Apart from the family and friends she'd had to leave behind, what Maria missed most about England, without question, was the food. Her friends laughed every time she said it, but it was true. America had entirely too many burger joints and almost no chip shops.
"More of the korma, Chrissie?"
"Mmm, no thanks, love. It was good, but I've had enough."
"What about you, Maria? There's another piece of naan over here."
America - or the area immediately surrounding her university, at least - was also sadly lacking in good Indian food, which made tonight's meal one she'd been looking forward to for weeks. The menu at Singh's hadn't changed a bit in the time Maria had been away from England. She reckoned that their takeaway was practically home cooking, what with the number of times she'd had it growing up.
"I don't think I could eat another bite if I tried," Maria said. "That was really good. Thanks for treating us, Robert."
"You're more than welcome. I was a starving uni student once, too, you know."
Robert, of course, was a new addition to curry night. Maria had to admit that compared to some of the blokes her mum had dated after Ivan left, he was a good catch. Maria had only known him for a few days, but so far he'd proven to be reasonably intelligent and kind, and not too crude. He hadn't tried to chat Maria up when Chrissie was out of the room, either, and that alone made him an improvement over the one who'd been the flavor of the month when Maria had visited that summer.
Her mum seemed happy. Maria liked that.
After the leftovers were put away and the washing up was done, Robert ducked away for a moment and returned with a small, brightly wrapped package and a thick envelope. "Since I won't be seeing either of you before Christmas, I thought I'd better bring these with me tonight. This one's for you, Maria," he said, handing her the box.
"You didn't have to buy me something, honestly," Maria said, but she gave her present an experimental shake and grinned when it gave a satisfying rattle. She slid a finger under the seam in the wrapping paper and ripped it off, then lifted the lid to find a pair of silver earrings decorated with pale amethyst beads. "Oh, they're gorgeous!"
"I wasn't sure what you'd like, so I had the girl at the shop suggest something. They're okay?"
"They're perfect," Maria replied. "I love purple. Thank you!"
Chrissie gave Robert a peck on the cheek. "You're sweet," she told him. It was almost cute the way he blushed at that, Maria thought as she watched them. Maybe someday....
Robert cleared his throat and handed Chrissie the envelope with a flourish. "Be that as it may, this, my dear, is for you. Happy Christmas."
Chrissie carefully tore open the envelope and pulled out a folded packet of papers. As she read the first page, her jaw slowly dropped. "Robbie, what is this?"
"You said you've always wanted to try skiing."
"I know, but... Austria? It’s so much."
He shrugged, and Chrissie responded tossing the papers at the table and throwing her arms around his neck. "Thank you, sweetheart," she said, and then she kissed him. Soundly.
Maria was firmly of the opinion that no one should ever have to watch a parent snog a significant other, so she took the opportunity to retrieve the papers from the table and flip through them. Most of the pages were printouts of the reservations Robert had made: alpine ski resort, transportation to and from the airports, tickets for two from Heathrow to Innsbruck leaving on the... no, that couldn't be right.
"Mum?" she said, unsure even as she spoke as to whether it was the right thing to do.
It took a moment, but Chrissie and Robert eventually disentangled themselves. "Maria? What's wrong?" Chrissie asked.
"The tickets. You're leaving on Boxing Day."
"We are?" Chrissie took the packet back from her and looked at it again.
"I wanted it to be a surprise," Robert said. "Booking the holiday when you were already off work was the only way to do it."
Maria nodded. "But the trip is for five days. You're not coming back until the day before I leave."
Robert's brow furrowed. "I thought that would be workable," he said, taking Chrissie's hand in his. "You said that you wanted to spend this week with just you and your daughter, right? That's why we've hardly seen each other these last several days?"
"Well, yes--" Chrissie started to say, but Robert kept talking.
"And Maria, you're a nice girl. I'm sure you had lots of mates in school. Wouldn't you like a chance to spend some time with them?"
So it wasn't a mistake at all. He'd scheduled the trip to overlap with her time in England purposely. Suddenly, Maria regretted every nice thing she'd ever thought about him.
"Oh, sweetheart," Chrissie sighed. She took a step toward Maria, but she didn't drop Robert's hand, and Maria had the horrible realization that she couldn't tell which of the two of them she was talking to. She waited for her mum to say something to fix this, but Chrissie said nothing, and the opportunity was lost.
If Maria pushed the issue - made it clear that it was not acceptable for Robert to invite her mum on a holiday during what was supposed to be their time together - she knew she'd probably get her way. Her mum was a good mother most of the time; she just needed to be reminded on occasion. But the chance for her to step up on her own, without hurting Maria's feelings first, had just passed, and there wasn't much point in all three of them having an unhappy Christmas.
When she was younger, she might have yelled, and she probably would have stomped off to her bedroom to sulk. Maria didn't have a bedroom here in her mum's new flat, so instead she let out a breath and managed to paste on a smile. "I think you should go."
"Are you sure, Maria?" Chrissie asked.
"Yeah," Maria replied, half-hoping she sounded enthusiastic, and half-hoping she'd be called on the way she didn't. "I mean... Innsbruck at this time of year has to be lovely, and it's not as though I need a minder. Go. It'll be fun."
Chrissie bit her lip, hesitating, but eventually she broke out into a grin and pulled Maria into a hug. "Thank you, sweetheart," she whispered.
Despite Robert's bombshell of a holiday gift, Christmas and the days leading up to it were rather less tense than Maria would have predicted. Robert, wisely, stayed clear. Maria and her mum hit the shops - for ski gear, but also for other things - and took in the carol service at their local church. It felt like a proper Christmas.
Christmas night, Maria sat on the edge of her mother's bed and watched as she worked her way down her packing list, tossing clothes and other items into the suitcase as she found them. Eventually, the suitcase was full and everything on the list was checked off. Maria leaned hard on the lid, and with some effort, Chrissie was able to zip it closed.
"Are you sure you'll be all right here?" Chrissie asked, sitting down next to Maria on the bed. "I know you're all grown up, but I still feel like I shouldn't be leaving you here all alone."
Well spotted, Maria thought, but she knew if she said something about it at this point, she'd just end up starting an argument and regretting it later on. "I'll be fine, honestly," she said instead.
"You have our flight numbers and the phone number of the chalet, right?" Chrissie asked.
"Robbie is picking me up in the morning, so I've left the keys to the car on the table in the kitchen. Just be careful if you go for a drive, please? I know you're used to driving on the wrong side of the road."
"And we topped up your Oyster card when we were out, so if you'd rather take the Tube when you're out, you can do that, too. Will you be able to manage in the kitchen?"
"I can cook, you know," Maria retorted. "I've been living away from Dad for months now. I can take care of myself for a few days. I'll probably spend half the time right here in the flat, catching up on Hollyoaks."
"Telly all day? You? I would have expected you'd be spending all your time with what's-her-name... Mary Jo. You've hardly mentioned her or the rest of them since you've been here."
"Her name is Sarah Jane, Mum," Maria said. "But no, I'm not going out there." She looked down at her hands. "It's the holidays. I wouldn't want to intrude."
Chrissie gave Maria a piercing look. "Are you all right, Maria?" she asked, frowning.
Maria squirmed a bit in response. "Why wouldn't I be? You worry too much."
"You're my daughter, and I'll worry if I want to," Chrissie replied. "It's a mother's privilege." She tugged on Maria's arm until she scooted closer, and then she pulled her into a hug.
When Maria woke the next morning, the flat was quiet and empty. "Robbie’s picking me up at four in the morning," Chrissie had argued the night before. "There's no point in getting you up that hour just so you can see me off."
She dragged herself out of bed in search of tea and some breakfast and found a note on the kitchen table:
See you soon! Love you!
Maria ran her fingers over it and smiled wistfully. A week, or near enough, to do whatever she wanted. She'd all but asked for it; now she had to figure out what to do with it.
She'd been joking when she mentioned staging her own Hollyoaks marathon, but the idea of being a slug and lazing about all day wasn't a horrible one. She'd finished her exams for the term only two days before she left for London, and it felt like it had been ages since she'd had nothing to do but relax. The thought of taking the Tube into London and picking an area to explore had a certain appeal as well. Maybe Picadilly Circus? She'd been there a dozen times or more with her parents, but never on her own. Or....
She spotted the car keys, and the decision was made. Time to test a theory.
After she was showered, dressed, and on the road, Maria quickly arrived at the conclusion that the sixteen years she'd spent as a passenger in cars in England growing up were a more powerful influence than the mere few years she'd had a driving license in America. She started off slowly and carefully, driving a short way down one street and up the next, but it wasn't long at all before she was comfortable staying on the left side of the road.
Confidence boosted, Maria stopped circling the same small area and allowed herself to wander, driving from place to place as impulse struck and childhood memories bubbled to the surface. As a result, she was nearly in Ealing before she realized what she had unconsciously been headed the entire time.
She would have banged her head against the steering wheel if she hadn't been in the middle of traffic. Instead, cursing whatever subconscious impulse had led her here, Maria decided that since she'd come this far she might as well keep going. There was little café not too far from where the Bubble Shock factory had been located, and they had excellent sandwiches. It would be silly not to stop for lunch.
Part of her - a large part - wanted to drive on past the old factory and the pub and keep going until she reached Bannerman Road. She desperately wanted to see Sarah Jane, and she missed Luke and Clyde as well. Everything had been strange since her visit that summer. Since that night, she corrected herself, because it was true. Most of her summer holiday to England had been taken up by visits to family, but she'd had two days at the end of the trip to spend with her friends. She'd spent the majority of the time helping track down the owner of a crash-landed spaceship, but the night before she left, Clyde had dragged her, along with Luke and Rani, down to the pub for a few pints.
She'd been well on her way to pissed after her second pint. Clyde had teased her for being completely unable to hold her alcohol, and Rani - who, Maria had to admit, hadn't meant anything by it - asked if she ought to use the opportunity to pump Maria for secrets. She'd been friends with Luke and Clyde first, after all, and she'd been in the business of helping and hunting aliens for longer than any of them.
Maria, who had been feeling a bit left out that week, had informed her that she'd be happy to spill everything she knew about Luke and Clyde, but she wasn't going to share a single secret about Sarah Jane. "And why's that?" Clyde had asked.
"'m keeping her to myself," Maria had replied hotly. "Not gonna share with you lot when I don't have to."
Whether she meant to keep to herself Sarah Jane's secrets or Sarah Jane herself was unclear, but the damage was done. Rani's eyebrows rose, Clyde hooted, and Luke was in turns puzzled and gobsmacked when he realized what the other two were so excited about.
"Maria," he'd asked her as they walked home later on, clearly intrigued by what he’d heard, "do you have a crush on my mum? When a girl at my university was acting possessively toward me, Clyde said that that might be the reason."
Maria had snorted with laughter. She'd heard about Clyde's side of that conversation shortly after it happened, and the phrases "hot for him" and "no idea what he's in for" had featured prominently. But then she'd kicked a rock on the sidewalk and sighed. "I don't have a crush on Sarah Jane, Luke", she'd said morosely. "And there's a secret for you. Used to, but not any more. 's called a crush 'cos it hurts that much when it lands on you, and I think that happened a long time ago for me. 'sides, crushes are for kids. Friends is all we'll ever be, and that's enough."
She'd been repeating something she'd told herself many times over the years, although Luke couldn't have known that. The next morning, when she'd been sipping a cup of tea and trying to wake up before she had to leave, she'd counted herself lucky that she'd limited herself to saying only that much. If Luke had decided to ask her if she was in love… the possibilities there didn’t bear thinking about. Still, she'd dodged everyone's emails and Skype calls for the next few weeks out of embarrassment at what she'd almost revealed, and eventually there had been a wedge between them that she had no idea how to handle.
Now, seated in the café and sipping her lemonade, she realized that what she most wanted was to see Sarah Jane and her friends again, awkwardness be damned. Her biggest fear had been that Luke would have repeated what she'd said to Sarah Jane in search of an explanation. Luke might have missed the implications, but Sarah Jane wouldn't have. But if, six months later, Sarah Jane hadn't given any indication that anything was amiss, she was probably safe.
Maria was startled out of her musings by the arrival of her food. And then, before she'd taken a single bite, her heart jumped as she heard a very familiar voice say her name.
"Maria Jackson, is that you?"
Maria spun around in her seat and then leapt to her feet. "Sarah Jane!"
"It is so good to see you!" Sarah Jane set down the single bag she was carrying and pulled Maria into a hug that Maria returned with enthusiasm. Sarah Jane always gave the best hugs, and Maria wasn't about to pass one up. "May I join you?"
Well, she'd wanted to try to repair her friendships. Maria snatched up her coat from the other chair and dropped it over the back of her own. "Absolutely," she said, motioning to the now-empty seat. "Sit, please."
When she was settled and after the waitress had taken order, Sarah Jane focused her attention on Maria. "Is this a surprise visit?" she asked. "I know it's been some time since we've had a chance to chat, but I asked Luke just last week if he knew where you were planning to spend the holidays. He thought your mother was going to America to see you."
Maria shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She hadn’t told him that directly, but she’d implied it. "No, I was always coming here. I didn't say anything because I didn't know how much free time I'd have." She shrugged weakly. "I didn't want to get anyone's hopes up."
"Mmm, I see," Sarah Jane said. "Well, it's a wonderful surprise, and I'm very glad you're here." She had a look that said she didn't quite believed Maria, and Maria was relieved when she dropped the issue rather than prying any further. "Tell me all about university," she asked instead. "I imagine some things are the same no matter where you're living."
They talked happily about classes and professors and about some of the crazier things that had happened to each of them during their respective schooling careers, and eventually the conversation wound its way around to the more entertaining parts of university life.
"You haven't mentioned whether there's a special someone in your life," Sarah Jane pointed out, one eyebrow raised. "Any news there?"
"What?" Maria eyed her sharply, but Sarah Jane gave every appearance of having meant it as an innocent question.
"Boyfriends? Girlfriends? It's perfectly fine if there's not, of course," Sarah Jane hurried to add. "I spent most of university too focused on my studies to have anything resembling a social life, and I like to think I turned out okay."
She gave a self-deprecating smile, and Maria laughed. "No, no boyfriends. Or girlfriends. Between classes and aliens, there's not a lot of time. I have good friends, but that's all for now."
"Good. I'm glad to hear it."
As sure as she was that Sarah Jane only meant she was glad to hear Maria had found new friends, the very possibility that she could meant something else caused a flicker of warmth in her heart.
An hour later, lunches long since eaten, they stood to leave. "Luke and Clyde will be so disappointed they missed you," Sarah Jane said, "but they won't be back until tonight and I'm sure your mother wants to spend as much time with you as possible. Can I invite you both for supper later this week?"
"I'm sorry I missed them, too," Maria said, and she found that she meant it. Six months was more than long enough to hold a grudge.
"Supper?" Sarah Jane asked again. "Or would that be too trying? I know I'm not your mum's favorite person...."
Supper, right. There wasn't much point in lying; Sarah Jane had already seen her mum at her best and her worst. "I'd love to come for supper some night, but Mum won't be able to make it. She's in Austria this week."
"Austria? What on earth is she doing there?"
"Skiing," Maria said tersely. "Her boyfriend surprised her with the trip as a Christmas present. Had all the reservations made and everything."
"And she--" Sarah Jane clearly thought better of whatever it was she was going to say, and changed tack. "Well. What's done is done, and there's just one thing for it. You said you drove here?"
"Good. That means you can go back to your flat and get your things while I finish my errands. I'm afraid I still don't have a guest room unless you want to bunk down in the attic, but the sofa downstairs is very comfortable for sleeping."
Maria's mouth worked a few times without any words escaping. "You want me to spend the night at your house?" she finally asked, needing the confirmation that she hadn't misunderstood.
"Yes, unless there's some reason you wouldn't like to," Sarah Jane replied, nodding. "You're always welcome to come and stay for as long as you'd like."
It was on the tip of Maria's tongue to point out once again that she'd been living in a dormitory for months and was fully capable of taking care of herself, and that Ealing was close enough to her mother's flat that it made no sense for her to sleep on Sarah Jane's sofa when she had a perfectly good bed elsewhere, but truthfully, she didn't want to argue. "That sounds absolutely perfect."
The roads were crowded with shoppers taking advantage of Boxing Day sales, so it was half four when Maria arrived at 13 Bannerman Road. She parked in front of Sarah Jane's house, pulled her suitcase from the back seat of the car, nervously made her way up the walk to the door, and rang the bell.
Sarah Jane answered the door and greeted her with a conspiratorial grin. "Luke and Clyde are up in his bedroom, one hopes with the door open. Care to give them a surprise?"
With the door open? That hinted at interesting new developments. Maria met Sarah Jane's smile with an evil grin of her own, and nodded. She set her suitcase down in the hall as quietly as possible, then tiptoed up the stairs. Despite Sarah Jane's hopes, the door was closed. Maria paused to consider her options, then pounded on the door loudly before pushing it open to find Clyde and Luke sitting at opposite ends of Luke's bed, flushed and breathing just a bit heavier than could explained away as something innocent.
"I know I haven't been the best at answering messages these last few months," Maria said, trying to contain her giggles, "but I think that one of you could have mentioned this."
Clyde and Luke both gaped at her sudden appearance, and then Clyde stood up and tackled her down onto the bed between them. "Look what we have here!" he said, bouncing a few times to really pin her down. "She disappears for half the year and as soon as she's back, it's nag, nag, nag, just like she never left!"
"I'm sorry," Maria squeaked from where Clyde was still pressing her into the blankets. "I didn't mean to, it's just--"
Clyde relented and shifted away so that she could sit up. "Yeah, yeah, we got you drunk and you spilled all your secrets, we know. Happens to the best of us."
"Sarah Jane missed you, you know," Luke said softly. "It wasn't only us. She said that it's natural for people our ages to be busy with our own lives, but it was obvious that she didn't like it very much."
Maria's heart clenched at all that lay unspoken between Luke's words. "Thanks, Luke," she whispered.
And just like that, things between the three of them were, if not precisely okay, at least healed over. They all moved downstairs to join Sarah Jane, and the rest of the afternoon was full of good conversation, friendly teasing, raucous storytelling, and laughter. To Maria, it felt like she was finally home.
That night, after Clyde had left to spend time with his own family and Sarah Jane and Luke had both long since gone to bed, Maria lay quietly on the couch, curled up beneath a warm quilt. She was tired, but part of her was resisting the possibility of sleep. Here in the darkness, watching the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, the whole day seemed like some sort of dream. She was a bit afraid that if she slept, she'd wake up to find herself back in her mother's flat, alone.
She got up and padded into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of warm milk. The motions of pouring the milk and slowly heating it in a saucepan on the stove were soothing, so she was startled when she turned around to find Sarah Jane standing in the doorway, watching her.
"I heard you moving about, and I thought we might talk for a bit," Sarah Jane said mildly. "Is there enough there for two?"
Maria added more milk to the pan, and soon enough there was. With the milk divided into two mugs, they made their way back to the sofa and sat down beside each other.
"I hope you won't be too upset with Luke, but he told me what happened when you were here over the summer," Sarah Jane said to begin.
"When?" Maria asked. How long had she known?
"Just tonight, when you and Clyde were doing the washing up," Sarah Jane assured her, "but I'd pieced together most of it already." She paused, searching for words. "Maria, if I'd known that that was why you were avoiding us all, I promise I would have said something to you sooner. I thought that you might prefer it if I pretended not to know until you were ready to talk about it. You do know that I could never think less of you for falling for another woman, don't you?"
She did. Of course she did. Sarah Jane had friends who were aliens; a human who happened to be gay was nothing compared to that. But while Maria wasn't quite sure what sort of reaction she'd expected from Sarah Jane, she knew this wasn't it. "You find out that I fell in-- Luke tells you that I have a crush on you-- and that's all you can say? It's okay to like women?"
Sarah Jane set her mug down on the side table with a thump. "You have a... Luke told me that he thought you'd fallen for a good friend of yours and that he'd inadvertently pulled the information out of you before you were ready to share it. He didn't... I had no idea, Maria. Truly, I didn’t."
They sat there -- Maria trying to find something to say to salvage the situation and Sarah Jane staring into the distance as though she was lost in thought -- until Sarah Jane spoke again. "Actually, that's not true," she said, sounding as though she'd just learned something new, "I think I did know. You've felt like this for quite some time, haven't you?"
"How do you figure that?" Maria asked, an edge of defensiveness in her voice.
"Oh, this and that," Sarah Jane said, waving a hand dismissively. "You've been very subtle, I promise. It's more than I can say for myself. Did I ever tell you about my sixth form French Literature teacher?"
Maria shook her head and forced herself to relax. Everything was going to be okay.
"She was a new teacher, not very much older than her students," Sarah Jane explained. "And she was absolutely stunning. She had a way about her that drew you in, which made the class rather more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Most of the boys in my class were absolutely besotted, and I have to say that I was as well. I thought I was going to die when I left school at the end of the year and had to say goodbye to her."
"Was that the only time you've been... interested... in a woman?" Maria asked.
Sarah Jane smiled wistfully. "No. No, it wasn't. That's a story for another time, though."
Maria felt a frisson of excitement at the revelation, but her nerves rapidly caught up with her. She hadn't wanted to have this conversation, but now that she was in the middle of it, she couldn't let Sarah Jane leave with the wrong idea.
"I did have a crush on you before," she started, haltingly. "You were this amazing older woman, and you had adventures I couldn't have dreamed of and you took me right alongside. But then I got to know you better, and--"
"Oh, that's nice to hear," Sarah Jane said, laughing, and Maria couldn't help but laugh too when she realized what it had sounded like.
"Not really what I meant," Maria said. "I meant that I got to know you better, and, well, I-" She could stop right here, Maria realized suddenly. She was going back to America in another week. Sarah Jane didn't need to know everything. But she wasn't at all sure that she'd be able to hide what she felt now that Sarah Jane knew half of her secret, and there probably wouldn't be a better time.
"It's not a crush," she said. "It was, but it hasn't been for awhile now."
"Maria?" Sarah Jane said gently.
"I need to--" Maria started, and then, lost for words, she darted forward and kissed her. It was soft and sweet and simple, but the elation Maria felt at finally taking what she'd dreamed of was electric. After a moment she pulled back. Sarah Jane looked more startled than anything, and Maria found herself babbling apologies as she scooted away. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that. I don't know what I was--"
Sarah Jane grabbed Maria's had as she started to stand, preventing her from fleeing. When Maria was still, Sarah Jane took her other hand as well, and Maria found herself lost in Sarah Jane's gaze. She had no idea how long they sat before Sarah Jane kissed her again, first on her forehead, then on her cheek, then once, chastely, on her lips.
"I don't know what to say right now," Sarah Jane whispered. "When I woke up this morning, this is not where I imagined I'd be ending the day. I never expected this, and I need to think. But Maria?"
Maria hummed a little, lost for words. "Promise me you'll still be here in the morning," Sarah Jane continued, softly but with a core of iron in her tone. "I don't want to wake up tomorrow and have to pretend that this was just a dream."
"I'll be here," Maria said. "I promise."
With that, Sarah Jane squeezed her hands before turning to go upstairs. Maria snuggled down under the quilt again and drifted off to sleep, bathed in the soft, twinkling light of the Christmas tree and the warmth of possibilities.