Disclaimer: I do not own any of it.

Author's Note: This won 2nd place at Speedrent's 16th challenge.

Los Angeles' Plastic Exterior, It's Much Too Late (Or So He Thinks), And Mark's Return

Mark Cohen spent a lot of time memorizing the cracks in his ceiling these days, the sounds of the city streets filtering through the open window above his bed. It seemed neverending, this process of nothingness. He wasn't waiting for much anymore except maybe a sign that he wasn't forgotten.

"Marky," Maureen had whispered softly, because the baby was sleeping, "Joanne and I miss you so much. We wish we could be there with you today."

Today, he knew, meant his birthday, because according to the calendar it was November 8th. He had heard muffled sounds of Maureen speaking to Joanne under whispered tones and had sighed to himself, reaching over to the phone's cradle to disconnect the call. She'd call again when she wasn't so busy, and he would say he was having connection problems, "You know, long-distance and all that." Maureen would giggle, say it was okay, and then press the phone against baby Sara's tiny cheek, trying to get her to say hello to her "Uncle Mark".

Mark lived for those moments, listening to Sara garble and whine into the phone, because he valued the innocent mumblings of the child, in which he was given a break from her forever-rambling mother.

These calls came once a month or so, and it was pretty much the only time the phone rang, except from the random call from his mother, who would ramble on about Cindy and how much she wanted her only son to come home.

"Mark," She'd say, her voice heightening in worry, which was getting more and more obvious as she got older, "I don't like that you're so far away."

And Mark was starting to not like it himself, the idea of being away from the city he'd love so much as a younger man. Los Angeles was not what he'd thought it'd be, and the more time he spent there, the more time he'd realized this.

There was a lot of plastic and glitter and nothing was as real or gritty as New York. Everything in LA had a sugar-glazed coating on it, and no one's smiles were real.

He had tried to adjust, he really had. He'd gone to art galleries and followed his agent like a puppy as the well-dressed, surfer-sounding, designer eyeglass wearing man pimped him out to everyone he could hand his card to. Mark soon learned that these plastic, unreal, Hollywood driven people were not focused on much but themselves, and that made him nauseous.

Every time he saw someone wearing too much makeup or had jeans on that cost more than his entire wardrobe, or complimented him on the "vintage scarf" he wore (which really was no more than a knitting project his sister had done in her high school home ec class) he felt a little bit of himself die.

His thoughts ran constantly back to New York, where he could smell the roasted nuts stands and hear the pounding of street musicians in the Times Square subway station. He could feel the cold of the loft because the heat had been turned off again, and he could hear Roger's guitar playing in the distance.

And it was at that moment, and only that moment, as he sat alone on his bed with the phone beeping unceremoniously in his hand because it was off the hook, that he decided he needed to go home.

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It had taken two whole weeks, a friend to sub-let his loft, and a stern discussion from his agent before Mark could finally escape onto an airplane.

In his notebook, 30,000 feet above the earth, Mark scribbled the date on the top of the college-ruled paper.

November 20th, 1995

I'm going home.

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He was afraid, he knew that for sure. Showing up unannounced in a place he wasn't really welcome was probably not the best of ideas. The itch had been there, though, and he skipped going to Maureen and Joanne's first and ended up at the loft door, his key in hand, and all of his belongings tucked into a duffel bag which was slung over his shoulder.

He'd forgotten how chilly it was in New York during the fall, and had quickly realized upon stepping out into the open air that his long-sleeved tee-shirt and scarf were not enough.

It's been three years, he mused to himself, as he ascended the steps of the building he had practically grown up in. Memories were flooding back to him, drowning and showering over him. The old building squeaked under the force of the winds that were plaguing the city that day, but Mark couldn't help but notice the subtle differences.

It was warm in the building for once, and the floors had new carpet on them. The walls were painted a warm yellow color and it smelled clean, as if someone had actually hired someone to clean and do maintenance on the place.

As he put his fist up to knock on the door, he noticed the sliding metal that had once been used as the entrance had been replaced.

He knocked a handful of times, but when there was no answer, he keyed himself in and pulled the door shut behind him.

The apartment was clean, furnished and well-decorated, with homey, comfortable looking couches and wall decorations. Mark placed his duffel bag and messenger bag on the new-looking countertops before walking about the large room, running his fingertips along the newly painted walls.

It wasn't until he heard a key in the door that he realized he wasn't ready to face what was to come, and he held his standing, where he was looking out the windows to the streets below.

"Mark?" A voice vocalized from behind him, and Mark turned.

"Hey Benny," He smiled.

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Having coffee with Benny was like taking a trip into the past - back when things had been simple and he'd just been a naïve student just out of Brown. Benny had been his only friend back then, and they'd go everywhere together. That is, until Roger had come into the picture and Benny had gotten too good for them, anyway.

Through the whole Benny-rent-due-padlocked-door thing Mark was fairly bitter to his former best friend, refusing to see the light in the situation or try and look at things through Benny's eyes. It wasn't until Mimi had gotten through rehab with Benny's financial help that Mark revived his friendship with his former Brown classmate, often going to the Life to meet up with him to have lunch or tea, just to keep in touch. The others weren't as quick to forgive but after Collins was lost, Benny had forced himself back into their lives, refusing to be shut out.

It was because of him and only because of him that Roger survived through Mimi's death, and Mark's move to Los Angeles.

"The place looks great," Mark had to admit as they sat at the glass table at which served as a kitchen table. He tipped a single sugar packet into his mug of freshly brewed coffee and wrapped his hand around it, feeling the heat seep through the ceramic and into his still-chilled hands. Benny smiled half heartedly, sitting back in his chair.

"Allison decorated it," He admitted, "It's not too much, but just enough. I couldn't sell this place, after…"

Mark knew this meant after the death of their best friends.

"Yeah, I don't blame you," Mark said softly as he took a sip. Sweeping his eyes about the large space, his eyes fell on a shelf of picture frames. From where he was sitting he could just barely make out the photographs which held Roger's, Mimi's, Angel's, Collin's, Maureen's, Joanne's, baby Sara's (which was the same picture he'd received in the mail not too long ago) and his own figures. His eyes squinted as he noticed a picture he didn't recognize in which he could just make out the outline of Roger's hunched figure.

"When was that from?" He asked, standing and crossing the room to get a better look. He picked it up and examined it, noticing it was a photo of Roger sitting on a hospital bed, holding his acoustic guitar. He looked ill, but his smile was more genuine than Mark had seen in a long time.

"When he was in the hospital," Benny replied, and Mark looked back over as Benny twisted his ring around his finger. Mark shook his head and placed the picture back on the shelf.

"He must've hated me," He said, unable to look in Benny's eyes.

"He didn't hate you," Benny replied. Mark returned to the table and sat, running his hand through his hair nervously.

"I didn't come home, Benny," Mark pushed, connecting his eyes to Benny's. Benny leaned forward.

"He never hated you, Mark." He said vehemently. Mark went to say something, but the sound of the phone ringing interrupted him, and he sat back as Benny went to answer it.

Inside, Mark was so torn his heart was literally burning in his chest. He felt alone, lost, confused and guilty as hell. He was sitting in the place that held more memories than his childhood home had ever, and part of him was telling him to run away - escape while he still could. The flashbacks made him want to cry, and if he squinted hard enough, he could still see the ragged couch with Mimi's figure asleep on it, or hear Roger's guitar tuning in the bedroom. If he closed his eyes, he could feel as Angel spun around him, pulling him along in a dance, and could hear Collins' laugh ring through his ears.

The years he had spent in Los Angeles had turned him into cold plastic, the teaching of his agent telling him to put on the biggest smile he could muster and sell sell sell himself to whoever he could. "Get your name out there," He'd say as he would pull Mark into his side in a faux hug, "Make it known that you want them to know YOU. Kiss their ass but don't look like a pussy in the process." Mark couldn't believe he'd allow himself turn into that, and in the frozen tundra that is Manhattan he could feel his plastic exterior melt around him.

And it was scary as hell.

"No, no, don't worry," Benny's voice broke into his subconscious, "He's here. Yeah, I guess, if you want to. He's okay. I'm sure he'd love to see you guys. I'll see you soon, then? Alright, bye."

Mark looked up to see Benny sit back down.

"You scared Maureen to death… you should've stopped by there first," He said, taking a sip from his mug, "They're coming by."

Mark nodded, feeling a little relieved. Maureen would bounce and fawn around him, probably show off Sara, and Joanne would talk his ear off. It would distract him, at least.

"How is it out there?" Benny asked, "In LA I mean."

"I used to think it was really nice," Mark admitted, eyes drifting to where his old bedroom door was, "And now I think it kind of sucks."

"Wow, really?"

"Yeah, it's so fake. I'm thinking of just coming back here."

"Well you can certainly afford to now, huh?"

Mark went to say something when someone knocked on the loft's door.

"Jesus, they fly here or something?" He said, shocked. Benny laughed and crossed the room to open the door for Maureen and Joanne.

"Nah, they were already on the way. You know Maureen," He replied, as Maureen flew through the open door, in a whirlwind of curls and baby supplies.

"Benny," She said with a smile, kissing him on the cheek. Upon seeing Mark she dropped everything on the floor and flew across the room and launched herself into Mark's open arms. Mark closed his eyes against her embrace, taking in her strawberry scent and familiar touch.

"Marky, I miss you so so much," She said, bursting into tears of happiness. She kissed his lips quickly and held his face in her hands, forcing him to look into her eyes. It was at that moment, looking into his former lover's eyes, in the loft where memories held him prisoner, surrounded by the past, that Mark finally cried, allowing Maureen to draw him into her arms and whisper soothing words.

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"She's so beautiful," Mark whispered as they sat on the couch only an hour later. In his arms slept tiny Sara, bundled up in a green blanket ("I don't want to make her feel like she has to like pink because she's a girl," Maureen had said.). Mark crossed his legs ankle to knee and cradled the baby, using a soft fingertip to brush the baby's tiny nose.

"Thank you," Maureen and Joanne had said simultaneously, in that beaming new mom voice that new parents always get. Mark looked up at them and smiled.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be here for her birth," He said honestly. Maureen crossed the room and sat beside him, putting her cheek on his shoulder and reaching over him to allow Sara to hold her finger.

"It's okay Mark," She replied, and Mark was sure he felt a tiny bit of contempt hidden in her voice, "You're still her Godfather though."

"I'm very honored," Mark cooed to Sara as her eyes opened. A comfortable, amicable silence bloomed around them, warming and slowing Mark's pounding heart. He lowered his head to kiss Sara on the forehead, and smiled when he smelled baby powder, soft skin and innocence. To him, Sara meant the future, and it's hard to deny wanting to make the world better for something so perfect.

"I miss everyone so bad," He said softly, "I thought you all would still hate me."

"Mark, I obviously didn't hate you, I call you all the time," Maureen said with a shake of her head.

"I thought you felt obligated to." He admitted as he connected eyes with Joanne, who's eyes were filled with sympathy, "I left. You should've hated me."

"Mark, please-" Maureen tried, but he stopped her.

"I left after we lost Mimi because I was scared, and I threw myself into my work and into a world I hate. I abandoned you all, I abandoned Roger when he needed me the most, I abandoned my family and my sister and I just took off. What kind of friend am I?"

"Mark-" This time Benny tried to stop him, but Mark was on a tangent, his heart filled with so much guilt it was tearing him apart. He gave Sara back to Maureen gently and stood up, pacing incessantly.

"I didn't come home when Sara was born, or when he was in the hospital. I didn't even call. He must've hated me, I would've hated me, I HATE me for that."

"Mark, honey," Joanne said, reaching out to grab Mark's arm to stop him, "No one hated you. We didn't, Benny didn't, Roger most certainly didn't. He was hurt, baby, I am not going to lie to you, we all were. But we knew you had been holding strong for so long, for us, and you needed to get away. You just did it the way you knew how to and that's by physically running off. We love you, he loved you. We knew you'd come back someday."

"But it's too late, isn't it?" Mark replied, shaking with his own internal demons, "I've lost so much time."

"It's never too late," Benny said as he drew Mark into his side and led him back to the couch, "Didn't Collins teach us that?"

Mark allowed his head to fall into his hands, trying to rub out the anxiety he'd just worked himself up on.

"And Mark, it's not like you went there and wasted your life away." Maureen tried, "You did so well."

"You won an Golden Globe for Christs' sakes," Joanne gestured, "You're a celebrity, baby!"

Mark shook his head, "Somehow you know winning an award doesn't make me feel any better."

"Yeah, I know." Joanne admitted.

It was at that exact moment that the sound of a key sliding into the loft's door attracted their attention, and before anyone could say anything, it slid open.

Roger, a guitar case in his hand, backpack slung over his shoulder and long hair tumbled into his face stumbled in, obviously straining with what he was carrying. Eyes turned from the guitarist to the filmmaker, who had yet to notice each other - Mark was too busy drowning in self pity and Roger too distracted with the task at hand.

"Hey Ben, can you maybe help me before I trip over this shit?" Roger murmured sarcastically, looking up.

His smile faded as Mark and Roger connected eyes for the first time in over three years.

"Mark?" He said softly, blinking to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Mark stood anxiously, slowly moving towards where Roger was standing. All eyes were on the two, who seemed so close yet so far away.

"Hey Rog," Mark replied, rubbing his hands together in nervousness. Before either could say anything further, they crossed the room and pulled one another into a tight hug, Mark closing his eyes as he recognized the smell of his best friend's aftershave and leather jacket.

"I'm sorry I didn't come home when you were in the hospital," Mark stammered, the tears starting up again.

"S' okay," Roger replied, pulling away and holding Mark out at arm's length.

"I'm sorry I didn't call or anything and -" Mark continued, the tears coming further now. Roger tried to hide his own tears to no avail.

"Mark, shut up," He laughed, shoving his best friend gently, "It's okay."

They stood silently for a moment, standing awkwardly in the middle of the loft, shuffling feet like two little boys.

"Thanks for putting my song in your movie…" Roger started, wiping his tears away, "And for mentioning me in your speech."

"No problem -" Mark started, but Roger interrupted him.

"And the copyright check was nice too," He joked. Mark smiled and pulled his glasses off to wipe the fogged lenses.

"It was perfect for the scene," Mark smiled.

"Geez man," Roger shook his head, "We aren't supposed to be crying, we're guys."

They could both practically feel Maureen's protest behind them but they ignored it, hugging again.

And it was at that moment that Mark knew he was never going back to LA ever again, the feeling of home enveloping him so deeply that he just simply dissolved into tears for the third time that night, in the safety of the arms of his best friend.