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In Our Heads

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“Music can speak multitudes. At least that’s what they tell us. In a society like ours, we have to believe it, don’t we? Or else what is Head Tracing for? A ploy by the government, an experiment? I choose not to believe those conspiracies. My name is Callum, I'm a professor here in New York City. I teach the biology, physics, and what is seemingly the magic in Head Tracing.” I finished the sentence with a flourish and studied the students in the hall. I had hoped to see more interested faces. Then again, it was close to 8 a.m. I glanced down at my notes, preparing to continue the lecture. 

“Head Tracing; when your mind picks up the signal, or the Trace, of whatever song your soulmate is listening to, and plays it in your own ears.” I turned and wrote the definition on the whiteboard. Almost immediately I heard the sound of keyboards clacking and pencils scratching. I turned back to face the students again. 

“I have been teaching Head Tracing Biology for three years and studying it since I was in high school. My job is to teach my students the science behind it. When your soulmate listens to a song, their mind is hard at work processing, dissecting, and understanding the sound. At the same time, their brain is working on broadcasting that signal across the entire world. This makes your brain the most powerful radio in the  world.”  More typing.  

“One thing scientists still have trouble understanding is how our heads only pick up on the one signal we need; the one from our soulmate. There are billions and billions of Traces floating around out there, so how does our head separate and tune in to the one we want?” I looked around the room expectantly, waiting for a hand to go up. “There is no exact answer,” I began, “so what’s the leading theory?” As I finished the sentence, a hand shot into the air. The students turned to look at him, surprised. “Yes, Ezran?” 

“The most widely accepted theory is that the wavelengths of a Trace are like keys, looking for the lock that fits. Our ears are sensitive to certain frequencies, to be specific, your soulmate’s frequency.” He glanced around the hall, nervously. Everyone was staring at him, and he knew it. “So, when they listen to music, their brain broadcasts the song into the air at a certain frequency, one only you can pick up,” Ezran said. I was surprised when he said he wanted to take my class, but I had to give him credit for doing the research.  

“Very good, Ezran,” I said. “And he's right, our brains are just looking for certain frequencies broadcasted whenever you hear a Trace. Surprised no one else knew yet.” I turned to write it on the board when a voice called out- 

“He’s playing favorites for his brother...” I turned as the others giggled. A girl in the front row sheepishly pointed to the boy sitting behind her. 

“Soren,” I started, but then remembered- “I thought you were supposed to be in L.A.” 

“Save it for office hours, teach.” 

“Sure.” 

Soren and I do go way back. He was my fencing coach for a hot minute in middle school. At that point, he was a high school dropout, focusing on his music career with his sister Claudia, looking for some extra cash to make it to L.A. From what their father told me; they did make it to California, but I haven’t heard from Soren or Claudia in so long, I just assumed they had stayed there. So, finding him in college, let alone  my  class was just a tad bit confusing. 

After the lecture, when I got to my office, Soren had signed up for the first half hour and was already waiting outside the door. I sighed. 

“Give me two minutes, then I’ll let you in.” 

“Whatever you say,” he said, leaning against the wall as I slipped into my office. I really liked the place. Had a tall window off to the left and massive bookshelves against the back wall, decked head to toe from books like  Harry Potter  and  Percy Jackson and the Olympians  to Head Tracing studies written by professors at the school. It was a pretty intense library that all my students were free to borrow from. To the right was my desk. On it was a lamp, my laptop, and a framed picture of myself, Ezran, and my dad. Well, my stepdad. The gift was from Ezran, given to me at the wake.  

Across from my desk was a chair for students to sit in. I let any NYU students in to talk about whatever, as long as they signed up for a fifteen-minute interval on the paper outside my door. Many came in to talk to me about bumping up their grade, some came in because they were genuinely curious about Head Tracing Biology, which I loved. Most came in just to talk, which I enjoyed too. 

I sat in my chair, placing my lecture notes and books onto my desk. I pulled out my phone and drafted a new text to Claudia. 

“Soren came to class today. Hope to see you around soon , too!”    

Just as I sent the text, Soren knocked and cracked the door open.  

“Two minutes up yet, prof?” He said, poking his head in. 

“Yeah,” I smiled. “Take a seat, close the door behind you.” 

“Nice place you got,” he said, sitting across from me and looking around. He hadn't changed a bit- that scar over his eyebrow was still there. He spotted the frame on my desk and turned it around, a moment of sorrow passing over his face, but quickly replaced with a sly grin. “How’s professor life treating ya?” 

“It’s going well,” I began. “I’ve been teaching for five years now, and I don’t regret a minute.” Awkward pause. 

“What do you teach again?” 

“Head Tracing Biology.” 

“Right.” Soren glanced around my office, eyes landing once again on the picture frame, but he quickly looked away. “Steady living?” he asked. 

“Steady living.” I said. A beat. “How’s California?” 

“Mostly good, but we’re in a bit of a rough patch right now.” 

“I assume this ‘rough patch’ is why you're here?” I half-smiled, eyebrows raised. 

“Yeah, mostly.” Soren cleared his throat and shifted nervously. “So, Claudia and I were doing pretty good, but we were having trouble finding a label to sign us. And we found one right before we left- but not before we ran out of money.” 

“You’re here to ask for cash...?” 

“No, no, not at all. See, the producer agreed to listen to our demo. If she likes it, then she’ll help pay the mortgage on a small apartment downtown until we get our own bearings.” 

“That’s awfully nice of her.” 

“Yeah, which is why we’re really hoping it’s going to work out.” He stared at me for a second. I stared back, confused. 

“So... what do you need me for?” 

“Claudia’s with a friend in Buffalo for now until we get a final say from the producer. And I... just need a place to stay?” He shrugged and his voice was pitched apologetically. I thought about my teeny studio apartment. Like... teeny tiny. One room, one bathroom. My dining room table doubled as a nightstand. I had a couch – if you could call it that, it was so small. But Soren was a tall guy, he could probably only make it a day on that thing – two, tops.  

“How long until you hear the decision from the producer?” I asked. 

“Two days.” 

“Perfect,” I said. “But no more disrupting my classes.” 

“Done. Thanks, Cal.” I winced at the nickname, but Soren didn’t notice. He stood and paused. “Can I still come, though? To class? I like how you teach.” 

“Of course.” I stood and shook his hand. 

“Thanks so much, prof!” 

“No need to call me ‘prof’, you know my name,” I said. Soren shrugged. 

“I like it better this way.” He smiled and sauntered out the door. “Thanks!” I heard him call from down the hallway. 

 

I ride the school shuttle home. Yes, I'm a professor, yeah, the thing is packed all the time. But it’s so much easier than finding a parking space, and the shuttle schedule lined up with my classes, so it just made sense. Looking back, part of me wonders that if I didn’t ride the bus every day, this whole chain of events would have never even happened. It was a normal day, golden sunlight flitting between the shadows of the trees as we rode by. Students chattering and exchanging notecards, some on their laptops, typing away. I was sitting by a window, satchel in the seat next to me. The person in front of me was wearing a dark sweatshirt, hood pulled up. 

As the shuttle came to a screeching halt at one of the stops, the hoodie guy reached his hand behind his head. Between his fingers was an envelope.  

“Take it,” I heard him say. So I did. As soon as the envelope was out of his hands, he stood and began making his way off the bus. 

“Hey, wait-” I called, but the mystery man had already gone. I looked down at the envelope in my hand. It had my name on the front.  

I opened it, pulling out a sheet of printer paper with a typed message on it. It read; 

 

Dear Callum,  

We know you are an expert  in Head  Tracing, and we could use experts like you here at NYHTS.  

 

My breath caught – NYHTS, New York Head Tracing Society, an elite group of scientists working to solve all the unknowns in Head Tracing. People studied for years and years for a chance to be recognized by them. And somehow, they found me, first. 

 

We would like to meet with you tomorrow after your first lecture of the day. An NYHTS representative will be waiting for you when it’s done. Don’t leave the  lecture  hall after your le sson. Instead, lock the doors and make sure there are no recording devices in the room. If we get compromised tomorrow, it will  be  your fault.  

 

Ah, yes. The NYHTS had gotten in trouble with the government a few years earlier for using non-compliant human subjects in their studies. However, the subjects were compliant, there just weren't any contracts or waivers that they had signed. When one subject got hurt, he sued. Then the rest sued because they were not told they could get hurt. The company declared bankruptcy, but rumor had it that it was still running underground. A huge conspiracy sprang up over the different possibilities as to why a corporation so large had failed on a matter so simple, but my guess is so that they could continue studies without the government on their tail, however they wanted. 

 

You will not bring your cellphone and you will not tell anyone that you received this note. If you do, the whole operation will have failed. If you fail to attend the meeting tomorrow, the NYHTS will find another  eligible  candidate for our  studies.  We thank you for your time. Destroy this letter when you get to your studio.   

Best,  

NYHTS  

 

I folded the letter and stared ahead in shock. The NYHTS wanted me? They wanted me! It was the best news I'd gotten in a long time, how could I say no? 

I thought back to when the news broke about the patients in their studies. I remembered the pictures of their wounds when studies went wrong. Bruises to gashes from machinery undergoing testing. I knew it could be dangerous, but I couldn’t help myself. They were the  best  scientists out there, they used to make new discoveries about Head Tracing every day. I could use what I learn in my lectures, I could teach the world the science behind Head Tracing, I could make a difference. I could be a part of something big. And I was willing to do so, despite the cost. 

Little did I know how big the cost was. 

 

In my apartment, I found Soren already making himself at home. He had boxes stacked up on the table and counter, a guitar case in the chair of my desk, and a ukulele on my bed. I walked in, bewildered. 

“Yikes,” I said, dropping my satchel on an empty space on the counter. “That’s a lot of stuff for a broke, high school dropout.” 

“Thanks, man,” said Soren, emerging from the bathroom. “Some of its Claudia’s.” He looked around, studying the boxes. “Most of its mine.” 

“Right.” I moved to my desk and placed the guitar on my bed next to the ukulele. “Anywhere else the instruments could go?” 

“Uh, yeah.” Soren grabbed the guitar and ukulele and leaned them up on a wall in between some boxes. 

“Why didn’t you go to your dad for a place to stay?” I asked, sitting at my desk and opening my laptop. 

“Well... he’s a bit of a control freak. Said that Claudia and I would fail and doesn’t really support the whole ‘music’ thing.” Soren sat on the couch, exasperated. “Thank you so much, again, for letting me stay here. It’s messy, I know, but it’s only temporary.” 

“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” I answered. I hadn’t really been paying attention, I was too focused on my screen. I googled NYHTS just to see what came up. News articles regarding the hurt patients, blogs and websites theorizing where the organization disappeared off to. There was one link, however, that caught me off guard. 

 

Don’t Tell  

 

 I had to open it. 

 

Enter your phone number, we’ll send you  a confirmation  there. Can’t have your  roommate  suspecting what you're up to.  

 +1 _ _ _ - _ _ _ - _ _ _ _ 

 

Holy shit. Holy shit holy shit holy shit  holy shit????  I jumped to my window, looking around to see if anyone was watching. I studied my ceilings in search of a hole where a camera might be. Nothing. 

“Everything okay...?” Soren asked, noticing my uneasiness.  

“Yeah, yeah,” I brushed him off, still shaken. Maybe they had been listening in during office hours, ear pressed against the door, maybe the same guy who gave me the envelope on the bus. That had to be it – how else would they have known Soren was moving in? 

Knowing there was a more rational reason helped me settle down. I turned back to the computer screen and put in my phone number and closed out of the tab. A small part of me, way inside, thought that maybe I was biting off more than I could chew with a secret, underground, government-evading mysterious company. But man, they were legends. I couldn’t say no just because they happened to scare me once. 

My phone buzzed, making me jump. A text from an unknown number. 

You in?  It said. 

All the way.   I sent back. 

 

Later that night, Soren was already asleep on the couch, and I was getting ready for bed. While I brushed my teeth, I heard a Trace come through. It was soft, and kind of warbled. Like when the neighbors are having a party and you can hear the music through the walls. I turned off the water, listening intently. Steady beat – it sounded like a heart.  Bum, bum-bum, bum, bum-bum.  A g-minor chord came through, soft and gentle. I waited for the vocals to come in, but I couldn’t hear any. It was obvious there was supposed to be lyrics, there were spaces in the sound where words should have been. The song must be new, unheard by most ears. 

It was slow, the song. Mostly minor but had one major accidental that threw what I assumed to be the chorus for a whirlwind. Whoever wrote this instrumental was a genius. 

I climbed into bed and turned off the lights. I heard the chord progression fade away; the song had ended. As I fell asleep, I heard many Traces come through. A whole album of new, barely listened to songs. I couldn’t wait to hear them in person, to get a real feel for the indie music my soulmate listened to. I couldn’t wait to meet my soulmate. 

Chapter Text

I practically ran into the lecture hall the next morning, excited about the subject I was teaching, and the reward  to come  when I was done teaching it. My notes for the lesson made up a packet of 40 or so pages .  I wanted to slim it down to meet the NYHTS rep sooner, but a lot of this stuff was going to be on the exam... so when the lesson started, I launched fully into the topic. NYHTS would have to wait.  

“Many people have learned how to use Traces to communicate with their soulmate,” I began. “For example , a couple found their way to one another by song titles. Person A lived in Nigeria, so he often listened to  Africa  by Toto to try to  get his soulmate to guess where he lived. When Person B caught on, he listened to  Welcome to New  York  by  Taylor Swift f or two days straight . This story has a famous ending that provides hope to Trace listeners around the globe.” I  paused and  glanced around the room. Any one of these students cou ld be the NYHTS representative.  I saw Soren, sitting in the back of the class, taking notes, which brought me back to reality. “Does anyone know how this story ends?” A hand shot up –  Ezran’s “Yeah,  Ez ?”  

“Well, for starters, Person A was named Kai. When he landed in New York, he  immediately  went to R ockefeller Center with a  Bluetooth  speaker , blasting  Africa  on a loop for a few hours. Person B, named London, heard the song playing in real time on his way home from work, while also hearing a Trace in his head of the same  song. ”  Ezran  paused and glanced nervously around the room. He looked to me, and I nodded encouragingly. He took a br eath and continued.  “ London paced Rockefeller Center until he found his soulmate standing at the entrance to a candy shop. He played  Welcome to New York  in his headphones, just to be sure it was him.  When London and Kai finally met, they dated for a month before finally getting married.”  Ezran  said, almost all in one  breath. He seemed fidgety, so I made a note to ask if he was okay later.  

“Great job,” I said. “It’s pretty common for people to play songs portraying location , but there are so many other ways to get in touch with your soulmate. There is a way you can send messages through these broadcasts.” I paced the ground floor in the front of the hall. This was always my favori te lesson, because it often happened to me. “Does anyone know?”  No one raised their hand.  I smiled and turned to write on the board.  

“The answer is  singing.”  I wrote that word at the top of the board. Underneath, I wrote t he definition. “The voice of your soulmate in the song they’re listening to.”  I turned again to face the class. “When your soulmate is trying to reach you,  their voice will come through in the song their listening to. Maybe a certain part, maybe just the chorus. But whatever line your soulmate wants you to hear, their  voice  will carry through the broa dcast.”  A hand shot up in the back of the room. I didn’t recognize who it was under the hood ,   but the hood was familiar.  I nodded to the hand. “Yes?”  The whole class turned to look at them.  

“What if you're singing along to some so ng, but there's no real message you want to reach your soulmate?”  they said. I knew most of my students, but this voice sounded unfamiliar.   

“Very good question,” I began. “What I love about this subject is while most of the answers are facts, some are assumptions, or hypothes es. And this is one of those gray areas where no one really knows. My assumption, in a case like yours, is that no singin g would follow through with the Trace, because there's no emotional connection from you and the words to your  soulmate .  

“On the flip side, I've heard people  ask,  ‘what if I want to send a message to my soulmate, but I can’t or don’t want to sing?’ and my assumption  is that there’s two different kinds of singing traces.” I paused, gathered my notes and checked my watch.  We had time to cover it. “I call them Concrete Traces and Fabricated Traces.”   

At the sound of typing and pencil scratching, I said, “Don’t worry, this won’t be on the exam, it’s just my own personal theory.”  People kept typing, so I continued. “Concrete Traces are  when your significant other is singing out loud, and the sound of their voice carries out with the broadcast of the Trace. Fabricated Traces are just that  fabricated. When you r soulmate  isn t  singing out   loud, but the bond between their emotions and the lyrics is strong enough to send their voice out anyways.”  

“Sounds  about  right, professor,” said the hooded kid. I gave him a  cautious smile . I knew why he was here.  

 

After the lecture, I followed most of the students out. When the halls were mostly clear, I turned around  and went back in, locking the doors behind me. The hooded guy was still there, but his hood was gone.  I recognized him, and he obviously recognized me. I moved thr ough the aisle and sat next to him, slinging my satchel on the desk in front of me.  

“Who are you?” I asked, my voice airing a mix of astonishment and confusion. The man smiled .  

“You don’t remember?”  I studied him- boxy jaw, broad  shoulders, dark skin, brutish look, but kind eyes...  

Corvus ...?” I breathed. “I haven’t seen you since-”  

“Since Amaya found  Gren .” he said , solemn . I remembered when Amaya did find  Gren . They were an interesting case – the first platonic soulmates I had ever  met I wanted to know more about their relationship, what traces sounded like. I was going to teach my students how platonic soulmates were real and true and just as special.  Then they moved away.  

“And now you work for NYHTS ?”  asked ,   breaking the silence.  He nodded,  and I let out a breathless laugh. “Dude, that’s so cool! I’ve always wanted to work with you guys, you’re the leading company in Head Tracing research, and – oh, man  I have so many questions! What  really  happened  to all the patients? What are your most recent discoveries? Does the government know you’re still operating? Is-”  

“Callum, calm down,”  Corvus  smiled at my enthusiasm. “Everything will be explained, I promise. You just have to trus me, and trust the process ,” he told me. I nodded.  He pulled out a  manila  envelope  from his pocket , not different from the one I  received  on the bus. Only this one was stamped with their logo.  I took it in my hands, relishing the crisp print of the logo under my fingertips.  

“This packet has a list of your assignments. When you finish an assignment, you will text a summary of the process to  the number listed at the bottom.”  Corvus  reached into his pocket once more, this time revealing a small flip phone. “This will be your burner phone.  Do not share this number with others, or else you could put the whole operation at risk. No one else can know. Got it?”  

“Got it.”  

“And one more thing.”  

“Of course, anything.”  

“You’re not allowed to listen to music anymore ,” he paused, dead silence filling the space between us. I stared in confusion, dumbfounded. I couldn’t just give up on my soulmate, that’s just so not fair, to them or me. Why would they ask me t o do this – don't they understand the finality?    No Traces can go to your soulmate, not while you work with us.”  

“Wh -wh at if they try to get in contact-”  

“You have to believe me when I tell you I wish it didn’t have to be this way. But there is too much at risk. No more music,  unless instructed , while you’re under this operation ,”  Corvus  slid the burner phone to me and stood. “Follow the instructions, report back, and no more communicating with your soulmate.” He tu rned to leave, but I couldn’t find the words to say anything to him. “Until we meet again,” he said before slipping out the door.  

I stared at the phone on the table, feeling the weight of the envelope grow heavy.  I ripped it open, pulling out a pristine packet about five pages thick. The first page was jam packed with words, and I read it  intently.  

 

By now, you’ve chosen to work with us.  We welcome you to the New York Head Tracing Society.  Please not e  that you are only to communicate with us via the burner phone provided. It should also be noted that confidentiality is key; if anyone but  knows  about what  you're connected to, not only will you be dropped from the experiment, but you could go to jail and jeopardize the whole of us.  The  first  stage of this process all depends on how you carry out the following instructions.  

The detective living in apartment 31 B, the one directly below you, has been following a case for years that could possibly lead to the unearthing of NYHTS and our research.  It is imperative that you follow our instructions  directly and  take as little detours as possible. It is also imperative that  you do not get caught.    Your steps are as follows:  

  1. Carry nothing that can be traced back to you, empty pockets except the burner phone provided. 
  1. Find a mask or dark hood, something to shield your identity should the security protocol fail. Make sure to wear something you’ve never worn before and dispose of the clothes when you’re done with the task. 
  1. This step has multiple parts. Pay attention, have this memorized. 
  • Your apartment building has a security office on the entrance floor, seven paces to the left of the front desk.  This is the riskiest part of the process, so be sure to keep your face covered. 
  • The security officer will make rounds around the premises at 0900, 12001500, and 1800. Only prepare to infiltrate the office at these times. 
  • When the desk clerks are distracted, sneak inside. 
  • When you walk in there will be a wall of screens on the south wall. To the left there is a power box with the wires and switches that connect the camera feed to the screens. 
  • There will be a big green switch at the top of the box, signaling that the feed is up and running. Once you press it, the light will turn red and the camera screens will go dark. 
  • You will have twenty minutes maximum to get back up to apt. 31 B and carry out the rest of the mission before the security officer returns, and another five minutes maximum until he figures out what happened, and the cameras are turned back on. 
  1. Make your way to apartment 31 B. The resident works from 0900 hours to 1900 hours, so you should have plenty of time to get in with a lock pick. But remember, you are still on a time crunch. If you leave the apartment once the cameras in the hall have been turned back on, you will automatically be a suspect should a crime be suspected. 
  1. Inside apartment 31 B, you will find the detective’s laptop on his desk on the far wall. Log in as the detective, password SolRegem5Hv1E. 
  1. DO. NOT. CHANGE. ANYTHING. He is a detective, and any change in minuscule items could arouse suspicion. Leave the laptop how you found it and lock the door on your way out. 
  1. Locate file named Mystica-Arbora. Delete the file, then empty the recently deleted files binMake sure to clear your search history as well. 
  1. Create a new file, titled Mystica-Arborabut leave the file blank. The detective will think the file has been corrupted. 

We will have an NYHTS agent in the lobby to stall the security officer if we have word that you are struggling to complete the task under the allotted time. We will be in  correspondence with time updates as you continue. When you are out of apartment 31 B, send the message  “Case gone”  through the burner phone.  You will be paid in cash soon afterwards, $5,000.  

We thank you for your cooperation, and best of luck.  

 

I couldn’t believe it. This was something way beyond my paygrade  - except maybe not - $5,000?! That’s a lot of money - I did n’t  know if I could accept that after breaking and entering. But then again, NYHTS was a highly  recognized and renowned company  for researchers in the field, and they  just needed to get back on its feet so they can start researching again . They did so much good before they went underground. But even still, breaking in to someon e’s  home for cash, on top of giving up contact with my soulmate ? I wasn’t sure if I could do that.  

 

In the quad, students milled about. Some sat in circles with drums and ukuleles, others in the field playing frisbee. I t was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. A breeze passed through, making the shade the number one place to be. I  saw  Ezran , sitt ing under a  tree, reading a thick book.  

Ezran , hey!” I called, walking up and sitting next to him. “How are you?” He closed the book and  beamed .  

“Good, you?”    

“I’m good, thanks...”  

“That’s good.”  

“You like your classes?”  

“Well  enough but  let me tell you a secret.” He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Your class is my favorite.”   

“I'm glad, bud.” We both were silent for a moment, watching the frisbee game across the way.  I thought back to his fidgeting while he answered the questions in my class.  “Hey, uh, I've got kind of a weird question if that’s alright...?” I scratched the back of my head .  

“Yeah, what is it?” He said , looking at me. I studied him, noticing a nervous shift in his eyes.  

“You’ve seemed... out of place lately.”  

“What do you mean?”  

“I mean like...” I though back to his uneasiness in the limelight. “Whenever you answer questions in my class, you seem more anxious than need be. You fidget and look around , then getting more uncomfortable when you see everyone looking at you. I just want to make sure you're okay, is all.”  E zran looked away, back at t he frisbee game.  

“I don’t know, I guess it's just weird. I don’t want to be wrong, especially in your class, but then once  I'm   talking,  I realize that  there's  so many peo ple watching, and what if I mess up, and-”    

“Hey, hey,  it's  alright,” I said . “Half the time you have your hand raised, you're the only one with a hand raised. Which means you're already smarter than the rest of the class if you're the only one with the idea.  

“Yeah, I guess so.”  

“And besides, even if you mess up,  what's  the worst that could happen?”  

“Yeah, right,” he said, growing more confident. “ What's  the worst that could happen?”  

As he said it, the severity of those  words  came flooding back to me.  The worst that could happen is that I g ot  caught. I los t  contact with my soulmate forever, I los t  my job, I los t  contact to  Ezran, the only family I had left. As I sat there under the tree, I couldn’t help but feel, deep in my gut, that this was a bad idea.  

“You okay? ”  Ezran  asked. I thought for a moment. I wasn’t considering the best that could happen though. I could pay for  Ezran s  college – all while paving the path for more in depth classes  – I could be a part of the change, a change for the better.  

“Yeah, Ez. I’m great.” I stood, smiling. “I’ll see you later.”  

I walked to the bus stop with a newfound determination. I was a member of the NYHTS. I was a scientist, a teacher. A brother. And I was going to do good by doing a little bit of bad.  The ends justify the means, don’t they?  

Chapter Text

THREE  

“Damn, these kids are good,” I said in amazement. Lujanne smiled and said, 

“Yeah, I thought you’d think so.” 

“So are we going to sign them?” 

“It’s hard to tell so far, but I think they have a gift, something real to offer.” Lujanne ejected the disk from my laptop. She carefully placed the disk back in its sleeve before sliding it back on the desk. “What did they call themselves again?” 

Ursa Major,” I replied, popping in my earbuds and pulling my laptop onto my knees. I had copied the file on to the drive so I could listen to the demo again. 

“Rayla,” Lujanne warned, “No headphones in the studio without a singer in the booth.” 

“Right,” I replied, pulling the jack. The minor progression filled the room, giving me chills as the sound vibrations flew around me. I couldn’t help but think how genius the kid who wrote this instrumental was. I remember watching him right on the other side of the glass, tapping away at an iPad to get the backbeat started, before picking up a guitar. He was skilled, no doubt. And this girl – oh, she had to have perfect pitch or something crazy, she nailed that minor seventh every time we asked her to run it. I couldn’t help but feel in my gut that we absolutely had to sign them. 

“Are you even listening to me?” I heard Lujanne say. My head snapped up. I had forgotten that we were still in conversation. 

“No,” I admitted. Lujanne sighed. 

“If we’re going to get anywhere as a recognizable label, you’re going to have to start paying attention.” I nodded. “As I was saying, signing these two would be good for us as well as them. However-” 

“’Do we have the funds’, I know. But really Lujanne, if we don’t take a risk at some point, we’ll never get off the ground.” I closed my laptop and slipped it into my bag on the ground. “If I'm going to take over the studio one day, you’ve gotta trust me on this. Let's sign them, I'll help pay for their housing as promised, and we can help get them off the ground, and help us get off the ground too.” I stood and slung my bag over my shoulder, walking out. I was almost to the door when- 

“You’re right, Rayla.” I spun around, almost amazed. “I do trust you,” Lujanne said, “And I agree. Give them a call." I beamed and rushed to the door and bolted into my car. When the car started, the Bluetooth on my phone automatically playing the demo from Ursa Major. I remembered back to when I asked how they chose their name. 

Well, he’s Soren, which kind of sounds like solar. And I call him sor-bear.” Claudia had said. 

Yeah, and bears have claws, right? Like ‘claw-dia?’ And so we thought naming us after the constellation was a good middle ground, and not too obvious.” Soren said. They were good kids, and I couldn’t wait to see how far they got. 

As I pulled out of the parking lot, the demo coursed through the speakers like water through floodgates. The bass shook the vehicle, the treble gave me chills. Their first song was amazing – simple progression, mostly minor, with one major chord that threw the chorus for a whirlwind. It was amazing, Soren was a musical genius. 

It’s a good thing he’s the musician and I write lyrics,” Claudia had told me. “ His poetry is terrible.”  

As the first song ended, I just couldn’t wait anymore. At a stoplight, I hit pause and called Soren. 

“What’s up...?” Soren said, apprehensively. I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. 

“Tell Claudia that I’m in - we both are.” 

“Really!? Oh my gosh, Rayla, thank you! Thank you so much! Claudia’s not going to believe this!” He was so happy; it made my heart glow. 

“Is that the producer?” I heard someone say over the phone. My blood stopped cold. I could hear my heart pounding in my head. I gripped the steering wheel so tight that my knuckles turned white. Their voice sounded so familiar, yet I had never heard them before in my life. The light turned green, and I hit the gas.  

“It is, Callum! We’re signed!” Soren said. I blinked, tears stinging my eyelids. Callum. His name was Callum

“Yeah,” I managed, “You are. Get your asses to L.A. as soon as possible, I’ve got apartments for You and Claudia to look at. My promise still stands.” 

“Thanks, Rayla, thank you!” With that, I heard the dial tone. Oh. My. God. My soulmate was right there. Right. There. His name was Callum and he was so close! 

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

I came into my apartment and fell into my desk chair, putting my satchel on the desk. Soren was playing a song again that sounded strangely familiar, but I tried to shrug it off. I opened my laptop and began to draft an email explaining why classes were cancelled tomorrow, when I felt like I was hearing double. The progression started again, but in my head. I froze, and it hit me. My soulmate was listening to Soren’s song, which meant... 

 I couldn’t react, how was I supposed to!? I had already accepted the NYHTS mission, and Corvus said I couldn’t pursue my soulmate, but holy shit! 

When Soren stopped playing, a second later, the Trace stopped coming through. I couldn’t breathe, I felt like I was suffocating. After a second, Soren’s phone rang. I turned and saw him, apprehensive. When he put the phone to his ear, he said, 

“Whats up...?” I could hear the shake in his voice. There was some distorted speaker on the other side of the phone, a voice that gave me chills. A moment passed before Soren broke out in surprise. 

“Really!? Oh my gosh, Rayla, thank you! Thank you so much! Claudia’s not going to believe this!” Soren jumped up, and I felt my heart stop beating. Rayla. Her name was Rayla.  

Is that the producer?” I heard myself say.  

“It is, Callum! We’re signed!” Soren laughed and ran his hands through his hair, meanwhile I felt my heart stop beating. My soulmate was Soren's producer. She was right there, and I had no means of getting to her. 

“Thanks, Rayla, thank you!” Soren hung up the phone, jaw dropped. 

“You good...?” I asked. I certainly wasn’t. He jumped up and danced to victory. 

“Yes, yes, this is amazing!” Soren grabbed my shoulders, beaming into my face.  

“You gotta call Claudia,” I mentioned, a fake smile plastered across my face. Soren’s face dropped, before lighting back up again.  

“I gotta call Claudia!” he yelled, before bolting out the door. “I’m driving to Buffalo!” The door slammed shut, and I heard him yelling in the hall with glee. At least one of us was happy. 

My head dropped into my hands, I felt my throat closing up, sense was leaking from my brain until it burst, the butterflies in my stomach must have migrated or something because all I felt was guilt. My soulmate was right there. Right there. Her name was Rayla. She was a producer in L.A., and she had just signed two of my best friends. I could have followed Soren and Claudia to L.A., I could have met her

in two days if I wanted. If I could. If I hadn't joined NYHTS. She was so close, Rayla was so close and all I wanted was to reach out and take her by the hand and pull her into this wonderful mission with me. A musician and a scientist, together, embarking on a journey for the betterment of Head Tracing science. It would have been so perfect. 

I sat up; face wet from tears I didn’t even know had been falling. I made a commitment. Research and missions for the betterment of Head Tracing research. One sacrifice for lifetimes of discoveries. I sniffed, surprised that I got so worked up over this. I knew the stakes, and I knew the consequences. 

One song wouldn’t hurt, right? A goodbye? 

Once my earbuds were in, I hit play on the song that might change everything, or nothing at all. 

 

Hello, hello.  

I’m not where I'm supposed to be.  

I hope that your missing me,  

Because it makes me feel young.  

 I hummed the lines and took a breath as the others passed. I was sending a message to my soulmate, sending a message to Rayla. Everything in me hoped she might somehow understand. 

 

Won’t you help me sober up?  

Growing up, it made me numb  

And I want to feel something again.  

I couldn’t feel anything right then, my senses left me, and I was breaking. I didn’t want to let it get to me, but it was. Maybe this song was a mistake... 

Goodbye, goodbye,  

I said to my bestest buds.  

We said that we’d keep in touch.  

And we did our best.  

This lyric made me feel so empty. I had barely breathed the words before I felt choked up. What a terrible person I must be, how selfish of me? An alarm set off in my brain: no, this isn't selfish, this is something I'm sacrificing for the betterment of science and research. This is okay, I told myself, everything will be okay. 

The song continued, but I didn’t sing to the rest of it. Rayla was good at music, she would get it. She would understand that yes, this was goodbye for now. 

 

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

Hello, hello.  

I’m not where I'm supposed to be.  

I hope that your missing me,  

Because it makes me feel young.  

I couldn’t help but smile as I heard the opening to this song. I rolled the windows down and let the Trace pass through like wind, relishing in every note. I loved the cello opening, and I found the rhythm musically spectacular. But when the verse came in, my face fell. It was Callum, singing along. But he wasn’t happy or joyful, no hint of a smile in his voice whatsoever. His voice was weak. In the background. And it was sad. Lonely. Distraught, angry, lost.  

Won’t you help me sober up?  

Growing up, it made me numb  

And I want to feel something again.  

I had to help him somehow, he was begging for help, I could hear it in the song, in the lyrics, in him. Callum was lost, he needed someone. Someone like me. 

Goodbye, goodbye,  

I said to my bestest buds.  

We said that we’d keep in touch.  

And we did our best.  

Callum didn’t sing for the rest of the song, and it faded away into nothingness. My brain stopped working; my body shivered in a cold sweat. I knew the lyrics had deeper connotations, but this? I knew I had to book a ticket to New York, I needed to find him. It felt like the first real calling I had in years.  

I pulled into my driveway – well, our driveway. I still lived with my dads. Runaan was always busy with work, so most days I got home before him. I wasn’t exactly sure what line of work he was in because every time I asked, he just said “It’s scientific” or “It’s classified.” Tinker, however, was a jeweler. He worked in the mall downtown and ran an Etsy shop from our basement. I liked living with my dads, even if they weren’t home that often. 

I practically flew out of my car and into my room, already pulling a dusty suitcase from my closet. The sun was setting, making it hard to see what I was even packing. Halfway through folding a shirt, I pulled out my phone and dialed the number to LAX. I tucked my phone in between my shoulder and my ear and continued folding. Everything went by in such a blur, I barely remember asking when their next available flight was to New York. Within the hour I was almost done packing. My flight would leave at 5 a.m., and I lived about an hour away. It was around 8 p.m., and I had a long night ahead of me. I continued packing shirts and shoes and mounds of socks, frivolously deciding how I was going to spend the rest of my night. I would finish packing soon, then head back to the studio to get some last-minute editing done before I had to leave for my flight. As I was going through my checklist of the evening, my light flicked on. I hadn’t realized how dark it had gotten. 

“What’s going on here?” asked Tinker. I stood and whipped around, facing him. “You’re crying-” 

“No, I’m not,” I protested, wiping my face. In truth, I hadn’t realized the tears were falling. To be fair, a lot was happening. I knew who my soulmate was, which was good, but he was sad, which was not good, but I was going to see him, which was good, and – well, you get the picture. Tinker stepped forward and pulled me into a hug.  

“Where you headed?” he asked. He voice was so kind; I couldn’t help but answer. 

“New York,” I breathed. “He needs me.” 

“You found him?” 

“Yeah, I -” Tinker cut me off and held my shoulders.  

“Then go. I’ll deal with your father.” I didn’t waste another second. I grabbed my suitcase and zipped it up before bolting out the door back to my car. 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I called as I ran down the hall. I tossed my suitcase in the trunk and started the car. I couldn’t believe I was almost on my way. Just a few more hours, and I'd be hand in hand with Callum, my happily ever after. I couldn’t wait to meet my soulmate. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Black hoodie that was ten dollars from Amazon? Check. Khakis I would otherwise not be caught dead in? Check. Gross shoes that I’ve never worn because they have holes in them from who knows what? Check.  Weird digital watch that I found at the dollar store? Check. Burner phone? Check. Everything was perfect for the apartment 31 B raid.  The guard was set to leave in two minutes, and I was leaning against the brick wall of the building, waiting to see him walk by. Soren was at Claudia’s friend’s place, helping her move out. He would be back in an hour or so. I pulled up my hood and shoved my hands in my pockets, keeping my head low. I had discovered that the bellhops like to chat when changing shifts, so when the guard left, there should be plenty of distractions to keep eyes off me.   

One minute  left. My heart pounded out of my chest; nervousness made me feel unsettled. Breaking and entering was a crime, and I was about to commit it. I found my toe tapping on the ground, my breathing shortened. Hell yeah, I was nervous. Call me a coward, sure, go  ahead .  

My watch beeped- and as if on cue, I heard the door open and close, and saw the guard walking out. He turned to the sidewalk towards me; I kept my head down.   

“How are you, sir?” he said as he approached.  

“Good,” I replied, my voice unintentionally scruffy. “Just waiting for my ride.” the guard kept walking, unfazed. As soon as he turned the corner, I made my way inside, head still ducked, hood shielding any onlooker from my face. As guessed, the bellhops were standing by the elevator, gossiping about other employees. I kept walking, brisk. When I turned into the  guard ' s  office, I saw exactly what the letter had described. A wall of screens displaying every hall in the building. The control panel, to the left, as previously described. I  knelt down  and immediately spotted the bright, glowing button amidst the darkness of the room, green illuminating the various other controls. Without a second thought, I hit it, and watched the whole panel turn red. The camera feeds shut down seemingly at random, leaving me in total darkness. I stood and turned, walking out the door, nonchalant. The bellhops were still talking by the elevator, so I opted for the stairs. It was only one floor up.  

Eighteen minutes until the guard was scheduled to return to the security office, plus five until he figured out what happened. Apartment 31 B, parallel to my own, down towards the end of the hall. I kept my head low in case anyone emerged from their  apartment but  kept my pace quick.  

Seventeen minutes. The decals on the door stared me in the face, guilting me, but I ignored it. I shoved the paperclip into the lock and twisted it, like the YouTube video told me to. After a second, I heard a faint  click.  I was a hacker, and I was in.  

I pushed the door open ,  cautious, but as promised, the place seemed to be vacant. I stepped inside and quietly shut the door behind me, locking it back up again. Ahead was the desk with the laptop already open. I strode towards it and hit the space bar. The login screen came up, and I thought back to the password.  Solregem5hv1E . As I hit enter, the screen cleared with the loading symbol circling the center. Come on, why was this taking so long?  

Fifteen minutes. I was running out of time, but thankfully the home screen finally came up. The mouse searched the desktop for the file  Mystica-Arbora A Word  document . Classy. I started to pick it up and drag it to the trash icon, when the curiosity got the better of me. I double clicked.  

Twelve minutes. The file opened to reveal a million charts and bullet points, along with graphic pictures of patients after testing. Some were wearing bandages around their heads, soaked in blood. Others had neck braces, some had slings. Almost all of them had bruises along their arms where various shots had been given. Some... I’d rather not describe. But all of them looked miserable. I didn’t realize how  many  people got  hurt.  The pictures were so unnerving, and I tried to scroll away, but-  my eyes began to water, and  I had to cover my mouth at some point to keep me from absolutely losing it.  

“What...?” I breathed, skimming the file. News articles linked to missing persons and grieving families. An interview with this guy named  Runaan He was tall and muscular, with silver hair cascading down to his shoulders. Classy in a suit, but somehow menacing at the same time. The guy was stern,  defending the tests he had performed, tests that cost people their lives. Articles linked to more pictures, to documentaries, to videos touring their main building before they went underground. I couldn’t believe it, but I had a mission, and I made a commitment. I closed out of the file and dragged it into the trash. Right click, empty trash. At the sound of crumpled paper, the file was gone. But I wasn’t done.   

Nine minutes. I opened Microsoft Word again, hit ‘create new document’ and titled it  Mystica-Arbora .  At the top of the document, I typed:  error 404, file not found.  Saved the document to desktop and was done.  

But just as I allowed relief to flood through, I heard the  click  of a door being unlocked. I stood upright, frozen, terrified. I had to think, and fast. This apartment was just like mine, right? I looked around nervously as I heard keys jingling around in the lock. I had  b arely  a  second until the resident came in. My breathing picked up, my throat started closing in - I reminded myself that this apartment was  exactly  like mine, and mine had a fire escape out of the main window. I turned to see the curtains behind the desk, rippling in the wind. The window had to be open. I ducked behind the curtain and onto the fire escape just as I heard the  creeaak  of the door swinging open. I held my breath, hand clamped over my mouth, back against the brick wall. I heard the detective walking, the thud of something being placed on the counter, jingling keys hitting the granite. More footsteps, this time coming closer to me. If he opened the curtains, I'd be done for. I held my breath. His fingers curled around the edge, ready to pull them back. This was it; I was done. My first mission, failed. I had failed. I was readying myself to accept defeat and the consequences when his phone buzzed. His hand fell. I heard him talking, on the phone, complaining about something  at work . I heard his voice get farther away, then the clinking of pots and pans. He was in the kitchen again, and if I wanted to get out of here unscathed, now was the time. Still cautious, I tip-toed silently across the chainmail landing and down the steps, down the ladder, then back on to the concrete ground.  

Five minutes to spare, but I wasn’t safe yet. I pulled my hood up closer to the sides of my face and jogged to the north parking lot, where my car was parked. No one saw me or noticed me, I was safe.  

In my car, my watch timer beeped, and from a distance, I saw the security guard head back into the building. He would soon see the cameras I had cut off. He would be confused for a second, maybe call IT to see what went wrong. Maybe he’d blame himself for accidentally hitting the kill switch with his knee on the way out. He wouldn’t be too concerned. After all, what could have possibly gone down in the span of twenty minutes that he needed to see? I pulled out the burner phone and opened the messages. The phone had one pre-downloaded contact, called  NYHTS REP . I opened it and sent the text,  

Case Gone .  Almost immediately a reply;  

We knew we could count on you .  

He came back I protested. Maybe they had set me up.  

Miscalculation on our part.  Next time,  don’t open the file or else there will be repercussions. For you, for your roommate, your soulmate... just something to think about.  

Oh, shit, I mean, ok, sure. The “ miscalculation ” part s eemed a little hard to believe, considering they knew everything about everything, but I digress. I let out a sigh of relief and buckled my seatbelt. I checked the backseat, staring at the pile of clothes I had been wearing earlier. I stared down at my ugly khakis and laughed. Time to get rid of this shit.  

 

Corvus  was waiting for me when I got to the donation bin in the K-Mart parking lot. I had stashed my hoodie and khakis and shoes in a trash bag, ready to toss inside when a voice came from the other side of the bin.  

“Impressive, what you did today,” he said, stepping out from the shadows. Startled, I let go of the bag, sending the clothes to the bottom of the bin with a  dull  thud.  “The improv with the fire escape? Genius.”  

“You were watching?” I asked,  slightly  offended.  Corvus  shrugged.  

“Someone always is. Wasn’t me, though.” He put his hands up in defiance.  

“When you say always, does this mean-”  

“Whatever your about to say, the answer is yeah, we were probably watching then.”  Corvus  shrugged, but I shuddered.  

“Why?” I asked.  

“Precaution.”  

So ,  you didn’t trust me...?”  

“You’re a new recruit.”  

“But even if I wasn’t?”  Corvus  shifted  uncomfortably .  

“It’s a security measure, not personal at all.” When I didn’t answer, he continued. “But you did well, and I can't wait to see how you do on the next mission. Phase two instructions are on the next page of the packet.” He started walking away, across the parking lot. There were no cars in that direction , which I found odd . Then, I remembered -   

“I found my soulmate,” I blurted.  Corvus  stopped in his tracks. Immediately I regretted saying that. “But not on purpose. She’s... my roommate's producer.”  

“Does she know who you are?” He turned and  stalked  towards me so fast that I literally began to fear for my life. He glared at me with the strength of a lion.  

“I-I don’t know,” I managed.  Corvus  stepped up closer to me, I could feel the heat of his breath.   

“If she finds you, you turn and run the other way,” he growled, his voice gritty and deep. I nodded, sweat beading my forehead. “Get in the car, drive back home. Don’t start your next mission until further notice. You will proceed as if this-” he jabbed his finger into my chest, sending me stumbling back. “-never happened.” I nodded and stepped into the driver’s seat. He watched me drive away.  

In my studio, Soren had cleared out most of his things. The clutter of boxes and bags were gone, and the only  thing left proving Soren was ever here was the ukulele on the couch. I plopped down and pulled the tiny instrument onto my lap. I didn’t remember much about how to play, except a few chords. I put my pointer finger on the first string, three frets down. I strummed all four strings- C major. I grimaced; it was  too  happy. I barred the first three chords and then played. C minor. That was more accurate. On a whim I plucked G minor, then felt a pang in my chest. The opening chord to Soren and Claudia’s song, a painful reminder of the mistakes I’d made in the past 24 hours. Had you asked then whether I had made the right choice, I would reply unsure. It was too complicated to say for sure. Each decision came at a cost and I wasn’t sure if I should give them up. But the past was already written, and all I could do was hope that the future would turn out different.  

I glanced at the pile of bills gathering on my counter. Somewhere in there was my first paycheck.  

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

I should mention that I hate planes. Like, hate them, hate them. Like nausea, headaches, should probably not travel alone in case I pass out hate them. They make me  sick,  I feel like I'm falling all while we’re in the air, all the bad feelings. One time, my ears hurt so bad that the only way they could get me to stop crying was to sit with the pilots and wear a pair of their headphones. Granted, I was three, but I digress. But with all that in mind, I still though that my best course of action was to get to New York by flight. Not one, but  two.  My flight had a layover in Houston. And at no point did I ever stop myself and think  hey, maybe this isn't the best idea. Maybe an RV trip would be better.  No. Instead, I smiled my way through the baggage check, carefully chose my favorite candy at some overpriced store, and sat in the terminal with my favorite book, knee bouncing with excitement. It wasn’t until we were on the tarmac that I started to panic. I was in a window seat (thank god) when the seatbelt light came on. I buckled and then- I couldn’t breathe. I pulled a water out of my bag and carefully took a sip, hoping my internalized panic didn’t disturb my already sleeping neighbor. We raced down the runway, engines roaring in my ears. We took flight, we were in the air, and- everything was fine.  Everything is fine,  I reminded  myself,   I’m  doing this for  Callum .  A weird sentiment, but I was soon feeling better. I hadn't flown since I moved to L.A., which was years ago.  

Flight attendants came and went, and somehow, I fell asleep. I had weird dreams, though. Maybe it was the high air pressure messing with me, but this dream was  beyond different . I was... not me, leaning against a brick wall. Someone walked by, and suddenly I was inside this building. A hotel of some sort, I think. But I didn’t have time to figure it out, because  before I could blink , I was a third person view, watching the body I had originally been in rush onto a fire escape landing from someone’s window. A voice whispered to me;  Look at what you’re getting into.   I woke with a start. Not cool, brain. Not cool.  

The flights went by without a hitch. It wasn’t until I landed that I encountered my first obstacle. I made my way to baggage claim, picked up my suitcase and then I realized - I had no idea where  Callum  was. Not to mention that Soren and Claudia were on their way to L.A. right now, expecting me to be waiting for them. I really was irrational in this decision, and it was just then sinking in. I stepped off to the side, leaning against a pillar, and pulled out my phone.  

“Hello?” asked a sleepy Lujanne.  

“Hey, I've got some news,” I said, checking my watch. It was still on  west  coast time.  

“Yeah, where are you? Soren and Claudia are-”  

“Yeah, I know, but here’s the thing,” I glanced around at the bustling airport around me, “I’m in New York, my soulmate is nearby!”  

“Didn’t they just come from there?”  

“Who?”  

“Soren and Claudia. Weren't they just in N.Y.?”  

“It was a rash decision, I know, but Soren and Claudia land any minute, and it would be great if you could meet them at  baggage  claim for me?” I smiled through the phone, hoping  Lujanne  would catch the hint. I heard her sigh. “Look, there's an apartment I've secured for them, take them to the address  I'm  about to send and have them sign the lease. I promised I'd help pay for it, so they should be okay.”  

“Sure,  Rayla .”  Lujanne  sounded  exasperated . “When do you expect you’ll be back?”  

“A week or so, I'm not sure. Depends on Callum.” There was silence on the line.  

“His name is Callum?”  

“Mhm.”  

“Good luck. I’ll take care of it.”  

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I hung up immediately and sent the address. Time to find  Callum ... but not before I called an Uber.  

Chapter Text

 

Classes continued as normal for about a day. Then my life  really  turned upside-down. Like, for real. My lectures were fine, though I knew most of my students could tell something was off. After all, I was a bit on edge. I was still on the isolation protocol from NYHTS, but I hadn't heard whether to continue or not with the tasks provided. Plus, Soren had just moved out, and his producer was my soulmate. And I hadn't spoken to Ezran in a while... Needless to say, I was feeling a little bit lonely. Even office hours were a bit slower than usual. 

I did have one student come in for the first time. She was the one who pointed to Soren on the first day of the semester. Her coily black hair framed a chestnut brown, heart shaped face. She looked to be – strangely enough, a year or two older than me. She knocked on the door and poked her head inside. 

“May I come in?” she asked. I smiled and nodded as she came and took a seat in the chair across from me, arms full of books. I knew her, she was in my class, but I didn’t think I'd ever heard her speak. 

“Remind me of your name again?”  

“Lailah.” Her voice was soft, shy. 

“What can I do for you today?” I asked. The girl sat up straight and placed all the books she was carrying flat on her lap. 

“I just wanted to let you know that you’re a really good teacher.” 

“Oh, thank you, Lailah!” 

“And as part of my teaching program, I’m required to do a semester of Teacher’s Assistant work, and I was wondering if-” 

“Oh, wow, congrats! You chose the right person to come to.” 

“Really?” 

“Yeah! I have a huge list of professors who could use a T.A. this semester, it's only a matter of finding the right fit!” 

“Oh, I actually-” 

“Don’t worry, they're all really good friends of mine. Super reliable and hardworking-” 

“Well, professor-” 

“Don’t even worry about a waiting list, I’ll make sure-” 

“Professor, I was  asking  if  you  offered a T.A. position.” Her voice got louder. I paused, surprised. No one's ever asked me that before. Lailah continued. “You’re my favorite teacher in my favorite subject, and...” her tone fell quiet, “you seem like the most trustworthy.” Lailah glanced at the frame facing away from her on my desk before staring at her lap. My gut twisted- she trusted me, and I was lying to everyone. Guilt ate away at my brain, which was weird, because what did I really have to feel guilty for? 

I noticed her looking at the bookshelf on the wall, floor to ceiling with compelling and breathtaking reads.  

“Wanna borrow one?” I asked with a smile. Lailah looked back, surprised, as if I'd caught her doing something wrong. 

“No- sorry, it’s- I didn’t mean to bother you.” She half stood to leave before I cut her off. 

“Hey, you’re not bothering me. This is what office hours are for.” She sat back down, apprehensively. I thought for a moment before saying. “Let’s take a look at those books, then, yeah?” I stood and motioned for her to follow. “On the left, non-fiction. Biology textbooks, published memoirs, and biographies from famous Head Tracing scientists, like Keith Kogane-McClain. On the right, fiction, which contains my personal favorite series,  Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”   

Oh, wow! I’ve always wanted to read those!” Lailah grinned and ran her fingers along the spines of the series, lined up neatly on the shelf. 

"Well, today's your lucky day." I pulled  The Lightning Thief  from the shelves and handed it to her. "They're yours until you don't want them anymore." 

Lailah held the book in her hands as if it was made of glass; precious, rare, and fragile. With a sly smile she flipped to the first page, then the next, relishing the sound of the pages. She then said, “My dad never let me read these books when I was a kid.” 

“I hope you have time to read it with your new T.A. job.” I shoved my hands in my pockets with a casual smile, watching her response. She closed the book and stared up at me in surprise. 

“Really!?” she whispered. 

“Of course! You’ll start with grading assignments, work your way up to maybe helping with a lecture, whatever you need to do for the teaching program, we can work out.” 

“Thank you, Callum, thank you so much!” She ran up and gave me a hug, which caught me by surprise. Just as quickly, she picked up her stack of books, adding  The Lightning Thief  to the top before opening the door. 

“Monday, fifteen minutes before class!” I called after her. 

“Monday, fifteen minutes early,” she relayed, beaming, before walking out the door. Nothing could ruin such a perfect moment. It was at that moment that I got the worst phone call ever. The absolute worst thing anyone could have ever called to tell me, but I didn’t know that yet.  

I sat at my desk once more when my phone began to ring. It was Soren. I answered it. 

“Dude! I just sent your soulmate to you!” he said, excitedly. I was shocked, my jaw dropped. This. Could. Not. Be. Happening. But I had to play it off, right?  

“H-hey, man! That’s great!” Not convincing at all. “Who is she?” I asked, though of course I already knew. 

“My producer! Can you believe it? And the best part is-” Soren paused for what he thought would be dramatic effect, but really it just made my blood run faster. “She’s on her way right now! Her name is Rayla and she’s super fun! You’re going to love her, I told her all about you!” 

“Oh,” I cleared my throat. “Like-like what?” 

“Your address, where you teach, what you teach, things like that. She says she’s in the city, making her way towards the apartments!” 

“Wow, Soren, that’s great! Thank you,” I managed. 

“No problem! Tell me how it goes!” he replied. I hung up and took a breath. Okay, lets evaluate. I was working for a secret, underground scientific research facility that undergoes illegal experiments and is extremely powerful. When I joined on with the team, I was forbidden to contact my soulmate. But then I did. I thought it would be fine, I thought it would be okay, so I told Corvus. Then he got pissed, and now I understand why. I had made a horrible mistake. 

Deep breath in, exhale... One more time, for the people in the back.

I.HAD MADE. A HORRIBLE. MISTAKE.

 

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

 

180 Water Avenue, apartment 31 C, New York City.  180 Water Avenue, apartment 31 C, New York City.   180 Water Avenue, apartment 31 C, New York City.   180 Water Avenue, apartment 31 C, New York City.    

The address that Soren gave me, the address that would lead me to Callum, the address that would change my life forever. I repeated the words over and over in my head. The bus was agonizingly slow, and soon enough, the sun was on the western side of the sky, setting to be a beautiful Friday night. The buildings around me towered and swayed, illuminating the most hopeful light I had ever seen. I couldn't help but daydream, trying to imagine what Callum might look like. Tall, blond, lanky, headphones around his neck, scruffy beard and indigo eyes? Or was he short, bed-head black hair, pale computer enthusiast? I knew he was a professor, a professor in Head Tracing Biology. I knew he roomed with Soren for about a day. Soren said he was a wonderful teacher. 

The bus screeched to a halt, and I smelled smoke. Out the front window, smoke poured from the hood. The driver came over the loudspeaker and said, “The bus broke down, everyone off, no refunds.” 

Passengers groaned and made their way to the exit. I gathered my things and filed on to the sidewalk with the rest of the passengers. Some kept walking, most took out a phone and called a friend. At least two people pestered the driver, who was ducked under the hood, for a refund.  But beyond the scene of a pair of angry passengers and an overweight bus driver was some girl I'd never seen before, dressed in black. She was slender, a gorgeous dark complexion, with beautiful coily hair.  And he was staring right at me. I turned to see if there was someone behind me he was looking for, but when I turned back, he was gone. 

This is fine,  I thought to myself.  Everything is fine.  I checked my purse for cash- I'll just catch a cap. However, when I opened my wallet, I had barely ten dollars. Ten dollars? What the hell! I must have been pick-pocketed or something because I knew for a fact that before I left I had at least $60. This was awful, how was I supposed to get anywhere? 

Thunder sounded, and I looked up to see dark clouds gathering. I had better find some way to get to 180 Water Avenue, apartment 31 C, and I had to fast.  

Most of the passengers had cleared, so I started walking up the street in hopes of spotting a cab. Droplets fell, leaving watermarks on the shoulders of my jacket. Great. Just great. As I walked, puddles began to form on the sidewalk, seeping through my sneakers. I spotted a cab, not far down, so I stepped onto the street, waving my arm. The driver pulled over and rolled down his window.  

“How far can ten bucks get me?” I yelled over the roaring traffic and pouring rain. The driver scoffed. 

“Barely four miles, sweetheart. Find another mode of transportation.” With that, she rolled the window back up and hit the gas, effectively spraying me with muddy street water as he drove away. Fan-freaking-tastic. 

At this point, I was cold and shivering. My clothes were completely soaked through and clung to my chest, giving male passersby's a great opportunity to gawk and stare. I hated New York right now. I had nowhere to go, no money, and a bunch of randos on the street asking for a smile. Awful. But I had to remind myself that this was fine, the ends would justify the means, and soon enough, I’d be hand in hand with the one I’m meant to be with. I hoped. 

At one point, I came across a subway station. Ducking inside, I discovered that a one-way ticket was three whole American dollars. I paid and stepped into the station. A string quartet was playing somewhere, impossible to locate under the immense echo of footsteps, chatter, and squeaking rails. As I studied the map, someone came up next to me, but I tried not to pay any mind. That is, until they leaned over and whispered- 

“You’re making a big mistake. Go home.” I spun over to meet her eyes- icy, cold, and unforgiving. The same girl from the bus. 

“Wh-w- are you  following me?”  I sputtered in disbelief. The girl nodded then jammed her foot onto my shoe. “Wh- ow!!!” I hopped up and down, leaning against the wall for support. I glanced down at my shoe- covered in mud. I looked up, ready to fight, but the girl was gone. What the actual hell? Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and called Soren. I hadn’t noticed then, but the girl had also snatched my jacket from around my waist, taking the rest of my cash with it. 

“Hey,” I said, “I’m taking the subway to a stop that’s four or so blocks away from Cullum's place. Can you call him, tell him to meet me there? Someone’s following me, and I don’t want to travel alone.” 

“Dude, Callum hasn’t answered his phone in a few hours. I told him you were coming and he, like, dropped off the grid.” 

“Did-did he send someone to stop me from getting there?” I asked, exasperated. Soren wouldn’t do that, and Callum was supposedly the only other person who knew I was on my way. 

“Beats me.” Silence, except for the bustling metro station around me. “But listen, Rayla, I’ll call him and let you know what’s up. I have a friend from school who will pick you up if Callum won’t. You will find him, I promise.” 

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

We’ve sent a representative to deal with your soulmate. You are now cleared to proceed with your next assignment. Remember that someone is always watching. Do not return to your apartment until told otherwise.  

I put the burner phone back on my desk with more force than I care to admit. Great, just great. The sun was setting, and it was starting to rain. I hoped Rayla wasn’t caught in it, but I had a sick, sinking feeling that she was already covered in mud. I pulled my satchel on to my desk and yanked the packet out, no longer relishing the crisp papers under my fingers. Why was I still doing this?  

Callum , this is a reminder of all that’s at stake. In case you are doubtful know that this is a company with power beyond anything you could imagine.  

 Check your bag.  

I opened my satchel and pulled out an envelope I hadn't noticed before. Inside was a thick stack of hundreds. Yeah, this was why I was still doing this. The phone chimed again. 

Your next task will be double the reward. Remember; confidentiality is key. If you tell anyone, your safety will be on the line. As for who you tell...   

You're  with us or against us. And personally, I suggest you be with us. Trying to run away is the mistake you do not want to make. Trust me.  

“Trust me”? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Regardless, I had to go, like now, before I got found. It was then that my real phone rang- Soren. I almost didn’t answer. But after the second ring, I couldn’t help it. 

“What?” I snapped. 

“Dude, what the hell? You’ve been acting shady since I got the call from my producer. You're secretive, and now you aren't helping Rayla at all. Get your shit together.” 

“Soren, I don’t think you fully understand what's happening right now.” 

“You're right, I don’t, but it's not my business, its Rayla’s. Where have you been?” 

“What does it matter?” 

“She’s muddy and alone in the metro system if New York City, with some creepy chick following her around. You need to do something.” 

“Stop telling me what to do and leave me alone! Soren, this is so unlike you!” 

“This is unlike you! You’ve been messed up for the past day and a half, something’s up with you. What’s going on?” Soren was frantic, and I didn’t blame him. My falling out with Rayla could cost his and Claudia’s career. But I had to remember; confidentiality is key. They kept telling me that, and I believed it. 

“Soren, I have to go.” 

“Dude don’t leave her hanging. Promise me that much.” His voice softened, but I was shaking. 

 “I’m sorry,” I snarled, voice husky and low, “but I have to go.” I hung up, stood, and threw my phone across the room. The screen shattered and it hit the ground with a thud. I could feel my heart rate rising; I was not okay. 

Sitting in my chair again, I put my head in my hands and sighed. What was I doing- people I loved were on the line, my brother was on the line- but the science   that this company underwent, the amazing discoveries, it was worth all this... right? 

Chapter Text

Knock. Knock. Knock. Apartment 31 C. I hit the door with the side of my fist three times. No response. Bullshit. Where did Soren say he worked? I studied the bottom of the door- no light. Maybe he just wasn’t home. It was then that I heard shuffling footsteps on the carpet down the hall. I looked up and saw him, standing there, staring at me. 

He was tall. Brown, shaggy hair. Pale skin, miniature freckles dotted across his nose.  His piercing green eyes looked like they had been crying. He held his breath, lips ajar in shock. I stepped towards him, slowly, he made no movement. 

“Callum?” I whispered. He gulped, following my footsteps with his eyes, then nodded. 

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

It wasn’t until I was halfway down the hall until I registered the three knocks on my door, that there was a beautiful girl standing in front of my apartment. I froze and stared, and she stared back. Her olive skin was flecked with mud, her blonde hair wet and frizzy from the rain. Her clothes were soaked, and her shoes looked like they needed to be replaced. She stepped towards me. 

“Callum?” she whispered. I gulped, following her footsteps, then nodded. She stepped closer and closer to me until I could feel her breath on my face. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She hissed, grimacing. 

“Hey, woah, wait what?”  

I had some girl follow me for six blocks, spraying me with water from the side of the road and stomping on my feet. She told me I was making a mistake, she told me to go home!” 

“Rayla, I had nothing to do with that-” 

“So you knew who I was and you didn’t try to reach out?!” Her voice grew louder. “You didn’t call, you didn’t even tell Soren or Claudia to tell me not to come, you just thought you’d disappear, huh?” 

“Rayla, please, I-” 

“No! Stop! Stop, stop fucking talking, don’t try to justify anything, because I already know that it’s complete and utter bullshit!” 

“Rayla, I can’t deal with this right now-” 

“Shut up! Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP !” She yelled. Lights came on under other people’s doors. I grabbed Rayla by the arm and pulled her into my apartment, shutting the door hard behind us. In a stunned silence, she surveyed the studio. I opened my closet; found a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie she could change into, and threw them at her half-heartedly before pulling the curtains on my window closed and falling into my desk chair. Wordlessly, I heard her step into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. The burner phone buzzed. 

Who’s she? 

Oh, yeah, she wasn’t supposed to be here. I couldn’t tell them who she really was, or else she could be in danger... So I lied. 

Riley Moore, a friend from college. I replied. 

Keep her in the dark. You know what you have to do. Good luck. 

Yep, yeah, I did. My next mission was tonight. 

“You good?” Rayla asked, snide. I sniffed and swiveled around to face her, sitting on the couch. I hadn't heard her come back in “You high, or something?” 

“It’s a long story...” I could hear my voice trailing off. I stood up and went into the closet again, only this time I pulled out the spare blanket I had just folded after Soren left. “You can sleep on the couch if you like,” I said, putting the cloth on the arm of the couch.  

“I don’t need sleep, I need answers. My soulmate looks like a drug addict, he’s rude and looks like he saw a ghost, but from what I hear, he’s not usually like this,” she said as I sat on the bed. “You’re kind, encouraging, you want what’s best for people, and you love, love, love , science. You'd do anything to help your students, you’re selfless.” I looked up at her. I could feel my eyes welling up again, I was stressed and alone, but I couldn’t ever say what I was stressed about. How would that be fair, to drag her into this mess that I'd made? 

“Unusual circumstances,” I managed as Rayla shifted to look back at me. She was so, so beautiful. The past few days, after NYHTS said I would have to cut ties with her, I was okay. It was a sacrifice for science, something for the betterment of the world. But I was starting to wonder if this “sacrifice” was worth it. 

“Well...” her voice softened. She stood and sat next to me, but I couldn’t meet her eye. “We’re destined by the stars and the moon and the sun to be together,” She whispered, using her hand to pull my face to see hers. “... and Soren tells me you're an expert on the ‘science’ between us.” Rayla pulled my hand from my lap onto hers, grasping it tight. I didn’t realize how much I needed her. “Just... talk to me.” 

Let the record show that I wanted nothing more than to lean in and kiss her right then and there. Her eyes danced between mine, curious and kind, despite the ass I had been. But instead, I pushed her away. They might be watching. 

“I can’t, not now, not yet.” I moved away from her, she threw her hands up in exasperation. 

“Alright, I tried. Don’t come running to me in ten minutes asking about my childhood or anything, because you don’t get to know about me anymore.” I watched as she stood and fell back on the couch. She muttered something I couldn’t quite make out, but it sounded like; “Great. I got stuck with an emotionally unstable jerk.” 

 

Later that night, Rayla was asleep on the couch, but I was wide awake. I still had my mission to carry out. This time... I had to get into a different teacher’s office – one of Ezran’s professors. He supposedly had a safe under his desk, full of laundered cash. For whatever reason, NYHTS needed it. All of it. And they’d better share – getting new hoodies every time they wanted me to do something would get expensive. 

Another thing – they told me that another agent would be there, someone more experienced, someone I could partner with. They wouldn’t say who, in case someone stole the packet. But I was more than happy to have someone to share the load.  

I slipped into the hall, this time decked in a grey sweatshirt and jeans. Tiptoeing through the hallway, my own building, I wondered what the camera feed might look like. Security might think I was out to 7-11 or something. 

Through the stairs, out of the building, and onto the sidewalk. The main building was a three-minute ride from where I lived, therefore around a ten-minute walk. Why wasn’t I driving, you may ask. The answer was simple; I don’t have a car. 

Down the sidewalk, cool night air fluttered around my cheeks, making my eyes water for the millionth time in three hours. The path to the main building was fairly open; few trees blocked my view of the night sky, and lampposts were so spacious that the light didn’t carry far enough to cover the ground between them. I gazed up at the sky as I walked. I spotted Ursa Major. I felt a guilty twang in my chest for Soren and Claudia, finally in L.A., with their producer on the other side of the country. 

Halfway through my walk, I thought I heard footsteps. The NYHTS agent was supposed to meet me at the building- who could be out there? I froze and scanned my surroundings. Not a trace of another person in sight. Cautiously I continued, ears tuning in to every rustle of leaves, every snapping branch. But whenever I turned around, no one was there. I still felt like I was being watched, but I had to brush it off. After all, Corvus did tell me that NYHTS was always watching. 

However, at the front of the main building, my stalker was caught red handed. I saw the toe of a shoe peeking out from behind a bush. It looked familiar... 

In one swift motion, I rushed towards the shrub and pulled back the branches to find- Rayla! Rayla had fucking followed me on a top secret mission, crouched down, almost sheepish. She was going to get us all killed! 

“What the hell are you doing here?” I hissed, looking around nervously. The other NYHTS agent was supposed to be nearby. 

“Well when your soulmate leaves in the middle of the night after telling you that he’s stressed about something he can't say, you follow him! ” she snarled back. 

“Rayla, you don’t know what you’re getting in to-” 

“Callum?” sounded a familiar voice. I whipped around to find myself face to face with – Lailah. What the hell was happening. “Are you talking to that bush?” 

“Who’s she?” Asked Rayla, as she stood to face the stranger. “Wait- you’re the one who followed me! You stomped on my foot!” 

“Callum, you were supposed to come alone.” 

“Wait, this was scheduled?!” 

“Both of you, stop talking!” I half whispered. This would get me in big trouble. I turned to Lailah first. “Are you the... agent?” 

“You’re with NYHTS too?” Lailah was stunned, eyes wide, her normally shy demeanor gone. 

“Yeah, but what-” 

“What’s NYHTS?” Rayla said. I turned 180 to face her. 

“New York Head Tracing Society, they made wonderful a dvancements in Head Tracing Research and recruited me, but-” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t call them wonderful,” Lailah interrupted. “I lost my mom to them. Now, I'm stuck.” 

In that moment, both Lailah’s and my pockets made the same buzz sound. In a hurry, we both pulled out the same old, gross flip phones. Each bore a text from the same number. 

Better run while you can,” we read aloud. Lailah and I shared a glance – both of us were horrified. In a split-second decision, I grabbed Rayla’s arm and started running to the other side of the building. 

“Follow me!” I shouted, Rayla in tow. “We’re visiting my brother.” 

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

Ok, weird day. For sure one of the worst days. It could have been better, if I'm being honest. I mean, Callum, a normally super chill, kind, and (from what I hear) selfless guy was currently dragging me across a college campus, running full speed, shouting at/with someone he knew. Our footsteps pounded on pavement and thumped on grass. Callum was growing tired, I could feel his grip loosening ever so slightly. 

But he never let go of my hand. 

After a bit, we stopped in front of a tall brick building, not unlike the one Callum lived in. College dorms, I guessed. Callum pulled out his phone and made a phone call on the same phone from earlier. I could barely make out what he was saying through my own blood pounding in my ears. Damn, they were fast. Our chests heaving, Lailah and I sat on the sidewalk underneath us. After a moment, Callum joined us, sweat on his forehead despite the cool night. 

“Ezran - is gonna – meet us – down here,” he told us through deep breaths. 

“Did you use the burner?” Lailah asked. 

“Had to,” Callum replied. “You’ve been with NYHTS for a while, right?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Do you know who might be following us?” 

“If we’re lucky, my dad. If we’re unlucky... One of the higher ups, one of his minions.” 

“His, as in-” Callum spelled something in sign language, but I couldn’t make out what it was. Lailah, however, nodded with a grave face. Callum sighed, breathing now under control. He turned to me and said; “Rayla, I'm so sorry you’re here, that song, was-” 

“Supposed to be a goodbye,” I finished. Callum nodded. 

“Does Corvus know you sent her a Trace?” 

“No.” 

“He’s gonna kill you.” 

“Especially when he already told me to run if I saw her.” 

“Callum, your life is about to go to shit.” Lailah stood and walked to the door that a boy was holding open. I hadn't noticed he arrived. Callum and I both stood, following Lailah and the boy inside. 

“My room safe?” the boy asked.  

“As long as we lock the door and draw the blinds.” He paused. “Can strangers get in if they don’t have a student card?” 

“Not a chance,” replied the boy, leading them up a flight of stairs. 

 

The kid’s dorm was messy on one half. His bed unmade, desk a mess of papers, and clothes strewn throughout. I couldn’t help but notice the other bed in the room was bare. 

“No roommate?” I asked. The boy shook his head. 

“Studying abroad,” he replied. 

“No one else would be here,” Callum said, drawing the blinds closed, “Which is why I thought it best to come here.” He then strode over to Lailah, stern. “Are you wired?” 

“What? No-” 

“Prove it.” Callum’s voice didn’t waver, but Lailah stammered in confusion. “I’m not putting my brother in more danger than he is now,” Callum said. Whatever anxiety he had now, he didn’t show. Lailah sighed and pulled off her jacket, revealing the tank top she was wearing underneath. No wire. Callum, exhausted, turned back to me. He stared for a minute, then took a step and pulled me in to a tight hug. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered so only I could hear. “I’ll explain everything.” 

“Ok, Callum, you have got to explain.” The boy I didn’t know pulled out the chair from his desk and sat. Lailah sat on the empty bed, and much to my disdain, Callum pulled away and stood off to the side. Silence. 

“Should I let you do the honors?” Lailah said. Callum nodded. 

“We, uh, we’re... in trouble with some big guys-” 

“We’re not children,” the boy and I said in unison. We looked at each other, then back at Callum expectantly. 

“Rayla, this is my brother, Ezran.” The boy – Ezran – nodded. “And Ezran, this is my, er, soulmate, Rayla...” his voice trailed off. “NYHTS thinks her name is Riley.” 

“Who is NYHTS?” Ezran asked. 

“They are – well, I thought they were – a fantastic company. NYHTS stands for New York Head Tracing Society, they are the reason I have material to teach. Their science is solid-” 

“You keep saying science.” Lailah said, catching us all off guard. 

“Yeah, why?” 

“You finish first.” 

“Sure,” Callum shrugged. “Anyways, a few days ago, I was riding the shuttle home when the guy in front of me handed me a letter. It told me that NYHTS had been watching me for a while. They were impressed with my initiative and... fascination in the subject.” He paused, as if he was about to say something wrong. “They told me to stay after class one day, a representative would meet me. And someone did. Corvus.” 

“Corvus?” Ezran asked, shocked. “I haven't seen him since-” 

“- since Amaya left, yeah.” Callum shifted, uncomfortable. “But I digress. Corvus handed me a packet full of assignments, and my first was to-” he took a breath- “break into the apartment below mine, and delete a file on the resident’s computer. A file full of evidence against NYHTS. I followed through.  

“Somewhere along the way, Soren was on a phone call with you, Rayla. I heard your voice and knew immediately. I made the mistake of telling Corvus I knew who you were. He threatened-” Callum’s voice cracked, and his chest started heaving again. “He threatened Ezran and told me to run if I saw you,” he said, more to me than anyone else. “He told me not to contact you, to not send in a Trace, but I did anyways. And now you're here.” 

“Lucky me,” I muttered. This was a lot to wrap my head around. 

“Did you look in the file?” Lailah eventually asked. Callum nodded. 

“Scary stuff, turns out their research came at the cost of... people’s lives.” His voice cracked again, his breathing faster now. “People in bandages, people unconscious, people open on a table-” Something came over me; I don’t know what made me do it, but I took his hand. Through his skin I could feel his pulse racing. His hands chilled under mine, an energy flowing between our fingertips. It felt like- like gravity, steady and constant night after night... but I don’t think Callum noticed. A beep sounded from his and Lailah’s pockets. They both opened their phones- identical models. 

“My dad,” Lailah breathed in relief. “My dad’s the one watching us.” 

“And who’s that?” Ezran asked. “Is that a good thing?” 

“Better than good, this means he’s on our side.” 

“Who’s your dad, then?” said Callum, looking up in confusion from whatever text he had received. “Why’d he tell us to run?”

“Because of her.” She nodded in my direction. A pregnant silence filled the room.  

“Oh,” Callum muttered, “Okay, cool.” he took a breath. “So... what does this mean for us?” 

“It means no one at NYHTS knows our cover is blown yet.” Lailah slipped off the bed, standing  with purpose. “It also means that we have time to formulate a plan. We can either-” she turned to Callum- “Carry out our mission, get cash for doing the job and run away, or-” 

“We can put a stop to the whole company,” Ezran breathed. Everyone stared. Bold statement for the youngest of the four of us, for someone who knew less about this than anyone. “What?” he asked. Lailah and Callum shared a wary glance.  

“It sounds pretty dangerous,” I said. “I don’t think it’d be safe.” Lailah's watch beeped.  

“Callum, we have twenty minutes until our mission is supposed to be done. What do we do?” she asked. Everyone stared at him expectantly. He closed his eyes, mouthing something under his breath. I could almost hear the melody in my head, soft and faint.

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

But if you close your eyes...  

Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?  

And if you close your eyes...  

Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?  

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

What’s at stake if we want out?” He asked, looking up again. 

“Well, my dad, for starters,” she sighed. “And both of them.” She pointed to Ezran and I. Well fuck. Callum walked towards the door, motioning for Lailah to follow. 

“Guess we better get going. Rayla and Ez, stay here. Ezran, don’t tell her any of my secrets.” I could hear a smile in his voice has he walked out the door. I couldn’t wait to hear him laugh. 

Ezran and I were left in the dorm, so naturally, I did what anyone who had just met her soulmate and then minutes later discovered he worked for a top-secret murderous organization did; I asked for his secrets. 

“Alright, Ez, what are things about Callum I need to know?” I took a seat on the bed next to his desk. Ezran smiled. 

“He loves to draw,” he replied. I tried to picture it – he seemed so high strung, how could Callum take the time to sit and just... draw? Then I remembered his words - “unusual circumstances,” he had said. Just then, Ezran opened a drawer full of papers clipped together. He started pulling them out one by one, laying them out in front of me. Sketches. 

“Some of his work?” I asked, carefully taking the corner of one of the papers. 

“Yeah,” he told me. “A lot of that art speaks for itself.” He was right, too. Each drawing had a date on the bottom. The older ones were more plentiful. He used to draw a lot more, apparently. Older drawings consisted of people I didn’t recognize. Portraits of a woman who looked a lot like Callum. 

“His mother?” I whispered. Ezran nodded. I turned to another. It was Callum and Ezran, sledding. Another picture of a man I didn’t know, though he looked more like Ezran. 

“My dad,” Ezran told me. “Callum’s step-father.” I checked the date – twelve years ago. There were many of the man from that year, but the newer the drawings were, his face seemed to dwindle from the artist’s mind. 

“Where’d he go?” 

“Died.” 

“Oh, sorry.” 

“No need to apologize. It’s been a while since then.” I turned back to the drawings strewn in front of me. I couldn’t help but stare in awe at his work. 

“Does Callum still draw?” 

“I don’t know- I don’t think so. Since he started teaching...” 

“Where did you get these, then?”  

“Callum threw his sketchbook away a while back, but I took it. The cover was dirty, so I saved everything inside,” he said, picking up a picture of him. These pictures were like stories... who knew, that a picture was really worth a thousand words? I shook the notion away. 

“Hey, Ez?” 

“Yeah?” 

“I feel... guilty.” I hunched over, sheepish. 

“Why’s that?” Ez asked. I stared at my lap, picking at my nails. 

“I don’t really... like Callum.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I just... ahh, I don’t know. We don’t fit, we don’t click. I think.... I think the universe made a mistake, putting us together.” 

Ezran laughed, and I stared at him, confused. He smiled and said; 

“If you’d visited any of his lectures, the first thing you learn is that the universe is never wrong.” 

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

Callum and I were inside the building when I checked my watch again.  

“Fifteen minutes,” I whispered, “and my dad already got the cameras.” 

“Cool, cool,” he replied, hands in his pockets. He was visibly shaking, but we didn’t have time to deal with that right away.  

The professor’s office was on the first floor, somewhere behind the maze of secretaries’ and administrations offices. Callum and I wove past the front desks, into a back hallway with offices on either side. 

“Do I get extra credit for this?” I mused, a sly grin on my face. Callum remained stone cold. 

“Is this why you wanted the T.A. job?” he asked, stopping in his tracks. I checked my watch- twelve minutes. 

“Later, Callum. We gotta get to the safe.” I motioned for him to continue following me, but he didn’t move. 

“Tell me or you can’t keep it.” 

“What?” I turned around, apprehensively. 

“If the job means anything to you, you’ll tell me the truth. If it’s a ploy by NYHTS, then you’re out.” 

I couldn’t believe it. His eyes stared down at me, bored, but still piercing. I was shocked, obviously. I wanted the T.A. job, I really did want to be a teacher someday, after all the NYHTS stuff was done, but in truth, my dad did direct me to get the position with Callum specifically. He didn’t tell me why. 

“I- of course, I want to be a T.A. with you, but there’s more to it, and we just don’t have the time-” 

“Fine then. Until I get a further explanation, you’re out.” he brushed past me and further down the hallway. Dumbfounded, I followed. When did Callum become so cold? 

Ten minutes. When we reached the professor’s office, Callum pulled out a paper clip and unlocked the door within seconds. Not waiting to see if I was behind him, he walked inside. By the time I got in, he was already crouched underneath the desk on the far wall. I heard the subtle turning of the combination inside, the swinging of the door, and- 

“Shit,” he cursed. “There’s another safe inside this one. And the combination I got doesn’t work.” 

“Let me see,” I said, moving closer. I sat down next to him, squeezed in between the wall and a drawer. The first safe was a standard combination lock, but the one inside had a keypad. “What combination did you use?” I asked, curious. 

“23-19-03.” 

“That’s weird,” I said. “They gave us different combinations,” I said, typing in the set of numbers I had been given. 09062003. The second safe swung open with ease, revealing mounds of cash tied with rubber bands. Callum stuffed the rolls into his pocket. All 100s. We stood and closed the safes before heading out, rolls of cash spilling from our pockets. 

“We have eight minutes to get out of here,” I said, while Callum locked the door behind us. “We better book it to the entrance.” We took off, jogging silently through the corridor, passing through the secretaries’ desks, out the main office and back to the front of the building. I went to push the door open, but as soon as the hinge clicked, sirens blared throughout the whole building. In horror, I stared at Callum, and he stared back.  

“We’d better run, huh,” he said. 

“Yeah, I guess so.” I pushed the door open all the way and the two of us sprinted across the front lawn, into the woods at the side of the building. Voices boomed behind us, but we had already disappeared into the night. 

“We can – take – a backroad – back to Ezran’s,” he wheezed as we ran through the forest. We were both slowed by the fact that our hands were busy clutching rolls of paper money inside our pockets to keep them from falling. Leaves crunched under our boots, obscuring the plain ground from sight. 

I followed Callum through the woods at full speed for who knew how long. We were both exhausted for the second time that night, and I noticed a hint of light near the tree line. Morning was on its way. We didn’t slow down until we came to a parking lot across from what looked like Ezran’s dorm building. Callum made another call on his phone as we walked across, but I didn’t listen to it. When we got to the front door, Ezran was already there to let us inside.  

“Hurry,” he said. “People are starting to wake up.” 

When we finally made it back to Ezran’s room, Rayla was asleep on Ezran’s bed, papers scattered at her feet. I collapsed on the other, not paying attention to what anyone else did next. I got a text from my dad on my burner- 

Close call. 

I know. I replied, too tired to deal with his judgement. 

Does Callum know?  

He knows my dad's involved. He doesn’t know that my dad is you.  

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

I watched Lailah fall onto the empty bed, envious. I noticed that there were papers shuffled and scattered at the foot of Ezran’s bed where Rayla was sleeping. I don’t know what came over me, but I sat next to where she lay. Her hand was peeking out from under the covers, so I took it gently. Our fingers laced together, and a soft hum of electricity buzzed through my fingertips into hers. A very literal electricity. My hands started heating up, a blue hue of lightning seemed to jump from my knuckles. I was suddenly tired, very tired, more tired than before, as if I should be sleeping. I was conscious, but I should be sleeping... My brain started shutting down, my eyes closed, I could feel myself falling onto the mattress... and I was knocked out cold. 

I was sitting at my desk in Pseudonatural Science, freshman year of high school. We were studying magic, primal sources, theories of the supernatural. I was on top of my class, raising my hand for every question. I remembered this day fondly. The day I passed the final with a perfect score. I had my head down on my desk, waiting for the other students to finish their test. When the bell rang, my teacher pulled me to the side and congratulated me on the 100% I had earned. Then she did something that didn’t actually happen that day, something new being added to the story. She leaned in and whispered to me -  

“You’re smart.” her breath was hot in my ear. “Corvus has the only weapon you need.” As I pulled away, confused, I noticed the blue circle drawn in dry-erase marker on the whiteboard.  

The scene shifted, and now on my way home from a soccer game. But I wasn’t me, I had never played soccer. I was someone else. I was Rayla, sitting in the front seat, socks stained with dirt from a game well fought. We won.  

“Well done, Rayla,” the driver said. I didn’t pay him any mind. “I’ve never been more proud.”  

"If you’re so proud of me, why won’t you come in for Father’s Day at school?” I complained.  

Obviously, this wasn’t the first time I’d advocated for him to come in.  

“Rayla, you know I have work. Just ask Tinker-”  

“Runaan, he can’t, he’s got that crafts expo, remember? You’re always so caught up in your work, you never have time for-”  

“I’m sorry, but we’ve been over this. I just can’t.” Runaan glanced over at me before turning back to the road. I sighed and stared out the window, caught off guard by the reflection of something indigo in the window, its unusual hue catching my eye. Dangling from the rear-view mirror was a blue sphere, painted to look like a storm.  

The scene shifted again, this time I was me again, at home, in my room. I... remembered this, too. I was doing homework, answering questions for Pseudonatural Science. What were the six primal sources? Easy. Star, earth, ocean, moon, sun, and... I forgot the last one, so I continued, knowing I'd remember it later. What are the only five primal stones that have been discovered? Star, earth, ocean, moon, and sun. List the rarest forms of magic to the most common. Star, earth,_____, ocean, moon, sun. I was missing, one, somewhere in the middle. List the oldest known to the newest known sources. Star, earth, ____, ocean, moon, sun. I answered questions over and over again with the same answers; star, earth, ocean, moon, sun. Star, earth, ocean, moon, sun. Star, earth, ocean, moon, sun. Star, earth, ocean, moon, sun. Star, earth, ocean, moon, sun. Which one was I missing?!  

Everything changed once more. I was Rayla again. I was in detention. I beat up a kid for making fun of someone. The bully made up a lie to get away. I was stuck here. I was stuck doing worksheets sent down from other teachers, and if I had a question, oh well, because the supervisor did not want to help me. This whole thing was familiar- a memory. I started on my first assignment for Calculus. The worst math class in the history of math. It was awful, and I longed for nothing more than to be out, out of here, out of this room, out of this school, and out under the open sky.  

Sky. Sky, sky, sky. That was it! That was-  

Just as the thought entered my mind, it was gone. I was still trapped inside, missing a piece of the puzzle I needed. Something was missing. Everything was changing- everything, nothing was the same, everything was falling apart. I couldn’t remember where rain fell from, where clouds resided, where planes flew, in between the earth and the stars. I couldn’t remember the word.  

Still in detention, I clamped my head in my hands, trying to squeeze the name into existence. I grimaced- the atmosphere, the ozone, the- I can't remember! It’s the last piece, the last answer. Corvus had what I needed, and I was supposed to know what that was, I felt my brain breaking and my world shattered around me, my vision cracked and smeared until nothing was there, until I was blind. I’d never see the sky again. The sky! THE SKY!  

I woke with a start, still laying next to Rayla, who was sound asleep. Our hands interlocked tightly, though the buzzing lightning had dissipated. I lied back down, unaware of the chaos we’d ensue together. What a weird dream.

Chapter Text

When I woke, I couldn’t help but notice how comfortable I was. The comforter around me was so warm, and the pillow seemed like a cloud.  

Cloud... that word was funny. Maybe I had dreamed about clouds or something... 

But I digress. Since I was still in Callum’s oversized hoodie and sweats, everything was perfect for a comfortable morning. I opened my eyes just a tad, greeted by pale sunlight and the promise of a new morning, and- Callum? I sat upright in a start, staring down at the boy who had been lying next to me. I noticed our hands were locked together- I shook his fingers away. As soon as I did, though, he woke, too. Within a second, his eyes were opened wide and he was sitting up next to me. When our eyes met, his whole face turned red. What a dork. 

“Um, sorry,” he muttered, quickly sliding from the mattress onto the ground, his shoes hitting the floor with a soft pat . I glanced around the room – Lailah was sleeping on the other bed, and Ezran was dozing head-down on his desk. 

“What were you doing ?” I whispered. Callum scratched the back of his head, a look that said “ I’m just as confused as you. ” 

“Look, Lailah and I got back late last night, and-” he shoved a hand in his hoodie pocket, sending a roll of cash cascading out the other side. “Shit,” he cursed under his breath. I rolled my eyes as he bent to pick up the stolen money. “Listen, Rayla, come on, I'm sorry,” he protested. I shook my head. “Rayla, please-“

“I need to get back to your apartment,” I said, standing. Callum’s face paled. “What-why?”

“My suitcase is there, I…” I took a breath, avoiding Callum’s eyes. “I’m gonna take the next flight to California.” I pulled at the hangnails that had gathered around my nails. Of course I didn’t want to go, but… I felt like a burden, like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t belong here. I belonged in L.A., helping Soren and Claudia release their next album.

“No, Rayla, please!” He sat next to me, taking my hand. “Stay here, I promise I’ll-“ As he spoke, the same gravity from before started pulsating in my hand, my fingers could feel the push and pull of the tide. It was strange, but a cloudy numbness had crept into my mind; I couldn’t focus much on anything. “I’ll try so, so hard to keep you safe.” Lightning cracked between his knuckles, a soft haze resembling clouds formed over our hands. 

“I can’t stay. Not right now.” I tore my hand away slowly, and immediately the gravity escaped from my palm. I kept my face low, trying not to look at him. Callum’s face contorted, confused. Then he did something I didn’t expect. He smiled. It caught me off guard. And it was beautiful. 

“Come on, why don’t I take you on a date?” he said, standing. “I’ll take you on a tour of the campus, we’ll go out to lunch-“

“I don’t know, Callum, you’re dangerous, you’ve got a pocket full of laundered money. I can’t just-“

“Tell you what,” he said “Lailah and I will bring the cash to Corvus, and then we’ll be done with missions for the time being. Then, I come back, and we go out… and if you still don't feel comfortable here, then you can go, no hard feelings.” He grinned mischievously. “And Ezran could bring you to my apartment to get a change of clothes.”

I looked down at my attire - Callum’s hoodie and sweatpants, left over from the night previous. I sighed, still unsure. I mean, we were supposed to be soulmates , I had to give him a chance, right? Callum smiled and extended his hand. 

“Whaddya say?” He was such a dork. 

“Sure,” I said, taking his hand. Immediately, the gravity I felt before returning to my hand, and the lightning bouncing on Callum’s was back once more. 

 

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

 

Lailah and I strode inconspicuously across the campus center. I had donned my satchel again, and Lailah was carrying an enormous stack of books, her shy demeanor returned. We were a professor and a student, discussing class and grades and such. As normal as normal could be. 

“I’m sorry for what I said last night,” I began as we crossed the quad. She glanced up at me, confused. “For telling you you couldn’t be my T.A.”

“No, it’s okay, I get it. I wouldn’t tell you the truth.”

We stopped at the corner of the main building, where Corvus had told us to meet him. We waited in awkward silence, highlighting the peaceful breeze through the leaves. The weather was starting to cool, leaves already changing colors. 

NYHTS was smart. Careful. They were so adamant about secrecy, they almost seemed fearful of it. I thought back to last night. “ I lost my mom to them,” Lailah had said. She must be so afraid, so much so that she’d do whatever it took for her safety. For her father’s safety. Of course I wanted Lailah to be safe, and of course I understood how NYHTS was so scary. And yeah, maybe I did need more help in the classroom from time to time. 

“So… tomorrow, fifteen minutes early?” I offered. Lailah looked at me, shocked. 

“Y-yeah, yes! Yeah, I’d love to!” she smiled. That smile was all the proof I needed that this was something she wanted to do. For real. 

“Good, you’re here,” said a voice from behind. I spun around and was face to face with Corvus. 

“Dad, you made it,” Lailah sighed with relief, then was suddenly shocked, as if she let a secret slip. Woah, woah, woah, wait. Corvus? Lailah’s dad??! I took a step back, staring at the both of them. 

“Wh- how- why didn’t you tell me?” I didn’t know which one of them I was talking to. Corvus and Lailah shared a knowing glance. 

“Wasn’t a fact you needed to know. But now you do.” Corvus crossed his arms. “Did you bring it?” I shrugged my satchel off my shoulder and pulled out a grocery bag full of the laundered money. 

“Where did it come from?” I asked, handing him the bag. 

“No one but Runaan knows,” he replied. Right- Runaan. The big guy, the boss man, the CEO of NYHTS.  I had learned over the days that Runaan was not the best person around- you did not want to be on his bad side. 

Which, if he was following me closely, I probably already was. 

Corvus turned to leave and Lailah nudged me with her elbow. 

“Tell him,” she whispered, “It’s safe.” I nodded, understanding. Corvus told me to run from Rayla if I saw her, but I had in fact done the opposite. Lailah kept telling me I should tell him, that it was safe for Corvus to know at the very least. Besides , I thought to myself, I need to know how to protect her. So, I spoke. 

“Corvus, I need to tell you something,” I said. He stopped and turned. Lailah nodded encouragingly. I took a deep breath. “Riley Moore, my old roommate?”

“Yeah,” he said, already suspicious. “What about her?”

“That’s… Thats Rayla, my soulmate.” I bit my lip in anticipation. Corvus didn’t react. “She caught me sneaking out last night, she and my brother know everything-“

“You’re lucky it was me who’s been following you. You don’t know who could be following you. Once they know who she is, they have leverage.”

“Wh- leverage, what do you mean, leverage?” I looked back and forth between Lailah and Corvus, they shared a knowing grimace. Corvus took a breath. 

“When NYHTS went underground, Lailah’s mother and I wanted out. We wanted nothing to do with the company, we didn’t want to be a part of the problem. But they wouldn’t let us go. They couldn’t, because what if one of us told detectives we were still working? What if someone who left leaked information?” He started talking faster and faster, not breathing in between sentences. “No, we had to stay. We had to or else-“ He stopped suddenly, a slight frown on his face. “Or else they would threaten the people we loved.” He took a step back, as if he was waiting to leave. “Which is why I warned you not to talk to her. I didn’t want what happened to my soulmate to happen to yours.” He stepped back again. “Lailah can answer any questions you may have. Your next mission should be carried out by the end of the month.” And with that, he strode down the sidewalk and into his car before driving away. I glanced at Lailah, nervousness plastered on her face. 

“Well,” she muttered, “now you know.”

“Lailah, I’m sorry that happened-”

“Save it,” she snapped. “I’m sick of apologies from people who don’t know what it’s like.Why do you think I didn’t tell you?” She started down the sidewalk.

“Lailah, what’s wrong?” I called after her.

“You hit a nerve, Callum,” she replied. As she walked, a book fell from her arms. I jogged to catch up with her, picking up the book along the way. Glancing down, I read the title. The Lightning Thief. The bookmark was halfway through the pages, even though I had just given it to her yesterday. Lailah ignored me when I called her name, continuing to storm across the quad. I was left with the book. Had it really only been yesterday that when Soren told me Rayla was on her way? Had it really been last night when I told Rayla and Ezran everything? It seemed like forever ago.

 

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

 

It was weird, going back to Callum’s apartment in the daylight. Last night, the lights were dim and I couldn’t see much, but in the light, I could take in the design of the place. Lime green curtains, blue comforter, teal couch- cool colors. Calm colors.

“Where’s your stuff?” Ezran said, closing the door behind him. 

“Behind… here,” I said, striding to where my suitcase was sitting behind the couch.

“Cool, I’ll wait outside.” Ezran opened the door and stepped into the hallway, leaving me to choose an outfit for this… date, I guess it would be called. Call me shallow, but he just didn’t seem like my type, you know? He wasn’t witty or charming necessarily. Though, to be fair, our only conversations have been about a secret underground agency that ropes people in and uses them in missions for their own benefit. That kind of thing might make a person more high-strung than normal. And he was cute, once I looked past those bags under his eyes. And he had freckles…

I blushed to myself as I rummaged through my things. Maybe this date was a good idea after all. 

 

Ezran led me to the secluded field near the quad, where supposedly Callum was waiting. I was instructed to keep my eyes closed, and Ezran was leading me by the hand. At one point, the ground beneath my feet went from hard pavement to soft grass. 

“You’re gonna love this,” he whispered, stopping me. “Okay, open your eyes.”

And I did.

Before me was a blanket laid out on the grass, Callum standing off to the side, a picnic basket open in the middle of the square. I smiled; I did love it.

“Have fun,” Ezran whispered before walking away, but his words didn’t register.

“Wow,” I said.

“Do you like it?” Callum asked, rather quickly. “Because if not, we could go inside somewhere or head to a restaurant, or-”

“No, Callum,” I laughed. “It’s perfect.”

“Oh,” he blushed, “I’m glad!” He extended his hand with a smirk. “Shall we sit?” I took his hand, and immediately, sparks flew. I felt the gravity of.. Of - ah, why couldn’t I remember the name? And clouds - clouds over Callum’s hands. We sat and Callum pulled my hand closer, studying it.

“Interesting,” he muttered to himself. “I’ve only heard of a few cases…” He shook his head and let go. “Now is not the time for science. Let’s get to know you!” He grinned, pulling sandwiches from the picnic basket. “Peanut Butter and jelly, or ham and cheese?”

“Mmmmmm, PB&J sounds great,” I said. He smiled wider and handed me the sandwich.

“I guessed you’d pick that one.”

“What- how?”

“I don’t know, I guess,” he shrugged, unwrapping his sandwich, “You seem like a sweet and salty kind of person.”

“Where do you gather that?”

“I don’t know, just,” he paused, “The way you tried to hear me out last night even though I kept pushing you away, but then your sassy demeanor returned-”

“Woah, wait, you think I’m sassy?”

“What? It’s cute!”

“Ugh, no way!” We laughed, enjoying ourselves as if we’d been friends for years.

“Okay, my turn. I think you’re… super supportive-”

“All right,” he interrupted. I paused.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he smiled, mischievously, “Keep going.” 

“Okay, uhhh, supportive, determined, funny,” I took a bite of my sandwich. 

“That’s a long list,” he remarked, a mouth full of ham and swiss.

“I don’t know, I’m just using words other people have used to describe you,” I said. A breeze came by, spinning Callum’s hair into mini spirals. He stared off to the side, a wistful look on his face.

“I’ve been such a jerk to you,” he said after a pause.

“Yeah, but… It’s okay, I think,” I replied. Callum raised his eyebrows.

“You think?”

“Okay, wise guy,” I chuckled “I’m just happy I’m here, getting to know who you really are, not this corrupt, stressed version of you.” 

“Unusual circumstances.” He took another bite, and we sat, enjoying one another’s company. The sky was cloudless, perfect for the day. Somewhere along the way, we both lay there on the ground, heads next to one another, watching the clouds.

“How long have you been teaching?” I asked, just wanting to hear his voice.

“Almost three years,” he said. “This year would be my fourth.”

“So,” I began, taking hold of his hand, feeling that same, steady, pulsating gravity. “Can you explain this?”  Something so celestial and wise began coursing through my fingertips. 

“I could,” he said, mini bolts of lightning jumping from hand to hand. “But isn’t it more fun to let it be a mystery?”

“You don’t know, do you?”

“Not fully,” he admitted. As he spoke those two words, I could feel my eyelids growing heavy. Like I was supposed to be sleeping. I could feel my consciousness fading, and-

 

There I was, at the dinner table with my step-dad and my brother. I was Callum, I was having dinner with my family. It was hazy, a dark tinge outlining my field of vision, the sights before me slightly out of focus. Everything was warm. Ezran was to my right, sneaking bits of turkey to the dog. Harrow, my step-father, was across from us, pretending not to notice. We were happy, laughing about what happened in school that day, drama from Harrow’s office. We made plans to visit Soren and Claudia soon. But everything that was being said was soft and distorted, hard to make out, like I was underwater.

The warmth of the scene bled away, my vision cleared. My view was then tinted blue- sad and empty. This was a different day. Ezran still sat next to me, but there was no dog begging at his feet. And Harrow wasn’t sitting across from us anymore.

“What are we gonna do without him?” Ezran whispered, poking at his dinner with a fork.

“I don’t know, Ez,” I said. Decorations were gone from the wall, curtains pulled down and tucked away in a box somewhere, revealing a bright light in the sky from outside. We were moving soon, this was our last dinner at home. And Harrow was gone.

The scene shifted. I was Rayla, sitting alone in my room, earbuds plugged in to an amplifier connected to my guitar. I began playing chords, a progression to fit my favorite song of the time.

 

Let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like on

A-Jupiter and Mars

 

Something was missing, a line, a lyric. Had I forgotten something? I mean, this was my favorite song, how could something be wrong? I began again.

 

Let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like on

A-Jupiter and Mars

 

What was missing? Why was the first bar and a half of this song so empty? Something about flying, somewhere flying in the sky near the stars, not on this earth. 

 

Fly me to the moon

Let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like on

A-Jupiter and Mars

The moon! That’s it, that’s what I’d been missing. But just as I remembered, I forgot as my surroundings fell again. I was Callum, out on the back porch near midnight. Lights everywhere were off except for a teeny tiny flashlight illuminating a star chart for class. I was mapping the sky. But something was missing. I looked through my telescope for the one hundredth time, confused as to why there was a gaping hole in my chart, as if something else had to be there. Something was missing, a big circle, a big light, a guide of the night. It was supposed to be there, the opposite of the sun. It was on the tip of my tongue, I just couldn’t place it. We landed there, for heaven’s sake! Humans were in space and walked on the -

Everything fell away once more. I was Rayla. I was at home with our cat, in the living room. Tinker was behind me, watching television. On the ground, I pulled a string for him to follow. I dangled it over him, and he leaped up over and over again. His bright eyes shone against his dark fur. They looked like they had craters in them, an other-worldly reflection in them. They looked almost like-

“Rayla, why aren’t you at school?” Runaan scolded, entering the room.

“I felt sick,” I protested. “Tink let me stay.”

“Your education is important, Rayla. I can’t let you miss out on it.”

“But Runaan-”

“Rayla,” Tinker began. “I’ll talk to him.” He left the room, guiding Runaan by his shoulder, talking in a hushed whisper. I looked back at my cat, his bright eyes staring up at me. He looked like a midnight sky, and his eyes resembled the moon.

The moon! I was missing the moon, the moon, the moon! The great gravity of the moon, steady and nightly, pulling and governing our oceans tides, it was the moon!

 

I sat up with a start, shocked by the.. Dream, was it? Next to me, Callum woke, sitting up straight as I had. 

“What was that? ” I asked. Callum’s face paled a little bit. “Explain what is happening, please!” I pleaded. Callum looked at me, staring me in the eye. He looked afraid, but then he cracked a smile. A look of pure joy escaped, shining like a ray of… moonlight.

“Sky and moon,” he said, grabbing my shoulders. “We’re the sky and the moon!”

“Callum, what does this mean?” I gently pulled his hands off.

“I had a weird dream like this last night, I- I- I was you sometimes, and you were me, and I got a glimpse into your world, and all night I kept missing something, something was gone, I couldn’t remember it, but then I remembered it’s the sky! I’m the sky! And this time, when we held hands, we got more memories too, and-”

“Woah, Callum, take a breath,” I said, trying to calm him down. His chest was heaving, his eyes searching wildly around him. “What do you mean, ‘You’re the sky, I’m the moon’?” Callum took a deep breath before beaming at me, hope in his eyes.

“Everything I’ve taught is false, Rayla. Don’t you get it?”

“No, not really.”

“Head tracing is magic, not science!”

Chapter Text

I stormed away from Callum, unsure of why I was so angry with him. Maybe I was just sick of people trying to insert themselves into others hardships. I heard him calling, but I ignored him. I didn’t need sympathy from him. 

I reached my dorm, delighted to find that my roommate wasn’t home. As I dropped my stack of books on my desk with a satisfying thud , my burner phone rang. Great. Just great. 

“Hello?” I answered, coming off more displeased than I’d hoped. 

“Lailah Strong?” said the voice. Someone from NYHTS, it had to be. 

“This is she,” I said. 

“Good, good. Do you know who I am?” 

“No, why?”

“I’ll give you a hint,” said the caller. He laughed, and it gave me chills. “I know what’s happening to the money you stole for me,” His snide, conniving voice cut through my ear, sending panic through me. No, no, no, no, this can’t be real. 

“Mister Runaan?” I asked, shocked and scared. Runaan did not like me, and why he was calling was beyond me. Unless… he wanted something from me, which was unusual to begin with.  Let’s just say my mom didn’t give him much reason to like anyone in my family. 

“I always knew you were clever,” he snickered. “Maybe I should tell you what I plan on doing with the stolen cash, should I not?” He was teasing me. Not without cause, either. When I was a newer member, I tried to weasel information to detectives on several occasions, thinking I’d make a change from the inside. How naïve of me. Two years later, I’m still doing Runaan’s dirty work, and I’m still paying dearly for the mistakes I made. 

“You can tell me if you want, sir,” I replied. It was never a good idea to tell any NYHTS board members what you wanted, let alone the CEO. They’d always find a way to use it against you. 

“Your soulmate recently moved to L.A. to become a musician. She and her brother are splitting rent with their producer, whose… out of town.” He said the last few words as if they were dirty, as if the thought angered him. “Without their producer, they’d be forced to move out,” he said. I could almost hear the laughter in his voice. Runaan was powerful, and extremely aware of it.

“And what would you like me to do, sir?” I asked, trying not to let my anger show.

“You need to convince a woman named Rayla Dove to move back home,” he said. I froze-

NYHTS didn’t know Rayla was here . My dad didn’t say anything to him, no hint of her true whereabouts.

“According to sources, she recently took flight to New York in search of her soulmate. Find her. Convince her to come home.”

“And what if I don’t?” I said through gritted teeth. 

“Then… I guess your soulmate and her brother get the boot, back to their hometown, jobless and miserable. Other producers hear of their failure, and they never get signed. You don’t want that for her, do you?”

“I guess not, sir.”

“Then find Rayla Dove, and convince her to move back home within the week. Or else.” A beep, signaling the line had been disconnected. 

Okay, let’s recap. Runaan had me steal money to keep my soulmate in the place of her dreams, to keep her happy. In order for him to actually use the illegal cash for such a purpose, I had to convince Rayla to leave Callum behind, keeping in mind that Runaan had no idea where Rayla was or what she was doing, thanks to my dad. So I could either be selfish, ruin Callum and Rayla’s chance at being happy in hopes that Runaan would stop holding my soulmate over my head, or, I could do the selfless thing and refuse, risking the chances of me never even knowing my soulmate’s name. 

     And there was still the mystery of how NYHTS even knew who my soulmate was before I did. 

 

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

 

“Head tracing is magic, not science!” Callum whispered excitedly, his eyes wide as they danced between mine.

“What, what do you mean?” I asked. Callum stood and started pacing back and forth.

“When I was young, in middle school, NYHTS became the main source that discussed the science behind Head Tracing, they released experiments and test results that proved that Head Tracing was science and it was believable, too. And other scientists, upon seeing the findings immediately tried to jump on the bandwagon, searching and running endless tests to find some sort of statistic that would either backup or disprove NYHTS’s evidence. But no one ever came close. Because- before NYHTS released their math and evidence, everyone just agreed that Head Tracing was magic, that the connection between you and your soulmate was mystical and celestial.

There were legends we read about in history books, where the connection between two people was so strong, they would find themselves connected to certain elements, Stars, earth, sky, ocean, moon, sun. But a case of a connection that strong hadn’t been reported in hundreds of years. NYHTS released statements and evidence that any claims of such a connection, new or old, was false.”

“But, if we have that connection,” I said, standing up warily. Callum continued pacing. “Then that means-”

“Everything we thought about Head Tracing is false,” Callum said, finally coming to a stop in front of me. I shook my head, still confused.

“Okay, explain everything one last time.”

“Yeah, yes,” he breathed. “Fifteen years ago, we thought Head Tracing was magic, that the music we heard connected us with elements-”

“Stars, earth, sky, ocean, sun, and moon.”

“Exactly. With a strong enough connection, people united with their soulmates could tap into an element and draw magical powers from it. But NYHTS came out with studies proving all magic in Head Tracing was false, that Head Tracing was a science. No one could prove them wrong, so we all believed it. But now-”

“We can prove them wrong,” I smiled. Callum nodded, beaming. This was the Callum I was supposed to be with. Smart, kind. But he was also ambitious and clever. And a huge dork.

“And I’m in, I’m a part of them now, I can get right to the CEO and threaten his whole foundation with this, ” he said, taking my hand. The gravity of the moon returned to my grip, the power of the sky flitting between us. “That is… if you decide to stay,” he said, suddenly somber. He let go of my hand, stepping back. “But, no pressure or anything. I get it if you still want to go back home-”

“No, dummy,” I said, “I’ll stay with you, here. If we want a chance at getting to know one another, someone will have to help you get out of this terrible society, I’ll help you bring them down. I’ll be here for you.” The face of pure relief was what made everything worth it. Instantly I was buried in a hug, the weight of Callum’s arms around me, I never wanted to lighten up. I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him closer. He buried his head in my shoulder, laughing. I started laughing too. 

“We gotta go to the library,” he said, pulling back, hands on my shoulders, a big, dorky smile plastered across his face.

“What’s in the library?”

“We have these powers, now, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Let’s go learn how to use them.” He grabbed my hand and we started running across the campus, leaving our picnic stuff behind.

 

In the library, I was greeted with the sight of students studying frivolously and the stench of ramen noodles. Ah, college. Callum led me to a section in the back, a row of books that were dusty and old, that looked like they hadn’t been touched in a while.

“Books on magic,” he whispered. “No one’s needed them in fifteen years.” He pulled a book from the shelf inscribed with a disconnected circle, with a dash on either side.

“The moon rune,” Callum whispered, sliding the dusty book over to me. “Study up,” he said, continuing to search the shelves for - I assumed - the book on sky magic. I watched as he pulled another from the shelves, a cloud of dust floating in the air. The rune on that book had three lines all next to each other, growing in size until the final line curved at the end. The Sky rune.

He opened the book, looked through the table of contents, before finally flipping to a chapter somewhere in the middle. I did the same, wrinkling my nose at the dust filling the air.

 

  1. Chapter 1…………………………….……………..……Do You Have the Moon Arcanum?..Pg. 1
  2. Chapter 2…………………………………………………...... History of the Moon Arcanum..Pg 7
  3. Chapter 3…………………………………………………….…...Full Moon vs. New Moon..Pg 34
  4. Chapter 4…………………………………………..In Relation to the Other Primal Sources..Pg 42
  5. Chapter 5……………………………………………....…How To Use Your New Arcanum..Pg 51
  6. Chapter 6…………………………………………………….…..The Basis of Moon Magic..Pg 60
  7. Chapter 7…………………………………………..What Can Be Done with Moon Magic..Pg 68
  8. Chapter 8………………………………………………………....Protection/Healing Spells..Pg 82
  9. Chapter 9……………………………..…..Fighting Techniques for Moon Arcanum Users..Pg103
  10. Chapter 10………………………...………………………...Dangers in Dark Moon Magic..Pg 125
  11. Chapter 11……………………………………....Moon Magic in Relation to Head Tracing..Pg 176

 

I was overwhelmed - where on earth to start? I mean, I already knew I had the “arcanum”, so no need for chapter one. Chapter two was unnecessary for the time being, maybe chapter three would be the best place to start?

I flipped to page 34, greeted with the chapter title in a fancy text that was hard to read. “Full Moon vs New Moon.” I continued to read the chapter. 

Moon magic is tricky. It’s strength fades and grows in a way that is unlike any other. For example, Ocean Magic is strongest at high tide, and weakest at low tide, a rotation that takes a little more than a day, whereas Moon Magic fluxuates along with the phases of the moon. On earth, the phases of the moon are caused by shadows of the earth, blocking the light of the sun from reaching the moon, making it less visible. During a New Moon, none of the moon is visible. But during a Full Moon, all of the moon is visible. What does this mean in terms of Moon, Magic, though?

The answer is simple. During a Full Moon, all of the moon is visible, meaning all of the power it radiates is able to reach the earth. Coming out of a new moon, as the moon grows each night, most Moon Arcanum holders can feel their powers growing stronger every day. At a Half moon, users feel their power as completely average, nothing extraordinary. During a Full Moon, the average Moon Arcanum holder may possess the power to disappear from sight completely. The moon is the goddess of illusion, after all. As the moon wanes away, many Moon Arcanum holders report feeling drained and tired as each night passes. At the waning Half Moon, most holders have the same amount of power as they do in the waxing Half Moon, but it takes more of a toll on their body than normal. During a New Moon, Moon Arcanum holders may experience sickness, and in some cases, experience a time of total magic loss. This means that as long as the moon is hidden, Moon Arcanum holders are at their weakest, and may not be able to fight back.

 

Wow - okay, wow. That’s a lot of information to take in, and there's still... eight pages left in the chapter? I had to move on to somewhere else, a new topic. Something that would teach me to actually use moon magic. I turned to chapter five, “How to Use Your New Arcanum.” Perfect.

 

You may feel alone, you may not know what to do with this newfound power. Not many people are connected to an arcanum at all, meaning that help in how to use it is hard to come by. Luckily, this is a chapter all about things one can do with Moon Magic.

For starters, the moon is the goddess of illusion. Moon Arcanum holders are usually very good liars, good at hiding the truth. Illusion, in terms of the arcanum, means that Moon Arcanum holders are like celestial magicians, able to produce projections of fake reality, convincing the eye that one thing is really something else, or that a whole object that does not exist is right in front of you. The most common spells include Historia viventem, a spell that creates projections of people and places to reenact moments in history, and Mystica-Arbora, a spell that makes the caster completely invisible despite the state of the moon. These two spells are quite easy to cast. To learn the runes needed to create the effects of these spells, look at the index in the back of the book.

Other spells include;

  • Replica invienta, a spell that creates a solid, almost completely real object out of thin air. The catch to this spell is that a moon rune inscribed charm must be used at all times to keep the illusion from collapsing.
  • Invisal temptaeum, a spell that shields any given object from any viewer from view, rendering it completely invisible. However, the object is still completely there and solid.
  • Mystical allbora, a spell that makes the target, but not the caster, completely invisible.
  • Spirilium escuchar, a spell that makes the target hear whatever the caster wants, good or bad.

 

 

The list went on and on, so many spells to create light and illusions. It was almost surreal- just ten minutes ago, Callum discovered that we might be able to do magic, and now we were here, and I was reading that magic was real, that I could be able to use it. It was scary, almost. But I couldn’t help but feel excited at the prospect of performing a spell. 

I looked up from my book to see Callum, drawing in the air.

“What are you doing?” I whispered. His fingers made light in the air, tracing a rune I could see from the page he had open.

Aspiro, ” he whispered, blowing slightly into the rune, causing a slight gust of wind to blow the dust from every book within the row. We both coughed and sneezed as the cloud around us dissipated. “Sorry,” he whispered, voice hoarse from the mess of the air.

“Was that sky magic!?” I asked, excitedly.

“Shh, keep your voice down!” He said, though he was smiling too. “Maybe we should practice outside somewhere.” He grabbed my hand, the now familiar magic returning to my palm.

“Yes, please! And tell me about sky magic as we go.”

 

We checked out the books and headed outside. The quad wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t empty, either. Regardless, Callum led me down a sidewalk excitedly.

“I promised you a tour of the campus, so how about a trip to the music building?”

“No people?” I asked. His pace had slowed down so we were walking side by side. He hadn’t let go of my hand since the library. I could feel my eyelids growing heavy, knowing it was just a matter of time before I caught a glimpse of more shared memories.

“No people,” he replied. “And maybe we could call Soren while we’re there, tell him everything’s okay?”

“That’s a great idea,” I replied. “But do we tell him about the… you know, magic ? Do we tell anyone, for that matter?”

“I-well-no, probably not, right? We want this to be a secret if we want to use it against NYHTS- that is, if you’re okay with that,” he stammered, blushing as he finally let go of my hand.

“I already told you, if we want  a chance at getting closer,” I could feel the heat rushing to my face, “then we’ve gotta put in equal effort, okay?”

“Thanks, Rayla,” he laughed nervously. “I just don’t want to bring you into this mess and hurt you.”

“That's very sweet of you, wise guy.” We walked in awkward silence. The once clear sky had started to grey, and the thunder above us threatened to pour. The music building stood at the end of the sidewalk, run down with vines climbing down from the gutters. A glass hallway-bridge connected the first building to another on off to the side, and what was left of the sunlight shone through the slightly fogged glass, making the whole place look a bit more mystical. 

Inside, the floors were carpeted, and LED sconces lined the walls, shining on sculptures and paintings from various art students. A classical guitarist was practicing in the corner of the main room. Callum led me down a hallway that had practice rooms on either side. As I passed, I could hear bits and pieces of what the students were practicing. Lots of pianists and brass players, and bigger instruments were in abundance, but woodwinds and strings were seldom. At the end of the hall, there was a practice room, empty except for a dumpy looking upright piano, a chair next to it, flickering fluorescents, and a whiteboard with the circle of fifths drawn on it. We stepped inside and Callum closed the door behind us.

“So,” he said, sitting in the chair. “What’s you learn?”

“Well,” I sat on the piano bench, instinctively placing my hands on the keys. “The moon is the goddess of illusion.” I plucked out an Eb major scale. “I can- I guess I can make things invisible, fabricate new objects- stuff like that.” It was all still surreal, the idea of me being able to do magic. It didn’t seem real, almost. I continued playing random scales absentmindedly.

“Thats- wow- that’s so cool, Rayla!”

“Yeah, moon magic does seem pretty cool.”

“No, not that- well, yes, moon magic is cool, don’t get me wrong, but I was more talking about- well, that! ” he pointed to my hands dancing on the keys. “I didn’t know you could play piano.”

“Oh, you mean this?” I played the opening line of Astor Piazolla’s Libertango , a spunky and upbeat, well, tango. Callum smiled, covering his ears.

“I can hear the trace,” he said, baffled. “You’re- its- amazing! ” He laughed, uncovering his ears, watching in amazement as I continued to play. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Self taught,” I said, slowing the melody until it came to a stop. “I also taught myself six other instruments, too.”

“Really?!” Callum’s face lit up. “Which ones?”

“Cello, violin, viola, ukulele, guitar, and mandolin,” I said, trying not to sound smug. But I couldn’t help a proud smile seeping through.

“You have to teach me,” he said. 

“Some other time. We’re here to focus on magic.”

“I suppose so,” he mumbled, opening his book. “So, I don’t know what your book said about the sources in relation to Head Tracing, but here, it says spells can only be completed in the presence of your soulmate until a true bond has been created.”

“How do we know we’ve done that- created a ‘true bond’?” I asked as Callum flipped to the next page.

“It says… we have no way of really knowing, because it’s different for every couple.” He looked up from the book, staring at me with red cheeks.

“Okay, so… how can we make this true bond stronger?”

“Magic!”

“Okay, you’ll need to be more specific.” Callum turned back to the book, flipping pages in both directions.

“Give me your hand,” he said, not looking up. Energy flowed through my fingertips, lightning crackled. Without looking up from the book, Callum drew in the air; a rune that shimmered and sparkled in the light. He inhaled before whispering “ Aspiro.” He exhaled into the rune, sending a breeze across the room. I could feel his palm growing warmer under mine. It wasn’t a warmth from anything human, no. Something about it was… supernatural. He ran out of breath and looked up at me.

“You try.” I opened my book and spread it on the keys, sending an ungodly chord through our ears. I turned to the index, searching for the easiest rune to copy. Historia viventem. I drew in the air, trying my best to make the shimmering lines look just like the picture. When I was done, I whispered;

Historia viventem.” Silently, a blue-ish figure appeared on the bench next to me,causing Callum and I to jump. Silently, he pressed the keys in front of him, but made no sound. After a minute of this, the figure disappeared, replaced by a new one playing violin behind us. 

“What is this?” Callum breathed as the violinist dissipated and was replaced with a french horn player, shoving his textbook into his satchel.

“Visions of the past, of people who used this practice room.”

“Rayla, that’s amazing, the things you can do,” he said as the warmth between our hands grew. I shrugged and pulled my hand away.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Something about this feels… off. Like- ah, I don’t know.” Then, it hit me. I sat up in realization, waving away the visions of the past. “What’s tonight's moon?”

“Like, the phase?” Callum was confused. I nodded. “I couldn’t tell you, my phone’s broken, and I don’t think this-” he held up the burner phone- “is connected to the internet.” I pulled out my phone and typed into the browser.

“Waning crescent, 18%” I read aloud. 

“Does-does the phase, like, change anything?”

“Supposedly,” I replied. “Maybe that’s why this feels off, because the power from the moon is shrinking.”

“Either way, it’s still,” Callum leaned back, taking a breath and closing his eyes. “It’s amazing,” he finally said. “I’m so lucky to have met you, destiny or not.” 

My phone rang, making both of us jump. I looked at the screen; Runaan was calling.

“Hey, Runaan, what’s up?” I said. Callum sat up, eyes wide, face pale. I didn’t notice right away.

“Where are you?” he asked- well, demanded. 

“In New York, didn’t Tinker tell you?”

“He wouldn’t elaborate, said it had to come from you.”

“Oh.”

“So what have you been up to, running away from home?”

“Well, for starters, I didn’t ‘run away’, I used my own money that I got for doing my job to take a trip. I’m a grown adult, I can do things on my own.” I didn’t want Runaan to know why I was in New York, at least not yet. He didn’t trust me, why should I trust him?”

“Being away is dangerous, Rayla, you should have stayed here, with me, where it’s safe.”

“Runaan, I’m not a kid, I can take care of myself.”

“Where are you? At least give me peace of mind.” He dropped the snappy demeanor and replaced it with a more pleading tone. But it didn’t fool me.

“I already told you,” I hissed, growing annoyed. “I’m in New York.”

“I’m your father, I have a right to know.” He sighed, and I could almost picture him pinching the bridge of his nose, like he did whenever he got upset. When I didn’t answer, he said, “At least tell me why you left.” I wrinkled my nose- something in me told me not to tell him. I felt… a weird, negative vibe coming from him. He was always stern, and I used to think it was because he cared. Maybe it was because of the moon arcanum thing, or maybe it was something Callum taught me about magic, or whatever, but now this stern, over protective father act seemed to be backed by something… different.

“I can’t tell you. I have to go.” Without waiting for a response, I hung up and glanced over at Callum, who was sitting up straight, gripping the arms of the chairs so tightly, his knuckles turned white. He looked scared and relieved all at the same time. HIs eyes shifted nervously between mine.

“Is your last name… Dove?” he asked. I nodded slowly, confused. “I have to go, I’ll explain later.” He stood and practically ran out of the room, leaving the door to slam behind him. I rushed after him, chasing him down the hall, calling after him, but he didn’t listen.

He ran out of the building, outside, where it had finally begun to rain. I continued to chase after him, finally catching up and grabbing his arm. Thunder sounded above us, lightning crashed around us.

“What’s happening?” I yelled over the downpour. Lightning fell around us, sending shockwaves through the sky. “Are you doing that?” Callum stared at me, eyes wide, chest heaving.

“I think I am, but Rayla, I think your dad- Runaan- I have to go!” He tore away from me and once again started sprinting away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk, drenched and cold, leaving me to wonder why the mention of Runaan had him in a panic strong enough to bring storm clouds into the sky.

Chapter Text

Why was it that whenever something happened I had to run? I ran last night when Lailah and I got that text, I ran earlier when Rayla and I went to the library, and I was running when I found out that Runaan Dove, CEO of NYHTS, was Rayla’s dad. Step-dad, adoptive dad, whatever. I had to tell Lailah. Or Corvus. Someone, I had to tell someone to get this off my chest.

As I ran farther from Rayla, the time between thunder started to get more and more unpredictable. The storm was losing control without her, but it wouldn’t go away. Every time the sky boomed, I felt it in my chest, it felt like a punch to the ribs. And it didn’t help that I was extremely unathletic. When I reached my apartment building, I was wheezing, and I couldn’t breathe. Even still, I rushed up the stairs to my apartment. By the time I opened the door and threw myself inside, I was doubled over, vision cutting in and out, clutching my stomach as another roll of thunder resounded, effectively knocking the wind out of my gut. I barely remember throwing my satchel to the ground.

“Woah, Callum, breathe,” said a voice. I couldn’t see who it was, which didn’t help.

“Wh-who’s-who’s there?” I gasped, holding the edge of the kitchen counter, trying to stand up straight.

“It’s me, it’s Lailah, Callum, you have got to breathe.” She took my shoulders and forced me to look at her. “Breathe, just-”

“I-I can’t,” I managed, “I can’t- I’m so overwhelmed with everything-”

“That’s okay, its okay, just take a moment to focus on the present, take a deep breath, and just be.” She inhaled slowly, and I tried to follow, doing my best to overcome the pain in my chest whenever the thunder roared. “Sometimes,” she continued, “things can get so complicated that our minds can’t quite sort them out alone.” With her voice ringing in my ears, I took a deep breath one more time, thunder fading until all that was left outside was the soft hum of rain hitting the window. “Seems like we both have a story.”

“What do you mean?” I was still clutching the counter for support, but standing a bit straighter. Lailah took a step back and crossed her arms, her face pitiful. “What’s wrong?”

“Runaan called me.” As soon as she said the words, my blood pressure shot up, another clap of thunder hitting my chest, making me cough. I shook my head, moving to sit on the couch. Lailah perched herself on the counter across from me. “What happened to you?” she asked.

“You first. What’d Runaan want.” The severity in my voice cut sharper than I would’ve liked.

“He-” Lailah sighed, lips pursed. “He wants me to convince Rayla to move back home.” I gasped again as another bang of thunder rolled across the sky. Why was this happening?!

“Okay, what is up with you?” Lailah finally asked.

“This storm? Kind of my fault, maybe.” I was gripping the armrest with an ungodly amount of strength, trying to keep my breathing in check. “It’s a long story.”

“Try me.”

“Head Tracing… it’s magic,” I said, grateful for the chance to slow down, to analyze the afternoon’s events. “Years ago, we used to read stories of connections people found with their soulmate, ones that could connect them to a magical source; stars, earth, sky, ocean, sun, and moon. There hadn’t been a case of a connection so strong in hundreds of years, so when NYHTS came out with studies that proved Head Tracing as a science, people had little reason to not believe it.

But Rayla and I- we have that. We have that connection. She’s the moon, I’m the sky. When we’re together, we can perform spells. She can create illusions, and I can bring elements of the sky to the palm of my hand. Our connections to the elements are stronger when we’re together, losing control and strength when we seperate. And I think- I guess this storm-” I glanced out the window, at the raindrops racing down the glass, “Is because of me.” Lailah stared at me for a moment, a mixture of shock and disbelief plastered on her face.

“And what happened to make you bring this storm around?” she finally asked. The answer was simple.

“Panic.”

“And what are you so panicked about?”

“You finish your story, I have a feeling they connect.” I closed my eyes, leaning back on the couch, trying to let my muscles relax.

“Right…” she began, “Runaan called me and told me I needed to convince Rayla to come back home. He told me that the money we stole is to fund my soulmate’s apartment in L.A. while her producer’s out of town-” a crash of thunder, tightening the air in my throat, making me cough. Rayla was a producer from L.A. What if...

“Sorry, continue.”

“If I don’t get Rayla to move back home, my soulmate and her brother-” another boom-“wouldn’t be able to afford living there, they’d have to move away again, giving up on their dream. Runaan painted a picture for me, telling me that my soulmate would be poor and broke and sad unless I sent Rayla back home. Why he wants Rayla, I have no idea, so I thought it best to find you.”

“Does he know Rayla’s with me?”

“No, I don’t think so” she said. “Any ideas?”

“Yes, actually.” I sat up straight, finally a bit more at ease than before. “Rayla is Runaan’s daughter.”

“WHAT?”

“Yeah, Rayla got a call from him earlier, asking where she was. She wouldn’t tell him. And get this-” thunder rolled once more, and I grimaced, trying to ignore it. “I think Rayla is your soulmate’s producer.” Lailah stood.

“How can you be sure?”

“Well, Rayla just signed a guy and a girl- siblings- to her studio, and agreed to pay half their rent so they could stay in L.A. And without her there, I’m sure the money is getting a bit dicy-”

“Which is perfect bait to get me to do what he wants.”

“Exactly.”

“But wait,” Lailah said as she started pacing. “If I send Rayla back home, then she can help pay rent, so what happens to the cash we stole?”

“Maybe it’s some sick, twisted bait. Send Rayla home, they can stay in L.A., NYHTS keeps the extra cash that they don’t need anymore. Don’t send Rayla home, they have to move out, NYHTS keeps the extra cash anyway.” I thought some more. “Maybe they’re lying about what they really want to do with the money. I mean- It doesn't make sense they’d pay for Soren and Claudia’s apartment if Rayla was in town.”

“Her name is Claudia?” Lailah stopped cold, staring into space.

“You- you didn’t know?”

“No, somehow NYHTS found her before I did.”

“Then does that mean-” I sat up, still a little shaky, “Could they find Rayla?”

“I think you’re safe, if Runaan is trying so hard to find her, chances are they can’t on their own.” She sat up on the kitchen counter again. I let out a sigh of relief. “Which is a good thing, too. If they knew-”

“They’s hold her over my head, I know.” I listened to the rain for a bit. The thunder had disappeared, and my heart rate was finally normal. Maybe there was a section in the sky book, about how emotions connected to the weather once the arcanum was unlocked.

Oh shit, the book! I stood and crossed to my satchel, still on the floor and opened it, pulling out my copy of The Lightning Thief. It’s title almost pained me, due to the circumstance. I walked over to where Lialah was sitting on the counter and handed it to her, suddenly sheepish.

“I'm … sorry for whatever I said earlier.”

“It’s okay,” she murmured, taking the book. “I know you were just trying to be nice.”

“Yeah,” I said, unsure of how to proceed. “I mean, I get it, too.” She looked away. “When my mom died, everyone tried to be a part of it, like they knew what I was going through, even though they had no real idea.” I turned back to my satchel and pulled it off the ground, setting it on the adjacent countertop. “I didn’t want to talk about it for a while. I still don’t.” The rain started picking up again, but there would be no thunder. Lailah was silent, and I started flipping through the sky book again. 

“How did she die?” she asked after a while. 

“She was a teacher. She taught high schoolers. And there was a shooter, and-” I stopped before I continued. “She didn’t come home that day.” I wasn’t about to get emotional over it. I’d told this story so many times, I’d kind of grown numb to it. But it was still a lot, sometimes. 

“I’m sorry,” Lailah muttered, sliding off the counter, clutching the book. “We should come up with a plan, maybe. A way to keep Runaan off our tail.”

“Did he give you a timeframe?”

“A week.”

“Then we have a week to figure something out.”

 

The next day, Lailah and I still had no idea what to do. We stayed up late, trying to come up with solutions to our dilemma to no avail, and Lailah ended up leaving my apartment at around 2 a.m. in order to not arouse suspicion her roommate. Before class, Lailah met me in the lecture hall, both of us with circles under our eyes. She looked like she had a million questions as she set down her books in her usual spot. I was behind my desk, finishing up some notes when she came up to me and asked;

“So what are you going to tell them?”

“What do you mean?” I replied, not looking up from my notes.

“Head Tracing is magic. You can’t just- let that secret out.”

“No, of c-” I sat up straight, staring at Lailah, suddenly concerned. I hated lying. “What am I supposed to tell them!” I stood, sending my notes falling to the ground.

“Callum, no, you can’t-”

“I can’t lie to them, I can’t do what NYHTS wants, spreading their ‘scientific facts’ when it’s all bullshit-” I couldn’t help but pace, sending more papers to the floor. “I’d be playing into what they want, knowingly , too!”

“Callum, no, you have to keep calm.”

“Well what do you suggest I do, then?” I turned to face her. Lailah didn’t answer right away, stunned. “I can’t just- leave them in the dark.”

“This seems like something you should have thought of beforehand-”

“And when exactly did I have time to think about this? We made this discovery yesterday-”

“Well you can’t teach on the lies you’ve been teaching, but talking about the sources could get us in trouble. What if another one of them was a member and told Runaan?” That got me. I couldn’t risk Runaan knowing, especially considering his connection to Rayla. I put my hands on the edge of my desk, staring at a snippet of my notes, still lying on the desk.

 

“... part of what makes Head Tracing so interesting, and the history behind it, is the science…”

 

That was it. The history. The history of Head Tracing, the history that centered around magic. I looked up at Lailah with a smile, a smile that caught her off guard.

“I’ve got it. Go to the library, an in the history section, there should be four books with runes on the side, labeled ‘star’, ‘earth’, ‘ocean’, and ‘sun’. If you find Rayla, ask for her copy, ‘moon’, too. I’ve got sky.” I must have sounded crazy. “Now hurry, try to find them before class starts!” Lailah rushed out, leaving me to pull together a topic before class started in fifteen minutes. This lecture might prove to be more interesting than planned.

I pulled out my sky magic book, flipping to chapter two- History of the Sky Arcanum.

 

The Sky Arcanum was discovered by a mage by the name of Aaravos Greene in the year 1267. Aaravos is the only known being to have conquered all six of the primal sources. While he is most known for his advancements in star magic, Aaravos is, to this day, the leader in Sky Primal studies. He created the Fulminis spell in 1270, and the Aspiro spell in 1286. These were the beginner-most spells that spiraled out of control in 1298, when he began experimenting with changing the spells. For instance, he created the spell Aspiro Frigus , a freezing spell inspired from the spell Aspiro . Aaravos started to lose his sanity as his arcanum studies continued, and he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1324.

Since then, many more spells have been created with the Sky Arcanum, though in years past, those spells have been some of the most dangerous, second only to spells of the Ocean Arcanum. In 1452, it was discovered by a great mage by the name of Hilary Hahn that users of the Ocean Arcanum and the Sky Arcanum are the most dangerous and destructive. She discovered that these arcanums fit perfectly- and their joint powers were strongest in the eye of a hurricane.

 

Okay, hurricanes, cool, good to know. I highlighted the line, already envisioning what the librarian might say when she saw the marks. On a spare sheet, I made a note of the dates on the page, writing the details about the different spells and their impacts. I opened my laptop and bookmarked any website that seemed like it might be useful in terms of magical history and lore. 

 

Hilary Hahn was primarily a Sky Arcanum user. Her connection with her soulmate, Sandra Dianne, who was an Ocean Arcanum user, was so strong, that they were able to tap into each other’s arcanums. It is believed that their spirits still roam the earth in hurricanes across the globe, year after year.

Sky is the most curious of the sources. Sky Arcanum holders are typically free spirited, and under pressure, make quick decisions, and are able to think quickly on their feet. If this doesn’t describe you, that’s alright. In 1488, a mage by the name of Triton Valdez ran studies that proved that personalities are not linked, but rather derived from the sources. Valdez also discovered that Sky Arcanum Users always have perfect pitch- so long as they take the time to learn and study music. Many famous musicians are Sky Arcanum holders whether they realize it or not.

 

Woah, wait, perfect pitch? I have perfect pitch? That’s so cool! I made a note of this, circling it so I would remember to tell Rayla later.

 

Twenty minutes later, with all six primal books, chicken scratch notes, and twenty or so websites on magic and lore history, I stood in front of the class with what barely qualified as lecture notes.

“Many of you may not be aware of this,” I began, straightening my notes on a lectern, “But Head Tracing used to be considered magic. People used to believe that the songs we heard in the air were the result of the six primal sources; stars, earth, ocean, sky, sun, and moon. In theory, each person was thinly connected to a source, and it was through these connections that the Traces found their way. How?” I paused, glancing at my notes. “No one really knew. It was magic, after all.” I turned and wrote the six primal sources on the board. Under each source, I drew the rune that was connected to it.

“Each source is linked together strongest through one thing; music. I mean, think about it. The sky, the air, the atmosphere, that’s where sound waves travel. The stars- we have the technology to hear them from earth. And the sun, the sun emits sound, too, but since it’s much closer than every other star, it’s power is stronger and different. It’s song is deeper, more mystical. The moon emits reflection of the sun’s light, almost like a backup singer, or a harmony. In water, sound waves move faster than humans can hear. And the earth sings, too. Where do you think earthquakes are coming from?

See- the sound, the songs of these sources are mystical and strange and work in mysterious ways. When we listen to music, that signal is indeed broadcasted throughout the whole universe. But it’s the sources that guide that sound to the one you’re supposed to be with. How? Well, no one’s exactly sure, but that’s what makes it magic. However, these sources are deeply rooted in us, too. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a connection string enough, you and your soulmate might find yourselves in tune with the source that brings you your Trace.

But what do the primal sources mean, anyway? Well, each source was discovered by one mage, Aaravos Greene. As he discovered the power in the sources, he created spells that went along with them. Now, the term ‘created’ is used loosely, because Aaravos didn’t actually create them, he was just the first to discover them, and he claimed ownership. But I digress- back to the sources.” I spent a good deal of time discussing what the different sources were known for; The sun, known for his fire, the moon, known for her wisdom, and so on, describing the spells of each source as I continued. I found myself learning along with my students, and I felt more excited about a lesson than I had in awhile.

After class, after most of the students had cleared out, Ezran stayed behind, notes in hand.

“Callum,” he said, approaching me as I straightened my notes, “that was the best lesson you’ve ever taught.”

“Thanks, bud-”

“Did it have anything to do with… you and Rayla?” he asked. I froze, unsure of how to answer.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you said that couples in the past had been able to tap into their sources, and that the moon was the goddess of illusions. You described how moon arcanum users could create holograms and visions.”

“Yes, that’s correct-”

“Well, last night, Rayla was looking at some of your drawings again,”- I tried not to blush. I failed. “And as she was looking at them, I saw… him.”

“Him, as in…?” I signed Harrow’s name, and Ezran nodded.

“Rayla… created him. Out of thin air. He wasn’t really there, but-” he looked away.

“You want to know why I chose to teach this lesson today, Ez?” I asked. He turned back to me, nodding. “Well… Rayla and I have that connection. She’s connected to the moon, and I’m connected to the sky.”

“You’re serious?”

“Why would I lie?” I paused, shouldering my satchel. “Did Rayla seem… upset?”

“She was a little distraught,” he admitted. “Why, what happened?” 

“I… learned something scary, and I didn’t know how to tell her.” I was embarrassed, to say the least. That was the second time in two days I’d left her to be soaked. I wasn’t doing too well at this whole… soulmate thing.

“You know, Callum,” Ezran said to me, a bit softer. “I read somewhere that even if you’re destined to be with someone, you still have to work for it.” He studied me, and when I didn’t answer right away, he continued. “The universe is never wrong, but it often changes its mind.”

Chapter Text

I didn’t know if I should have gone to Callum’s lecture that morning. I had since changed from my ‘date’ attire, opting for jeans and a flannel. I wondered if the rain had anything to do with Callum’s connection to the sky. He seemed pretty panicked yesterday, and as he ran, the thunder seemed to follow him.  Regardless, I had been left in the rain twice now since coming to New York. I hoped that didn’t become a pattern.

Until things settled down, Ezran and I decided that it would be fine if I stayed hidden in his dorm for the time being. So, with the vacant bed now occupied by yours truly, I was finally able to have a place that wasn’t someone else’s to think in. Granted, it was still someone else’s space, but they weren’t here, so… not my problem. But I digress.

I didn’t go to Callum’s lecture, though maybe it would have been a good idea. I instead stayed in Ezran’s dorm, sitting on the bed, combing through Callum’s drawings again. At one point, Lailah came in, asking for my moon book. Something about Callum needing it for the lesson. I gave it up after taking pictures of the runes to practice.

Among the mass of sketches, I came across a picture of Claudia. She was sitting under a tree, reading a book. She seemed to be younger than she was now. It was dated ten years ago. In the air, I traced a rune with my hand.

Historia viventem,” I whispered. A blue light cascaded from my fingertips, creating the scene Callum had drawn in front of me. It was a weird feeling, doing magic. It would take a while to get used to.

The image I had created was mostly still, but… alive. I could see the rise and fall of Claudia’s chest as she breathed, her eyes following the words on the page, the occasional page turn. The tree she was sitting under swayed with the breeze. However, it flickered like a cheap trick, like it would dissipate in an instant. Magic was… weird. I wasn’t sure if I even liked the feeling of doing magic. It was too much power, I guess, than I felt comfortable holding. According to my moon book, the bond Callum and I had was supposed to be so strong that we could create storms, hurricanes, even, at the blink of an eye. But should we be able to do that, together or apart? We’re just people. We’re regular people.

My phone rang; Runaan, again. He wouldn’t stop calling me, and I didn’t understand why he needed to know where I was right now. I didn’t pick up, again. It was sent to voicemail- a voicemail I never checked, though in retrospect maybe I should have. I contemplated blocking his phone number all together, but whenever I went to do so, I hesitated. I always seem to hesitate only when it mattered.

The door opened, and I waved the image of Claudia away. Ezran came in and set his backpack on his desk chair. He opened it and pulled out a book; the moon book from the library.

“Callum wants to apologize,” He said, handing it to me. I didn’t meet his eye. “He told me to tell you that he’ll be in the practice room until his next lecture in four hours. He said he’d explain, too.” Ezran seemed confused, but I understood. “What happened?” 

“I got a call from my dad. He freaked, ran, and left me in the rain,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m just as confused as you are.”

“If it helps,” Ezran said, sitting next to me, “His lecture today was all about magic.” I sat up and looked at him, uneasy.

“Isn’t that… risky?”

“He taught about history. About what magic in the sources used to mean to people.” He paused, fidgeting with his hands. “In a way, he taught about you.” Damnit, I wanted to be mad at him. 

 

The hallway of the music building was a noisy; walls were relatively thin, so walking through got you a glimpse of what everyone was practicing. But the ugly clashing of cellos, horns, pianos, and people who think they’re sopranos was nothing like whatever Callum was listening to, the ugly clashing notes pouring through my head like shattered glass. Standing outside our practice room, as I was pulling my bag off my shoulder, I realized he wasn’t listening to a song. He was playing. I peered in through the window to see him hunched over the keys, a printed sheet of piano chords in front of him. He didn’t play the chords correctly, though. He used only his first three fingers, stretching them out across five keys, curling his pinky under his palm. What a great way to get carpal tunnel. I opened the door to the sound of a C# major gone wrong, the Trace and the real time sound smashing together in my head, making me grimace.

I noticed his sky book, open on the bench next to him. He’d highlighted the words, a big paragraph circled.

 

Sky Arcanum holders have perfect pitch, making them excellent musicians. Once the sky arcanum is unlocked in a person, they also gain substantial vocalizing skills. If you’re the lucky soulmate of a Sky Arcanum holder, ask them to sing for you!

 

There was a note written next to it that said; Don’t tell Rayla. I can’t sing. A terrible clashing chord brought me back to reality.

“Sounds great,” I said sarcastically. Callum glanced back, and upon seeing me, beamed. Then he looked worried. Then sorry. All in the span of half a second.

“Sorry,” he said, standing. “I just think it’s really cool that you play piano. I wanted to try my hand, but I guess I’m not that good.” We stood in awkward silence for what felt like forever. I finally spoke up.

“You’ve got some explaining to do,” I said. Callum scratched the back of his head, avoiding eye contact. I noticed that his sky book was lying open on the piano bench next to where he’d been sitting.

“What is your relationship with Runaan?” he asked, a shake in his voice. I shrugged. 

“He’s like a father to me. He is a father to me.” 

“Are-are you sure?” said, squeakier than usual.

“Look,” I said, sitting on the piano bench. “We may be destined to be together or whatever, we may have this special connection,” I gestured to the book, still open beside me. “But we’re not in love. At least not yet.” Callum’s face fell as he sat in the chair off to the side of the piano.

“You’re leaving,” he said. 

“No,” I replied, “I’m asking you to trust me. Just- tell me what’s happening with you.”

“But it’s a lot-”

“I don’t care.” Maybe that was a bit harsh. “In order for us to fall into place, we have to trust each other first. And I told you that I’m here for you when it comes to NYHTS. You just have to trust that I'll follow through.”

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

“No matter what?”

“Callum, c’mon.” A pause. “So… what’s the deal?” Callum took a breath and pulled uncomfortably at his shirt collar.

“It’s… Runaan.”

“What about him?”

“Does he ever talk to you about what he does for work?” Callum asked. I thought about it. I didn’t know much, but whenever I asked, the answer was almost always something to do with science, with biology.

“Not much,” I said. Callum took a deep breath, and I noticed clouds gathering outside again. He opened and closed his mouth, unsure of how to proceed.

“Runaan’s the CEO.” He finally blurted, covering his mouth with his hand as soon as he said it. I stared up at him, shocked. 

“He’s what? ” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to.

“I was scared to tell you after I heard your call yesterday. I wanted to, but I-”

“Just didn’t know how to say it?”

“Yes! Exactly,” he breathed. “I am so sorry-

“No, its okay, it wasn't your fault-” I said, not really paying attention. I didn’t know how to react. Runaan was the CEO of NYHTS. Runaan was responsible for countless deaths. Runaan was responsible for millions of lies being released to the public. If the truth got out about NYHTS, people like Lailah and Corvus and Callum would be in so much danger. Not to mention Callum’s job would be on the line. He taught Head Tracing Biology, and if the world found out there was no actual “biology,” what would be left for him to teach! I stood, pacing in the tiny square room. He never seemed like the killer kind of guy. Sure, he was a bit strict, but that was just tough love. I couldn’t imagine. Him. Of all people, why’d it have to be him?

“You’re sure? That Runaan’s-”

“Yeah, we’re sure. Lailah knows, too. That he's your dad.”

“How?”

“He called Lailah yesterday, asking her to send you home. He said he’d evict Claudia and Soren if she didn’t.”

“What do Claudia and Soren have to do with this?”

“Somehow, NYHTS knows that Claudia is Lailah’s soulmate. They tracked her down and have been following them for a while, holding Claudia over Lailah’s head for some time.” He stood, but I continued pacing. I could feel panic rising in me.

“Are we safe? Do they know about you?” I asked, fearful. “Does Runaan know about you?” Callum bit his lip. 

“We can’t be sure, but we don’t think he does. All he knows is that you're here, in New York. If he knew about me, why would he send Lailah after you instead of using me?”

“That’s… true, I guess,” I said, my eyes landing again on the sky book on the piano bench. “But Runaan is cunning. He’s smart, he’ll find out soon, and I don’t know what we should do.” I stared at him, straight in the eye. My eyes were burning. I didn’t want to believe it. My father. My dad. The one who took me in, who cared for me, who brought to and from recitals, always bearing flowers. This couldn’t be true. I wouldn’t allow it to be.

“Will you still stand by me…?” Callum asked warily. I thought for a second. How could I answer? 

“I- don’t know-“

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but-”

“It’s more complicated than that-“

“How!”

“There's so many things to consider!”

“Like what!”

Historia viventem!” I shouted, tracing the rune in the air. Next to us appeared a flickering figure- Runaan. In his arms was ten year old me. I had just sprained my ankle in a soccer game, and Runaan was walking me back to the car. I remember that day vividly. I waved it away and immediately another one appeared. Runaan was sitting next to me at a table. I was way younger; a birthday party perhaps. Runaan watched as I blew out the candles, and smiled as he cut the cake. 

“He’s my dad,” I said as young me took a bite. The image flickered before changing again, this time showing Runaan helping me with homework. “I can’t just-“ I stopped, suddenly light headed as the image lost focus completely. I waved away the projection and sat. “He’s a real person-“

“Hey, its okay,” Callum said, sitting next to me. “We’ll figure something out.” He wrapped me in a hug, resting his chin on my head. “I’m sorry for blowing up, I just- I don’t know, but, I’m sorry.”I don't know why, I don't know how, but this was the best hug ever. Maybe if it was just this. Maybe if all there ever was, was just Callum’s company. Then things would be okay. Then, everything would be fine. But no, my dad had to be the one putting him in danger. No wonder Callum was so high strung.

At the same time, a bubbly dread was rising in me. What was I supposed to do? What was there to do? I could either help my soulmate, help us grow, finally find the one the universe destined me to be with, or what? What was my other option? Move back home, pretend Runaan isn’t homicidal, pretend Tinker and Callum aren’t in danger. My head pounded, my vision swayed. I placed a hands on the keys in front of me, disregarding the octaves. A simple melody that I learned when I was just a beginner. Tinker played the violin part, and Runaan- Runaan played the cello part. My mind was still foggy, I couldn’t remember how to play the piece with both hands. E, F, E, F, E, C, A. Quarter notes at first as a headache split my skull. Ignoring it, I played the sequence again, a little faster, E, F, E, F, E, C, A. I felt Callum place a hand on my shoulder, my skin growing warm under his touch.  E, F, E, F, E, C, A, quarter rest, E, F, E, C, A, E, F, quarter rest, D#, E, D#, E, B, F#, eighth rest, D#, E, D#, B, F#, D#, E. My hand danced on the keys, growing in speed until I was up to tempo. Libertango, a piece by Astor Piazzolla. A tango, written for piano, violin, and cello. All of those instruments I can play, but that’s neither here nor there. My other hand reached the keys, and soon my eyes were closed and I focused on the music. Fast paced. Something to keep me occupied, something to keep me from thinking too much. 

Dancers flew through my head. All I could see was the crimson red of her dress, flowing like wind. Her partner dressed in all black, a rose tucked behind her ear, her hair pulled in a tight bun on top of her head. She moved methodically with the rhythm of the song. The girl with the dress spun, sending her skirt into a flurry around her. They joined hands, lacing their fingers delicately, stepping quickly.

My hand slipped. 

I hit a wrong note.

The dancers stepped on each other’s toes, but I tried to keep playing.

More wrong notes, the dancers tripped on her skirt, sending both of them crashing to the floor. I recoiled and pulled my hands from the piano. Maybe I was just out of practice. Maybe I was sick, I felt feverish and my hands felt wrong in the music. Maybe I-

“That was amazing,” Callum whispered, bringing me back to reality. “Can you teach me how to do that? ” I glanced up at him, his eyes wide, a delicate smile traced his lips. His hand hadn’t left my shoulder. I pulled it down, putting his fingers on the notes for him. I pressed each key, then let go, letting him replay the sequence.   E, F, E, F, E, C, A, eighth rest, E, F, E, C, A, E, F, eighth rest, D#, E, D#, E, B, F#, eighth rest, D#, E, D#, B, F#, D#, E. He laughed, playing the notes over and over again. He replayed the sequence, and from memory I tried to play the violin solo. It didn’t sound right, the chords were off and pieces of the score were missing. But we were making music together.

I asked Callum to trust me. And he did. Now it’s my turn to trust him.

“Do you think there’s a way we can bring him back?” I whispered, lifting my foot from the pedals. Callum broke away, slouching.

“Bring him back from what?”

“What he’s doing- we bring him out of whatever is making him do this. Why he’s doing this. And we do that peacefully, without hurting him.” Our eyes stayed connected for a while. I loved his eyes, green and bright, somehow cheerful behind a sad smile.

“Hurting him was never the plan,” he said. I closed my eyes, still dizzy. “You okay?” He placed a hand on my forehead. “You have a fever.”

“No, I don’t.” I pushed his hand away, suddenly trying to put distance between us. 

“Rayla, It’s okay-“

“No, really, I’m fine.” I stood, trying to hide the sudden flush of heat I felt. Callum looked at me sideways, then his face lit up.

“I have something for you,” he said, reaching into his satchel. He pulled out my moon book, except there were sticky notes poking out of a bunch of the pages. “I tried to take notes before my lecture,” he said, handing it to me. I opened it to a note- neon pink with dark, slightly smudged ink in Callum’s handwriting, making note of how the moon was connected to the other primal sources. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by his neat handwriting, loopy and big but still controlled. 

“It’s just some things I noticed while I was reading, it’s nothing,” he smiled sheepishly. 

“No,” I smiled, still reading his notes. “I love it.”

“I just love the moon arcanum,” he said. “I love the illusions, the mysterious hidden secrets, its so-“ He paused, staring off as if in a daydream. “Beautiful.”

“The sky arcanum is beautiful too,” I tried to say, “Especially considering how well you could sing, right?” I cracked a smile, hoping to lighten the somber mood. Callum blushed and stared at his lap.

“I can’t sing, not one bit.”

Chapter Text

Rayla hid during the new moon that week. I tried to visit her in Ezran’s room, but he told me she needed to rest and handed me the moon book. As he closed the door, I sank to the floor, flipping open the pages. My sticky notes were bright pink- hers were green, handwriting small and boxy, not at all like mine. A weird twinge of doubt tugged at my mind, but I brushed it away. 

Towards the middle of the book, one note was placed smack in the middle of a big paragraph. I peeled it back, and read;

 

Moon Arcanum users are unfortunate when it comes to the moon’s cycle.  During the waxing of its phases, Moon Arcanum users feel a surgence of strength, capped with unique powers during a full moon. During the waning of its phases, Moon Arcanum users feel like they’re being drained, hitting a low during the new moon, where some experience as little as growing pains, growing into  fevers, to what appears to be full on influenza, but is not contagious and will go away almost as soon as the new moon ends. 

 

I then glanced at the sticky note and found to my dismay that it read; “Don’t tell Callum- I can handle this on my own.” I trusted her, why couldn’t she trust me? Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Regardless, we were days into the week, and Rayla was supposed to head back to L.A. by Saturday evening. Lailah and I talked, but with Rayla under the weather, and Corvus suddenly off the grid, we had no real plan. But with everything happening, I wanted nothing more than to be in that room with her, talking-

There it was again: that doubt. I grimaced and stood, facing the closed door one last time before turning and stepping away, moon book in hand, thunder echoing my footsteps. 

 

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

 

It should be mentioned that I never wanted to be in California with the man who killed my wife. I never wanted to be in his living room, at his house, staying in his guest bedroom while he filled me in on the plan. But here I was, following orders, doing my best to keep him from ruining my family even more than he already had. And here I was, sitting in his living room, on his couch, looking at the pictures of his family hung on the wall, waiting for him to come back from the kitchen with a mug of coffee for each of us.

I noticed pictures of Rayla up over the mantel. in one, she was young, in a soccer jersey, holding up a muddy ball with dirt-caked hands. In another she was older, maybe 15, in a fancy dress, sitting at a piano, hair pulled back into an elegant bun. I couldn’t help but wonder what Rayla and Callum had in common. Callum was on the quiet side, opening up only to people he really liked. He had a tendency to jump into things, he wasn’t very good at planning. He liked science, he liked facts, he was driven by the unknown. I didn’t know much about Rayla but she seemed… not that way.

Runaan came back into the living room, handing me a mug of plain black coffee, steaming, fogging the shine on the ceramic. I took it, but didn’t drink any. He sat in a chair across from me, placing his mug on a side table. 

“Do you know why I called you here, Corvus?” He asked. In truth, yes. He wanted Rayla home. But I couldn’t tell him I knew. Had he known that Lailah, Callum, and I had all withheld information from him, we’d all be good as dead.

“No,” I answered. He sighed, picking up his mug and taking a long sip.

“My daughter recently ran away,” he sighed, staring wistfully at the pictures of the mantel.

“She’s an adult, isn’t she?” I tried to say, “she should be able to leave when she wants.”

“Not in this world,” he shot back, taking another sip. I glanced down at my still-full mug. Not in this world? What was that supposed to mean?

“Why am I here?”

“Because you’re instrumental in the next part of this plan,” he said, still not looking at me. There was a plan that he wanted me to be a part of? There was no getting out of this.

“Which is?”

“Bringing Rayla home and keeping her here.”

“What’s the big deal in her taking a vacation?”
“She runs the risk of getting hurt.”

“She can handle herself-”

“No,” Runaan snapped, placing his cup back on the side table. He sighed, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose before saying “I can’t have Rayla finding her soulmate, and my fear is that she already has.” I gulped, trying to hide my concern and obvious guilt behind a sip of coffee.

“What’s so bad about that?”

“You will understand in time, but now, what I need from you more than anything, is to help Lailah bring Rayla home,” he said. I couldn’t do that to Callum, not after Runaan had me rope him into this mess, not after something good finally happened to him. And I couldn’t have them separated like Lailah and her soulmate- it just wasn’t fair. I couldn’t put Callum through the pain of wondering if she was okay.

“What if I don’t?” I scowled, taking another sip. Runaan smiled.

“You know me,” he said, snide. “I’ll just… find a way to make you.” He stood and took my mug from me, which I found strange. But my head was starting to feel fuzzy, so I didn’t pay too much mind. I thought about how miserable Lailah was when NYHTS first took her soulmate from her. She stopped singing, she stopped playing guitar. As a father, I hated it, I hated watching little parts of her get lost behind despair a second time. I wanted nothing more than to march into NYHTS and make them change the rules, make them play fair. But that was a death penalty wating to happen. Regardless, I wouldn’t wish that kind of sadness on anyone. Not Rayla, not Runaan.

“I can’t let you keep Rayla from finding the one she’s supposed to be with,” I said, standing. “It's not fair to her.”

“I had a feeling you would say something like that,” he whispered, bending ever so slightly  to meet my eyes. “You want to know why I’m keeping Lailah from her soulmate?” He asked. I nodded, suddenly scared for no reason. “To protect her.” I blinked. “I want to protect Rayla, too.”

“Protect them from what?”

“From disappointment, Corvus.” He began pacing, villainous. “My job as CEO is to protect everyone from disappointment.”

“W-what?” I mumbled. My lips weren’t working right- something was wrong.

“The universe is never wrong,” he said, his back to me, his silhouette outlined by the light from the window, “but it often changes its mind.” He turned and faced me again. My vision was beginning to grow blurry, my eyes fighting to stay awake. “After all, the universe changed its mind about me.”



I woke to find myself in a dim room, my back pressed against a hard surface, my hands tied behind my back, ankles tied to the legs of a chair. To my left was a desk. It wasn’t decked in pens and papers and books. It was covered in beads, needle nose pliers, string and jewelry chain. A small lamp was on, illuminating its surface. In front of me was a wall of monitors, most of them blank. One of them, however, displayed the image of a classroom. It looked… familiar. I didn’t have much time to examine it when a door behind me opened, and footsteps resounded.

“Are you awake yet?” came a voice. It didn’t sound like Runaan. It was kind, soft. I tried to answer, then discovered to my delight that someone had stuffed a rag in my mouth. The person walked around in front of me, blocking my view of the monitors. Looking up to him, I knew that he wasn’t Runaan. Someone else entirely. He reached and pulled the rag from my mouth, and immediately I asked a slew of questions.

“Where am I? Who are you? Where’s Runaan?” My voice was hoarse. The figure looked at me sadly, almost pitiful.

“I’m Tinker,” the man said. “I am- well, was Runaan’s soulmate.” He looked even sadder. With that sentence, my brain was bombarded with a million more questions. 

“Where’s Runaan?” I repeated. That was most important.

“He’s trying to call Rayla again. Sent me to check on you.” There was an awkward pause. How was I supposed to respond? After a moment, he said, “I don’t want Runaan to be doing what he’s doing either.” Tinker’s volume stayed low, as if Runaan hearing that sentence was the worst thing that could happen. I couldn’t help but wonder.

“You said you were his soulmate… in the past?” Maybe that was a touchy subject. Tinker bit his lip and glanced at the floor.

“I couldn't hear his Traces anymore. And he couldn’t hear mine.” He paused, moving to the desk to the left. “But he won’t let me leave.”

“Why not?”

“Because of Rayla. He says that we…” he trailed off and began fiddling with the beads and pliers. Things in my head began to piece together. Runaan was bitter because his soulmate… wasn’t his soulmate anymore. That’s why he wanted to “protect” Lailah and Rayla. 

“Does… he hear any new Traces?” I asked warily. Tinker began stringing some beads onto a wire, careful to knot it in between each one.

“He hasn’t yet.” We were silent for a moment, footsteps from above making the both of us freeze up. We listened to the gentle tap, tap, tap of his shoes on the hardwood. They soon subsided. “Rayla’s the only one keeping us together,” Tinker finally whispered. My mind started spinning again. It was possible that Runaan was more than bitter. He was selfish, greedy in keeping his ex close because he was scared. He was using Rayla as an excuse, which is why- yes, that had to be it. We both looked towards the door as we heard creaking stairs coming closer to us. Tinker glanced at me worriedly, but otherwise didn’t move. The door cracked open and Runaan stepped in.

“Ah,” he said, “You’re awake.”

“You can’t keep Rayla here forever,” I burst, following Runaan as he came to step in front of me. “I know why you want her to stay.” His face contorted; furious. 

“What did he tell you!?” he said, glowering. I panicked, and Tinker looked horrified.

“N-nothing,” I tried to say. “It’s just a guess-”

“Don’t lie to me!” Runaan took a step towards Tinker, one hand already balled into a fist. Though his back was turned, I could tell Tinker was shaking.

“Don’t do this to him,” he whispered, “I didn’t tell him anything wrong about you-”

BAM! Runann smashed his fist on the table, sending beads scattering to the ground. Tinker looked back at me, and whispered;

“Just tell him.” Runaan stalked back towards me, still glaring.

“What do you know?” He muttered, a breathy anger in his voice. I couldn’t meet his eye.

“You- you need Rayla to keep the two of you together,” I began, nervous. “But you don’t belong together!” Runnan didn’t answer. “You’re trying to protect Rayla, protect her from the possibility of this happening to her, but no matter what you do-”

“Stop talking-”

“You can’t protect her forever, trust me, I know-”

“I said stop talking.”

“I’m a father too, I know it’s hard-”

SHUT UP,” he shouted so loudly that his voice rang in my ears like an explosion, echoing off the brick walls. “I know what’s best for her, better than either of you.” His nostrils flared, teeth gnashed. A silence so loud crept through the air. No one spoke. No one moved. Until I had the bright idea to say;

“You’re just afraid.” Bad idea. Really, really bad idea.

“Tinker?” Runaan whispered, not breaking eye contact with me. “Get out.” Soundlessly, Tinker did as told, his footsteps along with any hope I had left bounding up the stairs. Runaan stepped to the side, revealing again that wall of monitors. The only one lit carried the image of a classroom, though now it was full of students with a teacher at the front of the room. It struck me again as familiar, and as the teacher turned around, I realized exactly why. 

It was Callum’s classroom.

“I know you haven’t been giving me accurate reports,” Runaan said, circling behind me. “I know you’ve been leaving out details.” He placed a cold hand on my shoulder, adding more pressure than necessary. “But I want to make one thing clear to you.” He bent down and whispered in my ear- “Lailah will pay the price for this mission if you fail.” His hand left my shoulder and my lip began to tremble. No, he couldn’t, not again-. “All you have to do is follow my instructions,” he pointed to the screen, where Lailah was writing something on the whiteboard beside Callum, “and her life will be spared.” With a click of a mouse, the vision cleared, the only light illuminating from Tinker’s desk. “All you have to do,” he bent down, meeting my eye, “is bring Rayla home in three days.” He bent further and untied my ankles, sending blood rushing back into my feet. He stalked behind me and untied my wrists, and I immediately jumped to my feet, ready to fight. I would never, but I was ready. “NYHTS will give you with a complimentary flight back to New York, provided that you follow my instructions.” He turned to leave and gestured for me to follow. I had no other choice, did I?

I followed him up the stairs, greeted at the top with a hallway that led to the living room we had been in assumedly hours before. It was dark outside, and all the lights were on. We walked through and emerged at the dining room, where Tinker had set a place for the three of us. Runaan continued to the kitchen, and I heard pots and pans clanging together. Tinker was busy pouring water into the glasses that had been set out.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he whispered upon seeing me. “I hate when he does this.”

“Does this happen often…?” I asked, matching his volume.

“No, but it-it’s scary when it does.” He turned to walk back to the kitchen with his pitcher.

“Does he hit you?” I asked, suddenly. Tinker froze and turned to look at me.

“No,” he said. “He just wants to do what’s best for our daughter. By any means necessary.” A beat. “But he would never hit me.” With that, he disappeared into the kitchen. This was going to be a weird, long night. Runaan had me right where he wanted me- and I had nowhere to run.



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“He’s home,” I whispered, excitedly, checking the text on my phone. Callum was teaching a class, but I needed to find my dad. He glanced over at me with a wide smile.

“Good luck,” he told me, before continuing with the lecture. I rushed from the lecture hall and to the front door of the science building, where my dad was already waiting for me.

“I can’t believe you’re okay!” I rushed and buried him with a hug, and felt a tight squeeze in return. 

“Me too,” he whispered, catching me by surprise.

“Wait, what?” 

“Nothing,” he said as we pulled away. “I’m just glad to be back.” He smiled warily. I couldn’t be more relieved that he as home. I mean, I knew NYHTS was dangerous, but he normally would tell me when he had to leave for a long period of time. The relief that had been in my mind just seconds earlier was replaced with anger.

“Where were you!” I shouted, noticing a weird despair plastered across his face.

“Runaan’s.” Corvus shoved his hands in his hoodie pocket, taking a step back. “We need to send Rayla home.”

“What? No,” I protested. “She needs to stay here, with Callum.”

“Runann’s planning something… really bad if she doesn’t-”

“Yeah, like what?”

“I can’t tell you, you just have to trust me.” I didn’t know what to say. We had agreed that we couldn’t send Rayla home, not after what we found out about her dad. Her dad was a monster, a killer. She needed to stay away from him. There was safety in distance.

“What do we tell Rayla, then?” I asked.

“That she needs to go home. At least for the time being-”

“But what about the two of them! What about Callum and Rayla! They can do remarkable things together, they have a better chance together -”

“She needs to go home. That’s final. You don’t want you soulmate to get evicted, do you?” His eyes were wide with a sudden rage. Claudia. Her name was Claudia. Rayla had just signed her and Soren. Maybe it was a small price to pay for someone on the outside, but for me? I needed her to succeed. I needed to find her, and keep her safe.

“No,” I muttered. “I guess not.”

“Then we have to send her back to L.A.”

“Dad, what happened with Runaan?”

I can't tell you ,” he scolded in a half-whisper. He glanced around nervously, as if someone was watching. Was someone watching? “You need to call her. Right now . You need to tell her to go home, tell her not to mention Callum when she does. Please, you have to,” he pleaded. My dad was so worried, I’d never seen him like this before.

“I don’t understand!”

“JUST CALL HER.” His eyes were shifting every which way, and when he looked at me, his expression did a double take, as if it was a miracle I was still here. So I did. I pulled out my phone and clicked on Rayla’s contact. I only added it a day or so before, I never thought I’d have to use it.

The phone rang. And rang. And rang. What if she didn’t pick up? What if she was in Callum’s lecture? I didn’t see her come in. Maybe she was still sick. The new moon was last night, after all. Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Hello?” answered a groggy voice.

“Rayla! Hi, its Lailah.” I tried to sound peppy.

“Yeah, I gathered that.”

“Listen, you need to go back home,” I answered. Maybe I was rushing into this. I glanced up at Corvus, who was urging me to continue. “Runaan has added some… higher stakes to my side of the mission.”

“What kind of stakes?” she asked. Corvus shook his head no.

“I, uh, can’t tell you. But it’s urgent, you need to catch the earliest flight home. And make sure to make no mention of having met anyone here.”

“Lailah, what’s going on?”

“Please just hurry. I’ll pay for your flight, just get to L.A. as soon as possible.”

“Lailah, I’m still really sick, can’t Runaan wait like, two days?” She did sound sick. I glanced up at Corvus, who was still worried out of his mind.

“Two days max,” he mouthed. I nodded.

“Two days max, but by Saturday, you need to be out of here.”

“Lailah, you have got to explain.”

“I can’t!”

“Fine then!” And with that, she hung up. I exhaled, a weird adrenaline rushing through my brain. 

“What was that about!” I asked angrily, throwing my hands up in defiance.

“Runaan said he needed her home. I can’t tell you why-”

“Well come up with something, because this is unreasonable!”

“What’s unreasonable?”

“You missed a lot while you were off the grid. NYHTS has been lying about science for a while, and Rayla and Callum have powers now, and Rayla’s connected to the moon or something, and the new moon made her sick, and she-”

“Are you really so shocked that NYHTS lied?” Corvus took a step towards me. “Are you really so surprised that NYHTS, after everything would pull something like this?” He shook his head. “I’ll tell you once I get the all clear from Runaan that Rayla’s home. But right now, I just need you to bear with me, and trust me.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me in close. “Thank you for helping. I just can’t-” he stopped cold, suddenly pushing me away. “Thank you.” With that, Corvus turned and walked away, and I was left with more questions than when he first showed up.

Back in the hall, after class had been dismissed, I knew I had to tell Callum the new… plan. We were sending his soulmate home. He was sitting behind his desk, the primal source books stacked, blocking his face from view. One was open in front of him, and he was taking frivolous note on a hot pink post-it.

“Callum, we gotta talk,” I said, reaching his desk. 

“Mhm, I agree,” he replied, not looking up. He peeled the post-it and stuck it at the edge of the page before turning it, where the process was repeated.

“Ahem.” I tapped the book, and Callum sat up straight, suddenly at attention.

“Yeah, what’s up?” He looked… happy. I glanced at the book- his sky book- and noticed that half the pages had hot pink stickeys poking out from the pages.

“Good book?” I asked, trying to keep it lighthearted.

“Yeah! It’s fantastic!” He flipped to a page somewhere towards the front. “I’m learning so much about the spells I could create, the things I could do, and the things Rayla and I could do-” I flinched, but he didn’t notice. “-it’s just a matter of getting to know her. Like, for instance,” he held up the book so I could see this big, elaborate diagram that covered the entire page. It looked like the inside of- “It’s a piano. It shows how the soundwaves made by the mallets on the strings is connected to sky magic, how I’m supposedly supposed to be amazing at music now that Rayla’s here- once we get closer, perhaps- which is perfect, because Rayla is an amazing instrumentalist, which, I suppose bodes well for Soren and Claudia, by the way. Regardless, I’m just so excited at the prospect of learning magic, it’s hard to believe people ever gave this idea up in the first place!”

“Callum, listen-”

“It's just amazing the things we could do together, and I almost wonder if there’s anyone else whose experienced this phenomenon besides Rayla and I. What, with sharing memories, with primal magic and arcanums-”

“Callum-”

“I really can’t wait to learn with her, I mean, According to this book, with enough training, we could create a Midnight Storm -”

“Callum, take a step back!” I stared at him, watching the excitement in his face dissipate into confusion. “You barely even know her. Don’t you think you’re moving a little too fast?” He blinked.

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“You barely know her. All you have to go off of is some tunes and a fun mind trick!” I threw my hands in defiance. “You two are nothing alike- and I just think maybe you’re getting ahead of yourself.”

“Lailah, stop-” he stood up and sighed, “I know it’s hard for you, and I’m so sorry that they have Claudia over your head, but I have my soulmate right here, and-”

“You won’t have her for long,” I fumed, stepping back. I could feel my face contorted in a weird animosity. Jealousy, perhaps. Callum’s face fell at the sight of mine. “Corvus and I- we decided it’s best for her if she goes back home.”

“What?” Callum scoffed. “No, that can’t be-”

“Well, It’s happening. I called her, she’s leaving Saturday.” Callum stammered and stuttered.

“B-but Runaan, he’s- he’s a murderer, a manipulator! She won’t be safe with him!”

“That’s what I said, but my dad gave me reasons to think otherwise.” I crossed my arms, thinking back to that conversation we had just had outside. Callum stepped around his desk, coming closer to me, suddenly serious.

“Reasons? What reasons?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t clarify- but you should have seen him! He was nervous, he acted like he was being followed, he’s never like that.” Callum picked up his sky book, flipping to a page in the back.

‘Sky arcanum users have a special ability that many other arcanum holder’s would not be able to overcome. It’s called Fuminus Magnus , and it is so powerful, that if the target is unprepared or unequipped, they will experience an electric shock so terrible, that at the very least will erase their memory for good, and at the very most, kill the target. Unfortunately, a spell with that magnitude may also cause significant harm to the caster, resulting in similar effects, amnesia to death. It is advised that this spell is used with caution and trepidation, as the damage can be catastrophic and quite permanent.

Very few Sky Arcanum users have accomplished this spell to defeat their opponent, and fewer have lived to tell the tale.’ “ Callum closed the book, a fire in his eyes.

“Callum, what are you thinking?”

“If Runaan hurts Rayla in any, shape, or form,” he held up the book, “Then I have a way to teach him a lesson.” I stared at him, shocked.

“You- no, you can’t possibly-” I scoffed, letting a half-hearted smile shine through. “I think you’re jumping to conclusions again.”

“I’m just saying,” he shrugged. “If push comes to shove, I have a plan.”

Chapter Text

Rayla was going home in two days. I needed to have something up my sleeve.

“I’m just saying, if push comes to shove, I’ve got a plan.” I shoved the sky book into my satchel, pulled it onto my shoulder, and made my way to the door.

“Callum, you can’t be serious,” Lailah called after me. “Do the ends really justify the means, there?” I ignored her and kept walking. I needed to find Rayla, we needed to talk.

Okay, sure, that sounds a bit intense. But we were soulmates, after all. And Rayla was right, we’re not in love yet. 

But maybe I’d like to be.

Rayla was smart, charming. She planned ahead. She was an amazing instrumentalist. I bet she could sing, too. I only sang to her once. When I first joined NYHTS, Corvus told me not to contact her anymore. Me being me, I did anyways. I sang a goodbye for her. It wasn’t good, not in the slightest. I wondered if she remembered what I sounded like. To be fair, I was a Sky Arcanum holder and user at this point. Perhaps something changed?

Once outside, I pulled my earbuds from my satchel and- I had no phone. It was still broken on the floor in my office. Shrugging, I put the mess of wire back in my bag, continuing down the sidewalk. I took a deep breath, letting the cool air fill my lungs. The sky was cloudy and dreary, but I found it to be beautiful. The gloomy day had driven most people to the indoor branches of the campus, making my walk lonelier and quieter than usual. But as I stepped on the sidewalk, gearing towards home, I froze. I felt this… pull. Something was pulling me towards the music building behind me. Like a string had tied itself to my ribs, yanking me back with every step. I tried to step away, but it was almost as if I was tied to the place. What the hell? I remember thinking to myself. I tried to step away, but to no avail. My feet were glued in place whenever I tried to move anywhere else. The string kept pulling me, no matter what I did. So I spun around and marched in, almost against my will.

Inside, the normally bustling building was eerily quiet. No guitarist practiced in the stairwell. No one was reading the descriptions to the painting on the walls. The normal clashing of instruments playing from various practice rooms was gone. I remember thinking- Why is this place so empty? It was usually busy, full of music. Despite the strange feeling, I stepped towards mine and Rayla’s usual practice room. Except I shouldn’t have. That pulling sensation, the tugging string, the one that lured me into the music building was pulling me up the stairs opposite from me. With a grimace I blindly I followed this weird instinct. Up the stairs, to a whole portion of the building I’d never been to. I was pulled left, down a windowless hallway with shabby murals hanging neglected. Pulled left again, into what looked to be a lecture hall. But it was old and dingy and dusty, the walls an old gray that clashed with the burgundy seats. I kept moving to the back of the room where a door sat ajar. I had to go inside. Something was waiting for me there, something I needed. I didn’t know why, but I needed it like I needed air. 

I pulled back the door, revealing darkness. As if on cue, the motion detector clicked and bright fluorescents flickered on, revealing what was in the room. Turns out, it wasn’t a room. It was a closet- a storage closet, full of instruments. It smelled like dust and grime, and looked like hell. Old basses sat on a rack collecting dust, most of them missing strings. A french horn had been left on a stool, as if it’s owner was coming back to continue practicing. However, it was clear that horn had spent a while there, untouched. Boxes were stacked in every corner, instrument cases crammed into every remaining space. That pull came back- only now it was more like a push. Something was pushing me to a case in the back. Small, rectangular.On top of the case, there was sheet music. I glanced at the title- Libertango.

With a clack I undid the latches on the case, zipping it open, and pulling back the cover, sending the sheet music that was on top sliding to the floor.

A violin.

The push was gone. I was alone now.

The violin gleamed up at me, wood stained an orange tint, its pattern on beautiful display. The strings were loose, but they were all there and intact. The bridge had been knocked off and lay pitifully against the instrument. The bow was over loosened in its spot. 

I pulled the bow from the slip in the lid of the case, tightening the tension screw until the hairs were taught. Carefully setting it aside, I picked up the bridge. It was tiny in my hands, barely covering a third of my palm. Looking at the face of the violin, I noticed to patches where the sheen had been dulled- two spots where the legs of the bridge had gone. The top of the bridge had four notches where the strings belonged. I carefully placed each one in its notch, then proceeded to try and wedge the bridge back onto the instrument. It was so thin- I felt like it would snap at any second. And within a moment, the tension on the strings returned, holding the bridge in place. I gingerly plucked the thickest string, then promptly grimaced; It was out of tune. For a second, I was shocked. I had never played violin. I was never a musical person, I was never good at music theory, let alone had I ever played violin. How had I known the string was out of tune? Delicately I pinched the neck of the violin, lifting it out of the case. I brought it to my chin, holding it as if I knew how to play. My left hand held up the neck and the scroll, my neck and shoulders scrunching to hold the body of the violin. Something was missing. I glanced around and spotted it lying on the ground- a shoulder rest. I grabbed it, pulling the feet onto the body of the instrument. Holding up to my collarbone, I felt a buzz through my arm and my hands knew how to play.

 

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

 

Being sick and trapped in Ezran’s dorm room sucked. I was so bored, tired, and completely deprived of anything to do. Even doing magic hurt my sinuses. Stupid new moon. Stupid Earth’s shadow. I wanted nothing more than to be in a practice room somewhere, playing, learning a new piece. Maybe piano- or better yet, violin. Oh, how I would’ve loved to play violin again. I hadn’t played since meeting Soren and Claudia- I hadn’t had time to practice much of anything.

I felt an unfamiliar pull in that moment. Like a string tied itself around my ribs and was trying to yank me from my comfy spot in bed. I tried to ignore it, I did, but no matter how hard I clenched my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, the pull never left. It hurt, a little. 

Finally, I threw the covers off and sprung to my feet, taking Ezran, who had been studying, by surprise.

“Where are you going?” he asked, watching me walk away.

“I don’t know, “ I answered honestly. But I’d go wherever this string wanted to take me.

 

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

 

I plucked the thickest string. It was wobbly and lower than it should be. I knew it needed to be tuned up, but how far up, I wasn’t sure. I wish I hadn’t broken my phone- then I could look up the tuning. Perhaps there was a book somewhere that had a diagram. Or a chart, maybe, that told me how far I had to turn the pegs.

Gently I placed the violin back on its case and began rummaging through boxes on the ground. Cello books? Close, maybe later though. French horn? Nah- Fiddle? Almost- wait, wait, fiddle! A violin and a fiddle were the same instrument! I pulled the book from its stack and flipped to the first page. Table of contents. Next page. More table of contents. Next page. Sheet music. This one was a bust. I tossed it aside and kept looking through. Mostly I found unrelated books for different instruments. Some were purely about music theory. I set those aside- maybe I might need them later. But no matter where I looked, there was nothing for violin that told me how to tune it.

Just then, the door behind me opened and my heart skipped a beat. Someone had found me, someone had-

 

“What are you doing?” Rayla said, striding towards my pile of practice books. I looked up at her, sheepish.

“Learning how to play violin?” I replied, trying to straighten up the mess in front of me. “Look, I don’t know what brought me here, I just-”

“Woah,” Rayla murmured, glancing at the violin in the case behind me. “Is that yours?”

“Yeah, well sort of. Actually, no. I didn’t know it was here. But something pulled me here and now-”

“A pull?” Rayla kneeled next to me, her eyes piercing mine. I’d never really appreciated how beautiful her eyes were. They were grey. But purple, too. Lilac, almost. They danced between mine, curiosity filling them.

“A pull,” I nodded, picking up the violin. “Do you know how to tune it?” She took it from me, running a finger across the strings. I winced- they were all way too low.

“Somewhat,” she said, plucking the lowest string and twisting the peg. “This one’s supposed to be G.” She stopped and plucked again. “I think that’s right-”

“No, not really,” I said, taking it back. “ It’s flat.”

“Flat?”

“Flat.” I twisted the peg a bit more, listening as the pitch grew sharper until it was perfect. My ukulele skills were finally paying off. “There we go,” I said, handing the violin back. Rayla gazed at me, mouth agape.

“You… you have perfect pitch,” she whispered, pushing the violin back into my lap. I blushed.

“It's nothing- I don’t know-”

“Yes, you do! Callum, that’s fantastic! Most musicians strive for years just to get close!”She was ecstatic, a grin spreading across her beautiful face. She was so beautiful. “How could you have perfect pitch and not tell me?” She reached out an arm and put her hand on my shoulder,  my skin growing warm under her touch. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks.

“I think it’s a sky arcanum thing,” I smiled back. Rayla shook her head, still in disbelief. 

“That's amazing! You’re amazing!” she exclaimed. I froze.

“You think I’m amazing?”

“Well yeah, you-” she stopped mid sentence and exhaled.  “The next string is D,” she said. I plucked it, letting the sound run through my hands. I twisted a different peg, listening as the pitch went higher and higher.

We repeated this process with the other two strings, A and E. I tried to hand the violin to Rayla, for her to play. But she shook her head.

“You try first,” she told me, a mischievous smile grew on her lips. I shrugged and pulled the instrument to my shoulder. “Sit up straight,” she told me. So I did. “Relax your shoulders,” she gently pushed with her hands. “Keep your wrist loose,” she showed me how to hold the neck of the violin, in the crook of my thumb, my hand open, like there was an egg in between the wood and my palm. “There you go,” she whispered, reaching for the bow. “Give me your right hand.” I did. She took it, and that hum of electricity billowed in my hand once more, but Rayla grimaced.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, noticing her face grow pale.

“Nothing,” she whispered, brushing it aside, placing the bow in my fingertips. She moved my fingers over the wood until she was satisfied. “Now put the bow to a string.” I did as told. “Now play.” I pushed the hair onto the string, a low screech emitting from it. Rayla giggled, plugging her ears. “Lighten up the pressure!” she shouted over the noise, so I did. And suddenly I was playing violin. A single tone rang through the air, sending chills down my spine. Rayla laughed, giddy with excitement. “You’re playing!” she said.. “Try a scale.”

“Which one?”

“Any one!” I pulled the bow down on open A. Pushed the bow up, first finger B. Pulled down, second finger C#. Push, third D. Pull, open E, push, F#, pull G#, push, A. I lowered the violin, smiling wide.

“I can play violin!”

“You can play violin!” Rayla came forward and pulled me into a hug. I wrapped my arms around her, violin in hand. 

There it was again. That doubt from before. But I had to push it aside, right?

We broke from our embrace, both of us full of a strange happiness that wasn’t there before. We were finally connected by something other than what the universe gave us. 

“Try again, I’ll help you,” Rayla said, sitting up straight. I bowed the string again, but as I played, Rayla pulled my elbow out from my side. She fixed my collapsed wrist, and when my C# was a little too sharp, she pulled my finger back, helping the rest of my hand fall into shape. Continuing the scale, up until the very highest note, she fixed little things about my posture and hold until all was perfect.

“I can’t believe I’m learning violin!” I said once I’d finished. Rayla smiled.

“I had a feeling you’d love it,” she replied, taking the violin from my hands. She sat up straight and began playing the same tune as the one in the practice room. “ Libertango ,” I believe she’d called it. Except it wasn't the background part. The violin solo echoed in my head, live sound and trace bouncing between my ears. I closed my eyes, picturing a dance. 

Rayla played flawlessly and I couldn't help but open my eyes  again as she pulled off a masterful progression. Her hand remained steady though she shifted up and down the fingerboard. She played double stops that gave me chills, and I watched how seamlessly the bow seemed to float over the strings. She was so focused and content all at the same time.

As the solo continued, my attention was drawn again to her eyes. As she played, they sparkled. They focused on her fingers, dancing on the strings, sometimes glancing at the bow. Halfway through, though, she faltered. Her hand slipped, the bow went skidding up the fingerboard before clattering to the ground, Rayla scowled.

“You okay?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. Rayla nodded, biting her lip. “That was… amazing.” I breathed. “You’re amazing-”

“I need to tell you something,” she interrupted. Her downcast expression never left the floor. “Lailah called earlier. She sounded panicked, and I’d never heard her like that before, so I knew it must have been serious, but-” Rayla sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, setting the violin on her lap. “We decided that I need to go home.” She didn’t look at me, instead she picked up the bow and loosened it, leaving me speechless.

“You’re- you’re kidding, right?” I asked, trying to laugh behind the despair. “It’s a joke, a prank.”

“I wish it was, but I have to go home. Lailah sounded so worried, and I may not have handled it in the best way, but-”

“No, no, no, you can’t leave now!” I stood, stepping back. “We’re just starting to trust one another, we’re learning from one another. You can’t just leave it all behind-”

“I don’t think you get it!” Rayla stood, meeting my eye. I had never really noticed, but Rayla was taller than me. “I wish I didn’t have to, but I promised Lailah I would.” She picked up the violin and handed it to me. “I don’t leave until Saturday, though. So… we can learn from each other until then.” She pulled her hands into her sleeves, but her upright stance didn’t change. She looked up at me, as if examining me.

 

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

 

Callum’s eyes were so… alluring.

 

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

 

I clutched the violin, still watching her movements. She took a step back, sending my haphazardly stacked books toppling to the ground. 

“Shit, sorry,” she mumbled, bending to pick them up. I set the violin in the case behind me and knelt to help. However, as she was stacking the various practice books, she pulled one aside, flipping through the pages.

“What’s that for?” I asked, watching the way she read the music intently, listening to the soft hum of the melody as she studied the notes. Why couldn’t I hear a trace…? 

The answer, I later found out, was because of the key. Rayla, though she has a fantastic ear, unfortunately doesn’t have perfect pitch, essentially meaning that when she hummed, it was in the wrong key. My brain decided that since it was in the wrong key, it wasn’t really a peice. So I didn’t hear it. The thought had plagued me for a while, so I did some research. It was really interesting to learn, and to this day I still contemplate how I’d turn the concept into a lesson. 

She handed me the book, and pointed to the beginning of the piece.

“See these hashtags?” she pointed. “Those are sharps. There's two. F sharp and C sharp. This means we’re in the key of D major. Can you sing a D major scale?” She looked up at me, and I peered back at her.

“I guess I can-” I said, taking a breath. “D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D.”

“Great,” Rayla reached behind me, grabbing the violin and handed it back to me. “Now play it.” So I did. D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. It was a little wobbly, but it was getting there. “You got it,” she whispered to me, redirecting back to the music. “The violin reads in treble clef. This means that the bottom line is E, the space F, the second line G, the space A, and so on. With this knowledge,” she jabbed a finger at the page from the book, “You should be able to play this beginner’s piece.” I looked at her, somewhat baffled.

“You want me to learn this?”

“If you want to learn piano, you need to learn how to learn sheet music. What better place to start than this?” Rayla closed the book and pulled a different booklet from the back. “I’ll play the piano part while I’m gone, and you could play the violin part.”

“Our traces would connect,” I said with a distant smile. “I still wish you didn’t have to go.”

“I know, but at least now, we’re learning to trust each other.” She glanced at me, our eyes meeting briefly. “And we’ll stay in touch. And you can still listen to Soren and Claudia’s music as it’s written,” she smiled.

“I can’t wait,” I said. We sat for a moment, in silence, but not awkward silence at all. We were simply enjoying one another’s company. I liked that about Rayla. It was hard for silence around her to be awkward. Out of the blue, she stood, holding out her hand for me to take.

“Let’s go,” she said, pulling me and the violin out of the closet.

“Where?”

“To learn magic.”

 

We found ourselves in a clearing behind the music building- plenty of space, plenty of tree cover, and no one around. I still had my satchel, with the sky and moon book inside. I flipped to the index, searching and scanning the list of spells and runes for me to try.

We had made a game of it, and the rules were simple; Each of us would chose two hard spells, two that even the book recommended beginners steer clear of. Then, we would pick two easier spells that were similar to the harder ones we wished to perform. By the end of the hour, we would each be one step closer to performing the harder spell. But the catch was this- One had to be an offensive spell, one that would not seriously maim or hurt the other person, but do enough to knock them off their feet. The other spell had to be a defensive spell, one to either confuse our opponent or deflect the attack completely. The last to be on their feet won.

My attack spell was fulminis. Remembering my conversation with Lailah, I wanted to have the Fulminis Magnis spell under my belt in case… In case I had to face Runaan. The regular fulminis spell seemed to be right along the right track. My defense spell was called Cyclon Minimus , it was the seemingly the smaller version of Dielish , an over the top shield spell that would encase the caster in an impenetrable dome of wind and strom. Cyclon Minimus was smaller, more of a shield shape.

We spent maybe five or so minutes or so, practicing with our backs to one another, avoiding listening to closely to the result of the other’s spell. This was a competition, and neither of us liked cheaters. I practiced the fulminis spell, enjoying the quick electricity to run down my arm and into the air in front of me. My current product of this spell was… for lack of a better word, lame. But each time I tried, the lighting I built only became wilder, more frazzled and electric.

My defense spell could be better. It formed a shield of, well, air. But it looked and felt like a mini hurricane, attached to the side of my wrist that might deflect an attack. It was really, really windy, though, and I could feel the tips of my hair getting twisted around on my forehead. Soon, we counted our steps away from one another, and turned to find ourselves farther from the other.

 

“Are you ready?” Rayla called, forty or so feet back. 

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, my hand already up, ready to trace the fulminis spell at a moment’s notice.

“One,” Rayla called.

“Two,” I shouted.

“THREE!” we yelled in unison, our hands immediately tracing glowing runes in the air. She was fast, but I was faster.

Fulminis! ” electricity shot through my arm, soaring majestically through the air. I didn’t get to see where it landed, though, because my vision was abruptly cut off  by a huge light.

Speculo Sciath! ” Rayla had shouted, summoning a shield of what appeared to be a pane of glass. Sunlight that fell through the trees shone right back into my eyes, and the fulminis spell I had sent her way was reflected right back towards me. Without a second to spare, Rayla’s mind was at work again.

Replica Invienta! ” she shouted, sending arrows flying my way. I tried to dodge them, but one landed squarely in my chest. I was sent stumbling back, stunned that Rayla would shoot real arrows at me.

“What was that!” I yelled across the clearing. Rayla smirked and pulled a smooth stone from her pocket- a glowing image right on top.

“Nothing!” she replied. And sure enough, when I picked an arrow up, its tip was dull and rubbery, bouncing right off its target. Rayla had conjured fake arrows! It didn’t leave without impact, though. It’s speed and force was enough to knock me down if I wasn’t careful. I saw Rayla, tracing the rune again, ready to fire more. But I wouldn’t tolerate this slander! I traced my own rune, feeling the air pressure change around me, and soon enough, a mini hurricane was resting on top of my forearm, spinning so quickly, that when Rayla’s arrows came my way again, the moment they hit my shield, their velocity changed, their direction altered. The winds sent them flying away, into the woods, never to be seen again. I could feel the hurricane dying down, but I needed to land an attack before the duel ended. I drew the fulminis rune once more, and with a shout, sent an even stronger bolt of lightning her way. Unfazed, almost as if she had predicted it, her Speculo Sciath was already up, launching my own bolt right back at me, knocking my shoulders back. I stumbled, and the hurricane on my arm dissipated. Within seconds, I heard Rayla shout, sending more arrows. I had to think of something, and fast. 

All at once, I got an idea. With one hand, I drew the fulminis rune, but didn’t say the word, causing a ball of pure electricity to fester in the palm of my hand. 

Cyclon Minimus, ” I called out, creating a hurricane on my forearm once more. I drove the lightning into the hurricane, sending bolts and flashes careening in every direction. I held my arm, high above my head-

FULMINIS! ” The sheer force of wind and velocity of lightning was enough to knock me to the ground- but not without victory! Rayla tried to summon her shield spell-

Speculo Scaith!

But unfortunately the mass of energy was too large to reflect, sending Rayla to the ground. For a moment, the air around us seemed dangerous- stormy leftovers from my hurricane blistered into clouds, lightning bolting between them. Within seconds, though, the mess above had dissipated, leaving Rayla and I on the ground, fifty feet apart, stunned at what had just happened. My hands trembled as I brought them in front of me. They didn’t look like mine, they were red from the heat, and they shook with energy. Across the way, Rayla stood warily, making her way towards me.

“I guess we both lost,” she said, offering her hand. I took it, feeling more energy surge through my arm. I moved to stand, yet at the same time, Rayla pulled me up. My knees still shook from the spells I cast, my feet slightly numb, and I lost my balance, stumbling forward- right into her arms. We stood, awkwardly staring into each other’s eyes, my nose inches from hers. I could feel my heart beating so quickly there was almost no beat at all. My fingers curled around hers, this feeling of wanting to be close flooded my mind. Maybe I was embarrassed. Possibly just shocked. But I didn’t want to let go. Immediately I felt heat rushing to my cheeks, and I took a step back. But Rayla didn’t let go of my hand.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” I blushed, scratching the back of my head.

“I- it’s all good,” Rayla stammared, a similar pink rising in her face. I glanced up, noticing the sun setting. The moon appeared- well, at least a tiny sliver of the moon- emerging ever so faintly in the darkening sky.

“Two more seconds and I’d have been screwed,” I mused. Rayla smiled.

The energy in our hands grew warmer, and I could feel my eyelids growing heavy. A hazy vision of the past began to appear- and I guess Rayla saw it too, because she promptly pulled away.

“I’ve got to pack,” she said, shifting her weight. She headed to where we had dropped our stuff, hesitating to pick up her book. Which reminded me-

“Why didn’t you want to tell me about the whole… New Moon thing?” I lifted my satchel onto my shoulder, holding the violin case in my other hand. It’s weight was new and unfamiliar, but I couldn’t wait to get used to it. When I asked, Rayla stopped for a moment.

“I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I guess I didn’t want to bother you. Yeah, that’s all.” She sounded unsure.

“You know you can trust me,” I said, offering a smile. Rayla nodded.

“I know.” We turned to walk back around the music building. Rayla broke the silence first. “So, Ezran says you have an office?” She asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Can I see it?”

“I don’t see why not.”

 

As soon as we reached my floor, I spotted the list of times I keep by my door. Office hours- I had completely forgotten about office hours! I dashed up to the door, reading the names of students who’d wanted to come in.

“Shit,” I mumbled, tearing the paper down. “I completely forgot- no one reminded me-”

“I’m sure it’s okay,” Rayla said, coming up behind me. “If it was urgent, they’d talk to you after class?”

“I guess so,”  I said, still studying the paper as I pushed the door open. Inside was exactly the way I had left it a week ago, when Soren called me, telling me Rayla was on her way. My phone was still shattered in the corner, a thin layer of  dust dulling the screen. I set the violin case on the ground inside the door, making my way to my desk. As I set my satchel on the ground, I noticed a sticky-note stuck on my picture of Ezran, Harrow and I. I pulled it off, reading;

 

Please curve my grade! -Monroe

 

I rolled my eyes, smiling despite myself. Monroe Alexander Higgins was possibly the worst student- academically, anyways- that I’d ever taught. He never really participated in class, unless he wanted to share a joke with me before he left. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but granted, I hadn’t seen much of any of my students. But it’s students like Monroe that made me want to become a teacher. I always wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, in their minds, and I could see changes in Monroe’s grades as the semester continued. He still failed, most of the time, but I could see him trying, in his work, in his equations, in the way he crossed off answers he thought were wrong in a test booklet. I think I was finally getting through to him.

“Lot’s of books,” Rayla remarked, from across the room. She was kneeling on the ground, pulling titles from the bottom row. “How old are these?” She flipped through the pages, the smell of musty moth-eaten pages wafted through the room.

“Years and years old. Probably belonged to the guy who had my office before me.” I sat at my desk, pulling out my laptop. I felt… really bad about missing office hours. Like, really, really bad. I felt worse about missing Monroe’s session. He seemed like a genuinely cool kid, and I wanted him to succeed.

I opened my email and started a new draft.

 

To: Monroe Higgins.

 

Hello! I would like to apologize for missing office hours with you. Life has been really hectic, and everything seems to be going haywire, and- well, you know. I know I can’t make up for missing your time, but if you would like, I’ll be in my office for the next twenty minutes or so, if you’d like to stop by. If not, please write back so that we can schedule another time! 

 

Apologies;

Prof. Callum Walker

 

With a click and a woosh, the email was sent. I had doubts Monroe would be able to make it, but it was worth a shot. And he’d  get to meet Rayla. Maybe our connection could help peak his interest. 

“Who you writing to?” Rayla asked, standing behind me.

“One of my students,” I closed the tab, opening instead the gradebook. Glancing at the list, most of my students were passing with flying colors- with the exception of Lailah and Monroe. Lailah, I originally presumed, was just too shy to ask questions. Now that I've gotten to know her, I realized her reason for her grade wasn’t that she didn’t understand the material. She just had other things to focus on. NYHTS was taking a larger toll on her than I’d formerly comprehended. As for Monroe- my assumption was that he was too shy. Around campus, I’d see him laughing and joking with friends, but in my class he seemed more of a loner. I hoped to reach out to him, somehow. He was a good kid when I did get the chance to talk to him, but his grade was a 58%. Two points from failing this quarter.

“What are they like?” Rala asked, pointing at the name Higgens, Monroe Alexander, leaning against the edge of the desk.

“Good heart, bad grades,” I replied, hearing a ding! I clicked back into my email tab, noticing a new message. 

 

Hey, prof! I’m on my way. See you shortly!

 

-Monroe A. Higgins

 

Within seconds of me reading the email, I heard a knock at the door. 

“Come in,” I called. The door opened, and in stepped Monroe. He was lanky and pale, with freckles dusting his nose, and circle glasses framing his brown eyes. When he saw Rayla, he faltered. 

“Should I come back?” He asked, pulling his hands into his sweater.

“No, no, you’re okay,” I said, standing. “I’d actually like you two to meet.” I guided Rayla around my desk, so that she and Monroe were facing one another. “Rayla, this is Monroe, one of my students. And Monroe, this is Rayla. My soulmate.”

“Nice to meet you, Monroe,” Rayla smiled, sticking out a hand. He took it, sharing a smirk. 

“So,” I gestured for him to sit, and Rayla moved back into the corner where she’s left her book, open, face down. “What can I help you with?”

“I was wondering if there was anything I could do to bring my grade up before the end of the quarter,” He said, shifting in his seat.

“Right.” I closed my laptop. “Unfortunately, the deadline for test retakes was yesterday. And I have no new assignments until next quarter.”

“Oh.”

“But, for you, I’m willing to offer an extra credit project.” As soon as I said the words, Monroe sat up, intrigued.

“What kind of extra credit?” He asked.

“Well…” I glanced over at Rayla, bathed in muted sunlight through the window, engrossed in her book. I loved how her hair reflected the sun, much like, well, the moon. And the way the light engulfed her like a flame, a halo surrounding her, making her even more angelic. And she was so engrossed in her book, that she made facial expressions to match what she was reading. The way her brow furrowed when she read something she didn’t like. Even the little wrinkles between her eyebrows were adorable. And the way her head rested on her hand, scrunching up her cheek, making her look so soft. But I knew behind the peaceful face was a stern personality, a determined yet sarcastic demeanor that I couldn’t help but fall in love with.

Woah. 

I was falling in love with Rayla.

“Hey, uh, professor?” Monroe, asked, snapping me back to reality.

“Yes, yes, extra credit. I was thinking something very easy- a two question quiz, each question a guarantee to bring your grade up a point each.”

“Yes, that sounds perfect!”

“On one condition,” I added. Monroe’s face fell, but I knew it wouldn’t stay that way. “If you get both questions right, I’ll give you a second project to help boost your second quarter grade right from the get-go.” As predicted, Monroe lit up.

“Yes, yes of course! I’d love to! When can I take the quiz.?”

“Right now, actually,” I said, standing. “Rayla, could you come with me into the hall for a moment?” She looked up at me, blushing slightly.

“Sure thing,” she rose and followed me into the hall, where I closed the door behind us.

“Can you do me a favor, real quick?”

“Depends,” Rayla peered suspiciously, “What is it?”

“This two question quiz- I’m going to have each of us perform a spell, and he’s going to tell me which source it’s derived from. He should be able to get it, since I’ve been talking about it in class a lot.”

“What kind of spell?” 

“The illusion one.”

“They’re all illusions.”

“The one where you make holograms or whatever of the past. Like you showed me with you and Runaan.”

Historia Viventem ?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Callum, I think you need to slow down. We can’t have some stranger knowing that we- that you and I- What if he works for- you know?” Rayla gawked at me like I was crazy.

“Oh come on, he doesn’t, I can almost guarantee-”

“How? Where is this certainty coming from? I saw the gradebook, Callum, he’s got a lower grade than Lailah. If he was preoccupied with something, I would venture to say it’s NYHTS he’s busy with.” Rayla grabbed me by the shoulders, as if steadying me. “I just think it wouldn’t be smart to-”

“Rayla, relax,” I pushed her arms away. “He’s not with NYHTS.”

“How do you know?” 

“I just- I have a gut feeling. He’s a good kid, I promise. I’ve seen him with friends, he’s happy, he just needs to come out of his shell, ask more questions in class. Besides, his grades may be low in my class, but he’s an art major. It’s very possible he just struggles with facts, dates, memorization.” Rayla still seemed unsure, so I continued. “I just want to see him succeed. Trust me on this, please?” As I spoke, Rayla’s face never changed. Just the same, stern, serious, thoughtful, beautiful look she’d given me before. After a moment, though, her features softened.

“Fine,” she rolled her eyes. “I’ll help.”

“Yay! Thank you!” I pulled her into a tight embrace, not even giving her time to hug back before I opened the door. 

“Alright, Monroe, this quiz should be easy if you’ve been paying attention.” I strode to the back of my office, standing in front of the bookshelves, Rayla next to me. “Now you can’t tell anyone about this quiz’s content, alright?”

“And you can’t freak out,” Rayla added. Monroe twisted to watch us, nodding. 

“So basically, as a preface, do you remember the lesson I taught about how traces were connected to the primal sources?”

“And how in turn, humans were connected to the primal sources?” Monroe asked, to which I beamed.

“Yes, that’s the one, very good. Now, I taught that lesson as an homage to, well, to Rayla and I.” I tried to sound nonchalant. Monroe raised his eyebrows.

“To save you the trouble,” Rayla added, “We’re connected to those sources.” Monroe didn’t react. 

“Tadaaa…” I did some jazz hands to ty and lighten the mood. Monroe seemed unamused. “Um, anyways, so for this quiz, Rayla and I are each going to perform a spell, and you have to tell us which source it pertains to. You get it right, you get the points.”

“Let me get this straight,” Monroe began. “You and Rayla, your soulmate, are each connected to a primal source now that you’ve found each other. And now you can do magic. And you’re going to use that magic to help me, the kid with the lowest GPA in my class, bring my 58% to 60%.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I said.

“Cool beans. I’m ready, hit me.” He sat up, brushing stray strands of hair from his face. I looked at Rayla, who nodded. Her hand hovered in the air, before tracing a rune that was becoming familiar now.

Historia viventem,” she whispered. As soon as the words escaped her lips, I saw it. A version of me, tinted blue-ish-purple, walked into the office, Rayla right behind. Flashback me took a seat at my desk, while Flashback Rayla made her way to the bookcase behind us. Her figure was translucent, and passed right through me to get to the books behind us. I glanced at Monroe, eyes wide, grinning from ear to ear. He watched the figures carry out the routine we just went through; me sending an email, Rayla leaning up against the desk. Rayla waved the vision away before Flashback Monroe had a chance to enter the picture.

“So? Which source?” I asked playfully.

“Well, you’ve said ‘the moon is the goddess of illusion,’ right?”

“Right.”

“So that would mean, Rayla is connected to the moon primal!” He said, excitedly.

“That is correct! Onto the next one!” I began drawing my own rune in the air. “ Aspiro,” I breathed, blowing ever so gently into the rune, sending a breeze throughout the room. Monroe laughed as the wind hit his face, making his clothes and hair dance.

“The sky, you’re connected to the sky!” he said, jumping from his seat.. “That is so cool!”

“Indeed!” I said, amused. “And, you guessed both questions right, meaning you pass this quarter!”

“Professor, thank you so much!” He bounced, giddy at the prospect of just barely passing. 

“No problem,” I replied. “Anything to help my students succeed.” Monroe grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously with a huge smile before dashing from the room. I glanced over at Rayla, who had been staring; surveying.

“What?” I asked, meeting her eye.

“You’re… really good, you know that?” she said after a pause.

“Uh, thanks?” I stepped towards my desk, packing up my things.

“No, I mean like-” she sighed, “You’re an exceptional human being.”

“Why, thank you!”

“I don’t know anyone who would’ve done that for someone. Giving up a secret like that.” She stepped closer to me, and I don’t know why, but her movement mixed with the way she spoke raised butterflies fluttering in my stomach.



That night, back in Ezran’s dorm, Rayla had to finally face the daunting task of packing up. It wasn’t hard, since she had been living out of her suitcase for the past few days. She didn’t have much of, well, anything. But the prospect of Rayla leaving was just… unreal. I tried to picture the rest of the semester without her. Days in my apartment, grading papers with Lailah, the mood constantly grim because Runaan was hot on our tail and we were powerless to stop him. Hours at night, listening to Soren and Claudia’s songs being shaped and sculpted. I’d practice violin, hoping Rayla would join in with the piano part, but she never did. And without her, the perfect pitch I had before would dwindle. My lessons would be dismal. No inspiration behind them, nothing like the ones this week’s had been like. How could I teach on the very subject that brought our seperation? Conceivably, I was overreacting. My days would go back to normal, subtracting the missions I’d have to go on every once in a while. I’d manage to step right back in to normal life without missing a beat. But there was still the fact that our Arcanums were proof that we could be something greater, proof that we still had the chance to grow closer to one another. And yet we were leaving it all behind. For her safety. For my safety. For our safety. I was content with the idea that I knew Rayla would be okay, with or without me. But it still stung that it’d be the latter.

“Are you sure you got it all?” I asked as I watched her put on her jacket.

“Yeah, I think so. Besides, if I leave anything, you can just keep it here until I come back.”

“Yeah.” And we left it at that. Truthfully, we had no real way of knowing if she would ever come back. Lailah, Corvus and I needed to figure out how to take down NYHTS from the inside, without anyone getting hurt. But no matter which way I looked at it, there wasn’t an ending in which everyone got out unscathed.

“So, are we ready to go?” Rayla asked, pulling the handle out of her carry on. I nodded, turning to walk out of Ezran’s room.

“Callum?” Rayla whispered, and I stopped in my tracks. I turned to face her, finding apprehension in her expression. She bit her lip, studying my eyes. “I’m… I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Me too.”

 

Watching Rayla board that plane was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I was just beginning to know her, to learn from her. And yet she was leaving. Out of my life, just like that. Maybe not out of my life completely, but we had no clue when it would be safe for me to see her again. 

I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of fear. It wasn’t mine, but it was there. And it was growing. And snowballing. And suddenly my stomach was upset, my head buzzing and my hands growing hot and numb. I was panicking- when I looked outside, I noticed that clouds were covering the little bit of the moon that had shown itself in the past few days. I wasn’t doing that- Rayla was. Rayla was panicking, Rayla wasn’t okay.

I glanced at the desk, flight attendant lifting the mic to call the last group. I had to do something- the plane was leaving soon. The plane was leaving now.

Standing, bouncing on the balls of my feet, I waited for an opportunity. A man got into the line, his boarding pass sticking from his back pocket while he checked his phone. I glanced around; making sure no one was looking. I’m not proud of this, not in the slightest. But I really needed to find Rayla; something was wrong, more wrong than ever before. So when I was sure the coast was clear, when I was sure no one was looking, and once I had prayed to let God know I was doing this for Rayla, I took the boarding pass from his pocket, silently, wordlessly. I picked up my satchel, violin in hand, clutching my new treasure, and stepped in line.

I passed through the gate, trying not to appear guilty, trying not to pay attention to the sound of the guy fervently searching his bag, asking the flight attendant if he’d dropped his pass somewhere nearby.

On the plane, passengers were bustling everywhere, calmly reading the safety card, shoving bags under the seats in front of them, stuffing carry-ons in the compartments above. I weaseled my way through the aisle, scanning the seats on either side for a sign of Rayla.

That’s when I saw her, sitting by a window, alone in her row. Her leg was bouncing and her lips ajar, chest rising and falling quickly. The panic that led me here was amplified as the flight attendants called for passengers to be seated. So I sat, right next to Rayla, hoping whoever had been in this seat wouldn't show. Rayla heard me sit, whipping around to face me. 

“You okay?” I whispered, leaning closer.

“How did you get here!” she exclaimed, somewhere between a whisper and a yell. “You know how dangerous it is for you to be anywhere near me-”

“Okay? I needed to see if you were alright.”

“Of course I’m alright, why wouldn’t I be?” She asked, eyes wide as she studied me.

“Rayla, I’m not dumb, I could feel something was off.” I stuffed my satchel under the seat in front of me as flight attendants made their rounds, securing the cabin. Rayla sighed.

“Well, I’m glad you're here.” She crossed her legs and stared out the window once more. 

“Are you sure you're okay?” I asked, watching the bounce in her leg come back. She didn’t look at me.

“I’m fine.”

“You're obviously not,” I protested. “I trusted you with Runaan. I’m trusting you to take care of Soren and Claudia while you're gone. I’m trusting you to be careful with Runaan- and most importantly, I’m trusting you to not let slip about everything that happened while you were in New York. But right now, I need you to trust me with whatever you're going through. Is that too much to ask?” I tried not to sound harsh, but I knew there was a bit of bitterness in my words.

“Fine!” She whipped around to face me, face pale as the engine started. “I hate planes! I hate them! They're so… high! And they could fall at any minute. I hate turbulence, I hate the confining seatbelts, I hate how they make me sick, I hate all of it!” She said, stern and defiant. I stared at her, a bit shocked. I had never seen Rayla afraid. She was always so strong, so brave and bold. I didn’t know what to do.

So I did the only thing I could. I took her hand, holding it tightly, letting the power of the moon and sky collide between us.

“I’m here,” I whispered. “And I control the skies.”

Chapter Text

The flight wasn’t all too bad. The lights were dimmed shortly after takeoff, and with Callum’s shoulder pressed against mine, everything felt like it would turn out ok. I couldn’t help but wonder how he even got on the plane, but when I asked, he brushed me off. 

“Magic,” he’d say, though it wasn’t convincing in the slightest.

Some time through the flight, he pulled his tray table down, crossed his arms on top, put his head down and fell asleep. How people were able to relax on planes was beyond me. Whenever I tried, all I could hear was the roaring engine, the pulsating beat of us flying through the sky at a million miles an hour.

My anxiety from the start of the flight was beginning to dwindle, replacing itself with boredom. Yes, I was still terrified, but after an hour or two it just got exhausting. My eyes wandered to the floor, where I noticed the brown strap of Callum’s satchel. Maybe he had a book or something.

I pulled it silently from the seat in front of him, rifling through the violin sheet music I had given him just hours earlier, finally finding the sky book. It was exactly like mine, except instead of a lilac moon rune on the spine, it was the blue sky rune. I flipped through, ignoring his little sticky notes with his loopy handwriting. Towards the back of the book, I came across a chapter titled Dangers in Dark Sky Magic. Callum had penciled in a star next to the title of this chapter.

 

             Dark Sky Magic is a terrible, twisted fate for the caster. While the line between pure and dark magic is quite thin and blurred, it’s usually very easy to tell when it’s been crossed. Dark Sky Magic, or any dark magic for that matter, can occur within someone in a variety of circumstances. 

1) A Sky Arcanum user loses their soulmate, and therefore the good in their arcanum. Usually, when any aranum user loses their soulmate, their arcanum leaves too, causing the body to go into a series of withdrawal-like symptoms as their arcanum fades. Over the span of about a month or so, the spirit of the primal source is detaching itself from the user, causing it’s magic to be sporadic and dangerous. Should a Sky Arcanum user fall victim to this fate, all spells during this time period would have catastrophic results- similar to that of a storm.

2) A Sky Arcanum user finds evil in their intentions. Should a Sky Arcanum user find themselves in a position to harm, maim, hurt, or kill their target, for their own selfish needs or wants, the spell will not only affect the intended target, but themselves as well. For a Sky Arcanum user, since many spells pertain to wind and lightning, they may find that some side effects of casting spells can result in constant high blood pressure, anxiety, drops in body temperature, and in extreme cases, seizures.

 

I stuck my thumb in the page and closed the book with a thunk. I didn’t want to read any more. Peering over at Callum, his eyelashes fluttering and eyes opening ever so slightly, I couldn’t bear the thought of him going… dark. He was just so sweet and kind and-

“You okay?” he mumbled, half asleep. Shaken from my thoughts, I nodded.

“Did I wake you?”

“Only a little bit,” he sighed, closing his eyes again. I glanced at the book again, a weird dread billowing inside me. I couldn’t let him go dark. I couldn’t let that happen to him. I tapped him on the shoulder, hoping he’d open his eyes again, flipping to the page I’d stuck my thumb in. 

“Callum,” I whispered.

“Hrmph?” muffled through the arm of his jacket.

“Callum, promise me this will never happen to you.” I held up the book so he could see. His eyes cracked open, reading the lines. He nodded and closed them again.

“I promise.”

“Good.” I closed the book and sat back, my mind wandering. Where would Callum go once we landed? He couldn’t stay at my house for obvious reasons. He could stay at the studio- but I very much doubted that Lujanne would appreciate me dragging home some boy. Except he wasn’t “some boy.” He was Callum. He was Callum, who loved music and wanted so badly to learn.  He was Callum, who was so eager to study all there was to know about science, about facts, about Head Tracing, about anything that crossed his path. He was Callum, who wanted nothing more than to keep the ones he loved safe. He was Callum, who lured in thunderstorms when he was afraid. He was Callum, whose heart was bigger than his head when it came to his students. He was Callum, who didn’t let uncertainty hold him back for more than a day, Callum whose eyes were green and full of curiosity, Callum who carried books everywhere like the nerd he was, Callum who-

I was getting ahead of myself. He just needed a place to stay while he was in California. Perhaps he could stay with Soren and Claudia. They already knew him, they were friends, and they were musicians, they could help him practice if I was busy. Yeah. That’s what I’d do.

 

We landed in Houston at around midnight. Despite the late hour, the place was still bustling, passengers rushing in every direction. As we walked to the gate, Callum’s burner phone rang. I really forgot he still had to carry that thing around.

 

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“Hello?” I answered, not really knowing who to expect on the other end.

“Callum, It’s Lailah. Where are you, and what’s the status on Rayla?”

“Rayla just left for Hourstan a few hours ago.” I paused. Should I tell her? “And so did I.”

“CALLUM.” Her voice practically bit through the speaker. “DO NOT TELL ME YOU FOLLOWED HER TO HOUSTON.” Lailah almost broke my eardrums. In retrospect, maybe flying across the country on a whim when I had a highly dangerous and classified society on my tail wasn’t a good idea. 

“Listen, NYHTS stands for New York Head Tracing Society. No one would have followed me here unless you or Corvus snitched.”

“But what are you going to tell Runaan if he gives you a mission to carry out while you’re an actual ocean away! Callum, I can’t believe you did this.” I could almost see Lailah twirling the ends of her hair like she did when she got nervous. 

“Could I just get you to do it? Corvus is supposed to be my correspondance anyways, so you should be safe, right?”

“It really depends. Sometimes he can get… oddly specific.”

“What? Specific about what?”

“Well, remember how-”

“Callum, is everything okay?” Rayla said touching my shoulder. I glanced over at her, realizing that we’d stopped in the middle of the walkway when I picked up the phone. She grabbed my arm and pulled us and our bags to the side, out of people’s way.

“Yeah, everything is fine. Lailah? You there?”

“Do you have a plan for what you’re going to do once you get there, dumbass?” Lailah snapped.

“No, not really,” I paused. “But I’ll get to see Claudia.” The line went silent real quickly. “She and Soren got signed by Rayla, remember?”

“You’ll get to see Claudia?”

“Yeah, I’ll-”

“Don’t tell her you know me, please, it’s-”

“Woah, what? Why?”

“It’s safer for her. I can’t get her roped into this mess. It’s better that she just doesn’t know me.” Lailah’s voice fell quieter. “I couldn’t do that to her.” I paused for a bit. “But regardless, we still need to figure out what the hell you’re going to do when we get there,” she said, regaining strength. I glanced over at Rayla, who was studying me worriedly.

“How about we figure out how they found Claudia in the first place. That way they can’t separate anyone else.”

“Fine,” she said. “I… trust you to handle it.” Her voice was strained. Something told me her trust in me was quite minimal. “Be careful,” was all she said before hanging up. Pocketing the phone, I looked over at Rayla. 

“Everything’s okay. Lailah’s just got a lot going on right now.”

“Don’t we all?” Rayla forced a chuckle. “Let’s head to the gate.” We took a few steps forward before I realized a slight issue. I had stolen my boarding pass to get here, but I still didn’t have a way to get to L.A. I froze. 

“You okay?” Rayla asked, turning to face me.

“I… uh…” I couldn’t help but trip over my words. This might get messy. “I don’t have a way to get on the next plane.” Rayla stopped, staring me down like a statue.

 

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You what?”

“I got on the other one through… unusual circumstances.”

“What kind of unusual circumstances?” This couldn’t be happening. How did he get here? How did he plan on getting back home? How did he plan on going anywhere if he didn’t have a way to get on another plane?

Which only brought another slew of questions; How did he really get on that plane in the first place? If he used “magic”, like he said, there should be no issue in him doing so again. But if he had no way to get to Houston, that was obviously a lie.

“I may, or may not have found a, well, a creative solution to-”

“Tell me the truth.” It wasn’t magic that got him on the first plane. “If there’s one thing I hate more than flying, it’s lying.” Callum glanced around, nervously.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he took a step towards me, voice hushed. “But in the terminal, after I watched you board, I could just feel something was off. You were worried, you were scared of something, and that’s not like you, and I couldn’t just walk away from that impression of anxiety, and I-”

“Get to the point.”

“I stole someone’s boarding pass. Alright?” He threw his hands in defiance, voice still low. “I’m not proud of it, I wish I had another way, I wish I had done something different. but I just couldn’t leave you behind.” 

I couldn’t believe it. Callum stole. He stole what could have been someone’s trip home willingly. Not because he was being blackmailed. Not because NYHTS told him to. No, he did so willingly. I could feel my pulse quickening. He left someone stranded in New York with no means of getting where they needed to go. 

“I can’t believe you would do something like that,” I said back, glaring at him. I was fuming, I was livid. He stole. Willingly. Thunder rumbled outside. My thoughts were abruptly interrupted when over the loudspeaker a voice rang out.

“American Airlines Flight 21A from Houston to Los Angeles has been delayed due to inclement weather. Please see the American Airlines help desk for more details.”

I glanced up at Callum, who was still shaken.

“Is that you?”

“Is what me?” he squeaked.

“The ‘inclement weather.’” More thunder.

“Maybe,” he said. I rolled my eyes and grabbed his arm, pulling him and all our belongings towards our gate anyways. I wasn’t going to leave him behind. Loving someone means helping one another, not leaving when it gets hard.

Loving someone. Loving someone and what it means. I hadn’t thought about that before.

Before I could give the idea any more attention, we were at the gate. We claimed two seats in a corner, and Callum left to check when the flight would leave. I was left alone.

I pulled my legs onto the chair with me, and in doing so noticed something hard in my pocket. Reaching in, I felt a cold, smooth surface. It was the stone I had enchanted for our crusade earlier, the one that allowed me to shoot arrows from nothing. Perhaps there was a way I could pull Callum along.

I glanced up and saw him approaching apprehensively.

“It’s scheduled to leave in an hour and a half,” he said, picking up his bags. 

“Where are you going?” I asked, as he walked away.

“I’m gonna say I lost my ticket and need to buy a new one back to N.Y.”

“Oh, stop being ridiculous.” I called after him, standing.

“No, you’re right, I shouldn’t have done that!” He stopped and turned to look at me. “Hopefully that guy will still be there when I land. I can pay for a new boarding pass.”

“That’s very noble of you, but what’s done is done. He’ll find a way here eventually, and as fucked up it is that you stole , Callum, we have to move past it.” I tried not to sound too crazy. Callum shook his head.

“I have to make it right somehow,” he said, turning again. That was the Callum I knew. My Callum wanted to fix things. Even if they were his fault.Damnit. Even when he was in the wrong he was good.  As he walked away, I heard more thunder outside. It wasn’t loud, aggressive, or rushed like it had been the day he told me about Runaan. This thunder was slow, somber.

“Callum,” I called after him, remembering the moon stone. He stopped and turned around again, exasperated.

“You can’t stop me from trying to make it right!”

“And I’m not going to.” I pulled the stone with the glowing rune out of my pocket. “I’m going to help you.” He stared at the rune inscribed.

“Is that from-”

“Yeah, it is. But in order for my plan to work, I’m gonna need a storm. Can you do that?” I raised my eyebrow, searching his eyes. For what, I don't know. They were so easy to get lost in. 

“Yeah,” Callum nodded, tense. “I think so.”

“Good,” I smiled, beckoning him to come sit back down. Though unsure, Callum followed.

“What is this master plan?” He said, setting down the violin at his feet.

“You create a storm big enough to delay our flight for a few more hours. But not long enough so that the next flight here can’t land.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Let me finish. Chances are, the guy you…  took from will be able to catch the next flight here, which lands in about-” I checked the time on my phone- “Six hours. When you see him get off, you’ll drop however much the ticket was and then some into his bag. Then we board our plane and get out of here.”

“Six hours! We’ll be here when the airport reopens!”

“Should have thought about that before you took someone else’s boarding pass,” I said, slightly annoyed. Callum sighed and leaned back in his chair. 

“I’m sorry,” he said after a pause. 

“I know,” was all I could say. Callum closed his eyes, leg bouncing, muttering something under his breath. Within a few seconds, raindrops were hitting a nearby window, thunder booming in the distance.

“American Airlines Flight 21A from Houston to Los Angeles has been delayed due to inclement weather. Please see the American Airlines help desk for more details.”

Chapter Text

Thunder continued to blast from outside. Our flight had been delayed another half hour, and the time until departure only continued to grow. Whatever storm Callum had made sure was effective. 

“I still don’t see how this is going to help me get a boarding pass,” he said through gritted teeth and eyes clenched shut. He was sitting forward, elbows on his knees, head hanging. His hands were clasped, though it didn’t stop them from shaking.

“Relax, I have a plan. You just gotta trust me,” I said. I glanced over at Callum, trying not to feel too guilty for his… current state. His face had paled significantly and he looked feverish. But he didn’t complain, and this was the deal we’d made- he gets our flight delayed so we’d still be there when the guy he stole from landed. And according to the schedule, his flight had taken off two hours ago, meaning he’d be here in two more. Meanwhile, our flight was scheduled to leave still an hour before that. We’d be cutting it close, but this storm would have to stay airborne for a while.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to him, though he didn’t reply. I stood and decided to walk around the mall, maybe get us some breakfast. I knew neither of us had eaten in a while, and I was famished. 

I was standing in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts when my phone rang- Runaan. Why he was calling me this early in the morning, I had no idea. And it was that curiosity that made me answer his call for the first time all week.

“Hello?” I said, lifting the phone to my ear.

“Rayla! How are you?” rang his voice. What a weird way to start this conversation.

“I’m fine, I guess.”

“At least you’re alive. Ethari and I were so worried!” He sounded so fake. He sounded like there was a hidden meaning in his words- which, I’m sure there was after all that I had learned, but I digress.

“Yeah,” I forced a chuckle. “Alive and well.”

“Where are you, anyways?” he asked. I held in a scoff- he acted like my whereabouts didn’t bother him, but I knew I wouldn’t be here if that were the case. Lailah was so high strung when she called me. I couldn’t help but wonder what his threat behind her was.

“I’m-uh-I’m in Houston. Waiting for my flight home.”

“Houston?” he said, genuinely confused. “What are you doing there?”

“Music expo,” I said, having thought out this excuse a while ago. “There was a music expo last week. Sorry, I forgot to tell you.”

“Thats-that’s alright,” Runaan replied, his voice slightly strained. “When does your flight leave?” This was so out of character for him. He wasn’t scolding me, he wasn’t angry that I’d left without telling him. I glanced back at our gate, thunder pounding outside.

“Hopefully soon. There’s a storm outside, we’ve been delayed two hours already.”

“We?” he said. Shit.

“We as in like the other passengers waiting. Yeah.” I cursed under my breath. I was not going to get Callum caught.

“Alright, well, call me when you group boards.”

“Yeah, sure thing.”

“I love you, Rayla.”

“Love you too, dad.” I hung up before he could say anything else. Unless Callum was wrong about Runaan’s connection to NYHTS, my time home wouldn’t be fun. I was safe, I knew that much. But how safe, I wasn’t sure. 

Before I knew it, it was my turn to order. A large black coffee and a cinnamon roll for me, an iced coffee with cream and sugar and a blueberry muffin for Callum. Something told me he liked blueberries. The barista smiled and made our drinks, placing them on the counter.

“Enjoy,” she said, sliding me a straw. I picked up our food and walked back to the terminal, back to the corner where I’d left Callum. He had his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking slightly. 

 

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“I’ll be right back,” I heard Rayla say, but I could barely hear it through the rumbling thunder in my own head. This storm was like a headache- every time the thunder roared I felt my skull pounding and my chest aching like I was panicking. I wasn’t though. At least- I didn’t think I was. Rayla asked for a storm and I didn’t want to let her down and the next thing I knew it was raining and my nerves were fried. How this storm came about was beyond me, but I knew it was me doing it. 

It was almost as if the winds were stings and the clouds were puppets. Just pulling the strings made the puppets move. And when the puppets crashed into one another they collided with a force and friction so strong that electricity couldn’t help but spring forth. All I had to do was pull the strings closer to me- closer to the gate, to the plane, to the runway. The puppets would follow. The winds would drive the clouds closer. Except soon my fingers were calloused. My arms were tired and my muscles were sore even though I wasn’t actually moving I was just sitting and yet everything around me was brewing and my body, my mind couldn’t handle it and I was tired. I was so tired. Everything hurt and I was covered in a dull ache that felt like hell and nothing all at once. But I had to keep going. I needed to pay the man back for the ticket I stole. I needed to make it right- I couldn’t go… dark. I promised Rayla I wouldn’t. It hurt and it was hard to breathe but this was the price.

After a few minutes of pulling the strings I heard footsteps. 

 

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“Hey,” I said, sitting next to Callum, still hunched and pale. “I brought you some things.” I handed the bag with his muffin in it, but he didn’t take it. I hadn’t noticed the rain picking up outside. “Callum?” I said, placing our things off to the seat next to me. “Are you okay?”

“How much longer do you need this storm?” he asked through a clenched jaw. I checked the time- 2:24 AM. The other flight was scheduled to land at 4 or so, we were supposed to take off at 3.

“Half an hour-” the words barely escaped my lips when a crash of thunder sounded from outside, lightning flashing and rain pelting the window like bullets. “Callum are you sure you’re okay? Maybe take a break.”

“I’ve got to make this right.” Waves of thunder crashed, wind whipped the rainfall in every direction imaginable.

American Airlines flight 21A from Houston to Los Angeles has been delayed due to inclement weather. Please see the American Airlines Help Desk for more details.”

“Look, we won’t take off until after the other plane lands. You can stop, now.” No response. “Callum, you promised, you’d-” I sighed in desperation and dragged his satchel out from under the chair, taking out the sky book. I flipped to the end of the book; Dangers in Dark Sky Magic. I stuck the page in front of his face. “Callum, you promised!” I could hear worry growing in my tone, but I tried my best to conceal it. He lifted his head and read the page before finally ceasing to tremble. His hands unclasped, and as the wind died down, color returned to his face. “Callum, thank the stars, I was so worried!” He turned to me with a weak smile. Almost immediately after, though, he leaned over and fell asleep on my shoulder. “Callum?” I whispered, poking his head. “Callum, your coffee’s gonna melt,” I tried, but he was out cold. With a half-smile, I took my still steaming cup and took a sip. He’d enjoy his muffin when he woke up.

Some time later, I fell asleep too, despite the now empty cup of coffee I was holding. When I woke, however, it was 4:30 or so. Group one of our flight had been called, and we still had to find the man Callum stole from. 

“Callum,” I whispered, shaking his shoulder. “Callum, wake up, we’ve gotta move.”

“Hm?” He sat up, disoriented, with a serious case of bedhead.

“Callum, we have, like, ten minutes to find the guy before our group is called. We gotta move!” I said. Callum stood, with a dazed look on his face, before breaking into a full on sprint? I had never seen anyone run so fast before. 

“Callum!” I called after him. “We don’t know what gate it is!” He skidded to a halt in front of the flight information board, running a finger down the list of arrivals.

“GATE 36!” he yelled before taking off again. I watched as he tore through the sparse people in the walkway, those of which gave him confused looks as he passed. I rolled my eyes. What a dork.

“Wait up!” I rushed after him, weaving in between people and kiosks. 

 

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I knocked on Ezran’s door frivolously. It was early, early Saturday morning, and I had gotten off the phone with Callum a while ago, but even still, something didn’t sit right. Knock, knock, knock. A light appeared at the bottom of the doorframe. The door came back revealing Ezran, rubbing his eyes, a sour look on his face.

“What do you want,” he grumped. To be honest, I didn’t know. 

“I just… need to vent. Can I come in?” Wordlessly, Ezran stepped to the side and pulled back the door. I shoved my hands in my pockets, stepping in.

“What’s up?” he asked, sitting on his bed. 

“There’s just a lot happening right now,” I began, somewhat breathlessly, “and if I don't get it out in the open…” My voice trailed off as I sat on the empty bed across the room. “I just don’t know what to think right now.”

“Well, If you had to describe it, where would you start?” Ezran asked, hugging a pillow. I thought about it. Where would I start?

“Maybe with Callum. I’m angry with him.”

“Why?”

“He’s in the middle of a one-way trip to California right now, no plan, leaving my dad and I to deal with all the crazy stuff.” 

“Wait, he’s what?!”

“Yeah! He’s going to L.A. with Rayla. Unannounced. No note, car gone!” I threw my hands up in defiance. “He’s just not himself anymore.”

“Spontaneous was always Callum’s way,” Ezran countered. Perhaps that was true, too. He joined NYHTS with much less deliberation than my family had. Regardless of how carefully the decision was made, on anyone’s part, it was still wrong.

“Even still- I can’t imagine the kind of trouble he’d be in if Runaan found out.”

“About what- Callum’s soulmate being Rayla or the fact that they ran away together on a whim?”

“Both! See, you get it.”

“Well, what are the consequences of either? Does it even make that big an impact in the long run?” Ezran asked. I know he didn’t know much about the situation, but it was almost insulting that he didn’t understand the severity of the circumstance. I flopped back onto the bed with a groan, my arms out wide beside me.

“Well we found out that Runaan is Rayla’s dad , and he’s done some dangerous shit. It’s just not safe for either of them to be there.”

“Then why are they going?”

“Uhhhg, I don’t know!” I ran a hand down my face, frustrated and tired. “Corvus told me to send Rayla home. He said there’d be a punishment if I didn’t. He made it sound like the punishment would be on me, but he acted like there was a spike prodding his own ass. He never really specified why Rayla had to leave so urgently, and I just hate the uncertainty of it all!”

“Yikes, I’m sorry-”

“And the worst part is-” I sat up again, suddenly frantic. “-my soulmate’s wrapped up into all of this and she doesn’t even know it! If Callum and Rayla make one wrong move while they’re gone, Runaan might pin it on me! He’d punish Claudia for a dumb mistake he made!”

“Claudia?”

“Yes, Claudia, as in Soren and Claudia, as in Soren and Claudia that Rayla just signed, yes, we know!” I stood and started pacing. “I just don’t want her to get hurt, you know? But while he’s down there I can only imagine he’ll be rooming with them. He’s a direct link from Runaan to Claudia, and I can’t stand the idea of her getting hurt!”

“Lailah, I think you should slow down.”

“And what if Runaan gives Callum a mission while he’s away? What if Runaan wants him to-to, like, teach a lesson about NYHTS in particular, its rise and its downfall, just to drill into students heads that it’s really dead, but he can’t do that, obviously, because he’s not here. Maybe as T.A. I could pull something off, but if there was another representative I didn’t know about it would be way too risky to carry out a mission that wasn’t my own.”

“Lailah, take a breath,” Ezran said, putting a hand on my shoulder to stop me from moving. I hadn’t even noticed he got up in the first place.

“But there's so much happening, and I have no control over it anymore, and I-” My breath caught and my eyes were welling up, but I wasn’t about to break down over this. “I’m sorry,” I said, stepping back. “It’s just a lot. Which is probably why I should get back to grading papers.” Ezran silently watched as I made my way towards the door before spinning around and pacing again. “It’s just so confusing, you know? Like, Runaan’s this big high up official who lied about magic, but for what? What was the point? I mean, maybe he’s bitter. Maybe he’s self conscious or something. But he runs this billion-dollar underground cooperation that’s based on a lie and his highest priority is making sure his adult daughter doesn’t leave the state. And why is he in L.A. anyways? NYHTS stands for New York Head Tracing Society, there’s literally no reason for him to be out there. Unless-” I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Unless what?”

“Unless it’s because of me. What if he’s in L.A. to get more leverage over me, with Claudia.” Ezran opened his mouth to say something, but I cut him off. “But that can’t be it, I’m not all that important to the guy who supposedly has thousands of subordinates to do his bidding. There has to be another reason, something else he’s after.”

“Maybe it’s Callum,” Ezran interrupted. “What if there’s a way he could know Callum and Rayla are magical? And he’s using Claudia as a link to you, as a link to him.” I thought for a moment. There are so many links to Callum- my dad, Claudia on her own, and if he knew, Rayla.

“N-no,” I stammered, “That can’t be it.”

“Well, think about it,” Ezran suggested. “The only other links from him to NYHTS include Corvus and Claudia. Claudia doesn’t know she’s a link, plus she’s across the country right now. Corvus isn’t as close to him as you are, which means that you’re the only viable option.”

“But see, that’s just it! Option for what? Why am I part of the equation anyways?”

“Callum can create storms. Rayla can pull objects from thin air. I have a feeling power like that is pretty hard to mask.”

“NYHTS doesn’t know that Callum and Rayla are together, otherwise they would have come after them or something-”

“Maybe not, but think about it this way.” Ezran guided me to the empty bed, pushing my shoulders so I’d sit. “They’re strong. They hold magic inside of them, a power so great that it could only be unlocked when they met. But now that it’s out there, it’s force is probably recognized somewhere. Maybe NYHTS can sense that force emitting from the both of them. Even before Callum and Rayla knew they could do magic. And now they have a reason to want Callum. Now they have a reason to use Claudia, to use you, to get to him. That’s why Runaan’s in L.A. He knows there's something waiting for him here, and he knows you could lead him right to it.” Ezran’s words cut like a knife. Claudia was bait. Claudia was how they’d lure me into leading them to Callum and Rayla, and NYHTS didn’t even know it yet. Or did they? They knew about Claudia, but I just had a feeling they’d have done something about moon-girl and sky-boy if they knew- it was all so confusing.

“Thanks for your help, Ez,” I muttered, twisting the ends of my hair around my finger. 

“No problem,” he said, sitting next to me. “That’s what friends are for.”

 

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

 

From a distance, with a heaving chest and elevated heart rate, I watched as Callum tried his best to catch up with some guy with a ponytail and rolling suitcase. I watched as Callum tapped him on the shoulder, breathless and red in the cheeks, handing him a wad of cash with a smile.

“I saw it fall out of your pocket,” he smiled, sly. Skeptical, the man took it and continued on his way. Beaming, Callum strode back to me. “It’s all right!” he said.

“Maybe so, but we still have to get back to our gate-” Before I could finish, he was gone.

 

At the terminal, I stepped into line, motioning for Callum to follow. 

“I don’t have a ticket,” he murmured, making sure no one else could hear. I smirked.

“You will. Trust me.” We made our way up to the desk. The flight attendant asked for my ticket and I handed it to her. I muttered a spell under my breath - ” replica invienta” - and suddenly my ticket doubled, the words on the new one bearing Callum’s name and a seat number that was right next to mine. The flight attendant didn’t notice the split and scanned them both, smiling unsuspectedly at the both of us. With a nod, Callum and I boarded.

“How did you do that!” he asked as we stepped into the plane.

“Moon stone, remember?” I said as we made our way to our seats. We were in row 31, I was seat B and Callum was seat C. 

“Hey, that’s my apartment number!” he said as I shoved my carry on into the overhead compartment. I didn’t mean to, but I disregarded the comment. As I sat next to Callum, I could feel dread rising in me. I hated flying, but we already knew that. “Hey,” he whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” His smile was almost enough to make me believe it. Almost. 

 

The flight was noticeable more bumpy than the last one. Whether this had anything to do with Callum, I was unsure. He slept the whole time, breathing deeply. I had nothing else to do until I remembered- Soren and Claudia didn’t know they were having a guest over. I pulled out my phone and started a new text to Claudia.

 

Hey! I’ve got some fun news. I locked my phone once more, then moments later was greeted with a ding!

And what’s that? Claudia’s response was almost immediate.

I’m heading back to L.A. as we speak! We’re in the air right now.

Dude, yes! Soren and I have a new idea we wanted to run by you when you got back, so it’s super cool that you’re coming!

Yeah, I’m psyched to hear it. But I’ve got some other news, too.

As long as you’re not evicting us, I’m cool.

Perfect- because Callum’s joining me, and he needs a place to stay. We figured since you guys are friends it’d be okay if he stayed with you and Soren?

I’m pretty sure that’d be alright. Let me check with Soren, be back in a sec. With that, the flow of conversation came to a screeching halt. I glanced over at Callum, leaned up against the open window, still fast asleep. The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon, casting a golden hue across his face, highlighting his freckles. He was attractive, no doubt. He had square shoulders, though they weren't all that broad. He was tall, too. But I would like to note that I was (and still am) a whole inch taller than he is. Regardless, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him- he was so peaceful like this, not at all like when he was awake. My Callum was fun and spontaneous and ambitious. And it seemed like he’d be willing to do anything for the people he cared about. And at this point, I wasn’t afraid to admit that that might include me.

 My phone buzzed, pulling me from my thoughts. A new text that read;

We got an all clear from Soren! Callum can take the couch if he would like.

Thanks so much! See you soon! I turned off my phone, turning once again to Callum. I wished he was awake. Then we could talk. I could tell him about the studio, describe it to him. And he liked to draw, too, a detail I had almost forgotten. Maybe he could sketch what he thought the studio might look like. I’d tell him about the seemingly millions of instruments hung on the walls, guitars gleaming and sparkling, violins and violas hanging from the ceiling, and my keyboard in the back practice room that had at least a hundred different modes and settings. And the drum kit in the corner- Callum would love that drum kit. Its color matched his eyes perfectly; green and shimmering.

Maybe we’d sing once we landed. I’d show him how the sound board works, right outside the booth window. He’d be fascinated, he’d be in awe of the way the vocal effects changed with the push of a button. I would want to show off more, maybe, taking the iPad directly into the booth, fitting us each with our own pair of headphones so we could listen to the changes in vocals from directly inside. Maybe he’d sing again. I’d very much like to hear him sing. I wonder if he’d sound different than the first time I heard him. Since he had the sky arcanum now. Since he had perfect pitch now.

“Like what you see?” Callum smirked with his eyes cracked open. Shocked that I’d been caught staring, my eyes met the floor and I could feel the heat rising through to my cheeks.

“I- I was just watching the sunrise,” I protested, glancing up at him. Oblivious to the truth, he blushed.

“Oh sorry- I thought- maybe you were- oh wow, look how beautiful!” He turned and watched out the window at the clouds passing by next to a barely-there gleaming golden sun. It’s light casted on everything inside the cabin. “It is worth staring,” he whispered, his breath fogging the glass.

“Yeah,” I breathed, focused once more on the constellations in his freckles. “It is.”

 

Landing was rough. The plane bounced and jostled violently, my heart rate skyrocketing. I clenched my eyes shut, feeling Callum’s hand wrap around mine. The familiar collision of moon and sky soared through my arm like adrenaline. Thump. Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble. We were on the ground now, thank god. Scattered applause (what the hell, people?) and lights returning to the cabin. I was home.

“Rayla, we’re here,” Callum said, lacing his fingers with mine. I opened my eyes as passengers around us scrambled to get their things together.

“And we’re alive.” I cleared my throat, pulling my hand from Callum’s grip. 

“Hell yeah we are,” he grinned, pulling his satchel onto his shoulder. I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t help a smile seeping through. “Oh come on, let your guard down a little! This is your home turf, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”

“Watch it, kid,” grumbled some guy as he brushed past me in the aisle. 

“Yeah,” I said, “Let my guard down. Sure.”

 

It was early Saturday morning, cool and sunny as Callum and I made our way to my car from the long-term parking lot. He still had his violin and his satchel, and I, my carry-on. We shoved them all into my trunk before getting in. I started the car, backing out of my spot, when Callum said;

“So. Rayla Dove has a bright red 2017 Nissan Rogue - Midnight edition.”

“Yeah, so?” I eased my way into traffic, carefully accelerating.

“I don’t know, just,” he shrugged. “Not the kind of car I thought you’d have.”

“Well, what kind of car do you drive?” I asked.

“Black Nissan Altima. Tan interior.” He smirked, as if that was something to be proud of.

Really?” I tried to sound as shocked as possible. “That’s not the kind of car I thought you’d have.”

“Oh, come on,” Callum mused, though we fell silent. The car hummed steady as we pulled to a stop at a light.

“You don’t mind if we stop at the studio first, right?” I asked as we pulled into motion once more.

“Not at all!” he brightened. “I’d love to see it.”

“It’s underwhelming,” I replied, lying on purpose. Not to toot my own horn, but me and Lujanne’s studio was one of the best around.

“Oh come on. It’s yours, how could it be underwhelming?”

“What does it’s ownership have to do with anything?”

“Well, I don’t know, you're just so creative and clever…” His voice trailed off.

“Yeah?”

“I just imagined it as this fun colorful room with instruments all over the walls and a keyboard with a million settings and a drum kit in the corner, and none of the decor matches but t all fits so well.”

“Sounds like you have a bigger imagination than me,”  I chuckled.

 

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

 

The car fell silent again. I didn’t know how to bring up how important it was to me that Rayla stayed safe. She was putting herself in so much danger, and I couldn’t bear the thought of- no, I couldn’t even think the idea, let alone watch it play out. I glanced over at her, watching the way she would check the mirrors every four or five seconds. Her movements with the steering wheel were smooth and precise. Rayla was a really good driver. She was so careful. Which is part of why I trusted her so much.

“What are we going to do?” I eventually asked. As I said the words, a somber mood filled the car, lowering the temperature.

“What do you mean?” Rayla was quiet.

“We’re here. You’re here for your family. I’m here because I followed you, but also to gather information on the enemy. Who happens to be… your family.”

“Not my whole family,” Rayla remarked, halfway between a reassuring statement and an offended snap.

“Right. Just the one guy.”

“You can say his name, he’s not a villain.”

“But to Corvus and Lailah, Runaan is a villain, and to me, he is the villain.”

“Who knew meeting the parents would put such a damper on the relationship,” Rayla smiled, dodging the conversation.

“I’ll say.” 

“So… do you have a course of action?” Rayla pulled into a turning lane, flicking on the left blinker. Always use your turn signal, kids.

“Not really. Just a goal.”

“Which is?”

“Figure out how Runaan knows that Claudia is Lailah’s soulmate, if he knows that we’re soulmates, and what his reason is for being all the way across the country.”

“That sounds like three goals,” Rayla turned into the lot of a tall building with lots of windows and very few parked cars.

“What can I say- I’m the ambitious type,” I smirked as the car pulled into a parking spot.

“Good thing, too.” Rayla turned off the engine. “Wouldn’t be much fun if my soulmate had no sense of adventure.” She stopped and stared at me for a second, a stare that ended with an awkward smile and me asking;

“What?”

“Nothing.” she shook her head. “Get out, we’re here.”

 

Rayla really was downplaying her studio’s interior design. One step inside, and I could practically feel music and energy radiating from each wall. Guitars glistened from hooks along the walls, glittering electrics stood proudly on their stands. Busted yet decorative violins and violas hung from the ceiling. A keyboard with a million different settings sat against a far wall, waiting to be played. And in the corner was a green drum set. I gasped when I stepped inside, unsure of how to take everything in. My eyes drifted to a soundboard in front of a window- the booth window. On the soundboard was an iPad, with a similar display to that of the board it was sitting on. I moved towards the soundboard, amazed at all the dials and switches and pulls and-

“So, what do you think?” Rayla asked. I spun around, soaking in everything , mouth agape in awe.

“It’s amazing ,” I whispered. “Have you played all of these?” I gestured to the guitars hung on the walls.

“Yep, every single one.” She stepped inside and closed the door, pulling a swivel chair out from under the soundboard desk and sat. On the iPad, she pulled up a song that had been in the browser and hit play. A soft piano chord hit my ears, notes creating dissonance as it played. Only Us from Dear Evan Hansen. But with a few clicks of a button, a switch and a slider, well, sliding, it was in a whole different key, sounding like a whole new song.

“Woah!” I stood over her shoulder, watching her hands play with digital graphs, poking and prodding spikes until the tempo was different. “How are you doing that!”

“Lujanne and I call it sound-wave magic,” she replied. My mind was racing- not only was Rayla crazy talented, but she was tech savvy too? All I could do was write a few paragraphs on what I thought was science.

“Does it work on voices?” I blurted.

“Of course it does, silly,” Rayla opened a drawer to her right and pulled out a silver key. “Head into the booth and see for yourself!” 

To the left was a tall glass door. I unlocked it and stepped inside, marveled at how instantly every little sound was muted. I closed the door behind me, and I heard Rayla’s voice say;

“Put on the headphones that are on the mic stand.” I looked through the booth window to see Rayla leaning and talking into a microphone, making it so I could hear her perfectly, despite this sound proofing in the room. I looked to the middle, where a two mics were standing, each with a pair of huge sound proof headphones. I stepped toward the mic farthest left and pulled the headphones over my ears.

“Now what?” I asked, though I didn’t hear my voice. Rayla laughed and said,

“You look like a dork.”

“Oh, come on!” I laughed too. “Now press whatever button makes me sound like Elvis.”

“You gotta start singing, wise guy!” She wanted me to sing? Oh, she’d hear me sing.

“DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF HOLLY, FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!” My voice cut through the headphones louder than I thought it would, but I didn’t let that stop me. I belted every word- and it sounded atrocious. “‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”

“CALLUM!” Rayla laughed, clutching her side. “You have to actually sing! You can’t just make noise!”

“Who's to say I wasn’t!” I wasn’t.

“It’s November!” she retorted, still hysterical.

“I like Christmas!” I called back. “If you’re so sure I sung it wrong, you come in here and show me how to do it right.”

“Fine, then!” Rayla, still beaming, took the iPad with her when she came into the booth, putting on the headphones hanging on the stand. On the iPad, she pulled up a dopey Christmas song, jingle bells ringing in my ears.

“No. no, you have to actually sing.”

“Wait, what?” Rayla snapped from playful to almost fearful in half a second.

“Yeah, I told you to come in and show me how it’s done!” I reached for her iPad, though she pulled it away. I fumbled to hit the screen, she yelped and tried to push my hands away, leaning as far back as possible, but it was no use. When I felt my fingers meet the glass, the cheezy Christmas instrumental cut out and was replaced with a soft piano, chords smooth and slow. Only Us. Rayla blushed as the intro continued.

“N-no, I haven't sung in so long,” she stammered, all in one breath. The intro was slowing. Her turn to sing was coming up. She glanced over at me, nervous. I smiled and nodded.




I don't need you to sell me on reasons to want you

I don't need you to search for the proof that I should

You don't have to convince me

You don't have to be scared you're not enough

'Cause what we've got going is good

My voice cracked with uncertainty. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sung, especially for an audience. 

I focused on the iPad in front of me, messing with the settings trying to make myself sound better, but Callum pulled my hand away, heat rushed to my face.

I couldn’t get over how beautiful her voice was. And still is, might I add. At first it wavered but when she got more confident her tone was perfect. I should know, right? As she sange, I could almost see the soundwaves bouncing off the walls around us, despite the foam mutes.

I don't need more reminders of all that's been broken

I don't need you to fix what I'd rather forget

Clear the slate and start over

Try to quiet the noises in your head

We can't compete with all that



As the next verse began, I began to realize how close to home this song hit. Callum was a mess; he’d left me in the rain, he panicked and was so spontaneously irrational. But through all the mistakes he’d made I couldn’t help but fall harder.

Her voice was perfect for this song- her range was stellar and her pitch was impeccable. No wonder she was a musician- she had so much talent in her already that her hands couldn’t help but learn to play too.

So what if it's us?

What if it's us

And only us

And what came before won't count anymore or matter?

Can we try that?

I still couldn’t make eye contact; this whole ordeal felt weirdly intimate.  We were just there, together. Maybe that was the point, though. 

I stared in awe- she was wonderful. Her voice just fit with the melody like the song was written for her. 

What if it's you

And what if it's me

And what if that's all that we need it to be

And the rest of the world falls away?

What do you say?

Thoughts of magic and miracles filled my head. Hurricanes, illusions, lightning and lies. Quite a pair we’d be. I glanced over at Callum, his eyes dazed and almost in awe. 

The trace echoed through my head along with the live feed from my headphones. The sounds weren’t offset anymore with a delay. They were in sync. We were finally in sync.

I never thought there'd be someone like you who would 

want me

So I give you ten thousand reasons to not let me go

But if you really see me

If you like me for me and nothing else

Well, that's all that I've wanted for longer than you could possibly know

Callum’s voice was perfect. I could hear the magic radiating with his voice. I was so lucky to- to- to what? Be with him? Be destined to be with him? I was lucky he was in my life at all.

As I began, I shocked myself. I wasn’t half bad with this arcanum thing. I knew it was none of my own talent that carried me through the verse. That was all magic. Magic that Rayla brought me. This was all because she was here.

So it can be us

It can be us

And only us

And what came before won't count anymore or matter

We can try that

Wow. His vibrato was enough to knock me off my feet. Even if it was only his because of his arcanum, I could almost hear it mending and merging into his person and the chous carried on.

I was suddenly embarrassed when Rayla looked up at me. It felt too good to be true, but it was true. No lies, no foreshadowing. Just Rayla and I. The truth.



It's not so impossible

Nobody else but the two of us here

Cause you're saying it's possible

I looked over at him.

No one but us, just him and I.

I looked over at her.

Nobody else. Just us.

We can just watch the whole world disappear

'Til you're the only one

I still know how to see

Our harmonies were flawless.

Rayla was flawless.

She was absolutely perfect and as she sang, everything around me faded into oblivion.

It's just you and me

He was everything.

She was beautiful.

It'll be us, It'll be us

And only us

And what came before won't count anymore

Callum was the only one I could see anymore.

Rayla was the only one I wanted to see anymore.

We can try that

You and me

That's all that we need it to be

As I sang I started to believe these words more than ever before. Loving someone and what it meant; this was it. Loving Callum was what it meant to love someone.


Certainty backed behind her more and more, crescendoing until I needed nothing more than to reach out and take her hand.

And the rest of the world falls away

And the rest of the world falls away



Our hands clasped together as we sang in tandem- our harmonies falling into place like snow on Christmas morning. The sky and the moon fell into place for the first time in our hands. Everything was falling into place

No tiredness bugged at my eyes when I held her hand. We didn’t need to share memories anymore. We were together on this one.

The world falls away

The world falls away

Nothing but the boy in front of me came into view.

All I could see was Rayla.

And it's only us

And it’s only us.

And it’s only us.



The instrumentals faded away, leaving Rayla and I in complete silence together. My heart was pounding, my breathing shallow. We just were. 

“You are so…” I whispered, unable to finish the sentence. So many things could fill in the blank, and I couldn't decide on what. 

Rayla bit her lip, studying my eyes. In one swift move, she grabbed my neck, pulled me in and planted a kiss on my own lips- my own lips. My eyes shut, sending everything else away. It was just me and Rayla. The two of us, together. I couldn’t help but hold her closer, wrapping an arm around her waist, lulling her in. Just us. By ourselves. And it was perfect. She was perfect. Rayla was perfect. To my dismay, however, Rayla pulled away, the skin where we’d met still burning. She brushed her thumb across my cheek before taking back her hand entirely.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a while,” she said, quiet, savoring the silence around us. I just smiled and shook my head softly. 

“Me too.”