Everything's white, and it's painful to open his eyes, but he tries. He doesn't know where he is or how long he's been there; the last thing he can remember with any certainty is a dry desert road, the vehicle in front of him kicking up sand and dust as they travel slowly down it, snippets of conversation, equal parts pleasantries and an unnameable tension. There are other flashes in his mind, sights, sounds and even smells that would have been terrifying to him had he the sense that they had actually happened to him, but as detached as he feels from these sights, he knows they are his memories and not just some dream. Rather, nightmare.
At the thought of this, at the thought that the memories might be in the all-too-recent past, he tries not to panic and fights the urge to keep his eyes closed, to stay in the comfort of the darkness and the bliss of ignorance. He cannot stay in the dark forever, though, and is rewarded when the edges come into focus and the brightness dims to a point where it doesn't seem quite so harsh. He is in a hospital room, sterile and white. He turns his head a little. He realises he is not alone; a figure sits in a chair by the window, reading a book.
He opens his mouth to speak but nothing comes out except a rasp of air. This sound, his movement, does catch the attention of the person there, and from the sound of the voice that emerges he knows it is his mother. Relief washes over him. Whatever had happened, he is safe now.
She comes nearer and only then does he see how haggard and pale she looks, her face drawn, dark circles smudging her eyes. Tears are rolling down her cheeks but she is smiling; she sits beside him gingerly and he feels her take his hand in hers. Her skin seems surprisingly papery.
"Oh, Mark," she says, her voice thick with emotion. He can't recall ever hearing her sob like she is now. "I have never been so happy to see those brown eyes of yours."
"Where am I?" he asks in a voice barely recognisable as his own.
"In hospital. In London. You're home now."
He is not sure what's happened between where he was and where he is now. All he can remember with clarity is what occurred before.
Things had been going so well from the end of December, when he'd started seeing her, through February; the ski weekend at the end of that month, though, intended to be a little mini-holiday, ended up being a complete disaster. He wouldn't have thought things with her could have turned so sour so quickly, but they had. With the wisdom of hindsight he believes it was the nature of their discussion—no, their fight—that had made the difference; the serious subject of babies and childrearing and the unknown future thrust upon them in that three minutes when they thought she might be pregnant, when up until that point their relationship had been something new, something fun: happiness and sex, spontaneity and excitement. They had confessed their love previously, and he believed it had been sincere for both of them, but they had made the mistake of not speaking of anything quite so permanent before, and in doing so under such pressured circumstances, they had not handled it well. On top of all of this she had also questioned his faithfulness to her, charged him with infidelity with another woman, an associate from work named Rebecca. He had been so incredulous at the very accusation that in reacting as he did—a refusal to answer the charge—he realises in retrospect that he had probably sealed her fears.
And so they had split. He had not known how to fix things, and he was not used to not knowing how to fix things, so he'd done nothing at all. It made him feel weak, and he hated feeling weak.
It was in April, oddly centring around something again baby-related, that he saw her next. She was to be godmother to the same child to whom he was to be godfather. He thought it would be a good opportunity to try to approach her, to talk to her about what had happened, in the hopes that time and distance had healed over the hurt and they could try to begin anew.
He'd discovered rather bluntly that she had already moved on, though, had gone back to a man who had proven himself time and again to be nothing but trouble, to be nothing but a source of pain and anguish: Daniel Cleaver, who had betrayed each of them in turn, yet was in her eyes somehow a better choice than Mark.
He had known then it was truly over, that he had to get away from London, from his supposedly happy life there and from everything that had hurt him. He'd actively searched out work that would take him out of the UK. In very short order he found then volunteered for a humanitarian mission in Ethiopia with a group of like-minded individuals, mostly other professionals searching to fill a void and needing to serve others. His mother begged him not to go but he did anyway. He realises now that he'd wanted to punish himself, to intentionally put himself into a risky situation, even if he hadn't fully realised it at the time.
It was after touching down in that desert nation that their caravan of old, battered vehicles crawling down the sun-baked road towards Dire Dawa (amidst nervous joking about it being too quiet for comfort) was caught by surprise, ambushed in broad daylight for reasons unknown to him. His memory after this point is spotty, but he does remember that they were some kind of outlaws, that he was barely able to communicate with them due to their nonexistent English skills; that he was told the others in his group were killed and that if he did not comply he would be killed as well. He believes they may have drugged him to keep him compliant; he remembers them holding him down to shear off his hair on more than one occasion. He was kept in a small room with one open but barred window that was barely enough to shield him from the heat of the day and the extreme chill of the night, shackled by the ankle to a bed bolted to the floor. He would stretch his bonds to the limit to press his face into the sun whenever he could, though his vantage point, what he could see through the window, told him it was a long way to the ground, that they were miles from nowhere. He was too parched to cry for help, and to do so would have likely meant death anyway.
Days blur together in this state of oblivion; he recalls only short walks at gunpoint after the sun sets as his only exercise, and even then he marvels at how fast the moon phases seem to change when there is any moon at all. What he is able to remember, he does so with a palpable numbness.
Then something changed. Gunfire in the vicinity, footsteps on the stairs then his door bursting open. A man he had not seen before. Shackles released. Then blackness.
It is his name being gently called that brings him back to the present. He looks to his mother again, then to their clasped hands. He notices then he is being fed intravenously. She smiles again, but it is pained. He wonders how bad he must look.
"How long?" he asks.
"You've been back about two days," she answers.
"No," he says almost soundlessly, then wets his lips with his tongue. He'd murder for a pint right now, he thinks somewhat whimsically.
She reaches for a glass of water, raises it to his lips as he lifts his head, and he drinks so quickly he starts to cough a little. "Sorry," she says, putting it back.
He shakes his head. "No," he says, meaning she shouldn't apologise. He clears his throat. "How long was I gone?"
He wonders if he spoke the words at all or only thought he did, because she doesn't reply, only looks at him unblinkingly for the longest time. "Oh, Mark," she says. "It's nearly November. You were gone almost six months."
He can hardly believe his ears. "Six… months?" he asks quietly, disbelievingly. He'd missed his own birthday.
She nods. "There's someone who wants to see you."
"Father?" He is expecting it to be no one else.
She smiles, even chuckles a little through her tears, taking his hand and squeezing it again. "Yes, he will want to as well," she explains, "when he's back with our coffees… but no, I mean someone else."
His mental facilities aren't as sharp as they ordinarily would have been; he can't bring to mind to whom she can be referring. She sobs audibly to see him struggle like this.
"When you're ready," she adds, a tremor in her tone. "I'm not sure you're ready quite yet to be seen."
He must look pretty bad. "Who?"
It's his father, overjoyed to see Mark conscious. He sets the coffees down, tears in his eyes. He sits on the other side of the bed, and, as if Mark is a child, bends and kisses his forehead. He doesn't recall his father having ever done that, even when he was a child.
Mark's already forgotten someone wants to see him.
His appetite returns, but, he thinks impatiently, not fast enough. He's sick soon enough of gelatine and beef broth. He insists on eating his first solid meal (macaroni and cheese) the next day, but he eats it too quickly and ends up vomiting it into a trash bin. He cries tears of frustration; he is angry at himself for not being stronger. He hates everything about this situation. He wants a nice glass of wine, a steak dinner, dessert.
By his third conscious day in hospital he's able to stand without feeling vertiginous, and he gets up on his own from the bed, pulling the IV stand along with him. He wonders if it's because he's been given proper nutrition, if the drugs he'd been given have finally cleared his system, or both. He has never been so glad to use a toilet to piss.
It's only then, in the bathroom of his hospital room, that he sees what he looks like. He is startled and horrified at what the mirror reveals: hollow cheeks, dark circles ringing his eyes; he's clearly lost a good amount of weight and muscle mass. His hair is cropped fairly close to his head, bearing out the memory of it being shorn to the scalp and only now growing back in. With the slightly darker pigmentation around his eyes and nose, and an obvious pattern of lighter skin on his lower cheeks and chin, it is clear that he had developed a fuller beard while he was captive and that someone had taken care to shave off since his return. If he had to guess who'd done it, it would have been his mother. Since he now has a couple days' worth of growth again, he would also guess it was upon his return.
It makes him furious to think about what's been taken from him: his freedom, his health, his vigour. Six months of his life. These are things he wants back, and impatiently so. He hates feeling so fragile and feeble… particularly he hates feeling so feeble-minded. There is a small part of him, however, that can blame no one but himself for his present situation. He had sought out and taken the job of his own free will.
It is then he remembers someone else wanted to see him.
His mother and father visit every day, and they show up right on schedule that afternoon. He had asked about the drive from Grafton Underwood to London, but his father had told him they had taken residence in his house while he's been in the hospital.
"We didn't think you'd mind," his mother had said; indeed, he does not.
Today they tell him they have been arranging for care in his home when he's released from hospital, which is targeted for sooner rather than later. He protests what feels like an excess, but he knows its futile. He can barely make it to the loo without feeling exhausted, and his parents, while they love him, could not be expected to nurse him day and night at their age.
"So who was it that wanted to see me?" he asks.
His parents share a look and tell him.
He furrows his brows. "Why would Bridget want to see me?"
"Why wouldn't she?" his mother says. "Even if you aren't… together, she still cares about you very much."
His father Malcolm leans towards his wife and asks in a low tone, "Elaine, do you think it's wise?"
Mark thinks it's because his dad feels she wouldn't want to see him like this.
Elaine nods. "I think it's just what he needs." Mark knows she's always been optimistic about their reuniting, far more optimistic than he had ever allowed himself to be.
He is not sure he wants to see her, not when she's with Daniel, but in the end he decides he needs to. After all, he still loves her, and he's pretty sure it's thoughts of her that got him through his darkest hours. He nods his consent.
Elaine agrees to bring her the next day, and when she does, he realises his father was right to be concerned, but not for the reasons Mark ascribed.
When they appear at the door together, it's almost like Bridget doesn't want to emerge from behind the protective barrier of his mother. There's a moment she can't disguise her shock when she sees him, and reflexively her hand goes to her mouth.
Whatever unhappy and troubled times they had been through together meant nothing compared to seeing her now; he knows in that very moment his love for her has not diminished. He's too frail, emotionally and physically, to hold back a smile. The head of the hospital bed has been elevated, so he has no trouble seeing tears spill down onto her cheeks… but like his mother had before her, she's smiling too. Despite her worry, she looks beautiful and radiant, and clearly elated to see him.
She looks to Elaine. "Is it all right if I go in?"
"Yes, but we haven't told him yet," Elaine says. He supposes she hadn't intended him to hear what sounds awfully mysterious and foreboding to his ears. "You're okay?" she asks not of him but of Bridget, which is also strange to hear.
"I'm fine." She looks to him again, her blue eyes sparkling with more tears. "Can I come in?"
As if he could refuse. He reasons she wouldn't be so insistent if she didn't still maybe love him a little. "Of course." It's not until that moment that he realises how raw, how gravelly his voice must sound to her, because more tears are shed as she hears him speak.
As she moves past his mother, it becomes clear in an instant what it was they hadn't told him yet. His face must have done something very weird—drain of colour, fall slack in his own surprise—because she stops before she reaches him.
Gently she's talking, asking how he is, if he's feeling all right, but he doesn't hear. He can't; his shock is too great to see her stomach obviously rounded with child. In an instant he's angry; he doesn't want her there out of pity, and pity must be all it is, because she's pregnant, and the only logical conclusion to draw is that it's Daniel's child. After all, Mark hadn't had sex with her since the negative result on the pregnancy test that rueful ski weekend; her stomach is not so large to suggest birth was imminent. She's clearly over me, he thinks, clearly doesn't love me anymore. He's envious too, because he really would have loved having a child with her, whereas Daniel… well, it wouldn't have surprised him to learn Daniel had half a dozen progeny floating around that he didn't even care to acknowledge.
"I think I should go," Bridget says tearfully, backing away.
"I'm sorry," he hears his mother say. "I thought he'd be able to handle it."
The next thing he knows they're both gone, and he can't hold in his own tears. He turns over to lay on his side, mindful of the needle delivering nutrients into his arm, and lets those tears streak freely down his face.
Some time later—how long, he is not sure, as his sense of the passage of time is still somewhat skewed—he feels the rough skin of his mother's hand on his upper arm. She's obviously returned alone. He doesn't turn to face her.
"Mother," he says in a rather strained, pained voice. "I don't want to talk about this, not at all."
She says nothing, simply strokes his arm, then smoothes what's left of his hair down with the pads of her fingers. They then move to dry his tears. He does not resist. She speaks at long last, breaking the silence. "I don't like seeing you like this and not be able to help." He thinks maybe she wants him to open up to her, but when he doesn't, she continues. "When you do want to talk, you know that I'm here…"
"…but you really should talk to her."
The very thought is too painful. "I don't know if I can see her again. It's just too much."
"Surely in a few—"
"No," he says, as firm as he's able. He's resigned that if this is the choice she has made, if this is what makes her happy, he would have to accept it. He thinks it is probably best to stay away from her to not prolong his own agony, and to let her carry forward with her new life. He's only a part of her past now. "Not in a few days, not in a few weeks. Not again."
He imagines she is pursing her lips. "You'll feel differently when you've had a chance to absorb the shock," she says tautly. "I know you will."
They do not, however, speak of it again.
A few days after Bridget's visit, when he can prove he can hold down a solid meal, can climb a flight of stairs without getting dizzy, he is released. His mother and father have hired him a live-in nurse, and she is already in his home when he arrives. In her very first day she proves she can care for him with great attention and skill, bringing him meals, checking his vitals, parsing out multivitamins and medications alike. She takes him for a walk around the house, down to the kitchen, then back up to his room, encourages him to eat live-culture yoghurt to rebuild his flora and fauna. She is dedicated to his health and very good at what she does, but he cannot help thinking how much he would have preferred a girlfriend, a wife, to be caring for him instead.
Thinking negatively will only hinder his recovery, though, and his goal is to be back in the office within the month. He agrees to trauma counselling not because he feels he needs it, but it's a means to an end. He wanders down to his home office, fires up the computer, and places an order for a treadmill and some hand weights to build muscle mass. These things can only help between the scheduled physical therapy sessions, and he hears it's chilly and raining more often than not lately, so walking outside is not really an option for him.
In the quiet of his room during the night that first night home in his own bed, his mind returns to his mother's mentioning, only briefly, that Bridget had gone into labour and had prematurely had the baby. He's worried for the baby's health for being born so soon; he's also worried for the well-being of this innocent child borne of such a father. He should consider his own feelings, but out of deference to her and not wanting to add to her stress, he suppresses them and does not contact her.
When her birthday comes and goes he still does not reach out to her, though he thinks of her, of that birthday dinner a year prior, with a mixture of fondness and regret.
Two weeks pass since his release from hospital. It's mid-November; he is feeling much healthier but isn't sure he'll make his goal of returning to work in a month, though God knows he wants to just for something to do. He can walk at a brisk pace for ten minutes at a stretch now on the treadmill. It's a far cry from the jogging he used to do, but he takes whatever progress he can get.
He indulges in a few more sweets and treats than usual—the housekeeper, back on schedule, is amused when he asks her to buy these things—and slowly but surely he can see his face filling out a little, becoming more like it was. As he eats from the Ben & Jerry's pint, he thinks unexpectedly (but not unsurprisingly) of Bridget; they had shared more than one over a film on the telly.
The nurse only comes during the day every other day now, and he doesn't expect he'll need to keep her on past the end of the week. He's just had his supper—a hearty beef stew his mother had made in bulk and had frozen for him before heading back to their own home—and sighs in satisfaction at this near-return to normalcy.
Just as he gets to the top of the stairs from the subterranean kitchen to the main floor, there is a knock at the front door. He can't fathom who'd be coming to visit at this time of the night during the week, then reminds himself it's not yet seven in the evening. As he crosses the foyer to answer it, the knocking begins anew with some agitation and insistence. "Coming," he calls. Surely whomever it is must know he's moving a little more slowly these days.
He swings the door open and is floored by who is standing there.
His former friend's look of indignation and anger quickly dissipates when he lays eyes on Mark. "Christ," he says. "You look like hell."
Mark doesn't need this right now, and moves to shut the door. He cannot imagine what business Daniel would have with him, doesn't want to know, doesn't want to see him, anyway.
"Wait," says Daniel, stopping the door with his hand.
"Are you here to gloat?" he offers quietly.
"What? No. I was here to punch your lights out but now that I've seen you… Jesus. I don't have the heart."
"Go away," he says.
"I won't," Daniel returns, barrelling past him and into the house. "I came here because stepping back from death's door or not, you're being a complete and utter fucking bastard."
Coming from Daniel, this is a surprise. "Excuse me?"
"What the fuck is wrong with you? You can't bloody well avoid them forever."
Them? Mark realises he must mean Bridget and the baby, and snorts dismissively. "She doesn't need me."
"What are you talking about? Why wouldn't she need you?"
He's beginning to wonder if this isn't all some kind of post-traumatic-stress-induced hallucination. "Because she has you—"
"Mark." It's as loud and abrupt as a pistol shot, and stops him in midsentence. "Are you completely mad?"
With the way Daniel's regarding him, Mark's not sure if he's speaking in hyperbole… or might actually have been right. "What do you care if she sees me again? I would've thought you'd be glad to be rid of me. In case you hadn't noticed, she's had your child."
Daniel's staring even more intensely at him, as if he is genuinely worried. "Mark," he says again, quietly, patiently, calming himself, or perhaps he is hoping to calm the lunatic before him. "I'm sorry for shouting. I know you don't like shouting."
He looks down; the wind's gone from his sails at this unexpected nostalgic chord struck at the oblique reference to their own shared past. "It's all right." He sighs heavily. "Would you please get to the point? I was having a nice evening before you came along."
"Mark," Daniel says a third time; it's beginning to feel a touch condescending. "I didn't know. I don't think any of us knew, I mean, that you didn't know, that you thought… what you thought. Christ. A terrible, terrible misunderstanding."
He pinches the corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "You're not making any sense."
Daniel's voice is a velvet-covered hammer when it comes down on him: "That child is yours."
Mark's hand drops, and he stares at Daniel. When he sees his face he knows Daniel's nothing but stone cold serious.
"How can the baby be mine?" His voice is but a whisper. He's trying to work it all out. The pregnancy test was negative on the ski weekend, they hadn't made love again, and—"She didn't look more than a few months along."
"She was nearly to term when she went to see you," Daniel said. "She just didn't put on a lot of weight, you know—stress and all."
His head's spinning. He closes his eyes, willing the vertigo to stop.
"She isn't with me," Daniel continues. "When it came to light that you…" He pauses, struggling for the right wording. "…were taken, she was so distraught she landed in hospital from the worry—collapsed or something. She phoned your mother every day for an update. They apparently would talk for hours. When I heard the news, I reached out to her as nothing but a friend. God knows I'd tried to win her back after you'd split… but she wouldn't have me. Then you went missing. Then she learned she was pregnant."
He realises exactly how it must have seemed, that he had been shunning not only her but his own baby. What kind of arse—no, monster—must he have seemed? Daniel's appearance on his doorstep that evening, what he'd set out to do, spoke volumes on that front.
"Your parents, me… we all set aside the past, all sort of pulled together for her sake."
At one time the thought of Daniel comforting her in her hour of need might have incensed him, but surprisingly it does not, especially given how earnest Daniel seems now. Perhaps it was that he knew she had not chosen Daniel over him; more likely it was that his perspective had been radically altered after what had happened to him in Africa. Compared to the evils to which he had been subjected, a personal betrayal by a friend with a woman he doubted he'd ever really loved didn't remotely compare.
Daniel went on. "I'm really sorry, mate. I thought you knew. I should have known you didn't. I mean, you not stepping up… not even something as traumatic as… well, I should have known it wouldn't have changed you so much that you wouldn't want to see your own child." He lets out a long breath. "Well, I'm really glad now I didn't knock you out."
Mark comes out of his fugue. "Oh my God," he says at last. His distress must be unmistakeable. "I need to go there. Now." Except he hasn't really been cleared to drive just yet. He looks Daniel in the eye. "Will you take me?"
Daniel stares incredulously for a moment. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure she's at home."
Even though it is not terribly long, the drive with Daniel is a bit on the awkward side. They don't really speak; Mark is not sure what to say, anyway. Daniel's car sidles up to the kerb. Mark feels he needs to say something.
"Thank you," Mark says abruptly. "For the ride, yes, but for… well, for being there for her."
Daniel nods. "It was the least I could do." He looks, sounds, unexpectedly serious. "Despite everything, Darcy, I do care about her… and believe it or not, I still care about you, you big nerd." His defences slide back into place, evident when he adds with his usual deflective humour, "But if you repeat it, I'll deny it and sue you for libel."
"Slander," Mark corrects, and smiles a bit. He's certainly not ready to welcome Daniel back with open arms, but his old mate is making an effort to redeem himself for past sins, and that counts for something, he thinks.
He steps out of the vehicle to find the building's door is open, and never has he been happier to see it thus. Slowly he climbs the stairs, and when he gets to the top he pauses to rest and catch his breath before rapping on the door. Bridget pulls it open. She looks completely wrecked, utterly surprised, and he can't decide if she's happy to see him or reining in the urge to slam the door in his face.
"Well," she says at last. He is no closer to determining her temperament. "I see Daniel must have found you, though it doesn't looks like things came to blows."
Without anything further she invites him in, probably for no other reason than he looks like he's going to faint from the effort of getting up to the flat, and she must figure it's better that he come in under his own power. As he steps into the flat, he freezes for a moment; through the doorway he sees the carrier sitting incongruously on the dining room table next to a half-empty glass of milk and a plate, and in the carrier, tiny and pink and swaddled in a white cotton blanket, is the baby. Snapping out of it, he walks forward with a measured stride reminiscent of his days of full health, transfixed by the child. He realises he does not even know if the baby is a boy or a girl.
Unbidden, unwelcome, tears fill his eyes at the sight of the miracle before him. He feels her hand touch to his back. "Meet your son," she says quietly. If she'd been angry, it's melted away.
"I didn't know," he blurts, wetness sliding down his face. He doesn't have the reserve to hold it in. "I… didn't think it—he—could possibly be mine." He turns to look at her; tears are brimming in her own eyes. "How can he be mine?"
She sputters a laugh. At least he knows they're happy tears.
"When I first heard you'd gone missing," she begins, "I became such a nervous wreck that I actually landed myself in hospital."
"I heard. I'm very sorry."
"Thanks, though it was nothing compared to what you went through," she says tenderly. "Was supposed to be co-presenter on a travel show, Daniel's travel show, was arranging to fly to Thailand to do it…." He is very grateful she did not go abroad, particularly not with Daniel, particularly after what he'd said about trying to win her back. And especially not while she was pregnant. "It was in hospital that they drew blood, and while I rested they ran a bunch of tests before they came back to me to give me the news. I told the doctor it couldn't be possible. The doctor asked me why I thought that when their tests are rarely if ever wrong."
"What did you tell them?"
"Well." She looks downward. "I told them about the negative test, and the fact that I had, or thought I'd had… a light period since then," she finishes sheepishly. "Honestly, I thought I'd just gotten a little pudgy around the middle after, um, we split." He thinks back to when he'd seen her at the Christening; she had looked really beautiful, but doesn't recall anything resembling a pregnant stomach. "The doctor was determined to prove me wrong, though. They gave me a sonogram. I just about fell down in shock, so to speak, when I saw it wiggling 'round on the screen." He feels sad to have missed it. "Based on size and development, they thought the baby was about twelve weeks along. Conceived in February. Doctor suggested that when I did the test that weekend… the hormone levels were just too low to be detected. It was a false negative."
February. His mind travels back to February, to—
"Bridget," he says, a realisation dawning over him, "you do remember Valentine's Day, don't you?"
She looks confused, lost even. "Of course I—" At that moment he knows she does remember, what had happened—rather, what had failed to happen—on that lusty night. "Oh my God. I had completely forgotten about…" She drifts off, turning a little pink. "…that."
"I was a bit eager and not thinking straight," he admits.
"We were both more than a bit eager, Mark," she says. "It was our first Valentine's."
He smiles again, remembering as such. His eyes return to the baby; he's sleeping peacefully, tuft of dark hair on the top of his head, round little cheeks, perfect cupid's bow lips, and a slight dimple in his chin.
"It's a certain kind of symmetry, that's for sure," she says. "I find out I'm pregnant when you go missing. I go into labour when you come back."
He wonders if it is the shock of his rejection that triggered her labour. "I'm sorry," he says.
"Don't apologise," she says. "Maybe he was just eager to meet you, and he was only two weeks early." After a pause, she adds, "Definitely takes after you." He sees her grin. "He's just eaten and gone to sleep, but you can hold him if you like."
"No," he says quickly. "Don't wake him." He brings his arm up and around her shoulders, pulling her close. He wants instead to hold her. "I don't even know his name."
He hears her chuckle lightly as she mutters an apology. Her hand slides up to return the embrace, to grasp his upper arm and lean into him. "It's Aaron, for 'mountain of strength', which is what he was to me."
Aaron. He had thought another 'Mark' might have been in the stars, but he thought of his father's words when he'd been asked about not naming his only son after himself: Malcolm thought it was unfair to start a son out in life, from the moment of his birth, already in his father's shadow. He smiles; his father was a wise man. "I like it."
"Oh, thank God," she says in a sigh. "It's already on the birth certificate."
He laughs, and she does too.
Then she adds, "Aaron Mark." She pauses. "I wasn't sure about… just calling him 'Mark'. It would have been hard, you know, if… if you weren't around."
He isn't sure if she means she'd settled on the name before he'd turned up alive and well, then only stuck with her choice when she thought he wanted nothing to do with them. He tightens his grip momentarily, regretful he'd ever led her to believe that, even inadvertently.
They stand there for many minutes doing nothing but gazing down at him, their embrace as comfortable as any they'd ever had.
"I'm sorry," she says out of the blue. "For that hateful, hurtful night. I said so many things I shouldn't have, jumped to so many foolish conclusions. You didn't deserve it… but you know, I didn't deserve to be shut out for asking what I asked."
The question about Rebecca. It all seemed a lifetime ago. "You're right, of course," he says. "I should have just set the record straight, said, 'Absolutely not'… and certainly should not have gotten all defensive… and jumped to the conclusions I did."
She evidently follows his train of thought, because she says, "Daniel's actually been a very good friend to me while you were gone. He was very concerned for me. And for you, I think."
He doesn't say anything. She does, though.
"You didn't go all tense there," she says softly. He knows she means at the mention of Daniel's name.
He agrees: "I guess I didn't." He turns, looks down at her. He can't begin to guess how she really feels about him, aside from being glad he's back and acknowledging his child. Just because she isn't with Daniel doesn't mean she wants him back, so he's got to give her an exit if she needs one. He can't bear the thought of her taking him back out of pity. "You know I'll always love you and be there for you and for Aaron, even if—" He pauses. "Even if you don't… well. Love me that way anymore."
She can't hide the momentarily horrified expression that passes over her face; clearly she's trying to think of how to respond, but he can't tell quite yet if he's hit the nail on the head or is completely off-base.
In the end, she chooses actions over words; with something of a strangled sob, then throws her arms around him and pulls him into a tight hug before getting up onto her toes to kiss him. "Jesus. Don't love you that way anymore," she says in a disbelieving, emotional voice, taking his face in her hands. "Mark, of course I still love you. I have never stopped."
It is what he has wanted to hear but did not dare get his hopes up for. He brings his arms around her and kisses her deeply, as if he has only just found the oasis amidst miles and miles of desolation, devastation and despair.
"Christ, Mark," she says, breaking from the kiss to hold him close. "You're skin and bones."
He laughs lightly. "And this is an improvement. I'm still working on it."
"I wish I could give you some of this baby weight," she says in a light-hearted tone.
"Rubbish," he says. "You're perfect." It's true. Despite looking a bit new-mum weary, she's as lovely as ever, curvy in his arms and up against him.
Turning slightly serious again, she sighs. "So many nights I cried myself to sleep thinking of you. Hoping you were still alive. If I hadn't been pregnant, I probably would drunk my weight in wine and chain-smoked a packet an hour. But I knew I had the baby to think of, and tried so hard to stay positive. I didn't think it was good for him, for Aaron, for me to feel so sad all the time. Daniel was good for that… you know how funny he can be."
"Plus the campaign kept me busy, too."
She draws away from him. "I guess no one told you about that." She then smiles sweetly, pulling him to sit on a kitchen chair while she takes another, holding his hand reassuringly. "When you and your group went missing, after I was out of hospital, I started up a campaign to prod the government into some sort of action. They were really dragging their feet, didn't want to get officially involved with Somali pirates."
"Oh yes," she said, her features animated. "On the run. I could have sworn your mother told me they at least told you that in hospital."
"They might have," he concedes, "but those first few days I was in a bit of a haze. Swiss cheese for brains."
She smiles again. "In any case, Daniel helped, and we worked to get our colleagues and yours to phone as many MPs and other high-up officials as they could. Daniel also used his television show as a platform for awareness, to keep your story in the public eye."
He is truly shocked that no one has said a thing about any of this, not even Jeremy, who he had seen occasionally since getting out of hospital and kept conversation to strictly professional matters. Had they thought it would upset him? Had they thought he would feel too indebted? Of course he did; he does. But then he thinks it's also possible they did tell him and he just doesn't remember.
"Of course, it wasn't just you," she continues, "but the others as well. Their families were worried too, and were even farther away."
With a sense of despondency he thinks of his fellow emissaries, a Canadian and an Australian, with whom he had conversed with on the flight down, in the car ride, and had already begun to like quite well. "That can't have been easy for them to get such tragic news," he says sadly.
She scrutinises Mark's face. "What were you told about what happened to them?"
It's the first inkling that perhaps not everything was as he'd been led to believe. "I was told they were dead."
Bridget smiled. "No. They were recovered, same as you were. They'd been told the same about you as a scare tactic."
The breath rushes out of him in a moment. "They're alive."
"And do you remember what happened to the pirates?"
He does not.
Briefly she purses her lips, then tells him. "They were killed in the siege to rescue you all." She doesn't look at all happy to deliver this news, but that's very like her. She knows that even though they had perpetrated terrible things, they had families too, mothers who loved them, maybe even children of their own. She leans forward in her chair and embraces him again before releasing him in order to look into his eyes. She runs her hand over his hair, which is growing back slowly and steadily with far more greys than he remembers. "I am so glad you're home," she says, tears in her eyes, quivering smile on her lips.
He is home, he realises.
The baby begins to fuss. At once they both get to their feet and turn to him. Aaron's eyes are open now, clear and blue, and Mark is inundated with waves of love for this child, his son. Mark reaches out his hand and touches the baby's forehead as he looks up at this new, tall figure hovering over him.
His voice cracks when he speaks. "Hello, Aaron."
She touches his arm again. "If you want to go sit on the sofa," she says, "you can hold him there."
He realises it's probably a good idea, because while he's progressing in his recovery, he doesn't trust the strength in his arms just yet. He goes and sits.
She approaches him with Aaron in her arms, then gently transfers him to Mark. She then sits up against him, her own arm around him. "He's a very good baby," she says, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "Very quiet, very even-tempered."
Mark smiles, says with some smugness, "He gets that from his father, too."
She chuckles. It's so good to hear.
He strokes his finger along the soft skin of his cheek. "I'm here now," he says quietly, "and I'm not going to leave you again."
He tries not to think of all of the decisions to make, arrangements to take care of… instead, he thinks only of her, of Aaron. His family.
When Aaron falls to sleep again, she takes him from Mark's arms, then beckons him to follow. She has the bassinet set up in her room, and she lays him down in it then unwraps him from the blanket. It's only then he sees the tiny hands, tiny feet of his little boy, and his own hand comes up to his face. He's perfect too, as best as Mark can tell. He doesn't know how he can love any one person so much in so short a time, but he does, unconditionally.
He feels her arm around his waist. He is overwhelmed all of a sudden: by new fatherhood, by love, by peace. He has only now to get stronger. He is more motivated than ever before.
"You look like you might need a bit of a lie down."
He nods. "It's been an exciting night." He looks to her. "In a good way."
He climbs into her bed, slightly rumpled and smelling of her, his eyes closing almost as soon as his head hits the pillow. He sighs. She climbs in beside him, curls up behind him, puts her arm almost protectively over him, and presses kisses into his hair.
It is the best sleep he has had in some time, even if it is not for very long; two-week-old babies need a lot of attention and don't know to sleep through the night. At about eleven o'clock Aaron begins to fuss and cry, which wakes the both of them.
"One of two things," she says wearily. "Either food needs to go in one end or it's come out the other."
He smiles. "Let me know if it's the one I can help with."
She chuckles then goes to the baby. "Oh. Phew. Yeah, it's the latter. You want to learn how to change a nappy?"
He pushes himself up. "No time like the present, I guess."
Nappy changing is unpleasant business, to be sure, but not terribly complex, and she gives him a little round of applause for a job well done as he smoothes down the front of the nappy. "Thank you," he says with a smirk.
She looks down at herself at the trousers and shirt she has on. "Hm. Suppose I should get ready for bed." After a moment, she adds, "I'd like it if you could stay."
He wishes for nothing more than a reunion with her, body and soul, but he knows it's not to be, not that he's unwilling. "I'd love to stay," he says, "but I'm afraid I'm not going to be much more than a warm body next to you."
"And a nappy changer."
He laughs. "Yes, that too."
"I have no complaints about a warm body." She pulls off her clothes and is left standing in a utilitarian nursing bra and plain cotton granny pants, which he knows she's embarrassed to be seen in. "As you can see, I wouldn't be of much use, either. This—" She indicates her midsection. "—just gave birth the old-fashioned way. No sex for me for another month, at least."
He rises and takes off his own clothes but the boxers. "It's all right," he says. "I need time to build up my strength, anyway." He reaches and takes her hand. "There are plenty of things we can do to make up for what we can't."
She smiles tenderly. "We make a fine pair, don't we?" she said, stepping close to him, wrapping her free arm around his waist.
He kisses her. "Yes, darling, we do."
They do not have sex in the traditional sense of the word, but in every other way they make love; they kiss and caress one another—she giggles playfully at the surprise reaction elicited in him, then happily and attentively relieves his suffering—until they fall to sleep in each others' arms.
When he wakes it's still dark, but she's still there beside him, and he knows at that moment he never wants to wake without her again. He wonders about the logistics of moving her and Aaron in with him when he was still recovering, and so was she in her own way. Surely her friends could help pack her personal things; he would be willing to pay whatever it took to do the actual moving.
He raises his head enough to see that it's not unreasonably early, and he sees wee fists pumping up over the edge of the bassinet. He smiles, pushes himself from the bed and goes over to see Aaron. At the appearance of this very big man hovering over his crib, the baby starts to burble with excitement. Mark holds out his hand; Aaron takes his pinkie and holds on tight.
"For having known me less than a day," he says quietly, "you are far too happy to see me." He runs his hand down over front of the terrycloth one-piece. It's damp. "Ah, the real reason you're so pleased. It's time for a new nappy." He figured he could remember well enough what he'd done the night before. He takes off the terrycloth pyjamas, strips off the soaking wet nappy, then gets a fresh one, almost forgetting to wipe him down first, then almost forgetting a puff of powder before sealing things up. When he's finished, he realises he's made a wreck of the immediate area with discarded wet wipes, drifts of powder and the nappy itself, which he is thankful is nothing but wet with urine, particularly as Aaron's fingers are grasping it.
He hears a soft chuckle behind him. Bridget's awake.
"Not bad for your first solo flight," she says, then grabs another wet wipe and cleans off Aaron's hand before disposing of it and the sullied nappy.
"Oh, if that's the worst mess I have to contend with all day, I'll be glad." She strokes Mark's back. "You're a natural. Picking it up quickly. And really, I've only got two weeks more experience than you do." She chuckles. "It'll amuse you to hear that my mum came to stay with me for a week after we came home." He is amused, and surprised. "I resisted, but she was really great. The nurses can show you how to do things, but the reality, alone at home… it was nice to have her support."
He hears a little puckering sound, and he realises that as soon as Aaron has seen his mum, heard her voice, he has involuntarily begun to suck.
"That's my cue," she says. "Make way, Daddy."
He smiles; he loves the way that sounds.
She raises the little guy up and curls him into the crook of her arm as if she's been doing it for ages. Almost immediately he latches on and begins to nurse. She looks up at Mark and smiles a little tiredly. He has never loved her more.
"I usually sit on the rocking chair," she says. He looks and realises it's his family's rocking chair, big and sturdily constructed of dark hardwood, the tell-tale D prominently and ornately inlaid on the headrest in mother-of-pearl. His parents must have brought it to her.
"Come on," he says, taking the blanket from the seat and draping it around his shoulders. He sits on the chair, inviting her to sit with him.
"I'll break your legs like twigs."
He laughs. "Nonsense."
She looks dubious but sits anyway. He enfolds them in his arms, in the blanket, and it is so wonderfully comforting to hold her as the baby continues to nurse, he thinks his heart might just burst from joy.
He doesn't want any secrets from her ever again.
He nuzzles and kisses her on the temple as she leans against him. "I'm an arse," he says quietly.
"You're not," she says, then adds in an amused tone, "at least not anymore."
"I only took that job because of the stupid assumption I'd made about you and Daniel. I was so angry at myself for letting you slip through my fingers I couldn't bear to face it, face the two of you. I had to get far away."
She doesn't reply right away. "I was wondering why," she says at last. "Stupid of me not to talk to you when I knew how it must have seemed."
He knows she must be referring to Daniel's call to her mobile at the Christening, the call he inadvertently answered, the call that was far more provocative than she probably imagined.
"It was a foolish decision, one I rushed too quickly into," he says after a moment of just holding her. "You can rest assured that I will not be making any such decisions in future."
A gurgle and a contented little sound signals the satisfaction of Aaron's appetite. He sees Bridget smooth down his downy hair as he looks up to her with complete adoration. He can hardly blame the boy.
"I have a proposition," he murmurs to her.
"Yes," she says, looking over her shoulder and up at him.
"You don't even know what I was going to ask," he says.
"I can't think of a thing you'd want to ask me that I'd say no to."
"Hm," he says. In that same thoughtful tone, he continues: "That's a dangerous thing to say to a future husband."
"Ha, ha," she says. When he says nothing in response, she adds, "Mark, that is not funny."
"I'm not kidding," he says in all seriousness. "I was only going to ask you to move in with me—"
"I know," she interrupts.
"—but now that you've given me carte blanche… well," he interrupts back, "I might as well aim for the top."
She stops all movement and looks at him. "You'd better ask me properly or I may very well rescind that carte blanche."
"Bridget," he says, reaching around to cup her face, then drops his hand to stroke Aaron's hair. "Will you do me the very great honour of agreeing to be my wife?"
She turns and raises her chin, giving him a long, slow, deliberate kiss. She breaks away when Aaron lets out a loud cry. "Oh, bugger." With Aaron still in her arm, she stands up from Mark's lap, reaches for a nursing cloth, drapes it over her shoulder, swings the baby up and pats his back, all in one semi-graceful manoeuvre. "He needs burping." The baby goes silent until a little belch can be heard.
Mark chuckles. "I hope that means yes."
"Of course it means yes, you sod," she says; only then does she allow the tears to flow.
He's not sure why he feels so flippant. Perhaps he is just giddy and lightheaded after such a reversal of fortune. He says, "Oh, well, I was about to sweeten the deal with a nanny to help with the baby, but if you're sure…"
She laughs. "Shhh, he's gone back to sleep. And so should we."
Sleep isn't exactly all they do, but it's quite all right. Everything is quite all right.
He wakes again when Bridget shakes his shoulder. At first he thinks he's dreaming, hearing her voice; for a moment doesn't know where he is, feels a little muzzy-headed. It's much later. The sun's up.
"Hmm?" he mumbles, opening his eyes. It's no dream, thank God, even if she is standing there with tousled hair and wearing her old faded Bangor sweatshirt with adequately matching trackie bottoms.
"Your mum's on the phone." She's got the portable in her hand and she's holding it out to him.
He realises then that he called no one to let them know where he was and did not have his mobile with him. "Oh, hell." He pulls the phone to his ear. "Mother. I'm so sorry if I worried you."
Elaine chuckles. "Now that I know where you are, I'm fine."
He looks to Bridget. She's smiling fondly at him.
"Still. That was sort of rude of me."
"So all's well?" asks Elaine.
"All is well," he confirms, smiling back. He would fill her in on the full story of the misunderstanding of Aaron's paternity in the near future. It was not important at present. "We shall be pooling our resources in the very near future."
"What?" she asks. "What do you mean—" Something must click in her head though, because she interrupts herself with, "Oh! Mark, tell me that means she's bringing the baby to move into that house with you."
"Well, since she's agreed to marry me, I should bloody well hope so."
She lets out a very un-Elaine-like squeal, which causes Bridget to start to chuckle—the sound obviously travelled—then she sits on the bed next to him, takes his hand in hers.
Elaine says, "You sound more like yourself than ever, Mark. I am so very thrilled for you."
"I'm pretty thrilled for me, too."
"You don't know how happy this makes me," she says; her tone's a bit smug but he reasons that she's earned it. "For both of you. Rather, for all of you. Isn't he the most precious thing you've ever seen? Looks just like you when you were that small."
"I don't know how you can say that," he says, grinning. "I was an infant a long time ago."
"There are some things a mother never forgets," she chides. "Well. I'll leave you to your reconciliation."
"All is reconciled."
"Doesn't hurt to keep at it. There's a lot of time to make up."
She is all too right; they were apart longer than they were together.
He's astounded to hear that her friends have been equally worried about him, especially since he didn't think they liked him very much. "They were being a bit prejudicial," she admits. "They did not get to see the warm and wonderful man you are. I think I've gotten through to them, though."
"I'm glad. Anyone who means that much to you means a lot to me."
She looks a little remorseful. "It was silly of me not to share you a little more with them, so they could see for themselves, and so could you."
The three friends have shooed them out of her flat, armed with boxes in order to pack up as much as they could. Mark, Bridget and the baby have, in turn, taken their first family outing: lunch at the pub downstairs, which will be followed by a taxi over to Mark's house. He's not driving quite yet but expects to very soon, particularly because baby car seats in taxicabs are usually a little on the seedy side.
"I don't mind keeping the bassinet in the bedroom with us," he says, carrying the holdall stuffed to bursting with nappies, towels, dummies, vests, expressed breast milk and sterilised bottles. As usual, she has over-packed for an afternoon out. "And we can give him a proper room when he's ready for a crib."
She's got the baby in his carrier, and she's looking with affection at Mark. "Mark Darcy," she says with a smile, "champion of human rights and hauler of baby gear."
"At this stage," he says, "the latter's far more appealing."
The minicab arrives and she immediately sets to lifting Aaron out of his own carrier and strapping him into the car seat. Mark instructs them where to go; it will not be a long ride. They sit together in the back seat, holding hands over the sleeping child.
The baby's content to sleep in his carrier until they can go back to her flat, where Mark has been staying most nights since their reunion. He's finding it easier to get up the stairs with each repetition.
When they get to his house, he surprises her with a wrapped gift and a cake that he asked the housekeeper to bake, chocolate with chocolate icing. "What's this?"
"I missed your birthday," he says. "I could find some candles for you."
Tears fill her eyes. "Not necessary," Bridget says, a hiccough interrupting her words. "I've got all I could wish for."
There's sand everywhere, blowing in his eyes, filling his nose. He squints and steps forward, unsure exactly where he is, except knowing with certainty he's in the desert again. A few more steps reveal through the whistling blasts of sand that he is outside the building in which he had been held, because he can see the window that he used to look through, except it is the only window now. Through the piercing wind he can hear what sounds like screaming. No, it's not screaming, or at least it's not anymore: now it's a baby crying. His blood turns to ice. He knows instinctively that his child is in there, in danger, and he must get inside. Must take him away, make him feel safe and secure so he'll stop crying.
He circles the building, which is much larger than he remembers, but every side of the building appears to be exactly the same—one window, high up off of the ground, barred—and there are no accessible points of entry at all. His frustration builds. Tears streak his face and collect stinging sand. He hears his name being called. It's Bridget's voice, pleading with him with only her tone.
He wakes up trembling. The tears are real. The dream is not.
"Are you all right?" She's beside him, running her fingertips over his perspiring forehead. As he calms his breath, his surroundings coalesce around him; they're in her bare bedroom in the flat, it's the middle of the night and the room is dark save for the night light in the corner. He can hear Aaron's soft breathing but he has to see for himself. Mark kicks the covers back and races to the bassinet's side; he's there, he's fine, he's sleeping peacefully.
"Mark," she says again, more insistently, her hand on the small of his back.
"Just had a nightmare," he says shakily. "They had Aaron and I couldn't get to him."
"You're fine. He's fine. We're okay."
He knows it's just a stress reaction to the trauma, and suddenly he's glad he'll have a counselling session tomorrow. He's had dreams before but none that involved his son. He nods.
"Do you want me to make you some Horlicks?"
He chuckles, shakes his head.
"I'm making you Horlicks," she insists, then puts on her robe and goes to the kitchen. The food's the last thing she wanted to pack, and the more he thinks about it, the more he's sort of thankful for it.
Aaron starts to cry, and it's so like the cry in the dream he shudders. "Oh, love. Mummy will be back." He doesn't stop fussing. He looks up but he cannot hear her returning. Looking back down, he sighs. He's been out of the hospital for about a month now. Surely he can trust himself to lift a child up out of a bassinet.
Carefully, supporting the baby's head as he had seen Bridget do so many times, he lifts both Aaron and the blanket up and against his chest. He is so light, so itty-bitty, Mark can hardly believe he's holding him at all. He feels tears in his eyes.
"Well, fussy," he says, pushing down the emotion as he walks over to the rocking chair. "Let's have a bit of a rock, shall we?" He sits down, leans back; the baby is warm against him, his round baby cheek on Mark's cotton tee. As Mark starts to rock, Aaron sighs then goes quiet. He can see that his tiny eyes have closed again and his little balled fist has found its way into his mouth. He gathers the blanket up and around him, making sure he's completely covered.
"Sorry, it took me forever to find some mugs—"
She stops when she sees them, and her mouth drops open, not unlike the first time she saw Mark in hospital, but now for a completely opposite reason. She smiles then her eyes well with tears of joy.
"He started to cry," he explains, slowly rocking.
"Perfect," she says, sniffing, then nodding. "Well done."
She has a mug for each of them, and sets one down on the small table just to Mark's side. He's able to hold Aaron to him with his left arm and pick up and drink the perfectly prepared Horlicks with his right. She sits on the bed, sipping from her own cup.
She looks somehow happy and wistful at the same time.
"Are you all right?" he asks quietly.
She nods. "It just amazes me to think… all those things that used to seem so important before… they barely register now."
He nods. He suspects there's a lot more to the tip of this iceberg, but he does not press it. They have only really been together for three months in total, and while nothing has never felt more right, he knows there are still a lot of conversations they need to have. He's secure in the knowledge, though, that they will go well.
After he finishes his drink, Bridget gives him the thumbs up, which he knows means the baby is ready to go back into his bassinet. Slowly he rises then walks to lower Aaron into his bed. He pulls the blanket up over the sleeping form.
She rises, sets her mug down beside his, then takes off the robe. Together they climb into bed, curl up to one another, share a kiss then go to sleep.
He doesn't have another nightmare.
The proper thing to do would be to have a party, he knows, because they've got a homecoming, a housewarming, a baby and an engagement to celebrate, but Bridget's cautious, perhaps too cautious. She doesn't want one, which is sort of unlike her.
"I'm feeling so much better," he tells her. He wants to do it, which is sort of unlike him. "It doesn't have to be a gala event, but I would very much like to show my appreciation for everything that was done for me… and for you in my absence."
She tells him she'll think about it, but not before Christmas, because everything's already mad with that only two weeks away. He's already told her he intends on keeping it out of madness territory: him, her, Aaron and their parents, who could come to London. No drama would be tolerated. She likes the sound of it, and kisses him on the lips.
Official invitations (or lack thereof) do not stop the occasional visitor from dropping in, and the latest one comes while Bridget's off to attend a meeting for work. When he opens the door babe in arms, the smiling face of the woman there can only make him think how Bridget might have reacted once. It's not the first time he's seen her since he's been back, but it's the first visit without Jeremy or Giles there, and the first time she's seen the baby.
"Oh, Mark," Rebecca says, her voice laden with softness and sincerity. "He's absolutely…" Her eyes tear up. "Just beautiful. I am so happy for you."
He steps back to allow her in.
"I am so sorry, I didn't even ask if I was intruding. I thought I could just leave this with the housekeeper…" He notices then she has a gift in her hand, cartoonish toy trains and airplanes on the gift wrap. The baby will never want for little outfits or stuffed animals.
"You aren't intruding," he says. "Would you like some coffee?"
She smiles, slips out of her overcoat, and they head towards the kitchen. She surveys the room as she descends the staircase. "Is Bridget here?"
"No," he says, putting Aaron in his seat, which is resting on the breakfast nook. It astounds Mark that he's gotten so much more active in just a month's time: alert and focusing on things in the farther distance, smoother motions when he moves, cooing and making nonsense babbling sounds, and smiling, which had been an amazing thing to witness for the first time. She comes up beside the carrier seat and looks adoringly at Aaron. Mark says, "If you'll keep an eye on him, I'll get your coffee."
"Oh, no, I'll get my own. I still remember where everything is. Do you want some too?"
He indicates that he does, points out his cup. As she pours from the pot and adds sugar to hers, his happy mood deflates. Her innocently meant statement has triggered a memory of the night Bridget had left him, how foolish he had been not to see how his familiarity with a female colleague might have looked to someone with Bridget's past history of boyfriends.
"Mark? Are you okay? You've gone quiet."
He looks up. "I'm fine," he says, his voice cooler than he intends.
"Oh." She idly stirs her coffee. "I know what this is. It didn't even occur to me since we talked so long ago… but I can assure you there's nothing to feel awkward about."
"Awkward?" he echoes. "What's there to feel awkward about?"
She brightens. "Whew. I'm really glad you feel that way." After a moment, though, she must realise there's a little comedy of errors happening here, because his look of confusion is not clearing. "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
He smiles sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I don't."
She comes to sit at the breakfast nook with him, bringing the coffees. "When you first disappeared, apparently the first thing Bridget did after she got out of hospital (which I only found out afterwards) was call me to see what she could do to help."
She nods. "Seems she thought she ought to run everything concerning you and your situation past your girlfriend."
His stomach sinks. He's touched, though, to think that she wanted to help despite thinking he was in love with another woman.
"I'd had no idea she thought… well, that you and I…" She drifts off. "Well, I had to tell her straightaway that nothing was further from the truth, that you and I were only friends and colleagues. She was nice about it, but she didn't believe me. She told me I didn't have to lie about it. I told her I wasn't lying. I was finally able to convince her, though."
He can't imagine what it was she could've said to Bridget to turn her around. He asks.
Rebecca turns bright red. "I can't believe I'm saying this to you," she says. She takes in a deep breath. "I told her I was in love with her."
Of all the possibilities to flit through his mind—revealing a confidential conversation between them when they'd split (in which he'd confessed to Rebecca how much he missed and loved Bridget) was high at the top—the one Rebecca has just given is not one he even remotely considered.
"In love with Bridget?"
It is her turn to look sheepish. "Well, a pretty heavy-duty crush anyway, but believe me Mark, I'm over it."
He's not convinced, but he also trusts she'd never act on any feelings that might remain, and Bridget… well, he smiles a little to think that she's the last woman he'd ever consider could be persuaded away from men.
Rebecca goes on: "I can tell she's convinced because she started to cry, and I mean really, really cry. I finally got it out of her that, in her words, she's been a complete idiot about you, she still loved you and… that she'd just learned she was pregnant with your child."
He doesn't know why Bridget hadn't mentioned what had happened with Rebecca, but decides in the grand scheme it doesn't matter, because it doesn't really change anything between them. He hadn't needed to convince her to take him back.
"And that's when I may have stepped in it a bit," Rebecca admits, "because I thought she needed to hear that you loved her, too. Well. Love."
"In this case," he says, "I think the end justified the means."
"Glad to hear you say that," she says. She takes a big sip of coffee, looks to Aaron again, who seems fascinated by her colourful patterned kerchief. "He is beautiful," she coos, reaching her fingers towards him, gently combing them through his unruly downy hair. In reward the baby offers her one of those lovely little smiles. "You're very lucky," she says softly. He is less convinced than ever that she's over her crush.
"Don't I know it," Mark replies.
She finishes her coffee and in doing so realises the time; she's got to get back to work. He walks with her up to the door, bringing the carrier along. "I'll tell everyone you said hello," she says, slipping into her coat. "We'll see you back after the New Year?"
He nods. Part-time for the near future so he can build up to working a full day, and to help with caring for Aaron.
"You're looking very good yourself," she says. "I'm sorry, I should have said sooner." Despite being awakened frequently during the night for fatherly duties, he had made definite strides towards fitness, and his hair was definitely in need of a trim now around the back and sides.
"It's okay," he says with a chuckle. "Aaron is sort of a scene stealer."
"Thanks again for the gift," he says. "I hope you don't mind me leaving it for Bridget. She likes opening them."
"It's all right," she says. "I sort of figured you would."
After her departure he takes Aaron upstairs to the changing table for a nappy check, realises he was right to do so. It's such a simple thing, a mundane thing, to change a baby's nappy, but one he takes a certain level of pleasure in. Aaron seems to smile and giggle more often than not, which pleases Mark greatly. If Aaron has Bridget's open and friendly personality, he'll be a very lucky child indeed.
Just after he pitches the dirty into the bin and fixes the clean over his petite bum, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs. "Where are my boys?" It's Bridget. The baby goes positively apoplectic with glee at the sound of her voice. She comes in, smiles wide at the sight of the two of them, then lightly tickles Aaron's stomach. "There's my little guy," she says.
"He's probably hungry," says Mark. "I didn't get a chance to give him a bottle."
"Oh? What happened?"
"Nothing bad, don't worry." He turns to her and takes her into his arms, then drops his head and kisses her deeply.
"What's that for?" she asks, playful suspicion evident on her features.
"Because I love you," he says, "more than you can ever know."
As she rocks in the chair and nurses the baby he sits on the bed and tells her of their visitor that day; she brightens at the mention of a present. "The mention of you breaking down on the telephone like that…" he begins. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that."
She seems to only focus on the task at hand, almost like she hadn't heard him, but he knows she did. She pulls the panel of her bra back up, rights her shirt. Aaron's gone to sleep. She stands, places him in the bassinet, and only then turns to Mark, reaching out her hand. He takes her hips and pulls her to sit across his lap; she runs the back of her fingers over his cheek in a tender manner. "Mark," she says, "let's promise ourselves right now. I'll try not to think of what you went through, and you'll not think of what I went through—when you were gone, I mean. Because if we don't, we'll go mental with the endless negative thought bogs."
He smiles, then nods, then leans to kiss her again, recalling with painful acuity that due to Aaron's birth they had still not yet been able to properly make love. He gets perhaps a little too eager, because she pulls away with a chuckle.
"Oh, Mark," she says, tracing her fingers over his brows. The pigmentation of his face has evened out. "My poor dear, having to be so patient."
"It's all right," he says, his gaze fixed to hers. "Obviously I enjoy it and I miss it, but all in due time. You're healing."
"I'm fine," she says with a broadening smile. "I'm good." She leans and kisses him again.
"Are you sure?" he asks, breaking away. He's sure for himself. His stamina for physical activity is a hundred times better than it was a month ago, he would swear to it.
She nods, then kisses him again.
It's a little embarrassing, having to dig for a condom and some lubricant, but he doesn't want to get her up the spout again so soon after Aaron's birth, she's obviously not on birth control at present with Aaron nursing, and he doesn't want to inadvertently hurt her. "You're so thoughtful," she says softly as he undresses her.
"You succeed." Her eyes flit to the door. "Housekeeper?"
He smiles. "I'll shut the door if it makes you feel better."
She pulls an apologetic face. "If you don't mind."
Of course he doesn't mind. He rises, closes the door, his eyes reflexively going to Aaron, who's still sleeping peacefully. He pulls off his tee and his trousers, toes off his socks, sheds his boxers.
"Have I mentioned," she says, "that you're looking quite lovely these days?"
He has gotten up to slow jogging for short stretches on the treadmill, not to mention the weeks of physical therapy and strength training he's been through. His eyes race over her body as he returns to the bed. "As are you," he says, and before she has a chance to protest what she'd undoubtedly call a blatant lie—but how else to describe her curvy figure, full breasts?—he dives upon her with a kiss.
And so with languorous tenderness and exceeding patience they consummate their relationship again completely and fully; he takes it slowly and gently, careful not to hurt her, but from her sounds of passion, her throaty cries as she reaches climax, he can only think her more resilient than he ever believed. He still restrains himself as he approaches his own culmination, and when he comes it feels like a circle's been closed, that the last broken part of him has been fixed. He lies with her in his embrace and plants loving, delicate kisses on her face and throat.
She has tears in her eyes, which he notices with some alarm, and as he brushes them away he asks if he's managed to hurt her, after all.
She shakes her head. "No, Mark," she sniffs. "Quite the opposite. Just thinking back to when I was sure I would never see you again, never share this with you again—"
He shushes her then kisses her on the lips once more. "No dwelling in negative thought bogs."
She chuckles. "I know. I just feel like the luckiest woman in the whole world."
With this sentiment fresh in mind he drifts to sleep, holding her close to him.
"I hope he's not scarred for life," she says as she brushes her hair in the bathroom.
"What?" He joins her in there.
"Shagging with the baby in the room. Hope it doesn't, you know, send him into an emotional tailspin, turn him into a sociopath."
He knows she's exaggerating. "There's nothing more natural and right," he says. "Plus, he's just a baby. He doesn't know anything but you and me, eating, sleeping, and sullying nappies." He comes up behind her and nuzzles her neck. "And he won't be sleeping in our room forever."
He catches a glimpse of a smile in the mirror. This leads him to study the two of them as he might from an outsider's point of view, and he likes what he sees.
"What is it?"
"Those," he says, nodding in the direction of the mirror, "are some happy people."
She laughs, turns, and hugs him, kissing him just by his ear.
He realises there's been a devastating oversight on his part, one that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. He can be forgiven though, as his attention has been diverted by four and a half kilograms of squirming, giggling, demanding responsibility. He resolves to phone his mother as soon as possible and ask her if she'll finally part with a certain other family heirloom, and if so, could she bring it for their Christmas visit.
When he does call in secret as she's feeding Aaron, his mother informs him she would be all too delighted.
They've already declared that they do not want material things lavished upon them for the holidays. As far as they are concerned, they have everything that they need. The presents they choose for their family and friends, ordered from online outlets for direct delivery, are thoughtful and austere, tokens of genuine affection and appreciation for everything done for them over the course of the last year. They even agree to send a little something to Daniel.
This declaration against too much gift-giving, however, does not stop him from spending perhaps a little too much on a present for her, a platinum necklace, a locket, into which he has a small photo of Aaron placed on one side and one of himself on the other. On the back he has them engrave an excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnet 75:
You are to my thoughts as food to life.
He thinks it completely appropriate, given the circumstances of his confinement.
Despite their requests, they are almost literally snowed in, by way of post and personal visits, with gifts for the baby. They are quite touched by such a show of generosity. It's Bridget who suggests donating the excess to children's charities.
Their parents arrive in time for dinner on Christmas Eve. It is not a fancy 'do; casual-to-the-extreme shepherd's pie and Irish coffee with which to relax afterwards, except for Bridget, who has drinking chocolate. Mark has already taken care of purchasing the supplies needed to make Christmas dinner the next day. This was done at the behest of both of their mothers, who insisted vehemently that they would prepare dinner. Mark secretly thinks they can't bear the idea of Christmas dinner done in a way they considered improper, and while Bridget's cooking has definitely improved, the story of blue soup, orange marmalade and lost tuna steaks was all too fresh in their minds.
With a smirk, his mother manages to slyly slip to him what he had asked her to bring.
When their parents go to bed for the night—a difficult task as all four of them did not want to be parted from the baby, who was up far later than usual—he has Bridget alone at last. He returns from checking to make sure their parents have everything they need, that the baby is still sleeping too, to find she is standing by the tree, mesmerised by the fairy lights; he knows the tree, the lights and the other holiday decorations represent stability, tradition and comfort to her. Mark and Bridget won't stay there long, because they don't like to be away from Aaron's side. He puts his arm around her shoulders and kisses her on the top of head.
"That went well," he says.
"It did," she replies, leaning into him, putting her own arm around him. "I'm a bit knackered, though, and tomorrow will be a long day."
"You don't have to cook," he reminds, "and your mother will have her way with the gravy."
She chuckles. "You mean your mother doesn't have fanatical tendencies regarding gravy?"
"I think she's a stirrer," he says.
"Well," she murmurs. "It was meant to be, then."
He smiles crookedly to himself. "Yes, I believe she thinks so too, or she never would have let me give this to you."
"Don't say 'what', Bridget." He's got his hand in his pocket, pulls out the heirloom ring, holds it up. "Say 'yes' again."
At once she's got tears in her eyes as she holds out her left hand, which is trembling slightly, and he slips the beautiful silver ring onto the fourth finger. It fits as if made for her.
"God, it's beautiful," she says, examining it closely, her fingernail tracing over the scrollwork encircling the gems. "I don't know what to say except 'yes' again."
He smiles. "Good," he says, then teases, "Well, that takes a load off my mind."
She smirks, wiping the tears from her face. "As if there were any other answer to that question."
"Oh, right," he says. "I do have carte blanche, after all."
It's a joy to sleep in the next day a little, even if it is Christmas Day. Aaron only wakes once during the night, and Mark is able to sneak her wrapped gift under the tree then bring breakfast to Bridget in bed, muesli and drinking chocolate. When Aaron awakes, after changing, feeding and dressing him they dress themselves and head downstairs.
Dinner preparation is in full swing, and the smell of roast turkey absolutely penetrates the main floor. The grandfathers are caught placing and arranging wrapped gifts (far more than necessary) under the tree, and react like children caught nicking a biscuit when Mark and Bridget (carrying Aaron) enter the room. "Well, he is the first grandchild," says Colin Jones with a pleased grin. "Forgive us for going a bit overboard."
Mark notices there are quite a few gifts for the two of them as well.
"Plus, you know, there are so many things to be grateful for and celebrate," Colin adds as Bridget hands Aaron over to him. Aaron's gotten very good with holding his head upright all on his own, and looks around and at the decorated tree with unmitigated delight.
Mark nods in agreement.
Dinner gets to the point where things just need time to finish cooking, so the grandmothers join the little party and it's decided then that the gift exchange should occur. Malcolm plays Father Christmas and doles gifts out according to nametag. Mark's not sure, but he thinks the smallest person there has the largest pile. He and Bridget share a smile.
While there is destined to be no fighting over gravy preparation, there is a bit of tension because there is only one grandchild, after all, and four grandparents. Even Pam Jones can tell that it's getting to her daughter, though, and Pam eventually relents, smiles, and hands Aaron to Elaine. Nearly two months old now, Aaron's absolutely loving all of the attention and cuddles.
Malcolm hands Bridget the box that Mark knows to be her locket, and she screws up her face then shoots Mark a querulous look. He feigns innocence, then smiles. Within a few moments, Malcolm sets a gift down before him that is very obviously from her. He grins. They had agreed not to buy gifts for each other, but had known even as he said it that he couldn't go without buying something special for her; it is their first Christmas together, after all.
And though he had told her that being free from his captivity, having her as his bride-to-be and being blessed with a beautiful child was gift enough for him, in his heart he knew better than to think she hasn't gotten him some token of her affection. He wasn't wrong.
After the final gifts are distributed, Aaron is placed in his seat, from which he has a broad view of the room. He looks from movement to movement with great interest. They leisurely begin unwrapping their gifts one at a time; Aaron dozes and Pam flits away on occasion to check on the bird in the oven. When Bridget gets to her last gift, the one from Mark that she's saved for the end, her eyes go a little moist even before she unwraps it.
"It's not the ring," quips his mother with a smile and a pointed look to Bridget's hand, "so I can't imagine what it is…"
The others smile too. The engagement had been no secret, and obviously Elaine has told them about, showed them, the ring.
In a manner very unlike her, Bridget carefully peels the sellotape back, then takes off the paper. "Oh, gosh," she gasps as he sees his attempt to camouflage has worked, and it's only now she's noticed that within the box is a smaller clamshell jewellery display box. She lifts it up, flips it open on the hinge, gasps again to see what is waiting for her in there. With a single finger she lifts the silky chain, then grasps the heart-shaped locket between her thumb and forefinger. "Oh," she says once more; tears spill down onto her cheeks. She opens the locket, reads the engraving on the back, then meets his eyes before letting wrapping paper and boxes alike fall from her lap as she rises to lean and throw her arms around Mark.
"Do you like it?" he asks tenderly, and somewhat redundantly.
"I love it," she sobs. "I can have my two boys so close to my heart."
"Oh good." He's not surprised, but is pleased all the same.
"Let's have a look," says Pam Jones; Bridget gently pushes away and as she dries her cheeks off with a swipe she gives the necklace over. Even Pam can't hold in tears, and offers him a weepy smile. "Just beautiful."
He then turns to his own gift from her, slips off the paper. It is not at all what he expected.
He has no idea when she had the opportunity to have this photo taken, but she must have because it's a picture he's never seen before of her, hair down and softly curled, holding a joyous Aaron as she looks at him with affection, with pure love. The frame she's put it in is gorgeous and silver, and the bottom has engraving of its own.
We've only just begun; the best is yet to come.
"It's for your office, when you're back to work."
They'll never be far from his mind, the loves of his life, but he is very grateful he'll have something to rest his eyes on when he needs to retreat to a place of happiness. A smile finds his lips and he looks to her. She looks very smug to have made his eyes gloss over with emotion.
"When will we have a family portrait?" asks Pam; he expects that if his mother wasn't so keen to have one for herself, she might have reprimanded Pam.
"As soon as I'm looking a bit healthier," says Mark. He's almost there physically. In his mind, in his spirit, he's more than healed.
"I almost forgot, one more gift," says Elaine, glancing to Malcolm. They exchange a knowing glance before she rises from the sofa and goes to her handbag. Out comes an envelope.
"Right," says Pam, going for hers. A second envelope is produced.
This is something that had obviously been pre-planned between their families. Mark is completely confused, and Bridget looks equally so.
The mothers hand their envelopes to their respective children.
Bridget opens hers first. It's a voucher for two for a weekend at a bed and breakfast in the country. "We know it's winter, and the baby's still young," said Pam, "but if anyone needs a weekend away from it all, it's you two."
"We'll even come down and watch him for you," says Colin. "We all will."
It's a very gracious offer, and while he agrees in principle, he's not sure either of them could truly relax separated from their little one, but he's also sure they'll try given their generosity, and Aaron would be in good hands, after all. "Thank you," she says.
Mark then slips his fingernail under the flap of his envelope. He draws his brows together, trying to work out what it is he's seeing. Logically he knows what it is, but it seems somehow incongruous to see the paper is emblazoned with the name AARON MARK DARCY in a tidy engraver-style typeface.
"This is—" he begins, not knowing how to finish. Too generous. Unexpected. Amazing and appreciated.
"What is it?" Bridget asks, craning to have a look.
"A trust for Aaron," he says quietly.
She blinks rapidly; he knows how she feels about that part of a society he had once blithely taken part of, populated primarily by too-thin harpies with sticks up their backsides and balding upper middle class twits.
"For uni someday," Mark adds.
"More than just that—for his financial security," adds Malcolm, puffing proudly. "It isn't much to start with, but you can contribute to it as well, and the sooner these things get started, the better, I've always said."
The amount with which they've seeded it is by no means insignificant and it will only continue to increase with time. He doesn't know what to say.
"I believe we've rendered him speechless," says Elaine, grinning proudly.
"Indeed," he says, looking at each of them in turn, his eyes getting decidedly misty. "Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart."
Adds Bridget, "And mine—"
Before she can finish, Aaron begins wailing at the top of his lungs. Bridget's off the sofa and to his side like a shot, which prompts her mother to rise as well, first to see if she can help, then with a mild curse of "Godfathers!" Pam hurries out of the room and down to the kitchen, undoubtedly for some forgotten timer.
There are many other assorted small gifts—books, slippers, DVDs and the like—and while Bridget takes Aaron up for a feeding, they spend a little more time looking through their respective gifts. Mark is particularly pleased to see his parents reading the inserts on the classic film discs he'd given to them. He rises, excuses himself, and goes to see how things are with the baby.
She's rocking him in the chair, nursing him, and singing softly to him; it takes him a moment to realise the song she's crooning is Madonna's "Crazy for You"; when he does it makes him chuckle. "Happy Christmas, love," he says, bending to kiss her, then to kiss the baby's head.
Aaron falls to sleep, finishing his feeding, so she puts him in the bassinet for a proper nap and switches on the baby monitor they've tested but haven't had a chance to use, then they head downstairs. As they rejoin her father and his parents, Pam enters and announces it's time to eat.
Quickly Mark and his mother lay out the dining room table as the others bring the food. They haven't gotten too fancy; it's just traditional Christmas dishes. Aside from the roast turkey and the vegetables—parsnips and Brussels sprouts—there are potatoes and chestnut stuffing, not to mention a steaming vat of gravy, which Pam is obviously pleased to present as having been unadulterated by a sieve.
It is a very fine meal indeed in the greatest of English traditions. They all eat slowly, enjoying both the food and the conversation, which is light and yet stimulating. Mark realises that his ability to finish off a full plate of food must be counted as great progress indeed. He also indulges himself in a glass of wine. It makes his head swirl a little, but it's a pleasant swirl.
After they finish eating, Colin and Malcolm declare they will clear the table and bring up dessert. Bridget is distrustful of the baby monitor technology and says she's going to go see how he is. Elaine decides to join her. Mark stands to stretch. Pam, collecting the wineglasses for the next round of dish gathering, approaches him with outstretched arms. The perfume she's wearing assaults his nose as she gives him a big hug. He returns it, though is puzzled by the sudden show of affection; she is not usually the hugging kind. "I'm not really sure I ever really got to tell you how good it is you're back," she says softly, "and I mean that for all the ways in which you're back."
He chuckles deep in his throat then plants a kiss on her cheek. Pam Jones had never made any secret of the fact that she wanted to make a match of him for her Bridget. He will be forever thankful that she just happened to be right.
Dessert appears, a steamed pudding with brandy sauce, as well as an electric kettle full of hot water for tea, though Mark cannot conceive of indulging just yet. Bridget returns with Aaron in her arms, alert and smiling. "He's just too excited to sleep, I think."
"Well, that's what Christmas Day is all about," says Pam.
Mark thinks she is one hundred percent right.
Their parents will be leaving after breakfast on Boxing Day. Aaron's asleep in his bassinet, and Bridget's already under the covers, lying on her side with her cheek on her pillow. When he comes in from their bathroom, she looks up at him; she smiles as he slips under the sheets. Immediately she embraces him, gives him a big kiss.
"This was a very good day," she says, bringing her nails up to comb through his hair.
"This is a very good life," he murmurs, holding her to him. The horror of the desert seems like it happened to another man in a lifetime. He vows he will never take what he has for granted. "I keep resisting the urge to pinch myself."
She giggles. "I could do it for you."
"You could do anything for me," he says, "and I would be a very happy man."
"Do I have carte blanche as well?"
"Absolutely and completely," he says, kissing her, wondering how quickly they could pull together a wedding, because he wants to do so as soon as is feasible. They'd wanted to have an all-encompassing party after Christmas, anyway; he thinks it may as well be a reception. He resolves to ask his mother in the morning.
Her question startles him. "What?"
"Don't say 'what', darling, say 'pardon'," she teases, pecking him with another kiss. "When shall we get married?"
He doesn't know whether he said something without realising, if she's psychic, or they're just on the same wavelength. It doesn't really matter. "Would it be completely cliché to suggest Valentine's Day?"
"Not at all," she says. "Or as I shall think of it from now on: Aaron Conception Day."
At this he chuckles.
As she settles into his arms for sleep, her breath warm as it races across his skin, he ponders that it was only just shy of a year ago that he turned up on her doorstep, that she accepted him into her arms, her life, and her bed; that despite so little time together and how different she was from him, he had known so quickly that she was the only one he would ever want; that something so horrific, something he would not wish even on his worst enemy, was what turned out to be the catalyst for reuniting them and for lasting happiness.
He asks, his voice a little throaty, "Bridget, do you mind, with your parents so close?"
"Do I mind what?" she asks drowsily.
"If I show you exactly how much I love you?"
She opens her eyes and looks at him. She knows exactly what he means, evidenced by the slight smirk on her lips. "Carte blanche, Mark."
Then she kisses him thoroughly.
- One of the meanings of 'Aaron' is 'mountain of strength'. 'Mark' = 'dedicated to Mars'. Makes one wonder if this was intentional on Helen Fielding's part, if some alternative meaning of Bridget is 'dedicated to Venus' (it's actually 'exalted one')… though come to think of it, both Venus and Brigid were goddesses. Hm. ;)
- British slang as pertains to babies, including the curious 'vest' meaning a footless onesie.
- Week-by-week development (week 1 through 52) of babies.
- Horlicks, in case I've never linked this before.
- Traditional English Christmas dinner.