"You know, you and Hal have been friends for a long time," my mother said, a little (to my ears) ominously. "Does he have a girlfriend?"
Here we go.
"No," I answered, focusing my attention on the ice-cream we were supposed to be scooping. Evasion is key, folks - particularly when it came to matters that have been repeated time and time again.
"Are you sure?"
"Well, he would tell me if he did." I said vaguely.
"Oh?" My mother was quick to say. "Do you two talk about relationships a lot?"
I tried not to smile at her complete lack of subtlety. "Mom, Hal and I are just friends."
"Oh I know that, dear." She delicately set cherries into the bowls I had filled with ice-cream. "I'm just wondering."
I hmm-ed, scooping ice-cream into the last two bowls.
"You know, since you two have been single for quite some time..."
"Nikita, why won't you date him?" She decided to shoot for gold.
I couldn't help myself, I laughed. She had lasted a grand total of one minute. "Hal is my friend, mom."
My mother watched me laugh with her lips pursed. "So you two keep saying," she took two bowls and left the kitchen.
I brought two bowls outside and handed one to Hal, sitting on the grass. "I just got the talk from mom."
"Already?" Hal said, amused. "We've only been here an hour."
I shrugged, licking my spoon clean. "It'll be your turn soon."
"No worries. I went through the interview in the car on the way here." Hal's mouth split into a grin at my indignant look. "I guess the older we get, the more anxious they get."
"God, if this is what we get at 20, I'd hate to see what happens later on." I stuck a spoonful into my mouth, wincing at the immediate brainfreeze that followed.
"Only if you're single." Hal said. He bit his cherry cleanly off the stem.
"Oh, I'm planning to be."
"You sweet, terrified of commitment, independent as hell girl." Hal teased. He leaned over and stole my cherry. His tone was a little serious when he spoke next. "Seriously, though? Forever?"
I smiled, although we weren't looking at each other. "Maybe not."
"Oh my god. Hal!"
I let myself be swept up into his arms. I was hugging him just as fiercely - it had been months since we left for another semester at different universities.
"I didn't know you were going to be here," I said, a little breathless. I pulled my head back and scrutinized him. "I like the beard. Very edgy."
"I thought you would," Hal smiled warmly at me. "My mom wanted to surprise you."
"Surprise!" Hal's mom said from the side, beaming at us. Hal let go of my waist and I moved to kiss her cheek.
"I'm really glad you guys made it," I said, leading them into the living room.
"My mom called and told me about June's graduation dinner, and she mentioned you were back too," Hal said. "I thought what the hell and booked a flight."
"Speaking of, I'm going to go congratulate our valedictorian and say hi to Susan," Hal's mother said.
"They're in the kitchen, Mrs. Reed. June's making cheesecake for dessert. Mom's supervising."
"Wonderful. You two catch up." She smiled and left.
Hal and I collapsed on the sofa together.
"Jet lag?" I asked, as he put his arm around me.
"Not really," Hal said. "Slept through the flight, and I had a cute girl offer me jelly beans before we landed."
"How romantic." I teased.
"Sure, except she was about 8 years old." Hal deadpanned.
"You could have mentioned that earlier," I nudged him with my elbow. "I had a potential movie title planned out and everything."
"Coming soon to a cinema near you: Love Is In The Air," I pronounced in my best cinema-trailer voice.
Hal laughed. "Where in your degree did they teach you to create punny movie titles?"
"They don't. I learned that from you."
He grinned at me. "How long are you back for?"
I leaned my head on the back of the sofa. "Just this week. Jan asked me to drive up to university together, so I'll be doing that instead of taking the train. You?"
"I'm here for two weeks. I have my cousin's wedding next Saturday, remember?" Hal said.
"Two birds, one stone, huh?" I smiled at him. "I wish I could come."
"You can," Hal said convincingly, "Just skip one week of classes."
"Aren't you supposed to be the moral driving force in my life?" I questioned playfully.
"I'm a driving force in your life," Hal grinned. "Who's Jan?"
"Huh? Oh, one of my classmates. She lives nearby, coincidentally." I explained, raising my eyebrows knowingly. "You should meet her."
He smiled. "Maybe."
"You got any Jans in your life?" I asked pointedly.
"No," Hal laughed, "Not really. There was one."
Oh. "Do tell."
"We went on two dates," Hal said somewhat dismissively. "It didn't work out."
"Why not?" I was genuinely curious.
"She wanted to go fast," Hal turned to look at me with a small smile. "I guess I like to wait."
"10 minutes to sunrise." Hal told me a little breathlessly.
I was breathing a little hard myself. "We'll make it."
We continued to trek up the increasingly steep mountain. Hal was in front of me, pushing his way through the foliage and occasionally looking over his shoulder at me. I was content to follow behind him, touching the trees in our way. It was dark and quiet around us, with the exception of random hikers we encountered every now and then.
"Maybe we should have aimed for sunset, not sunrise." Hal said in the silence.
I exhaled a laugh. "What, you getting tired?"
"No," I could practically hear the eyeroll in his tone. "But it would be a hell lot easier with more light."
"Think about the endgame," I encouraged him, although the muscles in my thighs were starting to scream in protest. "Think about the Instagram worthy pictures you'll have."
Hal laughed like he couldn't help himself. "Yeah, Nikita, that's what this is all about. Instagram."
I grinned too, using my hands to lift myself over a fallen tree. Hal continued once he saw I was over it. We trekked in silence for a while. I liked the dark more than Hal did; I felt like we were in another world entirely. But I knew Hal loved hiking more than he let on. We had done this particular hill once, a long time ago, but it seemed a little harder now.
"God, I'm really out of shape," I said, as the trek got steeper. I could feel my muscles straining, but it was a good kind of strain.
"I swear this was easier two years ago." Hal exhaled. "Come on. Almost there."
Hal replied after a moment. "Five minutes."
"Let's go faster, Hal." I said. Hal looked over his shoulder at me, nodded, then we picked up speed, quieter than before. Just as we reached the hill, the sky started to lighten around us. Hal gave me a hand as we reached the flat slope of the hill, and we sat down at the edge, exhausted and sweating.
The dark sky turned a lovely inky blue as we chugged down water thirstily. There were other hikers sitting on the slope too, evidently waiting for the sunrise like us. Hal dug around in his bag for a while and produced flavored Mentos.
I took out a strawberry one, grimaced, and traded it with Hal's lemon candy.
"Get your camera ready," Hal murmured as the sky lightened further. There was a moment of collective silence - and then the sun peeked over the hill, reddish gold and warm.
"Instagram worthy?" Hal said, half-teasing.
I shot him a smile. "I think I'll keep this for myself."
"Bye!" I was still leaning out of the window, waving at Hal and my mother and my little sister, June. "I'll call once I reach the apartment!"
June blew kisses at me, as my mother waved. Hal raised a hand, smiling as Jan slowly drove away. Jan had offered to pick me up from my home, and she had arrived just in time for pancakes, which was a combined effort from me and Hal, who had come over to say goodbye.
Jan glanced at me sideways as we hit the highway. "That was Hal?"
"Yup." I fiddled with the radio with a contented smile. It had been a good week back home. "We've been family friends forever."
Jan cast me an amused smile. "Right."
"I'm so full." I said, staring up at Hal's ceiling.
"Oh, well I guess I'll just throw this away." Hal made a show of tossing the peppermint candy cane before I sat up on my elbows and reached out for it. He handed it to me, smirking, and let himself down beside me on his bed.
"You know," I said, licking the cane, "I love the Christmas parties our families throw each year, but if one more person asks me about my next plan..."
Hal groaned. "I know. I had someone come and ask me about my job prospects. I'm only in my final year of my degree, give me a break."
I patted his head, next to my shoulder, pityingly. "Hey, at least you didn't get asked when you were looking to settle down with a family."
Hal raised his head, a mixture of disbelieving and laughter on his face. "Really?"
"Mmhm." I licked the cane gravely. "I thought she was joking, but..."
"What did you say?"
"I said I hadn't really thought about that." I answered truthfully. "I wanted to tell her I was going to be single forever, just to see if she'd get an aneurysm or something."
Hal laughed. "Are you still on that?" He asked curiously.
I blinked at his ceiling. "I haven't thought about that, either."
Hal pushed himself up on his elbows. "Really, Nikita," he said, gazing down at me with dark eyes. "Are you still scared?"
I looked at Hal. "I think I'll always be scared of it. The divorce rate goes -"
"- At one out of five, I know," Hal said, with a little amused smile. "You ever think you could be that one?"
I was quiet.
"What do you think?" I asked him softly.
Hal wasn't smiling anymore, but his eyes were soft. "I don't have to, Nikita. I know."
I felt like maybe I should be shrinking back, maybe I should be backing away. But I've never wanted to back away from Hal.
"Merry Christmas," I said, smiling softly.
Hal smiled, real slow. "Merry Christmas."
"I'm starting to think they're never going to figure it out," Susan Adams said, squinting out the window at her daughter.
Jennifer Reed looked up from the television and followed her friend's line of sight. Nikita and Hal were on the grass again, sitting close together. She tried to be optimistic. "They just need time."
"How long?" Susan said dubiously. "They're 24. It's been years."
Jennifer sighed. "Maybe they really are just friends."
They looked at each other.
"Well," Susan said, "It was fun while it lasted."
It had been a while since I got to have Hal to myself like this. Granted, we were here tonight to celebrate Hal's dad's birthday, but still - it was nice to see him without the rushing off to work, or catching up over quick phone calls and rushed lunch meetings.
"Okay, Nikita." Hal said after a long moment of silence. "I think we're ready now."
We were in the kitchen together, putting the finishing touches on the birthday cake.
I put the strawberry on the cake and took his hand. "We're ready."