It was a beautiful day. The sky overhead was a brilliant azure and the thick summer heat had dissipated, leaving the air pleasantly warm and light. A gentle breeze lifted the leaves in the trees and dried the tears staining Lara's cheeks. The day that her parents were buried had been gorgeous as well. She remembered thinking that whatever greater powers existed must have been looking down on her, laughing as they rubbed salt in her wounds. But as she stood over Tim's grave now, she wondered if maybe they were simply trying to offer her some measure of comfort, reminding her that a world with beauty like this couldn't be so terrible. Lara was amazed to find that it did help a little.
The past week had been hard. After her last confrontation with Kabran, she'd been on edge, waiting for him to reappear with his mocking smile firmly in place, chastising her for being stupid enough to think that she could ever be rid of him. But after a few days had passed without incident, Lara was finally certain that he was gone. The realization saddened her even now, though she knew that it shouldn't. It would be impossible for her to be healthy or happy with him in her life—she would never get past the darkness that lived inside of her, aching to be set free, and it would eventually eat her alive. But part of her still missed him. She missed the intimacy with him, the way he made things easier. Simpler. She missed knowing exactly who and what she was.
But she hadn't had much time to think about it. During the past week, Lara had practically been living at the hospital, helping Paige make the funeral arrangements for Tim. She hadn't been involved with her parents' funeral—Karen Bennett had taken care of that while Lara lay nearly comatose in the guest room upstairs—and arranging Tim's made her feel old. Or rather, it made her feel responsible. Competent, maybe. And she felt a strange sense of closure in fulfilling his last wishes. She wondered if things would have been different for her if she'd helped with her parents' funeral, but she doubted it. She hadn't felt that she even deserved closure in the first place.
Paige placed her hand on Lara's shoulder, rousing her from her thoughts. Her aunt had just been released from the hospital the day before and she still seemed weak and fragile, though that probably had little to do with the splenectomy she'd had almost a week ago. Tim's death had hit Paige hard and she'd cried more tears than Lara would have thought possible for the human body to produce. Every time she saw the tears streaming down her aunt's cheeks, she felt a stab of guilt, but it wasn't as sharp as she would have expected. It was dampened somewhat by a sense of kinship. Lara had always felt that no one would ever be able to understand her grief, but more and more she was seeing the truth in the words that Marc had once spoken: she didn't hold the sole patent on pain. Everyone went through hell. And right now she and Paige were stumbling through the fire together.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the priest said, casting a handful of dirt on Tim's casket. Then he turned to Paige, signaling for her to step up to the grave and throw her own handful. Once she had finished, Lara was next and as the grains of dirt passed over her fingers, she felt like a door somewhere was slamming shut. "Goodbye," she whispered, not even sure to whom she was speaking any more. But it didn't seem to matter.
She and Paige stood aside and let the other mourners come up to the grave to say their last goodbyes. There were a lot of people here, which wasn't a surprise. Tim had had an affable, energetic personality and he was probably well liked by everyone he'd ever met. Watching his friends and family form a line up to the casket, Lara felt proud to have known him. As she turned her head to wipe away fresh tears that were threatening to fall, she spotted a familiar glimmer of golden hair in the back of the crowd.
Heart suddenly pounding, her breath caught in her throat. Lara hadn't seen him, hadn't heard from him since the night of Kabran's last attack. She'd been too nervous to call or visit, and then she'd been too busy helping Paige to try. His mother had come to the funeral, of course, and had stood behind Paige during the sermon, but she'd told Lara that Marc had caught a bad cold and was too sick to come.
Sick, my ass, she thought as she stared at the sliver of his blond hair in the crowd. Anxiously, she waited for him to make his way to the head of the line, but after a few minutes she realized that he wasn't moving. He wasn't going to come up to her and Lara couldn't leave Paige to walk over to him, which she was certain he knew. He was deliberately avoiding her.
"Lara, are you ready to leave?" Paige asked her. "Or do you need a few more minutes?"
She turned to her aunt, letting go of the sight of Marc's shining hair. He would have to wait for now, but she wasn't going to give up on him that easily. Not after all he had done for her. But at that moment, Paige needed her more. "No," she replied. "I'm ready if you are."
The nights were long. It hadn't been so bad when she was lying on a cot in Paige's hospital room with the bright light from the hallway streaming in under the door. It had reminded her that just beyond the door was life. People. Distraction. But now that she was back in her bedroom, she felt utterly alone in the darkness, and it was unbearable.
When her eyes were shut, she saw her parents dying and heard the screech of metal on metal. But when her eyes were open, she could see that right there, only a few feet away, was the spot where she had fallen the first time Kabran hit her. And there, just next to the window, was where she had stabbed him and watched him fade into the moonlight. And she had been sitting against thatwall on her left the morning she heard Paige scream. And right here, on this very bed, was where she'd spent hours with Kabran, letting him kiss her and hurt her—anything to take away the pain inside—as she drown herself in visions of their past together. And, god help her, she had been sitting exactly where her knee now rested when Marc had kissed her the last time.
The memories consumed her, refusing to let her mind rest. Her thoughts chased each other in endless circles, coming to the same conclusions that wrung the breath from her chest again and again. She wanted to be better. She wanted to be the kind of person that Marc believed she could be. But how could she ever be better when these thoughts were still ruling her? When the images of her parent's blood, Tim's blood, still made her feel so much hate that she wanted to kill or to die? She should be beyond this by now. She should have learned. Or maybe she was being too hard on herself. It had only been a few weeks, there was no way she could possibly change that fast. And really, she didn't deserve to change. She should hurt. But Tim had died because she'd had that conviction, hadn't he? She had to be better. She had to be. No, she had to suffer. No, no, no. Shut up, shut up, shut up!
In frustration, Lara shoved the covers off of her and stumbled through the darkness until she reached the bedroom door. She had to get out of here. Maybe go downstairs and turn the TV on so that she wouldn't be alone with her thoughts, so that she wouldn't be listening for Kabran's phantom breath in the silence of her room.
When she reached the staircase, she saw that there was a light on in the living room. Maybe her aunt was having a difficult night too. The thought made her feel slightly less pathetic. Shivering in the cool air that filled the house, Lara made her way down.
Paige was sitting on the couch, a blanket thrown over her lap as she stared blankly at the television. As Lara entered the room, Paige gasped and her hand flew to her chest. "God, you scared me."
"Sorry," she replied as she stood awkwardly in the doorway, rubbing her bare arms. "Did you turn the air conditioning up?"
"Oh, yeah. It was so hot in here earlier with all the people who came to the reception. I guess I forgot to turn it down."
"I'll get it," Lara offered. She went out into the hall to adjust the thermostat, and then came back to the living room and tentatively sat down next to her aunt. "Couldn't sleep either?"
"No. I couldn't stand being alone in our bedroom."
Lara nodded. She knew that feeling all too well. "Anything good on TV?"
"Just informercials." Her aunt gestured to the screen with the remote control. "This guy claims his set of knives can a penny in half."
"Wow," she replied as she curled her legs up underneath her on the couch. "Wonders never cease."
"Mm-hmm," Paige agreed as she tossed Lara the other end of the blanket. "Hey, I've been meaning to thank you."
"Thank me? For what?"
"You've been really great this week. I don't know how I would have survived it without you."
Blood rushed into Lara's face as guilt pooled in her stomach. "I didn't do much," she said in a small voice, staring intently at the television.
"Yes, you did. And just having you with me this week...it meant a lot to me."
Reluctantly, Lara turned toward Paige to find that her aunt's eyes were glassy with unshed tears. She really meant it. She was actually grateful. Did that mean that Lara had finally done something right? For a moment, she felt an unfamiliar surge of relief, but in the next instant the guilt overtook it because knowing that she'd done something right reminded her of how much she'd done wrong.
"I'm sorry," she suddenly whispered. "I was such a bitch to you before, so much of one that you actually have to thank me for acting like a human being. It's just...my head was so messed up. It's still a mess. I can't stop thinking. I'm just—"
"Don't worry about it," Paige said firmly, cutting her off just before Lara started to sob. Then she reached up and guided Lara's head down to her shoulder. "You know, your mother and I were never very close," she confided. "I was actually a little surprised that your parents left you to me. But then I was touched that your mother wanted me to raise you. Having you here, it made me feel like I hadn't lost her completely. I knew that trying to become a family wouldn't be easy, given the circumstances, but I think we're doing all right. We can make this work."
Lara sniffled loudly as she nodded against her aunt's shoulder. "I'm so tired," she breathed.
Paige smoothed down her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Me too."
And then they said nothing more. Closing her eyes, Lara realized that she actually felt better. Soothed. Her head was quieter than it had been in weeks. And she knew this small miracle had been possible because she'd decided to come downstairs instead of staying up in her room, losing herself in the free-fall. Not so long ago, she wouldn't have been able to make that decision. So maybe there was hope for her after all. Maybe it didn't matter if her demons were still with her, hissing in the back of her mind and maybe it didn't matter if part of her still missed Kabran. Just because the darkness was still with her didn't mean that she had to succumb to it. As long as she could make the choice to fight it, as she'd done tonight, she would be okay.
She smiled for a moment as she settled into Paige's arms, feeling ridiculously proud of herself. And then Lara finally fell asleep.
The heat had returned in full force. It was thick and heavy as Lara cut the engine of her aunt's station wagon and stared at the white house in front of her. She'd never been to Marc's house before, but it looked exactly as she'd pictured it—clean, simple, and pretty. After all, Marc and his mother worked hard to preserve their image of normality.
It had been three days since the funeral and Lara still hadn't heard from him. Even though she knew better, part of her had been hoping that he would turn up on her doorstep at some point, saving her from having to make the first move, but of course it hadn't happened. And as more and more time passed, she became certain that it was never going to. It was up to her. Marc had put himself out there for her over and over again, but this time, she was going to have to be the one to take a chance.
With more bravado than she felt, she got out of the car and strode up the front walk. If she paused for even a second, Lara was afraid that she would lose her nerve. Her heart was fluttering in her chest as she pushed the doorbell and heard the chimes echo inside the house. As she waited, she bounced nervously on her heels, planning out what she was going to say. She'd never done anything like this before and she was afraid of making a mistake. In her mind, she saw herself blurting out something tactless and terrible and having Marc slam the door in her face. But she reminded herself that Marc wasn't her. If she said the wrong thing, he wouldn't shut down. He might be upset about what happened the last time she'd seen him, but he would still be himself and he was inherently good at these kinds of conversations.
But the second the door opened, Lara knew that she was wrong. Marc looked awful. There were dark smudges under his eyes and he was squinting at her in a way that made her wonder how long it had been since he'd last seen sunlight. Judging from the paleness of his skin, it seemed like, aside from the funeral, he hadn't left his house in the past week and a half. He was normally an active, outdoorsy kind of person, so his sudden transformation into a hermit meant that he was in worse shape than she'd ever imagined.
Marc stepped out onto the porch slowly, as if it took colossal effort, and pulled the front door shut behind him. Then he leaned back against it, seeming exhausted. "Hey," he said.
Lara cleared her throat and tried not to look so appalled. "Hey. How're you doing?"
He shrugged. "Okay. How about you?"
"I'm hanging in." Then she paused uncomfortably, unsure of how to say what needed to be said next. The speech she planned in her head had been shot to hell with one look at Marc, so now she had to improvise. "He's gone," she sputtered. "Kabran, I mean. I ended it that night."
If Marc was surprised or pleased or impressed, he gave no sign. His expression was a veritable void. "I figured. You look better."
It wasn't a compliment, she knew. He was referring to the bruises that had faded and the cuts that had healed—on the outside, at least. She realized that he hadn't seen her unmarred since the day they'd met. It seemed like a long time ago. "Thanks," she replied. "You look like hell."
"Yeah, well..." he trailed off with another shrug, except this time it was only one-shouldered, as if he didn't have the energy to lift both of them.
Lara shifted her weight. This was not going well. "So where have you been all week?"
She would have felt better if he'd said the word sarcastically because it would have hinted at some spark of life inside of him. Instead his reply was as cold and dispassionate as everything else he'd said so far. "Why haven't you come by?" she asked him.
"I don't know. I just thought that it would be better if I didn't."
"For me or for you?"
Glancing down at the porch, Lara bit her bottom lip. His brusqueness was excruciatingly familiar—it was the way she had spoken to people up until a few weeks ago. Now that she was on the receiving end of it, she understood how difficult it must have been for them. But Marc hadn't given up on her. He'd taken her attitude in stride and kept trying until he'd broken through her walls, and she was going to do the same thing for him now, whether he liked it or not.
"I saw you at the funeral," she said, trying another angle.
"Yeah. I decided at the last minute that I couldn't not go. Tim was—"
"Like a father to you," Lara interjected.
Marc turned his head away, but not before she caught the way his face crumpled in pain. Finally, she'd found proof of life. "Don't," he said hoarsely.
"Don't what?" she pressed.
"It was a nice attempt at a subtle transition, but I'm not falling for it."
"Marc, we have to—"
"No." He looked back at her, his eyes focusing on her face. His mask of coldness was gone, revealing a torrent of anger that he was barely keeping in check. "I don't want to talk about this," he said forcefully.
"I don't care," she replied with quiet heat. "Do you think I wanted to talk about my parents or about Kabran all those times you pushed me to?"
"This is different."
"Why? Because it's you?"
"No," he said, doing a bad imitation of his indifferent tone. It seemed like he was struggling to get control of himself again. "It's just—I hit you, Lara, and then I left you. What's there to talk about?"
She reached out to grab his shoulders, wanting desperately to shake him. "Stop being stupid," she snapped. "Stop acting like me. Let's just get this over with right now. I don't blame you for hitting me."
"Of course you don't. You probably liked it, right?"
She flinched. Oh, that stung. But it was intended to, she realized, and that meant that she was starting to get a rise out of him. There was no backing down now. "Don't try to twist this argument into something it's not. This has nothing to do with my issues. There is not a person in the world that would blame you for what you did. You were dying and you hit me to save your life. It was justified."
"Oh, it was justified, all right," he said bitterly. "I'm pretty damn good at saving myself, aren't I?"
Lara shook her head slightly in confusion. There was something in his voice that she didn't understand. "What happened with us, it wasn't the same as what your father did. Not even close. It doesn't mean that you're anything like him."
"No," he snapped. Then he shoved her hands off of him, his green eyes aflame and his complexion flushed. "It means that I'm exactly like me."
"What are you talking about?"
"For years I stood by and watched him beat my mother. For years I would close my eyes or run out of the room—anything to get away from there. I was too fucking scared of being hit to try to stop him. He tore my mother apart and I let him do it. And after he left, I was too busy being angry to notice how close she was to the edge. She nearly died because of that."
"I don't—" Lara started. But Marc wouldn't let her speak. "And then you come along and I swear to myself that this time will be different. This time I wouldn't give a damn about myself; I would do whatever it took to save you. But I couldn't stop Kabran from hurting you. Hell, I even let him use me to do it. And then I was so freaked out over hitting you that I left you alone with him. He could have done anything to you, but I didn't care. Selfish bastard that I am, I still ran."
Lara didn't try to say anything when he broke off this time. She just waited while he caught his breath. The blood drained from his face, leaving him looking as pale and tired as he had when he first opened the door. "I'm just...I'm no good to you. To anyone," he finished wearily.
Christ. So this had nothing to do with him hitting her after all—that was almost incidental. He couldn't forgive himself for what he'd done afterwards, and for not being able to save her in the first place. No wonder he'd acted so strangely after Kabran had attacked her at the hospital. In his mind, he'd actually tried to help for once, and it hadn't done any good. But even after that, he'd stayed with her. He'd forced himself to get past that failure only to fail once more. In the end, that night had confirmed every fear he had about himself and his own impotence.
"Would you listen to yourself?" Lara said softly. She wanted to touch him again, but she knew that it might push him further away. Instead, she resigned herself to staring into his eyes, as if she could make him believe her by the sheer force of her will. "You can't control other people and you aren't responsible for their actions. You were just a kid when your father abused your mother. What do you think you should have done? Throw yourself between them and take the hits for her? Do you think that would have made things better for her?"
He didn't answer and for a moment, she was afraid that he wasn't even listening to her. But he finally whispered, "Maybe."
"Marc, it wasn't your job to stop your father or to save your mother. It was his job to know better than to hit her in the first place. It was her job to know when to walk out on him. It was her job to keep herself safe, and to keep you safe too. And when she was depressed, it was her responsibility to know when to get help. They were the adults and they were responsible for you, not the other way around.
"And as for me, I'm responsible for my own self too. Getting rid of Kabran was up to me—I knew that from the beginning. And it may not have been your intention, but by leaving that night, you took away the last weapon he had against me. I wouldn't have been able to do what I did if you'd been there."
"Good to know I could help," he said sullenly. But he was blinking his eyes rapidly, as if he were trying to force away tears.
Lara couldn't hold back any longer. Holding her breath, she gently cupped his cheek, praying that he wouldn't jerk away. "You did help me, Marc," she insisted. "You weren't physically there, but everything you said to me was in my heart. You made me believe that I could be strong, that life was worth living. I probably wouldn't be alive right now if it weren't for you. So please, just accept the fact that you're not responsible for everyone. Accept the fact that you did the best you could. You're not omnipotent and you're not supposed to be, so just...get over yourself, okay?"
Marc stared at her for a moment and let out a slow, silent breath. He reached up and placed his hand on top of hers on his cheek. "You've gotten good at this," he said quietly.
Lara smiled at him. "I had a good teacher."
He nodded. "That doesn't mean that I believe any of it."
No, it would never be that simple. Lara's long nights were a testament to the fact that change wasn't easy. The old thoughts don't magically disappear. The new ones have to conquer them day-by-day, battle-by-battle. "I know," she replied. "But you don't have to yet. It'll take time. Until then..."
"Leap of faith?" he asked. There was a sparkle in his eyes when he said that, and in that moment, Lara knew that they would be okay in the end. They each had a long road, but she was suddenly sure that they would make it.
"Yeah," she replied with a tentative smile.
"Do, uh...do you still want to leap with me?"
Lara grinned. "Funny you should mention that," she said as she reached into her purse. She pulled out the DVD that she had found in her aunt's collection and handed it to him.
Marc gave her a curious look. "The Shawshank Redemption?"
"Well, it occurred to me that we haven't had a real date yet. So I thought maybe I could sucker you into one with this. You said it was your favorite movie."
He nodded, staring at the cover of the DVD. "Well, it's a good thing you brought it because it would have been a hard sell otherwise."
"Really?" she said skeptically.
"No," he replied with a smile. "I can't back that up."
"You're still very strange, do you know that?"
"Sure. But I'm a strange guy with killer biceps, knowledge of home improvement, and great taste in movies."
Lara laughed. "A triple threat."
"You know it." Then his expression grew serious again. "This is a good thing we have, isn't it?" he said thoughtfully.
"Yeah. I think it is."
Marc reached for her, gently pulling her closer. Then lifting her chin up, he bent his head. But when his lips were a mere inch from hers, he hesitated. "Fair warning," he murmured playfully.
"Oh, you're asking for it," Lara whispered. Then she stood up on her toes and pressed her lips to his. As his arms tightened around her, she relaxed against him. They were finally together—truly alone for the first time—and she felt completely safe even as her head swam and her knees weakened. She knew that Marc would never let her fall, just as she would never let him either. And she wondered again how she could have gotten it so wrong with Kabran. This was peace. This was life. This was love.
She didn't say it, even after Marc pulled back and led her into the house. There would be time for that. For now she simply reveled in the realization as the future stretched out before her, unknowable and still a little frightening, but suddenly full of hope.
I would like to thank everyone who has read this story. It's been a long journey for me, writing it, and I hope that you enjoyed it.
Also, I would like to thank those who reviewed the last part. I know I said that this would just be an epilogue, but when I started writing it, I realized that there was still a lot to be done. So it turned out to be a full-blown chapter. I hope this ending was good!
rhithedwarf: Thanks for reviewing. Heh, there are no crummy reviews. I like knowing that people are reading.
Celebros: I hope this was good enough closure between Marc and Lara. :)
DarklightShadow: Okay, this wasn't quite the happily-ever-after ending, but it's probably as light-hearted as this story could be without getting toooooo cheesy (I hope). But anyways, I'm going to go back to focus on the fanfic now. Lots of delicious angst and to write. Hehehe.