Two Weeks 'Til Christmas
“Oh my God, is that Declan Fox?”
The words tumbled out of my mouth as if he meant something to me. You know, a bit breathy like I was secretly happy to see him while pretending he was the last person I wanted to bump into on a Friday night out with my uni friends. It wasn’t just any Friday night, either. It was our last Friday night in York before we all went home for Christmas. The seasonal spirit had been creeping into the city’s shops, pubs and clubs since late October, and now it was mid-December, you couldn’t move for tinsel and fairy lights. The booming sounds of Wizzard wishing it could be Christmas every day always made me smile, but the moment Declan arrived, it sounded more like Darth Vader’s theme song.
It was totally messed up to see someone from home who didn’t have any reason to be in a student bar in the north since he still lived down south.
Just as well. After school and college with that dick, I was glad to see the back of him.
Beside me, my best friend, Kara, who was decked out in festive red and white, with reindeer antlers on her head gave an understanding grimace. “Sorry, Eden. We were supposed to have left before he arrived. I’ll kill the others for being late.”
My own springy headband thing with candy canes on the ends nearly flew backwards across the room as I jerked upright. “Wait, wait, wait. You knew he was coming?”
“He’s here to see Lucas.”
Kara ducked her head forward, letting her curtain of shiny red hair fall in front of her green eyes; they widened apologetically as she peered up at me from beneath her eyelashes. She looked like some kind of Goddess from the supernatural world when she did that, using her powers to force me to forgive her for her mistake – not that she often did things she needed to apologise for. But Declan Fox was a sore point, and she owed me at least two more nights out when we got home to make up for her oversight.
“Why didn’t you mention it before?” I glanced towards the bar, where the boy who had made the majority of my teenage years a misery ordered a drink.
He looked the same. Duh. Of course he looked the same. It had only been a little over a year since I last saw him. How much could he really have changed in that time? His black hair still kissed the collar of his shirt, and that random lock of hair still stuck up on the left side of his head.
“I didn’t think you’d have to see him,” Kara said, bringing my focus back to her. “Like I said, we were supposed to be somewhere else by now. But everyone seems to be behind schedule, including Lucas.”
She should have known better. Our former housemates, Meg and Olly, although not a couple, went everywhere together and were almost always late for everything. Lucas, Kara’s boyfriend, was never late, but for unknown reasons, he wasn’t in the bar yet either. That only meant one thing.
I flicked my eyes in Declan’s direction, desperately hoping I had time to persuade Kara to hide under the table until he’d gone. Of course, he noticed me, and out of politeness, I forced away the groan that so badly wanted to tumble out of my mouth.
“Ah, feck,” I muttered as he walked towards us.
Kara giggled. “Come on, chica. He’ll be gone soon, and who knows, maybe he’s grown up since the days of clubbing in Southampton. Lucas said he’s less… douchey than he used to be.”
“Lucas is a douche for staying in touch with him.”
Thankfully, Kara knew enough to understand I didn’t mean my mumbled words and she smiled. When Declan reached our table, she turned her smile to him.
“Hello stranger,” she said. “Lucas isn’t here yet, but I don’t think he’ll be too long.”
“He just rang to say he’s on his way. Mind if I join you?”
Grit teeth. Breathe deeply.
“Of course not.” Kara shuffled her seat around a little, and Declan took the chair in between us.
And engage fake smile.
“I’m great, thanks.” Where did you get those muscles from? He never used to have muscles. Declan had what my mother charmingly called “puppy fat” for the whole of our school years. I figured working as a mechanic with his dad, and lifting cars or whatever the hell they did, had made him somewhat more buff than he used to be. Didn’t really change the fact that his face still made me want to ram my fist into it. He wasn’t smug, exactly, but he had that Jack-The-Lad thing going on that always made him look like he was teasing. And not in the fun way. In the “I’m going to annoy you until you want to throw something at me” way.
Which never happened. Really.
“How long has it been?” he asked, oblivious to me getting internally riled by his presence. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since you left for uni.”
You know exactly when you last saw me. It was right before I left for uni, when we ran into each other and spent a strange afternoon holed up in a backstreet coffee shop, engaging like adults. You asked for my number. Then you spent two months texting me every day, and just when I thought you might not be so bad, you cut me off like nothing ever happened.
Aloud, I said. “No, I spent a lot of the summer here, getting the house ready for us to move in. I guess we must have passed each other by.”
“Well, it’s good to see you.”
One hand was on his beer bottle, the other rested on his lap, palm up. His shoulders were back, and his eyes were on me. It didn’t require my Psychology studies to read his body language. He was actually being genuine.
But I’d fallen for that crap before. It didn’t exactly hurt me that he’d suddenly dropped me from his life. I’d never been a big part of it anyway. I had hoped maybe our status as adults would mean we could at least attempt getting along, though. And we had. Until he vanished.
I was saved from having to return Declan’s sentiment by Lucas, who hurried towards us, a little out of breath and slightly windswept. His dark hair had blown across his forehead, and was just long enough to partly cover his brown eyes.
“Sorry I’m late.” He kissed Kara lightly on the lips before turning to Declan with a grin.
Declan stood up and they man-hugged, slapping each other on the back and exchanging greetings. I had to admit, their long-running bromance impressed me. They’d been friends since their first day at school. Back then, I wasn’t even on their radar. It wasn’t really until high school, when Declan found my slight chubbiness an easy target to attack, that they noticed me. Like he was anything special. I didn’t take it personally, he found something “wrong” with everyone in those days.
As I said, he was a dick.
When Kara moved to our school from London, I was given the task of showing her around, and it didn’t take long for Lucas to fall for her. They started dating almost immediately. They were nauseatingly cute as a couple, and unfortunately for me, wherever Lucas was, Declan wasn’t far behind. We made an awkward foursome, but my friendships with Kara and Lucas had heavily outweighed my dislike for Declan.
“What took you so long?” Kara asked, as Lucas took the seat on her other side.
“Lecture ran late, then Kev wanted to go to Nando’s and it was packed as usual so it took ages to get seated. Then I left my keys on the table, and I knew you’d already be out so I had to go back into town to pick them up so I could get into the house to shower and change.”
Lucas blew out a breath, a physical representation of how much he’d rushed so he’d only be a little bit late. Kara laughed. “Want me to get you a drink?”
I opened my mouth to offer to get his beer so I wouldn’t be left alone with the boys but I was too slow. Kara had already picked up her bag and headed for the bar. It was stupid to feel so awkward since I knew Lucas so well, and Declan hadn’t said anything to make me uncomfortable yet, but he put me on edge. He always had.
“So, what do you have planned for tonight?”
I asked the question in the desperate hope they wouldn’t say they planned to join Kara, Meg, Olly and I to a few more pubs and a club. God, I sounded mean inside my own head for wanting to get as far from Declan as possible, but dammit, he’d given me more than enough reason to feel that way over the years.
“Relax,” he said, a smirk twitching the corners of his mouth. “I think we’re staying in here. You won’t have to put up with me all evening.”
My cheeks flushed. I felt them burning, right up to the tops of my ears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”
“It’s fine.” Declan held up his hands. “I didn’t make life easy for you, I understand why you want to get away. I swear, I have no plans to ruin your night out.”
A tiny flicker of what looked like hurt appeared in his eyes, but it passed as if it never happened. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe I was projecting my own guilt onto him because I hated the way I felt around him. Hated that he read my mind so clearly.
I guess I need to work on my own body language.
When Kara came back with Lucas’ drink, her presence diffused the tension, but only momentarily. She and Lucas drifted off into their own coupley bubble, and even my death glare didn't burst it. It did, however, give me a chance to try and rectify making Declan feel unwelcome.
Even though he was.
I felt him watching me, like he still sensed my discomfort, and instead of putting too much thought into it, I fixed him with a smile.
“How are things with you?” I asked. “What have you been up to over the last year?”
Declan launched into an explanation of how he still worked at his dad’s garage, and loved it. Cars were always his “thing” even when we were kids. He told me how much he’d learned, and although he’d had a momentary lapse where he thought he might want something different, he realised mechanics was really the one thing he was best at.
As he spoke, I began to relax. He wasn’t even close to being the same guy we left behind. Working had taught him responsibility. He’d kept his sense of humour, but lost that fierce desire he’d always had to mock me.
“How about you?” Declan asked when he was done telling me about his work. “Do you like it here in York?”
I nodded. “I do. It’s a long way from home, but it’s so beautiful here. I still miss my family a lot, but things like Skype make them seem closer.”
Declan nodded. “It is a long way. Sometimes that’s a good thing, though. Staying in the same place for too long can get boring.”
“You seem happy enough being where you’ve always been.”
“I am. It’s nice to get away sometimes, though.”
“Will you be visiting us more often, then?”
Shit. Did that sound like a come-on? The familiar burning sensation flared in my cheeks again, and Declan laughed. “Maybe. It’ll be good to catch up with Lucas again, and if he doesn’t get sick of me, I’d like to come back. If you can stand to be around me for more than five minutes, I mean.”
I closed my eyes against his teasing grin but it didn’t irk me the way it used to. He was laughing with me, not at me, and I relaxed a little more.
“I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to make you think I hate you being here.”
“It’s okay, Eden. I was a first-class wanker at school. And then… after you left for uni. I don’t blame you for hoping I’d gotten crushed under a car or something.”
“I never wished that. More like I wished you might suffer the occasional injury from a car running over your foot, but never anything life-threatening.”
When he smiled, the last reservations I had about him melted away. He was okay. Infinitely better than he used to be, and definitely preferable to when he couldn’t make a comment without it ending in an insult.
“Eden,” Kara said, interrupting the most pleasant conversation I’d had with Declan Fox in a long time. “Meg just messaged me. She says she and Olly have changed their minds about coming out tonight. They say they can’t afford it.”
“None of us can afford it, we’re students and it’s Christmas! But okay. What do you want to do now?”
She raised an eyebrow, silently asking if I wanted to stay. I’d known her for long enough to see the hidden subtext behind that look. If she could have got away with winking and nudging me, she totally would have. I shot her my own only-best-friend-decipherable look of “Have you lost your mind? We’ve only been talking for ten minutes, that’s not enough time to declare him decent.”
Kara chuckled, reading me perfectly. “Shall we go to the club as planned?”
“Works for me.”
After saying our goodbyes, Kara linked her arm through mine as we headed for the door.
“See?” she said, and this time she did nudge me. “He’s not so douchey.”