Ava Steele lived in a two-bedroom apartment in an older high rise in the West End of Vancouver, a block off Davie Street. Marius discovered early in his living with her that life in the busy downtown core was far different from suburban Burnaby. He missed his quiet street and the forest he jogged through each morning.
Ronan’s advice in Marius staying with Ava proved accurate. Ava’s loving presence and her always bright smile had helped him immensely. Marius reacquainted himself with household chores during the leave of absence he took from CSIS. His sister worked full time so Marius thought it only fair that he take care of the house and meals. Ava hadn’t argued.
In truth, playing housekeeper gave him simple tasks to think about and focus on outside of missing his family and home. Each morning, Marius jogged down to Third Beach to watch the sun rise. Only as the sky lit in oranges and yellows did he give himself permission to think. When none but the seagulls and lapping waves could see the flow of tears wetting his cheeks or the mumbled prayers of forgiveness he told the rising sun. Marius started the trek back to the apartment by the time the dawn had calmed into blue grey skies.
The beach trips gradually helped, the need to cry turned into quiet contemplation of cresting waves. The hole in his heart dwindled in rawness, but still persistently ached. Marius recognized early on why healing evaded him. Until he discovered, one way or another, what had become of Issy, Marius had no chance in patching all the cracks.
Still, life marched on.
Every year Marius made it a point to take his sister out for her birthday. Ava named the place, and Marius footed the bill. This year, Ava selected a public house down on the corner of Denman and Davie Street with a view of the sea. This year, Ava didn’t bring her latest girlfriend. Instead, Ava and Marius dined together at a table on the outdoor patio. They ordered burgers and wedge cut fries, then settled into their usual rounds of birthday drinks. Fortunately, they could crawl back to Ava’s from the pub if necessary.
“To my lovely sister,” Marius said, his glass raised above the table in salute to Ava. “May she live another…” The words trailed as Marius blinked at his sister, a frown curving his lips down. “Wait, how old are you now? Forty?”
That earned him the launch of a wedge fry his way. Ava watched it bounce off his forehead and land in his upturned hand. “I’m thirty-five, you ass,” Ava said.
“Ah yeah, I’m still older and wiser,” Marius grinned as he popped the wedge fry in his mouth. He’d barely swallowed the mouthful when he continued. “My ass, I’ll have you know, turns heads every damn morning.”
Ava laughed, pushing her plate to one side. “Oh, I am aware. I think you’re going to give poor Michael on the ground floor whiplash.” She caught up her glass and lifted it to clink against Marius’ upraised cup. “To glorious me. May we not discuss my age any further.”
Marius sipped at his drink. “Deal. Honestly, your aging makes me even older.” He set the glass down and leaned back in his chair to eye the traffic coming up Denman. “Michael, huh? That the guy with the terror?”
“Terrier, Marius, and yes.” Ava quirked a brow at her brother curiously, “Why? Are you interested?”
“Terror, Ava,” Marius said. “Tries to bite my ankle every damn morning.” He narrowed his eyes on Ava, forgetting the endless traffic in favour of making sure she didn’t get crazy ideas about Michael. “And no, I’m not interested.”
“Oh, come on, Marius,” Ava said, rolling the ice cubes in her glass in search of the last bit of the rum and coke. “You can’t tell me you’ve never once looked at a man and thought ‘hey, he’s hot.’”
Marius nursed his drink, taking a little sip as he eyed his sister over the glass rim. A sly smile tugged at his lips. His gaze lowered with his drink to rest on the table. The expression on his face told too much. Ava saw and instantly perked up in her chair.
“You have,” Ava said. Her face lit up with a wide smile of her own and she shimmied her chair all the closer to her brother’s. The metal legs scraped on the stone floor with a screech. Ava perched her chin on her knuckles, her brown doe eyes focused intently on Marius. He groaned softly. Ava waited, wanting to hear this big secret he’d kept from her all these years.
“It’s hardly anything,” Marius rolled his eyes and flopped back in the chair to eye his sister. She smiled all the brighter, a manicured hand waving for him to hurry up. “Alright, alright. His name was Alessio Massetti and he was the star of the university soccer team. Came to study here in Canada for a couple of years.”
“Mm, a little Italian, Marius?” Ava asked. “And?”
“And what?” Marius eyed his sister in the most innocent way he could.
She didn’t buy it. Her hand gestured in a circle again. “There’s more.” Ava waved down a waitress and ordered them another round of drinks.
Marius downed the last of his. “Fine. So, he was a good-looking man. Had the sort of body that drew attention. You know, ripped stomach, solid arms plus the man could kick a soccer ball like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Ava blew out a low breath. “Marius, stop avoiding. Spill it all. I want some meat.”
Marius tossed one of his fries at Ava for her choice of words. “Now I’m not telling you shit.” The potato wedge tumbled harmlessly by Ava. Marius sighed, so much for impeccable aim. “For that comment. Meat? Seriously?”
“You can’t say no, Marius.” Ava took her long slender leather purse off the table top and soundly whacked him on the upper arm with it. “Far, far too late to back yourself out of this one. What did you do? What did he do?”
“I was playing goal a lot back then. He was a striker,” Marius said. Ava whacked him with her purse again and he couldn’t help the chuckle. She didn’t appreciate his delay tactics. “Ow, alright. He kissed me. Backed me up into the lockers and laid one on me before my dumb ass had caught up to what he was doing. Damn deer in the headlights thanks to his towel attire and that smile of his.”
Ava let out a low whistle and returned the purse to the table. “Now that’s much juicier. Anything else, big brother? Meets under the bleachers between class or more lip mashing sessions after practice? Why did you never tell me this?”
“No. Hell no, Ava,” Marius said, shaking his head. “I was engaged to Sharrie then. Told him so as soon as my brains overrode whatever else was going on.”
Ava nodded, managing to keep her mouth shut until the waitress had brought their drinks and Marius paid for them. The glass was against his lips when Ava opened her mouth again and Marius was lucky he didn’t wind up with half that drink in his lap.
“So, you think you might’ve … you know?” She arched a pointed brow and made a lewd gesture that Marius had no problems figuring out.
“No!” Marius’ eyes flared wide and he had the sense to place his glass back safely on the table. “We didn’t fuck and I don’t… I wasn’t…” He couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out. Warmth suffused his face which had little to do with the alcohol consumed.
Ava exhaled a breath loud enough that Marius could hear it. She picked up her drink. “A shame.” The glass lightly bumped Ava’s lower lip but she didn’t take a sip. “I’m curious, Marius. The mighty Canadian protector of the soccer net versus the charming Italian football star. Who’d come out on top?” she said, a mild teasing tone coloured her voice.
Marius glared at her over the edge of his glass. Ava’s eyes sparkled with laughter. He drank back a good half of his cocktail.
“This,” Marius said, “is why I don’t tell you these things.”
“Aw, no, Marius,” Ava said. The ice cubes clinked against the side of the cup as Ava deposited the drink back on the table. “You can tell me anything. Seriously. There’s a reason I asked.”
“Yeah? Why?” Genuine curiosity flooded Marius’ eyes. He never seemed able to stay mad with Ava even when he she did rib him into moods.
“It’s been months –”
“Three months, two weeks, and four days,” Marius said. The quiet correction came without hesitation.
“And,” Ava narrowed her eyes on her brother. Her intended speech plodded on as though he had not interrupted her. “We both know perfectly well that Sharrie’d not want you moping around. She’d want you to have a good life. So, my advice to you here is…” Ava paused a moment, studying Marius’ face for any outward signs of what he was feeling. She licked her lips and nodded once. “Go out. Go back to work. Go travel. Go make new friends. I don’t care what you choose to do.” Ava leaned forwards over the table to make sure she had a good lock on Marius’ gaze. “But do something. And when you do it? Don’t let your eyes stay closed. It’s hard to say goodbye, Marius, but at some point, you got to make the decision to go on.”
Marius studied his sister’s earnest gaze in return. Just in the last couple of weeks he had started to truly feel as though the fog had begun to lift. Grief made a strange bedfellow. Marius learned his entire view on life could be twisted up inside him until he saw everything through a narrow tube. Not even simple facts such as rising from bed or eating breakfast lingered long in his muddled memory. Marius recalled only sunrises and the scent of the sea whenever he purposely tried to remember what he’d done in the last several weeks.
Every day Ronan sent Marius a text to say hello, or to see how he was doing, if he needed anything. Some days, Marius replied. On other days, he read the file updates that Ronan emailed regularly to him over a cup of coffee. Marius appreciated that Ronan took the time to keep him in the loop as promised. Reading those files and drinking that coffee took Marius all day. He always wound up with heartburn by evening.
Two days ago, Ronan had sent him an employment offer.
“I was thinking about going back to work,” Marius said.
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