“Close your eyes.”
Raya watched Namaari’s shoulders tighten. She hadn’t thought it was possible to sneak up on another practiced warrior like this, but Namaari seemed lost in thought, standing alone near the steps in the feast hall, gazing up at the mountain. It took time to cross the entire span of the blue-marbled floor, and just as long for the tension to ease out of Namaari’s shoulders and spine, but she didn’t turn as Raya approached, and when she stood beside her, she could see her eyes were closed.
She hesitated for a second, taking in the hard set of Namaari’s jaw. She looked like this a lot, Raya was starting to realize. Strained. Like she was so determined not to make another mistake, she’d twist herself into knots over even the tiniest request. Raya had really hoped, bringing her here (along with half the residents of the other four former lands, or so it seemed when they were trying to find enough soup bowls), that she would start to relax, to feel welcome, to see that none of her mother’s fears had come true. There had been a reed-thin night on the riverboat ride from Fang to Heart, where Namaari had quietly confessed what it was that had her mother standing so still and sleepless in the bow, and Raya had lain awake almost through to morning, thinking about how the lands had long felt about Heart, after they’d won the half-forgotten first clash over the last remnant of dragon magic, but she hadn’t known what to say to them. She knew their survival meant they had a start, but peace now wasn’t any less fragile than it had been before they’d broken the world.
And now, being here didn’t seem to be helping. There were dark circles under Namaari’s eyes. Every third breath, a shivery fissure of tension wracked over her entire body, tiny muscles clenching and smoothing again like ripples in an up-running stream.
Raya had been staring for way too long.
Squeezing her own eyes closed, Raya gathered herself, set her jaw, and stepped back behind her.
“Here,” she said. Her voice was a husk of itself, as though she hadn’t spoken in weeks of desert riding instead of only a minute or two. Her hands, however, were steady as she slipped them down over Namaari’s shoulders. “You didn’t let me give this back to you for nearly long enough last time.”
Namaari’s hand flew up to clutch the pendant as it settled against her chest. “You found it,” she breathed, starting to turn, but Raya caught one shoulder.
“Hang on, I only half tied it.”
Namaari let out a weak laugh. “I’m sorry.”
“No, nope, real close. There we go.” She flattened her thumb against the knot for a second, feeling the faintest scratch of shaved hair right above the string, the sweep of the longer fringe brushing her knuckles.
She pulled back, all five fingertips tingling.
“Thank you,” Namaari said earnestly, finishing her turn. She stared right into Raya’s eyes, and there was so much emotion there, Raya could barely stand to look, but couldn’t possibly turn away.
“I— um. Yeah. In the fight, it slid down with us into the pit. I almost gave it back to you the other night, when we were on our way here, but I wanted to find a tie for it first, so the next time we’re—”
“At each other’s throats with more swords than there are heads to take off between us?”
Raya felt a bruised kind of smile take over her face, stretching muscles that hadn’t been used much in the last six years. “Yeah, something like that. Harder to drop it this way.”
“I appreciate that. Really.” Namaari’s voice had softened again, and so had her eyes. “I know it can’t be easy for you, having me here.”
“For me?” Raya asked, genuinely surprised. “I asked you to come.”
Namaari glanced away. “I know. The whole of Fang will be in your debt for this. You’ve shown everyone that you stand by us. But this is where we… Where I—”
Raya followed her gaze down the blue steps in a sudden new wash of memory, then turned blankly up towards the mountain in dawning realization. There were things about that day that she had thought of so many times they had become inescapable, more vivid than so many memories she would have killed to have with her on the long dry rides through the waste of their world: memories of her family, of Heart, of Tuk Tuk when he was still small enough to sit on top of her ear. Those memories—stumbling at the shrine, collapsing on the bridge, churning in the river as her father’s face faded out of sight—had eclipsed so much else, even the place where she and Namaari had their quiet smiles over single parents and an embarrassment of love for dragons. She’d always had the pendant, and that had kept the thought of a friendship before betrayal an entirely raw-edged wound, but she’d walked this hall without remembering the ghost of their laughter.
Namaari, it seemed, had kept different pieces of that infinitely breakable memory.
“Where you shared Sisu with me,” Raya said, picking out the shard she wanted at last. “If you hadn’t shown me the scroll, given me this…” She reached out to catch the pendant by one golden paw, feeling Namaari’s pulse flutter against the side of her hand, feeling just how much the engraved lines and pointed talons had smoothed over six years of worrying and polishing and care. “...I would have had no idea where to look for her.”
“You wouldn’t have had to.”
“Yes,” Raya pushed back, still staring down at the tiny gem. “I would. We all would have had to do something to come together. Something bigger than sharing a meal. Sisu thinks it would have just taken a present to every chief to fix everything, and I kind of adore her for it, but that doesn’t mean it was ever that simple for us. We had really hurt each other.” Was this still about the five lands? “It’s not about the— the gesture. It’s about trust when it matters . When there’s something at stake.” She stared up into Namaari’s eyes and found them very close, dark, and focused. Her throat went dry.
“I like the present,” Namaari said, soft and serious.
“I’m glad,” Raya answered. Whatever the bigger train of thought had been, it was gone.
“Ask me to stay.”
“What?” She dropped the pendant back against Namaari’s chest, taken aback.
“Ask me to stay. I want to, I— I want to help repair the shine. I want to help you bury the ones who didn't make it out of the first panic, the shattered dead. I want something .” There was a sudden fierceness in her voice that seemed to stop whatever else she was going to say dead in its tracks, and Raya gulped at the intensity in the eyes only inches from hers.
“You don’t have to do that,” she started, but Namaari didn’t let her finish.
“Please, Raya. I do. But I won’t unless you ask. It has to come from you. If my being here makes this time when you should be celebrating with your family, your people, worse for you, you should send me home. But if there is anything I can do to repair—”
“Stay.” Raya stumbled over the rest, but at least that much was totally clear, and somewhere in that one short word, her hand had lost its fight against the urge to reach out and grip Namaari’s own, clutching her fingers tight. “Not because— You already— It’s not about that. You shouldn’t be here because you feel guilty but I do want you here because…”
Because why? Because something , Raya thought, staring into the face of something that was almost an old friend, something that still had the hard edges of a once-cruel enemy, something like a— a new kind of people-dragon who had saved the world. With her. “I’d like the chance to start this over,” she said instead of whatever else her jumbled thoughts would have landed on.
And a good thing, because when Namaari smiled and agreed, “Yes. Let’s do that,” the rest of Raya’s thoughts scattered away like sparks of dragon magic in a downpour. Namaari’s hand was warm. Her smile, caught between the harsh lines of her hair on one side and the regal tassel trailing down from her cuffed ear on the other, was genuine, nervous and fierce all at once. And behind her, framed in the blue and gold of home, the mountain’s proud silhouette rose green and thriving, holding only it’s own stone walls in it’s heart.