Denise stared across the table at Casey.
He was distractingly handsome today, but for some reason, she couldn't concentrate. His words seemed to roll over her like a rippling brook, the glints in his eyes the sparkling shimmer of sun on the water. And yet the shadows, the ominous overhang of the trees and the clouds…
He seemed to be looking askance at her.
"Sorry?" The word came out high and tight, like she was hiding something.
"Are you alright, Den?" She couldn't bear the worry in his voice.
"I was just... thinking," she replied. Under the table, her freezing fingers ran up and down her left arm, pressing her scars. Pressing, picking; pleasurable pain; she pulled her thoughts together again even as she held her sleeve down at her wrist. "Assignments, you know," she said vaguely.
"Oh. Well, it's still another month, but if you want to start work on it now..."
"No, no. It's okay. Just some... disassociated... thoughts... about them." Even as she spoke, she had a sudden image of Spencer Reid from the TV series, Criminal Minds. The rapid fire, jerk stop motion in his words. The way he almost smiled, half the time when talking.
"You look really good today," she said.
"Glad you noticed."
They sat in silence for a while. It wasn't going to be a very successful date night.
"I'm sorry, Mark," she said, a huge sob caught in her voice.
"No, but I thought it. I almost did. I was with him... I... then when I was back home..."
"Denise, as long as you didn't."
"No, I didn't."
"Good girl." He put an arm around her, whispering into her ear. "Stay strong, Denise. You have more in you that you ever thought. Don't let anyone say otherwise."
Her body was shaking now, throbbing with the pain she felt in her heart. He hushed her, held her in silence.
"I don't know if I love him anymore. He just makes me sad."
"The shadow proves the sunshine."
"Are you trying to be sunshine?"
"I am sunshine."
She smiled, even as she dripped mucus. "I hate crying," she said musingly.
Mark smiled. "Crying never hurt anyone." He slowly released her, pulling away.
"It seems to me as if your dates give more harm than pleasure," he observed.
She rummaged in her bag in search of tissues.
"Denise, if seeing Casey makes you depressed, you need to stop."
And suddenly, she was all fire again. "He tempts me. Being with him tempts me. I don't know why. It's as if the very act of… of… it's all tied up in him."
He took hold of her chin, turning it towards him. "You have to know what's right for you, Denise. Life is not about dating someone, and falling in love for all time. Life isn't about seeing someone. There is no happily ever after. You'll be perfectly fine without him, not if being with him makes you cut."
She winced. He'd said it. It made her feel exposed, it made her feel stupid.
"No, Denise, look at me."
Reluctantly, she met his eyes. "Mark, I cannot handle being alone."
"Denise, right now, you cannot handle being with him."
He held her hands and she almost cried out.
"Denise, I am going to look."
"I didn't lie, Mark. I didn't."
She didn't know why she felt guilty just saying it, even if it was the truth. Maybe it was the way Mark was eyeing her now, as if he couldn't – or wouldn't – believe her. She wanted to grab her hands away and say if you can't trust me… but she let him peel away the sleeves, exposing her scarred flesh.
His fingers brushed the scars; some dull and faded, some red and tender; sending tingles up her spine. She was shuddering again, trying her best to dam it up, to cover up, to hide, to run.
Mark touched the hot tears that ran down her face, wiping them across her cheeks with his thumbs.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"For what?" He had no need to be sorry. He had no need to trust her.
"I am becoming like them, annoyed in my suspicions. I have become everything I rightfully hated."
"How did you get out? How did you escape?" How can I run away, the unspoken question.
"You never really escape, Denise. There will always be another scar."
"But it doesn't have to be physical. Not this way."
"Not this way."
And she imagined a day when she wouldn't feel the need to add scars to her hands for every scab in her heart.