Every Thursday, Callum receives a phone call at something like ten in the evening.
It’s not as inconvenient as it sounds. He’s a better roommate than most and Rayla’s been rooming with him long enough now that she’s grown used to the late night chatter. He’s an exchange student here. Katolis is a long way away, and she gets it, really—it gets lonely all the way out in Spire, and her own parents are only a few hours by car. She can’t even imagine how much worse it is for him.
In any case, this is how it starts. It’s early December. There’s tinsel in the hallways and tinny Christmas carols playing through the dorm room speakers. Classes are winding down for the winter break, and Rayla is on their couch with a bowl of popcorn and a half written essay due tomorrow afternoon. There’s ink on her nose, she thinks—she can see it just out of the corner of her eye—and some terrible romcom on TV for sound, and Callum is at the kitchen table, tapping his fingers against the wood and waiting for his phone to buzz.
It’s nine fifty-three. He’s been sitting there staring at his Facebook feed since eight-thirty, which is ridiculous on its own, and it would be annoying, probably, if Rayla’s essay wasn’t such a pressing issue. She thinks he’s moping? She hasn’t really been paying attention, but she’d snuck a peek at his phone screen on her way past him earlier and caught him staring at some girl’s engagement post and had put the pieces together from there.
She hadn’t asked, of course, because that’s just rude. For the most part, it feels like he wants to be left alone anyway, and he’s not complaining about her shitty Christmas romcom the way he usually does so he must be happy wallowing there.
When ten o’clock hits and his phone still hasn’t gone off, Rayla sighs and hits the pause on the remote. It’s an ad break. She doesn’t really know why she does it. The TV freezes on a news report about another engagement—some royal engagement this time, a prince and some duchess, God, this time of year sucks —and Rayla swivels around on the couch, assignment forgotten on the coffee table, and fixes Callum with a look .
“Phones go both ways, you know,” she says drily.
He bristles. “They’re probably just running late.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you could, you know, call them instead of sitting there like a sad looking duck.” She smirks at him and tosses a bit of popcorn at his head. “Who got engaged, anyway?”
Callum draws in a breath. He glances at the TV, winces, then turns back to his phone with a grimace before he finally, finally turns the screen off and pushes back on his chair. “Just an old friend,” he says. “Closer to a family friend, I guess. That’s probably why they’re running late.”
Rayla snorts into a handful of popcorn. “Be honest,” she says. “Old girlfriend?”
His lips twitch upwards into a rueful smile. “You could say that.”
Rayla raises an eyebrow at him, but he doesn’t elaborate and she doesn’t ask. Instead, he gets up, pads into the kitchen, and fills the kettle looking a bit like he’s trying too hard to be cool about this except he knows that it’s not working, like, at all . His shoulders are too slumped. His frown is too sad. He’s dressed pretty crisply compared to Rayla’s threadbare pyjamas, but even his button-up is too wrinkled to pass as someone coping well with a not-quite rejection.
It’s none of Rayla’s business. Not really. She just doesn’t like seeing him so down. They’ve been friends for a fair while now—he moved here four years ago to do his postgrad and they’ve been roomies for two of those years—but she’s only ever seen him this miserable a handful of times. It’s not nice.
She clucks her tongue. “Come off it, Callum,” she says at last. Not the best way to cheer him up, probably, but he doesn’t object. “So what if some girl got engaged? You’re too good for her anyway.”
“You’ve never even met her.”
“Don’t need to,” says Rayla. “You’re smart and kind and brave and… you know. My friend. My best friend. I feel like I would be the expert here. You’re too good for her.”
He laughs then. It’s a bit sad sounding still, but it’s a laugh all the same. “Well thanks,” he chuckles. “That means a lot.” He waits until the kettle switches itself off before he turns, sighs, and takes two mugs from the cupboard above his head. “It just never really went anywhere,” he says at last, “but it still feels like a missed opportunity, you know? We were really good friends, and I thought… one day…” He trails off wistfully, and Rayla’s heart breaks for him.
She fiddles awkwardly with the unpopped kernels in the bottom of her bowl while Callum fills their mugs with tea and brings hers to the coffee table.
“You really liked her, huh?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “I did. I just… wasn’t enough.”
They settle into a pause. In the end, Rayla reaches over to him and grasps his hand, hoping there’s enough comfort in it to soothe the ache.
“Thanks,” he chuckles. It’s short lived. He flinches when he looks up at the screen, but shakes his head without saying anything. Then, finally, he sighs.“What were you watching?”
Rayla snorts. “Some dumb Christmas romcom. There’s a prince. She’s in love. The usual bull.” She laughs to herself, and Callum smiles wanly and helps himself to her popcorn.
“Is it entertaining, at least?”
“It’s trash,” she says, “but it’s fun. You can watch the end with me while you wait for your phone call?”
Callum snorts. “Or you could put on literally anything else,” he says, daring to sound hopeful, and Rayla smirks at him and shakes her head.
“Not a chance,” she teases. “Come on, it’s stupid and fun and we can make fun of the rest of it. That’s the whole point of these Christmas romcoms, right?”
He scowls good-naturedly, and he opens his mouth to answer only for his phone to buzz before the sass can make its way out. “Oh no,” he drawls, “what a shame. Guess you can’t finish your crappy movie.”
“A tragedy, truly,” says Rayla. She tosses another bit of popcorn at him when he gets up (he tries to dodge it only to trip over the edge of the rug) and rolls her eyes as he answers the phone.
It’s his mum today. Sometimes it’s his brother, and sometimes it’s his dad—Rayla’s grown so used to the sound of their voices that she can tell even from here. She’s never met or spoken to any of them, but they sound like lovely people. They’re always doting over him and sending him care packages and making sure he’s eating well, and it’s sweet to listen to, even if Callum tries to act like he’s embarrassed by it.
“Hey Mom,” Callum greets, and his mother’s voice sounds over the phone so loudly that Rayla can’t even pretend she’s not listening.
“Callum! Honey! Oh, it’s so good to hear from you! How are you?”
“Fine as always,” chuckles Callum. Rayla can see him flushing a little from the corner of her eye. “How’s everything over there?”
“Brilliant!” says his mum. “Everything’s fantastic on our end. Wait ‘til you hear the news! Claudia’s—”
“Engaged, I know.” Callum winces a little bit, but he does a solid job of keeping his disappointment out of his voice. “It’s everywhere. She must be thrilled.”
“She is! Oh, honey, it’s been so exciting! But—” She pauses there, and Rayla glances back at Callum, intrigued by the way she’s stopped. “Are you okay with all of this?”
Callum lets out a laugh. Or, rather, he tries to. It comes out closer to cough. Regardless, he’s making an effort and Rayla commends him for it. “Of course,” he manages. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m happy for her.”
Callum shifts guiltily in his seat. “Yeah,” he lies—because it is a lie, and Rayla can see it on his face. “She—she deserves someone like—like Kasef. He’s nice.”
“You’ve never met him,” says his mum pointedly, and Rayla almost laughs in her seat because they’re so alike it’s ridiculous. “Although he is… a bit stuffy." There’s a pause. Rayla wonders if his mum might be choosing her words carefully, because when she speaks again, her voice comes out much gentler. “Listen. He and Claudia want to have a little bit of an engagement party over Christmas. You're invited, of course. Why don’t you come home for the holidays so you can go? Goodness knows it’s been forever since you’ve come to visit.”
Callum hesitates. It’s true—he’s been home twice in the time Rayla’s known him, which is ridiculous for someone who waits on his family’s calls every Thursday evening—but there’s something reluctant in his face that needs no translation. “I’m—uh—it’s a busy time over here.”
“Hush,” says his mum. “Your thesis can wait. Come home for the winter, Callum. Ez misses you so much and it’s just not been the same without you. Unless…” She pauses again. “Unless you’re not okay with all of this?”
Callum scowls into the phone. “Of course I’m okay with it,” he snaps, probably with a bit more bite than he means.
“Oh,” comes the response, “it just seems a bit like you’re not quite over—”
“I am ,” he grumbles. “It’s been years , Mom. I’m just busy, and there’s a lot to do over here, and—” He stops. He catches Rayla’s eye. He takes a breath. “I’m… spending Christmas with my girlfriend this year.”
The effect is immediate. Rayla’s eyebrows shoot so far up her forehead they almost disappear into her hair. She blinks at him, mouth stretched into a thin, unamused smile, murder glinting in her eyes, and Callum shuts his eyes tight and mouths sorry to her just as his mum practically squawks into the phone.
“Your girlfriend?” she all but shrieks. “What? When? Why haven’t I heard about this?”
“Why haven’t I heard about this?” hisses Rayla, and Callum winces and shushes her as his mother babbles into his ear.
“Oh, I should have known!” gasps his mum. “It’s that Rayla girl, isn’t it? You always talk so highly of her, I should have figured it out years ago! Oh, Callum, I’m so happy for you! You’ve done a very good job of keeping it secret, my love, you know how these things can get—”
“Mom.” Callum breathes a sigh, long and tired and patient, before he sets the phone down and puts it on mute. His mother gabs away, blissfully unaware that he’s not even listening, and Callum runs a hand over his face and turns to Rayla. “I’m sorry!” he says. “It just came out!”
“Take it back,” snaps Rayla. “Tell her the truth.”
“No, listen, if you run with it, I won’t have to go home for Christmas and to this stupid engagement party, please Rayla—”
“No one’ll ever know, and it’ll just be a little lie that I use this Christmas and then we never have to talk about it again. Please. ”
Rayla glares at him. In the pause, his mother titters happily about Christmas plans and dinners and reunions, but it’s the shine in his eyes that gets her. This thing with his family friend seems like it’s been hard on him, and honestly, he could use a win, even if it’s just an excuse to get out of having to fly back to Katolis for his ex’s engagement party. She steels herself. “ Fine .”
“Thank you ,” breathes Callum, and he turns the mute off the phone and brings it back to his ear. “Listen, Mom, it’s nice I was invited but I can’t. There’s too much going on over here and we already have plans.”
“But honey,” says his mum. “We miss you so much. Ez is considering going to Lux Aurea to spend some time with your aunts next Christmas, and we won’t be together again as a family in who knows how long. ”
“I’m not ditching Rayla over Christmas.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Callum,” snorts his mother. “ Bring her with you! We’d love to meet her!”
Rayla presses her lips into a threatening smile. “Don’t you dare,” she hisses.
“Mom, I’m not going to ask her to buy a ticket to Katolis three weeks before Christmas.”
“Oh, honey, no,” his mother says. “We wouldn't ask her to do that, either. That's just rude. Hold on." There's a pause on the line, and when his mother speaks again, it's not to him. "Ez. Darling. Can you book a couple of plane tickets for Callum? Yep, you heard right. Two."
There's a muffled sounding “WHAT?” in the background, and Rayla climbs out of the couch with her fists at her sides. "Callum, I swear to God— "
But Callum’s panic speaks loud enough for both of them. Suddenly, he’s standing too, wide-eyed and pale faced, knuckles white around his phone like he thinks he can salvage the situation if he holds it tight enough. “Mom, no , it’s fine—”
“Who is it?” Rayla hears Ez ask. “Is it Rayla? His roommate? I knew it. Mom, can I—” There’s a scuffle on the line, and but when Ez speaks again, he’s much easier to hear. “There’s a direct flight leaving next Thursday. It’s at stupid o’clock in the evening but it’ll get you here at six on the Friday. Is that too soon?”
“Ez, don’t —”
“Nah, that’s heaps of time! Last time we spoke, you said mid-semester break starts tomorrow, so that’ll give you almost a whole week to pack.”
“Ez, seriously, don’t!”
For the first time all conversation, there’s a pause on the line. Ez seems to be better at reading Callum than his mother, because when he speaks again, there’s disappointment in his voice. “Oh,” he says. “You're not coming home?"
Oh, God , even Rayla almost breaks for him. Callum falters. “You guys are just kinda rushing into this,” he says weakly. “I haven’t asked her if she wants to come.”
“It could be a surprise?” pipes Ez. “Come on, Callum, please? You haven’t been home for Christmas in two years, and I won’t be here next year! We just… really miss you.”
There’s another pause. Rayla glares a warning at Callum, but the malice in it fails.
He sucks in a breath. And then—
“Fine. Okay. We’ll come.”
There’s an explosion of sound on the line. Rayla thinks it’s supposed to be Ez but if that excited squeal were any higher, they might have dogs appearing in the hall. She scowls at him, but Callum only squeezes his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“ Easy done then!” says Ez happily. "You're all booked and ready. I got you the best seats I could but they’re pretty last minute so… sorry if they suck. I’ll send the e-tickets through to you in a bit! I’m so excited! I can’t believe you’re coming home for Christmas!”
Rayla stares at Callum. Callum stares back. There’s still chatter on the phone.
“All set?” asks their mum, presumably having taken the phone back from Ez. “That was quick! Oh, it’ll be such a lovely surprise for Rayla too. She’s never been to Katolis, has she? Listen, honey, we’ve still got some things that need doing so I’m sorry to cut this short but we can have a proper catch-up when you get here, okay? We’ll see you soon! Love you!”
“Bye Callum!” calls Ez. “Say hi to Rayla from us!”
The phone beeps. The screen turns off. Callum pulls it from his ear and stares at it looking like a stunned fish as silence echoes through their apartment.
“What have you done ?” whispers Rayla.
“I—" Callum swallows and sinks back into his seat at a loss. "I didn't think—"
" Obviously .” The phone buzzes once more to spite them, and a notification for an email titled Ur tickets! blinks on the screen. Rayla slumps onto the armrest of the couch with her heart beating in her ears and her breath stuck on the exhale as the mess of the situation settles heavily in her stomach. “ Fuck. ”
“I’m so sorry,” Callum manages at last. “I didn’t mean to drag you into this! I just—I didn’t— God. I’ll—um—I’ll cancel the tickets. I’ll cop it, no sweat off your back, and I’ll—I’ll tell Mom and Ez the truth and go to Claudia’s thing on my own and we can pretend this never happened—”
Rayla stops him there. She should agree with him. This is his fault, and it’s not her responsibility to help him fix it. He can come clean on his own and leave her well and truly out of it, thank you very much—but the image of him turning up at his ex’s engagement party by himself is—
Rayla’s not heartless. Callum’s her friend. Her best friend. She can’t do that to him.
“No,” she says at last. “No. You’re not doing that.”
“I’m not doing what?”
“Going to Katolis on your own for Christmas and your dumb ex’s engagement party.” Rayla sets her jaw, resolute in her poor decision making, but hey, at least it’s something they have in common. “When are those flights booked for?”
Callum gawks at her. “Rayla, come on, I can’t ask you to—”
“Well, you didn’t ,” she says pointedly, and perhaps a little more aggressively than she means, “but that’s not the point. You’re not asking. The tickets have been paid for anyway. When are those flights?”
Callum pauses like he’s about to argue, but Rayla gives him a look and motions at his phone. He sighs and unlocks it. “Next Thursday,” he mutters. “And the return flight isn’t until…” He blanches. “After New Years.”
Two and a half weeks. Christ. Rayla clucks her tongue. "Look," she says. "I'll do it. It’s just like pretend, right? How hard can that be? Plus your family seems nice and a free holiday’s a free holiday no matter how you slice it. But you owe me. Coffee for the rest of the time we're rooming together and no more complaints about my shitty taste in movies. Deal?”
Callum hesitates. There’s uncertainty on his face, but Rayla knows him, and that uncertainty is concern for her more than it is anything else. This situation aside, he really is a gentleman and a sweetheart, and how that ex of his could ever pass him over is beyond her. He smiles. “Deal,” he says finally. “Thanks Rayla.”
She scoffs. “I would say ‘any time’ but if you pull this kind of thing again, I’ll murder you. Now shush. We’ll deal with the rest of this crap in the morning. Let me finish my essay and watch my stupid movie.”
He pouts at her. “But these all end the same.”
“Ah-ah! Zip it. We had a deal.” Rayla tosses another piece of popcorn at him and settles back into the couch. “Leave me alone, okay? I just want to know if this woman gets her prince or not.”
(She does. Obviously. There was never really any doubt).