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Hard Priorities

Chapter Text

Callum shivered.


He was in the forest.


There were people fighting all around him.


Dying, all around him.


Rayla was yelling at him, from nowhere.


She was sitting up against a tree, her eyes glassy.


He fell next to her.


And fell.


Through the ground and into blackness, watching her drift off into the distance above.


Azymondias fell next to him, drifting limply.


The face in the dark spoke but really said nothing.


Ithral died, crushing him under his massive body.


There was blood all over his hands.


He looked up into familiar purple eyes.


There was blood all over her face.


She kissed him and he said it was disgusting.


Her laugh turned into a demonic shriek.


Merciful reality exploded into his mind and he fought for air. Rayla jerked up next to him while Zym sleepily tried to reassemble himself after being thrown off Callum’s chest. It was still dark. Barely an hour had gone by since they had first laid down to rest.


He was breathing heavily trying to shake the dream.


“What’s wrong?”, she asked softly and Zym gave a concerned coo.


“Dreaming”, he coughed, then looked over to find her worried gaze, “It’s alright. Just a major heart attack.”


She leaned in for a kiss and dragged him back down to the ground to place his head onto her chest. They were still facing each other, coming to rest in a ‘T’ shape.


Softly stroking his hair, she said, “I’ve had trainin’. Forewarnin’. You just got dropped into this. It’s not easy, is it?”


“Well, Soren tried teaching me how to fight.”


“I’m not talkin’ about that. No matter how many times you drill a riposte with a trainin’ dummy or even a partner, it won’t help you when you’re in a real battle.”, she extended an arm, stabbing at the sky, “The motions might happen, but this time both your and their life are on the line. That’s terrifyin’. And it’s bound to make you feel a lot of terrifyin’ thin’s afterward, even if you didn’t hurt anyone. Just bein’ around a battle like that takes somethin’ away from you.”


He nodded, feeling some relief at her soothing touch and empathetic words. “It’s like people just forget who they are once they put on armor.”


Rayla shook her head, looking almost angry, “We are wearin’ ours right now - well, the squishy parts, anyway - and I know who I am and I hope you know who you are. It’s up to everyone to follow their own compass. Doesn’t matter what your orders are, you don’t do somethin’ if you don’t agree with it!”, she saw the look on his face and added, more softly, “I know what you meant, though. It’s hard t’ see the person under the armor.”


Silence passed between them while she pet him. It was comfortable.


“I love you”, he said.

“I love you, too”, she answered and pinched his cheek.


“Do we have a plan from here on?”, he asked.


“Well. No, actually. I was going to see where we are tomorrow and go from there.”


“What do you mean? Are we lost?”


“Not so much. Just, after everythin’ that happened I just wanted to get away from the roads and the town as fast as possible so we’re off course by a few hours.”


He nodded and brushed a strand of hair out of his face.


Rayla scanned him. “Your hair’s grown out”, she said finally, “It looks bad.”


He gave her an incredulous look. “Uh, what?”


“Can I cut it?”


“Now?”, he asked.


“No, maybe tomorrow?”


Callum blinked at her and she blinked back.


“I guess?”


He sat up and laid back down next to her. She was somewhat confused by the awkwardness that had crept into what she believed to be light conversation.


“Is… is that okay?”


Pensive silence followed. After a moment, Rayla turned her head to look at him.


Callum was trying to find words to explain the situation, that much was clear. His expression transitioned from an open mouth to scrunched up, then back to the open mouth. Finally his face slackened. Rayla worked hard not to laugh.


“This is gonna sound really stupid, but the last person that I can remember caring about my hair… was my mom”


After a moment, Rayla patted his arm. “That wasn’t stupid.”


“I just don’t want you to think that I think you’re like my mum, cause you’re not”


“Oh, well, from what I know of her, she kicked butt, was wise beyond her years and loved the stuffin’ out of her family. I wouldn’t mind bein’ compared to her.”


He chuckled. “I guess if you put it that way.  Again, I think she would’ve liked you.”


She kissed and nestled against him again. Stove-boy’s heat was very welcome in the autumn weather.


“Just, the relationship we have is differ...”


With an annoyed grin, she placed a hand on his mouth. “Are you tryin’ to make this awkward?”


He chuckled. “No. I’ll shut up”, he mumbled against her palm.


Soon after, they fell asleep again. Zym distrustfully moved to sit in the hood of Rayla’s winter jacket which was laying somewhat off to the side.


Not much later, Rayla woke to him struggling in his sleep. She felt terrible for him. Trying to wake him gently, she sat up, patted at his chest and poked his side.


He opened his eyes and groaned, “Oh. Oh man. I hope that’s not what sleep is going to be like from now on. I’m sorry, Rayla.”


She shook her head, then said, quietly, “First time I was present for a kill in person, I had night terrors for days. This was worse. We really were in the thick of it.”


“Wait - so you were there when the assassins killed people?”


She sat back, uncomfortably rubbing her uninjured arm and avoiding his gaze. “It’s part of the trainin’. You sit quietly and watch the others do their work. Supposed to prepare you for seein’ death.”


She gave him a shy glance, appearing almost as though she expected him to hit her. The fact that her voice was heavy with rue tore at him. It was clear she was disgusted by herself for not doing something to help her comrade’s victims - and now expected that same disgust from him.


“I’m sorry”, he said simply.


She just stared for a moment.


“Sorry?”, she repeated, then welled up, “You’re sorry? How can you be… so… ”


She couldn’t find the words, instead she threw herself at him and kissed him.


“... understanding?”, he suggested, out of breath.


“Wha’ever!”, she smiled tearfully, “You feel it too, don’t you?”


“I think so... You maybe wanted to do something but you couldn’t in the moment. And now you know this is something you will never really get over. A thing you’ll regret for the rest of your life. I feel that, about every single person who died today, even the bounty hunter. Even though I know… there’s really nothing I could have done.”


“That’s exactly it. To make matters worse, I’m glad he’s dead. I’m never gonna have him attack me like that ever again!”, she palmed at her eyes, “Back in those days, I couldn’t turn against Runaan or the other assassins. I mean, even later, they stuck with me while the other elves called my parents cowards and traitors. Except when it actually came down to killin’ someone… I followed my own compass.”


“Well, I for one am glad you did. I wish we could’ve met in better times, but I think we’re working towards that. It’ll all be worth it if we can just get this little guy home.”


Rayla nodded, a hint of determination entering her mien. “I’ll drink to that.” She leaned over to open her pack, pulled out a canteen and drank, finally offering it to Callum.


Her motion disturbed the contents of her pack and the book poked out for a moment.


He took a swig, than handed the container back. “You know, back at the river when we first kissed… I told you I was okay with sharing whatever secrets you were willing to tell me. That’s actually way easier said than done.”


“It is?”, she asked warily.


“I’m nosy. What can I say other than... I’m sorry for… snooping.”


She patted his chest and settled back down under the jackets.


Impishly, she said, “It’s fine. Still not tellin’ you though. I’m maybe enjoyin’ it a bit too much, watchin’ you sit on those coals. Just think of the sweet, sweet release you’re gonna feel once I finally tell you.”


He harrumphed, but still moved to rest against her, realizing that he didn’t quite get the whole spectrum of his own feelings at the moment.


“I’m a mess”, he said, ruffling his own hair.


“We both are.”