Actions

Work Header

Hundreds of Rooms

Chapter Text

Neil doesn’t even remember what he and Shaun were talking about, only that one moment they’re discussing a patient, and the next they’re turning a corner and nearly getting trampled to death by about a dozen running, cheering teenagers.

Alright, maybe it’s a slight exaggeration with the whole ‘nearly trampled to death’ part, but to be fair, one of the teens does run into Shaun’s left side with enough force that he ends up pushing him into Neil. It takes a couple seconds for Neil to steady them both and then he grabs Shaun’s arm to pull him towards the wall where they’ll be safe until the rest of the kids pass.

The boy doesn’t even stop, merely shouts a hurried “Sorry!” over his shoulder as he continues along with his friends. A nurse is already chasing them down the hall, loudly lecturing them on safety protocol and visitor guidelines.

Shaun rubs his left arm for a moment while he stares after the group of loud teens who have taken a sharp turn into a room at the end of the hallway. He’s obviously flustered and folds his hands in front of him while murmuring, “Okay.”

“You alright?” Neil asks him.

“I’m fine,” Shaun answers, already seeming less stunned. “They’re happy. Their friend is alive and expected to make a full recovery.”

They both recognize where the excited group of kids has gone – the room of one of their fellow students who had been in a serious car crash the week before. She’d recently woken up from a short coma and her prognosis was excellent. It had been a relief to everyone…her friends obviously included.

“Hit and run there, huh, Shaun?” Jessica asks, as she approaches with Aaron. The two of them had been walking towards them from the opposite direction and witnessed the entire incident. She moves like she’s going to touch Shaun’s shoulder and when he takes a careful step back, she thinks better of it. “Are you okay?”

Shaun nods. “I’m okay.”

“Gotta look alive, Shaun,” Aaron tells him, checking the younger man over, as if to make sure he really is fine.

“How would I look any other way?” Shaun asks, and Aaron seems slightly amused, but doesn’t respond to that – he obviously knows when a line of conversation with Shaun isn’t worth pursuing.

“I’m good, too,” Neil says, exasperated. “Please, everyone, stop smothering me with your concern.”

“Aww, feeling left out?” Jessica asks, patting his arm in fake sympathy. “You gonna live?”

“Keep walking,” he tells her dryly, as she tries not to laugh, and then heads off down the hall with Aaron.

That leaves him and Shaun standing in the hall and Neil tries to regain his bearings. He’s distracted by the fact that Shaun has started rubbing his arm again, though. “Are you sure you’re fine?” He’s slightly concerned that his resident might have actually gotten hurt and simply not told them.

Shaun blinks, then looks down at his right arm, which he’s holding onto with his other hand. He quickly lets go, but instead of answering Neil, he goes right back to their earlier conversation as if they’d never been interrupted.

Neil makes the snap decision to let it go, grateful that at least Shaun had remembered what they’d been talking about before.

It is a little strange, though…he could have sworn that kid ran into Shaun’s other arm.

XXXXXX

Light knocking on his office door, followed by said door opening without him even answering, means that Neil knows exactly who it is.

Jessica Preston.

For once, though, she doesn’t sweep in like she owns the place. Instead, she hovers in the doorway, a little unsure. “Got a minute?”

“Not really,” he tells her, without looking up from his tablet, mostly because it’s true – he has a hundred things to do and only enough time to do maybe half of them. (So about the usual, then.)

“Good,” she says, like she hasn’t registered his response, and comes in to take a seat in front of his desk.

Then she says nothing. And she keeps saying nothing. Finally, he gets sick of waiting – she’s never going to leave unless he acknowledges her, so he might as well get it over with.

“What is it?” he asks, setting his tablet on the desk. Some small part of him is relieved for the break from it (not that he’ll tell her that).

“Just checking in.” She’s smiling at him, but it gives nothing away about her real reasons for visiting. That was always Jess: keeping her cards close at hand until she absolutely had to show them.

“I don’t believe you.”

Her smile grows wider. “You always did know me.”

“I really wasn’t kidding when I said I don’t have much time,” he prods, eager to get past whatever topic she wants to discuss. “I’m pretty busy.”

“You’re always busy,” she says, and then seems to regret it the second the words are out of her mouth. “I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t come here to start a fight.”

“I believe you,” he says, because he does. He knows Jess still cares about him, like he still cares about her, they just…simply hadn’t worked as a couple. And there were a myriad of reasons for that, but none of them are worth thinking about at the moment.

“I actually did want to check in,” she tells him. “About your residents? Marcus told me your evaluations are a week late, already.”

“Marcus should have much better things to do than harass me about paperwork. Though I’m not surprised that he doesn’t.” He leans back in his chair. “Did he send you here to give me a friendly nudge? Because if so, he’s made an interesting choice of enforcer.”

“No, he actually told me not to bother you about it.”

“I see you listened.”

“I wanted to make sure you were…doing okay.” At his curious look, she explains, “In general. With your workload and…everything else.”

“We talk a lot, Jess. Even now. You know I’m doing fine.”

“Do I?”

“Why do I feel like I’ve fallen into an interrogation against my will?”

She sighs, clearly frustrated, but for once her unhappiness seems to be more with herself than with him. “I don’t think this is coming off the way I intended it to. I only wanted to see if you were doing okay, if there was anything I could help you with.”

“I’m fine,” he assures her, again. “And I might actually get those evals finished if certain people would leave me alone.”

She refuses to take the hint, settling more comfortably in the chair, and he resigns himself to having to hear out whatever else she’d intended to discuss.

Despite how curt he can be with her at times, he really doesn’t have any ill will towards Jessica since their break-up. It’s been about six months, and he knows she’s now seeing someone else, some investment banker. He’d thought moving on from her would hurt a lot more than it did, but in the end, it had mostly felt…right. Like it was something they should have done a long time before they actually did it. And even when she’d started seeing this new guy, and then later, when it became more serious, he’d felt no jealousy or regret at how things had ended between them. He was glad she’d been able to move on – the only thing he did regret was that it had taken them so long to realize they couldn’t be what each other needed.

“Speaking of evals,” she says slowly, and he thinks she might finally be getting around to her point, “how are your residents doing, lately?”

There’s something in her tone that has him answering cautiously. “They seem fine to me, but if you really want to know how they’re doing, you should be talking to them directly.”

She ignores that. “I’ve noticed that you and Shaun get along much better than you did in the beginning.”

He can’t help but wonder why she’s purposely singled out Shaun. “Are you kidding me? We fight all the time.”

“Those aren’t fights, they’re…professional disagreements. Which you’re supposed to have, by the way.”

“He challenges me more than Claire and Jared combined.”

Jessica’s smiling again. “He does. I love it.”

“Okay, is that why you’re here? To mock me or something? I know Shaun often sees things that even I can’t, but –”

“No, Neil,” she says hastily. “That was not my intention at all. I was merely pointing out that…I think you two work very well together.”

“I guess?”

“He speaks very highly of you.”

“He should,” Neil says, then can’t help joking, “Everyone should.”

“Uh huh,” she says dryly, and he knows she’s trying not to smile. But then her demeanor turns more serious as she studies him too intently, and he’s starting to get uncomfortable. If he only knew what she was thinking…but with Jess, that’s often a futile hope. If she wants to keep someone in the dark, that’s where they’ll stay. (Often indefinitely.)

He decides to try asking, anyways. “What is it?”

“I was only wondering…” She shakes her head and her face clears. “Never mind.”

He debates the wisdom of demanding an answer. Against his better judgement, he can’t help it. “Tell me.”

She sinks down in the seat a little. “Are you happy, Neil?”

“As we went over a few minutes ago, I’m extremely busy.”

“That has nothing to do with happiness.”

“Sure it does,” he argues. “I find satisfaction in that. My career is rewarding and personally fulfilling. I make enough money to live comfortably and I’ll be set for retirement.”

Jess’s face has turned more troubled, and with a twinge, he recognizes it as an expression she often wore when they were together. And too much near the end. “None of that says anything about happiness.”

“Those are my requirements for happiness.”

“Sometimes…” She falters, before continuing. “I used to wonder if you even knew what happiness was, Neil. If you’d ever really felt it on a personal level. And it made me sad, because you deserve it.”

“I was happy with you,” he points out. “You know, before everything fell apart.”

“I believe that you think that, but…” She shrugs. “I suppose it’s not my place to reflect upon, or analyze, your state of mind.”

“You’re realizing this now?” He almost wants to laugh. “Maybe if you had when we were together, things would have been different.”

She winces and he inwardly sighs. That wasn’t fair, and he really hadn’t meant it how it sounded. Before he can apologize, her eyes turn hard and she says, “It was both of us. It was easy to pretend one major issue was to blame, when in reality…that issue was masking a lot of other things. You know that as well as I do.”

“I do know,” he readily admits. “It’s…have you noticed how easily we fall back into old patterns, even now, after so long?”

“It frustrates me to no end,” she agrees.

“You could be right, too,” he allows, thinking back to what she’d said, about him being happy… About maybe never having found it. “It’s possible we don’t experience happiness in the same way. I might not feel things like you do. Like you think I should.”

“That’s not it,” she insists. “We got off topic before I could –” Her phone interrupts her, chiming several times in a row, and she sighs in frustration as she checks her messages. “I have to go.”

“Wait,” he says, as she gets up and heads for the door, “before you could what?”

She pauses in the doorway, glancing back at him. “Before I could explain. About happiness. When I said I didn’t know if you’d ever felt it like you deserved? I was wrong. I’ve seen it in you, Neil. Just never with me.”

He can’t ask her what she means by that, since she’s gone the next second. And before he can dwell on it, he’s being paged by one of his residents, causing him to cast his conversation with Jessica out of his mind entirely.

XXXXXX

Neil’s so caught up in his phone that it’s only Jared’s shout that stops him from tripping over something – no, someone. And that someone is one of his residents.

Of course.

He looks from Shaun, lying on the floor, over to Jared, who’s standing nearby with one of their patients. He has no idea what any of them are doing. (Does he want to know what they’re doing?)

He turns his attention to Shaun, deciding that’s his most pressing concern, seeing as his resident had nearly taken him out (even if it was by accident). “Shaun. You’re on the floor. In the hallway.”

“I am aware.”

Well, that tells him exactly nothing. He turns to Jared, who explains, “Shaun is looking at our problem from another perspective.” He glances at Shaun, and then unnecessarily adds, “Literally.”

“I got the literally part,” Neil tells him, then takes a few steps to stand directly over Shaun, staring down at him. “What’s up, Shaun? Or should I say…what’s down?”

Shaun doesn’t answer and he thinks Jared’s rolling his eyes at him, but when he turns to look at him fully, there’s no way to confirm it. Jared does start speaking unnaturally fast, though, detailing their patient’s symptoms (difficulty with balancing, and thus, walking) and how he and Shaun are determined to find the cause after all scans have come up normal.

Neil offers his own suggestions, and while he and Jared go back and forth, Shaun doesn’t contribute, though he does watch closely as their patient attempts to walk in a straight line (with Jared’s help).

Neil’s beginning to think his resident might lie there all day and he really doesn’t need to hear that Shaun’s been run over by a gurney or something. “How’s the floor, Shaun?”

“Cold,” Shaun answers, pausing for a few seconds. “And hard.”

Neil can’t help a smile at that, exasperated though it is, and when Shaun finally sits up, he extends a hand to him. Shaun takes it and Neil pulls the younger man to his feet. There’s a flash of something across Shaun’s face that he can’t identify, but as quickly as it’s there, it’s gone. Then Shaun drops his hand and makes a show of brushing off his white coat while Jared helps the patient settle back into his wheelchair.

Shaun and Jared detail a few more theories, and Neil throws in his own observations, as well. On the surface, the conversation seems perfectly normal, something they’ve done hundreds of times before, but there’s something…off about it this time.

It’s not until several minutes later, when he orders some additional tests, that he realizes what it is – Shaun keeps looking at him. It’s unusual enough in its own right, and it’s further compounded by the fact that whenever he glances at Shaun, the other man immediately looks away.

He’s going to write it off as a fluke, except that’s when Jared begins to watch him unnaturally closely, as well – or rather, he’s looking between him and Shaun, like there’s something he’s trying to figure out.

Neil’s starting to feel like he’s the only one in the hallway who’s missing…whatever it is that’s going on. Any other time he’d let it go, because when it comes to his residents…well who the hell knows what they’re up to, half the time. But he’s slightly irked now. Mostly because Jared is terrible at subterfuge.

“What is it!” Neil snaps the next time he catches Jared trying to pretend like he isn’t watching them.

Jared freezes, almost comically, like if he doesn’t move, then he can pretend the outburst wasn’t meant for him. Neil doesn’t back down, though, just keeps staring at him. “Uh…what?” Jared finally asks.

“Dr. Melendez asked you a question,” Shaun says, rather unhelpfully.

“I got it, Shaun,” Jared says. “I just don’t understand what he’s asking.”

“You keep looking at me,” Neil explains, deciding to leave Shaun out of it for now. “Why?”

“Should I…not look at you when we’re talking?” Jared asks, then quickly glances away. “I thought that was mostly a celebrity thing, to not want to be looked at directly. But if that’s your preference, too, sir…”

Neil narrows his eyes at him – Kalu knows exactly what he was referring to and is now trying to play innocent. “It’s the way you were looking at me.”

Jared looks back at him before hastily averting his eyes again. “What way would that be, Dr. Melendez?”

Neil glances over at Shaun – who’s also been staring at him again…and who immediately turns away. He sighs, realizing this isn’t something he’s going to win. (If he even knew what it was. Or if it was possible to win.) “Never mind. Both of you take this patient up to radiology.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Jared says, pointedly avoiding his gaze (he thinks he’s so damn funny). For his part, Shaun briefly looks his way one last time before following Jared and their patient toward the elevators.

Neil really has no idea what had been going on in that hallway, but when it comes to them, it’s probably best to forget it.

Except…he can’t. Something about their whole exchange is nagging at him and he knows that he won’t be able to relax until he figures out what it is. And yes, maybe it’s because Shaun’s involved; he’s always more aware of things when it comes to Shaun because of how many times he’s missed things (important things) in the past.

So he doesn’t dismiss it entirely, but relegates it to a section of his mind to think about the next time he’s not busy. (That is, if such a time when he’s not busy ever comes into his life, again.)

XXXXXX

“You wanted to see me?” Neil asks, stopping just inside Andrews’ office doorway. The other man motions for him to enter and shut the door behind him, and Neil suppresses a sigh that this is apparently going to be an actual meeting.

“How are things going?”

Is it his imagination or are people asking him that a lot, lately? “Fine,” he answers carefully, taking a seat in front of the desk.

“Informative answer,” Marcus quips, not even looking up from whatever he’s writing on a legal pad.

“Is this about the evaluations? I promise they’re next on my list. Unfortunately, I keep having to save people’s lives and that’s made me fall behind.”

“Get to them whenever,” Marcus says, surprising him. They’re already over two weeks late, and usually he’s a stickler about things like that, but if Marcus is going to cut him some slack, they’re immediately falling to last place on his to-do list. When he doesn’t say anything more, Neil shifts in the chair and wonders if he can leave.

“Is that all?” he asks, about to stand, and Marcus blinks at him in surprise.

“Oh, no, sorry.” He finally tosses his pen aside, and Neil takes some solace in the fact that he’s not the only one who’s been distracted by work lately. “I assume you’re already aware that Dr. Everett Malcolm from Good Samaritan is joining us for at least the next year? He’s a talented surgeon and we’ll be lucky to have him. He’ll also be heading up a new series of clinical research trials –”

“Yes, I know all that,” Neil interrupts. He doesn’t need more of his time wasted by hearing it again.

“Good. So I wanted to give you a heads up that he personally asked me if he could work with Shaun, and I figured it’d be easiest all around if I just shuffled some teams. I’m going to move Shaun to Malcolm’s team next week, once he’s officially here, and you’ll get a new resident to replace him in the near-future.”

For some reason, it feels like all the air leaves the room in a sudden rush. Neil doesn’t know what part of that statement to address first. He actually wants to argue all of it at once, or erase it from existence, entirely. (If that kind of thing is possible.)

“That’s all,” Marcus says, in clear dismissal, as he goes back to whatever he’d been writing before. Neil realizes he’s let himself stay silent for so long that the other man has assumed he’s in complete agreement with his terrible plan.

“No, that’s not all,” he says, harsh enough that Marcus snaps his head back up in surprise. “How does Everett Malcolm even know Shaun?”

“He doesn’t know him. Not personally. But Shaun’s built quite the reputation for himself in his eight months with us, so far. You know that.”

Yes, Neil does know that, so he shouldn’t be surprised – he’d known from the beginning that Shaun’s abilities were extraordinary and it wouldn’t take long for others to realize it… To try and steal him away, even. He’d just assumed they’d try to steal him from Saint Bonaventure Hospital itself, not from…him.

He scoffs at his own thoughts. It’s not like he thinks he owns Shaun, or anything ridiculous like that, but the thought of him transferring to another attending physician… It doesn’t sit right. And he’d swear it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with Shaun. He knows Shaun by now, knows the younger man is going to despise this plan, and Neil realizes very quickly that he has to use every ounce of skill he has to keep it from happening.

“You can’t move him,” he says, without meaning to, then wants to kick himself. He’s let his hatred of the very idea override his logical thinking, and Marcus is going to take it as a direct challenge on his authority. He’s going to –

“What do you mean I can’t move him?” Andrews asks, coolly. “I can do whatever I want when it comes to my department.”

“Obviously, you can arrange personnel however you see fit,” Neil amends, gentling his tone, and sighs with relief when Marcus relaxes. (Normally, he’d be the first to push the other man as far as he can, without care for the consequences, but he can’t do that now; this is too important.) “What I meant is that I don’t think it’s the best idea.”

He lets that sink in – Marcus isn’t unreasonable when he thinks he’s being afforded the respect he deserves. A few moments later, Marcus waves for him to elaborate.

“As you said, I’ve worked with Shaun for over eight months now. I know how he thinks…for the most part. I know how he feels about working here.”

“He wanted to leave us before,” Marcus points out.

“Right,” Neil says. “Before. As in, a long time ago. Not anymore. And I know that he is going to be extremely upset if you simply switch him to another team without giving him any say in it.”

“No resident has any say in where they’re placed,” Marcus reminds him.

“We both know Shaun is different,” Neil replies. “He doesn’t take well to change. It took him a long time to settle in at Saint Bonaventure. To be comfortable here. With my team. With me.”

“Yes, but he’s gotten much better,” Marcus argues, and Neil wonders if he’s trying to save face or if he genuinely thinks that moving Shaun to another team is a good decision. “He adjusted once; he can do it again. Part of working here – or anywhere – is that it requires the ability to adapt, and Shaun has proven he can do it.” He leans back in his chair and then says, pointedly, “It seems to me like you have no faith in him, Dr. Melendez.”

Neil knows he’s being baited and deliberately waits a few seconds before answering (though he can’t entirely keep the anger out of his tone). “That’s the opposite of how I feel about Shaun, and you damn well know it.” In fact, his faith in Shaun rivals the faith he has in any of the people he works with, even the ones he’s known for years.

Marcus tilts his head in silent acknowledgement, and maybe slight apology. He’s tapping his pen on the desk now, and assessing Neil with the same kind of close scrutiny that made him uneasy a week earlier, during his chat with Jessica. “I’m waiting for you to make a convincing argument, here.”

“My argument is that he’s not going to want this, so moving him abruptly, and not giving him any choice in the matter, will undermine his trust in you, in me…in all of us. It could set his progress back, potentially by months.”

“How do you know he won’t want to work under Malcolm?” Marcus presses. “Without even talking to him about it?”

Neil can’t explain it any other way than… “Because I know him.”

Marcus has stopped tapping his pen and uses it to point at Neil, in slight accusation. “I’m surprised. Honestly, I thought you’d be happy about this.”

“You thought I’d be happy about you taking Shaun from –” He catches himself just in time. “From my team?”

Marcus’s eyes narrow so imperceptibly that Neil wonders if he’s imagining it. “You two have had more than your share of issues.”

“I don’t know what you’re –”

“You argue. All the time.”

“Those aren’t arguments,” Neil protests, flashing back to Jessica’s words. “They’re…professional disagreements.”

“Uh huh,” Marcus says, flatly. “Tell me something. Are your protests more on behalf of Shaun, or on behalf of yourself?”

He knows exactly what Marcus is insinuating, and he doesn’t like it. Not at all. He might have a soft spot for Shaun Murphy – one that’s carefully hidden (though apparently not from a select few) – but that has nothing to do with his protests. If he genuinely thought that a transfer would be the best thing for Shaun, he would be the first person in favor of it, no matter how much he doesn’t like the idea of Shaun working on another team.

“My protests are for Shaun.” He meets Marcus’s eyes without flinching, and there’s some kind of immense inner satisfaction in him when the other man blinks and looks away first.

Silence falls between them and Marcus tips his head back to look at the ceiling. After much too long, he returns his gaze to Neil and says, “You and Shaun…do not get along the way I thought you would.”

“I know. We just went over this.”

“Yes, I know I brought up the fact that you argue a lot, but that’s not what I’m referring to. When he joined our hospital, I thought that putting him with you…” He’s shaking his head. “I thought you two would get along like –” He loudly claps his hands together, once, and Neil can only stare at him in abject confusion.

“You thought we’d…both applaud?”

“You are terrible at non-verbal analogies.”

“What is this, charades?”

“I thought you two would hate each other. I mean actually hate each other. I thought it’d be like…an explosion.” He punctuates that by abruptly clapping again.

That’s what you were trying to illustrate?”

“Not the point,” Marcus bites out in frustration, and Neil tries to refocus on the conversation itself. Wait a minute…

“That’s why you put us together?” Neil really hates what he’s learning. “You thought I’d drive him out. Take care of your problem for you.”

Marcus winces slightly, which confirms as much. “We both know being a surgeon is a high-intensity, fast-paced, incredibly demanding job. He needed to know what he was getting into.”

Neil almost laughs. Almost. “So you put him with someone who didn’t want him here.”

“You didn’t want him here?” Andrews asks, innocently.

“Funny, Marcus.”

“It wasn’t about you driving him out, not really,” he tries to claim. “It was mostly about him needing to work with people who were going to be…averse to him. If he couldn’t handle it, then so be it. But I didn’t want us to hold his hand for six months only to then let go and watch him drown.”

“You’re mixing your analogies.”

“Neil –”

“And he doesn’t like his hand being held.”

Marcus closes his eyes for a second and Neil can’t help his smirk – whenever he can aggravate Marcus as much as Marcus aggravates him, it’s a victory.

“We’re getting off-track,” Marcus says, like that’s anything new. “You are aware that it’s okay to ask for things for yourself, too. Not just for others.”

Neil says nothing to that.

“You like working with Shaun,” Marcus continues. “Apparently much more than I realized, before this meeting. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s not a single physician in this hospital who doesn’t have preferences when it comes to who they work with, or who they supervise. The difference is that none of them have ever had problems coming to the administration – repeatedly – to detail their reasons why we should arrange things exactly how they want.” His eyes are piercing when he adds, “You’ve never done that. In fact, you’ve never fought us on anything…not until we put Shaun Murphy with you. Isn’t it funny how back then, you were so vehemently against him being on your team, and now you’re equally as opposed to the idea of him being anywhere else.”

“Is there a question somewhere in there, Marcus?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “Is there?”

Neil rubs his forehead, thinking over Andrews’ words, because they’re true. Of course they’re true. It would figure that the only times he’s ever cared enough to fight the system regarding personnel had all involved Shaun Murphy. “There’s a difference between then and now. I didn’t know him then. Now, I do. And I’m not one to shy away from fighting for my residents.”

“You don’t want him to go to Malcolm.” It’s not a question, just a statement of the facts as both men know them. “You don’t want him to go anywhere.”

He pointedly ignores that statement. “I don’t care who Shaun works with, or even if he wants to transfer to another team – just give him the damn choice, Marcus. That’s all I’m asking.” When he still doesn’t seem swayed, Neil goes to his last resort. “Shaun Murphy is a valuable asset to this hospital for many reasons. Do you really believe that Everett Malcolm – after personally telling you that he wanted Shaun to be his resident – won’t be doing everything in his power to get him to leave us? And how easy might it be for Shaun to agree to work at Good Samaritan after our hospital showed so little regard for his wishes?” He leans forward in his chair. “What will the board think if you lose Shaun to another hospital, to another surgeon who you personally brought to Saint Bonaventure?”

His practicality has finally gotten through – he sees it when the other man’s brow furrows, no doubt imagining what the board would do to him if they not only lost Shaun, but could somehow pin the blame on him.

“Alright,” Marcus says, and Neil feels something inside him relax that’s been on edge for their entire conversation. “I’ll ask Dr. Murphy what he prefers. But tell me this – if you’re wrong and Shaun would be willing to work under another attending physician, would you let him go without any issues?”

“I would,” Neil promises, and perhaps the only reason he can make that promise is because he knows he’s not wrong.

Andrews nods at him in acceptance, and dismissal, and all Neil can think as he leaves the office is that he’s managed to avert a worst-case scenario. (Not only for Shaun, but for himself, as well.)

XXXXXX

“Dr. Melendez.”

Neil stops short at the words – or maybe the tone of them – turning to find Shaun just behind him. The younger man is wringing his hands together in worry and Neil resists the surprising urge to reach out and touch him in reassurance. “What is it?”

“Dr. Everett Malcolm is going to spend a year at Saint Bonaventure. He’s also conducting a number of research trials.”

“I know. Did Dr. Andrews talk to you about this?”

There’s a slight beat where Shaun seems confused. “No. Dr. Malcolm was here today. He spoke to me.”

Neil doesn’t like the sound of that. “He did?”

“Yes. He wants my help with his research trials. He also told me that he’s going to be my new attending physician.”

“Shaun –”

“I told him he was wrong,” Shaun interrupts, voice rising slightly with each word. “I told him if that were the case, you would have told me.”

“I would have told you,” Neil confirms, calmly. “And yes, he’s wrong.” When Shaun relaxes slightly, Neil does, too. And now he’s curious about how much of a problem Malcolm might be for him. “What did he say when you told him he was wrong?”

Shaun winces – it’s almost imperceptible, but Neil sees it. “He…was not pleased.”

Neil folds his hands behind his back, mostly so that he appears more carefree than he actually is (though knowing Shaun, he’ll be able to see the truth, anyways). “Alright. But what did he say to you?”

“He said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. That I’m on his team now and I need to respect his authority.”

“That’s it? That’s exactly what he said?”

“He said it in…less pleasant terms.” Shaun’s nodding, and Neil knows he’s replaying the conversation in his mind. “He wasn’t very happy.”

Neil clenches his hands, fighting back his initial response to that (and since when does he feel so protective of anyone, never mind one of his residents? Never mind Shaun Murphy?). “He’s not your new attending,” Neil repeats. “Not unless you want him to be.”

“I don’t want him to be.”

“Then he isn’t.”

“But Dr. Malcolm said it was already done.”

Again, Neil bites back what he really wants to say. “It’s not already done. He was getting ahead of himself.”

“Dr. Malcolm –”

“Forget what he said, Shaun.” When Shaun seems at a loss, Neil explains, “I talked to Andrews about this. His original plan was to move you to Malcolm’s team. I told him that…wasn’t fair. That you’ve earned the right to have a say in who you work with.”

Shaun says nothing in response to that.

“It’s up to you,” Neil reiterates. “You don’t have to be on his team, but you can still work with him on his research trials if you choose to do so. What do you want?”

Shaun seems to be thinking it over, before he says, “If I can be of assistance, then I will work with him.” Neil feels his heart sink, until the other man adds, “I don’t want him to be my attending. That is you.” He hesitates before adding, “If you still want to be.”

“Yes,” Neil assures him, unable to hide his sigh of relief. “I still want you to be my resident. It’s partly the reason why I fought so hard for Andrews to reconsider his decision.”

“Okay,” Shaun says quietly. “Why would Dr. Malcolm lie?”

“I don’t know if he was necessarily ‘lying’,” Neil tries to explain. “It’s more likely that, as with most surgeons, he’s used to getting his way. So when he told Andrews that he wanted to work with you – and Andrews initially agreed – he assumed it was as good as done.”

“No one asked me if I wanted to work with him. No one was going to ask me,” Shaun summarizes, and Neil hears the tinge of unhappiness in his words, which vanishes when he adds, “No one except you.”

The entire conversation proves to Neil that he’d been right about how Shaun would have reacted if he’d been ordered to join another team with no consideration of his feelings. “Dr. Andrews is going to meet with you and he’s going to want to go over all of this,” Neil informs him. “So tell him what you told me and everything should be fine.”

“I will,” Shaun says. Neil nods, and he’s about to leave when Shaun starts talking again. “I know it’s not standard for residents to have any say in whom they work for.” He takes a breath, holds out his hand, and finishes with, “Thank you, Dr. Melendez.”

Neil hesitates. “You don’t have to thank me.”

“Yes,” Shaun says, not lowering his hand. “I do.”

“Then you’re welcome,” Neil replies, carefully shaking Shaun’s hand. It’s an interesting exchange…definitely out of the ordinary, but it seems fitting, all things considered. Shaun stares at their hands, and once they let go of each other, he nods slightly to himself. He doesn’t say anything, though, so Neil heads off in the direction he’d been going before Shaun stopped him.

And he finds himself smiling for a reason he can’t really name.

For the rest of the day, he’s left with an unusual feeling of warmth, and it comes over him at the most random times. He’s pleased that Shaun had sought him out earlier. That he’d thanked him. But mostly that he’d said he didn’t want to be on anyone else’s team.

As he’s heading through the lobby on his way out that evening, Jessica catches him, linking her arm with his. “How’s it going?”

“Jessica,” he says, by way of greeting. “It’s going fine. Just like it always is.”

“I want to live in the world you do,” she says wistfully, “where everything is always fine.”

“Why am I thinking this is more than a friendly good night chat?”

She pulls on his arm, getting him to stop right near the main doors, then lets go of him. “I know what you did. For Shaun.”

He’s not even remotely surprised. “Can’t anyone stop gossiping around here for more than two seconds? And I didn’t do anything.” When she merely looks at him, he adds, “It’s not a big deal.”

“It is,” she quietly insists. “To Shaun.”

He actually can’t argue with that, because he knows she’s right. He half-turns to look out the glass windows and runs a hand through his hair, then looks back at her. “It was as much for me as for him.” He wonders if he’s feeling more open than usual because of the history they have or if there’s just too much inside of him that he’s struggling to keep at bay, lately. “I don’t want him to work with another team.”

“Because of the talent he brings to yours?”

It’d be so easy to say yes (and it wouldn’t even entirely be a lie), but what he hears himself saying instead is, “I don’t want him to work with another team.”

“You’d miss him.”

“I didn’t say that,” he protests, futilely.

She shakes her head, even though she’s smiling. (They both know he doesn’t have to say it.) “You were wrong earlier,” she tells him, in a seeming change of subject. “I didn’t hear about it from gossip, I saw Shaun thank you this morning. I heard what he said.”

“You did?” He wonders how caught up he’d been in that conversation to not notice Jessica nearby (and close enough to overhear them, at that).

“Yes.” She’s studying him. “You’ve had a pretty good day.”

He frowns at yet another subject change. “I suppose. We saved someone – that’s always a good day.”

“That’s not what I meant. You were happy today.”

“This again?” he sighs. “I told you, I’m happy most days, if I stay busy and feel like I’ve accomplished –”

“No, Neil. You were happy today.” She briefly touches his arm, then turns to leave. “There’s a difference,” she adds over her shoulder, right before she exits the hospital.

All he can do is stare after her, until she’s long disappeared from his sight.

And he silently acknowledges to himself (for the first time), that she might have a point about this happiness thing, after all.

Chapter Text

Neil’s filling out a patient’s chart at the nurse’s desk, with Claire and everyone else around him going on about their personal lives (he tries to avoid that topic as much as possible), when he happens to glance over and spot someone familiar at the end of the hallway.

Everett Malcolm.

Marcus had warned him yesterday that Malcolm was none too happy about not getting the exact team he’d specified – apparently, he’d already planned out his stint at Saint Bonaventure and had never considered that things might go differently than the way he’d wanted. Normally, Neil would happily confront the other man and have no problem putting him in his place, but Marcus had strongly warned him to be…if not nice, then at least diplomatic. Something about not wanting to alienate their visiting surgeon during his very first week.

And Neil really doesn’t like it when people order him to be nice. Especially when he’s sure the other person isn’t going to reciprocate.

As such, he turns to head in the other direction, walking right into Claire, who’s stealthily moved to block his path. “Going somewhere, Dr. Melendez?”

Malcolm calls his name from down the hall and Neil knows his time is running out.

“Claire! Page me in like two minutes and –”

“I don’t think so. You’ve been avoiding Dr. Malcolm all day.”

“I’m not avoiding him,” Neil protests. “I just…don’t want to deal with him.”

“You’re right, that’s completely different.”

When did his residents start talking back? “I miss the days when you were all afraid of me.”

“I was never afraid of you,” she lies, cheerfully.

“Claire,” he hisses in warning – he probably only has about ten more seconds before Malcolm ambushes him.

“Know what happens when you avoid people, sir?” she asks, too brightly. “They go after your residents. That’s right, they harass me. And Jared. And they try to harass Shaun, except he usually just walks away while they’re still talking and I’m beginning to think that’s an effective strategy I should employ.”

“I’ll owe you,” he tries to bribe her in a last ditch effort.

“See you later, Dr. Melendez,” she calls over her shoulder as she’s walking away and he resists the urge to throw his pen at her back.

“This is insubordination,” he calls after her, ignoring the nurses who are laughing at his misfortune. “It’s going in your evaluation!” Then he adds, under his breath, “You know, if I ever get around to writing it.”

“Neil,” Malcolm says from behind him, and he schools his face to show nothing before turning to greet him.

“Everett,” he says, pleased at the politeness he’s managed. He picks up the chart again, returning to his notes, and pretends not to hear the other man’s short huff of frustration at not getting his undivided attention.

“Just so you know, I’m aware of what you did.”

“You’re going to have to specify,” Neil says, without looking up (solely because he knows it’ll irritate him). “I do a lot of things.”

“Shaun Murphy. You knew I wanted him on my team, it was all but done, and you told Marcus not to move him.”

Neil finally sets the chart aside and motions for Malcolm to follow him down the hallway to a more secluded alcove where their every word won’t be filed away for everyone to gossip about later. Once the two of them have as much privacy as they’re going to get, he says, tone clipped, “I don’t control where our surgical residents are placed. It sounds like you should be taking this up with Marcus.”

“I did. He said Shaun told him he didn’t want to move.”

“I know. Shaun told me that, too.”

“Convenient that Shaun only claimed he didn’t want to switch teams after you told Marcus not to move him.”

Neil supposes the timing of that is technically correct, but it’s no secret that Shaun wants to stay with him, so what does it matter? What’s even more galling to him is that Malcolm knows all of this and still would have been fine with forcing Shaun to move, anyways. “You spoke to Shaun yourself. You know he doesn’t want to be your resident and he’s not going to be your resident. Ever. So I don’t understand the issue here.”

“My issue is that residents do what they’re told. You obviously used your influence over Shaun to get him to snub me – I want to know why.”

Neil has no idea where the other man’s come up with such a ridiculous idea. “I did no such thing. The fact is, I know my residents and I knew that Shaun wouldn’t want to move teams. Furthermore, he still agreed to work with you, despite not technically being on your team. So I’ll repeat it one last time: what’s the issue here?”

“You clearly don’t trust me,” Malcolm accuses. “Why? Do you think I’m not an effective teacher? Do you think I can’t…handle someone like Shaun?”

Neil actually wants to start laughing, wondering how he could have possibly missed the real reason for the other man’s annoyance. “This isn’t about Shaun. This is about you. You feel insulted that Shaun doesn’t want to be your resident.”

The displeasure on Malcolm’s face tells him that he’s found the mark. “I thought you two didn’t even get along. Why would you want to keep working with someone who –”

“Dr. Murphy’s decisions were never about you.” Neil’s interruption is mostly for Malcolm’s benefit. (Things are going to take a turn for the horrific if Malcolm says anything about Shaun that Neil can even vaguely interpret as an insult.) “This is about what Shaun wanted, and what’s best for him. He wants to keep working with me, end of story.”

“Since when do residents get to choose?”

That’s actually a fair point, but Neil will never admit as much – and certainly not to Everett Malcolm. “They get to choose when they’re as valuable to this hospital as Shaun Murphy is.”

“Right,” Malcolm scoffs, “and I’m sure you had nothing to do with convincing Andrews of that fact.”

Malcolm is a lot more astute than Neil’s given him credit for, before now. “It’s reality,” Neil tells him. “Too bad if you don’t like it. And again, Shaun’s still going to work with you. Tell you what, if you really want him as a resident that badly, then why don’t you go try and convince him. None of us will stop him if he changes his mind.”

“I’ve tried to bring up that topic several times. He keeps…” Malcolm trails off, seemingly embarrassed.

“What?”

“Uh, walking away from me,” he mumbles.

“How exactly do you approach him?” Neil asks, even though he has a pretty good idea. If it’s anything like this conversation, or the one Shaun had told him about – where Malcolm had announced he was Shaun’s new boss and that Shaun had to respect his authority – then he knows exactly why it’s not working. “It’s the way you approached me, right?”

Malcolm skips right past his questions. “I’ve been trying to tell him how much I think we could accomplish and –”

“Shaun doesn’t respond well to hostility,” Neil interrupts.

“I’m not hostile!” Malcolm exclaims, rather hostilely. He makes a visible effort to calm himself, repeating, “I am not hostile.” Off Neil’s look, he folds his arms defensively. “I can change.”

“Clearly you’re going to have your work cut out for you.”

Malcolm seems rather unimpressed at that joke. “Now I’m curious… What would you do if I managed to convince him to be my resident?”

Neil briefly considers that scenario and he instantly hates it to an irrational degree. “You’d never succeed,” he says easily (mostly to distract himself from the way everything feels wrong even imagining a world where he’s not working with Shaun anymore).

Instead of replying to that, Malcolm just stares at him. For too long. Neil gets the strangest feeling, like he’s back in his office with Jessica. Back in that hallway with Jared and Shaun. Back in front of Marcus’s desk.

Back in that confusing place where there’s more going on than he’s aware of and everyone knows it except him.

“I think I get it,” Malcolm finally says, and for the first time, there’s understanding on his face instead of irritation. “You could have just told me.”

“Told you what?” Neil asks, hoping he’ll get a real answer.

There’s that staring thing again; Neil’s starting to get really sick of it. “Alright,” Malcolm says. “Never mind. I’ll mix up my strategy with Shaun and let you know how it goes.” He pauses. “Or no, he’ll tell you long before I can, I’m sure.”

Finally this conversation seems like it’s about to be over. “Are we done here?”

Malcolm nods, backing away down the hall. “Some friendly advice, Melendez?”

“From you?” His answering look must not be quite murderous enough, since Malcolm actually smiles at him.

“Maybe you need to start being as honest with yourself as you are with everyone else.”

He doesn’t get a chance to ask Malcolm what he means by that because the other man disappears around a corner.

And his words ring in Neil’s head long after he’s gone.

XXXXXX

It’s a hectic morning, and yes, maybe it always is – but today it’s definitely more hectic than usual.

Neil doesn’t get a second to himself and it starts before he even gets to the hospital, fielding calls from both Andrews and Glassman about the board meeting that day to discuss a possible expansion of their surgical department; he’s actually with Marcus on this one – they have too many patients and too few surgeons. However, it also means he has to actually go to the meeting to help Marcus with their pitch.

Then there’s the usual array of patients, one of whom has taken a turn for the worse, and he has to present her family with three possible treatment options, none of which guarantees a favorable outcome, let alone a full recovery.

On top of all that, he arrives only to be greeted by his three residents demanding his attention at once (he swears, sometimes they gang up and plan to do this at the same time) and it’s all he can do to get them to scatter and just leave him alone for the morning so he can make sure that he has everything he needs to present to the board. Not only do they need this expansion to happen, but he’s been the one who put almost everything together, which means if it fails, it’s on him.

Luckily, the meeting goes off without a hitch, and then his patient starts showing some progress, which means there might be more hope for her than they thought. As the morning wears on, approaching lunchtime, Neil’s finally able to settle back into his normal routine. (As normal as it ever gets, in any case.)

That’s when he notices that something’s…off. Something’s missing.

Someone.

His youngest resident, to be precise.

Jared and Claire had left him alone for the morning, like he’d requested, and he’d caught up with both of them after his presentation to the board. Following that, he’d then seen them off and on for most of the day, like normal.

Shaun Murphy, however, is nowhere to be found.

At first, he figures it’s coincidence: their paths just aren’t happening to cross today. And he doesn’t technically need Shaun for anything, so he shrugs it off. Then he has lunch at the same time Glassman and Shaun usually do, and he’s surprised to find Glassman eating alone while going over some paperwork. He considers asking him where Shaun is, then decides against it. Shaun’s entitled to eat lunch wherever and whenever he wants, so long as it doesn’t interfere with any work he has to get done. He can’t deny that it’s peculiar, though; outside of the usual crazy days where someone doesn't get to eat, he can’t remember the last time Shaun didn’t have lunch with Aaron.

The afternoon is much slower than his morning, which leaves him with a lot more time to ponder why his day feels off – that is, if it’s anything other than the increasingly glaring absence of Shaun. He can’t think of anything, though, and he finds himself growing more irritable. With everyone. The nurses call him on it, which is their usual. Marcus calls him on it, which makes him inwardly laugh because generally he’s trying to annoy him. He draws the line with himself when Claire winces after he’s much too sharp with her over something that isn’t even a mistake, just a normal error in logical thinking for a doctor as new as she is, and he wonders if maybe it’s not something wrong with his day, but with him, altogether.

“Sorry,” he apologizes, almost in reflex, relieved when the hurt clears from her face. “It’s not you. My day’s been…not that great.” He can’t help asking, “Have you seen Shaun? Did he go home or something?”

She frowns at him in confusion. “No, he’s around. Somewhere. I’ve seen him several times today, with our patients, like usual.”

He wouldn’t put it past Claire to lie for Shaun, but he knows she’s not because he proceeds to ask around (casually, of course) if anyone else has seen Shaun and their answers are all variations of the same: he’d been there all day, but at the moment, no one knows where he is. As Neil makes his afternoon rounds, he sees that Shaun has left his usual meticulous notes in their patients’ files and visited them all on schedule, just as he regularly does. As far as Neil can tell, his resident’s day has been completely normal except for the fact that they haven’t seen each other. And Neil could page him, of course, but again…there’s no pressing need to see him or talk to him.

(Nothing, that is, other than this unsettling feeling that Neil can’t shake.)

He starts wondering if he’s imagining problems where there aren’t any. His day had been fine. Presumably Shaun’s had been fine, too, or else he’d have heard about it. So what if they haven’t seen each other since that morning? So what if he’s now finding himself annoyed with everyone he comes across? It’s just a coincidence and nothing more.

Except he can’t let it go. (He can never let anything go when it comes to Shaun, which is maybe something he should look at more closely, but not today.) He’s about to cave and page him after all when Jared happens by and mentions he just saw Shaun escorting a patient to physical therapy.

Neil gets down to physical therapy in time to find Shaun handing off their patient to a therapist in the waiting room, then the younger man turns and pauses upon seeing his boss in the doorway.

“Dr. Melendez,” he says, like he always does, though it seems more…careful. “I didn’t realize you would be here at 4:30. You’re usually still doing your afternoon rounds at this time. I’ll leave.” That’s definitely odd, but Neil’s too focused on his irrational annoyance to give it much thought.

“Where have you been?” he demands, not bothering to rein himself in. “You’ve been missing all day. For a while there, I thought you went home!”

“I didn’t go home.” Shaun’s fidgeting, almost nervously. “And I’m not missing. I’m right here.”

“Yes. Now,” Neil stresses, “but what about the rest of the day?”

“I’m sorry,” Shaun says, appearing increasingly troubled.

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to be around when I need you.”

“What do you need me for?”

“I…” Neil abruptly remembers that he has no reason. “That’s not the point.”

“Then…what is the point?” Shaun asks, slowly. When Neil can’t think of an actual (reasonable) answer to that question, Shaun shrugs and repeats, “I’ll leave.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Neil has to take a step over to block the door and Shaun stops so suddenly that he almost trips before he can catch himself.

Now Shaun’s the one looking at him like he’s not making any sense. “I did what you told me to do.”

Neil doesn’t yell at him, but he’s so confused that he wants to – he really wants to. “What are you talking about?”

“There are hundreds of rooms in this hospital,” Shaun says, uncharacteristically subdued. He doesn’t finish the sentence – he doesn’t have to finish the sentence, because the words trigger a reaction in Neil unlike…well, it’s unlike anything he can compare it to in recent memory. Or…any memory. It feels like ice water has been simultaneously poured over him and injected into his veins. He can’t have – had he actually said

He knows he did, though. He remembers it now…what he’d told Shaun this morning. There are hundreds of rooms in this hospital find one that I’m not in and go there.

He’d told Shaun to stay away from him. And, of course, he’d listened. (The one time he’d complied without question and it had to be this.)

“I did what you told me to do,” Shaun says, again. “I found a room that you weren’t in. Actually, I found lots of rooms that you weren’t in.”

“You avoided me all day,” Neil says, slowly, and the words are physically difficult to speak. “On purpose.”

“Yes,” Shaun answers. Matter of fact. Like he’ll always do what Neil asks him to do, no matter how ridiculous.

“Shaun.” He really doesn’t know what to say, how to formulate his thoughts into anything coherent. He’s upset and angry – at himself – and he’s just…he’s sorry. Of everyone, the last person he’d ever want to misunderstand him this way would be Shaun. “I didn’t mean it literally.”

“You said it.” Shaun’s tone is mildly accusing, and Neil knows he deserves so much worse (though knowing that Shaun had purposely stayed away from him all day seems like punishment in and of itself). “You were very upset at the time.”

“I was upset at Aaron. And Marcus. And the craziness of my life and having a hundred things to do. I was not upset with you.” He knows the best way to fix this is to remain calm, but it’s still incredibly difficult. “People don’t always mean things literally. You know that.”

“I only know what you tell me.”

“No,” Neil shakes his head, even as part of him wonders if he isn’t trying to assuage his own guilt, “you know people aren’t always literal, Shaun.”

“I know it’s a possibility,” Shaun admits. “But it’s hard to tell the difference.” He’s looking away from Neil, now. “It’s very frustrating.”

“Shaun…”

“You were mad. In my experience, that means the person is serious.”

Neil flashes back to that morning, how overwhelmed he’d been when he’d walked in and Claire, Jared, and Shaun had all bombarded him with separate issues at the same time. How he hadn’t been in any mood to try and sort them out, so he’d told them barring life or death situations, they had to figure things out themselves. He’d reminded them they were all qualified doctors, that they should be confident enough to make their own decisions, by this point. And when they’d kept asking him pointless things – things they knew the answers to but were simply double checking – he’d snapped and told them he needed time to prepare for the meeting with the board.

Claire and Jared had left immediately, but Shaun…he was always less easily deterred. He’d stayed. And he hadn’t even managed to repeat his question before Neil had told him to find another room.

He knows he could place the blame entirely on Shaun, but he just can’t. Because he knows how Shaun gets when his world is upended for no reason, when things don’t fit into the parameters he’s established in order to help him navigate events that he hasn’t encountered before. And for all of Neil’s opposition to him when he’d first started working at their hospital, he’d always been careful around Shaun. What’s more, Neil has never found it difficult to remain calm, even when everyone’s pushing him past his limits. So as a result, he’s never actually gotten upset with Shaun – towards Shaun – in the way he had this morning.

Perhaps the worst part is that he hadn’t thought twice about it. Shaun had left and he’d figured his words had gotten through and he’d bought himself a few hours of peace. To now learn that Shaun had spent the entire day thinking Neil didn’t even want to be in his remote vicinity

“You skipped lunch with Aaron,” Neil says, when the memory hits him. “Because you knew I’d be in the cafeteria at the same time.”

“We all have access to your schedule,” Shaun reminds him. “It’s easy to avoid someone who wants to be avoided.” He stares at the floor while adding, “I’m used to people wanting to avoid me.”

Neil feels like the worst kind of person. What he’d said is even worse when he remembers the kind of adversity Shaun has faced in his life. (And, much to Neil’s shame, some of it had been from him, in the beginning.) It leaves him with only one pertinent thought: he has to fix this. In any way he can.

“Shaun.” He takes a step closer to the younger man, exhaling slowly when Shaun doesn’t move back in reflex. “I never want to be avoided.”

“That’s not true. You avoid people all the time.”

Neil rubs a hand over his eyes. “Other people, maybe. But not you. Never you. Do you understand me?”

“I…don’t know.”

Neil remembers his words to Shaun that morning, thrown at him without thinking, without any deeper consideration. He can’t take them back, but he can turn them around. “There are hundreds of rooms in this hospital,” Neil reminds him. “If you’re ever in doubt about where I need you to be,” he waits for Shaun to look at him, “find the room I’m in.”

Shaun doesn’t reply to that, and if Neil’s not mistaken, he seems a little suspicious. Neil supposes he can’t blame him. He’d be suspicious of himself, too, if he were in Shaun’s place.

He leans closer to Shaun than he ever has before (outside of what’s occasionally necessary for work – and while they’re at work right now, and this is ostensibly about it, it feels like it has nothing to do with it). “Find the room I’m in,” he repeats, voice low enough to give them privacy – he hasn’t missed the way a couple patients waiting for their own appointments have been pretending not to watch them. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Shaun says. “I think so. And I will.”

Overwhelming relief drowns out any other emotion Neil might have felt, right then. “Good.” It seems like their conversation has taken a more serious turn than he’s intended, so he jokes, “How would I ever teach you if we were never in the same room again?”

“We could text. Or email. Or skype. Or –”

“I get it,” Neil interrupts, grinning at him. And he feels lighter than he has all day. (Lighter than he has in a lot of days.) It’s as if something fundamentally wrong in his world has been righted. “Walk with me,” he says, tipping his head toward the exit.

Shaun follows him out of the room and they head back toward the surgical wing. Neither of them says anything for a few minutes, and Neil takes that time to appreciate the fact that he’d managed to figure out what was wrong and clear things up between them, but part of him still worries…

“Shaun,” he begins, “I want you to make me a promise.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, easily (and Neil takes a second to note the way he’d automatically agreed without even asking him what it was first).

“I want you to promise me that if I ever say anything to you that seems out of character…you will ask me about it. Talk to me about it. Because while I try to be very precise and careful in the way we communicate, there are always going to be times when I say something that comes off differently to you than it does to me. And I probably won’t even be aware of it.”

Shaun thinks that over before asking, “What do you mean by…out of character?”

Neil hides a wince. “Mean, Shaun. If I ever seem mean to you. Or like I don’t want you here. Or like I’m being particularly unfair…that’s when I want you to call me on it. And talk to me.”

“That’s not entirely out of character,” Shaun points out. “You used to not want me here.”

Neil stops walking and it takes Shaun a couple extra steps before realizing it and turning back around. “I was wrong,” Neil tells him, and it’s not something he admits very often, so he sees the moment Shaun truly registers the confession.

“You were wrong,” his resident says, and Neil hears both the confirmation and acceptance in the statement.

“Talk to me. That’s the only way this works.”

“I will.” Shaun nods. “I promise.”

Their conversation after that is about their patients, both of them catching up on what they’d missed of each other’s days. And it’s nice. It’s nice to swap stories about the best parts of their days, not out of any pressing need, but because they both genuinely want to know.

When they reach Neil’s office, he stops outside it to look at Shaun, reminding him, “Find me.”

Shaun tilts his head, staring at Neil for slightly too long. “I will find you. Good night, Dr. Melendez.”

“Night, Shaun,” he says, as the other man heads off to wrap up the last details of his shift before leaving for the night.

As Neil prepares to leave for the evening, too, he finds that he’s…happy. But also, more than happy. There’s a sense of calm within him. He’s content in a way that he’s rarely found. (If…ever, really.) And while he’s not entirely sure why, he’s beginning to suspect that, as usual, everything comes back to Shaun Murphy.

XXXXXX

Neil’s enjoying a rather peaceful lunch when Everett Malcolm collapses into the chair across from him with an egregious sigh of discontent.

“By all means,” Neil says dryly, waving a hand at the seat he’s already in, “join me.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Malcolm eyes the plate of food in front of Neil. “You going to eat all those fries?”

“It’s a cafeteria, you know.” Neil’s not sure how he manages to keep his exasperation in check, but he does. Barely. “You can pay for whatever food you want.” Despite that, he pushes the tray closer to Malcolm in silent offer. He’s about done and he really doesn’t care if the other man finishes whatever he hasn’t wanted to eat. (He’s also learned, over the years, that making such offers usually earns him disproportionate favors in return.)

Malcolm takes one of his fries, then reconsiders and takes a handful. “I need your help, Neil.”

“I can tell this is going to be good.”

Malcolm seems unimpressed at that response, but all he says is, “Shaun. Murphy.”

Oh yes, this is definitely going to be good. “What about him?” Neil asks, as innocently as he can manage.

Malcolm isn’t buying it. Not in the slightest. “Come off it, Neil. I need advice on how to work with him.”

Shaun and Malcolm have been working together on the latter’s research trials for over three weeks now, and it’s obviously not going as well as the other surgeon had thought it would.

“Now you need advice.” Neil clasps his hands, leaning back in his chair. “This coming from the man who wanted Shaun on his team without even knowing him personally. And now you can’t deal with him, even part time?”

“He’s driving me crazy,” Malcolm complains, and he actually pulls at his hair, which Neil guesses means he’s serious. (Or something.) “He corrects everything I do. I mean everything.”

Neil can’t help his slow smile. “You must be doing things wrong.”

He’s pretty sure Malcolm considers throwing a fry at him before thinking better of it (which is good for his self-preservation). “I might have missed a few things when it comes to the math, but…that’s not even what I’m talking about.”

Neil takes a sip of his drink to buy himself a few extra moments. Shaun hasn’t mentioned the research trials too much, so he’d assumed they were going fine. (Apparently, he’d assumed wrong.) “If you’re not talking about Shaun correcting your mistakes,” he feels immense satisfaction when Malcolm scowls at that, “then what are you talking about?”

“You,” Malcolm says, flatly. “It’s always you.”

Neil’s extra moment of hesitation is genuine this time, and not meant to stall. “What do you mean?”

“Every other sentence out of his mouth is about you, Neil. About the ways you do things and how I don’t do them the same way. It’s ‘Dr. Melendez this’ and ‘Dr. Melendez that’. I swear, if I hear one more sentence that starts with ‘Dr. Melendez’ then I’m going to –” He cuts off his sentence, eating another fry rather aggressively.

“You’re going to what?” Neil asks, mainly to cover his surprise at what he’s learned.

“I don’t know,” Malcolm admits, “but it won’t be pleasant, I’ll tell you that much.”

“Yeah, we’re all terrified of you,” Neil says wryly, as Malcolm’s scowl grows wider.

“I think that according to Shaun Murphy, my biggest flaw is that I’m not you.”

“And aren’t you sad about that?”

Malcolm’s distinctly unimpressed. “You got me, Melendez. My biggest dream is to be you.”

“Keep striving for perfection, Malcolm.”

The other man ignores that. “He’s your resident,” Malcolm points out. “Haven’t you learned how to get him to do what you want, by now? Or, at the very least…how to control him?”

Malcolm must sense he’s made a mistake with his questions, since he leans back in his chair before Neil can even process what he’s said.

“Shaun Murphy is not a tool for you to use. He’s not a commodity.” Neil doesn’t bother hiding his contempt. “He’s not an easy fix for the numerous things you’ve gotten wrong in your research. He’s a person who has chosen to help you.” He leans forward, over the table, pleased when Malcolm actually pushes his chair back a few inches to get further away from him. “He owes you nothing. And you owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.”

Malcolm blinks several times and Neil wonders if it makes him a bad person that he’s happy the other man’s afraid of him. “You’re right, Neil. Of course you’re right. I’ll tell him that the next time I see him.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Neil says easily, though there’s an edge to the words that warns the other man he’s still serious. And going to be watching him. (Just like he has this entire time, so far.)

“Why do I get the feeling that you’re enjoying my…struggle with Shaun?” Malcolm asks, darkly.

“Because I am,” Neil smirks. “Immensely.”

“I was wrong, okay?” Malcolm relents. “I never should have tried to take him from your team. I was wrong and you were right. Is that what you want to hear?”

“I don’t want to hear anything,” Neil claims. “I only insist that you treat Shaun like you would any other member of my team. Or employee of this hospital, for that matter.” When Malcolm seems puzzled, he tries not to roll his eyes and says, “With respect, Malcolm.”

Shaun Murphy must somehow sense that they’re discussing him, since the man appears next to their table a moment later. “Dr. Melendez,” he greets. “Dr. Malcolm.” Then he sits down at their table without an invitation, and Neil wonders if there’s something about him today that’s inadvertently advertising to others that they should join him for lunch.

(Not that he’d ever deny Shaun if he asked to join him for lunch – or asked for almost anything, for that matter. But Shaun rarely does, so it’s enough to alert Neil to the fact that something’s wrong.)

“When will you next need my assistance?” Shaun’s asking the other surgeon.

“Maybe Friday. I'll let you know.”

Neil stares at Everett Malcolm silently until the other man finally notices. He's clearly at a loss until Neil tilts his head ever so slightly in Shaun’s direction. (Seriously, the man has the memory of an amnesia patient.)

“Uh, Dr. Murphy. Have I thanked you for your help with the trials?”

Shaun is rearranging the items on his tray. “You have not.”

“Then consider yourself thanked.”

“You are welcome.” Shaun suddenly seems to notice that Malcolm’s stealing the rest of Neil's lunch. “You’re eating now?” Shaun asks, as Malcolm freezes with a fry halfway to his mouth. “You have a surgery scheduled in two hours.” He’s shaking his head in dismay. “Dr. Melendez always –”

“I’m out of here,” Malcolm cuts him off, sending Neil a ‘see what I’ve had to deal with?’ look before getting up from the table (and grabbing another handful of fries before he stalks away).

Shaun instantly slides his tray over to take Malcolm’s former seat, which is directly across from Neil (and he watches Malcolm leave with barely concealed disapproval). “He does a lot of things wrong.”

“You two aren’t getting along that well?”

“We get along well enough,” Shaun tells him. “He just does many things wrong.”

Neil has a suspicion about that accusation. “You mean, he does a lot of things differently than I do.”

Shaun nods at that. “Yes. Very different.”

“It’s not necessarily wrong for him to do things his own way,” Neil points out.

“I suppose,” Shaun grants. “However, it is wrong when he can’t correctly add. Or subtract. Or multiply. Or –”

“Okay, Shaun,” Neil interrupts, amusement evident in his voice. “He’s terrible at math.”

“Not terrible,” Shaun corrects. “Careless.”

“Exactly the trait we want in a surgeon,” Neil quips.

“Not careless during surgery,” Shaun clarifies. “Careless with…things.”

Neil actually knows as much because he’s seen all of that for himself.

“It’s fine, though,” Shaun’s continuing. “I encourage him to be more careful. Like you.” His words turn slightly more concerned. “I don’t know if I’m making a difference. He’s resistant to change.”

“Like someone else we know?”

“You.”

Neil grins. “I meant you, Shaun. Though you might have somewhat of a point.” He definitely hadn’t reacted well to the idea of his team changing, that was for sure.

“I don’t mind change,” Shaun informs him. “Sometimes.”

“Ah, sometimes.” Neil folds his arms on the table. “What times qualify as ‘sometimes’?”

“When I want things to change,” Shaun explains, like it should be obvious.

Neil smiles at that perfectly Shaun-esque response, and he also suspects he’s watching his resident with excessive fondness. There’s a natural lull in their conversation as Shaun eats, and Neil takes the opportunity to glance around the cafeteria. He does a double take when he spots Aaron Glassman sitting alone across the room. “Why aren’t you eating with Dr. Glassman?”

Shaun’s expression shutters somewhat. “Dr. Glassman and I are involved in a…disagreement.”

That’s not necessarily a new thing, but something about Shaun's tone is disconcerting to Neil. “What do you disagree on?”

Shaun doesn’t answer him, choosing instead to slowly take another bite of his sandwich.

“Shaun.”

“What?” he responds, too sharply.

“Never mind,” Neil says. “It’s none of my business.”

“You’re wrong,” Shaun replies, and before Neil can ask what he means by that, Aaron has walked over to their table.

“Shaun,” he says, then barely spares a glance at Neil. “Melendez.”

“Afternoon to you, too,” Neil says, wondering about the unusual coolness he feels from the older man. (Or is it his imagination?)

“Shaun, this is silly,” Aaron says. “Just because we’re –”

“I’m eating with Dr. Melendez,” Shaun interrupts.

Aaron turns to Neil, with a somewhat accusing look that he really can’t interpret, before turning back to Shaun. “Two people disagreeing about…something, doesn’t mean that –”

“I’m eating with Dr. Melendez,” Shaun repeats, loud enough that a few people at neighboring tables look over with curiosity. And Shaun’s eyes are harder than Neil’s ever seen them when he turns to Aaron and says, “Not with you.”

Aaron takes a couple steps backwards, looking between Neil and Shaun. After an uncomfortable silence, he nods and says, “Okay.” He looks at Shaun when he speaks next. “You can come back to me anytime you want. My door is always open.”

“Is it?” Shaun asks, and the harshness in his tone has Neil blinking and Aaron grimacing.

For his part, though, all Aaron does is murmur, “It is,” before slowly turning and heading back to his table.

Neil considers letting it go, but…as he's already established, he can’t with Shaun. And especially not when it’s something that might adversely affect his resident. “What was that about?”

Instead of answering, Shaun asks, “Do you like Everett Malcolm?”

Neil frowns at the subject change, but decides to drop the Glassman thing. (For now.) “I don’t really know him. He’s only worked here a few weeks.”

“You don’t have to know someone that well to…like them.” Shaun’s speaking very deliberately, which means Neil pays extra attention. “I have to. But some people don’t.” He looks like he’s going to say more, then stops himself.

It takes Neil a minute to work out what he thinks Shaun is saying. “Did you mean to ask if I like him in terms of…a potential romantic interest?”

Shaun nods and Neil wonders when their conversation had taken this sudden, unusual turn. But he actually doesn’t mind; he never minds when it comes to Shaun. In fact, he’s kind of pleased that Shaun seems more open than usual today because it’s rare that the younger man ever wants to talk about anything outside of work. (And maybe with Neil more than others, but still not that often.)

And now he’s really curious about what prompted Shaun’s question. “Why do you ask?”

Shaun motions to Neil’s tray. “You shared food with him. That’s something people do with friends. Or people they like. And I know you two are not friends.” He studies Neil almost suspiciously. “I don’t like to share food.”

“Your lunch is safe, Shaun. I’m not going to steal it.”

“I didn’t think you would.” He sips his drink. “You didn’t answer me.”

Oh, right, he’d been too preoccupied with Shaun’s motivation to actually answer him. “No. The thought never even crossed my mind. I have no interest in him.”

“You were with Jessica,” Shaun says, and the statement seems unrelated until he adds, “Is it because he’s a man?”

“It’s because he’s Malcolm.” Their new colleague has actually become slightly more tolerable over the past month. Slightly. But the very idea…he can’t even picture it. Nor would he want to. “And I actually like both men and women, Shaun. I was with Jessica because I loved her. But gender doesn’t matter to me.”

Shaun nods and doesn’t offer up any more information.

“What about you?” He immediately reconsiders even asking the question. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, obviously.”

“I…like people.”

“Well, that’s very specific.”

Shaun appears to think on that before clarifying, “I like some people.”

“Much better. Definitely clears things up.”

Shaun huffs the slightest bit and Neil wonders if he’s put out at having to explain. “I like people who are good. People who are nice. To me.” Shaun’s scanning the cafeteria now and his gaze stops briefly on Aaron Glassman. “To everyone.”

Neil laughs, though it’s a little bitter and directed at himself. “Then you must have hated me when we first met.”

Shaun’s obviously alarmed, eyes widening as he quickly turns back to Neil. “I never hated you!”

He’s slightly taken aback by Shaun’s vehemence, keeping his voice calm when he answers, “Okay. I’m glad.”

At his tone, maybe learning Neil’s not upset, Shaun calms, too. “Did you actually think that?”

“I honestly didn’t know. We weren’t the biggest fans of each other.”

“I might have disliked you,” Shaun allows, then hastily adds, “Not anymore, though.” He looks away, out the glass windows, and it’s another minute before he asks, very quietly, “Did you hate me?”

“Never,” Neil answers, instantly, relieved when Shaun looks at him again. “I never hated you. Shaun, I couldn’t have even if I wanted to.” Shaun’s about to ask something, and Neil has no idea how, but he already knows what it is. “Just an expression, Shaun. I never wanted to hate you.”

“Alright,” Shaun accepts, as he returns to the lunch he’d forgotten for most of their conversation.

“I wasn’t very kind to you,” Neil says regretfully. “I should have said this a long time ago, but I’m sorry, Shaun.”

“It’s okay. I knew you were sorry.”

“It’s not okay,” Neil stresses. “I’d go back and undo it if I could.” Something else occurs to him. “And how did you know I was sorry?”

“The way you are now. The way you treat me like everyone else. And…not like everyone else. At the same time.”

Neil isn’t exactly sure what he means by that, but Shaun seems satisfied with the answer, so he knows it makes sense to him. And he thinks back over their conversation; one thing had never been resolved to his satisfaction. He can’t help wondering… “You said you liked some people. So how many is that, Shaun?”

Shaun starts counting on his fingers. “I like Claire. Jared. Dr. Glassman –”

“I don’t mean people you like as friends. Or family. I meant romantically. Or did I misunderstand you earlier?”

“Oh.” Shaun hesitates. “There is one person. One.”

Neil considers asking who it is, but then swallows back the question. First, because he thinks Shaun should tell him of his own volition and not because he’s been prying. But more than that, much more than that, the idea of sitting here, having to listen while Shaun goes on about whoever he likes, is causing a visceral reaction that tells him maybe the only person he’d be okay with Shaun liking is him. The thought throws him so much that he has to make a joke out of things, instead. “Just tell me the person isn’t Everett Malcolm,” Neil says dryly.

Shaun’s face confirms it’s not. “You really don’t like him.”

“I don’t…dislike him, per se. We’re very different and we clash a lot.” He thinks over the conversations he’s had with him in the past month. “You said it best earlier. He’s careless with things. With people.” Malcolm’s careless with Shaun and that alone guarantees that Neil will never view him in too favorable a light. “Only…332 days left for him here, though.”

“You’re counting down?” Shaun seems slightly surprised and then something in his eyes turns lighter. “He might end up enjoying our hospital, Dr. Melendez.”

Neil levels him with a look which Shaun apparently finds not at all discouraging. (Seriously…he misses the days when they were afraid to harass him. Okay, no he doesn’t.)

“Dr. Malcolm might want to stay.”

“Shaun.”

His resident is very obviously enjoying this. “Permanently.”

Neil tries not to smile, he really does, but it’s a lost cause. (It always is with Shaun.) His darkening thoughts about Malcolm vanish, and he thinks to himself that Shaun seems to be the only one who can turn him around so easily.

“So this person you like…” Neil can’t help steering their conversation back to its previous topic, if in much vaguer terms. And this time it’s not because of him, but because he can’t help his worry. He’s been putting the pieces together, remembering his resident’s shortness with Glassman earlier. He can only think there’s one interpretation of that which fits – and which would cause Shaun to be as upset as he’d been (and probably still is). Shaun had ignored his question about Glassman when he’d initially asked, but maybe now that they’re being more open with each other, he’ll feel comfortable answering this time. And if there’s any way he can help… “Is that what you and Dr. Glassman were arguing about? Again, you don’t have to tell me. But I’m willing to talk if you want to.”

Shaun quietly eats for long enough that Neil thinks he’s not going to answer. Finally, he says, “Dr. Glassman believes that he has a say in my personal life.” The younger man’s frustration is evident. “He does not.”

“You’re right, Shaun. No one has a say in your personal life except for you. And whoever you choose to include in it.”

After a few more moments, Shaun asks, “What if the person I want to include in it doesn’t want to be there?”

“You obviously know that liking someone doesn’t mean they’re going to like you back,” Neil says, carefully. “But if you ask me, Shaun, then it’s their loss.”

Shaun’s studying him, and Neil shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Okay,” the younger man finally says. He pushes his tray slightly towards Neil. “Do you want any food?”

Neil taps his fingers on the table. “I thought you didn’t share.”

Shaun considers that. “You are an exception.”

That simple statement makes Neil a lot happier than it should. “Thank you, but I’m finished.”

“You finished before I sat down,” Shaun reminds him. Because of course he’d noticed. “I thought you might still be hungry. That’s why you hadn’t left.”

“No. I’m still here because I’m keeping you company.”

“You don’t keep anyone company. Your time is valuable.”

“I have said that, haven’t I?” Neil shrugs, then teases, “You should feel lucky then.”

Shaun takes that unexpectedly serious. “I am very lucky to work with you.”

Neil changes his tone to match the gravity that had infused Shaun’s. “Thank you, Shaun. I feel the same way about you.”

They stay there for a while longer, occasionally talking, but mostly enjoying the silence. It’s not often that Neil gets to experience that sense of calm in the middle of his days. (Usually, he only gets there when he eats alone, like he generally prefers.) By the time they leave the cafeteria, Neil realizes it’s probably the longest lunch either of them has ever taken.

He thinks he’d like to do it a lot more often.

Chapter Text

It’s 8:30 in the morning. 8:30 in the morning. Neil’s been in the hospital for all of 15 minutes when Aaron summons him for an impromptu meeting, and what could he possibly want to talk about at this time of day?

Neil’s been at this job for a lot of years, and in his experience, early meetings are never a good thing. People schedule them so that they can get unpleasant issues out of the way quickly and move on with their day. Then again, late meetings aren’t great, either, since some people tend to put off problems until the end of the day. And mid-day meetings? Forget it – that’s when people try to mitigate bad news with an expensive lunch.

(It’s entirely possible that Neil just hates meetings.)

“Come in, sit down,” Aaron tells him, as Neil obligingly takes a seat in front of his desk, trying not to feel uncomfortable in the silence while he waits for Aaron to finish whatever he’s doing at his computer.

He really wishes people would leave him alone. He loves his job, with a passion that he hasn’t felt for anything else in his life, but the constant meetings and press conferences and fundraisers aggravate him to no end. If he could spend all his time helping his patients, saving lives, and mentoring others so that they could learn to do the same…then things would be perfect.

Unfortunately, regular meetings and paperwork and the worst – politics – are a routine part of his job. He has to participate in all of it so that he can get to the actual part he enjoys. So…he does. (Reluctant though he is, most of the time. All of the time.)

Aaron isn’t looking at him and Neil wonders if the other man might be stalling, which does not bode well when it comes to what the subject of this meeting might be.

“I wanted to start seeing my patients by 9,” he tells Aaron, hoping to move things along.

Aaron flicks his eyes downward on his monitor, probably to check the time, and then he laughs, but it comes off as forced to Neil. “Right, sorry. So much to do. You know how it is.”

“Yes,” Neil says impatiently. “I do.”

Aaron takes off his glasses and sets them on his desk, rubbing his eyes with both hands; it’s not a good sign. “I don’t know how to approach this topic with you,” he finally says, without looking at Neil. (And damn, starting out by saying that is an even worse sign than the glasses.)

“Okaaay…” Neil draws the word out, but it’s not like there’s much he can say. He can’t even reassure the older man since he isn’t sure why Aaron summoned him to his office.

“How are things?” Aaron asks, and Neil can’t tell if he’s attempting to make small talk to ease into the topic he wants to discuss, or if he’s simply stalling further.

He decides to keep his answers short – at least until he knows what this is about. “Things are fine.”

“Good,” Aaron says, nodding. “How’s your team doing? Your residents?”

Why does he get the distinct feeling he’s reliving the same meeting, just with different people?

“They’re fine.”

“How’s…Shaun?” The careful way Aaron says his name means that Shaun is either somehow related to the topic he wants to discuss, or he is the topic he wants to discuss.

Right. Shaun Murphy. Of course this is about Shaun Murphy.

Neil takes a moment to register that this reversal is interesting – he’s the one who always goes to Aaron for help with Shaun. Or, more accurately, he used to. But it’s not true anymore, not when he’s come to know Shaun as well as he does. And now Glassman is asking his opinion on how Shaun’s doing?

“Why are you asking me?” Neil doesn’t blink or look away when Aaron meets his gaze in slight surprise at the question. “You talk to him multiple times per day. Every day.” When Aaron doesn’t say anything, Neil adds, slightly accusing, “You know he’s not happy.”

Shaun’s recent issue with Glassman hasn’t gone away; if anything, it’s only gotten worse. Shaun hasn’t brought it up since that day in the cafeteria, a few weeks earlier, but Neil can easily see how it’s upsetting him. It’s not only evident in the way Shaun and Aaron interact lately, but there’s this kind of…sadness that surrounds Shaun when it comes to Aaron Glassman. And it’s bothering Neil more by the day.

“I know he’s not happy,” Aaron admits. It sounds like the weight of the world is on him (and maybe it is). “I’m not sure if I should be talking to you about this.” That sets off an actual warning in Neil’s mind and he starts wondering if he can fake some sort of emergency just to get out of this office.

“If you’re not sure, then maybe there’s your answer,” Neil tells him, evenly.

Aaron seems greatly disappointed in that response, for some reason. All he does, though, is ask, “What do you think of Shaun?”

“What do I think of him?” Neil has no idea if that’s a real question or not. (Knowing Aaron, it’s probably some kind of test.) “He’s a brilliant young man. Gifted. Dedicated to helping people.”

“So my bringing him to our hospital…fighting for him to stay…” Aaron picks up his glasses and puts them back on. “Do you think I made the right call?”

“I know you did,” Neil says, without hesitation. “And more importantly, you know you did. Which means you’re not asking for my actual opinion, but you’re trying to gauge something. The question, Aaron, is what are you trying to gauge?”

“You were always too quick for your own good,” Aaron says, laughing slightly. “My question was more along the lines of what do you think of Shaun on a personal level? Outside of being a surgeon.”

“Like I said, he’s brilliant. He’s passionate about saving lives. He’s…” amazing. To Neil, Shaun Murphy is amazing.

Neil leans back in his seat at the sudden thought. At the startling fact that he likes everything about Shaun. Even when his resident is at his most frustrating or difficult or stubborn, Neil doesn’t care. He wants to teach him in every way he can; wants to be there when he has that incredible insight that will help him save someone’s life; wants to help him down from any precipice he happens to come across, whenever life gets to be too much for him and he needs someone to help steady him. To put it more simply, perhaps, he wants to be wherever Shaun is. (And when had that happened?)

Neil’s careful not to say as much, though. Not when he’s unsure about where Aaron is going with this conversation. He decides to frame the rest of his answer as professionally as possible. “We understand each other, Aaron. We still fight, of course, but we genuinely enjoy working together. What more is there to consider?”

“What more…” Aaron’s laughing again, but it’s to himself, and Neil feels like he’s missing whatever the joke is. “What more, indeed.”

“Is there an actual point to this?” Neil tries to hide his frustration, but knows the edge of it has come through in his tone. “I have a lot to do today and this meeting seems to be going nowhere.”

In response to that, Aaron levels his gaze on him. “Do you remember what you said to me once? Around, oh…six months ago? Sitting right where you’re sitting now?”

Aaron cannot be serious. (Unfortunately, Neil knows that he is.) “I don’t memorize our conversations. I’m not Shaun.”

“It was after a particularly difficult day with Shaun and you came to me looking for advice. You told me that you and Shaun could usually get along, for the sake of work, but you two would never be…”

The memory returns to Neil suddenly, like a blinding lightning strike, and the intensity of it leaves him feeling unnaturally hot. Why does he remember this? “I said we’d never be each other’s favorite person in the world.”

“Exactly,” Aaron murmurs. “Never each other’s favorite. And I laughed and said you didn’t have to be. That I understood. Which had nothing to do with Shaun’s autism and was only about the fact that there are always going to be people that we aren’t compatible with. In this hospital. Outside of it. Anywhere – everywhere.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” Neil tries to claim (and it’s not even fully a lie, because he has no idea what’s going on with Aaron’s tangent).

Aaron shuts his eyes briefly before refocusing on him. He folds his hands on top of his desk and leans forward a little. “You obviously know that Shaun…likes you.”

There’s that warning again, ringing in Neil’s ears at an ever-increasing frequency. “All my residents like me. Or,” he adds wryly, “they at least pretend.”

“Come on, Neil. He likes you. Don’t try and pretend like you didn’t know.”

All Neil can do is stare at him, taking that in, because while he’d suspected (while he’d hoped), he hadn’t known for sure. Maybe part of him hadn’t been ready to know for sure.

Aaron’s studying him, taking in his genuine surprise. “You…actually didn’t know?” Regret crosses his face, maybe at realizing he’s just unintentionally betrayed Shaun’s trust. “I wouldn’t have said anything. I thought for sure you… I mean, the way Shaun’s talked about it, talked about you, I assumed…”

Neil can’t let Aaron take all of the blame for this (even though a small part of him wants to). “I wasn’t entirely oblivious,” he admits, though he knows he’s being generous there (because he was clueless, for a long time). “I had recently begun to wonder. I didn’t know anything for sure because Shaun never outright said it.”

His resident had come close, though, Neil realizes, as he thinks back over the past few months. Not with words, but with the way he’d acted around him. The increasing trust he’d shown in Neil, his openness in talking to him, even the way he’d reached out on occasion…those were all ways that Shaun had been telling him. (Trying to tell him.)

It’s certainly not Shaun Murphy’s fault that Neil had missed a lot of the obvious signs.

Aaron clears his throat, which quickly brings Neil back to the present (and the fact that the last person in the world he wants to discuss any of this with is Aaron Glassman).

“Why am I here?” Neil asks, though the demand in the question makes it sound like a challenge (and he realizes too late that it is).

“I want to remind you to be careful, Neil. Shaun will most likely bring this up to you at some point, and I don’t want you to be…” He trails off, like he doesn’t want to say it out loud, but Neil knows where he’s going.

“Careless.” He moves forward, putting his hands on Aaron’s desk. “Or maybe unkind. Is that what you think of me?”

“Of course not,” Aaron protests, and Neil isn’t sure if it’s a lie. “I only want you to take a second and…let him down easy if it ever comes to that.”

“Who says I’d let him down at all?” Neil asks, before he can think better of it. Because he swears, before that moment, he’d never seriously considered pursuing any type of relationship with Shaun Murphy. It might have crossed his mind, at times, but he’d never thought about it in any type of real way. (There are a thousand reasons why it’s a terrible idea, and Neil’s made a habit in his life of avoiding terrible ideas. It saves him a lot of grief that way.)

Aaron stares at him for a few seconds before asking, in a strangled whisper, “What?”

For whatever reason, Neil decides he can’t backtrack now. (Or maybe it’s that he doesn’t want to.) “You don’t know what I’d say to him. Nor is it any of your business what I’d say.”

“You – you can’t –” Aaron’s tripping over his own words. “You can’t possibly…”

“What?” Neil challenges. “What can’t I possibly do?”

“You can’t just – Shaun is not like other people –”

“You think I don’t know that?” Neil asks, and the calmness of his question has Aaron moving back in his chair. “After nearly ten months of working with him, you think I don’t know him?”

“You were never shy about not wanting him on your team.” Aaron’s voice is gaining strength with the accusation. “About not even wanting him at our hospital!”

Like always, those memories only fill Neil with regret. “That’s past tense, Aaron. Things are different now. Don’t act like you believe I feel the same way that I did in the beginning, because we both know it’s not true.”

Aaron’s silent for a few moments. “You’re serious about this.” His voice has dropped again. “Are you…are you insane?”

Neil isn’t sure if he’s more offended for himself or on Shaun’s behalf. “I’d have to be insane to consider a relationship with Shaun?”

Aaron’s becoming more frustrated. “That’s not how I meant it. I’m talking about what it would entail, Neil. Not to mention that you are older than him, you are his boss, there are…so many reasons why it’ll never work and –”

“I know,” Neil cuts him off, rather harshly. Because he can’t argue that. Not any of it. Aaron has a good point that he shouldn’t even be thinking about this, never mind contemplating turning it into a reality.

The thing is…he wants this. He wants Shaun.

It’s not an entirely new revelation, but it is something he’s only recently started letting himself take note of – something he’s realizing he’d repressed for a while out of worry. Or fear. Or self-preservation. And the thing of it is…he knows better. Over the course of his career, he’s seen plenty of colleagues fall for residents, and he’s seen nearly all of those relationships fall apart, with disastrous consequences. He’d told himself that would never happen to him. Because he knows how to avoid it, how to keep himself in check.

It had worked for him, up until now – so why isn’t it working anymore?

(Because you’ve never had Shaun Murphy as a resident before, his mind whispers.)

“I’ve worked with you for a long time,” Aaron’s saying, which brings Neil back to the present. “Shaun…he adores you, Neil. And we both know…” He seems to reconsider where that sentence is going.

“We both know what?” Neil asks, sharply.

Aaron stares at him, hard. “That you love being adored.”

Neil takes that in for a few seconds, registering exactly what Aaron is saying. It’s wholly possible that he’s never wanted to punch someone as much as he does Aaron Glassman, in that moment. Not that he ever would, not least of all because Shaun would never forgive him – no, it’s because despite everything, he likes Aaron. He has a deep respect and admiration for him that will never go away. And he understands exactly where the older man is coming from, and why he would be so wary of him, when it comes to Shaun. (And so maybe some of Neil’s anger is directed at himself, and not so much at Aaron, after all.)

“I would never use Shaun,” Neil finally says, words stiff as they are painful. “For my own ego. Or for…any other reason.”

Glassman relaxes slightly at that, and once more, regret crosses his face. “I’m sorry, Neil. I don’t actually think you’d purposely use Shaun in any way.” He starts rummaging in his desk drawers, pulling out a bottle of aspirin. He takes a couple pills and then offers the bottle to Neil who shakes his head. (Though considering how this conversation is going, he should probably consider taking some preemptively.)

When Aaron says nothing more, Neil feels compelled to fill the silence, to explain his own side in whatever way he can. “Honestly, Aaron, I never gave a relationship with Shaun any real consideration before. I wondered if he might have feelings for me, but I pushed that question to the back of my mind.” And it’s too late to go back now Aaron had just forced everything out into the open, whether Neil wanted to deal with it or not. “You were right when you said we shouldn’t even be talking about this.”

“Too late,” Aaron says, unknowingly echoing Neil’s own thoughts. “You just…you can’t do it, Neil. I’m asking you: please, do not seriously consider this.”

“I’m trying not to feel insulted,” Neil says, mild enough that he hopes it covers his rising aggravation. “Am I not good enough for him? Do you think I wouldn’t be any good for him?” He’s truly racking his mind, now. “Do you think I don’t care about him?”

“Of course I know you care about him.” Aaron sounds exasperated now. “Blind people can see how much you care about him. That’s not what I’m –”

“Then what?” Neil demands, leaning forward in his chair. “What? Tell me why the thought of us together is so awful to you that you are willing to alienate Shaun, drag me in here for this incredibly inappropriate conversation, and order me not to –”

“You will break him!” Aaron shouts, hitting the desk with his hand, forcefully enough that Neil actually jumps. Aaron puts his head in his hands and Neil watches the anger swiftly fade, leaving only pain in its wake when the older man repeats, in a whisper, “You will break him.”

That’s the moment Neil realizes that Aaron isn’t only concerned about Shaun’s personal life, nor is he merely worried… He’s terrified.

Neil just doesn’t understand why.

“Explain it to me,” Neil quietly implores.

“How much he cares about you. How much he…” Aaron’s staring somewhere beyond him. “I just told you that he adores you, Neil. I’ve never seen anything like it, not from Shaun. He’s never had a real romantic interest in anyone, that he’s ever told me about. And everything I’m telling you, that all came before he told me he had feelings for you. So if you two begin a relationship and it doesn’t work out…I don’t know what it will do to him.”

“I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t do,” Neil says, pointedly. “It wouldn’t break him.” At Aaron’s questioning look, Neil stares him down. “Shaun Murphy watched his brother, the person he loved most in the world, die right in front of him. If that doesn’t break a person…I don’t know that anything will.”

Aaron appears to take that in. “The aftermath of that…he almost didn’t get through it. We almost didn’t get through it. But you’re right, he did get through it and he came out the other side, probably a lot stronger for it. However…I can’t condone this idea of you and him together.”

“You don’t have to,” Neil says, tone indicating that when it comes to this, it doesn’t matter to him what Aaron thinks.

“Come on, Neil.” Aaron no longer seems angry, just…weary. “We’ve both seen what happens when doctors enter relationships with each other. It’s such a stressful career, long hours, impossible situations, dealing with grief on a daily basis – relationships rarely work out. And the break-ups we’ve seen, many of them are…horrific. People leave the hospital to get away from their exes.”

“If you’re asking for guarantees, Aaron, I can’t give you any. No one can.”

“I’m not,” Aaron replies. “I’m merely asking you: what are the odds you two would work in the long-term? Like 10%? 5%? Even less? You know, just as I do, that being in a relationship with Shaun Murphy would be incredibly difficult. And when it falls apart, I’ll be the one there, picking up the pieces.” He shuts his eyes. “I can’t watch him be hurt that way. It’s… I can’t do it.”

“No one is asking you to do anything,” Neil says. “You’re imagining a situation that might never even happen. Do you recognize the futility of that?”

“If we rewound time to, oh, seven months ago, you’d be sitting there telling me that you were committed to marrying Jessica Preston. That you were going to spend the rest of your life with her.”

“That’s hardly fair.”

“No, it’s not fair. That’s my exact point. How quickly things can change. Or are you really telling me that you could see being in a relationship with Shaun Murphy long-term? Possibly forever? Because it wouldn’t be a fling, Neil, not to Shaun. He would need a level of commitment that…”

“You don’t think I’m capable of providing.”

Aaron’s look is answer enough. “Not just you. I think most people aren’t capable of it. Shaun is frustrating. He is demanding. A relationship with him would be – it is – constant work. So when the day inevitably comes that you think to yourself: ‘Hey, maybe I don’t want to do this anymore’…”

Neil tries to picture that, a future where he and Shaun are together and he wakes up one day deciding he’s done.

Except…he can’t. He simply can’t fathom ever feeling like he’s done with Shaun Murphy. Because he never will be.

He never will be.

Talk about a moment of revelation.

“That will never happen,” he says, belatedly answering Aaron’s question.

“Why are you certain? What’s different about Shaun as opposed to Jessica? Or anyone you were with in the past?”

“I…don’t know.”

“There must be something different if you’re considering this.”

“He’s…”

“What?” Aaron demands. “He’s what?”

“He’s Shaun,” Neil says, trying to infuse everything that he thinks and feels into that name, because all other words are failing him. “He’s Shaun. I don’t know how to explain it other than that.”

“It’s an inevitable trainwreck,” Aaron murmurs, like he hasn’t even heard Neil’s attempt at an answer. “I can see exactly how it will unfold, exactly who’s going to get hurt the most, how it might even make Shaun not want to work here anymore…and for the life of me I can’t get either of you two off the train!”

Neil’s torn because he can hear that Aaron is sincere. The older man truly believes the two of them together will be disastrous, in the end. And Neil has no way to change his mind – there probably is no way that he could.

“It is selfish of you to contemplate this,” Aaron is continuing. “It’s wrong, Neil. It’s self-serving and risky and foolhardy and I can’t believe that you, of all people, would consider it.”

Neil had stopped listening at one specific word. “It’s not wrong.”

Aaron keeps going as if he hasn’t spoken. “That you would put what you want –”

It’s not wrong.”

“Over Shaun’s well-being and –”

“It’s not wrong to want things for myself!” Neil yells, as Aaron’s eyes flash in anger when he’s startled into silence. “And if you think that it is,” Neil leans forward, lowering his voice, “then the next words out of your mouth better be ‘It’s wrong for Shaun to want things, too’.”

Aaron’s jaw tenses but he says nothing. Because of course he can’t say what Neil had suggested – not when he doesn’t believe it.

Neil can’t wrap his mind around Aaron’s logic, either. “You realize that by your own metric, anyone who wanted to be in a relationship with Shaun is not deserving of him simply because they want to be in a relationship with him.” He throws his hands up. “How does that even make sense in your mind?”

Instead of answering him, Aaron asks, “Why do I get the feeling that this meeting has had the exact opposite of my intentions? Instead of convincing you why you shouldn’t attempt this, it’s making you more determined than ever to…what? Prove me wrong?”

“Don’t make this about you,” Neil warns him. “It’s not. You’re too much in this already, Aaron. The fact is, even though you care about Shaun, you have no say in his personal life. And you sure as hell have no say in mine. And if those two things happen to collide…?” The implication is more than clear: Aaron Glassman doesn’t get to make those decisions. (No matter how much he tries to influence either of them, one way or the other.)

“I just –”

“I know you feel it’s different because he’s Shaun. But how do you think he would feel if he knew we were having this conversation? When he’s never even talked to me about this? When he might never?” At Aaron’s obvious confusion, Neil points out, “Just because Shaun likes me doesn’t mean that he necessarily wants a relationship with me. He might not want a relationship with anyone. Ever.” He leans forward again. “But that’s the thing, Aaron. It’s not up to you. You know it’s not up to you – it’s up to Shaun.”

“Sometimes he doesn’t make the best decisions,” Aaron says, pain in every word, and Neil can tell he’s thinking of specific past events. “Sometimes he chooses to do things that end up hurting him.”

“Oh. Like every person who ever lived, then?”

Aaron runs a hand over his mouth. “You know what I mean.”

“I do, but it doesn’t change anything. Not for me.”

“If you try this and it doesn’t work…” Aaron swallows and looks away (which causes Neil to think they might actually be getting to the heart of the matter). “If he loses you – I don’t mean romantically, I mean as a mentor, as a friend, as an integral part of his life – I don’t know how he’ll recover.”

“He will never lose me,” Neil promises. And until he says it, he hasn’t realized the truth of it. No matter what ends up happening with Shaun, he will never not be in the younger man’s life. The very idea of it hurts too much to even contemplate. “As long as he wants me in his life, I will be there. I don’t know what form that might take, but if I can’t promise anything else, I can promise that, Aaron.”

“I believe you,” Aaron relents. “But even if you could get back to this place you’re at now with Shaun, the friendship, the mentorship – Shaun will never be able to. He will never get back to this place. Are you willing to accept that if you enter a relationship with him and it doesn’t work out, you might end up losing him altogether?”

No, Neil isn’t willing to accept that. (So he’s damn well going to do everything in his power to make sure that never happens.) “Like I said, we both know there are no guarantees. If things don’t work, we might never get back to the place we are now, but there’s also the possibility that if we try…we might get to an even better place.”

“I see I’m not going to sway you,” Aaron says, then sighs heavily. “And I also know it isn’t my place to try.”

Neil levels him with a look. “Then what are we doing here?”

“I want the best for Shaun. I try to protect him as much as I can. I love him,” Glassman sums up, simply. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

“I understand,” Neil says, because he does. But he also thinks they’ve both said all there is to say on this matter and nothing productive will come of continuing the discussion, so he gets up and nods shortly at Aaron, not waiting for a dismissal before he leaves the office.

He’s not angry with Aaron, nor is he upset. He’s mostly…frustrated. The older man is absolutely convinced he’s right, that a relationship between Neil and Shaun would inevitably lead to heartbreak for Shaun. He can’t be mad about Aaron wanting to protect Shaun because that’s a feeling Neil himself shares. There’s no doubt that Aaron’s going about things the wrong way, but his ultimate goal is what it always has been: to look out for Shaun, and if possible, prevent him from being hurt. He knows Aaron has seen it many times in his life and not been able to do anything about it. As such, this time, when he’d imagined the worst possible scenario, he’d decided to try and stop it before it ever came to pass.

The thing is…Aaron’s wrong about this being a terrible decision for both of them. Neil doesn’t know how he knows that, he just does. And there’s no way to convince him of that fact unless Aaron actually sees things play out in front of him.

Neil wonders how the hell he’d walked into that office without even being certain Shaun liked him…and walked out convinced that they’re exactly what each other needs.

XXXXXX

Neil spends the rest of the week running his conversation with Aaron over and over in his mind. He sits down and seriously considers everything that would have to go into a relationship with Shaun. That he’d have to become a kind of support system to him the way Aaron is now. That’s when he realizes…he pretty much already is. And anything else on top of that? Anything else Shaun might need? He doesn’t doubt his ability to provide it. At all.

The more Neil thinks about it, the more he’s certain that Aaron isn’t fully aware of how much his and Shaun’s lives have become intertwined. He’s slowly become the first person Shaun turns to – and he goes to Shaun first, too. He already takes care of Shaun the best ways he knows how, whether Shaun’s asking him to or not. (And he doesn’t think that he’ll ever be able to stop doing that.)

So in the end, it takes him relatively little time to commit to the idea. There’s still one problem, though. Ever since his talk with Aaron, ever since hearing how much Shaun likes him…it’s sparked a new fear in Neil: he’s worried that the mere act of bringing up the subject might cause Shaun to think he’s asking him for a relationship – and that Shaun might agree simply because he knows it’s what Neil wants.

And the mere thought of Shaun ever going along with something he’s not comfortable with, or not ready for, just to make Neil happy? He won’t ever take that risk. So if anyone initiates the conversation, or brings up starting a relationship, it has to be Shaun.

Whether that’s next week, next month, or…never.

Neil pours himself a drink that he doesn’t really want; it’s going on midnight and he’s only been home a half hour. He sips it while he looks around his apartment. He likes this place, he really does, but since when has it seemed so…empty? He’d felt this way all week, coming home to…no one.

He wishes…he wishes Shaun were here. He sets his drink down with too much force and reminds himself he’s making the right choices. It’s much more difficult than he thought it would be, though, to know how Shaun feels and not tell him that he feels the same way. (Or…forget difficult. Sometimes it feels impossible. And it’s only been a week.)

He needs to remind himself, too, that Shaun might never want a relationship with him. And Neil would be okay with that, because he only wants to be with someone if they equally want to be with him. He can still care about Shaun, still be in his life, even if they’re only ever friends.

The idea is disheartening, though. Because he thinks…

He thinks they could be happy together.

A distant crash of thunder has him glancing out the window in time to see a flash of lightning that illuminates the city. The rain seems aptly fitting, based on his mood.

He debates going to bed; then at least it’d soon be morning and he could get up and go back to the hospital where – where Shaun is. He rolls his eyes at himself. Since when did he get so sentimental about anyone, never mind someone he wasn’t even in a relationship with? It’s true, though. He’d stayed late tonight (and every night this week) because he hadn’t wanted to face coming home alone. Hadn’t wanted to face the way his thoughts are driving him crazy.

He’s trying to calculate if another drink will help him fall asleep quickly or just make him more morose, when he hears light knocking on his door. He goes over to answer it, forgetting to check who it is first, which only occurs to him after he’s pulling it open – well, his building has good enough security that it’s probably not an axe murderer.

Although…he might have been less surprised at that than who he actually finds on the other side of his door.

Shaun Murphy.

He’s so surprised, in fact, that he just stares at him, and he has the oddest idea that thinking about Shaun has somehow summoned him to his home.

Shaun’s simply staring at him, in return, and he’s not speaking, either.

Neil can’t imagine anything that brings Shaun to his place at this time of night is a good thing.

“Shaun, what are – is everything okay?” He runs his eyes over his resident, years of training kicking in without even consciously realizing it. He looks for any signs of injury or trauma, but Shaun seems perfectly fine. The only notable thing is that he’s pretty wet, water dripping down his coat, and some falling from his hair into his eyes, which Shaun wipes away. That’s when Neil remembers it’s raining.

Shaun’s still staring at him, and the longer he does, the more the younger man relaxes. Neil thinks they might remain in this standoff all night until Shaun quietly says, “You are okay.”

“I’m okay,” Neil confirms. “Are you?”

Shaun ignores the question. “I should go,” he says, without any explanation, and then he actually turns away.

Neil’s reply is instantaneous, said before he even processes it: “Get in here. Right now.” He’s so determined, in fact, that he would have grabbed Shaun’s arm to pull him inside if the younger man didn’t immediately comply.

Once he’s inside, Neil shuts the door and automatically locks it. Then he turns to look at Shaun and remembers –

“You’re soaking wet.”

“I noticed.”

Neil frowns. “Why?”

“It is raining.”

“You don’t own an umbrella?”

“It was not raining when I left my apartment.”

“Okay,” Neil says, deciding to take care of the most pressing issue first. He gets a towel from his bathroom and returns, holding it out to Shaun. “You’re dripping all over my area rug.”

Shaun takes a careful step onto the gleaming hardwood floor as he runs the towel over his hair. He starts to unbutton his coat and then pauses, glancing at Neil in question.

As if he’d throw Shaun back out into the middle of a storm. “Off,” Neil confirms, as Shaun follows his instruction and then neatly hangs up his coat by the door. “After we talk, you’re either staying in my guest room or I’m driving you home. And newsflash, I really don’t plan to drive you home this late. Not in this weather.”

Shaun considers those options (mostly, his one option) and then nods slightly.

When it seems clear Shaun isn’t going to say more, Neil asks, “Well? Are you going to tell me why you’re here? In the middle of the night?”

“Technically, the middle of the night is seventeen minutes from –”

“Shaun.”

“You have a nice apartment,” his resident says politely, as he looks around the living room.

“Stay on the career track you’re on and you could live in an apartment just like this one, someday.”

“Just like this one,” Shaun echoes, in apparent approval. “It’s large for one person.”

Neil has no argument there. “It is.” Often too large, now that Neil’s thinking about it.

“How many rooms are there?”

“Six.” How are they getting so off track? “And what am I, a realtor? Do you want a tour or something?”

Shaun shakes his head. “I just think it’s nice.”

“And I just think you’re stalling.”

Shaun inhales, then breathes out slowly. Neil’s about to repeat his question when the other man announces, “You’re alive.”

“Last I checked.” Normally, he’s pretty good at following Shaun’s habit of switching between seemingly unconnected topics, but he’s having difficulty tonight.

“Please keep…being alive.”

“I’ll do my best,” he promises, as he puts together Shaun’s request with what he’d said when he arrived. “Is that why you’re here? You thought something happened to me?” He holds his arms out. “As you can see, I’m perfectly fine, Shaun.”

Shaun’s looking at the wall behind him. “I couldn’t save you.” He clenches his hands into fists. “I was supposed to save you. I couldn’t.”

Neil thinks he’s starting to get it. “You had a dream about…me?”

“It wasn’t a dream!” Shaun snaps, then clasps his hands in a bid at calming himself. “It was a nightmare.”

Shaun’s upset enough that Neil wants to reach out and touch him, but he stops himself. He doesn’t know if it’d be welcome and he doesn’t want to risk agitating him more. However, he also can’t stand there, so close to Shaun, and keep himself from reaching out. So he crosses the living room to sit on the couch and motions for Shaun to have a seat anywhere he wants. Shaun ignores the silent offer and remains standing near the door.

“A nightmare,” Neil repeats. Shaun had left the hospital hours before him, so he must have gone home, gone to bed, and then… “You had a nightmare which caused you to take the bus here?”

“One of the last ones,” Shaun confirms. “I…had to see that you were okay.”

Neil taps his phone, still lying where he’d set it on the coffee table when he got home. “You could have called me. Texted me.”

“We’re not supposed to contact you after 10 if it’s not an emergency.”

“I said don’t contact me after 10, so you took that to mean…come to my apartment instead?”

“You didn’t say not to come to your apartment.”

He has to concede that point. And more than that, it’s another thing Shaun’s taken too literally. He’d issued his ultimatum a couple weeks earlier, the morning after Jared called him six times in one night. And he’d said it to Jared, mostly exasperated, but he’s remembering now that Shaun and Claire had been there, too.

“Shaun, that not calling me after 10? It’s just like that time I told you to –” God, he hates this memory, “– find a room I wasn’t in.”

“You didn’t mean it?”

“Not really. I guess…I sort-of meant it.” He makes a concerted effort to tamp down on his frustration, because it’s not directed at Shaun. “It was mostly a joke about how Jared needs to learn boundaries.”

“Like…” Shaun stares at his feet. “Not showing up at your apartment this late at night.” He risks a glance at Neil. “Are you angry?”

Of all the times for Shaun to make extrapolations about things that don’t apply to him. That will never apply to him.

“No, Shaun, I’m not angry. All I meant was that my directive about not calling wasn’t meant for you.”

Shaun now seems as frustrated as Neil himself feels. “How could I know that?”

“You’re right. There’s no way you could have.” Sometimes he thinks he’s doing so much better at communicating with Shaun, and at other times he thinks…that he’s never done worse. “I’m telling you now, okay? Anything serious enough to compel you to come to my place at midnight? That’s serious enough that you should have called me, Shaun.”

“I know,” the younger man admits softly, surprising Neil. “I wanted… I wanted to see you. In person.”

Neil does his best to hide his reaction to that, to how those words warm him from the inside out. “Do you want to tell me about your nightmare?”

Shaun’s clearly reluctant, as evidenced by his short sentences when he replies: “You were dying. I had to save you.” He presses a hand to his forehead. “I couldn’t.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil tells him. “I’ve had dreams like that. They’re not pleasant.” A fair number had shaken him enough, over the years, to keep him up the rest of the night. Usually, he had someone there with him, though. And even if he hadn’t, there were a fair number of people he could contact if he really needed them.

Shaun, though…he’d only had his brother, until he died. And now, the only person he really has is Aaron Glassman. Neil takes a moment to consider exactly how lonely that might be. (As lonely as he finds himself feeling so much of the time, nowadays?)

But it’s not entirely true, either, is it? Because Shaun has him, he just doesn’t realize to what extent.

“It was irrational for me to come here,” Shaun’s saying. “I should not have done so.”

“If coming to see me was the only thing that would make you feel better –”

Shaun cuts him off, getting more upset. “This is the kind of thing that Dr. Glassman says is irrational.”

“It is,” Neil agrees.

Shaun nods, folding his hands in front of himself again. “I’ll leave.”

“No, you won’t.” He’s glad when Shaun makes no move to retrieve his coat because that means he doesn’t have to actually get up and stop him (which he would – there’s no way he’s letting Shaun leave his apartment this late, and certainly not in the middle of a storm). “Shaun…people are irrational. All the time. You know what the distinction is, on whether it’s a problem or not?”

Shaun merely looks at him in question.

“You recognize it. You know it was irrational, but something in you wanted to come here, anyways. I’d only be concerned if you were telling me what you did was completely logical and the best course of action.”

Shaun takes that in and seems to accept it. “I apologize if I’ve bothered you tonight.”

“You haven’t,” Neil assures him. And he’d made a decision, the second he’d seen Shaun at his door: he can’t ignore this anymore. He won’t. If ignoring his own feelings had only hurt Neil himself, then okay, he could deal with that. But this is hurting Shaun now – he’d gotten on a bus and crossed the city to see him because he’d felt he needed to?

He’s still not going to bring up whatever’s between them, but there’s nothing wrong with pressing him a little and seeing if Shaun’s willing to talk.

Again, he gestures for Shaun to join him on the couch. “Please, come sit.”

Shaun hesitates for a moment, but this time he crosses the room and sits down on the other end of the couch, leaving a few feet between them.

“Shaun, why are you here?”

His resident is clearly at a loss. “I told you.”

“I know. You also admitted you were aware you could have ignored my ‘rule’ and called me if you really wanted to reassure yourself I was fine. Instead, you chose to come here.” He stares at Shaun intently. “Why?”

“Because I wanted to see you.”

“Why?” Neil repeats.

“To make sure you were okay.”

Why?”

Shaun’s distress is increasing and he’s holding his hands so tightly together that his knuckles are turning white. Neil thinks he’s going to ignore him, maybe get up and try to leave again, but Shaun just closes his eyes and says, “You don’t feel wrong.”

It’s definitely not the answer Neil’s expecting, and he also has no idea what Shaun means by it. “I don’t feel…wrong?”

“When you touch me,” Shaun explains. He’s opened his eyes and is staring at Neil’s own hands which are folded in his lap. “Everyone feels wrong. Everyone that I’ve ever known, when they touch me, they feel wrong. Even Dr. Glassman, and I love him. I’ve tried to understand why you are not the same. But I can’t.” Neil can barely hear him when Shaun whispers, “Why don’t you feel wrong?”

Neil doesn’t have an answer to that. The only thing he can think to do is turn one of his hands over, palm facing up in silent offer. Shaun looks from his hand to his face several times and Neil holds his breath until –

Shaun tentatively reaches out, inhaling sharply when he places his own hand in Neil’s. They sit frozen for a few seconds and all Neil can do is watch Shaun in this moment of…he thinks it’s almost awe on the younger man’s face, at whatever he feels at the simple point of contact between them. (Or, more accurately, what he doesn’t feel, that ineffable ‘wrongness’ he keeps talking about.)

“Why do you think that I don’t feel wrong?”

Shaun looks at him and Neil can tell that he’s debating if he should admit it. If this is the right time. If Neil will react in a positive way. As reassurance, he runs his thumb over the back of Shaun’s hand which is still in his, and Shaun’s breathing quickens in response.

Neil wants to be the braver one, for the both of them, but he can’t. He’d already promised himself he wouldn’t risk leading Shaun into something he’s not fully prepared for. So Shaun has to say it first, and Neil hopes, with everything he has, that Shaun wants this as much as he does. He hopes that he’ll be able to overcome his own worries and doubts in order to –

“I like you in a way I have never liked anyone,” Shaun admits, and Neil feels everything in him relax.

“How do you like me?” Neil asks, gently. Because even though this is difficult for Shaun (for both of them), he has to know.

“It’s hard to explain,” Shaun says, slowly. “To put it into words.”

“Try,” Neil says, and it’s not an order, it’s simply…a plea. And he can tell from Shaun’s face that he understands as much.

“I like you as a friend. As a boss. A mentor. You feel like family to me.” He frowns, probably considering how that might seem. “Not like a relative,” he clarifies, “but like…you. I like you.” He tightens his hold on Neil’s hand, grasping it for the first time, and repeats, “You don’t feel wrong.”

Neil squeezes his hand in response. “You don’t feel wrong, either, Shaun. You feel…”

“Right,” Shaun whispers, filling in every answer that both of them have been searching for. “You feel right.”

Neil marvels at how much he enjoys hearing Shaun say that to him. And a fear lifts that he wasn’t fully aware he’d been carrying around this entire time – ever since that day in the cafeteria when he’d realized that he wished he was the person Shaun had feelings for. He’d been worried…afraid, really, that nothing would ever come of it. That he’d have to bury his feelings, perhaps permanently, and spend the rest of his life – (his life, is that what this has come to?) – ignoring the way he truly feels.

Shaun moves closer, until there are only a few inches separating him from Neil (and it confirms that Shaun is the braver of them, after all).

Neil hesitates, unsure of what his next move should be. (He has to be so careful, so careful, with Shaun.) “We should talk about –”

Shaun leans forward, then, and kisses him. Neil’s so stunned that he doesn’t move, he doesn’t breathe, he doesn’t even kiss him back.

And apparently that’s the wrong course of action to take, since Shaun jumps up from the couch and starts pacing in front of it. “I’m sorry,” he says, remorse clear in his tone. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Shaun –”

“I shouldn’t have presumed,” Shaun is continuing, increasingly worried, as Neil stands up and approaches him. “I should not have –”

Neil grasps his arm, pulling him in and kissing him, and Shaun’s words abruptly end as the younger man stills in front of him. This time, it’s Shaun who doesn’t kiss him back, but Neil doesn’t mind. All he’d wanted to do was demonstrate to Shaun that what he’d done…it was okay. It is okay.

Neil takes a step back, assuring him, “I’m not upset, Shaun. And you don’t have to apologize. That time I kissed you. That’s how much I don’t mind what you did.”

He knows Shaun probably needs time to process how much their world has changed over the span of only a minute, so he sits back down on the couch to give him space. He can’t deny, though, that his trepidation is increasing the longer Shaun stands there, unmoving, without saying a word. If he’s reconsidering…

The waiting goes on too long and Neil can’t help it; he can’t hide his worry. “What are you…” He almost gets up again, but doesn’t. “What are you thinking?”

Shaun sits down next to him, face as serious as he’s ever been, but then he slowly smiles and Neil wants to wrap it up, contain it, hold it for a time when it’s only the two of them that exist in the world.

“Would you consider trying this with me?” Shaun asks, answering Neil’s question by asking one of his own.

Neil knows what he’s asking, and pulls on Shaun’s hand to urge him closer. “I would. I will.”

Shaun seems to be reconciling Neil’s answer with what he already knows of the world. “You want to be in a romantic relationship with me?” he asks, slightly rephrasing the question, and Neil knows he needs confirmation in those exact words.

“I want to be in a romantic relationship with you,” Neil affirms. Then he admits, “I have for a while.”

“You didn’t say anything.”

“You had to say it first,” Neil explains. “I never wanted you to…follow my lead. Not when it comes to this. You were – you are – too important for me to ever make a mistake with you.”

Shaun’s watching him, just watching him, and he’s not sure if he’s explained himself well enough. But then Shaun slowly nods and says, “I understand.” He looks down at his knees. “I’ve never done this. With anyone.”

“I know.”

He glances back up at Neil. “I have never wanted to do this with anyone.”

“We’ll take things as slow as you want. You set the rules, Shaun. Except for one that I’m making right now.”

“Okay.”

“We talk. About everything. I mean everything. The two of us together are going to face a lot of things that neither of us has ever encountered before. The only way we’ll make it work is if we talk about everything in regards to our relationship. Even if we’re reluctant or don’t want to – if the other person asks, we stay. And we talk.”

“I can do that,” Shaun says, and it sounds like a promise. In answer, Neil reaches over and runs a hand down his arm, noting the way Shaun shivers in response. And he wonders…

“Shaun, you said that I don’t feel wrong to you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you…want me to touch you. So you should tell me now if you’re uncomfortable with that kind of –”

“No!” Shaun exclaims. “No. You may touch me whenever you like. I might not respond in kind. I will have to…get used to that.”

“Don’t do anything for me, Shaun. Because you think I want something. Do whatever you are comfortable with and nothing more. Never anything more.”

“I’m comfortable with you,” Shaun informs him, and then he carefully reaches out to run his fingers over the side of Neil’s face. When he drops his hand, Neil takes it, instead. “I can see, now, why people enjoy kissing each other.”

Neil's confused. “You didn't know?”

“I only kissed Lea before,” Shaun explains, then frowns in obvious dismay. “I did not enjoy it.”

It takes Neil a few seconds to understand. “So when I kissed you…that was your second kiss? And the only one you’ve liked?”

“No, that was my third kiss,” Shaun explains, matter of factly. “I kissed you before that, remember? That was the second. And I liked it.”

Neil’s eyes widen. “You kissing me was the first kiss you liked? When I didn’t even respond?”

“Is that not normal?” Shaun asks.

“Hold on, that’s why you didn’t kiss me back when I kissed you?” Neil asks. “I thought you were just surprised.”

“In movies it looks like people kiss each other back, but…you didn’t. I thought…maybe, in the beginning…they don’t?” Shaun shrugs and Neil’s absolutely charmed by the misunderstanding.

In response, Neil pulls him forward, whispering, “Kiss me back this time,” against Shaun’s mouth before he actually kisses him. And he makes sure to kiss him as thoroughly as he’s ever kissed anyone, and Shaun…Shaun is a fast learner (though he’d expect nothing less from Shaun Murphy).

By the time he finally leans back, they’re both a little breathless, and Neil takes that as a good sign. (Hopefully.) “Was that better?”

“Maybe,” Shaun allows, as Neil frowns at him. “I don’t have much to compare it to,” he explains, evenly, and Neil suddenly hears the smile he knows Shaun’s repressing. “I think you’ll have to do it a lot more.”

“A lot more, huh?” He’s laughing at the joke and already thinking of how to return it. “That can probably be arranged.”

“Probably?”

“I mean, I’m pretty busy,” Neil tells him, lightly. “I’ll try to make room in my sched–”

That time, Shaun kisses him, and Neil thinks if this is any indication of what a relationship with Shaun Murphy is going to be like, then he’s going to be in love by next week.

(That is…if he’s not already.)

Chapter Text

“How’s your afternoon going, Neil?”

He glances up from his tablet in time to see Jessica take the seat across from him at his lunch table. Without an invitation. (It seems people are making that a habit, as of late.)

“Afternoon, Jess. It’s…going.”

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Same thing as every day. Having a quiet lunch.” Or rather, he had been, until now.

She doesn’t respond to the implicit criticism, and she’s smiling at him in the way that means she’s pleased about something, but doesn’t want to say what it is just yet.

“How are you?” he asks, politely.

“Good. Really good.”

He nods in acknowledgement, and despite what he’d said, he’d finished lunch about ten minutes earlier and hadn’t felt like going back upstairs. When she continues to smile at him without speaking, he returns to his tablet. Unfortunately, his mind isn’t on work anymore. He reads the same paragraph of an email six times before giving up. “What is it, Jess?”

She takes a leisurely sip of her coffee, looks at him for a long stretch, then says, “Nothing.”

“You sat down to stare at me. And talk about nothing.”

“Maybe I simply enjoy your company.” She crosses her legs, spinning her coffee cup around on the table. “Orrr…maybe I didn’t want to sit with strangers.”

He narrows his eyes at her, then makes an exaggerated show of looking around the cafeteria, at the dozen or more empty tables within plain view. “I’m going to make a sign. It will say: ‘Table reserved only for Neil Melendez’.”

“I hope you remember to put an asterisk on there.” At his silent question, she whispers, behind her hand, “And Shaun Murphy.”

Of course. (He really, really, should have known.)

“Or, wait, you probably wouldn’t need one,” she’s continuing, as if it’s just occurring to her. “Not when everyone already knows it’s true.”

He looks back down at his tablet, but he’s smiling when he says, “I only wanted a peaceful lunch.” His lament is over-dramatic on purpose. “I don’t know why people always bother me.”

“Please. If you wanted a peaceful lunch you’d lock yourself in your office.”

“I do!” he exclaims. “But then they text and call and email – eventually, I decided to give up.”

“At least in the cafeteria you can enjoy the view,” she points out.

He glances out the windows, at the unremarkable array of trees and walkways leading away from their hospital. “I guess?”

“Not that view. The view behind me. Specifically, at a table some…fifty feet away, over my right shoulder.”

He automatically switches his eyes over to the table where Aaron and Shaun are eating. He can’t realistically deny it (but he’ll still try, anyways). “Hey,” he says defensively, “they sat down after I did.”

“What a crazy coincidence they’d pick the same table they almost always choose unless it’s occupied. Because it’s Shaun’s favorite.”

“Is it?” he asks, like he hadn’t known.

“He explained it to me once. Something about optimal room placement? I’m not entirely sure.”

“It’s because the sun is –” He stops upon seeing her smile again.

She picks up her coffee, but doesn’t drink it as she stares at the lid. And her smile fades when she glances back at Neil. “You’re worried about him.”

“I…” He doesn’t have the heart to deny it. (It doesn’t feel right to deny it. Not anymore.)

“It’s okay, Neil.” She sets her cup down and moves her chair forward a little. “You care about all your residents. It’s one of the reasons I…”

“What?”

She seems slightly embarrassed. “That I loved you. Or…still love you. Not the way I used to, but I still care about you. Is that strange to admit?”

“No,” he says, on an exhale. “I love you, too. Just…not the same.” At her nod of agreement, he adds, “I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that will ever fully go away. For some people, maybe. But not us.”

“I think it’s why I could see…” She’s playing with the lid of her coffee cup.

He knows where she’s going with this. “It’s why you could see how I felt about Shaun before I did.” (Or, at the very least, before he could admit it to himself.) “How?”

“I just…I saw the difference in you. It’s not like it was easy for me to witness it, either. It was hard to accept, to realize that you had never felt that type of happiness with me. That we hadn’t been able to feel it with each other. But then I realized…it doesn’t matter. We weren’t it for each other, Neil. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be.” She looks at him, and in that moment, it feels like she can see right through him. “It’s not like we get to choose, Neil. You love who you love.”

At her simple statement, he finds his eyes back on Shaun. “Isn’t that the truth,” he murmurs. (Neither of them have said the words, but it’s absolutely true for him. And he’d like to think it’s true for Shaun, but Neil purposely hasn’t brought up the subject yet.) He returns his gaze to Jessica. “So, you know. That we’re together.”

“I know,” she confirms.

“I’m surprised you’re only mentioning it now, when we’ve been together for a month.” It wasn’t like they’d announced it, but they haven’t tried to keep it a secret, either. Neil’s been pretty reserved about things at work, though. And Shaun himself rarely initiates any contact there, even professionally – with anyone. So he’s followed Shaun’s lead, for the most part.

“I wasn’t certain,” she admits, laughing, “because honestly, you're as overly fond of him as ever. In that respect, not much has changed. So you can’t really blame me.”

“A couple months ago, when you were trying to…hint at it – why didn’t you outright ask me?”

“Alright then,” she plays along. “Why don’t you imagine how that would have gone? And be honest, Neil.”

He tries to hide his wince. “Probably not that well?”

“You would have denied it out of reflex. And then you would have gone overboard trying to prove to yourself that I was wrong. And there’s a decent chance you might have accidentally hurt Shaun in the process before you came around.”

He wants to say she’s way off base. Like she can’t even see the field anymore off base. But…he actually could picture it happening that way.

“It’s a risky thing,” she’s reminding him. “Telling people truths they aren’t ready to hear.”

He catches Shaun glancing in his direction, more than he usually does if they’re having lunch in the same room, but not together. He wonders if Jessica is the reason for it, or if Aaron is bringing up things Shaun would rather not discuss.

“Tell me,” she requests, “are you here as silent support for Shaun, or as a silent…reminder for Aaron?”

“I’m only here to eat my lunch,” he says mildly.

“Both, then.” She takes a sip of coffee in a poor attempt at hiding her smile. “And you’re finished eating.”

“Maybe I’ll want more. Eventually.”

“Save it for someone more gullible than me.” She tips her head slightly back and to the right, towards Shaun and Aaron’s table. “How are things with them? I tried asking Aaron, but it’s a topic he wants nothing to do with.”

“He’s coming around. A little. According to Shaun, he doesn’t make the kinds of comments he used to before we got together. And he mostly just avoids me. We know he still…disapproves.”

“He’ll get there, Neil. He simply needs to see it. And…I think that’s starting already.”

“His approval doesn’t matter to me when it comes to this.”

“Yes, it does,” she counters, and her words are so gentle that it almost hurts. “Because it matters to Shaun.”

He presses a hand to his head, feeling the beginning of a headache coming on. “It matters to Shaun,” he agrees, quietly. Which, obviously, means it matters to Neil by default.

“Aaron will get there,” she repeats. Her voice lightens when she suggests, “We’ll all work on him, if you want. You obviously know that Everett and Shaun are friendlier now, so I bet Everett would be more than happy to talk to Aaron –”

“I can think of nothing that would be less helpful, thanks.”

A quick smile flashes across her face at his joke. “I’m happy for you, Neil. Both of you.”

“I know you are,” he tells her. “And…thank you, Jess.”

She nods at that, then checks her phone, seeming surprised. “It’s after one, already? I had a meeting with Everett that was supposed to start ten minutes ago.”

“That means you have at least another half hour before he arrives at your office. But you should get going. Don’t want to take the risk that he’ll come looking for you.”

“Why not?”

“Because then he’ll find me.”

She grins at him as she stands up, then hesitates for the briefest of moments before leaning down and kissing his cheek. “See ya, Neil.”

He bids her goodbye, smiling to himself as she walks away.

He’s only just picked up his tablet again, intent on finally understanding this email that he’s read half a dozen times already (though it’s from Marcus, so he could probably safely delete it without comprehending it), and that’s when Shaun arrives at his table.

“Hello, Dr. Melendez,” he greets, sitting down as he says it. Neil looks over at the table where Shaun had eaten lunch with Aaron, entirely unsurprised to find that the older man has already left the room.

“Hi, Shaun,” he says warmly. He doesn’t bother reminding him that it’s fine to call him Neil. Shaun never has within the walls of the hospital, not even when no one else is around. “How was your lunch with Dr. Glassman?”

“It was fine. He didn’t make any comments about you.”

“That’s not what – I wasn’t asking about that, Shaun. Nor would you have to tell me if he did.”

“Yes. I would.”

“Only if you wanted to,” Neil insists. “I would never ask you to tell me anything you and Aaron spoke about in confidence.”

“I know,” Shaun says, easily. “I saw you talking to Jessica.”

“Yeah, you know Jess and her…fondness for regular check-ins.”

“I do not.”

“Just my luck, then, I suppose.”

Shaun’s looking around the room, not at him. “You two seem to be getting along better. Since your break-up.”

Neil considers that. “We are. I think we’re in the best place we’ve been since then, actually.”

“Oh. Do you still –” He stops, then starts again. “Do you regret that things did not work out?”

“Dr. Murphy.” Neil’s trying really hard not to smile. (He’s getting pretty good at reading between the lines of Shaun Murphy.) “Are you jealous?”

“I am not!” Shaun lies. “I’m…curious.”

“I don’t regret anything about what happened with Jessica. That is the past. She’s very happy in her new relationship. And I…” He wants to reach over and take Shaun’s hand, but suppresses the urge (and besides, Shaun is too far away). “I am happy with you.”

“Good,” Shaun says, which sums up Neil’s thoughts on the matter pretty well, too. “Dr. Reznick asked me about us.”

“Really now? What did she want to know?”

“If we were in a relationship.”

“What did you say?”

“I told her she has an unhealthy interest in other people’s personal lives.”

“I’m sure she loved that.”

“She…did not.”

Neil can only laugh as he tries to picture her reaction. Morgan doesn’t annoy him half as much as she used to, mainly because she’s matured significantly since starting at Saint Bonaventure. Luckily for her, that progression had occurred around the time he’d been planning to go to Marcus to get her transferred off his team.

“She suspects,” Shaun is continuing. “I didn’t know if you…”

“If I what?”

Shaun’s not looking at him again. “Wanted other people to know.”

Something in those words gives Neil significant pause. “We haven’t discussed this, but…do you mind if other people know?” At Shaun’s confusion, he explains, “Because you don’t want anyone to think I’m showing you favoritism, or affording you certain privileges because of our relationship. Or…simply because you don’t want others knowing our personal business.”

From Shaun’s face, he can tell that he’s never considered any of those things, never mind found them important. And it’s confirmed when he says, unusually quiet, “I don’t care if everyone knows.” He turns his eyes to the top of the table, running his hand over it.

“Shaun –”

“Today, Jessica kissed you goodbye where anyone could see,” he says, suddenly. “You were always affectionate with each other where anyone could see.” His hand stills and Neil almost can’t hear him when he adds, “With me…you are not.”

Neil feels his heart sink, realizing that Shaun has interpreted his reservation around him as indication that Neil doesn’t want anyone to know they’re in a relationship. And he knows it’s not enough just to tell him that he’s mistaken. (Not when Shaun might have thought he was ever anything close to ashamed.)

He gets up from his chair and Shaun jerks his head up to look at him, issuing a surprised (and dismayed), “You’re leaving?”

Neil feels his heart twist again as he considers all the times that people have simply walked away from Shaun. (To the point that he considers it their default choice, now.)

“One of these days,” Neil says, as he moves to take the seat adjacent to Shaun, “I’m going to convince you that I’m not like most of the people you’ve known in your life. The ones who have left you or hurt you or let you down.” He stares at Shaun intently. “You have deserved so much better.”

Shaun frowns a little at that, and Neil can see the emotions warring in him before curiosity wins out. “Why did you change seats?”

Instead of answering, Neil reaches over to place his hand on top of Shaun’s hands, which are folded in front of him. It takes an interminable ten seconds for Shaun to give in and take Neil’s hand in both of his. He grips it with unusual strength, which tells Neil exactly how much Shaun has needed this.

“I’ve kept myself in check around you, Shaun. Because it’s only been a month, and because I wasn’t sure if you would welcome any gestures like this in front of others. It was absolutely not because I wanted to keep this a secret. I don’t care who knows about us – it could be everyone, or no one, but it doesn’t change anything about what I feel for you.”

Shaun takes a moment to stare at their hands together before affirming, “It does not change anything for me, either.”

Neil quietly sighs, relieved that they’re on the same page when it comes to this. His tablet chimes, indicating a new email, and he has the uncanny feeling it’s Marcus resending the one he’d been attempting to read all day.

He thinks about letting go of Shaun, but…he doesn’t want to. And Shaun doesn’t seem inclined to let him go, either. So he lets them stay as they are and reaches over with his free hand to retrieve his tablet, and the moment he turns the screen on –

“Dr. Melendez!” Jared announces, from three feet away, and that’s when Neil really does consider having a sign made for his table…though it probably wouldn’t dissuade any of them. (At all.) “I’m glad I caught you,” Jared’s saying. “I wanted to talk to you about –” He abruptly stops talking, and Neil can only guess that he’s noticed that he and Shaun are, for all intents and purposes, holding hands.

“About what?” Neil prompts, without looking up from the email he’s trying to focus on.

“About – uh…” Jared seems at a genuine loss, like the topic has completely vanished from his mind (and it probably has). “I’m sorry, sir, but are you aware that…that you are…”

“That I’m what?” He glances up at Jared, wondering if his resident will be brave enough to say it.

Jared tries to gesture towards where he’s staring, but his hands are full holding his lunch tray.

“What’s that, Kalu?” Neil asks, innocently.

“You and Shaun are – are –”

Neil makes a show of glancing over at their hands, then feigns shock. “Oh no, Murphy! It seems like we’re accidentally holding hands again. How strange.”

In response, Shaun grasps his hand tighter for a moment, then says to Jared, “We are in a relationship.” He pauses, perhaps considering Neil’s previous words. “We did not start it by accident.”

“How would you start a relationship by accident?” Jared asks, then quickly shakes his head. “Never mind, if anyone could manage it, it would be you two.” He sets his tray on their table.

“Did I invite you to sit down?” Neil asks, not out of any annoyance (okay, not much annoyance), but mostly to give Jared a hard time after his flustered reaction to finding out about him and Shaun.

Jared freezes right as he’s about to take the chair Neil had been occupying a mere five minutes earlier. “Uh…sir?”

Neil just looks at him.

“Shaun’s here,” Jared protests. “How come he gets to sit down and I don’t?”

“It’s not like he asked me, either,” Neil points out, sending Jared an unwavering look. “He just did it. Take some initiative like him, Dr. Kalu.”

“Alright,” Jared says, as he goes to sit again. However, he can’t help himself, and stops at the last second to send Neil yet another questioning glance in order to make sure it’s actually okay.

Neil inwardly rolls his eyes and motions for him to sit, and that’s when Shaun starts taking advantage of their newfound contact by running his fingers over the edge of Neil’s hand. Neil turns back to him, unable to suppress his smile of (probably over-the-top) affection.

“I thought there might be something going on,” Jared confesses, “but I wasn’t sure. And I can see you don’t mind if everyone knows.”

“Dr. Melendez has become much more affectionate,” Shaun declares, in agreement, “since we started sleeping together.”

Jared starts choking and Neil turns to him in actual alarm, wondering if he’ll have to do the Heimlich to save him, before registering the open bottle of water in his hand. The fear quickly leaves him upon realizing he’s only inhaled his drink, and he kicks Jared’s chair out of sudden relief. “Pull yourself together, Kalu.”

“Sorry, I just…” He’s staring at Shaun like he’s never seen him before. “I wasn’t expecting to hear it in…quite those terms.”

“‘Sleeping together’ is a euphemism, by the way,” Shaun informs Jared. “It does not always mean sleeping. Often, it means –”

“He gets it, Shaun,” Neil interrupts, grateful when Jared doesn’t start choking again.

“How did this happen?” Jared is strangely delighted as he motions between them with his fork. “I want every detail.”

Why?” Neil asks.

“Are you kidding!” Jared protests. “Why would I not?”

Neil recognizes that’s not actually an answer, in any way, but he lets it go.

“Dr. Melendez does not wish to discuss this with us,” Shaun announces, reading him perfectly.

“We’ll talk later,” Jared says in a stage whisper. “When Melendez isn’t around.”

“Do you two want some time alone?” Neil’s question is mostly sarcastic.

“If you’re offering,” Jared says, highly amused.

“Actually, yes,” Shaun agrees.

Far be it from Neil to ever pass up an opportunity to escape. “Then I’ll happily leave you two,” he says, as he stands. Shaun doesn’t immediately relinquish his hand, and when Neil looks at him, he understands the silent question his resident is asking.

He leans down to brush a kiss to Shaun’s temple, and while he’s there, he whispers, “You can talk to him about our relationship.” He pulls away a little to add, “I don’t mind. I will never mind.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, and with one last squeeze of Neil’s hand, he finally lets go.

Neil leaves them to talk about whatever they wish to discuss in his absence.

And he wonders, for the rest of the day, if his resident loves him as much as he loves his resident.

XXXXXX

In the end, Neil only manages to wait two more weeks before he says it.

He’s in his office, finalizing a few things before he leaves for the night. Shaun had wandered in about ten minutes earlier, settling himself on the couch to wait for him to finish so they can go to dinner. They’ve spent most of their free nights together for this past month and a half. And Neil knows it’s too early to feel as much as he does. (But how can it be helped when he’d cared for Shaun long before they were together?)

Somehow, it feels like he’s been with Shaun forever, while also feeling like it’ll never be long enough.

He’s been pretty open with his affection – and moreso the more Shaun accepts and returns it – but he’s been careful not to speak about the depth of his emotions yet. He doesn’t want to push Shaun past any limits he might have, emotional or otherwise. Nor does he want Shaun to feel like he has to reciprocate what Neil feels in the same way, because that isn’t fair to him. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone, let alone someone who’s never been in a relationship like this before.

It’s getting harder, though. Not to say it.

Shaun’s happily chattering on about Glassman’s latest round of tests, how he’s still in remission, how it’s looking more and more like he’s going to beat this thing. There’s immense joy in him that the younger man doesn’t openly admit to, but which Neil sees all over him. Neil doesn’t know if he’s ever seen Shaun this way, his obvious relief overriding everything else in his world, at this moment in time.

It carries over, too. Shaun finishes filling him in on Glassman and then moves on to the routine recitation of the progress of their patients from the day, but that earlier happiness is still evident in him. Neil wishes Shaun could experience that more; wishes he could feel that unencumbered all day, every day. He wants the world for Shaun, in a way he never has for anyone else, and it overwhelms him. To the point that he can’t not say it anymore.

And that’s why he interrupts Shaun mid-sentence to say, “I love you.”

Shaun pauses for a few seconds before he says, “Okay,” matter of factly, and then he continues on with his original topic without missing a step.

Well…okay then. No, he hadn’t expected Shaun to say it back, but he’d expected some reaction. Any reaction. And the fact that he hadn’t gotten one is concerning to Neil. Like maybe Shaun didn’t fully register it.

Or…maybe he doesn’t consider it all that important.

The second Neil realizes what he’s feeling, he switches his focus back to his laptop, trying to drive those thoughts away by finishing the last of his emails for the night.

It doesn’t work, though. He can’t focus for the life of him. Shaun’s still talking about patients. And Neil can’t help thinking that they’d be living the exact same moment in time if he hadn’t told Shaun he loved him.

Does Shaun even care that he does?

He’d already known it was a possibility that Shaun might not feel as much for him as he feels for Shaun. That’s perfectly fine. But he has to admit that he’d thought they were at least in a similar place. Now, he wonders…what if they’re not?

What if Shaun never is?

He glances back up at Shaun, who’s still talking, like he doesn’t notice anything amiss. And the scene in front of Neil changes; he no longer sees Shaun on the couch across the room, but Aaron at his desk in front of him. The older man’s abject fear and confusion and dismay at hearing from Neil that he was open to pursuing a relationship with Shaun.

Aaron’s voice replays in his mind, hurt and angry and lost: You will break him.

There’s a searing moment of realization, a truth crystallizing before Neil that neither he nor Aaron had fully understood. Because Aaron was right. He was right.

He’d just had the people switched around.

Neil was never in danger of breaking Shaun. He still believes that, fully, and nothing will ever change his mind. But it’s in that moment that he knows Shaun is very much in danger of breaking him. And the worst of it is, Shaun wouldn’t even know he was doing it.

It hits Neil, for the first time, that Shaun might never love him the way that he loves Shaun. He might…never love him at all. He knows Shaun cares about him a lot – Aaron had told him as much. He’s seen as much. But just because Shaun has feelings for him and wants to be in a relationship with him, that doesn’t mean it might ever lead to the same types of feelings Neil has, the kind that speak to a future of…forever.

The thought is sobering. And it scares him. This thing, with Shaun, it scares him because Neil had been so preoccupied with the fact that he would never want to walk away that he hadn’t realistically confronted the fact that Shaun is equally capable of leaving, or that he might eventually want to. One day, Shaun might be the one to wake up and think he’s done, and what would Neil do then?

He doesn’t know how his carefree evening turned into this…this nightmare, but he knows he doesn’t like it.

“You have not spoken in three and a half minutes,” Shaun announces. There’s a thread of concern woven within those words, and Neil remembers that Shaun’s getting as good at reading him as he is at reading Shaun.

“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” Neil insists, because that isn’t a lie. Shaun shouldn’t have to worry about Neil’s sudden emotional turmoil. And besides, it’s still too soon to think about any of this. Shaun might well come to love him down the road, and all of Neil’s anxiety will have meant nothing. And if Shaun never does…well, that’s something to deal with when the time comes.

“It’s not nothing,” Shaun says astutely.

“It’s…I’m thinking about things that I shouldn’t be,” he tries to explain, without letting on how much his thoughts have shaken him. He never wants Shaun to feel obligated to tell him anything – and especially not that he loves him – because he thinks it will make Neil happy.

“What should you not be thinking about?” Shaun persists.

“Forget it,” Neil tells him, motioning to his laptop. “I’m almost done here and then we can go.”

It’s the wrong tactic, he sees it the moment Shaun tenses and then gets to his feet to walk closer to the desk.

“You try to protect me.”

Neil isn’t following the change in subject. “Because I care about you.”

“You need to stop.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop trying to protect you.”

Shaun’s shaking his head, frustrated. “I don’t mean out there.” He motions to the door. “I mean in here. You need to stop. We will never work if you don’t –”

“I can’t,” Neil repeats. “There are certain things we have to accept about each other, and I can’t just –”

“You need to stop,” Shaun repeats, voice rising with his frustration. “You need to –”

“I can’t stop!” Neil exclaims. “I don’t know how!”

“You need to stop protecting me from you!” Shaun yells, stunning Neil into ceasing his protests. Shaun presses his hands to the back of one of the chairs and says, helplessly, “We will never work if you don’t stop. I do not need to be protected from you.” Shaun takes another breath and instead of anger in his next statement, it’s more of a plea than Neil’s ever heard from him before: “I do not want to be protected from you.”

Neil swallows and looks away, all the fight leaving him as he finally understands what Shaun’s been trying to say. The earnestness of Shaun’s words, the sincerity of them…Neil knows he’s been going about things the wrong way. (No matter how hard Neil tries, sometimes there are things he just can’t get right.)

“Alright, you want to know?” Neil starts shutting down his laptop as if it’s the most crucial task he’s ever performed. “You didn’t say anything.” He realizes too late that’s not enough context. “I said I loved you and you didn’t say anything.”

Shaun paces to the couch, then turns and comes back to the desk. He stands there, unmoving, for maybe fifteen seconds before he counters, “That is not true. I said ‘okay’.”

Neil puts his head in his hands, telling himself it’s because he’s tired, and not because he can’t look at Shaun right then. “Fine, you technically said something,” he concedes, “but I was expecting…more. Not for you to say it back, not even for you to feel it. But some kind of reaction. Some…acknowledgement. Something to let me know that it matters to you.”

“It matters to me,” Shaun says, solemnly.

Neil breathes a sigh of relief as he looks up at him. “Okay. Good.”

There’s a minute of silence, wherein Neil thinks Shaun has dropped the subject, but then his resident speaks again: “My response bothered you.” It’s not a question.

“Yes, it did,” Neil admits. “I didn’t want it to, but it did.”

“There is more,” Shaun says. “You wanted me to say it back.”

“I hoped you would,” Neil corrects. “There’s a difference.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Neil wants to argue the point further, but maybe he’s the one lying to himself. And he doesn’t want to turn that into lying to Shaun. Not if he can help it. “Look, Shaun, I know things happen in their own time. It’s not your fault if you don’t feel…the same as I do. You’re not obligated to feel anything for me, or for anyone; no one is. That is why I didn’t want to talk about this – it didn’t seem like anything productive would come of it.”

“You are acting irrationally,” Shaun points out.

“Very much so,” Neil agrees. “It’s not rational for me to have this kind of response. Not this soon. Not when we’ve never discussed what we’re doing in any kind of serious terms. I know this doesn’t make any logical sense. How can I be upset that you don’t feel a certain way, when…I don’t expect you to feel that way?”

“You are allowed.”

Shaun could really be referring to anything, there. “Allowed to…what?”

“To act irrationally,” Shaun explains, as Neil starts to remember where he’s heard this before. “People are irrational. All the time.”

“Yes, they are. We are.” He laughs a little at the memory of telling Shaun that exact thing, not even two months earlier. “However, I’ve always considered myself more rational than most. That’s why this… Why being upset about this threw me so much.”

“You should have told me before I asked,” Shaun says, and he sounds disappointed. “I needed to know.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right. I just…” He watches Shaun take one of the chairs across from his desk. “I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize this. It means too much to me. You mean too much to me.” He laughs again, at himself this time. “Obviously, right? Because I love you.”

“You need to hear things as much as I do,” Shaun tells him. Then he says, mostly to himself, “I did not realize that.”

“Yeah, we can’t read each other’s minds.” He puts his head back in his hands, this time to press his fingers to his temples. “We actually work so well together that I forget that, sometimes.”

There’s silence for a few minutes and Neil figures that despite not wanting to push Shaun on anything, he’d somehow gone and done it anyways. He wishes he could rewind the entire conversation and do it again. The right way this time. (He’s not entirely certain what the right way looks like, but it’d have to be better than this.)

“I have determined that you are wrong,” Shaun announces, startling him. (Neil had really thought they were done with the conversation this time.)

“Wrong about what?” Neil asks warily.

“The problem here.” Shaun is tapping his fingers together, seemingly lost in thought.

“Are you going to enlighten me?”

“The problem is not how I reacted when you said you loved me,” Shaun informs him. “It is that you believe I don’t love you.”

Neil reminds himself to be careful with where this might be going. “You don’t have to say anything just for me, Shaun. It’s okay if you don’t love me. No matter what my reaction might be.”

It’s like Shaun doesn’t even hear him. “I thought you knew,” he says, and Neil tries to follow along with the threads of the conversation as they must be unfolding in Shaun’s mind. Is he saying…

“You thought I knew what?” Neil asks, slowly.

“I thought you knew I loved you.”

Neil freezes, not just at what he’s saying, but at the fact that Shaun’s being this open about his feelings at all without Neil having prompted the issue. (Hell, he thinks he’s heard Shaun tell Glassman he loved him maybe three times in the past year, and it was because the man was on the verge of dying.)

Shaun takes the opportunity of his surprise to circle the desk; he kneels next to Neil’s chair as Neil automatically turns to face him.

“Shaun –”

“I loved you before we were together,” Shaun interrupts. “I thought you knew. Because I knew you loved me.”

“You knew?”

“I could tell. It’s obvious.”

“It is?” He’s aware that he keeps repeating Shaun’s words back to him in question form, but Neil’s also not used to feeling this lost.

Shaun extends a hand, then hesitates, and Neil remembers how hard it is for Shaun to reach out to him, especially when he can’t read the situation well enough to be sure if it will be welcome. (He still hasn’t learned, yet, that it will never be unwelcome.) In response to his uncertainty, Neil meets him halfway, taking Shaun’s hand and threading their fingers together. Shaun shuts his eyes for a brief moment at the contact.

“You tell me all the time. Just not with words.” Shaun’s staring at their hands, and Neil guesses he’s thinking of some of those times. Then he comes back to reality, comes back to Neil, and adds, “Until now.”

“So when I said it, earlier…”

“I thought you were stating the obvious,” Shaun fills in. “Because it is obvious to me.”

Shaun’s explanation has filled Neil with a sudden, radiating warmth. “I’m glad that you could tell…that you have felt how much I love you.”

“In this, we are not the same,” Shaun informs him. “You need to hear it.” He gathers himself, then says solemnly, “I love you.”

Neil can only stare at him, taking in the absolute sincerity of that. He hears it in Shaun’s voice, sees it on his face.

“I love you,” Shaun repeats, gripping his hand tighter. And he sounds worried now, probably since Neil hasn’t responded. “I love you I love you I love –”

Neil kisses him, trying his best to soothe the younger man’s anxiety and worry. He tries his best to tell him that he loves him, too. Shaun already knows, but he needs to feel it. And when Shaun stills under his hands, relaxing in a way that’s exceedingly rare, Neil knows that he’s done something right. (This, what he has with Shaun…it’s right.)

“I believe you,” Neil breathes, when they pull apart. “You don’t have to try and convince me. And I’m sorry, Shaun, about my overreaction. If I made you uncom–”

“You are allowed to need things,” Shaun interrupts, frowning at him. Then he repeats, from earlier, “This is the kind of thing you have to tell me.”

“You’re right.” He knows he’s probably apologizing too much, but he can’t help himself. “I’m sorry that –”

I am sorry,” Shaun cuts him off. “That I did not say it back.” His voice falls when he adds, somewhat subdued, “I know I am not as…good at showing it. As you are.”

No, no, no. This cannot go down the road of Shaun mistakenly thinking this is some type of criticism that Neil has of him. That he’s somehow inadequate or lacking in any way –

“I will try to be better,” Shaun’s saying, increasing apprehension in his voice. “You could tell me what you want me to –”

Neil cuts him off by placing his free hand around the back of Shaun’s neck. “This…my insecurity over this? It had nothing to do with you.”

“It had something to do with me,” Shaun protests, smartly.

“Alright, in a way,” Neil concedes. “But my feelings were all about me, Shaun. Not you. I’ve told you countless times that I don’t want you to do anything for me.”

Shaun’s clearly unhappy with that directive. “You do things to make me happy,” he points out. “People in relationships do things to make their partners happy.”

“I see that I haven’t been clear enough,” Neil says. “Never do anything for me that you don’t want to do. Because if you do or say something to make me happy, and you don’t truly want it, then it would make me the exact opposite of happy.” He pulls Shaun a little closer. “Do you understand?”

Shaun contemplates that, then nods. “I do. I feel the same.”

Neil drops his hand from Shaun’s neck so that the younger man can reclaim some personal space if he needs to. But Shaun doesn’t move away, and he hasn’t let go of Neil’s other hand yet, either.

He searches Shaun’s face, remembering his (correct) insistence on needing to know things. And he hears Shaun’s plea again: I do not want to be protected from you. Which means there’s something else Neil has to tell him, isn’t there?

“Shaun,” Neil begins, slowly, “my reaction wasn’t only because I didn’t know if you felt the same… I was also worried that, maybe…” Why is this so hard to say? “Maybe you aren’t in this as much as I am. Things could change, down the road. You might eventually want to end –”

“No,” Shaun says, sharply. He grips Neil’s hand so tightly that it hurts. “I am in this. With you.”

“I thought you were,” Neil admits. “But I realized, I could never know for sure unless…”

“We talked,” Shaun finishes, and he sounds disapproving again. Neil gets it this time – he’d been the one to insist on that rule about talking, but when it came to their first serious issue, he’d pulled away, decided not to talk, without even thinking twice about it. Because his first thought had been to protect Shaun (who’d rightfully pointed out that he didn’t need protecting, at all).

“Thank you for calling me on it,” Neil tells him. “Calling me on…not wanting to talk.”

“I never mind telling you when you are wrong,” Shaun says lightly, and Neil laughs, unable to stop himself from leaning forward to kiss him again. Shaun easily returns it, but his expression is serious when Neil pulls away.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know if we feel the same,” Shaun admits, and Neil forces himself not to react to those words, to where his mind automatically goes when he hears them.

“How so?” he asks carefully.

“I have never loved someone in a romantic way before you. I don’t know if this is what other people feel. It might be different than others. Than you.”

Neil relaxes at that. “It probably is different than me,” he says. “I think everyone loves in their own slightly different ways. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I feel like I want to be with you. Always.” Shaun hesitates, and at Neil’s nod of encouragement, he adds, “It also makes me feel worried. And nervous. And…scared.”

“Of…me?”

“Never of you,” Shaun corrects. “Of not having you.”

“That all sounds pretty much like love to me,” Neil tells him. “At least, as I’ve ever known it.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, matter of factly, as he rocks back on his heels. “Then we are in love.”

Neil leans back himself at the stunningly easy way Shaun says that. And…it’s not untrue. Not to Neil. (And apparently not to Shaun.)

“We are,” he agrees, as Shaun kisses him briefly, in apparent confirmation. “And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend all night here.”

Shaun nods, probably in agreement, and gets up to return to the couch. Neil watches him check his backpack to make sure he has everything he needs before leaving.

“This is moving much faster than I thought it would,” he tells Shaun. “Are you sure that you’re okay with everything so far?”

“I would not be here if I were not okay,” Shaun says, without turning around.

“Alright. Just checking.” Neil starts putting his own things together. “It’s easy, sometimes, for things to get away from us before we realize it, so –”

Shaun abruptly faces him. “I am okay because it’s you.”

Neil pauses for a second. “What?”

“Because it is you here with me,” Shaun says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I would not be okay with anyone else. The pace does not matter to me. What matters is that it’s you.”

Neil’s heart constricts at the honest truth of that. He’s starting to realize exactly how much he means to Shaun, and he’s wondering how he ever could have doubted it. He rounds his desk, then makes the split second decision to cross the room and kiss Shaun for no other reason than because, in that moment, it’s all he wants.

When they break apart, Shaun quietly asks, “Is it too fast for you?” It takes Neil a second to realize he’s returning his question from before, and maybe he figures that Neil’s asking had been a roundabout way of implying that it is.

“No. I’m fine with this, Shaun – as long as I have you, then it’s fine. I don’t see any point in following some arbitrary guidelines for relationships. We’ll do what we want.”

“What we want,” Shaun echoes, words laced with his agreement.

“So…what do you want?” Neil asks, half-teasing.

“You,” Shaun says, easily enough that it takes Neil’s breath away. “And dinner. I am hungry.”

“It almost sounds like you want dinner more than me,” Neil says, archly.

“Right now I do,” Shaun informs him. “Like I said, I’m hungry.”

Neil keeps his expression neutral as he gathers his things and follows Shaun out of his office. “You wouldn’t pick me over getting dinner?”

Shaun adjusts his backpack, eyeing Neil. “Is that a…relationship thing?”

“Yes,” Neil answers, deadpan.

Shaun seems a little suspicious. (It hasn’t even been two months and he’s starting to catch on.) “I…don’t believe you.” They’ve reached the elevator and he hits the button.

“For good reason,” Neil says, finally letting his smile through.

Shaun huffs in exasperation, but there’s a light in his eyes that reveals he doesn’t mind. (He never minds when it’s Neil doing the teasing.) “I knew you were kidding.”

“And you’re in luck, Shaun,” he adds, nudging his arm. “You can have both me and dinner.”

“I think you should take me somewhere expensive.”

“Since when do you care about money?” Neil asks, curiously.

“Claire told me that’s what people do,” Shaun explains, as the elevator arrives and they step inside. “When you owe someone. You take them out. Preferably somewhere expensive.”

Neil can definitely hear that those words are Claire’s, and not Shaun’s. “I owe you?” he prompts (even as he’s wondering what else Claire might have been ‘teaching’ Shaun lately).

“Yes,” Shaun confirms.

“For…?”

“For putting up with you,” Shaun says, succinctly.

The elevator doors close on Neil’s laughter.

Chapter Text

Neil’s only half-paying attention to Jared’s latest issue – how is he supposed to know why emails won’t forward to his resident’s phone anymore? He’s about to remind Jared, again, the difference between a ‘go to IT’ problem and a ‘go to Melendez’ problem, but that’s when he spots James Nolan entering a nearby breakroom.

His thoughts are immediately drawn to the week before, when he’d intervened in an argument in the ER between Nolan and Shaun. He’d known Nolan wasn’t a fan of Shaun, long before then, because the two of them have had several run-ins before. Neil had made a concerted effort to not get involved; he and Shaun have been together for a little over two months now, and he thinks most people have figured it out – as such, he doesn’t want to give anyone the impression that Shaun either needs him to fight his battles for him, or purposely sends him off to do so. And in all honesty, things had seemed to be getting better – at least until the incident last week, which seems to have reignited Nolan’s problem with Shaun.

Now, Neil’s been hearing through the grapevine that Nolan’s said some rather uncharitable things about Shaun, including that he has no business interacting with their patients. He’s not only said it to other staff, but he’s said it where patients have overheard him. That kind of thing isn’t right – and Neil would think the same if anyone said it about anyone he worked with.

And yet maybe, in some situations, Neil would still be willing to let it go. There are plenty of people in this hospital who don’t like each other. Not everyone has to like Shaun, or Neil himself – just as they don’t like everyone else. But something about that interaction in the ER had nagged at Neil for days afterwards. It had taken him too long to realize…it wasn’t the fact that Nolan disliked Shaun that bothered Neil, it was that he disliked Shaun because he was autistic.

Neil had replayed his encounter with James Nolan dozens of times. In particular, he’d replayed what the other man had said before cutting himself off: ‘I don’t need to hear the opinion of –’ And when Neil had called on him to finish his sentence, Nolan had responded with ‘A first year resident’. But there had been something more, something under the surface, which Nolan hadn’t quite been comfortable enough to voice out loud. Neil had suspected it at the time, but he didn’t get confirmation until later, when he’d heard from several colleagues that Nolan had been disparaging Shaun because of his autism. And that crosses a line for Neil. To the point that he won’t stay out of it anymore.

He’d been planning to pull Nolan aside for a chat the next moment he had free time, and this seems like the perfect opportunity. He orders Kalu to head down to IT, and when his resident immediately starts complaining about that department, Neil walks away from him mid-sentence.

He steps into the breakroom, one of the larger ones in the building, and takes note of the ten or so occupants. Carla Talbot’s at a nearby table with a few other physicians he recognizes. A group of nurses are eating lunch together at the back of the room. Nolan’s making himself some coffee. And at the table nearest the door – dear God, why. Why is Everett Malcolm everywhere he goes?

“Melendez!” Malcolm veritably shouts (as if he isn’t four feet away) and it startles every single person in the room. “Have a seat with me – as you can see, my table’s empty.”

“Gee, I wonder why,” Neil says, as Talbot tries, and fails, to hide her laughter behind her napkin.

“I saw that, Talbot.” Malcolm waves his paper at her – he’d been doing a crossword puzzle. “Your lack of respect is noted.”

“I’m not here to eat,” Neil tells Malcolm, as a means of declining the invitation. He goes over to the counter, leans against it, and waits for James Nolan to realize he’s being watched.

Nolan turns, pausing with his coffee halfway to his mouth when he sees Neil so close to him. “Melendez,” he acknowledges, before finally taking a sip. In Neil’s opinion, he doesn’t sound nearly wary enough.

“James,” he returns, in greeting. He’s acutely aware of Malcolm watching them, along with some curious glances from a few other people in the room. “Mind talking to me in the hall?”

“Actually, yes,” Nolan says irritably, and Neil abruptly remembers the man doesn’t have the most pleasant personality, in general.

“You’re sure?”

“Anything you want to say to me you can say in front of…whoever.” He waves a hand to indicate the other people in the room. Neil actually wonders if it’s not the best thing – for both of them – that this conversation has witnesses. “What is this about?” Nolan asks, when Neil doesn’t immediately start talking again, his impatience clear.

“Dr. Murphy.”

There’s a flicker of something in Nolan’s eyes, and his hand tightens around his cup of coffee. There’s a moment of hesitation before he asks, “What about him?” that tells Neil maybe he is finally starting to understand how wary he should be.

“There are two possibilities here. The first is if you thought I wouldn’t hear what you’ve been saying about him. The second is if you thought I wouldn’t care.” He leans forward slightly to drive his last point home: “Both are mistakes of equal gravity.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Malcolm interjects, getting up and coming to stand next to Neil. “What have you been saying about Murphy, James?”

Neil inwardly sighs, pretty sure that Malcolm’s going to make this talk as difficult as he possibly can.

“I haven’t said anything that other people haven’t thought,” Nolan defends himself. “Other people haven’t said. Yourself included, Neil.”

“Here’s the difference – what I said was wrong; I know that and I’ve apologized for it. And unlike you, I never disparaged Shaun Murphy on a personal level because of his autism.”

Nolan simply glares at him, apparently deciding to cling to his opinions even harder now that he’s being challenged on them. “Dr. Murphy’s abilities are best suited to behind-the-scenes efforts, such as in the O.R. His…bedside manner means that he shouldn’t be interacting with patients.”

“Oh, and you should, James?” Talbot scoffs, alerting Neil to the fact that they’re being listened to – and subsequent laughter around the room reveals most of the others are paying attention, as well.

“His bedside manner,” Neil repeats, solely as a means of letting the other man know that he’s aware of exactly what he’d wanted to say (and been wise enough not to). Nolan had wanted to say that Shaun’s autism means he shouldn’t be interacting with patients.

“I’m entitled to my opinion,” Nolan asserts. “Like everyone else.”

Neil considers everything he knows about James Nolan and reaches what should have been an obvious conclusion. “I know that you don’t like Shaun, but I’m beginning to think your recent…commentary on him has nothing to do with the way he talks to patients. Or even his autism. I think it’s all a convenient excuse for you because you’re embarrassed that he saw something you didn’t.” Neil can tell by the way Nolan’s getting visibly angrier that he’s put the pieces together correctly. “Last week, he saved your patient’s life. And your pride won’t let you drop it.”

“You’re reaching, Neil,” Nolan claims. “And what is this intervention here, huh? I’m supposed to censor myself because you’re overprotective now that you’re –” He abruptly stops talking.

“Go ahead,” Neil challenges, quietly. “Say it.”

Nolan must recognize when to back down about as well as Malcolm does, because he instantly snaps, “Now that you’re sleeping with your resident.”

An unnatural hush falls over the breakroom, and Neil remains exactly where he is, unmoving. He doesn’t think he even blinks as he stares at Nolan long enough that the other man starts shifting his weight from one foot to the other, clearly wondering what his next move should be.

“Hey now,” Malcolm eventually says into the uncomfortable silence, “you’re forgetting Neil was this insanely overprotective long before they were sleeping together.”

That’s what gets Neil to finally break his stare, on account of how he involuntarily shuts his eyes in disbelief. “Not helping, Malcolm.”

“There’s also a much more important issue here,” Malcolm says. (Because obviously he’s decided the best thing to do is keep talking.) “I suspected for a while, Neil, but you never said anything and neither did Shaun. I didn’t ask because I respect boundaries –”

“Since when?”

Malcolm glosses right over that. “And I was afraid you’d, you know, deck me. However, now that Nolan has so helpfully announced it to the room: congratulations on figuring out that you’re in love with your resident!”

“In…love?” Nolan repeats, and the last word is too high-pitched. It either means he can’t believe that fact, or he can’t believe he’s challenged Neil on a situation that’s nowhere near a fling, but rather vastly more serious than he’d thought.

Neil doesn’t bother denying it – mostly because he honestly doesn’t think he’d be able to sound halfway convincing if he tried. Besides, if everyone already knows they’re in a relationship, they might as well know the extent of it. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told Shaun that it didn’t matter to him what other people thought. No, he’s not the type to go around openly talking about his personal life, but there’s also nothing about his life of which he’s ashamed, or wants to hide.

“Have we lost you, Neil?” Malcolm’s asking, and there’s laughter in his eyes when he adds, “Were you thinking about how in love you are?”

Neil absently scans the room for a window he can throw Malcolm out of, but alas, there’s nothing within reach.

“This is true progress, Neil,” Malcolm informs him (because obviously he’s still talking – Neil gets the feeling he could tune out for five minutes and when he paid attention again, the other man would still be going). “Getting in touch with your feelings. I’m actually pretty well-versed in relationships – owing to having had so many of them – so if you ever need any advice, don’t be shy. I think you two could definitely make it work in the long-term, there’s this intangible chemistry –”

“Malcolm,” Neil interrupts, on a beleaguered sigh.

“Yes?”

He’s going to berate him, he swears he is, but his colleague just looks so…eager. And genuinely happy for him. (For both him and Shaun.) So in the end, all he does is mutter, “Thanks,” which causes Malcolm to actually slap him on the back. (God help him.)

“Anything for my friends,” Malcolm assures him.

Friends? Friends? Neil’s about to challenge the use of that word when he catches Nolan looking back and forth between them with growing consternation. In fact, it now seems the other man wants nothing more than to get the hell out of that breakroom. (Yeah, join the club, Nolan.)

Malcolm seems to remember why they’re still there at the same time and he turns back to Nolan, warning, “We’re not done.” His tone is pleasant in a way that indicates it should be interpreted as exactly the opposite.

That gets Nolan to switch his ire to Malcolm: “Since when do you care about Shaun Murphy? You don't like him, either.”

“I never disliked him,” Malcolm argues. “We simply had our share of…disagreements. And now I like him. A lot.”

“Right,” Nolan sneers. “Are you sleeping with him, too?”

“Oh, you’re doubling down, I see.” Malcolm narrows his eyes. “You better rethink this current course of action because if you keep it up, Melendez is going to punch you.”

“This has noth–” Neil registers Malcolm’s words too late, “– what?”

“And I’ll be back up,” Malcolm says angrily. Then, in an aside that’s not nearly low enough, he adds, “We could definitely take him, Neil.”

Neil lowers his own voice. “Everett, he’s like…approaching 60.”

“Why do you think I said we could take him?” Malcolm whispers back.

“I’m 57, thank you very much,” Nolan snaps.

Talbot has completely lost it at her nearby table, not even bothering to try and hide her laughter anymore.

“And what’s this ‘we’?” Neil asks Malcolm, beyond exasperated, as he motions between them. “There is no ‘we’ here, Malcolm.”

“I beg to differ, I got your back.” He throws his arm around Neil’s shoulders, and Neil tries to shrug him off, but isn’t successful in the slightest. “Full disclaimer, when I say I have your back, I mean in a ‘moral support, cheering from the sidelines’ type of way.” At Neil’s look, he explains, “I bruise easily."

“I’m not going to hit him,” Neil says, then turns to Nolan. “I’m not going to hit you.”

“Even though you really deserve it, Nolan,” someone calls, from the back of the breakroom, and Neil waves at them in thanks.

“I don’t have time for this,” Nolan blusters.

Neil doesn’t have time for this, either. And certainly not while he has to put up with Malcolm’s version of ‘help’. “This has nothing to do with my personal relationship with Shaun Murphy. It’s a matter of respect, James. I don’t care if you don’t like him. I don’t care if you don’t like me. But the things you’ve said about him are unacceptable. I’d be telling you the same thing if you said it about any of my residents. Or anyone else I work with, for that matter, even those with whom I don’t get along.” He gestures to Malcolm, still standing beside him. “Except for Malcolm here. You can insult him all you want.”

“Thanks,” Malcolm mutters.

“Is your arm still around me?” Neil asks, as Malcolm quickly pulls it away and holds up his hands in a gesture of innocence.

“Not one for physical affection, Neil?”

Neil’s starting to think that Malcolm genuinely considers him his best friend. (Or something.) “Not with you!”

“And you say I’m hostile,” Malcolm complains, though he’s smiling. (Neil tries to remember how many days he has left here, but it’s been so long since he thought about it that he finds he can’t remember.)

Neil turns back to Nolan (who is still here, for some reason, and hasn’t seized the opportunity of Malcolm being Malcolm to slip away). “Is this fight really worth it to you?” Neil asks, quietly. “Because it’s worth it to me. I have hundreds of problems to deal with, and your personal vendetta against Shaun Murphy has shot straight to the top of my list. So in an effort to make things easier on myself, I’ve decided to turn my problem into your problem.”

Nolan’s eyes widen slightly when the underlying threat in the words reveals how serious Neil is about this. “Look,” he relents, trying for placating, “I didn’t think that –”

“There’s the problem,” Neil says, falsely cheerful, “you didn’t think! So here’s a good rule of thumb. If you have an opinion about Dr. Murphy, or my relationship with him, ask yourself: ‘Would I say this if Neil Melendez were standing next to me?’ If the answer is no, then say nothing at all. In fact, I don’t want to hear that you’ve even looked at him the wrong way.”

“Yeah!” Malcolm exclaims, pointing at Nolan. “Don’t look at him the wrong way!”

“Thanks for driving the point home by repeating exactly what I said, Malcolm.”

“You’re welcome,” Malcolm says, blithely.

Neil grasps onto the last threads of his patience (and he thought his residents tested him at times), then asks Nolan, “Do we understand each other?”

“Fine! I’m sorry, alright?” Nolan takes a few steps back, holding his hands up in surrender. It’s obvious he’s unhappy, but has decided he has no other recourse. (Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t want to listen to Malcolm, anymore – Neil could hardly blame him.)

And,” Malcolm says, as Nolan heads swiftly for the door, “you owe Shaun an apology. I’ll be watching you!” After he’s gone, Malcolm nods to himself. “That was a job well done on our part.”

“Our,” Neil repeats, incredulous. “Our?”

Malcolm either misses the sarcasm or chooses to ignore it. “We make quite the team, I think.”

Neil decides it’s a fight he’s not going to win. “Whatever you say,” he sighs, though he’s genuinely surprised to find he’s not that annoyed with Malcolm (well, no moreso than usual), which might be a first. He’s too relieved at how things had gone; Nolan shouldn’t be a problem for them now. (And if he is…well, maybe he’ll just throw Everett Malcolm at the guy; that’d be punishment enough for anyone.)

“Long time coming,” Talbot tells Neil, as she watches him pour some coffee. “A few of us have spoken to him, but we apparently weren’t getting through. Guess we should have sicced you on him long ago.”

“Keep it in mind for the future,” Neil says, glancing around the room so everyone knows he’s talking to all of them. “I don’t mean just Nolan, either. If anyone…” He doesn’t have to finish the sentence, from the way people are nodding in acknowledgement, and understanding.

“Will do, Melendez,” Talbot assures him. “Though I gotta say, from what I’ve seen? Shaun almost exclusively has supporters around this hospital. Most people have had an opportunity to work with him, by now, and we all know what he can do. We’re lucky to have him.”

Her declaration is met with agreement from around the breakroom, and as Neil takes them all in, he’s almost overwhelmed at the support he sees, that he feels, in that room alone.

Shaun no longer has to rely on just him, or their team, or Aaron anymore. He has an entire hospital full of people willing to fight for him.

And that…that is more than Neil ever could have asked for.

He nods at them, swallowing heavily, then holds his coffee up in a bid goodbye and leaves.

“Wait up,” Malcolm calls from behind him, because of course he’s decided to follow him. (Why wouldn’t he?)

“What is it?”

“You know I meant what I said, right?” Malcolm’s tone is uncharacteristically sincere and Neil glances over at him. “About being happy for you. And Shaun.”

“I know,” Neil tells him.

“I…uh…” He rubs the back of his neck. “I’m sorry for how I was, okay? In the beginning? If you’re wondering, I’ve apologized to Shaun, too.” He laughs wryly. “Guess there’s a lot of apologizing going around lately.”

“It’s okay,” Neil tells him. “When I first began working with him, I was no better with Shaun than you were.” Oh no, that can’t be true, can it? Is he actually comparing himself to Malcolm, of all people? “Well, maybe I was slightly better,” he claims, if only to salvage his pride.

“I care about him. I hope you know that.”

Neil sends him a sideways glance. “So help you if this is your way of telling me you’re going to fight me for him, or something.” Despite the sternness of his tone, he’s pretty sure he’s not able to hide the humor in his eyes.

“No, no,” Malcolm says, grinning. “I consider him a friend. Shaun Murphy has this…way of inspiring a fierce kind of loyalty, you know?”

“I’ve noticed,” Neil murmurs.

“Of course you have. And more than that, I don’t know that anyone could steal him away if they tried. He’s pretty…enamored with you. You know that, right?”

“I have an idea,” Neil admits, and a lot of it has to do with how he feels about Shaun. If the other man reciprocates even a tenth of that? They’ll be set for life.

After a minute, he realizes they’ve been walking in silence – he doesn’t know if that’s ever happened before (hadn’t known that Malcolm was capable of it). He glances at his newer colleague, considers that he’d apologized, that he’d tried to help with Nolan…in his own way. But above that? Above all else? Everett Malcolm has genuinely come to care for Shaun. And anyone who cares for Shaun…they really don’t have to do much of anything else to earn Neil’s respect.

Before he realizes it, he hears himself saying, “Know what, Malcolm? You're all right.”

The other man’s eyes widen exponentially. “I'm what?”

All right,” Neil repeats, already wishing he could take it back. “Sometimes. Rare times.”

“I knew you loved me!” Malcolm exclaims.

“I most certainly do not,” Neil almost yells. “And you better not so much as breathe a word of this conversation to anyone.”

Malcolm, however, just continues to gloat until they reach the main intake of the surgical wing and Neil stops at the front desk to see if he’s missed anything important enough that it requires his attention, but not important enough to require his being paged. Jared is there, having returned remarkably quickly from IT (or maybe never having gone at all) and his guess is confirmed when Jared starts complaining about his phone again. Neil half-listens as he sets his coffee down so he can sift through some recent charts, and he expects Malcolm to take off, but the other man starts checking over his own patient charts and Neil blinks, having momentarily forgotten they're based in the same department. (It must be denial as self-preservation.)

“I don’t get it,” Jared’s saying, as he waves his phone in Neil’s general direction. “In today’s age, why can’t things just work?”

“Know who’s excellent with technology?” Neil asks, then points at Malcolm. He actually has no idea if he is, but if anyone can distract Jared and give him a few minutes of peace, it’d be Malcolm. Thankfully, his ploy works and Jared goes to the other end of the desk to harass Malcolm instead of him.

“Dr. Melendez,” Shaun says brightly, from behind him, and everything in Neil turns a dozen shades lighter. His day is instantly better, the frustration from dealing with James Nolan simply an unimportant footnote that he can now brush off and forget.

“Dr. Murphy,” he replies, as he turns to face him. He can’t help himself as he leans over and presses a kiss of greeting to Shaun’s temple that lingers. He’s just missed Shaun so much today, since their schedules had put them at opposite ends of the hospital, more often than not.

Shaun shuts his eyes for a short moment before opening them and smiling at him as Neil pulls back. He lifts his hand, about to reach out and touch him, but then he hesitates as he glances around. It’s like he notices the nurses, and Malcolm, and Kalu, none of them paying attention, but liable to look over at any time.

Shaun clears his expression and says, “We should remain professional at work.”

Neil needs a moment to register that, truly surprised to hear it, especially after their talk in the cafeteria the prior month. Since that day, Neil had slowly become more casually open with Shaun at work. He’d still been limiting himself more than he was ever used to, assuming Shaun wouldn’t appreciate any significant gestures of affection in public, but the little things…Shaun had never protested; in fact, he’d always seemed to enjoy them. He’s entitled to change his mind, of course, but…

“If that’s what you want,” Neil finally says, as he returns to one of the charts. And though he’d tried, he’s not entirely sure he’d been able to keep the confusion (and slight hurt) out of his voice.

Shaun’s watching him; he can feel it. He turns in time to see Shaun open his mouth, like he’s about to speak, then quickly close it again before glancing away. And in that split second before he does, Neil can see he’s distinctly unhappy.

“What is it?”

“You’re upset,” Shaun murmurs, barely audible. “I did not – I never intend to upset you.”

“I’m not upset.” Neil makes a concerted effort to keep his voice even. “I told you that I’d follow your lead on things like this. I’m only…surprised that you’ve changed your mind. But it’s not wrong of you to do so. I never want you to be uncomfortable – not with anyone. And certainly not with me.”

“I am never uncomfortable with you.”

Then what could this possibly be about?

Neil thinks over their whole exchange – how Shaun had been happy when he’d kissed him in greeting. How he’d been about to reach out before stopping himself. How he’s never complained, even jokingly, before today. And on top of all that, Shaun’s never been especially capricious – there are always reasons for the things Shaun Murphy does, even if those reasons aren’t readily apparent. All of it adds up to one conclusion: something must have happened that accounts for the sudden change in Shaun’s opinion.

Neil absently flips his pen around in his hands and goes with his best first guess. “Did someone tell you that it was unprofessional for us to show any kind of affection at work?”

Shaun doesn’t answer him, and he’s also not looking at him, so Neil takes the opportunity of running the pen he’s holding over his resident’s wrist. Shaun jumps at the contact, then sends Neil a mildly scolding look when he realizes what he’s done.

“Talk to me,” Neil orders, “or I’ll actually write on you, next time.” He uncaps the pen to show he’ll make good on his threat and Shaun instantly moves away, even as there’s a smile playing across his face.

“No one told me,” he reveals. “I read it.”

“You read it?”

“In the employee handbook.”

Neil pauses at that. “We have an employee handbook?” Come to think of it, maybe he has some vague memory of them telling him about it years before, that he was supposed to get a copy… That had definitely never happened.

“Why am I not surprised that you sound completely clueless?” Nurse Fryday’s dry voice cuts through his confusion, and a moment later she slams a large book down on the counter.

Neil flips through it out of sheer curiosity. “This is – there are like 200 pages here!” He turns back to Shaun. “Wait, is this what you were reading last night?”

Shaun folds his hands in front of him as he nods in confirmation. “It’s available as an e-book download from the hospital’s website.”

“We have a website?” Jared asks, in surprise.

“I could barely tear you away from that!” Neil’s feeling decidedly less confident than he was a minute ago. “The employee handbook is more appealing than me?”

“Not more appealing, by any means,” Shaun assures him. “I was in the middle of a very engaging chapter. The section on dress code.” He turns to Jared. “I highly recommend you brush up on it.”

Nurse Fryday flips about three-quarters of the way through and reads the chapter title aloud: “‘Guidelines for Interpersonal Relationships in the Workplace’.”

“Wow, look at them all,” Neil mutters.

“And if you read all the way through,” she informs him, “you’ll note that you – and just about every other employee of this hospital – have ignored nearly every single thing in there.”

As Neil skims the list, he finds he can’t argue with Fryday. At all. In fact, he’s having difficulty finding even a single guideline that he hasn’t broken.

“I think it’d be harder to find people who complied with the guidelines than those who didn’t,” Jared remarks as he reads along, uncannily echoing Neil’s very thoughts.

“Let me see that,” Malcolm says, sliding down the counter to take the book from Neil who gladly relinquishes it. He skims a few lines and then starts laughing. “Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t follow anything in this.”

Fryday’s glancing between the two surgeons with disapproval. “You two set such great examples for our residents, Mr. ‘I didn’t even know we had a handbook’ and Mr. ‘Let me do the exact opposite of whatever’s in here’.”

“Not my fault you people wrote a handbook full of terrible guidelines,” Malcolm says, as he picks it up and tosses it over the back of the nurse’s station where it lands neatly in a recycling bin along the far wall.

“Malcolm!” Fryday exclaims, as he ignores her.

“Besides, I can be a good example,” Malcolm claims. “Do as I say kids,” he points around him at Shaun, Jared, and a few random people walking by, “not as I do.”

Neil refocuses on Shaun, who’s been watching the whole scene with overt interest. “Rules are important, but that’s a handbook of guidelines, many of which are not actually enforceable. I consider a lot of them suggestions, along with most people who work here.”

“So…you don’t consider it inappropriate to show affection at work?”

“I never have.” Neil closes the three foot gap that separates them, slowly enough that Shaun could move away if he wanted (but he doesn’t). He stops so close to Shaun that even though they’re not touching, they might as well be. And his proximity causes the other man to cease his usual fidgeting. “Do you remember how I was with Jessica?”

“Yes.”

“That’s just how I am, Shaun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to throw you up against a wall or anything –”

“I hope not,” Shaun interrupts, distinctly horrified. “That sounds painful.”

Jared tries to stifle his laughter to the point that it turns into an actual coughing fit.

“No, Murphy,” Malcolm interjects, “that’s not what…” He stops talking when he takes note of the warning in Neil’s eyes. “Never mind. That’s a discussion for another time. And uh…not with me?”

“I feel bad for anyone who’d ever have that discussion with you,” Neil says.

Malcolm’s expression has turned more thoughtful. “Though if anyone here ever needs pointers, I’m happy to help.” He motions to Jared. “Goes for you, too.”

“Uh…thanks?” Jared asks.

Malcolm startles when Nurse Fryday throws the handbook back at him, and he barely manages to catch it. “Section 7, Dr. Malcolm, was most likely written with exactly you in mind.”

He flips it open, reading aloud, “‘Inappropriate Topics of Discussion in the Workplace’… Hey, I could use some of these as icebreakers.”

Neil ignores him the best he can (he’s starting to get pretty good at it), and returns his attention to Shaun. “I’ve never thought there was anything wrong with showing people that you care about them. Especially if you’re in a relationship. It helps that I don’t much care about other people’s opinions.” Seeing Shaun’s skepticism, Neil deliberately raises his voice. “Answer me honestly, everyone: Do I care what others think of me?”

Everyone at the nurse’s station laughs, amidst a chorus of no’s and hardly’s.

“I didn’t think you noticed there were other people around, half the time,” Jared says, smartly. “Never mind cared about their opinions.”

“Sometimes I think you don’t even care if others hate you,” Malcolm confirms, without looking up from the handbook he’s still reading.

“No, Malcolm, that’s just you,” Neil informs him, as he leans back against the desk; Shaun’s still inordinately close to him, never having moved away.

“I don’t believe you, Neil. You already told me you thought I was all right, you can’t take it back now.”

“You were never to speak of that,” Neil complains, realizing too late it serves as a confirmation.

“All right, huh? That’s such a high compliment from Dr. Melendez,” Jared agrees, smirking.

Neil’s almost certain he looks a lot more amused than he’s been trying to let on. But he won’t let their original topic get lost; he turns back to Shaun and motions for him to follow him a short ways away from the desk so that none of their nearby colleagues can overhear them. “It’s up to you, Shaun. I’m fine with it, either way. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to stop yourself from reaching out to me because of rules the hospital rarely tries to enforce. Or because you’re worried about what other people will think.”

“It was not that. Not exactly. I was worried.”

“That you’d get in trouble?”

Shaun seems legitimately confused at that question. “No. That you would.”

It takes Neil a few seconds to process that. “You were concerned about me?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand.” Neil’s really trying to see his reasoning, but he’s lost. “You’ve already seen how I am in relationships. With Jessica, for example. No one cared, let alone told us to stop. And we certainly never got in trouble for it.”

“You and Jessica had a professional relationship of equal standing,” Shaun points out. “Whereas you and I do not.”

Neil doesn’t like where his thoughts are going. If Shaun’s been uncomfortable with this and not told him because he’d guessed Neil wouldn’t like hearing it…

“Now that our personal relationship has changed, would you prefer we had a different working relationship?” he asks, carefully. “You never mentioned it, so I assumed you felt things were fine as they are. But you’re always allowed to go to a different team, Shaun.”

“No,” Shaun quickly answers. “I don’t wish to be on a different team. I trust your ability to remain impartial when it comes to the professional aspect of our relationship.”

Neil puts it all together with what Shaun had said before. “So you were worried about me because you thought if anyone had a problem with us – like Andrews – I’d be the one who had to face the consequences. Or rather…worse ones than you.”

“Correct,” Shaun confirms. “I made my own decisions and would accept the consequences for them. But I don’t wish for you to get in more trouble than me because you are my boss. You being reprimanded for a relationship we both chose to enter is unfair.” He glances at the floor. “You should not have to go through that because of me.”

Neil needs a moment to reel in his emotions. That Shaun hadn’t been concerned about himself, but only if Neil were singled out by the administration and had to pay a price for their personal relationship…

“I would go through a lot worse than that for you, Shaun.” The younger man’s about to respond to that when Neil cuts him off. “And don’t you dare say that I shouldn’t. Because that doesn’t matter. The fact is, I would.”

Shaun frowns slightly at that, but doesn’t argue the point. “I would speak in your defense,” he tells Neil, referring back to their earlier topic. “I would inform everyone that my decisions were made by myself, with no influence from you, but people might not believe me.”

Neil knows exactly what (or rather, who) he means by that. “You think Marcus might not believe you.”

“I have found that Dr. Andrews believes what he wants to believe.”

Neil certainly can’t argue with him there. “Shaun, I am…overwhelmed that you are so concerned about me that you’d try to follow all those rules you read about. And we definitely can if that’s what makes you most comfortable. But I honestly don’t think either of us has anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“First of all, not to sound too arrogant –”

“That is always said to preface something that is incredibly arrogant.”

Neil laughs, because again, Shaun has a point. “I’m one of the top surgeons in this hospital – the top surgeon, on most days, which means they want to keep me here. Which means…”

“They would not wish to upset you.”

“Pretty much. And the same goes for you. They want you to stay probably more than me.”

“You are implying you would leave your position here if you were unhappy with their response to our relationship.”

“I’m not implying anything,” Neil says, firmly. “I’m saying I’d do it. If anyone in the administration or on the board ever made the mistake of thinking they could dictate my personal life? Then Saint Bonaventure would no longer be a place I’d want to work.”

“But I work at Saint Bonaventure,” Shaun says, quietly.

Neil leans closer to Shaun on account of how lost he sounds. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You just said –”

“I’d call their bluff, Shaun,” he explains. “And they wouldn’t call mine. Because they would know I was serious.”

“So you would leave.”

“We’re talking in circles. I’m trying to say that they wouldn’t challenge me. And this doesn’t even bring into account that you have friends in high places. One very high place, in particular.”

Shaun doesn’t have to think long about that one. “Dr. Glassman.”

“You can’t have a friend in a higher place than the head of this hospital.”

Shaun shakes his head. “He does not even approve of our relationship.”

“That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t continue to protect you, just like he always has. Like he always will.”

“I don’t know if he would –”

“Shaun,” Neil interrupts, “if I had to make a bet? I’d wager he’s already done it.”

“Done what?”

“Protected us. Or, more accurately, protected you. I’d only thought about it briefly before today because I’d wondered if Marcus would bring it up, but he hasn’t so far. We both know he’s a stickler for the rules when he wants to be, and he rarely makes exceptions. I thought maybe we’d gotten lucky, that he chose not to care about us because he didn’t want to deal with the hassle. That maybe he was willingly looking the other way. But realistically, when it comes to Marcus and his motivations? I have to admit that it’s much more likely that Aaron spoke to him and asked him – or told him – not to separate us.”

Shaun’s silent for a few moments, seeming to run that around in his mind. “It does make sense.”

It does and Neil’s wondering how he could have missed it up until now. He can only hope this might be the beginning of an understanding between the three of them, but until then…

“We ended up on an incredibly long tangent,” Neil points out. “So back around to our original matter: however we act at work is your call. But I think it’s pretty clear that neither of us has anything to worry about in terms of any consequences we might face for starting a personal relationship.”

After a silence that seems longer than it is, Shaun runs his fingers down the sleeve of Neil’s white coat to his hand, which he briefly grasps before letting go. In return, Neil leans over to lightly brush his mouth over Shaun’s, even though they’re still in the hallway; there’s no one around to see, but there easily could be at any moment. It’s a more significant gesture than he’s ever made within the hospital (where anyone could witness it) and the meaning isn’t lost on Shaun.

“Okay,” the younger man breathes, taking a few extra seconds to open his eyes after Neil pulls away.

“Okay,” Neil agrees. (And the simplicity of that single word does nothing to convey his overwhelming happiness at the way their conversation has concluded, but for now, it will have to do. At least until the next time he gets Shaun alone.)

They head back to the main desk where everyone they’d left there ten minutes earlier is still hanging around, like they have nothing better to do today (well, maybe they don’t). Jared and Malcolm are arguing over something in the handbook, with the occasional nurse or surgeon chiming in.

Neil knows better than to get involved in their argument and begins asking Shaun about their latest patients as they go over a few charts. A few minutes later, Malcolm happens to look over, face breaking into a wide grin. “Look at you two!”

Neil looks from Malcolm to Shaun and back again. There’s nothing remotely out of the ordinary about what they’re doing…except there’s less space between them than there would be with anyone else. And Neil tends to smile at Shaun all the time in a fondly exasperated way. And their hands happen to brush every time they point out something in the chart.

Why is Malcolm so observant when it comes to this, yet the fundamentals of basic human interaction seem so beyond him?

“Malcolm, get over here so I can kick you,” Neil requests. “On second thought, Kalu, kick him for me.”

“Sir, I’m not comfortable with violence,” Jared claims. “Ever since I basically got fired for it, that is. Also, there’s an entire section on disagreements and altercations in the workplace that you might want to read.”

Malcolm isn’t paying attention to any of them. “You’re making me feel lonely,” he laments, as he stares off into space. “Hey, Melendez, is that resident of yours single? Carrie? Clara?”

“You’ve worked here for three months,” Jared nearly yells. “How do you not know her name is Claire?”

Malcolm snaps his fingers a few times. “Claire! That’s it. I think we share a certain rapport. Maybe I should ask her out.”

“You share a rapport,” Jared repeats, deadpan. “When you weren’t even sure of her name.”

Malcolm shrugs that off. “It’s more of a…silent rapport? Where we…hardly see each other because I think she avoids me?”

“She hates you,” Shaun says bluntly, as Neil abruptly laughs; his reaction causes Shaun to lean more into his side and he takes a moment to appreciate the younger man’s warmth.

“Don’t ever count me out, Murphy,” Malcolm tells him. “I always did love a challenge.” He’s studying Neil and Shaun in a way that makes Neil wary, and his thought is confirmed at Malcolm’s next statement: “If anyone should know about that, it would be you two.”

Shaun glances up from the chart he’s now holding. “What do you mean?”

“Come on, you know,” Malcolm goads. When neither of them says anything, he sighs heavily. “A thin line between love and hate?”

Shaun flips the chart closed and hands it to Neil. “I do not understand.”

“Really, Murphy?” Malcolm arches a brow and gestures between him and Neil. “You’re seriously trying to tell me that you didn’t hate each other when you first met? Because that’s not the story I heard.”

“I did not hate Dr. Melendez,” Shaun says, just this side of too loud. And he directs those words at Neil, not at Malcolm.

“I know you didn’t,” Neil reassures him, because they’ve had this conversation before, and he knows how sensitive Shaun is to the topic. “I didn’t hate you, either.” Shaun’s already aware of that fact, too, but it bears repeating.

Fine,” Malcolm relents. “A thin line between love and dislike.”

“I do not follow,” Shaun admits, reluctantly.

“It means you felt something. If you didn’t, you would have felt completely neutral about Neil.”

“I have certainly never felt neutral about Dr. Melendez,” Shaun agrees, and there’s genuine humor in his voice, now.

Neil smiles at that and whispers to Shaun, in aside, “I've never felt neutral about you, either.”

“That’s passion!” Malcolm exclaims, loudly enough that Shaun jumps and a few doctors at the end of the hall glance their way. Neil brushes his fingers over Shaun’s in silent apology, even though he’s not the one who’d startled him.

“We’re inside, Dr. Malcolm,” Fryday scolds in clear disapproval. “And not deaf.”

“I was speaking about passion passionately,” Malcolm says, then laughs. When no one joins in, he sighs again. “Man, are you people lucky I came here when I did. Someone needs to liven things up around here.”

“And that someone is you,” Neil says, in monotone.

Malcolm’s look back at him just says ‘obviously’. “The point is that if you care enough to hate someone –” Shaun opens his mouth to argue and Malcolm hastily adds, “– or dislike them, then that is a clear indication you feel passion for them.” He then adds, slyly, “As I’m sure you two can attest.”

“Should we really be discussing this when it comes to…” Jared clears his throat, glancing between Neil and Shaun, seemingly unsure. (And of all of them, Jared’s the last one Neil would have expected to try and keep their conversation professional.)

“Quiet, Kalu,” Malcolm orders. “No one cares what you think.”

It’s all Neil can do to stifle his laughter in response to that. (Nurse Fryday, in the background, doesn’t even try.)

“Your premise is flawed,” Shaun asserts. “Anecdotal evidence is not true evidence. Simply because it was true for myself and Dr. Melendez does not mean it is true for everyone. Or that it will be true for you and Claire.”

“She already can’t stand me,” Malcolm points out. “That’s half the battle won, right there!”

“Because Claire does not like you,” Shaun is trying to follow the logic, “you think she actually…likes you.”

Malcolm snaps his fingers and points at Shaun. “Exactly.”

Shaun looks at Neil, obviously wanting help with the reasoning.

“Forget it, Shaun,” Neil tells him. “There is no logical explanation here. As with most things Malcolm says, it only makes sense in his mind.”

“I’ll have you know that I excel at recognizing feelings in others. And at getting them to acknowledge said feelings.” Macolm sends Neil and Shaun a pointed look. “If I had started here a year ago, you two would have been together a year already.”

“Unlikely,” Shaun informs him. “I only started here a year ago. And Dr. Melendez was engaged.”

“Minor details,” Malcolm brushes off, as if neither of those things matter (and actually to him, they probably don’t). “I still could have made it happen. And anyways, we’re forgetting the point, which is –”

“Claire’s impending rejection of you?” Jared cuts in.

“Mock all you want,” Malcolm says lightly. “I know what I’m talking about.” He’s nodding to himself, apparently having come to a decision. “I’m going to ask her out.”

Neil’s absolutely certain that Claire will shoot him down spectacularly. He infuses his voice with as much sarcasm as he can manage, saying, “Yeah, you go for it.”

“I think I will.”

Neil sighs. “I wasn’t serious.”

“Too late. And I’ll be sure to tell her all about your ringing endorsement of me.”

Neil makes a mental note to find Claire soon and warn her. (To hide.)

“Dr. Malcolm has wasted much more of my time than I realized,” Shaun announces, ignoring Malcolm’s subsequent huff of indignation. He presses his hand against Neil’s in silent goodbye and adds, “I have patients to see.” Then he leaves, with Jared following him.

“I have a brand new relationship to embark upon,” Malcolm says, also disappearing down the hall.

Once they’re gone, Neil finds himself alone in front of the desk. “I…probably have things to do today, as well?” he asks, of no one in particular.

“Since you’re looking for work,” Fryday says smugly, as she drops a new stack of patient charts in front of him. “There you go.”

“Appreciate it,” Neil says wryly, as she blows him a kiss and strides off.

He sometimes finds himself thinking that this place…these people…

He doesn’t know how he got so lucky.

Chapter Text

Working in the field that they do, there are always going to be bad days. Days when death is inevitable, no matter how much they strive to hold it off. And on top of that, there are going to be the truly horrific days. Those days when everything in the world lines up so that things go exactly wrong in a catastrophic way, and they’re barely able to stem the tide from the fall-out.

Today was one of those days. And so was yesterday, for that matter. (This time around, things had been so bad that it was a multi-day event that would probably go on for several more.)

Neil Melendez hates mass casualty events. And that’s not to imply that anyone else ‘loves’ them, by any means, but simply that there’s a personality type (common among doctors) which feeds off the chaotic and intense energy present when they’re dealing with something catastrophic.

Neil has never felt that way. He hates it. He hates all of it. That doesn’t mean he can’t handle himself in that type of frenetic environment – he might even excel at it – but he gets no enjoyment from it. He loves his job, helping people, saving lives – he even finds surgeries thrilling, especially if they’re performing a rare procedure. But with disasters like this, there’s simply too much suffering everywhere around him for Neil to ever lose himself in the crazy energy that spreads throughout their entire hospital.

And during this disaster? This time around, Neil had found a reason to hate things even more than he normally does.

That reason is currently sitting in the passenger seat of his car, staring out the window as if the lights of their dark city comprise the most fascinating view he’s ever seen.

(For Neil, everything always comes back to Shaun Murphy.)

Shaun initially hadn’t reacted well to the news of what they’d be facing, a subway derailment with over two hundred people injured, many of them critically. When he’d started to spiral, Neil had intervened and was able to pull him back relatively quickly. Too quickly, now that he’s thinking about it, and that means that Shaun had repressed whatever he was feeling and would have to deal with it later.

Neil isn’t looking forward to it, because it has to do with Shaun’s brother, and that’s a subject the two of them have never even touched upon. (He knows it hurts Shaun too much.) It’s not that he doesn’t want to talk about it with Shaun, but that he knows how devastating it was for him. Which means when the topic does come up, Neil’s going to have to see how much it hurts him. And seeing Shaun in pain is… It’s not something Neil handles well. It never has been.

He glances over at Shaun, taking note of the stiff way he’s sitting. The way he hasn’t looked at Neil in ten minutes. The way his hair is still damp from the shower he’d taken before they left. (They’d both showered before leaving – they’d had to because after events like this, it’s the only way to make sure they have everything off them. All the blood and – goddamn Neil hates days like these.)

It had been Aaron Glassman who eventually ordered them to leave. At the time, they’d both been in the hospital for nearly twice as long as they’d been scheduled, because it was a catastrophe (and rules didn’t apply in catastrophes, not when people would die if they left).

Victims had been transported all over San Jose, to any hospital with available beds, but Saint Bonaventure had borne the brunt of it for the simple fact that they were closest to the actual site of the accident – and it also meant they received the people who were nearest to death and needed help as soon as possible.

So he and Shaun had stayed long past their shifts were supposed to end, and everyone capable of treating the injured had been called upon to help, Andrews and Glassman included. The only reason Aaron had been able to let them leave this evening was that Saint Bonaventure had called upon other staff to return early from days off, as well as bringing in volunteers from affiliated hospitals to relieve some of the nurses and physicians who had been there the longest.

Neil looks over at Shaun again; his worry has been increasing the further they get from the hospital, while Shaun continues his best impersonation of a human statue.

Neil’s about to speak (he doesn’t know what he’ll say, but he’ll figure out something), and that’s when Shaun somehow reads his mind and beats him to it.

“You can take me home.” They’re the first words he’s spoken since he got into the car.

Neil mulls over that request for a minute. It’s not entirely out of the ordinary for them to spend nights at their own places, most often when they have opposite shifts. It’s happening less and less though, since neither of them usually wants to be apart. Shaun even feels comfortable going to Neil’s place by himself, now – if Neil’s shift is going to end significantly after his, but they’ll still be able to spend time together later that day or evening.

However, Neil also knows Shaun needs space sometimes. It’s a difficult transition for the younger man to go from being alone for so long to trying to figure out how to merge his life with someone else’s. So on any other day, Neil wouldn’t have second guessed his request, but today… Today definitely wasn’t normal. Which means Shaun’s request isn’t normal, either.

“Why do you want to go home?” Neil asks.

“Because I do,” Shaun says, which Neil supposes is a valid answer, even though it has him inwardly sighing.

“Yesterday and today were…difficult.” It’s quite the understatement if Neil’s ever made one. “So I only want to know…why do you want to be alone after something like this?”

“Because I do,” Shaun repeats, defensively, and Neil almost might buy it, except for the fact that Shaun sinks lower in his seat and then looks out the window again.

“Shaun Murphy. Why?”

Shaun turns his gaze to his lap, where he’s folded his hands, and Neil would reach over to touch him if he didn’t suspect it’d be rejected, right then. “I do not…” Shaun tilts his head from side to side, seemingly in adjustment. “Nights after things like this are…not good for me.”

They haven’t gone through anything like this since they got together, so Neil really has no idea what Shaun’s talking about. “Not good how?”

Shaun shrugs, almost imperceptibly, and Neil barely catches it. “I don’t feel well. I don’t sleep well.” He sighs in frustration and tips his head back to lean against his seat, before repeating, “They’re not good.”

Neil makes sure his next question is spoken carefully, and slowly: “Isn’t that all the more reason to not be alone?”

He doesn’t look Shaun’s way, but sees out of the corner of his eye when Shaun turns his head towards him sharply. Like maybe he’s never considered ‘not being alone’ as an option. Like maybe he’s never had the opportunity of it being an option.

“Tell you what,” Neil continues, calmly, “if you can honestly tell me that you want to go home, I’ll bring you right now. With no protest.”

Shaun keeps staring at him, for an uncomfortably long time, and then he finally looks back out the window. And he never says a word.

Yeah, Neil thought as much. He’s not completely fluent in Shaun Murphy yet, but he’s proud of how close he’s gotten after knowing him only a year. (After all, even Aaron Glassman still struggles, and he’s known Shaun over a decade.)

It’s not until they’re almost at his building that Neil tells Shaun, “Maybe I didn’t want to be alone. Ever think of that?”

Shaun turns to him, expression of remorse revealing that he hadn’t. “You should have told me.”

“I just did,” Neil counters, as Shaun blinks and realizes he’s right.

“There are things I will never know unless you tell me,” Shaun reminds him.

“You should give yourself more credit,” Neil says, easily. “You know a lot more than you think.”

“This time I didn’t.” Shaun sounds slightly dejected. “But I should have known before you told me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“As you said, today was difficult.”

“Things like this are difficult for everyone,” Neil points out.

“Yes,” Shaun says. “You are included in ‘everyone’.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Neil admits, amazed that he feels the sudden urge to smile after the hell they’d both left behind not twenty minutes earlier. (He’s finding that he can’t argue with a lot of things Shaun says, because his logic, while not following the average person’s usual path, is typically flawless in its own way. And Neil kind of – very much – loves that about him.)

“What I meant,” Shaun continues, apparently needing to clarify, “is that I could see how difficult it was for you. So I am sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too. For me. For you.” Neil grips the steering wheel tighter and tries not to think about all the people they couldn’t save. “For everyone.”

“Some days.” Shaun sighs and doesn’t elaborate; he doesn’t have to. Neil pretty much knows what he means. Some days are just like this.

“All you can do is move on,” Neil says, “and hope the next day is better.”

“I am not used to moving on with –” Shaun hesitates briefly, “– someone else.”

So Neil’s guess had been right – and he never hates being right so much as he does when it comes to these things. With Shaun.

“It’s easier,” Neil promises. Then he adds, lightly, “Also, you better get used to it.”

Shaun doesn’t answer, but he nods once in confirmation, and right now that’s good enough for Neil.

Shortly after their conversation ends, they arrive at Neil’s building. For the next twenty minutes, as they make their way inside and get ready for bed, they don’t talk to each other. They’ve had plenty of nights like this, but there’s a different mood between them now. It’s serious and subdued and somber. And it’s definitely more than a little sad. Neil doesn’t like it, but there’s not much he can do about it. It is what it is and there’s nothing either of them can do to change it.

As bad as this had been for Neil, he knows it was worse for Shaun. The subway derailment had brought up painful memories of watching his brother die – the situations weren’t identical, but they were similar enough to trigger flashbacks in Shaun. He’d kept it together, with Neil’s help, but he’s been off ever since. He’d performed his job perfectly (going above and beyond, as usual), but his mood and demeanor had just been… wrong. Neil strongly suspects that Shaun saw his brother in every victim they treated, like an open wound that kept being aggravated before getting any chance to heal.

He knows talking about it would help Shaun immensely, but tonight, he seems less inclined to talk than Neil’s ever seen him. He has no idea how to broach the subject in any way that Shaun might accept. Any other day, he might let it go, let this be something Shaun brings up in his own time (if ever), but he can’t. It’s gnawing at Neil, mostly because he can see how much it’s still actively affecting Shaun. So Neil decides he at least has to try.

He decides his best option is to be direct – Shaun appreciates a direct approach more than anyone he knows. (It also backfires, occasionally, but he prays this won’t be one of those times.)

Neil waits until they’re both in bed (maybe he thinks Shaun is less likely to leave the room, this way), and then asks, “Do you want to talk?” He makes sure to say it while he’s checking his phone one last time before plugging it in to charge; he doesn’t want Shaun to feel like this is some kind of challenge.

Shaun neatly smoothes the covers around him, like he always does. “About what?”

Neil has no idea if Shaun is purposely being difficult or if he’s actually wondering about the topic. “About today. And yesterday.”

“There is nothing to discuss.”

Purposely being difficult, it is. “That is objectively not true.”

“You want to talk about the subway derailment.”

“Not specifically, no. I wanted to talk about what happened right before the victims arrived. How upset you were.” He can tell, by the way Shaun is suddenly overly interested in inspecting the bedding, that the younger man knows exactly what he’s referring to – and he has this entire time. “Shaun.”

Shaun looks over at Neil again, and when he speaks, there’s a distinct edge to his words that Neil has never heard before. “Are you telling me to talk to you?”

Neil considers that – some small part of him is tempted to say yes, but he immediately rejects it. It wouldn’t be fair. This isn’t about their relationship, it’s about an extremely personal (and painful) part of Shaun’s life that he shouldn’t have to talk about if he’s not prepared to do so. Using their agreed upon rule to force Shaun to talk to him about Steve is wrong on every level and Neil won’t do it. (He can also tell that if he attempts to do that, they’re going to fight, and this is not a fight he wants to have with Shaun right now. Not after what they’ve gone through.)

“I’m not telling you,” Neil answers. “I’m asking. It’s up to you.” He leans back against the headboard and rubs his eyes. He’s suddenly exhausted and it feels like it has nothing to do with their day – it has to do with Shaun and how worried he is about him and how much he wishes he would just talk to him about this. “I think it would help.”

Shaun’s staring at the quilt, or more accurately, at his hands which are gripping the edges of it so tightly that they have to hurt. Neil reaches over, knowing there’s a very real chance Shaun might push him away, but…he doesn’t. Neil exhales with relief and pulls one of Shaun’s hands away from the comforter, which causes him to let go of it completely as he turns slightly to face Neil more.

“I can’t,” Shaun says, simply. He grasps Neil’s hand as hard as he must have the bedding. Then he shuts his eyes and pulls away. “I can’t.”

“Okay,” Neil murmurs. He reaches up to run his fingers over Shaun’s closed eyes, which gets him to open them.

“Okay?” The word is filled with wonder and no small measure of relief. (And it confirms to Neil that Shaun would have fought him on this, in a way he hasn’t on anything else, to date.)

“If you can’t, then you can’t.” He leans over, brushing his mouth against Shaun’s in a quiet bid goodnight. “You know I’m here if you change your mind.”

Shaun nods and turns off the light on his side of the bed before lying down. “I would ask if you want to talk,” he says, “but I know that when you want to, you just…do.”

Neil smiles at that, because it’s true. “Yeah, I feel no need to rehash what happened. I think the best thing for both of us is to try and sleep.”

Shaun hums something that sounds vaguely like agreement and Neil turns off his own light, leaving them in almost complete blackness. Neil lies down, but even as his eyes adjust to the dimness, he doesn’t see the ceiling over him. He can’t get the images from the past two days out of his head. The aftermath is always the worst for him. When he’s back home and there’s nothing more to distract him, so all he can think about is the suffering he’d been witness to. The people they couldn’t save form a looping, endless procession in his mind. And worst of all is the grief on the faces of those who have suddenly – and violently – lost the most important person in their life. A parent. A spouse. A child.

Sometimes, Neil thinks the ones who died have it easiest of all. At least their suffering is over.

They aren’t the ones left behind.

These days don’t make Neil think about dying himself, but about the people he loves dying. He remembers the ones he’d already lost; that time doesn’t erase the pain, only dulls it so the edges aren’t as sharp.

And it makes him think about everyone he potentially has left to lose. His friends. His family. Shaun.

He glances over in automatic reflex to make sure that Shaun is still there. The other man has kept his distance tonight, staying on his own side of the bed, which is another thing that’s becoming more rare. Neil can only guess that he’d needed space after how overwhelming the past two days had been. Shaun’s breathing is even enough that Neil can tell he’s fallen asleep already, and he’s envious for the briefest of moments. Mostly, though, he’s glad that Shaun’s able to sleep. He’d rather that Shaun was the one to sleep while he couldn’t, instead of the other way around. At least Shaun’s not troubled right now and gets a reprieve from his thoughts (and memories).

For some reason, thinking about death is doing nothing to help Neil fall asleep, so he grabs his phone, intent on browsing news headlines until he passes out from sheer exhaustion. It’s only 8 pm, but the time of day means nothing after being awake for as long as he’d been. The only good thing about tomorrow is that they don’t have to go into work. Aaron had told them to take the whole day to try and recover.

Instead of checking the news, like he’d intended, Neil lets his thoughts drift over the various ways he wants to spend his day off. Or rather, one specific way: sleeping. In fact, he might want to stay in bed forever. (Too bad his job wouldn’t look favorably upon that.)

Predictably, never leaving his bed makes him think about never letting Shaun leave his bed, either – and before he can even get to the list of all the things he’d like to do with Shaun (to Shaun) in that scenario, the imaginary version of his resident starts arguing with him, seriously disapproving of the idea of staying in bed forever. Shaun is always overly literal, even in Neil’s mind, and imagining how that conversation would play out is comical enough that Neil makes a note to actually try and convince Shaun tomorrow that it’s a completely viable idea for them to consider. (Mostly, he wants to see if real-life Shaun will follow the same arguments that Neil’s imaginary version of him does.)

He pictures Shaun detailing exactly how long they could last without water before they died (Neil would go first, according to him, because Shaun still has youth on his side) and Neil strongly considers tackling him to prove that his age has plenty of advantages – but that’s when he jolts awake in confusion. It takes him a few seconds to work out that he’d gone from thinking about their conversation to actually dreaming it.

His first instinct, like always, is to turn and check on Shaun. He’s still there, of course. Still sleeping, too. (Again, Neil’s slightly envious.)

He remembers he’d fallen asleep holding his phone, and he searches around a little frantically before he finds it in the covers and not on the floor. Shaun’s always telling him it’s amazing he hasn’t broken it yet by doing that and Neil always responds that he better hope he doesn’t, because the day he does, he’s going to steal Shaun’s. (And he actually might, just to see Shaun’s reaction – playfully harassing him has very quickly become one of Neil’s favorite things to do.)

He checks his phone to see if he has any new messages (he doesn’t) and notices that it’s going on 10. While he’s happy he slept a little, he’s also kind of – no, check that, he’s very annoyed that he’s awake again after not even two hours.

He tosses his phone back on the nightstand, then forces himself to be responsible and put in the effort to actually find the cable to charge it. (And why does the voice in his head telling him to do that sound exactly like Shaun’s?) When he falls back onto the bed, he hopes this will be one of those nights where he can quickly return to sleep. He’s just shut his eyes when he feels Shaun lash out, pushing at the covers, before he turns over and stops moving again. Neil wonders if he’s waking up, but nothing else happens. After a minute, he writes it off as a fluke – but then it happens again and Neil sits up, looking over at the other side of the bed where Shaun is once again lying still.

Shaun Murphy is not a restless sleeper. Sometimes, Neil thinks he doesn’t even move once during the night. (And he swears that’s not normal, but Shaun keeps adamantly denying Neil’s suggestions that he’s part cyborg or something.) So for him to be acting like this in his sleep? Neil’s wondering if this was what woke him up initially. And it’s more than a little troubling, to the point that he considers trying to wake Shaun. He’s still debating it, in fact, when Shaun starts struggling even more, and the difference is that this time he doesn’t stop.

Neil says his name a few times, even reaches over to try and shake him, but that makes Shaun react worse, pushing him away like he did the sheets and quilt. He’s started murmuring something, too; Neil thinks it’s the word ‘no’ over and over. He’s clearly having a nightmare and it hits Neil that this must have been what Shaun meant when he said nights weren’t good for him after days like the last couple they’d had. (He knows that Shaun has nightmares, but he’s never actually seen one – Shaun’s told him that Neil being with him most nights has helped keep them at bay these past few months.)

Neil’s not going to let it continue because Shaun’s obviously suffering. (Not to mention part of him is concerned that Shaun might accidentally hurt himself if he keeps thrashing around.) He moves over on the bed, choosing the right moment to lean over Shaun and take hold of both his wrists, pinning them to the bed so he won’t get hit in the process of doing this. Shaun’s struggles increase and Neil can only imagine what he’s dreaming about. When Shaun doesn’t calm at all, only getting more frantic in the throes of his nightmare now that he can’t move his arms, Neil has to adjust his strategy by lying pretty much on top of him to hold him down as best he can.

He says Shaun’s name several more times, getting progressively louder, and when it still doesn’t work, he tries another tactic – he orders Shaun to wake up in the tone that he only ever uses at work, when it’s a dire situation and he needs instant compliance from whomever he’s talking to (usually because it’s a matter of life and death).

Shaun’s eyes snap open, but Neil can tell he’s still not fully aware (or maybe not even fully awake) by the way he keeps fighting. And then he starts pleading, “Let go,” over and over.

Neil doesn’t let go; there is no logistical way he can move away from Shaun while he’s still in this state without getting hit, or otherwise injured, in the process. And while that actually doesn’t concern Neil too much, if Shaun comes back to himself only to realize he’s accidently hurt Neil in some way? He’d be beyond distraught. So Neil can’t let it happen.

Stop.” Neil’s tone is somewhere between an order and a plea. “Shaun. Stop fighting me.” It’s increasingly difficult to keep his tone – to keep himself – calm, what with how scared he is about Shaun’s current state. He can only hope Shaun will register who he is and that it will break through to him. “It’s me,” Neil tells him. “It’s me. And I will let go as soon as you stop and I know you won’t hurt either of us.”

Shaun doesn’t stop fighting him, but his words slow down until he whispers brokenly, one last time, “Let me go.”

I can’t let you go,” Neil replies, thinking that those words are true on pretty much every level. Even though Shaun’s fallen silent, he’s still trying to push him away; Neil lowers his head, until his mouth is right next to Shaun’s ear, and whispers, “You know me, Shaun Murphy. I woke you up from a nightmare. And I am the last person in the world who would ever hurt you.”

When Shaun stops struggling, Neil knows that he’s finally back with him and aware of what’s happening. He pushes himself up again so he can look down at Shaun, who’s now blinking at him as he processes the position they’re in. Shaun flexes his hands a few times, where Neil’s still holding his wrists against the bed, and whispers, “Dr. Melendez.”

Neil shuts his eyes. Outside of the hospital, it’s not unusual for Shaun to default to that mode of address when he’s unusually overwhelmed or distressed. In fact, Neil often appreciates it because it alerts him to issues before he realizes they’re issues – but it still never fails to elicit a pained reaction from him. And this time…this time Neil had already known. (It kills him that he can’t… That he doesn’t know how to fix this.)

All he can do is be here, so he opens his eyes and whispers, “Dr. Murphy,” in return.

Shaun registers the greeting, which must cause him to realize the one he’d reflexively used. “Neil.”

“Shaun.”

They’re quiet for a minute as Neil takes in all the information in front of him, assessing whether or not this is going to lead to a panic attack, but Shaun’s heart rate is already slowing down and his breathing is evening out, as well.

“Are you okay?”

This time, it’s Shaun who shuts his eyes. “No.”

“You will be,” Neil promises, as he abruptly realizes he still hasn’t fulfilled Shaun’s request of letting him go, despite his promise that he’d do so once he was calm. Neil lets go of Shaun’s wrists, intending to move back to his side of the bed, but that’s when the younger man wraps his hands around Neil’s wrists, instead.

“No,” Shaun pleads. “Stay.”

For a second, Neil wonders if he’s confused about where they are. “I’m not going anywhere. This is my apartment.”

“No. Stay here.” Shaun’s voice falls even further. “Stay here with me.”

Neil watches him. The way the faint light from the hallway illuminates the edges of him. The way Shaun’s purposely not looking at Neil…and the way that means he’s convinced Neil will say ‘no’ before he’s even given him a chance to understand the request.

He can’t even open his mouth to answer before Shaun’s backtracking with, “You don’t have to.” He’s turned his head further, looking towards the doorway, now.

(The fact that Shaun often still believes that Neil would refuse him anything – and at a time like this? – breaks his heart, in a way it never would with anyone else.)

“I don’t have to do anything,” Neil half-agrees with him, “but I want to do whatever I can to make you feel better.” When Shaun doesn’t speak, Neil teases, “Besides, you know I’ll never pass up an opportunity to get closer to you.”

Shaun huffs slightly, which means he’s at least amused, and Neil catches enough of a fleeting smile on his face to confirm it. Shaun still doesn’t say anything, but that’s okay; Neil takes his silence as opportunity to lie down fully, resting his head on Shaun’s pillow. He keeps most of his weight on the bed, but he’s still partially covering Shaun; they rarely lie together this way. It’s usually the other way around, with Neil on his side of the bed and Shaun moving into his space, lying right up against his side, or even draping himself over Neil as he sees fit. Neil knows Shaun’s more comfortable that way because he can control exactly how much they’re touching, and for how long. Neil never has too much of a preference – sure, he’d always like Shaun closer, but so long as Shaun is there… That’s what’s important to him.

Neil knows why they rarely lie this way: it’s because Shaun essentially feels trapped – not that Neil wouldn’t let him go, just that the feeling of it is something Shaun doesn’t typically prefer. The other man has to be in a certain frame of mind to tolerate it, never mind enjoy it (and it’s usually because he’s focused on whatever else they’re doing, in which case Neil excels at distraction, if he does say so himself). But lying together like this, such as before going to sleep? It’s just not something they do… Except for right now, apparently, and Neil can only guess the comfort he provides far outweighs any anxiety Shaun might otherwise feel with another person covering him (even if that person is Neil, the only person in the world he wants within a few feet of him, never mind touching him in any sort of intimate way).

Their newfound proximity means Neil can feel that Shaun has started shaking. “Adrenaline,” he remarks, even though Shaun is fully aware of that fact and what it’ll do to him as it wears off. The combination of the nightmare, followed by Neil waking him (and in such a drastic manner), must have done quite a number on him. Neil stretches out further, covering Shaun that much more, and his resident hums slightly; Neil doesn’t know if it’s in agreement with his comment about adrenaline, or happiness at Neil’s actions. (Probably both.)

After a few minutes, Shaun’s shaking slowly subsides; along with it, his entire body relaxes. Until that moment, Neil hadn’t realized how tense the younger man still was. It confirms Neil’s earlier guess that his closeness is helping Shaun to such a degree that it’s overriding any discomfort Shaun would usually feel about lying together this way.

Shaun’s head is still turned towards the door and Neil wonders if he’s embarrassed or uncomfortable about the way he’d reacted to his nightmare.

“You’re not looking at me,” he murmurs.

“You’re very observant.”

A ghost of a smile crosses Neil’s face. “Why aren’t you looking at me?”

There’s perhaps another minute of silence before Shaun answers, “I’m not like you.”

“And thank God for that,” Neil says, lightly. “Can you imagine two of me in a relationship together?”

“Like…you and Malcolm?”

“The very image of that is horrifying, Shaun, thank you. And we’re not that alike.” He’s wondering if he should be offended, actually. “How dare you claim that we are.”

“But you are,” Shaun insists. “In some ways. He’s become much easier to work with. He does more things like you now.”

“It’s probably because he wants you to stop harassing him,” Neil says, and he’s only half-joking.

“I do not harass him,” Shaun claims. “I…inform him when he’s doing things wrong. We get along much better. I even enjoy working with him. Most of the time.”

“I still wholly reject the idea that we’re anything alike,” Neil says, firmly. “But what, specifically, did you mean when you said that you are not like me?”

“You are stronger than me,” Shaun says, slowly. “When it comes to things like this. You do not… You would not need…”

Neil’s almost sure he gets it, even though Shaun is wrong in pretty much every way.

“It’s okay to need things,” Neil tells him, as Shaun inhales. And he wonders if Shaun remembers what he’d told him in his office, over a month ago: You are allowed to need things.

“I know that,” Shaun claims.

“Do you?” Neil counters. He runs his hand up Shaun’s arm, to his shoulder, and stops just shy of turning Shaun’s head to face him.

“Yes,” Shaun insists, though his voice lacks conviction.

Neil doesn’t believe him. Or rather, he doesn’t believe that Shaun believes him. He presses his mouth to Shaun’s collarbone and whispers, “It’s okay to need me.” (And when Shaun breathes out shakily upon hearing those words, Neil thinks he might finally be getting through.)

“I’m…not used to…” Shaun doesn’t finish, but Neil hears what he doesn’t say, and it goes back to what they’d touched upon earlier that evening, as they were driving home – Shaun isn’t used to having people. Yes, he’d had Glassman to rely on for more ‘practical’ issues, but for something like this? As personal as waking up miserable after a nightmare? Considering what Neil knows of Shaun’s life up until now, it’s possible that since Steve died, Shaun has never had anyone he felt comfortable relying upon for something so personal.

Despite their conversation, Shaun still hasn’t looked away from the doorway. And Neil hopes he knows, but he’ll still always remind him of this: “You have me.”

Shaun finally (finally) turns his head to look at him, and Neil can almost see the arguments running through his mind. “What if –”

“You’ll still have me.”

“But what –”

“Always.”

Shaun’s obviously frustrated. “What if I –”

“Nothing you say will change the fact that you will always have me, Shaun. It doesn’t matter what scenario you come up with. If you need me, I will be here for you. And if for some reason I don’t pick up on it, or don’t realize it, all you have to do is ask me. Like you did tonight.” He can tell that Shaun is taking that in, hopefully recognizing the sincerity of it. “You have me.

Shaun presses two fingers to Neil’s mouth, and he recognizes the silent request to not interrupt this time. “Even if…for some reason…” Shaun’s visibly uncomfortable saying this, and Neil moves closer to him in response. “Even if we were not together anymore?”

He’d known where Shaun was going, but it’s still jarring for Neil to hear it; despite that, he forces himself to show no reaction. He kisses Shaun’s fingers, reminding the younger man he hasn’t pulled them away yet. After he does, Neil promises, “Even if we weren’t together anymore, you would still have me. That’s it.”

“That’s…it?” Shaun’s words are hesitant, like he’s expecting Neil to add a disclaimer now that he’s repeated the phrase as a question.

“That’s it.”

“Okay,” Shaun whispers, as he turns slightly more into him, causing Neil to relax significantly. He lets go of some of the worry he’s been holding onto – Shaun knowing that it’s okay to need him, and that he’ll always be here for him…that is crucial to Neil. (He knows he’ll probably still have to remind Shaun frequently, but he doesn’t care if he has to do it for years so long as Shaun believes him every time he hears the reassurance.)

Neil stretches, then slides over a little, covering Shaun that much more. Part of him expects Shaun to protest in reflex, to remember that this is an unusual position for them to be in and that it’s far from his favorite, but all Shaun does is stretch himself, somehow moving even closer to Neil in the process. (And Neil’s beginning to think that he likes holding onto Shaun even more than Shaun likes holding onto him – maybe he can convince him to do this more often.)

He knows that they’re both close to falling asleep this way, especially if they stop talking, and Neil doesn’t want that to happen yet. Not after the nightmare Shaun had experienced – and Neil’s growing fear that it might happen again.

“Is…your reaction to that nightmare why you wanted to go home?” he asks, gently. “Has that happened to you before?” Shaun’s silence is affirmation enough, and Neil suddenly feels sick when he realizes: “You didn’t want me to know.”

“You have…” Shaun sighs heavily. “You have enough to deal with. Besides me.”

That answer doesn’t make Neil feel any better, and as he thinks about what Shaun could possibly mean by it, the conclusion he reaches actually makes him angry. But it’s not at Shaun. It’s at the way he thinks when it comes to things like this. (Which Neil is trying to change, and sometimes it seems to be working, but at others…)

When Neil speaks, he makes very sure that he doesn’t let any of his frustration into his voice. “Are you here because you feel you have to be? Because you owe me something and you want to pay me back for it?” Shaun’s getting noticeably tenser. “Being here with me, right now… Is this an obligation for you?”

“How could you think that?” Shaun’s question is filled with so much hurt that it actually surprises Neil. “How could you believe that?” Shaun’s truly upset, and adds, somewhat desperately, “I love you.”

“I know you love me,” Neil assures him, kissing Shaun as soothingly as he can. “And no, I don’t believe any of what I suggested is true.”

“Then why would you –”

“Because I wanted you to see my point. If you don’t feel that way about me…” Neil has to pause for a moment before continuing, “Then how could you ever think I felt anything like that towards you? Towards what we’re doing here?” He sees Shaun’s face clear and knows he’s starting to understand. “You are not an obligation for me.” He lowers his voice, but that does nothing to erase any of his conviction. “You. Are. Not.”

“Okay,” Shaun whispers, eyes abnormally wide in the darkness of the room.

“And I’m sorry,” Neil tells him, regretfully. “What I said upset you much more than I meant it to. I only wanted you to understand how I feel when you say things like that to me.”

“Then I am the one who’s sorry,” Shaun apologizes, reaching over to run his hand along the side of Neil’s face.

“It’s okay,” Neil says. “As long as you know that you are…” He recalls Shaun’s exact words. “You are never something I have to ‘deal with’. Please don’t say things like that. Don’t think things like that.” He knows that it’s not that easy, that he can’t erase all of Shaun’s learned habits and behaviors with one conversation, but he hopes that over time…Shaun will start truly believing it. Especially if he sees, often enough, that it’s true.

“I will…try,” Shaun says, which is good enough for Neil. “It is difficult for me to…”

“I know,” Neil tells him, signaling that he doesn’t have to try and explain himself any further. Because Neil does know how hard it is for him (but his trying…that’s enough).

“I am glad you did not bring me home,” Shaun admits, tensing again. “Thank you for…not listening to me.”

Neil can’t suppress his smile. “How difficult was that for you to say?”

Very,” Shaun answers quickly, though he instantly relaxes again.

“If I had brought you home and you’d had this same nightmare, what would you have done after?”

“I usually get up. I rarely try to go back to sleep after. Tonight, I’m very tired, though.” He shrugs, like he wouldn’t have had a choice (and he really wouldn’t have, after how long they’d been awake).

Neil tries to picture it: the very real possibility that Shaun might have been back at his apartment tonight. That he probably would have had the same nightmare; that he’d be awake right now. That he’d be suffering. Alone. Not wanting to go back to sleep, but knowing he had to. Basically, it’s probable that everything would have happened the same way, with the one difference being that Neil wouldn’t have been there for him – and he hates the mere idea of that to an unnatural degree.

“Promise me that if this ever happens again, and I’m not with you – because we’re at our own apartments or because I’m at work – that you will call me.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, too easily, without any of the fight that Neil had been expecting. It tells him that Shaun likes that idea and is glad that Neil asked it of him.

And even though they both know what Shaun’s nightmare had been about…Shaun still hasn’t said it.

He lightly kisses Shaun’s temple and asks, “Will you talk to me? About your nightmare?”

“Are you telling me to do so?” Shaun’s question is a near-exact replay of earlier.

“No,” Neil says, also echoing his answer from earlier that night. “This isn’t about our relationship. I’m merely asking if you will. I’d like it if you would.” He runs his hand over Shaun’s side a few times before letting it come to a stop. “I told you this earlier: I think it would help.”

Shaun doesn’t say anything and Neil takes the non-answer as silent refusal to talk. While he’s disappointed, he knows this is still something he can’t force – no matter how much Shaun might suffer because of it. He has to come to the decision in his own time; Neil just hopes it will be sooner rather than later.

Their breathing evens out, to the point that they match each other. Neil finds his thoughts drifting in the way they normally do right before he’s about to fall asleep (and he takes a second to be grateful that his thoughts are now consumed with Shaun, and not the horror of the last two days).

“Steve,” Shaun says, voice shattering the silence of the room, and it abruptly pulls Neil out of the state he’d been in.

He sifts through a dozen possible responses to that, before settling on, “I know.”

“I can’t save him,” Shaun continues. “I can never save him.”

“I know that, too,” Neil says.

After a few moments, Shaun whispers, “I try.”

“Try to what?” Neil murmurs.

“I know, now. I know how to save people.” Shaun’s voice is getting weaker with every word. “But even though I know…I try and I still can’t save him.”

When Shaun falls silent, Neil starts thinking of how similar that sounds to the nightmare Shaun had told him about, back on that first night he’d come to see him, when they had ‘officially’ decided to start a relationship. Shaun had said that he’d had to watch Neil die and hadn’t been able to save him – now he’s wondering if Shaun had transposed him into a similar scenario to what he’d gone through with his brother. Maybe because…while Steve had once been the most important person in his life, now it’s Neil who fills that place.

That suspicion – of how important he is to Shaun – causes Neil to move his forehead to the space between Shaun’s neck and shoulder. He breathes in deeply and then reminds the other man, “You couldn’t have saved him.” He’s aware that Shaun knows this, but it likely still hurts to hear it. “He was gone. There was nothing you, or anyone, could have done.”

“I know,” Shaun confirms. “But in my dreams – my nightmares – it’s different.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil says, as he moves back a little so he can see Shaun’s face.

“It’s not your fault,” Shaun counters, somewhat dismissively.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry.”

“It’s cruel,” Shaun says, with startling vehemence. “That people leave us.”

Neil thinks about that; thinks about all that Shaun has lost. All that everyone he’s ever known has lost. “It is,” he agrees, as he angles his head to kiss Shaun’s neck.

“You cannot leave me,” Shaun says, suddenly.

Neil knows, from the severity of his tone, that Shaun isn’t talking about a break-up – he’s talking about dying.

“I don’t plan to go anywhere. Not anytime soon,” Neil promises him. Even though they both know that it’s not a promise that it’s truly possible for anyone to keep. (Because most people don’t get to choose.)

“I do not…I do not know how I would survive it.”

“You would,” Neil counters. “You are one of the strongest people I know. Maybe the strongest. You would survive it.”

“I…” Shaun sounds lost. Too lost. “I don’t know.”

Neil thinks about arguing further, but then he reverses the scenario in his mind. He tries to picture his life if Shaun were suddenly gone from it. Not because their relationship ended, and he knew Shaun was out there somewhere else in the world, living. But because Shaun was simply…nowhere. That he’d never get to see him. Or touch him. Or talk to him. Ever again. And the very idea of it is unfathomable. To the point that he can’t argue with Shaun about this, not when he knows he’d react equally as terribly as Shaun would. (If not worse.)

“I’ll do my best,” Neil decides to say, instead of arguing, “to stay with you.”

“I didn’t think I would survive after Steve,” Shaun admits. “But I didn’t give up. I didn’t. Because…he would have been ashamed of me.”

“He would be proud of everything you’ve accomplished,” Neil says, because even though he hadn’t known Shaun’s brother, he knows that fact to be true.

“He would,” Shaun agrees. “Or…he is.” He looks at Neil. “I believe I will see him again.”

“I hope you do. I hope we all do.” Sensing Shaun’s about to ask for clarification, he explains, “Get to see the people we’ve lost.”

“So…you think there is more?” Shaun’s question is quiet, but as serious as anything that Neil’s ever heard him ask.

“I do,” he says, simply. Because he does.

“I do, too,” Shaun replies. “But I’m scared sometimes that I might be wrong. When I think about dying, it is not…life that I will miss. It’s the people I will miss.”

“We have a long time before we have to worry about that,” Neil assures him. “And I know it’s a reality of living, that…” He doesn’t want to say it.

“One of us will leave the other,” Shaun says, matter of factly.

Neil thinks about that; about the reality of leaving Shaun behind. Or Shaun leaving him behind. He honestly doesn’t know what’s worse, because while he can’t imagine life without Shaun, he also doesn’t want to be the reason that Shaun suffers. Ever. (Even if he’s not around to witness it.)

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” he suggests. “An accident will take us out at the same time. A long time from now. I’m talking…70, 80 years.”

“Hmm,” Shaun says, clearly thinking about it, then recites like he’s reading a news story: “Freak accident takes out brilliant former surgeons, aged 100 and…150?” Neil feels Shaun shrug against him, like he’s just that clueless. “Have I done the math correctly?”

“Yes, Shaun,” he says dryly, but he can’t help his laughter. “I’m actually 75 right now. I just lie to you about it.”

“You look quite young for 75,” Shaun declares, tilting his head to kiss the underside of Neil’s jaw. “Not a day over…forty-something.”

“It must be stress that keeps me young,” Neil tells him. “That and constant exasperation.”

“From who?” Shaun asks, innocently.

Neil narrows his eyes, though it probably has much less effect in the dim lighting. “You know very well who.”

“I do,” Shaun says, gravely. “And you really should lecture your residents about that. It’s not healthy if –”

Shaun breaks off, dissolving into laughter when Neil deliberately presses his fingers to the exact spot on his neck that causes that reaction. Neil rarely uses that trick (he considers it patently unfair), but he thinks it’s warranted right now.

Instead of moving away from him, like Neil had almost been convinced he’d do after that, Shaun puts his hand on the back of Neil’s neck and pulls him in for a kiss that’s soft, and lingering. And meaningful.

For some reason, Neil finds himself thinking back to earlier that evening – Shaun had been mistaken about something very important. And Neil feels the strongest urge to correct it right now.

“You were wrong earlier, you know,” Neil tells him.

“I am almost never wrong,” Shaun asserts, managing to sound both offended and curious at the same time.

“When you said you didn’t think I would need someone if I were in your place. I need things. You’re aware of that because you’ve told me as much.” Before Shaun can argue, he continues, “Maybe you think I wouldn’t in a situation like this, but I’ve also told you in the past that I know something about nightmares. And aside from that, there’s one thing in particular that I need, more than anything. So, yeah. You were wrong.”

Shaun only manages to wait a few seconds before his need to know outweighs his stubbornness. “What do you need?”

Neil laughs a little as he kisses Shaun’s cheek, then his temple, then his ear, where he whispers, “You. I need you, Shaun.”

“Really?” There’s skepticism in the word, and not for the first time, Neil wishes he could confront each and every person that contributed to Shaun’s belief that everyone in his life was eventually going to leave him.

This time, he’s the one who kisses Shaun, trying to tell him that he means what he said – that he needs Shaun so much that it terrifies him sometimes – but he also knows that’s not enough and that Shaun needs to hear it.

This isn’t something they regularly do – talk so openly about their feelings. It’s more that they both know those feelings are always there. But Neil wants to talk tonight, and maybe it’s because of what they’ve gone through over the past two days. Maybe it’s making him more sentimental, but he really can’t bring himself to care (and especially not because everything he wants to say is true and Shaun should know it).

So when they separate, Neil tells him, “I needed you before we even met.”

“That is ill–”

“Illogical. I know. That’s just…how I feel.”

“Why do you need me?” Shaun asks, “You had a successful career. I did not contribute to that, nor do I help you advance it. And on a…personal level, you enjoyed your life. You were happy.” Neil’s aware that Shaun’s questions aren’t indication that he’s trying to be difficult; he’s simply trying to understand.

“I was happy as far as I knew how to be happy,” Neil explains. “Which is different from the way I feel now.” He knows Shaun needs more than that, so he struggles to describe it the best way he can: “There is a type of happiness, a type of satisfaction that I feel with my life, that I didn’t know before you. That I don’t think I knew existed before you. Does that make any sense?”

It takes another minute before Shaun answers, “Actually, yes. I believe what I feel is…the same. On an objective level, I knew what it meant to be in love. When people talked about it. Or I saw it in others. But before you, I had no idea what it felt like. What it meant.” He tilts his head more towards Neil. “What it means,” he corrects himself.

Neil runs his hand over Shaun’s face, some part of him acknowledging this feeling of being completely understood in a way that he never was before Shaun. “More than love, do you know why else I need you?” When Shaun shakes his head slightly, Neil explains: “You make me better. Because of you, I’m more patient. I’m more understanding. I am…kinder. Because of you.”

“You were already those things,” Shaun says sharply, and Neil takes a moment in awe of him (someone who will defend him even to himself).

“In certain situations,” Neil allows. “But would you have said any of that about me when we first met? With the way that I…treated you?”

“You didn’t know any better,” Shaun says, still defending him. “You didn’t know me.”

“No. But I knew Aaron Glassman. And I trusted him, more than most people I knew back then. Or know now, for that matter. Despite that, I still let myself be blinded. And that was wrong.”

“Maybe,” Shaun allows. “However, it is difficult to…accept things that are outside our experience. To understand things that are outside our experience.”

“You’re still defending me on this,” Neil says, with disbelief. “After the things I said to you. The ways I made you keep proving yourself – gave you even harder requirements than everyone else…” He has to stop talking for a moment, and reflexively holds onto Shaun even tighter. “Sometimes I wonder how you came to have feelings for me. How you ever got to a place where you would even idly consider being with me, never mind actually giving it a shot.”

“I fell in love with you,” Shaun answers, like it’s the simplest thing in the world (and perhaps, for him, it is).

“How?” Neil whispers, and in that moment, remembering the way that they’d been with each other when they first met…he’s genuinely at a loss.

He feels Shaun shrug against him. “Your unfair treatment ended soon into our acquaintance. And I could…see you. How much you care. About everyone.” Shaun’s staring at him, like he can see everything about him, even all the things that Neil’s ever tried to hide. And it’s simultaneously the most wonderful and terrifying thing he’s ever experienced. “I see who you are,” Shaun repeats, in explanation. “And I love who you are.”

“You love who I am,” Neil echoes, because he’s somewhat stunned.

“I couldn’t not love you,” Shaun confirms. And then he repeats one of Neil’s favorite phrases: “Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Neil tells him. Because he does. (This is one of the things that he most assuredly does understand, with everything in him.) “I feel exactly the same. I can’t not love you.”

“Good,” Shaun says, firmly. “Then we’re still in love.”

Neil laughs. “Yes, Shaun. I’d say we’re still in love.” He thinks this might be the most real (and meaningful) conversation he’s ever had about love, actually. “If you were worried, I don’t think it’s that easy to fall out of love.”

“That’s not what movies tell me. Or TV shows. Or Jared. Or –”

Neil kisses him, partly to quiet him, and partly because he loves him so much.

When they break apart, Shaun stares at him. And it goes on for long enough, without Shaun speaking, that Neil begins to wonder about it.

“What are you thinking?” he asks, quietly.

Shaun blinks like he’s surprised; apparently he’d been much deeper in thought than Neil realized. “Sometimes…” Shaun begins. But he doesn’t finish his sentence.

“What?” Neil repeats.

Shaun inhales sharply, and then says, “Sometimes it…is overwhelming.”

“What is?” Neil asks cautiously. “Me? Our relationship?”

Shaun’s shaking his head. “How much I am in love with you.”

Neil relaxes, because that’s something else he understands. “And how much is that, Shaun?” he can’t resist asking.

“Very much.”

“Just ‘very’ much, huh?” He’s gotten so good at keeping a straight face that he often thinks if this surgeon thing falls through, he could pursue a second career in acting.

Shaun’s squinting at him, trying to determine how serious Neil is (or if he’s serious at all). “…So much?”

“Just ‘so’ much, huh?”

Shaun’s starting to smile now, but his next words tell Neil that he’s erring on the side of caution just in case any part of Neil is actually serious about this: “I am in love with you…more than I can express.”

Neil shuts his eyes for a brief moment, trying to ignore the way his heart turns over at that. (He’s not even remotely successful.) He opens his eyes to ask Shaun, “Do you not know how in love with you I am? Sometimes I don’t…I don’t know what to do with it.”

“I think all that you’ve done so far is…adequate.” He can hear, in those words, the way Shaun’s trying not to smile. (And Neil knows exactly what he’s doing.)

“Adequate? Adequate?” Neil’s trying for outraged, but knows he’s getting nowhere close – not when he’s suddenly so tired and even fake outrage takes a lot of energy. “I feel like I should take that as a challenge.”

“Do you?” Shaun asks. And if Neil’s going for outrage, Shaun’s going for innocence – and failing at it just as badly (if not worse).

“I do, and I’m going to prove you wrong. Eventually. Like maybe after ten hours of sleep. Or twelve. Or sixteen.” (No, even that doesn’t seem like enough, right now.)

“At your age, you do need significantly more rest than I do.”

“Your claim might have more merit if you weren’t half asleep as you said it.”

“I am wide awake,” Shaun insists, not even bothering to open his eyes.

“Mmhmm.” Neil kisses him, mostly to say goodnight, and he can tell by Shaun’s response that he’s much closer to being asleep than Neil had thought. He considers going back to his side of the bed, but it seems like a lot of effort to move that far. And he doesn’t want to leave Shaun. Not tonight. Still…Shaun might be too tired to ask, so Neil decides to offer anyways. He shifts away slightly. “Do you want me to –”

“No.” Shaun’s answer is instant, and Neil wonders if he even knows what he was about to ask, until Shaun adds, “Stay here. With me.” And he punctuates that by erasing any space left between them, as well as sliding down a few inches on the bed so he can move his head into the space beneath Neil’s chin, pressing a light kiss to Neil’s neck in the process.

Neil’s not certain, but he thinks Shaun is asleep within the next minute that follows.

This time around, Neil doesn’t have any problem falling asleep, either.

Chapter Text

The first thing Neil notices when the elevator doors open is…silence.

It’s a rare thing to find in this hospital, but the neonatal wing is undergoing a renovation – as such, the entire wing is temporarily being housed on a different floor, and once the construction crews go home for the night, it’s completely empty.

It’s going on 7, so not exactly late, but not as early as Neil had hoped to leave. Shaun’s shift had ended a couple hours ago, but instead of going home (or alone to Neil’s apartment), he’d opted to stay at the hospital to wait for Neil to finish some paperwork. As soon as he said it, though, he’d subsequently disappeared, and now Neil’s texts are going unanswered. He’d been about to page him when he’d happened upon Claire, who informed him that Shaun had mentioned wanting some time alone. (And out of everyone they know, Claire is the only one who hasn’t asked him a single question about Shaun or their relationship – she’s never even made a casual remark about it. Not that Neil would mind if she did, but her respect of their privacy is something he truly appreciates about her.)

Thanks to Claire’s hint, Neil had known exactly where his resident had gone, because he’s come up here before. (Shaun has an uncanny knack for finding the quietest places in this hospital – and that usually means Aaron’s office, or Neil’s own, but apparently an empty section of the hospital has both of those beat.)

Just as he’d suspected, he finds Shaun in one of the first hallways he ventures down, sitting alone with his back against the wall. When he gets closer, he sees Shaun’s eyes are shut.

Neil says nothing as he sits down next to Shaun. He doesn’t bother telling his resident that he hates it when he sets his phone to silent – Shaun knows that, but he’s not going to stop doing it. And Neil can’t truly begrudge him whatever peace and quiet he can find in the midst of their hectic lives (no matter how much he dislikes the way Shaun goes about it, at times).

“Good evening, Dr. Melendez,” Shaun greets, after some time, while keeping his eyes shut.

Neil’s not surprised, but he’s a little curious. “How’d you know it was me?”

“No one else knows I come up here to be alone. And I recognized the sound of you walking. And no one else would fail to greet me. Or sit down beside me. I didn’t need every hint, though; any one of those would have been sufficient to know it was you.”

Now Neil is surprised. “I wasn’t expecting an actual list.”

Shaun slightly tilts his head, though he still hasn’t opened his eyes. “I know a lot of things about you.”

“You do,” Neil agrees. And now that he’s sitting down, and it’s so quiet…he’s remembering how tired he is. He leans over, pressing his forehead to Shaun’s shoulder, which causes the younger man to lean more into him, in return. “You couldn’t find…I don’t know, a bench or something? Anything?” He doesn’t point out that there are plenty of chairs around; Shaun had obviously seen them and chosen to forego them all.

“I like the floor.”

“I don’t.”

“At your age, I would not expect you to.”

Neil sits up again, but only so he can push Shaun playfully. “How I suffer for you, Shaun Murphy.” When Shaun finally opens his eyes and glances at him, Neil recognizes why. “Joking,” he assures him, dropping his humorous tone. “I’m always joking, Shaun – though I would suffer for you, you know.”

“I would not want you to.”

“Yes, I know. But I’d do it anyways.” When Shaun opens his mouth, Neil says, “Let’s skip the fifty rounds of going back and forth on this.”

Shaun shrugs and then slides down a little against the wall so he can rest his head on Neil’s shoulder this time. Both of those things – dropping the argument and leaning against Neil – tell him that whatever Shaun came up here to think about, it’s truly bothering him.

It’s Glassman. It has to be. Nothing else affects Shaun in this kind of way – except for maybe anything to do with his brother. But Shaun doesn’t make a habit of dwelling on that, so the most likely reason is Glassman. Shaun hasn’t had the best week, and the worst of it was his fight with Glassman several days earlier, which had caused him to leave for a while during lunch. Aaron had told him Shaun hadn’t eaten that day, but didn’t offer up any details about their argument. (He didn’t have to. Neil has a pretty good idea what it was about. What it’s always about when they fight, nowadays.)

Aaron has actually gotten much better about things – at least in Neil’s eyes. He no longer avoids Neil the way he used to and he never brings up their relationship (Neil suspects he’s afraid of how he’ll react). But Aaron still says things that tend to upset Shaun – and they’re not even negative or judgmental comments. From what his resident has told him, in fact, Aaron’s remarks are usually said by accident, and his intention is never to hurt Shaun. They’re offhand comments, sometimes about relationships in general, but Shaun is much too aware that Aaron still disapproves of them (on some level) so he interprets everything Aaron says on the topic as a veiled comment meant to remind Shaun of that fact. Neil knows that’s not what’s happening, but no amount of arguing can convince Shaun that he’s wrong.

Despite Aaron’s gradual change in thinking, in coming around to accepting their relationship, Neil is well-aware that Aaron is still unsure about whether they’re doing the right thing. He’s still afraid, and always (always) worried. Just like Neil can’t turn it off, neither can Aaron. (It’s ironic, maybe, that they both love Shaun so much, yet are at such drastic odds over what’s best for him. Not that either of them gets to choose – that has always been and will only ever be Shaun’s decision.)

The worst of it is, if Neil were in Aaron’s place, he knows there’s a very real chance he might have done the exact same thing. (He likes to tell himself he wouldn’t, but the fact is…he knows himself better than that. He’s already overprotective of the people in his life, and Shaun brings out that instinct in him even more than anyone else he’s ever loved.)

Neil’s been hesitant to get involved in this; he feels it’s not necessarily his place. Just like he won’t tolerate any outsiders in his relationship with Shaun, he doesn’t think Aaron and Shaun deserve anyone getting in the middle of their relationship. So he wonders if he should even try to talk to Shaun about their fight, or if he should just let things be, allow the two of them to resolve things on their own, in their own time.

Neil’s so lost in thought that he almost jumps when Shaun quietly says, “Talk to me.” His request tells Neil that he’s not quite so content to sit in silence – most likely, he’s sensed the worry in Neil and it’s making him anxious, in turn.

Neil takes a breath, deciding that Shaun bringing up their rule is as much of a sign as he’s going to get. “I was going to tell you I’m ready to leave. But now that I see…” He lets his words fade before he can tell Shaun how obvious it is that he’s upset. “I want to talk to you. You can probably guess what it’s about.”

Shaun sits upright and it’s probably just so he can send Neil a disapproving look. “I cannot.”

“You didn’t even try,” Neil tries to tease him, but Shaun’s stoicism doesn’t break in any way. (And Neil’s usually able to do that, so the fact that his comment had elicited no reaction? It’s another sign that Shaun is much more unsettled than Neil had initially thought.)

“I do not enjoy guessing games,” Shaun says, looking back at the wall across from them. “I never do.”

It’s the perfect opening for Neil, who’s still intent on getting Shaun to smile – a lot of times, he’s found that if he can just get the other man to smile, then things will be okay for Shaun. (Or maybe it’s more that it gives Neil reassurance – either way, he’s starting to find it a necessary course of action during times like this.)

“You don’t like guessing games, huh?” Neil echoes. “I’m calling you on that, Shaun Murphy, because it’s an outright lie.” When Shaun only looks at him blankly, Neil leans over to nip at his neck in an obvious – and blatant – hint. He lowers his voice when he adds, “You enjoy them plenty.”

Shaun shivers slightly and Neil isn’t sure if it’s from his tone or what he’d said, but either way, it’s irresistible enough that Neil repeats his action from a moment earlier. Desire flashes across Shaun’s face, which tells Neil that he’s figured it out: Neil likes asking Shaun to guess what he’s going to do next to him in bed – and lately, Shaun’s become confident enough to occasionally turn the tables on him. (And while Shaun is probably always truthful because, well, he’s Shaun Murphy, Neil definitely isn’t – sometimes he likes Shaun’s suggestions more than what he had planned so he lies and says Shaun is right…but it’s never really been a game about who’s right and who’s wrong.)

“That is very different,” Shaun claims, voice as low as Neil’s had been. (And he’s trying not to smile, which means Neil is on the right track.)

“I could prove again how much you enjoy guessing,” Neil offers, arrogantly. “Tonight, if I were so inclined.”

Shaun kisses him, then (and that’s all it takes for Neil to decide that yes, he is very inclined).

When Shaun leans back, he’s finally given in and started smiling. “You are very full of yourself, Dr. Melendez.”

“I think I’ve earned it,” Neil says, stretching his legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles.

“Your point is hardly fair,” Shaun argues. “It’s different when I enjoy every outcome of the game.” He looks at Neil sideways. “Even when I lose.”

“I’m pretty sure we both win with that game, Shaun. And you admitted you like it, which means you like guessing games, which means I was technically right.” He taps Shaun’s knee a few times in victory. “The best kind of right.”

Shaun sighs, but there’s definite amusement in it. “There is no ‘best’ kind of right. Right is right.”

“So you’re admitting I’m right?”

“You are twisting my words,” Shaun tries to complain, but his tone reveals that he knows he’s already lost this particular battle.

“Let me untwist them,” Neil offers, as Shaun looks away again upon hearing his seriousness return. “I know the reason you didn’t want to guess; it’s because you’re reluctant to talk about what’s bothering you. Which we both know is your fight this week with Dr. Glassman.”

“He…” Shaun hesitates, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the wall across from them. “We argued. I left. That’s it.”

“That’s not it,” Neil insists. “Come on, Shaun. You can’t ask me to talk and then refuse to do so yourself.” He nudges Shaun’s arm. “That’s not how this works.”

Shaun folds his hands in front of him, a common tactic to keep himself calm; the difference this time is that Neil can see the way his hands are shaking. He’s also breathing faster now, too. Neil reaches over to place one of his hands on top of Shaun’s and relaxes a little when Shaun’s breathing slows down.

“Dr. Glassman made a remark about…the way I feel for you.”

“What was the catalyst of that?”

“I told him that I love you. I had…never told him that before. He might have known, but I never said it.”

“Alright,” Neil says, slowly. “He didn’t react well?”

“On the contrary. He remained perfectly calm. He told me that since I have never had serious romantic feelings for anyone before you, I need to be…careful.”

As far as advice goes, it’s actually not that bad. But Neil knows exactly what Shaun had heard in those words. “Shaun –”

“He said it like I don’t know what I feel.” Shaun’s voice has risen near the end. “Like my feelings don’t matter.”

“I know he didn’t intend his statement to be taken that way. Your feelings matter to him.”

“Do they?” Shaun asks, so sharply that Neil’s taken aback.

“Yes,” Neil insists. But he can see that Shaun doesn’t believe him. More than that, though, there’s this…this look on Shaun’s face that he’s never seen, and Neil doesn’t know what it means, but he knows that it’s not good.

“He – he said –”

“What?” Neil asks. When Shaun doesn’t respond, he repeats, more forcefully than he usually does with Shaun: “What did he say?”

“We were arguing.” Shaun’s staring at his hands (and Neil’s) again. “About his comment that I need to be careful of my feelings. And he said…”

Usually Neil’s extraordinarily patient when it comes to Shaun – lets him answer things in his own time – but this conversation, right now…it’s setting off every warning sign that he’s ever learned.

Shaun,” he says sharply, when the silence continues too long, and Shaun tenses at hearing his name in that tone; Neil’s instantly remorseful. “I’m sorry,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Just…you have to talk to me. I can tell this is – you have to tell me what happened.”

Shaun glances a little more in Neil’s direction, but he still won’t look at him fully. “He said that you still wanted to be with me, even though he…”

Neil freezes at his reluctance to go on, because now he has a pretty good idea where this is going, what Aaron had accidentally said. He wants to go back in time and erase his and Aaron’s conversation, but he can’t, he can’t

“He did the best he could,” Shaun finishes, then turns to look at Neil directly. “He did the best he could to try and convince you that we should not start a relationship.”

“Shaun, you have to understand –”

Shaun isn’t listening and asks, right over him, “Is it true?”

Neil wants to lie to him, because it’d make things better, at least temporarily. But he can’t lie to Shaun. He can’t force himself to confirm it, though, either (and the look on his face must be answer enough).

“It’s true,” Shaun says, nodding to himself as he pulls his hands out from under Neil’s (and it’s maybe one of the worst things Neil’s ever felt – and he’s felt a lot of terrible things). “I knew it was true. He tried to… But I knew it was true.”

“It isn’t what you’re –”

“You two talked about me. About us,” he motions between them, “before I even…”

“Shaun. It’s not what you’re thinking.”

“Then what is it?” Shaun counters. “It has been four days since our argument. I have analyzed it every possible way. I have considered every reason…every possible motivation that Dr. Glassman might have had. That he still has. I have reached the only logical conclusion.” He looks at Neil, and his eyes – “He wanted to save you from making the same mistake that he did.”

Everything in Neil turns to ice. It’s colder, even, than the day he’d accidentally ordered Shaun to stay away from him. He doesn’t know how to form words, never mind have any idea what he could possibly say.

Shaun’s still talking. “He did not want you to have to –” He breaks off, apparently incapable of finishing the sentence. “But you ignored him. He must…he must regret that he ever came to care for me. And if he could come to regret it, then one day, you…”

This conversation is getting away from Neil so fast that it’s making him dizzy. “No, Shaun. I would never regret our relationship.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. You have to believe me on this, because I have no way of proving it to you except to promise that it will never happen.” He waits for Shaun to nod in confirmation, and even if Shaun isn’t being entirely truthful with him, he can’t focus on that now. Not after the other thing Shaun had said. That he believes – “Dr. Glassman does not regret his relationship with you. Loving you was not – it could never be a mistake. And that wasn’t his motivation for why he didn’t want us to be together. He loves you very much. You know that. I know you know that.”

“You can love someone very much and still…” His breathing is shaky, now. “Still regret…”

Shaun can get emotional (quite easily, in fact), but it’s almost always because of anger or panic or fear. Neil has, quite simply, never seen him this way. Shaun is distraught; he’s the closest to tears that Neil has ever seen him – and it causes actual, physical pain in Neil, like something is breaking. (Until Shaun Murphy, he’d never known it was possible to hurt this much on another person’s behalf.)

“Aaron Glassman does not regret anything about you or the relationship he has with you,” Neil says again, as fiercely as he’s ever said anything. “I know that, Shaun. I know it in my soul.”

There’s misery in every slowly-spoken word of Shaun’s next question: “Then why would he try to convince you that I was not worth it?”

“That’s not what he said. That is never what he said.”

“He knew how I felt!” Shaun exclaims, voice having risen exponentially. “And he didn’t want me to – he didn’t want me to have this.”

“Shaun. He was –”

“Tell me why,” Shaun interrupts. “Why is it so wrong to love you?”

“It isn’t,” Neil assures him. “Shaun. It’s not. Do not think that.”

He thinks that,” Shaun counters.

“He. Does. Not.”

“Why else would he –”

“He never gave you any reason for why he didn’t want us to be together?”

“He gave many reasons,” Shaun says. “I now believe he lied about all of them.”

“Did he ever tell you that he’s scared, Shaun? That he’s terrified?”

That gives Shaun significant pause. “Terrified of what?”

“That I would…” It’s hard for Neil to say, but he has no choice (and anything is better than the explanation Shaun has come up with). “That I would hurt you.”

Shaun falls silent at that, leaning slightly back in genuine surprise, which means Aaron had never mentioned that one particular (that one real) reason to Shaun. Why would Aaron not have –

“You would never hurt me,” Shaun says, suddenly. Neil studies his face, realizing that Shaun isn’t able to comprehend Neil hurting him as a possibility because, in his mind, Neil isn’t capable of it. Not in any way. That unshakeable trust – that absolute faith – Shaun has in him…it strikes Neil at his very core. Because he doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t. And with any other person he’d start arguing, start listing all the ways they were wrong, but with Shaun…he can’t. He doesn’t want Shaun’s faith in him to disappear. He wants… He wants to make sure it never does.

He wants to prove Shaun right.

He wants to live up to everything that Shaun already believes he is.

And the faith that Shaun has in him? Neil has always had that very same faith in Shaun.

(It’s also obvious, now, why Aaron had never bothered revealing his fear to Shaun – he must have seen enough to know that Shaun would never believe it, that he’d dismiss it outright, with no further consideration.)

Neil’s reluctant to explain Aaron’s thought process, but Shaun deserves that much. (He deserves the truth.) “Aaron has known me for a long time, Shaun. And before you… Well, you know how I was when we first met. And we both know that I can still be that way, sometimes. In those years before you worked here, I often didn’t consider other people’s feelings as much as I should have. And I always knew I was right, at the expense of everyone else. No, I didn’t go around deliberately trying to hurt people, but it’s a fact that I did hurt them. Sometimes without even noticing. Or…caring, to be honest.” He can tell Shaun wants to argue that, in particular, so he sets a hand on his leg to stop him – he needs to get to the end of this. “Aaron was worried – he still worries – that the same thing might happen with you. That it might lead to us breaking up and you getting irrevocably hurt. And he wanted to stop it before there was an opportunity for it to ever happen.”

Neil waits, decidedly on edge, wondering how the other man’s going to react to that. But all Shaun does is repeat, “You would never hurt me.” It’s like he hasn’t even heard Neil’s attempt at an explanation. (Because the explanation doesn’t matter; because Shaun’s opinion on this is never going to change.)

“I wouldn’t hurt you on purpose, no,” Neil agrees. “But even still…people can hurt each other without meaning to. You know that.”

“But you would not,” Shaun says easily, as Neil resists the very real urge to…to just hug him. And maybe never let go.

“Aaron doesn’t know that,” Neil explains. “He’s known many versions of me. He can’t separate who I was from who I am. Now. With you.”

“I do not believe you were ever truly that different,” Shaun declares, as Neil tells himself not to argue with that. And while he’s doing so, Shaun reaches up to run his hand down the side of Neil’s face, murmuring, “He cannot see you.” Neil knows what Shaun means; he’s referring to the way that he sees Neil. “He should. He has known you much longer.”

“He has never known me like you know me,” Neil points out.

“I wish everyone knew you like I did,” Shaun tells him. “Of everyone… You deserve to be known that way.”

Neil can only stare at him, taking in everything Shaun has said – that he’d started this conversation intending to make Shaun feel better and instead Shaun had somehow become the one doing that for him.

“You are…” Neil reaches over, placing his hands on either side of Shaun’s face. “You are every best part of me. You believe in me more than anyone – more than I believe in myself, at times.”

Shaun leans in to kiss him lightly, then says, “I did not think it was possible for anyone to believe in Neil Melendez more than Neil Melendez.”

Shaun’s joke lightens the tone of their conversation, which was at risk of becoming overly emotional (or moreso than it was, already). Neil pulls his hands from Shaun’s face and teases, “Wouldn’t you know it? I think I managed to find the one person in the world who loves me more than I love myself.”

Instead of answering with another teasing comment, like Neil had been expecting, Shaun’s expression turns serious when he confirms, “You have.”

“Keep that in mind,” Neil says, “for the conversation we’re going to have next.”

Shaun’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t otherwise react.

Neil hopes this won’t go as badly as he’s expecting. “Did you believe me when I told you Aaron’s true reason for not wanting us to get together? That he was scared you would end up hurt?”

Shaun hesitates before rephrasing his earlier assertion: “You would never hurt me.” Neil’s afraid they’re about to repeat the same conversation all over again before Shaun asks, “Is this another way that you are…trying to keep me from being hurt?”

Neil leans back, realizing he can’t even argue that it’s not true. Because it is. (Just in a different way than Shaun’s thinking.) “You are right in that I’m trying to keep you from being hurt.” He reaches over, placing a hand on Shaun’s knee. “By telling you the truth.”

Shaun looks at him, then, and Neil can tell that he wants to believe him. He just…can’t. It’s a combination of factors coalescing to make this an impossible situation for Neil to fix: Shaun having convinced himself of his version of the truth. Aaron’s careless statements about their relationship. Neil’s desire to protect him – even Aaron’s desire to protect him. As Shaun had correctly pointed out, it was possible to love someone and still regret becoming involved in their life; still regret the personal cost of a relationship that required much more than someone had initially thought.

All he can hear is Shaun’s voice in his head, how lost – bordering on broken – he had sounded when he asked: Why would he try to convince you that I was not worth it? Shaun doesn’t doubt that Aaron loves him; he doubts that the worth of that love has been enough to make up for everything that Aaron has put into their relationship. The time, the investment, the pain, the worry, the fear. And Neil can understand exactly why Shaun feels that way. In Shaun’s place, he might have eventually come to feel similar doubts. Especially if he had romantic feelings for someone and then learned that the man who’d taken him in, who’d been the only parent he’d known in over a decade, had made a concerted effort to try and convince the person he cared about to not enter a relationship with him.

Neil’s hard-pressed to think of another time in his life when he’s been so evenly split on an issue. Because while he empathizes with Shaun and wants to become angry on his behalf, he equally understands Aaron’s view of things and why he’d done what he had. He still thinks Aaron should have known better, should have done a better job of understanding (and accepting) Shaun’s feelings for Neil, but he knows why he hadn’t. As such, this is something that’s beyond Neil, and it’s never going to be resolved if Aaron and Shaun remain completely oblivious to the other’s point of view. All Neil can do is…

“You have to talk to Aaron.”

“No,” Shaun answers, without hesitation.

“Yes.” Neil makes a split second decision; he can’t let this go on any longer. It’s hurting Shaun, which means it’s hurting him. And Neil just…he won’t do this anymore. “I don’t mean at some indefinite time in the future, either. I mean now. Right now.”

“No,” Shaun repeats, word even more mutinous, as he crosses his arms in defiance.

“This is not a debate.”

“You can’t make me,” Shaun says, then looks at Neil with undue worry, maybe wondering if it was wise to call his bluff.

“Shaun. Do I make a habit of forcing you to do things you don’t want to do?”

“No.” Shaun’s answer is as instantaneous as his previous ones. After a few moments, he quietly adds, “Never.”

“And I can’t force you to do this. I’m asking you to do this. For me.” When Shaun doesn’t answer, Neil leans closer to him. “If you won’t tell him, I’m going to have to do it. Which should tell you how important I think this is.”

“What do you want me to tell him?”

Neil isn’t sure if Shaun’s unclear on his request or if he’s trying to stall. “Exactly what you told me. Ten minutes ago. That you think…” Neil can hardly bring himself to say the words aloud, but he forges on. “That you think he regrets his relationship with you and considers it a mistake. That you believe he feels loving you was not worth it.” No, forget it Neil can’t say that, ever, without refuting it. “It’s not true, Shaun. It is not.”

Shaun takes a few deep breaths and then presses the heels of his hands to his forehead. “You don’t know that,” he whispers, voice getting louder each time he repeats the phrase: “You don’t know that. You don’t know that. You don’t know –”

He only stops because Neil wraps an arm around his neck and pulls him in for a hug that’s not only meant to comfort him, but to stop him from where he’s going. After a year of working with Shaun, and almost three months of being in a relationship with him, he knows when Shaun’s losing control, that if it continues it can lead to a panic attack. He’s also learned the best way to defuse the situation – with Shaun, it’s physical proximity to Neil (and only Neil). It doesn’t always work, but it does enough of the time that it’s Neil’s first reaction upon seeing Shaun in this kind of state. (Shaun had tried to explain it to him once, that when he’s losing control, having Neil as an anchor in his world gives him something to hold onto and pull himself back.)

After a long time in silence, which Shaun spends trying to regain control of himself, he finally wraps his arms around Neil, in return. (And Neil suddenly thinks that this hallway isn’t as cold as it was a few minutes before.)

“You’ve known me for a year, Shaun Murphy,” Neil murmurs. “And you have the audacity to tell me there is something I don’t know?”

“You know a lot of things,” Shaun quietly acknowledges. “You might know as much as I do.”

Shaun’s joke means that he’s pretty much recovered and Neil lets the relief wash over him, before saying wryly, “Let me guess – my age gives me a slight advantage, right?”

He feels Shaun laugh slightly against him. “I was kidding,” Shaun reveals, as if Neil hadn’t known. He pulls away and Neil reluctantly lets him go.

“I can tell when you’re joking,” he assures Shaun. “Most of the time.”

Shaun doesn’t respond to that. He just looks at him for a few moments and then says, “You are brilliant. I learn from you every day.”

Neil lets that praise sink in – he’s always thought pretty highly of himself and his skill (for good reason) and he also has over a decade’s worth of experience on Shaun, but they both know there are many areas where the younger man’s knowledge surpasses Neil’s – surpasses everyone that they know. So it’s a special kind of compliment to hear from Shaun, and Neil appreciates it that much more. “I learn from you every day, too.”

“We learn from each other,” Shaun affirms. “I think we are…good for each other.”

“We are much more than good for each other,” Neil tells him.

“Okay,” Shaun agrees, then must remember the threads of their original conversation when he abruptly says, “I still don’t want to talk to Dr. Glassman.”

Neil decides to try another tactic. “Who’s in this relationship, Shaun?” When his resident hesitates, Neil adds, “It’s not a trick question.”

“You. And me.”

“Exactly. Neil Melendez and Shaun Murphy. That’s it. Not Neil Melendez and Shaun Murphy and Aaron Glassman. His opinion about our relationship, whatever it might be, or how it changes – it has nothing to do with my choices. So his approval isn’t important to me…except, insofar, as it’s important to you.”

“I love him,” Shaun says, and he’s staring at the wall again, though Neil suspects he’s not seeing it. “It’s important to me.”

“And that is why you have to talk to him,” Neil says softly. “What is it that you always love to tell me, Shaun?”

“I love to tell you many things,” Shaun answers, smartly. But Neil doesn’t miss that he’s also truly at a loss about what Neil might be referring to.

“When it comes to our relationship,” he prompts. “About telling other people things?”

He sees the exact moment Shaun gets it. “There are things I need to know. That I will never know unless you tell me.” He looks down at his lap. “That I also have to…tell you things.”

“This is something Aaron needs to know.”

“He already knows,” Shaun says, sharply. “It is what he believes.”

“It is not,” Neil counters. “And if you’re so convinced you’re right, then you should be eager to prove me wrong. We both know how much you love proving me wrong.”

Shaun’s smile in return is slow, and slight, but it’s there and it means that they’ve taken a significant step – because if Neil can just get them in the same room, get them to realize what the other truly thinks, then he knows this can end.

Neil gets to his feet and offers Shaun a hand. It takes him a few extra moments to accept it – almost like he knows that doing so is an implicit agreement to what Neil has requested.

“I will talk to him,” Shaun slowly agrees, as he stands. Then he glances at Neil with more than a little worry. “Are you going to come with me?”

Neil can’t tell if his anxiety is because he thinks Neil might accompany him – or because he fears he might not. “Do you want me to?”

“Yes.” The complete lack of hesitation, the almost desperate tone of that single word, reveals more than the answer itself. As if it’s not enough, Shaun adds, “I always…prefer you with me.”

“Then I’ll come with you,” Neil assures him, neglecting to mention that he’d planned to do so all along.

They make their way to the elevators, and then up to Aaron’s office, in complete silence. Shaun doesn’t look at him even once, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead of him or on the floor itself.

When they reach Aaron’s office, his secretary tries to stop them from going further, but Neil waves her off – and the moment Neil registers who’s currently talking to Aaron, he resists the sudden urge to turn on his heel and leave. (If it were any other situation, with any other person, he would have – but nothing will ever get him to leave Shaun.)

“Melendez and Murphy!” Malcolm exclaims, overly cheerful. “What a shock to see you two in the same place, at the same time.”

“Dr. Malcolm,” Shaun greets politely (and as usual, Neil’s amazed at how calm Shaun can remain when confronted with Everett Malcolm, of all people).

“Aaron and I were just discussing…” Malcolm trails off as he catches the expression on Neil’s face. “Yeah, I’ll save that explanation for another time.”

“Good call,” Neil says, not bothering to hide his agitation (even though it’s not directed at the other man – and for some inexplicable reason, he finds himself hoping that Malcolm knows that).

Malcolm glances among the three men in Aaron’s office before he says, carefully, “So, I’m gathering that this is a room I don’t want to be in.” Despite his assessment, he just continues to stand there.

Neil counts to five. Then ten. Then asks, “Well?”

Malcolm shrugs. “What?”

“Why are you still here?” Neil asks, pointedly, as he catches Aaron rubbing his forehead in the background.

“Good one, Neil,” Malcolm says, with forced laughter. He slaps Neil on the shoulder, presumably in some display of camaraderie, and goes to do the same to Shaun – but when the younger man tenses at the simple motion of Malcolm raising his hand, the older surgeon freezes before dropping it. It’s a simple enough act, but it instantly erases Neil’s current exasperation with him.

(It’s rare for others to read Shaun that well, never mind show that kind of automatic consideration – most would have simply followed through with their original intention, touching Shaun despite his clear discomfort and then brushing off Shaun’s feelings, after the fact, as something beyond their control. Neil has seen it countless times, and it never fails to annoy him – or in some cases, make him downright angry.)

“I do not understand what’s humorous,” Shaun’s telling Malcolm.

Instead of trying to explain, Malcolm just tells him, “See ya around, Murphy.” He nods as he sweeps past them both and out of the office (with record swiftness on his part, which tells Neil that the mood between him and Shaun must be much more severe than he’s realized).

Aaron has picked up on it, too, sitting up straighter in his chair as he watches Shaun aimlessly wander his office, studying the books on the shelves as if he’s never seen them before (when all three of them know he’s probably not only read most of them, but could recite facts from them at will).

Neil takes a seat in one of the chairs across from Aaron’s desk, knowing it’s too much to hope for that Shaun will join him anytime soon.

“What’s going on?” Aaron asks, sending that question to Neil – he’s no doubt picked up on Shaun’s mood enough to know the younger man wouldn’t answer him.

“Shaun needs to –” Neil corrects himself. “We need to talk to you.”

“Did something happen?” Aaron’s watching Shaun again, taking in every non-verbal cue that he’s radiating. He turns back to Neil. “Did you two –” Aaron swallows. “Did you break up?”

“Would that make you happy?” Shaun’s voice cuts across the room, causing Aaron to startle the slightest bit.

“No, Shaun,” Aaron answers, evenly. “It would not make me happy.”

Shaun nods, but it’s at odds with his words when he replies, “I do not believe you.” He then goes back to the bookshelf.

“That wasn’t an answer to my question,” Aaron tells Neil, apparently recognizing he’s not going to get anywhere with Shaun, at the moment. The older man’s also getting visibly more upset as he levels Neil with an accusatory look. “Did you –”

“We didn’t break up,” Neil says. (And he can’t help but find it incredibly unfair that Aaron would blame him for them getting together, and then turn around and blame him if they broke up – can’t he ever win?)

“We are not going to,” Shaun says, without looking their way, and it reveals that even though he’s making a show of not caring about their conversation, he’s paying painstaking attention to every word.

“Okay,” Aaron says, but his worry hasn’t gone away. Nor has the increasing fear that Neil sees on his face, and he’s starting to feel bad. Because even though he believes that Aaron has been on the wrong side of this, he doesn’t deserve what’s going to happen next. Once he hears what Shaun thinks… (No one who loves someone deserves that.) “What is it then?”

“Shaun,” Neil prompts, when he won’t answer Aaron.

Aaron leans forward at his desk, and he hasn’t taken his eyes off Shaun for over a minute straight. “Shaun, you’re scaring me.”

“Dr. Melendez insisted that I talk to you.” Shaun still won’t look at him. “I don’t want to.”

Aaron leans back a little, but his voice is still tense when he says, “If Dr. Melendez is insisting you do something, then it must be important.”

Neil’s faintly surprised at that support from Aaron, though he recognizes it’s probably mostly in an attempt at getting Shaun to talk.

“Dr. Melendez tends to always think his opinions are important,” Shaun says, in semi-agreement with Aaron.

“That’s because they are,” Neil puts in, unwilling to let that remark slide.

“When it comes to Dr. Melendez’s opinions concerning you, they’re especially important to me,” Aaron tells Shaun, surprising Neil for the second time in as many minutes. “So please, tell me why you’re here – what it is that he thinks you should talk to me about.”

Shaun falls silent again and Neil wants nothing more than to cross the room and touch him. But he knows that giving Shaun space right now is the best course of action.

“Does it have to do with our argument this week?” Aaron asks, astutely, which means he must have noticed the change in Shaun’s behavior since then (and not just around him, but around everyone).

Shaun stills upon hearing Aaron’s question, and it’s as good as a confirmation that Aaron’s correct.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Aaron says, softly. “I apologized for it, at the time. You still got…so angry with me and left. I was only trying to help, Shaun. To give you advice.”

“I did not ask for your advice.”

“No. You didn’t. I guess it wasn’t my place to offer it.” Aaron shakes his head, dejectedly. “Sometimes, Shaun, I try to do the best thing by you and I still… I completely fail.” The laughter that accompanies that is wry. And much too sad.

His words resonate with Neil, to the point that he has to look away from Aaron in order to remind himself that this conversation, right now, isn’t about him. It’s about Shaun. And Aaron. And they still haven’t gotten to the actual reason that Neil had brought them to Aaron’s office.

“Shaun,” Neil says, “you have to tell him.” His quiet tone gives the words more weight than if he’d said them any other way.

His reminder causes Shaun to come over and take the chair adjacent to his; Neil thinks it’s progress until Shaun merely looks between him and Aaron a few times before pleading, “Do not make me choose.”

“Don’t make you choose what?” Aaron asks, even as Neil thinks he already has a terrible understanding of the question.

“Between you,” Shaun says, confirming Neil’s awful suspicion. “I cannot choose. I cannot. Do not make me. Please do not –”

Neil reaches over, placing his hand on Shaun’s where he’s tightly gripping the armrest of the chair. The action causes Shaun to relax slightly, but the fear still doesn’t leave his face. “No one is asking that. We would never ask you to do that.”

Shaun stares at Neil’s hand for a few moments before he whispers, “I could never choose. I love you both.” He looks up at Aaron. “I love you both. I need you both.”

“We know,” Neil assures him, and he’s acutely aware that Aaron is staring at him. But he’s not saying anything – and he needs to. “Aaron?” he says, sharply.

“Shaun, I would never ask that of you,” Aaron belatedly echoes, and the truth in the statement is evident for everyone to hear. “Neither would Neil.” He seems pained at the very possibility that his next question might be true: “Did you really think that we would?”

“I don’t know,” Shaun claims, but his shoulders fall, which means that he did think having to choose between them was a possibility. Shaun turns his hand over, threading his fingers through Neil’s – and if Neil hadn’t already known how difficult this conversation was for Shaun, the tightness of his grip would have given it away. “I am aware that you two…do not like each other.” Shaun isn’t looking at either of them. “Not anymore. Because of…me.”

“That is not true,” Aaron says, vehemently enough that Neil leans back in his own chair. “We might have been at odds over your relationship, but we never disliked each other. We have always respected each other.” He meets Neil’s eyes for the last part, and Neil sees the sincerity there when he adds, “That will never change.”

“It’s true, Shaun,” Neil confirms, tugging on his hand slightly. “We always had a good relationship, even before you started working here, and while we might have hit a rough spot over…this,” he squeezes Shaun’s hand, “Aaron and I will never dislike each other because of it. People can disagree on things and still care about each other.” He waits for Shaun to tentatively glance at him. “You know that’s true.”

“Okay,” Shaun carefully allows, and Neil recognizes that’s the best they’re going to get right now.

Neil pulls Shaun’s hand to his mouth and kisses the back of it. “Okay,” Neil repeats, ignoring the way he can feel Aaron’s eyes on him. “You still haven’t told him why we’re here.” At Shaun’s sigh, he adds, “Don’t think you’re going to get out of it.”

At that admonishment, Shaun turns to Aaron. “You tried to convince Dr. Melendez we should not be together.”

That’s what this is about?” Aaron’s clearly surprised. “I knew I’d upset you when I accidentally mentioned that, but…” He motions from Neil to Shaun, and maybe he’s referring to the fact that they’re currently holding hands. “Obviously, I didn’t succeed. So why do you care, this long after the fact, when I was clearly wrong?”

His question confirms Neil’s suspicions that Aaron has no idea what his comment had done to Shaun. And that Shaun had completely misinterpreted it. When Shaun glances at Neil, in question, he nods slightly to encourage him to go on.

Shaun drops his head, eyes fixed on his knees, and asks, “Do you wish you had never met me?”

Aaron stares at him. Just stares at him. And Neil feels his heart break into a million pieces – and he doesn’t even know who it’s for – Aaron or Shaun.

“You must,” Shaun continues, when Aaron doesn’t (or can’t) speak. “Since you are trying to keep others from the same…the same mistake.”

“What?” Aaron breathes, and it sounds like he can’t get enough air.

“Do you regret…me?” Shaun moves forward in his chair a little, but he still hasn’t let go of Neil’s hand (and Neil thinks maybe he can’t let go right now). “Do you feel that I was…not worth everything you put into our relationship?” The mere fact that he’s asking, instead of telling, means that Neil’s arguments from earlier have made an impression (…or so he hopes).

“How could you…how could you ask me that?” Aaron whispers. “You cannot truly believe any of that?”

Shaun shrugs, and though it’s mild, the pain evident in it leaves such an awful expression on Aaron’s face that Neil can’t even find words to describe it.

“How long have you –” He turns to Neil. “How long has he believed this?”

“I don’t know,” Neil answers, honestly. “I only found out about this twenty minutes ago, Aaron. That’s why we’re here.”

“Shaun,” Aaron says, waiting for acknowledgement that never comes. Soon enough, Aaron gives up and stands, causing Shaun to immediately do so, as well. Before Aaron can even move from behind his desk, Shaun pulls away from Neil and returns to the bookshelves in a determined effort not to look at Glassman in any way. (And Neil’s 99% sure that Shaun hasn’t fled the office entirely for the sole reason that Neil is still there and had told him he needed to have this conversation.)

Aaron crosses the room, stopping a few feet away from where Shaun is standing in front of the shelves. “Shaun.” Aaron lifts a hand, then drops it, and Neil knows all too well about that impulse – wanting to touch Shaun so badly while also knowing it’s a time when it won’t be welcome. “You are wrong. I don’t often say that. But you are wrong.”

“Do not lie to me.” Shaun crosses his arms, collapsing in on himself in a way that causes Aaron to take a step closer.

“I would never lie to you about –”

“You did not tell me about your cancer,” Shaun accuses, words razor-sharp; Neil thinks it’s probably a toss-up on who, in this room, they hurt the most.

Aaron’s lost. (More lost than Neil has ever seen him.) “I didn’t –” His voice breaks. “I didn’t know how.”

“You say the words,” Shaun tells him, like it would ever be that easy.

“I couldn’t.” Aaron shrugs, helplessly. “I loved you too much to watch what it would do to you. And in the end…I had to watch it, anyways.”

Shaun inhales sharply, then says, “That’s not a good reason.”

“I know it’s not,” Aaron sighs, “but it’s the only reason I have.”

“You did not want me to be hurt. But it’s…it’s…” Shaun’s struggling to explain, and Neil would help him, except he doesn’t know where his resident’s going with this. “It’s okay,” Shaun finally says. “It’s okay for me to be hurt.” (And so really, he’s trying to say that Aaron shouldn’t try so hard to protect him, but even Neil knows that argument isn’t going to resonate with Aaron – because it never would with Neil.)

“Intellectually, I know that,” Aaron says, “but in here?” He places a hand over his own heart. “In here, it’s not acceptable to me.” Shaun wants to argue, he’s about to, but Aaron holds up a hand in silent plea. “I’ve lived a lot longer than you, Shaun. And I’ve come to realize, in that time, that the things we spend so many years believing we need? They don’t matter much, in the end. All that matters to me, all that I need, is for the people I love to be okay. I need you to be okay.”

“I am,” Shaun tells him, then lets his eyes briefly pass over Neil. “I am better than okay.”

“I love you,” Aaron says. “I have only ever wanted what was best for you.”

“I know you love me,” Shaun tells him. “I have never doubted that.”

“But you still doubt my motivations,” Aaron points out. “Shaun, if any part of you truly thinks that I have not valued my relationship with you…that I didn’t think it was worth it? That I thought it was –” He shakes his head. “A mistake? Then you are wrong.”

“Dr. Melendez told me I was wrong,” Shaun admits. “I did not…entirely believe him.”

“Do you believe him now?” Aaron asks quietly. “Do you believe me?” Shaun’s silence is indication enough that he’s still unsure, and it causes Aaron to take off his glasses and press a hand to his eyes for an inordinately long time. Finally, he says, “You are – you are my son.”

The declaration makes Neil sit up and take notice – he’d been aware of the type of relationship between them, the type of love they shared, (he’d always considered it rather obvious) but he’d never been sure if they’d put it into actual words before.

Shaun’s reaction reveals that they hadn’t, because his eyes have widened exponentially. Then he rocks back on his heels and says, “I am not. We are not related.”

Aaron slips his glasses back on to look at Shaun’s face, and his gaze doesn’t waver when he counters, “Does that mean we’re not a family? Because I have always considered you part of mine.”

That, at least, Shaun easily agrees with. “You are my family,” he confirms. “I just did not know…you felt that way.”

“I should have told you,” Aaron says. “I’m sorry that I didn’t.” He takes another step closer to Shaun, and to his credit, the younger man doesn’t move away. “Every relationship has its ups and downs. We’ve had our fair share: we’ve disagreed and we’ve fought, we’ve gotten angry and upset at each other. Sometimes we’ve even needed space from each other. But none of that has ever – will ever – change the way I feel about you. I have never felt anything except gratitude and joy that I met you. That you became part of my family. That we came to love each other. And I don’t…” He finally reaches out, touching Shaun’s arm. “I don’t know how to get you to forgive me when I can’t even convince you that I’m telling the truth. But I’m asking anyways. I’m asking you to forgive me. For everything. With you and…” He glances back at Neil. “Dr. Melendez.”

Shaun places a hand over Aaron’s, where it’s on his arm, but he switches his gaze to the floor. And he’s quiet for so long that Neil starts to worry, until Shaun carefully says, without looking at them, “Neither of you would lie to me about this.”

“No,” Aaron confirms. “We wouldn’t.”

“You were trying to protect me.”

“Yes. That’s all I’m ever trying to do. But in this…I was wrong.”

“Then I believe you,” Shaun slowly tells Aaron, as he finally looks up at him. “And there is nothing to forgive.”

Neil can actually see the way relief floods Aaron, causing him to visibly relax as he presses his other hand on top of Shaun’s for a moment before letting go of his arm.

“I will never stop worrying about you,” Aaron says. “But you’re an adult, your decisions are your own, and I recognize that my interference had the opposite effect of my intentions. So even if you feel there is nothing to forgive, I still do. I’m truly sorry, Shaun.”

Shaun’s quiet again for a minute, and when he speaks next, he doesn’t address any of that directly. Instead, he steels his shoulders, clasps his hands behind his back, and says, “My father was a terrible man.” Aaron and Neil exchange a quick glance, both of them taken aback at this new direction. “He did not like me,” Shaun continues. “He hurt me. Because he did not understand me. Because I was…different.” Shaun risks a glance at Aaron. “As such, I do not consider him my father. That is only…that title has only ever belonged to you.”

Aaron seems like he might actually cry upon hearing those words. He moves forward, then abruptly stops himself. Shaun must recognize what he’d been about to do, since he leans into Aaron in silent indication it’s alright, and Aaron immediately wraps his arms around Shaun. After a few seconds, Shaun brings his own arms up to hug him in return.

When they separate, Shaun tells Aaron, “We are family.” It must remind him of something else, since he adds, “I told Dr. Melendez that he feels like my family. I don’t know if he agrees.”

Neil smiles at the memory of that first night, the way Shaun had used the description to try and explain how he felt about him. He’d understood what Shaun meant, back then, but now… Now he feels it.

“Dr. Melendez is sitting right here,” Neil points out, and Shaun turns his way so quickly that Neil wonders if he’d momentarily forgotten he was in the room. “He can hear you. And he wholeheartedly agrees.”

Shaun nods, once. “Good.”

“It’s love that makes a family,” Neil tells him, because while they all know it’s true, he still feels it’s important to say it. “And it can happen in a lot of different ways. For a lot of different reasons. Whether people happen to be related, or not.” He points at his resident to drive his point home. “You, Shaun Murphy, are mine.”

Shaun smiles, clearly enjoying that summation. “Okay.”

Neil can feel Aaron staring at him, for too long, before the older man says, “I am the one who was wrong. The last thing I should have done was try to keep you two apart.” He meets Neil’s eyes across the room. “I hope you can forgive me, as well.”

“As Shaun said, there’s nothing to forgive you for.”

Aaron’s expression reveals that he doesn’t believe that’s true, in any way.

“Have we talked enough?” Shaun asks hopefully, directing it mostly at Neil. “I’d like to leave.”

“You’ve read my mind,” Neil tells him, standing as Shaun makes his way to the door. “Why don’t you get your things and meet me in the lobby?”

Shaun nods and then stops in front of him, pressing his mouth against Neil’s in a kiss that reveals his unspoken gratitude. The move is surprising – they’ve never shown this kind of affection in front of Aaron (and while Shaun has never said it out loud, Neil knows it’s because Shaun’s never been comfortable with it).

When Shaun pulls away, he doesn’t say anything to Neil, he just turns to face Aaron. “Good night, Dr. Glassman.”

“Night, Shaun,” Aaron murmurs, as the younger man leaves his office.

To Neil, Aaron suddenly seems exhausted, and he gathers tonight had been one of the more difficult conversations the older man’s had with Shaun in a long time. Maybe years.

“I don’t know what to say,” Aaron tells him. “I just… Again, I hope you can forgive me. For how difficult I made things for you. And Shaun.”

“I meant what I said, Aaron,” Neil insists, sitting back in the chair he’d left mere moments earlier (Aaron isn’t the only one who’s tired). “You only did what you thought was right, in an effort to protect someone – the very someone who also happens to be the most important person in my life. So no, there’s nothing to forgive.”

Aaron leans back in his chair, assessing Neil in that careful way he’s mastered over so many years. “I’m sorry I couldn’t see how much you needed each other. How important you were to each other. How much you loved… It should have been obvious to me. I let my fierce desire to protect Shaun blind me. I kept waiting for my fears to come true and they didn’t – so I started making excuses for myself, for my own guilt. I kept telling myself that I’d done the right thing. But the harsh truth is I didn’t. I haven’t been.” He takes a deep breath. “You deserved better, Neil.”

“It’s fine,” Neil tries to brush him off.

“You deserved better,” Aaron repeats, voice low.

Neil nods at that, glancing away briefly.

Aaron’s next question is spoken so quietly that Neil almost can’t hear him: “When did you become Shaun’s first line of defense against the world?”

Neil meets his eyes, maybe in slight challenge. “Probably around the same time I fell in love with him.”

There’s silence as Aaron takes in that fact – it’s something he must know, by now, but Neil has never said it out loud to anyone except Shaun.

“No,” Aaron finally concludes, “I think it was before that. You fought to keep him on your team. You kept Malcolm in line…more or less.”

“Which was no easy task, might I add,” Neil mutters.

Aaron smiles slightly. “And I heard about your chat with James Nolan. You’re always the one making sure Shaun’s okay, trying to fix the things that hurt him, and…” His brow furrows, like something is just occurring to him. “You’re even responsible for it now. With me. Shaun said you insisted that he talk to me and I still didn’t put it together until this moment.” He laughs slightly, but it’s at himself, and there’s no humor in it.

“You were mistaken,” Neil says, simply. “It’s much too easy, with Shaun, to make mistakes.” Aaron’s staring at his desk, and Neil wonders what he sees there. “I’ve made plenty, Aaron. Shaun’s made plenty, too. It’s okay, though. You learn from them and you move on. We’re all just…trying to do the best that we know how to do.”

Aaron’s eyes return to his, more piercing than Neil’s truly comfortable with. “That, Neil. That kind of thing. The way that you are. Not just with Shaun, but with others.” He leans forward in his chair. “You might be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”

Neil needs a few extra seconds to process Aaron’s assertion. “You would say that? You? Aaron, you’re the only reason that Shaun’s a surgeon right now. That he didn’t end up back with his abusive family, or in the foster system, or homeless. Or worse.” He doesn’t speak to the worse, because it’s something he can’t even allow himself to think about. “He was able to become who he is because of you.”

“We both know he still might have found a way. All I did was provide enough safety and support to make it easier.”

“You say that like it’s nothing. Aaron, that is everything.”

“It was important,” Aaron concedes. “But it’s different from what you’ve done.”

“All I’ve done is love him. Which you have done, as well.”

“All you’ve done is love him,” Aaron murmurs, shaking his head. “And you say that like it’s nothing. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s been blind here.” His voice turns serious – maybe more serious than Neil’s ever heard from him before. “He's different, Neil. He's…grown. It goes back to even before your relationship became romantic. I spent a decade trying to get through to Shaun – and I did, in my own ways. But I was never able to do for him what you have. He’s more open to others, now. He’s better able to deal with his emotions. He’s… God, he’s happy. He’s so happy. And I don’t mean to imply that he was unhappy before, but that he’s found a kind of joy, a kind of peace, with his life – with you – that he never had before.”

Neil’s instantly reminded of what he’d told Shaun several weeks earlier, in the aftermath of the subway derailment: There is a type of happiness, a type of satisfaction that I feel with my life, that I didn’t know before you. That I don’t think I knew existed before you.   

“I know what you mean,” he belatedly answers Aaron. “Because I feel that way about him.”

“He’s changed you, too.”

That’s something Neil had definitely already known – and already told Shaun, at that. “I know he has. For the better.”

‘Yeah,” Aaron agrees, on a smile. “He has a way of doing that to people.”

After a few moments, wherein Aaron doesn’t seem inclined to continue on, Neil decides to try and find some closure on this topic. He gets to his feet, more than ready to leave, and says, “So…this is over.” He’d meant it to be a question, but for some reason, it hadn’t come out that way.

“Yes,” Aaron confirms. “I’d say I was sorry a hundred more times, but we both know the conversation will just go in circles. And you know it’s true.”

“I do,” Neil says.

Aaron breathes in deeply. “I'm used to Shaun relying on me. Yes, he’s lived on his own for a long time, he runs his own day-to-day life, but when it comes to the most important decisions that he makes? He always comes to me. So the more I think about it, really think about it, I have to admit that part of this whole thing has been because…it’s hard for me to let go.” Aaron’s admission is quiet, but adamant. “It’s hard for me to trust anyone else when it comes to Shaun and the significant choices he makes, the ones that will truly impact his life. I’m used to doing this alone…for so long, I’ve been the only one that he’s had.”

“Aaron.” Neil sets his hands on Aaron’s desk, leaning slightly over it. “You’re not alone anymore.”

Aaron tips his head slightly in acknowledgement. “Whenever I thought about letting him go, all I could picture was Shaun out there. In the world. By himself.” He stares at Neil intently. “In my worry, I never thought about the fact that letting him go might mean there was someone else with him.”

“Neither of you are alone,” Neil reiterates, straightening again. “I’m not going anywhere.” He’s told that to both Aaron and Shaun, but it never hurts to repeat it.

“I believe you.” Aaron folds his hands on the desk. “And I… There is no way I can thank you for all that you’ve done for him.”

“Do you expect to be thanked for everything that you have done for him?”

The only indication of Aaron’s displeasure with that question is the slight narrowing of his eyes. “Of course not.”

“Because you love him. Because his well-being is imperative to your own.” He lets Aaron process that. “So how do you think I feel?”

Aaron doesn’t have to think about it. “The same.”

“The same,” Neil repeats, in confirmation.

“I’m thanking you, anyways.”

“Okay,” Neil says, accepting that he’s not going to win on this one. “I’m going home.”

Aaron bids him goodnight and Neil heads for the door, but he stops when he touches the handle. There’s something else that the other man has to know; something that Jessica had so perfectly put into words for him, two months ago.

“This thing,” Neil says, turning back to face Aaron. “With Shaun. I didn’t set out for it to happen.”

Aaron looks up at him in obvious confusion. “What?”

“This…found me. He found me. I couldn’t change what I felt. Or who I felt it for. I couldn’t stop it – and I’m not saying I wanted to, but that I couldn’t have, if I’d tried.” Neil tightens his hold on the door. “We entered a relationship because we both, equally, wanted to be with each other. But these feelings…what there is, between us? I didn’t get to choose, Aaron. And neither did Shaun.” He takes another breath, then slowly lets it go. “You love who you love.”

Aaron steeples his hands together and then presses them to his mouth. “You love who you love,” he repeats, in agreement.

Neil nods at him once more and then leaves, finally at ease with the way they’ve left things.

Because now…now he’s sure that Aaron understands.

Chapter Text

“Good afternoon, Dr. Melendez.”

“Back at you, Murphy,” Neil says, as Shaun takes an adjacent chair at his table in the cafeteria. They've both finished lunch, Shaun with Aaron and Neil having eaten alone. (Even though Aaron and Shaun have both invited him to join them, several times now, Neil has always declined. Their regular lunches are rare times the two of them get to spend alone together and Neil isn’t going to take that away from either of them – even if they wouldn’t mind his presence.)

It’s become something of a habit that if the three of them are in the cafeteria at the same time, then after Aaron and Shaun finish, Shaun will stop at Neil’s table for a little while before they have to go back upstairs.

Before he has a chance to ask how Shaun’s lunch was, Neil’s phone chimes five times in a row, which makes him think maybe it’s something serious.

The sender, however, tells him it’s most likely not.

Marcus Andrews.

“Seriously?” Neil looks up, scanning around to find – yup, his colleague (and technical boss), is off to his left, a mere two tables over; it’s the same place he’s been sitting for the past half hour. “We can see each other. We can talk to each other, Marcus.”

“Oh, did all my texts annoy you?” His question reminds Neil that Marcus really shouldn’t attempt innocence – the man has no subtlety for it (he might be as bad as Jared, in fact).

“What do you want?”

Marcus merely gestures to his phone, expression a fairly even mix between ‘You didn’t even read them, Neil!’ and ‘How long until retirement, again?’.

Right. Neil supposes reading them might give him a slight hint about what Marcus wants. He pulls up the notifications and…

Bring.

Me.

Your.

Evaluations.

TODAY.

Oh…no. Maybe deflection will help. He waves his phone in Marcus’s general direction, without turning his head. “I love it when you text me a five word sentence in five separate messages.”

Marcus gets up and comes over to their table, taking the seat directly across from Neil’s, probably because it’s the best one to (attempt to) stare him down. “I thought it would drive the point home.”

Neil’s deflection isn’t working. Maybe he should try to…deflect harder? He points at the last message on his phone screen while holding it up for Marcus to view. “Could you clarify, exactly, what you mean by ‘today’?”

Shaun opens his mouth, probably to provide a literal textbook definition, but Neil holds up a hand to stave him off. Marcus does a double take between them, maybe surprised that the motion had caused Shaun to remain silent instead of simply ignoring it like he does with…well, most everyone.

“You should have let Murphy answer,” Marcus says. “Then maybe you’d understand that by ‘today’ I mean this day. Not tomorrow, not three weeks from now – not next year.”

The problem is, until those texts two minutes ago, Neil had completely forgotten he had evaluations due. “You see, technically…”

Marcus sees right through his (rather poor) attempts to find an excuse for why he hadn’t done them that’s more believable than the truth of ‘I forgot’. “Have you even started them, Neil?”

“I keep meticulous notes,” Neil says, in his own defense, and while it’s not an actual answer, it might as well be. It also happens to be true; he’s always making notations in his residents’ files and he has all the information necessary to draft the actual evaluations, but he kept putting it off because it seemed like such an unproductive use of his time. (And then it had gone out of his head, entirely.) “For some reason my notes aren’t acceptable to you, or the administration, and you all insist I put them in a hospital-approved format that I think is a huge waste of time and –”

“It’s called coherency, Neil. I want coherency. Not to struggle my way through 38 pages of notes on each of your residents, which are filled with half-formed thoughts and ideas that are mostly in shorthand and only make sense to you. Is putting them into a user-accessible format too much to ask?”

Neil doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

Marcus throws his hands up. “So because Neil Melendez doesn’t like something, I guess we should do away with it.”

“If you insist, then –”

“Not an actual offer.” Marcus starts tapping his phone on the table, supposedly in annoyance, but his eyes are light enough that Neil knows he’s going to get off easy this time (which, admittedly, is probably more than he deserves). “They’re over five months late, Neil.”

“There’s no way they’re –” He quickly does the math. “Wow, they are that late.” Yeah, leniency is definitely more than he deserves, this time around. “Maybe you should have been on me more about this.”

Marcus lets his phone clatter to the table with a dramatic thud from the one-inch drop. “This is my fault?”

“Depends on if you buy it or not.”

Marcus mumbles something under his breath that Neil can’t make out, then says, “Alright, I have to admit something… Part of this is on me because during our last software upgrade, my secretary had to manually input some of the data on older documents and she mistyped the date on last year’s evaluations, mistakenly putting this year on them. So the system registered them wrong, which meant the system reminders stopped getting sent to me. It wasn’t until I went to actually pull one up that I noticed the error. Otherwise, you have a point that I would have been after you much sooner than this. Obviously.”

Neil can’t believe his good fortune – that it actually hadn’t all been his fault. “I usually rely on you to remind me about these things, so once I stopped hearing from you, I completely forgot about them. I know I probably need a better system…”

“You think?” Marcus sighs, then shrugs. “Oh well, mistakes happen.”

Neil wonders if he’s only saying that because he and his secretary are technically at fault along with Neil. Probably. (He can’t envision any world where Marcus would let him off the hook this easily if Neil were the only one to blame.)

As always, though, Neil can never resist pushing Marcus as far as he can. “Hey, since they’re so late already, what are the chances I could do them now and count them as next year’s, instead?”

The frown lines around his boss’s eyes deepen. “Sometimes I wonder if you have to deal with even half the grief from your subordinates as I do from mine. Then I remember who your residents are and I realize I have the much better deal.”

“Should I take offense?” Shaun’s question reminds them both that there’s a witness to this entirely unprofessional conversation. (Not that Neil is ever that professional with Shaun – outside of the building, anyways. Okay, and a lot of the times in it, too.)

“I wasn’t referring to you, Murphy. You’re actually the ideal resident. Neil would probably love to have five of you.”

Neil searches Marcus’s expression, wondering if that’s some kind of veiled comment, but there’s not a hint of anything on the other man’s face. (Marcus still hasn’t mentioned anything about his and Shaun’s relationship, and Neil’s really curious about why that’s the case – if Marcus is going to bring it up at some point, or never. Neil’s even been tempted to introduce the topic himself, and maybe that’s been Marcus’s diabolical plan all along – drag things out and see how long it takes for Neil to cave.)

“Thank you for the compliment,” Shaun says after a few beats of silence, apparently having accepted Marcus’s comment as sincere, along with Neil.

Marcus is studying the younger man with no shortage of humor. “I’m surprised Neil hasn’t had you type up your own evaluation, you could probably do it in ten minutes. And of anyone asked to do a self-evaluation, I actually trust that you’d be fair and impartial.”

“It would include my flaws, yes,” Shaun affirms.

“You have flaws?” Neil asks, rather dramatically, then wonders if it was wise to say during a discussion about impartial evaluations with their boss – because his tone had been far more affectionate than joking.

All Marcus does, though, is stand and hold up a finger. “One week. I’m giving you one week, Melendez, seeing as you haven’t even started yet…and because it wasn’t entirely your fault. But after that, I’m going to have to note in your evaluation that you can’t ever finish evaluations on time.”

“Not my permanent record, Marcus!” Neil faux-pleads, and the other man shuts his eyes for a moment. Neil can still tell he hasn’t pushed him to the edge of his patience, or he’d be on the receiving end of a lot more anger, but he also remembers how things usually go for him (and his residents) on the rare occasion he miscalculates. So he switches his tone to apologetic and says, “I am sorry, though. I lost track of time. I have a free afternoon, actually, so barring any emergencies, I’ll have them to you by the end of the day.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Marcus says cheerfully. Then he hesitates, staring down at Neil in a way that leaves him distinctly uncomfortable. “Has something been keeping you more preoccupied than usual, these past few months?”

Neil stills, since the subtle meaning of that question isn’t lost on anyone, not even Shaun who has also snapped to attention on his side of the table. But while Neil’s easily able to infer the meaning, he can’t find anything on Marcus’s face to indicate whether it’s some kind of warning, or not.

He can’t even deny the question – there’s no point. Marcus will know it’s a lie. And the worst of it is, Shaun isn’t the reason why his evaluations are late. But who would ever believe, if they put two and two together, that it didn’t equal four? So all Neil can do is answer with a steady question of his own: “Has anyone from the administration asked you that, Marcus?”

“No. And I would prefer to keep it that way.” There’s sincerity in the words, and surprisingly to Neil, no hint of calculation or some ulterior motive other than what he’s claiming. It’s confirmed when Marcus adds, “I know how you operate, Melendez. Your evaluations are always late – granted not this late – but I know I’d be more surprised if they were ever on time. Your list of priorities is skewed 99% towards patients and 1% towards bureaucracy. But while I know that, not everyone does. So don’t go making it easy for people to draw connections that don’t exist.”

Neil takes that in. “Noted,” he says, then quietly adds, “Thank you.” Marcus nods, and then he’s gone, and Neil finds that it’s a strange feeling to have someone looking out for him – for them – that’s one of the last people he ever would have expected. (He can’t decide if Marcus has actually grown as a person or if Glassman has some kind of blackmail over him – it’s 50/50, really.)

At least with Marcus gone, Neil’s finally able to focus his attention on the person he’s wanted to for ten minutes now.

“You,” he says to Shaun, feeling everything in him calm. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Shaun repeats, matching his smile.

“How was lunch?”

“It was good,” Shaun says, without elaboration.

“Is your lunch ever anything other than good?” Neil asks, because hearing it was ‘good’ is almost always the response he gets.

Shaun shrugs. “Sometimes it’s not as good. If they don’t make what I order exactly the way I like it. Or if they are out of what I want.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket, apparently having felt it vibrate, and reads a message before announcing, “Dr. Andrews has escalated his threats.”

Upon hearing that, the first thing Neil thinks is that Marcus has resorted to threatening Shaun over Neil’s actions. That guess doesn’t even make sense based on how amiably he and Marcus had just left their conversation, but Neil’s suddenly furious. His only thought is to go confront him, right now, because using Shaun as leverage to get his way is unacceptable – but then Shaun holds up his phone so Neil can read the message: Tell Dr. Melendez that if I don’t get my evaluations within the week, I’m firing him.

Neil instantly relaxes…then wonders what the hell’s happened to him that he’d have such a blinding, irrational reaction. It seems he can remain rational about everything – everything – in his life, except for Shaun Murphy.

“He cannot fire you without cause,” Shaun’s saying. “Missing evaluations is not cause for termination unless they demonstrate a repeated and willful pattern of purposely not fulfilling your job requirements.” He sends Neil a pointed look, reminding him, “I read the handbook.”

“You’re the only person in this entire hospital who has,” Neil reminds him, right back, charmed by the fact that Shaun’s first reaction to Marcus’s obvious joke is to defend him.

“Dr. Andrews pointed out that paperwork is not high on your list of priorities. And lately, people might think that has to do with…me.” Shaun’s clearly unhappy with the wrong assumptions people might make, and Neil can’t blame him, because he is, too.

“Marcus knows that the evaluations have nothing to do with us,” Neil reminds him (though maybe the reassurance is for both of them). “My list of priorities goes something like…” He holds a hand up over his head. “Keeping people alive. That’s the top one, the most important, and always will be.” He lowers his hand a little. “Then teaching, helping others learn how to do what I know how to do, which also happens to keep people alive.” He drops his hand to rest on the table. “Down here is everything else. Paperwork. Meetings. All other work obligations, of every kind. In this area, I meet the basic requirements to keep my job. That’s about it.”

Shaun’s taking that in with the sort of rapt attention that Neil loves about him.

“And where am I?” Shaun asks. His genuine curiosity has Neil’s quip about ‘sitting next to me in the cafeteria’ evaporating before he can even think about voicing it.

“You aren’t in this one,” he tells Shaun, waving a hand up and down to indicate the imaginary scale he’d just been explaining. “This is work. You aren’t here.”

“I am part of your work.”

“Alright,” Neil concedes, “if we’re talking that context, then you’re with all my residents. Mentoring you all, et cetera. Just slightly below saving lives.”

“That seems acceptable,” Shaun says. And he doesn’t say anything else. And Neil has to wonder, if he has any idea

“I can’t rank you in my list of priorities when it comes to work. Not because it’s unprofessional, but because I… I can’t.” He’s suddenly not sure whether he’s explaining himself well. Or at all. “It’s impossible. I can’t do it when it concerns…what you are to me. That’s personal. It’s…” He leans back in his chair, thinking about it. “It’s an entirely different list.”

“Okay,” Shaun says agreeably, and because he’s Shaun, he asks, “Then where am I on that list?”

Neil stares at him for a few seconds. “You are that list.”

Shaun seems to be taking in the gravity of his answer. “That is…acceptable,” he finally says, mouth twitching in a way that means he’s attempting to make a joke. Then he fails completely and gives in to his smile and Neil can’t help his own smile in return. (Shaun trying to harass him, but not quite being able to pull it off because he can’t keep a straight face, has rapidly become one of Neil’s favorite things.)

“Well, I certainly hope it’s acceptable,” Neil replies, arching a brow, then points at Shaun’s forgotten phone on the table in front of him – if he doesn’t switch the topic back to its previous one, things are going to get too emotional for 1:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in a semi-crowded cafeteria. “Marcus is using you against me. It’s clever, really.”

“What do you mean?”

“He knows with you nagging – I mean reminding me, I’m much more likely to get the evaluations turned in quickly.” Neil really does plan to finish them today, but things come up all the time that require his attention, and it’s definitely possible that he’ll put them off again since he knows he still has a week to do it. But there’s absolutely zero chance that he’ll forget about them now that Shaun knows about it. (Shaun’s instincts for self-preservation have always been higher than Neil’s – especially when it comes to Neil’s self-preservation, at that.)

Shaun’s frowning at Neil’s deliberately feigned misuse of one particular word. “I do not nag,” he protests.

“I’m inclined to keep ‘forgetting’ to complete the evaluations just to prove you wrong.”

Shaun looks appropriately horrified at that suggestion. “I am mindful. You would do well to follow my example.”

“You are my resident,” he reminds Shaun, taking an interested note in the way Shaun’s eyes darken at that. “I’m your boss. I’m fifteen years older than you. This conversation should be going the other way around.”

“It should,” Shaun primly agrees, and the haughtiness of his tone, along with the hint of playfulness in it, abruptly makes Neil want to lean over and kiss him. He doesn’t, though, in an impressive display of self-control (if he does say so himself).

As it turns out, it’s a good thing he doesn’t, because the next moment Malcolm is standing next to their table (and he would have probably started cheering or something equally ridiculous).

“How come no one ever invites me to lunch?” Malcolm complains.

“That’s my cue to –” Neil’s about to get up when Malcolm presses on his shoulder and Neil inwardly sighs. He makes a split-second decision to stay (which is mainly because Shaun seems in no hurry to leave – and it’s not exactly a hospital-wide secret that he wants to be wherever Shaun is, most of the time).

“Don’t have to stand up on my account,” Malcolm’s saying, as he takes the seat across from Shaun, “though I appreciate the chivalry, Melendez.”

“Yeah, that’s what it is, Malcolm. And not me attempting to escape from you.” By now, Neil doesn’t feel much animosity towards the other man, at all, but Malcolm still gets on his nerves a lot of the time, just by being himself, and Neil can’t seem to break this habit of always being exasperated with him.

Though, to Neil’s growing horror recently, he’s beginning to think his attitude comes off as more a friendly hostility than anything else, and he’s also certain that Malcolm likes it way too much and believes that it confirms they’re friends.

Which. Maybe they are. Damn it. (Neil had tried so hard to prevent it, too.)

“It’d be nice to receive an invitation one of these days.” Malcolm is borderline sulking. “I always have to sit down without one. It’s impolite of you, Neil.”

“Not asking you to sit down is impolite, but you sitting down without an invitation isn’t?”

“Ah, it would only be impolite if you didn’t want me here. And we both know that’s not true.”

Neil can only stare at him.

“You may join us, Dr. Malcolm,” Shaun says kindly, with a smile at that, and Neil turns his stare to Shaun instead of Malcolm. There’s not a hint of anything else in Shaun’s eyes, or his voice, or his smile that indicates he’d only said it to harass Neil. No, in this, all he sees is confirmation that Shaun genuinely likes Everett and considers him a friend.

“I’ve already joined you,” Malcolm beams at him, “but thank you, Murphy.” He then turns a scowl to Neil. “At least one of you has manners.”

“Dr. Melendez has manners.” (And there Shaun goes defending him again – Neil tries, unsuccessfully, to tamp down on the usual warmth that fills him whenever he does that.) “He sometimes chooses not to use them,” Shaun adds, as Neil leans around the table so he can find the leg of Shaun’s chair and give it an admonishing kick; Shaun is entirely unperturbed, probably used to that kind of thing by now. “As you can see, Dr. Malcolm.”

“You should work on that, Neil,” Malcolm scolds, then points at the bag of chips Neil has forgotten about from lunch. “You gonna finish those?” Neil picks up the bag and throws it at him, inwardly satisfied when Malcolm has to flail a little to catch them.

Malcolm joining him (and often Shaun) has also become a semi-habit lately, along with stealing Neil’s food (but never Shaun’s, if he happens to have anything). Neil’s not the only one Malcolm’s targeted, either – Park and Jared come to mind as frequent victims of lunch theft, and he’s done it to Marcus a few times (Malcolm’s much braver than he is). Neil even saw him do it to Glassman once. (The older man had simply watched, bewildered, as Malcolm ate carrots off his tray while rambling on about God knew what – Neil had made sure to leave that scene as quickly as possible.)

“You have money, Malcolm,” Neil reminds him, for probably the millionth time. “We do pay you. I confirmed it with payroll, even.”

Instead of issuing a joke in return, like usual, Malcolm actually offers an explanation today: “I’m not usually that hungry during the day, I prefer to snack instead of having meals. Seems more cost-effective, and less wasteful, to eat what people don’t want than to buy my own food.”

“You mean to steal food?”

Malcolm waves the bag in his general direction. “Were you going to finish these?”

Neil wants to claim otherwise, but… “Well. No.”

“You were going to throw them out. That’s wasteful,” Malcolm scolds. “I’m doing my part for…the planet.”

“Your logic makes sense,” Shaun puts in, and Neil sends him a mild glare, reminding himself to tell Shaun later that he should be taking his side – not because they’re in a relationship but because no one should ever agree with Everett Malcolm’s inane logic.

“See, Murphy agrees.” Malcolm takes out another chip, deliberately slow. “Don’t you care about the planet, Neil?”

“How does me pointing out that you have not spent a single cent on food in five months, somehow translate to the untrue fact that I want the Earth to die?”

“Don’t get upset with me, Neil; I only connect the dots.”

“Of all the useless conversations I’ve ever had in my life, I swear my discussions with you make up the top…90% of that list, easily.”

Malcolm eats another chip, entirely unfazed. “Who makes up the other 10%?”

“Kalu,” Neil answers, without hesitation, and Malcolm bursts into laughter, which indicates he must agree.

“The other day, I asked him how he felt working here for almost a year and a half now, if he still liked it as much as in the beginning. He went off on some tangent that had nothing to do with anything I’d asked. I actually had to pretend I got a phone call to get away from him. It’s so frustrating when people can’t pick up on normal social cues.”

“Is it.” Neil’s statement is deliberately flat, but as usual, the meaning completely goes over Malcolm’s head.

“It is,” he says emphatically, crunching on a chip like that confirms his assertion.

“Social cues are sometimes difficult to pick up on,” Shaun says, voice abnormally subdued, and that’s the first time Neil ever sees Everett Malcolm’s face completely drain of color.

“Hey, that wasn’t – I wasn’t directing that at you. I would never – I mean –” Malcolm’s genuinely flustered, talking over himself in an attempt to explain. (Neil’s tempted to step in, for both of them, but then decides this is something they should hash out on their own.) “Murphy, I wouldn’t have –”

“I know you did not direct it at me and that you meant no offense,” Shaun interrupts, probably finding Malcolm’s protests as painful as Neil does. “I was only explaining that sometimes…people…they don’t know.” By ‘people’, Shaun obviously means himself. And if it’s possible, it looks like Malcolm feels even worse after hearing that.

“Murphy, I – I’m sorry.” He’s dropped the bag of chips and leans slightly forward, staring intently at Shaun whose eyes are now fixed on the table like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. “It was an ill-advised joke about Kalu’s propensity to completely lose track of a conversation and – you don’t frustrate me, Shaun. Or annoy me. I hope you don’t think that.”

“I don’t.” Shaun’s words are almost said in monotone, and Neil can tell he’d meant it as a question, but it hadn’t come out as one.

“No, you don’t.” There’s an honesty in Malcolm’s voice, which causes him to lose his almost-constant humorous tone, and it informs Neil that this is as serious as…he probably gets. “I kind of…” Malcolm hesitates, then continues, “I mean, I kind of love you, kid. Nothing about you irritates me.” He winces, maybe at some long-forgotten memory. “Uh…at least, not anymore. And there are very few people I feel that way about. So yeah. You should feel honored.” He leans back in his chair, but it’s obvious from how he defensively crosses his arms that he’s distinctly uncomfortable about his admission and how it’ll be received.

Neil’s honestly floored at what Malcolm’s said, though he supposes it’s not entirely out of the blue. Shaun and Malcolm have worked together on those clinical trials for months now, and they both speak pretty highly of each other. Not to mention the way Malcolm had stridently defended Shaun along with him, not too long ago, in their confrontation with James Nolan.

For Shaun’s part, his expression doesn’t change for nearly half a minute (and Neil’s sure, because he counts the seconds). “You…love me?” More than surprise, there’s actual disbelief in those words. “I am –” He darts his eyes to Neil’s. “I am in a relationship with –”

“I don’t mean romantically,” Malcolm huffs, seeming like he’s back on slightly more solid ground at that (too sweet) of a misunderstanding. “Just like…a friend, Murphy. Don’t you love your friends?”

“Of course. I did not realize you…considered me that close of a friend.” Shaun sounds the slightest bit awed, and it’s not until that moment that Neil realizes how much Shaun actually looks up to the other surgeon. And he really should have known, based on how warmly Shaun talks about him lately, not to mention that he’s told Neil that he and Malcolm are similar in certain ways – as such, it makes sense that he’d admire Malcolm for the same reasons he admires Neil.

In any other relationship that Neil’s had in his life, this would be the moment that jealousy struck him, but this time…it never materializes. Instead, as he watches Shaun’s amazement, Neil finds that he’s simply…happy. He’s happy that Shaun’s happy.

He’s happy that yet another person has realized how much Shaun is worth loving.

(And Neil’s beginning to realize that he isn’t the only person Shaun Murphy has had a significant effect upon during his time at their hospital.)

“I don’t know how it happened,” Malcolm’s telling Shaun, with far too much exaggerated regret to be real. “You kind of made your way in without me noticing until it was too late.”

Shaun’s still staring at him. “I care about you.” He seems troubled when he admits, “I do not know if I love you.”

“You say that like you think it will bother me,” Malcolm says, easily. “You don’t have to love someone just because they love you.”

Shaun looks at Neil for a long moment before turning back to Malcolm. “Dr. Melendez has told me the exact same thing.”

“Then Dr. Melendez is very wise,” Malcolm says, sending a quick grin Neil’s way.

“Finally, you’re right about something for once in your life,” Neil tells him. He wants to laugh, but he doesn’t, because this conversation seems too serious for it.

“Gee, thanks, Neil,” Malcolm says, dryly.

“I’d say it again, too,” Neil offers, then purposely waits a moment before adding, “So long as you’re complimenting me. Or talking about how right I am. Or –”

“I get it,” Malcolm sighs, picking up the discarded bag of chips and shaking out another one. Returning to his snack is clear enough indication that he’s content with the way his conversation with Shaun has concluded, and Neil makes a mental note to seek him out later to tell him just how much he appreciates the way he is – the way that he’s been – with Shaun. (He never would have believed, back when he first met Malcolm, that things would eventually turn out this way…but he’s grateful that they have.)

His mind drifts back over what they’d been discussing before this latest tangent…why would Malcolm be asking Kalu about how much he likes working here long-term? And a few weeks prior, he’d been meeting with Aaron…

“Everett,” he begins suspiciously, catching the other man’s overt attention at the use of his first name, “what was it that you wanted to tell us a couple weeks ago? That you were talking about with Aaron?”

“Oh, that! We were discussing the possibility of me transferring here permanently.”

Neil’s mind trips over those last few words. “I must have misheard you. What’d you say?”

“We were discussing the possibility of a permanent transfer!” Malcolm yells the last two words, causing a family at a nearby table to look at him with varying degrees of displeasure and annoyance.

“Permanent. As in…”

“It means he would never leave,” Shaun helpfully supplies, like Neil’s confused on the definition and not its implications.

Neil shakes his head to try and clear it. Malcolm here? For the rest of their careers? Sure, he’s not so bad, and Neil might even reluctantly admit (only to himself) that they’re sort-of friends, but forever with the guy? He’s a lot to take, even in small doses, never mind…

“Please, Neil,” Malcolm’s smirking at him, “your excitement is almost too much for me to take.”

Neil wonders where this is even coming from. “Why would you want to leave Good Samaritan?”

“It has nothing to do with wanting to leave there and everything to do with wanting to stay here.” Malcolm’s obviously enjoying Neil’s mostly stunned reaction. “What can I say? I like the company around here.”

“Did Glassman approve it?”

“More or less, though it’s not official yet. I technically took Coyle’s place, remember? Which means they never hired someone permanently for his position. My trials are going well and this hospital will get credit for them if our new anti-rejection drugs eventually get through the FDA. And in case you’ve forgotten, Neil, on top of all that, I’m actually an excellent surgeon with a stellar reputation. Glassman’s going to talk to the board, but it’s mostly a formality. Odds are highly in my favor that I’ll be able to stay. Something like 99%.”

Neil actually had known all of that information – aside from the one crucial fact that, all totaled, it meant that Malcolm wanted to stay at Saint Bonaventure. “I had no idea you were even considering a permanent transfer, never mind had already put things into motion.”

“I knew,” Shaun chimes in. “Dr. Malcolm and I discussed it long before he approached Dr. Glassman.”

Neil turns to him in disbelief. “You and I,” he points at Shaun and then himself, “are going to have a discussion later about the things couples need to share with each other.”

Shaun’s brow furrows as he glances from Malcolm to Neil. “I should have…told you this? But it was not about us.”

“Other topics should also be shared,” Neil manages to get out, ignoring Malcolm’s overly enthusiastic grin. “Namely, so I can prepare.”

“I’m sorry.” Shaun’s staring down at his lap. “I did not know this was…included in…”

The apologetic (and regretful) tone has Neil narrowing his eyes. He hooks his foot around the leg of Shaun’s chair and pulls him closer in a move that has the younger man almost jumping out of it in surprise.

“Hey. You.” Neil waits for Shaun to look at him. “I’m not angry with you. And when have I ever gotten upset over anything even remotely like this?”

“You don’t like it when I don’t tell you things that you think are important.” Shaun shrugs, in a move that’s too lost for Neil’s liking. “And you did not sound happy, just now.”

“I was talking about Malcolm,” Neil protests. “I will never sound happy talking about him!”

“…Thanks?” Malcolm half-asks.

Neil ignores him, which is about the best he can do, at the moment. “All I meant, Shaun, is that couples often tell each other when there’s…information that their partner will find interesting. Or helpful. Or what have you. It’s kind of…a known thing.”

There’s a look on Shaun’s face that Neil can’t adequately describe before it’s gone.

“Okay.” Shaun nods a few times, then says, “Dr. Melendez.”

“Yes?”

“Dr. Malcolm is considering a permanent move to our hospital.”

Neil presses a hand to his temple. “I meant,” he begins, carefully, “that you should tell me before I learn about something on my own.”

“Did you?” Shaun asks, innocently, and that’s when Neil catches the humor in the question. Oh. Neil’s been a little slow to catch onto the joke this time around, and that’s not like him – Malcolm as an ever-present source of stress must be causing his usually flawless observational skills to go haywire.

“Alright,” Neil declares, turning back to Malcolm, “know what? I approve of your decision. You can have my job here, and all of my exasperating residents –” He ignores Shaun’s ‘Hey!’ of protest, “– and I’ll take over your job at Good Samaritan.”

“You’d never be able to fill my shoes there,” Malcolm says, blithely.

“We have the exact same job title.”

“I meant personality-wise.” He waves a hand at Neil. “You’d never fit.”

“Because I don’t drive people to drink at work?’”

“Because you’re too…morally upstanding.” He tilts his head. “Yeah, that’s about the best I can describe it. And it might be your biggest character flaw.”

“That is not a character flaw!” Shaun jumps in.

“Murphy,” Malcolm begs, “before you start with the ‘don’t you dare insult the man I love’ speech, consider that it wasn’t actually an insult. Really. I mean, maybe in my worldview Neil needs to lighten up, but in the worldview of Neil Melendez –”

“I can think of no higher compliment than you telling me that I am the opposite of your ideal,” Neil agrees, on a laugh, as Shaun brushes his hand down Neil’s arm, under the table where Malcolm can’t see. (Though judging by the glint in the other man’s eyes, he probably knows, anyways.)

Whatever answer Shaun might have given to that is lost when he’s distracted by something across the room. Neil looks over and realizes that Shaun’s watching James Nolan cross the cafeteria. While Neil’s looking, the other man doesn’t so much as glance their way, but his mere presence has caused Shaun to become noticeably tenser – which is cemented when Shaun goes from laying a hand on his arm to holding onto it, seemingly without noticing.

“What is it?” Neil asks, because he knows Shaun’s not going to volunteer the information. He leans more into Shaun’s space, which is easy enough, since their chairs are now only a foot apart, on account of how he’d pulled Shaun closer a few minutes earlier. “Did he say something to you?”

Shaun glances at him, then away again. “I know what you did.”

Well, that could mean any number of things…but Neil knows what he’s referring to. “Did he tell you?”

“He said I didn’t have to send you.” Shaun’s voice is clipped. “That I should have talked to him myself.”

“Did he say anything else?” Neil’s acutely aware that Malcolm’s as interested in the answer as he is, himself.

“Yes. He apologized to me. He actually seemed…kind.”

“He better have been,” Malcolm mutters, under his breath.

“Shaun…” Neil had thought that Shaun knew about this long ago, but obviously that wasn’t the case. “I’ll make sure to tell him you didn’t send me.”

Shaun doesn’t seem concerned with that, and just says, “You should not have spoken to him.”

“Too late,” Neil says, as Shaun’s eyes narrow on him. “I’m not going to apologize for it, either. If that’s what you’re expecting.” And while he knows Shaun won’t like hearing that, Neil can’t say anything other than that. Because it’s the truth and he feels so adamantly about it that Shaun’s unhappiness isn’t a factor here, for once.

“I can stand up for myself,” Shaun insists.

“You can. And you have, many times. I’ve seen it.” Neil considers Shaun’s assertion. “But this time, with James Nolan…you obviously knew what he was saying, but you never spoke to him about it. And I’m not saying you had to, or that you should have, it just makes me curious – what was different this time?”

Shaun looks at the top of the table and it’s actually Malcolm that ends up answering for him.

“It’s because he’s heard it so often.” Malcolm’s voice is quiet, yet it still surprises Neil. Shaun glances at him, but doesn’t argue, and Malcolm adds, “You find it commonplace.”

“Is that true?” Neil asks, maybe a touch too demanding, and Shaun remains silent. (Which means it’s true.)

“So if you’ve heard it your whole life,” Malcolm says, carefully, “you must have learned, by now, who’s worth arguing with. And…who’s not.”

Neil knows that Shaun’s had to deal with a lot, had to prove himself over and over, often to the very same people who didn’t (or refused) to get it the first or second or tenth time around. And Shaun’s never given up, either, as proven by where he is in life, right now. But to think that he’s heard people tell him he can’t do things so often that he doesn’t bother objecting most of the time, anymore, and just goes and does what they tell him he can’t do…

Neil feels physically unwell, and he’s grateful when Shaun speaks, so he doesn’t have to.

“Dr. Malcolm is correct. I do not believe the insults I hear. They don’t affect me. Not the way they used to. And it is… I have found it is easier not to fight with people like that, if they are not confronting me, directly. You will almost never change people’s minds.” It sounds like he’s trying to get Neil to understand. “I made a decision a long time ago. I did not want to spend my whole life fighting.” He reaches up, like he’s going to touch Neil, then drops his hand before he gets close. “I do not want you to have to spend your whole life fighting for me.”

It takes Neil a few moments to unpack all of that, but when he does… This. This is the kind of thing he’s trying to change. He wants to list all the reasons why what Shaun’s saying will never happen, all the reasons that Neil will never stop fighting for him, but he’d be there forever. All he can manage to say is, “Then you entered a relationship with the exact wrong person, Shaun Murphy.”

Shaun obviously doesn’t like that assertion. At all. “You are not the wrong person. You are – you are the right person.” His voice suddenly becomes tinged with desperation, like he’s afraid Neil won’t believe him. “The only right person.”

“I know how you feel,” Neil whispers, in assurance, running his fingers from Shaun’s temple down to his neck, his shoulder, his arm, and then to his hand – and it causes the tension to bleed out of Shaun’s shoulders as he leans slightly more into Neil. “I feel the same way.”

His actions have helped, but Neil can tell Shaun is still mildly distressed. And it’s proven when the younger man says, “You still should not have to… You should not have to defend me.”

“I’ve told you this before, Shaun. It’s not about ‘having’ to do something. It’s about wanting to do it.” He waits a few moments for that to resonate and considers that despite everything Shaun’s said, he doesn’t seem genuinely upset with Neil. He also hasn’t ordered him to never do it again, for that matter. His protests have only been on Neil’s behalf. Shaun doesn’t want Neil to think of him as ‘work’, in any way, and it’s so…it’s so like Shaun that Neil can’t believe he didn’t pick up on it sooner. And it also means that he has to turn things around so Shaun understands where Neil is coming from.

“What would you do if Nolan – or someone else – was disparaging Claire? Or Aaron?” Shaun’s eyes flash, not liking the direction of this conversation. “What would you do if that person was disparaging me?”

“I would defend you,” Shaun bites out, with no hesitation. “But that is different. No one would say anything about you.”

“On the contrary, Shaun,” Neil informs him. “I’ve had plenty of enemies over the years. It just kind of naturally happens. Colleagues get jealous when you get promoted over them or they think that you’re receiving special treatment. Residents become unhappy when you lecture them, or assign them work they don’t want to do.” He sighs heavily, hating this last example the most. “People sometimes come to hate you when their loved one dies because you couldn’t save them.”

“They would be wrong,” Shaun says, fiercely. “You are – you’re the best at what you do. No one else rivals you.”

“Don’t let Marcus hear you say that. And I think a few others might take issue with that assertion, as well.” (He’s actually surprised Malcolm hadn’t made a remark after that – is it possible the other man has somehow learned restraint?) “But I do happen to agree with you, Shaun – there’s a reason I’m the most requested surgeon at our hospital. And actually, at the moment, I can’t think of many people whom I know actively dislike me. It’s probably the lowest number it’s been…well, for my entire career. And I strongly suspect that it’s because of you.”

Shaun seems unsure. “I don’t understand.”

“I think it’s because anyone who might have a negative opinion about me, or some aspect of my personality, when they learn that we’re in a relationship? They reevaluate, because why else would someone as kind, as innately good as you want to be with me, if you didn’t see something similar reflected in me?”

“You are good,” Shaun whispers. “You are more than good.”

“And I’ve told you this before, but you’ve made me consider the way I act, more than I ever did before. I’m not as quick to rush to judgement. I give people more chances; I give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s more important for me to be fair than for me to be the one who’s always right. All of that has contributed, Shaun. And all of that is because of you.”

“I didn’t change you,” Shaun argues. “Everything you are talking about, it was always there. In you. I…reminded you that you don’t need an excuse to be more patient. Or more kind.” He’s speaking more slowly now, which informs Neil how important he thinks this is. “It is not a sign of weakness. It’s not about giving in to someone else. Or letting them win. It’s about doing what’s right. Even if…it’s harder to do what’s right than to do otherwise.” He pauses, searching Neil’s face. “I’ve told you before. I see who you are.”

Neil watches him for a few moments. “I don’t deserve you.”

Shaun’s eyes narrow, not appreciating that sentiment. “I am not some…some prize to be gifted to the best surgeon at Saint Bonaventure.”

“Course not,” Malcolm says, startling them both at the reminder of his presence. “‘Cause if you were, then I’d have won you a long time ago.”

When Shaun mutely glares at him, Malcolm only winks in return.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Neil says, regaining Shaun’s attention. “It’s a figure of speech. You’re just…you’re too good for me.”

“I am not.”

Neil doesn’t argue with him, because Shaun is too good for him, but he also knows he’s never going to convince Shaun of that fact (and in truth, he doesn’t want to). He decides to go with teasing instead. “So if you were a prize,” he begins, as Shaun’s glare turns more intense, “you agree that I’d win over Malcolm, right? I mean, I am the best –”

Shaun gives his chair a kick, and Neil’s entirely unprepared for it. Still, he’s able to regain himself fairly quickly. “Message received, Dr. Murphy. You’re not in the mood for jokes. But don’t think I’ve forgotten where we originally started this conversation.” Shaun sighs and glances away (so yes, he had thought Neil might have forgotten). “You know me, which means you know how futile it is to tell me not to defend anyone, let alone you. I will never stop fighting for you.” He abruptly remembers something else Shaun had said – something that he’s wrong about. “You said you didn’t want to spend your whole life fighting people, but you have, Shaun. Maybe not always with words, but with actions. To get where you are right now. You’ve fought your entire life.”

After a few moments of considering that, Shaun hums in agreement, “You are correct.”

Neil moves his hand up to Shaun’s face, running a thumb along his cheekbone. “Aren’t you tired?”

Shaun doesn’t seem to understand the question. “I did not have a choice.”

“I know,” Neil tells him, dropping his hand. “What I mean is, you don’t have to always be on guard, Shaun. Let me help you. Let me defend you sometimes. Because you deserve to be defended.”

“But you don’t –”

Let me help you. Don’t argue with me about this. Because I’m going to tell you how it ends – you’re not going to win.”

Shaun inadvertently takes that as a challenge. “You don’t know that.”

“I do know that, because you’re not going to change my mind on this. I don’t plan to make this a habit, to go around speaking on your behalf. I’ll only do it when I think it’s warranted because someone has crossed a line. What did you just tell me? Me doing this for you is not a sign that you’re weak. Or that you’re giving up. Or that you can’t stand up for yourself. It’s simply…it’s accepting that people can do things for each other to help the people they care about. I’d do the same for any of my friends. And you’d do the same for yours. For me. So just let me do it.”

Shaun shuts his eyes for a few seconds, and when he opens them, Neil can tell that he’s gotten through to him this time. “Okay.”

“You two are so sweet together,” Malcolm says loudly, which effectively breaks their moment, and Neil sighs. (Obviously he’d decided to stay for their entire conversation – why wouldn’t he?)

“I’d ask why you’re still here, but we both know you won’t have an answer,” Neil says, as Malcolm lifts a shoulder in a move that’s more or less agreement. “And why do I get the feeling that you like us together more than we like being together?”

“Maybe because I do,” Malcolm says, smirking.

“That is not possible,” Shaun protests, too seriously.

‘Not possible’ Neil mouths silently at him in agreement, almost missing what Malcolm says next in the process.

“This is nice,” Malcolm’s telling them. “I love our afternoon discussions. Catching up on our days. Trading gossip.”

Neil almost takes offense. “I don’t gossip, the very suggestion is an insult.”

“Oh, please,” Malcolm scoffs, sounding genuine enough that Neil begins to worry that he’s not just joking around and might actually have a point. “You know more about the people in our department than anyone else. You’re worse than Kalu, even.”

“Keeping myself apprised of my residents’ and colleagues’ lives is not gossip,” Neil argues. “It’s important to know if there’s anything going on that’s going to affect them, especially in surgery.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?” Malcolm needles him. “Good to know.”

“There is nothing wrong with harmless gossip,” Shaun says, contributing to the new topic for the first time and Neil looks at him sideways, wondering if this isn’t another veiled attempt at defending him. “It has always been prevalent among humans and is an important factor of social bonding.”

“Fondly remembering your Psych 101 days, eh, Shaun?” Malcolm’s nodding along, but before Shaun can either confirm or deny, he turns to Neil. “Hear that, Melendez? We’re bonding.”

Neil prays to be paged, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, he’s left with Malcolm’s far-too wide grin as Shaun seems like he could take or leave this new change of topic, but is mostly just interested where the other man’s going with this.

Neil has a growing suspicion that the gossip Malcolm wants to talk about is them, and knowing him, at even the slightest opening, he’ll be asking when their wedding is and telling them he got ordained online so he’d like to officiate the ceremony and – no, Neil adamantly stops that train of thought. Marriage is not something he and Shaun have ever talked about and Neil certainly doesn’t need to think about it for the first time with Malcolm in that imaginary picture. Besides, the idea of them getting married would be far away, so far away. (If they ever even got there, at all.)

Things had already happened so quickly between them that Neil knows they need time to just…be together. And breathe. Before ever talking about marriage or even something more comparatively minor, but still signaling a significant change, such as moving in together. They might have gotten serious relatively fast, but that doesn’t mean they need to rush anything else. And while Neil has already admitted to himself that he could do this forever, that he doesn’t see himself ever willfully ending this, he’s very aware that even though Shaun has told him he feels the same, the other man’s still entitled to change his mind. And maybe one day he might. So, no – permanence has no place in his thoughts, not after only a few months of being in a relationship.

Sometimes, though…he can’t help it. He lets his gaze slip over to Shaun because he kind of really likes…no, he kind of really loves the idea of being with him for the rest of his life. And when Shaun feels his eyes on him, he looks over, too, and he doesn’t quite smile but the light in his eyes means it’s as good as one, and everything just stops

“Earth to Melendez!” Malcolm’s snapping his fingers in front of his face and Neil finally averts his eyes from Shaun, capping that off by batting Malcolm’s hand away. “Good God, I’d ask how you two manage to get through surgeries together, except I’ve been there and seen it. You’re somehow both completely focused and it truly astounds me because then I see you like this and I don’t know how you manage to…to lock it away.”

“It’s called professionalism, Malcolm,” Neil says, coolly. “Maybe you should look it up since I don’t know if that word’s ever been used in the same sentence as your name.”

“You disproved your assertion before you made it,” Shaun promptly informs him.

Neil replays what he’d just told the other man and when he realizes Shaun is right, he decides to go after the messenger, instead. “Why are you taking his side?”

“I’m not taking sides. I’m stating a fact.”

Malcolm’s eyes are glinting. “You totally took my side, Murphy.”

“The point,” Neil stresses, over Shaun’s repeated protests, “is that it’s not hard to focus when I’m trying to save someone’s life. Though maybe that’s a difficult concept for you to grasp, Malcolm.” (It’s actually not. They all know it’s not, because they’ve all been in the O.R. together many times, by now. It’s the only place where Neil’s ever seen Malcolm completely concentrated on a task – of course he’s still himself, but in a different way that Neil has never had cause to complain about.)

Malcolm doesn’t even bother feigning offense, seemingly distracted by something else. “Yeah, but I don’t know how I’d feel if I had my –” He hesitates, looking between them, and for once Neil believes he’s genuinely hung up on what word to say and not searching for the perfect quip to make. “The person I was in love with,” he settles on, “in there with me. I’d be too distracted.”

He’s being honest; Neil can see it. And without thinking, he says, “It’s comforting.” Shaun’s eyes snap over to him and Malcolm’s own widen in surprise. (That had really been something he’d meant to think and not say because it’s pretty personal and not something he’s ever mentioned to Shaun, never mind announced out loud in the cafeteria where anyone might overhear him.)

“It’s comforting?” Malcolm echoes, voice lined with disbelief, like Neil probably misspoke.

Neil rubs the back of his neck, carefully not looking at Shaun. (Seriously, this is the longest he’s ever gone in this hospital without someone paging him.) But it’s too late now to try and erase it, and maybe Shaun has a right to know, anyways… “Yes.”

Malcolm folds his arms, resting them on the table, and his smile is starting to return full-force. “You can’t say that and not explain it! Hopefully in great, emotional, detail.”

“Are you sure you’re not a teenage girl, Everett? Because this isn’t a slumber party and yet –”

“I wouldn’t be opposed to one,” Malcolm says, flippantly. “I’ll even bring the popcorn – but right now, you have to explain. Murphy wants an explanation.”

Right. Right. Neil finally looks over at him, and though Shaun hasn’t said anything of the sort, Malcolm had read his piqued interest with the sort of natural ease that Neil wishes he’d had, that early on, with Shaun. And how is he even going to begin to explain this?

“We’ve saved each other a lot,” he begins, directing that at Shaun. “In surgeries. When things go to hell.” Which tends to happen quite often, through no fault of their own, just due to the nature of the injuries they have to treat. “So if – when – something goes wrong, the person I’m most at ease with is you. You see things in a different way than I do, you see ways to fix things that sometimes don’t naturally occur to me, at least as quickly as they do to you. And you…you help me stay calm. I’m not saying I couldn’t before you, or without you, but just…you make it easier.” He runs his eyes over Shaun’s face, taking in his stunned reaction to all that. Forget surgeries, Shaun makes a lot of things easier.

“I…do?” There’s a kind of awe in that question, which reminds Neil of his standing in Shaun’s eyes (and part of him is still waiting for that to go away, but it hasn’t so far).

“You do. I’m excellent at my job. So are you. But I think together we’re even better, in the O.R., than either of us is alone.” He can’t help adding, “If that’s possible.”

“You think that…of me.” Shaun still seems like he can’t believe anything of what he’s just heard.

“Why do you seem so shocked?”

“Because I…feel that way. About you.”

Ah, now it makes sense. It probably hadn’t occurred to Shaun that Neil would ever feel doubt. At least, about anything related to his profession. And Neil has made sure to carefully project that image to everyone, too, because the last thing anyone needs – patients or their families or even his colleagues – is to think he’s ever been anything less than entirely sure of himself. And for the most part, he does feel that confident most of the time, but he’s only human. He has doubts and regrets. He second guesses things, especially when they lose someone. But…like he told Shaun, it’s gotten easier. Because of him.

“You have much more experience than me,” Shaun’s saying, apparently taking Neil’s silence as indication he should compose arguments for his prior statement. “And you are –”

“Shaun, you don’t have to make a list of points in my favor.” Although he does enjoy it – but, no, another time. “I understand why you feel that way and you have no idea how glad I am that I’m also able to help you in a similar way. But I’m as fallible as anyone else – no one’s perfect.” He ends with a lighthearted, “Though I do come close.”

Malcolm’s scoffing laughter reminds him that he’s still there. (Doesn’t he ever have anything else to do other than watch Neil and Shaun like they’re the best TV show he’s ever seen? It’s like the man barely works, honestly.)

“I had never considered…” Shaun trails off, as he must be thinking about it. “I have seen you in moments of doubt. I wrote them off as isolated incidents.”

“A lot less isolated than you think. And what I said about you making things easier? That’s not because I love you – though it certainly doesn’t hurt. I felt that way about you long before we began…” He waves a hand between them.

“That’s because you loved him all along,” Malcolm says in an overly loud stage whisper that has Neil pressing his hands to his eyes. (The worst of it is, there’s too much truth in Malcolm’s joking assertion for Neil to argue it in any effective way – he’d always cared about Shaun a lot more than made sense to him. So maybe some part of him had known, long before his conscious mind did.)

“Thank you for telling me.” Shaun’s voice brings him out of his thoughts. “That is something I enjoy knowing.”

“Me, too. About you, I mean.”

“Told you that gossip is a good thing,” Malcolm’s claiming. “Murphy was right that it would help us all bond.”

“I did not say us, specifically,” Shaun protests. “I said humans. In general.”

“Are we…not human?” Malcolm asks, as Shaun’s mind almost visibly trips upon finding a logical argument he can’t counter.

Neil decides to save him from going a dozen pointless rounds with Malcolm. “It’s not gossip if it’s literally me and Shaun talking about our relationship. While you’re here. For some inexplicable reason.”

“It’s gossip to me. Any other scintillating news you two have heard lately?”

Neil folds his hands, assessing Malcolm in a way that makes the other man start shifting in his chair. He must have seen the moment Neil decided to have fun turning this around on him. “Sure, I’ll indulge you. Here’s a topic that I’ve heard decidedly nothing about – how are things with you and…Dr. Browne?”

Oh yes, he’s definitely hit a nerve, he can see it in the way Malcolm starts tapping his foot with pent-up annoyance. “On second thought, Neil, you’re right. Who needs gossip? It’s…unbecoming. We should talk about something else.”

“Going that well, huh?”

“He has not even asked her out.” When the two older men look Shaun’s way, he explains, “Claire would have told me.”

“What happened to ‘she hates me so that means she must love me’?” Neil asks, with a pointed smirk.

“I might have decided to alter my strategy,” Malcolm sighs. “First of all, have you noticed she’s never around, for some reason?”

“She hides from you,” Neil can’t help joking.

“But I'm so delightful,” Malcolm protests, though the humor in it tells Neil he recognizes the joke.

“Dr. Lim lost two residents, recently,” Neil reminds him. The first hadn’t been happy with the demands of the job and quit, changing careers entirely, and the second had transferred to another hospital. “Claire’s been working with her more to compensate, make things more even until she gets some new residents.”

“Yeah, I know,” Malcolm says, “and Lim rarely asks me to assist. Again, for some reason.”

“She says you talk too much,” Shaun informs him. “It distracts her.”

“She’s told me as much and I responded that she talks too little. I find quiet…disconcerting.”

Neil manages to keep his eyes from rolling out of his head. “You don’t say?”

“That is the weakest attempt at a pun I’ve ever heard, Neil. And I’ve been on the receiving end of many from Park.” (Neil takes that to mean that Park is particularly bad at them. Or something else entirely, because with Malcolm, he really never knows.) “And wait…neither of you has ever refused to work with me on the grounds that I talk too much.”

“We’re used to it,” Neil tells him. “We can tune you out.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Malcolm says, accompanying that with a knowing smile.

Neil can not let the other man gain too much ground. “Back to Claire.”

“In addition to never being able to find her, shortly after I said I was going to approach her, Kalu and I were talking and he told me that she’s sworn off dating colleagues. So with those kinds of odds against me, there’s no point in asking her out unless she warms up to me first.”

“I’m sure that’ll be easy when you can’t even manage more than five minutes in her proximity per day,” Neil says, aware he’s being entirely unhelpful.

“She has not sworn off dating colleagues,” Shaun chimes in, as Malcolm looks at him with interest. “She has sworn off dating Jared Kalu.”

Neil can’t help the genuine laughter that overcomes him. Of course that was the issue and Neil’s not at all surprised that Kalu had managed to word it in such a way as to dissuade Malcolm entirely. (He’s actually kind of amazed that Jared had managed to be convincing enough with Malcolm to get him to change course once he’d already decided upon something – he’ll need to ask for some pointers, later.)

“Her and Kalu, huh?” Malcolm’s tapping his hand on the table. “Makes sense, actually. Can’t believe I was taken in by him. Maybe I shouldn’t have reevaluated my strategy, after all.”

“No,” Shaun says. “You should have reevaluated.”

“What Shaun said,” Neil affirms. “Word of advice, Malcolm? You will never get anywhere with Claire – except blacklisted – if you approach her that way. If you ever mention anything about your…inability to get along with her, right now, as some secret indication she harbors feelings for you? Forget it.” Malcolm’s watching him carefully, like maybe he’s actually listening for once. “Maybe try something that’s new for you, some…” He glances at Shaun, finishing with, “…mindfulness?” (That earns him a brilliant smile in return, so it was worth bringing things back around to Shaun’s earlier lecture about him needing to be more mindful when it came to things like completing evaluations on time.)

“You’re talking like you almost care what happens,” Malcolm murmurs, thoughtfully. “And we both know that can’t be the case, can it?”

Neil half-shrugs, like the outcome of this whole thing is not only beyond him, but something which he hasn’t even bothered thinking about. But he has thought about it. And Claire could…well, she could certainly do much worse. Neil’s met many of the ‘worse’, in his life, and Malcolm’s nowhere near it. (Not that he’d ever speak such thoughts aloud, it’s bad enough that he thinks them, honestly.)

“I know Claire very well,” Shaun’s saying. “It is sound advice, Dr. Malcolm.”

And that, right there, is another reason. If Shaun doesn’t protest something, when it comes to Claire (whom Neil knows he loves very much) then no, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

“You two seem to know something about relationships,” Malcolm concedes, “so I’ll try to get on her good side before I ask her out.” He stands, grabbing the nearly-empty bag of chips as he does so. “Don’t you two worry, I’ll make sure to report regularly on how it’s going.”

“We can’t wait,” Neil says, at the same time as Shaun wishes him luck.

Then Malcolm’s gone and it’s just him and Shaun again. And Neil really can’t resist…

“I’m glad my afternoon’s free. Maybe I’ll try to take a quick nap.”

Shaun says nothing as he checks his phone and Neil thinks he might need to try upping the ante – but then Neil’s phone chimes and he shakes his head when he sees that Shaun has forwarded him Marcus’s threat about firing him.

“I don’t have to do them today,” Neil reminds Shaun. “He told me I have a week.” His phone chimes again – the same forwarded message. “I get it.”

“I don’t think you do,” Shaun says crisply. “I am going to continue forwarding that message at regular intervals until you complete them.”

“That is…annoying enough that I think I might want to go do them right now.”

“That was my intention.”

“Alright, alright, I’m going.” He and Shaun leave the cafeteria, heading for the nearest elevator. His phone chimes again while they’re waiting for it and he groans at seeing the same damn forwarded message. But Shaun isn’t holding his phone, how did –

“I set it to autosend every sixty seconds,” Shaun answers, before Neil can even finish thinking the question.

“Is that even a thing you can do?”

“Considering I did it, yes.”

“I’m definitely annoyed now.”

“You are supposed to be.”

“Shaun Murphy.”

“I will turn it off when you start writing them.”

How is this his life.

“I’ll put my phone on mute,” Neil threatens.

“No, you won’t. You are too afraid of missing important calls and messages.”

“Unlike some people,” Neil mutters, as the elevator finally arrives, and he can’t believe his luck, but it’s blessedly empty. Which means the second the doors close, he’s pushing his resident against the back wall of it and there’s barely time for Shaun’s breath to hitch before Neil’s kissing him more passionately than he ever has in the hospital – it takes Shaun all of two seconds to process what’s happening and start kissing him back just as enthusiastically. It’s the kind of kiss they usually only share at home, but if Shaun’s surprised, there’s no hint of it in anything he’s doing. In fact, he just grabs the lapels of Neil’s coat and pulls him even closer, and Neil really should have thought his revenge plan through more, because damn, now all he wants is Shaun and those evaluations seem even less appealing than they did two minutes ago.

But the elevator’s going to open soon, so he pulls himself away from Shaun who’s looking incredibly (and adorably) flustered – which was exactly what Neil had been going for.

“What was…” Shaun blinks a few times. “What was that for?”

Neil’s phone chimes, right on cue. “Payback for that,” Neil says, kissing him quickly again with a grin. “And I guessss,” he deliberately draws that out, “because I love you.”

“Payback is supposed to be unpleasant.”

“Not the way I do it,” Neil says, voice low, which predictably leaves Shaun even more flustered. Neil watches him meticulously fix his shirt, needlessly smooth his hair down, and then fold his hands in front of him – but none of it helps him regain his composure in the slightest. The elevator doors open on their floor and Shaun just keeps standing there after Neil steps out. In fact, he stands there for so long that Neil has to throw a hand out to keep the doors from closing and leaving Shaun inside. “Going to spend the rest of the day in there?”

“I… I was…” Shaun frowns, appearing lost, then admits, “I forgot what I was going to do.”

Neil grins at him, turning so his back rests against the edge of the elevator doors, thereby keeping them open (and it’s kind of a miracle that the hallway is nearly-deserted, with no one needing to use this particular elevator, at the moment). “You were going to follow me to my office, turn off the autosend on your phone when you see I’m working on the evaluations, and then start afternoon rounds.” Shaun nods in agreement, leaving the elevator, and the moment he walks past him, Neil whispers, “And you’ll be thinking of that kiss the whole time. Told you. Payback.”

“You will be thinking of it, as well.” Shaun spares him a glance and there’s so much want in that quick look that Neil’s tempted to drag him back into the elevator (and he’s definitely going to get tormented by security this week if anyone happened to witness that), but before Neil can do anything, his phone chimes and Neil shuts his eyes briefly. Oh…responsibility.

“Are you going to kiss me again?” Shaun asks suspiciously, drawing back his attention.

“I was thinking about it,” Neil answers, honestly.

“If you do that every time you get a message,” Shaun flicks his eyes back to the still-open elevator, “I might not turn off the autosend.”

Neil takes a steadying breath and deliberately steps away from the elevator, which allows the doors to finally shut (because he’s decided if he brings Shaun back in there, he’ll never want to leave again). “You’re really intent on pushing the limits of my self-control today, aren’t you?”

“Payback,” Shaun says, with no small amount of delight – and just like that, Neil laughs and gives in, pulling Shaun into him for another kiss.

Chapter Text

“You need a new comforter.”

Neil’s heard that before. Many, many times before. (Shaun’s as good at repeating it as Neil is at ignoring it – or maybe not so much ‘ignoring it’ as putting it off…indefinitely.)

He doesn’t respond to it now, either, choosing to focus on the fact that Shaun’s taken up residence on the opposite end of the couch. Neil stretches his legs out on the ottoman he’d pulled over and asks, “Why are you so far away?”

Shaun glances up from his phone, where he’s been silently doing something since he entered the room. “There is approximately five feet of distance between us. That is not ‘far away’.”

“It feels far away,” Neil protests, but there’s enough humor in it to let Shaun know it’s fine for him to keep to his own space if he wants. (Neil just enjoys complaining, sometimes.)

“Would you like me closer?” Shaun asks, and Neil can’t decide if there’s any innuendo in that question or not. He’s inclined to say there isn’t, but Shaun’s definitely learning things from him, so anything’s possible.

“When have I ever missed a chance to get closer to you?” It’s a paraphrase of a common question he asks Shaun, and his resident recognizes as much.

“Never,” Shaun answers, grabbing a pillow for his head as he lies down. He hesitates until Neil lifts an arm in welcome and Shaun allows himself to stretch out, crossing his legs at the ankles and setting them in Neil’s lap.

“This is how you choose to get closer?” Neil teases, as he starts rubbing one of Shaun’s feet (which was exactly what Shaun had been going for). “I’m onto you, Shaun Murphy.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Shaun’s not smiling, but there’s enough of it in his voice to indicate that yes, he does know.

“You’re allowed to invade my personal space whenever you want,” Neil reminds him, for the…well, it has to have been over a dozen times, by now. And Shaun knows it, but old habits are hard to break, so he’s often still hesitant to reach out – unless he gets some kind of clear offer from Neil that allows him to be comfortable for the rest of the evening. (And when he’s not hesitant, it’s generally because he’s either emotional about something, or because the two of them are in bed, which seems to have become a sort of safe haven for Shaun where he lets his guard down in a way that Neil hasn’t seen anywhere else.)

“I know I am allowed,” Shaun answers, and it takes Neil a second to remember what he’s replying to. (Neil has to laugh at himself, sometimes, that he can get so distracted by Shaun that he loses track of an actual conversation with Shaun.) “Still, I know that touch is…not always welcome.”

Neil runs a finger down his foot. “For me, it’s always welcome from you.”

Shaun hums in a way that Neil takes as agreement, and then he announces, “You need a new comforter.”

“Do you ever feel like we’re in the movie Groundhog Day?” Before Shaun can question him, he explains, “We’re reliving the same things over and over again.”

“I had to repeat the statement. You did not respond in a satisfactory way.”

(That’s one way to put it, considering Neil hadn’t responded the first time at all.) “I know I need one.” Despite acknowledging Shaun’s (true) statement this time, Neil finds his focus drawn to the TV because it’s a particularly riveting scene where a passenger jet is having engine trouble. “You’ve only told me a hundred times.”

“That is a significant exaggeration,” Shaun scolds, uncrossing his ankles and then crossing them the other way, in a not-so-subtle suggestion that Neil should work on the other foot. “I have only told you seventeen times, which is not excessive.”

Neil expertly hides his smile, since only Shaun Murphy would feel like seventeen times is anything close to ‘not excessive’. “I’m going to get one. I swear.”

“I do not believe you.” Shaun probably has a point there, considering he’s been pestering Neil about this for over a month.

“I’m going to try to get one,” Neil amends. “How’s that?”

Shaun makes some kind of dismissive noise and announces, “I will start looking.”

“Be my guest,” Neil tells him, rewinding the show a few minutes to catch the dialogue he’d missed. It’s half past 8 on a Thursday evening, and they have tonight and most of tomorrow off before heading in for an overnight shift.

“It is noticeably fraying,” Shaun reminds him (again, for the seventeenth time), “and it is only getting worse.”

“I told you, my dry cleaner ruined it. Which also means I have to find a new dry cleaner.” Really, Neil has an entire To-Do list titled ‘Regular Life Maintenance’, yet he never seems to get around to doing anything on it. He’d be inclined to use Shaun as an excuse, but the truth is, Neil had never been too motivated to do any of it before Shaun, either. (Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t give him a hard time, anyways.) “This is your fault, Murphy. You take up all my free time.”

“We could spend less time together.” There’s enough of an actual question in the statement that Neil knows to quickly shut down that line of thought.

“Don’t even think it,” he warns, gripping Shaun’s ankle incrementally tighter.

“Alright,” Shaun easily agrees, then holds up his phone, showing him a picture of an entirely white bedding set. Neil gathers it’s a silent question about whether that would be a suitable replacement.

“We spend most of our lives working in a hospital; we don’t need to feel like we’re sleeping in one, too.”

“Too white,” Shaun says to himself, like he’s filing it away. He holds up his phone with a different picture on the display.

“Are you seriously suggesting plaid?”

“Too plaid.” Shaun offers another.

“That’s orange.”

“Too orange,” he murmurs. Then shows him another one. “This?”

“Really? Five different types of flowers?”

“Too floral.”

“Where are you finding these abominations? Are you on some website with all the rejects that didn’t sell?”

Shaun doesn’t deign to answer, and it takes him a few minutes to hold up his phone again.

“Oh, come on, Murphy. Is that a flag?”

Shaun glances at the picture. “There are stars and stripes, yes, but it does not meet the configuration of the U.S. flag.”

“It’s close enough.” Shaun has to be doing this on purpose.

“It is a viable option,” Shaun insists.

“We have very different definitions of the word ‘viable’, then.”

“Fine. Too patriotic,” Shaun mumbles, and Neil nearly chokes on his laughter at that summation. “What about this?” he asks, suggesting another. “It’s similar to yours.”

“It is,” Neil has to agree, “but there are –” he counts, “– seven different colors in it! Mine only has three. Three is tasteful without being overdone.”

“Too colorful.” Shaun swipes through some more photos. “This?”

“Black and white? No, too…colorless.” Neil uses the opposite word on purpose, laughing when Shaun exhales overly loud.

This repeats about a dozen more times, with Neil objecting to every option simply because it’s not the one he has now. (And Shaun’s getting visibly more frustrated each time Neil shuts him down.)

“I’m beginning to think you are going to say no to everything.”

“That’s because I’m going to say no to everything.”

“Neil.” (There’s the faintest hint of whining in the way Shaun says his name, and it’s a good thing he almost never does that, because it tempts Neil to drop his act and tell Shaun to pick whatever he wants.)

He doesn’t though. (Because this is too much fun.) “I like the one I have now.”

“It is falling apart.” Shaun must be mulling over other options, because he points out, “Due to our profession, we both know how to sew.”

“No, I don’t want to try and fix it,” Neil immediately protests. “Since it’s falling apart, as you point out, I should really buy a new one.”

He’s fairly certain Shaun wants to throw his phone at his head (and probably the only reason he doesn’t is because he doesn’t want to risk damaging it).

“You need to choose, Dr. Melendez.”

Uh oh. If Shaun uses that title outside of work when he’s a) not teasing, b) not overly emotional, or c) not in true distress, then it means he’s getting serious. “I did choose! Almost a year ago. It took me forever to find one I liked the last time I went looking.” He deliberately runs his eyes over Shaun. “You should realize, by now, that I have excellent taste.” When Shaun doesn’t react to that, he says, exaggerated, “That was a compliment.”

Shaun looks at him blankly.

“Because I have excellent taste. And I’m with you. So that must mean that you’re excellent.”

“It sounds like you are complimenting yourself more than me,” Shaun says astutely.

“Can’t I compliment us both?”

“I suppose.”

“You don’t seem nearly flattered enough.”

“I am busy,” Shaun reminds him, as Neil sighs dramatically. He offers up a few more pictures that Neil roundly rejects. “You are impossible.” Shaun’s voice is neutral, but Neil still hears the complaint in it. “You do not like anything.”

“I like you,” he says, running a hand up Shaun’s calf until he sees him smile.

“I am not bedding.”

“I don’t know, there are definite similarities.” Neil taps his fingers on Shaun’s foot, like he’s giving this some real thought. “Let’s see…you’re pretty warm.”

Shaun (predictably) doesn’t respond to that.

Neil smirks at him. “And you look good on my bed.”

Shaun lowers his phone so he can see Neil over the top of it.

“What else… Oh!” Neil snaps his fingers. “You’re washable.”

Shaun’s obviously amused, but he informs Neil, quite seriously, “I am not a substitute for a new comforter.”

“You could be,” Neil offers, trying to sound enticing. “Think about it and get back to me.”

“This conversation is becoming unproductive,” Shaun announces, pulling his feet away before Neil can protest (or grab hold of him and keep him there), and gets up to disappear into the bedroom.

Becoming?” Neil loudly protests. “I thought we passed unproductive about eleven options ago.” He lets maybe thirty seconds pass in silence (rewinding his show yet again) before he calls, “I didn’t drive you away, did I?”

Shaun reappears almost instantly. “You could never drive me away,” he says, coming back to the couch and retaking his former spot, complete with returning his feet to Neil’s lap. “I know you. I knew you were impossible before I entered a relationship with you.”

“Are we sure about who’s impossible, here?”

“I am very agreeable,” Shaun tries to claim, and he must not appreciate Neil’s scoffing laughter in response because he pushes his foot against his leg in chastisement.

“What were you doing in the bedroom?”

Shaun doesn’t answer him, which isn’t entirely unusual. Neil gets answers to maybe 50% of his questions, if he’s lucky, and that’s still a higher percentage than anyone else.

He figures it mustn’t be that important, and chaos erupting from the TV draws his attention. “Look, the plane just had an emergency crash-landing on the highway near their hospital!”

Shaun spares a glance at the episode of Grey’s Anatomy that Neil’s been watching all night (scratch that – attempting to watch all night). “I don’t know why you enjoy this show.”

“I came across it by accident,” Neil says defensively.

“You come across it by accident on most Thursday nights.”

He lightly pinches Shaun’s foot. “Could you stop being so observant for once?”

Shaun ignores the question in favor of gravely pronouncing, “It is unrealistic.” (As if that’s the most grievous error a television show could ever possibly make.)

“Most shows are unrealistic,” Neil reminds him. “It’s about escapism, not realism. Besides, I enjoy pointing out everything that would never happen in real life. Like how there’s a mass casualty event in just about every other episode. If San Jose had that many disasters, we’d lose half the population of the city by season…87 or whatever they’re on, right now.”

“They are on season 15.”

“I was close,” Neil insists, acutely aware of the manner in which he’s provoking Shaun. “And my point stands.”

There’s a gleam in his resident’s eyes that means Neil is going to get told exactly how wrong he is, and he glances away so Shaun doesn’t see his smile (because he loves it when Shaun does this).

Shaun’s staring up at the ceiling now, instead of his phone. “They have aired 326 episodes to date,” he begins. “If every other episode had a mass casualty event – which I know it does not – that would be 163 episodes. Assuming each one brought with it 100 deaths, which is a vast overestimation of most mass casualty events, that would be 16,300 deaths. The population of San Jose is approximately 1,020,000. 16,300 people is 1.5% of our total population. Not 50%. And my numbers also do not account for the regular births and influx of new citizens that would occur during said 15 seasons.” He ends with the pointed summation, “Your math was inaccurate. In every way.”

Neil deliberately keeps a straight face. “Why do you think I keep you around? So you’ll do that kind of thing for me and I don’t have to do it myself.”

“That is the only reason,” Shaun says flatly.

“I could probably think of a few others. If I really had to.” Neil’s casual tone is belied by his smile (and probably the way he’s looking at Shaun, too).

“I keep you around because I like your home theater system,” Shaun claims, causing Neil to laugh. “It’s better than my own. Though just barely.”

“Is that so?”

“It is. However, I do not like what you choose to watch on it.”

“Sure you don’t.” Shaun has long claimed he has no interest in Grey’s Anatomy, but Neil has caught him paying attention on too many occasions to count…so maybe he’ll try calling him on it, this time. “If you couldn’t care less about it, as you love to tell me, then how did you know all that? About the season it’s on and how many episodes it has?”

“Dr. Malcolm watches it,” Shaun offers, as his supposed explanation. “As does Claire.”

“Malcolm?” Neil stops rubbing Shaun’s foot for a moment, not noticing until Shaun makes a noise of protest that causes him to resume. “Do me a favor and never tell him that I’m aware this show exists.” He’s already envisioning nightmares of the other man cornering him to talk about the latest ‘shocking death’ or love story gone awry.

“They like to tell me about it. Even though I have repeatedly told them I do not watch it.”

“You’re watching it with me right now.”

“I am not. I am tolerating you watching it while I do something else in the same room.”

“Same thing.”

“It is not the same thing.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It is,” Neil insists, because Shaun’s getting worked up and he loves watching that.

“I will ask Dr. Malcolm if it’s the same thing.”

It’s a subtle threat – because asking Malcolm would reveal the fact that Neil watches it – and he tries to remember if Shaun used to do that kind of thing before they got together or if he’s had that much of an influence.

“Touché, Murphy. You win this round.” He presses his thumb to the bottom of Shaun’s foot just to see him squirm. “You’re too much fun for me to argue with, you know.”

“Why?”

“I like riling you up.”

Shaun considers that, then repeats, “Why?”

Neil sends him a pointed look, waiting for him to glance over. “Why do you think?”

“I do not know. It’s the reason I asked.”

Okay, maybe Neil’s look wasn’t pointed enough. He moves his hand further up Shaun’s leg, and has just passed his knee when Shaun gets it and jumps, then he laughs and sits up, which unfortunately pulls him out of Neil’s reach.

“Please behave yourself, Dr. Melendez.” His voice is extraordinarily light – this time he’s teasing and Neil can definitely work with that. “I am focused on a task. And I am almost done.”

“Is it more important than me?” Neil counters, even though he hadn’t actually wanted to start anything at the moment because he really wants to see the aftermath of this plane crash and how many narrative clichés the show manages to throw in during the half hour that remains.

Shaun’s expression softens. “Nothing is more important than you.”

Neil’s heart always clenches whenever Shaun takes one of his jokes seriously. “Make you a deal,” he offers, holding out a hand, “I’ll behave myself, but only if you come back over here.”

Shaun eyes him, obviously wondering if it’s a ploy to get him within reach again – and he’s right to be suspicious, because it is a ploy (which Neil has used in the past), but this time it’s not quite what Shaun’s thinking.

“I’m serious,” Neil promises, then motions to the TV. “I want to finish watching this.”

Shaun nods in agreement, not needing any further persuasion (which means he’d wanted to come back anyways). Neil lifts his arm, expecting him to put his feet back up, but Shaun twists around so he can lie in the opposite direction, letting his head rest in Neil’s lap, instead; Neil’s a big fan of the move, since it lets him absently run his hands through Shaun’s hair as he sets about rewinding the episode (again), trying to figure out where Shaun started distracting him enough to stop paying attention.

Shaun almost immediately begins typing on his phone again and Neil recalls that he’d never gotten an answer to his earlier question. “What task are you trying to complete?” When Shaun doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look up at him, Neil says, “You know, I could take that from you.”

That gets him a flippant, “You could try.”

Neil moves his hand from Shaun’s hair to his neck in a subtle warning. “You aren’t in any position to be going against me.”

Shaun stops typing. “If you tickle me, I will never tell you.”

“Would I do something like that?”

“Yes. You have done so. Many times.”

Neil smiles at the succession of images that brings to mind, but rather than add another to the list, he rubs his thumb back and forth across Shaun’s neck a few times. Shaun relaxes, apparently feeling safe from any attack now, and he reaches up to take Neil’s hand in his, lacing their fingers together and setting them on his chest, near his heart.

Neil stretches his legs out a little more and settles back further into the couch, realizing that during this distraction, he’d inadvertently rewound to the very beginning of the episode. (It occurs to him that he might not be that great at getting anything done at home with Shaun around.)

It doesn’t take Neil long to find the right spot again, and he and Shaun stay in the same contented position for perhaps another fifteen minutes, which is when a near-deafening explosion on the show causes them both to jump – and Shaun to drop his phone on his face.

“Ow,” Shaun mutters, rubbing his forehead. He glares at the TV, then at Neil for added effect (or so Neil presumes).

“You’re the one who insisted on surround sound,” Neil points out, as he pushes Shaun’s hand from his forehead to run his own fingers over the red mark. “That is all on you.”

“You chose this show.”

“I didn’t know the plane was going to explode! I’d have turned it down. Why are special effects so much louder than everything else? And look, we’re missing the fall-out, people are trapped!”

We are not missing anything,” Shaun loftily claims. “I am not watching.”

“Mmhmm.” Neil rewinds again. (He’s often wondered why one of his least favorite things in real life is something he finds so fascinating in movies or television – the best he can figure is that it never feels ‘real’ to him. Even during an intense episode like this one, he’s always aware that everyone on set gets to leave at the end of the day, go home to their families – there’s never any actual loss. So he supposes that maybe it’s cathartic in a way… And leave it to him to try and psychoanalyze his state of mind when it comes to watching a television show.)

After another few minutes, Shaun sets his phone aside and Neil hits pause. “So, you going to tell me what task you finished? Or is it a secret?”

“It is not a secret.” Shaun hands over his phone. “You may look. The page is still open in my internet browser.”

Neil’s curiosity is definitely piqued. He enters Shaun’s passcode – 0925 – and takes the opportunity to tease, “You’re so sentimental, using your first day at our hospital.”

“Yes. You are equally sentimental.”

“No, I’m not.” It’s said in reflex, without thinking about it…but yeah, Shaun definitely has a point. “Alright, maybe I am a little. Mostly when it comes to you, so what’s that say?”

“That you love me,” Shaun says, without preamble, because he knows the immediate answer to questions like that, by now. “That day…my first day. It is the day I met you.”

Neil pauses in his search for the internet app (Shaun is always moving icons around based on his current favorite priorities and it drives Neil up the wall). He knows Shaun has fond memories of his early days at their hospital, but Neil doesn’t understand why; personally, he doesn’t like to think about that time, at all. In fact, there are very few things Neil despises, and those days are one of them. Every memory he has of Shaun from back then…he almost can’t stand thinking about them, because – to be perfectly honest – Neil hates himself in them.

One of his top priorities is to protect Shaun from anything – anyone – that might hurt him, and yet, in the past, Neil had been the one doing it. And he’s relived those memories so many times that they’re always in excruciatingly sharp focus. He thinks back to Shaun’s first day, remembers meeting him and thinking: Who the hell does this kid think he is? Because to Neil, he’d simply been…no one. Not someone worth considering. Not someone whose opinion meant anything.

He remembers dismissing him at first, once he’d (wrongly) determined that Shaun didn’t know what he was talking about. He remembers the smug feeling of superiority that he’d been right, remembers the way he’d laughed at himself for considering, for a mere second, that a stranger might know more than Neil Melendez, top cardiothoracic surgeon at San Jose Saint Bonaventure Hospital – because that was impossible.

But then the kid kept coming back and Neil had eventually learned who he really was – and it had figured, hadn’t it? That he’d been Aaron Glassman’s newest recruit. And everything had been capped off with Neil being forced to accept Shaun into the hospital, onto his team, and then Shaun had the audacity to call him out in front of an entire O.R. – and that, more than anything, had been what cemented Neil’s initial resentment. Because no one said things like that to Neil Melendez. Sure, he might debate with colleagues as a normal part of discussing treatment options, and he knew there were plenty of people around who disliked him on a personal level, but for someone to brazenly speak to him the way that Shaun had? In front of his colleagues, his residents, everyone? It was unheard of – at least, it had been – until the day Shaun Murphy joined their hospital.

At the time, most people had assumed Neil had taken issue with what Shaun had said first, openly calling him on his arrogance. But that hadn’t actually bothered Neil because it was no secret that he was arrogant to the point that he was proud of being arrogant. The real issue was what Shaun had asked him after:

Does it hurt you as a person?

And then, perhaps, the kicker:

Is it worth it?

There had been a definite challenge in the questions, like maybe Neil didn’t have to be arrogant just for the sake of it. And maybe that arrogance wasn’t always an asset to his skills as a surgeon.

And more than a challenge, there was this…belief in the way Shaun spoke to him, in the way he looked at him. Like…maybe there was another way Neil could be. Like Neil could do better.

(Like Shaun believed Neil could do better.)

But Neil hadn’t been able (hadn’t been ready) to deal with any of that at the time, so his ego had caused him to interpret Shaun’s questions another way: as blatant disrespect.

So they’d started off in the worst way possible, the way that had gotten Shaun onto Neil’s bad side. And instead of learning the lesson that Neil had wanted him to, at the time, Shaun had just kept pushing at every opportunity, calling him on anything and everything. Neil had tried to punish him for it, but Shaun’s nature meant that for a while he didn’t know he was being punished or treated differently than everyone else. Even when the others pointed it out to him, it still took Shaun a while to believe it. Because Shaun saw the best in people, and while he found his attending physician to be egotistical and demanding, he didn’t think that Neil would ever be purposely unfair. (Or unkind.)

The memories fill Neil with pain and so much…regret. He’s hard-pressed to think of any other time in his life where he looks back and thinks so little of himself. And yes, he’d come around to accepting Shaun relatively quickly, had tried to make up for the way he’d been, but the knowledge that he had been the one to treat Shaun that way…that he was simply another in a long line of people who’d done it to Shaun his entire life…it devastates him, in a way. Shaun has one of the best natures of anyone he’s ever met, as evidenced by how he’d kept giving Neil chances. Over and over and –

“You have not moved in almost two minutes,” Shaun says, pulling him away from those memories and back to where he’s sitting in his living room. Some fourteen months later. With Shaun. His resident has retrieved his phone from Neil’s hand and is looking up at him with distinct worry. Because he can tell something is bothering Neil, and Neil doesn’t deserve that worry from Shaun – not when the very reason he’s bothered is because he’s remembering the unfair things he’d said and done to Shaun.

“I was…” Neil considers not explaining himself, but this is about them, isn’t it? And it’s not fair to keep his feelings from Shaun just because he can’t stand… “I was thinking about the first few months after you joined our hospital. I hate remembering those times.” (Hate isn’t a strong enough word for it, probably.)

Shaun nods, because he knows some of that; Neil has mentioned it before. (Although he’s never explained how much those memories bother him, only that he doesn’t like dwelling on them.) “I told you that I harbor no resentment towards you from that time.”

“You should!” Neil snaps, surprising himself more than Shaun with the vehemence of it. He sets his hand on Shaun’s chest, just below his neck, and it’s partly in apology, partly to help calm himself. “I hurt you. And…don’t you get it, Shaun? I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the things I said to you, or how they made you feel. I fully planned to never let you actually assist in surgeries, so long as you were on my team. I didn’t care if you hated me. In fact, part of me wanted you to hate me. Because I thought…” He has to stop for a few moments and he’s too afraid to look at Shaun. “I thought it would be better for everyone if you chose to leave. And I can’t stand thinking about that, because the last thing I ever want, now, is to hurt you. I feel that so strongly that I want to hurt people who hurt you and I can’t exactly go back and do anything to myself, can I?”

“You did not care before, but you care now,” Shaun murmurs, like that’s good enough. “We cannot change the past, no matter how much we wish to do so.”

Neil figures that Shaun’s probably thinking of a dozen things there, and his brother is at the top of that list. “I didn’t mean to dredge up painful memories,” he apologizes. “I just can’t believe this sometimes. Given how we started, do you understand how unlikely we are as a couple? Hundreds of events lining up perfectly, and if one of them them had gone a different way, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

“But…” Shaun says tentatively, “we are here right now.”

“Yes, we are. But you shouldn’t be.” Try as he might, Neil thinks he’ll probably never understand how Shaun had fallen in love with him. “We shouldn’t…have what we have. We shouldn't…”

Shaun abruptly sits up, putting significant space between them, and Neil sighs, because he wouldn’t want to be around himself right now, either. He wants to ask Shaun to come back, to stay with him for a little while longer, but he can’t blame Shaun for disliking those memories, too…especially now that Neil has reminded him, in explicit detail, why they’re so awful. (Shaun probably hadn’t known the extent of his callous disregard, either – not until Neil had so helpfully pointed it out to him.)

“I don’t know how to do this.” The strange tone of that statement has Neil looking over at Shaun, who’s now staring across the room.

“You don’t know how to do what?”

“I have never broken up with someone. I don’t know…how to do it.”

It’s like time stops for Neil, right there, in that room.

Had he actually talked Shaun out of wanting to be with him? It would be his worst kind of luck to ruin the best thing in his life without realizing he was doing it. (Even if he’d always figured it was only a matter of time before Shaun came to this conclusion on his own.)

He knows he should speak, that he should say something. Anything. But Neil’s mind goes completely blank as he watches Shaun sit up straighter, his entire posture rigid as he grips his knees in a way that looks painful.

“Have those memories…changed your mind about us?” Shaun asks, without looking at him. “Do they…hurt too much?”

The questions don’t make any sense to Neil – he’s gone from shocked to panicked to lost so quickly that his head is spinning. His mouth is abnormally dry, but he manages to whisper, “What?”

“Your guilt over the way you were when we met,” Shaun clarifies. “Is that what…makes you not want me here now?”

“I don’t want you here?” Neil starts to reach for him, but Shaun noticeably tenses, so he doesn’t complete the motion. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“You told me I should not be here.” Shaun moves his hands up to his eyes and presses the heels of his palms against them. “That we should not…be doing this.”

Neil’s replaying everything. “I did no such –” Except, yes, he did. He’d been trying to tell Shaun that he had no idea how they’d ended up together – he hadn’t considered that Shaun might misconstrue the way he was speaking, never mind take it as a signal that Neil had suddenly decided to end their relationship.

Be careful with Shaun Murphy.

It’s what Neil’s always telling himself, and he gets better at it by the day, as he categorizes the patterns of how Shaun reacts to most things. But Neil’s own turmoil meant that he’d been blindsided this time, that he’d missed Shaun might take him literally.

And judging by Shaun’s reaction, Neil’s not the only one who wouldn’t handle a break-up very well.

“Shaun. I am not breaking up with you.”

It takes about half a minute for Shaun to look at him, “You’re not?”

Neil puts as much emphasis, and conviction, into his next word as he possibly can: “No.

It’s not easy to read emotions in Shaun, but Neil can do it better than anyone, and of everything he sees right then, relief is the most abundant, almost to the point of overwhelming.

Neil makes sure to gather his thoughts coherently before he speaks this time. “What I was saying, about how you shouldn’t be here? We shouldn’t have this?” He gestures between them, trying not to think of that painful scenario – and actually, the fact that he wouldn’t find it painful at all, because he wouldn’t know what he was missing. “I meant it in…an existential sense. Because I believe what we have is incredibly rare. That it was a lucky sequence of events that led to you being here with me, right now. That for all intents and purposes, it never should have happened. But it did. And I am…so grateful for that.” It’s getting hard to speak past his emotions. “I will never not want you here.”

Shaun says nothing, though he’d relaxed significantly the longer Neil spoke – and at that last line, especially.

“Do you believe me?” Neil asks, once he can’t take Shaun’s silence any longer.

“I always believe you.”

And just like that, time starts up again.

Feeling the sudden need to lighten the tension, Neil jokes, “You definitely don’t always believe me.”

Shaun reconsiders. “I always believe you…except for when you lie.”

Neil laughs at that, letting himself fully embrace the relief now – not just at Shaun’s acceptance of his explanation, but at the fact that Shaun isn’t about to leave him. Because try as he might, Neil can’t imagine any version of a real break-up that ends well for him. In any way. He’d do anything and everything possible to get Shaun to stay with him, and if his past self could hear any of the thoughts he has about Shaun Murphy

“You were upset before.” Shaun’s quiet statement reminds Neil of the terrible place where his thoughts had been, prior to their misunderstanding.

“Forget it. We don’t have to talk about that right now.” Or ever, if Neil has his way.

Shaun gathers himself, then says, “I want to talk about it.” Neil’s reluctance must show on his face, since Shaun insists, “You have to. It is our rule.”

“I don’t know what else there is to say, Shaun. I already told you why I hate those memories. Unless you want to tell me how…” Neil has to break his gaze. “How upset you are about the way I treated you.”

“I am not upset.”

Neil looks back at him, trying to determine the truth of that. Try as he might, though, he can’t find so much as a hint of residual anger on Shaun’s face. (He’s too good for you, his mind repeats, yet again.)

Shaun takes his silence as indication to go on. “I told you what I thought of you and your decisions at the time. Our relationship has significantly changed since then. I have moved on.” He shifts on the couch, like he’s going to reach out for Neil, but doesn’t follow through on the action. “You should move on, as well.”

“I can’t.” Neil’s throat actually aches by this point. “The idea of you…of you not being here – the fact that I tried everything in my power to –”

He can’t keep talking, tipping his head to rest on the back of the couch. He shuts his eyes, trying to block out the memories, but it only makes them worse, more vivid. He carries an incredible amount of guilt over this, and he doesn’t know if it’s ever going to go away.

But worse than that? Than all of that? It goes back to what he’d been trying to explain to Shaun that his resident had misinterpreted: they shouldn’t have ended up together. The only reason he’s with Shaun right now is because of Shaun. Because of how…how good he is. His resident should have disliked him, or outright hated him. He should have ended up leaving their hospital, or at the very least, transferred to another attending. They should merely be co-workers now, perhaps even unfriendly ones. Working alongside each other professionally, when it was necessary, but never…  

In another reality, in the reality that should have happened, he and Shaun would probably see each other every day, maybe sharing a polite dislike for each other, and neither of them would ever know – they would have no idea what they could have…should have meant to each other.

And in the darkest scenario of all? It would have been even worse than that. Because if it had been up to Neil Melendez, Shaun Murphy never would have been given so much as a chance. Neil wouldn’t have allowed him on his team, wouldn’t have even allowed him to work at their hospital, and Neil would have walked away from that decision thinking (no, not thinking, knowing) he’d done the right thing for everyone – their hospital, their patients, and even Shaun himself.

Because Neil had believed one absolute fact, with everything in him: Shaun Murphy didn’t belong there.

He didn’t belong with them.

So no, Neil shouldn’t know Shaun, not the way he currently does, not the way he’s allowed to – is privileged to – right now. But he does. Because Shaun had kept coming back, kept fighting him, kept trying to get Neil to see him, until he finally did. And now Shaun is the center of his life in a way that’s probably dangerous – but Neil is selfish, and he’s never letting him go if he can help it.

(Even though Neil knows that he will never deserve him.)

He feels Shaun move closer to him, turning sideways and bending his legs so he can stretch them over Neil’s lap. Then he loops his arms around Neil’s neck and presses his forehead to Neil’s shoulder, where he whispers, “That first day, when I met you. It is one of my favorite days.”

Neil inhales shakily, wanting to ask how Shaun can possibly feel that way, but no words will form.

Shaun is murmuring something that’s hard to make out, but the cadence means it’s a phrase he’s repeating, and the second it registers, the air leaves Neil completely.

I forgive you.

That’s what Shaun’s saying, over and over, and it’s proven when he lifts his head and says, adamantly, one final time, “I forgive you.”

“You –”

“Do not tell me I shouldn’t. Or that you do not deserve it,” Shaun says, words harsh in a way Neil doesn’t often hear from him. “It is my decision. I get to decide. Who I forgive.” He pauses significantly. “Who I love.”

Neil can’t argue anything about what Shaun’s saying – it’s not up to him the way that Shaun feels. (About anything or anyone, including him.) “I don’t understand, Shaun. Why did you keep coming back? Why did you fight me so hard when you could have changed attendings? Glassman would have let you, if you’d insisted. So why did you…”

“Dr. Malcolm gave you the explanation the other day,” Shaun tells him.

“I don’t…” Neil shakes his head, having no idea what Shaun’s referring to.

“In my life, I have learned who to argue with. Who not to argue with.” Shaun almost imperceptibly tightens his arms around Neil’s neck. “You were worth the arguments. You were worth everything.”

“I was…” Neil actually can’t repeat it, not if he wants to keep his voice even.

“I knew from that first day. I saw you.” Shaun tips his head. “Even when…you could not see yourself.”

Upon hearing that, Neil’s heart does something indescribable. Because it confirms what he’d long suspected, all the way back to that time in the O.R. when Shaun had spoken to him in a way that no one ever had. That no one ever dared. Shaun had seen a type of goodness, a certain kindness in him that Neil hadn’t been aware still existed when it came to his career as a surgeon – when it came to the way he interacted with people. He didn’t think that kindness was still there after the grueling work of med school and the exhausting years of residency and suffering under every hard-edged, over-worked mentor he’d ever had. (If I had to do it, you have to do it, had been a common, repeating refrain.)

All of it had burned most of the patience and understanding out of Neil. Hell, he’d thought it was meant to. Which wasn’t to say he was unfeeling in every facet of his life – at home, with his family and friends, he was different. But he rarely let that cross over into his career because he’d known, when it came down to it – the cold, hard reality of it – that being too lenient with people, too easy on his residents, not demanding the respect he’d earned for his position…none of that was conducive to being an effective surgeon. (Or so he’d told himself.)

And then one day, fourteen months ago, he’d met Shaun Murphy out in the rain.

Shaun, whose attitude could not have been more different from Neil’s own.

Shaun, whose skills have come to rival anyone Neil’s ever known, including himself.

Shaun. Who lacked the coldness, the harsh practicality, the blinding arrogance that Neil had always believed was imperative to becoming a top surgeon.

It’s fair to say that Shaun has changed his life, significantly altered his trajectory in a way that Neil had never thought possible. And it’s not just because of their relationship – even if they hadn’t fallen in love, Shaun still would have changed him. He’s as certain of that as he is of his own name. As certain of it as he is that this, what they have…he will never find this again, with anyone else. (Nor would he want it with anyone else.)

Neil wraps his hands around one of Shaun’s arms, which are still around his neck, and presses his forehead against his resident’s.

“Please do not hate yourself,” Shaun whispers. “I do not like…that you hurt when you recall memories of me.”

“It’s not you that hurts me. It’s me that hurts me.”

“I do not care. I don’t like it.” He reaches up to put his hands on either side of Neil’s face, making sure he’s looking at him. “I. Do. Not. Like. It.”

“I know you don’t.” Neil pulls his hands away so he can kiss them. “I can’t help it,” he admits, “just like there are things you can’t help. This is…this is extremely hard for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to change the way I feel.”

“I know,” Shaun acknowledges, though he’s clearly still distressed.

“That said…” Neil steels himself, taking another breath. “I can try. Because you try. All the time. To do things you aren’t comfortable with, to expand your boundaries. You put in the effort to move outside your comfort zone, so I can put in the effort to try and let go of this. It’s only fair.”

“I like fairness,” Shaun breathes, as he brushes his mouth against the corner of Neil’s.

“I’ve noticed.”

Shaun smiles at him, and the next moment he’s returning to his prior position with his head in Neil’s lap. And that’s fine with Neil, because after everything they’d discussed, he needs some time to mentally recover.

Shaun resumes playing the show that Neil had paused (seemingly forever ago), and that means Shaun Murphy is a liar. Because he’d been watching this episode (and probably gotten invested) despite his numerous claims to the contrary.

Neil purposely waits a few minutes until Shaun is completely engaged with the latest twist in events: Meredith is agonizing over the fact that one of her exes (whom she might fall in love with again) was probably on the plane when it exploded (obviously) and she has no way of knowing yet. (Neil wonders how many episodes they’re going to stretch this over.) At the most (in)opportune moment, he moves his hand to cover Shaun’s eyes and it’s definitely not appreciated.

“I was –” The younger man instantly cuts himself off.

“…watching that?”

“I was not.”

“Oh, forgive me. When someone’s eyes are open and they’re looking at a television I tend to mistakenly believe they’re watching it.”

Shaun sighs, then seems to give up. “You are talking over them. I missed the entire conversation.”

“So what you’re saying is that I’m right,” Neil says smugly, as he rewinds for the 310th time. (He’s smart about it this time, though, and pauses when he finds the right spot instead of instantly hitting play.)

Technically right,” Shaun grumbles. “The worst kind of right.”

It takes Neil a few seconds to remember where he’s heard something almost exactly like that before. It was the night they’d gone and spoken to Aaron; before they had, he and Shaun had been mildly arguing over the definitions of right.

“There is no ‘worst’ kind of right,” Neil says, as Shaun twists his head to look back up at him, eyes widening. “Right is right.” He lowers his voice a little. “You’re not the only one who remembers things, Murphy. And when it comes to you, I remember damn near everything.”

Shaun’s clearly trying to decide what to say in response to that, and settles on, “It is remarkable you remember so much. Considering your age.”

That’s it. Neil abandons his prior resolve and goes for Shaun’s neck; he knows how to drive his resident crazy, in more ways than one, and Shaun can’t help his laughter as he tries to push Neil’s hand away. Neil can’t keep at it for long, either, because Shaun’s flailing so much that he almost falls right off the couch – and would have, in fact, if Neil didn’t yank him back at the last second.

Shaun ceases his struggles the moment Neil stops, and when he catches his breath, he accuses, “You promised you would behave yourself.” His eyes are light, though, which means he doesn’t mind – and which Neil had already known. (Neil can read his moods well-enough to know when it’ll be welcome and when it won’t.)

“I lied,” Neil says, easily. “Besides, you deserved it with that memory comment.”

“I meant it…as a…compliment?” Shaun sounds so unsure of himself (and so uncertain that Neil would ever buy it) that Neil bursts out laughing.

“God, I love you,” he says, once he stops laughing long enough to get the words out.

That’s all it takes for Shaun to surge up, wrapping an arm around Neil’s neck and pulling gently. Neil leans down, meeting him halfway for a kiss that he’s more than happy to oblige. Before he can debate escalating things, Shaun lets go of him and waves the remote he’d stolen without Neil even noticing it’d been removed from his hand.

“It is your fault that I want to see how this ends,” Shaun tells him, as he hits play.

Oh right. Neil actually does, too. He and Shaun should be able to finish at least one thing unrelated to their relationship while in each other’s presence, right?

Except they have four more debates over the show’s (lack of) realism, which means it takes them another hour to finish it. And it ends on a cliffhanger, of course, since it’s the mid-season finale. As such, it’ll be two more months until it’s revealed if Meredith’s ex-love-interest/maybe-new-love-interest (who was on the plane, shockingly enough) will be able to overcome his amnesia and remember her again.

Shaun turns slightly so he’s lying fully on his back and can look up at Neil directly. “Dr. Malcolm is not going to like this episode.” He sounds dejected and Neil shakes his head in dismay – the fact that Shaun’s upset about a fictional show potentially disappointing Malcolm is almost too sweet for him to take.

“Why won’t he like it?” Neil hears himself asking, against his better judgement.

“He claims they are incapable of letting anyone be happy.”

Neil can believe it, because Malcolm getting worked up over Grey’s Anatomy, of all things, is exactly the kind of behavior he’s come to expect from his colleague – although…Neil watches it, too, so maybe he’s not in the best position to judge. (At least Neil doesn’t get upset about it. Most of the time.)

“It’s a TV show,” Neil points out, in a delayed response to Shaun’s answer. “They can’t let the main characters be happy for too long or they run out of dramatic storylines to keep the audience engaged. Some of them will be allowed to be happy in the series finale. Probably.”

“He also despises cliffhangers. I tell him to stop watching if he cannot handle it. He just laughs.”

“He hates cliffhangers? Then he’s watching the wrong show. Or…well, I guess every show does it.” Neil starts imagining what a fictional version of his life would look like. “Good thing we’re not in a TV show. Considering how long I’ve worked at Saint Bonaventure, I’d have had my life ‘hanging in the balance’ –” he makes sure to use exaggerated air quotes, “– in at least three separate season finales. They might even have killed me off, by now, in an effort to shake things up.”

A quick, mild pain in his side indicates Shaun is none too happy with him. “I do not like the direction of this conversation,” Shaun says, entire expression having darkened.

Neil rubs his side, mostly out of reflex, because the pain is already gone. “Did you pinch me?”

“You deserved it.”

“I disagree.” Yeah, okay, he might be whining a little, here.

“I do not want to talk about you dying.”

Whatever irritation that’s left evaporates, because Neil knows how painful the entire subject of death is for Shaun, never mind thinking about it happening to Neil. “I was talking about a fictional version of me,” he says gently. “On a show that doesn’t exist, mind you.”

“I do not care.” Shaun deflates, anger vanishing as quickly as Neil’s irritation had. “It is… I do not like it.”

Neil leans slightly more over him, lightly tracing his fingers over the side of Shaun’s face. “Then I’m sorry.”

“No,” Shaun relents. “I am sorry. I should not get upset over…a joke.” He squares his shoulders, which is a little difficult to do considering the position he’s lying in, and says, “I am not…fragile.”

It’s an unusual word choice for Shaun, and Neil guesses that he’s heard it before, probably as a criticism (if not a downright insult).

“You’re allowed to have things you don’t want to talk about. Everyone does. Let me ask you – do you think I’m fragile?”

Shaun seems so incredibly perplexed by the very question that it informs Neil he definitely doesn’t.

“Now let me shock you further, Shaun. Because I am fragile.”

Shaun clearly thinks Neil is trying to make some kind of joke. “You are not.”

“Everyone is, Shaun, in certain ways. At certain times. We all have our issues. And yes, I know the word can be used as an insult, but I personally don’t believe it is one. Sure, if someone is fragile in the sense that it affects their daily life to the point they cannot function, then they need to look into professional or medical options to overcome that – but it’s still not an insult. Because they – we – cannot control it. And if you ask me? It’s not a bad thing to be sensitive. Or to want to avoid things that cause us a great deal of pain. And it’s not a bad thing to…need more help to overcome, or get through, certain things.”

“It’s…not?”

“It’s not,” he whispers, giving Shaun time to process the way this issue is being flipped entirely upside down for him, Neil’s viewpoint so different from what he’s obviously always believed (or more accurately, always been told). “Would you agree that you have needed more help, throughout your life, because of your autism?”

“Yes.” Shaun shuts his eyes, whether against that confession, or so he doesn’t have to look at him, Neil isn’t sure. “I know my limitations. I have worked hard to overcome them.”

“You have. And you recognize that process involves needing help.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s not a bad thing. Know what would be?” Neil’s glad that Shaun opens his eyes upon hearing that question. “Knowing you need help and not seeking it out. Or refusing to accept the help that others willingly give you. The worst choice you can make is to keep going when you know you will fail without help, and maybe even hurt yourself or others in the process. We all need help. Some of us more than others.”

“But I –”

Neil silences the oncoming protest by brushing his thumb over Shaun’s mouth. “You best believe, Shaun Murphy, that there’s not a single person alive today who would have been able to accomplish anything if they had never been helped in their life. Parents and friends and teachers and role models – I could go on for days. That’s what the world is, it’s a…vast physical and emotional support system. For everyone. And we’re all connected to it in thousands of ways.” He moves his hand to lightly tap on Shaun’s ear in silent request to listen to him. “And that’s my speech about why there’s nothing wrong with being fragile. Because it’s not an indication of weakness; it simply means needing more help sometimes. That’s all. There will never be anything wrong with that.” He sums up his entire point in one sentence, meeting Shaun’s eyes and whispering, “There is nothing wrong with you.”

Shaun stares up at him for a minute that stretches, and Neil refuses to look away; his statement, the fierceness of it, the truth in it, goes so far beyond their current topic, and he can tell that Shaun recognizes that.

Finally, Shaun turns his eyes to the ceiling. “No one has…no one has ever…” Shaun’s struggling, and he folds his hands together, pressing them to his stomach. “I have never heard anyone talk about it in that way before.”

“That’s ‘cause you never knew me before,” Neil says lightly, aware of how much it’s costing Shaun to keep himself under control – the shine to his eyes tells him that much.

That’s when Shaun sits up and leans into him, kissing Neil in a move that’s sweet. And slow. And Neil can tell (by the unevenness of Shaun’s breathing, by the way his hands are slightly shaking, by the tinge of desperation in the way he moves his mouth over Neil’s) that Shaun is overwhelmed with emotion and has no idea what to do with it. Or how else to express it. So he’s poured it all into this kiss filled with appreciation and gratitude and…love.

Neil puts his hands on either side of Shaun’s neck, running his thumbs in circles as he returns the kiss. He tries to express the same sentiments in return, while also trying to calm him the best he can. Neil’s found that he has this unintentional ability to push Shaun to his emotional edge (and he can’t help that, really, because Shaun naturally finds it difficult to remain composed when it comes to a subject as real as this, as significant as what they feel for each other…and for that matter, so does Neil). The flip side is that Neil also excels at easing him back down when everything is simply too much for Shaun.

It’s working now, too. He feels it in the way Shaun’s breathing evens out. The way his hands become steady again when he presses them over Neil’s. Their kiss comes to an end, Shaun inhaling deeply as he moves back, and Neil searches his face before asking, “Okay?”

Shaun hears everything he’s asking in that single word, nodding and whispering, “Okay.”

Neil expects Shaun to put on another show, or maybe leave the couch to get ready for bed, but all he does is settle in at Neil’s side, leaning his head on his shoulder and shutting his eyes, like he plans to stay there for a while. Neil takes in the quiet of the living room, how comfortable he is, how peaceful it is with only the two of them enjoying each other’s presence. Sometimes they…they just need time alone together without speaking. Shaun, especially. And never moreso than when he’s trying to wind himself down from a heightened emotional state.

Neil lets his own eyes drift shut, wondering if it’s a wise course of action, since there’s a strong possibility that he might fall asleep on the couch. And that will make getting up later all the more difficult. However, Shaun isn’t moving, so Neil isn’t going to, either.

It’s maybe fifteen minutes later that Shaun’s voice draws him out of a space somewhere between asleep and awake. “If we were in a TV show,” Shaun’s picking up the threads of the previous conversation that had been lost, “why do you think they would have threatened your life so many times?” Neil isn’t sure what’s coming next, but he can tell by the tone that Shaun’s heading for something. “They only do that to the stars.” There it is.

“What makes you think I wouldn’t be the star?” Neil makes sure to sound as aggrieved as possible.

Shaun pulls slightly away from him to say, too seriously, “I can think of better candidates.”

He recognizes the half-smile forming on his resident’s face. “So help you, Shaun Murphy, I will throw you off this couch.”

“Like Everett Malcolm,” Shaun says, with too much glee.

Neil moves like he’s going to follow through with his threat and Shaun holds up his arms in an attempt at defense. (But, of course Neil doesn’t do anything, and it takes about twenty seconds for Shaun to realize it and lower his arms.) “Really, Murphy? You think I’d throw you to the floor?”

“I don’t know,” Shaun claims, still failing to keep a straight face. “You often become volatile when we discuss Dr. Malcolm.”

“For good reason! And besides, can you imagine watching Malcolm for an hour a week?”

“As opposed to seeing him at work every day of our lives?”

“Oh God, you’re right! Reality is much worse.”

“I could envision him in a TV show,” Shaun answers his question a minute late. “However, it would not be a drama. It would be a comedy.”

“It baffles me that you find him funny.”

“You laugh at him, too.”

“At him, Shaun. At him. Not his attempts at humor.”

“You are lying.”

He reaches out, intending to push him lightly, in censure, and somehow ends up pulling Shaun back into him, instead. “You’ll never prove it.”

“Okay. If Malcolm were not the star…how about me?”

“A show all about you, hmm?” Neil squints at him, making a production of thinking it over. “That might work. You’d need a strong supporting cast. Good thing you have me.”

It’s as close to rolling his eyes as Shaun gets and Neil kisses him in retaliation. They both get a little lost in it, to the point that when they separate, Neil’s completely forgotten their conversation. “What were we talking about?”

“Going to bed.”

He brushes his hand over some of Shaun’s hair which is sticking up haphazardly. “Bed, huh? I don’t remember that.”

“Failing memory,” Shaun says, tapping his fingers against Neil’s temple.

“Uh huh.” He turns his head to kiss Shaun’s hand. “I sometimes think you like driving me crazy as much as I enjoy doing it to you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure, you don’t. But I’m tired, too, so bed sounds great.”

“I did not say anything about being tired,” Shaun tells him, too innocently.

Neil laughs, shaking his head. “Yup. Definitely intent on driving me crazy.”

“Crazy good or crazy bad?”

“Crazy everything.”

“That is not an answer.”

“Sure it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Kind of proving my point for me here.” He can see Shaun wants to continue arguing, so he pulls him in for a quick kiss, then murmurs, “Not that I mind.”

Shaun seems satisfied with that answer, at least, and reaches over to retrieve his phone – which abruptly reminds Neil that he’d never learned what Shaun had been doing with it earlier, on account of how they’d gotten waylaid about twelve times this evening.

“Wait up,” Neil says, even though Shaun’s already standing, and holds out a hand for the phone. “I didn’t get a chance to see what ‘task’ you were completing earlier.”

Shaun doesn’t relinquish his phone, merely frowns down at him in censure. “I was very clear: if you tickled me I would never tell you.”

Damn, Neil had forgotten about that. “Surely you can make an exception.”

Shaun waits an excessively long time, and Neil’s certain he’s doing it to get back at him. Finally, he says, “No, I don’t think I can. It would set a terrible precedent.”

He takes a step away, but Neil’s much faster when he wants to be, and grabs him around the waist, pulling him back onto the couch before Shaun can even think about reacting.

“What’s this about precedents?” he hums, near Shaun’s ear, enjoying the way it causes a thrill to run down the younger man’s spine. “I can think of quite a few you don’t want me setting.”

Shaun doesn’t make even the slightest attempt to escape the arm holding him in place. “Threats about what you will do to me are not a deterrent.” Obviously, because Shaun likes that.

“How about threats of what I won’t do to you?”

“You win,” Shaun says (so quickly that Neil almost laughs) and offers his phone.

Neil takes that in even as he nips at Shaun’s ear and reminds him, “You don’t have to tell me, or show me, anything you don’t want to. You know that.”

“I know,” Shaun agrees, bringing his legs up to rest alongside Neil’s on the ottoman. Neil moves his arm from his waist in favor of draping it around Shaun’s shoulders instead, automatically pulling him closer (because it might actually be one of Neil’s top goals in life – get Shaun Murphy closer) and Shaun sighs in response, setting his head against Neil’s shoulder. “I would have had to show you this, anyways.”

That definitely heightens Neil’s interest. “Why?”

“Because you would have noticed on your own. I made an executive decision.”

Neil enters Shaun’s passcode and pulls up the internet app, realizing he’s looking at a picture of his comforter on some shopping website. Well, not his, but a new version of the one he has now. After his dry cleaner had (somehow) managed to ruin it beyond repair, Neil had gone back to the site he bought it from, but it was sold out. He’d even gone so far as to contact the manufacturer, who said they didn’t make it anymore.

He doesn’t know why he’s so attached to it, in particular, but…he glances over at Shaun. Okay, that’s a lie, he does know why he likes it so much. After they got together, it was basically the first thing he’d started thinking of as his and Shaun’s.

He’d gotten his current bedding set right after his break-up with Jessica; he’d spent weeks clearing out a lot of things from his place that reminded him of her too much – he’d even gotten brand new dishes and towels. There really wasn’t much logic to it, except that at the time, whenever he used something that had been ‘theirs’, something they’d picked out together, all he could think of was her, and it really wasn’t conducive to moving on. It had taken him ages to find a new comforter set he liked…not that he needed to tell Shaun that. (It was more than evident from how he hated everything Shaun had shown him tonight.)

“You are not saying anything,” Shaun says, calm enough, but there’s an edge to it that has Neil taking notice. Not to mention he’s folded his hands, but it’s not his normal, relaxed gesture; he’s clasping them together too hard. Before Neil can ask what’s wrong, Shaun solves the problem by asking, “Are you upset?”

“No,” he answers slowly, “why would I be?”

“It is…your bed.” Shaun’s staring intently at the black screen of the turned-off TV. “Perhaps you should have made the decision.”

“No,” he says sharply, and when Shaun tips his head up to face him, he makes a concerted effort to gentle his tone. “I’m glad you did this, Shaun. Thank you.”

Shaun visibly relaxes. “You’re welcome.”

“How did you even find it?”

“I took a picture and searched for a matching image online. It found every matching pattern on shopping websites. It took a while because it kept directing me to sites where it was out of stock. Until I found that one.” After a pause, he needlessly adds, “I already bought it.”

That explains his brief disappearance to the bedroom earlier; he’d been taking the picture. And though Shaun no longer seems worried about his reaction, there’s still uncertainty on his face, perhaps wondering if Neil did mind what he’d done, but wasn’t going to say as much out loud.

“Shaun, what you said?” He nods towards the bedroom. “That the bed in there is mine? It is, of course, but it’s kind of…yours, too.”

“It is not,” Shaun says calmly. “I did not buy it. I do not live here. I have my own apartment.” He waits a few moments, and Neil knows he’s debating his next words. “I take care of myself.”

Neil lets the impact of that statement weigh in the air between them, because he wants Shaun to know how much he believes it. And agrees with it. The evenness, the determination, the hint of defiance in it…all of that tells Neil that it’s something incredibly important to him. (Because maybe Shaun’s heard people challenge his independence too many times – perhaps even in regards to his relationship with Neil, and he files that away to bring up at a later point in time, if he feels it’s necessary.)

“I know you take care of yourself. Have I ever suggested otherwise?”

“No,” Shaun admits. “Even when you…help me. Or try to protect me. You are always insistent that it does not mean I cannot do things for myself.”

Neil feels distinct relief at that. He’s tried pretty hard to make that clear with Shaun, from the very beginning. (Since long before they got together.) “Exactly. And you take care of much more than yourself Shaun. You’ve taken care of…hundreds of people. It’s so important to you that you’ve turned it into your career.” He watches Shaun take that in. “Everyone knows you’re capable.” Shaun opens his mouth and Neil amends, “Everyone who matters knows you are capable.”

Shaun must accept that, since he murmurs, “Alright.”

“So what I said before, that I think of it as more…our bed, than my bed? That has nothing to do with thinking you need me, or anyone, to take care of you. I only meant that…you’re here a lot. And I want you to feel comfortable here. I want you to feel at home here.”

The response is instant. “I do.”

“Good. I’m glad. You can feel free to buy anything for here. To keep things here. Or change things you don’t like. I was teasing you earlier about the bedding, because…well, I’m me. But I want you to know that you have my…blanket permission to do anything you want here.”

Shaun doesn’t react to that.

“Oh come on.” Neil nudges his leg. “That was funny.”

“Was it?”

“It was,” Neil insists, gratified when Shaun’s mask slips a little, revealing a hint of a smile. “The point is, you don’t need to ask me first or worry that I’ll be unhappy about it.”

He can almost see the wheels turning in Shaun’s head, and he’s pretty sure he knows where Shaun’s going next even before Shaun does. “If you feel that way about your apartment, does that mean…”

“I would never change anything at your place without asking you first,” Neil tells him. “Nor am I saying you should feel comfortable with me doing that. Or that I want you to be comfortable with it. I know you like things…the way you like them. But I’m not that set with things here.”

Shaun remains silent and Neil can only guess that he’s thinking over what Neil’s said. Well, it couldn’t hurt to try a little more convincing.

“Do you want me to feel at home at your place?”

Shaun turns slightly more into him. “Of course.”

“And we’re committed to each other, right?” He can’t help his spike of anxiety at that question. (No matter how much Shaun reassures him, part of Neil is always waiting for him to change his mind, decide this is too much for him. Or maybe not enough. And then he’ll…walk away.)

“Yes. We are committed to each other.”

Neil lets himself exhale slowly. “So do you understand what I’m asking? What I mean? If you think of my place as ‘home’, and I think of yours the same way…it could, kind of, make our relationship official? In a way? Not that it wasn’t, already. I mean, I figured it was. That it is. Though we’ve never really talked about it, in those exact terms. Officially talked about calling it ‘official’…that is.” God, why is he rambling so much? He isn’t even sure if he’s making sense to himself anymore, never mind to

“We are official,” Shaun declares, thankfully breaking into his increasingly worried thoughts. “I…felt that way before. I understand what you mean. About our apartments.” He tilts his heads up towards Neil’s. “And I agree.”

Neil turns to him, meeting his eyes, and he suddenly finds himself overwhelmed… “Shaun.”

“Yes?”

“It’s… When I think of where my home is, it’s not necessarily here. At my apartment. And it’s not at your place.” He can tell he has Shaun’s complete interest. “It’s…where you are.”

Shaun’s eyeing him suspiciously. “Did you steal that from Grey’s Anatomy?”

Neil’s surprised by his own laughter as he shakes his head (and Shaun has the gall to claim he doesn’t watch it). “No, though I know they’ve had variations of that confession a hundred times over. So has every TV show, probably. And movie. And any novel with a love story as part of its plot. Maybe it’s a little cliché, but…clichés are usually clichés because they’re true, right? And it’s true. For me.”

While Shaun processes that, Neil finds himself holding his breath, for some reason – oh damn, he knows the reason, it’s because if Shaun doesn’t feel the same then

“It is true,” Shaun affirms (and Neil lets himself breathe). “For me. As well.” Neil would kiss him, but the slight tilt of Shaun’s head means he has more to say. “We are…a love story?”

Neil has to think back over what he’d said to understand where the question is coming from. “If we’re not a love story, Murphy, then I don’t know what the hell else to call us.”

“‘Love story’ works,” Shaun allows, with an almost comical gravity.

“What label would you have given us?”

“I was not aware we needed a label. If you asked me to think of one…” He lets his words fade, then shrugs. “I would have said we are ‘Neil and Shaun’.”

“That works, too,” Neil agrees. “Or even better, put them together. How about… Neil and Shaun: A Love Story.” He nods, liking it (and damn was Shaun ever right when he’d pointed out earlier that Neil is incredibly sentimental when it comes to the two of them – it’s to the point that Neil doesn’t even care anymore). “Wow, we’re so creative! Maybe we should quit our day jobs and become writers?”

Shaun sends him an assessing look. “You are trying to be humorous.”

Trying?” Neil gasps.

“Still trying.”

“Alright,” he concedes, theatrically. “Maybe.”

“Writing should be left to someone more qualified,” Shaun declares, in what Neil thinks is an insult. It’s confirmed when Shaun adds, “And talented.”

“Don’t challenge me,” Neil warns. “I’ll write a best-seller someday, just to prove you wrong. I’ll call it…Tales of a Genius Surgeon.”

“Would you include yourself as a character when you told my story?”

Oh, that does it. Shaun’s already trying to move away, knowing how well that last joke would land, but he’s not fast enough (probably doesn’t want to be fast enough, if Neil’s guessing correctly) and Neil pushes him backwards, then pins him to the couch in the next second. “You are so asking for it, Murphy.”

“I always am,” Shaun says, almost breathless with laughter, and then Neil’s kissing him (which means that’s all Shaun manages to say, for a long time after).

Chapter Text

Life is ultimately unpredictable.

No one had taught that to Neil; it’s a lesson hard-won after four decades filled with experiences from the incredible to the soul-shattering to the mundane – and a vast number of those experiences had blindsided him.

No matter how much someone plans ahead, how much they try to mitigate risk, how much they prepare for worst-case scenarios…there are simply too many possible outcomes in life. There are too many variables involved to ever account for all of them. It’s impossible for a person to even believe they can try, never mind actually attempt to do it. And what’s more, some things are simply inevitable – no one could change them, or avoid them, even if they had the ability to see the future.

Simply put, there are an infinite number of things that can forever, irreparably, alter the course of a life – for good or for bad – and most of them are things people never see coming.

Aaron’s illness had been one of those things for Neil. He still remembers that day, some ten months earlier, when he’d stood across from Aaron’s desk and heard the other man speak so matter of factly about his diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Aaron had been so calm, so…resigned. He could have been relating the score of the baseball game from the night before. He could have been talking about the weather.

It was like he’d already said goodbye to the world and telling Neil was simply one of the last loose ends. (And one he hadn’t even planned to go through with right then – Aaron only told him because of Neil’s worry about Shaun.)

A lot of things had changed after that. It was an almost imperceptible shift, at first, with Neil’s life still incredibly close to where it would have been if he hadn’t known about Aaron’s cancer. (Or if Aaron hadn’t had cancer.) But as with all things, the more time went on, the more his path diverged and the further away he got from his original course.

While that conversation in Aaron’s office is still as clear in Neil’s mind as if it happened yesterday, the rest of the day and weeks that followed are mostly a haze to him now. He remembers trying (and failing) to accept the possibility of losing Aaron – one of the best men he’d ever known. He’d always admired him, respected him for his intelligence, his integrity, his compassion. Aaron had principles that he refused to compromise for anyone. Or anything. He fought for people in a way that Neil had tried, over the course of his career, to emulate.

Aaron Glassman probably taught him more about being a surgeon than any classroom or textbook ever could.

Not many people are aware, but Aaron has had a tremendous impact on his life. He’d been Neil’s attending physician, back when he was a resident. And like so many residents, Neil had thought he’d known everything. Aaron had tried to temper him, tried to teach him that his ego would only take him so far, and while he’d been somewhat successful, he’d never fully succeeded in turning Neil into his perfect protégé. They were simply too different in their personalities, and no matter how much Neil respected Aaron, he’d always seen him as…too compassionate. Too easily swayed by his emotions. Too unwilling to make the most difficult calls. Aaron was an outlier in a profession where it was much easier to build concrete barriers around emotions, barriers that protected so many in the medical field from becoming too affected by the terrible things – the suffering and death and grief – that they witnessed on a regular basis.

And to Neil’s mind, Aaron bringing Shaun into their lives, fighting to get him a position at their hospital, had been the real-world embodiment of everything about Aaron that made him different.

It had been incredibly easy for Neil to fall back on old habits. He’d told himself that Aaron had let his personal feelings blind him to the reality that Shaun wouldn’t be able to survive in their profession. And it wasn’t as if Neil had a terrible track record; he was right about most things, most of the time. It was why he’d become as skilled and respected and successful as he had. So he’d known he was right back then, too. (Which meant, of course, that Aaron had to be wrong.)

The ultimate irony is that by refusing to listen to Neil, Aaron had significantly changed his life in two major ways:

The first was through his years spent as Neil’s attending, helping him become the surgeon (the man) that he is today.

The second was dismissing every remark, every argument, and every attempt Neil had made to remove Shaun Murphy from their hospital.

As a result, it’s not a reach to say that Neil might owe Aaron Glassman everything good in his life.

That was why he’d almost dropped the phone twelve hours earlier when the nurse handed it to him after a brief explanation that Aaron had been in a car accident. (Thankfully, it wasn’t serious; Aaron was able to walk away with only a broken arm and he’d been admitted to their hospital for observation. All things considered, it was one of the best possible outcomes, but in those few moments before hearing the details, Neil had feared… No, he won’t go there. He can’t.)

By sheer coincidence, the accident happened during an overnight shift for their team. After making sure Aaron was settled, Shaun had spent as much of the night with him as possible, which worked out because it happened to be fairly quiet. Neil returned to making rounds for their patients while checking in on Aaron (and Shaun) periodically. He was mostly on autopilot for the rest of his shift, though, consumed with memories of the past year: most of them focused on Aaron’s cancer diagnosis, his subsequent treatments, and the hell it had put all of them through.

At the center of a lot of those memories – inextricably and forever linked with Aaron – is Shaun. Perhaps Neil should have known something was changing about his feelings even then, during the torturous months of Aaron’s surgery and radiation and chemotherapy, because aside from Aaron, Neil’s only true concern had been Shaun.

He and Shaun hadn’t gotten together until after Aaron went into remission, but during those long months when Aaron went for regular treatments, those interminable days when everyone waited on a razor’s edge for his latest round of test results…they’d suffered. They’d all suffered. It had been both better and worse that Aaron decided, early on, to keep his entire staff up-to-date on his condition. It helped assuage their fears, but it had also made the agony of waiting that much more difficult. And it’s undeniable that none of them had fared worse during those months than Shaun.

Neil remembers countless times when he’d simply sat with Shaun in silence. In his office, or a breakroom, or on quiet car rides home after the buses stopped running.

He hadn’t known what else to do. Because Shaun rarely wanted to talk about the issue that was weighing on him (and forget meaningless platitudes – Shaun saw right through every one of them). It’s not like Neil had been any better, either, in the ‘talking about emotions’ department. He could barely manage his own reaction to Aaron’s diagnosis, never mind effectively help anyone else deal with theirs.

And yet…it had never stopped him from wanting to try – not when it came to Shaun. Neil never stopped asking if he wanted to talk, despite the numerous refusals. He never stopped lending his support. Never stopped being there. Because, in his life, he’d seen enough to recognize when people needed help the most.

Shaun had needed him. That was why he’d never given up. And maybe…maybe Neil had needed Shaun just as much. (He’s also pretty sure they’d silently bonded over that fact without meaning to – without even being aware of it, back then.)

It’s fitting, Neil had told Aaron once, during that time. If you’d never saved Shaun’s life, he wouldn’t have been here to save yours.

Because it had been Shaun who researched. Who pushed. Who fought. He kept fighting even after Aaron had given up – and it paid off. Shaun is the sole reason Aaron had gotten a second opinion and then a biopsy; he’s essentially the sole reason Aaron made the decision to keep fighting. Sometimes, Neil even thinks that Shaun is the only reason Aaron held on as hard as he did, when things were looking grave, even with treatments. (Aaron hadn’t wanted to leave Shaun as much as Shaun hadn’t wanted to be left.)

It’s a widely-accepted fact that without Shaun, Aaron would have died. And Neil wouldn’t…he wouldn’t have either of them.

(He can’t even contemplate how desolate his life would be if events had unfolded that way.)

Aaron is one of the toughest people any of them have ever known – he wouldn’t take any sort of long-term leave during his treatments. Occasionally, he’d let Allegra or Marcus fill in for less important duties if he had to be away for an extended period of time, but every final decision still went before him, whether he came in to work or not. As a result, if possible, Neil’s respect for him increased even more.

Those had been some of the longest months of Neil’s life – months of Aaron fighting, and his staff supporting him however they could. Months of worrying. And waiting. And the very real fear that his cancer might be something he couldn’t overcome, no matter how much they hoped and prayed.

But then Aaron slowly started getting better. He began responding more positively to treatment, his scans showed definite progress, and his mood noticeably improved. It was obvious that, more than hope, Aaron had begun to let himself believe. (And that allowed everyone else to believe, as well.)

And then one day, Neil had been called to Aaron’s office, only to find Jessica and Shaun already there. Neil had known, right then, that things had gone one way or the other, and he honestly didn’t know which one it might be until Aaron told them he’d gone into remission; he was going to announce it shortly, after he crafted a hospital-wide memo, but he couldn’t keep it from the three of them any longer than he had to.

Neil mostly remembers the overwhelming wave of relief as he struggled to process that Aaron had won. For the moment, he’d won, and they wouldn’t have to say goodbye to him anytime in the imminent future. Jessica had started crying. And Shaun…Shaun had held onto Neil’s arm so tightly that it hurt.

Those two defining moments in Aaron’s office – learning about his cancer and then about his remission – are the bookends to one of the most painful periods of time in Neil’s life. (And he’s lived through more than his share.)

While Aaron had hugged Jessica (ironically being the one to comfort her instead of the other way around), Neil had felt the same inexplicable urge to hug Shaun. He’d stopped himself because Shaun didn’t like touching people, and Neil had always made it a point to never make him feel uncomfortable when it came to his boundaries around things like that.

So instead, he’d stepped back and given the three of them space, relieved when Aaron immediately pulled Shaun into a hug after letting go of Jessica. (To be honest, Neil had wondered why he was even included in the select group Aaron chose to tell ahead of time – he wasn’t as close to Aaron as Jessica or Shaun was. If anything, Marcus – as the head of their department – should have been in that room instead of Neil.)

Now, though… Now things are different.

He takes in the quiet scene before him in Aaron’s private hospital room: Aaron’s scrolling through something on his phone (when he should be resting) and Shaun’s seemingly asleep in the chair next to his hospital bed. Neil’s other residents had cleared out long ago, off to attend to their patients, and then head home after their overnight shifts.

It’s past time that Neil and Shaun should have gone home, too, but Neil had known that Shaun wouldn’t want to leave until he was absolutely certain that Aaron was fine. That had required waiting through the morning hours for the results of a dozen more tests, so Neil had taken the opportunity to catch up on paperwork (and that had absolutely nothing to do with hearing Marcus’s nagging voice in his head – nothing at all). Now it’s going on 10 AM and they really should leave soon.

He feels the familiar pangs of concern as his eyes skim over Shaun; his head is resting against the back of the chair and his eyes are closed – he might be sleeping, but knowing Shaun, there’s an equal chance he isn’t.

“Here to collect him?” Aaron keeps the pitch of his voice low, and while it’s ostensibly not to disturb Shaun, Neil recognizes a tiredness in his words that nothing can mask.

“Here to try, but I’m also here to check on you again.” Neil picks up Aaron’s chart and starts skimming it. “Things were going pretty well around here, these past few weeks…so you had to go and get in a car accident, didn’t you?”

“Right,” Aaron rolls his eyes in a move that Neil likes seeing, because his spark is still there, “it was all a diabolical plan to make your life more difficult.”

“I’m glad you can admit it,” Neil quips, as he flips a page. “Were you able to get any sleep between the times I stopped by?”

“Some. Not much.” Aaron holds up his phone. “Always something to do. I tried to convince the nurses that if I moved to my office it shouldn’t count as leaving against medical advice because technically I’d still be in the hospital.”

Neil glances up from the chart. “Seriously?”

“It was worth a shot.”

“I’d say being in a car accident earns you a break, Aaron.”

“I’d have to agree with you.” He nods towards his injured arm, which is still in a splint while he waits to be fitted for a cast. “Literally.”

Neil replays his words, then manages to wince and laugh at the same time. “That was unintentional, I swear.” He also knows his advice about taking time to rest is falling on deaf ears – this was the man who’d insisted on working through radiation and chemotherapy. A broken arm must seem like nothing to him.

And as he guessed, Aaron’s barely paying him attention; his gaze is on Shaun, expression revealing the kind of distinct worry that echoes Neil’s own. “I told him, several times, to go home. He refused.”

“Shaun Murphy refusing orders because he’s too concerned about you to leave your side?” Neil would have been much more surprised to hear the opposite. “I’m truly shocked.”

“I’m sure it was partly that, but I also knew it was a futile effort to get him to leave without you. And he shouldn’t be alone, anyways, after last night.”

“I am awake,” Shaun says, though he doesn’t move or open his eyes. “I can hear you.”

“Doesn’t mean what I said is untrue,” Aaron informs him (and Shaun tellingly doesn’t argue).

“Your vitals have been consistent since you were admitted,” Neil says, deciding to change the direction of their conversation. “And your tests have been fine. Barring any complications, you’ll probably be released tonight.”

“I know I’m fine,” Aaron bites out. “I’ve been telling everyone that I’m fine. You. Shaun. Every doctor and nurse that comes into the room – every one of them that so much as walks by the room. None of them will listen to me.”

“You’re really not helping disprove the adage that doctors make the worst patients.”

“The fact that I’m a doctor has nothing to do with my discontent.”

“Okay,” Neil almost laughs, “so it’s just you being difficult, then.”

Aaron’s eyes are sharp as he stares Neil down (and it’s surprisingly effective, even when he’s laid up in a hospital bed). “Watch it, Melendez.”

Despite the warning, Neil won’t be deterred (not when it comes to something as important as this). “You know we want to cover all our bases.”

“Sure,” Aaron heaves a sigh as he stares mutinously at the door, “but it feels like you’ve all conspired to keep me locked up in here.”

“It’s been one night,” Neil says, fondly exasperated. When Aaron’s expression doesn’t change, he flips the chart closed and shakes his head. “Okay, you’ve guessed it – we all want to torture you.” He hands the chart to Aaron, who’s holding out his hand in silent request. “It can’t possibly be that everyone in this hospital wants to make sure you’re okay.”

“It’s a coin flip, at this point,” Aaron irritably insists, scowling when he rubs the shoulder of his broken arm.

“I know you’re not in the best mood. No one would be after the night you’ve been through.” Neil’s next question completely disarms Aaron: “Is it really so difficult to believe how much we all care about you?”

Aaron sends him an assessing glance, before grudgingly admitting, “Some more than others, for sure.”

“Right,” Neil murmurs, eyes sweeping over Shaun.

“You’d think they’d move things a little faster for their president!” Aaron deliberately elevates his voice at those last words, craning his neck to try and see out the door into the hallway.

“You want VIP treatment, huh?”

“Is it too much to ask?” It’s clear Aaron’s joking – he’d be the last person to actually expect special treatment based on his status.

“It’s not too much to ask,” Neil says, in an unexpectedly serious answer to Aaron’s lighthearted question. Because he’ll never be able to forget what Aaron had gone through during his illness…every single time he’d seen the other man working tirelessly despite how awful he’d felt. The only times he’d taken any breaks had been when he’d been ordered to by the team that was treating him – when they’d told him that going too long without any sort of respite would set back his progress. And Neil had always wondered… “Why didn’t you take more time off? During your treatments?”

Aaron turns his gaze to the ceiling and his laughter is devoid of any humor. “There are rules, Neil. Actual bylaws in our administrative guidelines about how much time a president is allowed to miss before they have to appoint an interim president – and if they refuse, the board can appoint one. From there, it’s not hard to force out the original president. In theory, it’s a great thing, because it protects us from presidents that are derelict, or lazy, or bought and paid for. But it doesn’t leave much room for people like me, who have legitimate reasons not to be here. Now, to be fair, some on the board advocated for an exception in my case, but it didn’t pass. And the truth is I didn’t want to be an exception. I wanted to be here as much as possible – the board members I distrust are kept in line by my presence.”

Neil had known that running their hospital was, in large part, a political game, but he’d had no idea the extent of it. And with all the people on the board… “There wasn’t anyone that you trusted to appoint as your interim president? No one you trusted to run the hospital?”

Aaron waves a hand dismissively. “Any one of them could run our hospital just fine. What I didn’t trust was that the person who got the job wouldn’t do things in their own best interest instead of the interests of our staff, our patients, and their families.” He stares at Neil, hard. “The president can rearrange departments and staff however they see fit. They can hire or fire anyone, virtually without impunity. They could, for example, terminate someone and then give that job to whomever they wanted as a personal favor. The short answer is basically: they have the potential to do things in my absence that I could never undo.”

Neil considers the chilling reality of what Aaron’s telling him (and, not for the first time, he’s grateful he’s always been completely uninterested in politics). “You wouldn’t even trust someone like Allegra?”

“She’d be one of the best options, certainly, but she’s beholden to donors – and I don’t blame her because that’s literally her job. On our current staff, there’s no one who could fulfill the president’s role to my satisfaction.” He shifts on the bed, eyes taking on a faraway look. “You might not believe this, but if I had to choose? It’d be Marcus. Except he’s not ready – not yet.”

Neil remembers Marcus’s warning a few weeks prior to make certain that he and Shaun didn’t do anything the board could point to as evidence of their personal relationship affecting their professional decisions. “No matter what I think of him, I will hand it to Marcus that he looks out for his department and his staff in a way that makes me trust him a lot more than I used to. And that’s remarkable, considering that I used to not trust him at all.”

“He’s changed,” Aaron agrees. “Marcus is still out for Marcus, make no mistake, but he cares about other people more than he used to. We saw that in the aftermath of Shaun’s mistake.” He’s referring to the disastrous surgery where Shaun had made an error that nearly cost a patient his life because he’d been momentarily distracted after learning about Aaron’s diagnosis. To everyone’s shock, upon learning about the sequence of events, and being impressed that Shaun had willingly admitted his error, Marcus had concluded the circumstances were extraordinary – and he’d decided not to fire Shaun, nor ask Aaron to keep his earlier promise and resign.

“Would you have stepped down?” Neil questions. “If he’d asked you to?”

“I was prepared to,” Aaron answers. “I thought I could do it. I hoped I could.” (And Neil knows that’s his way of saying that he isn’t entirely sure what he’d have done if Marcus had forced him to make that choice.) “I wanted to stay here, more than anything, but I can also say…where’s the integrity in holding other people to their promises if I won’t even abide by my own?”

Neil considers that for a few long moments. “Is it fair to give Marcus all the credit for not forcing your hand when you had nearly the entire hospital backing you? And I don’t mean the board, I mean the staff. There would have been a near-riot if you’d resigned.”

Aaron chuckles a little at that, and Neil can tell he’s pleased at the support Neil’s referencing. “I’m sure that had something to do with his decision, but I do believe that when it came to giving us another chance…there was more to it than self-preservation.”

Neil thinks it’s as good a time as any to ask his next question: “Did you tell him not to separate me and Shaun at work?”

Aaron doesn’t seem in the least bit surprised to be called on it. “He asked me if I thought he should do so – a couple people on the board pressured him to, believe it or not. Most of the board loves Shaun, but a few of them are still…” he glances at Shaun, “…unsure about him working here. And as it stands right now, they’ll never get the majority they need to overrule me and…remove him. So they went to Marcus as a roundabout means of achieving their own ends. They claimed something about potential ethical issues if you two remained working closely together, but I knew they were betting if they took you away from him, he might be unhappy enough to leave on his own.”

“I’m not sure if I want to know who they are,” Neil says darkly.

I know who they are,” Shaun reveals, opening his eyes to look at Neil.

“They’re wrong,” Neil says tightly. “About you.”

A few seconds pass as they stare at each other in silence; in those moments, Shaun silently takes in Neil’s unwavering support, and Neil accepts the reassurance in Shaun’s eyes – that this is something they don’t have to worry about (because of Aaron and Marcus and everyone else on their side – which happens to include the vast majority of the hospital).

“They are wrong,” Shaun confirms, setting his head back and shutting his eyes again.

Neil turns back to Aaron; from his wariness and the pinched expression around his eyes, it’s obvious that he hates what those few board members tried to do as much as Neil does. “What did you end up telling Marcus?”

“That if he did what they wanted, if he tried to separate you two, I’d overrule him.” Aaron rubs a hand over his eyes and leans his head back, mimicking Shaun’s current position. “For what it’s worth, I think that was the answer Marcus wanted to hear – even if only because he despises other people telling him how to do his job.”

“You could have easily gone the other way, gone along with it,” Neil says, with a hint of question. “You…didn’t like that we were together, at that point in time.”

“Even though I wasn’t happy, it doesn’t mean I couldn’t see how happy Shaun was – as fleeting as I was convinced it would be. And I knew if I allowed them to separate you, I would lose you both.” Aaron glances at Shaun and the look in his eyes…it hurts for Neil to even witness it. (He can only imagine what it’s like to feel it.) “I almost lost you both, anyways.”

“You did not,” Shaun says quietly. “You could not lose us.”

Because the younger man’s eyes are still shut, Shaun doesn’t see Aaron’s expression change to one of sheer relief and love to a degree that almost shouldn’t be possible – that Neil recognizes as the love of a father.

“That’s…” Aaron has to clear his throat. “Good. I’m…I’ll always be here for you. Never doubt that.”

Shaun hums something in agreement and Neil puts it into words (because he knows it was directed at both of them). “We don’t doubt it.” He thinks about what Aaron had said earlier – about the reasons he’d kept working through his arduous cancer treatments. “You fought to stay here…to protect us.”

“All of you, yes,” Aaron confirms, though he’s still watching Shaun.

“Some of us more than others,” Neil counters, echoing Aaron’s words from earlier.

Aaron’s eyes snap back to his. “It will always be about some of us more than others – because some people need more protection than others. You know that, Neil.” He pauses for a moment. “You know.”

“I do,” Neil murmurs, even though it’s a fact of which Aaron’s already well-aware. (Reassurance never hurts, especially not when it comes to Aaron’s ever-present concern for Shaun.) “There was no censure in my statement, either. I think everyone knows the lengths both of us would go in order to protect people.” And one certain person, in particular.

Aaron studies him closely for a minute before nodding curtly and relaxing. He tips his head in Shaun’s direction. “Take Shaun home.”

Shaun sits up more fully, opening his eyes. “Stop trying to order me to –”

“I’m not ordering you,” Aaron mildly interrupts. “I’m ordering Melendez.”

“Because I always listen to you,” Neil says, mostly joking.

“You listen when it matters,” Aaron replies. And he might as well have said: You listen when it concerns what’s best for Shaun Murphy. (And he’d be right.)

Shaun’s watching Aaron with the kind of worry (and lingering vestiges of fear) that makes Neil want to hold onto him and never let go. “I needed to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m fine,” Aaron assures him. “The accident was minor, Shaun. I’ll recover quickly and without any long-term effects.”

“I know,” Shaun acknowledges, glancing at Neil and then somewhere vaguely near the doorway. “That’s what everyone says.”

Neil crosses the room, stopping behind Shaun’s chair and setting a hand on his shoulder. “Do you trust the other doctors on duty right now?” When Shaun doesn’t answer, Neil adds, “Do you trust Aaron? Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” Shaun instantly answers.

“We’ve all made the assessment that he’s fine. You, yourself, have made that assessment. And everyone is under strict orders to contact me and Marcus if anything changes. So…I think it’s safe for us to go home.”

Shaun’s making a visible effort to control his emotions and Neil squeezes his shoulder; Shaun relaxes in response and Neil feels some of his own tension evaporate, in turn.

“Shaun.” Aaron deliberately waits for him to look over. “This isn’t about my cancer. I’m not in treatment right now. This…has nothing to do with any of that.”

“I know,” Shaun says quietly. “But it felt…” He pauses in frustration, before clarifying, “It feels the same.”

“I’m aware,” Aaron sighs, “and I’m sorry for it.”

“It’s not your fault. Another car hit yours.”

“Right, but I’m okay. It goes back to what Neil said: if you trust us, then you will believe that.”

“I trust Dr. Melendez,” Shaun says. “With everything.” (And Neil can’t even attempt to suppress the flood of affection that fills him at that statement.)

Aaron eyes the two of them with curiosity more than anything else. “Is that wise?” he asks, with a hint of humor that means he’s teasing Shaun.

“Absolutely,” Shaun answers seriously, as he reaches up to place his hand over Neil’s where it’s still resting on his shoulder. Neil isn’t sure if it’s to punctuate his statement or to keep him close. (Most likely both.)

“See how brilliant my residents are?” Neil asks, with an air of superiority he doesn’t try to hide. (Though it’s no secret the lengths that Shaun would go in order to defend him – or that Neil would readily do the same for Shaun.)

“We get it from you,” Shaun says, without any inflection, and it’s clearly meant to be a joke, but Aaron still shakes his head at him.

“You claim Neil’s arrogant,” Aaron chastises, “and then you go and say things like that… I hope you realize how self-defeating that is, Shaun.”

“He would be equally as arrogant without me,” Shaun tries to claim.

“Hmm.” Neil raises the hand Shaun’s not holding onto and tips it back and forth. “I’d say slightly moreso.”

Slightly?” Aaron scoffs. “Nice try, Neil, but based on how you were as a resident? And let’s not forget all the years since? It’d be significantly worse than that.”

“I wish I could have seen you two before,” Shaun reveals, and at their questioning looks, he explains to Aaron, “When Neil was your resident.”

“It was pretty much the same as now,” Aaron informs him. “He generally didn’t listen to a thing I said.”

“Patently untrue,” Neil protests.

“Oh, really?” Aaron challenges. “You weren’t headstrong? Stubborn? Set in your ways?”

“Those all mean the same thing.”

“That’s the point,” Aaron says dryly.

“I’ve grown,” Neil says defensively. “At least…I like to think I have.”

“Maybe a little,” Aaron concedes, but Neil can tell he’s hiding a smile. He briefly glances at Shaun before murmuring, “And a lot of that had nothing to do with me.”

“But a lot of it did,” Neil counters, seriously.

Aaron nods and swallows around some emotion Neil recognizes, but can’t put into words. To lighten the moment, Neil reminds Shaun, “Aaron liked to set up these awful games where we all had to compete against each other. Audrey’s still a big fan, as you’re aware.”

Aaron starts smiling at some long-forgotten memory. (Probably of Neil thoroughly losing to Audrey or one of the other residents at the time.) “It was to make you tougher.”

“I hated it,” Neil says, rather needlessly, because it’s not news to Aaron. (He’d complained just as much back then as he does nowadays.)

“You didn’t hate the games, you hated losing. There’s a key difference.”

“I never lost,” Neil blatantly lies.

“He lost all the time,” Aaron whispers to Shaun.

In retaliation, Neil whispers, in his own aside to Shaun, “Aaron’s memory is starting to fail him.”

Aaron raises his eyebrows. “Do you really want to start this with me? I have dozens of stories I’m sure Shaun would love hearing –”

“We don’t have to go there now,” Neil interrupts, even though there’s nothing too awful from his past that Aaron could dredge up (and he knows that Aaron wouldn’t try to sabotage his image with Shaun, even if there were).

“We could go there now,” Shaun says, mischievously, as he tilts his head back to look up at Neil.

“Absolutely not,” Neil declares. “I don’t need both of you ganging up on me. It’s hardly fair.”

Shaun’s about to argue and Neil can’t resist the opportunity to lean down and kiss him – solely to keep him quiet, of course. He keeps it light, but Neil still knows it’s a measure of how far they’ve come that Shaun doesn’t hesitate or pull away from him because Aaron’s in the same room.

“Morning, Dr. Glass– oh!”

Neil straightens in time to see a young nurse nearly trip over herself as she enters the room. Then she freezes, eyes slowly moving from Neil and Shaun over to Aaron.

“Good morning, Amanda,” Aaron says kindly and Neil can tell he's trying really hard not to look amused.

“I – I can come back,” she says, stammering a little, and her face is turning red. “I didn’t know you two were – not that it matters. Not that it’s any of my business.” She clutches her tablet like a shield in front of her and ends with a careful (though more composed), “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“By all means, please interrupt,” Neil says graciously, waving towards Aaron on the bed. “You have no idea what you’re saving me from. I owe you.”

The girl turns even redder and Neil thinks again about how young she must be to have that kind of reaction. Still, she manages to regain herself and approach Aaron’s bed. “You can call me Mandy,” she offers, then begins asking him a standard list of questions about his symptoms and how he’s feeling this morning (and all the while, she can’t seem to help sending Neil and Shaun quick, curious glances). When Mandy starts checking his vitals, Aaron begins humming under his breath.

“That’s nice,” she says pleasantly. “I don’t think I've heard that song before.”

“What?” Aaron seems surprised, like he wasn't consciously aware of what he was doing. “Oh, it’s called ‘Mandy’. It came out…probably twenty years before you were born?"

Mandy pulls out a blood pressure cuff and starts attaching it to his uninjured arm. “1978?”

If Neil didn’t feel old before that moment, that certainly would have done it – he exchanges a look with Aaron that reveals they both feel exactly the same way. 

“You were born in 1998?” Aaron’s voice is slightly strangled. “Make that more than twenty years before you were born.”

“The 90’s were a good decade," Shaun says, nodding approvingly at Mandy, who beams at him in return. “I, too, was born in the 90’s.”

Neil pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don't if I should compliment myself that I got you, or admonish myself that I got you.”

“How about…you did not get me,” Shaun suggests. “I am the one who got you.”

“That sounds much more flattering towards me,” Neil says quickly, “so I’ll take it.”

“When were you born, sir?” Mandy glances at Neil. “The 1960’s?”

Aaron starts laughing so hard that Mandy chastises him and says she'll have to take his blood pressure all over again.

Neil stares at her in disbelief. “I look like I’m in my fifties to you?”

Her eyes widen as she glances among the three men in the room. “Um…no?”

“I appreciate the confidence,” Neil says. “For the record, I was born in the 70’s.”

“Then I was close,” Mandy insists.

Late 70’s," Neil clarifies. “Thanks.”

“I do not care about age,” Shaun says, in assurance to Neil. “It does not matter to me.” He folds his hands and adds, “Besides everyone needs love. Even elderly people, right Dr. Glassman?”

It’s Neil’s turn to laugh that time, as Aaron glowers at Shaun, then switches to Neil for good measure (but it does absolutely nothing to lessen his amusement).

Glassman ignores Mandy’s fussing as she tries to finish taking his blood pressure. “I’m not elderly, Shaun.”

“Most definitions start at 65, so you are technically correct,” Shaun allows. “However, you are close.”

Aaron sighs, but doesn’t respond to that (probably knowing it’s a futile endeavor) and it gives Mandy the opportunity to finish up. She casts one last, speculative look at Neil and Shaun before exiting with haste, probably eager to grill her co-workers about what she’d learned in the last ten minutes.

“I can’t believe there are still people who don’t know about you two,” Aaron remarks, not having missed her surprise.

“I know,” Neil says, feigning disappointment. “Everyone should be talking about me all day, every day. It’s depressing that they aren’t.”

Aaron scoffs at that. “All I mean is that it seems obvious. To me, anyways.”

“We remain professional at work,” Shaun tries to claim, and when Aaron just laughs, he revises, “We remain mostly professional at work?”

“I wasn’t really talking about being ‘professional’ per se," Aaron tries to explain. “It’s more like…you two have your own world. And it's pretty obvious to me how often you’re in it.”

Shaun nods at that as he looks up at Neil. “I like our world.”

“I like it, too,” Neil agrees warmly, and the only reason he doesn’t lean down to kiss Shaun again is because there’s no way he could keep it as chaste as last time. He distracts himself by refocusing on Aaron. “We still come across a few people a week who don’t know, and that’s thanks to…”

“Everett Malcolm,” Shaun fills in. “He has a habit of openly talking about us.”

“Murphy’s not exaggerating,” Neil informs Aaron. “Malcolm brings up our relationship so much that you’d think he was the third person in it.”

“It is not…” Shaun pauses, reconsidering. “Okay, it is that excessive.”

“He likes to announce it,” Neil laments. "Last week it was in the O.R. – in the middle of a surgery.”

Aaron’s confused. “Why would he do that?”

“Why does Malcolm do anything?” Neil throws his hands up. “He’s insane!”

“He is perfectly sane,” Shaun puts in, always the counter to Neil’s over-the-top assessment of things.

Perfectly,” Neil mutters. “I don’t think that means what you think it means. And know what, I’m also questioning your definition of the word sane.”

Shaun ignores him in favor of telling Aaron, “Dr. Malcolm does it because he says the more people who know about us, the more people will leave me alone.”

Neil knows that very well – it’s why he’s never stopped Malcolm from doing it. Neil’s not about to go around telling random people about their relationship, but if Malcolm wants to? He can be Neil’s guest.

He runs his fingers along the back of Shaun’s neck, waiting for him to look up again. “What have I told you about reminding me of reasons I can tolerate Malcolm?”

“You claim not to like it. But you lie.” He turns back to Aaron. “He also left out the context of our conversation in the O.R.”

When Aaron turns his curious gaze back to Neil, he gives in. “Malcolm was whining – as he always does, mind you – about his personal life and Claire and… I honestly believe, at this point, that he’s never going to ask her out for the sole reason that he likes complaining about his life much more.”

“He is afraid of rejection,” Shaun says, in Malcolm’s defense.

“It’s been something like three years, now!”

“It has been a few weeks,” Shaun calmly clarifies.

“Practically the same thing,” Neil claims. “He should ask her out already. I’m tempted to do it for him, in fact.” Neil gives a long-suffering sigh. “Do you see what he’s reduced me to, Aaron? I feel like I’m back in middle school.”

This is all clearly new information to Aaron. “He likes Claire?

“He does,” Shaun confirms.

“And when I…” Neil tries to figure out how best to word this, “…mildly threatened to reveal it to her if he doesn’t get it together and ask her out soon, he began a different line of complaining. About how not everyone is guaranteed a ‘perfect’ relationship like Shaun and I have.”

“I quickly corrected him,” Shaun tells Aaron. “Our relationship is not perfect. We’ve had many misunderstandings.” Shaun had then relayed a few of them to Malcolm (after glancing at Neil for confirmation that he didn’t mind). Shaun hadn’t included too many details, but he had adamantly stressed how they’d overcome those issues – mostly by talking and more talking and then talking some more. It had turned into an odd, impromptu therapy session for Malcolm, and it means an entire O.R. had learned about a few of the setbacks they’d gone through…which also means most of the hospital probably knows by now.

“That sounds far different than Malcolm ‘announcing’ your relationship at random,” Aaron points out.

“Semantics,” Neil argues, as he feels an unexpected wave of tiredness wash over him. Shaun’s also rubbing his eyes excessively by now, and Aaron glances between them, not missing any of it.

“You should both get some sleep,” Aaron says, in a way that means if they don’t comply, he’s going to turn it into an actual order soon. “Your shifts ended a while ago.” He turns his attention to Shaun. “I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Shaun agrees, as he stands – but he hesitates at Aaron’s bedside for a moment before saying, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“I showed up at the perfect time!” Malcolm exclaims, from the doorway, as he holds his arms out (and it really is uncanny how often he appears right after they’ve been talking about him). “Can I say how much I love all of –”

“That’s our cue to leave,” Neil effectively cuts him off.

Malcolm’s only response is a smirk as he moves past Neil to grab Aaron’s chart. “How’s my favorite patient doing?”

“I’m not your patient,” Aaron says, with a pleading look towards Neil that he pretends not to notice.

“Yes, you are,” Malcolm says, with too much enjoyment. “Talbot’s shift ended fifteen minutes ago, which means I’m all you’ve got until you leave.”

“You’re a surgeon,” Aaron says, somewhat desperately. “Why would you be overseeing my care when –”

“Pulled some strings,” Malcolm informs him. “Everyone loves me around here.”

“That is definitely not true.” Shaun’s bluntness is completely offset by his smile.

Almost everyone,” Malcolm sighs (rather dramatically). “And thanks for the support, Murphy.” 

“Anytime,” Shaun offers, as his smile grows wider.

“Can you take him with you?” Aaron begs Neil, obviously referring to Malcolm. “I’ll owe you a favor. Anything you want.”

“Hey, if you guys want to hang out,” Malcolm addresses that to Neil and Shaun, “I’m available right now.”

“You are on shift.” Shaun sounds rather disapproving.

Malcolm shrugs, as if that fact doesn’t matter to him in any way (and it probably doesn’t). “I can toss Aaron’s chart over to…whoever I run into in the hallway first.”

“I'm suddenly not feeling that confident in your care,” Aaron gripes.

Neil speaks right over Aaron’s increasing protests (which he finds rather ironic, considering that Aaron is the one who hired him). “Maybe another time, Malcolm.”

“Another time, you got it.” Malcolm waves Aaron’s chart at Neil, presumably in emphasis. “I’m holding you to that, Melendez.”

“I said maybe.”

“Maybe means yes.”

“Maybe means maybe.”

Maybe you should get out of here,” Aaron says, then stresses (with a pointed look at Malcolm), “all of you.”

“Nice try,” Malcolm cheerfully tells him. “I reviewed your scans and the good news is the break isn’t bad enough to require surgery. Which means we can get you fitted for a cast and then you’ll be discharged. Maybe even early afternoon.”

Neil can tell that Aaron’s about to argue with him, mostly out of habit, but the assessment gives him pause.

“I could really leave before tonight?”

“I see no reason why not,” Malcolm tells him, then adds, with a censuring glance, “so long as you cooperate.”

“I’m the epitome of a model patient,” Aaron asserts. “Neil can attest to that.”

Neil has no idea how he keeps a straight face at that ridiculous lie, and before he can contemplate the wisdom of calling him on it, Shaun says, “You are a terrible patient. You have been complaining and arguing with people all night.”

“Shaun.” Aaron levels a glare at him, but it’s far less successful than it was earlier with Neil.

“It is the truth.” Shaun shrugs a little. “We do not hold it against you. You are injured and in pain.”

“And probably exhausted?” Malcolm says, half in question. “You should be resting.”

“Gee, I wonder why I can’t,” Aaron tells him blandly.

“You heard him,” Malcolm vaguely motions at Neil and Shaun, “you two are preventing my patient from getting some much needed sleep.”

“Yeah, they’re the problem,” Aaron sighs, sinking down further in the bed.

They finally manage to say goodbye, and when they leave the room, it’s like a switch flips in Shaun; he’s clearly relieved that Aaron will be fine, and when he gets in moods like this, he becomes more talkative than normal. He keeps up a steady stream of conversation, mostly without Neil’s help, because Neil’s thoughts keep drifting back to Aaron’s car accident. He just can’t shake it, and it’s all he can think about (even with the distraction of Shaun constantly switching topics).

He doesn’t register most of the drive home, except for Shaun talking the whole time; at least that’s comforting, especially after his initial reaction to hearing Aaron had been injured – Shaun had almost had a panic attack, but Neil had managed to pull him out of it. Neil knows Shaun’s reaction had been about much more than the accident, though. It had brought back some awful memories for both of them, all the times they’d been afraid that Aaron was actually going to die.

When they get back to Neil’s apartment, he gets ready for bed through sheer force of will and even tries to halfheartedly finish a few chores before giving up. He considers eating something, but finds he doesn’t have any appetite. Shaun mentions he’s taking a shower and Neil ends up sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall and trying to figure out how to shake himself out of his current melancholy.

“Are you okay?” Shaun asks, kneeling behind him on the bed and wrapping his arms around Neil’s neck.

Neil’s surprised, but not startled. “I thought you were going to take a shower.”

“I already did.” Shaun hugs him tighter, resting his chin on Neil’s shoulder. (Now that he’s paying attention, Neil can feel that his hair is wet enough that he must have done little more than towel dry it.) “I also got ready for bed. Have you been sitting here the entire time?”

“I guess so.” Neil’s somewhat lost about how that happened, and he shrugs in confusion. “You say that like it’s been hours.”

“It has been twenty-two minutes.”

Okay, Neil silently concedes. Maybe that’s a little long to sit on the side of his bed, unmoving.

“You did not answer me.” Shaun moves back a few feet when Neil turns to face him. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Neil admits. “I’m not. I’m trying to be…but I’m not.”

“It was a…difficult night.”

“We’ve had a lot of those. A lot.”

“None where Aaron Glassman was in a car accident.”

“It’s just…things might have easily been different. They might have been so much worse. And it’s a useless thing to dwell on, because things weren’t worse. But I keep thinking… If he’d spent the past year fighting, as hard as he did, only to…” die in a car accident. Neil can’t even bring himself to say it out loud.

“It would be incredibly unfair.” The gravity in Shaun’s tone means he understands what Neil’s saying, anyways.

Neil rubs his hand over his eyes. “And it happens every day.”

“But it didn’t happen to him. Not today.”

“Not today,” Neil echoes, feeling a hint of a smile at Shaun saying the very words Neil had repeated the prior evening in an effort to calm him.

“Dr. Glassman means a lot to you.”

“He does. Maybe I didn’t realize how much until today. It was one thing when it came to his cancer, because as awful as we knew it was, after his biopsy, there was always hope in my mind. I know it’s not wise, but part of me always felt he would pull through. It was difficult, but I never let myself go through any kind of grieving process because I had convinced myself he wasn’t going to die. But tonight…all I can think about are those few moments between the nurse telling me he’d been in an accident and hearing from the EMT’s that he would be fine. I thought I might be hearing the worst.” Neil snaps his fingers. “That is how quickly everything can be over.”

Shaun’s staring at his fingers as he takes a shaky breath. “That is how quickly someone can be gone.”

Neil feels his heart sink. The last thing he ever wants to do is make things more difficult for Shaun, and that includes bringing up memories he’d rather not think about. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –”

“It is okay,” Shaun cuts him off. “And you know that…it’s because of my brother. That I do not react well in situations like last night.” Shaun tries to gather himself. “We have both seen death countless times; it’s different when it’s someone you love.”

“It certainly is.”

Neil moves further up on the bed so he can lean against the headboard, and before he can even hold out a hand in offer, Shaun is at his side, wrapping an arm around his middle and resting his head on Neil’s shoulder. Shaun turns slightly more into him, so he can press his face into Neil’s shirt, and (in a tactic he’d learned over the past few months) matches his breathing to Neil’s. Neil puts an arm around him and places his free hand on Shaun’s arm to grip it lightly. Shaun’s actions speak loud and clear: he’s trying to regain control of himself and Neil’s content to sit there for however long he needs in order to get there.

It takes maybe ten minutes before Shaun murmurs, into the fabric of Neil’s shirt, “You should tell him.”

Neil isn’t following. “What?”

“That you love him. Because Dr. Glassman loves you, too.”

Neil supposes he’d always known that, on some level, but it’s a little surprising to hear Shaun say it out loud – to know that he’s seen it for himself. “I’m not that great at…talking about my feelings.”

“Not in my experience.” Shaun slides down a little, moving so that he can rest his head against Neil’s chest instead of his shoulder.

“That’s because you are the exception.” He vaguely remembers thinking that long ago, before they were even together: Shaun is the exception to a lot of Neil’s rules. Rules he’d sworn by, rules he’d lived by…until Shaun. “I had to be more open with you than I ever was with anyone else.”

“Because there are things I’ll never know unless you tell me,” Shaun says, in one of his favorite refrains. And he’s hit upon the exact reason Neil hadn’t been able to fall into old patterns with him. If he had, this never would have worked. (And if there’s one thing Neil’s determined to do, it’s make this work.)

“It lessens our misunderstandings.” He laughs a little, tightening his hold on Shaun so it’s more of a hug than anything else. “Not like we don’t still have a lot of them, anyways, but it at least minimizes them.”

“I am not the only one who needs to hear things out loud.”

“I know. And I’ll take your suggestion to heart,” Neil promises, and when Shaun falls quiet for another few minutes, Neil begins feeling a twinge of concern. “Are you okay?”

That gets Shaun’s attention again. “I am okay. Because you were there. If you had not been…”

“Hey.” He runs his hand along Shaun’s arm. “I was.”

“I should be better able to –”

“Don’t start that,” Neil orders. “We’ve seen all kinds of reactions from people when they get awful news. Grief and shock – they aren’t rational. It’s nearly impossible to deal with them objectively, to separate ourselves. There is no ‘right’ way to react to hearing someone you love is hurt.”

You manage very well,” Shaun insists, twisting his head to look up at him, and the words are almost accusatory.

“I compartmentalize, Shaun.” He dips his head to brush a kiss over Shaun’s mouth, then explains, “That’s how I manage – and it’s not even managing so much as delaying. You know I haven’t been doing that well since we left the hospital, but talking to you is helping. A lot.”

Shaun seems slightly skeptical. “It is?”

“It is. You also have to remember that I have a lot more experience than you. Over a decade’s worth. It helps me control my reactions when it comes to this kind of thing. And it never gets easier. You just get better at…working through it.”

“Okay,” Shaun murmurs, turning his head so he’s no longer looking at Neil. (And there’s that twinge of concern again.)

“You told me you were alright. Was that a lie?”

“No, it was not. I am fine when it comes to dealing with Aaron’s accident.”

Neil recognizes the specificity of that answer, but he lets it go, because he knows they’re both tired and need to sleep (and his best guess is that Shaun’s still trying to work through memories of his brother). “You can talk to me whenever you want,” he reminds Shaun. “About anything.” (He’s lost count of how many times he’s said that – but he’ll also never stop saying it.)

“I know,” Shaun assures him.

Neil leans over to reach the light, which forces Shaun to let go of him while muttering an unintelligible protest that leaves Neil smiling considerably. “I’m not going that far,” he points out, as he switches the lamp off, checks his phone one last time, then lies down – and barely a second later, Shaun is back again, half on top of him and Neil sighs into his hair. “I’m beginning to think I spent too much on this bed. I could have gotten a twin – we both would have fit.”

“We could make it work,” Shaun murmurs. “We could make anything work.”

“We could,” Neil agrees, because it’s true. They could. (They will.)

Shaun moves even closer, settling one of his legs over Neil’s and sliding his hand up to Neil’s neck to run his thumb over it in a move that Neil favors doing to him. In response, Neil takes his hand to kiss his fingers and doesn’t let go.

It’s not uncommon for them to fall asleep with some point of contact, but this is more than usual. Shaun’s ensured that there’s absolutely no room between them; he must feel like they can’t be close enough right now.

(And Neil’s at a loss to say which one of them needs it more.)