It's Kristy's idea. (Of course it is.)
"You should go and have coffee with her, or something," she says on the phone, making it sound more like an order than a suggestion. "She's feeling kind of overwhelmed. Seeing a familiar face would probably help."
"Okay," Charlie says, flipping through his mail. "New York is kind of overwhelming me, too."
It's cold. Mary Anne's hair is tucked up under her hat and the ends of her scarf beat against the front of her coat as she hurries along the sidewalk.
She doesn't know whether to be excited or nervous, and the feeling of in-between is all too familiar to her. New York City has her falling between extremes of anxiety and utter joy, and it's exhausting.
She keeps her head down when she walks, looking up on each corner only to make sure she's headed in the right direction.
She's had coffee with Stacey here before. (Well, hot chocolate. Mary Anne doesn't like coffee.)
Charlie is already inside.
Charlie hasn't seen Mary Anne in a few years. Three years, maybe, except for quick glances of her as they drive past one another in Stoneybrook, or through the window in his old bedroom as she comes and goes on her visits to Kristy.
She hasn't changed much. Her face isn't as round as he remembers, because she's not in that soft, awkward mid-teens phase anymore – she's eighteen and suddenly all grown up, away from home.
All grown up. Charlie tells himself to get over it and stop being so condescending.
Her cheeks are bright with the cold and her eyes are dark and shining. "Hi, Charlie," she says, and her smile still has a hint of shyness about it.
She hasn't changed.
He grins back at her. "Hey, Mary Anne."
Mary Anne has hot chocolate and Charlie has coffee with cream and sugar.
It's a little awkward at first – Mary Anne has never really sat one-on-one with Charlie. But it's as though Kristy is sitting there between them, ordering that they try, because they're both in New York City and they're both still trying to find the beat of their own feet on the ground.
She doesn't ask about California – Kristy has told her a little bit, about how he came home as soon as he'd finished college because California was entirely too close to Patrick; that the little stitches of mending the rips and tears between father and son had been torn open again for some reason or another. (Even Kristy appears a little unsure of the reason, and Charlie has only ever said it's because he wanted to be closer to home, but it has never really been in Mary Anne's nature to pry.)
Talk! Invisible Kristy is as equally demanding as Real Kristy.
"How are you liking New York?" Mary Anne asks, pushing a marshmallow down into her hot chocolate with a spoon.
Charlie hesitates for a minute before he shrugs. "It's kind of – too closed in, for me. I like it okay, though. I like my job."
Mary Anne smiles at him. "I know what you mean."
The conversation is easy, once they get past the awkward niceties that tend to occur between people who haven't seen one another for years.
"Kristy said you're studying literature," Charlie says, folding an empty sugar packet around the tip of his index finger.
Mary Anne smiles, but looks slightly exasperated. "I am. But I'm not completely sure what I'll do with my degree yet. Provided I get it."
"You will," Charlie says.
"I think maybe I'd like to go into publishing," Mary Anne says, rather quickly and breathlessly, like she's still not used to the idea herself. "But I don't know. I change my mind a lot."
Charlie watches her stir through a few spilled grains of sugar with her finger, and realises he's surprised at how unsettled she seems.
"There's nothing wrong with not being sure," he says. "You're only eighteen. You've got plenty of time to change your mind."
She smiles, but it's brief. "Everyone else went off to college so sure."
"Kristy went off to college so sure," Charlie corrected her. "She's not everybody. She's not normal."
Mary Anne laughs, and Charlie makes a mental note to thank Kristy later. It has made him feel more grounded, sitting opposite Mary Anne.
Mary Anne goes to her Monday classes and doesn't feel like she's drowning.
Charlie has reminded her of home, without making her feel guilty about it. She feels like she's spent a weekend in Stoneybrook and she remembers who she is now; has a little pocket of courage tucked away inside her, like she's been recharged.
But there hasn't been any pretence, no reassurances where she has to insist that yes, she loves New York and that yes, she's doing fine, really, without wondering all along if she's telling lies.
Stoneybrook is becoming a challenge as much as it is a haven.
The café with Charlie felt like shelter in a storm.
Charlie leaves a message for Kristy, just to say he and Mary Anne had coffee on Sunday and that it was a good idea, thanks for suggesting it.
Kristy calls him back and smugly says she very rarely has bad ideas.
"Is she all right, though?" she asks, and Charlie can hear the frown of concern she's wearing. "New York isn't freaking her out, is it?"
"She seems fine," Charlie says. "She's been here a while, Kristy."
"Exactly," Kristy says. "She should be enjoying it more, now that it's not so new. Right?"
Charlie just rolls his eyes. He thinks Kristy misses having to worry about Mary Anne. "She's fine," he says firmly, though he later admits to himself that he doesn't really know.
He plays back old messages on his machine until he finds one where Kristy left Mary Anne's number for him.
He writes it down on the back of an old train ticket (to Stoneybrook, which seems ridiculously appropriate) and slips it into his wallet.
Mary Anne is more nervous the second time she goes to meet Charlie. He has suggested the same café, and she was quite content to agree, considering the quality of the hot chocolate and the fact that it's a little out of the way, so nobody from class should be there.
She's early, but she's got a satchel full of notebooks and novels to keep her busy while she waits. She sits a few books in the seat opposite her so nobody will take it. She leafs through her lecture notes and wonders what topics of conversation she and Charlie will cover now they're all "caught up" on one another.
The chair opposite her scrapes out, and she jumps and looks up, mouth already open to protest that the chair stay where it is.
Charlie looks down at the books and then asks, "Are you saving this seat for Mr. Darcy?"
Mary Anne holds her hands out expectantly and he places the books carefully into her grasp.
"I'm surprised you know who Mr. Darcy is," she says, smiling at him.
He grins and pulls his scarf off. "Please. Girls talk about that guy constantly, of course I know who he is."
Mary Anne sets Jane Austen aside and closes her notebook. "I haven't ordered anything."
"Hot chocolate?" he asks, and she nods, already feeling more at ease.
It's a relief to be able to have a conversation with someone like Mary Anne. She doesn't throw questions Charlie doesn't want to answer. She doesn't require him to be on.
He can see now why she and Kristy make such a formidable team. He can see now how there were so many successes for Kristy, even at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, with someone as balanced and calm and understanding as Mary Anne is, right by her side.
She seems content to simply sit opposite him in a crowded little café, hot chocolate cupped in her hands, hair still damp from the January air outside.
It's at times like this Charlie realises what a strain it is, trying to make it seem like the move from California to New York was really nothing more than wanting to be closer to home.
Mary Anne finds herself relying on her weekend meetings with Charlie in the café. They don't always talk much – sometimes he sits and grades papers and she reads one of her books for class.
Sometimes she catches him watching her over the edge of the sports section of his newspaper.
Sometimes he catches her watching him, and she always blushes, which prompts him to smile.
She looks forward to seeing him, because she can be herself and not be herself. He doesn't have the same expectations of her that Kristy does, but he still knows what is at the basic core of her; he still knows what sort of person she really is without expecting her to fill some sort of role.
She can remember trips across Stoneybrook in the back of the Junk Bucket (God rest her soul), with Charlie driving, never showing a moment's impatience at the giggling or bickering that went on between the teenage girls he was chauffeuring.
Earlier than that, she can remember camp-outs in the back yard on Bradford Court, Kristy's face lit up with a flash-light, Mary Anne pale and trembling, before Charlie and Sam jump out from behind the fence wearing Halloween masks. (She and Kristy both abandoned the tent in the yard and slept inside after that.)
Earlier than that, she can remember Charlie generously spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread for an after-school snack, the house full of kids and empty of adults, homework and text books scattered on tables or dumped at the bottom of flights of stairs.
He has always been there in some capacity – not always in the background, but not really up with the main events of her life, either.
Charlie Thomas. Just there.
Charlie hadn't expected groups of five, six or seven-year olds to be so into Valentine's Day, but the school is decorated with paper hearts and pink and red. The girls have caught onto Romance for the first time in their lives, and the boys are properly terrified.
Charlie has to tell three of the girls in his class to stop chasing the boys around, trying to score kisses. He sets them up for an exhausting game of kickball, hoping to wear them out and distract them from trying to find their One True Love.
But he calls Mary Anne later that night to laugh about it.
"That's so cute," she says, and then she starts to reminisce about the Valentine's Day events the Baby-sitters Club had held, years before. (She, like Kristy, holds memories of the Club with an air of nostalgia and fondness, rather than embarrassment, which Charlie kind of likes.)
"I don't like Valentine's Day," Mary Anne says, which surprises Charlie. To him, Valentine's Day seems like one of those things Mary Anne should love.
"It's so over the top," Mary Anne says. "Like couples are all out to prove to one another which of them has the strongest love. I just don't think you can prove love by putting it on display like that. Sometimes love can be quiet."
Charlie clucks his tongue. "Better cancel all those flowers, chocolates and teddy bears I've got comin' to you then, huh?"
He can hear her grimace, and he laughs, cutting the joke off before it can grow into something awkward. "Night, Mary Anne," he says.
His hand rests on the receiver long after he's hung up the phone, silence settling around him.
"You work too hard," Charlie tells her one rainy Saturday.
"Everybody says that," Mary Anne answers, weary of having to defend her choice to pursue books and study over liquor and boys.
She knows she's probably missing out on something she won't be able to get again once college is over. She's been told by practically everyone – except her father – that replacing a few nights of study with some drinks and dancing is what college is really about.
"I don't mean take tonight off and spend a few hours drinking yourself into a drunken stupor," Charlie says. He pauses, and adds, "Though that would be amusing to see."
Mary Anne can't help but smile. She straightens up and stretches her arms over her head. "I don't like alcohol," she says.
"You're just not drinking the right stuff."
"That's what Kristy said!" Mary Anne cries.
Charlie's eyes bulge. "Kristy doesn't drink," he says firmly. "She's under 21."
Mary Anne shrieks with laughter, and then turns red when people at nearby tables turn to look at her. She covers her face with her hands and listens to Charlie laughing at her.
Charlie can't remember how it started. (Something small – so small, which blew up into something so ridiculously big.)
He and Mary Anne haven't spoken for four days and it's making him restless. Work gives him a headache. He can't sleep. He has things he wants to say to her – stupid things about his classes, about something he read in the paper, about the novel she was reading for class last week.
He can't remember what he said to her, but he knows it stung. She ended their argument by calling him pig-headed and storming out of the café, which hurt as much as it made him angry.
All those times Kristy and Mary Anne fought growing up, he blamed Kristy. (Mary Anne seems too sweet, too quiet, too shy to really fight with anyone.)
But Mary Anne has hidden blades. She's fierce and stubborn and this time she's fired all her frustration and stress right at Charlie.
He lays awake, hating the feeling of loss he has. Surprised by it.
Mary Anne has always hated fighting. And she can't even remember how this one started. Part of her blames college – it's shaping her into someone a little sharper, a little more sarcastic. She hasn't really hated these changes, until now.
To fight with Charlie. Of all people. (Though, he's so like Kristy in a lot of ways, and Mary Anne has definitely had her fair share of arguments with Kristy.)
She writes letters of apology that end up shredded into pieces. Half-dials his number.
She wants to call Kristy and talk about it, but can't bring herself to do it.
Charlie waits outside the café. The sun is out, but the air is still cold. He keeps his hands in the pockets of his jacket and looks along the sidewalk until he finally sees her, walking quickly, head down.
She slows when she sees him. "Hi," she says softly.
"Sorry," he blurts.
She looks relieved. "Me too."
He nods and swallows. "And I'm sorry it took me a week to apologise."
She smiles at him. "I'm sorry, too."
He shrugs. "Forget it?"
She nods, and then looks him up and down. "Why are you waiting outside?"
"Oh," he says. "I wanted to give you a chance to see me and turn back, if you didn't want to talk to me. But I wanted to see you, and I thought maybe you'd just head here today..."
She looks at him for a long moment, the smile still lingering on her face.
She lifts her head when he bends to kiss her, his mouth just pressing lightly against hers, and suddenly everything makes a lot of damn sense.
They don't tell anyone. Mary Anne knows at some point they have to tell Kristy, but they're both putting it off.
Charlie is scared Kristy will actually kill him.
"With a baseball bat," Mary Anne says solemnly.
He shudders, but grins.
Deep down, Mary Anne is worried. She doesn't like keeping secrets from Kristy, and Charlie is something she wants to talk about. She's just not sure Kristy will react well to the news.
She calls Dawn. "You have to swear you won't breathe a word of this conversation to anyone," Mary Anne says sternly.
"I won't," Dawn breathes excitedly. "Now tell me."
"I... um..." Mary Anne frowns as she realises she hasn't thought the conversation through. "I've kissed Charlie," she says.
"Who?" Dawn asks. There's a beat. "Charlie Thomas?"
"A few times," Mary Anne says. She can feel herself going red, but she's grinning.
Dawn thinks carefully, and then starts firing questions. "Does Kristy know?"
"Is it weird? With Charlie?"
"Not really," Mary Anne says truthfully. "I don't know. We've been meeting each weekend, for weeks and weeks – and we talk about everything. It just kind of happened."
"Is it good?" Dawn asks curiously. "Is he a good kisser?"
"Yes," Mary Anne says, and she's so embarrassed and nervous she starts to laugh. She leans her back against the wall. "Dawn," she groans, "what am I going to tell Kristy?"
"Are you and Charlie a serious thing?" Dawn asks. "If you're just going to kiss a few times and then move on, you probably don't have to tell Kristy anything."
"Really?" Mary Anne asks, exasperated. "You know me better than that."
"Sorry," Dawn says. "It's just – you've kind of blown me away here, Mary Anne."
"Do you think... I mean..." Mary Anne swallows, hard. "What do you think?"
Of all people, Dawn is probably the worst person to ask when it comes to love advice. She seems to assign philosophies and tag-lines to love and relationships all the time, all the while insisting love can't be labelled.
But she surprises Mary Anne, this time. She doesn't spring forth with speeches about love being free; she doesn't challenge the idea of soul mates or monogamy, or start listing the ways society grips so firmly to outdated ideas.
She says, "Who cares what I think? So long as you're happy, Mary Anne."
Charlie watches Mary Anne's stress levels rise as time suddenly delivers mid-terms at her feet.
"You have nothing to worry about," he tells her, trying to help her sort her lecture notes into piles and categories on their tiny table in the café. "You're the second-most organised person I know – and if I didn't know Kristy, you'd definitely be in first."
"I just can't get any peace," Mary Anne says, and Charlie can see dark shadows under her eyes. "I've got so many things due at the end of this week." She looks up at him desperately. "How does everyone else have the time to get all this done and party every night?"
"They don't," Charlie assures her. "They'll start crashing and burning any day now."
Mary Anne winces.
He turns to the waitress and asks to get their order changed to go.
Mary Anne only protests slightly as he bundles her papers together again and leads her out into the weak sunlight, cardboard cups and books in their hands.
She cheers up a little once she's out in the fresh air, but still keeps to a conversation that focuses on her workload.
"You're worrying too much," he tells her again. He puts his arm around her and she leans her head against the hollow of his shoulder.
"Maybe," she sighs.
Mary Anne has no idea where they're walking to. She just follows Charlie. (It's different with him out in the open, away from the closed-in intimacy of the café and the feeling of other people watching.)
When it clouds over and starts to drizzle soft rain, he takes her hand and says they're near his place, did she want to come up?
"You can finish your paper," he says.
"Okay," Mary Anne says cautiously.
It's not that she doesn't trust him. He's one of the people she trusts most – always has been. The problem is suddenly trusting herself.
Mary Anne kisses him properly on his living room floor. This isn't one of those chaste hello or goodbye kisses, or one of the fond little kisses she gives him when he says something funny or kind. (Not that he dislikes those kisses at all.)
This is warm, open mouth, tongue.
She stops him after a while – gently pushes his hand away from where it was beginning to sneak up under her shirt, and says, "You lured me up here by saying I could get some work done."
"I didn't 'lure' you up here," he says, grinning down at her. Her hair is spread across his carpet. "I remember you saying something about Jane Austen's heroines getting caught in the rain on purpose, just to spend the night with an eligible bachelor."
"It's nice to know you listen," she says drowsily. "But you think too much of yourself."
He brushes his mouth over hers again. "If I'd known you could kiss like that I would've led you out into the rain sooner." He smirks at her. "And you act so innocent."
She widens her eyes slightly.
"Not sure where you learned to kiss like that," he says, putting a stern tone into his voice.
"BSC slumber parties," she says, not missing a beat. "I practised on your sister."
He still hasn't forgiven her by dinner time.
It's Spring Break. Mary Anne has two whole weeks of freedom in front of her. It's almost dizzying.
Dawn is coming to visit (she missed Christmas, and promised Sharon she'd fly out whenever she got the chance – which means she has to sacrifice Spring Break on the coast for Spring Break in Stoneybrook).
Mary Anne secretly can't wait to get back to Stoneybrook. It's been several long weeks since her last proper visit. But –
"Kristy's coming to visit," Charlie blurts, looking panicked.
"Oh," Mary Anne says. The smile on her face fades almost as quickly as it arrived, and anxiety seats itself firmly in her stomach.
"What do we do?" Charlie asks.
Mary Anne bites her lip and shrugs. "Tell her the truth, I guess," she says. "It's about time, isn't it?"
Charlie rests his head down on the table between them. "She's going to kill me."
Mary Anne goes back to Stoneybrook, leaving Charlie in the city alone. It feels less like home without her there, and he begins to think about heading back to Stoneybrook for a couple of days himself – but he resists.
His mother leaves a message on his answering machine, and the noise of the Thomas-Brewer house in the background, while not as loud as it used to be, makes him feel homesick.
He calls back and David Michael answers the phone.
"Hey, beanpole," Charlie says. "How's school?"
"Duh," David Michael says. "I'm on break!"
"Duh!" Charlie says. "Me too." He leans back on his couch and props his feet up on the coffee table.
David Michael challenges him. "They gave us homework. Teachers suck."
"I didn't give my kids homework," Charlie says.
"You should move back here and teach me," David Michael says.
Dawn barricades the door to Mary Anne's bedroom at the earliest opportunity. "Tell me everything," she says. "Does Kristy know yet?"
"Not yet," Mary Anne says. "She's coming to New York next week, to see Charlie – and me, I guess."
Dawn's eyes widen. "Are you going to tell her then? Together?"
"I don't know," Mary Anne says anxiously. "Do you think she'll be mad?"
Dawn thinks for a moment. "I don't know," she says honestly. She gives Mary Anne a sunny grin. "I think it's great." She grabs Mary Anne's pillow and hugs it to her chest. "Has he changed much? I haven't seen Charlie in ages."
Mary Anne shrugs, feeling self-conscious. "He hasn't changed much."
"Have you always liked him?" Dawn asks curiously.
"Of course I – well, not like this," Mary Anne says. "I don't know, Dawn. This just makes sense." She looks down at her hands, not sure how to explain things. "It all happened kind of slowly. It's not like there was this sudden spark, or anything."
"I think that's nice, though," Dawn says dreamily. "Sparks are so cliché."
Elizabeth's reaction is to pause for a few long, long seconds, and then laugh and say, "I didn't see that coming."
"I know," Charlie groans, rubbing his hand over his face. He tugs lightly on the phone cord. His heart is beating heavily in his chest.
"It's just strange to think of her – of you both – in a new role," his mother explains. "She's always just been Mary Anne Spier, and now –"
"Mom," Charlie begs, "don't."
"Sorry," Elizabeth says, and then she laughs again. "Oh, honey. I love Mary Anne. I'm just a bit surprised, that's all."
"I'm gonna have to tell Kristy when I see her on Saturday," Charlie says in a rush. The relief of his mother's support is overwhelmed by his sudden nervousness. "I don't know how she'll react."
"Neither do I," Elizabeth says honestly. "She loves you both. It'll be hard for her to get used to this."
Charlie thumbs the phone cord. "We've both said if she's not happy about it we'll... You know. Not." He clears his throat. His heart sinks at the thought. (There's still a tiny part of him so surprised by all of this; surprised by the ache of disappointment in his chest at the thought of not being with Mary Anne.)
"I'm sure it won't come to that," Elizabeth says comfortingly. "I'm sure you and Mary Anne have both talked about Kristy's feelings a lot. Neither of you would ever want to hurt her. And she knows that, too. I'm sure it'll be okay."
Her voice softens, and when she speaks again it's with an edge of desperation. "But Charlie, be careful," she says. "I don't want any of you to be hurt."
"I definitely think you should tell her," Charlie says, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "She won't punch you."
"She won't punch you, either," Mary Anne says.
"Oh, she will," Charlie says confidently. "She totally will."
Mary Anne jumps as the buzzer by the front door sounds.
"That's her," Charlie says, nervously knocking his fist against his palm.
"Well let her up!" Mary Anne says, pushing him. "Honestly, you need to calm down."
"I'm thinking about running away down the fire escape," he confesses, before he buzzes Kristy up into the apartment.
She comes in carrying a duffel bag, a wide grin on her face. "You're here too!" she exclaims, throwing her bag on the floor.
"Uh-huh," Mary Anne says. Her throat is dry.
Kristy throws her arms around Mary Anne and squeezes her tightly. "You still look terrified," she jokes. "I thought you'd be used to New York by now?"
Mary Anne offers a weak laugh, but squeezes Kristy tightly. There's a lump in her throat as she thinks about what might happen if Kristy reacts badly to the idea of her brother and her best friend dating.
"Your directions sucked," Kristy tells Charlie. She punches his arm lightly and then quickly throws her arms around him, too.
"I told him to go and meet you at the station," Mary Anne says, shooting Charlie an annoyed look.
He grins sheepishly.
"I'm really hungry," Kristy says, stepping back and glancing between the two of them. She hesitates and tilts her head, looking at Mary Anne. "What's wrong?"
Mary Anne can't help it – tears well up and she starts to cry.
"Oh," Charlie says in dismay.
Kristy looks worried. She sinks onto the couch and pulls Mary Anne down beside her. "What's happened?" she asks frantically.
"No, nothing," Mary Anne croaks. She wipes her eyes on the back of her hand and looks up at Charlie.
He looks worried, too. "Kristy..."
She looks up at him, clearly waiting for an explanation, but falters when she sees the nervous look on Charlie's face.
Mary Anne clings to Kristy's hand, silently willing her not to hate them. She's suddenly wondering why on earth she and Charlie ever embarked down this road together anyway, with Kristy so between them.
She leans her head against Kristy's shoulder.
"Mary Anne and I..." Charlie eases himself gingerly into a sagging armchair. "We're kind of..."
Mary Anne sniffs and wipes away another swell of tears. "Dating," she says.
She watches Kristy's face carefully. Her expression is frozen for a long moment, but then her smile fades.
"Are you serious?" she asks finally. She looks at Charlie angrily. "She's my best friend!" she says incredulously. "And gross, Mary Anne! He's my brother!"
"Hey," Charlie says. "I'm a prize catch."
"I know you're mad," Mary Anne says, and she's almost trembling. Her voice cracks. "We know it's kind of..."
"Weird?" Charlie offers.
"Oh," Kristy says in disgust. "Don't start finishing each other's sentences. Seriously?" She folds her arms and glances from one to the other. "Really?" she asks. "You're not joking, are you?" She narrows her eyes at Charlie.
"My jokes are better than this," he says.
Kristy sighs and rubs her face, staring sullenly at the floor. "I knew it was a bad idea to have you two meeting up so often," she grumbles. "I knew you'd be talking about me."
"We don't, really," Mary Anne says, hoping it'll cheer Kristy up again.
Her brows twitch. "That's even worse," she mutters.
"Oh, stop sulking," Charlie says. "I'll fix you something to eat." He escapes to the kitchen.
Mary Anne squeezes Kristy's hand. "Are you mad?" she asks timidly.
Kristy looks mad, but she gives a sigh of resignation. "I don't know," she admits finally. "I'm kind of..." She frowns. "I need to think about this."
Mary Anne wonders how much information is too much. "We just work," she says softly. "It's like we were friends first... but not even that, really. Just... We just understand each other, I guess."
"Oh, gross," Kristy says. But she leans her head against Mary Anne's shoulder. "You'd better stay together," she mumbles finally. "I'm not going to be able to deal with two broken hearts."
"I need to take a shower," Kristy says, escaping into the bathroom. She yells orders through the closed door. "Don't you dare start making out in there!"
"She's okay," Charlie says to Mary Anne. He feels exhausted.
Mary Anne buries her face against his neck, warm and close. They sit together on the couch for a moment, quietly.
When the water shuts off, Mary Anne pulls away from him slowly.
By the time Kristy emerges again, eyeing them suspiciously, they're at opposite ends of the couch.
Every now and then, Richard has meetings in New York. He and Mary Anne always have lunch on these days and, despite it being such a new tradition, Mary Anne looks forward to them with an odd feeling of nostalgia.
"You're very quiet today," he says to her across the table.
"Am I?" Mary Anne asks. She smiles at him. "Sorry."
"Is anything wrong?"
"No." Mary Anne straightens her fork on the napkin beside her plate. "How's Tigger, Dad?"
Richard chuckles. "Tigger's fine." He drums his fingers lightly on the table. "Sharon has a theory," he says after a moment.
Uh-oh. Mary Anne shifts uncomfortably in her seat.
"She thought you were looking a little..." He clears his throat, but smiles. "Lovesick?" he asks.
Mary Anne gives a nervous laugh that sounds utterly false. She takes a hasty sip of her water. She's never been able to lie to her father – has never wanted to, really – but the thought of discussing boyfriends with him has always been uncomfortable.
Richard doesn't say anything else, but he has an annoyingly-knowing look on his face. He turns to the window and watches a few people walk past. "It's a nice day," he says after a moment.
"It's Charlie Thomas," Mary Anne blurts, her eyes wide. She can feel heat stealing to her face.
She watches his reaction closely. She thinks she can see him pale slightly.
"Well," he says. He sounds flustered, but he gives her a small smile. "You could do a lot worse than Charlie Thomas."
Charlie watches Mary Anne deteriorate into a nervous wreck when finals come around. Circles develop under her eyes and she snaps at him whenever he tries to tell her to relax.
He's not sure if she's always been so highly-strung when it comes to school-work, or if it's something that's developed since starting college. (Or, perhaps, since dating him.)
He finds it tiring, trying to keep up with her ever-changing mood. They have an argument on the sidewalk outside of his apartment building, and she storms away.
Ten minutes later, he follows her, feeling guilty. He doesn't want to add to her stress.
Sometimes he's surprised by how little he knows about her. Sometimes he thinks he can predict her behaviour because he's known her so long, has grown up only slightly ahead of her, has had Thanksgivings and Christmases with her. Just when he thinks he has her pinned – just when he thinks he has the upper hand and he has her personality firmly within his grasp, she slips away into something shadowy and new.
Sometimes he finds it annoying. (And then he gets annoyed with himself, because who is he, really, to determine who Mary Anne Spier should be.)
Mary Anne has already turned back, intent on apologising to Charlie. They stand on opposites sides of the street, waiting for the lights to change, staring at one another miserably.
She's terrified that the threads between them will break, and her life will be forced to change forever. Things with Kristy will change. Things with the whole Thomas family will change, and they've been as much her family as her father is, all her life.
They meet in the middle of the street and Charlie wraps his arms tightly around her before they start to walk back to his place in silence.
"I'm really tired," Mary Anne confesses softly. (Campus has been a noisy mix of stressing students and end-of-year parties. Study and sleep are both difficult.)
"I know," Charlie says.
He tucks her into his bed and she falls asleep holding his hand.
"I just feel like everyone has these expectations," Mary Anne says softly. "And I have expectations of myself, too, and..." She sighs and closes her eyes. "I don't know."
Charlie strokes his thumb gently over the soft slope of her cheek. "I know," he says. "That's normal, Mary Anne."
He doesn't tell her that he has expectations of her, too. That's his fault. Not hers. (She's always proving him wrong, anyhow.)
"Sometimes I still feel so suffocated," she whispers. "Like everyone knows me better than I know myself, and whenever I do something different, I'm being wrong somehow."
"I know how you feel," Charlie whispers back to her.
They're sharing the same pillow. Under the blankets, though the sun hasn't quite set outside.
"Why don't you ever talk about California?" Mary Anne blinks slowly at him.
He can feel stirrings of apprehension swirl within him. He doesn't realise how long it's taken him to answer until Mary Anne speaks again, her fingers spreading slowly against his chest, over his t-shirt.
"You don't have to talk about it," she says, closing her eyes again. "It doesn't matter."
Thinking about California makes him feel wistful, selfish and full of regret, all at once.
He can feel a lump in his throat. "I think Patrick is going to leave Zoey."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because I can just see it." The lump grows bigger and he squeezes his eyes closed, feeling embarrassed. "I've seen it before."
She doesn't say what he has imagined her – anyone – to say. That he was only ten, that he couldn't have seen it the first time, not really; that Zoey and Elizabeth are different and that Zoey must have known, must have known what she was getting into with Patrick and can't suffer the same consequences. This is what he imagines everyone will say to him, if he voices his fears aloud.
Mary Anne gently traces the curve of his ear with her thumb and says, "That must have been terrible."
Charlie nods. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't – I mean, I never saw much of Patrick anyway. Zoey tried for ages to get us in the same room together, but he never really cared and I just... I didn't want to." He frowns, his face against the top of Mary Anne's head.
"I've always been scared that Kristy – and, and you, and Sam and David Michael – would... I don't know. Forgive him, I guess, and that he'd hurt you all, all over again."
"I've always been scared of that too," Charlie confesses.
He wonders if Kristy talks to Mary Anne about Patrick. She never talks about him much to anyone, but now Charlie can't help but wonder what secrets have been confessed to Mary Anne over the years, what she knows about his family – what he hasn't considered she knows.
"Are you sure?" Mary Anne asks after a moment. Her breath is warm against his throat. "Are you sure he's going to leave?"
He's sure. "By the time I came home, he was just... disappearing for days at a time. Driving up and down the coast. He and Zoey – she wanted kids right from the start. I don't know if he ever told her he did, too, but they don't have any and now he's saying it doesn't want them." He can almost taste the bitterness in his voice. "He doesn't want any more kids."
Mary Anne winces and tightens her arms around him. "What a jerk."
Charlie huffs a short laugh against the top of her head. "Yeah."
Mary Anne can't face going back to campus, amongst all the noise and the accusations about where she has been, who she's been with, why won't she just relax and have a drink?
People see her as cold and snobby, and it breaks her heart and makes her retreat further into her shell – which only serves to further the accusations, really.
She doesn't really raise the issue with Charlie. She just stays.
"I'm gonna have to start charging you rent."
Mary Anne smiles sheepishly at him. "Sorry."
He grins and shrugs. "I was kidding."
It's only been a few days. But there's a blue and yellow toothbrush on the bathroom sink – not his – and two dresses hanging in his closet – definitely not his.
Mary Anne's mood has improved with some solid sleep, and her essays and books are spread across Charlie's kitchen table.
He kisses her goodbye in the morning, and hello in the evening.
Mary Anne misses Kristy. They still talk, but it's not the same. There are silences that seem strained, which has never really happened before, and Mary Anne can tell there are questions Kristy is dying to ask, but dares not.
She calls Kristy late one afternoon. Her room on campus is a mess of clothes and half-packed suitcases, books and old essay papers.
"I am so glad the year is over," Kristy says. "I had my last exam this morning."
"I'm packing," Mary Anne says. She pauses. "Trying to."
Kristy laughs. "Ah, plenty of time for that yet."
Mary Anne grips the receiver and leans her forehead against the wall. Downstairs, music has started, thought it's not deafening yet. "Listen, Kristy," she says softly. "You're spending the summer in Stoneybrook, right?"
"Uh-huh," Kristy says. She hesitates. "I guess you're going to be between Stoneybrook and New York... With – with Charlie there, huh?"
"I guess," Mary Anne says cautiously. "We haven't really talked about it. And I'm not sure Dad would – I mean, I don't know what he'd think."
Kristy laughs. "Doesn't he trust Charlie?"
"I don't think he really trusts anyone," Mary Anne says, smiling. She draws a quick, sharp breath, and then says, "I'm sorry it's been so weird."
Kristy sighs. "Me too. But it is weird, Mary Anne. I still don't know if I really like it."
"I know," Mary Anne says softly. She feels like crying.
"Haven't you thought about what would happen if it goes wrong?" Kristy asks desperately.
"Of course we have," Mary Anne says, and her voice cracks. She keeps huddled to the wall, though everyone seems to be downstairs, spilling out onto the path outside. "Kristy, this isn't something we just decided to do. We didn't come into this without talking about it all. About what could happen."
"Yeah," Kristy sighs. "I guess you're both smarter than that."
"Well..." Mary Anne sniffs, still blinking back tears. "Do you want to have lunch together or something next week?"
There's a brief pause. "Monday?" Kristy asks.
Relief overwhelms Mary Anne. "Yeah," she breathes. "Monday's fine."
"I'll meet you at the Rosebud Café," Kristy says. "Don't bring Charlie."
Mary Anne laughs and wipes her eyes. "No boys allowed."
"What time's your dad picking you up?"
"We'll have time for lunch."
Charlie kisses her again, thumbs tracing circles just under the hem of the soft t-shirt Mary Anne wears to bed. "I feel bad," he whispers. "I've never once taken you to dinner."
"You should feel bad about that," Mary Anne says.
He laughs into her neck. "I'll take you on a proper date when you come back," he says. "Don't take too long about it, though."
"I'll be here all the time," Mary Anne promises. She squirms under him. "That tickles."
"What am I going to do all summer?" he asks.
"Poor Charlie," Mary Anne says. "All this free time on your hands."
"It'd be great if you were hanging around," he says. His hand inches higher, flattening out over her ribs. "We could spend all summer doing this."
"You'd get sick of it," Mary Anne mutters. Her fingers twine into his hair.
"Clearly you know nothing about me." His thumb brushes the soft underside of her breast.
"I know you, Charlie Thomas." She smiles up at him, her eyes wide and dark. "You'd wait more than one summer for me."
He nudges the loose neck of her t-shirt aside and grazes his teeth against her bare shoulder. "I really would," he murmurs.
She takes his hands and he knows it's time to stop. He curls around her tightly, his fingers still tracing over her skin, on her arms and over her hip.
She starts to whisper an apology to him and he kisses the back of her neck.
He hasn't said he loves her, but he's pretty certain he does. And, what's better, he thinks she loves him too.
The day is warm, but Mary Anne still orders a hot chocolate. It doesn't feel right, going to the café with Charlie and not having one.
"Mom's demanding that we all have dinner," Charlie says morosely. "My parents, and your dad and Sharon, and you..."
Mary Anne feels a simultaneous thrill of nervousness and happiness. "It wouldn't be anything we haven't done before."
"Except there wouldn't be a whole herd of distracting siblings to hide behind," Charlie warns.
"At least there'd be more food to go around without Sam there," Mary Anne says, grinning at him over the top of her mug.
Charlie laughs and takes her hand across the table. "Dinner with parents means we must be getting serious."
Mary Anne widens her eyes at him. "I guess so." She smiles. "We wouldn't be doing this if we weren't serious."
He strokes the inside of her wrist. "Yeah." He grins at her.
She told Dawn there wasn't any spark, any real sign that this was the right thing to do. But there is the slow fire holding fast in her chest, the burn of his touch on her skin, the warm blood in her cheek when he kisses her.
Sparks aren't what Mary Anne Spier is looking for. Sparks are too short-lived.