Every Thursday, Callum receives a phone call at something like ten in the evening.
It’s not as inconvenient as it sounds. He’s a better roommate than most and Rayla’s been rooming with him long enough now that she’s grown used to the late night chatter. He’s an exchange student here. Katolis is a long way away, and she gets it, really—it gets lonely all the way out in Spire, and her own parents are only a few hours by car. She can’t even imagine how much worse it is for him.
In any case, this is how it starts. It’s early December. There’s tinsel in the hallways and tinny Christmas carols playing through the dorm room speakers. Classes are winding down for the winter break, and Rayla is on their couch with a bowl of popcorn and a half written essay due tomorrow afternoon. There’s ink on her nose, she thinks—she can see it just out of the corner of her eye—and some terrible romcom on TV for sound, and Callum is at the kitchen table, tapping his fingers against the wood and waiting for his phone to buzz.
It’s nine fifty-three. He’s been sitting there staring at his Facebook feed since eight-thirty, which is ridiculous on its own, and it would be annoying, probably, if Rayla’s essay wasn’t such a pressing issue. She thinks he’s moping? She hasn’t really been paying attention, but she’d snuck a peek at his phone screen on her way past him earlier and caught him staring at some girl’s engagement post and had put the pieces together from there.
She hadn’t asked, of course, because that’s just rude. For the most part, it feels like he wants to be left alone anyway, and he’s not complaining about her shitty Christmas romcom the way he usually does so he must be happy wallowing there.
When ten o’clock hits and his phone still hasn’t gone off, Rayla sighs and hits the pause on the remote. It’s an ad break. She doesn’t really know why she does it. The TV freezes on a news report about another engagement—some royal engagement this time, a prince and some duchess, God, this time of year sucks —and Rayla swivels around on the couch, assignment forgotten on the coffee table, and fixes Callum with a look .
“Phones go both ways, you know,” she says drily.
He bristles. “They’re probably just running late.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you could, you know, call them instead of sitting there like a sad looking duck.” She smirks at him and tosses a bit of popcorn at his head. “Who got engaged, anyway?”
Callum draws in a breath. He glances at the TV, winces, then turns back to his phone with a grimace before he finally, finally turns the screen off and pushes back on his chair. “Just an old friend,” he says. “Closer to a family friend, I guess. That’s probably why they’re running late.”
Rayla snorts into a handful of popcorn. “Be honest,” she says. “Old girlfriend?”
His lips twitch upwards into a rueful smile. “You could say that.”
Rayla raises an eyebrow at him, but he doesn’t elaborate and she doesn’t ask. Instead, he gets up, pads into the kitchen, and fills the kettle looking a bit like he’s trying too hard to be cool about this except he knows that it’s not working, like, at all . His shoulders are too slumped. His frown is too sad. He’s dressed pretty crisply compared to Rayla’s threadbare pyjamas, but even his button-up is too wrinkled to pass as someone coping well with a not-quite rejection.
It’s none of Rayla’s business. Not really. She just doesn’t like seeing him so down. They’ve been friends for a fair while now—he moved here four years ago to do his postgrad and they’ve been roomies for two of those years—but she’s only ever seen him this miserable a handful of times. It’s not nice.
She clucks her tongue. “Come off it, Callum,” she says at last. Not the best way to cheer him up, probably, but he doesn’t object. “So what if some girl got engaged? You’re too good for her anyway.”
“You’ve never even met her.”
“Don’t need to,” says Rayla. “You’re smart and kind and brave and… you know. My friend. My best friend. I feel like I would be the expert here. You’re too good for her.”
He laughs then. It’s a bit sad sounding still, but it’s a laugh all the same. “Well thanks,” he chuckles. “That means a lot.” He waits until the kettle switches itself off before he turns, sighs, and takes two mugs from the cupboard above his head. “It just never really went anywhere,” he says at last, “but it still feels like a missed opportunity, you know? We were really good friends, and I thought… one day…” He trails off wistfully, and Rayla’s heart breaks for him.
She fiddles awkwardly with the unpopped kernels in the bottom of her bowl while Callum fills their mugs with tea and brings hers to the coffee table.
“You really liked her, huh?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “I did. I just… wasn’t enough.”
They settle into a pause. In the end, Rayla reaches over to him and grasps his hand, hoping there’s enough comfort in it to soothe the ache.
“Thanks,” he chuckles. It’s short lived. He flinches when he looks up at the screen, but shakes his head without saying anything. Then, finally, he sighs.“What were you watching?”
Rayla snorts. “Some dumb Christmas romcom. There’s a prince. She’s in love. The usual bull.” She laughs to herself, and Callum smiles wanly and helps himself to her popcorn.
“Is it entertaining, at least?”
“It’s trash,” she says, “but it’s fun. You can watch the end with me while you wait for your phone call?”
Callum snorts. “Or you could put on literally anything else,” he says, daring to sound hopeful, and Rayla smirks at him and shakes her head.
“Not a chance,” she teases. “Come on, it’s stupid and fun and we can make fun of the rest of it. That’s the whole point of these Christmas romcoms, right?”
He scowls good-naturedly, and he opens his mouth to answer only for his phone to buzz before the sass can make its way out. “Oh no,” he drawls, “what a shame. Guess you can’t finish your crappy movie.”
“A tragedy, truly,” says Rayla. She tosses another bit of popcorn at him when he gets up (he tries to dodge it only to trip over the edge of the rug) and rolls her eyes as he answers the phone.
It’s his mum today. Sometimes it’s his brother, and sometimes it’s his dad—Rayla’s grown so used to the sound of their voices that she can tell even from here. She’s never met or spoken to any of them, but they sound like lovely people. They’re always doting over him and sending him care packages and making sure he’s eating well, and it’s sweet to listen to, even if Callum tries to act like he’s embarrassed by it.
“Hey Mom,” Callum greets, and his mother’s voice sounds over the phone so loudly that Rayla can’t even pretend she’s not listening.
“Callum! Honey! Oh, it’s so good to hear from you! How are you?”
“Fine as always,” chuckles Callum. Rayla can see him flushing a little from the corner of her eye. “How’s everything over there?”
“Brilliant!” says his mum. “Everything’s fantastic on our end. Wait ‘til you hear the news! Claudia’s—”
“Engaged, I know.” Callum winces a little bit, but he does a solid job of keeping his disappointment out of his voice. “It’s everywhere. She must be thrilled.”
“She is! Oh, honey, it’s been so exciting! But—” She pauses there, and Rayla glances back at Callum, intrigued by the way she’s stopped. “Are you okay with all of this?”
Callum lets out a laugh. Or, rather, he tries to. It comes out closer to cough. Regardless, he’s making an effort and Rayla commends him for it. “Of course,” he manages. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m happy for her.”
Callum shifts guiltily in his seat. “Yeah,” he lies—because it is a lie, and Rayla can see it on his face. “She—she deserves someone like—like Kasef. He’s nice.”
“You’ve never met him,” says his mum pointedly, and Rayla almost laughs in her seat because they’re so alike it’s ridiculous. “Although he is… a bit stuffy." There’s a pause. Rayla wonders if his mum might be choosing her words carefully, because when she speaks again, her voice comes out much gentler. “Listen. He and Claudia want to have a little bit of an engagement party over Christmas. You're invited, of course. Why don’t you come home for the holidays so you can go? Goodness knows it’s been forever since you’ve come to visit.”
Callum hesitates. It’s true—he’s been home twice in the time Rayla’s known him, which is ridiculous for someone who waits on his family’s calls every Thursday evening—but there’s something reluctant in his face that needs no translation. “I’m—uh—it’s a busy time over here.”
“Hush,” says his mum. “Your thesis can wait. Come home for the winter, Callum. Ez misses you so much and it’s just not been the same without you. Unless…” She pauses again. “Unless you’re not okay with all of this?”
Callum scowls into the phone. “Of course I’m okay with it,” he snaps, probably with a bit more bite than he means.
“Oh,” comes the response, “it just seems a bit like you’re not quite over—”
“I am ,” he grumbles. “It’s been years , Mom. I’m just busy, and there’s a lot to do over here, and—” He stops. He catches Rayla’s eye. He takes a breath. “I’m… spending Christmas with my girlfriend this year.”
The effect is immediate. Rayla’s eyebrows shoot so far up her forehead they almost disappear into her hair. She blinks at him, mouth stretched into a thin, unamused smile, murder glinting in her eyes, and Callum shuts his eyes tight and mouths sorry to her just as his mum practically squawks into the phone.
“Your girlfriend?” she all but shrieks. “What? When? Why haven’t I heard about this?”
“Why haven’t I heard about this?” hisses Rayla, and Callum winces and shushes her as his mother babbles into his ear.
“Oh, I should have known!” gasps his mum. “It’s that Rayla girl, isn’t it? You always talk so highly of her, I should have figured it out years ago! Oh, Callum, I’m so happy for you! You’ve done a very good job of keeping it secret, my love, you know how these things can get—”
“Mom.” Callum breathes a sigh, long and tired and patient, before he sets the phone down and puts it on mute. His mother gabs away, blissfully unaware that he’s not even listening, and Callum runs a hand over his face and turns to Rayla. “I’m sorry!” he says. “It just came out!”
“Take it back,” snaps Rayla. “Tell her the truth.”
“No, listen, if you run with it, I won’t have to go home for Christmas and to this stupid engagement party, please Rayla—”
“No one’ll ever know, and it’ll just be a little lie that I use this Christmas and then we never have to talk about it again. Please. ”
Rayla glares at him. In the pause, his mother titters happily about Christmas plans and dinners and reunions, but it’s the shine in his eyes that gets her. This thing with his family friend seems like it’s been hard on him, and honestly, he could use a win, even if it’s just an excuse to get out of having to fly back to Katolis for his ex’s engagement party. She steels herself. “ Fine .”
“Thank you ,” breathes Callum, and he turns the mute off the phone and brings it back to his ear. “Listen, Mom, it’s nice I was invited but I can’t. There’s too much going on over here and we already have plans.”
“But honey,” says his mum. “We miss you so much. Ez is considering going to Lux Aurea to spend some time with your aunts next Christmas, and we won’t be together again as a family in who knows how long. ”
“I’m not ditching Rayla over Christmas.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Callum,” snorts his mother. “ Bring her with you! We’d love to meet her!”
Rayla presses her lips into a threatening smile. “Don’t you dare,” she hisses.
“Mom, I’m not going to ask her to buy a ticket to Katolis three weeks before Christmas.”
“Oh, honey, no,” his mother says. “We wouldn't ask her to do that, either. That's just rude. Hold on." There's a pause on the line, and when his mother speaks again, it's not to him. "Ez. Darling. Can you book a couple of plane tickets for Callum? Yep, you heard right. Two."
There's a muffled sounding “WHAT?” in the background, and Rayla climbs out of the couch with her fists at her sides. "Callum, I swear to God— "
But Callum’s panic speaks loud enough for both of them. Suddenly, he’s standing too, wide-eyed and pale faced, knuckles white around his phone like he thinks he can salvage the situation if he holds it tight enough. “Mom, no , it’s fine—”
“Who is it?” Rayla hears Ez ask. “Is it Rayla? His roommate? I knew it. Mom, can I—” There’s a scuffle on the line, and but when Ez speaks again, he’s much easier to hear. “There’s a direct flight leaving next Thursday. It’s at stupid o’clock in the evening but it’ll get you here at six on the Friday. Is that too soon?”
“Ez, don’t —”
“Nah, that’s heaps of time! Last time we spoke, you said mid-semester break starts tomorrow, so that’ll give you almost a whole week to pack.”
“Ez, seriously, don’t!”
For the first time all conversation, there’s a pause on the line. Ez seems to be better at reading Callum than his mother, because when he speaks again, there’s disappointment in his voice. “Oh,” he says. “You're not coming home?"
Oh, God , even Rayla almost breaks for him. Callum falters. “You guys are just kinda rushing into this,” he says weakly. “I haven’t asked her if she wants to come.”
“It could be a surprise?” pipes Ez. “Come on, Callum, please? You haven’t been home for Christmas in two years, and I won’t be here next year! We just… really miss you.”
There’s another pause. Rayla glares a warning at Callum, but the malice in it fails.
He sucks in a breath. And then—
“Fine. Okay. We’ll come.”
There’s an explosion of sound on the line. Rayla thinks it’s supposed to be Ez but if that excited squeal were any higher, they might have dogs appearing in the hall. She scowls at him, but Callum only squeezes his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“ Easy done then!” says Ez happily. "You're all booked and ready. I got you the best seats I could but they’re pretty last minute so… sorry if they suck. I’ll send the e-tickets through to you in a bit! I’m so excited! I can’t believe you’re coming home for Christmas!”
Rayla stares at Callum. Callum stares back. There’s still chatter on the phone.
“All set?” asks their mum, presumably having taken the phone back from Ez. “That was quick! Oh, it’ll be such a lovely surprise for Rayla too. She’s never been to Katolis, has she? Listen, honey, we’ve still got some things that need doing so I’m sorry to cut this short but we can have a proper catch-up when you get here, okay? We’ll see you soon! Love you!”
“Bye Callum!” calls Ez. “Say hi to Rayla from us!”
The phone beeps. The screen turns off. Callum pulls it from his ear and stares at it looking like a stunned fish as silence echoes through their apartment.
“What have you done ?” whispers Rayla.
“I—" Callum swallows and sinks back into his seat at a loss. "I didn't think—"
" Obviously .” The phone buzzes once more to spite them, and a notification for an email titled Ur tickets! blinks on the screen. Rayla slumps onto the armrest of the couch with her heart beating in her ears and her breath stuck on the exhale as the mess of the situation settles heavily in her stomach. “ Fuck. ”
“I’m so sorry,” Callum manages at last. “I didn’t mean to drag you into this! I just—I didn’t— God. I’ll—um—I’ll cancel the tickets. I’ll cop it, no sweat off your back, and I’ll—I’ll tell Mom and Ez the truth and go to Claudia’s thing on my own and we can pretend this never happened—”
Rayla stops him there. She should agree with him. This is his fault, and it’s not her responsibility to help him fix it. He can come clean on his own and leave her well and truly out of it, thank you very much—but the image of him turning up at his ex’s engagement party by himself is—
Rayla’s not heartless. Callum’s her friend. Her best friend. She can’t do that to him.
“No,” she says at last. “No. You’re not doing that.”
“I’m not doing what?”
“Going to Katolis on your own for Christmas and your dumb ex’s engagement party.” Rayla sets her jaw, resolute in her poor decision making, but hey, at least it’s something they have in common. “When are those flights booked for?”
Callum gawks at her. “Rayla, come on, I can’t ask you to—”
“Well, you didn’t ,” she says pointedly, and perhaps a little more aggressively than she means, “but that’s not the point. You’re not asking. The tickets have been paid for anyway. When are those flights?”
Callum pauses like he’s about to argue, but Rayla gives him a look and motions at his phone. He sighs and unlocks it. “Next Thursday,” he mutters. “And the return flight isn’t until…” He blanches. “After New Years.”
Two and a half weeks. Christ. Rayla clucks her tongue. "Look," she says. "I'll do it. It’s just like pretend, right? How hard can that be? Plus your family seems nice and a free holiday’s a free holiday no matter how you slice it. But you owe me. Coffee for the rest of the time we're rooming together and no more complaints about my shitty taste in movies. Deal?”
Callum hesitates. There’s uncertainty on his face, but Rayla knows him, and that uncertainty is concern for her more than it is anything else. This situation aside, he really is a gentleman and a sweetheart, and how that ex of his could ever pass him over is beyond her. He smiles. “Deal,” he says finally. “Thanks Rayla.”
She scoffs. “I would say ‘any time’ but if you pull this kind of thing again, I’ll murder you. Now shush. We’ll deal with the rest of this crap in the morning. Let me finish my essay and watch my stupid movie.”
He pouts at her. “But these all end the same.”
“Ah-ah! Zip it. We had a deal.” Rayla tosses another piece of popcorn at him and settles back into the couch. “Leave me alone, okay? I just want to know if this woman gets her prince or not.”
(She does. Obviously. There was never really any doubt).
The next week passes mostly without incident. Rayla gets her essay in without any problems and spends the first days of her mid-semester break being lectured by Callum on what and what not to expect.
“Bring snow gear,” he tells her the Sunday before they leave. “And maybe some formalwear for the engagement party. Not, like, business casual. Claudia’s parties can get pretty intense. I mean, like, formal wear.”
Rayla tears her eyes away from her closet to make a face at him. “What’s she throwing, a gala?”
He smiles but it’s weak and a little sheepish. “I wouldn’t put it past her.”
At first she thinks he’s joking, but the apology on his face is real. Rayla purses her lips and turns back to her closet. The last time she wore something that remotely resembled formalwear was for her undergrad graduation ball, and even that had barely passed. It’s still in here, of course, hidden away in the back corner of her wardrobe in its drycleaning suit—a tea-length bell-shaped dress in deep forest green—but whether or not it’s appropriate for a gala is another question altogether.
“We can find you something there?” offers Callum. “Mom’d lose her mind at the idea of taking my…” A breath hisses in. “Girlfriend shopping.”
Rayla huffs. “How about I bring it anyway? Keep my options open and all that.” She heaves a sigh, feeling the regret building in her bones as she wrestles her graduation dress out of the closet. “Anything else?”
“Um.” Callum pauses and shuffles a little on the spot. Something builds on his lips but he shakes his head. “Nah. I think that’s most of it. We’ll be staying at Mom and Dad’s so we won’t have to worry too much about laundry.”
“Sounds fair to me.” Rayla shrugs. Her suitcase has been on the floor for days now, but the packing’s been going slowly, in part because she’s lazy, and in part because of the way Callum keeps making suggestions about what to bring. It’s a little weird—it’s not like she’s never packed for a trip before, but she’s been watching him quietly in their downtime, and it’s hard to miss the way he’s been growing twitchier the closer they get to leaving.
She gets it. She’s kinda nervous too. It’s not everyday you meet your best friend’s parents and pretend to be his girlfriend, and it’s doubly not everyday you have to do the same thing for his ex. The more she thinks about this plan, the stupider it sounds, but it’s too late to back out now and… well…
She and Callum are pretty close on their own, aren’t they? How hard could pretending to be together be?
Then, late on Thursday evening, while they’re waiting for their taxi to the airport, Callum’s nerves come to a head.
“Listen,” he says, fidgeting awkwardly with his keys. “My family’s… they can be a little much. If, at any point, you want to call the whole thing off and come clean, I’d get it, okay? Because—uh—they’re—w-we’re—um—”
Rayla almost laughs at him. She’s never seen him so anxious, and she was there when he had to defend his thesis to the U of X academic advisory board. “Callum,” she chuckles, punching his shoulder lightly. “It’s gonna be fine. Don’t worry about it, okay? We’ll get through it.”
That only makes it worse. “Rayla—t-the thing is—we’re not what… you might expect.”
“Yeah, no one’s family is,” says Rayla, waving him off. “Calm down. Whatever happens—whatever it is you’re so worried about—we’ll deal with it when we get there, okay?” She offers him the kindest smile she can muster and pats his shoulder as the taxi appears at the end of the road.
Everything goes relatively smoothly from there. The drive is quiet—Rayla spends it playing Pokemon GO! , if only because Callum’s still agonizing over things in the back seat and she’s pretty well done with it. They check in as soon as they arrive—the woman at the counter of Xadian Airlines is frankly the most polite airline check-in operator Rayla’s ever met, and she gets all flustered as she processes their passports which is a little weird, but okay. Then all there is to do is wait to board.
It's pretty uneventful. Twice Rayla gets up to stretch her legs, and she thinks she overhears one of the flight attendants gossiping about how she thinks there's supposed to be a prince onboard which makes Rayla guffaw loudly into the collar of her jacket. Then another report about that royal engagement plays on the little TVs in the airport lounge just before boarding at something like two-thirty in the morning, and maybe it just reminds Callum of his ex or something because he almost shuts down at the sight of them. He looks away from the TV closest to them (only to be met with the TV to their left, and then the one to their right) before he puffs out a breath, gets up, and starts to pace.
Rayla rolls her eyes at him, and maybe it’s just the fact that she hasn’t slept all evening, but her patience with him is wearing thin. She seizes his arm when he passes her for the eighth time and shoves her phone under his nose. “Catch that Raichu for me,” she snaps. “ Jesus . Calm down.”
He swallows. Hesitates. The Raichu gets away.
He sucks in a breath. “Rayla,” he croaks. “There’s something you have to know.”
Rayla stares at him, her brow furrowed skeptically over her eyes. “What, are you dying or something?”
He doesn't answer right away, and for a split second, she actually thinks he's about to say yes . "Look, I—uh—I don't know how to tell you this but—um—" He clenches his jaw. Fiddles with the end of his scarf. Stares at a spot on the tacky blue carpet before, at last, he squeezes eyes shut and opens his mouth. “Rayla, my mom and dad are—”
Bing! Bing! Bing!
The words stall on his lips, and he glances upwards to listen to the announcement that rings through the lounge.
“Attention passengers," it says. “ Priority boarding for XAL flight 305 is now open for business and first class passengers. Please have your passports and tickets at the ready for check in at the gate.”
Callum lets out a shuddering breath. Rayla blinks at him, waiting for him to finish the sentence he’d started before he was interrupted, but it’s like he’s lost his nerve or something and he unpockets his passport instead.
Rayla stares. “What are you doing?”
He coughs and lifts his carry-on onto his shoulder. “This is us."
“No it’s not.”
“It is,” says Callum, looking away from her. “We’re flying first class.”
Rayla barks out a laugh because that’s ridiculous , but he tugs her ticket out of her passport and waves it under her nose. She blinks at the cardboard, a dubious smirk forming on her lips, but there, in blocky letters just under the gate number, are the words FIRST CLASS.
“ Get out,” she whispers. The bark of a laugh turns into something that borders on hysterical because what the actual fuck, but Callum tugs on her elbow and heaves her carry-on over his shoulder as well. “ No. This isn’t real. There’s gotta be some mistake.”
“Nope,” says Callum quickly. “No mistake. Ez—uh—Ez booked us into first class.”
“You’re being serious.”
“As a heart attack.”
Yeah, right. He beckons her after him and she follows because, sure, okay , and she half expects the joke to end when he hands their passports to the flight attendant by the gate.
It doesn’t. She ushers them into the boarding tunnel with a smile, and the attendant at the cabin door glances at their tickets, tears off the stubs, and motions to the stairs to her right. “Welcome Mr. Prince,” Rayla hears her say. “Miss Docherty. You have the two aisle seats in the back. Enjoy your flight.”
“After you,” says Callum weakly.
Rayla gawks at him in open-mouthed awe. “This is unreal ,” she whispers. Part of her is convinced it is—it’s gotta be some sort of weird hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, but Callum only offers her a feeble grin and jerks his head.
“Come on. We’re holding up the line.”
The first class cabin is about as ludicrous as Rayla always imagined it would be. There’s only something like twelve seats up here, and except each ‘seat’ is a cubicle with an armchair and a bed, a fancy little nightlight, and a TV almost as big as the one in their apartment set into the back of the seat in front of her. Callum sets her carry-on in the corner of her cubicle, and Rayla can’t help it—she laughs.
“ Why are we flying first class?” she manages in between giggles.
“I told you,” he says, although his voice breaks at the word told. “My family… can be a little much.”
“By ‘much’, did you mean filthy stinkin’ rich?” Rayla sinks into the armchair, still almost doubled over her disbelief.
“Something like that.” He settles into the seat beside her which, she supposes, isn’t really beside her by plane standards and fidgets with his seatbelt. “We should get our story straight.”
Rayla, who’s only half listening because she’s still trying to get her laughter under control and playing with all the stuff in her cubicle (the armchairs even swivel ), raises an eyebrow at him. “What’s there to get straight? We met at uni, obviously, and we got together a year ago.”
“Yeah, but—” Callum wrings his hands. “When’s our anniversary? What’d we do on our first date? What did we have planned for Christmas?”
She shrugs at him, finally forcing her face into a much less hysterical smile. “Don’t remember—we don’t keep track of dates like that; we went to dinner and saw a movie; and we were going to have a quiet Christmas in, which is true .” She makes a face at him. “ Why are you so nervous? The more you freak out, the harder it’s going to be to lie about it. Just—y’know— calm down. We’re flying first class for heaven’s sake—which is still ridiculous, mind you—the least you could do is relax. ”
But he doesn’t relax because of course he doesn’t. There’s too much on his mind, and Rayla can see it in the way he plays with his seatbelt and folds and unfolds his scarf and drums nonsense patterns into the armrests of his seat. When he looks like he’s about to start pacing again, Rayla loses her patience with him altogether and climbs out of her armchair.
“Enough,” she snaps, crossing into his cubicle and fwump ing into his bed. “Callum. You’re being a dingus. Your family sounds lovely. Claudia’s got nothing on you. Everything’s going to be fine .”
“How are you so okay with all of this?” he whines. “You’re about to spend two and a half weeks lying to my family just to convince them I don’t care about Claudia’s stupid engagement party. Why aren’t you freaking out?”
“Because you’re freaking out enough for the both of us,” says Rayla tartly. She makes a grab for his hands and holds them tight within hers to keep him from fidgeting any more. “I haven’t even had the chance to panic about anything because I’ve been busy trying to keep you from losing your mind over it. Now, if you want any chance of convincing your family that you don’t care about Claudia’s stupid engagement party, you need to calm down. Okay?”
Callum takes a breath, but for the first time all evening, it’s slow and even and he looks her in the eye as he does it. Rayla grins at him then, hoping there’s enough comfort in it for the both of them, until, slowly, he smiles back.
“We’ll deal with everything as we get to it, okay?” she says, squeezing his hands gently. “Just… let me enjoy first class.”
He chuckles at that, but he squeezes her hands in return before Rayla pulls them back and pats his shoulder. “Thanks,” he murmurs. “Just… whatever happens…”
“We’ll deal with it together,” she says. “As long as you don’t ruin my first first class flight.” She smirks at him, just as a flight attendant appears at the opening of Callum’s cubicle.
“We’re about to take off,” she tells them. “If you could both please take your seats until the Seatbelt light turns off, that would be very much appreciated.”
God, they’re so polite at this end of the plane, but if someone’s got the cash to spend on luxury like this, Rayla supposes she’d be that polite too. She nods at the attendant, offers Callum one last reassuring smile, and climbs out of his bed.
“Rayla,” he says, just as she’s clipping her seatbelt over her lap.
Callum takes a breath. Then he shakes his head. “It’s nothing. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Before they’d left, Callum had told her that the flight was something like seven hours long, but if it is that long, Rayla doesn’t notice. Unsurprisingly, first class is comfortable and she spends six of the supposed seven hours tucked happily in her bed with the quiet hum of airplane static lulling her to sleep. Callum wakes her just before the plane starts its descent, and Rayla blinks tiredly in the weak sunlight.
“Wha’ time is i’?”
“Six Katolis time,” he tells her. He’s already dressed himself, and rather more nicely than usual which is saying something. “We’ll be landing in a little bit.”
“Already?” mumbles Rayla. She shifts in the bed which, ridiculous as it is, is almost more comfortable than her own, and forces herself to sit up.
It feels like a nice morning. The cabin is quiet, and the space is big enough for her to pull the partitions up around her to get dressed in relative privacy. The attendants bring coffee (for free!), and by the time they land, she’s wide awake and ready to go and… actually kind of excited. She’ll have to pretend to be Callum’s girlfriend, sure, but a holiday’s still a holiday and there’s a thrumming in her system that makes her feel like she’s ready for anything.
They disembark and collect their luggage—if Callum’s still fidgety, he’s doing a solid job of holding it in—and, together, they head out to the exit where Rayla’s first instinct is to follow the signs to the taxi bay. Their suitcases trundle along over the polished marble tiles, but when the double doors of the airport exit slide open, Callum catches her elbow and steers her towards passenger pick up instead.
“Oh,” she says. “You could have mentioned your parents were coming to get us.”
Callum grimaces. “That’s… not what’s happening.” And he tugs her along the snowy sidewalk to a fancy looking black car with flags on the hood and black tinted windows. It’s the type of car Rayla expects world leaders to be driven around in, and she stares at Callum as its driver hops out of the front seat and greets him with a bow.
“Corvus,” groans Callum. “We talked about this.”
“My apologies, Y-Callum,” says Corvus with a smile. The darkness of his skin and the crisp blackness of his suit stand out against the gentle flurry, and when he turns to Rayla, he inclines his head. “You must be the Lady Rayla.”
The snort that slips from Rayla’s lips is loud and undignified and anything but ladylike, and if Callum hadn’t insisted on carrying her carry-on, she might have dropped it into the snow. “Lady?” she laughs, clutching her sides. “Hi,” she says to Corvus. “I’m sorry. Just Rayla is fine.” Then, to Callum, she adds, “This is a joke, right? First class is one thing, but this? ”
Callum shifts uneasily. Corvus moves like he’s about to open the door for them, but Callum just shakes his head and does it first.
“This is for serious?” asks Rayla.
“Yep,” says Callum. “In you get.”
The laugh dies in her throat because, oh, okay, he’s really not kidding. Rayla climbs into the back, incredulous and wondering if this is part of the weird-as-hell fever dream that had started before they’d even gotten on the plane. Callum slides in after her and the door thuds closed as Corvus jumps back into the front seat to start the car.
“Corvus, hey, sorry,” Callum says. “Do you mind if we have the screen up? Rayla and I need to talk.”
Corvus eyes them both in the rearview mirror, eyes creased in the corners like he’s smirking, and nods. “Of course, sir,” he says, and he pushes a button and a screen rises between the front and back seats.
The back seat plunges into silence. Rayla stares at Callum with disbelief on her face.
“What the hell is going on?”
Callum breathes in. “Remember—” he begins awkwardly. “Remember when we were at the airport last night—this morning, I guess—and I was gonna say something and then the speaker interrupted? And—and then on the plane, when I said I had something to tell you when we landed?”
He coughs. He presses his lips shut. He shuts his eyes. “First of all, let me preface this by saying I have never lied to you once. Ever. And I—I didn’t tell you because I liked the privacy, and I like our friendship and the fact there are no formalities between us, so—so you have to promise me, before I say anything else, that nothing’s going to change.”
Rayla snorts at him. “Okay?”
“ Promise me, Rayla.”
“Yeah, okay, I promise. What’s the big deal?”
Callum swallows. “My parents are—My dad’s name is Harrow. And my mom’s name is Sarai. And Ez’s name is short for Ezran.”
Odd thing to open with, thinks Rayla. She’d always just referred to his mum as ‘Callum’s Mum’ in her head, but yeah, all right, this feels like valuable information that she should know if she’s supposed to be pretending to be his girlfriend. But… there’s something else. Rayla blames it on the jetlag, but those names do sound familiar, she’s just not sure why , at first. The more she thinks about it, the more she’s certain she’s read all three of those names together, on the front page of some tabloid or something, and then—
She frowns. “Wait, like Harrow and Sarai as in the King and Queen of Katolis? And Ezran as in—”
Callum winces. “My last name’s not Prince, Rayla. I don’t technically have one. I’m Callum, Duke of Kalik, Prince of Katolis.”
There’s a pause. The car eases over a speedbump on its way past the airport boomgates. A stone settles in Rayla’s stomach.
“Oh my God.”
“ Oh my God.”
“Rayla, you promised—”
“What the fu—”
“The screen’s not soundproof!” There’s panic on Callum’s face, and the first thought that runs through Rayla’s mind is the gall. He’s panicking? He’s just told her he’s one of the princes of Katolis, and he’s panicking? “Listen,” he hisses. “The screen will give us some privacy, and Corvus can’t hear everything but if you freak out now, our cover’s going to be blown before we even get home!”
Rayla scowls at him. “And where’s home exactly?” she snaps. “The fucking castle? ”
Callum has the decency to flush.
“Oh my God .” Rayla hides her face in her hands. Everything makes sense now—the first class tickets, the weirdly polite flight attendant, the gossip about having a prince on the plane—
Suddenly every embarrassing thing she's ever done, every inappropriate thing she's ever said, every indecent comment she's ever made, comes flooding back to her in a rush. "I've made fun of you!" she rasps. "I've called you names to your face! I called you a dingus just this morning, and this whole time—"
"Rayla, you promised !" Callum says again. He shifts in his seat and shakes her shoulders, his fingers firm even through the material of her coat. "Nothing's changed! Nothing's different!"
" 'Nothing's different' ?" snaps Rayla. "Callum— Prince Callum— Your Highness —Jesus, what am I even supposed to call you now?"
"Callum!" he pleads. "Just Callum! I'm still your—" He glances at the raised screen and lowers his voice. "I'm still your roommate and your best friend—"
"Are you?" Rayla scowls at him and shoves his hands from her shoulders. "You've been lying to me for years—"
"I haven't lied! I've never lied to you!"
“Lying by omission is still lying , Callum! And—” She gasps and covers her mouth with her hand. “And now I have to lie to your parents, only they’re not just your parents , they’re the king and queen of Katolis — oh my God —”
“Rayla! Rayla, please!” A sigh escapes him, frustrated and terrified and guilty, before he goes for her shoulders again. “I can’t do this without you,” he hisses, his desperation painfully clear. “We can throw the whole plan away if you want, but I can’t be here without you. You’re my best friend, and I get that you’re mad. I would be too, but… please. You know me. Without the pomp and the titles. This doesn’t change anything.”
Oh, it changes everything , at the very least about their stupid made up story. Maybe she should have listened to him this morning when he’d fumbled his way through wanting to get it all straight. Rayla shuts her eyes and runs her hands through her hair as the car speeds past the blur of green and white outside. “I don’t think I can do this,” she manages. “How in hell am I supposed to act around your parents?”
“Just like yourself,” he says. “They’ve heard you over the phone. You’ve heard them. We’re just—the titles don’t make us that different.”
“Ezran flew us in on first class, Callum.”
“So what?” snaps Callum. “Is he any less my little brother? Am I any less your friend just because you know I'm a prince?”
Rayla snarls at him. “Friends don’t lie about things like this ,” she barks.
Callum flinches like she’s slapped him, and the severity of how it sounds hits her like a brick in the face. She takes a breath. A long one that forces the tension out of her shoulders and the anger out of her chest. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I didn’t mean that. We’re—we’re still friends. Of course we’re still friends, and—Callum, this doesn’t change that. I just… need a minute to process all this.”
“It’s okay,” mutters Callum. “You’re right to be mad. I’m sorry too. I should have told you.”
For what it’s worth, his sincerity does make her smile. She reaches across the middle seat to pat awkwardly at his hand—a peace offering, and a promise that things will be okay—and Callum huffs and smiles too.
“What do I call them, then?” she asks, resigned. “Your family?”
Callum’s lips twitch. “We’ve got twenty minutes. That’s enough for a crash course in etiquette, right?”
Rayla scoffs. It better be.
Katolis Castle is an old fortress that’s been sitting on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the River Maera for eleven hundred years. It’s still got most of its original stonework, as much of its original roofing as it could keep over centuries of unforgiving weather, and the sigil of the Uneven Towers on the gates is well-kept and barely touched.
Rayla stares out at it from inside the car as Corvus maneuvers carefully over the ancient stone bridge and in through the main gates. There’s a pit in her stomach full of awe and dread, and Callum had done his best on the way here, but she still feels vastly unprepared.
There are people waiting to greet them on the steps. Rayla recognizes all of them from the news reports and tabloids: King Harrow, tall and dark and majestic; Queen Sarai, with her delicate features and her perfectly regal smile; and Prince Ezran, bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet. It’s comforting, somewhat, that they all look like perfectly normal people, and the way Ez—His Highness, she should say—practically sprints into the driveway before Corvus even pulls over is just the way little brothers would act, but still . Her hands are sweaty. Her throat is dry. Her heart thumps heavily in her throat.
“I’m sorry,” Callum says again, as Corvus puts the car into park and climbs out of the front seat. “I’m here with you, okay?”
Rayla swallows. “Okay.”
And then the door opens.
Callum gets out of the car first, looking both terrified and happy to be home, but he waits by the car door with his hand held out to her before Rayla remembers they’re supposed to be a couple and forces herself to take it.
This feels so much worse now. They’ve held hands before, mostly in shows of friendship or support, and he’s probably just being polite as much as he is pretending, but not like this. Not like a couple. Certainly not like a prince and his girlfriend.
She releases it too quickly and she knows that she does, but then Prince Ezran tackles him around the waist, and she finds herself eternally grateful that no one’s had time to notice.
“Callum!” he cries. “I can’t believe you’re home! It’s been so long!”
“Hey to you too, Ez,” chuckles Callum, prying his little brother off him. “Jesus, you’ve grown.”
“Yeah, well, time’ll do that to you,” laughs Prince Ezran. “It’s been what? Two years?” He grins and brushes the snow off Callum’s coat. Then he turns to Rayla and beams. “You must be Rayla!”
Suddenly, Rayla’s peacoat doesn’t feel like enough. She understands now, why Callum had made so many suggestions about which clothes to bring. The pills on the material feel unfairly obvious compared to Ezran’s perfectly laundered jacket, and she swallows and remembers to curtsey far too late. “Your Highness,” she greets awkwardly.
Prince Ezran makes a face at her. “Ugh. Don’t do that. Just call me Ez!”
Rayla’s smile pulls tight. “That doesn’t seem appropriate, Your Highness,” she croaks.
“Mm-mm. No. Ez. No curtseying either.” And just to prove it, he pulls her into a hug too. “It’s so nice to finally meet you! Callum’s been talking about you for years . We should have guessed ages ago!”
“And have you pull something like this earlier?” sasses Callum. “Yeah. Glad I didn’t tell you outright. Hi Mom,” he adds to Queen Sarai, as she and King Harrow make their way down the steps. “Hey Dad.”
“Welcome home, sweetie,” says Queen Sarai, hugging him too. King Harrow follows suit with a smile. “Oh, we missed you so much . We’re so glad you’re home!”
“And Rayla, yes?” says King Harrow, turning to her.
Rayla feels her whole mouth go dry. “Your Majesties,” she greets, dipping into another awkward curtsey.
King Harrow laughs. “We appreciate the effort, but as far as we’re concerned, you’re family now. Please.” He helps her straighten—inwardly, Rayla’s grateful for it: her sneakers don’t grip well in this much snow—and claps her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get you both inside.”
And that’s… that? Is that it? Really? Callum offers her a reassuring smile and relief dares to bubble Rayla’s chest. He was right—the titles don’t seem to matter to them, and they’re otherwise completely normal people who’re happy to have her around. Her smile eases into something more natural, right up until someone else appears at the top of the stairs.
“Callum! I’m so glad you came!”
Callum freezes. Rayla feels her breath catch in her chest.
The blur races down the steps and crashes into him, but Rayla recognizes the face, the hair, the ring long before she even gets close.
“Claudia! I—uh—didn’t realize you were here! I thought you were supposed to be at a state thing!”
“It got moved,” chuckles Claudia happily. “Although, I may have had a hand in that. You know how it is.” She winks.
Rayla’s stomach drops through the floor.
Claudia. The duchess. Callum’s ex.
Rayla’s had worse days, surely, but today is becoming the worst very, very quickly. The anger that had started to fade upon meeting his family rushes back in full force. Lying about his title? Sure. Okay. His family? Fine. But his ex ? When she's been on the fucking news all week? When the whole point of this dumb charade was to convince her and his family that he'd moved on to bigger, better things?
Rayla's smile grows cold. Her eye twitches. Her fingers curl at her sides.
"Oh, and who's this?" Claudia asks, turning to her.
Callum blanches. He makes a hasty grab for Rayla’s hand and tries to thread his fingers through hers only for her to dodge him, both out of reflex and out of fury. He recovers by setting it at the small of her back instead and ushering her forward before she even has the chance to resist.
"Claudia, this is Rayla," he's saying. There’s a waver in his voice that Rayla only picks up on because they’ve been friends for so long, but she thinks Claudia zeroes in on it too. Her eyes narrow. “She’s—um—my girlfriend.”
Rayla forces her smile to soften but it only twists into something weaker and half-hearted. The rest of her body fails her. They hadn’t covered this in her twenty-minute crash course. Is she supposed to curtsey? Bow? Can she even address Claudia by name to her face?
“Oh, really?” says Claudia. She does the subtlest of once-overs: Rayla feels her eyes studying the mud on her sneakers, the scuff marks on her jeans, the half-assed makeup job she’d done on the plane this morning, and fights the urge to fold into herself. “I didn’t realize you had a new girlfriend.”
Rayla finds her voice at last. She doesn’t like the judgement in Claudia’s stare, and she might be mad at Callum, but not enough to let this blow their cover already. “Not new,” she says sharply. “We’ve been together a year.”
Claudia’s lips curl into a half-sneer. Nothing so obvious; nothing inappropriate for a duchess. “Weird. He’s never said anything.”
“Well I wouldn’t, would I?” says Callum, sensing the danger and cutting in. He eases himself between them ever so slightly and catches Rayla’s hand behind his back. In support? Pretend? Rayla’s not sure anymore, but she’s still pissed and tugs it back. “We haven’t… really spoken in a while, have we?” he continues. “Plus, the press would lose their minds. You know I hate that kind of attention.”
“Oh, I totally get that,” drawls Claudia. Her ring flashes in the winter light. “I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
There’s a beat. Something smug and expectant crosses Claudia’s face, which only raises Rayla’s hackles more , until Ezran, who’s looking between them like a spectator at a tennis match, links his arms with hers and Callum’s and grins. “Why don’t we all warm up, then? Hot chocolate? Jelly tarts?”
The tension eases. Ezran’s smile is genuine and infectious, and Rayla feels her shoulders droop just a little.
Ezran gasps like he’s offended. “You’ve never tried jelly tarts?”
Rayla shakes her head because… well, why should she have? Callum’d said something about them being a national icon but she doesn’t know much about them beyond that.
“We can’t have that.” He straightens resolutely and tightens his hold around Rayla’s arm. “‘Kay, we’re going inside now, follow or don’t, but Rayla’s not going another second without trying a jelly tart.” He waves without releasing her and all but drags both her and Callum up the steps.
Claudia watches them go with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.
For a castle so old and austere, the stone halls are surprisingly warm and homey. It’s the red carpets, and the banners, and the Christmas wreaths and the boughs of holly every wall. It’d be magical, probably, if Rayla wasn't so fucking pissed.
Beside her, Ezran spouts off a bunch of facts on history and architecture, sounding more like an enthusiastic tour guide than a prince. He talks about the suits of armour, the masonry, the things he and Callum got up to in their childhood in this hall or that courtyard—it’s sweet, really, that he’s so eager tell Rayla about it all—
Except Rayla’s only half listening because she’s too busy glaring at Callum over his head.
Callum, at least, has the decency to look guilty. He keeps his eyes set on the floor and avoids her gaze like his life depends on it it does), and he says nothing except for when Ezran asks him something, and even then, he limits his answers to single syllables.
Good, thinks Rayla, because there is nothing he could say right now that would make any of this better. Any attempt an explanation might just make her angrier, and she’s already supposed to be lying to the Royal Family of Katolis—she’d rather not be tried for the murder of their eldest son as well.
If Ezran notices, he doesn’t say. He steers them through the maze of stone corridors until, eventually, they end up in the kitchens, where the castle chef greets him and Callum with a bow.
“Hi Barius,” says Ezran cheerfully. “Mm, it smells amazing down here. This is Rayla, by the way. Callum’s girlfriend.”
Rayla almost winces, but she does her best to smile. “Um. Hi,” she says shyly.
Barius smiles back and bows again. “My Lady.”
This time, she actually does wince. “Please don’t. Just Rayla is fine.”
“Rayla’s never tried a jelly tart, if you can believe that,” says Ezran, releasing her and Callum at last to pull three barstools out from underneath the counter. “Got any around?”
“Would I work here if I didn’t?” snorts Barius. He turns to take a plate of pastries from the bench behind him and sets it on the counter with a clunk. “Fresh off the cooling rack,” he says. “If you’ll excuse me, Your Highnesses, My Lady, I need to run into town to restock on some things. Can I get you anything else before I go?”
“We’re all good, thanks Barius!”
Barius bows a third time, even as Ezran shoots him a playful scowl for it, and vacates the kitchens leaving the plate of jelly tarts in the centre of the bench between Rayla and the two boys. The doors swing shut behind him and suddenly, it's just her and Callum with Ezran in between them blissfully unaware of the tension in the room.
Rayla’s still fuming. Callum still can’t look at her. Ezran helps himself to a tart.
“So… how was your flight?”
Jesus , Rayla didn’t think things could get any more awkward but the pregnant pause that settles in the kitchen just makes everything worse. She looks to Callum and waits for him to answer (this is his mess, after all), but when he doesn’t, she rearranges her face into something a little less hostile and turns to Ezran.
“It was fine, Your Highness,” she says. “The—er—first class tickets were a pleasant surprise. Thank you.”
Ezran makes a face. “Do you call Callum ‘Your Highness’ too?”
The question catches her so off-guard that Rayla forgets to be polite. “ God no,” she snorts. “Imagine how big his ego would get if I did that all the time. I mean—” She snaps her mouth shut. “Er—”
But then Ezran is laughing. He slides the plate of jelly tarts over to her and waits for her to take a tart. “See? No need for formalities. Please just call me Ez. And forget all the bowing and the curtseying and stuff too, that’s super not necessary.”
“Erm… right.” Rayla swallows and tries again. “Sorry. It’s all been sort of…” She shoots a dirty look at Callum. “Unexpected.”
“Ah, yeah, that’d be our fault though.” Ez offers her a sheepish grin. “We did kind of ambush Callum when we called last week. Please don’t be mad at him. We just missed him.”
For what little it's worth, that does make Rayla smile. Genuinely, this time. Titles aside, Ez really is a sweet kid, and she’s reminded of the phone calls and the care packages and the altogether wholesomeness of their relationship. Not every pair of brothers like each other this much, and it’s refreshing that they do. She’s still mad at Callum, but her anger wanes enough for her to take a seat. “Well, thank you for having me along as well,” she says. “Your… er… castle’s really nice.”
“Thanks,” chuckles Ez. “So? Tell me all about it! I can’t believe you guys have been together for a year and we had no idea!”
Irritation prickles at Rayla’s skin. She glances at Callum coolly and jerks her head. He’s been so good at lying to her. The least he can do is lie for her too. “Go on, my love,” she says icily. “Why don’t you tell him?”
“O-oh, uh.” Callum flushes, tentatively, pulling one of the barstools over to sit next to her. Her shoulders tense again because he’s awfully close—but then she remembers he’s supposed to be and she has to resist the urge to shuffle her chair away. “Well, uh. Y’know. We met at uni. Or—rather, we met on the way home from uni. I didn’t have any change on me for the train ticket machine and she—uh—gave me a couple of bucks.”
Rayla remembers. It’d been raining that day and he looked like he’d been having some trouble. She’d done it because she’d been there and done that and she knows what it's like to be a poor university student having trouble scrounging up the change for public transport.
Boy, if she doesn't feel stupid about that now.
“Yeah, you told me ages ago,” says Ez. “I meant, like, what’d you do? How’d you get together?”
Callum shrugs. “She was just… nice. Showed me around the university when she realized I was new. Offered to be roommates when I said I was looking for a place. She was my friend when no one else wanted to be. She's kind, and good. She's fearless, fast, strong and... I realized a year ago that… I sort of really liked her.”
Rayla can feel his eyes on her and something like a flush blooms in her face. It’s just pretend, obviously, but he’s never spoken about her like that and it does a good job soothing her anger. When he reaches for her hand this time, she doesn’t stop him.
“That’s so sweet,” sighs Ez.
“Yeah,” murmurs Rayla. “It is.” She squeezes his hand once and his shoulders slump pretty visibly in relief. There's still a conversation to be had, but she can let it rest. For now.
Ez chuckles at them. “You guys are really good together,” he says. “Callum always sounded so happy when he was talking about you. It’s crazy that we didn’t figure it out. Although, to be fair, we thought he was still caught up on Claudia so…”
“Ah, yeah, about that.” Callum coughs awkwardly. “What’s she doing here? The last I heard, there was supposed to be a state dinner or something in Caldera. I didn’t think she’d be back until the engagement party.”
“Yeah, um.” Ez grimaces guiltily. “She and Soren came by a few days ago and I accidentally told them you were flying in for Christmas? So she asked to reschedule the dinner and now—uh—now it’s next week and it’s being held here. Opeli thought it’d be a good idea to change the location too, so that you could come. Sorry.”
Callum blinks. “Does that mean—are they staying here?”
“Uh. Yeah.” Again, Ez grimaces. “Sorry. But that’s okay, right? You don’t mind. You’re obviously over her.”
There’s a beat. Rayla stares at Callum. Callum stares back. A single thought passes wordlessly between them ( Shit. ), and then he laughs and tries to hide his grimace behind a jelly tart. “Pfft. Yeah. Obviously. ” And then, for good measure, he leans over and presses a kiss into Rayla’s cheek.
It shouldn’t be so unexpected. They talked about this before they even got on the plane. She’d always known kissing would have to be a thing at one point or another, and surely it’s better now , in the relative privacy of the kitchens, than later and in public, but still.
Heat blooms in Rayla’s face. Her heart stutters in her chest.
Suddenly two and a half weeks feels like it’s going to be a lot longer than they anticipated.
Callum’s suite ( his suite!) is a single bedroom that’s somehow bigger than their entire apartment. The ensuite is the nicest bathroom Rayla’s ever seen, there’s a gilded lounge over by the fucking fireplace , and the window opens out to a view of the breathtaking snowy peak Mount Kalik. His bed is a king-sized four-poster with more pillows than should be legal, and their luggage, which Rayla had almost entirely forgotten about, is already waiting for them over on the hearthrug.
They don’t get up here until after dinner because his family, sweet as it is, is rambunctious and nosy and overjoyed at the very concept of Callum bringing home a girl. It’d been a very long day of awkward cheek-kisses and forced casual affection; of lying about the depth of their relationship to Katolis’ very own royal family; and it was only after dessert that they’d managed to sufficiently convince them that they needed some time to recoup.
Now, the old grandfather clock in the corridor is ringing long, baleful chimes, and the silence in his bedroom is oppressive and makes Rayla shift uncomfortably in her skin. She collapses into the armchair by the door exhausted (and altogether at a loss), and each ominous gong feels like it goes on for an hour before Callum finally has the guts to clear his throat.
There’s an argument in the air. It hangs between them precariously, like an axe ready to drop, but Rayla waits, and waits, and waits, until finally—
“I’m so sorry,” he squeaks. “That’s—this is not how I intended for any of this to go. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have told you. And—and the whole thing with Claudia was—”
“ Stop,” snaps Rayla. “Just. Stop talking. Don’t even right now.”
Callum falls silent. The grandfather clock does too, and all the sound that’s left in Rayla’s ears is the hollow beating of her heart in her chest and the shuddering of her breath as it leaves her. The pause that stretches between them feels like an ocean crammed into the space of about three feet, and twice, she thinks she’s about to say something only for it to fail before it even gets to her lips.
Callum tries again. “Rayla—”
Her breath hisses in. “What,” she snarls, perhaps with more ice than she means, “do you expect me to say right now?”
He swallows. “Listen,” he says. “I know you’re angry—”
“But please understand—”
That makes Rayla scowl. “‘Understand’ what , exactly? How you lied to me for four years about who you were? How you expect me to lie for you to your family , who, by the way, is the royal fucking family of Katolis? How the duchess that’s been on the news all bloody week is somehow the same person as your ex? Tell me, Callum, which part of that am I just supposed to understand? ”
“I’m sorry!” he cries, his voice strangled and desperate. “Rayla, I’m sorry . I just—I didn’t know how to tell you, and I—I could never find the right time—”
“We’ve been friends for four years, Callum! Four years , and you couldn’t find the right time to tell me you were a fucking prince ? Are you being serious right now?”
“Yes! I am! Rayla, please , I wanted to tell you, but the longer we were friends, the harder it was because I didn’t want things to change and there was no way I could tell you the truth without telling you everything, and—argh, it’s all so messed up—”
“Yeah, no kidding!” seethes Rayla. “Is there anything else I should know? Is our doorman like your secret bodyguard or something?”
“No! No one else knows! That was the point! That was why—” Callum draws a breath. “People here bow and curtsey and make a big deal about everything, and I—I didn’t want that. I hate the attention, and I wanted—I wanted to be normal. I don’t want all this. ” He gestures vaguely at the room around them; at the opulence and luxury and the unnecessariness of it all. “I never did. So Mom and Dad helped me make arrangements to go to Xadia and then I met you, and—Rayla, please, you’re my best friend—”
“Stop it,” snarls Rayla. “You don’t get to ‘ Rayla, please’ me today. Boo-bloody-hoo, life has been so hard. Fine. Okay? Fine. I can understand that to an extent, but you lied to me and you only told me who you really were twenty minutes before we fucking got here. You had four years! You had a week after Ez bought those tickets! You had a seven hour plane ride! And you chose to tell me you were a prince twenty minutes before we pulled up to your bloody castle!”
“And it would have been fine, probably, if that was all it was. Your family’s nice. It was going okay. And then it turns out that the ex you’ve been so worried about is the fucking duchess who’s been on the news all week , and you somehow expect me to be okay with the fact that you didn’t tell me that either? ”
“There was no way I could!” cries Callum. “I didn’t even know she was here, and I thought that—after you met my family, and after you were a little more comfortable, I could tell you then and sort of ease you into it—”
“There’s no easing anyone into this! There’s no frying pan , it’s just straight into the fucking fire no matter how you bloody do it!”
Callum falls silent. He scrunches his eyes shut in his guilt, and Rayla’d feel sorry for him normally, but this whole situation is very far from normal and she’s too mad at him to even try.
“I really am sorry,” he murmurs at last. “I know that that doesn’t even begin to make up for it and that there’s nothing I can do right now to make this better, but please understand, Rayla, I didn’t—I didn’t mean for it to go this far. If you want—if you want to scrap this whole plan—if you want to go home in the morning, even—we can do that. I just… don’t want to lose you as a friend.”
Well, the sentiment is nice. Rayla huffs because, furious as she is, he won’t, and she knows that. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty large speed bump, but it’s only a speed bump all the same. She just… needs time. “I’m going for a walk,” she grumbles. “I’ll be back later. I need some air.”
In hindsight, going for a walk was probably not the wisest idea. Katolis Castle is huge, and Rayla’d been too busy being mad at Callum to pay attention when Ez had taken them (her) on a tour earlier this afternoon. She wanders the corridors for about an hour before any part of them becomes familiar, and when they do, it’s only because she recognizes the stairwell as the same one Ez had taken them down before they got to the kitchens.
It’s pretty late. Her watch reads 21:56 in fluorescent green digits, but even though the rest of the hallway is dark, there’s light coming from the crack underneath the kitchen door. Rayla figures it’s just Barius doing prep for tomorrow, and hey, he’d seemed nice enough hadn’t he? Surely he’d give her directions back to Callum’s suite if she asked.
But it’s not Barius. Rayla shoulders the heavy oak open and finds Ezran there instead, with a plate of jelly tarts, a mug of tea, and a funny looking frog.
He grins at her. “Rayla,” he says. “I thought you and Callum said you were tired. Is everything okay?”
In spite of everything—in spite of how lost and mad and exhausted she is—Rayla smiles. “I’m fine, Ez,” she murmurs. “It’s just… jetlag.”
“Oh, I totally get that,” chuckles Ez. “Jelly tart? I don’t think you actually got one after all of that.”
“I didn’t,” admits Rayla, because today’s been kind of a rush and it’d been hard to focus on anything not their stupid lie. She climbs gingerly onto the barstool across from him, well and truly aware of the fact that this is the first time she’s been alone with any of Callum’s family without Callum to act as a buffer. “Who’s this?” she asks, glancing at the frog.
“Oh! You haven’t met!” Ez prods the frog in its side until it turns enough to face her and rubs affectionately at its head. “Rayla, this is Bait. Bait, Rayla. Callum’s friend.”
Rayla blinks. And then recovers too late. “Girlfriend,” she corrects quickly, but Ez only snorts into his jelly tart and waves her off.
“You can drop the act. I’m not an idiot.”
She stares. “Erm—”
Ez actually laughs at her. “Look, I get what Callum’s trying to do, and it’s really sweet that you’d do all of this for him, but he can’t fool me. Mom and Dad and everyone else, maybe—but I’m his brother. I know he can’t lie.”
Something like a million questions explode in Rayla’s head, and she stares some more because she’s not really sure where to begin. Ez had known ? The whole time? “Did he tell you?”
“What? No. Of course not. He thinks I’m none the wiser. I only figured it out because you two are super awkward around each other for people who’re supposed to have been dating for a year.” He laughs and pops a whole tart into his mouth, the corners jutting outwards from inside his cheeks. “Admittedly, there were a couple of times I doubted myself, but you gave it away. You’re not mad enough about Claudia.”
Rayla’s still staring because that makes an amount of sense, sure, but, like, what does he mean ‘ not mad enough ’? How much madder can she be?
“I don’t understand,” she manages at last. “If—if you knew, why didn’t you say anything?”
Ez shrugs at her. “I wasn’t sure what was going on at first. I wanted to know. Plus, like, Callum’ll come clean about it eventually. He’s not good at keeping things to himself.”
Isn’t he? Rayla bristles at that, because to her, it feels like he’s had no problem with it for four years. Ez seems to catch it, and he cocks his head at her and frowns. “See, this was one of the reasons I wondered,” he muses. “You seemed… kinda mad today, and I thought it was about Claudia at first? But it’s not. Did you two have a fight?”
For a minute, Rayla doesn’t know what to say. This is in no way a good thing. Ez being okay with it feels… too easy, and for a moment she doesn’t know how much she can trust him. But there’s no one else in this castle she can talk to except Callum and, frankly, it’s a little hard to trust him right now so—
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” says Ez. “I get that hanging out with… well, us can be kinda overwhelming at times. I just thought that… if you wanted to talk—”
“Callum didn’t tell me about any of this,” blurts Rayla, and suddenly she can breathe again, and the weight in her chest isn’t so crushing.
“What do you mean?”
“ Any of it,” Rayla snaps. There’s a part of her that’s wondering if this is out of line; if it’s at all appropriate to talk to a prince like this, and about his brother no less. She doesn’t care. She’s had a day. “I found out he was a prince when we got into the car with—is it Corvus? We’ve been friends four years , Ez, and he couldn’t find the time to tell me he was one of the damn Princes of Katolis—no offense—and I— ha —I chose to help him only to find out that the ex he’s so nervous about seeing is Claudia , the Duchess of Caldera . You said you thought I wasn’t mad enough about—I don’t even know what to call her, but let me tell you, Ez, I’m plenty mad.”
And Ez, who she half expects to scold her for her audacity, chuckles, and slides the plate of tarts over to her insistently. “Seriously,” he says. “Have a tart.”
Rayla stares at him, and for the umpteenth time today, she finds herself at a loss for words. Tentatively, she picks the top-most one off the pile and nibbles off the edge. She’s not sure what she expects, but the pastry is soft and buttery, and the jam, she thinks, is the sweetest jam she’s ever tasted in her life. A hum escapes her, her anger momentarily forgotten, until Ez takes another tart and breaks it in half for Bait.
“I’m sorry about Callum,” he says after a moment. “You’re right to be mad at him for it. Four years is a long time. But… he means well.” He scoffs to himself. “Callum’s, what, like five years older than me? When we were kids, I broke this bust. I dunno, I was like, six or something, but the bust was like a hundred and fifty years old and Mom and Dad would have chewed me out for it. He took the blame. Not because he’s older or anything. He just didn’t want me to get into trouble.” Ez pauses there, fond little smile tugging at his lips. “He never liked any of this. The castle, and the titles—it was all kinda much for him even when we were young. He’s lucky. We’re only half brothers, and I’m the Crown Prince, not him, so he could go to Xadia and study and get away with just being himself. And I think… he didn’t tell you because he was afraid that he wouldn’t get to be anymore, y’know?”
Rayla winces. Callum had mentioned something like that. And it would be hard, being royal, and being in the spotlight all day every day. She hadn’t meant to belittle that aspect of his life.
“I meant what I said before,” says Ez. “He does always sound really happy when he’s talking about you. You’re still right to be mad but… I hope you don’t stay mad at him for too long. He’d be devastated if you guys stopped being friends over this.”
They lapse into a pause. Rayla thinks there are things she wants to say, but none of them really feel justified anymore, so instead, she nibbles a little more off the edge of her tart.
“How do they taste?”
Rayla chuckles. “Good,” she murmurs.
Ez beams at her. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yeah,” she says. “You did.”
Rayla wakes the next morning half buried in blankets in a bed far too big to be allowed. For a minute, she’s confused—this isn’t her bed, and this definitely isn’t her room—but then the memories come flooding back to her in a rush and she remembers: the plane trip; the castle; the duchess; and the screaming match with Callum and the way she’d stormed off before bed.
He’d gone to sleep by the time Ez walked her back from the kitchens. She’d found him curled up under a spare blanket on the gilded couch by the window. After all that, he’d left the bed for her.
They’d talked about it briefly before they left—pretending to be together was only ever going to result in having to share a bed at his parents’, and they’d agreed that they’d be cool about it and to share maturely; that it wouldn’t be weird because they were friends —but seeing him folded awkwardly under a too-thin blanket had filled the pit of Rayla’s stomach with guilt. Half-ashamed, she’d climbed into one side his four-poster alone, in case he woke during the night and found the couch too uncomfortable to return to.
He’s gone when Rayla forces herself to sit up. The shame gnaws at her—she’d said a lot of things last night, and she supposes she can’t be too surprised if he’s mad at her now—but she dwells on it for all of two seconds before the door swings open and Callum appears with two mugs in hand.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” says Rayla.
There’s a pause. Callum looks as if he’s not sure whether or not he’s welcome in despite the fact that it’s his room and she’s sleeping in his bed. He breathes in. “Can we talk?”
Rayla breathes out. “Depends,” she says, hoping the joke is obvious. “Is that coffee for me?”
He cracks a smile at that. It’s the first real one she’s seen on his face in what she thinks has been days. She hadn’t realized she’d missed it. “Only if you don’t hate me anymore.”
“I never hated you.” Rayla looks away and curls her fingers into the duvet, her stomach churning at the very thought. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“Don’t apologise,” murmurs Callum. “That was on me.” He lets himself in finally, hands her a mug, and takes a seat on the edge of the bed by her knees. The bed dips under his weight and Rayla drums her fingers into the porcelain and stares into the depths of her coffee.
The morning is quiet. A calm after one heck of a storm. Then Callum sighs.
“I think,” he begins quietly, “I owe you an explanation.”
“No, I do,” says Callum. “You’ve been… a better friend than I deserve, and you’ve been doing it for years. You agreed to this just to keep me from having to go to Claudia’s engagement party on my own. I should have told you everything then, and I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
“Callum.” Rayla stops him there. It’s a bit of a struggle because of all the extra pillows, but she sets her mug down on the nightstand and pushes the covers aside, shifting until she’s near enough to touch his shoulder. “ I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have said some of the things I said last night. And…” She sighs. “I spoke to Ez.”
Callum raises an eyebrow at her. “Oh?”
“He’s onto us.”
Another pause. There’ve been a lot of those lately. Rayla misses the ease they used to have around each other, and suddenly she understands now why he’d been so afraid to tell her.
She pats his hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Callum blinks. “Where?”
“I dunno,” says Rayla, shrugging. “It’s your castle. Show me cool stuff. We can talk while you show me around. Okay?”
One more pause. Callum looks uncertain of her. Rayla wonders if he still feels guilty for keeping the truth from her for so long, and, God , she really had messed up last night, hadn’t she? It doesn’t matter. None of it does. And she’d been angry, yes, but surely he knows her better than to think she still would be now.
She shoos him. “Move.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She smirks at him. “Excuse me, Your Royal Highness.”
“Yeah, well, I need to get dressed. And if you really wanna make it up to me, you can move , let me change, and give me the explanation you think I deserve some place neat. Sound fair?"
He blinks at her, still uncertain; still concerned that he’s not fully forgiven. He’s not, supposes Rayla. Not quite yet—not until he’s told her everything, but at the heart of it, their friendship is stronger than something as silly as this. “Fair,” says Callum at last. His lips tilt upwards.
Rayla’s does too.
Callum takes her up to some place he calls the North Tower. It’s the tallest, northmost tower in the castle and provides such a clear view of the rest of the capitol that Rayla forgets how to breathe at the sight of it. The blanket of snow makes the city look like a Christmas card, and beyond it, against the stunning blue sky, is the silhouette of Mount Kalik and the Katolan alps. Most of all, it’s private, and hidden away from curious ears and prying eyes.
It is cold though, and Rayla shivers beneath her coat as her breath unfurls like fog from her lips. She cups her coffee between her hands, relishing the warmth on her gloved fingers, and watches as Callum picks a spot on the wall and hoists himself into it.
“Is that safe?”
Callum grins sheepishly. “Probably not. Mom used to get so mad at me for it. I used to dream I could fly when I was a kid and this is the closest I got.” He breathes in, relishing the cold winter air and letting it fill his lungs before he begins.
“I wasn’t born into royalty,” he starts. “In case that wasn’t obvious. Mom married King Harrow just after I turned four. A lot of people were weird about it—not many kings marry widows, much less widows with kids. There was a big kerfuffle around it. There were always reporters trying to get scoops that didn’t happen, and photographers trying to steal photos of a four year old kid. It was a mess.” He shakes his head. “It settled after Ezran was born. His birth meant a continuation of my step-dad’s bloodline, so there wouldn’t be a scandal if a step-prince one day took the throne.
“That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be king. Still don’t. But it still put me in an interesting position because Harrow basically gifted me my dukedom, which… doesn’t happen often. That kind of thing is passed down through bloodlines as well, but Kalik hasn’t had a duke in like two hundred years, and in any case, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a fancy title with some land attached. But because I’m Harrow’s stepson, there’s procedure involved, and I have to have a title, and all this other stuff. Long story short, all the formalities suck and I hated them, so when I finished high school and Mom and Dad asked me where I wanted to go for uni… I said Xadia.
“They said no, at first, because slice it any way you like, but I’m still a prince and it’s dangerous to just go without, like, an entourage, which I specifically said I really didn’t want. So I made a deal with them: undergrad here, postgrad there, which gave them time to fix up a false name, and off I went.”
Rayla cocks her head at him. “Okay,” she says, slurping at her coffee. “Cool life story. Doesn’t explain why you didn’t just tell me.”
“How could I?” says Callum. “I dunno that you would have believed me, and the longer we were friends, the less of an opening I had. And—” he pauses here and ducks his head. “I was scared, Rayla. You were the one person I’d ever met who just treated me like a person and… I didn’t want that to go away.”
Rayla hums into her mug. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I get that. Ez mentioned it. When we were talking last night. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t tell me.”
“It’s not like that was your fault.” Callum snorts at her. He brushes the snowflakes out of his hair and huffs. “What else do you wanna know?”
“Well…” Rayla purses her lips. “The thing with Claudia, I guess. Should probably know what that’s all about if you wanna keep this charade up.”
“You’d still do it?”
She shrugs. “Why not?” she says. “She seems...” The word on her tongue isn’t the politest, probably, and she hums while she looks for one better. “Nice, I guess,” is what she goes with, which isn’t at all what she means, but Callum seems to understand.
“She’s not that bad,” he tells her with a chuckle. “She and Soren—her brother—have been around since Mom and I moved in. Our Minister of Defence, Lord Viren? I dunno, you might have heard his name in the news sometime. They’re his kids. He and Dad used to be real good friends.”
“Used to be?”
“They’re still friends,” says Callum. “Just not as good. They’ve had some disagreements about some pretty heavy stuff. Defence and weapons policies. Katolis has been pretty good at keeping out of international trouble but some of Viren’s policies… might have turned some heads.”
“Okay, so… how is this relevant to Claudia?”
“Right.” Callum lets out a sheepish chuckle and swings his feet a little. Rayla inches closer, fingers twitching in case he slips. “Viren’s got land too. Claudia and Soren are the Duchess of Caldera and Duke of Citidon respectively. When you’ve got titles like that, you’re expected to marry other people with titles, and… well… I always really liked Claudia as a kid. She was cool and funny and we were… really good friends. Eventually we started formally courting each other and… I dunno, I thought it was going really well.”
Rayla raises an eyebrow at him. “And then?"
“She broke it off,” says Callum quickly. "It… wasn’t clean."
There’s silence for a bit. Rayla stares into the depths of her coffee unsure what else to say. "I'm sorry," she says. It's a little awkward, but she means it.
“It’s fine,” he says finally. “It was a while ago."
Callum’s cheeks grow brighter and Rayla’s certain now that that’s a blush. “Yeah. I was twenty-two.”
Rayla does the math in her head. “Callum… that was four years ago. That was when you moved to Xadia for your postgrad! Are you seriously telling me you haven’t moved on since then?”
“Well, yeah, I have ,” grumbles Callum, “but I really liked her and I did for a long time. Are you seriously telling me you wouldn’t feel kinda sad if an ex you really liked announced they were about to get married? There’s just—y’know—opportunities missed and all that. Everyone does it, not just me.”
Well, he’s got her there. How many times had she seen past boyfriends—ones she didn’t even really care about—post their engagement statuses and felt that unwanted pang of jealousy? At least they hadn’t invited her to their engagement parties. She sighs. “Fine. Okay then. How do we do things from here?”
“Well,” says Callum. “Is there even any point keeping it up? Ez already knows.”
“He won’t tell anyone,” says Rayla. “Honestly, I think he’s having fun. In any case, he said if anyone was going to, you would. Apparently you’re really bad at hiding things.” She shoots him a smirk over her coffee.
Callum scowls but otherwise ignores the dig. “You’d seriously still go through with this though?”
Rayla shrugs. “I’m here, aren’t I? Cheapest holiday ever. And, like, if we agree that we’re still best friends after all of this, then I can’t, in good conscience, let you turn up at Claudia’s engagement party without me. Tell me what you need.”
There’s a pause. Callum studies her through the lazy flurry of snowflakes, eyes wide like he’s afraid to believe her, and then, at last, he hops out of the embrasure and tugs her into a hug.
“Hey. Callum. It’s fine, okay? It’s not a big deal.”
“It is to me,” mutters Callum. “I just… really appreciate you.”
“Well, thanks,” chuckles Rayla, patting his shoulder awkwardly. “Come on then, sappy prince. Let’s head in. This was pretty for, like, five seconds but it gets cold up here really quick.”
It’s a lot easier to pretend to be a couple after that. Mostly, they just slip back into their usual routine with somewhat more frequent hand holding. They limit any kissing to cheek kisses which is still a little weird but it’s really only a thing they have to do when other people are in the room and one of them is leaving, which isn’t all that often at all.
Sometimes they get looks. The amount Rayla teases him probably isn’t appropriate, and now that she knows that he’s a prince, she has even more ammunition to work with—but everything else goes happily to plan and no one else suspects a thing. Having Ez in on it is actually pretty convenient. It means they don’t have to try as hard around him, and he can cover for them if they’re caught unawares. Rayla and he get along brilliantly. He’s clever and quick witted and can lie on the spot much better than Callum can, and when all three of them are in the same room together, it’s like the jokes never end.
Claudia—who’s definitely around because Rayla’s seen her lurking in the corridors with that same narrow-eyed distrust—doesn’t hang out much. Callum says she’s here on business and there are meetings and things she has to deal with most days, which is fine with Rayla, frankly, because she’s had one conversation with her and it’s obvious Claudia doesn’t like her. Fair. Rayla doesn’t like her much, either. Soren, though, does hang around sometimes, either because he has less to do or he’s good at procrastinating. Rayla does like him. He’s not the brightest but he’s fun, and doesn’t share his sister’s obvious distaste for her.
The week rushes past. Callum and Ezran take her on a tour of the city. They take her to all of Ez’s favourite cafes and show her all the best places to see. Ez tells her about all the important historical things she has no need to know and even introduces her to his friend Ellis, who volunteers with him at the animal shelter on weekends.
It’s a good time. It actually feels like a holiday now, instead of some hammy cover-up. Rayla’s having fun.
Then, the day before the state dinner, Barius lets them take over the kitchens so the boys can teach Rayla how to make jelly tarts. Most of it is pretty straightforward, but actually getting them into shape is hard. That’s how the afternoon finds them: Ez with jam on his fingers, Callum with flour in his hair, and Rayla with a pile of half-formed jelly tarts that had unfolded in the oven.
“This is impossible,” she grumbles, glaring at Callum and Ezran’s perfectly shaped tarts. Her own look so sad in comparison.
“It’s not impossible,” says Ez, swiping at one of her misshapen pastries. “Callum and I have been doing this forever. It just takes practise.”
“Yeah, sorry you’re so bad at it,” snickers Callum.
Rayla scowls at him and throws a handful of flour in his face. It’s a knee-jerk reaction more than it is anything else, but Callum blinks through the haze anyway looking mildly taken aback. Then he smirks and throws a handful back.
Rayla yelps. She ducks. He misses—
And he gets Soren instead.
It hits him squarely in the chest, showering his crisp black button up in flour and leaving a vaguely man-shaped silhouette on the kitchen doors. Soren blinks at them. Scowls. Then glares at Callum. “ Dude. ”
Callum winces and hides his unapologetic snicker behind his fingers. “Sorry,” he offers. He jabs a finger at Rayla. “She started it.”
“Super chivalrous,” drawls Rayla, rising from behind the bench with a smirk. “Some prince you are.”
“Oh, because attacking a prince is so appropriate.”
“I was provoked.”
Soren rolls his eyes at both of them. “Yeah, okay, cutting in before this gets gross. Your dad needs to see you about the state dinner,” he says to Callum. “You should probably go too,” he adds to Rayla. “You’re going, aren’t you?”
Rayla stares. “I didn’t think I was invited?”
“Of course you’re invited. Everyone sort of just expected you’d be going as his date.”
“Oh.” Rayla presses her lips shut. She’d agreed to pretend to be Callum’s girlfriend at exactly one formal event while they were here, and it wasn’t the state dinner. It was fine when it was Claudia’s engagement gala thing—it’d be Claudia’s night, and Rayla’d sort of just assumed that she could make an appearance early in the evening and then sequester herself away in the back of the ballroom, away from the attention and from the curious nobles. A dinner is something else. “Um. The one dress I brought I was kind of saving for Her Grace’s engagement party? So…”
“We can find you another one,” pipes Ez. “There’s tons of places in town. Mom’d love to take you!”
“It’ll be weird if you don’t go,” says Soren. “Opeli moved it specifically so Callum could go, and it’s not a great look if he goes by himself when everyone knows his girlfriend’s in town.” He shrugs. “Anyway. Your dad’s in his study. I gotta go.” Then he waves lazily and shoulders his way back through the kitchen doors.
“Okay, thanks!” Callum calls after him. He dusts what flour he can off his hands and his apron and sighs. “Sorry,” he adds to Rayla. “I forgot about the dinner. Although to be fair, I didn’t know ‘til we got here, so you can’t be mad at me about that.”
Rayla snorts. “It’s fine,” she says. “I’ll work something out. You should… probably clean up.”
“Probably,” chuckles Callum. “I’m gonna go shower.” Then he presses a kiss into Rayla’s cheek (Rayla leans into it expectantly out of habit) and heads through the kitchen doors after Soren.
Silence falls in the kitchen. Rayla pokes sadly at her failed jelly tarts and looks up to see Ez with an eyebrow raised over a very intrigued looking smirk. “What?”
Ez’s smirk widens. “No one else is here.”
Then Rayla’s eyes widen and a flush spreads across her cheeks. “It’s—habit,” she sputters. “We just got used to it. It was nothing.”
“It was!” snaps Rayla. “It’s not a thing. It’s just pretend.”
“But I know,” says Ez. “So why’d you do it?”
If Rayla’s face were any warmer, the leftover unbaked dough on the bench might have started to cook. “Ask Callum, he did it,” she grumbles. “Don’t make it weird. It was probably just—automatic. Are you gonna help me clean up or what? Barius’ll have a fit if he sees what we did to his kitchen.”
Ez sobers. Barius had only let them in here because they promised they’d clean up after themselves, but there’s flour all over the kitchen and jammy finger prints on the mixer. He winces. “Yeah, okay,” he mutters. “I can’t be banned from this kitchen. I would die.”
It’s not often that Rayla has to make her way anywhere on her own, but Ez’d needed a shower too.
“I can just double back?” he’d offered, but Rayla had waved him off.
“It’s cool. His Majesty’s study’s not too far from here right?”
“ Harrow ,” Ez corrects, but he nods and points to the end of the hall. “Just that way, up the stairs, and to your left. Callum’ll be there already probably. See you in a bit.” He’d grinned at her then and waved as he started his walk in the other direction, and Rayla had shrugged and headed off.
They were simple directions, but Rayla thinks, as she stares at the empty corridors around her, that they weren’t quite specific enough. There are three lefts on this floor, and Ezran had made it sound like the first one, only it wasn’t and now she’s… perhaps a little lost. She’s just hit send on a text to Callum asking for help when a door shuts at the end of the hall, and she finds herself face to face with—
“Clau—er—Your Grace,” greets Rayla. She dips into a curtsey because that’s what Callum and Ez had told her to do (“Just do it unless you’re explicitly told by the person not to,” Ez had said. “Just to be safe.”), but Claudia only regards her with a cool curiosity.
“Rayla, right?” she says. There’s something tense in her voice. It makes Rayla bristle. “What are you doing up here?”
“I—erm—” Rayla flushes a little. “My apologies, Your Grace. I’m just a little lost. I was supposed to meet Callum in His Majesty’s study but I—er—must have taken a wrong turn.”
Claudia hums, unimpressed. “It’s His Royal Highness ,” she drawls. “Formality’s a big deal here, especially if you haven’t been around long enough to earn it.”
Rayla stares at her. “Excuse me?”
Claudia clucks her tongue. “I see the way you act around each other,” she says. “I know you’re not committed to him.”
Something about the way she says it makes Rayla’s hackles rise. It’s all pretend, sure, and what Claudia’s seen is probably just her terrible acting but the accusation still bites. “Bit rich coming from you,” she says without thinking.
Claudia smirks. It’s pompous and unfriendly and makes Rayla dislike her all the more. “It’s inappropriate for royalty to date around,” she says acidly. “If you’re not in it for the long haul, there’s no point. And Callum… well. Callum’s a sweetheart. He deserves better than to get his heart broken by someone so… below him.”
“Like you, you mean?”
Claudia narrows her eyes. “A word of advice,” she says dangerously. “End this now before it gets any more serious. He’ll be better off for it. You’re not good enough for him anyway.”
“What would you know about what’s good enough for him?” sneers Rayla. “He wasn't good enough for you.”
Something flashes in Claudia’s eyes. Guilt. Regret. Anger most of all. She scowls. “How dare—”
“There you are!”
They look up. Callum grins at Rayla from the end of the hallway and jogs the rest of the way. His hair’s still wet and tousled but the flour’s all gone, and despite herself, Rayla smiles. "Hey," she greets warmly. "Sorry. Must've taken a wrong turn or something. Her Grace was just giving me directions."
"Oh, really?" He looks to Claudia. "That was super nice of you, thanks Claudia."
Claudia hmphs lightly. There's still hostility in her eyes, but she smiles at Callum, even if it's one she doesn't mean. "My pleasure," she says stiffly.
If Callum notices, he doesn't say. He slips an arm around Rayla's waist, his eyes bright and eager, and Rayla catches the way Claudia's lips twitch downwards as he does it.
"We should get moving," Callum's saying. "Dad's waiting."
"Right, yeah." And because Rayla knows it'll annoy her, she pries herself from Callum's side briefly to dip into a much slower, much less polite curtsey. "Your Grace," she bids icily, without inclining her head.
Claudia sneers, but Rayla puts her hand back in Callum's and lets him pull her away.
When they're out of earshot, he stops. "What was that all about?"
Rayla shakes her head. "Nothing," she murmurs. "Just… getting to know her."
Her fingers linger in his.
The state dinner, Rayla has been told, is just a fancy dinner party for parliament and the higher ranking Katolan nobles. They have one every quarter and the idea is to catch up without the arguing and the biases of their day to day political squabbles. A kind of Casual Friday for the leaders of the country. It doesn’t usually go that way, of course—asking politicians to leave their biases at the door is like asking zebras to shed their stripes—and hosting , naturally, is… not great. This whole debacle was supposed to be at Claudia’s, but Callum’s arrival and Christmas were enough of an excuse to have it moved. As much as Rayla dislikes her, she gets it. At least the castle has enough staff to make setting up and packing down less of a hassle.
The true hassle is being expected to go. Rayla has met maybe six out of the fifty or so people who are going to be in attendance, and pretending to be a couple for four of those six is draining enough as it is. Being on show for the rest of parliament, as a concept, is terrible, and she stares at her graduation dress that Friday morning with dread building in her bones.
“I think it looks good,” offers Callum.
“Are you being serious or are you just being nice?”
“Why can’t I be nice and also serious?” he teases. “Although, if you want me to be serious-er, then, yeah, I’m glad you can wear it to the dinner. I dunno that it’ll be appropriate for Claudia’s engagement party.”
“Jesus,” mutters Rayla.
They lapse into a pause. Rayla fiddles with the hem of the skirt, wishing she’d had the foresight to bring some jewellery with her. “I wish I’d brought something silver,” she says wistfully. “Might make this get up look a little less plain.”
Callum blinks. “Why don’t you talk to my mom?” he offers. “She’ll have something you can wear with it.”
“Isn’t that weird?”
“Why would it be weird? She thinks you’re my girlfriend.”
“That makes it worse,” says Rayla drily. “It’s bad enough I’m lying to the queen. I don’t want to borrow her jewellery too.”
Callum snorts a little at that. “Well, when you put it that way, it does sound a little bad.” he says. “Look. It’ll be fine. The state dinner’s more of a business thing anyway, and if you turned up in your graduation dress, no one would say you look out of place. Don’t stress about it, okay?”
“I guess,” grumbles Rayla.
“Oh, also!” He snaps his fingers like he’s just remembered something. “Mom and Dad are thinking about going to the Banther Lodge for a couple of days after this. It’s a little cabin in the woods we used to go to every winter when we were kids. You don’t have to come, obviously, and if you stay, I will too, but it’d be nice if we went with them. There’s a lot less people there, if that helps. It’ll just be us and, like, Corvus and a couple of others for security.”
Rayla lets out a chuckle at the thought. As much as she is still pretending to be Callum’s girlfriend for his mum and dad, it does feel like less of an effort. Queen Sarai and King Harrow are lovely people. She’s not quite as familiar with them as she is with Ez, and she still refers to them by their courtesy titles, but they like her well enough and treat her like one of the family. Spending a couple of days away with them sounds nice. “I’d love to go,” she says. “Call it something to look forward to after all… this.” She grimaces again and gestures vaguely at the dress.
“Seriously,” says Callum, touching her hand. “It’ll be fine.”
It’s weirder than it should be. They’ve been holding hands all week, and even before then, it’s not like they were strangers to it. It’s a show of comfort or support between two good friends who are totally fine with it because they don’t like each other like that , and they’re mature enough not to be dumb about it. It shouldn’t be weird.
But Rayla smiles and shakes her head, ignoring the bubble of uncertainty rising in her stomach. “Thanks Callum,” she murmurs, squeezing his hand back.
(She doesn’t let go right away).
He leaves her later to go pick up some stuff in town (Bow ties, he’d said. For him and Ez. “Don’t you have a royal tailor or something?” she’d asked him, and he’d snarked, “Yeah. In town. ”) so Rayla whiles the afternoon away having snowball fights with Ezran and Soren in the courtyard.
Soren, it turns out, is a captain for the Katolan army, and has a competitive streak that borders on violent. It’s her and Ez against him, and they both spend an obscene amount of time cowering behind a half-collapsed snow fort in an attempt to avoid being hit in the face. He’d yelled out to Claudia when she wandered past—“Clauds, you wanna play?”—but she’d turned her nose up at them (Rayla) and went straight inside to get ready for dinner.
At four-thirty, they head in. Callum’s not in their suite when Rayla gets there, so she takes the opportunity to hog the bathroom and to do her hair and makeup in relative peace. She lets her favourite playlist play from her phone to hum along to while she pins her hair into a knot at the base of her head, and she's got her dress halfway on when the door opens and Callum's voice calls through the room.
"Oh, good." Rayla grimaces at herself in the mirror, her elbows bent at awkward angles in an effort to zip up the back of her dress. "Can you help? The zip's stuck."
"Oh, sure," he says, appearing already dressed in the bathroom doorway. "No… problem."
Rayla catches it in the mirror: the way his eyes widen at the sight of her, the way his cheeks darken with a blush at her half-done dress.
He's done this before. He's been living with Rayla for two years and this is not the first time she's needed help zipping up the back of a dress. There's no reason to start being weird about it now, but still—Rayla ducks her head and tries not to notice the way his gaze lingers on her back.
"Are you gonna help or what?"
Callum shakes himself out of it. "Right, yeah. Hang on."
The seconds slow to a crawl. His fingers brush hers. Warmth blooms Rayla's face.
It's not weird , Rayla insists to herself. It's not because they're friends. Platonic friends. He's done this a million times and it wasn't weird then and it's definitely not weird now. But he frees the zipper with a tug, does it up the rest of the way, and she swears that she can feel the heat of his hands through the stiff material of her dress; that his fingers hover at her shoulders, hesitant to pull away—
And then he does, and time rushes forward once more.
Rayla lets out the breath she'd forgotten to release and smiles awkwardly at him in the mirror. "Thanks."
"Anytime," he murmurs. "Oh, uh. Don’t move yet. I have something for you.”
He pats her shoulders to keep her from moving, and Rayla watches, wide-eyed, as he pulls a thin box from his jacket pocket. She’s been around enough jewellery stores to know what it is on sight, and her lips part, caught between a protest and a gasp, as he drapes a fine silver chain around her neck.
It’s a dainty thing: sterling silver with the phases of the moon hanging from its lowest point. Simple. Pretty. Elegant.
“You said you could use some silver and you didn’t wanna borrow any so…” Callum trails off. He fumbles with the clasp as he tries to do it up and the weird thing with time happens again . Rayla’s heart thunders in her ears every agonizing second he’s so close to her, and when he reaches around her to straighten it against her collar, she thinks it stops altogether. “There,” he says when he’s finished. He smiles at her, pleased. Then he steps away and the seconds start ticking again at their normal pace.
Her reflection looks pretty good next to his in his perfectly pressed and fitted suit. His bow tie is forest green. She wonders if he got it specifically to match. Her dress still fits well, flaring out at the waist and hanging nicely below her knees. Her hair is pinned up into a neat little bun except for the locks she’d left free to frame her face. The necklace sits gracefully on her chest.
Rayla breathes in. “I—er—”
“It’s just to say thanks,” says Callum quickly. “You didn’t have to do any of this but… you’re a good friend, Rayla. I just… wanted you to know that I appreciate everything you’ve done.”
Something about it stings. Rayla doesn’t know what else she expected. They are just friends. Everything else has just been pretend.
She swallows. “Thanks Callum,” she says levelly. There’s a lump in her throat that wasn’t there two seconds ago, and she coughs to clear it. She turns at last to face him, forces a grin onto her lips, and pats his arm. “Should we go?”
“Yeah,” says Callum, grinning back. “Let’s.”
There are people milling around the entrance hall when they get there. Rayla’s never seen it so busy. She shifts uncomfortably in her dress, trying subtly to tug it straighter as her heels click against the flagstones. The sequined dresses make her feel horribly pale in comparison—not that she’s trying to stick out or anything, but her graduation dress very much is just a graduation dress in this crowd. She feels the heads turn as they pass, although Callum promises her it's not how she looks.
"It's because you're here with me," he tells her quietly. "Don't worry, though. Just try to enjoy yourself."
"Mm." Rayla still grimaces. She doesn't like the way she can feel their eyes on her, and she certainly doesn't like the thought of the gossip that'll spread like wildfire tonight: Prince Callum brought a Xadian girl with him, did you see her? That’s her there!
She tries not to shudder.
But Callum leads her into the throne room with bright eyes and an eager smile. It’s decked out like a dining hall this evening: there’s one long table that runs the length of it, decorated with table runners of candles and holly and fir. There’s a tree, too, of course. The lights on it blink in and out like fireflies in the spring. At the head of the room is King Harrow, Queen Sarai, and Ezran, along with a woman Rayla’s only ever seen on the news.
“Good evening, Prime Minister,” Callum greets. “Have you met Rayla?”
“I haven’t,” says the Prime Minister. She looks Rayla up and down, but rather warmly compared to the other lords and politicians mingling about in the hall. “I’d heard Prince Callum brought a girl with him. It’s a pleasure to meet you, My Lady. My name is Opeli.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” says Rayla feebly. “Although please don’t call me that. Just Rayla’s fine.”
Opeli inclines her head anyway in a kind-of bow—the only kind Rayla doesn’t feel uncomfortable accepting.
“You look lovely tonight, by the way,” says King Harrow. He shoots a proud grin at his stepson. “Callum’s a lucky man to have you on his arm all night.”
Rayla flushes at that. “Please,” she chuckles. “It’s not even that nice a dress. I wore this to my undergrad graduation years ago. It’s the only one I own that’s even remotely appropriate for something like this.”
“Hush,” says Queen Sarai. “You look beautiful. That said though, if it’s the only one you brought, I think we’ll need to find something else for the engagement party.”
“So Callum said,” snorts Rayla. “But it’s fine. I can deal with it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Queen Sarai with a wink. “I’ll help you find something.”
“Oh, Your Majesty, please—”
“You can’t refuse a queen, Rayla,” pipes Ez. “It’s not polite.” His smile is perhaps a bit more mischievous than Rayla would like and she’s suddenly very wary of the way he smirks at Callum. “Bet you’re glad you got ready in my room, though, huh?”
When Rayla looks, Callum’s flushing again and hesitant to look her in the eye. The conversation tips dangerously towards the uncomfortable—Queen Sarai has an eyebrow halfway raised before Rayla has the sense to cut in.
“I’ll bet he was,” she snorts. “I made a mess of our ensuite. There was no room for him there.”
There’s a round of chuckles. Callum’s shoulders ease. Rayla cracks a grin despite the way her skin prickles under his touch.
“Let’s take our seats then,” says King Harrow, offering his arm to Queen Sarai. “I hear Barius and the rest of the kitchen staff did a spectacular job and frankly, I can’t wait.”
It is pretty spectacular. After about a week of eating Barius’ food, Rayla had thought she’d grown used to the quality of cooking he produced, but dinner tonight makes her wonder how she’s ever supposed to go back to microwave noodles and burnt pasta. There’s quail and freshwater salmon and truffles, wine that’s been aging in the castle cellar for half a century, and jelly tarts, of course, because it's not real Katolan cuisine if there aren't jelly tarts for dessert. Altogether, it’s a hell of a feast.
Rayla ends up seated between Queen Sarai and Opeli for most of the night, and by the time dessert is cleared away, her dress feels uncomfortably tight around the waist. There’s tea and coffee going around to help settle everyone’s stomachs, but there's a quartet playing music too, and it isn’t long before King Harrow strides around the table to ask his wife to dance.
“In a minute,” chuckles Queen Sarai, patting her belly. “I need time to digest.”
King Harrow rolls his eyes at her good naturedly. “What about you, Opeli? You wouldn’t leave a king partner-less on the dance floor, would you?”
Opeli’s lips twitch wryly at him. “I wouldn’t if it was expected of me, Your Majesty.”
“Very diplomatic,” drawls King Harrow. “One dance then. While I wait for my wife to finish digesting.”
Opeli heaves a patient sigh, but she smiles and pushes her chair away from the table. “ Just one, Your Majesty.” She lets King Harrow drag her away, and then it’s just Rayla sitting alone with Queen Sarai with Callum and Ezran too far out of earshot for comfort.
A pause settles between them. Rayla’s never been alone with the queen before. She fiddles with her tea strainer and does her best not to give away her discomfort.
“How’re you finding everything?” asks Sarai after a moment.
“Oh, er.” Rayla hesitates, wondering if everything means the castle, the time away, or the dinner. “It’s been… good. I guess. A little overwhelming but otherwise fine.”
“You know you don’t have to be so formal.”
“I know, it’s just…” Rayla falters. Her immediate thought is I’m pretending to be your son’s girlfriend and I don’t like lying to you about it but she doesn’t say that. “Different,” she finishes after a moment. “If I may, Your Majesty, it was kind of a shock when Callum told me about… all this. I’m still adjusting to it.”
Sarai lets out a laugh. “That’s fair,” she says. “I was a bit like you once too. This was all a bit much, once upon a time.”
She nods and sips delicately at her tea. “I didn’t have a title before Harrow and I got married. Callum and I had just lost his biological father and we came into court when Harrow was holding it one day to ask for assistance until we got back on our feet. Harrow helped personally when he had the time. He was lovely to us. I thought it was a joke when he first asked to formally court me.”
Rayla snorts at that. “I can definitely relate to that.”
Sarai grins at her. “We’re not all that different, you and I. I don’t much like the title either, so, if you could, Sarai is just fine. Even if it’s just for tonight.”
“Sure,” chuckles Rayla. “Sorry. It’s—er—it’s a lot to get used to and I just don’t want to offend anybody or cause a scandal.”
“Well, you’re doing very well on that front,” says Sarai. “How have things been in Xadia? I hope Callum’s been looking after you right.”
Rayla lets out a laugh. “I’m usually the one taking care of him,” she says. “But yeah. He has been. You and King Harrow raised a heck of a gentleman. There aren’t very many people as considerate and as caring as him anymore.”
“He likes you a lot,” Sarai tells her. “He spoke so fondly of you over the phone. We always wondered if he had a little bit of a crush. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise when he told us you were already together.”
Sarai nods. “If it wasn’t obvious then, it’s obvious now. It’s in the way he looks at you.” She points her finger a little way down the table, and Rayla spots him: his attention caught on her, his eyes wide and green and soft in the candle light, his lips tilted upwards in a sweet little smile.
Something bubbles in Rayla’s gut, but she squashes it before it can turn into anything that remotely resembles hope. He’s pretending. She’s pretending. It’s just an act.
“You're very smitten with each other, aren't you?”
Rayla swallows. “Yeah,” she says. It’s just pretend. “We are.”
Sarai smiles, pleased. And fooled, obviously. But pleased to be fooled, because that’s all it is. It’s all pretend. It’ll all go away when they go home, and whatever this feeling is that’s pooling in her gut has no business being there because none of it is real , and she’s not stupid enough to fall for their own con. Still, the moon pendants hang heavily against her chest, and she thinks of the way Callum had hesitated upstairs, and of that day he’d kissed her cheek out of habit and can’t help but wonder , because those things had happened outside of the lie. They’d happened in private, or in the presence of someone who already knew.
“Oh, to be young and in love,” Sarai says dreamily. “Chin up, Rayla, he’s coming now.”
“He’s wha—oh.” Rayla glances up and suddenly he’s there, smile on his face, hand held out to her in an obvious offer to dance. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he says. He's still got that same look in his eyes, and it makes Rayla's face heat until she can't look at him back. It's just pretend. “Care to dance, My Lady?”
“Go on, Rayla,” says Sarai. “I think Harrow’ll be back soon anyway. Have fun.”
Rayla puts on a smile. "Sure," she says, ignoring the churning in her stomach. She places her hand in his. "Why not.”
The corners of his mouth tilt upwards into a grin. His fingers close around hers—Rayla hopes they’re not as sweaty as she thinks they are—and he tugs her out of her seat and over to the dancefloor by the tree. There aren’t many other people dancing, she knows a few that are—Soren and his partner (Gren, Rayla thinks?), King Harrow and Opeli, who are leaving, and Ezran and—
“Is that Ellis?”
Callum lets out a laugh. “Looks like it,” he says, pulling her to him. There are too many watching eyes here to half-ass the act which must be the reason he’s holding her so close. “They’re just friends , he tells me, but I think we both know it’s only a matter of time before that changes.”
There’s an odd weight in the sentence that makes Rayla's heart beat unevenly in her chest. “And he thinks he’s so funny when he teases us,” she laughs airily.
Callum hides his snicker in her shoulder, his breath light against her jaw. Suddenly, the lights on the tree are dizzying. “It’s true, by the way,” he says quietly. “What everyone’s saying. You look beautiful.”
It’s just pretend.
“No one’s saying that,” snorts Rayla.
“A lot of people are saying that,” says Callum. “They keep complimenting me about you. At least we know one of us looks good.”
“Don’t be daft,” she says. “You look amazing. Very dashing. If you were on anyone else’s arm tonight, I might be jealous.”
He laughs at that. “Thanks.”
The music shifts. It's a lot slower and somber now—some fancy romantic cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas . Their steps slow until they're swaying gently on the spot. Callum’s hand is almost unbearably warm against her waist, and, for a moment, they fall silent. Rayla grasps for something—anything—to say because every second he looks at her like that makes that thing in her stomach grow ever larger.
But… there's nothing to say. They slow to a stop, their faces close, their noses mere centimetres from each other, and Rayla’s heart hammers thunderously loud in her chest. Callum breathes in. "Rayla, I—uh—"
Somebody laughs. Callum snaps his mouth shut and they both look up to find King Harrow, returned to the dance floor with Queen Sarai in his arms. He grins at them both and points a finger above their heads. “Mistletoe,” he says.
Callum flushes. Rayla pales. So far they've limited kissing to quick pecks on the cheek—enough to look affectionate but not enough to be weird —but that won't cut it here. There are too many people watching; too many people who think they're in love.
“Don’t be rude, Callum,” they hear Sarai say. “Your beloved’s waiting.”
The flush deepens. If Callum grew any redder, he might match the banners on the walls.
"It's—it's fine," Rayla murmurs at last. "It's just pretend, right?"
A pause. A breath. Callum offers her a wan smile and nods. "Yeah," he says. "Just pretend."
It's not supposed to be much. It's the chastest press of his lips to hers. They barely even touch at all—but that something in Rayla's stomach, that bubble of hope, swells and swells and bursts , filling her chest with warmth and butterflies and—
Callum pulls away. Something unreadable crosses his face, which scares her on its own because she’s never not been able to read him before. He releases her hand and her waist too quickly to be casual and ducks his gaze. "I'm gonna… get a drink," he says hoarsely. "Do you want one?"
Then he's gone. Rayla stares after him. The ghost of his lips lingers on her own, and her heart hammers away within her rib cage, too far gone to help.
Well, she thinks. Fuck.
halfway through writing this, i messaged the amazing @lovelysheree (both here and on tumblr!) to see if she would be interested in helping me out with some art and BOY DID SHE DELIVER. you can view the art above in its wonderful and original glory here. please be sure to drop in on her and give her some love!
They don't talk about it because there's nothing to talk about. Rayla might have been naive enough to start believing their lie, but Callum isn't, and she's not so selfish she’d ruin their friendship over this. She spends the rest of the evening surreptitiously checking for more mistletoe and scowling at the king and queen as they dance their way around the floor.
It’s not like it’s their fault—they don’t know—but damn them anyway. Damn that mistletoe. Damn that kiss , especially because once it’s over, Callum returns with her drink but very purposefully keeps his distance.
The absence of his warmth is immediate. Rayla hadn’t even noticed she’d cherished it so much but now—now that she knows how much of a fool she is—her heart aches at the lack of it. All of a sudden, there's space between them that wasn't there before, and she’s not sure if she hates it or if she relishes the safety it provides.
Dinner adjourns. They head upstairs, very carefully keeping their hands and their elbows to themselves (Rayla forces her fingers not to twitch for his, no matter how much they want to), and when they close the door to Callum's suite, the silence between them becomes glaringly loud. She hovers by the door, awkward, uncertain, unsure of where they stand, even as Callum pushes past and collapses into the couch.
He seems angry. Is he angry? She doesn’t know anymore. He’s closed himself off from her and she thinks it’s because she’s lost the plot. She’s not even sure when the lie had become such a reality to her, but it is now, and there’s no turning back.
“Are you okay?” she asks finally. She half-dreads the answer, because if he says no and it’s because of her, then—
“Hm?” Callum glances up as he kicks off his oxfords. “Yeah. Fine.”
Rayla tries again. “Did… I do something wrong?”
“What?” He frowns at her. “No! Of course not. I’m just… it’s been a big night, I guess. I’m just tired.” He pauses there and fidgets with the edges of his bow tie before he undoes it altogether.
Rayla swallows. She tries to step towards him but her knees almost buckle under her weight. “If—if it’s about that kiss—”
“It’s not,” says Callum quickly. “It’s—it was fine. I’m sorry. On behalf of my parents for putting the both of us on the spot like that. They don’t know. And… if it’s made everything weird…” His voice drops then, low and hoarse and strangled, even in the almost whisper it's in. “It is just pretend, isn’t it?” he asks.
No , thinks Rayla. Not all of it. Not anymore.
She nods. “Yeah,” she says lightly. A poor effort to be nonchalant if there ever was one. “Of course. It’s—it’s all pretend. And things are—they’re not weird. Right?”
“Right,” says Callum. “Not weird.” He looks up at her then, but even from here, Rayla can see the way he tries to look past her. That softness is gone, and she can’t decide if she’s grateful for it or if she would give anything to have him look at her like that again. “So… we’re good?”
Rayla nods, forcing a smile. “Always,” she says. “And… you’re okay?”
“Yep.” The answer is short. Non-committal. It almost sounds like he’s trying to pretend that he is—but then, thinks Rayla, what would she know about playing pretend? She doesn’t even know how to tell the difference anymore.
“Oh. Er. Good! That’s good then.” She swings her arms awkwardly by her sides. The moon pendants shift on her chest. “Do—do you want this back?” she asks, reaching around her neck to undo the clasp for lack of anything else to do.
“No,” says Callum. “I got it for you. It’s yours.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks." She studies the pendants in the dim light and catches the reflection of her face in full moon. God, what has she done ? How had this happened? When? How long, exactly, has she been in love with her best friend? She sighs and closes her fingers around the necklace until the sharp edges of the waxing and waning crescents dig into her skin. “I’m… gonna take a shower then, I guess?”
“Yep,” says Callum. “Go for it.”
“Right. Okay.” Rayla kicks off her heels without another word, but even the relief of being flat footed on the carpet feels hollow and stupid. She lingers by the bathroom door, waiting to see if Callum might say anything else, but he’s already lying back on the couch with both arms over his eyes. He hasn’t even gotten changed.
Her chest aches. Her ribs hurt. Her lungs fill with the truth.
But she doesn’t say anything, in the end. She shuts the bathroom door behind her, puts the necklace back into its box, and sheds her dress in silence. The shower does even less to dull her feelings, and she climbs out of it ten minutes later feeling worse about everything to do with this situation. Back home, she would have talked to him. He would have helped her muddy through all of this and get her head straight again. He would have been happy to help.
But when she opens the door again, he’s already asleep.
Rayla lets out a sigh. Quietly, she tugs the spare duvet off the bed and throws it over him, daring, for a moment, to watch the moonlight on his face and wishing she was brave enough to tell him the truth and bear his rejection like a grown adult. Instead, she tucks him in, and goes straight to sleep herself.
Rayla wakes the next morning to the sound of voices outside the bedroom door. It's still dark outside. The sky beyond the window on the far side of the room is stony and dim, but there’s a sliver of orange on the floor that throws light into the rest of the suite.
The couch is empty. The extra sheets have been shoved off onto the floor, and Callum’s suit is hung carelessly over the back of one of the gilded armchairs. He must have gotten up to shower and change after she’d fallen asleep. She blinks tiredly, barely lucid and lulled by whispers outside the bedroom door, before—
Rayla blinks again. Whispers? Huffing, she sits up.
"You literally have no idea what you're talking about."
That's Callum's voice. It's gruff and irritated, and Rayla almost doesn’t recognize it—it’s rare for him to sound so angry, but it's definitely him.
"Don't I?" snaps the other. Claudia? "I see the way she treats you, Callum. She's using you."
"Oh, my God, Claudia—"
"Do you really think someone like her could care about you more than the fact that you're one of the princes of Katolis?"
A beat. "Callum, I—I didn't mean it like that—"
“How did you mean it, then?”
“I just meant—you can’t trust her. She doesn’t care about you the way you think she does, she’s only going to—”
"Enough," hisses Callum. "You need to back off. Rayla is—she's my friend before she is anything else and she would never—"
"Ha! Don't be naive. She just doesn't love you, Callum. She’s only going to end up breaking your heart.”
"Like you did?”
There’s a pause. A long one. Rayla counts the seconds as they tick by. And then—
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt,” comes Claudia’s voice. She sounds wounded.
“Bit late for that,” says Callum shortly. “You don’t get to accuse her of wanting a status upgrade through me. She didn’t even know about any of this, and she came all the way out here anyway to keep me company. She’s a good friend.”
“...A good girlfriend, you mean?”
Rayla’s heart misses a beat.
“What—yeah,” says Callum quickly. “Obviously. I didn’t think that needed saying.”
It’s a poor recovery. For a moment it feels like it’s not enough—Claudia’s onto them, the jig is up—but Callum huffs tiredly and says, “I’m happy with her, Claudia. Isn’t that enough?”
Claudia says nothing for a while. Then, she sighs. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry. I just… ” She trails off. There’s a question in the air that she wants to ask. Rayla can feel it all the way from here. It takes her a moment to steel herself enough to do it. “Do you love her? The way you did me?”
A third pause. Rayla’s heart jumps into her throat, afraid of both answers he might give.
“Yeah,” he says at last. “More.”
Rayla’s system floods with three things at once: relief, because he does, joy, because she loves him too, and the heavy hand of realism and disappointment, because it’s just an act. She knows that it is. It’s Callum trying to keep their cover after almost blowing it in the face of Claudia’s accusations. It’s him, still bitter and still angry for the way things happened all those years ago, trying to wound Claudia for it. It’s a lie that they’d both agreed to, and it’s pathetic that she believes it.
“I’m going back to bed,” says Callum sharply. “Goodnight, Claudia.”
The sliver of orange darkens with his shadow before Claudia can say anything else, and then it disappears completely when he shuts the door. He stands there for a while, his breath heavy, his jaw set, one hand running frustratedly through his hair, before Rayla has the sense to let him know she’s awake.
“Hey,” she whispers. “Are you okay?”
Callum jumps. “Rayla. I—I didn’t realize you were up.”
“I heard everything,” she confesses. “Claudia really doesn’t like me, does she?”
He snorts at that. “She’s just… concerned,” he says. “Over nothing, but she doesn’t know that.” He offers her a grim smile and pads across the room and back to the couch. “Don’t worry about it, okay? Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
Rayla fiddles with the hem of the duvet. “Callum,” she says at last.
“You know that…” She trails off, unsure how she’d even wanted to finish the sentence. “You’re a good friend too," she finishes lamely. "And… the prince thing means nothing to me. In—in case that wasn't clear."
He huffs out a laugh. “It was plenty clear, don’t worry.”
Rayla chuckles. “Listen,” she tries again. “A-about last night…”
“ Don’t .” There’s an edge in the way that he says it that cuts , but he looks at her over from the couch with something like a sad smile. “Just… don’t… worry about it, okay?” he says. “You and I—we’re friends. I’m sorry if I was short with you. I shouldn’t have been. It was just—” He cuts himself off with a sigh. “It doesn’t even matter. Nothing’s changed between us, right? We’re okay?”
“Yeah,” says Rayla. “Of course. It’s just—I care about you. A lot. And whatever happens… I’m here.”
Callum lets out a breath. “I know.”
They head out to the Banther Lodge the next afternoon.
King Harrow and Queen Sarai go earlier. They had the benefit of knowing about it earlier and had their things ready well before the dinner, but Callum and Rayla a) sleep in, b) aren’t packed, and c) had almost forgotten about it altogether after all the kerfuffle around the kiss.
“It was barely a kiss,” says Ez. His bag’s ready to go too, but he’s sitting on the gilded couch while Callum and Rayla attempt to gather enough clothes and snow gear for two days away. “And before you ask, yeah, I saw everything. You’re gonna blow your cover if you keep being weird about it.”
“It wasn’t weird,” grumbles Callum, if a little defensively. “It isn’t weird. Nothing’s weird.”
“Ez,” sighs Rayla patiently. “Look, it’s nice that you’re waiting for us, but if you’re gonna keep being annoying about it, we’ll kick you out. We can’t pack if you keep asking us about it like this.”
Ez gives her a look . “Did you think it was weird?” he asks her.
His eyes are piercing. His tone is cheeky. Rayla thinks he knows too much. She tries not to flush. “No,” she mutters. “It was only weird because we were put on the spot. I’m fine with it. We’re fine with it, right, Callum?”
“Yep,” says Callum, rolling his charging cables in his hand. He stuffs them in the pocket of the overnighter they’re sharing and keeps his eyes on the floor. “Totally fine. It wasn’t weird. ”
Ez rolls his eyes at them both. His frog, Bait, rumbles grumpily on his shoulder, and Ez snorts. “Yeah, I know, right?” he mumbles.
“That’s weird,” Callum points out. “You know he’s a frog, right?”
“Yeah,” says Ez testily, “he’s my pet. You’ve never had one and it shows .”
Rayla hides a chortle at that. She tosses her pyjamas and bathrobe at Callum, who catches them deftly out of the air and shoves them into the overnighter too. “I think that’s all my stuff.”
“Good,” says Callum. “Perfect. I can do a final check. Do you guys want to head down to Corvus?”
Rayla shrugs. “Give me that, then,” she says, nodding at the bag. “We can load it now. We’ll see you in a bit?”
“Yep.” He waves absently, and he’s very obviously ticking off a mental checklist when they close the door on him. Rayla shoulders their overnighter with a huff and falls into step with Ez.
“So it wasn’t weird, then,” says Ez.
Rayla groans. “ No,” she snaps, perhaps a bit harsher than she means to. “ You’re making it weird by asking about it like that. It was nothing. It was—” She glances around them to check the coast is clear. “—It was what we had to do to keep up the charade,” she hisses.
“Mm,” says Ez. He glances at her from the corner of his eye. “Did you like the necklace he got you?”
Rayla stops. “You know about that?”
“Sure do,” says Ez casually. “He was looking at it when we went into town the other day. Showed it to me while we were getting ready for dinner. Awfully nice for something a friend might get for another friend, don’t you think?”
“Ez.” Rayla looks up at the ceiling with a frustrated huff and readjusts the strap of the overnighter. The necklace is tucked away in the bottom of it. She hadn’t wanted to leave it. “He’s a prince too, y’know, maybe his version of something nice is just a bit more extra than the average person.”
Ez actually laughs at her. “Oh, yeah, Callum’s totally the type of person to get something that sweet and intimate for all his friends. I believe that.” On his shoulder, Bait ribbits an equally sarcastic ribbit that makes Ez snort and pat affectionately at his head. “Come on, Rayla. You and I both know there’s more to it than that.”
Is there? That feeling in Rayla’s stomach swells again, but she swallows and shuts it down. “You’re reading into things too much,” she says. She hopes Ez doesn’t notice the strangled quality of her voice. “It’s all pretend. The necklace was—probably part of the act.”
“Was it.” He makes a face at her, one so smug and knowing that she can’t help but shift uncomfortably in her own skin.
“Yeah,” she says stubbornly. “If you want something to gossip about so bad, why don’t you tell me more about Claudia, instead?”
Ez cocks his head at her. "What about her?"
"She…" Rayla presses her lips together, uncertain that it's her information to share in the first place. She takes a breath. "She came by this morning. I—er—heard her and Callum having an argument outside his door."
"Oh? What about?"
Rayla hesitates. "Me," she mutters. "She doesn't trust me. Which, I guess, okay, fair. She doesn't think I'm in love with Callum enough."
"Ah." Ez hums thoughtfully. They cross through the double doors at the end of the entrance hall and the cold hits them like a wall. Corvus is waiting for them at the bottom of the steps with the car already running.
"Well?" prods Rayla. "What's her deal? Isn't she engaged?"
"Yeah," says Ez. "She and Callum—it was kinda messy."
Rayla nods. "Yeah, Callum told me."
"Did he tell you he asked her to marry him?"
The beat that follows pulls the air from Rayla's lungs. When she tries to suck it back in, it doesn't quite make it all the way down. "They were engaged?"
Ez shakes his head. "She said no. They broke it off after that. He was heartbroken. He almost asked Mom if he could give her her ring and everything. He got a different one, in the end, but either way... If I didn't know he wanted to study in Xadia before that, I might have thought he went because of it."
"He loved her."
"Mm... He doesn't really use that word about her. I think he might have at the time, but he won't admit to it now. He was young. I think… he wants to believe that you can only truly love someone once and he doesn't want it to have been her."
Rayla falls silent. What is there to say to that? How is she supposed to react? Callum—wonderful, sweet, amazing Callum—had his heart shattered by someone he thought loved him back just as truly and as deeply, and she's supposed to, what, accept that? Be okay with it? How?
Ez waits until Corvus is out of earshot before he speaks again. "I know this is all pretend," he murmurs, "but be careful, okay? He's had his heart broken once. I just… don't want to see him get hurt again."
And maybe it's because the look he gives her makes her think he already knows—Ez is easily the most perceptive person she's ever met, and she wouldn't be surprised, really, if he did— but she shakes her head. "I wouldn't," she says.
He smiles. "I know.”
There's a pattering down the steps, and Ez puts a grin back onto his lips and waves as Callum hurries towards them. "Ready to go?"
"Yep," he says, smiling at them both. "Let's make a move."
The Banther Lodge is a stone and wood cabin somewhere in the heart of Capitol Woods. Ez says it’s been out there for something like three or four hundred years and that the royal family’s been using it for a bunch of different things for centuries.
“Usually it’s like, retreats and stuff. For the castle staff, too, not just us. It was even an orphanage once—our great-great grandmother lent it to the state orphanage after their building went down in a fire. It’s great for winter stuff, though—you can skate on the river, and go sledding, and cross-country skiing if you’re into it. You’re gonna love it.”
And Rayla’s sure she will, but her mind’s still caught up on the fact that Callum had proposed to Claudia, and she’d said no. Then she’d invited him to her engagement party and—
What does Claudia expect, exactly? Is he supposed to be happy for her? Is he supposed to turn up like everyone else, and congratulate her when it might have been him not so long ago? Suddenly, Rayla’s glad she came with him, because lies be damned, the image of him at that engagement party alone breaks her heart in her chest. Maybe that’s why he’d been so bothered by that kiss; maybe he’s not over her, even after all this time. Rayla’s chest aches at the thought of it, but she wants him to be happy more than she cares about herself.
The scenery grows wilder and wilder as Corvus drives. It takes them about an hour to get out of the city proper, and there’s another two after that but Rayla spends most of it in silence. She watches the view zip past the window in a blur of whites and greens and greys, only half-listening to the banter and the history lesson from Ez until, eventually, Ez passes out in his seat with his head cheek cushioned uncomfortably on his seatbelt.
Callum must have been waiting for it, because it’s not until after that that he turns to her. “Are you okay?”
“Hm? Oh.” She forces a smile. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just didn’t sleep great.”
“Ah.” Callum grimaces. “Sorry about this morning.”
“Oh, it wasn’t—it was the dancing and the alcohol, probably. I was tossing and turning all night.” She offers him a lame grin and fidgets with her own fingers. Everything feels like it holds a lot more weight now, and what he’d said to Claudia hangs heavily on her mind.
“Do you love her? The way you did me?”
He’d said it to hurt her, surely. It didn’t mean anything. It can’t mean anything, and yet…
“Kinda weird that she came by this morning, huh?”
“A little,” says Callum, shrugging. “We haven’t really… spoken since we flew in. Probably because I’ve been with you almost all day every day, and she…”
“She doesn’t hate you,” he laughs. “She’s a bit… wary, I guess? Either way, she shouldn’t have said those things about you. The idea of you using me as a status upgrade is pretty objectively wrong.”
“Yeah,” snorts Rayla, “you could be homeless and we’d still be friends.”
“Pretty sure you thought I was when we first met,” Callum chuckles. “Anyway, I think she just came by to try and catch us before we left. I figure she thought we were leaving at the same time as Mom and Dad, who would’ve headed off a little after all that.”
“Still,” says Rayla. “Probably not a great look for a duchess who’s supposed to be engaged. Where’s that fiance of hers anyway? How come he wasn’t at the dinner last night?”
“Who, Kasef?” Callum hmphs and rolls his eyes. “He’s the—uh—he’s the Crown Prince of Neolandia. He’s probably needed over there until closer to Christmas. He’ll be here for the engagement party so we’ll see him at some point, I guess.” He wrinkles his nose.
God, this must suck. Rayla can’t even imagine it. She takes a breath. “Are you… okay with all of this?”
He blinks at her. “Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Rayla purses her lips. There are a lot of questions on her mind right now, but she’s not really sure if any of them are appropriate to ask. He’d had the opportunity, after all, to tell her about his failed proposal himself that day on the tower, but he hadn’t and that—that makes her wonder about a lot of things that aren’t her business. “I dunno,” she says finally. The question she wants to ask clogs her throat, but she forces it away. “I just… worry, I guess. It must be hard, having to be here for that.”
Callum pauses. He looks at her curiously and she remembers too late that he doesn’t know she knows the truth about what happened with Claudia. Rayla feels her neck prickle with unease under the way he seems to search her face. But after a moment, he chuckles and shakes his head. “It’s not so bad when you’ve got a friend.”
In spite of her own feelings, in spite of the confusion and the longing in her heart, Rayla smiles. When she touches his hand, she means it. It’s not for show here—it’s because they’re friends, and they will be, no matter what.
“You can go back to sleep, if you like,” he says after a second. “We won’t get there for a little while yet.”
“Ah, no, I’m fine,” says Rayla, even as she stifles a yawn. The steady hum of white noise is lulling. “Gotta keep you company.”
“Seriously,” chuckles Callum. “It’s fine. Go to sleep. If you do, I won’t feel so bad napping too.”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Rayla grins at him and settles as best as she can in her corner of the car. It’s not the most comfortable—more so than other cars, sure, but that’s not saying much—but she makes do. Eventually, she rests her cheek against the shoulder strap of her seatbelt. “Wake me if you need anything, okay?”
“Of course,” says Callum. “Sleep tight.”
It’s a pretty restful drive. Rayla wakes twice: once when Corvus pulls over to put snow chains on the tires, and once more when they go over a particularly large bump. It’s otherwise uneventful, and the next time she wakes, Corvus is pulling into the drive of what looks like a giant gingerbread house.
The sun’s not quite gone yet. It’s still setting over the mountains in the west, and it makes the fresh fallen snow look golden on the eaves. The ground crunches loudly under the tires as the car pulls in, but it’s only as Corvus turns off the engine that Rayla wakes with a start.
“Are we here already?” she yawns, rubbing tiredly at her eyes.
“We seem to be,” says Corvus, smirking at her through the rearview mirror. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“‘S fine.” Rayla shifts a little in her seat. It’s so warm .
“Will you be all right to wake the princes?”
“Mmhmm. We’ll come and help you in a bit.” She offers him a bleary eyed smile and rolls her shoulders as he climbs out of the car. Her neck hurts a little, and there’s something brushing her nose, but she’s more comfortable than she thought she would be after sleeping on a car ride that long. She glances down, and—
Callum had said he was going to take a nap, but he must have shifted at some point. He’s still asleep with his head against her shoulder.
Rayla’s breath hitches in her throat, but she smiles, in spite of the stutter in her heart. What would it be like, she wonders, to kiss him for real? Just a chaste one against the top of his head, not for show, or for anything else, but because she loves him? Is that really such a terrifying reality?
Yes, says the last remaining rational part of her brain, because this isn’t reality. None of it is. It’s a con .
“Hey,” she whispers. “Sleepy prince.”
“Oh.” He blinks, groans, shifts—and then jolts upwards when he realizes how he’d fallen asleep. “Sorry,” he mutters, keeping his eyes on the carpet. “I—uh—”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Rayla. The urge to brush his hair back is overwhelming. “Wake Ez. I’ll go help Corvus.” She offers him one last smile and unlocks the door before she can think anymore about it.
It’s pretty out here. The castle is nice, sure, and more comfortable than any place Rayla’s ever stayed, but the peace and the quiet of Capitol Woods is a comfort of its own. The cold bites through the material of her jacket, but it’s a refreshing kind of cold—like mint and cold water. The smell of wood fire and pine is in the air, and something else too; something warm and homey.
“Barius isn’t here too, is he?”
“No,” says Corvus, shutting the boot with a thunk. “That would be Her Majesty’s cooking.”
Rayla stares. “Sarai cooks?”
“She was a baker before she married King Harrow,” says Corvus. Rayla takes Callum’s overnighter off him before he can object. He chuckles his thanks. “As the queen, she has other duties now, but I think she misses it sometimes.”
“There you are!” comes a voice, and Rayla glances up to find the queen in question grinning at them from the top of the steps. “We thought the three of you changed your minds or something.”
“We couldn’t do that,” chuckles Rayla. She adjusts the strap of the shoulder bag as Callum and Ezran finally climb out of the car.
Dinner’s already ready when they get in. Sarai looks pleased to have been able to do something not related to politics, and the taste of her freshly baked bread is so good, it could rival Barius’. It’s the family dinner Rayla hasn’t had in a little while, in part because things have been busy, and in part because her parents aren’t home in Silvergrove as often as they’d like. Christmases with her family are usually smaller, quieter affairs—just her and her uncles, Ethari and Runaan, sharing hot chocolate by fire and exchanging stories of the year gone by.
Here there are drinks and card games and an inordinate amount of yelling over said card games until everyone’s laughed themselves hoarse. It’s not better—it’s just a nice change of pace, and Rayla quietly wishes her parents and uncles might be able to play these games with Callum’s family someday too.
(A silly wish, says her rational mind. It’s unlikely she’ll see Callum’s family again after all this is over and the truth spills out. She humours herself anyway.)
“It’s a shame your aunts aren’t here,” says Sarai wistfully, as the cards get packed away. “You’d like them, Rayla—Amaya and Janai are always fun to have around. They’re very competitive.”
Rayla raises an eyebrow at them. “Janai as in Queen Janai of Lux Aurea?”
“That’s the one,” giggles Ez.
Rayla laughs. “I honestly don’t know why I’m so surprised.”
“We’d have to teach you how to sign,” says Callum, taking a swig from his eggnog. “Maybe next year? You’re staying with them next Christmas, aren’t you, Ez?”
“Sure am,” says Ez. “That’d be cool! We can have our next family Christmas in Lux Aurea!”
“A brilliant plan, if I do say so myself,” says King Harrow. “You’ll be there too, won’t you, Rayla?”
Their eyes turn to her. The lie tastes bitter in her mouth, but Callum cuts in before she even has the chance to look guilty about it.
“‘Course she will be,” he says. “She's part of the family now.” (And under the table, his fingers brush hers).
And because they’re still pretending, because Callum claims that she will be, Rayla smiles. “Sure,” she says. “If you’ll have me.”
They talk the rest of the night away.
Later, when everyone else has gone to bed, Rayla makes herself a cup of tea and stares into its depths while the fire burns itself out. Her mind is busy. She has so many thoughts and so little space for them, and each and every one is loud and obtrusive. It’s not a total surprise when Callum joins her.
He seats himself beside her, their knees close enough to knock together, but far enough away to not. It’s both too close and too far for comfort, and he says nothing for a while. His own teacup is already half empty. Rayla wonders how long he’s been awake too. At last, he sighs. “Ez told you, huh?”
“Told me what?”
Callum gives her a look . “What really happened,” he says, “between me and Claudia.”
Rayla looks away from him. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry.”
His lips twitch into a rueful smile. “I’m not made of glass, Rayla.”
“I know.” Rayla lets out a sigh and blinks at the reflection in her tea. “I’m just… I dunno, Callum. I came here with you because I didn’t want you to go to her engagement party by yourself, but… I didn’t realize things went so deep. There are things that make a lot more sense now, but I’m… so angry for you. How could she do that?”
“She didn’t have to say yes, you know.”
“No, she didn’t, but she didn’t have to lead you on, either. And to invite you to her engagement party after all of that?”
Callum snorts. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s a mess.” He falls silent again and drums his fingers against his teacup before he sets it quietly on the coffee table. “I don’t hold it against her,” he says at last. “I wish she had ended sooner, but she had every right to say no. And I’m still angry, I think because it did feel like she’d led me on, and what she did was shit but… she was my friend.”
Rayla’s heart sinks. “You still have feelings for her.”
Callum blinks at her. “What?”
“It’s okay if you do,” she says, although she doesn’t look at him when she says it. “I get it. You were friends for a long time and—”
“It takes time to get over something like that, and—”
He kisses her. It’s the second time he’s done so in as many days but this one catches her so off-guard, she forgets to breathe. His lips taste like tea and snow and peppermint, and Rayla’s heart all but explodes in her chest because this isn’t for show—this is real, and honest and—
He pulls away, wide-eyed, like he’s just realized what he’s done. “Oh my God, Rayla, I—I’m sorry, I—”
And Rayla stares at him because he can’t seriously be apologising for that, not after all the signs she must have been giving, not after how stupid she’s made herself feel for believing in their own lie , when it’s, apparently, not been one at all. She sets her own cup down while he stutters—
“I never should’ve—it was presumptuous of me, and I—I just got carried away—”
Rayla grasps at his lapel. His breath stalls on his lips. She kisses him back.
God, how long had she wanted this? How long had she not realized she’d grown to love him for everything that he is? He’s kind, and gentle, and brave, and that smile of his is just so beautiful and so him that she would have (and has) gone above and beyond just to see it on his face. And when she pulls away, breathless and flushed and helpless in the face of how much she loves him, he swallows.
There’s a fear in his eyes—one that’s afraid he’s gone too far, and that he might have misread all the signs, even after a kiss like that . His breath shudders in. “This… isn’t pretend anymore, is it?”
Rayla almost laughs. “Was it ever?”
“No,” chuckles Callum, pressing his forehead to hers. “I suppose not.”
(Their tea sits forgotten on the coffee table.)
Before they’d left, Callum and Rayla had fumbled, red-faced, through a conversation about inevitably having to share a bed. “It might not be a problem,” Callum had said, shifting uneasily in his skin. “My parents are… well. They’re well off enough that it might not be an issue. But if—if worse comes to worst—”
“We’ll manage,” said Rayla. “We’re friends, right? And we’re adults. It’s not that weird. We’ll just… keep our hands to ourselves.”
They are, most definitely, not doing that.
The details are kind of fuzzy, but at some point during the night, things had become considerably less chaste. Rayla has a dim memory of climbing out of the couch with Callum’s hands under her sweater and her hands in his hair; of knocking their knees into the coffee table and stumbling half-blind up the stairs; of hushed whispers and stifled moans, even after their bedroom door had closed shut behind them.
Now, the sheets are a tangle between their legs, and they’re nestled against each other with their noses touching and left-over goose pimples in their skin.
Things had moved a lot faster than Rayla had anticipated, but then, she supposes, they’ve been moving for years now. She doesn’t know when, exactly, their friendship had started to change, but she’s glad that they’ve found themselves here, and gladder still that they’ve found each other. Her fingers are light against Callum’s jaw as she traces lines into his skin, his eyes soft, his smile brilliant and blinding and beautiful, and Rayla sighs before she presses perhaps the millionth kiss into his mouth.
“You are so wonderful,” she whispers.
“And you are so…”
He doesn’t even finish the sentence. He can’t find the words. He only pulls her to him again, his lips deliciously soft against hers, and Rayla smiles, relishing the way he tastes like the fresh winter air. She could kiss him forever and never tire of it, breathing be damned—
But he parts from her, in the end, even if he does seem hesitant to do so. He sighs, his breath a tickle against her lips. “This is definitely for real, right?” he asks. “The act’s over. This happened.”
Rayla nods at him and finds his fingers with her own. “It happened,” she promises. “I won’t lie to you. I was… so scared for a minute there.”
“ You were?” laughs Callum. “Was it not obvious?”
“I wondered,” says Rayla quietly. “But… I was worried, for a while, that… it was all just part of the lie. I thought I was so stupid for starting to believe in it too, and that those feelings might ruin what we had already.” She chuckles. “I could have dealt with it if it was just unrequited. I couldn’t if I lost you as a friend.”
“Like that would ever happen,” snorts Callum, pressing a kiss into the backs of knuckles. “I wanted to tell you,” he says quietly. “At the dinner. You were so beautiful, and you’d put yourself through all of this, just to keep me company.”
“You’ve known for longer than I have, then,” laughs Rayla.
“I only just figured it out. I might have been pining for you for ages before that but it wasn’t until we kissed at the dinner that I put all the pieces together.” Rayla flushes at thought. It’s embarrassing, really, that it took her that long. “When did you?”
Callum chuckles softly and pulls her closer still, releasing her fingers to draw lazy circles into the bare skin of her shoulder. “A little while ago,” he admits as she shivers pleasantly under his hands. “That day when we were making jelly tarts in the kitchens? I kissed you. I don’t even know that you noticed—it had just become a habit. No one else was even around but Ez but I did it anyway.”
“Oh, I remember that.” Rayla snorts loudly at the memory. “Ez made fun of us after you left.”
“Pretty sure he’s known for ages.”
“Yeah,” laughs Callum. “That wouldn’t surprise me.” He pauses there, his soft and full of his affection and… something else. Rayla wants to think it’s love. “People keep asking me if I’m okay with… being here for Claudia’s engagement party,” he says quietly, “and the truth is… yeah. I am. Because you’re here with me. And this might not have happened at all, but I would still be okay, y’know?”
Rayla’s lips only twitch at that, because flattered as she is, he shouldn’t need her like that. It’s true that something like this would be hard on anyone, but the idea that Callum could ever hurt that much puts an ache in her heart. “She really did a number on you, didn’t she?”
He scoffs. “I think… I would be lying if I said I didn’t love her once. But things have changed, and Rayla I—”
He stops. Rayla thinks back to what Ez had said on their way down to the car —he wants to believe that you can only truly love someone once— and offers him a smile, reassuring and rueful both at once. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything now. Or at all, if—”
But he shakes his head and shushes her with another kiss. “Rayla, I love you,” he says in a rush, like it’s a breath he’s been holding for too long. The honesty of it lights his eyes and Rayla knows at once that it’s true. “I love you,” he says again, savouring the way it tastes on his lips. “You are so kind. You’re strong and caring and selfless, and I know it’s probably too soon to say, but if we’re talking truths tonight, then—”
“I love you too.” She grins because that’s all there is to it. There’s nothing complicated or convoluted about it. It’s just a fact, and she means it in every conceivable way.
Callum lets out a laugh. His relief flashes across his face, and Rayla kisses him once more trying to promise that it’s true. “It's a lot less scary than I thought it would be," he admits quietly. "I thought… after…"
"Oh, Callum." Rayla grips his hands and kisses them gently. "I could never—"
"I know," he whispers. "Does that mean you’ll be my girlfriend for real then?”
“We did kind of go about this in the wrong order, didn’t we?” giggles Rayla. “But yeah. I suppose so.”
Dawn comes. They haven’t slept. Mostly they’ve just been talking, but they’ve had some pretty pleasurable moments besides that were certainly worth staying up all night for. Rayla drags him out of bed for pancakes and hot chocolate as the weak winter sun spills light into their room, muffling their laughter in their palms as they toss flour into one another’s hair.
Ez finds them about half an hour later. The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it. There’s flour as far away as the dining room windows. They’re making out again and barely notice that he’s there at all.
They part with a pop —but only so far as Callum’s reach will let them.
“Ez!” he says, sounding surprised but not even remotely embarrassed. He grins like it’s no big deal. “There are pancakes on the table. Help yourself.” He jerks his head vaguely at the dining table but very pointedly leaves his arms around Rayla’s waist. “Hot chocolate’s coming too. Just waiting for the milk to warm up.”
But Ez is still staring, his brow furrowed over his eyes. He looks between them, confused. Then looks past them like he’s checking to see where his parents are. Then looks back at them with his brow furrowing ever more. “No one else is out here.”
Rayla nods and hides her giggles in Callum’s sweater. “We know.”
“You don’t have to keep pretending.”
“We’re not,” says Callum, smirking at his brother. “Not anymore.”
It takes a second. Then two. Ez is still looking between them and putting all the pieces together like he wants to be certain he hasn’t missed something. Rayla catches the way his eyes land on their identical bedheads, their reddened cheeks, their matching, cheeky smiles, before, finally—
“Did you two bang?”
Callum drops his arms at once, looking scandalized. “Your Royal Highness, Ezran, Duke of the Weeping Bay, Crown Prince of Katolis, that is not appropriate for you to say.”
“How old do you think I am? Six?” snarks Ez. “Well? Did you?”
“I refuse to answer a question phrased like that .”
“So you did.”
“Boys,” Rayla interrupts. Her cheeks feel impossibly warm but it’s been too good a morning to be embarrassed by it. “Ez. That’s not what matters here. What matters is… we’re not pretending anymore.
Ez’s lips tilt into a grin. “So you two are really…?”
“Yep.” Callum slips his hand into hers and squeezes. He glances at her, his eyes so alight with joy and love and affection that Rayla kisses him once more. “We are.”
Ez’s whole being swells, and he beams at them with so much pride and happiness that he looks like he’s about to cry. He crosses the kitchen in four strides, leaving footsteps in the flour in his wake, and tugs them both into a hug. “I’m so happy for you both!” he says. “I’m so glad you don’t have to lie about this anymore, and that you’re both happy and—Callum, you’re okay now?”
“I always was,” says Callum with a smile. “I was always going to be. Rayla helped with that.”
“You don’t have to worry about a thing, Ez,” adds Rayla. “I’ll make sure he stays that way.”
“Stop,” laughs Ez. “You guys are going to make me cry.”
“No judgement,” chuckles Callum. He pries himself out of Ez’s arms at last and smiles. “Seriously, have some pancakes. They’ll go cold if you don’t get into them.”
Their laughter fills the kitchen and the morning whiles away.
The rest of their time at the Banther Lodge is just like Ez promised: they build snowmen in the yard, go sledding on the hill, Rayla shows off her skating skills on the river—“I’m a little rusty,” she admits, after she doesn’t quite stick the landing on an axel (the boys look at her like she’s crazy)—altogether, it’s a pretty amazing side trip on a holiday that’s already ridiculous and amazing on its own. Rayla and Callum are far more affectionate with each other than they have been the whole trip, which makes King Harrow and Queen Sarai raise curious and confused eyebrows, and it’s only a matter of time before they ask.
“Something seems different,” says King Harrow. It’s dinnertime, and they’re sitting so close together that their elbows bump into each other as they reach for the salt. “I can’t really put my finger on it but… you two just seem… I don’t know how to put it. Cosier?”
“It’s just nice to not be in the castle,” says Callum lamely.
Sarai gives them a look over the top of her wine glass. “You know I had a talk to some of the staff before we left,” she begins. There’s a hint of conspiracy in her voice that makes them both feel sheepish and guilty. It’s because she’s a mum, Rayla thinks, staring red-faced into her plate. “They say there was always a spare set of sheets on the couch in Callum’s suite, and that they only ever had to make one half of Callum’s bed. Why would that be?”
“I was mad at him,” sputters Rayla quickly. She keeps her eyes on her plate. “Y’know how it is. He—er—didn’t tell me he was a prince ‘til we after we landed. I was super angry. B-but we’re okay now. Aren’t we, my love?”
“Sure are,” says Callum, pressing an overdramatic kiss into her cheek. “We made up. Yep.”
“So,” says Sarai, fixing her eyes on Rayla, “what you’re telling me is that you kicked my son out of his childhood bed.”
Rayla’s flush deepens. “ I slept on the couch.”
“Did you?” asks Sarai, turning her eyes to Callum. Rayla’s never seen a brown so piercing. “I thought I raised you to be a gentleman.”
Callum visibly breaks into a sweat. He pushes his plate around on his food, and takes a gulp of his water, and stares at everything but his mother, before he cracks under the pressure and covers his face with his hands. “All right, ” he concedes. “Fine. I slept on the couch because we weren’t really together at the time and like, Rayla was mad that I didn’t tell her, but I was always going to take the couch anyway . It was—I only said she was my girlfriend so I wouldn’t have to go the engagement party, but then Ez bought the tickets, and then I was going to cancel them, but Rayla offered to come anyway, for moral support and—”
Silence falls over the table. Callum takes a breath. Then everyone’s eyes turn to Rayla and her neck prickles with shame.
“So…” says King Harrow slowly. “You’re not Callum’s girlfriend?”
Rayla swallows. “I wasn’t,” she squeaks. “Things have changed though. I am now, s-so—”
“Don’t get mad at her,” Callum cuts in. “I dragged her into this, she only agreed to do it because she didn’t want me to go to Claudia’s thing on my own. She’s a good friend and I love her so—”
But Sarai only laughs, holds a hand out to King Harrow, and makes a ‘give me’ motion with her fingers. “Pay up. I knew something odd was going on.”
“It doesn’t count if the staff told you ,” grumbles King Harrow, dropping a handful of coins into her palm.
“Wait. What?” Callum and Rayla stare at them with identical frowns of confusion creasing their foreheads, and Sarai laughs as she pockets the change.
“Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?” she asks, smirking. “I’m your mother, Callum, come on.”
“We thought it was strange,” says King Harrow, “that you seemed so distant with each other when you said you’d been dating a year, but at the same time, you obviously seemed to like each other and we were very confused for a little while.”
“Plus I overheard the maids,” says Sarai. “They know everything.”
“Then it doubly doesn’t count,” scowls King Harrow, but she waves him off.
Rayla blinks at them. “You’re—you’re not mad?”
“Not really,” says Sarai, shrugging. “You obviously make Callum happy. He’s a bad liar by most standards, but the way he looked at you seemed genuine. It’s... been a while, I think, since he’s smiled like that.” She grins at them both. “It’s normally considered treason to lie to a King and Queen, but I think we can let you off this time.”
“Erm.” Rayla flushes some more. Sarai means it as a joke, surely, but still—they’d welcomed her into their family like she was one of their own, and she’d still kept up the act for as long as she did.
“Technically,” pipes Ez, “it’s not treason because she’s not a citizen of Katolis, and since Callum can—uh—”
King Harrow and Sarai round on him, and he shrinks into himself so much that it feels like he might disappear under the table.
“You knew, huh?”
“It’s not like we told him,” mumbles Callum. “He figured it out.”
“Like, immediately,” snorts Ez, but he sobers when he faces his parents. “I wasn’t going to rat them out! Besides! It was funny!”
“Well, we can’t argue with that,” scoffs King Harrow. “Anything else you want to tell us while we’re all getting our facts straight?”
Callum and Rayla glance at each other, and then at Ez, and then at each other again. “No,” says Callum at last. “I—I think you’re up to speed. Sorry we didn’t tell you. I just… really didn’t want to go to Claudia’s engagement party. Alone, especially.”
“You didn’t have to go,” Sarai points out. “You still don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”
But Callum looks at Rayla and takes her hand, his fingers tight around hers like it’s something he has to do—because it is. It’s him choosing to face something he thought he couldn’t because he’s got her by his side. It’s closure. “I think we will go,” he says at last. “Together. I think it’s all going to be fine.”
(And, of course, it is.)
When Claudia is six years old, a boy moves into the castle. He’s a couple of years younger than her. He’s got brown hair, green eyes, and he’s very shy, but very sweet. He’s to be King Harrow’s stepson, she thinks. His mother is going to be the new queen.
“He’ll be very lonely,” Dad says. “He’s probably in need of a new friend.”
Claudia nods. “I can be his friend!” she says brightly. “Soren can be too!”
“Yes, Soren too, I suppose,” says Dad. “It’s important that you are, though. Your mother would be so pleased if you became his friend.”
Well, put that way, Claudia can definitely do that. Mom’s away again, and it’s just her, Dad, and Soren on this visit. They live in Nexus, usually, but things are a bit tense at home, and Dad hadn’t wanted to be there even though Mom will be in Del Bar for… she doesn’t know. Her trips get longer and longer the more often she goes. These days, it feels like she’s gone months at a time. Maybe she’ll come back sooner if Claudia can introduce her to her new friend.
So she does as she’s told. The boy’s name is Callum, and she’s very pleased to meet him.
When Claudia is ten and Callum is eight, they are best friends. They don’t get a lot of time together, but they send each other letters while Claudia is in Nexus with Dad and Soren. Callum has a brother called Ezran, but he’s too little to play real games with him and her, and, in any case, it’s just not the same.
Today, his letter comes to her while she’s in music. She’s to be a duchess when she grows up, and she must learn to do all the right ladylike things. She receives tuition in history, and science, and language too, and though music is her favourite, she drops everything the moment she hears his letter has arrived.
Her father peers down his nose at her, her letter in hand. “Pick your books up off the floor, please, Claudia. You are a duchess, not a schoolgirl.”
“Oh, um.” She crouches to scoop her books off the tiles and offers her lord father a curtsey. “My apologies, Father,” she says. “I forgot myself. May I please have my letter?”
“You may,” says Dad, pleased. “Well done, Claudia. It’s good to see you and Callum are still such good friends.”
Claudia beams at him, and hopes she’s done him proud.
When Claudia is seventeen and Callum is fifteen, she figures out he has a crush. It’s sweet, she thinks, but Callum’s her friend and he’s closer to a little brother. She likes that he brings her flowers and gives her compliments, but it’s not necessary, really, but she smiles and accepts because she’s a lady and it’s not so ladylike to turn down suitors when they’re being nothing but gentlemen. Besides, it’s a nice distraction from all the drama at home.
“Hey, is everything okay?” Callum asks her. He’s all red and fumbly, but Claudia puts on a smile and nods.
“Yeah,” she says, nodding. “Y’know. Everything’s just kinda intense right now.”
Callum cocks his head at her. “Intense how?”
Claudia purses her lips, unsure if she’s even allowed to say. In the end she shrugs, because Callum’s her friend, and she could use someone to talk to. “It’s just… Dad and Soren are having a row. Soren… likes other boys, and Dad’s freaking out about how it’ll look, and about how having heirs is important… stuff like that.”
Callum purses his lips. “I’m sorry. That sounds hard.”
“It’s not so bad. It’s nice being able to talk to you about it.” She smiles and rests her head against his shoulder. “You’re a good friend Callum.”
He flushes. “I’m glad.”
(Later, when she sees her dad over dinner, she mentions it off-hand, and he nods. “Good,” he says. “Perhaps our family legacy isn’t in such danger after all.”)
When Claudia is twenty-one and Callum is nineteen, Callum asks her out on a date.
Callum and Ezran are visiting. They’re staying in the rooms a little way down from Claudia’s, and in the morning they’ll go out to see the ruins of the Moonhenge because Callum’s never been and Claudia’s happy to take them.
“O-only if you want to,” he stammers, red-faced and fidgety. “I just thought… it’d be nice. We can go and have a nice picnic near the lake. I dunno. It’s kind of cheesy.”
But Claudia smiles. “A date sounds nice,” she says, because that’s all it is, right? This doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be boyfriend and girlfriend, and she can’t say no and hurt his feelings like that. What sort of duchess would she be?
So they go on their picnic. Callum tells her all about how he wants to go to Xadia to study and Claudia, in turn, tells him all about her lessons in politics and philosophy. It’s fun and interesting and it’s just like when they were kids and they camped out in the castle grounds.
When they head home, Callum gives her a quick peck on the cheek at her bedroom door and smiles. “Do—do you think we could do this again sometime?”
“Um…” begins Claudia, because as nice as it was, she’s not sure she wants to let him believe they might go on another date when she really prefers him as just a friend. But her father catches them in the entrance hall and smiles.
“How was your date?” he asks Callum.
And Callum grins and says, “Good! I was—I was just asking if we could do it again some time.”
“Of course you will,” says Dad. “If you wish to pursue this relationship, you have my blessing.”
Callum’s grin widens. “Thank you, sir,” he says to her father, and to her adds, “Goodnight, Claudia,” before he jogs down the hall, offers them both one last smile, and disappears into his borrowed rooms.
When he’s gone, Dad looks down at Claudia and smirks. “Well done, Claudia,” he says. “I’m proud of you. This is definitely something worth pursuing.”
So Claudia does. It’s not really what she wants, but Dad’s proud, so that’s worth something.
When Claudia is twenty-four and Callum is twenty-two, they go to a Christmas party in Capitol City.
He’s just finished his undergrad year, and there’s a university he’s got his eye on in Spire, Xadia that might help him do his postgrad thesis—assuming his mom and dad let him, of course. This will be one of the last parties they’ll go to together for a while, and he looks fidgety as she drives.
Just before midnight, he takes her out to the balcony to look over the city and takes a breath. “Clauda,” he starts, “Before I go, I wanted to ask you something.”
And Claudia’s heart sinks because he takes a little box out of his pocket and fidgets with it before he does the next worst thing and drops to one knee.
“I’ll be in Xadia next month,” he says, “and the idea that I won’t see you for ages after that is terrifying. I could do it, though, if I knew you were waiting for me. You make me laugh, and you make me think, and… you make me see the world so differently. I love you. Will you—”
She cuts him off there, her heart cracking like glass in her chest. “Callum—Callum stop—”
Doubt creeps into his face. Fear and heartbreak too. “Hey… is… everything okay?”
She shakes her head. “I can’t do this to you anymore, Callum,” she croaks. “I—I can’t. You’ve always been such a good friend to me, but this—I can’t. I’m sorry.”
But then she turns, and she’s gone, and Callum is left alone on the balcony with the ring still in his hand.
Her father is furious. “How dare you?” he seethes. “Callum is a Prince of Katolis and your marriage to him would have solidified our family legacy!”
“But Dad!” she cries. She’s already heartbroken. She doesn’t need this too. “I don’t love him like that! How can I do that to him?”
“Because you’re expected to!” snaps her father. “It is your duty to this family to make the necessary connections to keep our name in power. Your children would be in line for the throne , Claudia, and so help me, you will fix this .”
“No,” she snarls. It’s the one time she’s ever said no to him. He’s her dad, and he’s right in all things but not this. Not this . “He’s my friend and—I can’t marry him, Dad. I don’t love him that way and I won’t trap him in a marriage when he can find someone who loves him the way he thinks he loves me. He deserves better. ”
“Love is for the naive,” says Dad. “Do you think your mother and I married for love? Of course not. We did what we had to do. Go to him and fix this. ”
“ No .” Claudia’s fist close at her sides, and she braces herself for the backhand that she knows is coming. “I’m not doing that to him.”
“Damn you, Claudia!”
“Damn yourself,” she hisses. For the second time in as many nights, Claudia turns and runs.
Claudia moves out of her father’s house the very next day. There’s a property in Caldera that she knows is hers—she is a duchess, after all, and her father may disown her if he wishes, but only the King can take her land.
She doesn’t talk to Callum. She doesn’t try to make amends. She doesn’t tell him the truth—that she’d allowed it to go that far because her father had asked her to; that she’d never really loved him at all, and couldn’t bear to break his heart or refuse her father; that she doesn’t love him, even now—because all of that would shatter him more.
Instead, she watches the clock in her sitting room the following month, counting the seconds before he leaves, wondering if he’s in the air, if he’s landed, if he’s found his accomodation okay, and she hopes he’s happier there. There are other girls there; ones who won’t lead him on because they’re too scared to upset the people around them; ones who won’t ruin him the way she has.
It’s the loneliest she’s ever been in her life. She does what she’s expected to: attends parties, debates with parliament, talks politics on TV talk shows. Twice, she hears Callum’s come home—once for Ezran’s for eighteenth birthday, and once more just to say hello one summer. She considers going to see him both times, but she doesn’t—she’s too much of a coward to, and anyway, he probably doesn’t want anything to do with her.
Then, four years later, her father appears at her door.
“I’m here to make amends,” he says shortly.
Against her better judgement, Claudia lets him in.
“I miss you,” he says. “It’s lonely in Nexus without you.”
“It’s lonely here, too,” says Claudia. She stares into the depths of her tea and thinks of the better days. The simpler days, when all she had to do to please her father was do as he asked. She misses him too.
“Have you been doing much?”
A pause. The clock on the mantle is loud in her ears.
“I have a proposition for you,” says her father at last. Claudia almost laughs. Of course he does. “And… I want you to know that I won’t be mad if you refuse. This isn’t like last time. But… know that if you choose to accept, you will be doing our family a great honour. That’s what you want isn’t it?”
What Claudia wants is for her family to be together again. This is the first time she’s spoken to her father in years, and she hasn’t seen Soren in longer. “What is it?” she asks finally.
Dad purses his lips. “A marriage,” he says. “To the Crown Prince of Neolandia.”
There, Claudia actually does laugh. It’s an even better deal than with Callum. He must be thrilled.
“It’s all been arranged,” says her father. “All there is left is for you to agree. Our family would be in a position to effect better change, Claudia. More than we can here. You could be queen. ”
“I’d have to move,” says Claudia. “I’d have to move there, and I’d never see you or Soren again.”
“An exaggeration.” Her father steeples his fingers and leans his elbows against his knees. Claudia can practically see the way he tries not to grimace at the mention of Soren. “We would come and visit often. Your mother too, I imagine. We could find a way to be a family again.”
“You’d make up with Soren?”
“I would,” says her father. “And it would be because of you.”
Claudia’s not an idiot. Her father’s always been good at manipulating other people, and for years, she hadn’t even noticed he’d been manipulating her too. But the idea of their family whole again—of him making up with Soren, of seeing her mother again, of all being together in one place, even if it’s just for the wedding— that is sorely tempting. She thinks of Callum, and of how she’d all but destroyed his heart, and wonders if he misses their friendship the way she does. Would he come to the wedding too?
“Kasef is an excellent suitor,” her father continues. “It would be a very smart match.”
That it would be. Claudia takes a long, steadying breath and sets down her tea.
“Fine,” she says. “I’ll do it.”
She invites Callum to the engagement party. It feels tasteless, even to her, but she hopes that, maybe they might be able to patch things up before she moves to Neolandia for good. She doesn’t really expect him to come, but Soren (who’s much closer to Ezran these days) mentions it off-hand, and Claudia drops everything on the spot.
She begs Opeli to move the state dinner. She counts the days to his arrival. She talks King Harrow and Queen Sarai into letting her stay at the castle for a couple of weeks, just to see him, just for the chance to talk to him and maybe rekindle the friendship she’d torn to pieces. Suddenly, it’s the morning of his arrival, and Claudia is watching the gates from the window of the second floor corridor. Corvus’ car pulls in and she races down the stairs, and there, at the bottom of the steps, is Callum, four years older, four years taller, four years leaner than she remembers.
She launches herself at him before she remembers to temper herself—“Callum! I’m so glad you came!”—before she realizes he isn’t alone; before she realizes he’s brought someone with him. She’s tall, and graceful and willowy. Her eyes are lilac and her hair's so pale it shines like silver in the winter sun. She looks at Claudia ice in her smile and something like hatred in her eyes.
Her name is Rayla, and Callum introduces her as his girlfriend.
It’s not what she expected. She doesn’t know what she expected, exactly, but it wasn’t this. She’d always hoped Callum would move on and find happiness with someone else, but she’d never expected to have to meet them. Now all those smiles of his, all those jokes, all the fondness in his eyes—those things he used to save for her are for someone else, and Claudia is—
She’s not jealous. Surely not. She’s never liked him that way. She still doesn’t.
But Rayla fits into Callum’s side like she was made for it, and Ezran likes her, and she becomes fast friends with Soren, and the king and queen are thrilled to have her around, and there’s a part of her—a horrible, irrational, petty part of her—that knows it should have been her.
There’s something off about the way they treat each other. Claudia doesn’t know what it is but it feels wrong , and she knows that’s not the pettiness talking. They’re too… distant. They’re not casual enough in their affection. It’s like they’re holding back.
The red flags rise in her head. She’s seen this before. She’s done this before, and it ended in a failed proposal and the end of a friendship eighteen years in the making. She’d give her right hand to make sure it doesn't happen again.
So she corners Rayla the day before the state dinner.
“It’s inappropriate for royalty to date around,” she tells her tersely. “If you’re not in it for the long haul, there’s no point. And Callum… well. Callum’s a sweetheart. He deserves better than to get his heart broken by someone so… below him.”
And Rayla retaliates because of course she does: “Like you, you mean?”
Guilt flares in Claudia’s chest. She sets her jaw. “A word of advice,” she says dangerously. “End this now before it gets any more serious. He’ll be better off for it. You’re not good enough for him anyway.”
And again, Rayla bites back. Her words are like acid. “What would you know about what’s good enough for him?” she sneers. “He wasn't good enough for you.”
What is there to say to that? It’s true. And Rayla might not be committed, but at least she’s protective of him which is the minimum that he deserves. Claudia’s glad that Callum interrupts them after that because all of her comebacks are nothing compared to that. They leave her in that hallway, hand in hand and smiling at each other, and Claudia has nothing but a hole in her chest and guilt in her stomach.
She tries Callum next. He and his immediate family are supposed to be going to the Banther Lodge for a couple of days and as far as she knows, the king and queen are leaving in the morning, so she catches him then.
He’s bleary-eyed and bed-headed when he answers the door. Perhaps Claudia had heard wrong, but it doesn’t matter. She’s here to do one thing and one thing only, and it’s to warn him before history repeats himself.
“You have to end it with her,” she whispers.
It takes a second for Callum to wake up enough to make sense of what she’s saying. “I have to what?”
“Rayla,” says Claudia. “She’s not committed to you. This is only going to end badly, Callum, please—”
He scowls "You literally have no idea what you're talking about."
"Don't I?" hisses Claudia. "I see the way she treats you, Callum. She's using you."
"Oh, my God , Claudia—"
She shakes her head, determined to make him see sense. “Do you really think someone like her could care about you more than the fact that you're one of the princes of Katolis?"
Callum’s eyes narrow. Something cold crosses his face. "Wow. Thanks."
The sound of it hits Claudia too late. She winces. That’s not what she’d intended at all. "Callum, I—I didn't mean it like that—"
“How did you mean it, then?”
“I just meant—” She fumbles for words. “You can’t trust her. She doesn’t care about you the way you think she does, she’s only going to—”
"Enough," he snaps. "You need to back off. Rayla is—she's my friend before she is anything else and she would never—"
Claudia lets out a laugh. “Don't be naive. She just doesn't love you, Callum. She’s only going to end up breaking your heart.”
"Like you did?”
There it is. Pain spikes in Claudia’s chest because she had done that. She’d shattered him. What right does she have now to say she just wants to help? “I just don’t want to see you get hurt,” she says meekly.
“Bit late for that,” says Callum, scowling. “You don’t get to accuse her of wanting a status upgrade through me. She didn’t even know about any of this, and she came all the way out here anyway to keep me company. She’s a good friend.”
Claudia pauses. “...A good girlfriend, you mean?”
“What—yeah,” says Callum quickly. Irritably. “Obviously. I didn’t think that needed saying.” Then he huffs. “I’m happy with her, Claudia. Isn’t that enough?”
It should be. Claudia searches herself wondering why it isn’t. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry. I just… ” She’s what? Jealous? No. She’s engaged now. She shouldn’t— doesn’t care. But... “Do you love her? The way you did me?”
Callum’s face hardens. It’s like he’s steeling himself for a truth he hasn’t admitted to himself just yet. He sets his jaw. “Yeah,” he says at last. The truth in his eyes stings. “More.”
Well, that’s it then, thinks Claudia. It’s over. Callum loves Rayla more than he did her, and there’s nothing more Claudia can do about it. It’s done.
But they come back from the Banther Lodge a couple of days later, and their smiles are brighter, their laughter is louder, their hands are touching every minute of every day. Something’s different. Something’s changed.
Claudia watches them carefully from the halls, and for one full heartstopping day, she wonders if they might have come back engaged too. (Not that it would matter. She’s not jealous.) Still, she checks Rayla’s fingers from a distance, looking for signs of the ring Callum had tried to give her.
There’s nothing. They’re just… cosier and cuddlier and fonder of each other than they ever have been before, and it makes Claudia’s hackles rise. It’s like Rayla knows, somehow, that she’s falling apart at the seams trying to win Callum’s friendship again; like she’s dangling him in front of her knowing that he’s never been further away.
Then it’s breakfast time, three days before Christmas, two before her engagement party. The royal family generally tends to have breakfast in the little dining table attached to the kitchens, but Callum and Rayla aren’t there today.
“They’re taking a walk around the grounds, I think,” Queen Sarai tells her. “Something about going out with the horses. It’s a lovely day for it.”
A lovely day indeed. Claudia makes a beeline for the stables, her nails digging half-moons into her palms. They’re there, as promised—Rayla’s brushing the nose of a gentle looking mare, and Callum grins at her, pecks her cheek, and disappears into the depths of the stable. Claudia’s feet carry her forward before she can think twice about it.
“I told you to end this,” she snarls.
Rayla jumps. Then she catches sight of Claudia, rolls her eyes, and crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Jesus, here we go,” she mutters. “What’s your problem, Claudia?” she snaps. Claudia scowls at the lack of courtesy title. “Haven’t you done enough? Haven’t you hurt him enough?”
“I did what I did to protect him ,” she says. “And I’ll do it again to keep you from hurting him more.”
“Oh, yeah, because protecting him means leading him on for years and then stomping on his heart. Makes sense.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I?” snarls Rayla. “You think I don’t know that he loved you? You think I don’t know that he asked you to marry him? I’ve been picking up after you since before I even knew you were part of his life, and you have the nerve to tell me that you were protecting him?” She laughs, mirthless and cold. “And to invite him to your engagement party, after all that? Super classy.”
Claudia scowls at her. “How dare you,” she seethes. “He was my friend—”
“ Was ,” says Rayla sharply. “Past tense, see? You made sure of that.”
“He still is to me,” she snaps. “I’ve seen this happen before. I know you’re not committed to him. I know you’re just going to break his heart.”
“Do you?” Rayla snorts.
“Yeah, I do ,” snarls Claudia. “We were friends for years . We grew up together. And after all that, I still said no. And what, you expect me to believe that someone like you —someone who’s known him for less than half that time—would be different? Ha. You’re just like me.”
“I’m nothing like you,” snaps Rayla. “I could never hurt him the way you did. I could never lose him the way you chose to. He’s Callum , and he deserves so much more than how you strung him along and ended things.”
That part is true, at least. Claudia looks away. “He deserves better than you ,” she hisses. “I’ve seen your kind before. People who want status. Power. Who get close because they want money more than they want him.”
“Again,” seethes Rayla. “I’m nothing like you. Aren’t you engaged to the Crown Prince of Neolandia now? You must think it’s a pleasant upgrade.”
Claudia scowls. “ Shut up .”
“Prince of Katolis wasn’t enough, huh? Gotta go for the heir to the throne. It’s amazing you didn’t go after Ezran.”
“SHUT UP,” snarls Claudia. “You bitch. What part of I was trying to protect him did you not understand?”
“Protect him from what?” demands Rayla. “ Marriage?”
“From me!” shrieks Claudia. The words that follow spill out from her like water from a broken dam. She’d kept them bottled up for so long. “From being married to someone who didn’t— couldn’t love him back! I did it because I was told to and he deserves better! He deserves someone who cares about him as truly and as deeply as he cares about them and that wasn't me .”
But Rayla only scowls more. “So you’re going to marry Kasef instead? Because he’s so much better? What does he have that Callum doesn’t? How is he worth so much more?”
“He’s not! Don’t you get it?” Claudia throws her hands up in the air, her throat raw and sore, her eyes brimming with tears she refuses to shed. “I’ve never even met him,” she tries to say, only it comes out as more of a whimper. “It—he was picked for me.”
A pause settles over them. Claudia hears her own breath in her ears over the crunch of snow under Rayla’s boots.
“It was arranged,” breathes Rayla, and Claudia nods.
“Duchesses don’t get to pick and choose these things,” she murmurs. “Maybe others do, but I—it doesn’t matter. I led Callum on for so long because I was told to. And when he asked… I couldn’t do that to him. I didn’t love him then. I don’t now. I could—I could never trap him in a marriage with me when there are people who could love him the way he deserves.”
“So you said no.”
“So I said no.” Claudia draws a shuddering breath. “It was the one thing I got to choose for myself. I care for him and respect him too much for anything else. And—” She looks up at Rayla, who’s a lot closer now, and whose eyes are full of sympathy and regret. “You love him, don’t you?”
Rayla nods. “More than I ever thought I could love anyone,” she whispers. “Claudia—”
She shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she croaks. “I’m—I’m sorry. I have to go.”
And then she turns, and she runs, because it’s what she does best.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Rayla starts. A lot of things have surprised her these past couple of weeks, but Claudia’s attack, breakdown, and confession have thrown for a loop. At least when Callum had told her of his title, and of his family, and when she’d found out Claudia was the ex he was so worried about seeing, she could be mad and feel justified about it . Right now, she doesn’t know what to feel, or where to even begin.
Callum prods her with the end of the saddle in his arms. That’s where he’d gone, Rayla remembers. She’d forgotten in all the drama. “Hey,” he says again. “What happened? Was that yelling I heard?”
Rayla shakes her head. “It was—Claudia came by,” she manages at last, still too stunned to tell him anything but the truth.
He scowls. “So it was yelling? Ugh, God , that’s not on. I’ll talk to her—”
“No,” says Rayla quickly. Then more resolutely, “Callum. No. I think—I think we just need to clear the air. I’ll talk to her. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
“Rayla, she shouldn’t have—”
She shakes her head. “This one’s on me,” she says quietly. “I think… she just needs a friend.”
Callum stares. It's not what he expected from her, probably. It's not what she'd expected from herself—but there's something in her chest, something guilty and disappointed in herself for not being better. For judging so soon.
"Do… you wanna tell me about it?" Callum asks after a minute.
"I—not yet," says Rayla. "I think… I think I want to talk to her first. Is that okay?"
"I guess?" Callum frowns, still confused, and shifts the saddle in his arms. "Should I put this away? I can't go riding unsupervised."
Rayla laughs at that. "Can we take a raincheck then?"
"Sure," he says, smiling. "You'll tell me what's going on, right?"
"Of course." She grins at him and presses a kiss into his cheek. "Just give me some time to get everything straight. Okay?"
"I love you."
He chuckles at her and steps backwards into the recesses of the stable. "I know. I love you too."
It occurs to Rayla probably a little too late that this castle is huge and she has no idea where to even begin. Admittedly, this is the third time she's gotten lost because of poor directions or complete lack thereof, but still. Eventually, she runs into Soren who's hanging out with Commander Gren in the kitchens with a pile of jelly tarts.
"Soren!" she calls. "Oh, and Commander Gren, my apologies."
Commander Gren waves her off. "Just Gren," he says, grinning. Rayla thinks he's supposed to be here on behalf of Queen Janai and Callum's Aunt Amaya, but having his boyfriend here must be pretty convenient too. "What can we do for you?"
"Sorry," says Rayla again. "I—uh—I'm looking for Her Grace, the Duchess of Caldera."
"Just say Claudia," snorts Soren. "Maybe not to her face, but with us is fine."
Too late for that , thinks Rayla grimly. "Do you know where she is?"
"No?" says Soren. "I mean my first guess would be her suite, and then maybe the library? Beyond that…" He shrugs non-committally.
Rayla pauses. She wonders if it's her information to share or to talk about at all, but surely Soren would know, right? He wouldn't mind if she asked, would he? "Did you know?" she asks at last. "That her engagement with Prince What's-his-face was—"
"Arranged?" Soren stares down at his jelly tart and sighs. "Yeah," he mutters. "I know. Our dad's… he's a character."
" He arranged it all?"
Soren nods. "He's… he's got a lot of expectations, I think. It's only sort of recently that he's calmed down a little, but part of me thinks that's because Claudia agreed to all this. He might not have made an effort at all if she hadn't."
"What do you mean?"
Soren takes a breath and glances at Gren, who only pats his hand and nods his encouragement. "He disowned us for a while," Soren tells her. "Both of us. Me because—well. He's not the most progressive. And Claudia because she refused Callum's proposal. Then Kasef became an option and… well, at least he's making an effort again."
Jesus , thinks Rayla. What a guy.
"How do you know about all that anyway?" asks Soren. "That's supposed to be a secret."
"She told me," says Rayla. "It was… kind of an argument." She grimaces. "If it's supposed to be secret—what, are they just going to try and play it off as an actual engagement even though they've never met?"
Soren shrugs. "It's what Dad said they were doing."
Good lord , and Rayla had thought pretending to be with Callum was hard—and she's known him for four years . "So her suite or the library?"
"The very last room on the left of the third floor, or the big doors at the end of the second floor corridor,” says Soren. He pauses and studies her over his jelly tart. “I thought you hated each other.”
Again, Rayla grimaces, and she shifts guiltily on the spot before she finds the words to answer. “It’s kind of complicated,” she says. “I… shouldn’t have retaliated the way I did. I didn’t know. About your dad, or the arrangement, or… any of it. Mostly, I was just angry at her for what she did to Callum.”
“Ooh, yeah, that was a mess.” He sighs. “Listen. I dunno what it is you’re up to, but whatever it is… I dunno. Don’t be too hard on her, I guess.”
“I won’t,” promises Rayla. “Thanks Soren.”
It’s a bit of a hike, but Rayla gets there. The library is pretty sizable, and she even asks the resident librarian if he’s seen Claudia around at all today, but all Rayla gets is a shake of his head. She scours it anyway and finds no trace of her—only staff dusting the shelves who greet her (much too) politely as she passes.
She tries for her suite next, but, unsurprisingly, the door is locked and no one answers. Rayla waits in front of it for maybe ten minutes, shifting from foot to foot and watching the crack underneath the door for shadows and signs of movement but—
She takes a breath, hoping she doesn’t look too stupid for doing this, and knocks again. “Claudia?”
No response. What did she expect, really? She sighs. “Listen. I don’t even know if you’re in there, but if you are… I’m sorry. I didn’t know. And… I’m probably the last person you want to talk to right now, but… if you need to talk—if you wanna just… clear the air or something, let me know, okay?”
Still nothing. Rayla grimaces and heads back down the hall.
Christmas Eve afternoon finds Rayla in the queen’s rooms with Ezran and Bait and Queen Sarai as she frowns thoughtfully into her wardrobe. The engagement party’s tonight, and it was only when Ez had asked that Rayla had remembered she still didn’t have a dress.
“I wish we’d remembered sooner,” Sarai is muttering as she rifles through her relatively modest collection of gowns. “The last donation only went out a couple of days ago.”
“Donation?” asks Rayla.
“The tailors insist that Mom doesn’t wear the same dress twice to events like these,” Ez says.
“It’s wasteful,” grumbles Sarai absently.
“So she donates them to local charities and second hand dress shops. Always anonymously so that no one hikes up the price of a dress just because the queen wore it.”
“Which they would do,” adds Sarai, “and that is completely against the point.” She folds a couple of ball gowns over arm and wrestles them back out for Rayla to look at, and Rayla’s eyebrows shoot upwards at the quality of the material. “I don’t have very many in that same green you wore at the dinner, I’m afraid, but I think you’d look lovely in Katolan red.”
Honestly, she could turn up without her hair and make up done and still look lovely in these gowns, but that’s not a comment on her. The first is red and trimmed with gold, made out of tulle so fine she can barely feel it against her fingers. The other is an airy chiffon A-line with open sleeves. “I dunno that I can wear these,” she says hoarsely.
“They’re just so… nice.” Rayla grimaces. Not that she’s not graceful at all, but she’s never worn anything so fine and she can almost guarantee they’ll be damaged on their return.
“Hush,” says Sarai, brushing her off. “You might be a princess someday. You should get acquainted with the idea of dressing up.” She winks, and Rayla flushes.
“Don’t jump the gun, Your Majesty,” she chuckles. She stares at the two Sarai’s laid out on the bed and sighs. “The A-line, I guess,” she says, mostly because she might look a bit nicer with Callum’s necklace without the gold trim. “Thoughts?”
Ez beams at her. “Definitely. The other’s nice too, but I think the A-line might suit you more.”
“I agree,” says Sarai. Then she shoos Ez and Bait off the bed and towards the door. “All right, you two, out you go. Rayla needs to get ready.”
“I can get ready in my own room, y’know.”
“And ruin the surprise for Callum?” Sarai snorts. She waves her hands at Ez and Bait, ignoring the way Ez rolls his eyes. When they’re gone, she jabs a finger at the ensuite and scoops up the other dress. “I’ll have your things brought up so you can do your hair and makeup in here,” she says. “Take all the time you need. I can get ready in Harrow’s rooms.”
But Rayla hesitates, even as Sarai hangs the A-line on the hook in front of the bathroom door.
Rayla shakes her head. “It’s nothing. You guys have just been… so nice since I got here, and I guess I just wanted to let you know I appreciate it.”
Sarai chuckles patiently and folds a knee under her when she takes a seat on the bed. “It’s not a big deal, really,” she says. “You know what happened now, I imagine. With Callum. Why it’s such a big deal to us that he brought you home with him, real girlfriend or not.” She smirks. “You took care of him after one of the worst events of his life and you didn’t even know it then. You’ve been looking out for him since, and you flew with him all the way here, under the guise of being his girlfriend, just to keep him company. How could we not be nice to you after all that?”
Rayla snorts a little. “Other parents might have been really mad that I lied to you like that.”
“Other parents might not have watched their sons suffer through heartbreak the way Callum had,” says Sarai gently. “We’re grateful to you, Rayla. For being there for him when he wouldn’t let us.”
Rayla smiles at that. “It was my pleasure,” she says. “He’s… really special.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Sarai grins. “Should I let you get dressed?”
“Yeah. Thank you. Although…” Rayla hesitates once more. She hasn’t seen Claudia since that day in the stables, and she wonders quietly, if Sarai knows about why things had happened the way they had. She and King Harrow don’t seem the bear the same kind of resent towards Claudia, and Callum had said they were good friends with Soren and Claudia’s dad, once upon a time. She purses her lips. “About what happened… four years ago.”
Sarai raises an eyebrow at her. “With Callum and Claudia?”
“Yeah,” says Rayla nodding. “Callum told me. Well. Ez did first. Callum… was a bit hesitant about it and I don’t blame him. Soren said some things the other day that made me… I dunno, curious? It’s probably none of my business but he said their dad…”
“Ugh, yeah.” Sarai makes a face and huffs. “Viren was a good friend of Harrow’s for a little while and Soren and Claudia spent a lot of time here when they were younger. Even now, Harrow wonders if Viren truly was his friend or if he was just looking for connections.”
“So you know about the thing with Kasef, then.”
Sarai nods and studies the floor. “Yes. We know.” She pauses. “No one else is supposed to. Harrow knows because he’s the king, and he has to approve marriages like this, especially if they’re to members of nobility from other kingdoms.”
Rayla hums. “She doesn’t want to marry him, does she?”
Sarai shakes her head. “Not particularly. I don’t think Claudia’s ever been interested in any of that sort of thing which is why… well. When she said no to Callum, we were pretty heartbroken for him, but we weren’t as surprised as we could be, I guess? This thing with Kasef… is a legal contract more than it is anything else. Claudia’s the highest-born noblewoman available for that sort of thing, and Kasef needs a wife. Their marriage ties our two kingdoms together and… it’s a bit medieval for my tastes, but Claudia’s given her consent so that’s that.”
“And this engagement party…?”
“Is her last big event here before she packs up and moves to Neolandia.”
“Oh.” Well, if there was ever anything Sarai could have told her that would make her feel worse , this was it. Rayla heaves a sigh and pads towards the ensuite. “Callum doesn’t know any of this, does he?”
Sarai shakes her head. “He… didn’t want to know, I think. He might be okay learning it now, but it was easier for him to be angry with her, I think.” She grimaces. “In any case, it’s not our business to say. If Claudia wants to tell him what went on, she needs to do that herself.”
“Right,” mumbles Rayla. She offers Sarai a weak smile and huffs. “Thank you. For telling me all this.”
“You’re welcome,” says Sarai, easing herself off the bed. “I’ll leave you to it.”
The afternoon fades into the evening while Rayla’s putting the finishing touches into her hair. It’s a half up-do this evening, and she’s still got pins between her teeth when Callum comes knocking against his mum’s door.
“Rayla? Are you ready?”
“Almost!” she calls. She secures the knot at the back of her head with a huff and brings the necklace box with her when she goes to open the door.
Callum grins at the sight of her, and Rayla chuckles in return. He looks very dashing tonight. His coat is trimmed in gold, and he’s got one of those royal gold sashes draped over his left shoulder.
“Your Highness,” she greets, dipping into a deep curtsey because she knows it’ll annoy him.
He scowls. “Rayla.”
“What? I’m having fun.”
Callum only rolls his eyes at her. “Are you ready to go or not?”
“I am,” she smirks, but she holds out the necklace box for him and grins. “I need help with one last thing, though.”
“Well, that, I am happy to help with.” He smiles as Rayla turns around for him, the chiffon swishing lightly between her knees. “Hold still,” he says, draping the moon pendants around her neck. He does the clasp up much quicker than last time, but leaves a kiss against the junction of her neck and shoulder just for good measure.
Rayla tries not to shiver. “Thanks,” she murmurs. “You look amazing, by the way.”
“That’s really something I should be saying about you,” he says. He holds his arm out to her. “Shall we?”
They make their way down to the castle ballroom much like they did last time, only much less uncomfortable. In part, it’s because they’ve done this before, but mostly it’s because Rayla’s not so afraid of the thing in her chest anymore. She knows she loves him. He loves her. Politicians and other nobles can whisper all they like about her, for all she cares—she couldn’t give less of a damn as long as Callum is by her side.
It looks much more like a Christmas party than an engagement party down here. There are trees lined up against each wall, red and gold baubles shining under the twinkling fairy lights—it’d feel magical if Rayla didn’t know what went on behind all this—and there, at the head of the room, is Claudia, sequined black dress shimmering in the dim light on the arm of a snooty looking man Rayla can only assume is Prince Kasef of Neolandia.
She gives Callum’s arm a squeeze, but he only smiles and brings her fingers to his lips.
“I’m okay,” he says quietly. “I promise.”
Rayla believes him.
They find Ez and Ellis talking to Opeli by the east wall. King Harrow and Sarai are dancing by the quartet. Soren and Gren each have a glass of champagne in hand and are talking animatedly to Prince Kasef, and Claudia turns, catches sight of them, and releases Kasef’s arm.
“Excuse me,” she bids them, and she makes a beeline towards them before anyone can stop her.
Callum’s shoulders tense a little, but he doesn’t react any more than that. Once she’s sure he’s okay, Rayla takes her arm back and dips into a curtsey.
Claudia shakes her head. “Rayla—” she starts awkwardly. “Don’t. Please.”
It’s a better start than last time, for certain. Rayla straightens and tests her luck. “Swingin’ party you’ve got going on.”
Claudia’s lips tilt upwards into an awkward smile. “You can say stuffy. It’s fine.” She pauses and glances at her shoes. “I—uh—I wanted to apologise,” she says after a moment. “To both of you.” To Rayla, she says, “I never should have treated you the way I did. It was uncalled for and inappropriate and I’m sorry.” And to Callum, she adds, “And I’m sorry I hurt you. I never should have… let it get so far.”
Callum blinks. Rayla squeezes his hand.
“I’m not asking for forgiveness,” she continues. “But we were friends once. And maybe… one day… we can be again. And that goes for you, too, of course.” She adds hastily, turning back to Rayla. “If—if you want.”
Callum’s still staring. Rayla presses his hand to her lips and releases it before she offers the same hand to Claudia.
“Sounds good,” she says, offering Claudia a smile. The first real smile she’s ever given her, and Claudia returns it and shakes her hand. “I’m sorry too. For the way I acted. It was equally not cool.”
Claudia chuckles and shakes her head. “Don’t even worry about it,” she murmurs. “It was all me.”
All three of them lapse into a pause. Callum still hasn’t said anything, so Rayla slips her hand back into his and laces their fingers together tight. Claudia nods, like she knows that’s the end of it and takes a step back.
“I should get back,” she says. “Enjoy the party.”
And then she’s gone.
Callum finally shakes himself out of his stupor and grips Rayla’s hand back, his fingers firm against her knuckles. “I—uh—what just happened?”
“I’m not really sure,” says Rayla. But she smiles and tucks herself into him, an arm secure around his waist. “But… I think things are getting better. At least for her.”
“Why do you say that?”
Rayla hesitates. “I spoke to some people,” she says. “Soren. Your mom.” She purses her lips there and glances around the ballroom. “Come with me. I think there are some things you need to know.”
They head out to the balcony, braving the cool winter air in exchange for some peace and quiet, and Rayla tells him everything. What happened outside the stables. What Soren had told her. Her conversation with his mother, just today. It doesn’t make it better, of course—what happened four years ago still happened, and Claudia might have had a reason, but her inability to stand up to her father sooner still caused Callum one of the worst heartbreaks of his life.
But it makes it easier, Rayla thinks. And it makes a sense of closure easier to find. Callum breathes in slowly, letting the air fill his lungs until he can’t take in anymore, and then lets it loose again in a rush. The tension leaves his back with it, and he hums thoughtfully as Rayla’s story comes to a close.
“It probably doesn’t matter in the long run,” says Rayla quietly. “Something like that… isn’t easy to forgive. But I hope you know she never intended to hurt you. And I hope knowing means you don’t have to be so angry at her anymore.”
“I’m still kinda angry,” he admits. “But… knowing does help.” He sighs. “I’m glad,” he admits. “That she did it, I mean. If—if she never truly felt that way about me, I’m glad she did it because… I met you. You are so kind, and so wonderful, and I’m so grateful to have you be part of my life. And this? With you? It feels so much better. Than everything, y’know?”
“I know,” chuckles Rayla. “You’re more than just my boyfriend, Callum. You’re my friend, and I’m glad I could help in what little way I could.”
He smiles at her at that. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she says, and she leans in to close the gap between them when a clinking rings through the air.
“Sorry everyone,” comes Claudia’s voice. “I just… wanted to say something real quick.”
Callum and Rayla glance up, and out of politeness, Callum tugs her off the bench and back inside. They hang by the back corner of the ballroom, just by the balcony doors, but Claudia catches sight of them anyway and grins.
“It’s been… a little bit of a mess getting here,” she says. Beside her, Kasef snorts a little, but his lips twitch upwards just a smidge. “I just wanted to thank you all for coming. People have flown in from everywhere tonight, and it’s… I’m really grateful that they did.” She pauses for a moment. Her fingers fiddle with the microphone cord. “Love is weird,” she says at last. “Sometimes we think we know what we’re doing, and what we want, and then things happen that screw it all up. But… I guess, sometimes we’re lucky enough to find the right things, even in the midst of all that. Sometimes we don’t even realize it, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all.” She smiles in Callum and Rayla’s direction and chuckles at the floor. “But sometimes we’re lucky. We find the things we don’t realize we need, and that thing doesn’t necessarily make everything better, I guess? But it helps. It helps a lot and I hope, one day, we all get a chance to be so lucky.” She grins then, and then waves. “That’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for being here tonight everyone. Merry Christmas!”
It must sound a bit awkward to everyone else—and their polite and smattered applause just about confirms it—but Callum and Rayla glance at each other and smile, because they know. They’re the lucky ones here tonight, and the air around them feels clean, and easy to breathe.
Later, as the party winds down and the tea and coffee start to come out, Rayla catches Claudia slipping through the balcony doors. She glances at Callum, who seems to be thinking the same thing, and nods. And with three cups of hot chocolate in hand, they follow.
She’s leaning over the balustrade, watching the snow fall quietly over the gardens. She only starts when Callum shuts the balcony door behind them.
Wordlessly, Rayla sets the third cup in front of her on the balustrade and leans her hip against the marble. Callum does the same on her other side.
“So,” he says at last. “Neolandia, huh?”
Claudia glances at them both. Then she stares at her hot chocolate. Then goes back to staring between them like she’s not sure what’s really going on. “Yeah,” she says awkwardly. “I guess?”
“It’s a long way away,” says Rayla.
Claudia nods. “Yeah. It is.”
Callum breathes in. “Will you keep in touch?”
A pause. And then, Claudia smiles. “Yeah,” she says. “I think I will.”
one year later
Lux Aurea is hot during Christmas time, which makes no sense to Rayla at all, but she bears the summer heat with Callum all the same. The palace is grand, and it shines in the scorching sunlight like a castle of gold. Even the floors are hard to look at, and it feels like they need sunglasses indoors just as much as they need them outside.
They’re managing. Sort of. Aunt Amaya and Queen Janai have breakfast in the open air dining room on the far side of the palace, and things are starting to look familiar to them, but from a practical point of view, they’re still lost. Callum huffs and collapses onto a bench in the corridor looking ready to give up.
“All this and for what?” he grumbles. “We’re going to be late.”
“For what?” snorts Rayla. “Breakfast?”
He says nothing for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “Listen,” he says. “I really did want this to be more special but we’ve been lost for so long that it’s just giving me headaches. Can I just… can I ask you something? Here? While it’s just the two of us?”
Rayla stares at him. “Er. Sure, I guess?”
Callum takes in a long breath. And then, he pulls a box out of his pocket and hands it to Rayla without a word.
It’s obvious what it is the moment he puts it in her hands. Rayla’s breath hitches in her throat. She stares at the unopened box, and then at him, and then at the box again with words forming in her mouth but never making it out.
“I won’t lie to you,” Callum says. “I think this is gonna be fine this time around, but I’m still a little terrified. Rayla, will you—”
“I didn’t even finish the question!”
“Do you need to?” laughs Rayla. It’s already so hot but her face feels like it’s just been set on fire. This is happening. Is this happening? It feels like a mirage—but she opens the box and finds his mother’s ring nestled in the cushion and nearly forgets to speak again at the sight of it.
Callum hesitates, still obviously nervous, which makes Rayla laugh even more. “Really?” he asks.
“Really,” says Rayla, giddy. “Yes. Yes. God, I can’t believe you thought you had to ask. Was there really ever any doubt?”
Callum chuckles. “No,” he says. “I suppose not.”
Two-ish weeks ago i asked tumblr if they'd prefer a christmas special featuring ballroom dance instructor rayla slowly falling in love with the supposedly snooty prince she's supposed to be teaching to waltz OR a fake dating au in which callum is told to bring his girlfriend which he 1) technically doesn't have and 2) hasn't told he's a prince and a horrific number of people told me they wanted fake dating and voila! this was born.
This was one hell of a marathon write. It is 88 pages on google docs and a whopping 37.6k which is REALLY IMPRESSIVE for two weeks and i absolutely did not edit it because it's christmas and im SUPER done with this thing. it is trash. it's on the level of a netflix christmas special. it. is. trash.
BUT I HAD SO MUCH FUN and i hope you guys did too. Happy holidays everyone!
In the joy of it all, Callum almost doesn’t notice the way Ezran slips away.
It’s been a mess of a morning. In truth, Callum's been agonizing over all of this for weeks: Mom's ring has been in his pocket since before they even landed in Lux Aurea, and he's rehearsed it a million times over since. I deally, things would have gone a lot smoother than they had and the whole thing would have been a lot better organized, but then he and Rayla had gotten lost, and his nerves got the better of him, and, well...
Callum supposes it doesn’t matter. His heart is still thrumming with excitement, and Mom’s ring looks better on Rayla’s finger than he ever imagined it would. They stumble into breakfast half an hour late, breathless, thrilled, ecstatic, and everyone’s collective outrage is funny— (“You asked her without us?”, “I had the camera, Callum!”, What was even the point of all this then? )—but their delight is clear all the same.
There’s been laughter, and congratulations, and hugs all around, and it’s probably closer to eleven o’clock now but they’re still hanging out and talking in Queen Janai’s dining room, and Callum almost misses it. The quiet buzzing of Ez's phone in his back pocket; the fond little smile that crosses his face when he answers it; the way he slips out of the room not quite unnoticed with his phone against his ear and a mimosa in his hand.
Callum blinks after him, intrigued. Ez isn’t usually one to slink away. Not like this, anyway. He tries to catch Rayla’s eye, but she’s busy joking with Mom and signing clumsily to Aunt Amaya. Her engagement ring shines prettily on her finger against the blinding blue sky, and his heart skips a beat at the sight of it—but Ezran’s disappearance is curiouser still, and he excuses himself quietly (not without kissing Rayla silly again, of course) and follows against his better judgement.
He finds Ez leaning over a balcony a couple of rooms down. He’s still got his phone pressed to his ear and there's a smile in his voice, and Callum waits by the door with his breath held in his throat in a concerted effort to overhear.
“Yeah, he did it,” Ez is saying. “I can’t believe him. All that planning and he does it all without us anyway. I’ve never felt so ripped off in my life.”
“Ripped off, huh?” There’s a laugh on the line. Callum has to strain his ears to hear it. He thinks he knows that voice. Ellis? (Odd, he thinks. It’s gotta be close to two in the morning in Katolis.) "Because that's an appropriate reaction to your brother's engagement."
“You bet it is! I got in, like, really nice bottles of champagne and everything! How dare he ask her in private like a mature and normal person!”
“A travesty, truly,” says Ellis drily. “She said yes, then?”
“Of course she did,” says Ez. “This… wasn’t like last time, I think. We all knew this one was going to be for real. I’m… really happy for them. They’re good for each other. There’s more than just romance, y’know? They’re friends too.”
“I’m glad,” says Ellis. “I mean I’ve only met Rayla, like, a handful of times, but it’s obvious Callum really loves her.”
“Yeah.” Ez pauses. He breathes in slowly, relishing the warm summer air as it fills his lungs, content and happy in the knowledge that his brother is in good hands. “Listen,” he says after a moment. “It’s early days, obviously, and they haven’t said anything yet, but I reckon they’ll probably have an engagement party within the next couple of months or so. Would you—uh—they’ll invite you anyway, I think, but—uh—would you wanna go maybe together?”
Callum blinks. A smirk tugs upwards at his lips.
Ellis lets out a laugh. “Like usual, you mean? Weird that you still think you need to ask.”
“Most people would say asking is being polite,” snarks Ez. “Although I guess you’re not really most people .”
“Are you calling me rude, Your Highness?”
“No, of course not,” laughs Ez. “I’m calling you my friend. Which isn’t a title I give to most people so, y’know. Do you want to be my date or not?”
“Oh, is that what it is?”
Ez flushes. Not that Callum can see—but he stammers his answer enough for Callum not to need to. His smirk pulls wider.
“I mean,” sputters Ez, “if—I guess if—if you want it to be, it can be, but—uh—”
Ellis giggles. “Awkward doesn’t suit you, Ez,” she says. “Yeah. I’ll go with you. Don’t be so weird about it. It's not like we've never done it before. Besides, we're friends, right?”
Ez hesitates. Then he chuckles too. “Yeah,” he says at last. “Of course. Thanks Ellis. You’ll get more details when I get them.”
“I’d better,” she says. “I suppose I should let you get back to congratulating the happy couple.”
“Probably.” Ez snorts. Callum can practically hear the way he rolls his eyes. “Why are you still up anyway? Don’t you have work tomorrow?”
“I enjoy the gossip . And catching up with you is nice too, I guess.”
“Well thanks,” says Ez drily, although he shakes his head and hides a laugh in his fist. “Go to sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow?”
“You got it,” chuckles Ellis. “See you!”
The line clicks. Ez pulls the phone from his ear, bashful grin on his lips, and Callum leans against the door jamb, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his smirk growing ever more entertained. “So,” he says.
Ez starts. He fumbles with his phone and almost drops it over the edge of the balcony. Then he spins on his heel and scowls at his brother—even if the malice in it is lost in the way the tips of his ears glow pink. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough.” Callum clucks his tongue. “So do you need one invitation or two?”
Ez can’t blush because his complexion is too dark, but Callum knows it's there all the same. He wonders sometimes if there are days he’s grateful for it. He wonders especially if today might be one of those days. “Two,” he sneers, looking like he’s trying a bit too hard to maintain his composure. "We're just friends. There's—friends don't share invites."
“But it’s such a waste of paper,” drawls Callum. “If Ellis is coming as your plus one anyway—”
“Still two,” snaps Ez. His eyes dart towards the door like he’s plotting some sort of exit strategy. “ It’s not a thing. It's just a—a mutually beneficial agreement we have that, like, keeps the vultures at bay and stuff.”
“Is that all.”
“Yes,” grumbles Ez. “We just do it for appearances. Do you know what it's like to be hounded by nobles looking to make connections? We just do it so people will leave me alone. It doesn’t mean anything. We’re just friends.”
“I’ll bet,” laughs Callum, because the excuse sounds terribly familiar, and if there’s anyone who would know , it’s him. “Fine,” he says. “I get it. Two invites. I mean, what would I know about faking my relationship status at an engagement party to keep people away?”
Ez has the decency to say nothing to that.
ok for real, now I'm done. just wanted to tack on something quick and stupid for the end of the year.
good riddance, 2020. happy new year fam! here's hoping 2021's better!