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            “Can we go look at the paint swatches?”

            Marcus stopped in his tracks, and another customer just about to walk into the store had to step around him. He blinked skeptically down at Abby. “Are you planning to paint your house?”

            “No, I just want to look,” she shrugged. “Didn’t you say we’re not really in a hurry?”

            “I did…” Marcus hesitated. “But the sales people over there can be pretty pushy. Isn’t that how Clarke ended up with a green bedroom? You just wanted to look and then they talked Jake into ‘treating his little girl?’”

            Abby laughed eagerly. “I’d forgotten about that. Well, I think you’re being a bit dramatic, but if you’re really so worried, we’ll run the moment they try to speak to us.”

            “Very reassuring,” he murmured, but he couldn’t help smiling as she pointedly strode toward the paint section.

            “You know, I actually have been thinking about painting my kitchen,” Marcus mused once they’d reached the swatches.

            She shushed him and whispered, “Careful, they’ll hear you and take advantage of your weakness.”

            “Now who’s being dramatic?”

            Abby shrugged. She reached for a swatch of yellows, holding it up for his inspection. “I’ve always thought that a yellow kitchen would be beautiful. Yellow walls, white cabinets and counters… It would be so cheerful, don’t you think?”

            “But you’re just looking,” Marcus said with a chuckle.

            “It would be too much hassle to do anything with my kitchen. I like it how it is, it’s just one of those things that I used to imagine when I was young, y’know?” Abby returned the swatch to its place and moved to examine some nearby blues and purples. “But what’s your vision for your kitchen? I can’t even picture what it looks like.”

            “Doesn’t surprise me—I don’t think you’ve been to my place since I moved.”

            She remembered, abruptly, that he’d moved only a few weeks before they stopped talking. And in the time since reuniting through Much Ado, they hadn’t had any occasion to go to his house; Abby and Clarke’s house was so much bigger. It was customary.

            “Right, good point.” She hesitated, then looked up at him with a tentative smile. “Paint me a picture?”

            Marcus smiled too while he considered the request. “It’s a bit bigger than my old kitchen. For the first time in my life, I have a dishwasher, which is great. The walls are a sort of… blue-ish gray, I guess? There’s a window over the sink that looks out on the backyard. Um… white tile floor, dark wood cabinets.” He squinted at her. “Is that enough?”

            “Yes, yes, I’ll put you out of your misery,” Abby laughed. “That sounds nice, though. What color ideas have you been toying with, though?”

            He shrugged vaguely. “A milder gray or cream. Like an off-white sort of… thing.” Marcus trailed off, his brow furrowed. “Why do I feel like you’re trying to sell me paint?”

            Abby scoffed and crossed her arms, speaking in a monotone: “You caught me, I secretly work for Home Depot.” Rolling her eyes, she swatted at his arm. “I’m just curious. You must have helped everyone in Arkadia paint, or put in flooring or cabinets or refrigerators or washing machines… It’s nice to hear about your own remodeling hopes and dreams.”

            “They are few and far between,” Marcus said, chuckling. “I’d much rather just help you sort out your life. Like by getting you a new showerhead, for example.”

            “No, no, that can wait.” Abby reached for a few swatches sporting varying shades of white and cream. “We’re planning your new kitchen.”

            Marcus groaned. “What am I going to do with you?”

            “Cooperate?” she offered with a playful grin. She held up a swatch for his inspection. “Thoughts?”

            But he was saved from having to answer when his phone began to ring. He scrambled to reach into his pocket immediately, unable to conceal his surprise when he looked at the caller ID. “It’s my mom.”

            “Oh, tell her I say hello!” Abby exclaimed eagerly. “And that you’re painting your kitchen…” She squinted down at the label on the swatch. “Dutch White next week.”

            “Hi, Mom,” Marcus said. He took one look at the color that Abby was holding up, and he made a face and shook his head.

            Abby continued to shuffle through the swatches as Vera said, “Marcus, dear, I need your help. My washer’s stopped working.”

            “Your washer’s stopped working,” he echoed. “What’s wrong with it?”

            “It doesn’t spin.”

            Marcus hummed thoughtfully. Abby held up another swatch for him, and he nearly started laughing as he shook his head again and mouthed God, no. “Last time I opened it up, I noticed the drive belt looked a little worn—I wonder if it’s given out. Otherwise, it might be the transmission. Either way, I think I should be able to fix it. You’re in luck, too; I’m at Home Depot already with Abby, so I can be at your house in less than half an hour if she’s alright with tagging along.” Abby nodded agreeably. “Yeah, half an hour.”

            “Oh, wonderful! I can’t wait to see you both.”

            As he hung up, Marcus rolled his eyes at Abby. “She said she can’t wait to see us, like we’re making a social call or something.”

            “Like she loves her son or something,” Abby countered.

            “She mentioned you too.”

            “Well, who wouldn’t love me?” She smirked up at Marcus, but she didn’t give him time to reply before she turned to return the paint swatches to their places. After a moment’s consideration, she held onto one, turning back around and setting it in Marcus’s hand. “Don’t say no to this one right away,” she instructed.

            He sighed, but he obediently tucked the swatch into his back pocket. “Why don’t you start looking at the showerheads? I’ll go and find the stuff that my mom needs, then I can come meet you and help you pick between whatever two you’re inevitably going to be dithering over.”

            Abby didn’t even bother to feign outrage. “Good call. I’ll see you in a few.”

            Marcus got ahold of everything that he would need for Vera’s washer regardless of the problem, figuring that he could return whatever he did not use. When he found Abby, she was, indeed, vacillating between two showerheads, so he pointed out the one that he liked more and she grabbed it. Soon enough, they were out of Home Depot and in Vera’s driveway.

            She was waiting for them when they arrived, sitting on her porch with a book. As they stepped out of Marcus’s truck, Vera jumped to her feet and rushed to greet them at the top of the steps. “You made such good time,” she marveled, pulling Marcus into a quick hug.

            “I promised we’d be less than half an hour,” he chuckled. He laughed a little harder at Abby’s surprise when Vera released him and immediately went in to hug her as well.

            “Yes, yes, I should believe you by now.” Vera rushed to her door, looking over her shoulder to say, “Abby, while Marcus is fussing over the washer, I have some cookies that I made for my book club that I have yet to sample, if you’d like to help me taste test them.”

            Abby grinned and said, “That sounds great,” at the same time that Marcus asked, “But your favorite son doesn’t get any?”

            “My favorite son can have as many as he likes once my washer works again.”

            He scoffed, but he leaned down and kissed Vera’s cheek before ducking through the basement door. “With any luck, this won’t take long,” he called.

            After grabbing a plate of sugar cookies – which, Abby had to say, smelled delicious, and still had steam rising from them – Vera offered Abby a glass of water and led her back out to the porch. Abby had only been to Vera’s house a handful of times, and she was fairly certain that Clarke had still been in middle school when she was at Vera’s most recently.

            Vera still lived in the house Marcus had grown up in. It sat right at the outskirts of Arkadia, and its backyard was woodlands which spread out for about two miles. Jake and Marcus had spent plenty of time there with Clarke on weekends and over the summer, but for whatever reason, Abby rarely joined them on these visits.

            It wasn’t that she disliked Vera; indeed, of all her friends’ parents, Vera was one of her favorites.

            But deep down, it had always felt a bit like she was intruding on a part of Jake and Marcus’s childhood when she accompanied them to Vera’s. She’d heard so many stories about those woods from Jake when they were still at school, when the woods felt like an intangible, imaginary world that she’d never have any reason to step into. Stories of hide and seek and tick scares and first kisses and school-wide bonfires against Vera’s wishes and…

            And it was still an intangible world to her, at least a little bit. Enough so that she was happy to see Vera whenever they all spent time together elsewhere around Arkadia, but that she usually took the chance to hang back and take some time to herself whenever Jake suggested that he take Clarke to visit Vera some Saturday.

            “Thank you for dropping everything to come out here,” Vera said once they’d sat down.

            “It was nothing,” Abby said. It was reflex, but she meant it. “Like Marcus said: we were at Home Depot already, so it worked out very well for you. And we weren’t in any hurry.”

            “What were you looking for?”

            “New showerhead. I’ve had to use Clarke’s shower for about a year. Which doesn’t matter much when she’s at school, but she’s starting to hate it now that she’s home again.”

            Vera laughed. “Good of Marcus to help you out. I’m assuming he’s going to install it for you?”

            “Yep. I wouldn’t bother otherwise.”

            Lurking in the back of Abby’s mind was the thought that she hadn’t fixed it thus far because she couldn’t ask Marcus for help. But if that possibility occurred to Vera, she didn’t say anything about it.

            Because Vera had mentioned that the cookies were meant for her book club, Abby asked her about what they’d been reading, and they spent some time discussing some of the books that the club had read recently. But then Vera derailed the conversation entirely.

            “Abby, before Marcus is finished…”

            Though struck by the drama of the statement, Abby leaned forward. “Hmm?”

            Vera considered her words carefully before speaking, leaving Abby imagining all sorts of serious confessions.

            “It’s just so wonderful to see that the two of you have begun to spend time together again. I don’t know what… happened between you two, but I know that Marcus has been happier lately than he’s been for a long time. Your friendship means a lot to him.”

            Abby swallowed hard. She did her best to ignore the twinge in her gut. “It means a lot to me, too.”

            Footsteps within the house made both Vera and Abby jolt. When Marcus appeared, he was wiping grease from his hands with a spare cloth. “I was right, it was the drive belt. I checked the transmission too anyway, but it looks to be working fine for now.” Looking between them, he frowned slightly. “Why do you both look so serious?”

            “We were just having a good heart-to-heart,” his mother told him with a smile. “Would you like to join us out here?”

            “I could, but I was actually going to say that I just saw you had some steaks in the freezer. If you two are up for it, I can grill them up real fast. Maybe some of those peppers in the fridge, too?”

            Vera chuckled. “I don’t want you to feel obligated to stick around, dear.”

            “That sounds really good,” Abby interjected. She looked around them thoughtfully, taking in the birds chirping in the nearby woods, the clouds rolling by. As much as she loved her house in town, she found herself marveling, for the first time, at the solitude of Vera’s house on this empty road. She sank back into her seat. “But why don’t you sit with us, Marcus? We can eat in a while.”

            He looked down at Abby rather curiously for a moment, but then: “Sure, that would be nice.”

 

--

 

            “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this,” Bellamy muttered. “I thought you two said you’d discuss it and make up your minds together before today’s rehearsal.”

            “We tried.” Marcus frowned at his script. “We must have argued about it for an hour last night.”

            Bellamy huffed loudly. “We’ve put off finalizing the blocking of this part of the scene for a week, now. I don’t even care whether they kiss anymore; I just need you both to decide.”

            Marcus sighed. “The more we talk about it, the more I have trouble imagining that Beatrice would want to kiss Benedick in a moment so fraught with negative emotion.”

            “Except that’s exactly why this positive confession hits her so hard,” Abby exclaimed, exasperated. “The man she loves has finally acknowledged his feelings for her, and she needs to express her joy in that moment somehow.”

            “And what about Benedick?” Marcus crossed his arms and directed his gaze toward the floor. “Why would he want to kiss her when she’s so distraught?”

            Abby looked between Marcus and her script, bewildered. “He told her that he loved her out of the blue. Why shouldn’t he kiss her?”

            Marcus sighed again, more emphatically this time. “They’re talking to each other for the first time in this scene. They’re not bickering, they’re not making jokes. Beatrice is exposing herself to Benedick, and he tells her that he’s in love with her to reciprocate. It’s not out of the blue at all. But a kiss sure as hell would be. It wouldn’t feel right, not when Abby’s just finished crying over her cousin and when she’s about to start talking about murder…”

            “You mean Beatrice,” Bellamy offered, tentatively.

            “Right, Beatrice,” Marcus echoed. “But that doesn’t matter. The point is that a kiss just feels forced. You know how much I respect Abby’s opinions on this play, Bell.” He glanced toward her and gave her a small smile, which she returned. “You know I’d have to feel strongly about this to fight so hard. I’m willing to put a kiss in if it feels right, I just don’t see yet why it would feel right.”

            Bellamy looked between Marcus and Abby, appraising them carefully. Then he glanced over his own script. “We’re going to block it with a kiss,” he told them at last. “I see where you’re coming from, Marcus, but I agree with Abby, and we really shouldn’t put it off any longer. If you win her over, we’ll figure it out, but I don’t want to waste any more time on this right now.”

            “Sure, I understand.” He nodded graciously.

            “Great. Then Abby, why don’t you go back to your mark from the end of the wedding, and we’ll start blocking from there.”

            As Bellamy walked them through the scene, they stopped a few times at various marks for John to make small adjustments to the lighting programs. While they were standing together, Abby looked up to Marcus and murmured, “I see where you’re coming from, too. Benedick’s finally gone out on a limb, and it probably feels a bit like she’s punishing him by asking him to kill his best friend. A kiss certainly makes that worse.”

            Marcus hummed. “Yes, it does.”

            Then, after a moment’s hesitation, Abby said, “But don’t you think that it’s the first thing you would do in a moment like that?”

            He swallowed hard, blinking down at Abby for a few agonizing moments. But then he looked away. “I don’t know what I’d do in a moment like that.” Raising his voice, he said, “Bellamy, I left my water bottle offstage, mind if I get it?”

            “Go ahead.”

            Abby watched after Marcus as he jogged away. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, somewhere along the line, he’d begun to argue about something else.