Bad news: my updating schedule for this fic will likely be changing to once every two weeks, possibly once every three. I hate that I can't upload every week like I want, but I have so much going on right now that I don't think it's possible. My main goal is give you guys quality chapters, and in order to do that they're going to have to be more spaced out. I'm really sorry but I hope you'll still continue to read and (hopefully) enjoy this story!
"Ezran, are you ready to go?" Callum called, adjusting his scarf around his neck so it wasn't caught beneath the strap of his satchel. "Soren's only a few minutes away." He'd cleared it with Harrow that they could go to Claudia's dorm, and it was sheer luck that Soren would be passing by their house on his way back into campus. Yes, Callum could drive, but it was better for the environment if they carpooled.
"Yeah, I'm ready," Ezran grumbled as he shuffled into the hall. "But are you sure I can't bring Bait with me? He's going to be so lonely when I'm not here!"
Callum sighed. "I'm sorry, Ez. I know it sucks, but there are no animals allowed in dorms, even if only for a temporary period. If you give Bait a treat I'm sure he'll be fine." His phone buzzed. It was Soren, letting him know that he was waiting outside. "C'mon. Soren's here."
He watched as Ezran quickly ran over to Bait's cage and dropped a piece of a jelly tart inside before darting out the door, which Callum made sure to lock behind them as they left. "Dad will pick us up from Claudia's whenever his meeting is done, which should be around 8ish." He opened the back door of Soren's car for his brother before walking around to climb into the passenger seat.
"What's up, pipsqueaks?" Soren asked as he pulled out of their driveway and into the road, not waiting for an answer from the two before he continued speaking. "Please tell me you know something about Claudia's plans for tonight, because I was told nothing except when to show up."
Callum laughed as he finished buckling in. "That sounds like Claudia. But we're just going to play board games, I think. And you'll get to meet Rayla, if you haven't already."
Soren grinned. "Oh, nice. Nah, I haven't met her yet." He glanced at Callum as he stopped at a red light. "What's she like?"
Callum snorted. "Oh, you'll get along well. She's into sports."
Soren rolled his eyes. "Only someone not into sports would think that two people will get along just because they both play sports."
"No, trust me on this one. She's basically a tri-athlete, like you."
"Uh huh. We'll see."
The rest of the ride was spent discussing school. Soren talked about it being his last year with equal excitement, dread, and relief. He threw in some advice here and there about which teachers to take and which to avoid during senior year.
"Marcos is pretty cool," he explained. "Opeli is tough but really understanding if you actually talk to her. Though you might know that already, since she seems to be Harrow's right-hand advisor. With the exception of my dad, of course."
Callum, in fact, had not known that about Opeli. He really hadn't spoken to her much, even though she was around Harrow pretty often.
They were only a few minutes away from Claudia's dorm when Soren asked Callum the last question he was interested in answering.
"So..." he drawled, throwing him a sideways smirk. "When are you planning to ask out my little sister?"
Callum froze in a manner akin to a deer caught in a pair of headlights. "Wh-What?!" he sputtered. "I don't - what are you talking about?"
"He's never gonna do it," Ezran piped up from the backseat. "He's too much of a coward when it comes to girls."
"I am not!" Callum protested, very aware of how red his face had to be. "I just -"
"Don't want to be rejected?" Ezran offered. "Callum, you need to woman up and ask her!"
Callum turned around to glare at his brother. It always irked him how perceptive he could be.
"You know she'll never say yes if you don't ask her at all," Soren pointed out as he turned into the parking lot of Claudia's dorm.
"I mean... do you think she would say yes?" Callum asked, pretending that his face hadn't gone pink up to the tips of his ears.
Soren shrugged as he put his car into park before turning the key and pulling it out of the ignition. "No idea. I know she thinks you're pretty cute, but I don't know if that's in a 'crush' sorta way or an 'aw he's my little brother' thing."
Callum didn't respond, desperately wanting this particular conversation to end. Fortunately for him, Soren and Ezran seemed to take the hint, and they walked up the stairs to Claudia's dorm in silence.
The silence ended, of course, the moment they knocked on the door.
"You're here!" Claudia cheered as she pushed the door open and pulled them all into a group hug. "I was worried you'd be late because Soren is such a bad driver."
"I am not!" Soren protested as Claudia dragged them all into her dorm, shutting the door with her foot behind them. "My record is better than yours."
"Just because I'm a bad driver doesn't negate the fact that you are also a bad driver! Right, Callum?"
Callum held up his hands. "I'm not getting involved in this one." He knew better than to join fights between Claudia and Soren, be they joking or not.
"Well, I'm sure you're both lousy drivers." A familiar Xadian voice floated into the hall. "Now can we play some Katolian games or what? I've been waiting all day."
Callum turned to see Rayla leaning against the doorframe of where the hall met the main room, her arms crossed over her chest and a smirk dancing on her lips. He knew she wasn't lying - she'd talked excitedly about their game night for almost ten minutes after their Renaissance History class had ended.
"Yes! Yes, of course," Claudia said with a pointed look at her brother before proceeding to push the three past Rayla and into the living room. "Let's start with -"
"Wait, wait," Rayla interrupted as she followed them, studying the group with her lips pursed. "Obviously I know Callum, and you must be Soren based on the pictures Claudia has shown me, but..." She pointed at Ezran. "I don't think I know who you are."
"Oh, this is my little brother, Ezran," Callum said, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder. "He's in 9th grade."
Rayla snapped her fingers. "Oh, of course! I should have realized. You're the spitting image of Professor Harrow." Her last words were directed at Ezran, who beamed at her. She offered him her hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too!" Ezran replied, shaking her hand. "And yeah, people are always telling me how much I look like my dad."
As Rayla chatted with Ezran about Harrow, Callum noticed that she was wearing a loose-fitting but short purple tank top. Well, not so short it showed any skin -
Okay, unless she raised her arms.
Christ, her arms. Rayla was clearly an athlete. Not that he'd doubted her or anything, but in a sleeveless shirt it was clear how toned her muscles were. Callum had a gut feeling she could break any of them in half if she wanted to.
Hopefully she'd never want to.
Claudia's hand being waved in front of his face snapped him out of his reverie.
"You good?" she asked. "You completely zoned out for a moment there."
Blood rushed to Callum's face, internally scolding himself for having stared at Rayla for so long. She was a human, not an object. He'd been raised better than that! "Sorry," he apologized, probably with more panic than was necessary. "I, uh, was just thinking about a physics quiz I have tomorrow. I'm kind of stressed about it."
Claudia groaned. "Ugh, Callum, we are not thinking about school right now! This is supposed to be a fun and relaxing evening."
Callum snorted. With Claudia's and Soren's overly-intense competitive streaks, 'relaxing' was probably not going to be an accurate term. "I doubt -"
"Enough blabbering!" Rayla interrupted. "Let's get started!"
After only a few minutes of playing UNO, Callum learned that Rayla, too, had an intense competitive streak, though hers was not as obvious as Claudia's was. He also learned that the more frustrated Rayla became, the thicker her accent got. It was more amusing than it had any right to be.
What was funniest, of course, was that Ezran was beating them all into the dirt. And no one could be mad because, well, he was Ezran. He was the human incarnate of a puppy. He won at UNO, Monopoly, and Go Fish.
Well, Callum had technically won a round of Go Fish, but the death glares he then received from Rayla, Claudia, and Soren made him realize that he'd much rather be content with second place than risk his life by winning first.
"Okay, I think it's time for a new game," Claudia said after Ezran won at Apples to Apples for the umpteenth time. "A new game with a new theme besides cards and boards." She stood up, brushing off her pants before moving towards a closet already cracked open, shifting herself onto her tiptoes to reach a white box on the highest shelf. She spun around after grabbing it, an excited grin dancing on her face. "Twister!"
"Oh, I love Twister!" Rayla said, clapping her hands together with a grin that matched Claudia's. "I've never lost a game."
"As interesting as it is to learn that Twister is also a thing in Xadia," Claudia began, "Soren has also never lost a game." She wiggled her eyebrows at the girl. "He may not look it, but he's pretty flexible."
Soren flexed his arm, smirking and overall looking quite pleased with himself. "I took ballet for eight years, and I've kept up the stretching regimen ever since."
Rayla snorted, clearly skeptical of his claim. "Right. Well, we'll see how you fare."
Callum knew even before they began the game how he was going to fare - poorly.
He was out after three rounds.
Ezran lasted for seven. He ended up tripping over Soren's leg and falling, which Claudia said was an honorable exit from the game, since Soren was as bulky as an elephant and was therefore hard to avoid. Soren, surprisingly enough, had taken little offense to that.
Claudia herself had chosen to be the spinner for the game - lucky her.
As the game progressed, Callum noted that neither Rayla nor Soren seemed willing to back down. He found himself absentmindedly sketching the variety of poses they wound up in, some of which were far more entertaining to witness than others. Rayla, he noticed, was easily the more flexible of the two, but Soren had the advantage of longer limbs when reaching the colored dots on the mat.
"Left hand, red," Claudia said after she flicked the spinner. She glanced up to check on their positions, then snorted. "Yeah, good luck with that."
Callum had to bite back a laugh as Rayla and Soren began the struggle to move their left hands to red. Rayla, after a grunt and curse muttered in a language Callum didn't recognize, twisted over and ended up in a backbend, a delighted smirk forming on her face as her left hand landed perfectly on red. Soren attempted to follow suit, but promptly crashed to the floor.
"Rayla is the winner!" Claudia shouted, jumping to her feet and tossing the spinner into the air. "Soren has been defeated!"
"Yes!" Rayla cheered, jumping to her feet and pumping her fist. "My streak continues!"
"I challenge you to a rematch!" Soren said with a good-natured grin as he stood up. "I refuse to accept this loss!"
Callum was fascinated by the excited twinkle in Rayla's eyes. This was the most relaxed he'd ever seen her since her arrival in Katolis.
"Deal," Rayla said, smirking as she shook his hand. "But no more Twister. I don't think that would be quite fair to you."
"Ha ha," Soren said, rolling his eyes but still grinning. "Then let's arm wrestle. Your strength against mine, since Callum tells me you're a serious athlete."
Callum blushed. He hadn't phrased it exactly like that. Thankfully, however, Rayla didn't seem to get caught up in Soren's words. Now, he didn't expect her to hesitate in accepting Soren's challenge, necessarily - but he also didn't expect her to agree as readily as she did.
In the blink of an eye, Claudia had Rayla and Soren set up at the table in her kitchen.
"Rightie or leftie?" Soren asked as he slid into a seat.
"Ambidextrous," Rayla retorted with what Callum felt was becoming her signature smirk as she sat across from him. "Your choice."
"Rightie it is." Soren placed his right elbow on the table, flexing his hand and cracking his neck. "I hope you're ready to lose."
Rayla snorted, placing her hand in his. Callum couldn't help but notice how slender her fingers were in comparison to Soren's, though he had certainly seen the callouses on her palm, an indicator of her true strength and athleticism. "You're pretty bad at trash-talking for someone Claudia claims has played football for years."
Callum slid into the seat next to the girl, smoothing out a crinkle in the corner of his sketchbook before beginning to add more detail to his drawing of Rayla and Soren playing Twister. Ezran took the seat across from him.
Claudia stood between Rayla and Soren at the end of the table. "Three... two... one... go!"
At first, the two were so evenly matched that Callum could hardly tell that they'd started. Neither shifted in either direction, and the only tells that they were actively pushing were Rayla's clenched jaw and the vein that was popping out ever so slightly above Soren's left eyebrow.
"I think I may have underestimated your strength," Soren muttered, "but I'm not gonna lose!"
"I'm used to being underestimated," was Rayla's terse reply. "Hasn't stopped me yet."
Gradually Soren seemed to take the lead, though Callum was silently cheering for Rayla. Rayla then pressed back for a moment, bringing their arms upwards, the concentration on her face focused enough to burn a hole in the table.
The key difference Callum had started to notice between Rayla and Soren was their expressions, as both were relatively silent throughout the contest. The two were clearly focused, but that focus was presenting itself in very different ways. Soren's entire face seemed tight, his arm quivering as he held Rayla's hand and nearly crushing it within his grip. Rayla, on the other hand, appeared far more relaxed, except for how hard she was biting down on her bottom lip. Besides that and her intense stare, nothing gave away the strain she was putting on herself.
"You are really damn strong," Soren muttered, his voice barely above a grunt. This fact amused Ezran, who was barely stifling his laughter.
"I know," was Rayla's brusque reply, which was the breaking point for Ezran, who burst into giggles and nearly fell out of his chair onto the floor.
After another fifteen or so seconds - fifteen seconds that must have felt like an eternity to the arm wrestlers - Rayla's hand began to fall back towards the table. As if sensing that she couldn't win, she sighed and allowed her hand to be pressed against the wood.
"And Soren is the victor!" Claudia shouted, crushing her brother into a hug. "Good job, Sor-bear!"
"But Rayla put up a valiant fight!" Callum added, doing his best to capture Claudia's 'sports announcer' persona, though he was pretty sure he fell short. "An entertaining match all around."
"Agreed," Claudia said, releasing Soren and giving Rayla a thumbs up. "It was my honor to referee this contest."
"Good game," Rayla said to Soren as she stretched her right arm and acknowledged Claudia's comment with a nod and a small smile. "I think you're as strong as Runaan, or at least close to it."
Soren frowned, tilting his head in confusion. "Rune-Ann? Who's that?"
Rayla hesitated, then seemed to relax. "Runaan. My uncle, sort of. He's also my martial arts instructor." She massaged her wrist. "I don't think I've ever beaten him in anything. Except chess, but that's only because he doesn't have the patience for it."
"Huh." Soren shrugged. Then he tapped his chin, as if in thought - something Callum hadn't thought he was capable of. "Have you considered joining the wrestling team? Even if only for this year? Because you've clearly got the strength and agility needed for it. And since I'm captain, I could probably pull a few strings."
Rayla's eyes widened, and she jumped to her feet, nearly knocking over her chair in the process. "Wait, you're the wrestling captain?!"
Callum found himself tuning out her excited rambling about the team as well as her interrogation of Soren if he was sure that she, a girl, could be on it. It wasn't that he didn't care about Rayla's interests, and in reality he found her reaction pretty endearing, but he understood so little of the terminology she used that it hurt his brain to listen. Then again, if he was going to keep hanging out with her - which he did intend to - he should probably learn more about the sports she was interested in.
Oh, the things he did for friendship.
"Callum, Dad said he'll be here in about twenty minutes," Ezran said as he read a text from his phone, pulling Callum out of his thoughts. "He also said that twenty minutes tends to round up to half an hour because of traffic."
Claudia snapped her fingers, her eyes twinkling in a way that made Callum want to sigh dreamily as if he was in some kind of cheesy romcom. "That's just enough time to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine!" She grabbed Ezran's arm and began dragging him back into the main room of her dorm. "Come on! Everyone! Right now!"
Callum began gathering his art materials, pushing his crush on Claudia to the back of his mind. He closed his sketchbook and tucked it away into his satchel, followed by his pens and his pencils.
"Callum!" Rayla exclaimed, jumping in front of him with an excited smile on her face. "Did you hear what Soren and I were talking about? He said he's going to try to get me a spot on the wrestling team! I'm supposed to meet him in the wrestling room two weeks from now. Wednesday, I'm pretty sure he said. Isn't that awesome?"
"I did hear," Callum said as he snapped his satchel shut, "and yes, it is super awesome. I can't wait to see what you -" His train of thought shuddered to a halt as he looked up and saw blood trickling out of his friend's mouth. Instinctively, he reached up and brushed his fingertips just below her bottom lip, his eyebrows furrowing in concern. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Rayla touched her lip and winced. "Ah. Sometimes I bite my lip when I'm concentrating." She then chuckled. "I guess I was focusing a little too hard."
Callum frowned. The cut looked painful. "I mean, as much as I admire your stoicism, I don't want to see you hurting yourself."
Rayla gave him a smile that was both sweet and amused - a smile that sent butterflies fluttering through his stomach. She placed her hand on top of his and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I think you worry too much. But I'll try not to make it a habit."
As he was staring at her bleeding lip, Callum suddenly became aware of how close they were standing. He immediately jerked away, regretting how forcefully his hand was pulled out of hers but too embarrassed to care. "R-Right!" he stammered, a blush rising on his cheeks. "Great! Cool. Super cool. Let's, uh, let's go watch Claudia's show!"
With that, he zoomed out of the kitchen and joined Ezran on the couch, trying hard not to look at Rayla as she took the seat next to him.
Making a new friend was turning out to be way more complicated than he thought.
How obvious is it that I'm in love with Rayla? Probably very much so, because I am very much in love with Rayla, haha. Anyways - I hope you enjoyed, and again I'm sorry that my updating schedule has to be delayed! Here's a hint about next chapter that will either make you feel better or make you hate me more: you're going to see a tad bit of angst for the first time in this fic! (Don't worry, though - this storyline is still deeply rooted in comedy and romance.)