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We Could Be Heroes

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“You know, if you want to talk to her you have to actually talk to her.”  Callum was jolted out of his stupor as Claudia brought him back to reality.  “I swear, you haven’t been this bad since before we dated.  You’ve been pining after her for a year; maybe it’s time to say something.”  Claudia was smirking while sipping her hot brown morning potion; the hustle and bustle of the university cafeteria completely ignored by the pair. 

“She’s an elf, Claudia.  A Moonshadow elf, at that.  You know how they feel about humans.”  Callum shifted the eggs on his plate in an efforts to distract himself from Claudia’s prodding.

“Doesn’t change the fact that you like her.  And she might like you.”

Callum couldn’t stop the awkward laugh as he began to look everywhere but at his friend.  “Don’t say things like that in public.  What if someone-”

"What, Callum?  Figures out you are crushing on a girl you’ve shared classes with since your first semester?  She’s pretty and clever, and, from what Soren says whenever he goes to the gym, really athletic.  You’d be stupid not to like her.  You’re a prince and on your way to become an archmage.  She wouldn’t be getting the short-end of the stick by liking you.”

“She doesn’t like me Claudia.  Nothing is going to happen between us.”  Claudia sighed before reaching over and patting Callum’s hand.  “Why do you want something to happen between?”

Claudia shrugged before turning her neck to look at Rayla.  “Because I want you to be happy.  You light up when you talk about her and smile more after you work together.  She makes you happy, Callum.”

Callum blushed and looked down at his own cup of morning potion.  “Don’t tell anyone, Claudia.”

“Soren knows.”

Callum nodded his head from side to side a bit.  “Why am I not surprised?” 

 


 

 

Rayla was doing her best to discreetly look at the two humans a few tables away.  Her frequent project partner, Callum, and his friend, Claudia.  Rayla and Claudia did not get along at first, mostly due to Claudia using dark magic while Callum had somehow managed to unlock Sky magic.  Claudia still didn’t see anything wrong with dark magic and it made Rayla, and every other elf in their vicinity, wary of her.  The other reason they didn’t get along?  Claudia wouldn’t stop bugging Rayla about Callum. 

“You’re looking at that human prince again, Rayla,” Bandlr, a fellow Moonshadow elf hissed.  He was just a bit taller than Runaan and covered in toned muscles.  The sloping purple marks on his cheeks reminded Rayla of the scythes used during harvest time.  He exuded power and arrogance with every little move he made and tended to have either a scowl or a smirk on his face.   

“I’m doing no such thing,” she stated absently.

“You better not or your uncle will be pissed.”

“Is that a threat?”  Rayla glared over at him and could feel the energy crackling between the two.  They lived in the same small town and had known most of the same people since high school.  For Rayla, it had been hate at first sight, finding his arrogance and knowledge of her life the biggest turn-off she had ever encountered.  He was a thorn in her side that just wouldn’t go away, no thanks to the other Moonshadow elves at the university not wanting to kick one of their own out without ‘proper cause’.  For Bandlr, it had been lust at first sight.  He spent all his time with Rayla either antagonizing her or trying to charm her.  He had once told her that he wouldn’t mind it if she came to him in a fit of rage, just so long as she did.

“Maybe.  You know how to shut me up.”

“You’re right.  I do.”  Rayla leaned in a bit, Bandlr smiling wide as she did.  He never saw the punch that went straight to his jaw.  “Try to talk with a sore jaw, asshole.  Don’t forget, I’m faster than you and I was trained by the best.”

Bandlr glared as he massaged his already bruising jaw.  The other elves at the table let the two be, already used to Bandlr’s flirts and Rayla’s violent reaction to them.  Sadly for Rayla, it only made him convinced she was a ‘challenge’ for the ‘taking’.  “To be fair, Rayla,” interjected a girl with long braids, “you spend a lot of time with this Prince Callum.  I don’t think anyone back home would approve.  Just because our school is on the border of Katolis and Xadia doesn’t mean you can go fraternizing with humans.”

“Ugh.”  Rayla looked up at the ceiling, rolling her eyes.  “For the last time, back off.  I’m going back to the library.”  Rayla grabbed her things, roughly pushed her chair in and stalked off, but not before bumping into Callum and Claudia.  “Watch it.”  Callum simply nodded as he turned away from her while Claudia raised a brow.  “Got something to say?”

“The sexual tension between the two of you is so thick I could cut it with a knife.  Just tell him you like him.”

“Mind your own business, Claudia.”  Rayla walked as quickly as she could out of the cafeteria and headed towards the apartment complexes off-campus.  She continued to look behind her and to the sides as she walked.  Rayla eventually stopped in front of a luxurious apartment building and entered the large glass doors.  The human doorman smiled and greeted her.

“Another project with Prince Callum, Miss Rayla?”

“You could say that.  He texted me that he’s on his way, so I’ll wait for him by his door.”

“Of course, Miss Rayla.” 

Up the elevator she went and waited in front of a door on the top floor.  It was one of only two, reserved for important dignitaries.  ‘Fucking Bandlr.  When is he going to get it through his thick skull to leave me alone?’  Rayla’s hand grasped her bag as she bit her lip.  ‘They know I’m spending a lot of time with Callum.  Who else has noticed?’  She was pulled from her thoughts by a hand softly grasping her’s.  “Callum.”

“We going to do that project, Rayla?”

“Yeah, let’s get it over with.”  Callum nodded as he unlocked the key to his apartment and let her in first.  Rayla was always struck by how minimalist Callum kept the large space.  The base of the room was obviously expensive while Callum chose to hang his own art and art that one of his fathers had done.  Pictures of his family were dispersed among the opulence of the walls and floors.  The furniture was a different story, obviously on the cheaper end, but well taken care of.  Callum had felt guilty taking the extravagant room so he had asked for cheaper materials to make his space a home while he was at school.  “No one would ever believe me if I told them your apartment was the definition of high-low.”  Rayla deposited her bag on the chair closest to the door, grabbing Callum’s bag and doing the same right after.

“You’ve been telling people that you come here?”  The slight bit of hope in his voice was clear as day.

“No, of course not.  If I did, they might think something was going on between us.”  Callum looked down at the floor, that glint of hope suddenly dashed.  “They don’t have to know anything is going on.”  Rayla didn’t give Callum a chance to nod before she had his face in her hands and her lips against his.  Callum wrapped one arm around her waist and made sure his door was locked.  Rayla backed him up to his couch and they tumbled down, with her landing between his legs and his other hand landing on her back.  “I’ve missed you.”

Callum groaned as she began to nibble at his neck.   “It’s only been a week.”

“Uh-huh.  A week of not seeing other or texting…or those naughty phone calls you seem so fond of.”  Callum gulped.  Rayla sat up and began to take off her top.  “Pants off.  Now.”

“You don’t want me to romance you a bit?”  He brushed his hands lightly against her stomach, causing her to quiver above him.

“Later.  Now, I just want you.”  Callum took off his pants and boxers and laid back.  Rayla pulled off her shirt and her own pants and underwear.  She quickly climbed on top of him and grasped his length.  “I’m gonna go fast and I’m gonna go hard.  Alright?”   He nodded, reaching to grab her hips.  She had a lot of pent up frustration in her and Callum knew by now that it was wisest to let her take the lead.  Rayla inserted Callum within her.  They groaned together as Rayla grinded on top of him.  Quickly picking up pace, she leaned back so her hands were resting on his legs. 

Not fully satisfied, Rayla came back up and grabbed Callum by his shirt to pull him up to her.  She sealed his lips to hers, grasping his shoulders to give her better leverage.  Callum ran circles on her hips with his thumbs.  Rayla broke the kiss to nibble at his ear.  “Ray…”

“Almost, Callum.  Almost.”  Rayla had never been shy about what she wanted from him and she wasn’t going to start now.  She took one of his hands from her hips to rest right on her clit.  “You know what to do.”  A sharp nod led to Callum leaning forward and nibbling on her shoulder while circling her.  “Ah!”

Callum moved his head to whisper a husky ‘I love you’ in her ear.  She quietly repeated it back, locking their lips again.  A few thrusts more led Callum and Rayla to completion.  He gently laid back, taking her with him.  “I missed you, too.”        

As they lay on his couch, covered in sweat and panting together, he ran his hand up and down her back.  Rayla snuggled her face into his neck, mindful of her horns.  “Mhmm, that feels nice.”

“Why did you punch Bandlr today?”

Good mood broken, Rayla broke out into a scowl.  “Ugh, the jackass was getting on my nerves.  Threatening to tell Runaan about me looking at you.”

“Oh.  Would…would that really be such a bad thing?”  His hopeful tone had come back full swing and Rayla hated crushing it. 

“Callum, we’ve talked about this.  Just because the elves and humans are no longer at war doesn’t mean that we’re at peace.”

“I don’t want us to be a secret, Rayla.  Not anymore.  It was nice, for a while, but I want to be more.”

“What more do you want?  We have dinner together, we’re exclusive, I spend the night often enough.  What more is there?”

Callum shifted so he could look Rayla in the eyes.  “I want you to meet my Dad and Ezran.  Well, you’ve met Ezran, but I want you to meet him as my girlfriend.  I want to meet Runaan and Ethari and hold your hand on campus and-”

“And what happens if it blows up in our faces?”  Rayla closed her eyes to try to keep he anger at bay.  This wasn’t the first time they had argued about this and she didn’t want him to know exactly why she didn’t want to tell anyone about their relationship.  “You do realize that Runaan could pull me out of school, right?  Just because I’m an adult in Katolis doesn’t mean that he isn’t allowed to make those decisions for me in Xadia.  The press will hound us both.  Why do you want to ruin what we have?”  She began to wriggle out of his hold, frustration making her want to move far away from him.

“Why are you scared of what we have?”

“I’m not scared.”  Rayla got up, pulled on her underwear and began to move towards the kitchen, Callum following her as he pulled his own boxers up.  She went into the cabinet and got a purple glass out as she looked back at him.  “I have my own glass here, Callum.  I have a whole drawer of my clothes in your apartment.  Anyone who looks closely enough at my texts would know that I’ve been deleting more than half of the ones from you.  I keep a freaking toothbrush in your bathroom!  Do you think I would do any of that, of this, if I was scared?”  Her arms were wide and disbelief on her face.  Why couldn’t he understand just how big all of that was?

He gave her an incredulous look as the same frustration that had taken over her began to seep into his voice.  “Yes, because you and I are the only people that know that any of your stuff is here.”

“I thought you wanted to stay out of the spotlight-”

“Don’t change the subject, Rayla.  It has never been about us going public with the world.  It’s about telling our families.  It’s ALWAYS been about telling our families.  Do you think I like telling Ezran that there is nothing between us?  I have never had to keep secrets from him before and I don’t like doing it now.”  Rayla understood that.  Ezran was understanding and had a big heart.  She couldn’t imagine anyone felt good after lying to him, least of all Callum.

“And what about your dear Aunt Amaya?  Doesn’t she hate elves?” 

“She’s marrying a Sunfire elf named Janai.  Try again.”

Rayla paused as she looked at him with furrowed brows.  “Is she really?”

“It’s all over the news in Katolis.  ‘General of the Katolian Army chooses to marry a general of the Sunfire Corps.’” 

“I haven’t heard anything about it.”  A rough sigh followed by a groan as she got her thoughts back to the topic at hand.  “Callum, I want to tell them.  I would love to tell Runaan and Ethari about you.”

“Then why can’t we?”

“You don’t see the way the elves look at you.  Not just the Moonshadow groups, but all the others.  You’re a human prince, even if it is by marriage.  King Harrow has not hidden how much he considers you to be his son and you have a target on your back from anyone who doesn’t like him.  On top of that, you’re learning primal magic.  There are elves that think you’re dangerous because you are the first human ever to learn how to use primal magic without a primal stone.  Do you think that you being with an elf is really going to make them think ‘oh, that Prince Callum isn’t such a bad guy?  Sure, he’s learning how to use primal magic and is trying to unlock the ability to use all six primal sources, but damn, he’s dating an elf.’”

“So, me wanting to learn magic the right way and rejecting dark magic is the problem?”  Callum’s hands were in his hair at this point as Rayla looked ready to throw her glass on the floor.  She quickly put it on the counter before she broke it.

“No, Callum.  The problem is that you’re human.  There are elves all over Xadia that will never accept you, accept us, no matter what you do.”

“Why do you care about them?” 

“Because I don’t want to come home to you dead!  OK?!  I don’t want to walk into your apartment, after we went public or decided it was okay to make-out in the library, just to find your body or to have you end up dead in an alleyway.”  All of Rayla’s fears began to pour out of her.  She couldn’t stop once she started and wasn’t sure she wanted to.  Callum needed to hear why she was fighting him on telling anyone about them.  “I was trained in the arts of Moonshadow elf assassins.  I know of ways to kill you and make sure that no one will ever find out it was me.  And you can bet that I’m not the only one that knows that.  Bandlr would be first in line if we went public and if he doesn’t succeed, someone else will.  Runaan has a lot of respect among Moonshadow elves, but there are still many more elves and humans who will target you.  Your life isn’t worth it, Callum.  Us telling our families will only lead to the wrong person finding out.”  She was so furious she never saw him walk around the counter to stand in front of her.

Callum grabbed her shoulders and put his forehead against her’s.  “Do you think I haven’t thought of that?  Of course I have!  Just like I have a target on my back, you will have one on your’s.  There are people all over the Pentarchy who want elves to stay in Xadia and humans to stay in their kingdoms.  There was outrage when Dad announced I was going to school right on the border.  When I told a newspaper that I was going to learn primal magic and refuse to learn dark magic, the number of human mages who rioted…I didn’t know there were that many in Katolis alone.  And it would probably get much worse if they found out my girlfriend was an elf.”

“Then why is this so important to you?”  Callum cupped her face and stroked her cheeks.  It was getting harder to look meet his gaze when he looked at her with so much love and adoration.

“Because I love you.  And I don’t want to hide it anymore.  I know my family will love you and their opinion is the only one that matters to me.  Claudia and Soren already keep pushing me to confess to you and Ezran thinks of you as his big sister.  I never, ever would have introduced you to Ezran if I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be with you.  I want to meet Ethari and Runaan and tell them I’ll do everything I can to make you happy.  We won’t know unless we try, Rayla.  We’ll get through this.  Together.”

Rayla sighed as she looked Callum in the eye.  The desperation in those green eyes of his let her know that he was serious about this.  “If we try, and I mean if, you’re going to have to learn a lot more about Moonshadow elf culture.  History class is one thing, but you can really, really piss Runaan off if you do the wrong thing.”

“Like what?”  Callum moved his hands up to lightly run his fingertips over the base of one of her horns, sending shivers down her spine as a gasp left her lips.  The burn in her belly she had just worked off was back full-force.

“Like that.  In any elf culture, you might as well have grabbed my ass while your tongue was down my throat.”

“Noted.  Horns are only for behind closed doors.  Anything else?”

“Stop stroking my horn and maybe I’ll be able think.”

Callum released her with a long-suffering sigh.  “Fine.  I guess I can keep my hands off you for a few minutes.”

Rayla snorted as she lightly nudged him backwards.  “We tend to spend a lot of time outdoors.  Training is outside, lots of festivals and camping trips.  It’s not unusual for families to spend nights when the moon is full in their yards.  Weddings are outside, too, as are major parties, like birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries,” Rayla counted on her fingers.  “Weddings tend to be the night before the full moon and the actual honeymoon starts on the night of the full moon.  Something about the moon granting love and fertility and fidelity.  When it rains, we go places that have large windows so we can still see the moon at night.  Think you can handle all that time outside?”

“I’m sure I’ll make it work.  I’ve had to rough it once or twice.”

“If by ‘rough it’ you mean spending time in the Banther Lodge, you are in for a rude awakening.”

Chapter Text

“You ready?” Callum whispered.

“Nope, but no matter what, we’ve got to try.”  Rayla gulped as she loaded her video chat up.  She had texted Runaan to ask when he and Ethari would be available to talk.  Unfortunately, Runaan and Ethari wouldn’t be able to find time to come to Rayla’s school anytime soon.  While Callum would prefer this introduction to be in person, Rayla was relieved that Runaan couldn’t kill the both of them if he was displeased by this turn of events.  “They’re answering.  Hide!”  Callum hid behind his couch as she took a final breath.  They were in his apartment because it was the only place that was currently safe from outside eyes and ears.    

“Rayla!” came Ethari's excited voice.  He smiled wide and waved to her.

Waving back, Rayla tried to keep her smile even.  She had always had a hard time hiding things from Runaan.  “Hi, Ethari, Runaan.” 

Runaan nodded as he looked over her form through the screen.  “You’ve lost weight.  Are you eating?”

“Yes, Runaan.  I haven’t been eating as much because Bandlr keeps running his mouth at meal times.”

Runaan cocked a brow.  “Bandlr’s been sending messages to me and Ethari about how he’s convinced that you’re spending too much time with Prince Callum.”

Rayla balled her fist a bit before letting out a hard sigh.  “Actually, Callum is the reason I called.”

Ethari pushed forward a bit as a sly smile appeared on his face.  “‘Callum?’  Not ‘Prince Callum’?  I know you two have a lot of group projects but I never would have thought you would break decorum like that.”

“It’s more than that, actually.”  Rayla traced her finger on Callum’s couch as she prepared herself.  “We’ve been dating…for about a year.”

Rayla watched as a vein appeared on Runaan’s forehead.  She knew that vein very well.  “A year?  You’ve been dating a human, a human prince, for a year?  And you’ve said nothing?”, ending with a hiss.  Rayla also knew that hiss very well. 

“It’s not like we did it to hurt anyone.  People want to hurt Callum already, so dating me isn’t exactly going to endear him to the masses.”

“Then why are you dating him?”

“Because I love him.”  Rayla could hear the softness entering her voice.  “He makes me happy and would never hurt me.  He’s smart and artistic and he’s serious about not using dark magic.  I have never seen anyone as devoted to learning primal magic as he is.  I’m not asking for your permission here, but I do want you to give him a chance.  He’s actually close-by and wants to meet you.”

Ethari's face had a big smile but there was worry in his eyes.  Runaan had steeled his expression as he looked at Rayla.  “We’ll meet him, but you have to leave the room.”

“What?  Runaan-” Rayla balked.

“Wait a minute,” Runaan’s voice suddenly got very quiet and inquisitive.  “Where are you?  This is not your dorm room.”

And I’m dead.’  “It’s his apartment.”

“You’re in his APARTMENT?”

“It’s the only place to get privacy.  He lives in a nice building on the top floor.  My dorm has thin walls-”

“WHY do you need THICK WALLS?”

“Because nobody knows we’re together, Runaan!  We aren’t ready to tell the universe that we’re together and the universe will know if I call you from my dorm!  I’m handing you off to Callum now.”

Rayla got up quickly and sat in a chair off to the side so she could still keep an eye on everything.  Callum got up from behind the couch with a nervous expression on his face.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet-”

“How often is Rayla at your apartment?”

“Well, we have been group partners in the past, so every once in a while.”

“Don’t lie to me.  How often is my niece in your apartment?”

Ethari clicked his tongue before taking over.  “Please forgive Runaan.  He is very protective of Rayla.  We raised her since she was four and she’s basically our daughter.  I’m Ethari and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Callum let out his awkward laugh before nodding his head.  “It’s nice to meet you, too.  Rayla has told me a lot about you.”

Runaan could be heard in the background muttering ‘she’s told us nothing about you.’

“It was partly my fault that we waited to tell you.  We just wanted to be together, but there are potential consequences that could come from our relationship.  I’m sorry that it took this long for us to meet.  I want to make her happy for as long as she’ll let me.”

Rayla could hear tapping from the other end of the call as she could practically see Ethari's mind going a mile a minute.  Runaan was had always been the more quick to anger between the two of them and rougher around the edges.  But Ethari was just as concerned as Runaan was, even if he showed it differently.  “Do you think you can?  Being young and in love isn’t a recipe for happily ever after.  It takes time and it takes a lot of work.  You two don’t have a conventional relationship and you’ll spend the rest of your lives under a microscope.  Not just because you’re a prince, but because there are not that many elf-human couples out there.  There are even fewer than end in marriage.”

“I know.  There’s nothing telling us this is going to be easy.  I fully expect the world to turn on us.  But, I want to try.  We want to try.  We don’t want to hide anymore.”

It was silent for several minutes.  Rayla assumed Ethari and Runaan had gone to the side to discuss somewhere in the house.  Callum turned to her and gave her the most awkward smile she had ever seen on his face while giving her a shaky thumbs-up.  She couldn’t stop the loud guffaw that bubbled up.  “I knew you were still there, Rayla!” came Runaan’s stern voice. 

Several more minutes later and Ethari called for Rayla to sit next to Callum.  Runaan sighed as he took Ethari's hand, matching Rayla having grabbed Callum’s.  “We will approve of this relationship, for now.  If we have any reason to believe it is causing your grades to slip or that you are in danger, Rayla, I will bring you back to Xadia.  We will be keeping a close eye on you as well, Callum.  We will not tolerate any disrespect towards our niece.  On top of that, if this relationship goes any further, we will be meeting your family.”

“I would expect nothing less.  Thank you, both of you.”  Callum lowered his head respectfully. 

“Just make our niece happy.  And try to keep his Royal Highness from getting killed, Rayla.”

“Will do, Runaan.”  A few good-byes and promises to make Rayla eat more later and Callum and Rayla had signed off.  They sighed as they sank into the couch.  Callum wrapped one arm around Rayla’s shoulders, lightly stroking his thumb on her arm.  “When are we talking to your family?”

“Next Saturday.  Dad’s been bogged down with peace talks and events coming up and Aunt Amaya’s busy planning her wedding.  It wouldn’t feel right to leave either one of them out.”

Rayla nodded as she leaned into Callum.  “Let’s go to bed.”

“It’s 7:30,” came his slightly incredulous and exhausted response.

“It’s been a long day, Callum.  I just wanna take a hot bath and relax in your comfy sheets.”

“Sometimes I think you’re dating me for my apartment.”

“To be fair, dorm room beds are the absolute worst.  They do nothing for my back and I can’t take a bath for longer than five minutes since I’m sharing with six other girls.  You’re just a bonus.”  She patted his cheek in a placating manner as she smiled.

“Well, as long as I matter.  I’ll make your bath.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“The last time I let you make the bath yourself, my floor was covered in bubbles.”

“It’s not my fault your fancy soaps cause a waterfall of bubbles.  I just wanted a few.”  Callum shook his head and got up to draw her bath.  Rayla smiled as she relaxed into the couch.  ‘One family down, one to go.”  A quick knock at the door threw all thoughts of an early, pleasant night right down the drain.  Rayla went to the door and looked in the peephole.  Bandlr was standing there with Claudia muttering something.  Rayla ran to the bathroom, where Callum had just finished putting her bubbles in.  “Callum!” she hissed.

Not bothering to turn around, he muttered “it’s almost done, Rayla.”

“You need to come to the door.  NOW.” 

“What’s at the door?”

“Claudia and Bandlr.” 

Callum’s eyes got big as he stumbled in his attempt to stand up.  “What?!  What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know.  But I can’t answer the door because I’m not supposed to be here.”

Callum nodded before looking around.  “Hide, Rayla.”

“What do you think I’m doing, you dumb human?”  Rayla knew Bandlr would demand to check the whole apartment if he was looking for her.  She quickly went into Callum’s closet and used his clothes to cover herself up as much as possible.  ‘Why the fuck couldn’t the damn moon be full tonight?

A few moments passed before Rayla heard arguing.  It wasn’t loud enough where she could hear what was being said, but she could tell Callum’s voice from Bandlr’s and Claudia interjecting when she could.  Footsteps made their way to the bedroom as she waited.  “Once again, you have no business being in my apartment, Bandlr.”

“I’m looking for Rayla.  That’s business enough.”

“So she hasn’t answered some of your texts.  So what?  All you do is piss her off!  Of course she’s going to ignore you.”

“And how would you know any of that, Prince Callum?”

“It’s pretty obvious to anyone that has eyes and ears.  She punched you last week, threw you over her shoulder a few days after that, and kicked you two days ago.”  Rayla mentally counted the days in her head before quickly nodding.  That sounded about right.

“It’s how we flirt, human.  And I’m not leaving until I’ve searched this whole apartment.”

Claudia’s voice rang out as Rayla heard dialing.  “I’m going to call the police if you don’t get out, Bandlr.  I told you I would ask Callum if he knew where Rayla was and you followed me here.  It doesn’t matter that we’re on the border; trespassing is still trespassing and neither one of us was actually invited here by Callum tonight.”

Bandlr growled in anger.  “You think you can keep her interest by showing her the high life?”

“I don’t know what-”

“Cut the bullshit, step-prince.  I’ve known the two of you were doing something for months.  She’s always disappearing when you are and she walks around all smiles afterwards.  She goes missing for hours at a time when you two are working on a ‘project’ and there haven’t been nearly as many in your classes as you claim there are.”

“If you really think something is going on, then maybe you should just give up.  She obviously doesn’t want you.”

“You don’t get it, do you?  Do you really think it would work between you two?  There is too much bad blood between elves and humans.  Your kind created dark magic and killed magical beings in order to use it and were expelled from Xadia.  You retaliated by crossing the border and continuing to kill creatures in Xadia that had done nothing wrong.  All you humans do is take and take without giving back.  And no amount of rejecting dark magic is going to make up for the crimes humanity has done.” 

“My father has made sure that my brother and I are well aware of the crimes that humans committed in Xadia.  He has pushed for peace because he wants a better world for everyone.  He doesn’t just want the humans to be allowed back in Xadia or for history to be swept under the rug.  He wants elves and humans to live together like we once did.  Dark magic is its own issue and it will take time for it to be handled, but it is being handled.”

“By you?  Your friend here seems to love dark magic.  If you can’t even get your ex-girlfriend to stop using it, how can you get anyone else to?  All you would do is bring pain and suffering to Rayla.  I highly recommend you let her go, or you’ll see the consequences of your actions.”

Rayla tried to stay hidden, she really did.  But Bandlr was too much of an asshole for her to keep quiet.  “Is that a threat, Bandlr?”  She came out from the closet to the shock of Claudia and Callum.  Bandlr looked as if he had known she was there the whole time and was waiting for her to come out.  “You do realize it is a crime to threaten a prince, right?”

Bandlr snorted before shaking his head.  “He’s not my prince, Rayla.  He’s not your’s either.  He’s not even of royal blood; just the step-son of a king who couldn’t say ‘no’ to his wife.  We’re going back to the dorms.”

“You should learn to watch your mouth.  I’m staying here.  I’m not your girlfriend, Bandlr.  I’m not your anything; you can’t boss me around like that.”

“I’ll tell Runaan-”

“Runaan already knows.  Find a new threat.”

Bandlr blinked several times before glaring.  “When did he find out?”

“About an hour ago,” crossed arms and head held high, Rayla was going to stand her ground.  “He and Ethari gave their blessing.  Now, are we going to have to call the police or are you going to leave?”

“Yes, let’s call the police and we’ll explain to them how an elf was found in a human prince’s room because of their illicit little love affair.”

“Or, we could tell them that Callum and I were working on a project, which is true because we were working on telling his family next, while you decided to barge in here.  Given how many legitimate projects Callum and I have done together, plus Claudia’s testimony, who do you think they’re going to believe?  Don’t be on the losing side of this, Bandlr.  It will only make you seem weak.”          

Bandlr continued glaring at Rayla before shaking his head.  “Fine, I’ll go.  But when people ask where you were tonight, do you think I’m going to lie to them?  You can bet on everyone knowing by Monday.”

Rayla stepped towards him until they were separated by a foot.  “Is your tiny brain really that focused on revenge?  This is beyond petty and you know it.  Revenge is for killing a king or destroying a Nexus.  It’s not for not getting your way.”

“Who said anything about revenge?  You hate lying, Rayla.  And you’ve been lying for months.”

Callum wrapped an arm around Rayla, subtly holding her back from attacking Bandlr.  “Give us until next Sunday, and then you can tell everyone you want to.”

Bandlr guffawed.  “And why should I cover for you until then?  So you can go to the press yourselves?”

“Because we’re telling my family about us next Saturday.  I know how important family is in Xadia, so surely, you can respect us wanting to deliver the news ourselves.  I don’t want my little brother to hear about this from anyone else.”

Bandlr bit the inside of his cheek.  “Fine, you have until Sunday.  But I will not lie for you, Rayla.  You’ve made your bed by choosing to date a human.  You’ll have to lie in it, too.”

Bandlr began to walk off, but Rayla couldn’t let him have the last word.  “I would rather lie in his bed than touch your’s with a ten-foot pole, Bandlr.”  He stopped in his tracks and rolled his shoulders in irritation.  He stalked out, slamming the door on his way. 

A sigh of relief left the room before a squeal escaped Claudia.  “No way!  No way you kept this a secret from me, Callum!”  Claudia pulled Callum from Rayla and was shaking him.  “I have spent the past year telling you to grow a pair and ask her out and you’ve been dating this whole time?!  And you!”  There wasn’t a lot that scared Rayla, but Claudia had just terrified her down to her bones.  That determined stare of her’s could make a banther pause.  “I’ve been subtly telling you to just admit your feelings-”

“There was nothing subtle about how you went about this, Claudia.”

“And you’ve been dating him.  And you’ve been in his apartment?  I’ve only been here twice!  How often do you come here?”

“None of your business.”

“You have to tell me everything.  When did you start dating?  Why?  What was the big moment?  When did you start coming here, Rayla?”

Callum had finally wrestled his shirt from Claudia’s grasp.  “It just happened, Claudia.  There was no big ‘I like you, please go out with me’ moment.  She came over for class projects, then we started having dinner here together, watched some movies and it just…”

“Happened,” Rayla finished for him.  “We started making out without any sort of confession and the next thing you now, we’re talking about being exclusive and I’m leaving things here that I don’t want to leave around my dorm.  We don’t really even have an anniversary because we can only guess when we started ‘dating’ versus hanging out.”

Claudia looked extremely put-out before sighing.  “Callum, I would have hoped you would be more romantic than that.  You were so romantic before we dated.”

“He’s plenty romantic, don’t worry about that.  We just didn’t start out in a traditional manner.”

“Well, as long as he makes an effort.  Seriously, you guys couldn’t tell me?”

Callum ran a hand through his hair before grimacing.  “We couldn’t.  Neither of our families knew and we wanted to keep it secret.”

“Fine, I guess.  I’m telling Soren next Sunday, though.  He’s going to be so excited for you!”

Callum smiled at her before leading her back to his door, Rayla close behind.  “If anyone asks, Rayla is here, but we’re working on something.”

“I’m sure you’re working on something.  I saw a second toothbrush in your bathroom just now.”

“Claudia!”

“Fine, fine.  My lips are sealed.  For now.  Bye-bye.”  Claudia finally left, taking some of the tension of the past twenty minutes with her.  Callum groaned as he slowly sank to the floor against the door. 

“We could just kill them.  I’d feel bad about Claudia, but we could.”

“We’re not killing anyone, Ray.”

“No one would ever know it was me.  With how many people Bandlr pisses off, it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.”  Callum looked up to see Rayla smiling.  She bent down until she was eyelevel and ran a hand through his hair.  “It’s going to be okay.  We’ll get through this together, right?”

“Right.  You still want that bath?”

“Ugh!” Rayla threw her head to the side and lifted her eyes upward.  “I need a bath, I need to sleep in your sheets, and I need some moonberry wine.  You still got that bottle I brought back from last break?”

“In the cabinet.  I haven’t opened it since the last time we drank it.”

“Good.  I’ll pour us both a glass while you finish my bath.”

“The water’s probably cold by now.”

“It’s fine.  Are you hungry?  I can make something while you start it again.”

“Yeah, a little bit.”

“Well, looks like we’ve got some work to do.”  Callum gave her a light peck before she grabbed his hand and brought them both back up.  “You weigh less than a bag of feathers.”

“Says the person that can bench-press me, Claudia, and Bandlr.”

“Just you and Claudia.  I’m working up to Soren in his ceremonial armor.” 

A few minutes later and Rayla was relaxing with a glass of wine in her bath while Callum was munching on apple slices with Xadian honey.  “Xadia has the best honey.  I thought Duren’s was pretty good, but this is thicker and sweeter.”

“That’s because I always bring back Earthblood honey.  It’s a bit harder to get because they only produce so much a month, but damn if it isn’t the best.”

“You’ve ruined me.  I’m gonna have to marry you just to get access to this honey.”

“I thought you wanted to marry me because I can kick your ass.”

“That’s reason number one.  This honey is reason number two.”  Rayla held out her glass and he placed it next to his empty one.  “You want anymore?  There’s still another glass or two left in the bottle.”

“Nah.  I think it’s bedtime.”  It was almost a blur for Rayla as they drained the rub and she dried off while Callum took care of their dishes.  The stress from the day was finally catching up to her.  He entered the bathroom and slowly took the towel out of her clenched fist. “Callum?”

“Yeah, Ray?”

“Runaan and Ethari know.  Bandlr and Claudia know.  Your family is going to know in a week.”

“Yeah.”

“This is real, isn’t it?  There’s no turning back now.”

“Do you want to?”

Rayla licked her lips and looked at him.  “I haven’t been able to turn back since the moment I fell in love with you.  I’m scared.  And I’m scared that I’m scared.  I’m not supposed to be, but I am.  It’s not even about meeting your family, it’s the rest of the world I don’t want to meet.  I’m not used to my life being on display for everyone.  I don’t want everyone in Xadia to pick you apart like Bandlr did tonight.”

“What Bandlr said didn’t bother me.  Viren has called me a ‘mongrel’ several times since he and my dad had a falling out.  I’ve been called the ‘step-prince’ affectionately by Soren, but everyone else uses it to remind me that I’m not royalty.  My mom was a respected general in the Katolian Army and my father was a poor artist that didn’t have a penny to his name.  Harrow officially adopted me and my half-brother is going to be king and none of that changes the fact that not a drop of royal blood runs through my veins.  I’m not that fragile, Rayla.  I know you feel like you have to protect me from the world, but you have to believe that I can stand up for myself.”

“I know you can,” she reached for his hands and lightly kissed his palm.  “I just can’t help feeling like everything is closing in.”

“I’m scared, too.  Viren has been pushing his anti-elf rhetoric for a while and there are still people loyal to him in the capital.  I’m not expecting the world to accept us overnight.  I’ll be shocked if it does.”  They both chuckled.  Callum started to lead Rayla to his bed, settling her on it before cupping her face.  “Let’s just call it a day.  You were right; it’s been long and the both of us are exhausted.”

“OK.  Now let me up so I can actually put something on.”  Callum blushed red as he stammered, backing off so quickly he almost ran into his cabinet.  “You can watch me take a bath but the second I draw attention to my nudity, you turn into a blushing mess?”

“Well, it’s just…I…please let me go to sleep.”  Rayla laughed as she got up and put on one of Callum’s old shirts and her sleep shorts.  They crawled into bed, Rayla spooning Callum as he threaded her fingers through his.  “It’ll get better.  It has to.”

“I know.  I love you.”

“I love you, too.”  Despite the long day, the pair stayed wide awake as reality kept crashing down on them.  Callum’s apartment had always been a safe haven; free from judging eyes and the demands of the rest of the world.  Now that Bandlr had stormed his way in and he and Claudia knew the truth, it no longer felt so safe.  Pretty soon, their relationship was no longer going to be private.  There was no turning back now.

Chapter Text

“Does my hair look OK?”  Callum had fussing with his hair for the past five minutes.  Rayla had finally gotten him to sit on the couch and had her hands on his shoulders.

“For the last time, Callum, it looks fine.  Shouldn’t I be the one that’s nervous?  I’m meeting your family after all.”

“Yes, but I have never introduced anyone to Harrow before.  Everyone I have ever known has been someone he also knows.”

“Is Janai going to be there?”  Rayla released his shoulders when he stopped squirming and reaching for his hair.

“No, she had a last-minute conference with the other leaders of the Sunfire Army.  Apparently, the press in Xadia has started to question if their marriage is all a ploy to get Katolis into the Dragon King’s good graces.  Gren probably won’t be there, either.”

Rayla shifted her shirt a bit before running a hand through Callum’s hair.  “That’s Amaya’s interpreter, right?” 

“Yes, and thank you for messing up my hair.”

“You’re welcome.  I’m going to sit in that chair,” she pointed at the same one she sat in when Runaan told her to leave, “and you’re going to relax, got it?”

“Yep.  Totally relaxed and ready.”  Callum moved his shoulders up and down and rolled them forward.  He couldn’t help but be jealous at Rayla’s cool as a cucumber attitude.  “Are you really not nervous?”

“I’m just better at hiding it,” she sat down with a shrug.  “Part of Runaan’s training regime.”

“I’m going to have to take lessons from him, then.”

“Probably.”  They stopped as they heard the incoming call sound from Callum’s computer.  “You gonna answer that?”

“Yeah.”  Callum pressed the answer button and his frozen smile caused Ezran to laugh.  Ezran sat in the middle with Bait firmly in his lap.  Amaya was on the left while Harrow was on the right.  They smiled and waved to him.  It wasn’t often the four of them were able to spend time together anymore.

“What did you do, Callum?” Ezran asked, a mischievous smile on his face.  He had grown since Callum had last seen him and was that a bit of peach fuzz on his chin?  Had it only been a few months?  That was the only thing Callum couldn’t stand about living on the border; he was too far away from Ezran and was missing these little moments. 

“What makes you think I’ve done something, Ez?”

“You have that guilty look on your face.  Is it about Raayylllaaa?  Dad, you remember me telling you about Rayla, right?  Callum’s definitely-not-girlfriend even though she came over several times while I was staying with him.”

Harrow chuckled as he put his hand on Ezran’s head.  “Yes, Ezran.  You’ve told me all about Callum’s not-girlfriend.”  Amaya signed her acknowledgment from the side.

Callum’s eyes went wide.  “He told you, too, Aunt Amaya?”

Amaya nodded before continuing.  “To be fair, Ezran only told me after Janai and I announced our engagement.  It’s just the four of us that know, well, five because Janai knows.  Now, does this have to do with Rayla?”

“Yeah, Callum.  Does it?”  Ezran’s smile was so big it looked like it was trying to take over his whole face.  Bait was squirming in Ezran’s lap before turning bright red.

“Actually, it does.  Um, Dad, Aunt Amaya, I want you to meet Rayla.  My girlfriend.  Ray.”  Rayla came over and sat next to Callum, her callused hand meeting his.  “We’ve been together for about a year now.  I didn’t want to hide it for so long, but with how much animosity is still going on with me going to school on the border and-”

Harrow raised his hand before smiling.  “You don’t have to explain yourselves, Callum.  Amaya and Janai have kept their relationship a secret for a long time, as well.  It’s nice to finally meet you, Rayla.  Ezran hasn’t stopped talking about you since he met you a few months ago.”

Rayla dipped her head as she took in Callum’s family.  “It’s nice to meet you as well, Your Majesty.  I wish it could have been in person, but Callum and I didn’t feel right hiding anymore.”

“Are you two happy?”

“Yeah, your son makes me happy.  He also makes me want to pull my hair out when he starts getting really into arcana and primal magic.”

Callum translated as Amaya signed her input.  “‘He did the same thing as a kid.  Every time he picked something new to draw, it was all he talked about.’  I am not that bad.”

“You are.  But you’re cute, so we forgive you.”  Rayla gentled patted his hand as Ezran started jumping up and down in his seat.

“So, are you going to be my sister, Rayla?  Because there is so much I want to talk to you about.  And I’m definitely going to you for relationship advice because Callum was a total mess with Claudia and he doesn’t seem to be much better with you.”

“One day at a time, Ez.”  Rayla looked over at Callum as a resigned look came over him.  “What, no ‘I was not that bad?’”

“No, I was pretty bad.  I’m still a mess half the time.”

“Called it,” Ezran whispered to Bait.

Harrow coughed, causing Rayla and Callum to turn towards him.  “That’s a good sign, though.  I know I seemed to be pretty smooth with your mother, Callum, but I had a hard time talking to her the first time I met her.  And the second.  And the third.  I think the only time I wasn’t a mess on the inside for the first month was when we were sparring.  And when I met her again after she had you, it was like I was that love-struck teenager all over again.”

Amaya nodded her head.  “Your father tripped over his own feet after his first date with Sarai.  The first time he showed her one of his scenic paintings, he looked like he was going to faint from nerves.”

Callum nodded his head from side-to-side.  At least he wasn’t alone.  “Well, it’s good to know that both of my dads were completely useless when standing next to my mom.”

“Your mother was a beautiful woman, Callum.  Smart, strong, and compassionate as well.  She was an excellent queen for the short time we had her.”

Callum gripped Rayla’s hand a little tighter.  “I wish she was here.”

“She would be proud of you.”  Harrow completely held Callum’s attention as he leaned forward.  “Sarai never felt right about dark magic, but respected my friendship with Viren.  It was the one thing we never could agree on and you have picked up exactly where she left off without realizing it.  You have inherited her compassion and conviction.  Never forget that, Callum.  Now, Miss Rayla, you should know that I don’t approve of just anyone dating my son.”

Rayla grinned before ruffling Callum’s hair again. “I’m pretty sure you’ll approve of me.  I’m pretty daring after all.  I’m sure Ezran’s told you all about it.”

The laugh that escaped Harrow filled Callum with warmth.  “You’re right, he has.  Ezran already loves you like a sister and I can see that you make Callum happy.  Just take care of each other, that’s all I ask.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“None of that.  Please call me Harrow.”

Callum smiled.  Rayla was getting along swimmingly with his family; he couldn’t have hoped for anything more.  The dark storm cloud that had been over their heads since Bandlr came into his apartment suddenly made itself known.  “Dad, there’s something else we need to talk about.  It’s really important.”

“What is it?”

Callum felt guilty as he saw his family suddenly become dead serious.  This should have been a happy moment, in person.  Instead, he was going to have to ruin it.  “Claudia and another Moonshadow elf on campus know.  Claudia isn’t going to say anything and she’s beyond ecstatic, but, this student…he’s going to start telling people about us tomorrow.”

“Why would he wait until tomorrow?”

“Because I asked him to wait until I told you three first.  Family is important in Xadia and he agreed to wait until you knew.”

Rayla sighed.  “His name is Bandlr.  His uncle has been friends with one of my uncles since they were kids and the town we grew up in is pretty small, so we tended to be in the same social circles once we got into high school.  He’s been quite adamant about me dating him and Callum’s ability to use Sky magic without a primal stone has done nothing to endear him to the masses.”

Harrow ran a hand down his face while Amaya’s went through her hair.  Ezran’s concerned face almost tore Callum apart.  He and Ezran had always been a team; he never wanted his brother to look scared for his sake.  “Do you think someone will hurt either of you two?”

“Dad-”

“I’m serious, Callum.  Do you think someone plans to hurt you?”

“We don’t know.  That’s the biggest reason why we’ve kept this secret for so long.  The only real rules on the border is that humans and elves can’t kill each other.  There is almost no violence.”

Rayla pushed forward a bit, clearly not content to let Callum try to make it seem like less of a big deal than it actually is.  “But it doesn’t change the face that there are elves all over Xadia who have deemed your son dangerous, Harrow.  His rejecting dark magic isn’t good enough; they think he’s playing with something he really, really shouldn’t.”

“What do you think, Rayla?”

Rayla paused for so long Callum wasn’t sure if she was even going to answer.  “I don’t think Callum would ever hurt anyone on purpose.  I also think that his repeated rejection of dark magic is a step in the right direction.  His desire to learn how to use all the arcana, however, is something that I don’t understand when I think about it from the Xadian standpoint.  We are born into one primal source and can only use one primal source.  Those who try to get access to other arcana, outside of primal stones, tend to stop having the world’s best interest at heart.  When I think about it from Callum’s, it’s because he’s curious and being a mage is something that he was meant to be.  He’s also in a unique position because there have been no other human mages who are capable of using primal magic without a primal stone.  I know he hasn’t accessed anything he isn’t supposed to, but neither humans or elves are going to just take our word for it.”

Harrow gave a small smile as he mulled her answer over.  “A good answer.  A wise answer.  My son is quite lucky to have you by his side, Rayla.”  The light purple blush that appeared on Rayla’s cheeks almost made Callum forget what the conversation was about.  It had been a long time since he had seen her blush like that and it was just as adorable as the first time he saw.  “I can’t send the Royal Guard, because it could be seen as a threat or Katolis trying to exert power on the border.  The point of the university was that it is supposed to be a neutral zone and the surrounding area was supposed to follow suit.  If I pull you out, it will undermine what you and I have worked so hard for, Callum.  It would undermine what your mother had dreamed of.  This university was her brainchild before we even got married.  What do your parents think about this, Rayla?”

“My uncles know I can take care of myself.  They’re more scared for Callum than they are for me, in terms of physical danger.  Their main concern is how the press is going to react to me.  We don’t have nobility or royalty besides the Dragon King in Xadia.  All of our leaders are elected officials who could be replaced at any time, so it’s new territory for everyone.  They don’t want to pull me out, but they’ll do it if they think it’s necessary.”

Amaya quickly began signing, her eyes betraying the concern she was trying to contain.  “The only real option we have, politically, is for the two of you to stay there.  If you run away, then it will give everyone more ammo against Callum, Katolis, and all the work that has been put into peace talks.  I know that Moonshadow elf culture does not take kindly to cowards and deserters, Rayla.  So, you’re just as trapped as Callum.  This is different than when Janai and I got together.  There is more at stake given Callum’s position and where you two are.  I don’t like it, but it’s the only advice I can give you.”

The silence was deafening.  Callum had never wanted Rayla to feel trapped. He squeezed her hand again as he looked at her. “Ray, we have until tomorrow.  You can send messages to our professors that you had some family business to take care of.  Runaan and Ethari can protect you and I’ll tell the press we broke up.”

Rayla turned to him with a raised brow.  “I’m not running away, Callum.”

“It wouldn’t be running away if you were trying to save yourself.  No one has to know what happened tonight.  No one here will say anything.”

“Then what was the point of us doing this?  What was the point of me telling my uncles I’m with you?  You told me that you didn’t want to hide anymore.  I agreed not to hide and now you want me to walk away?”

“What do you want me to say?  ‘I’m sorry that I didn’t realize just how much bigger this was than the both of us?’  I am!  I didn’t want to do this to make it so you can’t leave me.”

Rayla snorted, giving Callum a ‘are you kidding me?’ look.  “Do you think I wouldn’t leave you if I wasn’t happy?  That wouldn’t be taking the coward’s way out; that would be making a smart decision.  No one is making me stay in this relationship.  We made a choice and we have to stick with it.  If you give up on us now, I’m not coming back.  I’ll pack up my stuff and I’ll go back home.  You will never see me again.  Is that what you want?  If it is, I’ll get started right now.”

“Of course it’s not what I want.  But-”

Rayla quickly turned away from him and back to the screen.  “Harrow, is it possible for Soren to be officially stationed up here?  We need one more person in our corner besides Claudia, and Soren can technically come and go as he pleases.  We will also need to talk to the press, on our terms.  I don’t know if TV is better, but I know Callum has always exclusively dealt with the newspapers.  I’m all in, and I’m not sure how to go forward.”

Callum felt like the world had gone upside down as Harrow, Amaya, and Rayla discussed their next steps.  Rayla had completely taken control and wasn’t going to back down.  Ezran nodded his head and gave the names for his favorite newspapers and photographers.  “You guys should also be interviewed by Opeli.  She’s done a lot of press work lately and will only ever state the truth.  She’s always been either honest or silent, so I’m sure everyone will believe what she says.  She only does press releases, though.”

Harrow nodded along with Ezran’s suggestions.  “There is also no one more loyal to the throne and the good of Katolis than Opeli.  She would be a good choice, Ezran.” 

“You’ll have to get a new wardrobe, Rayla.  Callum once wore a suit that was a little tight around his ankles and he was laughed at for months.”

“Just for interviews.  There is no need to get anything more formal.  We’ll let everything die down until the summer before either bringing you to Katolis or Ezran and I will go up there.”

Rayla looked down at her clothes and grimaced.  “I don’t really have the money for anything expensive.”

Amaya quickly interjected; a smile had made its way back to her lips.  Ezran translated for her as Callum was taking everything in.  “Janai and I will take care of it.  We both have money from our time in the military and it would keep Harrow from getting into hot water with the public for using taxpayer money to buy clothes for someone outside the royal family.  I will also send over our favorite journalist.  They’re in an elf-human relationship themselves and will give the outmost respect to the situation.  They’re pretty busy covering relations in the Oceanheart capital, so it might be a few months.”

“Thank you, General Amaya.  That’s very kind.”

“’Amaya’, please.  Just promise me you’ll make my nephew happy as long as you two are together.  And don’t talk to anyone that we have not approved.  It’s not that we don’t trust your intuition; you just can’t trust the press.”     

“Got it.  They’re all the blood-sucking leeches humans used to believe elves are.”

The snicker that went through the room finally brought Callum back to reality.  “Just don’t call them that.  They’ll eat you alive.”

“Are you still alive, Callum?” 

He nodded before sighing.  “I’m here.  Just shocked that you seem to be so on top of this.”

“I’ve been thinking about this since Claudia and Bandlr found out.  I’m not going to let someone else dictate our choices.  So, I’m going to make sure that we take back control of this situation.  We’re in this together, right?”

“Right.  What about radio?  Does anyone listen to the radio for this stuff?”

An hour later, Callum and Rayla had finally signed off with promises to keep everyone posted.  Rayla had begun texting Runaan with the information as Ethari looked up the most reputable Xadian papers close to the border.  Everyone was ready.

Rayla gently tugged on his scarf to get his attention.  “You still alive?”

Callum wrapped his arm around her shoulder as he tried to give the most sauve smile he could.  “You still the most beautiful woman in the world?”

Rayla snorted as she shook her head.  “Laying it on a bit thick there, Your Highness?”

“Nope.  You are also the bravest, smartest, and most sarcastic person I have ever met.”

“And daring.  Don’t forget daring.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”  Callum kissed her cheek before getting up to stretch.  “I’m going to the grocery store.  Write down what you need and I’ll go in about ten minutes.”

“You don’t want me to come with you?”

“Not yet.  We’ll hide out tomorrow and then go to school on Monday.  Besides, if you leave and come back with me, Bandlr might assume it’s time to say something.  I want just a few more hours of peace.”

“OK.  I’ll get started.”  Rayla grabbed the pad and pencil Callum had laying around.  “It’s so convenient that I can take two steps anywhere in this apartment and there will be pens and pads of paper for me to doodle on.”

“Is that a dig at my art?”

“No.  I love your art.  It’s a dig at your ‘organized chaos’ lifestyle.”

“Fair.”

Callum took a quick shower as he made a mental list of everything they would need for the week.  ‘Maybe she should just move in?  No, it’s too soon and Runaan would murder me.  We don’t know if we can trust the dorms anymore, though.’  “Callum?”

“Yeah?”

“I just got a text from Ethari.  He and Runaan don’t like it, but they think I should move in with you.”

Callum put his head against the shower wall.  “Please tell me I’m not thinking the same thing that my future-in-laws are thinking at the same time they’re thinking it.”  It slipped out of him so easily.  He knew he wanted to eventually marry Rayla, but when had it become a fact in his mind that he would?

“If you are, I might have to start thinking like your dad and Ezran.”

“The world would be so lucky to have another Ezran.”

Rayla opened the shower curtain, causing Callum to drop the soap in his hand and quickly cover himself.  “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before.  Calm down.”

“I am calm!” he squeaked.

“Then go back to washing yourself.”

“Why don’t you go back to having the curtain closed?”

“Fine.”  She let the curtain fall and Callum felt his speeding heart finally slow down.  “You were right.  I love Harrow and Amaya.  I feel freer now that they know.  I also know that I wouldn’t have done any of this with anyone else.  You are so lucky I love you; I swear by the Moon Nexus itself.”

“I know.  If you’re moving in, do you want to get your stuff tonight?”

“I’m gonna have to.  I trust the girls in my suite, but I don’t trust everyone in the building.  They’re not there all the time and it’s not fair to ask them to look after my stuff.”

“Do you have a lot?  I can get you a taxi or you can take it to the library and we’ll make it work.”

“Claudia offered to help me a few days ago.  She’s no stranger to having to move quickly, given how she and Soren had to align themselves with your father immediately after Viren turned traitor.”

“That was nice of her.  Just remember one thing about them: Claudia and Soren are Team Claudia and Soren.  I don’t doubt that they’ll help us and I know they won’t help Viren.  But those two have been through a lot together and they’re first priority is to each other.  Especially since Soren’s accident.”

“Right.  I’ll keep that in mind.  I’m done with the list, so I’m gonna go text Claudia and head to the dorm.”  Callum heard Rayla’s footsteps taking her towards the door of his, no, their apartment.

“Where did you leave it?”

“On the kitchen table, next to that stupid bowl of fruit you love so much.”

“It’s for ART!”

“Eat the fruit, human, or I’ll make a fruit salad for you to come home to.  And I’ll serve it in the bowl!” 

Callum left the shower and dried off, listening for Rayla in case she was still there.  He padded over to his kitchen and saw the fruit bowl.  The bowl itself was blue and green, filled with apples, grapes, and a few oranges.  There were also moonberries to keep Rayla’s craving at bay.  “I’m either going to have to draw you all day tomorrow or you’re going to be eaten.  Actually, Rayla’s going to eat you either way.”  Callum looked closer at the amount he had.  “I’m gonna need more of that Earthblood honey.”

Chapter Text

Rayla made her way as quickly and quietly as possible back to her dorm.  Claudia had texted back that she would wait in her car up the road.  It was already after 8, so everyone was either in their dorms or studying in the library.  ‘No clue what I’m going to tell the girls.  I’m moving in with my boyfriend is the truth, but they’ll start asking questions.  Maybe I’ll say nothing.  I don’t tend to sleep there as much anymore.  Too much risk running into Bandlr.’

By the time Rayla had put her building key in the lock she was no closer to an answer.  Rayla went up to her floor and poked her head in her room.  ‘Good; no one’s here.  I’ll just grab my clothes and my books and I should be good to go.  Anything else I need, Callum either has or will get.’  She grabbed a bag and began shoveling her textbooks and notebooks into it.

“Where you been, Rayla?”  Rayla gulped as she turned to her roommate, Zaras, a Skywing elf, standing in the door way.   Her wings looked as soft as ever while her pale blue skin looked a tad darker from the all sun she must have gotten since it became March.  With long black hair and a sweet face, Zaras looked just as soft as her wings.  No one ever saw her sharp tongue or heeled boots coming.  Zaras had her dark eyebrow raised as she lightly brushed dust off her right wing. 

“I’m just getting my stuff.”  Was her voice shaking?  ‘Confidence, Rayla.  Runaan always said to act confident.’

“I see that,” Zaras gave a small smirk.  “Where you going?”

“I’m going to stay with my boyfriend for a bit.”

“Why are you staying with Prince Callum?”  Rayla felt her heart stop.  “I haven’t told anyone.”  Rayla’s heart started beating again as she relaxed just a bit.  “If anyone asks where you are, I always say you must be in the library or at the 24-hour gym in town.”

“How long have you known?”

Zaras shrugged before sitting on Rayla’s bed.  “The whole time, if it’s been more than a year.  You spend a lot of time with him and you always look so happy after you spend the night at his place.  Why do you think I insisted we be roommates again this year?”

“Because I’m the only person that tolerates your granola habit at three o’clock in the morning?”

“That and I like him, too.  He has been nothing but respectful to every elf on campus.  I have never seen him so much as raise his voice unless he was being provoked.  He’s more aggressive with the humans who push him to try dark magic than he is with us.  He also asked my honest opinion on the Sky arcanum and if I knew any good books of spells.  You got yourself a good man, Rayla, and I don’t want you to lose him just because someone didn’t like him.”

“Thank you, Zaras.  Bandlr is going to go public with this tomorrow.  He found out and he’s acting like it’ll just ‘slip out.’”  Zaras hissed as she shook her head.  “I know.  He’s an asshole and I would kill him if I could.  I might, anyways.  I think I would be doing everyone a favor.”

“Bandlr is going to be the least of your worries.  You know that a lot of the humans on campus don’t like you, right?  Just purely based on the fact that you freely admitted that you are, technically, an assassin.  Even if you haven’t made a kill, you’re still trained and still able.”

Rayla put her head in her hands as she groaned.  “I know.  I also know that I don’t want to walk away from him.  Even though it would be easier and would save the both of us a lot of pressure and harassment.”

“But you love him.”  Rayla turned to see Zaras looking at her with a genuinely happy smile. 

“That I do.”

“How are you going to get your stuff to his place?”

“His friend, Claudia, is going to help me.  Her car’s already parked and she’s waiting for me.”

A quick clap of her hands and Zaras was up and already rifling through Rayla’s drawers.  “Well, let’s get packing.  Do you want anything out of the bathroom or can I have it?  I really like the smell of your moonberry shampoo.”

“You can have all of it.  Except the bubbles.  Those are mine.”

“Noted.  Where’s your other bag?”  Zaras quickly helped pack while keeping an eye on the door.  It was better to know who was and who wasn’t in the suite so that they could leave with as few questions as possible.  “Do you seriously not have any sexy underwear?  I have several pairs just to make me feel good on a bad day.”

“Callum might have a heart attack if I did.  You know my bra with the front clasp?  I wore it one time and he almost fainted.  In about five years, I’ll try the front clasp again.”  It had been a complete accident that he had even seen the stupid thing.  She was changing at his place and he had happened to walk into the room.  Callum had blushed bright red and stammered when he saw her take it off before leaving the room, stumbling the whole way.

“Pfft.  That is just too adorable.  I don’t know how anyone can think that dork is dangerous.”

“I don’t either.  The most threatening thing he’s ever done was tell Bandlr to back off after he busted into Callum’s apartment.”

“You might need extra security, then.  My dad knows people who work in the security industry.  I’ll give him a call if you need it.”

“We’ll let you know.  I can’t tell you how much it means to me, to us, that you’re helping me.  That you’ve been helping me.”

Zaras shrugged, a thoughtful expression taking over her features.  “I told you, he’s a good man.  He’s also a talented mage with zero percent of the overconfidence that I see in a lot of the mages here on campus; human and elf.  I have no idea how he got the Sky arcanum to work for him, though.  From what he told me, he understood that the wind was a part of him, of everything.  He also admitted that it was after he broke a primal stone, so take that as you will.”

“He’s explained it to me a bunch of ways and he loses me halfway through.  He understands how he did it but he can’t explain it in a way that makes sense.  And now that he’s planning to try with the other arcana, he has to make it make sense.  He’ll always be dangerous if he can’t make people understand why he was able to access primal magic as a human.  There will be people who accuse him of using dark magic to succeed or that he made a deal with someone like Aaravos.”

“I wish him all the luck in the world.  I also wish you luck.  You’re gonna need it.”

“Thanks.  I’ll need every last bit of luck you have.  Where’s your lucky coin again?”

“You’ll take my lucky coin over my dead body.”

“I can arrange that.”  They chuckled as Rayla did a quick sweep of the apartment.  “I think that’s everything.”

“Let’s go, then.”  Zaras made sure to walk out the door first, after grabbing Rayla’s bubbles, and kept the conversation on classes and the latest movie.  “I’m telling you, Rayla, you need to go see this one.  I’m normally am not a fan of human cinema, but this guy just cried as he rode off into the sunset.  Wonderful.  I need eight more.”

“You just have a thing for men crying.”

“Who doesn’t?  I also really like girls in tight pants.  Really tight pants.”

“Are we going to discuss your kinks all night?  I’ll need a drink if we are.”

“Buy me some hard liquor and I’ll be sure to tell you every last one of them.”

“Name the time and place.  There’s the car.”  Zaras nodded and let Rayla lead the way from there.  Claudia waved them over and quickly popped the trunk.  “Thank you, again, Zaras.”

“You’re welcome.  You owe me that drink.  And I want you to tell me what’s going on.  I’m here if you need me.”  Rayla was normally not really a huggy person, but she quickly wrapped her arms around Zaras in thanks.  It took a moment for Zaras to return the hug, squeezing Rayla with all her strength.  When they separated, Zaras smiled at Rayla again before nodding her head to the car.

“Right.  Good night.”  Rayla hopped in and Claudia hurried down the road.  Zaras waved before quickly turning back to the dorm.  “Do you think anyone saw you?”

“Doubt it.  Soren got a message from King Harrow today.”  Brow raised; Claudia looked at Rayla out of the corner of her eye.  “Apparently, he’s going to be officially stationed here?”

“I asked for him.  I needed more people in our corner.”

“That sky elf looks pretty in your corner.”

“She is.  I’ll introduce you sometime.  Make sure you wear super tight pants.”

“Ooh.  My kind of girl.”  It didn’t take long to reach the apartment complex.  Claudia drove to the back and grabbed a bag after parking.  “Callum texted that he’s still at the store.  I’m going to take his key when he gets back and get a copy made for you.  You two can’t leave the apartment until I get back and that might not be until tomorrow night, okay?”

“As long as I get it before classes start Monday, I’m good to go.”  They went in and up the elevator.  Claudia suddenly got a big smile on her face as she laughed.  “What’s so funny?”

“I’m helping my ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend move into his apartment.  And we have to keep everything a complete secret until tomorrow.  I feel like some sort of secret agent.”

“How do you feel about that?”  For all of Claudia’s prodding, Rayla had never known if Claudia was actually alright with watching her ex-boyfriend move on or was putting on a front because they were still friends.

Claudia shrugged and turned to Rayla.  “Honestly?  Not nearly as bad as I thought I would.  Neither one of us was mature enough or in a good place for a real relationship.  I’m a little jealous, but I think that has more to do with the fact that he’s moved on and in a steady relationship while I’m still going on speed dates.  He was everything I was supposed to want; we just didn’t fit together.  He has drawn such a thick line in the sand concerning dark magic and, well, dark magic is the only thing that’s allowing my brother to stand anymore.  Callum has really pushed for me to learn healing from the other elves here.  The only problem is that my father is Lord Viren and he hates elves.  No one wants to teach me or help Soren because they’re scared that I’ll take their life force to heal Soren or we’ll take the secrets back to our dad.”

“You wouldn’t, though.  Callum told me that you two are Team Soren and Claudia.  You’re your own side and you wouldn’t jeopardize Soren’s health to get back in your father’s good graces.”

A chuckle and a shake of her head was all Rayla got for a moment.  “He’s right.  Viren’s our dad and we want nothing to do with him.  He told Soren to kill Ezran while he and Callum were at the Banther Lodge a few years ago, before anyone knew just how treacherous he had become.  He also told me to leave Soren to die if it was between him and an artifact that was supposed to amplify magical abilities.  The things he’s called Callum and Queen Sarai…. I understand why my mom left him.  Soren and I wish we had picked her all those years ago.  He’s not going to be nice about this.  All the hatred he’s felt towards Callum and Queen Sarai is also going to fall on you.”  The elevator opened and the two got out, sitting on the floor with Rayla’s stuff to the side.

“Why did he hate her?  She saved his life and died doing it.”  Claudia looked conflicted for a few moments.  Rayla could see the wheels turning in her head.  She genuinely didn’t know what had made Viren turn on Sarai and Callum didn’t seem to have an answer either.  If she knew, maybe she could be better prepared for anything Viren launched against them. 

Finally, Claudia nodded her head, looking back at Rayla.  “Don’t tell Callum this.  Or Ezran.  You have to promise you will never tell them.”

“Is it that bad?”

Claudia held Rayla’s stare and lightly shook her head.  “You have no idea what he has called her.  If Callum found out, he might kill my dad.  I think King Harrow finding out about it is what ultimately led to he and my dad falling out.”

Rayla didn’t want to keep secrets from Callum and keeping one from Ezran would be more difficult than her training with Runaan.  But this was also a chance to get another perspective on Callum’s history.  She didn’t trust the news and she didn’t trust what most other people said because they didn’t know Callum; Claudia did.  “I don’t like it, but I promise I won’t say anything.”

“OK.  I’ll hold you to it.”  Claudia sighed as she leaned against the door.  “You know that Queen Sarai wasn’t a noble, right?”  Rayla nodded as she adjusted herself.  She had a feeling Claudia was going to be giving her a lot of information and that this was a lot more complicated than she thought.  “Well, when Queen Sarai and King Harrow were kids, they met when his father took him to visit his best general.  That was Queen Sarai and General Amaya’s mother.  Harrow was instantly smitten with her.  They spent a lot of time together during that visit and Harrow was convinced he would marry her.  He was right, eventually. 

“Queen Sarai didn’t have those same thoughts.  She viewed herself as a warrior first and that her job would be to protect the future king.  And then she met Marco, Callum’s father.  From what I heard; he had no prospects beyond his artwork.  He didn’t come from a family with any kind of wealth or status, couldn’t use a bow and arrow or a sword and always questioned why the world couldn’t talk about peace instead of continuing to fight whenever the war was brought up.  He was also opposed to dark magic; calling it the reason why the peace had been shattered in the first place.  He was probably the last person who should marry a future military leader, but he came to their home one day to paint a portrait of Sarai and Amaya and that was that.  They got married a year and a half later and Callum was born about two years after that.

“Marco died when Callum was only a year old from a bad fall.  He was painting a client’s ceiling and someone on the ground wasn’t paying close enough attention.  Queen Sarai was devastated and she buried herself in her work and raising Callum.  Her work brought her to the capital and to Harrow.  By this point, he and my father were close and my dad was pushing for Harrow to get married and have an heir before he was crowned king.”  Claudia chuckled as a sad smile took over.  “Harrow instantly fell back in love with her and he loved Callum immediately after meeting him.  It didn’t matter to him that Callum was from his love’s first marriage.  He was part of Sarai and that was enough. 

“Dad didn’t think it was…appropriate for a future king to marry a woman who already had a child.  It didn’t matter that she was a widow.  She had a kid and she wasn’t noble; that should have taken her out of the running.  He brought women from all over the Pentarchy and Harrow still chose Sarai.  And it got really, really ugly between Sarai and my dad.  She asked him what his problem was and he called Callum…well, he called Callum a mongrel son of a street urchin.  He then said Callum wasn’t fit to lick Soren’s boots, let alone be the son of a king.  That was before he proceeded to call Sarai a two-bit gold-digger who was only interested in Harrow because she wanted another man in her life and Harrow happened to be there.  He told her she was nothing more than a whore who would lead Harrow to his own destruction.  None of that was true, but my dad was so blinded by his devotion to Harrow that he didn’t see the truth anymore. 

“Sarai said her piece by calling Dad a self-serving, egotistical asshole.  She made him a deal; she wouldn’t tell Harrow what he said if he backed off.  Dad knew a good deal when he saw one and agreed.  Harrow would have believed Sarai in a heartbeat.  Sarai and Harrow got married and then had Ezran.  In between, Sarai began to let it be known to the rest of the world about her distaste for dark magic.  She thought it was a shortcut and resisted every time it was brought up as a solution.  This university was all her idea.  She had taken what her first husband had said to heart and she wanted peace between the Pentarchy and Xadia.  She instilled that in Callum and Harrow and they’ve instilled it in Ezran and General Amaya.  And the four of them have started to instill it in the rest of the Pentarchy. 

“They tried to get along for Harrow’s sake but my dad would just rail into her when he thought it was safe.  Called her power hungry and manipulative.  Soren and I heard things that no one should ever utter about anyone.  Sarai died protecting my father because she knew how important he was to Harrow.  She thought they would both make it out alive and they had just saved her sister.  Dad had a high opinion of her for a little bit, until Harrow started implementing her ideas.  The university and this town started to be built less than a year after her death.  He pushed for more peace talks and gradually started to reject any of Dad’s ideas if they involved dark magic.  Eventually, Harrow started to call for Dad for council less and less. 

“Dad blamed Sarai for losing his best friend.  The truth is, Sarai was right.  Dark magic is a shortcut.  It’s the only one we have, besides primal stones, for humans to learn magic.  And it’s impossible to get primal stones.  There are days when I listen to Callum and agree with everything he says.  I wonder if dark magic has twisted my dad beyond repair and if that’s why he’s like this now.  He used to be kinder and more understanding.  What if dark magic does that to me one day?”  She twisted the white lock in her hair and bit her lip.  “But I also love magic and don’t want to give it up.  I’ve always been a mage, and I’m really freaking good at it.  I taught Callum how to use the primal stone and his first couple of spells.  Callum can’t explain how he unlocked the arcanum in a way that anyone understands and I refuse to stop using dark magic to help my brother until I have another answer.”

Rayla had heard a lot of this from Callum, but to hear just how this animosity between Sarai and Viren and how that led to Harrow and Viren’s own relationship to deteriorate put new light on everything he had told her.  “Callum really doesn’t know?”

Claudia shrugged, a thoughtful expression crossing her face.  “He knows about Dad’s feelings towards him and he knows Dad didn’t like Sarai.  To my knowledge, he has no clue just how deep that hatred runs and for how long it has.  Neither does Ezran.  In their minds, Sarai was a saint; why would anyone hate her with all of their being?  Harrow doesn’t want them to know what my dad called their mother.  Callum also doesn’t know about the deal they made or the argument that it came from.  As far as Callum and Ezran know, Dad just gave up and told Harrow to be happy.  If they find out, it needs to be from Harrow.  The only reason I know is because Dad got drunk one night and told me and Soren everything.  When we told Harrow that we knew, he asked us to keep it quiet and never, ever tell Callum or Ezran.  That was the same day that we told Harrow about his plot to kill Ezran.  We picked Harrow’s side that day and Dad wanted nothing more to do with us and we wanted nothing more to do with him.”

“Why can’t they know?”

“Would you want your sons to know that someone you believed was your best friend and your biggest supporter thought their mother was anything less than honorable, even after she saved his life?”

Rayla thought about it for a moment.  If she and Callum had children and were put in a similar situation, would she want their children to know something like that?  “No, I don't think I would.”

“See?” Claudia asked not unkindly.  “It's one thing to say that Viren didn't like Sarai, it's another to say the words he actually used.  I don’t want to tell Callum or Ezran and neither does Soren.  It’s not something you feel good about knowing.  The only reason I told you is because you need to know what you’re going up against.  Dad may say all of those things and worse to anyone who will listen and you have to be prepared.  Don’t focus on what they call you.  Don’t let anyone get the best of you with name-calling.  Only state your and Callum’s truth.  If you spend any time saying anything besides that and that you and Callum love each other for who you are, then they would have won and they will keep coming back.  I’ll step in if I have to on your behalf.  I like you, Rayla, and I like how happy you make Callum.  No matter what, he is one of my best friends in this world and I don’t want him to lose you over something neither one of you can control.”

“He’s not gonna lose me.  I’ll have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of this relationship at this point.” 

“Good.”  Claudia hugged her knees to her chest and rested her head on them.  “When Callum and I dated, it was before Dad was disgraced.  To a degree, it was always assumed we would get married for political reasons.  It wasn’t really a big deal to anyone until we broke-up.  That’s when the gossip came around.  I can’t imagine what the two of you must be feeling right now.”

Rayla stretched her legs out and folded her arms over her chest.  “Nervous.  A bit relieved.  Like we’ve done both the smartest and stupidest thing we ever could.  He wanted to give up when Amaya told us I didn’t have an out the second the public knew.  He told me to go back to my uncles and I told him that if I did that there would be no second chances.  We either stand together now or he will lose me forever.”

“Good for you.”  Claudia had a big grin on her face at Rayla’s statement. 

“I wasn’t going to let him give up.  I think Bandlr’s threat to tell the world and then hearing his aunt tell him I had to stay at the border got to him.  He finally came back to his senses when he saw I wasn’t going to run away and was going to take this media nonsense head-on.”

“I understand if he’s concerned about the media.  It’s not easy to live the way he does.  This is the most freedom he’s had since his mom married Harrow.  Every move he makes, every outfit he wears, every person he meets is dissected to death.  There are articles and videos out there about whether or not Harrow actually loves Callum and that has hit Callum so hard.  They talk about body language this and Callum didn’t go to such-and-such event that and they don’t know anything that goes on behind closed doors.  I have never seen someone love their kids as much as Harrow does Callum and Ezran.  Harrow’s distance was because he didn’t want Callum to feel like he was replacing his father not because he loved Callum any less.  It took a long, long time for Callum to call him ‘Dad’ and being constantly reminded that he is the ‘step-prince’ didn’t help.”

Before Rayla could respond, the elevator opened to reveal Callum, laden with groceries.  “Hey, guys.  I’ve got enough food to last a month.  Or a week since you’ll be here, Rayla.”

Rayla did a quick eyeroll.  “Ha ha, Mr. Skinny.  It’s all muscle unlike your noodle arms.”  Raylan and Claudia stood, each grabbing one of Raylas bags. 

“You like my noodle arms.”  A quick smirk at Rayla and Callum unlocked the door so they could head inside.  Claudia and Rayla quickly put Rayla’s stuff down so Rayla could help Callum put their groceries away.  “You’ll be so proud of me.  I only got one more piece of fruit for the fruit bowl.”

“You’re eating that, too.”

“I’m drawing it tomorrow and then I’ll be done and we’ll spend the rest of the day eating fruit and Earthblood honey.  And the day after that.  And maybe the day after that.”

Rayla picked up said piece of fruit and glared at it.  “I swear, if your plan is to slowly replace the rest of our diet with your fruit bowl, I will make you eat the actual bowl.”

“Do you hear what I put up with, Claudia?”

Claudia shook her head as she walked over to the two.  She looked at the fruit bowl and then back at Callum.  “Do you really need all that fruit for art?”

“It’s called still life and I haven’t done it in a while and drawing helps me relax in stressful situations.  Also, please lay off my fruit.”  Callum handed her the key to the apartment.  “Let us know when you get the copy.”

“Got it.  I’ll give you the bill then, too.”

“I can give you cash now.”

“Nah, I know you’re good for it.  I also know where you live.  Night.”

“Night, Clauds.”

“Thanks for the help.”  Rayla followed Claudia to the door and locked it behind her.  “Alright.  We need to talk about something.”  Callum gulped as he suddenly found his shirt very interesting.  “I’m not still mad at the whole ‘run away while you can’ thing if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, thank god.  I was going to have a heart attack.”

“It’s about how…. calmly we bring up marriage.  We teased each other about you marrying me because of honey and how strong I am.  When Ezran talked about me being his big sister, I almost said ‘yes.’  And then, you called Runaan and Ethari your ‘future-in-laws.’  We’ve been bringing it up for months without ever really talking about it.”  Rayla went back to the kitchen, lightly drumming her fingers against the counter.  “Do you want to marry me?”

“I’m not opposed to it,” he hedged.

“Callum.”  Rayla needed him to be as honest and serious as possible about this.  She didn’t want to start planning a forever with him in her mind if it hadn’t even crossed his.

“Fine,” Callum grabbed her hand and looked in her eyes with those suddenly far too green ones of his.  “I know we haven’t been together that long, but I know I want to marry you someday.  I wouldn’t have asked to meet Ethari and Runaan if I didn’t.  I also don’t want to do it for a few years.  We’re still young and there are so many things to see and do first.”

“Do you already have a ring?”

“No.  I actually have one planned, but I’m going to have it specially made.  I’m thinking,” he raised her hand and separated her middle finger out, “a band of platinum that has been twisted.  I’m also thinking a moonstone sunken into the band.  Nothing jutting out, so you won’t be able to cut someone when you backhand them.”

“But that’s the best part.”  Rayla looked down at her hand as Callum stroked the base of her finger.  “You’ve really thought about this.”

“More than thought about it.  I've drawn it a hundred times.”

“Have you now?”  It was supposed to come out cocky and self-assured, but instead, Rayla felt anticipation and curiosity step in.

Callum looked at her finger again, biting his lip.  He went over to the bookcase, going to his shelf of sketchbooks.  He quickly pulled out the one he was looking for and flipped through the pages.  “This is the one I settled on.”

Callum came back to rest the book on the counter, open to a page with a single ring design.  The top of the band was braided platinum with the moonstone embedded in the center.  Not only that, but one side had a red stone and yellow stone while the other had purple and green ones.  Each stone was also embedded.  Callum had also drawn what he wanted the inside of the band to look like.  So far, it was just the moon and sky runes, but plenty of room to add more.  The uneven towers of Katolis were right next to the moon rune.  “It’s very detailed,” she breathed.

“I just thought about it one day and I couldn't stop.  I actually spent weeks of my summer vacation creating the perfect design.”

Rayla looked up at him.  “You were thinking about this when we couldn't even see each other?”

“Well, yeah,” he sheepishly replied.

It was mindboggling to her.  He had had this in his head for that long?  “We hadn't been together for very long.  Officially at least.”

“I'm not ready to get married now.  I just know, even back then, that I want to marry you.”

“Is that a proposal?”  Rayla let a grin come over her features.  Teasing Callum was her default for whenever she became overwhelmed.   And she was insanely overwhelmed.

“No, it's a plan.”

“Sounds like a proposal to me.  You got a sketch for the ring; told me you want to be with me until you die.”

Callum put a mock affronted look on his face, hand going to his chest.  “I did not use those words.”

“Maybe not.  But that's what you meant.”

Callum flushed.  “It’s not a proposal.”  He paused as a small bit doubt entered his voice.  “What do you think about the ring?”

“It’s beautiful.  And if you had already had it made, I might have said ‘yes’ just now.”  Callum glared at her teasing for a moment before her entire statement caught up with him, eyes going wide and mouth slightly ajar.  Rayla blushed, quickly turning her attention back to the sketch.  “I thought diamonds were traditional among humans, though.”

Callum let her change the subject, probably still processing her acceptance of his ‘not proposal.’  “We,” a quick point of his fingers between the two of them, “are not a traditional couple.  I thinks something a bit more symbolic and unique to us would make far more sense.  My mom didn't have one on her rings, either.  My father could barely afford the plain silver one he gave her and Dad knew that Mom valued simplicity and creativity over showy.  That ring was also braided, but it was gold and had my birthstone.  Dad said it wasn't so much an engagement ring as it was a promise to love both Mom and me for the rest of his life.”

“You always talk so highly of her.”  Rayla hadn’t noticed it before, but Claudia was right; Callum viewed Sarai as a saint.  There was always a reverent tone in his voice whenever he talked about her and it seemed like she could have done no wrong in his eyes.

Callum shrugged.  "She was my mom.  She stood by my father and Dad through the tough times and believed in putting in the hard work for peace, love, and justice instead of taking the easy way out.  I never doubted that she loved me and Ezran equally.  I remember her being full of love and warmth, with a serious sweet tooth.  Only a fool got between her and jelly tarts.”  He chuckled.  “There’s actually this great story Aunt Amaya tells.  When they were kids, someone tried to take a bite of Mom’s cake and she stabbed their hand with her fork.  Everyone knew to stay away from her dessert after that.  I really miss her sometimes.   I think about what life would be like if she were still here.  I actually have this pair of socks she tried to knit when she was pregnant with Ezran.  They were for me, but the sizing was so off and it looks like she tried to add a thumb at some point.  I can never wear them, but I also can't bring myself to throw them away.”

“Do you think about what life would have been like with your father?”

A guilty look crossed his features.  “I don't really remember him.  It feels like Harrow has always been my dad.  Everyone says I take after my father.  I'm terrible with weapons, talented in art, and have his eyes.  Even my smile is supposed to look just like his did.  And it's nice to know that, but, it's hard for me to think ‘that's my father’ when I see a picture or someone mentions his name.”  Callum started to absently flip through the pages of his sketchbook.  “His grandparents died shortly after I turned six, so I don’t even have anyone to go to for stories about his childhood.  My mom left me everything she had, but it was just a stack of documents that didn’t say much beyond medical history and the family trees with a handful of photographs.  I have all of his art pieces that aren’t in a museum or were for clients, though.  You know that portrait of my mom?”

Rayla turned to the picture in question.  It was a replica of a very soft, gentle-looking Sarai.  Rayla had often wondered if that portrait had been done while she was pregnant with Callum or was holding him.  Sarai had always had a reputation in Xadia for being strong and excelling in combat, even with her talk about peace and understanding.  To see her look so sweet had been a little jarring at first.  “Yeah.”

“My father painted the original shortly before he died.  The actual painting is hanging in an art museum in the capital, right next to the one he painted of Mom and Aunt Amaya.  Me, Dad, Ezran, and Aunt Amaya all have painted copies.   Trust me, the original is much better and I can’t wait to take you to see it someday.  You can tell with each stroke just how much he loved her, and how he carefully chose each color to bring out the softness he saw in her that a lot of people didn’t because she was so good at being a warrior.  That's the one thing that makes me go ‘yeah, that’s who my father was.’  Do you think about what your life would be like if your parents raised you?”

Rayla shook her head.  “Not really.  I couldn't have asked for better than Runaan and Ethari.  My parents are members of the Dragon Guard and it’s a big honor, I just don't get to see them.  As far as I'm concerned, Runaan and Ethari are my parents.  If my mum and dad came here and told me they didn't approve of us, I can't imagine I'd really care.  I'm not even sure when I can tell them.”

“You can't call them?”

Rayla shrugged.  “That's only really used in emergencies.   You have to hope that they call you.  Letters are better.  It’s getting late.  Do you wanna go to bed?”

Callum looked like he wanted to continue the conversation, but looked at the clock before nodding.  “Yeah, let’s go to bed.  We’re gonna need to be well rested for tomorrow.”

“Is it wrong to hope tomorrow never comes?”

“Well, we’re not leaving this apartment until Monday, so we’ll just pretend it didn’t.”

“Like you’re pretending you didn’t propose?”  Callum groaned as Rayla chuckled.

Chapter Text

Rayla and Callum awoke at eight in the morning; both of their phones chiming with text and email notifications.  Rayla groaned as she snuggled into his neck a little more.  “Why didn’t we turn the sound off last night?”

“We must have forgot.  I was too busy not proposing,” was Callum’s grumbled answer.

Rayla nudged his back a bit with her knee.  “You proposed; no takebacks.”  They lay in silence as their phones continued to make their presence known.  “If you go through my phone, I’ll go through yours.”

“Don’t wanna see the texts from your friends?”  Rayla had more friends than Callum did, so he had thought Rayla would want to check in if any of them had said anything.

“If they can’t accept us or even try, they’re not my friends.  I just thought it would be easier.”

“OK.  Let me go get them.”  Callum pried Rayla’s arm off of him and got their phones off his dresser.  Both lockscreens showed a large number of messages and missed calls.  Lots of them from unknown numbers.  When Callum got back to the bed he unlocked Rayla’s phone as she did the same with his.  “This must be why we exchanged passcodes months ago.”

“Your passcode is my birthday.  Don’t try to act like you saw into the future when you suggested this.”

 “I have the power to use the Sky arcanum and I am on my way to using more.  How do you know I can’t?”  Rayla leveled a stare at him, raising her white brow.  “Fine, I can’t see into the future.”  Callum gave a quick look at the number of unread messages.  “I’m going to drive myself crazy going through all this.”

“Ten minutes, tops, then we stop.  If it’s really that important, they’ll find a way to contact us again.  Ready?”

“Nope.”

“Good.  Ten minutes.”  Callum scrolled through the mass of texts first.  Unknown number after unknown number calling Rayla everything from a traitor to a whore.  There was a mass of inappropriate images and crude language.  Callum deleted every one after blocking the numbers.  Every once in a while, Callum came across a text with a name in her contacts.  Most of them were ‘congratulations’ or ‘I knew it’.  Some of them were just repeating what the majority had.  The strangest text came from Bandlr, who stated that he told his dormmates at midnight but never gave out Rayla’s number to anyone.  ‘Must be covering his own ass.  Enough people know our numbers, so he wouldn’t have been the only candidate either way.’   

The emails were mostly from photographers or journalists who Callum’s family had gotten in touch with.  It seemed like Rayla’s email was still relatively private.  “There’s a couple offers already for you to be interviewed by the Katolis Sun, the Capital Times, and Pentarchy Monthly.  Ezran’s favorite photograph, Gustin, has offered to come up here in a couple days and take a few pictures.  If you’re more comfortable, he’s alright with doing everything in the apartment.  Everyone seems OK with coming to the apartment.  They just want to talk to you.”

“I’ll worry about it later.  Delete anything in my texts that isn’t from a contact.”

“Already on it.  I’m assuming I can trust you to do the same?”

A forced laugh.  “Some girl sent you a picture of her breasts.  You can bet I deleted that.”

“Haven’t gotten one of those in weeks.”  Callum’s eyes went wide as he just realized what he said.  Rayla turned to face him with such murder in her eyes; Callum wasn’t sure if he was going to make it out of this intact.  He slowly put his hand up and subtly backed away a bit. “Ray, I’m a prince.  It’s not just girls that send me things like.  I don’t go around giving my number to random people.”

“You have gotten texts like this from other people since we’ve been dating?”  Her voice was deceptively calm as she began to inch towards him while he continued to inch back.  “You have been getting nudes from people this whole time?”

Callum could feel himself breakout into a cold sweat.  The only reason he had never told Rayla was because it had become so much a part of his daily life, he had kind of assumed she knew it was a possibility.  “Once again, never asked for them.  Don’t know who they are, usually.  I just delete them after blocking the number.”

Wrong thing.  “But sometimes you do know them?  How are they getting your number?”

“I will meet them in passing and they’ll say where they met me.  That’s it.  I have never in my life asked for those pictures.  From anyone.  I don’t know who keeps finding out what my number is, but I change it every few months.  You know that.  I’ve had to text you my new number how many times since we started dating?”  Callum needed the air to thin out because he felt like he was being constricted.  He could hear the shakiness in his voice as he had to explain to his girlfriend about those stupid photos.  The first one he ever got was when he was fifteen, shortly after he started dating Claudia.  It became open-season after their break-up went public and Callum had had to get a new number every three months since.

Rayla bit the inside of her cheek, taking a moment to think.  “Fine.  You’re too awkward to ask for them anyway.”

“Exactly.  I’m too—I am not that awkward.”

A raised brow and a tiny smirk were directed at him.  “Do you want me to send you one?  I can wear my bra with the front clasp.  I could also ask Zaras to get me something like she usually wears.  All lacy and tiny.”  Rayla leaned forward again, nose almost touching his as she directed her eyes to his lips.  “I could wear something as green as your eyes.”  Callum coughed as the air around them suddenly became even thicker.  Rayla leaned back, a satisfied smirk was full-blown on those teasing lips.  “No way you asked for them.  We need to get you a new phone number.  I could get Runaan to get you a burner phone and send it here.”

“Yeah.”  He was going to have whiplash at this point.  Callum went back to Rayla’s phone, noticing a new text from Zaras.  All it had was a link.  “Zaras sent a link.  Should I press it?”

Rayla shrugged.  “It’s Zaras.  It could be a video of a winged horse doing a stupid trick or it could be something actually related to us.  The only thing you can trust is that it’s not a nude.  Her speed is more ‘I’ll seduce you into thinking I’m the sweetest thing ever and then make you realize you fell for a hot nerd.’”

“That sounds like Zaras.”

“I know.  Isn’t she the best?”

Callum thought about it for a few moments.  Rayla was right; you never really knew with Zaras.  Zaras was also on their side and wouldn’t send them something that she believed would hurt them.  He gulped and opened the link.  It was their school’s paper’s webpage.  There was already a poll asking people what they thought of Callum and Rayla’s relationship.  Dubbed ‘Rayllum’ already, probably curtesy of Zaras, there were a lot more in favor than Callum would have thought.  The majority was still in the negative…wait, it was moving more towards in favor?  “Rayla.”

“What?  I found five more nudes and three different people asked you how sex with an elf that can turn invisible is.”  Rayla paused for a moment before looking at him, genuinely confused.  “Why haven’t we tried that yet?”

“Haven’t thought of it.  Zaras sent a poll.  It’s on the school paper’s webpage.  Ray, it’s in real time.”

“What’s it saying?” came Rayla’s nervous response.

“Right this second, it’s 40% for and 60% against.”

“That’s a lot higher than I thought it would be.”

“Me, too.”  Callum gulped as it suddenly tipped towards the negative again.  “I’m turning this off.  I can’t look at it anymore.”  Rayla hummed, handing Callum’s phone back to him.  “No more pics?”

A quick glare followed by a frustrated huff.  “I just found out that there will probably always be pics.  I either keep looking through your stupid phone and find more, driving me into a rage, or I give it to you and stop for the day.”   

Callum got up to put both of their phones back on the nightstand.  “Do you think, and this is a stupid question, I know, but…do you think that this would have been better if…maybe we had-”

Rayla shook her head.  “Callum, I don’t think us making-out next to your mother’s statue the day after we became exclusive would have made a difference.  This is what was going to happen.  You’re…well, you’re a human prince and I’m a nobody.”

Callum scrunched his nose, vehemently shaking his head.  “You’re not nobody, Ray.”  Rayla scoffed.  “You’re not!  Both of your parents are in the Dragon Guard.  That’s huge!  You are the toughest, most clever, and bravest girl I’ve ever met.”  Callum sat down to rest his forehead against her’s.  “I look at you and I see my future.”

Rayla nuzzled the tip of her nose against his.  “Was that the proposal?”

“I know you’re OK because you keep making jokes.”

“I’m serious.  Was that the proposal?”

“No.”  Callum gently kissed her lips once, twice.  “The ring has to be made first.”

“What if I say ‘no’?  Then you would have had a custom ring you can’t do anything with.”  Her eyelids were lowering along with her voice.

“Would you say ‘no’?”

Callum looked down at her as she slowly laid back down on the bed.  Rayla bit her bottom lip as she looked back up at him.  “Depends.”

He leaned down to press his lips to her neck.  “What if I promised you forever?”

Rayla’s breath hitched.  “I’ll live longer than you.  I’m the one that would be promising forever.”

Callum kissed downwards, slowly reaching the very top of her cleavage revealed by her night shirt.  “I’ll give you my heart.”

“Already have it.  You aren’t getting it back.”  She ran a calloused hand through his hair, while lifting her leg slightly.  She gently hooked her foot around his knee, running her toes up and down his calf.  “You can’t promise something that isn’t your’s to give, can you?”

“You’re right, I can’t.”  Callum ran a ran down her side before grasping the hem of her shirt.  “What about my soul?  My devotion?  My erring loyalty?”

Rayla hummed, pushing herself up so Callum could relieve her of her shirt.  “All nice things.  But I was thinking of something else.”

“What’s that?”  Rayla helped him take off his shirt before bringing him down to lay their half-naked bodies together.  She languidly kissed him, taking control of what he had started.  Rayla was a woman of action, but she was also prone to trying to think things through as thoroughly as possible.  Callum had hoped that he would be able to get her mind off of the outside world for just a moment, and it seemed to be working.

Rayla pulled away, a soft smile making it’s way on her lips.  He loved that smile even more than her cocky smirks.  “You promise me that no matter what happens, no matter who tries to get involved, this relationship will always be ours.  Only you and I will get to decide if we break-up.  Only you and I get to decide if we have kids.  Only you and I decide what we tell the world.”  Callum nodded and was about to reconnect their lips.  Rayla kept a strong hold on him and looked him square in the eyes.  “I’m serious.  I will not have a repeat of last night.  I don’t want anyone making those decisions for us.  I’m in the same boat as you,” a stray tear made it’s way down the side of her face.  “You are my future and I was taught to not let anyone mess with my future.”

“Good.  Because I have no plans on running away if it gets too hard.  You told my family last night that you plan to stay with me through all this chaos.  You’re stuck with me until the day I die, now.”  Callum kissed her soundly, reaching to run a hand over one of her horns.  “That was the proposal.”

Rayla moaned, pushing Callum onto his back so she could rest on his lap.  “I thought you needed the ring first.”  She slowly moved her hands up and down his chest, leaning down to nibble at his chin.  Callum shivered when she went up to his ear.  Rayla had this fascination with his ears and he was not complaining.  “Unless you already have it made.”

“I started looking at jewelers in both Katolis and Xadian last night.  It will take months to do the research and get the materials.  But, a drawing’s the same, right?”  She chuckled a bit.  Truthfully, Callum wasn’t sure why he was veering so far from his original plan, but it felt right.  Rayla hadn’t run away when she saw the drawings he made last night and she kept bringing it up.  If Rayla was really opposed to it, she would have either avoided the subject or would have told him that they weren’t ready.  Hell, she might have just told him to never bring it up again.  “Will you marry me, Rayla?  Not today, and not tomorrow, but when some of this chaos has died down and we’re both ready.”

“Aye.  Took you long enough.”  They laughed before she took his lips back.  They helped relieve each other of their underwear, Callum flipping them over so he was on top.  The laugh was interrupted by their soft groans when he entered her.  Usually, their lovemaking was hurried and full of a need to relieve stress.  Today, Callum wanted to take his time with the love of his life.  “What’s so funny?”

Callum hadn’t even realized he’d laughed.  He put his forehead against her’s again.  “I called you the love of my life in my head.  I hadn’t realized just how good it would feel to admit that.  Even if it was just to myself.”  She called him a dork.  He expected her to push him onto his back and take over, but she made herself comfortable beneath him.  Her hands moved to pierce her fingernails in his shoulders.  He slowly thrust into her sheath; mouth making its way back down her neck.  She felt so warm and soft, walls fluttering as he moved in and out.  Rayla groaned.  Callum felt her grab his fingers and move them to her little button.  He never got tired of her telling him exactly what she wanted.

He lightly thumbed her nub while latching on to one of her dusky nipples.  “Ah~”  One of her hands dragged her nails from his shoulders down his back.  Callum hissed.  It hurt but felt so good.  They had always had to be so careful with marks before that neither one of them had ever had so much as a hickey during their relationship.  Now, Callum wanted Rayla to mark him up however she saw fit.  He gave her nipple a light nip.  Slowly moving back up, his lips found their way to her collar bone.  He sucked and nibbled at her skin, his hand pressing harder on the center of her pleasure.  Her other hand made its way down his back, digging her nails in the whole way. 

Callum used his other hand to grab Rayla’s thigh, resting it in the crook of his elbow so she was spread wider.  He began to move faster in her.  He was stunned by how strong his need for her was beginning to burn him.  It was even stronger than when they first started their relationship.  Back then, it had been like a dam holding back all of their desires and feelings for each other had burst and couldn’t be repaired.  Now, it was as if all of that had been a precursor to this moment.  He had thought she was completely uninhibited with him before, but he had clearly been wrong.  She was moaning his name while thrashing under him.  Her nails were scratching at his arms and sides. 

Rayla finally grabbed his face and yanked him up to kiss her.  She stuck her tongue down his throat, demanding his come out to play with her.  He acquiesced.  Callum could feel her orgasm coming fast.  Her walls were clenching tight on him while her breath was coming in shorter pants.  He released her mouth and pulled back a bit to watch her peak and come down from her high.  Her eyes went wide before going to half-mast, mouth open in a silent scream.  She began trembling, hands grabbing on to hold him tight to her.  He could feel her shake as he refused to let up from stroking her.  Rayla quickly came again, actually screaming his name this time. 

He would have gone for a third, except Rayla was beginning to squeeze her fluttering walls around him.  She was demanding he reach his end, too, and he would happily follow her orders.  As he finally came, Rayla let her grip on him loosen.  A bright light burst behind his eyes as he started to come down.  Rayla had pushed him to lay next to her on the bed.  Callum slowly turned to lay on his side.  He stroked Rayla’s cheek with his index finger in awe over just how soft she looked.  “I want to paint you like this.”

Rayla raised a brow.  “Sweaty and satisfied?”  She chuckled.  “Hmm, if I had known you could do that, I would have let you take the lead months ago.”

Callum felt his chest puff up a bit in pride.  Rayla had been the only person he had ever been with and it felt good to know he had pleased her.  “Soft and free.  Like the world has melted away.”

“You’re the only person that would ever see it.”

“Deal.”  Callum leaned to kiss her nose.  “I swear, you’re even more beautiful than when I first met you.”

Rayla closed her eyes and released a happy sigh.  “Of course.  We Moonshadow elves only get better with age.  By the time we’re seventy, I’ll be the sexiest thing you’ve ever seen,” she teased.

“Can’t wait.”  Callum felt too hot and sweaty to try to hold Rayla, so he settled for stroking her cheek.  They basked in their afterglow for so long Callum forgot about the fact that they hadn’t even eaten yet.  Rayla’s stomach growled to remind them.  “I got plenty of eggs and pancake mix.  I even got orange juice with the pulp for you.  How you can drink that, I have no idea.”

Rayla pushed his shoulder as she rolled her eyes.  “You what sounds really good?  Eating breakfast on your sofa while watching a violent movie.”

“You want to stroke your bloodlust this early in the morning?”  Callum smiled back at Rayla.  He got out of bed to go make them breakfast, stretching his arms above his head.  He heard a pop and groaned. 

“My bloodlust is satiated by those movies, thank you very much.”  She followed him out of bed and into the kitchen.  Callum got to starting the pancakes, handing Rayla the eggs to crack.  Instead, Rayla wrapped her arms around his waist from behind and rested herself against him.  Callum shook his head and kept making them breakfast.  They stood in silence for a bit longer, Callum only moving a bit here and there to keep breakfast going. 

“You don’t want eggs?  I’ve also got bacon and sausage in the fridge.”

“I just want to hold you.  Where did you learn that move anyways?”

Callum looked back with a raised brow.  “What move?”

“The one where you hooked my knee.  You’ve never done that before.”

“You’ve always been on top or in charge.”

“You’ve never complained.”

Callum heard a slightly confused edge in her voice, but also one laced with genuine curiosity.  “I’ve been reading some stuff.  Trust me, I’m not complaining.  You’ve always been more sure of yourself in this department and you always know exactly what you want.  It’s nice.”  ‘Nice’ was an understatement.  He and Claudia hadn’t even gotten beyond making-out before they broke-up, so he had been completely clueless when Rayla had told him she was ready for that next step.  It had been a relief that she wasn’t shy about her own sexuality and that she had had some experience. 

“You have my ex-girlfriend to thank for that.  She was very much into the idea that we need to be explicit with our wants and needs.  If we keep quiet or expect our partner to just know, then how can we expect to get what we need?”

“I’ll be sure to thank her in person if I ever meet her.  Do I need to thank your ex-boyfriend while I’m at it?”

Rayla snorted.  “In terms of kissing?  Probably.  In terms of sex?  No.  He was never interested in going that far physically.  The most we ever did was make-out.”  Rayla sighed as she adjusted herself a bit, putting her chin on his shoulder.  “He's asexual and his wants and needs were on a more emotional level than I could give at the time.  Also, he was very mature for his age and I couldn’t keep up. He had matured faster than the rest of our class and he needed someone who could balance him out better than my immature 'I'm gonna kick your ass if you don't shut up' self could.”

“Where is he now?”  Callum’s curiosity was definitely piqued.  Rayla almost never talked about her exes.  Callum would have expected to be full of jealousy or frustration, but he didn’t feel any of that.  Mostly, he felt like he wanted to know more about this part of her past she had kept quiet.

“Well, he was originally going to go to the University.  He had had plans to come and study, maybe become a mage himself or an ambassador.  Instead, he got called up to be a member of an exclusive team belonging to King Azymondias.  It’s a type of council and is an even more coveted position than the Dragon Guard.  Last I heard, he was dating a spitfire of an Oceanheart elf whose grandfather runs the library in the capital.”  Rayla paused before pushing herself on her tiptoes a bit.  “You’re taking me talking about my old flames pretty well.  Some people freak out and don’t want to hear it.”

Callum shrugged.  “You’ve met my ex.  I’m still friends with her and her brother and she’s probably going to be in my life until the day I die.  I can handle you talking about yours.”

Rayla hummed, swaying lightly.  “Good to know you realize that you have to take as good as you give.”

“Of course.  Breakfast is almost ready.  You still want to watch a movie or do you want to listen to the radio?”  Rayla let go of Callum’s waist and wandered off.  Callum heard her booting up her computer; probably trying to find a station or playlist with as little news as possible.  Callum turned off the stove and got to work setting the table.  Neither he nor Rayla were really into cooking, but there was something relaxing about being in their little kitchen together. 

 

I'm not perfect

But I swear I'm perfect for you

 

And there's no guarantee

That this will be easy

It's not a miracle you need

Believe me

Yeah, I'm no angel, I'm just me

But I will love you endlessly

Wings aren't what you need

You need me

 

Callum looked over at Rayla.  She looked just as shocked as he did.  He cleared his throat a bit.  “You remember the first time we heard this song?”

Rayla nodded.  “Yeah.  You were joking that you couldn’t be seen with me if I didn’t know how to slow dance.  Even though we had no plans on going public at the time.”

“Ray,” Callum looked down at his hands for a moment before looking back up.  “I had plans to introduce you to my family when I said that.”

Rayla cocked a brow.  “You do remember that you were the one who suggested we keep quiet when all this started, right?  You were the one who said ‘no one has to know.’  I feel like I’m going crazy every time you mention how much you’ve wanted to tell everyone because I remember that us being a secret was all your idea.”  She punctuated her statement by pointing right at him.

Callum walked over to her, grasping her hands.  “I know and I’m sorry that you feel that way.  You shouldn’t feel like you’re going crazy.  I said that we should be a secret and I don’t regret saying it.  Because, if I hadn’t, I’m not sure we would be here right now.  I regret our circumstances, but I wouldn’t take back giving us a shot for anything.  If I hadn’t suggested it, would you have agreed to trying?”

Rayla squeezed his hands.  “I don’t know.  But I don’t regret it either.”  Callum kissed her forehead, threading their fingers together.  Rayla slowly started to sway her hips.  “Dance with me?”

“Need some practice?”

“Tons.”  They let their pancakes get cold as they swayed together.  It was far more an excuse to hold each other than it was to actually practice dancing.  Callum had pulled her far closer than decorum would deem appropriate and her feet kept stepping on his toes.  “Am I any better?”

“You’re perfect.  Everyone will be in awe of the mysterious Ms. Rayla’s dancing skills.”  Rayla gave out such a joyful laugh it was startling.  He hadn’t heard her laugh like that in what felt like forever.  Now that she had promised him forever, well, he was going to have forever to make sure she laughed like that every day.      

Chapter Text

When Monday morning finally came, Rayla felt herself panic.  She didn’t want to leave the apartment.  Their first class was their shared magic history class; a class they also shared with Bandlr and Zaras as well as several more Moonshadow elves.  Rayla had a strong urge to bring her blades despite campus rules stating otherwise.  “I’m going to shower first, OK?”

Callum nodded as he moved to sit on the bed, eyes facing the window.  Rayla ran a hand down his arm and cupped his hand.  His back and shoulders were covered in red marks from her nails while she knew her own body had constellations on it from his teeth.  Yesterday had consisted solely of Callum drawing, Rayla doing mild exercises or reading, and bouts of unhurried, emotionally-charged sex.  The feeling of safety that had wrapped itself around her like a blanket was thrown off the moment their alarms sounded.  “I’m OK.”

“I’m not.”  Callum stiffened, turning to look at her.  His brow was furrowed while there was clear shock in his green eyes.  Rayla didn’t blame him; it was completely out of character for her to admit vulnerability, even to Callum.  “I wanted more time.  I wanted to meet your family and have months to tell anyone else.  I wanted to tell Zaras, Soren, and Claudia when we were ready.  I didn’t,” Rayla felt the tears come.  She let them fall as Callum reached over to hold her.  “I didn’t want to feel like my life is being ripped open for anyone to judge.  I just wanted to be with you.” 

“Believe me Rayla, if there was a way for us to be together and for you to not have to deal with any of this, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.  I won’t leave you to deal with them alone.  As long as you’ll have me, I’ll stand by your side.”  Rayla nodded into his neck and felt his tears coming down her back.  She wasn’t sure how long it was until their tears stopped, but it was a few minutes more before they finally broke apart.  “You have your key now, so if it gets to be too much, come straight home.”  One of his hands gently stroked her hair while the other pulled her closer to him.

“I like that.”

“What?”

“That you called it ‘home.’”

“Well, yeah.  I’ve thought of it as our home for a while.  And now that all your stuff is here, why not call it that?”  There was such surety and softness in his voice, as if she had always belonged in his apartment; all she had ever had to do was ask.  Part of her was wishing she had long before this nightmare with the public. 

Rayla nodded as she disengaged from his embrace.  Kissing his cheek, she got up and went to the bathroom to shower.  She used his sandalwood scented soap and dried off with the towel she brought back from her dorm.  While brushing her teeth, Rayla stared in the mirror at the hickeys all over her neck.  Rayla released the towel to look down at the myriad of marks on her breasts, stomach, and thighs she had ignored in the shower.  Callum had been just as eager to mark her up as she had been him, apparently.  She jolted when she felt arms wrap around her from behind.  Quickly looking up, Callum’s green eyes met her violet ones in the mirror.  “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Sorry.”  Callum lightly kissed her cheek before resting his chin on her shoulder.  She watched him peruse her neck through their reflections.  “Guess I was a bit…enthusiastic.”  He tried to look apologetic, but there was a cocky smirk just on the edges of his lips.

“Don’t even try it.  We both know you aren’t sorry.”

“Like you aren’t sorry for my back?” 

Rayla raised a brow at him; a saucy look making it’s way over her face.  “You complaining?”  Callum gave a slight shake of his head.  “Good.  Now, release me so I can get dressed.”  As she started to pad back to the bedroom to get her clothes, Callum grabbed her hand.  He held her fingers for a moment before sighing.  Soon enough, they were dressed and had eaten breakfast.  They stood outside Callum’s door with their backpacks and nervously looked at the key in her hand.  “So, I’m locking the door?”

“Just to make sure your key works.”

“We could go back in.  And not leave.  EVER.”

“We don’t have a choice.”  His voice was as shaky as she felt.  Rayla quickly inserted the key and turned it, feeling surprisingly angry as she heard it lock.  “Let’s go.”

“Yeah.”  They made their way towards campus hand in hand, completely silent.  It felt easier to ignore what was coming if they didn’t talk.  By the time they arrived, humans and elves alike stopped to stare at the two.  She could hear whispers and furious typing.  Everything was too loud.  Callum kept his hand clasped in hers, lightly pulling her from the quickly gathering crowds.  Everywhere they went, lines of people seemed to be waiting for them.  By the time they made it to the building with their classroom, Rayla was sure the whole university had seen them.  It grated on her beyond belief.  She was supposed to be the one who watched and kept an eye on everything; not the center of attention.  She was one with the moon, dammit, not the sun. 

They walked through the double doors and stopped.  The board was full of printouts from the internet.  There were pictures of her at the gym and back home and Callum back in Katolis next to Ezran.  There was even a photo of Callum back when he had been only 15, holding hands with Claudia.  Giant headlines were on the printouts, calling their relationship a joke or questioning why they would be together.  ‘Traitor’ was written in giant green and purple letters while ‘elf-lover’ was on in red and yellow.  Rayla pulled Callum to the front row and sat down.  He followed suit and they took out their notes.

Bandlr walked up to the two and crossed his arms.  “I kept my promise, Your Highness.  This is what you bring to the table while you’re with Rayla.  Nothing good will come from this.”

Rayla quickly looked up while Callum kept his eyes down.  She had been afraid back at the apartment, but she had to be strong now.  She stood up, walked a few steps to stand in front of Bandlr, and punched him in the stomach.  “No, Bandlr.  A lot of good has come from this relationship.  He makes me happy.  I feel comfortable around him and I’m not afraid to make a mistake when he’s there.  The only thing wrong about our relationship is people like you!  Now back off before I make you regret ever meeting me.” 

Zaras appeared in the corner of Rayla’s vision, walking towards the front, making sure to step on top of Bandlr as she made her way to the board.  Bandlr grunted as she made sure to dig the heel of her boot into the spot that Rayla had punched.  Zaras grabbed an eraser and began cleaning the board off.  “Honestly, all of you should be ashamed of yourselves.  We’re here to promote peace and understanding and this is the last thing we should be doing.”

An Oceanheart elf stood up as well and began to take down the printouts.  “Zaras is right.”  He collected all the printouts and went up the stairs as he passed each one out to their classmates.  “What if this was your brother or sister?  You know, what?  No, fuck that.  Rayla is an elf and we shouldn’t turn on each other.  Prince Callum hasn’t done anything in this war and has rejected dark magic again and again.  My family sent me here because they want a more peaceful world for my siblings.  If you have a problem with it, leave.”

Rayla wasn’t expecting everyone to stay, but watching a handful of her classmates leave still hurt.  Callum had been silent this whole time.  Rayla looked at him and touched his hair.  A jerky nod and a sigh brought Rayla back to her seat.  Callum’s eyes were unfocused as he played with his pencil.  “Callum?  Say something.”

“I thought I was prepared.  I wasn’t.  I really, really wasn’t.”

“I’m not either.  But we can’t hide.  They’re just going to keep doing it until we go to class.”

Zaras came over and patted Rayla’s back.  “I’ll make sure they don’t.  You two aren’t as alone as you thought.  There are a lot of people who either don’t care or keep shouting ‘called it.’  The campus has begun to foster more understanding and acceptance.  It’s the rest of the world you have to keep an eye on.”

Bandlr groaned from the floor.  Zaras rolled her eyes and stomped on his stomach again.  “What the fuck, Zaras!?” came Bandlr’s very winded voice.

“I have wanted to do that since the moment I met you, Bandlr.  I’m not a violent person, but, well, you don’t back off.”

“Says the girl that wears pointy heels everywhere she goes.”  Two of Bandlr’s friends came to the front to help him up.  Rayla watched Bandlr rub his stomach.  “Prince Callum.”  Rayla was about to get in front of him, but Callum slowly stood up.  “I hope you have as much fight in you as Zaras does.  Your relationship with Rayla is going to fall to pieces if you don’t.”

“I have plenty of fight in me, thanks.”  Bandlr shook his head and let his friends help him towards the back of the room. 

Zaras rolled her eyes and shared a look with Rayla and Callum.  “Bruised ego,” she sang out.  She leaned in to the pair and smirked.  “Everyone’s been giving him shit for being incapable of getting Rayla’s attention while Mr. Skin and Bones here has kept it long enough for you two to be a couple.”  Rayla was disappointed that Callum didn’t even crack a smile.  He quickly sat down and buried himself in his notes.  A dark look crossed Zaras’s face before sighing.  “They’ll come around.  And who cares if they don’t?  May I sit next to the future Princess Rayla?” 

Rayla glared with all her might at Zaras.  “What did you just say?”

Zaras sniffed.  “Please.  It’s only a matter of time until one of you pops the question…if you haven’t already.  Callum is a dedicated, loyal individual who is very, very well known for NOT doing casual dating while you throw your whole heart into everything you do.”  Zaras leaned in close to Rayla’s ear, having to stand to pull Rayla down a bit despite her heels.  “You two wouldn’t have been together a whole year if marriage wasn’t on the horizon.  I heard humans use rings for engagements.  I want to see it the second you get it.”  Zaras pulled back, a mega-watt smile on her face.  “I’m gonna expose you for the meme-queen that you are, Rayla.  I think I’ll do it at the wedding.”

The whole thing was utterly ridiculous and incredibly on-point.  It was so painfully like Zaras that Rayla wanted to sweep her up in a hug and thank her for trying to bring them back to normalcy.  “Who says there will be a wedding?  Maybe we’ll just elope to some little courthouse.”

Zaras looked down at Callum before looking back up at Rayla.  “You want his family to cry?  I’ve seen that little brother of his, and, I gotta tell you, Rayla, it would kill me to see that cream puff even look like he would shed a tear.”

“Don’t worry about Ezran.  We’ll kidnap him to make him our witness.”

“Well, as long as everything is planned out….”  Zaras smiled as a she quickly sat next to Rayla’s empty seat.  “Lujanne will be here any second.”

Lujanne walked in at that moment, huffing a bit as she made her way down the steps.  “Does anyone want to tell me why I had to fight my way through a bunch of freshmen to get to my own classroom?”  She looked pointedly at Callum and Rayla, before smiling softly.  “Congratulations, you two.  I expect that you will talking to the school newspaper soon.”

There was a moment of unease in the classroom.  Everyone was waiting for Callum or Rayla’s response; curious as to who was going to deal with the fallout.  Callum pulled Rayla down to her seat gently as he rose.  “You’ll just have to wait and see, Professor Lujanne.”

“Hmm.  Alright, before we get into magical theory, the trip during break to the Moon Nexus has been cancelled.”  A chorus of frustrated groans was released around the room, Callum’s being the loudest.  Rayla bit her lip.  She wasn’t nearly as disappointed as Calum was, but she had been there before.  Being human, Callum never had access to the Nexuses and he had been planning to use that time to work on unlocking the Moon Arcanum.  “I know, I know.  But, as we all know, we live in uncertain times.  Unfortunately, as the former guardian of the Nexus, it is still my duty to protect it and ensure that it remains intact.  There has been growing anti-elf rhetoric in the town close to the Nexus itself and I’m concerned for your safety as well.  I’m sorry.”

Callum had been slowly sliding down into his seat, disappointment clear as day on his face.  He paused and rose back to his full height at the end of Lujanne’s speech.  “What do you mean?  That town is quite peaceful.  They don’t have weapons, there are no dark mages that I’m aware of, and it’s rare for anyone to leave and join the military.”

Lujanne sighed, shaking her head.  “All of that may be true, Your Highness, but violence, as you know, comes in many forms.  While, perhaps, we would be safer with you with us, there is also a possibility, with your relationship with Miss Rayla being public, that you will be even more of a target.”

“Then I won’t go.  If it’s just because of me and Rayla-”

“Prince Callum, I’ve been debating cancelling this trip for several weeks.  Long before anyone knew about your relationship.  The last several times I’ve visited the Nexus with my students, passing through town has been….an uncomfortable time.  Yes, we could go around it, but the trip would be too long without cutting through town to make it back in time for classes.  I do want to thank you for offering to stay behind for everyone’s sake, but it won’t make a difference.  Your father is pushing for Katolis and Xadia to come to an understanding and those who are against it speak quite loudly.  It’s just not worth my students’ safety.”

Rayla looked up at Callum.  He looked torn between wanting to argue for his people, for a town that he had been to several times and he had always called a ‘peaceful village’, and accepting Lujanne’s words.  “I understand,” he finally said.  After sitting down, his leg began to bounce in agitation, while he spun his pencil in his hand.  He obviously didn’t understand, but Rayla knew that Callum knew that it had nothing to do with them.  Lujanne wouldn’t have lied about this.  But, now, Rayla wasn’t so sure that Callum was as truly aware of his people’s feelings towards elves and making peace with Xadia as he believed he was.              

 

Rayla stretched her arms above her head, cracking her knuckles with a satisfied groan.  Class had seemed to drag one for hours, despite being the usual ninety minutes.  Callum was rubbing the back of his neck as he moved it from side-to-side.  “Neck cramps again?”

“I think it’s more in my shoulders.”

Rayla snorted.  “That’s because you have shit posture for a prince.  Didn’t anyone make you stand against a wall or something?”

“And make me walk while balancing books on my head.  Didn’t make a difference, apparently.”  Callum looked at Rayla for a moment.  “My manners tutor would have loved you.  You got the posture thing down to a ‘T’ and have gotten really good at your Duchess leg cross.”

“I’ve gotten good at it because I practice it all the damn time,” Rayla grumbled.  Callum didn’t care if Rayla’s manners were flawless, but they weren’t stupid enough to believe the rest of the world didn’t.  Callum had found references for her with Queen Aanya and Queen Fareeda, as well as his own mother and the previous queens of Duren, to show how she would be expected to conduct herself in public.  Now they were moving on to tableware and Rayla was ready to throw hands with anyone who told her a shrimp fork was truly necessary.

“I know.  Thank you.  It’s…a lot to ask, I know.”

Rayla shrugged.  She gently patted his hand with a sigh before getting up.  “You had to learn it, too.  In private, though, you can keep all of those fancy forks and spoons in the drawer.”

“Agreed.”  Callum stood with her, grabbing her hand so he could squeeze it gently.  They made their way up the stairs, passing their classmates’ stares.  Rayla now had math class while Callum was going to a history of Oceanheart magic.  Rayla had found a real love and talent for math and science back in high school and wanted to continue to pursue it.  There were jokes that she would do better following in Runaan’s footsteps, but no one could argue with her continuous high marks and well-researched statistics reports.  “Are you going to be OK on your own?”

“I should be asking you that.”

“I’ll be fine, Ray.  I’m worried about you.  Everyone sees you as the toughest thing in the world, but…”  Rayla paused; holding Callum back with her.  He protested lightly as she dragged him into an empty classroom.  “Ray-”

“What do you mean ‘but’?”

Callum ran a hand through his hair.  “Ray, you are a lot more vulnerable than you let people think.  Like this morning.  Also, I know it hurts you when we talk about your parents or when I ask about them.  Someone could bring them up in class.”

“I’m fine with my parents.”

With a stare straight into her soul, Callum shook his head.  “You never talk about them if you can help it.  When they come up, you quickly change the subject.  I know you love Ethari and Runaan and they are basically your parents.  I know your small town basically helped raise you, too.  But it bothers you that you don’t remember the last time you saw either your mom or dad.”

Rayla crossed her arms.  She glared up at him, frustrated by the fact that the top of her head only came up to his nose.  She could headbutt him, but then her horns might go into his face and she didn’t want that.  She, unfortunately for her in that moment, liked his face as it was.  “Drop it, Callum.  We’re not talking about my parents.”

“I have always dropped it.  If you have feelings of abandonment from them, I get that.  I felt like that with my father and my mom.  They died so long ago and I still feel like they left me.  I have a great relationship with my dad, but it doesn’t change those feelings, as irrational as they are.  It’s not my parents’ fault that I grew up without them and it’s not your fault that your parents had to leave you to guard the Dragon King.”

“We’re different people, Callum.  Just because you feel one way doesn’t mean I have to.”

“I know.”  Callum put both hands on her biceps, lightly squeezing her.  “But I see the hurt in your eyes whenever they come up.  I remember the little wobble in your voice when you admitted you haven’t gotten so much as a letter for your birthday in almost ten years from them.  You are so quick to say ‘I’m fine’ and move on without letting me in.  I was the same for years concerning my own parents.  We’re a team, Ray, and I don’t want you to continue to ignore your own well-being because you think you have to.”

“I’m not ignoring anything.”  Rayla groaned, moving into Callum’s arms so he could hold her.  She was certainly not going to reject a private hug while she could get it.  Who knew how long they were going to keep their relative privacy?  “They weren’t there.  I get it; it’s a big honor and a time commitment.  Crying about it isn’t going to change anything.”

“No, but it might make you feel better.”

“It’s a sign of weakness.”

“More of Runaan’s wisdom?”  There was a derisiveness in Callum’s voice that, normally, would have made Rayla defensive.  This time, she knew Callum was coming from a good place.  King Harrow had taught his sons that crying was part of the healing process sometimes and to cry if they needed to.

“Yep.  I’ve cried about them.  I love Runaan and Ethari and they have always been there.  Yes, I would have loved to have gotten some contact with my parents over the years.  I had hoped that they would come to my high school graduation.  Instead, all I got was a letter telling me I had to come here to study.  Nothing about my accomplishments in school or my sports achievements, or even how proud Runaan was of me during training.  I don’t exist in their world.  I’m a distraction.”  Rayla blinked back a few tears, fisting her hands in Callum’s shirt.  She realized that she had never fully accepted just how tiny her role in her own parents’ lives was.  “I don’t even have any recent pictures of them.  I probably wouldn’t recognize them if they came up to me right now.”  She whispered the last part, a slow realization taking over.  She didn’t remember how her own parents looked.  Would she recognize them if she saw them, or would they walk right past each other?  Had they?  Did they ever even read the letters she had sent?

“Are you really, really alright with that?  Ray, just be honest with yourself.  I won’t judge you if you say ‘no.’”

“I know.”  Rayla sighed.  “I’ve made peace with it.  But, no, I’m not OK with it.  I kept hoping all day yesterday that Runaan or Ethari would call and say my parents talked to them.  Or they would call themselves and ask me about you.  I would have taken them yelling about my choices.  I’m still on the backburner.”

“I’m sorry.”  He leaned down to rest their foreheads together.  “If I ever make you feel like that, please tell me.”  They stood for a moment in silence.  Rayla felt a tear or two slip down, but she couldn’t feel a full-on sob coming.  She had already released all her feelings about her parents not being there for her birthdays or big milestones.  Her father had never told her that he was proud of her and her mother had never braided her hair after Rayla turned three.  Ethari had taught her how to let go of that anger and resentment.  Now, all that was left was numbness unless it was poked with a stick.   

“Don’t worry.  I’ll be sure to kick up a storm.”  Callum chuckled a bit.  He held her close, laying a kiss on her forehead.  “I keep forgetting that I’m not in that little town where everyone knows everything about everyone else.  Sometimes, I forget that you don’t understand things the way I do.”

“Trust me, I do, too.  You understand me on a level that only Ezran ever has.  I have a hard time caring that you don’t know the difference between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon.”

Rayla looked up to glare.  He had a goofy smile on his face, obviously fully aware of what he just said.  “There is no need for so many damn spoons.”

“There isn’t.”  Callum’s phone alarm started ring, causing them to split apart in a hurry.  “Shit.  Forgot about class.  You sure you’ll be OK?”

Rayla made sure to look him in his too green eyes.  “I’m fine.  You’re the only one that knows my weak points.  The whole thing with my parents and being worried...it’s sweet, and I get where you’re coming from.  But other elves are not going to look at it like that.  There is going to be an understanding that my parents probably don’t know yet.  And they have far too many other important things to deal with.  The Dragon King is more important than the daughter of two of his guards dating a human prince.  Trust me.  Besides, anyone who knows me, knows that Runaan and Ethari are basically my parents.  That’s just how it is.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he nodded and headed off in the direction of his next class.  Rayla walked the other direction, keeping her head held high while the whispers and stares continued.  The only incident that occurred until she got to the classroom was a random guy grabbing her arm and asking her if she wanted to try ‘a real man.’  She smiled sweetly before punching his stomach so hard he got sick.  “I got one.  Trust me, you wouldn’t be able to handle me,” she whispered in the guy’s ear.  She saw a few people taking videos on their phones and couldn’t find it in her to care.  Let them all stare and talk. 

Her class was, thankfully, free of any images or writing making reference to her newly public relationship.  She sat in her assigned seat in the middle, quickly flipping through her notes.  A few mumbles to herself and a perusal of the homework were all she was allowed before a coughing sound occurred next to her.  Rayla shut her eyes, counting to three before slowly breathing out.  She turned to see a human girl that she recognized from one of the nudes that had been sent to her boyfriend yesterday.  “Can I help you?”

The girl smiled a bit.  “Yeah.  You can back off of Prince Callum.  Thanks.”  The girl pushed her light hair back a bit behind her shoulder.  She locked her dark brown eyes with Rayla’s, a quick twist of her lips to make it a smirk instead of a smile.

“Funny.  I was going to say that you could do the same.”

“Oh?”  The surprise seemed genuine enough, though Rayla noticed she didn’t seem to have any shame from the earlier ‘request.’

“I’m talking about you sending a nude to my boyfriend.  Neither one of us knows how you got his number, but we would appreciate if you stopped.”

She rolled her eyes before giving Rayla a chiding look.  “You know about that?  It was simply to show him what he could have instead, since, well…”  She quickly eyed Rayla up and down, shrugging a shoulder.  Rayla growled a bit.  She was actually quite proud of her body.  Rayla worked out often and ran every day so that her leanness could finally turn into muscle. 

“You really wanna go there?”

The girl shrugged, an almost bored look taking over.  “He’s a prince, sweetie.”  Rayla forced the growl creeping up back down.  “He’s also handsome.  I’ve been trying to get his attention for months.  If I had known that YOU were in the picture, I would have tried a different tactic.”

“It doesn’t bother you that he’s in a relationship?” 

A raised brow and another shrug was Rayla’s response for a good minute.  “No.  He’s not married, so he’s fair game.”

Rayla clenched her fist for a moment.  “I see.”

The girl tilted her head, silently appraising Rayla.  Rayla held firm, long used to people silently judging her because of who her parents were or because they had heard Runaan praising her natural talent.  “You are quite pretty…for an elf.” 

Rayla was about to smack this brat down, but the professor came in at that moment.  He was a human from Duren, and one of the few professors on campus who tended to ignore elf-human squabbles between students.  His eyes quickly found Rayla.  “Miss Rayla.”  Rayla turned to him; ignoring her new annoyance.  “I suppose congratulations are in order.  I request that your new time in the spotlight does not interfere with your classwork.  Now…”  Rayla chose to ignore the public slight.  It wasn’t worth her time to pay it any mind. 

Class would have flown by, if that girl didn’t keep adjusting herself and throwing her hair over her shoulder.  Rayla knew the whole point was to get under her skin and damn it, it was working.  She thanked the Moon Nexus when the professor released them at the end of class.  She quickly jotted down the homework and rushed out the door, refusing contact with anyone.  Rayla had to see Callum.  She couldn’t explain it, but there was this feeling deep in her bones that if she didn’t seem him soon, she would lose her mind.

When had he become her calm in the storm?  Runaan had taught her to be her own calm; to soothe herself.  He would be disappointed to see her throw away her training to run to someone for comfort.  But, she didn’t care.  As she speed-walked towards Callum’s class, she ignored the whispers and open stares.  It’d already been several hours.  Why weren’t they done watching her?! 

Finally, Callum came into sight.  He was talking to Zaras, hands moving quickly while Zaras chuckled.  “Callum!”  He turned towards her, a soft smile quickly taking over.  She watched more people turn towards him at her shout.  It felt like the whole world now had their eyes on her.  When she finally stopped in front of him, Rayla didn’t give Callum a moment to register all the stares.  She grabbed him by the collar and claimed his lips with hers.  She felt him pause before responding to her.  Rayla smiled as he wrapped his arms around her waist to pull her closer. 

When they finally pulled apart, he looked dazed.  “What was that for?”

Rayla shook her head, leaning up to rest her chin on his shoulder.  “I just missed you.”

“I missed you, too.”  Out of the corner of her eye, Rayla saw Zaras shooing off all the bystanders, elf and human alike, before giving Rayla a thumbs up.  Everything would be fine.  It had to be.

 


 

Viren looked at the giant monitor in his office.  His spy at the border university had served him quite well.  The image of that mongrel step-prince kissing a Moonshadow elf, and one with links to an assassin no less, was all the ammunition he needed.  Finally, he could truly start his war.  King Harrow would regret throwing him out.              

Chapter Text

Runaan gripped the steering wheel as he and Ethari drove to the office of the Xadia Dispatch. “You’re sure your friend’s sister is going to be acceptable?”

Ethari shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t know a lot about her. My friend seems to think so and she’s got the best reputation on that whole paper. Did you schedule an appointment?”

“Aye. I’m not taking any chances to let anyone fuck with my kid.”

Ethari side-eyed Runaan for a moment. Ever since they had told Rayla to move in with Callum, Runaan had been silent on the subject. “I like Callum. I can see that he’s good for Rayla.”

Runaan sighed before running a hand through his long hair. “I do, too. I’ve been keeping tabs on him ever since Bandlr sent that first email. Doesn’t party, doesn’t dabble in dark magic, is known for being respectful towards women and elves. I know it was Rayla who fought telling us when they got serious and he still took half of the blame.”

Ethari was quiet for a moment. Rayla had always been just as stubborn as Runaan and her parents. It was both one of her best and one of her worst qualities. “I just don’t like the world he lives in. I have nothing against King Harrow and everything I’ve ever heard about Queen Sarai was positive. It’s just, Rayla’s been taught to live in the shadows and the sun is going to be on her from now on.”

“Trust me, Ethari, I don’t like it either. No one should live the way he does. Every little thing is picked apart, even his relationship with the King. No wonder he’s tried to keep a low profile since he entered the university. Yes, he lives in the lap of luxury and has never wanted for anything, but if that’s the price, I wouldn’t take it.”

Ethari kept an eye on the map as he hummed in agreement. “It’s coming up, get ready to turn left.”

Runaan moved to the left lane and turned on his blinker. “Got it. Now, if they refuse to let us in, I will run my blade through them until we get to the top floor.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m more serious than I am making cake for Rayla’s birthday.”

“Have you talked to Lain or Tiadrin?”

“No, and Rayla hasn’t either.”

“I wonder if they even know.”

Runaan was silent, his fingers minutely clenching the steering wheel. It bothered all of them that Rayla was not in contact with her parents. Lain and Tiadrin had missed far too much and communicated far too little. Perhaps, the honor of being part of the Dragon Guard came with a price far too steep for anyone with a family.

Runaan pulled in to the Xadia Dispatch office, a stylish building that obviously had some human influence if the giant windows and bright white walls with no greenery was any indication. Ethari gently squeeze Runaan’s hand before they parked. This was not going to be easy.

Getting to see the editor-in-chief was, shockingly, the easy part. The moment they stated they were the parents of the elf dating a human prince, the whole office seemed to be in an uproar. There were people coming up to them begging for the chance to interview Rayla. How on Earth any of this got so big so fast was beyond Ethari’s comprehension. It all seemed too fantastic and easy.

When Siobhan, a Tidebound elf, came into the editor-in-chief’s office, he realized just how easy their path had been so far. “I thank you for the opportunity, but I must decline,” came her even and slightly detached answer to their request.

Runaan clenched his fists again, though his face showed no sign of the turmoil Ethari could feel brewing in himself. “Why?”

Siobhan sighed. “The truth is, I don’t approve of their relationship. I don’t think I’ll be fair during the interview. I understand you want someone with integrity, but I’m not the person for the job.”

Ethari jumped in before Runaan could do further damage to the situation. “Then who do you recommend?”

“Everyone here is chomping at the bit for this opportunity.” A nonchalant shrug and a gesture towards the office accompanied her words.

“We don’t want just anyone. This is our niece. How this first interview goes is going to have a big impact on her life from now on. People will remember this. Who do you recommend?”

She looked down and shuffled through the list of reporters that the editor-in-chief had been so kind to give them. “None of these guys. Not her. Definitely not him; he has an anti-human agenda.” After a few minutes of this, she groaned. “It looks like I’m your only real bet. Everyone else has fudged interviews, has an anti-human stance, sensationalized something or other, or is just a bad reporter in general. This is…this is big and you need someone who isn’t going to treat it like a circus or an opportunity to spread their own agendas. I’ll do it, but I can’t promise anything. Once I go down there, I’m not going to hold back. I may very well insult your niece or her boyfriend. Are you alright with that?”

“Can’t you do this without your own bias?”

A snort and a head shake was her answer for a few moments. “See, everyone says they can, but no one does. We all come from places and experiences that have shaped us and our opinions. Emotions can run high during things like this. Not only that, but you have to understand that anyone who sees them is going to be judging something or other. They may judge Rayla’s clothes or Prince Callum’s knowledge on the sky arcanum. They could be judging if they sit too close to each other or not close enough. It’s going to happen and judgements can be placed in the opening and closing paragraphs that we are allowed to have. Not only that, but the editor-in-chief is able to make changes to fit their own rhetoric if they really want. It’s not ethical, but it can happen.

“But it’s even more than that. You said that you’ve met Prince Callum, right? Well, if it was as an introduction as her boyfriend, that means that this relationship is serious. It is possible that this could lead to marriage. And everyone is going to grab a hold on that. Your niece is going to be entering a world, perhaps until the day she dies, that is not as sparkly and shimmery as it appears. There is nothing like it in Moonshadow or Tidebound culture, not even Silvergrove, but I’ve been to a few events held on the border by the nobles of Katolis. It seems like they want for nothing, but they are held so strictly by decorum that any little thing that goes against it reflects not only on them, but on their families. And the world eats every little thing up and twists it until it’s something completely different.”

Ethari turned to Runaan, a tense look on his face. Runaan looked back and nodded, a silent agreement to whatever Ethari decided was best. Ethari sighed before turning to Siobhan. “We’ll take whatever you can give us. Just…try to be kind.”

Siobhan looked straight at them both, flickering her eyes between them. “I swear to be honest; nothing more nothing less.”

Runaan stood and crossed over to her, hand out. “Deal.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Harrow looked over at Ezran as they adjusted their clothes. The rest of the Pentarchy had called an emergency meeting following Callum and Rayla’s announcement. A part of Harrow hadn’t wanted Ezran to come. He knew that there was going to be a lot of tearing down of Amaya and Callum. Ezran had insisted, calling it his duty as the future king and as a member of their family. “Are you ready, Ezran?”

“I’m not. Are you?”

“I’m never ready for a meeting with the Pentarchy. Queen Aanya’s mothers were excellent queens and good people, but it’s not about that. You have to understand that every ruler in there is not just thinking about what they want. They also have to think about their people and how best to serve them. Because Katolis and Duren are the border to Xadia, we are in a unique position and we have to respect that we are a group of five kingdoms trying to find reasonable answers that all of us can live with. Not necessarily like, but live with.” Ezran nodded, still looking a little scared. “When my father took me to my first Pentarchy meeting, he told me that I didn’t have to say a word. I could simply be an observer. It’s up to you if you want to talk or if you want to listen.”

“What did you do?”

“I listened. But this is far more personal than talk about trade. This is about our family. I’m going to have a hard time holding my own tongue, so I’m not going to tell you to hold yours.”

A guard came in, looking annoyed as he saw the two before putting on a neutral face. “Your Majesty, Your Highness, it’s time.”

“And so, it begins.” They walked from Harrow’s room to the meeting room. There were two extra chairs, one for King Ahling’s son and heir and one for Ezran. Harrow stood in front of his throne and gestured for Ezran to stand with him. “We do not sit until everyone has come. King Ahling is a little older and his knee has started to give him trouble, so he is the only one allowed.”

The kings and queens slowly filtered in, Queen Aanya stood the tallest of them all despite her youth and short stature. Prince Kasef tried to stand proud and acted like he belonged there. Instead, he looked like a child that still didn’t know what he was doing. After their greetings, they all sat and looked straight at Harrow and Ezran. It was silent for several minutes, fidgeting galore among the normally to-the-point royals. Queen Aanya shrugged before standing. “No one else wants to breach the topic, so I’ll do it. King Harrow, Prince Ezran. It has come to our attention that Katolis has not only one, but two members of its royal family in relationships with elves. We understand that Katolis and Xadia share a border and its position makes this far more likely than say, Evenere having the same situation. However, it does not change the fact that Xadian influence could start seeping into Katolis and then make its way into the rest of the human kingdoms. In full-confidence, and as clear as possible, we would appreciate answers you can give that will let us know that Katolis still has the Pentarchy’s interests at heart.”

Harrow nodded and turned to the others. “Anyone else have anything they would like to add to the matter?”

King Florian stood up, his arms behind his back. “Yes. Your step-son, Prince Callum, already has too much influence as a member of the royal family and his efforts in becoming an archmage without dark magic cannot be replicated. He continues to spout nonsense about how he accessed sky magic and it has led to nothing. Moonshadow elves can cast illusions, can they not? How does even he know that it’s not all a ploy to get him to the border and this Rayla isn’t there to influence him?”

Harrow waited for someone else to speak up, but the rest of the room fell silent. He stood, letting pride for Callum’s accomplishments seep into his voice. “If I may, I would first like to address my son, Callum. Callum unlocked the sky arcanum by chance when he was seventeen. He had been practicing with a primal stone and got very good very fast. He had grown up around dark magic due to my former councilor, Viren, and his former girlfriend is a dark mage herself. My departed wife, his mother, Sarai, had detested dark magic and her influence caused him to reject it and call it what it is; a short-cut that takes lives that are not the caster’s to give. Viren launched an attack at the castle and Callum had no choice but to break the primal stone to protect Ezran. In a moment of necessity, he took away his one shot at continuing to do magic.

“Viren had sent shadow wolves to in revenge the next night, attacking Callum in his sleep. My son fought the dark magic in him for several days. When he awoke, he talked about sails, and wings, and how the wind and sky relate to everything. I couldn’t understand what he meant, but he drew a rune and used ‘aspiro’ without the primal stone. You’re right, Callum can’t fully explain to anyone exactly what he has done or how he has done it, but he is making efforts to. He’s trying to unlock at least one other arcana so he can. You must all remember; my son is a nineteen-year-old young man who is still learning about himself and the part he plays in Katolis now that he is no longer a child. He is doing his best and I believe he will get there.”

“And what of my second question? How do you know this isn’t all an illusion?”

“Moonshadow elves cannot hold an illusion for more than two years on this grand of a scale. It would be possible if Callum wore something imbued with Moon magic or had a rune forcibly put on him. We already checked for those possibilities. When Callum came with me to visit you two years ago, Queen Fereeda, that was because it was going to take him as far away from the border as we could get. He was stripped of his clothes and checked by healers for any signs of runes, unusual markings, or something lying under his skin. He was then made to replicate every spell he had learned since he began using the primal stone. Callum was still capable of doing magic to the exact same degree he was when we were in the castle back in Katolis. I understand your stance, which is why we had it done in the first place. We couldn’t be too careful, because Viren could have made an illusion as well and was trying to take control of the Pentarchy through Callum.”

King Florian nodded his assent, clearly placated for the moment. Queen Fereeda stood, locking eyes with Harrow. “I remember that trip. It is how King Harrow says it is. Prince Callum spent much of his time on the furthest possible reaches away from Xadia. He also told my own mages to stop using dark magic and try to use the sky arcanum. There was no result. Should my mages have been infected with dark magic, King Harrow? Or perhaps breaking a primal stone is the answer?”

“I can’t answer that question for you. Neither can Callum.”

“It’s been long enough,” the frustration they all probably felt was clear in Fareeda’s voice. “He should have an answer. I have heard rumors that he has officially been labelled as a potential threat to Xadia. My mages think he is a threat to humans. Why should we believe he isn’t? I understand that he is your son, so I ask you not to think of him as your child, but as a king would his subject.”

Harrow leaned back, stroking his chin. Ezran was practically humming with nervous energy, but Harrow saw that there was so much understanding brewing within him. Ezran would make a good king if he continued to have his good heart and understanding nature. “I’m not discrediting your stance, Queen Fereeda, but I must ask: does any of this have to do with the fact that Callum does not come from nobility? It’s not a secret that his mother was from a military family and his father was a poor artist. And this would not be the first time someone has given Callum less credence because of his parentage. Would you trust him more if he was of my blood?”

Queen Fereeda looked like she wanted to say ‘no’, but quickly stopped herself. There was silence until Prince Kasef stood up. “With all due respect to Your Majesties, may I interject?” Harrow nodded his assent with the others. Prince Kasef was not known for being sharp and was more well-known for his hot-headed behavior. But, the point of these meetings was to give everyone a chance to say their peace. “I would trust him more if he was of your blood, King Harrow. He has no real ties to you beyond his mother’s marriage and she passed long ago. He could very well be conspiring with the elves in Xadia and has been this whole time. As for the time in Evenere, what if there was a Moonshadow elf on board who cast an illusion on everyone? Frankly, your step-son shouldn’t have even been in the palace all these years to start with.”

Harrow was about to give a rebuttal before Ezran stood up. “With all due respect Your Majesties, I would like to say something on my family’s behalf.” The nods of assent were all Ezran needed, but he still looked to Harrow for permission. Harrow gave him an encouraging smile. “You say that Callum has no ties to our father. That’s not true. Callum is my half-brother, we share the same mother. His first tie to our father is through me. His second is through our mother, who loved our father and stood by him. His third tie is through the official adoption that took place a mere month after our parents were married. His fourth tie is the familial bond he and our father share, even if it is not by blood. His fifth is through Callum’s loyalty not only to our family, but to Katolis as a whole. I get what you’re saying, but I respectfully disagree. Callum would never act against our father, the only father Callum has ever really known.

“Questioning Callum’s loyalty to the good of Katolis, of human-kind, and all of the efforts our father and mother made is the same as asking anyone else here if they are loyal to the Pentarchy. As for the magic, I understand what Callum says when he talks about it. But I also know Callum better than anyone. There is a method to what he says. Perhaps that time when he was free from all distractions was what was needed for him to understand how it works and there are distractions everywhere now that he’s awake. Everyone is pulling him in a million directions and demanding answers. And when he gives them, they aren’t good enough. He hasn’t even graduated or been able to use any other primal magic. Give him time; he’s getting better at explaining it. This is new territory for the world, not just him. I would never go up to you, Prince Kasef, and demand to know exactly why horses in your country are paler and taller than most in Katolis without giving you time to do your research. And even then, it’s not equivalent. That research has already been done; this hasn’t.”

Kasef glared at Ezran before giving a stiff nod, finally sitting back in his chair besides his father’s throne. Instead of being upset, King Ahling laughed. “Well said, Prince Ezran. Between you and Queen Aanya, I feel like the Pentarchy is going to be in good hands.” Harrow noticed Kasef grit his teeth a bit at the praise.

“Thank you, King Ahling. I will admit that it is selfish of me to want to protect Callum. He isn’t just my brother. He’s my best friend and the one person I’ve always turned to when I’m scared, nervous, or simply so happy I could burst. We are a pair and, when I take the throne, I plan to have him right by my side. There is no one else I trust with my life more. He gave up magic, his destiny, to save my life without a second thought. That speaks more for his character and his devotion to peace and our family than anything I could ever say in this room.”

Queen Aanya stood, slowly looking around the room. “If everyone is satisfied with those answers, then I must ask that we turn to the subject of General Amaya and General Janai’s upcoming nuptials.”

Kasef stood up quickly, taking a step towards Aanya. “Why are you the one in charge?”

Aanya raised a brow before slowly looking Kasef up and down. It was painfully clear just how unimpressed she was by his actions. She tilted her chin up and met Kasef’s eyes. “Because I’m the one that called this meeting. My people have benefited from Katolis’ help, but I will not pick a side based on that. I will also not stand back and let a war happen if I can help it. Technically, our war with Xadia has been at a standstill for generations. Battles have not been fought, few killings have been done in revenge, and the Dragon King, as well as the royalty of the Pentarchy, have not been assassinated by either side. I don’t know what’s going on in Katolis, nor do I understand Prince Callum’s ability to use magic, but I do know that I want peace. My people want peace. If Katolis already has two members of their royal family in relationships with elves, then they are closer to reaching an understanding with Xadia then the rest of us. I want answers first, but I would not be opposed to standing behind Katolis and King Harrow if it meant even a simple alliance. We must look past our prejudices and all the hatred that has been spread throughout the centuries and realize that all of this could finally come to an end.”

Kasef looked at Aanya and then at Ezran. “What of dark magic? The elves will not stand down until humans have stopped using it. We will not ask our mages to stop using our best means of protection!”

Aanya snorted before raising a brow. “That’s the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard you said, Prince Kasef. My mages also do not want to give up dark magic, but Prince Callum’s abilities give us hope. IF he can explain it and it can be replicated, they are willing to give up dark magic. Only a fool ignores the damage dark magic does to the mind and body. If they aren’t willing to use primal magic and the elves are willing to come to an understanding, then they will no longer be under my protection. King Harrow, you are the most aware of the dangers dark magic presents. Please, share your thoughts.”

Harrow waited for Ezran, Kasef, and Aanya to sit before standing. King Ahling was right about Ezran and Aanya, but something about Kasef was not sitting right with Harrow. ‘Maybe he’s trying to prove he can be king when his father dies.’ “You all know the story of how we saved Duren from famine using dark magic. You also know that that story ends with the Queens of Duren and my wife’s deaths. After that day, Viren, my most trusted advisor at the time, continued to offer ‘creative’ solutions using dark magic. I picked and chose which ones to use, but I began to see what my wife had always seen.

“It was starting to twist him and we relied too heavily on magic instead of coming to a decision sooner. Queen Aanya, I apologize for what happened to your mothers. The blame for that day rests just as squarely on my shoulders as it does Viren’s. He suggested it, but I chose to do it. Sometimes it is tempting and there is no right answer. I can’t tell you what to do concerning your mages or dark magic. What I can tell you is that I no longer want it in my kingdom. The only person who is legally allowed to perform dark magic, currently, is the Lady Claudia because she uses it to keep her brother walking. Even then, my son is making efforts for her to discontinue her use of dark magic and she knows that if she uses it for any other purposes, she will lose my support.”

Everyone seemed satisfied with his answer, but Harrow wanted to nip the issue with Amaya and Janai in the bud. “As for General Amaya and the General Janai; they have both spent a lot of time on the border. Through peace talks and mutual respect due to their combat skills, a friendship was formed. Both Amaya and General Janai are private people and have kept some information to themselves, but I have no reason to believe that it is part of some plot to invade Katolis. General Janai has already come to Katolis and has been respectful, kind, and understanding. The Sunfire elves, due to Janai’s high position in their military and her sister’s position as leader at Lux Aurea, have agreed to pushing peace talks beyond the border and as deep into Xadia as possible.”

Aanya nodded. “Anyone else have any other matters?”

King Ahling raised his hand. “I, personally, am all for peace and for the potential future that has been presented to us. King Harrow, my one concern is still your step-son. I respect Prince Callum. He has been quite pleasant, if not quiet, every time I have met him. He understands that Prince Ezran is your heir and has no desire to go above his station.” Harrow gritted his teeth a bit. He knew that him being king was a mere accident of fate. Callum was just as much the future of Katolis as Ezran and it seemed like the world preferred to imagine Callum as a potential usurper or as a shadow. He had taught his sons that they were no better than anyone else because of their stations and to use their stations to help make the world into a better place. Perhaps, the rest of the Pentarchy needed the same lesson. “He needs to either explain the sky arcanum, and human mages need results, or he needs to unlock another and explain that one. Otherwise, I’m going to have to wonder if all of it is an illusion or a carefully crafted ruse. As to how it’s been going on so long, I’m not sure.”

Harrow locked eyes with all of the rulers, paying careful attention to Prince Kasef and Queen Aanya. He would need to talk to Kasef as soon as possible. “I understand and will pass on the message. When I have an answer, I will be sure to call the Pentarchy to meet. Until then, please have faith in my son’s efforts.”

A call to lunch led everyone to leave the hall. Harrow quickly called for Kasef, causing him to stall. “Yes, King Harrow?” His voice was taut and his jaw squared.

“Prince Kasef, I noticed you were upset with your father’s praising of Ezran and Aanya. You must understand, Queen Aanya needs positive influence from the rest of the Pentarchy. She is surrounded by sycophants who would destroy Duren if she let them. It does her good to hear from her peers that she is doing well. As for my son, it’s his first meeting here. I’m quite proud that he has spoken well, but you have spoken well yourself.”

“For a spoiled brat? I know how everyone sees me. I won’t deny, I’m not as intelligent or strategic as Queen Aanya and speaking like Prince Ezran does not come easily to me. My father admires both of them, and your other son, greatly. The last time he came back from Katolis, all he could talk about was the great future mage, Prince Callum, and how Prince Ezran will never have to worry about the same things Queen Aanya did as long as Prince Callum is around. Even if he’s nothing more than a step-prince.” That last word was sneered as Kasef made full eye-contact with Harrow. He must have known how it upset Harrow to hear that word. Yes, Callum was his step-son, but Callum was his son in his heart. He never appreciated the term ‘step-prince’ and had frequently tried to quash it. Unfortunately, the press got wind of it and refused to let it go.

“My sons will not follow my path and are already questioning what is thought to be truth. I admire them myself. Prince Kasef, please, be wary of those who try to whisper in your ear and tell you what the truth is with no evidence.” Harrow gave a quick bow to Kasef and left to join his son and Queen Aanya for lunch. He needed to be around those who saw reason after that headache.

Chapter Text

“Look over here, Ms. Rayla.  There we go.  Hands on hips…no, not like that.  Can you be a bit more feminine?”  Rayla was going to kill this photographer.  The journalist, Danika from the ‘Katolis Sun’, interviewing her had orders to bring him along and Callum had accepted for her as long as Rayla felt comfortable.  Now, Rayla was feeling murderous.

Rayla leveled him with her best impersonation of Runaan.  “Aye.  In a very feminine manner, I will cut off your end fingers and toes and serve them to you on a nice plate.”  The photograph gulped and looked over at Callum in a desperate plea.

Callum shrugged his shoulders.  “You were pretty rude just now.  You’d be lucky if that’s all she did, considering she didn’t want you here in the first place.  I suggest you take the photos she gives and run with it.”  The photographer than looked over at Danika in a pleading manner.  She simply shrugged her shoulders and continued going through her notes.

The photographer took a few more shots and quickly put his things away.  “Can I wait in the car, Ms. Danika?”  She waved him off and he booked it out of the apartment.

Danika looked up at Rayla and smiled, gesturing for Rayla to sit down across from her.  “Alright, Ms. Rayla.  We can do this several ways: Prince Callum can be in the room and occasionally talk, he can be here and not say a word, or he can leave the room altogether.  We can also simply record this, which will free up my hands, if you’re more comfortable.  When I interviewed Queen Sarai about seventeen years ago, she insisted on having a plate of jelly tarts so she could have something sweet while she gathered her thoughts.”

Callum perked up at the mention of his mother.  “Mom had the biggest sweet tooth.  I’ve already got something planned.”

A raised brow and a soft chuckle came out of both Danika and Rayla.  “Oh?  Please, Prince Callum.”  Callum went into the fridge and pulled out a bowl of cut up fruit with Earthblood honey.  The moment Rayla saw the bowl’s blue and green colors, she roared with laughter.  “Is there something I should know?”

“Rayla has been giving me a hard time about keeping too much fruit in this bowl.  I tell her it’s for art, but that is not an acceptable answer.”

Rayla shook her head before popping an apple in her mouth.  “I’m not made of Earthblood honey, Callum.  If you keep using it, I’m going to have to ration it.”

“I will not go back to Duren honey while I have access to this.”  Rayla rolled her eyes before lightly pushing Callum’s shoulder.  He jokingly rubbed his shoulder; trying to fake a wince but his smile was far too wide.  “Such violence over honey.”

“When I go back for break, I’ll be sure to put in an order for a crate.”  Callum smirked before lightly kissing her cheek.  “Yeah, yeah.  You’re with me for the honey at this point.”

“You’re with me for the apartment.  Fair is fair.”

“I’m not with you for the apartment.  I’m with you for the bathtub.”  Danika lightly coughed into her hand to bring their attention back to the matter at hand.  “Sorry.  We get carried away.”

Danika shook her head and smiled.  She was about Runaan’s age with short blonde hair and brown eyes.  “It’s fine.  It’s nice to see you two so in love.  I usually don’t do these kinds of pieces anymore, honestly.  The main reason why I’m here is because King Harrow asked for me specifically.  He remembered my interview with the late queen and he said he didn’t want anyone else.”  There was a sad smile as she took a sip of the water Callum had given her earlier.  “Shall we begin?”

“Yeah.  It’s up to you if you want to take notes or not.  As for Callum, I would prefer if he stays here.  If he feels the need to talk, he can, but he can also be silent.”  Callum nodded and squeezed her hand as they settled into the couch.  The fruit was on the table in front of them with a fork and plate. 

Danika turned to Rayla fully and uncapped her pen before turning on her recorder.  “Alright.  First things first; Ms. Rayla, how did you and Prince Callum meet?”

“At the University, everyone is required to take at least one course on magic theory.  I didn’t take it my first year and it was the first class Callum took when he entered.  He was sitting in the back, already nervous and I came in about a minute late.  I sat next to him and we got paired up for the whole semester.”

“You had seating charts?”

Rayla scrunched up her face a bit.  “No, the teacher just wanted us to work with people from different backgrounds to do projects on theory, write papers, and study with.  It was just luck that we got matched up.”

“I see.  I assume that’s actually common practice here.”  Callum and Rayla both nodded at her assumption.  “And when did it become more than study buddies?”

Rayla turned to Callum, noticing the slight gulp he took.  This was something that they didn’t feel comfortable telling people outside their friends and family.  Neither of them wanted anyone to get the wrong idea of just how their relationship progressed or think less of it.  Callum gave a slight nod before squeezing her hand again.  “We fell into a relationship, honestly.  I didn’t want to deal with teasing if we went to my dorm and he didn’t want to deal with the harassment if we went to the library.  We agreed to meet up at his apartment and, for the first few weeks, it was strictly studying.  We kept it professional and focused on our school work.  I started to bring my other books over and we began to study for all our classes together.  I corrected his papers and he went through my homework.

“Then Callum started having food delivered because I was staying later and later.  Eventually, we cooked dinner together because we were both sick of take-out and I was going to scream if I had cafeteria food again.  And then we watched a few movies together on his TV after we had to watch a documentary for our theory class.  Callum and I were texting every day and making plans for me to go over and talk or he wanted to use me as a model for his drawings.  We were sitting on a couch after maybe five and a half months,” Rayla scrunched her face up a bit as she mentally calculated the timeline.  Close enough, she thought.  “And we started kissing.  The whole thing felt completely natural, like we had been in a relationship the whole time.  A month later, we talked about being exclusive and doing little dates at his apartment.  To say when we started dating would be implying that Callum and I even know when it became more than studying.”

Danika smiled kindly.  “And you don’t?”

“No.  We’ve tried to pinpoint when it started, but the closest we get is the day we watched the documentary.  I don’t think it really matters how our relationship started.  What matters is that we’ve decided to stay in it despite all the barriers that come with a relationship like our’s.  I know a lot of people place importance on anniversaries or first dates, but I can’t find it in myself to care about the when or how it happened.  I’m just happy it did.”  Callum picked up her hand and lightly kissed her fingertips.  “He’s a hopeless romantic but so awkward.  It’s the strangest combination.”

Danika laughed at Callum’s put-out expression.  “I see.  It may not be the most romantic way to start a relationship, but you are right, Ms. Rayla.  It doesn’t matter how it started if the two of you don’t think it does.  What matters is that you’ve been together for more than a year and became public only two weeks ago.”

“Yeah, we did.”

“How do you feel about going public?”

Rayla had thought she was ready for this question.  She was not.  She very much was not.  She picked up the plate and grabbed a few pieces of fruit, including a moonberry, and began to slowly chew them.  She half expected Danika to sigh or be upset.  Instead, she was going through the notes she had just taken and was looking at her other prepared questions.  Callum snuck an apple from the bowl and looked pensive.  “We…I didn’t care much for going public.  I’m not with Callum because he’s a prince.  I’m with him because I love him.  I don’t come from a big city or the Lux Aurea.  My hometown, Silvergrove, is quite small.  Everyone knows everyone by the time you’re twenty.  In a way, going public is that on a much, much larger scale.  But I don’t know the people who are demanding information about me.  I don’t know why they want to know when my birthday is or why I wore black over purple three days ago.  Being with Callum means being in the public eye and I can’t separate the two, no matter how much I wish I could.  So, I don’t feel good about it.  But it’s necessary if I want us to stay together.”

Callum patted her hand and leaned into her ear.  “Good answer.”

“Thanks.  Claudia said to just speak our truth, right?”

“Right.”

Danika wrote down Rayla’s answer and took a moment to drink her water.  “That was actually quite similar to how Queen Sarai felt when I interviewed her.  She was more used to the public eye than you were, Ms. Rayla, but being married to a king is vastly different than being a general.  It’s a sacrifice you make when you agree to be with someone with that kind of status.  On a related note, how would you feel about taking one of your breaks in Katolis?  Maybe stay in the capital.”

“We have discussed that with King Harrow.  He’s not in any rush to introduce me to the nobility.  He would rather meet me in person first and make sure we ease into this new chapter in our relationship.  King Harrow is quite excited to meet my uncles and isn’t opposed to us putting off my introduction to Katolis high society until Callum’s family has officially met mine.  I’m not against spending time in Katolis, but I agree with His Majesty.  A big change has just taken place in my life and I need time to adjust before an even bigger one comes.”

“You were prepared for it, though?”

“No, we weren’t.  We were supposed to introduce ourselves to our families and, in a few months, hold hands on campus and go from there.  Let people believe that it just happened until we were ready to talk.”

“And what changed?”

“Someone from my hometown found out.  He told everyone he knew after we told Callum’s family and it immediately snowballed.  We didn’t get a say in how this played out.  There was no option for us to wait until we were ready or to have time to breathe after meeting our families.”

“I’m sorry about that.  They certainly don’t sound like a very good friend.  How did they find out?”

“Thank you and he’s not my friend.  Never has been and never will be.  He texted me and I wasn’t answering back.  He said he had a feeling something was going on between me and Callum and forced Callum’s friend to take him to the apartment.  He found out the truth and agreed to wait until our families were told, but not a moment more.  He kept his word, but the whole thing was out of jealousy and pettiness.”  Rayla could taste the bitterness in her voice.  She had refused to even look at Bandlr since their shared class the morning after she and Callum had woken up to all those texts and emails.  It felt like a lifetime ago when she had merely tolerated him.  Now, hearing his voice made her leave the room. 

“Ex-boyfriend?”

Rayla and Callum both snorted at that.  “He wishes.”

Danika nodded and let the matter rest.  “Sadly, jealousy and pettiness can make people do things that affect others for the rest of their lives.  You mentioned that you didn’t understand why someone would need to know about why you would wear a certain color.  Are you interested in fashion at all?”

“No.  Moonshadow elf culture is more about oaths and practicality.  I’ve heard girls talk about different kinds of styles and most of them look the same to me.  Different lengths and fabrics, but I couldn’t tell you anything more.  I think that’s what I’m most worried about; nobility and royalty care about being dressed a certain way and different events call for different things.  I have had one dress for three years and I’ve only worn it twice.”

“It will definitely come as a shock when you see the ever-revolving wardrobe that is high society in the Pentarchy.  It is considered low-class to wear the same outfit in public twice.  Especially at an event.”

“And I don’t understand that.  That money could go to other things, like programs to help the sick or be used for more places like the University.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in Callum’s world, but I wouldn’t mind wearing the same dress for a whole year if I knew the money was going to do the world some good.”

“You sound quite proud of the University.  How did you come to enter?”

Rayla groaned.  “All children of the Dragon Guard, those who protect the Dragon King Azymondeus, were ordered to come to the University when they came of age, as a sign of Xadia being willing to make steps towards peace with the Pentarchy.  Both of my parents are members of the Dragon Guard, so I was doubly required to come.  I’m proud to be here because it’s an opportunity for humans and elves to find some middle ground.  There’s no special treatment for elves or humans.  We’re all required to take the same classes with a mix of elf and human professors.  All classes and dorms are blended and you can’t go anywhere without seeing an elf in one corner and a human in the other.”

“There must be a lot of friendships that cross the border, too, then.”

“Not really.  We tend to stick to who we know.  Humans stay with humans, Moonshadow elves with Moonshadow elves, and so on.  There have only been two other elf-human couples on campus, but they both came out when Callum and I’s relationship became world news.”

“So you two might have helped them feel comfortable enough to be open about their own relationships?”

“Maybe?  General Amaya and General Janai are getting married.  I think that’s a bit more impressive than me and Callum.”

Callum nodded his head.  “Agreed.”

Danika bit her lip and looked between the two.  “If I may, it is still quite impressive.  While it is by marriage and adoption, you are still a prince, Your Highness.  General Amaya is a general first and a member of the royal family second, in the public’s eyes.  You have been officially adopted by King Harrow while she is his in-law.  There is a difference.”

Callum opened and closed his mouth before turning to Rayla.  She nodded her head.  “I don’t think of it like that.  General Amaya was my mom’s sister.  Harrow is my step-dad and Ezran is my half-brother.  Both my father and mother died when I was young and Ezran was only a baby when Mom was killed.  I understand that there is a difference in how the public looks at us and high society has different rules for each of us.  As far as I’m concerned, the four of us are a family.  The only family Ezran and I have ever really known.  The only memory I have of my father is the day he left for the job where he had his accident.  He was excited and showed me his drawings for the ceiling.  I remember him asking me what colors to use and saying I had a good eye for art.  It’s part of the reason why I’ve gravitated to drawing over the years.

“I have more memories of Mom.  I know she was a warrior, but I mostly remember how she was full of compassion and love.  She didn’t like fighting for no reason and questioned anything that didn’t feel right to her.  She was uncomfortable in the spotlight that came with being a queen and tried to be more in the shadows.  She would have been proud of the University and happy for me and Rayla and Aunt Amaya and Janai.”

“Thank you, Prince Callum.  Now, Ms. Rayla, how did you two keep your relationship a secret for so long?”

Rayla had been eating more fruit in an attempt to pretend the interview would never go back to her.  ‘Dammit.’  She quickly swallowed before putting her plate back on the table.  “We purposely picked classes that would either be similar or what we would both be interested in taking.  We’ve shared at least one class every semester so I would have an excuse to keep going to his place.  If anyone asked, we would brush it off as coincidence.  It’s mostly been more classes on magic, but we shared one math class.”

“And that was perfectly fine with you?  Magic is quite geared towards Prince Callum’s interests.”

Rayla gave a detached shrug.  “I’m interested enough in magic.  Callum has been having issues explaining his ability to use the Sky arcanum and I hoped that me taking those classes would help.  They have not.”

“There have been rumors that he can’t put it into words properly.”

“He’s getting close.”

Callum nudged Rayla a bit.  She rolled her eyes before gesturing for him to interject.  “I understand how I did it.  It’s about recognizing that the wind and the sky is part of everything.  But then you think about the bigger picture and how you’re the little things, too.  And the wind is part of you and goes through you.  I was completely blacked out, but I felt my body and my mind change.  Like everything clicked.”

Danika had nodded along.  “OK, then how do you unlock the arcanum?”

“That’s how you do it.”

“By being knocked out?”  Her tone was incredulous, but she looked eager to understand.

“No, no.  By recognizing the wind and the sky for what they are to the world and to you.  Sure, you’ll need to make sure there are zero distractions and you’ll need to make peace with the fact that everything is so much bigger and smaller than you ever imagined.  It’s like sails.  You need the sail to move through the water but you can’t control the wind.  You are the sail.”

Rayla interjected as she watched the light of understanding slowly leave Danika’s eyes.  “Trust me, this is a lot more concise than Callum’s been.  The problem is that humans have tried and they can’t make it work for them.  There is something he did that he can’t explain yet and that’s why it’s still an issue.  He also destroyed a sky primal stone so the magic might have made its way inside of him.”

Callum quickly reached for Danika’s notepad.  “Don’t publish that.  Primal stones are so rare and people might start destroying them in an effort to use magic without them.  I’m not saying that’s not part of how I got the arcanum to unlock.  It’s entirely possible.  I just want to see if there’s a way to do this without breaking precious magical artifacts.  That’s part of why I’m trying to learn other forms of primal magic.  If I can, without breaking any other stones, maybe it had nothing to do with the primal stone.”

Danika looked closely at both Callum and Rayla.  “I will keep it in my notes but won’t publish it.  I understand your point and agree with you, Prince Callum.  However, it will come with a price.  The moment you find out how you managed to unlock the arcanum, and can explain it, you will contact me to do another interview.  If it is because of the primal stone, I will publish that you mentioned it today as a potential theory.”

“Deal.  Thank you for understanding.”

She smiled before going through her notes again.  “I have one last question for Ms. Rayla and we can call it a day.”  Rayla immediately perked up.  ‘YES!’  “Do you have anything to say on elf-human relations or Xadian politics dealing with the University?” ‘NOOO!’  “Ms. Rayla?”

“Um, no?”

“Is that a question?”

“Nobody wants my honest opinion on this.”  ‘Please agree, please agree, please agree.’

“I think there are people who do,” was the response accompanied by a kind smile and understanding gaze.

May the Moon Nexus itself swallow everything whole!’  “I respect King Azymondeus and King Harrow’s efforts and agree with the late Queen Sarai.  Peace is possible. But, as long as dark magic is used, I don’t think it will come.  It’s the whole reason that Sol Regem told humans to leave Xadia in the first place. Dark magic involves taking lives and it twists it’s users into someone they aren’t.  It’s dangerous.  Elves aren’t opposed to humans using primal stones.  Some of us are excited for what Callum can do even though others think he’s a threat to Xadia.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but I want to believe that peace is possible in my lifetime.  And if not mine, well, then in my children’s at the latest.”

“Alright.  I think I’ve got everything I need.”  Danika gathered her notes and turned off her recorder.  Standing, she lightly bowed to Callum and inclined her head to Rayla.  “Thank you both for this opportunity.  I’ll be sure to send a copy of the paper when it’s published.”

Rayla nodded, grateful when Callum was the one who led Danika to the door.  They exchanged contact information while Rayla watched from the coach.  She was exhausted from just talking and it drove her crazy.  She needed to get up and run or lift something or…Rayla watched as Callum came back and bent over her to grab the bowl.  “Hey, Callum,” she said softly.

“Yeah?” he whispered back.

“Leave it.  I got some stress to work out.”

“You wanna go for a run?”

Rayla watched him stand back up, bowl already in hand as he went to go wash it.  “Not quite.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Rayla stood up to go stand next to him at the running sink.  She turned the water off and gently took the bowl and sponge from his hands.  She raised her eyes to look into his, biting her lip a bit.  “You took charge during that interview.  You seemed very…in control.”  She slowly ran a hand up his arm.  He was beginning to show the signs of muscle now that he worked out with her in public every other day. 

Callum gulped.  “Did you like that?”

“Yeah, I did.  Having you support me while also having the confidence to tell her not to publish something...well,” she slowly got on her tiptoes until she was just a breath away from his lips.  “It was a bit of a turn-on”

“Are you trying to seduce me?”  he tried to give her a goofy grin but his pupils had blown wide.  His voice was as husky as her’s now, one hand grabbing at her hip and making slow circles with his thumb.

“I don’t try, Your Highness.  I succeed.”  Rayla closed the space between them, groaning as his tongue quickly invaded her mouth.  He tasted sweet from the honey and fruit they had eaten.  As Callum picked her up and proceeded to place her on the counter, she couldn’t help feeling that, maybe, if this was her reward afterwards, an interview or two was worth it.      

Chapter Text

Siobhan rolled her shoulders back as she looked at the fancy apartment complex.  It had unnecessary marble columns and was as white as snow.  Ivy was growing up alone the building, along with some kind of moss.  Like the rest of the border town, it was trying to be a cross between Xadian aesthetic and Pentarchy architecture, though this one was closer to Duren’s style than Katolian.  Her photographer had come yesterday and was already on his way back to Xadia, complaining that the human prince had been there the entire time.  Apparently Rayla hadn’t been comfortable with the photo shoot and had demanded Callum be present from start to finish.  To Siobhan, it didn’t matter, but the photographer had always been a pain in her ass and wanted his way.  It’s why they no longer worked on the same project at the same time despite the high demand for their work.

Let’s just get this over with,’ she sighed.  She truly didn’t know why she agreed to do this.  She should have just kept her mouth shut when talking to Rayla’s adoptive fathers.  Would have been less hassle than driving out to the University and having to listen to two inexperienced young adults talk about how all they need is love or some such nonsense.  They would need more than that to survive the coming storm.

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Callum laid a gentle kiss on Rayla’s forehead, pleased at the soft sigh she let out.  They were currently working on their magical theory study guide while Rayla slowly drank her morning tea.  Rayla spent half the time rolling her eyes at what, to her, was an incredibly basic concept while Callum was geeking out at the fact that Skywing elves could make wings.  WINGS!  Maybe he could have some, too.  “Do you think Ibis will teach me?  Lujanne said he is one of the few who can this close to the border.”

Rayla shrugged.  “Who knows.  Just gotta ask.”  Callum watched Rayla look over at the kitchen clock with an anxious grimace.  The reporter from Xadia was supposed to be at the apartment any minute and Rayla was stilled pissed from the photoshoot yesterday.  The photographer had asked Callum to leave who knows how many times and had spent half the time asking why someone of Rayla’s pedigree and upbringing would stoop so low as to date a human.  Callum had had to stop Rayla from physically attacking the photographer at least twice.  He almost let her kill the photographer when, right before the guy left, he told Rayla the name of his hotel and to ‘call him if she wants actual satisfaction’.  “I don’t wanna do this.”

Callum leaned his forehead into her shoulder, gently nuzzling her collarbone.  “I know.”

“Danika was so pleasant, I thought this wouldn’t be so bad.  But the tabloids…”

Wincing, Callum hissed.  The tabloids only had rumors to go off of, but they had hung on to every last morsel they could sink their teeth into.  That their relationship was purely physical, that Rayla was secretly pregnant and that’s why they had come out of hiding now, and, worst of all, that all of this was a cover for some secret arranged marriage between Katolis and Xadia.  Just the fact that they even mentioned ‘arranged marriages’ told Callum the tabloids had nothing.  Those had been outlawed in Katolis for generations and Moonshadow hierarchy was fluid enough where they wouldn’t even matter.   

It mattered to Rayla, though.  It proved that people were talking about her without caring who she was.  Claudia and Soren had bought copies and invited the two to their apartment to roast marshmallows.  Instead of reading the tabloids, Soren had built a firepit in the lot next to the apartment complex and used the tabloids as kindling.  Those were the best s’mores Callum had ever had.  Rayla had pretended to be over the whole thing, but hugged Soren and Claudia when they left. 

“Callum, can we just not do this?”

Callum turned to look her in the eyes.  Rayla was letting her guard down and it was not nearly as satisfactory as it usually was.  Usually, she was opening up to him and he got to see who she was under all the swagger she wore as a form of armor.  This, however, was not the same thing.  It was more like her armor had been stripped away and she was bare for the world to see.  “I’ll send her away if you really want me to.  You won’t even have to talk to her.”

Rayla smiled.  “Thank you.”  Callum leaned in to place a gentle kiss on her lips.  Rayla quickly grabbed his shoulder and pulled him closer.  A knock on the door caused Callum to pull away.  Rayla groaned, resting her head on his shoulder.  “I’ll take care of it.”  Callum got up, heading to the door.  When he opened it, he saw a Tidebound elf with skin the color of pink coral that he had only ever seen in pictures.  Her eyes were such a startling blue he was immediately reminded of Ezran.  “Siobhan, I presume.”

The woman nodded.  “Yeah.”  She tried to look past him, most likely to find the woman of the hour herself.  “Will you not let me in, Your Highness?”  Her brow was raised, staring him down as he made sure to keep his body between her and the rest of his apartment.

“You know, your photographer was really rude yesterday.  He even propositioned my girlfriend.  Rayla doesn’t want to do this interview anymore.”

Siobhan pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Look, I’m sorry about him.  He’s a total prick, but I’m not responsible for him or his behavior.  If you and Ms. Rayla want to file a complaint, you’ll have to talk to the paper.”

Callum shook his head.  “We’re not blaming you.  I’m saying my girlfriend doesn’t want to do the interview anymore.  We’re sorry for wasting your time.”

Siobhan looked straight into his eyes.  “Are you her keeper?  Her knight in shining armor?  You humans are obsessed with those love stories.  I can’t go back to Xadia without getting this interview.  Her uncles chose me for a reason.  It’s not going to be better in a few weeks when some else from the paper comes in.”

Callum nodded, scrunching his mouth.  “I know that.  I’ve dealt with this kind of thing for a long time.  I’m not her keeper, I’m her boyfriend.  My job is making sure she’s comfortable and feels safe.”

“She’s a Moonshadow assassin.  She can take care of herself.”

“I never said she couldn’t.”

“Can you please just ask her to reconsider?”  Siobhan closed her eyes in clear agitation.  “My boss will be pissed if I don’t get this interview taken care of.  As for the photographer, I’ll rip his balls off myself if it will make Ms. Rayla willing to do the interview.”

Sighing, Callum nodded.  “I’ll talk to her.  Wait here.”  Siobhan rolled her eyes as he closed the door on her.  Callum was about to head back to the kitchen when he saw Rayla standing behind him.  “Ray?”  She looked down at the floor, her arms folded like she was trying to retreat into herself. 

“She’s right.  The next person might be worse.  I got a text from Ethari.  Apparently, everyone sucks in this business.”

“They do.  There’s a reason why we’ve been so picky when picking people for you.”  Callum brushed his fingers along her jaw before lightly brushing the mark under her eye.  She raised her head, but her eyes were still downcast.  “You don’t have to do this.  We can wait for someone else.”

A soft headshake and her hand cupping his was what he got for a few moments.  “Let’s just do this.  She’s right, it’s not her fault the photographer was a jerk.”

“Then, let’s do it.  I’ll be right here the whole time.”

“OK.  Can we order in for dinner?  I don’t really feel like going anywhere today.”

“Of course.”  Rayla finally looked up at him, giving him a weak smile.  She headed back the kitchen, picking up her mug and chugging down her morning tea.  She scrunched up her face in agitation.  “If it tastes so bad, why do you insist on drinking it?  I can just go back to wearing condoms, you know.”

Rayla gave a sharp shake of her head, putting her mug in the sink to wash.  “I don’t like how they feel.  I can’t really explain it, but it feels unnatural.”

“I’m sure it does.  They’re a human invention and not really something you deal with back home.”

“It’s also the fact that they’re too flimsy.  They can tear, have manufacturer errors, expire, and someone could poke holes in them.  It’s not that I don’t trust you, but, as long as I drink the tea, the spell I got is 100% effective anyways.”

Callum furrowed his brows.  “As long as you drink the tea?  What happens if you don’t?”

“It goes down to 97% if I miss a day, 90% if I miss two.  After a week, I might as well try to get pregnant on purpose.”

“The spell is that retaliate on the tea?”  Rayla had explained to him before that Xadia’s low teen birth rate was due to all residents having the option to have a sort of low-risk infertility spell cast once they reached the age of 16 or started a relationship.  It was supposed to be a no-judgement decision that had proven to be very effective as a form of protection from unwanted pregnancies in all age groups and even STDs and STIs. 

“Yep.  It’s done that way on purpose.  The other option is a spell that is typically only used for assassins or during war.  It lasts a full year, no tea required.  But,” Rayla winced.  “It’s not worth it in our case.  It is impossible to get pregnant or impregnant someone against your will with that spell.  But, it also leaves biological men impotent for the full year and biological women incapable of getting wet even in consenting circumstances.  When the spell is over, if you can have a period, it’s like a bloodbath down there, or so I’ve heard.  Intersex people get it worse, by actually feeling intense shooting pain for the full year.”

Callum grimaced.  “That doesn’t sound worth it in any case.”

Rayla side-eyed him for a moment.  “Not everyone is like you, Callum.”  He didn’t need her to explain that.  He knew enough about war and history to know what she meant.  Rayla was done drying her mug, quickly putting it away.  “Let’s go.”

Callum followed her back to the front door, still a bit wary of what was to come.  Siobhan traded pleasantries for a bit, a guarded look on her face to match Rayla’s.  ‘Maybe it’s a Xadian thing.’

Siobhan turned to him, eyeing Callum up and down for a bit.  “Are we blocking your way, Your Highness?”

Rayla crossed her arms.  “He stays for the interview.  You ask him to leave, the interview is immediately over.”

Siobhan looked both pensive and slightly delighted for a moment.  She quickly scowled as the information seemed to sink in.  “What can a human contribute to a conversation between elves?”

“Considering the fact that he’s the whole reason the world even knows who I am?”

A stare down followed for a moment.  Callum looked between the two, feeling the electricity crackle between them.  Siobhan finally gave in, asking for a seat.  Rayla directed her to the chair and took her own place on the couch.  Callum sat beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “I’m right here,” he whispered in her elongated ear.  Rayla nodded, raising her hand to squeeze the his on her shoulder. 

Siobhan took out her pen and paper as well as her phone.  “Is it alright if I record this?  It’s just easier and my boss wants to know what was said.”  An ‘aye’ from Rayla was all she needed.  Siobhan fiddled with the phone and sighed.  “Alright.  Now, you two are basically all the world is talking about right now.  An elf and a human prince.  Care to explain?”

Callum turned to Rayla, who looked incredulous.  “Explain what?”   

“How this,” a hand gesture, “came to be.”

“We go to the same university, we shared a class, we were project partners for the term.”

Siobhan nodded, looking up when Rayla finished.  She raised her brows at Rayla’s silence.  “That’s it?”

“Aye.”

Siobhan put her pen down.  “That can’t be it.  What aren’t you telling me?”

Rayla crossed her legs.  “Why are you so interested?”

“The world is interested.”

“Why?”  It was the question Callum knew burned deep inside Rayla.  As far as Rayla was concerned, it shouldn’t matter.  Callum didn’t much care that it did matter, but he was so used to it that asking ‘why’ seemed to be a lost cause.

Siobhan ran a hand through her short dark hair.  “Because most of us don’t get it.  You two,” another gesture, “do not match.  Why is a Moonshadow elf ASSASSIN running straight towards the sun?”

Callum raised a brow.  “What do you mean ‘the sun?’”

It was Siobhan’s turn to give an incredulous look.  “You.”

“I’m not the sun.”  Callum turned to look back at Rayla.  Her face was stony, but there was clear understanding in her eyes at Siobhan’s words. 

“You are not the moon.  Everything in your life is touched by the rays of the sun, a light shone on them.  Being next to you will strip her of the darkness that Moonshadow elves grow into.  It’s warm, it’s secure, and it’s necessary for their traditions.”

Rayla looked over at Siobhan, her voice not giving anything away.  “I love him.  That’s all anyone really needs to know.  You say we don’t match, but I disagree.  I can run head first into things while he thinks about them.  I get stuck in my own head, and he pulls me back out and makes me talk about it.  I have gravitated towards statistics while he is naturally gifted in magic and art.  I’m more physical and he’s more emotional.  What you say is true, my culture does tend towards the darkness and being with him forces me into the light.  By all accounts, its counterintuitive to how I was raised.  But that doesn’t matter to us.”

“‘Physical’?  How physical is your relationship?”

“That’s what you’re latching on to?”

Rayla looked as dumbfounded as Callum felt.  Callum squeezed her hand.  ‘Go ahead, Ray.  Tell the world just how physical our relationship is.  Everyone’s already guessed at this point.  Tell them how we make love with the moon shining on your bare skin.  Or how, lately, I’ve started to take control and have left you a mess on our bed as you beg me to fuck you.  Tell them how you’ve ridden me more times than either of us can count.  We fit like a lock and key and are so hungry for each other some days that its all either of us can do to leave the apartment.  And other times, we can go days with just cuddling and still be satisfied.

Rayla, wisely, said none of those things.  If she had, it probably would have landed the both of them in very hot water.  “He gives me a hug me when I’m too stubborn to admit I need one and we hold hands most of the time.  By me saying I’m more physical, I mean I’m sporty and that that’s my love language or whatever humans call it.  What you’re asking is nobody’s business but ours.”

Siobhan nodded.  “Fair.  To be quite honest, I have interest in knowing what you two do in your private lives.  Unfortunately, the world-”

“Is curious.  We know,” Rayla clipped.

The apartment was quiet for a moment, Siobhan hopefully realizing she had stepped on a nerve while neither Callum nor Rayla felt any real desire to go back to the interview.  Siobhan finally looked back at the two of them.  “What is your image of peace in this modern world, Ms. Rayla?”

Callum straightened up a bit as Rayla looked at him out of the corner of her eye.  “My image?  Well, that humans and elves can live together as they once did.  Elves didn’t always just live in Xadia, the Moon Nexus is proof of that.  That humans can freely travel between the two and that, the Sources willing, there will be no need for these kinds of questions.”

“Simple, yet ambitious,” Siobhan raised her brows quickly before lowering them.  “Perhaps, too ambitious.  Dark magic can’t continue in the human kingdoms if that is to happen.”

“You’re right, it can’t.  And Callum,” Rayla gestured towards him with her head, “is doing what he can to make that happen.  The humans can’t just be asked to give something up and then elves keep everything.  It’s not how they operate.  There has to be some give and take.”

“Elves don’t have anything to give up.”

Callum shifted a bit.  Rayla looked at him, waiting for his approval at whatever she was thinking.  He had a feeling he knew, but it was risky.  At his nod, Rayla sighed through her nose.  He felt the tension surge in her shoulders and the regret already starting to form.  “That’s not true,” Rayla finally stated.  “We have to give up our pride.  It wasn’t right to force out all of the humans, breaking up human-elf families, for a few dark mages.  Records show that for every single dark mage, over three hundred humans were forced out of Xadia.  It’s called ‘the Expulsion’ for a reason.  Humans were expelled for crimes that only a few committed.  Some of these families, even generations down the line, want an apology.  They don’t want money.  They want an acknowledgement that it was wrong and access to records that have long been lost to them.  There are probably elves with human relatives that they don’t even know exist and vice versa.”

Siobhan stilled.  “Sol Regem did that.”

“And the elves didn’t speak against him.”     

“He was the Dragon King.”

“And the current Dragon King wants peace.  Peace cannot come without an admittance of the wrongs both sides committed.  It wouldn’t be peace and resentment would continue to brew, causing another war to break out.” 

Callum watched Siobhan.  She got antsy, as did Rayla.  Both were looking everywhere but at each other and him.  Was this something that bound all elves?  The knowledge that the Expulsion was believed to be necessary, but did indeed tear apart families?  There were stories of children who were forced to choose between living with their mother or their father, as elves were not allowed to travel with them out of Xadia.  Did elves see humans as inferior still, or had all that changed with the surge in technology that humans made?  Callum didn’t know and Rayla, Zaras, and any other elf he had ever talked to got very quiet during talk of the Expulsion.  It was a known part of history that everyone seemed to understand but no one wanted to discuss.

“You,” Siobhand paused and licked her lips.  “You have to know that elves do not want to admit that.  We believed, and still do, that we are protecting all the creatures in Xadia from dark magic.”

“I know.  I’m not saying I disagree with them.  I’m just telling you what I believe will need to happen.”

“Do you think it was wrong?”

Rayla looked down at her hands.  “Moonshadow assassins take lives, but they do not take it lightly.  I don’t know if it’s the same thing, but we punished so many for the actions of so few.”

“And if we were to apologize, then what?  Humans can say they got one up on the elves?”

Callum tapped Rayla’s knee.  She nodded and turned back to him.   Callum sighed, readying himself for the onslaught this was sure to bring.  “It’s not like that,” he said in a voice that shocked himself with how steady it was.  “Your pride is stopping you from seeing the truth.  An apology and reopening the gates, so to speak, would allow humans to see the homes that their families once lived in.  To reconnect with the people they long believed were lost to them forever.  There’s a famous letter from Duren, where a mother pleaded with Xadia to allow her to see her oldest son again.  The father was an elf and was forced to stay in Xadia.  The son stayed because the father was ill.  She wrote on and on about how she and her children had committed no crimes in Xadia and they would all stay in Xadia if that’s what it meant to see her son again.  The letter was sent back, opened, with an additional line scrawled.  ‘Never again will your kind walk through these streets.’  It spoke of Sol Regem’s insistence that humans were inferior because they couldn’t’ use magic and to forever keep these innocents separated.  Pride has no place here.  Was the Expulsion not a crime itself?  Those that were involved are long dead.  Let the past go and move forward while recognizing the crimes so they do not get repeated.”

Siobhan sighed.  “I will not deny what you have said.  The Duren Letter is famous in Xadia as well.  For years, it was used to show that humans were desperate to come back and would say anything to do so.  Then, evidence was gathered and what she had said was true.  Her husband was very sick and her oldest son had remained to care for him because his wife couldn’t.  Elves are a prideful race, Prince Callum.  If it was possible to do this without an apology-”

“I don’t think it is.”

“Then peace may never come.”  It was so matter of fact, so…clinical, Callum leaned back a bit.  “I don’t want to discourage either of you.  Despite the fact that I don’t understand your relationship, I want peace as well.  This standstill of a war needs to end.  I just don’t know if what the humans want will ever be given.”

“Publish all of this,” Rayla interjected.  “Let the world know that an elf admits that what happened was wrong.  Let it be the first step.”

Siobhan nodded.  “Understood.  One more question, before I go.”  Siobhan leveled a stare at the both of them, looking deep into their eyes.  Callum felt like she was trying to reach into his soul and grab whatever truth she was looking for.  “What is this?”  Siobhan quickly raised a hand up before they could object.  “I understand, it’s a relationship.  But, how long as it gone on?  How long do you think it will last?  General Amaya and General Janai’s upcoming nuptials have shown that intermarriage is happening again.  Are you planning on attending the wedding together?”

Rayla scrunched up her face, nestling into Callum a bit more.  He responded by squeezing her shoulder.  “We’re together.  We plan on being together for a long time.  If marriage comes, it comes.  If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  I’ll go with him to the wedding, of course.  I’ll follow him to Katolis and he’ll follow me to Xadia.  We’re trying to take this one day at a time.”

Siobhan nodded.  “Alright, well, that’s it then.  I have plenty….unless my boss finds the talk of an apology to be unprintable.”

“It’s what I have to say on the matter.”

“I know.”  Siobhan looked back to Rayla.  “You’re just saying what we all know in our hearts to be true but no one wants to admit.  If it was the other way around, elves would probably demand an apology as well.”

Siobhan gathered her things and quickly left the apartment, giving Rayla her contact information in case of an issue.  “I don’t really think I’ll be contacting you again unless I have to.”

“You may have to.  I have respect for you and your boyfriend now.  You know that that’s hard to come by back home.”

Callum watched the two talk, arms crossed.  Rayla’s shoulders were still hunched up a bit, anxious energy pouring off of her.  She looked ready to run down the street and just keep going until the world forgot she existed.  What had he dragged her into?                 

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Rayla groaned, sitting back down at the kitchen table.  She could feel Callum watching her, pensive and withdrawing into himself.  But she was starting to do the same thing.  She felt lost in a sea of questions and answers that seemed obvious but were dependent on too much to be simple. 

He came up to her, lightly stroking her cheek.  “What’s wrong, Ray?  I know she upset you, but it doesn’t matter what she thinks.  You know that.”  Rayla was silent, looking down at her hands.  Callum sighed, running a hand through his hair.  “I know you think it’s stupid, but it’s Big Feelings Time.  Please?” 

Rayla slowly nodded as she looked across the table at him.  Rayla pulled his hand so that he could come towards her.  When Callum was in front of her, she tugged him down so he was sitting in her lap, a slightly incredulous look on his face.  “This…is not the first time that her analogy has crossed my mind.  She’s not wrong, Callum.  You are the sun.”

His brow furrowed as a frown overtook his features.  “I’m not the sun.  Ezran and my Dad are the sun.  Janai is more of the sun than we are.”

Rayla shook her head.  “You don’t get it.  It’s like Siobhan said; I’ve lived my life to exist in the shadows.  Silvergrove is hidden and you can only get in with a key.  And when I say a key, I don’t mean a physical one.  It’s like a dance and it’s unique to each person.  Outsiders do not get access to our town.  It’s in a constant state of twilight due to magic, though the moon’s phases are accurate.  Runaan taught me how to be an assassin because that’s what Silvergrove’s original purpose was; a place for assassins to live and train.  No one outside Silvergrove knew me despite my parents’ position with the Dragon King.  While you, you are, well,” Rayla gestured towards him a bit. 

“What?”

“Your life is on display for public consumption.  I have watched people stare at you the second they realize who you are and talk about you.  You are the topic of choice all the time.  The world shines a giant spotlight on you.”

Callum looked down at her for a moment.  Rayla sighed and rested her head against his chest.  Her legs were going to fall asleep with him sitting on them, but she found that she didn’t care.  Right now, he was like a giant teddy bear and it felt good to hold him close.  “It seems that we have very different ideas about what it means to be the sun.”

“Hmm?”

Callum tilted her chin up with the crook of his index finger so she could look into those green eyes of his.  “You are my sun, Ray.”  She snorted.  “You are.  I’m always chasing after you.  And it’s not just because you’re older.  You have so much more experience than me.  Yes, we were both sheltered, but you went to an actual school, you’ve been here longer.  Ray, I sometimes have no clue how to deal with people at all, human or elf.  You seem to have it all together at all times even when I know you’re a fumbling mess on the inside because you hate people in general.”  Rayla nodded her head a bit at that.  She did hate people.  She was not really a social butterfly, even back in Silvergrove with other Moonshadow elves.  “Wherever you go, I will follow.  If you want to return to Silvergrove and we raise a family there, I’ll happily go with you.  If you want to stay on the border or live in the castle with Dad and Ezran, I’ll find us a home.”

Rayla saw the tears shining in the corners of his eyes.  “Callum.  I don’t know where I want to live yet.  I just want to be with you.  I really want all this nonsense of the world looking at me to stop, but I’m starting to realize that that will never happen.  As long as we’re together, they will look at me.”

“Can you live with that?  Be honest, Ray.” 

Rayla looked down, unable to continue to look at the beginning of heartbreak in his eyes.  “I don’t know.  I love you and I can’t imagine a world without you in it.  I know I don’t want anyone else and I’m not scared at the idea of having a family with you.  I love Ezran and am shockingly excited to meet your Dad, Aunt Amaya and Janai in person.  Being with you makes me feel like everything has finally fallen into place, like a giant piece had been missing for so long and I found it by chance.  But,” her breath hitched as the tears started to collect, “I don’t want my children to grow up like you did, either.  I don’t want the spotlight on them and for them to have their lives looked at under a microscope.  That’s no way to live, Callum.  And with us…it will be worse.  People will always be hoping that we fail and one of us takes the kids and some big mess follows.”

Callum was silent for a moment.  “It wasn’t all bad.  Dad tried to give Ezran and I as normal of a life as possible.  People tend to think we would be really spoiled, but we only ever really got what we needed.  If we wanted something, we had to earn it.  When I was thirteen and wanted a new set of really fancy art supplies, Amaya wanted to just get them for me as a birthday present.  The company probably would have sent them for free so they could brag that the royal family of Katolis used their brand.  Instead, Dad had me work with Opeli for three months, so I could better understand the role I might play I the future when Ezran because king.  It was hard work, but I earned those supplies.  Opeli was strict and I made mistakes that she openly corrected instead of hiding them because I’m a prince.  And it’s the same with Ez.  If he wanted something, he had to help in the kitchen or go around with the maids to clean everyone else’s rooms. 

“As for the press, Dad tried to keep them away.  They were rarely allowed in the castle, but that also meant that Ezran and I were rarely allowed to leave without weeks of planning ahead of time.  And everyone only got more protective after Viren went rouge.  Ray, I know better than anyone how cruel those spotlights can be and I know that your freedom is invaluable to you.  You will never be in a cage as long as I can help it.  I want to be a mage, but I also want to help Ez anyway I can.  Even if we live in Silvergrove, I will still stand by him.  And I will stand next to you, too.”  Rayla nodded.  Callum rested his forehead against her’s, making sure to light nuzzle her nose while he was at it.  “We can just focus on how to live as us for a while.  We already decided we would wait a few years for kids, right?”

“Yeah, we did,” came her soft whisper.  She nuzzled back, letting out a soft breath as she lightly kissed him.  “I told Claudia I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming from this relationship since the public now knows about us.  I meant it and I still do, but I don’t want to just live in the moment and let the chips fall where they may.  I want us to think about and plan our future together.  And, since you’ve already proposed, I think we should start doing it now.”

“OK.  I want kids and I want to be with you.  I don’t care where we live, but I don’t want to cut off contact with either or our families.  I don’t mind being the stay-at-home parent since you deal with people better than I do, I just don’t know if that would be realistic.  I don’t even know if it would work for either or us to be a stay-at-home parent.  I don’t really want to deal with a nanny; I want to raise my kids.  And I want them to grow up having everything they need but working for what they want.  I want them to be surrounded by love and understanding, while also not sheltered from how the world works.”

“I want that, too.  As for being a stay-at-home parent, I don’t even know what I want to do with my life.  The idea was floated by Runaan and Ethari that I could work as an ambassador given our relationship and my time here on the border, but…I don’t know if I’d be any good at that.  Just because I have an understanding of both sides doesn’t mean I can build bridges.  You know who you want to be and I want to support you.  But, I have to figure that out for myself, too.”

Callum kissed her forehead.  “Take all the time you need.  It’s not a race.  As for being an ambassador, that’s up to you.  Personally, I think you’d be great at it.”  Rayla rolled her eyes.  “I’m serious.  You’re very no-nonsense and you try to look at things logically.  But, you also think with your heart sometimes.  And, I think all these interviews are teaching you how to answer questions you don’t want to.”

Rayla gave a small chuckle.  “They are.”  They fell into a comfortable silence, Rayla’s legs going numb as she continued to hold Callum close.  He ran a hand through her hair while continuing to rest his head against her’s, being careful to avoid her horns.  

“I don’t care what anyone else thinks about us,” Callum broke the silence.  “I know that we can make this work.  As tough as it will be, I wouldn’t be with you if I thought we were doomed to fail.  I love you.”

“I love you, too, sad prince.  No matter what, just, don’t give up on me.  I might try to run away from the all the attention, but it won’t be because I stopped loving you.”

“I know.  Trust me, I wouldn’t blame you if you tried to hide from it all.  I’ve done it often enough to not have the right to judge anyone else for doing the same.”  Rayla let out a soft sigh.  “Alright, I’m getting up.  This has got to be hurting your legs.”  Rayla moaned as he tried to get up, displeased at the thought of losing her human teddy bear.  “I’ll massage your back if you let me up.”  A hum of acquiescence and a lightly disgruntled pout were his response as she relaxed her lightly muscled arms.  “Man, I gotta work out more so I can escape your grip whenever I need to.”

“Good luck with that.”  Rayla made sure to flex her right arm to show off.  Callum pretended to swoon when Rayla got up herself and pushed him towards the bedroom to give her the massage he promised her.  “Make good on your word, Your Highness.”

“I always do.”

Chapter Text

Rayla looked down at the lacy green thong over her nude underwear and the matching bra on her chest.  They were not really her style.  Incredibly feminine and, without a doubt, not the least bit supportive.  The bra was pushing up and the thong might as well not even exist.  To top it all off, she was wearing a lacy green garter on her right thigh.  “How’s it looking, Rayla?” came Zaras’s voice through the door.  Zaras and Claudia had convinced Rayla to just trying looking at lingerie that would very quickly end up on her and Callum’s floor.  They had both said it was all in the interest of keeping Callum on his toes, but, Rayla wasn’t sure.  She felt lost in the store of bright colors and giggling girls as they passed sexy negligee and pieces that cost way too much for how little fabric they used.

“I don’t know about this, Zaras.  I look…weird.”  Rayla turned around the look in the mirrors in the dressing room.  There were three mirrors, so Rayla could get a look at how the thong would have showcased her ass if she wasn’t wearing her actual underwear on underneath.  Her abs were on display and her powerful legs were completely bare.  She wasn’t opposed to that.  It was more of the bra and the garter that made her wary.  She had never worn a garter before and her almost-C-cup breasts now looked closer to a D with how much pushing the bra was doing. 

“Can we see?” came Claudia’s reply.  “Rayla you’ve tried on several things and you always say you look ‘weird’.  I’ll bet every last penny in my bank account that you look hot as Hell.”  Rayla rolled her eyes before opening the door, letting her two friends in.  Claudia smiled while Zaras gave a thumbs up.  “It looks great!  Why do you think you look weird?  You can’t really take off your underwear to get the full effect of the thong, but-”

“Look at me, Claudia.”  Rayla’s arms were open as she gestured to herself with her hands.   

Claudia raised a brow while Zaras crossed her arms.  “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Zaras shrugged her shoulder.  “I’d do you.”

“Zaras!” Rayla hissed back.

“I would.  Totally.  Those nice muscles of yours are on display, and your boobs look great.  I might need to get one of those bras myself.  Is it the garter?”

Claudia quickly looked Rayla up and down.  “The garter completes the image.  Callum is the kind of guy that would love that.  He’ll probably take it off with his teeth.”

“I thought you two never went that far.”

Claudia shrugged.  “We didn’t.  The only clothes that ever came off were our jackets or shoes when we were hanging out.  But, I’ve known Callum my whole life.  Trust me, he would be super into it.”

Zaras looked up at Claudia.  “You got any interesting kinks I should know about?”

Claudia smiled down at her.  “Who knows?  Maybe you’ll get the chance later to ask.” 

Rayla watched the two start to flirt right in front of her.  She wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but something was either already happening or was brewing quickly between Zaras and Claudia.  They flirted nonstop now and were often seen in each other’s company.  Last week, Rayla had gone with Callum to study at Claudia and Soren’s apartment just to meet Zaras coming out.  “You two going to keep imaging the other without their clothes on or are we going to tell me how I look with mine off?”

Zaras turned her head, sending a quick wink Rayla’s way.  “Already seen them off.  She looks good in a pair of heels and nothing else.” 

Rayla blinked twice, quickly looking between the two.  “When did this happen?”

“Few weeks ago.”

“And I didn’t know because?”

Claudia tilted her head to the side.  “To be honest, we’re just having fun, Rayla.  There is no real relationship between us.  We’re attracted to each other but neither one of us is really interested in a relationship right now.”

Zaras nodded.  “Clauds wants to focus on Soren and finishing her degree-”

“And Zaras broke up with her ex-SO two months ago.  It’s just sex.”

“Good sex.  But, yeah, it’s just sex.  Now, turn around so we can see.”  Rayla slowly turned around for them, choosing to let the matter rest.  Part of her wanted to argue that, with Zaras, there was no such thing as just sex.  She’d said it before and it always turned into a relationship because she got emotionally attached quickly.  Zaras had recently called both herself and Rayla Disaster Bisexuals who were always running towards the nearest fire.  Given Zaras’s dating history and Rayla’s current situation, Rayla hadn’t argued with her. 

“See?” Rayla groused.  “Weird.”

“Again, you look sexy.  Did you never do this for your ex?”

Rayla thought back to her ex-girlfriend.  They had experimented a bit and tried new things, but, Rayla couldn’t remembered ever doing something like this for her.  She had never even thought of it.  She shook her head and bit her lip.  “No, never.”

“And I’ve seen your underwear drawer.  I know you don’t own anything like this.  Look, Rayla.”  Zaras stepped forward, placing her hands on Rayla’s shoulders.  “It’s a different way to showcase your body.  I get it, you’re not a girly-girl.   You have Callum wrapped around your finger.  He would be happy if you were just in your old sports bra and shorts.  But," Zaras lightly tapped Rayla's arms, a slow grin crossing her face, "there is…power in knowing that you can bring someone to their knees for you for just trying something different.  He'll probably drop down the second he sees you and beg you for the chance to eat you out.”

Rayla flushed at Zaras’s crass words.  “I’m just…I’m not sure.  What if he laughs because it’s just so different?”

“Then you laugh while having sex.”  Rayla leveled a look at Zaras, making sure to quirk an eyebrow.  “You can’t tell me you’ve never done that before.”

“We have.  It’s not something I want to do when I’m trying to be sexy.  I’m not sexy.  Ever.  I’m not even that pretty.”

Claudia’s eyes went wide.  “Whoa.  Hold up real quick.  You’re…you’re joking right?”

Rayla turned her look over to Claudia.  “Nope.  You guys don’t need to lie.  I know I’m not.”

Zaras looked concerned now; all the fun she had been having leaving her eyes.  “Rayla, you are stunning.  The first time I saw you, I thought you were model with your height.  I don’t know who told you you aren’t, but they are dead wrong.”  Rayla scoffed.  “It’s true!  Was it Callum?  I figured he would be the kind of guy to say you’re beautiful all the time.”

“He does.  He’s called me the most beautiful woman in the world several times.”  Claudia and Zaras were both obviously about to speak, but Rayla cut them off.  “He has to say that.  He’s my fiancée.  I’m sure me looking different than humans has helped warped his image of me.”

Claudia’s mouth was open at this point, pure confusion plain on her face.  “Tell me right here and right now what isn’t beautiful about you.  We know it’s nothing Callum’s said, so I need to know what is going through your head.”

Rayla looked in the mirror, Claudia and Zaras standing behind her.  “My hips are too big and so are my breasts.  This hourglass figure that humans seem to idealize is all wrong for me.  Moonshadow elves are supposed to be slenderer.  I have nice, lean muscle now but the breasts are still there.  My hair always has a million flyaways no matter what I put in it.  There are eternal dark circles under my eyes and no amount of sleep or caffeine seems to do the trick.  My eyes are too light and my forehead is too small.  My face is too long-”

Zaras held up a hand before gently placing it on Rayla’s shoulder.  “Rayla…you need to not focus on those little things.”

“They aren’t little, Zaras.”

Claudia shook her head.  “If they aren’t little to you, then, no, they aren’t.  But, I need you to look in that mirror and try to see what we’re seeing.”  Rayla rolled her eyes, sighing before staring her reflection down.  “OK.  First, yeah, maybe your body is a bit more geared towards what people like Callum find aesthetically pleasing, and there is nothing wrong with that.  What matters is you have put in the work to get the muscles that you want.  Second, you having breasts is actually kind of a bonus.  It doesn’t make you look weird or unattractive.  It just makes you sexier.”

Zaras nodded.  “As for the dark circles, it’s called genetics, babe.  Nothing wrong with them.  Claudia has them but hides them with make-up, because she likes make-up.  You don’t.  Your hair is fine.  So, it likes to stand-up a bit.  It’s still nice and soft.”  Zaras ran a gentle hand through Rayla’s hair.  “Your eyes are beautiful and your forehead is the perfect size.  You have nice cheekbones, too, you know.”

Rayla stood in silence as the girls continued to sing her praises, taking in what they had to say.  It just wasn’t sinking in.  Rayla’s exes had always told her she was beautiful.  Bandlr’s flirting made it obvious that he found her attractive but…what everyone else saw as her assets were the biggest flaws in her mind.  Callum often told her that he loved her eyes or her nose.  He had gotten into the habit of kissing her forehead every morning when they got up.  He regularly worshipped her body and took his time now to make all of her feel good.  It wasn’t anything anyone had ever done to make her feel unattractive.  She just felt that she was.  “I’m supposed to be Ms. Confident and I can’t even look in the mirror without thinking something is wrong.  I hate fitting in and looking like everyone else and yet it’s these flaws that make me stand out that bother me so much.”

Zaras snorted.  “Personally, I blame the media.  They all go for one specific type of figure.  Given Moonshadow elf culture, I’m not surprised there’s a focus on a slender body type and I’m really starting to think that your uncles never felt that they needed to tell you to ignore those magazines.  They wouldn’t know to, probably.”

Rayla looked down at Zaras.  Sweet, cute, little internet-addicted Zaras.  The image most people had of Skywing elves was typically the opposite of her.  They tended to be tall, more muscled, and there was more of a sensual quality to their faces.  Zaras was more on the pocket-sized adorable teddy bear scale.  “What did you do when you were growing up?”

“My mom told me it’s all bullshit.  She’s pretty tiny, too, and it’s a big part of why my dad was attracted to her.  He’s a freaking giant and she barely comes up to his elbow.  Just because one person isn’t to your tastes, it doesn’t mean they’re ugly.  I’ve heard that you were very popular back in Silvergrove and if Bandlr hadn’t been constantly putting the moves on you, you probably would have had way more experience than your two relationships before meeting Callum.”

“It’s because of who my parents are and who my uncles are.  It’s got nothing to do with me.”

Claudia had stepped back for a moment, quickly texting on her phone.  Probably Soren or somebody wanting to meet up for a group project.  Claudia looked up and met Rayla’s eyes in the mirror.  “Rayla, I can promise you that that’s not it.  You’re funny, confident, smart, and according to Callum, you either think about a situation too much or don’t think at all, so that makes people curious as to what you’re going to do.”  Rayla merely nodded her ascent at that.  “I get it, accepting that you’re hot isn’t going to happen overnight.  I didn’t have my mom to tell me those kinds of things and Dad thought that I was too absorbed in my magic studies to care.”

“You were insecure, too?” Rayla asked in a quiet voice.  It’s was far too quiet for her liking, as if she needed someone to experience what she was. 

Claudai slowly nodded.  “Oh, yeah.  Still am sometimes.  I’m like you; I can hide it really well.  There are times I wonder if I made the right choice abandoning Dad and not trying to help him get better.  Don’t ask me how it would have been possible with how twisted he’s become, but I still feel like I just left him the way mom left me and, by doing so, I’ve doomed him to self-destruct.  It was actually dating Callum that was really good for my self-esteem.  Not in the ‘I’m so pretty I’m dating a prince’ way.  Callum has this way of complimenting that you know is genuine and not just lip service to make you feel better.  Now, I just focus on what I can actually improve on that I don’t like.  I’m cutting back on dark magic because I’m scared of what it will do to me and I feel a lot better already.  And Zaras has been helping me access things to help Soren, so, I may not need it anymore pretty soon.”

“Good.  You don’t want to become like your father.”

Claudia nodded her head, but refused to answer further.  It didn’t really surprise Rayla that she had conflicting feelings about her father.  Rayla could both sympathize and empathize with her.  “Now, then, Rayla, do you want to try this very sexy, very revealing lingerie to seduce your man?”  Claudia said it like a gameshow host, gesturing her arm up and down Rayla’s body.  The three laughed at her obvious attempt to lighten the mood.

Once they stopped laughing, Rayla slowly breathed out.  “Yeah.  I’m keeping the receipt, though.”

Zaras winked at her.  “Darling, always keep the receipt.”

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Rayla gulped as she looked at the studio Callum had started renting out.  The on-campus art studio had different rooms for students at the University.  If you didn’t mind not being able to personalize the space or sharing it with four or five other people, it was free.  Callum, in his effort to keep some privacy and to stop people from stealing his work (something that he had dealt with in the past) had happily given over the money the second a private room opened up.  He had moved in all his painting supplies and a couch big enough for them to nap on within a day. 

Rayla breathed in and out, shivering a bit from the cold.  She was currently wearing a long brown coat that reminded her of the detectives in Callum’s favorite old mystery movies.  Underneath was nothing more than the scraps of cloth she had bought from the lingerie store.  The garter was becoming more comfortable and Rayla found she didn’t mind wearing a thong.  The only downside was that the bra she was wearing made her breasts far more pronounced and random people were noticing.  Instead of her usual sneakers, she was wearing a pair of two-inch heels Amaya and Janaya had bought her before to complete the look.  To finish it all off, she had her white hair up in an easy to take down bun.

She was on a mission.  She was actually doing this.  She was going to seduce Callum for no reason other than because she wanted to.  She didn’t have to come all this way and she didn’t even have to go to all the trouble of buying the underwear.  He would want her no matter what.  But, now that she was here, she was curious as to how it would go.  Would he faint like she had a feeling he would or would he be unable to help himself and touch her right away?  She was getting wet thinking about it. 

Rayla walked up the steps, taking her time in the heels that could easily betray her and break her ankle.  She passed a few students on the way, ignoring their stares.  She wasn’t sure if they could tell she was practically naked underneath the coat, if it was the bra, or if there was still some sort of novelty to her relationship with Callum.  When she reached his door, she quickly knocked.  “Just a sec!” came Callum’s muffled reply.  She heard what sounded like crashing while he mumbled a curse.  Rayla rolled her eyes affectionally.  Her human was always tripping over his own two feet like a baby deer.  It was far too adorable.

When he opened the door, his face lit up with joy at the sight of her.  “Ray!  What brings you here?  I was just about to head home.  You want to get dinner on the way?”  Rayla nonchalantly pushed past him, keeping her hands in her pockets, and a neutral expression on her face.  She heard him close and lock the door behind her.  She looked around the room, seeing paint splattered on the tarp on the floor as well as his brushes all over.  Her breath caught when she was what he was painting.  “It’s not done yet!  I need to get a better color to match your eyes.”  Rayla ignored him as he rambled on about what he still needed to do, too enraptured by what she saw in front of her.  It was a painting of her from the waist up.  She was smiling so softly and her eyes looked like they were made from light itself.  Rayla didn’t know much about art, but there was no denying the mastery of Callum’s brushstrokes or the raw emotion behind it all. 

“Is this how you see me?”

Callum paused mid-ramble.  He looked at her like a deer in headlights.  “Well, yeah.  Is everything okay?”

Rayla was stunned by just how beautiful he had made her look.  She could finally see what Claudia and Zaras had been trying to say earlier that day.  “You made me look beautiful.”

Confusion seeped into his voice as he carefully spoke to her.  “I didn’t make you look like that.  You are beautiful, Ray.  I just painted you exactly how I see you when I think about you.  I told you that I think of you as the sun.  There is such light in your face when you smile and your eyes shine so brightly it’s almost blinding.  To be quite honest, this painting is a pale imitation of you.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to capture just how gorgeous you are.” 

Rayla’s breath caught in her throat.  Did Callum really think about her like that?  That she was too beautiful for him to fully put her on a canvas?  “Is that so?”

Callum crossed over to stand in front of her, a hand coming to rest on her forehead.  “You feeling OK?  You don’t feel hot, but you’re acting a little out of it.”

“I’m fine.  I just wanted to come see you.  What do you think of my coat?”  She moved back so she could carefully spin around, aware of her heels.  She could see in Callum’s eyes that he noticed something was off. 

“It’s nice.  Claudia told me you guys went shopping today, but she didn’t tell me what for.  You kind of remind me of those femme fatales in my detective movies.”

Rayla gave a smirk.  “Do I?”

Callum scratched the back of his neck, a light flush making its way to his ears.  “Yeah.  If I didn’t know any better, I would say you had come here looking for trouble.”  He chuckled at that, obviously trying to lighten the mood and hide his embarrassment from the painting earlier.

“What if I am?”  Callum started, eyes going wide as Rayla undid the belt on her coat and let it fall to the floor.  She slowly slipped the coat off, letting it join the belt as she now she stood before him.  The short intake of breath that followed and the immediate bulge that become visible in pants filled Rayla with confidence.  Zaras was right; there was power in knowing you could make someone lose their minds for you by doing something as simple as wearing lace.  “What do you think?”  Rayla made her way back to stand right in front of him, looking up to his eyes.  She watched as his normally respectful gaze fell to her pushed-up breasts and continued downward to take in what he could.

“Is that a thong?” came his squeaky reply.

“Yep.”

“And-and a garter?”  Rayla nodded.  “Why?”  Rayla smirked as she watched his brain begin to shut down. 

“Don’t you like it?” she teased.  Rayla tilted her head, reaching her hand up to take her hair down from the bun.  As it cascaded down her back in light waves, she lightly ran her other hand down her side.

“Unhhh,” he whined back. 

“I need you to breath, Callum.  I didn’t go through all this trouble to do all the work tonight.”  His eyes were wide and trying to take her all in.  She looked down to see that his hands were shaking, probably in an effort to control himself.  “Why don’t you show me some of what you’ve been reading?”  A subtle tilt of her head to the couch in the middle of the room and a quick glance from his eyes to the front of his pants and back up let him know exactly what she was asking for.  Callum barely nodded, letting Rayla take his hand to led him over. 

He groaned when she turned away to display her backside in its full glory.  “You’re trying to kill me.  No, I’ve died.  I must have.”  Rayla gave him a look over her shoulder, half-masting her eyelids.  “Ray, be gentle with me.”

“I already told you, I expect you to be in charge tonight.”  They stopped in front of the coach, Rayla maneuvering Callum so she could gently make him sit down.  She gently took off her heels.  “We can be as wild or as gentle as you want.”  When he was seated with his back fully against the upper cushions, Rayla made herself at home on his lap.  She placed both of her hands on his shoulders as her legs were on seated on the lower cushions, straddling him.  Rayla ground down on his bulge, causing them both to moan out.  “But, I’m hoping tonight will be more a fucking kind of night.”  She moved to nibble on his right ear, being sure to push her chest against his.  Callum’s hands made their way to her waist, fingers twitched against her exposed backside.  “You could even throw me against this coach and take me from behind,” she whispered in his ear.  “C’mon, Callum, do what you want to me.  I promise I’ll tell you to stop if I don’t like it.  I’m so wet just thinking about what you could be doing to me right now.”  That last line had been a feature in their phone-sex routine many times and it never failed to get Callum hot and bothered.

That did the trick, as Callum wound a fist in her hair and brought her lips up to his.  Rayla moaned as he moved his mouth against hers.  His other hand greedily grabbed a handful of her ass, squeezing the bare flesh before rubbing it.  His tongue slid into her mouth to explore every inch of it.  Rayla wound her tongue with his, suckling a bit.  She jumped when she felt a hand smack against her backside.  The pleasurable fire that was coursing through her now a blazing inferno.  When he did it again, she broke away to moan out into the night.  “I have wanted to do that since the first time I saw you in your running shorts.”

Rayla looked deep into his eyes, stunned at the rawness in his voice.  “Well, you are more than welcome to do it again,” a light scratch on his shoulder.  “And again,” she was pushing his jacket off now.  “And again.”  Rayla moved her hands back to take her bra off, but Callum used one of his to grab her wrists, holding them together.  They both knew she could easily break out of his hold if she wanted to.  They also both knew she was far too curious and eager to stop him now.  Callum pulled her wrists down a bit to angle her chest more towards him.  The bra barely covered the areola and her nipples were poking hard through the fabric. 

With an eager look, Callum moved his mouth to her right breast, nibbling on the flesh that was on display.  She felt his hand in her hair move down to wrap around her waist and bring her back to rest directly on his crotch, bucking his hips upwards as her wet core made contact with his pants.  She took the hint and rocked against him.  “Fuck, Ray.  The things you do to me.”  He groaned as he moved towards her left breast, taking extra care to nip her nipple through the thick fabric.

“Ah-ah-ahhh!” was his only reply.  She started panted as she moved faster against him.  If she had thought she was on fire before, she was a blaze now.  He was going to consume her and she would relish ever last second of it.  Callum released her wrists so he could unhook her bra, quickly throwing the lacy garment behind the coach.  He cupped her breasts before squeezing them.  His mouth took her left nipple, alternating between flicking it with his tongue and, oh, so gentling scraping his teeth against it.  The hand on her left breast moved down to between her legs, seeking out her button that was begging for his touch.  One, two, three strokes was all it took.  “CALLUM!”  Rayla shuddered in ecstasy, vision going white in pleasure.  She wrapped her arms tightly around him, shaking as he continued his attention on her breast.

He released her nipple to meet her gaze.  “You must have been thinking about this all day.  I barely had to do anything.”  Rayla whimpered in answer, too weak to reply back.  Callum sent a firm smack to her ass, making her jump once again.  “You’re so responsive.  I could get drunk off of your moans.”  Rayla felt her world turn as Callum finagled them both so she was laying on the coach.  He hovered above her, gently running his hand through her hair and down to the side of her face to her neck.  She was finally catching her breath when he stole it from her with a searing kiss. 

“Callum,” she whispered against his lips when he pulled back.

“How did I get lucky enough to get the most beautiful woman in the world to want me back?”  She didn’t reply back.  Callum had already started using his lips to descend down from her neck to her core.  He nipped both her nipples and stomach along the way.  She was already shivering again as his teeth teased her thigh along the garter belt.  His hands made their way back to her breasts before gliding down to her hips and back up.  He laid a kiss on her inner thigh, so close to where she wanted his mouth.  He breathed against her thigh, hot air coming in contact with where his mouth had just been.  “I’ve dreamed of you coming to me like this.  Hot and needy for my touch while letting me lead.  But this, this is even better.” 

Rayla watched as he took her right leg in his hand and lifted it up so it was high in the air.  He brought his teeth around the garter, making sure to scrape her thigh while he was there.  He made eye contact with her as he slowly pulled the fabric down her leg until it was just barely hanging off her dangling toe.  He left it there while easing both of her thighs over his shoulders.  Rayla’s breath was coming in quick pants as she anticipated what she knew was coming next.  “Is this your greatest fantasy?” she finally released.

Callum settled himself so his mouth was right above her.  He licked his lips while making eye contact with her again.  “YOU are my greatest fantasy.  Everything about you, every sound you make, every look you give me.  Nobody could possibly compare.  It’s like you were created from all of my deepest desires and made flesh just so I could be tempted by you.  You could be leading me straight into Hell and I wouldn’t care.”  He moved her thong aside before diving into her snatch, licking her soaking wet core.  Rayla grabbed his soft hair, pulling on it. 

“Hn.  It feels so good, Callum.”  He hummed against her, the light vibration making her ache.  Runes began to be spelled against her clit.  Aspiro, Fulminis, Mystica.  Fuck, he was good at that.  He gave a particularly hard flick and Rayla knew she was going to come undone again and fast.  As soon as she thought it, he spelled out Spiralis and she came crashing.  Her thighs crushed his head between them, desperate for him to stay despite her shaking. 

He watched her as she came down from her high.  Rayla was in a daze.  His hands were stroking her again.  “You ready for the main event?”  Rayla slowly nodded.  At this point, she had already cum twice and would have been perfectly happy to take a nap in his arms.  She was also excited to see what he planned next.  “Turn over.”  Rayla’s shaky arms were of little use to her as Callum helped her turn over.  She heard him begin to unbuckle and unzip his pants.  Out of the corner of her eyes, she watched his shirt making it’s way to the floor.  She expected him to simply move her thong aside and take her where she lay, but Callum had other plans.

He leaned down to bite her left shoulder blade, trailing kisses down until he reached her ass.  He shocked Rayla as he actually bit her left buttcheek.  She squealed and wriggled against him.  He took her wrists between his hands again and used them to bring her up so she was kneeling in front of him.  Callum used his other hand to move her back until her back was against his chest.  He released her wrists, freeing himself up to move the thong out of the way and to align his cock with her core.

Slowly, he entered her.  They groaned in unison as he finally filled her up.  “You feel so good, Rayla.  Put your hands on the armrest.”  Rayla did so, causing her back to lean over and bend a bit.  Both of his hands made their way to her hips and grasped her tightly.  He bucked into her, slowly at first before building up speed.  Callum leaned forward to place his bare chest across her back, wrapping his arms around her before bring them both back up to sit-up straight.  He returned one hand to grope her breasts and the other to play with her button again as he continued pumping into her.  “Does that feel good, Ray?  To have my cock in you while I play with your body?”

The answering moan was absolutely filthy.  Rayla was briefly shocked that it had come from her, but she had no time to dwell on it as he quickly brought her back to the precipice.  “Please.  Callum, I’m so close.”

“Me, too.”  A few more seconds and Rayla was careening forwards.  She tightened up before relaxing against him, her world a haze of bright light.  She barely registered Callum coming inside her or his shaking body moving them down to lay on the coach.  It took a few minutes before everything came back to her.  She was facing the coach cushions while he held her back to him.  Rayla sighed when he kissed her temple.  “Was that OK?”

Rayla let out a hoarse laugh.  “That was more than OK.”

“I wasn’t too rough?” 

Rayla shook her head.  “I can take it.  Besides, I like it rough sometimes.”  Callum hummed.  He lazily stroked her shoulder with his fingertips.  As they continued to lay there, Rayla thought back to what he had said earlier.  “Did you mean it?”

“Mean what?” was his exhausted reply.  He left a kiss on her shoulder, moving up to nuzzle the point of her ear.

“When you said I was your greatest fantasy?”

“Of course I did.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better.  Ray, we could have the most boring sex for the rest of eternity and I would still be satisfied because I’d be with you.”

Rayla smiled to herself.  “Good.  Because I don’t want anyone else.”  Rayla turned back to look at him, mindful of her horns.  He met her gaze with a look so full of love it took her a moment to remember to breathe.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too.  You wanna get out of here and get something to eat?”

“I was hoping we could head back home and just have a lazy dinner.”

“I’ll call the Duren restaurant you like.  We’ll pick it up on the way.”

“OK.”  Rayla nodded as Callum got off the coach and made his way over to where his cell must be.  Rayla moved herself onto her back and stretched her well-used muscles.  ‘Mission accomplished.’

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Bandlr trudged through campus on his way to the library.  He had just gotten done at the gym and had to study for his magical theory class.  Bandlr had started putting off anything to do with that class in an effort not to be reminded of Callum and Rayla.  They continued to sit in the front, like they always had, and enter and leave together.  Even sitting in the far back couldn’t hide them from his eyes.  They would whisper to each other every so often or pass their notebooks for the other to look at.

Bandlr shook his head quickly.  It did no good to get himself all riled up when he was going to have to sit down for the next several hours.  He was now silent whenever someone brought the happy couple up.  His intense jealousy and bafflement as to why a Moonshadow elf would be with a human prince was only distracting him from his studies. 

“Got your card?  I didn’t bring any cash with me.”  Bandlr turned quickly in the direction of the art studios.  Rayla’s voice came clear as a bell in the empty walkway.  She was wearing a long brown jacket with a matching belt.  Bandlr looked down and noticed she was also wearing heels.  She seemed…off.  He looked harder and deduced that her breasts appeared larger than normal while her feet didn’t even have stockings on them.  She was also wrapped in Callum’s left arm, his hand in one of her pockets. 

“Yep.  You just want to go to sleep after dinner or do you have more plans for me?”

Rayla laughed, head thrown back and full of joy.  “Not tonight.  And no going through the bags in our room.  I want to keep a few surprises for you.” 

Callum groaned.  “You trying to kill me?  Was it not enough to give me a heart attack when you took off your coat?”

Rayla stopped walking, forcing Callum to stop with her.  For a moment, Bandlr thought Rayla had spotted him, but instead she turned a bit more towards that human prince of her’s and smiled up at him.  “Probably not.  Wouldn’t that be a nice way to die, Your Highness?  Your fiancée all dressed up for you and asking you to take her as you please?  As a trained assassin, I can promise you that there are a few less pleasurable ways to go.”  Bandlr was too distracted by the husky quality that had entered Rayla’s voice as it drifted on the wind to his elven ears to even digest that she had called herself the prince’s ‘fiancée.’

“You sure you just want to go to bed after dinner?  You seem awfully eager to get my blood pumping.”

Rayla played with his jacket a bit.  “Maybe I just like to keep you guessing.  Maybe, when we get back, I’ll push you to the floor and ride you for all your worth.”  Rayla shrugged as she turned back to the road.  “I promise you; you’ll like what else I bought.”

Callum tugged her a little closer.  “What else did you buy?”

“Red.”  That one-word answer was apparently enough for both of them. 

Callum squeezed his eyes shut.  “Tease.”

“Only for you.”

“What made you decide to even buy any of that anyway?”  Bandlr couldn’t help but wonder, too.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that they weren’t talking about curtains.  He had known Rayla for so long and just the idea of her buying anything sexy for herself was too far out there.  He had always assumed that, if Rayla finally came to her senses and realized that they were a good match, he would have to be the one buying negligee for her. 

“It was Zaras and Claudia’s idea.  I figured it was worth a shot.”

“Remind me to thank the both of them.  You know you don’t have to dress like that if it makes you uncomfortable, right?  I’ll live if you take it all back to the store.”

Rayla nodded.  “I know.  But, you seem to like it.  And I found tonight that I like the look you get in your eyes when I surprise you.  I also liked how you took charge.  Besides, I think I quite like some of it.”

Bandlr stood still as he watched them walk off towards their apartment.  Rayla had never looked more unattainable and Callum had never seemed like a better fit for her than Bandlr could ever be.  Bandlr quickly turned around back towards the gym.  There was no way he was going to get any studying done when his mind was cycling through all the images it had conjured from the overheard conversation.  He was too full of anger, resentment, and raging jealousy on top of the lust pumping through his veins.  It was going to be a long workout session.   

Chapter Text

Rayla blinked twice.  “Wanna run that by me again?”  She had stopped her workout with Callum to answer a call from Siobhan, a decision she was deeply regretting already.  They were in a corner of the University gym, minding their own business as everyone gave them a wide breadth. 

She could practically hear the eye roll at Siobhan’s exasperated response.  “I need another interview.”

“What happened to ‘I’ll make it work?’”

“I said I thought we were good.  I also said I might have to come back.”

“Did your boss have a problem with what I said?”  Callum looked over at her, putting down the dumbbells she had given him.  Rayla quickly snapped her fingers and gestured for him to continue.  Putting her hand to the speaker part of the cell, she glared at him.  “You got three more reps, Mister.”

Callum groaned, hanging his head.  “I regret everything.”

“You heard what Ibis said.  You need more strength in your arms if you want to do long-term flying.  The noodle arms have to go.”

Callum nodded, mumbling to himself about how he never should have stopped training with Soren at 14.  Despite her harsh attitude, Rayla was proud of Callum.  He had gone up to Ibis and asked for him to become Callum’s mentor.  Ibis had taken Callum on as an apprentice despite his busy schedule of teaching classes and relying information to the Dragon King about the border.  Callum had yet to form wings (Ibis had told him repeatedly that he may never be able to do so) but he was refusing to give up.

“Are you listening?”  Rayla rolled her eyes, brought back to her conversation with Siobhan.

“Say it again, please.”

“There is nothing wrong with what I wrote but my editor found something in Prince Callum’s past he wants addressed.”

“What?  His ex?  Everyone knows he hasn’t been in a relationship in years.  They’re just friends.”

“No.  It’s about Cloverton.”

“Cloverton?”  Out of the corner of her eye, Rayla watched Callum pause mid-rep.  His eyes were blown wide as he stared at the phone in her hand.  She watched as his chest started to rise and fall quickly, a sign that he was having an anxiety attack.  “Callum?”  Callum shook his head, quickly putting the dumbbells back down.  “What does Callum have to do with Cloverton?”

“His father’s from Cloverton.  You know about what happened there, right?”

“Yeah.  Didn’t 75% of the town get wiped out from a plague in a week or something?”  Callum winced, shuffling his feet as he looked everywhere but at her.  Rayla’s brows narrowed.  Callum had never mentioned Cloverton and she couldn’t remember hearing about his connection to it in her modern human history class.

“80%.  And Prince Callum’s father’s family, except for his father and his father’s paternal grandparents, all died during the plague.  His father was only three at the time and was raised by those same grandparents.”

“Sounds like you got all the information you need.  Why do you need to speak to me about it?  I don’t know anything.”

“Well…my editor wants me to speak to Prince Callum about this.  Of course, we’ll conduct a short interview where I ask you questions, but the bulk is meant to be about Cloverton.”

“Why?” 

“Because there is a working theory that it was caused by dark magic.  The plague never left Cloverton and affected almost 100% of the upper class before making its way down.  The interesting thing is that the lone dark mage that lived in Cloverton also passed during that time.”

“Interesting.  Then, why is dark magic a suspected cause?”  Callum had started making his way to the locker rooms, obviously trying to run away from the impeding conversation.  “I’m not done with you, Callum.  You get four more reps!”

Callum turned around.  “You said three.”

“Extra rep for running away.”

“Ray,” he gave her puppy eyes, sticking out his bottom lip in an attempt to look cute.  He was succeeding but no way was she going to let him get off for running away. “Can we finish this at home?”

“Finish your reps and we’ll talk at home.”  He sighed, running a hand through his hair.  Rayla watched him walk back to the dumbbells, ignoring Siobhan’s silence.  “Sorry, Siobhan.  Callum didn’t react well to this.”

“I’m not surprised.  The reason why it’s a working theory is because no one talks about what happened.  Not a single former resident of Cloverton has said a word in years.”

“What makes you so sure Callum knows anything?”

“His great-grandparents.  They probably told him something since his father couldn’t.”

“What if he has nothing to share?”

“Do you really believe that?  He tried to run away and didn’t react well.  Would someone who doesn’t know anything do that?”  Rayla paused, watching Callum closely.  He was tense and trying to subtly look around the room.  Why?  Was he concerned that people had overheard them and trying to figure out what he knew?  “If he really doesn’t know anything, he can say that in the interview.  But, my editor believes he does.”

“What if he refuses?”

Siobhan groaned.  “Why do the two of you make my life so difficult?”

“Because it’s fun.”  Callum narrowed his brows and turned to her, pure confusion in his eyes.  “I love messing with people.  I’m sarcastic as fuck.  Didn’t you get the memo?” 

“Are you being sarcastic now?”

“Of course not,” the sarcasm was practically dripping from her voice. 

Siobhan groaned into the phone, causing Rayla to chuckle.  “Be serious, please.”

“I’ll making you a deal.  Let me talk to him first.  Do you really want to come all the way out here just to have to turn back because he refuses to talk or doesn’t know anything?”

“No.”  A short pause and a groan met Rayla.  “Fine.  Send me a text by tomorrow, please.”

“Sure.  Why does your boss want to know about this?”

“Because Prince Callum’s father was deeply opposed to dark magic.  Queen Sarai made no secret that her feelings about dark magic came from him.  If Cloverton was a result of dark magic, it makes sense that that’s where it all started.”

“Aye, it does.”  Rayla stared long and hard at Callum.  He was trying to hurry through his reps now, his form getting sloppy.  Rayla thought back to her conversation with Claudia the night she moved into Callum’s apartment.  Claudia hadn’t mentioned Cloverton, but did Claudia even know about it or was it out of respect for Callum?  “I’ll text you tomorrow.  Thanks for calling, I guess.”

Siobhan sighed.  “Thanks for trying to be flexible, I guess.” 

Rayla smirked.  “Bye.”  Rayla hung up, looking at Callum again.  “I’m starting to like her.  She’s fun to mess with and she’s sharp.”

“Uh-huh.”  Callum was refusing to look at her.  “Am I done?” 

Rayla stared.  “Aye.  Your form is getting too sloppy.”

“Great, I’m going home.  See you later.”  Callum put the dumbbells back down and started to hurry back towards the locker rooms.

“Callum?”  He paused and turned back at her, an anxious look clear on his face.  “Don’t run away from me.  Please.”

He bit his lip.  “Ray….”

“I’m asking you to be honest about this.”

Callum sighed.  “And I will be.”  He walked back to Rayla, grabbing her hands and holding them for a moment.  “Just not here.”

“Why haven’t you told me about this?”  Rayla shook her cell a bit at him in frustration. 

“Because I’ve never had to talk about this.  Dad always said I never have to talk about it if I don’t want to.  I wasn’t even a vision in anyone’s mind when that happened.  My father was three years old!”  He voice was getting higher and panic was entering his eyes.  “We can talk about this all you want at home, I promise.  Just not here,” he repeated. 

Nodding, Rayla sighed.  “We have a study group in about 40 minutes with my friends.”  One of Rayla’s Moonshadow friends, a girl named Finola, had put together a study group with the old group Rayla had had lunch with every day until the news about her relationship broke.  They hadn’t been avoiding her, but Rayla had chosen to spend most of her time with Callum, Zaras, Claudia, and Soren out of self-preservation.  She knew they supported her and it was safer to be with those who she wasn’t worried about.  Finola reaching out had been a pleasant surprise and even more pleasant was the offer for Callum to come as well.

“Right.  Who else is going?”

“Bandlr, Conner, Gregor, Innes, Sorcha, Tegwyn, and Mererid.”

“The whole group.  Well, not Conner.”  Conner was a Sunfire elf who tended to work out with Bandlr.  Rayla ignored him, mostly because of his arrogance and ‘too cool for everything’ attitude.  It was one thing to be cool, it was another to act holier-than-thou because of it.  “I don’t like Conner.”

Rayla tilted her head.  “You think I do?  He’s a jerk.  He probably was invited because Mererid and Tegwyn are in a lab group with him in chemistry.”

“Short-end of the stick?”

“The shortest end of the stick.  No one wanted to work with him, according to Tegwyn.  He’s too cocky.”

A deep baritone interrupted them, making Rayla’s back freeze.  “‘Cocky’ is just short for ‘confident.’”  Rayla turned, met with the dark skin and light hair on the tall, overly muscled body that was Conner.  “You know, Rayla, people call you ‘cocky’ quite a bit, too.”

Rayla folded her arms, shrugging one shoulder.  “I’ve earned it.  No one can doubt my skills, you know that.”

“I do.  No one can argue with the results either.”  Rayla raised a brow.  That sounded way too suggestive to be innocent.  “Prince Callum.”

Callum nodded.  “Conner.”

“You also attending the study group?”

“Yep.”

Conner chuckled.  “You still mad that I stole your books last year?”

Rayla turned more fully to Callum, surprised.  “Why?  You gave them back and it was for, what, three minutes?”  She could hear the lie in his voice.  She didn’t doubt that he wasn’t mad anymore, but she knew him well enough to sense the distrust there.

“I knew you could take a joke.  Bandlr told me not to mess with you, but whatever.” 

“Bandlr said that?”

Rayla turned her attention back to Conner, watching his reaction.  He guffawed, smirking Callum’s way.  “Yeah.  Not sure why since you were sniffing around Rayla by that point.”

“Oi!” Rayla exclaimed.  “There was no ‘sniffing around’ or whatever kind of image you got in your head.”  She could hear her accent getting a tad thicker at her indignation.  It tended to do that when she was pissed off.  “We were professor-mandated study buddies.  Everyone knows that.”

Conner smirked down at her.  “C’mon, Rayla.  Take a joke.  Your boyfriend can.”  Callum didn’t say a word, coming up behind Rayla to put an arm around her shoulder.  Conner probably couldn’t tell, but Rayla knew it for what it really was; keeping her from tackling Conner to the ground and forcing him to be clear with what he was implying so she had a reason to kick his ass.  “Anyways, shall we head over to the library, Your Highness?”  Callum nodded, pressing a light kiss to the side of Rayla’s head, right by where her right horn emerged.  It was a more intimate gesture and Callum was well aware of that. 

Rayla headed over to the locker rooms with them, getting ready to take a shower to wash off the frustration of the past ten minutes.  The hot water felt good against her tense muscles, though she missed the soft water that came from Callum’s shower.  Despite knowing that Callum considered it their home it was still hard for her to think of the apartment as belonging to her as well.  It was just so grand and full of comforts that she wasn’t used to.  Ethari and Runaan tended to keep a minimalist approach, as did her parents, and the dorms had a few personal touches here and there but nothing big. 

When Rayla finally left, long white hair in a new side braid and out of her gym clothes, she saw Conner staring at his phone next to Bandlr, who looked bored, but no Callum.  “Oi, where’s my boyfriend?”

Bandlr was startled out of his thoughts while Conner rolled his eyes.  Conner gave a head gesture to the right.  Rayla turned and saw Callum had his sketchbook out, drawing the trees while he sat on a bench.  Rayla walked over to him with an affectionate smile.  Of course he was drawing.  The four things that kept Callum’s attention were magic, her, Ezran, and drawing.  “Callum?  Time to go.”

Callum looked up, showing her a light smile.  “Got it.  Give me one sec.”  She leaned over his shoulder to watch him shade the trees and provide some quick contrast.  He had frozen a moment in time, a few faceless people walking in the shade while others were steered towards the sunshine.  “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful.”  It was.  She was going to have to take an art history or theory class to talk to him in more detail about his interests, but she genuinely believed that everything he drew or painted was fantastic.  

“You say that about everything I draw.”

“It’s true.  Let’s go.”  He nodded, grabbing her hand after putting away his notebook.  Luckily, the library was only a ten-minute walk from the gym.  Conner and Bandlr were busy talking about their newest gym routine or whatever it was they talked about while Callum hummed to himself.  “You’re in a good mood.”

“You know me, I’ll take any chance I can get to learn more about magic that I can get.”

“Ah.  Who is it that you’re looking forward to talking to?”

“Sorcha.  She’s in my Tidebound class and poses a lot of questions about whether or not the Moon Arcanum or Ocean Arcanum could influence each other.  Considering the tides are bound to the moon, it makes sense.”

“That’s Sorcha.  She’s the Question Queen.”

“Her mother is half-Tidebound, isn’t she?”

Rayla thought on it for a moment.  “I think she mentioned it at one point.  It’s actually kind of uncommon for inter-elf relationships to happen still.”

“Because you all tend to stay in your groups?”

“Humans aren’t the same?”

Callum scoffed.  “’Course we are.  Duren with Duren, Katolis with Katolis.  There’s comfort in the known or something like that.”

“That why you liked Claudia?”

“Maybe.  It’s definitely not why I like you.”

Rayla smiled, sneaking a look at him from the corner of her eye.  “Oh.  Why do you like me?”

“Because you are the exact opposite of everything I have ever known.  And I find it very attractive.”

“I see.  For what it’s worth, I might feel the same.”     

“Oh, ‘might’?  What else could have attracted you to me?  My giant muscles?”

“Oh, yeah.  Love those.”

“My devastating good looks?”

“What else could it be?”  She was hoped he wasn’t trying to hide any self-deprecation behind that.  She found him quite handsome and she knew she wasn’t alone in those feelings.  While he definitely wasn’t the most muscled guy in the world, he was still tall and his hair falling in those too green eyes of his was only the tip of the attractive iceberg he made.  What really attracted her to him, though, was probably his heart.  He was so kind and wanted to believe the best in people, but he was also full of passion and conviction.  He cuddled her without any prompting and was so giving that it was almost too much sometimes. 

They reached the steps of the library, going up only to see the rest of their group by the front desk.  Finola waved them over, a smile on her pretty face.  Finola’s skin was almost as dark as Conner’s, but looked cool to the touch.  Her white hair was captured in a long ponytail that swayed a bit with her movements.  “Rayla!  Thanks for coming.  Thank you, as well, Prince Callum.  Perhaps you’ll be able to keep us interested in the topics at hand today.” 

Callum chuckled, nudging Rayla a bit.  “Is that usually a problem?”

Tegwyn smirked.  “Absolutely.  Magical theory is about putting things into words that we just inherently know.  Has Rayla ever explained how she knows how to use the arcanum?”  Callum nodded.  “Makes no sense, right?  With you here, we can practice doing it right.”

“Nice to know I’ll be helping out.”

Sorcha smirked.  “’Course.  That’s the best thing for study groups, after all.  Get someone who has an insane amount of questions so you have to learn how to explain it twenty different ways.”

Rayla groaned.  “Yeah, yeah, Question Queen.  Like we really need to know how to explain it on paper.”

“You want a good grade?”  Rayla sneered a bit before sighing.  “Thought so.”  The group moved up to the private study room Finola had reserved.  “I think we’re all in magical theory classes this term.  Let’s start there.”

The group agreed and worked for about a half hour in relative order.  Bandlr had been pretty well-behaved, much to Rayla’s surprise.  He was quieter than usual and hadn’t flirted with her at all.  Rayla felt quite pleased at the fact she didn’t have to fend off comments about her body or her temper. 

“What do you think, Ray?” 

Rayla looked over at him.  “Hmm?”

“Do you think that Tidebound magic could be a hindrance or an asset to Moonshadow illusions?”

“No clue.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around because of the moon affecting tides?”

“I would think so, but Sorcha thinks it’s possible that it’s the other way around, too.”

Rayla shrugged.  She was about to start going through her stats notes when she noticed the whole table was completely silent.  “Everything alright, guys?”

Bandlr’s eyes were wide as he looked between her and Callum.  “He called you ‘Ray.’”

“Yeah?”

“I have never, ever heard someone call you ‘Ray’ and I’ve known you for years.  Not even Aoife or Malik called you ‘Ray.’”

Callum turned to her and leaned in.  “Aoife and Malik?” he whispered in her ear.

“Ex-girlfriend and ex-boyfriend,” Rayla whispered back.  Rayla looked fully at the rest of the group.  “I don’t know what to say to that.  Callum started calling me that, I don’t know, a month or two into are relationship, and I didn’t hate it so he continued.”

“I didn’t know I was the only who called you that.”

“Aye.  No one ever tried before.  We don’t really shorten names in Silvergrove.  We use words like ‘my heart’ or ‘my love’.  If you’re really sappy, you’ll call someone ‘moon of my life.’”

Finola interjected, an eager look on her pretty face.  “Can I call you, ‘Ray?’”

“No.”

A pout.  “Why?”

“Because.”

“Callum can.”

“Callum can do whatever he wants.”

Conner butted in, a sleazy look in his eyes while he looked her up and down.  “Does that include sexually?”

“Excuse me?!”

“Conner, what the fuck?!”

“This is why I didn’t want him to come!”

“What is it with men and sex?”

“You can’t ask someone that, Conner!”

“Next time, invite Zaras.  She keeps the perversion to a minimum unless asked.”

Rayla narrowed her eyes, ignoring the study group’s uproar at Conner’s words.  Callum was keeping his own mouth shut, glaring at Conner.  “That’s not really any of your business, it it?” Rayla hissed.

Conner chuckled, folding his hands behind his head.  “Just a question, babe.”

“Don’t call her ‘babe’, Conner,” Bandlr added.  “She hates it.  Not even her exes could call her that.  ‘Baby’, ‘babydoll’, anything like that is off limits.”  Rayla gave a sharp nod of acknowledge towards Bandlr. 

Conner groaned.  “You’re all too sensitive.”

“Not your business, Conner.”

Conner ignored Bandlr, looking straight at Rayla.  “So, does he?”

“Like I said, Callum can do whatever he wants.”  Rayla’s eyes went wide as she realized what she had just said.  “I meant, it’s none of your business.”  Callum’s face was getting red as he ducked behind his notebook, avoiding her gaze.  Not that she could blame him, as she didn’t want to look at anyone else right now.  The group, thankfully, respected her enough to ignore what she said and continued to call Conner out for his bullshit.

The group slowly fell back into normalcy, but now, Rayla’s mind was on what Conner had brought up.  Callum was allowed to do whatever he wanted with her body.  He never took advantage and always asked for permission when trying new things or checked in on her after if she approved trying something different.  She trusted Callum and Conner had made it seem so dirty.  Her mind went back to the weekend at Callum’s art studio and how him taking charge had led to some of their best sex.  Soon, her mind was no longer focused on the notes, but on all the plans she had for him in the coming future.   

Rayla’s breath hitched as Callum gently ran a hand against her thigh, probably in an effort to check in on her.  She zoned out as she pictured Callum standing up, pulling her up with him.  Instead of walking out of the room, Callum pushed her front to the desk and pulled down her pants and underwear, swiftly entering her soaking core.  Rayla felt the heat rise in her cheeks as she could almost feel him thrusting in her while his fingers gripped her hips.  It was too much when she imagined his voice calling her his in front of her friends and, essentially, the whole damn school.  She almost purred when she felt Callum put a bit of her hair behind her ear.

“Ray?”  Rayla was jolted back at his questioning tone.

“Wha?”

“You OK?”  Rayla looked at the table.  Everyone looked either concerned or confused with the except of Conner who looked pissed off at…Callum?  Great.  The last thing she needed was another jealous boy acting like a jerk because she was already in a relationship.

“I’m gonna get some coffee.”  She bolted out of her seat and made her way to the library’s café.  She needed time to cool off.  As she waited in line, she felt her blush slowly go down with her heartrate.  ‘What was with that?  I’m not a moonstrider in heat, dammit!’  But, she couldn’t deny that she had gotten wet at the thought of Callum claiming her in front of other people.  ‘I’m sick.

She ordered herself a latte and Callum a green tea, standing off to the side in a little corner as she waited for her order.  She wrapped her arms around herself, refusing to look at her phone in case someone had texted her to ask what was going on.  It didn’t make sense.  They had sex often enough and there was no denying that they experimented a bit here and there.   Why was she STILL soaking wet just thinking about it?! 

“Ray?”  Rayla looked up to see Callum holding their drinks.  “You zoned out pretty bad there.  I think they called your name a few times.”

“When did you get here?”

“Maybe a minute ago.  You doing OK?  I can get our stuff and we can go home if you’re not feeling up to studying.”

“It’s fine.  I just…I had….thoughts.”

Callum raised a brow.  “‘Thoughts?’”

“Yeah.”

“What kind of thoughts?”

Rayla sighed.  “Like…you grabbing me and fucking me in front of the study group.”  It was so quiet that she had hoped that Callum wouldn’t have been able to hear her.  Instead, he choked on the tea he had just taken a sip of.

“What?”

Groaning, she felt shame color her cheeks.  “Don’t make me say it again.”

“Do you…want to…?”  Callum paused, quickly giving Rayla her latte so he could wave his hand a bit.  “I mean, I’ve never thought about…exhibitionism-”

“Oh, gods!”  Rayla slammed a hand to her forehead as she looked around the room.  They were too far away for people to notice their conversation, but, still, it was the principal of the matter.  “I don’t know what got into me.  But now I’m horny and it’s not going away!”

 Callum shushed her a bit, grabbing her hand that was ready to pull out her hair.  “It’s OK, Ray.  We didn’t actually do anything.”

“I know.  I’ve just…I’ve never…”

Callum laid a kiss on her forehead.  “It’s not a big deal.  Is it the fact that you imagined it or is it the fact that it was in front of your friends that’s the problem?”

Rayla thought about it.  Was she actually upset about fantasizing about having sex with her fiancee?  No, she wasn’t.  She had done it before.  But it happening against her will in a crowded place and the fact that it had felt so real that she had forgotten her surroundings?  That scared her.  She was supposed to be aware of everything at all times.  The only time she let her guard down was in Callum’s apartment and she still had knives hidden around the apartment he wasn’t aware of in case something happened.  “The friends thing.”

“There you go.  That’s not surprising.  You’re a very private person and this is a pretty private thing.”

“Aye.”

“If it makes you feel better, I don’t think anyone figured out what happened.  With finals around the corner, they probably think you’re stressed.”

“I know.”

Callum looked a bit embarrassed, taking a long gulp of his tea.  “Thanks for the tea, Ray.”

“I know you like your green tea.”

Callum smiled.  “Family tradition on Mom’s side.  Aunt Amaya refuses to touch coffee even though Janai loves it.  Something about the caffeine in green tea being better for the mind and body or something.  Even Claudia’s hot brown morning potion can’t compare to the power of a good tea.  My grandmother used to bring her own tea to the castle because Dad doesn’t have access to ‘the good stuff’.”  He chuckled, smiling down at the cup.

“Is the good stuff better?”

“The best.”  Rayla smiled, taking a sip of her own latte.  It had gotten a little cold for her taste, but that was her own fault.  “Aunt Amaya says that the best stuff comes from a village that has specialized in tea for centuries.  Even their cake has a glaze made from it.”

“You know your tea.”

“Of course.  My mother’s whole family is made up of tea experts with a terrifying sweet tooth.  You didn’t think that I only inherited my mom’s good looks, did you?”

Rayla blinked.  She stared at Callum for a bit, looking at the slope of his jaw and the way his hair fell in his eyes.  “You do look like her.  A lot, actually.  I never noticed.  You always said people mentioned you’re just like your father so I assumed-”

“That it comes to looks, too?  Not really.  I have his eyes and his height.  Well, Mom and Aunt Amaya are both tall so that’s genes on both sides.  When Aunt Amaya’s hair was really short, back when I was 14, people sometimes did a double-take with how much I looked like her.”  Callum leaned in a bit, smiling.  “Especially from the side.  My personality comes from my father as does my talent for art.  That’s why people say that.”

“Huh.”  Rayla took another long sip, thoroughly distracted by Callum’s jawline now.  It was nice and sharp with a strong chin.  From what she remembered in the Skype call with Callum’s family, Amaya had that same jawline.  Callum’s small smile was similar to the painting he had hanging in his apartment.  “I can’t believe I never noticed.”

“The eyes tend to throw people off.  It’s the same with Ez.  He looks a lot more like Dad, but his cheekbones and smile are all Mom.”

“And the sweet tooth.”

Callum chuckled.  “And the sweet tooth.  The family joke is that it skipped me and Ezran got both our shares.  I like it sweet here and there but, Ezran,” Callum chuckled again.  “He could eat nothing but jelly tarts for the rest of his life and be happy as a clam.”

“Does he like tea, too?”

“Doesn’t have much of a taste for it.  Mom used it to offset the taste of sweetness so she could go back in for thirds and fourths.”  Rayla raised a brow.  “Not kidding.  I remember her telling me that.  ‘Callum, sweetie, if Mommy drinks green tea with dessert, she hasn’t had her daily dose of sweetness.  That’s why she gets a fourth helping of cake.’”

Rayla chortled.  “You must be joking!”  It was ridiculous to imagine the warrior queen of Katolis, one of the greatest generals humankind (and perhaps elfkind) had ever produced, was that addicted to sugar.

Callum shook his head.  “Nope.  Bringing jelly tarts to their room was an almost guaranteed way for Dad to get on Mom’s good side.  My grandfather called her ‘the Sugar Queen of Katolis.’”  Rayla laughed harder.

The laughed for a bit longer, Callum reaching for her hand while they slowly came back to their surroundings.  “You alright to head back?”

“Aye.  I feel better now.”

“Good.  Let’s go.” 

They headed back to the group, smiling and squeezing hands the whole way.  Rayla was pleased with how welcoming her friends were continuing to be with Callum, even though Conner was either goading him or purposefully ignoring him.  What was interesting was Bandlr.  He was quiet most of the time and didn’t fight with Callum or Rayla.  If anything, he seemed to be reigning Conner in half the time through elbowing and hisses.  Rayla could only hope that this was a sign that Bandlr was learning to accept her relationship.

Before leaving, Sorcha invited them to a party at the dorm on Saturday.  It was supposed to be a way to continue to improve elf-human relationships on campus as it was going to introduce to the humans the elf tradition of girls, and some guys, choosing partners to dance.  Callum had looked interested and thanked Sorcha for the both of them, asking if his two left feet outside of a waltz would be a problem.

“Nah,” Sorcha scoffed.  “No one will look down on you for that.  Just come and have fun.”

When they got back to the apartment, Rayla sat in the dining space as she watched Callum cook dinner.  He was in a good mood now, pleased that he had new perspectives on the course material, but he had made her a promise.  “Can we talk about Cloverton now?”  He paused mid-stir of his sauce.  “We’re alone.”

He sighed.  “I know.  So, Cloverton….I don’t talk about it with anyone.  Not even with Ezran.”

“Why?”  Rayla put her head on her hand, watching him get back to his stirring.

“Fear, mostly.  Is it irrational?  Yes.  But my great-grandparents never fully believed that the dark mage who potentially caused the plague really died.  Could have been an illusion or something.  It was too….neat, I think.”

“What do they think happened.”

Callum looked up and at her for a few moments.  “That it was caused by dark magic.  My father probably believed the same, but I’m not sure.  I was sworn to secrecy when they told me.  I was five at the time and they were getting older.  They had no evidence to show me, only what they remembered.”

“What happened, exactly?”

Callum shrugged, moving to chop up some spinach for the sauce.  “You want it spicy or not?”

“Let’s go spicy tonight.”  He grabbed a bottle of red powder from his spice cabinet, tipping just a smidge in the pot.  “You can go hotter than that.”

“Sure you can handle it?”

“Can you?”  He chuckled and put in more.  “So…?”

“Oh, right,” he sighed.  “OK, so what happened was that the dark mage in town wanted more power.  Because it was a border town, he firmly believed that elves would be sneaking in to make their way into the human kingdoms to kill us all,” his voice was incredulous, matching her own feelings.  “The council refused, citing their peaceful history and devotion to preserving history and improving medicine.  Their library was one of the best in Katolis, and the best in the human kingdoms among smaller villages.”

“This important?”

Callum turned back and smiled.  “Actually, yes.  My father’s father’s family were archivists and librarians devoted to the preservation of knowledge and art.  My father learned art through looking at images from the masters themselves and how color theory had developed over the generations.  Anyways,” turning back, he tasted the sauce, “come tastes this.”  Rayla got up to taste the golden sauce, a smile on her face at the smell of spices and herbs as well as the image of the vegetables and meat moving around.  He had rice cooking to the side and a kettle for tea on another burner. 

Rayla took a bit from the spoon he offered her, a pleased moan escaping her.  “That’s delicious.  What is that?”

“It’s called ‘curry’ and it’s from Neolandia.  Usually, it’s much spicier than this, but I tried to tone it down for your first time so you could taste the different spices in it.”

“Color me impressed.”  Rayla narrowed her eyes.  “Why do you humans have such good food?  Back in Silvergrove, food is seen as more for survival with a secondary interest on taste.”

Callum shrugged.   “Food is one of life’s few pleasures, I guess.  Besides sleep and sex, of course.” 

Rayla raised a brow.  “Which one rates as number one?”

“You really gotta ask me that?  Sex, obviously.”

Rayla moved her head from side to side a bit.  “I don’t know.  This ‘curry’ is pretty good.”

“I see.”  He kissed her forehead, lightly bumping her hip with his.  “Anyways, the dark mage was displeased and wasn’t seen for a few days.  Then, there was word that everyone on the council was sick as were most of their families.  They were bedbound in about two days.  It involved shaking, vomiting, fever, and pockmarks.  Cleanliness was practiced and everyone worked double time to try to keep it contained.  Nothing worked.  Within two weeks, 80% of the town was gone.  Everyone gets it wrong by saying it was one week, but it was closer to two.”  Callum closed his eyes tight.  “My father’s mother’s family was completely gone.  No one was left.  The fact that my father survived was considered a miracle in itself, because it was affecting the young more drastically than any other age group.

“The lucky thing was that my father’s paternal grandparents had been visiting another town to share materials, digitization, all that.  When they came back, my grandmother died a few hours later, leaving my father all alone.  My great-grandparents grabbed him, all important documents and ran.  They refused to return for about ten years and my father never returned to Cloverton.  Their friends were gone except for one who was kind enough to put family heirlooms in storage.  Bodies were burned instead of putting them in graves and there was just so many people.”  He shook his head.  “There has never been anything like it and it almost got dark magic banned in Katolis.”

“‘Almost’?”

Callum nodded.  He put the lid on the pot, and fully tuned towards her.  “No one could prove that was the cause.  The timing and the fact that it never left Cloverton was suspect.  The fact that it affected the council first and almost completely destroyed their families was suspect.  But, when there was an investigation, they couldn’t find any proof in the dark mage’s house.  My father tried to get it banned when he was older, but there just wasn’t enough evidence.  He did call dark magic the reason why the peace was destroyed, and it was.  But…that wasn’t the only reason.  It never was.”

“And you didn’t tell me any of this because…?”

Callum huffed out his nose.  “Like I said, I was sworn to secrecy.  My great-grandparents made me promise to not share this with the world.  What if that dark mage or his family is still out there and waiting?”

“But they found his body?”

“Yep.  Covered in pockmarks just like everyone else.  Blood tests showed the infection was inside of him as well, but, it was weird.  Something didn’t add up right with his DNA compared to previous tests.”  Rayla’s brows furrowed as Callum’s did as well.  “The reality is, it isn’t a secret that my father was born in Cloverton.  People just either assume I don’t know or that I’m like everyone else and keep my mouth shut.  The 20% that survived were scared out of their minds and my father kept a tight lip on whether or not what happened had anything to do with his agenda to remove dark magic from the world.”

“Do Claudia and Soren know?”

Callum shook his head.  “Nope.  Claudia had a few questions and it’s the main reason that she slowly started seeing my way on her use of dark magic.  I brought it up while we were dating after she claimed I was trying to change her.  I was, don’t get me wrong, but I was worried for her.  Viren wasn’t always a monster, Ray.  He used to be kinder and better with his kids.  He was my dad’s best friend and Dad is typically a good judge of character.  I was scared for her, because there is no way of knowing if that mage’s continued use of dark magic twisted him to do something like that.”

“So, you told Claudia what exactly?”

“That most of my family died in Cloverton.  And it is suspected to have been caused by dark magic.  Again, something that everyone knows and not putting the blame on anyone.”

“OK.”  Rayla eyed him up and down for a moment, watching him fold his arms and his fingers twitched at the fact that they weren’t in motion.  He had a hard time keeping still, especially when he was in the middle of something.  “Anything else?”

“I agree with my great-grandparents.  I believe it was caused by dark magic, but there are things that just don’t need to be poked at.  We have an answer, but it will probably never be 100% proven.”

“Can you talk to Siobhan about it?”

Callum groaned, putting his head in his hands.  “Ray, I can’t.  I promised them.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that you are held back by fear, even though you claim it’s irrational?”

“Of course it bothers me.  It probably bothers me as much as your fear of open water bothers you.” 

Rayla pointed a finger at him.  “Drowning, giant waves, animals that can eat you-”

“OK, OK.,” he grabbed her finger, lightly shaking it.  “I get it.  Your fear of open water makes more sense.  I can’t tell people about this because what if there is something else in place?  Nothing like Cloverton has ever happened before or since.  Dark magic was always meant to be a way to put human on the same level as elves, it wasn’t mean to be a means to grab for power.”

“It’s your choice if you want to go back on your word.  I respect you for trying to honor them, though.”

“Thanks.  Moonshadow elves value that above all else, right?”

“Aye.”  Rayla smiled, lightly nudging him.  “I think you should.  The world hasn’t forgotten Cloverton.  Even elves know about it.”

“I know.  And they shouldn’t.  Maybe it will get the other human kingdoms on the same page.  But, they know about my connection to Cloverton.  They know it affected someone they know.”

“Who told them?”

Callum paused, blinking into space for a moment.  “I don’t know.  Not me, I know that.  Maybe Dad told them.  No, that can’t be right.  He promised my great-grandparents to stay out of it, out of respect for me and my father.  Mom told Dad, but she didn’t tell me.  I was too young and she probably didn’t think it was her place.  Ez found out because it was in our history lessons and our tutor brought it up.”  Callum paused again, turning his head with a soft outtake of breath.  “Who told anyone?  Someone at some point must have delved into my mom’s past around the time Dad courted her and found out.  It wasn’t a secret.  All former Cloverton residents were ordered to register at their new cities and towns so they could be reached easily if information was needed during investigation.”

“And the information people have, how did they get it?”

Callum shrugged.  “99% of it is inferred.  Numbers of fatalities are easy enough to get, and the fact that the disease never left the borders of Cloverton does get people asking questions.  Dark mages were all ordered to register with the guilds by this point, so all anyone had to do was look at the registry to see if there was anyone in town to back up the possibility of that theory.”

“You’ve never talked about this with anyone?”

Callum shook his head.  “No.  My grandparents told me what they knew, what they believed, what my father believed, and what evidence they had to support it.  They then swore me to secrecy and told me that the secret might as well die with me.  It never made sense to me; they were archivists!”  He held his hands out, arms straight ahead of him.  “Why would they want a piece of history to die with us?  The older I got and the more exposed to dark magic I became, the more I understood.  What if just talking about it sets something off?  What if there is someone out there who was in cahoots with that mage?  When Viren sent his magic after me, I felt like I finally understood what they meant.  The risk was too high.  I’m all that was left of their families and they didn’t want me to get caught up in whatever potential…whatever there is.”       

Rayla sighed.  “Are you really all that’s left?”

“Yeah.  Both sides of the family had settled in Cloverton centuries ago.  My great-grandmother tried to find someone else that had escaped, but they were either so distantly related or just had no interest that it didn’t matter.  My great-grandmother mentioned that my father’s mother’s family had a secret that no one could prove or disprove, but she never told me what it was.  Said my mom was the only one that actually knew what it was anymore since my father told her and he never told his grandparents.  He knew because his mother had told him before she died and there were a few documents locked in a safe.  They never looked out of respect for my grandmother, just grabbed the documents and gave them to my father when he was eighteen.”

“So, there’s another secret in the family that you don’t even know about?”  Rayla’s brows raised, intrigued.  The talk of Cloverton had been depressing, but interesting.  This, however, was purely fascinating.

“Mm-hmm.  No clue what it is.  My father chose not to share it with his grandparents.  Why?  No idea.”

“Your father’s family is like some sort of treasure trove of secrets.”

“Maybe.  Every family has its secrets, though.”

Rayla shrugged.  “Probably.”  The delicious smell of their dinner interrupted her thoughts for a moment.  “Can you talk to Siobhan?”

“I’ll give it a try.  I’m not promising anything, though.  I’ll feel bad if I can’t bring myself to say anything, but I can’t say for sure if I’m able to speak about this.”

Rayla noticed the drop in his mood, choosing to change the subject to get his energy back up.  “Is dinner ready?”

Callum turned to the clock on the wall and then to the pots.  “Few more minutes.  Gotta give it a bit more time to cook.”

“You’re gonna make this for me again, right?  It smells amazing.”

“I’ll make it for you again, don’t worry.”

“Where did you learn to cook?  Surely not the castle?”

Callum smiled.  “Remember how I told you Dad made us work for everything we wanted?”  She nodded.  “Well, his father did the same thing.  When we stayed at the Banther Lodge, it had long been tradition that only two servants as well as guards were allowed to accompany the royal family.  One would assistant with childcare and laundry while the other was usually a tutor.  We learned how to cook and clean every winter.  Dad has a real fondness for Neolandia’s food, so we had a lot of it along with crusty bread with a smidge of olive oil and garlic.”

“What is it with humans and bread?”

“It’s bread!  It’s perfect!  Sandwiches, mopping up soups and sauces, it’s great when it’s warm and crusty on the outside.”

Rayla rolled her eyes.  “You love it that much?”

“I like good food as much as the next person.  Bread is considered good food in most human circles.”

“Sure it is.”  Callum smiled, turning to the pots. He lifted the lid and smiled at the smell.  “Ready?”  He nodded and gestured for her to grab the plates.  When they were finally sitting down with their dinner, Rayla reached for his hand.  “Thank you for telling me.”

He smiled a bit, but kept his eyes downcast.  “You’re welcome."

Chapter Text

Callum drank the soda he had been offered at the dorm party before quickly putting it to the side.  It was almost sticky sweet and he was not a fan.  Next to him were Claudia and Zaras, heavily making-out in full view of the other partygoers.  Rayla had left him to talk to Finola about something or other for their psychology class.  Callum eyed the crowd mostly ignoring him.  It had been almost a month by this point since he and Rayla had gone public and the newness seemed to have worn off.    

It was becoming more common now to see humans and elves studying together and casual dating between the two had skyrocketed.  At first, Callum had wondered if it had something to do with him and Rayla.  Zaras posting quizzes and polls on the school website had quickly disproven that.  She had posed questions about when elves and humans had first found each other attractive, what was holding people back from dating in the first place, and whether or not Rayllum (Zaras’ official nickname for Callum and Rayla) was still controversial.  Shocking almost everyone, the results had poured in that those who stayed at the University longer were quite open to elf-human relationships.  ‘Rayllum’ hadn’t been the catalyst for opening their minds to the possibility, but it had made them more willing to take action on their feelings.

“So, spring term,” Zaras whispered in his ear.  Callum jumped, not having even noticed she and Claudia had disengaged.  Zaras smirked.  “It’s going to be over soon, Callum.  Is Rayla going to Katolis for the summer or what?”

Callum shrugged.  “I don’t know.  She is 100% going to Aunt Amaya and Janai’s wedding, but we don’t know if it’s still going to be at the border or not.  There’s a lot of talk about moving it to Katolis because it’s a ‘royal wedding.’”

Claudia blinked at that.  “But Janai is the sister of the Queen of Lux Aurea.  Doesn’t that take precedent to sister-in-law of the King of Katolis?”

Callum shrugged.  “It’s all politics, Clauds.  I bet that it will still be on the border barring a complete disaster.  Katolis just has to make a show that Aunt Amaya is important not only as a general, but as a member of the royal family and that’s why Opeli is, kind of weakly, honestly, arguing that it should be in the capital with all the pomp and circumstance of a Katolian wedding.”

Claudia nodded, seemingly placated.  Zaras, however, looked unimpressed.  “Really?  That’s why?”

“Politics are all bullshit, Zaras.  Claudia will tell you the exact same thing.”  Claudia nodded again.  “Besides, Lux Aurea pulled a similar stunt shortly after they got engaged.  Queen Khessa was very displeased when Janai told her that Aunt Amaya would not be walking through a wall of fire as is custom among Sunfire elves.”

Claudia looked horrified.  “What?  Did she want Amaya to die?!”

“No clue.  Again, it’s probably politics.  It’s tradition, yadda yadda yadda, if we forgo this tradition, we have to keep this one to be fair, yadda yadda.”

A new voice entered the conversation.  “Ah, yes, the whole tradition of ‘yadda yadda yadda.’”  Callum looked up in joy at Rayla standing before them.  She leaned down to kiss his cheek before straightening back up.  “I need to talk to you.  In private.”  Claudia and Zaras instantly started making kissing sounds as Callum followed Rayla to a less crowded space.

“What’s up?”

“I got a text from Malik.”

“Malik?  The ex-boyfriend?”

“Yeah.  I haven’t heard from him since graduation.  He must have gotten my new number from Runaan or Ethari…or my parents.”

Callum blinked.  “Your parents?”

“Yeah.” 

Callum waited for Rayla to speak, but she remained silent.  “Ray?”

“Sorry, just thinking.  So, the Dragon King has asked Malik, since we know each other, to come down and just get my thoughts on how relations are going here as well as talk to you.  Malik’s using it as a vacation and bringing his girlfriend.  So double date.  Yay.”  Rayla rolled her eyes as the thick sarcasm coated her ‘yay.’

“Is seeing Malik a problem?”

Rayla nodded.  “Aye.”

“Do you…still have feelings for him or…?”  It almost broke his heart to even ask that question; to even consider the possibility that Rayla still loved a ghost from her past and he had been second-best this whole time.

Rayla leveled a stare at Callum.  “No, I don’t still have feelings for him.”  Her voice was firm and teetering on the edge of being offended.  “Whatever you’re thinking, stop it.  NOW.  The problem is that Malik admitted that he sees my parents at least once a week.  In the two years that Malik has been working for the Dragon King, he has seen my parents more times than I have since they left when I was five.  I’m jealous of the fact that he probably knows them better than I do.”

“That would make it a problem.”

“Ya think?”  Rayla plucked a sugary drink from a nearby table and chugged it.  She crushed the cup in her hands before chucking it in the trash bin a few feet away.  “I’m pissed off.  And not even at him.  He’s a great guy and I know he’s not coming to win me back; he has freaking orders to come here.  He’s bringing his girlfriend and he sounds completely in love with her, which great for him, he deserves to be happy.  It just hurts to think that my ex has a better relationship with my parents than me.”  Callum came up behind her to wrap her in a hug.  Rayla stiffened for a moment before relaxing in his hold.  “Runaan and Ethari have always said that it couldn’t be helped and Malik agreed with them.  They aren’t allowed to have cellphones because it’s too distracting.  Because it’s such an important task, everything is shared verbally so that it can’t be used against anyone.  The last movie they saw was, apparently, my graduation.”  Callum heard the tears start to seep into her voice.  “They watched my graduation, Callum.  They kept every letter I ever sent to them and their room is covered in pictures of me, Runaan, and Ethari.”

“That’s great, Ray.”

“Except now I feel terrible because I believed they didn’t give a shit when they weren’t allowed to make contact with me.  Malik says they miss me, but can’t leave.  The oath is binding and ties them to the Spire except in an emergency.”

“Would a wedding constitute as an emergency?”

Rayla stilled in his arms, looking up at him.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll make it an emergency if we have to.  We’ll elope, but actually tell them, Runaan, Ethrai, Zaras, Ezran-”

“I get it,” she laughed.  “I tried for years to bury these feelings of abandonment and I find out that they never had a choice in the first place.”

“You said the oath binds them to the Spire.  Why?”

Rayla shrugged, turning to hold him close.  “Maybe because of Sol Regem.  He was not a kind king.  He was just towards elves but not humans.  It would make sense that his blinding would lead to a Dragon Guard that would be forced to stay at the Spire, unable to abandon their king.”

“Can’t you go see them?”

Rayla shook her head.  “Nope.  Spire is still off limits to the public.  Because of what the human kingdoms did 15 years ago, no one is allowed near it.”  Callum winced at the mention of the incident that resulted in his mother’s death and the fatal wounding of the previous dragon king.

“Did Malik mention them mentioning us?”

“No.  They have to know at this point.  There’s no question that they know.  Maybe they’re waiting for Malik to report back before passing judgement.”

“Do you know when Malik found out?”

Rayla bit her lip, looking down.  “Well, no, but…I’ve been sitting on this text from Malik for about a week.”

“Why?”  Callum was hurt, but he understood.  He had never mentioned Cloverton to Rayla and they had been together for a little over a year, give or take.  He would be a hypocrite if he was pissed about her hiding a harmless text.

“I didn’t know how to tell you.  You’ve been supportive of my issues with my parents, despite how much you miss your own.  Also, I had no idea how you would react to the idea of Malik coming here.”

“Did you think I’d be jealous?”

“Maybe.  You’ve been mature whenever he comes up, but it’s different because you’ll be meeting him.  But, I also needed to work out my own feelings about my parents and how this changes things.  I wanted, no, I needed to figure that out before even telling Malik I was willing to meet up with him or have him meet you.”

Callum was about to speak when he heard the music cut off.  He and Rayla both turned to the DJ to see Sorcha with a mic.  “Alright, everyone.  It’s time for the ‘cultural exchange’ element of this little soiree,” she announced.  “First up, the rules.  You cannot refuse a dance unless you are in a relationship.  Raise your hand if you are in a closed relationship.”  Callum watched as more than half the room raised their hands, including himself and Rayla.  “Get a good look.  The rules are sacred.  Do not violate them.  Just because a dance cannot be refused doesn’t mean you can’t refuse anything else.  If your dance partner tries to kiss you or touch you in any way you don’t feel comfortable, please say ‘no.’  If you don’t feel safe, at all, stomp on your partner’s foot or walk away.  Lastly, this is not a declaration of acceptance of feelings, but you can use it to express your interest.  Got it?”  A chorus of ‘got it’s and a few eye rolls from the elves. 

The humans in the room looked intrigued and turned back to Sorcha.  “I want girls and anyone else who is asking on this side of the room,” she pointed to the left side.  Rayla rolled her eyes and headed to the left side.  Zaras was there as well, but Claudia had moved to the right.  “OK, now, I want everyone else who is willing to participate on the other side.”  Callum moved to stand next to Claudia on the right.  “Everyone who is not participating, please stand over here, by me.  Again, do not violate the rules.  People who are not participating are off limits.”  After a minute, Sorcha smirked at the DJ.  “OK, here we go.”

Callum noticed the synth notes and watched as the people on the left of the room were tapping their feet to the beat, but seemed to be slow to move.  “This is what Zaras meant.”

Callum turned to Claudia.  “Huh?”

Claudia gestured over to the left side.  “The person who goes first is making a pretty big declaration, usually.  Like, you like this person so much you can’t bear to be apart or something.  There’s no shame if you wait, because it shows you can exhibit restraint, but it’s the waiting that also builds up anticipation.”  Callum nodded, eyes locked on Rayla.  She was starting back at him, smiled a bit, but didn’t move.

 

 They talk like that where you come from

Show me the map, need direction

I'm down with that, yeah it's welcomed

I kinda like it, I, I kinda like it

 

Rayla and Zaras were whispering to each other, with Zaras gentling nudging Rayla forward.

 

You got that thing, different flavor

I gotta say it's working in your favour

Wanna hang? Now or later

I kinda like it, I, I kinda like it, oh

    

Callum looked back at Claudia.  “You think this song was chosen on purpose?”

Claudia chuckled.  “Obviously.  There’s a lot of intercultural dating happening on campus.  I can promise it was on purpose.”

 

I, I, I kinda like it

I, I kinda like it, oh

 

Callum didn’t have time to think too hard on it as Rayla suddenly appeared in front of him, grabbing his hand.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zaras was already pulling Claudia to the center and the wall was getting barer by the second.  “You wanna dance, Your Highness?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

 

I, I, I kinda like it

I, I kinda like it, oh

 

Rayla wrapped her arms around his waist and did a slow grind of her hips against his.  “Will you follow my lead, Callum?”

“I would follow to the ends of the Earth.”

She shook her head.  “Don’t be all romantic when I’m trying to seduce you.”  He smiled down at her, but was more than willing to follow her.

 

I, I, I kinda like it

I, I kinda like it, oh

I, I, I kinda like it

I, I kinda like it, oh

 

Rayla had turned around, continuing to grind against Callum.  One of her arms was around his neck and she was using the other to guide his right hand to rest on her thigh.  She left it right on the seam of where her shorts met bare skin.  Callum leaned down a bit to rest his chin on her shoulder, lightly nibbling on the lobe of her sensitive ear.  Their dance was slow compared to the others on the floor.  He saw a few skirts coming up way too high to be decent. 

Callum smiled against her ear.  “I thought you were trying to seduce me?”

Rayla huffed.  “If I put your hands down my shorts now, we won’t make it back home.”

“You’ve been needy lately.  Am I not taking care of you properly?”  Callum moved his left hand that had been resting on her hip to lightly skim the bare skin of her thigh along with his right.  He saw Rayla bite her lip as he gently used the chance to press her butt a little more into his growing erection.

“You have.  Maybe I’ve always been needy.”  Callum chuckled.  He didn’t even notice when the music turned off and everyone made their ways back to their previous spots or stayed on the makeshift dance floor.  Rayla guided them back to Zaras and Claudia who were, again, heavily making out.  “You two need to get a room.”

Zaras looked them both up and down after disengaging from Claudia.  “I’d say the same thing about you two.  You’re looking a little flushed, Rayla and I know it’s not me Callum’s happy to see.”

“We’re heading home, actually.  You two want to head out or what?”

Claudia nodded for her and Zaras, who rolled her eyes.  “Yeah, let’s go.”

Callum tilted his head.  “You gonna stay at Claudia’s, Zaras?  Don’t you have an empty dorm room now that Ray’s moved out?”

Zaras shook her head.  “I wish.  They moved in some two weeks ago and, she hates memes.  I can’t live with someone who hates memes.”

Rayla made eye contact with Callum.  “The Meme Queen needs to spread her love of memes to the whole world.”

“You’re the Meme Queen, Ms. ‘I’ll run with my arms behind me even though it’s bullshit.’”

“It’s for fun, Zaras.”

Claudia was shaking her head next to Zaras.  “We heading out?”

“Yeah.”  They made their way over to Sorcha who smiled at the four and thanked them for coming.  As they left the party, Callum noticed that the stares that had followed him and Rayla seemed to be few and far between.  Maybe, just maybe, the world was going to leave them alone and give Rayla back some of her privacy.

 

_____________________________________ 

 

Bandlr ran a hand through his hair while walking out of magic theory class on Monday.  He was really falling behind and Lujanne and wrote a note on their latest test to talk to her.  He was pissed at himself.  This was supposed to be easy and here he was, getting a C while the human mage was getting an A.  The study group hadn’t even helped despite all the work he put into it.  He waited by the door, trying to be hidden just enough so others wouldn’t notice and heckle the shit out of him, but still able to see Lujanne when she left.  He hardly noticed when Zaras stopped in front of him, brow quirked and disgruntled look on her lips.

“Waiting for the happy couple?”

Bandlr shook his head.  “I’m pretty sure they already left.”

Zaras sighed.  “You need to let her go, Bandlr.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You think I don’t know?  Back home, I was pining for this girl who wasn’t interested.  I dated around…a lot to get over her.”  Zaras crossed her arms, chin going down.  Bandlr looked down at her.  Zaras had been a good friend to Rayla since they met their first term and occasionally tagged along when their Moonshadow group went did something.  “The positives are that I learned warning signs in other people’s behaviors and the personality traits that I just can’t stand.”

“That has nothing to do with me, Zaras.”

“It has everything to do with you.”  There was fire in her eyes and anger in her voice.  “She’s never wanted you.  Why is it so hard for you get that through your head?!”

Bandlr closed his eyes and counted to three.  “I’ve known that for a long time.”

“Then what is with you?”

“She lied, Zaras!  She lied for a year.  You think you know Rayla so damn well.  I grew up with her.  It is common knowledge back in Silvergrove that you don’t lie to Rayla.  She does not forgive it easily.  It’s her freaking code!”

Zaras backed up a bit, probably to avoid Bandlr’s giant arm movements.  “She had to.”

“She didn’t!  She didn’t have to be with him.  And if she did, she didn’t have to hide it.”  Zaras scoffed.  “What?”

“You don’t have a right to judge her.  You’re selfish, self-absorbed, obsessive-”

“List all my faults, why don’t you?  I’ve got problems, but I’ve never broken my own code.”

“If your code was following Rayla-”

“I helped those two.  I’m not a stalker, Zaras.”

Zaras looked confused, brow drawn.  “I know you hid their secret for a week, but I wouldn’t call that helping, Bandlr.”

“I went to Callum’s apartment that night because there was talk that they were together.  Rayla’s tough-girl attitude didn’t mean people hadn’t figured it out.  And I wasn’t there to confirm it for myself.  I knew it was going on.”

“And how did you know?”

Bandlr shook his head.  “I’ve known Rayla through two other relationships.  You really think I don’t know how she is when she’s single versus when she’s with someone?  I was also trained in how to notice weaknesses and changes in someone quickly.  She walks different some days.” 

“Why did you go to Callum’s, then?”

“Because,” Bandlr looked around the now empty hall.  Lujanne hadn’t left yet.  Hopefully.  “You know Conner?”

“The Sunfire elf that hangs out at the gym all the time?”

“Yep.”

“Who doesn’t know Conner?  As attractive as he is, he’s a jerk.  Can’t stand his ass.”

“Conner’s into Rayla.  He was planning on asking her out, but one of the other guys in our group mentioned that Rayla was obviously either with Callum or in love with him.  Conner didn’t like that and wanted to head over to Callum’s to beat him up.”

“Seriously?”  Zaras crossed her arms, the disbelief in her voice obviously more directed towards the situation.  “What it is with men and thinking they can pull this shit?”

Bandlr shrugged.  “Don’t know what to tell you.  I told Conner I would ask Callum about it; made it seem like it was because of my own interest in Rayla.  The whole plan was to get Claudia, go to Callum’s place, let Rayla or him know what Conner was up to and just…I don’t really know.  Get them to deal with it.”

“Conner hasn’t said anything, though.  And you acted like a jackass that night from what everyone says.”

Bandlr nodded.  “My own jealousy got in the way.  Conner’s still into Rayla, but he’s not looking to break-up a long-term relationship just so he can have a quick fling.  That goes against his code.”

“Is that why you two are friends?  Because he sticks to his ‘code’?”  She said ‘code’ mockingly, making air quotes with her fingers and slightly rolling her eyes.

“One of them.”

“But he was totally cool going over to Callum’s place, to beat him up, just so he could have a one-night stand?”  The sarcasm in her voice was so thick Bandlr could have cut it with his blade.

“Look,” Bandlr ran a hand down his face.  “I don’t know how Conner’s mind works.  When their relationship wasn’t public, it was like it had just started yesterday.  Now that everyone knows it’s been a year and the world knows they’re together, it’s different.”

Zaras was quiet for a moment.  “You weren’t planning on beating up Callum, right?”

Banldr sniffed.  “Please.  I could break him like a toothpick.  There’s no honor in attacking him.  Rayla’s real competition, though.  She’s fast and wily.”  Zaras nodded her head to the side, lip sticking out briefly as she expressed her agreement.  “Why do you care, Zaras?  Rayla hates me and Callum ignores me.”

“Because, despite what you may think, people don’t want you to fall down, Bandlr.  To a degree, I understand you.  I just….  I’m worried about you.  You aren’t studying and you spend all your time at the gym.  And if it’s with Conner, that can’t be helping things.  You’re here to learn, not get muscles the size of the Spire.”

“Every time I sit down to study, I just remember seeing her at Callum’s apartment.  The lies she’s told over the past year come back to me.  In our sophomore year, she yelled at a teacher for lying to all of us about the syllabus.  Junior year, she smacked the shit out of someone on the rugby team because he accidentally saw her bra and said he didn’t.  She knew he lied because he, stupidly, told a couple of guys in the locker room before gym class.”

“Her lying bothers you that much?”

“It’s Rayla.  When I say it’s her code, I mean it’s her code.  She doesn’t tolerate it from anyone.”

Zaras groaned.  “You have to let it go.  You have to let her go.  She’s probably never going to be single again, and if she did, she wouldn’t go to you.  Her type has always been those who are more in-tune with their emotions and intellectual, if what I know about Aoife and Malik are correct.”  Aoife, Rayla’s ex-girlfriend, and Malik, Rayla’s ex-boyfriend.  Two people who Bandlr hadn’t seen since graduation and who had been good to Rayla.  She had smiled more around Aoife and had pushed herself more into her studies with Malik.  The fact that Callum made her do both of those things, plus made her laugh more was the most maddening thing about their relationship. 

“I know.  I’ve always known that.”  Zaras gave him a pitying look.  Bandlr hated pity.  “Give me time.  I’m not going to interfere with their relationship.”

“OK.  Give me your cell.”  Banldr frowned.  “I’m not hitting on you.  I’m in a committed non-relationship.”  Zaras’s eyes went wide.  “Fuck.  I did it again.  ‘It’s just fun, Zaras.  You can have fun and not get attached, Zaras.’  Disaster Bisexual for life, I guess.”

Bandlr watched her eyes glaze over a bit.  He waved a hand in front of her face.  “Earth to Zaras?”

Shaking her head, Zaras turned her attention back to him.  “Sorry.  As I was saying, I’m not hitting on you.  But, if you need to talk, I would rather you actually talk than spend hours in the gym NOT dealing with your emotions.  Personally, I think you need therapy.”

“The shit humans get?  No thanks.  What are they going to do?  Give me pills?”  Despite his disbelief, Bandlr unlocked his phone and handed it to her.  Zaras quickly put her number in before handing it back to him.  “Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re welcome.  Move forward, that’s all you can do.  You may be a jerk, but you’re not irredeemable.  You can be happy if you let go.”

“I said that to two of my ex-husbands.  Nice advice, young one.”  Bandlr and Zaras turned to see Lujanne, smiling lightly.  “You ready to talk about your grades, young man?”  Bandlr nodded.  “Good.  Let’s head over to my office.”  He sent a look over his shoulder at Zaras, the pitying look back on her features.  She gave him a weak smile and a nod.  Bandlr turned back and followed Lujanne up the stairs to her office.  The office was next to all the other magical professors and had a large, dark purple wooden desk to the right.  The bookcase was made of the same wood and a photograph of the Moon Nexus hung on the wall.  There were multiple magical objects around the room, including orbs of all six primal sources.  Lujanne sat at her desk, gesturing for Bandlr to sit at the chair in front.  He instead chose to stand, lightly tapping his fingers against his leg.  Lujanne sighed.  “Alright, young man, please explain to me why you can’t concentrate in my class anymore.”

Bandlr shrugged.  “Don’t know.”

“Is it because of Callum and Rayla?”  Bandlr raised a brow.  “I was young once, I know what unrequited love looks like.”  Bandlr remained silent.  He didn’t need to talk about this with his teacher.  “Focus on your school work.  If you don’t understand something, speak up.  Please.  You were getting A’s.”

“Lujanne, please.  Enough.”  Bandlr turned around, getting ready to walk away.  “I’ll do my best, I guarantee it.  But, I really don’t need to talk about this anymore.”

“You’re not failing yet, but you might if you’re not careful.”

“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.  Can I go?”  Lujanne gave a hum of approval and he walked out the door.  He needed to get out of there.  He knew everyone was just trying to help him, but he needed to deal with his feelings on his own time, not when everyone else wanted him to.  His own sister had been counseling him to the best of her abilities from back in Silver Grove and he felt terrible for it.  She had raised him when their parents proved to be incompetent and shouldn’t be worrying about her baby brother when she was going through fertility treatments.  He became so lost in his thoughts; he never noticed the shadow moving behind him.  The next thing he knew, he was blindfolded and feeling lightheaded as a cloth was put around his mouth.  ‘Fuck,’ was his last thought before blacking out.   

            ___________________________________

Bandlr awoke to see a human with grey hair smiling down at him.  There was a purple bug on his shoulder and everything about it seemed off.  He looked around to a dark room and a little glass atrium with butterflies flying about.  He noticed he was sitting in a chair and his arms where tied behind him and the rope looped through the back of the chair.  “Bandlr was it?”

Bandlr turned his attention back to the human.  “Who the fuck are you?”

“Now, is that anyway to talk to someone who you just met?”

“No, but it’s how I talk to someone who drugged me.”

There was silence for a moment.  The purple bug, was it a centipede, was moving about.  Was it talking to the human?  What the fuck was going on?  “True.  I’ll forgive your transgression.  My name is Lord Viren-”

“Pretty sure that title was stripped from you if you’re who I think you are.”

Viren’s pleasant demeanor slipped for a moment.  “A regrettable consequence of trying to help my king.  His wife poisoned his mind against true progress.”

Bandlr sniffed.  “Uh-huh.  Dark magic isn’t progress.  The step-prince has been pushing progress in ways you probably couldn’t dream of.”

Viren grabbed Bandlr’s neck, fury clear in his face.  “That mongrel and his whore of a mother have taken everything from me.”  Bandlr stayed silent as Viren was squeezing his windpipe.  He refused to beg for his life or show a sign of weakness.  Viren let him go, smirking.  “You don’t show weakness, do you?  A true Moonshadow elf.”  

“What do you want?”

“To give you an opportunity.  My sources show me that you can’t stand Prince Callum and that you are interested in his girlfriend.”  Bandlr had to hold back the eyeroll.  He prayed that was all Viren had on him.

“And?”

“If you help me get rid of the step-prince and in my war against this doomed idea of peace, I will guarantee the girl as your reward.”

Bandlr raised a brow.  “With what?  Mind control?”

“Grief can make a lot of people susceptible to new ideas.”

Bandlr was silent, looking around the room again.  He froze when he saw what looked like a limp Skywing elf in the corner.  At least one arm was cut off as was a wing.  As his eyes adjusted more and more, he saw vials and materials in them that made his stomach twist.  “I have no interest in betraying my kind.”

“Do you really believe that peace is in Xadia’s best interest?”  Bandlr saw a map on the wall.  “Your silence will not help you.  We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  The map had cities on the border marked and going deep into Xadia.  “Which way do you want to do this, young man?”

Bandlr looked at the map again.  Silver Grove was marked.  “You promise you’ll give me Rayla?”

Viren smiled.  “Of course.”

“Then, we have a deal.”

“Excellent.”   

___________________________________

 

Bandlr bit his cheek as he waited outside the library for Callum.  He still hated Callum with every fiber of his being, but Bandlr couldn’t deny that he was good to Rayla.  Not for her, but respected her and her strong opinion.  ‘Where is the step-prince?  I don’t have all day.’  Callum finally exited the library, a small stack of spellbooks in his hands and more bursting out of his bag.  “Need a hand, Your Highness?”

Callum raised his chin to meet Bandlr’s eyes.  Bandlr would admit, he could respect that.  “No thanks.  You need something?”

“We need to talk.”

“Again, no thanks.”

“I can promise you, you’re going to want to hear what I have to say.” 

Callum tried to walk past him, but Bandlr kept moving in his way.  “What do you want to talk about?”

“Something that we can’t do here.”

Callum nodded before finally brushing past Bandlr.  “Got it.  Let’s go, I guess.”

They walked in complete silence, Callum occasionally adjusting his books and muttering about some such magical theory.  Bandlr cleared his throat, desperate for something besides this penetrating silence.  “I still don’t know how you got the sky arcanum to open for you.  It shouldn’t have.”

“I keep explaining it, but it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.”  The answer seemed to come almost mechanically from Callum, as if he had had to answer it a million and one times before.  Probably had.  “And then the people who think they get it try and it doesn’t work.  To be honest, I’m starting to not know myself.  Rayla’s been taking magic theory classes to help me, but we’re not any closer to an answer.”

“I hope you know just how lucky you are that you got Rayla to date you.  It’s not even the fact that she’s beautiful.  She’s tough, clever, usually honest, and apparently insanely supportive.”

“Believe me, I know.  Well, this is it.”  They paused outside the doors to Callum’s building.  Bandlr gestured his arms forward for Callum to move.  He was not going to carry the prince’s books for him.  “Sorry.  The last time you were here, you busted your way into my apartment, threatened me, royally pissed off my girlfriend, and essentially took away the one safe place we had.  Forgive me for wondering if I even want you to step a foot into this building.”  The sarcasm that dripped from Callum’s voice was so clearly Rayla’s influence, it almost sent Bandlr into a tailspin.

“Yes, all of that happened.  Like I said, we need to talk and it can’t be in public.”

Callum pulled out his keys, leading the way to the elevator.  Bandlr was slightly in awe of the polished marble floors and walls, as well as the well taken care of plants and gold accents on the columns.  “It’s quite posh here, ain’t it?”

Callum shrugged and entered the elevator.  “My step-father found this place.  I didn’t need all of the extravagance, but there is tight security, mostly, and it’s close to campus.  It’s not about showing off; it’s about my safety.”

“Yes, because King Harrow would do anything to save you from a madman.” 

By the time the elevator stopped at the top floor, Callum’s mood had clearly dropped.  “I know he would.”  Bandlr had meant it as a barb, but Callum’s completely honest voice set him back a bit.  Callum unlocked his door, setting his books down on the closest chair.  “Ray?  I’m home.”

“Thank the Moon Nexus,” came Rayla’s voice from deeper in the apartment.  “Where are my fingerless gloves?”

“They aren’t with your gym shorts?” Callum was taking off his bag as he moved towards the bedroom.  Bandlr didn’t really know what to do while he waited for Callum to come back.  He took off his own bag and moved towards the chair on the other side of the couch.

Bandlr was drumming his fingers as Callum and Rayla came out to the sitting room.  “Why were my gloves with my underwear, Callum?”

“Why was your underwear with my t-shirts?”

“We need a better system for putting clothes away.”  Bandlr turned, pausing as he saw Rayla in her workout gear.  She was donned in short black shorts and a purple sports bra, pulling on her gloves before adjusting her sneakers.  Since graduating high school, Rayla’s body had gone from well-toned to lightly muscled.  It was a sign of a warrior committed to their craft and made her all the more attractive to him.  “I can’t live with your organized chaos forever.”  Rayla stopped and turned her head in Bandlr’s direction.  She glared long and hard.  “What is he doing here?” was accompanied by a sharp chin tilting of her chin.

“Sorry, I forgot he was here, honestly.”

Bandlr didn’t have time to be offended.  Rayla was too busy slowly inching her way back to the bedroom, her eyes locked on Bandlr.  Normally, he would have relished the idea of Rayla’s eyes on only him, but he had seen that stare before.  Nothing good ever came of that stare.  Rayla quickly appeared with one of her blades in hand, unlocking it to let the light shine off it.  Rayla scooted Callum to sit on the couch, taking her place at Callum’s other side, making sure she was in between him and Bandlr.  She played with her blade a bit before resting it on her knee.

“Is that really necessary?” both Callum and Bandlr asked.

“Aye,” was the only response.  Rayla kept her eyes on Bandlr and one hand on Callum’s knee.  She was ready to strike if he tried anything funny.  “What do you want, Bandlr?”

His tongue was tied.  Her hair was in a side-braid and her lips were in a scowl.  She looked just as dangerous as she was beautiful.  It reminded Bandlr of all the times he thought it was worth Rayla’s wrath to keep making moves on her.  ‘Maybe it would work this time’ had been his motto for far too long.  “We need to talk.”

“Are you here to apologize?  That’s really the only thing I want to hear from your mouth.”

Bandlr moved his jaw a bit.  “No, Rayla.  I’m not going to apologize for something I still believe to be true.  I don’t think you and Prince Callum are going to be good for each other in the long run.”

“Then you have no business here.  Leave.”  Rayla was serious, looking ready to throw him out on his ass.

“I do, actually.  The former lord Viren contacted me.”  Rayla’s brows furrowed while Callum’s face fell.  “He wanted information on the two of you.  He already has a lot, but he wants more.  He’s planning to launch a full news campaign against you both, and then King Harrow.  I also saw plans for attacks on the border.  He wanted me to come here and tell you both that he plans to get the human kingdoms to turn against each other.  That way, I assume, everyone will be distracted and the border will be left wide open.”

“Why should we believe you?”

“I can swear an oath, if you want.  I have no reason to lie about this.”

“You have every reason to lie about this!”  Rayla stood up to point her blade at Bandlr’s throat.  “You threatened Callum and told the world information that wasn’t your’s to share out of jealousy.  Do you have any idea how that made us feel?  Give us proof or I’m just going to believe this is all a ploy to get me and Callum to break-up.”

Bandlr moved to adjust himself to look at Callum.  Instead of meeting his gaze, Callum’s eyes were downcast.  “What can I do?”

“I don’t know. Maybe give us video evidence.  Or an email.  OR something besides the words of a petty asshole.”

Callum tapped Rayla’s hip.  “That’s not how Viren works.  He’s too smart for that.  He would have contacted Bandlr through an anonymous source first, in person, and would have made sure Bandlr didn’t have any kind of recording device on him.  Viren’s people don’t even say that it’s a meeting with Viren.”

“Exactly,” Bandlr breathed.  “I don’t have any physical evidence.  All I have is my word.  Rayla, I have never lied to you for as long as I’ve known you.”

Rayla scrunched her lips before slowly settling back in the couch.  “No, you haven’t.  Is that all you know?”

“He was hoping I could bring Moonshadow elves over to his side.  From what I can tell, his goal is to make his own assassin team but he’s had no success.”

“I’ll believe you.  For now.”

Bandlr gave a sharp nod before getting up to leave.  As he was putting his bag back on, he frowned.  ‘Now or never.’  “I’m not going to apologize for what I did before.  I’ve liked you for a long time, Rayla, but I’ve never acted like this with your old boyfriend or girlfriend, did I?”

“No, you didn’t.”   Her answer was slow and measured.  She was watching him for any little sign of deception. 

“We were trained to exist in the shadows.  The full moon makes us almost completely invisible.  We’re supposed to hide from the light.  Instead, you walked right towards the sun and I believe it’s going to burn you.  I didn’t tell the whole world at midnight after Callum told his family about you two.  I told my dorm mates when they asked where you had been and one of them took a video of it without me knowing.  He sent the video to everyone he knew and it spread that way.  I don’t understand your relationship and I especially don’t understand why you would risk your privacy for him.  But I never planned on going to the news or telling the whole world by myself.”

Rayla’s only acknowledgement to his confession was a brief nod.  Bandlr couldn’t believe he even got that much out of her.  “Why does Viren trust you?”

“Because I gave him an oath that I would do whatever he asked of me.  He believes I’ll keep it.”

“Bandlr, there are ways he can make sure you do.  If he makes you put on one of those ribbons-”

“Then I’ll lose my arm.  The world will only devolve into chaos if Viren gets his way.  No one in Xadia will ever be safe again.  I have to take this risk because he thinks I’m on his side just because I don’t like your boyfriend.”

“You don’t.”

Rayla looked like she was fighting herself from believing him.  Callum, on the other hand, looked at Bandlr with a hint of respect.  Bandlr didn’t want the prince’s respect.  Quickly leaving the apartment, Bandlr made sure to make himself as conspicuous as possible without looking suspicious.  A gloved hand waved to him, bringing him over to the shadows.

The hand made him stop before he could see any more of the person’s body.  “What did you tell them?”

“That they need to keep an eye on the human borders.  Viren plans to attack Duren first and sow dissent among the human kingdoms.”

“What about the border?”

“The border doesn’t matter as long as the Pentarchy stands united.  It’s easier to get the human kingdoms to fight each other first.  If they think Xadia will side with Katolis simply because the step-prince is dating an elf, it will make it that much easier.”

“And how do we know you’re telling the truth?”

“Because Moonshadow elves value honor and oaths above all else.  I made an oath to Lord Viren that I would do as he asked, did I not?”

“Yes, you did.  Very good.  We’ll be requiring video evidence from now on, though.  Clear?”

“Crystal.”  After being dismissed, Bandlr headed back to campus.  As much as he didn’t like Callum, he would rather live in a world that Callum imagined than the one Viren planned.  He didn’t know exactly how he was going to do it, but he wasn’t going to let that monster win this war.   Bandlr slowly lifted his sleeve and hissed at his darkened skin.  Viren’s ribbon was already cutting off circulation because he had gone against his oath.  ‘Worth it.  I gotta find Lujanne and fast.’
 

 

Chapter Text

Rayla smiled as she watched the swordplay on the screen.  She and Callum were in his apartment watching an older human film.  She preferred action to those documentaries she had been watching for her classes.  “They should actually be using their shields more than they are.”

“That’s because non-Sunforge swords tend to be breakable, right?”

“Yep.  I’ll admit, this is pretty good action, though.”

“Told you you’d like it.”

“Yeah, yeah.”  Rayla was going to go back to watching the screen when she felt a slight squeeze of her hand.  She furrowed her brow and looked down at it.  Her eyes widened as she saw it intertwined with Callum’s.  ‘When did that happen?’  She was about to remove it when Callum turned to look as well.  She hoped he would apologize or say something, but he looked just as confused as she did.  When they faced each other, Rayla bit her lip.  ‘Say something, Rayla.’  Instead, she noticed Callum looking at her lips.  Everything was suddenly too hot and too tight.  “Callum…”

His only answer was to lean into her.  Rayla knew she should back away; human-elf relationships were still taboo even with the neutral zone.  Instead, she found herself leaning into Callum.  When their lips met, it was like a dam broke inside them both.  Rayla wrapped her arms around his neck and he wrapped his around her waist.  As their mouths moved against each other, Rayla ran one hand through his hair.  And they separated, their breathes mingled as they panted.  She was going to say something, but she was distracted by his mouth and leaned in again. 

The next time they pulled back, Rayla began to kiss his neck and pull him closer.  She threw one leg over his and sat on his lap.  She couldn’t get close enough and given how hard he was holding her, he couldn’t either.  Her hands went to his chest and grasped his shirt.  She wanted it off.  She wanted her shirt off.  She was drowning in him and she never wanted to come up for air.  Callum put one hand under her shirt and inched it up, up…and pulled his hand back and pushed away slightly.  “Rayla, we should stop.”

“Probably.”  She didn’t want to and he didn’t want to either.  He leaned into her ear and gently nibbled on the point.  Rayla melted against him and pulled him back to her.  Callum groaned and slowly tilted them to lay on the couch.  They lay on their sides and kissed languidly.  “Callum.  I thought we were stopping.”

“Do you want to?”

“No.  But have to talk.”  Callum nodded and slowly sat up.  Rayla came up with him and they were back in the position they were before he took them down.  She slid her hands down his chest and back up.  Callum sighed and held her flush against him.  “When did this happen, Callum?”

“I don’t know.  I just know that being next to you is as natural as breathing.  I don’t feel like we changed our relationship, either.”

Rayla nodded.  “I feel like we should have been doing this for months.”  Callum chuckled as he began to stroke her back.  “We can’t be in a relationship.  Elves and humans still hate each other.”

“No one has to know.  We’ve been taking classes together for two semesters now.  I’m not going to have to worry about Bandlr, am I?”

“I’m not in a relationship if that’s what you’re asking.  Haven’t been in one in since graduating high school.  Anyone you talking to?”

“No one.  Claudia’s the only person I’ve dated and we’ve been broken up for a long time now.”

Rayla nodded.  “Do you…want to see where this goes?”

“Do you?”

“I asked first.”

“I do.”

“OK.”

“OK?” 

Rayla reached over and lightly stroked his cheek.  “OK.”  His lips her back on her’s.  Rayla didn’t know what had changed or when, but, right now, she didn’t care.  All she knew was she felt like she was coming home.      

_______________________________________________________________

 

Callum looked at the envelopes spread out on his kitchen table.  All of them were large and from the different publications that had talked to Rayla or taken her picture.  Looking at them made it all too real that she had needed to even do the interviews.  “Ray?”

“I’m not looking at them,” she grumbled from the window.  Rayla’s arms were crossed as she glared at the large envelopes.

“I can’t do this myself.”

“Then don’t look.”

“It doesn’t work like that.  We need to know what they printed from your interviews.  We need to know if they twisted any of our words and come up with a plan if it’s bad.”

“OR we could just ignore the whole thing and pretend like I’m not suddenly the most asked about woman in the whole world.”

“Give it a few months and some noble’s wife or daughter will have the spotlight.  Maybe someone’s girlfriend will take your place.”  Rayla gave him a disbelieving look and rolled her eyes.  “Rayla, please.  The sooner we look through all this the sooner it’s done.  All of this has already happened and we can’t act like it didn’t.”  She wasn’t budging, looking at everything but him and the table.  “We’re supposed to be meeting Malik and, what’s her name, Torlan, in an hour.” 

She turned to meet his eyes as they stared at each other in silence until Rayla finally groaned.  “Fine.  But I’m not happy about this.  Isn’t this what a publicist is for?”

“Yes, but we decided not to use one, remember?”

“Who decided that?” came her grumbled reply.

“Really?”  Rayla met his gaze, daring him to continue what he wanted to say.  “I’ll take the Katolis Sun and Capital News.  You can have the Pentarachy Times and the Xadia Dispatch.  Fair?”

“Fair.”  Callum handed her the enveloped and the two sat at the table.  “I really don’t want to do this.”

“I didn’t want to read the first article ever written about me, either.  My tutor thought it was important for me to know what the press thought of and made up about me.  The whole thing was written when Dad was courting Mom, so I was about three.  They tore into my father and how I was going to grow up in the lap of luxury due to sheer luck.  I had no idea that’s how anyone looked at me.  I was just a kid and all I wanted was for Harrow to be good to my mom.  Her heart was broken after my father died.  I remember her crying at night as she held me; stroking my hair and wishing he was still there.  When she told me that Dad asked to court her, she asked if I was OK with it.  It was going to change my life forever and, if they got married, I was going to have a step-dad.  I was happy that Harrow might be my step-dad and Mom seemed a lot happier than she had in a while.  So, to read that article, it did some damage to my self-esteem and made me realize that the world doesn’t know the truth and will twist it if they want to.”

“I’m sorry, Callum.”

“Don’t worry.  Dad was pissed and my tutor was almost fired.  The only reason he wasn’t is that Viren said it was necessary for me to know the truth.  And he was right; I needed to know.  No more stalling.  Let’s do this.”  Callum opened the envelope from Capital News and stared at the front-page image.  Gustin had arrived only a few days after the news broke and Capital News had been lucky enough to buy his pictures.  Rayla was in her one dress from before Aunt Amaya and Janai had sent her clothes for the rest of her interviews and photographs.  Gustin had done a good job; taking care to use a full-frontal image of Rayla, her face straight to camera and her arms crossed.  All in all, with her lightly muscled arms showing and slight smirk to her features, it was a very Rayla image.  The headline simply stated ‘who is the girl who managed to get the attention of the step-prince?’  Callum winced at that.  “Don’t kill the people in charge of the front of the Capital News.”

“Why?  I thought Ezran liked Gustin.”

“It’s not the photo.  It’s the headline.”

“What did they say?” Rayla’s voice suddenly hardened.

“They called me ‘the step-prince.’”

“I’ll kill anyone but Soren who keeps calling you that.  I want names and addresses by the end of the week.”

Callum chose to ignore her and flipped through to the interview.  There was definitely a tone set by the background paragraph that implied Rayla was already used to living ‘above her station’ and she seemed ‘too relaxed’ in their apartment.  There was a picture, taken by the photographer that came with the journalist, of Rayla sitting at the kitchen table with Callum next to her.  They were leaning their heads against each other as Callum was stirring a spoon of honey into her tea.  Rayla had had a bad headache that day and asked to simply get the interview over with instead of rescheduling.  The caption next to the image was clearly from someone else in the department: ‘Prince Callum helps make a cup of tea for Ms. Rayla.  Both are at ease when being affectionate.’ 

Callum went through the interview itself and found that nothing was twisted or anything important was left out.  The only real problem was that background paragraph, but they would have to deal with it if it came back up.  He laid it down and went for the Katolis Sun.  The cover had Rayla sitting in one of their kitchen chairs, one hand on the arm as she, again, looked straight at the camera.  The headline for this paper read ‘Prince Callum’s new girlfriend is a Moonshadow elf named Rayla.  And she isn’t going anywhere.’  Callum smiled at the headline.  ‘No, she’s not.’   

Callum flipped to the interview and was pleased with Danika’s opening paragraphs.  She detailed how Callum’s apartment was both expensive and humble and how at ease Rayla and Callum were.  She brought up their teasing nature and supportive behavior during the interview.  ‘It’s not often you come across someone who is completely honest about their circumstances.  The last time I did, it was Queen Sarai.  I have never forgotten that interview and I can’t imagine I’ll forget this one.  Ms. Rayla is an insightful, sarcastic, and loving woman.  And Prince Callum will tell anyone that he is the luckiest man alive to be with her.’

Rayla groaned next to him and handed him the Pentarchy Times.  “Look at this nonsense!  ‘Rayla is without doubt a beautiful girl raised in the traditional ways of oaths and honor that Moonshadow elves are known for.  She also has a temper and seemed to be overprotective of Prince Callum.’  Of course I’m protective of you!  They spent half the interview asking why I’m with you instead of with someone like Bandlr.  Just….UGH!”  Rayla got up from the table and walked around the apartment for a bit.  Callum let her be, knowing she had to let out some steam before she could focus on anything else. 

“To be fair, Ray, you do have a temper.”

“I’m going to pretend, for your sake, that you did not just say that.  Now is really not the time to be listing my faults.”

Callum shrugged, looking through the article.  It actually wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.  True, it could have been handled better and he did not appreciate how they seemed to be pushing the idea that it was only a matter of time until he and Rayla broke-up, but it was by no means the worst he’d ever seen.  No, that honor belonged to an article accusing Amaya of inappropriate behavior with her translator, Gren.  Gren had always been like an uncle to Callum and he and Amaya were almost never seen apart.  However, it was clear to anyone who spent more than ten minutes with the pair that their devotion and love for each other was purely platonic stemming from years of friendship before they joined the military. 

“See?”  Callum looked up.  Rayla’s eyes were narrowed with her arms crossed.

“Ray, it’s not that bad.  I’ve read worse.”

“This doesn’t bother you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then why are you acting like it’s not a big deal?”

Callum closed his eyes and tried to stay relaxed.  He knew the signs that meant Rayla was looking for a fight because she was agitated and knew from experience it was better not to engage her.  “I’m not trying to discredit your feelings-”

“When did I mention my feelings?!”

“Rayla.”  She paused, breathing in for a moment.  He almost never called her by her full name anymore and it always seemed to jolt her back to reality when he did.  “I understand that all of this,” a gesture to the articles, “bothers you deeply.  I understand that this,” a point at the journal in his hand, “is disrespectful.  I agree that it’s not OK for them to be insinuating we’re doomed to fail.”  She looked away.  “But, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t that bad.  The tabloids were way worse.  Besides, I thought you loved proving people wrong.  Isn’t this a chance to do so?”

Rayla opened and closed her mouth a few times.  She looked so lost.  “You don’t get it.”

“I don’t.  Is that what you want to hear?  I’m so used to this and I’ve seen the shit these people pull out of their asses that this doesn’t even register in the top ten for me.”  Callum stood up, going to stand in front of her.  He put his hands gently on her shoulders, desperate to ground them both.  “Do I like it?  No, of course not.  I would LOVE to never, ever have to read another article about me again.  I would give up my right hand if it meant that I no longer had to deal with any of this.  But it’s not going to happen.  By sheer virtue of my mother marrying a KING and him adopting me because, otherwise, I would have had NO ONE to care for me, this is my life.  It’s never going to change.  I could go off deep into Xadia where no one will ever find me and there would still be articles written about me.  You don’t get it.  My father and his connection to Cloverton and his fight against dark magic, my mother’s family and all they have done for the military, my MAGIC, Ezran…I will never leave the spotlight.  I don’t have a choice.  And if it bothers you this much, you need to run far away from me, because this will never stop being my reality.”

Rayla was shaking her head.  “If we live in Silvergrove-”

“What, Ray?  Do you truly believe that greed won’t seep it’s way into Xadia?  Do you think that it would stop if we lived somewhere no one can reasonably reach?  People have tried and they have failed.  Just because the news doesn’t have new information doesn’t mean they won’t make inferences from what they already had.  And then a bigger mess might have to be cleaned up.  There is no escaping this.”

“Why do they care?”  It was so quiet, her voice almost breaking towards the end.

Callum groaned, putting his forehead to her’s.  “Because they do.  You can’t tell me that you aren’t curious about my ability to do magic.  So is everyone else.  If the Pentarchy and Xadia are successful, we’re going to be entering a new age of peace.  I’ve been part of trying to make that a reality for years.  I supported Dad through all of his plans and attended the opening of the University.  I’ve been heavily involved in the official banning of dark magic in Katolis.”

“You were just a kid back then.”

“A teenager, but, yes, a child in the eyes of the law.  It makes so many desperate to understand how my mind works.  Teenagers are supposed to be making stupid mistakes and getting into trouble, not having their hands in crafting laws and planning negotiations.  Despite all the good I believe we’ve done, believe me, if I saw another option, I would take it and not have to deal with the press again.  But, Ray, I can’t keep having this conversation with you.  I respect your feelings and I get it; you’re not used to this.  But, by saying you want to be with me, you have to accept that being with me includes this.”

“I do accept that.”

“Then why do we keep having this conversation?  Why do we keep fighting about it?”                                    

“I don’t know!”  Callum sighed, pressing a kiss to her forehead as he wound his arms around her shoulders.  “I keep telling myself to just suck it up and deal with it.  I want to be with you and I’ll take all of this if it means I’m with you.  But it bothers me every time the press comes up and I’m just getting more and more agitated with it no matter how many times I tell myself it won’t change.”

“What can I do to help you?  What do you need from me to make you comfortable with this?”

Rayla shook her head.  “I don’t know.”  She paused, looking down at the table.  “Time.  Just…listen to me when I’m upset about this.”

“I don’t want to fight with you about the press again.”

“I’m not asking for you to fight me.  Just hear me out.  I’m sure I’ll get on your nerves about it, but this is new to me.  I need time to adjust.”

“I will give you all the time in the world.  But I won’t fight about it anymore.  If you want to be heard, I will listen but I won’t engage in it.  OK?”

Rayla nodded.  “OK.”

“As much as I would love to give you time to get in a better frame of mind, we have dinner plans.”

Rayla groaned.  “Right, Malik and Torlan.”

“I made reservations at a Neolandia restaurant.  You’ll get some more authentic curry and Torlan and Malik will get to experience the joys of human food.”

“Well, that’s one way to keep me happy.”

“That’s my job.”  The disengaged, holding hands as they went to the bedroom to put on their nicer clothes. 

“Is it really necessary to dress fancy?” Rayla grumbled.

“Technically, yes.  It’s an upscale restaurant and they have a coat rule for men.”

“You’re a prince.  Don’t you get exceptions to the rules?”

Callum laughed uproariously.  “I get the grand chance of being on the cover of every tabloid tomorrow if I don’t follow the dress code.  Rules apply double for me.”

_____________________________________________________

Rayla reached into her underwear drawer, grabbing the same lingerie set she wore to Callum’s art studio, including the garter.  She hurried past Callum with her dress and a pair of dark stockings to their bathroom.  Once she closed the door, she sighed.  Rayla got to work on brushing her hair and trying to make it presentable and not the frizz capital it usually was.  The choppy layers were stylish and easy to manage, but made it difficult for her to style them in anything but a side braid or bun.  Either that or she lacked the patience to actually do anything more than that.  Probably the latter, if she was being honest with herself.

She quickly dressed, slipping on the stockings that went to mid-thigh before pulling the garter on.  The green dress had thin straps instead of sleeves and showed off the muscles in her arms.  It had a dark purple belt that went right under her bust and only accentuated how big it was in the bra.  The flowy skirt went down to a little below her knee with a small slit that only went to mid-thigh.  It was about as comfortable as she would probably ever be in a dress, if Rayla had to be honest, but she still wasn’t a fun.  Pants were just easier to move around in. 

When she came out of the bathroom, she kept the back held so Callum could zip it up.  “Callum?  Can you come zip this for me?”  She turned around when he found her and sighed when he did as she asked.

“You look beautiful.”

“You always think that.”

“It’s true.”  He turned her around, gently running his thumb along her cheekbone when she was facing him.  “You feel better?”

“I guess.”  Rayla looked him up and down.  His suit was a dark blue over a white button-up shirt, red scarf nowhere in sight, with a dark red tie.  Rayla played with his tie a bit.  “I like you in a suit, I think.”

“Do you?”

“You clean up nice.  I could do a lot of things with this tie.”

“You are insatiable,” he chuckled.

“Aye.  It’s all your fault.  You take care of me so well I can’t help but want more.”

Callum backed up.  “I am NOT meeting your ex with a hard-on.  Get your shoes, we gotta go pick them up at the hotel.”

“Fine.”  Rayla walked past him to get her heels.  She gasped when she felt a smack on her behind.  She turned her head only to see a wicked smirk on Callum’s face.  Rayla bit her lip, giving him a once over.  “Don’t start something you can’t follow through with.”

“I’ll follow through.  Later.”  Rayla grabbed her heels and put them, meeting Callum at the door.  She was now almost at eye-level with him.  Callum pouted.

“What?”

“I like being able to kiss your forehead whenever I feel like it.”

“Well, for tonight, you’ll have to settle for my lips.”

“That’s not settling.  That’s an inappropriate disaster waiting to happen.”

“I see.  And you accuse me of being insatiable?”

“I have my living fantasy right next to me.  What do you want from me?”

Rayla chuckled as she headed towards the elevator.  She wore her long detective coat, as Callum called it, to keep warm.  The nights were getting warmer, but it was still a little cold for her liking.  As they drove to the hotel, Rayla’s brows furrowed.  “What about Amaya?”

“Huh?” Callum asked. 

Rayla blinked.  “Sorry.  You said you had no one to take care of you if Harrow hadn’t stepped up.  What about Amaya?”

“Aunt Amaya wasn’t always in a good place after Mom died.  They were really close and she was in therapy for a few years after she died.  When I say they were best friends, I mean it.  It wouldn’t have been an ideal situation because Aunt Amaya was constantly being sent to the border and threw herself into her work even more than Mom did after my father died.  She loves me and I know she would have done her very best…but it would have been too much to ask of her at that time.  She was thrust into being the General of Katolis less than a year after being put into the spotlight because of my mom marrying Dad.  She would have had support from my grandparents and great-grandparents for the short time they lived after Mom died, but I probably would have been living with Harrow either way.  It’s…complicated, I guess.”

“That’s what you meant.  You would have lived with Harrow anyways because Amaya moved around too much.”

“Yep.  It’s not her fault.  Because Viren convinced Dad to go into Xadia and do what he did, the position of General of Katolis was no longer allowed to be stationary.  It now involved constant movement and surveillance of the whole border in case Xadia decided to strike back.  The courts most likely would have seen that as too much risk.  I’m the oldest son of the woman who fatally wounded the former Dragon King and I was a child.  There was no way in Hell they would have let her take me to the border now that I think about it.  And Aunt Amaya was never going to give up the military.  It’s all she’s known and she’s good at it.  Our military is well-trained and fully capable to a degree that the rest of the Pentarchy defers to us.  My Mom’s plans were the groundwork and her name still carries a massive amount of respect in an military setting.” 

“Makes sense.  There’s a lot of awe around her in Xadia, too.”

“Why did Xadia never come for us?  There was fear that it would strike back, but…”

“King Azymondeus stated that since the Queen of Katolis died as well both Queens of Duren, the blood price had been paid.  Three children would have to grow up without their mothers, including Queen Aanya.  He wanted peace and said it was foolish to strike back as long as the Pentarchy did nothing else.”

“How did that go?”

“Not well.  It was seen as an unprovoked attack on Xadia and many were displeased.”

“It was an unprovoked attack.  Dad has never forgiven himself for it.  It made sense at the time, but it was the wrong choice.  He lost the love of his life because he trusted dark magic.  Yes, Duren lives and the famine ended, but if they had just planned sooner, Mom would still be alive.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“What do you mean?”

“In Xadia, we believe that someone’s time comes when it comes.  How it comes is a different matter entirely.”

“To be honest, I don’t know what I believe.  I believe my Mom died for a cause she believed in, but a solution she deeply opposed.  I believe my brother never knew his mother because of stalling and lack of foresight.  I also believe that Dad is human and he makes mistakes.  He blames himself more than I ever could, so I forgave him a long time ago.”

“I don’t know if I would have been able to.”

“You’re lucky, you know.  I know life hasn’t been easy for you, and I know your relationship with your parents is far from ideal, but, at least you still have them.  Dad telling me Mom died…”  Callum’s hands gripped the steering wheel.  Rayla put a hand on his knee, silently telling him it was OK.  “I would never want to be in that position.”

“Hopefully you’ll never have to.”  They finally pulled up to the hotel.  Rayla got out to enter the lobby to find Malik and Torlan.  She quickly spotted the pair, Malik’s height a dead giveaway.  He smiled when he saw her, waving her over.  Malik was well over 6 feet tall, towering over most people.  His pale skin was more tanned than it had been back in Silvergrove, though he still looked like he had never exercised a day in his life.  His handsome face was accentuated by his large, dark purple eyes. 

Rayla smiled when she came up to him.  “Look at who finally got a bit of sunshine.”

“Look who finally wore a dress.”  Malik pulled her into a hug.  “Where’s Prince Callum?”

“He’s in the car, waiting.  He’s taking us to a Neolandia restaurant.  Thanks for adhering to the dress code.”  Malik was in a dark suit, dark purple to match his eyes with a green tie.  “Although people might get the idea that we’re matching.”

“Because of your dress?  Doubt it.  Torlan’s grabbing something from the room, so it’ll be a second before we can go.”  Rayla nodded.  “Before I forget, I have something for you.”

“What is it?”

Malik reached into his pocked, a white envelope in hand.  “A letter from your parents.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.  They wrote the second I told them the Dragon King wanted me to come see you.  I haven't looked at it, but I’m sure it’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.  Rayla took the envelope in both hands, scared to bend it.  Part of her wanted to rip it open and read it right away, but another, bigger, piece of her still wasn’t quite ready to let go of the resentment she had been feeling for so long.      

“Torlan!”  Rayla turned, eyes going wide at the beauty she saw before her.  Long dark hair in a fashionable high ponytail was well as a slinky blue dress that looked straight out of the old movies Callum enjoyed.  The girl was around Rayla’s height, but if Rayla had believed her bust was large…well, Torlan definitely had her beat.  The girl’s pink skin was practically glowing in the lighting of the room as she gave a megawatt smile.

“Where the hell did you find a movie star?”

“She’s not a movie star, Rayla.”

“She looks like one.”

Malik chuckled.  “Everyone says that.  She’s really smart and friendly.  Even the grump that is my baby sister adores her.”

Rayla’s eyes went wide for a bit.  That was a shock.  Malik’s baby sister hated people more than even Rayla did.  Torlan was enthusiastic as she introduced herself to Rayla, not a hint of jealousy that Rayla could detect.  “Malik’s told me so much about you.”

“He’s told me a few details about you.  We barely talk since graduation.”

“You two should talk more often.  To be honest, I was hoping you and I could be friends.”

“Really?”

Malik smiled, steering them both towards the doors.  “Torlan wants to be everyone’s friend.  She actually used to have a crush on your prince, Rayla.” 

Torlan flushed.  “Don’t say it like that.”  Torlan’s voice had a natural breathy quality to it and Rayla couldn’t place where she had heard it before.  In fact, there was something about Torlan that was knocking on the edge of her conscience.  She seemed so familiar and it was driving Rayla crazy that she couldn’t figure out why.  “It was a while ago.  I was fascinated by what I was reading about him online.  Our families come from similar backgrounds and he was involved in the bill that banned dark magic in Katolis.  I’ve always liked men that are more mature and able to be humble despite their accomplishments.”

Rayla nodded.  “Well, then both Malik and Callum are your type.” 

Torlan wrapped her arm around Malik.  “Malik’s enough for me.”

When they got to the car, Rayla saw Callum’s eyes widen at the site of the pair with her.  He quickly got out of the car, ready to introduce himself.  Introductions went smoothly until Callum shook Torlan’s hand and he heard her breathy voice.  His eyes got so wide, Rayla almost smacked his arm.  “Callum!”  Her voice was hard and she was trying to keep the jealousy at bay.

Callum shook his head.  “I am so sorry.  I’m a big fan of older movies and you look and sound almost identical to Marilynn.”

Torlan tilted her head.  Rayla gasped in realization.  “That’s where I’ve heard your voice before.”

“I’m sorry, who is Marilynn?” Torlan asked, obviously confused. 

Callum quickly took out his phone, searching for images of the actress.  “She was known as one of the first blonde bombshells of cinema.  People that have a subpar understanding of her called her a ‘dumb blonde’, but she was actually really smart.  Her journals published after her death revealed she had some pretty radical views at the time about peace.  She wanted the border to be opened and sent money to help orphanages all over the Pentarchy while pushing for schools to endorse a united Pentarchy and Xadia.  She didn’t view herself as a radical and was a pretty private person, so most people didn’t know for years what she did.”  When Callum showed Torlan and Malik the pictures, both of their eyes went wide.

“Whoa,” Malik whispered.

Torlan blinked.  “We even have the same body….”

“Just change the skin and the hair and you two could be twins.”

Callum put his phone away with a sheepish grin.  “I’m really sorry if I creeped you out.  But, it’s like Malik said, you two could be twins if the skin and hair was different.  It shocked me.”

Torlan laughed.  “It shocked me too when you showed me those pictures.  No harm, no foul, Your Highness.”

Callum winced.  “Please call me ‘Callum.’  Any friend of Ray’s is a friend of mine.”

Malik raised a brow.  “‘Ray?’”

Rayla flushed a bit.  “Only Callum is allowed to call me that, so don’t even ask.”

“You have a nickname for him, too?”

“No.”

“You were never the nickname type.”  Rayla only shrugged.  They piled into Callum’s car, driving to the restaurant.  They were a few minutes late to their reservation, but the restaurant was so pleased to have Callum there that they were thanking him for coming.  Even the owner had come out and was shaking his hand, guiding them to their table.  Rayla looped her arm through Callum’s, allowing him to lead her through the maze of tables and whispers.

“Is that Prince Callum?”

“Damn he cleans up nice!”

“How did a human dweeb like him get a babe like that?”

“That Tidebound elf looks like Marilynn!  Think she’s a model?”

“Those two match a lot more than I thought they would.”

“I heard Ms. Rayla is going to be in a few magazines next week.”

Rayla was grateful that the owner led them to a more private area.  It was in view of a large aquarium that had colorful fish swimming about.  Rayla smiled as Callum pulled out her chair for her and pushed it back in.  The owner, a short human woman with light hair smiled at the four.  “We serve three different options here.  You can order from the menu, do a Chef’s Choice where our head chef decides your meals based on what’s freshest today and your personal tastes, or the tasting menu.  We also offer wine from both Xadia and throughout the Pentarchy as well as complimentary dessert if you choose to do the Chef’s Choice.  Today’s dessert, if you are interested, is a lemon tart, the lemons are direct from Duren, with a salted crust and a bit of sweet whipped cream.”

“Does the Chef’s Choice include curries?”

“But of course, Your Highness.  What’s a meal of Neolandian food without a rich sauce or stew of slow roasted spices and herbs?”

“It’s not.”

“It’s not,” she agreed.

“You’ll do the wine pairing based on what the chef picks?”

“If you’d like.”

“If that’s what everyone would like.”

“Four wines, then?”

Callum shook his head.  “None for me.  I’m driving.”

Torlan spoke up as well.  “No wine for me, either, thank you.”

Rayla and Malik asked for the pairing, but to not have refills on their glasses.  “Alright.  Two wine pairings.  And is everyone doing Chef’s Choice tonight?”

The whole table agreed, Torlan and Malik not being able to make heads or tails of the menu of unfamiliar food and Rayla had only had Neolandian when Callum made it.  When the owner left, she shook Callum’s hand again, thanking him profusely for coming.  Rayla smiled.  “She seems nice,” Torlan said.

“She is.  I’ve been here three times before and she’s been great every time.  She actually used to live in the loft above the restaurant.  She spent all her time here and cares deeply about the product.  She hires elf and human servers and chefs, though the food is classic Neolandia.  My step-dad is a real lover of Neolandian food and he’s called this restaurant some of the best he’s ever had.”

“High praise.”

“Believe me, it’s well-earned.  But she’s convinced that because my family and I have been spotted her several times that we’re the reason for her success.”

The conversation flowed as they tried to keep it light, though Bandlr and Silvergrove did pop up.  Malik shook his head when he found out about Bandlr coming to Callum’s apartment, but stayed quiet apart from that.  The food was just as delicious as Callum had claimed it was, impressing not only Rayla, but the other two elves at the table.  “How is this so good?” Torlan asked.

“Neolandians care about food.”

Malik sipped his still almost full glass.  “The wine’s nice, but you don’t really need it, do you?”

“I don’t think so.  You don’t like wine, Torlan?”

Torlan shook her head.  “I don’t like alcohol.  Never got the appeal and when I finally tried it, I wasn’t impressed.”

“A lot of politics are done over a glass of port in some circles, so I had to develop a taste for it when I turned eighteen.  I could live without it, though, so I usually volunteer to be the designated driver when I go out with friends.”

“Smart.  I have to ask you a question.”

“Shoot.”

Torlan flushed a bit, an attractive red hue coming to her pink cheeks.  “Why did you never come to the border before the University was built?  There was talk multiple times that King Harrow and Ezran were, but never you.”

Callum leaned back a bit.  “The short answer is politics.  The long answer is my safety.  I’m not a blood member of the Katolian royal family.  There was concern that because my aunt was the General of Katolis and my mother was the former Queen, but because I wasn’t the heir, I would be a target.  Technically, I’m Ezran’s heir, but-”

Rayla coughed on the water she had been sipping instead of her wine.  “What?”

Callum’s brow furrowed.  “What?”

“What do you mean you’re ‘Ezran’s heir?’”

Callum looked to the side for a bit.  “Well, who else would it be?”

“Ezran’s kids?”

“Ez is fifteen.  He doesn’t have kids.”

“You know what I mean.”

Callum took in a deep breath.  “Well, because Ezran has no children and I was adopted by King Harrow, I am second in line.  The minute a child is born to Ezran, I’m third in line.  And for every kid he has after, I go further and further down.”  Callum held his hand out and moved it downwards in short installments as he spoke.

“And if Harrow hadn’t adopted you?”

“I would have no claim.  And, frankly, I have no desire to take the throne either way.”

“So, if Ezran never has kids, but you and I do…”

“Then our children enter the line of succession.”

“Even with no blood ties?”

“Yes.”

Malik coughed, reminding the pair that he and Torlan were at the table.  “Forgive me, but that is fascinating, Callum.  Adoption is held in such high regard back in Katolis.”

“It all goes back to our laws and traditions.  Let’s say Dad, Ezran, and I die with no heirs.  Rayla and I didn’t get married yet, so there is no legal backing to her taking over.  Which, yes, you would have, Ray,” Rayla made a face at that.  “The line of succession is now broken and they would find an orphan to rule.  The Orphan Queen that Dad and Ezran are descended from made the laws of adoption being below blood, but still an option if there are no other choices.  The Orphan Queen adopted a few children herself and felt it wasn’t right to immediately discredit those adopted into the royal family.  A few people have tried to ratify it over the centuries, but it’s stuck because those among the general public who are adopted get very upset every time it comes up.  There have been calls for it to go to the oldest, superseding blood ties, but, like I said, I don’t want to rule.  I’m fine with how it is because it keeps me out of the running for now.”       

“Interesting.”

Torlan smiled again.  “Callum, I’m interested in the fish.  Are they from Neolandia?”

“Some of them.  A few are from Katolis, I think.  Most are from Evenere.”

“Do you mind showing me?”  Callum nodded, getting up to follow Torlan to the aquarium.

Rayla turned to Malik, a smirk on her lips.  “Subtle.”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Malik responded.

“Don’t lie to me.  You wanted us to talk privately.”

“I did.”

“What’s up?”

“He’s nice.”

“He is.”  Rayla crossed her arms, staring Malik down. 

“He’s good to you?”

“The best.  He’s been really helpful concerning my parents and forces me to talk about my feelings.”

Malik’s eyes went wide.  “Aoife and I tried that and you didn’t react well.”

“It took a lot of time and a lot of trust.  He stuck with it, though.  His family has something stupid called ‘Big Feelings Time’ and he makes me do it with him.  Torlan’s good to you?”

“Yeah.  Her family has been great and my parents love her.  She’s never pushed for our relationship to become physical.  If anything, she’s ecstatic that it hasn’t.  She might not seem like it sometimes, but she’s mature and has a level head most days.”

“That’s good.  You needed someone who was more mature.”

Malik shrugged a shoulder.  “I value the time that we did have.  I learned a lot about myself from you.”

“That’s surprising.  You seemed so sure of yourself when we were together.  There were days I felt like you were above it all and I was just holding you back.”

“I’m shite at confrontation, remember?  I seemed ‘above it all’ because I froze.  Everyone just took it to mean I wasn’t engaging.  You, on the other hand, were the picture of confidence.  I couldn’t keep up with you.”

“All thanks to Runaan’s training.”

“Can you confirm something for me?”  Rayla gave the affirmative.  “Is Callum’s father really from Cloverton?”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“We were doing some research before we came and Torlan found it.  Like I said, she used to have a crush on him and she knew all the best places to get accurate or close to accurate information about him.”

Rayla was silent for a moment.  She debated not saying anything, but since the article was coming out in a few days anyway and Callum had talked a bit about Cloverton, it didn’t really matter anymore.  “Yes.  He’s all that’s left of both sides of his father’s family.  He hates talking about it, though.”

“I figured.”  They were quiet for a moment.  Malik turned and looked at Callum.  “He’s going to change the world.”

Rayla followed his gaze.  “He already has.”

“The way he uses the Sky Arcanum is like nothing we’ve seen before.  And from what Ibis and Lujanne have reported back, when he uses the primal stones…it’s different.  Like it’s a way for him to channel the primal magic inside of him.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know primal stones have storms or oceans within them, giving a boost of power where necessary for elves, or access to the aracna for humans.  In Prince Callum’s case, he’s using them like an elf would.  On top of that. Lujanne and Ibis say he’s combining what he learns about the different Aracana and applying all of it to skywing magic because it’s what he can do without a primal stone.  He’s not being conventional and is defying traditional means of learning magic.  It’s raised a few eyebrows.”

“Does the Dragon King think he’s dangerous?  Or does he view Callum as a human who somehow has the gift of magic?”

“King Azymondeus has no idea what to make of him.  No one does.  His push against dark magic keeps him in the Dragon King’s good graces, but he’s not normal, Rayla.  Not since Aaravos has someone seemed to have such a natural talent towards all six arcana.”

“Callum needs primal stones to ‘channel’ them, though.”

“For now.”  Malik took a sip of his wine, eyes staying rapt of Callum’s back as Torlan laughed at something he said.  “Do you remember when it was everywhere in Xadia that a human was able to conduct magic without a primal stone?  Actual primal magic and with such inherent talent it was shocking?”

“Yeah.  It was after we graduated.  School called us back to give us all a lesson and to say maybe humans were evolving into being capable of using magic.”

“After 1600 years, it’s possible, but not probable.  Maybe a handful of humans always had that talent.”

“Maybe.”  Rayla watched as Malik swirled his wine in his glass.  “What’s going on?”

Malik sighed, tenting his fingers.  “There is a strong desire for Prince Callum to be studied.  His genes and his magic.  We just want to figure out how he is possible.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

Malik held up a hand.  “It would all be with his consent and with his full participation.  It would be as non-invasive as possible.  The Council is discussing inviting him to the Spire to be in talks with King Azymondius about peace while also doing these studies.”

“He’s not an animal.  We persecuted the humans for during the same thing in the name of science and dark magic-”

“It’s not the same thing.  Humans took life to do that.  We would do our best to guarantee that Prince Callum remains in good health-”

“And what happens if something goes wrong?  What if, say, someone on the Council is displeased with the answers or lack of they receive and try to go more invasive?  Once he agrees to a few tests, what’s to stop someone from taking it too far?”         

Malik paused.  “Technically, our good will.  It’s not that unusual.  Medical studies happen all the time.”

“I’m not his keeper, and you would have to ask Callum if he accepts.  But I can tell you, that’s not good enough and I will fight anyone who tries to take it a step too far.  If you’re asking for my permission or for me to be the one to tell him, my answer is ‘no.’” 

“In the name of progress and understanding, it could be necessary.”

“‘Could be.’”

Rayla played with her knife for a moment.  Malik was silent, not looking at her before finally meeting her eyes again.  “You’ve changed.”

“Why?  Because I won’t let the Council do what it wants and risk my boyfriend’s life?”

“No.  I perfectly understand why you’re hesitant about that.  If someone asked me if Torlan would be studied, I’d probably say ‘no’, too.  You’re more in tune with your feelings and articulating why something bothers you.  Aoife and I tried the whole time to get you to open up about your parents, but Callum seems to know far more than either of us ever did.”

“You know Tiadrin and Lain better than I do.”

Malik shrugged.  “Debatable.  We don’t really interact much.  The Dragon Council is kept separate from the Dragon Guard during most of our free time.  We’re given much more freedom and ability to move about.”

“And that’s how you met Torlan?”

A smile.  “That’s how I met Torlan.”

“They’re getting along really well.”  Rayla saw Torlan smacking Callum’s arm, probably after he told a bad joke if Callum’s guilty grin was anything to go by. 

“They are.”

“Callum’s father’s family was full of archivists and librarians, so they have something in common.”

“That and Torlan is friendly by nature.  She could talk the ear off a random stranger for hours but she’s so personable that most people don’t mind at all.”

Rayla was silent for a moment, taking a sip of her wine.  “You said you want to study his genes.”

He nodded.  “Yes.”

“Why?”

“A few of us, myself included, wonder if he has elf blood in him.”

“Like he’s descended from elves?”

“Distantly, yes.  1600 years is a long time and his father is from Cloverton, a border town, so it lends credence to the theory.”

“He doesn’t look like an elf.”

“Some elves probably have drops of human blood in them, too.  Elf-human relationships used to make up about 11% of marriages along the border.  True, that’s not a very big percentage, but most of those relationships had at least one biological child.  1600 years of that blood being diluted is going to make the descendants look one way or the other, and, as time goes on, that blood goes further and further.  What if there are babies being born in Del Bar that have Startouch ancestors right now?  Or two Earthblood parents each have a small percentage of human blood having children with those same genes?  Rayla, both sides have ignored the reality that human-elf relationships had children and those children did not just disappear.  They had children, they have descendants who could, potentially, do magic.  And, if Prince Callum is connected to all six aracana, like Lujanne and Ibis seem to believe is possible-”

“And because his family is from border towns, it’s highly likely he has multiple elf genes.”

“Exactly.”

Rayla’s eyes were wide.  She could feel her heart trying to beat itself out of her chest.  “Why him?  He can’t be unique if it boils down to genetics.”

“No, he can’t be.  But, he also is.”  Blood was roaring in her ears.  “Magical talent isn’t always inherited.  Elf mages have had children that don’t have their skills and non-mages have mage children often enough.  Pure elf children who are talented mages do not have his skills.  For all of Ibis’ talk of being patient and Lujanne’s discussions with him about the Moon Arcanum, they both have stated, repeatedly, he doesn’t look it as an elf would and is combining what he learns into the Sky Arcanum in creative ways.”

“You’ve said that.”

“It bears repeating.  There is no one like him and what we can learn from him when he has finally finished his education and understands his own magical abilities better…there is no end to the ways he could change how magic is taught or understood.  When I say he will change the world, I’m not saying it lightly.  I think the world is going to look very, very different in a few years because of him.  He may not care for politics, but he is special and I look forward to a world he has a hand in creating.”

Rayla stayed silent.  She hardly noticed when Torlan and Callum finally came back, laughing at some joke one of them must have said.  Torlan gave a look at both her and Malik, raising a brow.  She watched as Malik gave a small nod Torlan’s way.  Callum laid a hand on her shoulder, causing Rayla to jump.  “Ray?”

“I’m fine.  Just…tired.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  It’s been a long day.”  Malik looked over at her over the rim of his glass.  “Malik said the Dragon King wants to invite you to the Spire.”

“Seriously?”

Malik looked uncomfortable while Torlan raised her brow again.  “Rayla, now’s not the time-”      

“King Azymondeus wants to talk to you, but the Dragon Council wants to study you.  They want to look at your DNA as well as study your magic.”

Callum blinked.  “My DNA?  Why?”

“You could be part elf.”

“That’s not possible.  I don’t even look-”

“1600 years is a long time for looks to skew one way, isn’t it, Malik?”

Malik rubbed the palms of his hands into his closed eyes.  Torlan put a hand on Malik’s shoulder, glaring down at Rayla.  Her voice was strong as she met Rayla head on.  “Rayla, Malik only relayed information that he was ordered to.  You have no idea how much he struggled with even asking this of you.”

“Of me?!  What about what they’re asking of Callum?”

“Do not misconstrue what I said.  When I said ‘you’ I meant ‘both of you.’  Yes, Malik decided to talk to you first because he knows you and because he thought you would help him talk to Prince Callum.”

“I just did.”  Torlan scoffed.  “Don't give me that.  You’re arguing for him.”

“I’m arguing for someone who doesn’t do well in confrontation.  Which I’m assuming you forgot.”

“Excuse me?”  Rayla was about to stand up when Callum gently put a hand on her shoulder, pushing her back down.

“Can I say something?” Callum asked.  “This is about me, right?”  The three looked at him; the tension at the table so thick Rayla could have cut it with one of her blades.  “I’m used to people talking about me and trying to make decisions for me, so I’m not going to take you all talking about me personally, but this is my decision.  Malik, you’re going to have to explain to me what exactly you plan to do with my DNA and I’m going to have to think about it.  And it’s the same with my magic.  I would be honored to meet the Dragon King and discuss peace further, but I am not a lab rat.  I’m not opposed to a certain degree of study if we can agree on what happens.  I’m going to demand transparency as well as information being shared with human geneticists and scientists on top of collaboration with that same group.”

Malik shook his head.  “The Dragon Council has never discussed collaborating with humans on this.”

“They’re going to have to.  That’s the minimum I require before I even consider it.  And when I say that, I mean it.  I don’t want it to be revealed in twenty years that one side kept a piece of information about MY genetics or magic to themselves just because it fit their perspective or they wanted to be the ones to have an answer.  It’s my DNA, my magic, my family’s history.  It’s my life.  I think I deserve the final say here.”

Rayla nodded, turning to Malik and Torlan.  Torlan was looking at Malik while he was staring at his tented fingers.  After a few minutes, Malik finally nodded.  “I will relay everything that you said to the Council.  I agree with you, Prince Callum, don’t think I don’t.  It wasn’t my intention to be sneaky about this.  It’s as Torlan said, I’m comfortable with Rayla and terrible at confrontation.  I was trying to take the path that I believed would benefit us all while keeping comfortable.”

“Sometimes we have to be uncomfortable to make responsible decisions.”

“Yes, we do.”

Callum placed a hand on Rayla’s, lightly stroking her with his thumb.  “I’m not angry, Malik.  I personally can’t stand confrontation, either.  I’m well aware of how politics work and it’s not something I have a knack for.  We have to work together on this.  That being said, as long as you are completely transparent with Rayla and don’t ask her to hide things from me, you are free to talk to her about these matters and she and I will discuss it.”

“Even though it’s your life?”

“We’re a team.  I trust her with my life.  She is my life.”  A flush made its way up from Rayla’s cheeks to the tips of her ears.  Under normal circumstances, she would have given him a snarky comeback about how he was too romantic for his own good.  Right now, it was a very public declaration about where she stood in his life.  Even if it was only meant for their table, the whole restaurant could have heard it and become well aware of it.

Malik smiled.  “I think I can agree to that.”  Malik turned towards Rayla.  “Rayla is loyal to fault and has a bigger heart than she gives herself credit for.  It’s good that she found someone with that same level of dedication.”

 “Thank you.”

When the check finally came, the tension had lifted.  Torlan was laughing at most of the boys’ jokes as Callum and Malik tried to outdo each other in bad magic puns.  Rayla was grateful for the change, but she just wanted to head home.  After Callum and Malik did a check dance, Callum winning because he had been the one to suggest the restaurant, they exchanged information and headed out, parting at the restaurant doors instead of the hotel.  Malik said he had someone else he needed to see while Torlan was going to the local library to see how border town libraries operated. 

By the time they arrived home, Rayla’s feet were killing her.  “I hate heels,” she muttered as she kicked them off.  They headed towards their bedroom, eager to end the day.

“You don’t have to wear them if you don’t want.  Flats are just as good.”

“The heels went with the dress.”

“Since when do you care about fashion?”

“I don’t.  I just wanted to match you.”  Callum hummed, taking off his tie.  “You did great with Malik.  I think he and Torlan really liked you.”

“They’re nice.”  Rayla took the tie from his hands, looping it around her hand.  “Torlan’s grandfather is almost exactly like a Tidebound version of my great-grandfather.  They had a lot of similar habits when it came to shelving and the same taste in tea with biscuits over a full meal on busy days.”

“Hmm.”  Callum removed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt before taking off his belt.  He sat down on the bed, removing his socks and shows while Rayla slowly unzipped her dress.  Callum finally looked up to see the underwear she had been hiding.

“Ray…”

“If you’re too tired, I can do all the work tonight.”

Callum gave a slight shake of his head.  “You been planning on seducing me all night?”

“I had plans to do a lot of little things to get you wound up but you ended up seducing me when you called me ‘your life.’”

“I’m starting to think I just need to stand there for you to get turned on,” he chuckled. 

Rayla smiled, cupping his cheeks.  “What can I say?  After having a taste of you, I want more.  Maybe, I’m trying to keep myself satisfied until we part for three months.”

“We’ll see each other at Aunt Amaya and Janai’s wedding.”

“It’s not enough.  I miss you.”  She pulled him in for a languid kiss.  When they parted, she began her descent down, kissing his neck and chest as she went.  “I miss your voice.”  Kiss.  “I miss your touch.”  A gentle lick of her tongue against his nipple.  “I miss you holding me.”  A nibble on his abdomen.  “I miss you inside me.”    

She sank to her knees, gently pulling his cock out of his underwear and pants.  “You don’t have to-”

“I want to,” she whispered against the head.  She laid a soft kiss against the tip before taking in as much of him as she could.  Rayla hummed when she felt Callum run a hand through her white hair, massaging where her horns met her head while he was at it.  She loved it when he did that.  One of her hands came up to stroke him while her head bobbed up and down.  She could taste the saltiness of his precum on her tongue, moaning around him.  Her other hand was lightly stroking herself through her underwear that was growing damper by the second.  All too soon, he was pulling her off him.  “Callum-”

“I’m gonna cum if you don’t stop.”  Rayla nodded, pushing him backwards so he was laying on their bed.  She stood so she could remove her underwear and bra.  “Leave them on,” was his whisper when she moved to take off the garter and stockings.

“Naughty human,” she purred with a smirk.

“Your naughty human.”

“Don’t forget it.  So, you like stockings, too?”

“Don’t know.”  He licked his lip.  “Maybe.  I know I like them on you.” 

“Hmm.  That’s all we need to know.”  She slowly sank onto his cock, sighing when he was fully within her.  Rayla closed her eyes and sighed in bliss.  “I’ll never get tired of this.”

Callum groaned under her.  “Horny elf.”

Rayla opened her eyes ‘til they were at half-mast, looking down into his eyes.  “Your horny elf.”

Rayla rode him nice and slow.  She was in no hurry tonight and wanted to savor the feeling of him inside her.  Callum’s hands ran from her thighs to her breasts, playing with the garter every time he came in contact with it.  He messaged the flesh of her thigh under it with his thumb.  She didn’t even have to ask him to play with her clit when she felt her walls tighten and her orgasm coming.  They had done this enough where he knew what she liked along with when and how she liked it.  She collapsed onto his chest when she finally came, unbothered by the feeling of him emptying his seed within her.  Rayla nuzzled her nose against his neck as she slowly came down from her high.  Callum’s arms wrapped around her to hold her close to him.  Rayla giggled as he nipped at the tip of her ear.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you, too, My Heart.”  As soon as she said it, Rayla knew it to be true.  Callum didn’t simply hold her heart in his hands; he was her heart and wherever he went, he took an essential piece of her with him.

_______________________________________________________________

Bandlr’s jaw dropped as he saw Malik in front of him, hands in his suit pockets.  “Malik, what are you doing here?”  They were at the campus library, in a quiet study room.

“I just got back from dinner with Rayla and Prince Callum.  Thought we could chat.”

“That explains the fancy suit.”  Malik chuckled.  “Why are you here to see me?”

“We can’t talk?”

Bandlr raised a brow.  He finally gestured to the empty seat next to him.  When Malik sat down, they sat in silence for a moment.  “Heard you got a girlfriend.”

“I did.  Her name is Torlan.  She’s a Tidebound elf whose grandfather runs a library in the town close to the Spire.  She’s great.”  Malik pulled out his cell, opening the lock screen to show Bandlr a picture of a very pretty girl with a big smile on her face.

A whistle.  “How do you keep getting all these babes?”

 Malik ignored him, putting his phone back in his pocket.  “Heard you’re still pissing Rayla off.”

Banldr shrugged.  “Can’t help it.  She’s making a shit decision by being with the step-prince.”

“He’s not a bad guy.”

“Never said he was.”  Malik let the subject drop.  Bandlr felt uncomfortable as Malik continued to stare at him, silently taking each other in.  “You look good.  You’ve got a bit more color on your cheeks.”

“Rayla said the same thing.  She never realized we were friends once, did she?”

Bandlr raised a brow at the abrupt subject change.  “You never told her and I didn’t either.”

“It never came up.  It was so long ago when you started hanging out with your soccer buddies and spent all your time outside.”

“Yeah.  Neither one of us even really existed to her until high school anyways.  She spent all her time training with Runaan or helping Ethari in his workshop there was no time for anything else.”

Malik nodded.  “She can be singularly-minded like that.  She’s focused and determined, but it can get in the way of her seeing a bigger picture.” 

They were silent again.  Bandlr had no idea what was running through Malik’s mind, but he wasn’t comfortable with his former friend being so quiet.  “Do you have something to say to me or what?”

Malik sighed.  “I’ve been talking to Glenna.”  Bandlr froze at his older sister’s name.  “She said your parents were not as capable as you both led us to believe.”

Bandlr grunted.  “So what?”

A level stare.  “We could have taken you in.”

“Your house was full, Malik.  You had three moms and a dad, as well as four sisters and three brothers.  There was never a moment’s peace when I went over there and everyone was relying on you as the oldest, most mature one to prove that your parents knew what they were doing.  Glenna and I did fine.”

“She was a seventeen-year-old child who was forced to become a mom to an eight-year-old.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“They hit you, Bandlr.  You told me those bruises were from sports.  You let everyone believe that.”

“It was me or Glenna.  She didn’t deserve that.”

You didn’t deserve that.”

“You’re making it into a bigger deal than it was, Malik.”

“Glenna said it started after Rayla’s parents were chosen for the Dragon Guard.  Your father viewed it as a slight because he thought he and your mother were more capable.”  Bandlr shrugged.  “Is that why you chased after her?”

“It’s part of why I noticed her at first.  But, no, Malik.  I genuinely did like her.  I still like her.  She’s tough, and smart, and gorgeous.  She’s not afraid to go for what she really wants.  Why do you even care?”

  “We were friends once.  I still care about you and Glenna.  The smartest thing she ever did was take you the minute she graduated and moved out of your parents’ house.”

“Even though she lied and told everyone it was because she now lived closer to the schools?”

Malik shook his head.  “The reasoning she gave didn’t matter.  It let your parents keep their pride, though they didn’t deserve it, while keeping you both safe.  The statute of limitations doesn’t exist for domestic violence, especially against children-”

“I’m assuming Glenna said she didn’t want to go to trial.”

“She did.”

“I don’t want to dig all this up.  She remembers better than I do.  Besides, they didn’t have any more kids and my dad hasn’t had alcohol in three years.  He was a drunk and it only happened when he was drunk.  Let sleeping banthers lie, Malik.”

“If that’s what you wish.”

“It is.  He never touched my mom.  She would have smacked him if he did.”

“That’s good, I guess.”  Bandlr was quiet.  Malik tapped his fingers against the chair for a bit.  “Do you want me to go, Bandlr?”

Bandlr was about to tell him it was his choice, but stopped.  He touched his arm, the ribbon carefully hidden by his shirt.  Malik’s gaze followed his movements.  “I have something to tell you, but you can’t be telling the Dragon Council.  The more people that know, the more risk there is of my plan falling apart.  And we’ll have to go back to your hotel.  Even walls have ears, as the humans say.” 

Malik looked up and they locked eyes.  “OK.”     

Chapter Text

“Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is,” Malik hissed from his chair.  He and Bandlr were sitting in Malik’s hotel room, having hurried past everyone once they left the library.  Bandlr was currently sitting on Malik and Torlan’s bed, having removed a thin arm cuff that Malik had barely noticed.  When he it came off, the illusion had fallen and the once normal, healthy looking arm had been replaced with something out of Moonshadow magic textbooks. 

Bandlr nodded, not looking at the oath ribbon that was currently squeezing his bicep.  “I wish I could.” 

Malik had to refrain himself from touching the darkening the skin.  The ribbon was so close to Bandlr’s shoulder that he was at risk at losing the whole damn arm.  “How could you be so stupid to let them do this to you?”

Bandlr glared.  “And let them go after Silvergrove?  Xadia?  The world?  You didn’t see what I saw down there, Malik.”

Malik pinched the bridge of his nose.  “I’m not saying that you did the wrong thing-”

“Then what are you saying?”

“You will lose your arm!  That’s what I’m saying.  Does it tighten every time you talk to someone?”

“No, it’s only tightened once and that was after I told Rayla and His Highness what was going on.”

“They know?”

“Well, not about the ribbon.”  Bandlr didn’t look sheepish, at all.  If anything, he was a mask of confidence and it was infuriating.  “I have a plan.”

“I’m sure you do.  Where’d you get the cuff?”

“Lujanne.”

“OK.”  Malik breathed in and out a few times.  “OK.  What is the plan?”

“I’ll spy on Viren and give the fake information he’s going to feed me to Rayla, but I need them to get the right info.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“Well, you.”

“Me?”

Bandlr sighed.  “Malik, they don’t know you and I were friends.  If they have access to THIS,” a quick gesture at the oath ribbon that Malik really did not want to think about, “what else do they have access to?”

“And how do you propose we go about this?”

“You remember the secret code we had when we were kids?”

Malik smiled.  “The one where we pretended to be Moonshadow assassins and talking about every day things while actually planning our ‘hits’?”

Bandlr smirked back.  “Yep.  Your sisters’ stuffed animals never knew what was coming.”

“Do you remember the codes?”

“Aye.  If I send it to you via text, no one should be able to understand it.  And if you relay the information to Rayla, decoded, she’ll know what’s really going on.”  Malik nodded.  The plan made sense and it was their best course of action.  “I know what I’m risking here, but I don’t care.  If the price of Silvergrove, of Glenna, being safe is my arm, then so be it.  Sources know that Viren cannot be allowed to win.”

Malik leaned back in his chair.  “I don’t like it.  But, you’re right,” he sighed.  “You have to be careful.  Necrosis can creep in and kill you if you aren’t careful.”

“I know,” Bandlr rolled his eyes.  “There’s more.”

Malik lifted his arms in a ‘of course’ gesture.  “Why wouldn’t there be?”

“Viren’s got a purple bug…thing that talks to him.” 

“What?”  Malik couldn’t have heard right.  He couldn’t have.  “Was there a mirror in the room?”  Bandlr’s brows furrowed.  “Answer me!”

“Yes!  What the f-”

“Did Viren’s eye look distorted at all?  A web on it?  Pale?  ANYTHING?”

“Yes, to both.  What’s going on?”  Malik stood up; not listening.  This wasn’t good.  This wasn’t good at all.  “Malik, talk to me.”

“Aaravos.”  Bandlr’s eyes went wide.  “I don’t know how, but he’s made contact with Aaravos.”

Bandlr let out a shaky laugh.  “That mirror was supposed to have been destroyed after the last time he almost got out.  All six elf races agreed to destroy it.  Even the Startouch elves said to do it.”

“They didn’t destroy it.  They kept it at the Spire to make sure nothing happened but it was stolen and no one could ever find it.  There were rumors it had been taken to the human kingdoms but it would have been impossible to find it.”

“Sources.  It was supposed to be destroyed!  Why didn’t the Dragon Council just do what all of Xadia agreed they were supposed to do?!  Why didn’t the Dragon King just destroy the damned thing?!”  Banldr yelled into his hands in frustration.  It took a moment before he finally looked back up.  “They didn’t tell anyone.  We’re fucked, aren’t we?”

“No, we’re not.  I refuse to believe that.  But, I’m worried for Prince Callum.”

Him?  Aaravos tried to conquer Xadia not once, but twice and almost succeeded TWICE!”

“And what has he always targeted?  Magic.  Deep, powerful sources of magic.  Now tell me, Bandlr, between Viren and Prince Callum, who is the bigger well of powerful magic?”  Bandlr didn’t respond.  It wasn’t even a contest in Malik’s eyes; Viren was incapable of arcana magic without a primal stone while Prince Callum was already doing things that mages twice his age struggled with if Ibis and Lujanne were to be believed.  It wasn’t just the lightning spells or the wind.  Callum had conjured a storm with ease used Moon arcanum theory to cloak himself in a cloud of his own making using Skywing magic.  “Yes, we have to be concerned for Xadia, but if he gets access to the prince’s magic…that’s it Bandlr.  He might win.”

“The prince just had to mess in stuff that wasn’t his business, didn’t he?”

Malik breathed through this nose, tenting his fingers.  He finally sat back down, looking across at his old friend.  “At the Spire, there is a working theory that he has elf genetics.  Not just him; but about 80% of the human population has a little bit in them.  And, that at least 50% of elves have human blood.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not.  His family comes from the border and Katolis is literally the border between Xadia and the rest of the Pentarchy, for the most part.”

“So, he’s part-elf, maybe.”

“But does it even matter?  It’s so far down the line, it may not at all.  Bandlr, how many elves have there been with mage parents who turned out to be only able to do the bare minimum that is characteristic of their race?”

“A lot, probably.”

“A lot.”  Malik rubbed his forehead.  “I don’t think the genetics matters.  I think, something about him has given him a strong perchance for magic.  Maybe it’s his desire to learn, or humans always had this ability but it’s been latent.”

“And somehow, he was the one that unlocked it?”

“No.  There is no ‘somehow’.”  Malik didn’t finish that thought.  He didn’t know if he prescribed to the idea of destiny or any of that, but something told him that not just any human mage was going to be in Callum’s place.  No, he felt in his gut that it was always supposed to be Prince Callum who figured out how to use primal magic without primal stones.  “He cannot fall into Aaravos’ hands, Bandlr.”

“So, you’ll help me?”

Malik nodded.  “I don’t have a choice.  Your plan is as good as any.”

---------------------------------------------

Rayla looked up at the envelope in her hands.  Her parents’ letter was in here.  It felt a lot thicker now that she was actually concentrating on it, like there were multiple pages.  Did she even want pages?  Callum was off with Ibis, having given her the choice as to whether or not she wanted to read the letter in privacy or if she wanted him there for support.  While normally, Rayla would have wanted him there, this was just too personal.  She needed time to process.  She needed space.  Rayla lay on her and Callum’s bed; the dark sheets making the paleness of her skin all the more striking.

“Now or never, Rayla.”  She ripped open the envelope.  There were several pages worth and a quick perusal told her that both of her parents had decided to write their own letters to her.  She started with her mother’s letter. 

 

My Dearest Rayla,

 

It has been too long since we’ve spoken and I wish I could say otherwise.  When I took the oath to protect the Dragon King, it wasn’t supposed to have been for this long.  We were supposed to retire in time for your seventeenth birthday or your high school graduation at the latest.  We were counting on having access to technology or shadow hawks or something to keep contact with you.  Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  But, you have been granted an extraordinary opportunity because of this sacrifice.  Do not take your time at the border University for granted.  You are part of something so much bigger than even your father or I could have imagined when we took our positions.  You are helping to sow the seeds of peace, My Heart. 

We heard about your relationship with Prince Callum.  While I can’t say I approve, I also can’t say I disapprove.  I want to meet the man who thinks he deserves my daughter’s heart before passing judgement on whether or not I think he is a good fit for you.  That being said, Ethari likes him and Runaan tolerates his existence, so that’s high praise.  Either way, I would never stop you from following what you believe is right.  

We’ve also heard that you have stuck to your traditional training while also learning how to focus on your studies.  I always knew you would take more after Runaan and your father than Ethari and I in that aspect.  Runaan let you get away with too much, I think.  Not doing your homework for the sake of training, or pushing aside studying for more time doing field practice.  I hope the world will never see a need for such training to be put to use.  Your heart is like Ethari’s, from what I remember.  It’s full of goodness and forgiveness and a willingness to to look past the surface.  You are not the coldhearted assassin you were trained to be.  You used to play with the adoraburrs and laugh as your father and I played tag with you in their fields and cry when we had to leave because the adoraburrs would get lonely.

I never wanted this to be the first time I speak to you in fifteen years.  I wanted to surprise you at your graduation at the latest.  Your graduation!  I can’t believe I missed it.  You must think I didn’t care.  My Heart, Rayla, my dearest, brightest star, I love you with all that I am.  Time passed so slowly and yet so quickly that when I finally found out, it was too late.  Runaan sent a letter with a disk to watch it all and it was as if a Moonstrider knocked into me.  My darling girl, all grown up.  And you don’t need me anymore.  You’re already deciding your own path and I want to support you. 

Your father and I are in talks with King Azymondeus now to retire from duty.  Fifteen years is long enough, longer than most, and we’ve missed out on too much.  I hope that you can find it in your heart to allow us to be part of the next stage in your life.  I know we haven’t been there, but it was never because we didn’t want to be.  We did what honor and duty bound us to do.  We did what we thought would give you the best chances in life.  After all, if the Dragon King was safe, all of Xadia was safe, and that included you. 

 

Know that I love you and I always will,

Mum

 

Rayla stared at the paper.  It was covered in dried tear marks and slightly shaky handwriting dominated the page.  She remembered her mother calling her her ‘heart.’  Ethari called Runaan that as well and, now, she called Callum that.  Rayla gulped as the tears flowed down her cheeks.  It was so little, but knowing that her parents had never intentionally been away this long meant more to her than she could say.  The wounds in her heart were aching as she looked at the letter in her hands. 

She felt like her heart was trying to mend itself and break apart at the same time.  All this time, she had been their driving force to leaving?  Was that really why they left her?  To help give her a world as safe as possible?  It wasn’t fair!  Why couldn’t she have both?  But, Callum and Ezran didn’t get both, either.  Neither did Soren or Claudia.  No.  They either got safety or only one of their parents.  And safety was ripped right out from under all four of them with Viren’s betrayal. 

Rayla sighed, looking at her mother’s letter, and her father’s letter behind it.  She wasn’t ready to read what he wrote.  Not yet.  She needed…she sighed, getting up to make herself some tea.  She scrolled through her emails and texts, looking for a distraction, for just a moment.  A handful of replies back, including one to Malik who said they had to discuss something important and she was out of messages.  As the kettle boiled, Rayla finally settled down into one of the dining room chairs and opened her father’s letter.

 

Rayla,

 

Do you know why we named you that?  Because you were like a ray of sunshine on a dark day.  Silvergrove is always in dusk, but you were so bright when you were born.  Skin so shiny and new, your wails splitting everyone’s ears.  You were in the world now and everyone had to know you had arrived.  Tiadrin’s body did not do well with pregnancy and we were so scared that she wouldn’t be able to carry you to term.  We wanted you and when you were born, we were so happy.  Never think we didn’t always love you, that you were not always wanted. 

Leaving you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  I will forever remember the brave face you put on, as if you understood what none of us had yet; that it would be a long time before we saw each other again.  I remember hearing you cry as the door between your mother and I and you closed for the final time.  I have no doubt Ethari and Runaan cared for you and loved you.  Runaan says you take after your mother; full of fire and devotion but you run head first into things like I do. 

I see pictures of you and, Sources, you look like Tiadrin when she was your age.  Ethari says you’ve broken a few hearts already.  Speaking of broken hearts; tell Prince Callum he would be stupid to break your’s.  I know you can look after yourself, so I won’t say that I’ll break him if he hurts you.  But, it would be a mistake on his part to let you go. 

When Malik told us he was coming to see you, I had to write this letter myself.  Your mother had originally wanted us to write a joint one, but I needed to tell you everything that is in my heart and give her that same chance.  They don’t teach you how to do that in Silvergrove.  Don’t lock your heart away from the world, Rayla.  The environment that you are in, the University, is the first step to peace between Xadia and the Pentarchy.  There is movement to ending this war and finally, finally, we can all be free from this nightmare that has plagued us all for generations.  Intentionally or not, you are part of this movement and I am so proud of you for staying there and sticking to what you know in your heart to be right. 

I read an interview from Prince Callum, about two years ago, and I remember his wise words: ‘The world cannot be sustained on hatred.  At some point, we have to heal and move forward.  This war must end.  It’s taken too much from all of us to let it continue.’ 

Your mother and I want to retire and reconnect with you.  I hope that we can, either before the war ends or the war comes to an end quickly.  If you’ll have us, that is.  I know, a letter isn’t enough to make up for years of no contact.  I’m not sure I would have taken this position if I knew that’s what it meant.  I probably would have said to give it to someone who didn’t have children or a family.  Duty and honor may have bound me to take the job on the Dragon Guard, but I would have stepped aside if I knew that it would mean sacrificing a relationship with my only child.  You are my inspiration to keep going and I hope I can see you soon.  Let me share with you some wisdom I have learned since coming to the Spire: Win or lose, make sure that,at least, you can say you gave it your all.

 

Love,

Dad                        

 

Rayla stared into space until she was startled by the kettle whistling.  Completely numb, she went through the motions of making her tea.  She had never known her mother had difficulty carrying her to term.  Ethari and Runaan and had never brought it up.  Her father had compared her to a ray of sunshine, much like Callum compared her to the sun.  He had faith in her to be part of the change.  They both did.  The world demanded change and they wanted her to help it grow past the war.   

She sipped her tea and sat in silence until Callum came home.  He seemed to understand her need for silence because he made dinner and drew her a bath without asking.  When it finally came time for bed, and he asked if she had any ‘big feelings,’ it all came flooding out.  He held her close as she sobbed in relief.  As hurt as she still was, and that hurt may never go away, she now knew that they had never intended to abandon her.  And just knowing that caused her heart to heal a little bit from all the years of hurt and disappoint it had encountered.

Chapter Text

Rayla raised a brow at Malik.  “So, Bandlr is going to feed you information, in code, and you’re going to feed it back to me and Callum?”

Malik sighed.  “Aye.” 

Rayla walked around her and Callum’s sofa.  Malik wasn’t entirely sure his hotel was safe because Bandlr had been seen leaving it.  Callum’s apartment had been chosen specifically because it featured anti-magic wards, had high security, and was always monitored by someone after the Bandlr incident earlier in the year.  “I’m sorry you’re getting dragged into this.”

“We’re all dragged into this.  If Viren wants a war, and if what I believe is correct, Aaravos is involved, that means that this war involves all of us.  There is no hiding, Rayla.  Every man, woman, child, everyone in between, elf and human…all of our futures are at stake.”

“You’re positive that this is Aaravos?”

“No, but it sounds like something he’s done before.”

“Right.”  Rayla looked down at Malik as he sat in the chair.  He looked nervous.  Good.  “Want to tell me why the Council never destroyed the mirror and lied to everyone that they still had it?”

“Technically, we didn’t lie-”

“Never said anything.  That’s called lying by omission.”

“Aye,” Malik agreed.  “Look, the mirror was stolen long before my time.  I am only privy to so much.  From my understanding, they thought they could study him.”

“Through a mirror?”

“They wanted to understand his mind.  They were looking for a psychological reason why he wanted to destroy Xadia.”

“So, they wanted an easy answer that would only stigmatize a group already stigmatized throughout Xadia?”

“I-”  Malik ran a hand over his face.  “I’m not saying what they did was right.”

Rayla shook her head.  “Go on.”

“The mirror was stolen when it was being transported from the Spire-”

“WHY?”

“Because someone in Lux Aurea said they could figure out…something.  Rayla, I don’t know all the details.”

“This is insane.  If they had just destroyed the damn mirror-”

“None of this would have happened.  I know.  Bandlr was pissed off, too.”

“Do you blame him?  What aren’t you telling me?”

Malik shook his head.  “He told me not to tell you.  He has his reasons.”

Rayla was quiet for a moment.  “So, it’s not the fact you two were childhood friends?”  Malik’s eyes went big as he looked right into her own.  “I always knew.  You two were inseparable when we were all kids.  I just didn’t really care when you guys were friends and since you never hung out while we were dating, I never brought it up.  I thought you two had a big falling out and it was better to let sleeping banthers lie.”

“There was no falling out.  Our interests just diverged.  I never hid it from you on purpose.”

“I know.  It never came up.”

Malik looked relieved, a sigh escaping him.  “It weighed on me after we broke-up, but I was never sure when would be a good time to bring it and we lost contact after graduating.”

“It doesn’t matter.  Really.  What does matter is that we trust each other now.  And I’m having a hard time trusting you because you are with the Dragon Council, and they hid something of monumental importance as well as wanting to experiment on Callum.”  Rayla turned his chair, leaning in close.  She did her best impression of Runaan and Malik looked scared.  “You cannot lie to me, or hide things from me.  Period.  The Bandlr thing…whatever he’s hiding, that’s his thing.  I’m going to let it go, but that’s the only thing I will let go.  If I even think you are hiding something from me or Callum, or deceiving either of us, we’re done.  I will tear all of Xadia and the Pentarchy apart to protect him and our future together.  Is that clear?”  She was in his face, the end almost coming out in a hiss.  Malik’s eyes were wider than she had ever seen them.  “Is.  That.  Clear?”

“Aye.  Clearer than the water in the Tidebound capital.”

“Good.”  She eased back, but kept her hand on the chair.  “I don’t want this war anymore than you do, Malik, but I’m not afraid to fight for the future that Callum keeps telling me is in our grasp.  Even if I don’t make it out alive, I will make damn sure that his vision is set up to become reality.  The time of Xadia and the Pentarchy being divided is over.  It must end.  And Aaravos has to die this time.  You are going to tell the Council that they have a choice: they can study Callum’s genetics and magic with human cooperation and listen to Callum if he ever says he wants to stop or they can study Aaravos.  If they choose Aaravos, I will go to the press and I will scream from the Spire itself what they didn’t do that they were supposed to do the last time and it could be their fault that actual war is breaking out again.”

“You’d be labeled a traitor,” Malik gulped.  “Rayla, going against the Council is not a smart choice.”

Rayla gave a small chuckle.  “I don’t care.  They need to pay for the consequences of their actions.  While I understand it was probably before everyone on the current Council’s time, Malik, the public doesn’t know.  And every subsequent Council, including the current one, has sat on this information instead of doing the right thing and telling the Xadian public.  Does the Dragon King know?”

“I don’t know if King Azymondeus knows.  I rarely speak to him and this is all behind closed doors.”

Rayla was silent for a moment.  “Do my parents know?”

“I doubt it.  If they did, I would be shocked.  The Dragon Guard is there as added protection for the Dragon King and his family, they aren’t there to be involved in politics.  People who are called to be members of the Dragon Guard are not only excellent fights and skilled at quick communication; they can’t have strong political ties.  It’s a way to keep them from benefiting from potentially influencing the Dragon King to take one side or another in elf disputes.  Information like this has been kept in the Council circles and will probably continue to be so.”

“Not for long.  People will figure it out.  Do you really think Aaravos is going to be quiet?”

Malik’s face went paper white.  “Shite.”

“Aye.  There’s no hiding from this.  That’s why I’m not scared,” Rayla tilted her head to the side.  “But, you should be.”  Rayla looked him up and down briefly, finally breaking away from his chair.  “If I were you, I’d find out a way to make sure you can’t be implicated in anything that would imply you were responsible for keeping this information secret.  I know you; I know you probably were told you couldn’t say anything.  But, frankly, it’s because I know you that I’m disappointed in you.  I really thought you had more integrity than this.”

“You don’t understand-”

“You’re right, I don’t.  Go ahead, explain to me why it was acceptable to hide this.”

“The public would panic and would blame the Council, potentially leading to it’s dissolution.  The Dragon Council is designed so that there is equal say at the Spire for elf relations.  We’re there to try to keep the Dragon King impartial while also ensuring funds go into the proper avenues.  We settle disputes for places like Silvergrove or the entirety of Moonshadow lands.  Sometimes, we sent spies into the Pentarchy, usually Katolis, to make sure the humans weren’t developing technology to kill us.”

“Bullshit.  ‘The public would panic.’  You think they aren’t going to now?  Maybe, if you all had said something, he wouldn’t have teamed up with Viren.  The Council could have been dissolved?  That would not have happened.  It’s importance in matters like you stated were taught to us over and over again.  They wanted to save their hides because they would have been disgraced.”  Rayla shook her head.  “Prideful fools, the lot of you.  As for spying?  That’s over.  Katolis is willing to open its borders and work with Xadia more.  They’ve proven it.”

Rayla stared at Malik in silence for a few minutes.  She calmly drank some tea Callum had made her earlier.  She felt bad going so hard into Malik, but he needed to understand where she was coming from and just how serious she was.  If the world was going to be stacking chips up against her and Callum, she was going to stack up as many chips as she could in their favor.  Now, as long as the Council was quiet and people didn’t know about Aaravos, she had something over the Dragon Council itself.  She played it quickly and early with making the Council follow what Callum wanted, but it was the best hand to play.  Besides, who knew how long she'd even have this gift of a hand she'd been dealt?  “I will do everything in my power to make the Dragon Council accept your terms.”

“I knew you would.”

“I was planning on it, Rayla.”

“It was never that I didn’t believe you would argue Callum’s case or that I thought you would hide something.  It was the fact that, now, it’s in their best interest to do what Callum wants.  Like Callum said, it’s his genetics, his family history, his life.  He deserves a say.”  She put her tea to the side.  “Anything else I need to know?”

“No.  We’ll be in contact with Bandlr’s information as soon as he learns something.”

“Alright.”

Malik grabbed his jacket and towards the door.  Before he opened it, he turned back, staring at her.  “Rayla, I really hope you playing this move against the Dragon Council doesn’t mean what I think it means.”

“What do you think it means?”  Rayla crossed her arms and stared Malik straight in the eye.

“That you are not on Xadia’s side.”

“I’m on the side of peace.  There is no Pentarchy side or Xadia side for me anymore.  My side is standing next to Callum.  My side is the future he has been working towards; one that involves the war finally ending and relationships like our’s becoming common place.  If we think in absolutes, Viren and Aaravos will win.  You remember your history Malik?  Aaravos almost succeeded twice because he was so good at dividing the elves and making them forget that, at our core, we’re all elves.  It would be stupid to forget that and I hope that the Dragon Council hasn’t, because there is already a strong division between humans and elves despite the push for peace.  Viren already plans to prey on it and he has Aaravos on his side.  If would be far smarter of everyone, if we all realized that the only two sides right now are peace or Aaravos and Viren winning.  Xadia and the Pentarchy cannot do this alone.  They have to work together.  Which side are you on?”       

Malik looked her straight in the eye.  “I’m on Prince Callum’s side.  If he calls it the side of peace, then that’s the side it is.”

“Why?  Like you said, people could view that as taking the side against Xadia.  You’ve met him once.”

“I told you at dinner; he’s going to change the world and the world he envisions is one I look forward to.  A vision like his, Rayla, it’s a revolution of the highest caliber.  And it’s not just his.  It’s generations of visions and hopes that have continuously been stamped down but finally have a chance to be made reality.  By being on the Dragon Council for the past two years, I have heard, seen, and read a million pleas from all over Xadia for the war to end.  I remember the Duren Letter and I was given a Moon Opal to see what happened when the Expulsion was announced.  Humans and elves were crying and screaming because they knew what it meant.  We have a real chance to right a wrong here and for our children to grow up in a world without war.  Only a fool doesn’t take that.”

Rayla smirked.  “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

“Heh.  You liked me because I was tall and not emotionally constipated.”

“Probably.  Have a safe drive back with Torlan.”

“Thank you.  Be safe, Rayla.  From what Bandlr says, Viren’s closer than we think.”

“Thanks.”  Malik turned back to open the door.  “Wait.”  He looked at her.  “Do me a favor.  Please.  Look up everything that the Dragon Council and Torlan’s grandfather was access to about what Aaravos has done in the past.  We can’t walk into this blind.  He’s had centuries to plan and it’s better to know what’s he’s done than be surprised at every turn.”

“I was planning on it.”

-----------------------------------------------

Callum sighed as he entered the apartment, kicking off his shoes.  It had been a long day with Ibis and he still felt no closer to getting his wings.  “Ray?  You home?”  He waited for an answer, slightly relieved when he didn’t hear one.  He pulled out his phone and dialed his dad’s number.  On the third ring, he heard the deep voice he had long come to associate with parental guidance and devotion. 

“Callum?  Is everything OK?”

“Hello to you, too, Dad.”

“Right.  Hello.  It’s just, you never call without texting first to make sure I’m free.”

Callum nodded to himself.  “I’m fine, but this is the first time I’ve been alone since I heard something interesting and couldn’t really wait.”

“Is it Rayla?  Do you need to be pulled from the border?”

“No, nothing like that.  Dad,” Callum sighed.  “Did Mom ever tell you about my father’s family?”

There was a long pause before he heard a sigh in return.  “Are you talking about Cloverton?  I only knew bits and pieces, but never the whole story.  She told me she was sworn to secrecy by your great-grandparents and what she did tell me was what they agreed could be shared for your benefit.”

“No, this is much, much bigger than Cloverton.”  Callum gave a bit of a panicked chuckle.  “This is so much bigger than Cloverton.  Like, this could blow the lid off of…everything big.”

“Callum, you’re not making any sense.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.”  Callum took a deep breath.  “I met with Rayla’s ex-boyfriend and he’s on the Dragon Council.”

“I had no idea she had such high connections.  I knew about her parents being on the Dragon Guard.  Interesting.”

“Yeah.  Apparently they have a working theory that I am part-elf.”

Harrow was silent for so long Callum kept looking at his cell to make sure the call didn’t drop.  “Dad?  You with me?”

“That…explains a lot.”

Callum’s eyes blew wide.  “What do you mean?  I don’t look like an elf.”

“No, you don’t.  But, when your mother and I got married, she suddenly had the time and resources to do a lot more than she once could.  One of the first things she did was find a geneticist.  I thought it was because of what people were saying about you and your father, but…Sarai told me there was something your father told her that she couldn’t tell me.  But that, hopefully, in our lifetimes, the truth could come out.  On top of that, over the centuries, there has never been an addressing of the children of elf-human relationships.  And your magic, Callum.”

“Maybe it’s too far down for my magic.”

“Maybe.  Probably is.  I know a geneticist was arguing that magic itself is a genetic trait and that’s why not all mages have children who can produce magic of any kind.  Xadia is thinking this?”

“The Dragon Council is.”

“What are they planning to do with this theory?”

“They want to study my genes and my magic.  I told them I wanted humans to be involved in the process and wouldn’t say ‘yes’ unless that was the case.”

Harrow hummed.  “Good for you.  I can’t say I approve of them studying you, in any capacity, but you are over 18 and it’s your decision.  If they’re right, Callum, you’re right, this is bigger than Cloverton.  It would be impossible for you to be the only one with elf genetics.”

“Yeah,” Callum breathed.  “You said Mom talked to a geneticist?”

“She did.  Dr. Aeson.  He’s still around, I think.  When your mother died, he was unable to share details with me about what they talked about.  Even though I was your adopted father, it was information that was for you and your family.”

“You didn’t direct him to my great-grandparents?”

“I wanted to, but he said Sarai told him not to tell them.  I don’t know why.  They were weary of anything involving magic, which is largely why they refused to come to the castle while Viren was present and you and Ezran went to see them.  I’ll look him up for you.”

“Thank you, Dad.”

“Are you OK?  Do you need a Big Feelings Time?  Anything at all, son.”

“We’ll talk about it at break, I think.  It’s only two more months until then and I’d rather tell Ezran and Aunt Amaya this in person.  I was just hoping you knew something more.”

“I wish I did.  The thing about your father’s family was everything was shrouded in mystery.  It wasn’t your mother’s fault or even your father’s fault.  Trying to get anyone from Cloverton to talk was like herding cats.  They just didn’t talk because they were paralyzed by fear and trauma.  All of the survivors were diagnosed with a form of PTSD and even the therapists issues to them admitted they couldn't get anyone to open up.  My father tried again and again, but their mouths were sealed.  For a short time, your mother being married to your father was believed to be a gateway to answers, since she was our General.  It was futile.”  Harrow sighed, probably pinching his brow.  “I’ll try to find Dr. Aeson for you.  It shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.  Call me if you or Rayla need anything at all.”

“OK.  Love you, Dad.”

“Love you, too, Callum.” 

Callum looked at the painting of his mother.  “You knew, didn’t you, Mom?  How did Dad know?  Is this the big family secret?”  The painting was silent and, for the first time in a long, long time, Callum felt resentment towards his mother and father for not being there.  

Chapter Text

Rayla looked down at her phone with a frown.  Callum waited for her to tell him who had texted her, wiggling his pencil between his fingers.  It had been about a week since Malec had told them of Bandlr’s plan and it was risky to say the least.  Callum didn’t know how he felt about any of it.  On the one hand, Bandlr could be saving lives by being a double agent.  On the other, he was risking his own.  “So, they are going to go ahead with a media campaign.”

“Against us?”

“Aye.”

Callum ran a hand though his hair.  “And say what?  ‘She’s an elf?’  What good does a media campaign do?”

Rayla raised a brow.  “I know you aren’t stupid.”

“I’m just saying, what can they say beyond the obvious?  Are they planning to turn people into bigots against elves?  People who already don’t like elves are a pretty vocal majority.”

“Majority?”

Callum drummed his fingers against his thigh.  “Maybe minority.  I don’t really know anymore.  I think a lot of it is learned prejudice from generations of hurt.  What if…what if most of it comes from resentment due to the Expulsion and those torn-apart families and it’s just spread into what it is now?”

“It wouldn’t be surprising.  Elves don’t really hide that, some of us, consider humans to be inferior.  A lot of it is Sol Regem’s influence, even 1600 years later.”

Callum was about to speak when he got a ting on his phone.  He opened it to find a text from Ezran to turn on the news.  “So, it begins.”

“Already?” Rayla whispered.  She sounded so small.  Callum put an arm around her shoulders and drew her in as he turned on the TV.  The text at the bottom shocked him; ‘Attack on Duren.’  “What?”

The announcer looked at the camera, mic in hand and shaking slightly.  “The attack on Duren’s castle was shocking to say the least.  Queen Aanya is reported to be unharmed, but the castle’s west wing is completely decimated.  Not only that, but the town square of the capital was engulfed in flames for a few brief moments, cutting families off from each other.  We have no information as to where these attacks came from.”  The announcer sighed, touching her earpiece.  “Queen Aanya has requested she speak.  Take it to you, camera 4.”

The screen switched to Queen Aanya on her throne, expression steely.  “She looks so young,” Rayla whispered.

“She is.  Both her mothers died when they went into Katolis, and she had a regent until she was 10.  Sycophants, assassination attempts, you name it, she’s probably dealt with it before then.  She’s not afraid to speak out, but, yes, she’s young.  Too young for this.”

Aanya cleared her throat.  Her voice was steady as she continued to make direct eye contact with the camera.  “Hello, everyone.  As you can see, I am well.  For all of you worried about your family members who work in the castle, we are currently contacting everyone and their families.  Our hope is that, within the next hour, we will be aware of who needs medical attention and who is safe to go home.  I have been told that no one has been killed, for which I am thankful.  This attack is unacceptable.  What’s even more unacceptable is there is a call for me to be moved out of Duren.

“I will not abandon my people.  Perhaps I overestimate my importance to them, but if there is a question that I am well, it does no one any good.  My people need to see their queen continuing to work for them and caring for their futures.  On top of that, there is no way of knowing if this was a trap to get me to leave.  What if I endanger my guards by doing that?  Their families rely on me to keep them safe; I do not take that lightly.  I take none of this lightly.  We will be teaming up with Katolis in order to find out who caused this.  Anyone who no longer feels safe in the capital, I will make every effort to move you to a place where you will feel safe. 

“I’m sure this is going to lead to concerns as to what would happen to the throne if something were to happen to me.  I decided this several months ago.  As long as I do not have an heir, due to the great debt Duren owes Katolis and the relationship we have created for the past few years, Prince Callum of Katolis is my heir.”

Callum coughed.  “What?  That’s not…”

“Can she do that?” Rayla hissed.

“She just did.”

Aanya was quiet for a moment, probably letting everything settle in.  “I’m sure there is a lot of questions as to why I would pick Prince Callum.  I met him five years ago and have had the pleasure of watching him grow into a confident young mage who has worked to develop peace and good relations with Xadia.  His new vision for the future, one where Xadia and the Pentarchy co-exist and become one continent again is something I desire myself.  He has also grown up in a similar environment to myself, so I would not fear him being overwhelmed immediately beyond help.  For those of you opposed, I have another option; General Amaya of Katolis. 

“I’m sure there will be outcry for my two candidates as not only are they members of the Katolian royal family, but they are both in relationships with elves.  Amaya, in particular, is engaged and her wedding to the sister of Queen Khessa of Lux Aurea is this summer.  Perhaps, these connections will lead to gains in peace.  For too long, Xadia and the Pentarchy have been separate.  Perhaps, if we had chosen peace instead of continuing this cold war, when famine hit, Xadia would have helped and my parents, Queen Sarai, and King Azymondeu’s father would still be alive.  I am not shy about this; I will not risk the lives of my people and, now that a chance for peace has come, I will not let it slip away.  Duren desires peace and, to our attackers, you attacked a peaceful nation.  May that knowledge follow you everywhere you go.”

The camera panned back to the announcer; eyes wide.  “Well, you heard it directly from the Queen, folks.  Let us be thankful that she is well and that she has her mind on her people at all times.”

The camera switched to two announcers, who also looked shocked.  “We have just received a transmission from those claiming to be the attackers on Duren.  We are not sure what they will say, so, please exercise caution while watching this and turn off your TVs or radios if necessary.”

A dark figured appeared on the screen, flanked by several more.  Callum could see a shape that looked similar to Viren on the edge.  The apparent leaders spoke, voice warped by either magic or technology.  “We are responsible for the attacks on Duren.  Duren attacked us first by making efforts to ban dark magic.  The Queen of Duren has plans to leave us helpless to Xadia’s attack and infiltration.  She proved it with her ridiculous assertion of peace and candidacy of Prince Callum and General Amaya.  While we regret any harm to civilians, we do not regret trying to get the attention of a selfish, near-sighed, young ruler who refuses to listen to her own mages.  People of Duren, we are on your side.  We are on the side of the Pentarchy.  We cannot trust Xadia.”  The transmission ended, faces still concealed.

Callum barely paid attention as the announcers talked about the message and their own feelings about using violence to get people’s attention.  Rayla was completely silent, squeezing his hand on her shoulder.  “Ray?”

“Why would they do this?”

“Dark magic twists people. I told you, Viren wasn’t always a monster.”

“Then why use it?!”  Rayla bolted up, running a hand through her hair.

“Because it was our only option for a long time.”

“How does that justify this?”

“It doesn’t.  I had no idea Aanya had already been making moves to ban dark magic.  So has Katolis and Duren.  Del Bar’s been considering it, too.”

“So, the human kingdoms are trying to remove dark magic and the mages feel attacked?”

“That’s my guess.  Just because we don’t know for a fact what happened in Cloverton doesn’t mean questions haven’t led to a growing sentiment against dark magic.  On top of that, even though King Azymondeus has repeatedly said he wants peace, he’s made it clear that Xadia will be weary of humans as long as dark magic is practiced, especially to it’s current degree.”

Rayla sighed.  “I don’t get this.  If they know it twists them, why not let it go?”

“Power, the desire to do magic, again, no other options.”

“But, you exist.”  Rayla turned to him, confusion bright in her eyes.

“No one can replicate what I can do.  They don’t view me as proof that it’s possible.”

“I do.”

“I know.”  Callum looked down at his phone, seeing multiple texts from Ezran.  “Did Bandlr saw nothing about this?”

Rayla looked at her own phone.  “No, but Malic said he’s contacting him now to make sure.  It’s possible he wasn’t aware or it was a different group.”

“Don’t think so.  It looked like Viren in the corner.”

Rayla paused.  “Should we check on Soren and Claudia?”

“Good idea.  I’ll do that after I talk to Ezran.”  Callum called Ezran, pinching his nose.  “Ez, you OK?”

“I’m fine,” Ezran stated.  “I just can’t believe they would do this.  Duren has been a neutral country longer than almost anyone else.  Aanya’s told everyone multiple times that the military’s purpose is self-defense now, not to attack.”

“Yeah.  What’s Dad planning?”

“He’s going to offer a place for all of those who don’t feel safe in Duren anymore.  He’s hoping the other kingdoms will also offer refuse, but he’s not waiting.”

“What’s Opeli saying?”

“She’s just as shocked as everyone else about this.  She had no idea Aanya would have called you her heir.”

“Can she even do that?”

“Opeli thinks it was more of a power move; like a game of chicken or something.  Technically, Aanya doesn’t have any other relatives, but it’s also really unlikely you could become the ruler of Duren since you’ve never lived there.  You would have to marry Aanya for that to happen.”

“Don’t worry, Ez, I’m not going to marry your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend!”

“Whatever you say.  I know you two flirt all the time.”

“We just text every once in a while.”

“Same thing.”

“How’s Rayla doing?”

Callum turned to Rayla.  From what he could hear, she was talking to Claudia now.  “She’s shocked.  She can’t believe anyone would do this to their own people.”

“That makes a million of us, I think.  Did they really think this would get people on their side?”

“I don’t know.  Ez, what if it works?”

“Why would it work?”

“Well, if Aanya has already worked to ban dark magic, doesn’t this prove that there’s not enough security without magic?  Also, since Duren shares a border with Xadia, it will lead to a lot of questions abut whether or not Duren is safe.  More so than usual.”

“Nobody would…think that?”  It ended as a question as Callum could hear the words sit in Ezran’s head.  “I hope no one would be manipulated into thinking that.”

“I’m not saying that I think that will happen.  Just that that might be what they’re thinking.”

“Yeah.  Look, Callum, I’ll talk to you later.  They’re talking about whether or not me and Dad need to be moved.”

“OK, talk to you later.  Love you.”

“Love you, too.”  Ezran hung up and Callum felt the world start to close in.  Was his brother in danger now?    

-----------------------------------------------

 

“Dad?” Claudia whispered.  She hadn’t seen him in so long, and here he was.  Well, it looked like him at least.  There was a web in front of his eye and a strange purple bug on his shoulder.  The dark alleyway in town they were in made the whole thing all the more confusing.  Viren hid in the shadows now, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had heard or seen someone mention spotting him out and about.

“Claudia.  Sweetheart.”  It took everything in her not to run into his arms and try to be a family again.  Yes, she had left him with Soren and chosen Harrow and his vision, but that didn’t change the fact Viren was her father.  Deep down, she still wanted a family.  She still wanted her Mom and Dad to come back together and for them and her and Soren to be the family that they once were.

“What are you doing here?”

“I need your help, Claudia.  Help me take down that traitor.”

Brows furrowed; Claudia slowly shook her head.  “I don’t know who you’re talking about, Dad, but you were the traitor.”

Anger flashed in Viren’s more visible eye.  “The step-prince!  He must have made a deal with the elves to be able to do magic!  He and his mother are the reason why we can no longer be a family.  On top of all that, he broke your heart.”

“No, that’s you!  You wanted to kill Ezran, Dad.  EZRAN!  What has Ezran ever done to anyone?!  He’s the sweetest, kindest boy in the world.  And Callum has done so much for me.  He’s supporting my growth away from dark magic and pursing my education.  When he realized I wasn’t happy in our relationship, that the only reason I agreed to go out with him is because it was expected of me and nothing either of us did was going to make it work, he broke-up with me.  He didn’t break my heart; he set me free.  He knew I wouldn’t leave because I was scared of how YOU would react.  If you hated him and Queen Sarai so much, why did you want me to date him anyways?”

Viren was quiet for a long moment.  The purple bug seemed to be talking to him.  In the back of her mind, this all seemed familiar, like she had heard about it before from someone else.  “Prince Ezran is weak, Claudia.  He’s-”

“A child!  He’s a child!  He’s everything good and pure in this world with a capacity for forgiveness that is admirable.” 

“That same forgiveness will destroy Katolis.  And, to be frank, if you had done your job properly, you would have married Prince Callum and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion because we would now be in control of Katolis.”  Claudia’s eyes narrowed.  “Claudia, the elves cannot be allowed to invade the Pentarchy anymore.  Please, join me. We’ll be a family again.”

“You told me to let Soren die.”

“It’s regrettable, but it was necessary at the time.  He can come with us.  I’m fixing the world.  Humans will finally have the respect we deserve and Xadia will be open to us.  Think of the magic we can do with all of that life force available to us.”

Claudia felt sick.  She was about to say ‘no’ and turn away, but a thought entered her mind.  If Viren believed she was on his side, maybe, just maybe, she could get information.  “We’ll be a family again?”

“Yes.  Just like we’ve always wanted.”  Claudia let Viren pull her into a hug, wrapping her arms around him.  She would take this one last hug from her father before she double-crossed him.  “I promise, this new world I create will be the most beautiful one to ever exist.”  The sad thing was, Claudia knew he really believed that.

-----------------------------------------------

“I saw Dad,” Claudia told Soren as she stepped into their apartment.  Soren’s eyes went wide, whispering an expletive.  “I know.  He wants me to help him.”

“Please tell me you said ‘no,’” Soren begged.  When she was silent for a moment too long, Soren scoffed.  “The things he’s done-”

“I know what Dad’s done, Soren!  I’m not actually going to help him.  I’m going to be getting information and undermine him at every turn.”

“You could be risking your life.  It’s not worth it, Clauds.”  Soren came up to her, putting both hands on her shoulder.  “You know what Dad does to you.  He manipulates you into thinking he’s changed or that everything will be OK.  He’s hurt you more than anyone else.”

“I know, Soren.”  Claudia could feel the tears start to well up.  “But, I can’t stand by while everyone else is doing what they can.”

“I just hope you know what you’re doing?”  Claudia certainly hoped she did, too.     

Chapter Text

What I need, what I need, what I need

Is for you to be sure, no no no

For you to be sure, no no no

For you to be sure, no no no

What I need, what I need, what I need

Is to tell me that it's yours, no no no

And who you do it for, no no no

Need you to be sure, no no no, no no

Need you to be sure

Need you to be sure

 

Zaras smiled as she mouthed the words to the song playing on her phone through her headphones.  She ignored the looks she basically danced across campus to Claudia’s apartment.  She was psyching herself up.  After months of watching Rayla and Callum being happily and openly in love, she was tired of hiding the fact that she had caught feelings for Claudia.  The Disaster Bi had struck again, but she didn’t care.

The sex was good, but she wanted more.  She needed more….  Zaras gulped as she arrived at the apartment building.  How many times had she been here and just lay in Claudia’s arms after a night of sweaty orgasms and memes?  She knew what her parents would say.  They might not be against the fact that Claudia was human, but her being a former dark mage was a problem.  She had already faced ostracization from the other Skywing elves since the party where she and Claudia openly made out. 

Zaras entered the complex, texting Claudia that she was on her way up.  As she made her way, she blasted the music even louder.  ‘I need to be honest.  I need to be honest.’  When she got to the door, she knocked and waited for Claudia to unlock it.  When she opened the door, her smile was colored by her new purple lipstick.  “Hey, Zaras.”

“Hey, Clauds.  Can we talk?” 

Claudia looked panicked for a moment, but nodded, moving to the side to let her in.  Zaras followed her to her room, saying ‘hi’ to Soren on the way.  “He’s on his way out.  He’s got a date with a cute Moonshadow elf.”

“Seems like everyone is following Callum and Rayla’s example.”

“I guess,” Claudia shrugged.  They entered Claudia’s room and Claudia quickly shut the door behind her.  Before Zaras could say anything, Claudia took her face in her hands and kissed her.  “I missed you,” she whispered against Zaras’s lips.  Zaras’s breathing got harsh as Claudia took off her jacket and ran her arms down her back. 

“Claudia-”

“I have to tell you something, too.  And, I don’t think you’ll want to be with me when I tell you,” Claudia laid her forehead on Zaras’s shoulder.

“We’re not…together….”

“You know what I mean.”  Claudia wrapped her arms around Zaras, holding her close.

“I want to be together,” Zaras whispered.  “I want to be girlfriends, and hold hands walking down the street, and…and…I just don’t want to be your fuck buddy anymore.”

Claudia lifted her head and looked down at Zaras.  Tears started filling her eyes.  “You were never just a fuck buddy.  I was scared you didn’t want more because I used to so involved in dark magic and my Dad…”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Claudia gave a soft chuckle and a smile.  “You’re the best thing in my life.”  Zaras smiled.  “But, Zaras, we can’t be together.”

Zaras felt her heart break.  “Why?”

Claudia looked down at her feet.  “My dad, I saw him last night.  He wanted me to come to his side and help him.”

“And, you said ‘no’.”  Claudia was quiet.  “Claudia?”

“I can get information.  He trusts me, I think.  Either that or…what if me doing this helps end the war?  You saw what happened in Duren yesterday.  They were lucky no one got killed.”

“Claudia, what if he makes you an icon for other dark mages?  This could…what if you backslide?  You told me about the hold he has on you.  Makes you feel like everything will be OK and you can all be a happy little family.  You….WE could be a family, you and me.”

“I want that, Zaras, I really do.  But I have to do this.”

“Please…”

“I think I love you.” 

Zara’s eyes went wide.  “But not enough to not do this?”

“I already agreed.  If my dad sees you coming and going, he could use you against me.  I’m surprised he’s left you along, to be honest.”

“Because he wanted you to marry Callum?”

“Legitimacy for the throne and all that.”  Claudia took Zaras’s hands in her’s.  “I’m going to ask something really selfish.”

“What’s that?”

“Wait for me.  I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I want to be a family with you.  I can’t remember being happier than the moment you sent me that text that you would help me help Soren.”

Zaras looked up into Claudia’s green eyes.  “I can’t stop you, can I?”

“No.  I’m so sorry.”

“I’ll wait for you, but, if you kiss or go on dates or anything with another girl, I’ll consider it cheating.”

“Deal.”  A tear made it’s way down Claudia’s cheek.  “When all this is over, I want to take you to Katolis.  I want to show you everything.”

Zaras blinked her own tears away.  “I’d like that.  I love you, Claudia.”

“I love you, too.”  Claudia leaned down and took Zaras’s lips again.  They moved together, quickly undressing as they knew this would be the last time they would be together for a long time.  Zaras clutched Claudia’s hand as they lay in the aftermath, panting heavily and faces streaked with tears.  They stared at each other for what seemed like hours before Zaras finally got up, got dressed and left the apartment without looking behind her.  It hurt too much.

Disaster Bi strikes again….You just had to fall in love with someone who breaks your heart while loving you.  Why are you so stupid, Zaras?

Chapter Text

‘Why on Earth would the step-prince of Katolis be with a Moonshadow elf?’

 

‘Is Prince Callum under the spell of illusion magic?’

 

‘The eldest prince of Katolis is the son of a survivor of Cloverton.  What if this is all some long game by the Xadian forces?  We never got a clear-cut answer for what happened.’

 

‘Ms. Rayla is the daughter of TWO Dragon Guard.  Clearly, she’s come to the Border to be a form of temptation for the prince.’

 

‘First General Amaya is bewitched by the younger sister of Queen Khessa and now Prince Callum of Katolis is charmed by the wiles of a child of Silvergrove, the main Xadian village for Moonshadow assassins.  Xadia has secret plans to take over the Pentarchy.’

 

‘It’s a pity that the son of the greatest general in Katolian history has chosen an elf for his partner.’

 

‘The attack on Katolis’s capital has been attributed to the same group as the one that attacked Duren.’

 

‘Del Bar’s dark mages have announced they stand with the former Lord Viren, who is believed to be the one behind not only the attacks on Duren and Katolis, but also the media frenzy currently rising against Prince Callum, General Amaya, and their significant others.’

 

‘King Harrow has released a statement that he loves his people, but his desire for peace will not allow him to give in to any demands of Viren’s that could jeopardize that.  In what is being dubbed ‘The War Against Dark Magic’, the rulers of the united Pentarchy officially stand with Xadia against dark magic as a resource or a weapon.  It’s too dangerous.  Recent evidence suggests it twists the mind and causes paranoia as well as destroying the physical body.’

--------------------------------------------------

The media campaign was fast and relentless.  Every day, it was a new article online or printed, a new commentator on the radio or the local TV station.  Callum sighed as he looked at the fifth article that week.  No matter what, he was going to stick with Rayla, but he worried about how any of this would affect her mental health. 

On top of that, the attacks on the Pentarchy were causing a lot of questions as to whether or not they should end the school year early.  While the Border itself was untouched, Duren, Katolis, Del Bar, and Neolandia had all faced attacks.  Bandlr’s inside information had proved invaluable as he sent information to Malik, who translated it to Rayla, who gave it to Callum to send to the proper channels.  Perhaps the chain of communication was too long, but lives were being saved as quick, but quiet evacuations took place as soon as information was received. 

Xadia wasn’t being quiet either.  King Azymondeus had not only sent his regards, but given his blessing for the all of elf kind to stand with the united Pentarchy against the dark mage resistance if worse came to worse.  Queen Khessa had already sent Janai and her elite forces to the Border in case of an invasion.

Callum put his head in his hands.  How did it come to this?  The dark mages took his existence as a threat, took his relationship with Rayla as a threat to not only tradition and the status quo, but to human progress.  While Callum couldn’t deny what dark magic had done for humanity since the Expulsion, who was to say humanity wouldn’t be further along if dark magic had never been created?  And now, faced with the threat of being completely outlawed everywhere on the continent, they were fighting back in ways that made him terrified. 

“Callum?”  He looked up, realizing he had forgotten Zaras was in the room with him and Rayla.  Ever since her and Claudia’s break-up or time-out or whatever they were calling it, Zaras had been over more and more often.  Callum didn’t mind, but he was concerned that Claudia was doing something dangerous. 

“Yeah, Zaras?”

“You OK?”  Zaras put a hand on his, her wing gently coming around to envelop him.  “You’ve been zoning out a lot.”

“It’s what’s happening back home.  Everywhere.  I don’t get this.”

“Really?  I would have figured you would have understood.  You grew up with Viren in the castle and Claudia practicing dark magic.”

“That doesn’t mean I ever understood the appeal.  Remember, I’ve always been against dark magic, like my mother, father, and great-grandparents.”

“Because of Cloverton?”

“Because of Cloverton.”  Callum still didn’t talk about it, but anyone who had forgotten about his connection to Cloverton was quickly reminded or was learning about it for the first time.  It was all over the news as a reminder of the potential dangers of either dark magic or Xadian influence.  “No one is a hundred percent sure what happened.”

Rayla came over, running a hand through his hair.  “Maybe, at some point, someone can take a moon opal and figure it out.”

“Go into the dark mage’s house and see if he caused it or not?”

“Yeah.” 

“Wouldn’t that be considered a waste of a precious resource?” Callum whispered.  It’s not like he hadn’t thought about it.  Finally giving everyone an answer as to what happened, closure for all the people still affected by it, closure for himself…

“In this case, I don’t think anyone would consider it a waste.  If people knew what happened for a fact, it could weaken any sympathy for dark mages.  I’ve never heard of any connection to Xadia and Cloverton before now.  They’re grasping at straws.”

Zaras nodded, placing her hand on his shoulder.  “Honestly, as horrifying as all of this is, Xadia is willing to stand with the Pentarchy as long as they keep their anti-dark magic stance.  Perhaps, this is the first step towards peace.”

Callum stood up, shaking his head.  “Peace shouldn’t come at the price of lives!  People are already dead.  Aren’t there reports of elves on the Border starting to disappear?  At this rate, what if it causes more unrest and distrust?”

“The distrust is for dark mages.  It’s always been for dark mages.  Elves have wrongly painted all humans in the same category as them, but we can’t turn back time and fix that.  We just have to go forward, right?”

“And what of peace coming at this price?”

Rayla shook her head.  “If the price is war-”

“It’s not worth it!”

“It’s not.”  Rayla got up and took his hands.  “It’s not, but, Callum, you don’t control what other people do.  There’s nothing you can do except try to make people understand that giving up dark magic is the only way for peace to happen.  You’ve worked so hard.  It’s not entirely in your hands, though.  It never was.”

Callum looked down at their joined hands, squeezing Rayla’s fingers.  “I know.  But it’s all too much.  I’m scared for my family, for you, Ray.  You’re going back home for the summer.  What if someone tries to hurt you?”

“The Silvergrove has keys that will make that very difficult.  It’s never been infiltrated without a traitor involved and, trust me, no one is going to be teaming up with dark mages.”

Callum looked her in the eye.  “What about, you know?” he whispered, mindful of Zaras still being unaware of Bandlr’s part in all this.

“Then we’ll deal with it when the time comes.  Maybe they’ll talk to the guild.  I don’t know.”

“What’s the Dragon Council saying?”

Zaras looked up as well, curious as to what Rayla’s connections had to say.  “They stand with the Dragon King.  There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that peace is a worthwhile thing to work towards.  We could have accomplished so much more as a united continent.”

“And the apology?”

Rayla looked down at that, locking eyes with Zaras before turning back to him.  “That’s not coming any time soon.  No one is denying the Expulsion was wrong.  I was expecting a much bigger backlash after my interview with Siobhan, but it never really came.  The problem is, it was so long ago, we’d be apologizing to the descendants and some elves don’t think it’s worth it.  Now, if the Dragon Council’s theory about you became public knowledge, that might change a few minds.”

“Why?”

Zaras shrugged.  “Because, it shows that we’ve been locking out our own kind.  Even though it’s so far down the line, if it’s true, we’ve still been blocking people who, by our laws, have a right to be in Xadia.  Xadia said ‘no humans,’ but at what point is someone ‘human’ if they have elf ancestors?  Half?  A quarter?  Less than that?  More?  It’s all arbitrary and points out that the reality doesn’t fit what’s been done.  But it’s also about getting recognition of all the people who deserve to be allowed access to their ancestral homes.  And not only people on the Pentarchy side would be affected.  Elves, too, would want to see their ancestors’ homes.  Moonshadow elves want to be reunited with their Nexus as well.  It’s all connected.”

“Do Moonshadow elves feel resentment for that?”

Rayla snorted.  “You have no idea.  Only powerful mages get chosen to guard the Nexus and there’s a lot of in-fighting as to who is chosen.  The current guardian took over for Lujanne and there were over fifty candidates, several from Silvergrove.  A real nightmare, frankly.”

Callum looked at the two, nodding.  “So, peace is possible?”

“It’s more than possible.  It’s going to come.  And you, My Heart, are leading the way.”

“No, Ray, WE are.”  He kissed her hand, looking in her eyes.  “I wouldn’t haven come this far without you.”

“You started long before you met me.”

“You inspire me to continue.”

“You’re laying it on thick.”

“I only speak the truth.”  Zaras gagged in the background, backing the spell that had started taking over Callum.

“You two seriously need to remember that other people exist when you’re in the room with someone,” Zaras muttered.  “What are you going to do at General Amaya and General Janai’s wedding?”

Rayla smirked.  “Obviously say the vows and secretly get married at the same time.”

Callum shook his head.  “Ray.”

“Kidding.  Maybe.”

--------------------------------

Claudia held her arms to comfort herself as she listened to her father’s plans.  The dark mages in the room looked at him with such admiration, it was almost frightening.  The purple bug, Aaravos, he had called it, continued to talk in his ear.  She was going to have to ask Rayla about that.  She had heard bits and pieces in her magical history class, but it was clearly not enough.  “The next attack should be on the Border.  The University in particular.”

“Dad,” Claudia interrupted, shaking her head.  “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why, Claudia?”

“Because Xadia will consider it an attack against them as well.  I thought we were just trying to get unrest in the Pentarchy.”

Viren pinched his nose, sighing.  The bug mumbled in his ear.  “We will conquer Xadia at some point.  The only way to do that is to attack.”

“Then maybe we should wait.”

“Wait for what, Claudia?  The wedding between General Amaya and General Janai has not been delayed.  It’s being moved up!  It will be over for us if they go through with it.”

“Wait until after the wedding, at least.  Dad, you owe Sarai your life.  Let her sister have her wedding.”

“Leave us!”  Viren waited for all the other mages to leave the room, not breaking eye contact with Claudia.  When the door shut, he looked down at his map for a few moments.  “I recognize what you say, but I don’t owe that whore anything.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call her that.”

Viren glared up at her before looking down again.  “Fine.  You’re just like your mother.”  Claudia winced at what was obviously meant to be an insult.  Her mother was happy back in Duren and free of this nightmare.  Claudia would be so lucky to have that same happiness.  “A wedding means connections.  Connections means an army.  An army means we lose!”

“Not necessarily.  They have no idea I’m on your side.  And you said you have an ace in the hole.”

“I do.  He’s good at gathering information, though my plans haven’t gone perfectly.”

“That’s a good thing, though, right?  We want as few lives lost as possible.  The attack on Katolis could have been far worse.  A lot of innocent people were hurt.  Dad, I know you aren’t a monster.  Please, let this wedding happen.”

Viren looked at her long and hard.  “No, Claudia.  We can’t let those connections be forged.  The Dragon King is already siding for their idea of peace.  Humans would be left defenseless.  We can’t take that risk.  Now, leave us.”

“But, Dad-”

“Leave, Claudia, before I make an example of you for the others.”  Claudia hurried out of the room, wondering when her father had changed from someone kind and loving to someone who would sacrifice people for his own goals.  He wasn’t the same man anymore.  She was starting to wonder if it was even possible to save him at all.             

Chapter Text

“I need to speak to you two after lunch,” Lujanne had told them after class.  There had been no room for discussion and she had disappeared quickly afterwards.  Neither Callum not Rayla were sure what she needed, but their best guess was that Viren’s forces were moving towards the Border.  There were rumors that Lujanne had been officially asked by the heads of all Moonshadow villages to return to the Nexus to assist her successor in keeping it safe.  If even the Cursed Caldera wasn’t safe anymore, was anywhere?

Callum held Rayla’s hand tightly, squeezing every few minutes to remind himself that she was there and they were still together.  The last thing he wanted was for her to leave and go back to Silvergrove in a few weeks, but Ethari and Runaan said they had a surprise for her when she came back.  Summer was almost here and, Callum was afraid to admit it to himself, so was an incoming war.  Viren wasn’t stopping anytime soon and the other dark mages were either laying down their magic for peace or standing with him.  What was worse, Claudia was retreating further and further into herself and was barely talking to anyone but Soren anymore.

“It’s going to be OK,” Rayla whispered.  “Amya and Janai moved up their wedding, right?  Just a few weeks of separation instead of two months.”

Callum nodded.  The wedding was officially being held on the Border and Rayla was his date, still officially as his girlfriend.  The public was still in the dark about their engagement, though their families were aware.  Rayla still wanted a quiet wedding that wouldn’t involve anyone but them and their loved ones, so they were keeping quiet as long as possible.  That and it was still so new being openly in love in public, they wanted more time to just be them.  “Yeah.  I just miss you.”

“I’ll be sure to text you every day.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a phone call.”  She sent him a heated look and the slight purr to her voice left no doubt in his mind what she meant.

“I look forward to it.”  They stopped in front of Lujanne’s door.  Callum knocked on the door, listening to angry whispers for a few moments.

Lujanne opened the door, sighing when she saw them.  “Thank the Nexus,” she whispered.  There was exhaustion on her face, her wrinkles deepened from stress or anger.   

“What did you need Lujanne?”  Callum and Rayla were quickly ushered in, only to see Bandlr on Lujanne’s desk with his shirt off.  “Um, I don’t know what you think we’re into-”

Rayla stopped Callum and walked over to Bandlr.  “Is that what I think it is?”  Callum looked where Rayla was pointing and noticed the white ribbon wrapped tightly on Bandlr’s arm.  It was so close to the shoulder that the purple skin above it had seeped into where his arm met his shoulder.  The skin below looked like it was dying.  “Bandlr, is that what I think it is?”

Lujanne got up, already drawing a rune.  A fake Bandlr made his way out of the office, slamming the door behind him.  The real Bandlr remained silent, refusing to meet Rayla’s eyes.  “Bandlr, you need to tell them.”

Bandlr shook his head.  “No, I don’t.”

Rayla grabbed Bandlr’s chin and forced him to look at her.  “Why do you have an oath ribbon on your arm, Bandlr?”

Callum had stood back this whole time, trying to process what he was seeing.  He had seen pictures of those ribbons before in Moonshadow elf textbooks and Rayla had explained them before.  But seeing the damage it was already doing put all of that into perspective.  “Was it Viren?”

Bandlr gave a sharp nod, pulling himself away from Rayla.  “He put it on me when I agreed to work for him.  Every time I go against him, it tightens.  He’s warped it to fit his purposes.”

“You’ve told us everything, though.  You’re going to lose your arm.”

“I don’t care.”

Rayla stepped back a few steps.  “Bandlr, if this is out of some desire to win me over-”

Bandlr laughed.  It was hard and lacked any warmth.  “This has nothing to do with you, Rayla.  That is the most egotistical thing I have ever heard you say.  My sister’s pregnant and I will not let her child grow up in a world ruled by that monster.  I’ve been to his hideout and there are sick experiments going on there.  He hasn’t started to go into Xadia yet, but you can bet that he’ll start with those who can’t protect themselves first.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I don’t want your pity, and I especially don’t want his,” jutting his chin out at Callum.  Callum couldn’t find it in himself to be insulted.  He could respect Bandlr’s feelings.  “You would have pulled me out if you knew the necrosis was getting this bad and Lujanne’s illusions have kept Viren from figuring out the truth.”

“And that’s why you’ve been failing magical theory.  So, you have an excuse to go to her.”

“Yep.  I’m the only one that Viren trusts that’s even remotely on your side.  Lux Aurea is taking a stand with General Janai for peace.  Most of the world may not like your relationship, but they don’t have anything actively against it either.  I’m not doing this for you and I’m not doing this for him.  I’m not even doing it for Xadia.  I’m doing it for my sister.  You know her, Rayla.  You know how long she and her wife have been trying to have a kid.”

“At least let us take you to see the Dragon King.  He’s been able to remove these things before when it was no longer necessary.”

“If I go, then who will take my place?  Viren sends someone to talk to me every day for three weeks and then I don’t hear from him for two more.  There is no paper or electronic trail.  Once I leave, there may no longer be anyone on the inside.  Can we really risk that?”

Callum lightly pushed Rayla to the side.  He could feel her frustration running off her and Lujanne’s worry was just as strong.  “You’re right, Bandlr.  We won’t have anyone else.  And I don’t pity you.  I appreciate what you’re doing, but I don’t pity you.  This is a decision you’ve made and you’re willing to stand behind it, even at the loss of your own arm.”

“Is that respect I hear, Your Highness?”

“Might be.  I thought I heard a twinge in your voice when I told you I didn’t want to talk to you.”

“Could have been.  We’ll never know.”

Lujanne looked at the three, gesturing to them.  “The reason why I called you two here, is…well, we need to cut off Bandlr’s arm.  And we need to do it now.  The necrosis is going to take more than his arm if we leave it.”

“What can we do?”

Lujanne got up and went to her box of primal stones.  “Prince Callum, you are extraordinary, even among elves, when it comes to runes and using magic.  I need to hold an illusion to make sure no one comes in, knocks on my door, or even hears a sound that’s out of the ordinary.  It will take a lot of effort and I won’t be able to use other primal sources while doing it.  Rayla, I need you to take his arm off.  I have a Sunforge blade hidden behind my bookcase.  As for you, Prince Callum, you’re going to have to use an Ocean stone,” she pulled out a dark green orb that held constantly turning waves, “to help him heal from the burning.  I’ll then need you to use this,” a dark brown stone with what looked like a whole forest growing within came up next, “to get new skin to grow around the wound.  We don’t have time to let him heal the natural way.  It’s going to hurt and it’s not going to be pretty, but it’s the only way my illusions can keep helping him.  I can’t hide bloody bandages when he has to take a shower or dozens of bottles of antiseptic if I’m not there.”  Lujanne sighed, quickly drawing out the two images for Callum and marking how to do them.  "Ocean rune," she pointed at the top one and then the bottom one, "Earth rune."

Rayla and Callum both turned to Bandlr, a resigned expression on his face.  “Just do it.”  Lujanne quickly showed Callum the runes before creating the illusions necessary.  Rayla moved the bookcase to find the blade.  After Lujanne said it was time, Callum and Rayla both stood next to Bandlr.  He was lying on Lujanne’s desk, dozens of red cloths everywhere, just in case.  Rayla held the blade at his shoulder.  “Just do it, Rayla.  Stalling isn’t going to change what’s happening.”

“For as much of a pain in the ass that you are, for as much as I’ve wanted to kill you over the years, thank you for everything you’ve done and what you’re going to keep doing.”

“I’m sorry I was chasing after you for so long.”

“Bandlr-”

“No, just…let me say this.  Everyone acted like I could get any girl I wanted and, when I met you, well, I wanted you.  You were sarcastic but you had the skills to back-up anything you said.  At some point, it became a challenge and I stopped viewing you as someone I liked.  You became a prize.  As long as I was going after you, everyone else left you alone, so it drove me mad.  The second I started to think of you like that is the second I should have stepped back.  And I’m sorry that I didn’t.”  Bandlr finally turned towards Rayla.  “I don’t approve of your relationship because you broke your own personal code, Rayla.  It has nothing to do with the fact that he’s human.  Lying has always been the one thing you couldn’t forgive and you did it for more than a year.  If you would break your own code for him, what else would you do?  It’s not even about me not liking him.  I didn’t like him the second I met him, because he hung out with Ms. Dark Magic herself and her idiot brother.  Now, are we going to get all of our aggression towards me out or are we going to sit here and cry?”

Callum looked over at Rayla to see that she had steeled her expression.  Callum held Bandlr down as best he could as Rayla took the sword out of it’s sheath.  He could feel Bandlr control his breathing to stop himself from panicking.  Callum turned Bandlr’s head towards him.  “Sorry.  You’re going to have to look at my face instead of her pretty one.”  Bandlr didn’t have a chance to reply before Rayla was slicing his arm off.  The screams were deafening, Bandlr trying to turn himself back to Rayla to stop her.  Callum held fast and tried to keep his eyes locked with Bandlr’s.  The smell of burning flesh made his eyes tear up.      

Once Rayla was done, she hurried over to Callum’s side so they could switch.  Callum grabbed the Ocean primal stone and sent a cool wave of water to stop the burning.  It would help calm down his skin for the next part.  When Lujanne gave the nod to continue, he took the Earth orb and drew the healing rune.  It was fascinating to watch the dead skin around the cut slowly heal before spreading over to cover the wound.  “Why couldn’t we heal the necrosis this way?”

“The band would have kept tightening.  Eventually, it would be like trying to regrow crops in a place that no longer has sun or water.  The body is an amazing thing and magic is a fantastic tool, but it can’t solve all the world’s problems.  There needs to be life for the magic to work off of, and we would have given Bandlr more time, but probably would have caused him more pain in the long run.  This was his best chance.”

It was a hard pill to swallow, but Callum knew Lujanne was right.  Bandlr was going to lose his arm one way or another, unless he got the Dragon King’s help.  Given the situation, that wasn’t a possibility.  “How’s he doing, Ray?”

“Completely passed out.  The regrowth was too much for him, I think.  Is it done?”  Lujanne tenderly raised his arm to look at it.  At her OK, Rayla got up to move to Callum’s side.  “What can we do for him?”

“Act as you had before you knew.  There can’t be any change in how you behave with him now that you know.  Viren’s men might figure it out and that will blow Bandlr’s cover.  I’m sorry, but that’s how it has to be.”

Rayla nodded for them both and grabbed Callum’s hand to leave.  They walked in silence until they got back to their apartment.  “Rayla-”

“That idiot!  He knows what those things can do.  If left alone, it could have killed him.  And if Viren’s tampered with it, who knows what else it could have done.  What if it turned him into a mindless killing machine?  I just….why is he such an idiot?”  Callum watched as Rayla began to fall apart.  He knew she couldn’t stand Bandlr, but now that Bandlr had apologized and seemed genuinely sorry as well as seeing the sacrifice he had made….It was a lot for Callum to process himself.  He couldn’t imagine what it was doing to Rayla.  “It figures that he would act all noble by pretending to still be the giant asshole that he is.”

“He’s already saved a lot of lives by doing this.  The information he’s been giving us has been invaluable.”

“So that justifies him losing his arm?”

“I didn’t say that.  Bandlr made a choice.  No one made it for him.  He looked at the situation and took the risk.  Even if it was just to protect his sister, it still has done a lot of good for the world.  We have to respect his decision.  In a perfect world, he never would have had to take that risk and I wish we didn’t have to have this conversation.”

“I know.  I just never thought that Viren would actually put a ribbon on him.  What if he’s done it to other people and we don’t know?”

“That’s information we’re going to have to rely on Bandlr to get.”  Callum paused, taking her hands.  “You just asked if the ends justify the means.”

“Aye?”

Callum gave a slight smile.  “You’ve grown so much since I first met you.  You never would have admitted that when we first met.”

Rayla sighed, shaking her head.  “It’s hard not to when I’m with you all the time.  I can’t deny you’re right.  It’s a cycle of hurt and misery and it’s time to stop it.  1600 years is too long for this.”  Rayla looked down.  “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look his sister in the eye.  I cut off her brother’s arm.”

“You probably saved his life.”  Rayla nodded, letting him pull her into a hug.  All Callum could hope for was that nothing worse was going to happen.