Shit has been going down in the Critical Role fandom lately, leaving my poor heart battered, confused, and hopeful all at the same time. With the sudden torrential downpour of feelings, I knew immediately after watching the most recent episode that I had to go looking for fic. For fear of spoilers, I can’t reveal much in this beginning paragraph. What I can say, however, is that if you’re looking for a complex dive into the weaving and grieving of different aspects of families, both found and otherwise, look no further than this fic.
Massive spoilers for Critical Role beneath the cut.
Still bloodied and hurting from their final encounter with the most cunning and vengeful member of the Chroma Conclave, Vox Machina never prepared for the possibility that the biggest blow to befall them would be from one of their own members. Gnome bard extraordinaire, Scanlan Shorthalt, left Vox Machina and Critical Role’s audience reeling after making the shocking decision to leave the party. Not only that, but in his absence Scanlan had a few choice words on how he felt unappreciated and disrespected by everyone in Vox Machina for the group to chew on. Now, after the year-long timeskip, things aren’t much better: while both Vex and Vax have come to terms with Scanlan’s departure and understand his reasoning to some extent, the other party members remain hurt, bitter, and confused about why someone who was part of their family would act the way he did. All this is brought to a head in the most recent episode, where Scanlan is exposed as the current “employer” of Vox Machina, and no one, especially not Scanlan, knows how to deal with all the emotions that have been left to fester in their year apart.
While Critical Role will no doubt continue to tackle the inter-party healing and hurting, what audiences are left in the dark on is Scanlan’s year away—the year he spent with his daughter Kaylie. What we know for sure is that though Kaylie initially met Scanlan with the intention to kill him, the two have been forging a tenuous family bond, and somehow their travels and bonding led them both to the desert metropolis of Ank’Harel, where they both share the role of the crime lord The Meatman. KiaraSayre works to fill in this gap, and in learn me right spins a yarn of battling depression, fighting feelings of inadequacy, fearing the unknown, and accepting that hurt is okay, all while discovering that you can still learn to be happy in the midst of all of this.
Taking place right after Scanlan leaves Vox Machina, KiaraSayre wastes no time in showing how utterly hollowed out Scanlan feels by the whole experience. His body still feels ravaged from dying (he got better), he’s still covered in pudding from a prank gone wrong at his expense, and after releasing all his rage at once it’s all he can do to keep one foot moving in front of the other. Kaylie, too, struggles with even finding what to say to this man that she can’t yet call “dad”. So much of their journey is uncomfortable silence peppered with questions that Scanlan can no longer lie about. As they travel, they both begin to discover that they’re both more complicated than they gave the other credit for. Kaylie especially comes to understand that Scanlan can both be a shitty person and someone who cares deeply about everyone he comes across, seemingly unable to stop himself from helping refugees and using his skills as an adventurer—skills he claims to not have—to protect.
As the two grow closer and learn to communicate, Scanlan also tries to come to terms with his opinions on family. He cares for Kaylie more than anything; his musical troupe is ready to welcome him back with open arms, but as usual they’re not really ones for deeper emotional attachments; and Vox Machina… well, the jury’s still out on that one. The most shocking moment of this fic for me is when Kaylie brings her mother Sybil to visit Scanlan, all these years after he abandoned her.
“She told me she found you and she beat you at your own game – a flute-off, because that’s apparently a thing you musician-types do. And she told me she was prepared to take her revenge out on your flesh, and you…you were prepared to let her.” She gets quiet for a moment. “I admit, I don’t think I understand you very well.”
“And you’re okay with all that?” Scanlan says. “With what she wanted to do? I mean, to be honest, I understand where she was coming from, but you’re not concerned about the fact that our daughter’s the type of person who would do…all that?”
“I raised my girl to survive.”
“And I’m very grateful for that,” Scanlan says immediately, “but – I want her to be happy. When I met her, she didn’t seem…that. And I don’t know how to make her happy.” He laughs roughly. “I don’t know how to fix her problems any more than I know how to fix my own.”
Sybil’s mouth twitches downward, and Scanlan realizes she’s fighting a smile, like she wants to but he hasn’t earned it. “Congratulations. You’re truly a parent now.”
That’s not comforting. Scanlan clears his throat. “Sybil – I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
“You did,” Sybil says immediately.
Scanlan nods, taking it in stride. “Then I’m sorry that I did hurt you, in that time we spent together, but I can’t say I’m sorry that it happened. Not if it brought Kaylie into the world.”
With a sigh, Sybil says, “I feel about the same.”
“I don’t know what your circumstances are now, but – I do have some money…”
“Kaylie told me how she won all your coin.”
“Uh. Right. Yes, she did, but, um, I was recently involved in some fights against some…dragons? And it turns out they have a lot of gold, so I got some there.”
Sybil looks flatly at Scanlan. “That’s right, Kaylie said you told her that. I can’t say I’m convinced.”
That gives Scanlan pause, but this is Kaylie’s mother. If she feels as strongly as he does that Kaylie deserves the best – and she possibly does even more – then she deserves to know that Kaylie’s at least in hands that are trying, if not yet capable. And if Kaylie wants honesty, that probably extends to her mother. So he reluctantly unbuttons the top three buttons of his shirt to reveal the top of his scar. In the few glances he’s had to endure, he’s gathered that they’re pretty clearly not induced by anything normal.
“This,” he says, “was the work of the green dragon, Raishan. My – the people I was traveling with did most of the work, if I’m honest, but I was there. Even if I wished I wasn’t.”
Sybil stares at it, then looks back at Scanlan’s face. “Well,” she says. “You’re here now. I can’t control what Kaylie does any more than the next person, and I can’t exactly make you do anything, either. But you’ve got my daughter’s heart in your hands now and I hope by all the gods you’ll be careful with it.”
“I hope so too,” Scanlan says, and Sybil gives him a strange look.
“You’re a lot easier to like than you are to love,” she says.
Scanlan thinks of Vox Machina, laughing at his jokes and taking his healing and eating his chicken and never asking him a damn thing. “That sounds about right,” he says.
Their whole interaction speaks volumes about the kind of people both he and Kaylie are. Kaylie absolutely inherited Sybil’s stubbornness and tenacity to survive—even without Scanlan, Kaylie would survive, but Scanlan wants more for her than the life he had, the life that Kaylie is following in the footsteps of. And Scanlan once again faces that his past of lies has held him back from forging the bonds that he so desperately wants now. In leaving Sybil and lying about his feelings for her, he missed out on so much of Kaylie’s life. In lying to Vox Machina about what he really wanted from his relationship with them, he may have just cut them out of his life forever. With all this now written so plainly, he can now move on, learn how to grow as a person, and try to avoid repeating these mistakes once again.
Scanlan’s relationship with Vox Machina is especially complex. As we speak, much of the fanbase is arguing about whether or not Scanlan was in the wrong for saying vitriolic (but not untrue) things to his friends/family, or whether or not Vox Machina should apologize as well for mistreating him. As a character who suffers from depression, Scanlan is more than prone to feeling left out, unloved, and worthless compared to the other members. Yet in not expressing these concerns to the others, his anger over this left the rest of the group understandably confused. What is especially brilliant about this fic is that it never chooses a side. It explores Scanlan’s thought processes, but he can’t come to a conclusion. He’s hurt. He’s allowed to be hurt. He recognizes that he may have been unfair, but doesn’t know how to overcome this. This sort of exploration and admittance that these feelings are multi-faceted is much more rewarding and cathartic to read than Scanlan being angry or regretting his actions the whole time.
At just under 40k words, learn me right will take a little bit of time to go through, and if you’re not caught up on Critical Role it might be a little confusing, especially with the cameos from other adored NPCs. However, learn me right is a nuanced learning-to-be-family fic that is absolutely deserving of all the attention it can get. Make sure to check it out here at AO3!