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I Like Me Better (When I'm with You)

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It’s not even that Callum’s luck was bad, not really. It was more…inconvenient. It had been inconvenient that he’d forgotten Soren “borrowing” the last of their milk for his protein shake and that he had to eat dry cornflakes for breakfast. It was inconvenient that he’d run to catch the bus to the art shop and gotten to the stop just as it was pulling away. And it was definitely inconvenient that he had forgotten both his keys and umbrella, which resulted in him dripping onto the doormat, still struggling with his bags, as he called to his brother through the door to their apartment.

He couldn’t blame his inconvenient luck for the silence from the other side of the door though. That was all him. “Ez?” he tried again, pressing his ear to the wood. “I know you’re in there bud; I can hear the tv”. A few quick shuffled steps were followed by the click of the remote, then nothing.

“Listen, Ezran….I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled like that”. He really shouldn’t have, Callum knew. But when he’d found the last piece for his portfolio not drying on his desk like he left it, but instead lying facedown on the kitchen counter, jelly toad - and finger - prints covering the edges of the canvas, he’d snapped. “I’ve just been really stressed out about applying to art school, but I know that’s not a good excuse,” There was no response from the other side of the door, but he knew his brother was there. That was one of the many great things about Ezran - no matter how mad they got at each other, he was always willing to listen when Callum tried to explain himself. “and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you”.

“Or Bait”.

Callum couldn’t help but grin at that. “Or Bait. It’s just with…” his head dropped down to lean his forehead against the door as the full weight of finishing his portfolio while also cramming for community college finals; of suddenly finding himself as the main caretaker for his brother; of all the things with their dad that he was still trying to avoid dealing with - huh. Maybe he should try calling that therapist Claudia kept not-so-subtlety recommending - hit him again. “everything; it’s been….hard lately”.

There was a soft thump as Ezran let himself lean against the door. “Yeah, I know.” he said softly, his voice sounding like he knew exactly which ‘everything’ was weighing on Callum the most. They stood in silence for a moment, the door between them, before Ezran continued. “Okay then. I accept your apology.”

Callum straightened up and reminded himself for perhaps the millionth time how lucky he was to have a brother like Ezran. “Thanks Ez.” he smiled, before shuffling his bags into more manageable positions and reaching for the doorknob, “Now just unlock the door and we can -“

“But Bait does not”. Callum froze, his hand stopping just before the doorknob, barely catching one of the bags as it threatened to slide off his arm and onto the floor. “Wait, what?” “Bait has heard your apology,” Ezran was interrupted by a large snort, and Callum pictured his brother holding his pet toad’s big grumpy face up to scowl at him through the apartment’s peephole. “but he is not convinced that you deserve forgiveness”.

Callum resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He thought they had stopped playing along with the idea that his brother could understand Bait back when Ezran was in middle school. Then he heard a faint sniffle through the door and realized that maybe the toad wasn’t the only one who hadn’t fully forgiven him. “I see. And what would you recommend I do if I wanted to get back into Bait’s good graces?”

A beat. Then: “Bait says that if you’re really sorry….you have to do the thing”.

“I - wha- Ez, seriously? Out here?”

“Hey, Bait makes the rules. I am but his humble spokesperson”.

Barely containing a snort of laughter, Callum relented and carefully dropped his bags to the floor. “Alright, I’ll do it. But tell Bait that he might have one less jelly tart on his plate tonight.”

“Bait has decided that is an acceptable price to pay”. Grinning, Callum rolled his shoulders out, stepped to the middle of the hallway, then spun around and bowed to the peephole he knew his brother was watching him through. “Very well. Let’s begin”. And then he danced.

Honestly, he didn’t ever really mind the dance once he got started. It was all high kicks and flailing arms and whatever weird or funny faces he could think to make; and it was actually kind of fun. It helped to let off some steam and just be goofy for a few minutes, Ezran’s laughter and clapping egging him on to throw in even sillier moves.

“Bait says knees higher! Knees higher!” “Bait can’t even see my knees!”

Callum called through a laugh.

“He can tell by your steps that your knees aren’t high enough!” Ezran shot back. “Come on, up up up!”

Once his arms started to burn, Callum knew it was time to bring out his big finishing move. “Get Bait ready!” he called in the direction of the apartment door, “this is gonna blow his mind!”. He launched himself into the air, spinning around with his arms wide, before coming down to land on one foot and kicking the other up in front of him. “Ta-“

“You planning on keeping this up all night,” an amused voice called from behind him, “or can I use the intermission to actually get into my apartment?” Callum spun around so fast that the leg he was standing on nearly gave way, only just managing to grab onto the doorknob of Unit 4C before he dropped - very embarrassingly - onto his rear end in front of a total stranger. What a first impression.

To her credit, the stranger looked more entertained than annoyed. She looked about his age, maybe a year older, leaning against the wall with a reusable grocery bag slung over one shoulder and her hair - so blonde it almost looked white - tied up in a bun on top of her head. She was watching Callum with a small smirk lifting the corner of her mouth, and he realized belatedly that the keys dangling from her finger were in fact for Unit 4C. He also realized that he was still hanging off her doorknob. He should probably get up. Why wasn’t he getting up?

To his dismay, the smirk dropped into a frown and she pushed off the wall, crossing her arms over her chest while never taking her eyes off of him. “Is this something you do often?” she asked, a slight accent lifting the end of her sentence - Scottish, maybe? Welsh? - “Staring at strangers?”

Callum sprang up straight, face heating as he tried to find some way to save any part of this interaction. “No! No. No, of course not, no, because that would be a, um, really weird thing to do…” his thoughts trailed off as he finally looked the stranger dead-on. “…You have really pretty eyes.” Why would he say that?!

She did, in his defense. Bright violet eyes that popped open in surprise over his complete inability to keep his stupid foot out of his stupid mouth. “Thank you?” she replied, looking confused; the tips of her slightly pointed ears turning pink. And now he was embarrassing her on top of everything oh god this was a disaster.

“Anyway!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together as if it might dissolve some of the awkward energy in the air. “Sorry about all the,” he waved his arms around in a bad imitation of his already bad dancing “…that. I don’t normally do that in that hallway. Or anywhere public if I can help it”. The stranger just kept standing there, watching his floundering with an at best bemused (and at worst annoyed) look on her face “It’s kind of this whole thing -“

“It’s Callum’s Famous Jerkface Dance!” Ezran’s voice called out from behind their door. Callum jumped - he had almost forgotten that Ez might still be within earshot - and the stranger whipped her head around looking for the source of the noise, pulling her bag closer to her as if she was preparing to defend it from an unexpected attacker.

“Sorry! Sorry.” Callum winced, rubbing the back of his neck and wondering how this conversation had gone so far off of normal. “That’s Ezran, my brother. He’s over in our apartment” he jerked a thumb behind him towards unit 4D “You can meet him later.” the stranger quirked an eyebrow. “Or not at all!” he continued in a rush. “Because why would you want to meet the brother of the guy who you saw doing the -“ he paused, risking a glance towards her, “um, how much of that did you see, by the way?”

The stranger’s smirk was back, but Callum couldn’t decide if he should take that as a victory or not. “Enough”.

Right. So he was never going to be able to talk to his new neighbor again. “Oh. Okay, cool, uh, yeah….” he stammered. “It’s just this thing that we agreed on when we were kids, that I do to apologize when I’m being -“

“A jerkface?”

“Yeah, see, you get it!” he was relieved to see that her smirk had softened. It seemed like she had decided he was in fact more entertaining than he was annoying. “Anyway, sorry you had to walk in on that. It’s pretty embarrassing”.

“Nah,” she replied, looking like she was barely holding back a laugh, “It was cute”. Callum couldn’t really say for sure what happened after that. There was a roaring in his ears, and his grasp on the English language suddenly disappeared. He must have sputtered something though, because the next thing he knew the stranger actually was laughing at him. “Hey Ezran,” she called to the door behind him, her sparkling eyes never leaving his, “is your brother always this articulate?”

“Most of the time, yeah.” Ezran’s voice called out (sounding very amused by his brother’s suffering).

Thank you for that Ez.” Callum hissed, his face burning red and hoping his brother could see the glare he was leveling at the peephole. He turned back to the stranger with an awkward laugh, praying they could both pretend he’d played this whole thing off much better than he had. “Family, right?” he chuckled, hoping to find some kind of ‘can’t live with ‘em’ commonality.

The stranger smiled back at him, but her eyes suddenly looked….almost sad. “Yeah, family…” she trailed off, twisting a braided string bracelet around her wrist for a moment before she blinked and seemed to come back to herself. “Well, anyway,” she lifted her grocery bag and avoiding his gaze “I’d better get this inside before my ice cream completely melts”. She spun around and started to unlock her apartment door, leaving Callum blindsided yet again. Had he said something wrong? Offended her? Should he apologize, or would that make things worse?

But before he could fall completely down that thought spiral, she turned back to him and her eyes were warm again. “But it was really nice to meet you, Callum. And you too, Ezran!” she called across the hall.

A happy “Mhmm!” came from behind the door of 4D; the sound of someone whose mouth was too full to actually speak. Callum couldn’t help but laugh: “He’s probably 6 jelly tarts in at this point, but take it from both of us that it was really nice to meet you too…..” he trailed off as he realized he’d never actually gotten her name.

“Rayla”. she supplied with a grin.

“Rayla.” he repeated, grinning back at her. It was a pretty name (though thankfully this time he kept the thought to himself). “So, I guess we’ll see you around then?”

She stepped into the doorway of her apartment and turned back to face him. “I hope so.” she replied, shooting a wink at him just before the door closed.

Callum stood frozen in the hallway for another moment before he could remember how to make his legs work. He walked as quickly as he could into his apartment and leaned up against the back of the door, trying very hard to ignore the urge to spend the rest of the day sketching his new neighbor’s pretty eyes.

(It was inconvenient to realize, half an hour later, that he had left his bags outside their door, but somehow he couldn’t find it in himself to complain.)