What the hell?
She opened her eyes slowly; it was a moment before the room came into focus. For a moment, she forgot where she was. It had been days since she had slept so soundly. She rolled on her side to the other side of the bed. Turned out she was right; Libby really did jump onto the bed once she had detected Mark sleeping there. He was rubbing his eyes now in the aftermath of the attack. He put on his glasses and leaned against the bed board, looking as disoriented as she felt. It was evident he wasn't used to having his slumber disrupted by an overly enthusiastic kid.
"Munchkin, how did you get here?" she asked, yawning, looking inquiringly at her daughter who somehow got herself under the covers and between the two of them. She pulled Libby closer and let her fingers fly across her stomach underneath her pajama top.
"No, Mommy, stop it!" squealed Libby, trying to wriggle free.
As soon as she stopped, Libby snuggled against her. She dropped a kiss into her daughter's hair, then nuzzled the back of her neck, and just held her close for a moment. This was their routine every Sunday at home. Libby would climb into her bed and they would just lie there, under the covers, and just hold one another before it was time to get up. "Did you sleep okay, baby?"
Libby nodded, and looked at Mark, who was watching them with an amused expression on his face. "Did you sleep okay?" she asked him, imitating her mother's question.
"Yeah, I slept great," he replied, smiling but still a bit tired-looking.
She threw him a playful look and then grinned at Libby. "He still looks kind of sleepy to me, Munchkin," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe we should tickle him a little bit too, huh?"
"No!" Mark all but launched himself out of bed. He chuckled softly. "Don't, I'm awake."
"Are you excited to go home today, baby?"
"Kind of," replied Libby, frowning a little. "Why do we have to leave if we said we're staying, Mommy?"
"Because we need to pack all of our stuff and send it over here. It's only for a little while."
Just thinking of everything that needed done was enough to make her dizzy. She would have to inform their landlord they were moving out, pack everything, sell her car. But at least as far as her job went, she knew she was in good hands, and that Stan would do all he could to make it easier on her. And she was grateful because to be quite honest, the concept of leaving behind everything safe and familiar was daunting. She wondered where was the gutsy girl who just left without looking back all those years ago. She almost envied her; not her motives, but that numbness with which she seemed to operate.
"Can't you come with us?" Libby looked hopefully at Mark, who shook his head sadly.
"I can't, sweetheart. But I'll be right here when you get back," he promised her.
Their gazes locked over Libby's head, and he nodded reassuringly. He refused to tell her what transpired during the conversation with his mother, but it wasn't that hard to guess. He looked wrecked when he arrived unannounced the previous night; she was pretty sure he had cried, but didn't dare asking him about it. It wasn't that big of a surprise, because she remembered all too well the way both his parents had treated her during the one and only time Mark had taken her to meet them. An accident waiting to happen was one way to put it. She didn't expect Mark's mother to change her tune simply because her husband had passed away. But she didn't want to distant Mark from his family; not because of her. It wasn't right.
"Mo?" She blinked, realizing her thoughts were drifting. She looked up at Mark, a little unfocused. He smirked. "Maybe it is you we need to tickle, don't you think, Libby?" he asked, winking at Libby. They exchanged this menacing grin that under different circumstances would have been adorable.
"That's clever, turning my own daughter against me," she mock-frowned at him. Inside, though, her heart was breaking. She was going to miss him so much. But she refused to fall apart so early in the day. There would be plenty of time for that later. "Libby, I put your clothes on the chair in your room last night. Go wash your face and brush your teeth and I'll be there in a second to help you get dressed, okay?"
"Okay, Mommy," said Libby, then jumped out of bed.
She waited for her daughter's step to recede down the hallway before she turned her attention to Mark. His blonde hair was even more tousled than usual. He looked adorable. It felt so strange to wake up beside him, so familiar and yet so new at the same time. She climbed onto his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, smiling. "Hi, you."
"Good morning," he replied. He flashed a crooked grin at her. There was this naughty glimmer in his eyes. "Does that mean you won't avenge me for turning Libby against you?"
"I blame myself. I let you spend the night."
"Thanks for that, by the way. You must admit it beats the alternative."
"Not sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night, you mean?"
"That's exactly what I mean, yes."
"It does have its benefits," she asserted, grazing her fingers against the back of his neck.
"Just my point," he whispered, their lips meeting halfway in a kiss.
"We'd better not," she breathed, trying to resist him. He was persistent; she kissed him back almost despite herself. His fingers began to wander underneath her tee shirt. "Don't even think about it."
"Why?" She pulled away with difficulty. He was grinning mischievously at her, his cheeks flushed. He leaned closer again for another kiss.
"That's why," she said, moving away from him, now with much more resolve. "I'll go help her. You're welcome to take a shower if you want."
"Yeah. A very cold shower."
She flashed him an apologetic smile as she climbed off his lap. "You're cute when you're grumbling." She sat on the bed next to him and reached for his hand, looking into his eyes. "Do you feel better?"
A shadow darkened the blue in his eyes. He seemed conflicted; for a moment she was sure he would cave and tell her what happened the previous night. But then, a second later, it was gone. "Yeah. I do feel better." They sat there a moment longer, just holding hands. Then he gave her hand a small, reluctant squeeze. "I'm fine. Go help her."
She nodded a bit distractedly, not wishing to leave his side.
After checking out, she and Mark left Libby at Robin's place despite her teary protest. Their flight departed in the early afternoon, and there was still something she needed to get done. It was actually kind of appropriate to end her stay in Manhattan with that, the very reason she had left it in the first place. It was the closure she didn't know she had needed. In spite of his earlier promise, Mark was reluctant to take her there at first, as if he didn't want her stay to end with a sour note, but she insisted. She had to do this. And so they took a taxi and rode out of town to the cemetery.
Luckily, the weather was bearable. It wasn't snowing or raining, just unbelievably cold. She snuggled into her coat as she followed Mark silently along a trail he seemed to know well. They spoke little on the way there. She found she was nervous, filled with this strange mixture of anticipation, sadness and dread. But she finally had the answer to her wondering. Despite all the good it had done her, her new life and her thriving career and Libby, trying to detach herself from the past was useless. She could never escape it, no matter how hard she tried. It was always there to haunt her, one way or another.
"Here we are," Mark's soft voice interrupted her musing and she realized they had stopped walking. She raised her eyes to face them; a silent line for tombstones that once were her friends. They were buried side by side; Angel and Collins, Roger and Mimi. She knelt on the grass in front of Collins' tombstone and looked at it for a long moment. Seeing her daughter's date of birth engraved into the stone sent a chill down her spine. She thought how amazing it was, that at the same day Libby came into the world, Collins left it. And she didn't have a chance to tell him how much he'd meant to her, because she took off. He would never know; none of them would ever know.
She sat more comfortably in front of her friends' graves, her gaze wandering from one tombstone to the other, and suddenly she got this terrifying feeling, as if she was being watched. As if they were all looking at her, into her, blaming her for not being there when they needed her the most, for choosing the easy way out and leaving all of them behind. Sort of like the expression on Mark's face in the first moments of their reunion. Guilt was overwhelming, paralyzing almost.
As if her distress was visible, Mark gently pulled her into a hug. She lay her head against his shoulder and let out a shaky sigh. "Don't," he pleaded softly. "They would have been so proud of you if they knew her, I know they would."
"But they'll never know that I – "
"They do know," he cut her off, tenderly yet persistently. "You're here now."
For the longest time, there was silence. They just sat there, holding one another. The wind was rustling softly through the treetops. It was almost inevitable to get carried away by memories. April's funeral, the trauma of losing her so abruptly, the aftermath of her suicide. Angel was next, and while in April's case they were all too numb by the suddenness of her death to actually feel the pain, when Angel died they got their first taste of real, searing grief. Then Mimi's rapid decline… and nothing seemed fair in the world anymore. Nothing made sense. They were all so young…
Mark gently took her hand and interlaced his fingers with hers. She smiled, only to frown a second later. Something felt a bit off. Something hard and cool replaced the softness of his hand. Confused, she looked down at their joined hands, and a gasp escaped her. What the hell? How did he even... She shifted her gaze to Mark, who smiled sheepishly.
"Well, since I can't even propose properly, I'm trying to save my dignity the best I can," he joked, glancing at the graves for a second. "Come on, don't tell me you don't feel Roger and Collins right here, laughing their asses off because I'm making a fool out of myself."
She laughed softly. Weird, but for a brief moment she actually could feel it. She looked at the ring he slipped onto her finger when she hadn't noticed; a tear-shaped ruby surrounded by tiny black diamonds, set in white gold. It was beautiful, a perfect fit. "Where did you get it?"
"It was my grandmother's. Cindy got it when she got married. Yesterday, she gave it to me, for you."
She was touched almost to the point of tears by Cindy's gesture, but she refused to inflict more damage on an already fragile situation. She had to ask it. "And what did your mother have to say about your sister giving this piece of family heirloom to your disagreeable fiancée?"
Mark didn't flinch underneath the seriousness in her eyes. "I don't think she knows. Even if she does, I don't care."
"You won't be able to keep it a secret forever. You know that sooner or later you'll have to tell me what happened there yesterday, don't you?" she asked him as gently as she could. She didn't want to put pressure on him, but he seemed so troubled, almost traumatized, by the previous night's occurrences, that she had to know.
"I know. I'll tell you, I promise. Just… not today," he said, tightening his embrace. "I just hope you don't change your mind as soon as you get home."
She chuckled. "If you're chickening out, let me tell you, it's too late. I won't change my mind. I'll marry you whether you like it or not, Mark Cohen."
He grinned, then looked at the graves again and back at her with the slightest frown. "Yeah. Now I can definitely hear them laughing."
The silence on the way to the airport was a sad yet comfortable one. None of them spoke, not even Libby, who was sitting between the two of them in the taxi, clinging to Mark's side and hugging her teddybear close. It broke her heart to see her little girl so down. She twisted her new ring on her finger absentmindedly, drawing comfort from its presence.
Mark waited with them as they checked in and sent away their luggage. Her steps became gradually heavier, knowing that each step took him further away from them. She held on to Libby's hand; the last thing she wanted was losing her in the crowded airport. Mark stayed with them as far as the security checks; he couldn't follow beyond that point.
"So this is it," he said with feign cheerfulness, although he was fooling no one. Even Libby saw right through it. He reached for her hand and gently pulled her towards him, holding her close. "Call me when you get home. I don't care what time it is. Don't worry about waking me. Just let me know you're okay."
She nodded. She was too upset to start arguing about it. "I will," she promised.
"Maybe I'll be able to come over next weekend or something."
"That will be great." Unable to say more without bursting into tears, she just looked at him for a moment. Who would have thought that all this would happen from a simple business trip to Manhattan? She touched his cheek, holding back with all her might. "I'll miss you so much."
"I'll miss you too." He looked down at Libby. "Both of you," he said, kneeling down beside her. Her eyes glistened with tears, but she didn't cry. "It was so lovely to meet you, Libby. You'll be a good girl, right? And take care of Mommy?"
Libby nodded seriously. "I will."
He smiled at her. "Good. Now come here, give me a hug," he said, outstretching his arms. Libby stepped into them and wrapped her little arms around his neck as he gave her a big hug. As he slowly pulled away, there was this unmistakable moisture around his eyes as well.
Libby hesitated, then reached for her teddybear and held it out for Mark. "Will you keep him until we come back?"
She stared at her daughter in disbelief. Ever since she got it for her birthday, Libby and Roger were inseparable. The bear went everywhere with her. Once they forgot it on a bench in the park, and she had to go back there in the middle of the most terrifying thunder storm to get it back because Libby wouldn't sleep without it. And now she wanted to leave it here with Mark?
"Baby, are you sure? We won't be able to fly back to get him if you change your mind."
Libby looked at her teddybear as though she was considering it, and eventually nodded. "Yes, I want Mark to keep it."
Mark seemed to understand the enormity of the request, for he gave Libby a reassuring nod and said seriously, "Of course, Libby. I'll keep him. Roger will be safe with me, don't worry. Both of us will be here to welcome you when you return."
"Promise?" she asked, still a bit uncertain, clutching the teddybear close to her chest.
Mark smiled, emotional behind his brave facade. "You bet."
Still she hesitated, but only for a second. Then she kissed the teddybear's forehead. "Bye, Roger. Mark promised to take care of you. Be good, okay?"
A smile found its way to her lips as she watched Libby, who was passing her favorite bear to Mark. There was nothing but trust in her daughter's eyes as Mark stood up, and Roger was out of her reach. And not even a hint of regret.
"You should go," said Mark. She toyed with the idea of missing the flight altogether, already coming up with endless excuses why she cannot attend the next day's meeting at work. Mark shook his head as if he guessed what was on her mind. He pulled her to his arms again.
"I love you," she whispered into his ear.
She felt him smile against her cheek. He placed a kiss on the top of her head. "I love you too. Go, you'll miss your flight," he added gently, handing her her purse.
She lingered a moment longer, but then, knowing she had no choice, she took it from him and made sure Libby was still carrying her backpack. They shared one last smile before she guided Libby towards Security. She willed herself to not look back; if she did she would never go on that plane. But as they turned the corner, Libby suddenly turned back.
"Bye, Mark!" she called, waving at him. He smiled and waved back, holding her teddybear close to his heart. Their eyes met for the last time, but there were no tears this time. Just silent hope.
"Love you," he mouthed.
"Me too," she mouthed back, smiling. She looked down at Libby. "Come on, baby. We gotta go."
Once on the plane, she helped Libby fasten her seatbelt. She adjusted her own seatbelt next and leaned back, closing her eyes. The Captain's voice was heard through the speakers as he gave a brief weather report and the expected landing time, but she hardly listened to him. Her thoughts wandered back to the cemetery. Would they ever know how much they meant to her? Mark said they did, and she could only hope he was right. She touched her engagement ring, a slow smile curling on her lips. She missed him already. She thought it was funny, the way life worked. Within two weeks her life was completely altered, the past she had tried so hard to escape suddenly becoming her future.
She opened her eyes as she felt Libby's soft little hand touching hers. "Don't cry, Mommy," her daughter told her seriously. "It's only for a little while."
She touched her cheek, suddenly feeling the dampness of tears. "I know, Munchkin," she replied with a small smile. She squeezed Libby's hand. "Will you be okay without Roger?"
"I'll be okay, Mommy."
Soon the engines roared as the plane started its slow ascent. Shortly afterwards, it was in the air. They were on their way home. She glanced at the window. Dusk slowly fell, and Manhattan became a fading jewel in the distance as the plane carried them higher, and further away. Soon Libby was asleep, and before she knew it, she was slowly drifting into slumber as well. Libby's comforting words echoed in her mind. It's only for a little while. They'd be back before they realized it. And when they did, Mark would be there. Everything would be okay.
In her sleep, she was smiling.