the end of all things
There are whispers on the wind.
They’re only rumours at first—travellers and bards bring them in the form of fairy tales and songs, but they grow stronger with time, and they all tell the same story: there are dark mages in the north.
Callum’s heard most of them before, of course. He smiles politely when they reach his ears, and even chuckles at the more outlandish versions, but he’s no more concerned than that. He would know, after all, if there was something to be concerned about. He has enough contacts and friends across the border now that, if trouble really was brewing, he’d hear about it directly, and not thirty-seventh-hand in the form of an ominous sounding ballad. He carries on about his business. He lets the common folk have their fun.
It’s been two years.
He’s crown prince and high mage now. He offers counsel to Ezran and represents him at summits when he can’t go himself. He’s learned how to ride from Soren; how to navigate from Corvus; and how to deal with even the most difficult members of various courts from Opeli. He’s everything he thought a prince should be, and everything he once thought he wasn’t.
He almost doesn’t recognise himself some days. He’ll catch his reflection in a mirror, or in the tarnished silver of a plate or a goblet, and forget, for a moment, that he’s looking at himself. He certainly doesn’t feel like the tall, broad-shouldered, prince in the glass. This prince looks confident and sure of himself and fits into royalty like he was made for it but Callum’s fairly certain he’s never been that and he’s not sure where this prince came from but it can’t be him. That’s not his smile, surely, because how can he be smiling when he’s all but empty on the inside? How can he be smiling when these last two years have felt like the loneliest in his life?
The absence of his scarf is glaringly obvious sometimes, and it reminds him that it hasn’t been two years —it’s been longer. It’s been two years since he came back, but before that, he’d wandered Xadia for a year and a half himself, clinging to the stories because he knows that’s what she would have been doing too, but they never amounted to anything in the end, and he’d come home without her, and now he’s the Prince he never thought he would be, and she’s…
Still out there somewhere.
And the rumours come because of course they do—tall tales about dark mages and Startouch elves and a storm brewing on the horizon—and Callum nods and chuckles and smiles but he doesn’t go after them because he wouldn’t be going after them , would he? He’d be going after her again, and he’s tired— he’s tired of chasing, and waiting, and longing for her and being disappointed; he’s tired of wondering if she’ll come back at all, even after she’d promised that she would. It’s a sad little game he plays: wishing he could let her go, and then refusing because he’s afraid to entertain the idea of a life without her.
He hopes that, wherever she is, she’s okay.
He hopes she still thinks of him.
He hopes she knows he’s still waiting.
There was a meeting this morning. It’s one of many, held every couple of months to discuss the progress of relations between the Human Kingdoms and Xadia. There’s still tension—it’ll be decades, centuries, even, before all of that will be forgotten—but it’s better than anyone ever hoped it would be after so little time. Ibis was there, and so was Queen—Aunt, he should say—Janai, and Ethari, representing the elves of the Silvergrove, and Callum saw the little frown that wrinkled his brow; how his eyes had caught his; how they’d flitted around the room afterwards looking for someone who wasn’t there.
There were questions in his gaze, but Callum had slunk away before he could ask.
He’s been hiding away in the embrasures of the eastern ramparts since.
“Are you doing okay?” Ezran asks. He’s the only one who ever finds him up here. He’s grown into a fine young king, and he has more grace and maturity than any thirteen year old should have the right to be. He holds himself with an air of dignity Callum only wishes he’d had at that age, and to say that he’s proud of his baby brother is an understatement.
“I’m fine,” he mutters. He’s not and he doesn’t know who he’s trying to fool. Ezran knows him better than anyone, and it comes as no surprise when Ez heaves a sigh and climbs into the neighbouring embrasure.
“Opeli’ll have a heart attack if she catches you sitting there.”
“You’re a sky mage, you can catch me.” Ez snorts to himself and swings his legs in the open air. Callum hasn’t been afraid of heights since he learned to fly, but even his hands start to sweat a little as Ez so casually looks over the edge of the rampart.
A pause settles between them. Ez looks out at the horizon too, and he presses his lips together like he wants to say something but doesn’t really know what. It’s the same look he wears whenever Callum shuts down like this, and Callum knows what’s coming and braces himself for it because it’s going to be the same conversation as always, and he’s never liked having it.
“So that was Ethari, huh?”
Callum grimaces. “Yep,” he says. “That was him.”
“He doesn’t know, does he?”
Another pause. Callum takes a breath. “No. He doesn’t.”
Ezran hums. Callum can almost see how carefully he goes about choosing his words, searching for the most delicate, the most diplomatic way to put it. “It’s okay to miss her,” he says finally.
The pain in Callum’s chest flares and he winces and keeps his eyes on the river below. “It’s been two years, Ez.”
“That doesn’t make it less okay,” says Ez. “I miss her too. It’s different for you, though. You love her.”
Callum scoffs in spite of himself because it’s true and it feels pathetic. Soren’s been trying to help him ‘get over’ her for months, and Opeli’s hints about marriage are not so subtle any more. He waves them both off; pretends he’s not bothered by the incessancy of their requests, and although he knows how sad it is that he’s still pining after her after all these years, the truth is that he doesn’t know how to stop. Deeper down, he thinks he doesn’t want to.
He doesn’t know that Ez understands that as much as he says he does, but at least he doesn’t press for Callum to move on too. They share a great number of things as brothers. He is grateful that hope is one of them.
Ezran huffs ruefully. He shifts in the embrasure and climbs out of it once more with a sad little smile on his lips. “I’ll talk to Ethari,” he says. “She’ll come back. She promised.”
Callum breathes out. “Yeah. She did.”
Callum starts. The meetings are coming to a close for the day, and most of the visiting dignitaries are settling in for the evening. Callum’s been dodging them all afternoon because he’s not really in the mood to talk about anything they might have to say and he doesn’t really have anything to say to them—but it’s Ethari that he’s most determined not to face.
Ethari will have questions. Ethari will be worried. Ethari will want to talk about what happened, and where his daughter is, and why she isn’t here. Callum’s not sure he can have that conversation without breaking.
But it’s not Ethari who catches him on his way to his quarters from dinner. It’s someone else he hasn’t seen in a long while. Someone who knows him better than to ask.
“Ibis.” Callum’s lips twitch upwards, and as dull as he is on the inside, it is a genuine pleasure to see his old teacher again. He greets him with a grin. “You know you don’t have to call me that.”
“For the sake of propriety, I think I’ll stick to it. Just for now.” Ibis smiles back and studies him, pale blue eyes alight with pride and familiarity. “Look how you’ve grown. You’re much taller than you were three years ago. Being crown prince suits you.”
Callum lets out a sour laugh. “No, it doesn’t,” he grumbles, but Ibis only laughs and claps his shoulder.
“Sky mage is a better title anyway.” He chuckles at Callum’s indignance. “You’ve heard all the rumours, I presume?”
“About dark mages in the north?” Callum rolls his eyes patiently. “There’ve always been rumours. The only difference is where they say they are. Until someone credible gives me reason to think otherwise, I’m happy to keep thinking that rumours are all they are.”
Ibis purses his lips. His hesitation makes Callum frown.
“...Is there reason to think otherwise?”
“I think, perhaps, I’m not the one you should ask.” He glances furtively up and down the hall and pulls a brown paper package out of his satchel as he goes. Callum wants to ask, but he presses it into his hands before the words find their way out of his mouth. “This is for you.”
Callum’s frown only wrinkles his brow further, but he unties the twine around it and—
His breath stops short.
“Where did you get this?”
Ibis smiles at him, despite himself, it seems. “Where do you think?”
Callum’s heart skips a beat. The red is faded, and the material is frayed at the ends; the cotton feels rougher than he remembers, and there are new stitches where it’s been repaired three or four or five times—but the sigil is unmistakable. Two diamonds and the symbol of the uneven towers stitched in gold against red wool.
The dull hope he’s been keeping quietly in his heart these past years springs to life before he remembers to temper it, and his hands curl into fists around it as if he’s afraid it might disappear. “Is—is she here?”
“No,” says Ibis. “I think… after everything she’s been through, she’s not quite ready to be surrounded by people yet. She’s waiting for you, though. Where she left.”
Time slows to a crawl. Callum hears his own breathing in his ears; feels his heart hammering away in his ribs. His hands shake as the brown paper falls away and the scarf unfurls in like water against his fingers. His senses hone in on it: the faded colour; the almost familiar smell; the weight of it in his hands. A million and one thoughts explode in his mind, but there is one that is louder than all the others: one that sits at the forefront of his mind, hopeful and afraid and hardly daring to believe it—
She’s come back.
“I have to go,” he manages at last, and Ibis only nods like he expected nothing less.
“I thought you might,” he says, stepping aside. “Be patient with her, Your Highness. She’s… been through a lot.”
Callum doesn’t doubt it. He’s hurrying down the hall without another word.
It doesn’t look quite right on him anymore, so he doesn’t wear it. It’s been hers for too long. It still sort of smells like her, even, and the end flutters out of the opening of his pack with every beat of his wings.
Ez had been halfway ready for bed when he’d barged into his quarters, the news on his lips in a half coherent rush of words that barely made sense in his own ears—-but Ez had understood. His eyes had widened with hope even Callum had felt too afraid to feel.
“Go,” he’d said. “Bring her home.”
And so he had.
The trip to the Moon Nexus is quicker by air, but Callum’s never flown so determinedly in his life. He touches down as the last hints of dusk fade away and his heart, already pumping faster than he ever thought it could, hammers even faster still. His throat is tight. His mouth is dry. His breath rattles as it leaves him because the reality of this hasn’t quite hit yet, and he doesn’t know if he’s right to hope, or if he should steel himself for disappointment once more, but—
It’s like a dream. Callum almost doesn’t want to believe it because it’s been two years since he saw her last; longer since they danced together in these ruins for the adventure that would cause her to leave in the first place; and he’d looked for her, and then waited for her, and—
She’s really there, taller and leaner and more beautiful than his memory of her, dressed in Skywing blues, like last time, instead of Moonshadow greens, and she’s wearing this look like she can’t believe it either.
“Callum,” she whispers.
Callum’s breath hitches. His heart almost breaks in his chest because there’s something… not quite right about the way she says it. It’s been so long since he’s heard his name in her voice and it’s so familiar but so…
He swallows when he realizes he’s just the same. Her name forms on his lips: foreign and not at the same time; sweet with the memory of her touch but bitter with anger, and loneliness, and betrayal too, that she’d left at all.
But she’s there. She’s come to him. She’s back.
His breath shakes on the exhale. “Rayla.”
They stare at each other for what feels like an eternity. Callum looks her up and down, afraid to believe in this reality in case it shatters around him, but then he starts forwards, stumbling a little over his own feet, as Rayla stumbles back in the same step.
He hesitates and looks again. For the first time, he notices the way her shoulders tense, the way her whole body is tight and poised to run, and Callum backtracks, afraid that she might. She reminds him of the cat that used to lurk in the castle hallways—scrawny and skinny and skittish, even when it was offered kindness and a plate of food. Part of him gets it: he was angry the first time he’d found her, and the handful of others were awkward and one-sided. There’s guilt in the way her posture shifts, like she’s ashamed she’s even shown her face to him again, like she’s scared he hates her and—
He is angry. And he does hate that she left. But he’d missed her more, and he loves her still, and oh, isn’t that obvious? Can’t she see it?
He closes the space between them in four quick strides—quicker than she can scramble any further away from him—and makes a grab for her wrist. In his memory, his hands are larger than hers, but when his fingers close around her forearm, he feels gigantic. Part of it’s her posture, part of it’s the fact that she’s been roughing it on her own for three and a half years, but she feels delicate in his grasp—like she might break if he holds too tight. But she’s solid too. She’s there, and she’s warm, and she’s real , and something like a sob forces its way out of Callum’s throat when he pulls her to him.
“Rayla,” he tries again. His voice is strangled and tearful but he doesn’t care. “You’re here. You came back.”
He feels her swallow, and slowly, slowly , her arms come to a rest around his waist. “I said I would,” she whispers. “Callum, I—I’m so sorry, I—”
He shushes her. “Later,” he whispers. “Please. Let me have this. Before—before anything else.”
She sniffs. He thinks he feels tears against his jacket, but he doesn’t release her to check. “I missed you.”
Callum lets out a strained sounding laugh and holds her tighter still. “I missed you too.”
Where to start? Where to begin? There’s so much to talk about and so much to apologise for that Rayla almost forgets how to speak altogether. Callum’s so much taller now. He’s grown into someone she almost doesn’t recognise. There’s maturity in the handsome new angles of his face, and dignity in the way he holds himself, but his eyes—his eyes are that same green she’d fallen in love with, and the warmth of his arms feels like comfort; like security; like—
She pries herself away from him when that last thought hits because it’s one she doesn’t deserve. When her own people had banished her, Callum and Ezran had offered their home to her freely. They’d had no reservations about it and wanted nothing in return. They’d made her a part of their family and loved her unconditionally and what had she done to thank them?
Being here hurts. The memories of how she’d lied to him, and abandoned him, and broken his heart feel fresh in her mind, and she can’t, she can’t accept his forgiveness like this—if he’s even giving it at all. Missing her and forgiving her are two very different things, and he has no reason to want to offer it in the first place, not after what she’d done to him.
She stumbles away.
“I—uh.” She takes a breath. To steady herself. To make pulling away from him easier. “I’m sorry,” she manages. “I—I shouldn’t have come back.”
Callum stares at her. Something flashes in his eyes, and just like that, their warmth is gone. It only reminds more of how things had happened when they were last here, and Rayla flinches and looks away. His lips tilt downwards, hurt, confused, and when he tries to follow her this time, he tempers himself. “Shouldn’t you have?”
The lowness of his voice is dangerous. Angry . It doesn’t suit him and it frightens her. “I just—I just wanted to return your scarf,” she says quietly. “I promised I would, and—and now I have, so—”
“You’re not staying.”
There’s a beat. And then Rayla swallows and shakes her head. “No. I’m not.”
“You can’t be serious.” Callum lets out a hollow laugh. It bubbles past his lips with disdain, cold with disappointment and resent. “You came all this way—you had Ibis send for me—to, what? Return my scarf and that’s it? You’re just going to disappear again?”
“I was never going to stay—”
“ Ha!” He shakes his head. “Of course. Of course, you weren’t. I don’t even know why I’m so surprised.”
Rayla bristles at him, although why, she can’t really say. He has every right to be angry with her, and the very least she can do for him after everything is to stand there and take it but—she’d meant it for him. Always for him. Still for him. And it doesn’t make sense that she’s mad, but Moon and Stars, it ticks her off that he refuses to see that. “What did you expect, exactly?” she asks coolly. “Did you think I’d just—go back to Katolis with you? Did you think that’d be it? That we’d just forget this ever happened?”
“I expected more than this ,” snaps Callum. “You make it sound like I’m the one who wronged you. Do I need to remind you? You’re the one who left! ”
“To protect you ,” snarls Rayla. “It was always to protect you, and Ezran, and Soren—”
“They had nothing to do with this and you know it.”
“They had everything to do with it! You and them—you’re my family now, and—”
“Family doesn’t just leave , Rayla! Not like you did!” Callum scowls at her, his hands thrown up in defeat. “I don’t—I don’t even know why I came. I thought that—I thought that this time might be different but—” His face pinches. His voice cracks. He shakes his head and turns his back to her, the way she’d done every time he’d found her and Rayla’s own heart breaks in her chest.
“Callum.” His name tears from her throat, desperate, hoarse, unhindered by her better judgement. “Callum, please—this isn’t how I wanted this to go—can—can we start over? ”
She half expects him not to listen. She wouldn’t, if she were him, but he pauses in midstep, his shoulders rising and falling and rising again in time with the heaviness of his breathing. He doesn’t turn though. She’s glad he doesn’t. This is hard enough without seeing the anguish on his face.
Rayla takes a breath. “Can we just talk?”
“We tried that,” he mutters crisply.
“This time will be different.”
“What would we even talk about?”
The hardness in his voice makes her flinch. “Anything,” says Rayla, and she means it. “Everything. You ask the questions and I’ll answer them. Please, Callum. This—this is bigger than whatever is—than whatever happened between us. This is about… what’s happening in the north.” Gods, she hates how desperate she sounds, but she’d lost the right to be anything else that night she left him in the alley. This is still far more than she would give him if it were the other way around. He doesn’t have to hear her out. He shouldn’t. And yet—
He turns. Just a fraction. Rayla’s heart lifts with hope she shouldn’t really allow herself to have, especially when the resent in his frown turns into something much more serious.
“You found him.”
Rayla purses her lips. “Yes,” she mutters. “And no. But—” Here, she hesitates. Lujanne would know, of course, if there was any danger of being overheard on the Moon Nexus but being safe is always better than being sorry. “Come with me,” she says at last. “We shouldn’t discuss this here.”
When he follows her, it’s as much a surprise as it isn’t. Rayla’s not sure which she’s feeling more, but he follows her into the lodgings Lujanne had offered her for her time here without question and it’s that that strengthens her resolve. The silence between them stretches into something long and awkward because she doesn’t know where to start and Callum probably doesn’t know what to ask and he’s absolutely right to be angry with her but that only makes it harder still.
Part of her hopes this will just be business. She’ll tell him what he needs to know and she can be on her way again and he can make sure the rest of his kingdom is duly warned. Simple. Clean. Uncomplicated.
But it won’t be that, and she knows it the second he refuses her offer to take a seat on the opposite bed. There’s too much anger; too much resent; too much pent up frustration from years of being apart. They’re not done. They never were, and he’d known, that night in the alley, that she was lying, because she did love him then, and she loves him still.
But she has no right to him now. She’d lost the right to anything they might have three and a half years ago.
For a while, they don’t say anything. Callum studies her warily from the doorway, an uncertain distrust in his eyes. The idea that he doesn’t trust her stings—but then, she hasn’t really given him a reason to, has she?
Then, at last, Rayla reaches into the pack at the foot of her bed and tosses him a little sack of coins.
He stares at her. Then the sack. Then her again.
“I didn’t find Viren,” Rayla begins at last. “I found them, though. I took them off Claudia when—when I ran into her in the Shiverglades.”
Something crosses his face. She’s not really sure what. Alarm, perhaps. Concern for his old friend. He purses his lips and upturns the sack. The coins spill into his palm, clinking gently against each other as he squints at the faces within them—and then his breath hitches and he looks up again, wide-eyed with disbelief.
“Yeah.” Rayla stares at her hands. “My parents. Runaan. Others he’s… collected along the way. Viren is—I don’t know where he is. I know he’s somewhere up north, and that he’s got a Startouch elf telling him what to do. I know they’re making plans for something big. I just don’t know what.”
“Then we have to go,” says Callum. “We have to stop them, and find a way to get your parents out, and—”
Rayla wants to laugh. We , he says, like nothing’s changed. We like she hadn’t spent three years purposefully staying away to keep him uninvolved in something as dangerous as this. “ We aren’t doing anything,” she says sharply. “I came back to warn you. The Human Kingdoms need to be prepared for whatever it is that’s coming, and you need to go home and tell Ez.”
That cold obstinance flashes in Callum’s eyes once more. “And what will you be doing, exactly?”
Rayla sets her jaw. “I’m going after him again,” she says. “Claudia said something when—when I took the coins off her. I think I know how to find him now.”
“ By yourself ?”
“Yeah, by myself ,” snaps Rayla. “I’m not putting anyone else in danger. My parents are my responsibility and no one else’s. I’m going after him alone.”
When he scowls at her this time, it’s like she’s said something to personally offend him. There’s hurt in his eyes more than there is anger, and gods, she wishes he would just be angry with her. It’d be so much easier to leave him again if he would just hate her like a normal person instead of insisting he wants to help. “Why?” he demands. “Why do you keep doing this? For crying out loud, Rayla, why is it only your responsibility?”
“Isn’t it?” she snarls. “They’re my parents. I can’t ask anyone else to put themselves in danger for me.”
“You’re not asking! Damn it, Rayla, I want to help! I can help! I spent a year and a half trying to track you down and learning every ounce of magic I came across just so help give you the closure you need to move on! Why won’t you let me?”
Their voices are rising again, but Rayla doesn’t care. She rises from the bed just as angry, just as frustrated, her fists clenched furiously at her sides. “Because I want you safe , Callum!” she snaps. “That’s why I left . Why can’t you see that? Why can’t you understand that I—”
“That you what?”
Rayla falters. The rest of the sentence sits in her mouth, caught on her tongue burnt sugar, a bittersweet truth she’s kept in her chest the whole time. That I love you . That I’ve always loved you and that I never stopped and that I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you because of me, and please Callum, please just take that at face value and don’t—
Callum lets out a sigh. Then he crosses the room, and when he does, finally, take a seat, he sits at the edge of her bed, an arm’s length between them, too far and too close at the same time. He runs his hands through his hair, his lips twisted in a sour grimace, and he huffs and tugs against her fingers until she’s sitting next to him. “Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
“I’m not an idiot, Rayla,” he says quietly. “I won’t ask you to say it, but even if it’s not the same as—as how you meant it before, I know some part of it’s still true because you wouldn’t be putting this much effort into this if it wasn’t. So I’m going to ask you this instead.” He pauses and swallows and stares at his hands, a bit like he’s hesitating and a bit like he’s steeling himself for some sort of confession, until finally, he looks at her. “What’s it going to take for you to believe that I want to help you because I love you?”
The straightforwardness of it knocks the wind out of Rayla’s lungs. She’d always hoped that he might, even after all these years, because she had certainly never stopped, but hearing it is something different altogether. It’s selfish. As much as she wishes he’d move on and let her do this on her own, she’s relieved too, and the mess of emotion in her gut swirls uneasily with guilt growing more prominent than ever before. “Why?” she asks, because it’s all she can manage. “ Why would you? After everything that’s happened—after everything I did —why would you still…?”
He scoffs to himself. “Because as much as I’m not an idiot… I’m a hell of a fool.” His lips twitch upwards sadly, ruefully, as he fiddles with his fingers. “I hate this,” he murmurs. “We’ve been together again maybe twenty minutes and all we’ve done is fight and yell at each other. It’s stupid. I still love you. I always have. And I’m mad that you left, and I haven’t forgiven you, but I love you more than I care about being right.”
“Stop.” It’s too much. Rayla’s heart is already shattered in her chest, but gods this hurts, and it hurts more than any truly hurtful words he could throw at her. How can he be so kind? So full of love? How can he sit there, heartbroken and desperate, and tell her he loves her still? “Stop it, Callum.”
“I can’t,” he says, and she believes him. She’s never seen him so helpless. “I tried. Rayla, for two years , I tried to let you go, and to not think about you but—I can’t do it. I don’t know how not to love you, and you can push me away all you want, but you’re always going to be there when I close my eyes and if anything happened to you—”
“ Enough , Callum.”
“ No. If you’re leaving again, the least you can do is hear me out, and I know , okay, I know you don’t love me the way you used to but—”
“‘ The way I used to ’?” Rayla lets out a hollow laugh. Her voice breaks with the last of her resolve, and she tries—she tries to blink the tears away but it’s too much all at once. “Of course, I still love you!” she cries. “I never stopped! Every day I was away, I thought about you, and about coming back but—how could I? After what I did, how was I ever supposed to face you again? And now you’re here, and you’re telling me that you still—that you still feel that way and gods, Callum, I don’t deserve it; I don’t deserve you. And you deserve so much better than me , and don’t you see ? That’s why I stayed away. I can’t stand the idea of you getting hurt and I’d rather you hate me than—than—”
She hiccoughs. Too late, she realizes how much of a mess she’s become. Her chest aches with every shaking inhale, and she presses the heels of her hands into her eyes in a poor attempt to keep her composure even though she knows it’s well and truly too late for any of that.
Callum doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t want him too. This is the hardest conversation she’s ever had and she wishes—oh, how she wishes —she could just let herself be weak in front of him but she’s well beyond that now. She curls into herself. Draws her thighs to her chest. Hides her face in the valley between her knees.
And then the bed dips beside her. The wood creaks as the weight shifts. Callum pries her hands from each other, one finger at a time, until he can hold her left between both of his.
“Look at us,” he murmurs. His thumb runs along the inside of her wrist, tracing the line where her binding used to sit. “How’d we even get here?”
Rayla says nothing because the answer is her. She brought them here. She’d ruined what they had.
“Rayla,” he tries again. “Rayla, look at me.”
“Look at me.” He tilts her face towards his with gentle hands. Tucks her hair behind her ears and wipes her tears away with tender fingers. “I don’t care what you did,” he says. “I don’t care what happened. It doesn’t matter. I love you. I will always love you, and you deserve to be loved. And if you have to leave again—if you’re not ready to come home—at least go knowing that.”
His face is so close. His breath tickles her lips. Rayla shudders, craving his touch and afraid of it at the same time. She tries feebly to bat him away but she can’t fight this—not after missing it so desperately for years.
“Callum,” she whispers. “ Please . I can’t stay. You know I can’t. You don’t want this. Not with me.”
Callum shakes his head. “Let me decide what I want,” he says, and then he closes the space between them at long, long last and Rayla’s heart all but explodes in her chest. His lips are just like she remembers them: warm, safe, comforting, and even the way he nips so very gently against her lip is full of pure, unadulterated love . Something within her bursts, and it’s like all the longing, all the feeling she’d tried so hard to dampen during her time away, surges forward at once. His hands are so warm against her face and she’s helpless; she’s hopeless; she’s gone .
She kisses him back tentatively—afraid he might come to his senses at any moment now and push her away the way that he should—but he doesn’t do that. He holds her closer still and his touch grows bolder with every second, every breath, every beat of the rapid staccato of his heart. It’s like he can’t hold her close enough and Rayla whimpers against him, yearning for him, for his love, but too ashamed to ask for it.
“How can you want this?” she asks, tearing herself from him in disbelief. “How can you want me , after what I did to you?”
He lets out a sad sort of chuckle. “I don’t really know. I just know that… I’m not whole without you. And if you—if you have to go, I don’t want you to go thinking you’re not loved. Because I know you, and you think you don’t deserve this and that you don’t matter, but you do , Rayla. You matter to me. You always will.”
Rayla breathes out. There’s truth in his words and love in his eyes, but she doesn’t believe it. She doesn’t know how.
Callum must see it. He tilts her face to his once more. He kisses her until she does.
It starts so gently. Rayla kisses him back with uncertainty on her lips and Callum hates it because it’s not her. The Rayla he’d fallen in love with was confident and vivacious, and she’d been reluctant to show her feelings once but she’d learnt to trust him enough over the month they spent bringing Zym home to grow out of it. This one is timid. Demure. So afraid of letting herself believe she deserves his affection that she almost doesn’t reciprocate. He only knows that she wants to be kissed at all because she trails after him when he parts from her for breath.
It’s not right, and he wishes she could just trust that he loves her; that she can be vulnerable and that he can look after her for a change, so he holds her face in his hands with tender fingers, hoping the sweetness of his lips might translate the purity of his love in a way she’ll allow herself to understand. He kisses her everywhere: her ears, her cheeks, her nose, but he returns to her mouth every so often to remind her that he’s there. She’s safe and it’s okay to let her guard down and slowly, slowly , she relaxes under his touch.
Something like a whimper slips from her throat as he grows bolder; as his fingers become ever more insistent; as he tries to hold her to him in the closest possible way. He clutches at the worn material of her shirt as it starts to feel maddeningly obstructive, and suddenly, it’s not so gentle anymore—suddenly there's heat in his actions, and his hands are scrabbling against clothes he wishes weren't there. It’s like a dam bursts between them and three years of pent up emotion and frustration come spilling out in the form of heated lips and frenzied fingers.
Rayla groans against him, pressing her body to his until their chests are flush together. She claws at his shoulders. Shudders as his lips move to her neck. Callum nips at her skin, relishing the sounds that bubble past her lips as he kisses his way down her throat and all of a sudden, his need is getting the better of him and he’s easing her backwards until she’s beneath him, moonlit hair splayed out across the pillow, cheeks stained pink with her want, her chest heaving with every trembling breath. Callum takes her in with wide-eyed awe and Rayla studies him back, shy, cautious, nervous, in a way, but hungry too . Her fingers toy curiously with the button at the collar of his shirt, and Callum swallows, remembering too late that his experience in this regard is somewhat limited.
They’d never been particularly forward in their youth, but there had never been another. Not for him. Callum had never even considered it. He pauses, just for a moment, just to gauge her reaction, but the pause is all it takes for Rayla’s doubts to flood back.
“You don’t want this,” she says again, a note of disappointment in the quiet of her voice.
Callum backtracks and kisses her again. “I do,” he says quickly. “Rayla. I do . I just—I’ve never—you’re the only one I’ve ever wanted this with.”
Rayla’s breath hitches. “You didn’t—there weren’t others—?”
“Mm-mm,” he breathes, shaking his head. “It’s always been you.”
He hears the relief in her sigh when she looses it. “Same. The whole time… I didn’t even consider…”
Callum lets out a laugh. “We really are a mess, aren’t we?”
“Yeah.” Rayla dares to smile. It’s little more than a twitch of her lips, but it makes Callum’s heart soar because there — there she is. The spark is still there, and oh, how he’s missed it. How he’s missed the way her lips tilt upwards, lopsided, dimpling her cheek with a charm that’s just so her.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispers, pressing his nose to hers, his breath like the lightest caress upon her skin. “Gods, Rayla, I love you so much and I—I wish you would let me show you. I wish you trusted me enough to let me take care of you, for once, even if it’s just for tonight.”
Rayla sucks in a breath. It shudders on its way back out, and she shuts her eyes as she reaches up to trace the line of his jaw. “I do trust you,” she manages. “And Callum… I—I love you too, but I’m—I’m scared. I’m scared of hurting you, and of letting you get hurt, and I—”
Callum shakes his head. “You don’t have to be scared for me. I can look after myself these days, and I can look after you too. Please let me. Please , Rayla, let me take care of you.”
She hesitates. Callum waits with his heart beating in his throat, caught halfway between an inhale and an exhale until, finally, she leans up to kiss him . There's still uncertainty in it, but it’s the boldest she’s allowed herself to be and Callum understands: she's sorry, she loves him, she's letting him in.
He breathes out. When he kisses her back, he does so with fervour—it's hot and heady and deliberate, and it draws a moan from Rayla’s lips as he nibbles against them. Her fingers undo the button at his throat, finding the skin beneath it and tracing lines against his clavicle before they move to the next one, and then the next, and then the next after that. His shirt falls open between them—Rayla touches his chest with tentative, timid fingers, and he sighs at the tenderness of her hands.
“You’re so different now,” she mumbles.
“So are you,” murmurs Callum. She has curves he doesn't remember, and the new contours of her body are noticeable despite the way her borrowed clothes hang loose on her frame. Her breasts are fuller, her waist feels smaller in his hands, the curve of her hips is ever alluring. She’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen in his life, flushed skin and reddened lips and shaking breaths especially. He plants a kiss against her jaw while he finds the opening of her shirt and he peels the material away slowly, revelling in the sight of her skin. Goosebumps form against the pads of his fingers as he trails his lips along the edge of her breast bindings; as he untucks the end of the material and eases them away from the delicate flesh; as he caresses her bosom with gentle, loving hands. “You’re so perfect,” he whispers, his touch reverent and feather light.
“You are ,” he insists, bringing his lips to the gentle swell of her breasts. “You are beautiful and perfect, and gods, Rayla, I wish you could see what I see. You’re amazing and you deserve to be loved and cared for, the same way you love and care for other people.” He trails his lips over her before she can rebut him, paying special attention to the sensitive skin of her nipples until they harden against his tongue.
Rayla moans and arches against him, hands carding desperately through his hair as he works. He only stops when his fingers brush something raised and tender at the curve of her waist—a scar, he realizes, red and angry and obviously still healing—and he frowns at her and studies it with concern. “What happened here?”
Rayla glances away. “It’s a long story,” she mumbles.
Callum stares, and while concern builds in his gut, he doesn’t like the way he can practically see her self doubt creeping back into her eyes. She’s here now, and she’s okay for all other intents and purposes, so his peace of mind be damned, this is for her, and he’s not about to let a scar get in the way of showing her how much he loves her.
“Will you tell me about it later?” he asks finally.
“Maybe,” she murmurs.
It’s enough. Callum still doesn’t like the look of it, but the last thing she wants, he thinks, is for him to stop now because he’s deterred by the way it mars her skin. It’s not that at all. If anything, guilt churns in his gut because it’s there to begin with and he wasn’t there to stop it, but he pushes that from the forefront of his mind and makes a mental note to deal with it later. He kisses the edges of it instead: carefully, lovingly, a promise that he’s not bothered by it, and that he thinks she’s still beautiful all the same.
He moves to her pants next. He unties the drawstring with deft hands and tucks his thumbs into the waistband to pull them downwards with her panties in one fell swoop. She shifts her weight to help him, and then she’s naked before him and Callum forgets how to breathe. Every part of her is intoxicating: every inch of her bared skin wants to be touched, and every curve and valley of her body wants so desperately to be explored.
“Is this okay?” he asks.
Rayla licks her lips. Her breath trembles. Something uncertain flashes in the lilac if her eyes. “Yeah,” she answers. “I’m just… I’m a little…”
“Nervous?” Callum puffs out a chuckle. “So am I. But I’m here, okay? I’ve got you. If—at any point—you want to stop—”
“I don’t want to stop.”
“Just in case you do—”
“I’ll tell you,” she says. “You—you don’t have to worry about anything else either. There’s… tea that I can get that’ll…”
She doesn’t finish the sentence, but Callum understands. He almost hadn’t even thought about it, but he’s grateful she brought it up, even if he finds himself immediately distracted again by the way her hands have found their way to the edge of his trousers. She glances at him briefly, looking for permission, before she tugs them down over his hips. He groans, relieved, as his erection springs free from its constraints. He hadn’t realized how tight his pants had become and Rayla’s eyes widen at the sight of him. She touches him lightly, running a finger under his length, her lips parting in breathless curiosity.
Callum hums appreciatively, but he catches her hand and presses her back into the bed before he lets himself get carried away. “Let me,” he whispers. His lips land on her skin again, this time at the bones of her hips. He sucks. He nips. Rayla bucks underneath him and her hands form fists his hair. She gasps at his ministrations, her whimpers growing ever more desperate as he toys with her, and she rubs her thighs together while he teases, craving his touch lower, lower, lower still—
Callum obliges her. She’s wet between her legs, and he runs his forefinger along her slit, fascinated by how the fluid coats his fingers. The way she groans is hypnotizing, and he dips into her opening experimentally—Rayla’s breaths dissolve into gasps even as he kisses her to distract her from the way he fiddles until he finds her little bundle of nerves and presses just so —
“ Callum, ” she moans. She tugs at his hair and bucks her hips against him, wanting, needing more. “ Oh , Callum—”
“Good?” he asks her.
Rayla only clings to him in response. Her folds grow slicker as he plays, and, curiously, he leaves her clit to slip a finger inside her. She gasps, and her walls, already deliciously tight, spasm once around the intrusion. He pumps once, twice, three times, enjoying the way her cries grow louder and higher in pitch as he plays. He slips a second finger in, and gods , she’s so warm and feels so good that he can't even imagine how she might feel around his cock. He curls his fingers within her, pumping until her muscles stiffen and her back arches and she’s all but begging him to let her finish—
“Moon and Stars, Callum, I—I need to come, please —”
“I’ve got you,” he whispers. “Let go, Rayla, I’m here. Let go.”
And she does. Her walls clench around him as she tosses her head back and cries into the night, her voice strangled by her pleasure. She writhes beneath him, riding out her orgasm on his fingers, until she’s gasping for breath and her body twitches around him as it fades. He’s never seen her so undone; so uncomposed and wanton, and the fire in Callum’s abdomen grows hungrier still.
She shudders as he withdraws from her, and gods, she’s radiant in the afterglow of her pleasure. Her skin is flushed. Her lips are parted. Her breasts shift with the rise and fall of her chest as she tries to catch her breath. Her wetness glistens in the moonlight, clinging to the coarse hair of her sex and shining against the inside of her thighs and Callum can’t help but watch her for a while, mesmerized by the way she tries to recover.
He's read books about this, but even the most explicit ones felt mechanical and half-hearted. He'd never imagined anything could make him want this so much—but this is Rayla, he remembers, and he wonders why he's so surprised. She really is everything to him, and the only one he has ever wanted be this kind of intimacy with. His need to please her is selfish as much as it is selfless, but if it came down to it, he could not have his pleasure at all and he wouldn’t care—he just wants her to know that he is here and she is loved.
He turns her face to him and kisses her deeply when her breathing settles, and his fingers, still slick with her arousal, leave glistening trails against her skin as he drags them across her abdomen. “Do you love me?” he wonders aloud, before he really has the chance to think about it.
“Yes,” she sighs, groping clumsily for his hand. She brings it to her lips to press a long kiss into the back before she opens her eyes again at last and says it again. “Yes. So much.”
“Do you trust me?”
Rayla nods. “Sometimes more than I trust myself.”
He smiles at her then and climbs over her carefully. She’s wet enough, he thinks, and he lines himself up with her entrance, pretending (for her) that he has some inkling of what he’s doing. His hands tremble as he grasps her hips and presses against her, and she’s so slippery that, for a moment, he’s afraid he might miss. But Rayla put her hands over his, looking unafraid for the first time all night, her warmth like a balm to soothe the nerves threatening to break his resolve.
“I trust you,” she says again, her voice scarcely more than a whisper, but it bolsters his confidence and settles the thrum of his heart.
He stifles a moan as he presses into her and he thinks he almost faints. Rayla’s core is warm and wet and inviting, and she feels so incredible around him that it takes him a moment to steel himself lest he come too soon. Somewhere, he hears her groaning: her nails are digging into the backs of his hands, her thighs are tense around his hips, her eyes are shut tight as she adjusts to his girth.
It takes them both a minute. Rayla’s nails leave welts in his hands as she loosens them, and Callum’s world tilts back into sharp focus as he grows used to the tightness of her walls.
He’s panting, he realizes late. The air puffs past his lips in short little bursts and he grips her waist like a man desperate for purchase before finally, finally , he begins to move.
Rayla moans for him, shifting her hips with him as best as she can with the little leverage that she has. The sensation is maddening. He comes dangerously close to losing himself almost immediately because of the way she cries out for him, a perfect little o forming on her lips he thrusts into her in slow deliberate strokes.
“ Gods , you feel good,” he groans, scrambling for her fingers and clutching them tight within his. “I missed you so much.”
Rayla gasps when his mouth returns to her neck. She clings to him like she’s afraid she might drown without him, legs fast around his waist, fingers like claws in between his. “And I missed you,” she manages. “Oh, Callum, I— ah —I’m—”
Callum shakes his head. He can hear the apology trying to push itself past her lips, but he doesn’t want to hear it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It never really did because he loves her, and nothing she can do would ever make him love her less. “It’s okay,” he murmurs against her. “Rayla, it’s okay. I know. Everything’s okay.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I know.” He lifts his head to press his forehead against hers, his breath tickling her lips as he pants with the effort of his concentration. “I love you,” he tells her. “I always will. It doesn’t matter what you did. You’re here with me now.” He shifts a little, angling his hips so he can reach deeper within her, until he can feel the tip of his cock rubbing against her front wall and her cunt begins to flutter around his length.
Another moan tears from her throat, strangled and hoarse and incoherent with lust. Callum savours it—the sounds of pleasure that force their way out of her fuels the fire in his belly and he knows now, more than ever, that he is wholly and unequivocally hers whether she stays with him after this or not. “I don’t know how to be without you, Rayla,” he confesses, slowing his pace enough to press a languid kiss against her lips. “I love you so much. I just want to protect you as much as you do me.”
“Callum, I—I know you do, I’m so—I’m so sorry—”
“You don’t have to apologise. Just… let me help you. Let me take care of you. Let me back in, Rayla, please. ”
She gasps by way of response, and she meets his thrusts halfway and arches her back as she nears her release. Callum fights his own as his breath starts to fail him. He can feel her walls tightening around him and it’s so hard to think, so hard to concentrate on anything but her. He releases her hands and straightens over her, fingers finding their way back to that little bundle of nerves to help her along. Her breasts shift with his movements, and Rayla stifles her cries with the back of her hand as Callum picks up the pace. He’s so close. His mind is racing. He grits his teeth, desperate to bring her to completion before he loses himself entirely, and it’s almost too much—his inexperience gets the better of him and his vision blurs just as Rayla’s voice pitches upwards—
“Callum!” she cries. “Oh, Moon and Stars, yes, yes, yes—”
Her walls clench around him and Callum can’t do it anymore. Pleasure explodes within his belly, and he fills her as he mutters curses under his breath.
He almost doesn’t remember what happens after that. He all but collapses over her, frustrated that he couldn’t quite do more for her, even as she whimpers beneath him, panting while she floats down from her high. He’d wanted more for her. He’d wanted her to forget the notion that he’d ever resent her for anything. He’d wanted to please her until she knew without a doubt that he could never not love her. “I’m sorry,” he huffs. “That’s—that’s not how I wanted this to go.”
Rayla says nothing for a while. She’s got an arm thrown over her eyes and her lips parted and her chest is still rising and falling with every breathless sigh. And then, she sniffles.
Callum blinks. “Hey.”
“I really am sorry,” she chokes. “Gods, Callum, I don’t deserve you. You’re so good , and if I could take it all back—if I could go back in time and stop my past self from ever leaving—”
He almost laughs. Here, he’d spent most of the night trying to convince her that she does deserve him, and that everything’s okay now, and still , she thinks she needs to apologise. He chuckles in spite of himself, drawing her to him with gentle hands and a kiss against the silver of her hair, and maybe—maybe his actions aren’t what she needs anymore. Maybe she just needs time to accept his forgiveness, and her own.
Callum smiles against her hair. He holds her to him wordlessly, his arms warm and secure around her waist, and lets her cry until her tears run out and she believes that everything really is okay.
“I left because I was scared,” she murmurs later.
The tears had stopped about an hour ago, and they’re huddled together beneath the sheets of the too-small bed. The moon is high through the window, and neither of them really know how late, or how early, it is, but it doesn’t matter. Here, it’s timeless. Here, it’s safe.
Rayla breathes in the still air, counting the beats of Callum’s heart against her cheek, quietly enjoying the way he plays with her hair and strokes at her horns. It’s an intimacy she’d always hoped to share with him but hadn’t thought possible until recently and this, right now, feels dreamlike and far too perfect to be real.
Callum hums inquisitively, and his fingers still, just for a moment.
“I never told you,” says Rayla quietly. “I had—I had nightmares for weeks after the Battle of the Storm Spire, and you knew, I think, but I never told you what about.”
“You didn’t,” says Callum. “Although I can hazard a guess.”
Rayla snorts despite herself. “Viren… didn’t even know my name,” she murmurs. “But he’s the reason for—for everything. He stole Zym’s egg. He took my parents from me, and captured Runaan, and put them in those blasted coins. People on both sides died because of him, and if—if anything had happened to you… if he’d taken you away too…” She trails off uncertainly, but Callum seems to understand.
“You know he’d have to try really hard to take me away from you.”
“I know.” But Rayla shudders anyway and squeezes her eyes shut. “It wasn’t rational. I wasn’t thinking straight. But… I was so scared, Callum, and every second he was out there was another second you could disappear and…”
“I get it.” Callum sighs gently and strokes her shoulders with light fingers. “Where did you go?”
Rayla swallows. “Everywhere. I went where all the rumours and the whispers said there might be dark magic, and mostly I found nothing. I thought about coming back but… I couldn’t. How could I come back empty handed? How could I ever face you again if I’d left and it was all for nothing? So—so I kept searching, and one day…” She takes a breath. “I heard the rumours about a Startouch elf and a couple of human mages in the north. So that’s where I went and…”
She hears him swallow. “Claudia.”
“Yeah,” whispers Rayla. “Guess you know where that scar came from then.”
He pauses. Rayla thinks she hears his heart quicken and his grip around her shoulder tightens, just for a moment. “I… thought about it,” he admits. “What happened?”
Rayla shrugs. “We fought. She’s… different. A lot more powerful. She had the coins and I—I fought her for them when she told me what they were. I won. I got away. But not before—not before she got me with dark magic.”
“Hm.” Callum’s fingers trail downwards, and Rayla’s breath hitches as he touches the edges of the reddened skin. She doesn’t like looking at it—it’s too angry, and too large. It had taken weeks to heal this much, and there’s a fairly high likelihood that it won’t quite heal at all. “I should have been with you,” he whispers. “I never should have stopped following you. I could have stopped this.”
“No you couldn’t have.”
“Maybe not, but at least you wouldn’t have been alone.” Callum takes in a shaking breath. There’s an edge in his voice that Rayla doesn’t like—part guilt, part regret, part hatred for someone he once called a friend.
She swallows. “Ibis found me,” she murmurs. “I… might not have made it, if it wasn’t for him. I stayed with him for a while before—before he said he was needed in Katolis and that I should… come home.”
Another pause. Callum presses his lips together and his fingers still once more. “Will you come home now?” he asks quietly.
Rayla hesitates. “I don’t know,” she says. “You might have… forgiven me but… whether or not I’m welcome to come back with you is something else. In any case, Viren’s still out there, and—”
“He can wait another day. Come home, Rayla. Come and at least say hello to Ez and Soren. Ethari’s there too, and—”
Rayla swallows. “Ethari’s there?”
“Yeah.” Callum smiles against her hair. “He… doesn’t know that you left. He’s worried about you. Please, Rayla. Come home. Let them know you’re okay, and then… if you have to go again—if you won’t let me go with you, at least you can go rested, and with food or something to keep you going.”
“You would go with me? Even after all of this?”
“How could I do anything else?” Callum shifts and tilts her face up to meet his. There’s so much in his eyes. Rayla scarcely knows where to start, but he kisses her before she can really study them, a promise that he’s not angry anymore, and that he’d go with her still, if she asked. “I’d follow you to the ends of the earth and back again, Rayla. Whatever you need, I’ll do it. Please just… don’t go thinking you have to be alone.”
Rayla falls silent. Her heart aches with a love she wishes she knew how to express, but it feels too big for her, and certainly too big for any words to convey. Instead, she presses a kiss to Callum’s lips and sighs against him, believing, really believing for the first time, that it’s true. “I know,” she murmurs, and she means it.
When Callum wakes in the morning, he half expects to wake up alone.
He isn’t. Rayla is still tucked against him, half buried between his body and the blankets, a peace on her face that probably hasn’t been there in years.
“You stayed,” he whispers, and Rayla stirs and blinks tiredly in his arms.
He almost laughs. “I’m glad.”
She smiles. “So am I.”
in these coming years
many things will change
but the way i feel
will remain the same
lay us down, we’re in love