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Hjem(løs) - Modern AU

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Silje mindlessly strutted down the streets of Vesterbro1, feeling the snow on her face. Why did Juleaften2 feel so magical compared to every other day of the year? Was it due to the Christmas lights and decorations ornamenting every shop and house? Did it have something to do with the sound of bells and soft Christmas tunes you could hear every time you walked past a store? Or maybe the emptiness of the streets in such a busy evening during which everyone was with their loved ones around a table full of delicacies?

Either way, tonight a little something made the air vibrate and Silje could feel it prickle her skin. Is that what they call the Christmas spirit? A few merry drunk young people celebrated with their friends rather than their family and happily stumbled from one bar to another, but it was a rather quiet night altogether. The wind blew hard enough to freeze the tip of her nose and make it go numb, but Silje liked winter and the cold sure as hell wasn't going to stop her from getting her Christmas gift. She had been submerged with work, assignments and exams during the past weeks and didn't get a minute to do her shopping. This year she would spend Juleaften alone since her parents decided to spend it in the Australian summer. Never would she trade her Danish winter for two weeks in the burning sun of Melbourne, not for anything in the world.

On the other hand, she could understand that some people sought out warmer weather; everybody didn't love the cold like she did. Most people, in fact, hurried from one store to the next to enjoy the heating system and not stay out too long. Silje sighed in content when she stepped out of her favourite tea shop and felt the wind blow against her cheeks red from how hot it was inside. There, she was done. It was almost closing time anyway; there was no time left to go anywhere else.

Her apartment was located on the other side of Vestre Kirkegård 3 – she loved to stroll through it; her light, easy steps leading her astray and never letting her take the shortest way home. Despite it being a cemetery, it was a beautiful and serene place. Nature was ever present with the tall trees, leafy bushes and the pond – though everything was now more white than green and the pond was frozen.

Her mind was taking her elsewhere, as the quiescence and gentle caress of the wind on her face made her close her eyes. There was nobody here, which made a great difference to her, Silje felt as though she appreciated things better when there was no one around to see her. However, no sooner had this thought crossed her mind that an uneasy feeling overwhelmed her, as if she wasn't alone after all, even though she couldn't see anyone.

It wasn't weird for someone to feel watched when they walked through rows and rows of tombstones, but Silje's guts told her that it wasn't the dead but a living breathing person that was here with her. She sucked in a breath and looked around her, frantically searching for the other presence.

She let out a sigh of relief when she finally found it and immediately felt guilty for it. A young man was laying on a bench mere meters away from her, and it didn't take more than a look for her to understand that he wasn't just resting his legs after a day of sightseeing in Copenhagen. The way he hugged his backpack to his chest like it was his lifeline, his slightly dirty clothes and his lips turning blue raised all sorts of red flags in Silje's head. His total stillness made him look like he was part of the scenery. He was homeless, she concluded.

Snowflakes kept falling lightly from the sky, slowly covering him in a thin layer of white, no doubt soaking through his jeans and coat – it did not look rainproof to her, and suddenly she wondered if he was still alive at all. Surely no one could endure a temperature like this with wet clothes and no thermal blanket or roof over their head. For the short moment Silje stood there and stared at the man, a number of contradictory thoughts battled in her mind until finally she decided to act. She cleared her throat but he didn't react so she stepped closer.

Now she could see how much he trembled under the cold – at least he was still alive. As she approached carefully – she was a young girl walking through an empty park at night, she could never be too cautious around a stranger that slept on a bench, now could she? - she looked at his face. He was definitely young, too young to be out there on his own.

“Hello?” She said in a voice made croaky from lack of use and the cold.

He didn't seem to hear her and the snow kept falling faster and the wind blowing harder. Silje took out her umbrella to shield her face from the weather's vagaries. Her feet brought her right next to the bench and she held the umbrella above the young man, momentarily preventing the snow from hitting his face. She studied him for a minute, detailing his features. He had a slight beard and his hair needed a wash, even though it was mostly hidden under his beanie. His eyelids fluttered or maybe he was just shaking from the cold – anyway it was time to speak up again.

“Hello? Excuse me?” She called, louder this time.

A yelp escaped her lips when his eyes shot open and he abruptly sat straight, hugging his backpack even closer to his chest as he threw frantic glances around him, until finally settling on the young girl with the umbrella. Silje had stumbled back a couple steps but managed not to slip in the snow; her heart hammered loud and fast in her chest. He had scared her.

“W-who are you? What do you want?” The young man asked, obviously wary of the girl.

“Calm down,” she said, raising her hands to show that she didn't want to do him any harm. “I just wanted to check if you're all right.”

“If I'm- all right?” He asked, his brows knitting together in utter confusion. Why would she want to know if he was all right? “I'm freezing if that's what you want to know,” he almost spat at her. “And now I have to try and fall asleep again in this weather.”

No, that's not- that's not what I meant,” Silje tried to explain, her cheeks reddening a bit. “I mean, why are you out there on your own during Juleaften? Don't you have some place to go? A shelter?”

“They are full,” he grumbled as she laid back down, breaking their awkward eye contact. “Why do you care anyway?”

It's Jul, nobody should be alone in the cold!”

“So if we were any other day of the year you would've walked right past me?” He asked with a scoff and turned on his side so he would face away from her. “I don't need your pity, go away.”

“Have you always been this rude and grumpy or is it the weather that makes you forget your manners?” Silje snapped, her foot now impatiently tapping on the ground, messing with the immaculate blanket of snow. “I'm being a good person here and offering you a place to stay for the night, so you might consider showing a little politeness.”

“A place to stay? What, you live in a mansion and once a year you let a homeless dude sleep in one of your fifty guest rooms to make you feel better?” The man snapped at her. Silje's jaw dropped in indignation and she huffed, not knowing what else to say. She might have come across as a little condescending.

“Listen, I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. I just want to be nice. I don't have much to offer but I can at least provide you with a place to sleep, dinner, and a warm shower,” she said after taking a few seconds to calm herself down. After his little attack she needed a moment to make sure her voice would stay quiet and even and that she wouldn't raise it in annoyance.

He looked over his shoulder to meet her eyes while she waited for an answer but he stayed quiet. Of course, he wasn't going to say anything, he was waiting for her to add something.

“C'mon, the weather is getting really bad and they announced it'd be the coldest night of the year. How long are you going to pretend that you haven't already decided to come with me?” Silje teased him, earning a little smirk in return. When he finally abandoned his horizontal position, and sat on the bench, Silje held out her hand and said, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. Why not start over?”

It wasn't the easiest task to hold up her umbrella and her shopping bags with one hand while shaking the young man's freezing hand with the other. But at least he did shake it and did not simply stare at it before dismissing her again.

“I'm Silje,” she introduced herself, shooting him a smile.

“Ivar,” the young man said in return, nodding his head to show that he agreed to wipe the board and start over.

“Nice to meet you, Ivar. Now, follow me or we'll both turn into ice statues,” the girl told him, tightening her scarf around her neck and diving her nose in it.

Ivar grabbed his backpack and carried it on one shoulder, rubbing his hands together in hopes to warm them with some friction, but the lack of fingers to his gloves wasn't helping. Silje suddenly stopped in her tracks after a couple minutes of walking in silence.

“Wait a second- you're not a drug addict, are you?” She asked, in a sudden panic.

No- what? No,” Ivar said in a laugh. “You're only thinking about this now? After inviting me?”

“Well we're not there yet, I've still got time to change my mind,” she pointed out. “But if you're clean, then I guess you're still welcome.”

They resumed their walking in a relative awkwardness, neither of them knowing what to say to the other. It felt like a first date while also being worlds away from anything akin to a date.

“So, no mansion?” Ivar asked hesitantly after another five minutes of quietness.

“Sadly no,” Silje sighed. “I live in a small apartment on the last floor of a five-story building and no elevator,” she added. “All those stairs spare me a gym membership and the climb will warm us up.”

The left corner of his lips twitched slightly upwards but it was a rather weak smile altogether. She merely wanted to ease the atmosphere with a joke but it seemed that she was not very good at it.

“It's not so far anymore, just two streets from here,” she informed him. “I'm a bit rambly and awkward, sorry.”

She made a funny face and shrugged her shoulders to show him that it was unintentional and that she would shut up from now on.

“It's all good, talk all you want, I haven't had a conversation in a long time,” Ivar told her, somewhat embarrassed to admit that from what the blush on his face was indicating. “People aren't exactly too friendly with you once they realize you sleep in the streets.”

“It's terrible. It's not like it's your fault! I mean- you're not homeless by choice, right? You're not a runaway who could go back to mommy's basement any time?”

She would never forget the look on his face when he answered.

“Believe me, nobody would do this if they had another option, no matter how shitty.”

Silje nodded in understanding and before she could find another dumb thing to ask him, they reached her building. Ivar was forced to admit that she did not lie about the stairs – they were steep and high and when they finally arrived at her front door, they were a little breathless and their cheeks were red from the effort. As soon as the door was open, Silje let out a victorious sigh and let her bag fall on the floor. She shrugged off her coat, stuffed her gloves in its pockets and then proceeded to take off her beanie, scarf and shoes.

“Go ahead,” she told him, gesturing him to walk in and not stay before the door. “You can leave your bag over there and take off your jacket, it doesn't look like it's keeping you warm anyway. I'll go get you clean towels so you can take a shower.”

She threw instructions here and there while Ivar looked around her snug little apartment in envy and admiration. Only girls could achieve this kind of cosiness. She didn't exaggerate when she said it was small – there was only space enough for one person, two at most, and no spot was left empty. A bunch of books, plants, and picture frames decorated every horizontal surface; plaids and blankets hung over the back of the couch; several empty mugs stood on the coffee table, probably from the last few rushed breakfasts before going to class. It felt like home – Silje had made this place her own despite the narrowness of the flat itself. To the left was a kitchenette and the most impressive display of cereal boxes and tea that Ivar had ever seen.

He had almost forgotten that he wasn't alone until Silje started speaking again from another room.

“I think I still have a razor too so you can shave – I didn't throw it away after my last breakup,” she said happily. When she found the object still in its package she waved it in victory, a smile on her face. “Here, you should be good,” she declared, her hands firm on her hips as she looked around. “You’ll have to take a shower, there's a problem with the bath plug, the water won't stay in the tub.”

Ivar gulped down and awkwardly stood there, not knowing what to say. The whole situation was new and unexpected, he wouldn't have dreamt of ending up here today – or any other day for that matter. It felt surreal, too good to be true – yet there was no denying the realness of the girl standing in front of him, looking up in expectation.

“Thank you,” he managed to croak out, a bit more emotional than he would have liked. “You don't have to do all this, so, yeah... thank you.”

In the most natural way ever, Silje placed a hand on his shoulder as she walked out of the bathroom and squeezed lightly.

“Don't thank me before seeing if there's still some hot water left,” she giggled. “I'll dig out some clothes for you, you can leave yours by the door and I'll wash them for you, okay?”

Thank you,” he repeated, as if struck dumb. He couldn't find anything else, anything better, to say.

“Take all the time you need, I'll be in the kitchen.”

He didn't know what to add, so he simply stepped into the small bathroom and closed the door. When he looked up before closing it completely, she was already gone. There were no words in his vocabulary to tell her how grateful he was of simply not being outside anymore. The sheer fact of being inside, shielded from the wind, the snow, and the curious glances was priceless.

The moment he closed the door, he did not want to take a shower, he wanted to sit on the floor and cry – except that he was scared that she would hear him. Overwhelmed and thrown out of his comfort zone, Ivar was at loss. Eventually he collected himself and stripped down, letting his heavy, soaked up clothes hit the floor and piling them up by the door. He let the water run for a minute to let it warm up and this time the tears almost spilled over when he felt the hot water run between his fingers. He stepped into the shower and let it flow freely for a solid minute before washing himself. He didn't even know what product to use among the several bottles of fruity smelling bath gels and shampoos and hair masks.

He washed himself a couple times to make sure he got rid of all the filth accumulated over the past weeks. It felt so good – he didn't even mind smelling like a flower bouquet because for the first time in fucking forever he was clean and warm. The bite of the cold was wiped away by what felt like the best shower he ever had. It probably was.

When he pulled back the shower curtain his old clothes had disappeared, replaced by new, neatly folded ones that no doubt smelled as clean and fresh as he did now. Wrapping himself in a towel, Ivar stood in front of the mirror and wiped away the steam. He winced – he did not look as fresh as he thought. That shave wouldn't be a luxury. He grabbed the razor and shaving cream and started his work. Once his beard was taken care of he felt like a new person. He had taken long enough already; Ivar grabbed the clothes and quickly put them on – the underwear, the socks, the sweatpants and the hoodie with fleece lining. They were a little bit too large for he had lost weight since he had lost his home.

“Hey!” Silje called in appreciation when he walked out of the bathroom with a shy smile on his face. “You clean up good!” She told him and waved him, gesturing him to come closer. “Do they fit? I didn't know what size you needed but I figured too large was better than too small.”

“It's perfect,” he said with a grateful smile. “What are you cooking?”

“Mmh-” she hummed, licking her fingers before grabbing a kitchen towel and wiping her hands. “I didn't plan on having a guest tonight so I was going to eat leftovers,” she explained. “But I can't invite you over and serve you leftovers now, can I? No, my mum would probably sense it and come all the way back from Australia just to kick my ass.”

“Australia, huh?” Ivar's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He did not think she was Australian.

“Oh, they don't live there,” she told him when she saw his expression. “Something about spending Christmas in the sun.” She rolled her eyes at that, obviously not understanding the logic behind this. “I mean, who wants to sit on a beach at Christmas? If there's no snow where's the fun?”

“Well, I don't know, I kind of get the appeal,” Ivar replied with a little smirk. He was only teasing her but the way her eyes widened made him realise that she had forgotten about his condition for a second.

“Oh- sorry, I didn't mean-”

“I know, I was joking,” he reassured her. “I still don't know what you're cooking though.”

“Right!” She said, pointing at him. “So I improvised a meal with what I had in the fridge, which is not much if I'm being honest. But I found some chicken breasts so we'll have meat, so that's good. And I'm making a corn and parmesan cheese risotto to accompany the chicken. I'm usually a pretty good cook and if I had more ingredients I could do better but my food stocks are a bit low lately. Going grocery shopping wasn't my top priority during the last week, I had exams,” Silje hastily explained while expertly chopping shallots with a very sharp looking knife.

“You're a bit on the chatty end of the talking spectrum, huh?” Ivar asked in a low chuckle, watching a faint blush creeping up her cheeks and the apologetic smile she shot him. “Don't stop, I like it when people don't tiptoe around me or feel shy.”

“Like they are walking on eggshells?” She asked, putting the shallots in the pan with some oil. “It's annoying I know. Must be worst for you I guess.”

“Exactly. It makes everything a hundred times more awkward than they need to be. It widens the gap between me and- well people who are not homeless,” he said the last part a bit distraughtly.

“If we're not walking on eggshells does this mean I can ask nosy questions?” Silje said with a little smirk, looking over her shoulder to see Ivar's reaction.

A breathy laugh fell from his lips as he sat on the stool on the other side of the counter that separated the kitchen from the living space.

“Do your worst!” Ivar told her, ready to answer anything.

“Let's make this fair to you, you can ask me anything in return,” Silje proposed him as she put another set of ingredients in a pan along with a glass of water before putting the lid on. “So, tell me, how long have you been sleeping in a cemetery? Which, by the way, is a terrible place to sleep on a bench; I thought you were dead at first.”

Hey, don't bury me so quickly!” The young man laughed. “I've been in Vestre Kirkegård for a week now, before that I slept in various other parks all over Copenhagen. But I officially became homeless in October if that's what you're asking. Before you told me that we were Juleaften I had no idea what day it was.”

“And you were ready to face your first Danish winter out there on a bench without gloves or a right coat?” She wondered out loud, a bit shocked.

It was so recent, he must still be in transition – missing his former life, getting used to the new one.

“I told you, no pitying me.”

“I'm not. I'm saying it's reckless, you wouldn't have made it. Actually, you might not even have made it through tonight.” The careless way she spoke was refreshing but still surprising. “Face the facts, I just saved your ass.”

Ivar frowned, not knowing on what foot to dance after hearing her say that, but the smirk that slowly stretched her lips told him she was only pulling his leg.

“God, don't look so serious, I'm joking!” Silje laughed and opened the fridge. “Want a beer? A glass of wine? Orange juice?”

“Actually-” Ivar trailed off, his eyes scanning the row of tea bags on top of the kitchen shelf. Silje followed his gaze and smiled.

“Or maybe a cup of tea?” She asked, already reaching for a mug – Ivar thought it was a miracle she still had some in her cupboard since so many of them decorated her flat. He nodded. “Sugar? Milk? Lemon?” She asked as she grabbed a selection of teas to let Ivar choose from.

He picked the caramel black tea and Silje stored away the others.

“Honey,” he said. She hadn't offered him honey - but he knew that - and they both smiled at each other. “Other questions?”

“Yes, what happened? You don't have to answer if I'm overstepping your boundaries,” Silje quickly added when his face fell.

“I would have been surprised if you hadn't asked that,” he groaned. The girl grabbed the electric kettle and poured the boiling water in Ivar's mug, then she placed the half empty pot of honey on the counter. “Remember-”

“No pitying you,” she cut him off. “I know.”

“Ready for the pathetic telling of my life story?” He asked, leaning on the counter with his hands around the mug.

Silje nodded without hesitation but she had to turn around again to watch the food.

“Okay then- I eh, I was in debt, that's the short version. My parents died two years ago. We've never been well-off, but it's only when I inherited our apartment and the car – which was all we had really – along with their debts that I found out just how deep in shit we were,” he sighed, still feeling the weight of his parents' mistakes on his shoulders. “I tried to pay off the debts but I couldn't balance out a decent paying job with my studies. They seized the car and the apartment after months of eviction warnings, thus wiping away my debts but making me homeless.”

“Our parents' problems should never affect us like that,” Silje sighed. “You don't have any other family alive?” She asked, a little shier this time.

“I have a grandmother but she's institutionalized because she has Alzheimer’s. And my only other relative is a long-lost aunt that I met once when I was five.”

“You've got to be the unluckiest person I ever met.” Silje winced and stirred the content of the pan. “No offence but it really makes me re-evaluate my own condition of broke student.”

“At least one of us finds solace in my situation,” Ivar snickered bitterly. “It's just so fucking unfair!”

“Of course, it isn’t. I'm sure you deserve a thousand times better. My dad always tells me that life's only tough with the people who can handle it.”

“So, what? You're going to feed me some bullshit like 'you're strong, you can overcome this'? Maybe I don't want to, maybe I'm tired of taking life's beatings!” Ivar began to raise his voice in anger but he settled down when he saw Silje's gaze on him soften. She set the stove on low heat and let the food cook slowly.

“I- euhm,” Silje began, turning around to face Ivar and leaning on the counter to be at eye-level. “I was not going to say that. I was going to change the subject because I honestly don't know what else to say. I can't pretend to know more about life than you- how old are you? Twenty-five?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Twenty-three, okay. I'm one year younger than you and I never went through a rough patch nearly as bad as you, I have no life experience to share or advice to give you. But if you want to vent, go ahead. If you want to curse life, I'm listening.”

But Ivar only leaned away from her and shook his head, rubbing his eyes with his fingers.

“You don't understand.”

“I know. I'm sorry,” Silje apologized. “I guess it's not something you can explain either.”

“No, I don't think I can,” he said. “Why don't we talk about something else? Where do these clothes come from? Do you have a box full of your exes' clothes in your room?” Ivar asked, completely dismissing her worries and trading his gloomy expression for a more joyful one.

“No!” Silje smiled and rolled her eyes. “I volunteer at the local charity organization and I'm in charge of collecting clothes. Some of the stuff my friends donated is still in my room, I haven't had the time to drop them off yet.”

“What do you say, I've been taken in by an actual do-gooder,” Ivar huffed jokingly.

“If you say it like that it sounds lame of course,” Silje pouted and went back to her pans. She brought the wooden spoon to her lips to taste it. “Five more minutes and it'll be ready.”

How would you say it? You volunteer at charities and take in hobos like some people do with stray cats,” Ivar laughed, pointing at himself as the 'stray cat'.

It was by far the best description of his condition that he could come up with. As for the smiling girl standing in front of him with a kitchen towel hanging over her shoulder, the only word that came to mind when he looked at her was angel . He was so cold only a couple hours ago, he truly did think he was going to die on that bench. Therefore, when he saw a beautiful girl leaning over his frozen figure, her long blond hair framing her face like a halo, the first thing that popped in his head was “That's it. I'm dead and this is an angel.”

“Yeah, well, I'm not a Saint,” she snickered in self-derision. “It's fair to say that I do this mostly to feel good about myself. I mean, the charity work, not you.” A blush coloured her cheeks a bright shade of red. “Seriously, don't take it wrong. You're not a charity case to me, okay?”

“What am I?”

“You were a stranger in bad shape, and now you're a new friend,” she stated plainly. “Anything else?”

Ivar remain quiet as she sat there, stunned into silence and staring wide eyed at his saviour. She didn't sound like the kind of person who would welcome someone into her home out of pity or charity anyway, but he was still confused about her reasons. Now he probably looked ridiculous, sitting there with his cup of tea…

“Let me set the table, yeah? I feel useless sitting there,” Ivar told her when she turned off the stove.

“Look around you genius,” Silje chuckled. “There's no table to set, I have no silverware either, in fact, my plates don't even match because I'm a huge fan of flea markets and I don't want to encourage capitalism.”

“I expected more when you offered me dinner,” Ivar teased her. “What can I do then?”

“Sorry to disappoint Your Highness,” Silje laughed. “Grab the cutlery and a couple glasses, will you? I'll bring the plates and the wine.”

“No wine for me, thanks,” Ivar declined politely.

Silje almost made a joke about his sudden politeness compared to the way he greeted her when she woke him up from his bench nap. The severe expression on his face dissuaded her though – she figured he must avoid alcohol to prevent any kind of addiction. A great many homeless people found solace at the bottom of a whisky bottle.

She wanted to laugh really – not an amused laugh, a bitter one – because in the last hour and a half Ivar had made a better impression on her than any guy she met in a bar ever did, even though he started off with the serious disadvantage of living in the street; which wasn't exactly what a girl looked for in a significant other. When she walked to her couch with a plate in each hand, Silje took the opportunity to look at Ivar - really look at him – and suddenly, she wondered how the hell she was supposed to simply let him go back to his life, knowing how much he dreaded it.

Well I can't drink alone, that's sad,” she told him as she put the plates on the coffee table. “Bon appétit,” she said in a somewhat rudimentary French.

The first few minutes they ate in silence – to be honest Ivar had to put a conscious effort into not devouring the entire plate, but Silje saw how hungry he was and served him some more before he even asked – which he probably wouldn't have done because he already felt indebted to her for letting him come here.

“I don't need to ask if it's good I guess,” she chuckled after seeing Ivar eat the second plate. “I'd give you a refill but there's no more, I'm sorry I never thought you'd be this hungry,” Silje apologized profusely and then proceeded to list every kind of dessert she could offer him but Ivar declined.

“It's okay, it was perfect,” he assured her a hundred times before she stopped asking him if he was absolutely sure he didn't want cookie dough ice cream.

“You said you were studying before losing your home, what did you study?” Silje changed the subject. “How far in your studies were you?”

“I was half-way through my master's degree in History and Nordic Languages-” he scoffed and rubbed his face with his opened hands. “My dad always told me I should have chosen a subject with more job opportunities but I was too stubborn to listen to him back then. When I have my mind set on something it's difficult to make me stray from it,” he admitted. “I wish I'd listened now, but it's a little late for regrets, huh?”

“If you had abandoned your passion in favour of something more practical you would've regretted it too,” Silje pointed out. “You just said that you have a double degree, that hardly qualifies as wasted studies.”

“What does someone do with a simple degree nowadays though?” Ivar asked rhetorically. “I got nothing from it. And I never finished my thesis, so...” He raised his hands in defeat and smiled with no trace of humour. “But no more talking about my miserable life. What are you studying?”

“Cognition and Communication,” she said. “Still working a bit on the communication part. I just finished my degree, and now I'm in the process of getting my master's degree too. Nothing fascinating about it, I chose my subject out of curiosity and lack of other interests.”

“Lack of other interests?” Ivar repeated with a look of disbelief painted on his face. “There are art, history, and culinary books scattered everywhere here, and you say you have no personal interests?”

“These are hobbies and I have lots of them,” Silje replied in a defensive tone. “Why do adults expect us to choose what we want to do with our life so early? I never understood that.”

We are adults,” the young man pointed out.

“On the paper yes,” Silje laughed. “But I found out that I'm not very good at being one.”

“Too bad we don't have a choice.”

Silence fell after Ivar's resigned statement, until he stood up and grabbed the plates from under Silje's puzzled eyes.

“What a-”

“I'm washing the dishes, it's the least I can do,” he said, his declaration leaving no room for protest.

The girl tried to give him a hand but Ivar blocked the access to the small kitchen with his body, constantly moving around so Silje wouldn't get to the sink. They laughed together and not even ten minutes later everything was immaculate.

“It's late already,” Silje said and nodded towards the digital clock of the microwave. Midnight was coming about twenty minutes later. “I wouldn't mind spending the whole night talking with you but you must be wanting to sleep now that you have a warm place to rest. We can talk again in the morning -over pancakes, if you want.”

Before Ivar had a chance to protest and argue that she had already done enough and there was no need to make him pancakes, that she was spoiling him, Silje led him to her room and shoved a pillow and blankets in his arms.

“I don't have another duvet but there should be enough blankets lying around the flat to keep you warm,” she told him, still not letting him say a thing. “You're very tall, I hope you fit in the couch but if not, you just tell me and we'll figure something out. If you're up before I am, you can watch TV or eat something, make yourself a cup of coffee, you just- you make yourself at home. For the next few hours at least, me casa es tu casa.”

While Silje rambled on and on, Ivar dumped the pillow and blankets on his bed of the night, then placed a hand on her shoulder. It effectively startled her into silence and she smiled awkwardly.

“I talk too much,” she muttered in embarrassment. “It's not so often that I have company I never know when I go too far. But anyway, I hope you enjoyed yourself tonight. I definitely did.” Suddenly, her phone chimed in her pocket, informing them it was now midnight, and thus Christmas day. “And merry Christmas to you, Ivar.”

 

*

 

Silje had not thought this through. She didn't expect Ivar to be up before noon on a day he could sleep as long as he wished without fearing for his health or to be stolen from during his sleep. Except that she woke up to the smell of coffee brewing and pancakes burning.

“Ivar-” she said his name in bedazzlement, her eyes asking the question her lips couldn't.

“Yeah, I know I made a mess,” he laughed, gesturing to the war zone that was her kitchenette. “But I was hungry and you showed no sign of waking up, so...”

“And you made pancakes,” she said in admiration of the pile of small crepes on the plate next to him. “I thought you'd be the one sleeping in, otherwise I would have gotten up earlier.”

“Certainly not, woman!” He gently scolded her, waving the spatula around. “You literally picked me out of the gutter, if you do one more thing for me I will be indebted to you for life. I cannot have that.”

He handed her a cup of coffee that she immediately cradled in her hands and brought up to her chest.

“I kind of like the idea,” she admitted, a teasing smile already making its way on her face.

“Well, I do not, you already lnow I have a past with unpaid debts,” he reminded her.

“You have paid them now,” Silje told him. “Far too high a price. I wouldn't kick you out because you owe me a dinner and a night on a couch, I would... ask you to do the dishes, or help me change my bed linens.”

“Or have me make pancakes for breakfast?” Ivar suggested.

I think I'm starting to pick up on your logic,” Silje giggled against her cup of coffee, revelling in the familiar smell. “Can you hand me the sugar?” She gestured to a red ceramic pot with sugar written on it in cursive.

When it sat on the counter before her, Silje reached out for a spoon and then sprinkled some powdered sugar in her coffee, watching it sink in the dark beverage. She offered to help but Ivar shooed her out of her own kitchen and demanded she sat on the couch and just waited for the food to come to her.

She laughed but did not complain, for one because she wasn't fully awake yet, and also because it was very, very pleasant to have someone prepare breakfast for her – even more so when it was an eye-candy like Ivar. There sure were many things that went wrong in his life but his looks were not one of them – those definitely worked in his favour. She hadn't noticed it before he took a shower and shaved, but he was very handsome. He had a little something, a mischievous glimmer in his blue eyes that made her melt. Not that she would admit it.

“Here you go,” he said proudly, setting the plate of pancakes on the coffee table. It was followed by jam, chunks of fruit, and whipped cream that she didn't know she had in her fridge. Her mouth watered at the sight of this royalty breakfast. “I wish I could do more than just monopolize your kitchen and use all your ingredients to say thank you but I don't know how.”

Something in his voice made it sound like an apology and Silje did not like that. Her hand flew out before she could think about it and rested on his arm. Thank Gods she still had enough sense to stay still and not get further down this slippery road. She had to remind herself that he had other, more urgent things on his mind than girls, and that he felt like he owed her so if she decided to be bold and hit on him he might feel obliged to respond to her advances – which was the last thing she wanted. Had she not been sitting right in front of him, Silje would have smacked herself for her inappropriate thoughts. She removed her hand when Ivar's eyes fell on it.

“I invited you over without expecting any kind of retribution Ivar, I don't want anything in return,” she finally said, her mouth feeling dry. “The pancakes are nice though, thank you. I could definitely get used to this,” Silje added quickly, to finish on a happy note.

“Yeah...” Ivar whispered to himself though she heard it. “Me too.”

“To what?” Silje inquired, putting a generous serving of jam on her pancake before taking a bite.

“Mmh?” He hummed, sounding distracted.

What could you get used to?” She precised, tilting her head slightly towards him.

Her hair was up in a bun that moved along with her every movement and Ivar found it quite endearing. Yesterday's make-up and well put together outfit had disappeared and Silje was only wearing lousy sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt with a reindeer pattern.

“This,” he simply answered with a shrug. He knew that it would automatically trigger the question of 'this what?' and she would ask it with her mouth full of pancakes, not even looking up from her plate as she devoured her breakfast. But he spared her the trouble. “Living like this. It's like I haven't forgotten a thing, like I just woke up from a really long and unpleasant dream.”

“What do you mean?” Silje asked lowly, slightly putting away her plate.

“Being homeless is quite literally a nightmare but it rarely ever feels like one. Because when you're out there by yourself, you know your mind can't come up with the harsh bite of the cold on your skin, or the soreness in every last one of your limbs, or even the loneliness.”

Silje put the plate back on the table in a loud clatter and shifted closer to Ivar. This time when her hand touched his arm it was deliberate.

“You'll make me cry,” she said in mock-compassion, giving him an unimpressed face. “Clearly, you've rehearsed this in your head,” Silje continued. “Which is fine - we all do this. But at least let me finish my coffee before trying to elicit any kind of human reaction from me. Before my coffee I have only two emotions: exhaustion and sarcasm.”

“Sarcasm is not an emotion,” Ivar laughed out loud when she finished talking. He threw his head against the back of the couch and rubbed his face with both hands, all the while laughing wholeheartedly.

“Then why am I feeling it?” Silje asked rhetorically. This was flawless logic, he had to give her that.

“You're quite a number in the morning,” Ivar sighed when his fit of laughter calmed down. “But what I said is still true.”

“I know,” Silje replied in a serious voice. “I know it is, that's why I tried to make you laugh.”

He wanted to say something along the lines of “Congratulations, you succeeded.” but nothing came out. It sounded sad, even in his head. Everything had turned sounding sad a while ago and now Ivar had no idea how to get out of this spiral. He missed laughing.

“What are you going to do after this?” Silje asked in a whisper. When Ivar's eyes refocused, he found her staring at her cup of coffee and biting her lip. He knew what she meant by that.

“I don't know, I'll improvise like always. Call dibs on a bench and stay there until I get hungry.” Ivar shrugged and ate a pancake almost entirely in a single bite. Anger boiled right beneath the surface of Ivar's frustration, but Silje did not dig further.

There was something else she had not anticipated when she invited Ivar to her place at Christmas – a random visit from her brother who was not supposed to be in town. At half past one it happened. The doorbell rang, startling both Ivar and Silje who were now sitting on the carpet, playing a board game and drinking tea – a common passion apparently. At first, he looked at her as if to ask 'should I hide under the bed?' without daring to ask aloud in case the person standing behind the door heard him.

“Stay here,” Silje told him as she made her way to the door and peeped through the judas.

She made a surprised face but opened the door. Though it was only half open the person on the other side must have considered it to be an invitation to come in because a second later there was a tall bearded man standing in the room.

“Well please come in,” Silje said sarcastically as she closed the door again. “And hello, I guess.”

Hei little sister,” the tall man said as she engulfed Silje in a tight bear hug. “Merry Christmas!”

“What- why are you here? I thought you were spending the holidays with Margrethe in Sweden?” Silje questioned him when he finally let her go.

Ivar realized that he had lifted her off the floor and that made him swallow hard. The newcomer still hadn't noticed his presence and he might just crawl into the next room. Except that it would be ten times more suspicious for him to be found in Silje's bedroom rather than her living room.

“Yes, we were delayed because of her work,” he informed her. “I wanted to come by and see you before I left. Do you need anything? Something on the top shelf you can't reach? A spider to kill?” He mocked her with a fond smile on his face. He reached out to mess with Silje's hair.

“Would you stop treating me like a child,” she scolded him in that maternal voice that all girls had, even to their elders. “I have a guest, you can patronize me another time.”

It was then that her brother turned around and that the two boys locked eyes. Silje would have sworn the world went silence and the air sizzled with tension when her brother's eyes landed on this strange boy sitting on her floor. He never was good with boys getting near her.

“Ubbe, this is my friend Ivar. Ivar, this is my brother Ubbe,” she introduced them. “See? That's why people call before dropping by.”

Ubbe ignored her and Ivar stood up to shake his hand. His grip was slightly tighter than necessary and his stare a little intense but Ivar held it up. There he was, in a pretty girl's apartment, shaking hands with her brother mere hours after meeting her – it's like living life in fast forward. A life that wasn't even his own. He cursed the Gods for playing this cruel trick on him, for giving him a taste of what his life could be, without ever indulging him.

“Pleasure,” Ivar said a bit stiffly.

“Likewise,” Ubbe replied, though it was easy to tell he didn't mean it.

It was the coldest, least amicable meeting Ivar recalled having. Meanwhile Silje stood there, wondering what kind of strange male strength display she was currently witnessing, and pondering whether or not she should make them take a step back and let go of each other before fingers got crushed.

“Where's Margrethe?” She asked to break the tension. Ubbe looked away from Ivar.

“Doing some grocery shopping at the supermarket down at the corner,” he said. “For the journey.”

Margrethe's family lived in Stockholm so they had quite a long ride to get there.

“I should probably go since you found someone else to help you reach your top shelf,” Ubbe snickered.

Ivar visibly tensed but Silje knew Ubbe said it without malice. He was a tender at heart despite the appearances and the least hostile person she knew. He was merely doing his big brother job by being threatening towards the boys in her life. She elbowed him nonetheless.

“Be nice! Ivar is keeping me company since everybody decided to celebrate without me this year,” she teased her brother who shot an awkward but apologetic wince at Ivar.

“Well it's your fault for going to university, otherwise you could be in Australia with mum and dad.”

“That is the last thing I want!” She protested. “No snow? No tree? What is left of Christmas if you take that away?”

“You really are a woman – never satisfied,” he joked and earned a smack behind the head, no matter how tall he was. “Ouch!”

“Get out of here and back to your girlfriend's skirts,” she scoffed. “Ivar and I have a game to finish and you are spoiling the mood with your dumb jokes. The Gods know how Margrethe deals with you all the time”

“I should drop by unannounced more often if that's the only way I'm gonna meet your boyfriends,” Ubbe kept teasing her, making her cringe and wish she was an only child.

Yeah, yeah, whatever, goodbye and merry Christmas Ubbe,” Silje said, holding the front door open. “Tell Margrethe and the others I said hi and glædelig Jul, will you? You still skype with them tonight, right?” He nodded. “Have a safe trip.”

It took a little more time and sighs and pushing him out, but Ubbe eventually crossed the threshold and stepped out leaving his sister be – at last.

“So sorry about that, he's- well, he's a big brother,” Silje laughed nervously as she sat back down next to the board game, waiting for Ivar to join her. “He's not the worst though.”

“Not the worst?” Ivar was confused. He sat down and stared at her.

“Yeah, he's actually sweet once you know him,” she said.

“Okay but, you said 'not the worst'. Not the worst of what?” He specified his question. “Of brothers?”

No, of my brothers.”

“How many do you have exactly?”

“Four,” Silje said as she moved her pawn.

Four?” He coughed out, nearly choking on the word.

It was stupid but it actually intimidated him for some reason Even though he knew his encounter with Ubbe was accidental and he would never get to meet any of the others, there was something inherently scary about a girl having four brothers. One was usually enough of a pain in the ass.

“And they are all older than you?” He asked.

“Yes,” she answered with a sly little smile – he must not be the first one to react like that. “They never ate anyone to my knowledge though. Ubbe won't come back with the rest of the gang and put your head on a stick because you play monopoly with me.”

“Oh, very reassuring, thanks. It'll help me sleep tonight,” he said sarcastically. “I don't have much but what I do have is my head on my shoulders – it'd be nice to keep it that way.”

C'mon!” Silje rolled her eyes. He was being dramatic. “Ubbe was nice, you should be glad it was him and not Bjorn or Sigurd. Sigurd doesn't like people in general, and Bjorn, ha! He's something else! He's fifteen years older than me - my dad's son from his first marriage. He's a sergeant in the army and about twice as bulky as Ubbe. You don't want to meet him by surprise.”

“And the fourth one?” Ivar asked, eager to speak about something else than Silje's scary oldest brother.

“Hvitserk is only two years older than me. He's cool, not really the protective type. You'd have to try very hard not to get along with him.” A happy little laugh fell from her lips as she mentioned the youngest of her brothers with fondness in her voice. “Don't worry, there's no risk of them bursting through the door.”

Are you sure?”

“Positive. They have all been deployed and are not coming back before another two months. Ubbe is the only one who's not in the military anymore – bad injury forced him to quit.”

“You have the scariest siblings in the world. You might want to consider this piece of advice: don't introduce them to a boy you like. How do you even get a boyfriend with four older brothers looming protectively over you?”

“I keep him a secret,” she said with a shrug. “It's the coward's solution, I'll admit that, but I haven't met anyone worth the trouble of convincing them all one by one not to chew him up. My most recent boyfriend actually left me because he got tired of me keeping him away from my family.” She said in with a laugh that sounded surprisingly genuine.

Silje didn't seem to realize what impact her words had on Ivar who just learnt that he already met more of her family than her last boyfriend, even though he had known her for a whole twenty hours at most. It was his turn to play but his mind wasn't in the game anymore.

“Oh. I said something I shouldn't have, didn't I? I can see it on your face that you want to run away now,” she tried to laugh it off but she winced a little bit.

“Not a chance,” Ivar replied severely. “I'm not the running away type. Besides, I'm not leaving this place until I beat you at this game.”

She was probably going to beat him since it was his first time playing, as crazy as it sounds. But he was a quick learner and he'll beat her next time, if there ever was a next time.

“Let's not get ahead of ourselves here.” Silje shot him an unimpressed look and gestured him to simmer down. “You're up against the Monopoly Queen.”

 

*

 

“I'm not talking to you anymore,” Silje grumbled. Her defeat left a bitter taste in her mouth, especially since Ivar couldn't stop smiling smugly since the end of the game.

“Don't be too harsh on yourself, strategy is my thing 'is all,” he laughed, the grin on his face widening when she looked over her shoulder only to glare daggers at him. “That's the subject of my thesis that I never finished – the vikings' military strategies.”

Silje rolled her eyes but turned around.

“It was a board game, not a battle,” she told him a bit condescendingly. “But I suppose I get your point. My pride is wounded.” Ivar shrugged.

“So? It's the same, there's a winner and a loser.”

“Are you always that competitive? Is that why you decided to get a double degree? Are you driven by a compulsive need to overdo everything?”

Curiosity shone through the cracks of Silje's frustration. He shrugged again. She expected an answer but he remained quiet.

There are worse flaws I guess,” she finally said. “Come now,” Silje told him and put her hands on her knees before standing up with a grunt. “I am famished! Let's see what we can dig out of my kitchen.”

Except that it was getting late already, the sun was starting to make its way down, slowly but undeniably approaching from the line of horizon. Silje dreaded this moment, she had from the moment Ivar stepped into her apartment. If only there was something she could do to help him, if only she wasn't this broke student with no real means of helping someone in need. She would do anything to delay his departure for one more day – in hopes that she would win the lottery or find a miraculous solution to Ivar's problems within the next twenty-four hours.

“Silje,” he sighed from behind her.

She pretended she did not hear him though she did all too clearly. Even his posture was evident in her mind. They had known each other for a short time but she knew he was standing by the wall, slightly leaning against it with his hands in his pockets. It was such a typical boyish posture. He probably looked good too.

“It's half past six. I should go now or I won't have enough time to find a place to sleep before dark,” he explained. “Good sleeping spots are a priced possession in winter.”

“I know!” She snapped, jerkily opening a drawer. “I'll be quick. I can't let you go on an empty stomach. If you want to take another shower feel free to.”

Ivar nodded in gratitude and walked away, heading for the bathroom. He hadn't planned on abusing from her hospitality, he had wasted enough of her food, hot water and time. Which led him to wonder why one earth it felt like she was the one who dreaded the moment he would walk out of this cocoon of warmth. He did not need to shower but still turned on the water; his gut told him that Silje needed a minute or two alone. The way she had snapped at him when he reminded her of his imminent departure made him realize that she had invested too much in this situation.

When she offered him a bed and food he didn't think she would spend every waking minute talking with enthusiasm and laughing with him – he supposed neither did she. But now they were friends and it was parting time. Regardless of how cosy he was here, he could not stay any longer. He was messing with the natural order of things; he had nothing to offer her, his friendship was worth nothing. He couldn't even guarantee her that they would see each other again.

It was best if they didn't anyway. A necessary evil for her to forget about him and move on – she had other things to think about than unfortunate underdogs like himself. He was not her problem, he was his own damn problem and Ivar refused to be her charity case.

This shower took significantly less time than the first one since there was no dirty to wash off. When he pushed the shower curtain aside, he found that his former clothes were waiting for him on the floor. They smelled clean and were still warm, as if freshly out of the tumble drier. He noticed that she replaced his underwear, worn out socks and stained sweater though.

“Ivar?” He heard his name being called from behind the closed door. It was followed by a timid knock. “We can eat whenever you're ready.”

He had to admit that putting on his old jeans knotted his stomach. He was about to answer but a lump in his throat prevented him from doing so, so he flung the door open, startling Silje. Her hand flew to her heart and she laughed nervously.

“Wow you scared me,” she said. “Looking good Ivar,” she added without any trace of humour.

They did not waste any time to eat and if somebody asked Silje she'd swear that dinner was over in the blink of an eye – she had not recollection of what was said, or if anything was said at all during the meal. She was not ready when Ivar set aside his plate and stood up. Words were needless, his expression said it all – it was time to go. He grabbed his jackets and shoes and put them on.

“I prepared a couple things for you,” Silje said and pulled out a plastic bag. “There's a Thermos filled with tea – I put some honey in it – and a pack of cookies, the rest of the pancakes wrapped in aluminium, a couple sandwiches, a bottle of water-” she kept enumerating all the stuff she had put in the bag for him but he stopped listening. His throat tightened to the point where he wasn't sure he could speak even if he found something adequate to say. “And I found some gloves that you can take too, and a scarf because I saw yours was ripped. I put them in your bag. I saw your laptop by the way, now I know why you clutched at your backpack like it was your lifeline,” she tried to laugh but she didn't fool anyone not even herself.

He was supposed to speak up now but Ivar still hadn't thought of anything worth saying. He wanted to say thank you but it felt redundant at this point. Silje looked ready to disappear in a mouse hole, she anxiously waited for an answer that didn't come.

“I don't know what else to say,” she finally told him just to cut short this unbearable silence. They stood there, facing each other without saying anything, like two idiots. “I wish I could do more.”

“I don't think you realise how much you've already done,” Ivar somehow managed to say without sounding too pathetic. His voice was brittle. Did she notice? If so she didn't show any sign of it. “And yeah, this laptop is my lifeline, sort of. It has all my research for my thesis on it.”

Silje nodded in understanding and handed over the bag of supplies.

“I'm terrible at goodbyes,” she warned him. A crooked smile fought its way on her sad face and Silje brushed her hair out of her face – it was more of a nervous gesture. “I hope things will get better for you and that you'll get to finish your master's degree. I had a great time with you, Ivar. I'm glad we met.”

“Shut up,” he finally told her. “Not another word,” he added when he saw the surprise on her face and how the opened her mouth to say something.

This time she seemed to take notice of his own sadness to part. With her arms crossed over her chest, Silje shot him one last of her bright and warm smiles when she understood. Without any warning she threw herself to him for a farewell hug. It was the last thing he expected to happen and the one thing that made him lose his composure as soon as she closed the door behind him. Ivar angrily rubbed away the tears before he exited the building, knowing Silje was at her window, watching him and waiting for him to wave.

He didn't.

 

 

 

 

1 Neighborhood in Copenhagen

2 Christmas Eve in Danish

3 Largest cemetery in Denmark. Beautifully landscaped, it also serves as an important open space, popular for people to take a stroll, and look at the old graves and monuments.