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            There was one thing that Abby had to say about Much Ado: it gave her and Marcus an excuse to initiate conversation that didn’t feel forced. Bellamy scheduled numerous Beatrice and Benedick scenes for the Wednesday immediately following the table read. Consequently, Abby was not surprised to wake up to a text from Marcus that Sunday morning.

            Are you free tonight to talk about our scenes? We’ll be better prepared to bully Bellamy into agreeing with us if we come in with a united front.

            She smirked at these words and was about to respond in the affirmative, but she hesitated over the send button for several seconds.

            Placing her phone back on her bedside table, she rolled out of bed and strode down the hallway, checking to see if Clarke was in her room. When she found the bedroom empty, Abby went downstairs and found her daughter sitting at their kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal and skimming the news on her computer.

            “Morning, Mom. How’d you sleep?”

            “Fine, I suppose,” Abby mumbled, although she had to pause briefly to yawn. “I watched two more episodes of Parks and Rec after you went to bed, and I think I’m paying for it—I’m still pretty tired.”

            Clarke hummed sympathetically. “Maybe you’ll be less tempted to make a late night of it if I’m not around. Raven, John, and Emori have recruited me for a trivia night at some new bar a few towns over. I’m probably going to sleep over at Raven’s afterward.”

            “Oh. Okay. So… don’t factor you into my dinner plans,” Abby offered.

            “Nope.”

            Abby nodded vaguely before zeroing in on the sink. She filled a glass with water and faced away from her daughter as she said, “That’s a shame, because Marcus wants to jump into Much Ado tonight and I was thinking that if he came here, the three of us could have a bite.”

            “Bummer!” Clarke exclaimed, and she sounded quite sincere. “It’ll be fine, though, you two can just hang out. It’s not like you need a chaperone.”

            Abby scoffed, although not for the reasons that Clarke likely imagined. In all honesty, despite their very good, very important conversation the day before, Abby didn’t know what sort of comfort level she and Marcus were falling into. Clarke could have easily served as a buffer if things felt awkward.

            “No, of course not. But it would have been nice.”

            “You two will need to do this a lot, though, right? So count me in for another time. I wanna hear all about his new job.” 

            Consequently, instead of inviting Marcus to their house, Abby suggested that they work at Indra’s. Knowing that Clarke would be gone, the prospect of not cooking a meal that evening was quite appealing.

            Great. I’ll pick you up around 4:30.

            Abby nearly asked him how he knew that she could use a ride before she remembered that he’d been one of the first to know that her car was pretty much kaput.

            Not long after lunch, Clarke planned to go over to Raven’s to get ready for the evening. Before she left, though, Abby asked her, “How much creative license is Bellamy actually planning on giving me and Marcus?”

            Clarke beamed at her mother. “Not nearly as much as I’m sure you’ll easily talk him into giving you.”

 

--

 

            Marcus arrived at 4:30 on the dot. Abby had expected this: whenever he made plans, he was always slightly ambivalent about his timings, but she could probably count on one hand the number of times that he didn’t get somewhere exactly when he claimed he would. It was a sort of time management for which she had great respect.

            When she climbed into his truck, he was on his phone, so he greeted her with only a smile and a nod. He listened to the other line for a few moments before saying, “Yes, Mom, I understand that you’re frustrated, but if that didn’t work, I can’t help you much more over the phone. If you’d like, I can come by tomorrow and give it a better look.”

            He fell silent as he put the truck in drive and started off down the street. Then: “Sure, noon sounds fine.” His mouth curled into a small smile as he murmured, “Mhm, love you too.”

            “Computer?” Abby offered as soon as Marcus hung up.

            Marcus laughed and shook his head. “Printer. She probably needs a new one, but I didn’t want to break that to her over the phone.”

            Abby chuckled. “Clarke pulled that with me over winter break. I’d been complaining to her about my phone battery for nearly a month, then she came home from school and just told me that I needed to upgrade.”

            She was reminded, then, of why she’d been so reluctant to take Clarke’s advice: she still had a voicemail from Jake recorded on that old phone. Even before Clarke pointed it out, Abby had realized that she would be able to keep that phone, tuck it away into a drawer. But there was something about carrying it around with her, and a new phone would be letting that go.

            Her expression must have betrayed a shift in her mood, because Marcus’s expression was far more subdued when Abby met his eye again.

            “I reread the entire play this morning,” he said. The change in subject did not go unnoticed by Abby. She was deeply grateful. “That’s why I texted you—I was reading the party scene, and I was really curious about your thoughts on Beatrice’s conversation with Hero and Leonato. Then it occurred to me that I could always just ask.”

            “And that we might as well talk about the rest of the play too. Of course.”

            Marcus grinned at the road. “Right. I’ve already got a fair number of notes in my script… I imagine you do too.”

            “Am I really so predictable?”

            “Forgive me, but I think that I’m allowed to assume after seeing your notes on Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Othello—”

            “I get it, I get it!” Abby exclaimed, laughing. “You know Beatrice is one of my favorite characters, so of course I have some notes.”

            They arrived at Indra’s quickly, and as they stepped out of Marcus’s car, they were already in the middle of discussing the first scene of the play.

            “Of course their feud is partially a performance, Marcus,” Abby exclaimed as they strode through the door. “But I don’t have to tell you that the first scene of Act 4 is enough to show that they’re both reluctant to shut that off, even when they’re alone. Why can’t this first argument be private, too?”

            “If it’s in public, it sets up more of a contrast between their public and private interactions. It shows that they bring out a different side of one another when they’re alone.”

            “Yes, which they’re terrified of at first. But you can still see that shift in their comfort levels from one private conversation to the next.” Abby rolled her eyes and finally looked to Indra, who was hovering at the counter and watching them with some amusement. “Can you believe him?”

            Indra shook her head. “Absolutely not,” she said dryly.

            Marcus grinned. “Hi Indra, sorry. Can I have my usual, please?”

            “Of course. Abby, same for you?”

            “Yes please.”

            “Great. You can go ahead and sit; Octavia will come by with your drinks soon.”

            Abby made a beeline for her favorite table by the window, with Marcus following in her wake until he was intercepted by David and Nathan Miller, who were at a table nearby.

            While they chatted with Marcus, Abby surveyed the café, taking in the other customers. On any given day, a few strangers passing through town might stop into Indra’s for a snack and a cup of coffee, but chances were much higher that Abby would walk in and find that she knew every patron’s name and face, at the very least.

            This was the sort of small-town dynamic that she’d become quite accustomed to, although she hadn’t been fond of it at first. She’d grown up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after attending Northwestern for undergrad and University of Michigan for med school, she’d become quite attached to the particular energy that each of these college towns could boast.

            But then, at Michigan, Abby met Jake. When he first told her that after graduating, he wanted to return to Arkadia, she thought he’d been out of his mind. Their first Thanksgiving as a couple, he brought her home with her, convinced that she would immediately fall in love with the town.

            He was wrong. She liked his family, but she found it unnerving that he knew everyone. She felt like she was an unwelcome character coming into a story halfway through.

            It took two years for him to convince her to apply for residency at the hospital nearby when she graduated, and nearly a month to convince her to take the position once it was clear that they were going to offer it to her.

            When Jake died, and Abby was flooded with condolences in the worst possible places (Indra’s, the grocery store, her damn operating room), a part of her had longed for the anonymity of a bigger city. But a larger part of her was comforted by the thought that she was in a place that he loved so much, and that she’d grown to love too.

             So she stayed. By this point, she’d been in Arkadia so long that she couldn’t really imagine living elsewhere, nor did she particularly want to.

            “I’m assuming the decaf’s for Marcus?” Octavia asked, pulling Abby’s attention away from the chess game that Jacapo and his daughter were playing a few tables away.

            “You got it,” Abby said. Looking up, her eyes widened, and she grinned. “You’ve dyed your hair again!”

“I did! I just went in and got it done this morning.”

“It looks wonderful. Does Bellamy hate it?”

            Octavia rolled her eyes. “He always does. I think he’s being a bit ridiculous—like, yes, it’s purple, but it’s dark enough that it looks black in a certain light. You’d think he’d be more bothered by the tattoos and the piercings, but I think he just likes being unpredictable.” She shrugged. “Luckily it’s not his head. Thank you, though, I’m glad you like it.”

             “Let me offer another vote in the hair’s favor,” Marcus said as he slid into his chair. “You look great, Octavia.”

            Her grin grew wider. “Thanks Marcus. Hey, you two aren’t here to go over play stuff, are you? Because I know Bell was kind of hoping that you…”

            “Wouldn’t plan scenes without him?” Abby offered.

            “If it helps, we’re mostly just unpacking character motivations,” Marcus said.

            Octavia looked between Abby and Marcus, scrutinizing them. “I still don’t know how much he’d like it, but as we’ve already addressed, he sometimes has no taste. If he asks, though, I had no clue what you two were doing over here.”

            She retreated behind the counter, where she and Indra promptly began bickering about who had last taken out the garbage.  

            As Abby took a sip of her chai latte, Marcus said, “I’ll… begrudgingly admit that I see why you want to make Beatrice and Benedick’s exchange in the first scene private.”

            Abby nearly choked. “Yeah?”

            “Mhm. But I don’t think that we can decide what works best for our Beatrice and Benedick until we’ve talked about other parts of their relationship. Like, of course I have to ask—”

            “Yes, they have a history,” Abby said before he could finish. “I’ve always liked to imagine it as a sort of, y’know, ‘engaged to be engaged’ situation, something that Leonato and Hero don’t even know about. Beatrice probably initially wanted to keep it quiet because she was a bit embarrassed about her feelings for Benedick, and then, once he abandoned her, she just continued to keep it to herself.”

            Marcus was staring hard at his script as he flipped through the first scene. “But unbeknownst to her, her initial secrecy was probably one of the things that gave Benedick pause in the first place. If she was embarrassed about her feelings, maybe he figured that their relationship couldn’t work.”

            This comment gave Abby pause, and she stared at Marcus’s hands, reluctant to chance eye contact. She’d spent plenty of time imagining Beatrice and Benedick’s history, imagining Beatrice’s inner conflict and the pain that she must have felt when their relationship went bad. But she had never thought of what might have prompted Benedick to leave. She’d always figured that he was young and foolish, and left it at that.

            She bit her lip, then she nodded. “Right. Perfect.”

            Marcus took a large gulp of his coffee. “So what does that mean about the vibe between them at the beginning of the play?”

            Abby considered the question, aware that she was holding her breath. Finally, she exhaled. “Scared. Neither of them knows how the other feels about the relationship, and they don’t know what to say to each other…”

            When she fell silent, Marcus didn’t say anything for some time. “So they just pick things up where they left off,” he murmured at last. After another beat, he added, louder: “You’re right. That would work well if they’re alone.”

            “Really?” Abby perked up in her seat.

            He gave her a ghost of a smile. “Yes, but don’t feel too smug. I still think that could come through in a more public argument, too. We’ll keep talking about it, but I am tentatively won over. Um, let’s see, moving on to Claudio, Benedick, and Don Pedro’s discussion about Hero… Would you mind if I just went over my thoughts on that scene?”

            “I’d be delighted,” she said, feeling a rush of warmth through her that had nothing to do with her chai latte.

 

--

 

            Marcus and Abby lingered at Indra’s well into the evening. They saw what seemed like half the town filter through the café during that time, and several people stopped to chat with them. More than once, Abby noticed slight confusion on people’s faces at the sight of her and Marcus sitting together.

            And it wasn’t as if she could fault them for it—she’d avoided him for a year, yet there they were, sitting together and carrying on an in-depth conversation that strayed from Much Ado About Nothing after approximately two hours. He described his job as city councilman, which was far from new, but the last time they’d discussed it, he’d only just gotten his name on the ballot. She described some of her recent trips to medical conferences around the world, and she told him about her eventful spring break trip to Disney World with Clarke.

            Finally, Indra came over to their table. “I hate to interrupt the party, but I want to close up soon. Octavia’s leaving in fifteen minutes, so I’m probably going to kick you two out then, too.”

            “What, already? It’s only…” Abby glanced at her phone. “Oh, shit, it’s nearly 8. We haven’t even eaten yet.”

            Marcus looked up at his friend with a wide grin and gentle eyes. “Indra, would it be too much trouble…”

            “Yes, it would. The kitchen’s closed. Don’t turn on that politician charm with me.” She cocked her head to the side. “Are you still good to come over for dinner tomorrow?”

            “Sure am.”

            Indra gave him a thumbs up. “Great. Now please go home.”

            A few minutes later, Marcus and Abby left the café. They reached Marcus’s truck, but they hovered on the sidewalk, glancing up and down the street.

            “Nothing’s open this late,” Marcus murmured. “Do you want me to just take you home?”

            Abby examined him for a few moments. They’d been having such a nice evening; it would be nice to hang out for another hour or two. “No, don’t be ridiculous. You can come over. I’ll make something.”

            For a moment, it seemed as though Marcus was going to say no. But he glanced down at his phone, and when he looked back up at her, he said, “Okay, sure.”

 

--

 

            Marcus had been in the Griffins’ house plenty—hell, he’d even helped Abby and Jake pick it out once they decided to settle down in Arkadia. But as Abby led him inside, both of them were so aware of everything that had changed. Most notably—

            “Christ! I forgot you’d mentioned a dog,” he exclaimed as Scully barreled into him. Rather than irritation, though, he was expressing his delight; he knelt to the ground almost immediately, petting the dog quite eagerly.

            “Yeah, this is Scully,” Abby said, fondly gazing at her pet. “As you can see, she’s all lab—Clarke insisted.”

            He hummed cheerfully. “I imagine you’re going to try to pin her name on Clarke, too.” He directed this comment more to Scully than to Abby. He continued his murmurings to Scully alone, although Abby still caught it: “Yes you are, yes you are.”

            In fact, Clarke had suggested Scully, an idea that came to her during a marathon of The X-Files with Abby. But Abby felt no inclination to defend herself to Marcus. She just smiled and said, “Looks like she likes you.”

            “Dogs always like me. Besides, it’s hard to not impress a lab.”

            “You know what would impress her even more?”

            Marcus’s hands stilled on Scully’s back, and he squinted up at Abby. “Where is this going?”

            Abby briefly considered how shameless she was willing to be.

            Entirely shameless, she decided.

            “Would you mind walking her while I get our food started?”

            He rolled his eyes, but he rose to his feet. “Alright. Where’s her leash?”

            “In the kitchen with the plastic bags. C’mon, I’ll show you.”

            Scully trotted after Abby and Marcus as they moved to the kitchen. Abby’s eyes fell on the dining room table as they passed it—Marcus had made it for her and Jake as a wedding present.

            But his eyes were elsewhere, evidently. “Is that a new sofa?”

            “What?” She spun to look into the living room. “Oh, yes. I, um, I got it about a year ago.”

            He nodded vaguely, but Abby found that, quite suddenly, she couldn’t look him in the eye. So she directed her attention back to the issue of dog-walking. “Just a quick trip around the block would mean the world to me. And to Scully, probably.”

            “You got it.”

            The second she heard the door close, Abby sat down at the kitchen table and let out a long sigh.

            Perhaps she shouldn’t have invited him over. It was one thing when they were sitting at Indra’s, talking about Much Ado About Nothing. Now, though, back in her house without Indra to act as chaperone, Abby was distinctly aware that this was peculiar. If conversation faltered or became stilted, there wasn’t an easy exit.

            Even so, Abby wanted Marcus there. She’d missed him exceedingly—it took two hours of bickering over Much Ado to remind her just how much. After Jake passed away, Abby had felt happier with Marcus around, and as she ran over the evening in her mind, she felt that same sense of joy.

            “Things don’t have to be weird,” she muttered to herself.

            By the time Marcus returned, Abby was hard at work. She called to him as soon as she heard the door open. “I figured I’d just go easy and make some pasta, does that sound alright?”

            “Pasta sounds perfect.”

            He came into the kitchen and busied himself with Scully’s leash, then he sat down. He surveyed the room, inspecting everything now that he had a chance to look without Abby watching him.

            A collection of photos was scattered on the wall above the table. The Griffins had been constructing this collage for as long as Marcus could remember. One, in particular, caught his eye – of him and Jake standing over Clarke at her fourth birthday as she blew out her candles – but he was surprised to see just how many he was in. He’d never noticed before.

            “Hey Abby,” he said.

            She stopped mixing the sauce so she could turn to look at him. “What’s up?”

            Marcus hesitated. “Scully’s really great.”

            Abby smiled, nodded, and returned her attention to the stove.