Lydia’s painting Lizzie’s nails when it happens. They’re both stuffed full of ice cream, still half-watching the movie but mostly just soaking up the quiet and the calm; Charlotte’s driven back to her apartment looking for a bottle of wine, and Lydia’s brow is wrinkled in concentration, her head bent low over Lizzie’s hand, tongue poking into the side of her mouth as she places another careful, tiny stroke to the ring finger.
“You’ve got really bad nails,” she mutters, half to herself, and then squeaks when Lizzie kicks her in the leg. “No! Not like that!”
“Like what, then?” Lizzie asks, sounding unconvinced.
“Like… Okay, listen, they’re good nails,” Lydia hurries on. “They’re just short! There’s nothing to paint!”
“It’s practical, Lydia.” Lydia rolls her eyes. “Don’t give me that, you know what I mean, what if I need to go – play tennis, or… I don’t know, rock climbing? Long nails just break all the time.”
“So?” Lydia shrugs. “Just be careful. And don’t go rock climbing, duh.”
Lizzie laughs quietly. “Okay, so that was a reach.”
Lydia huffs out a laugh in response, and falls quiet again, concentrating on Lizzie’s pinkie finger now, determined to get the paint completely even. As she works, she becomes aware again of the movie still playing; Robert Downey Junior is strapped into his rocket suit, speeding towards the sky as the world’s about to end. He’s crying, and there’s heroic music playing – Lydia vaguely remembers going to see this with Mary last summer, but the details are fuzzy – and now he’s trying to call his girlfriend, but she won’t pick up, and Lydia… Lydia can’t breathe.
“Lydia?” Lizzie’s voice is quiet, concerned; she’s noticed something in her sister’s stillness.
Lydia takes a harsh breath in. “Nothing,” she forces out. “Dumb movie, right?”
“It’s entertaining,” Lizzie shrugs. “And everyone’s really hot.”
“Whatever,” Lydia snorts. “They’re just trying to make us care about some dumb girlfriend that won’t pick up the phone even though he really needs to talk to her, I wanna see Captain America kick more alien ass –“
Lizzie’s hand covers hers, and Lydia closes her eyes; dimly, she’s aware of the movie being muted.
“He just needs to hear her voice,” she says into the silence, almost shocked to hear how quiet and thin her voice sounds. “And she doesn’t even know, all she knows is he’s in trouble but she doesn’t know he needs to talk to her.”
Her heart is beating painfully loudly in her chest; she can feel every rib reverberate with it, like she’s only made of so much egg shell about to crack into a million pieces.
“We know who took the site down,” Lizzie says, her voice low, gentle. “Lydia?”
“Yeah,” she says, swallowing back something that might be a hiccup. “God, I know, it’s pathetic, I just – “
“Hey.” Lydia looks up; Lizzie is staring at her, eyes wide and hand gripping hers tightly now. “No it’s not.”
“It’s been six weeks, Lizzie,” Lydia says, hating the way her voice trembles over It. “We were never… It was barely that long. So, yeah, pathetic, I need to – god, I need to – “
She pulls herself free; stands up abruptly.
Lydia checks her watch. “Midnight,” she says, with a small smile. Forty-five. “Happy birthday. You should call Darce again, it’s… What’s your masters in?”
“Mass Communications -”
“So communicate,” Lydia finishes, with a weak grin. “It’s – yeah.”
“You don’t have to go,” Lizzie says quickly, seeing Lydia start for the stairs. “We can watch another movie, or just talk, Char’s getting something to toast with –“
Lydia shakes her head. “You guys have fun,” she says, hand creeping to the pendant still hanging around her neck. “I’m gonna sleep, I think.”
“That’s the last box…” Lizzie calls, dumping a cardboard box full of plates and bowls in the kitchen doorway and turning back to Lydia, face red and hair coming loose from its ponytail in the heat. “All set?”
“All set,” Lydia nods, hugging her arms to herself and looking around the apartment – her apartment (well, not just her apartment; Mary won’t be driving down till Monday, but Lydia’s got orientation). “Thanks for the help. Both of you!”
“No problem,” Darcy tells her, his hands shoved deep into his pockets; he looks just about as cool and collected as ever, but Lydia heard him swear at the couch when it wouldn’t fit through the hallway, so now she’s got that to use against him for all eternity. “Do you need anything else, can we give you a ride to the store, the library maybe?”
“I’m good,” Lydia assures him. “Really. I’ve got my car, I’ve got maps on my phone, it’s cool. I need to find my own way around, anyway, right?”
“Right,” Lizzie grins. “Wow! My baby sister’s all grown up, moving to college, moving into her first apartment…”
Lydia pulls a face. “Gross. Anyway, you moved into your first apartment like two months ago, back off.”
“Just be thankful mom couldn’t face the drive,” Lizzie teases, her voice taking on the exaggerated Southern lilt she’s perfected over the past year. “Lydia, honey! You should go introduce yourself to your neighbours, maybe there’s a nice, handsome young man just down the hall, wouldn’t that be… Convenient?”Chin on one hand, other hand on hip. Wink, wink.
“Not your best,” Lydia rolls her eyes. “I miss the hat.”
“Me too,” Lizzie admits; an unexpected moment of quiet, there, but welcome all the same. Lydia gives her sister a small smile.
“You could always start the videos again – “
“No! No,” Lizzie laughs. ”That’s not what I meant, I don’t want to go back or anything, I just… Miss it for what it was, you know?”
“Yeah,” Lydia nods, biting her lip. She’s expressed the same sentiment, almost word for word, to her counsellor; when she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable in the heat and the thick air of the unlived-in apartment, her necklace bumps against her collarbone. “I know what you mean.”
There’s a strange, heavy pause; then Darcy clears his throat, checking the time on his tablet. “I need to get back to the office,” he tells Lydia. “Let me know if you need any assistance over the next few days, you’ve got water and power for a start, but if anything comes up…”
“I will,” Lydia smiles. It’s been strange, getting used to being nice to Darcy and having him be perfectly pleasant in return – but oddly comfortable, despite the weirdness. “Thanks.”
Darcy gives her a funny nod, more of an awkward head bop; some things never change. Then he turns to Lizzie. “I’ll see you at home?”
Lydia doesn’t miss the way her sister’s cheeks turn a light shade of pink she’s pretty sure has nothing to do with lifting heavy boxes; she turns away, busying herself with flicking through boxes of bedroom stuff and looking for her throw cushions until Darcy’s said his goodbyes and the apartment door has slammed shut. She gives it five seconds, then turns on Lizzie.
“I’ll see you at home?”
Lizzie flushes even darker. “Lydia...”
“No, mom, don’t be like that, of course I’m getting my own apartment,” Lydia recites from memory, smirking. “I’m independent, mom, I’m moving for my career, not some boy!”
“Oh, god,” Lizzie groans, leaning back against the doorframe and pressing her fingertips against her temples. “It’s not like that. We just – we have dinner together, and then I’m there anyway, and If I’m going to work in the morning it just makes sense to keep a few things there –“
“Uh huh,” Lydia crosses her arms, not buying a word of it. “How many nights have you slept at your place so far this month?”
There’s a short pause as Lizzie counts back. “Six…”
“Darcy staying over because Gigi’s home does not count.”
Lizzie scowls at her. “Two. I guess.”
“Oh my god.”
“When you consider we’re only halfway through the month, that’s really not that bad – “
“Lizzie!” Lydia laughs. “Chill, oh my god. It’s cute. I think it’s cute!” She ducks out of the way when Lizzie swats at her side. “What, I can’t think my sister and her totally-not-committed-relationship- boyfriend-of-five-months are cute?”
Lizzie shakes her head, sighing somewhat dejectedly. “We didn’t want to rush into it,” she huffs. “Separate apartments are really important in the early stages of a relationship –“
“Okay, miss self-help-website,” Lydia smirks. “It’s not like you’re not in the early stages, right? And it’s not a bad thing, you’re just… Passed that point. You matter to each other.”
“Of course we matter –“ Lizzie starts, sounding outraged, but Lydia waves her off.
“No, I know, I know! It’s more than that, though, right? Now? You plan your whole schedule around each other! You keep clothes at his place, he’s just helped your sister move into her apartment, and it’s like – like – “ Lydia shrugs. “I don’t know, settled? Routine?”
“Routine,” Lizzie nods, looking thoughtful. “I guess.”
“You didn’t even notice half-moving in together,” Lydia laughs, seeing the way Lizzie’s eyes soften at the thought; her sister’s happiness is almost annoyingly infectious, and she feels it sink through her like warm butter. She’s happy for Lizzie, and if Lydia doesn’t probe that emotion too forcefully then it really is that simple. “I guess Darcy is… He makes you not think about how you’re supposed to act in a relationship.”
Lizzie lets out a slow breath, and laughs a bit shakily. “When did you get to be the expert?”
“Please,” Lydia snorts. “You mess up, you get smarter.”
She blinks quickly, lifts one hand to press thumb and forefingers to the hollow beneath her collarbone; her wrist catches against the pendant. A hundred and ninety six days…Four days short of two hundred. Four days since she got drunk and dialled his still-unchanged number, just to hear the voicemail message. Healthy, Lydia.
“Lydia…” Lizzie sounds worried; Lydia stares at the carpet, biting back the solitary tear that’s threatening to prick against the back of her left eye.
“Whatever,” Lydia shrugs forcefully, conjuring up a blithe smile; they come harder these days, but she can still turn it on at a moment’s notice. “I was the boy expert in high school compared to your sad perpetual-singleness, you really think I’d pass on the chance to hand out the advice?”
There’s a slightly sticky pause as Lizzie clearly struggles with Lydia’s joking tone and Lydia tries to will her sister into matching it.
“Please, no more lists,” Lizzie laughs, finally. Then: “Come on. Lunch on me?”
“Deal,” Lydia smiles, bumping her shoulder against Lizzie’s on her way into the hallway; it’s as close as she’ll come to acknowledging what they almost talked about, at least for today. “Let me get my keys… Oh my god, can you believe I get my own keys?”
“Lydia?” There’s a gentle knock at her bedroom door, to accompany the gentle voice. “Can I come in?”
Lydia sits up, runs a hand over her face. She feels oddly like she’s been crying and like it shows, even though her eyes are dry; there’s nothing in particular that’s upset her, except for some stupid impulse to scroll back through the photos of 2013 on her phone; she’d got as far back as January, and then it had hit her, the three hundred and fifteen days; she doesn’t keep count, not anymore, not in a long time, but the number still comes unbidden to the tip of her tongue with only a few worn-out calculations.
And even if she hasn’t needed to cry, her bed is warm, and her room is quiet, and the rest of the house is loud and unrelentingly festive; she’s needed to retreat, just for a few minutes.
Still, she quickly combs her bangs out of her face, and tries to straighten the pillows before calling out a chipper “Sure!”
The door creaks open, and Jane takes a few small steps into the room, looking worn-out from the drive; she’s spent the last week of work at a conference in Portland, so it apparently made the most sense to come straight home. “Lyddie?”
“You haven’t called me that since I was ten,” Lydia laughs, then jumps up. “Jane!”
They collapse into a hug, all laughter and garbled sentences and sprawling limbs; Lydia presses her face into the (fake, if she knows Jane even a little bit) fur collar of Jane’s coat, and doesn’t let go for a long time. She’s missed her.
“Bing says hi, and merry Christmas,” Jane says, when they eventually detach from each other and are sitting side-by-side of Lydia’s bed. “He’s looking forward to seeing you after Christmas!”
They’ve agreed between the three of them, no boyfriends before the 27th this year, although Lydia felt slightly superfluous to the decision – Lizzie and Jane had wanted her input though, and in the end they all agreed without much need for discussion. And there’s an unspoken acknowledgement hanging in the balance of this decision: next year, things won’t be the same. This Christmas might be the last one they all celebrate in the same home; and after last year, they deserve one good holiday to end the tradition on. Next year, new traditions will be forming, and Lydia’s excited for her older sisters, of course she is, but... She’s glad they asked her what she wanted, this year.
“Of course he’s looking forward to it,” she grins. “You think he’d rather spend time with Caroline than with his perfect girlfriend and her way cooler sisters?”
“Lydia!” Jane admonishes quietly, and Lydia’s almost taken aback by the fervor. “I think you just need to spend some more time with Caroline, she’s really… Really…”
“Tall?” Lydia nudges Jane, and Jane apparently can’t help the laugh that bubbles up.
“No! I mean, yes, she is tall, but she’s also kind, and loving, and she cares about her brother a lot. She protects her family.”
“Right,” Lydia nods, unconvinced. “Protects her baby brother from evil, scheming gold diggers…”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong to think that,” Jane says slowly, brow creasing with the effort of saying something uncharitable. “There were a lot of misunderstandings between us, between all of us. You only really got one version of Caroline. Didn’t we always say, Lizzie sees what Lizzie sees?”
Lydia shrugs her shoulders. “Doesn’t change what she did to you.” There’s an old hurt that Lydia barely dares to give a name to, even now; when she has to think of it at all, she thinks of it like a bruise against her ribcage, pink and tender. If she were to press against it now, a year later, it would knock the word energetic against her spine, cracking every vertebrae, leaving her empty, scrubbed raw. “And, you know. The stuff she said about all of us.”
“I know, Lyddie…” Jane puts an arm around Lydia’s shoulders, comforting, close. “But I’ve put it behind me, and it’d mean a lot to me – and Bing – if you could try and do the same.”
That’s enough to startle Lydia out of her thoughts, and she shoots Jane a sidelong look; Jane blushes under the force of the gaze, and the faint suggestion of a suspicion settles itself against Lydia’s temples. She purses her lips, daring Jane to speak first, but the pause simply stretches on, Lydia fidgeting impatiently, Jane blushing, but still and serene. Glowing.
She opens her mouth to demand an explanation – and then closes it again, suddenly scared. It’s not like Jane will actually confide anything to her, not if she’s waiting for Bing to join them, so they can tell the whole family Something-with-a-capital-S. But Lydia thinks she could probably guess from Jane’s flustered reaction, if she forces a vague denial out of her; and she doesn’t want to know, not yet.
“I’ll send Caroline a happy holidays tweet,” she giggles instead, nudging Jane in the ribs with her elbow. “Okay?”
“That would be so sweet!” Jane nods, clearly surprised that Lydia’s let the weird moment go but not about to argue with her. “Next time you come see me in New York we’ll get dinner with her, how does that sound?”
Lydia shrugs, pulling an exaggerated grimace. “If it means a free dinner…”
“Kidding,” Lydia laughs, then gets to her feet, pulling Jane with her by one hand. “Come on, let’s go annoy mom.”
“Aren’t we a bit old for that?”
“She’s trying to get all her gingerbread trees the same shape, there’s like a billion rejected cookies in the kitchen.”
“Say no more.”
The rest of the day passes in a comfortable haze; the next day, Lizzie comes home, and Lydia is finally presented with her last two birthday presents. Jane gives her a new bottle of perfume and a set of matching notebooks and folders, which seem sweet and useful if a little anticlimactic (although she’s used to that, it’s another curse of the December birthday). When Lizzie hands over an envelope, Lydia swallows a nervous hiccup, and prepares to not act disappointed with a card and gift token.
The return flights to New York, December 15th to 19th, require no pre-decided reaction; Lydia drops the envelope, and pulls Lizzie into a hug, flinging her arms around her. “Lizzie!”
“We’ll be back way before Christmas,” Lizzie laughs. “And you’ve got a whole day to pack.”
“And…” Jane pulls out a third, matching ticket from inside one of Lydia’s new notebooks. “Surprise! I’m coming with you.”
“Oh my god,” Lydia shrieks. “Jane! Oh my god, you guys.”
“We’re having dinner with the Lees on Monday,” Jane tells her, with a slightly mischievous glint to her smile; Lydia just rolls her eyes, and Jane wavers. “If that’s… Okay?”
“Jane!” Lydia laughs. “Yeah, it’s okay, seriously, you guys, this is the best present ever, thank you thank you – oh my god, my Christmas stuff sucks, I’m getting both of you something super nice when we’re in New York, what do you want, Jane? Shoes? I’ll get you shoes!”
“Slow down, Lydia,” Jane giggles, clearly relieved that her plans aren’t causing any major upsets. “You don’t need to get me anything.”
“Yes I do!” Lydia insists, then rounds on Lizzie. “And! I could get you –“ she pauses, smirks. “A nice book?”
Lizzie just pushes her off the couch, but she’s smiling (later that week, Lydia will buy three heart-shaped pendants on silver necklaces; she’ll wear hers under her shirt, in the hollow beneath her collarbones, and every time her fingers go to ghost over the old scars they find it there instead, somehow always seeming warm to the touch). Before long, the three of them are all sitting on the floor, Lizzie leaning her head on Lydia’s shoulder and Jane sitting with an arm slung over their shoulders, all of them talking over each other, planning the vacation and planning outfits – although later Lydia won’t remember a single decision getting made in that conversation; what she’ll remember most of all is the laughter.