlan says, smiling to the room. “Now – I understand that you've all got your questions and, I'm sure, phones ready for selfies, but I humbly ask that I be afforded this night to be viewed as one of you. I have some very important friends to meet, who deserve my full attention, and I wish to give it to them! But – I promise we’ll have time to be acquainted in the weeks to come.”

Weeks? Scanlan has never specified an amount of time that he will be staying before now, and...Weeks? Pike is not sure what she expected, considering all the suitcases and his great dedication this morning to learning how to work their faulty coffeemaker, but it still surprises her. Scanlan will – Well, she should temper her expectations some – could be here for weeks...That thrills a smile to her lips.

Scanlan ends his speech with a wave of his hand and a dip of his head. “I thank you all for your courtesy in advance.”

Murmurs crop up about the bar. Heads leaned close together as people cast glances their way.

Grog places a hand on Pike's shoulder, and she quickly loops a hand around Scanlan's arm, as Grog leads them to the table with a flourish.

All of their friends are sat at their usual spot: a large round table not far off from the bar counter. Close to the drinks. Close to the bartenders' hearts. Their expressions at the display are...Let’s say, comically varied. Keyleth, as Pike expected, is delighted. Her hands are clasped before her chest. Her eyes are bright. At her side is Vax and, two seats to his right, Vex, and they wear equal but slightly varying shades of amusement. Twins, as always, in all things. Percy, sat (surprisingly) in between the twins, is – well, appraising.

"Everybody." Grog stops before the table, chin still high from pride. "This is my buddy, Scanlan."

"So, we've heard," Vex says, chin atop laced fingers. She unwinds her posture to gesture to the open seat next to her. “Here, Scanlan. I saved you a seat."

"But, I – "

“Aw, come now, don't be greedy, Grog. I imagine you've had him all day. Let us have some fun."

Pike offers her brother a sympathetic smile as she walks past, Scanlan still on her arm. "Why don't you get us some drinks, Grog?"

Grog grumbles but takes down everyone's orders regardless. While he's gone, Pike and Scanlan settle in their seats. The introductions are quick with Pike beginning to offer names before Scanlan eagerly hops in to finish the job for her. He keeps control of the conversation, turning to Vax once the pleasantries are done.

“I’ve been told your full name is Vax’ildan. Is that correct?”

“It is,” Vax replies, brow furrowing. “Why do you ask?”

Scanlan leans forward in his seat. “You wouldn’t happen to know a Shaun Gilmore, would you?”

“Yes...” Vax says slowly, guarded. “He was one of my first customers when I opened my shop. I helped refurbish some antiques for his business...” Vax eyes Scanlan. “He’s your costume designer, right?”

“He is!” Scanlan grins. “See – yes, I knew you must be the Vax’ildan he always mentions.” He lowers his voice then, as if sharing a secret. “He speaks very highly of you.”

“What? Vax! You know Shaun Gilmore?” Keyleth gasps. “And, you never told us!”

“I –” Vax clears his throat. The tips of his ears have gone red, and Pike has rarely seen Vax flustered. He’s more of a cool, rolls with the punches type of guy. So – this....She cannot help but snicker. “It’s not that I never told you. Vex knows, and – My relationship with him’s just a, a – it’s in a different aspect of my life, so...”

Scanlan looks beyond delighted to have already, within less than two minutes, reduced one of her friends to stammering. Pike almost feels bad enough to hop in and spare Vax any further grilling, but Vex beats her to the punch.

“As much as I love watching my brother squirm, and I do very much, let’s talk about you, Scanlan…”

“Gladly, Vex!” Scanlan shifts in his seat to face her now. He’s singling out the twins, Pike realizes, making sure he pins down which one is which. “I am my preferred subject of conversation.”

“Wonderful! Let’s start easy, shall we? How is it that you know Grog exactly?”

Grog, who has since returned to the table with their drinks and taken his seat between Pike and Keyleth, brightens at the question and blurts out,”College! We were roommates.”

“That we were, big man!” Scanlan lifts his glass towards Grog and they cheers. “The two of us shared a room as wide as Grog is tall, which - before you ask - yes, we did confirm that,” he says with a grin. Grog nods along. “We were quite the pair. I wrote Grog’s essays for him, and he bought us shitty beer from the convenient store down the road. Ah, simpler times….” He’s wistful, staring more at his drink than those gathered. Pike is only half convinced he’s full of shit.

“You two dropped out at the same time, didn’t you?” Keyleth cuts in. She shrinks back when everyone turns to her, laughing nervously. “I mean – that’s what I read on the Internet once, or…maybe I heard an interview? Wait – Grog did you tell me that?”

Grog shrugs.

“It is the truth,” Scanlan confirms, back from whatever place his mind wandered off to. “I signed with my record label on the same day that Grog signed up for his first big competition. We even went to the admissions office to fill out the paperwork together. Right, Grog?”

“Yep! They were all real sad about us leaving.”

“More so you than me, if I remember correctly. Those ladies couldn’t throw that paperwork at me faster.”

“Well, what can I say,” Grog preens,“The ladies love me.”

"How about Pike?" Vex asks, pulling the conversation back on track before Scanlan and Grog take to their banter and run with it. "When did you meet her?"

Scanlan looks to Pike, but she simply tilts her head and returns the look expectantly. "Yes, when did we meet, Scanlan?"

"Orientation week, of course," he answers briskly. "You came with Wilhand to help Grog move into the dorm. And, if I remember correctly, it was just before you started dying your hair. You asked my opinion on what color I thought would be cool."

She had. With Grog leaving for college and the whole fabric of her life seeming to shift, she had wanted a change. She asked everyone what they thought would look best. Scanlan was the first one to suggest - "You told me deep purple."

"You have to admit, it was a good idea. Everyone was already used to your dark hair, so something similarly dark but with a bit more punch to it...It would look - "

"Electric!" Keyleth exclaims. "That's what Pike always told us."

Scanlan's jaw drops, and Pike remembers - Right. She never told him. "What? What's this?" Scanlan glances from Keyleth back to Pike, his eyebrows raised. "You actually dyed it purple?"

Shrugging sheepishly, Pike says,"Yes and no. I only got highlights at first. Papa Wilhand was already faint at the mere idea of me dying my hair at all."

"You have to show me pictures! You have pictures, right? What a discovery! I, Scanlan Shorthalt, influenced The Pike Trickfoot to make a risky delinquent decision."

"I was 15," Pike laughs even as she pulls out her phone. "It wasn't that hard and hardly delinquent."

When Pike finds a sufficiently embarrassing photo saved on her phone that she'd planned to use for a future #ThrowbackThursday, Scanlan leans into her side to see. His hand rests on hers around the back of the phone as he adjusts its angle. Pike takes in his expression, the whole bright-eyed wonder of it, and says,

"I might have another one..."

"Oh, please, do show me!"

"Okay, okay," she pacifies. "Lemme see."

Scanlan does not move as she swipes through her phone. It takes a moment, but she finds another one of her and Keyleth at their school's homecoming football game, huddled together on the bleachers for a picture because what else does one do at a high school football game?

"That's Keyleth, I assume?"

"What? I wanna see!" Pike blinks. Oh, right, the others. She turns just in time to see Keyleth lean across the table, neverminding that she has to reach across Grog, and peek over her other shoulder. "Oh no," Keyleth groans. "Look at me! I still had my braces back then."

Across the table, Vax calls,"Well, don't keep it all to yourselves. Pass it around!"

Vex shoots Pike a look as Scanlan – with Pike’s shrugged permission – reluctantly passes the phone to Vex with a drawn sigh. It’s one of her least favorite looks to receive from Vex. One that stirs dread: A knowing one. Whatever it is Vex thinks she knows, Pike doesn’t want to know! Or think about. Or acknowledge.

Grabbing up her drink and swigging it, she lets the sounds of the others’ laughter fade into the background as she turns to Scanlan and returns the attention to where it belongs,

"Why don't you tell the others about the time Grog and you harbored a fugitive in your dorm room?"

"First of all, it was a duck. Second of all, its name was Fugitive, because we thought it would be funny. Which it was...."

☼ ☼ ☼

They're one and a half drinks in. Scanlan, upon finishing a rousing retelling of the signing of his record deal where he made a team of lawyers in their fancy suits paddle out into the middle of a lake in paddle boats (because, you know, why not?), turns to Vex again.

"I heard from Grog that you're quite the dart master.” Vex gives a noncommittal hum, deep in her cup. Scanlan does not waver, only leans closer with a widening grin. “Wanna play a game against me? If you win, the next round’s on me."

Oh no. Pike places a hand on Scanlan's arm. "Uh, Scanlan, maybe that's not - "

“And, what do you get if you win?" Vex leans forward, already halfway out of her seat. "A kiss on the cheek, perhaps?"

"Well," Scanlan chuckles. "Who would I be to refuse such a boon?"

Vax promptly chokes on his drink.

"Then, make it a round for the whole bar, and you're on, little man," Vex crows and shakes the hand that Scanlan offers to seal the deal. She pointedly ignores her brother's sputtering and her husband's echoing laughter, sweeping her hair over her shoulder and striding towards the dartboard in the far left corner beyond the bar.

Pike grabs Scanlan's hand as he gets up to follow her. "Are you sure about this? I promised to save you from embarrassment, so I feel compelled to warn you: She's very good at darts."

"I’m counting on it,” he says with a clever sweep of his eyes towards the corner where Vex has begun to gather up the darts. Pike’s brow furrows, but Scanlan simply squeezes her hand before pulling away. "Don't worry. I know what I'm doing," he calls over his shoulder to her, grinning.

Though she has a number of doubts and questions about the accuracy of that statement, Pike lets him go to his doom with a shake her head. She downs what's left of her drink to prepare for the new one she'll be getting soon on Scanlan's tab, encourages the betting pool Vax proposes, and settles in for the show.

☼ ☼ ☼

Despite a surprising out-of-the-gate bull’s eye from Scanlan, Vex wins handedly.

A chorus of cheers and jeers follows Scanlan as Vex ushers him to the bar to pay his dues. Never one for half measures, Scanlan makes a grand show of placing a number of bills on the marred surface of the counter, casting a show smile to the bar floor as he does so. Vex takes one look at the bills and walks back to the table with a bark of laughter. The main bartender, a surly man with a sour mouth, takes one look and nearly chokes.

"That'll be enough, then?" Scanlan asks brazenly. The bartender offers a numb nod and Scanlan leans forward, whispering and pointing back towards their table. When the bartender scurries off, Scanlan turns back to the bar with his showman's grin firmly locked in place: "Have at it then, friends! Whatever you like. It's on me."

A wave of chatter sweeps across the bar as people crowd the bar for their free drinks, and Pike loses sight of Scanlan in the swarm. Taps fill glass after glass. Mixed drinks are artfully crafted. Top shelf bottles are passed down from the shelf. Pike might have worried for Scanlan’s wallet if the first words out of Vex’s mouth upon her return hadn’t been – “Half a grand, clean”.

As the conversation about their table picks up again, Pike keeps an eye out for Scanlan. He walks out of the crowd some minutes later with two glasses in hand.

“There he is!” Vax calls. With his hands sweeping away from his body in a welcoming gesture, Vax rises from his seat and slaps Scanlan on the back. The movement jostles Scanlan, shakes his features into something resembling panic, but he dives for the table and places the drinks before they spill.

Never once does his smile waver.

“Easy there, tiger,” Scanlan croons. He flashes Vax that unbeatable smile. “We haven’t even discussed a safe word yet.”

Vax winks. Vex groans. “Gross,” but her laughter soon follows. The rest of the table, in similar good cheer, reacts with their own mixtures of fondly amused exasperation. Pike breathes deep around a wide smile of her own.

They like him.

Nearly two hours in and he’s already charmed his way into their hearts. To varying degrees, she’s sure, but still – She’s glad, and she can’t explain why that matters so much.

She’s glad, and she’s more than glad to hide her brightening smile under the pretense of amusement as Vex (kindly, or as kindly as Vex can manage in these situations) badgers Scanlan about his oh-so-tragic loss.

“You almost had her, buddy,” Grog insists with a pouted sniff. He waves a hand in Vex’s direction as if to shoo further insult to his friend’s honor.

Scanlan, to his credit, throws his head back and laughs away both injury and confidence. “Now, now, I lost and that’s that. Though, I do appreciate the vote of confidence, Grog, as undeserved as it may be.” He shrugs a shoulder. A moment later his shining attention is back to Vex. “I know a clean sweep when I see one.”

Vex straightens in her seat, flattered. “Well – Thank you.”

“I perhaps should have warned you. She takes archery classes," Percy says companionably from Vex’s side. Unsurprisingly – he has not spoken much all night. Surprisingly – companionable is not an adjective Pike finds easy to pin to his manner of speech. Yet, there the word is at the front of her mind as Scanlan leans forward at her side, elbow braced against the table. Pike feels her body mirror the movement.

“Yes, that would have been helpful, but – Ah, it’s alright.” Scanlan slides one of the glasses in his hands over to Pike, eyes never breaking from Percy. “A few drinks are nothing off my back."

"Where's our drinks, darling?" Vex asks.

"Unmade, at the bar, I assume."

"Aw, but you brought Pike a drink!" Keyleth pouts.

"Yeah, because Pikey and I are kindred spirits."

Scanlan turns to regard her, expectant upon her approval, and – Hm. Now, the smart choice here would be to chastise Scanlan. Dissuade him from any path of favoritism towards her lest she never hear the end of it from Vex, but…"Yep, true, we are." Listen – with Scanlan offering free drinks and showing himself more than willing to personally deliver them to her – how could she refuse?

Vex’s surely – ugh – knowing stare burns into her, but Pike takes an eager sip from her glass to escape. At least for a second or, if she just tilts her head back a bit more, maybe a minute.

Bless Percy then, for all his relentless scrutiny, he is not done with Scanlan yet. He reaches across the table to offer his hand. "I realize that we were introduced but not formerly. Percival de Rolo."

Vex’s lilting voice follows. "Call him Percy."

“de Rolo,” Scanlan repeats, a faint twitch of recognition passing across his features. The wrinkle is quickly smoothed away by an easy smile as he clasps Percy’s hand in his own and shakes it vigorously. “Yes, yes! You’re the one married to the lovely Vex’ahlia, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You are not.”

“You are quite the lucky man – “

“ – Thank you – ”

“ – I don’t imagine life with her gets boring very often.”

“No, it does not, but…I am better for it.” Percy sputters as Vex bumps her shoulder into his, a spatter of laughter circling the table at his expense, but his recovery is quick. With a slight smile in his wife’s direction, he adjusts his glasses and returns to Scanlan, mouth half-open with a fully realized inquiry. Scanlan is quicker.

“You own a repair shop, yeah? I’d love to stop by and see your set-up sometime.”

Percy blinks. His brow furrows while his lips twist. “I do.” A hesitating pause. “Would you?”

It’s fascinating, really. Percy is by no means a master conversationalist, but Pike’s seen him talk circles around other potential initiates to their friend group. He did it to her the first time that they had a proper sit down once she was deemed ‘Vex’s friend’. It’s just a thing he does. Protective, in a weird way but also in a way that one cannot help but find weirdly endearing.

Now, however, Scanlan talks and asks and parries Percy’s every attempt to take control of the conversation. And, the rest of the table watches in amazement equal to hers. Grog doesn’t even argue when he’s sent off to collect on those free drinks a few minutes into the action, asking only to be informed of what he missed upon his return.

It is only Keyleth’s eventual whine of – “Awh…my drink is gone” that ends the match. As cool as you like, Scanlan shifts his attention to her, glowing smile and all, and offers to get another one. On him, of course. Oh – and is there anyone who he can treat while he is at it? It’s the least he can do after so gravely ignoring them these past – What? Half hour? How time flies!

Percy sighs once Scanlan’s gone, leaning heavily into a hand. “He’s…something.”

Pike nods, oddly giddy. “He is.” She cannot help but ask. “Good or bad?”

“We’ll see.” Percy smiles elusively as he sips his since neglected drink. “You could certainly do much worse.”

Vex snickers behind a hand, and Pike flushes.

“I have no idea what you could possibly mean…”

☼ ☼ ☼

“Your drink, my fine lady.”

Scanlan returns with Keyleth’s drink and presents it with a flourish. With her hands clasped before her chest, eyes aglow and smile wide and toothy, Keyleth takes it from him with only a few seconds of giggle-interrupted rambling.

“This is so cool!” She gushes. “The Scanlan Shorthalt bought me a drink.” She turns to Grog and Pike, hands flying about as she tries to remember what to do with them. Not smiling at the display would be impossible, so Pike doesn’t even resist the infectious glee. “This is so cool, right?”

“Totally cool,” Pike echoes.

Scanlan slides back into his seat, one hand placed firmly upon his heart. “Please, ladies, you flatter me!” He casts them an expectant look. “Go on, of course. I would despair to stop you.”

Pike tries and fails to muster a scoff. Keyleth full-on reels with bubbly giggles.

“Can I say, Mr. Shorthalt? Oh – Scanlan, I mean. Sorry. I don’t know why I called you ‘Mr. Shorthalt’…That was weird. Anyway! I want to say, if it’s alright, that I adored your most recent album, Lavender. It’s amazing! Transcendental!” Keyleth, all movement, pauses to suck in a breath. Pike spares a glance in Scanlan’s direction to see that he watches Keyleth with a keen eye, nodding every now and then. Smiling, broad and bright, of course. “Like, it felt kinda 80s but also modern! Yet, there’s totally some 70s influence in there too, and – No one ever believes me, but I swear there’s also some 90s Spice Girls vibes, too!” In a great breathless to-do, she finally slows. “Right?”

Scanlan does not hesitate a beat. “You are exactly right!” Keyleth grins. “The whole album’s concept was about transcending past time and genres and labels. As for the Spice Girls, you are quite astute to notice their influence. ‘Late Night Angel’, in particular, was heavily influenced by them.”

Keyleth gasps, reaching out a hand to grasp Pike’s arm. Pike jostles at the touch but casts her friend a fond glance in response. “Yes! That’s mine and Pike’s favorite song from the album!” Keyleth eyes her eagerly for support. “Right, Pike? We listen to it before we go out. Which – we don’t go out often because work or whatever, but when we do, that’s totally our party jam!”

Pike laughs. She expects Scanlan to take Keyleth at her word but is surprised to see him watching her intently. “It is,” she says quickly under his gaze. “The Spice Girls were my life and love growing up.”

Scanlan smiles. “I know.” Leaning back in his chair, he sips his drink, biding his time before stating simply,“I wrote it for you.”

Keyleth’s seat rattles with the force of her excitement as she all but jumps from her seat, a wordless exclamation drowning out the rest of the table’s truly kindergarten ‘oh’s and giggles.

“You did not,” Pike accuses in disbelief. Scanlan’s only written her one song, and that was years ago! Not that him writing her one song meant he could never write her another one, she supposes. There’s just…Well. Growing suspicious, she eyes his effortlessly cool demeanor and asks,“Did you?”

“Of course, I did,” and his smile takes a softer edge, a slight furrow forming in his brow as he speaks. Earnestly, she cannot help but feel. A flush burns across her cheeks, but she does not look away. Scanlan’s head gives a slight tilt before his trademark all-bright smile returns, and he turns to address the table once more. “I wrote a song for Grog on Lavender, as well. ‘Meet You There’. A sort-of predecessor to ‘Goliath Fight Song’ and a real crowd pleaser.”

Grog eagerly jumps on the change of topic, and the others follow. As everyone discusses their favorite songs, taking this opportunity while the floodgate is open to ask about different interpretations and oddly worded lyrics, Pike nurses her drink in deep thought.

‘Late Night Angel’ is about a girl in a town far away. “She loves her family, she loves her friends, she loves the concept of her life,” Scanlan explained once in an interview. “Still. She’s unhappy when the night comes, so she takes her sadness into her own hands and fights it.” He’d laughed then, a clear sign he was about to be decidedly less serious. “By challenging her sadness to dance-offs and drinking it under the table.”

She thinks less deeply about how he also said, in a different interview maybe (it’s hard to remember when she’s trying rather hard not to remember), that it was about a woman he loved but would never meet.

☼ ☼ ☼

By the time they get home, far too close to midnight to be good for her, Pike’s eyelids droop and threaten each moment to close for the night. Scanlan calls her cute as she grumbles and putters inside, close at her elbow as if expecting to catch her if she falls asleep misstep.

She doesn’t, thankfully.

She makes it all the way upstairs, brushes her teeth, changes into her pajamas, and crashes into bed.

Only to wake up some hours (minutes? Who knows!) later, dry-mouthed and feeling a tad dramatic about it.

Despite a liberal amount of denial and curling up in a ball under her sheets, the annoyance persists. She sighs and rolls out of bed.

The rest of the house is dark and quiet, with the minor exception of Grog’s loud snoring from down the hall. (May Sarenrae look kindly upon his poor future spouse and bless them with an endless supply of earplugs). Pike scuttles drowsily into the kitchen. She grabs for the glass cabinet, smacks her dry lips, and goes for a water bottle instead.

As she’s hunched over the sink, cheek resting on her arm and eyes drooping, a voice comes through the haze.

“Watering the hangover, I see.”

“Scanlan?” Pike lifts her head with minor grumbling. “Wha’s ya doin’ up?” Her nose scrunches. She tries again, with less words,“Hey.”

The bright, infectious smile from the hours before is absent. In its place is a smile much smaller, softened by sleep or something else. “Hey,” and a word that simple should not sound that fond, Pike thinks, that earnest. She searches his face, addled by sleep, but only sees him watching her back, unreadable. A moment later, his expression shifts. He points towards the sink. “Umm…”

Water spills across Pike’s hand, startling her. “Oh, shit,” she exclaims, pulling the water bottle back from under the stream and turning off the faucet. She offers a sheepish smile and mutters, “Sorry. A little sleepy…”

“Understandable.” Scanlan’s voice is a low whisper. He grabs one of the many dishrags strewn on the counter and hands it to her. “It was quite a night.”

Pike nods absent-mindedly as she dries up the watery mess she made of her hand and water bottle. Once done, she tosses the rag aside and leans heavily against the counter, taking a large swig. She feels a bit like a drunken pirate, swaying against the starboard railing with a flask in hand, except with more hydration and the ocean is her sink.

When she looks back to Scanlan, he’s looking back at her.

She points to the sink. “Did you need…?”

Scanlan shakes his head. His hair is loose from product. Strands curl around his ears and shift with the movement of his head, looking invitingly soft. She steps closer. “No, that’s alright. I just,” he trails off as his gaze drops to sweep the floor. Head slanted forward to make out his whispered words, Pike moves closer still. “I wanted to thank you for tonight. Grog and you are lucky to have such a lovely bunch of friends.” Pike steps on his foot as she moves in, and his words fade into muted laughter. With a hand on his shoulder, Pike smiles as Scanlan reaches out to help steady her.

“They are pretty great,” she agrees and leans into his touch. “I imagine you must have your own wild gang, so you gotta promise to introduce me someday, too.”

“Hm?”

“Being in the music industry and all.”

Scanlan’s expression is shrouded, turned away from her before she can make it out. When he turns back that infuriatingly easy smile of his has a firm hold on his expression. “Of course.”

Pike hums lowly and sways. “I should go to bed,” she admits. Her eyelids flutter, and in the brief sleepy static, she hears Scanlan’s laughter spark but fizzle out just as quick.

“Come on, I’ll help you back to your room.” His hand moves to her back, but when she pulls away, it drops without question.

She gives an answer anyway. “No, I gotta,” she gestures towards the living room. “Papa Wilhand.” Whether or not her intention to check on Wilhand comes through is unclear. Scanlan nods, so communication definitely happened. Pike 1, Sleepiness 0.

“Alright,” he says but he lingers. Her hand still rests on his shoulder, she realizes, and she moves it with only a brief – so brief – battle of wills not to swipe a touch of his curls. As if she tethered him, he drifts a few steps back before turning and departing with that smile – the earnest.

As he ascends the stairs and she starts towards the darkened living room, she hears him gently call,“If I hear a thud, I’ll be back.”

Pike smiles.

Leaning against the door frame, Pike peeks into the living room towards Wilhand’s preferred sleeping spot: his lounge chair. Only he’s not asleep. Those kind eyes that raised her peer right back at her through the darkness, and Pike’s sheepish smile returns.

“I’m sorry. Did we disturb you?”

Wilhand chortles. “Hardly, my dear.” There is a pause. A contented sigh. “It warms my heart to see you well loved. Though I will admit…,” and he’s laughing again, truly delighted. Pike’s heart stutters, breaking her drowsy haze, as the meaning behind his words finds purchase with her. “He would hardly be my first choice for you.”

Casting a smile through the darkness, Wilhand asks, “Are you happy?”

Pike swallows down the emotions, too many of them warring at once for her to dare hope in naming one, and whispers,

“I am.”

Chapter Text

If anyone asks, Pike Trickfoot does not have a favorite Scanlan Shorthalt song. There’s far too many to choose from, and she thinks they’re all winners! Uniquely fun, heartfelt, and – at their best – whimsical.

The truth? Her favorite song is an unreleased track called “Sarenrae is My Wing(wo)man”. Scanlan sent it to her on her birthday two years back. And, by ‘sent it’, she means that he sent her a text saying: “Super, special secret call incoming. DON’T ANSWER!” and then left her a voice message of him playing.

By all means of judging music, it was atrocious.

Grainy voicemail quality. She could only make out a good 65% of the lyrics (something something look at this halo above my head something Sarenrae something “He’s cool! Go for it!”). He laughed more than sang, probably lending itself to the whole ‘unclear lyrics thing’.

Yet – that’s why she loved it.

Because back then and still now, she can hear the smile in his voice as he sings. See the wide, bright curl of it in her mind. Every time she plays it, shitty quality and all, she cannot help but smile as well – smile back at that image of him that lingers behind her eyes. Intimate. As if he’s right there, perched on the edge of her bed in her room or the edge of her desk in her office. Not close enough to touch, he’s always right out of reach, but still – There. Singing and smiling to her.

Up until last night, she thought it was the only song Scanlan had ever written for her.

It is, at least, the only one that’s truly hers.

☼ ☼ ☼

Pike rises early the next morning – awake but not fully rested. She wants optimistically to say that she received an adequate amount of sleep, but the tired thrum in her bones so at contrast with the seemingly chipper state of her mind leads her to believe she’s at more of, uh, ‘so tired her body has gone into reserve power mode’ level of sleep.

Ah, well…

Her morning prayer to Sarenrae consists mostly of thanking the graces that Kris is handling the brunt of the service today.

With great reluctance and no small amount of whining, she dresses and wanders downstairs.

No one else is around.

She peeks into the living room to see Wilhand snoring away in his armchair, and if not still sleeping, then Grog must have already gone off to the gym. She is no stranger to solo breakfasts, but the morning silence dampens her already flagging mood.

Out of a desire to avoid exerting any kind of extraneous effort (aka, any effort), Pike bypasses the stove and fridge, grabs a cereal box from the cabinet, and settles in a chair at the table. She places one foot on the chair next to her and the other squarely on her seat cushion so that she can use the space between her thigh and chest as a nice holder for the cereal box.

As she scoops handful after handful of dry froot loops into her mouth, Pike sleepily checks her phone. Knowledge of Scanlan’s presence in the house returns to her as she finds a new batch of gossip articles about him. Right. She wonders if he’s still sleeping or if Grog roped him into a trip to the gym. If the latter, she hopes Grog will take pictures to preserve the memory of Scanlan’s distress.

The articles, on the other hand, have no outstanding contemplations to offer. Just paparazzi sightings of him at the airport. Candids of him in his ridiculous pink shades and purple v-neck shirt. Some articles mention Grog and speculate on why Scanlan has gone to meet him. Some of them are even right – as far as she knows, if Scanlan really is here to just enjoy some time with an old friend.

As she’s cruising through them, she hears the sound of Grog descending the steps, whistling as he comes.

“Mornin’, Grog!”

Now, if she were not so sleepy (and mildly hungover), she might have realized that it was not the familiar stomp of her brother’s footsteps on the steps but a jaunty bounce and that the tune being whistled was not the familiar “Goliath Fight Song” but a mixture of something old and something new.

But, she realizes her mistake as soon as she looks up.

“…Oh.”

Scanlan Shorthalt stands at the foot the stairs, arms akimbo and smile wide. “Good morning, Pike!” He is dressed in a deep purple button down and pressed slacks. His hair is neatly slicked back and parted to one side. He looks kind of like the adult version of every little boy at the temple each Sunday that was clearly dressed by his mother.

Pike stifles a laugh.

“Hey, Scanlan.”

“I might make some eggs. You want some eggs?” Scanlan prattles as he passes her chair on the way to the coffee machine. “An omelet, maybe? Or something else…? I’m afraid I’m not too familiar yet with what you have around the kitchen.” He dutifully taps the side of the machine, as is necessary for it to do its job. “You should have a real breakfast before such a big day, and I’m a mean cook.”

“I’m alright,” Pike says around a mouthful of cereal.

Scanlan’s shrug is good-natured and his tone playful. “Suit yourself!”

Pike watches with growing amazement as Scanlan – sure enough – makes scrambled eggs, toasts some bread, and perfects a cup of coffee in a synchronized dance around the kitchen. All of it settles on the table space across from her, with Scanlan, cheerfully humming, sliding into the chair not long after.

He smiles and lifts his mug towards her. “To a good day!”

Pike stuffs another handful of cereal into her face.

“Whatcha doing up at this hour?” After a moment. “Willingly.”

“Going to church!”

Considering his outfit, Pike is not sure what she expected. It can’t be her fault, though! Scanlan, an international popstar sensation who nicknamed his dick ‘The Cube’ and wrote a whole song about it, does not read as a church-going man. “Well, that’s… Hm.” Then again, people could say the same about her: 5’1’’ amateur weightlifter who could probably bench press Scanlan’s whole person and is about to go into church, her work, hungover, so… “It’ll be nice to have you there,” is the sentiment she decides on. “But, you do know that the service doesn’t start for another hour and a half, right?”

Scanlan’s face falls. “I can’t go with you?”

“It won’t be very exciting.”

Scanlan’s lips purse. Pike assumes he’s fighting the urge to flirt-argue that there is no place where her and boredom coexist, but eventually, his features lighten once more and he chirps,“Then I shall just enjoy this quiet morning breakfast with you.”

It’s nice. Not quiet – Scanlan chatters on about Westruun’s cobbled market street that Grog showed him during the tour yesterday – but nice. She’s not used to overly conversational breakfasts. Wilhand sleeps late. Grog leaves early. Even if Grog is there, the conversation is light. So, this…Pike looks up at Scanlan. A loose curl has escaped its gelled binds and now hangs over his forehead. She smiles.

It’s nice.

She stays for longer than she intends, listening to him tell her about his tour of Gym Strongjaw and how the treadmill almost killed him. He told the same story last night. She doesn’t remind him, enjoys it just as much the second time around.

When the time can no longer be ignored, Pike reaches out and brushes Scanlan’s stray curl back into place.

He quiets, mid-sentence and red-cheeked.

She laughs.

“See you soon, choir boy.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Vax is the first familiar face to walk through the temple doors that morning. She sees him trotting dutifully up the steps as she’s opening them – a quarter past the hour before service, as always. Like her, he looks a bit worse for wear with dark circles under his eyes and a weary smile. Still – he makes it work. Pike hates him. Especially since, she knows she looks haggard as shit. Even Kris, bless his heart, did a double take when she walked in this morning.

Now, firmly kicking the doorstopper into place, Pike pushes past the tragedy of her face long enough to call,“Hey, stringbean!” She offers her quarry one last kick before eagerly turning and opening her arms for her hug. “Been a while since we’ve had you at mass two weeks in a row.”

“Hey, Pickle.” Vax smiles, close-lipped but warm. He hugs her, quickly but tight. “Well, I thought – Hey, you know what’s great after a night of drinking? Religion.”

“I mean…yeah…” Pike nods sagely. “That’s what I always say.”

They share a laugh before Pike’s attention diverts to the family of three coming up the path. As she clasps hands with the couple and smiles to their child, Vax slips into place at her side, where he stays while the rest of the parish slowly trickles through the doors and into the pews. They share brief banter in between greetings, including but not limited to Vax making fun of, what he calls, her ‘Cleric Voice’, a “cute, angelic” tone of voice she (apparently) adopts every time she’s addressing her people, and Pike testing out different nicknames on him (Celery Stick, Asparagus, Two McDonald’s French Fries Stacked on Top of Each Other).

During a particularly long lull, Pike asks,“So – any picking adventures in the wings?”

“Does Grog want another cask?” It’s a joke, or at least it has the quality of one, but Pike notes the sudden tension in Vax’s shoulders and the tightness of his smile.

Last week, Pike let Vax’s lie slip to allow her own to do the same. On Friday, Vax wanted her counsel but escaped before she could figure out why. Today, her eyes narrow as she reaches her long overdue decision. Vax, poor soul, notices, and his smile fades.

He knows.

The chase is on.

Or, rather, it would have been if Scanlan and Wilhand had not chosen that moment to come strolling up the pathway. Wilhand, who has his arm securely around one of Scanlan’s as a means of support as he walks, is talking animatedly to Scanlan. Nodding along encouragingly, Scanlan offers a reply still too distant for Pike to make out before he turns and waves to her.

“Morning, Pikey!” He calls across the distance, which closes slowly due to Wilhand’s shuffle. “I relieved Grog of his escort duties for the morning.”

The Trickfoot household has only two cars – Grog’s old, rumbling pickup truck and an old, sputtering Corolla that Pike and Wilhand share. Wilhand, due to his age and limited mobility, rarely has use for the car unless it is to drive down the block to the grocery store or up the hill to the temple, so Pike takes the car most days. As such, on Sundays, Grog closes the gym for an hour to pick up and escort Wilhand to the temple.

Grog never minds the driving, but Pike can see why he would happily hand off the escorting to Scanlan. Besides a couple of years in their youth, Grog has never set foot in the temple for a full service. Religion is not his forte. Attending church, sitting in the epicenter of it all, less so. Maybe because he doesn’t own any shirts with sleeves. Probably – something weightier and heavy. It’s not Pike’s place to wonder. Him discussing his reasons has never been necessary to Wilhand or her.

So, though her eyes instinctively glance towards the horizon to see if she can catch a glimpse of Grog’s bumper that she knows is long gone, she returns Scanlan’s eager greeting with one of her own:

“You know I was joking earlier about you being a choir boy, right?”

Scanlan, puffs up, proud or indignant – she can’t tell.

Wilhand replies in his place,“Perhaps not a choir boy, but he is certainly quite courteous. Entertaining an old man such as myself.” He pats Scanlan’s arm and smiles up at Pike. “Did you know he has a mansion?”

Pike does know Scanlan has a mansion. She visited once, briefly, with Grog when he first moved in. Rose petals covered the floor of her guest room. When she informed Scanlan that he must have forgotten to clean up after his last romantic escapade, Scanlan offered her another room in a flustered mumble – rose petal less but no less pretty.

She does not tell Wilhand this, however.

“Planning on a getaway?”

Wilhand guffaws. Scanlan has to steady him so that he doesn’t fall back down the steps they’ve already ascended.

And, it’s about this time that Pike remembers Vax.

She turns to address him, but – as expected, he’s gone.

☼ ☼ ☼

After the sermon finishes, those of the congregation without fussy children, drooping eyelids, or very important other business migrate to the temple basement. There, they mingle and talk over coffee and donuts. Pike always finds herself pulled every which way during these lingering hours. She hears about The Macksies’ new cat and The Silvers’ new health kick. The Littleknights, a sweet elderly couple, enthuse about their grandchildren who will be visiting for the spring festival in a couple weeks. A reminder that succeeds in giving Pike a minor crisis that she smiles through with practiced endurance.

She doesn’t see Vax, hasn’t since this morning on the steps, but she does see Scanlan.

He stands dutifully by Wilhand’s side. Her grandfather, being the former head cleric and founder of the temple, attracts plenty of well-wishers and passing ‘hello’s after services. Unlike her, bouncing from one side of the room to the other, they flock to him, and Wilhand has not moved from his seat by the snack table so neither has Scanlan.

And, while Wilhand talks on and on, Scanlan watches her, one arm across his torso to support his other arm as he lazily sips from his cup of organic apple juice – The Silvers’ contribution. Eyes always on her no matter when or how often she checks, and every time she catches his eye, he smiles and waggles his fingers around the curve of his cup.

Every time, Pike bites back her answering smile and turns away.

It takes another good half hour, but the crowd eventually thins enough that she can make her way over to him.

“Can I help you, sir?” She asks, teasingly sweet.

His cup has been empty for a while now, but Scanlan raises it to his lips. “Hm, depends.”

Pike rolls her eyes in fond exasperation. “On what?”

Scanlan shifts on his feet, pausing before he answers. Pike notes that he keeps his gaze glued to the rim of his empty cup, only peeking at her once his words are out between them, spoken in a mumbled rush,“Depending on if a walk sounds enjoyable to you.”

It does. Especially since being in this basement, locked in Cleric Mode, is really screwing with her head. How long has it been since she’s seen the sun? Hours? Years? Who knows? Still – the crowd may have thinned, but she can count a number of people with whom she has yet to speak. “Oh, well…”

Pike starts as, from his seat, Wilhand reaches out and places a hand on her arm. Blinking down at him with an apologetic smile, she moves to grasp his hand in hers and asks,“I’m sorry, Papa Wilhand. Do you need something?”

Wilhand raises an eyebrow at her and looks stern, or as stern as someone with a disposition as kind as his can muster. “What I need is for you to take a break, sweet pea,” he says and gently squeezes her hand. “All your running around. You’re making me exhausted! Go – get some fresh air. Enjoy some good company. I’ll handle the shepherding.”

Pike opens her mouth then closes it again. She glances at Scanlan, who lifts his cup and wordlessly excuses himself to the trashcan a few feet away. A distraction that gives Pike just enough to time to think – Fuck it.

No time like the present to just do whatever – that’s what she always says!

“Okay. Here – ” She passes her purse off to Wilhand, pocketing her phone. Wilhand accepts it as if it were a prized gift, hugging it close to him and smiling graciously and, oddly and slightly enough, triumphantly. “The car keys are in the front pocket. I’ll let Kris know you’ll be staying behind. Call Grog or me if you need anything, okay? And – ”

“Pike, Pike,” Wilhand calls around a laugh. “I’m old, not helpless.” He seems to consider for a second before adding at a mumble,“Slightly helpless, I suppose, but not so much as I am old. And, ain’t nothing we can do about that, hm?”

Derailed, Pike hesitates in the wake of everything she still has to say before swallowing hard. She manages a slight nod and a half-smile. “Right! I’m sorry…but I’m still letting Kris know.”

“Alright. I will concede that to you, dear. Now, go, go!” Wilhand shoos her off, eyes twinkling. “Don’t keep the poor boy waiting.”

“He’s a pop star. He could stand to learn patience,” Pike jests, but she places a kiss on Wilhand’s bald crown and hurries to the doorway where Scanlan waits.

He glances about the room. His arms are crossed. The fingers of one hand tap away on his other elbow, and he offers short-lived smiles to anyone who passes. He perks up when she approaches, arms dropping to his sides. “Ready to go?” Pike barely has time to chirp out a “yep” before he’s grinning slyly and teasing,“Any curfew that I should know about before we do?”

Pike punches his arm. Not even that – grazes it with a half-formed fist, but Scanlan winces and pouts out his bottom lip, nonetheless. Scrunching up her nose at him, she winks him a quick grin and starts up the stairs. Her grin softens and remains at the sound of Scanlan’s following footsteps behind her, staying as she takes him by her office to pick up the hiking boots she keeps there, which Scanlan tells her is cute and sensible but mostly cute, and deposit her flats and, afterwards, to find Kris. She only falls into step with him as they are heading out the front doors.

“So, did you have a destination in mind, or…?”

“No, no…” Scanlan gestures towards her hiking boots and chuckles. “I get the feeling you do, though.”

Pike smiles.

☼ ☼ ☼

The summer that Pike was 10 was a momentous one. In the winter, she’d gained a brother, not a younger one like she’d hoped for as a young one herself but an older one, a stronger one. Papa Wilhand let her go much further from home than he had before, as long as Grog went with her.

(After he got comfortable letting either of them out of his sight, that is.)

As spring warmed into summer, her new freedom meant better and greener playgrounds for Pike, and as a child as adventurous as she was, nothing could be better. Along with her friends – Keyleth, Allura, and Kima – she staged daily forays into the woods near the temple of Sarenrae, close enough to home that Papa Wilhand didn’t fret but far enough away to be thoroughly exhilarating.

Despite his initial reservations about hanging out with a “bunch of girls”, by the end of the first week, Grog had successfully kept Keyleth from falling off a cliff, convinced Allura to let him give her a piggyback ride home after she twisted her ankle even though she insisted she was fine, and beaten Kima at a rock throwing contest that earned him her respect.

By the end of the second week, they were inseparable.

Together, they found it: Greyskull Keep.

Pike found the trail, a slightly more beaten one off the main stretch. Keyleth went point, quoting heroically that her ancestral druidic blood would aid her. She chickened out five steps in and Kima led instead. Allura followed Kima and, somehow, avoided every stray branch that snagged everyone else. Grog, as always, stayed at the back of the group; he never lost sight of any of them that way.

At the end, they found an old lookout point. There were bricks laid in the ground, worn and half-buried in dirt, and a musty bench closer to the edge but still just within the tree line. Kima stopped short, but Pike burst forth. She ran past the bench, skidding to a stop mere feet from the edge. The wind blustered against her face, drowning out Grog’s yelp for her to be careful, and she laughed.

“I’m fine!” She shouted, giddy. She took in the view, the entire town stretched out below her before the houses faded into the eastern mountain range, and whispered,“More than fine.”

The others joined her. Grog then Kima and Allura with Keyleth clutching at both of their sleeves.

None of them spoke.

Kima was the first but only once they were well on their way back down the mountain. A simple excited – “I bet no one’s been there in years.”

They came back every day afterwards that summer and for many days in the years to come.

☼ ☼ ☼

The Temple of The Everlight rests upon a hill, the highest architectural point of Westruun, a brisk 15 minute walk from The Trickfoot household, and some 30 minutes from there, up into the tree line, is the western preserve’s lookout point – better known as Greyskull Keep. There is a shorter route from her family’s house. Pike and her friends went up to the point enough times to find every possible path there and back, but Pike always walks the one from the temple. If only for nostalgic reasons.

She tells Scanlan as much as they cross the parking lot to the trailhead.

He blanches and whispers,“30 minutes?” His expression glosses over, slightly haunted. “What if I die?”

Scanlan.

“Will you carry me back in your arms?”

Pike shrugs coyly and continues past him onto the trail. “Just follow my lead, okay? You’ll be fine.”

“That wasn’t a ‘no’!” Scanlan singsongs, but she hears his good mood waver soon after as he issues a short, low whine before jogging to catch up with her.

Out here, breeze winding through the leaves and insects abuzz, she cannot hear his footfalls over the heavy stomp of her own. Her disappointment only lasts as long as a handful of trees as, when the trail grows particularly bumpy, a tingle zips up her spine at the looming presence of his hand close to her back as if he plans to grab a pinch of her dress for guidance. It withdraws as the trail evens out – as much as a hiking trail can – and she hears him say:

“Your sermon today was beyond words.” He sounds a tad dreamy, but maybe it’s breathlessness from the incline. “Though, I have a few choice ones, if you would like to hear them.”

My sermon?” Pike holds back a laugh. “I spoke for maybe 15 minutes. If you should be regaling anyone with choice words, it’s Kris.”

“Oh, I did!” Scanlan exclaims. When Pike peeks back at him, his eyes are on the ground as he carefully considers each uneven step in his polished dress shoes. Pike almost suggests they turn around and simply take a stroll around the block, but Scanlan’s face is scrunched in determination. She allows herself a small, private smile as she turns her attention back to her own footholds. Behind her, Scanlan continues,“Him and his wife introduced themselves. A lovely couple! But, uh…,” she hears the smile in his voice, soft – almost sheepish. “No. I meant your sermon. All 15 minutes of it.”

A fluttering spreads from Pike’s stomach bubbling upwards. As a cleric, she relishes in the knowledge that even Scanlan Shorthalt can derive meaning from her sermon despite not subscribing to Sarenrae’s doctrine, despite being – well, who he is. As simply Pike Trickfoot, she cannot help but remember now the intensity of Scanlan’s expression as she saw him from her place at podium, looking up at her. Revelation. Reverence. And, the remembrance of Wilhand’s words to her the night before.

Well-loved.

“Pike?”

“Yeah?”

“You alright?”

Pike blinks and looks to Scanlan, who walks at her side, intent on her and no longer his feet. Oh.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she assures in a rush. “I was just wondering, I guess, what part drew such a reaction?”

“Redemption. You spoke of Sarenrae’s offering of redemption to the aggressors during The Calamity. It led to her downfall, yet she felt no shame for the hand she extended.”

“You don’t know much about Sarenrae, do you?”

Scanlan’s chin drops towards his chest as he chuckles. “Guess not.”

Pike winces. She hadn’t meant to sound dismissive. Sheepishly, she brushes a hand across his shoulder. “It’s fine! Every connection starts somewhere,” she encourages. “And, if you’re interested, today’s sermon was only the lead-in for next week’s sermon, which is – I guess you could say – the penultimate one before the spring festival.”

Scanlan nods. “I would love to be there. Will it be much of the same?”

“Redemption?” Pike prompts. Scanlan nods again. “Yep! Particularly around this time of year, with the coming of spring, we focus a lot on Sarenrae’s core doctrine of second chances and new beginnings. Because, well…”

“Spring?”

“Yeah,” Pike titters and tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “The rest of the year, we tend to keep sermons more practical. We talk a lot about Sarenrae as the woman, not the goddess and how we, as earthly beings ourselves, can do good as she did.”

As they walk, Pike elaborates, and Scanlan listens. The Scanlan from last night, eyes flickering from face to face, smile bright but body tightly wound with nerves, feels distant in this moment. When she guides him around rough patches in the path, he moves under her touch, simple and fluid. In the stretches of silence between Scanlan’s questions and Pike’s answers, she watches him. His face serene and smiles quiet.

She might have asked him what he was thinking, if it were not such a cliché.

Instead, a different question builds up her throat.

The path off to Greyskull Keep is within her sights and maybe that’s what makes her so brazen. That or a leftover need to shepherd, to say something that needs to be said. Vax got away. Wilhand waved her off.

Grasping at Scanlan’s hand, Pike watches the bright smile inspired by her touch loosen on his lips when he turns to face her.

“Why redemption?” Scanlan stiffens, but he doesn’t pull away. “What do you want redemption for, Scanlan?”

Scanlan’s not smiling anymore.

Pike waits for him to pull away from her. For him to close off, wave her concerns away, feign –

“Oh! That’s it then, yeah?”

Pike’s heart sinks.

Scanlan’s eyes focus beyond her. It’s hardly a mystery to her what his desperate search for an escape has found him. Expected or not, her teeth gnash into her bottom lip as Scanlan’s hand slips from hers. She makes one last grab for it, holding tight,

“Scanlan.”

She hates to plea but here she is, staring at him with lips tight and eyes imploring, begging him to be the one person who’ll just talk to her, for Sarenrae’s sake!

Scanlan smiles – an honest, gentle thing that softens around the corners of his eyes. “Let’s sit, okay?”

Pike swallows and nods.

☼ ☼ ☼

Neither of them speaks.

Scanlan’s arms drape across the back of the bench. Pike remains acutely aware of the hand near her shoulder in the silence. It taps and worries at the wood. As the lull stretches longer and longer, Pike shifts and sighs. She sweeps her eyes restlessly across the landscape. Nothing interests her enough to hold her.

Except Scanlan’s hand, close but far enough by her shoulder.

She wonders if she should prompt him again, if he’s simply waiting her out.

She won't let him.

“So – ” Scanlan drawls, and Pike tilts her chin towards him expectantly. “This place – ” and he raises a finger, waving it in a circle. “Greyskull Keep, you said? It’s nice. How’d it get a name like that?”

Pike eyes him warily but answers,“Well, my friends and I found it when we were kids, and we really loved that cartoon…so…”

“Ah! Your friends? Keyleth and…?”

“Keyleth, Kima, Allura, and me – And, Grog, of course.”

“Of course,” Scanlan echoes with a grin before testing out the newest names,“Kima and Allura…I don’t believe you’ve introduced me to them.”

“No, no…They live in Emon,” she explains reluctantly, but even mentioning them lifts her heart, and she continues with affection, despite herself,“They’re both professors at the university and way more accomplished than me.”

Scanlan hums skeptically. “Don’t you run a whole temple?” He asks.”And, aren’t you seen as, like, a trusted religious counselor for dozens and dozens of people? A leader in your community? Who’s also beautiful, smart, and talented?”

“Scanlan…”

“I’m just saying!”

Let no one say Pike Trickfoot is a fool for Scanlan’s smile…even if looking at it now, observing the way it grows only brighter under her attention, causes her resolve to waver a bit – Just a bit, though! She centers again with a breath and levels him with a scolding stare.

“Scanlan, if you’re trying to change the subject…”

His smile splinters, but he holds enough of it to be convincing.

To anyone else, Pike imagines.

“I’m not!” He says and places a hand over his heart. She waits for his lips to pout, for his voice to take on its melodramatic whine. Instead, his smile softens again, to the one she saw before, and he pacifies in a low voice,“I promise. I’d just – uh, rather not kill the mood so soon.”

When he laughs then, a nervous chuckle that brings forth the nerves she knew he’d been hiding, she laughs too. Okay, she thinks, she will allow him this minute to be as flirty as he needs to be. Yet, as she relaxes, leaning her head back against his arm and looking out across the town, Scanlan does not jump to fill the silence.

So, they sit, silent but still.

She peeks at Scanlan between lazy thoughts and the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, his face the picture of perfectly content, and she wonders each time if she should tell him to forget it. She doesn’t need to know if it causes distress. Each time, she feels the brush of his fingers against her shoulder, and her wandering mind stays her tongue from any words, even the necessary ones.

Eventually, though she will admit it surprises her, Scanlan speaks:

“If I might ask first…” Pike offers Scanlan an affirmative hum, and he finishes,“as a cleric of Sarenrae, what does redemption mean to you?”

Pike breathes deep, and in her mind’s eye, she sees the six-year-old girl she used to be, watching a sunrise with her grandpa and listening to a lesson about redemption and second chances not long before she would learn it all firsthand.

Before there were court dates her parents never showed.

Before a kind woman with her hair pulled back into a tight, tight bun atop her head asked her too many questions about the cut on her cheek and her intimate knowledge of how to suture a wound.

Before all her things were stored away in her room at Papa Wilhand’s house and Papa Wilhand signed her permission slips for school and walked her to the bus and was there, waiting on the street corner, when it brought her home.

(Her parents had never done any of those things.)

(She hadn’t known they were supposed to.)

Pike’s fingers clench in the hem of her dress, crinkling and smoothing the fabric against her knees. She exhales, slowly and evenly, and when she blinks, the Temple of The Everlight sits in her field of vision, beautiful atop its hill, a reminder.

“Forgiveness,” and she breathes it into her. She looks to Scanlan, takes in the open wonder in his expression, and looks away. “You have to be open to forgiveness – for others and yourself, and…if you are open to letting go of the weight of those sins, acknowledging but forgiving the person who did them, then Sarenrae’s light – a chance at redemption – will never leave you.”

Scanlan recoils, leaning back in his seat and closing inwards, as if, like her, something rather horrid had just come to him. Pike moves her lips around the sound of his name but does not say it. She watches as he inhales deeply and fights out a small smile when he muddles the exhale with a chuckle. Patiently, she waits. Her hands upon her knees, which she turns to press against his, and her eyes upon Scanlan’s, which jitter against his thighs.

A minute passes, then another two, but Pike does not rush him.

When he speaks, it is slowly, deliberately: “For me – it’s not about wanting redemption. I mean, I’ve done – ” He waves a hand, expression pained, but he laughs through it again. “Plenty of bad things…”

His voice lifts as if he intends to continue but the thought lingers, unfinished. Pike knows what fills the silence: the drugs, the sex scandals, the petty feuds, the drugs again, the barrage of tabloid headlines, and the price of fame.

She understands.

“But, I’ve done my time at rehab. Twice. Made my apologies. I’ve done redemption, but – Somehow…what you said today, during the sermon and even before…,” he pauses for a moment, worrying his tongue against his teeth. “It matters, doesn’t it? I spent all this time improving myself, and it mattered.”

Pike almost gasps from the force that grasps her heart. “Of course, it mattered! Oh, Scanlan, and it still does,” she asserts. She searches Scanlan’s expression for some acknowledgement but he stares pointedly towards the horizon and does not reply. Unwilling to leave it there, she grasps one of his hands and holds it loosely with her own. It – just as she hoped – at least inspires him to look her way. “Why would you ever think it doesn’t?”

Why did you ever do it, if you thought it didn’t?, she wants to add but cannot seem to give her voice to it.

Scanlan does not reply. In fact, he does much worse: he frowns.

Pike’s stomach drops at the sight, and she feels her body curl inwards against the feeling. She hates it. Oh, Sarenrae be kind and spare her from the sight of that sad curve on his lips, she hates it.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles and takes her hands from his. Scanlan’s hand stays for a moment before drifting back to his lap. “I shouldn’t have…uh,” she grimaces. “Pushed you like that.”

And, she is sorry, feels the pit settle in her stomach, and accepts what cannot be undone. Neither today nor back then. Because Scanlan has always been Grog’s friend, not hers. A person once removed. Not an acquaintance. Not anything a word can define. But, for all these years she’s known him, for all that she knows he’s gone through, for all that she knows she was far removed, especially during those times, she knows enough to – Well, she knows enough.

She lets the last question on her tongue stay unsaid and unanswered as Scanlan waves off her apology, a smile creeping back onto his features. In true Scanlan fashion, he goes on as if nothing happened, pointing excitedly towards something in the distance – The Trickfoot household. Steady. Safe. There.

She relaxes.

(Scanlan, why did you come to Westruun?)

☼ ☼ ☼

They sit for another 20 minutes, long enough to make the hike worth it, before heading home. The shorter route, at Scanlan’s request. He insists it’s because he’d like to know for future reference. In case, he ever decides to make the hike alone. The grimace on his face as they walk, especially the rougher patches, is all Pike needs to see to know that he’s really looking to avoid the full 45-minute pilgrimage.

After their talk, she cannot even bring herself to tease him for it.

However –

“Are you sure this is the right way?”

She has to admit: it’s been a while.

Pike ‘humph’s and pauses in the middle of the path. Or, she’s pretty sure it’s a path. Specifically, the right one. But, you know, it’s been a decade or so. Being further away from the heart of the preserve, and thus less traveled, the overgrowth here runs rampant. Pike knows, logically, the path home has long been obscured. In her heart, she believes fool-hardly that she can find it. For Scanlan’s sake! Hands on her hips and eyes scanning the landscape, Pike casts a glance towards her companion, who gave up trying to look unbothered by their trek and has bent over with his hands on his knees.

“Wait here,” she says kindly. She points down the left path of the faint fork in the road. “I’m almost certain it’s this way, but…Gonna double check!”

Without waiting for a response, she bounds off down the path. She dodges roots and felled logs as she goes. Just as she expected – of course! – she can see the slow thinning of the trees begin. In the distance, she can make out houses. She skids to a stop and a yelp follows her into silence.

Huh.

She hears snapping branches, a thump, and a tumble of leaves.

Scanlan.

“Shit!” His voice is high and panicked. “Oh, fuck…,” and then slightly faint.

Spinning around, a flare of irritation sparks then dissipates as she takes in the scene. Scanlan rests on his knees a few yards back. His tussled hair flops over his forehead, damp with sweat. There is a smear of dirt across his cheek. He’s gasping, clutching his hand against his stomach. An icy chill grips Pike when she sees why: blood.

Oh, shit.

That’s a lot of blood.

Rushing to his side, she skids to her knees beside him. “What were you thinking?” She snaps. Shivers course up and down her arms. The harsh words don’t stop them. Gentler, she hisses,“I told you to wait up the path for me.”

Scanlan looks at her through his bangs and emits one, pained chuckle. “Sorry. Where my heart goes, I must follow.”

Flirting? Now?

She shakes her head and holds out her hands. “Here, show me,” and Scanlan does without question. His once pristine shirt is stained red where he’d had his hand protectively tucked against it, and Pike winces. She inspects the injury: a gash across his palm that is deep and angry, but she cannot clear the blood away to truly know. She assesses the area and sees the root that he uncovered and the now red branch that must have caused all of this. She winces again.

“I’m sorry, Scanlan,” she sighs mournfully. She glances around for any other option before tugging off one of her hiking boots and her sock along with it. Not the cleanest thing in the world, but what matters right now is stemming the blood flow until they get home. As she wraps it around his palm as best she can, she mumbles,“All you wanted was a walk, but here I am! Asking you personal questions and upsetting you. Taking you down dangerous paths, and! I mean, you’re fine. Don’t worry, but…I’m doing a damn good job of welcoming you to my world today, aren’t I?” She chuckles humorlessly.

Scanlan’s uninjured hand grasps her shoulder. Pike could have cried, seeing him grin so brightly at a time like this. “Hey, it’s fine,” he says, but he’s frightfully pale. “I’ve had worse first dates.”

“Do you use flirting as a defense mechanism in all situations?” She asks with a laugh. She pauses briefly to stuff her unclothed foot back into her hiking book before, grabbing his arms by the elbows, she pulls him up and tucks an arm around him to keep him steady. “Or, only when it’s most inappropriate?”

“Well,” Scanlan starts, sounding slightly woozy. “I’m not dead yet.” His head drops against hers, clunking uncomfortably. As they begin their slow descent down the path towards home, Pike gently bumps her head back against his.

His answering chuckle, even if it results in his sweaty forehead nuzzling against her cheek, makes her smile.

☼ ☼ ☼

For the second day in a row, Pike huddles close to Scanlan in a bathroom. It’s the downstairs bathroom this time, a small cramped room with a toilet and a sink counter and little else. Scanlan sits on the edge of the counter. His feet lazily sway and knock against the cabinet doors while Pike rummages under the sink for the first aid kit.

A preliminary and thorough cleaning of the wound revealed it was actually rather superficial and not deep enough to need stitches. For that, Pike is thankful. Both for poor Scanlan’s wilting constitution and her own. The last thing she wants to do this afternoon – after fucking everything else – is thread a needle through his skin. Not that she ever wants to do that to anyone, but – Hey. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Her fingers scrap across the familiar plastic case. “Ah-ha!” and she pulls out the first aid kit, jumping to feet to present it to Scanlan with a flourish. “Told you it was here!”

Scanlan smiles, wide and toothy. “I never doubted you.” Some of the color has returned to his face, but a faint weariness hangs over his shoulders and catches in his features. With a deep, centering breath, he pulls away the paper towels he’d used to replace the sock once the bleeding had stopped and offers up his hand for Pike’s inspection. Not once does he look at it, eyes focusing up and slightly right.

Pike sets the kit on the counter and pulls out the necessary supplies for disinfection. “Now, it’s nothing too serious, but I’ll warn you that this’ll probably sting.” She waits for Scanlan’s terse nod before proceeding. Throwing out an old, curled antibiotic cream tube, she uncaps a newer one and draws out a good glob onto a finger. She pats Scanlan’s knee soundly then grasps his hand.

“You’re pretty good at this,” Scanlan notes around a wince as the cream is applied.

“Well, my brother is a professional fighter,” Pike replies absentmindedly. She gently tilts his palm this way and that to ensure the whole cut is covered. “Somebody had to patch him up when we were younger.”

She moves to wipe off her hand on a rag, and Scanlan deflates with a relief. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees his shoulders slouch and his head droop. She places her full attention on opening the box of gauze and lets him have his moment.

“You know, Grog told me about how you saved him when you were younger,” Scanlan says. Pike tenses, eyes focused on the rolled gauze clenched in her hand. “Said he was beaten to near death, but he came out a stupor he never thought he would and he was all patched up. Stitches and bandages. The whole shabang.”

Desperate times, Pike stutters on a breath, desperate measures.

She turns to catch Scanlan’s eye. A shrouded weight darkens the warm brown of his gaze. She does not flinch away, never could from him, but she says nothing. With the gauze in hand, she holds Scanlan’s gaze as she winds it around his palm. She says nothing. Scanlan’s gaze softens to something more familiar, something warm. Something that settles nicely within Pike’s chest and loosens the tension in her shoulders. He asks,

“Where does a 10-year-old learn how to suture a wound?”

Pike drops her gaze.

Where does a 6-year-old learn to suture a wound, she wonders bitterly. That’s the real question you want, Scanlan.

In the ringing silence of the bathroom, she hears the faint memory of bottles shattering against a wall, against a skull. The heavy thump of a body falling to the ground and her mother’s sharp bark of – “Don’t just stand there gawking, child. Get the kit from the bathroom. Quick like now.”

Her breath shutters unevenly, but Pike focuses on the texture of the gauze against the calloused pads of her fingers and pushes away the remembrance of her shaky hands as a child, stitching her first wound. Her mother had been too drunk to do it herself.

Forgiveness does not lend itself to forgetting. Nor does it equate to numbness.

Pike knows this lesson, of all lessons, too well.

“Let me guess: Wilhand’s clutch in a bar brawl?” Scanlan goes for the joke, but his voice cracks on the landing. The silence swelters between them. Laughing nervously, Scanlan mumbles an apology under his breath, and Pike swallows around the lump in her throat. Her eyes stay upon his hand, securing the gauze in place.

“I didn’t always live with Wilhand,” she states evenly. She waits a beat – two, three, four more. Scanlan asks her no more questions. Holding his hand between hers, as she’s done so many times today, Pike chances a glance up at him.

For a moment, they are both still. Eyes locked. Hand-in-hand. Sitting in the silence of the secrets they’ve both shared.

“Thanks for spending time with me today, Pikey,” Scanlan whispers.

Pike cannot help but laugh, breathy and incredulous. “Scanlan, you sliced open your hand.”

Scanlan, weary and shaky and still slightly damp with sweat, smiles.

“Worth it.”

Chapter Text

After that first weekend, nothing feels all too different.

Scanlan eats breakfast with her every morning, and dinner with the family most nights. He offers every other day (excluding their Saturday take-out day) to prepare dinner one night, but Wilhand always chortles and waves away the idea. He’s always done the same anytime Pike or Grog have offered to do so, too.

After the first week, his offering becomes as commonplace as Wilhand’s red pan and their mismatched plastic dishware that Wilhand allows to be used again on the third day. Their “nice” dishware returns to the “nice” dishware cabinet in the dining room. Their plastic dishware, on the other hand, was bought on clearance. Piece by piece – the collection built over the years. Scanlan cycles through a few choices before finally settling on the one with ‘you’re special!’ written in flowing gold cursive on the face. A classic.

During the days, he flits from place to place, person to person.

After their day out together, Scanlan gravitates to the temple. Crash courses on Sarenrae and the practices of her clerics entertain him enough. The mindfulness activities she sets him to do when she is needed for counseling or otherwise too occupied to humor his questions yield less enthusiasm.

Kris engages him some days, but Scanlan usually wanders off elsewhere.

Besides her, Grog, of course, occupies most of Scanlan’s time. He spends his days at Gym Strongjaw, posing on workout machines for Snapchat and Instagram and turning the ISO incline press into his personal throne much to the annoyance of some of the gym goers. After the first dissenter found himself challenged by Grog and horribly beaten, they keep it to themselves.

The twins, too, attach themselves to Scanlan.

Vax walks Scanlan through the complicated process of renovating antiques without devaluing them. Scanlan makes a game of pointing to random trinkets and bobs and having Vax price them and detail their history. On Snapchat, Scanlan gives amateur reviews of them for fun while Vax laughs in the background. Vax’s sales climb. Always, Vax invites Scanlan to come around any time. Sometimes, Scanlan does.

He patrols with Vex, much to Pike’s astonishment, considering his reluctance to exert any kind of physical effort. On the first day, he comes home, haggard and melodramatic, and recounts the tale of a crazed bear that trampled him. Frightened by Trinket’s love or not, he goes out with Vex again and again. Their rapport flows easily and is only mildly concerning. Vex refuses to give up cooing and ‘oh’ing every time Scanlan pays Pike the tiniest bit of attention. Which Pike always hears about through text. Hence, the mildly concerning rapport.

Yet, that rapport wins Scanlan a day at Percy’s shop. In Percy’s words, he made himself the “most persistent bother,” but Scanlan visits at least once more.

Pike is not sure Scanlan and Keyleth have spent a full day together, but they both fondly mention seeing the other here or there. Out in the western preserve, Kiki shows Scanlan her favorite trail. In town, Scanlan treats Kiki to an ice cream cone after her workout sesh at the gym. Kiki tells Scanlan all about the language of flowers. Scanlan signs Kiki’s albums for her.

It’s hard for Pike to comprehend that he’s only been with them for two weeks.

Sometimes she passes him in the hallway and hardly notices.

Every morning, she places his coffee mug on the counter. It’s the purple one she brought home for him on his fourth day.

She feels like she’s done it forever.

☼ ☼ ☼

The Spring Festival happens each year.

On the first Sunday after the spring equinox.

As soon as Winter’s Crest ends, Pike plans. Binders with post-it notes and dividers that become increasingly less helpful. Pamphlets for the pews with regurgitated information from last year but hipper, cooler, and more down with the youths. Sign-up sheets for their annual fundraiser and booths, though there’s always the same 6 people. Sermon notes for, uh, well, the sermon…She coordinates it all, marks (occasionally) each day off on her calendar, and balances that line between organized and complete chaos.

Yet, each year, it sneaks up on her.

The big day is less than two days away now, and she’s rarely home before nightfall. Dinner with the family has been placed on the backburner, and there’s been at least one incident where she’s fallen asleep at her desk and woken up to sunlight in her eyes and a paper glued to her face with drool.

If it weren’t for daily walks to Greyskull Keep, usually between 1-3, and Scanlan and Vex’s frequent text updates to tether her to the world beyond the temple’s grounds, she would have spiraled days ago.

She still might.

The children’s choir lost their sheet music. The fairy lights remain tangled in a bunch. Someone spilled coffee on the festival blueprints, and the booths and arches go up tomorrow. The weatherwoman has predicted rain for Sunday afternoon. If they have canopies to pitch – and if they do, Sarenrae knows where they are – no one knows how to pitch them.

It’s barely 1 pm.

Pike huddles in her office, fingers pressed into her eyes to stave off their tired burn, and breathes. At the rate things have been declining today, the next disaster is due in 10 minutes. But, Pike just…She sighs and drops her hands to her desk. With her legs tucked up under her and her light jacket tucked around her knees, she feels a bit too much like a grumpy child in need of a nap.

But –

She just needs a minute.

Stretching into the sunlight that gathers across the surface of her desk, Pike lets her head drop against her forearms. Her phone lies within reach, and she unfurls a finger enough to catch the edge of it and curl it closer. The screen is dark. It remains so for the next few minutes as she keeps it loosely grasped in her hand. Shifting it upwards in her hand, she clicks the home button to – Oh. No new messages.

She drops the phone to the desk with a frown.

Scanlan’s frequent texts, ranging from quick-witted words of encouragement to long-winded anecdotes, have been the highlight of Pike’s days, especially this past week.

When she doesn’t have them, she has his social media shenanigans to peruse. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat – Scanlan’s returned to them with vigor. His fanbase has been wild over the surge of activity. They are receptive…if not a little overzealous. They found her Instagram within the hour of her first post with Scanlan and all her other accounts not long afterwards. She turned off her notifs. The only time she receives anything linked to her accounts is if Scanlan tags her from his.

If all else fails, her friends always come through. Grog sends her ‘Go get ‘em’, monstah!’ every day with no less than 10 arm flexing emojis. Keyleth sends pictures of wild flowers and the sky at sunset. Pike still has to respond to Vex’s text from last night. A quipped “Stole your boyfriend for the day. He says he misses you.” She’s hesitant to encourage her but innately drawn to teasing. She must think her wording out carefully.

Yet – today, of all days, nothing.

A knock strikes against the door. Pike’s nails dig into the desk as she braces for the next incident.

“Pike?”

It’s Kris, at least. She trusts him to be gentle about it.

Straightening up in her seat, Pike mumbles a quick prayer before calling with shrill cheer, “Come in!”

The puzzled furrow of Kris’ brow when he opens the door does not bode well, but Pike nods in encouragement when she sees his hand firm upon the door handle and his words firmly unsaid.

“Um, Scanlan Shorthalt is here…,” he says as if he hardly believes the words, “…with flowers…”

“Scanlan?” Pike echoes. Kris nods.

Fumbling to unfurl her legs and look a little less dead, Pike smooths down her hair and swipes her knuckles under her eyes. “Is he in the lobby?” She waves a hand towards Kris, grabbing for her jacket with the other. “Tell him he’s welcome to come in.”

“No need!” Scanlan whirls around Kris and through the doorway. “I am already here.”

Confusion catches in Kris’ face. He must have left him in the lobby, naive to the fact that Scanlan Shorthalt would follow to take advantage of a moment just like this one. Before Pike can assure him and send him on his way, a flash of red and yellow brings her attention back to Scanlan, who, sure enough, holds a bouquet in the crook of an arm.

Oh.

“Thank you for announcing my arrival, Kristopher. I’ll take it from here.” Scanlan smiles to Kris, who returns it cordially before flashing Pike a sheepish one.

Pike huffs a laugh. She shakes away her jacket which, despite her best efforts, fell around her ankles and hurries around her desk to them. “Yes, thank you, Kris. You can, uh…go back to…” Shit. She doesn’t remember what he was doing.

“Untangling the fairy lights?” Kris supplies with a clever twist of his lips and shift of his eyes between them.

“Yes!” Pike clasps her hands before her chest. “That sounds…Yeah. Do that.”

Kris, thank Sarenrae for him, smiles sympathetically and exits the room without a single laugh at her expense. Pike brushes past Scanlan long enough to throw another quick “Thank you” down the hallway after him before turning to Scanlan with a wavering calm and a squeaky,

“Hey…”

“Long day?” Scanlan drawls, eyes full of mirth.

Pike’s shoulders sag. Her hands droop before her like a morose ghost as she pouts and whines, “Scanlan.” Scanlan’s smile softens, which – honestly? Kinda makes it worse. Does she look so defeated that even Scanlan can’t bear to tease her? Her pout intensifies. “I’m so tired, Scanlan.”

“Come on now, Pikey! Where’s that fighting spirit?”

“It died.”

Scanlan pouts.

Great. Now, they’re both pouting.

Relief comes in the form of the soft crinkling of the bouquet’s wrapping as Scanlan shifts it in his hands. Right. She almost forgot. Up close, she sees that the arrangement consists of a dozen red roses and three sunflowers, a combination that escaped her before but dazzles her now. As Scanlan holds it out to her, she blinks back tears – the kind that only a tremendous amount of stress and the smallest act of kindness bring – and mumbles, “These are for me?”

“’Course, Pikey Pants,” and she decides she can accept that soft kindness in his voice, as long as he’s handing her flowers. “And, I arrive with a request, as well, if that’s alright.”

Cradling the flowers to her chest, their aroma settling nicely around her senses, Pike nods.

Scanlan clears his throat and brushes a hand down the front of his dark band tee. It’s for some band with an obscure name Pike cannot even fathom how to pronounce, but she knows they toured with Scanlan once. She watches the path of his hand as it hesitates around his hip before disappearing behind his back to lock with his other. Blinking her gaze back to his, she watches as he poises his shoulders to speak.

After a moment of open-lipped hesitation, he sputters out a beginning – “As you might imagine, your absence around the house and, well, everywhere has hardly escaped my notice and, as much as it warms me to see you working so hard, because I am well aware of how much this festival means to you – ”

His words trail into a sudden intake of breath as he remembers that breathing is a thing he needs to do. Which is endearing, but...Pike bites her lip to keep from laughing and nods encouragingly as he composes again. When he does not immediately continue, eyes blinking and lips searching for lost words, Pike takes pity on him with a sweet-toned prompt:

“Yes, Scanlan?”

“Drinks!”

“Oh.” Pike nestles her flowers closer to her chest. The soft petals of a sunflower tickle against the underside of her chin. “…What?”

Shifting from one foot to the other, hands still clasped tight behind his back, Scanlan elaborates with a titter, “I was wondering if you might be free for drinks later.” He adds, softer, after a breath, “You’ve been working so hard. It would be an honor to treat you.”

Pike nods hazily, but no words follow the action.

Scanlan watches her, expectantly, with bright brown eyes, and Pike feels a little…Huh.

“Yeah...that’d be, yeah. I could – um, use the break…"

“Great!” Scanlan jitters on his feet for a moment. “Let’s meet at the bar in downtown, yeah? The one near the gym. 7 pm, after dinner.”

“I’ll be there.”

Scanlan nods then brushes past her with a smile. Pike follows his departure with lingering wonderment, catching the sight of Kris’ mop of golden curls peeking around the doorframe just as Scanlan jumps and yips,“Oh! Hello, Kris, I’ll be – Uh, seeing you,” before hurrying down the hall.

“Kris?” Pike gasps. “Were you – ”

Kris’ smile slants. Pike’s eyes narrow. He scratches at the back of his head and fumbles towards a reasonable answer for her. Look – Pike might be stressed but she knows a guilty consciousness when she sees one. She works with the children’s choir. She knows.

“You were spying on us!”

Kris startles to attention, back ramrod straight. “I’m sorry! It’s just,” and he lowers his voice. “He brought you flowers.”

“What? What does that even – ” Actually. She holds up her free hand. The less she knows about the local gossip ring of Westruun, the better. Incredulous, she turns back towards her desk with a shake of her head. “Nevermind. I have too much work to do and too little time and thank you, Kris! Truly. But, unless the temple is on fire, don’t disturb me.”

“Well…”

Pike stares down at her flowers, beautiful and good and hers, and takes a deep centering breath.

☼ ☼ ☼

The temple wasn’t on fire.

(Thank Sarenrae for the small miracles.)

Instead, with all the authority of a man younger, skinner, and employed to her, Kris insisted that she take the rest of the day off and leave the remainder of today’s management work to him. Attempts to argue were made, but Pike can admit, in retrospect, they were rather lackluster. The final festival details nag at the back of her mind, but the pressing call for sleep screams louder.

After finding a vase and a pleasing spot in the windowsill for her flowers, Pike leaves the temple for home to take the best, longest, and most deserved nap in the world.

Wilhand even treats her to some homemade tomato bisque soup as a late lunch and a kiss on her forehead for just, you know, doing life.

She remembers to place her phone on her bedside table and sleeps soundly.

By the time she awakens, to no disaster texts from the temple (once again, Thank Sarenrae) and a couple texts from Vex that more or less confirm she’s snatched up Scanlan for the day, it’s nearly 5 pm. The beginning smells of dinner waft upstairs to where she lays, face down, on her cool sheets. As much as she enjoys the idea of staying there until forced, Pike drags herself out of bed and to the gym.

Maybe a good punch or twelve will help alleviate the final dredges of stress in her veins.

It’s closed when she arrives, a worrying predicament up until she sees the sign on the door, written in Grog’s messy scrawl, that reads: “Private Lesson”. Grog only uses that sign for one person, and Pike brightens up at the prospect of seeing her.

Snagging her spare key from her gym bag, Pike lets herself in.

In the heart of the gym, circling Grog in the sparring box, is Keyleth with her red hair in a high ponytail and her hands up and shoulders tight.

Pike hangs back by the door, plopping down on a bench there, to allow them the proper headspace. Keyleth only comes to Grog for training when her troubles become, as she’s described to Pike before, “too loud” for words. Naturally, the sign and the closed gym doors have only become common as of three years ago when Gym Strongjaw came to be, but the tradition has been rooted in their relationship since Grog’s first years at the Trickfoot household.

Watching them circle each other in the stillness of the room, Pike still fondly remembers hanging from a low tree branch in the backyard while Grog taught Kiki the proper formation of a fist. She took a practice swing and struck him square in the nose. Blood gushed everywhere, and Pike remembers Kiki’s frantic apologies, Grog’s booming laughter, and her own bumped head and giggled distress after dropping from the tree in shock.

Pike leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in the palms of her hands, and smiles.

In the heart of the gym, neither of them takes their eyes off the other.

Keyleth swings. Grog sidesteps and sends her tumbling to her knees past him. A frustrated growl leaves Keyleth as she sits back on her heels and digs her hands into her hair. Strands of bright red loosen from her ponytail, fluttering to frame her ruddy face. Bright eyes turn on Grog. He raises a patient hand and beckons her to him. Keyleth bounces back up and kicks. Grog deflects and pushes her into a stumble. When Keyleth regains her balance but drops her hands, he murmurs something. Pike misses it under the sound of Keyleth’s heaved breaths, but it registers low and taunting. Keyleth turns on him with a banshee screech.

She swings wide.

Grog snags an arm around her torso, hooking her to the ground.

Keyleth falls back onto her ass. “Fuck!” Her hand strikes against the mat. Turning onto her side, away from Grog, she continues her assault. Her palm resounds with each strike. “Fuck fuckfuckfuck!”

Pike winces in sympathy and steps forward from the shadows.

“You almost had me,” Grog says and offers Keyleth his hand.

Keyleth keeps her eyes on the mat. “You say that every time, Grog, and it’s never true.”

Grog’s brow furrows. “Then why would I say it?”

Keyleth is silent for a moment. Her reply comes coupled with a breathy laugh. “You got me there.” Looking up at him, she issues one last weary sigh and takes his hand. Grog claps her on the back once she’s back on her feet. Keyleth only stumbles a little.

“Thanks, Grog. Really.”

Grog shrugs. “Anytime.”

Pike stops at the ropes, resting her elbows on a rung and swaying into them. “Am I interrupting?”

Keyleth startles, latching onto Grog’s arm with a shout. It takes her a couple of blinks, but she realizes her mistake. A high, nervous giggle leaves her lips as she removes her hands from Grog and clasps them behind her back. “Pike!” She exclaims. “Shouldn’t you be at the temple? Ah! Not that I’m not happy to see you or anything. I just – ” She reaches up a jittering hand to brush her hair back but only succeeds in pulling more stray strands from her ponytail. Instead of rambling on, she walks over to the ropes and leans next to Pike with a sigh. “Today is not my day…”

Pike smiles and pats her arm. “Wanna talk about it?” After a moment, she adds empathetically, “Not feeling too loud?”

Keyleth glances back at Grog before answering. “Yeah. I’m good now.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Grog leaves the two of them to their talking and busies himself with reopening the gym for the day. The diehard goers are all on text alerts for ‘emergencies’ such as this one. In 20 minutes time, the floor will be busy again. Which gives her just enough time to help Keyleth out of her slump. Or, rather, help her the rest of the way out of it. Her brother always does a good job of starting the process.

Keyleth takes a moment to hydrate and drench her face before settling down next to Pike on the bench near the front of the gym. With a towel draped around her shoulders and a tired but satisfied grin of her lips, she states simply,

“It’s my dad.”

It usually is.

Keyleth’s dad, Korrin, is a lawyer. The good kind – the kind that fights for the rights of endangered birds and the funding needed to keep their forest preserves protected and maintained. Korrin is the reason Greyskull Keep is no longer a dusty, forgotten lookout, why there’s a wall to prevent children (aka younger them) from falling, and new stone and benches. He accomplished those renovations with community funding and less lawyering, but it all falls under a similar category to Pike: a deep love for the safety and care of the environment and those within it.

A love that Keyleth shares.

It’s the lawyering and community leadership that’s a bit of a sore spot.

“Still trying to convince you to join the team?”

Keyleth sighs, and that’s enough for Pike.

In their youth, Korrin worked for Westruun’s community offices before moving onto Emon and bigger fields during their college years. With his daughter now in her late 20s, he’s (mostly) given up on the idea of her following in his footsteps as a lawyer, but he still holds hope that she’ll join him in a public campaigning sense. It doesn’t help that Parks & Rec made it all seem like such a fun time. Keyleth’s never been able to give him a solid answer one way or another, and every time it’s brought up again, things get too loud for her.

“Hey, if you want, Scanlan and I are grabbing drinks later, if you wanna come.”

“Oh, I don’t know...” Keyleth worries and worries her hands against her arm. “I wouldn’t wanna intrude.”

“Keyleth,” Pike says firmly, leveling her with a look. “You should come to drinks later.”

“I should?”

“Yes.”

Keyleth hesitates for a moment more before nodding, resolved, “You know what? I should!” She beams. “I’ll be there.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Scanlan welcomes her to the bar with another bouquet. Another dozen roses coupled with yellow buttercups and, under the blooms, fern fronds hang delicately over the glass lip of a translucent teardrop vase.

“I’m not sure where you’re expecting me to put all these flowers,” Pike says, admiring them openly. Maybe she’ll put these on her desk. “I only have so many windowsills in my office.”

“Ah – “ Scanlan raises a finger. He points it towards her with a wink. “But, you do have more.”

Pike rolls her eyes and teases him with silence.

The table that Scanlan secured for them is in the corner of the bar, a glorified leather couch behind a gaudy neon light display that might read ‘shut up and drink’. Pike fears what will happen to her eyes if she stares at it too long. Compared to the Sunkissed Tavern, this bar – named something smoozy like ‘Blink’ – boasts modern décor, sultry pop tunes, a polished dance floor, and lighting so dim they might as well be sitting in the dark.

However – she went to school with the owner, was personally invited to the grand opening, and thus tries her best not to be too critical.

“It’s got, uh…a nice vibe.”

Scanlan, predictably, makes himself at home in the red-orange glow of their booth, draping his arms across the back and sinking into the cushions. Pike sits, at first, a respectable distance away. But, the music booms loud in her ears and the nearby chatter is an inescapable white noise, and she gradually scoots closer. Scanlan regales her with a tale of his dinner at the de Rolo’s. Half way through, during a melodramatic sigh about the ever-watchful eye of Trinket the Bear, Keyleth wanders into view over Scanlan’s shoulder.

Pike pulls away from him and waves. Keyleth, looking not unlike a lost fawn among the din, brightens and hurries over to the table. Out of the corner of her eye, Pike catches the moment Scanlan’s expression slips. Stopped mid-sentence, he pipes out a single confused:

“Keyleth?”

Oh.

Pike ignores the tensing in her chest, the sudden awareness of the flowers on the table, and how Keyleth’s wide smile flattens in consideration as she glances at the short space between them. She stiffly settles into the couch at Pike’s side, and Scanlan pops up with a terse, “I’ll grab us some drinks.”

He barely stays long enough to take their orders.

Pike and Keyleth share a glance and a short bubble of laughter.

“I may have forgotten to tell him you were coming,” Pike admits. “I think you just surprised him.”

“I don’t think – “ Keyleth starts, tilts her head to one side, and huffs a stray strand of hair from her face. “Okay. We’ll go with that.”

Pike doesn’t ask what she means.

Their conversation, as most conversations have done for Pike these past weeks, quickly turns to the Spring Festival. Scanlan returns, gallantly, with their drinks not long after Keyleth bubbles over with excitement about her face-painting booth. This year will be its second year among the lineup. In the years before last, she mostly participated as part of the set-up crew, coordinating the gardens and flower arrangements.

“I’ve been practicing my new designs all week,” Keyleth enthuses. She produces her phone and a number of pictures along with it. Both Scanlan and Pike lean in accordingly. The first is an improved upon design from last year – a sun with wispy sunbeams of oranges and yellows and white. Another is a cute, cartoonish take on Sarenrae’s wings of redemption – fluffier and softer but no less dazzling under Keyleth’s watchful eye. She suggests eagerly that they would be cool as ‘corner of the eye’ statement piece or, you know, something like that.

Scanlan manages to snatch dibs on being the first to claim that look seconds before Pike.

The bastard.

She shoves at his shoulder while he cheers in triumph.

“Speaking of festival contributions, though,” Pike breezes onwards, slinging one hand around Scanlan’s shoulder and poking at his cheek with her other. “You signed up to be a part of the bake sale?”

Scanlan shrugs nonchalantly. “Well,” he slips into a grin. “Grog mentioned you wanted donuts.”

“You’re going to bake a bunch of donuts for me?” Pike teases blithely.

“Now, hey, no one said I had to bake them - ”

“It’s a bake sale, Scanlan.”

“Well, yeah,” he sputters, “...but...no, listen - I have plans!”

Pike pulls her hand away to stifle a laugh.

At her side, she feels the stiffness of Keyleth’s shoulder as Keyleth lifts her drink to her lips and sips far too loudly.

“Don’t you agree, Kiki?” Pike turns to her. Her smile feels too wide now. She isn’t sure how to fix it. “Scanlan has to bake all the donuts himself.”

Keyleth laughs, short and stilted, and downs the rest of her drink. Mid-swallow, she raises the now-empty glass and mumbles, “Gonna grab another drink - ” and Pike swears she hears the unspoken ‘and be gone as long as possible’ in the undertone.

“Nonsense! Drinks are all on me tonight, dear Kiki,” Scanlan counters and rises from his seat. Keyleth leans back against the couch and does not argue. “Something for you as well, Pikey?”

“Yeah, I could go for one more.” She smiles at Scanlan’s back until he disappears into the din before turning to Keyleth with a sympathetic sigh. “I’m sorry - ”

At the same time, Keyleth pouts and interjects, “You should have told me this was a date.” She is sunk low in the cushions, looking up at Pike as she laments, which is quite a feat considering Keyleth shot up like a weed during middle school and Pike can count only a dozen times she’s actually had to look down to talk to her. Most of those times were because Keyleth tripped. “I wouldn’t have come if I’d known it was a date...Ah - I feel so weird! This is weird, right? Yeah, uh, I feel weird.”

Pike flushes. A nervous chuckle follows. “Kiki, it wasn’t and is not a date.”

Keyleth leans forward onto the table and digs a hand into her hair. She huffs. “Are you sure?” She cuts Pike off again before she can answer with her instinctive, dismissive ‘yes.’ “Because he brought you flowers. This bar is Mood Lighting Central. The two of you were sitting, like, super close when I walked in. His hand was definitely around your shoulder! Okay, maybe not definitely, but I have this awkward feeling like it was and then he got all uncomfortable about me being here and - ”

“Kiki!” Pike interrupts. A gentle, reassuring hand places itself upon Keyleth’s on the table and she insists, “It’s not like that. Scanlan just - ” She gestures vaguely to the bar around them and its patrons. “Probably feels really at home in this place, considering all the neon and the swanky vibe, you know? And, he only brought me these flowers, and the ones earlier, because he knew I was stressed and needed - ”

“He brought you flowers earlier too?”

“That’s - That’s not the point!” She scrambles, losing the point. Taking a moment to breathe, she tries again. “All I’m trying to say is...It’s not a date. Scanlan and I have known each other for a long time, is all. He’s fond of me. I’m fond of him. And, he just…” She struggles for the punchline. “Has a particular way of showing his affection. His platonic affection!”

Keyleth stares back at her, unblinking.

Pike sighs.

That’s it, isn’t it?

She knows the game by now. The dissatisfied sigh, the shake of a head, and the knowing looks. Ever since Scanlan’s arrival, Vex has regaled her with every possible version of “Scanlan like likes you” and an almost parental disapproval when Pike’s only spoken the truth: This is who Scanlan is. He’s like this with everyone, and he always has been.

Winks for anyone who turns their gaze upon him. Quick-witted words, silver-tongued and deceivingly sweet, for those who lean in closer. He encourages others’ attention. Whether it’s her, Vex or Vax, or the bagger at the grocery store check lane.

But, Pike accepts Vex’s teasing, even encourages it despite herself, because Vex is like that. She wants double dates and an unfolding love story to entertain her thoughts during long hikes. She wants Pike to be as happy in love as she is.

Pike cannot begrudge her that desire.

Yet – this is Keyleth. Honest to a fault, always fumbling out the words in her heart Keyleth, and she looks at her now, frowning not in disapproval but worry, and speaks with urgency. “Pike,” she says. “Do you really believe that?”

Over the petals of her bouquet, through the din, Pike sees Scanlan returning with their drinks. She reaches out a hand and runs a rose petal between her fingers. “It’s not like that.”

Because what’s she supposed to do if it is?

Chapter Text

Pike rises well before the sun.

Not a single whisper breathes through the house – not a snore from Grog, not a hum from Scanlan.

She eats her breakfast in silence, a first in weeks, and remembers to take Scanlan’s purple mug out of the cabinet before she leaves.

She arrives first at the temple, as usual. Mist hangs over the temple grounds, obscuring the majority of the garden from view, but Pike remedies that quickly. It’s always been one of her favorite moments – turning on the fairy lights, exploring the festival in the morning silence with only their soft glow to guide her. Strings upon strings of them cover the trees that border the temple’s garden before weaving down the twin arches that mark the entrance. Pike thumbs one of the white roses also curled among the arches’ lattice as she walks through.

The weatherwoman changed her mind since Friday. No rain is expected for this afternoon, but Grog and her worked into the dark to secure canopies above the most vulnerable booths. Scanlan helped too – and by helped, he held the flashlight for them and offered encouragement. Pike happily notes that, despite their ‘well let’s just try our best’ knowledge when it came to pitching canopies, Grog and her managed to pitch them well enough that they survived the night.

She notes each booth, cycling through the checklist in her mind. And, she wanders, mindless in the silence after a while, the familiarity of the routine leading her through the motions. A flash of headlights through the gardens brings her back, and she listens to the rumble of an engine and its sudden end as she makes her way to greet her second-in-command. Because it could only be Kris who’d show up this early.

The sun has begun to crest over the mountains, she notes as she waves to him from the arches.

“Chilly morning, huh?” Kris calls as he bustles over, shoulders bunched under his jacket. He has two thermoses in his hands, and he holds one out to Pike with a grin. “The wife sends her well wishes, but she won’t be in until the afternoon.”

Pike accepts the gift, takes a big swig, and coughs. “Tea?

There are times when Pike dismays at her decision to hire Kris as her associate cleric after their old one moved to be head cleric in some fancy shmancy temple across the country last summer. Few, certainly. But, still, times. This is one of them. “Yep – a special blend!” Kris says, seemingly unbothered by her clear signs of distress. “It’ll perk you right up.”

If Pike’s smile falls short into grimacing, Kris does not seem to notice that either as they make their way into the temple together where Pike busies herself as the sun rises. She opens the temple doors to let in the morning air, crisp and smelling of spring. Her morning prayers to Sarenrae are said in the privacy of her small sanctuary behind the dais. Thanks are given for the new day, for the sun rising, for the peace on the air, and the people who will gather to enjoy it all. Bureaucracy calls her to her office, but the flowers in her windowsill, not yet wilted, ease the boredom of it. She enjoys them in her moments of pause as she reviews her sermon while, out on the floor, Kris prints and sets the abridged notes for the parish within the pews.

Little by little, the rest of the temple’s council arrives, and Pike leaves her office to greet each one.

They bring out the floral arrangements from the basement to set outside. Those participating in the bake sale set their wares out on their assigned table. Speaking of which –

Through the hushed morning air, Pike hears the muffled sound of a familiar song. She smiles. As it grows closer, more distinct, so does the familiar rumble of Grog’s pickup truck. Pike hurries out of the garden to parking lot just as Grog swings into a spot. “The Goliath Fight Song” cuts short as the ignition dies. Bouncing on her heels, the song still with her, she waits as one-by-one her family piles out of the car.

Grog jumps out first, greeting her with an enthusiastic cry of “Monstah!!!”, before he disappears to the other side of his truck. Scanlan pops up from the smushed backseat. His smiles widens to a grin when he sees her.

“Pikey Pants, good bless–ed morning!” Pike rolls her eyes. He learned that from Mrs. Silver last week.

“Yes, blessed morning, indeed!” Wilhand cheers. Shuffling at Grog’s side, Pike watches with mild horror as her grandfather raises and pumps his arms in the most confusing (yet endearing?) attempt at, what she believes to be, a ‘raise the roof’ motion. She looks to Scanlan with suspicion. He only smiles. “Pike, dumpling, where are your robes?”

“Oh – Well, there’s still two hours until the sermon starts.”

“Ah, but you look so beautiful in them! Go, go, you should put them on right away.” Wilhand turns to Scanlan then. “She’s a real knockout, you’ll see. And, let me tell you, boy, when you see, you’ll agree it’s damnable, I say, that she’s still single.”

Pike blushes. “Papa Wilhand!” The burning heat of her cheeks only worsens as Grog eagerly agrees and Scanlan, damn him, looks at her with a considering hum.

“Well, never too late to change that.”

When she pouts at him, hoping to gander the same sympathy that spared her from his teasing on Friday, he winks.

Damn.

Wilhand chortles behind a hand and pats at Grog’s arm. “Come now, my boy. Let’s see how the garden is looking this morning, shall we?” Grog blinks. “Plenty of bits and bobs to set up, I would think.” Wilhand tugs at Grog’s arm, but her brother remains in place, brow furrowed. “Let’s leave Pike and Scanlan to it, yes?” And, Pike definitely does not like the slow emphasis he puts on her and Scanlan’s names.

“Papa – “

“Oh!” Grog’s brow unfurrows. His head bobs. “Yes, let’s go!”

Before Pike can protest, Grog and Wilhand hurry off towards the arches. Pike swears there’s a skip to Wilhand’s shuffle as they do. Ugh. Pressing the chilled backs of her hands into her burning cheeks, Pike directs her embarrassment at the ground and pointedly ignores the teasing presence at her side. Only the teasing does not come.

Lifting her gaze, Pike thanks Sarenrae that the breeze cools the embarrassment from her cheeks and still rising sun has not risen far enough for her blush to be noticeable. Because Scanlan looks at her, eyes soft and smile warm. She wonders where this Scanlan was a minute ago when she needed him to not tease her in front of her grandfather, but she lets it slide. Sunlight halos his head. He left his hair ungelled today.

“Today’s the big day, huh?” and – ugh, his voice is doing that thing it does lately. That soft whisper thing.

Pike toes at the ground, crossing her arms in front of her. “Yep. I’m – ” She smiles, giddy, despite the sudden war of emotions in her chest. “I’m so happy you’re here, Scanlan. This is going to be our best year yet, and you – you’re here for it!” She says that every year – the whole, typical ‘this is our best year!’ thing. But, whatever, it’s true! Especially this year.

“I’m happy too, Pike.”

She looks him over and then back at the pickup. “Did you bring your donuts?”

Scanlan’s smile widens, wolfish in the half-light, and Pike’s eyes narrow. “Here – ” He places an arm around her shoulder and leads her up to the curb in front of the temple. “I was hoping you would ask. They’ll be arriving any minute now. If you don’t mind a wait…”

“You’re having them delivered?” She guesses.

Scanlan winks and looks to the horizon.

Soon, she sees it – a delivery van about the size of a mail truck putters into the parking lot, and Pike recognizes the logo emblazoned on the side. Her jaw drops.

“Do’s and Donut’s?” She gasps. “You ordered donuts from The Do’s and Donut’s?”

Scanlan pauses in waving to the truck, which circles around the parking lot to stop at the curb in front of them, and grins. “You always wanted to try them, right?”

She has. She doesn’t know how Scanlan knows that.

The delivery man hops out of the truck with a clipboard and nods his head towards Scanlan. “Scanlan Shorthalt?” Pike has heard fans scream Scanlan’s name at concerts, heard critics spit it off their tongue; she’s even heard his name from her lips for over a decade now – sometimes fondly, sometimes exasperatedly, sometimes both. Yet, she doesn’t believe she’s heard it said with such disinterest and apathy until this moment. Stifling a laugh, Pike follows the two of them to the back of the truck, barely retraining her excitement.

The delivery man pulls open the back to reveal stacks upon stacks of boxes. A hundred at least, maybe more.

“Scanlan…” Shock dampens the edges of her excitement. “Are these all for the festival?”

“Not all,” Scanlan says to her before addressing the delivery man. “Do you have the box?”

The delivery man, a man with little hair and less patience, heaves a sigh and disappears into the belly of the truck. He emerges a moment later with a donut box, pristine white tied shut by a baby blue ribbon, and passes it to Scanlan.

He carefully slides the box into Pike’s waiting hands. “This one – ” He taps the top of it. “This one is for you.”

Pike doesn’t know what to say. She picks at the ribbon, lets her eyes focus on its slight shimmer, and says all she can think, “Thanks, Scanlan.”

She opens the box in her office after leaving Scanlan to help the delivery man cart the rest of the donuts to their designated table. The ribbon runs smooth through her fingers, unraveling with ease, and Pike lifts the lid to find a dozen white and red roses within the box. Donuts designed to look like white and red roses, she should say.

A pleasant swooping drops in her stomach. One that grows a little less pleasant the more she thinks about it. It’s a feeling she’s grown accustomed to since Scanlan’s arrival. And, well…With a shake of her head, Pike snatches a donut, stuffs it in her mouth, and leaves to put on her robes.

☼ ☼ ☼

Festival mornings are always slow, typically filled by only the parish. As on any other Sunday, Pike holds mass at 9 am. The booths outside are open at this time for those who want to browse the wares early or, usually, for those with children who have no hope of having them sit still while there’s excitement to be had. For those same people and those who want to sleep in, a repeat sermon is held at 10:30 am.

It's also during the morning that Pike dons her festival robes – stunning silver with gold accents. The only ones of their color and heavy material among her numerous others. She tries not to think too hard about Papa Wilhand’s words while she stands upon the dais before those gathered, especially when her grandfather seats front row, smiling up at her. Especially when, to his right, sits Scanlan.

In the break between the first and second sermon, Pike meditates in her back room. The room is not big enough to fit a chair without feeling overcrowded, but Pike has no qualms with sitting on her knees before her shrine to Sarenrae. Outside, she hears the faint buzz of activity, talking and laughing and enjoying the day. Pike smiles and sinks further into her mindful center. Making it all the more jarring when a series of rapid knocks strike the door. Fumbling backwards, Pike blinks up at the ceiling for a moment before awkwardly gathering up the skirts of her robes so she can stand. Kris stands on the other side of the door, looking haggard and flustered.

“Miss Trickfoot!” Oh dear. He only ever calls her that when he’s overwhelmed. “I’m sorry to bother you, but – Uh.” Kris wrings his hands and says with a squeak,“I don’t know what to do! Is it always this busy? I thought you said – N-Not that I’m blaming you, of course. It’s just…We’ll probably run out of parking before the afternoon rush at this rate and half the booths aren’t really functional yet so I fear everyone will grow listless soon and they’re all congregated around the bake sale tables, which I suppose is a good thing…but traffic on that side of the garden is impossible! And – ”

“Kris, hey, take a moment, okay? Let’s breathe.” Pike lays a hand on Kris’ shoulders. She breathes deep, nodding for him to do the same and smiling when he does. “There. Better? Now, start from the beginning, what’s happened?”

“It’s crazy out there, Pike. I’ve been coming to this festival for years, since I was a child, you know that, and I’ve never seen it so busy.”

“What?”

“Come – You have to see it to believe it.”

Following Kris out onto the floor, Pike smiles at the parish already seated as they head for the doors. They are propped open, as tradition dictates, and Pike sees the problem before she reaches the threshold. The parking lot is full. People, more than usual, crowd the sidewalk before the temple, all heading towards the gardens. Stepping out onto the top steps, Pike peeks towards the arches to see that – Sure enough, the garden looks near overflowed with people.

“Huh.”

It is certainly not unusual for people unfamiliar to the parish to visit. In fact, most of the afternoon crowd consists of people from all walks of life and belief systems in Westruun. Last year, she even had a family visit from across the country that was thinking of moving to Westruun. specifically to attend their temple. But, well, she’s not sure what could be accounting for this influx of visitors. None of whom she recognizes from Westruun. She catches the attention of one of them as they walk by, smiling big and breaking out her best Cleric Voice as she asks,

“So sorry to bother you, miss. I’m Pike Trickfoot, Head Cleric for The Temple of The Everlight. If you don’t mind the intrusion, I’d love to know how you heard about our festival today.”

The girl, no older than 20 with a big city look, eyes her intently. She lights up with recognition and a gasp. “Hey – I know you. Yeah, you’re that girl that Scanlan always posts about. Wow! It’s so cool to meet you. Ugh. You’re adorable! Just the cutest! You’re, like, his girlfriend, right?”

“Excuse me?”

The girl laughs, ignoring her confusion. “Yeah, so Scanlan posted on Instagram yesterday that he’d be here. I was so confused at first why he’d be at a temple, hosting a bake sale of all things, but – Here you are. I got it now!”

Oh. Well. Pike manages to chuckle along with the girl’s cheer, head bobbing to keep down the sudden spike of something in the back of her throat.

Scanlan. Right. That explains it.

Smiling cordially, Pike politely excuses herself back inside. Kris follows close at her heels. Pike dismisses him with an apology for leaving him to handle the madness. Seemingly bolstered by her faith in him, Kris lifts his chin and tells her she has no need to worry. She can see his lips quiver. Watching him leave, she speeds past her parish and back into her room behind the dais.

There, she checks, and – Yep, Scanlan posted on Instagram yesterday with an invitation for people to visit him at the festival today. He boasted donuts and a good, wholesome time. Brushing a hand through her hair, Pike flops back into a sit on the ground. She must have missed it in the last day madness. Honestly. Sorting through the whirl of emotions in her stomach, some of it good and some of it bad, she’s not sure whether she wants to kiss him or punch him.

Pike is used to Scanlan’s fans. The majority of Westruun is Scanlan Shorthalt fans. They say ‘hi’ to him at the store, on the streets, asking for autographs or pictures. Which is all well and good, because she knows the people of Westruun. What she is not used to is Scanlan Shorthalt fans overtaking her festival. They’re lucky, at least, that Westruun is so secluded…

Shaking away her feelings, Pike does her best to center her mind again before the second sermon starts.

☼ ☼ ☼

“Darling – there you are!”

Vex waves to Pike from where she stands besides the ring toss booth.

“Sorry, sorry! My robes were more difficult than usual to escape.”

Vex squishes Pike in a big hug. “My God, darling, look at you!” She gushes, placing her hands on Pike’s shoulders when she pulls away. “You’re looking, might I say, darling.”

Pike blushes and mumbles a ‘thank you’ towards the ground. Compared to her robes, her white dress and sky blue handkerchief ensemble feels rather dull, but she will admit she spent quite some time feeling rather cute when she first picked it out to wear.

Percy stands hunched at Vex’s side, back turned towards Pike, too focused on the game to offer more than an acknowledging grunt when Vex taps at his shoulder to announce that Pike has joined them.

“Ignore him,” Vex says with a wave of a hand. She points towards a bear plush set up on the prize table. “He’s trying to win me a prize like a good, doting husband.” She pats Percy on the back. Being between games, or more accurately ‘losses’, he manages to give Vex a smile as he places another dollar on the table.

All the stuffed animals for this booth were handmade by the game runner and all the proceeds, like the bake sale, go towards their charity goal. If Pike maybe suggested that the bear plush be made knowing Vex would insist Percy win it for her, then – Well, she’s only being a good, thoughtful friend!

“Let’s leave him to it, shall we?” Vex whispers to Pike.

Pike nods, linking arms with Vex and calling over her shoulder as they leave, “Good luck, Percy! We believe in you!”

Percy’s shoulders perk up just a bit from their defeated slump, and – See! Good, thoughtful friend.

“If we go bankrupt, I’m blaming you,” Vex teases.

“You say that as if I’m not a cleric of a goddess dedicated to forgiveness and second chances,” Pike teases right back.

Vex tosses her head back with a laugh, nearly running into a group of children, each holding a sunny yellow balloon, and, a couple seconds later, a group of gossiping teenagers. Though it’s hard to say whether her laughing is to blame or just the crowd. It has only grown with the afternoon.

The Spring Festival has always picked up during the afternoon. All the booths are open, the rest of Westruun trickles in, and the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. With the addition of the most dedicated of Scanlan’s fans, the gardens are alive with chatter and activity like she’s never seen.

As they wander through the crowd, a surge of pride hits her but is quickly dulled by an overwhelming feeling that she’s outnumbered. She usually says ‘hello’ and checks in with everyone, but there’s just too many people. It’s a lot – in a good way, she thinks.

They pass by the bake sale tables while on their way to Vax’s booth. The crowd is thickest around Scanlan’s table. Pike can barely see him, except for brief glimpses as people shift and move. As Vex carries her onwards, Pike throws one last glance over her shoulder and catches his eye. He winks and raises a hand to his lips as if he intends to blow her a kiss. Pike whips her head back around and swallows back her blush.

Vex, luckily, takes no apparent notice.

Vax’s booth rests on the far side of the gardens, tucked next to Keyleth’s face painting station. He was a last minute addition to the lineup. His work tends to constantly keep him on the road this time of year. Meaning he hasn’t attended the festival since his first year in Westruun. Meaning he has never attended the festival since Pike’s been Head Cleric. Naturally, she jumped on the opportunity to include him in her festival. Even if it meant switching around the festival blueprints three days before the festival.

“I worry about him, you know,” Vex says lightly as they approach. Pike keeps her eyes on Vax. He has not noticed them yet as he tries to jovially invite a disinterested couple to his booth. “Three weeks, and he’s made no mention of heading back out again. Not that I’m not happy to have him around, mind you, but…This is unlike him.”

They are too close now for Pike to say anything without piquing Vax’s interest, so she stays mum. She sees now that he brought out his best and brightest sun-themed antiques to showcase.

“Twinsie, I brought you that Pickle you ordered,” Vex greets her brother. She untangles herself from Pike to sit on the front table of Vax’s booth, pushing aside antiques to do so.

Vax rises from his seat with a warm but closed-lipped smile. Pike notices he’s wearing his sun brooch again today.

“Hey, Stringbean, how goes the booth business?”

Vax pushes at Vex, rearranging the antiques she displaced. “Oh, it goes here and there. Not getting much of an antique vibe from most.”

Pike doesn’t see it - the missing piece that Vex does. She knows it’s there. Vax’s worrying behavior these past weeks have given enough clues, but...She can’t piece it together. He seems his usual self, reserved but affectionate in all his mannerisms.

“Hey, Pike! Look!”

Blinking from her thoughts, Pike glances over to the neighboring booth. Keyleth sits on a stool next to a young boy with his face painted like a tiger, which is not a design that Pike remembers approving. Keyleth points eagerly at her work when she sees Pike looking. “Cool, right?” She calls out again, and – Hey, forget approved designs, it is!

“The coolest!” Pike calls back. “Can I get something?”

“Hey!” Vax leans forward, slamming his hands down on his front table and rattling the antiques. He wags a finger towards Keyleth, pointing as he shouts around a grin, “Yeah, you! Stop stealing my business.”

Keyleth sticks her tongue out at him. She gently ushers the tiger-boy off the stool with one hand and motions to Pike with the other. “Forget Vax and his dinky antiques, Pike. Hop over here to imagination station for real fun!” An exaggerated ‘uh-hem!’ startles Keyleth into remembering the small queue of children still waiting. Pike half-smiles, half-winces at the parent tapping their foot and eyeing Keyleth, who sheepishly shrinks in her seat before calling back over to Pike. “In, In a minute, I mean!”

Pike offers what she hopes is an encouraging yet sympathetic thumbs up.

Another ten minutes pass before Pike takes the stool in Keyleth’s booth. To avoid holding up the line longer than necessary, Pike only asks for a sun upon her cheek. Keyleth still takes her time with it, chatting as she works about all the cute kids she’s seen. Vex hangs over Keyleth’s shoulder, snapping pictures now and then. Pike tells her and Keyleth about Scanlan’s Instagram post, but they admit that they already knew. In between teasing Pike about it and complimenting her, Vex yells updates to Vax who keeps asking for them. It’s not the most enlightening conversation. A lot of –

“No, dear, I promise you nothing exciting is happening over here.”

“Are you sure? Should I come over?”

“Positive.”

– and so on and so forth in a similar manner.

When she finally relinquishes her chair to the next in line, Vax and Keyleth hold her attention for a while longer. With so many people making her usual plans of socializing with everyone rather impossible, Pike sees no reason to hurry herself elsewhere. A number of people approach her instead, thanking her for the wonderful, welcoming atmosphere. She recognizes many from the parish and others, not at all. Some ask for suggestions on what booths to visit. Some even ask about the traditions behind the day. If she notes that a lot of them happen to be holding fancy donuts from a certain fancy donut place that just so happened to have a bunch of donuts delivered here today by a certain someone, then…Well…

Vex wanders a few steps from the group, leaning on one leg to peer through an opening in the crowd. Pike watches her, waiting for an explanation, but her curiosity gets the better of her before it comes.

“Vex?”

Vex rights herself with a flounce and a hum. “Huh. I wonder where your boyfriend’s wandered off to.”

Pike glances towards the bake sale tables, ignoring Vex’s accomplished preen when she does. Though the movement of the crowd still commands the visibility of the area, it doesn’t take long until enough people shift for Pike to see that it’s true. Scanlan is gone. In his place, Kris mans the table. With a wide smile that borders on pained and sweeping arms not unlike those inflatable wiggly men, he seems to be trying to move the line along. The gathered crowd mostly ignores him. They glance around as if looking for Scanlan’s return. Others bow their heads together and whisper. Their glances are more directed, and their phones seem all the most present in their hands.

“He’s probably gone to the bathroom,” Pike says, but her eyes never stop following the searching scans of Scanlan’s crowd. Her feet start to carry her towards the heart of the festival once more. Vax protests her departure with grand declarations of abandonment while Keyleth asks if she’s alright. She is. She thinks. Something tugs in the pit of her stomach, but it’s probably alright. She just – “I should, I should go see how Grog and Wilhand’s booth is holding up,” she mumbles.

A whirl of a skirt, a flash of sea blue out of the corner of her eye, tells her that Vex follows. Tension builds on her shoulders as they weave through the crowd. She waits for Vex to tease her, to accuse her of – something. Overprotectiveness? Overreaction? Over – Over – Over heels, maybe. Yeah. That sounds like a Vex tease, but.

Nothing comes.

Grog’s booth, a strength game of sorts, sits in another corner. One that’s closer to the trees that line the gardens, where there’s more shade as the day grows on. It’s best for Papa Wilhand that way. Best for hiding too, if needed, but – It’s alright. That’s fine.

Grog looks up as they arrive, cheery show smile taking a stormier turn the closer they get.

“Scanlan – ?”

He jerks his thumb towards the back of the booth.

“Is everything alright?”

Grog lowers his head. Pike swallows hard. Children’s laughter flows around her. Voices, both familiar and not, murmur onwards in the background, but they feel so distant in this moment as Grog hunches his shoulders and leans down to whisper, “He’s got another phone call.” That feeling of something burrows deeper as she watches the way his jaw works after he says it. The way his eyes stare to the right of her then to the left of her, never at her.

“Another?”

“He’s been getting them a lot this week.”

Pike wants to protest. Scanlan should have told her. Grog should have. Someone should have, but - Hm. Planning a festival means missing life beyond her temple walls. Setting Scanlan’s mug out on the counter every morning doesn’t mean she always can. Memories of a mansion visit and backstage passes and boxed booths in fighting arenas come to her. Moments interrupted by a jaunty ringtone juxtapositioned by the splintering of Scanlan’s smile.

Phone calls mean one thing.

Grog straightens and squares his shoulders.

Pike feels small in his shadow, left without answers.

“I should – ” Her voice trembles. Worrying her teeth against her bottom lip, she tries again, “I should talk to him.” The silent, solid span of Grog’s back answers her, but she hears one sniff and his chin dips towards his chest. She glances towards Wilhand. He’s currently entertaining the booth’s crowd, inviting them to take a swing at the bell. In the moments in between smiles and warm welcomes, he casts Pike a loaded look. She glances to Vex, who gathers her skirts nervously in hand and beckons her to go with a nod of her head.

I want to talk to him.

I need to talk to him.

Those are the words that her voice fails to say as she hurries behind the canopied back of the booth. White noise rings in her ears, building with each step. Children’s laughter fades. Her parish, lost in the crowd of fans that Scanlan called, offer her no warmth by their presence. The rest of the festival rests no more than ten steps away, but the world hushes as she rounds the corner to see Scanlan and gravitates to the sound of his voice, hissed and tight:

“You promised, Dranzel. You. Promised. Me this shit would stop. You said – ”

Scanlan presses his knuckles against his lips, half-turned away from her. Desperation flares in his eyes. His teeth gnash into his skin with a huff. Like he means to speak but knows he can’t. Like he’s cornered.

Pike breathes in against the rising tide of dread in her throat. Her hand rises, but Scanlan spins his back to her. Her hand drops to the sound of a stuttered exhale.

“I won’t.” A beat. A breath. “I won’t apologize, either.” Scanlan pulls the phone away from his ear. “Tell them,” he says, voice measured in anger. Muffled shouting spouts from the receiver. It cuts off as he ends the call with a calculated slip of his finger against the screen.

With a drawn sigh, Scanlan’s arm drops. The rest of his body follows, slumping in a dramatic loss of air – of fight. He sways on his feet, just sways and breathes in the silence.

Something pulls at – No. That’s not it. Pike feels her own frustration build in her throat. Frustration that scavenges through the hanging silence, that takes what Scanlan lost when he dropped that call and billows upwards like a flame. It’s not just some thing. It’s – It’s…not supposed to be this way.

She blinks back the sudden gathering of tears at the corner of her eyes.

“You have to go back.”

Scanlan nearly tumbles over his own feet when he spins to face her. “Pike.” Her name sounds so terribly delicate, held and delivered so gently, despite the hard grimace ruining his lips.

She averts her gaze. “You have to go back. That’s what it is, right?”

“Pike, no, it’s not – ” Her hands curl to fists. Scanlan steps forward with a panicked shout. “Hey, no, come on,” and any pretense drops from him as he gently scoops up her hands in his, smoothing at her knuckles as if he can smooth away the anger. Pike lets him, lets herself watch his expression as his calloused skin inspires shivers all over hers. “Come on,” and he shouldn’t say it like that – with that same voice he uses when they’re always alone, soft and whispered. “I’m not leaving.”

Her lips tremble.

What is it?, she thinks. Why am I so angry?

“No.” Scanlan lifts his gaze from her hands and frowns. The sight still twists terribly in her heart. Unfurling her fingers, she pulls them away from him with a frown to match. “You don’t need to lie, Scanlan.” When the defiance sparks in his eyes, Pike counters. “It’s your livelihood. Your passion,” she insists. “You’re gonna have to leave eventually. I know that...I’m just - ” Sad? Disappointed? She doesn’t say, hopes maybe the silence will speak for her.

Why are you angry?, she wonders when Scanlan jerks his head to the side.

“I’m not going back,” he murmurs. Lips barely move. She wonders if she was supposed to hear. Her fingers itch to reach up and trace the curve where his smile should be, ask him to repeat what he said - what he meant. Her hand touches against his chest but gets no further. He looks back to her, lips parted and unsmiling, but free of any previous frustration.

He should smile, she thinks.

She wants.

Scanlan steps closer, and her hand flattens over his heart. Reason tells her to step back. She feels the fluttering beneath Scanlan’s skin, through his nice pressed shirt, over the thrum in her ears. Reason loses. A haze hangs over Scanlan’s gaze, and he looks happy, happier than she’s seen. Her heart skips and doesn’t steady. A stuttering breath follows.

“Pike.” She nods, and Scanlan raises his hand. It hesitates at her cheek, alighting a thrill across her skin, and she leans into it. When he speaks next, his voice quivers slightly, but she hears it: his smile. “If you want me to stay, then I will.”

“If I want you..,” she repeats, turning further into the warmth of his hand. Scanlan chuckles, breathless. His lips pull upwards, so hers do too. “What about your music?”

“What about it?” He answers blithely. His lips open and then close again, eyes still hazy. The thumb upon her cheek brushes and catches again and again against a ticklish itch she cannot place. Oh - Imagination station, Keyleth painting her face, a little cheery sun on her cheek. Heat rises to her face, and Pike feels rather silly all the sudden, thinking about Scanlan looking at that ditzy little sun during this moment, but Scanlan smiles and there’s an arm around her waist, a hand gently curling on her hip, and -

Pike pulls away with a start.

“I, I have to get back to the festival,” she says, searching the ground for imagined responsibilities. Scanlan looks as startled as she feels but makes no protest when she moves to leave. “I have to go, but, uh, we’ll,” she grabs his hand and gives it one last, quick squeeze. “We’ll talk later.”

As she hurries back into the sun, past Vex and her exclamations, and into the ever-shifting crowd, she tries desperately to sort through the muddle that’s become of her - Well, everything. But, all she can hear is Scanlan’s chuckled goodbye, still slightly breathless and giddy: “I’m not going anywhere.”

☼ ☼ ☼

As the sun goes down, the fairy lights flicker back to life.

The traditional potluck dinner, held in the temple basement, finishes closer to 8pm than usual due to the influx of visitors this year. Pike scarfs down her share, lukewarm and consisting of mostly scraps, before hurrying outside to where the people slowly drift and say their goodbyes. Cars coast by as she waves from the sidewalk. The parking lot slowly empties.

Still – a good crowd lingers under the garden lights’ soft glow.

Booths close down. Evening chatter becomes the common pastime. Members of the festival committee pick up stray bits of litter under the watchful eye of Kris, who stands with his clipboard, crunching numbers and calculating gains.

And, her?

Well, Pike settles by the twin arches to optimize her ability to say her goodbyes to as many as she can. Scanlan, with his bake sale table closed and his attentions wayward, ventures by at one point. A crowd follows behind him. Some of them more obvious about it than others. She is certain he must know.

Still – he pauses in his meandering to pluck one of the white roses from the arches and tuck it behind her ear.

“Thought I might play a song or two,” he says. His fingers linger in her hair. “Would it be alright if I have the stage?”

“Yeah, it’s – ” She sighs when he pulls away, a breath she didn’t realize she’d held. “ – It’s all yours.” Sentiment rises in her throat like bile, so she turns it to teasing. “Try not to sing any songs about your dick. Sarenrae loves a good beg for forgiveness but – best not to need to do so in the first place, yeah?”

Scanlan scrunches his nose and laughs. As he walks away, casting a smile over his shoulder, he shrugs. “No promises, Pikey.”

His fans watch her. Some of them more obvious about it than others. Phones held before their faces. The occasional flash leaves spots around the corners of her eyes. She watches them right back, smiling cordially and waving. They wander off in sets, following once again in Scanlan’s wake as he takes to the announcement stage. It’s where her and Kris could reach the whole crowd and where the children’s choir sang their 12 and 2pm shows. It’s now where Scanlan settles in with an acoustic guitar in one hand and the mic stand in the other.

When he speaks into the mic, his voice reverberating around the garden and interrupting the still of the evening mist, she shivers.

She should have grabbed her cardigan before she came outside.

“Oh, Pike, look at you. Didn’t you bring a jacket?”

Vex, always on cue, approaches the arches on the arm on her husband. The plush bear is tucked under her other arm, naturally. Percy never accepts a loss.

Pike smiles and shakes her head. “I’m fine. The chill’s not too bad tonight.”

Still – “Vax, darling, why don’t you lend her your jacket?”

Vax, never far behind his twin, saddles up to the conversation with a blink and a – “What?”

“It’s really fine,” Pike insists. She can hear Scanlan singing. Softness is not a word for Scanlan. At least, she never used to think so until recent weeks, but as he weaves the once synthesized pop tones of “Myth Taken” into a haunting ballad, it’s the only word she can think. Soft. She smiles, despite herself. “I’m fine.”

Vex eyes her but relents. “Well, alright, but if you catch a cold – ”

“You’ll show up with homemade soup and scold me as you wrap me up in a blanket burrito like you do every time?”

“How would she eat the soup then?” Vax whispers at the same time Vex exclaims with a pout, “That was one time!”

“Twice, actually, in just this past year,” Percy corrects, and Pike nods.

“Darling, I need you to be on my side or our marriage is pointless.”

Percy looks poised to argue but thinks better of it.

As their banter dissolves into goodbyes, Pike doles out hugs – two, at least – to each of them. Percy leaves first to pull the car around to the curb. Vex spends the time he is gone, complementing the rose in Pike’s hair and hugging her close to keep her warm. Pike doesn’t protest. Only sinners reject cozy hugs. When Vex leaves, with a promise that they will have dinner later this week, Vax stays, lingering at her side as the de Rolo’s car pulls away.

“Everything alright?” Pike lays a hand on his arm, smiling upwards at his pensive mien.

“Yeah, I just thought you might enjoy some company.”

I’d enjoy some company, is what Pike hears. She reaches up and pats his cheek, giggling as he fakes a grimace at the treatment. “How could I ever say ‘no’ to such a face?”

“You can’t. It looks exactly like my sister’s.”

Pike’s laugh lifts, mingling with the sounds of Scanlan’s guitar. His voice comes back to her like an echo, and Pike raises her eyes to the gathering stars as her laughter leaves her with a sigh. Vax says nothing at her side, so she allows him this time and says nothing in return.

Grog comes by with Wilhand as the hour wears later, promising that he’ll be back once Wilhand is settled to help with any cleanup. Most of the parish filters out as well, clasping hands with Pike as they do so and smiling to Vax. The only crowd that lingers is in front of the announcement stage, staring up at Scanlan who strums out the last chords of an acoustic “Goliath Fight Song”.

Pike smiles.

It fades with surprise when Scanlan introduces his next song as a work-in-progress. Pike watches as fans that didn’t already have their phones out scramble to do so. She wonders how long it will take before the song spreads across social media, how many articles she will wake up to about Scanlan’s secret session and what this means for that delayed fourth album. She wonders about his contracts and record deal and when this song will be just another track amongst a dozen others, recorded in a booth and not sung openly to the stars in a temple garden.

She wonders, chest tight, how much longer until he leaves.

He can say all he wants that he won’t. Charm her with pretty words and muddle her head, but he can’t change the truth. Pike grasps at her symbol of Sarenrae and lets Scanlan fool her for one more song. It’s a folksy one, unlike anything she’s heard from him before. Even his acoustic takes on his songs always keep their pop roots, but this one – with an opening line of “Lemme tell you: don’t fuck with cocaine” – pulls at her to sigh rather than bounce on her heels.

The chorus hits –

She told me,’The sun always rises.’

Her breath leaves her in a rush.

“You alright, Pickle?” Vax asks at her side, but Pike’s eyes remain intent upon the stage. Scanlan’s eyes are downcast as he sings as if he’s watching his fingers closely to keep the notes in line. Still, his voice rings clear:

‘The days begin anew and so can you’
‘I know it's not much but I think of you now and again’
My god, she really saved me then

It’s about her, or – No, it’s about a letter she sent years ago. Fluttering warmth in her chest wars against the shocked chills across her skin. She feels too much at once, wondering why she ever thought he would forget, why there’s a part of her that forgot.

“I’m fine. I need to, I have to go. I forgot something in the temple, I think, I just, I’ll be back,” she stumbles to say as she moves back and out of the arches. Vax watches her, brow pinched with worry, but doesn’t follow. For that, she’s glad. She needs a moment, needs to think, but Scanlan’s voice surrounds her and the beat of her heart pounds incessantly in her ears. It’s so much. She all but runs to the temple doors, hand curled around her symbol of Sarenrae, pressed over her heart.

“Pike!”

When she jumps, so does her pursuer – Kris.

“Y-yes?” She gasps.

“Oh, I apologize. Are you busy? I thought,” he lifts his clipboard, “we could go over the charity numbers. Pike – It’s unbelievable.”

She nods slowly. Numbers are simple. “Okay, yeah, let’s – Let’s go inside.”

Back by the arches, she sees Scanlan emerge with Vax close at his side. Her heart grows wilder. Scanlan glances her way at the same moment a flash of headlights swings into the parking lot. Blinking back her momentary blindness, she grabs Kris’ arm and hurries into the temple.

☼ ☼ ☼

“He wrote me a song.”

Pike looks up at her shrine of Sarenrae, poised sweetly above the mirror in her room behind the dais. Her goddess does not answer. Heaving a woeful sigh does nothing to encourage one either. With a pout, Pike brushes her thumb against the petals of the rose she’s plucked from her hair.

“He wrote me another song,” she amends. Her heart still flutters in her chest. Nothing will ease it. Not numbers, distance, or the silence of the room.

She can’t keep running from Scanlan. Well, she can, but…Pike searches the peaceful visage of her goddess. She has a feeling Sarenrae has higher hopes for her.

Rising from her knees, Pike brushes down her dress’ skirt and heads for the door. No time like the present to just – Talk to Scanlan! No big deal. Just look in his face and say words to him. She’s done that before, right? Completely normal, non-heart fluttering stuff.

“I’m doing this for you,” she calls back towards the shrine before throwing open the door and –

Oh.

Scanlan is here.

Which she doesn’t fully realize until after she bumps her nose into his, jams her shoulder into his chest, and sends him pinwheeling backwards. She locks eyes with him as he tips. His widen in picture perfect surprise like some slow motion train wreck. He gasps her name –

“Pike.”

Her response is decidedly less perfect –

“Oh, shit! Geez.”

She grabs for him, but Scanlan stumbles back and onto his ass with a squawk. Clapping a hand over her mouth, Pike apologizes and then again when she sees him pull up to his hands with a wince and again and again until Scanlan simply throws his head back and laughs.

“Wow – You’re like a little battering ram,” he crows, eyes bright and smile brighter. Her apologies stop, and with a brush of a hand over her face, Pike’s laughter bubbles up and over to join his.

She pulls him to his feet, patting him on the back for good measure. He wobbles for a moment but steadies himself with a hand upon her shoulder. His fingers ghost against her cheek on the way there. When he looks at her, she ducks her head and brushes her hands down the front of his shirt. The motion fixes the wrinkles the fall caused. It makes Scanlan sigh.

“I need to talk to you,” she says to his collarbone. When he doesn’t reply, she smiles up sympathetically at his pained expression and asserts, “Nothing bad. I promise.”

No argument comes, so she steps back and gestures for Scanlan to enter her dais room.

“Wow, are you serious?” He gawks comically. He steps past her with a skip to his step, and she follows suit, brow arched and closing the door behind them. In the middle of the room, Scanlan stops and spins in a circle. Childlike wonderment flickers through every head tilt and searching gaze as he observes the room from ceiling to floor to wardrobe and mirror. “Never thought I’d actually get to experience your robe room. It’s nice. Cozy.” He raises a hand in an ‘ok’ gesture. “Good vibes.”

Robe room? Well, that certainly rolls off the tongue easier than ‘her room behind the dais’ or, when she’s feeling particularly morose in the morning, ‘temple purgatory’.

“Keep your pants on, Shorthalt,” and it’s bait and she knows it. When Scanlan smirks, she points towards the small statuette of Sarenrae. “We’re not alone.”

Scanlan places a hand over his heart, scandalized. “Are you suggesting that I would ever, in my life do something improper in this – the house of the holy Everlight?”

She snorts and rolls her eyes. Fondly, of course. It’s too late to pretend otherwise.

“Well – Have a seat,” she says and gestures to the chair-free space around them.

Scanlan drops to a sit on the floor, unbothered, and, when he peers up at her expectantly, she’s quick to settle on her knees perpendicular to him. She can feel his eyes on her as she sits back on her heels and carefully tucks the skirt of her dress. Her heart has yet to settle from earlier. She doubts, at this rate, that it will before the night’s end. But, when she looks to him, his eyes are elsewhere, intent upon the high port window and the starry night beyond it.

In a confused clash, she feels thankful for the brief pause in his scrutiny yet intent upon winning it back.

She huffs a breath through her teeth.

This is really no good.

She should say that, right? Just go right for the tension. She plans the words she wants. With every passing beat, she expects Scanlan to fill the silence with a joke or a tease or some small chatter, like he does every morning at breakfast. He is silent now. Maybe that’s why she stumbles past what she wants and goes for the easy instead. Why she knows exactly the words she should say but others come out instead –

“How are things outside?”

“Proceeding swimmingly. Last time I checked – hm, about 10 minutes ago? – we had taken down most of what should be taken down tonight. Should be just about done now.”

“Is it really that late?” She says, incredulous. She fumbles for her phone, but Scanlan produces his with a flourish and shows her: 11pm. Her jaw drops. “You should have asked me out sooner.” Scanlan’s brow arches, and she clarifies with a flush, “Asked me outside. I could have helped.”

Scanlan shrugs. “You needed the break.”

“So, I suppose your fanclub’s gone by now, then?”

“Yeah, Grog helped me herd them out,” he explains evenly before hesitating and ducking his head. “I apologize, by the way. I should have asked your permission to, you know, invite all of them. I hope they didn’t cause you too much trouble.”

“Oh, no! They were great, really sweet. We nearly tripled our charity goal, you know. That never would have happened without them – without you…”

Scanlan raises his chin to smile at her. “I’m glad. You worked so hard on this festival, Pike. I just wanted to make sure that it received every bit of appreciation it deserved. That’s all. So, I’m glad. Earlier – when you ran off, I was worried that maybe…”

“No, no…I – Kris needed to talk to me about the numbers, and then there was all this – Paperwork stuff, so – Yes. No bother, at all. I promise.” She reaches out and grabs his hand, giving it a squeeze. She makes sure to meet his eyes when she says, “Thank you.” When Scanlan squeezes her hand in return, she fumbles over her sentiment, swallowing hard, “And, you’ll be happy to know, they were very appreciative. A lot of them came up to thank me. Some asked for pictures too, weirdly enough.”

He laughs, eyes sparkling with delight as they scrunch. “Oh, look at you. A crowd-stealer. I suppose I should watch out, huh? You’re gonna steal all my fame.”

Pike rolls her eyes while he snickers. Her eyes fall to a loose strand on the hem of her dress she never noticed before. She plucks at it with a huff. “Hardly! They all just think we’re dating,” she explains and waves her hand dismissively. Out of the corner of her eye, she swears she sees Scanlan lean in closer. She ducks her head lower to pull at the string. She wishes the lighting in this room wasn’t so low. Mumbling, she does her best to carry on the conversation despite this new frustration, “So, really, you should be thankful that I politely declined or else they’d have all sold those pictures to the paparazzi. Imagine the scandal!”

“Yes, imagine it: Sarenrae’s sweetheart, the girlfriend of the mischievous and handsome Scanlan Shorthalt.”

The laughter has left his voice, but she still hears a breathless awe in the undertone. She glances up long enough to see his eyes search her face, to become increasingly aware of the slow brush of his thumb on her hand. Flutterings return. The ones from earlier - the ones that weren’t present when they were talking about simple things, like numbers and her robe room, because - Shit. She’s gonna call it that now, isn’t she? Because he did.

Because he said it with that silly voice of his - so ecstatic about a simple room.

Because it was cute.

It doesn’t feel like a joke anymore, but she laughs for the both of them, anyway. She brushes her hair over her shoulder with the back of a hand, turning her face away with the motion, and declares, “We’d be front page news. No tabloid magazines would be safe from our faces.”

“We’ll buy all of them. Frame the best one above the mantel piece.”

Pike feels her heart clench.

“Scanlan,” she starts, because she doesn’t know what he’s thinking and it’s making her uneasy.

A series of light taps hit the door, and it could only be Grog. This is the one door she’s told him that he must be gentle with when knocking. By which, she meant: please knock like a normal person might. Instead, he barely touches it with his knuckles.

Breathing away whatever she meant to say, she looks to the door just as, sure enough, Grog calls out:

“Pike? You in there?”

“Yeah! What’s up?”

“The council people are all asking whether or not you’re doing the end of the day huddle thing.”

“Shit,” Pike mutters under her breath. She pulls her hand from Scanlan’s with a shake to ease away his oppressive, lingering warmth and rises to her feet. Hurrying over to the door, she pulls it open, smiling up at her brother. “Yeah, yeah, sorry.” Grog looks past her into the room, probably at Scanlan, but she pushes at his arm and says, “Tell them I’ll be right out, okay?”

Grog glances between her and Scanlan, considering, but with a nod and a purse of his lips, he leaves.

Pike slumps against the doorframe.

“There’s always something more, huh?”

Pike turns to see Scanlan saddling up beside her. His eyes are downcast. In his fingers is the white rose. He must have picked it up from the vanity where she dropped it. The petals are a bit smushed from all her worrying, but it’s still pretty. Still hers.

“Are we done talking then?” He says and doesn’t look at her. The rose twirls in his fingers. This way and that. But, he doesn’t look at her.

But – maybe she’s imagining things.

It’s been a long day.

Maybe there is no tension in his smile when he does raise his eyes to hers and maybe the magic in his voice holds strong despite the weary lines forming around the corner of his lips. Maybe he’s not disappointed like she’s disappointed. She feels like she’s running away, but –

It’s been a long day, and she wants to go home.

“For now,” and she tenses as he reaches out and tucks the rose back behind her ear. His fingers brush her cheek, sparking warmth in their wake, and she turns away with a stutter.

“Tomorrow?” He prompts.

“Tomorrow. Okay.” Warily, she looks to him and adds, “No interruptions.”

Scanlan nods once, solemn. When he smiles, it’s pulled and close-lipped. “Alright.” Pushing away from the doorframe, he spins on a heel, shoots her a pair of finger guns, and heads down the aisle: “Tomorrow then. Just you and me, baby.”

She waits until he’s turned away again to move.

Her fingers touch her cheek, tracing the soft lines that Scanlan burned into her skin. Amidst the pounding in her ears and the fluttering that won’t die, her chilled fingertips leave only a shiver. For a moment, she almost wants to call Scanlan back, ask him to place his hands over hers, to warm her.

She swallows down the thought and follows.

☼ ☼ ☼

After thanking everyone for their hard work and reminding them of their afternoon plans tomorrow to take down the rest of the festival’s foundations, Pike stands on the sidewalk and waves them all off. Kris waits with her. She tells him that he doesn’t have to do so. He stays anyway, of course, and she’s thankful for the diversion when Grog and Scanlan head towards the pickup. She talks to him through the rising emotion when Scanlan comments that maybe he’ll stay as well. Until he eventually notices she’s not taking the bait and jumps into the truck with Grog.

She watches the taillights disappear down the hill.

When she sighs, she’s thankful that Kris says nothing and only offers to go turn off the fairy lights now that everyone is gone.

She stays to watch them go out, to say thank you to Kris for his hard work once more, then heads home with her hands tight around the steering wheel as her mind wheels through muddled thought after muddled thought, all amounting to one: Tomorrow.

When she arrives, she does so quietly. Upstairs, Grog and Scanlan’s footfalls creak against the aged floors as they trade spots in the bathroom and chat in the din. She hangs by the threshold of the living room, watching Wilhand asleep in his chair, until she sees the light flick off and hears the noise hush.

“Goodnight, Papa Wilhand,” she says softly. She turns to the shrine of Sarenrae on the mantelpiece and smiles, “Thank you for today.” And, after a moment, “I look forward to tomorrow.”

Cresting the stairs, she peeks the light streaming from under Scanlan’s door as she gathers her nightclothes from her room before ducking into the bathroom. If she lingers in the shower longer because of it, then it’s only right that she feel her heart sink when she emerges to see the hallway devoid of its shine.

Tomorrow.

She drops her clothes in an unceremonious pile on the floor of her room. The white rose from her hair is placed safely onto her vanity under her holy symbol and next to her hair ribbons. Throwing it away feels wrong. Though she knows it will soon wilt and die, by tomorrow probably, she cannot stomach the thought of letting it go.

There are more.

Tomorrow, she will help remove the ones from the arches and hang them up to dry in the temple basement like she does every year.

But, this one – she touches a battered petal and worries her bottom lip – this one is hers.

Drifting over to her bed, she sets her alarm and crashes on top of her blankets.

She dozes, maybe, between fleeting thoughts of Scanlan. Curled on her side, pillow hugged to her chest, she feels like a teenager again. All caught up in wondering if the boy in her math class is pretending to be stupid so she’ll help him or if the girl from her English class who smiles at her in the hall thinks she’s cute or, in this case, if her big brother’s pop star best friend has romantic intentions towards her and has this whole time.

It’s silly.

It’s stupid.

She can’t sleep.

At 2 am, she grabs her phone and mindlessly scrolls through Twitter to alleviate the dizzying nausea that hits with each passing thought of each passing moment between Scanlan and her today and these past weeks. She notes the sudden influx in followers and the concerning amount of notifications and quickly ditches this idea as anything other than an anxiety aggravator.

Vex sent her a text – “The Mr. and I had such a lovely time today. Congratulations, as always, on all your hard work! Kisses!!”

Followed by another – “Let’s plan for dinner later this week. So much to discuss now that you’re free. Such as a certain pop star. Hm?”

Yeah. Nope.

Vax sent a text, too. Short. Sweeter. – “Sorry I missed you. Thanks for the booth.”

Right. She wonders when he slipped away.

She means to send him a reply, but – though she hardly remembers the dozing off – she awakens from a half-dream at 4 am.

Pulling herself from bed, cloaked in the quilt folded neatly at her feet, she wanders downstairs and eats another donut or two from her specially provided box. In the half-light of the kitchen, she pulls her legs to her chest, rests her cheek on her knee in between bites, and lets the feelings of the past day wash over her.

Every single silly, muddling one.

It’s only in their wake that she realizes: It’s tomorrow.

The sun has not risen yet.

With singular purpose, she hurries back up the stairs to her room. Pulling out a blue sweater from her closet and her favorite gray sweatpants, Pike pauses briefly before her mirror to wrangle her bed head into a sloppy braid before exiting into the hall.

No light breaks the darkness except for the faint glow of moonlight from the windows in the kitchen. She breathes in the silence, feeling the thrum of her heart in her ears, a calling she cannot ignore any longer.

She presses a hand to her chest.

Her heart flutters.

She crosses the hall and knocks on Scanlan’s door.

Chapter Text

The sun has not yet risen.

In this uncertain liminal moment, where Sarenrae’s warmth lingers beyond her and not a whisper nor a snore nor a hum breathes through the house, Pike is still.

The silence rings around her.

She stands with her hand pressed to Scanlan’s door but does not dare say his name, afraid to break the silence. That does not stop it from sitting heavily on the back of her tongue or looping in an unreachable point in her mind.

After a nervous pause, she knocks again. The sound echoes in the empty hall as she presses her ear close to the door and listens.

Sheets shuffle. A low groan follows and the soft pat of feet hitting the hardwood floor. Though muffled, Pike swears she hears him grumble, “ ‘M up! ‘M up.”

There’s a lull, another bout of shuffling, and Pike pulls back as his steps move closer.

The door swings open clutched in the hand of Scanlan, slouched and shirtless. A purple robe billows loosely about his slight frame and slips off one shoulder. The piece does little to conceal the pajama pants that hang dangerously low on his hips. Not that she looks too long. He crashes his shoulder into the doorframe and tilts his head up towards the ceiling.

“Yea – whatsit?” he mumbles, voice heavy with sleep.

Pike scarcely dares to breathe.

When she sighs, unable to resist, Scanlan follows the sound. His chin drops. Deep brown eyes, nearly black in the din, blink blearily before – He inhales sharply. The fog over his eyes vanishes.

“Pike?” He straightens in the doorway. Nervous hands dance around the collar of his robe before setting it right on his shoulders. For a disorientating moment, he seems to sway towards her. Eyes so close. Forehead nearly touching hers. Pike wraps her arms tight around her, glancing off to the side, as Scanlan gently whispers,“Is everything alright?”

She nods, resolute despite her rabbiting heart. “It’s tomorrow.”

Scanlan does not speak for a moment. In the silence, his chest rises and falls slowly, evenly. Deliberately. He breathes deep and says, barely a whisper, “So it is.”

His hand rises. Pike watches it tremble, watches his fingers stretch towards her.

She steps back.

“Meet me downstairs, and dress warmly. It’s time for a pilgrimage.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Neither of them speaks as Pike directs their path towards Greyskull Keep.

The streets are empty. No cars. No people. No sounds of life except theirs. Her ears fixate on her measured breaths, the sighs that Scanlan pulls as he pretends not to shiver, and their footsteps striking the sidewalk in tandem. As they walk, Pike can feel Scanlan’s gaze on her while she keeps her eyes on her boots.

She does not speak to him, except to tell him their destination and ask him if he’s warm enough for the morning chill.

He does not speak to her, except to say that he is fine and –

“Lead the way,” but, in the wake of yesterday, it sounds far too much like, “No need to tell me. I’d follow you anywhere.”

It would be better if he joked about the long walk, she thinks.

It would be better if he did not seem more familiar with the path up to Greyskull Keep. No hesitation takes him once they reach the trailhead nor does his hand grasp for her in the darkness, illuminated only by the glow of their phones’ flashlights. He walks at her side. Eyes forward and keen. Face, a mask. She watches him and thinks it would be better if, if, if – And, she jumps when his hand touches her back.

“Careful,” he whispers and leads her in the same way she once led him.

He smiles at her, bright eyes and the beautiful curve of his lips lightening his previously stern expression, and she thinks perhaps she thinks too much.

His hand stays on her back the rest of the way to Greyskull Keep.

Pike breaks away from him as soon as she sees it through the trees, ignoring his hiss that she be careful. She steps all the way up to the wall and peers out towards the eastern range. Light bleeds in around the edges of the peaks. She glances back towards Scanlan. He approaches with his shoulders hunched against the wind chill from which the trees once provided shelter, and she smiles.

“I suppose we should, uh – Shall we sit?”

She misses Scanlan’s reply in her focus to calmly and coolly reach the bench despite the spike in her heart rate. She settles a respectable distance away from one side, not too close to the middle to seem inviting but not too far away to seem cold, and tries to sit back and relax as if she had not put that distressing amount of thought into it. The cool wood of the bench bleeds through her sweater. Relaxation remains elusive as her back tenses in response. Her hands pull at her sleeves in vain, hoping to stretch and curl them around chilled fingers.

Spring is here.

She should not be so cold.

As Scanlan sits on the bench next to her, setting a reasonable distance between them, her mind refuses to consider any viable solutions.

Scanlan leans back and rests his hands in his lap. Pike peeks at him between warming her hands and considering her words but his eyes are upon the distant mountains.

The space allows her to breathe and find the strength to speak.

“That song at the festival – You,” Pike sighs and looks down at her clasped hands. The thumb of one hand worries against the soft skin between her thumb and pointer finger on the other. “You wrote that for me.”

Scanlan’s response is hesitant but clear. “I did.”

“I didn’t think you remembered that letter.”

She does. She wrote it to him when he went into rehab the second time.

The first time happened so suddenly. Headline news about how Scanlan Shorthalt, fresh off touring for his second album Aubergine and coked out of his mind, went wild at a A-lister party. People scoffed, said it was typical. Expected.

So – they shipped him off to rehab like any other junked up celebrity scandal and the sensation of it faded in a matter of weeks.

And, Pike did nothing but wonder: could she have done anything? A visit to a mansion, a backstage cool down, a passing joke. All the moments she turned a blind eye to his drug use. She remembered each one of them with nauseating horror, and she wondered – still wonders, in darker moments of meditation – if she could have stopped it.

Nearly a year later and Scanlan called Grog in a moment of strength. Grog left Vasselheim mid-training season to go to him and help him gather that final pull to admit himself again. Pike wishes she knew the specifics sometimes, but her brother was no good with emotion. All she has is the memory of him calling her the night before Scanlan’s admittance, sat in a hotel room not a mile away from where Scanlan would reside for the next three months, and how his voice choked as he relayed the news.

Grog said that Scanlan wanted to talk to her too, asked if she would accept his call.

She’d been too afraid, felt too far from him.

Undeserving.

She spent days and days in the pews of the temple, pacing the gardens, clutching her holy symbol. She prayed to Sarenrae, asking for her guidance on how she could help him, asking if she could ever be redeemed for her part in what happened.

She couldn’t bear the thought of hearing his voice, cracked with exhaustion but trying, as he apologized.

Instead, she wrote him a letter. Days went into it as well as every hope she had for him. Scraps of papers littered her bedroom floor. She wrote to him between her then much simpler duties at the temple, where she hoped he would find happiness in himself. She wrote on napkins during nights at the bar with friends, where she hoped he found his strength. And, she wrote to him as the sun rose and gave him the most important lesson she had ever been given.

“The sun always rises,” Scanlan says. Pike breathes deep around the emotion building in her chest as she turns to look at him. He smiles softly. “How could I ever forget?”

“You never replied.”

“No…No, I didn’t.” Scanlan pauses. Pike’s never seen him consider his words so carefully. He hesitates and breathes between each thought, eyes always towards her but occasionally on a middle distance as he gathers them. “I thought the best reply would be recovery, so I could face you and show you that I was the man you hoped I could be.” He drops his gaze. His next words fall below his breath. Pike catches the gist of it, she thinks, something about broken promises and a drop of her name, but…

Pike cannot hold it back anymore. “Scanlan – Why did you come to Westruun?”

Scanlan swallows hard. Pike watches the working of his throat. The quick unsteady inhale, exhale, inhale as he recovers. The jittering of his fingers against his knee before he unfurls them, and they still at the same moment his gaze focuses upon her – intent, resolute. “I needed to see you.”

Pike shakes her head. “What, what does that mean?” She feels childish, but she asks anyway. She needs to hear him say it. “Do you…Scanlan, are you – ”

“I love you, Pike.”

Oh.

Oh.

Breathe – right. She needs to do that, doesn’t she?

“Love?” She squeaks.

Huh.

Scanlan laughs, and his hand finds her cheek and his smile shines so beautiful and he loves her. He loves her.

Oh.

Gasping, she reaches for him. Her fingers tangle in his shirt. “Just,” she stammers and titters. “Just to make sure, just to be perfectly clear – You love me. As in in love with me?”

“Yes.” He grins and leans in too close. Pike can see clearly the perfect brown of his eyes, the softness of them as his nose bumps against hers. He’s going to kiss her. She holds her breath. She should close her eyes, probably. But, she doesn’t, and he holds his position, eyes on her, thumb rubbing warmth into her skin, and whispers, “Pike Trickfoot, I’m in love with you.”

Huh.

Okay, now he’s going to kiss her.

She turns her cheek, laughing down the rising panic.

Okay. Okay. This is fine.

Scanlan’s head nuzzles against hers. His breath ghosts down her skin, stirring more than just the hairs on the nape of her neck.

This changes things.

Love changes everything.

She is not so out-of-touch with her feelings to think she is not interested in him. He has that way about him. He’s charming. He possesses a gravity that few can resist. How could she not feel a little weak in the knees around him? A little flustered.

But – flirting is one thing. Flirting with a serial flirt is a game, and the feelings attached are fun and simple.

This is not a game.

She stares down at her trembling hands.

He loves her.

“Since when?” Was it that first time at Greyskull Keep? Was that when the softness crept into his gaze? Or, was it when she brought him home his coffee mug on that fourth day or the day at the temple when she laughed and laughed at his abridged tale of Sarenrae’s ascension and he fell silent to admire her?

“I, I – ” Scanlan laughs. There is weight that has left him. She can feel it leave his shoulders as he leans further into her. She feels it, because, slowly but with dreadful purpose, the weight on her shoulders intensifies. Her breathing wavers. Scanlan laughs and eases nothing. “We’ve known each other a long time, Pikey.”

“That long? And, I…” Her voice stops short, hitching. I didn’t know.

Scanlan takes her hands into his. Her trembling, curled, don’t-know-what-to-do hands, and he presses kisses against her knuckles between breathy chuckles. “Well… This certainly explains a lot,” he says and laughs. His hands cradle hers close to his heart. He won’t stop laughing. “Like why you invited Keyleth to our date.”

Pike gasps and turns to him – finally, regretfully – in her surprise. “You should have told me it was a date!”

His smile is hazy and reverent. “I brought you flowers.”

“Well, isn’t that – I don’t know! A thing you do?” The affection shines so clear in Scanlan’s eyes. Pike cannot believe she ever missed it before. Her stomach twists.

“I promise I will endeavor to make my affections much clearer going forward.” Pike withdraws, pulling her hands from his with a woeful shake of her head. His name leaves her like a sigh. She falters before any other words can follow. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Scanlan’s smile fracture and diminish. She turns away. “Oh.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Pike bites her lip and lowers her eyes to the dusty stones beneath her feet.

“I’m sorry, Scanlan. It’s, I mean, this is a lot.” This whole time. He loved her this whole time, and she…

Nothing in her heart makes sense.

She longs to kiss him, to put her feelings – his feelings – aside and let herself have this for a moment. She wants to dig her fingers into his loose curls, warmed by the first rays of the sunrise, and experience the mingling of his breath with hers. She wants – but. She cannot afford to be so selfish, to be so careless with his heart.

He loves her, and she – Pike digs her nails into her arms and frowns.

She doesn’t know.

“I need time to think.”

Scanlan’s response is immediate, gentle and understanding. She wishes it wasn’t. “Of course.” He feels so far away from her now. The sun has risen far enough above the eastern mountains to bathe them in light, but she feels nothing but the dark chill of the moments before dawn. Her hands are cold again. She cannot ask him to warm them. “I apologize if I’ve made you uncomfortable.”

If she hears the twinges of sadness around the edges of his words, she pretends she doesn’t.

“No, no…That’s not it. I’m actually kinda relieved it’s out there, you know…now I can…” She heaves a sigh, shoulders rising on the inhale and curling further inwards on the exhale. “Think about it.”

Neither of them speak then, silent as the morning rises around them. The leaves rustle in the light breeze. Unseen birds sing their tireless songs. If she listens close enough, she hears the stirring of the wind beyond the wall, beyond the drop mere feet away. That subtle, unsettling vertigo of open air before the ground and the trees and the town come back again.

Everything is so far away up here.

She’s never thought of that before.

At her side, Scanlan’s head is bowed. His hands are clasped.

Pike worries her lips against her teeth and mumbles, “Scanlan…” and it already sounds like an apology.

Scanlan bumps his shoulder against hers and raises his head. “Hey,” and despite it all, his voice stays soft. A whisper on her nerves. A shiver across her skin. “It’s okay. I understand.”

Her heart no longer flutters; it aches.

She worries what she might do if she looks at him for a moment too long.

Yet –

With her eyes pointed towards the ground, she scoots into his side. A smile graces her lips for a moment when he laughs and throws an arm across the back of the bench to accommodate. Tucking her knees under her, hugging them lightly, she rests her head upon his shoulder.

“Is this okay?” She whispers.

When Scanlan nods, his chin musses her hair. She doesn’t care.

As her eyes lazily roam the mountain vista, squinting against the shine of the sunrise, she thinks of her feelings – confusing, all tangled and uncertain in her mind. A desire still lingers to indulge her fancies, like a fickle cat it weaves between logic and each rationale. She closes her eyes and focuses intently upon the warmth of the sun against her face. Sarenrae’s gaze is upon her now. Prayers and thanks are given, and she thinks no more of silly things.

And, Scanlan – She swears, as her mind slows, Scanlan’s fingertips graze her shoulder. Only for a few moments each time. A cautious touch and retreat. Her breath leaves her, a gentler sigh than most her body has wrought from her, and she wonders of Scanlan more and more, all-consuming wonder, until –

“H...ey, Pikey Poo. Pikey Pants.”

“Mmmph…”

“Let’s go home, Pike.”

Her head slides off his shoulder when she shifts, and she awakens with a jolt. She does not remember dozing off, but she uncurls from the bench with a fumble when she realizes where she did. Apologies leave her in hurry as she pats down her mussed hair and rubs her cheek. Scanlan watches her carefully. His hand lifts as if he intends to offer it to her as she steadies and shakes the rest of the sleep from her cramped limbs, but it brushes through his hair instead as he raises from the bench as well. Pike turns to him, chuckles out a nervous smile, and mumbles,

“Well…”

“Home?”

She nods, swallowing hard against the lingering emotion. “Yeah.”

☼ ☼ ☼

They walk back down the path and into the temple parking lot, close but not touching. Pike keeps her arms crossed, and Scanlan walks with his hands stuffed in his pockets. When she glances towards the gardens as they cross the empty lot, she senses him following the motion.

Yesterday feels so long ago.

Despite the light, dreamless sleep she caught at Greyskull Keep, gravity weighs heavy on her limbs. Her shoes drag across the pavement with each step, and every other minute she hides a yawn behind a hand.

Still, her mind wanders, restless.

“Can I ask why?” She speaks on an impulse. She’s too tired to try and think this mess out alone.

Ignoring the subsequent heat in her cheeks and turning away from the gardens, she sees that Scanlan is, as she suspected, looking her way. He drops his eyes in a sheepish fumble before, processing her words, he arches a brow and asks,

“What do you mean?”

She hesitates. Why me? It’s not as if he doesn’t have a variety of options. Yet – “Ah, no, nevermind. It’s silly.”

“Why I confessed?” Scanlan tries. Pike shakes her head. Bouncing on his heels and bounding a few steps ahead of her, he trots backwards as if he wants to consider her more fully, as if it will help him find the secret. “Why I, uh, let’s see, why I came to Westruun? Ah…No. I already answered that, huh?”

“Scanlan – ”

Scanlan snaps his fingers. “Why I love you?”

Her lips move to refute again, but no words follow. Scanlan grins and chuckles, triumphant. “Ah – ha, that’s it!” Then, in a blink, his smile softens. The warmth in her cheeks spreads. She can feel it tickling the tips of her ears, but her heart refuses to fight it. He seems like himself again, teasing her and dancing on his feet. Even in the wake of her rejection, he’ll still look at her like he did before.

Her heart clenches. He really does love her, doesn’t he?

“Pike. How could I not?”

Curling her fingers further under her arms, tightening them around her torso, Pike resists the urge to throw a playful punch and accept that simple declaration as enough. But, she’s tired and he’s here and they’re alone and who knows how long that will be true and – “That’s not an answer.”

“It’s not?” Scanlan teases. She rolls her eyes, and he laughs. “Okay, okay. Alright. Gimme a minute. There’s quite a list.”

Falling back into step with her, Scanlan hums and tilts his chin towards the rising sun. She watches him and thinks of him the previous morning: his hair ungelled, haloed in sunlight, almost gold. As they descend the hill away from the temple and towards their neighborhood, Pike almost grabs his arm to stop him and ask him to return to that spot again, to stand before the sun and let her take a picture of him.

She wants to remember that moment forever, to capture it somehow even if she must recreate it.

He was beautiful. Is.

But, it was different then.

Before – when he was simply her brother’s best friend who was maybe interested and her friends teased her about it, when she would consider it in passing but laugh it off as what it seemed to be: his notorious flirting, when it wasn’t love and she didn’t need to understand her own feelings…

Pike sucks in a breath, and at her side, Scanlan sighs.

“You’re beautiful, Pike. Indescribably so. In every possible way a person can be beautiful, you are. But – you know that.” His brown eyes, lighter now, clearer in the morning light, open and turn to adore her. Pike has to look away. But, she sees Scanlan’s hand rise, hears his faint chuckle. When his fingers brush the sprigs of hair from her face, loose from her braid, she trembles. “Why I love you goes beyond that, and it’s quite simple: You saved me. I’ve always known you were special, radiant, above us all, but – when I was in a dark place, you handed me the light I needed to find my way out again. You owed me nothing, Pike, but you gave me everything. So...That’s why.”

It’s because you’re my brother’s friend, Pike thinks with a shaky breath, and because we are something like that too. Because everyone who wants to change deserves a chance.

It meant so much more to him.

How did she miss it all this time?

She remembers their first visit to Greyskull Keep when he said that redemption, Sarenrae’s blessing to all beings, made the struggle of recovery worth it. She wonders, perhaps selfishly, if he meant truly to say that them, what they could have been in that moment, in the wake of redemption, made it worth something, and what’s she supposed to do with that?

What’s she supposed to do?

Scanlan does not seem to wait upon her response. Which is good, because she doesn’t have one. A few minutes pass before he’s elbowing her lightly and saying,

“Pike – a challenge, if you are willing?”

“Hm?” She lifts her chin from her chest.

Scanlan points down the street towards the Trickfoot house, now in view. “First one home gets to – Hey!”

Pike runs. Scanlan chases behind her, already calling for a rematch, already gasping for breath, and she laughs. Her lips curl the faster she goes, so she goes – faster and faster.

They tumble into the house – Pike first with Scanlan close behind. Giggling and pushing at his shoulder while he pushes back, Pike doesn’t notice the stares of her family, seated at the kitchen table for an early breakfast, until after they’ve tumbled into the kitchen like a couple of rowdy kids.

Pulling her lips in against the surge of giggles still bubbling within her, Pike squeaks out a quick, “Good morning!” before hurrying towards the stairs. She's halfway up them before she realizes Scanlan did not follow. When she pauses, she hears why:

“Yes, it is a truly blessed morning! Grog, buddy, good luck at the gym. Wilhand – might I say, looking dapper as always." His instinctive need to follow an entrance with a show has captured him, and Pike presses a hand to her lips to quiet her delight. A teasing thought to leave him to his fate lasts only as long as a few steps before, taking pity, she calls out to him. A brief silence from the kitchen follows before his melodious laugh erupts and he announces, “Ah! The lady calls, gentlemen.”

He appears, grinning, at the bottom of the stairs, and Pike giggles at the relief in his eyes; she can't help it.

“The lady?” She teases as they linger in laughter outside their respective bedroom doors.

Scanlan shrugs. His grin has not faded. “I panicked.”

“Right, right,” she says breezily. “You should be careful, or they’ll think we’re dating.”

“If Wilhand tries to talk to me about your dowry,” Scanlan presses a hand over his heart. “I promise I’ll let him down easy.”

Pike shakes her head with mirth and tries not to think about it – how easy it is to return to this playful teasing, this game.

“Goodnight, Scanlan.”

“It’s morning, Pikey Pants.”

Goodnight, Scanlan.”

Pike closes the door on Scanlan’s laughter, which only seems to grow louder and merrier. Pressing her forehead against the old wood, she bites her smile but it won’t leave.

Well.

Scanlan Shorthalt is in love with her.

She pushes away from the door and hums.

That’s a thing.

Crashing onto her sheets, not bothering to get back into her pajamas, Pike presses her smile into her pillow.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to do going forward. If things with Scanlan can remain as they’ve been or if this brief lingering of their previous flirtations is sleep deprivation. How does one even begin unpacking the problem that is ‘an international pop star that you’ve known for many years but never considered as more than a better-than-acquaintance, kinda-friend is in love with you’? What are her feelings towards him? That’d be a good place to start. Maybe. Should she ask Vex for advice? Oh no. Vex.

Confusion hangs over her like a specter.

She wishes emotions were simpler, wishes her heart’s dim ache would relinquish, but –

The sun always rises.

Chapter Text

The de Rolo household, located in the heart of downtown Westruun and only a two block walk from the cobbled market street with the weekly Farmer’s Market, exudes the type of domestic bliss that pulls doleful sighs from the lovesick. Even Pike has found herself susceptible to its charms over the years, especially during the spring. Light breezes and distant pedestrian chatter flow in from the bay windows that face the street. Vex brings out her forestry candles, the ones that smell of hiking trails and wildflowers, while Percy’s latest tinkering project lays out on the dining table, close to the window. Trinket lounges in the bay window alcove, resting his sleepy chin on the window frame and accepting all the adoring coos from passersby that see him.

Compared to the busy, grease-stained, and omnipresent mechanical whirring of Percy’s shop, the open layout of their apartment offers just the right about of room for Trinket to lounge and roam as he pleases, for Percy to endlessly pace in thought, and for Vex to –

“I knew it! I – knew – it! I told you!!”

– jump and spin around when Pike tells her the news of Scanlan’s confession.

Burrowing her face in the crook of her arm, placed on the back of the couch, Pike pouts and curls her knees closer to her chest. She would whine, but it’s useless. Vex cannot hear her over the speedy pattering of her feet on the rug and exuberant cheers of vindication.

A good two minutes – not that Pike was woefully counting them down in her head or anything – of Vex prancing and humming pass before she floats back onto the couch with a dreamy sigh. Pike peeks out from her behind her arm to watch as her friend turns to her, places a hand over her heart, and with another dreamy sigh begins to wax cooed congratulations,

“Oh, Pike! I’m so happy for you. Do you know that first moment I saw you two walk into the bar together, I knew you two were the perfect match? Because I did! I just knew.”

“Vex – ” Pike shrinks back, suppressing an embarrassed whimper, but, with a gasp, Vex reaches out and grabs her hands before she can hide again.

“We’ll have to go out one night – all of us! Percy will complain, but – ” She waves a dismissive hand. “I promise he’ll play nice.” Another dreamy sigh. “Ooh, Pike! I’m so excited!”

Vex’s eyes shine. Pike almost loathes to disappoint her, almost doesn’t, but – “Vex, Scanlan and I aren’t...We’re not…” She huffs, imploring the ceiling for the words she wants. “I turned him down. Well! Not really. I told him I’d think about it.”

Vex arches a brow, shifting easily from over-the-top excitement to astute consideration. “You’ll think about it?” Pike shrugs her shoulders to her ears and hopes that is enough, but Vex presses the issue. “And, how’d he take that?”

“He was fine with it,” Pike says, nervously lacing her hands now free from Vex’s grasp and twisting her fingers around each other. “I think he just – You know, he understands that maybe it was a little much all at once, and I need to, you know…”

“Think about it?” Vex prompts.

Pike sighs. “Yeah.”

“Well, how do you feel about him, Pike?”

But, that’s just it, isn’t it? That’s The Question. If she solves that one, she solves the rest. For weeks and weeks, it’s shifted through her, made a home of her ribcage and lungs, curled around her heart, and now she begs herself to – Think.

Think.

How does she feel about him?

And yet –

“I, I don’t know.”

Scanlan’s smile comes to mind. The way it curls and brightens his features, softening around his eyes but illuminating his charm, lifting her heart high into her throat until words fail her, until there’s only a feeling. Indescribable. Unreachable. Sometimes, she’s certain if she focused on it harder, stared back with matched intensity, something might become clear, but she always turns away before the revelation. She never questions the hesitation, only recognizes it with dull disappointment each time.

Dropping her chin to her arm, Pike worries her nail against the back of the couch. The fabric catches and pulls and gives her a focal point as she mumbles, “He’s very charming.”

“He is,” and as sympathetic as her tone tries to be, Pike can hear her smile through it. Patting at Pike’s arm, encouraging, Vex doesn’t say “Is that it?” but Pike gets the hint.

“And, I think…I like him. I mean we have a lot of fun together. He always makes me laugh. And, I…I want to spend time with him.” She helpfully leaves out the desires her heart pulled for that morning days ago. The want to kiss him, to be so much closer. The lack of sleep had gotten to her then. She sees that. What she wants now is much simpler. “I just don’t know. I feel like, for as long as I’ve known him, I don’t really know him.”

Nearly four years he’s loved her, and she didn’t know.

It’s kept her awake these past nights: the scope of the things she did not know, that she probably still doesn’t know.

Her nail snags on the couch and pulls her back to the moment.

“If I may offer my advice,” Vex begins, and Pike perks up from her half-hidden slump. She does not mean to seem too eager to hear Vex’s words, but – well, only one of them is happily married. When Vex continues, Pike leans in closer to hear, unashamed. “Dating someone is exactly how you get to know them. You like him, and it can be as simple as that. There’s no harm in testing the waters. In having some fun.”

Pike blows a stray piece of hair from her face and slouches back into the cushions. Vex is right, of course. But –

“What is it, darling?”

“I don’t want to mess this up,” Pike admits to a rush of shame. Pressing her hands to her face, she groans and bites her lip. If she tries, she can breathe through it. If she just doesn’t think about it, she can do it.

At her side, Vex laughs.

Pike tenses at the sound, and shame fades to frustration.

I don’t want to lose him to this, she thinks bitterly, How can she laugh in the face of something so important?

Clenching her teeth, Pike raises her head with a bite poised on her lips only to find herself pulled across the small distance between their cushions and right into Vex’s enthusiastic, giggly embrace. The stiffness in her limbs melts away as Vex rubs at her arms and rocks her gently.

Resting her cheek against Vex’s shoulder, she allows herself the moment to pout as Vex cooes,

“Oh, Pike…Sometimes you’re more in touch with your feelings than I think you realize.”

Pike doubts that sentiment. Her feelings have always felt a world beyond her. Like stars, stretched out in her mind, they are numerous and present and pretty to think and look upon. Yet no matter how she reaches for them, they remain a mystery, only a sparkling speck of something greater. Sometimes one expands, consumes her in a rush. Another will fall, shooting through her in a flash, but – Still. Distant.

An alarm goes off, jolting them both, and Pike glances towards the coffee table where her phone shines and vibrates. With an apology and a little struggle, Pike extracts herself from Vex’s arms and grabs for it. She scrambles to her feet when she sees the notice her past self was helpful enough to set.

“Shit!” Spinning around to face a doe-eyed Vex, expectant in her confusion, Pike giggles nervously and explains, “Sorry. I have a coffee – ” date “ – thing with Scanlan.”

Vex’s brow arches, all previous sympathy and soft affection replaced by that familiar knowing aura of hers. “A date?”

“It’s not a date!” Pike retorts while gathering up her purse. She pats at all her pockets to remember in which one she placed her phone before, confident of its presence, she hurries for the door to pull on her rain boots. Vex hangs over the back of the couch. Her smile is all teeth. “Thanks for the talk,” Pike says sincerely despite the pout she wants to give in the face of Vex’s teasing. “Really.”

“I’m always happy to listen,” Vex relents in her play long enough to answer with matched sincerity, before...Well. “Have fun on your date.”

Goodbye, Vex!”

Pike slams the door.

Seconds later, she slams it back open to gather her customary goodbye hugs and kisses.

☼ ☼ ☼

The rain meant for Sunday came full force Monday night and hasn’t stopped.

Pike peeks up at the dreary clouds from under her yellow umbrella. When you are the cleric of a goddess embodied by the sun, it’s hard to feel partial towards rainy days. With a put-upon sigh and hunch of her shoulders, she drops her gaze to the puddle-riddled sidewalk as she makes the short walk to the corner café where Scanlan asked to meet. The large windows offer a welcoming view of the golden interior, cozy and bright against the pale blues of the rain-dimmed streets. Warmth blooms in her chest at the sight of it; more so when she spots Scanlan through the window, sat alone at a corner table, twisting a coffee cup in his hands and staring off into the distance. She hurries to the door, closing her umbrella and tapping it against a heel as she enters.

The scene is quiet, sparse. A barista busies herself behind the counter, making drinks for the few patrons waiting. Only two other couples occupy the tables spread around the floor, but none of them within earshot of the one Scanlan chose. So, not paparazzi or journalist in disguise, she considers with a relief. That’s been an unexpected worry since the festival.

“Pike,” Scanlan greets with a smile, rising from his seat. “Thank you for taking the time to see me today.”

Pike resists the need to roll her eyes at his overly gracious talk, a frustrating new development in their day-to-day rapport since that Monday sunrise, and which this evening borders on stuffy businessman more than anything. Seeing him is hardly taxing upon her nerves or schedule, a fact of which she could certainly assure him, but…“I saw you this morning,” she says just to tease him instead.

“You didn’t have much of a choice then.”

This time Pike forgoes the self-control and rolls her eyes. She pulls him into a quick hug, which she only briefly regrets upon remembering her own words: She saw him this morning. As in the morning of this day they are currently living. As in no less than six hours ago. It’s the ‘meeting the friend at a coffee shop’ instinct, she rationalizes, pulling away after a reasonable five seconds.

(If she counts them off in her head, it’s only because Scanlan’s hand floats between her shoulder blades but never touches and that’s a far more loaded thing to consider.)

With a nervous clearing of her throat, she turns her attention towards the table. Scanlan quick steps around her before she can protest and pulls her chair out for her, leaving her to the fruitless endeavor of trying to think herself into not blushing.

There are two drinks on the table.

She reaches for the one in front of her, and Scanlan hurries to explain as he takes his seat,

“I hope you don’t mind. I grabbed our drinks for us while I waited.”

Pike sniffs at hers, and Scanlan’s laugh mingles well with the rich smell of coffee and creamer that lifts into her nose. He watches her, brows arched, as she braves a sip, and she enjoys the way he melts into contentment when she hums in approval. The burst of sweetness across her tongue, just the right amount to drown out the bitterness of the coffee, is almost too perfect. With how often they’ve had breakfast together these past weeks, she shouldn’t be so surprised he might be able to concoct the perfect blend of too sweet coffee for her. It just brings forth a wondering of how observant of her mannerisms he must have been – must be.

Does he know the number of scoops of sugar she uses?

The consistency of creamer?

She doesn’t even know those things. She just drops and pours until it doesn’t look like coffee anymore.

Setting her drink aside, Pike folds her hands on the table and focuses on Scanlan speaking, which is a thing she just realized he was doing. Whoops.

“People are way more responsive to dick jokes on the Internet. Not surprising, probably, but – Anyway, that’s beside the point – How was your day? How was dinner with Vex?” Scanlan asks as he takes his own cup in hand and draws a long, satisfied sip.

Pike blinks, scrambling for the story she knows she’ll never get now, before drawing an ‘uh’ long enough to think of an answer, “Yea, yea, it was great. We ended up just ordering pizza, because Percy ditched us for his workshop and took Trinket with him.”

“Oh, so it was the perfect evening!”

“Not if you’re like me and were looking forward to Trinket snuggles.”

“I don’t understand the sentiment. Are those a desirable thing?”

“Scanlan – ”

Pike reaches across the table to swat at him, and his feigned attempt to escape is as obvious as his grin. Deftly, he catches her hand and holds it. She lets him; eyes and attention caught up in the shifting intensity in his.

“No troubles on the way into town?” He lowers his voice when he asks. The other couples are far enough away, but he leans forward as he says, “I saw one on my way here. Luckily, the rain was bad enough to keep him in his car.”

Pike stirs in her seat and glances towards the window. It’s too dark outside to make anything out, and she knows it. Not that she would be able to spot them like Scanlan can. The suspicious pursuers seen too late, the camera on the frame of a car door, the paparazzi. A stupid, silly word. She never thought it’d breed such dread in her.

But, they’d begun to trickle into Westruun the past few days.

She likes to pretend that she’s wondering why, but she knows.

It’s not like they hadn’t known where Scanlan was before. It’s common enough knowledge where the renowned but retired MMA fighter, Grog Strongjaw, resides, and it’s a reasonable enough deduction that Scanlan may be there as well after being picked up at the airport by Grog.

There just wasn’t a story before.

There wasn’t her.

Now –

Scanlan’s hand around hers feels weightier than a moment ago. There’s an itch beneath her skin that says to pull away, but she turns from the darkness beyond the café windows and refuses it. She curls her fingers around his palm and smiles, soft to contrast his tension.

“No, no trouble,” and when Scanlan sighs with relief, she squeezes his hand tighter. “You don’t have to worry so much. Honestly, it was only that one time, probably, and – ”

Scanlan shakes his head and insists, “They shouldn’t have approached you at all.”

Pike doesn’t know how to stem it – the frustration swelling within Scanlan. It’s been another one of those unexpected, new developments, though she would happily take the overly gracious talk over this particular one. Ever since Tuesday afternoon when she was approached at the temple by a sleek van and a journalist smile, Scanlan’s spent his time eyeing around every street corner and insisting upon alternative routes and frequent updates.

He thinks it’s his fault.

He put out the message, invited the masses, lit the beacon, but Pike cannot find it in her to be upset with him. He wanted to help, and he did. Though, she will admit it’s been a bit weird to get messages from people she hasn’t spoken to in years, old high school peers or coworkers and even her college ex, all coming around to say – “Hey, so I saw on the Internet…”

Eyeing the pinch in Scanlan’s brow, Pike lets her thumb run gently across his skin and tries to pull him back.

“If you want my opinion, you should be more worried about your fans,” she says, dropping her voice with a lilting twist and a playful arch of her brow. “I’ve gotten an alarming amount of comments recently.” Scanlan blanches. Pike grins. “I think my favorite was from - Oh, I can’t remember the name now, seemed like a nice young lady though - and she told me in very descriptive detail where exactly you’ve put your lips on her.”

In an unexpected but very welcome display of embarrassment, Scanlan blushes. “I, I thought you’d taken a break from social media.”

“Sure, when I was busy festival planning,” Pike says, playing up the attitude. “But, I’m a freer woman now! I still wanna use Instagram, so I thought I’d go private and, you know, filter through the comments to see who to block. Here – ” She reaches for her purse, hanging from the back of her chair, and pulls out her phone. “I screenshot a couple of my favorites.” She didn’t, but she loves to see Scanlan sweat.

Which he does, with his hand outstretched and face red. A wonderful series of stutters rattle through his teeth before he finally composes himself enough to offer, “I can post something. Ask them to back off.”

“I doubt that’d help our situation,” she says blithely, cocking her head towards the window. Scanlan grimaces, and the lightness of the moment slips through Pike’s fingers before she can backtrack.

Scanlan leans back in his chair and picks up his drink only to put it back down again. Pike worries her lip against her teeth when he sighs, and when he talks, she does not meet his eye.

“Pike…I have to…I invited you here today to tell you that I’m...Well, before I say anything else, I want to say that this decision is not because of you or anything you did or said – ”

“Scanlan – ”

“ – and I cannot promise it’ll help, but I need to try. So – ”

Scanlan.”

She raises her gaze with purpose, catching his to still him. He struggles for a moment longer, and for all the worst-case scenarios that rush through her mind, she’s not sure how to feel in the wake of what he says: “I need to leave.”

“Oh.”

“N– Not for long. Just long enough to stave off the pests. It should be easy enough. Journalists drop like addicts. If they can’t get an easy hit here, they’ll find one somewhere else,” Scanlan explains, but an uneasy pit drops in Pike’s stomach at the matter-of-fact way he says it. “And, anyways, I’ve got some business with my label too. Apparently I’m not supposed to gallivant about who-knows-where, singing new songs they’ve never heard and hosting unapproved meet-and-greets, but…I’ll take care of it.”

Pike nods. She doesn’t know what else to do. “…Okay.”

The specifics and limitations of Scanlan’s career beyond making music and touring have always escaped her. Over the years, as his career boomed and he became a household name, she kinda thought he outgrew the obligations and terms. Like Beyoncé or something. No one tells Beyoncé what to do in the same way that Scanlan Shorthalt will do what he does and that’s that.

It was a naïve thought.

She doesn’t know him at all.

“It’s okay,” she says, softer.

Scanlan’s brow furrows. “Is it?”

He was always going to leave.

That sick feeling in her gut swells, but Pike swallows it down with a smile. “Yes. You’ve got a whole other life beyond Westruun, and – and you shouldn’t neglect it.” Reaching out, she places a hand over his once more. The motion feels hollow. She’s not sure she’s even smiling. “Having you here has been…a blessing, but I understand. Please know that we’ll be more than happy to host you again. When you find the time.”

“Hey, hey, Pikey,” and he says her name with his whole heart. She wonders if he’s always done that, if she missed that too. “Don’t start getting all misty eyed on me.” He laughs, but the pinch in his brow deepens. “I’ll be back. I promise.”

Pike stares at their hands on the table to avoid looking at his face, unconvinced and uncomfortable.

“Do you want me to come back?”

“Of course, I do!” Her emotions flare – in frustration, in disbelief that he would think otherwise, with blinding gentleness – and it is into that gentleness she sobers.

Across the table, Scanlan’s smile is quiet.

“I meant what I said, Pike. As long as you want me, I will always be here.”

“Okay.” There’s nothing else to say. “Okay.”

☼ ☼ ☼

Scanlan leaves Sunday, early, before temple. Though Grog offered to drive him to Emon for his flight, Scanlan waved away any “trouble” and called a car for himself. Pike stands on the front step as it drives away, waving and eyeing the sliver of sun that peeks through the clouds. It disappears again, and when she looks for Scanlan, the car has turned and done the same.

Two weeks – That’s how long Scanlan promises this trip will be.

Pike tried to assure him that he could take as much time as he needed, thought maybe that would be better, but Scanlan simply said, “I promise” with that soft-eyed look, and she thought of golden, sunlit curls and a lingering ‘I love you’ from a beautiful smile and accepted his promise in a breathless haze.

It does not take her long to be glad for it.

☼ ☼ ☼

It was sunny yesterday.

For a bit, at least.

Not so much today.

Pike stands by the kitchen sink, eyeing the drab mass of clouds through the window. It’s been nearly three days since Scanlan left, four since they had a full day of sunshine. She would note the absence of rain since last week if she didn’t have the knowledge of its predicted return tomorrow to wipe away the relief of that statement.

At this point, she almost wishes it would rain.

At least then the clouds would have a purpose instead of looming over her head every day, accomplishing nothing but blotting out the sun and curb stomping her mood.

Pike heaves a sigh.

She misses Scanlan.

“Pike, dumpling…”

“Hm.”

“Perhaps you want to move on to another dish?”

Pike’s face twists for a second as she considers her grandfather’s words before – Right. She glances down at the soapy water in the sink and the thoroughly scrubbed plate in her pruning fingers. The very same plate she was cleaning a good two minutes ago, probably. She places it aside and grabs the next from the pile. With Scanlan gone, there’s less than usual. Not too many. But, she cannot help but note the difference.

“What flights of fancy fill your mind today, sweetheart?”

Pike smiles, first at her hands then towards Wilhand, who sits at the kitchen table with his tome. “Nothing too fanciful,” she chirps, continuing onto the next plate. “Just thinking.”

Wilhand seems to consider for a moment. Pike hears him thumbing through the pages of the tome, absentmindedly perhaps.

With a small sigh, she elaborates, “Thinking about this damn weather…”

“Ah.”

“...thinking about how I’ve had to delay my walks because of it and it's making me…” Another sigh. “...restless…”

“Awh.”

“...hoping Scanlan’s trip is going well…”

She texted earlier. He has yet to reply.

“Yes, yes, I hope the poor boy is remembering to eat well,” Wilhand says, and Pike laughs. It’s just like her grandfather to be worried about such a thing. “You laugh, but you could see, yes? I was doing right by him! Filling him out. Practically a stick when he arrived, I tell you.”

Pike pauses in reaching for the next plate. Oh. She supposes, now that she thinks of it, that there’d been a new fullness to Scanlan’s cheeks when he left compared to before. She’s always known him and his whippet-slim figure, pop star thin, but...Yes. She supposes he’s far more handsome when there’s a bit more to him, a happiness in a loving home with loving meals reflected in his frame.

Slowly, she drags over a new plate to be washed, eyes set on the clouds outside once more. She says nothing of her thoughts to Wilhand, who chatters on behind her.

He flips to a familiar passage in his tome about the virtues of a welcoming home and reads, from within it, the mention of a well-cooked meal by a charitable hand.

She nods along but says nothing, only thinks.

☼ ☼ ☼

The gossip circles and fans eat it up.

Scanlan Shorthalt Sighted in Studio: Is a New Album on the Way?

Dranzel and Shorthalt Reconcile! The Dynamic Duo is Back for More

Inspiration Vacation: Shorthalt Ready to Return after Rumored Break?

Curiosity wins with every new headline and photos that emerges, and Pike consumes each one with her morning cereal – eaten in silence – and an unhappy thread of fascination winding in her gut.

Scanlan was right, though.

The looming presence in Westruun diminishes within days of his departure.

☼ ☼ ☼

The flowers in her office wilt by midweek.

Withered rose petals lay here and there about the vases and the floor. Vax visits one day and jokes that Pike better hurry and find her true love before the last petal falls!

Pike laughs even as she grazes her fingers against a sunflower’s petals, some browner than others and falling away from her touch, leading her laughter into a sigh.

She feels bad about throwing them away, tells Vax as much.

“I imagine he’ll have more flowers to give in the future,” Vax says, kindly but Pike catches the sly undertone, and she doesn’t ask how he knows they’re from Scanlan. “You should try and press some next time.”

Pike nods, not quite frowning.

She has told no one of the white petals pressed into the pages of her tome.

“Yeah. I’ll remember next time.”

☼ ☼ ☼

She thinks a lot about Scanlan.

Purposefully, most of the time.

With eager (yet foolish) optimism, she’d hoped to sort out this whole mess of feelings before his return. Forgetting, of course, who she is as a person.

The kind that evades absolution.

Yet, when Percy remarks cooly at drinks one night that it’s unrealistic that a man of Scanlan’s accumulated fame be afforded the luxury of time and that it’s a miracle he stayed as long as he did and they should brace themselves for the apologetic and sure-to-be charming excuses...Well. She maybe drinks more than she should to chase the dread away and mumbles into Grog’s shoulder later that same night as he helps her from the car to the house:

“I want him here.”

It’s the only absolution she can muster: a desperate want to not have him be gone anymore.

“Percy’s a twat,” Grog says with such finality that hiccuped giggles bubble up in her chest. “Scanlan’s gonna come home.”

She nods her head, smushing her cheek further against her brother’s shoulder to hide her frown.

Scanlan’s gonna come home.

☼ ☼ ☼

The weather’s fickle nature drives Pike to Grog’s gym after work to exercise and scratch her emerging itch to hit things really, really hard.

She ends up in his office more and more often as the days stretch on, not entirely sure why. There’s not much to the place. He has a desk and some other miscellaneous shit like the ale cask Wilhand gently suggested took up too much room in the house and that arcade machine of Half Court Hoops that Scanlan bought him years and years ago.

The game keeps her occupied, so that’s all that matters – keeps her hands busy and unclenched and empties her mind to the point that she can pretend she’s not thinking about the bleeding of one week into the next and how the rain continues and how Scanlan’s chair at the table remains vacant each night and she doesn’t hear the bounce of his steps down the stairs anymore or his humming through the halls and -

Pike snatches up one of the thin-skinned basketballs pooling by her hands and chucks it at the backboard. A satisfied rush hits her at the impact, a resounding smack, and how Grog and Keyleth fall mum behind her. She doesn’t know what they are talking about, but she’s heard her name enough to guess. By the time she turns around, aimed to inspire retreat with her stare, Keyleth is already by her side.

“Hey, Pike…,” and despite the kindness of her tone, Pike feels small.

Grog lingers by the doorway, visible over Keyleth’s shoulder. He glances away hurriedly when Pike catches his gaze.

“Do you think maybe I could, uh, play a game?” Keyleth asks, nervous energy growing. “Or, not! I could just watch. Whatever you wanna do. Just - I’m here for you...in a happy, friendly way!”

Pike relaxes; a lifetime of being the calm one to counteract Keyleth’s rambling kicking in without thought.

Lobbing a basketball to her, Pike giggles as Keyleth fumbles to catch it. It nearly slips out of her fingers twice, but she manages to tuck it to her chest with a victorious grin.

“Oh - man!! It’s on, Pike!” Pike moves away from the machine so Keyleth can step up, which she does with a hop and a passing comment of, “I’ve always wanted to try and beat Grog’s highscore.”

Pike swallows down the heaviness in her throat. She laughs, or means to, at least. “It’s Scanlan’s, actually.”

If she notes that Keyleth’s throws are clumsier than usual, she says nothing and hides her smiles behind competitive jabs and cheers.

☼ ☼ ☼

There are no sunrises when it rains.

☼ ☼ ☼

Scanlan returns, as promised, on the day before two weeks come around. She greets him at the door, breathless from a rush through the house, and barrels right into his arms. His suitcase thumps to the ground. One hand gets caught in his jacket, only halfway off his shoulder, while the other smarts from being squished between the door and Scanlan’s back. It doesn’t matter. She presses a heated cheek against his shoulder and breathes him in – the smell of rain and faint lavender. Spring. Him.

A hand slides across her back, a solid, warm presence between her shoulder blades. The other curls around her waist and pulls her closer.

When he laughs, it rumbles through her.

“Not to be presumptuous, Pikey Poo, but...I get the feeling you missed me.”

She pinches his side. He giggles, only to quiet when she huffs, “Of course, I did.”

He says nothing else, but she swears she can hear the words trying and failing to leave him. They hum through his chest as footsteps sound through the house around them, never coming too close, but always followed by hushed voices drowned out by the soft exhales blowing past Scanlan’s lips, rustling her hair. She never lifts her cheek from his shoulder. Her hand, now untangled from his jacket, brushes absentmindedly up the back of his neck. Into the loose curls there.

And, it’s frightening kinda, how warm it makes her feel – to be held, to hold him in return.

And, part of her, as frustrating and cautious as ever, doesn’t know what she wants.

But, another feels awakened with frightening clarity.

“Scanlan.”

“Pikey.”

“I have an answer for you.”