They drew quite a bit of attention when Mark drove up with Kristen beside him. Students and teachers watched even more curiously as he solemnly escorted her to her locker, then walked her to class, staying beside her in the nearly empty room until the teacher arrived. By the time he left her to go find the principal, the whispering had already started in earnest.
Principal Ward was in his office, peacefully drinking coffee and enjoying the morning paper when Mark walked in without knocking and closed the door behind him. He collapsed in the chair in front of the desk and glared at the man with obvious annoyance. Before Ward can say anything, he asked, "Why didn't you warn me about her father?"
Ward frowned, puzzled. "What about him? I did tell you he was eccentric."
"Eccentric!" Mark snarled. "He's holding me personally responsible for her safety. Or else."
"What?" Ward still looked confused. "Why?"
Mark threw his hands up in the air. "How should I know? Maybe because I'm the one who came to him about it. All I know is that if I don't do everything in my power to keep his little girl safe . . . well, never mind. But it won't be pretty."
The principal shook his head. "I did not know that would happen, Mark. Jesus, the man is a total . . . I'm sorry."
"It's okay, I guess." Mark sighed dramatically. "I wanted to help her anyway. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The rumors are going to start, though. Actually, they probably already have. I drove her to school today, and walked her to her locker and then to class. I am not risking her dad thinking I'm not taking this seriously."
"Understandable. I'll speak with the other teachers privately and let them know what's going on. I can't do anything about the students, unfortunately."
Mark nodded, making a face. "Yeah. I'm probably going to have a little trouble with students blaming me for her decision, though if they actually say something to me, I can quietly set them straight." He rubbed his eyes. "For some strange reason, I didn't sleep very well last night. Go figure. I think she'll be spending a fair amount of time at my place when her father's out of town. I'll try to have another student around as a . . . well, chaperone. At least when I can." He looked at the principal. "Are you going to have trouble with the school board when word gets around? I'll try to do waht I can to minimize the rumors, but that's not going to be much."
Ward shook his head. "I honestly do not know. Most of them have had some sort of confrontation with Steven Davis at one point or another. He's well known for being a bit over the top. I think they'll understand."
"Good." Mark sighed again. "Well, at least I got a shot of good vodka out of it. I think he wanted to make sure he caught me off guard." He glanced at the clock. "I'd better get to class."
The principal nodded and said again, "I'm sorry, Mark."
Mark just sighed, shook his head, and left.
Mark was unsurprised to find that the rumors had, indeed, started. A few of them were unexpected. Such as the one that the reason she stopped seeing other guys was that Mark was incredibly jealous and possessive and threatened to kill anyone who touched her. He frowned, and started looking for a chance to talk to David and Kevin. Unfortunately, Kevin avoided him like the plague, and David glared daggers through his skull every time he saw him, then turned pointedly away.
Finally, Mark resorted to actually calling them into his classroom.
Kevin leaned nervously against the wall. David glared sullenly. "What do you want?" he asked.
Mark sighed. "You've obviously heard the rumors. Wonderful. It would have been nice if you'd given me the benefit of the doubt, but fine." He glared at them. "For your information, Kristen's father is holding me personally responsible for her safety. Personally. Just because I was the one who had to talk to him about what's going on."
"Oh." David blinked. "So you're not...."
"Going to kill someone just because they talk to her? No." Mark threw up his hands. "Which is, by the way, an incredibly stupid rumor, since I heard about last wednesday at lunch. You're still alive, aren't you?"
David shook his head, stubbornly ignoring the question. "So you're not sleeping with her, is what I meant," he corrected him.
He just stared at the boy. "Give me some credit for having a few brains, David. She's underage, and she's a student to boot. That would be just about the stupidest move I could make."
Kevin looked at him skeptically. "Man, if she wanted you to, you would. Anyone would."
Mark snorted. "Then maybe I'm lucky that she decided to become celibate. I have no desire to throw away my freedom and career, just for a roll in the hay." He became serious, and looked at them. "Look, she's what, fourteen? Ask me again in three years, when she's legal, and the answer might be different. But for now -- I am not going to risk everything just for sex."
David shook his head again. "You're not dumb enough to admit that you'd do it. But you are human. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that you're not going to try and treat her like your personal
property and keep her from doing what she wants."
Mark just shook his head. "Even if I was sleeping with her, I wouldn't do that. As is, of course I'm not going to do that. All I'm going to try to do is keep her safe."
"Good. That rumor might be a good thing then," David said, surprising the hell out of Mark.
"It'll keep at least some of the jerks from bothering her when she doesn't want to be bothered."
"Yep." Kevin nodded in agreement with his friend. "A lot of guys who wouldn't think anything of hassling her won't want to mess with you."
Mark raised his eyebrows, and then looked thoughtful. "I guess that makes sense. And they'll be mad at me, not at her, so if they come after anyone . . . that could be useful."
"Yep." David grinned. "Big, muscular adult males who blow things up are much less likley to be harrassed than pretty little girls."
"Indeed," Mark agreed with a smile.
Kayla confronted him at lunch. "What the fuck is going on?"
"Have you suddenly turned suicidal, or what? Have a sudden craving to become the luvslave of a burly inmate named Chet?"
Mark stared at her, confused.
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I come in this morning, and half a dozen people ask me if it's true that you've decided Kristen is yours and did you really beat up Aaron because he looked at her?"
He blinked, then sighed. "Oh. That. I assumed that Kristen would have told you, since y'all are friends." He spoke as if they were being overheard, mindful of his half-open door. "Her father decided to hold me personally responsible for her safety, so I brought her to school and escorted her to her first class." He made a face. "Which reminds me, I'd like to ask you for a favor. She's probably going to spend a fair amount of time at my place when her father is out of town, and I'd feel better if there was a . . . chaperone around. Maybe that will help defuse the rumors. If it was two guys, with her reputation people would just say we were both . . . well."
Kayla stared at him in disbelief, then fought not to laugh. "Uh. I see. Sure, I'll talk to my mom about it."
Mark nodded. "Thanks. You know, these rumors might be useful. If people think I made her stop, maybe they'll be mad at me, not her."
"Um. Yeah. That makes sense." She leaned forward over the desk and whispered, "You have got some serious balls, there, Mark."
He just grinned, and whispered back, "I'd think you would know."
"I can't believe you really have the nerve . . . " Kayla shook her head, grinning.
Mark chuckled. "It's the perfect cover, though."
"No better lie than the truth, I guess," she agreed, smiling. "Just be careful."
"I am. The nice thing is that I can be visibly worried about her safety."
"Yeah. Okay, well, I'm gonna go have lunch with her. Don't beat me up, k?"
Mark grinned. "Go eat." He headed to the teachers lounge to eat himself.
There were more rumors after lunch, mainly saying that the fact that Kristen was in the cafeteria for the entire lunch break confirmed the earlier rumors. On the positive side, though, the principal seemed to have talked to the teachers, because the disapproval . . . and in a couple of notable cases, extreme jealousy . . . which was radiating from them before lunch was gone.
The rest of the week followed a similar pattern. Mark and Kristen would spend the night either at his house or Steven's, he would drive her to school and escort her to her locker and then to class. No more threatening notes appeared, and if the rumors didn't die down, then at least they didn't get any worse.
They made plans for the wedding, and spent a lot of time in enjoyable exploration. Kayla was over for at least a couple of hours each day, ostensibly to 'tutor Kristen in math'. They discovered that any morning Kristen started out glowing slightly, she could skip her traditional 'lunch break', a discovery that pleased her immensely and resulted in her actually gaining a pound or so during the week.
The girls seemed to have a lot of fun together, in bed and out. They laughed a lot, and teased each other and Mark. Kristen nagged Kayla into doing her English homework; Kayla nudged Kristen into completing her algebra rather than burning it. All week Mark watched them together, and he grew more and more convinced that he needed to have a serious talk with Kristen.
Friday night, after Kayla had gone home and Kristen was happily snuggled up to him on the couch, he bent and kissed her forehead. "Hey, love. Need to talk to you," he said, unable to hide his nervousness.
She looked up at him apprehensively, eyes wide. "What's wrong? Is it tomorrow?"
Mark shook his head. "No. It's . . . well, to be honest, I'm scared to bring it up. It's not anything bad, but I'm scared to death I'll say it wrong, and make you think it is, and hurt your feelings. I wouldn't bring it up, but I want to be up front with you about everything, so that you never have to worry or wonder about how I feel."
"Mark..." Now she sounded truly scared. "Just tell me. Please."
He kissed her gently. "You know I love you, right? And you know Kayla's in love with you too."
"Yeah, I know," she said quietly, almost a whisper.
"How do you feel about her? Any less confused?"
"I . . . I still don't know." She looked away. "I just don't want to do anything to screw things up. This week has been so nice."
Mark kissed her again. "It sounds like there's something you would like to do, but you are afraid it will screw things up. Want to talk about it?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. If things stayed just like they are, I'd be happier than I've ever been in my life."
"Which do you like better, her going home and not making any demands, or when she spent the night with us last week?" he asked.
"What do you mean, making demands?"
"Well, you know, she's not insisting you have a relationship with you, even though she'd like it. She's not requiring anything from you, just taking what you are willing to give, then going home. Last weekend was a little bit closer to what an actual relationship would be like, I think."
"I didn't really see it as 'demanding', Mark. Did you?" Kristen seemed puzzled.
Mark shook his head. "No. But I wanted to know how you felt. Frankly . . . " He sighed. "This is where I get scared, because I'm afraid that if I say it wrong you'll think I don't love you, and that's not the case. I'm not even worried about how you'll feel about it. I'm worried about my ability to say it right."
"Mark . . . you are scaring me. I don't know what you're trying to say. I liked last weekend, yeah. A lot. I would like Kayla to stay over more, if it's okay with you. But if you don't want to, that's okay."
"Okay." He sighed. "I'm not good with subtlety. I love you, Kristen, more than I ever knew possible. But . . . I think I could fall in love with Kayla, too, very easily. Too, love, not _instead of_. I wouldn't stop loving you, or even love you less." He looked at her, obviously afraid of her reaction.
Kristen sat quietly, face blank, and he swallowed nervously.
Finally, she asked, "What do you expect me to say?"
Mark's voice was very small. "I love you? And, maybe, thank you for being honest with me?"
She smiled slightly. "I love you. And your honesty. But you don't make things easy, you know."
"I'm sorry. But . . . it felt wrong not to tell you. And I don't ever want you wondering. I'm not in love with her yet, love, and if you want, I'll try not to. But -- you are going to be my wife. You have the right to know what I feel, whatever that is. And she'll come second, you know. If it ever came down to a choice between you or her -- well, it couldn't, because there would be no choice."
Kristen pulled her legs up on the couch and curled them underneath her, wrapping her arms around her knees. "That sounds awful, Mark. To her."
Mark sighed, and nodded. "I know. But then, I'd always come second to you for her, so I'm in the same boat."
"No, you're not, because you come first to me."
"And she doesn't." He sighed again. "Point. I don't know, love."
"What . . . what would you view as the ideal outcome of this situation? honestly?" she asked him.
"Honestly? For all three of us to be in love with each other. She and I are already in love with you."
She sighed. "You don't think that would be too complicated? "
Mark tried to smother a laugh, but couldn't, and began laughing uncontrollaby. "Like . . . things . . . aren't . . . already?" he managed to get out between laughs.
"Hmf. You know what I meant."
"Seriously?" He smiled at her. "It'd be hard, yeah. Relationships always are. But we could make it work, if we wanted. There's only one question."
"How you feel about her."
Kristen whispered, "oh." She looked away from him, embarassed. "I . . . I still don't know. I'm sorry, I know . . . I know that sounds stupid, but I just don't."
Mark shook his head. "No, it doesn't." He paused, thinking. "Try this: Imagine her dating someone else. How does it make you feel?"
Kristen thought for a moment, then said, "Hurt."
"Ok. What about, oh, her going off to college away from you."
"What about her moving in with us?"
She smiled. "Scared."
"Good scared, or bad scared?"
"Both, I think."
"What about you taking her out to a movie? Someplace like Dallas, where you could?"
"I'd like that," she said, without hesitation.
Mark nodded. "What would you want to do if she came down with the flu?"
"Take care of her."
"Does that help you understand how you feel any better?"
"I think so. I just . . . it doesn't seem fair to her. And I'm scared to . . . to promise something that I'm not sure I can give."
"What are you afraid you won't be able to give?"
Kristen swallowed hard. "Commitment. Sharing."
"Why wouldn't you be able to give her commitment? And what are you afraid of not sharing?"
She looked up at him, eyes miserable. "You," she whispered.
Mark pulled her close. "Love . . . she loves you first. She wouldn't want what you can't give. You've already shared my body with her; what are you afraid you can't share?"
"Your . . . your time, your attention, your love. I don't know if I could stand for you to look at someone else the way you do me."
"Okay. That's fair. I want you to imagine me looking at her the way I do you, and her looking at you the way I do, and maybe her looking at me that way. How do those make you feel?"
"It . . . hurts, Mark. But, it feels good, too."
"Imagine both of us looking at you the way I do."
Kristen smiled. "I'm selfish. That doesn't bother me at all."
"It kind of sounds to me like . . . well, like you're already almost in love with her, or maybe you already are, but that you're afraid to lose what we have if you try for that. Maybe I'm seeing it wrong, though; I'm not trying to tell you what you feel, just what it seems like to me."
"Mark . . . you don't know how different this has been for me. It's so wonderful. Of course I'm scared to do anything that might hurt it. I think I would die."
He smiled and kissed her. "Love, a three-way relationship might not work out. That's always a risk, though in our case I think it's a small one. But you could never lose me."
"Even if I'm selfish and jealous?" she asked in a tiny, fragile voice.
"You aren't, you know."
"Am so. You share me."
Mark shook his head. "You've already shared my body with her. And you haven't seemed the least bit jealous of my friendship with her."
"Love . . . the only reason she hasn't actually fucked you is because of my jealosy."
He looked surprised. "I thought she wasn't ready for that yet."
Kristen shrugged. "She would be. With you. But she doesn't want to bother me."
She blushed. "Maybe, but . . . " She turned and hid her face against his shoulder.
"But?" he asked.
Kristen shook her head.
He looked at the back of her head with dawning understanding. "The thought turns you on, doesn't it?"
She gave a quick, embarrassed nod.
That doesn't sound selfish or jealous to me. How do you feel when you see me make her come?"
"Turned on," she admitted reluctantly.
Kristen was silent for a long while before answering him. "Um. No. I don't think so."
Mark nodded. "Like I said, you aren't jealous or selfish."
"Can't we just see what happens?" She pleaded. And not worry about it?"
"We can. But . . . will you do one thing for me? Tell me what, in an ideal world, if everything worked out perfectly and we had the perfect result . . . what would that be?"
"Not having to hide anything anymore."
"And you and me and Kayla?
"Just . . . making love whenever we wanted, however we wanted, without having to worry about anything. No pressure, just pleasure. Going out, cuddling up together, laughing."
"Sounds like being in love, to me."
"But we can't. Especially not here."
"We can't openly be in love. But we could drive to Dallas every so often. We could cuddle together here in the house."
"But she has to go home and sleep all by herself, like . . . " She broke off, biting her lip, her face twisted with pain.
"Like?" he prodded gently.
She sighed and looked down at the couch, not meeting his eyes as she answered him. "Like when someone just wants to fuck you but is too embarrassed to actually be seen with you or let you sleep in his bed. Like we're ashamed of her."
Mark's arms tightened around her as he realized that what she was describing could only be from personal experience. He kissed her gently, trying to take some of that remembered pain away. "But that's not why she'd have to go home. It wouldn't be that we didn't want her here."
"But wouldn't it feel that way to her? If I could stay and she couldn't?"
"Only if we didn't show her that we didn't feel that way," he said soothingly.
"I think . . . I think I'd like to try. But I just don't want to hurt her."
"I don't think you will, love. I said it seemed to me like either you love her, or are close. Which do you think it is?"
"I don't know how to tell, Mark."
He looked thoughtful. "Good point. Imagine telling her that you love her . . . does it feel like you are telling the truth?"
Kristen thought, then nodded, slowly. "Yes."
"Then I think that's your answer.""
"I'll . . . think about it. It's still scary." She smiled. "You know . . . this isn't how I pictured my life if I ever got married." She shook her head a bit wonderingly. "It isn't how I pictured getting married, either, I guess."
"I'm not surprised. I assume you expected what everyone else does?"
Kristen looked down at her hands in her lap. "Yeah."
"Are you upset at not having a big wedding?"
"Not really. Well . . . sorta. Mainly I just . . . it just kinda hurts that it has to be so secret. I can't even wear a wedding ring."
"Yeah. I know." He looked at her unhappily, wishing there were something he could do to make it hurt less. "You could wear your wedding ring on a chain around your neck," he suggested, "It's not the same, I know, but . . . "
She looked up at him and smiled sadly. "It's okay, Mark. I understand why, I really do. I'll know you want me, whether anyone else does or not. That's what counts."
Mark kissed her again, then asked, "Hey, would you like to call Kayla and see if she can spend the night? Or would you rather not?"
"Not tonight. I just want to cuddle up and go to sleep, really, if that's okay with you."
"That's fine, love. After we get married, though . . . want to go out to dinner, maybe see a movie?"
She smiled up at him. "I'd really like that."
"Okay. Just us, or Kayla too?"
"It wouldn't hurt your feelings if Kayla came? I mean . . . since we are getting married and everything tomorrow?"
Mark smiled. "Not if you want her to, love. I . . . well, I like seeing the two of you together. You look . . . right. And it would be kind of hypocritical of me to be bothered, after our conversation." He hugged her. "Besides, if our relationship works out, you might want to marry her, and I certainly wouldn't want to be left out afterwards!"
Kristen laughed. "Sweetheart, we're in Texas, not on Tertius."
Mark said, "Oh, we couldn't get legally married . . . but we could have a ceremony, anyway. It might not be legally binding, but it would mean something to us."
She cuddled up to him, smiling. "Love you."
"Love you, too."
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