Auld Lang Syne

©2018-2022 dear-llama. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 15

Wolf was the first to break the silence. "So, Nik," he said, rising half out of his chair, fingers brushing up the side of the salad bowl. Lux, in a rare show of awareness, picked it up and handed it over. Wolf began sweeping bits of lettuce and tomatoes onto his plate as he looked over at Nik. "How's everything going? Have you settled in yet?"

Nik shrugged. "It's going fine. I've finished unpacking, but it takes time to get settled in a new place." He laughed. "I haven't even gotten used to be back here yet."

Nadine was nodding sagely, even as I thought to myself that she wouldn't know anything about that. She had lived in one place all her life.

"When are we getting a tour?" Lux asked through a mouthful of casserole. "I want to see the rest of your apartment!"

"I'll show you around after we're done eating," Nik promised with a chuckle. "There's not much to see, though. You've already seen the living room, and there's only a kitchen, a bedroom, and an en-suite bathroom. That's it. It's not a big place."

Lux pouted, impetuous as ever. "I want to see anyway. That's the whole point of a housewarming party, isn't it?"

Nik sat back in his seat, tapped his bottom lip with a finger, a frown descending upon his face. "Oh, right. So that's why you're here – to check out the apartment, not to celebrate with me."

Lux stuck out her tongue at him, but the playful gesture looked at odds with her narrowed eyes. She hadn't yet forgiven the slight just moments ago, when he had bypassed the empty spot next to her and chosen to sit by me instead.

Lux had always been one to hold a grudge. Iwould know.

I had been the victim of her cold shoulder more than once. In our last year of high school, an argument had made me the recipient of her frostiness for a whole month. The trigger ofwhat I'd thought of as the incident had been a popular action movie released that year. Nik and I had, quite by accident, caught sight of the poster outside the cinema and wandered in. Watching a movie on a date should have been simple — except I had apparently agreed to catch the film with Lux.

When Lux found out, she was not happy.

"We can still go," I'd said, putting on the most placatory tone I could manage. "I don't mind seeing it again."

But I had been speaking to the side of her head. She hadn't even bothered to scowl at me properly.

"No," she'd snapped. "I don't want to go with you anymore, not after you went with your boyfriend. I'm not your second choice."

And she had refused to say another word. I had eventually thrown my hands up in frustration and left. Her silence had persisted an entire month. The others had first tried to mediate. Nik had spoken to her. Nadine had sniped at her, rolling her eyes. In the end, none of it had worked. Until one day, Lux had simply gotten over it and started speaking to me again.

As I took a large mouthful of potato salad, I wondered if any of them remembered. Or perhaps it was one of the flaws they could overlook in favour of the big eyes and bright smile Lux used to her perfect advantage — but only if you stayed in her good books. The acid that dripped down my throat now wasn't all from the oil and vinegar in the food.

We ate in silence for the next few moments, none of us looking at the other. Nadine spent the time running her tongue over her teeth in what she probably thought was a surreptitious move.

"Oh," Lux exclaimed, "I love this!"

I looked up to see her leaning across the table, tortilla chip in hand. The creamy dip she had scooped up was dripping off the edge as she delivered the chip to her mouth.

"Where did you get this?" Nadine was frowning at the dip. "I swear I've had it somewhere before."

Nik shrugged. "Maybe the supermarket?" His tone was light as he responded, taking special care to avoid looking at me. "I ordered so much food, I don't remember exactly."

"Hm," said Wolf. I saw his eyes flicker towards me. Instinct jerked my gaze away before I could stop myself. I pressed my lips together and speared another bite with my fork. Way to look guilty, Tamy.

"Which supermarket?" Lux demanded. "What brand?"

Nik pulled the corners of his lips downward and rolled his eyes in an exaggerated show of ignorance. "You know I don't look at brands when I buy groceries," he said.

He was good at this, I realised. Side-stepping the questions he didn't want to answer. It wasn't new — years ago, it had been me on the receiving end of his evasive answers.

I turned to look at him.

As if feeling my gaze on him, Nik cocked his head a fraction of an inch. His eyes met mine and a corner of his lips flicked upward.

He shouldn't be so obvious, I thought. Or so proud when it came to deception.

I reached for more potato salad. Maybe the sour taste could help mask the familiar bitterness already rising up to the back of my throat.

The tour of Nik's apartment was as short and succinct as he had surmised — not that it stopped Lux from poking into every nook and cranny of the small space. Her nosiness irked me, but Nik took it all in stride, hanging back to let her hover over every decoration, every photo.

"Where's this one from?" she would ask, leaving a smudge on the glass as she jabbed at a picture frame. Then she would turn and point to another even as Nik began to reply. "What about that?"

"Hong Kong," Nik said, laughing. I noticed he rubbed a thumb over the fingerprint Lux had left behind. When he next lifted his hand, the smudge was gone. "I went with some friends from uni over spring break our second year."

"Cool." The envy oozed from Lux's voice as she leaned in to peer at the sihoulette in the photograph. "Were you close?"

"We're still in contact," Nik said.

I looked over in surprise.

Lux's brows had lifted as well. "Even now?" she asked. "With the time difference?"

"Well, they're all over the world now, really. So the time zones are different for everyone."

"Oh. Where are they from?"

"Two of them are locals." Nik ran his finger over two faces in the picture. "Though one of them left for America to do her Master's. This guy here is from Colombia, the other one from Canada, and the last girl is from Nepal."

"Wow," Lux said. "They really are from all over the world."

I didn't move until they were on the other side of the room. Then I wandered over, casually angling my head to catch a glimpse of the photo out of the corner of my eye. Grinning faces stared back at me, the outlines of their bodies glowing against a backdrop of sparkling city lights.

Hong Kong, huh? Nik had been to so many places. The furthest I had ever been was an island two countries down in the south.

"This is all of it." Nik's voice sent my head jerking back up. I looked around to see if the others had caught me staring. None of them were looking in my direction. Lux was standing beside Nik, with Nadine hovering nearby. Wolf had his back turned as he gazed out the window.

"But I still have so many questions!" Lux sounded petulant.

Nik laughed. "I'll answer your questions, but that's it for the house tour. You've seen all the rooms already."

"But not all your knick knacks," Nadine said. She bent down to pick up a tiny golden elephant standing on Nik's desk. "You have all these cool little things."

"Oh, that." Nik was smiling — a faraway smile that told me he was back at another time, in a place none of us understood. "I got it off a little boy selling trinkets in Phuket."

"Oh, Phuket," Lux said. She frowned. "That's in…" She trailed off.

"Thailand," Nadine said.

"Right. I knew that."

I rolled my eyes. Lux had never been good with geography. She couldn't pick out the Baltic Sea even with a map.

"When were you there?" Lux asked.

"In Phuket?" Nik paused, his eyes turning toward the ceiling. "Two years ago, I think? Or maybe it was last year. I can't remember."

"Too many trips?" There was that thinly veiled envy again.

Nik reached out to ruffle her hair. She darted away, scowling.

"Don't worry," he said, his voice soft now. "You'll get to see the world some day, too."

Lux blew out a noisy puff of air and flounced out the room.

Nik looked around at the rest of us. "Ready to go?"

"Go where?" Nadine asked. I noticed she was still turning the elephant sculpture over and over in her palm.

"You can have that if you want," Nik said, nodding towards it.

"Oh," Nadine started, then looked down at her hand. "No, I was just…" She plopped the elephant back onto the window ledge.

Wolf strode past me towards the door. "What do we do now?"

Nik shrugged. "I was thinking we could watch something. Like a TV series. Or a movie." He turned to me.

I shrugged.

"Oh, you have Netflix!" Back in the living room, Lux was already perched on the couch, flipping through the shows.

"Why don't you make yourself at home?" Nadine said.

Lux barely flicked her a glance. "So," she said to Nik, "what should we watch?"

"You guys pick," Nik said. "I'm okay with anything."

Click, click, click. Lux's fingers were a blur on the remote control. I watched the cursor on-screen as it flicked from one show to another.

"How about we take a vote?" Nadine said.

Click. Click.

Wolf stepped forward. "Lux."

Lux looked up. "Okay, whatever. Let's vote, then."

"What are our options?" Nadine's voice had an edge to it. She folded her arms across her chest.

The scrolling started back up. Just when I thought Lux was going to be difficult, she started reading out the titles even as they disappeared from view. How she could read that fast, I didn't know. To me, the words flying past looked like blurs of white against the dark background.

Lux paused at an image depicting two people leaning into each other, so close they were almost touching. Behind them, the sun setting over the beach cast an orange glow that clung to every line of their bodies.

I grimaced. Four years hadn't changed her taste in movies.

"Not that," Nadine sounded as disgusted as I felt. "Not romance."

"Why not?" Lux turned and cocked her head, a smirk sliding across her face. "Problems in paradise with — what's his name — Hansel?"

Nadine glared. "It's Hans."

"How about an action movie?" Wolf said.

"Action's always good," Nik said.

"Ew." Lux wrinkled up her nose. "Action movies have no plot."

"Excuse me," Nik said, and I groaned inwardly. Time for another speech on the merits of action films. "They do. In fact, the best action films have the clearest narrative structure. For example…"

And off he went.

"Yeah, yeah." Lux was leaning forward now, intent on the screen, as if straining to escape Nik's age-old lecture. I couldn't see her face from my position, but I remembered her tone from the times she would huff and roll her eyes whenever she disagreed with an opinion.

"What about an animated movie?" I asked, just to shut Nik up.

Lux turned around, her face a mask of disdain now. "An animated movie? We're not kids."

I pressed my lips together. Why did I bother? She was always going to shoot down anything I said.

"Animated movies aren't just for kids," Nadine said. She had taken the words right out of my mouth, but both Lux and I turned to stare at her. Of all the people I might have expected to speak up, she would have been the last.

Well — second last, after Lux.

Nadine shrugged, her expression turning defiant. "What? It's true. There are some really good animated movies these days."

"Well," Lux said, "I still don't want to watch them."

"You've never watched one?" Nik asked.

"No. Why would I? They look stupid."

Nadine went over and yanked the remote out of Lux's hands. "Look — there's Your Name. That was nice."

I couldn't help myself. "I thought you said no romance?"

Nadine turned a withering glare on me. Looked like her defence of animated films had nothing to do with helping me out, then. I just happened to be on the same side of the point she had wanted to score against Lux.

"What about an action animated movie?" Wolf asked. "There should be plenty of those available."

Nik brightened at the suggestion. "Great idea."

Nadine smiled at Lux, not showing any teeth but the shark-like intent clear regardless. "Looks like you're out-numbered."

Her face set in a mutinous expression, Lux huffed and shoved the remote at Nik. "Fine. Choose whatever you want. I don't care."

It didn't take long for Nik and Wolf to settle on a movie. Nadine didn't seem to care what we watched, now that she had succeeded in thwarting Lux. I didn't much care either — any movie that could help me avoid talking to all of them was a good movie in my view.

As the opening sequence of logos rolled on screen, Lux tucked her arms across her chest and sank into the furthest corner of the couch. Wolf sat down, throwing his arm around her. She shrugged it off.

There was still space for one — or a tight fit for two — but I sank down onto the floor. If I leaned sideways, I could prop an elbow on the coffee table and block out the rest of them. At least, that had been my plan, until I felt a shadow fall over me.

I frowned. What was he doing?

Nik smiled. "It's more comfortable on the floor."

A snort sounded from behind us. I didn't look to see who it was.

Blessed silence fell as we all focused on the movie. The plot was easy to follow — a boisterous teen setting off on a journey to retrieve a secret scroll stolen from his village. It didn't take long for Lux to get over herself and into the film.

"But why," she said, "would you send a teenager on such an important quest? You wouldn't do that in real life."

Nik shrugged. "It's a movie, not real life."

Lux huffed.

Half an hour more into the movie, the teen had gathered two more companions on his travels — one of whom was a talking wolf.

"That's my favourite character," Wolf said.

The others laughed. Then Lux and Nadine seemed to realise they were doing the same thing and stopped abruptly.

Nik chuckled. "This feels just like old times, doesn't it?" I looked over at him, but detected no irony in his expression. A small smile lingered on the corners of his mouth as his eyes slid over to meet mine.

"Does it, now?"

For a moment, I was afraid I had spoken my thoughts out loud – until I realised the quiet words had come from the sofa instead. I looked over at Wolf and saw the slow way he looked from Nik to me.

I leaned towards the coffee table, putting more distance between the two of us.

"You know what we need now?" Lux said. "More of that dip from lunch."

"We finished that," Nik reminded her.

"I know." She heaved a loud sigh. "You should have gotten more. It would make such a nice movie snack."

"It sure would," Nadine said. "Why don't you run down to the store to get some more, Tamy?"

Looked like she had figured out where she had last tasted that dip.

Lux was frowning, as if she had caught the hint of hidden meaning in Nadine's statement but didn't have enough clues to piece it together.

"I wouldn't know where to buy it," I said, lifting my chin as I turned to look her in the eye. "Why would I?"

Nadine slid me a smile not unlike the one she had used on Lux earlier. "Why, indeed."

Nik sighed. "Am I the only one still watching?"

I turned back to look at the screen. The others, too, had quietened down. But I was no longer paying attention to the movie. I was thinking back on Nik's statement. Yes, he was right. This was exactly like the old times — when each of the others had poked and pried, each jab an additional stick in the bonfire that eventually roared into an all-consuming blaze. The one that had burnt our relationship to ashes.

And now, four years later, it was happening all over again.

Two hours later, I let out a breath as the door shut with a satisfying click. They were gone. Finally — some peace and quiet.

Nik was moving around the room, head bent, gathering plates and straightening cushions. I stood, coat on, hand still on the handle behind me, waiting. When he didn't say anything, I busied myself with shrugging off my coat and hanging it up.

Maybe I shouldn't have come back. Maybe I should have gone home.

"How did you get back so quickly?"

I lifted my head to see Nik standing by the table, slowly piling up the dirty dishes we had left behind. He added another plate to the stack as I watched.

"They all headed for the metro," I said. "I told them I would walk."

I hadn't told them so much as announced it to the empty space before me, but the distinction didn't matter. I had stalked off then, without a word of goodbye and without turning back to gauge their reactions. Then I had taken a detour and made it back to Nik's apartment in five minutes.

"What did they think of that?"

I shrugged. "Does it matter? They all know something's up."

"It matters to you," Nik said, heading out of the room with the dirty plates. I heard water splatter into the sink.

I stepped closer, stopping by the doorway to the kitchen. "What?"

Nik turned off the tap with a sharp twist. "It matters to you — or you wouldn't have pretended to leave with them."

When I said nothing, he turned on the faucet again. I watched him soap one dish, then two, before I moved forward to help.

It was an easy rhythm — soaping, rinsing, and drying in three quick steps. We were halfway done when Nik spoke again.

"I saw the look you gave me just now," he said.

"What look? When?"

"That look." This time, instead of handing the salad bowl to me, he pushed it under the water. A few drops splashed out and landed on my arm. "When Lux was asking about the dip you made."

"How did I look?"

Nik studied me, eyes moving over my face pensively. I wasn't sure if he found what he was looking for in my expression — or if he had been indeed searching for something. He handed me the salad bowl and reached down for another plate. "I don't know. Like you were smelling something horrible. Like someone had dumped a bucket of trash right on your doorstep."

Wasn't he poetic. "That's never happened to me," I said.

"It's an analogy."

I shrugged. Maybe if I didn't engage, he would change the topic of his own accord.

"Was it really so bad?" he asked. "That she liked your dip?"

"No," I said, placing the plate on the drying rack harder than necessary. "That wasn't it."

"Then what?"

"It made me realise something, that's all."

He stopped, last plate in hand, and raised his eyebrows. The water was still running.

"That's not environmentally friendly," I said, reaching out to turn off the tap.

"Stop changing the subject."

I took the plate from him and scrubbed at a dirty spot. It wouldn't come off.

"When you were talking to her," I said, "lying about where you got the dip… I realised how good you are at evading questions you don't want to answer."

Nik was silent as I finished up and dried my hands on the dish towel.

When I finally turned to look at him, he said, "Would you have preferred if I'd told them the dip was from you?"

I couldn't hold in the grimace that twisted my face.

Nik lifted a hand to gesture towards me. "Yeah, see? That's why I couldn't answer her questions."

"I know."

"How could I tell her the truth, when you don't want anyone to know about us?"

"I know," I said, my voice stronger now. "I know that. It's just…"

He waited.

I rubbed my hands over my face and blew out a long breath. "It just reminded me of when you would do the same thing to me." When he didn't say anything, I added, "You know, from before. Towards the end. Whenever I asked you what you were doing or thinking about… you never gave a proper answer."

He took his time replying. Finally, he said, "That was a long time ago, Tamy."

"I know," I said. I sounded like a broken record. But that was the problem — I understood why he had evaded Lux's questions. I did. This time, he had done it for me.

And yet…

"You don't trust me," Nik said.

"Trust takes time, Nik."

"Yeah." The word escaped his mouth in a low sigh. "I know."

He moved towards me now, his hand sliding up to cup my elbow as he pulled me in. I went without protest, leaning my ear against his chest. Thump, thump, thump, said his heartbeat.

"I wanted to do this the whole time we were watching that movie," he said.

"We could have done that," I said, my voice muffled in the fabric of his shirt, "if we hadn't had to watch it with them."

He chuckled. "So much hate in that one word."

"They didn't have to stay that long."

"It wasn't that long. Besides, don't you think it went well today?"

I pulled back to look at him. "What? Didn't you see what happened with Lux? The way Nadine sniped at all of us?"

"Just at Lux," Nik said.

"At me, too," I said. "She figured out I made the dip, you know."

He frowned. "Did she?"

"Wolf, too."

"I know Wolf did. But he's always been sharp."

"The way he kept glaring at me…" I shook my head.

"He was looking at us," Nik said. "Not glaring at you."

I waved a hand. "Same difference."

It was Nik's turn to shake his head, this time in resignation.

"They'll stick their nose into our business, and things will get messed up again."

"Don't be all doom and gloom," Nik said. "Things will get better. I told you — I'll fix everything."

I moved out of his arms. "You're not Superman. You can't make people do things against their will. Do you think forcing everyone to come together will miraculously smooth out all the problems?"

"No," he said. "I don't think that. I'm not holding out for a miracle. I know it takes time and effort on all sides."

I stuck my hands on my hips, opened my mouth – and slammed it shut.

"What?" Nik cocked an eyebrow. "No scathing retort?"

"Well," I said, feeling my indignation wilt under his stare. "I was going to, except you agreed with me."

A smile bloomed on his lips. "That kind of takes the wind out of your sails, doesn't it?"

I glared, but it was just for show.

"I'm willing to put in that time and effort," Nik said, "to fix the group. To fix us."

"Yeah, but…" I wrapped my arms around myself. "It doesn't work if you're the only one putting in effort."

"I'm not the only one putting in effort. Everyone else is, too."

I furrowed my brow. Was he living in a fantasy world where everything looked different from the way I saw it?

Nik laughed at my expression. "Look, they all came, didn't they? That's a start. That's effort."

I snorted. "Of course they came. They'll always come, as long as you're the one who suggests it."

Their precious Nik. The one who could do no wrong. The one who, even though he had left years ago, still held their loyalty in his hands — far more than the people who had stayed.

"Except for Ansel," Nik said.

I blinked. "I thought you didn't want him here."

"I don't. I'm just saying – not everyone comes."

"You didn't invite him."

He levelled a sharp look at me. "And you didn't?"

I gave a noncommittal murmur.

"Case in point."

"You sound like a lawyer," I said. "Like Ansel."

The flare of his nostrils told me he hadn't liked that comparison. "He's not the only lawyer in the world."

But he was the only one Nik sounded like. Though I kept that thought to myself.

"So," I said, "you're saying that if Ansel hadcome after all, you would have put in the effort to fix things with him?"

Nik's eyes narrowed.

"Double standards," I chided. "It doesn't work if you expect it of others, but don't put in the effort yourself."

"I don't expect anything from him."

"You agreed," I said. "You said that you would give him a chance if he came."

"If he does."

"Yes — if he does, you'll put in the effort, won't you?"

"I won't pick a fight with him," Nik said, the words sounding like they were ground out of his molars. "Not unless he does it first."

That was enough for me. I nodded.

"See," Nik said, "I'm putting in effort."

That tugged a smile out of me.

"It'll be fine," he said. He took my hand, rubbing his thumb over the top of my knuckles. "You'll see. We can go back to the way things were."

I shook my head. "You're so optimistic. Everything has changed. You can't make people like each other again, not when we all hate each other now."

"Hate is too strong a word. You don't hate each other."

I remembered the disgust on Lux's face, the way Nadine looked at me as if I were a bug under her shoe. Even Wolf's quiet warning to stay away from Nik had held a hint of hostility. "Trust me, they hate me now."

Not that the feeling wasn't mutual.

"They don't hate you," Nik said. "Especially not Lux."

"Especially Lux," I said. "Or have you not seen the way she acts around me?"

Nik sighed. "That's why you need to talk to one another."

"I've talked to her," I said. "It was pointless."

He shook his head. "It takes time." Now it came out in a mutter, as if he was talking to himself.

"Whatever," I said. "Let her think what she wants. Let them all think what they want of me. It doesn't matter."

"It matters." Nik fixed me with a look so stern, my indignation withered under it. "And it will keep bothering you — all of us — until it's fixed."

"This is way beyond fixing," I said. "You can't change what they think."

"I changed your mind about us, didn't I?" He leaned in, pausing right before our lips met. He was too close for me to look properly at him; all I could take in was the heat radiating off his skin. "I can change theirs, too."

But then, I thought, hadn't that been the problem all along? He had done it three years ago. Back then, when everything had fallen apart, he had — unknowingly and inadvertently — been the reason they had changed their minds about me. They hadn't even listened to my side of the story. I had woken up to find that they had all chosen Nik.

I stepped back, letting distance gush back in between us. My chest had gone tight.

"I don't need you to tell them what to think." I bared my teeth in a mirthless smile. "Because, even if they pretend to listen, crocodile tears mean nothing to me."

A/N: Happy New Year! :D Haha, I'm late with the update (so what's new), but here it is. I also realised that the last time I updated this story was back in September last year... and so many things have happened! For one, I rediscovered my passion for writing, join a few writers' groups, and have been writing almost every day since November. It's been crazy.

I also finished NaNoWriMo last year with 53k words — except I wasn't writing Auld Lang Syne for NaNo. I decided to FINALLY start editing Something Better... and editing morphed into a full-out rewrite of the story. :P Turns out, there are a lot of things in the original draft that make me cringe now. Plus, it was originally novella-length. Now it's nearing 70k and still going strong, so it will be an actual novel by the time I'm finally done with it. I'm now working on it as my priority project, and Auld Lang Syne has become more of a side project.

But I will still be writing Auld Lang Syne, just at a slower pace now! One of my writing goals for the year is to update at least 5 new chapters for this story (hopefully more). I might also go back and do a reverse outline to streamline this story a little. So many things to do!

Another thing: I've made a whole new website, which you can find over at . The first two days of this year were dedicated to finishing up the design and pages, and while there are still little tweaks I'd like to make, the website is up! Let me know what you think — and you can also sign up to be a Beta Reader for the new draft of Something Better when I'm done with it. Pretty please? :)

Oh, by the way — I've decided to start making little videos to announce each chapter update for this story. (Inspired by the 2021 writing recap I did in December — you can watch it on my website!) It's kinda fun matching the quotes to the video clips. I'm pretty proud of them, haha.

And now for the review replies:

JadeliketheGem: Aw, I'm loving your commentary! It's interesting for me to see what you think of the characters' interactions. :D Sorry this chapter was so late, and thank you so much for sticking around! Hope you liked this one — Tamy survived that gathering!

dress: OMG hello! It's been so long since I've seen you around, glad you dropped by again! Ha, I totally feel you on the relationship stuff — the relationship Nik and Tamy had in the past is based on my relationship with my first boyfriend... and boy was I naive back then. The guy literally said the same thing Nik said to Tamy at some point: that he can't be the romantic prince I wanted him to be. But I guess it's good that we grow from these experiences — how else to do better next time? Sorry to hear that your relationship turned out to be toxic, I hope you'll find something way better in the future. And congratulations on finishing your thesis! :)

Ok, so, I have no idea when I'll update next, but I will be writing almost every day (my goal is 3000 words a week) and posting my progress / process on Twitter and Instagram, so if you're ever wondering if I'm still alive and writing, pop on by and say hi. :P Thank you for (still) reading this and please review if you liked it! (Or if you didn't, let me know what the issues are.) Till next time!