Auld Lang Syne

©2018-2021 dear-llama. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 13

Despite my best efforts, the worst had happened. I had tried to stay away, and it hadn't worked. Not that it had been my fault, either. If Nik had left things alone, we could've just gone on with our separate lives and never seen each other past that first night.

In fact – if I really thought about it – Nadine had set all of this in motion. Nadine's forced reunion had delivered Nik right to my door, just as Laius's plan to rid himself of Oedipus had circled back to be his undoing. I almost laughed at the irony.

Nik was watching me through lowered eyelashes. "What's so funny?" he asked softly.

I shrugged. I could hardly tell him that I had been thinking about his one best friend I had always had an issue with. I began to pull away, to escape back into my personal space, but he leaned in again.

The second touch of his lips was no less explosive than the first. Electric shocks danced across my body at the feel of his breath, his skin, his lips. That was the curse Nik had placed on me.

I opened my mouth under his, hooking my arm across his shoulders to pull him closer. The tip of his nose dug into my cheek, a familiar discomfort I hadn't known I'd missed.

Nik's palms came up to frame my face, finger pads tickling my jawline. I sighed into his mouth, hearing him chuckle against my ear.

Just a few more seconds, I told myself. A few more seconds before I pushed him away.

Those few seconds lasted much longer than I ever intended.

I wasn't as churlish as to throw him out the door right after, so we migrated from the doorway to the edge of my sofa. I sat ramrod straight, my fingers curled into each other on my lap, glaring at the blank wall on the other side of the room.

"Okay," Nik said, in the same quiet voice from before. "Tell me what you're thinking, Tamy."

"I…" I pushed my lips into each other, an ironic action when my main problem was a lack of words.

"If you don't want me here," he said, "you can tell me to leave. I'll go. I promise."

A strangled laugh pushed its way out of my throat.

"What?" Nik sounded bewildered, as if he hadn't seen the absurdity of his statement.

"Do you really expect me to believe that?" I asked, hating that I sounded more resigned than antagonistic. "You've all but hunted me down since you got back. I mean, that's the only reason you're here right now."

He had the decency to grimace. "Yeah, well." He dipped his head. "I didn't plan to. It's just – running into you there and not being able to talk felt…"

His eyes met mine.

"Like there was something unfinished?" I suggested.

He smiled.

I let a hiss escape from between my teeth. "Yeah. I know."

"You felt it, too." His voice held a note of triumph.

I let my gaze fall away. If I hadn't already curled my hands into fists and slid them under my thighs, I would have been tempted to rub a finger over my lips.

"So," I said, "what now?"

"What now?" Nik echoed, his obtuseness deliberate.

Four years ago, it might have worked on me. I might have looked up, indignant, and seized the elephant in the room by its white trunk. Now, four years older, I shrugged and left the silence to stew in its own company.

After a little sigh, Nik conceded the unvoiced challenge. "It's not over, Tamy. You know that. You feel it, too."

"But why?" I demanded. I might have been in conversation with him, but the question was directed more at myself. "It's been years. We should all have moved on by now."

He shrugged. "But we haven't." Said in the most casual way possible, a statement that was as factual an observation of the weather.

I pressed my lips together.

"So why not try again?" he asked, like his suggestion was the next logical step. Like we both had nothing to lose from trying.

"I don't know," I said, and in the turn of a second, tears pricked my eyelids. "It's hard for me."

If he kept pushing, I thought to myself, he would have to go.

There was a long pause.

"If," Nik began, "you didn't like it, I'm sorry. And if you don't want anything to happen between us again, you can say so now. I'll listen, I promise." He flashed me a crooked smile. "I'm not a bully, you know."

I let out a shaky breath. I opened my mouth – and no words came.

He looked at me. "Do you…" His voice faltered. He cleared his throat, but if I had been waiting for the rest of the question, I would've been disappointed.

I didn't need him to ask again. I managed the tiniest shake of my head.

"No, you didn't like it?" he guessed.

I shook my head again, exhaling on a deep breath. I needed it for the sentimental admission I was about to make.

"No," I said, "I don't want you to leave."

Nik smiled, the action so sudden, I instinctively looked away. "Well," I heard him say, radiance leaking from every syllable, "That's enough for me."

"I don't mean––" I felt his finger rest against my lips, and stopped.

He was shaking his head. "No, don't say anything else," he said. "I know what you mean."

"Do you really?" But I only mouthed the words. They didn't matter anymore.

We sat in silence for a long while. He was watching me; I was watching the wall. The lack of conversation was oddly calming.

"You should probably get going," I said. "It's almost one."

Nik raised his arms over his head, unfurling like a cat just awoken from its nap. He only spoke when he was done stretching. "Yeah. I probably should." He got to his feet and turned to look at me.

I stood up. "Are you walking home?"

He shrugged. "How else?"

"Stupid question," I admitted, leading the way to the door.

"So when will I see you next?" Nik asked.

Inches from the door handle, my hand faltered. I turned back to see that he hadn't moved from his spot by the sofa.

"Soon, I guess?"

How was this going to work? What were we? Were we supposed to meet every week now? Every day?

I saw him study me; wondered what he saw reflected in my face. Then a slow smile spread across his face.

"What do you say," he began, the brackets around his mouth deepening in mischief, "to another group outing?"

I didn't need to use words. My expression said it all.

He burst out laughing. "Oh, come on," he said, tone cajoling. "It's not going to be that bad. So far, we've always managed to find something to talk about."

"Why do we have to do that, though? What's the point?" Wasn't conversation supposed to be easy, effortless? And if it wasn't, didn't one have to admit one had nothing in common with the parties in question?

Nik shrugged. "It turned out fine the last few times, didn't it?"

I shot him a look out of the side of my eye. The latest arguments with Wolf, Lux, and Nadine scrolled through my mind, each word bright and flashing. I could almost hear an announcer hollering: breaking news! "I wouldn't call it fine," I said.

"Give them time," he said, as if reading my mind. "They'll come around."

No, they wouldn't, but I'd given up arguing the point. He had always been someone who had to see to believe.

"But if you know that we're no longer friends," I said, "why are you forcing these meet-ups? You know we're all only there for you."

Except Ansel, I corrected in my mind. Ansel was there for me.

A spark of interest glinted in Nik's eye. He made his way toward me, in a gait that could only have been described as a saunter. "Even you?"

I frowned, caught in a trap of my making. "I was there to get Nadine to stop bothering me," I said. "She practically threatened me."

"Right." He sounded unconvinced. "So it was the fear of big, bad Nadine that made you turn up every time."

"Whatever," I muttered. "I was asking you a question."

Nik pushed his hands into his pocket and let his head fall back completely so that he was staring up at the ceiling. "We broke up three years ago," he said.

"Yes, I haven't forgotten," I sniped, to hide the unexpected shaft of pain that had pierced through me. "I was there."

Nik shot me a look. "No need to get snide." But he reached over for my hand, brushing a thumb over my palm. I held my fingers stiffly against his for a second before softening.

"When that happened," he said, this time thankfully avoiding the nails he had already hammered into my heart, "the group broke up too."

"That's not entirely true," I said. "I think the group was already broken when you left."

"Do you think so?"

I shrugged. "Maybe not entirely," I said, "but it had started by then. We were all growing distant."

Lux's words – not for the first time since she had lobbed then at me – sprang back to mind: Where were you when I needed a friend?

"Either way," Nik said, "it was because of me."

Hearing the familiar claim fall from his lips gave me pause. Blaming him for the destruction of our friendship group had always served me well. But I had never realised he thought the same.

I opened my mouth and closed it in the same move. I didn't know if I agreed with him. I needed time to think.

"It all happened because I left." Nik's hand was now fixed around mine in a vice grip as he stared straight ahead, eyes narrowed at something I couldn't see.

Then he turned and looked straight at me. "But I'm back now. And I'm going to make everything right again."

It was 1:45 in the morning.

I turned my neck the other way, so the bright digital numbers no longer stared back at me. An hour after I had shut the door behind him, Nik's words continued to ring in my ears.

I'm going to make everything right again.

No one was around to hear, but I snorted out loud anyway. Nik had been the glue that had kept the group together back then, but even he couldn't hope to pull off such a feat now. You couldn't put broken things back together.

All right, that wasn't completely true.

The Japanese practise kintsugi – the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and powdered gold to highlight the breakage. They see breakage and repair as a part of an object's history, as imperfections to be embraced. But it only works if you have enough broken pieces to put back together.

I thought about Lux and the disgust on her face as she glared at me; about Nadine and her unabashed hostility.

No – we weren't just broken. We had been obliterated.

I sighed. It came out a lot louder in the nighttime silence. There was a shadow by the window, and I whipped my head around to see a tree branch swaying in the breeze.

The clock now read 1:46.

I turned away and shut my eyes once more. The numbers were seared into the back of my eyelids, forming purple blobs that shifted and grew the longer I stared at them.

Then I thought about the kiss. Nik's lips had been chapped but soft, familiar but foreign. The moment his lips touched mine, we had fallen into the tangle of tongues so swiftly, so automatically, that it had felt like riding a bike.

It was all in the memory of the muscles. And my body remembered Nik – clear as the newly-polished glass of a mirror. And staring back at me was the truth I hadn't wanted to face.

I still loved him.

My heart gave a twinge of protest.

Well, I reassured it, he doesn't have to know.

I couldn't give him that level of power over me again. Because the last time I had surrendered my heart to him, he had opened his hands and let it fall.

And what happened to glass hearts when they hit the ground? There was a rhyme about that:

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.

"No," said Ansel. The firmness of his tone brooked no argument, at odds with the casual way he was lounging on my sofa.

Ansel didn't come over often – his place was in the vicinity of most of our usual hangout spots – but when he did, the sofa was his favourite place to be. Unlike him, I didn't have any gaming consoles, but he seemed content enough flipping through Netflix's movie options on my laptop.

He was frowning at the screen now, swiping on the touchpad in search of the ever-elusive perfect movie.

"It'll lower your sperm count, you know," I said.

He looked up. "Huh?"

I nodded towards my laptop, propped up against the lower part of his abdomen. "The radiation from the laptop. It lowers your sperm count."

Ansel rolled his eyes. "Like I care about that."

"You might," I said, "in about five years or so."

He only snorted in response.

I sidled up to him, feeling the rough edges of the leather catch at my skin. "So," I tried again, "you're not going?"

"No," he said, his focus back on the screen.

"Why not?"

Ansel finally looked at me. He was frowning, but now I was the one that puzzled him, not the endless choices of shows and movies available for streaming.

"Why are you so interested in this?" he asked.

I affected a nonchalant shrug, though I wasn't sure that I had pulled it off. "I don't know," I said. "It doesn't sound so bad."

"Have you forgotten about the dinner we were forced to have with him and Lux?" Ansel snorted. "Don't tell me you enjoyed that."

"No," I said, my mouth suddenly dry, "but it wasn't that horrible."

"Because he gave you an extra slice of pizza?" Ansel's fingers had stilled now. He pushed the laptop further down his thighs and stared at me. "Tamy – do you actually want to go into the lion's den?"

I laughed. "Don't make it sound so scary. It's just his new apartment, that's all."

"Yes, with all of them." Ansel's lip curled at the last word. He looked like he had bitten into a lemon wedge. "What's the point of going? I thought you wanted to stay as far from them as possible."

"I do," I said. "But Nadine would probably give us hell if we didn't dance to her tune of happy families."

He rolled his eyes again. "Who cares?"

I fell silent. Ansel had made up his mind. For him, the charade was over, now that Nik was no longer temporary living at his place. He had washed his hands of the matter altogether.

No way was I going to tell him what had happened – was happening – with Nik. I could only imagine his disapproval.

"All right, then," I said lightly. I tugged at the edge of the laptop so that I could see the screen. He was in the middle of a list of legal shows. "The Firm?" I read aloud.

"It's old, but good," he said. But he wasn't so easily turned off course. "Tamy, you can't be thinking of going for this farce of a gathering, are you?"

"No," I said, but it sounded unconvincing even to my ears. "Of course not."

"I thought you said you'd had enough of them."

"Yes, but…" I paused, then latched onto the first stray thought that entered my mind. "Haven't you ever wondered: why does Lux hate me so much?"

Ansel frowned even harder, if that was possible.

"Because she's a bitch," he said. "She wasn't there when you needed her."

"That's the reason I hate her," I said. "But she has no reason to hate me. That's what I thought, at least. Until she said…"

"Classic deflecting," Ansel said. "She's just trying to get in your head."

Her hurt had looked genuine, though.

"She said I wasn't there when she needed a friend," I said. I'd originally offered Lux up as a distraction, but there was something there. "She thinks I let her down, not the other way round."

"And, what? Now you want to play detective? Unveil the mysteries of the past?"

I reached over and punched him in the arm. "Don't say it like that."

"Like what?"

"Like it's… stupid or something. Like it's a game."

Ansel shrugged. "They're playing games with your head." He pressed his lips together so that they appeared white and bloodless. "That's what they do. They're toxic. That's why we wanted nothing to do with them. Remember?"

"Mhm," I said. A tendril of doubt wound its way around my heart and squeezed. He was right. What was I doing, getting involved with Nik again?

"Leave them to their stupid mind games," Ansel was saying. He had gone back to swiping through the film catalogue, his finger tattooing out a methodical tat-a-tat against my laptop. "We don't have to be involved anymore."

"Right." I cleared my throat and quickly changed the subject before he could detect any hint of falseness in my voice. "So – have you found something to watch yet or are you going to spend the whole night scrolling?"

"I don't know." He pushed the laptop away in mock-disgust. "I must've already watched everything good on Netflix. Nothing looks interesting."

I laughed, reaching over to save my laptop from the probable fate of toppling off the sofa. "It's because you only ever watch legal shows," I said, turning the screen around to look at the catalogue. "There are only that many of them. You should branch out into a different genre, you know. Don't you get bored of the same old thing?"

Ansel snorted. "What about you? Don't you get bored of your chick flicks?"

"They're not chick flicks! They're romantic comedies."

"Same difference. It's all fluff and unrealistic sparkle with them."

"Not always," I protested. My indignation was so mild, however, that it only lasted a second. Then I shrugged. "Well, they're fun to watch. And some of them have really well-crafted stories, you know. Just because they're about love doesn't mean they're not worth watching."

"No," said Ansel, "that's not why they're not worth watching. They're not worth watching because I can never believe the things the protagonists say and do. Making long speeches in public? Chasing someone through the airport to confess their love?" He rolled his eyes. "Come on."

"You're such a cynic," I said. I lifted a finger and wagged it in the air. "Mark my words, you'll do something equally drastic one day for the person you fall head over heels in love for."

He laughed. "If that ever happens, you have my full permission to put me out of my misery."

I smiled. "Famous last words." And spoken like someone who had never been in love. At that thought, I felt my smile dip.

"Movies like those are the reason people expect unrealistic gestures of romance," Ansel was still warming to the topic, oblivious to my change in mood. "So many of the girls I date have ridiculous ideas about what men should or shouldn't do."

"But you do those things," I pointed out. "You send them roses and all that."

"Yes, because I know girls like that. But these things are just gestures – it doesn't mean I'm in love with them."

"I wish you'd feel some remorse over it," I muttered. "It almost feels like you're playing with people's feelings. You give them what they want, but you don't love them the way they want you to."

"That's my point, though." Ansel leaned back, expression pensive, like he was taking my reproach far more seriously than I gave him credit for. "They watch these movies where the guy does all these romantic things because he is crazy in love, and they think the romantic gestures are a reflection of our feelings. That's not necessarily true."

I frowned. When had I heard this argument before?

"And, in the same vein," added Ansel, "just because a guy doesn't do all these over-the-board romantic gestures, doesn't mean he doesn't feel anything. People don't express all themselves the same way."

I was so caught up in trying to remember, that, when I finally did, everything but the moment of triumph fled my mind. I laughed and said, "You sound exactly like Nik."

Ansel sat up in a swift jerk.

Ah, shit.

"Well, it's true," I said, pulling my shoulders upward in an exaggerated shrug. "He said the same thing to me in an argument."

"Don't compare me to him," Ansel said. Still frowning, he reached over. For a moment, I thought I'd inadvertently let the cat out of the bag, but he only rested a thumb and forefinger on the laptop casing. "Give it here, I'll find something we can watch."

My shoulders sank in relief. Spreading my palms in a gesture of offering, I let him take the device.

How long would I be able to keep it from Ansel? How long did I want to? Lying by omission was still lying – and Ansel was the only best friend I had left. I couldn't lose him. Not over this.

I had once been so caught up in a boy, I had neglected my best friend. Now, Lux was deeply entrenched in Nik's camp, and I had learnt my lesson. I wouldn't let my friendship with Ansel circle the same drain. It wouldn't be one or the other.

Because, if it came down to it, I wasn't sure I could choose between the most important friendship in my life and an ache I couldn't quite call love.

A/N: I'm so sorry! I missed a month. :( April was busy for me at work (and I got a little promotion of sorts!) and I couldn't get around to writing for half the month. I've discovered it's a little too much for me to write and edit at the same time - but I do want to finish editing Something Better sooner than later. Ugh. So many things to do.

I have a new cover for this story! It was made by MilkweedSintheSky from Wattpad (who has been making me covers for some of my other stories as well), so thank you very much :) And then I got inspired myself to make new covers for my other stories (lol my horrid graphic design skills back then) and made 10 whole covers. :D Take a look at them in my profile here or on my website or somewhere - I'm quite proud of them, heh.

Guest: Yeah, I agree. I want her to keep her friendship with Ansel, but there's bound to be a little friction about it (unfortunately).

yaraaa: Hello! Thanks for all your support :') I think your gut feeling is right, haha. Tamy does have a lot of growing to do and I love writing that process, so I think we all just have to be patient with her as well.

This chapter was longer than usual (just a bit) to make up for the lack of update last month. Stick with me (and this story)! I'm working on several other things at the moment but this still takes priority.

Once again, thanks for reading and please review!