Take Back Friday, a Novella

Take Back Friday

Questioning her sanity was one thing, but completely doubting it was another.

Thea unbuttons her coat and hands it to the young woman, taking a number in return. Stuffs the scarf in her bag and shivers when the café door opens to let another batch of customers in.

The café – Mark’s Fourth Cup – is on a corner of an old street surrounded by independent, quaint shops, offering to the tired traveller a true oasis for the mind and soul. His coffee is exquisite, Marie’s baking – legendary, and their assortments of books in the back rooms – worth, alone, a visit.

Thea feels at home there. And she missed it terribly in the past year.

Zigzagging through the hordes of customers or just loiters taking cover from the storm, Thea makes her way back to the so-called “concert hall”. She knows she shouldn’t have come, but it is her only day in New York and she could have not passed the opportunity to say hello to her friends.

A poster is just put on display, announcing that evening’s Open-Mic event, and her heart skips a beat, making her wish she were somewhere else entirely. Especially that day.

“Loooove, you’re here!!”

A loud cheer erupts the moment she opens the doors, letting herself in, in the dim-lit room that passes for a “hall”. Comfy chairs and big couches are spread all around, pillows on the carpets and stained-coloured lamps are hanging from the ceiling. Pots of plants, artistically arranged everywhere, make Thea smile. Marie is good at many things, including baking, but her one true love – not including Mark there – are plants. As if summoned, Marie comes from the back room, wearing a “Plant Lady at work” apron and balancing two fern pots, so big and heavy, her eyebrows wiggle in concentration.

Up, on a ladder, changing a lightbulb, Mark – the owner of the earlier cheer, is eyeing her carefully.

“Need help, M.?”

“Um, nope. I’m all – Thea?? Thea, love, is that you? Oh, my sweet Lord, Markus, look at her! Look at our sweet baby!! Markus, get down from there!”

Marie puts the plants on a table, without any ceremony and jumps Thea, entrapping her in her arms, jumping around, making Thea giggle and Mark laugh out loud.

“Baby? This ain’t no baby, my love…” says Mark getting down and hugging them both. “She is a best-selling author, whose works have been published in 40 plus languages, currently negotiating her series to become a TV show, and already writing her second best-selling series. Am I right? Tell me I am right!” he smiles at Thea, who nods, bowing her head.

“Oh, nothing of that humility of yours!” says Marie. “You have accomplished all that you have planned and in half the time you thought you would. You, my friend, should be proud!”

“We are,” laughs Mark.
Hearing Thea making a non-committal noise, Marie says:

“Yes, we are. And we are so seriously proud, we will name our daughter after you. When that time will come,” she laughs, seeing her friend’s glance.

“You ladies sit down, I’ll go for coffee and croissants; and a towel for you, Missy, and then we’ll catch up. We have some time, so make yourselves comfortable. Oh, and please do not start gossiping without me!”

Just the thought of coffee makes Thea smile and blesses his idea. They sit on a couch, in the stage’s vicinity, under a canopy of ferns, ivy and wildflowers dangling from the shelves; holding hands and looking at one another, trying to see the differences an entire year can draw on people’s faces.

“Love what you did with the place,” says Thea, hugging her friend again. “I might use it again as a set for my next novel…”

Marie laughs and hugs her back.

“Yes, do that, please! We had an influx of customers just based on your book release and his…”

Marie stops and looks at her.

Thea sees her friend’s face getting red, and she feels sorry for causing this distress to her. Even if they do not know what had happened the year before, they are so supportive, her heart is aching due to this unconditional love.

“I am happy to hear you’re getting business out of all that mess. Anyhow, tell me, what inspired this redecoration? Not that I miss the old furniture, to be honest…”

Marie smiles and looks around, her eyes filled with love.

“Well, you know I took your advice and made something out of my passion for plants and interior design. We’re getting more and more requests to do it, so Mark will have to take another person to help him here at the café, as I am my own woman with my own business.”

“Marie, that is great! I am so happy for you two!”

“How can you be happy,” asks Mark, coming with a tray filled with goodies, “she will leave me all alone and she will have more money than I do, so she will just buy that Hollywood mansion and move out!”

Marie giggles and elbows him, while Thea looks at them, trying to ignore how their love hurts her.

“I will never leave you, even when I become a multi-millionaire, darling!” Marie assures him.

Mark pours coffee in the cups, offers them to the ladies, and then starts to brag about his wife’s success, pride written all over his face.

On the comfy couch, surrounded by her friends’ palpable love, seeing their adoring faces, Thea starts to relax a bit. They wave all her worries away with each passing moment and she chastises herself for not coming sooner. The coffee is strong and hot, and the splash of homemade oats milk – Mark’s signature – adds creaminess to it, making it almost silky. The croissants smell delicious, and she has two, before she is full, both in heart and body.

“This place is magical,” she whispers.

Mark nods, eyeing Marie talking to one of their helpers.

“And tonight, is an Open-mic night?”

Mark nods again.

“Yeah, it was long due, to be honest. I kept receiving angry emails from people, both artists and customers, asking when the next one will be… so, here it is. Today of all days!

Hope that is no inconvenience and you will stay.”

It is Thea’s turn to nod.

“I would not miss it.”

“We must move upstairs,”

Marie says, returning to them, “they want to set-up the stage, so… there will be noise.”

“Awesome, I will check on my treats for tonight and you can use my office, I know you are itching to check your email…”

Thea laughs, feeling guilty. Her phone had incessantly beeping until she put it on silent.

“You go up, I’ll hang the last plants and I’ll come to you shortly. Tonight will be great, I know it!”

Thea goes up, giggling when the stairs squeak, remembering the times she would sneak up to write when her inspiration hit and needed a safe space. And Mark’s café had been a safe space for all those years when she was an aspiring author. To her surprise, the upstairs did not change at all. Same old doors, same floors, even the same plants, a bit bigger than the year before. Mark’s office is lit only by a lamp, the same one, with a chipped corner, but turning the small room into an enchanted and magical place. Thea takes the office in, the smell of old leather, books, and coffee is there, engraved in her soul, and she has missed it. She has missed it terribly. During her self-imposed exile, she used to dream of being back in NY, and this was one of her places. Where she dreamed, where she hoped, where she planned and loved. Where she lost it all.

Sipping her coffee, Thea leans on the window. The lights are just lighting up in Central Park, and her heart sinks even more. The phone rings again, and Elaine’s number pops up on the screen.

Probably asking for the pages she promised last week. Thea growls and turns the phone off, tossing it in the bag, unable to face the wrath of her Raphaelite-looking editor.

“Not today, Elaine, dear, please. Give me today.”
The door opens and Mark appears in its frame, a sheepish grin on his face.

“What d’you do?”

As her friend stiffs a giggle, Thea sighs. Mark and his ideas would be the death of her, one fine day.

“So, don’t be mad, okay? Remember, you love me. And remember you love Marie more…”

“Fine. I’ll do it.”

“You’ll do it? You don’t even know what I’m asking of you…”

“Yeah, remember I love you, you twat! So, say it. What did that wicked mind of yours plan this time?”

Mark’s face lights up, and he drags her to the couch, laughing.

“So, remember when you promised you’ll do a reading here when published?”

“Aha,” says Thea, starting to see where he is getting to.

“Well, now, you’re published. You had readings all over the world, but never here. So, today is the day.”

Thea shakes her head. She is not prepared. She does not have the book with her, the one she used for all her reading, the first one printed, her good-luck charm. But most of all, she does not want to remember that promise.

Her only broken promise. If she would not count…

“Come on, I’m losing hard right now!”

“What do you mean you’re losing hard, the downstairs looked packed! Oh, no… Mark, you didn’t!”

Her friend bursts into laughter and nods.

“Yep. I had Marie bet her anything on that I won’t convince you to do it.”

“Oh, an anything… well, that changes things.” Thea laughs. The anything in their bets could mean literally anything, and owing one to somebody, meant you never knew when it would come down and what it would bring with it. She remembers late-night snacks, baked while on a TC with editors; she remembers wearing a suit, a tie, and a hat, to pick Mark up at the airport; she remembers Marie only wearing short skirts for a whole month, and Mark shaving his chest while growing a moustache. Oh, the good old days… The laughs and the mischief… “Okay, I’ll do it!”

“Awesome,” he snickers. “I took the liberty to advertise it on Twitter before coming up. As a safety measure, in case the anything did not work.”

She lightly punches him in the arm and he hugs her. It is good to be able to laugh with her friends. Almost feels like home again.

“How much time do I have to prepare? And I suppose you stock my books, right? I do not have one with me…”

Mark nods and pulls out a copy, the one she sent them with a handwritten dedication. The third out of print.

“You have an hour to prepare, right before it starts. Well, consider this your own Open-mic.”

She smiles and takes the book.

Mark leaves her, and she stays there, looking at the hard-covered edition, silky pages and full-colour inserts, her deluxe version, the only one that way, prepared for her friends; where she did not know how big the thing will be in only half a year, and how many reprints will be required or in how many languages. She opens the book to her favourite chapter, one that welcomed the reader into the magical world she created, without giving away any of the plots. She loves that scene in particular, and she had read it everywhere they asked her to, almost as a particularity of her readings, even after the other volumes came out.

“Oh, you….” Marie barges in carrying a ficus in her arms, all flustered and belligerent.

“Your betrayal hurts!”

“Of course it does,” Thea laughs. “I remember how bad yours hurt. Do you?”

Marie bits her lips as if not to laugh and puts the plant on Mark’s desk.

“Yeah, I do. Well, they do say revenge is better served cold, so I guess after an entire year, this is ice-cream.”

Thea smiles as Marie sits down next to her. They both stay quiet for a moment before Marie says:

“You will read that scene, right? Ooh, how I love the atmosphere it conjures. You’re like magic!”

“Look who’s talking,” Thea says. “You, Miss Green Thumbs, are literally magical. It’s like woodland fairy blood runs through your veins. And don’t say I am not right.”

Marie raises her shoulders. Maybe she is a bit magical herself.

“So, when you’re ready, come downstairs. There might be a bit of a crowd, Mark has advertised it like crazy. I guess, he dreamt of this day for a long time now.”

“I’m sorry.”

Marie turns on her heels fast.

“For what?”

“For all that – this mess…”

Thea sighs and covers her face with her hands. For a moment it felt good to be back. Now she isn’t so sure.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. Listen to me, T… I mean it. Life happens even to the best of us. And that was an impossible choice. Quite a predicament, as Mark would put it. And sometimes we have to choose what is right for us.”

“Yes, but to that extent? All be damned?”

To her surprise, the peaceful and mellow Marie, nods with fury.

“When it comes to dreams, yes. You made the right choice. Look at where you are right now. If you would have stayed… you would be now a bitter old lady – yes, you are older than me by three months, so yeah, old… And the world would miss your magic. I would. Mark would, we all would!”

“Oh, Marie…”

“Don’t sweat too much about the past, dear. It is meant to stay there. Learn from it all and move further. There is much more to life than to spend your days weighing on the what-ifs.”

“You’re a smart one, you know that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah… and still got played by you and that… buffoon downstairs.”

Marie leaves her laughing out loud, her spirits restored a bit.

Her dreams mattered to her friends, and she is beyond grateful she has them in her life. And, in twenty minutes, she will make do on a promise of ancient times, even if only partial. And that is a gift to Mark and Marie, but also a gift to herself. Her dream involved giving a reading in that café.

She gathers her bearings and goes downstairs. Marie was not wrong, the café is packed, the “concert hall” unable to accommodate all the people. She smiles and waves at some, as she makes her way to the corner where her friends are.

“No room left to throw a needle. Hope you don’t have stage-fright.”

“Mark, that is the most insensitive thing to say,”

Marie chastises him, while coming to greet her. “Wow, sure to put a foot in your mouth…”

“Well deserved,” Mark laughs.

“She almost cost me that anything. Better start preparing, woman! It’ll be epic!”

Thea cannot help but smile.

She missed them, their bickering, their challenges, their support, and the love that exudes through all their pores. If things would have been different, she would love to spend some time there, resting, clearing her head, putting the past where it belonged, before flying back home, to London.

The room starts to vibrate; they are impatient. Thea knows this feeling, she revells in it. She knows if she plays her cards well, they will subdue to her words, bend under them and get transposed into the magical realm of the Ancient Order.

Her fantasy novel was meant to be published for young adults, but the older market was who responded better to the book. The market pols did not lie, and she is, to the day, still astonished.

“Hello, everybody, and thank you for coming on such short notice! I would like to welcome you all to tonight’s treat, the cherry on top of our Open-mic night, the reading we’ve all been waiting for…” Mark starts and the room erupts into cheers and applause, making Thea shiver with excitement. “With no further ado, I give you Miss Thea Hazel Marlow, author of –”

“The Ancient Order!” yells a guy from the second row, clenching a book to his chest, as the whole room erupts in cheers once more.

“Yes, buddy,” laughs Mark.

“The Ancient Order. So here it is, the treat of all treats, with compliments from Mark’s Fourth Cup at the beginning of the New Year!”

Thea smiles and waves at them, trying to find her breath. It has been a long time since she last did this and every time, she had days to prepare. Going in blind is not her idea of fun, and she hopes it does not show. She knows her emotions are written in caps all over her face, which is what got her into the whole mess those years ago.

Swatting at the dark cloud looming over her head, she takes a deep, centring breath and opens the book. The room goes quiet. So quiet, Thea can hear her heartbeat in both ears and the pulse rushing under the skin. Her mouth feels dry and her cheeks are red for sure. She feels dizzy and her knuckles are bone white from that grabbing at the book. Maybe that is karma paying her back for all those times.

Marie shifts in the front row, distracting her, and she snaps out of her stupor. Smiling, she closes her eyes, gathering her courage, then, without another look in the room, starts reading. Soon, the magical world of Prince

Arthur takes over, and the hero lives once again through her.

The applause lasts longer than before; the people gather around, asking for autographs, for pictures, each telling a story, each sharing a feeling until Thea feels at peace and happier than ever.

Mark and Marie are smiling, their faces lit up, holding hands nearby, and she waves at them.

As soon as the people settle down, the time for the Open-mic comes and they find themselves on a couch, sipping rum cocktails and laughing loud. The night is a success, and they are celebrating.

The first three bands are so good, the hall is filled, and the other rooms as well, even a long line is going outside, all around the block. Mark’s night is a success indeed.

During a break, Thea comes back to the room after helping Marie stack another pile of her books in the foyer, carrying a bunch of them to the concert hall. She carefully avoids the leg of a tall guy who smiles at her, and turning fast to get away from him, she bumps into another, dropping the books on the ground with a thud. Giggling, she apologises and kneels to collect them before they are trampled by the crowds.
The man in the collision gets down as well and starts piling the books. When she lifts her head, she swears hard. Her breath gets raspy and her heart starts beating fast. She has the satisfaction to see his jaw clench and his shoulder become rigid when he realises who she is. Inside, she is exhilarated to see she still has an effect on him. The great Hayden Acker Hastings. The great as in the great bane of her existence.

They both get up at the same time, both with arms filled with books. He drops his load into hers, his eyes hypnotising her, and she feels the need to say everything that is crossing her mind, seeing that ironic smile flourishing on his face.

Mark comes out of thin air at her side, and Hayden, taking another look at her, disappears into the crowd.

Mark takes her by the elbow, manoeuvring her to the couch, not before taking the books from her hands and putting them, unceremoniously, on an empty chair.

“I’m sorry, kid! I had no freaking idea! I swear to you on whatever holy I have in this world. My message must have gotten to him as well. I am sorry.”

Thea smiles, a reassuring smile she has perfected ever since, and sits down next to Marie.

“What happened… ooh, no, he didn’t!”

Both Thea and Mark watch, astonished, as Hayden gets up on stage, the people exploding the moment they see him.

“Happy New Year, friends!!”

“Happy New Year, Hayden!!”

the room shouts back.
Thea feels the surge of electricity sparking around the room, and her heart stops beating. She needs to get out of there, but the room is compact, both exits blocked, and people keep coming in from all directions. She is trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be. In the same room with him.

“Mark, get on that stage and ask him to leave at once!”

Marie demands, more out of loyalty to Thea than anything else. She is as certain as them both that would be an impossible task given the situation. Hayden is there, the band is setting up the equipment, and they are all in the lowest level of hell imaginable. “How did we not see this?”

Mark raises his shoulders and stays gape-mouthed next to them.

“Come on, friend, we need you!” Hayden says from the stage and Mark, dumbfounded, goes up in the room’s applause. “Good, good, now that we’re all here,” Hayden says, as the room grew even louder, “under the same roof, as many, many moons ago, how about we sing a bit for you?

Would you like that?”

If Thea thought the room was loud before, at this point there is a storm brewing. All set in motion by Mister Hurricane himself, the legendary soloist, pianist and guitarist of the multi-platinum, Grammy-awarded band, called Take Back Friday. Their first album had been an overnight success, turning them all into legends, topping all their individual success by a dozen. Not that they were unsuccessful before the band. Just that after, they have been unstoppable.

“Okay, okay, we wanted to surprise you for a while now, and tonight is the night for all of us to celebrate Take Back Friday’s first album drop, three years ago, and all the wonderful things that came from that night. Many, many things have happened since, and we’d like to celebrate them all with you!”

Thea’s teeth are grinding, her eyes fixed on him. Why is it that everything he said had two meanings, and he meant the bad ones only for her? Marie is crushing her hand. She feels the blood stop flowing. She tries to breathe, only to find the claw in her chest squeezing harder than Marie. Lightheaded, she hears Hayden introducing his band members, thanking Mark for organising such an amazing event, and she wonders if he means her reading or something else, but then he takes his guitar and her mind stops working. Hayden closes his eyes, and she feels a surge of emotion going around the room, silencing it to the point where she can hear her heartbeat again.
The first chords bring her back years ago, in the same room, and she hears Marie gasp next to her.
He plays New York is a State of Mind, and Thea swallows hard, biting her lip, trying not to sing along with the crowd. By the time Hayden comes to the chorus, the room is loud enough that she cannot hear him anymore. Mark is glancing at them from his place at the drums, but Thea cannot look away from Hayden.

“So, how did you like that?” Hayden asks a room of claps and stomps that makes the old building shiver. “Good, good! We will play you something more mellow now, from our second album and, please, sing along. Do not be shy, I know you know the lyrics!”

Flight of the Dreamer comes along, and his voice is pure silk. Accompanied only by his guitar, Hayden is on a roll. To her dismay, so is Marie. Mark was already under the spell of the music, and Marie is following him. She loses her last ally the moment Hayden plays Marie’s favourite. This Love is Deep but it’s Hot, the song Mark wrote when he proposed, and the one they danced at their wedding.

After a couple more songs from their oldest album, Hayden asks for a break. To her disbelief, Thea sees him coming to their table, Mark on his heels.

“Marie, hi!”

“Hayden…”

Thea feels worse than ever.

She knows she cost them their friendship; she is more heartbroken for that than for her own loss. That was the reason she stayed away all that time, hoping that her exile would make things easier for her friends. But, by the looks of it, it didn’t.
Marie looks at Hayden with such anger; Thea wants to put herself in the middle, even if she knew that would only make things worse.

“So, can I have a drink? What are you drinking? Bring them another round and put it on my account. I think I still have some credit left…”

“Thanks,” says Marie, “but I am good.”

“And you?”

Thea wants the earth to swallow her whole and to dissolve into nothingness. She curses herself, her ideas, her hopes for peace, for forgiveness, for it all.

“I am actually leaving.”

Hayden’s eyebrow shoots up, a smirk lifting the corners of his lips. She believes he is punishing her, and for sure he is.

“Not before the grand finale, I hope. Anyway, I don’t see how you’ll do that…”

He takes his drink and gulps it down. His eyes are shiny and full of promises. Not a good omen. Nothing that she can escape from.

In two steps, he is on the stage again. A bunch of admirers get right close to him, and he is all smiles and charms, making Thea’s stomach turn to knots.

“I’m sorry,” whispers Mark again, before going up.

Mark’s words are lost on her, as Hayden has her whole attention. From up there, all god-like, with those angelic features and jaguar-like movements, Hayden has the whole room entrapped.
When he starts playing War, Thea’s heart breaks once more.

“Oh, Thea love…”

Marie’s prayer is in vain, he is playing it. The song he wrote for her, the multi-awarded song, the song of a generation as critics called it, her song.
Hayden looks her right in her eyes when he sings the chorus, making her raw wounds bleed again.

“Whose war is this? I think I know. Its anger came all deep and raw. The heart that screamed we made mistakes And from the dream, the hurt awakes This is a beautiful war Just like we were… But the tormented souls don’t sleep. Revenge is all their hearts can keep.”

Thea cannot stop herself from singing along, his eyes boring into her soul, piercing all her barriers, burning it all down, hot anger building inside her.
Yes, they were at war and, yes; he was winning.

Thea does not question her sanity anymore. She was clearly insane to think that coming to his city would ever be a good idea. And how on Earth did she not see that coming when Mark advertised her reading?

The air is heavy around her, making it harder to breathe; and the sea of faces moving around them gets things out of focus. A thrill spikes in her bones and she shivers. This is not the time. Not the time at all. The outside war she can deal with. Eventually. But this new development, growing inside her chest, crawling inside her soul, darkening her mind is not something she can deal with. Bitter tears fill up her eyes, and she blinks faster, trying to keep them down.

Breathe in for four, hold for seven…

She curses under her already raspy breath, swallowing hard, finding the throat closing in, little wisps of air choking her.

She stands up and, using the movement of the crowd towards the stage, exits through the service door, leading backstage and to the stairs. Here is the old part of the library, the one with the original shelves and musty smell, the one with creaky floors, the one which now is kept private for Mark and Marie. The noises coming from the hall are muffled through the double doors, but still loud, too loud for her to calm down.

His fans are wild tonight, she thinks. His fans are always wild, another heavy thought comes, whisking the first one away.

The air is hot as if someone forgot to open the furnace door, and all the heat is trapped around her.

Wiping her forehead, she finds it damp with cold sweat, her body’s reaction to the night’s events.

Breathe in for four…

For how long is she supposed to hold it?

Thea closes her eyes and grabs the rail before rising her other hand to her heart, willing it to go slower. To her dismay, her own body is not listening, going even deeper into the despair’s black hole.

In the concert hall, the ovations are loud, almost as loud as the heartbeat drumming in her ears. The new wave of pain kneels her, and she lets go of the bannister to clutch her chest with both hands.

Is this what a heart attack feels like? She is too young to have one! Is she though? Recent studies show a decrease of the age for coronary heart diseases, so perhaps she is one good candidate. Maybe she should have been more active, keep up with the yoga classes and with her running group, not hide behind her writing. Maybe she should have been eating healthier and skipped a coffee or two… Recent studies have linked coffee consumption to coronary diseases. But was it a good connection or a bad one? She cannot remember. Although she should. She had researched it for her current novel. Why can’t she remember?

Breathe in…

This is not a heart attack. Is something else, something that has been looming over her head ever since she booked her trip to New York. Ever since she opened the webpage of the airline and typed in her destination.
This was a bad idea. A bad idea!

“A terrible idea, Thea…”

Her voice is unrecognizable; rasp and harsh, as the leaves sound in autumn when they fall from the trees.
Whatever it is, it is killing her and, by the time the concert will be over and her friends will look for her, it will be too late. She wants to shout; she wants to grab her phone, but her hands refuse to let go of her heart, and she is clasping her chest tighter and tighter as if to lower the noise of her heart. To no avail. A gasp escapes her dried up lips, and she closes her eyes.

“Breathe.”

That was not her voice, she may one day not recognize her voice, but that? That is the sound of her dreams, of her nightmares, altogether.

She feels a pair of sturdy arms grabbing her, making her wince.

“Look at me.”

Such simple instructions, such little words. She knows she has to open her eyes, but she finds herself incapable of movement.

“Theresa-”

Ah, the way he whispers her name! There is so much power in a name. Such a deep connection between the lips of the speaker and the ears of the listener that intertwines their souls.

“Hayden, Thea, oh my God!”

That is yet another voice Thea can recognize, not as powerful as the first one, but powerful enough.

“Come on, open your eyes and look at me.”

Hayden’s voice booms again in her ears and she can feel his warm breath on her cheek. His smell is clouding her senses even more, in a comforting way.

“You’re having an anxiety attack. Please look at me.”

His hands are cold and she can feel the indentation of the guitar’s chords on his fingers, and that small detail – so real, so raw, and tied to such strong emotion – makes Thea open her eyes. In front of her, kneeling down to her level, she finds him. His familiar look, that frown on his usually serene face, his lips, his dark blue eyes…

“Good, good. Now, breathe in with me. In for four, one-two-three-four… Come on. Do it with me. One-two-three-four. Good, now keep it for seven, and out with it for eight. Excellent. Again.”

As Thea seems to find her breath again, her mind remembers the other times when he brought her back to reality – to him mostly – with his words and small caresses. Tears well up again, and she shakes her head, closing her eyes.

A growl escapes Hayden’s throat and she can almost see in her mind the way his body tenses. When he grabs her arms, pulling her in, she knows he is not going to let her drown again into the darkness.

“You should know better than to run and hide when you’re like this.”

“Shut up, Hayden!”

Marie’s voice makes Thea want to rise and hug her, but he holds her arms still and he will not let go easily. By the look on his face, not this time, no.

The concert hall’s doors open again and a loud cheer fills the room. Hayden’s hold gets possessive and without a sound he stands up, pulling Thea with him as if she is weightless as a feather. The commotion makes her friends round around them and she remembers the KOL concert in the desert, where… Hayden’s perfume is confusing her mind by bringing back memories she had buried for so long, and which are more than eager to resurface once more.

“Hayden, Hayden!!”

She hears him sigh and knows it is the end of their moment. And, no sooner than she thinks it, he lets go of her arms and turns his back on her. Marie appears at her side, Mark on the other, both worried, as if they are scared she will vanish into thin air. She hated that worried look, copied and pasted on both their faces; she hated that look. Hayden never had it. He had been worried, he had been tense, but not for a moment had he been scared. Thea shakes her head of her unkind thoughts. She cannot expect all people to be Hayden. One in their world is enough. Perhaps not for the group of ladies that just came in, but for her, one Hayden is more than she wants to have to deal with.

Irwing, the band’s manager, a guy in his fifties comes along, takes one good look at her and turns to Hayden with all the accusations in his stare. To the man’s utter contempt, Hayden does not move from Thea’s proximity, only gets closer.

“Hayden, that was a magnificent show, my boy!” says the newcomer, clasping his shoulder, even if he has to adjust his stance to reach it. “Magnificent! What a treat! And what a PR stunt you pulled! The media is in an uproar! Our sales are up by 5% from an hour ago! Your album will reach the sky, it will be phenomenal!”

“Yes, Hayden,” says one girl, touching his arm, “it was absolutely breath-taking. I have never seen a show of yours so… electric! You always manage to surprise us, to enchant us.”

Hayden releases his shoulder from Irwing’s grasp and his arm from the unrequited attention and steps sideways to check on Thea. To his delight, colour has returned to her cheeks and her breath is regular and deep now. Seeing that, his own breath comes back to normal, and he finds it in himself to smile at the groupies. He nods and shakes hands with them. But when Irwing pushes for photos, he shakes his head. His fans are wild tonight and he is totally unsympathetic.

“I’m not in the mood for selfies,” he growls.

“Ladies, ladies!!” Pete – the band’s bass player – comes in between an enraged Hayden and the girls, a huge smile on his face, and poses for the cameras. “How are you doing this fine night? Happy New Year!!”

“Could we get a group photo?” insists Irwing, pushing Hayden from Thea’s side. “Come on, Hayden, my boy, you made history tonight.”

“Yes, Hayden, please… And is there an afterparty to go to?” begs a doe-eyed beauty, grabbing his arm. On the other hand, the CD with the flames shines bright.

Thea knows that CD. She bought it the day it came out, she listened to it incessantly for the whole week. That damn CD is the main reason she is in this predicament, the reason she flew over the pond to check on them all. His hurt is well written, well sung, well-drawn on that album. From the first song, Burning Hot/Deep Crimson Day, she felt his anger. The next songs were tinged with agony. But on top of it all, sits his rage. No complaints, no sorrow, no melancholy. Pure rage.

She remembers being in her London apartment, on the Thames’ shores, watching the sunset and listening to his album on repeat. It felt painful. It felt raw. It was so good; the entire world shook. And it got Hayden another tour proposal and a few more movie deals.

The giggles of the girls make Thea snap back to the present moment. Her heart feels heavy somehow as if the universe is leaning on it. Hayden is all smiles and flirts, so the ladies are in seventh heaven. Marie grumbles behind her, and Thea struggles to tune her out. She cannot deal with her friend’s mean words. After all, Hayden is free to do whatever. Isn’t he?

When Jake, the last band member, comes in, another wave of fans follow-through, making Mark chastise himself for not considering a bigger security detail for that night. But then again, he never knew the heights of trouble that night would bring. Take Back Friday’s fans are all over the place. Only seeing Jonathan appear, ends his worrying. Hayden did not come alone. His own bodyguards are there and Mark can rest assured they cleared the exits. That way he can go back to the stage to continue the Open-mic night if the other singers will still be up to and for them to retreat to safety.

“Go,” says Marie, knowing his thoughts. “I’ll take Thea up; Hayden can fend for himself.”

Thea hears Hayden snicker and feels the tension building between her friends again, making her wish she were somewhere else.

“Wait,” Hayden says to Thea. “You were here first, perhaps you want a photo to commemorate this day too. Maybe you’ll put it on that website of yours… it will attract readers.”

Thea feels shrinking at his snide, but when the girls question who she is, she feels the need to run. And fast.

“Oh, she is Thea Ha–”, says Hayden, but stops himself short when his manager clears his throat. “Thea Hazel Marlow, a big fan! She’s the author of the Ancient Order. You know, the one based on the Arthurian legends… You read it? It is, after all, a best seller…”

“No,” says one of the girls looking down on Thea, as if she just saw her there. “I only read non-fiction.”

“Well, you should,” says Marie. “You’re missing out. And, as Miss Marlow’s PR, she does not have time for photos and signings anymore. But she invites you to grab a copy of her books from downstairs if there’s any left, and she promises to have it signed for you, Mr Hastings; for you and for your adoring fangirls, of course.”

While Marie pushes her up the stairs, Thea catches a smile from Jonathan, the head of Hayden’s security team, and she feels a pang in her heart. Jonathan always cared for her, always kept her safe and delivered her to Hayden in one piece. Jonathan was in charge of her security, and she knows Hayden gave him hell for what happened that day. She smiles back apologetically, but Jonathan waves her worries away. He does not hold grudges; he is too kind and too lovely to do it, despite his profession.

“Hayden, would you sign my CD?”

“Please sign my t-shirt,” says another, while Thea takes another step, to the attic, with Marie on her tail.

“Jake, could we take a selfie with you and Hayden?”

“Yes, yes!! Can we do it?”

“You’re the best, Hayden!!”

The chorus of fans’ requests and enchanted gasps follow them up to the living room. Marie closes the door and puts her back to it, as if trying to keep it all down, away from her.

“I haven’t seen Hayden in a year! Not since that night. I avoided him like the plague. I should have known he would pull such a shitty trick on all of us… Oh, and those girls… ah, that, that is everything I hate in this business. And yes, I am a big fan of many bands and authors and people, but really? Grabbing and pushing and batting eyelashes? Come on…”

Thea sits on a chair, hands in her hair. She knew they were not speaking to one another, but she did not know the depth of their grudge. Not until that moment. She also knows Marie’s annoyance with the groupies. They have looked down on her well before she married Mark.

“Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”

“No, please, sit down. Get away from the door, Marie… he will not come upstairs. And even if he will, you cannot shoulder that door all night.”

Marie giggles, hearing her. She knows Thea is right, and she knows her actions are ridiculous, but her anger hurts. She does not understand, although, how Thea is not livid after all that. Calling her a fan… She sits on the sofa, her skirt riding up to her knees. Pulling a pillow to her chest, Marie closes her eyes and whispers:

“I am sorry.”

Thea growls. “You’re not to blame. He is not to blame! Nobody is to blame but me.”

“Now, come on… If he wouldn’t be this… this…. This ridiculously stubborn, all our lives would be waaaay better.”

Thea frowns. She knows he is stubborn. She knows he is proud. She knows all his flaws, and he knows hers. But seeing him on that stage, up there… singing his heart out, for a fleeting moment she forgot it all and got lost in the what-ifs. And that hurt like hell.

“And this new album of his… Oh, yes, it is his. He wrote every single song in there, he composed the music, it could have been Hayden Hasting’s successful, out-of-the-charts solo album, if he would have wanted it. And, mind me, he did not do it out of magnanimity, but out of wanting to control the band. Mr Stubborn Man himself wanted to drag all of us in this deep pit of angst and terror, he is in. To stay in control. To have us all in this war of his…”

The doors open and Hayden, Mark, Pete, Jake, and Jonathan all come in. No groupies, though.

“By all means, lovely Marie, don’t stop on my account. Go on…”

Marie scowls and turns her face to the window, ignoring his presence. Thea tenses and sits up straight in her chair, suddenly aware of her entire composure. When she was in high school, she had a teacher who demanded they all sit up straight and act ladylike, and that same feeling she gets now. She knows she is being watched by all those pairs of eyes, and she feels heat coming to her cheeks.

“You were saying something about the band’s new album, right? An overnight success, if I remember correctly. The third one in a row, but this one has something special in it, doesn’t it? Is autobiographical, right? It contains Hayden Acker Hasting’s own war… Come on, Marie, you were never one to run away from a fight.”

“I have no interest in fighting with you, Hayden.”

“That’s rich…”

“Stop, please…”

Thea’s request is a whisper but has the impact of a hurricane. Hayden stops dead in his tracks and turns to face her.

Well, that was a mistake, thinks Thea, feeling herself shrink.

He corners her. His body is right in her face, obscuring the others. A smile is plastered on his face, one of those grins she has learned to hate, a raw and joyless smile that transforms his face into a mask.

“Please what, Thea? Enlighten me… Please?”

“I know you’re hurt–”

“Really? How so? Have you asked me? Have you answered any of my calls? Letters? Email? How so?”

Thea is on the verge of tears again. She lifts her face to see him, to draw energy from his rage, but his face is depleted. His body is solid as a rock, his face hidden under the mask, there is nothing but darkness. Nothing to feed her anger, but everything to scare her into silence again.

“I’ve listened to it, Hayden.”

Saying his name hurt. She did not know it could hurt like that. Yes, names had powerful magic. He bent under its weight; she got goosebumps.

“And you liked it? Thank you for buying it. Fans like you make it all, all of it, the pain, the solitude, the burn, and the misery, all worth it.”

That sarcasm draws Mark out of his stupor, and Thea sees him coming closer.

“Do you want a photo with us? I promise to smile…”

“Hayden, that’s enough!”

“No, actually it is not. I am just starting.” Hayden pivots to see his friends, and somehow, he reduces them to silence with the look on his face. He hates that he has this power over them, but today he will use it.”

“I will go,” says Thea while getting up.

“That’s new….” Hayden says facing her. “Things have changed, haven’t they? You don’t ask for your friends’ help this time…”

Jonathan scowls hearing this and Thea looks up right then, to see his face frown and darken. If possible, at that moment, she hates herself even more.

“Come on, Hayden, stop it.”

Jonathan’s plea for peace only gets Hyden riled up again. Thea can feel his anger building inside him, but for her it is too late, she does not wish to face him anymore, deep sadness subdues her whole anger. All she wants right now is to go back to the hotel, pick up her things and leave for the airport.

“I should have fired you that night. I should have fired all of you that night.”

“Hayden, back off, and leave Thea alone.”

“You back off, Jake!” barks Hayden. “She’s more than capable of speaking her own mind. She does not need you to become Prince Charming and save her.”

“No, for that role she has you, right, H.? You’re the only Prince Charming allowed in Thea’s life… Isn’t that right?”

Turning to Jake again, Hayden hears Thea say:

“I’m so sorry, guys, for all this. I’m going. Please forgive me. This was a mistake.”

Blocking her exit, Hayden says:

“You’re not going anywhere until Jonathan clears the groupies from outside. They’re quite wild tonight.”

“They’ve always been wild, Hayden! That was one of the problems.”

Marie’s input only brings more tension to both Thea and Hayden, and memories flood both their heads at the same moment.

Hayden is the first one to shake them off.

“We’re all due for a chat, aren’t we? I think we’re long overdue… “

Thea bows her head, feeling his pain, and her heart stops when he says:

“So, Thea, why?”

It is not a question of sanity now. That is long gone.

They’re all insane at this point.

After Hayden’s question, hell broke loose. Jacob was the first one to get lit. His face was painted with anger and, when he came to sit with Thea, Hayden went mad.

That has always been the problem. Hayden, Jacob, and their mutual need to protect Thea. From the other.

Or from themselves.

Chaos always ensues when they’re all three in a room. A thing which Thea is usually trying to avoid at all costs.

Not that she can do that now.

“Would you stop meddling, Jake?”

“Would you just get down from that mighty horse of yours, Hayden?”

“Guys… please…”

“Well, at least I have a horse-”

Thea bit her lips. The sound that just escaped them is inappropriate. So inappropriate she wishes she could take it back.

She cannot look at Hayden, who stopped mid-sentence to stare at her.

“You find that funny, Thea? Please, tell me how is that funny…”

Thea bites her lips again. She tries not to make eye contact with anyone in that room, but she finds Jacob’s eyes, and in them she sees the same twinkly laughter she knows it sparkles in hers as well. When he shakes his head, as if to stop her, she just cannot hold it anymore and bursts.

Tears well up in her eyes, while she doubles down in laughter, so weird, so out of place, she wishes to stop. She wishes it so badly that the wish brings another fit of laughter, and another one, and another one, until Jake joins her. They both laugh like insane people in a room where all the others stare at them with incredulous looks in their eyes.

“Stop it now, you sound like lunatics…” Marie whispers, to no avail. The two of them are out of breath now, and try to find places to sit, so they won’t fall.

“Thea. Stop. It.”

Hayden’s words have the power of a cold shower. With a gasp for air, Thea regains her sobriety and stands up. She feels again like she is in the middle grade and the nuns are chastising her for giggling.

Her and Jacob. Thea Hazel Marlow and Jacob Finn Osmond. The Twins, as everyone called them back in the days. The Tricksters. The Adventurous. The Wild Ones.

How things have changed… Not for Jacob, though… Thea thinks. But for her. She has changed. She somehow became this kind of precious wallflower, looking at the others living their lives, keeping her wishes silent, making her smaller and more transparent every day.

Oh, how she loathed herself when she realised what she was doing. When she allowed herself to feel again.

And Jacob? She was living his life unapologetically. As free as a bird. Not caring for anything but the wind beneath him, raising him higher and higher, wilder and freer, more of a mythological creature than a human.

“Oh, you never had a sense of humour, Hayden,” spits Jacob through his teeth, grabbing Thea’s hand and dragging her down to the couch next to him.

“Not your sense of humour, you mean…” responds Hayden.

“No, not our sense of humour.”

Jacob’s words hit their mark and Hayden’s anger boils again. The moment of respite is long gone and they are at each other’s throats yet again.

“You have something to say, say it, Jake. What, you think I don’t know you and Thea have a past? Way before we met? Is that what you mean? Say it. Say it out loud. Now that we are putting the cards on the table, how about we be honest with one another?”

Thea tenses next to Jacob as much as he seems to relax.

“I got nothing to say. You seem to do a better job speaking my mind than I do. Everybody’s mind… But hey, you always did, right?”

“Jake, please, no.”

“Oh, come on, kid… he wants to argue. Let’s give it a go. We’ve been walking on eggshells around him for far too long.”

Saying that, Jacob raises to his feet, facing Hayden.

“You want a fight?”

That is not quite a question coming from Hayden’s lips. Is an invitation. An open invite to a long-time feud.

“Say I do.”

“You guys…” pleads Marie coming closer to them, while Mark and Pete also gather round.

“Stay out of this, Marie, this is between Hayden and me.”

When the first punch flies, Thea jumps to her feet, grabbing Jacob’s arm, and positions herself with the back to Hayden. She can almost feel his heat coming from his thin shirt, a warmth she is welcoming for a split of a second. The hurt in Jacob’s eyes makes her sigh out loud and say:

“You will both stop right this instant. We’re all friends here, and we will solve this like adults.”

Her words are cutting the tension in half, but the power match is far from over. Hayden’s hand brushes her shoulder while raising a finger towards Jacob, who’s arm is still in Thea’s grip.

“Just name the time and the place.”

“I will, don’t worry.”
Thea shakes her head and pushes Hayden back with her body, welcoming this closeness. Only then she releases Jacob’s arm.

“You were always quick, you little cobra,” Jacob smiles, massaging his forearm. “Not to mention always protecting this jerk.”

“Hey, this jerk is your best-friend,” says Mark, finally being able to breathe again.

“Was.” both Hayden and Jacob say at the same time.

Thea giggles again. Jacob smiles. Hayden only frowns deeper.
For Thea it feels good to see Jacob again, and to see that, despite it all, their friendship and their camaraderie is still there. She is content to hear him laugh again. When Hayden appeared in their lives, their dynamic had changed. There were no longer Thea and Jake, the terrible duo, but Thea and Hayden and Jake and Hayden. Never the three, never the original two.

“I am glad you’re back home, kid!”

“Is she though?” says Hayden, bitter poison on his lips. “Doesn’t look like it… And for sure it doesn’t feel like it.”

Five pairs of eyes look at Thea at the same moment. She doesn’t even know what to say to that; she doesn’t even know what she could answer to their silent questions.

Is she back? Does she want to be back? Is that home anymore?

What sanity? That is the real question.

Following Hayden’s inquiry, Thea remains silent. Her mind is racing to find an answer, her cheeks turn to a redder shade than she ever thought herself capable of achieving.

“So, are you? Back, I mean…”

“I… I…”

Thea does not finish her thoughts, not that she would know what to say, when the band’s manager bursts in, redder than Thea. A huge smile is plastered on his face, and before they can react, he is clapping Hayden’s back like there’s no tomorrow.

“Hayden, my boy! I knew you were a goldfish when I first saw you ten years ago upon that stage in SanFran. But not in my wildest dreams I could imagine you will be this big…”

Taken by surprise by this, Hayden staggers.

“What are you talking about, Irwing?”

Irwing stops talking and takes a step back. He looks from Hayden to Thea and from Thea back to Hayden, trying to dissimulate his displeasure with her. But he is too giddy to let his antipathies linger on and he claps Hayden’s back again.

“The rumours are out there. We’re working on the press release right now. If I knew it from the beginning, I would have made a better plan, but, hey, I am not the one to look at the gift horse’s teeth. I am too excited!”

“Clearly,” mutters Hayden under his breath, putting some distance between him and his effusive manager.

“Now, what’s this about?”

“What do you mean what’s this about? Your new role, of course!”

“What new role?”

“The one that will take you from a superstar status to the Immortal Legend status.”

“Oh, you mean he’s not there yet,” says Marie, not trying to hide her sarcasm.

“This is ridiculous, Irwing. What’s this about?”

Irwing does not answer, a stupid smile is plastered on his face and Thea worries his cheeks might crack if he won’t stop grinning like that.

“I have the press ready for you to go live in half an hour. I believe Mark has no problem in using his bookshop for this monumental development.”

Mark tries not to flinch hearing Irwing’s defamatory stance on his “bookshop”, but agrees.

“I will coordinate with Morton on our take on this and how to best spin it, now that the cat’s out of the bag and will come upstairs to set you up. In the meantime, freshen up, we need that perfect face to sell and knock us out of the park, son!”

“Morton? That piece of… is here, in my bookstore?”

That is it. Mark is losing it. He never liked that newspaperman who stalked them for the better half of a year, checking their trash and popping out from the least expected places with his flash camera, and almost costing Mark his marriage and Marie and Thea their lives.

“No, no! I want him out. I want him out, Hayden! I will not have him here close to Marie or Thea, or I will strangle him with my bare hands. Take that as a piece of news that will knock us out of the park. You hear me Irwing!?”

“Now, Mark, be reasonable, son.”

“Do not call me son!”

“Fine, I won’t call you son, but listen to me, boy. Morton is the one who has the audience for this and can help us have the impact we want.”

Thea has always believed Morton and Irwing were working closely together, but when she mentioned it to Hayden, he dismissed her worries away. He always did that. He never believed her. Shaking her head and taking a big breath in, she put her hand on Mark’s arm.

“He has no power over us, my dear. Marie is safe and so am I, and Morton’s actions cannot hurt us.”

As if to strengthen Thea’s words, Marie hugs him, smiling.

“Thea is right, honey. Morton is no bother to me.”

“I hate the guy!”

“Yeah, we know that,” Thea says, also smiling.

“Hate him all you want, but he’s going to be there, conducting the interviews.”
Irwing twirls around and leaves them all stunned. For a few moments, no one moves.

“What just happened?” asks Pete.

“Didn’t you hear? Hayden’s gonna be an immortal goldfish or something like it…”

“Stop it, Jake.”

“Make me.”

Rolling her eyes, Thea comes between them.

“Not this again. I thought we got over it.”

“You did? How lovely, we have just started.”

Thea shoots a side glance at Hayden, and he frowns.

“Look, I better go now, and leave you all to it. I have no part in this.”

“By your choice.”

“Hayden!”

“What, I just wanted to make that clear,” he says, putting his hands up. “She left; she did not want to be part of this… whatever this can be. So, I just stated the obvious.”

“Well, thank you, Captain Obvious,” says Thea, not being able to hold her tongue anymore.

Hayden just shrugs, saying:

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Yeah, I remember.”
Jacob’s input is not well received, as Hayden gets up again, facing his friend.
Hayden’s phone rings. To Thea’s dismay is set to one of TBF’s songs that she very well remembers. He pulls it from his pocket, red-faced, and puts it to vibrate. He does not make eye contact with anyone, while he reads his message.

“Why is Elaine calling me?”

“Elaine?!” Thea wears her shock on her face. “I don’t know. She doesn’t even know I came here…”

“Yeah, about that…” says Pete. The concert was live-streamed on our webpage. Including breaks, so you and Hayden kinda were together in a few shots…

“You live-streamed it??”

“Well, technically not me, but Irwing…”

“You knew better, Pete,” says Thea hurt, on the brink of tears. “You knew better than this. You should have told us…”

“Yeah, Pete, cause you heard the lady, she does not want to be a part of this…”

Hayden’s not-so-subtle insult does not pass unnoticed.

“Yes, Hayden, I don’t. Whatever this is, as you say, I don’t want it. Okay? It does not interest me; I want nothing to do with it! This place, this band, this… relationship… this-”

“This marriage?” he offers, and she stops dead in her tracks. “Go on, this is what would have come next, right? You don’t want to be part of this marriage.” Hayden sighs, not taking his eyes off her. “Just say it Thea and we’d both be in the clear.”

Thea grabs her bag and her coat, raises a hand to Jacob who gets in her way and opens the door, only to find the least desired person in its frame.

“Well, well, if it is not the very elusive Lady Marlow-Hastings… The mirage in the desert, the one and only bride of Hayden Hastings. I have been looking for you for the better half of the year, Lady Hastings. What a treat to find you right here. Where it all started, right? Could I get a picture? Yes, well lovely, he says, clicking on his phone before anyone has a chance to move. Well, now try nothing funny, I linked it to my cloud and there are people who can ensure it will go public if something happens. Now, how about you all take a seat and I talk? I am not here tonight to delve in the most secret marriage of our times, but to make some honest money out of this first scoop.”

“That would be a first…” says Mark, ready to jump at him.

Morton smiles and closes the door behind him, phone in hand, forcing Thea to take a step back.

“So, what are your thoughts on this… extremely lucrative job for all of you?”

Seeing the faces of the ones surrounding him, he burst into laughter.

“You mean you haven’t heard? This is priceless. No wonder Irwing wants to have a press release before the night is over. So, you lot, won’t ruin it. Afterwards, we’ll come with the news about your nuptials.”

Hayden jumps from his corner and grabs the collar of the newspaperman, pushing him in the wall behind him with such hate, that makes Thea jump.

“Start talking, Morton. What do you know?”

The smile on Morton’s face is unwavering. He just shakes his head, his arms up.

“It is all done now. Irwing has accepted the offer anyway on your behalf. I believe the PoA you signed a while ago is still valid.”

As if summoned, Irwing comes back to the room, and seeing Hayden holding Morton against the wall, hurries to his aid.

“Hayden, my boy, let him go. He is a douche, but he is on our side. And think about the bad publicity we would receive if this gets out.”

“Yeah, Hayden, think of all the publicity you would get and the stories I would tell…”

Against his wishes, Hayden releases him and retreats to Thea’s side. His phone is vibrating incessantly in his pocket. He takes it and sees Elaine’s photo popping on his screen. Why would she call him? He hands it to Thea.

Unwillingly, she takes it. This is not the moment to have another unpleasant discussion. The entire night has been a mess. She feels tired to her bones. Hayden motions to her to pick it up and, knowing Elaine will not stop hounding her, she answers.

“Elaine, hi, yes… this is not the – What, what are you saying? Please slow down, I don’t understand a word… What? What do you mean? No. Oh no. Please tell me you didn’t. Elaine, for the love of – Yes, I shut my phone. But why? Why would you think that?? You saw what now??”

“What’s wrong?” Hayden nudges her, while she shakes her head, fighting back the tears.

“Arthur, Arthur is what’s wrong!” she manages to say.

“Arthur? No…” Now Hayden shakes his head and turns so fast on his heels, Thea gets dizzy.

“What have you done, Irwing? You pushed for Broadway? You revived Arthur? I specifically told you not to ever bring it to my attention.”

Irwing waves his hand at Hayden’s concerns and turns to Morton again.

“So, go on and do it. Publish it. The new face of King Arthur – Hayden Acker Hastings from TBF, starting on Broadway this spring. Music by Take Back Friday, Lyrics by Miss Marlow, directed by Vladimir Antoniev. You can also mention that Guinevere‘s part was already given, but do not under any circumstances mention who she is, so we can keep the audience on the edge of their seats during the whole press conference.”

“I won’t do it.”

Hayden’s words stop the world. Thea looks up from him, her phone still glued to her ear. Elaine’s voice is just a nuisance at this point. Morton and Irwing looking at him both gape-mouth and eyes popping out of their sockets, the band members all in shock.

“I am not doing it. I am not working with her.”

Of all the reasons he could think of for not reviving Arthur, that was the worst. But he knew it would make the biggest impact. And true to his thought, Thea just gasps next to him, drops his phone and walks out of the room, leaving him there, dead inside, and alone as he never imagined he could be.

“You will do it, boy. I already signed the agreement. And from what I know, Miss Marlow’s editor has accepted on her behalf. It is a done deal.”

“You’re fired.”

This is Jake’s voice and Hayden is glad to have his friend again in his corner.

“You have no legal ground.”

“We’ll find some. And if needed, I’ll take you to court myself. That legal diploma of mine comes handy right now, Irwing. I never liked you anyway. I just put up with you for Hayden’s sake. But you’re nothing but a low-life asshole!”

The door opens, and Hayden raises his eyes, hopefully. To his dismay, it is not Thea who stands in the door, but his second nightmare of the night. All dressed up in a sparkly pink mini-dress, matched purse and heels, wearing a litre of perfume, clouding his senses and making him wish he were somewhere else entirely.

“Hay, love!! Hay, have you heard the news? Irwing, you told him? I wanted to be the one to tell him!”

She jumps on him, hugging him and kissing him, making him nauseous. A migraine is circling his head, and he tries to escape her embrace.

When the door opens again, letting Thea enter, Hayden wants to disappear entirely. What a sad picture she can see now. Pain and hurt cover her beautiful eyes, and when Elise says:

“I’ll be the Guinevere to your Arthur…”

Thea locks eyes with him in silent agony.

“Don’t be so sad, Miss Marlow, you can still be the Morgana to Mr Hasting’s Arthur.”

“What did you just say to her?”

Morton’s face goes pale when Hayden spins on his heels, faster than humanly possible.

“Hayden, no!”

Thea closes her eyes too late, though. She sees Hayden’s fist connect to the newspaper’s man jaw. She hears the terrible sound that makes.

“Oh, that was a long time coming!” says Hayden in Morton’s face.

“Well, that’s okay, I will let this one slide,” says Morton. “But the next time you put a finger on me, Mr Golden Boy, I’ll leak the tapes. Oh, what tapes you ask? I am glad you do! Let’s just say we have got one with a secret wedding, hidden deep in the mountains, and another one with a private concert, with the original Take Back Friday, who had, let’s say some well-known feminine voices…”

“You scoundrel!”

This one was Jacob. His voice is in the same tone as Hayden’s.

“How??” is all Marie can say.

“I have my sources…”

“You mean Irwing?”

“No, your Manager is extremely loyal to you…”

“Hayden, what is this about?” the starlet asks, and Thea remembers she is there as well.

“What do you want? Money?”

Morton laughs at Thea’s question.

“I have money. I want something else.”

“What do you want?”

“I want my name back. I want you to go public and admit you lied. And I was right. And you and Miss Marlow here are indeed married.”

“Married?? Hay, what is this, you never mentioned a wife. Not this… wife…”

Thea shifts her eyes to the starlet who stares at her, disbelief written all over her puckered face.

“Well, I would understand why you’d want to keep it secret, but I cannot understand for the love of… why would you marry… her?”

“Gee, thanks…”

“Well, no offence…”

“Clearly…”

Thea turns again to Morton and asks:

“What else can we give you? Come on, I know you have a backup plan. You’re clearly a man of business.”
Morton smiles.

“I see why you would marry her,” but then he stops, seeing Hayden closing in again. “Fine. I want the exclusivity of Arthur. All the juicy stuff, full behind the scene access, all of it.”

“And you’ll be happy with that?“

“I did not say I will do Arthur.”

“And why not?” Thea snaps.

“What do you mean, why not? You said a long time ago that Arthur is yours and you would not let him out of your hands…”

“I will. I mean, I will give him to you right now. You can have him, for all I care…”

Hayden scowls. He knows how big Arthur is for both of them. Well, was, since she is so easily getting rid of it. He cannot fathom to think of a better writer than her. He does not want another writer for Arthur. He cannot conceive doing it without Thea. Is her baby as much as it is his. If not even more…

“Oh, well, then we’ll do it!” says the Starlet.

“Stay out of it, Elise,” says Jacob, fuming.

“You can have him,” says Thea again, putting another nail in his coffin.

“Nooo, no, that’s not going to work. You do it together. Or we have no deal.”

Thea cannot believe what she hears. Why would the man be so keen on them doing Arthur together? There’s something behind it and she cannot seem to find it.

“But I have no interest in this. I never wrote a musical and I do not have the time to do it now. Not when I’m due for another installment for my series.”

“Make time.”

She can see it as if it is happening right now. The enthusiasm on Hayden’s face that early morning, when they discussed Arthur for the first time, in the tiny kitchen of their NY flat. Even at that inhumane hour, the city was wide awake, and the sounds from the intersection came through the open windows. On the table there were a bunch of yellow daffodils, Hayden picked up on his morning run. Spring came early that year, and the sun was already peeking through the gigantic buildings close by. She woke up right after Hayden went for his run and put the coffee pot on. Then opened the laptop and started scribbling here and there some ideas for her recent novel. But it did not stick. She could not seem to focus well enough so she started surfing the internet, mindlessly, until a portrait of King Arthur caught her eye. He looked like Hayden so much; she filled ten pages in her notebook with ideas for a… novel, short story, movie, theatre play or something. Hayden found her lost in the medieval lore and the portrait of Arthur printed in full colour staring at him.

“What are you working on? These are for you!”

He kissed her forehead and jumped into the shower.

“No idea and thank you!” she hid her face in the sunny bouquet, inhaling the springy scent.

“Something Arthurian by the looks of it, but I do not think it will be a novel or a novella or whatever.”

“And you had to Photoshop my face on that painting?”

His laughter and cocked brow made her look again at the portrait of the King looking back at her. So, he saw it too. The uncanny resemblance.

“I didn’t. And I am not that good with Photoshop to do it!”

Hayden took the picture and sipped from her coffee, pensive.

“But it looks like me.”

“I know, right?”

He looked through her notes for a while, and they sat there in silence, both entrapped in that story when he suddenly stood up, hands raised above his wet hair and said:

“Turn it to a musical! I’ll play!!”

“Come on, H, I cannot write a musical… I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“Just think about it,” he said, joy sprinkling in his eyes. Us working together again. Oh, the fun we’d have. Marie can make the costumes and Pete and Mark can be the Knights! Ooooh, just think of poor Jake’s face when we’ll make him play Merlin or something… That’d be fun, right? Riiiight?”

“Yessss,” she laughed thinking about Jacob’s reaction. “We can trace the author of this and use his/her painting as the poster for the show!”

“And you’d be my Guinevere.”

“No, no! I never liked her…” she laughed. “I will be the witch, Morgana. And I will torture you and make your life miserable.”

“I can live with that!” he smiled, taking her into his arms. “As long as you promise it will be forever and ever and ever!”

“Oh, love, I think I can promise you a lifetime of misery!” she laughed when he tickled her.

“T! Thea, where are you, girl? Have we lost you?”

With a shiver, Thea snaps back from her memories only to find Hayden’s eyes on her. Marie is at her side, grabbing her arm, trying to make her pay attention.
Hayden’s eyes are dark, and fury is written all over his face. She understands he knows what it is she remembered.

“So, we have a deal, right?

Mr Hastings will be Arthur, the coveted King of the Brits, Mrs Elise here will be his adored Queen and Miss Marlow, or should I say Mrs Hastings will play Morgana.”

“No, I won’t. I can’t do that.”

“You can’t what? Make my life a living hell?”

Hayden’s words hurt. And how they hurt…

“No, Hayden,” she snaps.

“My life goal is not to make you miserable.”

“No? I could beg to differ.”

“Well, you’re entitled to that. After all you’re the King wearing the crown, no?”

Morton’s laughter stops them from bickering.

“You two sure are a married couple, aren’t you? So, there’s the deal. Now, to make it formal. I will accept Miss Marlow not to play Morgana, even though it would surely be a treat to see, but she will write the script for it. And not from a far distance. I need to see you all during the creation and the first night in the same room. That would be my payment.”

What has she done? How can she work alongside Hayden for all that time without killing each other?
Hayden just stares at her, Elise close to him, as if they just threw the glove her way, and she had to pick it up. At least she has Marie in her corner, and that makes her happy. She is not alone.

However, she is wondering with whom the others will side this time around.

It is war, after all.

Another thunder booms in the distance, only to be followed by a lightning strike and again, another thunder. Even with the windows closed shut and the big drapes covering them, the building shudders with the outside drama, that echoes the drama brewing on the inside.

The round-table discussing Arthur started hours ago. For several it was just business talk. Thea cannot remember anything, if it were to save her life.
“Hayden, hey, did you hear me?”

Morton’s question startles him.

Thea, despite knowing better, is happy to know she is not the only one not paying attention. She sees Hayden stiff in his chair and at his side, Elise is throwing virtual knives across the table…

“No. Say it again. Please,” he says, to sweeten his words.

“I was saying that you and Miss Marlow will have to issue a press release on this subject and you should both think about what you want to put in it.”

“Why me and… her?”

If she could, she would stand up at that moment and slap Hayden with the thick pile of papers in front of her which contain the first scenes of Arthur she spent two weeks working on. But Elaine is close to her, whispering:

“I’ve got you covered.”

Then she turns to the band’s manager and says:

“Miss Marlow has already prepared a statement and if it will be fine by Mr Hasting’s part, she will publish it on her website and on all her social media.

“Fine by me. If she can delegate this to her editor, Irwing, you do the same for me. Now, if that’s all for today-”

“We have the first scenes of Arthur ready,” says Elaine. “You all have copies, but due to Mr. Morton’s request, you have to read them here, and not take them out of this room.”

“This is bull-”

“Hayden!”

Thea can see him roll his eyes before he slumps in his chair. He has always been a petulant child when things did not work his way. And he did not change a bit. Somehow that makes her happy.

They’ve been at the same scene for over an hour now. She cannot take it anymore. Nothing she wrote is good for Elise, especially the way she portrayed Guinevere.

Another boom makes Thea shiver. She hasn’t been sleeping well in the past weeks, and the hotel life does not agree with her. Despite being invited over and over again by Mark and Marie to use their spare room, she keeps postponing the move. If she does, she will feel like she is growing roots. And, God forbid that would happen!

“I will rewrite the scenes,” she whispers, cradling her forehead when Elise complains once again about the poor depiction of the best queen of all times. “I will rewrite it all. And I’ll do it right away.”

With that she gets up, gathers her papers and leaves the room, only to find herself chased by none other than Hayden. Probably he is there to complain as well.

“Wait.”

She does not want to turn around. She does not want to see his face; his disappointment must be probably written all over his face. Arthur meant so much to him, and now she is ruining it for him. To her surprise, Hayden does not say anything more, but starts fumbling in his jacket.

“What’s this?” she says when he pulls a key out.

“It’s your key.”

Like she could forget that stupid key-chain he won for her at a Renaissance Fair depicting a queen with a crooked smile. He said, then, it looked like her. She was his queen with a crooked smile. In time the golden crown had turned reddish and the queen’s smile had completely disappeared.

“I know what it is, I wanted to know why are you giving me this?”

“You’re supposed to be better with words…” he says, dropping the key on top of her papers. “Anyway, you can use the house. You’ve got as much right to do it as I am… and I know how much you hate the hotels.”

“What about…”

“Don’t worry, I’m not staying there.”

With that he just turns around and leaves her alone, staring at the fading queen.

The porch stairs creak in the same spots as ever. The flowerbeds have grown wilder than she saw them, wild roses clinging to the bricks, up to the balcony. But they are well tended for. Thea unlocks the house, leaving the queen dangling in the door. Colourful stained glass throws colourful patches on the floor. Surprisingly, the air is fresh inside, even with the windows closed shut. While still on the porch, Thea looks inside, unable to convince her feet to move. The house is quiet. Thea remains still for a while, bag in hand, heart raising to her throat. A gust of wind ruffles her hair and she finally steps over the threshold.

There’re fresh flowers on the dining table and in the kitchen. White roses, hydrangeas and peonies. Lush arrangements, cascading from the countertops.

The house feels expecting. Expecting her to make a sound. To say something. To welcome her back or to spit her out on the street. The house wants to recognize her, but when she catches herself in a mirror, she stops dead in her tracks.

Who is this stranger in their house? Who is this pale woman with empty eyes starring herself down in the hallway? Whose hands are these? Whose face is that? She seems familiar somehow.

Thea turns away from the mirror, and walks into the living room. The grand piano occupies half of it, and is opened, as if Hayden just stepped out for a run. A pile of books is on the table next to it, and one is open on the chair. She knows what book it is. And at what page, even from across the room. Taking a deep breath in to calm her erratic heart, she catches a whiff of a scent.

Everything looks frozen. As if a sleeping spell had been placed on their castle, but its occupants were outside when it happened and they could move for a year, while their home slept.

In a way she feels like she slept too. Even though her body and mind moved, her soul has remained trapped under the same magic as the house. Turned to stone. Waiting. Dormant. And this while the world spun around her. While Hayden moved on and lived his life to the fullest.

The mere thought brings tears in her eyes. She gets out on the porch and pulls her phone out.

“I can’t. Please come get me. Please come.”

“What were you thinking coming here alone, Thea?”

“Just drive, please?”

Marie makes a u-turn and gets out of the domain, passing by the gates and following her way back to the highway, while Thea rests her weary head on the window.

Soon enough, lulled by the engine’s sound and car motion, Thea falls asleep.

“When did you two go wrong, I don’t understand. What happened to you is something that keeps me awake at night. It’s not like any of you can get the other out of their mind, soul, and heart. What happened to you and Hayden, Thea? Why can’t you talk to one another? You used to be so good together. So good…”

Marie’s rant is for her own ears. Thea is fast asleep even when she is pulling into the driveway.

“What happened?” Mark says, but Marie shushes him down.

“You spoke to him?”
Mark nods.

“He’s on his way.”

“This has to end.”

“I agree.”

Marie jolts, hearing him. Mark only raises a hand, in a weary wave then slumps into his chair. Three friends, looking at one another, trying to understand each other’s actions, trying to figure the others out.

“I don’t know if I can do Arthur. It doesn’t feel right.”

Hayden’s confession wakes Mark out of his stupor.

“I told you. I told you Hayden. Repeatedly. This is not the way. And definitely, back then, it was not. What were you expecting? What were you thinking? How can you be this stubborn?”

Hyden’s shoulders drop, his eyes are filled with sorrow. He knows Mark’s words are true. He knows he has made mistakes in his life to last for the next ten ones. Maybe the latest was the craziest.

Marie can see his angst and pain and almost feels sorry for him. Well, truth be told, she feels sorry for him.

“But there might be a way to make it work again.”

Both men look up to her. Marie’s got a plan. They can see it in her eyes.

“It will not be easy and it will take a lot of planning. Think you can hang in there for a little while, H?”

“You’d help me?”

“I deserve that,” says Marie. “And I accept it. I haven’t been the best of friends. Just that sometimes, okay, most times you are a pain in the…”

“Marie!”

“Come on, Mark, that is the truth.”

Hayden nods.

“Please help. Whatever you can.”

Marie ushers him out the back door, just in time, as Thea comes through the front of the house, yawning.

“You actually left me sleeping in the car, drooling all over the window?”

Marie smiles and nods.

“Yep. You deserve it. You’re too stubborn.”

That scent is familiar. Thea whiffs a little and then looks Marie straight in the eye.

“What?”

“Who was here?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking ‘bout. Go now, take a shower, and get some good sleep. We have Arthur in two hours. I’ll come to wake you up.”

Thea is trying to stare her friend down and make her spill it out, but Marie starts opening cabinets, getting out pans and flour and other spices, and then she knows. Marie is planning something. Only when she’s planning something she bakes.

Mark just raises his shoulders and shakes his head. He knows nothing, and Thea believes him. The knowing will come after the pie is ready. Somehow Thea does not find Marie’s scheming comforting this time. She knows Hayden was there. She could pick up his perfume out of a million.

Sighing, with a weary soul she goes up the stairs to the guests’ room, her room and drops in bed, face down, Hayden’s scent still filling her lungs, clouding her mind.

There was little left to do at that point. The scene was set and Arthur was on a roll. A castle appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the set, a river flew behind it, and people were wearing light armours, clicking at every step everywhere she looked.

The air is filled with anticipation, as this is the first rehearsal with music. Listening to it the night before, Thea ended up sobbing and fell asleep with tears in her eyes. Her words, carefully chosen out of million others, got an ethereal feeling, now accompanied by the band’s music. The week before, Hayden only came to do his part, leaving almost immediately to work on the arrangements. Mark and Pete accompanied him, pulling late night works in Mark’s home studio… But Jacob disappeared for a couple of days and did not come to the rehearsals until that day. Thea could not wait to see his Lancelot to Hayden’s Arthur.

Thea raises her sight from the papers and watches Hayden. He is doing one last fit of the costume, and she cannot ignore the beauty of the handiwork of the costume department. To his left is the picture with the Arthur she found back in the day, and his overall look fits Hayden like a glove. Although she knows what lies underneath all that, she cannot shake the feeling of resemblance.

Out of nowhere Elise appears at her side, demanding again to change the scene. The director shakes his head, and Elise leaves, mumbling something about bad writers and bad directors, all out to get her.

Marie’s smile, from the set, makes Thea smile too. Her ally. Her friend. Her biggest supporter. Although she knows Marie lied about Hayden’s presence in the house, she knows nothing bad went down. There’s so much to their friendship and so much trust going round.

“Hayden, my boy… you look so royal, if I may say so…”

Thea sees Irwing appearing on the set, circling Hayden. He is beaming with pride, as if he, himself, has given birth to the mighty King Arthur.

“Everybody, take your places, we’re ready for the rehearsal. Scene 2 Act 3, Arthur confronts Morgana.”

Thea’s heart jumps to her throat. She loves this scene, there is so much emotion and so much hurt in Arthur when the one he considered his best friend all those years plunges a sword through him, that she cried writing it. Also, the actress-singer who plays Morgana, Genevieve, is brilliant, and Thea is more than happy with the casting.

Hayden takes his place, in the middle of the set, sword raised. Music begins and it is haunting. It is the first time they all hear it. Hayden and the boys have done wonders with it.

Thea feels as proud as Irwing was earlier. She clings to the edge of her chair, listening to the crescendo of the music, while Hayden is singing his lost love. He is in visible pain and when Morgana takes him by surprise, Thea shivers.

When she admits her interference in Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal, Hayden/Arthur drops Excalibur and falls to his knees. Morgana picks it up, a satisfied grin plastered on her face, and plunges it into the Great King’s chest.

Thea gasps for air, louder than she had thought as Hayden’s eyes look for her, out of character, and the music is cut.

“Sorry, so sorry…” she mumbles, as all the faces turn to her.

“That was magnificent! Thea, well done, Hayden, boys, the same! Gen, you were great!” The director beams, hugging her. “Let’s do it again, now from where Lancelot and Guinevere’s boat fades into the mist and Arthur comes down from the castle. Then, again, please, the scene between him and Morgana. It was brilliant, and I want to see it once again. Finally, I want to see Arthur falling into the same river that took his love. Bloody brilliant!”

Jacob is in full Armor, his sword is in hand, blood trickling down from one shoulder. His chainmail is cut open, and the wound is visible. At his side, Guinevere looks stricken with pain, as she tends to his wounds; and Thea thinks Elise is a great actress, even when she keeps glancing back at Hayden, during the whole scene. The confrontation between Lancelot and Arthur is painful to watch, both men are amazing, and when Lancelot tells Arthur “That can only happen when you don’t see what’s right in front of you”, feels more like Jake telling Hayden, not their characters. Thea feels it to her bones, and sees Hayden take the blow deeper than as his character.

Guinevere and Lancelot hurry into the boat, and the mist is hiding them from their eyes, while the music is crying Arthur’s solitude. When Morgana comes, Gen is even more in character and pushes the blade deep between Arthur’s ribs, with a sinister chant:

“All’s ended now! Camelot has fallen.”

Hot tears smear Thea’s makeup, and she wipes them with fury.

She watches as Hayden falls from the cliff, with a thud, down into the rapid waters.

“Cut! Brilliant! Everybody, take five!”

As the director yells, applauding, at her side, Thea’s eyes get accustomed to the lights beaming on the stage. There, at the bottom of it, Arthur has fallen, and Hayden is still down, unmoving.

For a split of a second nobody else moves as well. Regaining her wits, Thea jumps out of her chair, racing down to the stage, at the same time as Jake does from the other side.

“Hayden!!”

Red, hot waves of fear and angst cripple in Thea’s soul, when she kneels down to his body. Deep Crimson Day starts playing in her mind and she tries to shake it.

“Hayden, Hayden, please…”

Her hands find his face, but that’s not all she finds. A sliver of red, dark, hot river comes from his temple, covering her fingers.

“Call an ambulance now!” yells Jacob, getting down to his knees. “Hayden, wake the hell up!”


There are blue lights flickering in the hallways. A pungent smell of cleaner and disinfectant make her eyes water. Not that she wasn’t crying silently for the past half hour anyway. On her right is Marie, on her left Jake. While Marie keeps muttering small prayers to the God above, Jake is keeping quiet, his face carved in stone. Mark is with the doctors and Elise was escorted out by the guards, when she tried to push them over so she could accompany Hayden to the examination room.

Since then everything is quiet. Except for the buzzing and the humming of the ventilation and Marie’s whispers.

Thea is incapable to stand still. Her entire body is itching for movement, so hard, that she actually trembles. Behind that blue door is Hayden. Lying down on a hospital coat, room swarming with doctors and nurses. He is being prodded and pushed, touched and turned, and she cannot protect him. He hates hospitals. He always did. He could climb mountains, jump into fires and into glaciers, but he cannot stand to be pricked with a needle. The man is helpless in front of a tiny needle.

She shifts her weight on the other leg, and her movement is caught by Jake’s eyes.

With the corner of her eye, Thea sees Marie shaking her head in Jake’s direction and he retreats to his shell, unmoving.

“What’s going on with you two?”

Her question remains unanswered when Elise appears again in the doorway, accompanied by Hayden’s manager and the newspaper guy. She gives Thea the death glare and goes straight to the nurses’ station, her heels louder than an aeroplane.

“I want to see Hayden. Now.”

“I’m sorry, Miss-”

“I don’t care what you are, I demand to see Hayden. NOW! Irwing, tell them!”

“Are you family, Miss?”

The question, coming from behind her, makes Elise turn fast on her heels and face the newcomer. He is a tall, lean, young and by the looks of it, exhausted doctor.

“Yes. I am his girlfriend.”

“That is not true,” whispers Marie loud enough that the doctor hears.

“Miss-”

“Elise. My name is Elise Richards. Yes, that Elise Richards. And I came to see Hayden Hastings. That Hayden Hastings! Now, you see who we are and you need to-”

“I’m sorry Miss Richards, I do not quite care who you are. A girlfriend is not family and if no one here is one, please call them, they need to make a decision regarding the patient.”

“I am his wife.”

If the hell broke loose right there, in front of them all, Elise wouldn’t have been more outraged.

“You’re separated.”

“Are you divorced, Madame?”

Thea barely shakes her head.

“Good, then, please follow me. The rest of you, take a seat, it will be a long night.”

Following the doctor, meekly and in silence, Thea feels the dreaded looks of Elise. She can finally breathe when the doctor closes the door of his office and points to a chair nearby.

“Tea? Water? Can I offer you anything?”

“How bad is it, doctor?

Please go ahead and say it, because I know the drill. The doctors are only kind and accommodating when they deliver really bad news.”

The doctor smiles. A sad smile that makes Thea crumble to pieces. So, it is bad. While he slumps into his chair, massaging his temples, he says:

“Mrs. Hastings-”

“Call me Thea, please.”

“Thea… Mr Hastings’ leukaemia is back. And while I am not his primary care physician…”

“Wait, what?”

The doctor stops and looks at her. She is dumbfounded. And she has lost the ability to think, to feel, to breathe.

“You, you didn’t know?”

“Look, doctor, Hayden and I have been indeed separated for the last year. He didn’t tell me anything and neither did any of our friends. How is this possible? When did this happen? How did this happen?? No, wait, that does not matter now. Please, doctor, tell me what can I do? How can I help?”
The doctor takes a deep breath.

“His only hope is a stem cell transplant, I am afraid. And your husband is now on the list. High on the list, taking into calculation his condition. By the looks of it, the cancer has returned about a few months ago, but I will need his doctor to confirm. He has done induction chemotherapy last time, as it is mentioned in his chart, and successfully.”

“Last time, when was last time?”

“Last year.”

Thea shivers. Hayden had leukaemia, has… leukaemia and she didn’t know. She just left, when things got hard, she just turned her phone off and began a new life. How could she….

“Listen, Miss… Thea… If you need some time, I would gladly give it to you, but now, since Mr. Hastings is nonresponsive, and you are his next of kin, you need to decide the care for him. Can you do that, or-?”

Thea shakes her head. Her eyes are filled to the brim with hot tears.

“I don’t know what he wants…”

“You are his wife, and despite being estranged he did not file for a divorce, he did not change his will. We need your consent for treatment.”

“I don’t know… I would like all his friends to be here to decide, as they have been with him during this time…”

By the time the room is filling with friends and close ones, Thea is cowering in her chair, shoulders slumped, her face a mess.

“I’m sorry, T.”

Jake’s words bring no consolation to her at this point.

“He didn’t want me to tell you. He wanted to be the one…”

“He didn’t want to tell her at all,” yells Elise from her corner, before Irwing shushes her with a hand gesture. “What, it’s true. He said she doesn’t need to know as this does not concern her. He told me that.”

“Shut the hell up, Elise, or I’ll punch you myself.”

“No, she is right. He didn’t tell me, so he didn’t want me to know…” says Thea. That is why I asked for you all to be here. You were with him during this time and you know better than I do what he wants.”

Mark expels the air with a force and says:

“That is not true, T, and you know it. Just forget everything that has ever happened in the past year and make the right choice for him. He has always trusted you. He still does.”
The doctor looks at her expecting. The room feels suffocating and Elise’s never-ending complaints make her head spin.

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you do.” Jake kneels next to her, taking her hand into his. He is warm, alive and healthy. She wants Hayden to be all that too.

“Please, doctor. Do what needs to be done. And save my husband.”

Elise’s rage is fuming. When she sees the doctor giving Thea the papers to sign. And when Irwing talks on the phone with someone, mentioning the curse is back, she rises from her chair, her eyes red and her face contorted:

“You, you!!! You are the curse! You are the real Morgana!”


The blue lights make a strange noise. Thea is pacing on the hallway while Jacob is pouting in his chair. The others have disappeared with various tasks and Elise, pouting harder than Jacob had been escorted again out, the doctor strictly forbidding her to come back again, unless she was in need of medical aid.

Elaine called a few moments ago, asking about Hayden’s status, and Thea could not say much. He was still undergoing extended testing, since his personal doctor arrived with an army of specialists and nurses, taking over the entire floor. 

“T, will you ever speak to me again?”

“Drop it, Jake. Now’s not the time.” 

Hayden’s been inside for more than two hours now and they are still assessing the damage. They know he is conscious now because one time, when the door opened to let out a disheveled young doctor, they could hear him shout at the whole gang to get out and leave him alone. Well, most probably the entire floor could hear him.

Thea stops when the kind doctor comes out and gestures to her to come in. She shakes her head, but he insists.

The room is quiet even if it is full to the brim. There is a large desk where there are five people gathered around a laptop and a stack of medical charts, whispering to one another. A white board is filled with black markings, terms Thea has no idea what they mean, but since most of them are in red, she can assume it is not good. in an armchair, an old doctor, the one who she met as Hayden’s personal doctor is looking carefully at some papers through some very fine and delicate glasses.

And then, there’s the bed. Surrounded by various nurses and doctors, she cannot even see Hayden in the beginning, although she can feel his rage, even from behind that human shield. When she stops, considering taking a step back, the hand of the kind doctor pushes her to keep going, making a way for her through the safety shield.

A mute gasp escapes her lips, when she eyes Hayden. He is lying down, obviously not by his own volition, because there are doctors on each side grabbing his arms, in one a huge needle is just being inserted, while at the other there is already a catheter in place. His body seems to reject the bed, tense as a bow, ready to spring out of there. 

“Stop moving, Sir, please.”

“Stop prodding me!” comes the retort almost immediately. “I’ll be bloodless in a couple of minutes if you keep doing that. I already told you I’m not interested in going through all that useless torture again. I’m done.”

“Sorry, Sir, but your wife already gave consent while you were unconscious,” whispers a tiny nurse and Thea feels sorry for her when Hayden gives her one of his most uncomfortable stares.

“My what? That’s a joke, right, Richard?”

The old doctor barely tore his eyes from the papers and shakes his head.

Only then, Hayden sees her. Seeing the rage from his eye, Thea winces.

“Get her out of here! I do not want her in here! Richard, get her out or I’ll leave!”

The old man sighs and pulls the glasses from his nose, rising from his armchair.

“My boy, you will not leave this room until I say so. And in case you’ll insist you’ll want to go, I will declare you myself, incapable of making a sane decision and I’ll keep you tied up to that bed until I’m done with you. And, no, Hayden, I’m not joking!”

“But, uncle…”

“No uncle, no doctor, no old man, no Richard. I told you to come to monthly checkups, Hayden. I told you to keep things in check. And what do you do? Tour the world for a year? Eat whatever and whenever, drink? Party till midday? NOT take your pills? Not call your wife? This is not what we have agreed upon, and you know it. And now you’re being a nasty spoilt brat throwing tantrums at me? I’ll kick you for the first time in your life, boy! Do not tempt me. And, by the looks of it, do not tempt her either.”

Hayden takes another look at Thea, but he does not find her shaking or afraid of his words. If anything else, she is measuring his rage, and topping it.

“Fine. I’ll stay. But she goes.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

The looks he gave her could definitely kill. She has goosebumps all over her body, but she is not backing off.

“No, Hayden, I will not leave, you will not leave. We will all stay right here and see this through. So, get cozy.”

“Why?”

“WHY??? Because you’re an idiot, That’s why.”

The old doctor smirks and giggles, while the rest of the room goes silent.

“Because you seem incapable to take care of yourself, by the looks of it. So, you should be glad you have a wife to do that. Well, truth be told, us men are a bit idiotic as a nation… So, God, in his glory, gave us wives to do that. And to shake us when we go south.”

“I’m not a child, stop treating me like one.”

“You’re not? How dare you lie to me for a whole year, Hayden Acker Hastings?”

“Ouch, we’re at the full name phase. Let us get them some privacy, good gents. Let’s take all this chaos to the office and we’ll return when the results are ready. Boy, do I trust you to stay put, or do I call the security to your door?”

“He’ll stay.”

Thea’s words make the doctor smile again and all the white and blue coats get out, leaving them alone for a very, very long time. 

For several minutes neither speaks. Hayden lifts a hand, the one without the catheter, to his eyes, shielding them from the translucent light or from her. Thea looks around the room, seeing his chainmail shredded to pieces in a corner, his leather boots dropped unceremoniously next to the sofa, his shirt on the chair and then she turns her eyes at the man lying in bed, wearing only a pair of trousers. He is leaner and skinnier than he ever was, as if his body has been through a lot, and now she knows why, his muscles are more visible; under that pale skin, his blood pulses in dark blue streaks. She feels the need to touch those veins where the cancer resides and to will it away, with the power of her mind. There’s a new scratch on his left side, and a dark shadow around it, from when he felt earlier on. Thea looks at him, caressing with her eyes the man she has loved with utmost passion for so long, albeit for so little, and when he talks, she jumps out of her skin. 

“Do you like what you see? Am I still appealing to you?”

“Stop it.”

“Why? There’s no one here anymore, you can drop the caring act.”

“Do you even hear yourself, Hayden, or is it true you love the sound of your voice more than anything in this world?”

“Well, it is a good voice. The voice of a generation… as they keep saying. Until it will go silent. Which might be soon.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop telling me what to do.”

“Then stop talking nonsense.”

“Where is Elise?”

Thea tenses.

“You want me to get her for you?”

“God, no. I just asked so I have time to prepare myself for a meltdown worthy of an Oscar… if she’s close by.”

“She’s not. Doctor Cain ordered her out.”

The sound that escapes Hayden’s coarse throat is inhuman. Is a sound she does not initially recognize. Is Hayden laughing?

He stops and lifts his hand from his eyes.

“I’m cold, could you get me a blanket? Please?”

Thea opens the wardrobe’s drawers until she can find a white blanket and puts it around him.

“Thank you.”

Thea nods, remaining silent.

“You know you don’t need to stay. Uncle Richard is more than capable of scaring the hell out of me. And this is not a fun thing to witness.”

“Cancer is not fun, Hayden! Stop trying to make it light. I’m still furious you haven’t told me. That they haven’t told me! But, I’m more furious at myself for leaving you.”

“You’re furious because I pull out the C card, Theresa. Not because you left. And, by the way, you made the right choice. I was an idiot. Anyway, what I said earlier is true. I do not want you here.”

“H-how can you say that?”

She can feel bitter tears forming inside of her. She is there, at his side and he is pushing her away, punishing her for not being there when he needed her.

“Thea, you’re free as you wanted it. Go back to London, live your life, write, dream, enjoy the city… we’ll get a divorce, I’ll sign the papers today if you want me to-”

“No-”

Her words are cut short by the tempestuous entrance of Hayden’s uncle. His face does not bring good news. His words surely don’t bring good news.

“I’m not a person who sugarcoats  things, so here it is. It’s bad, kids. This time is really, really bad. We’ve put you on a list, but so far there’s no donor match for you. Your friends are already donating bone marrow but I think you should prepare yourself for what’s worse…”

“NO.” Thea’s shout makes them both turn to her. There’s a viciousness in her tone that gives Hayden a startle and makes the doctor frown.

“Child, there is not much we can hope for. Donors are few, and even with the friends and people here, the chances are limited…”

Thea storms out of the room, but not before she looks Hayden dead in the eye and says:

“You keep at it. I’ll be back.”

An hour passed and Thea is back to pacing. Hayden is with his doctors and all their friends are scattered on various floors in the hospital, resting after the biopsy. When she wanted to donate, Dr. Richard advised her against it, for the moment, he specified, seeing her getting angry, as she needed to concentrate on Hayden at the moment, and not on her own recovery, promising her that after the urgency will pass, she will be more than welcome to join the registry.

So, she took it out to her friends. To her readers. With Elaine’s help, she started a campaign in her social media, calling people to register, not only for Hayden’s sake, but for all those in need of a donor. The response was overwhelming. Millions of people retweeting, sharing, discussing, TV programs taking the campaign into their own homes, influencers, normal people, readers, writer friends with their own fans… On the other hand, Mark and Jake did the same, so they enlisted the help of musicians, their fans, producers, radios, and so on, until the entire country was on fire, and the hospitals had to start prescreening people.

“What’s this noise?”

Hayden wakes up from a nap, looking really weary and frail. Thea is on the chair, phone in hand, reading people’s comments and resharing their stories. Hot tears are streaming down her face, impressed by their lives, their pain, and their hope. 

“No, nothing. Go back to sleep, Hayden.”

“No, seriously, what’s the noise? It feels like we’re being attacked.”

“Well, somehow we are…” says the kind doctor entering the room and closing the drapes. “But no good news so far. We keep testing and a match will appear.”

“I don’t understand. Who you’re testing? Thea, I hope the fans don’t know about my condition… about us…”

His voice is angry, his face contorted.

She shakes her head.

“No. People are just registering to become bone marrow donors because we started a campaign.”

“A what?”

“Well, your very smart wife right here used her fans for good. Look at this. There are lines outside the hospital,’ he says taking a picture and showing it to Hayden. “But, no, they do not know about you.”

“You did this?” says Hayden looking at the thousands of people waiting in line. 

“Yes, she did,” says the doctor turning the TV on. “Look, at the whole country level, and not only, there is a movement… I haven’t seen this in my whole life. You, Miss Thea, you and your army are simply out of this world.” 

It was the day before Christmas. At least this is how Thea remembers. She has waited until the last day to buy Hayden’s present, for she knew him too well to try to hide it anywhere. The city was bustling with people, running like headless chicken everywhere, bumping into one another and screeching every time they did not find what they wanted. Cars were honking, pedestrians yelling, police were outnumbered and somewhat scared of the whole NY being out in the streets. 

And if that wasn’t enough, the wind threw sleet into everyone’s eyes, making them even more belligerent.

Thea had been waiting to get a cab for a while, and then, realising in that madness it would be crazy to wait anymore, she started walking, a fast pace, clutching the bag with the rare, old vinyls to her chest. She still could have not believed her luck. When she talked to the record store owner, he was unsure if he could find them, even less to have them delivered in time for Christmas. Despite all his scepticism, the Universe worked in her favour and managed somehow to make it happen. She knew Hayden would be pleased to have them, old jazz, unique records, that were only part of some private collections. 

She took a turn and found herself in the middle of a group, shouting and yelling at one another, about some good news coming from a TV station nearby. The chaos was so big, she could not help herself to glance over and, seeing Hayden’s smiling face plastered on all the TVs in the display, she got closer.

“What’s going on?”

The girl squealed and turned to Thea, her eyes to the brink of tears. Joyful tears, as she realized a moment later.

“Hayden, Hayden Hastings is launching his acting career. Can you imagine, having that hunk on your TV screen every time you wanted? Oh, I bet he’s going to be fabulous! And he is playing in a romantic comedy, with that Elise Richards… never liked her, but ohhh, I’d kill to be her right now…”

“That’s not possible,” whispered Thea to herself.

“Oh, but it is. Look!” said the girl pointing to the TV where Hayden and a diaphane blonde with sparkles on her eyes, seem to be very cosy. “They even say they’re about to start filming and guess where… a remote island somewhere in the Caribbean. Lucky Elise, that’s what I say.”

Thea knew better than to be jealous or affected by Hayden’s on-screen romances, but there was something in their whole attitude that she found disconcerting. Also, why haven’t Hayden said something about that? Not like that had plans, it was the usual, Christmas at Marie and Mark, and then the Open Mic night and afterwards they would enjoy the New Year’s festivities from Jake’s penthouse. Okay, that cannot quite compare with the Carribeans… but still.

“Hey, T. How is he?”

Jacob’s voice brings her back to the present moment. His eyes are red, his posture crooked, there is defeat in his soul. 

It’s been two months. There is some defeat in her soul too if she had to be honest. She lifts her eyes to meet his and also raises her shoulders. She doesn’t know. The doctor asked her out while they were doing more testing after the first round of chemo. And last time she saw Hayden, he was really down. 

“You ate anything today?”

Thea nods. Marie did not leave her side until she munched on a sandwich and had a hot tea. That might have been a few moments ago or last Friday, she does not know for sure, but she still feels the spices in the tea on her tongue. Time somehow seems volatile. In a way, it constricts, in others dilate, but mostly dissipates. She sighs when Jake drops down on the cold floors, besides her. When he elbows her gently, she lets her head rest on his shoulder. 

“We’re bound to get some good news, kid. I am certain of that. May not be today, may not be tomorrow.”

“But how long does he have left, Jake?”

“Now, now… what kind of talk is that T.? You’re not one to give up hope easily…”

Thea is remorseful and feels tears welling up in her eyes. She shouldn’t, not even for a moment, give up, or allow her thoughts to go into that dark direction. However, with Jake, she knows she can. As he will not let her do it. And she is, after all, safe with him. And while she cannot say all the things that cross her mind to anyone else, including Hayden there, she knows she can with Jacob. 

“Have you ever thought how different things would be right now if you would have opened that mouth of yours and just told me?” She knows these are harsh words, but at some point, bound to be said. Jake squirms a little under her head, but she does not stop. “I would have made him follow doctor’s orders. I would have… forced him to go to checkups… I would have… Oh, Jake, what if I lose him?”

Jacob swallows her whole in an embrace, whispering calming thoughts into her hair. 

Time passes again in a weird way because when she looks up, it is almost midnight. Her neck is sore and she is now covered with a blanket. Marie is looking at her, worried plastered on her pretty face. 

“I… I fell asleep?”

“Well, you kinda did. Five hours ago,” says Jacob.

She jumps to her feet, shaking her head, the blanket a blue pool at her feet.

“You let me sleep on the floor for five hours? What’s wrong with you?”

Jacob raises his shoulders, wrapping himself in the warm blanket.

“I tried waking you up and even carrying you to a bed but you elbowed me in the eye. Look!” he points to his reddish eye. “Besides, I fell asleep, too.”

“Did they bring Hayden back?”

“Yes,” Marie says. “He is asleep now if you want to go see him.”

Thea marches to Hayden’s room, without looking back at Jacob who is now being scolded by Marie, in a hushed tone. Inside Hayden’s room is cold. Or perhaps she is cold, after all sitting on a marble floor for hours does that to a person… He is on the bed, under a pair of blankets, pale and fragile as she has never seen him before. His skin looks translucent and the veins look dark underneath them. Those veins in which the poison lives… 

She remembers coming home, wet and frozen, the bag still clutched at her chest, to find the house in the dark. Then she remembered. Hayden was at the TV station, planning Carribeans with the blonde. She knew that was not fair, but the pain was raw and the cold burning. Leaving the vinyls on the chair, she turned on the thermostat, before going to the bathroom. The water was hot, so hot, when it touched her skin she felt it prickling and hissing. 

Why didn’t he tell her? 

That was not the question that burned her mind, though. There was another one that made her shiver, and it was not the cold she has endured for hours, walking home… 

The bathtub was full to the brim, but she was still shivering. There was a coldness inside her she could not control, there was a rawness she could not heal.

She needed Hayden to tell her it would all be fine.

And now she is at the foot of his bed, still wondering about that night, still waiting for him to tell her things will be alright. Still questioning his motives, still pondering his answer, still doubting herself. Elise is still in the picture. They made two movies together. She considers herself his girlfriend. Elise knows he is married, still, but it does not bother her. 

“Thea?”

She snaps back again, looking at his face. His eyes are closed, his face contorted, his hands turned to fists.

“I-I’m here…”

Hayden twists underneath the blankets, without waking up and whispers:

“Don’t leave me.”

Later that night, long after all their friends left, Thea wonders around the hospital empty hallways, on her way to the children’s oncology wing. She started to go there last month, to put the books on the shelves and to gather the toys scattered all around, helping the nurses. Lost in thought as she is, she nearly bumps into another person.

Right in front of her face is Elise. Thea takes a step back, bracing herself. 

Elise looks flustered. Her eyes are red and she looks like she had been crying. 

“Are- are you okay?”

Elise nods, but then she bursts into tears, hiding her face in her palms. 

“Wait, Elise, what is going on? Is this about Hayden? Do you want to see him, for he is alone right now… if you want…”

“No- Well, somehow… Would you grab a cup of coffee?”

“With you?”

“I’m not going to poison you…”

“That’s not…” starts Thea to say, but then she continues: “Okay. Let’s go to the lounge.”

On their way there, neither utters a word, they just walk together, both lost in thoughts. Thea opens the lounge door and allows Elise in, then closes the door behind them. While they prepare the coffee, Thea says:

“What is this about? Arthur? Hayden?”

“Both. Present and past… Look, there’s something I wanted to tell you for a long time and I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. I have hated you for a long time and I am not sorry for that. You left him when he needed you the most. You just left!”

“I didn’t know!” Thea’s plea makes Elise look at her.

“I don’t care! You were not there! Do you know how he needed you? Do you know how many times he tried to reach you? Do you know how much he suffered? How much pain was he in? No, no, you don’t! Because you could have not been bothered. You, Miss international bestselling author, did not have time to pick up your phone.”

“Don’t pretend you know anything about my life,” Thea sneers. “I understand you were there and I wasn’t, but don’t for a second believe you know anything about my life. About me. Or about us.”

When Hayden didn’t come home that night, Thea tried desperately to contact him, but all her calls went to voicemail. She texted their friends, but none knew anything, and they were as surprised about the announcement as Hayden did not say anything to them. The last drop came when Irwing told her he knows nothing, but he is happy for that development, and that she should be, as a good wife she is, happy as well.

After a couple of days, Hayden finally came home. By that time, Thea was at her wits’ end. He looked dishevelled and tired and like he did not sleep at all. He was cranky and dismissed her worries, telling her she should get accustomed to that, as she has married a rockstar, after all. They fought for what seemed like hours until he passed out on the couch and she left for a walk to clear her head. Everywhere she looked she could see pictures from the interview and even some shots taken the night before, Hayden and Elise in a car, speeding down the highway. 

Thea was not the jealous type, but Hayden’s moods have been oscillating for a while and he stopped talking to her and confiding in her for weeks. She felt he was keeping things from her. Elaine kept pushing her to immerse herself in her work as the publishing time was near and there was a lot to do. And when she initially suggested a trip to London to put some distance and gain some perspective, Thea dismissed the idea. 

All until that night…

“Perhaps that’s right. Perhaps I don’t know about you. Or about your relationship with him. But I know him,” Elise says, oblivious that Thea is lost in her mind again.

Thea looks at her and somehow she feels sorry for this woman. She has been there at Hayden’s side and he never saw her. Somehow that made her bitter…

“Look, Elise, if that is what you wanted to tell me, it’s fine. At some point, this discussion was bound to happen, as were some others. And that is okay. So, consider it done and go.”

Elise sighs. Her red fingernails are coiled around the coffee cup, her hands trembling.

“I just need to know how he is. Nobody tells me anything. My own manager threatened me if I went to the press. Please, tell me… Is there a donor?”

Thea shakes her head. 

“No. Despite the whole social media action, no donor was found. We’ve all been tested and-”

“I’ve been tested too… As a matter of fact, I just received my results. I bribed the head nurse to check and I’m not a match… I’m sorry.”

Thea sighs. She is grateful. She knows she did not do it for her, but she says anyway:

“Thank you. For everything you’ve done for him and continue to do for him.”

“You know he always loved you? There was not a moment all this time when you were not on his mind. It drove me crazy! No matter how much I tried to get close to him, I could never break that wall he built after you left. I don’t think I’ve ever felt rejection so raw… in my whole life. And that’s why I hate you. I hate you Thea Marlow-Hastings with my whole being. And that doesn’t even matter, because he is still in love with you. And he always will. No matter what I do. No matter what I say, he will never see me. And I just want him to be happy. I just want him to laugh again…”

Elise breaks into tears again and Thea hugs her. Awkwardly at the beginning, but after a while, Elise loosens up and lets herself be consoled. 

It was closing on the New Years. Thea and Hayden were not on speaking terms, they fought whenever one opened his/her mouth, so at some point, they both stopped talking. Hayden started disappearing for hours, caused a scene at the Christmas dinner and did not apologise to Marie about it. So Marie was furious as well. Mark too. Jake did not support his best friend’s tantrum but could do nothing to calm the spirits, and Pete was only Pete…

When she confronted him he shouted at her. Yelled for what seemed to be an eternity, telling her she is not what he thought, that maybe they made a mistake marrying as they are so different, that he is not happy and he just wants to be alone. Then he stormed out the room and locked himself in the recording room in the basement, cranking the music up so loud, Thea was glad they did not have any close neighbours. 

That was the night that she called Jonathan to take her to the airport. She was planning to use her open date ticket that Elaine sent a month before. So she left, ticket in one hand and in the other a small luggage, for London.

When they break their hug, they both dry their tears.

“What would you do now with Morton circling round? I don’t think his original plan to uncover your marriage will work…”

“Honestly? I haven’t heard anything from him. The boys said I need not worry. That they are taking care of it. And Irwing was with them, so… I just… It is not like I have the energy to deal with Morton right now. Hayden is in no condition to do Arthur, there is a press release in works that will somehow delay the premiere night, my editor said, but, again, I do not know anything about that either. “

“If there’s anything…”

“Thank you.”

***

Hayden wakes shuddering from his sleep. His whole body is aching, and his head is spinning. He hates chemo and what that poison is doing to him. Well, to the poison inside him, or at least that is how things should work.

Thea was there. Her scent lingers in the air and he looks around to find her. To his dismay, she is not there and the room is quiet. He tries to get to a standing position, but a wave of nausea hits him, forcing him to lay down. He swears hard.

He dreamt. He dreamt of the night he lost her. That night was his repeated nightmare. For all that time. She gets shivers just remembering when he went up the next morning to talk to her, only to find her gone. Jonathan avoided him the whole day, and when he finally made him confess, he had a panic attack. The first one… but not the only one.

The only thing left from Thea was a whiff of perfume. Just like now.

He hated hospitals at night the most. There was an eeriness that made his skin crawl and his heart beat faster. He feels the walls closing in and grabs his chest. 

He knew the cancer was back long before he passed out. It was a few weeks before Thea came back. His anger made him do stupid things. His pride, more. He hated himself for not being able to keep her out of it. Why did she return? Why then? 

He scowls and massages his throbbing temples. 

Marie knew. She was like a hound. She could sniff it all over him. When she called him that day to her house, she threatened him. Sweet Marie turned out to be a real bulldog. He loved her dearly. She was his little sister… But he lost her to Thea. Perhaps the same way Thea lost Jake to him… He tries to gather his thoughts back to the day Marie called him. She knew. She even said she had a plan to help him tell her. Too bad, he thinks now, she could not do it anymore… Now the cat was out of the bag, meowing loud.

What was he thinking? Cats?

He lost his train of thought when he thought he heard Thea’s voice.

He raises his head to look outside the window into the inner garden. There’s a full moon that night and it shines bright. He craves the outside. So much, he would be willing to drag his weary body down the stairs and just sit for a while on a bench, if that would have been humanly possible. 

When he thinks he also hears Elise’s voice, he believes his mind is playing tricks on him. What would she be doing there as he knows for sure she was banned from visiting. However, he could almost swear he heard her. He feels sorry for dragging her into this mess. For letting her believe he could give her what she dreamt. For keeping her close when he wanted someone else. When his whole life was someone else’s.

And now he’s got what he deserved. For keeping the truth from Thea, for lying to Elise, for betraying himself. 

He can see the hope diminishing in their eyes every day. He feels the restraints in their promises, in their prognostics. He is well aware his time is limited and a strong desire to make peace with the people in his world fills his heart. He reaches to the nightstand and grabs his phone, starts texting. He wants to have a clean exit and to make amends. 

That’s long due, after all.

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