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At Face Value

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The course of Neil’s life changes around half past 3 on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday afternoon.

(In hindsight, he could admit that things had slowly been changing before then, but that one day in early September was the ultimate catalyst.)

It’s the long stretch of day between lunch and dinner, and it’s usually around this time that Neil would stop at his office for a quick snack. He’s tired today, though, more than usual, so he veers off to the nearest breakroom for some coffee. Stepping inside, he notices two nurses chatting quietly over their own break, near the back of the room. Lim’s there as well, and he catches her eye – no words need to be exchanged, she simply nods to the counter over her own mug, indicating (God bless her) that she’s just made a fresh pot.

Neil goes about fixing his coffee, deciding to leave it a bit on the stronger side; he already feels more awake from the scent alone.

He lets it cool a little before taking a sip and sighing, “I think I love you.”

“Why Neil,” Audrey’s smirking at him, “I had no idea.”

“I was talking to the coffee,” he says, around a smile. Upon hearing her grumble something he’s pretty sure is unflattering, he relents with, “Alright. Maybe you, too.” She doesn’t answer him, but seems appeased enough.

Since he doesn’t have anywhere to be right this minute, he lingers as he drinks it and starts a running list in his head of all the things he needs to get done after he’s finished with his impromptu break.

The door opens again and Shaun walks in, pausing briefly to survey the room as Neil holds up his coffee in lieu of a verbal greeting.

“Good afternoon,” Shaun says politely, mostly as a general ‘hello’ to everyone in the room. Lim tips her cup slightly in silent response and the nurses vaguely wave in his direction as Shaun grabs a bottle of water from the fridge.

“Where have you been all day?” Neil asks. He’d seen much less of Shaun than usual today, and had noted his absence since that morning, meaning to ask him about it.

“I have been here,” Shaun answers (which is really no answer at all).

“‘Here’, huh?” Neil says wryly. “That’s very specific.”

“Did you miss me?” Shaun asks, with a growing smile.

“No, it was rather refreshing,” Neil says lightly, as he smiles in return. (He can say things like that now and Shaun knows he’s kidding.) “I didn’t have to listen to you ramble on about whatever topic you’ve chosen for the day.” He glances into his mug. “Like the history of coffee, for example.”

“You like when I ramble,” Shaun insists, as he uncaps his water and takes a sip.

“I do not!” Neil makes sure his protests are intentionally over the top. “And how dare you suggest such a thing?”

“I’d like to know the history of coffee,” Lim offers.

“Traitor,” Neil mildly accuses. “I take back what I said earlier: I no longer love you.”

“Somehow, I’ll live.” Her tone is so dry that it rivals Neil’s even on his most sarcastic days.

“Neil would like to know the history of coffee, as well,” Shaun informs her, as if Neil’s not even in the room.

Neil rolls his eyes, but it’s unmistakably fond. He also doesn’t argue with Shaun, because he’s right. Of course he’s right. Neil likes hearing whatever stories Shaun chooses to tell, and he’s yet to bring up a topic that Neil finds boring. (And sometimes he wonders if maybe it’s not so much the stories themselves that he likes, but more the person who’s telling them.)

In the year since Shaun’s started working at their hospital, they’ve become friends. Actual friends. And that still kind of surprises Neil when he thinks about it. He’d certainly never have expected it based on the way they’d clashed when they first met. But after a sincere apology from Neil, their dynamic had shifted, to the point that Neil might even describe Shaun as one of his closest friends.

He hadn’t tried to make it happen, either, it just did. He’s not entirely sure how, or why, but it did. He’d never become friends with one of his residents before, not the way he is with Shaun – sure, he’s friendly with all of them, but he’s always kept a clear line between himself and his subordinates. It makes things a lot easier that way. But with Shaun…there had never been a line. Forget enforcing it, Neil had been incapable of setting one. He just likes Shaun too much and the last thing he wants to do is limit their interactions in any kind of way.

While he’s lost in thought, Audrey and Shaun begin discussing the last fundraising gala – more specifically, how much they both hated it. Audrey because she’d been coming off a last-second forced double shift and had been exhausted, Shaun because he’s not a fan of events like that, in general. Too much noise, too many people, being pulled in a half-dozen different directions at once – Neil can definitely sympathize because he dislikes that last part, too, and if he doesn’t like it (when he’s much better equipped at dealing with social interactions) then he can only imagine Shaun’s constant level of discomfort during the events that are a mandatory part of their job.

As time has gone on and Shaun’s attended more things – banquets and fundraisers and conferences – he’s steadily become more well-known in their field. That viral airport video of him had kicked it off (and people still ask him about that, quite often), but he’s done plenty since then to further his reputation, including publishing a few papers. Everyone’s noticed his rise in popularity, and none more than Marcus, who has slowly been pushing Shaun front and center at more events. (Technically there’s an entire committee whose sole job is to bring in more money to their hospital, but Marcus now oversees it, in what Neil is 98% certain is an effort to impress the board and set himself up as de facto next in line to succeed Aaron as hospital president when the older man finally retires.)

In any event, people love Shaun – he not only elevates the reputation of their hospital, but he easily brings in donors. Which means Marcus loves him, in turn (and on most days, Neil thinks Shaun is their boss’s favorite person on the entire staff).

At first, Neil had serious reservations about the increasing obligations Marcus put upon Shaun (who is still only a second-year resident). He’d even been planning to speak to him about it, until he had a heart-to-heart with Shaun, who’d told him that even though he’s not fully comfortable with the social aspect of any of their events, he can do it. He wants to do it. (Even if, at times, he outright hates being there.) Their hospital gets government funding and grants, but they could always use more money. Private donations go a long way towards allowing them to upgrade equipment, fund research, and otherwise keep pace in a medical field that advances by the literal day.

Shaun had summed it up quite simply, in a way that put Neil’s concerns to rest: More money means less people die. And that was the entire reason Shaun had become a surgeon in the first place. (So of course Shaun would never refuse anything Marcus asks him to do, not when he knows how much of a difference he’s making.)

After their talk, Neil had let it go; Shaun can take on as much as he wants – far be it from Neil to ever try and stop him. (And the more events Shaun attends, the better he gets at interacting with others, which is only going to help him down the road.) Still, though, Neil knows that despite the outward demeanor Shaun’s (usually) successful at putting on, that’s never the way he truly feels. Shaun’s anxiety and unease is always present at those kinds of events. Neil tries to do what he can to help him, but he’s not always successful. After all, Neil’s fairly popular at those things himself, and the two of them are constantly being separated, with Marcus sending them in opposite directions, more often than not. (And Neil can’t exactly refuse. What would he even say? No, thanks, I’m not leaving Murphy’s side, because…well, I have no reason other than I don’t want to. Yeah, that wouldn’t seem odd, at all, and it’d go over real well with Marcus.)

Neil shakes himself out of his thoughts in time to register that Shaun and Audrey are wrapping up their conversation; Shaun moves to leave, but before he can, someone appears in the open doorway of the breakroom. Neil somewhat recognizes him, but not enough to know his name for certain – Elton? Eldredge? He’d recently transferred from another hospital and he’s not in their department. He looks to be a few years older than Shaun, but Neil has no actual clue. He’s definitely closer in age to Shaun than Neil is, though.

“Shaun!” the newcomer exclaims, surprising Neil that the two of them know each other. “I’ve been looking around for you all day.”

“Dr. Ellis,” Shaun says courteously, but there’s something off about his tone that leaves Neil wondering why Shaun doesn’t like him. (Because he doesn’t, and it’s obvious – maybe not to anyone else in the room, but it is to Neil.) Then Shaun does something rather curious: he turns and wanders over to the counter where Neil’s been standing since he entered the room. The move seems aimless, like it was done without thought, but Neil knows better, because Shaun comes to a stop much closer to him than he normally otherwise would. And maybe he’s less cautious about maintaining personal space with Neil and his other friends than he is with strangers, but it’s still too close for Shaun’s normal level of comfort – if either of them moved a few inches over, they’d be touching.

Ellis has been staring at Shaun, but then his eyes move over to Neil, before glancing around the room, as if noticing for the first time that there are other people present. “Shaun, can I talk to you alone?”

“No,” Shaun answers, without preamble.

Neil almost laughs, because it’s such a Shaun Murphy answer – he’s gotten much better at diplomacy the longer he’s worked at Saint Bonaventure, but when it’s not necessary for his job, Shaun doesn’t bother pretending to like people he doesn’t like.

“Please?” Ellis asks, and Neil instantly finds him grating. (Maybe that’s why Shaun doesn’t like him.)

“No,” Shaun firmly repeats. Neil shifts so he can lean further back against the counter, but Shaun must interpret it as a sign he’s about to move away, because he actually reaches out and takes hold of his wrist.

Neil glances down, and yes, that’s definitely Shaun’s hand wrapped around his arm. Shaun has touched him before; it’s not often, but it happens occasionally. He’s never done this, though, taken hold of him like he’s afraid Neil’s going to leave.

He’s busy wondering exactly what’s going on when Shaun inadvertently supplies the answer for him.

“I have told you,” Shaun says slowly, directing that at Ellis, “that I have no interest in dating you.”

Ellis either doesn’t know how to read a room, or he’s just that oblivious, because he flashes a charming smile at Shaun and says, “Bet I could change your mind.”

Shaun tightens his grip on Neil’s wrist and Neil unconsciously leans closer to him, even as his entire focus narrows on Ellis, still standing in the doorway of the breakroom.

“You have been trying to change my mind since we met,” Shaun says sharply. “You are not going to be successful.”

Ellis shrugs, like that answer doesn’t bother him, but as he glances around the room, it’s clear that he’s embarrassed by the flat out rejection. “Hey,” he tries to claim, as he grabs a soda from the fridge, “I was just making an effort at being friendly. Getting to know people here better.”

Neil thinks about saying something, is even debating the best tactic to take, but Shaun’s next statement kills any plan he’d had of speaking up.

“I am in a relationship,” Shaun declares.

“What?” Ellis says, like he must have misheard that. (And his reaction of confusion is about the same as Neil’s – except Neil wants to demand who Shaun’s supposedly in a relationship with and how come he’s never so much as mentioned it.)

“I am in a relationship,” Shaun repeats, finally letting go of Neil’s wrist, but it’s only so he can slide his hand down and lace his fingers through Neil’s. Neil’s too stunned to ask what he’s doing, or even to pull away for that matter. (And it’s a damn good thing he hadn’t taken a sip of his coffee, either, because he would have choked on it at Shaun’s next words.) “With Dr. Melendez.”

The silence that falls after that is deafening. Audrey isn’t moving, is simply staring at them with obvious fascination. The nurses have leaned forward in their seats. Ellis is gaping at them in a display of true shock, and Neil – Neil doesn’t think he can move, doesn’t even think he could speak, right then. (Which is probably a good thing, because he has no idea what he’d even say, in that moment.)

Shaun had spoken with such absolute certainty that Neil almost believes him. Had Shaun been confused, or mistaken, about the nature of their friendship? Or has Neil simply lost it, and they have been together, but he’s suffering from some sort of amnesia?

But no, it doesn’t take long for him to catch up and put everything together. He can feel the hold Shaun has on his hand, he can feel the silent plea in it: to play along, to not pull away, to not counter his statement and reveal that, for whatever reason, Shaun had decided to compose such a lie.

Because if Shaun Murphy, of all people, had felt compelled to reach out to Neil in this way, and to create an entire relationship in the span of a few seconds, then he needs this.

And Neil Melendez has always found it near-impossible to deny Shaun of anything.

“You. And – and Melendez.” Ellis is borderline sputtering, gesturing between them with his can of soda. “You’re in a relationship.” He clearly doesn’t believe it, though he falters when he belatedly notices that they’re holding hands. “You two.”

Shaun incrementally tightens his grip on Neil’s hand, and they’re standing close enough that Neil can hear him breathing faster; Neil thinks his resident might be panicking – whether at fear of Neil contradicting him, or in growing horror and realization at what he’d impulsively done. (Maybe it’s both.) And it’s surely not a great idea to confirm that they’re together when they aren’t, but when has Neil ever let that stop him from doing anything?

He lightly returns the pressure on Shaun’s hand in reassurance and looks directly at Ellis. “We are together.” He knows he made the right choice when all the tension leaves Shaun (who actually leans against him a little in relief).

“You are,” Ellis numbly echoes, probably for lack of anything else to say. Then he frowns, like he’s trying to figure something out. “Aren’t you his boss? Is that even allowed?”

No, it’s probably not. (Nor does Neil care.) He drops his tone to somewhere between disdainful and murderous. “Is that some kind of threat?”

Ellis takes an actual step backwards. “What? No, of course not!”

“I’ll let it go because you’re fairly new here, but if I say something’s allowed, then it’s allowed.” It’s not even a bluff – Neil’s not exactly worried, here. He pretty much does things the way he wants to, and so long as he keeps excelling at his job, Marcus cuts him a lot of slack. As for Shaun, well, he could probably ask for anything and get it, based on how much Marcus and the board love him. (Not that Shaun’s ever taken advantage of that, but he definitely could.)

“I… I had no idea.”

“And why are you still here?” Neil’s tone is deceptively mild, but the question warns of clear and lasting misery in the other man’s future if he doesn’t get the hell out.

“I was just leaving,” Ellis quickly assures, holding his hands up and nearly dropping his soda in the process. He’s already backing towards the door, which shows he does have some degree of intelligence. “Sorry Shaun. Dr. Melendez. If I’d known, I never would have… Sorry. Again.”

He’s out the door in the next second and Neil looks around the room with a silent order so obvious that it sends the nurses scattering.

Audrey rises as well, though more slowly – she’s trying really hard not to laugh, and her next statement reveals why. “If Neil Melendez says something’s allowed, then it’s allowed. You never cease to entertain me.”

“Audrey.” He fails to stifle a sigh as he nods towards the door. “Please.”

She graces them both with a warm smile (though it’s probably more for Shaun than him) and Neil expects her to let on that she’s aware of what Shaun just did. Instead, she surprises him by saying, “You could have been more open about it. You know we all would have been supportive.” As she leaves, she pulls the door shut behind her in a thoughtful move to give them privacy.

Neil replays her words: They should have been more open about it? The others would have been supportive? Apparently, she’d been under the impression that he and Shaun were together already, which is odd in and of itself, but Neil has other things to focus on right now. More specifically, one very important thing:

Shaun Murphy. Who isn’t speaking. And hasn’t moved. (In fact, Neil’s a little startled to realize they’re still holding hands even though they’re the only two people in the room and there’s no one to try and convince anymore.)

Neil sips his coffee before settling on what to say. “Next time we start a relationship, Murphy, remember to tell me about it, would you?”

Shaun laughs a little, and then risks a glance at him, which reminds Neil he hadn’t looked at him once when Ellis was in the room. (Which also reminds Neil how much he hates it when Shaun won’t look at him.)

“I am sorry,” Shaun says quietly, as he stares at their clasped hands, and there’s so much guilt in his voice that it pains Neil to hear it. Shaun seems to shake himself out of whatever state he’s in and carefully lets go of Neil before taking a step away from him. “What I did was inappropriate. I should not have…used you to…”

“Get him to leave you alone?” Neil fills in.

“Yes,” Shaun admits.

“Hey.” Neil turns to face Shaun directly. “You can use me for things like that whenever you want, okay? I don’t mind.” He waits for Shaun to nod, then asks, “What exactly has Ellis been doing?”

“He has asked me out several times. Trying various ways to convince me. I considered reporting him, but he seems genuinely friendly. He has never said anything inappropriate. He has never touched me. Nothing he’s done has crossed any kind of line.”

“He made you uncomfortable,” Neil says. “That’s crossing a line. Telling him ‘no’ once should have been sufficient.”

Shaun shrugs, seeming lost. “It is difficult to determine. And we both know…”

“What?”

Shaun looks away. “I am not comfortable with many things that most people are comfortable with. Things that are not harassment. If I reported everyone who ever made me uncomfortable, I would…report everyone. So…” He sighs, then repeats, “It is difficult to determine.”

Neil had never really thought about that before. It must be extremely hard for Shaun to figure out what crosses a line if so much crosses his own personal lines – things that others would find innocuous, harmless, or fail to register. Even things that others would interpret as supportive or caring gestures. And on top of that, Shaun’s personal boundaries are things that a lot of people, especially new people, aren’t aware even exist. (And some part of Neil’s heart sinks at the thought of how uncomfortable Shaun must be a lot of the time, just as a matter of course in his daily life, and he has no choice but to soldier through and ignore it.)

Shaun’s staring at his own hands. “I – I think I crossed more of a line than he ever did. Lying about…” He swallows, folding his hands and looking across the breakroom, towards the exit. “Again, I am sorry. I will tell everyone that I lied.” He’s about to leave, but Neil reaches out to grasp his shoulder and keep him in place. (This is too important to let him walk away before it’s resolved to Neil’s satisfaction.)

“This is different,” Neil says, gesturing between them. “With you and me, it’s different. You didn’t cross any line with me because…” God, because with Shaun, he has no lines. (Though he has no idea how to say that without sounding inappropriate, himself.)

“Because?” Shaun prompts, when Neil doesn’t speak.

“Because…I don’t mind what you did. I just told you that you can use me to get out of any situation you aren’t comfortable with, if it’ll help. Do you understand?”

Shaun hesitates before nodding. “Are you…certain? I touched you without your permission.”

“I’m certain. And you have touched me before,” Neil says gently. “Not often, but have I ever gotten upset?”

“No,” Shaun admits. “But I have never held your hand before. If someone did that to me without my permission…I would not like it.”

“We’re friends,” Neil says, feeling like Shaun needs that particular reminder right now. “And you know I don’t feel the same discomfort with touching people as you do. So, one last time: I. Don’t. Mind.”

Shaun nods again, then extends a finger and taps Neil lightly (and repeatedly) on his arm, while studying his face.

After thirty seconds of resolutely pressing his mouth into a straight line to prevent himself from laughing, Neil can’t take it anymore. “What are you doing?”

“Observing your reaction.”

“Which is?”

“Amusement.” Shaun frowns, like he’s not quite satisfied. “I’ll have to conduct further research when you are not expecting it.”

“You do that, Murphy.” He turns to pick up his coffee again, mostly to repress the strong and sudden urge to pull Shaun into a hug. “Report your findings to me. Maybe you can even write them up.” He waves his free hand like he’s reading a research study’s title: “Reactions of a Surgical Attending to Instances of Random Touching: An Observational Study.”

“Hmm,” Shaun hums. “Your title needs work.”

Your title,” Neil reminds him.

“I will take it under advisement.” Shaun pokes him in the arm again and Neil can’t stop his laughter anymore. “Mirth,” Shaun murmurs. “Interesting.”

“Mirth and amusement are the same thing.”

“Amusement is milder. Mirth is…genuine enjoyment and happiness.” He’s staring at Neil now, and the wheels are practically visible as they turn in his head.

“There’s your answer then. Happiness.” He reaches over to tap Shaun’s own arm in reassurance, and slight question. “Does that finally convince you that I didn’t mind what you did?”

“Maybe,” Shaun allows, and he’s smiling now, too, and there’s an idea forming in Neil’s mind, growing and coalescing until it overtakes everything else.

“Does this kind of thing happen often?” Neil can tell Shaun’s lost on the question, because they’ve gotten away from the topic he’s referring to. “People asking you out?” he clarifies. “Or otherwise making you uncomfortable because they don’t understand what your boundaries are?”

Shaun thinks about that. “Maybe. Kind of?”

“Murphy.”

Shaun’s shoulders fall as he fidgets in front of Neil. “Yes. Moreso now than ever before. Because Dr. Andrews has…” He stops, then starts again. “The more I do for our hospital, the more people I meet… Yes, it has been happening more. People are usually very understanding once I explain that I do not want a relationship with anyone. That I prefer to keep my distance from people. However, it is tiresome having to…always explain.”

”You told me that you were going to confess to Audrey and the others that you lied,” Neil carefully reminds him. “And that is up to you, Shaun. If you want to tell them, then tell them. But I have another suggestion…” Neil takes a breath, considers that this is the best way he knows how to help Shaun with this problem. (The only way that he knows how to help him with this.) “Let people continue to believe we’re together.”

Shaun’s staring at him with some mixture of confusion and surprise. “…What?”

“No one will ask you out anymore if it becomes a ‘known’ fact that we’re in a relationship. And anyone who isn’t aware, like a patient or someone you meet at an event, just tell them about us. It’ll make life easier for you. You won’t have to always explain yourself. I’ve found that saying you’re in a relationship is the fastest way to fend off unwanted attention. It’s a fact which 99% of people automatically accept without question or protest.”

“I would not know,” Shaun admits, shifting uncomfortably. “I have never…”

“That doesn’t matter,” Neil says, brushing aside his confession, because it’s not important. “You already know all of this on some level, Shaun, because your instincts were right – you saw how quickly Ellis backed down. And there’s the added benefit that no one who knows me will ever do anything to cross me. Like harass you. In any way.”

“You would… You would pretend I meant that much to you?”

“There’s nothing ‘pretend’ about it,” Neil assures him. “You already mean that much to me. You’re one of my best friends.”

Shaun takes that in before saying, “I feel the same.”

Neil can’t even categorize the rush of relief he feels upon hearing that. (It’s pretty much always been known, but they’ve never actually said these kinds of things out loud.) “Here’s the thing, Shaun: people don’t place friendships on the same level as they do romantic relationships. It’s simply a fact of our society that the latter is respected much more. So if we let people believe we’re together…that would have an immediate effect on how people view us – and how they interact with us – that we couldn’t achieve any other way.”

“You would…do this for me?” Shaun’s still skeptical, but there’s something more in his voice…it’s perilously close to hope.

Everything in Neil warms at the way Shaun’s looking at him. “I would do this for you,” he confirms. (He’d do anything for Shaun, probably.)

“But…what about you?”

“What about me?”

“If everyone thinks we’re together, then you could not date anyone.”

“Have you seen me date anyone since Jessica?” Neil asks, then teasingly adds, “I mean, besides you?”

“No.”

“There’s your answer. Just like you, I don’t want a relationship right now. It’s been long enough since Jessica that people have hinted around the topic, or offered to set me up with their friends or neighbors or third cousins. But I currently have no interest, so you’d be a great cover.”

Neil’s not lying, either. The thought of another relationship now is still too mentally exhausting (being with Jessica had been so much work for both of them, especially at the end). Even so, while getting people to back off about his own personal life is a side benefit, the main reason Neil wants to do this is to help Shaun.

“If you are sure, then okay.” Shaun takes a deep breath, then says formally, “Thank you.”

“Hey, it’s not like this will be any hardship for me.” Neil nudges Shaun’s arm and then takes another sip of his rapidly cooling coffee. “It’ll make me look good if people think I landed you. And you know how much I love making myself look good.”

“That is not difficult,” Shaun lightly replies.

Neil presses a hand to his chest. “Was that – did you just compliment me, Murphy?”

“No,” Shaun claims (though his eyes say yes). “Claire told me that some people find you attractive.”

He feigns annoyance. “Only ‘some’?”

“A lot more than ‘some’,” Shaun relents. “Based on what the nurses say, too.”

“I’m really enjoying this conversation,” Neil smirks at him. “By all means, keep going.”

Now Shaun seems (inexplicably) exasperated. “I believe I have said too much already.”

“You know, you’re not exactly unattractive yourself.”

“That is quite the compliment from my…” Shaun hesitates, eyeing him. “What should I call you?”

“Neil?” he offers, as if he doesn’t know exactly what Shaun’s getting at.

Shaun huffs out a breath. “Boyfriend?”

Neil’s mind skips over that word. It has been a long time since anyone used that word with him (because he knows Jessica never did) and he’s having flashbacks to med school. It also feels inadequate, somehow, and has the additional, discomfiting element of being decidedly untrue.

“Let’s go with partner,” Neil suggests, surprised at how right that sounds. No, more than sounds – it feels right. “We’re partners, okay?” (Yes, that definitely fits, because they were partners in this relationship, pretend as it might be.)

“Partners,” Shaun slowly repeats. “That works. I like it.”

“I like it, too.” Neil studies him, taking in the brightness of Shaun’s eyes, the way he’s leaning slightly into Neil’s space, the half-smile on his face – everything about him. Everything. Shaun’s happy and it’s such an obvious and complete reversal from earlier, when he’d been talking to Ellis, that all Neil feels is happy, too. (He made the right decision.)

“Do you think we should…” Shaun hesitates until Neil nods in indication to go on. “Should we tell people?”

“How long have you worked here?” Neil asks dryly, as he glances at the clock on the wall. “They left ten minutes ago and it’s going on 4 – everyone will know by 5, at the latest.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

With uncanny timing, the breakroom door opens and one of Lim’s residents walks in, freezing when he sees Neil and Shaun standing not even a foot apart over at the counter. “Oh! I didn’t know you two were in here – I’m sorry.” He hastily backs out, slamming the door behind him with a crash that leaves Neil wincing.

Neil holds a hand out towards the door, silently telling Shaun, You see?

Shaun only seems confused. “Why did he run out of here?”

“He clearly knows we’re ‘together’,” Neil uses air quotes. “And he found us in here alone. What do you think he thought he might be interrupting?”

Shaun’s eyes widen. “It is the middle of the workday!” He sounds downright scandalized, then looks around the room with something akin to horror (or maybe like he never wants to touch anything in the room ever again). “Have you seen people…”

“No, Shaun, I’ve never seen anyone making out in the breakroom.” He waits a beat. “Probably because it’s always too busy.”

He opens the door for Shaun and the two of them head back towards the main lobby of the surgical wing. They get halfway there before Shaun asks curiously, “Where is it not too busy?”

“You offering?” Neil quips.

“I want to avoid those areas,” Shaun stresses, disapprovingly, as Neil starts laughing. And for the first time, he considers their relationship from an outsider’s point of view: their interactions speak to a certain affection (a definite fondness) between them that others might easily misinterpret. Things have naturally evolved that way, especially over the last few months; however, neither of them is interested in a romantic relationship with the other, so what’s the harm?

It’s no wonder, really, that Audrey had spoken as if she already believed they were together. And maybe others believe that, too. Neil doesn’t mind, though. If nothing else, his existing friendship with Shaun only makes things easier. If people already think they’re a couple, why not turn that around and use it to their advantage? And down the road, when one or both of them thinks it’s time, they’ll stage a fake break-up or something.

(A long, long ways down the road – they don’t want to risk giving the impression their relationship’s fake, after all.)

Chapter Text

Neil has no idea if he’s right about the whole hospital knowing by 5 that evening, but they definitely know by the time he’s getting ready to wrap things up for the night.

“Took you long enough.”

The quiet words snap Neil out of the trance he’s been in for who knows how long. (He hasn’t been able to keep his focus on anything since he left the breakroom.) He glances up from his laptop to find Jessica standing in his office doorway, arms crossed while she watches him with an air of satisfaction, and is that…exasperation?

“What?”

“To admit it,” she says, like that’s supposed to clarify anything to him.

“To admit what?”

“This is the game we’re playing?” She pushes herself off the doorframe and comes over to stand in front of his desk. “You’re really going to sit there and pretend like you didn’t announce to half the hospital that you and Shaun are dating?”

Of course. Jessica must have assumed he and Shaun had been together for a while and keeping it quiet. (Just like Audrey had assumed, for that matter.)

“It wasn’t half the hospital,” he protests (because he’d like to point that out, thanks). “It was four people. Though with the way news spreads around here like wildfire, one probably would have been more than –”

“Neil. Stop trying to change the subject.”

“Is that something I’d do?”

“Spare me,” she scoffs.

“Fine,” he immediately gives up, because they both know she has an uncanny ability to read him. (She’s so good at seeing through him, in fact, that in the past, she’d sometimes called him out on his mere intention to lie before he’d even spoken a word – whatever his tells must be, Jessica knows them backwards and forwards.) He resigns himself to an interrogation and asks, “What do you want to know?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” There’s disappointment in her tone and it sets him on edge. He automatically sifts through every possible reason for her unhappiness. Jealousy is easy to dismiss right off the bat – she’s been in a happy relationship for over six months. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of him and Shaun together? Because maybe there are actual issues that he’s overlooked, even if none of this is real? He has to admit that it’s a definite possibility – after all, it wasn’t like he’d thought this ‘Let’s pretend to be in a relationship!’ plan through – unless having it occur to him and telling Shaun within two minutes counted as ‘thinking it through’… (It probably doesn’t.)

“I…couldn’t have told you,” he says, which is 100% true. He couldn’t have told her because there had been nothing to tell.

“Don’t you trust me?” She presses both hands on his desk, leaning slightly over it. “I would have kept it a secret if you two weren’t ready to tell people. I know we’re not…” she motions between them, “but you can trust me. We’re still friends.”

So that’s where her disappointment is coming from. He instantly relaxes, relieved he isn’t going to have to defend himself, or Shaun, or their relationship. (Fake relationship.) “We’re friends and I do trust you, Jess. Honestly, there was nothing to tell until very recently.” (Very recently being some three hours earlier, but she doesn’t have to know that.)

“I thought you knew better than to lie to me,” she sighs, pressing her mouth into a discontented line.

“I’m not lying to you.” (He’s so lost that he doesn’t even know what she thinks he’s lying about.)

“Drop the act, Neil. It serves no purpose. I have always been – and will always be – on your side.” Her expression softens. “And Shaun’s. Of course.”

“Jess, I’m really not sure what –”

“I’ve known about you two for months,” she interrupts, and strangely enough, she seems giddy when she says that. Like the relief of this being out in the open has lifted some burden from her.

“You have.” It’s meant to be a question, but he can’t manage it – he’s insanely curious how she could have known for months something that he and Shaun only agreed to start misleading everyone about today.

“Yes. It was obvious.” She takes a seat in one of the chairs in front of his desk, crossing her legs and absently smoothing down her shirt. “I’m sure you both thought you were good at hiding it, but pretty much everyone knew.”

“We weren’t hid–” He cuts himself off as her words register. “What do you mean by everyone?”

“Hmm, what does ‘everyone’ mean…” She taps her hand against her chin in faux-contemplation. “An entire group? All people?”

“Don’t do that,” he warns, pointing at her. “Don’t try to – to Murphy your way out of answering me.”

“I never noticed Shaun did that,” she lies, even as her grin gives away that she knows exactly what he’s talking about. “And it’s kind of adorable that you’ve named that tactic after him, can I just say?”

“No, you can’t say,” he tells her flatly. “And you’re still attempting evasion, just in a different manner.”

She’s studying him now, squinting a little in thought and apparent confusion. “By ‘everyone’, I obviously meant our hospital’s staff,” she tells him, like it should be obvious. “It was about evenly split, too. Half of them thought you were already together, the other half thought you were still on your way there.”

“You must be kidding.” This conversation is getting more absurd by the second – to the point that he almost expects her to announce this is all a practical joke at his expense.

Her expression falters, becoming a strange mix of regretful and apologetic. “I’m completely serious. It’s not…it wasn’t like we were all talking about you behind your back –”

“That’s exactly what it sounds like.” He’s gone beyond floored; now he’s feeling pretty blindsided. (How could so many people have believed something that wasn’t – that had never been – true?)

“You’re misconstruing what I’m saying,” she tells him. “It wasn’t about prying into your lives or about anything mean-spirited, in the least. It’s that…we could see how much you mean to each other. That’s all.”

Neil’s somewhat placated by that, because he and Shaun do mean a lot to each other, but that still doesn’t clear up his confusion about the rest of what she’s saying. “You can’t be serious that everyone thought we were…together.”

“Okay, I might be exaggerating,” she relents, “but even those who didn’t believe it, or didn’t know about the gossip, were still able to tell that your relationship changed months ago.”

Months ago. She must be referring to the previous spring, when he and Shaun started becoming friendlier. And their friendship had only grown over the past summer, and now… Well, now, apparently, a good number of their colleagues have been operating under the assumption that their relationship had transformed into something more than friendship a long time ago.

“We’re friends,” he hears himself insisting to Jess, feeling suddenly defensive. (How had he not known about this? Had he and Shaun both been oblivious? Or had Shaun heard the rumors, too? Had that partly played into his decision to lie about their relationship to Ellis?) “How does spending time with someone equate to being in a relationship? Can’t people just be friends?”

“Yes, of course.” Her smile dims slightly. “But you two…aren’t just friends.”

Oh. Right. He has to be careful here because of her almost preternatural ability to detect when he’s lying. But if he can carefully word most of his statements as truth…she’ll be none the wiser.

“We haven’t been together as long as you – and some others – seem to think.” (Truth, because they’re not ‘together’ at all.) “We’ve grown a lot closer the past several months.” (Truth, no addendum needed.) “I care about him. A lot.” (Another truth, maybe the truest thing he’s said during his entire conversation with Jessica so far.)

From the way Jess is smiling brilliantly again, she’s clearly convinced – though it’s not like it’s hard to convince her when most things are true aside from the minor detail that his relationship with Shaun isn’t romantic. It’s not lost on Neil that with the added description of a single word, he’s suddenly able to achieve everything he’s always wished he could when it comes to Shaun: Neil wants the best for him, wants to make his life easier in any possible way he can, and he wants others to know that hurting Shaun is something he’ll never tolerate – to cross Shaun is equivalent to crossing Neil, and he’ll go to great lengths to prove that fact, if need be.

However, Neil’s also incredibly practical. He’s aware that if he tried to convey all that while he and Shaun were simply ‘friends’, many would think he was too involved in Shaun’s life. Or too overprotective. Or too concerned in matters that weren’t really his business. No one would understand it – but change their relationship to ‘romantic’ and suddenly people understand.

It also strikes Neil that he doesn’t feel remotely guilty about misleading their friends. Because it doesn’t feel like they’re lying, it feels like they’re…reframing their relationship in a way that others will respect. (In fact, the only part of this that Neil regrets is that he hadn’t thought of doing it a while ago.)

“I heard some other things happened in that breakroom, too,” Jess says, interrupting his thoughts. Her tone is overtly casual in a way that tells Neil she’s desperate for information (and most likely lamenting that she wasn’t there to witness things for herself).

“I’m sure you did,” he tells her mildly, refusing to take the bait.

She instantly drops any pretense of skirting around the issue, choosing instead to jump right in: “You threatened to get Jacob Ellis fired?”

These people…seriously. “Is that the story that’s going around?” Neil can’t be bothered to feign any semblance of sounding like he cares about such a false version of events. (Because he doesn’t – in fact, he really likes that interpretation of how things unfolded.) “That’s not what happened, but I’m fine with everyone thinking I have that kind of power.”

“You do have that kind of power.”

“News to me,” he says, innocently. “I wish someone had told me that years ago. I’d have had a lot of fun with it.”

“You can’t directly fire someone, no, but we all know you have enough friends in high places that if you actually wanted someone gone, you could easily set things in motion to make it happen.”

He tilts his chair back and meets her eyes for a long moment. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (It doesn’t matter what he says, really, when they both know she’s right.)

She scoffs at his lack of an answer. “I’m guessing that Ellis didn’t technically do anything to Shaun that’s officially considered harassment?”

Neil takes a moment to admire how sharp she is, because there’s only one possible way she could know that. Which is… “He’d be gone if he had,” Neil confirms (conveniently ignoring that his statement proves her previous assertion true – if he wants someone fired, they’ll be fired). “I’m still going to talk to him, though.”

She arches a brow. “I heard you made him cry.”

Neil starts laughing at that. “This story keeps getting better and better. Sometimes I hate the gossip mill around here, but at other times…I’m truly grateful for it.”

“You’re unbelievable.” She’s trying to hold back her smile. “You love that Ellis is terrified of you.”

“I do,” he confirms, “very much.” (There’s no point in denying it, not least of all because she’d see right through him.) “And for the record, I didn’t make him cry. I didn’t threaten him. I strongly implied that Shaun Murphy is off-limits and if Ellis didn’t like that, he could deal with me.”

“Oh sure,” she hums, “because that’s not a threat.”

“It’s not.” He shrugs as his expression darkens. “It’s the truth and Ellis should have known it already.”

“Is that why you chose to announce your relationship today? Because of him?”

“It was part of it,” Neil answers (because that statement is true enough to evade her superior lie detection skills). “If it keeps people in line…”

“Keeps them in line or keeps them away from Shaun?” Jessica asks shrewdly.

“Same thing.”

“It really isn’t.”

“Let’s agree to disagree,” he throws out, solely as a last resort, because keeping people away from Shaun is the entire point. (And of course she’d hit upon that quickly, even if she had no clue how true it was – that it had been the very catalyst for Neil’s suggestion that they pretend to be in a relationship.)

“Let’s agree that you’re in love,” she counters, stunning him into actual silence for a few moments.

“No, I can’t agree,” he says slowly. (In love? That’s what she thinks?) “We definitely haven’t reached that…level of anything.”

“Uh huh. Sure.” She’s doing that thing where she’s rolling her eyes at him without actually rolling her eyes at him. “You’re a terrible liar, Neil. Remember, I can tell.”

Yes, he does remember. Which is why this conversation is getting so strange – he feels like it’s spinning out of control on him. “We are not in love.”

“You are so in love,” she goads.

“We’re not,” he says sharply. It suddenly seems imperative that she believes him and he has no idea why – after all, it’d make things easier if she thought they were in love. It’d be easier if everyone believed they were in love. (So why is he fighting her on this?)

Jessica’s eyes take on a newly sympathetic light (which, if possible, is even worse than her earlier teasing). “I’m sorry, Neil. I was only kidding; I understand how difficult it is to work through things when a relationship…changes.”

Neil restlessly taps a pen on his desk, a manifestation of his increasing agitation. She didn’t say she believed him and he’s pretty sure she still doesn’t. He’s considering arguing further when she leans forward in her chair and studies him.

“I’m glad you found each other,” she says, words sincere and nothing else. “You make each other…happier.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “We do.” (Truth.)

Before Neil can start contemplating other ways to somehow prove they’re not in love, Shaun appears in his office doorway, knocking lightly on the doorframe to announce his presence (because Jess had never closed the door – though what did it matter, by now, if they were overheard? People around here were clearly going to believe what they wanted, regardless of the truth).

“I should get going,” Jess announces, with a significant look towards Neil as she stands. On her way out, she stops next to Shaun and lightly pats his arm. “I’m happy for you, Shaun.”

“Thank you,” he says politely, before frowning in confusion. “Why?”

“I heard about your new relationship. I think it’s wonderful.”

“Right. Yes.” Shaun nods vigorously enough that Neil feels slightly dizzy. “Our relationship. That we are very much…both involved in. Neil and…myself. Together.”

Good God, Murphy, stop talking. Neil tilts his chair back to stare helplessly at the ceiling. He’s going to have to sign Shaun up for acting lessons, or something. (Anything, really, to prevent painful displays like this in the future.)

“Are you just…quoting the definition of a ‘relationship’ to me?” Jessica’s asking Shaun, clearly bemused.

For some reason, Shaun ignores her and keeps talking. “Neil and I are… We are…in love?”

Neil lets his chair drop back to the floor with a thud and whips the pen he’s still holding in Shaun’s general direction.

“Hey!” Shaun yelps, even though Jessica is the one who manages to catch it before it hits her in the head (so his aim had been a little off, but so what? They both deserve it, as far as Neil’s concerned).

Traitor that she is, Jess launches the pen back in Neil’s direction (and he manages to duck just in time).

“That was childish,” Shaun scolds, as Jessica folds her arms and nods along in agreement, conveniently overlooking that her own act of retaliation had been exactly the same as Neil’s.

Jessica has also (somehow) managed to miss Shaun’s previous floundering (and the fact that Shaun’s ‘declaration’ was actually a question).

“I knew you two were in love,” she’s saying smugly, all but daring Neil to counter her again.

“Yes!” Shaun exclaims, with no idea that he’s doing the exact opposite of helping Neil right now. “We are very much in love. That is what I said.”

Neil resists the strong urge to bang his head on his desk as Jessica openly gloats in her victory – and Neil knows it’s not even what Shaun’s saying that makes her happy, it’s knowing she was right along with the added bonus that it had come at the price of Neil being wrong.

“Knew it,” she mutters to herself, staring Neil down. Like she wants him to confess. (But he can’t – she’ll know he’s lying. Right? He’s honestly starting to become confused.)

“Goodbye, Jess,” he says pointedly, glaring from her to the door. “I need a word alone with my…” He grits his teeth. “Partner.”

Her smirk at him as she leaves is particularly grating. Once she’s gone, Shaun finally comes the rest of the way into the office, closing the door behind him.

“That went well,” Shaun says cheerfully, completely oblivious to Neil’s frustration. “She believed me.”

“She did.” Neil debates throwing his pen at him again. (If he could find it somewhere in the corner where it rolled after it landed.) “Despite how terrible you were at trying to convince her.”

Shaun has retrieved the pen and gently sets it on Neil’s desk. “I was not believable?”

“Not in the slightest. Yet Jessica seemed to buy it without question.” Frankly, it’s bizarre. Neil’s beginning to think her skills at lie detection are faltering. (Or have somehow vanished. Completely.)

“I tried,” Shaun says, taking the seat Jessica had recently vacated. “I don’t know what else I should do.” (Neil doesn’t like that the smile has fallen off his face because it’s not Shaun’s fault. Not at all.)

“Murphy.” He comes around to the front of his desk so he can lean back against it. “We don’t have to do anything. Remember what I said earlier? In the breakroom? Let people talk on their own. If someone asks you, simply confirm it, that’s all. People who know me will know better than to start prying, or asking questions that are too personal.” He pauses, thinking of his and Lim’s other residents (and their patent inability to leave him alone). "Most people will know better,” he amends.

“Okay,” Shaun agrees; he seems a little skeptical, but more than willing to go along with Neil’s suggestion. (Which isn’t surprising – outside of Neil and their selective group of friends, he’s not often comfortable answering personal questions.)

“After my conversation with Jess, I don’t think we’ll have to ‘convince’ people of anything,” Neil says. “She told me people have been speculating about our relationship for months, and some of them even thought we were together, already.” He searches Shaun’s face for any trace of surprise, but finds none. “You knew, didn’t you?”

“About the rumors?” Shaun folds his hands, glancing away. “Yes. Claire told me recently because she wanted to know if they were true. I assumed you had heard them, as well.”

Neil shakes his head at the fact that even Shaun had known while he’d been oblivious. (What has he been doing these past few months? How had he become so distracted that he’d fallen completely out of the loop?) “I was completely clueless.”

“I would have told you, had I known you were unaware.”

“Is that what gave you the idea today? When you told Ellis we were in a relationship?”

“That was part of it,” Shaun admits. “It occurred to me when he tried to get me alone. I knew what he wanted. What he would say. And then I looked over at you…” Shaun lifts a shoulder like there’s no need to continue explaining.

“That was only part of it?” Neil asks. “What was the other part?”

“It seemed easier.”

Neil waits for elaboration that isn’t forthcoming. “Easier?”

“Than deterring him on my own. Which had not been successful to that point. You make things easier. You make a lot of things easier.” Shaun’s matter-of-fact answer kind of astonishes Neil; he’d had no idea Shaun felt that way. Before he can even begin to think of a response to that, Shaun keeps talking. “I thought he knew about the rumors, that he would believe me when I said we were together. However, his surprise indicated that he had no idea. I suppose he has not been here long enough.” He hesitates for a moment, not quite looking at Neil when he asks, “Are you angry?”

The question comes out of left field, catching Neil off-guard. “Why would I be angry?”

“Because I knew what people said.” Shaun’s now staring at his clasped hands. “And I…used that information for my own benefit. It did not occur to me that you might not like my actions until it was too late to take them back.”

“I wasn’t angry before.” Neil takes the seat next to Shaun’s so they can be at eye level. “I’m not angry now.”

“Alright,” Shaun says, relieved. “I wondered if you might change your mind. About…”

“This? Us?” Neil’s surprised he would be worried at all (especially considering that Shaun had originally offered to retract his statement and admit to Audrey and the others that he was lying about their romantic relationship). “No, I haven’t changed my mind. And I’m not going to. Remember, I’m the one who told you to let everyone keep thinking that we were together.” He deliberately waits for Shaun to glance at him, resisting the sudden urge to reach out and touch him. “You’re stuck with me, Murphy. For the indefinite future.”

“Okay,” Shaun says agreeably, then corrects, “We are stuck with each other.”

(Neil definitely likes Shaun’s way of phrasing it a lot more than his own.)

He has no idea how long he sits there, staring at Shaun without speaking, until his resident asks, “Are you ready to go?”

“Five minutes,” Neil says, shaking himself back to reality. They’d agreed to grab dinner after work (and it has nothing to do with the charade they’re putting on – they’d planned this days ago). It’s not uncommon for them to spend time together, whether it’s going to dinner, or the movies, or just spending a quiet evening at one of their apartments while watching a game or searching for something new on Netflix. It’s no secret, either; they’ve never tried to hide their friendship. And in light of what Jessica had told him, Neil’s only now realizing that to some outsiders, it must have seemed like they’d been dating for some time. Quite some time. Not that he cares what others think of him, or his relationship with Shaun, but it does strike Neil as odd that he’d never been even peripherally aware of it. It had simply never occurred to him how things might look to others.

“Why did you throw your pen at us?” Shaun’s watching Neil pack up his things.

Neil sends him a significant look. “You deserved it. You and Jess.”

“I disagree.”

“Do you?” Neil can’t help his smile. “Alright, then I apologize.”

“You are not being sincere.”

Neil only smiles wider, because yeah, he’d been pretty sarcastic with that ‘apology.’ “I was trying to get you to stop talking. Clearly, I was unsuccessful. I don’t think I could ever get you to stop talking.”

Shaun frowns at him. “You like it when I talk.”

“I do,” Neil agrees (because he does). And he’s told Shaun that many times. He still brushes a hand over Shaun’s arm in reassurance when he passes by him to put away a reference book. “But I don’t like when you tell Jessica that we’re in love not even a minute after I vehemently deny to her that we are.”

“Why did you deny it?” Shaun asks. “Isn’t the point that people believe it?”

Neil barely stops himself from saying that he doesn’t know why. Because he does know why he denied it (so why does it feel like he doesn’t?). “I couldn’t lie to her when she brought it up. She excels at knowing when I lie and it would have given everything away if I started talking about feelings I don’t have.” It rings in his mind again – the strangeness of her refusal to believe him when he denied that he and Shaun were in love.

“She believed me when I lied,” Shaun points out.

“She did. Even though you were quite terrible at it.” He sidesteps when Shaun reaches over to no doubt pinch his arm or something. “Maybe she can’t tell with you. Or maybe she’s not as good at reading people as she used to be.”

Shaun’s watching him carefully. “Do you want me to deny it if the topic comes up again? With anyone?”

“No,” he grabs his keys, “I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a lot of people believe it, anyways.” (And Neil had been the only one left in the dark.)

They leave Neil’s office, heading for the elevators, but Neil stops short when he sees the group gathered around the main desk: Claire, Morgan, and Park. All of them look decidedly not busy and just happen to be standing where Neil and Shaun will have to pass them to leave.

It’s not a coincidence. (Nothing is ever a coincidence with these people.)

He just went through a round of ‘Let’s quiz Neil Melendez on his relationship!’ with Jessica, so he’s not exactly in the mood to repeat it. The only thing he wants is to have a nice, quiet dinner with Shaun. (Well, as quiet as Shaun ever gets.) And then he’ll relax and process exactly what happened to his day, but all of that is going to be significantly delayed if he has to stop for an interrogation with a myriad of residents.

“Maybe we can take the back elevators,” Neil suggests, even as Shaun’s walking away. “Murphy!”

“Why would we do that?” Shaun calls back. “The main elevators are closer.”

One of these days, Shaun will do exactly what Neil wants him to do. (Yeah…probably not.)

He reluctantly follows Shaun, for no other reason than because he can’t let the younger man face them alone. (He’d never be that cruel, especially not where Shaun’s concerned.)

They come to a stop near the desk: Morgan is seated behind it; Claire’s in front of it, shifting a chart restlessly from hand to hand; and Park is leaning against the end of it, expression eerily blank.

“Residents,” Neil greets, tone letting them know that he’s acutely aware of why they’re hanging around the main lobby of the surgical wing.

“Dr. Melendez,” Morgan returns, with a politeness that’s most likely feigned. She nods at Shaun, as well. “Murphy.”

Neil’s not surprised at her presence the way he used to be – she’s around him and his team enough that she might as well still be on it. (Not that it makes that much difference, most of the time, based on how often Neil and Lim mix up their residents.)

After Jared had left their hospital the previous spring, Neil had still technically had one too many residents, but Audrey conveniently had space to take one person on. Neil had been prepared to tell Morgan and Park to decide between themselves who was staying with him (because there was no way in hell he was letting Shaun or Claire go), but before he could, Morgan had told him she wanted to transfer. His former resident is sharp: she knew that his patience with her was wearing dangerously thin and it was going to ruin her chances of being hired permanently. No, he’s not in charge of who works at their hospital, but as Jessica had pointed out, they all know that one word from him means Morgan would never be seriously considered. So when she saw a chance to start over with someone new, she seized it. In the months since, her attitude has markedly improved (probably due to some combination of fear that she was alienating her potential future co-workers coupled with Audrey’s express inability to deal with nonsense).

All that said, however, she’s still Morgan and Neil can usually only take her in small doses.

“How are you two?” Claire asks, interrupting Neil’s contemplative thoughts.

“Drop the act,” he orders, looking at Morgan and Park in warning, as well. “We’re not doing this.”

“Not doing what?” Morgan asks, trying for an innocence that Neil will never believe from her (on the rare chance that she ever was innocent).

“This.” Neil motions at the assembled group. “This is what we’re not doing.”

“We’re just hanging out at the front desk,” Morgan informs him.

“Exactly,” Claire supplies. “Us residents always meet at –” she checks the time, “– 7:12 in the evening.”

“No, we don’t,” Shaun says, as his co-workers send him mildly censuring (and fond) looks in exasperation.

“It’s a…new policy?” Claire tries to claim.

“We have no idea what you’re insinuating,” Morgan tells Neil, glossing right over Claire’s futile attempts at trying to come up with a plausible excuse for why they’re all standing around in the hallway at this time of evening. “We’re working. In fact, I was just checking up on a few patients.” She gestures to the computer in front of her.

Neil leans around the desk to see the screen – the black screen. “Kind of hard to do when it’s off,” he points out.

“You know these power-saving measures.” She slaps a hand down on the keyboard and the computer comes back to life. “The times keep getting shorter and shorter!”

“I’ve noticed that,” Claire agrees, “and I was just filling out this chart…” She glances down, seeming to realize she has nothing to write with, and that’s when Morgan flips her a pen. “Thank you, Dr. Reznick.”

“While I do appreciate this terribly-acted play that you’re putting on for my benefit,” Neil tells them, “none of you are particularly subtle.”

“Funny,” Morgan says, archly, “I was going to say the same thing about you and Murphy.”

Neil stares at her until she glances away, but he can’t refute her comment, because she’s right. (And they’re trying to make people think they’re together, aren’t they?)

Alex continues studying him and Shaun like they’re the prime suspects in some mysterious crime and he’s deciding how best to prove their guilt. “For what it’s worth,” he remarks, “I wasn’t trying to be subtle about observing you.”

(Neil appreciates the honesty, at least.)

“Where are you off to this evening?” Morgan inquires. “Heading out…together?”

“We are going to dinner,” Shaun answers.

Neil tries to seize the unexpected opportunity. “Speaking of which, we should get going.” He takes a single step towards the elevators. “Don’t want to be late.”

“We have not made reservations anywhere,” Shaun counters. “Therefore, it would be impossible to arrive late.”

Claire shakes her head a little, Alex (predictably) shows no reaction, and Morgan finds the entire conversation (and probably Neil’s frustration) hilarious – her face betrays not even a hint of a smile, but Neil can see it in her eyes.

“Shaun,” Morgan says, “I believe what Dr. Melendez is trying to tell us is that he wants to get the hell out of here.”

Neil inwardly sighs because she’s right. She’s almost always right, which is maddening, actually. That’s one of his main issues with her a lot of the time. She has a gift for reading people – and zero reservations about repeating her observations out loud, for all to hear. (And it’s nearly impossible to argue against her – she might be easier to work with now, might be making more of an effort to play nice with others, but he’s still often grateful she’s not on his team anymore.)

“Where are you thinking of going to dinner?” Alex’s question seems innocuous enough, but Neil has the uncanny feeling that no matter what answer he gives, it will probably unintentionally reveal seventeen layers of meaning that Neil himself isn’t even aware of.

“I want to try someplace new,” Shaun says, like this is a normal conversation and their words aren’t being thoroughly dissected by the three vultures – residents – in front of them.

“You two looking for any recommendations?” Morgan asks. “Something intimate? Or…romantic?”

“Recommendations would be welcome,” Shaun says politely, catching Morgan off-guard, if the way she blinks at him is any indication.

“I…have a whole list,” she says slowly. “I’m something of a food connoisseur. I rate the local restaurants each time I go out to eat and I’m always trying new places. I’ll forward you the list I’ve made.”

“I would appreciate that,” Shaun tells her warmly.

Neil studies her critically as she takes out her phone; he’d had no idea Morgan rated the restaurants she visited, and Claire seems surprised as well, but Park doesn’t react (so who’s to say if he knew). Neil’s waiting for the catch, but there doesn’t seem to be one. Morgan’s being genuine. Sincere. He files the moment away in his mind to evaluate later.

Claire’s looking between him and Shaun with growing anticipation, and it’s obvious she wants to say something, but isn’t sure if it’d be welcome.

He impatiently waves a hand at her. (Apparently, they are doing this, despite his protests.) “Out with it.”

“We’re so happy for you two,” she says, as her face breaks into a wide smile. (Alex nods slightly, which must indicate agreement, and Morgan doesn’t even look up from her phone.) “I want you to know, I called it first! I knew you were together months ago. No one believed me back then. But I could tell. I’m incredibly observant, you know.”

“Are you?” Neil asks, with no shortage of amusement. From the corner of his eye, he catches Shaun shaking his head.

“We were not –”

“Murphy,” Neil loudly interrupts, nudging him in the arm. “It’s fine. They…know.” He pretends not to notice Alex’s gaze, minutely sharper than it was a few moments before.

“Yes, we know.” Claire sighs wistfully, like they’re all characters in the middle of a romantic comedy or something. “And we’re glad you’re finally comfortable enough to admit it to everyone.”

Neil and Shaun glance at each other and then simultaneously nod in agreement. Silence falls and Neil begins to wonder why the other three haven’t jumped all over them with questions. But when he thinks about it more critically… Claire is far too polite to ask anything they might not want to answer; she’ll prefer to hint around and ask veiled questions the next few weeks until she learns everything she wants to know. Park thinks that everyone lies (and isn’t that true, in this case, more than he’ll realize). He probably has other, more accurate ways of gaining whatever information he seeks (and that’s assuming there are things he doesn’t know already). And Morgan, well, she might be overly blunt when it comes to most things like this, never shying away from airing others’ personal issues, but she has a steadfast sense of self-preservation – she has to know that a misstep here will cost her dearly. (And doubly so if Neil interprets anything she says as an intentional slight against Shaun.) So she’s censoring herself, for once, and it’s as refreshing as it is…disconcerting.

All of it means that the five of them are at a stalemate, and Neil is just about to use it as an opportunity to leave when Marcus strolls up to the assembled group. Because of course this is when Marcus shows up.

“Melendez!” he all but yells, as he walks over to them, adding slightly more subdued, “and Murphy. Just the two employees I wanted to see.”

“It’s getting late,” Neil begins, as he glances behind their boss to the elevators. “Do we need to do this now?”

“Thinking of making a run for it?” Marcus asks cheerfully, as Neil snaps his eyes back over to him.

Yes. Yes he was. “What? No, that’s ridiculous…”

“Uh huh. Look, we can do this the official way,” Marcus informs them, “with me dragging you two aside for a private meeting and then talking to all of our residents individually. Or we can do it quickly, right here, out in the open, with all of us together. That would, of course, save me significant time – but I’m open to a vote.”

Neil glances at the other four people around them; they are riveted, for lack of a better term. Claire’s eyes are like saucers as she glances among them – of everyone there, she’s the most likely to come to his and Shaun’s defense, if needed. Morgan’s expression is as serene as ever, but she’s studying Marcus, no doubt taking her cues from him (and if there’s any way for her to benefit from this, she’ll undoubtedly manage to do so). Even Alex has stilled – Neil’s not sure how he can tell, based on the way the man usually carries himself, but something about it is obvious. And Shaun merely shrugs, like it doesn’t matter to him where they discuss this (and it probably doesn’t).

“I vote we talk right here and now, out in the open,” Morgan says quickly. She’s overly eager, in a way that’s not normal for her – she excels at keeping herself in check. Neil honestly can’t tell if she’s excited at the potential drama that might unfold, or at the possibility of garnering points with Andrews – maybe both.

“All agreed?” Marcus asks, and when everyone more or less nods, he pauses for a significant few seconds (God, the man has a flair for the dramatic) and then says, “Alright.” He pauses again and Neil resists the urge to shake him. “It has come to my attention, officially, in any case, that you two –” he points at Neil, then Shaun, “– are in a relationship.”

“Yes,” Neil confirms, because there’s nothing else he can say. (Except the truth and he’s not going to do that, not when he’d already made up his mind about going through with this.)

“It’s also come to my attention that…let me make sure I get this right.” Marcus levels him with a look. “Neil Melendez makes the rules around here and can do what he wants.”

Neil barely, barely hides a wince. “I don’t recall saying that.” When Marcus just stares at him, he adds, “…In so many words?” A quick glance at the residents surrounding him reveals worried concern (Claire), true impassivity (Park), and an unreadable expression from Morgan who must be trying to figure out which way this is going to go before she jumps in.

“I was there,” Shaun speaks up. “Neil is telling the truth. He did not say that.”

“I believe you,” Marcus says, surprising everyone, “but only that he didn’t say it in those exact words.”

Shaun glances at Neil and he minutely shakes his head in indication for Shaun not to dig himself in any deeper when they still don’t know what will happen (though it’s admittedly not looking great).

“Pop quiz time, Murphy.” Marcus turns to Shaun. “What would you do if Neil wrote a review you felt was biased in your favor?”

“He would not do that.”

Claire laughs, Morgan rolls her eyes, and Neil takes a moment to enjoy Marcus’s growing exasperation. (It’s always fun to see others suffering the way Neil does, day in and day out.)

“But if he did?” Marcus persists.

“He would not –”

“Murphy, let’s skip your perpetual defense of Neil – in this imaginary world, he wrote a review that showed clear bias towards you. What would you do?”

“I would inform him of his error. And give him the opportunity to correct it.”

“What if he refused? Or what if he corrected it and you still felt it was inaccurate?”

“I would report him.”

Marcus grins widely. “That’s cold, Murphy! And exactly the kind of attitude I want to see.”

“Of course you’d love that,” Neil mutters.

Shaun leans closer to him, saying in a voice not nearly low enough, “It would never come to that. Because you are fair and impartial.”

“Ah, if only all of us had faith in each other to match the faith you have in Neil,” Marcus tells Shaun, and he’s not even joking – he’s dead serious.

Morgan’s eyes have taken on a scrutinizing – a particularly calculating – glint that Neil doesn’t think he likes.

“Sir,” she addresses Andrews, “their relationship is against a number of rules according to the hospital’s policies and guidelines on conduct between those in a direct position of power over –“

“What do you care?” Claire interrupts sharply. “You’re not on our team anymore. Dr. Melendez doesn’t oversee you so I don’t even know why you’re part of this conversation.”

Morgan glances at the desk in front of her, but before she does, Neil thinks he sees a flash of genuine hurt cross her face. Whether he imagined it or not, her face is politely icy when she looks up again. “If you’d let me finish,” her tone is particularly withering, and aimed solely at Claire, “I was going to say…none of that has ever mattered here before.”

Marcus folds his arms and then lazily waves a hand in indication that he’s listening and she should go on (and Neil isn’t sure of her angle here, but there definitely is one. There has to be).

“If you decide to make an example of them, then you’d have to begin strictly enforcing those rules for our entire department,” she continues. “And policing the personal lives of hospital staff seems like an extraordinary waste of your valuable time, sir.”

“I always did hate having my time wasted,” Marcus murmurs, in agreement.

“Which is not to mention the most important point: they’ve been together for a while. Everyone knows it.” (Neil suppresses the automatic jolt of surprise at hearing someone else say that so openly – he really had been living in an alternate reality from them.) “And Dr. Melendez has remained impartial towards all of us during that time,” Morgan’s continuing. “Even those of us who…” she glances briefly at Claire, “aren’t on his team anymore.”

Andrews is nodding along to all her points. “That is a fair assessment, Reznick. I have to agree.”

She veritably beams at him. “Why thank you, Dr. Andrews.”

Claire’s looking on in what Neil can only describe as true shock, while Alex studies Morgan in the same way that Neil himself had been earlier.

“Morgan’s right,” Neil says, somewhat surprised at how right she is. No, he’s not dating Shaun, but they have a much closer relationship than Neil has with any other resident – and that’s never changed his behavior towards them, nor would it in the future.

“Could you repeat that I'm right?” Morgan’s smirking at him. “I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken truer words, sir.”

He manages to suppress his smile, though it’s a near thing. “My relationship with Shaun doesn’t change how I feel about any of you. Nor does it change how I evaluate anyone – including Shaun – on a professional level. I’ve always strived to remain objective and that’s what I plan to always continue to be. If you ever feel like I’m not, I expect you to bring it to my attention.”

“We would,” Alex assures him. “And I, for one, have never considered you anything other than fair.”

“Can anyone tell me,” Marcus addresses the entire group, “am I in the habit of making life harder for myself?”

He’s met with a chorus of no’s, along with a prim, “Nor should you,” from Morgan. (Neil refrains from answering – he doesn’t believe this is a trick question, but he’d learned long ago to never willingly set himself up – especially when it comes to Marcus.)

“Exactly. And you two,” he’s motioning between Neil and Shaun, “actually make my life much easier.”

“How?” Shaun asks.

Marcus looks at Neil. “You almost never bother me anymore. You used to argue with me about everything. Complaints left and right –”

“I rarely, if ever, complained,” Neil…complains. Damn it. (Marcus got him again.)

“What was your favorite argument with me last year?” Marcus is pretending to think. “Oh right, how many residents you had –”

“You assigned me like seventeen of them!”

“Which led to, what’d you call it…a non-optimal learning environment.”

“Well…” Neil crosses his arms and tells himself he’s not sulking. He’s simply…unhappy about the previous year. “It wasn’t optimal. You remember the unnecessary competition and infighting it caused, which meant I spent too much time on those issues instead of focusing on patient care. There’s a reason teams are supposed to be smaller.”

“You might have a point,” Marcus grudgingly concedes, “but let’s not pretend like that was the only issue we fought about.”

“It’s not my fault you always take the non-rational side of an argument.”

“This. Right here. This is what I don’t miss.” Marcus turns to Shaun. “Because he brings his problems to you first and you two figure them out together without ever involving me. Which is just the way I like it.”

Neil’s about to argue, out of sheer habit, when he realizes he can’t. He does that? He goes to Shaun first? The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes Marcus is right (…and how come Neil had never realized that?).

“I do excel at solving problems,” Shaun is saying, which is actually quite the understatement. The number of times he’s helped Neil work through something…whether with the board or a patient or a colleague… Or any other variety of issues…

“As for you, Murphy…” Marcus glances between them, with a careful kind of consideration that Neil appreciates. He’s obviously trying to determine how best to diplomatically phrase this so as to not offend either of them, and it’s a vast change from his behavior a year prior.

“I already know,” Shaun tells them. “Less people complain about me.”

“Got it in one, Murphy,” Marcus confirms. “Complaints about you have dropped almost to the point of non-existence. You tell people the truth. With a kind of bluntness they rarely appreciate – that they often don’t want to hear. But with Neil as an example – God help us all – you’ve learned to hold your tongue. Or, at the very least, word things gently enough that they don’t take the truth as a criticism. Or insult.”

“Diplomacy,” Shaun says, nodding. “Neil loves diplomacy.”

“News to me,” Marcus says wryly.

“Well, I don’t favor it when it comes to you,” Neil informs him, acerbically.

“It was Dr. Lim who first gave me the idea,” Shaun reveals, which Neil hadn’t known. “She told me to run my reaction to every new situation by Jared before I spoke to families. Then Jared left. So I began asking Neil. The parameters were easy to learn and within a few months, I was able to form a template of the proper and expected reactions to virtually every scenario we encounter.”

“The point,” Marcus informs them, “is that your relationship has directly led to a decrease in issues that I have to deal with. So the last thing I want to do is separate you at work.”

Neil’s relieved at that, because he’d been prepared to fight him on it (and if Marcus had wanted to separate them, Neil's not sure he would have been able to convince him otherwise). He also finds it amusing that what Marcus is saying about them is true – it’s just that no one has any idea it’s true without them being together.

“So we’re all on the same page,” Marcus is saying, in summation. He takes a few seconds to look at each one of them in turn. “Barring any valid concerns, this is the last I expect to hear on the topic.”

That seems to be the signal for them to disperse, as Marcus leaves, followed shortly by Claire and Alex. It leaves only Neil, Shaun, and Morgan at the desk.

“Why did you defend us?” Shaun suddenly asks her.

“Maybe I consider you two friends,” she says sweetly.

Neil manages to hold back his laughter. “Try again.”

Her mask slips, but it’s not meanness Neil spies underneath; it’s practicality. “Fine, you want to know? For all Dr. Andrews’ talk about impartiality, we all know that Shaun’s virtually guaranteed a permanent job here.” She turns to Shaun, saying bluntly, “You’re Glassman’s surrogate son and Andrews is nearly in love with you due to your impact on donors. And I won’t even get into how necessary you and Melendez seem to be to each other. Besides, what would Andrews’ suggestion have been if I decided to make it an issue?”

It doesn’t take Neil long to figure that out. “He would have ordered you and Shaun to switch teams.”

“Exactly. And even though Lim would love having Shaun on her team – which of the rest of us would hate that idea the most? As a hint – it’s not me.”

“Neil and I would hate it equally,” Shaun murmurs.

“No doubt,” she agrees. “So all of that grief, with no real benefit to me, topped off with making enemies of you both…”

It’s abundantly clear now – to her mind, there hadn’t been another option. (And Neil’s mostly just glad their interests have happened to align this time around.)

“Go ahead,” she tells them, as she motions toward the elevators. “Enjoy your romantic dinner. Revel in your victory that you won’t be split up. I sent you my list of restaurants.”

Shaun thanks her, heading for the elevators as he takes out his phone to peruse her list.

Neil hesitates for an extra moment at the desk. “You are aware that what you told Andrews was the truth, right?”

She shrugs at him in confusion.

“My relationship with Shaun. It doesn’t change how I feel about any of my residents.” He pauses. “Or about you. When it comes down to it, we’re all still a team, even if you and I technically aren’t on the same one anymore.”

“I know that,” she says, rubbing a hand over her eyes in a tell of how tired she is. “I knew it a long time ago. You have integrity, Dr. Melendez.”

“I’m a firm believer of teaching by example,” he says, hoping she’ll take that to heart (though…maybe she already is). “Go home, Reznick.”

“Soon,” she promises, as he nods and heads off to join Shaun, who’s been waiting for him to hit the elevator button.

Shaun immediately launches into a description of the various restaurants on Morgan’s list (she actually does include a notation on how romantic each one is because she’s just that thorough) and all Neil can do is think about how his life became flipped upside down over the course of only a few hours.

(And he wonders why today doesn’t feel any different from the day before.)

Chapter Text

It’s not that Neil expects his entire life to drastically change after he and Shaun ‘reveal’ they’re in a relationship, but he definitely expects a different reaction than what they (mostly) get.

The news about them lights up the hospital for about a week, but it’s rarely met with shock (or even surprise). Rather, the typical response is some variation of what they’d heard from Jessica and the rest of their team – most people claim they’d ‘known’ he and Shaun were together, or at least suspected.

It’s an increasing feat for Neil to keep a straight face when he hears people talk about how ‘obvious’ it was that he and Shaun were dating. He even gets a few mild lectures asking why they’d tried (‘unsuccessfully’) to keep it a secret for so long. And even though it’s all good-natured ribbing, at heart, Neil can’t help feeling the exact same defensiveness that had set in when Jessica came to his office that first day to insist she’d known all along.

There are a handful of times that Neil wants to snap at people, inform them exactly how wrong they are, but it’s easy to refrain for one reason, and one reason only: Shaun. He’s not about to tell anyone that this entire thing was fake – and not because he cares about himself or his reputation, but because Shaun would most likely end up hurt by it. No one should ever start distrusting Shaun, or think any less of him, because of a plan that has no maliciousness attached to it. Their agreement doesn’t benefit Shaun financially or professionally, all it does is incentivize people to leave him alone, and he should never have to suffer for that.

What it comes down to is that Neil feels like he’s the one who’s surprised the most by this whole thing – because he’s surprised at other people’s reactions. He’d been anticipating a fight of some kind, whether from Marcus, or the administration, or their co-workers… Neil’s just used to having to fight for things. So to receive not even a cursory protest, from anyone? It’s disconcerting, to say the least. 

No one treats them differently, but then again, why would they if most of their colleagues thought they were together already? Neil and Shaun don’t act any differently, either. They don’t try and ‘prove’ their relationship, though they still spend the same (excessive) amount of time together as they ever did. And they’d also agreed, early on, that they wouldn’t attempt any displays of affection. (Just the thought makes Neil cringe when he imagines how Shaun would act out a scene like that, especially after his disastrous attempt at merely telling Jessica about their ‘relationship’.)

That said, there are two things that have changed in the last few months. The first is that Shaun is much more comfortable around him – it had started when they became closer friends, but Shaun definitely touches him more now. Always in casual, minor ways, but it’s still significant to Neil; he’s happy Shaun trusts him enough to be more open with him. Neil’s cautious about responding in kind, never wanting to accidentally step over any boundaries, but Shaun never protests anything he does, either verbally or by pulling away from him. In fact, the more affectionate Neil becomes, the more Shaun is, too – it’s like some kind of circular feedback loop. (Neil really likes it, actually.)

The second thing he learns is that no one bothers Shaun. No one. Until Shaun happily reveals this, over lunch one day in late November, Neil genuinely had no clue that some people still did. And he must look pretty stricken when he hears it, if the way Shaun blinks at him is any indication.

“It was nothing like it used to be,” Shaun assures him. “I have many friends here. They are kind and always defend me, if necessary. But I am still used to…having my opinions challenged by people who don’t know me well. Or hearing offhand remarks that people don’t realize are…” He shrugs without finishing the sentence. “It almost never happens anymore. I had noticed a decline before we…announced our relationship. I now believe it was because many people thought we were already together.”

“You should have told me before,” Neil says, though there isn’t much he could have done. He’s not about to go around chastising anyone who makes a vaguely insulting or insensitive remark to Shaun – and Shaun can definitely handle himself. (But somehow, neither of those facts stops Neil from wanting to confront every person who’s ever hurt Shaun, intentionally or not.)

Shaun’s face has become more serious. “I did not tell you today in order to upset you.”

“I’m not upset,” Neil mutters (but of course he’s upset and they both know it).

“I told you because I consider the change a good thing,” Shaun informs him. “Also, no one has asked me out in over two months.” He sounds downright gleeful at that last sentence.

Neil finds himself smiling when he hears that. “I’m very happy that no one has risked my wrath by propositioning you.”

“Many people are afraid of you,” Shaun confirms, in his own roundabout way of agreement. “Have others changed how they treat you, as well?”

Neil hasn’t given it much thought, because he realizes with a jolt, nothing has been happening – and he tells Shaun as much. He’s simply, thankfully, been left alone. No questions about whether he was ready to date again. No more offers to set him up. And the best, perhaps, were no more saccharine and sympathetic inquiries along the lines of ‘how are you doing since Jessica?’.

As it turns out, he and Shaun have impeccable timing, because Jessica had gotten engaged a mere three weeks after Neil and Shaun had decided to let people think they were dating. He’s sure that – without Shaun as a cover – there would have been a barrage of well-meaning, but infuriating spiels for Neil to deal with. People would have asked how he was ‘holding up’ in light of her engagement. Jessica would be dancing around the issue, too, not sure how to talk to him about it. And everyone would be carefully trying to ascertain if he’d be attending the wedding – Jessica herself would probably be on edge about it. (It’s not even a question now, she’d already warmly told both him and Shaun that she expects them to be there.)

Neil knows the people in his life, knows what they would have thrown at him for months on end, in desperate attempts to be helpful and ‘make him feel better’. However, just as Neil’s apparently become a shield between Shaun and the people who make him (often accidentally) uncomfortable, Shaun has equally become a barrier around Neil’s entire personal life. Their friends occasionally ask how things are going, in terms of their relationship, but other than that? Nothing. There are no questions or suggestions or insinuations about dating or anything else, because people already ‘know’ about him and Shaun. It’s nothing but a sheer relief, and if he feels that strongly about it, he can only imagine how Shaun feels.

(Pretty damn happy, if the way Shaun’s smiling at him is any indication.)

“The holiday gala’s coming up soon, less than a month away!” Morgan chirps, slapping down a brightly colored red and gold flyer between his and Shaun’s trays on the table. (It’s sparkly, too – dear God, Marcus must have put her in charge of the design.) “I know how much you boys love these things.”

Neil suppresses his groan of annoyance – it’s not just a holiday gala, it’s an annual fundraiser, and their most important one by far. This is the time of year Marcus gets (even more) insufferable about it, obsessing over the venue, the list of invited donors, and every other minor detail. Thanks to their boss’s constant complaints, Neil knows more about planning these events than he’s ever wanted to – it’s not uncommon for Marcus to toss out issues during surgeries and ask for input from the whole room on how to resolve them. (Sometimes he even makes them all vote.)

“We already knew about the gala,” Shaun points out, as he reads the flyer, anyways. Morgan must be holding a few hundred of them and Neil takes another one to check the time and venue – it’s at the Ritz-Carlton this year, in their grand ballroom. That tracks, because the venue had been one of the aforementioned things Marcus made them vote on. He always pulls out all the stops for this gala (read: spends excessive amounts of the committee’s yearly budget on it) and there will be hundreds of people there. (It’s twenty-three days away and Neil already wants to go home.)

“This is me officially putting you on notice,” Morgan tells them, as Neil looks up at her in confusion. “Neil Melendez and Shaun Murphy are required to attend. As in mandatory. As in not optional. As in be there or prepare to suffer my wrath. It’s all in the fine print.” She jabs one perfectly manicured fingernail at the paper in front of Shaun (and Neil rolls up his own flyer just so he can swat her with it).

“There is no fine print,” Shaun says absently and Morgan issues him a stern look that has zero effect because he doesn’t so much as glance her way.

“I’m being glib,” she says primly, “but it’s more or less true: Dr. Andrews has put me in charge of making sure you both attend. If you don’t – like you conveniently skipped the banquet last month – I get hanged for it.” She narrows her eyes at both of them, in turn. “And I’m not about to suffer because you’d rather – well, I have no idea what you two do in your free time.” She flails her free hand in their general direction. “I envision you playing chess while discussing the finer points of what you heard on NPR on the drive home.”

Neil and Shaun exchange a surprised look, because that is uncannily close to a lot of the evenings they spend together.

Morgan sighs and presses her previously flailing hand to her chin in faux-thought. “How have you two not bored each other to death yet? I guess it shows there really is someone out there for everyone.”

“Morgan,” Neil growls, shooing her towards the exit like she's a particularly unruly cat, “move along.”

“I’m not done with my threats, Dr. Melendez. Namely, if I show up to this gala at 7 pm sharp,” she points at the time on a flyer (like he’s blind or something), “and you two are not present, I will root out wherever in this city you are hiding from me and drag you there myself.”

Neil believes her and the thought of her showing up at his door is close to terrifying, though he takes some comfort in the knowledge that he’d have advance warning when the temperature dropped 30 degrees and the sky turned ominously black. (Maybe he should get some holy water on standby, just in case?)

Shaun apparently believes her, too, from the way he’s staring up at her with slightly widened eyes. “I do not want you anywhere near my home.”

Neil isn’t successful in hiding his laughter at that, and Morgan smiles at Shaun, but it’s all teeth. “Then be there, Murphy. Or else.”

“What’s this about?” Neil asks. “We always attend these events.”

“We just covered this,” she says, tone dripping condescension. “You skipped the banquet in October.”

“That was optional,” Neil strongly protests. “Aaron said we weren’t required to attend. That means not mandatory.”

“Dr. Andrews did not agree with Dr. Glassman,” Shaun needlessly reminds him.

“I still don’t see how their disagreement meant it was somehow my fault,” Neil mutters. He’d received a long-winded lecture the next day, wherein Marcus had issued him all of the blame and Shaun had gotten none (which was pretty galling because Shaun hadn’t wanted to go equally as much as Neil hadn’t).

“He believes you’re a bad influence on Shaun,” Morgan says, sounding nothing short of delighted. “That you talk him into skipping events. And that you’ll do the same this time.”

Neil can feel his outrage growing. “It was Murphy’s idea to skip it.”

“I do not recall that,” Shaun says innocently, and Neil narrows his eyes at him in silent indication he’s going to be paying for that lie later on.

“Shaun would never do such a thing,” Morgan defends him, even as her calculating smile means she at least strongly suspects that Shaun’s lying.

“Thank you,” Shaun tells her, as they both turn to look at him. (Oh no, Neil doesn’t like this, not at all. Residents ganging up on him…it never ends well.) “I always fulfill my obligations,” Shaun continues. “However, Neil has a valid point – the last banquet was not mandatory.”

“Until after the fact, apparently,” Neil adds, put out. “The board threw that banquet – for the board! An entire night devoted to congratulating themselves and telling each other how wonderful they are. It wasn't about promoting our hospital, it wasn't about fundraising…there was no reason for us to attend.”

“I had a fabulous time,” Morgan says, complete with a haughty flip of her hair. “Our board is phenomenal. The things they have done for this hospi–”

“Zip it, Reznick,” Neil orders. “There are no members around to hear you flatter them, and we’re not about to relay your speech, so your little show here is a lost cause.”

Her lips purse in annoyance and she shifts the stack of flyers from one arm to the other – that must be enough to remind her that she can lord this gala over them for several more weeks, since her grin returns full force. “Only twenty-three days to go!”

“We will be there,” Shaun promises. “I will make sure Neil does not skip it.”

Outrage! Neil’s outraged again. (He’s sure that’s what he’s feeling.)

Morgan opens her mouth, no doubt to make another snippy remark, but Shaun beats her to it, saying, “You mentioned chess earlier. Do you know its history?”

“No,” Neil answers, in her stead, “but I’m sure it’s fascinating.”

“Indeed,” Shaun answers. “We can trace it back nearly 1,500 years. The earliest known precursor to the game –”

Morgan nearly trips over herself as she backs away from their table with the kind of haste that makes it seem like she’s afraid she’ll accidentally learn something. “You two. I swear…” She turns on her heel and strolls off, calling over her shoulder, “I’m still going to harass you about the gala every day of the next three weeks.”

“You did that on purpose,” Neil says, once she’s out of earshot.

“Yes,” Shaun confirms. “Morgan is predictable; it is very easy to get her to do what I want.”

Neil wishes Shaun would share that trick with him (and the rest of the hospital, while he’s at it). “Why did Marcus have to pick the worst messenger slash enforcer possible?”

“It is his attempt at punishing us for missing the banquet.”

“He didn’t care that we weren’t there,” Neil says, a touch bitterly, “he was upset that he couldn’t show us off.”

“He was upset about me, yes,” Shaun agrees. “As for you… I do not know why he was upset that you weren’t there.”

Neil can’t help his smile at Shaun’s teasing joke (especially not when it instantly lightens his darkening mood). “Come on, Murphy. I’m Neil Melendez. No more needs to be said.” He’s speaking mostly in jest, but they are among the top draws at any event they go to. Shaun is effortlessly endearing, in his own way, and Neil can turn his own charm on better than anyone, when the situation calls for it.

“Okay, Neil Melendez.” (Shaun is definitely mocking him.) “Prepare yourself to attend on…” he glances at the flyer, “Saturday, December 15th.”

“Exactly when everybody wants to attend a fundraiser – smack in the middle of the holiday season and a week before Christmas.”

“I’m sure it will be festive.”

“Oh right, that’s what I’m most concerned about, Murphy. A lack of festivity.”

“Morgan was on the planning committee,” Shaun reminds him.

Neil had almost forgotten. “There will probably be tinsel everywhere.”

“Yes,” Shaun gravely agrees. “Probably.”

Neil’s about done with his lunch and he finishes his water before tossing the empty plastic container at the recycling bin some fifteen feet away. He gets it in, but he almost hits Park in the process when the other man suddenly emerges from behind a pillar, and Neil barely hides a wince. Of all people to almost hit, Park is among the worst (he could probably get Neil’s driver’s license suspended with a single phone call). Park stops mid-stride and does a quick scan of half the room before glaring at Neil who holds up his hands in innocence and points at Shaun.

“It was not me,” Shaun says, without even turning to see who Neil’s gesturing to.

Murphy doesn’t make a habit of throwing things across rooms,” Park says, as he stops next to their table. “You, on the other hand…”

“Shaun throws things all the time!” Neil protests. It’s unbelievable how he gets blamed for everything. (Granted, he was to blame this time, but is it so hard to give him the benefit of the doubt?)

Shaun barely reacts to his accusation. “I throw things back at you that you throw at me.”

“For shame,” Park scolds, shaking his head at Neil in disappointment. Then he tells Shaun, consolingly, “And you have to deal with him outside of work, too. I’m truly sorry.”

“I wish I’d hit you with that bottle,” Neil mutters.

Park’s smirking at him. “I thought it was Shaun who almost hit me?”

Damn Park and his previous career in law enforcement how is Neil supposed to get away with anything around here?

“I accept your condolences,” Shaun’s telling Park, like they’re at a funeral. “And I appreciate your support.”

Neil crosses his arms. “I think I need to throw things at you more often.” He’s not sure which one of them he’s directing that towards. Is it ‘Residents Band Together to Harass Neil Day’? He racks his brain for some way to immediately reassert his authority. “I’m your boss. Both of you.”

Park looks decidedly unimpressed (and Shaun’s never anything except that when Neil tries to put his foot down), but thankfully, he doesn’t have to listen to any more on the topic because Park becomes distracted by the flyers on their table. “The holiday fundraising gala – I’ve been looking forward to that! I wasn’t here to attend last year’s. Mind if I take one?” He’s picking it up even as he asks the question.

“You’re excited about it?” Neil asks suspiciously. (How is such a thing possible for anyone except Marcus?)

“Free food, free drinks. A fun night out with everyone. What’s not to love?” Park carefully folds the paper and puts it in his pocket. “You two will be there, right?”

“If they know what’s good for them,” Morgan yells, as Neil spins around in his seat to find her at the wall some thirty feet behind him. (How did she hear Park?) She’s currently attaching flyers all over said wall with excessive amounts of tape.

“Think you have enough up there yet?” Neil dryly asks.

“This is optimal placement,” she informs them. “Everyone leaving the cafeteria will see them. One random flyer is easy to ignore, but ten of them together –”

“Is an eyesore?” Neil interrupts, as Park snickers and Morgan mimes like she’s going to throw the tape at him, but doesn’t follow through. (At least she has more restraint than him, in that regard.)

“Not an eyesore,” Marcus counters, as he stops next to Neil and Shaun’s table. “It looks terrific, Reznick. We really want to grab people’s attention.”

“You should spread them out a little more,” Park suggests.

“I won’t run out,” she assures (as if that were something Park might have been genuinely worried about) and motions to the stack of papers on a nearby table. “I have hundreds.”

“Alex has the right idea,” Marcus says thoughtfully, then turns to Park. “You busy?”

Neil can tell that Park is definitely not busy and also desperately trying to think up an excuse to try and get out of tacking up flyers all over the hospital with Morgan. Unfortunately, he’s not fast enough (and it’s not like Marcus waits long, anyways).

“I’ll take the resounding silence as a ‘no’. Go help Reznick, I want to see them everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. Every bulletin board, every staff lounge, every common area of the hospital – no one is going to use being ‘unaware’ as an excuse to get out of it. Not this year.”

The increasing complaint in their boss’s tone reveals it’s an excuse people have often used in the past. And it’s not even like everyone has to attend; it’s optional for most employees and the only people technically required to attend are most of the top-level staff – and of course the entire surgical department because Marcus wants to show them all off. The event has become so large that for the past few years, Glassman has arranged for their sister hospital to cover them for the evening (and they return the favor when Good Samaritan holds their Annual Spring Banquet, which is the same type of fundraising event, just under a different name).

“Sir,” Park begins, “Morgan hardly needs my help. It’s apparent that she’s already doing an excellent job and has this under –”

A shriek interrupts him and he breaks off as the four of them turn, almost in tandem, to watch as dozens of flyers go flying (and what an apt word for them, Neil thinks). Someone had shoved open an outside door with undue force and it happened to carry a draft across the room, over the table where Morgan had set the stack of flyers.

“– control,” Park finishes, in monotone.

Morgan manages to grab a few of them, and a passerby hands her some that they grabbed, but she still ends up alone in a field of colorful flyers that settle on the floor around her. A few even land on some empty tables. She’s also aware that she’s the center of attention for everyone on their side of the cafeteria, and her laser focus narrows in on her four colleagues, yelling, “Yeah, just keep watching – that really helps me!”

Neil swiftly turns back to face Shaun again, because if she catches him laughing at her, he won’t hear the end of it for weeks. (He wouldn’t put it past her to use black magic – or sheer ire – to fill his entire car with flyers.)

“Park,” Andrews murmurs, briefly shutting his eyes.

“On it,” Alex sighs, going over to help her.

Within seconds, Marcus turns his attention to Neil (who very much regrets not taking the previous opportunity to escape to anywhere else); their boss doesn’t say anything, either. He just stares.

Neil makes an exaggerated show of looking around the room. “Are Shaun and I the most popular attraction in this cafeteria? Should we start charging for these appointments?”

“Careful,” Marcus warns, “I could still order both of you to assist Morgan and Park with hanging up and passing out flyers.”

Neil’s not the least bit intimidated at that ‘threat’ (of everyone, Marcus knows how much actual work that Neil has to do, and he’d never sidetrack him with anything else, no matter how much he might threaten to do so).

“Why didn’t you get actual posters printed?” Neil asks, holding his hands up to approximate the larger size they would be. “Seems that would have been more effective than paper flyers.”

Marcus’s eyes sharpen on him. “That’s actually a great idea. Why didn’t you mention it to the planning committee?”

“I’m not on the planning committee.”

Marcus hums thoughtfully. “That would explain why you were never at the meetings… But I remember talking to you about them quite frequently, so how did you manage to avoid joining?”

“I literally turned and walked away every time you suggested I officially join.”

“Pretty underhanded,” Marcus notes. “You really thought you’d get away with that?”

Neil oddly feels like they're not speaking the same language. “I did get away with it. Until just now, when I told you how I avoided it.”

“Diabolical,” Marcus mutters, like Neil’s some kind of criminal mastermind (it’s pretty flattering, actually). “However, I like your suggestion enough that I’m going to make you an honorary member of the planning committee.”

“So long as it doesn’t involve attending any meetings, or making any decisions, or doing any work… I’m fine with that.”

Neil catches Shaun’s increasingly amused smile at his stipulations and taps his foot against Shaun’s under the table in acknowledgement (at least someone around here appreciates his sense of humor).

Marcus picks up the flyer Neil had rolled up earlier and smooths it out. “You will be attending this event.”

And just like that, Neil feels his annoyance return as he recalls Morgan telling (ordering) them as much. “Why did you task Reznick with ‘reminding’ us to go?” He includes air quotes around the word. “Shaun and I don’t need a babysitter to keep us in line.”

Marcus laughs heartily at that, and to Neil’s surprise, it seems genuine. “Sure you don’t. Now remind me, who skipped the banquet last month?”

He’s never going to hear the end of it about that damn banquet. Honestly, if he’d known the problems it was going to cause him in the future, he’d have coerced Shaun into going.

“It was optional,” Neil insists, and when Marcus’s expression doesn’t waver, Neil grumbles, “I’m buying everyone dictionaries for Christmas. Mark it down, Murphy.”

“Do they still make those?" Marcus wonders aloud, at the same time as Shaun vaguely waves a fork at Neil and declares, “I am not your personal assistant.”

Shaun makes a good point. “About that,” Neil snaps his fingers in their boss’s general direction, “why don’t I have a personal assistant? Or at least a secretary. I think I merit a secretary.”

“Knew I shouldn’t have come over here,” Marcus is mumbling to himself. “Knew I’d regret it.”

Neil’s smile has a distinct edge. “I always do my best to ensure that’s the case.” (He’s found it helps limit his interactions with Marcus and that’s usually the best thing for their entire department.)

Marcus won’t be deterred as easily as he usually is, and he quickly returns to their previous topic. “I never said last month’s banquet was optional.”

“You also never said it was mandatory,” Neil counters.

“I told Neil we should go,” Shaun chimes in, as Neil turns to him in disbelief. “Rest assured, Dr. Andrews, I will make sure he attends the gala.”

“I have no doubt, Murphy,” Andrews tells him. “You are the responsible one.”

Neil can’t decide which one of them has earned his ire more. “Are you two kidding me?”

Marcus doesn’t seem swayed by Neil’s indignation. “You promised you’d be at the banquet, Neil.”

“I don’t know about promised,” Neil protests, because he hadn’t used that exact word…had he?

“I told people you’d be there,” Marcus is saying. “Now imagine how disappointed I was when you didn’t bother showing up?”

“I’m sure you were very disappointed,” Shaun answers, with unnecessary gravity.

Neil looks at Shaun for a few seconds without blinking. “You are playing a dangerous game, Murphy.”

Andrews lifts his eyebrows at Neil in astonishment (though Neil finds it hard to believe that Marcus is still surprised at anything he does). “Are you trying to intimidate one of your subordinates right in front of your boss?”

“That depends.” Neil looks sideways at Shaun. “Is it working?”

Shaun’s smile informs him it very much isn’t. “He tries to intimidate me all the time, Dr. Andrews, but you don’t have to worry. He is never successful.”

“Never, huh?” Neil thinks he’ll have to work on that. “Let me elevate my threat level: you’re playing an extremely dangerous game.”

“No,” Shaun says carefully. “I do not think I am.”

Neil fails to suppress his smile – Shaun knows very well that despite Neil’s numerous complaints, he never truly cares when Shaun harasses him about (or blames him for) various things. When it comes to real issues, with real consequences, Shaun will defend him to the death, but by this point, neither of them considers Marcus’s displeasure as a ‘real’ consequence. (Mostly because their boss is always complaining about something, and it generally has to do with Neil, more often than not.)

So instead of belaboring the point, Neil turns back to Marcus. “I’m not even convinced you cared that much about me not being there. You were annoyed Shaun wasn’t there and you blamed me for that. Quite unfairly, might I add.”

Marcus tellingly doesn't deny it. “The point is that you’re going to this gala, Melendez.” He flicks a glance at Shaun. “Both of you.”

“I am going,” Shaun affirms, though it was never in doubt. “It is the most important fundraising event we hold during the year.”

“More money…” Marcus begins (since he’s well-aware of Shaun’s feelings on the matter).

“Means less people die,” Shaun finishes (as Neil echoes the end of that phrase in his own mind). “I will be there and I will ensure Neil goes, as well.”

Neil resists rolling his eyes and informs Marcus, “See? He promised for both of us. So you can call off Morgan.”

“I don’t think so,” Marcus says, with a definite air of amusement that he’s trying (and failing) to conceal. “Think of her as…my insurance policy. I saw how thrilled you were when she was talking to you earlier.”

“Why am I not surprised that you were lurking nearby to watch that whole exchange?” Neil asks.

“Your horrified reaction told me I picked the right woman for the job.” He points at the wall that Morgan has plastered with at least another dozen flyers; Park had long since helped her gather the ones from the floor and she’s alone again, so he must have gone off to put them up elsewhere. “Three weeks.”

“I have a request,” Neil says, though his tone indicates it’s more a demand than anything else.

“This should be good,” Marcus mutters, then adds, more loudly, “Out with it.”

“Don’t try to split us up. At the gala.” Seeing Marcus is about to protest, he explains, “You view these events like you’re a chess master: you move us all over the board like your various pieces, and you are always sending us to different groups.”

“That is true,” Shaun says, taking a renewed interest in the conversation. “I like Neil’s request. Let us stay together.”

Marcus’s frown indicates that, unlike Shaun, he is not a fan of Neil’s ‘request’. “There are a very limited number of people at this hospital who are as good at swaying donors as you two. In fact, you might be the top two – after me, of course.” He ignores Neil’s scoffing laughter. “That’s the only reason I do it – if I split up the best talent among our staff, we can all secure more donations in less time.”

“You have a point,” Neil allows, “but trust me, Marcus. I guarantee you that this will be our most successful fundraiser, to date, if you let us work together instead of keeping us apart.”

“We are better together,” Shaun quietly agrees.

Marcus sighs heavily, which informs them that he knows he’s already lost. “I don’t have a choice here, do I? I have to say, I appreciate you at least pretending like you’re asking me when we both know that you’ve already made up your mind.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Neil says, meeting Marcus’s eyes. (Because they both know exactly what he means.)

“Right,” Marcus says, clearly not buying it. Then he tacks on a reminder about a department-wide staff meeting in a half hour, and wanders off in Morgan’s direction.

“Anyone else want to join us?” Neil loudly asks, as he glances around. “No one? Has everyone already stopped by?”

“You guys lonely?” Audrey calls, from three tables over.

He issues her a glare. “No!”

“Neil,” Shaun chides, “be polite.”

“Know what politeness gets me, Murphy?”

“I would not know; I have not seen it.”

“You’re a regular comedian,” Neil says, laughing despite himself. “It gets me a lack of peace.” He sighs, gesturing at Audrey when she slides into one of the free chairs at their table. “Case in point.”

Audrey’s no more intimidated by him than Shaun is, greeting him with, “You seem to be under the impression that this is your own private lunchroom, Melendez.”

“It is the largest common area in our hospital,” Shaun points out. “And most people here enjoy our company.”

“I’m going to have to do something about that one of these days,” Neil gripes.

Audrey’s nodding at Shaun, like the two of them share some secret Neil isn’t privy to. “Only Neil would complain that people like him too much.”

“It means they won’t leave me alone.” How does no one understand the key point of his complaint?

“To be fair, everyone had legitimate reasons for interrupting our lunch,” Shaun argues (because of course he’s going to defend the others, of course he is). “Morgan because she has been tasked with ensuring we attend the gala; Dr. Andrews because he wanted to repeat Morgan’s point; and Alex because you threw a bottle at him.”

Audrey looks aghast for some reason. “You threw a bottle at Park?” Oh, there’s the reason.

“It was plastic,” Neil shrugs her off, then turns back to Shaun. “I’ll grant you most of those, Shaun, but why is Audrey here?”

“You invited her,” Shaun reminds him.

“That was sarcasm. I was being sarcastic. It wasn’t a real invitation, and yet –”

“You threw a bottle at Park?” Audrey repeats, horrified.

Neil shakes his head. “Are you still on that?”

She holds up her hands to tick items off on her fingers: “A, it was fifteen seconds ago. B, Murphy’s right, you invited me over. And C, are you insane? You do remember what Alex used to do for a living.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose, I was aiming for the recycling bin! Convenient that Murphy would leave that part out.”

Shaun’s watching him with clear disapproval. “I was stating facts.”

Some of the facts. Not all of the facts. Facts which exonerate me, by the way.”

“I agree with Dr. Lim. You should not have thrown that bottle.”

Neil slaps both hands down on the table. “Is no one on my side?!”

Shaun seems concerned now. “I am always on your side.”

Neil can hardly believe what he’s hearing. “You just took Audrey’s side.”

“Insisting that you should be allowed to throw things around the cafeteria is ridiculous,” Shaun says, then clarifies, “I am on your side when you are not being ridiculous.”

“Good luck finding those instances, Shaun,” Audrey mutters.

“Since when am I advocating that I should be allowed to throw things all over the place?”

Shaun infuriatingly shrugs. “Your actions speak to your opinion on the matter.”

Audrey picks up the flyer Marcus had unrolled and (even more infuriatingly) waves it in Neil’s face. “Is someone in a bad mood because he’s been reminded this is part of his job?”

He snatches it from her hand, debates crumpling it up to throw at her, and then decides that would only prove Shaun’s point. “As if you’re such a fan of fundraisers.”

“I don’t mind them,” she claims. “What I don’t like is going after a long shift, that’s my main complaint. But I’ve specifically put in for the day off.”

Neil glances at Shaun, who immediately shakes his head. “We have an overnight shift the night before and don’t get off-duty until four hours before the gala. And you cannot request it off because –”

“– Audrey did,” Neil finishes. “Right.”

“You should plan ahead more,” Shaun suggests.

Neil very deliberately turns to Audrey. “Are you looking for a date to the gala? Because I think, quite soon, Murphy’s going to need one.”

“I would love to go with Shaun,” she says, grinning. Then she turns to Shaun, adding in aside, “I’m a much better time than Neil.”

“Impossible,” Neil scoffs.

“Be careful, Dr. Lim,” Shaun warns, “or you will be his next target.” He then has the audacity to add, “He might throw something at you.”

“No,” Neil says slowly, “it wouldn’t be at her.”

He and Shaun stare at each other in silent contest – not that it’s much of one, because Neil long ago mastered keeping a straight face. He credits (or blames?) years of being forced to show no reaction in response to absurd demands and requests from colleagues and patients and the board and Marcus. (Marcus might be the worst of all, in fact.) All of it means that he almost never loses, and sure enough, it’s Shaun who caves first, stoicism giving way as he breaks out into a smile he simply can no longer hide. And at that, Neil starts smiling, too. (They can bicker about anything, but there's rarely, if ever, any actual irritation behind it – they just do it because they enjoy it.)

Audrey’s looking back and forth between them, slowly realizing their entire ‘argument’ has been nothing more than a game. “Forget it – you’re both ridiculous,” she asserts, with a growing smile of her own. “And I’m getting back to work before I go into a diabetic coma through…I don’t know. Osmosis.”

“Stellar display of medical expertise,” Neil calls after her as she leaves, then turns back to Shaun. “I think we really had her going for a minute there.”

He realizes, in the following silence, that Shaun’s staring at him. No…Shaun’s studying him. Neil waits a few moments, but his resident says nothing.

“Are you okay?” Neil asks.

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“I am…” Shaun finally switches his gaze to the table, or more accurately, the forgotten flyer of Neil’s. “Thank you.”

Neil’s completely lost. “For…?”

“What you said to Dr. Andrews.” Shaun glances back up at him. “Telling him you wanted us to stay together. Asking him not to send us in different directions.”

Neil relaxes significantly. “You’re giving me too much credit. I said all that mostly for my benefit. You know I don’t love these things – I expect you to insulate me from the boredom that inevitably sets in among the most mind-numbing of the people that we’ll be forced to entertain.”

(Not that Neil has any objection to donors, in general. Plenty of them are great people who give money because they genuinely want to help those in need. But a certain subset of them is insanely elitist, the type that only talk about themselves, and their wealthy lifestyles, and the worst – particularly unsubtle insinuations that their mere existence in the world is a gift to everyone else. Marcus fits in quite well with that last crowd, come to think of it.)

“You are lying,” Shaun says quietly.

Neil’s taken aback. “What? I assure you that I’m telling the truth. I always have a much better time when we’re together than when –”

“Not about that,” Shaun interrupts. “I know you feel that way. I am referring to your claim that it was mostly for your benefit. That is not why you told him to leave us alone.”

“Shaun –”

“You did it for me.”

Neil can’t bring himself to deny it; there’s no point when they both know the truth. “I know how uncomfortable you can get with that many people around. And when many of them want your attention at the same time…”

“It is difficult to manage,” Shaun sighs in agreement. “And people always try to get me to dance.” He’s frowning now, as he studies the wall behind Neil where Morgan’s still taping flyers. “I hate dancing.”

“I know.” He’s seen Shaun decline people more times than he can count, but sometimes he’ll give in and agree (mostly when it comes to Claire). “But I promise, if I’m right there, I will warn off anyone who tries to harass you – whether about dancing or anything else.”

“You don’t have to promise. I believe you because you have done that before.”

Neil’s done it many times before, in fact. They haven’t been to any events in the two and a half months since they ‘revealed’ their relationship (because the only one had been the banquet that Shaun suggested they skip). However, in the past year, they’ve gone to around a dozen events and they naturally tend to gravitate towards each other (until people begin separately demanding their attention, or Marcus inevitably swoops in, deciding their talents are best spent with two separate groups instead of together).

Neil supposes he could have been more forceful in the past about wanting to stay with Shaun, but he hadn’t for two reasons: first, Shaun had never protested when Marcus split them up, so Neil figured he shouldn’t, either. And second, it hadn’t felt like his place to say anything. Sure, they’re friends, but he’d never wanted to overstep and try to control what Shaun did, or who he spent his time with. Shaun doesn’t need his protection, but from his reaction earlier, it’s clear that he wants it. And it's making Neil think he should have made his feelings on the subject known to Marcus (to Shaun) a while ago.

“Helping you,” Neil slowly tells Shaun, “when we’re at one of those events…which we both happen to dislike? It’s the least I can do.”

Shaun switches seats so he’s no longer across from Neil, but in the seat next to him at the table. “The ‘least you can do’ is more than anyone else has done, when…” His sentence fades, but Neil hears the end of it: When they’re at those kinds of things. Neil isn’t entirely sure why, but people who know Shaun (even those who know him well) often seem to forget his boundaries when they’re outside of the hospital. (He suspects it’s some combination of alcohol, a more carefree atmosphere, and the change in Shaun himself.) But even though Shaun has a certain kind of more open, more welcoming persona that he’s learned to turn on, when needed, that doesn’t mean he’s ever comfortable with crowded environments or the increased social demands on him.

And the people who work with them should know that; it frustrates Neil to no end when their actions speak to the complete opposite.

“People should show you more consideration,” Neil says, expression darkening. He looks away, solely so Shaun doesn’t see how much it bothers him. The rest of the cafeteria is starting to clear out as the afternoon wanes on and people finish their lunches.

A hand sliding over his drags Neil’s attention back to Shaun, or more specifically, to his hand. Their hands, rather, since Shaun has set his on top of Neil’s, where he’s been absently resting his forearm on the table.

“It’s okay,” Shaun says. Neil has no idea what’s okay, so it’s a good thing Shaun clarifies with, “That people don’t understand. Because I understand.”

“…What do you understand?” (Neil’s having a difficult time thinking straight, for some reason.)

“That no one means me any harm. They don’t mean to cause me discomfort. Or anxiety. People like to touch each other, their friends and family. It is…me who is different. Not them.”

Neil feels his frustration growing. “That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to ignore your preferences. No one has the right to –”

“You are thinking of it the wrong way,” Shaun says, pressing his hand more firmly down on Neil’s. “It is one thing if they did it on purpose, to upset me. But they don’t. There is a difference between people forgetting and people wanting to show affection. Or comfort.”

Neil studies their hands, thinks he should pull away, but instead finds himself turning his own hand over so he can hold onto Shaun’s, in return. “Comfort, huh?”

“Yes,” Shaun says. “I do not want you to be upset on my behalf. Certainly not when I do not get upset. I might get uncomfortable with others, but I do not get upset when their intentions are good.”

Neil thinks about that, about how easily it reconciles with what he knows of Shaun’s incredibly forgiving nature; Shaun’s insanely practical, but whenever there’s an option, he chooses to see the best in people, and that positive outlook is something Neil has found himself adopting more often, the more time they spend together. 

And Shaun is telling him that he doesn't want Neil to get upset about this, so…Neil breathes in through his unhappiness, and then he exhales, letting it go.

“See?” Shaun’s smiling at him. “Touching people helps. You are much calmer now.”

Neil doesn’t tell him that just being around Shaun makes him calmer (touching him simply magnifies an effect that’s already present). “Is this going in your research paper?”

It takes Shaun a few seconds to remember what Neil’s referencing – that day a few months earlier when Neil had joked that Shaun should log Neil’s reactions every time Shaun touched him. “I suppose it should. I am generally not a fan of casually touching people, however, I know it has a multitude of benefits. I have read numerous research studies.”

“Careful, Shaun,” Neil warns. “One day you might even start to enjoy it.”

Shaun only seems confused. “I already do. With…the right people.”

Neil pauses, considering that he must be one of those so-called ‘right’ people, and he doesn’t know how to respond to that. So he grips Shaun’s hand and tries to understand his abrupt urge to press a kiss to the back of it.

The overwhelming, uncanny feeling of being watched has him turning to find Morgan next to their table again, and he barely stops himself from reacting.

“Staff meeting in ten minutes,” she crisply reminds them. “I don’t want you two to be late…no matter how much I hate to interrupt this Hallmark moment in the making.”

“You’re extremely lucky you transferred off my team,” Neil tells her, mildly.

“That’s me.” Morgan presses her fingers to her temple in clear jest. “Always thinking a mile ahead.”

“We’ll be at the meeting,” Shaun informs her, letting go of Neil’s hand. And Neil feels a sense of loss that he can’t even begin to explain. Perhaps Shaun senses it, since before Neil can start questioning his illogical reaction, Shaun moves his hand up and wraps it around his elbow. Then his resident tells Morgan, “You changed your design.”

Neil turns to see what Shaun’s talking about – she’d rearranged all the posters to make an enormous ‘15’ on the wall.

“This way,” she tells them, “no one will forget the date. It’s subliminal messaging. What do you think?”

“I think…” Shaun begins, “that you do not know what the word ‘subliminal’ means.”

She rolls her eyes. “I know what it means. I was…exaggerating.”

“Then you don't know what the word ‘exaggerate’ means, either." He adds to Neil, in aside, “Perhaps dictionaries aren’t a bad idea.”

“Who still uses dictionaries?” Morgan asks, mostly rhetorical. “What is this, the Stone Age?”

“Actually,” Shaun begins, “dictionaries only date to –”

“I'm out of here,” she says, talking right over him, then walks away while yelling, “Remember, twenty-three days!”

“Well done,” Neil commends him, but Shaun’s already turned his attention back to the flyers on the wall.

“It will not be that bad,” he says quietly, and Neil isn’t sure which one of them he’s trying to convince more.

“We’ll be together,” Neil assures him.

“That sounds…better,” Shaun nods, turning back to him, radiating contentment. “Since we began this…a lot of things are better.”

Neil leans slightly into him, where Shaun’s still holding onto his arm. “I happen to agree, Murphy.”

It’s on the tip of his tongue to say that any hesitation, any reservations he might have had about their arrangement have finally been put to rest. (But he can’t say that, because he’d never had any to begin with.)

Chapter Text

“We are twenty-four minutes late.”

“I know, Murphy,” Neil says, as their driver stops the car in front of the hotel that’s hosting their annual holiday gala. He’d debated taking his own car, but after an overnight shift and the possibility of having a drink or five at the gala (who knows how many he’ll need to get through this evening) he’s not about to risk driving home later. He pulls up the app to give the driver a perfect score and tip her generously while Shaun rounds the car. “And do you want to know how I know?” Neil asks, as an afterthought. “It’s because you’ve been keeping me updated on exactly how late we are since 7:01.”

It’s like Shaun doesn’t even register Neil’s exasperation. “Twenty-five minutes.”

“It’s a fundraiser,” Neil points out. “Not a meeting.”

“You are late to plenty of those, as well,” Shaun says, absently pulling at the tie he’s wearing that Neil had lent him. He’d tried telling Shaun he didn’t have to wear one (since he clearly disliked them so much), but Shaun had gone off onto some tangent about the ‘image he presented to the world’, followed by an actual history of formal wear. (Neil had decided to give up once he hit the early 1900’s.)

“Look around.” Neil gestures at the steps in front of them, full of people meandering their way into the Ritz-Carlton, and then at the line of cars at the nearby valet stand. “We’re far from the last people to arrive.”

“That does not make us any more on time. It simply makes all these other people late, too.”

“Arriving fashionably late is a thing, haven’t you heard of it?”

“Yes,” Shaun says, a world of disapproval in that single word, as they make their way up the stairs to the main entrance. “I don’t like it.”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Neil claims.

“Twenty-five and a half minutes.”

“Keep it up and I’ll ditch you here,” Neil warns. “Leave you to the likes of Morgan and Andrews all on your own.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Can you at least pretend like my threats still have an effect on you? Or is that too much to ask?”

“It is too much to ask,” Shaun affirms, though he’s smiling by now.

“I needed extra time to get ready,” Neil insists. “You were there, you saw! None of my dress shirts looked right.”

“Everything you tried on was presentable,” Shaun counters.

Presentable,” Neil blandly repeats. “You sure know how to flatter me, Murphy. And you wondered why it was so hard for me to settle on anything.”

“I am not trying to flatter you,” Shaun informs him, frowning. “I am telling you that you were wrong in your self-assessment of your wardrobe. And wrong about why you were overly critical of it.”

Neil’s too confused to keep up the argument. “What do you mean?”

“You were stalling.”

“Because I didn’t want to attend the gala,” Neil agrees. “You somehow figured out exactly what I’ve been saying for weeks.”

“No,” Shaun says, as an attendant opens the doors for them and they step into the lobby. “That is not why; you were stalling because you don’t want Dr. Andrews to think he can control you.”

Neil twists his head to look at Shaun so sharply that he feels a twinge of pain. “What?”

“Or Morgan,” Shaun adds. “You do not want either of them to think their threats are effective. By deliberately arriving late, you have made your point while still fulfilling the obligations of your job.”

Neil doesn’t know what he’s feeling at that moment, but he knows it’s distinctly unsettling – because Shaun putting it neatly into words has alerted Neil to the fact that it’s exactly what he’s been doing. And he hadn’t consciously known it. How could Shaun possibly…

Neil shakes his head to try and clear it, asking irritably, “Since when did you become a psychiatrist?”

“I am not a psychiatrist,” Shaun says slowly. “I just…know you.”

“Better than I know myself?”

Shaun’s obviously surprised. “You were unaware of your own motivations?”

“I…” Neil’s at a genuine loss before admitting, “Yes.”

“I thought you were only pretending not to know.” He seems to shrug it off, reaching over to lift Neil’s wrist and check his watch (which Neil knows is to make a point because Shaun has an uncannily accurate internal clock). “Twenty-eight minutes.”

Neil abruptly laughs, which is at least partly in relief at the sudden subject change. “We’re here, Shaun. We’re literally in the building.”

“We are in the lobby. Not in the ballroom itself.”

They’d been dropped off at the separate event entrance, which meant they were able to avoid any hotel guests, and Neil recognizes most of the people he’s seen so far – fellow colleagues and donors alike. (He’s mostly surprised that neither Andrews nor Reznick has descended upon them yet.)

“We’re still here,” Neil informs him, as they begin heading in the direction everyone else is going, presumably towards the main ballroom of the hotel. “That should count.”

Shaun tilts his head from side to side, apparently in thought, before declaring, “It does not.”

Neil stops in the middle of the lobby which causes Shaun to stop, too; they’re inconveniencing people who now have to detour around them, but Neil doesn’t care. “I feel like you’re going to argue anything I say at this point.”

“I am not,” Shaun protests.

“Ha!” Neil snaps his fingers. “Was that an argument?”

“…No?”

Neil leans in a little. “Careful, I think that’s another one.”

Shaun’s only response is to huff in annoyance and start walking again; Neil catches up to him in three strides, because despite Shaun’s repeated complaints, he doesn’t seem to be in any actual hurry to reach the gala (and Neil can’t blame him, because he’s not, either).

“Walking away in the middle of a disagreement means that I win by default,” Neil can’t help goading.

“All it means is that I am done listening to you,” Shaun counters haughtily.

“Not buying it, Murphy. Besides, think of how boring your life would be without me around to harass – I mean, challenge you.”

“Peaceful,” Shaun says lightly, his tone revealing he’s aware Neil’s ‘slip’ had been intentional. “My life would be peaceful.” (And Neil doesn’t miss it’s the kind of joke he himself always makes, so Shaun’s just turning it around on him.)

“And boring,” Neil reiterates.

Shaun glances away, which Neil is 97% certain is to hide his smile. “It might be…slightly duller,” he concedes. “Without you.”

“I might just happen to feel the same,” Neil admits, in an offering of truce that isn’t actually needed. (They’re both well-aware of how the other feels, by now.)

Shaun doesn’t look at him, but he brushes the back of his hand against Neil’s – and while anyone who happened to witness it would view it as innocuous (or more likely an accident) Neil knows it’s not. Shaun has very clear and defined boundaries; other people might touch him occasionally (and he mostly puts up with it), but he never initiates contact with anyone unless he wants to. That means the gesture had been deliberate, meant to acknowledge what Neil said, and perhaps more importantly, signal his agreement.

Neil’s interpretation of the fleeting gesture occurs without conscious thought – it’s more something he inherently knows. And it’s not until after the fact that he realizes he has no idea how he knows it, but the fact remains that he does. Before he can dwell on it, though, they ‘officially’ arrive at the gala (as Shaun makes sure to point out), stepping into the grand ballroom at 7:30 exactly.

They stop just inside the doors, slightly out of the way of guests continuing to enter. It’s the largest venue Neil’s ever seen for an event thrown by their hospital, and it’s exquisitely decorated in reds and greens, golds and silvers – hints of every holiday light up the entire space. An oversized bar occupies one end of the room and at the other end is an elevated stage area; bracketed in between is a dance floor and dozens of artfully arranged tables. The room’s maybe half full already, and Neil’s seen the guest list (more like Marcus agonized with him over it many a night while Neil nodded along, pretending to listen to his problems), so he knows there are plenty more people on the way.

Memories of past events come rushing back to him: the falsely cheerful and upbeat persona he has to maintain the entire time; endless rounds of small talk on the same topics over and over again; the relentless assault from Andrews and any other members of the board who feel like throwing him at donors they can’t particularly stand just so they can avoid them; and, worst of all, the knowledge that he’s essentially trapped here for hours without reprieve until the clock finally ticks over to an hour where it’s acceptable for him to make a polite exit.

It all seems overwhelming, right then, and he turns to Shaun, expecting him to be having a similar (or worse) reaction. To his surprise, though, Shaun doesn’t look miserable. In fact, he looks the exact opposite of miserable. He seems almost in awe as he takes in the shimmering display of the room – festive, indeed. And Neil takes him in, the way he’s obviously impressed by the venue and the decorations, which are much more opulent than at any event they’ve been to since Shaun began working at Saint Bonaventure. (Their gala last year had been an event in and of itself, but nothing of this magnitude.) Witnessing Shaun’s delight at their surroundings is much more enjoyable than Neil’s automatically cynical thoughts, that’s for sure.

“What is wrong?” Shaun asks, without tearing his eyes away from the glittering garland strung up around the room.

“I… What makes you think something’s wrong?”

“You are tense.”

“I’m not tense,” Neil mutters…rather tensely. Time for another subject change. “Don’t wander off, Murphy. I’d never find you again.” (He’s not sure if he entirely means it as a joke.)

“You do not have to worry,” Shaun says, reaching up to touch one of the hundreds of ornaments that are hanging from the ceiling. “I would find you.”

(And just like that, a significant amount of Neil’s tension dissipates.)

Instead of examining his reaction to Shaun’s promise too closely, Neil makes a show of checking his watch. “I can’t believe we’ve been here for two whole minutes and no one has bothered us yet. Did we wander into the wrong event?”

“You do not recognize anyone here?”

“It was a joke.”

Shaun seems skeptical. “Was it?”

“I know this game. This is where you pretend you don’t find me hilarious when we both know that you do.”

Shaun’s expression betrays nothing. “Do I?”

Neil can’t help laughing, and for the life of him, he has no idea why he was so disillusioned only a few minutes before. (How could he forget, even for a moment, how much better everything is when Shaun is with him?)

“You are so lucky that you’re both here,” Morgan hisses, striking without warning like the viper she is, though she keeps her voice down as if she cares about propriety. (Neil’s amazed that her eyes shooting daggers at them don’t actually draw blood.) “I was thisclose to issuing a city-wide APB.”

“Dial it down, Reznick,” Neil tells her. “And maybe cut back on the crime shows. This isn’t Law & Order: San Jose.”

“She has no authority to issue an APB,” Shaun tells Neil, like Morgan isn’t standing right next to them.

“You both underestimate how many friends I have,” she says scathingly. “But feel free to go ahead and test me.”

That actually gives Neil pause, because he wouldn’t put something like that past her. Park might be the most likely to have contacts, but he at least has scruples and (probably) wouldn’t abuse that kind of power – even if Neil deserved it. Morgan, on the other hand? She’d do it without thinking twice and then gloat about it forever afterwards.

“Why are you thirty-three minutes late?” she’s asking, though she needn’t bother, because her tone reveals she’s already made up her mind that no reason will be good enough to explain away their lateness.

“Murphy took his time getting ready,” Neil says, throwing him under the bus without thinking twice about it.

“Nooo…” Shaun draws that word out to an uncomfortable degree, and Neil remembers too late that Shaun knows the real reason he’d delayed, so blaming him probably isn’t the best call. All Shaun does, though, is complain, “It was Neil who had to try on eight different shirts. Nothing made him happy.” (Neil’s impressed, because Shaun’s somehow turned things around on him with the truth, imagine that.)

“You look the same to me as you always do,” Morgan’s saying, apparently unimpressed.

“You mean stylish, as always?” Neil asks smartly, as Morgan rolls her eyes toward the ceiling. “That’s the point and it’s harder than you’d think.”

“Yeah, I feel so sorry for you,” Morgan says acidically. “You men really have it difficult when it comes to dressing for events like this.”

Shaun completely misses her sarcasm. “Then you understand why we were late. However, I maintain that Neil’s concern was unnecessary. Every shirt looked fine.”

“At least he put in the effort, Murphy,” Morgan snipes. “Not all of us are content with letting someone else do all the work.” She looks him up and down. “He took you to his tailor didn’t he?”

Shaun seems to be debating the wisdom of answering before he admits, “…Yes.”

Her eyes are growing sharper by the moment as she scrutinizes Shaun’s clothes. “And that tie is designer. You could probably afford it, but you’re far too practical to spend that much money on something…frivolous.”

“I’m borrowing it,” Shaun says, though it’s a futile attempt at derailing her current track.

She rounds on Neil with a knowing smile. “How rich are you, Dr. Melendez?”

“Very,” he says, in a tone that would have deterred anyone except her.

“You should be aware that your attractiveness level just increased ten-fold.”

Neil thinks she’s kidding, but he can’t be entirely sure (and he’d rather not dwell on the disconcerting thought).

Before he can switch topics, she’s turning back to Shaun with a sly look. “I’m impressed, Murphy. Turns out you do make some decisions that I approve of, after all.”

When Shaun casts him an unsure glance, Neil explains, “She’s insinuating – no, make that outright saying that you’re with me for my money.”

Shaun clearly considers that ludicrous. “That is the last reason I would be in a relationship with anyone.”

She ignores the protest and runs her fingers down the length of Shaun’s tie. “Make sure you take full advantage.” She lowers her voice, though deliberately not enough. “I can give you some pointers later, if you want.”

“Do not listen to anything she says about relationships,” Neil orders Shaun, then sets his sights on Morgan. “Some people have morals, Reznick. Unlike you.”

“Yeah, yeah, money has nothing to do with it. You two are just sickeningly in love, I get it.” She sounds mildly offended at merely having to utter the words. “Believe me, we all get it.”

Neil shifts uncomfortably at her summation, and that’s when Claire glides (there’s no better word for it) into the room and up to their group, greeting them all.

“Claire is four minutes later than we were,” Shaun tells Morgan. “Are you going to berate her, as well?”

“Do you know how long it took me to get ready?” Claire laments.

“My point, exactly,” Morgan says, in a show of solidarity the likes of which used to be pretty rare (though Neil has noticed they tend to stick together more often than not, lately). “We have more of an excuse than you two did.”

“Men have it so unfair,” Claire agrees, managing to turn a simple phrase into something accusatory. “How long did it take you guys to get ready?”

“Aside from Neil’s eight wardrobe changes?” Shaun asks brightly, neatly sidestepping when Neil attempts to elbow him in the side.

“Let me guess, you showered and got dressed,” Morgan says. “I’m going to say it took you ten minutes, tops.” Before Shaun can protest, she adds, “Melendez’s fastidiousness notwithstanding.”

“That sounds accurate,” Shaun nods. “What did it take you? A half hour?”

Claire shuts her eyes and shakes her head.

“Too high?” he ventures, and Morgan actually looks pained at that question.

“Hours,” Morgan corrects, lightly twirling a few strands of hair. “That’s hours, plural. Showering, shaving, hair, make-up, jewelry, actually getting dressed…” She sighs heavily as Claire pats her on the shoulder in commiseration.

“You both look lovely,” Neil informs them, as they graciously thank him, and his compliment is quite the understatement to both of them. They’re pictures of perfection (and while he’d gladly have said as much to Claire, he’d never speak that word in relation to Morgan because she’d enjoy it too much).

The blonde’s hair is down in loose golden waves that she makes sure to artfully flip quite often. She’s wearing a fairly conservative fitted red dress (the color of blood, Neil absently notes, which she most likely chose on purpose) and it flares at the waist and makes her look as guileless and innocent as she isn’t. She’s a stark contrast to Claire, whose gown is ice blue and markedly lacier and fancier, with a lot more fabric. Morgan’s obviously going for sleek and professional, with a bold color to catch as many eyes as possible. Claire, meanwhile, is somewhere in the realm of Disney princess, with her hair upswept to show off sparkling earrings – her dress somehow matches her personality, perfectly. Neil knows she loves these things, secret romantic that she is.

“I agree.” Shaun’s nodding at Neil’s pronouncement. “You both look beautiful. Your routines were well-worth it.”

“Are you saying I don’t normally look beautiful?” Morgan scolds, but she’s clearly thrilled with the flattering attention from both men by the way she’s slightly preening.

Claire flicks her lightly on the arm. “What she means to say is: Thank you, Shaun.”

“Sure, yeah, thanks,” Morgan mutters, as she makes an excessive show of rubbing her arm and scowling at Claire. “Now, which one of these eligible bachelors should I go after first?”

“Where is your date?” Shaun asks, and the question has Neil vaguely recalling Morgan mentioning something about that a few weeks back.

Morgan doesn’t look at any of them, opting to fold her arms and stare off towards the dance floor. “Trust that you’d remember that.”

“I remember almost everything,” Shaun needlessly reminds them. “You told us fifteen days ago that you were –”

“I got it,” she snaps. “He couldn’t make it.”

Shaun won’t be (or doesn’t realize he should be) deterred. “Our holiday fundraiser has been scheduled for over two months.”

Morgan’s voice is rather brittle when she grits out, “He couldn’t make it because his wife would have frowned upon it.”

Silence falls for exactly five seconds before Shaun breaks it. “You were dating a married man? That is not conducive to a long-term relationship for you and him.” He pauses. “Or him and his wife.”

“You think?”

“Why would –”

“I didn’t know,” Morgan cuts him off, growing increasingly agitated (not that Neil can blame her). “He lied to me. He’s a liar.” She narrows her focus on Neil and Shaun. “You two are men. Why are all men liars?”

Claire’s scoffing laughter immediately draws Morgan’s attention. “Lying is hardly gender-specific. You lie more than everyone else I know – combined.”

“I lie to you people!” Morgan exclaims, waving a hand dismissively. “That barely counts.”

Morgan’s question about lying has settled uneasily somewhere in Neil. He’s never felt like he and Shaun were ‘lying’ to their friends and colleagues about their relationship, but if he’s being painfully honest, he has to admit that just because it doesn’t feel that way doesn’t mean it’s not exactly what they’re doing.

“Sometimes people lie for…good reasons,” Shaun says carefully, glancing at Neil. (And he wonders if Shaun feels anything similar to what he’s feeling right now.)

“I suppose, in his mind, trying to keep me and his wife from finding out about each other was a good reason,” Morgan mutters darkly. “Not that it matters. I decided that tonight would be better if I were my own date. After all, there’s no one I’d rather spend the entire evening with than myself.”

Shaun tilts his head in thought. “So…you could not find anyone else willing to accompany you?”

Morgan’s smile vanishes and she says, condescendingly, “It’s not as easy for everyone as asking their boss, Murphy.”

“I don’t know,” Claire’s smile is widening, “you could have asked Lim. She probably would have taken pity on you and said yes.”

“I chose to come alone,” Morgan loudly insists. “I don’t need someone monopolizing my time at a networking opportunity like this.”

“I didn’t bring a date, either,” Claire says. “But that’s because I’m swearing off men for the foreseeable future. Until the new year, at least.”

“That is only two weeks away,” Shaun points out.

“Right,” Claire nods. “Don’t want to set unreasonable goals. I saw Alex earlier and he didn’t bring a date. I’m pretty sure Lim’s other residents came alone, too; there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Morgan’s entire act slips as she studies their group with disbelief. “Do you mean to tell me that Murphy is the only one of us who managed to bring a date? And that’s because his date was more or less obligated?”

Neil realizes later than he should that it’s not a particularly flattering assessment of him or Shaun, but before he can caustically dress her down for it, Shaun starts speaking.

“I’m sorry that your date was not…a good person,” Shaun says slowly, “and that it makes you angry with everyone else.” When Morgan’s temporarily stunned into silence, he takes the opportunity to add, “You deserve better.”

Morgan hesitantly glances among the three of them, like she’s waiting for one (or all) of them to say the punchline. When nothing comes, she drops her head and murmurs a surprisingly sincere, “Thanks, Shaun.”

Not for the first time, Neil considers that Shaun’s difficulty in reading others’ emotions often means that he can piece together their motivations better than people like Neil. Feelings rarely cloud his methods of logical reasoning, and he’s able to see things that others can easily miss. (Like the fact that someone lashing out doesn’t necessarily mean they’re upset with the people they’re attacking…but hurting because of something else, entirely.)

This time, Neil’s the one who reaches over, brushing his fingers along the back of Shaun’s wrist in quiet appreciation. Shaun says nothing, doesn’t even glance his way, but he moves a half-step closer in response.

Morgan regroups relatively quickly, eyes returning to their usual sharpness with hints of barely-veiled threats. “Now, I’m off to the bar. And you two,” she points at Neil and Shaun, “my watch does not end simply because you deigned to make an appearance. You’re to stay until at least 11. Not my orders, that’s straight from Andrews himself. And I will hunt you down if you disappear. Mark my words.” She links arms with Claire (who’s smiling apologetically) and then almost forcibly drags her away.

“That was a fun lecture,” Neil mutters, then raises his voice. “I’d say I’m going for a drink, but no way in hell am I following her over there. Best wait until the coast is clear. If we’re lucky, maybe we can avoid Marcus, too. I haven’t seen –” He falters at the way he’s clearly lost Shaun’s attention.

His resident motions for him to turn around, which is when he comes face to face with Marcus, who’d been creepily lurking behind him, apparently.

“Look who somehow made it to an actual fundraiser!” Marcus slaps Neil on the back. “I had my doubts, I’ll admit, but I knew with Morgan on the case, odds were good you’d be here.” His expression turns more stern. “Late though you are.”

“You should be glad we showed up at all,” Neil informs him.

“Glad to hear it,” Marcus says cheerfully, which means he hadn’t heard a word Neil said and was merely waiting for a pause to keep talking. “Jessica was looking for you, Neil. She’s over by the bar with Aaron. And Shaun, one of our regular benefactors brought her sister this evening, and the good news is she’s just as wealthy!” He sets a hand on Shaun’s shoulder, turning him in the opposite direction. “They’ve been asking about you since they got here, so if you’ll come with me –”

“No,” Shaun says, dropping his shoulder so Marcus loses his hold, and takes a step back, which is (not coincidentally) in Neil’s direction.

“No?” Andrews sounds completely baffled, unable to comprehend what he’s hearing.

“No,” Shaun repeats firmly.

Marcus spares Neil an accusatory look, as if Shaun’s refusal is somehow his fault (though Neil supposes that’s fair…because technically it is). “What do you mean ‘no’, Murphy?”

Shaun doesn’t answer and the disappointed set of his mouth makes it clear that he’s none too pleased with their boss.

That’s when Neil decides to jump in and answer the question instead (he’s always prided himself on his great sense of timing). “I’m no linguist,” he says thoughtfully, amusement growing when Marcus narrows his eyes, “but I think ‘no’ means the opposite of ‘yes’.”

Andrews’ tone is clipped when he issues a sharp, “Neil.”

Shaun takes a deliberate step to his left, putting himself directly between the two men, and Neil knows (just like touching him earlier) that the move is no accident; it effectively interrupts the way he and Marcus have been staring at each other, so their boss has no choice but to redirect his focus to Shaun.

“You promised you would not try to separate us,” Shaun reminds him. “Yet we have been here for –”

“Fourteen minutes,” Neil interjects (even though Shaun likely already knows).

“– and you are already trying to do just that.”

Neil inwardly sighs at Marcus’s visible confusion, recognizing it’s not an act (Marcus is terrible at that, on the few occasions he attempts it). “You have no memory of this?”

It takes the other man a few more seconds to catch up. “That’s what this is about? I’d completely forgotten – I’ve had maybe ten thousand conversations since then.”

Shaun’s already shaking his head. “That is statistically improb–”

“Did I ask you to evaluate the possibility of my claim?”

“It is still improbable.”

Marcus must reconsider his strategy of trying to argue, instead saying, “I didn’t realize you were that serious about it.”

Shaun carefully glances at Neil before informing Marcus, “I am serious.” (And the way he says it… It’s as if he’s not quite sure that he’s interpreted things accurately. Or maybe he fears Neil has changed his mind, altogether.)

We are serious,” Neil corrects, placing significant emphasis on that first word, more as a confirmation for Shaun than a warning for Marcus. Shaun doesn’t look at him again, but Neil can practically feel the way his resident relaxes upon hearing that.

“In that case,” Marcus tells them, “both of you come with me. Forget Jess, she can wait.” He risks a quick look towards the bar, maybe checking to see if she’s watching them. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

“Scared of her?” Neil taunts.

“Like you’re not?” Marcus throws back at him.

“Of course not.” When Marcus only stares at him, and Shaun doesn’t react (which means he’s equally disbelieving), Neil mutters, “Except for when she’s intentionally being scary.”

“Knew it,” Marcus says, gloating about being right, in his generally insufferable way.

“It’s fine,” Neil insists. “If she gets upset with me later for skipping past her, I’ll do what I always do – blame Shaun.” At Shaun’s look of reproval, he adds, “You’ll protect me from her, right?”

“No,” Shaun says succinctly, without missing a beat.

“I am loving this relationship more and more,” Marcus smirks at Shaun, purposely ignoring Neil glowering at him. “I’ve been waiting years for someone – other than me – to remind Melendez that the world doesn’t revolve around him. Never thought it’d be you, Murphy, but I have to say you’re better at it than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Neil would throw back a witty quip (if he had time to think of one), but Marcus strides off the next moment, apparently feeling confident in the fact that Neil and Shaun will dutifully follow him. And after a shared glance, they do. Because this is their job (and even if it weren’t, Neil knows how much this means to Shaun, and that reason alone would have had him volunteering for nights like this).

Thus begins a seemingly neverending whirlwind of circling the room, with Marcus bringing them from group to group. They know some of the people already from past events (and of those they haven’t met yet, Marcus keeps assuring them beforehand that these people are all very influential and powerful and wealthy and don’t you dare screw this up for me, Melendez). Neil bristles every time he’s singled out, complaining that it’s hardly fair given his track record of securing donations, but he knows it’s just Marcus being Marcus – their boss hardly knows what to do with himself around Neil if he’s not antagonizing him in some way. (And besides that, Neil’s always suspected Marcus likes Shaun a lot more than he likes Neil, and tonight is simply proving it.)

All of their co-workers know about Neil and Shaun’s ‘relationship’ by now, but few of the other guests are aware. One benefit of Marcus dragging them around the room is that their department head has no qualms about introducing them as partners; Neil’s relieved about that, because it’s not something most people are willing to ask (if they suspect it), nor is it something he wants to figure out how to drop into casual conversation. (And it strikes him at one point that he never much cared if people knew about him and Jess, but he wants people to know about him and Shaun for the exact same reasons that he’d wanted everyone at the hospital to know: if it makes Shaun’s night even incrementally easier – causing people to reevaluate before getting too close or doing anything that might potentially make him uncomfortable – then Neil will have accomplished what he wanted to.)

Their circle tends toward the socially progressive, and everyone accepts Marcus’s introductions in stride. A few eyes widen a little in slight surprise, mostly of the oldest generation present, but no one actually cares, which Neil finds truly refreshing. In fact, the reactions mostly go the other way – he loses count of how many people make comments that indicate they’d somehow thought (or ‘known’) that Neil and Shaun were together at past events they’d attended. Neil wants to be surprised about that, but the truth is, he’d gotten used to it long ago – his colleagues and their subsequent (mostly lack of) reactions to their relationship had more than prepared him (and Shaun) for people already thinking they were together.

There’s no dinner at tonight’s event, because Marcus had learned that lesson a few years earlier: when people spend half the evening eating an elaborate dinner, they get tired; when they get tired, they stick to their own tables and rarely mingle; and when they rarely mingle, it’s exponentially harder to get any money out of them – Neil still remembers the first fundraiser Marcus had spearheaded, because he’d seated Neil next to him (just to make sure Neil suffered, probably) and then proceeded to complain for almost the entire night about how people weren’t interacting like he wanted them to and that he was never going to serve them a 4-course meal again. And he hasn’t since.

(Those were also the long, dark days before Shaun worked with them, and looking back, Neil has no idea how he got through even one event without him, never mind the hundred plus that he knows he did.)

What they do have tonight is an open bar and over a dozen waitstaff constantly circulating throughout the room with trays of appetizers; anyone who’d skipped dinner before coming would truly struggle to go hungry tonight. In fact, people are already starting to settle into smaller groups at some of the tables to converse or take breaks while enjoying the food and drinks.

The tables also serve as a convenient area to relax during the speeches. Yes, speeches. Neil has long-campaigned for Marcus to ditch them, but it’s a futile endeavor, because Marcus will never skip an opportunity to congratulate himself on a job well done in planning their night (which is what his ‘introductions’ of the other speakers always turns into).

To Neil, speeches are the event equivalent of tedious mandatory meetings and he despises them to no end. At least Marcus took pity on him this time and didn’t demand he give one – though to be fair, when the other man hinted around at it a few weeks prior, Neil threatened to skip the gala entirely, numerous threats from Andrews and Morgan be damned. What Marcus doesn’t know is that Neil would never do that for one reason: Shaun relies on him at these things, he always has, even before they agreed to fake a relationship, so Neil would never abandon him to his own devices. Marcus probably suspects that’s the case, but he’s not yet aware of how deep Neil’s compulsion to protect Shaun goes, so until he figures it out, Neil’s going to keep using his refusal to participate as a threat. (And once Marcus does figure it out? Well, Neil will find a new threat after that.)

After Marcus kicks off the speeches by welcoming everyone (along with somehow expertly asking for a round of applause for himself – and getting it), Glassman gives the first speech. He profusely thanks the attendees and talks about the history of their hospital, sounding proud enough that anyone in the room might be forgiven for thinking he founded it himself. After their president, a veritable parade of speakers, each more boring than the last, takes the stage. One reads directly from note cards for seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes. (He might as well have dosed all their drinks with Ambien, for the effect it has on the crowd.)

A half hour into the ‘how-long-can-we-bore-our-attendees’ portion of the evening, Neil finds that he’s mostly watching Shaun and not anyone up on the slightly elevated stage.

Shaun is riveted as he follows along, and suddenly Neil doesn’t care about what anyone is saying; he cares about what Shaun is thinking. How can he be so interested in such monotonous speeches? It’s something he’s always wondered, but tonight he decides to try and figure it out – he moves his chair closer to Shaun and starts whispering comments about how sleep-inducing the speakers are. As he’d expected, Shaun takes it as invitation to respond, thereby revealing why he’s so fascinated with the endless speeches they’re being forced to listen to: he remarks on things he did or didn’t know, topics he finds interesting, and even makes corrections – a date wrong here, a name mispronounced there. After that, Neil enjoys the speeches a whole lot more. (Shaun’s commentary is much more entertaining than any of the people up on stage, by far.)

Inevitably, the speeches end and mingling continues. As the evening wears on, Neil finds himself relaxing more as he (and more importantly, Shaun) settles in. He knows that no one looking at him would notice any difference from his usual charismatic self, but the fact is he feels much different. With Shaun keeping him near-constant company, the evening gradually shifts from something he has to get through to something tolerable to something…pleasant.

And then it moves even beyond that and starts to feel – dare he think it? – fun. As an example, when a long-time benefactor brings up a recent paper that details new advances in robotics to assist (or even complete) surgeries, no one in their current group has the in-depth knowledge to analyze the pros and cons with Neil…except Shaun, of course. And his resident jumps in without hesitation (turns out he has the paper virtually memorized) and the two of them have a spirited debate-that’s-not-really-a-debate because they both fundamentally believe the same things. (They have this unusual way of arguing wherein they both support the same point, despite approaching it from different angles.) They know that, but it takes a while for everyone else to catch on, and once they do, the group devolves into laughter and Shaun’s smiling at him and –

Well. Yes. He’s actually having fun. Who would have ever thought?

Shaun is as quick with new people as he is with Neil himself. He’s gotten better at social gatherings over time, but Neil has never seen him at ease the way he is tonight. Neil has no idea if it’s his presence that’s helping Shaun remain comfortable or if Neil’s simply seeing him in a newfound (and more appreciative) light than ever before. Their communication is effortless – before long, Neil realizes that they’re finishing each other’s sentences without missing a beat, like the entire night is some kind of script they’ve both memorized and practiced before stepping foot into the building.

It’s not, though. That’s what’s so amazing. And it’s what clues him in to the fact that he and Shaun have probably seemed like this for a long time now. (No wonder everyone thought they were together long before they actually…began to pretend that they were.)

Neil’s always been acutely aware that he’s popular (and it’s always helped his ego, tremendously), but Shaun… Shaun is loved. It’s a regular occurrence for people to fight for his attention in a group conversation; they fawn over his achievements, bringing up the airport incident and several high-profile cases that he’s gotten attention for since then; and his opinion is sought after by others in their field – people love to bring him their hardest cases, both past and present, to see if Shaun can figure out the issue it had taken them significant time to uncover, or ask if he can help them with current patients that are still baffling them (and 95% of the time, he does).

In the past, when Neil was a less secure version of himself, he might have been jealous that next to Shaun, he’s no longer the center of attention. But that’s not even close to what he feels watching Shaun nowadays. No one has any idea – with the exception of colleagues who have known Shaun since he first came to their hospital – how remarkable this is for Shaun, in the grand scheme of things. People see Shaun’s intelligence, his sharpness, his ability to put things together in a unique way that’s usually far more effective than the standards everyone else uses. What they don’t see is what he’s overcome to get to a place where he’s able to interact with others in a way that doesn’t cause him too much stress or anxiety. They don’t see the depth of deliberate effort Shaun has put into becoming more comfortable with people, into learning how to talk to them in the way that many take for granted as a natural skill.

Neil knows that most people assume socializing is easy and it’s Shaun’s vast array of knowledge that had been hard-fought for and won; they have no idea that Shaun’s world has mostly been the opposite. His intellect is a gift, and while learning had still been work for him, it was nowhere near as difficult as it was for the average person. It’s the social aspect of his life and his job that Shaun has grappled with. He’s come to Neil and Aaron and his friends for advice countless times; he’s carefully watched his co-workers interact with patients and their families; he’s methodically devised appropriate patterns and templates for the best ways to react to situations both common and extraordinary. It has taken time and work and struggle to become this current version of himself, and while Shaun will never be fully at ease with it, nor will it ever come naturally to him…he’s reached a point where almost no one can tell either of those things. So watching him tonight, how sure he is of himself, how secure he is in his knowledge and his position, despite his personal dislike of these social situations – Neil has never been more proud of him.

Which he tells him, in an aside that no one can overhear, but Shaun’s pleased (and slightly embarrassed reaction) means their entire current group assumes Neil has said something of a more personal nature.

That, predictably, sets off another round of people telling them how ‘sweet’ they are together. Their relationship, to Neil’s surprise, has been a favorite topic of discussion among a lot of people. Neil had expected to feel uncomfortable about that, but in the end, he finds that…he doesn’t mind. He’d been half-joking that day in the breakroom, when he’d told Shaun that if people thought they were together, it would make Neil look better, but it’s true.

As it becomes clearer that Neil and Shaun are doing what they were very explicitly ordered to do, Marcus occasionally gives them more space, no longer hovering in his overly suffocating manner. Morgan still circles them frequently, but her stares turn from vague warnings to something Neil is afraid to label borderline friendly (and he can only blame it on the fact that she’s had champagne in her hand for the entire evening). She joins their conversations from time to time, but not often, because she’s trying to ingratiate herself with every influential person in the room and thus has no time to stay for the lengthier discussions, such as the one where Shaun regales a group with the history of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which segues into how integral research and development (and thus money) is to the advancement of modern medicine. (Neil swears Marcus just stops himself from kissing Shaun for that, due to the quick agreement it draws from one in their current group, an actual billionaire; their boss settles for drawing Shaun in with a quick arm around his shoulders and praising him effusively – Shaun ducks his head but his brilliant smile informs everyone that he’s close to thrilled.)

He catches sight of his colleagues on and off throughout the evening. Glassman and Jess and Audrey all putting forth as much effort as he and Shaun are, but usually in different groups, because Marcus won’t let their combined talent become too focused in one area and is adept at guiding people this way and that wherever he sees fit. (They complain about it as much as Neil does, but the arguments he overhears are far more good-natured than Neil’s ever are.)

Neil’s hardly aware that over two hours have passed until Claire wanders over, face flushed with excitement and maybe close to as much champagne as Morgan’s consumed. He and Shaun have broken away from the main part of the crowd to get some drinks and appetizers.

“Shaun!” she exclaims, sounding like she’s beyond thrilled to have found him after searching her whole life. “Want to dance?”

“No. I do not feel like it.” He’s studying Neil while he answers – or more accurately, studying his tie. The next moment, he sets down his drink and plate of appetizers on a nearby table, then reaches over to fix said tie, apparently deeming it too crooked for his satisfaction.

“You never feel like it,” Claire laments, perilously close to whining.

Shaun shakes his head a little. “I don’t –”

“– like dancing,” Neil and Claire finish the sentence with him, at the same time.

She gives up on him quickly, turning hopefully to Neil. “Dr. Melendez?”

“Maybe later,” he says, smiling at her. “I think if I go out there with you right now, and not any of these ultra-wealthy donors I’ve been turning down for dances all evening, then Marcus might actually take my office away and give it to Shaun.” (Which he’s been threatening to do all night, though in fairness the threats have slowly downgraded, now more of an ongoing joke, complete with Shaun describing every single way he’s going to redecorate in a manner he knows Neil despises the most.)

The real reason Neil refuses (which Claire probably suspects) is that he doesn’t feel like leaving Shaun alone for that long. It won’t be just one dance – it never would be with his colleagues. It’d start with Claire, but then every person he’s put off will ambush him (Jess and Audrey and a few others – and then Morgan would likely ask just for the hilarity of knowing he’d rather be doing anything else) and he’d be lucky to escape within a half hour. (And Claire must conclude that they’re a lost cause, since she takes off the next minute to go find a more willing partner.)

It’s not like he and Shaun have remained glued to each other’s sides, but for the first time at an event like this, they’ve managed to spend most of the evening together. Having Shaun next to him is infinitely more enjoyable than whenever he’s not. Besides, Neil had promised that he’d ensure people left Shaun alone and he’s taken that seriously, no matter who the request came from, or what it entailed. Over a dozen people have inadvertently tried to split them up (their friends are unknowingly experts at it), with various requests to dance, or introduce them to other people, or any other number of random reasons that they claim they need Neil or Shaun’s separate attention. But Neil very adamantly won’t let Shaun go, nor does he go off with anyone, either. It’s the least he owes Shaun after how enjoyable this gala is (which Neil increasingly thinks is a direct result of Shaun always being within touching distance).

That’s another thing he’s found himself doing tonight – touching Shaun a lot more. It’s a natural extension of the way they’ve become increasingly open with each other, but tonight it’s even more than that. A brush of his hand here, a tap on his arm there. It’s reassuring, mostly, to reach out and know Shaun’s right next to him, know that he’s okay. Despite Shaun’s dislike of too many people and demands, too much noise and stress, he’s right here and he’s okay; Neil doesn’t have to quietly wonder about it – worry about it – like he has so many times before at these events, tuning out conversations with strangers while despising the fact that Shaun is nowhere in sight, that he’s too far away for Neil to even see, never mind check on. Or reassure. Or help.

So maybe…maybe their arrangement tonight is doing as much for Neil as it is for Shaun. Because it’s not until that constant, restless unease is gone that Neil realizes how much it’s always affected him. He’s simply gotten used to it over time, accepted it as an inevitable part of these things, but…it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.

As if Shaun’s reading his thoughts, he reaches for Neil’s tie again (it must be the sixth time tonight), and it’s no secret to Neil why he’s doing it: there’s always a low-level anxiety in Shaun around this many people (no matter how much of a successful front he puts up) and he’s been using Neil as his preferred coping strategy all evening. This is the second time ‘fixing’ his tie in as many minutes, though, so Neil feels a flare of concern. He sets his own plate down so he can put his hands over Shaun’s where he’s still fussing with his tie (that couldn’t get any straighter unless Shaun had a ruler on his person, somewhere).

“Are you alright?” Neil asks quietly.

Shaun doesn’t pull his hands away as he considers that question with unusual gravity. “Yes,” he finally says. “Things are better.”

As easily as that, Neil’s worry tamps down to a much more manageable degree (because it’ll never fully go away when it comes to Shaun, he knows that by now). Shaun’s words are an echo of the conversation they’d had in the cafeteria the first day Morgan had ‘reminded’ them about their mandatory appearance at the gala. There’s a difference, though, between hoping tonight would be easier because they had each other, and actually experiencing how remarkable it’s been.

To know that Shaun feels the same is…everything.

“Things are better,” Neil repeats, gripping Shaun’s hands lightly in reassurance before he releases them. “If I’d known how much better it’d be, I’d have…” He trails off at the direction of his own thoughts and shakes his head in amusement, mostly at himself. “I’d have pretended to date you a long time ago.”

Shaun doesn’t say anything to that, but the way he smiles and pulls lightly at Neil’s tie one last time is more than enough indication that, when it comes to that sentiment, he overwhelmingly approves.

Chapter Text

“Four minutes.”

“Eight minutes,” Shaun counters.

“You are living in a dream world if you think Andrews is going to leave us alone for that long,” Neil scoffs, as he turns his chair to better oversee the ballroom. “In fact, I want to revise my guess; it was much too high. Two minutes.”

They’ve settled near the back wall to enjoy their appetizers and take a break from everyone; their table is set slightly apart from the rest and Neil can only guess that some people had deliberately moved it further back in order to have a private conversation. The room’s starting to get a little warm, so they’d draped their suit jackets over the backs of their chairs, and enough of the tables near them are occupied to the point that they have some cover.

They’re effectively hiding in plain sight. (Neil’s mastered that over the years.)

Still, he’s learned never to underestimate Marcus, which is why he’s fairly convinced their boss is going to seek them out sooner rather than later. That had led to the offhand bet he’d made with Shaun, speaking of which…

“Since I changed my guess, want to change yours? Seems only fair.”

“Mine was not a guess,” Shaun tells him, and if Neil’s not mistaken, he sounds somewhat insulted at such an insinuation. “It was a calculated estimate –”

“What’s another word for ‘estimate’?”

“You are throwing out numbers at random. Whereas I made…an estimated calculation –”

“Did you just switch the words around?” Neil rests an elbow on the table so he can prop his head on his hand. “In a futile attempt to talk around the fact that you’re guessing?”

Shaun raises his voice. “My assessment is based on the group Dr. Andrews is currently speaking with.” He tips his head. “Over by the stage. Dr. Glassman is there, along with three other board members, and –”

“– the billionaire,” Neil finishes, having caught sight of the wealthy man Shaun had impressed earlier that night (he held a number of engineering patents, or something, and Morgan had been hovering around him all evening). “AKA Marcus’s favorite guest tonight; you’re right, Shaun, if there’s ever a group he’s reluctant to leave –”

“– it would be that one,” Shaun confirms. “What do I get when I win? You didn’t set any terms for our bet.”

When you win, hmm?” Neil studies his plate, unable to decide what he should try first (he’s not even sure if he’ll be able to identify half of the things he’d grabbed before he tastes them). “Someone’s overly confident.”

“I am the perfect amount of confident.” He must notice Neil’s uncertainty since he starts pointing to foods and listing them off. “Vegetable spring rolls, mini-quiche with mushrooms, cheese and pear tartlets, bacon-wrapped quail –”

Quail?” Neil can’t decide if he should try that or skip it. “How do you know what everything is? I swear every food is wrapped in…six other kinds of food.” He holds up one of the (apparently quail-bacon) appetizers to illustrate his point.

“I listened when the servers explained what they were holding. You did not.”

Oh right, he’d been talking to Jessica. Or more like trying to fend off Jessica, as she asked about his and Shaun’s ‘relationship’ (“Things must be going great if you two won’t leave each other’s side!” ) and when he’d finally gotten her off that uncomfortable topic, she’d started talking about her upcoming wedding. (It was a toss-up on which of those subjects he wanted to discuss less.) He’d only gotten away from her because Marcus had (almost literally) hauled her away, saying he needed her for…something Neil had instantly tuned out.

Marcus’s inability to leave any of them alone worked out in Neil’s favor for once – who’d have guessed? (And he might have said that out loud, which earned him a glare and a threat from their department head that he’d remember that when he circled back around and sought out Neil specifically next time.)

That’s another reason Neil’s convinced his reprieve with Shaun will be short-lived – but that was also before Shaun pointed out that Marcus is preoccupied with one of the few people in this room he’ll have a difficult time stepping away from. (Which isn’t to say that he won’t do it, just that it’ll take him a few minutes longer, which consequently means Murphy is probably going to win the bet…not that Neil will admit as much.)

“What do you want if you win?” He makes sure to stress that winning is not an inevitability (because hey, he can hope that he’ll best Shaun one of these days).

Shaun twists in his chair to face him more directly, appearing to give the matter serious thought. Neil takes advantage of the pause in conversation to try a few things on his plate and isn’t surprised to find that they’re all fantastic – even the foods he still can’t identify. (Give it to Marcus, if there’s one thing he excels at, it’s making sure every aspect of their evening is up to his impeccably high standards.)

“I have everything I want,” Shaun finally tells him, and the sincerity of his answer has Neil curbing his automatic reaction of making a joke in response.

“Everything?” He’s more than a little skeptical. “You can’t think of a single thing you’d want?”

“I want to never wear a tie again.” Shaun pulls at his shirt collar with a grimace. “But I enjoy my life. I don’t need anything else.”

“I didn’t mean in an existential sense,” Neil explains. “More like something I could…I don’t know, buy for you?”

“I do not need you to buy anything for me.”

“I know you don’t need me to, but it’s a bet, Shaun. The winner’s supposed to get something.” He’s trying to think of anything Shaun has mentioned wanting, but nothing recent comes to mind. “How about if you win, we’ll do whatever you want on our day off tomorrow.”

“We were probably going to do that anyways,” Shaun says. “You usually want to do whatever I suggest. And when you don’t, your alternative is always something I find agreeable.”

He’s right…and Neil hadn’t even realized it until Shaun pointed it out.

“Well…whose fault is that?”

“Yours,” Shaun says, succinctly.

Instead of arguing, which he really can’t, Neil thinks about the truth of it. It hadn’t been a conscious decision, but Neil’s pretty easy-going, and that coupled with the fact that they have many of the same interests means that it’s rare he disagrees with anything Shaun suggests – whether it’s going to one of their favorite restaurants, or attending a lecture by someone in their field, or something as mundane as running errands together. And somewhere along the way, Neil’s found that his happiness has become inextricably linked with Shaun’s – if Shaun’s happy, he’s happy.

And tonight…Shaun’s happy.

No, this will never be his (or Neil’s) favorite thing to do, but they’ve only been at the gala for a few hours and the evening’s already an overwhelming success, if Neil’s mental tally of donations is anywhere near accurate. And things have been easier for Shaun (for both of them, really), because they’re together. All of that combined means Shaun is content in a way that Neil has never seen him at an event like this before.

“Alright,” Neil picks up the threads of their conversation, “how about if I win, we’ll do whatever I want tomorrow. And you can’t say no.”

Shaun eyes him suspiciously. “Is what you want going to be whatever I want?”

Neil sips his drink to hide his smile. “Maybe.”

Shaun must approve of that answer, since he smiles widely in return. “I think you are the one who does not understand bets. Not that it matters, since I’m going to win.”

“Look, Murphy, I hope you win, because the longer it takes for Andrews to find us, the more time we have to relax. I think we’ve earned a few minutes of peace.”

“I have earned it,” he says primly, tone indicating he’s thoroughly enjoying where this is going. “You, however…”

“I’m certainly not going to argue that people enjoy your company much more than mine.”

“You have fans,” Shaun allows, ignoring his food in favor of pulling at the knot of his tie.

“Would you stop doing that?” Neil scolds, though there’s no real censure in it (truthfully, Shaun’s making him feel suffocated). “You’re going to stretch out the fabric, and don’t think that I won’t bill you to replace it. $250, Murphy.”

Shaun instantly drops his hands, somewhere between disbelieving and horrified. “You are not serious.”

“That I’d bill you? No. That it cost that much? Yes.” Seeing Shaun is less than thrilled with that, he adds reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’s actually one of the cheaper ones I own.”

Oddly enough, Shaun doesn’t seem reassured. He returns his hand to his neck, brushing over the edge of the tie before complaining, “It’s too tight.”

“It’s not too tight.”

Shaun exhales dramatically. “It is.”

“It’s not. And I know because I’m the one who tied it. The last thing I’d do is strangle you.” He waits a beat before adding, “I need you alive to continue taking care of all the patients I don’t want to deal with.”

Shaun tries to look disapproving, but he’s ultimately unsuccessful. “You should be nicer to your residents, Dr. Melendez.” He emphasizes the title. “They have the power to make your life miserable.”

“Often without even trying,” Neil agrees.

Shaun frowns at the way Neil has successfully turned his warning into a mild insult. “It goes both ways.”

Neil sends him an assessing glance. “I make your life miserable, huh?”

“You do not,” Shaun answers quickly, the way he always does when he’s afraid Neil has misinterpreted something meant in jest. “You know you do not.” He rubs a hand over the back of his neck, just above the collar of his shirt. “It was a joke.”

Neil doesn’t quit, because he never can with Shaun; not when he’s having this much fun. “Are you sure?”

“I suppose you want me to go back out there without you.” There’s zero sincerity behind Shaun’s threat and they both know it. (Despite that, Neil hates the mere idea of it, anyways.)

“You can’t. I won’t let you.” He means it, too. He’s reached the point that the thought of being without Shaun for the rest of the night? Neil can’t go back to that. He won’t. (Maybe not ever – Shaun might have unknowingly earned himself a permanent date for everything they have to attend for the rest of their lives.)

“Fine,” Shaun allows graciously, like he’s doing him the grandest favor, “I will stay with you.”

“You better. And you’d be wise to enjoy this break while you can,” Neil adds. “It astonishes me that Andrews hasn’t stormed over to lecture us yet.”

Marcus must have supersonic hearing, there is no other way to explain it, because the very next moment he’s standing next to their table, staring down at them with excessive amounts of judgement and disapproval. “Murphy and Melendez.” Despite naming both of them, his eyes settle on Shaun. “Why are you sitting in this corner, substantially far away from every single one of our donors?”

Shaun pays him no mind, turning to Neil triumphantly. “Eight minutes.”

Neil checks his watch. “Sorry, Murphy, it’s only been sev–” The minute changes before he can finish the word. “Never mind.” He glances at Shaun. “I hope you know how unnerving it is that you can be that accurate.”

“Because I was not guessing.”

Before they can rehash the same argument all over again, Marcus loudly clears his throat, making no effort to disguise how unhappy he is at effectively being ignored. “Do I want to know what you’re talking about?”

“We made a bet about how long it would take you to find us,” Shaun tells him. “I won.”

“Of course you did,” Marcus says wryly, before his expression returns to stern displeasure. “And do you have an answer for why you’re both hiding out back here, Murphy?”

“Has our goodwill from earlier already evaporated?” Neil’s question draws Marcus’s attention towards him, which is what he’d intended, because the other man knows better than to turn his censure on Shaun if Neil’s anywhere in the remote vicinity.

Marcus studies him, then wilts the slightest bit, and Neil guesses it’s a combination of being reminded how well he and Shaun have done so far, along with the clear warning on Neil’s face that one ill-advised word to Shaun means that their decision to take a break will be the least of their boss’s concerns.

“We did not even leave the room,” Shaun points out, swirling his water in the Baccarat crystal glass the bartender had insisted was all he had. (God, these galas are pretentious no wonder Marcus is always so much in his element at them.)

“You are allowed to eat and drink,” Marcus says, and only he could manage to sound magnanimous with such a statement. “I suppose.”

“So glad we have your permission,” Neil replies, and blames hours of being ‘on’ (for lack of a better word) as to why he’s not fast enough to pull his plate away when Marcus grabs a mini-quiche.

“Do we need to have a refresher on boundaries?” Neil gripes, glaring up at him as Marcus eats his appetizer (and doesn’t have the grace to look even slightly ashamed). “I distinctly remember at the symposium we attended this summer, you –” Neil stops mid-complaint when Shaun tips his own plate over Neil’s and gives him the quiche he apparently doesn’t want. “Someone around here is thoughtful.” He directs those words at Marcus, then taps Shaun’s forearm in a wordless gesture of thanks.

Marcus looks between them, but refrains from any comment before turning to scan the room again. He’s clearly torn between lecturing his subordinates (one of his favorite pastimes) and his desire to get back to his precious donors.

“I think we’re pulling off quite the successful evening thus far,” their boss tells them, maybe seeking a more neutral topic as he motions around the room. “Would you believe that we came in under budget?”

“The committee certainly outdid itself,” Neil says, not wanting to give Marcus too much credit (his ego hardly needs it).

Of course, Marcus still takes that as a compliment meant only for him. “It’s undeniable that I run it extraordinarily well.”

Shaun glances at Neil, pressing his lips together in an effort to hide his smile, because he recognizes what Marcus is doing just as well as Neil does. (And knowing that Shaun’s fighting the same reaction makes it easier for Neil to take.)

Marcus starts going on about all he had to do to make the night a success, and while Neil doesn’t doubt that it was a lot of work, the other man’s insinuations about doing it out of selflessness are a little too much. Marcus knows the more money they raise, the better he looks, and Neil can’t blame him for wanting credit, but the constant self-adulation is tiring. Neil’s also heard all this before (many, many times before – i.e., at every event the two of them have ever attended that Marcus oversaw), so Neil blocks him out as he turns back to Shaun, sighing inwardly when he sees that Shaun is pulling at the tie again.

“– told me that they haven’t come across a more elegant fundraiser in their ten years of supporting our hospital. I told them it was a team effort – but wrangling that team took all my skill and patience at times!” Marcus laughs like he’s told a particularly hilarious joke, and looks pointedly at Neil, probably wanting some type of agreeable response.

“…No one can scare people into action the way you can?” Neil phrases it as a question, but Marcus’s eyes still light up. (Figures that Marcus would interpret that as the highest of compliments.)

He grins widely at Neil and claps him on the shoulder. “You flatter me, Melendez.”

The look on Shaun’s face says something along the lines of: ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing from you’ , and Neil shrugs helplessly, still distracted by the way Shaun’s intermittently fussing with his collar and tie. (Besides, in his defense, he’d thought if he humored Andrews, he’d move along that much faster, but it’s backfiring and oh come on, now Marcus is taking a seat at their table?!)

Marcus begins rambling about how many donations they’ve secured so far, and aside from an O.R., Neil’s never seen his colleague more at home than at these fundraisers, surrounded by the kinds of wealthy and influential people Marcus someday hopes to be – Neil’s pretty sure his dream is to one day have people like Neil and Shaun attempting to charm him out of substantial amounts of money that he can afford to dole out the way regular people unthinkingly spend a few dollars on coffee.

“Did you try the quail?” Marcus queries, and Neil honestly isn’t sure if it’s a new subject change, or if it switched a few minutes ago and he’d failed to notice. “It’s not my favorite preparation, but I still found it exquisite.”

Pre-ten-tious.” Neil makes sure to draw out every syllable.

Marcus makes an unflattering display of loudly shushing him that doubtless draws more attention than the calmly spoken word which had spurred it. “Keep your voice down, Melendez! Pretension is an essential tenet of these people’s lives so do not let anyone hear you say such a thing as an insult – it’s practically sacrilegious in this room. Just play along. You’re good at that.”

Neil’s mood instantly darkens, because Marcus lecturing him on how to treat the elitists he’s stuck with all night is irritating as hell (and the condescension in the other man’s voice makes it all the worse). “I’m shocked that you’re such an expert on pretension, Marcus.”

Andrews isn’t about to let that one go. “Care to expand upon that thought?”

Neil’s never heard a better suggestion, and he’s about to do exactly that, but then Shaun says, “Neil,” and everything momentarily stops; it’s like the gathering cloud over their table evaporates into thin air.

Shaun doesn’t have to say anything else – Neil knows what the quiet reminder was for (and so does Marcus, for that matter). He lets his shoulders relax, because sometimes (most of the time) Shaun is all he needs for his tension to vanish.

He sends a measured (if slightly challenging) look towards Marcus and isn’t surprised when the other man tilts his head in silent agreement to move on. After all, their goal tonight isn’t to argue, and if they keep going, they’re going to upset Shaun who despises fights more than almost anything else. He’s likely to make himself scarce – maybe even leave the fundraiser altogether.

And Neil isn’t going to make it through the rest of the night without him.

But Marcus isn’t leaving them alone, either. He’s just sitting there, seeming confused about how quickly the atmosphere changed, and trying to figure out how to proceed. (Neil can only imagine, perhaps uncharitably, that Marcus is trying to figure out how to reassert his authority without upsetting their current truce.)

“We’d appreciate a few more minutes,” Neil says perfunctorily, and despite the politeness of the words, his tone says nothing except ‘Go away’.

Marcus checks the time on his phone. “I can’t believe I’ve wasted nine minutes over here with you two,” he complains. “I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

Neil squints at him. “Can you? Because tonight’s proving otherwise.”

Marcus pretends not to hear him, switching his gaze between Neil and Shaun. “You two work,” he says, suddenly. “I don’t know why, or how. But you do.”

Neil’s mind must be running slower than usual, since it takes him a few long seconds to realize Marcus is referring to their supposed relationship and not their actual jobs.

“Thanks…?” Neil tries, as he and Shaun exchange a glance that reveals neither of them has any idea why Marcus would bring that up – or where he’s going with it, for that matter.

“You’re different, Neil.” Marcus sounds like he’s trying to solve a puzzle that’s been vexing him for a while. “Murphy makes you…lighter. Less severe than you used to be.” He nods, apparently satisfied with that description. “You’re more tolerable, overall. I don’t want to fire you half as much as I used to.”

“What a compliment,” Neil says dryly, sending a grin Shaun’s way.

“And you,” he rounds on Shaun, “Melendez makes you…” He trails off, casting a cautious side glance at Neil (in one of his first displays of good judgement when it comes to them this evening).

“Am I more tolerable, as well?” Shaun asks, and though his tone is light, there’s a hint of true question there that Neil can’t stand hearing.

Marcus shakes his head, with a brief look Neil’s way, maybe sensing that it’s all Neil can do to bite back his objection to the implication Shaun’s making. “No, Murphy. He’s helped you become more…relaxed. You’re more at ease with the world – with this kind of world.” He waves a hand behind him, indicating the room at large. “This part of our lives.”

“That has nothing to do with me,” Neil immediately protests. (There’s no way he’s taking credit for something Shaun has worked so hard at accomplishing for himself.)

“It has something to do with you,” Shaun says steadily, waiting for Neil to look at him. “I told you that you make things easier for me. That includes…this.” He’s glancing around the room now. “Everything about this.”

Neil swallows heavily, because this is another one of those things that he’d already known, but it’s so much different to hear it. “I understand what you’re saying, but it’s mostly you, Shaun. You learned this on your own. I didn’t gift you with some ability to charm donors, or fight back your own discomfort in order to navigate social situations as well as you’ve done tonight.”

“I learned much of it from you,” Shaun insists. “Talking with you. Listening to you. Emulating the ways that you interact with others. And you have helped me aside from that. Your presence helps me.” He falls silent for a few seconds, running his finger around the edge of his plate, not looking at either of them. “Dr. Andrews is correct: I’m able to relax around you in a way I can’t with anyone else. At the hospital, or at home, or…even someplace like this. When we’re surrounded by hundreds of people.”

It’s a little stunning for Neil to hear how deeply he’s affected Shaun’s life, especially on a daily basis, and he needs a minute to process all of that. He replays Shaun’s words in his head, relishing the innate happiness they bring him, because this is all he’s wanted when it comes to Shaun: teaching him how to live up to his full potential as a surgeon, helping him interact with other people, and most importantly, taking away some of the stress he faces on a daily basis.

And it’s not like this is a one-way street, either.

“You have no idea how happy I am to hear that,” Neil tells him. “And I hope you know that you’re just as important to me as I am to you. Do you know why Andrews says I’m – as he so flatteringly puts it – ‘more tolerable’ nowadays?” When Shaun shakes his head, Neil explains, “It’s because of you. You keep me…” He desperately searches for a word that describes the effect Shaun has had on him, especially these past few months (and stretching back well before they started this pretend relationship, which has somehow turned into one of the best ideas Neil’s ever had). “Sane, Murphy. You keep me sane.”

Marcus coughs and mutters, “That is highly debatable.”

“Especially around our colleagues,” Neil explains, with an exaggerated nod towards Marcus. “When I just can’t take them anymore, I look to you and it’s like…this calm washes over me. You remind me that…everything’s fine. Or everything will be fine.” He thinks back over a few of those instances, a handful of which had occurred tonight. “You remind me that there are very few things worth getting worked up over. Even if I do feel like strangling people sometimes.”

Marcus makes a show of pulling out his phone. “Should I be recording this for evidence in your future trial?”

“As I’ve said before,” Neil shuts his eyes, “case in point.”

“I make things easier for you, too,” Shaun says, somewhat hesitantly.

“Very much,” Neil agrees. “One might say…things are better. For both of us.” He makes an attempt at lightening his voice. “So you better stick around.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Shaun says easily.

Marcus, with his uncanny ability to interrupt whenever Neil would like it the least, decides that’s the perfect time to chime in. “You better be going somewhere, Murphy. Namely, back out to all the people I’m sure are clamoring for an audience with you.” When he catches Neil’s wordless ‘What about me?’ gesture, he smirks, “And Melendez, of course…by association.”

“We’ll be back out there soon.” How many times does he have to say it before Marcus gets the hint? At this rate, Neil might actually have to do something drastic…like get up before he’s ready.

“Soon better mean soon.” Marcus points his phone at him, in some type of silent threat. “Not the ‘Neil Melendez’ version of soon that could be anywhere from twenty minutes to five hours from now.”

Neil wants to roll his eyes but Marcus would probably find a salad fork somewhere just to have the pleasure of stabbing him with it. “The ‘Shaun Murphy’ version of soon, alright?”

“Acceptable.” Marcus nods curtly. “Don’t make me send Morgan this way.”

Neil shudders. “Please don’t, I left my collection of crucifixes at home.”

Marcus abruptly laughs, unprepared for that, before quickly schooling his features into something marginally disapproving. “That is not kind.” (He doesn’t say it’s wrong, though, which means on some level he must agree that there’s a 75% chance she’s possessed by a demon.)

“Morgan is not possessed,” Shaun says, easily reading Neil’s mind, because they’ve had this conversation maybe half a dozen times.

“You can’t prove that,” Neil insists.

“Can’t prove what?” Morgan demands, appearing from nowhere (seriously, does she float out of walls? It has to be a demon thing). She’s trying to stare Shaun down, but it has little effect, as usual.

“Neil believes in the supernatural,” Shaun explains, as he looks up at her. “Rational people, like myself, do not.”

“Is this the ‘possession’ argument again?” she sniffs disdainfully, though her tone is definitely pleased. “I assure you, if I were possessed –”

“– you’d be kinder?” Neil interrupts, as Marcus badly fails at hiding his laughter and then cringes back in his seat when Morgan’s decidedly icy gaze lands on him. (Neil’s inwardly satisfied that Marcus seems to fear her more than anyone else does.)

“Be careful, Dr. Melendez.” She’s watching him in a way that makes him suppress a shiver. “You wouldn’t want to get on my bad side, would you?”

“You have a good side?” he shoots back, though there’s more levity in it than anything else.

That still doesn’t stop her from turning the full force of her glare on him. “I’ve been known to be…loving.” Her mouth twists in distaste at that last word.

“As if you don’t revel in knowing that people are afraid of you,” Neil scoffs. “I’m half-convinced you started the rumor about possession yourself.”

“You’ll never prove it,” she hums, in a mockery of pleasantness, and great, now she’s sitting down at their table, too.

“As entertaining as this discussion is,” Marcus interrupts, with heavy disapproval, “it’s taking precious time away from the reason we’re here this evening.”

“Making Melendez and Murphy suffer as much as possible?” Morgan asks sweetly, as she eyes Neil’s plate with interest.

“I thought that was your daily goal when it came to us, Reznick?” Neil bats her hand away when she reaches for his food.

“And how am I doing?” She beams at Shaun when he slides his own plate over to her, in silent indication she can have whatever she wants.

“Splendid,” Neil assures her, then turns to Shaun. “Careful – if you feed her, she’ll never leave us.”

“Maybe Shaun secretly wants me around forever,” she suggests, winking at her fellow resident. After giving that accusation some thought, Shaun reaches to take his plate back, but Morgan only pulls it further away from him. “Too late.”

“We’re here: To. Raise. Money!” Andrews yells the last word, causing both Shaun and Morgan to jump, but their boss isn’t angry – he’s oddly reinvigorated, and Neil’s just glad that his focus is mostly still on Morgan.

“Lest you forget,” Morgan says sharply, jerking her head in Neil and Shaun’s direction, “you assigned me to act as warden to these two. By the way, they’re setting off my perimeter alert again. They might be planning to make a break for it.”

“Then why don’t you stay here and make sure they start circulating again within the next, oh, five minutes?” Marcus’s eyes are bright as he gets to his feet, patting her on the shoulder.

She tips her glass in his direction. “I won’t let you down, sir.”

“Believe me,” Neil promises their boss, “we’ll be eager to get away from her long before those five minutes are up.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” he tells Neil distractedly, already waving at someone across the room as he walks away.

“Hey,” Morgan whines at the semi-insult, but within seconds, she’s preoccupied with something on her phone.

Neil can feel Shaun watching him and turns to shrug, a bit helplessly. “What can we do? These people are the hand we’ve been dealt.”

Morgan says something under her breath that Neil’s sure is insulting, but she doesn’t tear her eyes away from her phone.

Shaun, as usual, doesn’t seem annoyed at all (and how is that possible? Neil will never know). “I like these people,” Shaun says, voice as quiet as it is adamant.

“That makes one of us.”

Shaun isn’t fooled – he never will be when it comes to Neil. “That makes two of us.”

Neil doesn’t reply; he doesn’t have to. Even if Shaun weren’t aware of the truth, Neil’s obvious amusement would have given it away.

By silent agreement, they get to their feet and Neil surveys the room, trying to figure out who they should talk to next; he’s not too particular – anyone on the opposite side of the room from Marcus will do just fine. Shaun unnecessarily smoothes down his shirt, and it must remind him of the tie he hates because he starts pulling at it again, and Neil can’t take it anymore.

“Get over here.”

Shaun moves forward without hesitation, into Neil’s space, and it’s only then that he asks, “Why?”

“I’ll show you a trick I learned over the years.” Neil reaches over to take hold of the fabric around Shaun’s neck.

Shaun must interpret that as an invitation to start complaining again. “I don’t like ties. They serve no purpose. I don’t like formal attire, either.”

“Is there anything you do like, Murphy?”

Instead of the joke Neil had meant it as, Shaun takes that question seriously. “I like helping people and saving lives. I like our hospital. Our friends.” He takes a step closer when Neil accidentally pulls overly hard on the tie. “I like you.”

Neil stills his hands as he searches Shaun’s face. “We have something in common, then.”

“We do?” The corners of Shaun’s mouth are already turning up, like he knows where this is going.

Neil leans in to whisper conspiratorially in Shaun’s ear, “I like me, too.”

Shaun laughter is quiet, sending a warmth through Neil that he’s starting to get used to whenever the younger man’s around. “And me,” Shaun adds. (It’s not a question.)

“Yes, Murphy. And you.” He forces himself to focus for long enough that he’s successful with the tie, pulling it up and over Shaun’s head.

“Your trick was to…remove it?”

“It’s foolproof, huh?” Neil sets it over the back of the chair he was just sitting in, on top of his suit jacket.

“Undressing each other in public, now?” Morgan tsks, causing Neil to blink as he looks over at her, still seated on the other side of the table. (How had he forgotten she was there?) She’s tilting her glass back and forth between them. “Have you two no shame?” When neither of them says anything, she adds, “Not that I judge. And don’t feel like you have to stop on my account.”

“This is a formal event,” Shaun tells her, and the sudden change of subject makes little sense until his eyes fall on the tie Neil had set aside. “You once told me –”

“That was before I knew how things worked around here,” she cuts him off. “Far be it from me to explain, but everyone loves you, Murphy. Everyone.” She’s laughing into her drink. “You could have shown up here in surgical scrubs and people would still be falling at your feet.”

“That would hardly be professional,” Shaun protests. “And people do not fall at my feet.”

“Sure they don’t.” For some reason, her sarcasm is accompanied by a long look in Neil’s direction.

Neil swears he spends half of his life trying to get people to leave him (and Shaun) alone. “Don’t you have an actual job to get back to?”

“You mean the one that doesn’t involve watching you like a hawk for the inevitable moment when you make a run for the exit?” She heaves a sigh, though it seems more for the fact that she’s finished the last of her drink, if the way she morosely tips the glass upside down is any indication. “I’ll go because I need a refill, anyways – but remember, I’m always here. Always watching. Even when you think I’m not.” With that ominous warning, she sets off across the room.

Shaun doesn’t speak until she’s out of sight. “Morgan is…”

“Unsettling,” Neil fills in. “Eerily so, much of the time. And if we don’t want to deal with her – or Andrews – anytime soon, we should find some new donors to entertain.”

Shaun hesitates, then motions to himself and says, “Are you sure this attire is fine?”

“It’s fine,” Neil says firmly.

“Because you say so?”

“Now you’re getting it. Besides, I guarantee you that no one will care. And on the off-chance someone did, their opinion wouldn’t be worth considering. Know whose opinion is the most important?”

Shaun breathes out in a way that might mean he’s humoring Neil. “Yours.”

“Exactly, Murphy. Mine.” It’s a necessary thing to point out, even if Neil’s half-kidding and Shaun knows as much. The truth is, it wouldn’t matter if anyone cared because no one would dare say anything to Shaun – and that’s because of Neil. (Which is exactly the way it should be.)

Instead of arguing further on the topic, Shaun just says, “I am sorry I almost ruined your tie.”

It takes Neil a few moments to remember the joke he’d made earlier and that Shaun is now apologizing as if he’d actually been serious.

“I will be more careful with your things in the future,” Shaun continues.

“You think that’s what I care about here?” He almost laughs. “My tie.” It might be a minor thing, but there’s something truly wrong with their world, in this moment, if Shaun believes that Neil’s most pressing concern is an item of clothing that he could replace a dozen times over.

“Yes,” Shaun’s answering his question, “why else would –”

“You,” Neil says, right over him. “I care about you.”

“Me,” Shaun says flatly, and it sounds like he’s unsure what Neil is getting at.

“Yes, you. I hate seeing you uncomfortable. In any way. It makes me unhappy, Shaun. You haven’t realized that by now?”

“I do realize that,” Shaun says, indicating the space between them. “It is why we are…”

Neil’s relieved that he’s not going to have to spell it out any further, because he’s running out of words and he doesn’t know where he’d go beyond this (but he’s guessing it’s that place where he’s not sure what’s appropriate, anymore). “You should never have worn it in the first place, I told you not to. But who ignored me and went off into a spiel about the history of mens’ formal wear?”

“I should listen to you more often,” Shaun says, gravely.

“Because…?” he prompts.

“Because you think you know everything.”

Neil doesn’t miss the qualifier, but all he says is, “Maybe I do, Murphy.”

“Yes,” Shaun relents, moving closer to fix his tie (for the seventh time that evening). “Maybe you do.”

As annoyed as Neil is about having to go back to entertaining people, it doesn’t take him long to remember this isn’t a typical night at a typical gala. This isn’t just another in a long line of mostly indistinguishable events where he has to repeat his same pitch dozens of times, repeat an abridged biography of himself, and repeat the same patient stories, the ones that always work to pull on donors’ heartstrings and convince them that they actually are making a difference: “And this is how your contribution saves lives, one might call people like you the real heroes!” (Marcus had actually penned that line himself, and been excessively proud of it, too.)

Tonight’s different because Shaun wouldn’t allow Neil to do any of that if he tried. And the best part is that with Shaun, he doesn’t have to. The atmosphere tonight feels much more like a party than a mandated work event. Their conversations flow easily, they don’t follow the Marcus Andrews' Strategies for Success template (yes, Marcus calls it that), and with Shaun’s lead, Neil’s easily drawn back into the world that he’s never wanted to be a part of, that he’s only ever tolerated as a facet of his job, and he’s starting to think…maybe things weren’t always as set in stone as he’d thought.

If he’s enjoying himself tonight, then maybe…he could enjoy other nights, too.

Maybe he could always enjoy this.

Though he’d also be the first to admit that his feelings depend heavily on the company he’s keeping tonight.

It’s not like everything goes smoothly, either. But together, he and Shaun are able to maneuver past obstacles that would be much more difficult to overcome alone. Like the time Shaun falters while relaying the story of a patient they’d had a few months prior, a young girl who’d lost her brother in a car accident she’d barely survived. Neil takes over the moment Shaun breaks off mid-sentence, squeezing his arm in quiet sympathy, and no one even notices that Shaun hadn’t been able to keep talking. That if Neil hadn’t stepped in, he would have remained there in silence until someone else decided to change the subject.

Not long after that, a late arrival who remembers Neil from past fundraisers, eagerly asks him where his lovely fiancée Jessica’s been hiding tonight. Neil stares at Delia…something (Shaun is the one who remembers everyone’s name) and his mind goes blank, because it’s been months since anyone asked him about Jess and how is he even supposed to begin to answer that? He’s entirely unprepared as a series of images flash across his mind – the last time he’d seen this woman, he and Jess had a lengthy conversation with her about their upcoming nuptials and how excited they were. This time, it’s Shaun who steps in, saving Neil from his temporary incoherence and explaining the change in his personal life before switching topics so swiftly that no awkwardness has time to manifest. (And he knows that Shaun learned that trick from him – it’s one of Neil’s long-time favorites.)

He lets Shaun carry the subsequent conversation, pleased when Delia accepts the news in stride, and Neil basks in the sudden feeling of not being alone anymore. He doesn’t have to get through these things alone. And neither does Shaun.

Before tonight, he’d occasionally noted how well they complemented each other, but it was mostly in an abstract way. Now, though…it feels like something else. It feels different in a way Neil can’t categorize, or place.

It feels like they’re more, together, than either of them is alone.

After their conversation comes to an end, Delia draws Neil aside to congratulate him on his ‘new relationship’ (read: to pry, to unflinchingly pry) and he needs a few minutes to skillfully extricate himself from her thinly-veiled interrogation. When he turns in a semi-circle to see if Shaun has been abducted by Marcus or any other board members, he finds the younger man being accosted (for lack of a better term) by a young woman, a nurse Neil recognizes, though not by name. She’s newish, and had come along as the date of one of the oncologists Glassman currently has gathered across the room. (She must be feeling unforgivably ignored by this recent turn of events, since she’s now fixated entirely on Shaun.)

“You have to dance with me, Shaun. Please?” She’s all doe-eyes and long lashes and hopeful expression that’s having next to no effect on Shaun.

“I do not have to do anything,” Shaun informs her.

She issues a sigh, though Neil can tell by the glint in her eyes that she’s charmed by him. “I didn’t mean you literally have to, just that… I really want to?”

“No, thank you,” Shaun politely declines. In response, she takes hold of his arm and tugs lightly towards the dance floor; he tries to step away, but she won’t let go, still issuing pleas and seeming not to notice the growing tension in every line of her would-be partner’s body. Neil sees it, though. (He thinks he sees almost everything when it comes to Shaun, now.)

It takes Neil all of three seconds to assess the situation: the girl’s new enough that she must be unaware of Shaun’s aversion to touching people, and she’s currently oblivious to his discomfort (maybe partly due to having had a few drinks). For his part, Shaun is reluctant to forcefully break her grip and potentially cause a scene. (He’s told Neil on more than one occasion that people tended to react badly when he physically pushed them away.) Shaun’s favored strategy nowadays is to calmly explain his preferences, which gets people to back off fairly quickly. And maybe that would work right now, too, except the nurse isn’t letting him get a word in edgewise through her continued badgering.

Over the past year of working at their hospital, Shaun’s become more tolerant of people unknowingly encroaching upon (or stepping over) his boundaries. He still hates it, and always will, but he recognizes that other people don’t view the world the same as he does. Neil, however, does not share Shaun’s level of tolerance when people infringe upon his resident’s personal space (because anything that makes Shaun uncomfortable tends to infuriate Neil, and that issue has only gotten worse for him over the past year, not better).

He steps up beside Shaun with the kind of silence he associates with Shaun himself. (Truly, his resident’s like a phantom sometimes – there have been numerous instances where Neil has been in conversation with him only to get distracted for a moment, and he’ll turn back to find Shaun’s vanished without a word.)

The girl’s still begging and Shaun’s repeatedly declining, though Neil can tell by the escalating volume of his tone that Shaun’s either moments away from snapping at the girl, or saying something she won’t appreciate (maybe both at the same time).

Neil deliberately places a hand on the back of Shaun’s neck and talks right over her latest round of pleas: “Careful,” he warns. His tone is intentionally light, but there’s an undercurrent to it that reveals he’s far from happy. “I might think you’re trying to steal him away.”

Shaun presses back into Neil’s hand, rolling his shoulders and turning to look at him without speaking – and Neil doesn’t need him to. Shaun’s appreciation is clear in the way he settles, breathing easier, and the annoyance clears from his expression, replaced with the beginning of a smile.

The nurse is staring at Neil like she’d forgotten he existed. “Dr. Melendez, I was…asking Shaun for a dance.”

“You were not asking,” Shaun corrects, as she starts seeming chagrined. “You were demanding.”

Neil lets his eyes fall on her hand, which even Shaun seems to have forgotten is still on his arm. She notices what he’s looking at and wrenches herself away from Shaun as if he’s suddenly caught fire, punctuating the action by taking a couple steps back.

“I do not like dancing,” Shaun’s explaining to her. “I will occasionally tolerate it. But I do not enjoy it.”

The girl fidgets nervously, seeming unsure what to do with herself now that Neil’s there, and she finally folds her hands and says sheepishly, “I’m sorry. I…didn’t know.”

“Now you do,” Shaun says simply. And like magic, all his earlier irritation has vanished, like it never existed at all.

Upon reminding himself of Shaun’s aggravation from only moments before, Neil reflexively tightens his hold on Shaun’s neck, inhaling slowly and trying to understand how Shaun can be this way, so kind in the face of his own discomfort. It’s obvious that the girl had meant no ill will and had no clue she was making Shaun uncomfortable, but most importantly, Shaun is aware of that. After all, it’s the kind of thing he’s been dealing with for his entire life. And he lets it go as easily as Neil would normally hold a grudge (and infinitely longer on Shaun’s behalf than on his own, or anyone else’s).

The three of them have ended up in some kind of stalemate as the girl shifts her eyes back and forth between them and Neil takes pity on her, forcing himself to smile and lift his chin to send her back to her friends (who have, obviously, been watching from across the room with rapt attention).

He could (should) probably let Shaun go when the girl flees, but he doesn’t. All he does is rub his thumb along the back of Shaun’s neck instead.

“Elsie is a good person and an excellent nurse.” Shaun’s watching her, over near the bar, where she’s buried her head in one of her friends’ shoulders; Neil has no idea why Shaun’s espousing her virtues until he adds, with some emphasis, “She did not know how I feel about dancing. You should not be upset.”

“I’m not upset.” Neil has no idea why he bothers lying when they’re both aware of it…but he’ll keep doing it anyways. “You told her how you felt. Many times. And she obviously knows about us, from her reaction.” (Like usual, his mind does its normal disconnect when he thinks about what his real relationship with Shaun is versus what everyone else thinks it is.)

“She’s had too much to drink.” Shaun sounds faintly judgemental at that, and Neil can’t deny he’s amused at the perfect timing when they glance back at the group of nurses just in time to witness someone push a fresh drink into Elsie’s hands. Shaun turns more into him, carefully not breaking their contact (because Neil still hasn’t dropped his hand, how about that?). “I am fine.”

“Sorry that I got distracted. Delia wanted to ask me about Jess and…” you. He counts to three on an exhale and reminds himself that this is one of those times when he shouldn’t overreact, but it’s always exponentially harder for him to remain calm when someone causes Shaun any type of distress.

“It is not your fault,” Shaun (too easily) forgives. “And it is not your job to protect me.”

Neil (vehemently) disagrees with that. “It is.” When Shaun doesn’t respond, he repeats, “It is. You have made tonight…” He doesn’t think he can adequately describe it in a way Shaun will understand since Neil himself doesn’t even fully understand it. He settles for, “I have never been able to enjoy myself at one of these events and yet, with you…I can. So the least I can do is try and make sure that’s true for you, as well.”

“People love me,” Shaun hums. “You cannot help that.” From anyone else, it would have sounded like self-congratulations, but Shaun’s simply stating what he knows to be a fact.

“They do,” Neil agrees, finally letting his hand fall away; Shaun must not appreciate it since he leans into Neil’s side in response. “I can’t fault them for it, either.”

“No,” Shaun genially agrees, “you can’t.”

They lapse into silence as they both turn toward the dance floor. It’s more crowded right now than it’s been all evening, and it’s also occupied by many of their closest colleagues: Aaron and Jessica are dancing (and appear to be deep in an emotional conversation); Marcus and his wife are near them (and Neil can’t believe Marcus has temporarily torn himself away from the donors – but for all his faults, he does love his wife…so maybe it’s not entirely surprising); and Morgan and Park are out there, too, laughing about something. Neil actually does a double take – not that they’re dancing, but that he doesn’t think he’s seen the other man show that much emotion in the past year.

He points them out to Shaun. “You think Reznick cast some kind of spell on him? What else could explain it?”

“They are friends?”

“No,” Neil mutters, “that can’t be it. It has to be some kind of black magic.”

Shaun doesn’t seem half as interested in his colleagues as Neil. “Dancing involves…a lot of touching,” he murmurs, a full-body shudder accompanying that statement.

“It does.” He nudges his arm against Shaun’s, finding a distant sort of humor in the fact that they’re touching right now and Shaun has no objection to it. “You know, Murphy,” he says archly, “some might argue that being close to someone is the entire point of dancing.”

“It is probably one of the reasons people enjoy it,” Shaun says, like he’s the first person to ever concede that reason as a possibility. “There are a myriad of theories for why dancing developed among humans, but it’s impossible to pin down its origins with any concrete certainty. The likelihood is that it served a number of different purposes and evolved simultaneously across various cultures and groups.”

“Are you going to educate me on the history of dancing across different social eras?”

“I am not that well-versed in it,” Shaun admits. “I never read extensively about the subject because it did not interest me. I will have to correct that.”

“You do that,” Neil says, and it’s not at all sarcastic – he’s looking forward to hearing what Shaun learns.

For someone who hates dancing because it involves too much touching, Neil absently thinks that Shaun has touched him more tonight – and for a much longer period of time – than a few dances with someone would ever cost him. But he very pointedly does not say such a thing. He never wants Shaun to feel self-conscious about their friendship or about how comfortable he is with Neil. And the mere idea of Shaun second-guessing himself, questioning his innate trust in Neil, or deliberately pulling away when he starts to reach for him…it’s close to unbearable.

Shaun can lean on him whenever he wants. Literally or figuratively. (For any reason.)

And Neil’s going to do everything in his power to ensure that never changes.

Chapter Text

Shaun’s playing with the cufflinks on his shirt again.

Neil’s been watching him do it on and off throughout the whole evening, but it’s become close to non-stop in the past ten minutes.

It’s not done unthinkingly, or out of boredom. It’s not a nervous habit, either. No, Shaun’s doing it for one reason: he’s agitated about something, and it’s manifesting in the repeated unfastening and refastening of his cufflinks.

It’s distracting enough that Neil’s lost track of the conversation around them. At this point, he doesn’t care about trying to pick it up again, either (even though he knows he probably should). He’s standing across from Shaun in a circle of (as Marcus would call them) ‘prestigious’ people. Glassman’s there, talking about where all their new funding will go, and there are a few other hospital administrators, and the mayor and her husband. The last two are the most important in their group: not only do they contribute significantly to Saint Bonaventure every year, but the mayor’s favor is crucial for a variety of reasons that benefit them, including partnership on community outreach programs. The short of it is, their hospital can implement the programs they want without her, but her office’s assistance is critical to getting anything done in an expedient manner.

To their luck, she happens to love all of them (Neil and Shaun, in particular). They all share similar backgrounds because she’d originally been on a career track of medicine before changing her mind and turning to politics; as such, she loves to discuss cases with them. It’s convenient because it means conversation with her is easy and Neil can do it mostly on autopilot, but it’s difficult in that she always wants to spend excessive amounts of time with them whenever they’re at an event together.

It happens to be particularly difficult right now because Neil knows his distraction is coming across as irritation, or perhaps even disinterest. And despite knowing that, he can’t help it. Shaun just won’t stop with those cufflinks and it’s ratcheting up Neil’s concern. He’s not about to ask him what’s wrong in the middle of a group conversation, either (and especially not when he has a pretty good idea of what it is).

They’ve been at the gala for close to three hours now and their length of time in attendance has had an inverse effect on Shaun’s level of comfort: the longer they stay, the harder it is for Shaun to suppress, or ignore, his discomfort with their surroundings. Neil can feel his own nerves starting to grate after dealing with people all night long, so he imagines that what Shaun’s going through is significantly worse.

Sure, they’ve managed to take a few breaks, finding quieter areas of the room to escape the immediate crowd, but there’s been no real respite from all the people, all the demands – and that damned holiday music. Shortly after they’d arrived, the light classical in the background (that was easy to ignore) had been switched to ‘holiday favorites’ and Neil swears it’s been the same four songs on repeat for the last two hours.

Because the universe can read his mind (and has a twisted sense of humor) Morgan joins their group, quietly humming along to ‘Winter Wonderland’. When Neil only stares at her, she asks innocently, “Don’t you just love this music?”

He won’t even dignify that with a response (seeing as she’s heard him complain about this almost daily since November 1st, which was when half the radio stations in their area switched over to ‘All Christmas, all the time!’ playlists). “It was you, wasn’t it?” he accuses. “You broke into the sound room and changed the music.”

“I might have slipped one of the staff a twenty,” she smirks. “After all, what’s a holiday gala without holiday music?” She takes a slow sip of her drink, then adds (just to provoke him), “I’ve heard no complaints…from anyone else.”

“Why does every song need to have an excessive amount of bells? Who made bells such an important element of Christmas music?”

“Why don’t you ask our resident genius?” she suggests, and there’s nothing except sincerity in her question. “I’m sure he knows.”

Neil’s gaze automatically returns to Shaun; he hates that he can’t reach out and touch him, but he’s too far away and there are people standing closely to either side of him – going over there would not only interrupt the conversation, but he’d have to either move Shaun or someone else to talk to him. (And despite how it’d inconvenience people, he’s about thirty seconds from doing it anyways, if Shaun doesn’t – or can’t – stop.)

The conversation about funding is still ongoing, but Shaun’s not participating; he’s switched to pulling at the edge of his shirtsleeves, and Neil’s no longer the only one who notices. Aaron trips over his own words, mid-sentence, when his eyes pass over Shaun. That alone tells Neil that he recognizes Shaun’s discomfort as readily as Neil has.

“– don’t you agree, Neil?” he catches from Davis, one of the administrators a few rungs down from Aaron.

Neil’s completely lost, and he glances briefly at Aaron, who minutely shakes his head; Neil trusts him implicitly enough that he doesn’t question it. “No, I don’t happen to agree.”

His answer sparks a veritable eruption from almost everyone in the group and Shaun winces as people start talking over each other to argue their sides of an issue that Neil’s still ignoring (but now it’s on purpose). The momentary chaos is the opportunity Neil was hoping for and he crosses the circle, placing a hand over Shaun’s where he’s about to unfasten a cufflink.

Neil doesn’t even have to lower his voice due to the increasing volume of everyone around them as each side gets more passionate. “Can I talk to you? Alone?”

“Yes,” Shaun says instantly, relief flashing across his face. “Let’s go somewhere else. Anywhere else.”

They head for the main doors of the ballroom, and the moment they cross into the hall, the noise dims considerably. There are still plenty of people around, though, and it’s nowhere near as secluded as Neil wants. Shaun’s watching him expectantly, but instead of saying anything, he motions them toward the elevators.

They get in along with two middle-aged women and a young man dressed in a hotel uniform, and it turns out they’re all heading for the top floor. Shaun’s still tense, but he already seems less on edge than he was a few minutes before.

“Did you know this hotel has a rooftop restaurant and lounge?” Neil asks him.

“Yes, I knew. It’s lined with glass walls which provide a 360 degree view of the city. There is also an observation deck, which is separate from the restaurant itself.” At Neil’s silent question, he explains, “I read about the hotel when Dr. Andrews suggested we do so at the last staff meeting. The hospital has reserved a block of rooms here for anyone who chooses to stay overnight instead of going home.”

Neil has no recollection of anything Shaun’s talking about. “Did I attend that staff meeting?”

Shaun breathes out lightly in a show of amusement. “Yes. You were sitting next to me.”

“Oh sure,” Neil returns dryly, “that helps.” (He tends to always sit next to Shaun because he’s found it lessens his urge to tear his hair out from sheer frustration and boredom.)

“You were late, although I’m sure that does not help you differentiate between meetings, either.”

Neil tries to send him a scolding look, but he can’t really pull it off because Shaun’s simply stating facts. Staff meetings are among Neil’s least favorite things and when he knows they’re going to be about the usual monthly issues, and nothing directly to do with him, he tends to show up…on his own time. (To Marcus’s neverending vexation – which only gives Neil more incentive to continue doing it.)

The elevator doors open into the main lobby of the restaurant with a quiet chime. The staff member and the two women head left, towards the hostess stand, and Neil can see most of the restaurant laid out beyond it in a fairly open floor-plan. It’s pretty crowded for this late on a Saturday evening, but this is a popular hotel that’s usually fully-booked, especially when events are going on around the city. Neil even recognizes some of the people at the closest tables as attendees of their gala. They must have been looking for an actual meal, or perhaps they just wanted to get away from the crowd downstairs. (Rather than thinning out as the night went on, Neil swore the ballroom only got more crowded, and he suspects some of the hotel’s other guests had snuck in to crash their fundraiser and take advantage of the free food and drinks.)

The restaurant takes up three-quarters of the roof level, and the final quarter is comprised of the open-air observation deck that overlooks the city. Instead of following their elevator companions, Neil gestures Shaun towards the deck, which is behind floor-to-ceiling glass windows on their right.

“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?” he asks, as he pulls open one of the doors.

Shaun stops in the doorway. “It’s illogical to be afraid of heights if you are not at risk of falling.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Yes,” Shaun counters, “it is.”

“You could have just said no, Murphy.”

After a long pause, Shaun admits, “I could have.”

“You do this on purpose, right? Tell me it’s on purpose.” His tone’s more than lighthearted because they both know it’s true.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shaun still tries to claim. Neil motions for him to keep walking, and they finally make it outside, effectively ending their argument-that’s-not-quite-an-argument.

Despite having been to this hotel for a few functions in the past, Neil has never made it up here, and now he’s realizing that he’d missed out. It’s a mild evening for mid-December – one of the best perks of living in California. Several comfortable-looking lounge areas are set up around the spacious balcony, secluded from each other by tastefully arranged plants and partitions highlighted by strands of warm orange lights. (And perhaps the best part, in Neil’s opinion? Aside from the two of them, the balcony’s completely deserted.)

The seating areas don’t hold their interest for more than a few seconds, since their attention is automatically drawn to the breathtaking view of the city at night. Shaun must have been telling the truth about his lack of fear, since he heads straight for the ornate, chest-high railing across from them in order to take in all he can of San Jose. Neil knows that Shaun’s probably never seen it from this perspective before; they’ve both seen their city from the roof of the hospital, but the Ritz-Carlton goes up at least twenty floors higher than that, and it’s one of the tallest buildings in this part of the city.

Neil joins Shaun at the railing, and neither of them speaks as they survey the colorful lights of the buildings, the streaks of red and white from cars driving down below, and the rolling hills they can barely make out in the distance beyond civilization. The glass walls behind them are soundproof, so there’s no hum of noise from the restaurant, and they’re up high enough that the city below is mostly muted. The loudest sounds are the occasional light gusts of wind whistling along the edges of the building.

It’s another minute before Neil glances over at Shaun, who’s holding the railing next to him, and he’s surprised to find the younger man’s eyes are shut.

Maybe he can sense Neil watching him, maybe not, but that’s when Shaun breathes, “It’s quiet.” His words are almost carried away by the wind; Neil only hears him because they’re so close.

“It is.” He instinctively leans closer to Shaun, though they aren’t touching. “Inside, when you were…” He lets the sentence fade, brushing a finger over one of Shaun’s cufflinks. “After a while…it’s too much, isn’t it?”

Shaun’s silent for maybe half a minute before he opens his eyes and turns to Neil. “Yes,” he says simply. “The answer to that question is always yes.”

Neil feels his stomach clench in guilt and empathy and hatred of the fact that no matter what he does, he can never fully take that away. “I’m sorry.”

“It is not your fault.” Shaun looks back out over the city. “It’s not anyone’s fault. I’m used to it, but sometimes I still need to be…away from other people. Away from everyone.”

Neil shifts his weight from one foot to the other and wonders if that’s Shaun’s roundabout way of making a request. “If you… I could go back?” He takes a step toward the doors. “Leave you alone for a little while?”

Shaun turns his head so fast that it looks like it hurts. “Why?”

“You just said you want to be away from everyone.”

You are not ‘everyone’.”

“I’m part of ‘everyone’,” Neil points out.

“No,” Shaun says, harshly enough that Neil’s taken aback, “you are not.” As if there’s any doubt about his vehement dislike of Neil’s offer to leave, he adds, “Stay.”

“Okay,” he holds up his hands in acquiescence, “I’ll stay. If that’s what you want.”

“That is always what I want,” Shaun promises, bringing both hands up to rub at the sides of his neck. “Tonight has been easier than other nights, but as you guessed…as you know, it eventually becomes overwhelming.”

“You could have told me it was getting more difficult for you,” Neil says, unable to hide the regret in his voice. “I could have…I don’t know. Made sure you had a real break. Like now.” He’s moving from frustrated to angry, but it’s not at Shaun, it’s at himself. “Or I could have brought you home.”

“We have to stay until 11.”

“We could have gone home,” Neil repeats.

“Dr. Andrews –”

“Does not get to dictate our lives, despite what he believes. If you wanted – if you want to go home, right now, then we’ll leave.”

Shaun doesn’t seem to know what to make of that. “He would be angry.”

“Where have you been for the past year, Murphy? It’s practically my favorite hobby to make him angry.” He pushes his shoulder against Shaun’s. “It’d be a perk of leaving, to be honest.”

That earns him his first smile since they stepped onto the observation deck, and then Shaun declares, “I want to stay.”

“You’re sure? You’re not just saying that because of Andrews?”

Shaun appears to give that some serious thought. “I want to be here. We’ve already raised a lot of money that will save many lives, but there are still some donors I wish to talk to.” After another gust of wind, he takes a deep breath of the mild evening air. “In a few minutes, I’ll be ready to go back.”

“Okay,” Neil says, taking him at his word. He turns around, leaning his back against the railing, and watches as Shaun shuts his eyes again. It’s fascinating to watch the younger man visibly relax from something as simple as this. All he needed was distance from everyone else.

And silence.

And Neil, apparently.

The more at ease Shaun becomes, the more Neil feels his own tension uncoil…though the guilt remains. He should have known; he’d mistakenly let Shaun’s outward act lull him into thinking everything was fine, which is the exact same error their friends and colleagues make all the time. But Shaun can only take counteractive measures for so long before everything catches up to him, especially when the demands are unending and he never gets a chance to recover. And although Shaun will usually be the one to step away when he most needs to, he’s always more reluctant at these gatherings because of how much pressure there is on all of them to perform to the best of their abilities: to impress Aaron and Marcus and the board and their donors. So Shaun will push himself as hard as everyone else, but he’s not everyone else. What comes easily for most doesn’t come easily for him, and Neil knows that. He should have been looking out for it – especially when he knows his resident often gets so caught up in making everyone else happy that he puts his own needs last.

“It’s better out here,” Shaun murmurs, breaking through Neil’s self-recrimination. “I like when it’s quiet.”

“The lack of repetitive Christmas music is certainly a benefit.” Neil tips his head back to look up at the night sky. There’s a bright crescent moon, but no stars are visible because of the light from the city.

Shaun folds his arms along the railing and leans slightly over to stare down at the city streets below. And his next words jar Neil into awareness.

“I hated where I grew up.”

He doesn’t have to say it’s where his father lived.

“And I hated where Steve and I ran away to.”

He doesn’t have to say it’s where his brother died.

“I didn’t hate Casper, the people were kind to me and I had friends there, but it felt…temporary. I knew I wasn’t going to stay.” He pauses for a moment, maybe remembering everything he’d had to get through to end up where he is today. “No place I lived ever felt like home. Not until San Jose.”

Neil rubs a hand over his throat, wondering at the way it aches. “Aaron’s here, and he’s the closest person in your life; it makes sense you’d view this city, where he lives, as home.”

“He is one reason of many,” Shaun agrees, before stressing, “but not the only one.”

“Dare I ask the others?”

“Every friend I have is another reason. You. Claire. Lea. Alex. Mor–”

“Hold it right there,” Neil interrupts. “I think you were about to mistakenly say ‘Morgan’.”

“We’re friends,” Shaun insists, “even if she likes to pretend she has none.”

“If you say so,” Neil relents, because he can’t deny that they’ve all been getting along better lately (even if their interactions are almost always colored by her trademark brand of antagonism).

Shaun’s turned his attention back to the dark horizon. “I love this city and I never want to leave it.”

“I don’t think it’s the city that you don’t want to leave,” Neil tells him. “I think it’s the people.”

Shaun doesn’t hesitate. “You’re right.”

“One of my favorite phrases, Murphy. Good thing I’m right so often – I get to hear it a lot.”

Shaun doesn’t respond to that, but he’s smiling, and that’s really all Neil had been going for. (It might be all he’s ever going for, to be honest.)

Their conversation lapses just as Neil feels his phone vibrating in his pocket. He knows who it is before he checks the screen – Andrews, demanding to know where he and Shaun are (in all capital letters, at that, because Marcus knows how to be as obnoxious as possible, even in texts). Neil doesn’t reply, shoving the phone back in his pocket and ignoring when it starts vibrating again. Their boss is probably calling him now. (Or else he’s recruited some of the others to start doing the same, hoping that Neil will answer if he sees it’s not Marcus.)

“He wants us back,” Shaun says, correctly determining who it is solely from Neil’s reaction.

“He does, but he’s not getting us. Not yet.” The unspoken vow is that they aren’t going anywhere until Shaun decides that he’s ready to return.

Shaun studies him for a moment. “Thank you.”

“For ignoring Marcus’s texts and calls?” Neil shrugs him off. “You know I do that every day.”

“No, not for that.” The gravity of Shaun’s expression doesn’t change. “For everything. Thank you for everything.” The way he says it, like it’s something Neil should have already known, gives him pause.

“You don’t –”

“Do not tell me I don’t have to,” Shaun interrupts, his frustration rising so quickly that Neil almost moves back. “You always say that. Let me thank you. I want to.”

If he’d known how much his protests bothered Shaun, he would have made them a lot less frequently. “Alright,” he easily agrees, holding his arms out in silent invitation. “You have blanket permission to thank me whenever you want, for anything you want.”

Shaun nods, appeased. “Thank you.”

Neil tries to refrain from commenting, but…he just can’t. “Are you thanking me for ‘everything’? Or are you thanking me for the permission to thank me…for everything?”

It takes Shaun a few seconds to work that out and now he’s valiantly trying to keep a straight face. “I think I might rescind my ‘thank you’.”

“Nope, too late. Already said it, you can’t take it back.”

Shaun loses the fight against his smile. “That’s okay, because I meant it. Some events are worse than others. This has not been one of them.” His words take a more serious turn. “And that is because of you.”

“I tried,” Neil responds, somehow managing to keep his tone light (he truly has no idea how he pulls it off). “Do you know how difficult it is to keep people from bothering you? You’re really popular.”

“So are you.”

“That goes without saying, but I have decades of experience avoiding people.”

“I suppose I will have to practice,” Shaun says, voice equally as light, and it makes Neil think about something he’s been meaning to bring up for a few weeks.

“Shaun, you’re still…in favor of this, right? Letting people think we’re in a relationship?” He’s not sure if it’s his imagination that Shaun tenses slightly.

“I have told you that I like what we’re doing.” Shaun’s gripping the railing tighter now (so no, it’s not Neil’s imagination). “Many times.”

“I know, but you can like the benefits of it while…not wanting to do this anymore. I mean, we’re going to stop this at some point, right? So whenever you’re done, for any reason, just let me know.”

“Any reason,” Shaun echoes, staring down at the railing, or maybe his hands that are wrapped around it.

Neil has no idea if Shaun’s emphasizing the point, or if he’s asking for examples; he decides to offer some, just in case. “Yes, any reason. Like if you’re sick of keeping up the pretense. Or…if you meet someone you actually want to date. We’ve been doing this for almost four months, and I know when we started, there was no one you wanted to pursue a relationship with. But you’ve met plenty of new people since then, even just tonight. So if you have considered dating someone…” He trails off, figuring he’s driven that point home enough.

Even though Shaun appears disengaged from the conversation, Neil can tell by his stance that he’s listening closely. (And he also realizes he might have given Shaun the wrong impression about ‘needing’ a reason.)

“You don’t even have to tell me why, or have some excuse for it,” Neil clarifies. “Wanting to stop because you want to stop is perfectly fine – all you have to do is tell me. What I’m getting at is that I wouldn’t be upset. I know we agreed to this because it benefited both of us, in different ways, so I want to make sure you’re not still doing it…just for me. Because we’re friends and you think it’s what I want. You should want it, too.”

Shaun doesn’t say anything to that, and he doesn’t look away from the city lights, either. Neil’s starting to think he might have said something he shouldn’t have, but he replays his words and can’t find anything wrong with them – although that doesn’t mean he’d wanted to say any of it. In fact, the mere idea of Shaun telling him he wants this to end is making Neil feel distinctly unwell.

They spend a lot of their free time with each other and that’s only become more true over the past few months. So if Shaun does want to stop doing this, their time together will inevitably decrease. And if Shaun wanted to date someone? At that point, he and Neil might stop seeing each other outside of work, altogether. Shaun’s not the type to deliberately cut people out of his life, but it tends to naturally happen when people start new relationships. (Hell, look at the two of them, they aren’t even really together and they already monopolize each other’s time.)

Once Neil hits upon the thought of Shaun being in another relationship, it’s like he can’t let go of it. Because it would spread to every part of his life – take tonight, for example. Shaun would obviously want to attend functions like this with his significant other, and that means Neil would be…on his own again. He’d have to be somewhere else, somewhere away from Shaun. Because he couldn’t very well hover around him – well, he could, but it’d seem overbearing and inappropriate. (Alright, it might not just seem like it, it would be.)

And that’s what bothers Neil the most: that he wouldn’t be there. Not just at work events, but in general. He’d no longer get to spend time with Shaun, who’s become one of his favorite people; he challenges Neil at every turn and makes him better in a myriad of ways. And he’s the one person Neil feels like he can truly be himself with, lately.

But more than that, Neil’s main reason always comes back to Shaun. He wouldn’t be there if Shaun needed something. If Shaun needed him. Because even if Shaun had someone else in his life, how could that person ever know him as well as Neil does? Or read him as well as Neil does?

Who else could see the things Shaun tries to hide, or hear the things he doesn’t say? Who could ever

“Are you asking because there is someone you wish to date?” Shaun’s question snaps Neil out of his spiraling thoughts, and he’s momentarily grateful – but then he registers the wrong conclusion and almost recoils.

“No,” he says, probably too harshly, “there isn’t.” He takes a steadying breath, wondering why this conversation seems more serious, more important, than any of the ones he’s had over the course of his real romantic relationships. “I’m only reminding you that you can change your mind about this at any time. And no matter what – even if you wanted to date someone – our friendship wouldn’t have to change. Not if you didn’t want it to.” Though Neil knows it would. It would. (How could it not, if he had to let Shaun go?)

“There is no one else.”

Neil lets out the breath he was holding, but he’s still not completely at ease, because Shaun’s answer speaks nothing to his desire (or lack thereof) to keep pretending they’re in a relationship. (And Neil won’t feel like the matter is settled until Shaun reassures him, outright.) “So you still want to do this?”

Instead of answering him, Shaun asks, “Why do you think I would not?”

Neil’s not sure if he can articulate it that well…but he’ll try. “Because we haven’t talked about it in weeks, and I didn’t know if you were as happy with things as you were before. And like I said, I don’t want you to ever do anything because you think it’s what I want. Because you think doing this, keeping up this pretense, makes me happy.”

“Does it, though?” Shaun tilts his head in inquiry. “Does this make you happy?”

Neil’s a little surprised at the directness of the question, framed in such a simple way that it’s odd he hasn’t considered it in those terms before. And there’s no question when it comes to his honest answer. “Yes, it does. Everything about our relationship makes me happy, Shaun. The ease with which we work together, and how close we’ve become as friends, and yes, even the fact that people think we’re romantically together – because that helps both of us. But mostly I like that last part because it helps you – and that’s what’s most important to me.”

Shaun has an uncanny ability to detect exactly what Neil’s looking for, sometimes, and right now he must sense that Neil needs to hear him say the words. “I want this to continue,” he says steadily. “And I will tell you if I ever change my mind.”

An unexpected (and dizzying) wave of relief crashes over Neil upon hearing that, and he reflexively takes hold of the railing behind him. “You –” He replays one particular word Shaun had slipped in there. “If?”

“Earlier, you pointed out that we’re going to end this someday.” Shaun taps his fingers against the railing as he faces their city again. “But maybe I’ll never want to.”

Shaun’s sentiment is lighthearted, and Neil finds himself smiling in return. “And what about me, hmm?” He makes sure to match Shaun’s tone. “Don’t I get a say?”

“No.” Shaun doesn’t turn back to him, but Neil hears the humor in his voice. “You don’t.”

Shaun’s said it jokingly, but Neil has the fleeting thought that even if he were being serious…it wouldn’t matter. Because honestly? Neil’s come to the realization that he doesn’t want to end this, and he can’t picture changing his mind about that anytime in the near (or distant) future. Before, he had no interest in dating anyone, but now he has an actual aversion to the very idea. (And that feeling has only gotten stronger over time.)

After he and Jessica broke off their engagement, he hadn’t wanted any quick rebounds or flings – that kind of thing never held much appeal to him. And the thought of dating again held no enjoyment for him, either; not after the pain of their break-up. He’d figured he would slowly recover, that he’d eventually want to get back into the dating world after enough time had passed. (Or, at the very least, he’d find the idea of it less objectionable.)

It’s strange for Neil to realize that this thing with Shaun has had the opposite effect on him – and he knows the major reason for that is related to his thoughts from earlier: just as Shaun would spend time with someone else if he began a new relationship, Neil would be expected to do the same if he began dating someone. And the last thing he wants is to sacrifice their friendship for some hypothetical relationship with a person who’s not nearly as important to him…who probably could never be as important to him as Shaun. (And he conveniently ignores the fact that the whole purpose of dating is to see if he could care for someone in that way again, because he just…he doesn’t want anything to do with it.)

“Alright,” Neil theatrically laments, “I guess I can keep up the pretense of our relationship for the foreseeable future.” He turns back around so he and Shaun are facing the same direction again, looking out over San Jose. “Until you decide to let me go, of course.”

Shaun hums in some kind of agreement and even though there isn’t much space between them, maybe it’s too much, from the way his resident inches closer. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Neil whispers, not wanting to break the tranquil spell they’ve found themselves under.

Shaun relinquishes the railing so he can rub his eyes, abruptly reminding Neil of how long they’ve both been awake (and when Shaun leans into his side, it only confirms how tired he must be). It’s not 11 yet, but it’s getting close, and he wonders how soon after that predetermined time he’ll be able to get Shaun to leave.

His phone starts vibrating again, but he determinedly ignores it. It’s peaceful out here, and still as quiet as when they first arrived (no one else has come out onto the deck), and Shaun’s presence is warm – not just physically, Neil feels it everywhere.

And a part of him (that he really should ignore) is telling him that they never have to return to the gala; he could stay out here, with Shaun, for the rest of the night.

A sudden burst of cold crosses his skin, and he shivers, wondering if it was some kind of sharp wind gust. But it hadn’t seemed like one, and Shaun hadn’t reacted, either. “Did you feel that?” he murmurs.

“What?”

“It felt like some kind of dark, ominous –”

“Well, well, well.”

“– chill,” he finishes dryly, suppressing his sigh upon hearing Morgan behind them.

“Someone’s screening his calls,” she tells Neil, as she crosses the balcony and rests her elbows on the railing, situating herself on the other side of Shaun. “It’s very passive aggressive of you.”

“You did not call me,” Shaun points out, as he pulls away from Neil so he can face her.

“I knew you wouldn’t pick up. With Dr. Melendez, I still had some mild hope. Though I see I was wrong.”

“How’d you know where we were?” Neil asks, suspiciously. He checks his phone, and sure enough, there are three missed calls from Marcus and two from Morgan.

“Are you questioning my superior detective skills?” She brushes some hair behind her ear when the mild breeze pushes it across her face. “Alex has been giving me pointers on how to track down perps.”

“Oh God, you’re even talking like him – I can’t decide which one of you is a worse influence on the other.”

She laughs lightly at that. “He’s going to be so annoyed that I won – he bet I couldn’t find you in under five minutes,” she takes her phone out of her clutch to check the time, “and it’s been less than four.”

Neil thinks he’s probably doing something wrong in his perpetual quest to avoid people if Morgan found them that easily. (Or maybe Park’s just an exceptional teacher.) “What’s he going to owe you?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” She’s texting someone now (presumably Park to gloat about her win, if her triumphant smile is any indication). “I think I’ll make him take me to dinner. An expensive dinner.”

“Forcing him to spend an evening with you?” Neil infuses his voice with as much sympathy for Park as he possibly can. “That’s a harsh punishment for losing a bet, Reznick.”

She glances up from her phone just to send him an idle glare. “My company is delightful, Melendez.”

Shaun opens his mouth to speak, but when Morgan instantly switches her laser focus over to him, he must think better of it, since he ultimately says nothing.

Despite himself, Neil’s actually curious about her methods. “Okay, I’ll bite. How’d you find us so fast in a hotel this size?”

She presses send on a final message, then neatly puts her phone back in her clutch. “Truthfully? Don’t tell Alex, but it wasn’t that difficult. I just asked a few people in the lobby if they’d seen the most obnoxiously in love couple at our gala, and everyone pointed me toward the elevators.”

It doesn’t even sound like she’s joking. “Really?”

“Really. And since neither of you booked a room –” At Neil’s wordless expression of ‘How could you possibly know that?’ she explains, “I checked with the front desk.”

“Guess I’m only staying at hotels under aliases now,” he mutters.

“I’d still know,” she says bitingly (and somehow, he believes her). “Now, since I knew you got on the elevator, but didn’t go to a room, that left the top floor. Nothing else – like the gym or the executive level – made sense.” She’s grinning, clearly beyond thrilled with herself. “Helpful hint? Next time you want to truly hide, find a spot that isn’t behind glass walls. I saw you the moment I stepped out of the elevator.”

“We were not trying to hide,” Shaun informs her.

“Maybe you weren’t,” her voice is shrewd, “but Melendez sure was.”

She’s mostly right – he hadn’t been looking to ‘hide’ so much as he’d been looking to buy Shaun some time to regain himself, but the distinction is minor and not worth arguing over.

“Look,” he begins, “you can save your spiel about needing us to return immediately. We have it memorized by now, so –”

“I’m not here to nag you, and you don’t have to worry, I won’t be telling Andrews where you are. Frankly, I’m sick of it. And I have much more worth than to act as your prison guard all night.” She drops her clutch onto a nearby chaise lounge so she can grip the railing, then uses her hold to lean back and look up at the sky. “I told Andrews as much.”

Neil’s stunned into momentary silence, because that’s the last thing he expected to hear, from her of all people.

“You told him that?” Shaun’s somewhat apprehensive. “What did he say?”

“He told me something I figured out a long time ago.” She laughs a little. “You get it, don’t you? This whole thing? Why he won’t leave you alone?”

Shaun mutely shakes his head, and because she’s Morgan, Neil knows she could be going anywhere with this.

“It’s not only about what you do for him,” she tells Shaun. “Whether it’s raising money or your research or – well, you know everything that you do. And that’s all a big part of it, but there’s more to it than that.” She looks between them, searching for something, and when she doesn’t find it, she breathes out in annoyance. “You two really are wrapped up in each other, aren’t you? You don’t see half of what goes on around you. Or right in front of you.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Shaun says, and it’s better that he’s the one who answered her, because Neil’s response wouldn’t have been half as kind – not with how frustrating she’s being (which he suspects is deliberate).

And he’s more or less proven right when she smiles smugly at them, and goads, “Come on! You really have no idea?”

Shaun looks to Neil, seeking some sort of answer he doesn’t have. And that makes Neil affect the tone that no one will argue with, not even her. “Out with it, Reznick.”

Her face falls into a displeased frown at having her fun cut short, but she gives in, turning to Shaun and bluntly informing him, “Andrews is worried about you.”

“He is?” Shaun asks, and his question is the only thing Neil’s heard so far in this conversation that surprises him.

“Wait,” he turns Shaun back towards him by his shoulder, “you didn’t know that?”

“Oh.” Morgan’s clearly disappointed that she hasn’t revealed any groundbreaking news about their boss. “So you did know.”

“Of course I knew,” Neil tells her. “That’s how Marcus is, how he’s always been; the more worried he is, the more aggravating he gets. He has difficulty expressing emotions like a normal person.”

“I did not know that,” Shaun murmurs.

“Sorry, I should have…” He looks from Shaun to Morgan, both of whom appear to be processing this new information in their own ways. “Sometimes I forget that none of you have known him as long as I have.”

“Is that why he’s on you all the time?” Morgan jokes to Neil. “Because he’s concerned about you?”

He can’t help laughing. “No, I just annoy the hell out of him. And it’s mutual.”

Morgan idly kicks at the leg of a chaise lounge, like she’s testing its durability. “I suppose from a purely practical standpoint, it makes sense.” She glances at Shaun. “You do a lot for him and the hospital. Obviously, he wants to make sure that you’re…doing all right. And he shows that by hovering. And otherwise irritating you.”

“Hmm,” Neil nods in agreement, “and what’s your excuse, Reznick?”

“You know me,” her voice teems with feigned pleasantry, “I’m veritably overflowing with concern for my colleagues.” She cautiously perches on the edge of the chaise, and when it doesn’t collapse under her, she relaxes. “For what it’s worth, I tried telling Andrews he’s wasting his time worrying about Shaun.”

Neil knows where she’s going with this, and he’s not sure how well Shaun will take it, but he misses his chance to steer the conversation somewhere else when Shaun asks her, “What do you mean?”

She takes in his genuine curiosity for a few long seconds. “Why are we on the observation deck right now?” When he fails to answer, she adds, “And whose idea was it to come up here?”

Neil studies her, wondering how she’d determined it was him, and not Shaun, who’d brought them to the roof. “How did you –”

“It’s what you do,” she interrupts, not even needing him to finish the question. “What you’ve always done.” She leans back, allowing her eyes to fall shut. “And now that you’re in a relationship, I don’t know why our boss would ever be concerned about Shaun again. Which is exactly what I told him.”

At first, Neil thinks there might be some kind of subtle dig hidden in her statements, but all he hears is sincerity. And maybe even more than that: it sounds like she’s stating what she believes to be a fact. (And that causes him immense satisfaction, because if Morgan’s aware of how far he’ll go to protect Shaun, then it means pretty much everyone else they work with knows, as well.)

Shaun’s quietly putting together her (mostly unspoken) implication – and unlike Neil, he doesn’t like it. “I don’t need anyone. I can take care of –”

“Yourself,” Morgan interjects. “We know, Shaun. We’ve all heard this speech a hundred times. And you know what? We can all take care of ourselves – but that doesn’t mean you always have to refuse help from other people. I also want to add that your righteous indignation is hard to swallow when you only have yourself to blame for the conclusion I reached a long time ago.”

Shaun’s clearly lost, but he remains quiet, waiting for her to go on.

“That automatic, unhappy reaction that you just had? That’s the kind of reaction you have whenever anyone tries to help you. You shut them down immediately, often angrily. With the occasional exception of Dr. Glassman, you push everyone away. Except…” She waves a hand at Neil. “Him…you only draw closer. And that was true before you admitted you loved each other. I used to wonder about it, too. Obviously, I don’t anymore.”

Shaun’s just staring at her, like he’s consciously realizing (maybe for the first time) how right she is.

“So don’t get upset because I happened to point out the truth,” she’s continuing, slightly miffed. “Besides, what’s so awful about letting other people help you? It doesn’t mean you can’t do things for yourself.”

Shaun shakes his head before she’s done talking. “My whole life, people have tried to ‘help’ me, but it’s almost always a lie. They’re not helping me, they’re helping themselves. By doing things to make their lives easier, or to allow them to feel better about themselves.” He’s getting more frustrated as he goes on. “People try to make decisions for me. They try to do things for me. Even Dr. Glassman has made that mistake, many times. None of that helps me.”

“And Dr. Melendez?” She sounds genuinely curious.

“He knows the difference between helping and…taking my choices away.”

Neil feels something inside him twist at the unwavering honesty and gratitude in his voice. Shaun’s trust in him is absolute and he’ll never take that for granted, not least of all because he knows what it costs for the other man to extend it. He reaches over to run his hand down Shaun’s arm, for no other reason than to acknowledge that he hears him. (Neil’s gotten significantly better at listening over the past year, gotten better at recognizing that it’s not even necessarily about the words someone is saying…and a lot of that is thanks to Shaun.)

“That’s one of the things I miss most about being a relationship,” Morgan’s sighing, maybe to herself; her tone is one-part envious, two-parts wistful. “Having someone who knows you that well, who can help when you most need it. Without even having to ask them.” She sinks further into the chaise lounge. “What you two have…I almost find it sweet.” Her eyes widen, like she can’t believe what she’s just admitted, out loud, in front of witnesses. She presses the heels of her hands to her forehead and groans, “My God, how much have I had to drink tonight? Do not repeat any of that.”

“We could probably keep it between us,” Neil offers. “For the right price.”

“Don’t try and blackmail me,” she threatens. “I’ll blackmail you right back. A hundred times worse.”

“You have nothing on us,” Neil points out.

She narrows her eyes. “I’ll make something up. I'm very creative.”

Shaun, as usual, ignores their argument entirely as he checks his phone. “Dr. Andrews is texting me. We should go back.”

“You should say no to him more often,” Morgan suggests, stretching as she returns to her feet. “He asks so much of you because you rarely put up a fight.”

“This is our job,” Shaun says evenly. “I want to be here tonight.”

“I don’t mean tonight, which was mandatory for all of us. I’m talking about the things he’s always asking you to volunteer for. Like after work. Or on your days off.” She affects a tone of innocence. “Unless you enjoy all the community outreach programs he’s roped you into lately?”

Shaun hesitates briefly. “You know I do not.” He’s complained about it many times, to all of them. Shaun doesn’t mind volunteering when he can actively help people in their city, but many of the extra events Marcus asks him to assist with barely require consciousness – things like sitting for hours at an information booth or attending city council meetings to ‘represent’ their hospital. (Neil’s gone to a few things with him and they’re as boring as he remembers from the days of his own residency.)

“You’re part of a team,” Morgan reminds him. “Tell Andrews you want to enjoy more of your time off and he’ll spread things around more. Take the holiday fair he signed us up for next weekend, as an example.” Her smile turns biting. “Alex could stand to spend his Saturday interacting with his fellow citizens and handing out educational pamphlets. It’s not like he has anything else to do with his free time.”

“Andrews is equally as likely to make you do it,” Neil points out.

“Good,” she says snippily. “I love helping those in our community who are most in need.”

Neil wonders if she’s ever going to realize that he can see right through her; in his field, it’s people like her who are common and people like Shaun, who have no use for subterfuge, that are rare. “Or, Reznick, it’s that you want more opportunities to impress him. Opportunities that would come along much more frequently if Shaun turned him down more often.”

“So what?” She crosses her arms and addresses Shaun. “It’s not like your future’s in any jeopardy here, which means it’s win-win. You get to do less, we get to do more. Think of how much you could get done in your free time if you cut back on the volunteering. I’m sure you and Melendez have plenty of mind-numbing things you’d love to do if you only had more time together.”

It must be downright impossible for her to go more than five sentences without issuing some kind of subtle insult. And yet…she’s not saying anything Neil hasn’t thought for a while. He’s always felt like Marcus asked too much of Shaun, but he’d never wanted to interfere and make it seem like he was using his position to sway things in his resident’s favor.

“Three of my last four days off, I have done things Dr. Andrews requested,” Shaun says, as he looks at Neil, which means he wants his input.

“You should do what you want,” Neil tells him. “But you shouldn’t say yes to everything just because you think it’s what he wants to hear. You’re allowed to enjoy your free time. You’re allowed to have a life. After everything we give to our jobs, we’ve all earned that.” He glances at Morgan, making sure that she’s listening to this next part, because she’s the one who most needs to hear it. “Don’t ignore your personal life for your career. You might think it’s worth it, and for years, for decades, it might be. But in the end, you’ll regret it. I’ve seen it happen to too many people. They sacrifice their families, their friends, their hobbies – any semblance of a life outside of work gets pushed aside and forgotten. But we can’t do this forever, there’s an ‘after’ for all of us, and if you retire and there’s nothing? You’ll hate it and you’ll be miserable, and you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing you’d done things differently.”

“Maybe I want work to be my life,” Morgan argues, probably just for the hell of it. “I could figure out a way to centralize everything, personal and professional, around our hospital.” She sends an arch look Neil’s way. “Like you two have.”

“You could date another doctor,” Shaun says, helpfully.

She’s thoroughly unimpressed with that suggestion. “Doctors are practically the worst people to be in relationships with. Arrogant, entitled, completely and utterly incapable of seeing anything beyond themselves –”

“He didn’t tell you to date yourself, Reznick,” Neil breaks in, on a smirk. When she swats his arm, he adds, “You walked right into that one.”

Shaun seems to have taken offense at her description. “Doctors are people, like everyone else. All people have good and bad qualities.”

“Yes, but a lot of the same attributes that make a person a great doctor also make them terrible at relationships.” She heads back inside, with Shaun shortly behind her, which means Neil has no choice but to follow them both. “It’s practically a scientific fact.”

“It is not,” Shaun refutes. “Claiming something is a scientific fact does not make it one. There are lots of good people who work at our hospital.”

“Murphy’s right,” Neil says, as they reach the elevators and he presses the button to go down. “You just have to open your eyes.”

“Yes, you could date an ophthalmologist,” Shaun tells Morgan.

She presses a hand to her face in a futile effort to stifle her laughter. “I don’t even know if that was actually funny.” She turns to Neil. “Was that funny? Or is it the alcohol?” Before he can attempt an answer, she waves him off. “Forget it, why am I asking you? Your excessive affection for him makes you blind to whether he’s actually humorous or not.”

“It was mostly a joke,” Shaun informs her, as they step into the elevator. “If you needed clarification.”

“What say you, Reznick?” Neil begins, slyly. “Have you…got eyes for any ophthalmologists?”

She groans as she collapses against the back wall of the elevator. “That is so terrible. Stick to your day job, please, because that kind of humor could kill.”

“Puns are a sign of intelligence,” Shaun chimes in. “I read a study wherein –”

She holds up a hand to stave him off. “I don’t need a twenty minute lecture on why Melendez is the smartest person you know.”

I am the smartest person I know,” Shaun counters, matter of factly.

“He’s humble, too,” Neil loudly whispers to Morgan.

She snickers before telling Shaun, “Fine, I don’t need a twenty minute lecture on why you love him so much.”

Shaun glances back and forth between them. “Neil has many admirable qualities. I could list them.”

“That wasn’t a challenge, Murphy,” Neil warns, knowing what tends to happen when Shaun tries to ‘prove’ that they’re together. But then he wonders… “Actually, I might enjoy hearing that list.”

“How long does this elevator take?” Morgan’s voice has taken on a decidedly whining note as she watches the numbers for the floors tick down. “I have to get out of here.”

“I was not aware you were claustrophobic,” Shaun says, with some concern.

“I’m not yet,” she says warily, “but I can tell this is how that phobia starts.”

“A phobia usually involves something traumatic that –”

“Exactly,” she interrupts.

Thankfully, before she and Shaun can start an actual argument over the clinical origin of phobias, the doors open and she’s off like a shot, throwing a hasty wave at them over her shoulder.

Neil turns to Shaun as they reenter the lobby. “Sure you’re ready to go back?”

Shaun adjusts the ends of his shirtsleeves and Neil feels an automatic surge of worry before he realizes that his resident isn’t about to unfasten his cufflinks. No, this time he’s just pulling at the fabric to ensure it’s as neat as he can possibly make it. “I am ready,” Shaun says, smiling at him. “Are you?”

“Only if you are,” he says, as Shaun nods, and they head back towards the ballroom.

(Neil doesn’t dwell upon the fact that his words were much more of a promise than the simple answer Shaun was looking for.)

Chapter Text

Aaron Glassman must have been hovering by the main doors of the ballroom, because the moment Neil and Shaun step inside, he appears in front of them. (It’s really a roll of the dice, at this point, on who will bother them next.)

His worried eyes are focused only on Shaun when he says, “You two are still here.” (And maybe he’s taking lessons on stating the obvious from Shaun.) “I thought – I hoped that you’d left.”

“We did not leave,” Shaun unnecessarily confirms.

“I can see that.” Now Aaron’s focused on Neil, slightly disapproving in a way that Neil doesn’t appreciate. “You can go home, though. I think that you’ve put in more than enough time tonight.” Though he seems to be talking to both of them, Neil knows the excuse is entirely for Shaun’s benefit.

“We are staying,” Shaun tells him. “There are people I have not talked to yet.”

Rather than appeasing the older man, every word seems to frustrate Aaron more. “I know Dr. Andrews told you that you had to stay until 11, but he has no authority to actually issue orders like that. So don’t feel like you have to stay on his account.”

It’s all Neil can do not to laugh at that. “When have I ever done anything voluntary because Marcus wanted me to?”

“We’re not discussing your issues with authority, Neil – issues which you are in danger of passing on to your residents, by the way.”

“They’re insubordinate all on their own,” Neil counters. “They hardly need my help.”

“I told Neil that Dr. Andrews would be angry if we left the gala,” Shaun informs Aaron, “and he said that it would be a perk of leaving.”

“Now that sounds like Neil.” Aaron sends him a sideways glance and mutters, in aside, “Issues.” His concern hasn’t vanished, either, as evidenced by the way he turns back to Shaun and asks, “Are you alright?”

Shaun folds his hands in front of himself and nods. “I am fine. I’m going to say ‘no’ more.”

Aaron’s at a loss. “Okay?”

“It’s a good thing,” Shaun assures him, smiling at Neil.

“It is,” Neil agrees, relieved all over again at the knowledge that Shaun has decided to deliberately lighten his workload. (And that Neil technically has Morgan to thank for helping with something that’s been bothering him for months… Their world really does work in strange and mysterious ways, sometimes.) “He’s going to say ‘no’ to Marcus more often,” he tells Aaron, since Shaun doesn’t seem inclined to explain. “When it comes to…voluntary things.”

“Alright.” Aaron’s still not satisfied. “You should both go home.”

Neil supposes he should be glad that Aaron hasn’t issued it as a direct order, but it irritates him all the same. “He just told you he’s fine, Aaron, and he wants to stay.” It takes some effort to lighten his tone, but he manages when he adds, “Since when can I make Murphy do something he doesn’t want to do?”

“You –” Aaron wisely stops whatever he was about to say, though Neil has a few educated guesses, most of them arguments that Neil can, in fact, get Shaun to do things he doesn’t want to do. (And Aaron would merely be stating the truth if he chose to go that way, but they both know he won’t do it in front of Shaun.)

Over the past year (and the last few months, especially) Neil’s learned that the best methods of persuading Shaun have to do with logic – if he can come up with a rational argument for anything, Shaun’s likely to agree. He’s also learned how to get him to comply with things he doesn’t necessarily like if they’re in his own best interest, and that usually goes back to logic, too. (Neil’s general favorite is some variation of ‘How can you care for our patients to the best of your ability if you don’t care for yourself to the best of your ability?’) He’s also not above using emotional appeals: Shaun doesn’t tend to care if those appeals are concerns for him, but if they’re for someone he cares about – his friends, or Aaron, or Neil himself? That’s an entirely different story. All Neil would have to do is say he’s had enough of their gala and Shaun would be the one insisting they leave.

Despite all of that, Neil’s very careful to never use anything he’s learned to manipulate or coerce Shaun into doing anything that’s truly against his will. And that holds true across any and all situations, with only one caveat – that Shaun’s well-being isn’t a factor. If Shaun hadn’t recovered during their time alone upstairs, or if he wanted to stay when it was clear it would be detrimental to him, Neil wouldn’t have any qualms about using every method at his disposal to get him to leave. But Shaun’s perfectly fine at the moment and he wants to stay. So they’re staying.

Perhaps Shaun’s picked up on the growing tension between the two men, because he takes a step closer to Aaron, emphasizing, “I want to remain at the gala.”

“I got that, Shaun.” Aaron’s voice holds the weariness of someone who’s had similar arguments dozens of times, across dozens of places – and that’s all it takes for Neil’s annoyance with him to fade. He knows, at the heart of everything, that Aaron’s only ever operating from one place when it comes to Shaun: the desire to make sure he’s okay. (And Neil happens to know that place incredibly well.)

“You do not want me to stay,” Shaun says flatly, now sounding as unhappy as Aaron.

“It’s not that I don’t want you to stay,” Aaron tries to explain. “It’s that I don’t want you to feel like you have to be here if it’s become…too difficult for you.” He looks at Shaun’s still-folded hands, causing Neil to recall that the other man had been present when Shaun couldn’t stop playing with his cufflinks earlier. (And of everyone, Aaron knows all too well where Shaun would have been heading if he hadn’t taken a break when he did.) “Are you going to try and tell me that you were fine the last time I saw you?”

“I was not,” Shaun says slowly, glancing at Neil. “I am now.”

“We both know how important these events are to you,” Aaron says quietly.

“More money means –”

“– less people die,” Aaron finishes. “And you’re right, Shaun. But it means that I worry when it comes to things like this – when you say that you’re fine… Are you sure you’re not stretching the truth, to yourself, in order to stay?”

Neil knows that Shaun isn’t (because he can tell that he’s not), but he recognizes it’s been a valid concern in the past, so the answer is something Aaron needs to hear for himself – and directly from Shaun.

Shaun stares at his own hands for maybe fifteen seconds, and Neil gets the feeling he’s performing some kind of self-assessment in response to Aaron’s question. When he looks up at them again, he says firmly, “We all have to do things that we are not comfortable with, but I’m okay. If I needed to go home, I would have.” As Aaron’s concern somewhat eases, Shaun adds, “Neil offered to take me home several times.”

Aaron mutters to Neil, “You might have mentioned that.”

“You might have figured it out yourself,” Neil replies. “Did you really think I’d hold him hostage if he wanted to leave?”

“Neil would never hold me hostage,” Shaun asserts. “He is usually quite law-abiding.”

Aaron’s obviously amused by the sharp turn into left field their conversation’s taken. “Usually?”

“He sometimes drives above the speed limit.”

“Or are the speed limits too low?” Neil muses.

Shaun’s actually ticking items off on his fingers. “He often jaywalks.”

“There aren’t enough crosswalks around here!”

“He forgot to renew his driver’s license, despite my repeated reminders –”

“Harassment,” Neil interrupts. “Your repeated harassment.”

“– which means for two days at the start of this month, he had an expired license.”

“I take issue with that one,” Neil argues. “I didn’t drive when it was expired, so I wasn’t breaking the law.” He sends a censuring look Shaun’s way that he knows will have no effect (so he has no idea why he still does it, except maybe it’s habit). “I’m going to stop telling you things.”

“These are not things you have told me, merely things I’ve observed.”

“Careful, Shaun,” Aaron’s enjoying this to an unhealthy degree, “if you keep associating with delinquents like Neil, people might start believing you have criminal tendencies.”

Shaun seems to be thinking that over as he studies Neil, then soberly announces, “I will continue to associate.”

“I’m so honored,” Neil says dryly, though his own smile greatly ruins the effect.

“I do not know what would happen to him without my influence,” Shaun says to Aaron.

“He’d probably end up in jail,” Aaron replies, complete with a rueful shake of his head in an ‘I can’t believe Neil’s life choices’ sort of way.

“I can hear you,” Neil reminds them (though he needn’t have bothered, for all the effect it has).

“I have yet to see him commit a crime that would lead to imprisonment,” Shaun’s telling Aaron. “However, it is a fact that those who commit minor crimes are more likely to escalate to higher offenses, so theoretically –”

“Are you two having fun?” Neil interrupts. “Because theoretically I could walk away from both of you and go…” He realizes, too late, that there’s no good way to end that sentence. After all, he wouldn’t leave the gala without Shaun.

Aaron knows it, too. “You could go…do what?”

Neil sighs in defeat because there’s pretty much only one option. “Talk to other people,” he mumbles.

“By all means.” Aaron sweeps a hand behind him, towards the ballroom that’s just as crowded as it was a half hour earlier. “Don’t let me or Shaun hold you back.”

“Why do you always have to call my bluff?” Neil complains. “You. And Murphy. And my residents.” His thoughts stray to everyone else in his life. “Well, and Marcus. Jess. Audrey…”

“You should practice bluffing,” Shaun suggests.

“I should find new friends,” Neil retorts. “It’d be a lot easier.”

Shaun slowly shakes his head. “You do not believe that. It is difficult to make real friends; you should hold on to them when you find them. That’s what I do.”

“You’re right. I was only kidding – I have no plans to drop any of my friends.” Neil pauses, considering. “At least, not right this moment. Every day is really a coin flip, though.”

Shaun clearly doesn’t believe that, either, but he doesn’t get the chance to keep arguing because Aaron sighs as he pulls out his phone. “Marcus. Again.” He swipes away whatever notifications he’s gotten and returns it to his jacket pocket. “I meant to warn you both that he’s looking for you.”

That’s about the least helpful ‘warning’ Neil’s received all month. “We noticed by the way he’s been stalking us all evening. And enlisting others to do the same.”

“He cannot seem to do much without us,” Shaun agrees.

Aaron’s scanning their immediate vicinity, perhaps as surprised as Neil that after saying the other man’s name out loud, he hasn’t swooped in out of nowhere. “I told him to lay off. I don’t know if it was effective.”

“I’m going to take a wild guess that it wasn’t.” Neil holds up his phone to show Aaron that he’s gotten seven new texts from Marcus within the last five minutes. “Let’s read the latest one – ah, it’s a list of the various ways he’ll torture me if I don’t ‘return to the gala, ASAP’. How fun.”

“Nothing in that message sounds fun,” Shaun counters, having leaned over to read the text along with Neil. “He is being very antagonistic.”

“It’s because he’s annoyed that I’m not answering him.” Neil internally debates how wise it’d be to temporarily block his number before deciding it’s not worth listening to Marcus complain. Instead, he writes back, This is your official notice that I’m getting a restraining order. His phone starts vibrating within seconds of sending it, but Neil returns it to his pocket without reading the reply, because he’s not looking to have his good mood ruined.

“You threatened him with a restraining order, but you do not have legal grounds for one,” Shaun informs him.

“He irritates me. That’s legal grounds.”

“That is not legal grounds.”

“It’s a joke, Shaun,” he says quickly, before his resident can start citing California state law.

“Is it a joke?” Aaron’s eyes are sharp on them, but he’s silently laughing at Neil’s predicament – he can tell.

“Mostly,” Neil mutters.

“Issuing a threat as a means of humor,” Shaun says thoughtfully. “You are overreacting to his messages and the humor comes from…your disproportionate response?”

Disproportionate response?” Clearly, no one around here understands just how difficult his life truly is. “I don’t think I can agree with your assessment, Murphy.”

Shaun seems slightly confused. “You said it was a joke.”

“Mostly a joke. Mostly. I don’t discount that one day I might have to go to extreme measures to get away from Andrews.” Neil glances at Aaron, who’s shaking his head (probably in exasperation), then at Shaun, who’s smiling now. “Don’t think I can’t see you, Murphy. Guess that means you see the humor in my joke, after all?”

“I am not smiling at you,” Shaun unsuccessfully tries to claim (and conveniently ignores Neil’s question) as he takes out his phone. “Dr. Andrews is texting me again.”

“That’s because I’m ignoring him again.” Neil looks around, but their Chief of Surgery is still nowhere in sight. “Someone he deems prestigious must have him cornered, or else he’d already be over here.”

“He would like us to join him.” Shaun’s craning his neck to try and see past the crowd. “He is at a table between the dance floor and the bar.”

“Tell him if he wants us, he can come find us.”

“I am not going to –” Shaun breaks off when Neil swipes the phone from his hand.

“Never mind, I’ll do it.” Neil starts typing as he asks, “What’s a suitably Murphy-esque response? How about… If you don’t stop repeatedly texting me, I am going to follow the lead of my brilliant and infallible attending to issue a restraining order against you.” He (wisely) hits send before Aaron or Shaun can react.

“Infallible?” Aaron’s voice sounds strangely choked.

“I like that you didn’t take issue with brilliant,” Neil laughs, as a return text almost instantaneously comes through: Give Murphy back his phone. “Uh oh. Somehow he knows that wasn’t you, Shaun.”

Shaun retrieves his phone, rapidly typing something as he scolds, “Now I have to apologize for you.”

“No, you really don’t,” Neil assures him.

“I do,” Shaun protests, as he sends his message. “I don’t want him to be upset with you.”

“It’s easier to give him reasons,” Neil says, ever practical. “He’ll always find something to be upset with me about, warranted or not.”

“I am aware,” Shaun murmurs. “I do not like it.”

Neil reaches over to run his hand along Shaun’s arm. “I know you don’t.”

Shaun’s phone vibrates and he reads Marcus’s reply, his expression darkening. Whatever their boss has said, Shaun more than doesn’t like it – he seems to outright hate it. He types out a brief reply, hitting the button to send it with unnecessary force.

“What did he say?” Aaron asks, frowning at Shaun’s unusual reaction to the message.

Shaun watches his phone for several more seconds, nodding with satisfaction when he doesn’t get a reply, and then looks at Neil. “He said that perhaps I need a break from you.”

Neil isn’t sure whether Marcus had said it as a joke, or as a means of getting Shaun to seek him out by himself, but apparently it doesn’t matter – Shaun’s reaction reveals that he’s unhappy either way.

“As usual, Marcus doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Neil reassures him. “After all, who would want to keep their distance from me?”

He’d said it to lighten the mood, but there’s no matching humor in Shaun’s voice when he resolutely says, “Not. Me.”

Neil’s gaze softens when he smiles at him in return; he doesn’t have to say the reverse is also true, because it’s something he’s said before, in a hundred different ways (and Shaun’s heard them all).

Aaron’s moving his eyes back and forth between them, like there’s something here he’s missing and he’ll find it if he only searches long enough. “So, I take it things are going well for you two? With…this…whole…” He makes some sort of gesture which Neil gathers is meant to encompass their relationship.

Neil surreptitiously looks around, making sure the three of them have relative privacy. “It’s fine, Aaron. I mean, as fine as a pretend relationship can be.”

“Right.” Aaron presses his mouth into a thin line and gives an exaggerated nod. “Pretend.”

Aside from Neil and Shaun, Aaron Glassman is the only one who knows that they aren’t actually in a relationship. Shaun had told him everything – their whole plan and the reasons behind it – the first day they’d agreed to this, insisting that he couldn’t lie to Aaron, even by omission.

At first, Aaron had thought it was some kind of prank, and when it sank in that they were serious, he’d started throwing around words like ‘short-sighted’ and ‘impulsive’ and ‘crazy’. But despite his best efforts, he’d completely failed in his mission to talk them out of it.

Aaron’s disapproval had lasted for approximately a week before he did a complete 180, stating that not only was he in favor of their idea, but he would do whatever was necessary to ‘help them sell it’, which mostly consisted of loudly asking them things like ‘When are you going to move in together?’ or ‘It’s your 57 day anniversary, isn’t it?’. Aaron only tosses out his random, sometimes nonsensical questions when there are conveniently lots of people around – like when they’re waiting in line in the cafeteria, or when he needlessly stops by one of their department’s staff meetings.

Of course, Neil knows that Aaron doesn’t do it to ‘help’ them – he’s fairly sure the older man does it because he’s trying to make some kind of point, probably that even though he’s no longer actively against what they’re doing, he still doesn’t entirely approve. (And surprisingly, Shaun’s actually much better at rolling with Aaron’s questions than Neil is, so he generally lets his resident field them – when Neil had once asked why he didn’t find them difficult to answer, Shaun had explained it was easy to come up with responses if they were technically the truth.)

In light of all that, Aaron’s inquiry a minute ago had been abnormally subdued compared to his usual style – and that means he must genuinely want to know how they’re doing, which Neil can’t blame him for. Despite the other man’s enjoyment of good-naturedly harassing them, Neil’s pretty sure the reason Aaron came around to their plan at all was because he saw how much it helped Shaun (despite his initial misgivings).

“Things are good,” Shaun’s telling Aaron – another one of those ‘technically truthful’ answers he loves to give.

“Good,” Aaron repeats, without any affect.

Shaun nods in confirmation. “We’re both happy.”

Aaron hums noncommittally, letting silence fall for a few moments before he asks, “And is that pretend, too?”

Shaun’s expression clears, sharpening exponentially as he tries to determine what Aaron’s getting at. “No.” There’s an edge to his voice Neil doesn’t recognize. “It is not.”

Instead of replying to Shaun, Aaron turns his piercing gaze on Neil in silent question. Neil has the inexplicable urge to snap at him (for what, he doesn’t know), but he forces himself to remain calm when he repeats, “No, it’s not.”

“It’s not,” Aaron slowly echoes. “Funny how that works, isn’t it, Neil?”

“I do not see any humor in this conversation,” Shaun says, with no shortage of suspicion.

“Nor do I, Shaun,” Aaron assures him. Shaun doesn’t seem satisfied with that response (and neither is Neil, for that matter), but no one presses the issue any further.

Neil knows that Aaron’s questions are borne of leftover worry and concern from back when they’d first started this – even though it outwardly appears as if their feigned relationship has helped Shaun, Aaron wants to make sure he isn’t missing anything. (And he correctly trusts that Neil would tell him if he were.)

Neil thinks back to his conversation with Shaun up on the observation deck. The simple question Shaun had asked.

Does this make you happy?

And Neil’s equally simple answer in return.

Yes, it does.

Shaun’s happiness when it comes to this has always been what mattered most to Neil, but then upstairs, Shaun had reminded him that it goes both ways: Neil’s happiness is equally as important to Shaun.

Happiness. Of all the places he’d ever thought he’d find it, he can definitively say that in a fake relationship with his most challenging resident is something that he’d never have imagined, not even in his wildest of far-off dreams.

Aaron seems like he’s about to say more, but the words are forever lost when Morgan wanders up to their group and demands, “Why are you all hanging out by the door? I wanted to –” She loses her train of thought when she happens to glance upward and something very close to sheer delight crosses her face. “Would you look at that?”

The three men follow her gaze and yes, this just makes Neil’s night complete.

Mistletoe.

Aaron’s the only one of them with any sense, as evidenced by the way he issues a hasty, barely intelligible excuse before fleeing from their group and disappearing back into the depths of the ballroom. (He might as well have said that he has no desire to stick around and see what unfolds next – he knows them all so well.)

Neil has half a mind to follow him, but he can’t, in good conscience, leave anyone alone with Reznick under mistletoe. (Okay, that’s a lie, because he’d definitely abandon Andrews with her just for the awkward hilarity of it.) He’s also relatively certain that it hadn’t been there earlier, because Morgan definitely would have commented on it in an effort to see who she could make the most uncomfortable.

“It’s extremely professional to have that at a work event with all our colleagues,” Neil says sarcastically.

Morgan’s eyes light up, which should have clued him in to where her thoughts were going. “Since when does keeping things professional with colleagues matter to you, Dr. Melendez?”

He can’t believe he set her up so perfectly. And he can’t even chastise her for it, since (as far as everyone knows) she’s right. He can tell that she’s calculating whatever she’s about to say next, and he can only hope it doesn’t involve anyone kissing anyone.

Of course, that’s right when she drawls, “Which one of you lucky gentlemen do I get to kiss?”

Shaun actually reels backwards, and in his horror, he neglects to check his surroundings and has the misfortune of backing straight into Park, who’d unknowingly been on a collision course in a path behind him.

Alex sets a steadying hand on his arm, keeping them both balanced. “Where’s the fire, Murphy?”

“There is no fire.” Shaun reaches for his absent tie, in a nervous gesture, and frowns when he remembers it’s gone, switching to pull at his cufflinks instead. “Morgan wants to kiss one of us.”

Alex makes an exaggerated show of waving towards the doors. “In that case, I’m sorry I blocked your exit. You should run while you still can.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.” Morgan punctuates each syllable with a clap. “You’re a goddamn riot, Park.” Her glacial expression has felled many, but her fellow resident doesn’t even blink. “Sorry that I’m the only one around here with any holiday spirit.”

“Holiday spirit should not involve kissing.” Shaun’s tone perfectly matches how horrified he’d looked moments earlier.

“You’ve never experienced my version of holiday spirit,” she smirks, blowing him a kiss that causes him to take another step back, then flicks her eyes up at the mistletoe. “No takers? You’re all missing out.” Despite the plaintive whining, it’s apparent to everyone that she’s keeping this up because they’d rather be anywhere else. (Or at least, Neil knows it’s true for him and Shaun – he can never tell much with Park.)

Shaun eyes Morgan warily, like he’s genuinely afraid she’s going to lunge at him any moment. “I am not kissing you,” he announces, loudly enough that a few people talking nearby glance over in confusion. (Or maybe amusement.) He edges another step towards the exit, but Park’s not in his way anymore, so Neil reaches out to grab Shaun’s elbow and pull him back. (He’s half-convinced if Shaun gets enough momentum he might keep going and leave after all.)

“I appreciate how thoroughly appalled you are,” Morgan’s telling Shaun, complete with theatrical pouting. “It’s not at all insulting.”

“I do not kiss people,” Shaun explains. “I do not like –”

Neil loudly clears his throat, Shaun abruptly stops talking, and Alex looks between them without any hint of what he’s thinking.

Morgan furrows her brow in confusion. “You don’t kiss people?” She flips a hand out to indicate she’s referring to Neil, and he’s relieved there’s no actual question in the teasing. She must think Shaun is just…being Shaun.

“Dr. Melendez is not…people,” Shaun says carefully. “He is Neil.”

“Hey! I’m a person.” Neil’s protest is fairly mild, because he knows what Shaun is trying to say. It’s an echo of their conversation from upstairs, and it actually means a lot to hear from Shaun.

“You are not them.” Shaun’s eyes sweep over the ballroom, across the hundreds of people in attendance tonight.

Neil’s about to reply, let him know he understands, but Shaun has already turned back to Morgan, who’s suggesting –

“Why don’t you two kiss right now?”

Damn, he knew it. He knew she might get to this point, and he vigorously shakes his head while trying to determine a way out of this. “Shaun is not comfortable with –”

“Oh come on!” she tries to cajole them. “It’s tradition. For good luck and future happiness and all that other probably made-up stuff. I’m sure Shaun knows this already. He knows everything.”

“It is tradition,” Shaun says, nodding. “Morgan is correct.”

“See, he doesn’t want –” Then Neil registers what Shaun’s said. Because it sounds an awful lot like agreement with Morgan. “What?”

“One of the main origins of the tradition was to bless a couple with fertility,” Shaun adds.

Morgan squints at them, as if she’s giving the matter great thought. “Yeah, I don’t think all the mistletoe in the world would let you two have a baby.”

“On the contrary,” Shaun says, “we could both –”

“Biologically with each other,” she groans, like she can’t believe she has to explain.

“Oh, yes,” Shaun amiably agrees. “It would not.”

“You could always adopt,” Park suggests, which sparks Morgan to chime in that she’s always liked that idea, and Neil has no idea when he lost control of this conversation, but he thinks it was a long time ago. (Maybe it was over a year ago, back when he first got assigned to all these people.)

He definitely needs to get a handle on things before they start planning his and Shaun’s entire future family, but that’s when Morgan inadvertently solves the problem for him – unfortunately, it’s by reminding everyone of their previous topic.

“I’m waitinnng,” she needles, making a show of putting her hands on her hips and tapping her foot. Neil figures it’s probably a toss-up on what’s more to blame for her persistence: the amount of champagne she’s consumed or the fact that she’s thoroughly enjoying antagonizing them. “You two don’t want to curse your relationship with terrible luck, do you?”

Suddenly the only thing Neil wants is distance from her, because she’s incredibly hard to distract once she gets an idea in her head, so barring something drastic, she’s not going to let this go. And that means Shaun’s probably going to try and ‘solve’ things by doing his best to convince her and Park that they’re in a happy relationship, and she’s too adept at picking up on their cues (even slightly inebriated) so Neil will have to do something to cover, or risk the truth coming out that they aren’t together in the worst time and place possible. And that means he’ll probably think about doing something completely insane, like kissing Shaun – just to convince them of course – and what would Shaun’s reaction be? Would he get upset? Would he go along with it to try and fool them? Would he think Neil had completely lost his mind, which is exactly what it’s starting to feel like?

Morgan’s looking expectantly between them, but her smile is dimming, and Neil can practically see the way she’s piecing things together in her head.

“There is no such thing as luck, either good or bad,” Shaun says primly. “There is no such thing as being ‘cursed’, either. However, I do not deny that people believing such things can influence their actions and behaviors.”

Morgan presses her fingers to the bridge of her nose and sighs. “Too late, you’re cursed.”

Shaun fidgets, and despite declaring that he doesn’t believe in curses, he’s clearly irritated with her. He unfastens and refastens his cufflinks, then says briskly, “You cannot be cursed if curses do not exist.”

She’s on a roll now, though, and won’t back down. “Sounds like what someone who’s cursed would say if they were in denial. Anyways, it’s really not a big deal if you don’t want to kiss each other. If there’s some kind of trouble in paradise I’m missing here, then I apologize.” Neil figures that last line, delivered too sweetly, was a deliberate shot to get a reaction out of them.

And it works.

“Neil and I kiss,” Shaun’s begun insisting. “All the time. Because we are in a relationship.” Oh no, he’s trying to convince her, and exactly what Neil feared would happen is happening. “We are never not kiss–”

“Murphy.” Neil wraps a hand around Shaun’s wrist to help calm him. “She gets it.”

Shaun takes a deliberate breath, staring at Neil’s hand. “I do not think she does.”

“You’re both acting really strange about this.” She’s glancing between them, far too perceptive for her own good. “And I’m not talking about the baseline level of strange I expect from both of you. This seems…different.” She looks at Alex. “Don’t you agree?”

“You’re making them uncomfortable,” Park says flatly, and while it’s mostly a rebuke, it’s also not a refutation of the accusation she’d made – and Neil knows him well enough to know that it means he finds their behavior odd, too. He’s wise enough not to say it out loud, but if Neil can interpret his response, that means Morgan can, as well.

This is what happens when they spend too much time with people. Neil finds it ironic that when they act like their normal selves, everyone thinks they’re together. But when they try to insist that they are, that’s when people get suspicious. (He’ll never understand it.)

“I’m sorry that telling the truth makes people uncomfortable.” Despite her claim, Morgan doesn’t sound particularly apologetic. “And I was only pointing out the beliefs behind a holiday tradition.”

“Exactly. You are telling us what people believe,” Shaun stresses. “You are not telling the objective truth, which is that luck and curses do not exist, no matter how much you illogically insist that they do.”

It’s clear she wants to argue (probably just for the enjoyment of arguing), but she happens to glance at Park and some kind of look passes between them that Neil can’t interpret. The end result is that (by some miracle) she keeps her mouth shut.

Neil studies Shaun where he’s still standing under the mistletoe, illuminated by the colorful lights around the doorway. He takes in the younger man’s rigid posture and increasing discontent, both signs of his aggravation that he knows he’s right, but can’t prove it to Morgan (mostly because she doesn’t want to hear it). Shaun’s letting her get to him, which is always the first mistake when it comes to Morgan (and Shaun knows that, but for whatever reason tonight he’s unable to help it).

For the briefest of moments, Neil thinks about what it’d be like if they were in a real relationship. What it’d be like to lean into Shaun, right here, right now, and kiss him until his irritation and anger vanished. Until he forgot about his annoyance with Morgan, with their conversation…with the entire evening.

He wonders what it’d be like to make him forget everything.

He tries to ignore that thought as soon as it crosses his mind because their relationship isn’t real – at least, not in the way that everyone thinks it is.

“You’ve never believed in luck, Murphy?” he asks, partly to distract himself and partly because he’s curious about the answer.

Shaun turns his full attention to Neil, and even something that minor has consequences: his entire demeanor slowly changes. Neil sees it in the way he drops his shoulders, in the way the lines of tension in him begin to ease.

Mostly, he sees it in the way the unhappiness starts fading from his eyes.

Shaun moves a step closer to him and says, seriously, “I believe in…making good choices. That will lead to good outcomes.”

“That’s called making your own luck.”

“That is an expression which has nothing to do with what Morgan was inaccurately claiming.” Shaun ignores her huff of annoyance to explain, “True luck presupposes no action on an individual’s part. It simply…is. Or is not. So in that sense, it is not real.”

Neil makes sure to choose his next words carefully, since he’s more on Morgan’s side of the debate (though unlike her, he’s not looking for an actual fight). “We’ve all experienced…unusual things. People who spontaneously recover or get better by no means which we can explain. There are any number of names for it: coincidences, miracles, happenstance…luck.”

“Just because we cannot explain it does not mean there isn’t a reason.” Shaun’s directed that at Morgan, and Neil half-expects her to start in again, but she’s merely watching them with interest. “Attributing things to ‘luck’,” Shaun continues, “is one of the ways the human mind tries to impose order on a random and chaotic world.”

“You’re probably right,” Neil concedes, “in the strictest sense. But…some part of me will always believe in things we can’t explain.” He knows Shaun’s next question will be ‘Why?’ and answers it before his resident even speaks. “Because I want to believe, Shaun.”

Now, Shaun’s the one studying him. “So…you believe in luck?”

“I’ll take anything that helps me, or my patients, if we happen to need it. Besides, like you said, it can influence people’s thoughts and behaviors. It can help them. Psychologically. Emotionally.”

“It can hurt them, too.”

“If they take it to extremes, sure. But that’s true of anything. And I don’t think that occasionally believing in luck is going to hurt me.” He sends Shaun a pointed look. “Nor would it hurt you.”

Shaun considers that before allowing, “Probably not. That still does not mean I’m going to believe in something irrational simply because it ‘would not hurt me’.”

“No one’s saying you have to,” Neil assures him, and he has no conscious plans to say what he does next, more surprised than not when he hears his own voice: “However, I’m never against trying to tip luck in my favor, if I can help it.”

“You’re not.” Shaun issues it as a statement, not a question.

Neil shakes his head, and Shaun’s smiling now, which is a marked change from a few minutes earlier, during his similar argument with Morgan. It’s like he’s almost entirely forgotten his aggravation from before. (The difference, Neil supposes, is that he’s no longer concerned with who’s right or wrong – he’s simply enjoying the debate for itself.)

And Neil thinks to himself, If something as inconsequential as this can effect such a change in Shaun’s mood, then what if…

He has no idea who moves first (which probably means they do it at the same time), but the next moment, they’re leaning into each other, and the press of his mouth against Shaun’s hits him with an actual jolt, a spark of lightning flashing across his mind that he can’t find the right words to describe. He distantly registers that his life has somehow become a romantic movie cliché (kissing under the mistletoe, at a work event, in front of everyone and why does none of that matter to him?). An undeniable feeling of electricity, of warmth, spreads everywhere in him, and even though it’s been a long time since he kissed someone, he thinks he’d remember if it had ever felt like this.

The next second, Shaun freezes in a way that’s definitely not natural, and Neil guesses that his resident’s realizing this was a crazy thing to do, that he’s second-guessing his actions (which is what Neil should be doing, make no mistake). He’s about to step back when Shaun inhales sharply and then moves closer, angling his head to increase the contact between them, and Neil’s momentarily distracted from his own whirlwind of emotions for long enough to realize that he was right. He can feel the last of Shaun’s tension vanish in the way the younger man relaxes against him, and the most insane part of his mind considers deepening the kiss, but that’s (obviously) when Morgan starts heckling them in the background.

“You call that a kiss?” she’s demanding. “I kiss my grandmother with more passion than –” She yelps in outrage and Neil learns why a moment later when she starts exaggeratedly whining that Alex ‘attacked her’ (read: elbowed her in the side to get her to be quiet).

“Clearly, it didn’t work because you’re still talking,” Park complains, and Neil starts laughing because he can’t help it.

He presses a final kiss to the edge of Shaun’s mouth in silent apology for their friends and carefully moves back while searching his face for any sign of discomfort or unhappiness. When he finds none, he sighs in overwhelming relief that their kiss hasn’t just screwed up the best relationship he currently has in his life. (One of the best ones he’s ever had, come to think of it.)

“Now we’ll have good luck,” Shaun says, matter of factly. Before Neil can remind him that he doesn’t believe in luck, Shaun turns to Morgan, apparently fascinated by her declaration. “You kiss your grandmother in a similar fashion?”

“Uh…no.” Her face is turning slightly red, and her whining hasn’t stopped, either. “It’s an expression, Shaun.”

“I’ve never heard it,” Shaun proclaims.

“That’s because no one says it,” Alex confirms, reaching out a hand to grasp Morgan’s arm when she tries to elbow him, either for the comment or in belated retaliation for when he did it to her. “Stop trying to use them for your own entertainment,” he admonishes her.

“Well, it’s not like anyone’s kissing me,” she complains, rather dramatically, as she shakes off his hold. “I’m starting to feel lonely and it’s disheartening, especially at this time of year.” She futilely looks around before her eyes land back on Alex, taking on a mischievous light. “At this rate, I’m going to have to settle for you as a last resort.”

It’s a rare miscalculation on her part, trying to bring him into this, because Park’s level-headed to a point that makes even Neil envious (so trying to cause him any sort of discomfort is a lost cause).

And just as Neil predicted, it doesn’t work. All Park does is assess her in his usual, detached manner before saying coolly, “You would be so lucky, Reznick.”

“What!” she snaps, immediately irritated by his easy dismissal. “You’d be the lucky one. Trust me.”

“What is this?” Neil mutters, in aside to Shaun, as the two second-years begin bickering over which one of them would be luckier. “What’s happening here?”

Shaun makes no similar effort to lower his voice. “They both think they would be lucky to kiss each other.”

The argument before them stops cold, with two heads swiveling immediately in Shaun’s direction. The pause is almost comical as they struggle to process the conclusion he’s reached.

“You’re twisting our words,” Park finally says (and at least he’s striving for diplomatic).

“Yeah, that is not what we said!” Morgan’s tone is shrill, even for her (and that’s saying something).

Shaun shrugs, unmoved by their protests. “It’s what I heard.”

Neil’s not about to let this opportunity pass him by, not when he and Shaun have had to put up with months of grief from Morgan (and if Park happens to be collateral damage here, then so be it). “I’m going to have to back up Shaun on this,” he tells them, as Park rubs his eyes and Morgan narrows hers.

“Register my complete and utter shock that you’d take Murphy’s side,” she gripes.

Neil knows he’s not doing a great job of keeping a straight face, but the effort’s there. “I think you’re both protesting too much.”

“Save the psychoanalysis,” she orders, rather sharply. “You’re terrible at it.”

“Alright,” Park sighs, overly loud, “there’s only one way to prove that they’re wrong and we don’t actually want to kiss each other.” He pauses dramatically. “We’ll have to kiss.”

“You – wha – I –” Morgan’s barely able to form a coherent word and it’s a fascinating thing to witness.

“You’ve rendered her practically speechless.” Neil doesn’t bother hiding his admiration. “Let’s make sure we all savor this moment.”

“Are you crazy?” she finally manages to hiss at Park. “We have to kiss to prove we don’t want to kiss? What kind of logic is that?!”

“It makes perfect sense to me,” Neil chimes in, even though it might be one of the most ridiculous things he’s ever heard (which means Park had said it on purpose to get a reaction out of her – and it’s definitely working).

She’s back to borderline sulking. “And you’re all acting like I’m desperate or something!”

“You aren’t?” Shaun asks, as Neil coughs to cover his laughter and has to strategically glance away so that he doesn’t completely lose his composure.

“You’re the one who first suggested it,” Alex reminds her, and though Neil can tell the other man is vastly amused by now, Morgan’s still thrown enough that she fails to notice how her fellow resident has deliberately turned her own game around on her.

“It was a joke. I was joking.” She points accusingly at Neil. “See what you’ve done? You and Murphy have obliterated the boundaries between co-workers around here. Boss and subordinate, resident and resident –” She flings her arms out in dismay, and would have hit Park in the process if he didn’t automatically block her (this time unintentional) hit. “– everything’s chaos!”

Neil feels absolutely no guilt for enjoying how flustered she is – not when she relishes putting others in the exact same state. Still, this can only go on for so long, and if she’s never going to figure it out on her own… “I’m glad you’re not overreacting to Park calling your bluff.”

In the ensuing silence, she opens and closes her mouth a few times, and he can see the gears turning as she realizes (too late) what her colleague had done. “I wasn’t over–” She cuts herself off, then turns to Alex and tries to claim, “I knew exactly what you were doing.”

“Sure,” he archly agrees, “we could tell by your inability to speak.”

“You’re misremembering,” she insists, pressing her lips together, but it does nothing to hide the fact that she wants to smile.

“Stop making it so easy,” Park tells her, leaning over to kiss her cheek, and she gives up trying to check her smile altogether. “Why don’t we go dance?”

“You’re just trying to get me to stop harassing them,” she accuses, nodding at Neil and Shaun. “I know how you operate.” (And Neil has the abrupt revelation that Park had expertly taken the focus off of them, gaining Morgan’s undivided attention in a way that he’s seen few others ever manage to do.)

“Oh, now you know, but five seconds ago you had no clue?” Park’s rolling his eyes. “Got it.”

“You have already danced together three times,” Shaun tells them, in case they’ve lost count.

“There’s good reason for that, Shaun,” Park says gravely. “I might be the only person here who can stand her for longer than two consecutive minutes. She really has no other options.”

“Wait,” Morgan slyly begins, “so you’re saying that I only spend time with you because you’re literally my last resort?” She’s enjoying his slip way too much. “You realize that you went full circle there and insulted yourself?”

Park thinks about that for a few seconds. “Damn, you’re right. But you’re still lucky that I let you spend time with me.”

“No,” she instantly protests, “you’re the lucky –”

“Can we not have this argument again?” Neil pleads. “I don’t get paid enough for…” He glances between them. “…whatever this is.”

“And he gets paid a lot,” Shaun helpfully supplies.

Park doesn’t laugh, but it’s a near thing. “Alright, Reznick, are you coming with me or should I go find someone more pleasant?”

“Fine. Yes.” She holds up a finger. “As long as you remember my stipulations?” Before he can answer, she starts rattling off a list of demands including (but not limited to) if someone who’s ‘actually important’ wants to dance with her, he has to relinquish her without a fight.

“Alex,” Neil says lowly, as Morgan keeps listing her rules, “thank you.” It’s meant for several things, including distracting her earlier and taking her off their hands right now…although he’s starting to get the feeling that maybe nothing about this is any hardship for Park, after all.

“Do me a favor?” Park smiles wryly. “If you never hear from her again, forget that I was the last person you saw with her.”

“Jokes like that aren’t disconcerting at all to hear from a former cop,” Morgan informs him, and despite the scolding tone, she’s on the verge of laughing. “Also, I would haunt you forever.”

“Talk about a plan backfiring,” he mutters, pushing her ahead of him, off towards the dance floor.

The moment they’re out of sight, Neil turns back to Shaun. “I’m not quite sure what that was, but I liked seeing her off-kilter, for once.”

“He does that to her all the time,” Shaun says, like it’s something he should have noticed. “You should pay more attention.”

Neil has no idea if he’s being admonished or not. “I pay plenty of attention.”

“Yes. To your job. To our patients. To me.” Shaun’s looking in the direction their friends had disappeared. “That’s about it.”

Neil wonders if Shaun has a valid point (probably, he is Shaun). “Maybe I have my priorities straight. Morgan and Park’s –” he casts about for the best word, “– friendship? Is not one of them, as entertaining as it might be.”

“They enjoy pretending as if they dislike each other, but I don’t know why. It’s never convincing.” Shaun shrugs, and then adds, “I am just glad neither of us had to kiss her.”

The sudden topic change jars Neil into remembering that they were the ones who kissed each other, and they should probably talk about it. “Shaun, about that…”

“I think our kiss convinced Morgan,” Shaun says, before he can go on. “She should leave us alone now.”

Neil tilts his head assessingly and forgets everything he’d been about to say. “That was your motivation?”

“She would not stop bothering us. It seemed like the best solution.”

“It did?”

“It worked, which means it was a good solution.”

“Let me try again,” Neil wants to be sure they’re very clear on this point, “that’s the only reason you did it?”

“That, and luck.”

Neil suddenly remembers what he’d wanted to say earlier, before the subject changed. “You don’t believe in luck.”

“You do,” Shaun says simply, “and that is enough reason. For me.”

Shaun doesn’t often leave him speechless, but that…that does. (And Neil inexplicably feels like kissing him all over again.)

“I assumed you did it to convince Morgan, as well,” Shaun’s saying, which causes Neil to realize he’d never offered a reason of his own.

“No.” It had crossed his mind at one point, but in the moment, it wasn’t what he’d been thinking (for the part of him that had been consciously thinking at all).

Shaun’s struggling to understand. “If it wasn’t to convince Morgan, was it because of what she said? About tradition and luck?”

“That was part of it,” Neil carefully allows, and it’d be easy to just say yes and leave it at that, to let Shaun think that was the only reason, but it’s not entirely fair. Because while it had been on his mind at the time, it hadn’t been his main reason. He’d done it because… “I thought it would help.” It sounds crazy, saying it out loud, but it’s the truth.

Shaun’s not following him. “Help what?”

You.” That’s what it always comes back to. It seems he can’t do anything without considering how it will impact (or benefit) Shaun. “You were upset with Morgan, and then when you and I began talking, it was like your agitation started to…disappear. I thought that if I kissed you, then it might help you let go of it entirely.” He shrugs, somewhat lost at his own explanation. “I thought…it’d help you forget.”

Shaun takes that in, glancing up at the mistletoe, then back at Neil. “You did it for me.”

“I had good intentions, but it was admittedly outside of the boundaries for friends.” (Whatever boundaries they still have, that is.)

“Because friends do not kiss each other.”

Neil laughs a little at that. “Not generally, no.”

“But…we are friends.”

“Always,” Neil promises, rather vehemently. “We will always be friends. No matter what.”

“Then by that logical progression, friends do kiss each other,” Shaun says, seeming satisfied with that conclusion. “If they want to.”

“Okay,” he murmurs, because if Shaun’s fine with what happened, then Neil is, too. (It’s really, usually, that simple.)

“And it did help me,” Shaun’s continuing. “When we kissed, I was not thinking about Morgan.”

Neil abruptly laughs again. “I would hope not. Because if you were, then I’d recommend that the two of you have a conversation.”

“I do not like Morgan romantically,” Shaun tells him, apparently feeling the point needs clarification.

“Who could?” Neil asks flippantly, more out of habit than anything else.

“I told you that you need to pay more attention.”

It takes Neil a few moments to realize he’s reiterating his point from earlier, and now Shaun’s looking in the direction of the dance floor, and…

“No. No.” Neil adamantly shakes his head – he has enough problems figuring out his own life, he can’t add every single resident to the list, too. “I’m not getting involved in that.”

“Did they ask you to get involved?” Shaun’s interest is piqued. “That would be highly irregular, although there are people who enjoy –”

“Please stop wherever you’re going with that.” Neil’s used to following Shaun’s unusual jumps in logic, but that one is going too far for him to entertain.

Shaun’s nodding, mostly to himself. “I think they will be fine without you.”

“We can only hope,” Neil agrees, and when Shaun smiles at him, he again finds that he has to remind himself…

This isn’t real.

What he and Shaun have, what they present to the world – it isn’t real. What they do have is friendship. A close friendship, to be sure, but that’s it. And it’s not hard to figure out why he sometimes finds himself slipping into the wrong mindset – it’s because he cares about Shaun immensely. And it doesn’t help matters that everyone they know thinks (and acts like) they’re actually together. As such, it’s natural that he’d sometimes get confused, like he had earlier when they kissed. It’s natural that he’d sometimes think…what if.

However, he knows those are just stray thoughts and nothing more. And it’s not like there would ever be real potential between him and Shaun even if he wanted that, because Shaun has no interest in a romantic relationship – not just with Neil, but with anyone. He’s said as much, time and time again. He’d even driven the point home when he explained his motivations for kissing Neil – there had been no hidden feelings in it, just equal parts desire to quiet Morgan and to help secure them some good luck. And all of that is perfectly fine with Neil, because he’s content with the way his life is right now. At times, he thinks he never wants anything to change, even though he knows that’s unrealistic, because he and Shaun will eventually have to break up – or rather, they’ll have to stage a fake break-up. (Which is something they should seriously talk about soon and not just brush off to some distant date and time, like they’d done earlier this evening.)

Deep down, he knows why he hasn’t pushed Shaun on that subject more. Why he hasn’t made them confront the reality of what they’re doing and acknowledge that it will eventually have to end. It’s because there are consequences to a break-up – even a fake one. The worst of them is that he and Shaun would be expected to spend some time apart, and even if they insisted to everyone that they were ‘still friends’, they could never get away with acting the way they do nowadays. And it’s all the worse, because they don’t try to do anything to convince people they’re together, this is just how they are. So if (when) they stage a break-up, they’ll have to go out of their way to put distance between themselves. They’ll have to make an effort to try and pretend like they no longer care about each other as much as they do.

He’d touched upon similar thoughts when he and Shaun were alone on the observation deck, but they hit him even harder now: he doesn’t want to stop acting the way he does with Shaun. He could willingly put distance between himself and anyone he knows except Shaun. That’s what it always comes down to. It was why he’d never been able to keep their interactions strictly professional; why he’d allowed them to become as close as they had; why he’d thought up this fake relationship idea and then followed through with it (and maybe Aaron had been right on that front, maybe they really were crazy). Ultimately, it’s why he’s unwilling to end things – he’s just not ready to pretend like he doesn’t enjoy spending time with Shaun, never mind actually avoid him for some predetermined length of time.

(And what if he’s never ready? What if he’s never willing to let Shaun go? What would he do then?)

Neil pushes those questions aside, mostly because he doesn’t want to face them. He’s good at avoiding things; he’s had decades to practice. If they’re both happy with the way things are, then what does it matter? They can just continue this…indefinitely. Until whatever bridge in the future they have to cross. (And Neil will deal with that when the time comes and not before – he can’t deal with it before, for the simple fact that he doesn’t know how.)

One of the few benefits of their gala, at least, is that it’s easy for Neil to distract himself with other people. Over the course of the next hour, he and Shaun speak with another handful of donors, avoid Marcus as best they can (which means usually not very well), and generally enjoy each other’s company the way they have for the entire evening thus far.

It’s closing in on midnight when Marcus sits down at their table, the same one near the wall that they’d been at two hours earlier. Shaun’s moved his chair over so that he can lean against Neil’s side, looking about as tired as Neil feels. (They’re fast approaching the point where he’s going to call it a night if Shaun doesn’t do it soon.) They’ve just been left by a few people that Neil’s sure they’ve gotten on board to supporting their hospital, and that combined with his growing exhaustion means he’s in no mood for unwarranted criticism from Marcus.

To his surprise, though, when Marcus leans back in his chair, watching them, Neil can’t find any censure in his eyes.

“You’re both here unusually late,” Marcus says, gesturing at them with his nearly empty glass. “I’ve never seen that from you, Neil.”

Neil’s well-aware that Marcus is implying he’s only here this late because of Shaun (which happens to be the truth). “Things are different now.”

“I know what you mean,” Marcus solemnly agrees, as he flicks a glance a few tables over where his wife is laughing with Jessica over something or other. “About things being different.”

Shaun sits up straighter in his chair, stretching his arms. “Who raised the most money?” he asks pointedly, as if the three of them don’t already know the answer.

“You two,” Marcus says, without even a hint of the reluctance Neil’s used to when the other man has to admit something in his favor. “You did exactly what you said you would, going above and beyond even what I expected from either of you. And that’s not easy to do.”

“Tell me about it,” Neil mutters. “Is this the part where you take all the credit because you taught us your ‘strategies for success’ or whatever you call it?”

Marcus sends him an arch look. “This is the part where I inform you it was one of the best fundraisers Saint Bonaventure has ever had. It’s the part where I tell you that the board and I are incredibly pleased with you both. That we’re appreciative. And we’re grateful.”

Appreciative and grateful mean the same thing,” Shaun points out.

It’s twenty seconds into the conversation and Marcus already looks like he regrets seeking them out – it must be some kind of new record. “Just take the win and our thanks, Murphy.”

“You are welcome. But you don’t have to thank me for something I wanted to do.”

“Yes,” Marcus insists, nodding at Neil to let him know he’s included in that, “I do.”

“We’re happy we made a difference,” Neil tells him. “And as you said, it’s getting pretty late, so…”

Marcus, of course, ignores the hint that Neil wants to get out of there. “I know you both have the day off tomorrow,” he begins, “but what do you say to a late lunch with some of our benefactors? A few friends of mine couldn’t make it tonight, but they’re free for lunch tomorrow and I told them they should meet one of our rising stars.”

“It’s kind of you to speak so highly of me,” Neil grins at him, “but I wasn’t aware I could rise any higher.”

Marcus starts to roll his eyes, but turns it into staring at the ceiling, probably in an attempt to remain professional. “I was referring to Shaun.” He finishes the last of his drink and sets it on the table. “Though you were part of that invitation, Neil, as always.” His eyes are unmistakably bright when he adds, “Wherever one of you goes, the other inevitably follows.”

“No,” Shaun interrupts their conversation.

Marcus pauses, unused to that answer from Shaun. “…No?”

“As you said, tomorrow is our day off.” He’d started by speaking slowly, but is quickly gaining momentum. “I cannot speak for Neil, but I do not want to go to lunch with donors. If you would like, I will meet with them later this week. At the hospital.”

When Marcus glances at Neil for his input, he confirms, “That goes for both of us.”

Marcus seems a little puzzled, but rather than try to convince them (or worse, lecture them) he merely takes it in stride. “Okay, I’ll set it up and let you know.” He gets to his feet when he hears his wife calling to him. “I want you both to enjoy your day off and get some well-earned rest,” he generously allows, as if he’s the one who decided they shouldn’t have a working lunch the next day.

“We will,” Shaun says, as Marcus nods at them and leaves.

“I love that Andrews feels like he’s doing us a favor by letting us keep our day off as an actual day off.” Neil turns to Shaun, unable to help his smile at how pleased his resident is with himself. “Good job saying no, Murphy.”

“I enjoyed it very much.” Shaun’s voice is bordering on excited at this new world of possibilities. “I think I’m going to say it a lot more.”

“So long as it’s not to me.”

Shaun won’t let that slide. “That depends on what you are asking.”

Neil thinks about it. “So all I have to do is ask questions where I know the answer is yes? That’s easy. How about this: am I your favorite attending?”

Shaun stares at him for a few seconds. “You are my only attending.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Neil smirks at him while Shaun seems distinctly unimpressed. “Second question: did you enjoy tonight?”

Shaun seriously considers the question before nodding. “I did. Many aspects of it were still difficult, but as I’ve told you…you make things easier. I also liked spending time with our friends. And raising money.”

“More money means less people die,” Neil says, in a rare instance where he beats Shaun to the punch.

“Less people die,” Shaun repeats in affirmation.

“I was surprised to find myself enjoying the gala, too,” Neil tells him. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to love this kind of thing –”

“Nor will I,” Shaun interjects.

Neil smiles and taps his fingers on the back of Shaun’s hand in acknowledgement. “I know. But I liked it a lot more than I thought was possible before tonight. And that’s mostly because of you.”

“Then we feel exactly the same way,” Shaun tells him, and sometimes Neil wonders how they got here, to this place where they’ve become such close friends. Where they care about each other as much as they do. (Though maybe the how doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they made it here at all – and Neil’s incredibly glad that they did.)

“Alright, third and final question. And probably the easiest one.” Neil settles back in his chair, taking out his phone, and when Shaun leans into his side again, he angles it towards him. “What do you say, Murphy,” he pulls up the app for his car service, “want to get out of here?”

Shaun doesn’t hesitate for that question at all, smiling against Neil’s shoulder when he answers, “Yes. I do.”

Chapter Text

“You. Are. Pathetic.”

“Did I ask for your opinion?” Neil studiously avoids looking in Audrey’s direction. “On anything?”

She’s smirking at him – he’s not even facing her and he can tell. “I’ve found that when you don’t ask is when you need my input the most.”

He drops his phone onto the couch next to him and finally spares her a glance. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Let me rephrase it so that you understand me better.” She begins speaking even more obnoxiously slowly than she had been before: “You are extremely pathetic.”

Neil launches a throw pillow at her head after deciding that offense is the best defense – she deftly deflects it with an elbow.

“Compelling argument.” She’s entirely unfazed by his attack as she neatly crosses her legs on the couch opposite him. “I’m effectively swayed.”

“I’m well-known for my powers of persuasion,” he agrees, picking up his phone again and trying to conceal a frown when he still sees no new messages. (Showing any kind of reaction definitely won’t help his cause.)

He and Audrey are in New York, at the most interminable medical conference on the planet. For starters, it’s five days long. Five. Days. On top of that, they’d had to fly out a day early to avoid storms in the northeast, and based on current weather forecasts, their return trip on Sunday is most likely going to be delayed, as well. That means, when all is said and done, it’s looking like this trip will be almost a full week long. (Though does the length really matter when Neil’s finite supply of patience ran out somewhere around six minutes after he boarded the plane?)

He usually doesn’t mind conferences because they have numerous benefits: they’re great for reviewing the latest advancements and techniques; they let him reconnect with colleagues and friends in his field who are based outside of California; they can even substitute for vacations, with everything paid for while also providing him a respite from Saint Bonaventure (and his irritating colleagues – or at least the ones he doesn’t have to occasionally drag along with him).

This conference is different, though. It spans too many days, for one thing (he likes the ones that last two or three days max – the equivalent of a long weekend). There are also too many ‘required’ dinners and meetings and panels. And there are just too many people around; there’s nowhere he can find peace except in his own hotel room – and half the time not even then, with the way people are always calling and emailing him: his colleagues back home, other attendees of the conference, and worst of all…Marcus.

Their boss has been his most frequent harasser, requesting meticulous summaries of each event Neil attends. He’s half-convinced Marcus only demands them because he knows how much Neil hates giving them (and their boss conveniently – and suspiciously – never asks for the same from Audrey).

In the end, Neil’s finding almost everything about this conference aggravating. There are plenty of lectures he wants to hear (many he finds engaging, even), but it’s not enough to make up for all that’s annoying him. By necessity, he and Audrey keep having to split up to cover all the panels they’re supposed to attend and that means there’s no buffer between him and other people (one of his favorite things to do when he’s dealing with someone he doesn’t like is to introduce Audrey and then conveniently find an excuse that necessitates him being anywhere else).

And none of that is to say that things are better on the occasions he and Audrey are together, because she doesn’t let anything slide with him. They’ve been friends for so long that she feels it’s her right to call him on everything and he just can’t take it any

“I see you looking at your phone again,” she cuts into his thoughts, and he regrets that he already threw the only pillow at her that was within reach. (It’s not worth the energy to get up and retrieve another one.)

They’d gotten back to Audrey’s room only an hour before, setting up in the living room of her suite (yes, Marcus booked her a suite – tell him their boss doesn’t like literally everyone better than him). They’re on opposite couches, facing each other across a coffee table scattered with papers, books, and various reference materials, because even with all the technology available in today’s age, the presenters seem to love having physical packets to hand out to everyone at each panel.

Which reminds Neil that Audrey’s presenting her paper tomorrow and he’s supposed to be – oh…right. Listening to her. Providing helpful critiques and general feedback (that better be positive, Melendez, or I will throw you off my balcony, he vaguely recalls her saying).

And that’s not getting into the fact that Audrey has a balcony while Neil gets a window that doesn’t even open.

“Sorry,” he tells her, trying to sound sincere, “you have my attention, I swear.”

Except now she’s the one ignoring him as she types away on her phone, and before he can point out her hypocrisy, she leans forward and flips it around so he can see what she’s been doing.

Melendez is pathetic, reads the message on the screen. And she’d sent it to –

Marcus freaking Andrews.

Yup, he definitely regrets throwing that pillow. Maybe he’ll get up, retrieve it from the floor next to her, sit back on his own couch, and then throw it at her again. (Though if he puts that much effort into it, she might see it coming.)

“Thanks for texting our boss, Audrey. I appreciate it.” He picks up his phone to text Andrews: I am not pathetic.

He’s not. He knows he’s not. Except…he really kind of is and Audrey calls him on these things and –

He hates this conference. That’s the problem. It’s too long and he’s miserable and he misses home. He’s not used to missing home like this – honestly, it’s never been a problem for him before. He likes traveling and enjoys the opportunity to break out of his routine, but for some reason this trip is the most difficult one he’s been on in a long time. (Years. Decades. Ever?)

It would have been infinitely more enjoyable if Shaun had come along. They could have chosen their favorite panels to attend and discussed the newest developments with others in their field – it seems most of his time so far has been spent thinking Shaun would love this. Sure, Neil enjoys it, too, but if he experienced it with Shaun? Getting excited about things with him…or just spending time with him, really, is always preferable to Neil. But Shaun’s not here to do any of that with. Not here to share meals with or unwind together at the end of the day. Not here to talk to – about anything. (Such as complaining about Audrey and Marcus and this trip in general – all of which is completely justified.)

Shaun’s just…not here.

And Neil hates it.

Audrey’s grinning and actively typing on her phone again, most likely still talking to Marcus. Good, the two of them can bond over how miserable he is, because that’s the kind of life Neil has.

“Be honest.” Audrey draws his attention away from checking his own phone for messages (that he still doesn’t have). “How unhappy are you right now? On a scale of one to ten? For reference, one would be anywhere with Shaun right next to you, and ten would be, well…” She waves a hand at him. “You in New York. With Shaun some 2,500 miles away.”

He just stares at her until she mutters, “Ten isn’t enough. I’m going with twelve.” She caps that off with an emphatic double tap on her phone and he sits up straighter when he realizes she typed 1 and 2. She must have. She’s sending his score of misery to Marcus! (He’s never going to another conference with her again.)

“I’m never going to another conference with you again,” he says, because thinking it wasn’t enough.

She doesn’t bother responding to that, though she does start snickering at her phone (probably at something Marcus wrote back mocking him – maybe they’re laughing about how Audrey gets a luxury suite and Neil gets the equivalent of a walk-in closet).

He’s desperate for some kind of subject change. “Why does Andrews let us have the same day off about once a year, yet we can both have the same week off for a conference?”

“Because Marcus changes the rules based on how he feels. So…hourly,” she answers, which is more or less accurate. “Also, I don’t know why you’re whining –”

“I’m not whining,” Neil says, telling himself he merely sounds…petulant. (Which is much more dignified, right?)

She looks down her nose at him. “Do I need to remind you that I’m technically replacing our boss? Before I was asked to present, Marcus was supposed to be on this trip. If I’d declined, he’d be the one sitting across from you right now. Take a moment to imagine that.” She affords him a few seconds and he involuntarily shudders. “Exactly. You’d be complaining to him instead of me –”

“I haven’t been complaining!” (He really hasn’t been and he marvels at her ability to twist the facts to fit her narrative.) “You’re the one who’s been harassing me, for three days now, because you don’t think I’ve been acting thrilled enough about this trip.”

“Fine…you’ve been wordlessly complaining –”

“That’s not a thing.”

Her look is so scathing that Neil actually cringes. “It’s very much a thing and we both know Andrews wouldn’t humor you the way I do –”

This is humoring me?” he can’t help scoffing.

“Believe me, letting you stay in my room is humoring you; Andrews would have kicked you out long ago.”

“Back to the broom closet he has me in?” Great, now he’s sulking. (His evening just keeps getting worse.)

“It’s a normal hotel room, Neil, just like mine.” She’s so patronizing that he grits his teeth in response. “So what if my room is slightly bigger –”

“You have two rooms and a balcony with a hot tub!”

“Which is extremely relaxing.” She’s trying to hold back her amusement. “No doubt Marcus realized how much I’d have to deal with this week and wanted to ensure I could mitigate the insanely high stress levels that you cause.”

“What about my stress levels?”

“Go back to talking to Shaun,” she wryly suggests. “That’ll help you.”

Neil checks his phone and resists the urge to throw it against the wall. “I can’t talk to him if he won’t answer me.” He instantly regrets admitting the issue when Audrey’s eyes widen a little in recognition; it’s the first time that he’s outright acknowledged one of the reasons he’s so on edge. (Though the problem isn’t so much that Shaun’s not answering him, it’s that his contact with his resident has been drastically reduced and there’s nothing he can do about it.)

“I’m sure he’s just busy… I didn’t realize how much the distance was bothering you.” She sounds almost apologetic and it only serves to make him feel worse, because if he’s garnering genuine sympathy from Audrey Lim (who’s much more likely to laugh and call him pathetic, as seen already this evening), then he must really be a sight.

He doesn’t bother denying it, either. (He knows a lost cause when he sees one…even if it’s him.) “I look that bad, huh?”

She barely keeps herself from grimacing. “Worse. And I can say that because I’m your friend.”

“It’s… I’m not…” He sighs and gives up. There’s no point trying to explain something to her that he can’t adequately explain to himself.

Audrey waves her phone at him. “Maybe this will help. Andrews says, and I quote, ‘Tell Melendez that Murphy has been equally lackluster since you two left’.”

“He – what?” That gives Neil pause because Shaun hadn’t mentioned anything of the sort and Neil’s been gone for almost three full days. (And if Shaun really is unhappy, why has it been hours since he last texted?)

“Lackluster,” she repeats in monotone. “I’m guessing that adjective was chosen to replace some other description he knew you’d object to, like ‘annoying as hell’. Which, not coincidentally, is how I’d describe you this week.”

“I’m not annoying,” Neil automatically denies, even though he knows he is, he’s just past the point of caring (or trying to stop it). “And neither is Shaun.”

She stares at him in disbelief, though he can tell it’s more at the fact that he’d make such a claim than at the claim itself. “Neil.”

“Okay,” he relents, no longer able to keep a straight face, “yes, he can drive Marcus up the wall even on his best days.” His grin gets wider. “Personally, I consider it one of Murphy’s best qualities.”

“Of course you do,” she says archly. “And remember, he does that when you’re there. Now imagine a week of Shaun without you and how Marcus is dealing with that.”

Forget Marcus, how is Shaun dealing with it?

Neil shifts uncomfortably on the couch before muttering, “I hope Murphy still has a job when we get back.” Because if he doesn’t make light of the situation, he’ll have to think seriously about what Audrey said and that will only serve to make him more agitated, contemplating how Shaun might be equally as miserable without him and – too late, now he’s thinking about it and it’s making him feel worse and this is exactly what he’d been trying to avoid. He leans his head on the back of the couch, shutting his eyes and taking a calming breath.

“Marcus will never let him go,” Audrey says, in answer to his joke. “Which means he’ll also never let you go.”

Neil easily catches her veiled insinuation and can’t help smiling up at the ceiling (which he swears is nicer than the one in his room – how is that even possible?). “I like that you think my job security depends entirely on how much Shaun Murphy likes me.”

“Because it probably does,” she quips.

“I’ll make sure I keep bribing him to rave about what a stellar attending I am.”

She shakes her head in admonishment, amused though it is. “It’s a wonder to me that they continue letting you have residents, Neil.”

“Hmm, I’m remembering a time when you had the residents cover you being ‘on call’ when you were in court and then…what was it? Oh yes. Jail.”

“Why do I tell you things?” she complains.

That answer is easy. “Alcohol.”

“I’ve made the decision to become sober,” she announces. “I’m never drinking again.” She looks longingly at her wine glass on the coffee table before picking it up and taking a long sip. “After this glass,” she amends.

“Where did you even get that?” He’s only now registering the half-empty bottle on the table between them. (Apparently he’d been preoccupied with other things.) “Did you bring that with you on the plane?”

“Marcus had it sent to my room as a gift.” She glances at him over the top of the glass, asking innocently, “You didn’t get a bottle?”

“You know damn well I didn’t.” When she holds a hand out to indicate he should help himself to the wine, he shakes his head. “No thanks. I’m raiding the mini-bar for the rest of the trip, though. I’ve definitely earned it after this interminable week –”

“We’ve been in New York for three days.”

“It feels like much longer.”

“And if I’d known you’d spend the entire time sulking, I’d never have agreed to come.”

He reminds himself that this trip isn’t about him – or rather, it shouldn’t be. (And really, he is happy for her, it’s just that other things are overshadowing it right now.) “You get to present your latest paper at one of the most prestigious annual conferences,” he reminds her. “That’s an honor.”

She’s watching him with some sort of unimpressed resignation. “It’s not worth what I’ve had to put up with.”

“You’re not helping my mood.”

“What would help your mood?” she challenges. “Besides the magical appearance of a certain resident whom you can’t seem to function without?”

He sighs loudly, pressing his hands to his face and letting himself fall sideways so he’s lying on the couch. (His room can’t even fit one couch and Audrey’s ‘living room’ has four.) “This isn’t only about Shaun,” he tries to claim. “I’ve always hated conferences.”

“Since when?” she accuses, because damn, he forgot she remembers past events just like nearly every other human on the planet. And she’s been to many conferences with him. And she’s right: he doesn’t hate conferences.

“I hate this one,” he grumbles, crossing his arms and refusing to look at her (not that she’s ever needed him to in order to determine how truthful he’s being). “Who plans one for five days?”

“It’s not unusual when it’s an association’s annual event. We’ve been to plenty that were this long over the years.”

“So, what, because I liked the others, I have to like this one, too? It’s some kind of requirement that I must always love conferences now?” He glares at her. “Who made up that stupid rule?”

“Oh boy, I’m upping your score to fifteen,” she snipes, even going so far as to type it into her phone to drive her point home.

“Stop texting Andrews!”

“No, I’m taking matters into my own hands. I’m telling him that I am never traveling with you again –”

“You can’t make that threat to me when I just made the exact same one to you –”

“– unless Shaun comes along,” she talks right over him.

That stops Neil in his metaphorical tracks. “Oh. Well. I might be able to live with that.”

“I thought you might,” she says, mouth curving up at whatever she’s reading on her phone. “Oh, this is rich. Marcus says it’s a phenomenal idea that he’d already settled on before I suggested it.” She arches a brow at him. “He actually used that word, Neil. Phenomenal.”

He finds himself focusing on one particular thing she’d said. “What do you mean he’d already settled on it? And why would he agree to something that’s technically…unnecessary?”

“Trust me,” she spares him a dark glance (though it’s not without humor), “it’s necessary. And to your first question, he had some incentive.”

It takes Neil all of three seconds to parse out that cryptic statement. “Shaun.”

Audrey’s nodding. “He claims Shaun is driving him even more insane than you’re driving me, but I don’t know if such a thing is possible. He and I are going to trade horror stories when we get home.”

He ignores the slight. “If Shaun had come along, this trip would be…” Easier? More tolerable? Actually exciting? Whatever the best description is, Neil wouldn’t be crawling out of his skin and counting the 65 hours until he gets home on Sunday.

“Better?”

It takes him a second to realize she’s filled in the end of his sentence and he looks at her sharply, but there’s no hint that she’s aware of how true that is, both for him and for Shaun. (Or that it’s a topic they’ve discussed before using that exact word.)

“Please, Neil, you look like you’ve been hit by a truck.” Despite her promise to give up alcohol after her current glass, she’s refilling her wine. “It’s no secret that you two have become borderline codependent.”

He’s not sure if he should be offended at her description. “That term has a negative connotation and –”

“God, you’re impossible,” she interrupts, rather huffily. “You’re half of the relationship, Neil, so you must know that I meant it in a positive way.” She takes another long sip of her wine before adding, “Register my complete lack of surprise that you two would manage to turn it into a good thing.”

He considers arguing, mostly on principle, but he ultimately can’t. He knows what she means and she’s not wrong. His and Shaun’s lives have become progressively more intertwined over the past few months and it’s undeniable that things are better for both of them when they’re together, as opposed to apart. (And while he knows that some would argue that’s not an entirely healthy thing, Audrey’s right: Neil is half of the relationship and he can confidently say it’s not detrimental to either of them…quite the opposite, in fact.)

Neil checks his phone for the umpteenth time. No new messages. Shaun rarely goes this long without answering unless he has a legitimate reason. Earlier today, he’d promised to text Neil when his shift ended, but that should have been two hours ago, so he must have had to stay late.

After receiving no replies to his last few messages, Neil had been trying not to text again until he knew Shaun was free, but to hell with it. (He’s really curious about what Shaun’s been doing that had convinced Marcus to send them both on the same trips from here on out.)

What have you been doing to Andrews? he asks, hoping he’ll get a faster response to this message than his previous ones.

A few moments later, Audrey bursts out laughing on the couch across the way. “This is from Marcus: Neil just texted Murphy, didn’t he? I literally lost him mid-sentence. He pulled out his phone when it buzzed and then walked away from me MID-SENTENCE.” She sends Neil a significant look. “That last ‘mid-sentence’ is in all capitals, mind you.”

“Shaun walking away from us while we’re speaking isn’t exactly a new thing,” Neil reminds her, vastly amused at the mental image of Shaun doing it to their astonished boss. “I told you that annoying Andrews is one of his best qualities.”

He thinks she’s rolling her eyes, but he’s not quite sure because his attention is diverted by a new message from Shaun which reads: I will text you in 5 minutes.

But you JUST texted me, Neil points out in a quick reply (which he’s not surprised Shaun ignores). He pretends not to notice the way Audrey’s smirking at him – she can obviously tell, from the way he’s smiling at his phone, that he’s finally gotten an answer from the only person he wants to talk to right now. Or…most of the time, to be honest.

Since he has to wait for Shaun, he decides to message their boss, just to admonish him: Maybe you should try to be more engaging if you don’t want your employees vanishing before you finish talking to them.

Not even thirty seconds later, he gets a reply he can practically hear in his head: MAYBE I am going to send the two of you to every event remotely related to your field that I can find GLOBALLY from now on just so that you’re away for most of the year and I never have to deal with either of you.

You love us, Neil writes back.

Present your proof, Melendez.

That won’t take much effort – Andrews must be really tired tonight (thank you, Murphy, for wearing him down) if he’s offering such an easy challenge: Neil simply reminds him of how much money they’d raised during the holiday gala. Normally, Andrews would argue anything with him, but this involves money and if there’s one topic he always takes seriously, it’s money.

Sure enough, the reply he gets proves him right: You raise a valid point, Neil. Yes, I love…that you’re both such effective fundraisers. Keep proving your worth and I’ll keep approving your (reasonable) requests. Also, thanks for the reminder to get started on our May fundraiser.

Why would I care? Neil writes back, hoping his scoffing tone comes through even in the text. I’m still not on the planning committee.

Sure you’re not. I’ll touch base with Reznick and let you know, but I’m thinking a spring theme.

Neil actually does scoff out loud at that before typing, Spring, huh? What an original theme. FOR MAY. (Maybe these people really do need him if that’s the best they can come up with.)

Marcus predictably doesn’t respond to his taunt, and before Neil can think of something even more deliberately aggravating to say, he receives a message from Shaun in answer to his earlier question asking what he’d been doing to their boss: I do not understand your question. I have not been doing anything to Dr. Andrews.

Besides irritating him? Maybe don’t walk away from him when he’s talking to you. Neil knows by now that it’s a futile endeavor, but he can try anyways. (He’d also warn Shaun about potentially getting in trouble, but Marcus is still riding the high from their record-setting fundraiser and all the fawning from the board that came with it – as such, he’s about as likely to scold Shaun over anything as he is to book Neil a suite on one of these trips.)

Maybe if he didn’t insult you, Shaun writes back, I would have stayed.

Neil pauses, mind whirling at that information as he glances at Audrey and thinks back over the last half hour. Luckily, he’s able to figure it out fairly quickly – it helps that he knows Marcus doesn’t actually dislike him that much, not enough to outright insult him (and even if he wanted to, he certainly wouldn’t be reckless enough to do it to Shaun’s face).

Did Marcus tell you that Audrey was complaining about me? Neil asks.

He said you are insufferable and that he doesn’t know how I ‘put up with you’. That is when you texted me, so I took the opportunity to excuse myself from the conversation.

Neil smiles at that twisting of facts: Shaun ‘excused himself from the conversation’. Sure he did. However, he’s more focused on Shaun’s unhappiness with how Marcus described him, which is only a paraphrase of Audrey’s complaints. He's well-aware that the younger man is more upset at the insinuation that Neil is someone he has to tolerate than at any perceived insult Marcus tosses his way. He knows he has to correct his resident’s wrong assumptions, but all he feels is affection at the blatant reminder of how defensive Shaun gets on his behalf – and never more so than when it’s in any way connected to their personal relationship. (As if the same thing isn’t true, and ten times worse, in the opposite direction.)

He composes a message explaining the conversations they’d all been having, informs Shaun that neither Audrey nor Marcus truly meant to insult him (or so he hopes), and waits impatiently for a response.

Okay, Shaun finally answers, causing Neil to irritably tap his fingers on the arm of the couch – not due to the curtness, which isn’t unusual for Shaun, but because it feels like the end of their current conversation. And he’s really not ready to be done talking yet. This is the best he’s felt all night. All week. Able to forget the fact that he’s so far away from home, able to forget –

He pushes those thoughts aside, remembering what Audrey had told him earlier: that Marcus couldn’t deal with Shaun the same way Audrey couldn’t deal with him.

It spurs him to ask, How boring is it there without me?

He gets no response for a minute. Then two. Then five.

Maybe Shaun is busy again, or hasn’t seen the notifications. Maybe he’s heading home, or –

I miss you.

Neil’s breath stutters and fades out when he reads Shaun’s latest message. So he reads it again. And again.

Because Shaun’s encapsulated in three words the exact problem here. What Neil’s been actively trying not to think about for three days, ever since he boarded a plane in California. Not just that Shaun isn’t here, but that Neil’s not there, back home, with Shaun. Even Audrey had been wrong about this one – it’s not the distance that’s bothering Neil, it’s the separation that’s making this trip so difficult.

Shaun misses him, and he misses Shaun so much that he hasn’t even allowed himself to put it into words – to admit it to himself, let alone anyone else. All he can do is type, with fingers that have oddly gone numb: I miss you, too.

Rather than replying to that directly, Shaun responds with a message confirming Neil’s guess from earlier – he’d had to stay late so he’d missed his bus, but Alex is going to give him a ride home soon, so he’ll call later.

Audrey hums from behind (and slightly above) him; Neil tips his head back to find that she’s reading the messages on his phone over his shoulder.

“Invasion of privacy,” he complains, trying to regulate his breathing into something more normal as he forces himself to set down his phone.

“It’s not an invasion if I already knew it was true,” Audrey tries to claim, sweeping around him to gather up some papers from the coffee table as she retakes her seat. “As you know, the last thing I want right now is a serious relationship, and yet I have to admit…there are times when I’m slightly envious of you two.” She picks up her wine and watches it swirl in the glass, but her eyes are distant, like she’s seeing something else. “We should all be so lucky.”

Neil’s irritation with her vanishes as he contemplates her confession. It’s the same type of sentiment that he’d heard from Morgan not long ago, the night of their holiday gala. He’s also heard similar things from others over the past six months or so; for whatever reason, people seem to enjoy telling him that they envy his and Shaun’s relationship.

As he thinks about it, Neil’s surprised to realize that he envies it, too. If he had this kind of relationship with someone he considered a romantic partner…that would complete his life in a way that he’d always wanted – in a way he always thought he’d have found by now.

But that’s not what Shaun is. Not to him. They are not that to each other, no matter what they tell the world. And it’s fine, it really is, but he wonders if he’ll find that someday. If Shaun will. (He wants it for Shaun even more than himself, because Shaun deserves it. He deserves that kind of unconditional love from someone who holds him in the kind of high esteem that Neil himself does.)

“He’s fine, Neil,” Audrey says kindly, able to tell that his thoughts have turned more melancholy, though she hasn’t correctly guessed why. “He’ll be there when we get home and he’ll be okay.”

“I know,” he acknowledges. “I just…” worry. And that might be the worst part of this trip: he can’t stop thinking about what’s going on back home while he’s not there, or more specifically, what Shaun’s doing while he’s away. What if something comes up, some problem or issue, and Shaun could use his help? The thought of the younger man needing him and Neil not being there…it pulls at him, in a rather painful way.

No, Shaun doesn’t ‘need’ him in the sense that he’s helpless otherwise (that has never been and will never be true), but over the past year he’s allowed himself to need Neil in a different way. He’s allowed Neil to become his mentor and friend and protector, all wrapped up into one. And it had taken a lot for him to do that – to let down his guard, extend that type of trust, and let Neil into his life in a way he never has with anyone else, not even Aaron.

As such, the only thing Neil wants to do is fulfill the mostly unspoken agreement between them – that if Shaun needs anything, ever, Neil will be there for him. No questions asked. (And apparently, when Neil’s denied the ability to do that, even if only temporarily, he doesn’t handle it very well.)

“You just what?” Audrey’s tone has changed from the joking one earlier, and she has her head propped on her hand as she studies him. It’s her sincere curiosity that compels him to be honest.

“I’m not there. If he needs something. If he needs…” He exhales slowly. “…me.”

“He has Aaron,” Audrey reminds him. “He has Claire. Jessica. Alex and Morgan and that other girl he always goes on about…Lea? And even Marcus. He has them if he needs them.”

“Yeah,” he unhappily agrees, “I know.”

“Do you?” she lightly challenges. “Because I could keep going and name a few dozen more people at our hospital who would help Shaun Murphy with anything. Who would defend him against anyone.”

“I know,” he repeats. “And I believe you. But…they’re not me.”

“I get it.” She leans forward a little, eyes piercing in a way that means she’s about to say something serious. “I’ve known you for a long time, seen you in a handful of relationships – the most serious before now being Jess, of course. And yet I’ve never seen you like this.”

He bristles at her words, feeling suddenly defensive. “I’m not –”

“That wasn’t a dig,” she quickly interrupts. “All I mean is that I’ve never seen you in love the way that you are with Shaun.”

He bites back his automatic reaction denying it – everyone already believes they are, and besides, refuting it would be counterproductive at this point. (Even though they aren’t in love. Obviously.)

“Don’t forget that I know you, too,” he warns her. “Which means I can tell you’re trying to get at something here. So just come out with it.”

“You already know,” she informs him. “You said it a minute ago: he needs you. But more importantly, to my mind? You need him. You two have become…necessary to each other.”

Morgan had once said the same thing, back when he and Shaun first started this, and Neil wonders if the two women had been talking to each other about them…or maybe it’s more simple than that.

Maybe they’d both seen it because it’s the truth.

“Shaun’s life is…incredibly difficult at times,” he tells Audrey, acknowledging what she’s said in a roundabout way. “More difficult, in many ways, than yours or mine, or any of our other residents, because he has to deal with things that the rest of us don’t. Shaun would actually be the first to admit that, since it’s merely a statement of fact and he rarely shies away from the truth. He has to work twice as hard at a lot of things that come naturally to others – to people without autism. And he’s definitely put in the time and effort to compensate. To better understand people. To learn the best ways to react in any situation. He’s come a long way in that regard, but it’s still a lot of work for him, and he still has to deal with a multitude of other things on top of that.”

Audrey finishes her drink, glances at the wine bottle, then seems to decide against it as she sets down her empty glass. “He’s told me a little about what a typical day is like for him. A few months back, we were discussing a patient in one of the breakrooms and he kept losing his train of thought because the vent over us was malfunctioning and it was unusually cold. I asked if that kind of thing distracted him a lot, and he ran down a list of things that bothered him, or otherwise kept him from being able to think clearly. Then he added things people had said and done that made him uncomfortable or left him confused – and when he was done, do you know what floored me the most?”

“I bet I can guess,” Neil says grimly. “They were all from that day, weren’t they?”

She nods in amazement, though Neil’s not sure if it’s at the memory or at his correct conclusion. “It was eye-opening, Neil. I knew he had his own daily challenges, but I had no idea what it was truly like for him. The stressors in that boy’s life are insane. And you know how he ended his summation?” When Neil shakes his head, unable to guess this time, she smiles in a way that he might consider the kindest one he’s ever seen from her. “He said that he was fine. He said that you fixed most of those things. He said that even when you didn’t realize it, something as simple as spending a few minutes with you during a terrible day was enough to put him at ease. So yes, Neil, in case you’ve ever doubted it…you are necessary to him.”

Neil needs a minute to take that in. He and Shaun have spoken about similar topics in the past, and Neil’s always been aware of their overwhelmingly positive impact on each other, but his resident has never explicitly told him any of the things that Audrey’s telling him right now. It’s also making him resent this trip all the more, hearing about the numerous ways Shaun quietly relies on him and knowing that they’ll still be apart for at least three more days.

“It’s not easy for me to…not be there,” Neil admits. “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be until we actually left.” (Which probably has a lot to do with the fact that it’s been half a year since he and Shaun spent any significant amount of time apart – the last time they’d been separated by a trip like this had been before they began pretending to be in a relationship, and while they’d still been friends, they hadn’t been as integral to each other’s lives as they are now.)

“You need to be needed,” Audrey says bluntly (and rather astutely). “That’s the other point I was trying to make earlier: allowing others to depend on you is at the core of who you are. It’s how you show people you care. How you operate.” She smiles at the unintentional pun before clarifying, “Not in an O.R., but in your daily life with your family, your friends, your patients… It always surprised me that I never saw it in your romantic relationships before now.”

They’re both aware that she’s mostly talking about Jessica. “Yeah,” he agrees on a sigh. “I always gravitated towards the most independent people in my orbit, because it felt like…there was something wrong with wanting to take care of people – not professionally, but personally. It felt like a weakness, if that makes sense. It’s kind of drilled into us that relationships should be fifty-fifty: equal work all the time. And it took me a long time to realize that’s almost never reality, and more importantly, that it’s okay that it’s not reality. Everyone has different needs and they often change by the day – some days you can give all of yourself, some days you can barely manage one percent. It ebbs and flows and it’s a rare day that both people can contribute equally.”

“Personally, I like putting minimal effort into relationships,” Audrey claims, even managing a straight face. “Letting my partner do all the work is fine with me.”

“Funny, Audrey,” he says wryly, as she laughs at her off-color joke. (They both know that in all seriousness, she’s more like him than not.) “My drive to take care of people is something about myself that I’ll never be able to change. And if I’m not doing that, if I’m not allowed to do that, then it feels like…something’s missing.”

“It was missing with Jessica,” she adds, since he stopped just shy of saying it.

“That and a myriad of other things,” he allows. (Audrey knows most of them, so there’s no need to get back into all of it now.) “Our break-up hurt. A lot. But I’m glad it ended when it did, because if it hadn’t? God forbid, if we’d gotten married? We’d be heading towards the end, sooner or later, and it would have been that much worse if we’d let it happen later.”

“I’m not saying you and Jessica didn’t work, because you did, in a different way. But you and Shaun complement each other in ways you and Jess never could have.” She’s studying him in that eerie manner she has that makes him think he could never hide anything from her. (And yet he is, because she has no idea that he and Shaun aren’t really together – he’d bet his life on it for one reason: because if she so much as suspected, she’d have called him on it a long time ago.) “Do you think this is it?” she asks.

He’s momentarily lost, too busy thinking of how accurate she’s been in her assessment of why his and Shaun’s relationship (their friendship) works so well. “Do I think what’s it?”

She sighs, though it’s mostly fond. “Shaun. Is this it for you?”

He freezes at the question, though he should have expected it was coming, especially given what they’d been talking about; it makes sense that she’d wonder what they planned for the future.

He can’t lie to her, either. Can’t try to downplay things or pretend like Shaun isn’t as important to him as he is – if he even attempted to do so, she’d know immediately. (And more than that, the mere idea of lying in that way feels wrong.)

In the end, all he can do is tell her the absolute truth, which is… “I can’t envision any future for me that doesn’t have him in it.” (Because he always plans to be in Shaun’s life – so long as Shaun wants him there.)

She seems immensely pleased with his answer, like it’s something she’s known for a long time and has been waiting for him to confirm. “So ask him to marry you already. Everyone can tell that’s where you’re heading.”

He spares her a speculative glance. “They can, huh?” Strangely enough, her suggestion doesn’t throw him half as much as her previous question had. (He must be getting really good at playing off these kinds of inquiries into their relationship.)

She’s nodding. “I don’t know what you’re waiting for.”

He takes a moment to briefly picture that imaginary version of the future. What it’d be like to have Shaun with him forever. Always being there for each other, no matter what. Never having to worry that one day they might no longer be in each other’s lives. He idly wonders how difficult it’d be to sell Shaun on the idea of a fake marriage and it’s rather jarring to realize how easy it’d be to talk himself into it, never mind convince Shaun that it’d be the best thing for both of them.

He quickly snaps himself out of it, because the entire idea is insane. Pretending to be in a relationship is one thing – and it’s easy to end whenever they decide it’s necessary. But a marriage of convenience isn’t even in the same realm. Shaun might still be adamant about not wanting a romantic relationship with anyone right now, but things could always change. In the year and a half that they’ve known each other, Neil’s seen him alter plenty of his formerly concrete opinions, so it’s not inconceivable that one day Shaun might want to attempt a real relationship with someone else. And Neil is never going to be the person who stands in the way of Shaun finding that kind of happiness. (He cares about Shaun too much to ever do that to him.)

“Well?” Audrey asks, breaking into his thoughts. When he stares at her blankly, she snaps, rather impatiently, “Marriage?”

“That’s a long ways away,” he says vaguely. “If ever.”

Her expression reveals that she’s far from satisfied with that answer. “So you’re saying that I’m talking to the wrong person about this?”

He tries to glare her into submission. “Audrey.”

“No, I understand,” she says breezily. “I’ll bring it up to Shaun – I can probably convince him to ask you instead.”

“We’re done talking about this,” he says, with as much resolve as he can manage (and a mental note to warn Shaun about Audrey’s new plan). He’s literally saved by the bell when his phone chimes and he sighs with relief when he sees it’s Shaun again. Finally. “Shaun’s on his way home and he’s going to call me when he gets there.”

“Then you should go back to your room,” she says, waving at the door. “Not only because I don’t want to listen to your half of a lovesick conversation, but because I’m going to go enjoy the hot tub. I deserve it after an entire day of wallowing in your misery by forced proximity.”

He takes a moment to stare at the oversized hot tub through the glass doors to the balcony (which is enclosed in winter so that guests can still enjoy it). “I hate you.”

“I’d invite you to join me, but we both know you won’t. Because as envious as you are of my room’s amenities – of which I am richly deserving, mind you – you don’t actually care about the hot tub. All you want to do is talk to Shaun. So run along and commiserate about your awful weeks and argue over which one of you is suffering more without the other.”

“We’re not going to do that,” Neil mutters, knowing full well there’s a real possibility that they might.

“Uh huh. By the way, I maintain that I still win the ‘who’s suffering the most this week?’ contest.” She’s only half-paying attention to him now as she makes a haphazard attempt at neatening up the coffee table.

“Week’s not over yet, either,” he blithely reminds her, smiling at her exaggerated groan in response. He goes over to the credenza to examine an overflowing basket of muffins, fruit, and various chocolates – a gift from the organizers for presenting her paper this week. He takes out a muffin and then surveys the fruit, debating if he finds any of it appealing. When he picks up an apple, he hears Audrey clicking her tongue behind him.

“You’re thinking that’s what Shaun would choose, aren’t you?”

It is unnerving the way she reads his thoughts sometimes. “The only reason I’m not throwing this at you is because it would hurt,” he claims, defiantly taking a bite out of it as he gathers his things to leave. On his way out he calls over his shoulder, “Try not to feel too sorry for me as you spend the evening relaxing in your hot tub while I languish in this hotel’s equivalent of a prison cell.”

“No one can do hyperbole quite like you, Melendez,” she yells back, right before the door shuts behind him, and he has to grin because they both know she’s correct. So maybe he’d been exaggerating a little (they’re in a pretty nice hotel so all the rooms are nice), but the fact remains that Andrews had definitely given Audrey preferential treatment. While that doesn’t actually bother Neil half as much as he claims it does, he still feels it’s his duty to complain as much as he can – mostly because it annoys their boss and that’s all the satisfaction Neil needs to feel better about things.

He takes the elevator down seventeen floors (he’s fairly sure Marcus would have stuck him in the basement if it had been an option) and enters his own room, taking a moment to enjoy the feeling of being truly alone for the first time in 15 hours. He kicks off his shoes and leans back against the headboard of the bed, turning on the TV so he can catch the nightly headlines.

While he’s waiting for Shaun to get home, Neil sends an offhand text with the amount of time until he’s home – or at least, back in San Jose: 64 hours until my flight gets in, barring any delays.

63.65 hours, Shaun immediately corrects.

Neil feels a surge of warmth at the fact that he hasn’t been the only one counting. That Shaun knows the exact amount of time until Neil gets home. (Or, more importantly, the amount of time until they’ll next be able to see each other.)

When his phone rings a short time later, with Shaun’s name displaying on the screen, things suddenly don’t seem as bad as they have for the past three days.

He puts his phone on speaker when he answers, and hearing Shaun’s voice greet him in return causes a weight to lift he hadn’t known was there. Shaun’s okay. Hearing him isn’t as good as seeing him, but it’s enough to calm Neil’s nerves after three days apart (especially because this is the first time they’ve been able to talk on the phone since Neil left home – their schedules hadn’t aligned before so they’d only been speaking through texts).

He fills Shaun in on the conference, including details he hadn’t bothered to type out in texts because they were too trivial or he felt it was too time-consuming. In turn, Shaun tells him about their most recent patients and random news from the hospital (that is, gossip about their co-workers that he’d heard from Morgan or Claire). Neil gets lost in the ridiculous stories Shaun’s telling and for a short time, at least, he’s able to forget that he’s thousands of miles from home. (With Shaun on the phone, the distance doesn’t seem nearly as great.)

After about an hour, their conversation lapses and Neil thinks he should probably wrap up their call. The other man’s started making dinner, so he can hear the muffled sounds of pots and pans in the background, but…Shaun hadn’t told him he had to go. (Maybe he doesn’t want to end their call as much as Neil doesn’t.)

Neil’s never felt a compulsive need to fill the silence and neither has Shaun. They can spend time together quietly, sometimes for hours, doing their own separate things while sharing the same space. It’s something they truly appreciate about each other – Neil likes not being bothered when he’s busy or trying to focus on a task and Shaun likes not being bothered in general. However, there’s a difference between staying silent while they’re with each other in person and doing it over the phone. His thoughts drift and he remembers his conversation with Audrey…he had decided to warn Shaun about it, right? (That’s why he asks what he does next – or so he tells himself.)

“Want to guess what Audrey said tonight?”

He hears what might be the sound of a fridge opening and closing before Shaun answers, “I am sure she said many things over the course of the evening.”

“You know very well that I’m referring to something specific.”

“What did she say?”

Neil gives a long-suffering sigh, though the effect is probably lost because they’re on speaker. “One of these days you’re actually going to guess.”

“Guessing is an unproductive use of time. You could have already told me what she said and our conversation would be ten seconds further along than it is now.”

He can perfectly see Shaun’s expression in his mind. “Stop looking all exasperated.”

“I look no such way,” Shaun says indignantly (which proves he looks exactly that way).

“Sure you don’t.” Neil debates the wisdom of continuing, but part of him is genuinely curious about Shaun’s reaction. “She said that everyone thinks we’re going to get married.” He’s greeted by silence, so he waits, guessing Shaun’s probably busy with cooking. When it goes on for too long, though, he starts wondering if the call has been dropped. “Shaun?”

Instead of explaining his absence, Shaun just asks, “What did you say?”

What had he said? He hadn’t laughed it off or changed the subject. He hadn’t distracted her by joking that she was more invested in his and Shaun’s relationship than they were. No, he’d gone and let himself think about it. He’d actually envisioned what it’d be like, going so far as to imagine a future where they kept this up for so long that they got married for the sake of convenience. And it’s as crazy to think about now as it was an hour earlier.

Usually, Neil tells Shaun virtually everything, but there’s no way he’s going to reveal where his wayward imagination had gone. Even though he knows it didn’t mean anything, Shaun might not be entirely convinced of that. It’d make him uncomfortable and that wouldn’t be fair – especially not when the whole point of their relationship is to avoid situations where Shaun’s made uncomfortable by other people. (Neil had already been one of those people, back when they first met, and he vowed a long time ago that he’d do everything possible to ensure it never happened again.)

“I didn’t really answer her,” Neil tells him, which is pretty much true. “We almost immediately went back to discussing this trip and how much I hate it.”

“You hate it?” There might be something hopeful in Shaun’s question.

“I do. I can’t wait for it to be over – a sentiment which you seem to share, since you’re the one who corrected my hourly countdown, remember?”

“I remember. We just passed 62 hours.”

“Still too long,” Neil laments. “Anyways, my point about Audrey was that she threatened to bring up the subject to you because she got nowhere with me. I wanted you to be prepared.”

“Okay,” Shaun acknowledges, but when he says nothing further, Neil’s left oddly frustrated. (And he doesn’t really know why.)

“Do you want to get married?” he finds himself asking, because it’s something he’s wondered before and never asked.

“To you?” Shaun’s voice has taken on an unnaturally high-pitch.

What? Neil replays his words, shaking his head at own carelessness. “No, Shaun, you don’t have to worry – that wasn’t a proposal. I should have worded it better: could you see yourself getting married? Is that something you might ever want? With anyone?”

Shaun doesn’t answer right away, but Neil can hear him moving around in the background, presumably still cooking. He figures his resident is pondering the questions, and he’s proven right when Shaun finally says, “Maybe.”

“Maybe? What are the factors you’re basing it on?”

“It would have to be the right person.”

“Well, I think that goes without saying. For everyone.”

“People get married for many reasons and not all of them have to do with finding the ‘right’ person,” Shaun argues. “Some people don’t care about that. Some people marry for wealth, or protection, or power. Morgan once told me she wants to marry someone of distinction.”

“Of course she did.” And now that Shaun’s brought it up… “What would your reason be?”

There’s a significant pause before Shaun asks, “You really do not know?”

“I could probably guess,” Neil replies, lightly. “But you don’t like guessing, do you?”

Love,” Shaun stresses, sounding rather agitated that he has to say it.

“Love,” Neil echoes, in agreement. “Look at that, Shaun – our reasons are the same.”

The line falls silent again until Shaun points out, “You almost got married shortly after we met.”

Neil slides further down on the bed so he can lie on his back and stare up at the ceiling, but the only thing he sees is Jessica. Their relationship had taken a course neither had expected, and snippets of memories pass fleetingly through his mind, capped off by endless arrangements for a wedding that would never take place.

Then Shaun’s asking, “Do you regret that you did not?”

“No, not at all. I’m glad Jess and I didn’t get married. We weren’t right for each other…not for the long-term.”

“But you loved each other.”

“We did,” he agrees. “We still do. But not the way people should if they’re getting married.”

Shaun hums in some kind of acknowledgement, seeming satisfied with that answer, if the fact that he doesn’t follow up is any indication.

Neil turns his head to look at the phone next to him. They’ve never discussed their views on marriage, but now that he’s heard some of Shaun’s thoughts, he only wants to know more. “So you would get married if you thought you’d found the right person… Do you think there might be any ‘right’ people on the horizon?”

“What do you mean?”

Neil hears the sound of water running and waits until Shaun turns off his sink to explain, “Like…in the distance.”

“As in…” Shaun hesitates. “…geographically?”

He smiles a little. “No, I mean in the figurative distance. We spoke a couple months ago about whether we should keep doing this, remember?”

“At the gala,” Shaun confirms, voice becoming more clipped. “We agreed that we both wanted to and that we would tell each other if we changed our minds.”

“I know,” Neil says, “and that’s related to what I’m saying. I know there isn’t anyone you think of that way right now or you would have told me. All I’m wondering is if you’ve met anyone where you’ve thought…there could potentially be more one day. Perhaps at some point in the future, if you were open to pursuing it. That’s what I mean by someone ‘in the distance’ – or on the horizon, so to speak.”

“On the horizon,” Shaun repeats thoughtfully, before saying, rather firmly, “No.”

Neil’s mostly relieved to hear that, even as he recognizes how conflicted he is about the entire thing. On one hand, if Shaun expressed any desire towards dating or finding a real relationship, Neil would actively encourage him because of how strongly he feels that Shaun deserves that kind of love. On the other hand, a very real part of him would despise everything about it because he knows…well, he knows he’d be left behind.

He blames Audrey for this. She’d been the one who started him down this track again, bringing up the issue of marriage, which had caused him to think of Shaun in a way he knows he shouldn’t. Not when Shaun doesn’t feel anything romantically towards him (or, as his resident had just confirmed, anyone).

Any feelings he has for Shaun must be kept strictly in the category of friendship. Always. He has a deep love and affection for Shaun, but as a friend, and if any small part of him had been wavering, or wondering about the possibility of them ever becoming more, this conversation is reaffirming every reason why it would never happen. Not only that, but Neil knows it’s a terrible idea to contemplate, even in the most idle of ways. It had taken him months to get over Jessica…he can’t begin to imagine the hell he’d have to go through if he fell in love with Shaun and then had to get over him. (He doesn’t know if he’d get through it, to be honest. So he can’t do that to himself. He won’t.)

“You would tell me,” Shaun begins, sounding rather unsure, “…right?”

Neil’s brain momentarily short-circuits as he struggles to recall if he’d accidentally said any of his thoughts out loud. “Tell you what?”

“If there were anyone…on your horizon.” Shaun’s voice has gotten exponentially quieter and Neil wonders if he’s moved further away from the phone.

Shaun often turns Neil’s own questions around on him, but this is another thing they’d talked about at the gala – at the time, Shaun had explicitly asked if there was anyone Neil wanted to be in a relationship with and he’d reassured him that there wasn’t. So for him to ask again…what if this is something he’s been worried about? Neil’s always been aware that Shaun dating someone would lead to less time with him, so what if Shaun’s had those exact same fears about him?

The possibility of a relationship (a real one) is something that’s taken Neil a long time to consider again, but lately he’s been thinking about it more – thinking about dating at some point in the future, after he and Shaun are over. He simultaneously loves and hates the idea of it, which is something he hasn’t been able to figure out, for the life of him.

What he does know is that he doesn’t want to be alone. After Jessica, and the toll it had taken on him, he’d thought that he might be okay with being alone. That maybe falling in love and marriage and children wasn’t in the cards for him and that’d be fine, because he still has his friends and family and career. That all would have been enough if it had to be enough. It wasn’t until he and Shaun became closer friends, and then began their arrangement of letting others believe they were together, that Neil remembered how much he’d always thrived when he was with someone. It doesn’t matter that what he and Shaun have isn’t actually romantic – it still fulfills a very real need in him: to have someone that close, who knows him that well, and who’s there for him as much as he’s there for them.

And now? He has no idea how he’ll manage what comes after this is all over. No clue how he’ll return to his own solitary life.

“You would not tell me.” Shaun’s voice, rather subdued, reminds Neil that he’d never answered his question. So now Shaun thinks –

“Of course not.” Wait, that’s the wrong answer. Or rather, he’s worded it the wrong way. “I mean – no. That’s not – what I’m trying to say is of course I would tell you. If there was anything to tell.” He sits up, feeling strangely flustered as he fumbles for his phone on the bed next to him. “Which there isn’t. Anything to tell, that is.”

“There isn’t.” It sounds like Shaun had meant it as a question, though it hadn’t come out as one.

“No. There isn’t.” Starting a romantic relationship with someone? Despite knowing he wants it in an abstract way, the image of it won’t coalesce into anything real in his mind. The thought of opening himself up to a person he hardly knows feels so incredibly wrong that he recoils whenever he thinks about it. He doesn’t want to jump randomly into the dating pool to try and find someone he could spend the rest of his life with. He’d never liked dating in that sense; he’d always preferred letting things happen naturally, becoming friends with someone first and seeing if more developed, as opposed to heading in blind and hoping for the best with a stranger.

Since Shaun hasn’t spoken again, Neil takes a moment to think over the past year, across all the people he’d met in the course of his job and daily life. If it had been any other time in his life (such as a few years earlier, back before Jessica), there were a handful that he might have been open to dating – but the crucial difference is he doesn’t want that with any of them now.

He hasn’t felt that flare of recognition in a very long time, the one that lets him know he’s met someone he could have in his life forever – in any capacity, be it close friend or lover or even something beyond that. Something more.

Unbidden, a rather significant memory comes to the forefront of his mind: the first time he’d met Shaun Murphy. He remembers the younger man, rain-soaked and slightly lost and yet absolutely certain in himself and his assessment of the young boy he’d saved in an airport terminal – the boy whom he’d been determined to save again, despite the fact that no one would listen. The tenacity he’d had, that refusal to give up when every door closed on him, both figuratively and literally – it’s the same drive he carries to this day and one of the things Neil loves most about him.

He’d always felt a spark with Shaun, and it wasn’t that he’d expected them to become romantically involved, or even that he’d seen a future where they were friends – it was that Shaun treated him differently than all his other residents had, up to that point. Shaun didn’t defer to him when he thought Neil was wrong, he voiced his protests. He challenged Neil, his direct superior. And he’d never been afraid of him.

Shaun had always respected him – always liked him – even when Neil didn’t deserve it.

Even when, looking back, Neil didn’t much like himself.

That connection between them that Neil had initially tried to ignore with enforced distance, that he’d tried to drown out with antagonism, had eventually evolved into the friendship they have now. Some part of Neil had known, from their first surgery together when Shaun had challenged him, that there was something between them that he didn’t share with any other resident. He’d known that Shaun Murphy was someone he could get along with exceptionally well – if he let it happen. (And it had taken a serious reevaluation of himself to let it happen.)

Neil’s always admired in others what he sees as some of his own best qualities: the ability to think critically and form independent opinions; the spine to question authority instead of blindly following orders; the strength to never fear anyone, even (and especially) those in positions of power.

The problem, of course, is that even though he likes those qualities, Neil doesn’t necessarily enjoy having that kind of open defiance directed at himself.

Shaun had pointed out Neil’s blatant hypocrisy one day, very early on, and instead of angering him like it would have coming from anyone else, Neil had just stared at him in mild surprise before laughing in acknowledgement. The recognition that Shaun had him figured out so thoroughly despite knowing him for less than a month had settled somewhere in the back of his mind. He’d filed it away as important. He hadn’t known why, at the time, but he’d later realized it was one of the reasons they’d become as close as they had. He could never experience this kind of intimate friendship with someone who didn’t understand him. (And no one seems to understand him quite the way Shaun does.)

The clinking of dishes through the phone tells him that Shaun hasn’t disappeared on him. And it reminds him that he never wants Shaun to disappear on him, nor does he want Shaun to have that fear about him, either. (Worrying over Shaun worrying…he’s truly glad Audrey’s not telepathic because she’d never let him live this down.)

“I hope you don’t think that I’d neglect our friendship if there was someone that I wanted to…start seeing,” Neil tells him. It feels strange saying that out loud, like there’s something wrong with even mentioning the idea while he and Shaun are still ‘together’.

There’s enough of a pause before Shaun answers that Neil thinks he was right about the other man having similar concerns. “Okay,” his resident finally says. “You may do whatever you want.”

“I’m aware of that, Shaun. And so can you.” Neil wishes, more than ever, that he was talking to Shaun in person. (Mostly so he could see him, but also, maybe, so he could reach out and touch him.) He’s not sure if Shaun understands what he’s trying to say – what he feels with renewed urgency that he has to clarify. “I never want us to stop being friends. No matter what. And I hope that we’re always in each other’s lives.” No, that’s not strong enough. “I want us to always be in each other’s lives.”

“You do.” Again, it’s not a question.

“Yes.” Neil instills as much conviction into the words as he possibly can. “I do.”

“Always,” Shaun echoes, and Neil pictures the way he’s almost certainly nodding as he says it. “Yes, I want that, too.”

“Okay.” Neil breathes out. “Good.” They’ve been talking long enough that he figures Shaun must be close to done cooking. “I’ll let you go if you want to eat,” he adds, with too much reluctance.

“I can eat and talk to you,” Shaun assures him, and Neil’s mostly just relieved at the excuse to keep talking to him.

“I didn’t ask what you were making because I was trying to determine what it was based on sound alone – is it pasta?”

Neil hears what’s probably a fork tapping on a plate a few times before Shaun curiously asks, “How did you –” He breaks off, and there’s a definite smile in his voice when he answers his own unfinished question: “It’s Thursday. You know I usually eat pasta on Thursdays.”

“Do you?” Neil feigns innocence. “I completely forgot. Face it, I’m just that good, Murphy. In another life I could have been a detective.”

“I would like to hear you tell that to Alex.”

“I have. He laughed and walked away from me. Probably because I intimidate him.”

“Yes,” Shaun agrees, so genially that Neil can’t tell if he’s being serious or not, “that must be it.”

“I hope you enjoy your dinner.” Neil unwraps the muffin he’d stolen from Audrey, having long ago finished the apple. “Mine was fruit. And now a muffin.”

“You should eat better,” Shaun scolds.

“You can cook me dinner when I get home if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Can I,” Shaun says flatly.

“Yes,” Neil strives to sound serious, “that’s how generous I am.”

His phone screen lights up and he swipes it to find a message from Audrey: Any reason why Murphy just sent me a scathing text to reprimand me for ‘not ensuring you had a nutritious dinner’?

“Murphy.” Despite his attempt at sternness, he knows he’s failing at it. “Are you really harassing Audrey for not forcing me to eat well?” He types a quick response explaining that it’s entirely her fault he hadn’t had a real dinner (she’d been so distracting that he simply hadn’t thought of it earlier).

“You are clearly not going to do it on your own,” Shaun’s telling him.

They both know Shaun has a valid point – Neil actually eats much healthier because of Shaun and how often they share meals. When left to his own devices, he tends to go for whatever’s most convenient to save time, which usually isn’t the healthiest option. It’s a habit he learned back in med school and has never been able to fully shake (though to be fair, it’s not like he’s tried to shake it, either). “I take vitamins, Shaun. It all evens out.”

“And to think you are a doctor.” Shaun’s voice holds the slightest hint of complaint.

“Yes,” Neil laughs, “to think.”

He expects more disapproval, or perhaps a lecture about taking better care of himself, so he’s surprised when all Shaun says is, “I wish you were here.”

Neil pauses, trying to connect that to their conversation. “To share your much healthier dinner with me?”

“No,” Shaun answers slowly. “I just wish you were here.”

Here. Not back in San Jose. Not even back home. Shaun wants Neil to be there with him.

The admission leaves him staring at his phone, wishing once again that he could see Shaun and not just hear him. He’s pretty adept at reading Shaun’s emotions, but it’s much more difficult when he has nothing visual to go on. He could ask Shaun to switch to a video call, but they’re both eating so it’d be a hassle. Besides, he knows that despite being unhappy, Shaun’s still perfectly fine – even if Neil can’t see that for himself. (So why doesn’t knowing it feel like enough?)

“I wish I was there, too,” Neil admits. “I’ll be home soon.”

“Not soon enough.”

“Think you’ll make it?”

“I suppose,” Shaun says, somewhat dramatically, and now Neil thinks that his resident’s at least partly teasing him. (Which means he must have forgotten who he was talking to, because no one can turn things around like Neil can.)

“Hey, if everyone’s getting along fine without me,” he mildly suggests, “I was thinking about extending my trip after the conference is over. Maybe take in a few days of sightseeing –”

“No!” Shaun interrupts, before quickly lowering his voice back to a normal level. “No. Just come home.”

“I’m kidding.” Neil taps the edge of his phone, realizing after the fact that it’s the exact thing he would have done to Shaun to reassure him if they were right next to each other. “I’ll see you Sunday, as planned.”

“I will be there,” Shaun promises, referring to the fact that he and Claire had volunteered to pick them up at the airport. “In three days.”

“And I’ll make it up to you that you’ve effectively had Andrews as your direct supervisor for the entire week.”

“You will?” Shaun’s voice brightens considerably. “How?”

“I’ll think of something.”

I will think of something,” Shaun counters, and it’s obvious that he’s smiling again.

Neil instantly feels better upon hearing definitive proof that his resident’s okay. “Alright,” he agrees, “that works for me.” (Anything Shaun wants tends to work for him, really.)

Their conversation continues for a while longer, through dinner and beyond, discussing everything and nothing and a lot in between. It’s not until Shaun starts getting ready for bed that he reminds Neil they both have obligations the following day – obligations which won’t be that easy to fulfill if they spend the rest of the night talking.

“60.25 hours,” Shaun says, a final reminder of how long until Neil’s flight gets in.

“60.25 hours,” he affirms, before they bid each other goodnight.

Neil still hates this trip and wishes it were over already, still misses home and Shaun with a fierceness that’s not going to abate until he’s back in California, but he falls asleep a lot happier than he woke up that morning.

Chapter Text

“You’re lucky this airline didn’t put me in one of the emergency seats,” Audrey’s griping, as she knocks back the rest of another mini bottle of liquor. “I’d have opened the door over the ocean just to throw you out. Or maybe so I could jump out myself.”

“Disregarding the fact that you’ve forgotten about cabin pressure,” Neil feels obligated to point out, “last time I checked, we didn’t fly over an ocean to travel from New York to California.”

Their plane had just landed after the week-that-wouldn’t-end, and as it slowly taxis to the gate, Neil tries to shrug some of the tension out of his shoulders. He’d thought he’d start feeling better when he got on the plane back in New York, but it hadn’t happened. Then he’d convinced himself the flight itself would help him relax, especially the closer he got to California, but that hadn’t happened, either. So then he’d decided that once they landed his unease would finally disappear – after all, he’s been counting down to this moment for an entire week.

Much to his dismay, though, it feels like his anxiety has only increased since they touched down. He’d felt a momentary wash of relief when they landed safely, but since that moment he’s only felt apprehensive. Restless. Unsettled.

He tamps down on the emotions, telling himself he’ll feel back to normal once he gets off the plane, and nods at the small bottle in Audrey’s hand. “How many of those have you had?”

“Not enough, I assure you.” She caps that off by obnoxiously waving the empty bottle at him, close enough to his face that he leans backwards. “And I know we didn’t fly over the ocean.”

Neil’s somewhat skeptical. “Do you?”

“I was using hyperbole, Neil, and you know damn well what I’m getting at.”

There’s no way he’s letting it go that easily. “I know it’s a good thing you became a doctor and not a geography teacher.”

She heaves a sigh, like he’s proving her point or something. “You are exhausting and I’m telling Marcus I want hazard pay for this trip.”

“Oh, so the oversized suite and regular gifts weren’t enough for you?” Neil can’t believe she has the audacity to complain when she got the preferential treatment (actually yes, he can, because she’s Audrey Lim). “Allow me to list all the perks I got during this trip.” He makes a point of staring at her in silence for about ten seconds. “Did you catch them all?”

She’s peering into the empty bottle, probably hoping it will refill itself if she wishes hard enough. “You haven’t listed anything,” she tells him, distractedly. He continues to stare at her, counting the seconds (twelve) until she finally turns to him again. “Okay, I get it. You’re very clever, aren’t you?”

“I happen to think so,” he agrees, reaching over to flick the bottle she’s holding. “By all means, have a few more of those; they’re really keeping you sharp.”

“I’d like to remind you that I earned every perk I got – I had to listen to you complain for a week. Wait, sorry, ‘you don’t complain’.” It sounds suspiciously like she’s trying to mimic him (and he wonders even more suspiciously if she’s been practicing that impersonation on the residents). “We’ll compromise and call it ‘annoying the hell out of me’.”

“I’m pretty sure you’ve got that backwards,” Neil tries to protest, though it’s not entirely believable, even to himself. As the week had progressed – as the days had interminably dragged on – he’d found himself getting more aggravated with her (and anyone else who’d upset him in the slightest of ways). He’s pretty good at masking his irritation with people (God knows he’s had enough practice), but he’d allowed himself to be more open with Audrey because she’s a friend…and that meant by the end of the week, she’d been subject to a lot more…okay, complaining than usual from him. (And much like Morgan, Audrey’s always at her most annoying when she’s right and she knows it – come to think of it, Morgan’s probably learning from her. What a truly terrifying thought.)

Still, he maintains that Audrey had been equally insufferable in her own right.

“Are you sulking right now?” she tosses at him, in an insufferably (see, this proves his point) sing-song manner. This past week, it’s been one of her most frequent (and as much as he hates to admit it, minorly true) accusations.

“I’m…discontent,” he rephrases, “because I’m tired and want to get home.”

“Suuure,” she annoyingly draws out. “That’s what you want. To get home.”

He’s pretty sure he’s being mocked and tries to throw her off by issuing an accusation of his own. “You’re just as miserable as I am.”

“I’m miserable because of you.”

They both know she’s lying; Neil might be done with this trip for a whole variety of reasons, but Audrey’s on edge because of her discomfort with flying. They also both know he won’t call her on it (because he’s a good friend and she tends to overlook that much too often, in his humble opinion). Her unease is the main reason she’s had one too many shots today – no matter how much she loved to insinuate she’d been driven to it while throwing pointed looks in Neil’s direction.

He decides to circle back to their original topic. “You think you suffered on this trip? I had to listen to you complain about me for an entire week! That has to be worse.”

“I don’t think you understand how this works.” She waves her hand between them and he barely dodges the bottle again. “My complaints are more valid than your complaints.”

“Why, exactly?”

“Because they’re mine and I’m the one who has to suffer through them. Therefore, they’re infinitely more important than yours.” Her tone indicates that he should know this already, though the faintest hint of a smirk on her face means she’s (mostly) joking.

“Audrey Lim,” he intones dramatically. “Never was there a woman more selfless. More altruistic. More concerned with the feelings of others –”

“I care about others,” she protests his mocking, “but sometimes I need to put myself first –”

Sometimes?” He grabs the empty bottle from her hand before she can almost hit him for a third time.

“– because if I don’t,” she loudly continues, ignoring his interjection, “then my mental and emotional well-being suffers. Do you want me to suffer? Wait, don’t answer that.”

“You survived the conference, didn’t you?”

“Barely,” she grouses, and he suppresses the urge to secretly record her on his phone just so he can play this back every time she insists that (unlike their residents) she does not whine. “Today was the final straw, Melendez,” she continues whining. “As if a nearly week-long conference with you wasn’t enough, to then spend an entire day with you at the airport –”

“It wasn’t an entire day,” he corrects, “it was 8.45 hours.”

She eyes him for an uncomfortably long five seconds. “You’re turning into Murphy. I thought he’d be a good influence on you over time, but sometimes…it’s beyond even what I imagined.”

“You thought he’d be a good influence on me?” No, there might be a more pressing question here. “Why were you imagining anything about me and Murphy together?”

“I need something to keep me warm on the cold nights,” she says, so innocently that he flips the empty bottle back at her. “Hey!” she splutters, trying – and miserably failing in her slightly buzzed state – to catch it.

“Hey yourself,” he shoots back, in admittedly not the best retort. “I’ll thank you not to make that kind of joke anywhere in Murphy’s vicinity, lest he act awkwardly around you for the next…eternity.”

“Who said it was a joke?” she smirks at him, and he regrets that he doesn’t have another bottle to throw her way. (…Maybe Murphy has a point about his propensity to throw things around.)

He decides, as usual, that his best bet is to ignore her. He settles for sighing as he stares past her out the window. “Are we ever going to get to the gate?” The plane had stopped a minute earlier, but they were still a good distance from the main terminal. Maybe he was never going to get off this plane. Stuck on the tarmac forever with Audrey Lim annoying him on one side and restless passengers starting to get increasingly riled up on the other…

He idly wonders how many laws he’d be breaking if he made a run for it and dove out the emergency door. Shaun would know. (And the image of him reciting the list leaves Neil smiling.)

“He has been a good influence on you, though,” Audrey interrupts his increasingly detailed imaginings, which have switched to Shaun lecturing him on what a dangerous and reckless thing he’d done. (‘You had already landed, Neil. You could not have waited several more minutes to deplane legally?’ ‘If you’d been there, Murphy, you’d have seen why I couldn’t.’)

“A good influence, hmm?” he echoes. “And why, exactly, would I need a ‘good influence’?”

“Let’s face it,” Audrey says, “outside of patient care, you can be somewhat…impetuous.”

“It’s called ‘following my instincts’,” he corrects her (because he swears she deliberately words things in the most unflattering way possible). That said, her point itself is true. He does have a tendency to choose what he feels is right rather than spend significant amounts of time weighing the pros and cons of a situation. It was a skill he’d had to hone because of his profession: there often wasn’t much time before needing to make a quick decision that could save someone’s life, especially in surgery. And that skill has mostly served him well in his personal life, too – his instincts have rarely ever led him astray.

(Ironically, perhaps, his most egregious recent example of acting without thinking is that he’s faking a relationship with one of his residents. He’s kept that ruse going for over six months, too – and Audrey doesn’t even know about that one.)

“Call it whatever you want,” Audrey shrugs, “but everyone can see what’s been happening.”

His eyes snap over to hers. “What?”

“You’re becoming more like him.” She’s shaking off the mild haze the alcohol had left her with, eyes becoming more sharp. “That’s what we were talking about, remember?”

No, he hadn’t remembered. For a moment, he’d thought she’d been referring to his increasing…affection for Shaun. But of course she wasn’t, because that’s something everyone already knows – something, in fact, that many had claimed to know even before he did. (The more he thinks about their relationship lately, the more confused he becomes – or is it the more he confuses himself?)

When he takes too long to answer, Audrey must guess that he’s still not seeing her point. “8.45 hours,” she unerringly mimics Neil again. “That’s something Shaun would say.”

“That’s because it’s something Shaun said,” Neil confirms, scrolling through his messages to show her the one Shaun had sent where he’d told Neil exactly how long he and Audrey had been stuck in the airport due to storms that delayed their return flight home.

Their chain of messages is part of a much broader statistical analysis of the trip, the main point of which was Shaun’s offer earlier today (upon hearing Neil’s complaints about never having enough time to get everything done) to sort Neil’s various activities into categories: productive versus unproductive. Their subsequent arguments about which activities belonged in which category had lasted for hours and pretty much kept Neil sane the entire day (especially since every time he’d checked on their flight it was delayed even further).

Audrey takes the phone from his grasp before he can stop her, though he doesn’t really mind as she reads through some of his and Shaun’s messages. “Productive versus unproductive?” she snickers. “Yeah, that’s Murphy, alright.” She sends Neil a sly glance. “Tell me, in which category would you place ‘pining’?”

He refuses to acknowledge such a ridiculous question in any way, shape, or form.

“It’s fine,” she says, dismissively, “I’ll ask him myself.”

Maybe Neil’s slow due to fatigue after a long day – a long trip – or maybe he’s distracted by the pilot announcing there’s going to be a short delay while they wait for other planes to clear before they can get to the correct gate (so close and yet still so far), because he doesn’t register until a couple of minutes later that Audrey was holding his phone when she said she was going to ask Shaun herself. Which means…

He glances over in semi-panic and sure enough, Audrey’s scowling at whatever she’s reading on Neil’s phone.

Where she’s having a conversation with Shaun.

Which means Shaun thinks he’s talking to Neil.

“Give me that,” he says, trying to keep his heart rate from skyrocketing, because God knows what she might have said to Shaun. And God knows how Shaun might have responded.

If she figures out that their entire relationship has been a lie…

Well, she certainly wouldn’t out their secret to everyone, but she’d definitely confront them, and that’s not a conversation Neil wants to have tonight (nor one he ever wants Shaun to have to suffer through).

(He has a fleeting thought that his problem is somehow inverse to the usual one of its kind: instead of fearing people might discover a secret, real relationship, he’s afraid that they’ll discover a secretly fake one.)

“Honestly, Neil,” she sighs, as he wrenches his phone from her hand before her fingers can fully open, “Shaun seems to have no idea how much you love him.” She crosses her arms, scowling in a way that means she’s becoming more upset the more she thinks about something. “Do you not tell him that enough?”

“What are –” He glances up from skimming through ‘his’ texts with Shaun (the ones that Audrey had actually written) and registers that she’s moved beyond upset. “Are you angry at me?”

Upon seeing his genuine surprise, she tries to school away some of her frustration. “Far be it from me to…interfere in your personal life –”

“That’s a good one.”

Her expression softens the slightest bit. “There are things that…” She shifts her gaze to her lap, and he can tell she’s uncomfortable now. “Murphy sometimes doesn’t…” She presses the heel of her palm against her eyes, groaning in frustration. “You sometimes have difficulty expressing yourself.”

Trust that she’d only manage to finish a sentence when it involved criticizing him.

I have difficulty expressing myself?” he can’t help joking, exasperated enough that he manages not to smile, despite his amusement. “You’d level that criticism even after you made three poor attempts to explain something, while still failing to get across the point you’re trying to make?”

She reaches over to his phone, scrolling back several messages, and taps her finger on one in particular. It’s the first question she’d sent to Shaun after Neil refused to answer her (and which Shaun thinks is from Neil): Would ‘pining’ be considered a productive or an unproductive activity?

He’s almost afraid to keep reading, but he forces himself to do so.

I don’t think that ‘pining’ would ever be a productive use of time, Shaun had initially written, then followed it up twenty seconds later with, For what, or whom, are you pining?

And of course Audrey hadn’t ignored that question. Of course she’d written back one simple word:

You.

Neil momentarily shuts his eyes in dismay. This is what he gets for not paying enough attention. Audrey’s still complaining about his ‘inability to articulate himself properly’ and he ignores her in order to read through the rest of the conversation.

The next message Shaun had sent was the literal definition of pining; it looks like an excerpt from a dictionary, though Neil’s pretty sure Shaun just wrote it from memory. Someone else might have guessed Shaun was trying to evade a potentially awkward conversation by joking that Neil didn’t know the word, but that’s not how his resident operates: Shaun’s simply lost and trying to figure out what Neil is getting at. He’d most likely thought that citing the definition would spur Neil to clarify – and that it would save him from having to ask a question he’s not sure how to ask.

And it would have worked perfectly – if he’d actually been talking to Neil.

Audrey, however, responded to Shaun’s message the way Neil would expect anyone else to – slightly defensive, and perhaps even mildly offended at Shaun’s seemingly patronizing tone: Why are you quoting the definition to me?

The conversation had gone steadily downhill from there, with both Audrey and Shaun getting increasingly confused by the other’s responses – Shaun because he thought he was talking to Neil, and Audrey because she thought they were discussing a real relationship.

The painful back-and-forth finally ended after Audrey asked what Shaun’s objection to the word ‘pining’ was (which had been the crux of most of their conversation), and Shaun had replied, There is a decidedly romantic connotation to that word.

That last message had been sent four minutes earlier – right when Neil had taken the phone from Audrey.

Neil very determinedly tamps down on the vague sense of hurt at Shaun’s astonished reaction to the possibility that Neil might ever use a word that had a ‘romantic’ connotation when it came to them or their relationship. Of course Shaun was surprised. And bewildered. And maybe (worse) uncomfortable. (What else would he be?)

Neil quickly types an explanation to Shaun that Audrey had taken his phone, and apologizes for the fact that it had been her on the other end, not Neil. He hopes Shaun believes him, hopes he doesn’t think it’s the type of barely believable excuse someone would use to avoid having to answer for messages they regretted sending –

I noticed that your typing patterns and responses were not typical, Shaun answers, almost immediately.

Neil sighs with relief even as he ponders Shaun’s claim. You not only know how I type, but what I’m going to say before I say it?

You are very predictable, Shaun says, then adds a few seconds later, in an obvious joke, Sometimes.

Neil reads that a few times, picturing the way Shaun must have been smiling when he typed it, and he wants to see him more, in that moment, than maybe he ever has.

I’ll try to be less predictable, he writes back, just so that he doesn’t accidentally type what he’s actually thinking: that missing Shaun has become more than an abstract feeling or emotion. It’s become an actual, physical ache, centered somewhere in his chest, and he knows it won’t go away until he finally sees him again – because he’s tried other methods to ease it and nothing has worked. Nothing.

Over the past week he’d done everything he could think of that might help. He’d talked to Audrey and Jess and various other friends, in a bid at distraction, but the conversations always led back to Shaun. He’d immersed himself in the conference, the lectures and the panels, but that had only made him think more about how Shaun wasn’t there to enjoy any of it. He’d tried rationally, logically, to talk himself out of the way he felt, but it had only reminded him that was the method Shaun favored. He’d even attempted Audrey’s tried and true method: drinking. Unfortunately, it had only made him more melancholy (a fact which he hadn’t thought possible until it happened).

(And even though he’d stopped drinking once he realized it was backfiring, he’d proceeded to empty the entire mini-bar just to give it all to Audrey in an ill-thought-out desire to spite Marcus. He has no doubt their boss will be forwarding him that bill, and Neil will refuse to pay it on ‘principle’ – a principle which doesn’t exist, he just likes to cite that as a reason – and then Shaun will pay it because he’s hard-wired to avoid conflict, even when it’s between Neil and someone else. Especially when it’s between Neil and someone else. This type of pattern has repeated often enough that he gave Shaun the passwords to his accounts months ago, because it’s easier than having to pay him back.)

His phone draws him back to the present with another message from Shaun: If I factored unpredictability into your behavioral patterns, they would become predictable again in their unpredictability.

Neil’s not even sure he understands that logic, and considers replying with a quip about Shaun’s predictability, then casts it aside for something that will irritate him much more: Sometimes I think you string words together nonsensically in the hopes of confusing me enough that you’ll win the argument through my forfeit.

He laughs at Shaun’s subsequently cool response: I do not need to confuse you, nor secure your forfeit, in order to win an argument.

If you say so, he answers, glancing up at the speaker over his seat when another announcement claims they’ll be moving to the gate soon. He tells Shaun as much and promises to continue their conversation in person.

Audrey’s still going on about Shaun’s messages from earlier, trying to figure them out, and Neil’s only half-listening until she mentions something about him ‘neglecting Shaun’s emotional needs’.

He can let a lot of things go, but her accusation stirs an unease that takes hold. “You would say that to me?” He tries to keep the hurt out of the question. “You would think that?” After everything he’s done for Shaun, the things she knows about – and the things she doesn’t. The fact that Shaun’s well-being is more important to him than even his own… She’d seen how much he struggled with this trip for the mere fact that he couldn’t be there for Shaun if necessary, so to hear her say something like that is not only troubling, but also makes him wonder if there’s more that he’s missing.

Audrey’s eyes have widened in surprise at his reaction. “That’s not how I meant it, Neil. I know you love him. Everyone knows you love him. What I’m saying is…Shaun sees the world differently than we do. Maybe what’s obvious to us isn’t that obvious to him.”

“He knows how much I care about him,” Neil says firmly, because even though they don’t have the kind of relationship Audrey believes they do, it’s the truth. (They’ve told each other as much, both with words and without.)

“Okay,” she relents, “you would obviously know better than me, but…” She gestures to Neil’s phone, forgotten in his hand. “He seemed confused just now, like he doubted how much you missed him this week.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have been drinking the entire flight home,” Neil says, hoping the alcohol is still affecting her enough that she might brush off this entire incident. “He was being argumentative on purpose.”

She furrows her brow. “He was?”

“Of course he was. You know how much he enjoys being difficult.”

Now her skepticism is laced with confusion. “I do?”

“With me,” he reminds her. “He enjoys it with me.”

“Well, that much I’ve seen,” Audrey admits, her consternation slowly fading as she buys into his explanation, and it helps that it’s true. Shaun’s always loved harassing him – in the beginning, it was probably because he thought Neil deserved it (and maybe Shaun hadn’t even been fully aware of what he was doing). Nowadays, though, it’s definitely intentional. Sometimes, Shaun will even go as far as telling Neil it’s intentional. Neil knows that he’s the safest person for Shaun to have that kind of back-and-forth with, since he’s not going to get confused or offended or angry – all he’s going to do is throw it back at Shaun equally. (Truth be told, he loves their lighthearted arguments as much as Shaun does.)

“He doesn’t exactly hide it,” Neil says, in belated agreement. “Not when it comes to me.”

“No, he doesn’t.” She’s leaning back in her seat again. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have implied…well, anything about your relationship. That’s between you and Shaun, not me.”

“Really?” he asks wryly. “Because sometimes it feels like it’s me, Murphy…and everyone else who works at our hospital.” (It sounds like he’s complaining, but he’s really not – making sure everyone’s aware of their relationship is the entire point.)

She abruptly laughs. “I’ll grant you that we love our gossip, but no one’s overly intrusive, are they?” She sits up straighter, expression turning halfway menacing. “If anyone ever –”

“Stop right there. We’re fine.” He takes in the way she relaxes at that, and not for the first time, counts himself (and Shaun) lucky to have her as a friend. “I do appreciate your eagerness to rip someone apart. Shaun would, too…though he might phrase it a little differently.”

“I was going to say, I know our friends can pry, but it’s from a place of caring. And outside of our immediate circle, I haven’t seen anything like that when it comes to you or Shaun.” She points at him. “You tell me if I miss something.”

“Gotta say, now I’d be a little afraid to.” When he’s met with confusion, he sets his hand on top of hers – where she’s still aggressively pointing at him – and gently pushes it back down to the arm of the seat.

She’s slightly sheepish, a truly rare state for her. “Sorry. I can get a little over-zealous.”

“I love the hostile enthusiasm,” he promises. “But really, you’re a good friend.”

She glances suspiciously at him. “Have you been sneaking some of my vodka?”

“No, I’ve been painfully sober all day.” He wasn’t about to risk sliding into a morose state of self-pity on the way home – he’s close enough to it without the alcohol. “You were right about our co-workers, too. They’ll ask how things are, but Shaun and I have never gotten any intense scrutiny. Thankfully.”

He’d let the last word slip accidentally, but no harm’s done when Audrey nods sagely, thinking he’s grateful for the privacy, when he’s actually thankful that he and Shaun were never treated to the usual, friendly interrogation that most new couples are subjected to by their friends. The worst they’d had to get through was when Jess confronted him on that very first day, and which he’d somehow (he’s still not sure how) managed to navigate his way through well enough that she’d believed everything he told her. His and Shaun’s relationship, the supposed secrecy of it, Neil’s feelings on the entire matter, even Shaun’s rocky attempt at selling her on his ‘feelings’ – none of it had so much as made her blink.

Ironically, everyone thinking they’d been hiding a relationship for a while had worked to their advantage, with people too satisfied at being ‘right’ to ever really question how their relationship had come about. And it’s a good thing, too, seeing as he and Shaun had discussed nothing beforehand – they would have had no answers to even the simplest of questions, like How’d you realize you had feelings for each other? or Where’d you go on your first date? or even something as basic as When did you get together?

Suffice it to say, things would have immediately fallen apart if anyone had bothered with the easiest of questions.

“I think we got a pass because people…” He has to word this carefully. “…knew about us before we officially told anyone.”

Her expression turns so incredulous, so quickly, that he’s afraid he accidentally gave them away somehow. “Is that all?” she scoffs, with the air of someone who knows everything.

Neil has to make a snap decision and hope it’s not the wrong one. He discards humor, distraction, and even doubling down in favor of feigning innocence (which is risky, especially with her, but it’s served him well when he’s used it sparingly in the past). “What do you mean?”

“Neil.” She crosses her arms and he suddenly feels like he’s about to be scolded. “I’m sure what you’re saying played a part, but there’s a lot more to it than that. People respect you. They respect Shaun. But mostly…” Now she’s failing to staunch her amusement. “They’re afraid of you.”

Neil knows that; he’d known it long before Shaun delighted in telling him, in fact. But he’d never made any kind of connection between that information and the way people approached his relationship with Shaun…probably because other people being curious about them isn’t the kind of thing that would ever anger Neil, so it hadn’t occurred to him that other people thought it might anger him. The truth is that he’d liked it on the few occasions that people (whom he didn’t quite consider ‘friends’) inquired about their relationship, because the more people who knew how important Shaun was to him, the better.

“I suppose I never put things together because people asking about us isn’t something that upsets me,” he tells her, honestly.

“You’ve got to be joking. After you all but threatened to fire the boy who was harassing Shaun before you told everyone about your relationship –”

“I didn’t threaten to fire him,” Neil automatically denies, not caring that the threat was obvious without being explicitly stated. (With some of the things he does… It’s best to maintain plausible deniability.)

“And that happened the day you ‘officially’ told everyone. Did you think many people – outside of your close friends and our foolhardy residents – would risk asking you invasive questions after that? Or worse, risk asking Shaun? On the chance he might not appreciate it, or become uncomfortable, or mention it to you? No one we work with wants to be perceived as a threat to Shaun – and no one remotely sane wants to be perceived as a threat to Shaun by you.”

“Good,” he says vehemently, without even thinking about it. He’d known that the number of people who bothered Shaun, even indirectly, had dropped drastically since they began ‘dating’, but he hadn’t thought about just how far their consideration might extend.

She watches him knowingly. “You’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing this, haven’t you?”

He doesn’t deny it or try to hide his grin. “More than you know.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she sighs, with a wave of her hand, “but you’re in love, so I’ll let you have this one.”

Despite appreciating what she’d told him, it has made him wonder… “Do I come across as too protective? Do you think I should…ease up a bit?”

“Nice trick question,” she says, without inflection. “You wouldn’t even if I told you to.”

“I do listen to you, you know,” he tells her. It’s too easy to add, imperiously, “When your advice is the right advice.”

“Which is what my advice always is,” she says, mocking his tone, though she gentles it when she continues, “In this case, the right advice is: don’t change.” Her eyes have drifted to somewhere beyond him, maybe picturing their youngest resident and the protectiveness it’s all too easy to feel towards him. “Remember what I told you a few days ago? About the conversation I had with Shaun where he told me the numerous ways you help him, even inadvertently?” She becomes more focused, snapping her eyes back to meet his. “Anything that makes his life easier is the right thing to do.”

He knows she has no idea how far he’d gone to ensure that was the case – engaging in a fake relationship was certainly one of the most ‘out-there’ ideas he’d ever had – but her calm, assured summation reaches somewhere inside him, soothing his deeper worries and fears in an indescribable way. Even though he knows this has been beneficial to both him and Shaun, he’s worried at times whether Shaun exaggerates his own happiness because he wants Neil to be happy. He’s also been afraid of what others might say (or do) if they discovered the truth – and how difficult it might be for Shaun to deal with the scrutiny from that type of fall-out.

Mostly, though, he’s wondered about the wisdom of continuing this…indefinitely. (Which is not the same thing as forever. Absolutely not.)

“You’re right,” he tells her, because she really does know him after so many years. “I wouldn’t have changed even if you’d suggested I do so. I don’t think I’m capable of it.” Not when it comes to Shaun – the way that he is with Shaun. Still… “You’re sure that I don’t seem…” He’s not even sure how to word it.

“Crazy?” She’s smirking at him (obviously that’s the word she’d choose). Before he can get too defensive, she hastens to reassure him, “No, Neil, you don’t. Believe me, I’d take immense pleasure in telling you if you did.”

“Thanks,” he mutters, with a brief shake of his head.

“Anytime.” She places her hand over her heart like she’s swearing an oath. “And as to your initial question, it’s not that you come across as too protective, it’s that everyone knows how you are with the things – the people – who matter to you. So when it comes to Shaun…everyone can tell.”

It feels like she’s leaving out crucial information. “Tell what?

She frowns at him and he gathers this is something she believes he should already know. “That he’s the most important thing in your world. And same goes for him, by the way, when it comes to you. Neither of you explicitly says it, it’s just there. In every conversation. Every interaction. The love you have for each other is obvious.”

He’s starting to feel undeniably disquieted at this description of a life he doesn’t have. There’s no possible way she can see all that – no way everyone they know sees all of that. He and Shaun care about each other, and maybe that’s never been a secret, but people must be viewing them through some skewed emotional lens since they ‘know’ about a relationship that doesn’t exist. “I think people see what they want to see,” he tells her, as his unease from earlier comes rushing back full-force. “We can’t really be the way you’re describing. I’d have noticed.”

He’d have noticed.

Right?

Some of her concern is returning and he wonders if he’s made a mistake to push her further on this topic, given what he’s trying to hide. “You think I’m only talking about after you admitted your feelings?” She sounds torn between confusion and exasperation. “Because if so, I have to break your delusions, Melendez. What I’m talking about goes back months before that.”

He waits for her to laugh, maybe make some ridiculous joke at his expense, but nothing comes. “…Months?”

“Yes.” She shakes her head in dismay. “You never wondered why so many people knew you and Shaun were together before you admitted it?”

“I gave some thought to it, sure, but…” He’d figured that people had drawn their own conclusions because he and Shaun were becoming closer friends and had never hidden that they spent time together outside of work. In his experience, people generally enjoyed imagining the most shocking, sensational, or scandalous scenarios that they could. An attending surgeon and his resident carrying on (what people thought was) an illicit affair had ticked every box in the playbook of salacious gossip. He hadn’t thought people’s conclusions had anything to do with their…how did Audrey put it? Their ‘love’ for each other being ‘obvious’.

“It’s amusing to me that you were so lost in your own world that you didn’t notice what was happening around you. You’re usually more savvy than that, Neil.”

“Usually?” he echoes, still in disbelief. “How about always.”

“As I’ve just informed you,” she says coolly, “not always.”

He laughs shortly and lets it go, in no mood to continue the argument, lighthearted though it is. He’d much rather mull over the things she’d told him; she’s certainly given him a lot to think about in only ten minutes time.

Audrey looks out the window, delighted smile flitting across her face when she realizes they’ve started moving again and are almost at the gate. “This might have been the longest week I’ve ever spent with anyone,” she says. “And capped off with the day from hell? I’m officially done.” Their plane hasn’t even stopped yet when she hauls herself upright, shoving past Neil to get to the aisle so she can open the overhead compartment where her carry-on is stored.

He bristles at the reminder that their most recent conversation aside, they’d mostly been getting on each other’s nerves for seven days straight. (And she’s right that today had been the worst.)

“Today was torturous,” he pleasantly agrees, “but not because of me. It was because you wouldn’t stop whining about the delay and the storms and the airline –”

“What kind of lousy pilots do they employ that can’t fly during a little rain?” she rails, throwing her hands up.

The plane lurches to a sudden stop and Audrey almost goes careening down the aisle, which earns her a stern lecture from a nearby flight attendant about the dangers of standing while the plane’s still in motion. Audrey tries her best to seem contrite (she might as well not bother), and by the time the attendant’s done, everyone else is standing, too, so she misses her extremely narrow window to sprint ahead of Neil and get off before he does.

It’s probably petty, but he’s really satisfied about that.

Until she starts in on him again.

“Eight extra hours with you. Eight.” Instead of returning to her seat, she leans a hip against the seatback in front of him, resigned to waiting along with everyone else – but in the aisle where she can still make a run for it if the opportunity presents itself. “I don’t know how Murphy puts up with you nearly 24/7. The kid must be a veritable saint. I always suspected it, but this trip has only confirmed it in my mind.”

“Hey, spending time with me is an honor,” he reminds her, starting to smile as a few of his favorite memories with Shaun flicker through his mind. “In truth, when it comes to the time we spend together…” His smile softens, becoming impossibly fond. “I definitely get the better end of the deal.”

“I could have told you that,” she quips.

“Yeah,” he laughs, shrugging up at her helplessly. “It’s not exactly a secret.”

She’s staring at him with some emotion he can’t quite identify, but he knows that it’s warm, and a vast change from how annoyed she’d been with him a few moments before. “You’re so far gone that I can hardly see you in the distance. I mean that in the best of ways, but…seriously, Neil. Gone.” She doesn’t wait for a response, turning instead to look down the now-crowded airplane aisle and issue an infuriated sigh. “Can we move it along a little faster, people? Some of us have places to be!” She’s mostly ignored by everyone in their vicinity and Neil can’t blame them – he’d ignore a crazy woman yelling on his plane, too. (Too bad the whole ‘ignoring’ tactic doesn’t work when he knows the person.)

He tilts his head back to look at her. “I hope when you’re inevitably arrested by the air marshal that they don’t mistakenly take me down with you because we’re traveling together.”

“At least being arrested means I’d get off this plane faster! ” She deliberately raises her voice at the end and Neil sinks down further into his seat in a futile attempt at hiding.

“Want me to turn you in?” he offers. “I’d be more than happy.”

“For what?” she demands.

“Disturbing the peace.” When she waves in a ‘What are you on about?’ gesture, he clarifies, “My peace. Disturbing my peace.”

“Next time we do this,” she warns, presumably referring to taking a trip together, “there better be a buffer between us. And his name better be Shaun Murphy.” She’s texting someone on her phone now, maybe to say they’ll be getting off the plane soon. “He might be the only one that can get you to be less…you.”

“Thanks,” he says, sarcastically. “And if we ever take another flight together, I’m drugging you so that you sleep through it.”

“It’d be preferable,” she sneers, but it’s not without a semblance of humor; he can see the relief in her that they’re back on the ground and about to get off the very plane that she’d worried might be a ‘flying death trap’ a few hours earlier. That’s the main reason he doesn’t argue with her any further. (That plus the fact that he’s also been able to hear himself this whole trip and knows that if he were anyone else, he’d be irritated, too.)

Audrey had only been pointing out the truth when she’d said that as the week went on, things got progressively worse. The night he and Shaun talked had been much better, but it was the only chance they got to actually speak over the phone for the rest of the week. They’d had to go back to texting when their work schedules wouldn’t match up, and it had been bothering Neil more by the day (and Shaun, too, it was clear).

It seemed like the closer they got to seeing each other again, the more difficult it was to wait.

Today’s significant delay hadn’t helped matters, either. It’s past 8 in the evening and they should have gotten in shortly before noon.

Thankfully, it seems like Audrey remembers how tired she is after their incredibly long day, and any further discussion (or argument) is shelved as the plane starts noticeably clearing of passengers. It’s another twenty minutes before they finally manage to disembark and Neil stifles a sigh when getting off the plane does absolutely nothing to defeat the malaise that’s gripped him all day.

Well, there’s nothing for it. Maybe what he needs is to be back in his apartment, in his own bed, and then he can finally wipe the entire trip from his mind, firmly leaving it in the past where it belongs.

As he and Audrey wind their way through the airport, heading for the main concourse where people are waiting to greet arriving passengers, Neil finally begins to feel marginally better. He can feel his nerves settling with every step that takes him further from the plane and closer to –

Shaun.

His resident is practically hugging the far wall of the concourse, out of the way of most the crowd, scanning the people streaming into the room from various entry points; judging by the amount of people here at this time of night, several other planes must have recently arrived.

Morgan’s leaning against the wall next to Shaun, but she’s not half as interested in the surroundings as her fellow resident, as evidenced by the fact that she’s reading on her phone instead of watching the new arrivals. It takes about three seconds for Shaun to catch sight of Neil across the room; once he does, he breaks out into a welcoming smile, and Neil feels like he can breathe again for the first time in seven days.

Everything else fades into the background – the laughing families and shouting children and couples embracing and Audrey hovering behind him (she’s back to – what else – complaining about something or other). All he sees is Shaun and he wonders why it feels like he’s been gone for months when they were saying goodbye to each other only a week earlier, in this very airport.

“You’re home,” Shaun states, when they come to a stop a few feet from each other. There’s something in his words, though… Something that almost makes it sound like Shaun doesn’t believe them.

“I’m home,” Neil confirms, studying his resident closely – every line of face, every flicker of his eyes, every aspect of him that Neil can see – and he measures it against everything he’s learned over the course of his career. It takes him around ten seconds to reassure himself that Shaun is in perfect health, and that’s when he realizes the automatic assessment is something he unconsciously does with Shaun whenever they see each other. And being unable to do it for an entire week had been a significant part of the reason why he was never able to fully relax. He’d simply never been able to confirm that Shaun was okay. (The night they’d talked had helped somewhat, but it was no substitute for being able to examine him in person – to see firsthand that Shaun was fine.)

That said, something about Shaun still seems off, but Neil can’t determine what it is. There’s a tension in the other man that isn’t going away – Neil can see it in the pinched lines around his eyes, the slightly downward set of his mouth, and the rigid, overly formal way that he’s standing. He’s not comfortable and Neil can’t tell if it’s because of the crowds around them or if it’s due to something else.

It bothers Neil – a lot – but he sets aside his worried questions to ask at a later time, when they’re alone. He’s not going to ask Shaun here, in front of their friends, as strangers continue to stream by them in the middle of the airport.

As he and Shaun stare at each other, Neil’s inexplicably at a loss, which is something he rarely feels (and Shaun’s actually one of the few who can elicit that reaction from him). He’s not sure how to greet him, what’s appropriate, or what’s not. Audrey and Morgan are probably expecting some sort of enthusiastic reunion, but trying to convince them of something that isn’t is the last thing on his mind. Maybe Shaun’s at a loss, too, because he’s not moving, either. The only thing Neil wants to do is touch him: seek out tangible proof that Shaun’s really here, right in front of him, within reach, when for so long they’ve been separated by literally the entire country

Before he can finish the thought, Shaun’s closed the distance between them, hugging Neil so fiercely that it seems like he’s not entirely in control of himself. Or maybe like he never wants to let go. (Which might be just fine with Neil – practical logistics of how they’d get through the rest of their lives, aside.)

Right, Neil remembers, breathing in. This is easy.

(How could he have forgotten how easy this is?)

After a belated few seconds, Neil realizes he’s standing there frozen, so he drops his bag in order to hug Shaun in return, though much more gently because he’s acutely aware of the other man’s aversion to being held too tightly. When Shaun doesn’t seem satisfied with that, shaking his head and pressing even closer, Neil allows himself to hold on tighter than he has in the past, hoping his actions convey exactly what he’s feeling in that moment. (Which is that if he goes the rest of his life without 3000 miles between them, it still wouldn’t be long enough.)

He must be doing exactly what Shaun wants because that’s when the younger man relaxes, dropping his face to Neil’s neck and murmuring something that Neil feels more than hears.

I missed you.

Neil shuts his eyes when the last of his tension melts out of him, the misery of each day they’d spent apart vanishing, as if his trip to New York never happened at all.

He doesn’t have to wonder if Shaun feels the same way. He knows he does. He can tell.

He turns his head to whisper against Shaun’s ear, “I missed you more.”

“That is not possible,” Shaun counters, and though his voice is low, it’s as fierce as Neil’s ever heard it.

“It’s possible,” Neil assures him. Shaun’s still pressing his forehead to that space between Neil’s neck and shoulder, and when he mutely shakes his head in protest, Neil adds, “Quick, Murphy, if you try to confuse me, you might win this argument.”

Shaun huffs out a laugh, but doesn’t turn his head or lean back or otherwise separate himself from Neil in any way. “I do not care if I win this argument.”

“That has to be a first.”

“I do not want to win this argument,” Shaun clarifies, and the waver in his voice is what causes Neil to register that Shaun’s breathing is slightly uneven – an indication that he isn’t as composed as he appears on the surface. He’s trying to keep his emotions under control, at least here in public, and he’s using Neil to do it. The gesture is so trustingly vulnerable that Neil thinks his heart might skip a few beats. (Shaun’s done this with him before and it never fails to make everything in Neil twist into knots.)

His thoughts are abruptly thrown into the past week, when he and Shaun had been thousands of miles apart. He wonders if Shaun had needed this – needed him – and he hadn’t been there. The thought of Shaun struggling through difficult times alone…it’s exactly what Neil had feared and what had made the trip practically unbearable by its end. It’s just…it’s not acceptable to Neil. Not when it’s within his power to help, even if only in some small way.

He makes a silent promise to himself and Shaun (and maybe the universe) that it’s not going to happen again. He’s not going to let it happen again. Andrews had already made that promise, but it’s one Neil will never allow him to break. (Which isn’t to say that he’s going to embark on some sort of stalking campaign centered around his resident – people probably think he does enough of that already – but simply that if Shaun never wants to be separated from him again the way they’d been this past week, then he never has to be.)

He sets a hand on the back of Shaun’s neck, and starts tapping his fingers, an even rhythm in time. Shaun steadily gathers himself, his breaths coming slower as they begin to match Neil’s.

Neil has no idea how long they stand there, hugging in the middle of the crowded concourse, but when they finally let go of each other, neither of them moves back very far. They’re still standing much closer than normal, and Neil can’t bring himself to put any more distance between them right now. Not after so much time apart.

“How about neither of us wins and we’ll call it a draw?” Neil offers, to settle their mostly forgotten argument.

Shaun seems to consider that. “It would only be a draw if…”

Neil starts to smile when he sees that Shaun gets it. “We missed each other the same.”

“The same,” Shaun repeats, analyzing the words as he says them. “I like that. Even though we could never know for certain.”

“And why not?” Neil asks, with feigned seriousness.

“We cannot experience what another person feels,” Shaun spells out for him, not because he thinks Neil is confused, but because he’s trying to reiterate his point. (Not to mention that he loves having the last word when it comes to Neil.) “So no, we could not conclusively know we felt the same.”

“I’m not so sure.” Neil’s aiming for casual, but thinks he’s missed it by a mile. He’s surprised to see his hand come up, reaching out to touch Shaun’s face, pressing his thumb to the frown lines around his eyes. Trying to soothe them away. “I’ve learned a lot over the years, Shaun. I think I can tell.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Shaun says, solemnly. “You do have more experience than me.” He breaks into a half-smile, turning his face slightly into Neil’s hand. “Much more.”

“Not that much more,” Neil protests, lightly pinching Shaun’s ear in chastisement. Shaun’s smile only grows wider as he swats Neil’s hand away in reflex.

This is what Neil had missed. The comfortable patterns he and Shaun always fall back into, the ease with which they can discuss anything. The familiarity of it. The contentment in it.

Happiness, his mind reminds him, on a whisper. It’s called happiness.

And that’s when Neil realizes why he hadn’t felt better earlier today, despite his trip slowly and inexorably drawing to an end. It hadn’t been enough to board a plane in New York, or to watch the miles between himself and California tick away; it hadn’t even been enough to land here, safe in the knowledge that he’d finally be back at his apartment before the evening was through.

Nothing had been enough to feel like he was home again.

Not until he had Shaun standing in front of him.

Chapter Text

“I did not like it when you were in New York.”

Shaun’s statement startles Neil out of his momentary reverie – he’d been staring across the concourse, wondering when (and how) Shaun became the primary factor in what he considers home. But that’s no longer his main concern, because the edge in Shaun’s voice says as much as the words themselves: Shaun might be happy he’s back, but he hasn’t gotten over his unhappiness that Neil had to leave in the first place. And that sentiment is at the heart of Shaun’s deeper discontent (which Neil hadn’t been able to determine the cause for until now).

He doesn’t resist the urge to reach towards Shaun’s face again, but catches himself when his hand is halfway there. He can’t just… He shouldn’t keep doing that kind of thing. Shaun might be more comfortable with him than with anyone else, but he still values personal space more than anyone Neil knows (so he probably doesn’t appreciate Neil’s repeated attempts to erase it).

Neil lets his hand fall back to his side, and Shaun tenses, an expression flitting across his face that Neil can’t identify (but he knows he doesn’t like it).

A distinct coldness spreads through him as he wonders if his worries have just been confirmed – if Shaun’s relieved he hadn’t touched him again. Shaun’s never said anything like that in the past, never protested or put a limit on the ways they interact, which includes casually touching each other…but maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe they’ve gotten closer than he’s strictly comfortable with; it’s possible he wants more space, or just feels differently now, for some reason.

Maybe he doesn’t know how to tell Neil that

Shaun takes a step forward and Neil’s thought disappears because he’s never known anyone who signaled they didn’t want to be touched by moving closer.

Partly to test his theory (and wouldn’t Shaun just love that), but mostly because he wants to, Neil brushes his fingers over the skin of Shaun’s wrist; when Shaun breathes out slowly and leans incrementally towards him, Neil wraps his hand around Shaun’s wrist without consciously planning to do so and the younger man relaxes right before his eyes.

The problem hadn’t been that Neil almost touched him again; it was that he hadn’t followed through.

The realization causes him to reflexively grip Shaun’s wrist tighter, trying to strengthen their point of connection. “I didn’t like being in New York, either.”

Shaun tilts his head toward Neil in acknowledgement. “Which one of us disliked it more?” he asks, in a callback to the ‘argument’ they’d just settled a minute earlier, though he’s not exactly keeping a straight face.

“We disliked it equally,” Neil plays along, as Shaun allows his smile through and drops his eyes to where Neil’s still holding onto him.

“Make that three of us who didn’t like Neil going to New York,” Audrey says, from somewhere behind Neil.

Shaun’s gaze slides from Neil’s hand around his wrist, up to his face, and then over his shoulder, where it lands on Audrey with a small measure of surprise – almost like he’d forgotten Neil had been traveling with her.

When no one says anything, she sighs loudly. “Yes, it’s wonderful that Neil’s home. And I’m home, too, if anyone cares.” She rolls her eyes to the ceiling. “Which I can see that no one does.”

“I’m so sorry, Dr. Lim,” Morgan practically simpers, moving forward and handing over a cup of coffee to her attending that Neil hadn’t noticed she was holding. “Obviously, we’re thrilled to have you back! I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from the spectacle of these two,” she jerks her head at Neil and Shaun, “reenacting the ending of every romantic movie I’ve ever seen.”

“I guess if I don’t get that kind of over-the-top greeting, coffee will do,” Audrey grumbles (in a rather questionable version of thanks).

Shaun takes a half-step sideways so he can more easily see Audrey behind Neil’s shoulder. “We all care that you’re home,” he assures her. “Would you like a hug, as well?”

Audrey freezes in the middle of lifting the coffee to her mouth. “Oh no, Shaun. You don’t have to hug me – I was making a joke.”

“I would not have offered if I didn’t mean it,” Shaun tells her, leaving Audrey as mystified as Neil’s ever seen her.

“Okay?” she says, mostly as a question, coffee still not lowered.

Shaun glances at Neil and Neil doesn’t understand why until he realizes he’s still holding onto his resident; instead of pulling away, Shaun’s waiting for Neil to let him go. He squeezes Shaun’s wrist, in a gesture he hopes feels like apology, then releases him so Shaun can go over to hug Audrey. The fact that it happens at all is enough to make her stare at Neil over Shaun’s shoulder, looking vaguely speechless as she hugs the younger man back, taking care not to spill her coffee in the process.

“Welcome home, Dr. Lim,” Shaun says, as they separate after the brief embrace. “I missed you.”

“Thanks, Shaun. I missed you back.” The smiles they subsequently exchange are so warmly contagious that Neil can’t stop his own (and he even catches Morgan rubbing a hand over her mouth in a poor attempt at disguising one herself).

“You missed me, too, right?” Morgan asks her attending, probably worried that they’re forgetting about her. “Should I hug you, as well…?” She takes a step forward while awkwardly holding out her arms, and Audrey makes a valiant effort to not let her eyes roll right out of her head.

“Try and look a little less tortured, Reznick. And no, you don’t have to hug me. While I always appreciate my residents trying to butter me up, the coffee was more than enough gesture.”

Morgan’s eyes widen in a comical expression of feigned innocence. “I would never do something nice just to win your favor.”

“I can’t believe you managed that with a straight face,” Audrey says blandly, as Morgan sulks a little. “Your acting could take some work.”

Shaun’s watching them with interest – maybe they amuse him or maybe he just appreciates Audrey calling Morgan out the way he usually does himself. No matter the reason, he’s smiling when he tells Audrey, “I’m glad you’re back.”

She sends him an assessing, half-teasing glance. “Are you?”

Shaun folds his hands in front of himself, nodding. “Your company is pleasant.”

“What a glowing description,” she says, trying not to laugh. 

“You’re talking about Audrey Lim, right?” Neil can’t resist asking Shaun, in a loud aside that’s intended for her to overhear.

Shaun knows very well what he’s doing. “Yes,” he says, with obvious amusement and no hesitation.

Yes,” Audrey haughtily echoes to Neil. “And you have good timing to say that now, Murphy – just when I was beginning to wonder about your taste in people.” She drives her point home with a sharp smile in Neil’s direction.

“Murphy has excellent taste.” Neil gestures up and down at himself. “He’s with me.”

“Why are you citing evidence to the contrary?” Audrey asks, all too innocently.

Neil expects Shaun to jump in, but when his resident stays silent, he turns to him. “Feel like defending yourself here, Shaun?”

Shaun’s surprised at the question, which means he’d had no intention to speak up. “It is pointless to assign a value judgement to a person’s tastes or preferences,” he tells them, sounding rather uninterested in the topic. “Every person is biased in their own favor. It does not matter what other people think of my taste. Or anyone else’s.”

Neil shakes his head a little – typical that Murphy would give him nothing to work with when he was trying to compliment himself. “What he’s trying to say,” Neil tells Audrey (though he’s really trying to goad Shaun), “is that he’d classify his taste as exceptional.”

Shaun sighs in a way that means he expects this kind of thing by now. “That is not what I am trying to say.”

“I understand, Shaun,” Audrey assures him, as she motions in Neil’s direction. “We’ll settle for calling your taste questionable. At best.” 

Shaun’s not pleased with either of them now (and they must have convinced him to try and clarify). “My taste is…” He pauses in a struggle to explain, rocking back on his heels in frustration. He looks from Audrey, over to Morgan, then settles on Neil. “…you?”

“Shaun,” Neil murmurs, hoping to head him off at the pass, before he feels like he has to keep convincing Morgan and Audrey that their relationship is very much real.

“My taste is you,” Shaun repeats, much more confidently. “Other people may label that however they wish, but…their opinions don’t matter.”

“No,” Neil warmly agrees, “they don’t.”

It’s not until he hears himself that he realizes what he said: other people’s opinions don’t matter?

That directly contradicts what he’s believed for months; the last time he’d checked (every time he’d checked), the main reason they started this (and the whole reason they kept it going) was for the benefit of what others would think. He and Shaun had been trying to create their own insulated worlds where people didn’t bother them, where they were left alone. And they’d more or less accomplished that.

So if other people’s opinions have become mostly irrelevant – because Neil and Shaun are only reinforcing a narrative that everyone already believes – is it even necessary for them to do this anymore?

As usual whenever he has those types of thoughts, or he questions how things with Shaun will inevitably end, Neil feels a terrible sensation of dread sweep over him – he has no idea how he and Shaun are going to act out such a scenario in any remotely believable way.

“What is it?” Shaun’s not doing a great job of hiding his worry at whatever he sees on Neil’s face.

“Nothing,” he promises. When Shaun clearly doesn’t believe him, he explains, “Nothing important.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, that easily, because he trusts Neil (often implicitly when it comes to things like this). And that’s something Neil hasn’t seen as readily with anyone else. Sure, Shaun will still argue with Neil over…well, some days it seems like anything, but for more serious matters, the ones that truly bother him? He believes Neil without needing to hear the argument, which is a benefit he doesn’t extend to anyone else. And it means that when he’s worried, he generally looks to Neil first – and often exclusively – because Neil reassures him in a way no one else usually can (and certainly not as quickly).

And if they end this, Neil won’t be able to do that anymore

So many aspects of their friendship have become wrapped up in the relationship they’ve let other people believe they have. From the amount of time they spend together, to the way they place each other as a priority, to the simpler things, such as the way they speak to each other. The way they are with each other.

No matter how many times Neil’s circled this problem over the past few months, he’s never been able to find a solution. If he and Shaun ‘break up’, yet continue interacting the same way, it will invite a lot of questions that neither of them wants to answer. Questions which could much too easily lead back to the fact that their relationship was never romantic in the first place. It means that if – when they ‘break up’, they’ll have to fundamentally alter their friendship, at least for a while, and spend time apart in an attempt at making it seem like they’d been together in the first place…and no longer wanted to be.

And that leads to the actual problem: Neil doesn’t want to do any of that. He doesn’t even know if he can. He might be okay with lying, with telling people they’d ended things, but he can’t set aside his friendship with Shaun and intentionally avoid him, even if they’re both pretending in an effort to make a break-up seem more convincing.

The fact of the matter is that Neil barely got through this past week. How is he supposed to keep that type of separation up for a month? Or two? Or six? (How long would be long enough?) And what would their friends think if Neil (or Shaun) couldn’t cope any better than they had during this trip? If he and Shaun were both miserable, how long would it be until people started badgering them about ‘getting back together’? Or began inundating them with well-intentioned advice about moving on, or worse, dating again? 

And even if they made it past some benchmark ‘acceptable’ amount of time and then resumed their friendship, would that only pique people’s interest further? Or would it make them suspicious? Would they think he and Shaun had gotten back together and were ‘lying’ about it again, just like everyone thought they had the first time around? 

Would people begin questioning why he and Shaun acted the same with each other whether they were ‘in a relationship’ or not?

Every course of action seems like it will only attract more attention and scrutiny, which completely defeats the point of their whole feigned relationship in the first place. They hadn’t formulated any exit strategies when they started this, which was mostly because they didn’t plan anything about it. At all. 

Neil might blame the fact that the whole thing had just been…too easy. They hadn’t had to do much, hadn’t had to concoct any elaborate lies or act out any scripted scenes – all they had to do was ‘confirm’ something most people already believed was true. They’d had no pressing reason to think much further ahead, let alone all the way to the end – namely, when (and how) they’d put a stop to it.

As usual, Neil has to set all of that aside yet again. An answer isn’t miraculously going to occur to him – certainly not tonight. Maybe down the road he’ll come across a new idea or perhaps Shaun will suggest a brilliant solution he’s overlooked. Until then, he’ll do what he does best: try not to think about it.

The most important thing, to Neil, is that he’s realized he doesn’t just want Shaun in his life, he needs him in it. And Neil needs to be there if Shaun needs him. No ‘solution’ is acceptable if it denies Neil either of those things…because those worlds they’d been so intent on creating, back when they started this? The worlds where they could escape from everyone else? Over time, those worlds had slowly overlapped, to the point that Neil thinks they might be the same world, by now.

If maintaining the pretense of a relationship ensures that they can keep that world, Neil’s not about to take any steps to dismantle it.

“Neil.”

Shaun’s voice pulls him from his thoughts (because, apparently, staring off into space while the others continue talking without him hasn’t been the best way to assuage his resident’s concern).

“Sorry,” he says. “I’m still here. Just…thinking.” Shaun’s clearly interested, so Neil adds, “About you and me.”

Shaun tips his head from side to side, like he’s considering what Neil could mean. “Good things?”

“When it comes to us,” Neil says, like he’s imparting a secret, “it’s always good things.”

Shaun doesn’t have to say anything – his smile alone reveals what he thinks of that answer. He’d probably press Neil for specifics, but Audrey and Morgan’s laughter draws their attention.

Neil isn’t sure what punchline he’s missed, but he’s not about to ask them to repeat it – especially not when one or both of them will take that as an invitation to pry into why he’d missed the joke in the first place.

Luckily, neither woman is paying him or Shaun any attention; Morgan’s returned to checking her phone (and sighing at whatever she doesn’t find there), and Audrey’s sipping her coffee (and sighing because she’s thoroughly enjoying it). It’s making Neil a little jealous, actually – he doesn’t particularly want any, but he wonders if he’s missing out.

“Why didn’t you get me coffee, Reznick?” he asks, simply for the joy of complaining. “If you’re going to bribe people into liking you, then at least do it equally. I might not be your attending anymore, but I can still order you around.”

“Trust me, I’ve noticed,” she says, without even looking up from her phone. “And you hate drinking coffee this late if you’re not working.” Her answer gives Neil pause, causing him to exchange a look with Audrey; Morgan’s right, but how had she known that?

Audrey frowns as she studies the coffee Morgan had given her, then turns to her resident with renewed suspicion. “How did you know my favorite blend from the coffee shop in the airport?” She then explains, for Neil and Shaun’s benefit, “This isn’t like she knew the coffee I always buy on the way into work. I only get this kind when I happen to be passing through this airport.”

“You mentioned it once,” Morgan says, matter of factly. When Neil and Audrey stare at her, she shrugs. “I know everything about you. Both of you.”

“That’s…” Audrey probably casts aside a dozen words before settling on, “…troubling.”

“You mean terrifying,” Neil corrects her, thoughts turning more uneasy when he wonders what Morgan means by everything.

“Morgan does not know everything about either one of you,” Shaun says, with a brief look at Neil that has him wondering if Shaun’s somehow read his mind. “No one knows everything about another person.”

“I know enough,” Morgan says coolly. “I’m observant. It’s a handy trait when you’re a doctor – I hope this group is familiar.” Her barbed statement causes Audrey to scoff into her coffee. “And a lot of the things I’ve figured out? They’re things that people don’t even know about themselves.”

“I don’t think I want to know, Reznick,” Audrey mutters.

“I wouldn’t tell you even if you did,” Morgan claims. “I keep secrets very well.” She hums thoughtfully, then adds, “When it benefits me.”

“Name one secret you’ve kept,” Neil challenges, in an intentional jest that makes her laugh.

“Hilarious, Dr. Melendez,” she says breezily, and he’s not sure if it’s his imagination that her eyes linger on him a beat longer than they should before she turns back to Audrey. “No one has anything to worry about from me.” Her brow furrows at some memory. “Except Park. But that’s a given.”

“Again, I don’t want to know. So I’m not going to ask.” Audrey takes another sip of her coffee and must feel Neil watching her. “Oh for – I’ll let you try it if you stop staring at me.” 

“I wasn’t staring,” he informs her. “I was looking your way. For several consecutive seconds.” He takes the proffered coffee, figuring he has to take a sip after going out of his way to complain about not having any. …Though he really should have known that she had a motive other than ‘being nice’ – he nearly chokes to death when he takes a sip of her god-awful drink. “What is that?”

“Extra sugar, extra cream –” Audrey begins.

“– and extra mint,” Morgan finishes.

Mint?” He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the taste out of his mouth. “Is there even any coffee in there?”

“I’m sure there’s a splash or two,” Audrey says brightly, holding out her hand for the coffee, which he almost spills in his haste to return to her. 

“I’m sure you already know this,” Neil tells her, “but your taste is terrible.”

“Taste is subjective,” Shaun reminds them. 

“Subjectively terrible,” Neil says, under his breath, which predictably gets Shaun to dig in his heels.

“Her taste is not good or bad,” Shaun insists. “It is different than yours.”

“Yeah, Melendez,” Audrey says, eyes sparkling with hidden laughter. “It’s just different.”

“Fine,” Neil relents. “Your taste is different from mine because yours is terrible and mine is not.”

Shaun’s scrutinizing him and Neil thinks he’s going to issue another argument, but then he shakes his head. “You are being difficult on purpose.”

“Does that sound like me?” Neil ostensibly asks the group, though they’re all aware it’s rhetorical.

“It does not sound like you,” Shaun answers (because he’s never let a question being rhetorical stop him). “It is you.”

Neil nods, saying gravely, “And you wouldn’t know anything about arguing with me just to argue with me, would you?”

“I argue with you when it’s justified,” Shaun claims.

“You argue with me always!”

“It’s always justified,” Shaun says primly, as Neil has to silently concede that he’d set himself up for that one.

“I thought you two were arguing about me.” Audrey sounds like she has no idea where she lost track of their conversation.

“How shocking that they’ve managed to become completely absorbed in each other, as usual,” Morgan says dryly, glancing among the three of them. “I can’t remember if I missed this or not.”

“You liar,” Audrey accuses, turning to Shaun even as Morgan sputters a protest. “So Murphy, a few minutes ago, Reznick was telling me that you all barely survived without us.”

“I don’t remember those exact words,” Morgan mumbles, tone petulant enough that if Neil hadn’t already been inclined to believe Audrey, he would have immediately done so.

“It was…” Shaun’s looking out the darkened windows behind Audrey, briefly shutting his eyes before turning back to her. “…different. Without you.”

Sympathy flashes across her face when she hears the unhappy nuance to his words. “Different, hmm? That sounds like code for ‘awful’.” Shaun doesn’t dispute her interpretation (and quite tellingly, neither does Morgan this time).

“I told you,” Shaun says slowly, “I’m glad you’re home.”

“We’re both glad,” Morgan says quickly.

Audrey tips her coffee back and forth between them with amusement. “You kids want to fight over which one of you is happier about it?”

“Audrey,” Neil interjects, getting the ominous feeling that she’s going to somehow turn this into a commentary on his misery the past week, “we don’t have to compare how much we all missed each other.”

“But I have so much fun doing that,” she says slyly. “And if we’re debating who I missed the most, I have to go with the resident who got me coffee.” She takes another sip, causing Neil to grimace in sympathy. “Reznick bought my favor – sorry, Murphy.”

“I was trying to do no such thing,” Morgan insists, unable to hide her smug satisfaction. “…Even though you just admitted it worked.”

“I was kidding,” Audrey tries to backtrack. “Though this coffee is really good… No!” she scolds herself out of it. “Remember that I’m you, just ten years in the future. So don’t ever think you’re getting anything past me.”

Morgan might be trying not to laugh. “I would never think that, Dr. Lim.”

“Sure you wouldn’t,” Audrey mutters.

Neil figures it’s his obligation to back up his fellow attending, since she’d do the same for him. Occasionally. (Besides, they need to present a united front against the residents, right?) “Reznick, what you’re forgetting is that Audrey’s been around…and around…and around the block.” He relishes the way Audrey’s expression is getting progressively darker. “You might say a thousand – no, a million times –”

“Watch it,” she snaps. “We’re the same age.”

“But no one would ever know it, since you look considerably –”

“This coffee doesn’t need to stay in this cup.”

“– younger than me,” he finishes smoothly. “What did you think I was going to say?”

It’s Shaun who interrupts her mild death glare at Neil, since he’s been watching her with no small amount of disapproval. “You are more than ten –”

“You can stop right there,” Audrey cuts in. “You might be able to harass Melendez about his advancing years –”

“We’re the same age,” Neil says incredulously. “As you just pointed out!”

“– but unlike him, I have youthful vitality on my side. So those jokes don’t land with me.”

“I was not making a joke,” Shaun says, confused. “I was stating a fact, which is that you are more than ten years older than Morgan. Why would you lie ab–”

“I wasn’t lying. I was rounding.” She turns to Neil. “Would you do something?”

“Like what?” he asks innocently. In truth, there are any number of things he could say or do in order to distract Shaun, but he’s not inclined to follow through with any of them – not least of all because he rather enjoys seeing the younger man unintentionally rile her up in a way she can’t even get upset with Murphy about. (No, she’s content to direct her irritation at Neil, instead.)

“I don’t know,” she tries to throw her hands up, but remembers her drink at the last second and reins the motion in. “Kiss him or something.”

Of all the things in the world to suggest… “Audrey.”

“It would not work,” Shaun says, ever practical. “I would resume talking after.”

“Sounds like a challenge to me, Melendez.” Audrey’s enjoying this to an unhealthy degree (because Neil works with people who love to torture him).

“It was not a challenge,” Shaun must feel compelled to add.

“Is he not that good at it?” Morgan loudly whispers to Shaun. “Because kissing always distracts me – if the other person knows what they’re doing, of course.” She casts a skeptical glance at Neil, like she doesn’t think he’s capable of that much.

“I resent that,” Neil snaps. “I’m very good at it and I’d prove it if I could. Which I can’t. Because it’d involve kissing everyone here.” What is he saying? He clears his throat, muttering, “So you’ll have to take my word for it.”

Audrey’s trying to stifle her laughter by sipping her coffee, which isn’t going well; Morgan looks vaguely horrified at Neil’s hypothetical scenario (though not more than him, he’s certain); and Shaun is watching him with a neutral expression, even as his eyes reveal that he’s actually amused.

There’s a very long silence where they all continue standing at an impasse, though he catches a couple fleeting glances the two women send Shaun’s way, and it hits him rather abruptly: this is the kind of situation where they’d expect Shaun to speak up in Neil’s defense. Like he so often does, usually when it’s not needed. And yet, this time it seems it hasn’t occurred to him.

Neil can’t take it anymore and waves at Shaun in fond exasperation. “This, Murphy! This is when you can feel free to vouch for me.”

Shaun blinks a few times, then must realize the women are watching him expectantly. “Neil is…he’s…very good…at it?”

“Are you asking us?” Morgan laughs a little, the scolding unusually gentle for her. “What a ringing endorsement of his abilities.”

Shaun doesn’t laugh along with her, and even though he’s looking at Neil, he appears to be lost in thought. “Neil is…he can…” He glances down, maybe searching for the best explanation to convince their friends of feelings he doesn’t have. The pause lasts long enough that Neil thinks he’s given up until Shaun looks back up at him and says, “He can make you forget who you are.” 

Neil doesn’t look away from Shaun. Or maybe he can’t look away from him. Because Shaun doesn’t sound like he’s trying to convince anyone of anything. He sounds like he’s relating a fact, something that’s true for him and that he doesn’t mind everyone else knowing.

Which is rather remarkable given that their relationship isn’t real.

And they’d only kissed that one time.

Has Shaun really gotten that much better at this charade? Or is he, as Neil suspects, talking about their kiss at the holiday gala? Had Shaun been so completely thrown by it that ‘forgetting’ himself was the best description he could come up with? And if so…

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Neil hears himself asking, in an echo of their conversation from earlier.

“A good thing,” Shaun easily answers. “When it comes to us, it’s always good things.”

So Neil hadn’t been the only one who remembered. He can’t help his smile upon hearing Shaun repeat his own words back to him. “Sounds like something a wise person would say.”

“Yes,” Shaun agrees, waiting a beat. “I just said it.” (Apparently he’s back to harassing Neil, one of his favorite things to do.) Neil tries to send him a warning look that ultimately fails because there’s no actual ‘warning’ behind it - and Shaun knows it.

“Only ‘good’, huh Shaun?” Morgan needles, surprising Neil into remembering that she and Audrey are still right next to them.

“More than good,” Shaun tells her, and Neil recognizes his change in tone back to the enthusiastic one he loves using when he’s trying to convince other people about them. “The best.”

“Now, I’d say that’s a ringing endorsement.” Audrey’s words are light as she twists Morgan’s prior sarcasm into something that’s genuinely sincere.

Shaun opens his mouth to continue his no doubt fervent praise, but Morgan speaks before he can. “You don’t have to rub it in, Murphy.” She’s exasperated, which is rather comical considering she’d been the one to steer him down this path only moments before. “You’re happy. We get it.”

Shaun shrugs, like maybe it’s all beyond him. “Yes.”

They’re still close enough that it’d be easy for Neil to lean over and kiss him. Just like that first time – the only time. But he had a reason back then. And now…he doesn’t.

Sometimes Neil wonders if that night had been a fluke. If it was simply a chance occurrence in space and time that shouldn’t have happened and definitely shouldn’t be repeated.

But that doesn’t stop him from wondering… 

If they kissed again, what would it be like? Would it feel like nothing?

Or would his thoughts scatter and disappear the way they had the last time his mouth touched Shaun’s?

And is that what Shaun meant when he said it made him forget who he was?

“– bringing back some welcome memories for me, Shaun,” Morgan’s saying, the words snapping Neil back to reality. “Some very welcome memories.” She’s staring off into space, reliving a moment that Neil’s glad he can’t see, and while he’s grateful for the reprieve from his wayward thoughts, he also knows this isn’t a conversation he wants to let continue much further.

He snaps his fingers a few times, waiting until she refocuses on him. “No one wants to hear about your personal life, Reznick.”

“I might want to hear about it,” Audrey says, then winces at her own words. “My God, since when do I care about the personal lives of my residents?”

“Oh, sure,” Morgan’s complaining to Neil, as she gestures between him and Shaun, “it’s fine for everyone to witness your personal life play out in high definition on a daily basis, but hearing about mine in passing is too much for your delicate sensibilities.”

“It is when it comes to certain topics.” Neil eyes her warily. “It seemed like you were about to get into too much detail. Or something worse, such as…” It’s disconcerting to think it, let alone say it. “…kissing techniques.”

“I’ve yet to receive any complaints,” she says sweetly, as Neil rubs his eyes in a futile attempt at erasing the images – nebulous though they are – from his mind. “I’d be more than happy to lend my expertise.”

“Please,” Shaun sounds as pained as Neil feels, “do not.”

“I can’t believe how much I’m enjoying this,” Audrey says, with a laughing glance at Neil, probably because most of her ‘enjoyment’ is due to his increasing discomfort. “Maybe I’ve been alone for too long,” she adds, thoughtfully.

“It’s never too late to find someone, Dr. Lim,” Morgan says, seriously.

“Did I say I thought it was too late?” Audrey gripes. “I’m not exactly old.” She sends a sideways look to Neil. “Although…I’d definitely need someone younger than you.”

“We’re the same –” He breaks off, giving up with a sigh. “Never mind.”

“If you’re looking for someone younger,” Morgan suggests, “you could expand your dating pool to include the residents – it’s worked wonders for Dr. Melendez.” 

Audrey’s just taken a sip of her coffee and almost inhales it at the suggestion. “The day I ever date a resident is the day I need to be removed from my job due to senility.” She smiles broadly at Neil. “No offense.”

He stares at her. “Why would I take offense at that?”

“Have you met our residents?” she muses, carelessly.

He knows enough to answer cautiously in front of both Shaun and Morgan (especially because of the latter’s rapidly increasing annoyance). “I am familiar with them, yes.”

“Then the question answers itself,” Audrey claims, ignoring Morgan’s huff of displeasure in order to wink at Shaun. “You got the last good resident we had. If I can’t do better than Murphy, why bother?”

Shaun, predictably, defends everyone. “We are all good residents.” He’s definitely wary of their current topic (and Audrey’s compliment), but Neil’s glad that he doesn’t seem upset by her sense of…well, she calls it humor.

“Alright,” she relents, “I suppose I can admit that Claire and Park are mostly tolerable.” She snaps her fingers, like something brilliant has just occurred to her. “Are they both single? They should get together. That might work.”

Neil wonders if she’d said that on purpose to irritate Morgan even more than she’s already irritated, but Audrey doesn’t so much as glance her way, which tells him she really has no idea what’s going on in their residents’ lives. (And oh, how Neil misses those carefree days, but not enough to go back to them…which might have a lot to do with the fact that Shaun hadn’t been such an important part of his life back then.)

“Ahem?” Morgan crosses her arms for effect. “Claire and…” She pauses for a half-second that Neil’s pretty sure only he notices. “…Alex get complimented –”

“She called them mostly tolerable,” Shaun interjects. “That is not a compliment.”

“Believe me, Park would take it as one.” Morgan’s smile is distant and not for any of the people she’s currently with, though she quickly returns to leveling her accusations at Audrey. “Meanwhile, every other resident, save Murphy, gets…‘you’d have to be senile to date them’.”

Audrey shrugs impassively. “And?”

“You could at least wait until I’m not standing right here if you’re going to insult me!”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Neil quips, instantly regretting it when he draws her attention.

Luckily for him, Audrey draws it right back. “Sorry, Reznick, did you want to date me?”

“I don’t think dating my attending would be the wisest decision to make,” Morgan says blithely, probably savoring the opportunity to throw a mild insult back at her boss. When Shaun shifts his weight from one foot to the other, Morgan immediately holds up a hand to stave off the protest she knows is coming. “Not you.” She tosses a glance Neil’s way to include him in her next statement. “You two are, as always –” she exaggeratedly sighs, though there’s a lightness to it, “– an exception.”

The pause after her words is significant: everyone seems to inherently understand that Shaun wants to reply to that, but needs a moment to consider what she’d said. Audrey knows better than to chime in with a snide joke or comment, and Morgan just waits for Shaun’s response as patiently as Neil. After a few long moments, Shaun settles on a simple, if somewhat lost, “Why?”

“Because we’re not talking about the same things,” she answers. “There’s a difference between casually dating someone and being in love with them. I would never recommend anyone casually date their boss – or their subordinate – but if those people already have strong feelings for each other, then in my opinion, that qualifies for an exception.”

Instead of being satisfied with that, Shaun only seems bothered by it. “Most people do not fall in love until they begin dating,” he says, slowly. “That is the point of dating: for two people to determine if they are compatible. To see if they can develop stronger feelings for each other on which to base a solid relationship…and a future.” He’s getting more frustrated as he continues. “If people followed your suggestion and never dated unless they had strong feelings first, very few people would date at all.”

“That’s why I specified boss and subordinate,” Morgan replies, in a tone practical enough that it’s often mistaken for cold. “That relationship’s complicated enough without adding romance – personally, I don’t think anyone should risk it unless there are feelings involved first.” She shrugs, appearing apologetic now, and Neil actually believes it’s sincere. “I didn’t mean to suggest there was a wrong way to start a relationship, I was only stating my opinion on the matter. And I guess I was under the impression that you and Dr. Melendez had feelings for each other first and that’s why you got together.” She’s studying Shaun, intensely curious. “Is that not how it happened?”

Shaun takes a breath, like he’s about to answer, and then he just…doesn’t. In fact, he stops looking at them altogether in favor of staring out the windows again, as if he’s done with the topic entirely.

Neil has no idea what Shaun’s issue with the question is, only that he must have one, because even though they don’t get too many questions like Morgan’s, Shaun has proven himself more than capable of answering them – he even enjoys answering when it’s someone like Aaron throwing what he thinks are trick questions their way. In the few other instances that Neil can remember where they’d been put on the spot, Shaun had responded by going on about their relationship in the easy (and over-the-top) way he tends to favor. And it’s not like Morgan’s asked something difficult: all Shaun has to do is agree or disagree with her and Neil will back him up. Neil will always back him up – and Shaun knows it. 

So the fact that Shaun’s chosen not to answer is…disconcerting. (Neil isn’t sure why it’s so disconcerting, but it is.)

There’s a strange tension building after the abrupt drop-off to their conversation, and Neil worries that it means Morgan’s about to press the issue. He’s not going to wait and see if it happens, either – Shaun not wanting to answer is the only reason Neil needs to move on. He’s about to divert Morgan’s attention, but Audrey gets there first, albeit in a different manner.

“Why are we grilling Murphy on his personal life?” she asks, on a note of warning, which immediately sets the younger woman back on her heels.

“It’s hardly grilling,” Morgan retorts, drawing herself up straighter. “It was an innocent question.”

“Like you know the meaning of that word,” Neil accuses, further drawing her ire on purpose – the more time she spends annoyed with him, the less time she has to focus on Shaun.

“It was innocent,” Morgan insists, more upset than she should be, which makes Neil suspect she’s telling the truth.

Audrey casts a measuring look between Neil and Morgan, then says to her resident, “A week of him without any escape. Can you feel my pain?” The two women share a commiserating look that Neil doesn’t appreciate. Not at all.

“Stop that,” Neil orders. “If any two people should be commiserating around here, it should be me and Murphy commiserating about you two.”

Audrey holds up her hand, stage whispering behind it to Morgan, “A week.”

“That must have been incredibly difficult, Dr. Lim,” Morgan says sadly, with a sympathetic pat on her attending’s arm for good measure. Yes, she actually pats Audrey Lim on the arm and instead of verbally flaying her resident, Lim just smiles and nods sadly.

Neil has no idea what he’s watching, but he doesn’t think it bodes well for him in any universe if they decide to gang up on him. 

Then again, no one’s paying attention to Shaun anymore…and Morgan seems to have forgotten her earlier curiosity about how their relationship began… (Maybe Audrey deserves more credit than he’d thought.)

Neil’s not at all surprised, either, that Audrey would change the course of the conversation by complaining about him. Loudly. She’s still doing it, in fact, while Morgan nods along in rapt attention.

“Why’d I come back to California?” Neil looks up at the ceiling in an exaggerated display of how put out he is. “Someone remind me, because I haven’t even been home an hour and I’m already thinking about buying a return ticket to New York.”

“You are not,” Shaun says, voice low, and closer than Neil had thought. He glances over to find his resident frowning at him and there’s too much discontent in the expression for Neil’s liking.

“If anyone could push me to it, it’d be our colleagues,” Neil insists, even as he reaches down to find Shaun’s hand so he can run his thumb over the back of it, amazed that a gesture so simple can engender such a radiating sense of calm. Shaun’s expression eases and he tilts his head, assessing in the way that reminds Neil the younger man knows him. (And when Shaun doesn’t feel like humoring Neil’s theatrics, he takes just as much delight in calling him out on them.)

“Not our colleagues, our friends,” Shaun corrects, placing a distinct emphasis on the last word.

“Semantics,” Neil shrugs, refusing to give in.

Shaun shakes his head, probably in exasperation at Neil’s stubbornness. “And you are not going back to New York just because our friends –” he pauses significantly, “– are irritating.”

The dual eruptions of protest from Morgan and Audrey cause Neil to smile; he takes great pleasure in ignoring them. “How about this, Murphy: if I go back, you’re coming with me.”

Shaun’s answer is to move another step closer as he hums in agreement.

Neil automatically shifts his weight to the other leg, a silent invitation that Shaun instantly understands and accepts, leaning into Neil’s side. Shaun twists his hand so he can tighten his fingers around Neil’s (in affection and gratitude and comfort and the hundred other emotions between them that are always there even if they’re not always spoken out loud), and that’s when Neil remembers:

This goes both ways.

Shaun had been just as unhappy during their separation as Neil. In fact, that’s probably why he’s keeping a lot closer to Neil than he normally would. They’re used to being in each other’s space, by now, but it’s not something they tend to keep up for prolonged periods of time around other people, like in public or at work… 

Unless they’re trying to make a point about their relationship for the benefit of others. 

Or one of them needs the other – Shaun because he’s struggling or Neil because Shaun’s often the only calm he can find in the middle of chaos.

Or one of them simply wants to be closer to the other – no reason necessary.

(Alright, so maybe they spend a lot more time in close proximity than Neil had previously realized.)

Morgan and Audrey have wandered off in the direction of the baggage claim, leaving Neil and Shaun to follow at their own pace (which Neil figures was probably intentional).

Shaun lets go of him when they start walking, but he doesn’t leave that much space between them, their arms occasionally brushing as they follow the signs through a few corridors. Neil glances over, but Shaun’s not looking his way, focused instead on the hallway in front of them (though Neil doesn’t think he’s seeing it).

“You alright?” he asks quietly, because even though he suspects that Shaun’s simply missed him, he doesn’t want to overlook any potentially more serious reasons for the younger man’s desire to be near him.

Shaun looks at him blankly until Neil presses his arm against Shaun’s, nodding between them, and something guarded (if not outright troubled) enters the other man’s expression. “I should not –”

“Walk next to me?” Neil interrupts, mostly because he doesn’t want to hear whatever Shaun was about to say.

Shaun comes to a stop, which Neil only realizes when he’s two steps ahead and his resident’s no longer at his side. “I should give you more space,” Shaun says, as Neil turns back to face him.

“Did I say I want more space?” Neil asks. When Shaun just looks at him, he adds, “Do I ever want more space?”

“I…” It seems like Shaun thought he knew the answer, but lost it while he was speaking. “I don’t know.”

“No,” Neil tells him. “The answer is no.” He thinks back over their short conversation, trying to determine where things went wrong. “That wasn’t some roundabout way of telling you I want more space. Or that I don’t like it when you’re near me. The only thing I want is an answer to the question I asked.”

Shaun must be rewinding their conversation now, too. “If I’m alright?” 

Neil hears what Shaun’s really asking: not confirmation of the question, but the reason behind it. “Sometimes, when you’re close to me…it means you’re not alright.”

New understanding crosses Shaun’s face, and with it comes an obvious relaxation of his demeanor. “That is true,” he acknowledges, “but it’s not the case right now.” He looks down at his hands, which he’s folded in front of himself. “I told you that I did not like it when you weren’t here.”

No, he hadn’t. He’d said he didn’t like it when Neil was in New York; it’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. And rephrasing it means Shaun’s comfortable enough right now to admit the real problem (which Neil had already known – he’d known the moment Shaun couldn’t let go of him).

Shaun looks back up at him after the pause goes on too long, and Neil reminds himself that Shaun cannot, in fact, read his mind. “I told you that I didn’t like it either,” Neil reminds him (and there’s that compression around his heart again). “But I’m here now.”

“You’re here now,” Shaun echoes, and when he takes a careful step forward, Neil recognizes it as another question: he wants to make sure it's okay to be closer to Neil right now.

His answer is to draw Shaun nearer by his sleeve; on the surface, the move is so Neil can lower his voice and still be heard, but it’s really an excuse to erase most of the distance between them. “So what you’re trying to tell me is that you’re alright?”

“I am.” Shaun’s voice lightens considerably when he adds, “I’m more than alright.”

Neil appreciates the wash of relief, confident enough that they’ve resolved the misunderstanding to joke, “What’s more than alright?”

“Good?” There’s a little too much levity in his tone for Shaun to have chosen the word by accident. 

Good, huh?” Neil pretends to think on that. “Do you ever feel like we’re having the same conversations over and over again, Murphy?”

“Yes,” Shaun says, “but I don’t mind.”

The unexpected seriousness of his answer causes Neil to forget whatever joke he’d been planning to make. Instead, he nudges Shaun’s arm again, saying with a grin, “I don’t mind, either. In fact, I might even enjoy it.”

Shaun nods in thoughtful agreement, then begins smiling when he asks, “Which one of us do you think enjoys it more?”

Neil can’t even attempt a straight face at that question. “I bet we enjoy it the same.”

“I like that,” Shaun agrees. “Even though we could never know for cert–”

Neil starts laughing the instant he realizes what Shaun’s doing. “You’re really going to repeat your same argument from last time? Verbatim, no less.”

“I told you I did not mind having the same conversations over and over,” Shaun solemnly reminds him, like he hasn’t done this on purpose. (Like Neil can’t read him instantly, can’t recognize by his resident’s half-smile, and the light in his eyes, that he’d taken the ‘literal’ part to extremes as a joke, just to see Neil’s reaction.)

And Neil suddenly knows that his earlier agreement hadn’t gone far enough; he’d be perfectly content to have these kinds of conversations forever.

(As long as they’re with Shaun.)

Chapter Text

Neil and Shaun aren’t even in sight of the correct baggage carousel when a too-familiar voice cuts through the din of the people around them.

“I’ll sue the airline if they lost my bag, and believe me, I’ll win,” Audrey’s loudly complaining (presumably to Morgan, but it could be directed at an airline employee, or hell, just the crowds in general). “I know some very expensive lawyers!”

Neil stops walking in order to rub at his temples, which earns him a concerned glance from Shaun, just as he’d known it would (but he couldn’t stop himself). “I’m fine,” he promises, then gestures vaguely towards where he’d heard her voice. “Please tell me that’s not who I think it is.”

His resident’s studying him in a way that gives Neil pause – Shaun’s assessing him in the way he assesses Shaun whenever he’s trying to figure out if anything’s wrong. “Who do you think it is?” the younger man asks, carefully.

Neil laughs shortly despite himself, wincing when the movement causes a twinge of pain in his neck. This might be the beginning of a headache; there’s no serious pain yet, but the tightness in his shoulders and neck is a warning sign that if he doesn’t get away from his co-workers soon (and one of them in particular, Audrey Lim), he’ll be paying for it later. “Right now I’m hoping that Lim has a voice twin,” he tells Shaun. “Or maybe that I’m not really in an airport at all. Maybe the entire week in New York was a dream. Or a nightmare.”

“You are awake and the week was not a dream.” Shaun’s curt tone says a lot more about his thoughts on Neil’s trip than any complaint he might have added. “And that was Dr. Lim speaking. She did not sound happy.”

“She’s never happy,” Neil mutters, even though he knows it’s both unfair and untrue. He’s still not in the best mood. Getting home and seeing Shaun has gone a long way towards setting things right in his world, but he still needs time to recover. That means time alone in his apartment with uninterrupted sleep and preferably lots of silence. Silence. (He’s forgotten what it sounds like.)

“I’ve seen Dr. Lim happy many times,” Shaun’s saying, with a faint note of disapproval. He’s not defending Audrey so much as pointing out that Neil’s statement was wrong. And Neil amends his earlier list: he needs sleep, silence, and Shaun in order to recover from his trip. (Not necessarily in that order.)

“I know,” Neil relents, a lot faster than he would with anyone else. “I just need a break from her.” He rubs at the back of his neck, relieved when it helps alleviate some of his tension. “You know how if you spend a lot of time with one person, sometimes you just can’t take them anymore? I need some separation after seven straight days with Audrey, most of them from morning until evening. And I’m not trying to insult her, either. She feels the same way about me.” He waits a beat before adding wryly, “If not even more strongly.”

Shaun’s not looking at him when he says, “I spend most of my time with…you.”

“You trying to tell me something, Murphy?” Neil’s joke is automatic, which he’d have to blame on the fact that he’s not firing on all cylinders after a taxing week (capped off with what seems like the longest day he’s had in months).

Shaun doesn’t answer for a few long seconds. “Are you?”

The hesitation in his words clears away Neil’s lingering exhaustion, the question surprising him in a way it really shouldn’t. “No, I don’t feel that way about you.” He lets the statement stand between them for a significant moment. “I would tell you if I did, just like I told Audrey all week long.”

“Okay,” Shaun says, relaxing a little – it wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone else, but Neil can see it.

Something new occurs to Neil and he’s flooded with what he assumes is the same discomfort (and is that fear?) that Shaun was experiencing. “You would tell me if you felt that way,” he orders, trying for stern, but he’s afraid it sounds more worried than anything else.

“I would never tell you that.”

“Murphy. You would.”

“I wouldn’t,” Shaun stubbornly insists.

Neil takes a calming breath, because this is too important to let go. Except he’s not even sure how to phrase it now – not in a way that Shaun will agree with. “You have to tell me if you ever feel like…we see too much of each other.”

“No,” Shaun says, and just when Neil feels his frustration reaching insurmountable levels, his resident explains, “I would not tell you that because it isn’t true.”

Their conversation rearranges itself, clicking into place in a way it hadn’t before. “Okay,” Neil breathes, mostly in relief, “but if your opinion on that ever changes –”

“It will not,” Shaun interrupts. “It will never change.”

Neil had been pretty sure that was the case, but Shaun’s worry had sparked a corresponding cascade of worry all his own. They’ve discussed their ‘relationship’ plenty, but never specifically talked about whether they want to continue spending as much time together as they currently do. Neil had never broached the topic because he’d never thought he had to – and it turns out his intuition had been right.

(He really should trust himself better – everyone knows that he’s almost always right.)

“Never, huh?” he asks Shaun lightly. “That indicates an awfully long time.”

“Yes.” There’s a hint of a smile on Shaun’s face now. “It does.”

Neil’s about to tell him that his opinion’s never going to change, either, but his phone vibrating stops him before he can. An ominous feeling sweeps over him when Shaun takes out his own phone at the same time – that’s usually not a good thing. (All too often, it’s a terrible thing.)

Neil lets out an internal sigh of relief when a quick glance at the display reveals it’s not the hospital – he never thought he’d be so happy to see a message from Audrey…until he registers that she’s sent him and Shaun a group text.

Maybe he’d jumped the gun on that whole ‘relief’ thing.

He puts his phone away without bothering to open the message, while Shaun (of course) reads it instantly.

“Dr. Lim would like to know where we are.”

“That’s how she politely phrased it?”

“…No.”

Neil hadn’t needed the confirmation, though it does annoy him that she’d take her irritation out on Shaun instead of just on him. He reluctantly takes out his phone again to read her message (which is shockingly expletive-free, though he still takes issue with the tone).

He composes a new message and sends it only to her: Don’t make me block your number.

Her response to that is decidedly not expletive-free.

She must have texted another message to Shaun, too, because his resident is shaking his head at his phone. “Dr. Lim would like me to do a better job of keeping you in line.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“I don’t.” Shaun puts his phone back in his pocket, and there’s that hint of a smile again. “I like the way you are.”

A statement that simple really shouldn’t cause Neil to feel as much affection as he does. He returns Shaun’s smile, even as he laments, “Why can’t everyone be as appreciative of my charm as you, Murphy?”

“I do not know if ‘charm’ is the most accurate word.”

“Oh, it definitely is,” Neil argues. “Those who disagree are simply jealous they don’t expertly wield that ability the way I do.”

“Envious,” Shaun corrects. “Envious is the better word if you mean that people would want your charm for themselves. Jealousy better expresses a fear that someone will take something you have. However, the definitions of both words are evolving because people use them interchangeably without knowing, or acknowledging, the difference.”

“Guess I’m one of those people,” Neil says, wondering why he never feels chastised even when Shaun’s lecturing him (in fact, he’s usually only charmed by it – which is rather ironic, given the topic. …Or is it ironic? He’s tempted to say his thoughts out loud just to see if Shaun will correct him on that, too).

“Yes,” Shaun’s saying, “you have proven that you cannot distinguish between the two words.”

“Funny, Murphy.”

“I am not trying to be funny.”

“And you do realize that you just admitted I’m charming?” 

Shaun might be appalled at his possible slip-up. “I did not say that.”

“You might as well have,” Neil insists, and just when Shaun’s about to continue arguing, he jokes, “You still sure you like the way that I am?”

Shaun’s stance relaxes, argument entirely forgotten. “I will always be sure of that.”

He looks past Shaun (because standing there and grinning at him all night is not going to speed up getting out of this godforsaken airport), and notices the crowd’s beginning to thin out as people collect their luggage and make their way to the exit. Despite that, he still doesn’t see Morgan or Audrey, though the latter’s texts indicate that she’s actively searching for the next person on whom to take out her frustration, and Neil knows her well enough that he’s certain he will be that person…if he’s not already. “How about we go back the way we came and find a different exit?” he suggests to Shaun, unsure of how much he’s actually kidding.

“Morgan is the one who drove here.”

“I’ll order a car. They’ll be fine without us.”

“You don’t have your suitcase,” Shaun points out, as if that’s his main objection to the plan (when Neil knows it’s not).

“I kept everything important in my carry-on.” Neil shrugs his shoulder, indicating the bag he’s slung over it. “So I don’t really need my suitcase, not when I can replace everything that’s in it.”

“That would be expensive,” Shaun informs him. “You would also have to buy a new suitcase.”

“I can afford it.” He could afford it a hundred times over and Shaun knows it, so that means it’s not about the money, but about Shaun’s disapproval.

“That’s very wasteful,” Shaun tells him, proving Neil’s thoughts. 

“I’m sure they’d donate the one I left here. Or something.” He actually has no clue what they do with suitcases that remain unclaimed.

Shaun takes his uncertainty as invitation to answer his unspoken question. “If you did not claim your suitcase, the airline would try to contact you to return it. If they could not find you within ninety days, they would sell the entire suitcase and its contents to the Unclaimed Baggage Store in Alabama. The store sorts through the items, donating or selling anything of value, and the rest gets thrown away.”

Just when Neil thinks he’s stumbled upon a question that Shaun might not be able to answer, despite his seemingly endless fountain of knowledge, new depths are revealed.  “How do you know that?”

“I read it when I moved from Wyoming to California,” Shaun says. “It was a feature story of the airline’s in-flight magazine.”

Neil’s not sure which part of that to question first. “A feature story?”

“Yes.” Shaun appears to be contemplating Neil’s disbelief. “I suppose interesting topics related to flying are limited.”

“You found it interesting?”

“Very.” Shaun narrows his eyes the slightest bit. “Are you going to keep emphasizing random words in your questions?”

“They’re not random, they’re perfectly reasonable words to emphasize. And yes, now I think I have to.” Neil presses his mouth into a straight line in an attempt at suppressing his smile. “I had no idea people actually read those magazines.”

Shaun’s exhale is a little too loud. “I am a person and I read one,” he succinctly summarizes. “So yes, people read them.”

“Admirable refusal to take the bait, Murphy.”

“I have a vast amount of experience with you.”

Neil’s subsequent laughter is interrupted by Audrey. Shouting his name. From across the room.

Since Shaun’s facing her general direction and Neil’s back is to her, he pleads, “Tell me she’s only blindly hoping I’m nearby and can’t actually see me.” When Shaun scans the crowd behind Neil, raising a hand in greeting, Neil quickly pushes it back down. “What are you doing? You’re going to give us away!”

“Dr. Lim has perfectly adequate eyesight,” Shaun says, raising his hand again. “If I can see her, she can see us.”

“It’s not too late,” Neil tries, one last time. “I don’t think you understand how worth our while it would be to leave.”

Shaun doesn’t respond to that, instead brushing by Neil to head over to one of the endlessly circling baggage carousels at the far end of the room. Neil has no choice except to follow…which Shaun had very well known.

“Where did you two go?” Audrey’s demanding of Shaun, as Neil approaches the group. “Did you take the longest detour possible through the airport to get here? I thought you might have left.”

As much as Neil might like to ignore her questions entirely, it’s unfair to make Shaun answer her when it was technically Neil’s fault that they’d taken their time catching up (and if he’d had his way, they’d never have caught up at all). “You’re paranoid,” he tells her dismissively, which should be the end of it as far as he’s concerned, but then he feels Shaun’s eyes on him… “However, Murphy’s going to make up a story about how I wanted to leave and that he…dissuaded me.”

“Oh, yeah right,” Audrey sniffs, in disbelief. (Not that it had been a halfway plausible lie.) “Murphy’s too good for you.”

That’s…actually true. (He might be in real trouble if Audrey’s starting to make sense.) “Don’t I know it.”

“He wanted to leave,” Shaun tells her, then turns back to Neil. “I did not ‘dissuade’ you, I walked away from you.”

“Don’t you get it, Shaun?” Morgan’s looking between them with a perfectly crafted smirk. “That’s the most effective dissuasion there is when it comes to Dr. Melendez.”

Neil wants to argue with her, but infuriatingly he can’t, because it’s another thing that’s true.

He and Shaun have been known to debate everything, from the most mundane topics to life and death matters. Nothing gets Neil to seriously reconsider his stance, or a course of action, more than a perfectly reasoned argument – and with Shaun, no serious argument is ever less than perfectly reasoned. They’re usually able to come to a satisfactory agreement or compromise, and as such, Shaun walks away from him a lot less than he walks away from anyone else – but when he does, that’s when Neil knows that he’s lost, because it either means that Shaun’s come up with some other way to achieve what he wants, or he’s deemed Neil’s arguments (or behavior) as too ridiculous to entertain. 

So alright, maybe ditching Audrey and Morgan would be going a little far, even for Neil. No matter how justified it might be.

He’d been mostly joking, anyways. (Or so he’d claim if anyone truly pressed him on it.)

“While you two were taking your damn time,” Audrey’s back to complaining, “I’ve been standing around waiting for my suitcase. Which still hasn’t appeared, despite the fact that we landed forever ago. And I know some of the people who got theirs were on our flight.” She’s glaring around at random people (and Neil doesn’t bother pointing out that the undeserving subjects of her current ire haven’t gotten their luggage, either – hence why they’re still hanging around the baggage claim). “How long does it take to unload a few suitcases from a plane and throw them onto a conveyor belt? I could easily go do it myself.”

“You could not,” Shaun says. “You would be arrested if you tried to access the plane or any secure areas of the airport, such as baggage handling.”

Neil might like the sound of that. “Audrey, I think it’s a great idea,” he encourages, as her ire turns from random passengers to him. “You should go try and hurry things along. We’ll wait right here for you.”

“I don’t have enough to cover your bail,” Morgan says, bored tone revealing what she thinks of their current topic. “So don’t make me your one phone call when you’re tackled by the TSA and dragged off to airport jail.”

Neil has a lot of fun imagining that scenario, but Shaun’s already shaking his head. “Actually –”

“Yes, Murphy,” Morgan quickly interrupts, “I know you could explain the whole detention process. In excruciating detail. But my point is: who runs the TSA?”

“The Department of Homeland Security,” Shaun supplies.

“What a specific answer.” The sincerity of her smile negates the bite to the words. “But it’s close enough to what I wanted to hear, which is the federal government.” She turns to Audrey. “Do you want to never be heard from again? Because that’s how you’re never heard from again.”

Neil really can’t believe the conversations he gets dragged into sometimes. (Or maybe he can, which is even scarier.) “Our government isn’t disappearing its citizens, Reznick.”

“Or is that what they want you to think?”

Audrey’s expression indicates her thoughts on the matter are pretty much aligned with Neil’s. “Reznick, keep your conspiracy theories to yourself. And I’m not going to go searching for my suitcase. Not because I’m afraid of –” if possible, her voice gets even more dry, “– never being heard from again. The real reason is that I’m too lazy to do it.”

“Imagine my shock,” Neil says, under his breath. When he feels Audrey’s stare turn to him, he pointedly doesn’t acknowledge her, instead looking at Shaun silently for help. It’s always a toss-up on whether his resident will bail him out of the situations that are…sometimes…of his own making, but he’s in luck tonight – maybe because of how much Shaun had missed him.

“Dr. Lim,” Shaun begins, recapturing her attention, “suing the airline would be a waste of your time because there is already a set amount they are legally required to compensate people for lost luggage. They generally settle such claims without a fight.”

“I don’t care,” she grumbles, petulantly. “I’m still going to do it. Out of spite.” (And she has the audacity to claim Neil is petty, at times.)

“Let’s give them a few more minutes before filing suit,” Morgan suggests, ostensibly in an effort to calm down her attending, but the subtle mocking in it has Audrey narrowing her eyes over her coffee.

“I’ve given them ‘a few more minutes’ about ten times over, by this point.” Her gaze sweeps over Shaun, Morgan, and (oh great) resettles back on Neil. “It’s like the universe wanted to ensure we had to spend as much time with each other today as possible.”

“We did land over an hour ago,” Neil says, hoping his agreement will appease her somewhat, because as frustrated as he is, another fight will only make things worse. (He is capable of showing restraint…when it makes his life easier.)

“Your suitcase isn’t here,” Shaun tells him, which reminds Neil that he hadn’t even looked for it on the baggage carousel. (It’s a wonder he remembers anything around these people.) 

Neil absently scans the conveyor next to them, which is awash in a sea of interchangeable black and gray suitcases, with an occasional colorful one to break up the monotony. Many of the bags have brightly-colored tags to allow their owners to easily spot their own (Neil’s is orange – Shaun had attached it to his suitcase at some point before the trip). Sure enough, he spies nothing orange amidst the mostly indistinguishable suitcases.

“We’ve been here forever,” Morgan takes over complaining from Audrey, promptly forgetting she’d begged for patience not thirty seconds before. “Why didn’t you two take a different airline? Like one that offered the option of tracking your luggage?”

“Andrews booked our flight,” Audrey says, “and our convenience means little to him. I’m pretty sure he went with the cheapest airline he could find.”

“Even so, this seems excessive.” Morgan appears transfixed by the neverending conveyor belt. “What could be taking so long?”

“Maybe instead of bringing your luggage into the airport, it was mistakenly moved to another plane,” Shaun offers. “Or perhaps it was put onto the wrong plane in New York – in which case, it could be anywhere in the country right now.”

“You’re not helping, Murphy,” Audrey sighs. She’s now leaning against the wall behind her and bangs her head back with an audible thud.

“I’m not trying to help. I’m telling you what might have happened.” Shaun’s tone isn’t apologetic in the least. “The most likely scenario is that there was a delay removing it from your plane because several other flights arrived around the same time as yours.”

“There are a lot of people waiting here,” Morgan agrees, in a whining tone eerily similar to the one Neil had spent the past week listening to. She sighs, checks her phone, sighs again, and then starts tapping her foot. “It’s like the employees want us to spend the night here…and to think, they didn’t even buy me dinner first.”

Audrey looks like she might collapse without the wall to hold her up, revealing that Neil isn’t the only one exhausted after their unending day. “You got somewhere better to be, Reznick?”

Morgan’s foot stops tapping for a beat before it resumes. “Obviously not, since I’m here with you.”

“About that,” Audrey begins, “not that we don’t love having you as one of our official greeters, but where’s Claire? I vaguely recall something about her offering to pick us up with Shaun.”

“She was supposed to,” Morgan confirms, “but she managed to score a date tonight.” (The fact that she stems from any further biting commentary is, quite frankly, bizarre.) “Since your flight was delayed, Claire couldn’t do both things at the same time. And seeing as I’m a generous, kind, and thoughtful individual, I happily volunteered.”

Neil coughs to cover his laughter and he’s pretty sure Morgan would have kicked him if he didn’t take a step back, conveniently placing himself out of reach. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You wanted to.” 

“Prove it,” he says mildly.

“A whole week of this,” Audrey laments, in a gratingly familiar refrain, and Neil knows it’s not his imagination that her voice gets shriller the more annoyed she gets. (Really, if he shuts his eyes, he doesn’t think he’d be able to tell her and Morgan apart.) “I deserve a damned medal.”

“We already covered how noble you are for having to – as you love to say – put up with me,” Neil reminds her. “We don’t have to rehash it all again.”

Her smile is brittle. “But that might be the only thing that gets me through the next hour.”

“At this rate, I’m thinking Andrews might have been a better travel companion than you, after all.”

She ignores him in favor of waving her coffee at Shaun. “Saint. You are a saint.”

He glances at Neil, obviously unsure what Audrey’s getting at. “I am?”

Since the question’s directed at Neil, he takes it upon himself to answer. “For some reason, Audrey seems to think that I’m difficult to be around. Which is rather ironic considering her, you know…personality.”

Difficult is a rather flattering way to describe yourself,” Audrey informs him, then turns back to Shaun. “And you not only spend most of your time with him, Murphy,” she’s making herself sound as astonished as possible, “but you seem to enjoy it.”

“Yes, tell us your secret, Shaun,” Morgan demands, never one to let an opportunity like this pass her by without piling on. “How do you spend so much time with Melendez without going crazy?”

“I…like him?” Shaun’s glancing between the two women warily, probably uncertain of how that answer will be received (and for good reason).

“He doesn’t sound too sure of himself, Neil.” Audrey’s layering on the exaggerated concern. “Maybe you’re wearing on him, after all.”

Neil watches her silently, trying to determine if she’s doing this on purpose. She’d been the one to suggest they kiss, not even a half hour ago, and now she’s (good-naturedly) harassing Shaun – right after seeing how the same treatment from Morgan earlier had spurred Shaun to defend himself and his relationship with Neil. It fits perfectly with the complaints she’d issued, back on the plane, that she didn’t think Neil or Shaun (Neil, specifically, she’d made very clear) talked about things as much as they should. 

And while she certainly has more of a point than she realizes, Neil’s not a fan of her methods…if that is what she’s doing, because he’s not entirely sure. But then again, Audrey Lim has never been known for her subtlety, which means it’s probably a safe bet that everything she’s said tonight – that’s even tangentially related to their relationship – has been crafted with another motive in mind.

“I like him,” Shaun’s repeating more firmly, doing exactly what Neil (and most likely Audrey) had suspected he would. He looks at Neil and reiterates, in case there was any doubt, “I like you. Very much.”

He tears his thoughts away from his suspicions about Audrey, because Shaun (and what he feels) is much more important. “I like you, too,” Neil echoes. “Very much.”

“Ah, so the secret to spending time with you is to actually like you,” Audrey tells Neil brightly. “Good to know.”

“Yeah,” Neil says wryly, “guess you’d never fit into that category.”

“Yes, she would,” Shaun counters. “She likes you and you like her. We all like each other.”

Neil flicks his eyes over to Morgan, whose attention has returned to her phone. “Don’t tell me you’re including –”

“We all like each other,” Shaun repeats, and while he’s not upset, he’s not amused, either. “We’re all friends.”

Shaun loves reiterating that point and Neil knows why: Shaun had spent too many years without a real support system of any kind. He’d had his brother, until he died, and then Aaron. There had been a few other people, fleeting presences in his life over the years, but no one truly, consistently (permanently) in his life that he could rely upon. Not until he began working at their hospital.

And now that Shaun has an entire group of people who will always be there for him, he appreciates them in a way that Neil suspects people who’ve always had that type of support will never fully understand. 

“We’re not just friends,” Neil says, waiting for Shaun to look at him. “We’re a team.” 

It’s really that simple, no matter how much Neil likes to joke (or complain) about his colleagues driving him insane. They have to work well together, and that’s something he’s always tried to drive home, especially with their newest residents. It doesn’t matter if they’re sitting around discussing treatment strategies or if they’re working fluidly together in an operating room. They need to have each other’s backs – and that holds true for everything from the normal, daily routines to the unexpected chaos (and heartbreak) of a crisis or tragedy.

That trust goes beyond the walls of their hospital, too. It’s about knowing, with certainty, that they’ll be there for each other if one of them needs something…even if that ‘something’ is as simple as offering a ride home from the airport.

Audrey’s nodding at his statement. “Exactly,” she agrees, easily enough that it’s clear she hadn’t had to think about it. “We’re a team.” She sends Neil a sidelong glance. “Whether we like it or not.”

Morgan’s been listening without comment, and slowly lowers her phone when she realizes that everyone’s attention is now on her. She also recognizes the unspoken question. “I…uh…yes?” She clears her throat, fiddling with her phone, and mumbles, “Of course, we’re all a…team of…friends. Or whatever.”

“I’ve never heard a more heartwarming declaration, Reznick,” Audrey says blandly, her attempt at a serious tone breaking when she smiles.

Shaun moves closer to Neil’s side, his voice quiet enough that no one else can hear it. “I told you.” There’s no gloating in it, it’s merely his reminder to Neil that this was a fact Shaun had already known.

Because he had told Neil, a long time ago. Shaun had insisted that he and Morgan were friends, no matter how much she claimed not to have any. Not to want any. Shaun had been convinced that she had the capacity (the inclination, even) to become friends with all of them if she let down her guard enough to allow it. If she stopped categorizing everyone in terms of ‘adversaries’ or ‘allies’ – people to either compete against or to use for her own advantage.

So yes, Shaun had been right. (He’d seen it coming even before Morgan did.)

Neil should probably be less surprised that someone who’d needed friends for so much of his life – and so rarely gotten them – had learned to recognize that same need in others.

The thought causes him to put an arm around Shaun’s shoulders, pulling him in for a brief, sideways hug. Because never again. (If he has anything to say about it, Shaun’s never going to feel alone in the world again.)

“Claire’s lucky she missed this appalling display of sentimentality,” Morgan laments, though it’s with a grin; she’s much more confident now that she can infuse some humor back into the conversation.

“I think this is where we all start talking about how much we love each other,” Neil says thoughtfully, mostly to enjoy the younger woman’s reaction (and her eyes widening in alarm doesn’t disappoint).

Audrey’s always been too suspicious for her own good. “Neil, if you start going on about team bonding seminars and how great they are, then I’ll know for certain that Andrews has successfully brain-washed you.” She pauses in consideration. “Either that or he’s paying you off in some devious plan to sway employee opinions from the inside.”

“I wish I’d had the foresight to negotiate that kind of deal,” Neil admits. “Getting paid every time I lauded Andrews or one of his ideas…”

“But then you would have to laud him and his ideas,” Shaun points out.

“How horrifying,” Neil mutters. “Yeah, forget it. I’d never get paid.”

“Aha, I was right!” Morgan announces, waving her phone at them. “Claire’s very happy she’s missing this.”

Shaun’s phone starts vibrating, which can’t be a coincidence, and he takes it out to check the message. “Claire says that anything you tell us tonight is a lie.” Neil, reading along with him, starts laughing before Shaun repeats the next message: “Also, most other nights, as well.”

Morgan glares at her own phone, then shakes it for good measure. “You’re not allowed to out me if you’re not even here!”

“Who did Claire go out with tonight, anyways?” Audrey asks, apparently forgetting that earlier she was at least pretending not to care about their residents’ personal lives. “Anyone we know?”

“Yes,” Shaun supplies, “she is with the engineer that we met at the holiday fundraiser.”

It takes Audrey a few seconds to realize who Shaun’s referring to. “The billionaire?” she gasps, as Morgan nods, causing Audrey to whistle lowly. “Damn, go and get it, girl.”

“He’s alright,” Morgan says, dismissively.

Neil’s mostly surprised that she doesn’t appear even slightly jealous (wait…envious?) about this turn of events. “Just ‘alright’? Because I distinctly remember you spending a lot of time with him at the gala.”

“Well, I had dibs on him first,” Morgan claims, as if that’s something a person can actually have on another person, “but in the end, I generously let Claire have him.”

“Is either he or Claire aware of your…generosity?” Neil asks, as Morgan scowls at him. “Didn’t think so.”

“We had a definite connection at the gala,” she insists, “but when I realized Claire was more interested in him than I was, I graciously stepped back.”

Audrey raises an eyebrow skeptically. “Yes, it’s completely within your character to turn down a billionaire.”

“It’s not like he has that much money lying around, that’s just what he’s worth and most of it’s tied up in his holdings.” Off their looks, Morgan heaves a sigh. “I did my research – and by that, I mean I read the latest briefing Andrews gave us about our most important benefactors.”

Neil leans over to Shaun. “Is that the packet I threw away?” The flat look he receives in response confirms that it was.

Audrey hasn’t missed his aside. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Hey, in my defense, I know all our best donors and have for years,” he flashes a grateful smile at Shaun, “and I knew Murphy would fill me in on anything else I needed to know.” (He’d not only kept Neil apprised, as necessary, but for some unfathomable reason, the younger man actually enjoys doing that. Maybe because it’s ‘research’ at its heart.)

“Saint,” Audrey whispers to Shaun, quickly returning her attention to Morgan before Neil can react. “I don’t see how it matters where the guy’s money is, only that he has a lot of it. So I’m having trouble understanding why you weren’t all over him.”

“I’m not that shallow!” Morgan protests, and seeing the disbelief on Audrey’s face (and Neil’s sure his own), she clarifies, “Okay, I’m not that shallow all the time.” She’s rubbing one of her arms with her other hand, in a gesture Neil distantly registers as one of nervous discomfort from her. “Look, I could tell he and Claire liked each other. I tried to help it along. That’s it.”

“I can’t be hearing this right,” Audrey smirks. “Are you saying you did something nice for other people?”

“I could still leave you at this airport,” Morgan threatens, as she checks her phone for approximately the three dozenth time, and Neil almost misses the disappointment that flashes across her face.

It’s not that hard for him to connect the dots (even if he’d admittedly had a lot of help from Shaun in this department). “I think you had another motive that you’re carefully neglecting to mention.”

“Not this again,” she groans, which is too quick of a response for such a vague accusation – and it only convinces Neil that he’s right.

They’ve torn Audrey away from her intense, ever-darkening (and somewhat alarming) glare towards the baggage carousel. “Not what again?”

Shaun gets right to the point. “Morgan and Alex are –”

Friends,” Morgan stresses, abnormally loud, in an effort to cut off whatever Shaun had been about to say. “Remember how we all agreed, a few minutes ago, that we were friends?”

“Whatever you want to call it,” Neil says easily. “Some people aren’t into labels.”

Morgan holds up a finger in warning. “I know what you’re doing.”

He shrugs. “I’m not exactly being subtle about it.” 

“Are you subtle about anything?” Audrey asks, mostly rhetorical.

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” Neil shoots back.

“This has nothing to do with me,” Morgan’s insisting, still focused on Neil. “Or Alex. It’s that you and Murphy see love everywhere. And I wonder why?”

“We do not see love everywhere,” Shaun says, calmly. “We see reality.”

Audrey rubs her eyes through her subsequent laughter, nearly tipping her coffee in the process. “Where have I been that I’ve missed this?”

“Believe me,” Morgan says, “you’ve missed nothing. My complete focus is where it should be: on my job.”

“I suppose that’s one way to spin having no personal life,” Audrey grins, holding up her drink in cheerful toast.

“And feel free to highlight that in my next review,” Morgan adds, then reconsiders. “The dedication thing, not the ‘no personal life’ thing. Which I dispute, by the way.”

Neil thinks about letting the topic go, but considering he’s still waiting for his luggage, which is nowhere to be found, he decides he’d rather use this as an entertaining way to pass the time. “Let me ask you a hypothetical question, Reznick. A thought experiment if you will. It might shed some light on your situation.”

“Oh God,” Morgan mutters, then louder, “This has to be the kind of thing Murphy enjoys.”

“Well…” Neil hedges, glancing at Shaun. She’s not wrong.

“I knew it!” she dramatically wails (because no one suffers the way Morgan suffers – except Neil. He definitely suffers the way that she suffers. No, worse. He suffers worse).

“I appreciate methodical research,” Shaun’s informing Morgan, then adds, with a touch of judgement, “As should you.”

“I didn’t realize that entertaining hypothetical scenarios presented by one of our attendings counted towards ‘methodical research’,” she says, rather snippily.

Shaun glances at Neil, seeming to assess her veiled accusation that he gives Neil’s opinion more weight than is warranted. After a few moments, he concludes, “It counts for me.”

Morgan just stares at him, wisely refraining from comment. After a moment, she refocuses on Neil. “How much am I going to regret this?”

He doesn’t bother telling her that if he does this right, she’ll most likely regret it a whole damn lot. “Let’s pretend it’s your day off. There are two people who want to spend time with you –”

“Only two?” She’s so abjectly disdainful that Neil’s surprised into sudden laughter. “I’m afraid your ‘experiment’ has already fallen apart at such an unrealistic scenario, Dr. Melendez.”

“Fine. We’ll pretend you’re stuck with only two options because your dozen other suitors are working that day.”

‘Suitors?’ she mouths silently. “Must you act like you’re decades older than you are?”

From the corner of his eye, he sees Shaun about to speak and gently pushes his shoulder in an effort to stave off whatever comment about his age that the younger man’s going to make. “Contain yourself, Murphy.”

“Clearly, Shaun’s not the one who needs to be contained,” Morgan says, as Shaun elbows Neil’s arm in retaliation – and maddeningly, she issues no similar rebuke to Murphy.

“Really?” Neil decides to rub his own arm for dramatic effect (though he should know better than to think he’d get any sympathy from her). “He gets a pass and I don’t?”

“You started it,” Morgan says, making a good point Neil doesn’t want to acknowledge. And Shaun’s staring at where Neil’s holding onto his arm – oh, right.

Neil quickly holds up both his hands. “I’m fine.”

Shaun’s definitely worried. “Did I –”

“No.” Neil won’t even let him finish the sentence. “You didn’t hurt me.”

“Okay,” Shaun says quietly, as Neil watches him for another few seconds to make sure he’s been believed. Once he’s satisfied, he turns back to Morgan and there’s…something about the way she’s watching them. Something that’s pressing at another memory, but she looks away before Neil can fully grasp it, and then it’s gone.

“Bet you thought you’d get out of it, right?” Neil asks her, partly to shake off the moment and partly because he really does want to ask her this question. When he only gets an aggrieved sigh from her in response, he takes it as enthusiastic invitation on her part to start all over again. “Two suitors,” he emphasizes, biting back a smile when she presses a hand to her eyes, “want to spend time with you. For the first scenario, let’s imagine we’re living in a fantasy world where that billionaire liked you more than Claire.” He pretends not to notice her ominous expression, even though he’s immensely enjoying her reaction. “You could spend all day with him doing…what do extremely rich people do for enjoyment?”

“They spend money,” Audrey supplies, like the consummate expert on the topic that she’s always been.

Neil nods, because it sounds more or less reasonable. “Right, so Reznick, you could go on an elaborate trip with him, or to an expensive restaurant, or perhaps a shopping spree…” He lets the sentence fade as he envisions it. “Forget about you, I’d date this guy.” When Shaun leans into his side in a not-so-subtle reminder, Neil grins. “You know, if I weren’t already attached.” 

Any worry he might have had that Shaun had taken his joke seriously is alleviated when he feels the younger man smile against his shoulder, and he’s only a little surprised when Shaun doesn’t straighten up and pull away after, like he’d expected him to.

“The picture you’re painting isn’t half bad,” Morgan admits, because despite her insistence that she’s not shallow ‘all the time’, she’s never denied that she appreciates the finer things in life. “I do like spending money, especially when it’s not my own.”

Neil can tell Audrey’s about to voice her agreement, so he quickly continues before the two of them can get started on the joys of spending other people’s money. “Second option,” he tells Morgan, “you and Park could…” He trails off, mind going as blank as it did when he was suggesting the billionaire scenario. He’ll have to hazard an educated guess. “Go somewhere that you can shoot at things all day?”

“We do more than that,” she insists, plaintively, but when Neil doesn’t react, her indignation falters. She glances around the baggage claim area, never settling on anything for long, and makes sure to avoid Neil’s eyes altogether. “I suppose…it’s possibly…not a far-off description.”

“It is a highly accurate description,” Shaun informs them. “Alex has told me as much.”

Morgan abandons her oh so casual scan of the room to refocus on Shaun. “He has?” When Shaun simply nods in response, Neil can tell it’s taking everything in her to keep from demanding more information.

“What’s the verdict?” Neil asks, hoping to save Shaun from an interrogation that’s probably less than five seconds away. “How would you rather spend your day?”

“With the billionaire,” she scoffs, “obviously.” Now her excuse to avoid his eyes is that she’s scrolling mindlessly through her phone. “I’d let him buy me all sorts of lavish things to prove how much he adores me. And I’d relish every second of it.”

“Morgan.” Neil’s quiet tone (or maybe the pointed use of her first name) causes her thumb to momentarily freeze on her phone screen before she resumes scrolling. “How would you rather spend your day?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she insists, without directly answering him – which is answer enough. “Your premise is flawed.” She shoves her phone roughly back in her pocket in a visible display of her frustration. “Making a choice does not reveal some kind of…long-term preference. All it tells you is what I felt like doing in that particular moment.”

Audrey’s eyebrows have risen somewhere near her hairline – she’s interpreted Morgan’s careful non-answer the same way Neil had. “Wait a minute, you’d choose Alex?” She nods towards Neil and Shaun. “These two aren’t joking? I thought they were –” She shakes her head and reevaluates. “I thought that Neil was trying to get a reaction out of you.”

“He was,” Shaun tells Audrey. “And he did.”

Morgan’s too wrapped up in her denials to even realize Shaun’s spoken. “Maybe I just like shooting things!” Her voice is rising in pitch with every word (and she doesn’t seem to register that she’s essentially doubling down on her admission that she’d choose Park, even if she’s going out of her way to avoid saying his name directly). “None of you would understand!”

“Trust me,” Audrey says sardonically, with a deliberate look around their group, “I’d understand.” She slides down the wall a little in order to stretch her legs and cross her ankles, glaring once more at the baggage carousel. “Maybe I’ll join you and Alex someday soon. Time at the range would be therapeutic for me.”

“It would not be polite to crash their dates,” Shaun informs Audrey.

Morgan’s gritting her teeth, perhaps to prevent an escalation to all-out yelling. “They’re not dates. I think I’d know if I were dating someone.”

Her last statement lands uneasily with Neil, settling somewhere in the back of his mind where he ruthlessly shoves all the things he tries not to think about (and that space is getting more crowded by the day). He spares a glance at Shaun, who’s still leaning into his side, but the other man’s attention is fully on his fellow resident’s semi-breakdown.

Audrey finishes her coffee (have they been here that long?) and tosses the empty cup into a nearby recycling bin. “Would you know if you were dating him, Reznick?”

Morgan runs both hands over her face in something a lot like dismay. “God,” she sighs, “I hope so.”

“You hope that you’re dating him?” Shaun asks, with enough humor that Neil knows he hasn’t actually misunderstood her.

Morgan damn well knows it, too. “Murphy, you have an uncanny ability to hear what you want to hear,” she gripes, then waves a hand around her for good measure. “As do the rest of you.” No one gets a chance to refute her because she happens to check her phone again and immediately breaks into a wide grin. “Guess what Dr. Andrews just sent?”

Audrey blanches, too tired to hide her reaction. “Do we want to know?”

“This doesn’t concern you,” Morgan assures her and oh no, she’s turning to Neil. “It concerns you, Dr. Melendez – much to your delight, I’m sure.” She waves her phone a few inches from Neil’s face, and the proximity causes Shaun to wince and move away from them both. Her action is an uncanny imitation of something Audrey does to annoy him, which is yet more proof that they’re learning from each other. (For the first time, he wonders if he’d made the right choice in encouraging her to join Lim’s team.) “It’s the official itinerary for the conference in Las Vegas next month.” She pulls her phone out of reach right before Neil can threaten to break it.

Right on cue, Neil feels his phone vibrate and stubbornly refuses to check it. (The itinerary will be there for him to ignore for days. Or weeks. Or, more accurately, until Shaun finally opens the email and reads it to him, interspersed with disapproving statements about Neil putting it off for so long.)

“I did not know that you were going to Las Vegas,” Shaun tells Neil, voice subdued in a way that broadcasts his unhappiness. Shaun had only known there was a possibility, because Neil had told him months ago that Andrews was debating whether to send him or Audrey – and like Neil, Shaun had been hoping he’d choose Audrey.

“I only found out today,” Neil sighs, feeling the return of his tension from earlier, which had miraculously gone away while he’d been distracted by the others. “He told me a couple hours ago, because what better time for him to ambush me than on my way home from the last conference I didn’t want to attend? He probably knew I’d be too tired to put up a real fight.” He’s hit with a wave of weariness, but pushes it back and manages a smile for Shaun. “On the bright side, anything will be better than the week I spent trapped in New York with Audrey Lim.”

Audrey mutters something about ‘revisionist history’ but it’s Morgan’s gleeful, “Aren’t you glad that your next trip is with me?” that catches his attention.

Sometimes Neil thinks that maybe he’s being overly-dramatic whenever he insists that the universe (or at least Marcus) is out to get him.

This is not one of those times.

He’d known Morgan was being considered, but as of a few hours ago, Andrews still hadn’t been sure which residents he wanted to send; it’s not surprising that he’d neglected to tell Neil this information, probably hoping to avoid yet another argument tonight. (The best thing about officially being on separate teams is that he and Morgan get a lot of time away from each other, when it’s needed – they simply clash too much when she’s around all the time. So three straight days of her with no real escape will be a lot to take, especially given how much she enjoys making life difficult for him simply as a matter of course. The mere thought of it is exhausting, especially in his current state.)

The two women begin discussing details of the conference and Neil’s not sure which one of them he resents more: Morgan for being thrilled about going on the trip or Audrey for not having drawn the short straw of being sent.

Shaun’s even more displeased with Morgan’s reveal than Neil is, if that’s possible. “You’re attending the Las Vegas conference, as well?” he asks her.

She nods, barely able to contain her excitement. “I asked Dr. Andrews months ago if I could attend, but he didn’t make a final decision until just now.” She doesn’t seem to be gloating (too much) but rather genuinely happy that she’s been chosen. And Neil supposes he can’t really blame her, since it’s a mark of Andrews’ confidence in her that he’d allow her to be one of the representatives for their hospital.

“You just got home,” Shaun abruptly reminds Neil, words so clipped that the tone is almost painful. “Dr. Andrews should not make you take another trip so soon after the last one, especially when you did not want to go to New York in the first place.”

Something in Neil twists painfully, because Shaun’s definitely upset now and he’s doing nothing to hide it; he probably couldn’t even if he tried. It’s evident in his troubled expression and the rigidness that’s taken him over.

Yet again, Neil’s struck by that recurring, vivid flashback to their holiday gala, when a similar reaction from Shaun had caused Neil to kiss him in order to make him forget what was bothering him. The idea is no less insane today than it was a few months ago and Neil’s aware that the only thing he should feel is thankful that things had worked out as well as they had. After all, there were far more ways that kissing Shaun might have gone wrong than right. It could have easily upset the balance between them or altered their friendship with each other. It could have changed – or ruined – everything.

There are a lot of roads Neil’s never supposed to go down and this one’s at the very top of his list. Shaun does not want a romantic relationship with anyone. And Neil learned a long time ago that it’s pointless to imagine going somewhere when the destination is an impossibility.

Besides, Neil’s main concern right now isn’t for himself, it’s for Shaun. “I’ll admit that I’m not thrilled about going to Las Vegas, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.” He’s trying very hard not to think about what three days with Morgan Reznick might do to his sanity. “As you’ve pointed out, we all have to do things we don’t want to do. And it’ll be over before we know it.”

His attempt at reassurance isn’t doing anything except possibly making things worse. “I do not want you to go,” Shaun says, words barely audible even though Neil’s a mere three feet away from him.

“I thought that…” Neil trails off, overcome with a sinking feeling. Had he somehow misinterpreted things completely? He has no idea how he might have managed that, but if anyone could completely miss something, it’d be him. “I thought you’d be happy.”

Shaun’s verging on angry now. “Why would I be happy?”

Neil quickly regroups, refusing to believe he could be so wrong about something, despite his initial misgivings. There has to be something else going on to explain Shaun’s reaction. He doesn’t think twice about reaching out to set a hand on his shoulder, which is something he wouldn’t have done even a few months ago – not when Shaun was so clearly upset. He’d always known the best course of action was to give Shaun space, either to work through his emotions or to calm down and recompose himself. 

Now, though, Neil knows that he’s allowed to do this. He knows it helps – not only has he seen it, but Shaun’s told him as much. (He’ll actively avoid everyone else, but Neil is the person he’ll seek out if he wants reassurance.) And sure enough, Shaun doesn’t shrug him off or step away, he just leans into Neil’s hand. “I thought you’d be happy we were going together,” Neil tells him, letting his confusion show, because he thinks it’s another thing that might help.

Shaun’s frown incrementally lightens. “We…are going together?”

There’s his answer. “We are. I’m guessing Andrews didn’t tell you?” When Shaun says nothing, Neil grips his shoulder more firmly. “Of course he didn’t. The man can’t keep anything to himself to save his life and this he doesn’t tell you. He wanted at least three people to attend, and he says we work better with each other than anyone else, but…” He’s not sure if Shaun’s entirely aware of what he’s getting at, so he’s not sure how to phrase it.

As it turns out, he needn’t have bothered trying, because Shaun fills in, “That is his excuse, not his reason.”

Neil slowly nods. “He claims his life is a lot harder when we’re apart.”

“He has said that on multiple occasions,” Shaun says. He’s obviously pleased at this turn of events, his anger completely gone, but there’s also a sense of satisfaction to his words that Neil doesn’t understand. “The first time was six months ago.”

Neil doesn’t recall the particular exchange Shaun seems to be referring to, but as he flips through memories of past conversations with his resident and his boss (and sometimes the three of them all together), he finds himself staring down a conclusion that he hadn’t considered before, but which now seems highly likely.

“Shaun…” Neil steals a quick glance at Morgan and Audrey – who have been listening without making any attempt to hide it – and tries to determine if either of them is as suspicious as him, but neither seems to have any clue what he’s thinking. “…have you been making sure that Andrews’ life is difficult when we’re apart?”

“He is very predictable,” Shaun says. Like that’s an answer. Because it is.

Neil’s heard Shaun make similar comments about their friends, other colleagues, and even their patients. He’s become skilled at applying typical behavioral patterns to everyone he meets, because of how effectively that strategy has helped him navigate social interactions. In fact, Neil would wager Shaun’s learned to make predictions better than most, because he observes and files away every piece of information, no matter how minor. He remembers things that Neil and others easily forget – things they’d disregarded as unimportant, but which Shaun had remembered as a key to possible future actions and decisions.

And in this instance, he’d observed their boss’s reactions to various things and then acted accordingly to influence the outcome he wanted. Which was…

“Wait,” Morgan’s starting to get it, “you purposely made Andrews miserable so that he wouldn’t separate you two anymore?”

“Not miserable,” Shaun objects. “Frustrated.”

“Sure, that makes it better,” Morgan says, a newfound appreciation of his methods flickering in her eyes.

“Dr. Andrews has not separated us only for business trips,” Shaun reminds them, now sounding rather frustrated himself. “He has done it with cases. He has done it at social events. He has done it with everything.” He’s becoming more resentful with every grievance he lists. “I don’t like it. I have never liked it.” The last statement is said with a specific kind of vehemence that gets Neil’s attention.

“You didn’t like it even before…” He’s never sure how to talk about this, especially in front of other people. “…we got together.”

“No, I didn’t,” Shaun says, lowering his voice when he reiterates, “I never did.”

They’d talked about this very issue, many times, and with Andrews, too – most notably at their holiday gala. Their boss’s tendency to split them up based on his whims had been a common occurrence, and was usually intended to double their effectiveness. Neil and Shaun have their own specialties, their own methods of charm that work on different people, and Marcus had hated to ‘waste’ their talents in the same place at the same time. It’s only been recently – as in the past couple months – that he’d slowly stopped doing it and that was only because of their reluctance (and then outright refusal) to always be forced apart.

Before this past week, Neil hadn’t made any connection between Andrews’ behavior and the most recent trip to New York, because traveling for work is such a minor part of his job. Most of his time is spent on patient care, with a smaller (but no less necessary) portion allotted to the various requests Andrews makes of him – everything from business luncheons to fundraising events to devoting individual time to VIPs. And those are all areas of the job where Neil has routinely demanded a measure of control, going back to his earliest years at the hospital. As such, it had never been too difficult for him to push back when Andrews was being unreasonable or when his own life interfered with the requests. 

Business trips, however, have always been in their own separate category, and the arrangements are usually out of Neil’s hands. He has some say about the events he’d rather attend or skip, but for the most part, the final decisions are made by other people, whether that’s Andrews or Glassman or even the board making the request (which means it’s never really a ‘request’). Neil’s been asked to attend events to assist colleagues; to try and recruit talent the board’s been courting; to brush up on specific trainings; or even just to represent their hospital at some of the more prestigious conferences and nationwide events. 

It’s much harder to come up with grounds for refusing a trip than it is to refuse other things, and Shaun’s aware of that, because they’d discussed it at length as the New York conference approached. Neil had been reluctant to go, but he’d thought that in the end, it’d be like most other trips. Annoying at times, but overall an interesting and (usually) enjoyable experience.

Neil had simply never anticipated the toll that being away would take on him this time around. Sure, he can blame some of that on getting older: being more set in his ways, wanting to be nearer to home, and being reluctant to leave his patients, but none of those things are insurmountable. He knows his patients are being left in good hands, and generally, he settles into trips with relative ease. 

No, the thing that’s truly changed is Shaun’s place in his life. He’s never had a relationship like this before: he and Shaun need each other – even though it’s in different ways – and their presence in each other’s lives has become necessary to both of them. It wasn’t until Neil left that he realized how much things had changed. And while a distant part of his mind had noted that it seemed odd that Andrews had been the one to suggest he travel with Shaun from now on, he’d brushed that feeling aside, because the answer was right in front of him: Andrews didn’t enjoy it when they were separated any more than he or Shaun did. (It’s never been a secret that their boss does everything he can to make his life easier – he openly says as much, out loud, to anyone who will listen.)

Now, though, Neil can see the final detail that he’s been missing – the final piece that completes the puzzle: Andrews hating it when they were apart was no accident. Shaun had been ensuring that was the case.

(Neil’s starting to wonder if the past week had actually been a lot easier for him than for Shaun.)

“I did not intentionally set out to change Dr. Andrews’ behavior,” Shaun’s trying to explain, as he turns to Neil. “When you are not here, and neither is Dr. Lim, he is the next logical person with whom to consult. He is the next in line with authority above you.” His words are carefully diplomatic, the reasoning so flawless that even Neil can’t find fault with it (and he tries – he tries because he knows other people might try).

“So no one can ever accuse you of harassing him on purpose, to achieve your own ends,” Morgan murmurs, thoughts following along with Neil’s. “That’s very calculated.” She’s as impressed as Neil’s ever seen her, giving Shaun a deliberate once-over. “I think we need to become better friends, Murphy.”

“Hold up,” Neil warns, “don’t go getting any ideas.” He points from one to the other. “Either of you.” He has a sudden vision of coming home from work only to find Morgan and Shaun plotting – God knows what – from his living room couch. (And why doesn’t that thought terrify him the way it undoubtedly should?)

“You said you didn’t ‘intentionally set out’ to sway Marcus,” Audrey reminds Shaun. “That implies you eventually did it on purpose.”

Shaun doesn’t explicitly affirm or deny her mild accusation. “Dr. Andrews often remarked that Neil and I were both more demanding when we were separated. In one instance, he added that his life might be easier if we always worked together.” He slides his gaze briefly over Neil, but it feels like there’s something reluctant in it. “I liked that idea.”

“And you decided to visit him a lot more often until he made it a reality,” Audrey finishes.

Again, Shaun doesn’t respond to her, squaring his shoulders as he turns fully to face Neil. “I should have…talked to you.” He’s become more hesitant, and that along with his unusual behavior alerts Neil to a potential problem.

“About harassing Andrews?” Neil keeps his voice neutral. “You can’t possibly think I would have objected to that.”

“No,” Shaun says, “I did not think you would.”

Shaun’s answer does nothing to reveal what’s bothering him. “This isn’t a one-time thing,” Neil assures him, wondering if Shaun’s worried they might have to repeat this whole process the next time Andrews comes up with some brilliant plan to separate them. “He told me we’ll always have the option to travel together from now on. If we want to.”

That doesn’t seem to make anything better, Shaun’s frown deepening as he rubs his forehead. “Are you…happy about that?”

None of this is the reaction that Neil had been expecting. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Shaun’s given up on looking at him, which is the worst sign so far. “I hoped he would allow you to stop going on trips that you did not want to take. I did not intend for him to say that we should travel together.” He’s wringing his hands now. “You are aware that I do not enjoy traveling very much. I would not want you to spend an entire trip…concerned about me.” He takes a deep breath, then repeats, “I should have talked to you.”

Neil wants to laugh at the irony of Shaun worrying about something that’s already happening, but he doesn’t let himself, because the other man would definitely take it the wrong way. “How, exactly, do you think I’ve felt for the past week?” Though he tries to downplay it, there’s a definite edge to his words that he can’t completely erase.

It makes things even worse, Shaun’s shoulders falling at that question. “I am fine without –” you. He doesn’t say it, but Neil hears it all the same, because it’s a sentiment Shaun has expressed about a lot of people over the past two years (and many of them on more than one or a dozen occasions). Even when he accepts assistance with various things, he’s always been adamant about remaining fiercely independent…except when it comes to Neil.

Neil’s been the main exception to Shaun’s rule for months now – he’s the only person Shaun accepts help from without searching for justification. He’s the only person Shaun’s allowed himself to need without making excuses for his own feelings (which too often includes viewing that need as some sort of failing, a view that had been drilled into him by people whom Neil hopes never to meet). Even when Shaun receives help from Aaron, he typically makes his terms clear with a caveat the likes of which Neil himself rarely hears anymore.

Maybe that’s why Shaun hadn’t been able to finish his sentence. (Maybe it used to be true, but it’s not anymore.)

When it becomes clear that Shaun isn’t going to elaborate on what he couldn’t say, Neil decides to steer the conversation back to the point he’d been trying to make. “Are we not allowed to worry about each other?”

Shaun ignores the question in favor of repeating his earlier assertion. “I do not want to make things more difficult for you.” He glances uneasily at Morgan and Audrey, who at least have the sense to make it seem like they’re not paying attention to them anymore. “That is not the point of…this.”

“You don’t make things more difficult,” Neil promises, deciding to turn things around on Shaun, since that’s one of the best ways he’s found to get the other man to see his point of view. “Do you ever worry about me?”

“Yes,” Shaun answers, somewhat morosely. “It is easy to imagine worst case scenarios, even though they are statistically improbable.”

“If I ordered you to stop – to never worry about me, or anyone else you cared about, ever again – would you be able to?”

Shaun slowly shakes his head. “No. I do not think I excessively worry, but it is…difficult to eliminate those kinds of thoughts.”

Neil lets him ruminate on his own words for a few moments before reminding him, “That’s how I feel, too. I think this week was difficult because our lives have become a lot more intertwined than either of us realized, until…” He rubs the back of his neck, but it’s not helping the tension this time. “Until we couldn’t see each other, even if we wanted to.” Even if they needed to.

Something he’s said has bothered Shaun even more, and it’s confirmed when his resident cautiously asks, “Do you think that we should…separate our lives more than we do?”

Neil definitely isn’t prepared for the ice water flooding his veins. Shaun’s somehow come up with the worst possible solution – he might as well be asking if they should ‘break up’ and that’s something Neil’s been dreading for a long time. Despite that, he forces himself not to react in the viscerally negative way that he instinctively wants to, because if Shaun’s suggesting it, Neil’s at least going to entertain it. “What –” He doesn’t even recognize his own voice, and tries again. “What do you mean?”

Shaun’s watching the luggage carousel (on which Neil’s suitcase still hasn’t appeared). “You said our lives have become more intertwined than we realized and that’s why it’s difficult to be apart.”

Neil looks over at Morgan and Audrey again, who’ve begun discussing a patient admitted the prior week. Once he’s satisfied they’re actually preoccupied and not listening to him, he turns back to Shaun. “I’m not following your logic.”

“If we spent less time with each other,” Shaun says, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, “then certain things might be…easier. Like this past week when you were away.”

Neil’s even more confused than he was fifteen seconds ago. “Didn’t we talk about this already tonight? We agreed that we don’t see too much of each other.” He’s really trying to get some levity back into this conversation because he’s not sure how he’s going to get through it otherwise. “You were there for that conversation, Murphy. And if it wasn’t you, it was someone who looked a lot like you.”

Shaun doesn’t smile (he doesn’t even come close). “We agreed that we enjoy each other’s company, but you can feel that way while also believing that time apart would be beneficial.” His argument makes sense, in a terrible way, and it might be one of the worst things that Neil’s ever heard. 

Still, he makes sure not to reveal any of his emotions when he asks, “Is that what you want?”

His question doesn’t help anything because Shaun’s visibly agitated now. “No,” he says forcefully. “It isn’t.”

“Okay.” Neil has no idea what to do. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Shaun doesn’t deny he’s upset, not even in a futile measure, which informs Neil that he’s really upset. “I am the one who asked you if it would be better,” Shaun bites out, still not looking at Neil. “You have not answered me.”

That’s when Neil realizes that Shaun’s question hadn’t had anything to do with his own feelings – it had been entirely about Neil. He’d been looking for reassurance, and Neil not only hadn’t given it, he’d avoided the question entirely.

“Spending time apart would not make things easier for me,” Neil tells him, making sure to put emphasis on every word. He’s stuck replaying the loop he always gets trapped in: all the things they’d have to change if they ended their relationship and how much Neil doesn’t want any part of that.

Shaun’s quiet for an awful fifteen seconds before he looks back at Neil and asks, “It wouldn’t?”

“No. Do you know the only thing that made this past week better?” He’s not waiting for an answer this time. “You.”

“Me,” Shaun says cautiously, like he can’t really believe it.

You,” Neil repeats. “Talking to you. So no, I don’t see any world where us intentionally spending time apart is going to help anything. And even if it did?” He already knows the answer, but still takes a moment to think about it – to reaffirm, in his own mind, the way he’s felt for a long time. “I still wouldn’t want it.”

He doesn’t think he’ll ever want it. And what is he going to do about that?

The change in Shaun is obvious, his expression becoming lighter and more relaxed. “I feel the same way.” 

“Good,” Neil says, as he suddenly (and rather disconcertingly) hears Audrey’s voice in his head: all the things she’d told him on the plane. All the things he hadn’t wanted to hear. The most troubling of them being that she suspected Shaun wasn’t aware of how much Neil cared about him. Neil had vehemently denied that, refusing to accept it as a possibility…but maybe there’s a truth to it that Audrey, as an outsider, had been able to see. Especially if, as tonight had proven, Shaun’s been worried that Neil might object to them traveling together. (Or worried that Neil might think they spent too much time with each other, to begin with.)

Shaun raises his chin towards the carousel and Neil can’t believe it when he turns around to find that his suitcase has miraculously appeared. He goes to retrieve it, wondering the whole time why he can’t stop replaying his conversation with Shaun in his mind. Something’s nagging at him, but he’s not sure what.

When he returns (to Audrey’s complaints about how monumentally unfair it is that Neil’s suitcase had appeared first), Shaun’s reading something on his phone.

“Dr. Andrews sent me a message informing me that he would like me to attend the Las Vegas conference,” Shaun tells him, “complete with the itinerary.”

Neil can’t contain his sigh. “Right on time, I see.” 

He refrains from further comment, since it won’t help anything, and does a cursory check of his suitcase. Maybe he can get away with not unpacking most of it before his next trip? Though Shaun would assuredly have some objection to that… And that’s when he realizes what’s bothering him: Shaun had never actually said if he wanted to go to Las Vegas. He’d reminded Neil that he didn’t like traveling (which Neil already knew) and he’d been worried about whether Neil wanted him on the trip to begin with, but neither of those things reveals whether Shaun wants to go. And he might very well not, given that he’d admitted his original intention with Andrews was never to gain the option of going with Neil, but merely to give their boss greater incentive to let Neil decline.

“Shaun,” he begins, breaking the other man’s attention away from Audrey’s renewed rant, “do you want to attend the conference next month or would you rather stay home?”

Shaun seems faintly surprised at the question, which does nothing to reassure Neil. “If Dr. Andrews wants me to go, I will go. In the past, I have usually done whatever he’s asked of me.”

“I didn’t ask what Dr. Andrews wanted. I asked what you wanted.” He can see Shaun’s uncertainty. “And don’t tell me that you want whatever Andrews wants.” Though it’s far more likely he’d base his answer on… “Or whatever you think I want.”

“Then I don’t know how to answer your question,” Shaun admits.

“I know you like to agree to Andrews’ requests to keep him happy, but trips like this aren’t mandatory for residents, even if our boss wants you to go.” (And considering Shaun hadn’t known about it until Neil told him, it wasn’t like he had time to think over what he’d prefer, either.)

“I am aware that attending the conference is not mandatory,” Shaun says agreeably, and now Neil has to wonder if he’s not getting an answer for a reason. Shaun has a unique way of picking and choosing which parts of a conversation to acknowledge or ignore; sometimes it’s accidental, but quite often he does it on purpose if there’s something he either can’t or doesn’t want to acknowledge. (He does it with Neil less than with others, but it still happens, so he’s learned to be on the lookout for it.)

“Tell me if you don’t want to go,” he tries again, deciding it can’t hurt to repeat his point. “Andrews wouldn’t force you to travel if you told him you’d rather stay home.”

Over the past year, when Andrews began asking more of Shaun – outside of the hospital – the younger man had responded by working to overcome his dislike of traveling, similar to how he’s always working to strengthen his interpersonal skills and get through his discomfort at social gatherings. Shaun’s traveled for their hospital three times now: two overnight trips and one long weekend – the first two with Neil and the last with Andrews himself (God help them – that had been a fun report to hear back). And all of those trips were before he and Shaun began misleading people about their relationship.

Shaun had gone on each trip with minimal complaint, but a troubling idea is crossing Neil’s mind: maybe Shaun hadn’t really been working through his anxiety as well as Neil thought. Maybe Shaun always wanted to stay home, but never said as much because he thought he had to keep everyone happy – to the neglect of his own wishes.

“Allow me to interrupt?” Morgan asks, though it’s not a real question, because they have no choice (and Neil hadn’t even been aware that she’d started listening to them again). “I’d like to suggest a…what’d you call it? A thought experiment?” She stares meaningfully at Neil. “Because I think someone is missing the point.”

He feigns mild shock. “You can’t possibly be referring to me.”

“It’s nothing new for Neil to miss things,” Audrey chimes in, leveling him with a pointed stare of her own. She’s obviously referring to their conversation on the plane and Neil barely stops his retort because it’d give too much away.

“Great,” he sighs, instead, “so we’re all part of this conversation now.”

“Only because of how badly you need us,” Morgan says, archly.

“Complimenting yourself while also condescending to me.” Neil’s impressed, despite himself. “Well done, Reznick.”

“I’m gifted that way,” she says, with a pleased smile. “Now, Murphy, forget about all other outside factors and consider only the scenarios that I’m presenting. Which would you prefer: staying home, where you’re comfortable, without Dr. Melendez? Or going to Las Vegas, where you’ll be uncomfortable, with Dr. Melendez?”

Shaun chooses not to answer her directly and looks at Neil. “I would always rather be where you are.” It sounds like he has no idea how they couldn’t have known something so obvious. Which means that any discomfort he feels about traveling, or the social aspect of conferences in general, is overshadowed by the fact that he’d rather spend time with Neil than be apart from him.

Neil feels a dizzying kind of warmth at that revelation, since he knows exactly what Shaun means. And it’s…

The wrong road, he reminds himself. That is the wrong road.

“You’re welcome,” Morgan’s telling them smugly, her self-congratulatory tone matching perhaps only Marcus Andrews for its level of sheer arrogance. “Coincidentally, ‘you’re welcome’ is also what I would have said to anyone who thanked me for sacrificing my free evening to come get you at the airport. Which, as a reminder, no one did.”

“As if you aren’t here strictly to gain points in your favor,” Audrey almost laughs. “And we both know if you had a better option tonight, you’d have taken it.”

“Untrue, Dr. Lim,” Morgan insists, pausing a moment to smile down at her phone. She doesn’t even look up when she adds, “Greeting you would have always been my top priority.”

Audrey’s noticed Morgan’s divided attention, and the younger woman gives up on the conversation altogether when she starts typing a message. “What’s so important?” Audrey leans over, unashamedly trying to see the screen. “Who might that be?”

“What?” Morgan looks up, then twists away from Audrey upon realizing what she’s trying to do. “No one!”

“Alex’s shift ended eight minutes ago,” Shaun helpfully informs everyone, then reminds Morgan, “Before we left the hospital, he told you he’d talk to you later.”

She’s looking around rather shiftily, if Neil says so himself. “I…don’t recall that.”

“You told him that he better talk to you later.”

“Must you remember everything?” she hisses, giving up all pretense of not knowing what he’s talking about. “My God, you even emphasized the same word that I did! I don’t know whether to be frightened or impressed.”

Shaun ignores that last part. “If you have a conversation in front of me, then yes, I will remember it.”

She’s growing increasingly defensive. “It’s hardly earth-shattering that friends want to talk to each other. That’s the whole point of having friends.”

“It is?” Audrey’s mumbling to herself. “I might need new friends.”

“Hey, that’s my line,” Neil protests.

“Not everyone has to fall in love with their best friend,” Morgan insists, with a tinge of desperation, and Neil doesn’t know who she’s trying to convince – them or herself. “I’m not you, Murphy.”

Shaun’s studying her in the way Neil finds disconcertingly familiar. The moment stretches too long until Shaun says, with a devastating finality, “No one said anything about falling in love.”

Morgan freezes, her grip on her phone tightening to the point that her knuckles start turning white. 

Audrey looks thoughtfully between the residents. “He’s right,” she says bluntly, because sometimes she doesn’t know when to quit (or maybe doesn’t want to). “Why’d your mind go there, Reznick?”

“Because of – because of these two,” she says, stumbling over her explanation as she waves both hands in Neil and Shaun’s general direction. When Audrey merely stares at her, clearly not buying it, Morgan issues some kind of frustrated growl. She turns on her heel and stalks a few feet away before whirling back around. “This is me ignoring you, Dr. Lim.” She narrows her eyes at Shaun for good measure. “Both of you.”

Shaun’s looking at her like she might be losing her mind. “Then why are you currently talking to us?”

Morgan briefly shuts her eyes, maybe to pray for some kind of patience. (Welcome to the club, Reznick.) “I’m never doing another favor for Claire again,” she laments, as she returns to typing on her phone (probably sending that very warning to Claire). “I knew I was being too nice.”

“Right, I’m always saying that’s your biggest character flaw,” Neil laughs, taking pity on her when she can’t seem to muster any sort of comeback. “Fine, we’ll stop,” he relents, directing a look at Audrey to inform her she’s included in his promise, and notes how quickly Morgan’s annoyance fades. That, more than anything, tells him that whatever she feels, it’s serious, and – no. No. He doesn’t need to be involved in their lives. Not any more than he already is. 

He’s always cared, sure. Abstractly. Distantly. Professionally, in terms of how they work together as a team, and yes even as friends the way he’d admitted earlier, but there’s always been a requisite amount of space between himself and the residents. Or at least…there used to be.

When had it turned into this?

“It’s terrible, isn’t it?” Audrey murmurs to him, apparently able to read the thoughts on his face. “I tried to stop caring, too. It didn’t work.” She nods at Shaun, who’s listening intently while Morgan relates a message from Claire. “At least you have an excuse, Neil, being in love and all. What’s mine?”

“Have you grown a heart?” he tries to joke, only half-interested in what she’s saying because he’s too caught up in his thoughts about the residents. He wants to know how Park really feels about Morgan and he wants to know how Claire’s date is going and there are some other residents of Lim’s whose names he mixes up a lot, but now he’s thinking he probably cares about them, too, and doesn’t even know it.

(If he gets the sudden urge to call up Kalu and ask him how things are going at Denver Memorial, he’s going to have to commit himself.)

Audrey’s smiling at him knowingly. “I’ve grown a heart? That’s rich, coming from you.”

He needs to change the subject. Yesterday. “Reznick,” he says, as she and Shaun both look over at him, “I suppose you’re right that you deserve thanks for coming to get us.”

“I’m right?” She’s waiting for the catch.

“That is what he said,” Shaun confirms.

“Yeah,” she eyes Neil suspiciously, “but did he mean it?”

“Yes,” Shaun answers before Neil can, “he meant it.”

Neil smiles, because Shaun knows him better than anyone (even if other people don’t realize that, yet). “I meant it,” Neil repeats, amused when Morgan blinks in surprise at the sincerity of his words. “We’re all very grateful you took Claire’s place.” Now he returns to joking. “Your mocking comments and biting commentary have made this homecoming worthwhile.”

There’s an edge of laughter to her words when she says, “I do what I can.”

“…To slowly drive me insane?”

She shrugs innocently, the gesture completely foreign on her, then smiles at her phone again. “It’s apparently one of the things I do best.” He doesn’t think that last statement is meant for him, and any other time he would have called her on it, but not right now. Not after he’d promised to stop.

And besides that, Neil’s starting to think that he and Morgan Reznick have a lot more in common than he’d ever thought (which might very well be one of the most horrifying revelations of his life).

Audrey startles them – and everyone else within a fifty foot radius – when she cheers upon finally spotting her luggage on the carousel, and she follows it up by announcing that she still might sue the airline for ‘intentional infliction of emotional distress’. (Rather gallingly, she also threatens to name Neil as a co-defendant in that suit.)

Morgan relentlessly badgers them to ‘hurry the hell up’ as they head for the exit (which seems about three miles away) because she’s insisting she can still salvage some of her evening if she’s able to get them home quickly. Audrey’s clearly dying to grill her on what she’s doing later, but she shows restraint (for once in her life) and turns the conversation back around to their Las Vegas trip, which Morgan is all too happy to chatter on about. She can’t contain how happy she is about going and Audrey’s equally overjoyed at the fact that she doesn’t have to join her.

“You don’t know what you’ll be missing,” Morgan jokes to her attending. “Just think, three whole days of me!”

Neil misses Audrey’s reply because his burgeoning good mood starts to fade at the reminder of traveling again when he hasn’t even made it out of the airport from his last trip. (Seriously, where is the exit? Is endlessly walking around an airport one of the last circles of hell?) 

All he can envision is three straight days in Las Vegas, every minute scheduled with events and lectures, meetings and panels, and the socializing that never ends

“And me,” Shaun says, so quietly that Morgan and Audrey don’t even hear him. Neil blinks at him, wondering if he’d mistakenly been saying his thoughts out loud – but no, Shaun’s responding to what Morgan just said. He’s also moved closer, his warmth a comforting presence at Neil’s side, and it overshadows…everything.

Neil leans over to whisper, “And you,” somewhere near Shaun’s ear.

When he catches the brilliant smile that crosses Shaun’s face, he knows that no matter what happens in Las Vegas – no matter what happens anywhere – as long as they’re together, they’re going to be fine.