"This was fun, Mary Anne. I'll see you in school tomorrow!" shouted Kristy, racing down the steps to the driveway.

"Bye Kristy!"

Mary Anne stood at the door and waved as Sam pulled into the driveway in the Junk Bucket, with Stacey in the passenger seat next to him, his arm around her. She had a guilty smile on her face, and was in the process of re-applying her lipstick. Not noticing this, Kristy opened that door and hopped in to the backseat, waving to Mary Anne.

As Sam backed out of the driveway, Mary Anne shut the door and walked through the hallway, headed upstairs to her room. Before she could ascend the stairs, Sharon stopped her.

"Where are you going Mary Anne? Dinner's ready," Sharon said brightly.

Mary Anne took a deep breathe. All she wanted to do was go upstairs to her room, do her homework, and relax. She wasn't in the mood for whatever it was that a family meal would entail. Still, she turned around and gave her stepmother a warm smile. It wouldn't kill her to sit with her family for an hour. And it's not like she could avoid it.

She followed Sharon to the dining room, where the table was set for four. This was unusual. Most of the time they weren't all home for dinner, and when they were, they would usually eat scattered around the house. Sharon was making quite the effort, though she had neglected to take off her apron. A spatula, along with what appeared to be a road map, stuck out of the pocket.

Mary Anne pulled out her chair at the table, and sat down. Her hair was pulled back into loose pigtails, which she twirled around her finger one at a time while she waited for everyone else to be seated. Her father soon took his place, while Sharon nervously walked around the table, stopping every time to rest her hand on the back of the chairs that were reserved for Dawn and Jeff.

"Dawn will be down in just a second," She said, mostly trying to assure herself. The corners of her lips fought to remain in their smiling position.

Richard cleared his throat. "How are things going in school, Mary Anne? Are you keeping your grades up?"

Mary Anne nodded politely. "Yes dad. Algebra is my hardest class, but I should do fine."

"That's what I like to see," Richard replied.

Sharon walked out of the dining room and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. "Dawn," she called, "Dinner is ready."

A few seconds later they heard a door open and then close again upstairs. Sharon and Dawn walked together into the kitchen, where they took their seats.

"Well this is nice!" Sharon exclaimed, as they passed around the vegetarian dish that she had made.

"It certainly is," Richard agreed, helping himself to a hearty portion.

The sounds of utensils hitting plates and the occasional clearing of throats were the only sounds that came from anyone for the next several minutes. Try as she might, Mary Anne couldn't think of anything to say to fill the silence.

"I talked to Jeff today," Dawn said suddenly.

"That's great honey, how's he doing?" Sharon asked.

"Good," Dawn replied. She paused. "They want me to come out for a visit."

"Maybe you can go out for Thanksgiving," Sharon suggested. "Then Jeff could come here for Christmas, and we could all be together for a little while."

Dawn set down her fork. "I'd kind of like to go out before then. I miss everyone, especially Gracie."

Richard cleared his throat for what must have been the tenth time in the last five minutes. "We do understand that Dawn, but you just got here. I'm not sure if you realize it, but cross-country flights are expensive. And you're still not completely caught up with your homework either."

"Thanksgiving is only two months away," Sharon added.

Mary Anne watched the exchange, hoping that she would not have to get involved. She moved around the food on her plate to look busy, but she wasn't really eating much. Two years later, she was still not that fond of vegetarian dishes. Meals just tasted better with meat.

Dawn slumped back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest.

"I knew this would happen," She mumbled.

"Dawn…" Sharon said, her voice suddenly sounding stern. "Do you remember what we talked about last night?"

"I remember," Dawn said under her breath. Mary Anne could tell that she wasn't happy. Still, she picked up her fork and resumed eating.

Sharon looked straight at Dawn. "Good." She put a smile back on her face. "Maybe we could take a mini vacation this winter, when you two are off of school and Jeff comes to visit. We could go to New York for a few days, or maybe Boston again."

"Not Boston," Mary Anne said.

"I second that," Dawn chimed in.

"What do you two have against Boston?" Sharon asked, obviously puzzled.

Dawn looked at Mary Anne and rolled her eyes. Mary Anne giggled, and both girls smiled. If only for a second, they connected.

"We don't have to go to Boston," Richard said. "There are plenty of other places for us to explore in New England. I'll consult my travel almanac, and draw up a list of options."

Sharon beamed. "That would be great Richie."

The rest of the meal continued with silence mixed with the occasional spurt of small talk. Sharon served yogurt for dessert, which appeased Dawn, but kind of grossed out Mary Anne. Yogurt definitely did not qualify as a dessert.

After dessert Sharon got up from her chair and began clearing the table. Richard and Mary Anne both rose to help her.

Dawn remained in her seat.

"Can I go now?" she asked

"Of course, I'm sure that you have homework to get to," Sharon replied. She looked at Mary Anne, who was stacking the plates together. "I can take care of that honey. Why don't you go upstairs with Dawn. I'm sure you girls want to spend some time together."

Mary Anne put down the plates that she was holding. "Okay. Thanks."

When she got to her bedroom, Mary Anne pulled out her biology textbook and began reading the chapter that they were going to be talking about in class the next day. She had already read it once, but she figured another time wouldn't hurt.

Mary Anne was deep into reading about the Krebs Cycle when Dawn walked in from the door that connected her room to the bathroom. She threw herself down at the foot of Mary Anne's bed, making herself comfortable.

"What was up with dinner?" Dawn asked. "We never eat together like that. Do you think that they are going to want us to do that all the time now?"

Mary Anne shrugged her shoulders, and pulled her pale pink blanket tighter around herself. She wasn't sure exactly what Dawn was doing; if she was being earnest, or if she was playing some sort of game. Either way, she didn't want to appear too excited.

"I don't know," Mary Anne said finally. "With this family, nothing surprises me anymore."

"I know what you mean." Dawn was silent for a little while as she absently braided her hair together, and then let it fall out, gold strands running through her fingers.

"I don't hate you Mary Anne," Dawn said suddenly, without any hint of emotion.

Mary Anne wasn't sure how she was supposed to respond to that.

"Thanks, I guess," she said.

"I wasn't sure if you thought that or not."

"I guess I did sometimes," Mary Anne said slowly, carefully choosing the words that she wanted to say. She paused. "I don't hate you either."

Dawn nodded. "Thanks. I know that I would kind of deserve it."

Mary Anne didn't deny that, but she didn't affirm it either. She looked to the framed picture of her and Dawn on her nightstand, standing together at their parents wedding, young and eager to start their new life as sisters. She then turned to look back at Dawn now. She saw only an impermeable exterior in the place of former openness. Dawn was older, and so much more jaded than the girl of two years ago. Mary Anne wondered if she looked that way herself, at least to an extent.

Dawn's eyes caught on the picture, and for a second, her face relaxed. A moment later the hardness hard returned, and she looked Mary Anne in the eye. "I'm not very happy," she said.

Mary Anne nodded. "I can tell. I wasn't very happy for awhile either."

"I think I knew that," Dawn said. "But I didn't do anything. I barely even talked to you all last year."

Mary Anne reached over to grab a tissue. She dabbed at the corner of each eye as she remembered the rejection she had felt every time Dawn had failed to return one of her phone calls. It still hurt, actually.

"How did you get better?" Dawn asked.

"I found Kristy again. She needed me just as much as I needed her, and something about that was enough," Mary Anne shrugged her shoulders. "I guess I just let go of all of the hate and hurt that was inside of me. It wasn't worth it. Do you know what I mean?"

Dawn nodded as she used her sleeve to wipe away a tear that had fallen down her cheek. Mary Anne handed her a tissue, and then took another one for herself.

"You're very brave," Dawn stated.

"I don't think I was brave as much as lucky," Mary Anne confessed. "I don't know what I would have done if things hadn't worked out with Kristy."

Dawn sniffled and wiped away another tear. She looked down at the bedspread and didn't say anything.

"I guess I was kind of brave," Mary Anne continued. "I had to let Kristy in, which wasn't easy. But I did it. You could do the same sort of thing you know, with Abby. Maybe that could help, at least a little."

Dawn's eyes brightened a little, but her expression stayed flat.

"Maybe," she said.

Mary Anne felt a glimmer of hope arise from somewhere inside of her. Maybe Dawn and Abby could somehow bring each other out of whatever they were each separately experiencing, and become better for it. Maybe her family could eat dinner together every once in awhile, or go on vacation together and not fight the whole time. Maybe she could have a real conversation with her sister.

"Maybe," Dawn said again.

Without warning, Dawn stood up from the bed, and walked through the bathroom to her bedroom. This time, she left the doors between the rooms open.

The End

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

At this point, I want to thank everyone who has read this story, and those who have reviewed in particular. I don't think that I can express how much it means to me to have people enjoy something that I write. A thanks goes out to Ann M Martin as well, of course, for creating this series, though if she had not I might have had a much more productive summer.

Much thanks to Celica60 for the often provided assurance and encouragement. Your update requests definitely sped up the process of this story, so maybe other readers should thank you as well.

Lastly, thanks to my friends who are not a part of this fandom, but whom did not tease me mercilessly when they found out what I was working on all summer. You know who you are.

Chelz22