Max drew up in front of the house and switched off the engine. He wasn't really sure what he hoped to achieve but he couldn't face going home. If Amanda was there there would doubtless be another blazing argument, and if she wasn't, well, then he'd be alone again and he didn't think that would really be any better.
He opened the car door and steeped out onto the pavement. The night had grown distinctly cold and the wind ripped through his flimsy clothes setting his teeth chattering. Pulling his collar up on end he pushed shut the door and pressed the little button on his key fob that set the alarm.
None of the lights were on inside but it didn't even occur to him to notice that. He walked straight up the short pathway and pressed the doorbell in, letting it ring for five seconds solidly before releasing the pressure.
He heard the scraping sound of the internal chain being put on before the door opened two inches.
"Max? What the hell do you want at this time of night?"
"I want to talk to you Charlie. Can I come in?"
"Hold on" he closed the door in order to slip off the security chain and reopened the door wide enough to let Max slip through. "This is about Duffy, isn't it?"
"Is she here?" Max asked, the unwelcome thought entering his head for the very first time.
"No she isn't, she's at her place as far as I know. Max look, she told me about what happened between you this afternoon, but I honestly have no idea what's going on in her head so there really isn't any point in asking me, and frankly it's very late and I am very tired." Charlie returned to the living already knowing that Max wasn't likely to leave just because he wasn't receiving a warm welcome.
Max followed him though and seated himself on one of the armchairs without being invited to do so. Charlie sat on the sofa, twisted to face his visitor, feeling more than slightly worried by Max's demeanour. It was obvious that he'd been drinking, his eyes though apparently focused were glassy and his face was set in a picture of disgust.
"Go on then Max, what is it you want to talk about?"
"She doesn't love you."
It wasn't exactly what Max had planned to say, but then at no point had he actually come up with a credible script for the occasion. It was an impulse thing, some primitive urge to go puff up his chest in front of his rival. Only as soon as he sat down he realised how stupid it was and said the first hurtful thing he could. And it certainly seemed to work. It was only a momentary reaction but Charlie flinched visibly, and Max was pleased to see it.
"And that's what you came all this way to say?" Charlie replied, sitting up straighter on his seat.
"She told me. I thought you should know."
"Well thank you Max, very kind of you to come," came the reply, dripping with sarcasm. "Now, please, get the hell out of my house." Rising from the sofa, Charlie pointed emphatically at the door, his jaw clenched and his eyes blazing with barely contained anger.
Max didn't move. "Look, Charlie, I didn't come here to fight -"
"No! Of course you didn't!" Charlie ground out through gritted teeth, cutting off whatever else Max was going to say. Max could tell his erstwhile friend was fighting a losing battle with his composure; Charlie's face was flushed and his arms were ridgid at his sides, hands balled into fists. "You just came to do the neighbourly thing and let me know the woman I'm in love with couldn't be less in love with me if she tried," he continued in the same low, furious growl. He took a few deep breaths through his nose to calm himself a little, before expelling such a huge sigh his whole body seemed to fold in on itself. When he spoke is anger was gone, replaced with bitterness and regret. "You really think I don't know that already?"
Dumbfounded, Max didn't know what to do as Charlie flopped heavily back onto his sofa, viciously rubbing his hands over his face as though he could scrub his misery right off his face.
"Go away. Go home. Go to her. I don't care, just go." Charlie replied softly, his words muffled behind his hands.
Max stood unsteadily, the weight of all that he'd done lying heavy in the pit of his stomach. He'd hurt Duffy, Amanda and Charlie. Hatrick. He hadn't set out to hurt any of them, not really. Well, maybe he'd childishly wanted to hurt Charlie in retaliation of the bad day he was having himself. None of it was really Charlie's fault after all and he couldn't help but recall a heated conversation in the aftermath of his brief affair with Duffy when he'd basically told Charlie to act on his feelings for her. At least in that argument Charlie had fought back, and unconvincing though his rebuttal was, it was better than the miserable acceptance of Max's words this time.
Running on his finer instincts, Max moved alongside Charlie and sat next to him. "I'm sorry."
Charlie turned to face him. He hadn't been crying, but he did look absolutely desolate. "For?" he prompted, confused.
"What I said was tactless. I was angry. I shouldn't have come here and I shouldn't have taken my feelings out on you."
"You shouldn't have, but it doesn't stop what you said being true, does it?" he asked rhetorically. "I've been in love with her for such a long time and I suppose I always thought if I felt like that about her, she'd feel the same about me. That if ever anything happened and Andrew wasn't in the picture she'd turn to me, but she went to you even when Andrew was still around. Should have told me everything I needed to know right then."
"I don't think…" he faltered, trying to express his own mounting doubts, "After today I don't think she'll turn to me again."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Max. Duffy has always let her heart rule her head. If she loves you, she'll forgive you, provided of course that it's over between you and Amanda."
"It is," Max assured him, "But that's still a pretty big 'if'."
"Not that big. Not big at all."
Max couldn't help but smile at Charlie's certainty, though he tried to tone it down for the other man's sake. "You really do love her, don't you?"
"It's not enough."
"I should go."
"Yeah." Charlie frowned even as he agreed. "Wait, Max, how did you get here?"
"And how much exactly have you drunk tonight?"
"I know inebriation when I see it. You can't drive all the way to your place in that state. Use my spare room."
Max looked incredulously at Charlie. "Sure?" Charlie nodded. "Uh, alright then. You know, you're a much better friend than I deserve."
"Just doing my civic duty, mate." Charlie replied, but he forced a tentative smile as accompaniment.
Charlie had forgotten when he offered up his spare room to Max that Duffy was planning to come round in the morning to talk, but perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea to get everything sorted as soon as possible.
He busied himself making a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee, and tried to keep from clock watching. Duffy would never intentionally be late for anything remotely important but life with three young children, Charlie could imagine, was not prone to running like clockwork.
Upstairs, Max was still sleeping off his hangover, not even the brief argument between burnt rashers and smoke alarm rousing him. For the best, Charlie thought, he could get in his two cents without an audience and then discreetly retreat and leave them to it.
If he was honest a part of him was loath to play matchmaker between them. Just last night he'd been perfectly happy in his delusion that he and Duffy were finally going to be together, really together, like he'd wanted them to be for so many years but he hadn't even needed to wait for the dawn to know that it was indeed a delusion. Duffy hadn't responded with the enthusiasm he'd wished for; she hadn't responded to his declaration of love, she'd run away. He knew her well enough to know that he reaction to Max's betrayal of trust was too strong for a casual fling. Max and Duffy had had a spark from the very beginning and they were now free to pursue it. It would make them happy, and he'd just have to be content knowing she was happy.
When the sound of the doorbell broke him from his thoughts he winced and looked at his kitchen ceiling, listening intently for sounds of movement. After a second he was satisfied that Max was well and truly out for the count and hurried to the front door.
"Morning Charlie," Duffy said, her face already screaming apologies although her voice was perfectly friendly.
He ushered her inside, uttered what he hoped was an equally friendly greeting and took her coat to hang. "You got home alright then?" he said over his shoulder as he led her to the kitchen, "Coffee? Tea?"
"I got home fine. And no thanks. We… we need to talk. Sit down?"
He nodded somewhat reluctantly, knowing that the axe was about to fall didn't mean he had to welcome it. Sitting at one side of the pine table, she slid in opposite him, her fingers fidgeting nervously, Charlie noted with surprise. A moment later he chastised himself for it. So caught up in his own feelings he'd pretty much forgotten that this would be just as hard, harder even, for her. She didn't know how he'd react after all. He reached out and clasped his hand over hers, stilling her.
"Can I go first? Please Duffy?" It was her turn for a hesitant nod, and he smiled his thanks. "Last night… last night I made a mistake. I let myself believe what I wanted to believe, I didn't let myself see that my feeling weren't… aren't returned." He paused, looking at their joined hands rather than meeting her eyes. "I love you, but whatever you feel for me it's not the same and we can't - I can't - force it. You mean too much to me and I don't want to spoil our friendship," he finished in a rush, then glanced up sharply finally meeting her eyes and seeing the warmth in her gaze that answered his next question before it had left his lips, "It's not already too late for that is it?"
She twisted her hands beneath his so she could squeeze his fingers. "No, of course not. I do love you , I just -"
"Please, Dufs. Don't… You don't need to explain. I know. We're good as friends, that's what we should be. Besides," he took a deep breath, don't sure exactly the best way to phrase what he knew needed to be said. He settled for the direct approach. "You love Max."
Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped in shock, but, he noted sadly, she couldn't bring herself to deny it. Getting over the surprise of Charlie's astuteness, even as she realised that her best friend had always known her better than maybe she even knew herself, Duffy worried her bottom lip a little before speaking quietly to the table top so that Charlie had to strain to hear her.
"You're right. Like always. I'm so sorry, Charlie." She raised her head, showing him her earnest, worried, expression.
Charlie couldn't honestly say what it was she was sorry for, and what had her so worried, whether it was that she didn't reciprocate his feelings or that she'd fallen for Max, but he supposed it didn't really matter. He knew now that they'd be alright, the two of them, their friendship was stolid enough to withstand everything that had happened provided he accepted her apology. He could do that.
He stood, one hand still tangled with hers, and came around the side of the table towards her, tugging on their connection gently enough to urge her to rise too. "Don't be sorry, kid, it's okay. Everything's gonna be okay."
She broke free of his grip and wrapped her arms around him instead, laughing softly at his exclamatory "Oof!" They stayed hugging for several seconds, strengthening the slightly dented bonds of trust and friendship. His heart ached that this was the closest he'd ever be to her, but it was so very much better than nothing at all. A part of his heart would always be reserved for her, and he knew beyond doubt that the reverse was true.
She kissed his cheek as they pulled apart, and favoured him with the first proper smile since she'd arrived.
"So," he started, risking destroying the mood, "what about you and Max?"
In the interests of mutual honesty she answered immediately, "I saw him briefly, very briefly after the ball. He told me it was over between him and Amanda and I told him I don't care. I've screwed everything up - I told him to get lost!"
"He didn't listen."
"Huh? What do you mean by that?"
"He didn't get lost, he came over here. We talked… well, argued then talked. He knows he was wrong to keep you in the dark about Amanda. We all make mistakes though. He really does love you."
Duffy stepped back a pace, her eyes narrowing as she crossed her arms over her chest. "You're playing cupid?"
He laughed. "I suppose so. I want you to be happy and I get the distinct impression that this would make you happy. Correct me if I'm wrong…"
Blushing, she said, "You're not wrong."
"He was drunk last night - not that has a bearing on his feelings - just that he shouldn't have been driving, and I -" he broke off mid sentence as she bolted from the room and back out to the hall. "Duffy?"
He caught up with her at the open front door, and following her gaze realised what she'd seen. Max's car was parked at a peculiar angle on the pavement on the other side of the road. Duffy's was a few metres down the road and she obviously hadn't twigged the significance until Charlie had mentioned driving.
"Has been all night. He's sleeping off the effects of the alcohol in the spare room."
"Oh," Duffy managed, stuck for anything more eloquent to say. She moved to shut the door once more, but Charlie reached out and grabbed it before it closed. Reaching behind him he pulled his jacket from the coat stand.
"I have some errands to run. If that's alright by you." He glanced meaningfully up the stairs then back to Duffy. "Believe me, I'm not trying to force you to talk to him, but these things shouldn't be left to fester."
"What do I say to him?"
Charlie shrugged, "You'll think of something." Pulling on his jacket, he moved past her and onto his own front path. "I won't be long, but if I'm not back before you've left just make sure the door's shut behind you" he added deliberately, hoping she'd be not only sensible enough but polite enough not to take advantage of large bed in an otherwise empty house. Being happy for them only stretched so far.
She smiled knowingly as she gave him a peck on the cheek goodbye and let him pull the door closed.
It took a few moments to check her hair and make-up in the hall mirror before she ventured up the stairs. Duffy knew Charlie's house well, and made a beeline to the spare room, hearing the soft snoring of the man she loved as she pushed open the door.
Max was fully clothed except for his shoes which were thrown haphazardly by the side of the bed, and fast asleep in the dusky light. Seeing his face, even in sleep, she knew she was right in her decision and crossed her fingers as she dragged open the curtains that Max genuinely felt the way both she and Charlie believed he did.
As the fresh morning sunshine hit his face, Max grumbled into wakefulness, disorientated and hungover. Duffy sat gingerly on the edge of the bed by Max's shoulder.
"Morning," she whispered and was greeted with a wide if confused grin in return.
"Hello," he replied, his voice husky from sleep, "What are you doing here?"
She reached over to stroke down the side of his face and leant to kiss him chastely on the forehead. "Waking you up?"
"Uh, yes," he said, flushing a little. "I owe you an apology, Lisa. I'm sorry I hurt you."
"Good. Do you still… I mean… Can we try again? Pretend yesterday didn't happen and start fresh this morning?"
Still a little fragile he dragged himself up against the headboard so he was face to face with her and reached out to tangle his fingers in the hair at the back of her head, drawing her in closer to him. "I would like that. A lot. Can I kiss you?"
"Yes," she breathed. "But that's all, Charlie'll be back soon and I'd die if he caught ummphf!"
Words were lost as they kissed passionately and Duffy found herself pulled down on top of an enthusiastic Max. How long do errands take to run, anyway?
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