Roxy, comforted by her late husband's final message, emerged from her self-imposed isolation. She now knew that, no matter how alone and frightened she may feel sometimes, Mac's love and spirit was with her still... and it always would be. In fact, now and again, she swore she could still feel the warmth of his embrace...
Still feeling guilty for her treatment of the young Marcel, and keen not to make the same mistakes with the next generation, Roxy started to take an interest in her grandchildren - the eldest two of whom were now entering their teenage years. The twins still looked extremely similar, but were developing different personalities and dreams.
Mitch and his brother Marius had lost their mother Lillie when they were still rather young. One of the few happy memories that remained in Mitch's mind was making cupcakes and sweet treats with her, to take home to his father and grandparents. As time went by, this activity became his keen hobby... and by the time he was in high school, he was well on his way to becoming a master baker.
However, his love of sweet things was soured by a darker side to his personality. The bedtime stories of his youth, told to him by his grandfather Mac - great sagas of heroes and villains - had captured his vivid imagination... but not for the expected reasons. Deep down, despite knowing his grandfather's profession, Mitch had always rooted for the so-called "bad guys". It was only later that he realised why.
He was a kleptomaniac.
He started off small... "borrowing" a few items of stationery from his classmates' pencil cases, and the occasional piece of candy from the pick 'n' mix stand. However, as Mitch grew older, he also grew braver - and more cunning. He would visit local museums and galleries, contemplating the exhibits and devising methods through which he could potentially snatch them away. More often than not, he'd test the theory then and there. He'd been caught once or twice, and was let off with warnings, due to his tender age. But, amazingly... most of the time, he got away with it.
Yet Mitch wasn't greedy. He never kept anything he stole - and not just for the sake of hiding evidence. He would sell it to some shady dealer or other unsavoury connection, and aside from keeping a very small amount of the profit for personal use (his pocket money was a bit meagre, after all), he'd use the majority for a good cause - donating it to a charity, or buying treats for his siblings. He wasn't a criminal out of desperation, nor massive want of wealth. He simply stole for the sheer thrill of it. It was his guilty pleasure and his deepest secret... one that was as sweet to him as anything he could whip up in the kitchen.
Marius' career compass, on the other hand, was pointing in a very different direction. Like Mac, he had a strong sense of justice, and a thirst to right the wrongs in the world. He was a smart young man, and rather good with computers - his research skills were second to none amongst his classmates, and this was reflected clearly in his grades.
As distant as she had been, Roxy was something of a role model for Marius. He respected her commitment to keeping herself fit, her courageous attitude, and her devotion to her profession. Filled with the spirit of adventure, Marius knew he also wanted to devote his life to fighting crime... but to go one level beyond the local police station. The Secret Service was calling him. Marius Sheehan Miskin - International Man of Mystery.
It wasn't going to be easy. His mind was pretty sharp already, but his fitness levels would need to follow suit. So, in the evening, after spending an hour or so at his computer, Marius would head into his father's room to make use of his old gym equipment - building up his body alongside his intelligence.
Marcel, meanwhile, continued his artistic pursuits - as driven as ever to somehow render himself immortal through his work. It was a goal that he'd aspire to even more following a tragic event one Sunday afternoon - narrowly before Mitch and Marius' sixteenth birthday.
As Marcel stood at his easel in his bedroom, dobbing maroon blobs on the snow-white canvas, he was interrupted by a thudding sound coming from the corridor. Alarmed, he stepped outside hurriedly... and saw that his now-aged mother had collapsed onto the carpet.
"Mama Roxy... oh no... oh, God, please, no - not like this..."
He seized her wrist in the hoping of finding a pulse. Nothing. After debating the matter in his head for a moment or two, Marcel decided to phone for an ambulance. He knew how much Roxy hated hospitals and doctors, and how she was bound to despise him for it... but he'd swiftly realised that he had no choice.
In the end, the doctor wouldn't be needed.
It was, undoubtedly, a beautiful garden. Something that even Mordecai could have only dreamt of creating. As she sat upon a marble fountain, surrounded by the beautiful blossoms, Roxy felt very much at peace. The last thing she remembered was walking towards the stairway at home... and now, suddenly, she was here.
Still, there were far worse places she could be.
As she looked over into the crystal-clear waters of the fountain, she found herself stroking her face in surprise and awe as she beheld her reflection. Somewhere between her home and here, the years had vanished from her body... and she was a young woman once again, looking just as she did in her prime.
Roxy looked up as she heard a familiar voice... and grinned widely as she saw the speaker.
The vibrant pink lady hurried over, taking a seat at Roxy's side. She, too, looked young... and indeed, very healthy and happy.
"How are you feeling, dear?" Zara asked.
"A bit... confused," Roxy replied timidly. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to make sure I was here to meet you," Zara said. "It can be a confusing experience at first, after all."
"I'm sure you'll figure it out in a while, honey. Needless to say... there's people here who've been waiting for you for quite some time."
"Waiting? For me?"
Zara nodded, and gestured towards a long, winding path through the vegetation.
"Head down there, Roxy sweetie. You're bound to see a few familiar faces soon. I'll catch up with you once you're all settled."
Roxy remained puzzled, but she trusted Zara. She rose obediently, and started to walk down the long mysterious pathway.
The first person she came across was Milo, who was sat at a chessboard. After greeting him merrily and joining him for a game, the doctor gently told her to be on her way - not because he wasn't happy to see her, but because there were others out there who craved her company.
Roxy walked on. She soon came to a vast lake, which could be crossed by the means of a long wooden bridge. As she stepped onto it, her ears pricked up as she overheard a conversation between two people headed her way.
"Honestly... I do wish they'd do something about those overgrown bushes."
"Darling, really - even here, you just have to find something to complain about, don't you?"
A gasp followed.
"Look, darling! There she is!"
Roxy almost cried when she realised who they were.
"Aunt Lavinia! Uncle Richard!"
The couple embraced their niece eagerly.
"So good to see you, Roxy, darling," Lavinia said joyfully. "I'm sure we'll catch up later, but for now, I fear we need to cut things short."
"But... but why?"
Richard pointed towards the other side of the lake.
"There's a little garden over there," he explained. "As happy as your aunt and I are to see you, there's a couple of people there whose need is far greater than ours."
Intrigued, Roxy thanked him, and went on her way.
As she stepped off the bridge, her eye fell upon a small garden, designed in a Japanese style. Two figures were drinking tea at a table within. As Roxy headed towards them, they spotted her... and dropped their cups in happy shock as they jumped to their feet. Roxy recognised them, and shared their surprise.
A silence hung in the air as each side processed the presence of the other. This time, Roxy couldn't hold back the tears.
Immediately, Roxy rushed towards them - and was caught by the open arms of her mother Kiyoko, who embraced her tightly.
"Oh, Roxy, my little blossom... how much I've missed you..."
"I know where I am now," Roxy whispered. "This is Heaven. It has to be. Anywhere where I can be with you again is Heaven to me."
Kiyoko only squeezed her tighter. Charlie, her husband, joined in the hug, and whispered in his daughter's ear.
"Don't worry, Roxy," he told her. "No-one is ever going to take us away from you again. We have the rest of time to be together, and to catch up with one another. We love you. We always have and we always will. We are so proud of you.. our Roxanne Sakura."
He kissed her brow.
"But... there is still one more person we think you should see."
Roxy stepped back to look at him. She smiled weakly.
"You mean... ?"
"Your mother and I met him shortly after he arrived here," he said. "Charming man. We approve of him."
"I'm happy to hear that."
Taking her hand, Kiyoko led her to the final stretch of the path.
"He's just down there, Roxy. Take your time. We'll be here whenever you're ready."
After kissing her parents goodbye, Roxy hurried down the path as fast as her legs could take her. Within moments, a small clearing came into view. There were monkey bars there. Some flowering bushes. And beside them... a familiar figure.
"Oh my God... it's you!" Roxy cried. "It's really you!"
The figure turned to look at her - and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
"If you think," he said, "that I'm looking for your damn bubblegum again, you can forget it."
As Roxy raced up to him, Mac wrapped his arms around her - dreading the moment when he'd have to let her go, even though it would only be temporary this time around.
"I've missed you," he gasped, passionately. "Oh, God, Roxy, I've missed you so much..."
"I've missed you too, Mac," Roxy replied. "More than you could ever know."
After the pair shared a long, lingered kiss, Roxy looked up at her husband - staring deeply into his eyes.
"You didn't say the words back... when you went."
"That wasn't exactly my choice."
"I know. But say them now. Please."
As Mac cupped her cheek, gently, Roxy placed her hand on top of his.
"I love you, Roxy."
"I love you, Mac."
With these words, their lips met again in the most loving kiss either of them had ever known.
Meanwhile, a small distance away, three gentlemen sitting at a bar watched the proceedings with some interest. Upon witnessing the couple's joyful reunion, they turned to one another with satisfied smiles on their faces.
"Well, boys... I think this calls for another round, don't you?"
Things were so not blissful on Earth. As the Miskins laid another of their loved ones to rest, Marcel was made all the more aware of his own mortality. Whilst he dreaded death, and the sheer idea of it terrified him, he also knew that it was an inevitability.
And there was a serious issue that had to be settled before then.
Thus, two weeks after Roxy's funeral, Marcel called his two eldest sons into the living room for a frank and serious talk. The twins were nervous. Mitch feared that his father knew about his illegal activities. Marius dreaded news about another illness or tragedy in the family. Regardless, they did as they were told.
As they sat down on the sofa, Marcel paced up and down the room for a few moments, trying to carefully choose his words, before settling down himself and turning towards them.
"Boys," he began, "you know I love both of you, and indeed all of your siblings, equally. I have done my best to always treat you fairly, and ensure that you are all cared for. You have all proved to be good and loving children. Any of you would be a worthy heir."
Ah. So that's what this was about.
"I was my father's only son," Marcel went on. "In my case, the succession was crystal clear. But when it comes to your generation, the matter is a bit more complicated. You are both my eldest sons, since you were born on the exact same day. Under the law, you both have an equal right to inherit... but sadly, only one of you can."
A heavy silence followed.
"I've thought about this matter for a long time," Marcel said. "Please know that I've already made arrangements to ensure all of my children are supported after I'm gone. Not a single one of you will suffer or go without. But, when it comes to this title, and the family legacy... I've finally made the decision."
Reaching into his pocket, he fished out a coin.
"And that is... I'm not going to make a decision at all."
The twins looked at him, stunned.
"You are both clever, capable boys," Marcel explained. "You are both excellent candidates to become my heir. As such, I simply cannot choose between you. So, I'm placing this decision in the hands of fate."
He played with the coin for a few moments, rolling it along his knuckles, and tossing it from hand to hand.
"One flip," he said firmly. "Heads means Mitch becomes my heir. Tails, it's Marius. Do you agree with that?"
Mitch and Marius looked at him, their jaws almost on the floor.
"It's... it's a bit trivial for something so important, don't you think?" Marius muttered.
"Well? Would you prefer to be thrown in a pit and fight to the death?"
"I can't think of a fairer way to settle it. Something that gives you both an equal chance. If you can, I'll gladly hear it."
Marius sat back, silenced. After a moment's thought, he nodded.
"OK," he said, conceding. "You're right. It's the fairest way."
"I agree," Mitch added. "Let's do it."
Marcel nodded. Resting the coin on his thumb, he flipped it high into the air, and caught it on his palm, covering it with his other hand.
As he revealed the outcome, his twin sons leaned forward eagerly as their fate was decided...
TO BE CONTINUED