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Prudence, Chapter 23

Kristen was sleeping soundly, without the slightest sign of unrest. Mark leaned over and kissed her gently. She smiled in her sleep and cuddled closer to Kayla.

He deepened the kiss, trying to wake her gently. "Mmmm?" she murmured, cracking one eye open.

"Hey love," he said. "I've got to take Kayla home. Do you want to stay here, or go with us?"

Her eyes flew open all the way. "Don't leave me by myself!"

He nodded, smoothing a strand of hair back from her cheek. "It's okay. We won't. You can come with us," he said soothingly.

She relaxed, then smiled impishly. "Do I have to get dressed?"

He smiled, and nodded again. "Yes."

"Spoilsport." Kayla sighed. "I wouldn't make her get dressed."

Kristen giggled.

"You wouldn't go to jail if they caught her with you nude," Mark said, then grinned evilly and suggested, "You could take her in when you get home for one last quickie, though."

Kayla blushed. "Um. No. They'd eat her alive."

Kristen nodded, surprising Mark, and asked "Does your dad still have that freezer?" eliciting a deep sigh and a nod from Kayla.

Mark leaned over and kissed Kristen. "I love you."

"Love you, too. If I must wear clothes, toss me my snuggly sweater and that wrap around skirt, honey, please?" she asked him.

He kissed her nose and headed for the closet. As her father had mentioned, her closet was surprisingly bare. Compared to those of his female friends in college, it was practically empty. A pair of jeans, three or four skirts, two dresses and two sweaters. One pair of heels, one pair of flats and one pair of very worn, ragged cowboy boots. That was it. Mark frowned as he pulled out the clothes she wanted and brought them to her. "You know, we should drive up to Dallas this weekend and go clothes shopping, love."

"Why?" Kristen asked, pulling on the sweater. "I've got enough for a full week."

Mark looked at her a little oddly. "You are the only female I've ever known who didn't jump at the idea of shopping for clothes."

She shrugged. "Seems like a waste of money, really, Mark. Yeah, I'd like some pretty things, and more sweaters would be nice, since it's getting chilly, but it's no big deal. Clothes cost lots of money."

"Not that much, love," he said. "Especially since we aren't paying rent anymore."

"There's still property taxes," she pointed out. "You don't have to buy me things. I'm fine."

"But I like buying you things, love."

"Honey, you're a teacher," she said. "Teachers don't make any money. They all say so!"

"I don't make that much, yeah," he said, "but we've got almost no expenses, either."

She hugged him impulsively. "I love you," she said, with an exasperated little sigh. "If you really want to buy me clothes, you can."

He grinned. "Wonderful."

Kayla snorted. "I'd prefer to burn the ones you have, myself, so that you have to go naked. Men have no imagination." Kristen giggled at her and fastened her skirt. Mark looked thoughtful. "Hmm... naked. I could live with that."

"You do," Kristen pointed out. "I don't have a robe or anything."

"Oh yeah," he said, leering at her.

She raised her nose in the air. "Course, it is getting cooler these days. I could start wearing pajamas."

Mark feigned a look of horror. "I guess I'll have to keep you warm. Pajamas are evil."

She smiled and held up her arms. "Done now. Carry me?" Obligingly, he picked her up and she sighed happily and snuggled against him. "I shoulda broke my ankle a long time ago," she murmured.

He shook his head. "All you had to do was ask me to carry you, love," he said, bending to kiss her hair. "You're a lot closer to me this way than when you're walking."

Kayla laughed. "Lifting heavy objects. So that's why we need men."

Kristen's eyes got wide. "I'm a heavy object?" she asked, chin quivering.

He raised an eyebrow, looking at Kayla. "Damn. I thought we men were supposed to be the ones to stick our feet in our mouths like that."

The little brunette looked horrified. "Oops. Shit. No sweetie!" she hurried to say. "You're a tiny little bit of a thing. Delicate. Fragile. Ethereally beautiful. It's the responsibility of carrying something so precious that's heavy."

Mark gave a low whistle. "Good save."

Kristen giggled again. "Well, that's okay, then I guess."

Their drive to Kayla's house encountered no difficulties, however, as was standard, every light in the house was one when they pulled up. The previously multi-colored grass was now dead, and there were some very odd looking mushrooms growing it its place.

"Do I want to ask about the mushrooms?" Mark asked.

"No. Definitely not," Kayla said emphatically. "I haven't even asked about the mushrooms yet."

He chuckled. "I see."

Kayla gave Kristen a quick kiss and ran into the house. Mark shook his head, smiling as he watched her jog up the walk.

Kristen sighed. "We need a time machine."

"Oh?"

"So we could just skip the next three and a half years," she said.

He shook his head. "No. I don't want to miss a single moment with you... or her."

"We wouldn't miss any," she said, "we'd just hop from one to the other, being totally absent in between. We'd stay the same, but since our birth-dates wouldn't change, legally we'd be seventeen."

"Hmm... interesting idea," he admitted. "On the other hand, that'd mean you'd still be in high school at twenty."

"Nope," she said, with a smug little smile. "Both of us could easily get our GEDs and just start college. Be a bit more work, but doable."

"Well then, why don't you get us a time machine for Christmas?" he teased.

She grinned. "Wish I could, love, I really, really do."

He kept his eyes on the road, paying careful attention to his driving... perhaps a bit more careful than was actually needed as he asked, in a voice that tried hard for casual but didn't quite make it, "I take it you've decided you want her around indefinitely, then?"

"Um," she said nervously. "Unless you have a problem with it. Or develop one."

He shook his head. "No, not at all. Just the opposite, in fact. She's... good with you. I like seeing you two together."

She smiled. "I'm glad, Mark. I've been really, truly happy. But I couldn't stand it if it hurt you."

He glanced over at her. "So, have you figured out how you feel about her yet?"

Kristen hesitated. "Maybe. But I'm just really not ready to talk about it yet. Not... in words, y'know?"

He reached over and squeezed her leg. "I understand, love, but... you know you can talk to me about anything, right? If you just need to talk, to work it out. I love you."

"I know, Mark. It's not you. It's just me. I just can't talk about it, not yet."

He nodded, then asked hesitantly, "Could... could I talk to you about something?"

She smiled. "Always, Mark."

"Remember when I told you I could fall in love with her very easily?"

There was a pause, then she answered quietly, "Yes, I remember."

He stared at the road, afraid to look at her. "I think... I think maybe..."

She waited silently. Finally, he finished, "I think I might be."

A quiet, "Oh," was the only response.

He swallowed hard, still afraid to look at her. "I still love you, as much as -- maybe more than I did before, if that's possible. And you are still number one for me, you know that, don't you?" he asked anxiously.

"I... I'm not sure what to say."

He swallowed again, his hand clenching the steering wheel convulsively. "Say you still love me?" he pleaded quietly, "And don't hate me?"

"Oh, love, I could _never hate you," she said. "No matter what. Even if you hated me, I would still love you."

"Are you mad?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," she said. "I don't think so. I honestly expected this, I really did, it's just..." She shrugged awkwardly.

"What?" he prompted gently.

She looked away. "I hoped it wouldn't scare me so much."

He squeezed her leg. "I love you, Kristen Hasseran."

She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat. "I know, Mark. I love you too." She wiped at her eyes, then whispered, "I feel so selfish."

"Why?" he asked, puzzled.

"Because I want you to love me more," she said. "Just loving me isn't enough, and it should be."

Mark glanced over at her for the first time since he'd made his confession. "I do love you more. Just like if she falls in love with me, she'll love you more." He paused, then added, "I haven't told her. I'm not going to."

It was Kristen's turn to sound puzzled. "Why not?"

He shook his head. "I won't until you know how you feel, so you can decide whether you want me to tell her or not."

"But it's not any of my business, really, is it?" she asked.

He looked at her again, trying to read her expression. "Er, yeah, it is. You come first. I'm not going to do anything with another woman that you don't want me to."

"You wouldn't love me for very long if I were to be cruel enough to tell you to hurt someone else you love," she pointed out.

"Not telling her is not the same thing as hurting her, love," he said, "and telling her when it might hurt you would hurt her."

She shook her head. "Pretending not to love someone when you do would hurt them."

"Not as much as hurting you would."

"Forget about me for a minute!" she said, exasperated. "I'm not the most important thing in the freaking universe. Just think of people and what hurts them. Wouldn't it hurt you?"

He reached over and took her hand. "Yes, you are the most important thing in my universe. And I'd rather have her not tell me she loved me than have her hurt you."

"But it already hurts me that either of you would not do something you want to just because of me!"

He sighed. "But I don't... which would hurt you more, love?"

"It doesn't matter," she insisted, "because what I want most is for you to be happy, even if it hurts me."

He smiled. "But, you see, I'm not happy if you're hurt."

"Oooooooh! This is so aggravatingly complex!" She shook her head. "Love should be simple."

Mark laughed. "Love is never simple. But do you see why I'm going to wait to say anything until you know how you feel?

"Yes." She sighed. "But... it makes me feel like a monster."

"You aren't a monster, love, just my primary. If I had to choose... well, frankly, I could never choose -- because it wouldn't even be a choice. You, always and forever," he said with quiet conviction.

"Oh Mark... how could you possibly feel that way if I were so... so cruel as to say you had to choose?"

"You don't understand, love," Mark said. "I'm falling in love with her, but only insofar as it doesn't interfere with us."

She looked at him skeptically. "Mark, I'm naive, not stupid. You just can't say to your heart, 'okay, we can go this far and no further.' Your body, yeah. Your heart... it just doesn't work that way."

He sighed. "Maybe not. But that's sure how it feels to me."

She sighed, too. "Alright. All I can really tell you is that, as horrible as it sounds, as long as you love me more, I'm okay."

"I do," he said, smiling over at her. "But I'm still going to wait a couple of days. I want you to have time to digest this."

"Yeah, well, after having to take care of me like a stupid baby for a week, you might change your mind about a lot of things," she said.

He shook his head. "Nope. Besides, I like doing things for you."

"I can't believe I broke my stupid ankle. I've never broken anything before."

"Yeah, Kayla mentioned you never even fell on the playground," he said. "That makes me suspicious about what happened."

"Everybody has bad luck sometimes," she said.

"Yes, but never, and then happening now?"

She laughed. "Mark, I was a cowardly kid. A girly girl. I wasn't at all a tomboy. Books and dolls rarely injure you."

"Well, okay then," he said. "But still... I don't like it."

"Horseback riding and gymnastics were the most dangerous things I did," she said, "and the horses were tame as bunnies and the gymnastics I was just naturally good at."

"Yes, but everyone hurts themselves doing gymnastics at one point or another," he argued.

"Not if they're actually careful and listen to the instructor," she insisted. "I wasn't a show-off back then. And I wasn't in it long, anyway. Dancing turned out to be more fun."

"Mmm," he said, smiling in remembrance. "I won't argue with that -- I've seen you dance."

Kristen smiled at him. "When my ankle is well, I'd like to dance for you. Privately."

His eyes lit up. "I'd love that."

She grinned. "And you can come with me when I take my horses out, too. I bet they wonder what happened to their mummy."

He smiled weakly. "Probably."

"Daddy has a boy who comes in and feeds and exercises them, but... well, before you, they were my best friends."

He squeezed her hand again. "I love you."

"Even if I make you ride a horse?" she asked with a giggle.

"Even then."

"Amazing," she said, still grinning. "Kayla said she'd rather have bamboo skewers under her toenails."

"Really." He chuckled. "I bet if you asked her at the right time, she'd say yes."

She giggled again. "That'd be cheating."

"True."

She cuddled up to him as best the seat-belt would allow, and closed her eyes with a happy little sigh. By the time they got home, she was sound asleep. Carefully, he carried her in, then gently undressed her and slid into bed beside her, falling asleep himself almost instantly.



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