Given Raf’s inability to move quicker than a snail’s pace, Iris allowed for 30 minutes before they would be ready to head to Aaron’s flat. That was easily enough time for a hot chocolate. No matter what anyone said, Iris would always believe that hot chocolate was the best of the winter beverages, partially because it was the most fabulous drink ever invented, but also because she had a sneaking suspicion her taste buds were that of a child. There wasn’t a single ‘grown-up’ drink or piece of food that Iris liked. Coffee? Disgusting. Olives? Created by the devil. Sprinkles and sugar? The food of the gods.

Iris happily hummed ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Everyday’ under her breath as she poured oat milk into her pan. She gave it a quick stir and turned to get the chocolate powder from her cupboard.

“Hey.”

“AH!” Iris clutched at her chest. She stared with wide eyes at Millie, who happened to be standing right behind her. Millie stared back with equally wide eyes.

“Did I scare you?” She asked, quizzically. Iris nodded emphatically, still trying to catch her breath. “How? I’ve been talking to you since you walked into the room?”

“Didn’t hear you…” Iris managed. “You don’t live here…”

“I was studying with George. Came in here to get some water. I’m glad I caught you though. I’ve been meaning to ask you about something.” Millie sometimes had a very matter-of-fact way of speaking. Often, it was soothing to Iris, who craved a no-nonsense counterpart to her chaotic mode of functioning. This time, it was frightening. “Why haven’t you spoken to Carol yet?”

Iris rolled her eyes. “I have spoken to Carol.”

“Okay. Why haven’t you spoken more than 2 words?” Iris pulled at the sleeves of her cardigan. It was a common sign that she was struggling to think of an answer. The first time Millie noticed it was within a few weeks of their friendship when Iris was tasked with smuggling alcohol into a concert – when asked what was in her water bottle, she started tugging at her shirt sleeves before frantically replying “Listerine!”.

A faint pink dust settled on Iris’s cheeks.

The start of term…

Iris walked into her first lecture. She’d always been paranoid about being late. As a child, her nightmares started with arriving somewhere late and having everyone watch her as she stumbled through the door. The primary consequence was that Iris tended to arrive at class 15 minutes before the doors opened. There was early, and then there was Iris. Trudging through the door, she expected to be the only person there. Iris stopped short. To her surprise, someone was sat right in the centre of the lecture theatre. She was also the prettiest person Iris had ever seen.

Iris didn’t realise until the previous summer that she liked girls. She always thought girls were more attractive than boys, but had assumed this was how everyone felt. In July, however, she had her first kiss with a girl and, like a thunderclap, she suddenly understood that kissing was not supposed to feel like a boring experience with a soggy balloon. But if there were any doubts left about her sexuality, this girl blew them away.

Iris wasn’t sure how long she stood there, eyes stuck on the mystery girl’s hair, bag, nails, everything, before the girl looked up, smiled and spoke.

“Hi!” She had an accent similar to German. Austrian? Was that an attractive accent? Iris didn’t know if she’d always thought it was or if it was just this girl’s voice. “I’m Carol. Are you terrified of being late too?”

The last question was said with a laugh. Iris wanted to speak back but she wasn’t sure she knew any words anymore. Except ‘Carol’. The name played over and over in her head, as she squeaked out a ‘yes’ before running up the stairs to the back of the hall and burying her head in her hands.

2 weeks later…

Iris had been looking forward to this party all week. She loved a good theme that she could throw all her creative energy into. Her new friend Millie was an Erasmus student and fittingly themed her birthday on European icons. As an avid Eurovision watcher, Iris was very excited to debut her look as Conchita Wurst, the greatest singer to ever exist. She’d gone all out for this – long sparkly dress, perfectly styled hair, glorious mustache. But upon arriving, Iris quickly realised she’d maybe gone too far. She was surrounded by people in Ronaldo shirts or berets. Her floor-length dress and heels were sticking out like a sore thumb.

Taking a deep breath, Iris steadied herself. It would be fine. She would say hi to Millie and then drink until she no longer cared about looking as extra as she currently did. Before she took another step, she heard a slightly German, possibly Austrian accent.

“Conchita! I love her!”

Iris turned slowly to see Carol, dressed in a homemade Verka Serduchka costume. By some either sick or brilliant twist of fate, Iris seemed to have all her lectures with Carol. She couldn’t seem to escape her, but she also couldn’t seem to say more than one word per lecture to the girl either.

“Verka! Great!” Iris forces out, both hands coming up to form finger guns. Carol laughed. Iris hadn’t been able to get her laugh out of her head. She wasn’t sure she could cope with another week of being haunted by Carol’s laugh, so she turned unsteadily on her heels and hurried towards the kitchen. Finding a cup for her drinks, Iris screamed quietly, overjoyed that she had said two words to Carol.

Last week…

Iris loved working in a bookstore. Long hours, short hours – it didn’t matter, Iris didn’t care as long as she was surrounded by books. Today she was on the till. This was one of her favourite tasks at the shop. She found it so satisfying to see what people were buying, thinking about their reactions when it was something she’d already read, making a mental note to read it if she hadn’t.

Iris was in the middle of a sale when Carol walked in. She felt the breath get knocked out of her like a punch to the gut. Carol moved around the shop, picking up books here and there, and reading their blurbs. Eventually, she came up to the till with a copy of Adam Kay’s The Night Shift Before Christmas.

“Bag?” Iris asked.

“No, I’m okay, thank you. Have you read this?” Carol was smiling and already tapping her card on the machine. Iris nodded. “What did you think?”

“Good.” It’s not a glowing recommendation and definitely not what Adam Kay deserves but it’s the only word Iris could think of.

“Brilliant! Thanks, I’ll see you around.” Carol took her book and left.

Now…

Millie gently took hold of Iris’s shoulders. “Iris. Carol is awesome. You are awesome. You would work so well together if you could just start talking!” The last six words were said to the ceiling, as Millie tipped her head back and scrunched up her face, faking pain.

“Would we though?” The question brought Millie’s head straight back, her eyes boring into Iris. “Maybe we would work, but maybe we won’t. I don’t actually know her, she probably has no clue who I am and I’ve never been able to make a relationship work, even when I knew someone for years before dating them so does this really stand a chance?”

Millie leveled Iris with a disappointed look. “You’ve only dated men before and you’re a lesbian. Of course it didn’t work.”

“You know what I mean!”

Millie sighed, “Yes, I do. But I know you and I know her and I think you two suit each other. Now, you could either trust me and give it a go, or you could sit in your room until it’s too late, regretting that you never tried. I know what I would pick…”

With that, Millie left the room, and Iris’s pan of oat milk boiled over.

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