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May You Always Be Satisfied

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Mark scans the room, eyes passing over the mingling freshman as their chaperones leave them to their own devices and only occasionally sipping his bottle of beer.

He wishes Damien or William were here, so they could band together and brave the crowd. Unfortunately, Damien and Celine are off on some trip with their parents and won’t be back until the semester begins and William...William has joined the army (information that still hurts Mark to think about). Henceforth, Mark is forced to navigate the pre-semester student pool alone.

Eventually he sees someone standing in a part of the room, isolated, but watching the entire room with disinterested eyes. Mark thinks the indifference is only a show because they’ll focus in on one person passing by, as if measuring them up, before switching to someone else. In between these observations, they sip their own bottled beverage (he can’t tell what it is from here).

Intrigued by the intensity of their gaze and rather unique taste in clothing (Mark hasn’t seen so many colors and patterns clash in a single outfit since William left), Mark approaches them.

But before he can even speak, they turn those eyes on him for the briefest of moments before switching back to the crowd in complete dismissal. “If your friends have dared you to go fishing in this crowd, you best move on, I have better things to do.”

Mark’s mouth gapes as the words he had been planning in his head nosedive into his throat and stick there. “Um…has that been happening?” he finally splutters.

They nod towards a group of boys guffawing in another section of the floor. “Those idiots have been talking about it since the tour group split. The guy who gets a partner first tonight gets to shirk the first month of homework onto his buddies.”

“Well, that’s a cruel thing to do,” Mark says. “Lead someone on for the sake of a bet. I’d never do something like that.” Shit, that sounds defensive. He hurries to cover. “I was just wondering what you were drinking.”

Their brow lifts in suspicious curiosity. “Just beer, like you. Like everyone else here.”

Now that he’s closer, Mark can better see the matching label. Does he need glasses? Wait, not now, don’t think about that now. “…ah.”

Mark realizes he’s backed himself into a corner because he honestly has no idea what he even could talk about with this person. He’s never been this off-set by someone before (his mind drifts to Celine and then snaps right back because, no, not his best friend’s twin sister, it could never be). He blames the eyes. They look like they’ve watched centuries go by.

“So what made you come over here?” they ask suddenly.

Something about the way they ask the question, as though they were expecting him to trip up, helps Mark to regain his footing and confidence. He's always liked a challenge. “Well, you seem like someone who is looking for intelligent conversation,” he observes.

They chuckle, but the sound lacks real humor. “And you’re here to offer that service to me?” they retort in a disbelieving tone.

“Considering I’m looking for something similar,” he steps closer to them, enjoying the way their eyes widen just a hint, “I think we can help each other out.”

To his surprise, they straighten off the wall and step closer as well, their astonishment giving way to something more playful. “Oh really?” they tease with a quirk of their lips.

In lieu of a response, Mark lifts his bottle and holds it out for them to toast, which they do.

And that’s how it begins.

 


 

Despite the blatant flirting which took place that evening up until the party ended until he walked his new companion home, Mark does not foresee anything further developing between he and them. They’re a little too severe for his taste, and seem far too intent on the upcoming coursework to want any sort of relationship, casual or formal (not that he wants either anyway).

This doesn’t stop Mark from relaying the entire story to Damien while he shows his friend around the campus during the first week, since Damien missed the earlier tours. He can’t seem to get the encounter out of his mind, so he decided to share the experience in an effort to forget about it.

“‘Intelligent’ conversation?” Damien shakes his head. “Mark, you probably set that poor student’s expectations far too high.”

“Excuse you!” Mark places a hand on his heart in mock offense. “I happened to live up to my promise quite well!” He pauses. “I will admit to faltering when I learned they were going into Criminal Justice.”

Damien bursts into laughter. “You flirted with a law student? Oh, Mark—”

“I didn’t learn until halfway into our conversation!” Mark defends. “But even then, I held my ground—”

“So says you,” a new voice adds.

Mark and Damien jump in surprise and turn to see the very subject of their discussion watching the two of them with unabashed amusement. They have a messenger bag hanging beside them and are holding two textbooks in one arm. Once again, bright, mismatching colors adorn their ragged attire.

“Oh! Um, hello again!” Mark greets. He feels the blood rushing to his face. What were the odds? “Erm, allow me to introduce my childhood friend—”

“Damien Goodwin,” he interrupts as he holds a hand out. “A pleasure to meet you. Mark has had nothing but good things to say about you.”

They take his hand with their free one, but turn their gaze to Mark. “Considering we had exactly one conversation, I’m pleasantly surprised.”

“Well,” Mark struggles to find something to save his ass from further embarrassment, “you left quite an impression, after our discussion about the draft.”

That  topic had popped up after Mark had mentioned William’s eagerness to join the army, and his companion had admitted to both their parents being drafted against their will. Mark mostly sympathized with their plight, but he would confess that most of their terminology over the draft violating constitutional rights flew over his head.

The reminder dims the amusement in their expression, making Mark regret the comment. “Yes, well, it was nice to rant to someone about it.” They glance at their wristwatch. “I need to head to class, but it was nice talking to the two of you.”

After they’re out of earshot, Damien says, “Very smooth, Mark. You didn’t show your cards there at all.”

Mark scoffs. “Oh, please, Damien. It was harmless flirting, nothing more. They just caught me off-guard, that’s all.”

“Mark—”

“I mean it, Damien,” he insists. “I have no interest in them whatsoever.”

At the time, it was the truth.

But then they stick around.

Well, more accurately, every time they appear in a room, Damien (being the generous soul he is) invites them to join him and Mark in whatever the two of them happen to be doing. And so, much to Mark’s chagrin (though chagrin isn’t what makes his heart beat a little faster whenever they stand close to him), he ends up talking over coffee with them, studying in the main hall at the same table, and even attending parties together.

Orinviting them to said parties in the first place, because apparently other students aren’t as fond of them as Mark and Damien are and don’t even include the aspiring law student in any extracurricular plans. Not that Mark’s friend is always keen on attending such parties. Which leads them to a particular situation about three months into their unconventional friendship.

Please come with us!”

His friend is lying on the couch in their home, face pressed into a pillow. They don’t bother to lift their head when they respond, “No.”

“You’ve been either at home or at the campus since the semester started,” Mark presses. “Why not join us for a bit of levity?”

Their retort is muffled by the pillow. Mark looks at Damien, who has been sitting in the rocking chair, watching their friend with a curious expression for the entire argument. Damien catches Mark’s questioning gaze and shrugs. “I’m not a pillow-translator.”

They sigh and finally lift their head away from the pillow. “Boys, I’m taking six classes this semester so the journey to law school won’t take as long. That means a heavier homework load, more tests, and a God-awful amount of studying. If my brain doesn’t leak out by Christmas, it will be a miracle.”

“We could argue that this is exactly why you could use a break,” Damien points out.

“I am taking a break,” they argue, gesturing to the couch and the blanket covering their body. “I don’t have the energy to go deal with people I don’t like in an informal setting. I especially don’t have the energy to deal with them while they’re drunk.” Their head drops back to the pillow, punctuating the end of their defense.

Mark pinches the bridge of his nose and considers his options. He really wants to get sloppy drunk and have some fun watching Damien flirt with half the campus while under the influence. After this Hell of a semester, they’ve earned it. But he also wants to spend more time with their friend. With all of the classes they’ve been taking, they’ve been pretty unreachable socially, and…

Damn it, Mark has missed being around them, even after such a short time.

He turns to Damien. “How angry would you be if we didn’t go?”

“Wait, what?” Their head picks up again, face contorting into confusion. “You guys don’t have to stay, I just—”

Damien shrugs again. “To be perfectly honest, I would much prefer to just be with the two of you.”

Mark hadn’t realized it until Damien put it to words, but, as much as he loves parties and being in the spotlight…he feels the same way.

It isn’t until he watches his friend sit up from the couch, wrapping their blanket around their shoulders and smiling at them with cautious but genuine happiness that Mark realizes he’s in bigger trouble than he first assumed.

 


 

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” they hiss under their breath.

“You agreed, didn’t you?” Mark retorts in a whisper, only for some bozo in front of them to turn around and shush them. “Look,” he continues in a quieter voice, “it’s gotten nothing but good reviews and I know you love Agatha Christie—”

“I do not trust movie adaptations!”

“Then trust me as someone who knows good movies!”

They roll their eyes and steal popcorn from the bag he’s holding. “Aspiring to be an actor doesn’t automatically make you a good judge of films, Mark.”

Mark places a hand over his heart. “You hurt me, dear friend, with your lack of faith. And your assumption that I know what ‘aspiring’ means.” He shushes them when they snort. “Now quiet, your favorite murder mystery is beginning…”

He sees them stick their tongue out at him from his peripherals (it’s so out-of-character, but it’s also just adorable that he brings this side of them out to play), but pays them no heed as the opening credits start.

Inviting them to see And Then There Were None when it first released in theaters had been a spur of the moment decision. Damien is off visiting his family for this Thanksgiving and since their family is either estranged, dead, or still overseas (despite the conclusion of the war months prior, there is still work to be done, so Mark has yet to meet their mother), Mark has kept in touch in order to give them company. This primarily involves calling them regularly and popping in for visits at least once every other day. He really isn’t in the mood to see his own family right now anyway.  The house holds too many unhappy memories; memories he has not recovered from yet.

When Mark heard about one of the most popular mystery stories of their time had been adapted for the big screen, Mark hadn’t even waiting a day before buying tickets and inviting his reticent friend along.

As the film played out, Mark would occasionally glance over to his companion and feel a spark of happiness at how transfixed they look. Whenever they actually gasped during a particularly tense scene, he couldn’t help but smile when he wasn’t jumping in his seat himself.

Afterwards, as they exit the theatre, Mark nudges them with his arm. “So, am I still a bad judge of movies?”

They shove him gently in return. “It was more accurate to the book than I was expecting. You got lucky, Chucklehead.”

“Of course I did! I got to see this masterpiece with you!”

As soon as the words leave his mouth, Mark wants to grab them and crush them in his palm. He didn’t realize how true they were until he spoke them, and now there’s no taking them back.

Luckily, however, his friend doesn’t take him too seriously, rolling their eyes but reaching over and squeezing his forearm fondly. “Thanks for bringing me along.”

It feels like his heart is in his throat, and despite his best efforts, he can’t force it back down. He does, however, force a genuine smile, because seeing them happy brings him a kind of joy he’s never really felt before. Like flower petals fluttering in his chest.

“My pleasure.”

Chapter Text

Fall turns to winter, and then comes Christmas. Since Mark spent Thanksgiving with their friend, this meant he got the “privilege” of spending Christmas with his parents while Damien gave their friend company during the holiday.

“So you guys are just going to take turns making sure I don’t spend the school breaks alone?” they grumbled when Mark and Damien first told them about their individual holiday plans.

“I’m jealous, honestly,” Mark defended. “I’d much rather be here than at my place. I can’t stand my parents, and you make the best hot chocolate because you’re better at utilizing the ration cards.”

“It’s just cocoa and milk, Mark.”

“You put cinnamon too.”

“It’s not difficult to make. At all.” They rolled their eyes, but Mark had felt reassured that they enjoyed the company, despite their pretend irritation.

When Mark returns to University after his time at home, he tries not to ruminate on his excitement at the prospect of seeing his friends again (or the way his pulse thrums at the thought of speaking to his reticent friend in person after so many days of just communicating via occasional phone call).

The last time he talked to Damien, the latter had suggested meeting at their favorite café, Amy’s Planet, and so that is where Mark is driving first.

He parks his car and tears out of the vehicle only to skid to a stop when he sees his friends through the window of the café, he taps on the window repeatedly and waves when he gets their attention. They wave back as he enters, ignoring the glares of the other patrons.

Damien and their friend stand up from their table to embrace him (he tries not to linger too long in his friend’s embrace, in the scent of old paper and linen).

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed the both of you,” Mark declares as they all sit back down. He takes the seat between them around the small circular table.

“Aw, that’s sweet.” His friend lifts up their coffee mug in a mock-toast. “I have to say, I missed you too, Chucklehead.”

“Excuse me,” Damien suddenly says, “I thought I was your Chucklehead?”

They raise their eyebrow at Damien’s face. “No, Damien, you are both chuckleheads to me.”

Damien gasps. “You mean to tell me we’ve both been your Chuckleheads this whole time!?”

Mark gasps as well, a hand flying to his chest for extra effect. “How dare you!? You rotten two-timer, I thought we had something special!”

The law student drops their head to the table, but it’s fairly obvious that they’re laughing at the antics. Mark and Damien exchange a victorious glance.

A few minutes later, their head lifts from the table and they take in a deep breath, forcing a straight face. “Well, Chuckleheads, why don’t you tell me what you want to eat and I’ll go tell the lady at the counter?”

Mark and Damien relay their orders, but as their friend stands up, they stare down at Mark. “If you keep slapping your chest every time you want to be dramatic, you’ll get a bruise.”

Mark scoffs. “Excuse you, what will actually happen is my chest will become hard as a rock. The ladies won’t be able to resist me!”

They roll their eyes and flick his forehead. As they leave for the counter, they ruffle Damien’s hair.

This action elicits a…strange response.

Damien, at first, waves their hand away and attempts to fix his hair with a mumble of irritation. Once they pass out of reach, however, a look comes over Damien’s face as he watches them approach the counter and speak to the cashier.

It’s a look Mark has seen before. Several times, actually.

But never before has Damien’s lovelorn eyes sent such daggers through his stomach.

Mark doesn’t speak much for a good while, too occupied observing Damien and trying to see any interest in their friend’s face when they return to the table with food. The latter is difficult, for even though he and Damien have for the most part coaxed them out of their taciturn shell, they still keep their emotions close to their chest.

Still…

Damien seems to make them smile more than Mark has seen in the past.

As happy as it makes Mark to witness, seeing that incredible sunrise smile…the daggers still twist.

Mark eventually manages to shake off the melancholy cast over him and puts on a performance for his closest friends that could have won him an Oscar.

 


 

Later that day, as Mark follows Damien back to their shared dorm, he decides to broach the subject.

“Seems as though you and our friend have grown quite close since I’ve been gone.”

“Wha—OW!!”

Damien slides to the floor, holding his foot with a grimace. He’d slammed his toes into the bed frame when Mark asked his question.

“You were saying?”

Damien growls in pain as he rubs his toes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Mark.”

“Right, Damien.” Mark rolls his eyes and drops to the floor in front of his friend. “I’ve been by your side through four girlfriends and two boyfriends. I know how you look when you’re smitten, and you are smitten.”

Damien looks up at Mark, something vulnerable and discerning in his gaze. “I could say the same of you.”

Mark’s hesitation only lasts a second (there is no possible way he’s been so obvious of his infatuation and that’s all it is an infatuation) before he scoffs and waves his hand. “Please, Damien. They are wonderful, and I am proud to know them, but I’m most certainly not in love with them.” The defense leaves an acidic taste on his tongue. “They are far too severe for my taste. You know how I like to have a bit of fun,” he tacks on with a wink, despite the burn in his chest.

“Mark—”

“Besides, you have so much in common! You’re both going into politics, you’re both passion about justice! You should speak to them; perhaps invite them to the next motion picture coming out! They love horror films, just so you’re aware, but they also love a good murder mystery and the occasional romance.” 

Damien stares at him, and Mark worries at first that his friend can see right through his act. Shamefully, part of him hopes for it.

But then Damien nods. “I see. I…I suppose…” Blood rushes into his cheeks. “I’ll keep your words in mind.”

Mark wraps an arm around Damien’s shoulders and squeezes him into a hug. “I wish you all the luck, Goodwin. However, I must warn you: if you ever hurt them, I will act accordingly.” He pats Damien’s back and goes to his own bunk, ignoring how Damien’s knowing eyes follow his movements.

 


 

Mark never gets the chance to see if Damien follows his advice or not because, just three days later, Mark receives the news that, irrevocably, alters the course of his life.

His parents have died.

The circumstances are unclear, exactly. The officials, when they deliver the report, only state that it’s an accident of some kind, involving the car as it left the property, but that doesn’t make sense how in the hell could the car have crashed or exploded or whatever had happened on the way out of their home—

But it happened.

His parents’ bodies are found in the charred remains of the car, and Mark is now utterly alone.

Well, not completely.

When he receives the news, his friend is with him, as is Damien. They hold him as he cries (though he’s not sure what he’s crying for exactly, they haven’t felt like his parents for so long, with their loud fights over nothing and ever-growing antagonism towards the rest of the world, the longer they had lived in that house, the worse his life became) and offer to go to the funeral with him.

Mark almost says no, because classes have just begun once more in full swing, but the idea of facing a sea of people who only know him and his family through reputation is just…a horrifying prospect.

So the three of them are briefly excused from their studies in order to attend the funeral.

Mark wishes he could say that it was a private, personal affair between close friends and family. Unfortunately, wealth and prestige don’t allow for that. He is forced to deal with a large number of strangers and politicians visiting a blown-out-of-proportion service.

After the initial talks and speeches about his parents’ lives and a rather long line of people coming to him and expressing condolences, there is a break in well-wishers. This gives Mark enough time to take a breath and express his distaste for the whole institution.

“If I hear one more comment about God taking my parents because He needed more angels in heaven, I may end up killing someone,” Mark mutters loud enough for just his friends to hear.

Damien pats his shoulder in reassurance. “Then there’ll be yet another angel.”

“I’ve never understood why people find that reassuring,” his friend suddenly says thoughtfully. “The whole ‘my loved ones were taken to be angels’ belief? The whole idea about God is that he’s all-powerful, right? If so, he could just make angels whenever he wanted, he wouldn’t need the souls of the living to do so.”

“Well, I imagine it is a sentiment people find comfort in, whether it’s accurate or not,” Damien ventures.

“But it doesn’t make sense, and even if it were true, how could anyone worship Him after such a thing? If a pastor told me that my loved ones were taken to serve God, I’d quit the whole Christian thing right then and there.”

There’s a familiar bitterness tainting their voice over the whole rant. Mark wonders if someone had attempted this manner of comfort when they lost their father.

“What I find hilarious about this,” Mark interjects to keep them from growing sadder, “is that this kind of questioning would offend so many people here, and the thought of you frightening off a third of these false-pious crumbs just delights me.”

A smirk pulls at their lips. “Well, I’m glad that I can delight you during these ‘trying times,’ Mark.”

Mark smothers a laugh behind his hand. “Trying times” has been said to him so often in the past hour alone, he swears he could fill a book with the phrase. And then cheerfully chuck the book into a hot fire.

“Wait a second,” he suddenly says. “That rant about angels…”

“What about it?”

 “I just realized I don’t know your religious affiliation. Are you a Christ—”

“Are we allowed to eat yet?” they interrupt as though they didn’t hear him. “I’m really hungry, and you still have a pretty large entourage to work through.”

“Uh…” Mark looks around. “There shouldn’t be anyone in the room right now, but if anybody gives you trouble, tell them to talk to me.”

They pat him on the shoulder. “My stomach thanks you, Chucklehead.”

“I think I’ll join you,” Damien offers. “And then we’ll smuggle food back here for you, Mark.”

“I appreciate it.”

They leave his side for wherever the food buffet is, and Mark desperately tries not to watch the two of them go, but he does. They’re holding hands, but they have a tendency to do that with both Mark and Damien. Doesn’t mean anything.

Yet.

But Mark may as well have shoved Damien into their arms though, before all of this happened. And who wouldn’t want someone like Damien? Sweet, loving, supportive, painfully kind…

Mark shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. No need to fall off that cliff just yet, not when he’s already teetering on a completely different one.

Suddenly, the air feels too close, a horrid weight on his chest, and he hears another guest heading in his direction, so he hurries to head outside, muttering something about a headache.

Once he reaches the outside world, he takes in a deep breath and lets it out, feeling the smell of green grass sting his nostrils. A small breeze cools him down from all the body he sustained while still inside. He counts his blessings that the service is being held at a funeral home, not his manor. It’ll be hard enough living there without the memory of a thousand strangers overrunning the grounds offering condolences over a couple they barely knew.

God, he’s going to be alone in that house now. He can’t decide if that will be worse than being there with his parents.

“Don’t tell me you’re leaving already, I just got here.”

Mark’s head jerks up and to the side to see the last person he ever thought would be at his parents’ funeral.

“Celine?”

Damien’s twin sister stares up at him, red lips lift into a small grin. “Don’t sound so surprised, like I actually wasn’t going to find a way here somehow.”

A desperate, choked sort of laugh leaves his throat as he hugs Celine close. He holds tight for a long time before they both let go.

“Does Damien know you’re here?”

“Damien can’t lie to our parents to save his life, so I didn’t tell him I snuck away.” She taps his nose with the tip of an obsidian nail. “It made for a pretty surprising entrance, right?”

“I’d say! Only…should I expect the cops to show up here to take you back home soon, once your parents realize you’re gone?”

Celine lets out a sweet giggle, but then she sobers as she reaches down to take his hand in hers, patting it gently. “I’m sorry about your parents, Mark. Truly.”

And there it is. The pity he’s disdained over the course of this entire affair. But at least this is genuine, and from someone who knows his family, his situation, and, more importantly, him.

At least this is from someone he’s always cared for.

“Thank you. I appreciate it. I, erm…” He shakes his head. “I honestly have been having trouble wrapping my mind around it.”

“I can imagine.” Celine purses her lips into a grimace. “Well, not really, but I understand what you’re saying.” She looks towards the crowded parking lot, utter distaste wrinkling her nose. “Politicians?”

“And fellow wealthy acquaintances of my parents.”

“Ugh, both at once. It’s a wonder you’ve lasted this long.” She glances at him out of the corner of her eye. “Would you like to go get drinks and talk? Away from here?”

Mark almost declines. It feels a little insensitive to leave, especially without Damien and his friend, but when he looks in the window of the funeral home…

There they are, sneaking food off the buffet into napkins with Damien, both with barely contained smiles. They mouth something Mark can’t make out, and Damien shoves their arm gently in response, making their smile widen.

Mark looks back at Celine, old feelings and passions rolling in his chest, and makes a decision.

“A drink sounds good.”

 


 

Two weeks later, Damien is sitting next to his friend on their living room couch. His hair is untidy from his hands continuously running through it and he’s been staring at the coffee table for an inordinate amount of time, utterly shell shocked. A letter from Mark and Celine dangles loosely from his hand as his elbows rest on his knees.

His friend has been terribly silent, arms crossed and their lips pressed into a thin, grim line. Their back is pressed into the couch. Damien can feel the disappointment and barely contained anger tinging the air.

“Bastard could have at least invited you to the wedding,” they eventually mutter.

Damien sighs. “He could have invited you, too.”

“Yes, well, he didn’t elope with my sister, did he?”

A ragged cough strangles out of Damien’s throat. There’s a shifting on the couch and an arm lands across his shoulders in a small hug.

“Sorry,” they whisper. “That was...I shouldn’t have said that, it was insensitive.”

“You’re not wrong,” he reassures them sadly. “I just...I don’t understand why...”

They shrug. “He’s an idiot,” they bite, and Damien is astonished by the anger in their voice.

“My friend—”

“If I’ve learned anything after all that I’ve been through,” they interrupt firmly, “it’s that no one should make any major decisions while they’re grieving. Much less marrying his best friend’s twin two weeks after becoming an orphan, my God, what was he thinking...?”

Their voice chokes and they stand from the couch, pacing away.

Damien thinks now would be the worst time to share his suspicions, and yet they still swim furiously in his mind, drowning him. Damn it, he should have just talked to Mark when he had the chance, before his parents died, told him the truth about their friend, maybe this wouldn’t have happened…but the whole misunderstanding had been so awkward and Damien had no idea how to clear the air without exposing their friend’s true sentiments, and then everything else happened so fast

Why did it have to be his sister? Why now, when their parents had already threatened to cut her off from her inheritance, disown her from the family? He's always loved the idea of Mark being his brother legally but not like this. Not at the expense of his dearest friend.

“I’ve always known he’s had…feelings for Celine,” Damien ventures quietly. He hates the way they stiffen as he speaks, but he needs to say this, before they think worse of Mark than he deserves. “But I never thought for a moment that he would…”

“Just drop out of University and run off with her without so much as a by-your-leave?”

He flinches at the blunt tone. Still, he hears the hurt sewn through the bitterness.

“Well, you know what?” they suddenly say, in painfully false giddiness as they turn back to Damien. “I hope they’re happy together. I really do.” They’re blinking too fast, eyes glinting. “Not like we needed him anyway…” They release a deep, ragged breath. “You want some tea, I’ll go make some. I think we both could use it…or maybe a shot of some goddamn whiskey...”

They practically flee to the kitchen, and Damien has never felt more helpless.

Mark, what have you done?

Chapter Text

If anyone had ever bothered to ask him, Mark would be the first to admit that marrying Celine right after his parents died was a really stupid thing to do on many levels, from dropping out of University to not informing his friends of this decision.

But no one ever asked him. So he never told anyone his regrets.

Despite the regrets, him and Celine are happy. She wanted freedom and acceptance, he wanted companionship and love, and both are completely willing to give each other what they want. The first two months of marriage are a whirlwind of giddiness and adoration, flowers flourishing in vases, stolen kisses over breakfast, showering each other in gifts and affection while they ignore everything outside of Mark’s home (it doesn’t feel as dark or lonely as it used to anymore, not since Celine).

But they can’t ignore the world forever.

Eventually, they need to talk to Damien. Explain. Apologize.

Which is how Mark finds himself standing in front of Damien’s dorm at University, working up the nerve to actually knock on the door. Celine had wanted to come, offer her support, but Mark figured he should speak to Damien alone first. He owes his best friend that much.

The thought of entering the dorm and seeing his other friend in Damien’s room as well pops into his head and honestly, it should not bother him the way it is—

Before Mark can devolve into that rather awkward line of disaster, the door opens in front of him and he’s faced with Damien, who takes a single step before noticing him and halting in place.

A long, painful silence follows. Mark opens his mouth several times only to close it again when no words come out, no apologies or justification or nonsense.

Eventually, Damien, expression unreadable (which is just terrifying to see from Damien the Open Book), steps aside, leaving the entrance open. Mark takes the hint and enters the room.

His side of the room is untouched, same as it was when he left. Sheets and blankets are half-off his bed, the drawers on his nightstand are open, and hell, his sock is still hanging on top of the lamp (Mark hadn’t even realized he was missing one).

“You haven’t been assigned a new roommate yet?”

Damien doesn’t answer. Mark decides that’s his cue to get to the point.

“Damien…I’m sorry.” The urge to spout out excuses for his actions is overwhelming, but he bites them back. His childhood friend (his brother-in-law, now) deserves better than that. “I shouldn’t have done it this way, and if I could go back, I would do it all differently,” (but he’s not so sure), “but I can’t, and I’m sorry. I just…I hope you can forgive me one day, even if I don’t deserve it.”

He stops there, because if he keeps going, he won’t be able to keep it together. Mark is already terrified he’s ruined one of the only friendships that ever meant anything to him in the long run. He’s always been a popular man, able to make friends so easily the term loses its sacred meaning, but none of those people listened as he described the first time he heard glass bottles break amid the screams of his parents, saw his mother’s bruises and his father’s scratched skin, held him as he cried over how it all went wrong so quickly. (His parents could have killed each other had this accident not happened, and how is Mark supposed to handle that thought once it takes root?)

Mark follows his gut reactions more than he should, gotten him and Damien and William in trouble far more often because of it (he and William are currently tied for the Worst Troublemaker in their trio), only this time his gut lead him to taking his best friend’s sister without a word. How do you apologize for such a thing?

“Are you happy? And Celine?”

He’s so deep in his head that Damien’s query catches him completely by surprise. It takes him a moment to answer. “Uh, yes. I am. Very much. And she is too.”

Damien nods. Then he pulls Mark into a hug. “Of course I forgive you,” Damien says. “You were my brother before, you’re my brother now.”

Mark sighs in relief and returns Damien’s embrace, but the latter pulls away rather quickly.

“However, it may take more than apologies to convince our friend to forgive you.”

Wait, what? “What do you mean?”

Damien crosses his arms. “I’m not the only one you hurt when you left.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My God, Mark, you and me are the only friends they have, do you honestly believe they applauded when they found out you dropped out and ran off? They’ll kill me for saying this, but they were practically in tears when they realized what you’d done.”

Until that moment, Mark hadn’t really thought of it like that. He had assumed Damien would have been hurt, and their friend would be there to comfort him, find solace in one another. It never occurred to him that they would miss him as well…

“Come on,” Damien orders. He grabs a coat off his bed and strolls for the door.

“What are we doing?” Mark asks, still reeling from his realization.

“We’re going to go see them, and you’re going to apologize.”

Mark follows him out, although after the emotional toll of this visit, he’s not sure he’s up for another one within the same hour. “Are you sure this is a good idea—”

“You owe them this, Mark,” Damien insists. “And if that means letting them punch you in the face, then you will let them punch you in the face.”

“Hold on, what makes you think they’ll hit me—”

Damien stops walking and turns to Mark with an expression which, honestly, should only be reserved for someone on death row.

My God, what happened when I left?

“Okay, fine, I will let them punch me, if that’s what they need.”

“Good.”

 


 

Damien knocks on their door, and each knock is like a hammer pounding on Mark’s ribs.

Moments later…there they are, just like he remembers. Shorn hair, color-clashing clothing, century old eyes…

Those eyes take one look at Damien, then Mark, and narrow into something sharp and unforgiving as a knife. Then they slam the door shut. The sound makes Mark flinch.

“You weren’t kidding,” Mark mutters.

“Did you think I was?”

“I at least thought you were exaggerating.”

Damien rolls his eyes and knocks on the door once again. “Please, just let us in. It won’t take long.”

The minutes tick away as Damien and Mark stand on the front step waiting for a response. Mark keeps beating back the urge to run away with his tail between his legs because, damn it, he is not a coward (even if he doesn’t relish the idea of allowing someone to punch him in the face).

Although…it doesn’t exactly help that seeing them still makes his heart skip a beat.

The door opens once again, an eternity later, but instead of waiting for the two boys to enter, they retreat further into the house.

When Mark and Damien pass through the threshold, Damien shutting the door behind him, their friend is standing behind their couch. Arms crossed, jaw clenched, gaze still cutting into his skin.

That’s when he notices aspects of their appearance he hadn’t seen before.

Their mismatched clothing is wrinkled. What little hair is on their head is disheveled, a half-flat mess of tangles. And while the shadows under their eyes have been there since he’s known them, their eyes most certainly were not red when they first opened the door.

(Are they still taking too many classes? The face that he doesn’t know sends a new wave of guilt over him.)

Mark wishes they would speak already. Yell, scream, something. Their silences are so much worse than any words they could throw at him.

Their eyes slide to Damien. “You forgave him, didn’t you?”

Damien steps in front of Mark. “Yes. I did.”

They shake their head, a humorless chuckle biting the air. “Of course you did. Why doesn’t that surprise me?” The question is so quiet Mark almost doesn’t catch it.

“Just because I did, doesn’t mean you have to,” Damien responds in a perfectly neutral tone. “I don’t expect you to.”

Mark looks between them with the sense that he’s missing something vital. But what?

After deciding that he really dislikes them talking as though he isn’t right there, Mark begins to speak. “My friend, I came to apologize for my actions—”

His friend’s gaze cuts back to him, glaring him back to silence. “It’s a little late for that. For me, anyway.” They heave a deep sigh and rub a hand down their face.  

Mark has seen them stare blankly at a page of notes for six hours straight on little-to-no sleep too many times to count, but he swears they have never looked more tired than they do now.

“Damien, can you give us a moment?” they ask. “Maybe make a cup of tea?”

Damien nods and strolls to the kitchen, as though he hasn’t just left Mark to a situation not unlike an impending execution.

Once again, his friend leaves a long silence hanging between them. It reminds Mark of when they first met, the way they would allow for quiet to fill a conversation, wait to see how he would take it. Would he fumble for a subject to break the quiet? Let it linger in the air so they could enjoy each other’s company? They once said you could learn a lot about someone by how they handle quiet moments.

Under normal circumstances, Mark didn’t so much mind the quiet. Now the silence threatens to strangle him.

“My friend…” He can’t go about this the same way he did with Damien, and that’s the problem. He had been prepared to apologize to Damien, not his friend. He should have known better. “I know I can’t change the past, but I—”

They hold up a single stern finger, cutting him off once more. “You’re right. You can’t change the past. You can’t change the fact that you dropped out of University and eloped with your best friend’s sister without inviting him. Or your other friend,” they tack on in a hurt afterthought.

Venom laces every word, leaving Mark thinking the silence somehow was preferable. By a margin.

Their lips press together and their fist pushes against their mouth. The fist pulls. “If Damien wants to forgive you, that’s his choice. He has more cause to be angry with you than me.” They stroll forward until they’re right in front of him, face determined. “So, we are going to move past this, because it’s what Damien wants. Because I care about Damien.” They lean forward and hiss, “I want you to understand that do not forgive you for this. I probably never will. It was a stupid, rash, hurtful thing to do and it’s damaged my trust in you.”

That last confession, the vulnerability in it, leaves him gutted.

Their head turns away from him, staring at some distant point, but he dares not move. “But you’re still my friend, and I don’t want that to change. So no apologies, no excuses, just drink some damn tea and we will never bring this up again. Understood?”

Mark blinks at them. He…he hadn’t quite expected that conclusion. “But—”

“Understood?” 

He clears his throat. Better to just…go along with it, before he says something stupid and makes everything worse. “Understood.”

They nod, backing away from him like they hadn’t just ripped into his chest and started digging with a rusty shovel.

“Oh,” they say. “And one more thing.”

They punch him in the cheek so hard he crashes into the back of the couch.

 


 

The rest of his visit there is primarily Damien inquiring after Mark and Celine’s first few months of marriage. His friend is quiet the entire time, and while there is still an obvious tension in the air, they keep to their word and remain civil and nonchalant throughout the conversation.

When Mark and Damien leave later that afternoon, Mark finally works up the nerve to ask, “I really hurt them…didn’t I?”

Damien doesn’t dignify that with a response.

“They told me not to bring it up again, but…I want to make it up to them somehow. Any idea how I can do that?”

“I would just listen to what they said, Mark. They’ll know what you’re trying to do.”

“Right, right…”

A brief moment passes where all they hear is the wind blowing through the open car windows. Then Damien sighs.

“You’re still going to try something, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am, how long have you known me?”

Damien groans. “If they punch you again, don’t come crying to me.”

Chapter Text

As the weeks pass, Mark can feel his life returning to a sense of normalcy. For the most part.

Damien visits Mark and Celine on a regular basis, and invites the newlyweds to outings as well, thus officially allowing their friendship to return to as it was before. It took some quick thinking to explain the giant bruise on Mark’s face at the beginning of this reconciliation, but Damien accepted the blame for it. Mark doesn’t think Celine fully believes the story, knowing her gentle twin all too well, but she doesn’t press. It would be a little difficult to explain Mark’s rather complicated status with his other friend, so Mark is grateful for Damien’s help.

Mark’s other friend, meanwhile, he hasn’t seen since the day they bruised his cheek in the first place. Sure, part of that is his fault. Mark has been afraid to contact them until he has a plan in place to earn their trust back. Thus far, he hasn’t had much luck.

Damien hasn’t exactly been much help either.

They are currently at Freddy’s Pub, Damien on one side of the booth while Mark sits on the other, pen scratching outlines of ideas onto paper.

“I still think you should just give them space to cool off,” Damien reiterates for about the fiftieth time as he watches Mark crumble up this one and toss it aside. “Otherwise you’ll only drive them further away.”

“And I told you, waiting around has never been my way,” Mark retorts. He shifts an empty sheet of paper in front of him and taps his pen against it, waiting for a new idea to strike.

Damien rolls his eyes, lingering on the growing pile of rejected paper balls next to their booth before returning to the newspaper in his hands. “If you keep this mess up, we may get kicked out.”

“The last time someone got kicked out of here, it was for trying to fornicate with the bear puppet in the corner. I think they can handle a pile of paper.”

“On that note, you know you’re wasting a lot of paper, right?”

“I can afford more.”

A sigh. Not Damien’s first of the evening, and certainly not his last. “Mark, believe it or not, your money can’t solve everything.”

Mark lets out a light chuckle. Then his pen freezes mid-tap when he catches sight of a blurb on the back of Damien’s folded newspaper. A blurb about the upcoming episode for Inner Sanctum Mystery.

A new thought dawns on him.

“What?”

“You’re right,” Mark says in a reverent whisper, a smile growing across his face, “my money can solve this!”

Damien shakes his head frantically. “No, no, that is the exact opposite of what I said, do not come up with a wrong idea when I am trying to push you towards the right oneMARK, COME BACK HERE!”

But Mark is already out the door in a flash.

Damien stares at the spot where Mark was only five seconds ago, the pile of rejection paperballs now scattered across the floor of the pub in the wake of his friend’s departure.

The bartender approaches the table with crossed arms. “So who’s paying the bill?”

Damien rubs his forehead with his fingers. “Put it on Mark’s tab.”

 


 

One week later, Mark knocks, rather obnoxiously, on the door of his favorite law student.

They open the door to his bright grin. They’re wearing a plain purple sweater and dark pants.

“I hope you don’t have any plans today, my friend, because I—wait, please don’t shut the door. Just give me a moment, please?”

They stop closing the door in his face. Their mouth twists in contemplation. Then they lean against the door jam, brows lifting as if to say he has five minutes to convince them not to leave him on the porch.

“Thank you. Now, how would you like to go get coffee at Amy’s?”

“Why?”

“I have a surprise waiting there for you.”

Their eyes narrow, but no questions follow.  

“You can leave whenever you want,” Mark continues. “But at least see what I’ve got planned?”

They regard him for another several seconds before shutting the door once again. Before he can despair (or start knocking again, begging like a fool), they open the door and join him on the stoop.

“Fine. You’ve got me curious.”

Mark doesn’t bother hiding his delight. He gestures to his limo. “Your chariot awaits.”

 


 

The silence on the way to Amy’s Planet shouldn’t bother Mark, but it still does.

They’ve always been quiet, but in the past, the quiet moments between the two of them have been companionable. They have always been oddly soothing for someone as energetic as he, softening the sharp urges of immaturity as they arrived.

Of course, his immaturity is what got him into this spot of trouble in the first place. Now it seems his friend is content to turn companionable silences into bitter ones. Which shouldn’t surprise him considering how their last encounter went, but it hurts nonetheless.

Mark takes in a deep breath. This plan will work. It has to.

“Ah, here we are!” he announces as the driver pulls into the parking lot at Amy’s. As he and his friend exit the vehicle, a distant rumble echoes through. Mark looks up to a blue sky turned gray.

“I guess there’s a storm coming.” This is oddly perfect for what he has waiting for them.

The closer they walk to Amy’s, the more suspicious his friend appears.

“Why does it look so dark in there?” they inquire, speaking for the first time since they left the house.

“Oh, I bought it out for the afternoon.”

They stop in their tracks. “You what?”

“I’m fully aware of your hatred for crowds, so I decided to avoid it entirely.” He pulls out the key Amy gave to him and unlocks the front door, opening it for his friend. “I also sent the employees home. Don’t worry, they’re getting paid for the time they would have been working.”

They’re still staring at him, like he isn’t waiting for them to go into the café. “What is it?”

“You…you really…are you kidding me?” they splutter.

The reaction confuses him, and primarily because it wasn’t said with awe-inspired gratitude. More like a “questioning his sanity” kind of exclamation. “I don’t understand.”

They groan and shake their head. “Of course you don’t…” With that rather passive-aggressive comment, they finally go inside.

So far, not so good, he thinks as he crosses the clean floor to where his friend is sitting, at their usual table. Their arms are folded on the table, gaze fixed on the top. They’re so visibly uncomfortable it physically hurts to see.

Mark straightens, clasping his hands behind his back. Time to turn up the charm.

“Shall I get your usual order?” Mark inquires in a mock-proper tone (one he picked up from his favorite butler-in-training, Benjamin).

The only response is a shrug.

Mark moves behind the counter, undeterred, only to stare at all of the contraptions and labels in trepidation. “…perhaps I should have kept one employee here. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing,” he confesses.

Mark sees their shoulders shake with gentle laughter and he takes it as a win even as they quash it almost immediately. “Until I figure this out, allow me to prepare the next part of your surprise.”

He goes to the back room and rolls a stand to their table. A cassette player and tape rests atop it. Mark feels their eyes on him as he places the tape inside the player.

“Wait for it…”

The sound of an eerie, creaking door suddenly emanates from the speaker. “Good evening, Friends.  This is your host of the Inner Sanctum, inviting you in through the creaking door—“

Their eyes widen. “Inner Sanctum Mystery? On tape?”

“I asked the radio cast and crew to record their newest episode before their next airing time. You and I will be the first to witness their most recent macabre creation.”

Their gaze flips from him to the tape player before focusing on the latter with rapt attention, hands folding into their sweater sleeves.

Mark smiles at how enraptured they look.

“—don’t pay any attention to those gurgling sounds you hear. They are the unfortunate ones. The midnight spirits who are caught haunting before midnight. Poor things. All they can do now is gurgle—”

The gleeful horror of the narrative is briefly interrupted by a lady pushing Lipton Tea to be bought (which gives Mark time to struggle further with the contraptions behind the counter). “I may actually buy a truck of Lipton Tea if I can’t figure this out…” he mutters to himself.

It takes longer for him to manage than he would like to admit, but eventually he does get two drinks resembling coffee stirred and served for the two of them. He settles at the table across from them. They take the mug without a word.

“—I got out an old Latin dictionary. I looked up the word, perpetuus. And then, I got a strange, cold feeling down my spine. For the word perpetuus means ‘perpetual.’ The latin sentence which the professor had written in his diary meant: ‘In Elixir #4, I have the secret of perpetual life. Professor Jarman had discovered the secret of immortality!”

“How much you wanna bet this guy is about to regret finding that Elixir?” Mark jests.

They snort, an amused, but almost-empty sound. They’ve relaxed into their chair further since the program started. Outside, the rumble of thunder rolls closer and closer, rain drumming in a gentle rhythm against the glass windows.

As the radio drama progresses, as a student plots to murder his professor for the sake of immortality, Mark sips his drink, enjoying the heat and the company with his friend. He hadn’t realized just how much he missed them until now, didn’t notice the gaping hole in his life.

The two of them should do this more often. Maybe even Celine could join them. She and his friend share a similar enjoyment of darker mysteries.

By the time he tunes back in, the student in the program has picked up a mallet while the professor begs for his life. The rain chooses that moment to drop an ocean on the café, so loud Mark can feel the pelting in his ears.

“‘You fool! You’ll never enjoy your immortality! You’ll wish you were dead a thousand times!”

The professor wound up not dying of the mallet, but by chemical fumes created by his twisted chemistry student. The student then, rather melodramatically, ingests the elixir and declares his morbid delight over his new mortality.

Honestly, Mark thinks. He sounds so forced. I could play the role of a sociopath far better.

As if on cue, a flash of lightning strikes, followed by a crack of deep thunder. The host takes that time to jump in with his two cents.

“Hey, what’s going on here? What’s all this about living forever? If you ask me, it would be more of a curse than a blessing.”

“I can’t disagree,” Mark chimes in. “What do you say, my friend? Do you fancy living forever?”

His amusement dies immediately when he catches sight of the tears rolling down their cheeks, their coffee untouched before them. “My friend, are you—”

They swear quietly and tear out of the café. Into the thunderstorm outside.

“Goddamn it!” he hisses as he hurries to follow them. By the time he’s outside, the rain pelting him like tiny stones, they’re too far down the sidewalk for him to catch up. Mark hurries to his limo and orders the driver to follow them.

Once the car is beside them, he lowers the window. “My friend, please get in the car.”

“Go away, Mark!” they shout over the downpour.

“You’ll get sick!”

They pay him no heed, arms crossed tight over their soaked body.

Mark tries one last tactic. “I’ll take you home, okay? We don’t have to go back to the café.”

They finally stop walking, and his driver stops the car as well (Mark needs to give the man a raise). He waits as they blink the rain from their eyes, still resolutely staring at the sidewalk, away from him.

Finally, they climb into his limo.

Mark calls out the address to his driver and then the car is off. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees them shivering sporadically, as though they are trying to quell the urge only for it to break through their composure. Their wet hair is stuck to their forehead.

Would they really suffer pneumonia just to avoid asking for his help?

Without a word, Mark takes off his coat and puts it over their body. They stiffen at the gesture, mouth set into something pale and angry.

“I’d like that back, at some point,” he orders, to soften the blow for them. Make it less like a kindhearted favor they think they’ll owe and more like an inconvenience for him which will make them hold onto the jacket out of spite.

The fact that Mark knows them well enough to realize that should frighten him, but it doesn’t.

Sure enough, he sees their fists bunch up the cloth from underneath and they pull it closer to them. Their eyes dart out the window, watching as the droplets trace pathways down the glass.

“Why did you do this, Mark?” they ask quietly.

“Because you’re cold, obviously—”

“No, I meant this.” They lift their coat-fisted hands away from them and pull them right back. “Why the café, the radio drama, the coffee? What was the point of it?”

He doesn’t understand why they sound so hurt. It kills him to hear it. “I just…I just wanted you to see that nothing has to change,” Mark explains. “You’re still important to me, we can still be friends, still spend time together like before, and nothing can change that.”

They scoff. “Mark, we talked about this—”

“No, you talked. I didn’t get to say anything.”

“What could you possibly have said that would have made a difference?” they challenge. “You eloped with Damien’s sister and didn’t invite us—”

“I know what I did!” Mark snaps. “And I didn’t invite you because, damn it, I knew you guys would have tried to talk me out of it—”

“Of course we would have! You don’t get married to someone two weeks after your parents die—“

“That’s exactly why—”

“I would have told you to at least wait longer, damn it!”

Mark chokes on his last sentence. “You—what?”

Their expression is not dissimilar to someone staring down the barrel of a gun. They swallow and look down. “I wouldn’t have stopped you from marrying her. Neither would Damien, especially if you…if you love her.” Their voice grows hoarse at the last part. “But couldn’t you have waited a little longer? I haven’t even met her…and sure, Damien may know you’ll be happy, but how am I supposed to be content with your choice if I don’t see…”

They trail off with a shake of their head, eyes pinched shut.

Mark suddenly thinks he understands a little better why they took it so hard. “Look, you don’t have to forgive me. What I did was wrong, and I’m sorry I hurt you.” Deep breath, let it out. This is the turning point. “But I thought you of all people would understand that I was terrified of being alone.”

They flinch, and he knows it’s cruel to phrase it like that. They’ve known loss just as intimately as he now does, but it’s necessary. “I felt so lost, and I…I know one day you and Damien will be off, and where does that leave me? I know I married her for the wrong reasons at the time, but at least now I’m happy. Me and Celine, we’re both happy. Can’t that be enough for you to be happy for me?”

They don’t look up, but Mark thinks he sees resignation in their eyes. Their head tilts up and down in the barest hint of a nod. The knot in his heart loosens just a fraction.

The rest of the ride to their home is as soundless as it was when the two of them left, but at least now Mark is settled with the knowledge that there is still hope to return this friendship to its former glory.

When the limo stops in front of the house, they don’t get out immediately, like Mark would have expected.

They whisper something under their breath, too soft for him to catch.

“What was that?”

They sigh. “I just…I missed you. That’s all.”

The confession warms him better than the coffee did. He definitely needs to try something like this again. “I’ve missed you too, my friend. Perhaps in a few days, you can meet Celine. I think you two would get along well.”

“No,” they insist, rather forcefully.

Mark’s concern returns in full force. “Why not?”

They clear their throat. “Valentine’s Day is this week,” they say in a rush, “and I doubt Celine will want a complete stranger joining the first romantic holiday of your marriage.”

The blood drains from Mark’s face.

He completely forgot about Valentine’s Day in his rush to get this outing put together.

Mark is so caught up in his panic, he doesn’t notice his friend climb out of the limo with his jacket still wrapped around them. He calls for the driver to hurry to the nearest flower shop and never sees his friend watch the car drive away.

 


 

You stare down the street long after Mark’s limo disappears into the thick sheet of rain.

Of all the idiots you could have fallen for, it had to be the recently married one who makes a grand gesture to his “friend” mere days before Valentine’s. It shouldn’t surprise you by now, not after all the thoughtless things he’s done, but it does anyway. It’s surprising, and it hurts like someone holding your head underwater long after you’ve run out of air.

He’ll never understand what he does to you, the bastard. And it’s for the best that he never does. You’re willing to deal with the water drowning your lungs, so long as Mark still wants you as his friend.

(Maybe you’re the fool for putting up with him.)

Yu go inside your home, because nothing good comes out of standing in the rain, continuing to brood like a fool. You light up the fireplace and hang up your wet clothes…

…and Mark’s jacket.

Your hands hold onto it longer than they should, thumbs stroking the wet, expensive fabric. You’ll give it back to him another time, you decide. Some time when his wife isn’t around, and when you can pull air into your lungs again.

Chapter Text

Mark doesn’t see his friend for another two months.

Not for lack of trying. Now that the air is mostly cleared between them, he’s often reached out for another get-together. Sometimes with his wife included, sometimes not, depending on how busy Celine decides to be. But every time he reaches out, his friend declines with an excuse usually revolved around schoolwork or their job at the local library. It’s awfully discouraging.

“You okay, darling?”

His wife’s voice pulls him out of his thoughts. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” he answers halfheartedly from the couch.

“You’ve been staring at the same page of that script for the past fifteen minutes.”

Mark groans and closes the script book. “I suppose I am a little distracted. I haven’t heard back from a friend of mine in a long time, and I’m…”

“Worried?”

“…that’s probably the closest thing to it,” Mark admits.

Celine passes behind him, and squeezes his shoulders in comfort. “I’m sure you’ll hear from your friend again. I don’t feel anything of ill-fortune has befallen them. Perhaps they’ve just been busy.”

Mark lets this observation pass without comment. He hadn’t been aware of Celine’s growing fascination with the Occult before their marriage. It started with researching the history of his home, and from there spread to finding books on astrology and fortune telling scattered about the place. Not much he can do but let his wife tend to her hobbies. She doesn’t judge him for his pickiness on the movie scripts sent his way via his agent, so it’s the least he can do.

“Master Markiplier?”

“Yes?”

“There’s a call for you in your office.”

Mark shifts off the couch. “Thanks, Benjamin.” He reaches back to squeeze Celine’s hand and heads for his office. It might be his agent wondering why it’s taking so long to get through one goddamn script.

Once he’s situated at his desk, he picks up the phone. “This is Mark Iplier.”

“Hey, it’s me.”

The sound of his friend’s voice makes him jolt upright, his easily distracted mind narrowing in on all the reasons they could be calling right now, from death to tragic accident. (Why did he automatically assume the worst?)

“Um, hi! It’s been a while, how’ve you been?” Mark cringes. He sounds far more excited than he should. It’s just a phone call, for Christ’s sake.

“I’m fine.”

The following quiet is long enough that Mark worries the connection broke. Or that they hung up on him before he could even say something stupid to prompt the action. But why would they call him only to hang up? He’s spiraling again, damn it, focus.

Finally, they speak again. “My mom is coming home.”

Mark’s heart leaps with delight on their behalf once the words process. “My friend, that’s incredible!” He wonders why they don’t sound happier at the prospect.

“I heard from her a few days ago. She’ll be here at the end of the week, and, my car is at the shop, so…” They take in a deep breath and say in a rush, “I was wondering if you would mind giving me a ride to the train station and then taking us home.”

The only reason Mark doesn’t jump immediately at the offer (he’s wanted to meet their mother for so long now) is due to a lingering question. “I’d love to, but…I would have thought Damien would be your first choice.”

“I didn’t ask him, I’m asking you. His parents hate me, and he doesn’t have a car of his own,” they answer simply. “Unless…unless you’d rather not, that’s fine.” They sound prepared for a rejection.

Mark realizes what this is. An olive branch, an outstretched hand. Their way of meeting him halfway in repairing their friendship.

He’ll be damned if he doesn’t take it.

“What time should I pick you up?”

The plans are set, the details ironed out, and after Mark hangs up the phone, he fights the urge to shout victoriously like an idiot.

 


 

The ride to the train station was as silent as Mark expected it to be, and now the actual wait for the train is just the same.

To their left, several feet down, a soldier is greeted with tears of joy by his wife and child. Mark tries not to watch, but it’s hard not to watch such a touching moment, even though this is the third reunion he’s observed since arriving.

He shakes his head and affixes his attention on his distracted friend. “May I ask why you don’t seem happy?”

He figures the question will be a good way to pass the time while they sit on the bench and listen to the whistles of the passing trains. Besides, their reticence and general subdued attitude hasn’t escaped his notice.

“I am happy,” they claim. Their gaze is fixed on the trains, but judging by the following sigh, they’re fully aware of his disbelieving look. “It’s been a long time since I last saw her, okay? Since then, my father’s been killed in action, my brother’s abandoned us, I’ve graduated high school, and now attended University for almost a full year. I’ve changed, and I’m sure she has too, and…I guess I’m afraid to see the effect the war’s had on her.”

The most experience Mark has had with loss was his parents, and the only experience he’s had with the warfront is William’s rather unsettling excitement to go fight (and when will he return?). Any attempt at empathy will probably not be helpful, or well-received.

“I honestly can’t say I understand where you’re coming from, because I don’t,” he starts, and he doesn’t even realize what he’s going to say until the words fall out anyway, “but I know how much you love your mother, and I know she loves you too. As someone who’s relationship with his parents was less-than-ideal at best, I’d say that’s a pretty good place to start.”

Their lips purse thoughtfully. “…I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for.” Mark stretches his arms over his head with an exaggerated grunt and interlocks his fingers behind his head. “To complete your thoughts. Or at least your most basic ones, we both know my big head is just for show.”

They crack a slight grin, the first he’s seen since before his elopement. It makes something flutter in his stomach.

Then an announcement over the PA sends his friend to their feet in a flash.

“This next train should be Mom’s.”

Mark has never heard them sound so…jittery, if that was even the word for it. Nervous, yes, but not this shaky, trembling emotion bordering on an all-out panic. He stands up with them and places his hands on their shoulders. He waits, in case they try to shrug him away. When they don’t, he pulls them closer into a side hug. The trembling lessens, but not entirely.

Mark doesn’t let go, not when the train comes to a stop, and not when soldiers and passengers file onto the platform.

Even if he hadn’t seen the framed photos in his friend’s apartment, Mark still probably would have known their mother as soon as she stepped off the train, clothed in her uniform. She and his friend have the same black curls, same nose, and the same centuries-passed gaze.

A gaze now fixed on his friend.

Mark releases them as they take a shaky step forward, and forward.

“Mom,” they whisper.

Their mother rushes to their child and pulls them into a tight embrace. “Hello, sweetie,” he hears her greet. Her voice is softer than he imagined it would be. Or maybe that’s just the way she sounds when talking to her children.

Mark steps out of earshot to offer them much-needed privacy. As much privacy as one can get in a crowded station filled with reunited families.

Several minutes later, the pair approaches him. He pretends not to notice his friend wiping away residual tears.

“Mom, this is Mark.” They clear their throat. “He’s…he’s my friend.”

The words make him straighten in surprise and not-so-secret glee. (It’s happened, it’s happened, he’s done it, finally!)

Their mother’s brow lifts in a show of curiosity, looking so much like their child that it’s almost unsettling. Not as unsettling as the wicked scar cutting the side of her nose to the corner of her lips. How the hell did a combat nurse get a scar like that?

She holds out her hand. “I’m Ruth,” she says simply. Her voice is much stronger now, the same kind of careful intensity in her tone as his friend.

Mark wonders, with this much similarity to their mother in the smaller pieces, how much of their father he’s seen in them thus far. It pains him to realize he’ll never know for sure.

He shakes Ruth’s hand and definitely does not imagine the tightness of her grip.

“Raindrop here has mentioned you quite a bit in their letters,” Ruth adds on after releasing his hand.

His friend fidgets with the edge of their shirt, avoiding eye contact when he glances at them. Oh, shit.

He chuckles awkwardly. “Really?” He spares a look at his friend, only for a particular word to penetrate his emerging uneasiness. “Wait, Raindrop?”

Mark has never seen them flush so quickly. “Why, Mom? Why?”

Ruth smiles cheekily, and he has to say, it transforms her into someone you’d expect to have royal blood, in spite of the scar. “Because it has been too long since I’ve gotten to call you that,” she taps her child’s nose, another familiar gesture, “and I need to make up for lost time, Raindrop.”

Raindrop. Oh, this is brilliant. This is the best thing that could have happened.

His friend must see the trajectory of his impish thoughts, because their flush deepens and they grab Ruth’s luggage. “I think the car is waiting, let’s go.”

 


 

“So where does ‘Raindrop’ come from?” Mark asks after telling his driver to take them to Charlotte’s for lunch, despite his friend’s protests. To his surprise, Ruth had agreed to the lunch date. Though he expected she just wanted food that didn’t consist of military rations.

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” his friend tries to deflect.

“It’s not an embarrassing story, sweetie,” Ruth reassures. “They just played in the rain quite a bit as a child, despite my warning to not do so.” She addresses his friend again, “Remember how that turned out?”

“Mom, it happened once. I was six.”

“You got sick for a week,” Ruth finishes. “You were less-inclined to play in thunderstorms after that.” Even though the sparkle in her eyes is full of humor, her voice remains severe.

“Maybe I just did it when you weren’t home,” they retort. They’ve gone from embarrassed to teasing right back, a side of them he hasn’t seen outside of their interactions with him and Damien.

“Are you really admitting to disobeying me as a child? Keep in mind that I am still your mama no matter how old you are, Raindrop.”

Their eyes become glassy all of a sudden. “I think I’m okay with that.”

Ruth, sensing the change, reaches over and grabs their hand, thumb stroking her child’s veiny wrist.

Mark feels like an intruder, peeping in on such a personal moment.

This thought in mind, when they arrive at Charlotte’s, he offers to get a separate table so the pair may catch up without an outsider interfering.

“Absolutely not,” Ruth disagrees right off the bat. “Raindrop has spoken of you fondly in their letters. I insist on getting to know you better.”

He wonders how “friend elopes with other friend’s sister out of the blue” translates fondly in writing.

Did his friend even tell their mother about his transgressions? From the way Ruth has been eyeing him with that suspicious curiosity, he’s inclined to think she knows something of the situation. Which does nothing at all to temper down his nerves.

The three of them are placed at a table by a window, Ruth and his friend on one side while he sits on the other. They give the waitress their drink orders, and Mark passes the wait with general queries about the food they will order.

“Nothing too expensive,” his friend mutters as they look at the prices on the menu. “I am still a college student, after all.”

“What are you talking about?” Mark scoffs. “Order whatever you want, this is my treat.”

Ruth gives him that lifted brow look again. Meanwhile, his friend groans. This isn’t the first time the pair of them have had this sort of discussion about him paying for things on their behalf. “Mark, I don’t want charity—”

“I consider this a celebration,” he interrupts firmly. “The subjects of said celebrations should not have to pay for food. So go ahead and get whatever you wish.”

“Mark—”

“Raindrop,” Ruth interjects. “If your friend wishes to do us a kindness, then we’ll take it. I don’t imagine I’ll be getting my pay anytime soon.”

“See, Raindrop?” Mark suppresses the urge to giggle at his friend’s glare. “You’re outnumbered.”

Ruth, at least, finds this amusing, if the slight lift of her lips is any indication.

The arrival of their drinks probably saved Mark from imminent death. After placing their food order, his friend excuses themself to the bathroom. Leaving him to the scrutiny of their mother.

Great.

She doesn’t speak right away (Mark suspects she’s as comfortable with quiet as her kid is), but he suspects some kind of Conversation is coming.

“I heard you married recently,” Ruth finally says. “Congratulations.”

And there it is, he thinks. Mark clears his throat. “Thank you.”

“I’ve also heard about your parents. My condolences.”

Wow, she’s just hitting all the high points, isn’t she? “I appreciate that. If you don’t mind, I would like to express my own sympathies for your husband.”

Only the slightest flicker of pain twitches in the corner of her mouth, gone in a flash. “Thank you.” Ruth folds her hands on the table. “I’ll get to the point. My kid tries to be impartial when writing to me. The stories they relate are almost always aggressively happy. You realize why that would tip me off as to when they’re trying to keep something from me.”

“I’ve never read any of their letters, but ‘aggressively happy’ definitely doesn’t sound right,” Mark ventures.

Ruth nods. “I’m fully aware that my son has probably not kept his promise to take care of his sibling, like my husband and I asked before we left.”

“Bare minimum,” Mark answers the non-question. He doesn’t bother keeping the anger out of his voice (what kind of brother doesn’t accept his sibling just because of their chosen gender, or lack thereof?). “He sends money for rent and a few other bills, but that’s about it. And they won’t accept anything from me—”

“And I’m not asking you to pay for their education,” Ruth’s tone sounds more like a demand than anything else. “Like we’ve said, they are not a happy person by nature. They come by it honestly. However,” she sighs, unfolding her hands and straightening in her seat, “from what I can tell, reading between the lines, you make them smile. I can count the number of people capable of that on one hand.”

Mark ducks his head, finding patterns in the tablecloth. It’s hard to hide from the scrutiny of those familiar eyes. “It’s not just me, I’m sure. Our friend Damien has also helped bring them out of their shell.” He tries very hard not to allow any inflection to color his voice at the thought of Damien.

“Which puts the two of you in the very unique status of being friends with Raindrop.”

Mark risks a glance upwards only to see those eyes narrowed into something sharp and dangerous, even if the scar hadn’t been there. He suddenly has no doubt that she could kill a man if she wished to. And have creative ways of permanently disposing of evidence implicating her.

“I like you, Mark,” Ruth continues. “You make them happy. Don’t mess it up, or you’ll answer to me. You understand?”

He swallows down the immediate responses popping into his head, which mostly involve undying devotion or the insistence that he could never hurt them. It seems rather rash to promise such a thing, given his track record.

He settles with a simple, “Yes, ma’am.”

This satisfies Ruth. She relaxes into her seat. “I assume you’ve also made sure they don’t work themself to death?”

“When they let me, yes.” Mark chuckles. “It takes a lot of convincing to get them away from their textbooks, but I’ve managed it a few times.”

Ruth smiles again at that, probably the most light-hearted one today.

His friend returns to their seat, and looks between them with concern. “Mom, you haven’t been regaling him with embarrassing stories about my childhood, have you?”

Mark perks up at this. “Embarrassing stories, you say?” He exchanges a conspiratorial glance with Ruth. “I would love to hear some.”

“No, I take it back, please don’t,” his friend begs.

As Mark and Ruth share a chuckle at his friend’s expense (good-naturedly, of course), it feels like the world is right again.

Little by little, he’s getting his best friend back.

 


 

“Are you expecting me to not ask questions, Raindrop?”

Honestly, you’re surprised Mom waited two hours.

The lunch with Mark had gone better than you’d expected. Not as awkward or stilted as you were expecting (dreading). And the more you spend time with him, the more your anger (sorrow? Heartbreak?) dulls into something manageable. You can actually look him in the eye without wanting to punch him in the face or cry like an idiot. You even joked with him after he dropped you off at home. Well, you actually threatened him.

“Mark, if you call me Raindrop again, I’ll break your arm.”

“Too late! You’re not getting out of that one, Raindrop!”

“Go drive off a cliff, asshole.”

He signaled the driver to take off after that, and you could still hear his deep giggly laughter when they were halfway down the block.

But obviously your mom sees right through your act. Even if she hadn’t read your letters, which only contained the bare bones of the situation and none of your actual feelings on the subject of Mark’s elopement, she probably would have seen the truth in the lines of your face, the false cheer in your eyes.

“We made up,” you answer. “End of story.”

“I didn’t say you two fought in the first place,” Mom says, in a manner suggesting she’d figured out as much anyway. “You never said anything about ‘making up’ in your last letter. What’d you fight about?”

Damn it. “I was angry at him for…for eloping, and not inviting me or Damien,” you explain. “You know that already.”

“Are you angry at him for not inviting you,” Mom begins, sounding more like the lawyer you’re preparing to be than the combat nurse she is, “or for not choosing you?”

You don’t dignify that with an answer. She’d see through a lie anyway. You turn away from her in favor of staring at the teapot as it comes to a boil, arms crossed tight around your chest, like that’ll somehow keep the pieces of your chest from breaking further.

Her hand settles against the back of your neck, thumb stroking the bottom of your hairline gently. “I’m sorry, Raindrop.”

You don’t move, because you don’t want her to stop touching you. God, you’ve missed being comforted by your mother so much, it almost breaks you all over again at just the feel of her calloused fingers. It feels like you’re six all over again, coughing and crying with pneumonia in bed while she caresses your face and holds you close in rare shows of physical affection warming you from the inside out.

You shrug and begin to pour the boiling water into the mugs, shoving down the pain and the longing to be young and naïve again, if you ever were. Even in pictures from your childhood, your eyes are tired. As if you always knew your future held nothing but heartache.

“Nothing to be sorry for. He was never mine to begin with.”

Chapter Text

Their meetings continue on in brief lunches and meet-ups for the remainder of his friend’s University attendance.

A few stick out, as far as importance goes. In Mark’s opinion anyway.

“How’s your mother been settling into civilian life?”

They sip at their coffee mug before answering Mark’s question. The tendrils of peppermint steam curl in front of their nose. “Well, she’s trying to find both a medical school and a well-paying job that will take a non-white woman with medical experience, so…” they shrug, “…you can imagine her luck, thus far.”

Mark winces in sympathy. In the six months since their mother returned, his friend has been far more open to Mark’s invitations to get together. Not as often as Mark would like, but he at least gets to see them once or twice a month, usually at Amy’s or at the library where they work. Sometimes Damien joins them, just as delighted at Mark and their friend making up as Mark is. For the most part, these visits are mostly just for Mark and his favorite law student.

He has yet to bring Celine on these outings, but he hopes to introduce her to his friend soon. He feels they would get along quite well.

(So why doesn’t Mark protest more when his friend delays the offers to meet his wife?)

“It’s funny,” they say. A bitter twist of their mouth accompanies the statement.

“What is?”

“People like my mom? They leave their homes behind, they stitch up their fellow Americans, they bleed their lives out on the cold ground of a foreign land…and what do they get from Uncle Sam?” Their grip tightens around their mug, leaving their fingers bloodless. “An ambivalent homecoming, a piece of shiny metal if you lived to wear one, and little chance to find a new job after all is said and done.” Their eyes stare into the patterns embedded into the tabletop. “Nice to know my father died for a country that can’t be bothered to acknowledge its broken promises.”

Mark’s friend has always been vocal when it comes to the injustices they face. What worries him, however, is how the usual conviction and fight in their tone has given way to resignation, tired lines creasing their mouth, glass in their eyes.

What’s even worse is knowing there’s nothing he can do to fix it, other than finding a way to make them smile again, take their mind off whatever troubles they may be having, the ones bringing these maudlin thoughts to the forefront.

(They’ve spoken of the way their mom jumped at the sound of a truck backfiring, hand going to the kitchen knife on the counter in a practiced motion, and his friend needed to talk her back to the present.)

“Anyhow,” his friend waves a hand, as if they can waft away the prejudices of the world with a carefree gesture (and carefree is a luxury his friend has never had), “that’s enough about me. How are rehearsals coming for that play you’re in?”

Mark brightens at the mention of his craft. He launches into a diatribe of his latest escapades on the developing set of Arthur Miller’s renowned script the Man Who Had All the Luck with all the delight someone can hold when it comes to personal passions.

 


 

Mark spends more time than ever at his friend’s house now that their mother has returned. He’s seeing a whole new side to them.

While Ruth is about as smiling and chatty a person as her kid is (which is, obviously, very little, if at all), they both visibly soften around one another. Mark can see how much the two of them treasure every shared silent moment, handing each other tea, reading in the living room together, or even listening to radio dramas.

The biggest surprise for Mark was learning who the piano in the corner of the living room was for. He had always assumed Ruth, her husband, or her son played, because his friend never touched the instrument in the time he’s known them.

But then one day, Mark and Damien stroll into their home and stop at the doorstep simultaneously at the sound of cheerful piano music.

He and Damien exchange a confused glance as they knock on the door.

“It’s open!” Ruth shouts from inside.

Mark and Damien enter. Then they stare in utter astonishment at the sight before them:

Not at Ruth, resting on the couch and knitting what looks to be a violet scarf, but at their friend, seated at the piano bench with their fingers flying across the keys with a proficiency Mark never would have guessed.

Their head lifts for the briefest of moments. “Lunch is almost done!” Then their focus returns to the instrument.

“Close your mouth, boys, you’ll catch a fly,” Ruth comments without looking up from her needlework.

They obey.

In the months that Mark’s gotten to know Ruth, he has learned that while she’s not a funny person in general, she is well-versed in deadpan humor and times this skill frighteningly well. Yet another similarity she passed onto her kid.

Mark takes the empty chair and Damien sits on the other end of the couch from Ruth. Neither of them have stopped watching their friend at the piano.

Ruth finally looks up from the scarf and sighs. “You’ve never seen them play, have you?”

“What gave it away?” Mark jokes weakly.

His friend looks so entranced. Like they’ve entered an entirely new realm where all that exists is the jovial notes surrounding them.

“My husband taught them,” Ruth explains. Her voice is deceptively level.

Something sharp twinges in Mark’s chest. That…that makes sense then. Why he’s never seen them play before. He watches them with new eyes. What suddenly made them want to play again? Was it their mother returning from the front?

“What song are they playing?” Damien asks. “It sounds like Cole Porter.”

“‘Begin the Beguine,’” Mark finally identifies. How the hell did he remember that? Most days he can barely remember to tie his shoes before going out the door.

The music draws to a close.

“You have always loved Cole Porter, Raindrop,” Ruth says.

They shrug. “I guess.” They stand up and stretch out their arms. “I’ll go check on the roast.”

After they exit the room, Damien turns to Ruth. “Is the scarf for them?”

“Yes,” she answers. “It doesn’t get very cold here, but they love scarves.”

Mark makes a note of that for the next time he’s struggling to think of a gift to get them.

 


 

“How have you been, my friend?”

You sit down in your chair with a sigh at Damien’s question. You doubt he hears your frustration over the steady hum of the other bowling alley patrons.

“It’s your turn,” you attempt to deflect.

Damien rolls his eyes, grabs his bowling ball, and launches it down the aisle. He spins on his heel to face you again before the ball knocks all the pins down for the fifth time that day. “Seriously, my friend, how are you doing?”

You throw up your arms. God, you hate bowling. But Damien loves it, so you end up going to this godforsaken place at least once a month, or sometimes more. Usually when Damien wishes to speak to you about something.

You have no idea why he thinks you’ll be more talkative in the seventh circle of hell, but there it is. He doesn’t ask much of you, however, so you put up with it as best you can.

“Do you want to be specific, or should I just guess what you’re referring to?”

Damien steps closer to you after a quick glance around, wary of eavesdroppers. “You’re trying to be friends with Mark. A man I know you still have feelings for, don’t bother denying it.” He tacks on the last part just as your mouth opens to do just what he said.

You clench your jaw and look away from him. “If you’re worried that I’m going to pursue the guy who’s married to your sister, you really don’t know me at all—”

“I would never accuse you of such a thing. I think too highly of you.”

Your bitterness sticks in your throat. Damn it, how does Damien do that? How does he stop your instinctive defensive behavior from taking root so quickly? “Then what are you asking me?”

“I know this has to be taking a toll on you,” Damien says, “trying to act like you’re okay with this when you’re not. You were so upset when he eloped with Celine, and I can’t imagine you’re any less so now. But you went on that outing to Amy’s Planet with him all those months ago and suddenly everything is back to normal? What is going on?”

The bitterness wells back up, this time tinged with pain. You stand up and pace away from Damien. “You’re right, okay? I’m still beyond pissed and I’m definitely still hurt. I would like nothing more than to wallow in self-pity for longer than I got to, and maybe punch Mark a couple more times, but damn it, Damien, I just…”

You shake your head and turn back to him, but you can’t bear to look into his kind, understanding eyes. “My options are either stay mad and lose him forever, or move on and keep him in my life. And…I don’t think I could bear losing him.”

And that’s the worst part. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the idea of living a life without Mark now is completely unimaginable. Like trying to live without a lung for the rest of your days. You could manage, but you’d still be missing something vital.

You love your solitude, but you’re not ready to live a life without Mark again. You don’t know if you ever will be.

You see Damien nod out of the corner of your eye, so you think the conversation is over.

You think this until you go to grab your bowling ball and Damien asks, “Mark’s debut is next week. You’re coming, right?”

“I can’t come to the first one, I have tests to take,” you say with regret. “But I’m going to one of those performances if it kills me.”

“You know, Celine will probably be at a few of them.”

You freeze mid-throw, the ball slipping from your fingers and rolling right into the gutter. You groan and drop your head back.

“I’ll figure that out later,” you finally grumble.

Much as you’re willing to put aside Mark’s past behavior, you have no intention of meeting his wife anytime soon. There’s only so much you can deal with at a time.

 


 

Mark’s debut performance in the Man who had All the Luck becomes the talk of the town very quickly and paves the way to future, bigger plays as well as his future film career.

But right now Mark just relishes the laughter and applause from the audience. He craves the congratulatory kiss Celine plants on him after his first five performances.  He finds comfort and excitement in the burning heat of the spotlights.

Celine frames the positive reviews from the newspaper and sets them up in his office. Damien doesn’t make it to every single showing, but he comes often enough to have a reserved seat in the front row.

Despite all of this feedback and attention, Mark can’t help but eagerly await for the law student to come. They missed the first several due an inability to get time off work, and now there are only three showings left.

“I’m coming tonight,” they promised that morning.

Mark keeps resisting the urge to peek through the curtain to see if they’re in the audience, and continues to fight the urge through the rest of the show.

When the lights finally go up and Mark can see the audience, he still can’t catch a glimpse of them, and he hates the sense of disappointment rolling in his stomach.

He exits the stage after the play is said and done just as Damien runs up to grab him into a bear hug. “I swear, you just get better and better every night, Mark!”

Mark pulls away, fully prepared to smile and play along with Damien but then he looks over Damien’s shoulder and stills.

There they are.

They look so different. Their hair is styled into stiff curls (hair product? His performance was hair product worthy?) and they’re wearing what looks like brand new (or at least rarely worn) clothing. Their smile is radiant and they hold out a single rose for him.

Mark lets out a laugh and grabs them into a spinning hug.

“Stop it, I’m going to drop the damn flower!”

He sets them down, still grinning like an idiot. “I’m so glad you’re here!”

“I told you I would be!”

“You did, but I—” Mark shakes his head.

“You did incredible up there,” they compliment.

“Yes, you did.”

Mark looks behind them to see their mother, also dressed up and grinning brighter than he’s ever seen.

“Ruth!” He steps forward and shakes her hand enthusiastically. “I had no idea you were coming too!”

Ruth’s brow lifts and once again Mark is struck by her striking resemblance to her child. “You didn’t really think I would miss such an important event, did you? Arthur Miller is my favorite playwright.”

Mark’s friend appears next to him, saving him from thinking of a response. “And also, we had no plans on missing this. Not for the world.”

Their hand grips his shoulder as they continue to list off specific aspects of his performance that they noticed in particular and Mark swears he could die content right in this moment, with his friend looking so radiant and holding a goddamn rose they got for him.

Life is good.

Chapter Text

One day, you’re going about your business as normal when you look at the calendar and realize what day it is. The realization settles in not unlike the way a rain cloud opens up above you. It's one of the reasons why you're not at all surprised when Mark calls you with an almost frantic giddiness and asks if you want to go for a night on the town.

No, you think. Not this time.

(It occurs to you belatedly that he could have asked Celine to do this. You wonder why he didn't mention her.)

Out loud, you say, “How about you come over? Mom and I are going to have a quiet night in, but you’re free to join if you want.”

Mark is silent on the other end just long enough for you to think he’s going to turn you down and call Damien instead (if he hasn’t already done so). But then, to your surprise, he says, “Okay. But only if you make your special hot chocolate.”

“I’ll have Mom make it. It’s her technique I’ve been using anyway.”

“Is that right?” He sounds delighted. “Tell her she’s got great taste in her hot beverage innovations.”

“Tell her yourself tonight.”

When you hang up, you see Ruth staring at you with questions in her eyes. “It’s the anniversary of his parent’s death and I’d rather he didn’t burn through it by partying into oblivion. Do you mind…?”

Ruth shakes her head. “Of course I don’t mind. Although I have a feeling that getting that boy to talk is a lot like pulling teeth from someone without the help of anasthesia.”

“You…are not wrong. Help me bribe him to stick around and talk about difficult subjects with your special hot chocolate?”

“Of course, Raindrop.”

After that, you call Damien to ask if he wants to join in. He declines. “Mark’s known me since we were kids, but sometimes I think that makes him less inclined to listen to me. You, on the other hand…well, you don’t take his shit. And he really loves your mom. I think having her there will help.”

You can’t help but smile. I take more shit from him than I do anyone else in my life.

“Do you think I’m pushing too hard?” you ask. “Should I just let him be?”

“The last time we waited a split second too long to talk to him about his pain, he eloped. I say trapping him is your best option.”

That’s fair. But it’s reassuring to hear it from someone who knows Mark better than you.

Mark didn’t seem to suspect your intentions when he arrived at your house. He eagerly accepts his mug of hot chocolate and plops onto the couch next to you while Ruth settles into her armchair. “So what do the two of you usually do on your quiet nights?” Mark asks with a bright grin. “Listen to the radio? Exchange philosophical discussion? Trash talk the local politicians?”

You and Ruth exchange a look. Now is as good a time as any. And you always did hate to beat around the bush. “Mark, I know what today is.”

Mark freezes, mug halfway to his lips.

“Look, I don’t want to force you to talk about something you don’t want to—”

“Good.” Mark sets his mug back down and moves to get up. “This was fun, but I’ll be on my way—”

“Sit down,” Ruth speaks up. The command in her voice makes you straighten up, and it wasn’t even directed at you. “You just got here. And Raindrop is doing this because they care about you. The least you can do is hear them out.”

Mark blinks at your mother and you can’t help but feel so grateful to have her here for the millionth time. He settles back into the couch, looking quite chastised and pained.

“I get why it’s hard to talk about,” you begin. Mark doesn’t look at you, but he at least isn’t ignoring what you say. A better start than you were expecting. “How do you think I reacted when I lost my dad? Mark, it’s okay to miss them, to—”

“It’s different.” The suddenly harsh tone in Mark’s voice makes your brow furrow.

“Then explain it to me. How can I help if I don’t know what I’m—”

“Your dad loved you, I’m sure,” Mark snaps. “Just like Ruth here does. Mine…” His hands dig into the couch cushions like he wants to tear into them. “I think they did, once. But they brought out the worst in each other, and the longer they stayed together, the worse it got.” He stands up and paces away from them.

You say nothing. Mark has never been good at letting silences linger.

Sure enough, he speaks again, like now that he's finally spoken, he can't keep it back anymore the way he's tried to. “I’d stay awake long into the night, listening to them scream and beat at each other. I wish I could say it was just one or the other, but it wasn’t, they were both equally awful, I’d wake up to the sound of glass breaking and find remnants of it in the morning if the butler wasn’t thorough enough in his cleaning, but despite all of that they—”

Mark takes in a shuddering breath. “They never hurt me. They had high expectations, they hated the idea of me becoming an actor, but they never laid a hand on me.”

You set down your mug with trembling hands. You stand up and try to approach him, but he steps out of your reach again.

“They would have killed each other,” he presses and you can see the tears threatening in his eyes. “I know it, I know they would have. If this freak accident didn’t happen, I just know they would have killed each other. It’s happened before, you know. At that house, the manor I inherited. The families end up killing each other. No one knows why , they just lose their minds and go at each other with whatever weapons are in reach—”

“Mark,” you interrupt, finally. You can see a panic settling into him, dragging every breath out of him like a plow dug too deep into the earth. Tears start to escape down his cheeks. You put your hands on his upper arms. He doesn’t pull away. “Mark.”

Your touch manages to ground him. He’s shaking underneath your grip. “You’re right. I never had to deal with anything like that. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it. Did you think I was just friends with you because you turn everything into an obnoxious celebration?” This tease elicits a micro-chuckle. A minor victory. “I’m here for the ugly and the hurt too, Mark. I…I don’t know why you didn’t want to talk to me, last year…” You clear the sudden lump from your throat as a horrific thought occurs to you. “But you know I would’ve done anything for you, right? You didn’t think I was going to leave you to deal with all of that on your own, did you?”

He doesn’t answer and suddenly you feel like the floor has fallen out from under you. “Mark. I’m your friend. You and Damien are my best friends, my only friends, I would never just up and leave when you were hurting or ever, and, damn it , this isn’t about me, this is about you, and you need to know it’s okay to have complicated feelings about people you love, even after they’re gone—”

You’re cut off when Mark yanks you into his arms for a bone crushing hug. You feel his tears stain your shirt and you don’t give a damn. You wrap your arms around his abdomen and hold him just as tight.

“I’d do anything for you too,” Mark mutters into your shoulder.

Another pair of arms wraps around both of you. “The both of you are terrible at talking about things that hurt,” Ruth declares with no small amount of fondness and frustration. Her voice sounds a little choked up too. “I doubt even locking you in a room together would fix that. Next time I’ll just smack some sense into both of you.”

Mark’s shoulders shake with laughter and you can’t help but laugh too.

We’re both idiots, you think to yourself. Idiots who aren’t used to talking. But that’s okay. We have time to learn.

After what feels like an eternity of hugging and crying, the three of you settle back into your seats and manage to carry on less-intense conversation. Once the hot chocolate is reheated, of course.

 


 

It’s like a dam has broken inside of Mark. Whereas before the mere mention of his mother and father was enough to send him running in the opposite direction, now it seems as if he can talk about the good and the bad without falling to pieces. Well, not often, anyway. That first time wasn’t a miracle cure, he cried rivers the first few times he managed to talk, but each time hurts a little less.

He talks about the trips they would take to Europe. How they showed him both the high end restaurants but also, occasionally, the low end diners with even better food that only locals would know about.

He talks about the time they had a fight so violent they even destroyed a trophy of his from a high school thespian competition he’d taken part in. He hadn’t taken any apologies from them over that one.

The day they took in William, after his mother passed away. And then it was Mark and William, holding hands in their shared bedroom as the arguing sounds pierced the walls and floors of the house.

How they insisted on having at least one meal together every day, and how that meal usually passed without incident, but the moment Mark was out of the dining room, he knows they went at each other once again with biting words and venomous accusations.

It hurts. Everything about it hurts and it’s amplified because Mark wouldn’t let himself deal with it when he first lost them. And it hurts now because of course it does, losing people you care about hurts like a bitch, even if they weren’t the best of people.

But now that he’s feeling it in all of its terrible glory…he can’t regret it.

He doesn’t talk to Celine about it. He doesn’t think she’d understand.

But he talks to the law student. He talks to Damien, too. And Ruth, because she’s a good listener and feels so much like the mother he should have had. She isn’t the most touchy-feely person, but she puts her hand on his when his throat closes up around words he's trying to say, and squeezes his shoulder when he manages to laugh about something ridiculous he did in his youth. (She’s been coughing a lot lately, he can’t help but notice. Whenever he asks, however, she just dismisses it, calls it a little cold that’ll pass. He finally makes his friend teach him how to brew tea and ends up making many cups for Ruth during their talks together.)

After a month or two of this purging of his soul, he manages to work through the worst of it, and mostly gets back to normal.

His parents weren’t the best people. And he hates them just as much as he misses them. It’s easier to think about all of it now that he’s cleansed the lingering guilt and pain from his system, the parts that had been corroding him like a fast-growing cancer.

It’s not perfect. But it’s better than before.

And, really, isn’t that all he can ask for?

 


 

As more time passes, Mark can’t help but notice that a big part of his friendship with the law student is still often spent convincing them to put down their textbooks for a few hours and go have some fun. 

(What? Just because he’s dealing with the remnant of emotional turmoil that he normally suppresses doesn’t mean he can’t still have fun along the way.)

He’s not always successful, but he has become a master of compromise thanks to these occurrences.

“Mark, my final exam is in two days, I need to be ready,” they say in response to his offer to go dancing for the evening. “I’m graduating next semester. I can’t screw this up.”

“You have been studying for two weeks straight now, my dear friend,” Mark points out. He plops onto the couch beside them. “You can spare at least an hour doing something non-academic.”

“Well I’m not dancing, I’ll tell you that much.”

Mark sighs. That had been how he started the conversation. Honestly, he should have known better than to open up with that offer. He almost lets the whole idea pass, but then he glimpses scars on their knuckles. He’s noticed them in the past, but they look fresher than before. Like they split open and healed multiple times since he last saw them.

A renewed conviction overcomes him to give his friend some peace of mind for the evening. “How about a walk then? We can get coffee at Amy’s, go as far as the park and come right back.”

He can see the consideration in their eyes. They bite their lip. “I don’t know…”

“Just go , Raindrop!” their mother shouts from the kitchen. “Your brain will leak out of your head if you stare at those notes for much longer. Take some time with your friend, your studies will still be here when you get back.”

Mark gestures victoriously. “Thank you, Ruth!”

His friend groans. “Fine. I can go for some coffee, anyway.”

Rain threatens all the way to Amy’s Planet and on the way to the park as well, but Mark and his friend pay it little heed. The rolling gray clouds are a gorgeous contrast highlighting the fiery gold leaves of the trees in the park.

He keeps up a litany of chatter for the entire trip, but does take moments to prompt his friend for conversation when they appear open to it. Mark even convinces them to sit at a bench for a while.

“I hope you know how incredible you are,” Mark suddenly says.

They stop in the middle of taking a sip of coffee.

“I mean…” Mark trails off and tries again, “you do realize, right?”

“I appreciate you getting me out of the house, Mark, but you can stop with the flattery, I’m not the rich drips you have to kiss up to so your plays get funded—”

“Of course not!” Mark interrupts. “Your opinion matters far more to me than any of those crumbs.”

They scoff, but he can see the smile tugging at their cheeks.

“By the way…how did you get those marks on your hands?” At their questioning gaze, he gestures to their knuckles.

“Oh, those. I go to the gym to box once a week.”

“Really? Since when?”

“Since I graduated high school.”

“How did I not know about this?”

They shrug. “You never asked.”

…well, they have him there.

Their brow furrows. “You’re not going to ask why I go boxing?”

“I assume you like to work out your frustrations on innocent punching bags.”

Their resulting laugh, affirming his suspicions, leaves him grinning.

They both finish their drinks before heading home. At least, that’s the plan until the sky suddenly drops buckets of rain onto the pavement. Mark grabs his friend’s hand and they run full-speed towards the nearest overhang, laughing hysterically all the while.

“We always seem to get caught in the rain, don’t we?” Mark points out, tugging his wet jacket closer, as if that’ll stave off the sudden chill. His companion chuckles in response as they try to shake the dripping water from their face. Mark reaches over to brush the wet curls off his friend’s forehead.

The casual contact sends a strange tingling up his fingers. His hand lingers longer on their temple than he intended, reveling in the sensation.

His friend, meanwhile, has gone frighteningly still, the laughter struck from their face. Mark hadn’t realized how close they were until this second.

I shouldn’t have done that, he thinks. Why did I do that?

Too late now.

His wedding ring suddenly feels colder than the rain.

“I…I need to get back home,” they stammer.

Before Mark can stop them, they disappear down the street.

Chapter Text

Mark doesn’t mention that moment ever again, and neither does his friend, which is probably for the best.

Still, Mark is haunted by it. The way the rain dripped down their cheeks, how bright their eyes were, the way they looked at him. It was like they really saw him and it made his pulse race just thinking about it…

And it made him wonder what they were thinking, in that moment.

And that…that was dangerous.

Mark usually tries to distract himself whenever his train of thought leads to that conclusion. Usually with thoughts of Celine and his blossoming career.

(But he can never quite push aside the idea that his friend had looked at him like he was…magic. And sometimes that makes him wonder.)

 


 

Two weeks later, your mother walks by your bedroom and sees you on your bed, staring at the sportcoat lying on the duvet in front of you.

You don’t notice her for several seconds, but when you do, you jolt upwards, embarrassment lining your face. Why the hell did you leave the door open again?

Ruth lifts an eyebrow at the scene. “Raindrop…whose jacket is that?”

You know better than to claim it’s yours.  The deep beige color and chalk stripes are not your style at all. Your shoulders slump as you run your hand down your face. “It’s Mark’s,” you mutter.

Ruth nods. “And what are you doing with one of Mark’s jackets?”

Maybe if you just sit quietly long enough, she’ll leave you be and pretend this never happened. Judging by the look on your mother’s face, she knows exactly what you’re planning. She steps further into your room and sits on the edge of your bed, arms crossed.

(How long have her cheeks looked so gaunt? It makes the scar on her face starker, more haunting.)

You sigh. You tell her, in more detail than your letters had first contained, about his efforts to renew your friendship so long ago. About the trip to Amy’s Planet right before Valentine’s Day, not that he had realized. About listening to an episode of the Inner Sanctum Mystery with him.

How you ran out into the rain when you realized nothing would ever be the same with him now that he’s married and the realization had gutted you anew.

How he tracked you down, drove you home…

…gave you his jacket because you were shivering in your rain-drenched clothes.

I’d like that back, at some point.

You shake your head when you finish the story. “I meant to give it back to him sooner. After I had it washed and dried, but then I forgot and a few weeks had passed and I thought it would be weird to give it back to him after all that time and now…”

“Now?”

You bury your face in your hands. “I don’t know…”

The bed shifts. You feel your mom’s hand on your knee. “Raindrop, it’s okay to admit you still have feelings for him.”

“No, it’s not,” you deny. “He’s married. I could never do anything to destroy his–”

“I’m not saying you should,” Ruth agrees in a firm voice. “But it doesn’t change how you feel. What matters is how you try to deal with it.”

You run your hands through your hair and stare at her desperately. “How do I deal with it?”

Ruth smiles at you ruefully. “Honey, the best thing would be to stop being friends with him. But you already know that.”

The reminder cracks open your chest. Before Mark went to such efforts to drag you back into his life, that had been your plan. Even before he tracked you down, your resolve had been crumbling.

He’d been such a bright light in your life…you hadn’t wanted to let go of it. Not then. Not now.

“I…I can’t…” you finally say. You’re horrified by how choked your voice is, like a snake has constricted your throat. Tears sting the corner of your eyes.

Ruth’s hand touches your cheek, and you’re caught off guard by how cold her skin feels, how bony the knuckles feel, more so than they should be.

“I’m so sorry, Raindrop,” she says.

You chuckle bitterly and catch her hand when it drops. “You said that already.”

“So what?”

“So…what’s the next best thing I can do?”

Ruth’s thumb brushes across your knuckles. “I don’t know for sure. Can you imagine yourself with someone else?”

A real, honest-to-god, laugh of disbelief bursts from behind your teeth. “Mom, I don’t think anyone else would want me.”

“You thought that before Mark and Damien came along, Raindrop. I think that is no longer a valid excuse for you to avoid personal connections.”

Damn. And you thought you could be brutal in your honesty. Your eyebrow lifts. “I think you would have made a good lawyer, Mom.”

Ruth mimics your expression. “You don’t get enough opportunities to study the human body in a courtroom.”

“Or ready access to a scalpel,” you tease.

The two of you share another laugh before you somber again. “Mom, your skin is really cold.”

Ruth’s lips press into a line.

“Is there something you’re not telling me?”

She shakes her head and pulls you until your forehead presses into her shoulder. “It’s nothing you can help with, Raindrop.”

The resignation in her voice may as well be a noose around your heart, tightening and tightening.

You wrap your arms around her waist and wonder how much time you have left with her. You don’t dare ask. And you never do.

Two months later, when you’re up late studying, you hear your mom making tea in the kitchen when suddenly there’s a loud grunt and a thud, and you find her curled on the floor, taking in deep, jagged breaths.

(Not enough time. Never enough.)

 


 

Mark awakens in the middle of the night at the sudden ringing of the phone. Celine stirs only slightly next to him.

Please don’t bother me, please don’t bother me…

“Master Mark?” calls Benjamin from outside his bedroom door a moment later.

Damn it.

“What is it, Benjamin?” Mark yells from his bed.

“It’s Master Damien,” Benjamin responds. “He says it’s an emergency.”

Mark leaps out of bed. Thank God Benjamin is waiting outside the room with the rotary phone they keep upstairs (the house is too large for just one phone), so he takes it without delay.

“Damien, what’s wrong?”

“Mark…Christ, Mark, Ruth is in the hospital.”

Mark’s stomach drops to the floor.

No.

Oh no.

“Which hospital?”

Damien wastes no time in giving him the details, and Mark rattles them off to Benjamin, along with an order to call up the driver.

Before he hangs up, Mark asks how their friend is. There’s a long, crackling sigh from the other end of the line. “Not well. They’re not well at all.”

Mark hangs up and rushes back to his room to change out of his pajamas.

“Mark? What is it?” Celine asks, only mostly awake, as he yanks his socks above his ankles.

“My friend’s mother is in the hospital,” he explains in a rush. “Damien and I are the only friends they have, I…I need to be there–”

“It’s okay,” she reassures him. He can see the exhaustion lining her mouth, but her eyes are aware and understanding. “Go ahead. Call me when you can, so I know you’re alright.”

“Of course.” He plants a goodbye kiss on her lips before quitting the room.

 


 

The first thing Mark sees upon arriving at the waiting room is Damien and his friend sitting in an isolated corner. He pays no heed to the hustle and bustle of nurses and other waiting families as he makes his way to his friends.

Damien is holding their friend’s hand in a vice grip. (The sight doesn’t cut into him as deeply as it used to, but the sting is still there, much to Mark’s shame, especially now of all times.) They hardly seem to notice the gesture as they stare at the floor, utterly shell-shocked.

Damien sees him first. The helplessness in his gaze is gutting and the dread in Mark’s already tight stomach worsens. “Mark…”

His friend looks up next and, to his surprise, stands from their chair and grabs him into a strangling hug. Their breathing is ragged and Mark returns their embrace, arms moving up and down their back.

Mark doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even know if he can speak past the awful tumor growing in his throat.

“She didn’t tell me…” they finally choke into his shoulder. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know, why didn’t she tell me…”

“What?” he whispers.

“Apparently,” Damien begins (Mark almost forgot he was there), “Ruth has been fighting a losing battle with an internal complaint for months now. No one knew but her doctors, and now…”

Damien trails off, tears filling his eyes. Mark opens up an arm and gestures for him to come closer. When Damien obeys, Mark pulls him into a hug. Their friend shifts to envelope both Mark and Damien.

The three of them stand there, taking comfort in each other’s comfort and contact, until the doctor calls them in to discuss Ruth’s condition.

In years to come, Mark will remember little to nothing of anything the doctor said about what was happening to Ruth’s body, but he will remember the conclusion for as long as he lives and beyond:

“She might not last the night. Do you want to say your goodbyes now?”

And what the hell kind of question is that? How do you ask a child to say goodbye to their mother, the only real family they have left, without the slightest feeling in your tone? (Mark isn’t in the mindset to think that this is just the most recent in a string of fatal reports this doctor has probably had to deliver.)

He and Damien wait in the hallway while their friend speaks to Ruth. Mark can’t even imagine what they’re feeling right now.

When he lost his parents, he had been less sad about actually losing them and more terrified with the accompanied burden of his inheritance. Still, they had their good moments. Ever since he finally let himself deal with his grief, Mark can recall the days when his father would ruffle his hair, or his mother would tap his nose with fondness. Mark still has Celine, still has Damien, still writes to William.

But his friend…

“Mom wants to talk to you two,” they announce immediately after exiting the room. Their eyes are puffy and vacant.

What could Ruth want with them?

Mark touches their arm gently before going into the room, Damien trailing behind him.

He’s not prepared to see Ruth like this. She’s pale and gaunt, too many tubes attached to her body, and nothing like the powerful, almost-regal woman Mark has come to respect and maybe even love like a mother himself. The scar on her cheek makes her look all the more like a specter.

“Don’t look at me like that, boys,” she orders with a small, understanding smile. “I didn’t ask you in here for your pity.”

Damien sniffles beside him. They both walk to opposing sides of her bed. “I’m sorry, I don’t really know what to say,” he apologizes.

“Neither do I,” Mark admits as well. It takes all of his self-control not to burst into tears.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Ruth dismisses. Despite how fragile her body looks, her eyes—the same eternity-gaze as their child—is just as intense as ever. “But I have something to ask of both of you.”

“Of course!” Damien agrees immediately.

“Keep an eye on Raindrop for me, please,” she asks. “Remind them that no matter what happens, I’m so proud of them, of all they’ve accomplished and all I know they will achieve. Tell them to make memories and enjoy their life, because it’s not just precious for them. It’s precious for me too, knowing that they try to find something to smile about.”

Mark’s battle against his tear ducts is a losing one. They stream down his face like hot rivers.

“Just make sure they’re okay, both of you. That’s all I ask.”

Mark and Damien glance at one another in a moment of silent communication.

“Always,” Damien promises. He tentatively reaches for Ruth’s hand, and she grasps it, nodding with satisfaction.

Ruth switches her gaze from Damien to Mark. There is something far more expectant in her eyes this time. Mark doesn’t know what, exactly, she’s expecting from him, but it feels like she means something more than just watching out for her child.

But Mark can’t waste time trying to figure out what his dying friend means. “We’ll take care of them,” Mark says. “You have our word.”

A small smile stretches across Ruth’s face. “Good.”

 


 

The funeral is two weeks later.

Mark and Damien make valiant attempts to do most of the arranging, in order for their friend to have time to properly grieve. This goes about as well as expected.

“I have to do something, or I’ll…”

They don’t need to finish their sentence. So Mark and Damien allow for them to take part in who to notify and how they want the funeral to be handled, but there was absolutely no negotiating on the money. Mark and Damien split the costs between the two of them even as their friend protested the entire time.

Just as their friend wanted, the service is short, small, and intimate. By the end, only Mark, Damien, and their friend are standing in front of the gravestone. Ruth is buried next to her husband, just like she wanted.

“You did a good job,” Mark commends his friend.

They don’t answer him immediately.

“Are you okay?” he asks, and immediately regrets it. Obviously they aren’t okay—

“I think I understand why she didn’t tell me now, even though I suspected, some time ago,” they say suddenly. “I’m still angry, but…I get it. She didn’t want her last few months to be tainted by the knowledge of her borrowed time. I just…” They take in a shuddering breath. “I hope she knows how much I loved her.”

Damien places a hand on their shoulder. “She absolutely did. We can promise you that much.”

They don’t answer.

“Would you like a moment alone?” Mark asks.

“No,” they respond immediately. “I…I don’t want to be alone right now.”

“How about I go call the driver?” Damien offers. “He can take us wherever we want next.”

“Anywhere that has a stiff drink,” they mutter.

Damien’s laugh is dark. “I’ll be sure to let the driver know. I’ll be right back.”

As soon as Damien is out of earshot, Mark sighs. “I could go for a bottle of whiskey too.”

“I thought you liked wine better?”

“You’ve corrupted me.”

They actually crack a small smile at his joke and it helps Mark to cheer up as well.

He can’t stop looking at Ruth’s headstone. It’s simple, unadorned. He offered to pay for something more extravagant, but his friend refused on the grounds of Ruth hating frivolous things. It makes Mark think of the large, elaborate graves his parents rest in. A knot of guilt twists in his stomach. A small grave may have been what Ruth wanted, but she deserved so much more.

The law student’s sudden intake of breath makes Mark look up from the gravestone. Another man has walked up to the grave, a bouquet of roses in his hand. Mark doesn’t understand why he looks so familiar until his friend addresses the stranger in a shaky voice.

“James.”

Mark’s blood runs cold.

James.

Their brother.

The brother who abandoned them.

Mark can see the family resemblance now. Not just the same coloring of his skin, but also the same severe set in his mouth, the same nose, the same curly hair. But his face is wider and he’s looking at his sibling as if they’re a stranger.

James sets the bouquet on Ruth’s grave without a word.

“James,” his friend whispers again, entreating this time.

“I have nothing to say to you,” James snaps.

They flinch as if he’s struck them.

Oh, Mark is not having any of this. “Why didn’t you answer any of their calls?” he demands. “They’ve been trying to contact you for days now.”

James narrows his eyes at Mark. “And who the hell do you think you are to talk to me like that?” He finally looks at his sibling. “Is this your boyfriend or something?”

“I’m their friend,” Mark hisses. “And their friend is wondering why you didn’t bother to come to your own mother’s funeral.”

James reels back at his words. Hurt flickers through his face before hardening back into anger.

“Mark, stop it,” his friend begs. They pull him back by his arm before turning on their brother again. “You could have at least let me know you were coming.”

“I didn’t plan on coming,” James scoffs. “Why would I want to come see my disappointment of a si—”

“I don’t care what you think of me!” they shout. Their voice sounds unnaturally loud over the silence of the graveyard. “This is about Mom, and you never even bothered to visit her when she came back—”

“Why would I, when she obviously preferred you?!” James shouts back.

They cut off, staring at him in abject horror. “What?”

“I was supposed to be the good kid, I did everything right!” James continues, his words acidic and biting. “I never gave any cause for concern for Mom and Dad and yet the second you decided to become a disappointment, they don’t even blink an eye! How am I supposed to compete with that?”

Mark watches as his friend straightens, a new strength and anger coming over them. “I am not a disappointment. I have never been a disappointment,” they assert. “And are you honestly going to pretend you were such a ‘perfect’ child?”

“And, what, exactly, are you referring to?”

“You broke my goddamn arm, James.”

The bastard did what?

Mark’s sound of angry disbelief must’ve been louder than he thought, because his friend waves their hand to stop him from stepping forward again without taking their eyes off their suddenly defensive brother.

“You needed to learn your lesson, damn it—”

“I was fourteen!” they snarl. “I’m not going to change!”

“It’s not natural!” James denies. “You’re either a girl or a boy—”

“I’m not,” they stress. Desperation finally leaks into their voice. “Why is that so hard for you to accept? Mom and Dad still loved me, why can’t you?”

Their question hangs in the air like a noose. Mark doesn’t know how his friend can bear this, he can barely keep from throttling their brother.

James shakes his head, a bitter laugh shaking out of him. “I came to pay my respects to Mom, and I’ve done that now. Our parents may not have seen you for the mistake you are, but I do. Don’t expect any more checks in the mail. Goodbye, Raindrop.”

With that snide intonation of their childhood nickname, James walks away from the gravesite. Mark almost runs after the smug bastard with every intention of beating his face into an unrecognizable mess. But he’s more distracted by the way his friend’s lips tremble, despite their best efforts to stand tall and stoic.

“You okay?”

His question shatters what little strength still remained in their body. They let out this awful, heartrending scream and fall to their knees. They bury their face in their hands as sobs wrack their body. Mark drops beside them and pulls them into his arms. He strokes their curls away from their forehead and then they launch into his embrace, gripping the lapels of his suit like a lifeline.

Mark doesn’t think there is anything he can say that will help in any way, shape, or form. So he holds them close enough to feel the wetness of their tears on his jacket and tries as best he can to reassure them that he’s there for them without words.

Slowly, he can feel them calm down. Their shoulders hitch at a slower rate and their sobs quiet into tiny cries. Damien walks into Mark’s line of sight, staring down at them with blatant concern.

“What happened?” he mouths.

Mark just shakes his head. “Tell you later,” he mouths back.

Damien nods. He kneels in front of them and places a hand on their friend’s shoulder. “Are you ready to go home?”

“Please,” they whisper.

The ride back to their house is silent. They stare at their knees with the most haunted, broken expression Mark has ever seen. They don’t release his hand for the entire trip.

Chapter Text

Mark learns five things about his friend and their grieving process over the next few weeks.

1. Once again, they stop playing the piano. On occasion, Damien has reported that they’ll sit on the bench and stare at the keys for several minutes straight before moving away again.

2. They don’t hum when they clean the house. Not even if Mark prompts them by whistling a Cole Porter song himself.

3. They haven’t taken an active part in conversations between him and Damien since the funeral. Sure, they were relatively silent before all of this awful shit happened, but even then they would offer up a snarky comment or sobering observation about whatever he and Damien happen to be discussing at the time. He knows they’re paying attention, the way their eyes move accordingly whenever someone speaks, but they don’t offer up any thoughts.

4. Probably the weirdest thing is how they stop studying. As soon as whatever classwork they have is finished, the textbooks lay unopened on the coffee table for the rest of the day. Mark discovers later that it isn’t just studying, but recreational reading in general. They haven’t touched their collection of Agatha Christie mysteries or various novels about the flaws of the human obsession with control. (Maybe it’ll be good for them to avoid 1984 for a while, but Mark is still wary. They usually read that book every couple of weeks.)

5. Along with the painfully loud silences is the long intervals where they just…sleep. Not in the bedroom, no, but on the couch, while he and/or Damien are visiting. And if they allow themselves to fall asleep in his presence, Mark is pretty damn sure they’re passing time lately sleeping fitfully. (It’s awful, the feeling he has when he watches them toss and turn, brow furrowing, mouth twisting into a pained frown, he’d wake them up if he weren’t afraid of how they’d look at him afterwards.) When they’re not sleeping, or right when they wake up, Mark catches them staring blankly into the distance, a million miles away. He worries about where they go during those times.

 


 

In lieu of these observations, Mark is grateful for Celine’s understanding when he spends more time than he normally does checking in on his friend. It takes weeks and weeks, but eventually, he sees a sudden change in them. Like someone flipped a light switch.

Mark can see them begin to heal from their loss.

They throw themselves back into studying, picking up the textbooks and taking notes with a renewed vigor. He catches them humming once more, and finally they start accepting his offers to go watch films together again, with Damien as well. It takes some adjusting, but they start talking freely again, just as blunt and witty as ever, with only a hint of their lingering depression accenting the banter.

Right at the cusp of springtime, Mark hears them on the piano again.

(The first time the music cut through the still quiet of the house, Mark swears the notes dove right into his lungs, filled him with air he hadn’t been able to take in since Ruth died. Maybe this whole time he’s been drowning too.)

One day, his friend finishes up a song (another Cole Porter melody) and joins him on the couch. “James wasn’t always an asshole.”

Mark lifts his head from his script. He keeps his surprise in check, lest they retreat behind closed doors once again.  

“When we were kids, he was protective. I mean, he was a typical guy: over-the-top macho and all that. But he cared about me.” They sigh. “I didn’t tell him about my…my identity for a long time because…well, even when he was a good brother, he had a cruel streak. He tormented a lot of people at school…people like me.” They fiddle with the end of their sweater sleeve. “It’s one of the reasons I hesitated to tell my parents.”

They drop their head to the back of the couch. “When I finally worked up the nerve to tell them…God, it was so terrifying and liberating. Obviously James didn’t handle it well at all, but he was even more pissed when Mom and Dad didn’t bat an eyelash.” A sad smile tugged at their cheeks. “They said they’d suspected. That they’d always love me, no matter how I identified myself.” They shake their head, the smile dropping from their face. “Two weeks after I came out, James came home, drunk off his ass, screaming slurs and breaking everything in my room before he broke my arm.”

Mark didn’t think it was possible to hate James any more than he already did, but holy shit, here he is, flexing his fingers to get rid of the urge to punch someone who’s not even in the room.

“Dad threatened to kick James out of the house if he didn’t apologize and treat me right. And James did…well, he avoided me after that. Pretended I wasn’t in the room. And then when Mom and Dad went off to war, he just up and left in spite of his promise to look out for me.”

They cross their arms and drop their chin almost to their chest. “I’m better off without him, but…”

“But he’s still your brother.” Mark didn’t know his voice could sound this gentle.

Their lips tighten into a thin line. “Yeah…the only one I’ve got…”

The vulnerability in their voice cuts into him like a knife.

(If he thinks about how long it’s been since he’s gotten a letter from William, he’ll fall apart too, and that won’t do either of them any favors.)

His gut reaction is to put his fingers under their chin and gently lift until they meet his eyes. And then, before the moment goes on for too long, he quips, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”

A giggle bursts from their lips as they pull away from his hand, and he relaxes. “Bold of you to think you’re a Rick Blaine,” they tease.

“What, I’m not good enough to pass off as Humphrey Bogart?”

“You don’t want me to answer that question.”

“Oh, that’s cold, my friend.”

They spend another half hour comparing one another to various Hollywood stars by that time (during which he learns of their particular fixation on Lauren Bacall as well, not that he blames them at all for that one either) before he returns home, feeling more optimistic than he has in a good long while.

 


 

He knocks on their door another day, and upon hearing a distracted, “It’s open,” from the other side, feels a familiar strain of concern.

(What could have happened now?)

When Mark enters the house, he sees them sitting on the couch, staring at a sheet of paper in their hands. An opened envelope rests on the coffee table.

“What is it?” he asks, feeling a lot like someone testing their weight against fragility of an iced-over pond.

They look up at him, and the bright eagerness of their eyes settles his nerves.

“I’m going to law school,” they whisper with a shake of the paper in their hands.

It takes a full five seconds for Mark to process that, yes, finally, he has heard some good news. He tackles his friend into a hug, and the two of them topple into the couch, laughing without abandon.

The next several minutes consist of countless questions (which law school? How long will you need to attend? Do you feel ready? Do you need help affording the tuition? Can you not hit me when I’m offering to help you?!) up until another knock on the door. Then Damien joins the impromptu celebration.

“We must do something!” Damien declares. “I know you dislike parties, but I insist that we acknowledge your accomplishment somehow, my friend!”

Friend? Mark looks at Damien curiously. Still just a friend? After all this time?

They shrug. “I’m graduating this month with you. We can do something then, make it a joint celebration.” They bite their lip with a sly look at Mark. “I might even be convinced to go dancing.”

Mark nearly trips over the coffee table in his enthusiasm. “Oh, I have so many plans to make—”

“Oh God, never mind.”

“Wait, no, don’t change your mind, I promise it won’t be anything crazy!”

“I’m holding you to that, you overdramatic chucklehead.”

Mark won’t realize until he’s halfway home with a light heart and bright smile, but that had been the first time they called him a chucklehead since before his wedding.

 


 

The day of the graduation ceremony comes faster than anyone could have predicted. After the whole tedious affair is done and over with Damien finds his friend behind the stage and embraces them tightly.

“We’re finally done,” he declares with a laugh.

They return his embrace. “Well, I’m not quite done yet.”

Damien rolls his eyes and pulls away. “You’re not going to law school yet. Take the win, will you?”

“Yeah. I suppose…”

There is something off about their tone. “What is it?”

They shake their head. “Nothing, don’t worry about it. It’s stupid.”

“When will you learn that that excuse does not cut it with me?” Damien reminds them gently. “If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so, but don’t trivialize your feelings. Not with me.”

Their gaze is not angry, but it’s not relenting either. If he had to put a term to it, he’d call it “frustrated pain.” For someone who prides themself with an impeccable poker face, they have a whole menagerie of expressions and tics.

(How much of these faces does Mark see these days?)

“When I was accepting my diploma…I saw Mark in the audience…” They look away from him, but not before Damien catches the shame in their eyes. “And I saw your sister.”

Damien’s chest clenches suddenly at the forced neutrality of their voice. God, sometimes he wishes they would just scream, the tight reign they keep on their emotions makes him tired. He can’t imagine how they feel, keeping everything bottled up all the time.

(Even after all these years, he sits back and wonders at how important the law student has become to him. They’re nothing like Mark and William, all cautious words and sharp edges, but maybe that’s part of the draw. He doesn’t need to worry about them the way he does about his almost-brothers. This doesn’t mean they don’t stir up a whole host of other concerns, but at the very least he doesn’t fret about finding them passed out drunk in an alley or stuck upside down in an abandoned elevator shaft.)

“She has your eyes,” they continue, looking back at him with a small, sad smile. “And your nose.”

If they want to pretend everything is normal, like they aren’t still bandaging a bleeding heart, then fine, Damien will indulge them. “They were sitting pretty far back in the crowd. I didn’t think your vision was that great, how did you see my nose on her face?”

“They weren’t that far back,” they argue. Their gaze drifts over his shoulder and their eyes grow wide. “I think I’ll go home and change, I’ll see you later.”

They turn and walk so fast it could almost be considered running.

“Wait, what—”

“Damien!”

Oh.

Damien turns around and, sure enough, there’s Mark and Celine approaching arm in arm.

“You were quite a sight up there, Damien!” Mark declares as Celine envelops her brother in a hug.

Damien shoves aside his lingering unease about his friend in order to properly embrace his twin. “Thank you very much.”

You should have been up there with us, Mark.

“I’m so proud of you, Damien,” Celine says as she pulls away. “You’re going to do great things, I can sense it.”

“That’s what I’m hoping!”

“Hey, where did our friend go?” Mark asks, his head turning to and fro, searching the crowd of families and friends. “I thought I saw them a moment ago.”

“They went home to change,” Damien hurries to say and, damn, he hopes neither of them can hear the wavering in his voice.

“I suppose that’s for the best,” Mark acknowledges, though Damien can see his disappointment. “I wanted to congratulate them sooner, but I can’t imagine they were comfortable in their graduation gown.”

“I’m certainly not.” Damien tugs on the collar of the gown with distaste.

“Well, let’s hurry and get you home so we can all get dressed and go dancing!” Mark orders with a grand sweep of his hand.

Celine shakes her head with a regretful smile. “Oh, you boys can go ahead. I don’t really feel up to dancing today.”

Mark stares down at her like she just spoke Latin. “Celine, you barely leave the house anymore these days, not for parties, not for anything. It’s your brother’s graduation!”

“Mark, please, not here,” she hisses under her breath.

Damien looks between them curiously. Celine hasn’t been going out?

The trio is uncomfortably quiet as they approach the car and return to the Manor. Damien is almost grateful when he and Mark leave later, dressed and ready for a night of levity. Getting caught between his sister and his best friend is not how he wants to celebrate his graduation.

 


 

Mark and Damien sit in the backseat of Mark’s limo with the air of two people who would like to talk, but are fully aware of the awkward circumstances preventing them from actually doing so.

Mark doesn’t know what to say, in all honesty. He hadn’t intended to blurt out Celine’s reclusive tendencies as of late. He didn’t have the right to. Ever since they were kids, she’d been rather hesitant to join crowds or rambunctious events (a quality he tries not to compare to his friend’s similar feelings towards parties and such).

But she had promised she would go dancing with him tonight. They were going to twirl around the floor, bask in the limelight, laugh and kiss where the world could see how perfect they were together…

He was going to finally introduce her to his law student.

He knows for a fact that if Celine would get along with anyone, it would be his equally antisocial friend. Then perhaps Mark wouldn’t feel like he’s splitting time between two of the most important people in his life.

But now—

A loud car honk jerks Mark from his ruminating. He looks out the window and realizes the limo is parked outside his friend’s house. He watches as they exit their home, stare at the vehicle in surprise, and then roll their eyes. He can’t help but chuckle as they shake their head and climb into the limo.

“You couldn’t have picked me up in something less conspicuous?”

“You couldn’t have dressed up a little more?” Mark retorts with a devious smile.

Sure, they look far more relaxed than he’s ever seen them with their high-waist blue pants and pale yellow linen shirt. Their hair is styled into neat curls and brushed away from their forehead, showcasing their ancient eyes for all to see. He’d call the look striking if he dared to.

Still. He half-expected them to dress more glamorously for their night out.

He should know better by now.

Their brow furrows, and he’s guessing his not-joke fell flat. “This is what I’m comfortable in,” they mutter, staring down at their fidgeting hands.

Shit. Why can’t he just keep his mouth shut for once in his life?

“You look great,” he tries to remedy. “Forgive me, I…my mind is elsewhere right now,” he finishes lamely.

They don’t answer.

Well he’s just screwing up left and right today, isn’t he? He glances at Damien helplessly, but Damien just gives him a look that plainly states, “This is your mess; you fix it.”

Except he has no idea how.

 


 

The limo arrives at a relatively obscure club called Duke’s and Mark still hasn’t thought of a way to recover from his verbal blunder.

As soon as the limo rolls to a stop, the law student climbs out without a word.

“Nice job, Mark,” Damien finally comments. “Not like they’re already self-conscious enough about their wardrobe, may as well rub it in that you don’t have those concerns while you’re at it.”

“I know,” Mark growls. “I didn’t mean it like that—”

“Oh really?”

“I didn’t! I just meant…ugh, I don’t know, I was just being a bastard, they don’t normally take it so personally—”

“I think you underestimate how much they value your opinion, Mark,” Damien reminds him. “And also, let’s not forget who paid them a visit just a few months ago and probably brought all their insecurities back to the forefront, ‘kay?”

Damien exits the car after that, leaving Mark to stew in his regretful idiocy for a bit longer. That hadn’t even occurred to him before. Now he’s wondering about all the ways the law student’s brother must have made them feel inferior before he abandoned them.

His head drops against the headrest. A few more moments of self-recrimination pass before Mark finally exits the limo with a slam of the door. When he enters Duke’s, he doesn’t see his friends at first. Neither one is at the bar as Mark would have suspected.

He catches sight of them on the dance floor, Damien coaxing the law student into uneasy steps to match the upbeat music. (Mark crushes the spike of envy in his stomach. He has no right.)

He clears his throat and approaches the pair. “Perhaps we could wait for a slower song?” he suggests with a tentative glance at the law student.

They shrug, but Mark sees the grateful glint in their eyes. “Maybe that’ll be best.” They gently grab Damien’s shoulder. “Keep in mind this is my first time dancing in public.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

Their eyes shut. “Damn it, Mark…”

“What do you mean you’ve never danced in public?” They’re joking, right?

They drop their head into their hands and then stare at the ceiling with a sigh. “Mark, don’t make a big deal out of this, I really don’t—”

“Whoa, whoa, who said I was making a big deal out of this?”

“You’ve got that tone,” Damien interjects.

“What tone?”

“The ‘I am so baffled by these circumstances that I will not shut up about it until I change it myself’ tone,” Damien clarifies.

“That is exactly what it is.”

Mark rolls his eyes. “I am not that bad.”

“Yes, you are,” the law student and Damien say at the same time.

“Okay, fine, maybe I am, but—”

“Hey, either you crumbs start dancing or get the hell off the floor,” a passing man in an obscenely orange suit snaps, much to the chagrin of his red-faced partner, who tries tugging him away from the scene.

“Hey, Mr. Bell Pepper,” Mark ripostes, “mind your own business, we’re in the middle of something.”

The law student presses a fist to their smiling mouth, but not before Mark hears them chuckle.

Mr. Bell Pepper barely has a chance to respond before his still blushing dance partner yanks him back into the crowd.

“I’m surprised I can still see, that suit was blinding,” Damien comments. “Calling him a bell pepper is an insult to bell peppers.”

“I’ve seen clowns dressed better than that drip, and I’m an actor. I’ve seen far too many people with no sense of fashion in my line of work.”

“His partner was kind of cute,” the law student says. “She deserves better than some neon-colored chrome dome.”

“I can agree to that. So, should we take this discussion to the bar, or—”

“You know what?” the law student interrupts. “Let’s dance. If that guy’s brave enough to be seen in public in that monstrosity, I think I can handle my two left feet in front of you weirdos.”

The three of them erupt into laughter and then proceed to dance and talk and laugh for the next several hours, all verbal blunders forgotten for the time being.

They’re still laughing and joking all the way to the law student’s house. Mark puts a hand to his side in a poor attempt to soothe the growing stitch. Damn, he’s out of shape.

“Hey, can you guys come in for a moment?” the law student asks as the limo pulls up to their house. They suddenly seem a little tense. “I’ve got something for you.”

They climb out without waiting for confirmation. Damien and Mark exchange glances before following after. Once inside, they wait as the law student goes to another room. They return with two small wrapped packages. They hand one to Damien and the other to Mark without a word.

A beat of silence.

“You guys can open them.”

“Oh!”

“Right, of course!”

Mark and Damien tear open the packaging to reveal knitted scarves. Mark’s heart leaps into his throat as he stares down at the red cloth with thin golden threads weaved into the article. He sees Damien examining a blue one with silver accents.

“Mom didn’t get a chance to complete them before…” the law student clears their throat. “I, um, decided to finish them up, but my needlework isn’t as good as hers was, so…I hope you guys still like them.”

Mark’s thumb brushes over one of the shining gold threads. Sure enough, towards the end of the scarf, the material is looser, the golden threads not as even, suggesting his friend’s lack of confidence in their skill.

(The last handmade gift he received was some childhood drawing William made. Mark still has it in a drawer in his office, always forgetting to have it framed.)

Mark tries to swallow past the lump in his throat, but has little success. He drops the packaging and throws his arms around the law student. Damien joins in a moment later.

“It’s perfect,” Mark says.

A last gift from Ruth. It’s more than perfect.

After a few more minutes of talk, which mostly consisted of reminiscing Ruth’s love for knitting and the boys trying on their scarves, Mark and Damien leave for their respective homes.

Despite the rocky start to the evening and the emotional end, this night would be one of the brightest memories the trio would carry for the rest of their lives.

 


 

“Mark, you know you don’t have to buy out a building every time you want to make up for something, right?”

Mark ignores the comment as he pulls a hangar with a bright red sweater off the clothing rack. “What about this?”

“Red is more your color, but look, Mark, it was fine, okay? You already apologized, and we moved on!”

That may be so, but Mark still hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep since his offensive blunder, so finally he resolved to do something about it. Sebastian’s Closet is not only one of the best clothing stores in the city, but it also carried a variety of clothing for both genders that suited his friend’s quirky style.

Of course, given his steady rise into stardom, Mark did not want to risk bringing any unwanted attention to his friend, so he just…bought the building for the day.

Perhaps he is falling into a habit, but honestly, it’s refreshing to spend time somewhere public without a million eyes on him. He hasn’t quite adapted to the spotlight just yet.

That being said, Mark did make sure at least one clerk would be here to check out any of their purchases. Said clerk is currently at the cash register trying not to gape at the two of them.

There had been a disagreement, initially, when Mark insisted that his friend not look at any price tags to influence their choices. “Consider it my graduation gift to you.”

“I thought the night of dancing was my gift?”

“That was a celebration, not a gift.” He flips the end of his new scarf dramatically over his shoulder to add flare to his statement.

They roll their eyes. “Fine.”

Which brings Mark back to now, about twenty minutes after the two of them arrived, with his friend pointing out his developing habit of buying out buildings so they can spend time together comfortably. “Maybe this is something I just want to do for you. Did you consider that? ”

“Okay, that’s sweet, but again, why do you have to take it to such extremes?”

“I’m a man of extremes, my friend. I don’t foresee that ever changing, and neither does my wife. Now, how about this yellow jacket to go with your purple scarf?” Mark lifts up the article and holds it in front of the law student.  “The colors are complementary and it brings out your eyes.”

They stare at him for the longest time and he wonders what he said that’s making them think so much. Finally, they sigh and take the jacket. “If you really want to help, get me some white shirts. The ones I have are really worn out.”

“You’ve got it!”

By the end of it all, Mark feels fairly comfortable in saying he’s replenished his friend’s closet with styles perfect for when they officially start law school.

The cost barely dented his wallet.

 


 

When Mark arrives home afterwards, Celine grabs him into a hug, which surprises him more than any other greeting she could have given him, considering the unease between them since graduation day.

“What, did you miss me already?” Mark teases as he returns the gesture.

Celine pulls away in the next moment, grinning from ear to ear. She holds up an unopened letter addressed to him. “There’s good news inside,” she says as she hands it to him.

His brow lifts. “Your third eye tell you that?”

She rolls her eyes and points to an open letter resting by a flower vase on the center table. “I got a similar letter.”

“From who?”

“Just read.”

Mark finally obeys, scanning the writing on the envelope. His eyes widen. He tears the letter out and quickly devours the words on the paper.

He lets out a delighted laugh once he finishes and pulls Celine into a spinning hug.

His friend, his brother, his comrade, Colonel William J. Barnum, is finally coming home.

Chapter Text

You hear about the infamous Colonel Barnum returning home at last when you’re three months into law school.

You don’t think you’ve ever seen Damien or Mark so happy, when the three of you find time to hang out that is. Time with Damien and Mark becomes a rare and treasured commodity which essentially turns into once-a-month meetings either at Amy’s Planet or in your home.

“I almost forgot how eccentric our friend was!” Damien declares one day. He’s sprawled out on your couch, a ridiculously carefree grin on his face. “I was so worried how his time on the front would affect him, but he seems to be handling it well!”

“Indeed!” Mark agrees. He’s resting on the armchair with his hands folded behind his head. “The first thing he did upon arriving at my home after greeting Celine and I was jump fully-clothed into the pool. It was just like old times!”

“Do you remember our hide-and-seek games? They would go on for hours!”

You lift your gaze from your textbook. “Why did that last so long?”

“We could never find William whenever he hid,” Mark explains. “I honestly believe he knows my house better than I do, because I’d think he was in one place, but then he turned out to be in a completely different spot instead. Whenever we asked how he did it, however, he pretended he had no idea what we were talking about.”

You laugh as you turn the page in your textbook and jot down more notes. You consider changing positions, as you’ve been sitting at the coffee table for over half an hour now. Your back is protesting vehemently against further studying.

“Much as I don’t want to chip at your hopes, boys, I’d like to remind you: just because your Colonel seems okay, doesn’t mean he didn’t come back with any scars of his own.”

Despite your disclaimer, you can feel the realization tinge the air with sadness. Why do you always have to be the realist?

“You’re right,” Mark eventually says. “But don’t worry. We’re keeping an eye on him. In fact…” He opens up his arms. “I’ve been thinking about offering him a job!”

“Really?” Damien leans forward. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I am in need of a bodyguard! I think the Colonel has the skills needed for the job.”

“You know, that might not be a bad idea,” you agree. “Someone needs to make sure Mark doesn’t piss off the wrong person and get himself shot.”

“Hey!”

That’s the last you hear about the Colonel for a while. When you look back, years later, you’ll think that maybe you should have asked about the man more. Before the bad reports starting flowing in. Maybe you would have been better prepared for the fallout.

Maybe things could have turned out differently.

 


 

You attend as many of Mark’s shows as you can and practically make a sport out of avoiding his wife. The fact that Mark hasn’t even noticed your efforts at this point is as hilarious as it is frustrating.

Damien has long since stopped asking for you to meet his sister.

At first, you think this is because of you and your lingering feelings for Mark, but then one day, when you and Mark are spending time at Damien’s home, you learn otherwise.

“Where’s Celine?”

You had left to grab your glasses from your bag and find yourself just outside the kitchen at Damien’s question. You stop moving.

“She didn’t want to come,” Mark grumbles.

“What? Why not?”

“What makes you think I know?”

Your brow furrows. That’s the tone Mark usually has when he doesn’t want to answer a question.

Damien apparently catches it too. “Mark, what’s going on?”

“It’s nothing you need to worry about, alright?”

“Nothing I need to—Mark, she’s my sister—”

“Fine!” Mark groans. “She has expressed on multiple occasions that she has no interest in meeting my friends, are you happy now?”

You wince. That…why would that—what the hell is Celine’s problem?

It’s not like she’s met you…or any of Mark’s other friends, for that matter. The bitterness rises in your throat and you swallow it back.

“What? But why?”

“Do I look like a mind reader?” Mark snaps. “She won’t tell me why, otherwise I’d try to do something about it. But she won’t talk to me and…there’s only so much I can do if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Silence falls about as gracefully as an anvil. Your hands fiddle with the arms of your glasses, trying to ignore the dull, ancient ache in your chest.

Just let him be happy, please. If I can have nothing else in this world, just let him have his happiness.

“Mark,” there’s an apology in Damien’s tone, “I didn't—”

“Don’t worry about it. Just…let’s not let it ruin the evening, okay? Where the hell did our lawyer go, anyway?”

You back down the hallway a little further, clear your throat, and call out, “I found my glasses!” You hurry forward and enter the kitchen fully. “So, what film do you have in mind for tonight, Mark?”

There is no trace of his tense conversation with Damien on Mark’s face. You like to think that even if you hadn’t just eavesdropped that you would have noticed the mask. He seems to wear them more and more lately. Like he’s an actor both onstage and in his everyday life.

As Mark shamelessly promotes the new Humphrey Bogart film he’s taking you and Damien to, you decide to pay more attention to Mark’s behavior, in spite of your growing pile of assignments from law school.

You only have two friends. It’s more than you could ever ask for.

But you don’t think it’s too much to ask that both of those friends be happy too.

 


 

Three years of law school and you think you would enjoy the privilege of burning every textbook on the planet.

At least you’re not the only busy one now.

Damien has begun his efforts to integrate himself into community events, lobbying for relevant issues to be addressed, and basically solidifying his presence as a public figure in town. He has hinted at attempting to run for a city council position.

The thought of Damien in a position of power is a hopeful one. You believe he would do a lot of good. There are far too few honest politicians in the world.

And then there’s Mark.

The new superstar.

All it took was one noir film and a few well-delivered philosophical one-liners and all of a sudden Mark is in much higher demand and is far less available to spend time with you and Damien.

It’s not like you didn’t expect this. But still, it hurts that he can’t even be bothered to call more than once or twice a month.

Not until today, however.

Today, you’ll be meeting up with him for the first time in months, and you’re running late because one of your professors is an agent of the devil who makes a habit of going overtime in his lessons.

 


 

For once, Mark arrives at Amy’s Planet before his attorney friend does. He assumes they got caught up in class, so he goes ahead and places their order.

Sure enough, a few minutes later they burst into the café and rush to their seat, heaving like they ran all the way here. When he asks as much, they admit to it. “I needed the exercise,” they say dismissively between deep, heaving gulps of air. “I nearly fell asleep about five times today. I needed to wake myself up.”

Mark shakes his head. “You know, I could have just picked you up.”

“Then I wouldn’t have had an excuse to run dramatically down the street like a hero trying to catch a plane. This is the most theatrical thing I’ve done in years.”

Mark bursts into laughter. “That is…very sad. Maybe I need to put more effort into getting you drunk at our get-togethers.”

They scoff. “You wish.”

The waitress brings their coffee orders, halting conversation for the moment. “It’s two sugars, right?” Mark clarifies. “That’s what I asked for.”

They breathe in the steam emanating from the mug. “That’s exactly right. Now, what have you been up to? Did you hear back from your agent about that film role you wanted?”

Mark grins and catches them up on his more recent acting offers.

As he speaks, he scans their face for any notable changes. They don’t seem any more exhausted than they have been since the day he met them, with shadows under their ancient eyes and lines around their mouth.

God, he’s missed them. The break in his schedule is exactly what he needed.

(So much to deal with, so much he doesn’t want to address at home, but at least with his friend, he can be himself.)

“But enough about me,” he finally says. “What have you been up to?”

They respond with a groan. “Honestly, Mark, all I’ve been doing this semester is studying, sleeping, and occasionally calling Damien to ask if it’s normal for me to have chest pains at this age.”

Mark blinks. “Please tell me you’re joking about the chest pain.”

“I honestly think my sense of humor has evaporated along with my sanity.”

“Jesus…” Mark’s hand covers his face and drags downwards. “My friend, you can’t keep going like this. You’re going to burn yourself out. When’s the last time you went out and had some fun?”

“Um…Damien and I spent some time at the park.”

“And when was this?”

They go quiet for a very long time. “…I can’t remember.”

“That’s not healthy! My God, why didn’t I know you’ve been doing so poorly?”

They give him a Look. A “did you really just ask such a stupid question and expect me to answer it?” kind of Look.

“You’re not exactly easy to get ahold of these days.” Their tone is painfully neutral, but that’s more telling than if they’d yelled at him.

“My friend—“

“How’s the Colonel?” they ask suddenly. “Is he still your bodyguard?”

Well, from one terrible subject to another. This isn’t turning out how he’d hoped at all. He stares down at his half-empty coffee mug. The rest is probably cold by now. “…he is, yes,” Mark eventually says.

Their brow furrows. “Why did you say it like that?”

“I…I’m a little worried about him.”

His friend’s forearms move to rest on the tabletop, their gaze questioning, but not prying.

“Remember how Damien and I have mentioned how eccentric the Colonel is?” At their nod, he continues, “It seems that the Colonel’s eccentricity has a bit of an…edge, now.”

“An edge?”

“It’s the best way I can describe it. His humor is darker, his outlook is bleaker, and I catch him playing around with his gun enough to make me uneasy.”

Their eyes widen. “Yeah, I can see why that would be concerning. Have you tried talking to him about it?”

Mark shrugs helplessly. “Of course I do, especially when I catch him getting antsy at the public events we attend together. But he’s taken to speaking in nonsensical catchphrases I don’t understand. I used to be the only one he would talk to, I’m just…” He drops his head into his hands and his elbows onto the table. “I don’t know what to do. He won’t talk to me anymore.”

“…do you know if he has nightmares?”

Mark’s eyes peek through his fingers. “Um…I don’t know, to be honest. Why do you ask?”

“He fought in a war. Nightmares are not an uncommon side-effect.”

Mark’s hands pull away from his face, but his friend is already looking away.

No doubt they’re thinking of Ruth.

He wonders how often they think of their mother. Mark thinks of Ruth quite often, and finds himself still missing her deadpan humor and tough-love mothering even after all these years, especially when wearing the scarf she made him.

“And if he is? Then what do I do? What did you do?”

They pick up their mug and take a long sip. When they lower the drink, they stare down at the mug like it’ll swallow them whole. “Honestly? I never figured out what to do. I just woke up when Mom did and made us coffee or tea, depending on whether we wanted to try for sleep again.” They gesture aimlessly. “I think that might have helped more than it appeared. It brought her back to reality, and I like to think my presence helped with that.”

“Of course it did,” Mark reassures. “Sometimes I think you’re the only one keeping our little group tethered to reality these days.”

They smile. “I appreciate that. But anyway, all I can really say is to try to be there for the Colonel. Trauma is hard to live with, and he may never get over it, but you can at least keep him assured that he’s not alone.”

Mark takes that into consideration and sighs.

He looks back on the time since he hired the Colonel, and, well, perhaps he has been a little impatient. Maybe he’s still expecting to see the old William that he grew up with without realizing it.

“You’re right, as always. I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Then he grins. “But enough heavy talk. What say you and I go for a walk? It’s a lovely day out.”

“I’d say I like where your head is.”

“I do have an excellent head,” Mark preens.

“Okay, keep it up and you won’t be able to fit that big head through the door.”

 


 

About a week after your day with Mark, you’re cleaning your closet when you come across his damn jacket again.

Your thumbs brush over the material thoughtfully. It is definitely not a good indicator that you still haven’t returned this damn thing to Mark. You really should.

…but how the hell would that go?

“Hey, Mark, remember that time you took me to Amy’s Planet the same week as Valentine’s Day and you gave me your jacket because it was raining? Yeah, I still have it. Six years later. Here you go, no follow up questions, please.”

And then immediately after you can find the nearest body of water and try to drown yourself.

You groan and throw the damn jacket to the floor.

You can’t keep holding onto this thing. It’s not good for your mental and emotional health, and frankly, it’s weird, even if you genuinely just forgot about it at first.

At least the sight of it doesn’t cut as deeply as it used to.

You sit there, in front of your closet and Mark’s crumpled jacket, for an embarrassingly long time before tossing it back into the dark and shutting the door again.

Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic.

 


 

Celine sits at her table and stares down at her tarot cards and crystal ball.

Mere placeholders, honestly. The items hold little to no real power, but they help Celine to focus. She finds that the dark is more willing to speak to her if she has these items out. Perhaps it needs an invitation. With Mark taking on more and more film and theatre projects, Celine has found plenty of time to indulge her efforts to figure out why this manor is so…strange.

It’s not that Mark disapproves of her dabbling in the dark arts. Matter of fact, he’s been kind enough to keep her hobbies between the two of them and the staff. Still, she prefers to be alone while doing her investigating. Mark doesn’t really understand anyway, though he has never discouraged her. He has, however, been more vocal about his frustration over her lack of interest in spending time with his friends and attending movie premieres with him.

(But the Colonel understands. Both her fascination with the supernatural and unknown, and her dislike of public events. He always has…and he understands her refusal to interact with the new friends he’s made, the wealthy self-righteous pigs who can’t see anything over their stacks of money.)

Just as Celine attempts to shake the thought from her head, an awful cold feeling crawls and clings to her body, snaking into her mind.

She suddenly sees a vision of Mark and someone else laughing in the rain. That stranger…isn’t that Damien’s law student friend from his graduation?

The awful chills crawling like sludgy spiders over her body are ignored as Celine watches Mark brush wet curls off of the law student’s forehead. Words whisper in her head, sounding not unlike the echoes in an empty prison.

“We always seem to get caught in the rain, don’t we?”

But what hurts the most isn’t even the sudden look of wonder and painful longing on the law student’s face when Mark’s hand lingers on their head. His wedding ring is on that hand.

And still yet, that’s not the worst part, she realizes as the cold spiders dissipate and leave her gasping and teary-eyed before her table, her talismans scattered and displaced.

The worst part…

The sight of her husband staring with intense admiration at a moonstruck law student didn’t break her heart, didn’t make her question his integrity in their marriage at all, didn’t make her rage and riot and destroy the table and scream into the darkness.

She just feels…nothing.

No, not nothing.

She feels…

Relief.

Chapter Text

Things go a downhill just before Mark’s friend finally takes the bar exam. They mostly center around two aspects of his life.

First off, his wife.

Mark won’t lie. His marriage has never been perfect, but he and Celine have been very content for the longest time. Sure, Celine has steadily continued to isolate herself in the manor, but Mark learned to get over that a long time ago. It’s not as though socially anxious companions are a new experience for him.

But now Celine’s behavior has developed from reclusive to outright distant. She barely speaks to him, and he finds that his patience for this change is dwindling fast.

She’s your wife. She should adore spending time with you. It isn’t fair that she’s acting like this for no reason.

And then there’s William, the other growing issue in Mark’s life.

While the Colonel has been an absolutely stellar bodyguard, Mark has now come to the realization that he has been a little too quick to lend his dear friend money to help the man get back on his feet. It’s been years and William hasn’t made any indication that he going to pay back Mark. This didn’t bother him at first, but then he started to think, in his darker moments…

After all you’ve done to help him?

You deserve to have your money back. Where would the Colonel be without your help, without the job you gave him?

It’s not fair he doesn’t appreciate your generosity.

Mark will still pay his friend for work, but now Mark expects to be repaid every cent that went into paying for the Colonel’s car, new lodgings, and ridiculously impractical wardrobe.

To add insult to injury, Celine has condemned him for demanding repayment from his surrogate brother.

It’s not fair.

(He thinks that bitter, whispering thought more and more these days, though he can’t quite place where he first heard it.)

And so Mark deals with his problems as he tends to: making an excuse to spend time with his favorite law student.

“Mark.”

“Yes?”

“Is there a reason you’ve driven us into the middle of nowhere?”

Mark chuckles as his friend stares, almost bored, through the windshield of his shiny new red convertible into the dusty abandoned landscape. “Well, since you have now started your internship at the courthouse, we haven’t had much time to spend together even when I’m on a break. I thought you would like to accompany me while I take this baby for a test drive.”

“Isn’t this your fifth car in six months?”

“…what’s your point?”

They shrug. “It’s just that…well, what do you need five cars for? It’s only you and Celine in that house, and don’t your employees have vehicles of their own?”

Mark beats down the immediate defensive anger flaring under his skin. It’s not like he didn’t expect such a practical observation from his attorney. (But he’s also not required to tell them about the growing number of arguments he’s had with Celine lately about this same subject. Mark doesn’t imagine his friend would be happy at all to know that he bought this particular car just to spite his wife, especially with his demands that William pay him back.)

“Before I answer that, I need to ask you something important,” Mark begins. They nod, and Mark bites back the urge to laugh at how serious they look. “Is your seatbelt on?”

“Of course it is, what kind of question is tha—AUGH!!”

Mark’s foot crushes the gas pedal. The car shoots down the dirt road into the barren field ahead. His friend’s surprised shriek is brief. They yell his name in indignation exactly once before he turns the car into a different section of the field.

Eventually, he hears them cheering as the car tears across the area, leaving enormous dust trails in its wake.

Several minutes later, Mark slows the car to a stop and looks at his friend. He can’t help but admire their heavily windblown curls and excited eyes.

“Mark—I can’t believe—we just—oh my God!!” A hysterical laugh bubbles out of them.

Mark grins at the sight. This might be the lightest he's felt in years. “Please don’t tell me you’ve never been on a joyride before.”

“My car shakes like a leaf in a tornado if I go over fifty, Mark. Obviously I’ve never been on a joyride.”

“Did you have fun?”

Their expression turns into something sheepish and adorable. He can’t remember the last time they looked so carefree. “I really shouldn’t have, but…yeah, I did.”

“The car is yours if you want it.”

Their gaze snaps to his. “I—what?”

Mark shrugs. “Like you said, I don’t really need five cars, and let’s face it, yours has seen better days.”

“But…Mark, you can’t just give me a damn convertible for free!”

“Why not? I won’t miss it.”

He doesn’t know why he’s surprised at the exasperated way they drop their face into their hands. It’s no secret that the enormity of his wealth bothers them at times. “Consider it a payment for any future legal assistance I ask of you,” Mark amends.

“What could you possibly need a criminal attorney for?”

“I’ll want you on the case when I turn up in a ditch somewhere.”

“What makes you think you won’t die of natural causes?”

“My friend, have you met me? I will absolutely be murdered one day.”

They snort without much humor. “I…God, you’re really something, you know? I don’t take this kind of bullshit charity from anyone but you.” They shake their head. “You’re a piece of work.”

Mark’s smile is far more teasing this time. “That’s why I adore you. So you’ll take the car?”

“Not this one,” they insist. “If you’re going to just give me a car, give me a less ostentatious one. Red’s not really my color.”

“I happen to think you’d look irresistible in red.”

“I’m already taking one of your stupid cars; you don’t need to flatter me.”

“Oh, just let me pay you a compliment, will you?” Mark runs a hand through his ruffled hair and rests his head against the seat. “So, you want dinner?”

“Yes, please. But drive at a reasonable speed back to civilization please.”

“As you wish.”

On the way back, they suddenly say, “So what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

“Mark, I can tell something is up with you. You’re oddly generous when you’ve got problems at home. Just talk to me.”

Mark’s shoulders tighten. A strange tendril of darkness crawls in his head and puts him on the defensive. “Nothing is wrong.”

“Mark—“

“Nothing. Is. Wrong,” Mark snaps in a burst of anger. “Nothing that’s any of your business, alright?”

Their taken aback gaze hits him just before he realizes what he just said to them and what tone. Then their face closes off and they look away from him, staring out at the passing scenery.

His fog of frustration fades and he’s hit with regret like a freight train. Why the…why did I react like that?

“I…I’m sorry…” He can barely force the apology through his throat, and nothing else follows. No explanation for his reaction, no attempt to tell them about everything going wrong in his life, nothing.

“Whatever, Mark.”

He cringes at the detachment in their voice. Damn it all to hell, what is the matter with him? He clears his throat and tries to find neutral ground. “So, uh…where do you want to eat?”

They don’t answer.

Okay, looks like we’re going to Charlotte’s.

But when Mark and the law student sit down at the expensive restaurant, they immediately order him to pay for his meal and not theirs, thwarting his plan for redemption.

“Mark, when I tell that you couldn’t pay your way out of every stupid thing you did, I mean it.”

“Then what can I do?”

They look up at him for the first time since arriving at the restaurant. “Well, for starters, I am not going to be someone you lash out to over whatever problems you’re having. Get that out of your head right now.”

Mark sighs. He deserves that. “Yes, okay. You’re right.”

They stare at him another moment, gauging his sincerity, before nodding. “And…you don’t have to tell me anything. You’re not obligated to, I just…” They run their hand through their curls. “I just want to be there for you. I’m sorry if it felt like I was prying.”

Goddamnit.

Once again, Mark wracks his brain for reasons to explain his earlier behavior and he…can’t.

He always confides in his friend, has done so since the beginning of their friendship, and they do the same with him. A giant part of their relationship is prodding one another to open up. They are both very non-communicative, if for very different reasons.

“Don’t worry about it, I…” He clears his throat. “Things just haven’t been great at home lately. I really don’t want to talk about it.”

They nod. “Next time, just say so. Now,” they turn their gaze to the wine selection on the menu, “please tell me they still serve whiskey here.”

 


 

When Mark arrives home, Celine is sitting in the living room, staring into the fireplace. “Where’ve you been?”

Mark takes off his jacket and tosses it onto the back of the armchair. “I told you, I went to spend time with my friend.”

“Your law student, correct?”

“…yes?”

She stands up and brushes the wrinkles out of her dress. He doesn’t understand the resignation in her expression. “I suppose that’s better than your extravagant parties with your uppity comrades in Hollywood.”

Mark crosses his arms. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Celine rolls her eyes. “I think you know what it means. If you’re not showing off your wealth with investors, you’re spending time with a misanthropic law student.”

There is so much to unpack in that statement, but what comes out of Mark’s mouth is, “They don’t like parties, so I don’t invite them.”

(Is that the only reason?)

“Oh, lucky me that I get dragged along to those ridiculous events, then,” she retorts.

“Of course I take you with me! You’re my wife!”

Celine meets his gaze for the first time since he walked into the room. “I am fully aware. But sometimes I think you confuse ‘your wife’ for a trophy.” She storms past Mark before he can think of a response.

Before his regret can settle in (is it true, has he been treating her like a possession?), a different thought intrudes.

How dare she speak to you like that? You deserve respect. You’ve always given her what she wanted.

It’s not fair how she talks back to you.

Mark tries to shove the slithering whispers away. The problem is, however…

They sound right.

Chapter Text

You pass the bar exam with flying colors. Your internship at the District Attorney’s office is going so well that even the big man himself commends you on passing.

This time, you opt for a more quiet celebration. You invite Damien and Mark to your place for dinner and champagne. You even debate playing some casual music on your radio. When you mention the idea, after a long hour or two of casual conversation about your career plans, the boys agree with exuberance. You chuckle and work the knobs of the radio until you find your favorite station. Which happens to be playing the latest swing music.

“Well there you have it!” Mark leaps to his feet and sets his champagne flute on the coffee table. “Let’s swing a wing, chuckleheads!”

Damien bursts into laughter and you roll your eyes. Nonetheless, you both join Mark and your odd trio dances like ridiculous half-drunk fools around your living room.

Sometime later, Damien collapses onto the couch, utterly spent. “Damn, I don’t think I’ve danced a jig like that in…I don’t think I even remember! Wow, it’s been a long time!”

Somehow you’re still on your feet, but you’re panting with delighted exhilaration as you lower the volume of the blasting radio. “We really need to get together more. It’s a damn shame we all don’t spend more time hanging out these days.” You drop into the armchair with a sigh. “We need to keep better track of when our free days intersect with one another. You three are the only non-work social interactions I have anymore.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t tell me that,” Mark admits. He’s the only one still standing, face flushed from dancing. “It just makes me very sad. Do I need to drag you to more social functions and expand your triangle of friends into a circle? Or a square, at least?”

(You decide not to point out that Mark could have introduced you to his friend the Colonel. He seems not to be fond of the man lately, but he won’t talk to you about it. There is a lot he seems to keep from you these days.

You have to remind yourself that Mark doesn’t owe you details of his personal life. He never has.)

“I am perfectly content with my triangle, Mark. You and Damien are all the friends I need. Right, Damien?”

Damien doesn’t respond. When you look down at him, you see he’s fallen asleep on the couch with his mouth hanging open.

Your lips form into a tender smile. You stand from the armchair and pull the blanket off the back of the couch and drape it over your friend. It isn’t until you look up again that you see Mark staring at you with a clouded expression. “You okay?”

The clouds part from his face. Mark’s typical avoiding grin cuts across his mouth. “I’m perfectly fine! Just a little out of breath from all the dancing.” He clears his throat. “So, how are you and Damien doing, these days?”

Your brow furrows. “Um…fine? I’m fine, he’s fine, we’re just…living our lives. Why?”

Mark shrugs. “No reason, just…I guess I was expecting…um…”

“Well, while you think of an answer, I’ll go turn off the radio so Damien can sleep,” you say, just as a slow, soft song comes on.

Mark catches your arm just as you’re about to pass him. “No, let it play.” He holds a hand out to you. “How about a dance?”

Your gaze fixes on his hand like it will reach out and strangle you. Underneath the skin of your wrist your pulse jumps like a goddamn electric shock just burnt through your veins. The bastard hasn’t even touched you again yet.

You should say no. You should say you’re tired, that you’ve only slow danced twice in your entire life and don’t really have much confidence in your skills. You should remind him that his wife is waiting for him at his manor. These are all things that you should do, for your own sake and for his.

And yet, you put your hand in his and whisper, “I’d like that.”

(Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic, why can’t you say no to him?)

He pulls you in only a little, taking your hand in his and setting his other at your waist. Your free hand lands on his shoulder.

It only takes a few awkward shuffling steps before you get the hang of the rhythm and then it’s…like you and Mark have been doing this your whole lives.

Has he ever been this close to you? Have you ever noticed the way the lines form around his eyes when he smiles? How bright those smiles are, a crescent moon-show of teeth, even more blinding when he’s only inches from you?

“For someone who doesn’t go out much, you’re a damn good dancer,” he comments.

You shrug, banishing all intrusive thoughts about his appearance from your mind. “I never said I hadn’t danced before. There were some brave souls at high school dances who thought they could lead.”

Mark chuckles. “It shouldn’t take bravery to talk to you. It just takes a decent person who sees how incredible you are. It shouldn’t matter that you look like you’re ready to punch everyone in the face on a daily basis.”

He meant it as a joke, you’re almost positive of that, but his statement touches you.

(You did not think you were the kind of person who constantly needed validation, but then again, when you go so long without any validation whatsoever, any little bit can be overwhelming at times.)

“That means a lot. Thanks,” you eventually choke out. You blame yourself for the sudden heaviness in the air. You’ve always been terrible at keeping up a light, fun atmosphere.

It definitely does not help that Mark is quite literally in your arms right now, swaying to a melody that is slowly coming to a halt. And he definitely notices the tension in the air, taught like the strings of a violin.

But he doesn’t shy away from it. Matter of fact, he pulls you closer, and you swear the air dissipates from your lungs in the next second. You hope to God or whoever’s listening that he doesn’t notice how sweaty your palms are.

He’s not smiling anymore, but there is a sparkle of something in his eyes that both frightens and thrills you.

This was a mistake.

An obscenely loud tune suddenly crackles from the radio, not only startling you and Mark apart, but also stirring Damien awaken.

“Oh!” Damien rubs at his eyes. “Did I fall asleep?”

Your throat is so dry the words you want to say stick there. (You are such an idiot. Why didn’t you just go to bed?)

“Yeah, but not for long,” Mark answers. His eyes flicker to you and back to Damien. “You want me to give you a ride home?”

Damien yawns and nods. “I think so.” He looks up at you. “Are you done celebrating?”

You clear your throat. “Yeah, yeah, I’m…I’m tired.”

God, you’re so tired.

 


 

Celine is hiding something. Mark knows it like he knows the sky is blue.

Whereas Mark once could not get her to leave the house, now it seems he never catches her at home. When they do see each other, it isn’t pretty.  There are screaming accusations, and every old, still seeping wound gets ripped open, leaving no winners, just pain and crying and all Mark and Celine can do is stay on complete opposite sides of the manor from each other once their throats are too hoarse to continue.

Mark doesn’t know what to do. His sensible urges to go to Celine and apologize for the fight are overpowered by the sense that she’s keeping something terrible from him.

So he comes home from his celebration with the law student—no, his attorney, his friend is an attorney now, Mark thinks with pride—fully intending to talk with Celine, try to clear the air.

After all, he still loves her. He’s still willing to work through this rough patch. He just wants there to be no secrets between them.

He calls her name for several minutes before realizing that the house is empty. Gee, a cynical voice whispers in his head, I wonder where she could be.

(And though neither are aware, these tendrils of sinister whispers goad each of them more and more into destroying what good is left of their marriage.

Compels Mark to go seek out his attorney’s company and acceptance.

Drives Celine to the Colonel’s bedroom.)

Celine doesn’t come back to the manor until the next evening. By then all of Mark’s intentions of apologizing for his behavior have disintegrated.

 


 

“I’m worried.”

You look up from your coffee mug and furrow your brow. “About what, specifically?”

Damien sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “It’s nothing, never mind. I don’t need to bother you with this.”

Uh oh.

It’s been about four months since you passed the bar exam. You’re still an intern at the courthouse. In his efforts to establish his presence as a public figure, Damien is at the courthouse quite often, so you both find more time to hang out than before, especially now that law school is behind you.

Despite the cheerful atmosphere Amy’s Planet always provides, the blatant anxiety on Damien’s face leaves you with an awful sense of dread. Like you stepped into a snowstorm with no shoes.

(For all that Damien is an open book, transparent as glass, he still tends to keep his problems to himself, as if his suffering is nothing compared to yours, and that just won’t do at all.)

You set your mug on the table and cross your arms. “Damien, remember what you said to me when we graduated University? When I saw Celine in the crowd with Mark?”

Clearly he didn’t expect this tangent, if his furrowed brow is any indication.

“You told me, ‘if you don’t want to talk, just say so, but don’t trivialize your feelings.’ If that applies to me, then that sure as hell applies to you, too.”

Damien huffs a sound that’s too bitter to be a laugh, too amused to be a scoff. “I didn’t expect that to come back to bite me…” He shakes his head. “I think…I…I’m worried about Mark and Celine.”

Suddenly you understand why Damien did not want to talk about this with you. You swallow back the wave of broken glass in your throat. “Why? What’s going on?”

“That’s just it. I don’t really know. But Mark has been very cynical lately, more than I’ve ever seen him, and he keeps making comments about Celine running off for hours at a time, even days.”

The cold dread crawls up to your chest. “You don’t know where she’s been staying?” (Unhappy as you have been since Mark’s marriage, even after all these years, you never wished this on him, never, Mark doesn’t deserve this—)

“If I did, I wouldn’t be worried. She certainly doesn’t talk to me anymore.”

The hurt in Damien’s tone cuts into you. “God, I had no idea. I’m so sorry, Damien.”

He waves his hand. “I didn’t want to tell you, because…well, you know.”

(You may not want to punch Mark in the face anymore for his damn elopement, but seeing his wedding ring is still like having mercury injected into your veins.) “I know. But, Damien, I’m still here, okay? No matter what, you can talk to me. You know that, right?”

His smile is hesitant, but genuine. He nods a beat later and clears his throat. “Has Mark said anything to you about this?”

You shake your head. “Mark…doesn’t talk personal stuff with me these days. He just pops in out of the blue and offers up about fifty activities for us to do, and if not that, he sits on the couch and rambles on about film roles he’s accepted and rejected. If Celine really has been running off…that would explain a lot.” Hopefully the regret in your tone comes across. “You know how well Mark deals with conflict.”

Damien drops his head back, as if the ceiling will drop answers into his eyes. “Not very well at all, you mean.”

“Unfortunately, yeah.”

“So what can we do?”

The question contains the kind of weight not even Atlas could manage. You take a sip of your coffee. Not that the steam or taste will bring you any lasting solutions, but it helps to ground you.

“Just be there for him, I guess,” you finally say. “And hope that will be enough.”

 


 

Damien can think of fewer places he would rather be than witnessing the fight to end all fights between his best friend and his sister.

It’s been almost two weeks since he last spoke to the attorney, and Damien has spent much of that time with the Colonel, trying to figure out what to do about Mark and Celine. Sure, the Colonel and Mark haven’t been on the best of terms lately, but they were still the closest thing to brothers the other had. That had to count for something, right?

(Damien doesn’t know why the Colonel has barely looked him in the eye during their dinner at Charlotte’s, but it makes him uneasy. Have things really been that bad?)

Had he known what awaited him and the Colonel upon arriving at the manor, he probably would have just turned heel and dragged William to the nearest bar.

(He’s not blind. He sees the way the Colonel looks at Celine, the way he’s always looked at her since they were children. It’s bad enough that he has to watch Mark and the attorney stare longingly at each other when they think no one is looking, does he really have to watch another friend pine over someone he can never have?)

But Damien had been caught up in a conversation with the Colonel and waltzed through the manor’s front door without a care.

Then he heard the shouts echoing off the walls.

He’s just about to leave when he sees the Colonel’s eyes narrow into something dark and dangerous as he charges deeper into the manor to wherever the argument is taking place.

“Colonel, wait, no—!” Damien cuts off and hurries after the fool.

Too late.

Damien can only watch as the Colonel stomps right up to a red-faced Mark and barks at him to leave Celine alone.

Celine, face streaked with angry tears, suddenly looks at the Colonel with fierce possessiveness.

Ice bursts through Damien’s veins when the Colonel reaches for her hand and she doesn’t pull away.

Silence drops into the room like an anvil.

(Oh God, Oh God, oh God no, William, Celine, you didn’t—)

If Mark was angry before, now he is positively apoplectic. Damien wishes he could cover his ears at the renewal of biting insults and accusations Mark, Celine, and now the Colonel throw at each other.

“You traitors have been sneaking around behind my back this whole time—!”

“Oh please, you’ve never treated her the way she deserves to be—!”

“How dare you judge me when I’ve said nothing about you and your precious attorney—!”

It’s awful, it’s all of Damien’s worst fears imploding right in front of him, a train wreck in scorching progress, and before he can say or do anything (what, what the hell could he have done?) Mark and the Colonel are on the floor, fighting like feral dogs.

(He didn’t see who threw the first punch.)

Damien goes for Mark, pulling him up by the arms, while Celine grabs the Colonel by the jacket and drags him to his feet. Mark’s eye is already turning black, tears streaking down his face. The Colonel licks at his split lip and wipes at the blood dripping from his nose. The silence pulses in Damien’s ears like a goddamn war drum.

“We’re done here,” Celine finally whispers.

“Celine—”

It’s the only thing Damien has managed to choke out since stumbling across the mess to begin with. But Celine cuts him off with a wave of her hand. “I’m sorry, Damien. But this has been a long time coming.”

Damien feels Mark tense and tightens his grip on Mark’s forearm. “Did your tarot cards tell you that?” he hisses like a wounded animal.

Celine’s eyes narrow into something just as primal but far more dangerous. Still, she restrains the Colonel again from lurching forward and tearing into Mark again. “Good-bye, Mark. Give my best to your attorney friend.”

She offers one somewhat apologetic glance in Damien’s direction, as does William. As if Damien can take any solace from their sympathy in light of the fact that his family, his friends, they are all completely shattered and they are leaving him to sift through and bleed on the sharp splinters that remain.

Celine and the Colonel depart the manor.

Damien stands, utterly shell-shocked and raw, and doesn’t realize how tight his grip on Mark is until the man jerks away from him.

Mark doesn’t step too far away before suddenly collapsing to the floor and screaming loud enough to make the glass and chimes of the grandfather clock tremble.

(Sometimes the burning aftermath of a train wreck is the worst part of the accident.)

Chapter Text

Mark never thought he would need his parent’s old hotel suite. Far as he knows, it has been unused since their deaths. The size of the suite is shamefully large for just one man. It’s as empty as he feels.

But it’s the only place he could think to go with no conceivable trace of his betrayers.

How did I not see?

The question has been running through Mark’s mind for days now. The more wine in his system, the more he spirals, and it’s only been a week since his entire world cracked open and sucked him into the dark crevices.

How could I not see?

Celine and the Colonel.

Celine and William.

His wife and his adopted brother.

It was right in front of me, and I never even noticed.

He is such a goddamn idiot .

All those years of Celine defending the Colonel, demanding that he stop keeping receipts on every money exchange that took place between them, and it never occurred to Mark that maybe Celine had been a little too invested in his treatment of the Colonel, and the idea of those two together is like dropping head first into a vat of acid and letting his skin and organs bubble away.

You’re an idiot . Celine always said you were. And so has—

Mark barely looks up when a knocking suddenly echoes from the front door of the townhouse. He takes another swig of the wine. Maybe his visitor will leave if he just pretends not to be here.

Another series of knocks discourages that particular hope.

It must be Damien. No one else knows he’s here, and no one else would keep trying to bother him at this hour.

“Go away , Damien,” he says, loud enough to carry. He can’t bear to speak to anyone else right now.

A beat of silence.

Another knock.

Mark growls. He stumbles to his feet and borderline shouts as he goes to open the door, “I said, go away—”

The words die in his throat at the sight of his friend.

Not Damien.

The newly appointed assistant district attorney.

Their gaze scans him up and down, completely stoic, but lingering on the bottle in his hand. They make no move to enter.

Mark, catching on too late, moves out of the way in silent permission. He hasn’t stopped staring at them, at their sleek curls and freshly pressed formalwear. They must have come right from their office; their curls are falling stiffly out of place.

They stride into the townhouse as if this is just another day and the thought makes him slam the door harder than he should have. He stumbles into the wall beside it and slides back to the floor.

“Damien called you.” It’s not a question.

“Of course he did,” they answer. “He was worried about you. So am I.” They lower themselves to the floor in front of him, legs folding underneath them.

He doesn’t look at them. He can’t.

“Give my best to your attorney friend.”

Only I didn’t take my attorney friend to bed, did I, Celine? Not like you and the Colonel, you actually let the bastard screw you—

The bottle rips from his hand. Mark’s head jerks up in time to see them chug several gulps of wine. They wipe their mouth with the back of their hand afterward. He hears the gentle sloshing of liquid in the bottle. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t drown himself in it.

“You didn’t leave much,” they comment in a neutral tone that Mark doesn’t buy at all.

For a long time, neither of them speak. It shouldn’t surprise Mark, but it does. His friend is quiet, sure, but they also always seem to have a thoughtful comment or observation depending on the situation.

But then…this is unprecedented territory for both of them.

“Have you eaten at all today?” they ask. They stand back up, bottle in hand, and stroll towards the kitchen.

His mouth opens to answer, but no sound comes out.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no.’” The sound of the refrigerator door opening punctuated the end of their statement. “And, of course, you have no food here. Can I assume there’s room service for this place?”

“…yes.”

His mind is barely present as they make the call to the lobby and order food among other things. He almost feels as though he’s disconnected from his body, aimlessly drifting in some liminal space where nothing happens and nothing matters.

What did I do? Was it really all my fault? Did I drive her away?

No, the Colonel, it had to be the Colonel, it had to be—

By the time he’s coherent once more, Mark realizes he’s lying on the couch and the attorney is at the other end, reading a case file. The couch is long enough that they sit a good few inches from his feet.

“Did I fall asleep?” he asks.

They shrug. “I was going to give it a few more minutes before checking your pulse. I had the fleeting thought that you might have gone catatonic.”

The dryness in their tone is almost enough to make him laugh. Almost. “Well…the good news is I’m not catatonic.”

They nod sagely. “That is good news.” A pregnant pause hangs in the air. “What is this place, anyway?” the attorney asks. “Why did you come here?”

“It belonged to my parents. When I was a kid, I thought it was where they would spend weekends together on spontaneous romantic getaways.”

“…I’m guessing that wasn’t the case?”

“Nope. This was the go-to place for any extramarital dalliances they wanted to have.”

Their eyes widen comically. “You—that—“ their head shakes, “—okay, of all the places you could have gone, you chose your parent’s…” They look around. “I don’t even know what to call this place now.”

“Screw Room?”

“…you’re not allowed to talk for the rest of the night.”

“Good thing, this place wasn’t bought for conversation.”

“Dear God, please shut up , Mark.”

Mark finds himself cracking a smile, much to his surprise.

(Maybe there is some kind of twisted, tragic irony that the attorney of all people is in this marriage-forsaken sanctuary with him. But he can’t ruminate on that right now.)

“So, are you going to eat your food or not?”

Mark’s brow furrows. They nod their head at the coffee table in front of the couch, and, sure enough, there’s a covered plate.

“I thought I wasn’t allowed to talk?”

“Fine, smart ass, say whatever you want, just get some food in your system.”

Once only crumbs of toast and smears of jam remain on the plate, Mark falls back into the couch cushions, this time much closer to the attorney. “I just…I can’t be in my house right now,” he eventually answers. “It’s…the quiet, it’s…I can’t bear it.”

He swallows back bile at the thought of how nauseous and hopeless he felt in the manor after that awful night. Like the darkness itself was mocking him for his blindness, laughing and taking joy from the pain sinking its teeth into every part of him.

“…I don’t know what to do now,” he whispers.

He’s all alone again. And he can’t stomach the thought of being alone again.

(If nothing else kills him, loneliness absolutely will.)

They put their hand on his and, for a long time, they don’t respond. Until they do. “I don’t really know what you can do either,” they whisper back. “But I can tell you this: I’m here for you. Me, Damien…we’re going to help you get through this. I promise.”

His eyes shut. Their fingers tighten around his.

He should feel comforted, he shouldn’t feel so alone.

And yet there is a niggling half-thought forming in the back of Mark’s mind that he can’t bear to bring to the forefront.

Me…Celine…

We were never meant to last, were we?

To his surprise, he hears an answer that doesn’t come from the attorney resting their head on his shoulder. It comes from that same shadowed spot in the caverns of his mind.

It’s not fair, is it?

 


 

Mark will hand it to the attorney. They make a valiant effort to, not necessarily distract him, but to at least keep him from doing anything drastic.

The only time they really succeed in distracting him is the following week.

They had visited him again to offer company while they did casework. The two of them were reclined on opposite ends of the couch once again, radio music playing gently in the background, when they both heard Josephine Baker’s voice crackle through the speakers all of a sudden. She is doing an interview and then apparently she’s going to sing.

Mark watches, with utter astonishment, as the attorney bites their bottom lip, a flush crawling up their neck.

(He has the fleeting thought of tracing that path with his fingers, and then his mouth, before casting it aside with a feeling of what the hell?)

“Now there’s a woman who could get me anywhere she wanted, in any way she wanted, no questions asked.”

Their words catch him so off-guard he chokes on his tea and bursts into laughter, liquid dribbling from his lips and onto his wrinkled shirt.

It isn’t until he sees his friend staring at him with wide eyes that he realizes it’s the first time he’s really laughed since…

He clears his throat as they hand him a napkin. “Had I known you were so besotted with the lovely Miss Baker, I would have gotten you tickets to one of her shows, my friend.”

They shrug. “I certainly would not complain if I got to hear her sing live.”

“I imagine watching is also part of the appeal.”

“Well, you’d have to be blind and deaf not to notice the appeal of Josephine Baker.”

Mark proceeds to listen as the attorney gushes about the performer until the woman in question finally starts her song and they grow silent to listen.

Later, after his friend leaves for the evening, Mark ponders on that long hour of conversation and quiet. It’s the closest thing to peace he’s felt in so very long.

It gives him a little hope that maybe this intense pain in his chest, the humiliation crawling and prickling down his stomach will fade, eventually.

(And if his gaze lingers a little longer on the attorney and the curve of their neck, the tug of their lips showcasing their dimples, well, that can keep him distracted too, can’t it?

And something from that dark corner of his mind reminds him that if Celine can have her fun with the Colonel, why can’t he have this?)

 


 

“Damien wants to come see you.”

He doesn’t bother to pick his head off the dinner table…which he is lying on top of. Facedown.  “I imagine he does.”

He can practically hear his friend roll their eyes from behind the kitchen counter. They stab their fork into a slice of lemon cake they ordered from room service. “You have to talk to him eventually, Mark.”

“Do I really—? Ow!”

Mark picks his head up and glares at them, then the offending object that whacked him in the face. “Did you really just throw a banana peel at me?”

“That’s what you get for not throwing away your scraps when you’re done eating. Now, are you going to talk to me like a human being, or do I have to drag you off the table?”

Another reason the attorney has been good company: patient as they are with his current fragile state, they haven’t tolerated any of his bullshit behavior.

He sighs and sits up, crossing his legs underneath him. “Why would Damien worry about me?”

The unspoken implication couldn’t have been louder if he’d shouted it: why wouldn’t Damien be more worried about his sister?

The attorney’s eyes are unbearably gentle. “Damien had the chance to go after Celine, didn’t he? Didn’t he choose to stay and comfort you instead?”

Mark tries so hard not to think about that night, but the attorney is right. Damien held Mark and let him scream and cry and sleep in his arms until the next afternoon. But he could barely look his old friend, his brother-in-law in the eye while he packed a quick bag and left without a word, even as a teary-eyed Damien begged to know where he was going.

“Just…” They set their plate of cake back down and approach Mark. Their hand reaches for his. “Just don’t forget that you may have lost your wife, but Damien also lost his sister. He probably needs you too right now.”

Bitterness stretches inside of his chest, feeling like something dark with feathers is expanding and cloaking any brightness in shade, somewhere he can’t reach.

She was still. My . Wife.

But they are right. And he doesn’t dare speak against them at this time, for fear that they’ll abandon him, too.

“Fine,” he finally acquiesces. “Call him up.”

 


 

It’s not as bad as Mark would have thought, having Damien around.

Damien is all apologies and heartbreak and wondering if he had been to blame for anything, for not seeing what was going on, and all at once any hidden anger Mark might have had dissipates.

Damien is obviously just as shattered about all of this as Mark is.

They embrace like brothers while the attorney watches silently. Mark gestures to them and they join in the embrace.

It’s just the three of us again. Maybe it always has been.

Damien manages to talk Mark into leaving his parent’s getaway and instead stay with him, but only after two days of both Damien and the attorney trying to convince him. To be fair, they both have a point. This isn’t a healthy place for him to be. He won’t even consider going back to the manor right now.

So here they are, in Damien’s home. Mark is nursing a bottle of wine (at least until the attorney decides to snatch it away when they think he’s had enough, as they are wont to do). Damien is reading the paper and occasionally answering phone calls about his campaign, and the attorney is flipping through a file for their most recent case.

“Looks like a few of our favorite pictures are showing again at the theater this week!” Damien announces. “What say we get out of the house for a bit and go see one or four?”

The attorney purses their lips in consideration. “Mark? How does that sound to you?”

“Depends. What’s showing?”

Damien clears his throat. “Well, let’s see…there’s Fantasia, or maybe Pinocchio, if we’re in the mood for animation. I see And Then There Were None, and also Casablanca, if we preferred something more dramatic.”

The attorney grimaces. “Maybe not Casablanca.”

Realization dawns on Damien’s face. “You know what, yeah, maybe not that one—”

“Why the hell not?!” Mark demands. A faux smile stretches across his face like a brittle rubber band. “It’s a good movie, one of your favorites, and it’s got two of your big celebrity crushes: Bogart and Bergman!”

The attorney rolls their eyes, but their look of consternation remains. “Mark, are you sure that’s the movie you want to go see?”

Mark knows exactly what the problem is, but he honestly is not going to let his friends tip-toe around him about something as ridiculous as a movie he adores hitting a few exposed nerves in his system, and maybe if he was more sober he’d think differently, but he’s not. “I think I made that clear.”

Damien’s unease is blatantly clear, but he nods. “Okay. I guess I know what we’re doing today.”

Mark deliberately does not look at the attorney, whose gaze is not unlike the look of someone who knows how you’re going to die and realizes there’s nothing they can do.

Seems a little excessive for going to see a film, Mark thinks. And maybe that’s why he insists. He wants to prove that he’s getting better, that he’s fine.

Several hours and a few Junior Mints later, Mark begrudgingly admits to himself that maybe seeing Casablanca less than two months after his split with Celine was a bad call.

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”

“Mark?”

“We’ll always have Paris…”

“Mark, you still with us?”

“Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time…”

“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor…”

Mark startles into consciousness when the attorney grips his shoulder.

“We were just making dinner plans. Where do you want to go?” Judging by the look in their eyes, they know exactly what’s running through his head. 

He looks away from them. He hates when they turn out to be right. “I think…I think I want to go home…”

As soon as the term leaves his lips, he wonders where the hell he’s talking about. Home used to be Celine, used to be the manor. Where is he supposed to go now?

“Okay,” Damien suddenly says from Mark’s other side. “We’ll go back to my place and I’ll make something for dinner.”

The attorney nods, throwing Damien a grateful smile, probably thinking Mark wouldn’t notice, but he did.

At least they have each other. I...I don’t have anyone...not anymore...

The attorney’s hand slips from Mark’s shoulder to tuck into his elbow. As they lead him to Damien’s car, he can’t help but think about how it always comes back to them. No matter what path, what choice he makes, he always ends up with this socially disinclined attorney with ancient eyes and a whip-smart tongue.

He fiddles with his wedding ring, lost in thought the entire way back to Damien’s, and wonders if perhaps he’s just been running from home ever since he first met his friend at University a lifetime ago.

Chapter Text

Several weeks later, Mark looks up from his drink to see the attorney slide into the booth seat across from him.

“I had a feeling you’d be here,” they say by way of greeting.

“You know me too well.” Mark swallows the last of his drink before they can take the glass from him. Freddy’s Pub has always been a favorite spot for their trio. Now it has become a haven of tequila shots for Mark to forget that he’s been sleeping in a cold bed for months. He lets the silence linger for only a moment before admitting, “Today is our wedding anniversary.”

Mark assumes they already knew, hence their surprisingly prompt arrival here.

(Damien must have told them. He wonders how often Damien talks to their attorney friend these days, what with the man’s upcoming campaign for mayor and…everything else. Do they talk about Celine? Do they talk about him ?)

Just as he reaches for another shot glass of tequila, they grab it first and chug it (which simultaneously surprised him and didn't). They set the glass down with a firm clunk. “I’m here to take you home.”

“What if I don’t want to leave yet?” he challenges.

“I have no problem with dragging you out by your ear, asshole. I’m giving you the option to walk out with some dignity.”

Mark sighs. He touches his cold wedding ring out of pure habit. (Why is he still wearing it again?) He moves to his feet, stumbles only a little, and begins walking towards the entrance. The attorney moves beside him, one hand on his elbow. They don’t move him out of the way of another patron fast enough and Mark bumps into the guy hard enough for a drink to spill.

“Watch where you’re going, bastard!”

“It was an accident.” The attorney steps forward with crossed arms. “No need for that kind of talk, we were just leaving.”

“Why don’t you stay out of my business, you stupid bi—”

Mark should have walked away, but he’s feeling empty and hopeless and damn it, anyone who speaks like that to his attorney deserves whatever they get.

He only gets one punch in before the guy’s buddy knocks Mark onto his back, chin throbbing in pain. His ribs withstand two brutal kicks before the assault stops. Through blurry wet vision, he sees his attorney block several hits before beating both men away. He hears the bartender threaten to call the cops if the fight doesn’t stop.

The attorney kneels beside him, knuckles split and bruised, a small cut on their cheek, their curls in disarray, old eyes bright with adrenaline.

Have they always looked this breathtaking?

(The answer is yes. He knows this, he’s always known this. He just tried not to indulge those observations when he had Celine waiting at home. No point in holding back the thought now, not that he has bothered to recently.)

“You alright?” they ask him.

He giggles at the question. They look to be in worse shape than him, physically anyway. Their concern for him is touching and hilarious at the same time and he is so very drunk. “You’re so damn beautiful, do you know that? You have always been so damn beautiful…”

It’s a testament to his alcohol-addled mind that he doesn’t even think to be horrified by the concession. Or by the realization that after all these years he still wants to trace the lines of their face, run his fingers through their hair, and let those dark eyes consume him like a pyre. He thought that marrying Celine would drive away these feelings for the attorney, but maybe they have always been there. Well shit , what does that say about him now that Celine is gone?

He’s so caught up at the tragic amusement of it all that he doesn’t see the flicker of pain in the attorney’s face. Nor does he see the way they bite their lip in a way that indicates they want to scream at him.

“You’re a moron,” they comment as they drag him to his feet.

Mark doesn’t speak again until he realizes, several minutes later, that they drove him to their house. “What happened to taking me home?”

“So I can keep an eye on you. Clearly none of your employees are keeping you from dying of alcohol poisoning.”

Mark doesn’t dignify that with any kind of clarification.

(Benjamin would probably try to help more if Mark didn’t keep locking himself in his room. He has no idea what Chef or George would try to do. Chef at least leaves meals outside his door, not that Mark eats much of it these days.)

The next morning, Mark wakes up feeling like a half-eaten corpse. There’s a glass of water and some pills on the nightstand. He takes the offerings with grateful reverence. He groggily crawls to the closet and opens the door before remembering that he’s not in his house. Unfortunately, it took the sight of the ridiculously small closet to realize.

Mark is about to shut the door when a splash of a familiar pattern catches his eye from the ground.

What the—

Mark drops to his knees, only to nearly vomit all over the ground at his sudden movement. Once he’s confident he will not contaminate his friend’s clothing, he reaches for the offending article.

His jacket.

The memory hits him like a goddamn freight train caught on fire.

They kept this? After all these years?

Mark’s thumbs trace over the chalk stripes of the jacket he hasn’t seen since he gave it to his rain-soaked friend in his efforts to repair their friendship.

Why did they keep it?

Why—?

The sound of the front door opening frightens Mark into dropping the jacket and throwing it back into the closet. He shuts the door as quietly as possible and hurries back to the bed. Or as quickly as he can without upsetting his stomach. The last thing he wants to do is puke all over his friend’s room, considering they helped his sorry drunk ass in the first place.

They have his jacket, why do they have his jacket?

Mark shoves the thoughts from his mind, only to uncover a vague recollection of flirting with the attorney last night. He should probably apologize for that. Take his mind off this new…whatever it is. Revelation? Information? Evidence?

Evidence of what ?

Three deep breaths later, Mark moves gingerly out of the bedroom and meets his friend in the kitchen, grocery bags on each arm.

“Good, you’re awake. Help me put this stuff away.”

Mark stares up at them and, before he loses his nerve, blurts out, “Look, I think I said some things last night, and…”

Shit, this is harder than he thought. Apologizing. Especially when questions are still barreling through his head.

My jacket is in your closet. Why is my jacket in your closet?

They stand in place a moment longer, and he thinks he sees a hint of regret line their face. “You were drunk.”

They walk to the kitchen without another word, and it occurs to Mark too late to follow after and help with the groceries.

They don’t bring up the subject again. Not while they put away groceries, not when they cook him breakfast, and not when they settle onto the armchair with their favorite book when all is said and done.

But Mark wants to. He also wants to ask about his jacket.

But he wants a lot of things he can’t have. So he settles for lying on the couch and shutting his eyes until the world stops spinning uncontrollably around him.

Sleep claims him far more gently than he deserves.

 


 

Mark awakens to the tranquil sound of a singing piano.

His eyes blink open. When he sits up, he locates his attorney at their instrument of choice, fingers dancing over the keys. It takes him a moment to place the melody. Cole Porter, obviously. The song, though…

Mark wracks his brain when a particular collection of notes echo around the room and he finally realizes his friend is playing “In the Still of the Night.”

A feeling of peace overcomes him, the likes of which he hasn’t felt in…too long, to say the least. He glances at the coffee table and sees a covered plate. He lifts the cover and his stomach growls violently at the sight of toast and still-warm eggs. He nibbles slowly on the bread, his eyes still on the attorney.

This all feels so…right. Being in their home, listening to them play the piano…it’s more domestic than he’s felt since the beginning of his marriage to Celine. 

Has it always been like this? Feeling like his friend completed a part of himself he hadn’t realized he needed?  

He shifts off of the couch and approaches them. He stands for a moment before sitting beside them on the bench. Their eyes only flicker to him for a split second before returning to the instrument.

The music dwindles to a close, the last notes hanging in the air like a ghost. Their hands fall away from the piano keys, but then they reach over and hold his hand gently. They turn their gaze on Mark, open and kind, a tentative smile pulling on their mouth and—

(Mark will think back on this moment in years to come, but he can never exactly say what made him do what he did. Maybe it was the genuine care in those age-old eyes, a vulnerability they rarely let anyone see, one that he rarely sees. Maybe it was the newfound discovery of his jacket hiding in the back of their closet like a decaying skeleton. Maybe it was the ache in his chest, ignored for so long, suddenly bursting into new life, brighter than ever before. Maybe it was, just as powerful, the sudden urge to forget. )

—Mark cups their face with his hands, weaves his fingers into their hair, and pulls their lips to his.

And for seconds—brief, transcendent seconds he's able to register the taste of lemon from their tea, scents of peppermint, the coarse texture of their curls, and everything he’s ever wanted

They shove him away, too soon, scrambling off the bench and staring . Their face looks more akin to a hard slap then a kiss, with flushed cheeks and eyes fragile like rippling water.

They’ve never looked fragile to Mark, not even that first day he saw them at freshman orientation, staring at other students like a lone wolf would stare at a united, rabid pack. Not even at their mother’s funeral, when, already in a state of utter devastation and heartache, their asshole of a brother returned to cut them open even further and left them to bleed.

They shake their head, and press their fists into their short hair (ruffled from his hands and the sight shouldn’t send his heart thumping the way, but it does ). They take deep, shuddering breaths. “You idiot ,” they hiss. “Why did you do that?” They sound like they’re about to cry.

His heart drops to the floor. I miscalculated.

“Raindrop, please ,” Mark entreats, their childhood nickname slipping from his lips without consideration. Desperation takes his throat in a choke-hold. "You have to know how I feel—”

(Please say he didn’t ruin the only good thing left in his life.)

“Shut up, just shut up!” they snap. They yank their fists from their head. “Just when I think you’ve changed, you do something like this and I remember what an asshole you are. You’re still married.

The statement cuts into him deeper than he expected.

But the problem is that they aren’t wrong . He’s still wearing his wedding ring after six months of a cold bed. The entire time, they’ve been here for him, making sure he doesn’t put a bullet in his head, or drink himself into a coma, holding him when he can’t bear to throw Celine’s picture away.

(He can’t be alone. He just can’t .)

“I’m sorry ,” he apologizes. He steps forward and cups their face again, thumbs caressing the top of their cheeks. “But…I’ve always cared about you, you have to know that. I never said anything, because I wanted you and Damien to be happy—”

(He wouldn’t have married Celine if he’d thought there was a chance. Dear God, if there had been a chance--?)

As he spoke, they tentatively leaned into his touch, and he risks leaning forward again, close enough to feel their breath on his face—

They pull away, quick as a whip and just as painful, in the middle of his sentence. “What the hell does Damien have to do with anything?”

Shit. Mark’s mouth parts open, searching for words to dig him out of this confession, but his voice has been stolen away.

He sees the realization dawn upon them anyway. “You—you—” they shake their head in complete disbelief, “—are you telling me that you married Celine because you thought I was in love with Damien?”

Mark’s gaze drops to the ground. The silence is answer enough for them.

“You eloped with Damien’s sister because you thought he and I were together?! Are you kidding me?!” Their voice elevates into new levels of outrage. “You goddamn idiot—”

“I meant what I said!” Mark shouts back, his own anger rising. “When I told you why I married Celine before, I meant it! I didn’t want to be alone, and she…she had her own reasons too.” Her name still feels like acid burning his lips. “And you and Damien were so much better for each other than—”

“I was never in love with Damien!”

The words fly out of their mouth like shrapnel from a gunshot. And honestly, the implications and following epiphany Mark has feels roughly the same.

They never loved Damien . They never—

Then that means—

“But…I thought that you—”

“Exactly. You thought,” they bite out each word with such rage. “You didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted, what I thought, so instead you took away my choice like a goddamn coward .

Mark flinches.

“Jesus Christ , you do this all the time, Mark! You can’t deal with trauma and heartbreak like a normal person, so you make rash, life-altering mistakes that end up hurting everyone around you—”

(Have their words always held this level of raw truth? He feels like he’s been run through with a rusty sword.)

“You could never be a mistake!” Mark finally shouts back, his fury catching up with the accusations.  “And I’m not the only coward here!”

They reel back like he just slapped them. 

“You could have told me how you felt at any time and you didn’t ! You have just as much a fault in this as I do!”

“If you honestly think I would ever admit my feelings to a married man then you obviously don’t know me at all,” they cut in, striking down his argument like swatting a fly.

“But we could have at least talked! Who knows what could have happened?”

“Are you honestly suggesting you would have left Celine for me?”

Silence slices through the air at the bitter question, asked as if they already know the answer.

He doesn’t know which option is in their head, which one is worse for them to think, and worst of all, he doesn’t have an answer himself.

Could he have continued on with Celine, knowing that his friend had returned his feelings?

(Would anything have changed? Or was he doomed to misery from the start?)

But Mark has lost the upper hand in this argument (had he ever had the upper hand?), and so he makes one last desperate effort to sway them.

(They’re all he wants, just give him this, he’s lost so much, just let him have this, have them.)

“Why can’t you just give us a chance? You and me, we could finally be happy together, after all this time, after all this pain—”

Mark reaches for them (to do what , he isn’t sure, maybe kiss their doubts away), but they pull from him again. Their voice quiets into something less angry, more hurt and, to his dismay, exhausted. Tears glisten in their eyes, never more ancient than they look right now, but never fall.

“I’ve been in love with you for half my life, Mark,” they say in a hoarse voice. “But I’m tired of getting hurt.”

They stare at him with such pain and run out the door (out of their own house) , slamming it as they go, the sound shattering him to pieces.

They ran away from him.

Like he’s some kind of monster.

Mark falls to his knees. He presses his trembling fingers to his lips, as if he can keep the taste of them from fading away.

Maybe he is.

Chapter Text

Damien startles awake at the frantic knocking at his front door. With a deep yawn, he stumbles out of bed and drags his feet to the entrance.

When he opens the door and sees his dearest friend in frantic tears, his drowsiness dissipates. “My friend, what on earth—oh!”

They throw their arms around him and sob into his chest. Tremors shake their body like an earthquake trying to break out of their skin. Damien pulls them into his home, shuts the door, and holds them tight, as if he can somehow help them restrain that internal quake, keep them from vibrating apart.

The last time they cried like this…

Mark, what have you done?

 


 

Mark doesn’t remember leaving their house. He doesn’t even remember calling a cab and returning to his manor. Everything is a blur from the moment his attorney stormed out of their own home just to get away from him.

“I’m tired of getting hurt.”

He stumbles through the front door.

“Master Mark! Where have you been, we’ve been worried—“

Mark ignores Benjamin, storms to his bedroom, and slams the door so hard the furniture shakes. His fingers claw at his hair, dig into his scalp, and tug on the roots so hard he almost screams.

The silence should have been deafening in its quiet void, but instead it’s drowned out by mocking voices crawling through his mind.

“…you confuse ‘your wife’ for a trophy…”

Mark looks up and sees the pictures on the table in the corner. His dearest friends, his wife, and—

“…you’ve never treated her the way she deserves!”

The picture of the Colonel crashes to the floor with a vengeance. As does another photograph of Mark and Celine, and another with him and the Colonel from their childhood, and the next frame in his hands—

Mark’s blurry vision takes in the photo of him, Damien, and the attorney with a particular pain. Less of a sharp betrayal and more of a keen, piercing heartbreak.

“I’ve been in love with you for half my life. But I’m tired of getting hurt.”

The echoing, exhausted words bounce around his head like a damn bullet. His grip clenches on the frame and he lifts it high above his head—

But…

He can’t .

He…

Mark lets out a strangled cry and stomps to his dresser, yanks open a drawer, throws the photo inside, and slams it shut again.

Why?

Why can’t he hold onto anything anymore? Why does he keep losing everyone he cares about? Everything that ever mattered to him is slipping through his fingers like sand no matter how tightly he tries to grasp it all, and now the cracks inside of him are too fractured to keep from crumbling.

A swirling feeling of darkness overcomes him and Mark realizes that a knife is just…sitting on top of the dresser.

He has a fleeting recollection of Benjamin bringing him a meal two days ago, and the steak had required the use of a knife, but...Mark doesn’t remember keeping the utensil. He also doesn’t remember setting it on the dresser.

Has the silver always glinted in such a tantalizing way?

It’s not fair, is it?

No.

Mark picks up the knife, watches as the moonlight from the window reflects off of the metal.

No, it’s not.

 


 

It takes several minutes of Damien holding the attorney as they cry before the story comes pouring out of them like a waterfall over a sheer cliff.

(What the hell was Mark thinking , God, was Damien an idiot to think the three of them could survive these tragedies? For never considering that Mark might try to latch onto the attorney the way he first latched onto Celine?)

Something in the horror of his face must click with them. Their red rimmed eyes pierce through what little defenses he has. “Damien, did you know ?”

“I…I had an inkling—”

“Damien, don’t you dare bullshit me right now. Did. You. Know?”

He shakes his head. There’s no use in hiding it anymore, is there? “He thought that I was in love with you, and when I tried to tell him otherwise, he just thought I was in denial. I was going to try to convince him otherwise, I swear I was, but then his parents died, and—”

“Oh my God,” they choke into their hands. “Oh my God, that son of a bitch, he—”

They shoot to their feet and pace away from the couch, trembling and fidgeting against that earthquake inside of them. “I can’t believe—this whole time— how could he—”

They whirl around to face him again. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

The hurt in their face, the shining betrayal splintering through the wetness in their eyes is too much for Damien to bear. They’re always so careful about keeping their pain close to their chest where no one can see but now the dam has cracked open and everything that has been tormenting them since Mark first disappeared with Celine is gushing out like a fatal wound.

“I…I was going to tell you, before…before he ran off! I thought if you knew how Mark felt after he did that…” He puts his face in his hands, unable to look at their blatant agony. Agony he should have been able to prevent, if he hadn’t been such a coward. “…I thought it would hurt you more, if you knew.”

He never got over you. He used my sister to try. I should have stopped him and I didn’t. I was naïve, I thought we could all still be happy, even…even at your expense.

Maybe I’m no better than Mark.

The couch cushions shift. He dares to look from his hands and there is the attorney sitting beside him again. Staring down vacantly at their knees, shoulders hunched inward, fingers tangled together in their lap, Damien has never seen them look so defensive. As if they can cage their insides from any more hurt by pulling tighter and tighter into themself.

All they do is nod. Then mutter, “Okay. I understand,” in the most devastated tone he’s ever heard.

They don’t speak again for the rest of the night, but he sits there with them, wraps his arm around their shoulders, and waits for them to fall asleep. Eventually he falls asleep too, their heads leaning against each other.

When he wakes up alone on the couch, there’s a plate of eggs and a mug of coffee waiting for him. The attorney is sitting in his rocking chair, shifting forward and back, staring into nothing.

He takes one bite of cheesy eggs and tries to swallow through his constricting throat. The food isn’t cold yet, but he feels like he just swallowed a lump of nothing.  “What are you going to do now?” he whispers.

Their head drops against the back of the rocking chair. They shake their head helplessly.

Damien presses his lips together. Every single inch of him feels scrubbed raw, like the slightest touch will do nothing but hurt him, like he’s exposed his insides to every possible danger that will come his way.

He can’t imagine how the attorney must feel right now.

“You don’t have to go home yet,” he eventually offers, when he realizes they aren’t going to say anything. “You can stay, if you need to.”

The chair rocks forwards. Backwards. Forwards again. They stop long enough to nod at him.

This right here is probably the most concerning thing Damien has seen since they came to his door. The attorney—who despite their reticent nature, always has something to say, careful observations and well-meaning if still sharp comments—has, for once, lost their words. Their most valuable weapon aside from their loud, guillotine silences.

The sight of his dearest friend so shattered leaves Damien’s chest in fragments.

And there is nothing he can do to fix this.

Not a damn thing.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep again, but when he wakes up, it’s dark again and the attorney is gone.

The note they left on the coffee table is written in pen, but the ink is splotched in various places:

Thank you for letting me stay over. I had to get to work. I need time to think about all of this. Call you later.

And then, at the end, scribbled in a hurried scratch:

It’s not your fault. None of it is. Don’t think I blame you for a second.

Damien stares at those last three sentences until his vision blurs.

Twenty minutes later, he’s standing at the front door of Mark’s manor, knocking at the door like a man on a mission. And that mission is to scream at his brother-in-law for three or four hours for being an idiot.

 


 

It takes unimaginable pain and silver stained with dripping red to transport Mark to a gray, echoing place full of potential and promises.

We’re going to do great things together.

He wakes up in a puddle of his own blood feeling reborn. Sunlight filters through the window blinds, leaving shadows like the bars of a prison cell.

“Master Mark?”

Mark’s first attempt at speaking is too hoarse, too quiet. He feels as if wood splinters have lodged in his throat. “Yes, Benjamin?”

“Damien Goodwin is here. He’s asking for you.”

Who else would he be here to see?

Mark cracks his neck and pushes himself off the ground.  His palms leave imprints in the drying puddle of blood.

“Tell him to come back later. Matter of fact,” Mark gets to his feet and brushes at his red-stained clothes (to no avail, considering his hands are just as bloodied), “we won’t be having visitors for a long while.”

I have work to do.

Chapter Text

You won’t see Mark again for another year.

For the first two months, honestly, it was for the best. You were in no condition to speak to anyone outside of Damien and about anything associated with work.

Especially those first few days.

You’re sitting on the couch, elbows resting on your knees, staring into the wooden whorl patterns of the coffee table as if they would speak and tell you how the hell you can stop feeling like something is eating away at your skin and leaving you exposed for the carrion to pick away at.

Why does every traumatic emotional event in your life these days seem to be tied to Mark?

“You have to know how I feel—“

You press the heel of your palm into your eyes, relishing in the shifting colors behind your eyelids.

“We could finally be happy together, after all this time, after all this pain—”

You grab the bottle of whiskey waiting for you on the coffee table and take a long swig.

“You have just as much a fault in this as I do!”

He said at least one right thing that night. This is just as much your fault. 

You should have cut Mark out of your life a long time ago. Kept your distance until this useless pining could wane into something more bearable. Maybe none of this would have happened, maybe—

Oh, God, did Celine suspect something? Is that one of the reasons she left? Jesus crucified Christ , you can’t even think about that—

Your fingers angrily wipe away the tears falling down your cheeks (it seems all you can do is cry these days) and you take another drag of whiskey, then you keep going until you’re relaxed enough to fall asleep, leaving half the bottle empty on the coffee table.

Everything hurts. Like your essence has been torn away, shredded into tiny scraps, like a rusty tool is digging into your chest, pulling you apart…

Those first few days, those first few weeks, are an exercise in the most extreme compartmentalizing you’ve ever done. Anything having to do with Mark is shoved into a folder and filed away into a shadowed corner of your mind where other difficult soul-destroying memories and experiences are kept (your brother’s abandonment, your parent’s death, that one time you were stabbed by a racist jackass in high school, Mark’s elopement with Celine, etc.).

In the spotlight, where all your focus sharpens to a point and turns anything else into blurred insignificance, remains the cases and political actions pertaining to your career.

And damn you do a good job with that once you manage to pretend your personal life hasn’t officially crumbled into tiny brittle pieces. The District Attorney even comments that he’s never seen you more motivated, more dedicated.

But the man also, on more than one occasion, has had to make you go home and get some rest because you also have been putting in more late hours than you ever have before. Since you didn’t want to risk burning out, you usually take the DA’s advice.

“Usually” being the key word there.

Other times, Damien drops by your office and makes up some excuse to get you to go home.

Tonight is one of those nights. About six months after The Worst Morning of Your Life (and considering the number of terrible mornings you had, it’s pretty damn impressive that this one has shot right to the top), Damien walks into your office with all the determination of a man on the verge of screaming.

“Please go home before I make a special call to your boss requesting that you take a week off.”

You are sleep deprived enough to consider yelling at Damien (something you have never done, and never thought you ever would do), because how dare he, honestly? However, you also are coherent enough to hear the desperation in his voice and wonder if your overworking isn’t the only thing he’s had to deal with today.

So you pack up your files and leave with Damien.

You wait until you’re outside with him, pulling your coat tighter against the chill in the air, before asking if he’s okay.

“What, I can’t just be frustrated that my dearest friend is working themself to death?”

Your eyebrow lifts, silently calling out his deflection.

Damien sighs. “I…I haven’t been able to get a hold of Mark.”

A sharp pain enters your chest at the name you haven’t heard and dared not even think about for so long. You fight to keep your face neutral. Damien has a right to be worried about his childhood friend, about his brother-in-law (or has the divorce been finalized?).

“If I can’t help him,” Damien continues, “then at least let me help you.”

You feel awful for the guilt lacing Damien’s voice. “None of this is your fault. You know that, don’t you, Damien? I meant it when I wrote that note.”

His lack of response is all you need. You sigh. “Damien…”

“Don’t,” he says, and it sounds like a plea. “Just…don’t.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, I bought two tickets for us to see Josephine Baker perform next week. Can you make room in your schedule to join me?”

It says a lot about your state of mind that the idea of seeing Josephine Baker perform in person barely excites you.

Maybe that’s why you say yes. You can’t change what happened. You can’t change the fact that you’ve lived so many years feeling like you were never good enough for a man who, honestly, never deserved you in the first place and pined for him anyway. But you can change how you are from here now that you know the truth. Now that you know you and Mark could never have worked.

You can move on. Or at least try to, for Damien’s sake and for yours.

 


 

Two days later, you’re standing on the front stoop of Mark’s manor, a bag in your hand.

You stare at the steps leading up to the entranceway, your sense of dread and nausea rising in your throat. The paper shopping bag feels like fifty cement blocks pulling your arm to the ground. Your rooted feet refuse to take you up the stairs and close enough to the door to knock.

You try very hard not to take in the enormity of the house. You could probably work for another ten years and not even be close to affording something of this magnitude, and the realization settles on you like a toxic cloud.

It’s a lovely manor, you can admit that much. But…something about it unsettles you. You can’t put your finger on why, but the sense of wrongness about the place scratches at your nerves.

“Can I help ya with somethin’, stranger?”

You turn abruptly to see an older man in overalls with a shovel in hand approach you. “Um…I’m sorry, I don’t mean to linger, I just…”

“The door won’t bite, you know,” the stranger teases. He has a British accent, but you’re no expert in dialects so you can’t say specifically where he hails from. “That’s one thing this place never did, I can say that much.”

You blink. The joke is strange enough, but something about the bitter inflection hints at something…more. “I’m sorry, who are you exactly?”

“I’m the groundskeeper.” He gives a small bow to you, much to your bafflement. “You here to deliver something to the master of the house?” He continues before you can answer, “You’re outta luck, you are. The man won’t see anyone at all. Not even his brother-in-law.”

Your lips press together. “…do you think it’s worth me trying?”

The man takes a long look at you. You have no idea what he sees, but the weight in his gaze is not unlike how you imagine Atlas with the world on his shoulders to look. You wonder what weights the groundskeeper bears.

“I think you seem a perfectly decent person,” he eventually says. “I think that, for your own good, you should never return to this place.” He starts to turn away, heedless of your panicked eyes. “This house only brings heartbreak and death,” he continues over his shoulder. “I’d hate to see you turn out the same way.”

“Wait! I didn’t catch your name, sir!”

He turns back halfway and gives her a tip-of-his-hat salute. “The name’s George, friend. I wish you well, and don’t be offended if I hope I don’t see you again.”

The man disappears around the house and you feel no better about being here.

You suck in a breath and let it out before looking up at the house one last time. Maybe it’s your imagination, but it almost feels like the home itself is warding you off. Telling you to turn away, that your efforts are futile.

“We could finally be happy together.”

No, you think, and somehow, there are still parts of you that crack open at the realization. No, we couldn’t. We could never have been happy together. Not with all of this pain between us.

You straighten your shoulders and turn back to your car. Once you’re inside, you toss the bag containing Mark’s jacket into the passenger seat.

You’ll just mail the damn thing to him, you decide.

Of course, as you put the car in drive and exit the lot, you have no idea that Mark has been watching from the top floor window the entire time, the inky whispers of a dark entity filling his ear with false platitudes and dangerous thoughts.

You don’t hear from him until the next year, when an invite to a poker party at Markiplier Manor arrives in your new office after you're elected District Attorney of the city.