The door opened, and Lex had jumped to be by her side. There was a paleness about her face, and sorrow in her eyes, but a faint smile appeared on her lips.
"My two favourite people in the whole world, staying up all night just for me," she said.
"Because you're worth it," Lex said, a hand reaching towards her as if to hold her up.
"I'm fine, Lex."
"Breakfast is served, milady," Mark said with a flourish of his arm.
"Why thank you, milord."
They ate silently around the dining table.
"Sha went back with Casey, didn't she?" Denise finally asked.
"Yes," Mark answered shortly.
"He'll be alright then."
More silence. Mark started to clear up.
"Den, are you okay?" Lex said quietly. "Seriously."
"If you're asking if my heart is broken because of the break-up, I'm fine. I wanted to do it. I had to do it. I wasn't doing justice to the relationship – and neither was he. I've settled that part with myself. If you're asking about what happened last night, I… I don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"Something just snapped for me last night, Lex. It's as if I just decided I'm not going to let him run my life. I'm not going to let anyone run my life. I… I'm not going to let what he says make me feel mean and terrible and small anymore." She smiled. "I'm going to make things beautiful."
"You really had us worried last night – in Alexis, I mean, even before Casey showed up," Mark said. "Me and Dom, we thought you… we thought that was it. You went further out of it than we ever did."
A short sharp laugh. She bit her lower lip.
"Funny. Last night, I went to Alexis fully wanting to drink myself into oblivion. I couldn't bring myself to order anything alcoholic. Not with you and Lex there. Not with the look Dommie would give me. Then the music started. Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away," she sang the first line of the song.
"If you can use some exotic booze there's a bar in far Bombay," Mark continued.
"Then I wanted to fly – run away from it all!"
"You were playing with the cutlery," Lex said.
"I almost did."
"But you didn't," Mark said.
"No, I didn't. By then I wanted to dance. Just stand up and sway, with my eyes closed, imagining. Dreaming." A short bark of a laugh. "Such a dreamer, aren't I?"
They just smiled back at her.
"Then he turned up, and the momentary peace I had found shattered."
"I thought he was going to beat Mark up right there," Lex commented.
"I thought so too," Denise said.
"You handled it well," Mark told her.
"Did I? I thought you did. Anyway, then he said all those things, and I said all I said – I don't really know what I said – then I figured, what the heck am I doing? It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter. I'm free. I could walk out. He could make a scene, but what else could he do? It really didn't matter anymore. I was me. He was him. We tried to make things work, but we couldn't. I don't know if it was a lack of trying on my part – I've been so caught up in my own problems – or if we were just doing it the wrong way. But it really, really didn't have to be the be-all and end-all. Not now. We're too young. We're still studying – what were we expecting? To be married by the end of the year? I'm sorry, I'm just rambling, aren't I?"
"No, you were just philosophising," Lex said.
She leaned into the backrest of the chair.
"So, what now?" Mark asked.
"What now? I don't know."
"Will you make peace with Casey?"
She stared off into the distance. "I will try."
"It won't be easy."
"He'll try to get you back."
"What will you do then?"
"I'll have to be firm."
"What if he makes a fuss?"
"That'll have to be it then. I can't do anything if he won't."
There was a smirk on her face.
"What are you thinking about, Den?" Lex asked.
"I am thinking, Mr. Alexander, that Mark really sounds like you."
"That's because, Ms. Denise, we're secretly twins."
They shared sweet laughter.
"Oh, look, it's raining!" Denise gasped, looking out the window. "I love the rain! Let's go dance in the rain!"
Shoeless and coatless, she ran out the doorway, down the stairs and out into the pattering rain drops.
"I'm standing on the edge of me, standing on the edge of me," she sang, a Switchfoot song coming to mind.
"You're crazy, Denise!" Lex yelled at her from the window. Mark ran out and tried to pull her back in under the shade.
She just laughed as the water soaked her clothes and skin. "I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain… What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again! I'm laughing at clouds so dark up above, the sun's in my heart and I'm ready for love!" She made a few experimental tap-dance moves. Suddenly, she stopped, facing Mark.
"Do you know, I just remembered – that song," she said as he watched her, his clothes getting as wet as hers.
"Come Fly With Me – or whatever the title was. The Frank Sinatra one."
"Yeah, what about it?"
"That first night in Alexis. You sang it too."
"Did I? Well, so I did. So?"
"I don't know. Random piece of information."
"Come on, girl, you'll catch your death of cold. Let's go in."
"Dominick called," Lex told them as they appeared at the doorway, dripping. "Wait, I'll get a rug or something."
"Ooh. Dommie. Where did he go anyway?" Denise asked.
"I asked him to go over with Mei Fen and Casey," Mark said.
"I didn't know how violent Casey could get. Just in case."
She wrapped a towel around her as she mulled over it. "He wouldn't. Not to her."
"Sorry?" Mark frowned.
"He would quarrel with me. I sometimes think he would fight me too. But not her. Never her."
"Are they really…"
"I don't know," she cut in quickly.
"Sorry dears, it's been a long night. I think I need to go home. I'm sure you guys need rest too." She stretched as she stood.
"I'll take you home," Mark said. She nodded.
"Thank you, Lex. You really are a brick."
"Take care, Den. Take it easy. And please, stop bottling it in, okay?"
They smiled at each other.
"I'll come see you again soon," she said.
Lex watched as they left, Mark a protecting shadow looming over her slight figure. Denise. She'd always been an enigma. He remembered the shy young girl he had first gotten to know all those years ago, maturing into the confusing bundle of energy and frailty that she was now. He had never been able to make up his mind as to whether she was a noisy introverted girl, or a quiet extroverted one. Locking up, he curled up on his bed, falling asleep within seconds.
"There used to be a collage of photos on my wall," Denise commented as Mark drove.
"People. Friends, classmates, my current crush."
"What happened to it?"
"It used to be Lex. He was there for a long time."
Mark looked over at her, but didn't say anything. She didn't wait for a response.
"Do you figure it hurts most when you want something so much but you can't get it? It wasn't for lack of trying. It just didn't work."
She watched the passing trees for a while.
"And then?" he prompted.
"And then I met Casey. And Sha and I had this crazy bet."
"Yeah. You know, you're the only one who ever calls her that."
"He asked. I wanted to say no. But somehow, I couldn't. Call him a substitute, maybe. But then he became my everything. Why am I telling you this?"
She was still looking out the car window.
"I don't really know. I just need to say something. For the sake of saying something."
"Do you still like him? Lex, I mean."
"Ye – no. I think I've given up. Accepted it for a fact. I don't think it would work anyway."
"I realised that we've known about each other for so long. But I don't know him. Not really. It's all just so… so superficial somehow."
"In what way?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. No… no inner, deeper connection, I suppose."
"Is that what you're looking for?"
"In some ways… But then again, I'm not after you, am I? Or are you…"
She looked at him with a bemused expression.
"No, I'm not."
"That's it then. If only it were always this simple."
They stopped outside the hostel gates.
"Thank you, Mark. I suppose I'll see you sometime then."
"I won't anymore, you know?"
He looked uncomprehendingly for a moment, then nodded, understanding. She smiled.
She walked away, not looking back, back straight and shoulders pulled back. It was the gait of one whose load had been lifted, the gait of one who had finally found her own mind. It was funny, but Mark wondered why he hadn't ever realised how beautiful she really was.