From my spot in front of the couch, I was absently watching TV, until a light touch made me freeze in place. Lazy fingers brushed away the hair from my shoulder, and before I could react hot lips came in contact with my skin. I turned around, my hand shooting up to cover the spot he had kissed. Shawn only grinned at me sleepily, his eyes still adjusting.
“Merry Christmas,” he mumbled, his voice rough from sleep.
I swallowed, trying to calm my racing heart. “M—Merry Christmas.”
He pushed himself up, leaning on his elbow. “Did I scare you that badly?”
Pulling my knees closer to my chest, I looked away. “Not really.”
“Come now,” he whispered, reaching out to caress my cheek. “I barely saw you yesterday.”
“About yesterday,” I mumbled, still not looking up at him. “About what you said . . . I’ve been thinking about it and . . .”
“It’s okay if you don’t want me that way.” At this, my gaze shot to his. A soft, almost regretful smile adorned his lips. “I realized I might have been too forward, that I didn’t consider how you felt about the situation. I’m sorry.”
I blinked at him. “Then why did you stay?”
“I told you I wasn’t going anywhere.” He shrugged, this time being the one who looked away. “And neither did I want you to wake up alone on Christmas day.”
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. All the words in my vocabulary suddenly were out of reach, and I could only stare. Warmth filled my chest as my lips curved, not being able to stop it. my limbs itched, wanting to reach out to him, to hold him and thank him for thinking of me.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I pushed myself off the ground and walked into the kitchen. “C—Coffee?”
I heard Shawn move on the couch, probably sit up to look after me, but I didn’t turn to confirm it. My courage from before had faded, being replaced by fear. I couldn’t remember the last time simple words like the ones he spoke could make me this happy, and it scared me. It scared me to be happy, seeing as I’ve only known dread and loneliness for so long.
“Darcey?” The gentleness in his voice made me jump, almost dropping the mug that I was grabbing for him.
When he didn’t continue, I said a bit hesitant, “Yes?”
“Can we at least be friends?”
While the thought of just being friends disappointed me, relief washed over me just as much. Friends. It wasn’t what I wanted from him. I wanted him to give me a reason to live, not become another burden, another person to lose contact with and be forgotten by. Friends took effort to maintain, friends left after they got what they wanted, friends couldn’t love . . .
And . . . Damn it, I wanted to be loved.
“Let me prove myself to you,” Shawn said, pulling me back to reality. I realized I hadn’t given him an answer. “I need a genuine friend just as much as you do. Maybe we just got to take a step back, you know? Not just be together because we are lonely but to enjoy ourselves as well.”
I gripped the mug tighter until my knuckles saw white. “What changed your mind?”
He shuffled again behind me, and soon his soft footsteps sounded against the wooden floor. I shut my eyes tightly, hoping he would wrap his arms around me from behind, to feel his warmth, his breath, his heartbeat.
“You,” he said, but he didn’t reach out. He didn’t touch me, only coming to stand beside me and pry the mug from my hands. “I haven’t been told no by a woman before, and although I first thought that my interest in you was because of that, and that was why I wanted to charm you, I realized I wanted to do more than get you in my bed.” It wasn’t too much of a surprise, knowing Shawn and his reputation, his curse, but my heart still skipped a beat. “I don’t care about people and about their feelings. Their affection is fake, their smiled, their praises. Even their anger. Yet, tonight was the first time in years I did something because of someone else, and because of that same reason I want to be just your friend.”
“I hate you.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them. How could he toy with my emotions like that? Telling me he wanted me, only to retract that statement the next morning. “I don’t want to be your fucking friend!”
And to my surprise, he chuckled. “Are you seriously angry with me?”
I turned to him, slamming my first against his chest. My eyes were burning, but so was my heart. “Why? Why promise me so much only to take it back?”
“You didn’t want it.” Taking hold of my wrists, he finally pulled me into his arms, and I sobbed against his chest. “I never said I took it back,” he whispered into my ear. “I just wanted to slow down.”
My fingers curled into his shirt as I continued to cry. I didn’t know what I was feeling, what I wanted anymore. My chest hurt, my head hurt, and fear overwhelmed me just as much as anger did. I wanted to shove Shawn away, yet also never let go. I wanted so much, but what I couldn’t grasp. Nor how to get any of it.
I hated how I must look to Shawn, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how he was still here. He had seen me cry more than he had seen me smile. Shouldn’t a guy fall for a smile, not the tears?
But in all honesty, I hadn’t cried as much as I had after meeting Shawn. I hadn’t felt this much, either.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked, holding onto my beanie as Shawn continued to drag me along through the snow.
“It’s Christmas day, where else would you be other than the giant bonfire tree?” Glancing back, his eyes glittered in comparison to his red cheeks that were lifted by a grin.
My sister and I didn’t attend the fire ever since our parents couldn’t join us anymore. Or rather, I didn’t want to go, and Mari stayed home with me. The event held happy memories that I didn’t want to be ruined by the constant reminder of what I’d lost.
If Shawn had noticed the resistance with which I now pulled back he didn’t comment. Neither did he stop. It almost seemed like he quickened his pace instead.
Turning a corner, the large man-made tree came into sight. As soon as the sun would set, it would be set ablaze, filling the cold winter night with crisps and smoke. If the wind refused to blow, the scent of burning wood would stay until new year’s, which I secretly hoped would happen.
Against the white snow, the many stalls stood out as brightly as I remembered. Even during the day, lights flickered happily, illuminating the improvised streets with red and green. Children hurried to the large man dressed as Santa underneath the tree, wanting to thank or show him the presents they received. Some brave little ones even dared to pet the reindeer that accompanied him. I wondered if it was the same reindeer I petted as a child.
Although the air was not yet filled with burned wood, I was delighted with the other scents the stalls had to offer. Warm waffles with dripping chocolate, caramelized fruits, and gingerbread men, women, children and animals. The sweetness was overruled by the occasional waft of chicken soup, making my stomach grown even after having just eaten breakfast.
While taken by the scenery, I hadn’t noticed how Shawn had stiffened. Only when his shoulder bumped against my own did I look up. He kept his gaze down. Frowning, I noticed the eyes that had turned to him. Each person we walked by looked up, even if they were preoccupied. And soon with the eyes, murmurs followed.
“Hey,” I said barely above a whisper, taking hold of his hand. “What do you want to get?”
Meeting my gaze, he smiled faintly, releasing some tension from his shoulders. “We just ate.”
“I don’t care.” I tried to smile, but it turned genuine when his grew as well. He had a bit of a contagious smile when he wasn’t grinning or smirking. “Mari and I used to do a sweet-savory-sweet pattern. If you switch it up you’ll feel less full.”
I expected for hollowness to carve into my chest at the memory, at Mari’s absence, and yet, my feet were eager to move, and my heart raced with anticipation. I wanted for Shawn to try it, see how much he could eat, if I could beat him as I had always beat Mari. If I knew we were coming here I wouldn’t have eating anything at all.
Shawn opened his mouth to respond but was cut off when two girls came to stand in our path, blocking our way.
“It really is him!” one of them shrieked to the other, holding her mittens so tight they were shaking. “I told you it was Shawn Clifton!”
“Oh my Gosh, we are such big fans!”
Shawn squeezed my hand, though to reassure me or himself I wasn’t sure. “Thank you, but could you please leave us alone?”
My brows rose at the icy bite to his tone, but the girls didn’t seem to notice. Their focus was entirely on something else he had said.
“Us?” the girl with the mittens repeated, her grip loosening before tightening again, fiercer this time. “What do you mean us? Who are you with?”
“Calm down, there is no one with him,” the other girl reassured her friend, placing a hand on her shoulder. “He must have misspoken.”
“I didn’t,” Shawn hissed, but again, the girls ignored him. Suddenly, I understood more clearly what he meant by being seen, yet not at all. Being in someone’s mind did not make him any less lonely, much like how small interactions I forced with others did not help mine.
Just like that, the girls continued to talk between one another, turning their backs to us. Knowing too well what he was feeling, I pulled him to a food stall before he could sink deeper into it.
Even if I couldn’t buy my own sweets, I still enjoyed pretending I was part of the transaction. It was something I had forgotten about the event.
“You have to try one of these,” I said, picking up a skewer with caramelized fruits. Taking off my glove, I pulled off a grape and held it out for Shawn to try. He simply stared at me wide-eyed. “What?”
“You can’t just take it,” he blurted out. “You have to pay first and then the lady will pack it for you.”
Lowering my hand, heat crept up my cheeks, but the smile that had come onto my lips didn’t waver. “I know, but no one notices anyway. Mari taught me that it was okay because the world was cruel enough to me.”
The shock from before faded into a playful grin. Leaning down, he plucked the grape out from between my fingers with his teeth. “You’re more morally corrupt than I thought.”
“It’s one of my charms.”
“I suppose it is.”