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     Ring...ring...ring...
     The shrill tone of the kitchen telephone echoed throughout the house, carrying up the stairs and into the bedroom. It pulled both sleepers from their dreams but neither one moved, choosing instead to snuggle closer and wait for the ringing to stop.




     But when the tone stopped, there was only a brief silence before it picked right back up again.
     Mary-Sue, keeping her eyes closed, elbowed Daniel delicately in the ribs. "Can you get it?" she mumbled.
     Daniel grunted noncommittally, but lifted his head off his pillow and scooted backwards towards the edge of the bed.

     Ring...ring...




     He stumbled sleepily from the room, knocking his ankle on the door frame and cursing under his breath. Mary-Sue drifted in and out of sleep, listening to the sound of his footsteps going into the hall, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. The ringing cut off mid-tone and she heard an unenthusiastic "Hello?"
     She nestled down into the blankets, struggling against her heavy eyelids to hear what Daniel was saying downstairs. 




     What seemed like only half a second later, Mary-Sue jolted back awake. Daniel was back, sitting on the edge of the bed and saying something about dinner. "Wait, what?" she slurred, rubbing her eyes and stretching out her legs. "Start over. Who was on the phone?"
     "Bella," he said, fully awake. "She called to ask if you would watch Cassandra tonight."
      "Me? Doesn't she have a sitter?
"
     "She cancelled on them this morning. She and Mortimer don't want to give up their dinner reservations, though, so she wanted to see if you'd be willing to drive down there for a few hours."
     "What time?"
     "They said they want to leave at six and they'll be back around nine."

     "That's not too bad. What time is it now?"
     "Like, one."




     With a groan, Mary-Sue flipped back the covers and sat upright. "Guess we'd better get up, then. So much for a lazy day off."
     "You're going to go over, then?"
     "Yeah," she said with a sigh. "I may as well go. We didn't really have anything planned today. I
 mean, I was going to make that ham in the freezer, but we can do that tomorrow and just have drinks tonight when I get back. That sound okay?"
     "Sounds good to me."


***




      The sun had long since set by the time Mary-Sue pulled into the Goths' driveway. Dark, heavy clouds hung in the sky, blocking even the moonlight from filtering down. Taking the steps two at a time, Mary-Sue pressed the doorbell a few times while dancing around a bit to try to stay warm. She'd decided to forego a coat that evening; the Goths weren't known to skimp on their heating bill.
     "Mary-Sue!" Bella shouted, flinging the front door open wide. "Thank you for coming on such short notice! Was the drive okay?"




     "Oh, yes. Hardly any traffic tonight," Mary-Sue answered, coming fully into the foyer and shutting the door behind her. The cold air that had crept in from the outside dissipated almost instantly, replaced by a warmth that thawed her frozen fingers. "I made great time."
     "And you're sure you don't mind watching Cassie tonight? I'm sorry I called on such short notice. I would have just cancelled our reservations, but Mortimer's been promising me this dinner for three months now. He had to work on our anniversary and we've just been so busy since then."




     "Oh, I don't mind at all. Cassie's a sweet girl; I like spending time with her." Peeking over Bella's shoulder, she could see the girl sitting patiently at the chess table, seemingly playing both sides of the board. She smiled. Cassie was never any trouble at all. "Where are you and Mortimer going to dinner?"
     "We have a reservation at Londoste, but we're never going to make it that man doesn't hurry up!"




     Bella took a couple steps back, her heels striking the parquet floor and causing their own racket. Cupping her hands to her mouth, she yelled "Mortimer!" No answer. "Morty! Let's go!"




     "Yes?" Mortimer appeared out of the kitchen with a sly smile on his face and a clipboard in his hand. "You called?"
     "You're not ready yet?!" Bella cried, taking in his shabby appearance with obvious disdain. "What on earth have you been doing for the last twenty minutes?!"
     "I was finishing up my lecture notes. Guess I lost track of time."
     "You don't even go back to the University until January!"
     Mary-Sue hung her head and shied away from the bickering couple.
     "You know I'm sorry, Bella," Mortimer said with a wink. "I'll make it up to you tonight."
     Bella squared her shoulders, letting a few seconds pass before she rolled her eyes and let out a dramatic sigh. "Fine. You have two minutes. Two. If you're not down here by then, I'm taking Mary-Sue instead! Capisci?"
     "Yeah, yeah. Capisco. I understand."




     Mary-Sue watched as Mortimer glided past his wife, caressing her waist briefly on his way by. Bella rolled her eyes again. "I swear, Mary-Sue: that man's oblivious to the world for most of the day, but as soon as he manages to pull his nose out of his schoolwork he can't keep his hands to himself!"
     They both laughed. "You know, I haven't been seeing him around campus as much lately. How's his teaching been going?"




     "He was made the chair of the science department in the fall, but you know Morty. He loves nothing more than an audience, and one that not only understands, but shares, his love of all things science can't be beat. He's cut back on his teaching hours to accommodate his new position, but he can't bear to give it up completely." She laughed, shaking her head. "But what about you? How's it been for you at the University?"
     "Pretty good. I'm just teaching one class this quarter and it's only a couple days of the week. I spend most of my time I'm working on my dissertation."
     "Are you close?"
     "Getting there. I've planned it all out so I'll finish early in May."




     "How exciting, Mary-Sue!"
     "Congratulations in advance!" Mortimer said from the top of the stairs. He gripped the rail and fairly flew down them, landing in the foyer with an extra spring in his step.
     "Thank you, Mortimer."




     "Bella mia," he said, coming up behind his wife and snaking his hand around her waist. He drew her arm out and planted kisses up and down it, causing her to swoon. The theatricality of it all brought back memories of their high school selves rushing back and it was Mary-Sue's turn to roll her eyes.




     "Morty," Bella purred, "stop it. We really must get going."
     "We don't have to go..."




     "Oh, hush," she said, pulling her hand back and patting her hair back into place. "Mary-Sue's come all this way." She leaned in closer. "Save it for later, darling."
     With a final peck on the cheek and a resigned sigh, Mortimer dropped his hand from her hip and called out for his daughter to come say her good-byes.




     "Um," Bella began, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. "We'll be back around nine. There's a plate for Cassie in the fridge and there's plenty in there for you, too, if you want some. She'll probably get hungry around seven. The number for Londoste is on the counter, just in case. Anything else?"
     "What about bedtime?"
     "Oh, she'll get tired around eight. She's pretty good about going to bed on her own, so you don't really have to worry about that. Just make sure it's before we get back, though. She's having some friends over tomorrow and I don't want her to be overtired."
     "Alrighty, then. I think that's everything."




     Bella said a quick "Ciao, principessa," to her daughter and snatched her coat from the closet. Mortimer helped her put it on and, arm in arm, they walked through the front door into the night.
     "Hey, Cassie," Mary-Sue said, turning her full attention to the stoic eight-year-old standing before her. "How 'bout we play some chess? I saw you playing both sides earlier, but now you can have a partner!"




     Cassandra took a long look at her babysitter, truly considering her offer. "No, thanks."
     Turning abruptly on her heel, she started back towards  the living room. "My teddy bear's scheduled for an appendectomy, which I really need to perform. I've already got Nurse Dragon and Nurse Unicorn attending, so I don't need any more hands clogging up the operation room."




     Mary-Sue sighed and picked a book from the shelf instead. Crazy kid. Settling down into a plush wingback chair, she thumbed through the pages of a compilation of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and settled on one story that seemed promising.
     In the background, Cassandra moved her stuffed animals around dramatically, murmuring something about code blue.


***




     Cassandra sat quietly in her chair, taking bite-sized pieces of leftover turkey. She'd accidentally left her plate in the microwave for too long, burning her dinner, but it didn't taste too bad. At least it hadn't set off the smoke alarm.
     Anyway, she wasn't a chef. She was a doctor and doctors shouldn't be expected to cook their own dinner. Especially not after they'd spent the last hour and a half in surgery.




     It had been touch-and-go for a while, but teddy had pulled through. He was resting now, convalescing in a private room. Nurse Dragon had lost her nerves halfway though the operation and had to leave the room. For a few minutes there she'd thought she'd have to call in Mary-Sue, but she'd fallen asleep so Nurse Unicorn stepped up and took over extra duties.




     Cassandra cleaned her plate, composing a prescription for pain meds for teddy all the while, and dumped it into the sink. Glancing at the clock, she yawned. 7:46. It was getting pretty late. And she was on call for the rest of the night. She'd better get some sleep while she could.
     "Mary-Sue?" She approached cautiously, giving her a slight shake on the shoulder. "Mary-Sue?"
     She jolted awake, snorting ungracefully. "Huh?"
     "I'm sleepy. I'm going to bed. Just thought I should tell you."
     Mary-Sue glanced around, trying to remember when she'd dozed off. "Um, ok. What about dinner?"
     "I already ate."
     "Oh. Um, alright. I guess I'll walk you up then."




     Depositing her glasses on her dresser and slipping into her pajamas, Cassandra pulled back her covers and climbed up on to the mattress. Mary-Sue lingered in the doorway, waiting to turn off the lights until the girl had got into bed.




     "I don't need tucked in, you know," she said, pulling her covers up to her chin. "I'm almost nine."




     "Well, alright, then." Mary-Sue hung back, letting Cassandra tuck herself into bed. "Sleep well." Once her head hit the pillow, it was only a matter of seconds before she was breathing deeply, fast asleep.




     Mary-Sue walked around the foot of the bed and pulled the blankets up further, smoothing them out over her chest. She pushed her bangs back off her forehead, whispering "Goodnight, sweetie."




     Cassie's mouth fell open, causing her to snore lightly. Mary-Sue repressed a giggle. She looked so peaceful sleeping there. So sweet, so little. And so much like her mother.
     She'd known the girl since the day she was born. In fact, she'd been there when she was born. One of the only people, too. When word had got around that Bella was pregnant all those years ago, most people took the opportunity to distance themselves from her. But not Mary-Sue. She'd stuck by her friend and she was happy to see how well the subsequent years had treated them. Bella and Mortimer were still happily married, they'd fought to win back their social status, and Cassie was growing into a smart, if shy, young lady.
     In all, it had turned out well for them. There had been times when Bella wasn't sure she could handle it all, but she'd made it through the hard times. And Mary-Sue couldn't help but think that if hot-headed, dramatic Bella could do it, maybe, just maybe, she could too.
     Perhaps.
     Someday.
     Maybe.


***




     Mary-Sue pressed the cold plastic receiver against her ear, punching out her home phone number on the keypad with one finger. She waited through two long rings before she heard the other end being picked up and then,"Hello?"
     "Hey, Daniel. It's Mary-Sue."
     "My god, where have you been?" Daniel asked, concern obvious in his voice. "Are you ok?"
     "I'm at my mom's."
     "Tell him I say hi," Coral interjected, taking a sip from her mug on the couch.
     "She says hi, by the way."




     "I thought you were going to be home half an hour ago," Daniel said, glancing at the clock on the stove. The bright green numbers flashed 10:34.
     "Well, it started snowing here around eight-thirty. Mortimer and Bella got back late and there were already two inches on the road by the time I tried to leave, so I just drove a couple blocks over to my parents'. The news is saying that it should turn to rain around midnight, so I'll just head back in the morning."
     "Oh," Daniel said, obviously disappointed.




     Coral turned her attention back to the news anchor that was droning on about the weather forecast for the upcoming week. Mary-Sue pulled her borrowed robe tight around her midsection and paced towards the back door, her slippers shuffling across the carpet.
     "Is that not okay with you?" she asked, lowering her voice in the hopes that her mother wouldn't hear. "Is there something else you think I should do? I guess I can try to make it back up there. It's pretty bad, though."




     "No, no. It's fine. It's just...well, I was sort of counting on you being back tonight. You'd said we were going to have drinks together. We already postponed our dinner. Remember?"
     "Yeah, I remember. And I'm really sorry. I wasn't expecting this storm."
     "I know. It's not your fault. I wasn't expecting it, either. I'm just...missing you."




     "Aww, honey. I miss you, too. Listen, I'll be back tomorrow morning. And we're still doing that ham dinner! I promise."
     "Alright. Tomorrow, then?"
     "It's a date."
     "Sleep well, Mary-Sue."
     "Sleep well, Daniel. I love you."




     "I love you, too."

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