Next chapter is up! Sorry about the wait. I had a lot of fun writing this one, mostly because the idea had been in my head for a while and I just needed to get it out. So here you go! Enjoy! :)

Disclaimer: The lyrics aren't mine! They're from The Beatles and a song called Those Nights by Skillet. :)

Chapter 29

July 4, 1992

"Happy Independence Day!" Maureen shouted obnoxiously, sliding open the loft door with a loud bang. Mark's heart jumped wildly at the sudden intrusion. He saw Roger start as well, his eyes widening as he almost dropped the plate clutched in his grasp. "And happy birthday, Mark!"

"Holy shit, Maureen!" the rocker yelled in annoyance, turning to face her. "How about knocking next time?"

She shrugged, and Joanne slipped in behind her. "Sorry, guys," the lawyer apologized, giving Maureen a disapproving look. "She beat me to the door."

Mark nodded, turning back to the kitchen. "Thank you. Happy Fourth of July to you, too. What did you bring?" he asked curiously, craning his head to look into the bowls she was holding.

"A couple different salads, some coleslaw, and these fun little sandwiches that I wanted to try." She held them out so Mark could take a peek. His mouth began watering involuntarily.

"This looks awesome," he admitted. "You didn't have to make so much though. Everyone's bringing food."

She snorted. "Yeah, well, have you seen Roger eat? It'll be gone before you know it."

Roger shot her a glare. "Watch it."

She grinned in satisfaction and headed towards the table, setting the food down. Joanne held out her own dish. "And since it's your favorite, we made an apple pie. As a birthday present."

He took it from her gratefully, touched at the thought. "Thanks!" He was one of the lucky ones who shared a birthday with America. He actually loved having a birthday on the Fourth. Sometimes he could pretend like people were lighting off fireworks just for him. "The others should be here soon. We're just getting some stuff ready."

"Do you think this'll be enough burgers for everyone?" Roger asked, taking a stack of frozen patties and a bag of buns from the freezer. They were planning on grilling, but since they didn't have a barbeque at the loft, they were going to head down to the park and claim one of the grills at the picnic area there. It was a hot day, almost 90 degrees, and it would be nice to spend it outside. Plus, if they staked out a good spot, they'd be able to watch a great firework show.

Mark shrugged. "It should be fine. We'll have tons of food."

A knock sounded at the open door, and Mark looked over to see Erin poke her head inside. He grinned at her. "Hey!" he greeted, hearing the others echo him.

"Hey," she answered happily. "Happy birthday!" He opened his arms to her, allowing her to step into his embrace, and kissed her lips lightly. His heart fluttered at the contact. He'd never get over how much he enjoyed that. She was perfect for him.

She pulled away and held out a tray with some fruit and vegetables arranged in a pretty pattern. "Here you go," she offered. "It's not much, but it should be enough as long as we keep it away from Roger," she teased lightly, giving the musician a sideways glance.

Roger raised his head, an aggravated expression crossing his features. "Everybody's a fucking comedian," he mumbled.

Mark smirked, ignoring the grumbling. He took the tray from Erin's hand and set it on the table with the others. "Perfect. Just waiting on Collins and Mimi."

"Wait no longer!" a deep voice boomed. "The party has arrived! Happy birthday!"

Mark turned to see Collins strolling in, cases of beer and a plastic bag in each hand, and a wide grin on his face. Mimi followed behind him, shaking her head in exasperation at his entrance.

Roger again looked up excitedly when the man entered. "Did you bring them?" he questioned eagerly, eyes shining. Mark furrowed his brow in confusion.

The professor put down the beer and looked at Roger with incredulity. "Did I bring them?" he repeated, as if amazed that he was being asked such a thing. "Boy, I'm going to pretend that you didn't just doubt me. Of course I brought them!" He held out the plastic bag he was holding, and Roger hustled over.

"Yes!" He took the bag and reached in, pulling out boxes and looking at them with excitement. "Sweet."

"What are they?" Mark wondered, walking closer. He snatched one of the boxes from Roger's hand, looking at the pictures on the label. "Fireworks?"

Roger nodded, digging through them again.

"You bought fireworks?" Mimi questioned, staring at Collins in disbelief. The professor's face fell slightly at her tone, like perhaps he knew that answering truthfully would send him directly to the doghouse. "Do you remember what happened last time you guys had fireworks?" She looked between Collins and Roger expectantly, waiting for an answer.

Roger froze, the arm currently rooting through the plastic bag stilling immediately and his eyes widening. Collins, too, cocked an eyebrow. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," he said unconvincingly, an amused sparkle passing through his stare. "Do you, Rog?"

Roger shrugged and shook his head innocently. "Nope."

Maureen snatched the box out of Mark's hand. "I do," she chimed in with a smirk. "I seem to remember you two almost blowing up the loft. And almost losing some fingers in the process."

Mark shook his head at the memory, and he saw Erin's curious expression morph into one of surprise. That had been an interesting experience, to be sure, and one that they probably shouldn't repeat anytime soon.

"Yeah, almost," Collins reiterated. "But we didn't. Besides, Roger doesn't need his pinky anyway," he joked. He grabbed the bag of explosives and closed it up, putting it on the table and standing in front of it protectively.

Mimi rolled her eyes. "Right."

"Relax, Meems, we'll be careful," Roger promised. He returned to the kitchen and gathered the burgers and buns, tossing them into an ice chest with some other food. "Alright, let's go," he said, hefting it into his arms.

Mark nodded, and they lifted the rest of the stuff off of the table before heading out the door.

The park was crowded and lively. Men and women brought their families down to spend the day, and large groups of friends gathered in clusters across the grass, enjoying each other's company. Many of them were playing with Frisbees, soccer balls, or footballs, and there was a constant buzz of friendly chatter floating through the air. Mark took in a deep breath. It was nice to spend a day out of the loft, and the sun felt good on his skin. It was almost too hot, though, especially when he stepped out of the shade. The girls had stripped down to their tank-tops, and he, Roger, and Collins had eventually removed their shirts to avoid getting them sweaty and disgusting. He could feel his back burning slightly, but he didn't care.

He was just finishing the last of the food on his plate when Mimi stood up. "Time for Mark's birthday cake!" she exclaimed, dancing her way across the grass. She pulled a large chocolate cake out of the cooler and popped the plastic lid off.

Roger and Collins looked up eagerly from where they were rifling through the stash of beer- or what was left of it. The two men had consumed an impressive amount of the alcohol already, and they were obviously feeling the effects. Both of them were giggly, goofy, and chatty, which amused Mark to no end, especially since he was actually sober and could enjoy their stupidity in its entirety. He encouraged them to drink as much as they wanted purely for his own entertainment purposes.

"Awww, I'm stuffed, though," Mark protested, glancing up at Mimi and setting down his plate. "If I eat anymore I'm going to explode."

Mimi looked at him and shrugged in dismissal. "Well, tough, because I want cake. Suck it up."

He stared at the fiery Latina for a minute, and then nodded in resignation. It was best not to argue. He had no doubt that she'd win.

Mimi proceeded to open two small boxes of colorful candles and dumped them out onto the picnic table, herding them back into place as they began to roll away. Mark watched as she took her time arranging them across the cake's thickly frosted surface, then leaned back and proudly admired her work.

"Perfect," she concluded. With sparkling eyes, she turned to Roger. "Got a light?"

He smirked knowingly, and Mark figured there must have been some private joke there that he wasn't a part of. Roger reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter, and tossed it to her. "We should put fireworks in there instead of candles," he joked. "It'd be like a game. If he doesn't blow them out fast enough, it explodes."

Mark pursed his lips as he imagined himself frantically puffing at the fuses of the fireworks stuck into his cake. "Maybe next year," he said, clearly picturing the frosting splattering onto his face as the dessert burst into pieces.

Mimi finished lighting the last of the candles. "Alright, come on." She motioned for them to join her around the table. "Twenty-seven, Mark. You're getting old," she teased.

He nodded. "I know." God, he felt old. His only consolation was that Roger and Collins were older than he was. Collins was 29 and Roger had already turned 27 back in May. He sucked in a breath of air, preparing his diaphragm to exhale deeply.

"Wait, wait! We need to sing happy birthday!" Maureen exclaimed loudly, grabbing his arm before he could proceed. He felt his face turning red. He hated when people sang that stupid song to him. It put him at the center of attention, which he didn't enjoy unless others were there with him.

"You're right," Collins agreed. "On three. One, two, three!"

They launched into the song, though Roger had spontaneously decided to completely change the tune. His voice was rising and falling obnoxiously as he created his own interesting version, throwing everybody else off in the process, and Mark smiled. The guy was such a dork sometimes, especially when he'd been drinking.

They ended the song with a loud cheer, and Mark quickly leaned over the cake. I wish for more days like this, he thought to himself, and easily blew out the small dancing flames. They patted him on the back and wished him a happy birthday enthusiastically, and Erin gave him a kiss.

"You were a little out of tune there, Rog," Maureen teased, licking chocolate frosting off the bottom of a candle.

Roger turned towards her, a thoughtful expression on his face. Without warning, he suddenly broke out into song. "What would you do if I sang out of tune/ Would you stand up and walk out on me?" His gravelly rock-and-roll voice belted out lyrics that Mark recognized immediately, having grown up listening to them. Maureen raised a surprised eyebrow at the unexpected action. Roger just smirked, incredibly pleased with himself for working the lyrics into the conversation. He continued loudly, apparently not concerned with any attention he was drawing. "Lend me your ear, and I'll sing you a song/ and I'll try not to sing out of key."

Roger leaned towards Collins and nudged his arm in encouragement, a playful energy overtaking him. Without missing a beat, the professor grinned widely and enthusiastically sang out the next few lines. "Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends/ Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends/ Mmm, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends."

Mark laughed at their sudden departure into the world of music. The girls stared at the two obviously drunk men in amusement, shaking their heads. He noticed Erin glance around briefly, apparently feeling slightly embarrassed. He snickered internally. She hadn't yet learned that others might consider this strange, but it was quite normal when they got together.

"What do I do when my love is away?" Roger sang, shrugging in uncertainty to match the lyrics. "Sing with me, Markie!" he called with a goofy grin, taking a clumsy step sideways and reaching out to grab Mark's shoulder. Mark tried to push him off, aware of the fact that his best friend was quite impaired at the moment, but Roger wasn't having any of it. He pulled him tighter. "Sing with me," he demanded, and Mark rolled his eyes, but gave in.

"Does it worry you to be alone?" he responded.

Roger continued. "How do I feel by the end of the day?"

"Are you sad because you're on your own?" The lyrics came to him easily. He'd known this song by heart for years, and it felt good to stretch his vocal chords once more.

Roger released Mark and threw his hands in the air, attacking the chorus with gusto. "No, I get by with a little help from my friends," he sang.

Mark smirked, adding, "Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends." That was true… Collins passed him a joint every now and then, allowing him to take a puff if he wanted. He didn't do it often because it made him feel sick, but once in a while, he felt adventurous and gave it a shot.

"Mmm, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends." Roger nodded his head to the beat as they worked their way through the verse, and he was drawing some strange looks from people sitting near them. He obviously didn't care, though. None of them did. They were used to people staring, and they even welcomed it, as long as it was on their own terms.

Mark was truly getting into the song now, and he joined Roger in singing the bridge. "Do you need anybody?/ I need somebody to love/ Could it be anybody?/ I want somebody to love."

Mark grinned when, mid-lyric, Roger nodded a casual, friendly greeting to an older man who observed them curiously as he passed. The man waved back somewhat cautiously, his lips tugging upwards in the makings of a smile.

He began the final verse eagerly, enjoying the opportunity to dance around a bit and feeding off the enthusiasm of his cheering friends. "Would you believe in a love at first sight?" He let his gaze wander to Erin, and her laughing eyes met his as she watched them perform.

Roger smiled, pointing at Mimi, and then dragging her into an embrace. She fought against him in a joking manner, but eventually melted into his arms. "Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time," he responded, hugging her to his chest.

Mark continued with his part. "What do you see when you turn out the light?"

"I can't tell you, but I know it's mine."

"Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends," Mark belted out, gesturing to all of them. Maureen and Joanne raised their drinks in a silent toast, acknowledging the truth of that statement.

"I stopped getting high with a little help from my friends," Roger added with a grin, smacking him and Collins on the shoulders, and they all let out a loud cheer at the personal spin he'd put on the lyrics.

He and Roger finished together, their voices blending comfortably. "Mmmm, gonna try with a little help from my friends/ with a little help from my friends/ with a little help from my friends!"

When the lyrics ended, Mark leaned over and pulled Roger towards him in a sweaty side hug. They laughed and gave an exaggerated bow as the people sitting on the grass near them began clapping and whistling at the conclusion of their impromptu show.

"Nicely done, Marcus," Roger praised, his eyes sparkling with life.

Mark shook his head. "Don't call me Marcus," he warned good-naturedly, giving the musician a light elbow to the ribs.

Roger shrugged. "Fine, Markieeeeeeee." He drew out the last syllable for an abnormally long period of time.

Mark snickered at his best friend's behavior. "You're drunk."

Roger nodded. "Yessss, I am," he agreed. "Just let it be." With another huge grin, he suddenly launched into a new set of lyrics, his voice projecting loudly across the park. "Let it be, let it be/ Let it be, oh let it be/ There will be an answer/ Let it be."

Mark clapped a hand over Roger's mouth, muffling his outburst. "Okay, enough," he laughed. "You like The Beatles, we get it." He dropped his hand, and Mimi approached him with a piece of chocolate cake that truly looked like it could clog every single one of his arteries in about three bites.

"Here you go, Mark!" she said, offering it to him and pulling him into a hug. "Happy birthday! And happy Fourth of July!"

"Thanks, Meems."

She handed a piece of cake to Roger and then yanked him close. She ran her hand over the clearly visible scar on his right shoulder, a habit that she seemed to have developed since his accident, and smiled at him. "Love you," she whispered quietly, and Mark turned away, letting them have their moment.

He dropped himself at the table next to Erin. "Hey."

She grabbed his hand and turned it over in hers. "Hey. So, I didn't know you had such a good voice. Do you guys break out into song on a regular basis?" she questioned jokingly.

Mark's mind flashed back to the Life Café a couple years ago, and the poor waiter protesting loudly as he and his friends climbed up onto the dining tables and danced wildly. He raised an eyebrow. "Would it be weird if I said yes?"

She smirked. "Would it be weird if I said I'd like to join in next time?"

He chuckled, tugging her into his side. "I knew there was a reason I liked you."

"Hey, Mark!" Roger yelled loudly, shoving the last of his cake into his mouth and speaking around the wad of chocolate. "Collins and I are going to go light some of these." He held up a box of fireworks. "Want to come?"

Mark nodded. "Sure." He put his uneaten dessert on the table and stood, turning to kiss Erin on the forehead. "Sorry," he apologized, feeling bad about leaving her, "but I have to make sure they come back in one piece."

Mimi overheard him and nodded. "Please do. The last thing we need is another hospital visit."

He took off at a jog, following his slightly stumbling friends across the park.

They got back to the loft just a little after 11. The firework show that the city put on had been even better than they'd expected, and the exploding red and white lights flashed repeatedly behind Mark's eyes whenever he blinked. His ears still rang from the massive booms that he'd not only heard, but felt deep within his chest.

"Mark! Joanne and I have a birthday present for you," Maureen said as soon as they entered into the loft.

"You guys didn't have to get me anything."

Joanne smacked his arm lightly. "Of course we got you something. Deal with it."

Maureen grabbed a package out of the purse that she'd left on the couch and handed it over. "Here you go!"

He took it curiously and tore the wrapping open, revealing a cardboard box. Using a key from his pocket to slice the tape holding the flaps together, he was able to pull out a couple rolls of film. "Hey, great!" He looked up, smiling as he glanced between the two women. "This is awesome! I'm on my last roll."

"We know," Joanne answered. "We figured you'd use them."

He nodded. "Thank you."

"Me next!" Collins enthused, handing over another package that he must have brought in earlier as well.

His gift consisted of a few books wrapped together, and Mark flipped through the titles with interest. He'd heard of a couple, but he'd never gotten the chance to read them.

"I think you'll like those," the professor put in, watching him turn them over in his hands. "They're great stories, and the writing is amazing." He and Roger had both laid off the alcohol and sobered up as the night wore on, and they were now able to hold a normal conversation.

"Perfect, thanks!" He gave his friend an appreciative hug, and when he stepped away, Erin slipped her hand around his elbow.

"I'm taking you out tomorrow," she explained with a smile. "I can tell you that we're going to start with a fancy dinner, and the rest is a surprise. And, you're going to leave your wallet here so that you're not tempted to pay for anything," she added.

He laughed, excited at the prospect of an entire night out with her. "That sounds wonderful. Thank you," he said, pulling her into his embrace.

"Okay, Mark," Mimi said, holding something else out to him. "I didn't have time to wrap it."

It was another large book, though it wasn't a regular novel. He flipped open the cover and came face-to-face with a page of photos of him as a very young child. He recognized most of them, but some he didn't recall seeing before. He turned through the thick pages slowly. There were tons of pictures. Him, his family, Roger, Collins, Angel, Mimi, Mo, Jo… They were all there. Even Erin had found her way into some of them, though they'd only been together for a short time. He grinned as he looked over their laughing faces, instantly flashing back to whatever moment in time the picture had captured.

"Meems," he said quietly, shocked at the amount of work she'd put into the scrapbook. It had photos, quotes, decorations… It was beautiful. "This is amazing."

She smiled. "I'm glad you like it. We took some of the pictures out of that box in your closet, and some that Roger had of you guys as kids. And the others belonged to the rest of us." She shrugged. "I just thought you needed a better way to store all those pictures."

He glanced up to meet her eyes. "Thank you. I love it," he said sincerely.

"Alright, Rog, you're up," Collins said, falling into the couch and putting his shoes up onto the round table in front of him.

Roger nodded, and then turned to meet Mark's eyes. "Look, uh, I was kind of bouncing between a couple of different ideas for you this year," he explained, and pulled an envelope out of his pocket. "The first part of your present is this," he said, handing it over.

Mark took the envelope with a small smile, more than a little interested at what was inside. He slid his finger underneath the flap, breaking the sticky seal easily, and reached in, pulling out two tickets and a folded up piece of paper. His brow furrowed and he examined them more closely, focusing on the words printed across the white background. Suddenly, his eyebrows shot up, and he raised wide eyes to meet the sparkling gaze of his best friend. "No way," he whispered quietly. He looked down again, re-reading the font. "Roger, these are tickets to Rome. And a hotel reservation."

The musician chuckled and nodded. "I know what they are, Mark. I bought them, remember?"

Mark didn't respond, and just shook his head, handing the envelope back. "I can't take these. They're way too expensive. We can't afford it."

Roger pushed them back in his direction. "Actually, I can afford it. And I want you to have them. You've been talking about going to Italy for as long as I can remember." He smiled when Mark merely stared at him, speechless. "Look, there's two tickets. One for you, and one for Erin. I got them for next January, so when winter rolls around, you can get out of here for a while. Go do your filming in one of the most historic cities in the world instead of old New York."

Mark's mouth was still hanging open as he stared at the gift. He knew Roger had been making quite a bit of money with all of his gigs in the last several months, but this… this was insane.

He closed his jaw, swallowing hard. "Wow," he said. "Wow, Rog." He knew he should say thank you, but he was still a little bit too shocked to say anything intelligent.

"So, Roger, my birthday's coming up next," Maureen reminded jokingly. "Better start thinking about what vacation you're going to send me on."

Roger smirked. "I've got yours already," he answered. "It's a one-way ticket to Antarctica. Enjoy!" They laughed as she reached over and socked him in the shoulder. He rubbed the sore spot and turned back to Mark. "There's one more part to your present," he announced, grabbing the guitar leaning against the couch and taking a seat on a stool.

Mark was still overwhelmed at the fact that he'd gotten tickets to Europe and hoped desperately that Roger hadn't spent any more money on him. He and the others sat down around the living room as Roger situated the instrument on his lap. The man laughed self-consciously and looked around at all of them before settling on Mark once more.

"I don't know if you're going to think this is weird or whatever, but I had this song idea that wouldn't leave me alone, and I needed to write it. So, here it is."

He began playing the guitar softly, his focus on the shapes of the chords. Eventually, he started singing.

I remember when
We used to laugh
About nothing at all
It was better than going mad
From trying to solve all the problems we're going through
Forget 'em all
'Cause on those nights we would stand and never fall
Together, we faced it all
Remember when we'd

Stay up late and we'd talk all night
In a dark room lit by the TV light
Through all the hard times in my life
Those nights kept me alive
Listen to the radio play all night
Didn't wanna go home to another fight
Through all the hard times in my life
Those nights kept me alive

I remember when
We used to drive
Anywhere but here
As long as we'd forget our lives
We were so young and confused that we didn't know
To laugh or cry
Those nights were ours
They will live and never die
Together, we'll stand forever

As Roger launched into the chorus for a second time, Mark was glad that he had a habit of keeping his eyes closed when he sang. He needed a minute to compose himself, and it was easier without anybody watching him.

Roger had written about them before, sure, but this felt different. This one was meant especially for him, as a personal story about the two of them, and that choked him up. And the lyrics he was hearing… God, the lyrics immediately took him on a journey through the past 27 years of his life. He remembered those nights well.

Those were the nights when he'd get so annoyed with his parents controlling ways that he and Roger would hijack their keys and drive around town, rolling down the windows and belting out songs until he'd calmed enough to go home. He'd walk in and greet his parents casually, feeling better after getting out of the house for a while. Those were the nights when Roger would stay over because his dad decided to show up and start yelling again. They'd camp out in the living room with plates of junk food and turn on some old television show, but then they'd get into a discussion about girls, music, film, or whatever, and end up ignoring it anyways. Those were the nights when some girl had just killed herself in their bathroom, and Roger was in withdrawal with a deadly disease pumping its way through his veins, and Mark wanted to cry because he didn't have a clue what to do, and they were cold and hungry and poor… But they'd turn up their dingy little radio and sit together on the couch, talking quietly so that neither of them had to fall asleep and dream about all that shit. Those nights kept me alive.

Roger's lyrics eventually faded out, and all was quiet for a moment. Mark stared blankly at his best friend, his mind still playing out what seemed like all 27 years of his life in front of his eyes. It amazed him how many of those years were spent with the man sitting across from him. It was unreal, even. How could one person be so important? How did a tiny little boy with blonde hair, green eyes, and matching green paint splattered across the front of his shirt manage to wiggle his way into Mark's heart, and then build a fucking fortress there? It was scary, almost, that their bond was so strong, but he wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

When he realized that he'd been sitting silently, he snapped out of his thoughts and met Roger's deep green gaze. He didn't quite know how to express the depth of his feelings at the moment, so he went with instinct. He stood up and walked across the sitting area, grabbing Roger by the arm and pulling him up into a hug. He threw his arms around the man and pulled him close, transferring all the love and respect he felt for his friend into that simple gesture.

"I don't know if I'll ever be able to thank you enough," he admitted quietly, letting his chin rest on Roger's shoulder. "But thank you. Thank you for everything."

He felt Roger squeeze him tighter. "You're worth it. Happy birthday."