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Summertime Celebrations

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“Happy Hatchday!” the group chorused.

Zym only looked up at Callum and warbled questioningly, tongue lolling out.

The mage shook his side of the large parchment and whispered down, “come on, buddy! Like we practiced!”

The young dragon only tilted his head.

“Of all the times he won’t-”

Ezran knelt and lightly scratched at the painted side of the paper. “I’ve got it- here, Zym!” 

The ‘birthday’ boy immediately took to the game, wiggling back on his haunches before springing towards- and through- the banner stretched between his three non-dragon parents.

Despite the delay, the assembled crowd clapped, cheered, and aww’d as the roughly-painted egg was split open by its former occupant. Airborne flowers cascaded around the group, and an array of foods from the reaches of Xadia were brought forth for the guest of honor.

“Okay,” Rayla laughed, “I’ll admit- that was pretty cute.”

Callum beamed. “Well, we’re probably gonna get shown up by Lujanne’s magic retelling later, buuuut I wanted us to do something with just the fou- five of us!” Bait had rejoined them in Ezran’s arms, eyeing Zym’s feast.

The moon nexus was decorated festively, in the storm dragons’ blues and purples. Rayla’s dragonguard armor would’ve made her seem an attendant instead of a guest- though technically she was on duty. Always, with Zym around, despite the other dragonguard in attendance.

Sitting to eat with their close friends, the group reminisced, joking and laughing along the way as they watched the dragonling tear through his gifts. Ellis dragged Ezran away for an animal-centric playdate, and Lujanne couldn’t help but cause mischief amongst the other partygoers.

Callum and Rayla rolled their eyes together at the elder elf’s pranks and stood, leaving their host to her fun.

Their hands automatically slipped together as the pair strolled through the party, waving hellos and exchanging pleasantries with the occasional guest. 

Rayla quickly had enough. She leaned their shoulders together and groaned. “Let’s get out of here- that’s enough jabbering for me tonight.”

Chuckling, Callum steered them towards the more remote pathways even as he jokingly admonished her with an Opeli impression. “Now, now, Rayla. You’ll have to learn to put up with a lot more of that, in time.”

She arched a brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Caught in his implication, the prince blushed. “Um. Because, well, y’know, with the whole- ohlookit’sSoren! Soren, buddy!” 

Rayla's eyes half-lidded at him, face flat, and that , for sure , wasn’t the last he’d heard of it.

The crownguard turned towards them. “Oh, hey you two! Nice party! Don’t worry, Farique is with Ez. He’s great.”

Luckily, his girlfriend took over, giving Callum time to order his thoughts. She smirked teasingly. “Well, it’s not our party , but thanks. Why’re you all the way out here? Skipping the talking tonight?”

Soren nodded. “And the drinking. I, uh. It’s just been a while, now. Since the first time I was here. Not my greatest moment. Moments, really.” He glanced over the pair, a sad frown appearing. “Sorry, though, about all th-”

Rayla waved the apology away, dropping her hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Soren. You’ve apologized more than enough. It’s been a year. We’re ‘good,’ like you always ask. Don’t worry- you should really go enjoy the party. You’ve earned it.” 

Callum nodded along with every word, adding “She’s right, Soren. Go party.” Then he tried to lighten the mood, drawing himself up square and using his best fake-snob voice. “Don’t make me order you!”

Soren surrendered, hands up, his regular winning smile breaking through. “Alright, alright! You two can be very persuasive! C’mere!”

With a double-sigh, the pair let themselves be lifted airborne in a bearhug, knowing this was good for him. Callum tapped out early, having forgotten to let go of Rayla’s hand, and that crushing pressure was just a little too much.

They waved goodbye to their friend, continuing up toward the nexus balcony.

“You know,” Callum broke the silence. “Zym hatching is just one of many anniversaries coming up soon!” His eyebrows bounced upwards teasingly.

Rayla snorted. “I know, I’ve seen your yearbook thing with all the notes.”

“Calendar”

“That’s what I said.” 

Callum had fallen for that too many times already, and pursed his lips.

“Oh ho, finally caught on, have you?” She grinned. “Looks like I’ll have to find some more word-traps for you to walk into.”

And she would, too. Easily.

The prince tried to roll his eyes, but knew the goofy smile just made it look fond. “ ANYways, yes, my calendar with all its anniversaries is perfect, thank you.” He began lifting fingers to count. “When we met, when Zym hatched, when we outsmarted Sol Regem, our first k- when we got together, when we told Ez,” he started lowering them in reverse order. “When we-”

Rayla’s hand covered his mouth, and her grip on his hand tightened. “Callum, if you do that it’ll be almost every day for weeks. They can’t all be anniversaries!”

He looked over the hand at her blushing face and smiled into her palm, then gently kissed it. Huffing a breath in response, she smirked and gently pushed him away, then pulled him back with their joined hands. They chuckled together, mounting the final staircase.

“Well why not? We’ll just make it an anniversary month!”

An eyebrow rose, but a smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “Seriously? You think you can figure out that many in a row?”

Callum skipped fake indignation and went straight for sap, squeezing her hand. “Easily. You make me want to celebrate every day we’re together.” Rayla answered by taking a double step, keeping her face out of his sight, but he could see the dark shade coloring her ears.

She didn’t let him catch up, either, taking extra steps whenever he tried. “Ray-la! I’m serious!” He whined as they reached the final step, where she stopped and turned, a hard blush clear on her face, pulling him up alongside her.

“I know. So am I.”  She looked away, towards the nexus, reflecting the sunlit clouds of early evening. “If us meeting is first, and zym hatching is second, I know a third anniversary that you don’t have in your book.”

Swallowing down another ‘calendar’ correction, he took her second hand in his, running thumbs over her knuckles, but she only looked up to the sky. Hands and voice the gentlest he could manage under his curiosity, he urged her on. “Yeah?”

“The day after Zym hatched. When Lujanne was working on my hand. I thought about that first week. And what you did- for him. For all of us. Smashing the primal stone. It really sunk in, how you’d thrown away something that meant so much to you- the piece of identity you’d only just found.”

He squeezed her hands encouragingly, and she squeezed back, dropping her almost stern face to look straight into his eyes. “That’s when I felt something for you. Really something. For the first time.” She flushed again, blinking, but added “ And I had time to think about it. So I was sure.”

Callum’s heart throbbed. “Rayla, that’s… beautiful. It being tomorrow doesn’t give me a lot of time to plan, but, at least...” He leaned forward, and she matched him, then coughed a little in her throat and jerked one hand from his to slap over his eyes.

“I can do the feelin’s or the kissin’, but not both. Not when you’re lookin’ at me like that .” 

His confused pout melted into a fond grin. “Okay, okay, I won’t look can you just-”

“Shut up and kiss me.” He did. Well, responded in kind to hers, since he couldn’t exactly ...his thoughts drifted away.

They parted. “Really, Rayla? After all this time?” She silenced him again and hummed a positive ‘ mhmm ’ into his lips the way she knew would give him all the good feelings.

Callum relented, and her hand did eventually drop to elsewhere, but he didn’t look until they  pulled apart.

“...wow.”

Rayla smirked knowingly, and leaned her forehead to his to complete the reenactment. “Wrong anniversary, Callum.”

“So you’re going along with it, huh? Thank you for your addition to the anniversary month!” He mimicked scribbling a note into his glove’s palm, still within her loose embrace. “Third… Anniversary...  Rayla… started… crushing… on… m-oof!”

She spun him around, arms pinned to his sides, laughing into his chest. “Yes, yes, I’ll have your anniversary month with you!”

His feet touched the ground again. “It’s not mine, it’s ours !”

Rayla nodded in agreement. “But two things.” She lifted as many fingers, half-breaking the embrace.

“Okay?”

“First, no one else can know.”

“Yeah, I figured. And?”

“Tell me what you meant before. About putting up with more talking.”

He blinked. Oh. Oh. The flush crept up his neck quite easily, and she leaned forward when he didn’t answer immediately.

“Call-um?” she sing-songed inquisitively. Another ‘anniversary’ flickered in the part of his brain not currently fizzling out- a sword pointed at each of the princes when she said his name for the first time.

“It’s uh. In a while. Some years. With the two of us.” He glanced away and twiddled his fingertips together behind her back. 

“If yoooouuu come back to Katolis? To stay? Like stay stay. You’ll have to talk to a lot of people you don’t really want to. Much more nicely than you want to. Because we’re a thing. And we’ll probably be more of a thing, by then. Maybe? Hopefully?”

She nodded slowly and gently spun them in an idle dance. Rayla was waiting for him to get to the point. Patient, letting him find the right words. 

But he’d known them all along. It had been a year, right? It was probably okay to at least bring up with her?

Callum covered his face with both hands. “When we’ll be married and you’ll be a princess.” His anxiety immediately drained, with the words out in the open. Her arms dropped from around him.

Silence, but he waited without looking. Patient like she’d been for him. 

A distant splash echoed up from the nexus lake.

No way

With no Rayla in sight, Callum ran to the edge of the balcony, frantically looking down into the water, and hands slid around his face and chest, covering his eyes again and tugging him back against her.

Rayla’s breath tickled his ear, voice tight and maybe a little higher than usual, but not unhappy. “Not a peep! We’re going back down like this. You are not lookin’ at me right now.”

This wasn’t the fearful rejection he half-expected- it’d do just fine, for now. He sagged against her, laughing in relief and at the thought of another anniversary waiting for them in the future.

Chapter Text

Rayla leapt up from her seat and gripped his arms tightly, eyes wide in alarm.

“You did WHAT!?"

That was a decidedly less positive reaction than expected, but he repeated himself just as brightly, in case she just hadn’t heard clearly the first time.

“Surprise! I’ve been speaking with Zubeia, and she agreed to order your ghosting lifted! Isn’t that great?”

Rayla’s expression went slack as her eyes dimmed, tracking down to the floor. She released him and sat back down, heavily, slowly lowering her face into her hands. The defeated feeling she projected brought to mind the moment they’d found Ethari that day, and Rayla slumped on the floor of his workshop.

Callum felt the warmth drain from his face, and shivered at the wave of dread welling up in his gut.

“Rayla I am so, so sorry if I did something wrong, but what is it? Can I fix it?”

She sighed through her hands, voice dull. “It’s okay, Callum. You wouldn’t know. If they lift my ghosting on orders they’ll just resent me anyways. More, probably. And I’ll be able to see it on their faces. Hear it in their voices.”

The elf leaned back, dropping her hands and sagging completely into the chair’s bowl shape. “But don’t worry. I had already kinda given up on the Silvergrove anyway.”

Callum’s hands clenched into fists. He knew it wasn’t that simple. “And Ethari?”

She looked at him then, one corner of her mouth tugging back in a half-smile, half-grimace. “Well, I guess there’s one good thing.”

The prince knelt next to the chair, feeling unworthy to even lay a reassuring hand on hers. No dance would fix this- he was worse than a jerkface. “Oh Rayla, I… I feel so stupid. Is there- can I-”

There was a slight edge to her voice now. “Callum, it’s- it will be fine, but no, this isn’t something you can just take back like that ” she snapped her fingers for emphasis, a Human gesture she’d picked up. 

Whenever she thought he needed an extra nudge, Rayla always ‘threatened’ him with her ability to ‘chase you down like that’ and a snap, if he didn’t follow through.

He stared for a moment, giving his revelation a once-over, then stood, taking one of her hands. “Maybe we can take it back. Get up.” Callum tugged the hand. “Get up, Rayla, we can stop it! They used a Shadowhawk as a neutral symbol- a peace symbol? Whatever, it’s symbolic. Get up and get your flying leathers on.”

She finally allowed herself to be pulled onto her feet, frowning. “What’re you getting at? What’s it matter that they used a shadowhawk?”

Callum was throwing her the sleek, weatherproof clothing from her locker, then kicking off his room slippers, withdrawing his own outfit from its drawers. He turned, arms full, and smiled with all the confidence he could muster. “Rayla, I can outfly a shadowhawk.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It had been a few months now, traveling between Katolis and the Spire, and he’d gotten a lot better in the air. Callum had waved away her offer to let him go alone, citing some sky arcanum logic about weight and air velocity being warped by his spells. It all went in one pointed ear and right out the other.

She stood behind him, looping both arms over his shoulders as he cast the first spell- something about manipulating crosswinds and windstreams. Wind this, wind that, the word hardly made sense to her anymore.

Then the wings were out, and she let the spark of hope in her belly ignite a bit of glee, running a hand over the smooth brown feathers of her savior spell. Callum widened his stance, and she took the invitation to jump onto his back completely and settle in, legs around his hips, arms crossed over his chest, head against his.

“Ready,” she murmured into his ear. He skipped the theatrics for once and essentially ran off the cliff’s edge, springing off the lip like a diver into water. She mentally cringed at the comparison. 

The effects of his first spell were immediately apparent, even to her. They were lifted and pushed along with barely a flap.

The leathers were wonderfully useful, warding away wind chill and chapped lips, besides the weather itself. Rayla’s ears were grateful for the relative protection from both cold and the roaring of the… winds. Winds. Ugh. Eventually he’d have enough unconscious control over the wind and weather to protect them both, but for now the outerwear would substitute.

Callum rose as high as he dared, then angled their path precisely before settling into a slow, steady wingbeat. The last time he made the flight between the grove and spire in one go, he collapsed at her feet. It had been quite a while since that incident, though, and this new spell was supposedly helping.

They did seem to be moving a bit faster, but it was difficult for her to tell at their altitude. Was the wind more loud and rough than usual?

After a measure of time, he nudged her cheek, the sign to hold on tight, and she nodded against him, grip tightening accordingly. A “re-casting” he called it. Refreshing the effects of a spell before they wore off, so it seemed continuous. The airborne version sounded a bit terrifying when he’d explained, but she trusted him completely, and this was no exception.

He pulled up sharply, and the wings were gone. She watched a lone feather seemingly float before them as they reached equilibrium, and fought down the urge to reach for it while Callum finished his rune. 

Then they were falling. Her gut twisted and she may have squeezed him a little too hard, but the wings were back quickly, and they pulled out of the dive.

How many times did he guess they’d need to do that? Eight? Seven more, then. 

Maybe she should’ve insisted on staying back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The shadowhawk had a decent lead, but Callum was confident they’d catch up.

Confident until the edge of the Moonshadow Forest came into view, the Midnight Desert falling away beneath them. But he kept pace. They hadn’t spotted Nyx’s ambler all the way across the desert, but there was always the chance of a repeat perfor- 

Rayla squeezed her legs and pointed ahead. Of course she’d seen it first, he shouldn’t have wasted the effort. 

A distant shimmering blue light, the color of Zubeia’s scales. Against every instinct to hurry, Callum kept a steady beat. They’d make it. The Silvergrove was a ways further.

Time seemed to crawl as they made their approach- this would look kind of… well, it would look like treason to anyone else, so he only hoped no eyes were on the skies. The pair closed enough that he could feel Rayla grow antsy. More strength in her legs to loosen her arms as they neared the magical courier.

Just as they were entering capture range, and one of Rayla’s arms loosened completely around him to begin reaching, the crosswind spell began to fade.

He hadn’t kept time on it, with the shadowhawk in their sight. Stupid. Distracted and stupid. Rayla must’ve felt the change, hesitating with her grip, and he strained to beat his wings for more speed to let her finish the job.

She immediately settled back, shaking her head gently against his, and he evened their pace back out. “Steady,” she murmured directly into his ear. They’d flown together so often that Rayla must be able to feel it in his body as his panic ebbed with her voice. She nodded. “Re-cast.” Her limbs tightened, and he didn’t hesitate.

The shadowhawk gained a small lead, but with the winds on their side again, the gap closed quickly. Rayla’s hand snapped out and ended the spell powering the birdlike projection, then she practically collapsed against his back, sighing bodily, arrow and message in-hand.

He continued the rest of the way to the Silvergrove, knowing they both needed water, food, and rest. 

They alighted on the widest branch over the city, designated for skybound visitors. Rayla brought them into the illusion, and he lazily coasted them down to the roof of her childhood home. Via letters, they’d reached an understanding with Ethari, despite the ghosting going unlifted for so long. And a while longer, it seemed.

Rayla dropped from his sagging shoulders, sliding her arms down his wings as always, and tugged him towards the relatively new ladder to the ground level. 

“Let’s get cleaned up.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fed and bathed, ready for bed, they finally spoke. 

Callum let her break the silence, and she did with a gentle hand on his shoulder and concerned eyes. “You’re okay? No sprains or torn muscles? It was a long flight, even with the magic.”

He stared for a moment, then sputtered. “You’re not- Rayla aren’t you mad ? I just did something really insensitive! I hurt you, and you’re asking if I’m o-”

A finger on his lips shushed him, and her expression now held the stoney promise of anger. “I am a bit upset, but I’m not mad. That’s next. Now answer, please.” She freed him to speak.

Uncertain still, the mage rolled his shoulders. “Yeah, I’m good. A little tired, but I traded the extra physical work for spellcasting, so I’m stretched a little thin there instead.” 

Rayla’s eyes shifted between his, and she nodded, accepting the answer. “You do look pretty good for that distance.” Sitting on the foot of the large bed they’d assembled together during their last visit, she patted the space next to her. “So...”

He sat.

“I’m not gonna beat you up, so quit moping. I can tell you’re hurtin’ about what happened, and I’m really not mad.” 

The prince side-eyed her. 

“I’m not! We fixed it. It’s over. I just want you to understand something so we can move on together and never have this happen again.”

Callum nodded, feeling a bit better as she linked their hands the usual way.

“Do you know what upset me the most about what happened today?”

“Because it would mean really losing your home forev-”

She interrupted with a hand squeeze, shaking her head. “Nope. Try again.”

“Because… you wouldn’t get the chance to redeem y-”

“Nope.”

Now he frowned, thinking. “Becaaaause I …” she nodded encouragingly at his change in wording, and his mind homed in on a moment between them, atop of spire. “... did it without you.”

Rayla turned to him and smiled, genuinely. “Knew you’d get there.” 

The smile faded a bit. “Callum, when it’s between just the two of us, or it’s nothing to do with me, that’s perfectly okay to keep to yourself until you decide to tell me- if you decide to at all. But please, please don’t go decidin’ big things like this for us both.”

Her thumb worked between his knuckles. A bit painful, but a nervous habit he’d come to find endearing. 

“If you have to make a choice right then and there, I’ll understand, but not if you go behind my back like that. You should have talked to me .”

She was right, of course. Her second hand came up to thumb away unnoticed tears from his eyes.

Sad softness filled her eyes. “Oh stop, now I can’t even lecture you properly.” Rayla pulled him close, pressing a tender kiss to his forehead and hair before tucking him under her chin and wrapping both arms around his shoulders. 

Even now, beginning to understand her point, he didn’t feel deserving of the affection, but let her rock him slowly side to side. He only sniffled once, okay twice, before pulling out of the hug and taking her hands.

“Rayla. I’m sorry, even if you aren’t mad, because I should’ve been better. You know I can be a little… slow. About the implied things. You already told me once. ‘We should decide together,’ right?”

Her small, sad smile widened a little, and he took heart. “I get it now. And I agree, of course. So let me promise you-” he lifted her hands to his face, kissing the knuckles on one. “-to decide together-” then the other, “-for as long as we’re ‘a thing’.” He finished the little oath by pressing both hands to his lips at once, then let his guilt and anguish go free as she blushed lightly, beaming at him. 

There was nothing but warmth in her expression now, and he basked in those beautiful, glowing eyes.

Until mirth filled them.

Rayla squeezed his hands, smirking, and tucked her legs beneath herself. Her silly, overdramatic voice scrambled his feelings around as confused laughter bubbled in his chest. “I accept your promise, sir mage, and I’ll hold you to it! But we’ve an urgent quest that cannot be ignored!” 

Callum struggled through the whiplash in tone. “Um, which would be… what, milady?”

The mock title earned him an eye roll and a light slapping away of his hands before she threw herself face-first onto her pillow and deadpanned “sleep,” moving the emotional conversation solidly into ‘the past.’

He snorted, chuckled, then laughed. Callum let it grow far beyond what the punchline deserved, carrying away the day’s stress, and he was teared up for happy reasons this time, collapsing backwards onto his side of the bed.

The couple smiled at each other and snuggled closer. Neither could ever stay angry at the other for long.

Chapter Text

Rayla leaned back into the room to catch what Callum said.

“My what?”

“Your boots. They’re looking a little worn down.”

She nabbed one from next to the door and turned it over, running a critical eye over the sole.

“Huh, you’re right. Must be all the traveling we’ve been doing. Want me to run yours down to the leatherworks when I take mine?”

Callum shrugged. “May as well- then we can see who really wears them out faster.”

Rayla smirked. They both knew how that would go, between the one who stayed in his saddle and the one who ran up trees and along stoney ridges for a break from hers.

Later, when Rayla returned from the errand, Callum wasn’t where she’d left him on the couch, or at his desk. The scarf hung by the door, so he hadn’t wandered off, either.

She found him on the floor of their bedroom, a small chest open in his lap, clutter scattered around on the rug.

Rayla dropped behind him and slung herself over his shoulders, head resting atop his. “Reminiscing?”

“Yeah. We’ve been having a lot of fun, haven’t we?”

They had.

“Remember this?” He held a brass pin up to her eye level, and she squeezed him fondly.

“Of course.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Please, I insist! You saved my livelihood!”

Rayla tried to shuffle behind Callum. “Really, it’s okay. We’re just glad to help.”

The merchant seemed fixated on thanking her specifically, ignoring the prince. Maybe it was his first time on Xadian soil, and he wanted to make a good impression with locals.

Okay, so she had done the heavy lifting, after getting flown down to the poor man’s bags, dropped to various levels of the craggy canyon. They’d gotten better at getting her into places, but re-mounting Callum mid flight was still iffy, so she’d climbed back up herself.

“Bah! I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re a moon elf, right?”

A sigh escaped her. This old gag again? Why did humans all have the same jokes? “Moonshadow, yes.” 

But there was no punchline. “Then I’ve just the thing!” The man jumped to his packs, retrieving a bundle of cloth and unrolling it over his knee. Bits of metal shimmered there, in all shapes and sizes, tiny works of art.

“Here we are!” Selecting one, the grateful merchant turned back to the couple and offered it over.

A full moon, pitted with accurate cratering, emblazoned with a pair of wings. Not perfect images of the mage wings, of course, but the symbolism was clear. A single image for their partnership.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They’d started taking a longer rope on their journeys after that.

Rayla hunched over, smiling, and affixed the pin to the collar of Callum’s tunic. Then she recalled another favorite accessory, flapping her hands atop his shoulders in playful urgency.

“Oh, oh! Where’s the-”

Callum chuckled. “You really like that one, don’t you?”

She mock-slapped the top of his head. “Don’t tell me you don’t- I’ve seen your face when I wear it.”

He handed up a tightly-folded wad of purple cloth that she unbound, letting it spring free, drape across her hands, and unfold to the ground. The softness and shimmering, gauzy lavender color of the material made her sigh contentedly.

“You know how much of a pain it is to get back to that size.”

“Maybe we don’t have to wrap it up, anymore, do we?” Rayla leaned back to drape the accessory loosely around her horns and shoulders, then wrapped it around each arm a few times to take in some extra length. “What did she call this thing again? A raymon? Raymood?”

“A raiment. Rayla’s Regal Raiment, now. It has a title.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Nonsense! I insist, milad- er, Rayla.” Callum snorted at the late correction.

Neolandia wasn’t exactly the temperate region they’d traveled in. It amazed him that the dry, sandy country was neighbors with the sometimes-freezing lands of Del Bar.

They’d picked up some desert wear quickly enough but now, in the capital, there were more options. As a royal visitor, he’d been directed to a few high-quality establishments.

This particular store’s attendant was happy to leave him browsing while they fluttered around Rayla- there wasn’t much here for him to choose from, after all. Callum could see the extra attention was grating his companion’s nerves, but her inexperience with and curiosity for the clothing were enough to stave off her annoyance. For now.

Having picked out a few things himself, he enjoyed Rayla’s flustered expression as the merchant held this or that garb up between her and a mirror. Apparently Neolandian women kept a lot of different clothing for various occasions, and the store was looking to push the full suite.

Realizing this may never end, Callum went to step in. “And this lovely piece is for whenever you want to accentuate those lovely eyes of yours- oh, hello your highness!” The attendant had, rather boldly, looped a long, gossamer piece of purplish fabric around Rayla’s horns, across and around her back and chest, then back up her shoulders to spiral down her arms.

The effect was rather stunning across the light clothing she wore, and as Rayla turned towards him, Callum had to admit they were right about her eyes. She was beautiful of course, always, but her almost timid expression of uncertainty was a new type of cute, wrapped up as she was.

Realizing he was staring, Callum managed to squeak out a “that’s nice. Real nice.” And the usual confident smile broke out across Rayla’s face. She began to untangle herself from the thing, and turned towards the merchant. “I’ll take this. Just this.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Raiment, right. Well we both like it a lot.”

Callum’s hand came up to play with one of the loose ends. “That we do. And you know what else we both like a lot, right?”

She groaned, dropping her chin onto his head and letting her arms drape loosely across his chest. “Callum no, not now .”

He sighed, but playfully.“Fine, fine, I’ll spare you and your raiment this one time. If-

Rayla sagged even more of her body weight onto him. “If?”

“You wear this, too.”

She eyed the wide wooden box before he opened it with a joking “ta-da!”

“You seriously kept those?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Alas, we insist, your grace.”

“Really, just ‘Callum’ is fine.” He put on his most winning smile, the one she recognized from every one of his diplomatic speeches and talks.

As fun as it was to watch him squirm a bit, since he took so much joy in her discomfort over the same thing, they had a job to do. “And just ‘Rayla’ for me, please.”

Their earthblood host raised literally bushy eyebrows at her. “As you wish. One moment, please.” The elderly elf half-turned away to whisper into a bright yellow flower hanging from the roof of the cave-room.

Rayla linked hands with Callum and shot him an encouraging smile, which he mirrored. This colony was very receptive towards the human, compared to some of their cousins, so it shouldn’t take terribly long to convince them.

The curtain that served as a door to the room was pulled back, and a younger elf entered. Their hands were filled with a lump of springy moss - a pillow or cushion, perhaps - and atop rested a circlet of stone, studded with small glimmering gemstones. The elf stopped next to Callum and bowed, offering the ornament.

“Oh. Oh, that’s very nice of you but really not necessar-”

The colony leader sighed heavily. “Must you reject all our traditions, Prince Callum?” He ran a thumb over his own decorative headwear.

She knew that would win him over, and it did. Still clearly uncomfortable with the idea, Callum accepted the piece and lowered it onto his head. Under Rayla’s eyes the thing seemed to change its size until settling where it was intended to rest. She reached over and plucked his bangs up from behind it. 

Not a bad look, really, but stone wouldn’t be her first choice.

“Thank you, sir, it’s beautiful.” Callum nod-bowed to their host, whose face split into a wide grin, returning the nod at the prince’s acceptance of their cultural ‘royal treatment.’

Taking his hand again, she followed up the praise with her own- a diplomacy tactic they’d both learned to use to its fullest. “It really is. Compliments your eyes, I think.” Those eyes struggled not to roll, and instead narrowed a bit in suspicion, but Rayla was all innocence.

At this, the elderly elf’s eyes twinkled. “I am so glad you think so, Rayla.”

That couldn’t mean anything good.

The assistant returned, again bearing the mossy pillow, this time featuring a circlet of amethyst geode stones.

Rayla balked as they approached her. “Oh, no. No, no, I’m no royal.”

The leader appeared puzzled “Are you not joined?” He gestured to their linked hands, and that stalled her denials. 

This clever geezer…

Fine , okay.”

She could feel Callum and the earthblood elder sharing a look behind her back as she accepted the jewelry and threaded it around her horns, lowering it onto her forehead, where it did the same settling trick Callum’s had.

The prince reached up to copy her gesture from moments before and freed her bangs, then smiled goofily. “Compliments your eyes, I think.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Recalling the conversation, Rayla narrowed her overly-praised peepers.

“I’m beginning to think you’re obsessed with my eyes. And that everyone we meet afield is weirdly insistent with us.”

She brushed the raiment off her horns to don the stoney crown as Callum secured his own.

“Huh. You’re right- they are, aren’t they? And I’ll admit it. I’m obsessed with your eyes.” 

Oh no… she knew that tone.

He turned around, rising to her kneeling level, and brought a hand to her face while the other slid around her waist. “And your nose” he tapped it lightly. “And your cheeks” which he traced over with the back of one finger “and you-”

“Enough! Sappy! Too sappy!” She threw her arms around him for a tight squeeze and gave him a long kiss, tempering her interruption with love. “But sweet, thank you. Oh, look!” Rayla reached for another trinket.

The two whiled away the evening laughing over memories, and decorating each other in gifts and souvenirs, subtle and gaudy alike, from their wanderings and missions.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I told you guys I’m no good at this, right?”

“Yes, Soren. That’s actually kind of the point. Shoot already.”

The crownguard narrowed his eyes. “Just for that, this one’s going right into that island way out in the ocean.”

Rayla glared, but Callum chuckled to keep the mood up. “Sorry, Soren, it’s not on the map- but please shoot.”

He did, straight into the courtyard wall, and Rayla choked on a laugh.

“Look, this is embarrassing enough without you rubbing it in.”

Ez glanced between them and smiled brightly. “You can do it, Soren! I believe in you.”

Thank you, Ezran! That makes one of us.”

The couple exchanged high-browed looks of surprise. Quite the quip from their friend, there

Soren's next shot hit the target, and Rayla immediately groaned. “That’s so close! It can’t be more than a couple days away!”

Callum wagged a finger. “You know the rules! And rule three is-”

“-’if he hits the castle we stay in the castle,’ I know! Get on with it.”

The prince retrieved the larger-scale map that served as a target. Just an outline of the complete Pentarchy/Xadian lands, he used the faint grid of pre-drawn lines and the center of Soren’s mark to cross-reference his shot to an accurate, detailed map.

“Looks like… oh.”

“Well?” The three chorused.

He looked up at the group and smiled.

Chapter Text

Callum arranged the jars and packs along the counter, then stood back and flipped open his sketchbook-turned-cookbook to the correct page.

The first few steps were easy enough, as long as he measured carefully...

“You’re sure you don’t want any help?”

He waved Rayla away as she stepped closer to look over his progress. “Nope, I’ve got this. You go handle your business. I didn’t trap Ethari in the kitchen for a week straight for no reason. Now shoo! You’ll ruin the surprise!”

She smirked at the exaggeration and gave him a peck on the lips, which he returned with a full kiss, wrapping his arms around her. Rayla’s startled protest melted into a pleased hum before they parted, and she smiled with a bit of heat in her eyes. “I somehow doubt that was part of the recipe.”

Callum feigned indignation. “I’ll have you know it’s my favorite step!” And with a spark of mischief, he gave her a squeeze.

Rayla gasped and wriggled out of his arms, pushing him away playfully. “Callum! I know Ethari didn’t teach you that!

He grinned at her reaction, then tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I dunno, he did say something about a ‘dash of love’ being an important ingredient…”

The fading blush redoubled on her cheeks. “Don’t taint my memories of Moonberry Surprise like that! No! No way! Goodbye!” and the door shut behind her.

Chuckling to himself and looking down at the now-sparse flour left on his hands, Callum realized a bit too late what he’d accidentally done. Well, this multilayered delicacy wasn’t going to make itself...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Oh that smells delicious. How much longer?”

Callum turned to her, bowl in-hand, whipping the cream with vigor. Attempted vigor.

“Not much, but do you think you could do this part for me? My arms are kinda numb at this point, from all the stirring.”

Rayla just rolled her eyes fondly and literally took the task off his hands, quickly beating up a nice airy whip.

“Why did you tell everyone you were doing this?”

He frowned, confused. “What do you mean? I may have told Ez in passing, but I didn’t talk about it much.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “Really? Everyone was asking after you and the cooking- ‘Callum baking today? How’s Callum doing in the kitchen?’ things like that.”

He gulped air.

“Rayla, could you just turn that way for a second? Just a second.”

An eyebrow went up, but she did as he asked.

Aaaand there it was, stark against her dark clothing- white, floury handprints on her backside. Faded and a little muddled at this point, but unmistakable. A few indistinct spots on her back where he’d hugged her normally, but... 

Callum groaned and leaned over the counter as she turned back.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Rayla. First I’m going to apologize. I’m sorry. And now I’m going to finish putting this together while you go change your clothes.”

She was, understandably, perplexed.

“Why? Is there something-” He’d almost forgotten just how flexible she was, looking over her own shoulder and twisting her hips to try and see down her back. “Is that flour?” She huffed a sigh, smiling. “You don’t need to apologize, dummy. I’ll be right back.”

Carefully levelling cream between each layer of cake, he knew she’d change her mind rather quickly. 

That was confirmed a few moments later by an aggravated “CALLUM?!” being shouted down the hall.

“I love you?” He tried back, and got no response, so he simply finished the dessert with a final layer of cream and a raw moonberry over each intended slice. The light-purplish whip looked rather appetizing, and he claimed baker’s privilege with a fingerful from the bowl while awaiting his judgment. Smooth and tart- perfect.

Stomping steps signalled Rayla’s return, and he lifted the fresh shield in both hands to keep between them. “Surprise! Well, not surprise surprise but Moonberry Surprise!”

She glared, but when her eyes flicked down to the cake they softened.

Seeing her struggle to stay upset, he set the platter aside and opened his arms for a hug. The invitation was usually the deciding factor, and proved itself once again as she stepped into it. 

Callum stood on his toes to kiss the top of her head. “I did say I was sorry. And I am.”

Rayla grumbled into his shoulder, but didn’t loosen her embrace. “You did. And the surprise looks perfect. But fair is fair.”

Unsure of her words, Callum yelped in laughter as her hands dropped to return his earlier squeeze. He didn’t struggle away as she had, only tightened his arms around her. “Fair is fair,” he agreed.

Chapter Text

It had been three days, and the spire didn’t feel any less busy. That suited Rayla just fine- the work kept her from having to talk to people. The big downside was her limited alone time with Callum, but they caught up during meals and coinciding breaks. The prince’s days were split between magework and Katolin political talks- he’d been away for weeks now, and now home had caught up.

Both were thoroughly exhausted that first night, and after their one blessedly uninterrupted rest together, Callum was pulled away by Opeli and his princely duties. Rayla kept a second pillow ready for the night he would return.

She watched him from across the sanctum, or caught sight of him crossing a doorway. Callum had been wearing his scarf rather loosely. Sometimes it slipped from his shoulders, the prince flailing to keep it off the ground. Knowing how much he treasured the cloth, what it meant to him… that didn’t sit right with her at all.

Rayla cornered him after dinner that night, when he tripped over himself and dropped a stack of books attempting to save the scarf again. Enough was enough. Stacking the last book on the pile, she raised a hand to his arm and asked after him in the gentlest tone she could manage.

“Callum, what’s wrong?”

He evaded. Poorly. Rubbing the back of his head and looking away, to the books, shrugging. “What do you mean? I’ve been clumsy since the day we met.” He tried to smile, but it faltered.

She sighed his name, half exasperated and half worried. “Callum…” she slowly pulled him into a hug, and he returned it without hesitation. Positive first step. Rubbing slow circles across his back and shoulders, they stood together as he found a comfortable spot to rest his chin on her shoulder. Another oddity these last days- usually he’d press all the way into any hug.

Hopefully this relaxed him as much as it did her... Eventually, though, she gave up on his usual forthright openness. “Your scarf.”

He stiffened in her arms, but didn’t pull away. “What about it?”

“You’ve been wearing it funny. When we tricked Sol Regem you looped it around my neck to keep it from slipping off, and you’re dropping it all the time now, with no angry dragon in sight.”

The prince shuffled his feet a bit, but didn’t answer.

“Callum, please… will you tell me what’s happening?” Rayla went all-in. “Big feelings time?”

A defeated sigh gusted from his lungs as he slumped against her. “Yeah. Okay. Not really a big feeling, but not here. Later?”

She nodded into his shoulder. “Okay.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Their room was quiet, and Rayla waited, seated on her- no, their bed, letting Callum choose the best place for him to sit, and how to start.

Directly next to her seemed to be his most comfortable spot, with one leg hooked over hers and both hands gently kneading her left, caressing her unbound wrist. She huffed a fond breath and ruffled his hair, earning a not-really-annoyed pout from the prince.

The fact that he found solace in comforting her filled Rayla’s chest with uneasy warmth. Glad to help, just… she wanted him to be well on his own, too.

After a few moments of silence, he spoke. “It isn’t the scarf, it’s… my neck.” He didn’t look up from her hand, and she let him continue massaging. Anything that made this easier. “During the battle. Just before Duren arrived with the rest of the Katolin army?”

Rayla nodded- she hadn’t been on the ground but, over the last few days and various retellings, had gotten a pretty good idea of what transpired.

“One of those… monsters. It- well before what Viren did, it was Prince Kasef of Neolandia, I’m told. We’d met when I was younger, but never got along. He was huge. And fast. Too fast, I couldn’t-” Callum swallowed. He had shown her the sketchbook and its scars. “He grabbed me, around the throat.” This was new. 

She watched his fingers trace lightly over the memory, any bruising long washed away by Sunfire healing. “I couldn’t breathe . And he just looked into my eyes and smiled. ” He grew still, then shuddered, and she turned to delicately embrace him, avoiding the sore spot.

As Callum gasped against her, finding his breath, Rayla bit her lip to help fight down both her own tears and the guilty feeling that she should have been there… because she shouldn’t have.

 And this was about him right now.

“The scarf, when it, well, when anything touches me there, I can feel his hand again and-” he trailed off, and Rayla remembered. The small flinches she’d passed off as his being unused to their close contact these last days, when she reached for his face or hair… 

And he had been wearing an oversized shirt as well, its collar far too wide on his shoulders, but she’d brushed that off as wanting a change of pace after so long in the same clothes. Another tiny stab of guilt. Why hadn’t she noticed ? The magical healing hadn’t taken all of her pain away- why should it be any different for him?

She could only say what she’d been told herself, all those years ago with a Human twist. “Callum, I hear you.” He let off a little snort at the literal interpretation of his guide to Big Feelings Time. “It’s- well, it’s not okay, but I understand. It’s normal. To feel that way, after what happened. And it will still be normal if you keep feeling that way.”

Callum’s breathing was leveled out to its normal pace. “I know. My aunt, Opeli, Commander Gren, and a lot of soldiers, they’ve all told me. War can do that to people.” He reached one arm over his shoulder to touch her hand again. “It’s like what you said about the binding. That you can still feel it sometimes, and it hurts like it had never come off.”

If he was hurting like that she needed to do something- Callum hadn’t been trained to handle it the way she had. Rayla carefully slid the red accessory from his shoulders and proposed an idea, the only way she could think to help. “Why don’t you let me wear this for a while? I’ll put some good luck back into it for you, and whenever you think you’re ready, you’ll know exactly where to find it.”

A little chuckle broke through when she mentioned good luck, and his arms tightened around her. “That… sounds great, Rayla. Thank you. Let me help, like before.”

He leaned back to secure the treasured scarf around her neck while Rayla held her hair out of the way. It gave her another moment to examine his expression- now his usual gentle look, with a tiny smile that grew when he glanced up to catch her staring.

Callum had made her an offer, the day after the battle, when she just needed some time alone. It had felt overbearing at the time, but she did eventually take him up on it. Rayla couldn’t remember his exact words, but did her best.

“And you’ll let me know, right? If there’s anything else I can do to help? A- a hug, or a talk, whatever you need.” It felt odd to fuss over someone, knowing it annoyed her to be on the receiving end.

A good kind of odd, though, because this was Callum. Is this what he felt, every time he worried over her?

The prince thumbed the last of his tears away and leaned forward into her waiting arms, already pressing further against her than he had earlier. “I will. You’re the best, Rayla. I love you.”

“And I love you, Callum.”

Chapter Text

The large doors thunked shut behind them, and Rayla arched a brow at her partner, taking his hand.

“I thought you said you liked dancing? You were so stiff in there!”

Callum pouted. “Well, that kind is okay, I guess, but I don’t really like dancing in these at all.” He tugged at his immaculate formalwear. “At least yours was made for dancing.”

She threw back her head and laughed. “Oh yeah, tell me again how comfortable it is to wear something that’d rip six different ways if I danced the way I want to.”

They proceeded down the castle’s halls, exchanging quips about the other’s clothing until reaching their room, where Callum made a suggestion to continue their night. “Here’s an idea. Let’s get out of here and go somewhere we can both cut loose a little? In town.”

Rayla hummed while removing her necklace, weighing her boyfriend’s offer, then nodded with a smile. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m sleeping any time soon. And now my feet are itchin’ for a real dance.” He was already moving to fetch her full Human Rayla ‘disguise’- a more ordinary outfit to help her, and him by extension, blend in.

“Maybe wear that uh, little cloak thing you have? Just in case? People are going to be wasted and I don’t want them to have any accidents .

She rolled her eyes. That was his way of saying he didn’t want to have to get rough with anyone. “The poncho? Sure, just- unlace me before you go?”

Rayla turned away and lifted her hair to give him access. She watched in the mirror as his face blushed more and more deeply the further he went, until only the hand she clasped against her front kept the dress from falling. “Thank you, now get yourself changed so we can go .”

Callum stepped into Ez’s old room, now the couple’s ‘closet,’ to do just that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sounds of merriment were as loud as the music pouring from the tavern they approached.

Rayla squeezed their hands together. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

He smiled back reassuringly. “They clear the main floor for dancing every other week- we won’t be the only ones in there by a long shot. Plus everyone’ll be drunk so who cares how we dance?” Callum waved a hand dismissively back towards the castle. “Not all properly and orderly and judgey.”

She liked to think his occasional cavalier attitude was a sign she rubbed off on him a bit. “You sound a little improper yourself, but let’s skip straight to the dancing, yeah?”

“Yeah” he agreed, and tugged her poncho’s hood forward a little.

The door and windows were wide open, and as the pair neared, a few guards stumbled out, leaning on each other with a friendly air about them. Missing various pieces of armor between them, one wore all three of their helmets stacked on her head.

Watching them shamble off, Rayla felt a newfound appreciation for having never been truly drunk in her life.

Callum led her inside by the hand and, as promised, the furniture was crammed against a wall, tables forming a kind of makeshift stage for a small band of players. In the dense crowd of dancers, couples and small groups bobbed and whirled around each other, arms in the air or holding their partner. Onlookers clapped and cheered from the second floor’s railings.

The music was bright and upbeat- strings singing and plucking along to the drums and… spoons? One of the players was clapping spoons together against his knee. Humans. But this was nothing like the castle music. It was wild and free-spirited, blowing through the air like the winds of a storm, filling the room with energy.

Now that they were indoors with it, the tune filled her chest and Rayla’s heart picked up its pace to match the song’s tempo. Beginning to bounce on her heels, she saw that Callum was feeling it too, nodding along with the beat. She squeezed their hands again, he turned his head, and they smiled together.

Rayla let him lead her into the crowd, a hand at her waist pulling her close, before he swept them both around and around with the music, bouncing along with the other revelers. Their eyes never left one another’s until he grinned even more widely and spun her, laughing as she returned the favor. 

Callum was flushed, his smile etched so deeply into his face it seemed certain to never fall. 

And she wouldn’t let it.

A group of dancers, hands linked, forced themselves between the pair and encircled Rayla, spinning around her in an isolating ring. They whooped and shouted encouragement as the elf copied a lone dancer she’d seen on the ‘stage’- planting hands on her hips, kicking her boots’ heels and slapping their toes against the floorboards with the music. Some folks on the second floor pointed to her and cheered the display.

The prince clapped along with the crowd, giddy that his girlfriend’s unrestrained, flashy footwork would surely be the talk of the tavern come tomorrow. A moment longer and the group gave a final cheer before lifting their arms over Rayla to find another victim. The couples’ hands met for only a moment before they were swept further into the floor by a chain of dancers bouncing along the edges of the room.

Despite the close quarters and some goodhearted interruptions by their fellow merrymakers, the two spun and twirled together for another three songs before Callum looked about ready to collapse and she dragged him outside, away from the heat and press of the dance floor.

“So that’s your kind of dancing, huh?” The prince couldn’t answer as he caught his breath, doubled over, but he nodded. “I like it.” Rayla decreed. “Same thing in two weeks, right?”

Callum looked up then, still smiling, and stepped forward with a kiss, breath hot on her cheek.

If that wasn’t a ‘yes’ she wasn’t sure what was.

Chapter Text

“Well you might not appreciate it, but these rituals are important to my people.”

Arlin rolled her eyes and sighed in defeat. “Fine, fine, tell me the story again, then.” 

She took a seat on the cliff’s edge, looking out over the moonshadow forest. This was supposedly some sacred place, but it didn’t seem all that cared-for. Just a huge tree with some of those gliding nut seed things, massive enough to ride on. That was next, apparently.

Her companion narrowed his eyes reproachfully, but did as she asked.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Long ago, when the world was ruled by fools, a mistake was made. Humans and elves were separated, completely, and lived apart for a thousand years. 

Over that time, falsehoods spread through both species, regarding the other, and distrust sprung from naught but rumors.

Elves and Humans hurt each other, and the pain was returned, disguised as revenge or justice, again and again, in a cycle of never-ending hatred and violence.

Until, by some strange twist of fate, or perhaps a thread of destiny, a pairing between the races made it their duty to end that cycle.

One, a warrior- stronger than the mountains, both in arm and spirit, with a pure, giving heart and a penchant for granting mercy.

The other, a mage- clever and flexible, both in logic and imagination, with an honest, caring soul and an unbreaking will.

Together, they formed a pact, and gathered followers. There was no ‘other.’ Humans and Elves could live together in harmony, without issue.

Leading by example, the two were joined in the sacred rites of both peoples, and lived out their days as a shining beacon of love and unity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“And that’s the short version? Thank the stars for that .”

Natar’s lips quirked at the old expression. “We don’t have time for a complete recital, anyways. Look.”

She did, swinging her legs. He pointed up to the moon, so important to his people, and full tonight.

“The stars you thanked. I know you aren’t one for constellations, but here- please don’t drop it.” 

Arlin held the offered book up to the sky, looking between it and the stars he indicated. They did seem to be glowing more than they should, so close to the bright moon. Magic? 

The stylized version of the constellations displayed one figure with a wing for an arm and the other a sword, held defensively. They faced away from each other, though off-hands were linked, and the moon currently filled the gap framed by those linked arms and their heads.

“Huh. So these are them? The warrior and the mage.”

“Exactly.” Natar carefully sat beside her, leaning back from the edge.

“So which was the elf and which was the human? Can’t see their horns or ears in this picture”

Her companion chuckled. “That might be the point of the legend, it doesn’t really matter. And while we are a mage and a warrior, and an elf with a human, we don’t exactly match the legends themselves, do we?”

Arlin grinned in the fierce way she knew he loved. “Nope- not pure-hearted at all, over here. How about you? Very ‘flexible’ these days?” 

He only smirked to confirm no such change had come over him. “Mm. But I wouldn’t change you for the world.”

A shiver ran across Arlin’s shoulders at his bold declaration- Natar was often so closed off that she savored each of his sweet nothings. She scooted closer to her lover and leaned in for a kiss, which he firmly returned.

Tracing a finger along his elven markings, she teased him as usual. “I have to admit, if this path we’ve been following, with all these rituals, has got you feeling extra mushy? I’ll come along much more willingly.”

“I’d no idea you were a hostage.”

“Fine, with less complaining, then.”

Natar cupped her smirking cheek, then kissed her forehead. “I think I’d miss it, at this point.”

Somehow that was the most endearing thing he’d said in weeks. She felt heat rising in her face.

“So are we riding the giant seed thing or what?”

“In the morning, love. Watch the moon with me.”

Arlin sighed in mock-irritation and settled against his shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The distant past

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I will tell you one thing, Prince Callum, out of respect for what you’ve accomplished.”

The man only watched him- where once such a statement would draw a glimmer of interest, starved for any ancient knowledge, Callum had grown jaded to simple barbs and even intricate tales. All lies, and it was known.

“We startouch have, well, had a saying.” Aaravos chuckled. “ ‘The stars remain unchanged.’ You can shape your destiny, of course- I’m sure you above all know how differently the future can play out, from what any scrying spell will show you- but the stars themselves that guide us will never change.”

There was a flicker, but the human said nothing. 

“And that’s just it. I know not how, but you’ve changed the stars.” Callum stared. “You needn’t believe me, simply feel it.” Following his prisoner’s pointing hand, the prince closed his eyes, clearly reaching towards the heavens.

He frowned, then opened his eyes and spoke for the first time in nine of his visits. “What have you done ?”

Aaravos smirked lazily. “This is your doing, boy, not mine. Feel it.”

Warily, the prince again concentrated on the far-away celestials. His expression melted into wonder, then confusion.

“What…” He must feet it, then. The stars’ attunement to him, specifically.

“As I said- I’ve no idea. And it angers me, yes, but more importantly you’ve done something never thought possible. I expect to know more once you’ve done your research.”

Callum’s eyes snapped open, and he glared, nearly snarling. “Why would I ever help you?

“In exchange for this.” Aaravos offered a hand through the bars of his cell.

“No.”

“Come now, Callum. I will show you where to find her.”

That drew a reaction- the prince’s face twisted, his aversion warring with desperation. Rayla always won, though, and did so now.

Aaravos watched Callum ward himself with a half-dozen spells across three arcanum, using an ocean primal stone for two, before stepping forward. “Ah, you’ve forgotten the fortitude of earth.” 

Hesitating at the suggestion, the human nodded and cast the spell- a minor protection, but he really shouldn’t be taking any chances. He was already taking several, doing this alone.

Their hands met, and Aaravos relished the warmth of magic flooding back into his body. It drained away just as quickly through the enchanted shackle on his wrist, but even that small spark was a relief from the cold of its complete absence.

“Show me.”

Aaravos obliged him, guiding Callum’s consciousness up through the dungeon, through the castle and into the horrible void of the outer realm. The prince’s grip shook, back in their bodies, but they pressed on towards the new constellations.

Callum’s natural connection to half of the new stars drew him forward, but Aaravos held them back. “Yes, these are yours. But these-” he took a more firm control of their guidance and led them along the group of stars, reaching another, “-are hers. Was she connected to the stars, Callum?”

The human ignored the question, reaching for Rayla’s stars himself. He followed their pattern, bumbling and inept as ever with his attempts to read them. Aaravos felt Callum’s frustration growing. He was powerful and talented, yes, but inexperienced.

“Allow me.”

Under more practiced hands, with the human observing every manipulation, the stars pulsed and shone brightly, softly projecting beams of light down to one conjoined point on the world beneath them. Callum forced them to look, following the guidance, and both mages were back on the mortal plane, the prince reeling back and tumbling to the ground, gasping.

Inexperienced, indeed. Aaravos pressed a thumb between his brows to clear the vertigo.

 Callum was back on his feet. “I won’t thank you.”

“I don’t expect you to. I wish only to learn what you’ve done.”

The green of his eyes hardened, but he nodded, and Callum raced out of the prison.

It was a mere three days before the stars echoed the couples’ reunion down through the prisoner's empty arcanum.

Chapter Text

Soren’s arms were crossed, but his expression didn’t match his stern words. He was clearly trying to imitate Opeli. “I’ll have you both know this is highly irregular.”

With an elbow on Callum’s shoulder, Rayla nodded. “Yeah, but we’re not exactly a ‘regular’ bunch now, are we? Any of us.”

The prince nodded at his girlfriend’s counterpoint, and the crownguard sighed in defeat, but gave them his usual smile. “Fine, we’ll do this the weird way. Come on.”

Soren hefted a sack over his shoulder, lifted a bucket of water, and led the pair to his room. Stepping into the lavish-yet-spartan crownguard apartment for the first time felt like a small intrusion- Callum always met with his friend out and about in the castle and city. A step up from the communal quarters of the barracked guards, Soren was living comfortably.

They followed him into his washroom, far too small for three people, but the couple’s apparent lack of physical boundaries made up for it.

“Ugh, just don’t get all... mushy on each other, alright? It’s lesson time! I’ve grown this just for today!”

Callum smiled. “Yeah, we won’t. Thanks, Soren.” He ignored Rayla’s teasing pinch and the following smirk.

Their friend lifted his chin, taking an authoritative stance, hands on his hips. “Right. Callum. You’re fifteen now. That’s a big number.” Rayla snorted softly. “And it’s only going to get bigger- so I’m here to teach you the fine art of shaving. And your girlfriend, too, I guess.”

The girlfriend shifted her weight. “I’m just curious, Soren. Elves don’t have facial hair.”

“Huh. Really? You’ve got eyebrows, though.”

“That’s not the same- look, just show us. Please.”

“Sure thing- so! Best if you do it after a wash or a soak, so the hair’s softer, but you won’t really have to until you get some good stubble.” He took a moment to run a hand over his own. It was messier than when he’d arrived at the spire. “I should be fine, though.”

He hefted the bucket. “Gotta use some water. Already got us covered. Two buckets, or bowls, or whatever you’ve got. A mug does fine, on the road or in a pinch...”

The couple watched him assemble a small array of tools- two small bowls, a rag, an oddly short-handled brush, a small jar of white powder, and a narrow folding knife that was graciously allowed over for inspection. Rayla tested it against a thumbnail and nodded approvingly, even if it was designed as more of a tool than a weapon.

The funny brush mixed powder into one bowl with a bit of water- the result was foamy paste, which Soren liberally applied to his face and neck. He explained its purpose while Callum turned the brush in his hand, curious what material its bristles were made of. Rayla’s nose wrinkled at the foam’s sharp smell.

“Now here’s a really important part, to save yourself from cuts. You’ve gotta pull your skin tight where you’re shaving, like thish-” Soren pulled his cheek upward with one hand, slurring his speech. “Shee how it’sh not all... Loosh and shtuff?” 

Callum and Rayla both tried not to laugh.

Their tutor glanced into the mirror, then dropped his hand. “Okay, I should’ve shown you that first. Let’s do this instead. Here’s how you want to hold your razor.”

Soren demonstrated the angle of the blade against the back of his hand, and Callum watched, fascinated, as the knife sheared away some body hair near the wrist. He carefully noted Soren’s warnings about loose and tight skin, flexing the hand to show his meaning.

“Alright, let’s do this thing!”

The couple leaned forward as Soren brought the razor to face, gliding down, taking the stubble away with the foam. There was a constant need to wipe the blade clean with the rag, itself kept foam-free with water from from the second bowl, but their friend was a practiced hand at this point- the job was over in under a minute.

“Sometimes you’ve gotta make a second pass- I might have to in a couple places here.” Soren inspected himself in the mirror, turning his head back and forth, lifting his chin. “Not bad though.” He turned to his students. “Any questions?”

“Can I try?” Rayla blurted before Callum could open his mouth.

“Uh.” Soren’s eyes went to Callum, who shrugged. “I guess? Here.” The razor was passed over.

He re-foamed a patch of cheek that needed another shave and squated for her reach, prompting Rayla to lean closer. “Like this?” Soren nodded as she pulled his skin taught. “Here goes…” Callum heard his friend’s nervous swallow.

Rayla stood back, wiping the knife as Soren had. “Huh. That was easy.”

The crownguard was visibly relieved for that to go so well. He checked her handiwork. “Hey, nice job! And yeah, that’s the sharpest thing I’ve got, by a long shot. Anything else?”

Callum had picked up the brush again. “Any more spots?”

Soren looked between the two, armed with his shaving tools. “Oh- hey, this isn’t my birthday! But what the heck- just uh, maybe Rayla can do all the actual shaving today? No offense, buddy.”

Rayla smirked, and Callum rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Show us where.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Satisfied with their work, Soren slapped on a few drops of medicinal-smelling ointment and led them back out into his room. He opened the chest at the foot of his bed and lifted out another sack, rummaging through it with his back to the couple.

“Alright. Happy birthday!” He turned and stepped to the side, revealing a set of tools, similar to his own, arranged atop the chest.

Callum smiled in thanks to his beaming friend before taking each item in-hand. Well-made, but not overly ornate. Just pure, deliberate craftsmanship. Nothing gilded or filigreed, besides a “C” carved into the horn of the razor’s handle. He automatically handed the knife to Rayla after his own inspection.

“Not what you were expecting, prince? A little plain for royalty? Well, you might be pretty special, but at the end of the day, you’re still a man like the rest of us. ‘King or peasant, mage or farmer, we all shave.’ That’s what my da-” Soren choked on the word, a surprised expression on his face. “Huh.”

The couple exchanged a sad look before Callum stepped forward. “Soren, it’s okay. And thank you. For your gifts, and for showing me- us -how this works. I-” He swallowed. “Do you think you could show me some more things every year? About growing up, and all? Ez and I... we don’t-” 

He was cut off by Soren lifting him into a hug. The older boy’s voice was tight, but warm. “Yeah. Yeah, of course, I’ll show you anything you want to know. You and your brother.” His eyes shifted to Rayla. “You too, obviously.”

She stepped over to sandwich the airborne Callum between them. “Obviously.”

They let the birthday boy down, eventually, allowing him to catch his breath while Rayla packed the new shaving kit away. “That was interestin’. Thanks, Soren.” 

A bit of Commander Gren’s influence showed itself. “It was my pleasure! Now I don’t know about you two, but I’m starving.

Callum’s stomach growled audibly at the hint of food.

“I’ll take that as a ‘me too!’ Let’s get some grub !”

“We don’t use that word anymore, remember?”

“Oh, right. Moon tricks and all. Let’s eat!”

The trio walked to the dining hall together in companionable silence, and Callum stepped ahead to open the door for Rayla with a small smile. She glanced over his shoulder at Soren and gave her boyfriend a peck before the door shut behind her.

“Uh, Callum?”

“Soren. Thank you. Really. I mean it.” He adjusted the sack of gifts over his shoulder. “For being there for me. For us.”

Steeling himself, the prince hugged his friend, for once initiating the contact.

“Oh, yeah, hey, you’re welcome.” Soren didn’t seem to know what to do from the receiving end, and gently pat Callum on the back.

When the hug was over, he stepped up to the door himself and opened it for the guest of honor.

“Happy birthday, Callum.”

They exchanged smiles as the prince entered the room.

“You know Rayla’s birthday is the last day of the month, right?”

“Wait, really?”

Chapter Text

They eventually found a routine, after traveling together so long.

Any mounts they rode, even human-raised horses, were much more receptive to Rayla’s attentions. Her hushed words and sincere tone placated even the most difficult beasts. Callum eventually got used to leaving animals to her and picking up some chores himself- fires didn’t start themselves, after all.

The first time Rayla turned from their tended mounts to find a cheerful blaze waiting for her, a small glow of pride lightened her chest. He’d been miserable and clumsy with camp duties at first, but eager to learn.

These days the student was becoming the master- but he was cheating with magic, so it didn’t really count. Today, by the time she’d finished with their horses, a fire was started, the kettle on to boil, their canteens refilled, stones and fallen branches in general were cleared away, and he was waiting for her to put their tent up together.

She rolled her eyes but obliged him with a smile. The piece of equipment was of moonshadow design, featuring a clever built-in rope system, allowing for a single person to raise it on their own. Callum just insisted on ‘setting up shop’ together, as he put it. And it may be a bit easier with four hands, but not much.

After securing their saddles and packs, Rayla settled their bedrolls inside the tent and stood, double-checking her handiwork before rejoining Callum by the fire. A steaming traveler’s mug of her favorite tea awaited, and the mage was already tucking away a small flask of honey he insisted on bringing along for her. She huffed a fond breath, but eyed his posture- more stiff than usual.

Well, that could be fixed.

“Hey? Oh! You sure?” Despite the question, he moved for the jacket to come off more easily.

“Yup. You look- and feel, wow- pretty tense, there. Are you alright?”

Callum relaxed under her hands as they worked the tension out of his shoulders. “Just the usual stuff. We haven’t been to this town, I’m not sure how they’ll react to you, I have to meet new people and try to-” he lifted a hand and waggled its fingers “- diplomacy them within a couple days.” 

Finding a particularly stubborn knot, Rayla carefully applied an elbow and was rewarded with a faint groan of relief. “Oh... that feels great, you have no idea.”

“Well, I have some idea.” It was true that he lacked her training, but enthusiasm and thoroughness made his massages their own kind of relieving. Not well-suited for road travel, though.

Feeling him much improved, she retrieved the mug and took her place at Callum’s side. They both sighed happily into their tea and leaned against one another.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gone to council meeting, back by lunch! Cold outside!

Right. Rayla huffed a breath and dropped the note back onto their desk, then followed its tiny sketched instructions, securing the red and gold scarf around her neck. She shuffled slippered feet out of their bedroom and down the hall. 

A fire struggled in the hearth, and she fed it from the suspiciously-refreshed stack of uniformly cut logs. He’d done it again. Rayla heaved an exasperated sigh, thoroughly fond, and inspected the damage elsewhere.

The kitchen was perfect. Washroom sparkling. Laundry crisp and folded or hung. Even her armor and weapons were maintained and battle-ready. She climbed up to check the rafters, but found them spotless and dust-free. Annoyingly so.

There were always two things he left her, knowing they brought her particular satisfaction.

Rayla pulled on her boots and heavy winter cloak, then steeled herself and opened the door to run through the freezing wind for their shadowden. She ducked into its low, doorless entrance and whistled into the gloom of the cave-like building, fish in-hand.

Lopi rumbled appreciatively at her call. He leapt down from one of the upper perches and circled her body closely, nuzzling her free hand before focusing on the meal she’d brought. Detesting the rituals some riders forced their companions through to receive food, Rayla offered hers over without ceremony.

Their ‘paw was fairly docile, not overly possessive of food like some animals, and simply laid down on the spot to eat. Rayla unhooked the brushes from over the entrance and got to work on Lopi’s well-maintained coat. It wouldn’t stay that way for long if unattended, after all.

Satisfied by a job well done, she stroked the purring beast for a few minutes, jealous that he didn’t seem to mind the cold. After the petting session, Rayla rolled onto her feet and replaced the brushes, then ducked back out into winter.

Callum was already home, just hanging the kettle over the fire. He turned at the sound of the door. “Hey! Welcome back!” 

She wriggled a bit in his embrace while hanging her cloak, feigning annoyance. “You know I was just over with Lopi- I should be saying that to you!” Cloak dealt with, she spun in his arms to return the hug.

“You did it all again” she tried to grumble over his shoulder, failing to keep the appreciative tone out of the complaint.

“Well not all of-”

“You know what I meant!”

He laughed. “I do. And I’m sorry, my hand slipped.”

“Slipped.”

“Yep, slipped. And slipped and slipped and just kept slipping- it’s all this darn slippery ice we’ve got.”

Rayla was rolling her eyes before he was halfway through it. “Uh huh. Right. And I know you know you didn’t have to, so why?”

Callum shrugged. “Practice?”

“You’re using magic again.”

After a disastrous first attempt at dusting, they agreed for him to test the spells elsewhere before trying to clean with magic in their own home.

“Okay, so that was just the dust, but yes, I’ve been practicing! I know you looked- how was it?”

“Perfect” she groaned. “And the rest?”

“I knew you were having a rough night after you weren’t back for a couple extra hours, so I… kept busy.”

That meant he was worrying. “Callum... “

“I know, I know, but it was fine , after the washroom.” She gave him an unimpressed look.  “It was! Look at me! I slept!”

He did look rather chipper, but she pinched his cheek to check for illusions anyway.

“Hm. Fine. Did you want to relax with me, then? I was just going to crack a few of these as my second chore.” She waved vaguely towards the short couch, and the small bucket on the table between it and the hearth.

Callum’s hands slipped into hers. “Rayla, I would love nothing more. I’ll grab our mugs.”

Eventually they settled together, legs tangled lightly beneath a quilt they’d sewn together one winter holiday past. Callum laid back and dozed, reading from a book of elven legends, while Rayla took her time cracking nuts and feeding them both, nursing her tea.

After a good while, he shut the tome and slid it onto the table. “I think this is it.”

“What? The book?”

Callum pushed himself up and set her mug aside, straddling her legs so they faced each other. “No, this.” He gestured around the house and between them both. “All of this.”

Rayla grinned while her hands settled at his waist. Her sense for heartfelt speeches was tingling. “It’s nice, yeah, but what about it?”

“Ever since we first, well, got together, my imagination would race forward to all the things we would or could do together. Every time I looked at you was like a flash of the future and what I wanted for us. To do, to have, everything. And I think this is it, right here. No battles, no darkness hanging over us- questions answered, problems solved. Just… us. Together. This is what I wanted.”

Rayla couldn’t wipe the smile off her face even as she arched a brow. “Really? We kiss and it makes you want to laze around on a lousy winter day?”

Callum gently hugged her head to his chest, laughing. “No, Rayla! I wanted peace . For Xadia and The Pentarchy, of course, but for us, too. This morning I helped a few bickering farmers resolve a dispute over a fence . It sounds stupid but I’d much rather be doing that than worrying about ambushes or hoping you’re safe on the other side of the world.”

He pulled back and gently combed his fingers through her hair, around her horns. Rayla sighed contentedly and let her eyes flutter shut, relaxing into the pleasant sensation.

“Not that this is the end, or the goal- it’s just the beginning, really. We’ve fought and struggled for so long, and this is the reward, right?”

Rayla let her head loll back against the cushions. “If all that was to get m’head scratched by a cute mage every day then yep- it’s a nice reward, alright. I’ll take two, please.”

The cute mage laughed, but only furthered his ministrations. “Okay. Every day, if you’d really put up with it.”

Maybe she would.

Chapter Text

Callum took a deep breath and pushed his way into their room. Rayla glanced up from her side of their desk, a candle at-hand. “Hey. I was just finishing this letter to Ethari.”

“Staying positive?”

“Staying positive,” she agreed. “Did you want to send him anything?”

Taking his seat beside her, Callum rifled through his sketches in their trays. “I think I had… here we go!” He produced a few sheets, unfolding one to show her the technical diagrams of human forgeworks and smithing tools.

Rayla flipped through them, arching a brow. “So many already? Found some time while bored of me, huh?” She set them aside and continued writing.

He had kept busy between introducing her to Katolis and royal busywork. They hadn’t been back in the castle terribly long, and every day was an adventure. If you stayed positive.

No, these are just old. From before, well, everything. You’re too much of a handful for me to find drawing time these days.”

Rayla smirked, not looking up from her writing. “Mm, you don’t seem to mind me filling your hands now and then.“ The smirk grew as his mouth opened and shut. She wasn’t wrong , after all.

Callum bypassed the comment, admitting defeat. “They’re still accurate, though.” He fidgeted a bit. “I’ll write something, too, actually.” 

The candle was moved between them to share its light, and Rayla gave him a bright smile. “I think he’d like that.”

Ethari had responded to them separately, despite their combined initial letter. Rayla seemed unsurprised, and reminded the prince that privacy was highly valued among the Moonshadow, gentle like Ethari or otherwise. When Callum had offered to let her read his letter, she’d laughed, declined, and left him with an implication that things would change if the two of them stayed together long enough.

The desk held plenty of stationery- once purely artistic materials, Callum found himself writing every day since their return. Letters to the people that helped them on their journey, drafts and rewrites of official documents for Ez… the list went on.

Was this what Harrow had in mind for them? His jacket pocket grew heavy, even as he scrawled a short note to Rayla’s… dad? She’d never told him exactly what to call the man. Callum recalled the letter he’d received in return, carried across the continent by the signature magic courier of Rayla’s people.

Ethari,

I’m happy to hear Farrie is doing well after her travels with us. Despite your forgiveness, I still feel responsible for the loss of Kenzo. I’ll talk to Rayla about fostering a pup like you suggested.

I’ve included some drawings of human smithing and forgecraft equipment, I hope they’re what you were curious about! We don’t have magic tools here, though, not even-

He stopped. Dark magic was probably the least acceptable thing to bring up. One of them, anyways.

- in the other countries of the Pentarchy.

Arrow dodged. Hopefully.

Rayla has been teaching me more Moonshadow customs. I’ll be happy to write with you until-

Bringing up his relationship with Ethari’s daughter probably wasn’t the brightest idea, either. They hadn’t exactly been… up-front about it yet, even though Rayla assured him it was implied by their first combined letter. Callum felt grateful that he wrote slower than he spoke. It was easier to keep his foot out of his mouth.

- the next time we see each other.

He hesitated. More topics to avoid. Whether they could visit The Silvergrove at all. Rayla missing home. The ghosting. Stay positive. Callum stopped his charcoal and sighed. Ethari’s workshop had taken shape on the page. Maybe this would be enough of a message without being direct about it, just like Rayla described. He finished the sketch, shading gently.

Callum set the note aside. Rayla would fold it the fancy Moonshadow way she used for ground-delivered mail. Normally he’d scoot closer and lean against her but, again, privacy with the letters. Luckily his timing was good, and she began folding her own.

He picked up his note again. “Show me how?”

Rayla smiled back. “Sure. Start like this…”

They finished their folds and sealed the letters along with Callum’s drawings in a weatherproof satchel they’d designated for correspondence with Ethari. The craftsman had carved and proofed some elven designs into the leather already- Callum decided to ask to learn the methodology behind the swirling lines, if a human was allowed.

When Rayla reached for the candle, he stopped her and turned in his seat to face her more directly. “I actually have something I want you to read, if that’s okay.”

Her eyes narrowed in playful suspicion. “Hmmm” she dropped a fist into her palm, one of her favorite ‘human Rayla’ pantomimes, and her expression brightened. “Oh, the book of ‘fairy tales’ you mentioned?”

Callum chuckled. “Ah, no, not yet, I haven’t gotten to the library. This is a bit more… well, personal. Kind of funny that we just wrote to Ethari, now that I think about it.” He took another deep breath and reached into his pocket for the letter.

“Oh. That’s…”

“Yeah. From my dad.”

“You want me to read it?” Rayla’s eyes searched his, her brows raised in concern.

“I’d like that, but you don’t have to. I think about the letter, sometimes, and I want you to know what he told me.” He gently took one of her hands and turned it palm up, then lowered the scroll into her hand. She didn’t pull away, and let him close her fingers around it.

The warm worry in Rayla’s eyes hardened into her usual resolve, and she looked down at the letter in both of their hands. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

“You should know- he mentions your troop. The original reason you came here. Don’t let that stop you, please.” Callum released her hand when she nodded, sliding a supportive arm around her shoulders as she turned to unroll the letter on her reading surface.

Rayla slipped a hand into his, threading their fingers together as always. He didn’t need to read along with her- the words were etched into his memory. Instead, Callum studied Rayla’s profile, watching her eyes track back and forth across the scroll. The twitch at the corner of her mouth, a brief frown, a quick glance towards him with a tiny smile, a strong squeeze that slowly loosened as she read.

Their hands separated, and she re-rolled the letter. It went back into his pocket as she chewed her lip, taking his hands again when they were free.

“Wise words.”

Callum snorted softly. “I agree, but is that all?”

“No.” Rayla took her own deep breath, much slower than his own. “It’s just a lot to take in. Some of it I can’t agree with.”

That wasn’t entirely unexpected, and he’d been thinking this over for a while now. Don’t come off as defensive. Stay positive. “Oh. Okay. Like what? Should I-?” She gripped his hands as he moved to bring the letter back out.

“No. No, it’s fine. Just the part about… learning from the past, then letting it go.” Rayla looked away, pensive, but kept her grip tight. “You said that to me before.”

The memory burned, but replayed itself anyways. ... then you don’t know me at all. You never did. Callum swallowed. “On the spire. When we were… talking.”

A tiny smirk accompanied an eye roll. “It’s okay to say ‘arguing,’ Callum.” The mirth in her eyes darkened, and her thumbs worried into his knuckles nervously.  “But yes. I can’t just let -”

He interrupted, a rare thing for either of them. “Wait, wait. Sorry, yes, I know. It’s been bothering me, too. I don’t think he meant ‘everything in the past,’ I think he meant history. The lies. I’m not going to let him go, or my mom, and I don’t want you to let go of your parents, either.”

This is what he had gone over a thousand times in his head. “What I said back then was wrong. I’m sorry about that, Rayla, and I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.”

She sighed, the tension visibly draining from her shoulders, and her thumbs easing up on his hands. When she tipped her chin down and leaned forward, Callum met her forehead with his. “I know you didn’t. We were both a bit… worked up. It’s okay. I understand. So much of that letter feels right that it’s easy to take at its word. What he said about the ‘narrative of love,’ I liked that.”

The close contact and her words lightened his shoulders. They were still working on the feelings-y talking, but they understood each other. That was the important thing.

“Yeah, context matters. A lot.”

“So is it true? About bait?”

Callum met her eyes, smiling. “Sure is. We should gang up on him tomorrow.”

That mischievous smirk just made him want to kiss her. So he did, feeling her smile widen. Eyes closed, Rayla touched their foreheads together again.

“Thank you, Callum. For, well, letting me meet your dad. A little.”

That did sort of happen, didn’t it? He’d brought the letter out because it seemed the best way to answer the occasional timid question Rayla had about the man.

“I think he would’ve loved you. Both my parents would have. And so will Aunt Amaya.”

Rayla stiffened a bit, leaning back. The two hadn’t gotten a chance to really talk yet. “Well, Ethari seemed to take Elf Callum in stride,” she rolled her eyes, “so I think he likes you, too. He did write back, after all.”

“He seems really nice.” More than Runaan, anyways. But that was talk for another time. Callum failed to stifle a yawn. “Tired yet?”

“Yeah, but there’s one more thing I need to talk to you about. The glow toy. Your dad called it the ‘Key of Aaravos...’ “

Chapter Text

Rayla lifted her boots into the opposite seat. “He’s not gonna show.”

Runaan’s voice crackled more than usual. “We can’t waste the chance. It’s a good tip. Give him another hour.” Hers was a cheap cuff, but the only thing the gang owned compatible with her unique condition.

“You got it, boss.” Closing the connection, she huffed an annoyed breath and sipped the moonberry synthetic, wrinkling her nose. They never got the tartness right- the fakes always came out bland.

She lowered her feet and sat up straight, adjusting the supposed ‘signal’ closer to the edge of the table- one of those weird triangle jelly biscuits from a vend. Stupid thing was almost four hundred credits, and it probably wasn’t even good, but she’d find out in another hour.

Resigned to a taste of something less awful, she shifted a leg out from under the table to stand and some fool immediately tripped heavily on her foot. Rolling her eyes, Rayla ignored the sprawled figure and fetched a can of plain green tea from the cooler, swiping her wrist over the exchange with a nod to the bartender.

After a much-more-refreshing sip, she returned to the booth and found her seat occupied by the fool. High-collared coat, dense mesh jacket beneath. They’d drawn their hood up, same as her. Neither of them were being very subtle, but she wasn’t about to flash her colors in some random bar. The signal snack had vanished.

Rayla slid into the empty side, ignoring the twinge of annoyance that she was now likely sitting in her own boot dust. He looked average enough- mixed, like most people. Brown shaggy mop in a typical undercut, intensely green eyes. A bit boyish despite his apparent age, arounds hers. Clean shaven where every man she knew sported a bit of stubble.

“Rayla, I presume?” Not a bad voice, either, but still a fool.

She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. But really? That line? Just spill it.”

Her contact glanced out into the bar before beginning to unzip his overcoat. She saw a flash of lightning blue beneath- Shit!-  and jumped up to slam a hand over his, jerking the privacy curtain across their booth.

Glaring at the now-definitely-a-fool, Rayla lowered her voice to a hiss, leaning over the small table. “Seriously?! Do not let people see that uniform. Keep the coat on.” They’d been tipped off that he was corpo, but not from the damn Arcanum Conglomerate

Her mind raced. Was she dead for this? Screwed, at least. There was a window in the washroom she could slip through... And her hand still pinned his. Rayla snatched it back as if burned. The contact only seemed surprised, though, not offended, and nodded at her warning. She lowered back into her seat.

He reached into his coat and she tensed- not deep enough for a holster -then withdrew a small chipcard and offered it. Perhaps taking her queue, he lowered his voice. “Hello, Rayla. I’m Callum.”

She frowned, but accepted the offering and twitched it on. Job docket? No, it was his business card . The projection included a small corporate photo, his full name, title, and professional contact address. Practical applications developer, huh? Vague enough to mean anything. She pulled the info into her dex.

So he was corpo, but not an agent- an employee? An actual engineer or scientist was out here, in lower ‘landia? He must be truly desperate. 

“Never done this before, have you Callum?”

The man blinked. “Uh, no. Is it that obvious?”

Hoo boy, this was going to be grand. She half-turned away from him, re-establishing her cuff’s connection. “Grove, come in. Contact is in season.” No answer. “Grove? Hello?” She reached into her hood to tap the cuff around her ear, but got nothing, not even the static of the old tech signal.

“Um.”

Rayla shot an annoyed glance at Callum, who continued.

“Your comms are fine. It’s me. Short-range jammer.”

Okay, so he wasn’t entirely in season- a clever enough target to make it this far, anyways. She waved a hand, dismissing her insults.

“Alright, I take it back. Let’s talk. What does a big-shot like you need from us?”

“Take what ba-”

“Just give us the details. What’s the pay, where is it, what’ve we got in the way, and- what?”

She’d gotten distracted by the expression on his face: A little perplexed, but a smirk was beginning to edge in as well. She didn’t like it.

“You’ve never done this before either, have you Rayla?”

Her face grew hot. Just a bit. “ Fine . We’re even. So go’on. Tell it.”

“I’m not here for your... services, I’m here to make things right.”

Suddenly uncertain, and unconsciously leaning forward, she nodded him along. This was supposed to be a job, not, well, whatever it was about to be. ‘Make things right ? Who talked like that?

“I want to return the prince.”

Rayla stared. Then reached under her jacket.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was pretty clear that she hated him.

Called him ‘corpo,’ sneered at his attempts to be nice, and haughtily called out his inexperience- hypocritically.

The knife was forgivable. He really shouldn’t have led with that.

But if nothing else, Callum was determined to fix this. And Ezran had vouched for the Moonshadow gang in general, but Rayla in particular.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She listened to his sharp steps on the sidewalk behind her. Hands stuffed into her jacket’s pockets, she was leading Callum to the nearest Moonshadow safehouse in the industrial sector the meeting bar targeted.

“I really appreciate you not killing me.”

“Trust me, that took more restraint than I knew I had. How did you even get out here?”

“Huh? I walked.”

Rayla shook her head in disbelief. Callum was clearly insane.

“Look, I haven’t been in X4D1A for very-”

“Xadia.”

“What?”

“Call it Xadia. No one who actually lives here uses the city code. It’s spelled the same, anyway.”

“What? That… ah.”

She rolled her eyes as they neared the safehouse. What a square. “Yeah, ‘ah.’ We’re here, just hold on a sec.” The nondescript warehouse looked like any other they’d already passed.

Leaving him by the seamless door panel, Rayla ducked into the nearby scanner- a wide tube that angled out and down from the wall, completely enclosing her from the shoulders up. She flipped down her hood and closed her eyes as the familiar tingling washed across her head and face.

Zubeia’s smooth, automated voice announced recognition. “Welcome back, Rayla.”

Callum, peering through the now opened door, visibly flinched and stepped back when she ducked out of the device. Right. He’d not seen her, completely, and the scan probably didn’t help.

“You- your-”

A lumberfoot and a tied tongue. Perfect.

“Yeah? My what? Hair? Eyes? Tats? I’ve got ‘em, big deal.”

He swallowed, but the distress was quickly fading into a generally astonished look. His voice was soft. “Yeah. All of that.”

The scan always touched the gang’s affiliate marks just enough to activate them for a bit- her hair faintly glowed its deep, electric violet while a pair of curved ‘fang’ markings shimmered a darker shade beneath her eyes, previously invisible to unfiltered vision.

Her eyes were always an exotic light lavender, but she’d heard over and over that they stood out particularly well when the gang marks flared. She wasn’t a candidate for ocular mods, anyways.

“Yeah, you really haven’t been around much- this is nothing. Wait until you see one of the bigshot Earthbloods.”

His shadow’s trembling was more obvious than his body’s, and she snorted. “On second thought, you’d better not if you find me that intimidating.”

Callum switched from wide-eyed staring to a rapid blink as he dropped back into reality from… wherever , and he quickly flushed a dark red. “I’m not- you don’t-”

Shaking her head, Rayla waved him inside towards a small table.

“Whatever, corpo, now you know I’m with the Moonshadow, so let’s talk.”

The room was little more than a garage. Stale air, speeder hidden beneath its heavily-laden dust sheet. Crates and boxes of maybe-useful junk stacked across the far wall.

And a small armory behind a camo panel, but he didn’t need to know about that.

Rayla locked the door and dropped the bar- no one else in the gang should be out here. Turning, she found Callum had ditched the coat. His clean, straight-edged corporate vest was a stark contrast to the messy disorganization of everything around him. It somehow looked good, for the first time in Rayla’s life.

“Show me.”

Now he was hesitant, maybe nervous without the safety net of a public space. “Sure. Just one second.” The young man tugged back a sleeve, exposing a slim multitool- Rayla couldn’t help calculating the price it’d fetch on market- and he fired a faint, bright blue pulse through the room. 

A single point of red light glimmered from near the door, and as it faded Rayla could see he’d marked Zubeia’s interface.

“It’s just our AI’s comms, not some recorder or open line.”

Callum pursed his lips but nodded.

They both looked across the room to the camo panel, a wall of hazy red in the dark.

Rayla shrugged. “Storage.”

For once her contact didn’t seem surprised, only skeptical, and moved on. “Okay- the lab I work in has three techs, including myself. Two weeks ago our super moved  some of his equipment in with us and we have a new intake policy that I handle- well, long story short, I found him.”

“How’re you so sure?”

His eyebrows rose. “Really? You know many true AI named Zym?”

Rayla felt her nostrils flair and fists clench under the table. “You’ll call him Azymondias.” Then the implication of his words sunk in. “Wait, you didn’t-” 

Callum waved open hands in denial. “No, no! He’s still inactive. My brother talked to him, that’s all.”

“Your brother.”

He looked a bit thrown. “Yeah? The one who ‘hired’ you? He’s been in X4- uh, Xadia for a while now. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of The Zookeeper?”

Silence grew between them. Callum only looked more confused until Rayla huffed a sigh. “Remind me to never tell you any secrets.”

Callum stilled, and his eyes gently shut. “Dammit.” They snapped open, and he pressed his hands together in desperate supplication, leaning forward, voice rushed. “Rayla, please , that’s my baby brother, you can’t-”

She scoffed and looked away from the pathetic display. “Don’t worry, I respect what he’s been doing. Good work. Not whatever you’re likely working on every day.” Rayla side-eyed his reaction.

The relief that washed palpably over his body was almost amusing, and he didn’t even address the barb. “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much… he picked you, specifically, so I know I can trust you. A little, anyways.”

Now that was uncomfortable. She curled a strand of no-longer-glowing purple hair around a finger. How long had they kept tabs on her? Why? Was he still? 

No time for that, now.

“That aside, tell me everything.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Callum had to admit he was a little... curious. Rayla was, well, spikey. Sharp. Aggressive. But in a good way. Exciting, maybe? No one spoke to him so flippantly, except Ez- but that was different. It was nice. Refreshing. The curious twisty accent perked his ears whenever she spoke. He could get used to her company.

And, luckily, it seemed she didn’t hate him.

So he was more than a little pleased when she insisted on ‘escorting’ him until Zym was home, even if she seemed put out by the prospect herself. The techie was a relative loner in the city, but around her felt none of the usual anxiety that was the lifelong partner of insistent social interactions- up until now, anyways.

The way her face betrayed emotions during his full story was, well, charming- he may have embellished here and there just to draw out a stronger reaction...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Nice place.” Rayla frowned. Too nice. Too clean. The deposit alone was probably more than her last year’s cuts combined. She halted just inside the door, painfully aware of the dust and grime spattering her skin and clothes.

“Thanks? Make yourself at home. Drinks in the fridge.” Callum brushed past her, waving towards the appliance, and entered his closet. Entered his closet. This was crazy. Did everyone in the towers live this way?

Curious what a corpo stocked, she snorted at the multipack of stupid triangle tarts, but… He had real moonberry wine. The stuff was getting so expensive even a fiend like Rayla was put off from more than the rare celebratory cup. Her mouth watered, but she shut the fridge door. Maybe with a little more force than necessary.

The workbench that spanned most of a wall’s length was covered by projects in various stages of development- tools and parts scattered in a sort of methodical chaos. Blueprints and diagrams glowed on the wall itself. An odd shelving unit stood in the corner, loaded with paper books . More old hardcovers than she’d seen in her life, and only a scattering of the usual quickprints.

But what stuck out most was the strange, slanted desk under his window. From the floor, a roll of wide paper was partially unraveled up over the odd furniture. It depicted a sketch of the city skylines and buildings in a dark chalky color. Remarkably accurate, as she glanced between the view and art. But something was off...

Edging closer to the drawing, she called over her shoulder. “Are you an architect or somethin’?”

Callum stepped back into the main room, wearing significantly less. Barefooted, even.

“What? Oh, that. No, it’s just a hobby. To de-stress.” He noticed her roaming eyes, blushed brightly, and awkwardly shuffled away for more clothing.

“Take it you don’t get many visitors?”

“Er. No. Just you, now.” Odd. Wasn’t his brother around? And stupid to admit. Unsafe. Naive.

She inspected the books, hands behind her back respectfully.

When Callum rejoined her, dressed normally, he smiled at her curiosity. “Oh, feel free, if you want to read. Just don’t mess with my work, if you can help it.” He tossed his head towards the long bench.

The difference in cleanliness between them was beginning to agitate her. “Mind if I wash up?”

He blinked, then practically startled. “Yeah, sure, go ahead. Uh, let me get you a towel, at least.” Leading her to the bathroom, he squatted to dig through the undersink cabinet.

Rayla leaned against the doorway and watched his vulnerable back. Naivety just about poured off everything he did, but it was a bit endearing, in a strange way. A towel, though?

Callum stood, offering her a perfectly folded green, fluffy cloth, with a smaller version atop, and a few small bottles crowning the pile. She frowned.

“What’s this, then?”

He looked a bit taken aback, then concerned, and pointed to each bottle. “Uh, soap, shampoo, and conditioner?”

She typically washed with a cheap combined detergent, so this would be interesting. “I can read, thank you- this. ” Pinching the fluff in her hand, she marvelled at its softness. “Oh that is nice.”

“That’s the towel. To dry off? How do you, usually?”

Rayla raised an eyebrow. Any towels she’d known were just big rags- rough and stringy. “Hot air. Or a rag.”

The gap between their worlds couldn’t be wider.

When he just blinked a few times, mouth working soundlessly, she moved them along. “Alright, thanks.” Taking the bundle and dropping it on the counter, she stood aside for him to exit, then shut the door.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Callum heard the water start and felt himself blush. The brazen way Rayla had looked at him was a little unnerving. On the packed streets of any major city, privacy didn’t exactly exist, and stares were nothing special- but in his own room, admittedly in a state of relative undress, it was almost… exhilarating? 

That couldn’t be the right word.

The blush faded as his mind continued the replay of the last few minutes- she’d been confused by the towel. How rough was she living? How did you dry with ‘hot air’? When she’d given that answer, he imagined a massive turbine that would do the trick quickly enough, sending her purple locks blowing back before settling over rather defined, muscular shoulders-

Oh. Oh.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Did we really need to come all the way out here?”

“Listen, Callum- your brother gave you a reason to trust me, but I never really got a reason to trust you. So yeah, you had to come. Don’t pretend like this isn’t the best bowl you’ve ever had.

They were slurping noodles at her favorite dingy walk-up, waiting for Lujanne, but she hadn’t shared that. And he did seem to be enjoying the food, even if he was clumsy with the chopsticks. Still, his mannerisms and expressions were a dead give-away that he didn’t belong.

“And like I told you- we aren’t living the high life, but we have a reputation for this kind of thing.” She savored another mouthful before continuing. “I do the work, but I don’t make the tools.”

“So we’re here for tools.”

Rayla silently berated herself- she’d decided to keep him in the dark about anything Moonshadow and so far she’d only screwed up a half-dozen times. And counting, apparently. She just unconsciously spilled around him, and it was unnerving.

“We are. Now shut up and eat.” She glared at the obvious picker across the bar- he’d found an easy mark, but Callum was her mark, for now. The deep, irregular scarring across his face was the average sign of lousy modwork. When the gaunt man sneered back she tugged her hood to expose a bit of hair and flashed her marks brightly enough to reflect on the metal surfaces between them.

He dropped his sticks and ran.

What a hack.

Rayla felt Lujanne before seeing her- their netrunner was the closest the Moonshadow gang had to a true engineer, but she was good at their specialty. Almost too good. The familiar sensation of probes at the edge of her link field was all the tip she needed. 

Lifting in her seat a bit, Rayla tilted her face up. Lujanne’s typical greeting was a peck on the cheek, and she felt it now before the woman materialized in front of her, laughing at Rayla’s astonished expression.

“Good, isn’t it? Scorching new tech- not on the market yet, of course. I’ve been here for five minutes! So this is him?”

Rayla leaned back to let the two greet each other.

“Uh, hello? I’m Ca-”

A hand clapped over his mouth, and Rayla raised both eyebrows, asking a silent ‘ really?’ before turning back to her elder, not removing the hand. “Sorry about that, he’s… green.”

Lujanne’s head tilted as she inspected the young man. “Oh yes, I see those beautiful greens- are you single, dear? I know some lovely ladies who-” Rayla’s other hand came up, and she groaned.

“Thank you, auntie , but can we make this quick? I really don’t want him public if we can help it.”

She dropped both hands, and Lujanne huffed indignantly. “I was just trying to help. Here. You still have the rig, right?”

Rayla nodded, accepting the innocuous chip shard. “Tested not three days ago- with this we’re all set. And he doesn’t need your help, he’s got me.”

Her technically-superior’s eyes rolled. “I was trying to help you- he’s cute .

Rayla rolled her eyes right back, their usual exchange. 

But he was, wasn’t he?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She led him by the hand, not trusting Callum even for a moment to keep up without getting distracted.

“Rayla can we slow down? I’ve never been through here and-”

His grip tightened and he sped up a couple steps. Rayla turned to see what shut him up aaaand yep, one of the hundred nameless skin-bars in this sector alone. 

A high-rolling corporate tech, virtuous or foolish enough to try and return Zym, brave or Foolish enough to walk to a meeting with the Moonshadow gang alone, confident or FOOLISH enough to follow her into the worst block in the sec… and a little nudity, even the free kind, had him blushing like a virgin?

Hells, he might be, if his reactions to her open interest were any indicator.

But he was a fool, no matter what else he was. Callum had proven that countless times in the last few days.

“Just keep walking, I want you off the street. You saw how burnt my speeder was back there.” She’d neglected it enough, apparently, but couldn’t afford real repairs, and the gang’s junk stores were picked clean.

“Oh, yeah, I was telling you we can get it back on the road with a new reciprocating-”

“Callum, I don’t know how you can’t already understand that I’m not a ‘new’ anything kind of girl. Even the tech we just picked up is kitbashed, not clean. It’s just not in the cards, or the chips, however you corpos gamble.”

“Well… I could always, I dunno, pick something up for you? As thanks for helping me.”

It was Rayla’s turn to tighten her grip as they turned down a dark foot-traffic path between buildings.

“Don’t you dare. You’re the one helping us, not the other way around. I don’t want any of your dirty money anyways.”

“It’s not dirty. You don’t even know what I-”

Callum walked right into Rayla and stumbled sideways, releasing her hand.. “What-”

Then he looked ahead, and saw the three people blocking their path. Rayla slowly took down her hood, hair and markings coming to life. Looking over his shoulder, Callum swallowed heavily and murmured “two behind.” She risked a quick glance.

All five were heavily implanted- eyes replaced by high-spec optics that glowed a dull red in the relative darkness. The mods adjusted and twitched visibly, like the antenna of crickets at cheap snack carts. Weapons were openly visible. One of the forward three spoke in a deep, modulated voice, inflected with nothing good.

“Scram, Moonshadow. He’s not worth your hide.”

Rayla responded with her usual snark, nudging Callum towards the nearby side alleyway.

“Oh? But he’s worth all five of yours?”

The speaker crossed his heavily-modded pistol over his free hand- a direct threat.

“Any corpo mods and tech he’s got are, yeah. Even better if he’s somebody special. Can’t pass on a treat like that around here. Now beat it.

Not taking her eyes off the group, Rayla spoke in a low voice to their intended target. “Callum. Turn on your jammer. Now.”

Then she inhaled sharply, activating the one piece of tech her body ever accepted, and time slowed, if only for a second . Letting her training take over, Rayla did three things at once.

She shoved Callum heavily into the alley, since he couldn’t take a hint, and reached up her back for Ethari’s new bullpup, which unfolded along her forearm as she drew it. 

With her body busy, Rayla slipped through netspace and tore at the implants of those in front. One flickered out, their weapon falling from fingers that reached for their lenses, mouth opened in a scream. Another was rapidly blinking and merely rocked back, but held onto their firearm.

The talker seemed unaffected, and was already taking aim when time resumed- she felt a hit in her calf as she rolled into the alley behind Callum, opening fire on their attackers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Extending benefits to a third party will incur premium surcharges on your-”

“Fine! Okay! I agree! I accept! Just send them NOW!”

“Understood. Emergency evac will arrive within… one hundred and twenty seconds. Thank you for choosing Medistat. Goodbye.”

The line went dead. How could they be so damn stoic? He adjusted Rayla’s little rifle against his shoulder, sighting the far end of the alleyway, and prayed it didn’t fold back up on itself the way she’d unfurled it from beneath her jacket. Callum had never been much of a marksman, but he’d be dead himself before he let anyone harm Rayla again.

“Call’m.” Rayla’s weak rasp drew his eyes down.

He couldn’t look at the blood, even while keeping pressure on the wounds, so he focused on her eyes. Those beautiful eyes, spilling tears and slipping in and out of focus. “Stop talking, Rayla. Help is coming. You got them all- you saved us!”

“F’rget me. Get Zym. Take.” A hand feebly lifted, and he lowered the weapon to take it. She moved her thumb and pressed a shard between them. “ ‘M already dead. Runaan. Talk t’Runaan.”

His own vision blurred now, and he denied her before shakily making demands. “No! No, Rayla. Ez told me to go to you not to Runaan- if you die here Zym doesn’t come home, do you hear me ? LIVE, RAYLA!” he couldn’t tell which of their gripped hands was shaking.

A spotlight flared over the metal panelling that blocked their exit from the alley, and a moment later an automated “STAND CLEAR” called over the wall. Callum threw his coat around them both, huddling over his injured partner. 

A pair of red-hot blades punctured the blockage and quickly cut a large circle, allowing a small flood of armed Medistat agents into the alley. The first few walked by them to secure the area.

The live reports to their command were too loud in his ears. “Target identified. Member CX67429 confirmed.” One agent knelt next to the pair. Unable to see their face through the helmet, it was clear he was being addressed. “Third party?”

Callum lifted the cloak, and they hesitated, looking between them. “Gang member?”

That was enough. “I’m not paying to be questioned. Help. Her. ” 

And then it was all business. The stretcher unfolded and slid beneath Rayla, lifting her into the air. Two agents began administering medication and treating the wounds directly even as they moved through the hole and back to their air transport.

Someone gently took Callum by the elbow and steered him into the hold, where he collapsed into a seat, carefully hugging Rayla’s strange rifle to his chest, lucid enough to keep it pointed away. They lifted off, and he blacked out.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She woke slowly, everywhere aching and stiff, but her eyelids were so heavy…

Muttered voices at the edge of her hearing.

“Who doesn’t have a line these days? Kid must be dirt-poor and damn lucky we have all the old tech, too.”

“Or in a family of burners. Gotta be lucky, though, to have a sponsor.”

One of the speakers sighed. “True enough- let’s go.”

Footsteps faded away, and Rayla forced her eyes open. Blurry. Her limbs wouldn’t respond, so she looked down at where her right hand should be, willing it up.

A mass of wires and tubing came into focus, and she clamped down on rising panic. Be still. Observe. Her pulse only picked up for two beats, chirped over a monitor.

They had her on a drip. Nothing too dramatic with the wiring, just cleaner versions of old medical tech she recognized. And some she didn’t.

Her vision swam in a vaguely familiar way. They’d put her on the good stuff- she’d been shot once before, and the guilt of the gang’s expenditure to keep her alive still weighed on her every day. This time... 

Callum. She’d given him the shard, but he’d called in some high-grade medical corp. Rayla agonizingly turned her head and saw no one else in the small room.

Ugh. Indebted to a corpo. This was misery, whether he was cute or not. She resigned herself to rest, while she could.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Rayla, just stop! It’s already done. There’s nothing to repay.”

“Like hell there isn’t! Just tell me how much it was and I’ll get it back to you.”

Callum sized her up. Rayla was definitely angry for the first time he’d seen for longer than a flash- shoulders hunched, arms folded high and tight against her chest. And yeah, maybe her glare was upset sharp instead of the usual playful sharp.

“Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? I was already paying for it anyway, so I was just getting my money’s worth.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Don’t try that shit with me, Callum. I heard them say it would cost you. I may have been, well,” she threw her hands up, “ dying, but I wasn’t deaf. And don’t try that ‘life for a life’ garbage, either. I kept you alive because you’re the only path to Zym. You could’ve talked to any other Moonshadow to help you.”

Cut off from his next attempt to placate her, Callum brought a not-really-calming hand to his forehead. It annoyed him that she ignored his threat to leave Zym if she died. “Fine. Fine. I can see this matters to you way more than it should.”

Rayla looked about to argue over the jab, but gave an aggressive nod and gestured for him to continue.

“It cost me whatever it would cost to hire you for a heist. Out of the Arcanum Conglomerate’s Xadia branch. I can get you some access, but you’ll have to-”

“CALLUM! That was already the plan, you can’t just-”

“What, change my mind?! I lied when I said I wasn’t interested in your ‘ services ’ that day we met. I am!” He let sarcasm creep into his voice, to give her a taste of her own. “So let me hire you. I’ll even throw in bonus coverage from Medistat- I really need this job done, if you would be so kind.”

Rayla’s eyes widened, and her stance loosened. “Medistat? Callum, that must have cost a small fortune .. .”

Dammit Rayla! I don’t care what it cost- it’s my money to spend! Can’t you just- why won’t you let me take care of you?”

Something flickered in her eyes, and he felt a bit of hope that this was over, but those were the wrong words. She locked up just as hard as before.

“I don’t need someone to take care of me , alright? That was my choice. So just tell me the damage already.”

The vivid memory of her weakly gripping his hand, life pooling on the rough ground beneath them, made Callum bite back his retort. He turned to the fridge and grabbed the bottle of good wine, then a pair of glasses from the rack above. He spoke while pouring.

“Listen. I…” He sighed. “I’m kind of useless. I can’t do the things you can, the wall-running with perfect aim and the twisty moves in the air. Sure, I’m a techie. I’m quick with devices, clever with code, but it’s all just corporate bullshit. It pays well- pays great! But I’m not free the way you are- I’m just a cog in the machine. ” That wasn’t entirely true, and she knew it, but he hoped the point got across.

Callum turned and offered Rayla a glass. Her eyes still glared, and dropped from his only to glance at the bottle, but she’d cooled off enough to accept the wine without snatching.

“So will you just let me do the things I can ? I’m not… I’m not trying to flash my creds around to impress you or something, you were hurt and I-” he couldn’t finish the sentence.

Rayla simply watched him over her wine, taking a tiny sip only when he did. The stuff was tart , not unlike the woman herself. He enjoyed both immensely. Even now. He finally mustered up an explanation that was both the truth and sounded like it might convince her.

“I really didn’t-and don’t-want you to die, okay? You mean more to me than credits. That’s all there is to it.”

She didn’t respond, swirling the glass under her nose. They just watched each other for a while, sipping wine and considering their options. 

Glass empty, Callum decided he’d said his piece and was too tired to wait for her to plot out how this was going to go. “Okay, I’m beat. Going to bed. Feel free to finish the wine off, or whatever.” He waved a hand dismissively and walked to the closet, pulling his shirt up and off to make way for something clean.

The bed, set into the opposite wall, looked particularly inviting. Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, Callum collapsed into its perfect softness. He’d been sleeping against the wall in case Rayla wanted a spot next to him, and he did offer, but she’d slept second and risen first every day, so he never knew how or where she rested. Tonight he sprawled across the entire mattress, face pressed into the crevice between both pillows.

He let Rayla’s general domestic noises lull him to sleep. Soft footsteps, the fridge door, liquid pouring-she must like the wine, more footsteps, books sliding on their shelves, pages turning...

Just as he was drifting away, a sharp nudge prodded him in the hip.

“Scoot over. I’m sleepin’ here tonight.”

Callum didn’t bother to look up, just wriggled over and turned on his side towards the wall. The mattress shifted under her weight, and again as she settled in. An unexpected hand draped loosely over his waist. When he didn’t react she drew closer, sliding the hand up his chest until her arm rested around him snugly, her chest lightly brushing his back.

Her voice puffed air across his bare neck, and he fought to keep his blushing response down. “I always thought… always saw that corporates were obsessed with their money. Held the smallest things against people. Kept tabs on the tiniest debt. I already knew you weren’t the average corporate, but I just-” she sighed. “It’s an instinct. A bad one, and I let it take over. So thank you. For saving my life.”

It wasn’t exactly an apology, but he didn’t really expect one. Or need one, for that matter. As long as they understood each other, that was all he really wanted.

Rayla started to withdraw, but Callum’s hand covered hers. He threaded his fingers between hers, pinning their hands against his chest where she’d left it to talk. His thumb brushed over hers, lightly.

“You’re welcome, Rayla. Always. And thank you for saving mine .” He relaxed his grip but didn’t move, and her hesitance was palpable in her tense arm, her unbalanced bodyweight caught between positions.

Disappointment twinged in his gut as she carefully withdrew her hand, but was chased away by warmth when she replaced it over his own.

Rayla settled down against him, and neither spoke again that night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“So what exactly are you, anyways?”

Rayla chewed, giving him a bewildered look. They were sitting on the long couch in Callum’s apartment, laying low for the rest of the weekend, cartons of delivered food open on the table. He heaped some rice and broccoli into his bowl.

“I saw what you did. To the uh… scavengers, that night. You use old tech- older than the rest of your gang uses, I’d wager. Your eyes- well, you aren’t modded.”

Callum inspected her face-eyes, cheeks, jaw, ears-where the most common mods were physically evident. A rare self-conscious heat warmed her, but she powered through and maintained eye contact while finishing her mouthful.

“I’m modded- you just can’t tell.”

He let his head loll back for a moment in exasperation. “Ray-la you know what I mean! You haven’t got a line for crying out loud!”

Instinctively hiding the strikingly bare insides of her wrists, Rayla turned back to the food. It was her closest-kept secret, but, well… if anyone outside the gang could know it was Callum. Still, she braced herself and side-eyed him for a bad reaction.

“I’m a psycher.”

Callum blinked. “A what?”

“A psycher. A technopath. A…” she waved her fork aimlessly “an ‘anomaly,’ I’ve been told.” She tried to dig up a particularly large mouthful.

“Oh.” He just stared at her, food forgotten, then leaned forward. “Rayla.” His voice lowered, and she prepared for the worst. “Can you read minds?

She paused, fork mid-scoop, then burst into a fit of laughter that sent her bowl tumbling to the table and rice across the room. Rayla howled with abandon, keeling over on the sofa, struggling to hold her aching sides and wipe away tears at the same time. Medistat had done a good job, if this was pain-free. “ Read minds, he says!” she managed to gasp a full breath, renewing her amusement for another round.

Eventually catching her breath, she finally checked him for a reaction and found Callum looking rather pleased with himself. Taking another bite through a wide grin, his eyes were full of nothing but warmth. No fear, no calculations, no greed. The mess she’d made of her food didn’t even seem to register.

“I’ve had that joke up my sleeve just waiting for the right time- never really came up until now! Technopath, telepath? Same difference, right?”

Telepathy? What a bunch of rubbish. Rayla sighed away the last of her laughter and reclaimed her near-empty bowl. “It… doesn’t bother you at all?”

Callum raised an eyebrow. “Should it? I mean I can be bothered, if you want…” he started leaning back, eyes widening in mock-horror.

Her eyes rolled away. “No thanks, I’ve had plenty of that up to this point. I’ll take the dumb jokes and endless curiosity, please.” But he didn’t seem all that curious, and that was strange.

The sentiment must have shown on her face, as he took one look and answered the unasked question. “Oh, I thought you knew. Ezran is, too. Sort of. He can only really uh, talk to things designed to communicate, though. Like Zym. If you’re a technopath, then he’s a… cyberpath?” He shrugged. “So what you can do must be entirely different, I guess.” And that shift in tone sounded more like him.

There was the glimmer in his eyes. Something to tease.

“No experiments.”

“I wasn-”

“And no tests!”

Then he caught on, smiling back. “But without tests” he said, sliding closer to grab one of the condiments, “how am I supposed to know how well you handle... heat ?”

His fingers closed around her wrist, and Rayla shrieked, grabbing at the hand liberally pouring pepper sauce onto her food. “Stop! Stop, you spice monster!” Laughter weakened her grip, and he thoroughly ruined what was left in her bowl. “Nooo” she groaned in half-faked despair. “You could’ve asked!

Callum smirked, dumping his unsauced bowl into hers and exchanging them to leave her safe from peppery doom. “There, better? Who knew a back-flipping, tech-talking, tough street ganger could be such a baby?”

She softened her retort, pleased by his casual show of closeness. “Aw, see? I do let you take care of me.”

The startled expression her swerve earned was worth the small vulnerability.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You’ll be able to feel me, but unless I want it, not see, hear, smell, or… well, I’ve no idea if you could taste me or not.”

Callum blushed. He really was too easy, too open. But it was still cute, in that ‘clueless pet’ way.

“I’m going to be with you the whole time- don’t do anything you wouldn’t normally do. Just go to work, do your thing, and maybe find a reason to walk over and look at Zym. I’ll handle it from there. This look right to you?”

Her datacard displayed a rather meticulous schedule, from arrival and departure to meal, bathroom, and mental breaks. He compared it to his own, blush fading, and nodded. “Yeah. If we have to make any changes, well… just stick with me and I’ll do what I can, I guess?”

Rayla nodded, then knelt by her pack and withdrew a bulky, roughly-used case. She felt Callum watching curiously, and ignored him while throwing the latches and lifting the lid.

“Woah… wait are you serious? Rayla that has to be a hundred years o-”

“I know . But it’s the only thing that works. For me.” She muttered the last under her breath.

An old dive kit, heavily modded and repurposed for Rayla’s… unique properties. The admittedly-bulky headgear featured a dozen lenses, and the matched gloves tactile feedbacks- the old style, with soul… or at least that’s what Ethari told her. They looked a bit claw-like, hard ribbing standing up over each finger and pointing over their tips.

She slotted the camo shard and settled the kit on her head and hands, hinging the interface up for one last pep talk while it booted.

“Don’t worry about me eating, drinking or anything, I’m covered. Just- be normal. Please.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly, but softened the words with a gentle claw-glove on his arm.

Then she dropped the plate and watched Callum’s eyes widen through her interface. She knew it had a… sinister appearance, points of red-purple light in each lense. He seemed to look at each individually, eyes darting around as he stepped back to see the whole kit together. 

Coupled with the now-active slipsuit that hugged her from neck to toe, its runners matching the neon purple of her hair, Rayla knew she looked the part.

She posed a bit, one hand on a hip.

“How do I look?”

“Uh. Scary? But… sleek.”

“Like it?”

That damn blush was creeping up his neck again. 

“Yeah?” He shrug-nodded.

“Turn you on?”

And now it was all the way to his hairline.

“What?”

Rayla gave him her best smirk, then switched on the camo and faded from sight completely.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Callum boarded the transport that would take him to the lab- pretending to slip and buy Rayla time, just in case. 

Okay. So what if it wasn’t feigned?

He nodded to an exec whose name he still hadn’t learned and threw himself into the usual spot, head resting back as he braced against the vertigo feeling of flight. Searching for a distraction, his mind went to an awfully strong one.

Her eyes! The intense way they melted or grew cold over the course of their talks made him wish more than anything to feel as she felt- so strongly, freely, unhindered. The hook of attachment that had snagged into his gut burrowed deeper- he didn’t want to ever look away from Rayla.

Callum thought back to the stories their father used to tell- mages and magic in a time long before netrunners and tech. It was said that one could become ‘bewitched’- obsessed with a mage who enchanted them.

That seemed like the right word. Enchanted .

The lift touched down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With just the two of them alone on the transport back, Rayla couldn’t restrain herself any longer. “That was incredibly stupid, you know.”

Despite her hot breath in his ear, he stayed cool and nodded to the empty air. Keeping the cover was smart- while initially disappointed that he didn’t blush, she realized he was clenching his fists rather tightly and swaying a bit strangely.

...was he seriously airsick?

Rayla had to look away to keep from laughing. Airsick? How old was he, ten? Well. That’s why he walked everywhere, at least.

Fortunately, they landed rather quickly, and he practically fell from the vehicle, doubled over and gasping towards the solid ground.

She placed a tentative hand on his back, unwilling to drop the camo just yet. “You okay?” A thumbs-up was all she needed to switch from worried to impatient, taking the thumb and tugging him along towards the apartment. 

Only when the door was shut behind them did she disengage the tech, powering off and removing her rig. She dropped it and the gloves back into their case sloppily, ran both hands through her hair with a deep sigh, and turned to Callum.

He’d been watching her, and didn’t look away now, but where she expected to find happiness, elation, a smile at least was only a resigned, distant look. And well, there was a smile, but it was the small and sad kind, not the goofy one that brightened Callum’s face with joy or excitement.

“What’s wrong?” Rayla tried for smooth but couldn’t keep the hint of worry out of her voice.

There was a real smile. Still small, but the good kind, at least. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Here.” Callum offered over Zym’s drive- a cobalt-colored shell that would shine with a brighter blue and spattered rainbow when returned home. Rather bulky for tech, these days, but a truly cognizant AI was no joke.

When she took the drive in-hand, Callum didn’t let go. He didn’t pull back, just held on. 

“I…”

“Yeah?” Rayla stepped closer, so Zym hung loosely between them, not a point of tension.

“I don’t want this to end.”

She cocked her head to one side, searching his face, which twisted in annoyance. At himself, as he tried to clarify. “That’s not what-”

“I know what you meant, you fool, but you’re wrong.”

He looked up, eyebrows rising. “I am?”

Rayla brought her free hand to the arm hanging at his side, lightly touching his elbow-

“It doesn’t have to end…”

- tracing up, over his shoulder, slowing as her fingertips slid into his hair.

“...if you don’t want it to.”

Callum shivered under her touch, expression melting into restrained longing.

“How can you say that? You’re with the Moonshadow and I’m… where I am.”

Come with me - the words burned at the back of her mouth. She knew he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. He needed to be where he was, on the inside, for Ezran. For his work.

Rayla compromised. “Just for tonight, then. Come away with me. Return him. At least see what you’ve done here.”

“That isn’t what-” he huffed a sigh, but smiled. “Okay. I’ll go.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The industrial elevator ground to a halt, and two guards outside unlocked the safety grate to allow them entrance. Callum followed Rayla through the blue curtain of scanning light, and a smooth, automated, matriarchal voice echoed around them. “Welcome home, Rayla, and ~guest~.”

Rayla turned to explain, and again her hair and facial marks were lit- apparently the scan did something special there. “Zubeia. The queen. Our wideband monitor.”

They continued through the concrete tunneling, passing various doors that ranged between possible domiciles and armory-level gates. “So Zym’s mother? If he’s the prince.”

She snorted, but shrugged. “That’s one way of putting it. Our last Overlord cycled out earlier than expected, and Zym was- is his successor.”

Callum nodded- the limited lifespan of cognitive programs was a well-known issue. Entire infrastructures were built around powerful AI, and their expected ‘durations’ were accounted for meticulously. There was always a next phase, or a restructuring, or in the Moonshadow’s case, a succession.

They rounded a corner and the space opened up into a veritable hangar’s size- the ceiling rose from within hand’s reach to cavernous darkness out of sight, and the walls were too obscured by various ramshackle structures and overgrown tech farms for him to make out. The sheer variety of projects and chaotic disorganization of the place was overwhelming.

Relative silence fell as nearby onlookers slowed or stopped their work to stare. “Come on.” Rayla tugged at his arm, a knowing smirk on her face. “If you make a good first impression, maybe they’ll let you play afterwards.”

Callum failed to choke down a laugh and allowed himself to be steered around a gunsmith’s workbenches and into a building made of old metal-sided shipping containers, welded together.  Like something out of a history book- the containers were impossible to find in one piece these days.

A small group turned as the two stepped into the purplish blacklight, all faintly tattooed and dyed like Rayla, though in various colors. One particularly tall man separated himself, walking to the side of a small table, and gestured for them to approach.

The already-heavy case seemed to suddenly double its weight, but Callum raised his chin and stepped forward. He lifted Zym’s vessel onto the surface between them and nodded to who he assumed was Runaan- the leader of Rayla’s team within the gang. The older man merely arched an eyebrow. Rayla nudged Callum in the side, and he moved to show them what he’d brought.

Seeing the group tense as he unlatched the corporate-grade case, Callum slowly and deliberately lifted the lid, then rotated the container towards them all. He watched Runaan’s eyes widen and expression soften into shocked reverence before going steely again as he refocused on Callum. The group behind him exchanged glances and hushed whispers, gesturing excitedly to each other.

And now he returned the nod, slowly. His eyes hadn’t abandoned suspicion completely, but held a fresh measure of respect. That was it, then. Runaan closed the case and secured the clasps, but Rayla’s hand shot out and stopped him from dragging it off the table.

“Wait! We should let him see.”

Runaan’s bewildered face mirrored similar expressions behind him. His voice rang in the metal room. “Have you gone mad? He’s, well-”

Rayla slapped the top of the case. “And what if he is? Without him, Zym would be lost . Doesn’t that matter to you? To any of you?”

One corner of Runaan’s mouth pulled back- so that’s where she picked up the quirk- and he glanced back at the group. “Of course it does, but it’s not that simple.” He frowned. “Give us a moment.”

Rayla led Callum back outside, and he heaved a sigh of relief. “Well, it looks like I’ll get to live, at least.”

“I wouldn’t have let them kill you.”

“Oh. Really? Because well, knowing who I am and everyth-”

“Imprison you sure, but definitely not kill you.”

“...oh.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m kidding, Callum. I only brought you because Runaan guaranteed you safe passage.” The phrase tickled his brain back to those fantastical stories his father told.

“What am I supposed to see, anyways? Zym getting plugged in?”

Now she smiled. Part mischievous, part amused, part excited.

“We’re going to take a little dive.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They stood together in the dive tube, awfully close together, and Ethari sealed the cap. Callum’s blush showed no sign of fading as she stuck a few dozen electrodes across his body.

“Is all this really necessary?”

Rayla enjoyed watching him struggle to keep his eyes off her. There was precious little clothing between them, sure, but the multitude of cabling between the divebox, her body, and Callum required a fair amount of available skin to be effective. Besides the mess they were about to experience.

“Mhmm! We’ve only got the one tube, and they don’t trust you with a direct line. Yet . You’ll have to come in with me- that’s the deal.”

Callum swayed back a little, drawing a few of the electrode wires taught between them.

“Ah, ah, ah! None of that, now. Pop one of these off and you’ll miss the show!” She slipped an arm around his waist to draw him flush against her, and his arms instinctively looped over her shoulders.

“Um. Okay.” He shifted a foot back to twist his hips away, but otherwise didn’t break the embrace.

Rayla smirked, her eyes narrowing in easy, predatory focus. The hesitation, the almost fearful look in his eyes… it felt like she’d caught up to a slippery target or tracked down a mark gone to ground. Hunting, and she’d succeeded.

And then, like a flipped switch, her lighthearted enjoyment of his too-easily-blushing face turned hungry. What did hunters do with their prey, after all? She lightly ran her tongue between her lips, then froze.

That was not supposed to be happening right now.

Ethari knocked on the tube, a dull echo, and flipped a hand between thumbs up and thumbs down.

Startled, Rayla double-checked the wiring to her body and then between herself and Callum, then gave her tech-dad a thumbs up and a wavering smile. He nodded and walked around the device.

She turned back to her dive partner. “I’ll be honest. I’m still not used to this next part so I’m probably gonna squeeze you a bit.”

A yellow-green, syrupy fluid gushed into the tank from below, and she instinctively dug nails into his skin, as promised.

Callum winced, then his expression eased, watching the liquid rise. “Oh. Well. I’ve done this a couple times, but not uh, linked through someone.”

Rayla felt her confidence returning, even as the stuff reached her hips. “Well, just take it normally and I’ll bring you in, okay?”

He smiled back, the big shining smile that she wanted, and settled against her more firmly. “Okay. I trust you.”

Her cheeks burned, and as their shoulders were overtaken she pressed her lips to his. After only a split-second of surprise he was returning the kiss, arms tightening around her. Both refused to part, even as they became fully submerged.

She forced herself to breathe in, flooding her lungs, letting her focus drift from the pleasant tingle running through her body to the beckoning electrical pulse reaching through the wires and fluid itself…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Callum woke on his feet, as if from sleep, into an impossibly bright and vibrant world. Shining green grass, spotted with… wildflowers, right, spanned across rolling hills further than any city’s limits. The view was broken by an impossibly tall, narrow mountain jutting all the way up into the cloudline high above.

Rayla appeared in his vision, stepping in from the side, already holding his (gloved?) hand. White-haired, tattoos in plain sight without glowing, and clad in some strange greenish leather-looking clothing that resembled body armor- it didn’t particularly seem like it could stop a bullet.

“Glad you could join us. Everyone else is upstairs already, so let’s go!”

He took another sweeping look around, settling briefly on her lips as his eyes ran over his link-host. “What is all this?!”

Rayla only smiled, letting his hand go to spread her arms wide and spin in place. “All this? Is Xadia.” She stopped, dropping hands to her hips and grinning at him with more than a bit of excitement.

“I thought Xadia was just what you called the city?”

“It is! The city was named after Xadia, really. Before our time, obviously. Before… well, corporates.” She flapped a hand in his direction.

“It’s… beautiful.” He knelt and was startled to feel a flower’s petals as he gently caressed one.

“I’m glad you think so. Really. But we’ve gotta get up there!” Rayla was pointing up towards the top of the mountain through the clouds.

He gawked. “Do we have to walk?

Rayla threw back her head and laughed. “No, dummy! I know it feels real, but no! Come on!”

Callum took her outstretched hand and together they shifted up towards where she pointed, his vision bleeding the not-Rayla colors across each other for a moment before settling into dark blues and greens.

They stood in a rounded cave, lit by cool blue light glowing from the walls. Stairs led up to a hallway behind him, and a larger tunnel was bored into the surface across the way. Others were present, but ignoring them. 

Everyone wore strange clothes, like Rayla’s, but in different colors and styles, with pure bleached hair in place of the wild colors they wore in life. He picked Runaan out of the crowd, a cascade of white spilling down his back. 

The large group filled the room, save for a mound of mossy green grass in the center, topped by a large glowing… egg? It shone the way Zym’s drive reflected in direct light, brighter blue spattered in a rainbow of freckles. 

“Is that…?”

“Yep! That’s Zym! Zubeia should be here soon to initialize him.”

On cue, the world shook, and the chatter silenced. An enormous, taloned claw appeared in the far tunnel, and the crowd parted before it. A reptilian snout and head framed in a white mane appeared next, suspended in the air, supported by a pillar of a neck, and Zubeia rounded the corner to step fully into the chamber.

Callum felt his jaw slacken. When he found his voice, it was barely a whisper. “That’s a dragon, isn’t it?”

Too late, he realized everyone else was bowing to the creature. Rayla responded as she straightened. “Of course. Don’t you know what class of AI Zym is?”

“Well I assumed he’s a DR4- oh.” He sighed. “Seriously?”

She clearly struggled to not laugh in his face, squeezing his hand instead. “Afraid so. Now watch.”

Zubeia came to a stop, Zym’s egg between her front claws. She… sat? On her haunches, then closed her eyes and seemed to take a deep breath. The toothy maw opened, and a sudden, blinding fork of lightning blasted down from her mouth onto the egg. Callum jumped back in surprise, but Rayla tugged him forward again with an amused look over her shoulder.

Every eye in the room was fixated on the egg, which glowed from within, pulsing, and growing stronger with each cycle. It began radiating a brilliant rainbow spectrum, increasingly large and bright, until it all seemed to be absorbed back at once. In a flash bright enough to make him squint, sharp cracks appeared throughout its surface before dimming away, and then the world was still again.

Callum breathed, not realizing he hadn’t been through the process, and looked around. Everyone was watching the spectacle, but Rayla spared him a small smile and a squeeze of the hand before looking on.

Zubeia’s head lowered, and she huffed a great breath over the egg, scattering shell pieces around the room. In the egg’s place, a tiny blue body was wrapped around itself. A long, narrow tongue slipped down to encourage movement, and Zym stood on shaky legs, opening his eyes to his ‘mother.’

The tiny dragon- whelping, his brain supplied- chirped excitedly, and stood on back claws to paw at the larger dragon’s snout. She seemed to smile, and lifted her head back into the air. Electricity sparked around Zym as he ran around her body, head turning to take in the room and its occupants.

Glancing at Rayla, Callum was a little startled to see tears pooling in her eyes, and wondered what kind of netspace Xadia really was, to allow that.

“He’s beautiful. Thank you, Callum.”

His throat tightened as he let his eyes wander over her face. But he remembered what she’d done in the tube and raised a hand to tuck a lock of her hair behind an ear.

“So are you. And you’re more than welcome.”

Callum turned, not waiting for a reaction, and startled as Zym reappeared from around Zubeia’s back. He’d… already grown? The whelp had become a young drake, longer than the average car, at least, and was making straight for them.

Rayla tugged him aside as the crowd parted, and as he stumbled back out of Zym’s way, the dragon fixed him with what he could only call a knowing look and smiled as it bounded past and up the stairs. Zubeia was already leaving the way she’d come, tail swishing lightly against the ground.

“They grow up so fast these days” a choked voice muttered somewhere off to the left.

The crowd followed Zym up and out onto a large stone shelf along the mountain, where he leapt off into the sky and spread his wings, flapping up and around out of sight. Again, he seemed larger already. The old legends and tales burned in his mind, practically coming to life before his eyes.

“This is so crazy.”

Rayla’s head leaned against his shoulder, and he lowered his atop it.

“But a good kind of crazy, right?”

“Yeah. I…”

“Don’t want it to end?”

“Yeah.”

She squeezed his hand. “I told you, didn’t I? It doesn’t have to.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Callum followed your expected timeline with almost perfect precision. I must say, even after all my years at this post, your forethought and predictive abilities seem… unnatural.”

Aaravos chuckled, the deep tone nearly a rumble. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Viren. Tell me- how far across Xadia can we ping?”

“Already four spans in every direction from the spire, and growing still.”

He could almost hear the smirk on the man’s face. “We only need to wait for Azymondias to grow to his full power, not more than ten days, and then we make our move.”

Viren watched a red tide slowly spread across the blank, green tone of the screen and smiled. The Arcanum Conglomerate would own the future.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rayla sent him off after all, despite her words. It was hard to say goodbye, but he’d known it was coming. They were too far apart, and neither could leave their lives behind.

Callum blocked off the burning, cold feeling clawing up out of his gut before it could reach his eyes. No more tears. There had been enough. He’d already come to terms with this.

But really, he hadn’t, and knew that one day he wouldn’t be strong enough. But not today. Today he’d make it. Well. Make it home, at least. And he did. Eventually. After a few… and a few and a few drinks, but they did nothing for him. Alcohol never did. Now he just wanted that moonberry tartness again, already knowing it would just make him think of her.

His wrist shook against the lock, but it eventually scanned and opened. Callum finally let himself gasp aloud and all but fell into the room. Nails scratched the plush carpet as he tried to fist both hands into it, and he openly sobbed against the ground. She was gone and no one would ever-

“What’re you cryin’ about now , you fool? And why’re you so late ? I’ve been waiting forever.

Callum sat up, shocked, and hastily rubbed his eyes. Where? His voice came out tight, higher than he wanted. “Rayla?”

She rolled out of his bed nook, barefoot but otherwise dressed, and crossed her arms, shaking her head. “Tsk, you’re a mess . How can you take care of anyone else if you can’t take care of yourself?”

He tried again, unable to believe she was here . “Rayla?”

Her hands tugged him up, and she pressed the back of one against his forehead. “Oh dear. Seems you’ve overheated! But I do seem to have that effect...” She leaned in, snaking her arms around his neck, eyes hooded, and affectionately ordered him. “Say it again.”

Callum melted into her embrace and sighed, doing as she bid with more than a touch of reverent relief.

“Rayla...”

“Mm. That’s a voice I could get used to hearing. Now c’mere, you.”

Chapter Text

“Don’t you think two birthdays are enough , Callum? We really don’t need one in the middle when they’re so close to each other to begin with.”

“It doesn’t have to be a party! It can be just… between us. Yeah.”

“Like a date?”

The prince shrugged, smiling good-naturedly. “Yeah. If you want it to be. That sounds great.”

“With presents.”

“Well, gifts are just a sometimes-traditional birthday thing and I didn’t want to just give you something without you having the opportunity to give me something, so…”

Rayla felt perplexed. “Are you seriously doing all this planning just for me to give you a present?”

Callum’s eyes widened, and his hands came up to wave denial. “What? No! No, no no, that’s not it at all! It’s more like I have something to give you and I didn’t want you to feel weird about not having the chance to… reciprocate, since my birthday is first. That’s all.” 

As usual, he gained confidence the longer he went uninterrupted. “You’re getting your present either way. I’m just being a hero here, with this offer.”

Rayla rolled her eyes, but smiled. “Uh huh. Very heroic of you, to spare my feelings, or whatever you’re doing. Fine. The twenty-third. You and me. Presents.” Callum nodded along, so she wormed in some banter. “Downstairs. Sparring ring. Spears.”

Her boyfriend nodded until he froze, blinking. “Wait, what?”

She simply leaned over to kiss his cheek, snickering as she pulled away. “Kidding, Callum.”

He looked far too relieved.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“See? Nothing too crazy! Just us, a bottle of moonberry juice, and a nice afternoon!”

“Yeah, yeah, alright. So we’re both the same age for now- let’s do this thing!”

Rayla felt a little stifled staying indoors, but it was scorching outside and Callum insisted his present couldn’t be moved, so she gave in.

“Cheers to being fifteen!”

Their glasses clinked together, a human tradition she found silly but fun, and then the sweet tang of moonberry juice washed her annoyances away.

Callum left his glass by the bottle and walked her just off-center in the room. “Okay, you stand here, and I’ll unwrap your present for you. It’s uh, not one hundred percent done, but it’s at the point where I need you to see it.”

That was a bit cryptic, but she nodded and sipped juice as he stepped quickly up alongside a long curtain- dust sheets covered half the furniture in the room, but she noticed this wasn’t quite the same fabric.

With a bright smile, he carefully lifted one of the high corners and walked across the sheet, uncovering its contents. “Er. Ta-da?” Callum awkwardly waved a hand for effect, but it wasn’t necessary.

A truly massive sketch of the Silvergrove, viewed from the entrance root, spanned the window-sized canvas. Rayla stepped closer, juice forgotten, and examined the details. He’d drawn lightly, but carefully. The graceful architecture of the Moonshadow structures combined with the natural elements of the forest perfectly, just as she remembered.

“I uh, thought as long as you were here with us you could still have a view of-”

Her vision slowly blurred as she took in his work.

“Oh. Oh Rayla I am so sorry, I didn’t think-”

She stopped him from replacing the sheet with a hand on his arm. “No. No, Callum. It’s beautiful, that’s all. Don’t worry.” Rayla drew in a long breath and blinked back the tears. “How much more do you need to do?”

Callum squirmed, still uncertain of the art’s effect on her. “I was planning on painting it, actually, so I wanted you to help me fix anything I missed, but now…”

“It’s okay, I mean it. You just caught me off-guard, that’s all.” He’d even drawn smaller details like benches and gardens. Of course he had.

Her words seemed to have their desired effect, though, as the worry mostly slipped off his face. “Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess! But uh, yeah it’ll probably take me a long time to really finish since it’s so big. Now I don’t have to hide it from you, though! That was hard.”

Yeah, this explained a few awkward conversations and excuses.

“So does it look okay? Is anything super wrong with it?”

Rayla took his hand, giving him what she felt was a loving smile. “It’s perfect, Callum. Thank you. Really.”

Now his usual smile was completely back, and he squeezed her hand before moving to re-cover the canvas. “Great! I have something else for you, too, just in case this didn’t turn out well. You already kinda know about it though, I think.”

Callum grabbed an actual dust sheet, this time, and removed it from a tall wardrobe. “Furniture? Thanks, Callum.” He glanced over a shoulder to give her a ‘ ha ha, very funny’ eye-roll and opened a door before reaching out of her sight.

She didn’t hear the spell being cast, but he withdrew winged arms a moment later, turning towards her. No- his hands poked through the mass of brown as he raised it to shake out.

It was a cloak, covered in the familiar feathers of the flight spell. Rayla had watched him gather them for weeks, joking that he was building a nest somewhere like some giant mage-bird, so she did know something was going on with them, but not this. 

One hand unconsciously reached out to slide across it- not quite the same feeling as the wings themselves, but close. He must’ve seen a reaction. “I had to treat them, so they wouldn’t fray easily- they’re magic but not that magic. Try it on!”

Callum held the cloak open and helped slip it around her shoulders- there seemed to be two parts, a hooded mantle and the long cloak itself. After taking her juice glass, he showed her the clever way they could detach. Another dust sheet was lifted from a mirror, and she turned quickly to flare the cloak out around her.

“It looks a lot less ridiculous than I thought it would, I’ll admit.” Rayla twisted to see it from various angles. Whatever style it was modeled after wasn’t so bad- the piece wasn’t totally covered in feathers, but it was a little much for everyday wear. 

She loved it, and told him as much, kissing Callum’s wounded expression away. “A bit hot for it, though.” 

His eyes lit up. “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong! Come on!” Hand ensnared, she kept up with his excited jog out into a shadowed area of the castle’s courtyard. It was rather warm, and the cloak wasn’t helping. “Here, just let me…” Callum shucked off his jacket and gloves, then stepped close and wrapped her in a hug, around the cloak.

“Manus, Pluma, Volantus!” he chanted, the runes on his arms lighting with each word, before the familiar feathers grew from his arms. A breeze seemed to kick up around them- residual sky magic, maybe? “And now…” Callum stepped away, spreading his wings toward her and smiling.

That wasn’t much of an explanation. “Now what? Do you really want to go for a flight with me wearing this? That doesn’t sound like a great idea.”

His smile only widened as he let normal human arms return, planting hands on his hips. “Still feel too hot?”

“Yeah, of c-” Actually, no, she didn’t. That breeze from earlier hadn’t stopped at all. Rayla glanced down, and saw the cloak was gently rustling around her. The spell? “You…?”

“Yes!” He was giddy now, a mix of usual excitement over anything magical and something else- what had he called it, ‘the joy of giving’?

“Ibis showed me the spells, and I had to gather the feathers of course. Look here on the inside!”

Rayla peeked at the now-glowing rune he indicated inside the mantle, and listened to his explanation of the way he could feed magic into it since the feathers were his. 

“It’s a galewind cloak- uh.” Now he blushed a bit. “They were designed for the, well, partners of ‘feathered’ skywing elves who weren’t born with and can’t make wings, like I can.” A vague memory bubbled up of him explaining just how rare wings were.

“Callum?” She’d edged closer to the wall, and couldn’t keep the small panic out of her voice, but he didn’t seem to notice.

He perked up out of his embarrassment. “Yeah?”

“Will… is this going to make me fly?” Now he heard it.

“Oh. Oh! No, not without me sort of leading you, sorry. It’s uh, apparently pretty draining on the magic side of things at first, but the earlier we start the better, he said!” Now he smiled again.

“Callum, I’m not sure what to say.” Rayla ran a hand over the feathers and relished the cooling breeze. He seemed awfully hung up on one part of his story, though. “So if a skywing elf sees us together while I’m wearing this…”

The blush came right back up with his smile, but he didn’t look away. “Yeah. They’ll know we’re together , since the feathers are pretty obviously mine- guess that’s only if you know the sky arcanum, though. Is that okay?”

She took both his hands in hers. “Callum, it’s more than okay. I’ll admit I’m a little nervous about the flying, but we can take it slowly. Thank you.”

His eyes suddenly widened, and he staggered, gusting out a breath. The breeze around her faded away. “Wow, that- Ibis was not kidding about how draining that can be. But you’re welcome. Oof.”

Rayla, helping him keep balance, studied his face. That seemed like barely any magic at all, but he looked exhausted. She slid the cloak from her shoulders and slung one of his arms around them instead. “Let’s get back inside, then. My gift isn’t so tiring, I promise.” He could only nod, breathing heavily.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They collected the moonberry juice and moved to a long bench in the library- it was on the cooler side of the castle, and one of Callum’s favorite places. Once he’d caught his breath and they’d both relaxed a bit, Rayla sat up straighter and gave him the speech she’d been working out since his gift’s sentiment had thrown her for a small loop.

“I’m a little annoyed that you got to go first, now, because it seems we were thinking the same thing.” Smiling to show she wasn’t really annoyed, she explained. “There’s a Moonshadow tradition, a bit like the cloak, in a way. Couples often wear matching lunar decorations. It’s not official or anything, just a casual thing. My parents…” Callum took her hand and smiled sadly in understanding.

She continued after a deep breath. “They wore moonbeads around their arms, even as dragonguard. You drew them, when you saw them on the spire. That was their version. I’ve had this.” Rayla leaned back and gestured to her hip, at the stylized moon threaded around her belt. “It’s something I designed with Ethari when I came of age last year. And, well…”

Reaching into one of her various former-assassin pockets, Rayla produced a copy of the same decoration. “This one’s for you. You’ve got to wear it on your right side, though, reflected the other way. Moon symbolism and all that.”

She’d been pleasantly stunned by Callum’s cloak gift, and his implication that they would have a long time to get used to it together, but now that she was returning a similar sentiment, her cheeks burned. Feeling a little silly for being nervous about his reaction, she slowly raised her eyes to his, and froze.

Callum was on the verge of tears, but he was smiling. “Rayla,” he croaked out tightly. “Rayla that’s-” his arms were around her, his face buried in her neck. She immediately brought her hands up to embrace him in return, stroking the back of his hair.

“Oh Callum, it’s nothing to cry over, come on.” She blinked back her own tears anyways, looking down his back at the belt loop in her hand, trying not to remember the gentle rattle of beads on her parents’ bracers. “Try it on? I tried on yours, after all.”

He nodded, but was slow to pull away. It was a little awkward sitting down, but he got the decoration threaded around the way it needed to be. Rayla switched seats so their loops were side by side. The couple linked hands, looked down at their now-matched moons, smiled giddily at each other, and shared a tender kiss.

“Rayla, this is beautiful.Thank you!” He looked a bit flustered. “It’s a little… well, not embarrassing? But everyone knowing because we’re kind of flaunting it, it’s like a-”  Callum’s head tilted as he searched for the right word.

She tried to help. “A brand?”

“That’s, uh, a bit possessive but I guess it’s not wrong? A label, maybe? Oh, whatever, I don’t care! It’s exciting, in a way! I’m never taking it off!”

Rayla giggled at the idea, relieved at his ready acceptance. “Please do, at least when you sleep. It’s not all that comfy, trust me.” She was fairly certain he’d take to the idea, and was glad to put the little spot of doubt to rest. Time to use the word Opeli had taught her.

“Happy belated Birthday, Callum.”

Neither could wipe the smile off their face.

“Happy early Birthday, Rayla.”

Chapter Text

They’d been at it for weeks now, and completing their duties at Vollorun meant they would officially enter the second half of their journey. If they ever got around to leaving.

Rayla suppressed a sigh and thought of the adoraburrs and fresh moonberry surprise waiting for her across the breach. Travelling and seeing more of Katolis was fun. Travelling with Callum was better. Meeting new people, seeing how the humans led their lives, even eating their strange human food was interesting.

But dealing with the people that Callum very politely labeled “difficult” was another matter. “Difficult.” He was really beginning to take to this diplomat business.

One of the town’s council members finally broke character. “We do not think very well of THEM here in Vollorun. They aren’t welcome!” The older man crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Rayla for a moment before turning his anger towards present royalty.

She watched Callum straighten his back and lower the quill to the table in a smooth, controlled movement. He raised his eyes to the offending man, and Rayla relived a moment from one of their first talks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He used the words from Opeli’s lessons, but they lacked diplomacy when recited through clenched teeth. “I believe I misheard you, councilwoman. Would you please repeat yourself?” 

“I said, ” the wizened, elderly official raised her nose, “if their kind is to walk human lands, they should do so outside our jurisdiction.”

Rayla watched his muscles contract through the noble finery, hands pressing hard enough against the table that his quill snapped. Again. She shifted half out of her seat to lay gentle hands on his shoulder and fist. The tension dropped out his back, but the quill only twisted in his grip as the dissenter’s eyes narrowed further.

Callum was trying, she knew, but the anger always flared right back up when it came to this. To her. Guilt seeped into her gut even as she tried to remind herself that this wasn’t personal- it didn’t matter which elf took this place in these talks, Callum would be just as upset. Mostly.

She failed. Callum took one look at her face and immediately softened up. They’d talked through this already, the chain of negative emotion from the offender to Callum to Rayla and back. This wasn’t a good look, and they both knew it, but they could work through the damage.

That wasn’t the point, though- they were doing all this to break the cycle of hate, and it had insidiously snuck into their mission and multiplied before either noticed. Rayla squeezed his hand, trying to send him a mental message, reminding him of their agreement. We need to be better, and lead by example.

He closed his eyes and took one of his deep, calming breaths, ending the small cycle before he could pass it on, but too late. The council folk were speaking to each other in hushed whispers, exchanging various looks of distrust and anger. They’d need another day here, as well.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rayla carefully schooled the blank Opeli expression across her face and fixed it on the stubborn townsman as Callum’s voice broke through the memory. “Your contempt for a member of the royal family is noted, Leyton. Have you anything more to add?” The man startled and sputtered, but finding no support from his peers, shook his head roughly and looked away. She wasn't technically royal, but these outlying towns didn't seem to know that.

The prince nodded. “Anyone else?” They both scanned the room, none of the arranged seniors meeting their eyes with defiance.

This wasn’t the best way, either, shaming one of the town elders, bullying the rest. But their hands were tied by this method of group discussion. They would both speak to Leyton afterwards, as they had others. Callum retrieved his quill and continued the meeting.

Rayla side-eyed him and saw the tension of a half-closed fist. She touched his shoulder, gently but briefly, and he instantly relaxed, nodding once without looking away from the paper. If any misplaced guilt touched her, it was the barest twinge compared to the old feeling

Not perfect, but better. For both of them. And they would only grow stronger from here. Rayla mulled over a potentially more peaceful process- it would take more time, but... wasn't that worth it?

Chapter Text

Callum wasn’t pleased, but his clothes needed a wash anyways.

“Can I at least get some help? You know this isn’t fair! Use one hand or something!”

“Nope! This’s no less fair than your last choice- and I won’t embarrass you more by going easy.”

The pair circled each other in the courtyard, stances low, arms raised and braced for contact.

“In my defense I was actually helping you with- hrk!”

Rayla had leapt forward to clinch him in a favorable grip, and he fumbled the pass-through again, forced to take a weaker position. Eyes locked on his, she took an almost casual step forward and slowly overpowered him across her leg.

Callum shook with exertion beneath her press, trying to recenter his balance, and eventually lost it completely. Rayla raised an amused brow as he slumped in her grip, and slowly lowered him to the ground. She planted a kiss on his forehead before straightening and offering a hand.

“There, there. You know what you needed to do- just do it next time, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll do my best. Thanks for the ‘lesson,’ and since you were so insistent on winning I assume you have something in mind for tomorrow?”

At that, her trademark smirk appeared and her eyes flashed with excitement. “Do I ever. Best prepare yourself.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Soren hefted a gambeson across Callum’s outstretched arms. “Didn’t you say this was supposed to be a date? Can’t say I was expecting you to take me here when you asked for advice. Besides, I thought you guys went out dancing all the time.”

That wasn’t supposed to be common knowledge, but word had spread quickly around the castle once they’d run into their friend at the tavern. He could keep a secret, but drunk Soren was another story. “That’s only every other week, and this is Rayla we’re talking about. The last time she chose what we did I almost broke my arm.”

“Oh yeah. Mountain-climbing?”

“Yeah.” He followed Soren to the end of the armory, and braced himself as a light chain coat was added to the pile.

“But it was fun, right? Sounds like a good workout.”

“It was both. I just… wasn’t expecting it, that’s all. I want to be ready this time. For anything. And she’s definitely up to something .”

“You should get a hint next time, this is a ton of gear.”

Callum staggered as a pair of greaves got tossed on top of the pile. “I’ll be sure to ask for one. Is this it?”

Soren barked a laugh. “No, buddy. Not by a long shot. We’re talking about the same Rayla, right?”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With Soren pushing, the cart wasn’t too hard to pull. They rounded the corner, and Rayla’s shocked expression alone made the hassle worth it.

“What…”

“You said to ‘prepare myself,’ right? Well- I’m prepared! What are we doing today?” He lifted various weapons, tools, and armor from his and Soren’s haul. “Fencing? Something uh… whatever this is would help me with? Going somewhere stabby?”

Rayla doubled over with laughter, steadying herself with a hand on Callum’s shoulder. The prince only grinned- his plan had half-worked already, now it only needed to actually save his shins or dignity.

“Sorry, dummy, but you won’t be needing anything.”

Callum narrowed his eyes.

“No, really! I promise! If you manage to get hurt today you’d have to do it on purpose!”

He pouted a little. “Even me?”

“Even you.” She pinched his cheek before turning to Soren, who was waiting with his arms crossed. “I thought this looked a bit much for Callum to haul on his own… can you handle taking it back yourself?”

Soren rose to the challenge with a flex. “Why else do you think I trained up these bad boys? You two have fun!” Their friend stepped into the cart’s handle and set off easily enough.

Rayla sighed. “Remind me which of us told him about our ‘date’ ritual?”

Callum locked his eyes firmly on the retreating cart. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about! So! What are we doing?”

She smirked and took his hand. “Come and find out!” The first surprise of the evening came immediately, when she walked past him to lead them both back into the castle grounds.

“Wh- okay, then!” He caught up to her pace and interlocked their fingers.

Rayla playfully swung their arms between them as they walked the outer wall of the castle. They passed where she’d originally climbed into the castle herself, and Callum squeezed her hand. His disbelieving admiration for the feat hadn’t faded one bit since her retelling of that day.

They took a relaxed pace, giving Callum an opportunity to admire the sunset’s effect painting the sky a gradual shift between orange and pink. When they entered the small southernmost tower, Rayla steered them off the main path and towards the ladder up to the roof, scooping up a prepared bedroll on the way. They’d explored the castle together thoroughly, and rooftops were no exception.

Following after her, Callum accepted her hand up and closed the hatch behind them. He turned to his second surprise: a mass of rope or netting, woven into a bowl shape. Like the hammocks he’d seen aboard ships, but bigger and quite a bit of a mess. It was anchored between the center flagpole and tower parapets- no wonder she’d chosen the smallest tower in the castle. 

He blinked. Had she done all this herself?

Smiling at his wide-eyed wonder, Rayla chuckled. “It’s a bit of… camp craft, I guess you could call it. Come on!” She pulled him forward and easily scrambled up into the structure. He remembered her lessons from The Ruthless and wobbled his way up the ropes like the ship’s rigging, concentrating on his legs.

A few pillows came unbundled from the bedroll, arranged for comfort, and the couple relaxed back into a reclined position together. Rayla tucked herself under his arm as the wind gently rocked their seat.

Callum smiled down at her. “Aren’t you cold? It’s pretty breezy up here.”

“I am, but that’s why I brought a handy sky mage with me.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly even as her hands unwound the scarf from his neck. “We’ve been on ‘moon dates’ so I thought we could go on a… sky date? It feels good, right? The energy?”

It did. Callum took a deep breath of the wind and let it refresh him, easing his worries. “It does.” He chuckled and raised both arms to oblige her unspoken request when she stopped him with a hand on his. “Just the one around me.”

“Okay?” He did as she asked, and she hummed a sigh, shifting to let him wrap her completely in the wing. "Better?"

She wrapped the scarf around them both, tying them loosely together. “Much better. I wanted to be able to do this, too.” She slid her hand down his still-human arm, weaving her fingers into his.

“We do that all the time, though?”

“That doesn’t mean you like it any less, does it?” She grinned, already knowing his answer.

He could only return her smile. “No, it doesn’t.”

“And we don’t get to do this all the time.” Rayla slowly ran her thumb up and down his index finger, sighing softly as she gazed into his eyes.

Callum blushed at the slight shift in tone, but his smile only widened as he faced her more directly. She typically hid her face from his adoration, embarrassed, but would occasionally allow him to simply bask in her existence. When distracted by his, for the most part. “We don’t, do we? Not without a jelly tart being thrown, or a rude cough from Opeli, or-” he laughed, muffled, as she clapped a hand over his mouth for a moment to hush him. “So you’re spoiling me today?”

“Maybe. Or I’ve just changed my mind about the mushy stuff.”

“I could get lost in your eyes, you know.”

“So you’ve said, but I’ll be sure to bring you back every time.” She pulled herself forward to kiss him...

Continued in Ch. 15

Chapter Text

Continued from Ch. 14

...and then relaxed back to lay her head against his chest, humming contentedly.

“Let’s never stop doing this.”

Callum chuckled, his usual response, but still full of mirth. “You always say that.”

“And I always mean it.”

His eyes remained closed as a strong breeze rocked their seat, and he took in a lungful with a smile.

They were hanging in the eastern Moonshadow Forest’s dense upper boughs. A few nomad clans were gathering in the nearby grasslands for an annual festival, and neither would miss it for the world. Many of their friends, new and old, would be present.

Rayla tapped his nose with a finger. “It’s almost unfair that you can benefit from so many arcana. You’re soaking up this sunlight too, aren’t you?”

The wing shading her flapped once. “Hey, I may as well do something useful with your share.”

“Put that energy to good use later, would you?” She slowly traced his jawline.

“Sounds like I have no choice- ah, someone’s coming.”

Their hammock, a much more deliberately-woven thing compared to Rayla’s first attempt on the tower so long ago, swung a bit as the couple wormed their way into a more upright position.

A familiar figure swept through the air and alighted out of sight. Ibis stepped around the trunk, already speaking. “Callum, when you have a- oh! Oh my goodness. You two… what are you DOING?” His mage wings dissipated unevenly and their feathers puffed off completely in some places- Callum winced at the familiar response to true shock.

Bewildered, the prince sat up straight, dispelling his own wing. Ibis was clearly panicked. “What? We’re just-” he gestured to the hammock, “relaxing? Did something happen? Ibis?”

His long-time mentor’s eyes closed and he turned away with a sigh. Heavy, the way he used to sigh around them. It prickled an old sense of embarrassment. “Callum, I believe I’ve neglected my duties of instructing you, personally, in Skywing culture. That ends now. Please come down. Both of you.”

Ibis resummoned his wings and leapt off the branch. The couple exchanged a confused look but did as they were bid, untying and rolling the hammock up into its travelling size. Rayla drew her galewind mantle around her shoulders and double-fastened it for flight. “Ready.”

Callum pulled her close, conjuring his wings and taking the opportunity to press a kiss to her forehead. The now-familiar spell kicked up around her, gentle wind playing at the hem of the feathered, enchanted clothing. The mage counted down, and the two dove in their practiced pattern.

Rayla tucked her limbs and caught up to him quickly, reaching out to grasp a calf in each hand. He leveled out, and the spell adjusted her flight to match Callum’s, allowing her to float along above as he flapped. She pulled herself forward by walking her hands up his body until she was hanging onto his hips, taking the opportunity to give him a playful pinch.

He turned to raise an eyebrow over his shoulder, and Rayla smirked back. They both took in the view of gathering clans and assembling festivities as they swooped around to Ibis’ tent, just within the boundaries of the forest proper. They lowered their legs for a tandem landing, and once safely aground Callum ended both spells.

“Ibis?” Callum politely called. “We’re here. For your… lesson? Like old times, right?” To be fair, it had only been a few years since they’d met the man at all.

The older Skywing held open the tent flap from within, gesturing for them to enter. “Have I ever declared your education complete? Today’s incident has certainly defied the idea.” The couple sat together on one of the large earthblood-style cushions present. Ibis had arrived to assist with organizing the festival, and had already mixed with his counterparts.

“So what’s the problem?” Rayla went straight to the point as always, eyes darting around the well-lit tent. Some trick of construction or magic allowed sunlight to filter in through the roof without any direct openings.

Ibis eyed her mantle critically, then looked between them. “There is no ‘problem,’ between the two of you, but that level of scandalous behavior is unbecoming.”

“Not that I’m unfamiliar with scandal,” Callum had the self-awareness to blush, “but what exactly was scandalous? We do that all the time.”

A familiar sight from their past replayed before them- Ibis closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and slowly drew and loosed another long, suffering sigh.

Rayla snorted, muttering under her breath. “I still say he sounds like Opeli.”

Whether or not Ibis heard, he ignored the remark and began his instruction. “In Skywing culture, such a… resting place has a very private nature, unseen by any but those who share it.”

He opened his eyes, but turned away and stepped to a small camp desk. The mentor lifted a basket of scrolls from the floor and returned with it, rifling through the pages before selecting one. The basket was placed at the couples’ feet, and the chosen scroll offered over. 

“After our last discussion, I’ve taken care to transcribe various unspoken rules, laws, rituals, and taboos of my people- things you may not have read already. Your studious notes on the same from humans, and the great number of misunderstandings between both our peoples were both powerful motivations. But please, read this here and now.”

Callum accepted the offered scroll, raising a questioning look to Ibis’ face. The older man only shook his head and bowed politely. “And I will take my leave. Stay as long as you wish.”

Alone in their friend’s tent, the two shared a perplexed shrug and Callum unrolled the notes for them both to read. Callum would have to translate the Elven words and phrases for the average human, if these were going to be spread through the pentarchy at some point...


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Skywing Aerie

Physical description - An Aerie of the skywing people typically resembles a large ‘bowl’ shape, sized enough to house multiple adults, of materials both natural and manufactured. Wood, rope, leaves, fabrics, feathers, mud or clay, even horn and bone may be present. A singular material, or mix of a great number, may be used.

The isolated clans or far-ranging nomads may assemble their Aerie in particular shapes or locations, such as a covered dome or only in the highest trees. They are of temporary construction, designed with a limited durability, and typically are disassembled by their owners after serving or failing their purpose. There is no unbreakable rule applied to all Skywing Aeries besides their minimum size, and that is reflected in their use.

 

Purpose - In a word, the Aerie is a personal expression of self, and only shared with one’s chosen partner. A possible human interpretation may be a “honeymoon” location for newly joined pairings of elves. Skywings most typically exist in populous colonies with large, open spaces and little, if any, personal space. The Aerie serves to fulfill this need for privacy and allow for the comfortable continuation of the species.

While an Aerie may be built for any of a variety of reasons, such as personal celebrations, the most common are directly related to the Skywing courting process, proceedings, and consummation. The physical structure itself may reflect a certain level of capability in its owner, at the interpretation of the suitor’s intended. Accepting a suitor’s Aerie is equal to accepting their self, and an implicit agreement to form a permanent bond.

Typically, neither elf in a pairing enters the Aerie without their partner, as it is intended for only the most intimate-

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Callum snapped the scroll shut, his face burning. “That… is not what our hammock is.” He looked at Rayla, who wasn’t blushing nearly as hard, even though she could likely read Ibis’ curling Elven handwriting faster. “Is it?”

Her face carefully slipped into a bemused smirk, one eyebrow raised. “I don’t know, is it? We don’t let anyone else in with us, it’s never up for long, and it has proven… useful.” Rayla huffed a breath and rolled her eyes. “Who cares? Neither of us is Skywing.”

Royal diplomacy kicked in. “No, but we should remain respectful of their culture and practices while intru-”

“Intruding in their home, yeah, yeah, you’re right, Your Highness, ugh. And if it will keep Ibis from sighing like that again we’ll hide it from him.” She exaggerated a shiver. “That was giving me the weird feeling it used to.”

“Me too.” Callum smiled. Their agreement to never stop the habit took precedence without needing to discuss it. He bent forward to return the scroll to its fellows, and Rayla lounged against him, horns gently poking his back.

“So?”

“So what?”

“Do you like it?”

“Are we still talking about the hammock?”

“Mhmm.”

“Well, yeah I like it. We took that extra trip for that super-strong spider silk you always told me about. And I mean, you wove it so nicely. Of course I like it. I love it!” He adjusted his legs to get more comfortable in his awkward position.

“Oh, good. Guess that means we’re Skywing-married.”

That startled him, and she sat up quickly. “What? Oh I see what you’re doing.” He chuckled. “Fine. We’re Skywing-married.”

Rayla turned to face him more directly, inspecting her fingernails. One of her nervous tells- she glanced at him once.

“Do you maybe wanna…”

“With you? Anything.”

She blushed and picked at a nail until he covered her hand with his.

“...wanna get married for real?”

“Yes. When?”

His quick answer startled her, but only for a half-second before she threw herself bodily into him, pressing him down into the cushion with kisses all over his face.

Callum could only laugh and hug his newly-betrothed against himself, joy threatening to beat his heart right out of his chest.

They were interrupted by a small rustle, followed by the longest, most pained sigh either had ever heard. Ibis somehow managed to restrict his voice to the same measured tone as always.

“Please, you two, not again. This is not what I intended to happen here.”

Rayla laughed aloud, standing. “He said intended! Oh sweet moon, Ibis, you are a gem. Or a welcome breeze. Whatever it’s nice to say to Skywings.”

“Sorry, Ibis. That was very informative, and we’ll be much more… discreet. Thank you, for that and these.” Callum hefted the basket of scrolls.

Their friend only blinked. “I had assumed this was a mere misunderstanding, just one my people may take some amount of offense to.”

“Er, it certainly started that way, but…”

Rayla’s eyes sparkled with glee as she linked hands with Callum. “Now that we know what it means, we’ve decided it’s for real. Thanks for giving me an easy way to finally ask.”

“Wait, you were planning on asking?”

“Weren’t you?”

His silence was enough of an answer.

She fixed him with her best mollifying shadowpup eyes and squeezed his hand. “Aw. Sorry to beat you to punch there- you can ask me the human way sometime. We can take turns.”

Callum’s smile broke through his faked pout, and he laughed. “Isn’t that an awful lot of weddings if we keep going?”

Rayla smiled brightly. “Sounds like you’ll just have to fill up your dayscript thing with more of those hearts, then.”

“I know you know the word!  Just say 'calendar'!”

“Not a chance.”

The tent flap closed behind Ibis.

“Oh no, I think we broke him.”

“What?”

“He didn’t even sigh!”

Ibis did sigh, as their laughter erupted from the direction of his tent.

Chapter Text

Soren always preferred to ‘get his run on’ in the morning. It cleared the sleep from his head, and was a good habit anyways, wasn’t it? He took the tower steps two at a time, eager to get up top and see the sunrise. It was still a little early, he figured he could make another lap of the stairs down the next tower and back up this one before the sun came up.

He was halfway across the wall-walk when he happened across Rayla, leaning between merlons. Unexpected, but an alternative to a lap.

She spoke first, not bothering to look. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself. Do moon elves even sleep?” Soren took a spot a few away from hers, twisting and bending to continue limbering up.

She gave him the ‘ did you really just ask that’ look before turning back towards the faintly-lit landscape. “We do. I just couldn’t. Much.”

“Oh. That sucks.” He ran out of things to say. That usually happened, when Callum wasn’t around. Because, well… things weren’t bad between Soren and Rayla anymore, after they’d talk on the spire, but they weren’t exactly good, either. They just… were. Soren wanted them to be good.

“Do you uh…” he trailed off.

Rayla cocked her head at him, brows rising. “Really? You want to talk?”

“I was going to ask if you wanted to work out, or spar or something. But if you want to talk-”

“No.” Rayla cut him off. “We can drill. Show me some dumb human moves.”

“But ‘sweep the leg’ really isn’t one of them, honest.”

That made her smile, a little, so he smiled back. “Even so.”

“Great! Let’s go.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The wooden sword was heavy and strange in her hands, but not completely alien. She’d trained a bit with a variety of weapons, and a longsword was no exception. Not so straight or weighted, but Soren was trying to be nice, so she didn’t complain. Much.

He eyed her relaxed stance. “That’s uh… interesting form. Do you want to learn the human way, or…”

Rayla stepped up to one of the training standees. “Yeah. Show me.”

The moves weren’t made for her. Not even close. Soren had fought her well enough in the past, with wide swings that leveraged his mass and strength, but she wanted to move like a dancer, trading strength for speed and flexibility. Rayla followed his demonstrations through a few strikes and follow-throughs before the nibbling annoyance grew to gnawing.

“Okay, enough, I’m not built for this. Let’s just spar, since we’re here. We can trade lessons or something. First touch?”

A flash of disappointment showed on his face before he smiled again and nodded agreement as they squared off, Rayla relaxing into the loose elven stance of her past. When he rushed, she spun into his range on her toes, deflecting and striking at once.

“Huh. Point to you.”

His second pass was more cautious, but she lashed around his guard with a twist of her wrist.

“Hmm… okay.”

The forceful human form was clearly disadvantaged for ‘first touch’ rules, but Soren didn’t seem to mind. They continued a few short bouts, Soren adapting to her movements, until he surprised her with a heavy shoulder-check, sending her stumbling.

“Oh! Oh, sorry. I got a little into it, there.”

She waved him away. “That’s why we’re here. Again.”

Three points later he awkwardly tried one of the elven pirouettes himself and struck her left wrist a glancing blow. Rayla hissed in pain and dropped to the ground.

“Rayla! Oh man, I… are you okay?”

“I’ll be okay, just give me a second.” Rayla blinked back instinctive tears, clutching at the searing sensation.

“Yeah, no. We’re done, I think.

“I said give me a second.

Soren paused, his feet still in her field of view. He shuffled a bit, but settled as she took deep breaths and waited for the pain to ebb.

When she stood, Soren regarded her skeptically.

“Again.”

“Okay, but only three more. Then we stop.”

“Why?”

“I’m hungry.”

Rayla blinked. Not the answer she expected, but this was Soren. Not Callum. “Fine.”

“And Callum would kill me if you got hurt on your birthday.”

She lowered her sword. “You knew?”

“Yeah.” Soren looked away, sheepish as if he’d said something wrong. “Callum told me. On his birthday.” He looked back up at her and shrugged. “I uh, didn’t really know what to get you. Callum was already like my little brother, sort of, but uh, you aren’t exactly like my little sister.” There was a cringe in those last words.

“No.” Rayla looked down at the wooden weapon in her hand. Katolin and still new to her. Like the castle, the town, the people, the food… but a little more familiar every day. Like Soren. She took up her stance again. “But I am a little like you , aren’t I? And you don’t need to do anything, this is plenty. No one else will spar with me, you know. Not seriously.”

Soren brightened and barked a laugh. “Hah! I don’t think I can’t… not... “ His brow furrowed. “I’ll always take you seriously!” He raised his own weapon.

And he did, not holding back any of their last rounds.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was much later, after a small celebration with the royal brothers and a few friendly faces, when he caught up to her again.

“Hey, Rayla!” She stopped and turned, waiting for him to catch up. “I uh, thought about what you said. How we’re alike. And that you aren’t like…”

“Claudia.”

“Yeah. Not like Claudia. So, well… here.” He offered her a sheathed sword. Not as long or wide as his Crownguard weapon, and certainly more worn, but well cared-for. The towers gleamed in the crossguard- it was somewhere between ceremonial and serviceable. 

“It’s kind of a tradition, but a good weapon! The old crownguard commander gave it to me when she started showing me the ropes and… now I’m showing them to you?”

“Soren, I’m not trying to be a Crownguard.”

There was almost a pleading look in his eyes, willing her to understand. “I- I know that. But you’re always with Callum, and around Ezran a lot. You’re sort of a… secret Crownguard. That’s cool, right?”

Stupid, hopeful ‘puppy dog’ eyes so similar to Ez’s… and he wasn’t entirely wrong about protecting them...

“Fine.” She snatched the weapon out of his hands. “But nobody’s the boss of me.”

Soren just smiled as she exposed a hand length of the steel to inspect it. “Yeah. Callum told me that, too.” He faked an awkward cough before she could question him. “But yeah, it uh, should be good if you ever feel like going for a more ‘Katolis’ look.”

Satisfied with the weapon’s quality and care, she looked between it and the Crownguard. “And I’ll have to give it up to the next real trainee, won’t I?”

He crossed his arms. “Well, yeah, but I have a feeling you’ll have some say in who that is, now. I don’t think Ez or Callum are going to listen to anyone else. Not even me.” Something flickered in his eyes at the admission, and Rayla raised a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“They’ll listen to you. I’ll make sure of it.” Ah, what the heck. He’d earned it. “And if they don’t ask? I will.”

Soren outright beamed. “Hey, thanks! That means a lot, Rayla. Uh. Hug?” He opened his arms.

The nearly-new moon must be weakening her. “Just a small one.”

“Are we good?”

“We’re good, Soren.”