It was the day before holiday break; a fresh coat of snow covered the grounds of Jordan College, and Will Parry had just finished his final exam of the term. By all accounts, it was the perfect formula to put some holiday pep in anyone’s step, but as he weaved through scattered groups of students excitedly discussion vacation plans and the few unfortunate souls still absorbed in their study guides on his way back to his residence hall, the only thing Will was feeling was exhausted.
After spending the past weekend working double shifts and studying for his just-completed anatomy exam, the only thing he was planning to do with the rest of his day was to get through his final class, hand in his term paper, and spend what was left of the time before break began happily asleep in his bed.
Despite his less than enthusiastic mood, Will couldn’t help but grin as he opened his common room door to see his best friend Lyra exactly as he had left her; hunched over her laptop at the coffee table, her pine marten Pan likely still curled up and napping in her lap. “Thank god that’s done,” he groaned, crossing the room in a few quick strides and dropping onto the couch next to her. “If I ever tell you I’m taking a class where I have to sketch, then label every muscle in my hand, just put me out of my misery”.
He glanced over at Lyra, expecting one of her usual sarcastic retorts, but found that she hadn’t moved. “Lyra, as much as I’m sure Dr. Malone appreciates the dedication,” he tried again, “I’m not sure half an hour before class is the best time to be revising your paper’. Still no response.
He turned to look at her properly and saw her staring at the laptop screen, her eyes flicking back and forth as if reading the same line over and over but not really understanding anything. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, one of the very few outward signs of nerves or worry she ever gave. “Lyra, you’re starting to freak me out.” Will reached out to place his hand on his friend’s shoulder, hoping to shake her out of whatever daze her computer had caught her in. “What are you even reading…?”
Without warning, Lyra grabbed the laptop from the table and thrust it into Will’s hands, the unexpected movement waking Pan with an indignant squeak as he rushed away from Lyra’s lap to settle on the back of the couch instead. Will blinked, adjusting to the sudden burst of light, and balanced the computer on the arm of the couch to see that, rather than her term paper, Lyra had been reviewing an email.
Subject: Christmas Plans
My dearest Lyra,
As you know, your holiday break will begin tomorrow. While I still don’t understand your insistence on taking the train when Thorold is able to provide much more comfortable transport, we will expect your arrival off the three pm GWR. Please do keep in mind that we will be attending mass on Christmas morning this year, and that if you are unable to come prepared with an appropriate outfit for the occasion, I will select one for you.
See you soon,
PS: As I mentioned on our last phone call, it’s been so wonderful to hear about your new beau. I’ve been remiss in offering before, but I hope you both will be able to join us for the holiday. After hearing so much from you, it feels like high time your father and I get to know this boy ourselves, and we would be absolutely delighted to meet him at last.
“Your dad would be ‘absolutely delighted’ to meet your boyfriend?”
Lyra snorted. “My dad would hardly notice that I’m there. Can we focus on what’s important please?”
“Right, sorry.” Will returned the laptop to the coffee table, glancing sideways at Lyra as he settled back into the couch cushions. “And that would be…”
“The fact that tomorrow afternoon my mother will be opening her front door, expecting to see me and the boyfriend that I very much do not have.” Lyra snapped, as if it should be obvious. “Oh Will, what am I going to do?” she exclaimed, shifting her position until she was able to fall back and lie across the couch, her head in his lap and one arm flung over her eyes as if trying to block out the whole situation.
“Well I know what you should have done,” he began, smirking down at her. “because I’ve been telling you for months that lying to your mum like this was a bad choice. Your relationship is already unhealthy enough.”
Lyra lowered her arm to glare at him. “Oh yes thank you for your brilliant insight Dr. Parry. I didn’t realize you were getting your degree in psychology.”
“Wish I was; at least then I’d get to bill you for these little talks.” he responded, flicking her lightly on the forehead.
Lyra rolled her eyes. “Please. You’d do it all pro-bono because you love chastising me”. Will couldn’t help but grin; she had him there. “But seriously Will, what am I going to do?”
“Well, at the risk of asking the obvious question, why not just tell her you and your fake boyfriend broke up?”
The loud scoff from Lyra let him know that he had indeed asked the obvious question, and that it was the wrong question to ask. “And give her the opportunity to force that loser from her accounting department on me? Fat chance; the guy’s pushing 30 and apparently can’t find a date without my mother’s help – that’s two red flags right there. No,” she continued, pinching the bridge of her nose as she thought, “me showing up alone is exactly what she wants.”
It was quiet for a beat, and then Lyra’s head shot up. “Wait.” She scrambled to get up from the couch and stand in the open space between it and the coffee table, pointing a triumphant finger at a confused Will. “That’s exactly what she wants.” When Will didn’t respond she turned on her heel and began pacing up and down the length of the couch. “She thinks I’m lying.”
“You are lying.” Will reminded her.
“She thinks I’ve been lying this entire time.”
“Which you have been.”
Lyra paused, turning to shoot him a withering glare. “Will, could you just play along for once?”
Will held up his hands in surrender, watching bemusedly as his friend resumed her pacing, Pan following her route back and forth along the back of the couch. “She thinks I’ve been lying the whole time, and she waited until the day before break to send this invitation, when she knows that campus is emptying out and I’ll have no way to find someone that matches all the things I’ve told her, and I’ll be forced to go home alone and then she’ll ‘forget’ that she invited stupid what’s-his-name over for Christmas dinner and sit us right under the mistletoe ooh that woman is absolutely - .”
“What have you told her anyway?” Will interrupted, if only to stop the frantic pace Lyra’s words were coming at.
She shrugged, pausing her pacing for a moment. “I kept it as vague as I could: she thinks he’s in our year, studying medicine, because she’d think that’s ‘respectable’, works on campus, and likes animals.”
Will couldn’t help but laugh “And she let you leave it at that? That’s the most basic profile I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, keeping my phone calls with her at ten minutes or less does help to limit her probing questions.” Lyra sniffed.
“I get that, it’s just…wow.” Will leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he read through the email again. “It can’t be that hard to find someone who fits all those points. I mean with that little information, you might as well have told her you’re dating me.”
“Oh ha-ha, very funny.” she replied, rolling her eyes. “You know, most people would try to help their best friend when they’re having a personal crisis….” her voice faded out and when Will glanced up from the laptop screen, he found her standing still and looking at him with his least favorite Lyra expression.
It was the expression she’d had when she convinced him to climb up to the roof of the fine arts building to watch a meteor shower last May and gotten them caught by campus security. The same expression as when she’d promised no one would see them sneak into a second movie, and instead they’d been kicked out and banned from the cinema for 6 months. It was a ‘danger, Will Parry!’ kind of expression, and whatever Lyra had planned this time he wanted nothing to do with it.
“No.” the word left his mouth before Lyra had finished opening hers.
Her face fell. “You don’t even know what I was going to say!”
“And I don’t need to – I know that look.” Will checked his watch as he dropped back against the cushions, only to straighten up immediately after seeing the time. “And we only have 15 minutes before Dr. Malone’s class anyway. Grab your stuff,” he reached out to close the laptop and pack it into Lyra’s bag. “we’ll deal with your ‘personal crisis’ later”.
Before he could close the bag, Lyra’s hand grabbed his arm. “Please Will,” she began, her voice softer as he turned towards her and saw her face had dropped into a pout (his second least favorite Lyra expression, but a very effective one nonetheless). “At least hear me out”.
“Fine.” He sighed, wondering for perhaps the millionth time when he was going to stop being such a pushover for this girl. “Go ahead”.
Lyra’s face broke into a wide grin as she realized her victory. “Okay. Answer one question,” she began as she stepped around the coffee table to stand directly in front of Will. “and you might save my entire holiday”. Her hand moved slowly down his arm as she lowered herself onto one knee, her other hand reaching up to clasp his between both of hers, ignoring Will’s expression of dawning understanding and incredulity as she gave him the most serious look she could manage. “Will Parry, will you be my Christmas boyfriend?”
“Lyra, the answer’s been no the last four times you’ve asked. What makes you think one more ‘please’ is going to change it?”
Lyra slowed to a stop as she watched Will continue down the path towards the science building, an idea forming in her head. Running slightly to catch up with him, she asked; “What if I offered more than a ‘please’?”
“Wha- no! The answer is no, Lyra.” Will’s eyes narrowed as he glanced sideways at her. “Why, what else would you be offering?”
Hiking her bag further up on her shoulder, Lyra took a moment to think. “I’ll do your dishes for a month.”
Will snorted derisively. “You will not. You’re the one who piles the dishes in the common room sink until I get so annoyed that I wash them.”
“I’ll help you with your physics work” she countered as she hurried through the door he held open for her.
“You do that already.”
“Yes, but what if I stopped.”
“You wouldn’t. You care more about my grades than I do.” Shit. He was right.
Lyra stayed quiet as they entered Dr. Malone’s classroom, briefly considering just replying to her mother’s email saying she had gotten sick and couldn’t come home, before one last stroke of inspiration hit. She smirked and leaned closer to Will as he placed his term paper on Dr. Malone’s desk. “I’ll empty Kirjava’s litter box next year.”
His hand paused and he looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “The whole year?”
“The whole year.” She confirmed smugly as she dropped her paper on top of his. As much as Will loved that cat, her litter box was the one thing he couldn’t stand dealing with. If this didn’t convince him, nothing would.
“I’ll admit,” he began as they settled into their seats near the back of the classroom, “it is tempting.” Lyra grinned, sure she had him. “But not quite tempting enough to deal with your mum for four days straight.”
Lyra felt her mouth drop open. “But -! Will, ple-”
But she was interrupted by Dr. Malone’s arrival. “Good afternoon class!” their professor called as she strode into the room and settled behind her desk, her cheery voice a stark contrast to the drowsy or disinterested students scattered around the room. “I must admit, I’m a little surprised to see so many of you here today after I said you could email me your papers last week, so…. I don’t exactly have anything planned.” Her eyes briefly scanned the room before landing on the projector hanging down from the ceiling with a grin.
“Tell you what,” she began, grabbing a notepad from her desk and quickly scribbling something onto it as she continued “I’m going to pass this attendance sheet around, and I’ll put on a movie, and if you want to leave after you’ve signed – start your break a bit early - you’ll get no judgment from me. I still remember how exhausting the end of term can be” She handed the notepad to a student in the front row with a commiserating smile before turning to fiddle with her laptop.
“Please Will.” Lyra whispered as they watched Dr. Malone pull down the projector screen and load up an old stop motion holiday movie. “It’s not just four days with her you know; it’s four days with me, too!”
Will turned to fix her with a deadpan stare. “Lyra, I already spend more time with you than any one person should.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Keep bugging me about this and I might start to.”
“Fine.” she huffed, shooting him a glare over her shoulder as she leaned forward to grab the notepad from the girl sitting in front of her. “I’m just saying,” she continued, glancing briefly up at him as she signed her name, “it would have been nice to finally introduce you to Roger and Billy.”
Will dropped his head back with a groan. “Lyra…”
“And of course we’d still go see your mum on Christmas Eve.” He sighed as the lights dimmed and cheery cartoon characters started dancing across the projector screen, but it sounded more defeated than annoyed. He reached over to take the notepad, but Lyra held on, forcing him to turn and look her in the eyes. “Please Will, I’m desperate.”
Their stares held for a moment before Will’s dropped “Okay, fine, I’ll do it” he relented, looking as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. “But you owe me so mu-”
He didn’t have the chance to finish before Lyra launched herself at him with an ecstatic shriek, throwing her arms around him and nearly knocking him out of his chair. “Thank you thank you thank you! You are the absolute best, Will Parry; I’m going to make this your best Christmas ever, just you wait and see, I-”
“Miss Belacqua, Mr. Parry.” Dr. Malone’s amused voice interrupted, and Lyra realized suddenly that the movie had been paused and every eye in the room was staring at her and Will. “If you’d rather be our entertainment for the day, by all means come up to the front and we’ll give you our undivided attention.”
Lyra released Will and they both settled back into their seats, Lyra glaring across the classroom at a giggling girl while Will avoided looking at anyone, the tips of his ears turning pink. “Sorry Dr. Malone.” they chorused.
“Good.” Dr. Malone tried to appear disapproving, but glancing over Lyra could see her fighting back a grin. “Back to Jack Frost then.” There was a click, and the movie resumed.
Lyra waited until everyone’s attention was back on the screen before leaning back over and giving Will a sincere smile. “Thank you Will, really. You are not gonna regret this.”
She’d make sure of it.