Carradine crossed the campus, absentmindedly whistling as he thought about Christmas. The big holiday was coming up and he couldn't wait to be with his family again. Even now he could feel the anticipation and he knew it was because his parents had always made Christmas special at their house. He and his sisters had been fortunate to grow up in a home where they had never doubted their parents' love. It was something that had been obvious every day of the year, not just at the holidays.
He smiled to himself as he thought about the phone conversation he'd had with his parents earlier. Everyone was going to be at their house for Christmas this year and they had wanted to make sure he was coming home. His parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and even Grandma were all going to be together for the first time in a while. It was going to be complete chaos, he thought with a big grin.
He arrived at the building that housed the lecture hall and he took the steps two at a time. He caught the door after a couple of other students exited and he glanced at his watch. He had stayed on the phone longer than he should have but Mom and Dad had started arguing about something no one but them would understand and he had practically seen his sister rolling her eyes when she had grabbed the phone.
He had laughed when she had complained about their parents, insisting that they made up things to argue about just so they could make up. He had snorted and told her he'd figured that out years ago. He shook his head and shifted his books higher under his arm as he rounded a corner too fast and slammed into someone. He reached up to rub his chest where one of the other person's textbooks had hit him. He looked around at the books and papers scattered around… a girl. He cocked his head to one side as his gaze moved over her slowly. Yep, definitely a girl. He opened his mouth to apologize as he held a hand out to her but she smacked his hand away and scrambled to get to her feet.
"Why don't you watch where you're going!" she yelled as she started stacking her books and papers into a messy pile. "It's so typical of men to go through life thinking they own the world! I've got a newsflash for you – "
"Hey, don't go blamin' me because you weren't watchin' where you were goin'," he snapped. If she thought she was gonna win this one she was sorely mistaken. His parents had nearly perfected the art of arguing, especially when it came to men versus women. "You women wanted equality so you can just watch where you're goin' too! You don't get to pull the equality card when it's convenient for you an' just file it away the rest of the time. You're just as much to blame here so don't pull all that feminine crap with me."
He saw her stiffen at that remark and she straightened her spine as she whirled around to face him. Her dark eyes were blazing with righteous indignation as she stomped up to him, nearly tripping over one of the books in the process. Her hands came to rest on her hips as she drew herself up to her full height, which was considerably less than his six-foot frame.
"Don't you dare talk to me like that! Do you have any idea who I am?"
He shrugged carelessly. "Should I?"
"I'm the woman who will make your entire college life a living hell! You want a war, you've got one!" She stopped mid-rant when she noticed the way he was staring at her. Of course, she thought with a roll of her eyes. She was in the middle of telling him how it was going to be from now on and he was staring at her like an idiot. She reached up to toss her long black hair back over her shoulder, smirking when his eyes followed the movement.
"Yes, I'm hard to resist but that won't help you now. Trust me, it won't get you anywhere." She took a step back when he suddenly laughed, wondering what was wrong with him.
"China Mai Mercier, you haven't changed at all," he announced with a laugh. "You're still a firecracker." His eyes danced with amusement as he took in her confused expression. He could see the underlying annoyance in her eyes as she tried to figure out how he knew her and if she should know him.
"How do you know my name?"
"Jeez, considering the similarities between our meeting here and the first time we met I'd think you'd remember my name."
Her eyes narrowed. "And yet I don't."
He just grinned at her snotty tone. "Carradine Guerin."
Her mouth dropped open for a moment. "Little Carey Guerin, my next door neighbor when we lived in Quebec?" She smirked when he made a face. "Let me guess… no one calls you Carey anymore?"
"Just Mom," he admitted with a shrug. There was no breaking her of the habit and he had finally just followed Dad's advice and let her win that one.
"What're the chances we'd run into each other again like this?"
"Are you kiddin'? Anyone who knew how we met." He shook his head. "The only difference is this time you didn't knowingly assault me… I don't think."
They looked at each other, remembering the morning they had met and the weeks of contention that had followed and they burst into laughter. Students and faculty passed by them, carefully stepping around the papers still scattered on the floor, tossing speculative looks at the couple holding onto each other as they laughed so hard they could barely breathe.
"You got anything that you can't miss out on for the next couple of hours?" Carradine asked when he could breathe again.
She was leaning against his side as they braced their backs against the wall. "No, what about you?"
"I was on my way to a lecture, but this's more important." He smirked. "More fun, too."
She shoved him and knelt down to start gathering her papers together. "Your mom would have your ass for blowing off a lecture."
"So? Your mom would have your ass just for sayin' the word ass," he threw back at her as he crouched beside her to give her a hand.
"I'm 20 years old, Carey. I can say whatever I wanna say."
"Yeah, bet you wouldn't say it if your mom was standin' here."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Neither would you."
That was true, he admitted – silently. Her mom had not tolerated language of any kind and the two of them had gotten into trouble more than once for using bad words in her presence.
She snorted. "You know it's true whether you admit it out loud or not."
Carradine paused to look at her. As kids she had always picked up on what he was thinking and he had never understood it. "Hey, your mom could be scary!" he said to cover when she looked up at him.
"Could be? She still is!"
They walked to a coffee shop not far from campus and settled down at a corner table after ordering their drinks. Carradine shrugged out of his heavy winter coat and piled it on top of hers on one of the other chairs at their table. He stirred sugar and hazelnut-flavored cream into his coffee as he glanced up at her, watching her for a moment as she doctored up her hot chocolate, adding vanilla-flavored cream to it.
"So, what're your parents up to now?" he asked finally.
"They're in New Zealand now with my two irritating little brothers. Dad's still with the same company, bouncing around the globe. He's been talking about taking an early retirement so they can finally settle down in one place."
"Yeah? They thinkin' 'bout comin' back to Canada?"
"Canada or China, they haven't really decided yet." She leaned forward over her hot chocolate. "Dad really wants to come back home though. He'll do whatever Mom wants to do because he wants her to be happy, but he misses being in Canada. He won't admit it, but I know it."
He shook his head and grinned at her. "Still a daddy's girl, huh?"
"And proud of it." She shrugged and took a sip of her hot chocolate. "Once a daddy's girl always a daddy's girl. What about your parents?"
"They moved down to Florida a couple years back."
"Florida? That's awesome! They have great beaches down there and then there's the surfing."
"You're into surfin'?" he asked, interested.
"Oh, yeah," she enthused. "A few years ago Dad's company sent him to Brazil for about a year and a half. I loved to hang out on the beach and I learned to surf. It's an amazing feeling, Carey. Being out there, just you and the ocean."
"So, some kinda Zen thing?" he asked with a softly mocking smirk. "The Zen of surfing… sounds like the kinda thing my Uncle Kyle would be into."
She shook her head at him. "Do you get to see more of your family now that your parents have moved? You had an uncle and aunt in Florida when we were kids, right?"
He nodded. "My family's a lot closer together now, not so spread out all over the place. My sisters love it there though."
Sisters… plural. Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. "How many do you have?"
"Three, and they're the most annoying, nosy, opinionated girls I've ever known."
"So basically just female versions of you," she teased.
"Damn, I know our parents kept contact after you guys left Canada, and we left Quebec not long after that, but somehow…" he shook his head. "How did we lose touch?"
"Hell if I know. I guess we were both just getting to the age where we were ready to start really exploring our worlds beyond our known boundaries and that allowed us to move on after we moved away from each other."
For hours they talked about what they had been up to since the last time they had seen each other, caught up on old news and laughed over the things they had gotten up to as kids. They had commiserated over the loss of their beloved childhood pets and reminisced over the Christmases that had brought the dogs into their lives. They had regaled each other with stories of their siblings, told tales of their times in different countries, and even shared their most embarrassing moments during those awkward teenage years.
They lost track of time as the hours passed by, occasionally stopping to refill their mugs or order something to snack on. Eventually the conversation turned to the freedom of being away from home and missing their families, even more than usual as the holidays approached. Carradine cocked his head to one side, studying her and seeing the sadness in her eyes in spite of the brave smile on her face when she admitted that she wouldn't be seeing her family this Christmas.
"So come home with me," he blurted out.
"Yeah, I mean, my parents always loved you…" he trailed off at her snort of disbelief. "Well, alright, but we both drove Dad crazy at the beginning." He laughed. "I remember him tellin' Mom when she got pregnant that it'd better be a boy. She swears it's his fault I ended up with three sisters."
"Your parents are great, Carey, but from the sounds of it they're gonna have their hands full with your whole family being there."
"So? You do remember my parents… lots of love and lots of crazy. They thrive on the chaos in their lives."
"Your mom thrives on it," China corrected. "Your dad simply tolerates it for her sake."
Carradine shrugged. "Whatever it is, it works for them. So come home with me and spend Christmas with me an' my family."
She bit her lip, so tempted to just say yes. "You really don't think they'd mind?"
"Don't make me call Mom. It's late," he motioned to the clock on the wall that was nearing the midnight hour. "Dad would have a fit if I woke the whole house up to ask a question that I already know the answer to. Trust me on this, China, my parents would love to have you with us for the holidays."
She shook her head at him when she finally gave in and he smirked smugly. "God, you look just like your dad when you do that," she laughed.
The evening eventually drew to a close and he insisted on walking her to her dorm room, reluctantly leaving her only after they had exchanged phone numbers. Walking back to his apartment he had once again been whistling under his breath, happy to have been reunited with his best friend and certain that this time they wouldn't make the same mistake and lose contact with each other again.
What he didn't know was that not only would they stay in contact, but that just a few months after graduating college the two of them would get married and begin a life together.