When Ephraim checked his phone the next morning, the first thing he saw was a text from Michelle. He knew her well enough to have her number, yes, but not so well to earn him a text at nine in the morning. Brows raised; he opened the message.
You free today? I've been too busy to check out the Christmas markets, but it's no fun alone.
Sleep clouded his eyes and mind, and it took him three reads to fully comprehend the text. A slow smile crawled across his lips as he rubbed sleep from his eyes, and he wasn't ashamed of the faint flush that spread across his cheeks.
Yet he was hesitant to reply. He liked Michelle, and he hoped it wasn't too presumptuous to call her a friend - but in the last few years, his social life had dwindled. He wasn't lonely, per se, but he had become quick to make excuses and cancel days out. Not because he was busy, or even because he didn't want to, but since Liza's death he had become so used to being alone that it had become sort of his default.
But Michelle knew none of this, and he didn't want to disappoint someone so genuinely enthusiastic. He replied simply with I'm free. When do you want to meet? and then got dressed.
They ended up meeting in the city centre, as Michelle was on her way back from visiting family. There was a brief swell of disappointment that they weren't travelling together, but that all vanished when he caught sight of her. Thick mahogany red hair stuffed underneath a dark blue hat, round glasses perched on the end of her nose - which was pink from the cold. From such a distance she could have been mistaken for someone half her age, bundled up in a Christmas themed scarf with tiny red robins.
Michelle's tiny arms enveloped him as they greeted. Embarrassingly, it took Ephraim a moment to engage - and then he wrapped a muscular arm awkwardly around her shoulder. "Hello Michelle," was the only thing he managed.
Her smile was relaxed as she broke the hug, dark eyes meeting his before flickering to scan her surroundings. "I've missed this the last few years," she stated, gesturing to the crowded stalls surrounding them, "so I don't know what's here."
"Well," Ephraim began, "have you eaten?"
"No, I skipped lunch and haven't had dinner."
"Then I know a fantastic burger stall, if you're interested."
A smile graced her features - and Ephraim was so out of practice it was laughable, but he found himself wondering if there was something more to her soft smile and sparkling eyes. Yet he ignored it, because he was a good friend God, he wouldn't even know where to begin.
Instead, Ephraim settled for showing her his food stall of choice. It was there every year, and sold an array of traditional greasy, unhealthy food. Burgers were his one vice - but it was Christmas, and he deserved it. After choosing their meals and finding a seat under the sprawling canopy, they dug in.
He watched as Michelle plucked an onion ring between two manicured fingers, taking a healthy bite. Her eyes lit up as she said, "this is delicious. You have good choice in food." She laughed and winked as she took another bite, nodding with approval, and Ephraim hated the way the pride rose in his gut. "I like good food as much as anyone else," Michelle continued, "but sometimes you just need something basic, you know? Like this man I went on a date with before. He's great, but he's a real stickler for the expensive stuff. I bet even his homemade meals use only the best."
Ephraim shifted, trying to hide his smile by biting into his burger. It was hot and juicy, far tastier than any cheap burger from a stall had a right to be. "So you're dating again?" he questioned with a tilt of his head.
A shrug, a roll of her dark chestnut eyes. "Not really. I tried it, remembered why I never liked it when I was young. I think I'm just happier on my own, you know?" A gust of wind swept through the market then, shaking the protective canopy above them, and Michelle shivered. However, she was still smiling as she asked, "what about you? You were in love once, ever feel like trying again?"
A wince, quickly covered by a fake cough into his jacket sleeve. Something fluttered in his chest - nerves? Embarrassment? - as he shook his head. "Liza was the only one for me. Besides, I kind of enjoy being by myself. First I lived with my parents and then I immediately moved in with Liza. I've never had the chance to just be by myself." He shifted, and that fluttering beat heavily against his chest.
Michelle didn't need to know his life story - or want to, most likely - but he found himself yearning to open up. There were a handful of friends who knew about his family history, but few had anything to offer beyond sympathetic words and a quick change of subject. Michelle was... different. Straight to the point, but not at the cost of her kindness.
She seemed to notice his discomfort; food temporarily forgotten as she reached across the narrow picnic bench for his hand. "Something's wrong, I can tell. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought up dating, especially knowing about Liza-"
"It isn't that," he assured with a soft smile, "though related. Sort of."
"Then tell me."
He was struck by her sincerity, by the gentle but encouraging smile and the knit of her thick eyebrows. He had wanted to tell her before, but now it was impossible to do anything else. With a sigh, Ephraim set down his meal and ran a hand through his thick grey hair. "I suppose this time of year is difficult. Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, but it reminds me of what I don't have anymore. I can't get Liza back but... well, sometimes I wish I could at least talk to my parents. Or my sister."
"But?" Michelle urged, and that soft smile never left her features.
"But," he continued with a sigh, "we haven't spoken in years. We argued, it got blown out of proportion, and my mother seemed to think that by not wanting kids I was somehow robbing her of grandchildren." It was more than that, more than just a disagreement - but he wasn't willing to voice the terrible things his mother had said about Liza. That she wasn't good enough for her son, that she manipulated him into a childless life, never mind it was his choice too. The things she said, in full view of half their extended family... Ephraim shivered.
Michelle winced, and this time it wasn't from the chill. Even so, she wrapped her thick scarf further around her neck. "A bit harsh," she noted quietly, "but not worth losing contact over."
You weren't there," he answered, "it wasn't just a dispute." He glanced down at his half-eaten burger, but despite the groan of his stomach he was no longer hungry.
"But you still miss them. So why not try to call?"
A shrug, eyes darting to the intricacies of the pitted wooden bench. He wasn't trying to avoid Michelle's gaze, but the stare was so intense he couldn't bear it. "I'm worried it's been too long, and I've lost my chance."
"Well." Michelle seemed to mull it over, her eyes narrowed in thought. In the darkness of the winter evening, the lights reflected in her eyes. She pursed her lips, as if considering her words carefully. Then, "How about I go with you? If you decide to meet up with them, I'll tag along as moral support."
Ephraim parted his lips to deny it, to dissuade her from something so ridiculous - yet he saw in the set of her jaw and the glint of her eyes that her mind was already decided.
Ephraim swallowed thickly, shoved down his bubbling nerves, and tried not to think of all of the ways this was a terrible idea.