"Here." The popsicle hit my lap before I fully registered Ned sitting down next to me. I set his laptop off to the side and opened the sweaty plastic wrapper, careful to put it directly into the trash can. Ned didn't have the same regard for his table, though, leaving his wrapper on a two-day-old newspaper, turning the President's face an interesting shade of orange.
"You know it," he raised his popsicle to me in a salute. "What are you up to? Talking to Billy?"
I looked from Ned to his laptop and back, a bit nervously. He noticed. "What's up?"
"Well, I've been...I just Googled Party Castles," I admitted, wincing in anticipation of his reaction. He'd been unusually touchy around this subject for the past couple days, made even worse by the appearance of the expansive camera crew and twitchy, sweaty director. I had seen Ned's jaw clench more in three days than I had ever done before.
The director had had us all assemble in the front hall, though Tom had had to almost drag Ned bodily to get him there at all. Blinking with an awe-inspiring rapidity, the director, Guy Fearsome, as he liked to be called, had wasted no time in dividing us up into pairs.
"You, you and...you," he muttered, bringing Julia and Yates to stand next to each other, then standing back to admire his work, "yes, yes, yes, okay, now you-" he pointed to Mary, then pointed to the spot he wanted her to stand. She hitched her mouth up sarcastically, but did as she was told. "You aaaaaaaaaaaaand, let's see now, you," he said grabbing hold of Tom's elbow.
Tom chuckled, "Why don't you try my baby brother instead," he said, jerking his head to Ned.
Guy Fearsome blinked twelve times, then said, "Well, yes, I think that'd be cool. The two of you are basically interchangeable, aren't you?"
He moved on so quickly Tom didn't even have time to laugh again. Ned, when directed to stand next to Mary, shook his head. "I'm not doing it."
There was a quick moment of silence, cut through by a vigorous roll of the eyes from both Fearsome and Tom. "Fine," the director said, shrugging, "it doesn't even matter, but I need someone to pair with this fine lady," he added, looking Mary up and down in a manner that was something other than neighborly interest.
Ned stiffened, opened his mouth to protest, but Fearsome had moved on again, snapping his fingers behind him. "You, what's your name, Tim?"
"Whatever. You're with her, it looks like."
"Nope. I'm solo."
"Fine, fine, then she's with this guy, over here," he pointed at Henry, who shrugged apologetically. "Brother."
"Fine, fine, fine, then this guy," he threw a hand in Rush's direction.
Rush stepped closer to Mary. "Engaged."
That brought Guy Fearsome up short, but he swooped in again. "Oh, engaged. Engaged, I like that, I do, I do, I do, but here's the thing, friend, it's a lot less interesting when there's no challenge, you know, no, like, no, competition. If you two just sit around and act all engaged, that's not going to make people want to watch you. There have to be struggles. So instead," he said, backing up again, framing with his hands the way Tom had done, "we're going to make a love triangle. Bear with me, hubby-to-be, it's just for the cameras, right sweetheart?" He chucked Mireille under the chin, and she made a face like she was trying to keep a mouthful of sour milk from going anywhere. "Soooooooo, awesome, love triangle it is, but baby girl," he said, turning back to Mark and reaching out a hand to almost touch her shoulder, "you're gonna have to have a man. Sorry. Statistics say that Timothy here can stay single at the end, but you've gotta get with someone. Can't have two single people at the end. It's science."
Ned, to my left, was sending judgment off in waves. I edged away from him. Tom, on the other hand, turned to him, gave a little smile, and said, "Neddy-boy? Last chance?" The look in his eyes and on his face almost made me want to tell Ned to change his mind, but then he'd be going back on what he'd said, and nothing would make me ask him to do that.
Ned shook his head. Tom hid any disappointment.
I sighed, bending my back a little to get some cracks out, and Guy Fearsome's eyes fell, blinkingly, on me. "Helloooooooo, didn't notice you there. What's your name, sweetheart?"
He hadn't even asked Mary her name, and anyone could see that he'd like Mary. I looked up at him, apprehension widening my eyes, and fought against taking a step back.
"That's Fawn," said Tom, and for once he didn't seem so triumphant. "She's out, too."
"You sure?" Guy didn't turn to look at him when he spoke. "She's a little young, but she definitely has that waif thing down. All the nerdy girls would totally be into seeing her. Is she a relative?"
"No," said Tom.
"Yes," said Ned.
Guy blinked up at them both, smirking, then turned back to me. "Which one is it, sweetheart? Are you related to these guys? Should we find you someone else, maybe? I might even break up that love triangle for you, put you with Freckles over there."
Henry, Freckles, shot him a look of intense amusement. He hated Guy Fearsome.
Guy watched me the way Julia had once watched ants in an ant farm she'd made, and the longer he watched me, the more uncomfortable I got. He was waiting for me to say something. Even if I'd had the voice, I didn't think I would give him the satisfaction, not with that look on his face.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Ned stepping in, but Tom got there first, clapping a jovial hand on Guy Fearsome's shoulder. "Nah, man, I told you she's out. She and baby bro will just have to sit on the sidelines. We'll find someone for Mary. Come show me what you want to do with the place."
Guy Fearsome sent one last look back at me. He didn't blink.
Now, in Ned's room, I waited for his reaction to my searching.
He made a valiant attempt not to roll his eyes, but ultimately failed. "Oh, God, why?" His voice was dry and sardonic, just like Tom's.
I smoothed the knees of my jeans down a few times and licked my lips before answering, "Well, I wanted to see what it was that's going to happen, you know."
"What it is that's going to happen." His voice was so casual he could have been reminding me to bring my umbrella on a cloudy day, but it brought me up short. He had never, not once in the history of our friendship, corrected my grammar or tried to change the way I spoke.
I took a lick of my popsicle, then another one. "Is. What it is that's going to happen. I'm sorry." A thought occurred to me. "You haven't watched the show?"
He threw one of his arms along the back of the couch, so that his fingertips landed some centimeters to the right of my ear. "It's really not my thing. Did you like it?"
I tried to laugh. "Not really. No. Everyone was kissing in it, and they threw this big party and added up all the money it cost to make it happen, and then some random guy broke thousands of dollars worth of their stuff. Everyone ends up with someone. Doesn't seem realistic."
"People kissing isn't realistic?" He cocked an amused eyebrow to me, nursing his popsicle. I tried not to look at his mouth, tried not to look at his eyes. Tried, and failed.
"I...well, I wouldn't know. But for something that's supposed to be reality..."
"Reality TV. Not reality."
"Isn't there not supposed to be a difference?" That particular fact had been bothering me for a while now. Weren't shows about real people supposed to show how those people really were? Isn't that what happened?
Ned gave me a look much like the one Dr Grant had given me before talking about how people wanted to marry their mothers, and again I knew I'd made some kind of mistake. I bit down on my popsicle and turned my head away, desperate to be out of this conversation before I gave away just how uneducated I was.
Apparently he felt the same way, because he changed the subject abruptly. "Want to go into town with me today?"
I turned to him, suddenly excited. I rarely went into town when shops were open and there were people out and about, and even then it had been months since I'd gone there with Ned, and it was always more fun to have someone to spend my time with. "Can we?"
He smiled then, his big, genuine, happy smile that erased the sarcasm from his brow and the tightness from his jaw and made him my Ned again. "Absolutely. We can go to the music store if you want, and this time I'll let you spend hours there, and then maybe get some lunch?"
"Sounds good. What're you in the mood for?"
"Perfect!" I clapped my hands together. He laughed and poked me in the side.
"Definitely perfect. Way better than being-" his door opened, and Mary walked in.
"Oh, there you are! Thank God, I thought I was gonna go crazy without you two." If she hadn't expected me in Ned's room, her face gave nothing away. She settled herself on the floor on the other side of the coffee table, facing us, her face slightly flushed, her eyes bright. "Don't go out there, seriously. It's like a war zone."
I watched Ned's eyes flick nervously to the door, then back. He'd probably come up the back stairs, giving the common areas a wide berth. "War zone, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. Guy shot all the exterior stuff already, at least for now, so he's getting ready to do the inside stuff, and that's just a lot of moving furniture to new places and breaking holes in the walls-"
"WHAT?" Ned leapt to his feet so suddenly it made me flinch backward. Mary looked up at him calmly, a wry grin pulling up one side of her mouth.
"Well, not actually putting holes in the actual walls. They're bringing in plaster things that look like your walls but have holes in them, and debris and dust and stuff, because apparently you're going through a renovation. Don't know if you know."
"Oh, yeah. You're really not sure you'll have it done in time for your party date. It's a big deal, not gonna lie."
"God," Ned sat back down, head in his hands. "What a disaster."
"You don't know the worst of it. They're bringing in some guy, some friend of Tom's, to be my love interest. It was really awkward meeting him. Guy 'Fearsome'," she made quotation marks with her fingers, "tells me we're going to be desperately secretly in love with each other."
"You don't have to do this, you know," Ned pointed out.
"Why not?" she said flippantly, shrugging her shoulders, "it's not like I have anything better to do. Though I guess you're right," she added, tilting her head to the left, "and I know that he wouldn't be the person I'd choose for myself."
There was a charged silence. I wondered what would happen if I left. Would it be any different from if I stayed? Then Mary turned to me, flashed me her brilliant smile, and said, "Actually, I came looking for you, Fawn. I was wondering if you'd help me."
Me? The question was clear on my face, and she laughed at my surprise. "Yes, you, silly. I need your help with my lines."
My eyebrows shot up. She laughed again. "I know, it's supposed to be a reality show, but I still get lines. Tell me how that's fair, and I'll give you a million dollars. Just...you don't have to say anything out loud," she said, reaching into her pocket, "but just nod your head if I get them right. Kay?" She handed me a piece of paper, folded into fourths. When I had it open and was ready, she started.
The actual lines were instantly forgettable, which is why I've forgotten them. What I haven't forgotten is the painstaking slowness with which I read them to check on her part, the way she and Ned watched me, and tried not to watch me, as I got to the end of the line. I haven't forgotten the way Mary looked at me when she spoke, as if I were the man she was desperately in love with, as if nothing else in the world mattered, as if we were the only two people alive. When she reached out a hand to put it on my knee, I almost jumped out of my skin, but at the same time it seemed to make sense. If someone were so in love with someone else, of course she would want to touch them, even a little, just on the knee. I haven't forgotten the way Ned stiffened, the way he crossed his legs, laced his fingers together.
We were never going to get that lunch. That lunch had been doomed from the start. When we reached the end of the page, Mary and I, and I handed Mary back her paper with a nod at all being as it should be, Mary smiled beatifically at me, folded the paper up, and pushed herself to a standing position.
"Thanks, Fawn, baby. I just needed to be prepared to face the love of my love," and she turned to leave.
Ned moved so quickly he seemed not to move at all. One moment, he was seated next the me, the next he was on his feet, and words were tumbling out of his mouth. "It's probably better if I do it, not him. The other guy. Tom's friend. Tom's friends aren't exactly known for their discretion, you know."
Mary, at the door, smiled slowly. "You'll really do it?"
Ned breathed, brushing his hands over the sides of his legs. "I'll really do it."
Mary winked at me, then turned back to Ned. Suddenly, she was serious, even with a smile still on her face. "I knew you'd never abandon me." They watched each other for a moment, until Mary turned and walked out the door, clicking it shut softly behind her.
Ned and I watched the air for a second or two, then, without turning, he said, "I think we'll have to raincheck on lunch. I'm sorry."
"You're really going to do this?"
"I said I would. Now I have to."
"You also said you wouldn't," I pointed out, more confused than malicious. "Is it because-"
He turned then to look at me, his face hardened, washed by so many emotions it was hard to look at it for too long, "Because what?"
I swallowed the question I had been about to ask, then thought about every question I wanted to ask after that. None of them would do. I didn't want to make him defensive now. "Never mind. It was a stupid question. Forget it."
He was watching me now, his brow wrinkled. I had been watched too much in the last few days. His voice was quiet, the way you'd speak to a baby animal, "None of your questions have ever been stupid, Fawn."
Heat flooded through me then, making the very tips of my toes shiver, but I didn't let him see that. I wanted to ask him every question I had ever had, but I didn't let him see that. I wanted to reach out, so casually, and touch him on the knee, but I didn't let him see that. The sudden, inexplicable
prickle of tears at the back of my eyes caught me by surprise, but I didn't let him see that, not the tears or the surprise.
Instead I smiled, the kind of wry, half-smile I'd seen Mary use, all pulled to one side. It had looked better on her. It felt silly on me. "Thanks, Ned. Now I think you should go, before all hell breaks loose."
I expected him to turn around and rush through the door, but before he left he turned to me, and his hand came up to hover right over the crown of my head until he bent down to kiss my forehead, and the hand came to rest on my hair. His lips felt like nothing I had ever needed to put into words: like fire, like a blanket wrapped around me, like being out in the cold, like being on the top of a cliff, like lying out in the sun, like all those things. When he took them away, the feeling lingered.