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Return to Katolis

Chapter Text

Ezran wasn’t usually one to rise early. In fact, he despised it. More often than not, Opeli or Corvus would have to knock loudly at the door of his chambers before he rose, and still he would only do so begrudgingly.

But not today. 

Because today was the first full day that Callum and Rayla were back in Katolis.

After the battle of the Storm Spire six months ago, Callum had come to Ezran twiddling his thumbs and looking more than a little sheepish. He told him that Rayla wanted to stay and look after Zym and Zubea while a new Dragon Guard was appointed, and Ibis had offered to teach Callum more sky magic if he wanted to stay as well. Which he did, Ezran could tell immediately. 

He saw in his brother’s eyes how much he craved the chance to finally have a dedicated sky magic teacher, and more than that, how much he wanted to stay with Rayla. But Callum had promised that if Ezran needed him, he would go back to Katolis too. 

Ezran had just smiled, hugged his brother tightly around the middle and told him to stay. Xadia suited him; it was where he needed to be.

He needed to be with Rayla. 

It had been a tearful goodbye, with plenty of hugs and promises to visit as soon as possible. But it also held the question of what laid on the horizon -- a world that could, hopefully, begin to find its way to peace. 

Ezran had turned to look back at the spire from the back of his horse while and saw Callum and Rayla, their free hands waving to him while their others were entwined together. Zym hovered at their shoulders looking longingly at Ezran while occasionally looking toward Zubea, who’d also come down from the spire to watch the humans depart. 

They would be okay. Ezran knew they would. So he’d turned his gaze forward and rode home. 

Since then, they’d exchanged letter after letter. Callum wrote him at least once a week, often more than that. He told him all about the new spells he was learning and apparently he was getting much better at flying too. According to Rayla’s letters, Callum had developed a love of swooping down on her to snatch her from the ground while she was training in the field or sitting on top of the pinnacle. 

Ezran wrote them back about things in Katolis, of course. He told them about his classes in politics and economics, his meetings with the newly appointed rulers of Evenere and Del Bar and how Soren had gotten stuck in the passegways when he’d tried to show him how to sneak into the kitchens.

Callum also sent Ezran all kinds of sketches: Zym asleep beneath his mother’s wing, Rayla training in the field in front of the spire, Zubea stretching her wings before taking off to fly with her son for the very first time. They were all so beautiful and made Ezran’s heart ache to see them again.

Then, a few weeks ago, Ezran had gotten the best letter of them all. 

Callum said two other eleven warriors had arrived as new members of the Dragon Guard. Rayla had immensely enjoyed being put in charge of their training, and now they were finally fit in her eyes to look after Zym and Zubea on their own. Meanwhile, Callum would be taking a break from his training so they could return to Katolis to visit, just in time for the winter festival.

Ezran had been ecstatic. 

Pyrrah flew them from the spire to the moon nexus and from there, they’d traveled the rest of the way on foot before finally coming into town last night. They’d arrived under the cover of darkness, so there was no great spectacle when the prince of Katolis returned home hand-in-hand with one of the moonshadow elves who’d originally been sent to assassinate the late King Harrow. 

There wasn’t exactly peace, more of an uneasy truce that had settled over the kingdom. Ezran understood their trepidation, even if he didn’t agree with it. When he and the others had returned from Xadia, they’d told the people about what had happened, how Viren had been corrupted and how they’d brought him down in the name of humans, elves and dragons. 

The citizens had been grateful, if not cautiously optimistic about what the battle meant for the days ahead. So was Ezran, if he was being honest. But even though he’d told them again and again about how he’d traveled with an elf friend who’d saved his life and his brother’s life dozens of times, there was still apprehension. 

He’d almost insisted that Callum and Rayla arrive during the daytime so he could announce her as a hero of Katolis with as much fanfare and celebration as they both deserved. But Rayla had sent back a letter with only three words:

“Don’t you dare.”

In the end, Ezran was glad their reunion was quieter and more private. Soren had escorted him out to the gates of the kingdom beneath a heavy cloak where they waited as a gentle snow fell around them. Eventually, Callum and Rayla’s  figures came into view along the path.

They all ran to each other, colliding into a heap in the snow as they embraced. Soren followed and wrapped all of them in a large, lung-crushing hug. Callum fussed over Ezran as usual, bemoaning the fact that it seemed like he’d grown taller in the time they’d been apart. Rayla gave Soren an affectionate punch to the shoulder. Meanwhile, Bait had turned a vibrate shade of orange.

They walked back together, sharing stories and laughs, not feeling an ounce of the cold that had soaked into their clothes. 

It was wonderful to have their little family back together. 

When they arrived in the light of the castle, Ezran saw the fatigue in their eyes and hanging heavy from their bodies. He quickly ushered them to their rooms -- Callum in his old room, Rayla in one just down the hall. 

Ezran had intended to put Rayla up in his old room, but Opeli said that wouldn’t be appropriate since the rooms were conjoined. He wasn’t quite sure why that was the case, but he agreed, chalking up to one of those grownup things someone would tell him eventually. 

He said goodnight to Callum and Rayla before heading off to his own bed. 

What he didn’t see was Rayla almost immediately peeking her head out from her room, glancing around and, after seeing nobody, silently creeping over to Callum’s door and slipping inside. 

So the next day, and for the first time in ages, Ezran woke with the dawn, dressed quickly and happily made his way down the halls. 

He had so many things he wanted to show Callum and Rayla: Viren’s hidden dark magic chambers had been stripped of all their foul contents; a portion of the garden had been replanted with Xadian seeds Ibis had given him; and they were even been preparing for a handful of elves to visit during the festival.

Ezran was proud of what he’d been doing so far as king. It was hard, and he often had to look to those around him for help. But that wasn’t a weakness, in fact, he saw it as one of his greatest strengths. He was lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful people who supported him and wanted the best for the human kingdoms as well as Xadia.

He waved off a few guards who attempted to accompany him as he continued hurrying his way down the corridors, Bait grumbling in his arms.

Ezran didn’t bother knocking when he reached Callum’s room, they’d both practiced the art of waking each other up in the most jarring ways possible. Ezran’s own personal favorite involved being just noisy enough to get Callum to stir before launching Bait at his head.

He threw open the door, letting it collide with the stone wall with a loud “ thwack ,” as he raised Bait in his arms and prepared to launch.

“Callum!” He said loudly. “It’s time to wake u-”

Ezran paused as he took in the sight of his sleeping brother, his hair a mess, his nightshirt unbuttoned and his arm slung around Rayla, who was lying asleep with her head against his chest. 

Callum had pulled her close sometime during the night, his hand on her shoulder and his cheek pressed against the top of her head. For a moment, they both looked so peaceful, their breathing in synch and just the hint of a smile on both of their faces.

Huh, guess they really didn’t need the second room after all.

They began to stir from the noise he had made. their brows furrowing before their eyes fluttered open. They looked at each other first, sleep still in their eyes and their goofy, dreamy smiles growing across their lips.

But all at once, they both realized what had woken them. Their eyes shot open wide as their heads snapped to Ezran standing in the doorway, an amused look on his face as he slowly lowered the glow toad in his arms back to his normal height.

“Morning, guys!” He said cheerily. “Sleep well?” 

Bait croaked in his arms, Ezran chuckling at his sarcasm. 

Rayla shot up first, her face bright red. She had evidently removed the outer layers of her armor, leaving her only in her undershirt and trousers. It was by no means an indecent amount of clothing, but it was definitely the least Ezzran had ever seen her wear.

Her thoughts must have been similar, for she yanked the coverlet up and pulled it around herself like a cocoon as she scrambled to move away from his brother, practically kicking him in the process. She leapt off the bed entirely and, without missing a beat, threw open the door of the wardrobe, climbed inside and shut the door behind her.  

This left Callum now sitting alone in his underclothes, his face, if possible, even redder than Rayla’s.

Ezran started to laugh. 

“I told Opeli to just let Rayla stay in my old room. I figured you guys must be used to sleeping in the same room at this point,” he said.

Ezran heard a muffled groan from inside the wardrobe, followed by a heavy thump. 

“Uh, Ez...Did Opeli say why she didn’t want us staying together?” Callum said shakily as he fumbled to re-button his shirt. 

“Just that it was ‘inappropriate’ or something. But I said that if we wanted the rest of the world to get along, we had to lead by example, so we shouldn’t separate you guys just because Rayla’s an elf. But then she just said that wasn’t the reason, and that it would be inappropriate whether Rayla was an elf or not,” Ezran said. 

“Uh huh…?” Callum said, carefully examining his little brother’s face for  a moment. 

“Why would she think it’s inappropriate? She knows you guys are a...thing and I told her that you like to cuddle and stuff,” Ezran said.

Another, even louder thump came from inside the wardrobe.

“Uhhh…” Callum said, drawing the word out long as he could, pausing his effort to stand up from the bed. 

“You know what Ezran?” He said finally, his expression brightening considerably. “I have no idea,” he said, a little too loud.

“Psh, why would she think it’s not appropriate? Heh, Opeli’s always been so weird about rules, huh?”

Callum wasn’t a good liar, Ezran knew that. But it sure was fun to watch him fumble.

“Why don’t we go for a walk while Rayla gets ready though. I want to see how the festival is shaping up.”

It was a deflection, but it was a good one.

Ezran’s smile widened. 

“Yeah! It’s awesome, Callum! I let the baker have a bigger stall this year and he came up with a new jelly tart that’s amazing! Oh! And Aunt Amaya’s sunfire elf friend is coming too!”

“Well all right then, let’s go!” Callum replied with desperate enthusiasm as he pulled on his boots and winter jacket. “Uh, Rayla, you want to come join us when you’re ready?” Callum asked tentatively as he knocked once on the door of the wardrobe. 

“Nope. No, I’m just gonna stay in here forever now, thanks,” her muffled voice replied. 

Callum chuckled. 

“Hey, Ez? Give me just a minute, would you? I’ll meet you outside.”

“Yeah, of course. Come meet me when you guys are done being gross,” Ezran said with a smile.

He watched with amusement as the color rose in Callum’s cheeks once again. He laughed, clutching Bait a little tighter in his arms as he left, closing the door behind.

Yeah, this was going to be a fun visit. 

Chapter Text

Callum met up with Ezran in the courtyard about 10 minutes later, fully dressed in his winter clothing and his scarf, as usual, wrapped around his neck. It was the first moment Ezran realized that his brother had also changed since they were apart. 

It seemed like he’d had a haircut at some point. His hair, while still messy and unruly, looked like it had been trimmed shorter than he used to wear it. The clothes he wore were also different. They were from Xadia, and had been colored with stealth and practicality in mind, rather than the bright reds, blues and golds the royal tailor usually dressed them in. it all made him look older.

Ezran squinted a little as Callum approached. Was he taller too? He couldn’t quite tell if he’d actually grown in height, or if he was just carrying himself straighter these days. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

There was also a brightness in his eyes that Ezran had never seen there before. He was more sure of his words and actions. Not to mention the way he acted around Rayla. 

He looked happy. 

Ezran smiled at his brother. He knew Xadia would be good for him.

“So, where to first?” Callum asked, his own smile bright and warm.

“Let’s take a walk through town, I want to show you how everything’s being set up,” Ezran said.

Callum nodded and together they set off, Corvus accompanying them from a respectful distance. 

“So, was Rayla too embarrassed to come?” Ezran asked with a wry smile as they began crossing the bridge.

Callum’s face only became a little inflamed this time, but it was still funny. 

“She...uh...she said she’d catch up with us. She needed a little more time to…” 

“To stop being embarrassed and get out of the wardrobe?” Ezran provided, loving every minute of this. 

“To get ready ,” Callum immediately corrected him. “She’s not used to the winters we have over here, so she’s just getting ready.”

“She seemed just fine when we all climbed a snowy mountain together and got caught in an avalanche,” Ezran said casually, Bait grumbling in affirmation. 

Callum frowned at him.

“Okay, fine,” he said exasperatedly. “Yes, she’s embarrassed. No, I got her to come out of the wardrobe. And yes, she’ll be here soon, okay? Are you happy?”

“Yes,” Ezran replied with a nod. “Very.” 

Callum sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. 

Ezran laughed, bending down to scoop up a tiny handful of snow and chucking it at his brother’s head. Surprisingly, Callum actually managed to dodge the little mound of snow, stepping out of the way just in time as it sailed in front of his nose and off the side of the bridge.

The look of indignation that had been gathering on his face melted immediately and was replaced with a look of sheer mischief. 

“Oh, you do not want to start a snowball fight with a sky mage, kid. Trust me,” he said, bringing his right hand up in preparation to draw a rune.

“Hey, you’ve got sky magic, but I’ve got Corvus,” Ezran said, gesturing over his shoulder, Corvus looking around in surprise for a moment. 

“Uhh...” he said, unsure exactly what the young king wanted from him.

The brief scuffle that ensued was nothing short of ridiculous. Callum had indeed learned a spell that let him essentially blow a small blizzard across the bridge at Ezran and Corvus, the snow buffeting them without remorse. 

In their turn, Ezran and Corvus threw as much snow back as they could. It was a bit pitiful to be throwing snow at a mage who could literally blow more back at them, if Ezran was being honest. 

But it made his heart soar. 

The battle didn’t last long, the emerging faces of curious townsfolk quickly bringing them back to where they were. But it was the first time they’d done something like that since before everything with Zym had started.

For the first time in months, Ezran was just a kid playing with his brother. 

They set off into town in earnest after they brushed the snow from their clothes and let their laughter settle. Ezran began to point out some of the different parts that were coming together for the festival. Stalls were being set up at different spots where vendors would sell various treats and trinkets. Winter plants decorated doorways and a small pond to the east of town was going to be used for skating. 

Just before they reached the town square, Callum suddenly stopped in his tracks, his head tilting slightly to the right as if her were listening for something.

“Callum?” Ezran asked, looking back at him confused. “Why did you stop? What’s wro-”

“Shh,” he replied, a small smile on his face. Quickly, he brought a finger up to draw a very small rune in the air. “Aspiro frigis,” he whispered, letting his hand drift down to the ground next to him.

Ezran watched as a little patch of snow on Callum’s right froze into a smooth, solid piece of ice. He opened his mouth to ask again what he was doing when a dark shape suddenly dropped down from the low rooftop above them and landed directly on the frozen spot. 

Rayla let out a little yelp of surprise, clearly having expected the light crunch of snow beneath her feet, not the slippery ice.

She flailed slightly as she fought to catch her balance. But once again, and much to Ezran’s surprise, Callum moved faster and with more surety than he’d ever seen, snatching Rayla’s arm. He pulled her to his side, holding her close and laughing as she clutched his jacket.

“Hey,” he said, still chuckling. “There you are.”

Rayla’s expression was pure shock. Ezran imagined his wasn’t much different. 

What just happened?

“How-how did you know I was going to do that?” She asked, looking at him with wide eyes as she finally found her footing.. 

“What do you mean?” Callum asked, pulling her forward a few steps and waving his hand to dispel the ice. “I heard you coming.”

Rayla looked to Ezran, who shrugged, “I didn’t hear anything.”

She glanced to Corvus, who also held his hands up with surprise. “I didn’t hear you either.”

“When did you start getting so fast?” Ezran asked. When had he become so coordinated ?

Apparently his brother had changed even more than he thought.

“I-I don’t know what you mean,” he said, lacing his fingers with Rayla’s and rubbing the back of his head with the other hand. “I’m still just the same amount of fast -- normal human fast.” 

“I’d say you’re closer to not-normal mage fast at this point,” Rayla said, still looking a little taken off guard, but also proud. 

Ezran was proud of him too. As long as Ezran could remember, Callum had wanted to find his thing , something he was good at that also let him protect the people he loved. Magic was definitely his thing. Look at him now; after six months away he could summon a small blizzard, freeze the ground beneath his feet and literally make a former elven assassin to fall into his arms. 

Ezran wished their dad could be here to see this. 

Callum cleared his throat, obviously growing increasingly uncomfortable with all the eyes on him. “Come on,” he said, pulling Rayla forward. “Show us the square, Ez.”

Ezran smiled and nodded, leading the way toward the main attraction of the winter festival.

As they rounded the corner, Callum and Rayla both gasped a little at the sight of the massive tree in the middle of the square shimmering with thousands of tiny, sparkling points and adorned with little baubles of all different shapes and colors. 

“This--this is an earthblood Winter’s Day tree,” Rayla said breathlessly, letting go of Callum’s hand to walk closer, her eyes locked on the magnificent sight.

Ezran beamed. 

“Surprise!” He said, holding his hands out wide. Bait grumbling as he climbed onto his shoulder.

“When you told me about them in your letter a few months ago, I had one planted in the square. It hasn’t gotten big enough on its own yet though, so I asked Lujaine if she could help me out with an illusion. I also asked to make sure I wouldn’t be offending anybody by having one in Katolis, but she said it was a good idea,” he said.

Rayla’s eyes had gone a little misty. “It’s a wonderful idea, Ezran,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “It’s beautiful.”

Callum walked over and pulled him into a sideways hug. 

“Nice work, your Majesty,” he said, ruffling his hair just a bit. 

Most of Rayla’s letters over the last several months had been full of elven customs and traditions that she hadn’t had time to tell them about during their journey. Ezran loved every word. He wanted to learn as much as he could about elves. He wanted to learn how to bring their cultures together.

So when she’d told him about how, in earthblood elf villages, they planted massive trees that they would decorate in the dead of winter with symbols of their people and hopes for a prosperous spring, Ezran had jumped on the idea. 

Lujaine had done a wonderful job on the illusion. The tree looked mighty and strong and the baubles were decorated with symbols of the human kingdoms as well as each of the six primal sources.

“I want the elves who are coming to feel welcome. There won’t be many of them this year, but hopefully that’ll change one day too,” Ezran said.

They stayed there together for a little while longer, just taking everything in. Eventually more people began to shuffle through the square as the morning wore on. They took notice of King Ezran out and about and bowed respectfully in his direction before seeing the other person standing beside him. 

“Prince Callum!” They started to exclaim. “Prince Callum, you’ve returned!” 

A few people came over to shake his hand and thank him for what he did during the Battle of the Storm Spire. He chuckled nervously and accepted their thanks despite telling them he really hadn’t done that much. 

“Honestly,” he tried telling a woman who was especially adamant in her praise. “Ezran rode dragons and Rayla saved Zym; I really didn’t help that much in comparison.”

At the mention of Rayla’s name, the woman looked around curiously until she saw the elf girl standing a few feet away. Her hood was pulled up, but at a closer glance, someone could catch a glimpse of her white hair or her four-fingered hands that remained uncovered. 

“Umm, hello…” Rayla said, nervously shifting on the spot. 

The woman gaped at her for a moment before glancing back at Callum and Ezran, clearly unsure of what to do. 

Callum just smiled and walked over to Rayla, gently lifting the hood from her head and taking her by the hand to lead her over. 

Ezran saw the woman’s eyes widen just a little out of the corner of his view and he suppressed a little chuckle. There were going to be a lot more people in Katolis looking at them like that with the way they were around each other. 

“This is Rayla,” Callum said with pride. “She is the bravest, kindest person I’ve ever met and she helped my brother and I bring the dragon prince back to Xadia.”

The woman glanced again at her king and at her prince, both giving her reassuring smiles, before she looked to Rayla once more. 

What happened next was something Ezran knew he’d remember for years to come. 

The woman smiled at Rayla, a real, genuine smile, before reaching a hand out to her. “Thank you for what you have done for our kingdom -- for what you have done for the world .”

Rayla stood still with shock for only a moment before she returned the smile and shook the woman’s hand firmly. 

“It was my pleasure,” she said warmly. 

They spent the rest of the day walking through town together, Callum convincing Rayla to keep her hood off as he and Ezran proudly showed her around. They introduced her to new and familiar faces alike, both of them enjoying watching her squirm under their praise. 

She made it up to them by picking the most embarrassing stories from their journey to tell the townsfolk, who, after some apprehension, began to laugh along with her. 

There were stares of another kind as well, not as many as Ezran expected, but they were there. He saw them aimed at Rayla when she wasn’t looking. He saw the snears and glares when Callum took her hand again in the tavern when they stopped for lunch. 

Ezran turned to look every one of them straight in the eye when they did it, and almost all of them turned away in shame immediately. A few kept their looks of disgust defiantly visible for a moment longer, at least until Corvus stepped into their line of sight. 

Callum and Rayla noticed them too; Ezran knew they did. He caught glimpses of Callum rubbing his thumb over the top of her hand to soothe her after they passed a man who’s distaste had been especially evident. And he saw when Rayla put a hand on his shoulder when a woman muttered something terrible under her breath. 

It was disappointing, but when it came down to it, they were having far more good moments than bad. Ezran was overjoyed to watch Rayla joke with the woman they’d met in the square, talk goodnaturedly with members of the crownguard and play with a pair of curious children who became fascinated by her. 

As Rayla spoke with the children’s mother, the little infant boy still cradled in her arms and trying to reach for her horns, Ezran looked toward Callum. He was leaning against a wall, holding his sketchbook open with one hand while he sketched enthusiastically with the other. And whether he realized it or not, he was grinning like an idiot. 

Ezran casually glanced around his brother’s arm and caught a glimpse of the sketch that was rapidly coming to life. Just as he thought, he saw Rayla smiling up from the page, the little boy resting on her hip while his older sister clutched at her other hand. 

“Rayla would make a great mom,” Ezran said casually, keeping his gaze on the page. 

“Yeah,” Callum replied without hesitation, his voice sounding far away. 

Ezran waited until the realization came.

“Wait, what?” Callum asked, snapping the book shut abruptly. 

It was dark by the time they made it back to the castle. Corvus bid them all a goodnight before making his way to his room, his arms laden with jelly tarts that Ezran had forced him to take when they stopped by to see the baker. 

That left Callum, Rayla and Ezran to walk the halls alone as they headed toward their own rooms. 

“We can help with some of the final preparations tomorrow, if you’d like” Callum offered, munching on his own jelly tart as they walked. Rayla nodded, her mouth full as well. 

“That’ll be great! Aunt Amaya should be getting in with Gren and Janai tomorrow morning too,” Ezran said, clutching a slightly jelly-bloated Bait. 

They reached an intersection of hallways, Ezran preparing to turn left while Callum and Rayla would be headed right.

Ezran smirked, happy to get in one last jab at them before heading to bed.

“Just be warned that if you stay the night in Callum’s room again, you’re going to get woken up by me and Bait in the morning. No mercy this time,” he said with a laugh. 

They both blushed, but managed to laugh along with him this time. At least until the sound of another voice interrupted them.

“If she spends the night where again?” Opeli’s voice cut through their laughter fast as lightning, collectively shutting them up.

Wincing, Ezran looked over his shoulder and saw her standing in a doorway that he recognized led to her quarters. 

Why, why why had they stopped here ?

He loved Opeli. She’d been a trusted advisor to his father and now she was the same to him. She’d also become a good friend. He thanked her every day for taking over the duty of sifting through the daily mail and taking care of most of the mundane scrolls herself. She fought hard for what was best for Katolis and she fought hard for him. 

But man could she be scary.

He couldn’t remember much about his mother, much less about what she was like as a disciplinarian. But if she had still been around to catch him sneaking a family of hedgehogs into the castle or replacing Callum’s soap with butter, he’d imagine that she’d have given him a look like Opeli was giving them know.

“Prince Callum,” she said sharply, making all three of them jump. “May I have a word with you?”

Ezran glanced over to see Callum’s eyes go wide with fear for a moment before he swallowed hard. 

“Yep, yea-yeah, of course,” his voice was wavering horribly. “Absolutely no reason why I wouldn’t want to have a word.”

Rayla put a hand on his shoulder, her eyes questioning whether he needed her to go with him. He sighed, shaking his head as he gave her hand a reassuring pat.

Ezran tried to shoot him his own look of apology, hoping that he wouldn’t get in too much trouble. Callum offered him a small smile in return as he crossed the hall and Opeli moved aside to allow him to pass into the room. 

She offered one last look at Ezran and Rayla, her eyes were still stern, but they’d softened just enough to give him a little hope that he hadn’t just ruined their visit. She closed the door, leaving them alone in the hall, which had suddenly become much more drafty.

Chapter Text

Ezran and Rayla waited across the hallway from Opeli’s door for Callum to reemerge. At first they’d taken turns trying to listen through the wood but to no avail. Now, they’d settled for sitting across the hall, their backs pressed against the wall. 

“This will probably take a while,” he said, looking over to Rayla. “Opeli’s lectures tend to drag on.”

Rayla sighed and let her head collide with the wall behind her. “If she’s anything like Runaan, and judging by that look she gave us I think she is, you’re probably right. Wish we knew what she was saying to him though.”

“I’m sorry, Rayla. I didn’t mean to ruin your visit,” he said, shifting Bait in his lap nervously, hanging his head low. 

She turned to look at him, a bright smile appearing on her lips. “You didn’t ruin anything, Ez. Callum and I are the ones who broke the rules. And even so, one little scolding doesn’t change the fact that we love you and we’re happy to see you.” 

Ezran felt his eyes begin to prickle as he smiled back at her. “I love you guys too. I’m glad you’re here.”

Rayla scooted over and wrapped him into a hug.

“I’m glad we’re here too,” she said. “And hey, if worse comes to worse, we know there’s a secret way out of the castle right?”

She meant it as a joke, but the memory of running through the tunnels with her suddenly reminded him of one passegway in particular that would be very useful about now.

“Rayla, you’re a genius!” He said, pulling out of the hug and standing up. 

She looked up at him, blinking in confusion. “What?”

“The tunnels!” He said excitedly as he put Bait in her lap. “Can you watch him? I’m gonna go find out what Opeli’s telling Callum.”

“Uh, sure,” she said, looking down at the glow toad who gave a rumbling croak before nuzzling into her stomach. 

Ezran ran until he reached Viren’s old chambers. He wrenched open the painting and sped his way through the stone corridors until he found the right one. The tunnel in question narrowed like the one to the kitchens, and soon he was crawling on his hands and knees.

He began to hear the muffled sounds of voices as he continued his way down. As he approached, he recognized Opeli’s voice and the occasional word like, “responsibility,” or “boundaries.”

Ezran saw the grate to Opeli’s office come into view. 

He kept his distance from the opening itself, but he could now hear their voices clearly. He watched as Opeli’s boots paced around the room while Callum’s remained still in the center. 

“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Callum said. His voice was no longer shaking and instead sounded exasperated. “I already told you, we didn’t do anything.”

“Be that as it may, you two staying together like that could lead to something, Callum. You understand that, don’t you?” Opeli said sternly.

Silence took the place of his reply. 

“Look, prince of Katolis or not, actions like these come with some very serious implications,” she said.  “I know what it’s like to be young and in love, really I do. But I want you to think about what you want for your future, not just for one night.”

“Rayla is what I want for my future!” 

Ezran was surprised to hear Callum raise his voice. He couldn’t remember a time he’d ever heard him raise his voice to Opeli. In fact, he couldn’t remember many times when anybody raised their voice to Opelil.

“We stay together because neither of us can sleep otherwise. We haven’t been able to sleep apart since before the battle,” Callum said. “We haven’t done anything else because we know neither of us are ready. I love her, and I’m not going to leave her by herself to have nightmares because you think we’re just being impulsive teenagers.”

There was frustration in Callum’s voice now, pure and unwavering. Ezran caught sight of his hands balled into fists at his sides.

“You can be mad or disappointed if you want. But when I leave this room, I’m still going to go find Rayla and I’m still bringing her to my room tonight.”

It was Opeli’s turn for silence now. 

Eventually, she let out a heavy sigh. “You say she’s who you want for your future?” She asked calmly. 

“Yes,” Callum answered without hesitation. 

“Then there’s something you should have,” Ezran watched as Opeli walked over to her desk and heard the shuffling of drawers being opened and closed. “I don’t know when you’re going to be in Katolis again, or what’s coming for us all now that the dragon prince is home, but if you mean what you say, you should have this.”

She apparently found what she was looking for and walked back over to Callum.

“King Harrow found this among your mother’s possessions after...we lost her. He’d been looking forward to giving it to you one day. It was hers,” Opeli said gently. “From your birth father.”

Ezran’s eyes widened and he scooted closer to the grate to try and get a look at what she was talking about. But Opeli’s back was to him, blocking the thing from view. However, he could see the look of breathless surprise on his brother’s face and the tears that quickly starting to well in his eyes. 

“This isn’t me telling you to do anything with it anytime soon,” Opeli continued, her tone still soft. “Just keep it and think about what it means.”

“Th-thank y-you,” Callum choked out as the tears spilled over. He pulled Opeli into a tight hug. “Thank you.”

“You’ve grown up so much, Callum,” she said, wrapping her arms around him and patting the back of his head.  “I want you to know that I am so very proud of you. And I do trust you. I know you will make good decisions because you already have. Even if I didn’t expect a moonshadow elf assassin to be the first girl you brought home.”

Callum let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“Mom would have liked her though, I think,” he said wiping at his eyes. 

Opeli chuckled. “I think she would have.”

Ezran sniffed a little as well, trying to keep the sound as quiet as possible. As he watched Opeli turn, he briefly caught sight of a small box in Callum’s hand before he tucked it away into a pocket of his jacket. 

Is that what he thought it was?

Deciding that he’d heard plenty more than he probably should have, Ezran made his way back out of the tunnel.The image of the small box still weighing heavy on his mind.

He hurried back through the corridors and out into the main hallway, hoping to get there before Callum. He didn’t want him to suspect that he’d heard any of that. 

But when he rounded the corner, he saw that he’d still been too slow. Callum had just walked out of the room, Rayla hurridley putting Bait on the ground before rushing to him. She placed a hand on his cheek worriedly, undoubtedly seeing the trails of tears that had run down his face.

Callum just took her hand, kissed it and smiled warmly before pulling her into his embrace. 

Ezran walked the rest of the way over and scooped up Bait, who grumbled about wanting hugs too. Ezran just chuckled and squeezed the glow toad tighter. 

“Everything okay, Callum?” Ezran asked. 

His brother started a little, obviously not noticing him approach. He pulled away from Rayla just enough to look at him. “Yeah, Ez. Nothing to worry about.” 

Ezran could see the red in his eyes. 

He considered pressing further, but in the end decided against it.

“Why don’t you guys go get some sleep? We can talk more in the morning,” he said, patting his brother on the arm. 

Callum smiled at him gratefully and nodded.

Ezran watched them walk away, Callum keeping an arm around Rayla’s shoulders while she kept one wrapped around his waist. He heard Rayla ask him about what had happened, but they got too far away for Ezran to hear Callum’s reply. 

He wondered how much he would end up telling her. Ezran knew he missed a good portion of Callum and Opeli’s conversation, but even the little bit he had heard was was pretty intense. Callum had said he’d keep letting Rayla stay in his room even if Opeli got angry, and he’d basically said that he wanted to be with her forever.

And then there was the box…

Ezran shook the image out of his head. For some reason, thinking about what he believed was in that box made his heart clench.

“I didn’t know they were having nightmares,” Ezran instead mused to Bait once the doors to his room had closed behind him. “Callum never mentioned it in any of his letters.”

Bait let out a little warble. 

“I know,” Ezran sighed. “But we’d usually talk about stuff like that.”

He set Bait on the mattress while he laid down and crawled beneath the covers. He laid there with his eyes wide open, not feeling tired in the slightest. He was proud of Callum for sticking up for himself and Rayla. But he wished he’d known they were both having such a hard time.

Why hadn’t they told him? He would have made sure they stayed in the same room without any question. 

The whole thing made him feel...odd.

He knew that when he originally left to come home to Katolis, Callum and Rayla would go on to experience things without him. That was just the way things had to be. 

And boy had he gotten a surprise when he got back a week later. 

After the initial shock had worn off, Ezran realized just how right they were together. Despite every reason the world had for them to hate each other, they’d instead fallen in love, and it was beautiful. 

Ezran would never forget flying Pyrrah to the top of the Storm Spire after Claudia told them the battle had been a diversion, his heart pounding so hard in his ears that he couldn’t even hear the air buffeting past them. He fully expected to see the worst when he reached the pinnacle. But instead, he’d found Zym, alive and well, cradled in Rayla’s arms while Callum surrounded them both with his...wings.

All three of them had been sobbing, clutching each other with all their might. Ezran jumped off Pyrrha before she’d fully landed and ran to meet them. They’d pulled him into the embrace without words.

Callum told him later about what had happened: how Rayla had essentially sacrificed herself to bring down Viren and save Zym’s life; how he’d jumped after, frantically hoping the mage wings would work. 

Ezran didn’t  think he’d ever sobbed so hard in his life. Realizing how close he’d come to losing both of them had been devastating. He’d practically refused to let them out of his sight until he once again left for Katolis. 

But it had made him realize just how much they’d come to care for each other. 

He missed their little ragtag family. Dangerous as they were, he missed the days when their only goal was to make it to Xadia. Things were better now in many ways, but they were different, and they were hard. 

Ezran rolled over and pulled Bait to his chest, closing his eyes and willing himself to sleep.

The next morning, Ezran surprised himself by once again waking with the sunrise and without prompting. He decided to take it as a sign to let go of all the stuff that had been weighing his mind down the night before.

Callum and Rayla were here, Aunt Amaya would be getting here soon and tomorrow was the winter festival. He had nothing to be feeling muddled about. 

So, true to his promise, he once again made the trek to Callum’s room where he fully intended to wake both him and Rayla without remorse.

He placed a finger to his lips as he passed a guard just outside the door. The guard, looking thoroughly confused, only saluted and mimicked him by placing a finger to his own lips before continuing on his rounds. 

Ezran giggled before creeping through the door, this time keeping his movements as silent and stealthy as possible.

He intended to tiptoe his way to the bed, place Bait at the foot of it and let ‘his little friend’ wake them up with some extra light. 

But instead, he found another surprise when he looked into the room. 

Rayla was indeed asleep in Callum’s bed, her hair a tangled web weaved between her horns. But this time, she was clutching the pillow and Callum was nowhere to be seen. 

Ezran frowned. Where in the world did he go?

For the next 20 minutes, Ezran walked around the castle, checking every place he could think of where Callum might be. When he was just about to give up, he finally spotted him, leaning against a parapet overlooking the courtyard, sketchbook open in front of him.

Ezran shook his head as he approached.

His feet faltered for a moment when he saw the thing resting on the banister on Callum’s other side. 

The box. 

Ezran still didn’t understand why it made him so anxious. But seeing the little object out here in the open returned the same nervous feeling to his gut. 

“Hey,” he said, looking back to his brother. “What are you doing out here.”

Callum didn’t jump as Ezran came to stand beside him. Instead, he just glanced over, smiled and returned his gaze to the sunrise slowly creeping its way over the castle walls.

“Woke up too early,” he said simply. “Had a lot on my mind.”

Ezran glanced at the little box again. 

“Yeah, I bet you do.”

That got Callum’s attention. He put down his pencil and turned to look at him, 

“What’s going on, Ezran?” He asked, crossing his arms and putting on his favorite ‘big brother’ face.

Ezran groaned, letting his forehead come to rest on the parapet as he considered whether or not to bring it up. It had definitely been bothering him, but he would have to tell Callum that he heard part of his conversation with Opeli yesterday. 

But in the end, he was still his brother. They shared their feelings. He took a deep breath before he spoke.

“I know you and Rayla have nightmares and that’s why you can’t sleep by yourselves,” he said quickly, peeking up to gauge Callum’s reaction.

His brother’s eyes went blank for a second as he took in his words, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly.

“How do you know that?” He finally asked, his voice unnervingly calm.

Ezran’s head thumped back against the parapet.

“Rayla and I were trying to hear what Opeli was saying to you so I went into the secret passages and listed by the grate in her office,” he said sheepishly. 

“What!?!” Callum shouted, making several guards around the courtyard suddenly jump and snap their heads in their direction.

Ezran quickly waved them off with an apologetic smile before turning back to Callum. 

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” he said earnestly. “We were just worried about you and I didn’t think you were going to be talking about such important stuff. I thought she was just going to yell at you for keeping secrets.”

“H-How much did you hear?” Callum grabbed his shoulders and looked straight into his eyes, frantically searching for an answer before he spoke. Ezran also noticed that he was blushing furiously.

“I got there right before the nightmares part, and I left after Opeli gave you...after she gave you that.” Ezran raised a finger to point to the little box, still sitting behind them. 

“Oh, thank goodness,” Callum said, sighing with relief as he grabbed the little box and held it close to his chest. 

“Is it-,” Ezran swallowed hard. “Is that the ring your dad gave to mom?”

Callum was silent for a moment, just looking at the box. 

“Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, it is.”

Ezran watched as Callum thumbed the box open, revealing the delicate silver band inlaid with a beautiful off-white gemstone.

After a moment of silence shared between the two of them, Ezran spoke up once more. 

“Are you...going to give it to Rayla?” Ezran felt his heart give a now familiar lurch.

“I think I am, yeah,” he said, not taking his eyes off the ring. “Not now, but eventually.”

Callum sighed and snapped the box shut. 

“But...I’m scared, Ez.” He said, barely louder than a whisper. Ezran glanced over and saw that tears had reappeared in his eyes.

“Mom was married to my birth father, but then he died. And then she married dad, and then she died,” Callum took a deep, shuddering breath. “I almost lost Rayla once, and I’m just so terrified that if we get married...I’ll actually lose her.”

Ezran’s heart lurched for an entirely different reason this time. 

This time, it was for his brother.

“You really love her don’t you?” Ezran asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Callum nodded. “I really do. When I think about the future, I think about her. I know it’ll be hard, but I can’t picture it any other way. But what if I’m cursed or something? What if next time something happens, I’m not fast enough to catch her?”

“Is that why you’ve gotten so good at hearing her coming?” Ezran asked, unable to keep the slyness out of his voice. 

Callum snorted a little. “Yeah, I guess so. I know she’s strong and that I can’t be with her all the time. But I figure that if I know the way she usually moves, I’ll know if something ever goes wrong.”

Callum winced a little.

“That sounds really dumb doesn’t it?” He asked.

Ezran laughed. “It sounds like you’re in love.”

Callum laughed too, a little bit of the solemnity in his eyes dissipating. 

They stood there together in silence for a few minutes as the sun finally crested over the walls, a warm wave of light washing over them.

“You won’t lose her,” Ezran said. “Whenever you want to give it to her, you’ll keep each other safe. You’ve already had plenty of practice.”

Callum smiled, one last tear rolling its way down his cheek, catching the sunlight as it went. 

“Thanks, Ez.”

Chapter Text

They stood there together for a while longer, the gentle sounds of early morning beginning to fill their ears as the castle came to life. Another storm must have blown through overnight, for there was an untouched, sparkling layer of new snow over everything.

They watched in silence as soldiers, castle staff and other members of the court began to emerge, their footsteps creating new, swirling designs in the snow of the courtyard. The soft crunching beneath their feet echoed up the walls and created a peaceful rhythm. 

Ezran sighed wistfully, mornings really were beautiful. Maybe he should try to wake up and see them more often. He glanced back over to Callum, happy to see that the tears in his eyes had dried and there was once again a smile on his face. 

It was nice to get to talk with him. Had he really gone 6 whole months without hearing his brother’s voice? Sure, he could practically hear Callum in his head while he was reading his letters, and every once in a while he caught a few words when he saw flashes through Zym’s eyes. But it wasn’t the same. 

He and Callum had hardly ever spent more than a few days apart when they were growing up. But now, suddenly, half a year had gone by. They’d been apart for Callum’s 15th birthday, and in a few months when Ezran turned 11, they would most likely be apart again. 

It made him feel sad. In fact, it made him feel a lot of big feelings. 

He glanced back at Callum, hesitating for only a moment. 

“So, how come you didn’t mention the nightmares to me before,” he said, trying to sound casual, but wincing when he heard a little bit of hurt leak into his voice.

Callum caught it immediately, of course, and looked back at him with worry. 

“You usually tell me when something’s wrong,” Ezran said timidly beneath his gaze. “When I overheard you tell Opeli, I was sad that you and Rayla were having such a hard time. But I was even sadder that you hadn’t told me about it.”

Callum pulled him into a hug, holding him tight for a moment before kneeling down to look him in the eye.

“I hear you, and I’m sorry, Ez. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I didn’t even mean not to tell you, I just...sorta didn’t…” He said honestly. 

Ezran’s head tilted a little to one side, not quite understanding the answer. 

Callum sighed.

“At first, I didn’t think it wasn’t my story to tell,” he said, running a hand through his hair, his eyes flickering toward the ground before he continued. 

“Rayla’s nightmares started before mine. The night after you left, I stayed up late drawing and she fell asleep. I wasn’t gone for long and I’d only been just outside of the spire, but when I came back, she was sitting in the corner of the room sobbing and shaking so hard she’d bitten her lip open,” Callum said, his eyes now finding a single spot on the ground to stare intently at.

“About a week after that, I fell asleep on accident while she was playing with Zym. It was the worst nightmare I ever had; I watched her jump over the edge of the mountain again and again. I couldn’t move to grab her or go after her; I couldn’t even breathe. I just had to stand there and watch her fall.

“The next thing I knew, Rayla was shaking me, begging me to open my eyes. She told me I’d started screaming her name. She was terrified,” Callum said, coughing to clear his throat when his voice started to waver. 

“After that, we made sure not to let each other sleep alone because whenever we did, it always ended like that. After a while it just got to be so normal that I kinda forgot you didn’t already know.

“I’m sorry,” Callum said again, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I should have told you.”

Ezran took a deep breath. 

“It’s okay,” he said, pulling his brother forward into another hug. “It’s hard to do Big Feelings Time over letters anyway.”

Callum laughed at that and held him tighter. “We’ll just have to have extra big Big Feelings Time whenever we come to visit from now on, huh?”

Ezran chuckled before pulling away and wiping at his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic. 

“So I guess that means you guys will be staying in Xadia for a while longer then?” It was another question Ezran already knew the answer to. But he missed them, and a small part of him selfishly wanted them to stay. 

Callum looked away before answering. “Yeah, we’ve actually been talking about taking some time to travel around, try to spread some peace. Plus, I want to find out more about different kinds of primal magic.”

“Do you think you might be able to learn more than one?” Ezran asked.

Callum shrugged.

“I did a little bit of moon magic when we first got to the Storm Spire and Rayla’s been teaching me more about what it’s like when she does it, and...I don’t know, there’s a feeling I get when she talks about it that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.”

Ezran smirked.

“Are you sure that’s not just one of your normal sappy feelings?”

Callum’s eyes narrowed, but he still blushed.

“I’m kidding,” Ezran said, patting his brother’s bright red cheek. “You guys should stop back at the moon nexus again before you go, see if Lujanne can teach you how to make fake food.”

Callum slapped his hand away. 

“Yeah, I think we will. That way, the next time we come back, I’ll make sure you get a nice grub-filled jelly tart everytime you tease us,” he said.

Ezran shuddered. “That’s the scariest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

The sound of a horse whinnying brought their attention back to the courtyard. Ezran looked down to see Soren dismounting and handing the reins over to another guard. He glanced up and smiled when he saw them standing at the parapet. 

They watched as he jogged through the courtyard and up the stairs, the clanking of his armor easily drowning out the other sounds of the morning. 

“Hey,” he said when he reached them. “You sure made finding you guys super easy. You’re aunt will be here soon. They’re just about to ride into town.”

“That’s great!” Ezran said, his smile widening. 

Callum nodded before suddenly freezing in place, his eyes widening. 

“Oh shoot, I’ve gotta go get Rayla,” he said, frantically starting to run back inside. “I promised to wake her up before Aunt Amaya got here. I’ll be right back!”

Ezran chuckled as he watched Callum go. His brother may have become a pretty powerful mage, but he still ran like a dork when he was nervous. 

“So, everything ready for the festival?” Soren asked conversationally as he leaned against the wall. “Need me to help with anything else today?”

Ezran thought for a moment, considering what was left to be done. “I’m gonna ask Callum if he can help with freezing the pond, and if Rayla can hang more decorations in trickier spots…” 

He thought back to yesterday, the occasional cruel looks people gave Rayla as he and Callum had shown her around. “Can you make sure none of the elves run into any trouble? Make sure no one is rude to them?”

Soren gave him an emphatic thumbs up. “Can do!”

Ezran smiled. “Thanks for all your help, Soren.”

“Hey, it’s my job,” he said. “Plus, it feels good to be part of Team Ezran.” 

He laughed. “‘Team Ezran,’ huh? I like the sound of that.”

They waited together, taking turns having staring contests with Bait until they once again heard hurried footsteps.

Callum was leading a very sleepy-looking Rayla by the hand, both now panting from presumably running the whole way here. 

“Hey, I didn’t need to wake you up after all,” Ezran said cheerily. 

Rayla glared at him, and then turned to glare at Callum, who chuckled nervously. 

Before she could say anything, however, a horn sounded and alerted them to the group riding through the castle gates. Amaya rode in the lead, a thick cloak wrapped around her. On her right, as usual, was Commander Gren. But on her other side rode Janai, who was swathed in two cloaks and looking entirely not used to the snow. 

Behind them rode a small entourage of half-a-dozen other sunfire elves looking wide-eyed and fascinated by everything around them, despite the fact that they were also shivering slightly. When Ezran had asked Janai if any other elves would be interested in coming with her to Katolis for the holiday, she’d written back to say she knew the perfect group. 

They were students, according to her, mostly of history but a few who also specialized in the sociology of humans. All of their studying had been purely theoretical up until this point. Not a single one had ever set foot into the human kingdoms until now.

It made Ezran a little nervous, but mostly excited. They would show them everything humans had to offer. So when they returned to Lux Aurea, they would share their stories of spending a peaceful holiday in Katolis.

Ezran beamed as he descended the stairs, the others following behind him. In the end, he threw royal decorum out the window and sprinted the last stretch over to his aunt. She hopped down from her horse and caught him in her arms, spinning him around like he didn’t weigh a thing. 

Callum eventually joined them as well, Ezran feeling his arms wrap around him from behind as he was also squeezed and lifted from the ground.

“It’s so good to see you boys,” Gren said for her after she returned them to the ground. “Welcome home, Callum.”

Rayla, Ezran noticed, had stayed back a few steps, nervously fiddling with her hands. She’d only ever interacted with Amaya briefly after the whole fiasco at the Banther Lodge and she’d admitted to Ezran in one of her letters that their aunt still made her nervous. 

Frankly, Ezran thought it was adorable.

Amaya caught sight of her and, without hesitating, gestured for Rayla to join them as well. Rayla’s ears perked up as she shuffled over, extending her hand in preparation to shake. 

“Um, it’s nice to-” but Amaya cut her off, pulling her into a hug of her own. She generously let Rayla keep her feet on the ground, but Ezran could see the surprise in her face regardless. 

“It’s great to see you too, Rayla,” Gren said. “Thank you for keeping my nephew safe.”

Rayla looked beyond pleased at Amaya’s warmth.

“He keeps me safe too,” she said with a shy smile.

Amaya chucked before turning to Janai and offering her a hand to help her down from her horse. Janai rolled her eyes, clearly not needing the help, but accepting her hand anyway as she dismounted. 

Ezran smirked. Guess elf friends ran in the family.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Ezran said to Janai. “Welcome to Katolis.”

Janai had a kind smile for someone who was so vastly intimidating. Ezran supposed that was something she and his aunt had in common. She saluted him, bowing her head deeply as she crossed her arms and extended her fingers.

“It is an honor to be here, King Ezran,” she said. “I have brought some of Lux Aurea’s brightest and most overeager students to partake in your hospitality.”

The students, while not nearly as graceful, offered salutes to him as well. 

This was absolutely amazing. Not even a year ago, a gathering like this would have been blasphemous even to suggest. But here they were, the King of Katolis welcoming sunfire elves into the kingdom, to dine with him and stay in the castle as they celebrated the winter’s holiday.

“Let’s get everyone inside then,” he said, gesturing to the castle. “You must be cold.”

Janai stood up a little straighter. “This is nothing,” she assured. “But thank you. It’s been a long journey.” With that, she ushered the students on ahead, a number of attendants tentatively arriving to help gather their belongings and bring the horses to the stables. 

“Thank you,” Amaya signed to him when Janai was no longer looking. “She’s freezing but far too stubborn to do anything about it.”  

After everyone had gotten settled, Ezran set about assigning tasks for the festival’s final preparations. 

Callum and Rayla headed off to help with decorations and making sure the pond would be frozen enough to accommodate skaters. 

Soren had been quickly excited by becoming, not only a bodyguard to the sunfire elf students, but also a tour guide. He enthusiastically showed them around the castle, pointing out portraits and historical relics as well as other, more common items.

“This is a fork, see?” He said, holding out the utensil. “Humans use these to eat food.”

Ezran almost came forward to interrupt, but stopped when he saw the students frantically scribbling notes in their journals with just as much enthusiasm.

He caught up briefly with Gren, Amaya and Janai as they were about to venture back out into the chilly afternoon.

“There’s someone Amaya wants her to meet,” Gren said sincerely.

He and Ezran shared a look before the three of them began making their way in the direction of the cove and his mother’s memorial.

That left Ezran alone with an afternoon of nothing but boring kingly responsibilities. Opeli came to fetch him before long, insisting that he spend some time in court before tomorrow’s festivities. He was half tempted to ask her what else she and Callum had talked about, hoping that it might distract her. But in the end, he thought better of it. 

So for the next couple of hours, Ezran sat on the throne addressing the more urgent messages of the day, signing and sealing messages of his own and resolving a few petty disputes between townspeople. 

He sighed heavily when the last person finally exited the throne room and the final crow had taken off from the window. 

“That appears to be all for today, King Ezran,” Opeli said, tilting her head encouragingly toward the door. “Why don’t you go see how Prince Callum and Rayla are faring.” 

Ezran didn’t have to be told twice. He shot through the castle and out the front gates as quickly as he could, fumbling to put his cloak on while carrying Bait at the same time. He ran through town, which was now completely abuzz with people preparing for the festival. He veered East, hoping to catch up with his brother at the pond.

Before he got there, however, he caught a glimpse of a shadow darting across the rooftops.

“Rayla!” He called out, cupping a hand over his mouth.

She stopped immediately, turning to see him standing there and waving. She smiled and lept gracefully from the roof. She wouldn’t have made a sound if it weren’t for the string of small bells wrapped around her wrist that softly tinkled when she landed beside him.

He also couldn’t help but notice Callum’s scarf wrapped around her neck.

“You sound like a winter fairie with those on,” he said, pointing to the bells.

“A what?” She asked, looking confused.

“It’s a human thing,” Ezran explained happily. “We hang bells above our door frames to listen for fairies the night before the festival. If you hear yours ring, it means you’ll have a good spring!” He used to love when his dad would tuck him into bed and tell him stories about the fairies. Harrow would often hide  a small bell in the sleeve of his tunic and ring it softly when he thought Ezran wouldn’t notice. 

Even if it was a trick, it meant a lot to Ezran that his dad would try so hard.

“Huh,” Rayla said, eyeing the little bells curiously. “One of the people in town just asked if I could help hang these because it was a tradition. He didn’t actually say what they were for. That’s...pretty cute,” she said earnestly. 

They started to make their way through town together, Rayla handing off the few remaining bells to an eager-looking citizen with a ladder.

“What other winter traditions do moonshadow elves have?” Ezran asked as they walked, craving to hear more about how her people did things.

She pursed her lips for a moment as she thought. 

“Well, I think I already told you how it’s good luck to tie sprigs of winter clover to your bedpost...and how we make frozen moonberry pops…”

She tapped a finger to her lips before her eyes suddenly lit up with a thought. 

“Oh! There’s the-” she began, but cut herself off almost immediately, the tips of her ears reddening just slightly. “Actually, nevermind, that’s not a very good one.”

Ezran scoffed. “Rayla…”

She groaned and slapped her hand against her face. “You have to promise you won’t bring it up around Callum. You’ve been teasing us enough and I haven’t told him about this yet.”

Oh this was going to be good. 

“I won’t bring it up around Callum,” Ezran confirmed, raising a hand in promise. 

Rayla eyed him suspiciously for a moment before continuing. 

“It’s more of a silly superstition than a tradition, but Ethari always told me that if...if you kissed someone while it was snowing on a full moon, it meant that you would be together forever,” she said, her voice quieting considerably before she pulled Callum’s scarf up to cover her mouth entirely.

Ezran’s thoughts flashed back to the ring that he knew still rested in one of his brother’s pockets. It seemed like they both had the future on their minds these days. 

“Do you want to be together forever?” Ezran asked, keeping his voice even.

Rayla groaned again and twisted the ends of fabric, pulling it just slightly away from her lips. 

“...Yeah,” she said after a few moments of silence. “I do…”

Ezran couldn’t imagine a better person for Callum than Rayla. She was brave and strong but still so kind and compassionate. They were better together. Plus they were both nerds in their own special ways and they made each other laugh. 

But once again, the little feeling in his heart ached at the thought that things were changing so much. They would be leaving soon to go on more adventures through Xadia while he remained here. Who knows, maybe next time they came back they actually would be married. 

It was selfish of him, he knew. But he wished they could all have more time to be together.

The conflict must have shown on his face, because Rayla stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. She didn’t say a word, but he saw the question in her eyes. 

He sighed. He was so tired of this feeling; he just wanted to enjoy being with them while they were here and have fun at the festival. 

“I miss you guys and it’s weird being away from Callum for so long,” he said. “He told me how you guys are planning on traveling around Xadia so he can try to learn more magic, and I just wish I could come.”

She looked a little guilty at that. “I’m sorry, Ez. I wish you could too. But we’ll be back as often as we can, I promise.”

She reached out and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. 

“And hey, maybe when Callum learns more magic, he’ll come back and be your high mage,” she said brightly.

Ezran smiled at that.

“Would you come back with him?” He asked. 

Rayla nodded. “Of course I would. You and your brother are pretty much stuck with me at this point.”

“I like being stuck with you,” he said, giving her a quick hug as they once again began walking. “Even though I think Callum likes being stuck with you even more.”

Rayla swatted at his arm while she pulled the scarf back up over her face. 

“You’re a diabolical little king, you know that?” she mumbled, the tips of her ears still definitely red.

Ezran laughed.

As they neared the small grove that housed the pond, Ezran began to notice the crowd grow surprisingly dense for an area of town that typically remained untraveled on a normal day.

“Excuse me,” he said trying to maneuver his way through, Rayla right behind him. Most of the people were too engrossed in whatever they were looking at to even glance down and see the king or his moonshadow elf friend trying to squeeze by them. But eventually, enough people let them pass so they could see just what had them so transfixed. 

Callum had indeed frozen the pond into a smooth, solid surface that would be perfect for skating. But he’d also gone a step further, creating twisting, swirling strings of ice that weaved through the leafless trees.  The ice caught the afternoon sunlight and turned the entire grove into a sparkling wonderland.

It was positively breathtaking. 

It took Ezran a few more moments to cut his attention away from the sheer beauty of the scene to notice Callum perched high in one of the trees, gracefully weaving another thread of ice through the branches with the same icy breath spell he’d used yesterday. His jacket had been removed, exposing the familiar white runes on his arms. He seemed completely oblivious to the small crowd that had gathered behind him to watch.

That’s when Ezran realized that the people of Katolis had never seen their prince perform magic before, much less primal magic. He glanced around at some of their faces, seeing everything from tears of pure astonishment, to slight cringes of fear and even one man who appeared to be foaming slightly from the mouth. 

Well, he supposed this was one way of showing the kingdom just how strong Callum had become. 

Rayla was also mesmerized. Her eyes stayed fixed to Callum as he weaved the ice through more branches, her mouth just slightly agape.

A few more moments went by before Callum stopped the spell, seemingly satisfied with his work. He stood up a little straighter on the tree branch and extended his arms out in front of him and murmured a few words. The runes illuminated and his mage wings appeared, eliciting a collective gasp from the townsfolk.

Callum, hearing the noise, glanced behind him and finally noticed his audience. Fumbling with his surprise, Callum stepped off the edge of the branch and plummeted for a brief moment toward the ground. 

A few people lurched forward, as if they were hoping to reach their prince to break his fall, Rayla included. But there was no need. Callum gave one solid flap of his wings, righting himself and allowing him to glide smoothly to the ground. 

He hurriedly dispelled the magic and pulled his jacket, which had been hung on a low branch, back over his arms. He looked at the crowd, who stared at him in stunned silence for a moment. 

Ezran took the opportunity to place Bait onto the ground before he began to applaud his brother’s display. 

Only a beat went by before the rest of the group began to follow his lead, clapping wholeheartedly at Callum’s magic. Ezran watched his brother squirm under the attention before giving an awkward bow and stiffly retreating out of sight.

Ezran and Rayla waited a bit for the crowd to disperse before following Callum’s tracks in the snow behind a particularly large tree, where they found him sitting with his head resting against the trunk. 

“Well, that was mortifying,” he said. “How long was everybody just standing there?”

“Long enough for them to know you’re a mage now,” Ezran said.

Rayla offered him a hand, which Callum took with a grateful smile as he pulled himself off the ground. “That’s something, I guess,” he said, brushing the snow from his trousers.

“It really does look amazing, Callum,” Rayla said, glancing back around at the frozen trails that weaved their way through the branches above their heads.

He beamed at her. 

Callum took a moment to straighten the scarf around her neck before giving her a soft, quick kiss on the lips. 

Ezran smiled, but this time stayed silent. 

“Come on, guys,” he said instead. “Let’s head back.”

Chapter Text

It really was a near-perfect day. Callum and Rayla stayed by his side while Ezran did his final inspections before the festival, regaling him with even more stories of Zym and their time in Xadia. 

Corvus joined them shortly after they reemerged from the grove, scolding Ezran for running off without him in the first place. But his frustration was short-lived, for the undeniable air of revelry around them was infectious. So instead he laughed along with them at Rayla’s retelling of Callum’s first experience with an updraft while on a flight with Zym.

Soren also arrived as they were looking over the small stage that had been built in the town square. The sunfire elf students weren’t far behind him, their pencils still flying across the pages of their journals as their eyes shot around. 

Ezran began to lead the group through the streets, introducing the students to the townspeople and fielding any questions from either side. 

There was only one man who made any kind of scene while they were strolling around. He was an older man who came stumbling out of a tavern at much-too-early an hour and had immediately bristled at seeing the prince of Katolis walking hand-in-hand with an elf girl. 

“Filthy elven whore,” He’d loudly slurred at Rayla’s back as they walked by, a bottle flailing in his hand. “Go back to laying with your own kind.”

But before the man had a moment to regret his words, he was faced with furious looks from Callum and Ezran, the former having raised a finger in preparation to draw a rune. But Corvus stepped in between them, placing a seemingly-friendly but undeniably firm hand on the man’s shoulder. 

“Come on, friend,” he said with a careful smile, his voice sharp as the hook that hung on his hip. “Let’s take a walk before you say something else stupid.”

Corvus led the man away as he continued drunkenly spitting out curses and other perverse insults. Callum’s glare followed them, his hand quivering, until Corvus led the man down another street and out of sight.

“Hey,” Rayla eventually whispered to him, putting a hand over his to quell the shaking. “That jerk’s not worth it.” 

Callum looked at her, the fire in his eyes quenching slightly. He took her hand and Ezran watched him squeeze it firmly in reassurance. A number of other townspeople had paused in their work to watch the scene play out, their gazes now hanging on them along with an awkward silence. 

But Callum wasn’t in the mood. 

He pulled Rayla to him, putting one hand on her cheek before closing his eyes and kissing her firmly. Rayla’s eyes widened in contrast, her blush igniting with full force and crawling up her face and all the way to the tips of her ears.

A few gasps rang out from the small group of people. And glancing around, Ezran saw plenty of wide eyes. But the only other sounds were the furious scratches of the sunfire elf students’ pencils in their books. They appeared completely enthralled by the display. 

What Ezran wouldn’t give to see what those notes said. 

Callum pulled away and looked around at the people watching them. He didn’t say a word, but the defiant look on his face dared anybody to speak up. A few citizens cleared their throats before the small crowd dispersed, everyone returning to their business.

Ezran’s brows raised, impressed, “All right then,” he said, cherrily clapping his hands together. “Let’s keep going.”

The group began once again falling into step behind him, Callum looking thoroughly pleased and pulling a still wide-eyed and blushing Rayla by the hand. Corvus also returned from sending the drunk man on his way. But as they walked, Ezran noticed there was one member of their little troop who remained frozen in place.

“Soren?” Ezran asked, turning around to see the older boy standing in the road, his mouth agape. “Are you okay?”

Soren blinked several times, glancing at Ezran before looking quickly between Callum and Rayla, his finger also darting between the two. 

“Wait,” he said, sounding heavily confused. “Are you two, like, a thing ?”

Ezran loved every moment of their trip back to the castle.

Rayla had completely wrapped Callum’s scarf around her face, obscuring it entirely. It was appropriate, Ezran thought, as he would’ve bet anything that her face was the exact same shade of red beneath the fabric. This left Callum to act as her “seeing-eye human,” leading her by the hand as Soren and the group of students continued asking question after question.

Callum’s own brief wave of bravado had all but vanished, replaced by his own embarrassment.

“I just don’t know why you would hide it from me for so long!” Soren lamented as they approached the bridge. 

“We weren’t hiding anything!” Callum said exasperatedly. “I just figured that everything that happened at the Storm Spire and the fact that we spent the last six months together in Xadia kinda spoke for itself.”

“Uh, excuse me, Prince Callum?” One of the students interjected, pushing up his glasses as he walked, “We also have another question. May I ask how your relationship works in terms of physical inti-”

“Rayla!” Callum yelped, yanking back on her hand as she suddenly turned on the spot and began feeling for the edge of the bridge. “Rayla! Rayla we already talked about this. No sharp objects, no high ledges. Come on, we’re almost back, I promise.”

She groaned but let him pull her back into step beside him. 

“I think we’re going to pass on that particular question,” he said to the student, trying to keep his voice even. 

“But then what about how yo-”

“And any other questions like it!” He added quickly, shooting an anxious look over to Ezran, who only smiled in amusement. 

The students spent a few moments crossing out several things in their journals. 

“I have a question,” Ezran said, turning to look at them as he continued to walk backwards. 

He wasn’t sure why, but for a moment, Callum looked positively terrified.

“Are you guys going on your first date for the festival tomorrow?” He asked with a coy smile.

Callum sighed in relief before his brow scrunched up in confusion, “Our first date? Ez, we’ve been together for months.”

“I know, but protecting Zym and learning sky magic don’t sound like very good dates,” he said matter-of-factly. “So I was thinking, tomorrow could be your first real date. Lots of people go on dates for the winter festival!”

Callum’s face softened and he offered Ezran a warm smile.

“You know what, Ez? You’re right, I think that’s a great idea,” he said, squeezing Rayla’s hand. “What do you think, Rayla? Will you go out with me tomorrow?”

Rayla tentatively pulled the scarf down so she could look him in the eye. Ezran was pleased to see that she was, in fact, bright red. She looked glanced around at the rest of them for a moment before sighing.

“...Fine,” she said through the fabric. 

Callum smiled and kissed the little sliver of forehead she’d uncovered. 

Ezran smirked. 

“It’ll be great! I mean, you guys already sleep in the same bed, you ought to go out on a real date.” 

Faster than a blink, Rayla had the scarf back up over her eyes and Callum was once again pulling her away from the edge of the bridge. At the same time, Soren and Corvus both let out choked sounds of surprise while the sunfire students all began furiously writing notes. 

“Ezran!” Callum yelled.

They made it back to the castle to find a full spread of traditional winter foods prepared for dinner. Carrots and peas had been steamed and topped with melted butter, a Red River Bass had been smoked with dried herbs and root vegetables were boiled, mashed and served with a side of savory gravy.

Callum and Rayla sat down together, his scarf now returned to a normal position around her neck. Amaya quickly pulled them into a conversation with her and Janai as she asked them about their time away. Callum translated most of it, but it also gave Rayla an opportunity to tentatively but fearlessly demonstrate a few of the signs Callum had apparently been teaching her. 

Amaya was thrilled. 

She elbowed Janai, who huffed with feigned irritation before she also slowly and carefully performed the signs for her own name, followed by Amaya’s.

Meanwhile, Gren joined Soren in pointing out each of the foods on their plates and identifying them to the students. One even happily held up the fork beside her plate and showed it to Soren with a smile.

Ezran, for his part, sat at the head of the table smiling fondly at the scene.

“You seem happy,” Corvus said from his left. 

“I am,” he said, keeping his eyes on the rest of the group. “I’ve never seen everyone together and so relaxed like this. It’s nice.”

“It is good to see the table so full,” Corvus added. “Hopefully there will be plenty more visits like this in the future.”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I want everyone to have a chance to see how amazing this is, elves and humans sitting together, laughing and having fun. This is why we brought Zym home, so there could be moments like this.”

“It’s pretty amazing,” Corvus affirmed, looking around at the rest of them as well and chuckling along as Gren showed one of the students how to balance a spoon on his nose. 

“I wish my mom and dad could be here to see it too,” Ezran added quietly. 

Corvus looked back at him with a gentle smile, “I’m sure they would be very proud of you and your brother,” he said. “You’ve taken what they learned through their triumphs and mistakes and are already making the kingdom a better place.” 

Bait rumbled from his seat on the table, turning an affectionate shade of lilac. 

“Thank you, Corvus,” Ezran said, a small tear rolling down his cheek while the smile on his lips continued to hold firm. “Thanks, Bait,” he added.

Corvus was right, Ezran thought as he gave Bait a scratch under the chin. His dad would be proud that he and Callum had been strong enough to make their own choices, outside of the expectations of everyone around them. And their mom would be proud to see that they’d done it in the name of love and peace.

And if they could go from the brink of war to sharing their home with elves for the winter holiday in less than a year, Ezan could only imagine what they would do with the next twelve months.

The world really was changing, and the proof was sitting right in front of him. 

The stories and laughs continued long after dessert was served and mulled wine was poured for those who were old enough. Darkness had fully enveloped the sky outside the windows by the time Opeli put a hand on Ezran’s shoulder and suggested they all turn in. 

Soren departed to guide the students back to their rooms. Amaya, Gren and Janai followed behind them after bidding everyone goodnight. 

Ezran walked with Callum and Rayla through the halls before parting ways with a hug from each of them. 

He headed back to his room with a full heart and decidedly not tired in the slightest. When he reached his room, he saw the little silver bell that had been hung above the frame. He jumped as he walked through, trying to reach the little bell with his fingers. The tip of his longest finger almost connected, but he still wasn’t quite tall enough to achieve it like Callum or his father could.

However, one of the guards moved his spear slightly to the left, letting the metal tip hit the bell just enough to make it ring. 

“Thanks,” Ezran said with a smile as he walked into the room, the guard offering a silent wink as they moved into position for the night. 

For the next hour, Ezran tried everything he could think of to tire himself out. He laid down in bed and tried to count banther cubs, he played a round of ‘I Spy’ with Bait and he even tried reading from his history textbook. But nothing was working. 

He groaned as he flipped the book closed. 

“I don’t know what’s wrong, buddy,” he said from his spot on the floor in front of the fireplace, the flames now reduced to glowing embers. “I know tomorrow’s the first winter festival without Dad, and I wish he was here. But everyone’s together and things are going so well.”

Bait let out a sleepy grumble from his spot curled on the chair in front of him. 

“Yeah, you’re right, I’m probably just excited,” he said, folding his arms beneath his chin and looking out of the window. He watched the snowflakes lazily falling, silhouetted by the moonlight and accented by the soft crackling of the embers in the hearth. 

Just as Ezran’s eyes started feeling a bit heavier,  a dark shape suddenly crossed in front of the window, blocking out the moonlight for just a moment as it passed by. 

Ezran’s head shot back up, once again very awake, “Bait, did you see that?” 

Bait gave a halfhearted croak, his eyes remaining closed as he snuggled further into the cushion. 

Ezran huffed before he stood and hurried over to the doors of the balcony, cupping his hands around his eyes and pressing his face against the glass. 

He couldn’t see a thing. 

He grabbed his boots, tugging them on quickly before throwing open the doors and stepping outside. The snow on the balcony was up to his shins and quickly soaked through the thin fabric of his night clothes, making him shiver.

He glanced around in the darkness. For a moment, all he saw was the snow falling softly atop the sleeping kingdom, the flag beside the balcony fluttering gently in the light wind. Everything seemed quiet.

Ezran was just beginning to consider that he’d simply seen a stray bat, temporarily woken from the spell of hibernation, when he saw the thing again, flying through the winter sky on wings much too large for a bat.  

But when it crossed in front of the moon, Ezran could see the very human legs beneath the massive wings and let out a sigh of relief. It was only Callum. 

Ezran’s posture slackened, but he kept his eyes on his brother as he circled around once more before landing on top of the tower just to the south of him. What was he doing flying around this late in the snow anyway? Ezran glanced down at his own night clothes and figured perhaps Callum was also trying to tire himself out. 

He was about to call out to him -- maybe they could stay up together like they used to when they couldn’t sleep -- when a second figure suddenly appeared in front of him on the tower. The silhouette of horns made it easy to figure out who it was. 

Rayla’s arms were around his neck as Callum dispelled the mage wings and brought his human hands up to apparently brush some snow from her hair. For just a moment, her form disappeared once again and Ezran watched Callum’s shoulders shake a little with laughter. 

A passing thought reminded Ezran that he hadn’t seen Rayla’s moonshadow powers in action since the night they met, the night when their worlds were turned upside down and their whole crazy adventure began. It seemed like so long ago that they’d run from the castle with Zym’s egg, hiding in the forest beneath the light of the full moon. 

The light of the...full moon. 

Ezran’s eyes shot open wide as he glanced up at the moon, full and bright in the sky above his head and curtained by the snowflakes that continued their silent dance toward the ground. 

He quickly ducked down behind the banister, ignoring the surge of cold as he sat fully in the snow, and looked out from between the stone spindles at Callum and Rayla.

“Bait!” He whispered as loud as he dared. “It’s snowing, and it’s a full moon!” He flailed his hand slightly in the spot where his glow toad usually settled beside him, temporarily forgetting that he was still asleep inside. “They’re gonna do the thing!”

All he could really see were their silhouettes and they were too far away for him to hear anything, but Ezran held his breath anyway.

Rayla pulled Callum by the hand to the middle of the tower where she directed his gaze upward to the moon. Ezran could practically see the nerves radiating off her as her movements slowly grew more short and twitchy before eventually releasing Callum’s hand entirely and taking a small step backward. 

They were both still for a moment and Ezran pressed his head further into the gap between the spindles. He watched as Callum made up the step between them. 

A beat passed before Rayla seemed to recover her confidence and kissed him with enough force to make Callum wobble on his feet. His arms encircled her waist, pulling her close as he started to spin them on the spot, lifting her feet just slightly off the ground.

They spun a few times before Callum stumbled once more, bringing Rayla back to her feet just shy of gracefully. But they kept their foreheads pressed together and their arms around each other. 

They looked like they were happy and in love and more than willing to spend forever together. 

Ezran smiled wide before deciding it was a good moment to retreat back into the warmth of the castle, shivering as he closed the doors behind him.

He picked up Bait and snuggled him close for a moment, the glow toad grumbling sleepily and turning slightly red in his arms. 

“I know, buddy, I’m sorry. They’re just so cute.”

Chapter Text

Ezran watched the snow continue to drift down outside the windows after he crawled back into bed with Bait under his arm. Eventually, he saw a glimpse of the same dark shape cross in front of the light of the moon as Callum and Rayla presumably flew back toward his room. 

Ezran smiled before, mercifully, he was finally able to drift off to sleep. 

In his dreams, he saw hundreds of elves coming to Katolis not only to celebrate the Winter Festival, but to start new lives and families alongside humans. People were happy and the centuries of fighting and bloodshed were put behind them. 

Instead, he saw couples like Callum and Rayla coming together and finding love and friendship.

It was a nice dream, if not a little lofty, but it helped give Ezran some respite from the storm of thoughts that had been assaulting his brain the last few days.

At least until he was suddenly ripped from sleep by a massive gust of wind that blew the coverlet straight off his bed. 

His eyes shot open and immediately went to the doors to the balcony. But even as he squinted against the gale, he could see that the doors were closed tight. 

Just as quickly as it arrived, the wind disappeared and Ezran’s attention shifted to where Callum stood at the foot of his bed, Rayla laughing behind him as she held Bait.

Callum joined in her laughter as Ezran frowned, the early-morning sun beginning to sting his eyes in place of the wind.

He crossed his arms over his chest and tried to imitate one of his dad’s ster looks as best he could while he sat up in his bedclothes, his hair mused.

“Oh come on, Mr. Grumpy King. This is exactly what you deserve for waking us up the other day,” Callum said as he walked over to the side of the bed and nudged Ezran’s shoulder. “Besides, it’s festival day! Can’t let you sleep through that.”

Ezran pursed his lips at his brother before looking back over to Bait, who was looking more than comfortable watching the show from Rayla’s arms.

“Bait, we’ve talked about this. What’s the point of all our practice if you don’t initiate the safety protocol?” Ezran said incredulously, lifting his arms in the glow toad’s direction. 

Bait shifted to a deep shade of maroon as he grunted back at him in indignation. 

“Hey,” Ezran said with a huff. “Whose side are you on anyway?”

Callum leaned over to ruffle Ezran’s already-messy hair even more, “Come on, Ez, just admit that we got you good and we can all go down for some delicious breakfast.”

Ezran narrowed his eyes. 

“Plus,” Callum added with a smug smile. “We’ve got a little present for you.”

That would do the trick. 

Ezran rolled out of bed and stood in front of Callum with his hands on his hips, sternly looking between him and Rayla, “You’re lucky I love you guys.”

Rayla walked over, plopping Bait onto the mattress as she pulled Callum’s bag off of her shoulder.

“We found these little guys hitched a ride with us from Xadia and we thought you might enjoy their company,” she said with a wide smile as she placed the bag down in front of Ezran and knelt down to open the flap. 

What emerged was one of the cutest creatures he’d ever seen. 

Ezran recalled seeing little puffballs like these during his trek to Xadia all those months ago, but he’d been in such a hurry to get to the Storm Spire, he’d never had a chance to really get to admire them. Then, on his journey back, he’d been far too distracted to even try to talk with one of them. 

Ezran dropped to his knees as three of them came bounding out of the bag and into his hands. They trilled and squeaked a series of enthusiastic greetings, which immediately brought a smile to his face. 

“They’re called adoraburrs,” Rayla said brightly. “I used to play with them all the time when I was a kid.”

“There’s a group of them that stay with us at the spire,” Callum said, kneeling down to gently boop one of the adoraburrs on the nose. “We thought they all stayed behind, but when we got here, we found these three little stowaways in my bag.”

“They are so cute!” Ezran exclaimed loudly as he raised the adoraburrs up in his hands and nuzzled them.

“I know, right?!” Callum said, holding his hands up enthusiastically.

Rayla chuckled as the boys continued to fawn over the little creatures. Ezran nearly lost it when she showed him how they stick together.

From his spot on top of the bed, Bait grumbled with his usual unimpressed expression. However, he had turned a very unmistakable shade of pink.

The adoraburrs were extremely friendly and excitable. Their voices fought to chime over each other when they realized Ezran could understand them. They started to tell him about how they’d first followed Callum and Rayla to the Storm Spire before eventually coming with them on this adventure as well.

Ezran talked back, welcoming them to Katolis and telling them they could stay for as long as they wanted. He set them on the bed next to Bait, who they immediately snuggled up against, before Ezran pulled Callum and Rayla into a strong hug.

“Thanks, guys,” he said, holding them tight. 

Callum knelt down so they were all sitting on their knees on the floor, arms wrapped around each other.

They stayed there for a moment before the adoraburrs decided they also wanted to join and hopped from the bed and into Ezran’s hair, each fighting for his attention by telling him stories from Xadia. 

He chuckled until one story in particular caught his attention and he pulled away from the hug with a pointed look. 

“What?” Rayla said cautiously. 

“The adoraburrs say you guys cuddle like this a lot,” Ezran replied smuggly.

Callum and Rayla groaned before sharing a look and Ezran could practically hear them silently asking each other ‘What have we done?’ 

Breakfast was--as tradition dictated--a loud affair. 

Everyone came down to eat in their night clothes and play games as a roaring fire crackled in the hearth of the dinning hall. 

The cooks prepared soft boiled eggs, sweet and savory breads and fruits from both Xadia and the Pentarchy, as well as steaming bowls of milk-fruit porridge with candied nuts. Barius had also sent up several trays of jelly tarts made with his new recipe. The berry filling was a bit tart and a myriad of spices in the dough added a warm, spicy flavor. In short, they were bliss and Ezran piled his plate almost exclusively with them. 

At his insistence, even Opeli and several of the guards joined them as warm mugs of mulled cider were passed around the table. 

The adoraburrs had decided they thoroughly enjoyed riding around in Ezran’s hair, so they remained perched there as he fed them bits of jelly tart and listened to more of their stories from Xadia. 

The room was brimming with the same warmth and comfort from last night and Ezran was thrilled. 

He took the opportunity to share a few Festival Day stories that his father used to tell him and Callum when they were younger. The sunfire elf students scribbled down practically every word as he told them about how humans celebrated the Winter Festival on the shortest day of the year with the hope that when the Winter’s Wind blew at the end of the night, it would mark the start of an early thaw and prosperous spring. 

But, of course, traditions had come and gone over the centuries and now humans mostly took the festival as a chance to give small gifts to friends and loved ones and have a little fun in the midst of what was usually a dark and dreary winter. 

“King Ezran, if I may,” one of the students interjected. “If this holiday is celebrated with friends and family, why have you invited us here?”

Janai shot a fiery glare from across the table and the student shrank down in her seat slightly.

“Please forgive her,” Janai said, her brows still creased. “We do no take your hospitality lightly.”

Ezran waved his arms in dismissal, “No, I understand. Having you all here is new and different. But it’s because we celebrate the Winter Festival with those who mean the most to us that I wanted you to come.”

He glanced around and saw all heads now turned to look at him. 

“All our people have been through so much,” Ezran continued, sitting a little straighter in his chair and doing his best to keep his voice strong like Opeli had been teaching him. “But now, we have a chance to choose peace. I know I much prefer sharing gifts and good food to sending troops off to war. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Hear, hear,” Callum said, raising his mug high and looking up at Ezran with nothing but pride. 

More than a dozen other mugs were quickly held aloft as they all cheersed to peace and good tidings while the adoraburrs squeaked and bounced up and down in Ezran’s hair.

“Well said, Your Majesty,” Opeli said with a wink as she clinked her own mug with Corvus.

The rest of the morning was spent in similar fashion. The sun had come out to bathe last night’s snow in light and turn the landscape into a sparkling wonderland. And inside, elves and humans sat together in the king’s personal den sharing stories, playing games and asking each other questions about their cultures. 

Ezran learned of sunfire elves’ pride as warriors and leaders and he shared of Katolis’ own reputation as the military powerhouse of the human kingdoms. The students also told him about their university in Lux Aurea, a “pinnacle of education,” they called it. It apparently housed tomes all the way from the Far Reaches, the eastern most lands of Xadia. 

It inspired him to take them on a brief walk to the royal library, where he let each of them select a book to bring back for the collection at the university. He told them it was a Festival Day gift from him to them. They were gobsmacked to say the least and each hugged him with fervor.

During the revelry, Ezran took notice of Amaya sitting beside Janai in front of the fire and at one point draping an extra blanket over the elf’s shoulders. This time, when she apparently thought no one was looking, Janai did not grumble at Amaya’s assistance and instead smiled softly and briefly signed a “Thank you.” 

Once Callum and Rayla headed back for Xadia, Ezran knew exactly who he could tease until they came back. 

When early afternoon came, it was time to prepare to join the festival proper in town and everyone retreated to their rooms to change. 

Opeli shot Callum a sharp look, to which he replied with an incredulous expression, his arms out wide. She held his gaze for a moment longer before the facade cracked and she smiled slightly before heading out into the halls. 

Their group set out together into the snowy town a few minutes later, Soren once again taking up his role as tour guide as the students, along with Amaya, Janai and Gren, followed his lead. 

The town was alive with the sounds of laughter and the smells of delicious food. Children ran through the streets with small, brightly-colored noise makers and new toys while shopkeepers and vendors attempted to cajole passersby into buying sweet treats and baubles.

Soren guided the larger part of the group down the main roads, giving each of them a few coins to spend however they pleased at the stalls. Callum and Rayla hung back with Ezran and Corvus as they took in the sights for a moment.

“So,” Ezran said after Soren and the others disappeared around a bend in the road. “Where are you guys going on your date?”

“Nope, nuh-uh, I am not telling you anywhere we plan to be today,” Callum replied quickly, taking Rayla’s hand.” You go be king and shake hands and stuff your face, and we’ll enjoy the festival in peace.”

“Oh alright,” Ezran replied, his voice sly. “Keep your big smoochy date plans a secret.”

Rayla groaned and yanked Callum down the first side street she saw, leaving Ezran chuckling in their wake. 

“Be sure to meet at the tree at dusk!” He yelled after them, watching as Callum gave a halfhearted wave over his shoulder in response.

“We’re going to go looking for them, aren’t we?” Corvus asked, glancing down at him.

“Yep,” Ezran replied brightly. “But I figured we can give them a good head start. Callum’s right afterall, I do have to be king today.”

They set off down the main road and Ezran did in fact spend a good part of the day shaking hands and buying wares from the vendors. 

The people of Katolis greeted him warmly, sharing their merriment for the holiday and expressing their joy to hear that Prince Callum had returned from Xadia. Many also asked him about the current climate with the other human kingdoms, and Ezran found he didn’t have a good answer for them.

Human and elf relations were better in Katolis than they'd ever been. But the relations between the rest of the human kingdoms were shaky at best. Whether he liked it or not, his kingdom and Duren had become isolated from the rest of the Pentarchy in order to broker whatever truce they now shared with Xadia.

Queen Fareeda and King Florian were still dead, presumably at the hands of moonshadow assassins. King Ahling could no longer walk and his eldest son had been killed in the fray at the Storm Spire. 

When Ezran had met with the newly-crowned rulers several months ago, things had gone rather...poorly. 

What began as a summit between all five kingdoms ended with King Ahling very nearly declaring war on Duren after Aanya revealed some of the more sensitive details surrounding Kasef’s death. He now refused to appear at any summit where she would also be in attendance. That, coupled with Ezran’s announcement that a former moonshadow assassin had been the one to help him and his brother return Zym to Xadia, left things more than a little strained between the rulers.

Ezran understood -- of course he did. The fact that he was sitting on the throne at 10 years old was proof of that. His father had also been killed in the midst of all the fighting and bloodshed.

He shared their pain. 

But he just wished they could also share his hope. 

He and Corvus eventually crossed paths with Soren, Gren and the students. Amaya and Janai were noticeably absent from the group.

“General Amaya took her to the barracks to discuss the state of their safety,” Gren recited half heartedly with a noisemaker in one hand and an iced sweet cake in the other.  

Ezran nodded, expecting nothing less from his aunt. Soren also made his way over to report that there had been a few small incidents with townspeople making a ruckus about the sunfire elves as they walked through town, but they’d been tactfully spoken to and sent on their way to enjoy the holiday elsewhere. 

“Thank you,” Ezran said, placing a hand on Soren’s arm. “It means a lot that you’re keeping them safe.”

Soren smiled and shrugged nonchalantly, “Like I said, it feels good to be able to help. I feel like it’s by duty after what my dad did to their city.”

That made Ezran frown.

“You’re not responsible for what he did,” he said seriously. “You were brave and strong enough to stand up against what you knew was wrong. You don’t owe anyone anything because of who your father was.” 

Soren let out a heavy sigh, “I know,” he said. “But I did some pretty bad things too before I knew what he was. I want to make it right.” 

Ezran wrapped his arms around Soren’s middle, Bait warbling in support as well. 

“And that’s what makes you a good person,” Ezran said. “And a good friend.” 

Soren sniffed and quickly wiped at his eyes before returning Ezran’s hug with ferocity, “How’d you get so good at this stuff?”

Ezran pulled away and smiled, “Bait’s a good teacher.” 

Soren laughed and gave Bait a loving rub on top of his head.

“Have you seen Callum and Rayla by the way,” Ezran asked, glancing over to see the students all hastily buying new journals from a rather overwhelmed-looking vendor. 

Soren tapped a finger against his chin, “I think I saw them being all lovey dovey over that way about half an hour ago,” he said, pointing East. 

Of course they went to the pond, he should have known. 

Pulling Corvus along behind him, Ezran waved goodbye to Soren and the others as he headed toward the grove. 

The sun was just beginning to dip in the sky as they made their way through the trees, Callum’s ice trails shimmering as twilight rapidly approached. 

The sound of laughter reached his ears before the pond came into view. Men, women and children were crowded around the frozen surface, shakily walking on skates as they waited for an opening to join. 

Those who made it onto the ice seemed to be enjoying the fun immensely. Couples clutched each other on wobbly legs, kids zoomed around, narrowly avoiding crashing and others glided around with their eyes aimed upward at Callum’s handiwork. 

Ezran caught sight of Callum and Rayla almost immediately, standing secluded at the far bank. Callum stood straight and still on the ice while Rayla was hunched forward in front of him, her hands clutching his upper arms while her feet slid around beneath her. 

He wasn’t sure how a trained assassin could be quite so uncoordinated, but Ezran definitely enjoyed watching Callum patiently inching her out further and further onto the ice. At one point, she stumbled fully and her left foot dropped out from under her. Callum, in an attempt to catch her, wrapped his arms around her waist. 

Unfortunately, the sudden exertion of Rayla’s weight must have been too much for Callum’s balance and he tumbled backward, unwittingly pulling Rayla down on top of him. 

Ezran watched his brother attempt to wave off Rayla’s fumbled movements to check if he was okay, at least until he said something that made her smack him on the shoulder and they both started to laugh.

The young king just shook his head and walked around the edge of the pond until he got within earshot of his lovable idiots. 

They were still trying to get back on their feet, Callum now struggling to find purchase on the ice while Rayla continued to cling to him. 

“You know that’s not how you skate, right?” Ezran said casually.

Rayla reflexively let go of Callum to turn in Ezran’s direction. But she panicked as soon as she seemed to realize there was nothing for her to hold onto. So she grabbed Callum once again by the arms, sending them both tumbling back down to the ice. 

“How are you everywhere?!” Rayla called at him exasperatedly, her body now draped across Callum’s. 

“Ez!” Callum groaned from beneath her. “Seriously?”

Ezran walked over, Corvus shuffling uncomfortably behind him from a fair distance, and reached out a hand in their direction. 

Rayla shot him a glare before taking his hand and pulling herself to the snowy bank to sit down. Callum scooted himself over as well, fumbling slightly to untangle his feet from themselves. 

“It’s almost time for the celebration at the Winter’s Day tree,” Ezran said innocently. “I didn’t want you guys to be late.”

“Uh huh,” Rayla said, preparing to pull the skates from her feet. However, Callum stopped her with a hand on her wrist. 

“Oh no,” he said to her. “You’re not getting out of this that easily. I told you I would teach you how to skate and I meant it, annoying little brother or no annoying little brother.

Rayla groaned once again, throwing her body backward so she was now laying in the snow, “Just when I thought he was about to do me a favor.” 

Callum pushed himself back up from the ground and onto the ice, reaching a hand out to Rayla, “Come on, I’ve got you.”

She looked up at him, a layer of snow now coating the back of her head, “And you promise it’s frozen solid?”

“I promise,” Callum replied earnestly. “I froze it myself, remember? I don’t think there’s enough regular water in here to fill a puddle.”

She took his hand and let him pull her back to her feet. She was still unsteady, but she was up.

“Ez, if you’re gonna stay there, shut up and don’t move, this is important,” Callum said, keeping his eyes on Rayla as she wobbled. 

Ezran smiled and did as he was told, crossing his legs and placing Bait quietly in his lap. 

“Okay, just like we talked about, keep your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees,” Callum said calmly as he continued to hold Rayla’s hands. She followed his directions and wiggled her feet apart before bending her knees.

“Alright, now, keep your eyes on me and push off with one foot,” Callum continued, matching Rayla’s trepidations expression with his own calm one. “I’ve got you, I promise.”

She took a couple deep breaths before moving one foot back, taking a few tries to feel her way around the movement without falling. But eventually, she found enough grip on the ice to push herself forward just enough, Callum gently moving backward with her. He didn’t let go of her hands. 

“See! There, you’re doing it!” He said eagerly, letting her continue to push them along tentatively. 

Ezran couldn’t deny how sweet and wholesome the scene unfolding in front of him was: A human prince teaching his would-be assassin how to ice skate. 

They continued to skate in tiny circles around the pond, Ezran remaining totally silent as Rayla slowly but steadily gained confidence. Eventually, they took off to join the ring of other skaters moving in a steady circle around the main portion of the pond, Rayla now only clasping one of Callum’s hands. 

She was beaming brighter than Ezran had ever seen and Callum couldn’t take his eyes off her. 

“You know what, Bait?” Ezran said, finally speaking up. “I think I’ve teased them enough for one visit.”

Bait croaked in response, his eyes following the circle of people skating in front of them. 

Ezran stood up when they skated back over and smiled widely when Rayla let go of Callum’s hand to skate the last stretch by herself. Ezran caught her by the hands as she reached the edge of the pond, still not entirely sure how to stop herself. But she looked beyond pleased. 

“Thanks,” she said to him, her smile not leaving her face. 

She turned when Callum easily came to a stop beside her and propelled herself forward once more to kiss him. Callum caught her and chuckled into the kiss as he squeezed her tight. 

“Thank you,” she whispered when they separated, tucking her head into the crook of his neck. 

“Anytime,” he said back, the familiar sight of his blush slowly returning to his cheeks. 

“That was great, Rayla.” Ezran said honestly. “I’m sorry for making you guys fall. I didn’t realize how much this meant to you.”

Rayla gave him a playful punch to the arm as Callum helped her sit back down and begin to unlace her skates.

“It’s alright,” she said. “Just be prepared to get the same treatment when you bring someone home for the first time.”

“Sounds fair,” he replied, handing her one of her boots. 

Chapter Text

Dusk was definitely upon them as they walked out of the grove, and the crowd around them had all begun meandering toward the Winter’s Day tree in the square. 

It was time for Ezran to make his grand, kingly speech for the festival, and he was dreading it. His dad never liked public speaking either. He could remember the way he’d fiddle with the cuffs of his tunic before addressing his people, or spending countless sleepless nights writing and rewriting his chosen words.

Ezran went over his talking points again and again in his head as they crunched their way through the snow.

“You’re gonna do great,” Callum said as they approached the small stage in the town square. He and Rayla each gave him a pat on the back before standing off to the side.

“I hope so,” Ezran said quietly to himself as he began to climb the stairs. Opeli and a few other council members were already waiting on top.

They bowed respectfully and Opeli gave him an encouraging nod as he took a deep breath.

When he turned to face the crowd, he squared his shoulders and held himself as tall as he could manage. When the square fell silent, he began to speak. 

“People of Katolis, I want to thank you all for your hard work in creating another wonderful Winter Festival,” Ezran said, hoping his voice was projecting far enough into the crowd.

People cheered and a few noisemakers went off before Ezran signaled for them to quiet back down.

“Many of you already know, but this year’s festival is also a historic one. For the first time ever, elves have joined us in Katolis to celebrate our holiday in the name of peace.” Ezran gestured to Rayla, Janai and the group of students who had all congregated at the bottom of the stairs. 

The crowd became a mix of cheers, murmurs and a few jeers at the mention of the elves among them. 

“I know things are different,” Ezran said, trying to bring their attention back to him. “We all know the pain and anger war can cause, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Six months ago, we all fought side-by-side to put an end to the cycle of death and destruction. Both elves and humans were heroes that day,” he said. 

“Which is why, for this Winter Festival, I am presenting my gift to those heroes,” he paused for a moment to take a calming breath. “A monument will be erected in the Cove of Remembrance in honor of every human and elf who looked past their hatred, who stood up for what they knew was right and fought for peace.” 

The same rumble of mixed reactions started to wash over the crowd. Pleased murmurs mixed with sounds of confusion and discontent. 

Ezran knew the monument would draw mixed reactions, as would his decision to place it so close to his mother’s own statue. But he knew he wanted to honor the people who had risked or given their lives like she had. 

The rulers of Neolandia, Del Bar and Evenere probably won’t be pleased about it either. After all, their armies had been very nearly decimated in the fray. But he hoped Katolis and Duren could lead by example and show them that they could all overcome their pasts and move forward,

He held his hands out to once again quiet the crowd when he’d given then a moment to process the announcement. 

“I know my mother and father were both great leaders, and I know that I’m still new at being king. But I will learn from them and work hard to make all our homes a better place,” he said, his heart pounding in his ears just a little. 

“So, uh, everyone please enjoy the rest of the festival and here’s to a prosperous year,” Ezran fumbled a little bit at his conclusion, his nerves beginning to get the best of him. But for the most part, he thought his speech went about as well as it could have.

He shuffled off the stage as a group of musicians with fiddles and lutes took his place, bowing as they crossed his path. 

Suddenly his anxieties were interrupted by a ferocious hug from his aunt who once again lifted him from the ground and swung him around. 

“That was beautiful, Ezran,” Rayla said, coming up to pat him on the head once Amaya released him. 

“Thanks,” he said panting a little. “You don’t think people will be too upset?”

It was Callum’s turn to pull him into a hug, if not a much less constricting one, “I think it’s perfect,” he said. “And I think mom would love it.”

That did the trick, clearing out some of the remaining nerves in Ezran’s system. 

“I hoped she would,” he replied quietly. 

Janai cleared her throat, getting his attention before she bowed deeply before him, “It was an honor to fight at your side and it is an honor to accept your gift. Thank you, King Ezran,” she said formally before offering a hand for him to shake. 

Ezran chuckled. 

“If you hadn’t noticed, my family hugs,” he said before wrapping his arms around her briefly. “Thank you for all you and your people have done.”

Janai stood stiff in shocked silence for a moment before returning his embrace, “Your aunt is also very...fond of hugs,” she said.

Ezran laughed, “Yeah, I know,” he said. 

Behind them, the musicians began to play a lively tune and a few townsfolk began to dance while others returned to milling about the town and partaking in other festivities.

For the next several minutes, Ezran walked around the square fielding questions, comments and concerns from townspeople about his gift. Many applauded his bravery, a fair number expressed discomfort at having a permanent display of their allegiance with elves on display and a couple of people aggressively asked where the funds would come from to build such a monument.

At the end of it all, Ezran was exhausted. It was getting late and all he really wanted was to get his hands on the biggest sweet cake he could find and curl up with it in front of a fire. 

However, a commotion back near the musicians caught his attention before he could search for Barius’ stall. A small ring of people had gathered in front of the stage, clapping along to the cheery music as a few couples danced in the middle.  

Callum and Rayla were among them, and just as Callum had led Rayla with confidence while they were out on the ice, she now led him as they danced on the cobblestones. Ezran had no idea Rayla could dance; it had never really come up while they were on their life-changing and perilous journey. But she could, and she was good at it.

She kept pace with the music as it dipped and swelled, spinning and clapping along with the other dancers. When the beat brought her and Callum together, she took his hands and gently helped him fumble his own way through the steps. He was by no means as skilled as she was, but Ezran recognized the concentration in his brother’s eyes as he gave it his best shot. 

Rayla smiled and occasionally tapped his chin with her finger to keep him looking at her instead of his feet. Or she would lean in close and whisper something in his ear and Callum would nod and make a slight shift in his arms or stance. It definitely looked like they’d danced together before.

Ezran wasn’t surprised. 

What did surprise him, however, was when the verse turned over and the dancing couples all switched partners. For a moment he held his breath as Rayla changed places and danced with a man he recognized as a blacksmith’s son. Ezran had met him a handful of times and he was a nice enough man, but he had no idea how he would react to an elf joining in with a traditional human dance.

But he didn’t miss a beat, hooking arms with Rayla and spinning around like he would with any other partner. Then, so did the woman who danced with her next, and the next two partners after that. The song continued until all of the dancers cycled back to their original partners, and Rayla looked positively giddy by the time she returned to spin in Callum’s arms with the final crescendo of the music.  

Ezran applauded along with the rest of the crowd, catching sight of Amaya and Janai on the other side of the square as he did so. He meandered his way over to them as the musicians struck up another song with a much slower tempo. 

They were leaning against the side of a stall selling persimmon candies, Amaya holding a large bag of the sweets between the two of them. He took a few when she offered him the bag and leaned against the wood next to her.

“Your people truly are surprising,” Janai said as she kept her eyes on the dancers in front of them and popped another candy into her mouth. “I would have never believed that a human kingdom could accept that their prince had fallen in love with an elf.”

She paused for a moment before continuing, “I never would have believed that a human and an elf could  fall in love to begin with.”

Ezran glanced over and saw the tiniest hint of blush on her cheeks as she determinedly kept her eyes forward, even when Amaya glanced slyly over at her. Only when Amaya shoved the bag of candies into her hands and began to sign did Janai look over at her. 

Ezran wasn’t as good as Callum at translating sign language, but he caught most of what his aunt said and took the lead when he caught sight of Janai’s slightly overwhelmed expression.

“She said ‘love is a language everyone can understand,’” Ezran said with a smile. 

Janai’s blush intensified, but she merely cleared her throat and set her gaze forward once more.

“I suppose you are right,” she said, her voice wavering just a little. “They will still have a difficult road ahead of them.”

Ezran followed her gaze back over to Callum and Rayla, who had settled into each other's arms as they swayed in little circles. Callum stumbled on his feet only a few times as Rayla led him through the steps but neither let the smiles slip from their faces. 

They took no notice of the dozens of eyes that were on them as they danced. Some looks were kind, some were shocked and some even appeared disgusted, but all of the people behind the expressions remained silent, allowing them to love each other in peace for the moment. 

“They’ll be fine,” Ezran said confidently, Amaya nodding beside him.

The song eventually came to an end and the three of them watched Callum take Rayla by the hand as they walked out of the square in the direction of the castle. 

“We should be getting back too,” Amaya signed. “It’s late.” She handed Ezran the rest of the persimmon candy with a wink before motioning for Janai to follow her. Ezran waved goodbye as they walked out of the square and disappeared from sight. 

Ezran took the opportunity to admire the scene of the festival one last time. The crowds had begun to thin, candles in windows were gradually extinguished as everyone trudged home with full bellies. The lights of the Winter’s Day tree still sparkled jovially, casting a dim light on those who were determined to celebrate just a little bit longer as a light snow fell around them.

All in all, he felt proud of how the day had gone. Even though they had lost their king, even though their standing with the other kingdoms was now unclear and even though there was no telling what other challenges lay before them, the people of Katolis seemed to enjoy the holiday. When he looked around, he still saw the same smiling faces of children who’d spent their day playing and eating sweets. He still saw the same adults who looked just a little more relaxed than they did on a normal day. They were the same faces he could remember seeing after every Winter Festival. They were still here. 

Corvus made his way over to him, his arms laden with a heaping pile of little packages wrapped with paper and tied with colorful bows. 

“Do a little shopping?” Ezran asked, not bothering to hide the amusement in his voice.

“They’re for you, My King,” Corvus said, pausing momentarily to adjust one of the more perilously-perched packages in his arms. “Barius got a little carried away.”

“I love when he gets carried away,” Ezran replied, moving forward to scoop up some of the packages.

“Shall we go home?” Corvus said, his expression grateful now that his arms were significantly less overburdened. 

Ezran looked around once more, taking a deep breath of the cold crisp air before nodding and following Corvus up the road. 

He slept much better that night.

Amaya, Gren, Janai and the sunfire elf students departed for the border two days later. They extended an open invitation to Ezran Callum and Rayla to visit Lux Aurea whenever they wished, with a promise to also return to Katolis for next year’s Winter Festival. 

Amaya hugged Ezran tight before promising that she’d be back for another visit before the spring thaw. 

“I’m so proud of you,” she signed, kneeling down in front of him. “You have already become a strong and courageous king.” 

His heart glowed, “Thanks, Aunt Amaya,” he said, pulling her back into one more hug. 

The students each gave Soren a large hug as they prepared to mount their horses. They proudly noted that they’d all filled two journals during their visit and thanked all of them for their valuable information. 

“If you and Miss Rayla ever decide to have children, please let us know,” one of the students said brightly to Callum as they were preparing to depart. “We’d be fascinated to learn about the gestation of a halfling child.”

Callum had to bring Rayla’s serving of dinner to his wardrobe that night. 

Another day later, it was their turn to leave for Xadia. 

Ezran woke that morning with a lump in his stomach and tears already gathering in his eyes. Bait clambered across the mattress and tucked himself beneath his arm and grumbled when he refused to get out of bed. 

“I know, Bait,” he said, sniffing. “I’m just going to miss them so much.”

Bait gave a low warble as his color shifted to a steely grey. 

“Yeah, me too,” Ezran whispered, snuggling the glow toad tighter and letting himself cry for a moment. 

When he joined them down in the courtyard a short time later, he saw that their eyes were red and raw too. They didn’t say anything, just pulled him to them and held him tight as they all shared their tears. Soren arrived to escort them to the city gates, wordlessly joining their embrace as well.

Rayla was the first to pull away, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her coat.

“We’ll be back again soon,” she said, her voice firm but also thicker than usual. “And we’ll keep writing as often as we can.”

Callum pulled back a little and nodded, he opened his mouth a couple times, seeming to struggle to find the right words. 

Ezran gave him a teary smile, “Draw me lots of pictures of the places you explore, okay?” 

Callum chuckled a little, tears still falling from his eyes, “Yeah, Ez. I promise.” 

Just then, Callum’s eyes shot open wide as he pulled away completely. 

“I almost forgot,” he said, hastily pulling his pack in front of him and rifling through it. “I made something for you.” 

After coming up empty, Callum pulled his bag and sketchbook from his shoulders and handed them to Soren before also yanking off his jacket to hand to Rayla. 

“I think I left it in our room,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” 

He activated his mage wings before another word could be said and swiftly took off, the wind from his wings turning the freshly-fallen snow into a swirling vortex around them. 

“Man, I will never get used to seeing him fly,” Soren said, watching with fascination as Callum soared around the towers and toward the window of his room. 

It didn’t take long for Callum to retrieve the thing he was looking for. He reappeared within view in moments and gracefully landed beside them. Dispelling the wings, he reached inside his shirt and recovered a piece of paper and handed it to Ezran. 

Callum had always been a fantastic artist and Ezran was always fond of his sketches, but the picture he handed him was one of the most breathtaking he’d ever seen. It was a scene from the morning of the festival, when they’d all settled into the den to play games and drink warm cider. 

He’d captured Soren’s exuberant expression as he told the sunfire elves about his workout regiment as a member of the crown guard while Gren laughed, Amaya and Janai sitting by the fire and smiling at each other when they thought no one was looking, Rayla curled on a sofa and fighting the desire to doze off against Callum’s shoulder with a fluffy blanket draped on her lap. Then there was Ezran, sitting in the middle of it all looking relaxed and content with Bait snoozing on his lap. 

More tears spilled from Ezran’s eyes and he quickly moved away to avoid dripping them on the picture. 

“It’s perfect, Callum,” he said. “Thank you.”

Callum’s face filled with pride at his reaction, “Even when we’re not here, we always love you and we’re always thinking about you.” 

“I know,” Ezran said, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Me too.” 

“We’d better get you guys on the road if you want to get to the Banther Lodge before sundown,” Soren said, sounding genuinely remorseful. They’d be spending the night there before heading back to the moon nexus where Pyrrha would collect them and take them back to the Storm Spire.

Callum nodded before taking his jacket back from Rayla and hurriedly yanking it back on over his arms, not at all noticing when a small box jumped from his pocket and onto the snow. 

Ezran saw it, however, his eyes going wide as he moved to scoop up the tiny object before Rayla saw it. 

“Callum, you dropped something.”

Oh boy.

Rayla bent down to pick up the box, turning it around in her hand a few times as she looked quizzically at it, “What’s this?” She asked as Callum turned around to look at her.

Ezran watched as the color drained from his brother’s face, his mouth going slack and hanging open wordlessly. It was only when Rayla’s fingers twitched in preparation to flick the box open that he moved. 

“Oh! That, that’s-psh-that’s nothing,” he said, scrambling over to snatch it from her hand and stuff it back in his pocket. “It’s just a present-um, I mean, not really a present...more of a souvenir?” 

Rayla arched an eyebrow at him, “Uh huh…What kind of souvenir is it then?”

Callum looked to Ezran, pleading silently for help.

“It’s for Zym!” he chimed in, smiling widely. “I asked Callum if he could give it to him for me.” 

“Yep, yep, yep that’s right!” Callum said, fumbling as he grabbed his bag  and sketchbook from Soren and throwing them over his shoulders. “It’s for Zym, that’s all. Just a souvenir-present from Ezran to Zym.” 

Rayla stared at both of them for a moment, her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed, before hefting her own pack up and turning away from them and following Soren toward town. “Whatever you say,” she said over her shoulder.

Callum exhaled heavily once she was out of earshot, sinking to the ground and placing both hands on Ezran’s shoulders.

“I owe you big time ,” he said seriously. 

“Yes you do,” Ezran said. 

They made their way through town quicker than Ezran would have liked and before he knew it, the gates came into view.

“So,” Rayla whispered casually to him as they walked, the crunch of the snow under their feet preventing  Callum and Soren from hearing as they walked ahead of them. “What did you get for Zym?”

Ezran felt the breath suddenly escape from his lungs and all thoughts vanish from his brain.

“’s,” he searched his mind for something, anything to say. “Persimmon candy!”

He was an idiot.

Rayla’s eyebrow cocked, “Persimmon candy?” She asked skeptically.

“Yep!” He said, his voice coming out way too loud.

She looked far from convinced, “You put persimmon candy in that fancy, little box...for a baby dragon?”

“Yep…?” He said again, far less confidently.

Rayla frowned at him, “Ezran,” she said in a voice that had a frightening resemblance to Opeli. “It’s not for Zym, is it?”

Ezran winced, “No,” he said back quietly. “But promise you won’t say anything? It’s something special, like when you kissed Callum during the full moon the other night.”

Her eyes widened at that. 

“How do you know-” she stopped, waving her hands in front of her face exasperatedly. “You know what? I don’t even want to know.” 

“But promise you won’t say anything?” He asked again. “It’s really important to him.”

“I promise,” she said, reaching down to tousle his hair and receiving several aggravated chirps from the adoraburrs.

When they finally stopped at the edge of town, Rayla bent down to kiss Ezran softly on the forehead and give him one last massive hug, “You be a good king while we’re gone, alright?”

“I will,” he said, trying and failing to fight the tears that once again appeared in his eyes. “Keep each other safe.” Bait croaked sadly in his arms.

“We will,” she said with a warm smile, scratching Bait affectionately under the chin before turning to say goodbye to Soren. 

Ezran took the opportunity to throw himself at his brother, colliding roughly with him and almost sending them both backward into the snow. 

“I love you, Callum,” he said, an awkward little sob escaping from his lips. 

“I love you too, Ez,” Callum said as he held him, his voice also shaking. “We’ll see you again soon, I promise.”

“I know,” Ezran said, squeezing his eyes shut. “But that doesn’t make it hurt less right now.” 

Callum nodded and Ezran felt his brother’s tears beginning to dampen the fabric on his shoulder, “I know,” he whispered back. “But I am so proud of you. I will always be proud of you. And I can’t wait to hear about all the other amazing stuff you’re going to do as king.”

Eventually they both ran out of tears, caught their breaths and let go of each other. Callum stepped away, taking Rayla’s proffered hand as well as a few deep breaths. 

It was time to go. 

They slowly started taking a few steps backwards but not yet able to turn around. 

“We’ll write you as soon as we make it to the nexus,” Rayla said. “And when we get back to the spire.”

Ezran nodded, trying to wipe his eyes again and finding his sleeve almost entirely damp. 

“Be safe, you guys, and come back soon,” Soren said, placing a comforting hand on Ezran’s shoulder.

They each waved as their steps got a little larger and they moved to turn around toward the trail ahead. 

“I love you guys,” Ezran called out to them, his voice breaking as he did so.

They stopped and smiled through their own tears, “We love you too, Ez,” Callum called back. They waved once more before turning and beginning their journey back to Xadia in earnest. 

Ezran watched them until they disappeared behind tree cover. Soren squeezed his shoulder and silently tilted his head back in the direction of the castle. He followed silently, sniffing and dragging his feet a little in the snow. 

All the while he could feel Soren’s eyes glancing back at forth at him with concern. 

“So…” he said finally. “Your brother asked me for a favor before he left.”

Ezran perked up a little at that, sniffing loudly once more before looking up at him, “Yeah?” He asked, curious as to what it could be.

Soren smiled at his interest, “Yeah! He asked me to have Opeli have a talk with you about...sandwiches? I don’t know what he meant, but I know I love sandwiches, so it’ll probably be a fun talk.”

Ezran’s brow furrowed in confusion. Sandwiches? Why in the world would Callum want Opeli to talk with him about…

Wait a minute.

Chapter Text

A hooded figure stood alone among the rocky outcroppings on the eastern edge of the Midnight Desert. A gentle breeze fluttered the end of her cloak as she gazed upward at the cloudless sky. 

By all accounts it was a beautiful day. The touch of winter didn’t come to the land this close to the Midnight Desert, the heat radiating off the sand keeping the snow and cold at bay. But Claudia could hardly notice. She was exhausted, she was filthy and she wanted to go home. 

She sighed, letting her eyes drop down for a moment so she could try to rub some of the tiredness from them. She didn’t even have a home to go back to anymore. She wouldn’t be welcome back in the castle, and surely every town and village throughout the Pentarchy would have heard about what happened at the Storm Spire.

They were exiles, forced to hide in enemy territory, sleeping in the dirt and scavenging for every meal. She missed her old life; she missed sleeping in her own bed; she missed having three readily-prepared meals a day.

She missed her brother. 

Claudia’s entire body shuddered, fighting back the clench in her heart as she pictured Soren’s face.

No. No, she couldn’t do this now. She had a job to do.

She turned her eyes back skyward, looking for anything heading toward her from the west 

Another hour passed. She tensed every time a bird or particularly large insect passed in front of her. They should be here soon, at least that’s what he said. 

She still didn’t understand how her father could trust him, he was an elf after all. At least, she thought that’s what he was. But he claimed to see glimpses into the past and the future. That wasn’t a power she’d ever heard of before.

But her father trusted him, and she trusted her father more than anyone. So she would do as she was told. 

She blinked when a particularly large speck of...something entered her vision.

She wiped at her eyes, not sure if it was just a trick of the light. But when she looked back, she saw it clearly. It was a dragon all right, and the closer it got, the more she could recognize the familiar scarlet color of its scales. 

Claudia jumped from the top of the outcropping and moved into the shadows where she could still keep the dragon in her line of sight. She sucked in a quick breath and held it in her lungs when she saw a flash of silver from on top of the beast’s back.

Claudia’s eyes narrowed. After she’d brought him back, her father had told her that Rayla was the one who tackled him from the top of the spire, sending him falling to his death while she somehow survived. It had nearly killed Claudia as well when she discovered her father’s twisted, bleeding body after the battle. 

Now, she wanted nothing more than to return the favor. 

The tendrils of revenge wrapping themselves around her heart stalled when Claudia also saw a glimpse of brown hair behind the elf.


She hadn’t seen him properly since he’d stolen her book on dark magic to save the very dragon they now rode upon. She’d hardly recognized him then. It had broken her heart to see him look at her with so much disdain and disappointment. 

But she supposed she’d broken his heart first.

She would get her friends back. She would get her family back. And she would kill that damn elf if it was the last thing she did. 

The dragon passed above her before continuing east toward the spire. She watched them for a moment longer before heading for the treeline and the cave she and her father had escaped to after his resurrection. 

Pulling away branches, she uncovered the cave’s entrance and she saw the flickering light of their campfire inside.

Her footsteps echoed on the stone floor as she approached her father and the other cloaked figure sitting on the ground. 

She smiled at her father as she approached. The sight of him living and breathing still sent a feeling of relief washing over her. His cuts and bruises had healed and he now looked just as he had before the fall. He was dirty and had lost weight, just like she had. But they were here, they were alive and they were together. 

Her smile fell as she directed her attention to the hooded figure beside him. 

“They’re back,” she told him simply, not bothering to try and hide the edge of contempt that tended to leak into her voice when she spoke to him.

He leaned forward and raised his hands to pull the hood back from his head, exposing his deformed face. 

Claudia winced. When he’d emerged from the cocoon weaved by the strange caterpillar that had ridden into Xadia on her father’s shoulder, he’d come out as some kind of amalgamation of elf and beast. 

He wore the same shiny, purple skin of the little bug creature. But it was like it didn’t fit; the skin seemed to be taut in some places and loose in others, patched together into a face that would be rather handsome if it wasn’t also grotesque.  His long white hair and large, twisting horns were undeniably elf, however. 

“Good,” Aaravos said simply.

The deep rumble of his voice always sent a shiver of unease up Claudia’s spine.

“Now we can begin.”