1. Let's recap! Black lives matter, and they always will. All BIPOC lives matter, and we must work to be anti-racist and combat the different forms of discrimination that BIPOC experience. Queer love is real and valid love, no matter the form (from marriage to friendships to QPRs!). Trans rights are human rights. Xenophobia disproportionately impacts people of color and often goes hand in hand with Islamophobia. Our society should be as accessible for disabled individuals as it currently is for able-bodied people. Intersectional feminism is true feminism. I know sometimes you might look at the state of the world and wonder, "How will anything change?" It's hard. It's scary. I get it. But things can change. And they will, because they have before. Do what you can, and we're already halfway there!
Today, I say, "Bonjour vous-autres!" a final time. Wow. It's the last chapter. The epilogue. I cannot believe I have been working on this story for over an entire year? I never would have believed I had it in me to finish this 180k fic. And you know what? Maybe I didn't have it in me on my own! I say this because I could not have finished this story without the support of all of you. I know many of your handles/usernames by heart because you commented on every damn chapter (or most of them, haha!), reminding me that there were always people who wanted to see where I was taking this story. (Special shoutout to my FFN readers! I didn't usually reply to y'all directly because I dislike FFN's system of going straight to PMs vs replying under the comment like the other platforms I post on, but I still treasure all of your reviews and know many of your handles/usernames, too.) I could say thank you a million times and it wouldn't be enough. Instead, I offer you this humble epilogue.
For the last time in No Ordinary Exchange, I hope you enjoy the chapter. :)
"I can't believe the two most important people in my life are leaving me at the same time!" Claudia said, half fake-sobbing and half crying real tears. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "I don't know what I'm going to do without seeing you guys every day!"
"Ouch," Sonya commented dryly, stepping forward to slip one of her hands into Claudia's and giving it a comforting squeeze. "Please tell me I'm at least in the top three."
Callum laughed at his friend's dramatic reaction as well as at Sonya's utter lack thereof. "Claudia, I'm going to text you every day. And I'll be back for winter break" - or part of it, at least - "so it's not like you aren't going to see me at all while I'm gone."
"And I promise to call you at least twice a week, Clauds," Soren added. "No - I'll call you three times a week!" He grinned at his sister. "I'll call you so much that you're going to wish you didn't have cell service."
Claudia sniffed, rubbing her eyes with her free arm. "You'd better." She let go of Sonya's hand to pull both Soren and Callum into a tight hug. "I'm going to miss you guys so much!"
Callum was flying out to Xadia in a little over an hour, and his friends and family had all come to say goodbye. Soren was leaving, too, though not for Xadia. He was taking a gap year to decide whether he wanted his next step in life to be heading to the NFL or pursuing his master's degree. Numerous NFL teams, including the reigning Super Bowl champions, had assured him that they would be interested in drafting him if he chose to become a free agent - even if a year passed - and thus Soren had determined the break was worth it. His plans were, as he'd put it, "to travel around as much of the world as possible in one year." That included Xadia, much to Callum's - and Rayla's - excitement, but apparently he was keeping the country as one of his last stops.
Viren had come to see his son off, technically speaking. He'd driven Soren and Claudia to the airport, which was more than Callum had expected him to do. Though he hadn't actually joined them inside to say goodbye with everyone else.
Claudia released them, still sniffling. "Seriously. I expect constant updates from the both of you. And Rayla, too, so Callum - make sure you pass the message along."
Callum gave her a comforting smile. "I will. Promise." The only reason he himself wasn't crying was that he'd gotten most of his tears out in the shower the night before. Still - he was having to fight back a painful lump rising higher and higher in his throat.
"I'm going to miss you, too," Sonya said, crossing her arms over her chest as Soren moved to talk to Lucas and Emilé. "You're pretty much the only rational person I'm friends with." She gave him a small smirk. "Unless you're around Rayla, of course. Then your brain short-circuits."
Callum snickered, ignoring her latter comment. "Oh, don't tell Claudia that first part."
"Please. She's very aware of how ridiculous she is."
"And you love that about her."
A tiny smile danced its way onto Sonya's lips. "Maybe."
Callum laughed again. "But the feeling is mutual. I don't know how I'm going to survive without your voice of reason keeping me on track from day to day."
"Well, I'm sure we'll figure something out."
Callum hesitated, then held his arms open. "Permission to air-hug you?" He didn't want to overstep her religious boundaries, but he didn't want her to feel excluded from his goodbyes, either.
It was Sonya's turn to laugh, and she did so before giving him a rare, soft smile. "Permission granted."
He mimed pulling her into a brief embrace. "Make sure Claudia doesn't do anything stupid while I'm gone."
Sonya laughed, "returning" his air-hug before dropping her arms to her sides. "I'll do my best." She raised an eyebrow at him. "And you make sure to actually pay attention in your classes. Don't just stare at Rayla, like you did for 90% of Renaissance History."
Callum chuckled at the reminder. Of course, how was it his fault that his girlfriend was so distracting? "That's a tall order, but I promise to try."
The next people to approach him were Felix and Dominic, the former somewhat successfully fighting back tears as the latter looked on in amusement. As always, of course, there was an undeniable softness to Dominic's expression.
"It was hard enough saying goodbye to Rayla," Felix said, getting choked up, "and now you're leaving for a year, too?" He shook his head, wiping his eyes. "This is too much for me. I don't want all my friends to be so far away!"
"Hey, you said yourself that I'll only be gone a year," Callum said, hoping he sounded at least somewhat reassuring. "And you can video chat me and Rayla every day if you really want to!" He'd prefer every other day, but there were sacrifices Callum was willing to make for his friends.
"Yeah, but it's not the same as seeing you in person," Felix sniffed. "You and Rayla better send a lot of stupid selfies. I'm going to frame all of them."
Callum laughed. "Of course. That will be our top priority."
Dominic snorted. "Oh, don't say that. He'll get his hopes up." He squeezed his boyfriend's hand to let him know he was joking. "In all seriousness, though - have fun, stay safe, and learn a lot." He gave Callum a teasing grin. "I think I'm going to miss your awestruck expression at my shows most of all!"
Callum grinned. "And I'm going to miss being able to see those shows. Any chance of someone semi-legally recording your performances and sharing them to my Google drive so I can still watch?"
"Let's keep this off the record, but…" Dominic winked at him. "I'll see what I can do."
Callum exchanged a quick hug with the both of them before turning to Emilé and Lucas, who'd finished saying their goodbyes to Soren.
"Dude, it's totally bogus that you're going to be away for a whole year," Emilé complained, "but I know you're really looking forward to it, so you'd better have a most outstanding time in Xadia. Or else!"
Callum would definitely miss Emilé's… intriguing linguistic preferences. It wasn't quite the same over text. "Don't worry, I plan to." He snorted. "Mostly because I'm terrified to find out what you'd do to me if I didn't have fun."
Emilé winked at him. "That's my dude. Hopefully you will never have to find out." They held up their hand for a fist bump, which Callum of course returned.
"Don't go too wild when you're there, though," Lucas said, a rare smile dancing on his lips. "As one of the oldest here, I feel obligated to remind you that you're only 19, and you're allowed to let yourself be 19."
If he was being completely honest, Callum was pretty sure he was still 12 inside. Maybe even 10 on certain days. "Thanks, Lucas. I'll keep that in mind." This time he held up his own hand first for a fist bump, and Lucas chuckled but reciprocated.
There were only two people left for Callum to say goodbye to. And as expected, the hardest goodbyes always were the final ones.
"God, why do you have to be so much older than me?" Ezran grumbled, glaring at his brother with tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. "Ugh. At least you'll be gone during my sophomore year. It's the most boring year of high school, so you won't be missing out on much."
Callum didn't hesitate to pull his brother into a hug, squeezing him so tightly he probably should have been concerned about accidentally breaking Ezran's bones. "I'm gonna miss you, too, Ez."
Ezran returned the hug, burying his face into Callum's shoulder. "Say hi to Rayla for me."
Callum laughed, though his laughter was now starting to merge with tears. The line between laughing and crying was a fine one, wasn't it? "Of course. And you'd better not let Bait go anywhere near my room."
Ezran wiped his eyes and gave Callum a teary smile as he pulled away. "No promises."
"Also, you're not allowed to get any taller." Callum patted the top of his brother's head. "I think I'd have a heart attack if I came back and was suddenly the shorter sibling."
"If you're going to demand that of Ezran, then I'm going to say the same to you," Harrow commented in amusement, crossing his arms over his chest. "Don't think I missed that inch you grew over the summer. If Ezran can't get any taller, then neither can you."
Callum burst out laughing. "Okay, deal." He couldn't say anything else, however, as his dad proceeded to pull him into a hug. Callum's face was squished into the man's shoulder.
"I am so proud of you," Harrow murmured. "For finding such a strong, tightly-knit group of friends. For submitting your work to the fall and spring art showcases. For applying to this exchange program." His embrace tightened. "You have grown so much in such a short time, Callum. I really, truly could not be prouder of you - and I know your mother would say the same."
Callum had to blink back tears. "I wouldn't have been able to do any of it without you, Dad." Hell, if Harrow hadn't fought so hard to implement the exchange program with Xadia University, then he'd never have met Rayla. His freshman year would have been different. His entire life would have been different.
He'd never be able to express just how grateful he was for everything his dad had done for him.
Ezran soon joined them in the hug, and Callum's heart ached with how much he was going to miss his family. This must have been how Rayla felt when she first left for Katolis, he realized.
"I'm gonna complain to you guys every day about my new classes and extracurriculars," Callum said, "just so it'll feel like I haven't gone anywhere."
Ezran groaned. "Please don't do that. I'm begging you."
Callum snickered as he pulled out of the hug. "Okay. Every other day."
He and Soren did a final round of goodbyes before grabbing their suitcases and heading further into the airport, beyond the main lobby. Although they were on different flights, their gates were near one another, so they kept each other company while they waited. When Callum was called to board first, Soren didn't hesitate to stand up and give him a bone-crushing hug.
"Have fun in Xadia. And don't forget that I'm gonna come visit you guys at some point, okay?"
Callum returned the hug, smiling into Soren's shoulder. "I can't wait."
With that, Soren clapped him on the back, wished him luck, and sent Callum off to board his plane.
The flight to Xadia was about six hours with no layover. He kept himself busy by sketching, for the most part. A few pictures of Rayla, as well as a panorama-style image of all his friends. Callum was lucky where the people who sat on either side of him kept to themselves. They didn't talk at all, for that matter. The trip was undeniably a more pleasant experience than he'd predicted.
Of course, most people on his flight were people travelling for work. Xadia wasn't exactly a major tourist attraction for many citizens of Katolis yet. So that meant the business-people sitting on either side of him weren't exactly eager to talk to a random college student sketching and reading for the entire six hours.
Callum was terrified when the plane landed. He couldn't lie to himself. He was in a completely different country, after all, and he only knew a grand total of three people in Xadia, all of whom would be meeting him at the airport.
Part of him was terrified of seeing Rayla again. Three months had passed since they'd last been with each other in person. Sure, they'd texted every day and video-chatted each other at least once a week while she was in Xadia and he was in Katolis, but all the same… What if things had changed between them?
As he was getting his luggage, Callum sent Rayla a text that he was ready. The exchange program had newly blessed him with international service. She responded almost immediately that she was on her way to him and that Runaan and Ethari were waiting outside in the car. Since his plane had only just landed, he hoped they hadn't been waiting too long.
After getting through the final round of security, Callum stopped near the side of the room to text her again, but before he could even press send he had his attention torn away from his phone by an ecstatic cry of, "Callum!"
He looked up, shoving his phone into his pocket before catching sight of a familiar figure sprinting across the airport towards him. "Rayla!" he exclaimed, any thoughts of remaining cool and collected now thrown out the window. He held open his arms, catching and spinning his girlfriend before he placed her down and pulled her into a tight embrace. He took a moment to simply soak in her presence. "God," he exhaled. "I've missed you so much."
Saying goodbye to her in May had been difficult, even knowing that he'd see her again in August. They'd had a virtual party together in July, since their birthdays were both that month. That had been fun, yes, but all the same. Nothing could compare to seeing her in person.
"I've missed you, too," Rayla murmured as she leaned back to lift his chin before capturing his lips in a slow kiss that stole the air from his lungs. "I also missed that," she breathed as she pulled away. "A lot."
Callum couldn't help but give her a cheesy grin. "Same."
She grabbed his hands with one of her own, squeezing them excitedly. "I'm so glad you're finally here! There's a million things I want to show you before the semester starts next week! But first things first." She winked at him, grabbing his suitcase with her free hand and tugging both him and his bag towards the exit. "How does a moonberry surprise sound?"
Callum laughed, allowing her to pull him along. "It better be as good as you say."
Rayla smirked at him over her shoulder. "When have I ever been wrong?"
Callum found himself easily falling into step with his girlfriend, as if they'd only spent a few days apart instead of several months. Of course, when he was with Rayla, Callum never felt more at home. So maybe he shouldn't have been surprised.
Callum also had a feeling, silly and preemptive as it may have been, that this year…
Well, it would be no ordinary exchange.
Quick housekeeping: I have had many people ask me about a sequel! So here's the details on that, lmao. As of right now, I do NOT have a sequel planned. This story was a year+ project and unfortunately I do not have the time or energy to start another fic of this magnitude amidst school stuff (I also have a lot of A:TLA projects going on, lol). HOWEVER. As you can see, I have left an open ending. This does not mean I am guaranteed to eventually write a sequel, but never say never! One day, I may return. :)
For the last time, thank you for reading! Although there is absolutely no pressure to comment, I would love it if you told me what your favorite moment from this story was. (Again, of course, no pressure! Your readership is more than enough.) I hope you enjoyed the conclusion to No Ordinary Exchange! Au revoir!