When Nik left four years ago, their little group of six splintered shortly after. But now he's back, forcing a reunion between six people who could've been perfect strangers, but not quite. Temporarily goaded into close proximity, old hatchets get unburied and unresolved tensions come back into play. And, as Tamy comes to realise, four years can change everything but the things that matter.
The winter air was a frigid monster chewing at my sleeve. I stood at the platform, hands buried deep in the pockets of my coat, and wished that I’d had the foresight to bring gloves, and maybe even a scarf or two. The snowflakes were dancing their little chilly dance on their journey from the sky to the ground, many taking a detour and ending up on my eyelashes and in my hair. I shook my head for the umpteenth time, mentally cursing open-air train stations. Then I remembered Nik was the reason I was here this cold winter’s night and mentally cursed him instead.
“It’s so cold,” Lux whined, giving voice to the single thought in all of our heads. She was huddled behind Ansel, using him as a barrier against the wind. All things considered, she should have been the warmest out of the five of us. She was all decked out in her fur coat, the hood pulled low over her eyes and complete with earmuffs, a thick long scarf, mittens and fur-lined boots. I could barely see her face – her ensemble had all but swallowed her up. With her short stature, she looked somewhat like a mummified dwarf.
“Where the hell is that train?” Ansel groused, not for the first time. He was stamping lightly on the ground, probably in an attempt to dispel the numbness of his feet. I knew how he felt – we were both wearing Converse shoes and I could no longer feel my toes. I chanced a glance at the digital signboard anchored to the ceiling jutting out above, covering half of the platform – the half we were not standing in. The scrolling words above the train details announced that the train had been delayed for yet another five minutes.
“This is ridiculous,” Nadine muttered from her position from the bench directly behind me. She was sitting with her knees drawn up, trying to preserve body heat. “It’s been, what, an hour? How many five-minute delays are there going to be?”
I did a 360-degree turn on the spot, looking at all of them in turn – including Wolf, who was standing silently beside the vending machine a little distance away from the rest of us. “Maybe I should go,” I finally said.
Nadine jumped up, glaring fiercely. “Don’t be so selfish!”
I stabbed my hands deeper into my pockets, glaring back.
Ansel stepped in between us. “Hey.”
Nadine’s lip curled, before she plonked back onto the bench. She crossed her arms and shifted her glare to encompass Ansel as well. “Of course you’d stick up for her.”
The tick at Ansel’s jaw revealed his annoyance, but his tone was calm. “That’s not the issue here, okay?”
“Would you guys stop?” Lux cried out in exasperation. The hood of her coat had slipped lower over her eyes and she pushed it back up irritably. Now some of her golden curls were visible in the dim light. “This isn’t about your problems with each other, okay? We’re here for Nik. He’s finally coming home and we’re going to welcome him back. All of us.” She shot me a little glare. I turned away, clenching my jaw.
A silence descended. Lux shifted slightly, positioning herself behind Ansel again. I moved away until I was halfway between Nadine and where Wolf was standing apart from everyone else. A man of few words, Wolf was. He’d always been the quietest, even back then when everything had been fine and dandy. And over the last four years, since Nik had been gone, his reticence had increased in proportion to our problems. He was smart – he’d stayed out of all the drama. I wished I could’ve been like him, but that had been impossible. I’d been the instigator of the aforementioned drama, after all.
I leaned against the pillar, keeping my eyes glued to the sign. The rest of the group seemed to have the same idea in mind, since nobody said a word more. Time ticked past on the large clock hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the station, until the rattling noise of metal against metal declared that the train had finally arrived.
“Thank God,” I thought I heard Nadine mutter, but with the racket the train was making, I couldn’t be sure.
It being close to midnight, the train did not have many passengers. We saw Nik the moment he leapt from the train doors, before turning back to haul his luggage out. Lux forgot all about hiding from the frigid wind and sprinted over. Nadine was second, and the remainder of us followed at a slower pace. Ansel fell into step with me and put his hand at the small of my back.
“You okay?” he asked, bending his head slightly to look me in the face. His warm brown eyes were worried. It felt good, knowing that someone was on my side.
I tried to smile. “Just peachy.”
Wolf walked past with his head down, deliberately not looking at us. I stiffened, then forced myself to relax. Ansel’s hand fell away as he lagged behind. In front, I could see Nik’s gaze sweep over us just as Lux threw herself into his arms.
“Hey, you,” I heard Nik say, laughing as he caught Lux. “Missed me?”
“Duh!” Lux huffed, giving him a quick squeeze before hitting him on the chest. “You were gone four bloody years! Took you long enough to come back!” He reached out to ruffle her hair and she dodged, her hood falling off her head with her movements. When she was sure she was out of reach, she stood back to adjust her hood, all the while sticking out her tongue at him.
“How was your flight?” she asked.
“Fine,” he replied.
“How long was it again? Twelve hours?”
“Thirteen. About drove me crazy being cooped up in there for so long.” He laughed a little.
Nadine chose this moment to catch up with them. “Finally,” she said, leaning up to give quick air kisses on both Nik’s cheeks, before dropping the façade and launching herself at him in a bear hug. They’d always been close. At one point, I’d even thought… But that was all ancient history.
When they separated, she swiped at her eyes and scowled at him. “Don’t leave again, you asshole.”
“Don’t sulk,” he teased with a lopsided smile. “I’m back now, aren’t I?” Nadine shoved at his shoulder, muttering something about his cockiness.
“Welcome back.” Wolf had been standing beside them quietly, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. Now he stepped forward to grip Nik’s hand and pull him into a one-armed hug. Nik returned the hug and slapped him on the back.
“It’s good to be back, man,” Nik said when they’d both stepped back. He ran his gaze over Lux, Nadine and Wolf, stopping when he saw Ansel and me, standing together a small distance away. Some form of emotion flickered in his eyes before he blinked and it was gone.
“Hey,” Ansel said, sauntering forward, hand outstretched. Nik clasped it in greeting. “Hey.”
I found my voice. “Welcome home.” I stood as I had all night, making no move to embrace him like the other girls had.
Nik stared at me for a long moment. “Thanks,” he said finally. Then softer, “I’m glad you came.”
“Yeah, well.” I wanted to look away, but those light blue eyes of his still had the ability to pull me in. Four years had changed everything but this. “Of course I came,” I said, even though my voice still sounded a little more bitter than I would’ve liked, “we’re all good friends here, aren’t we?”
I caught sight of Nadine’s glare from behind Nik and my eyes narrowed. She was deluded if she thought this little ploy of hers to keep Nik in the dark was going to work in the long-term. He was back for good, not stopping by for a vacation. He was bound to realise, eventually, that our little group had splintered over three years ago.
When I looked back at Nik, his mouth had twisted a little. Then he saw me looking and pulled the corners of his lips into a small smile. “Yeah,” he said, all traces of the grimace gone from his face, looking in all the world like he truly meant it, “Friends.”
“Wow. This is great.” Nik let out a laugh as the six of us walked along an almost empty King’s Street. The area was usually so full of bustle during the day that it felt a little odd to see it silent and deserted. A large part of the street was shrouded in darkness with only a very occasional streetlamp lighting the way, but that didn’t stop Nik from casting appreciative looks at all the familiar rows of buildings that lined both sides of the street. We were heading to Ansel’s – he was the only of us who lived in a large enough place to house Nik temporarily – and his apartment was along High Street, right smack in the city centre. We could’ve made it in time for the last train, but Nik had wanted to walk.
“I can’t believe it’s been four years since I’ve last walked down this street,” he mused now. “Everything looks just like I remember… and yet so different.” He broke away from us, the wheels of his suitcase growling lightly along the concrete paving stones, to come to a standstill beside one of the leafless, pollarded trees spread out down the middle of the pedestrian zone. Absently propping a foot up on the low railing surrounding the tree pit, he looked up at the knobby branches and said, “Heck, I’ve even missed these ugly trees.”
Lux scrunched up her nose in an expression of disbelief. “Really?”
Nadine laughed at Nik’s statement and Lux’s incredulity. “I’ve never really noticed the trees, but now that you mention it… They are pretty distinctive, aren’t they?”
Nik was still looking heavenward, a small smile tilting the corner of his lips. He seemed to be looking at something we couldn’t see. “Everything looks so different after being gone for four years,” he said quietly. “It’s like the world has moved on without me.”
Ansel cocked his head. “Four years in Asia has made you quite the poet, huh?” He spoke just as Nadine exclaimed, “Don’t be silly. Nothing’s changed.”
I couldn’t help shooting Nadine a sardonic look at that blatant lie of hers. Everything had changed. She scowled back fiercely at me.
Nik turned back towards us and chuckled. “Sorry,” he said, moving to grasp the handle of his suitcase again. “It just feels so weird to be back after so long.”
“You should’ve come back before this,” Lux said with a little moue of displeasure. “During the summer, or something.”
Nik stepped forward and got in a swipe at her hair before she leapt away. She pushed his hand away, mock-glaring as she tried to smooth out her hair under her hood. “Plane tickets cost a bomb,” Nik said, with a patience that suggested this had been a recurring discussion while he had been away. His piercing gaze passed over my face briefly. I had no idea what he saw in my expression, but his jaw clenched. “Trust me, if I could’ve spared a thousand five hundred Euros for the tickets, I would’ve come back.” He stopped abruptly then, that last word hanging in the air, making his sentence sound unfinished.
I looked away.
Wolf finally spoke up. “Well, the important thing is that you’re back now.”
“Yeah,” Nik said sombrely, before the joy that statement brought took over his face in the form of a grin. “Yeah. It’s great to be back.”
“You’ve got to tell me all about your life there,” Lux decreed, bouncing excitedly on her heels. She loved hearing about the local customs of other countries. It had been a surprise to find out that she’d stayed in the country for university. I’d always thought she would be the one to leave, not Nik. Nik had never expressed any desire to leave, even if he had never been particularly fond of life here. I found it a little hard to reconcile his delight at being back now with the indifference I knew he used to feel about our hometown.
It appeared that absence did make the heart fonder, at least in some respects.
“Of course,” Nik slung an arm across Lux’s shoulders as they walked at the front of the group. “Ask away.”
Lux didn’t disappoint, the words falling out of her mouth like hounds pushing past each other to escape from Hell. “What are the weather like there? Was it really hot all the time? Were the people there friendly? Was Uni stressful? What did you do in your free time?”
“Whoa,” Nik laughed, “one question at a time, please.”
The rest of us hung back, listening to their chatter. Despite her small stature, Lux had a way of commanding the situation wherever she went.
Her delight at Nik’s return had surprised me, though. I hadn’t thought that she had been quite so close to Nik. Then again, hadn’t she shown me just how close she and Nik had been, when she – like Nadine – had taken his side over mine three years ago?
“I never knew they were this close,” I heard Nadine murmur to herself.
“Why?” I asked in a snarky tone, not even bothering to keep my voice down. Judging from the way Lux was chattering his ear off, it was unlikely that Nik would be able to hear me anyway. “Jealous?”
Nadine shot me a venomous look. “Why would I be jealous?” she retorted stiffly.
“You tell me.”
She was seething. “If it wasn’t for Nik…”
“If you hate me so much, why bother inviting me to this little gathering of yours?” It was what a part of me had been wondering since I’d received the terse phone call from her two weeks prior, telling me that Nik was coming home and that I’d better be there.
The other part of me was still trying to figure out why I had come.
“Yes, why bother, Nadi?” Ansel interjected. He had been lagging behind, but now he wedged himself in between us. “Why a reunion after three years of radio silence?”
“Because he wanted you here, okay?”
I had nothing to say to that.
Ansel had plenty, as it turned out. “And what Nik wants, Nik gets, is that right?” he drawled. “Even my apartment, as collateral damage.”
Nadine fixed another glare on him. “Don’t you think you owe it to him to offer him a place to crash while he finds his own?”
“I owe him nothing,” Ansel said, a hint of anger entering his voice. “Don’t make me change my mind.”
“How long do you plan to keep up this lie?” I asked, before Ansel could get well and truly angry. “We’re not friends anymore. He’s going to find out eventually.”
“But he doesn’t know yet,” Nadine stressed, shooting me a warning look.
“So? He’s a big boy; he can handle the truth.”
“Because then I’d have to explain why, and I don’t want to be the one to tell him that his best friend and his ex were shacked up behind his back while he was away all those years,” she snapped, barely managed to rein in her temper. Her gaze slid toward Nik and Lux walking a little distance up front, still deeply engaged in conversation. Wolf was slightly behind them, close enough to both them and us to be able to listen in on both sides.
“What, so you haven’t told him?” I asked mockingly. “I would’ve thought you’d spread that sordid little rumour as far as you could.”
“Not all of us are as heartless as you are,” she hissed at me.
“This way,” Ansel cut in suddenly, stopping at the juncture that connected King’s Street to New Bridge and Long Street. He had pitched his voice loud enough that Nik and Lux, who had walked right on ahead, turned around to look at him. He gestured to the right, “Down Long Street.”
“Right,” Lux said blankly. I realised then that she had no idea where Ansel’s apartment was. She and Nik had both walked right past the juncture. I realised then that she had no idea where Ansel’s apartment was. Then again, why would she? Ansel had only just moved in two months ago, when he had graduated early, and she had been out of his life for over three years.
Nik was looking at Lux quizzically. “You’ve never been there?”
“Uh…” Never that good at coming up with impromptu lies, Lux was stumped.
Ansel and I exchanged amused glances.
“He’s just moved in,” Wolf interjected on Lux’s behalf. My eyes flew to regard him in surprise. He was returning Nik’s gaze steadily. “Housewarming isn’t until next week, so we haven’t really been there yet.”
It struck me for the first time how good of a liar Wolf was. The discovery was a little disturbing. The old adage rang true – it was the quiet ones you had to watch out for.
Nik stared at Wolf for a long moment, the sides of his mouth slowly tilting upwards. He seemed to be strangely amused at something, but all he said was, “I see.”
We started walking again, Ansel and I leading the way this time. Nadine had joined Lux in cajoling Nik for more stories of his stay abroad and we could hear wisps of their conversation.
When I was sure we were ahead enough to be out of earshot, I turned to Ansel. “How did he know that?”
Knowing exactly to whom I was referring, he shrugged. “How does Wolf know anything he knows?”
I looked hard at Ansel. I liked to think that all those years of friendship, especially the most recent three in which he had been the person closest to me, had taught me something about reading him. “You’ve been keeping in contact with him, haven’t you?”
He blanched, his expression telling me without words that I was right.
“I don’t know why you thought you had to hide it from me,” I said, almost sulkily. “I would’ve been okay with it.”
“I know,” he said, rubbing at his neck uncomfortably. “It just never came up.”
“What about… Nadine, or Lux? Or…” My throat dried up at the mere thought of the name, “Nik?”
“No,” he said quickly. “Other than that phone call from Nadine, tonight’s the first time I’ve spoken to any of them since…”
That made me feel better, even though I couldn’t tell him that. “I wouldn’t have blamed you even if you had kept in touch with them all along.”
He shot me a look. “Yes, you would have.”
I glowered at him for knowing me so well. “Can you blame me?” I muttered.
He walked closer and bumped his shoulder against mine. Since I was half a head shorter than him, it took some awkward leaning down on his part. “I don’t blame you,” he said, his phrasing an accidental reminder of who did.
I smiled up at him.
“Enough about me,” Nik’s voice cut through the moment suddenly, “how have all of you been?”
“Fine,” I heard Nadine reply. Judging from the increasing volume of their voices, they were steadily closing the gap between us. “Same old, same old.”
“Still working on your thesis?” Nik guessed, the simple question proof that they had been in fairly close contact even while he had been abroad.
“Yeah.” There was an inaudible groan in Nadine’s voice. I could almost commiserate, despite myself.
“I’ve just finished mine,” Lux inserted brightly. “I graduate soon.”
“Awesome. Do I get to see you trip up the stage in your graduation gown?” Nik asked teasingly.
“I don’t trip!” Lux protested, mock-offended. “I glide.”
There was a chorus of disbelieving snorts and laughs disguised as coughs.
“Yeah, right,” Nadine said.
“You glide like a platypus,” Ansel added.
Lux spluttered in outrage, and for a moment the clock turned back to an easier time – a time when we had just been a group of friends joking around and enjoying each other’s company.
Then reality dawned and there was a moment’s uncomfortable silence. Then Nik spoke again. There was a determined edge to his voice, almost as if he was trying to get somewhere with his seemingly casual questioning.
“Wolf graduated early, didn’t you?”
There was a pause in which I assumed that Wolf gave some sort of nonverbal response. Then Ansel offered, “Me too.”
“Law school, yeah?” Nik sounded suitably curious. “Where are you working at now?”
“CBM.” Ansel named an international business law firm with roots in San Francisco. When he didn’t elaborate, I knew he was waiting to see if Nik would remember. As children, we’d often walked past the office building on our way home from school. We had learnt the initials of the company long before we had known what they’d stood for.
“Corporate law, then?” Nik asked, not batting an eyelash.
“It suits you.” Then he spoilt it by adding on, “You’ve always been pretty good at winning arguments no matter what.”
Ansel let out a bark of laughter. “Would make people think twice before trying their lies on me, don’t you think?”
I glanced at Ansel quickly. His eyes were narrowed at an invisible foe, his lips drawn in a tight line that belied no amusement.
Nik’s tone was cool when he commented, “Isn’t the first thing they teach in law school ‘innocent until proven guilty’?”
“That depends,” Ansel replied smoothly, “if the evidence is in your favour.”
Nik didn’t say anything for a whole moment. Then, showing that that part of the conversation was over, he asked softly, “What about you, Tamy?”
I didn’t turn around to look at him. “I’m doing fine,” I said, shrugging.
I was saved from the necessity of elaborating when the familiar brick building came into view. Tit was four storeys high, with a white-painted façade and three sets of large gleaming windows on every storey. Most of the windows were dark, but the middle one on the second floor had its curtains slightly parted and the soft glow of a floor lamp shone through.
Ansel slowed to a stop in front of the heavy metal doors leading to the walk-up apartment. “Here it is,” he said, turning to smile ironically at Nik. “Welcome home.”