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A year and a half earlier

           

            “Y’know, I feel like I haven’t given this city enough of a chance,” Marcus mused. He gestured vaguely around them, as though the restaurant was enough to illustrate his point. “Now, keep in mind that I’d still pick Milwaukee for the usual weekend outing—”

            Abby snorted in the middle of a sip of water. “Put it more formally, I dare you.”

            He continued as though she hadn’t interrupted. “Because… the parking is cheaper. The restaurants are cheaper. There’s less traffic. It’s a much closer commute, obviously. But I do feel sophisticated coming to Chicago, in an absurd sort of way.”

            “Now, would that be because of the four hot dogs that you gracefully shoved into your mouth during lunch, or because of the scene you made in the Art Institute when a teenager got in front of you while you were trying to have your Ferris Bueller moment in front of that Seurat painting?”

            Marcus smirked at her. “Okay, well obviously it’s mostly because of this evening. This is restaurant is so fancy they have a coat check, for God’s sake.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper. “And it felt pretty mandatory, coming in here wearing what looked like parkas. The servers would have had to squeeze around us.”

            “We could have always asked for a table for four and treated our coats to a nice dinner,” Abby offered.

            He giggled and shook his head. “And now we’re going to the symphony… It all just feels very…”

            “Bourgeois?”

            “Yes, exactly. Not that I’m not thrilled that your boss offered you the tickets, and that you invited me. Did I mention that I played Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in college?”

            Abby leaned forward eagerly. “You certainly didn’t.”

            “It was during my last concert before graduation. I’d honestly forgotten about it until you sent me the program notes and I looked up all the pieces. I played in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto once, too, although I don’t like to think about it—I hated the soloist.” At Abby’s questioning look, Marcus sighed and added, “She was in a lot of my philosophy classes, and she was always so insufferable. Plus, right before we started practicing the Mozart, she started dating this guy I’d been trying to seduce all semester, so I might have been…”

            “A little biased,” Abby smirked. “Right.”

            “No such negative connections to the Serenade, though. That was some of the most fun I ever had in orchestra.”

            “And then you graduated and packed your cello away in perpetuity.”

            Marcus looked down at his water, spinning it uncomfortably on the table. “Pretty much. I stopped listening to that sort of music, too. So this’ll be… nice. It’ll be really nice.”

            “Good, I’m glad you think so.” She smiled gently at him. “If you’re nearly finished, I think we’d be able to make the pre-concert lecture. I know you mentioned being curious about it earlier.”

            He considered this. “Or, alternatively, we could get some of that chocolate lava cake that we saw at that other table as we were coming in.”

            Abby laughed. “Would you mind splitting it?”

            “Do I ever mind?”

            She smirked. “Good point. Sure, let’s have some cake.”

 

--

 

            Even though Marcus and Abby left the concert in good time, and even though the drive out of Chicago was far less arduous than the drive in, it took a few hours to get back to Arkadia. Abby offered to take the wheel, because she was far more of a night owl than Marcus, but he was protective of his truck. She’d never heard of anyone else driving it, not even Jake.

            “Just talk to me and I’ll stay awake just fine,” he told her.

            So she did. He listened and dutifully ‘Mhm’ed as she expressed exasperation about her parents, who were complaining that she, once again, had not set aside vacation time to visit them with Clarke over the summer. She talked about the new interns at the hospital, and mentioned that she was particularly fond of Eric Jackson, whom she hoped her boss would hire at the end of his residency. She told him that Clarke had officially declared an art history major the other day, and that even though she wanted to be excited for her daughter, she couldn’t shut off the part of herself that was concerned art history wouldn’t be a viable option post-graduation.

            “I was always so determined not to be one of those parents who insisted their kid go into a profitable field,” Abby said. “But you and I both know that Jake was the low maintenance one, especially when it came to Clarke’s future. He was so convinced that she would be able to find a place for herself wherever she looked, but it’s hard to have that optimism when she’s settled on art history.”

            For the first time in what was probably about half an hour, Marcus spoke. “What does she want to do?”

            “That’s part of the problem: she has no idea.”

            “Does that worry her?”

            Abby opened her mouth reflexively, but then she paused. “I don’t know.”

            Marcus glanced over at her, although Abby could hardly see his face in the darkness. “I’d bet you anything it does.”

            “Why are you so sure?”

            “Imagine how she feels—her dad was an engineer, and you’re a doctor. There’s no way it hasn’t occurred to her that her life will be nowhere near as comfortable. Besides which… she’s your daughter. I’ve spent the past 20 years watching her make decisions just like you do.”

            Abby smiled to herself and reached over to the gear shift, smoothing her thumb over the back of his hand. “Thank you, Marcus. You’re probably right.”

            “Of course I am. So just… try to let her be happy. Get excited over her classes when she wants to talk to you about them. Don’t say ‘I told you so’ when she has a crisis about her future.”

            “You make it sound so easy.”

            He laughed. “I think you underestimate yourself.”

            Something in Marcus’s tone made Abby’s breath catch in her throat, and she fell silent for a few moments, at a loss for words.

            “I still need you to help me stay awake,” he reminded her quietly.

            “Right. Okay. Sorry.” Abby didn’t point out that they were nearly home; that if he was still so cognizant, he would easily make it back to Arkadia. Instead, she said, “I have some ice cream at home that I’ve been thinking about for the past hour.”

            Marcus hummed. “Cherry Garcia?”

            “Yep. I think there’s still half a pint of Strawberry Cheesecake left from the last time you came over, if you want it.”

            “I really, really do.” After a pause, though, he said, “But I probably shouldn’t. I need to get to work pretty early tomorrow.”

            Abby was taken aback by how disappointed she was. “Right, makes sense.”

            They pulled off the highway in good time. They parked in Abby’s driveway, and, after considering it for a moment, Marcus cut off the engine. At the same moment, Abby got a text from Clarke.

            “My daughter thinks it’s funny that I didn’t like the Ligeti,” she scoffed.

            “I told you she’d say that,” Marcus chuckled, shaking his head. “Have you seen the sort of stuff she listens to?”

            “I know, I know.” Abby shifted in her seat, turning so that she could look at Marcus. “I’m more surprised that you liked it.”

            He looked over at her bashfully. “I thought you were done making fun of me for that.”

            “I’m never done making fun of you,” Abby said, nudging his arm. Marcus looked over at her briefly, but he didn’t say anything, and Abby swallowed hard as she unbuckled her seatbelt. “Sure you don’t want any ice cream?”

            “Yeah, yeah, it’s…” Marcus glanced at the broken clock on the dashboard out of habit and flinched before checking his phone. “It’s nearly 2, Christ. I guess the drive home took longer than we thought it would.”

            “Okay. Well, thanks for coming with me. I haven’t been able to see you as much since you started campaigning and I started taking more night shifts. It was…” Abby looked down at her lap. “It was really nice to hang out for more than an hour or two in one go.”

            “It was, yeah.”

            “We’ll talk tomorrow?”

            Marcus nodded. “Yeah, sounds good.”

            “Great. Have a good night.” Abby leaned across the seat to give Marcus a quick kiss on the cheek, but in the dark, she couldn’t see his face as well, and she ended up catching part of his mouth.

            She pulled back, freezing with only a few inches between them. Her hand was on his shoulder, and she was distinctly aware of Marcus’s fingers, which were settled close to her thigh on the seat.

            “I’m—” Abby started.

            “Sorry,” Marcus said at the same time.

            But neither of them budged. Neither of them took a breath.

            Abby tilted her head toward Marcus slightly, her gaze drifting down to his lips, back up to his eyes. She saw a question there.

            She answered it by leaning in again, capturing his lips in a full, eager kiss. Abby crawled across the seat, closer to Marcus, and her heart leapt when she heard the click of Marcus’s seat belt that allowed him to shift away from the steering wheel. In one fluid motion, he reached for her waist, and Abby followed his lead, crawling into his lap.

            Marcus trailed a hand up Abby’s side, settling at her neck so that he could pull her closer, kiss her harder. She sighed into his mouth, a long and shuddering breath that sent goosebumps up Marcus’s arms.

            Then she shifted in his lap, grinding against his pelvis just slightly, and he groaned. Abby smiled against his lips, peppering a few more kisses around his mouth and cheeks before pulling back to take a quick breath.

            “Is… is that offer of ice cream still on the table?” Marcus mumbled.

            “Fuck yes,” Abby breathed.

            He giggled eagerly as he fumbled for the door handle, and they stumbled out of his door one after another, Abby only barely remembering to grab her coat and purse.

            “Stop laughing, you’ll wake the neighbors,” Abby whispered as she pulled Marcus toward her door.

            “Will not,” Marcus muttered. “We’re being quiet as mice.”

            Abby rolled her eyes and shushed him again, tugging at his arm with greater determination.

            They practically fell across the threshold. Marcus glanced toward the kitchen, and for a moment, Abby thought that Marcus legitimately did want to come in for ice cream. But then he pulled her into another kiss, and they took clumsy steps toward the sofa instead.

            Marcus’s head buzzed as Abby pressed her hips against his, as she traced her fingers down his chest, undoing the buttons of his shirt and trailing kisses along his skin as she went.

            Somewhere around the time that Marcus found himself itching to reach for the zipper of Abby’s dress, it registered to Marcus that Abby had become more guarded; her touch was light, timid, and he could feel her torso pulling away, as though she were subconsciously straining to get out of his reach.

            Immediately, he leaned as far away from her as possible, looking into her eyes – trying, desperately trying, to not stare down at her pink, pink lips, swollen from kissing him – as he asked, “Abby, is… is this alright?” And, after a brief pause, “Are you alright?”

            For a moment, the question didn’t even seem to register, not entirely. Abby stared at Marcus blankly—he felt as though he was being appraised. She’d never looked at him like this.

            He wasn’t sure he liked it, having her size him up so thoroughly. It didn’t feel like a good thing.

            And then she was out of his lap, off the sofa, and on her feet in front of him, cast in little more than moonlight to give Marcus a hint at her feelings.

            “No, no, it’s…” she mumbled to herself. “I want it to be, I really do, but it’s not alright. I don’t think it is alright.”

            Marcus bit his lip and looked up at Abby sadly. If her tone was anything to go by, she was not simply talking about the kissing – the easily-almost-more than kissing – that had been happening between them. “Okay, that’s fine. We really… we really could go eat some ice cream,” he offered.

            But she hardly heard him. “No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’ve spent months wondering about you, trying to figure out if— why I was attracted to you.”

            “Why?” Marcus echoed, bewildered.

             “Sure,” Abby mumbled. “‘What if Marcus just reminds me of Jake?’ ‘What if it just feels like it couldn’t go somewhere with Marcus?’ ‘What if Marcus just feels safe? Maybe it’s not about him at all.’”

            Marcus’s eyes widened, but he found himself speechless.

            “And, I mean, you were… you were Jake’s best friend. You were his best friend,” she repeated, quieter. “And that’s why I… that’s why I can’t—”

            Both of them were taken aback by the tears that seemed to be building in her eyes, and under any other circumstances, Marcus would have immediately moved to wipe her tears away. As it was, though, he simply rose to his feet, leaving so much space between them.

            An unbearable amount of space between them.

            “I’m my own person,” he offered, quietly. “I’m not just ‘Jake’s best friend.’ I know you know me well enough by now to know that. It’s been years since you saw me like that.”

            She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. I just…” Abby squinted at Marcus. “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I… and I still ache, wondering if he might still be here if it weren’t for you. You were his best friend, yet…”

            Marcus’s breath caught in his throat. “Abby—”

            “No, no, think about it, Marcus. You were the one who invited us out that night. You were the one driving. Who knows what might have happened if you hadn’t… if you’d just…” Abby fell silent, staring at him. She looked pained, and what hurt Marcus the most was that she looked at him, in part, like it hurt her to say these things to him. Like she knew, even as she fretted over these anxieties, that it would kill Marcus to hear them.

            And it did kill him, a little bit.

            It certainly killed him enough that he didn’t bother to argue with her anymore. Marcus buttoned his shirt in a rush, not bothering to fix it when he realized the sides were uneven.

            Before he strode to the door, Marcus held Abby’s gaze for long enough to murmur, “Please don’t hide over this. I…” He looked down at the ground, staring at his feet bashfully. “I can’t lose another best friend.”

            With these words, Abby’s face crumbled, and she turned away immediately.

            This, Marcus supposed, was his cue.