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            It did not escape Abby’s notice that the entire cast and crew of Much Ado seemed to come to each rehearsal expecting the tension between her and Marcus to come to a head.

            She wanted to be annoyed about it, but she had to acknowledge – at least to herself – that a part of her expected it too. She did everything that she could to prevent the conflict between them from negatively impacting the way that she played Beatrice, but that didn’t mean that she could shut off the ache in her gut and the stopper in her throat each time she so much as looked at him.

            And that… well. That was enough to make her feel fairly certain that if she couldn’t sort out a way to resolve things with him on her own, maybe the entire cast and crew was right.

             “You know the way to avoid that,” Clarke muttered over dinner, the one evening when Abby voiced her anxiety. “Just talk to him.”

            “I… I can’t. Not yet.” Abby grimaced and fixed her eyes on her fork. “I still don’t know what to say to him, if he even wanted to talk to me.”

            “He does,” Clark mumbled.

            “What?”

            Clarke looked down at her plate, pushing her food around her plate absent-mindedly. “I just… I feel like he does. He’s got to.”

             Abby gave her daughter a resigned smile. “I love you, sweetie.”

            “Love you too.” Clarke cocked her head to the side and raised her eyebrows. “Although I’ll love you more once you’re willing to acknowledge that the problem isn’t that you don’t know what to say to Marcus.”

            Abby stopped chewing abruptly and stared at her daughter in genuine bewilderment for several seconds before swallowing. “Wh- what do you mean?”

            But it seemed like Clarke was not interested in talking about Marcus anymore, because she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You’re both adults. You’ll get through the last few weeks of this play just fine.”

            “Right, of course we will.”

            Clarke nodded definitively, then glanced down at her phone. “What do you say we go to a movie tomorrow? Eat some popcorn and think about someone else’s drama for a change.”

            Abby laughed dryly, but she said, “Sure, sweetie. A movie sounds great.”

           

--

 

            Much to Abby’s relief, Bellamy had talked Thelonious out of spending non-dress rehearsals on Act 4, scene 1 with the full staging of Beatrice and Benedick’s kiss, but she had not thought much about what would happen once the first full dress rehearsal rolled around.

            As Bellamy sat on the edge of the stage, delivering his pre-rehearsal notes, he directed his attention to Abby and Marcus only long enough to say, “Your Act 4 kiss is in today. We’re really going to try to go without stopping, so if it doesn’t work quite right, that’s fine, we’ll just move on.”

            “Fine,” Abby mumbled. She heard a similarly vague response from Marcus further down her row; although she longed to get a glimpse of his expression, her view of him was entirely obscured by Clarke, Nathan, and Jacapo.

            And she really, truly did think it was going to be fine.

            They ran through their confrontation in the first scene and it was fine.

            They bantered in the first and last scenes of Act 2 and it was fine.

            She was curled on the floor of the stage, feigning tears over Hero’s shaming, and Marcus crouched down beside her and—

            And then he said, in an unimaginably gentle voice: “Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?”

            “Yea, and I will weep a while longer.”

            Quite tentatively, he moved to smooth his hand over her back, although his hand hovered in the air for a few seconds, as though he expected their touch to shock him. “I will not desire that.”

            Abby looked up at Marcus, and her heart plummeted into her stomach. For just an instant, all she could see was Marcus’s face in the firelight again.

            In that moment, she was deeply grateful for her blocking, and she scrambled to her feet to retreat, crossing her arms and crossing the stage as she replied, “You have no reason. I do it freely.”

            Behind her, Marcus took a few steps toward her, but she was so aware of the feet that stretched between them. “Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.”

            “Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!” she exclaimed, just barely allowing herself to glance back at him.

            “Is… is there any way to show such friendship?” Again, he took a few timid steps.

            She turned to look at Marcus, although she couldn’t bring herself to take in the expression on his face—she spoke to his stomach, instead, as she said, “A very even way, but no such friend.”

            “May a man do it?”

            Abby shook her head slightly. “It is a man’s office, but not yours.”

            He waited a beat, as he always did, so that he could size her up before Benedick’s big declaration. “I…”

            But instead of finishing the sentence, Marcus said nothing, and the word hung in the air.

            Abby’s eyes shifted to his face, and she was shaken by how vacant his expression was as he said, once again, “I…”

            Under any other circumstances, she would have fed him his line, but she knew he had not forgotten it.

            She stared at him desperately, willing him to keep going so that they could just get through this scene and get on with rehearsal.

            “Fuck,” Marcus said at last, taking a few steps backward and shaking his head. “I… I’m sorry, Bell, I just… can’t. I… I can’t.”

            And then he was backstage and out the door.

            Everyone in the theater seemed afraid to break the silence. Then one of the chairs in the house creaked as someone got up and strode down the aisle.

            Bellamy came to stand at the bottom of the stage and said, “Abby.” Quiet and un-menacing, but that didn’t stop Abby from feeling like a child in trouble with her parents as she crossed the stage to him. He beckoned her closer, still, so she knelt down onto the floor.

            “I’m so sorry,” she rushed to say immediately. “Don’t be mad at Marcus about this, it’s entirely my—”

            “I don’t care.”

            Abby squinted and cocked her head at Bellamy. “What?”

            He spoke measured and low. “I don’t care what’s wrong. I don’t care whose fault it is. But I don’t want you or Marcus back on this stage until it’s fixed. We’ve put too much into this play for it to be derailed by two grown adults who can’t talk about their fucking feelings. We will finish rehearsal without you if we need to. Okay?”

            Abby swallowed and nodded. “Okay.”

            Bellamy gestured in the direction that Marcus had retreated, and Abby scrambled to her feet. As she rushed out the door, Bellamy shouted, “Act 4, scene 2, let’s go! Murph, I want those lights ready in 30 seconds!”

            Octavia, Lexa, Clarke, Nathan, and Eric were in the break room on the other side of the door, and all five of them turned to look as Abby came in. She didn’t even have to ask before Clarke pointed toward the hallway and said, “I think he went out into the back alley.”

            “Right. Okay.” She was nearly to the hall when she stopped in her tracks, turning to look at her daughter. “Clarke, sweetie, can I ask you something?”

            “Of course.” Clarke didn’t move at first, but then Abby glanced pointedly at Clarke’s friends, sitting around the table with her, and she took the hint, jumping to her feet and rushing over.

            Abby bit her lip and frowned at the floor for a moment, then she murmured, “The other night, you said… you said that the problem isn’t that I don’t know what to say to Marcus.”

            “Yes, that sounds like me.”

            “What… what is the problem?”

            Clarke’s eyes shone with sympathy as she sized her mother up. “Mom… It seems like you’re just scared to hear what he’ll say back.”

            Abby said nothing. She blinked at Clarke for a few seconds, then she brushed her hand down her daughter’s arm by way of thanks before continuing on her way. She did not rush—she felt a strange need to prolong this final moment of…

            She couldn’t call it peace. She hadn’t felt at peace for a long time.

            But if she wasn’t talking to him yet, there was no chance of him rejecting her, even though, by this point, she felt very strongly that she deserved it.

            Just as Clarke predicted, Marcus was outside. As Abby eased the door open, she saw him sitting on the steps a few feet away, facing out into the alley. Away from anyone who might chase after him.

            Wordlessly, she sat down beside him. She left space—it felt like so much space, but it couldn’t have been more than a foot and a half.

            “I honestly wasn’t sure whether you’d even be the one to come out after me,” he told the ground.

            “I don’t blame you,” Abby whispered. “I’ve been…”

            “Stubborn? Opaque? Difficult to be around for more than a few minutes at the time?”

            Abby swallowed hard. “Yes. To all of those things.”

            He sniffed, which, she suspected, was the closest she’d get to a laugh. “I’m tired of this, Abby. You can’t tell me that you think we can go on doing… whatever the fuck it is we’re doing.”

             “No, I don’t.”

            “See, but if that’s true… I don’t understand what’s been going through your head. Because you… you must have realized that the longer we let this hang in the air, the harder it would be to… to talk about it.”

            “Yes.”

            “So why have we let it hang in the air?”

            The irony did not miss either of them that Abby let this question, itself, hang in the air for some seconds.

            “Because it scares me, Marcus.” Abby hesitated. “It scares me so much I can’t even think.”

            “Christ, Abby, me too.” He sat up a bit higher and, for the first time, he turned his torso just slightly to look at her. “I need you to know that I’ve been scared out of my mind trying to understand- trying to figure out everything that’s happened between us. Not just this summer, but…”

            “Since Jake died,” she mumbled.

            This, it seemed, was not what Marcus had expected—he leaned back so that he could look at Abby full on, although she couldn’t bring herself to return his gaze, even to gauge his expression. “Well, I was just going to say since last winter…”

            “I know, I just… I’m trying to explain myself, Marcus. So many of the things that I said last winter were uncalled for, but most of them trace back to the fact that… part of me is scared to let myself truly move on from Jake, and part of me is scared to think about what it would mean to move on with you. Those things were nagging at me long before we went to Chicago.”

            Marcus took a deep breath. “That stuff about me… reminding you of Jake…”

            His question hung in the air, implicit.

            “I can’t even tell you how much I thought about that,” Abby said, chuckling low. “But no, that’s not really what I worry about anymore. It’s more…” She hesitated for quite some time, piecing her words together, and Marcus waited dutifully. “Jake has been a part of our lives for so long. Our relationship has literally always existed around him. And even though you are… you, what if that’s not enough? What if a relationship between us can’t stand on its own long-term? That’s where I’ve gotten stuck every time I’ve considered calling you these past few weeks.”

            “Oh.”

            Abby chanced a glance at him. “Oh?”

            Marcus grimaced. “I’ve wondered about that too. I… I hate to think about how awful it would be for you to finally open yourself up to anyone, only to find out that a relationship with them isn’t sustainable. After thinking about it for a long time, though, I guess I just figured…”

            “What?”

            He didn’t speak at first. He rung his hands in his lap, and glanced over at Abby, then back at his hands…

            “Jake is a part of who you are,” Marcus began carefully. “And he and I grew up together, so God knows he’s a part of who I am. And… honestly, he’ll probably always be a part of our relationship. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t build something together that’s… that’s good and different and ours. I don’t want you to feel like you have to sacrifice your past with him for that.”

            “I don’t want that either,” Abby sighed. “I don’t think I’d be so scared if I believed that we could still be around each other platonically if things didn’t work out, but it feels like I…”

            “Forgot what hanging out platonically felt like a long time ago?” When Abby actually caught his eye and allowed herself to smirk, he couldn’t help smiling a bit, himself. “Me too.”

            Neither of them spoke. Abby kicked her heels against the steps beneath them, and Marcus continued to wring his hands together. “Can we talk about a theoretical for a second?”

            “Alright.”

            Marcus sat back and held his hands up, as though displaying his words in front of her. “If imagining a long-term relationship is too much… Don’t. Just for a minute. Just… Where do you want to be next month? Or next week? Or tomorrow? Whatever span of time you can comfortably imagine.”

            “I… It’s not as easy as you’re making it.”

            “But it’s not as difficult as you’re making it, either, Abby.”

            She looked down at the ground bashfully. “I suppose there might be a middle ground somewhere, yeah?”

            “Seems to me like there’s gotta be,” Marcus said gently.

            Abby furrowed her brow at a spot above him on the wall, and then she met his eye. “I couldn’t tell you when I started to develop feelings for you, yet I remember the exact day that I started trying to convince myself that I couldn’t fall in love with you.”

            “Care to share with the class?”

            She rolled her eyes and smiled slightly. “Yes. It was the Thanksgiving right after our accident. When I still couldn’t drive because of my cast, but Clarke didn’t want take a bus or train home, so you drove all the way to get her because you thought it was so important that she and I be together… You showed up that Wednesday night, all exhausted from driving in the snow for hours, and I looked at you and thought, ‘Whoever marries him is going to be so lucky.’”

            “And then you spent your days convincing yourself that you didn’t want to be that person.”

            “Pretty much.”

            Marcus leaned closer to Abby, and she realized, somewhat abruptly, that much of the gap between them on the steps had been closed. “But you don’t have to want that.”

            “No?”

            He shook his head and quietly asked, “Do you want to fight with me about Shakespeare?”

            “Yes.”

            “Do you want me to fix your house and cook your dinner whenever possible?”

            “Yes.”

            “Do you want to…” Marcus leaned just a hint closer, though it felt to Abby as though he’d just crossed an ocean of space. “Throw in some kissing, maybe? Just for good measure, of course.”

            Abby could hardly breathe as she said, “Yes.”

            “Then go on a date with me. Please. Because I’m happiest when I’m doing those things with you.”

            “We haven’t done that last bit too much, though,” Abby said. “Can you really say for sure that it makes you quite so happy?”

            Marcus’s hand settled against Abby’s waist, and she closed her eyes and took a long breath as she felt his bangs tickling her forehead. “I suppose I’m making an educated guess. But I’m anticipating quite a few opportunities to figure it out for sure.”

            “You’ll have to keep me updated on your findings.”

            Her last words were muddled as Marcus gently pressed his lips against hers, but judging by the way that she opened her mouth to his kiss, she wasn’t particularly concerned.