Chapter 32, Three Months Later

It was 6:00 am. Mark, who had woken early, had decided to go for a run, leaving Meredith sleeping heavily. It was the first time he'd been running in over three months and he was pleased with himself that he had at least been able to try, but it hadn't gone all that well. His fitness level, unsurprisingly, had gone to shit and he'd had to give up part way through. Now, as he arrived back at the house, he was drenched with sweat and out of breath. He had even started to feel nauseous. It was runners' nausea, though, from dehydration and being generally out of condition. It had a totally different quality from the oppressive, painful, stomach-wrenching sickness he'd become all too familiar with. He hadn't felt that in over two weeks and, even if he couldn't really work out yet, everything else was better than he'd thought possible.

He was, Julia had told him at his last appointment, firmly stage 2 and improving incrementally. The metastasis had completely cleared. His immunotherapy sessions were less frequent and his body seemed to have adapted to the process, so the side effects were diminished. He felt more or less good. He was working full time again. He and Derek had worked on a few patients together and it had felt almost like the team they'd once been back in New York. And he had a sex drive; he was almost back to normal—but with one crucial difference. Only one woman. One fine, dirty-minded, flexible woman. Meredith. His own personal dirty mistress.

Entering the kitchen, he deposited the bag of bagels he had bought on the way back from his run on the counter, drank a glass of water, and poured himself a mug of coffee from the pot he had made before he left. He wandered out onto the deck, hoping to enjoy the view and his coffee as well as cool off a little before taking a shower. He was surprised to see Meredith hunched up in one of the large wooden chairs and staring out at the lake. Although his footsteps were audible, she remained motionless and silent, her back towards him, as he approached her.

"Hey," he said softly and crouched down beside her, offering her his coffee cup, which she ignored. "You cold?" he asked. She was dressed only in a pair of his boxers and her own thin T-shirt, and although he was hot from his run, the heat was quickly dissipating in the early, drizzle-filled Seattle morning and he was beginning to notice the cold.

"I'm fine," she said, hushed and expressionless, still looking out at the lake.

The whole time Mark had been with Meredith, the whole time they had been friends, she had never shut him out him like this; he was both kind of at a loss as to how to approach her and not a little freaked out. Nothing had been wrong between them so far. He fought against his own self-protective instincts and tried, once again, to reach out to her.

"This is good coffee," he almost cajoled her, moving the mug slightly under her nose to let her smell the aroma. She sniffed at the scalding liquid and glanced in its direction, carefully avoiding looking at Mark, but otherwise didn't respond. "It's that Italian stuff you said you liked." He was clutching at straws. Coffee had always seemed like a good subject for bonding and affection between them. Hell, everything, from the most trivial subject to the most difficult had been a good subject between them until this moment. He had never had such open conversations with a lover before. He'd gotten used to it. He'd come to depend on it. And now, although he knew it was an over-reaction to something that might blow over in five minutes, he was starting to panic at the thought of losing all the easy intimacy they shared.

"Please, Mer," he said. "Just tell me what's wrong." He shrugged slightly dejectedly. "Maybe I can fix it?" He put this as a question because he didn't have all that much faith in his ability to fix whatever was bothering her.

Still refusing to look at him, Meredith reached out for the coffee mug. Mark placed it in her hand, making sure she was holding it securely before removing his own hand. She took a sip of the coffee, exhaled with pleasure when she tasted the hot drink and briefly pressed the warm mug to her cheek to enjoy its comforting warmth.

"You were gone," she said, eyes fixed on the lake. "I . . . I had a dream and I reached for you—and you were gone."

"I went for a run," Mark said. "I couldn't sleep," and when she turned to look at him, her eyebrows raised questioningly, he instantly regretted the fact that a hint of the tone of voice he used to use when Addison, correctly, accused him of sleeping with someone else had crept into his speech.

He shrugged again and said, more gently this time, "I went for a run. You were asleep. I figured I'd get back and surprise you with . . . coffee . . . breakfast . . . me." On the last word, he gave a hopeful, slightly defeated smirk, not entirely confident that Meredith would consider him to be a pleasant surprise right now. And, to his relief, she gave a slight laugh and smiled weakly at him.

"It's good coffee," she conceded. "And you're right . . . I do like the Italian kind."

"So . . . you don't hate me now?" Mark asked her uncertainly.

Meredith quirked an eyebrow. "I never hated you," she said. "I just . . . wanted you and you weren't there. That was the first time." She paused. "I had a dream," she said again. "About my father. Thatcher. When I was a little girl." She took another sip of the coffee. "I guess I hoped that if you were there, it would feel . . . different. Better. And, maybe, something would change." She looked into his eyes. "I wanted something to change, and I thought you could make it happen. If anybody could . . . change things, you could. And you weren't there, so you couldn't." She struggled to keep any resentment out of her voice as she said these things. It would be self-defeating. She wanted his support, his understanding. She didn't want to do anything that would put him any more on the defensive than he already seemed to be.

Mark swallowed. "I think you might have the wrong guy," he said in a low voice, trying to lighten the situation by making a joke at his own expense.

Meredith shook her head. "No," she whispered and, unexpectedly and almost desperately, she reached for his hand.

"What's your father like?" she asked him cautiously. She was taking a risk. He'd asked her not to talk about his family. But a part of her hoped that, if she could get him to talk about his father, it might put him in the right frame mind to listen to her. And, yes, a part of her, that she couldn't quite conceal, was . . . pissed at him. She felt abandoned and overlooked by the person who she most wanted . . . most trusted to help her dispel these feelings.

When he heard her question, a reflexive wave of anger washed over Mark which he tried to hide from her, worried that he might fracture her renewed good mood and make her cold towards him again. He had to take a deep breath before he could force out any kind of deflecting humor. "I may have met him once or twice. Didn't really take to the guy," he said gruffly. Even now, when he was being asked directly about him, he didn't want to think about his . . . Doug . . . he refused to dignify that shit with title "father." Thatcher was self-evidently weak-minded and ball-less and he didn't want to seem to minimize the damage his abandonment had done to Meredith. But, Doug . . . Douglas Sloan, Esq., corporate lawyer and society sociopath and world's worst father of all-fucking-time was—

"Goddamn it, Meredith," he growled explosively. "Didn't I tell you that I don't want to talk about this?" He deeply regretted it, but he couldn't control his reaction. "Did you think I said that for my own fucking amusement?" He let go of her hand, stood up, and kicked aggressively at the slatted handrail that ran the length of the deck. "Fuck!" he said again and turned his back to her; it was now his turn to stare out at the lake.

"I'm sorry," he heard her say tentatively. "I had a bad childhood and—"

"I think we're all only too fucking aware of that by now, Mer," he interrupted her in a low, caustic, dangerous voice. Ah, fuck! What a fucking, shitty thing to say! He was sickened by his own spitefulness the instant this was out of his mouth and, as he turned back to her, he knew, as soon as he saw it, that her look of stricken vulnerability exactly mirrored his own.

He didn't even feel that he should go near her, although it was what he most wanted to do. He wanted to get back the connection that he had just stupidly and callously broken, but he didn't know how. So, from where he stood, he said, very softly, "I'm so sorry, babe. I'm so. . . " His words trailed off hopelessly, because there was nothing he could say to justify himself.

Meredith swallowed and nodded. "Okay . . ." she said deliberately, making an obvious effort to suppress her understandable dismay and anger. "That's okay, I guess." She shook her head slightly as she said this, as though she was trying, but failing, to understand something elusive, but continued. "It's okay. I can understand why . . . I guess . . . why you'd— Just come here." She held out her arms to him and he walked the few feet that separated them and then, without looking at her face, dropped to his knees, wrapped his arms around her waist and laid his head in her lap.

After a few moments, Mark felt her fingers playing gently with his hair and sighed, feeling undeservedly forgiven.

"I'm an ass," he mumbled indistinctly.

"What did he do to you?" she asked, determined to make at least a little headway with this subject. If he could answer her question, maybe he'd be more open to being there for her.

Once again, Mark felt pressured and even taken advantage of. But he also felt that he owed her some kind of a decent response and so he half raised his head and said, "He was a cold, heartless bastard and he didn't give a shit about me." He inhaled. "And he left me with my bitch of a mother," he added quietly.

"Your parents were divorced?" Meredith asked. He knew she was only seeking common ground, but he wished she would stop with the fucking third degree.

"No," he said. "He just wasn't around much and when he was . . ." He shrugged and then gave her a sardonic smile. "Still, there's some good news. He's dead. He died a few months after I finished med school." He sat back on his heels. "Okay?" he asked her, more abruptly than he wanted to, and touched her arm briefly in apology. "Since you took mine," he said and smiled again, feigning playfulness and hoping to bring the whole dismal subject to a close, "I need to get some coffee." Or several very large scotches, he thought bitterly. And he stood up and walked back into the kitchen, where he lingered over the coffee pot, trying to regain some semblance of composure.

Until Mark had cancer, until the series of fucked-up dreams that had plagued him, he had tried not to think about his . . . the people whose vicious charade of a family had brought about his birth. He had succeeded. He had even succeeded in pushing the memories to the back of his mind. He was happy with Meredith. He was happy that Derek, his real family, was his friend again. That was all he needed. He sure as hell didn't need this crap! He got that she had problems and he sympathized with her. And he knew he'd been unfair to her, because she'd never referred to her issues except in the context of telling him how much she loved him. But being there for her and actually talking about this demoralizing shit were two very different things. Everything more or less worked when he didn't think about any of this, and he wished she could just leave it like that. Constantly being reminded that he was fucked-up . . . self-loathing and self-destructive; God, he'd hated seeing that shrink . . . did absolutely nothing for him. It didn't help; it didn't change anything; it just made him feel hopeless.

He braced himself against the counter and sighed, assaulted by an awful sense of despondency that he didn't even understand, when he was startled by Meredith's voice.

"Hey," she said and her soft, mollifying tone of voice let him know that she was trying to make peace with him. It was only with a great effort of will that he stopped himself from being a total ass in response.

"Hey," he said curtly, not turning around and not adding anything else.

"You feel like looking at me?" she asked him warily.

Mark sighed again. With his back still facing her, he said, "Please don't ask me about my past."

"Okay—" she said.

"Yeah, you say that," he broke in, "but you still do it. And it doesn't fucking help. It just reminds me of—" He turned abruptly to face her and searched her face desperately for understanding. "I'm related to these fucking people, Meredith. And I don't want to be reminded of that." He looked at her pleadingly. "Can you understand that? Can't we just leave it that I don't have a family?"

She took a deep breath. She knew this was going to be badly received, but she needed something more. She still thought that if she knew just a little, she could help him; and then maybe he could help her.

"What did they—?"

Mark groaned and rubbed a hand over his face. "Just 'no,' for fuck's sake!" he erupted, simultaneously bringing his hand crashing down onto counter in front him. It was only at the last second that he had the presence of mind to open his hand and strike the hard granite surface with his palm rather than his fist. "They didn't do anything, Meredith." He sighed and continued in a low voice, roughened by the emotions that were coursing through him. "My mother was a drunken, critical, sleazy bitch; and my father was . . . absent . . . cold . . . I don't know. And they had this façade; this superior, upscale, patronizing thing going on, even though they were the most fucked-up people on God's earth." He had no idea where this was coming from. It felt like the sort of thing he might have wanted to say when he was 16 or 17. "I was never good enough for them. Nobody was ever good enough for them." He paused and took a breath. "I was 26 when I last saw either of them; I didn't go to my father's funeral; I refused the money he left me in his will; I fucking hate them and I don't want to talk about them or think about them. So please . . . " his desperate look intensified, "please don't ask me about them." He looked down and muttered, "If you want to talk to me about Thatcher . . . your mother. . . whatever, I guess that's okay. I don't think I'll be much use to you. But, you can talk about it, if you think it'll help."

"But right now . . ." He glanced at her and then looked down again. He needed her to understand him and he wasn't sure how she would react. "Please don't take this the wrong way," he said. "But . . . you think you could leave me alone for a while?"

Meredith hesitated. Being asked to leave him alone when she most needed him frightened her badly. It also seemed to her that he was cutting himself off from comfort when he most needed her. She found that she was shaking and she tried, desperately, to control it, not wanting him to see her reaction.

"Please . . ." he said, only just stopping short of begging her.

"Okay." She finally found her voice. "Just give me a minute to change and . . . maybe you can call—"

"Aw, fuck, Mer," he interrupted her. "I didn't mean you had to leave the goddamn house. It's a big house; there are a lot of rooms." He almost smiled. "I just need to get it together . . . I just need a little time. I don't want you to leave." And he looked into her eyes and seemed almost . . . almost but not quite . . . like himself. "Please stay. Just give me a while to figure stuff out."

"Okay," she said again, even more tentatively and controlled her developing panic just about enough to leave the kitchen.

Back out on the deck, Mark sipped his coffee and stared out at the lake. He liked the view of the lake. It was what he most liked about the house; the main reason he'd bought it. There was something about it that . . . calmed him, made him feel . . . better. . . peaceful . . . he didn't really know what it made him feel, he just knew he liked it.

He had more or less lied just now to Meredith. He had wanted her to leave. He'd wanted to be completely alone. In fact, what he'd most have liked was to leave the house himself, find someplace he could get trashed and pick up some bar skank and fuck her until he couldn't remember this morning's conversation or feelings or the way his remorse nearly killed him every time he thought about Meredith's face.

Too bad there weren't a lot of opportunities for that at 6:30 in the morning— What the hell was he thinking?! He couldn't do that to her. He couldn't do it to himself. Being with her had changed him. The problem was he didn't know what else to do to drive away the depression that was threatening to envelop him and that he didn't even understand. All she'd done was ask him about his family. Shit! He'd only had to say he didn't want to talk about them; made some reference to Derek being the only family he cared about and left it at that. They'd have been fine . . . they'd probably have been making love right now . . . if he could've just kept his scary and fucked-up emotions in check.

He sighed and leaned back in the roomy, wooden chair. After a few minutes, he felt himself becoming drowsy and he gave in gratefully to numbing, consoling and, thank God, dreamless sleep.

Not quite knowing where else to go, Meredith had made her way back up to Mark's bedroom. She thought about taking a shower, but it seemed like too much effort. She thought about calling Cristina, but Cristina was unpredictable. Talking to her when Meredith needed 'her person' usually worked better face to face. You never knew with Cristina whether you had her attention when you were talking on the phone. One time, Meredith had poured out her heart, half-wasted on tequila, and Cristina had eventually replied, "You know, what you need . . . for a complex pulmonary adhesion procedure . . . is a da Vinci surgical system." And right now, minutes after her beautiful love story had apparently imploded, she didn't think she could bear to hear about fantasy surgical procedures, or worse "Well, what did you honestly expect? He's Mark Sloan for God's sake!" To be fair, Cristina probably wouldn't say that. She seemed to quite like Mark now, and she liked Meredith and him being together. But nevertheless, calling her seemed, much like taking a shower, to be just too much effort.

Now unable to control her shaking, partly from cold and partly from the feeling of utter desolation, Meredith crawled under the soft, thick blue comforter and curled tightly on her side, hoping that sleep would come and stop the need to think about anything at all.

Meredith was aware, in the moments before she fully awoke, of a feeling of absolute warmth. Her dreams had been full of panic and confusion and then, suddenly, everything felt right and safe and . . . warm. And as awareness slowly came back to her, she realized why. Mark was there. He had curled around her . . . almost enclosed her with his body . . . one leg thrown over hers, his arms tightly holding her around her waist and his chin resting on the top of her head.

"Hey," he whispered softly in her ear, when he felt her stirring. She started to reply but he stopped her with a gentle, "Ssshh. I need to say something." He paused before continuing and when he spoke again he sounded faltering and uncertain. "I . . . over-reacted out there on the deck . . . and afterwards . . . in the kitchen . . . and I'm sorry." He planted a brief, soft kiss in her hair. "I'm really sorry. I'm sorry I'm so crappy at this stuff. But . . . I'm here for you. I love you. Can we . . . can we just forget this and be how we were?"

To Meredith, if she was honest, if she hadn't been close to frantic to regain 'how we were' herself, this would have been a naïve question. Experience told her that nothing was ever really forgotten. And she still felt, somehow . . . deserted; as though something that mattered had been allowed to slip away; been forced to slip away. But she wanted the feeling of safety back. Even if Mark couldn't talk to her, he could make her feel safe. If only he had been there when she woke from her dream, she would have been fine. He would have made her feel safe and that would have been enough. It was enough. He was enough for her just how he was.

She nodded and, when Mark felt this, he kissed her again, absolutely relieved that she'd accepted him, because a part of him had been scared she might never want anything to do with him again. He sighed inwardly at his own stupidity. He could so easily have screwed this up; not just by how he'd acted towards her, but by his narrowly avoided compulsion to be self-destructive and fuck everything up before he'd gotten fucked over again. He saw, clearly, how unnecessary this was with her. He saw, again, how much she loved him and how much he loved her.

He swallowed. "So, you going to call me on it?" he asked her quietly.

He felt Meredith shake her head questioningly. She had no idea what he meant.

Mark swallowed again. "We made a deal, remember?" he said. "I said I'd stop pushing you away and talking crap, if you'd call me on it . . . or something like that."

Now she remembered, and she nodded.

"So . . . call me on it," he said.

"It's okay—" she began.

"Seriously, Mer," he insisted.

"Well . . . then . . . you're an ass," she began uncertainly as Mark listened in silence. "I needed you . . . and you . . . I need your help. I need you to love me when . . . I'm not perfect. You can't freak out and reject me and almost smash up your hand every time I'm not completely happy. Because I'm not completely happy." She paused. "I could be, though, with you . . . if you'll just. . ."

She trailed off as he drew her closer and held her. She'd said enough.

A few moments elapsed before he replied. "That's what you do when you call someone on something?" he murmured in her ear. "'Cause, if it is, those interns of yours have it really easy."

Meredith squirmed in his arms until she'd turned around to face him. Maybe nothing had been lost. Maybe this was important; to fight and come through it the other side. And Mark was trying. Even if he wouldn't talk to her, he was trying. "So, we're good?" she asked softly.

"Yeah," he said. "We're good. Just as long as you forgive me for being an ass and . . . still love me." He hesitated. "I still love you."

"I forgive you," Meredith replied. "I love you," she whispered. "Nothing changes that."

Now he felt really awkward; he couldn't deal with this kind of statement after he'd been such a shit to her and he had to change the subject to something easier. "So . . . I didn't take a shower yet, and I kind of stink after running," He shrugged. "You want to come with me and, maybe, fuck in the shower a little?" And what had begun more or less as a deflection, now started to turn him on as he thought about what he could do to show her how much he loved her.

"No. . ." she replied. "I don't." She grinned playfully at his look of dismay, before adding. "I don't want to fuck in the shower a little, I want to fuck in the shower a lot."

"I believe that can be arranged."

"Yeah?" She twitched an eyebrow. "Because so far this morning, Sloan, you're all talk and no action, and—" But whatever she was going to say next was cut off by her own laughter as he deftly flipped her over, picked her up and put her over his shoulder and carried her into the bathroom. Putting her down, he stripped off her clothes, then his, and turned on the hot, pounding water as she watched him, smiling dirtily.

He stepped into the shower and invited her to follow him and once they were both inside, he slid the door closed and pushed her up against the tiled wall.

"Want to see a little McSteamyness, Grey?" he growled in her ear, then laughed at his deliberate, yet still sexy, self-parody and winked.

"Oh, I suppose it might pass the time," Meredith teased, feigning boredom that she most definitely didn't feel.

"If you want to pass the time, get a vibrator; or check back with O'Malley. I'm planning something much more stimulating." He smirked. "Any objections if I blow your mind?"


A/N: Thank you so much for reading. If you'd like more, the sequel to this story - And Then There's Life - can be found at my profile.