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Stolen Moments

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For the first time in five hundred years, Heart's central hall is packed with guests. They've had festivals and celebrations here before, but Heart has always been a small nation. They've never had enough people to make the room feel this full. 

But it is so, so quiet. There is a faint murmur of conversation that echoes through the hall occasionally but all of it is hushed and strained. There are guests from all five nations here tonight but Raya notices that no one is mingling. Everyone is staying with their own people, eyeing the guests from other nations as suspiciously as the food being served.

She watches as her Ba attempts to get a guest from Spine and another from Tail to join him in a conversation. The two guests take one look at the other, say something that's probably some empty pleasantries to Benja, and turn back to their own delegations. Benja pauses for a moment to take a deep breath before he dives back in again, determined to get his guests to talk to one another.

Raya winces as another guest, this time from Talon, refuses to even look at Benja while he tries to speak with them. Namaari shifts next to her, and Raya's attention is brought back to where she and Namaari are sitting off to the side from the rest of the party. A few minutes ago, Namaari had pulled out a Dragon Scroll that she definitely was not supposed to have, proudly showing Raya the intricate drawings of Sisu and her legend painted on the paper. 

“You okay?” Namaari asks. She’s still leaning over the scroll spread out in front of them, but her eyes are on Raya’s face.

“Yes,” Raya says quickly, flashing her a smile. 

Namaari looks away, a slight flush rising on her cheeks. Then she reaches around her neck and unclasps her necklace, the one of Sisu’s image that Raya had admired when they first met. She cradles it in her palms and offers it to Raya. “Here,” she says, giving Raya a bashful smile. “From one dragon nerd to another.”

Raya takes the necklace carefully, running her thumb over the smooth metal. “Are you sure?” she asks, grinning when Namaari nods eagerly. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to take good care of it, I promise.” She puts the necklace on, gently touching the pendant once it’s around her neck. Then she looks up at Namaari, holding her gaze for a moment as her face becomes more thoughtful. “Come on, dep la,” she finally says, taking Namaari’s hand as they both rise to their feet. “There’s something I have to show you.”

Namaari giggles and lets Raya pull her out of the hall and into one of the gardens surrounding the palace. 

Neither of them sees Chief Virana watching them as they slip out the door.

The garden is beautiful with most of its flowers and fruit trees in full bloom. Moonlight filters down through the trees, their branches casting long shadows on the ground, broken occasionally by tall torches set alongside the stone pathway. Namaari gasps and Raya slows so they’re walking side by side, grinning as she watches her new friend take in the sights of the garden.

Namaari steps off the path to look at a flower more closely, tugging Raya along with her. She touches the flowers’ delicate petals, breathing deeply to take in its sweet scent. A few seconds later, she frowns and moves back, her free hand going to fidget with the hem of her shirt. She’s still holding Raya’s hand, but her eyes are now glued to the ground.

Raya bumps their shoulders together gently. “What’s wrong?” she asks, ducking her head so she can see Namaari’s face.

“We don’t have anything like this in Fang,” Namaari says, her voice quiet. “There isn’t enough room, and we can't even grow enough food.” She winces and bites down on her lower lip, looking away so Raya can’t see her expression. “This is a bad idea. We should go back to the party.”

Raya opens and closes her mouth several times, her mind fumbling for a response. On a whim she leans forward, gently touching her lips to Namaari’s cheek.

Namaari goes rigid and whips her head around to look at Raya. Her face shifts through a complicated series of emotions, so quickly that Raya has no hope of catching them all. Raya flinches, an apology forming on her tongue as she starts to step back. But Namaari’s grip on her hand tightens, stopping Raya from leaving her side. Namaari’s face is bright red, and she looks a little dazed, but she’s smiling again when she meets Raya's eyes.

“Namaari?” a voice calls from further back on the path from the direction of the palace. They both recognize Virana’s voice and Namaari’s smile instantly drops. 

Raya’s stomach clenches and her heartbeat speeds up. She’s not quite sure why, but she starts running down the path away from the palace, pulling Namaari behind her. When they reach the stone stairs at the end of the trail, Raya slows down just enough that they won't trip on the rough-hewn steps. They don’t stop running until they make it to the top of the stairs and stand at the entrance to the Dragon Gem sanctuary. 

Raya still hasn’t let go of Namaari’s hand and she squeezes it, waiting to speak until she catches her breath. “Don’t worry, dep la,” she says, doing her best to smile as she pants. “She won’t find us here. No one will.”

Namaari is still frowning, and it looks like tears might be gathering in her eyes, but it’s hard to tell in the moonlight. Raya hesitates for a second before she kisses Namaari’s cheek again and leads her into the sanctuary. Everything will be alright as long as they can trust one another, just like her Ba said.

Trusting Namaari turns out to be the worst decision Raya has ever made. She's only twelve years old but somehow, she managed to break the world and get her Ba turned to stone all in one night. She went from a comfortable, happy life to being an orphan without a nation in a matter of hours. 

But she remembers that Namaari was crying when she told her that Fang was stealing the Dragon Gem. 

Raya holds onto that. It’s the only thing that makes thinking about that night bearable. She’s not really sure why. The Gem shattered and the Druun came back and her Ba got turned to stone, so the fact that Namaari was crying really shouldn’t be that important in comparison. 

But it was, and it is, even years later. Raya holds onto it with everything she has because it's all she has left.

Well, there is one other thing left. 

The dragon necklace Namaari gave her that night. 

Wearing it is confusing if she thinks about it too much. It’s both a promise and a lie, an offering and an omen, a gift and a curse. 

Sometimes she has to tuck it under her shirt to make herself stop touching it, stop reminding herself of that night. 

But she never considers taking it off.

Five years pass and Raya decides she can't just wander aimlessly forever. She remembers the scroll that Namaari showed her that night. It had a map of all the rivers, all the possible locations where Sisu might be sleeping, just waiting for someone to wake her up so she could save the world again. 

Raya knows it might just be some old nonsense legend, but she really has nothing left to lose at this point. She decides to sneak into Fang’s palace to steal the Dragon Scroll so she can look for Sisu. 

After she comes up with her plan, a small part of her wonders if this is just an excuse to see Namaari again. Does she really need the scroll badly enough to take this risk? The palace will be heavily guarded, and she doesn’t know for sure where the scroll will be kept. That means a lot of time in hostile territory and a lot of opportunities to get hurt or captured.

Eventually, she decides that it is worth it. To get the scroll, that is. Not to see Namaari again.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to do if she runs into Namaari while she’s in Fang. 

She also isn't sure what she’ll do if she doesn’t.

She finds herself touching the pendant of her necklace almost constantly, so often that she’s worried she’ll damage the metal’s sheen. It stays under her shirt as much as possible and she frequently reminds herself to leave it alone, but it doesn’t work. She always tugs it out to run her fingers over it without realizing, no matter how many times she tries to coach herself not to.

Raya had made it across the channel, infiltrated the palace, and stolen the scroll from the vault without being seen. There were several close calls along the way, but she almost can't believe her luck. She's pretty sure that luck is going to run out soon, but she's already deep enough into this whole thing that backing out isn't really an option anymore.

She tucks the Dragon Scroll into her bag, padding down the hallway as silently as she can. There are voices coming from behind her and Raya ducks around a corner, pressing herself against the wall and holding her breath until the guards walk past. Frowning, she bites the inside of her cheek as she tries to plan her escape route. The guards who just walked by are now blocking the way she came in, so she’ll have to improvise. 

She moves to the opposite wall and sticks her head out around the corner, spotting three windows further down the hallway. One of them is halfway open, just enough that she should be able to slip through. It’s cloudy tonight and the moon is only half full, so she has a good chance of being able to climb down the building and get out of the city without being seen. Or at least she hopes so. She doesn’t have many other options at this point, so she takes a deep breath and pushes away from the wall. 

Just as she steps out of the shadows, another person comes down the hallway from the other direction. They're walking so quietly that Raya has no idea they are there until it’s already too late. It's impossible to avoid being seen now, so Raya pulls her arm back, getting ready to strike as she lunges forward. Then she freezes when she recognizes the other person.

“Namaari?” The word is out of her mouth before she can stop it. Namaari is much taller now, her shoulders broad and muscular. But she still has the same hairstyle, and Raya can recognize the traces of the girl she met all those years ago in her face. But her eyes are different. The spark that drew Raya to her as a child is still there, but it is much, much dimmer, kept behind something hard and heavy that seems to weigh on the rest of her body as well. 

Namaari’s eyes narrow and she drops into a combat stance in a practiced motion. Then her eyes go wide, and her arms fall limp at her sides. “Raya?”

Raya has the scroll; she has what she needs, and she should just leave but she can't. Not when Namaari is looking at her like that. 

There are still about five feet between them, and they stare at each other across the distance like they’re on either side of some great chasm. The space between them holds danger, yes, but also possibilities. If they have the courage to jump.

Namaari takes a hesitant step forward and Raya swallows thickly. Everything in her is screaming for her to run while she has the chance, but something even stronger keeps her rooted in place as Namaari walks toward her. 

Namaari’s steps are slow and cautious, and she stops with just inches separating them. She raises a shaking hand toward Raya’s face and Raya moves into the touch, shivering as Namaari’s hand settles on her cheek. Namaari's other arm wraps around her waist and Raya puts her hands on Namaari’s shoulders to steady herself, taking deep, shuddering breaths. She’s almost gasping for air, like this is the first time she’s breathed deeply in almost five years.

"I thought you were stone," Namaari whispers, her voice just as unsteady as the hand that's still trembling against Raya's cheek. 

Raya closes her eyes as Namaari’s hand moves around her face, her fingertips tracing the scars she’s gathered in the last five years. The thin line along the length of her jaw on her right side. The jagged tear that runs from the center of her lower lip and down her chin. The fresh gash that slices across her left eyebrow. This last cut is still only a day old and Raya winces as Namaari’s fingers brush against it, but she doesn’t pull away. She opens her eyes and the concern on Namaari’s face makes her chest ache. 

With a small smile tugging at her lips, Raya moves her hand to cover Namaari’s, bringing it back down to rest against her cheek. “It almost seems like you missed me, dep la,” she says, turning her head to kiss the palm of Namaari’s hand.

Namaari’s expression is pained, and Raya wants to say something to ease it, but she has no idea what that would be. Instead, she moves her free hand to her neck, pulling the pendant of the necklace from under her shirt. 

Namaari inhales sharply as the pendant drops against Raya’s chest. “You kept it,” she says. Her voice is thick and watery, and Raya can see tears shining in her eyes. “Just like you promised.”

Raya nods and kisses Namaari’s palm again. Their eyes lock and Raya’s heart beats faster as she holds her breath. She’s made her move, and now it’s up to Namaari to make the next one. 

It takes another moment, but Namaari leans forward to kiss Raya’s cheek, the one that’s still turned toward her. She tilts her chin down but doesn’t pull away and Raya turns her head back, pressing their foreheads together. Namaari’s shoulders start to shake, and Raya realizes that she is crying.

There are footsteps coming down the hallway toward them, many of them, accompanied by the sounds of swords being drawn from their sheathes. Namaari grabs the front of Raya's shirt and spins them around, throwing her down the hallway toward the windows. Raya only barely manages to catch the edge off the windowsill to stop her fall. She ducks as Namaari lashes out, but the blow passes through the air well above her head. It takes her another second to fumble with the window before she can yank it open the rest of the way.

Raya scrambles through the opening and tumbles down the side of the building. She grabs onto the eaves of the roof to slow her fall, but the weight of her body keeps going and she feels her shoulder pop out of place before she lets go.

Somehow, she makes it out of the palace and the city. She has no idea how. Her mind is foggy with pain and her first clear memory after escaping is finding Tuk Tuk where she had hidden him a few hours earlier. She chooses not to question it too much, deciding to just be thankful that she made it out alive and with the scroll. 

It takes weeks before she can raise her arm without pain in her shoulder. Raya knows she should stop to rest but she doesn’t. She can't. Now that she has the scroll, she has work to do. And any time she pauses, she thinks about meeting Namaari in Fang’s palace. About how Namaari cried again. About how she helped her escape.

She has a lot of time to think now, while she’s traveling between rivers. There aren’t many people left and most of the towns are abandoned at this point, so Raya has nothing to distract her. 

Her thoughts of Namaari have no resolution, they spin through her head over and over until she almost can’t stand it. But at the same time, she can’t just let them go.

She wonders if Namaari thinks about it, too.

Holding the pendant of her necklace is the only way she’s able to calm her thoughts at this point. She doesn’t try to stop herself from touching it anymore because it doesn’t hurt quite as much. The pain is still there, but the jagged edges of it have been smoothed somewhat, because now there is a glimmer of hope that comes along with it.

That hope is tested when she sees Namaari again almost a year later.

Raya actually finds Sisu. She’s at literally the last river on her map but Sisu is there and she’s real and she’s still connected to the Dragon Gem’s magic. Which means if they can get the rest of the Gem pieces, Raya finally has a chance to set everything right.

The problem comes when Namaari finds her almost immediately afterwards.

Her heart leaps into her throat when she first sees Namaari again. She starts smiling until she registers the expression on Namaari’s face. It’s nothing like the way Namaari looked at her in Fang’s palace just a few months ago.

She and Sisu manage to make it to a boat and escape on the river before Namaari and her band of soldiers catch up with them. Raya’s heart is pounding, her mind whirling, barely holding back tears as she watches Namaari and her serlot skid to a stop at the end of the dock. But as the distance between them grows, Namaari’s face changes. Raya only gets a glimpse of it before they’re too far away to make out the details, but she thinks there is regret, maybe even an apology, in Namaari’s eyes.

She isn’t completely sure that she didn’t just imagine it. But it’s enough. Enough to reignite that flicker of hope.

It isn’t long before Namaari finds them again. Raya and Sisu are captured by the last Spine warrior, but after Namaari shows up, she manages to persuade him to help them instead. Namaari has even more soldiers with her this time, and she threatens to attack if they don’t hand over their Gem pieces.

Raya remembers how Namaari acted the last time they were in front of Fang soldiers. She was pretending that they were enemies. At least Raya hopes she was. 

If Namaari is only pretending, Raya is about to put her in an almost impossible position. She knows this as she walks through the village after telling Sisu and the rest of their group to slip away during her distraction. But she can’t think of anything else to do.

Namaari is standing a few feet in front of her troops when Raya swings open the village gate. It takes a moment before Namaari realizes what’s happening, and when she does, it’s a good thing her soldiers can’t see her face. 

It reminds Raya of when she kissed Namaari’s cheek as a child. First confusion that shifts into recognition, which then morphs into shock with a trace of horror. But instead of smiling at the end, this time Namaari gives her a pleading look that almost makes her drop her sword. She raises her weapon instead, but Namaari stays still, only shaking her head ever so slightly as her eyes beg Raya not to make her do this.

Raya has no idea what to do next, but thankfully Sisu chooses that moment to come to her rescue. Using the new power granted by Spine’s Gem piece, Sisu creates a thick fog that gives them all a chance to escape. 

Raya doesn’t look back as she and the others hurry through the village. She knows that makes her a coward, but she can’t bear to see Namaari’s face again at that moment. Not after what she almost forced her to do.

Once they’re safely on Boun’s boat and headed down the river toward Fang, Raya finds herself clutching the pendant of her necklace. It takes hours before she’s able to let it go.

Raya, Sisu, and her new friends now have four of the Gem pieces. Tong, Boun, and Noi want to fight their way into Fang’s palace to get the last piece, but Sisu insists that they should ask Namaari to work with them instead. They argue back and forth for several minutes until Raya says that she can get the piece from Namaari without a fight. Sisu looks pleased but the rest of them don’t believe her. They say that Namaari has betrayed her before and will do it again. They ask her why they should trust Namaari.

Raya doesn’t know how to tell them. Not in a way that they will understand. 

She doesn’t know how to tell them that Namaari has cried every time they’ve met alone. 

Her friends won’t know what that means. They will think it means nothing when she knows it means everything. 

She knows Namaari will bring the Gem piece if she is the one who asks.

Half an hour later, she’s convinced them to let her meet Namaari by herself. They only agree to this plan when Raya says they can stay nearby to come help her if it all goes wrong. 

But she will meet Namaari alone.

She sends Noi and her Ongis to give Namaari the necklace. She’s confident that Namaari will know what it means. 

She hopes that this time the necklace’s history will not follow it. That this time it will be only a promise, an offering, and a gift. Not a lie, an omen, or a curse. She knows there’s a chance that the legacy of the necklace might came back to bite her. But there isn’t anything else she could possibly give to let Namaari know how important this moment is.

Namaari is standing near the edge of a cliff that overlooks the river. The lights of Fang’s palace and city shine bright from across the water behind her and the moonlight above her is dim, making it difficult to see her face.

Raya takes a deep breath and walks past the tree line that runs parallel to the cliff's edge, raising her hands so Namaari can see that she’s unarmed. "I have friends nearby. But they won’t hear us if we’re quiet,” she adds quickly when Namaari tenses. “I persuaded them to let us meet alone.” 

There are still shadows across Namaari’s face, so Raya can’t make out her expression. That chasm between them is back and Raya wonders again if she can find the nerve to let herself fall into it.

She doesn’t have to wonder for very long because Namaari rushes toward her. Instinctively, she takes a defensive stance, but it drops as soon as Namaari’s arms wrap around her.

Namaari rests her head on Raya’s shoulder. Her breathing is already uneven, her shoulders already shaking. Raya returns the embrace, moving one hand up to stroke Namaari’s hair. “Miss me again, dep la?”

Namaari pulls back, not enough to leave Raya's arms but enough that she can see her face. They stare at each other for a moment and Raya has to remind herself to breathe as Namaari’s eyes flick down to her lips. She is again aware of the possibilities that swirl between them, again wondering if they are brave enough to make any of them more than dreams.

She doesn’t know which one of them leans in first. Maybe they both move at the same time. Either way, Namaari’s lips are soft against her own as they kiss, moving slowly, gently, with so much tenderness that Raya feels tears rising in her closed eyes. She knows Namaari is still crying. She can taste the sharp saltiness of her tears as she kisses her.

Raya is the one who breaks away first, but only just so their lips aren’t touching anymore. Their faces are still close, she can still feel Namaari’s breath tickling her skin, still see the tears on her cheeks. Raya feels a lump rise in her throat, and she shakes her head but can’t quite get herself to step away. "It’s going to happen again, isn’t it," she says, her voice breaking. “Something is going to take this from us. Just like before.”

Namaari inhales like she’s going to speak but stays silent and lets the breath out a few seconds later. She reaches into her pocket and raises her hand with her palm facing up, the dragon necklace resting in its center. They both glance down at it before Namaari fastens it around Raya’s neck. She moves slowly, reverently, making Raya shiver when her fingers touch her skin. 

Once the necklace is in place, Namaari moves her hand to cover it, gently pressing it against Raya’s chest. “We still have this,” she says, her voice only just loud enough for Raya to hear.

Then Namaari stiffens in her arms and Raya moves her hands to cup her face, trying to hold her in place. She moves to kiss her again, but Namaari is already tearing herself away. Namaari is glaring behind her, and Raya turns to see Sisu and her friends emerging from the trees. 

Raya doesn’t quite know what happens next. But when she turns around again, Namaari is holding a crossbow. Everyone is shouting, everyone is angry, and the crossbow fires. 

The bolt hits Sisu and everything falls apart after that.

Raya can see that Namaari is crying when the crossbow fires. 

After Sisu falls dead into the water, Namaari flees, and Raya chases after her. She has no idea what she's going to do when she catches up with her, but she knows she has to follow.

Twenty minutes later, they’re surrounded by the Druun. The river that protected the city dried up when Sisu died and the Druun immediately rushed in. Raya, Namaari, and her friends did their best to get Fang’s citizens to safety, using what magic was left in their Gem pieces, but it all came down to the five of them. They’re trapped, surrounded by the Druun on all sides, and Raya realizes that the only way out is for them to trust each other.

She knows her friends won’t want to give their pieces to Namaari, but she also knows that’s the only thing that can save them. 

She can’t do anything that will tell them what it all means, not really. There’s still no way for her to explain to them why Namaari was crying. Or why it matters. But she can show them enough, just enough that they might surrender their Gem pieces to her.

Namaari is crying again but Raya smiles at her as she presses the Gem piece into her hand. She reaches up to caress Namaari’s cheek before she steps back and lets the Druun wash over her. 

She has no doubts. She knows that she’ll see Namaari again.

Everything after that is a blur. She and Namaari have a moment to look at one another right after they both come back, but that doesn’t last long. After that, the dragons return and Sisu is revived. Then there are wounded to look after and rubble to sort through as they find food and lodging for everyone in the aftermath. 

It’s not until hours later that Raya and Namaari find an opportunity to be alone together. Every urgent need has been met and no one is in any danger, so they share a glance, both of them understanding that this is the time to slip away. But they wait until they are out of sight before they reach for each other. Both of them want this moment to be theirs and theirs alone. 

Raya follows Namaari into the narrow alley between the palace wall and one of the surrounding houses. She barely makes it around the corner of the building before Namaari runs to her, pulling her as close as she can. Namaari doesn’t say anything, just buries her face in Raya’s neck and clutches at her shirt as she holds her. But she doesn’t have to speak, because Raya is feeling and thinking the same thing. 

They are alive. And they are together. That’s the only thing that matters right now.

It takes several minutes until they are ready to let each other go, even just enough so they can see each other’s faces. Once they do, Raya barely has time to meet Namaari’s eyes before Namaari kisses her. 

The kiss is urgent and desperate, sharpened with the knowledge of how close they came to never having this moment. And they both know how easily it could still be snatched away, just like the others before it. 

Neither of them wants to end the kiss. They're worried that if they move away at all, something will happen to tear them apart completely. 

But a moment passes and still nothing happens. No one comes to interrupt them. 

They finally relax in each other’s arms and pull back from the kiss. Namaari is crying again but this time she is smiling. There is joy in her eyes, cutting through that hard, heavy burden that she has carried with her for years. Raya matches her smile and can’t help but kiss her again. 

This time the kiss is slow and gentle, filled with the understanding that it cannot be stolen from them, not like before. This moment and all the moments that come after are theirs and nothing and no one will ever take that from them again.