xx

With Aurora gone, he gives in to six weeks of stress and sleeplessness and crashes until just after three in the afternoon, waking up disoriented, feeling sore all over, and initially not having any idea where he is or how he got there. Rolling over, though, he remembers. He is at Addison's house and in Addison's guestroom because Addison is dead, and nearby there is an empty bassinet, an empty baby swing, a couple abandoned pacifiers and bottles, and a clean onesie because his daughter is gone. He gave her up—is going to give her up—and he hates himself. Of all the terrible things he has done in his life, this might be the worst, even though he feels it is completely necessary.

As the day drags on, he doesn't move. He stays lying on his side, blankly staring at nothing until long after the sun has gone down. It's a day wasted, but he can't bring himself to care. The house is still a mess, and he doesn't care. His phone rings repeatedly, and he doesn't care. His stomach is practically eating itself, and he still doesn't care.

She's dead. My sister is dead, and he never even apologized for what he did to her.

He is so sorry. He knows it's a cliché, but he truly would give or do anything to bring her back.

xx

"You still alive?" Sam's voice comes from the doorway the next afternoon.

"Yeah," he grunts into his pillow with his back towards the door and a sheet pulled over his head. Other than getting up once to use the bathroom, he has barely moved since Naomi left with Aurora.

"Naomi tried calling your phone half a million times between yesterday and today, and because you didn't answer, she insisted that I come over to make sure you didn't do anything stupid."

"I'm still here."

"Well, just so you know, the baby is doing fine, and there's food downstairs on the kitchen counter," Sam informs him. "Are you going to get up any time soon or should I put it in the refrigerator?"

He wishes that they would stop worrying about him and let him be on his own for a while—or, better yet, raise his daughter better than he ever could. So rather than answering yes or no, he responds, "I need you to talk Naomi into taking Aurora full time."

"I asked you about food, and no, I'm not doing that because you are perfectly capable of taking care of her yourself."

He laughs bitterly because not only does he consider himself an unfit parent, he also has turned Addison's house into a disaster area. "Really? Have you met me before? Did you not know me in medical school? And have you seen the house? If Addison saw it now, she would die if she weren't already dead."

"She would probably let it slide if she could see that you've been taking good care of her daughter," Sam assures him before offering up an unexpected piece of information that both shocks and infuriates him: "Look, Mark, I can't talk to Naomi about taking Aurora because legally, if you give her up, she goes to Archer before she goes to us."

It takes a few seconds to sink in, for him to really process that he actually heard what he just heard, and then he throws the sheet over his head, bolts upright, and turns to look at Sam.

"What?" He asks incredulously, feeling slightly dizzy due to the sudden change in position and because he thought of Archer raising his daughter absolutely incenses him.

Sam, though, remains calm: "The will Addison made up while she was pregnant lists Archer as first in line after you, and then if he doesn't think he can do it or if something happens to him, she goes to us."

He can't believe it. It's the first that he has ever heard about this. He knew that Archer was given control of nearly all of Addison's financial assets and property, and he knew that Aurora would have partial access to Addison's trust fund when she turned 18 and full access when she turned 25, but because of his optimism and ignorance six weeks ago, he never considered to ask what specific plan Addison had set up if he, himself, didn't want custody.

"No fucking way. There has to be a way around that. Archer is about as ready to be a parent as I am. Can't we get a lawyer?"

"He's her uncle," Sam shrugs.

"And I'm her father," he immediately argues back.

"Which is why you should get your shit together and raise her yourself."

He walked right into that one, and this time, he has no response because it's obvious that Sam cannot possibly understand what he is going through right now. There is no point in arguing, and he is suddenly (and embarrassingly) feeling near tears, so all he can manage is to shake his head and respond with a simple, "I tried."

But of course, it's not a sufficient answer, and for a few moments, the room is silent.

"Violet had a cancelation tomorrow morning at 11," Sam finally speaks. "She said she would be happy to see you during that hour, so Naomi had her schedule you."

He hates that everyone keeps insisting that he needs a therapist. It's just an all-around shitty situation that therapy can't fix, and he wishes they could see that.

xx

He purposely misses his appointment—they can't tell him what to do. They don't know how difficult this is. They don't know what it's like to be him right now. It's day three of not moving, and while he knows that this is probably getting a little ridiculous, it doesn't matter. He'll get out of bed when he feels like it, and right now, he just doesn't.

He feels especially stuck now because there is just no way he can hand over his daughter to Archer. Archer has never had a child, lives a lifestyle unsuitable for a child, drinks way too much, and would set a terrible example. Sam and Naomi, on the other hand, are already wonderful parents to Maya and would do the same for Aurora—teach her right from wrong, probably even send her to Catholic school. They would love her, explain to her that her parents also loved her, and she would grow up to be a good girl. Giving her up so that she could live that kind of life made sense, but giving her to Archer seems even more disastrous than raising her himself. He's almost angry with Addison. Why did she put this on him? What was she thinking? Did she really think that her jackass of a brother would make a good parent?

Hours pass, and the day goes by just like the last few, thinking and falling in and out of sleep until he hears the backdoor downstairs suddenly open and slam shut.

God, he wishes that Addison hadn't given everyone their own damn key to the house.

He figures that it's Naomi, coming to yell at him for missing his appointment with Violet, but once the footsteps get closer, it's clear that the person is male. And it doesn't sound like Sam, so now he is just waiting for another confrontation with Archer and half hoping that he tries to kill him this time so that Naomi and Sam can take Aurora.

But when the door opens, he is completely surprised by whose voice he hears and whose face he sees.

"Get up."

It's Derek. He can't believe Naomi and Sam would call Derek.

"What the hell are you doing here?" He asks, propping himself up on his elbows and squinting when his former best friend stalks across the room and forcefully opens the blinds.

"It's two in the afternoon. Get your ass out bed and do something," Derek demands unsympathetically. He reaches to pull the blankets back on the bed, but Mark stops him and holds on tightly.

"Do what? What am I supposed to do?"

It pisses him off that Derek thinks he can just walk in here and tell him to get out of bed like it's just some easy thing.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

And now he's really angry—this is about so much more than feeling sorry for himself, and, seriously, who is Derek to tell someone to stop with the self-pity?

"Fuck you, man. You love to feel sorry for yourself. You went off to Seattle to whine and cry like a little bitch for weeks without so much as a word to anyone after—"

"You have a daughter to think about."

"And I'm thinking about her right now, Derek," he shouts angrily because no one seems understand that he is thinking about her. "I've been thinking about her all day, every day since Addie died, and it's too much. I can't do this. I can't. I was wrong, so just please get the hell out and leave me alone so I can figure out what I'm going to do."

He seems to have made his point because there is a long pause in which Derek stops fighting and begins to study him.

"You know, I've never seen you this upset about something before," he observes calmly.

Upset? Of course he's upset.

"Derek, get the fuck out. I'm serious."

"Fine. I'll go," he concedes, walking back towards the door, but when he is just about into the hallway, he turns around to add one more thing: "She's beautiful, by the way."

He's smiling when he says it, and for Mark, it cuts deep.

He feels so undeserving of such a perfect little girl.

xx

After nearly three days of ignoring hunger pains, he has to eat something. Unfortunately, he didn't have the foresight to not turn the kitchen light on, so minutes after he does, Naomi notices it from her own kitchen and takes it as an evening invitation to come on over.

"You called Derek?" He asks through a bite of his turkey sandwich as soon as she closes the door behind her.

"You wouldn't get out of bed, and there was really no one else to call," she reasons evenly, pulling out a chair at the kitchen table to sit across from him. "Anyway, I'm here because I took Aurora in to see Cooper because she's barely slept at all since she came to stay with us."

He sets his sandwich down. "Is she okay?"

"Double ear infection," Naomi answers sympathetically. "Poor little thing is miserable. Cooper says it was most likely caused by—"

He knows. He should have considered it earlier. Other than plastics, otolaryngology is his thing, and he should have been able to diagnose a simple ear infection.

"Caused by her reflux. I did a fellowship in ENT, remember? I should have known. God, she's probably had it for days," he thinks aloud, shaking his head in disappointment in himself for not being able to recognize his daughter's pain. He then recalls his days as an ENT fellow, remembering a child who once had such a severe untreated ear infection that she had permanent partial hearing loss. "Does she have a fever?"

"Very low-grade, but she's got some eardrops to relieve pain and antibiotics for the infection, so she's going to be a much happier little girl," she says with a reassuring smile.

"Well then you can add this to the list of reasons why you would do better taking care of her than I would."

She looks at him pointedly. "Hey, I wouldn't have realized it if Maya hadn't been the queen of ear infections growing up. I swear, it got to the point where her pediatrician didn't even need to ask us what her problem was when we came in."

"Again, though—I'm an ENT. I should have suspected this."

"Mark, it's an ear infection. Come on. It's not like she's dying. She's going to be fine—definitely not a big fan of the taste of the antibiotic, but she'll be fine— and once it clears up, Cooper said we should fill that low-dose Zantac prescription for her reflux."

"Okay," he murmurs.

He knows that he isn't responsible for causing Aurora's pain, but she's just a little baby who shouldn't know any sort of hurt, and suddenly, he is overcome by a deep, primal need to comfort and protect her.

Naomi seems to sense this.

"She's finally getting some sleep now, but I'm sure she would appreciate a visit from her daddy."

He really shouldn't. If he is going to let go, he needs to really let go and not torture himself, but thoughts of her tiny feverish body and sad little face have too much of a pull on him.

Just this once, he reasons with himself.

"I'd like that."

xx

After a fast (and much-needed) shower, he heads next door where Naomi lets him in through a side door so that he doesn't have to face anyone. He doesn't want to make a big deal out of being here; he just wants to spend a little time with his sick daughter, make sure she is okay, and then leave without having to talk bullshit or answer questions.

She leads him past the living room where Sam, Maya, and Derek are watching a Lakers game and up the stairs to her and Sam's room where Aurora is just beginning to stir in her port-a-crib next to the bed.

"You can stay in here with her, or you can take her down the hall to the second guest room," she whispers. "Halftime just ended, so you've got some time before they all start moving around downstairs, but I'll bring up a bottle so you don't have to worry about running into anyone."

He nods appreciatively and sits down on the corner of the mattress. "Thanks."

Naomi smiles warmly and exits, leaving him alone with the baby whose little eyelids are just fluttering open. She looks so calm and almost ethereal in the moonlight, and he almost doesn't want to touch her delicate pale skin. He watches as she brings a fist to her face to rub her eyes, and when she yawns, both fists reach up towards her sore ears. A weak little whimper emanates then from her throat, and that sound alone allows him to push aside everything that has happened over the last few days and just focus on her.

"Hey, buddy," he greets quietly, carefully reaching into the port-a-crib and catching her attention. She turns her head towards his hand in response, causing the backs of his knuckles to brush over her flushed cheek, and when he offers her his finger to grasp, she gladly accepts. He doubts she even knows it's him, but he hopes he is already providing at least some comfort. "I heard you weren't feeling so good, huh?"

It breaks his heart to see her in this state—so much so that he can't help but slip an arm under her body and carefully lift her to his chest. She tenses at first, and he is afraid she is going to start screeching, but after a little bit of squirming, she seems to find a comfortable position and sighs.

"I know, it sucks to be you right now. I'm sorry," he whispers softly, kissing the top of her head which is noticeably warmer than usual. "You'll feel better soon, though. No more fever, no more ear stuff, no more throwing up your food—you'll be as good as new, okay?"

She grips his t-shirt and snuggles into him as much as she can, and he suddenly can't help but imagine how Addison would be taking care of her in this situation. He can picture the two of them together, cuddled on Addison's bed with Addison whispering comforting things to their little girl, soothingly rubbing her back, lovingly kissing her little fists, and knowing exactly what to do for her. She was a natural when it came to taking care of sick babies, and with Aurora, he knows she would have been perfect through every ear infection, cold, flu, or skinned knee.

And then there's Archer. If he can't be Aurora's father, then that means Archer will be the one who helps her through those things, and while it's easy to picture Addison being nurturing and consoling, it's almost impossible to imagine Archer that way. He figures that Archer would probably figure it out—after all, he has been learning himself—but he doesn't want that for Aurora. If it can't be Addison, and if it can't be Naomi, Mark would rather it be him taking care of his little girl when she is sick or hurting or even perfectly fine.

He runs his hand down her back, feeling the ridges of her tiny spine through her soft cotton pajamas and causing her to emit a short little pout that reminds him of how Addison used to whine when she had a cold or headache. "I know, baby," he murmurs, inhaling the leftover scent of baby shampoo in her hair. "I'm sorry that I can't make it better."

He might not be the best guy, he thinks to himself, but it says something about him that he wants to be here for her, right? He isn't completely heartless. He isn't all bad.

"How's she doing?" Naomi asks as she returns to her bedroom with a warm bottle for Aurora.

"Honestly, she's kind of killing me here," he laughs sadly. "You were right—she's definitely miserable."

"Well I'm glad you came over," she says, sitting down beside them. "And I'm sure she is, too."

"Yeah," he agrees. Because it really is nice to see her. It's also nice to feel wanted and to make her feel better, and he is slowly coming to the conclusion that he isn't going to let Archer take this away from him.

They lapse into silence with Naomi rolling the bottle between her palms and him, once again, trying to figure out just how he is going to do all of this—because now that it's either him or Archer, he knows it has to be him. It's just that he feels so far away from being capable. There is so much that needs to be fixed, so much that needs to be learned, and so much guilt that needs to be worked through.

He swallows and clears his throat, "I, uh, can I get an extension?"

"A what?" She asks, turning to him.

"More time. I think I'm going to need another week before I'm ready to take her home again," he clarifies. "I just… I've got some shit I need to deal with, and I could use some more time, if that's okay?"

"Okay," she answers simply.

He hates to impose, but if this is going to work, he needs more than just a few more days to prepare. When he takes her home, he needs to be ready.

Now he just has to figure out how he is going to get to that point.

xx


A/N: Eh. This is kind of a weak chapter, but if I'm going to finish this, I needed to post something. Buuut... see? I got this second part out within the week. Thanks for reading :) Let me know what you think!