A/N: I want to dedicate the epilogue (and the entire story, for that matters) to the one who brought Rent into our hearts, the late, great Jonathan Larson, who passed away exactly 11 years ago. It's scary to think it's been over 10 years since it happened.
I also want to thank everyone again for reading and reviewing. There's some more to come so keep an eye on those author/story alerts. I promise to come back as soon as possible.
Final reviews will be great, you know.
Epilogue: Love Heals
She forgot how incredible opening nights always felt. All this adrenaline, first responses from the audience, these doubts of whether or not they'd like the show, the combination of anticipation and anxiety for the first reviews… and this time it was two and three times more frightening because she wasn't in her home field. She relented to do this role here in London because it sounded like a real challenge, professionally speaking. She got amazing responses when she did the role in New York, even a second Tony nomination (which she didn't get, eventually), and when there were rumors about a West End production, she was the first they had in mind for the lead. It would make an excellent West End debut, she was told.
She had her doubts, though, at first. It's been couple of years since she did this role, and she had done some other projects ever since. The responses back then were amazing; she just wasn't sure if she could possibly recreate than phenomenal success from back then. Besides, and that was the more pressing thought on her mind, she wasn't sure she could handle living away for so long. New York was in her blood.
But she did leave before, Mark pointed out.
How could she tell him it was him she didn't want to live away from?
They hardly ever separated in the years that passed since that night he came to look for her backstage. They lost Roger and Collins a bit over three years later, with a gap of four months or so between their deaths. It was a hard blow for both of them. It took months before she even took another job, or before Mark left town for one of his projects. It was as if they didn't want to leave one another's side, as if this would be the only way to heal.
And now she was away, 11 hours or so from home. But Mark was away too. He went to San Francisco to get an award for one of his latest documentaries. She knew that while he was there, he'd probably look for some more footage for his next project. Just thinking about the distance between London and San Francisco made her upset. But she couldn't get upset, not now. She had to hurry back to her dressing-room and change. Maybe she'd even manage to-
"Look, you don't understand-"
"I'm afraid it is you who don't understand, sir. I asked you to step back."
She stopped dead on her tracks. Wasn't she a witness to something like that before?
"Can you just send someone to get her?"
"Sir, I don't know who you think you are, but this is a theater. We're in the middle of the intermission, and frankly, Miss Johnson won't appreciate it if someone-"
"Tell her that Mark is here to see her."
She didn't need more than five second to take this in. She grabbed her skirts and hurried towards the stage door.
He looked behind the guard's shoulder when she approached them. He looked weary, his clothes slightly wrinkled beneath his dark trench-coat, and still his features seemed to brighten up when he noticed her. He looked cold; as if even the coat he remembered to put on wasn't enough to shield him from the London chill.
The guard turned as well, and acknowledged her with a small, polite nod. "Miss Johnson, do you know this man?"
Speaking of deja vu, she thought, a small smile curling on her lips. "Yeah. I do. That's my husband," she said, looking straight at Mark.
The guard looked surprised, slightly embarrassed even. "Oh. I'm sorry, Miss, I didn't realize-"
She didn't expect him to. Taken that she hadn't had her wedding ring on most of the time, no one was even supposed to know. Except for some of her devoted fans, maybe. "That's okay, Will. Just let him through."
"Of course. Here you go, sir. My apologies." Will stepped aside, letting Mark in.
She said nothing, just motioned him to follow her. People stopped to look at them as they silently made their way through the hustling halls backstage, curiosity written all over their faces. She ignored their questioning, inquiring expressions. Then, finally, they got to her dressing-room. As she locked the door behind them, she felt his arms being wrapped around her waist. She smiled and leaned back into his embrace, her back against his chest, as he bent over to nuzzle her neck. She closed her eyes, letting him take hold on her. She missed this so much.
"You look beautiful," he whispered.
She slowly turned in his arms, skirts rustling, as she realized he wasn't supposed to be there, but many miles away in San Francisco. There were so many questions whirling in her mind as she looked into his eyes. Behind this obvious exhaustion, they were sparkling with mischief. "What are you doing here?"
He gave her a look. "Did you really think I'd miss your opening night?" She smiled. He never did. "Unfortunately, by the time I knew I'd be able to make it, all the good seats were completely sold out. I have to watch you from the last row of the stalls."
"You don't, now," she replied, raising her hand to caress his cheek. He needed a shave but she actually didn't care. She liked that look on him. "I can't believe you're here."
"Happy anniversary," he smiled, pulling her closer for a lingering kiss. She should have known he wouldn't break their promise, to be together on their anniversaries, whatever it took. It was the one agreement they tried to keep, no matter what. It was so hard to believe it was their forth anniversary already.
"You look tired," she noted, slowly pulling away.
Mark nodded. "It was a long flight, and a bumpy one, so I didn't get much sleep. Then I fell asleep on the tube and almost missed my stop-"
She looked at him incredulously. "You just got here?"
"Straight from the airport."
She shook her head, laughing. "You're crazy. You realize that, right?"
Mark returned her smile. "Maybe, but it was definitely worth it."
Yeah. It was. She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, and they just stood there for a moment, in the middle of her dressing-room, just holding one another.
"I have to change…" she murmured reluctantly, slowly pulling away. "Then I'll find you a better seat for the second act." The front rows were all occupied, so the next best place from which he could see everything was probably the orchestra booth. It was the only place she had in mind. She knew it would be okay with Danny, the conductor. As she reached for her new dress, she suddenly remembered something and turned to look at him. "How's Holly?"
"I called Sophie before I got on the flight. Holly's okay. She's having a great time with my sister. She spoils her rotten."
"I bet," she laughed, but hearing this made her feel a bit upset. She missed her dog so much. But she knew that bringing her to London would probably involve anesthetizing her, and that was definitely not an option. Leaving her with Sophie seemed like a better, safer alternative. As a translator, Sophie worked mostly from home, so they'd keep each other company. Besides, Sophie was crazy about Holly. Well, who wouldn't be?
"Hey, stop this," Mark's voice invaded her thoughts, as if he knew what was on her mind. She blinked and turned to look at him. "She's okay. I'll call Sophie again tomorrow and ask her to bring Holly to the phone so you can hear her. Is that okay?"
She pouted, and turned her back to him so he'd be able to unzip her dress for her. She changed quickly and fixed her makeup. Time was almost up, and she still had to take Mark to a seat.
Someone knocked on her door. "Maureen, you're ready? We're back in ten minutes!"
"Yeah, okay, thanks!" she called back. She unlocked the door and turned to look at Mark, a wicked grin curling on her lips. "Second act… then the party… and then…" she moved closer, her lips grazing his ear. "The after-party," she whispered seductively.
"Sounds like a plan to me," he replied, smiling.
She returned his smile and opened the door. As she led him down the hall, she felt his hand slip along her arm, until he laced his fingers with hers. She didn't realize how much she needed him there until he showed up. This was just the thing to raise her confidence.
Before she could think better of it, she pulled his arm and dragged him to a dark corner. He let out a surprised sound, on which she responded with a small smile as she pressed him against the wall and draw closer. "Thank you. For being here tonight," she said, looking at him seriously.
"That wasn't even an option," he smiled, caressing her cheek. "Break a leg."
She gave him a surprised look. "Not 'sprain your other ankle'?"
He laughed. "I knew you wouldn't let me forget it." Then his laughter died out. He held her around the waist and looked into her eyes. "You gotta go."
"Yeah, I do," she said, never breaking their gaze. She brought his head down for a kiss. Someone might walk over there, she knew, but she honestly didn't care. But then she remembered that all those kisses were bad for her make-up, and she pulled away reluctantly. "We'd better keep some for later, huh?" she whispered breathlessly, pulling him back into the light.
After leaving Mark at the orchestra booth, she returned to her dressing-room to make sure her make-up still looked okay. A quick glance at the mirror assured her that it wasn't smudged or anything, her cheeks were just a bit flushed than normally. They were extremely short in time; she could hear the orchestra's warm-up. They would start again soon. She was about to turn and leave the room when something at the corner of her eye made her turn.
She had this thing with putting photos around her mirror. She couldn't help it. She did it for years. Of course, they changed from time to time; each dressing-room had its different set of photos. She was extra-picky when she packed her bag this time, the smaller bag that contained the things she wanted with her in her dressing-room. She told herself she wouldn't take that much photos this time, but it seemed impossible to decide which ones she wanted with her.
First there was this old photo with some cast members from her old Cabaret days, to remind herself how it all started. Almost side by side with it was a picture of hers in full costume as Magenta, from the time she did Rocky Horror in California. There was a picture of her holding Holly that Mark took, and then a picture of him with Holly, that she took right afterwards.
The next photo had a special place in her heart; she knew there would be forever. She still thought it was nothing but a joke, whenever she looked at the Tony that now laid on a glass shelf in their apartment back in New York. She had never believed she'd get it; it was her first nomination, her first big show, and the other nominees, well… she honestly didn't think she had the slightest chance against them. But she got it. The photo was from the party that took place after the ceremony. They were all there. Collins, Roger and Joanne watched it from home, and met her and Mark where the party took place. She remembered she didn't even know who let them come in there, they just showed up. In the photo the five of them held the small Tony, and Collins and Roger made ridiculous faces at the camera. She remembered she laughed so hard when she had first seen the photos. She told Collins she'd kill them if they'd think of making those faces at any of her wedding photos.
Apparently, her threat wasn't clear (or effective) enough, for at her and Mark's wedding day, they did just that. She had two photos from that day. One was of her and Mark, the other of the five of them again (six actually, with Heather), Collins carrying her in his arms with that smug expression saying "I told you" written all over his face. It turned out to be her favorite photo. And now that they were gone… its value seemed to increase. But then again, no photo could truly capture their friendship in a way she knew she would always remember, one way or another.
She took one last look at the photos before turning off the lights and leaving her dressing-room. Moments, incidents, a blur of memories, snapshots of their lives, all mixed into one, whirled in her head, leading her way.
If you'll ever get into Broadway, I promise I'll be there in the front row on opening night.
It helps me. It gives me something nothing else does.
So, do you like our young filmmaker?
I know the truth, Maureen. Too bad I found it a little too late.
You finally let someone in, haven't you? You finally like someone!
Parents shouldn't bury their children like that, it's just so fucking wrong…
You're wearing his ring now, huh? That's so cute. So 5o's.
I don't like being the other woman, Maureen. Either you're with him or you're with me, but you can't have both.
Did you cheat on Mark a lot, would you say?
Mark, there's something you should know. There's someone else.
I want you to promise… that you'll watch Mark.
I don't want her to go. Isn't it a horrible thing to say?
Go to him. We both know the truth.
You are my knight on a white horse, Marky.
You'll see that in no time, you'll care too. It's unavoidable.
And boy, she couldn't believe how true Collins' promise turned out to be.
As she hurried down the hall towards the stage, she pretended to hear their voices, wishing her luck, leading her on.
By the time she got onstage, she knew there was no reason to worry about. She'd be fine. She had guardian angels. And Mark was right there, only a small distance away. They were all watching her. But now it was time to clear her mind of anything but the second act ahead. She had to go up there, and just… do her thing.
On her own.