A/N: Only Us started as a oneshot I posted on Christmas Eve 2005, but then it quickly became an actual story and even had a sequel to follow. I haven't written anything new in ages but I really wanted to get back to writing, and what better way to do so than upgrade an old story I have grown so attached to? If they can do it on movies and TV, I can do it with fanfiction, hopefully with better results. I've changed the title to allow this new story to stand on its own, and borrowed it from the wonderful If/Then. POVs alternate (Maureen is odd chapters, Mark is even chapters) - feedback is still most welcome.
Some Other Me (Only Us Rewritten )
Manhattan had never looked so beautiful. It felt like being inside a greeting card. Snowflakes were softly falling upon cars and yellow cabs, passersby, businessmen in dark suits and children in colorful winter coats along with their parents. No one seemed to care much about it. It was almost Christmas, after all. If it was not snowing on Christmas time, when would it?
She snuggled into her coat and nodded goodbye to the doorman, then went out to the street, turning into 42nd street towards the ever-chaotic Times Square. It seemed pointless to even try and hail a taxi; she would have to walk. She glanced at her high heeled boots dubiously, fretfully, then bit her lip and joined in the throng, as fast as she dared. But even trying to remain steady on the wet pavement wasn't enough of a distraction. A shiver ran through her, but not as a result of the biting cold. It was all too familiar; the sights, the sounds, the snow… Why was it so difficult to let go of the past after all these years?
It was snowing when she left over a decade ago, as well. She remembered it all as though it had happened yesterday. During that funeral in November she made her decision. She had enough. She was done with death, done with this heartache that came with it and made everything seem numb. She had to move on, move away, or it was sure to pull her under. So she left without telling anyone. She spent many days on the road before she decided on her final destination. The City of Angels; just because it sounded right. She sent her friends a postcard that said I'm fine. Just needed to jump over the moon. MJ. No return address.
She worked hard for the fresh start she had been yearning for. Since complete detachment from the stage turned out to be impossible for her, she went from audition to audition, eventually landing herself small roles in seedy theaters downtown. In one production, where the total of her lines was even gloomier than the show itself, she befriended the costume manager and spent most of her time in his makeshift office backstage. It was like discovering a new world; this new field she had always taken for granted fascinated her. When her contract ended on the show, the costume manager hired her as an apprentice for his next production, and the rest was history.
Her newly discovered passion was an awakening of sorts. It sustained her affinity to the performing arts while offering a new view on it, one which marked her growing up. Eventually she settled in San Francisco, with a junior role in the costume department of a respected local theatre, until she was finally assigned a senior role just several months later. She loved the challenges her job offered, and the fact she could bring so much of herself into it. Most of all, though, she loved the distraction. This was what she had most wanted, after all; a way to escape the past. But then Libby came storming into her life, and with the extra responsibilities her new position required, the job seemed even more demanding. She hardly had time for herself, let alone time to spend with Libby, but she couldn't complain. At least she had a steady job that allowed her to live well and pay the rent.
While her job was somewhat less bleak than many, routine was routine; once it inevitably kicked in, one day it dawned on her that she had become another woman in a fancy suit, like those they were always mocking when they bumped into them on the subway. One of these normal, ordinary women. It was so unlike her, to succumb to the routine of life, but she assumed it was a part of growing up. She used to wonder every now and then if they were different now, as well. Were they even alive? She didn't know. She wasn't sure she wanted to. But every time that question invaded her thoughts, she realized that no matter how far she had attempted to go, there was no way to fully detach herself from them, from the memories they all shared. Friendship was thicker than blood, it appeared. She used to think of it as nothing but a childish cliché.
And now she was back in Manhattan. It was one of her obligations as a newly-promoted costume manager. The theater she had worked for was part of an organization which owned several theaters in town. Once a year, senior members of various departments had to travel to the organization's headquarters in Manhattan, at the heart of the theater district, for various conventions in their field, an advanced study of sorts. The previous year, she was forced to work overtime in order to replace her superior during his absence. This year, she was the one leaving an intern behind, and she had done so with great reluctance. Two and a half weeks seemed like the longest time, but there was no getting away with it. Besides, Libby had never been to New York. That alone was a good reason to return.
Even though the theater district wasn't the part of town she had mostly occupied back in the day, she could already feel how the city sucked her right back in. Like this giant organism, it was feeding off her energy. The locals seemed used to this intensity their city was exuding. Now an outsider, she felt totally drained just two days into her arrival. It had nothing to do with the work she had come here to do; this was exhaustion of a completely different sort.
She walked swiftly up Broadway, heading towards the hotel. The last session ended earlier than anyone had expected, but she didn't stick around to mingle. It was late afternoon, which meant she could still spend some time with Libby. They could go see the city lights from the top of the Empire State Building, if the weather allowed, or venture into Saks or Tiffany's on 5th avenue. Libby had already expressed her resentment about her spending too much time at work. They were so much alike, it was scary sometimes. She was used to be the one making people do her bidding with a pout and huge imploring eyes, not the other way around.
The snow felt nice, brushing against her cheeks, melting into her hair. It was rarely snowing on the West Coast, initially one of her reasons to settle there. She had associated the snow with unbearable pain, and yet she missed it more than she realized. And did it even help? Did the distance she had put between her and this city resolve everything, or did it make matters worse? Was she a better person now than the one she had been over a decade ago? She wanted to believe that she was, but was she, really?
Amidst all the doubts and uncertainties, she was sure of one thing. Libby had made her better. For the first time in her life she felt compelled to change for someone, in a way she had never done before. It was difficult at times, especially because she had to give up on so much, things she had always believed made her who she was, but with time she came to understand they did not define her.
The snow was falling more heavily now, making it impossible to see the road ahead. She rushed forward to find cover underneath the awning of a brightly lit window. Well, that ruled out the Empire State Building, she thought grimly. Brushing some stray snowflakes off her coat, she realized she was standing at the entrance of a gallery. She looked back at the street, where the snow was piling, then hurriedly walked in, the promise of heat and shelter lingering behind its closed doors.
There weren't many people inside, which was probably a result of the hour and worsening weather. The space wasn't huge, and yet she took her time walking slowly from wall to wall, carefully observing each and every photo behind its frame. She had always enjoyed art, especially photography; her job had given her an eye for details. And the person who took these photos was exceptionally good. There was something poignant and yet soft and sentimental, even familiar, in the photos. They were polished and professional-looking, and yet there was rawness to them, which stirred something deep inside her. As she stood there staring at one of them, she could barely breathe.
"This one is my favorite too."
She turned abruptly, and her eyes met the bright eyes of an unfamiliar young woman in jeans and a dark sweater. Her reddish hair was pulled back in a messy bun. "It really is beautiful," she agreed, feeling rather lame. The compliment didn't do the photo justice. "Is this your gallery?"
The young woman chuckled softly. "No, are you kidding? I can barely get the squirrels in Central Park to pose for me. I'm just helping a friend of mine run it."
"I get that. I'm not great with cameras myself." She'd been teased endlessly about her loving to appear on cameras rather than hide behind them, back in the day. It almost felt like another life, now; like some other her. She knew she should make use of her early escape from work to get back to the hotel; that the longer she'd linger at the gallery, the less time she'd get to spend with Libby, but she couldn't bring herself to leave just yet. "Your friend is very talented."
"Almost annoyingly so, right?" said the stranger, rolling her eyes, but with a small affectionate smile. It was quite nice to see such a display of camaraderie. "He had to leave early today for a meeting downtown. He should be here tomorrow though, if you're interested to hear his interpretation on some of those. He can get chatty about his projects, but you'll get some great firsthand insight."
"Maybe I'll stop by, thanks." She didn't even know why she had said it. She was interested in photography, but the following day was going to be a busy one with three meetings back to back, possibly even a business dinner. She doubted she would be able to take the time to return just for the sake of meeting the person who took all those photos, as wonderful as they were.
Soon enough, though, she forgot all about the encounter at the gallery. It was way after midnight when she made it to bed that night after spending much needed time with Libby. The next day was proven as hectic as she had predicted. She was getting dizzy with new names and faces, with new information and details to take in. But when her business dinner got cancelled, she couldn't help but think back about the stranger's offer. Before she could think better of it, she was already walking up Broadway, retracing her steps from the previous day. When she finally stopped to catch her breath at the entrance of the gallery, for a moment she couldn't even understand how she got there.
The woman that was there the day before wasn't anywhere to be seen. It was early evening, nearly twilight, and so the place was teeming with visitors. The tiny space was crowded and slightly stifling, and the babble of multiple conversations around her was making her disoriented. She preferred the place as she had found it the previous day. She could barely focus on the photos with this constant noise wrapping around them.
And then it felt as though it all went silent, all at once. She stopped dead on her tracks and stared.
He was standing across the room, in the middle of a heated discussion with two other men. He wasn't exceptionally taller than the rest of the people around, and it was a moment before it dawned on her that wasn't the reason he had stood out for her. Rather, it was his glasses that caught her attention, and his blonde hair.
She was almost surprised that she was surprised. Of course he would be here, a room full of photographs. But what were the odds? After all this time, the two of them, in the exact same place? Should she go there and say hi? Would he even remember her? What if he didn't? Which of the two was worse? There were too many questions, too many wonders, but as she had so often done, she decided to just trust her instincts. He wouldn't make a scene in front of all these strangers... or at least she hoped so.
His voice sounded slightly deeper now, more mature, but she recognized it instantly regardless. She knew it would be rude to just interrupt his conversation like she was about to do, but she just had to, or she'd lose her nerve.
He turned around instinctively, as one would do at the sound of one's name. The spark in his eyes was quickly replaced with the shock of recognition as their eyes met. "Maureen?"
She nodded and offered him a weak smile. "Hi."
"How did you... What are you doing here?"
She giggled nervously, feeling self-conscious by his astonished expression. "That depends, how much time have you got?"
He just stared at her for a second longer, then seemed to remember his friends, who were watching the exchange curiously. He didn't seem to realize they were awaiting an explanation, or an introduction. He had offered none, and she didn't feel comfortable enough to provide one. "Sorry, Greg, Michael, do you guys mind..."
"Don't worry about it, Cohen. Let's meet up for drinks at our place after Christmas, yeah?"
"Sure thing." He shook hands with them and they left, glancing at her from over their shoulders as they moved further into the crowd. He lingered another moment, then shrugged and wordlessly led her to a small bench nearby. He waited for her to sit down before taking a seat next to her.
They fell into an awkward silence, just observing each other. He was wearing different glasses now, with a dark blue frame, which had done little to give his youthful face a more grownup air. His hair was almost golden in the soft overhead light. Even his clothes looked different, and yet exactly the same. He had definitely left behind those thrift stores he had frequented in the past, but the style was pretty much unchanged. The bench was covered with dark blue velvet; she ran her finger absentmindedly against the soft fabric just for something to do. "You look… different," he said eventually.
Another woman in a fancy suit. "You look the same."
He laughed, almost despite himself. "Is that good or bad?"
"I don't know. Is different good or bad?"
"I'm not sure, you're…" He let his voice trail; his cheeks colored ever so slightly. It was as if he couldn't decide whether this was real or not, and she really couldn't blame him. This was so surreal, she was having a hard time believing it herself.
"Do you still live here?"
"Yeah. Never left. You?"
"No, I live in San Francisco now. I'm in town for two weeks or so, for work." It sounded so unbelievably boastful and even phony in a way. She sounded like a stranger, even to her own ears. There was no wonder he was cocking his eyebrow at her skeptically.
"Maureen Johnson, in town on business?"
"I'm afraid so," she chuckled darkly, and a bit sheepishly.
"What is it you do, then?"
"I'm in theater. Surprise surprise," she laughed at the sight of his expression.
"You're not an actress," he half said, half asked, as though furiously trying to think if he should have known that, if he should have heard of her somewhere.
"No, I prefer to hang out backstage in old age." He rolled his eyes at that; there was some comfort in the familiarity of the motion. "I'm a senior costume manager at a theater back home."
He seemed impressed; an involuntary pang of pride filled her at his approval. "That sounds just right for you."
"How about you? You're still filming?"
"Yeah, pretty much." She actually knew that. Every now and again she saw his name mentioned in various art sections in local magazines, credited for some independent film or other he had directed. Though she had never fully read those articles, she always felt proud when she caught those references. He deserved to be acknowledged for his hard work. She was glad he got on the right track at last. This was what he had always wanted to do, after all.
"How did you get here?"
"I literally just walked by. It's halfway between my hotel and where most of my meetings take place." She shook her head, still amazed by the coincidence. "I was just looking for a place to hide from the snow the other day. Is the photographer a friend of yours by the way?" It suddenly occurred to her this might be the reason he was there in the first place.
"Why do you ask?" he asked with a shadow on a smile on his lips.
"Just interested, I guess."
"Do you like his work?"
She looked around her. The number of visitors thinned significantly. It helped reminding her what she had found so mesmerizing about the gallery in the first place. "I do, very much. It's sort of like... they're all familiar. Like I've seen them all before somehow." He nodded wordlessly, still grinning, as though waiting for her to figure out something insanely obvious. And a moment later it hit her. Of course. She gasped as realization filled her, then eyed him in shock. "This is your gallery?"
"Yes, it is."
It shouldn't come as such a big surprise. He was a successful director already; obviously everything else was only a matter of time. And it was about time other people would enjoy that intense, raw talent of his. She glanced at him and caught him looking at her. He blushed ever so slightly but didn't look away.
"Are you in touch with the rest of the guys?" It was a blunt change of subjects, but she was desperate to break the awkwardness of the moment. She found herself waiting impatiently for his reply. She did miss all of them, she realized, even after all this time, all her failing attempts to let go of her past.
Mark shook his head. "Not really," he said, and his face wore a somber expression. "They're all gone."
The words hit her much harder than she could have ever imagined. The last time she had seen them was several days after Mimi's funeral, the day that had become the turning point of her new life. Well, the first out of many, that is.
She looked at him sorrowfully but said nothing, taking in the shadow that suddenly took over the blue of his eyes. "Collins passed away five years ago. Roger… he died last Christmas."
She couldn't help but pity him as she heard the pain in his voice. He had to endure what she had managed to avoid. He watched them all go. She imagined how horrible it must have been for him, losing them all like this, one after the other, especially Roger, who had been his best friend. "I'm sorry," she said eventually, but knowing nothing she said would ever be enough.
"It's a bit late to be sorry now, isn't it?"
The question, obviously one he had not expected her to reply, caught her off-guard. The accusation it carried was so unlike the Mark she used to know. And yet, the worst part was that deep down, she knew he was right. She should have been there with them. She shouldn't have fled. But that didn't mean she regretted the life she had made for herself, not for a second. She shouldn't let him fill her with guilt just because he was hurting. "Mark, it's been too many years, I'm not going to apologize – "
"I used to resent you for leaving us to deal with this shit alone." Despite the fact he cut her off so abruptly, his voice softened. "We were worried sick about you. We couldn't track you; you didn't tell us where the hell you were going. We knew you were in LA by the stamp on that postcard you sent, but everywhere we looked was a dead end. So we gave up on you, just as you gave up on us."
His expression was torturous, as though he was reliving the memory. That made her feel a bit selfish; but this was who she was back then, impulsive. She didn't really stop to consider the consequences as she left.
"But then there were other times, especially after we lost Collins, when I thought… maybe I should have done the same." He paused, as if fearing he had said too much. Then, shaking his head, he asked, "How's Joanne? Are you two still…?"
Oh, talking about ancient history. She laughed softly. "Joanne dumped me over a decade ago. I haven't heard from her since." It happened a couple of weeks before Mimi died, when they all spent hours at the hospital by her bedside. But Mark couldn't know that; she had never told any of them.
"Oh. Sorry," he said quietly, avoiding her gaze as if embarrassed by his petty nosiness.
When she managed to catch his eye, she smiled reassuringly. "Don't. It's fine." Joanne was definitely part of the past; one of many other lovers, male and female, she had had since then. Her eyes then wandered to his hands in his lap. "You're not married," she said, noticing he wasn't wearing any ring. It came out more as a statement than a question. She didn't even realize she had asked it aloud at first until he blinked with puzzlement, and his gaze followed hers.
"Oh, yeah, I…" He chuckled. "I guess I've never found the time."
"I always assumed you'd be the first of us to get married."
He shrugged in mock-apology. "Sorry to ruin it for you," he said, then looked at her inquiringly. "How about you?" It was asked only halfheartedly, as if he believed he knew the answer.
"Divorced." He tried not to look stunned, but she could tell he wasn't expecting it. She grinned. "Sorry to ruin it for you."
"Were you married long?"
"For about a year, until I saw him for who he really was." That was putting it mildly, but it was a long story, and that was hardly the place for it. Besides, Mark was always too polite to stick his nose in other people's business anyway.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be. Marrying him in the first place was pretty stupid." It was the first time she admitted that out loud, and it wasn't as bad as she'd feared. Then, without realizing she was asking it aloud, "Can I see you again?"
He hesitated, glancing at her a bit fretfully. "Why?"
She looked at him honestly, trying not to fall too deep into his eyes. They seemed different to her now; still mesmerizing blue, but less dreamy, more down-to-earth. He had been through a lot. "I missed you." She thought about what he told her a moment ago. They're all gone. There's only us, she suddenly realized.
He seemed hesitant. It almost looked as if he was thinking of ways to reject her nicely. But she couldn't possibly let it go. They met after all those years, both happening to be at the same place on the same time; it had to mean something. If you believed in that sort of stuff. And she was nothing if not a believer.
She took one of her business cards out of her purse and handed it to him. "Here. That's my card. I'm leaving after New Year, but if you're ever at the West Coast…" Her voice trailed with silent invitation, wordless hope.
Mark gently took the card from her and examined it. "You made a long way," he said quietly, looking back at her.
"I think we both have," she replied. Before she could think better of it, she leaned over and laid a kiss on his lips, then pulled away, not even giving him a chance to kiss back.
He didn't look completely shocked, just a bit surprised. Pink returned to his cheeks. "What was that for?"
She smiled, feeling new confidence, and stood up. "Just… for old times' sake." She stopped herself from tousling his hair like she used to do in the past. "Goodbye, Mark."
She didn't wait for his reply. The old version of her would have done it so she could say the final word, have her grand exit. Her actual motive was quite different now, and rather cowardly. If he never wanted to see her again, she'd rather not hear him say that. Maybe it was for the best, she told herself as she traded the warmth of the gallery with the chill of the bustling street. It probably was. But she couldn't lie to herself; it made her quite upset.
"How about dinner tomorrow?"
She stopped abruptly and turned to find him at the entrance of the gallery, slightly out of breath. She blinked in surprise. She wasn't expecting him to hurry after her. He shrugged. "Just… for old times' sake."
She grinned as her own words echoed back at her. But then something else occurred to her, and her grin slowly faded. As much as she wanted to see him again, she knew it might complicate things. He must know the truth. She must tell him about Libby. "Mark, I want to be honest with you," she started hesitantly. Suddenly her mind went blank. Where would she even begin? "I'm kind of living with someone." Yeah, that was very honest, she scolded herself.
Was that a hint of disappointment she detected in his eyes? It was so brief she couldn't be sure. "Will he mind you having dinner with an old friend?"
She smiled enigmatically, hating herself for it, but she felt almost compelled to tease him. "You're assuming it's a he?" It was worth it; he looked slightly flustered now. "It's not a he, and no, I don't think she'll mind." Much, she mentally added.
"How long have you been together?"
"It's been about five years."
"That's a long commitment, for you."
He sounded as though he couldn't help the comment, but at the same time feared she would take it the wrong way. She chuckled darkly. If only he knew. "I don't regret a second of it."
She was mentally going over her schedule for the following day. She had a meeting in the afternoon, but it was at a theater and surely it wouldn't last as late as showtime. And she'd handle Libby. She just wanted to spend as much time with him as she could before she'd have to leave. "Dinner tomorrow will be great," she said eventually. "The number of my cell phone is on the card. Give me a call tomorrow?"
He was still looking hesitant, as though the new information of her living with someone had put new doubts in his head. But then he shook his head, and finally relented. "Okay," he said. "Okay, I will."
She smiled. "Okay. I'll see you tomorrow then." She was about to leave again when she heard him calling after her.
"I missed you too."
They shared another smile before she turned and resumed her swift walk up Broadway.
It was nearly 9PM when she arrived at the hotel. She didn't even realize it was so late until she caught sight of the bellboy's wrist watch at the elevator. She held back a yawn as she opened the door. It was warm inside the dimly lit suite. Although she had never liked hotel rooms, she found the warmth comforting, a sharp contrast to the freezing cold outside. She suspected it would be snowing again soon. For one moment only, the room felt almost like home.
"Maureen?" asked a female voice as she put her purse on a side table and took off her coat. A younger woman entered the living area of the suite, shaking her head. "That was one busy afternoon."
"I'm so sorry, I didn't think it would take so long. I'll pay you the extra hours, Robin, don't you worry about it."
"That's okay. I have no life," replied Robin, grinning wryly. "And I'm not here because you pay me, how many times do I have to remind you that?"
"We're not having this discussion again," she was hoping to sound assertive, but she knew she was fooling neither of them. "How was your day?"
"It was wonderful. We went to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, it was a hoot. We had awesome cupcakes. We brought one back for you; I left it by your bed. It's banoffee, I heard it was your favorite. She really wanted to see you but she was worn out. Fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow."
"Sounds like fun. Here," she reached for her purse again and handed Robin some money. "Sorry I kept you so late. Get out of here, get some rest."
"See you tomorrow morning then?"
"Actually, I might need your help tomorrow night too if that's okay. I mean unless you've got other plans…"
"Told you. I've got no life. I'll be here."
"Great. Thanks, Robin."
"Hot date?" asked Robin with this naughty glimmer in her eyes.
She laughed, Mark's image filling her mind. Anything but that.
She was still standing there a long moment after Robin had left. She was lucky to find Robin. She was the niece of one of her colleagues, a student that happened to come home for Christmas and was looking for a job to pass the time. They got along marvelously from the moment they met, and even more importantly, Libby adored her. It seemed like the perfect arrangement for all of them while she was working.
She slipped off her boots with a sigh of relief, and left them on the floor as she made her way down the hall and into the bedroom.
A lamp on the nightstand gave the only light in the room, illuminating the figure that was sleeping soundly under the covers in the king sized bed. She smiled and watched her for a long moment from a safe distance at the doorway. She looked angelic in her sleep, so peaceful and innocent, her long dark hair falling softly against the pillows. It was moments like this one which reminded her why she had done everything the way she did. For the first time in her life, she wasn't acting for herself, but for someone else. It felt strange to realize that at first, but so right at the same time. But then, it worked the other way around, too. She wouldn't have gotten anywhere if it wasn't for Libby.
She smiled as she sat on the edge of the bed and watched her more closely. Moments like this caused all the doubts and second thoughts she had long ago to slowly wane. She was lucky to have her. They were lucky to have each other. She caressed her hair gently, pressing a kiss to the crown of her head. What was she dreaming about? Did she know how much she meant to her? Did she even realize how much happiness she had brought into her life?
Libby's eyes fluttered open; her forehead cringed in the tiniest of frowns. "Mommy?"
"Shh… go to sleep, baby," she murmured, looking lovingly at her four-year-old. The little girl nodded and closed her eyes. Soon she was fast asleep again.
By the time she was ready for bed, she felt too alert to actually sleep. Her eyes fell on her nightstand; sure enough, the cupcake was there, as promised. The fact that Libby had made a point to pick out her favorite flavor made her smile. As the delicious frosting melted on her tongue, her thoughts drifted back to what occurred hours before, to the gallery, to Mark. He was right. She made a long way, but so did he. She told him he looked the same, but he had obviously changed as well. It had been over a decade since they had last seen one another, after all.
She wasn't sure why she gave him obscure hints about Libby instead of telling him about her outright. It wasn't because she was afraid of what he would think, because she'd never given a damn about what other people thought of her, even before she had Libby. And back then, anything seemed better than raising Libby with a man who had never wanted her in the first place. Besides, if she knew Mark as she thought she still did, it wouldn't even bother him. She'd tell him the next day, she decided, when he called. If he called.
She turned off the light and leaned back into the soft pillows. As if sensing her change of position, Libby turned on her other side to snuggle closer to her. She snuggled against her daughter in return and closed her eyes. Soon she was fast asleep as well. Outside, in the city that was once home to some of her happiest, but also her saddest memories, it was snowing again.