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The Mark

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Grace gets home on Friday night to a house in which no one has breathed since she left it that morning. God knows Robert's absence is a hole she's stopped trying to plug. Still, it's different with both the girls gone too. She thinks about calling one of them at college, filling the empty rooms with at least one side of a conversation, but she wants to give Mallory some space in her freshman year and she's long since learned the futility of getting in touch with Brianna on a weekend. Better not to try.

The clack of her heels echoes as she puts her briefcase and purse down and brings her lunch dishes into the kitchen. She opens the dishwasher, glances at the martini shaker in the top rack, listens to the silence behind her. Robert won't be back for days; he and Sol are getting in a little golf after their conference ends. No one needs anything from her until Monday morning at the earliest. The lack of expectations seems too heavy a burden to bear. For a moment she even envies Frankie, off at some hippie artists' retreat in Sedona where she'll probably be too high to notice her husband's not around. Or maybe it's one of those free-love colonies. Grace doesn't want to know. Frankie would probably tell her if she asked.

Wait. Robert and Sol are away. Frankie's out of state. That means Grace is the only one with keys to the beach house. It's just as empty – has been emptier for longer – but at least there she can feel like she's enjoying some time to herself rather than trying to cope with being left alone. It takes only a few minutes to change and gather up clothes, books, and an extra bottle of vodka; she feels better the moment she locks her door behind her. She hums along with the radio in the car and parks in the middle of the driveway when she gets to the beach. There's no reason not to. No one else is coming. And though the air in the house is stale and still at first, she sweeps open the doors and a breeze rushes in, fresh and salty and alive.

By the time she's unpacked her groceries and thrown together a quick salad, it's almost too cool to sit outside. She doesn't care; she does it anyway, curling up under a blanket and taking deep breaths. With the martinis, it's enough to keep her warm and comfortable. Maybe that's why, when a figure with pink hair and a gauzy blue dress floats up the path from the ocean, she doesn't move, just watches calmly as it opens the gate and walks up to her.

"It's come to this?" The figure stops, hands on hips, and frowns. "Six months of chemo and forget a hug, I don't even get a hello?"

"Babe!" Grace jumps to her feet, wrapping herself and all her blankets around Babe in a tight embrace. Babe squeezes back, her small body still wiry despite everything she's endured. "How are you, lady?" Grace demands, stepping back a little to get a good look at Babe but keeping firm hold of her shoulders, clinging to their solidity.

"I'm all right!" Babe laughs, gripping Grace's arms in return. "Five impossible things before breakfast, you know me. Or is that seven at one blow? Either way I'm feeling like a bit of a giant-killer." Her wide smile beams up at Grace, warming her more than the martinis.

"Oh, Babe," Grace breathes. "Do you mean..." She's afraid to ask.

"You betcha, babycakes. Chemo's done, cancer's gone. And look!" She tugs the pink wig off her head to show a dusting of short hair covering her skull. Grace reaches out, waiting for Babe's nod, and rubs her hand over the soft bristles. She blinks hard, tearing up. "I'm hoping it'll come back red," Babe says thoughtfully, pulling the wig back on. "I always wanted to look like Rita Hayworth. Or at least do the Gilda striptease."

"I'd pay to see that," Grace chokes out, voice wobbly. "Babe, thank God, I've been – I'm so happy for you."

"Couldn't'a done it without you, sugar." Babe cups Grace's cheek affectionately.

"We need to celebrate!" Grace gives Babe one more squeeze. The wig still smells plasticky, memories of vomit and disinfectant clinging to it, but Babe's own scent is there again under it all, vanilla and baby powder and one of the obscure expensive perfumes she had to leave off every day she had a hospital visit. Grace breathes it all in. "How about a drink?" she says, letting go at last.

"Thought you'd never ask. That's the longest I've ever gone in this house without booze." Babe laughs heartily, and Grace joins in, placing a hand on the small of Babe's back to steer her inside. Thank God, she thinks again, thank God, thank God. Thank you, God.

Grace finds she can't stop smiling at Babe over their martinis. She looks older – she looks her age – but for the first time in too long, she also looks like she's only sitting still so she can catch her breath before she's on to something bigger and better. "So?" Grace says through her grin. "What's next?"

Babe tips her glass at Grace and grins back. "Everything, baby." It's so damn good to see her like this. "I spent a lotta time planning what I was gonna do once I got the go-ahead. You know all those pilgrimage trips I thought about going on before the chemo kicked my ass?"

"Hard to forget." Grace barely manages not to roll her eyes, but since it's Babe, she makes the effort.

"Well, you'll be glad to hear I've narrowed it down. I'm being selective. Looking for out-of-the-way places. Off the beaten pilgrimage paths." Babe winks, and Grace's smile falters. "The necropolis of Abydos in Egypt. The healing waters of Lac Sainte Anne in Alberta. Following the path of the Buddha through Sumatra Village in India. That's a start. And then I'll see where these little trotters can take me." She wiggles her feet at Grace.

"But – but why?" Grace asks. She'd hoped this fixation would turn out to be as temporary as the chemo-induced hallucinations. No such luck, apparently. "You're fine, you're healed, you're – everything's okay now!"

"And I can't think of a better way to give thanks than by doing all the things I was afraid I wouldn't be able to. Besides, maybe I need to store up for next time. Just in case. Karmic overbalance." Babe shrugs and sips from her martini.

Grace barely stops short of crossing herself. She can't be as blasé about all this as Babe is. "You sure you can't just go to Santa Fe for a weekend and rub dirt on yourself at Chimayó?" She doesn't want Babe to go, can't help but think of all the things that could happen to her so far away.

"No can do, my friend. I'm done being limited. Not by geography, or time, or my own temporary body. There's too much out there. I've been lucky enough to see some of the best of it and I'm not gonna stop now." Babe reaches across the couch to tap her glass against Grace's. Grace reciprocates, but automatically. The idea of being without Babe drags at her like a physical weight. It takes her a moment to notice that Babe is still speaking. "Don't get me wrong, I still think you're one of the greatest gifts this world has given me. How about it, dollface? You wanna join me in celebrating the majesty of the universe?" Grace laughs at that, but Babe doesn't.

She's not joking, Grace realises. She actually wants Grace to come with her.

"Oh! Oh, Babe, really," Grace splutters. "I mean, thank you? But I can't – I can't leave the business, you know. It'll fall apart without me." She shrugs.

"You sure about that, Grace?" Babe looks at her, serious for a change. "You never know what's around the corner, or what's waiting for you halfway across the world."

Grace gulps at her martini and nods. "I'm sure. It's – it's so nice of you to ask, really, but I need to be here." She pulls up another smile. "I'll be there for all your bon voyage parties, though – and I'll always be ready to welcome you home. And if there's anything I can do, you just ask, okay?"

"Okay, sweetcheeks." Babe twinkles at her. "There is one thing, now you mention it..."

"Anything." Grace throws her arms wide expansively, sloshing martini over her hand. She pauses, then reconsiders. "Well, you can't have my samovar. But anything else."

Babe wags an admonishing finger. "One day! But, well." She tucks her feet up under her on the couch. "If I can't take my dearest friends with me when I go travelling, I need some kind of reminder of you. A representation of all the comfort you've given me over the last little while."

"I don't care what Frankie's been telling you about Victorian arts and crafts," Grace says skeptically, "I am not making you a brooch out of my hair."

Babe laughs. "No, no. Nothing like that." Grace relaxes. Babe continues, "No, I'm going to get a tattoo. And I want you to get one with me."

"What," Grace says flatly.

"It's an ancient art, you know." Babe leans back like she's giving a lecture. "Cultures all over the world use tattoos to mark survival and celebration. In Japan they can show a person's history. In Indonesia, tattoos hold one's soul in their body. You're part of my soul now, dear thing. No escaping."

"That's – that's very touching, and don't think I'm not flattered." Grace swallows against an unexpected wave of emotion. "But, Babe, we're in America, not... any of those places."

"Doesn't matter," Babe says. "You've been one of my greatest sources of strength through all this. I want to have that strength with me always."

"Well, then why do I have to get one, anyway? Why don't you just, I don't know, get my face on your arm if you want to feel like I'm with you?" Grace hugs herself tightly, trying to hide any exposed skin from Babe's gaze.

"Is that a dare, Grace Hanson?" Babe laughs over Grace's emphatic denial. "I want to share that connection – to you, to this home of mine, to all the fan-fucking-tastic times we've spent here." She's takes a sip of her martini, then adds casually, "Frankie's gonna do it."

"She is?" Grace sits up straighter. "I mean... you asked her, huh? And she's... she's into it?"

"Oh, sure, you know Frankie."

"I sure do." Grace rolls her eyes. Of course Frankie's going to get a tattoo with Babe. She probably didn't have to think twice about it. She probably already has a tattoo, somewhere under those hippie sack dresses she favours. Or, well, maybe not – if she's gone this long without showing it off, there's probably nothing to show. She's never quiet if there's a chance to brag about how much cooler and more interesting she is than Grace, after all. "These tattoos." Grace doesn't quite meet Babe's gaze. "They're... not going to be matching, are they?"

"Absolutely not," Babe says eagerly. She leans forward.

Grace glances up. "Wh... where?" Not that she's going to do it. She's just curious.

"Well." Babe's smirking now, and Grace frowns. "Mine's going to be right here." She traces a line under her left collarbone. "So I can always have you ladies near my heart."

"Oh, no, Babe." Grace winces. "Then I won't be able to – you know." She gestures at the high collar of the sweater she's wearing, miming the plunging necklines of the blouses and dresses she favours. She's already had to retire a few where the depth has started to reveal wrinkles or spots she doesn't need to put on display. No chance she's going to cut her choices down before she has to.

"Not quite the look you want to put on the front of your hair dye boxes?" Babe teases.

"Not the demographic we're going for, no." Grace rolls her eyes.

Babe stretches one foot out and nudges Grace's hip. "I don't care where you stick it, toots. I don't have to be able to see it to know it's there."

"So how about I just tell you when I get it done and you never look?" Grace pours all the charm she can muster into her voice. "You trust my love for you, right?"

"No, dear, I know you too well for that. Trust but verify, as the man said."

"Gee, thanks." Grace glares. "You're lucky you're cute."

"Yeah, between that and the cancer, I'll go far!" Babe shrugs elegantly, and Grace huffs.

"I think there's a statute of limitations on that second one." She slugs back the last of her martini and pops the olive into her mouth.

"Well, then I better work fast." Babe unfolds herself off the couch and holds out a hand.

Grace rears back. "Now?" Oh, God. She's been arguing a hypothetical; she's not ready to face reality.

"No time like the present, princess." Babe wiggles her fingers, and Grace reaches out slowly. Babe's hand is warm in hers, firm and comforting and there. Grace tightens her grip. Babe holds fast. And after a drawn-out pause, Grace stands up. "I'm so lucky to have you," Babe says, simple and clear and sincere. Grace doesn't know how to echo the sentiment; all she can do is smile. She can feel her hand trembling in Babe's, but Babe doesn't seem to mind. "Now, come on, sugar." Babe turns towards the door without letting go. "I know a guy who knows a guy. He'll keep his studio open for us if I call him."

"But I don't even know what I want yet! Babe, really." Grace trails along behind Babe, caught in the wake of her boundless enthusiasm. She'd try to argue if it didn't remind her so much of the Babe of a year ago, before the diagnosis. It's just so nice to have her friend back, to be able to bask in her presence again. She can't quite keep hold of why this is a bad idea.

"You're always saying you want to be more spontaneous. Embrace the moment, Grace. Live a little." Babe turns and takes both Grace's hands. "Are you ready?"

"You sound like Frankie," Grace grumbles. But Babe waits patiently, not pushing, and Grace already knows she's going to give in. "First, I've never in my life said I want to be more spontaneous. And second." She dislodges Babe's grip gently, reaching over to snag her keys off the table, then hands them to Babe with a sigh. "You're driving. If I'm drunk enough to think this is a good idea, I'm definitely in no shape to drive."

"I'll remember you in my will, babydoll." Babe heads out the door, trusting Grace to follow her. "You won't regret it."

Grace grabs her purse and takes a deep breath. "I already do," she says to the empty room. How, she wonders, is she ever going to explain this to Robert?

As it turns out, she doesn't have to. Robert never notices. Or if he does notice, somewhere amidst the death throes of their relationship, he never says anything to her about it. She can't bring herself to ask which it is, can't decide which would be worse: that he really is that ignorant, or that he simply doesn't care. Eventually she all but forgets about it herself. It's small enough, tucked away high on the curve of her right hip, that unless she's looking in the mirror the right way at the right time she barely sees it, and she certainly doesn't look at herself in any state of undress very often, not any more.

Frankie, though. Frankie notices. Of course she does.

It's not their first time, not even their fifth, closer to their tenth, not that Grace is counting. But it's different: it's the middle of the day, the sun reflecting off the water, and Grace's bedroom is filled with light and heat. Frankie wouldn't let her wait for dusk to fall, and truth be told, Grace wasn't willing to wait either. She wanted Frankie, even in the bright summer light, wanted her enough to throw back the sheets and get sweaty and sticky together. And now she's pleasantly exhausted, lying naked on her stomach and practically purring as Frankie strokes her back, sated so that she almost doesn't mind being so exposed.

Frankie's fingers dip lower and Grace tries to wiggle away. "I'm an old woman, Frankie, let me rest," she grouses into her crossed arms.

"You're only as old as you feel, and you feel pretty damn good," Frankie says lewdly. Grace groans. But Frankie's touch stops on her hip, tracing a circle. "What's this?" Frankie asks, her voice full of wonder.

Grace actually has to prop herself up and turn, looking awkwardly over her shoulder, one arm covering her breasts, before she realises what Frankie's looking at. "Oh," she says softly, remembering that night, how close she'd felt to Babe, how hard they'd laughed. "Oh, that was a good night."

"Spill the beans already, sister," Frankie says. Her fingers run gently up and down Grace's hip. "I gotta tell you, I'm losing my mind a bit over here."

"With Babe," Grace clarifies, surprised Frankie hasn't guessed already. "When she insisted on getting tattoos before heading off on her first trip to celebrate being in remission, remember? I'd almost forgotten. It's nice to have a reminder." She reaches down to touch the tattoo, brushing Frankie's fingers, even though there's no difference between it and the surrounding skin any more. "It's held up okay, hasn't it?" she asks, squinting a bit. She'd ended up deciding on a piece of sea glass, sharp edges blurred by water and sand and time; she vaguely remembers having a deep philosophical discussion about it with Babe, but the reasoning is lost to memory and alcohol. Babe had gotten a curling wave washing across the top of her breast, to keep with the beach theme, she said. And – "What's yours?" Grace demands suddenly.

Frankie looks at her blankly. "Mine?"

"Your tattoo!" Grace props herself up, exposure forgotten in favour of scanning Frankie's body. "It must be tiny if I haven't noticed it already. You didn't get it removed, did you? Babe would be so hurt!" At least, she hopes it's tiny. She can't have been as oblivious to Frankie as Robert was to her.

"Grace, what are you talking about? I don't have a tattoo. And why would Babe care if I did?" Frankie sounds genuinely baffled, but Grace squints at her, uncertain.

"You – you never... with Babe? She didn't ask you...?" Frankie shakes her head slowly, and Grace gasps. "You mean she lied to me? Oh, you're fucking kidding! That sneaky little so and so!" She presses a hand to her mouth, aghast. "She told me you were getting it done in order to trick me into it. I swear, I could just kill her, if you hadn't done it first."

That shocks a laugh out of Frankie, but there's pain there too, in the way her hand stills on Grace's skin. Grace pulls her down for a kiss, knowing the memory still stings on occasion. "I can't believe I fell for it," she marvels.

"Tell me everything," Frankie says, and Grace holds her close and spills the whole ridiculous story. Frankie whistles in disbelief at the end of it. "Babe never breathed a word," she says. "Of course, I saw her tattoo when we went skinny-dipping, but she never let on that she'd led you so far astray. I feel like she shoulda got a trophy or something."

"I'm amazed she didn't tell everyone we know," Grace says dryly. She's not that surprised, though, not when she really thinks about it. There's a warm glow curling in her heart at the thought that she and Babe had shared this one secret, just the two of them. For the first time she wonders what Babe would have said about this – her and Frankie and the way they fit together so unexpectedly. It's a gift Grace never dreamed of looking for, and she didn't even have to travel the world to find it.

"And you really got it just because Babe said I was?" Frankie asks gleefully. It's almost like she knows what Grace is thinking. "Here I thought you didn't give a shit about me back then." Grace coughs, embarrassed, and casts about for a distraction.

"You could get one now," she suggests, half serious, as Frankie reaches down to trace the outlines of the tattoo again. "None of your medications would get in the way, would they?"

"I – well, I guess I could," Frankie says slowly. "You know, I never actually thought about it before. Oh, boy, my childhood rabbi would have a fit! But Bud told me he heard the new guy has tefillin tattooed on his arms. So I guess the times sure are changing." She frowns a little. "Do you really think I should?"

"Oh, Frankie." Grace yawns; despite the sunlight and the conversation, she's getting tired, and all she wants is to stay here in Frankie's arms. She tugs the sheet up from the bottom of the bed and drapes it across both of them, throwing an arm over Frankie's waist and tucking her head in its usual place on Frankie's shoulder. "Forget it, honey. I don't want you to change one thing for me," she murmurs.

"You're just full of hidden depths, Grace Hanson," Frankie says warmly. "Don't you ever stop surprising me."

"Promise," Grace says sleepily. As she drifts off, she feels Frankie pressing a kiss to her forehead, and she falls asleep with a smile.