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Secret Holiday Neutral Gift Swap

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Neil’s going to be late.

Maybe.

Alright, probably.

In his defense, it’s not his fault today. (Come to think of it, no matter the day, it’s almost never his fault.)

He’s fairly confident that he’d be the most punctual person in their hospital (or at least tied with Shaun) if everyone would just leave him be. But they won’t. People have an uncanny knack for finding him; no matter where he goes (or tries to hide), there’s someone who wants to talk to him. Patients, colleagues, administrators – the list is neverending.

The irony today is that his entire department is due to attend a staff meeting two minutes from now (the very thing which he’s most likely going to be late for) so he should have had a relatively clear path from his office to the conference room, with most of his repeat harassers nowhere to be found in the hallways.

But what happened, instead? New people proceeded to stop him. People not even in his department! And only two of them had wanted to discuss patients – the rest had wanted to talk about the holidays, as if that incredibly vague topic is something he’s eager to discuss with every person who crosses his path.

Neil knows that he’s much too likeable – it’s one of his perpetual faults and it makes his life incredibly difficult at times (and he can practically hear the way his residents would laugh if they heard him make such a claim). But it’s true! Why else would so many people always feel the pressing need to talk to him?  Maybe he should start outright ignoring them – walk right on by like he hasn’t heard them, or like he’s too busy to stop. But he’s just too polite. (Which is, coincidentally, another one of his faults.)

A final check of his watch has him doing a double take, because it reveals that he’s actually going to be on time today. He steps into the conference room with an air of triumph that’s probably not warranted for something as simple as getting to a meeting on time, but six people had stopped him, so it’s really a feat in and of itself.

Marcus has hauled an overhead projector out from God knows where and is already pulling up slides that Neil doesn’t bother reading. He’s suddenly having med school flashbacks. The horror.

“Where did you find that?” Neil demands. “A storage room from 1992?” He squints at the unnaturally white light of the screen. “Are you using PowerPoint?”

Marcus doesn’t seem to appreciate Neil’s interruption (or criticism, for that matter). “This is what us seasoned professionals like to call a visual aid, Melendez. You might even learn something, if you paid attention. Or ever showed up on time. And to that end, I’ll speak on behalf of our entire surgical department to say that we’re honored you finally decided to grace us with your presence.”

Neil suddenly becomes acutely aware that dozens of eyes are on him – Marcus hadn’t been exaggerating. All of his colleagues are here, including the residents and nurses currently on their rotation. They’re in one of the largest conference rooms the hospital has, but it’s still crowded and some people don’t have seats. (He has to admit that he’s a little impressed at how Marcus somehow manages to finagle all their schedules for these meetings – it’s a feat even Glassman could rarely accomplish, yet Marcus does it at least once a month.)

Neil feels like he should get some (minimal) credit for being on time. Wait, not only on time – “I’m early.” He holds up his wrist to showcase his watch, mostly to make a point using a visual aid (because he can be professional, too…when he wants to be). “It’s 2:58.”

“It’s 3:14,” Marcus says, without inflection.

“It’s 2:58,” Neil argues. Though come to think of it, his watch had also said 2:58 when he left his office. And that was six conversations ago…

Shaun, who’s sitting with his back to the doors (and consequently Neil) holds up his phone so Neil can read the time over his shoulder. It’s 3:14.

“Come on, Murphy,” Neil implores. “Could you back me up for once?”

Shaun swivels in his chair to face him. “Could you be on time for once?”

It takes a significant amount of willpower for Neil to remain where he is and not move forward to kiss the disapproval right off of Shaun’s face. (His complaint had been teasing, and Shaun’s more than used to that kind of thing by now; after four months of dating, his resident still relishes putting him in his place – which just happens to be the way Neil loves it.)

“I made every effort to be on time,” Neil argues, crossing his arms in consternation. “It was a valiant attempt, but people kept stopping me – and there’s that small matter of keeping our patients alive, which takes precedence over everything else.” He glances at Marcus before adding sardonically, “Though just barely, of course. You know how important I consider these meetings.”

“Not at all?” Marcus offers dryly.

Before Neil can do something monumentally stupid (like enthusiastically agree with that statement), Shaun preemptively rescues him by announcing, “I saved you a seat.”

Neil takes in the crowded room, including how several people have been relegated to standing room only and are leaning against the walls. “Where, Murphy? The hallway?”

“Morgan took it.”

On that cue, the blonde turns in her seat, which is between Shaun and Claire. “I waited until 3.” She smiles blindingly at him. “After that, I figured you weren’t going to show – you can’t blame me.”

“I can blame you for whatever I want, Reznick.”

“By all means, sir.” She’s already standing up and waving at the now empty chair, which unfortunately robs him of the joy of kicking her out of his seat. (Well, the seat Shaun had saved for him…same thing.) “I’m sure you need to sit more than I do,” she says, and to everyone else in the room, he’s sure she sounds gracious. “You look like you’ve had a long day.”

He pauses just to send her a look that conveys he knows exactly what she’s doing and she doesn’t hide her smirk as she stops to lean against the wall next to Park. Alex leans over to say something to her and when she starts laughing, Neil knows it’s about him. One well-timed warning glance their way, though, and they quickly stop, returning their attention to Andrews.

“I don’t think anyone who arrives late to a meeting should be allowed to stay,” Audrey complains, from the chair on the other side of Shaun, before Neil can even sit down. “He’s interrupting the entire flow of your presentation, Marcus.”

“That’s fine by me,” Neil offers, holding up his hands and taking a few steps back towards the doors. “I wouldn’t want to…interrupt the flow of your no-doubt engaging and informative –”

“Freeze,” Marcus interrupts, then turns to Audrey. “Bar him from entry for being late? You’ll ensure he never shows up on time again.”

Audrey shrugs. “He doesn’t do that now.”

Marcus considers that. “Valid point.”

“I’m still in the room,” Neil reminds them, as he reluctantly takes a seat upon realizing Marcus (probably) isn’t going to kick him out. “Even though you’re talking about me as though I’m not.” He turns his chair to face Shaun, and irritated though he is, he can’t help the grin that crosses his face when Shaun smiles at him in greeting.

“Our sincerest apologies, Neil,” Marcus is saying (though he sounds suspiciously insincere). “We’re used to talking about you as though you’re not here. Because you usually aren’t.”

“I might deserve that criticism,” Neil relents, trying to sound at least a little sorry. (Which he’s not. At all. Because Marcus was in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation and how is he supposed to sound regretful that he’d been missing that?) “I apologize for being late. But I also want it to be on the record that I tried to be on time.” He slaps a hand down on the table. “Record it in the minutes, Murphy.”

Shaun doesn’t even blink at his order. “We do not take minutes.”

“We really should,” Neil laments, “solely because it would prove me right in perpetuity.” He hasn’t taken his hand off the table, so he slides it down to tap on Shaun’s phone, which is lying forgotten in front of him. “When did I text you that I was on my way?”

Shaun doesn’t have to check. “2:53.”

“See?” he announces dramatically, and to his disappointment, no one reacts to his incontrovertible evidence. “This room’s a five-minute walk from my office and I texted Shaun right when I left, so he’s my proof that I should have been on time. If only people would stop accosting me…”

“I’m not sure I believe this so-called ‘proof’,” Morgan taunts, complete with air quotes. “It’s not like Murphy wouldn’t lie for you.” Despite the accusation, her lighthearted tone reveals that she’s enjoying their entire exchange.

“I would lie for Dr. Melendez,” Shaun confirms to her, before looking at Andrews, “but I’m not. Not in this instance.”

Neil leans over the arm of his chair to whisper, “You’re not helping our case here.”

“I can show you his text, Dr. Andrews,” Shaun offers. “I will send everyone a screenshot.”

“Please don’t.” Marcus sounds like he’s begging as he rubs at his temples. “The investigation doesn’t need to be that in-depth. In fact, there isn’t an investigation, because Melendez showing up late is nothing new.”

“Is it my fault that people are always trying to die around me?” Neil tries his best to sound put out (it’s honestly not that hard) and pointedly doesn’t mention that most of his time had been taken up by co-workers and their inane small talk about the holidays (nor does he mention that he might have willingly gone along with it because it beat the alternative of yet another monthly staff meeting). “Last I checked, this place literally pays me to keep people alive.” Time to move on to indignant. “You should be thanking me for putting our patients first, Marcus. Patient satisfaction is always at the top of your agenda, isn’t it? Kind of difficult to have satisfied patients if they’re no longer alive.”

Marcus looks ready to argue with him, but then he falters, perhaps realizing he can’t.

“It’s usually the first thing you talk about, too,” Neil says (and honestly, Marcus needs to switch things up once in a while if Neil, who’s hardly ever at these meetings in anything close to a timely manner, knows the order in which he discusses his favorite topics). “How long did you talk about patient feedback before I got here? Ten minutes?”

“Twelve,” Shaun instantly corrects him, ignoring the censuring look Marcus sends his way.

“I guess you’re allowed to save people’s lives,” their boss grudgingly relents, like it genuinely pains him to say the words and admit it’s something he can’t lecture Neil over (or even get upset about, for that matter). “Just try to be quicker about it next time, would you?”

“I’ll remind our patients not to need medical intervention between 3 and 4 on the day of our next scheduled meeting.”

“Much appreciated. And by the way, I’m not repeating everything for you,” Marcus informs him (as if Neil would want him to). “Murphy can catch you up later.”

Shaun nods in agreement, liking that suggestion way too much. “I won’t leave out any details, sir.” He glances at the current slide up on screen, which Neil finally reads – Your Patients and You: A Guide to Appropriate Interactions. It leaves him inwardly sighing, because he can only guess that one of the residents had started dating a patient again – they just never seemed to learn. At least he knows, with some confidence, that it hadn’t been one of his residents. He’s taught them better than that (and besides, Kalu’s gone now).

“You don’t need to include every detail in your summation, Shaun,” Neil generously offers. “I know all this already.”

Shaun’s not listening to him, because he’s actually asking Marcus, “May I borrow this PowerPoint presentation?”

“No!” Neil says instantly, as their Chief of Surgery starts laughing (because he loves absolutely nothing more than hearing that someone intends to make Neil’s life miserable).

“I was going to make that suggestion myself,” Marcus says, and though his voice is even, his eyes are outright laughing at Neil’s predicament. They both know Shaun will be able to repeat everything from today, almost verbatim. (Hell, he’ll probably give a more thorough presentation than Andrews himself – Shaun has most of their employee handbook memorized, after all.)

Audrey starts grumbling something about can they just get on with the meeting already because she’s aged ten years in the last half hour, and Marcus dutifully returns to his slides. That means Neil, in turn, focuses on more important things: namely, reading his new emails (he’s gotten eight since he left his office – eight!) and texting Shaun random comments about the presentation that he thinks are hilarious, but Shaun doesn’t respond to any of them (and Neil sees him diligently checking his phone each time he gets a new one).

Shaun’s so work-oriented that Neil finds it disconcerting at times; this time, however, it actually works in his favor because Shaun kicks his chair at the most critical moments – such as whenever Neil misses that Marcus has asked for his input on something. And Neil can give him answers to whatever he’s asking without any strenuous thought, because even though Marcus likes to insinuate otherwise, Neil hadn’t been lying when he said he knew all of this already; they’ve done some variation of this meeting enough times that Neil could probably answer their boss in his sleep.

After another interminable fifteen minutes, Neil raises his hand in a move so rare that Andrews cuts himself off mid-word. “You have a question, Dr. Melendez?”

“No, a suggestion. In an effort to save the valuable time of everyone in this room, I can sum up the rest of this topic in five words.”

Marcus regards him warily. “I’m almost afraid to –”

“Don’t sleep with your patients.”

Andrews rubs his hands over his face in what looks like a show of defeat.

“It is highly unethical,” Shaun agrees. “Anyone looking for further clarification should refer to subsection 22-A of our handbook.”

“Patients are off-limits,” someone calls from the back of the room, “save that for your colleagues.”

There’s a beat of silence when the joke lands, during which time Claire inhales her ill-timed sip of water and begins coughing. Morgan, Audrey, and a few others begin laughing while Andrews shakes his head.

“Which colleagues?” Morgan asks slyly, as the chatter amongst everyone grows louder.

Neil can’t resist nudging Shaun’s knee with his own, under the table. His resident seems mostly amused by the direction the conversation has taken – they don’t often talk about their relationship around others, but they don’t try to hide it, either, so most people know they’re together.

“Settle down,” Marcus loudly orders, before the room can devolve into total chaos. “I’m always toying with having HR attend these meetings and you’re all about to push me over the edge.”

“I would like to point out,” Shaun says, overly serious, “that dating colleagues is not against the rules.”

“It’s not?” one of the first-years asks, sounding a little too excited (which means she must have someone in mind).

“It’s not,” Marcus confirms. “Because contrary to what some of the most self-centered among our department seem to believe,” he looks at Neil for that one (which Neil thinks he should find insulting), “we don’t care what you people do with your personal lives.”

“I can confirm that I care about none of you at all,” Lim cheerfully agrees.

Marcus holds up a hand to stave off another round of people talking over each other. “I should amend that we don’t care, insofar as it doesn’t affect your job. If it does, that’s another story. But if you remain professional, a feat more difficult for some than others –” (again, he looks at Neil!) “– then it doesn’t matter what you choose to do on your own time. And no, you don’t have to tell me about it because I’m positive that I don’t want to know. End of discussion.”

“Is that a dismissal?” Audrey asks, as she stands. “Because it sounds like a dismissal.”

“It was not a dismissal,” Marcus says, corner of his mouth lifting when she heaves a sigh and falls heavily back into her chair before dropping her head onto her arms with an audible thud (and their boss claims Neil is dramatic at times?).

Andrews swipes through a few screens on his phone, then runs his finger down a bulleted list. “We already went over most things I wanted to touch upon – which everyone who was present for the entire meeting already knows.” (Neil thinks this is encroaching on the record number of subtle digs Marcus has gotten in at him during a single meeting.) “There’s one last item on our agenda and it has to do with the upcoming holidays.”

Now it’s Neil’s turn to run his hands over his face, because he knows what’s coming next. “Do we have to?”

“I know you’ve been eagerly anticipating this moment all year, Melendez.” Marcus’s tone has taken on an abundance of malicious glee. He picks up a particularly gaudy holiday tin from the floor next to him, setting it on the table. “It’s time for our annual Secret Santa Gift Swap. There are four and a half weeks until Christmas and –”

“I’m Jewish,” someone randomly announces.

Marcus directs a vague frown down the other end of the room. “If you’d let me finish – there are only four and a half weeks until Christmas, and Hanukkah is next week, so in the spirit of –”

“What if we celebrate Kwanzaa?” one of the nurses asks.

“I celebrate nothing,” Neil claims, solely because he sees the annoyance growing in Marcus and doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

“That is a lie,” Shaun points out. “You enjoy the holidays. All the holidays. Despite your claims to the contrary.”

“Murphy,” Neil gasps, “how dare you insinuate that I’m full of holiday spirit when that could not be further from the truth?”

“Another lie.”

Marcus raises his voice. “It doesn’t matter what holiday you celebrate, or what ones you claim you don’t, because our Secret Santa has nothing to do with any specific –”

“Actually,” yet another person interrupts (and Neil stifles the urge to throttle every single one of his colleagues, because it’s like they want to stay in this meeting forever), “I feel like Santa is too closely related to Christmas, which is fundamentally a religious holiday that I don’t celebrate for personal reasons. I think we should call it something else.”

“That’s it,” Marcus groans, “I really am insisting HR starts attending these meetings from now on.”

“You should consider the figure of Santa Claus more in its historical context,” Shaun suggests to the room. “The tradition has changed numerous times over the past thousand years, and while it does have strong roots in Christianity, it does not have to be viewed as a religious holiday. Many non-religious people celebrate Christmas. According to a poll conducted –”

“Oh no, Murphy,” Marcus quickly interrupts, “I know better than to go down this road. There is nothing religious about our gift exchange – which I’ve just decided that I’m officially renaming. It’s now the Secret…Holiday Neutral Gift Swap. Everyone happy with that?”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Neil can’t help scoffing.

Audrey leans forward at the table, so she can see around Shaun, and bluntly tells Neil, “You think everything’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not my fault that a lot of things are ridiculous! But this –” he waves his hand towards Marcus, “– is more ridiculous than most.”

Marcus is clearly becoming agitated with him (nothing new there). “Then it’s a good thing I didn’t ask for your input, isn’t it?”

“Well, you should have. Because I’m not calling it that.”

“I think it sounds extremely festive,” Morgan chimes in, “and non-offensive. The best of both worlds.” She caps that off with an arch look towards Neil.

Marcus is drumming his fingers on the table with more force than necessary. “Stop being difficult just to be difficult.”

Neil tries to suppress his smirk. “That doesn’t sound like me.”

“We’re moving on,” Marcus declares, staring at Neil in a silent challenge to dare protesting again.

And Neil’s never been great at backing down from a challenge.

He takes a breath to continue arguing, but the brush of Shaun’s hand over his leaves him reconsidering; when it comes to situations like this (namely, his constant clashes with Marcus) Shaun’s proven to be infinitely better at saving him than he is at saving himself. So he resolutely (if reluctantly) keeps his mouth shut.

Marcus switches his gaze between them a few times, seeming a little suspicious about what just happened, but he knows enough not to question it. “Great. Now that it’s settled, let me get back to why we’re doing this. As you all know – or should know –”

“Do you have to look at me every time you say something like that?” Neil interrupts.

“Yes, Melendez,” he says, coolly, “I do. Now, as you should know, it’s that time of year when the board issues their evaluations on each department. I’m convinced they derive unnatural joy in putting together their annual reports, which point out all the areas that we need to improve. Our department, under my firm but fair leadership, has once again ranked among the top in the hospital across all aspects of measurement. However, their caveat is that we need to work more on…interpersonal relations.”

“It sounds like they want us to…date each other,” Morgan remarks, and though she’s trying for flippant, she mostly comes off sounding confused about the whole thing.

Marcus actually looks pained at her conclusion. “No, Reznick. They don’t want us to date each other.” He turns to Neil. “What are you teaching your residents? Is it anything at all?”

Neil leans back in his chair. “Don’t blame me for their inane questions.”

“Morgan has a valid point,” Shaun says, which surprises everyone (but mostly Morgan). “Dating is an effective means of getting to know people better.”

“See?” she gloats, casting a disparaging look at Neil. “It wasn’t an entirely inane suggestion.”

Shaun’s motioning between himself and Neil. “We know each other extremely well, by now.”

“To be fair,” Neil has to point out, “we knew each other pretty well before we began dating.”

“You two are dating?!” one of the newer residents exclaims, sounding genuinely shocked, as Marcus presses his fingers to his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” their boss says sarcastically, “did I forget to put that in our monthly newsletter?”

Shaun’s frowning at him. “We do not have a monthly –”

“I know we don’t, Murphy.”

“That’s an excellent idea, though,” Morgan says thoughtfully. “I’ll happily put one together, sir, if you think that –”

“No!” Andrews says sharply, effectively silencing the room. “This isn’t happy hour at your favorite bar, nor is it a singles mixer. Kindly save all discussions about dating or not dating or whatever the hell you people do in your free time, for after work. And ensure that you’re far enough away from me that I don’t have to listen to it.”

“Yeah, can we get back on track?” Audrey implores. “I have better things to do than to hang around with you people all day.”

“We love you, too,” Marcus says, rolling his eyes. “To get back to Reznick’s question, what the board meant by improving interpersonal relations is that there have been some issues this past year with people not getting along. Even refusing to work with each other, at times. As you know, that causes all sorts of problems, so we’ve been ordered to…” He flips through a packet of papers in front of him, then reads, “Cultivate a nurturing environment wherein we foster and support each other.” His tone darkens in a hint that he’s actually taken offense at the board’s criticism. “You know, more than we do now. Which is substantial.”

Morgan seems about as disbelieving as everyone else. “And a gift swap is the best idea they could come up with to…cultivate a more nurturing environment?”

“Just nod and say you agree, Reznick; that’s really all the board wants. And stop looking like it’d kill you to buy one nice thing for one colleague on one day of the year.”

Her face instantly clears. “I’m sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression, sir. I actually think it’s an excellent idea – very heartwarming – which is something we all need during the stress of the holidays. We should come together, learn to appreciate each other, and be thankful for our family and friends.”

“What an inspiring speech,” Marcus says blandly, as he pushes the decorative tin more squarely in front of him. “We’ll be doing it the same way we did last year, which those of you lucky enough to have been here will remember fondly, I’m sure.” He’s staring at Neil again.

“Yes, ever so fondly.” Neil thinks he deserves a medal for managing to say that without even an ounce of exasperation. Last year, he’d picked one of the nurses and gotten her a holiday mug because what were you supposed to buy someone you didn’t even know? As for his gift, he’d had the misfortune of being chosen by Kalu, who’d given him a Christmas magnet – yes, a magnet. Neil had no idea where someone would even find such a thing, never mind buy it on purpose, but knowing Jared, he’d probably stopped at a gas station on his way to work the day of the gift swap. And because Neil’s just too kind (yet another of his many faults), he’d assured Jared it was the ‘epitome of thoughtfulness’; it’s currently in the same place on his fridge that he’d stuck it a year ago.

“Each department is doing its own swap,” Marcus is continuing to explain, mostly for the benefit of those who weren’t around for last year’s exchange. “You choose a name from the tin, buy a present for that person, and don’t reveal who you had until after all presents have been exchanged. Now, I’ve been told I can no longer call our gift swap ‘mandatory’ for various legal reasons – something about not being allowed to order you to spend money. However, you’re all expected to participate.”

“So, it’s not mandatory?” Park sounds as confused as probably half the room.

“It’s not,” their boss confirms.

“But we have to do it.” Claire’s words are unnaturally slow.

“You do,” Marcus cheerfully agrees.

Shaun’s clearly unhappy with the deliberate subversion of language. “That is the definition of mandatory.”

Marcus is entirely unconcerned. “It might be the definition, but the gift swap isn’t actually mandatory. Not in so many words.”

Park’s clearly trying to parse out what their boss means. “But it’s mandatory…in other words?”

“So long as one of those words isn’t ‘mandatory’,” Marcus is nodding. “Now you’re getting it, Park.”

“I don’t think any of us are getting it,” Audrey complains.

“It’s mandatory,” Shaun says firmly, raising his voice (and Neil once again wishes they were alone so that he could ease his agitation by kissing him). “That is the definition.” 

“It is,” Neil quietly assures, leaning closer to Shaun’s chair so he won’t be overheard – he knows how much Shaun despises it when people are deliberately unclear, yet expect their audience to understand the real nuance of what they mean. “Marcus is only saying it’s not mandatory so that he – and the board – can cover themselves.” He searches his resident’s face, witnessing the exact moment Shaun lets it go, and Neil reaches over to run his thumb across the pulse point of his wrist, feeling him relax all the more.

“Just do it,” Marcus is ordering everyone in the room, “that’s all you need to know. The suggestion is to spend $20, up from last year’s $5 because I think you all can afford it.” He casts his eyes down to the tin in front of him. “I also feel like it will deter the cheapest among you from shopping at the dollar store.”

“You didn’t appreciate my gift?” Audrey demands (because she’d been the one responsible for giving him that horrendous tin during last year’s swap).

Marcus snaps out of whatever contemplative trance he’s in, though he pointedly doesn’t answer her. “I’ve already written down everyone’s name and thought it would be fitting if I put them in this –” he waves vaguely in front of him, “– not-at-all-garish holiday tin. Which, as everyone can see, is representative of every holiday.”

He’s not exaggerating – the tin itself is a bright, yellow-tinged gold, and overlaid on that is a crowded field of Santas, Christmas trees, presents, dreidels, menorahs, snowflakes, and a whole host of various other things. (Neil had promptly told Audrey how hideous it was when she’d showed it to him last year, and he’s convinced that the way he actually recoiled from it had cemented her belief that it was the perfect gift for their boss.)

“It’s festive,” Audrey says proudly. “And inclusive.”

“Don’t forget classy,” Neil throws out.

She claps her hands together in agreement. “Exactly! Thanks, Melendez. And let’s not forget that it was actually two gifts in one because I filled it with candy.”

“I did enjoy the candy,” Marcus grudgingly admits.

Audrey’s dissatisfied with that mild concession. “Before hiding the tin so that no one else could enjoy it as they gazed upon it.”

“The top of my bookshelf behind all those reference books is the only place I had room for it,” Marcus insists. “But everyone’s in luck today, because we can…admire its beauty while we choose names.” He holds it out to Audrey. “In honor of your gift, would you like to go first?”

“That seems fitting.” She pulls out a folded piece of paper, smoothes it out, and then instantly shakes her head. “Melendez. Good God, no.” Before anyone can react, she tosses it back into the tin and takes out another name.

“That is against the rules,” Shaun reminds her, frowning in dismay.

Neil moves his chair back a little so he can glare at her behind Shaun. “How insulted should I feel right now?”

“You’re impossible,” she says, reading the new paper and then nodding to herself. “And I don’t just mean to shop for. And that’s coming from someone who got stuck with Andrews last year.”

“Now I’m insulted,” Marcus claims. “However, I’ll let it go as long as you assure me that you haven’t chosen me.”

“I didn’t.”

“Then we’re good.”

She hands the tin to Shaun, who pulls out a paper and reads it with utterly no reaction. Neil snaps his fingers as he leans over, indicating that Shaun should show it to him.

“Reznick?” Neil says, without thinking, then can’t help his laughter. “Oh good luck, Shaun.”

“Hey!” Morgan whines.

“It is not you,” Shaun says, flicking a frown Neil’s way. “He said that to annoy you.”

“Or is he lying to cover for me?” Neil asks her (because Shaun is lying to cover for his mistake and there’s no better way to make her think otherwise than to suggest it). “You did point out that he was a fan of doing that.”

“I don’t care who chooses me,” she haughtily insists. “As long as they buy me something good.”

Neil takes the tin and there’s only one vehemently recurring thought in his mind. Not Marcus, not Marcus, not Marcus

Marcus Andrews

“I want a do-over like Audrey had,” he says, trying to put the paper back, but Shaun infuriatingly pulls the tin out of his reach and slides it across the table toward their boss. Andrews, in turn, oh-so-unhelpfully sends it down the other end of the table, ensuring it stays a fair distance from Neil.

“Everyone is breaking the rules,” Shaun announces. “I don’t like it.”

“Murphy…” Neil hears a hint of whining in his tone that truly horrifies him – he almost sounds like Morgan from a few moments ago. (See what these people relegate him to?)

“Melendez,” Shaun echoes, completely unfazed, as he folds his hands on the table in front of him. And instead of feeling annoyed, or even mildly irritated, Neil’s overcome with a surge of affection that makes him want to kiss Shaun. Again. (He might have a problem, he knows this.)

While he’s preoccupied with reminding himself of all the reasons why he shouldn’t kiss Shaun in the middle of a staff meeting, Andrews has figured out the only reason Neil would insist on drawing another name. (And his amusement at the conclusion has turned diabolical.) “You chose me, didn’t you, Neil?”

Neil doesn’t bother answering; instead, he shoves the paper in his pocket and thinks about every possible way he could get out of this. First, he could try and swap with someone (though he’d undoubtedly have to bribe them to take Marcus off his hands). Second, he could attempt to exercise the technicality of their gift exchange not being ‘mandatory’ (though the ensuing fight with the board – and Marcus’s incessant whining – likely wouldn’t be worth it). Third, he could always resign from his job (and of everything, that’s actually the most plausible option).

“I expect something thoughtful,” Marcus is demanding. “And tasteful. Murphy can help you out with that since I’m not sure how well you’ll do on your own.”

The nerve to suggest he doesn’t know what taste is! “Actually, I might have Audrey help me. Since she got you such a perfect gift last year.”

“Don’t you dare, Melen–” He catches Audrey staring at him and quickly backtracks with, “Not that I didn’t love last year’s gift…”

The tin has made its way around the room at a much faster pace than it began, and has now reached Morgan and Park; they both draw names, compare with each other, and then agree to keep the ones they originally chose. Out of the corner of his eye, Neil spots Andrews about to protest, before the other man ultimately sighs and keeps his mouth shut. (He’s obviously determined it would be a lost cause when it comes to Neil’s residents – which is coincidentally the same conclusion Neil had come to, quite some time ago.)

“You are all terrible with the ‘secret’ part of this,” Claire chastises her fellow interns (or maybe everyone), as she chooses a name and breaks out into a grin that’s just-this-side of thrilled. (And of course, she’s the only one on Neil’s team to actually do it correctly before passing the tin along.)

Several minutes later, everyone’s picked a name and it seems a third of the room is happy with their choices, a third hate them, and the last third couldn’t care less about the entire thing. The complainers are the most vocal, though, and Marcus hastily adjourns the meeting, making sure he’s the first one out the door (most likely so that no one can corner him after the fact to complain one-on-one).

Neil spends the rest of the day trying to convince Shaun to switch with him, because he’ll willingly take even Morgan over Andrews, but nothing – no threats and no promises – will get his resident to waver. And if Neil were anyone else, he’d think Shaun was refusing because it’s technically ‘against the rules’ – but because it’s him, Neil knows Shaun’s doing it to teach him some kind of lesson.

His suspicions are confirmed later that evening (after another round of trying to convince Shaun why it’d be an excellent idea to switch people), because that’s when Shaun reminds him, “You cannot always get what you want…no matter how much you complain.”

“Hey,” Neil mildly points out, “I got you, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you wore me down,” Shaun agrees, even though it’s laughably not true (the start of their relationship had been as easy as agreeing to go on a date one evening and…that was that).

“And look at us now.”

“Yes. Look at us now.” Shaun sends him a sideways glance from the other end of Neil’s couch. “I’m afraid I’ve set a terrible precedent.”

“Terrible, hmm?”

“Wonderful?” Shaun tries again, eyes widening when Neil moves closer, his intent clear. “I meant wonderful!”

“Too late,” Neil breathes, against his mouth, then kisses Shaun when he begins laughing. And like always, there’s something inherently right in it. Something in it that settles Neil in a way nothing else has in a long time. (And he knows he has to tell Shaun that at some point, but it’s a matter for another day – he wants to make sure he does it in a way that won’t upset the careful, happy balance they’ve been able to find with each other.)

When they separate, it’s like Shaun can read the next direction his thoughts are going. “I still won’t switch with you.”

“Well, if that kiss didn’t sway you,” Neil sighs dramatically, “then I’m all out of options.”

“Here is an option: stop complaining.”

“Murphy, that’s about the worst possible option. Besides, don’t you want to listen to how aggrieved I am for the next four weeks?”

Shaun carefully runs his fingers over the back of Neil’s hand. “You do not seem aggrieved to me.”

Neil flips his hand over so he can capture Shaun’s fingers in his. “You’re currently a mitigating factor.”

He can tell by the way Shaun kisses him again that he likes that sentiment. A lot.

He’s pretty sure that Shaun enjoys arguing with him much more than he lets on. And Neil, well…sometime in the past year, his banter with Shaun had become one of the highlights of his days. He doesn’t know how it happened, or when, or why, but he has no plans to ever give it – or Shaun – up. (Which is another thing he’s going to tell him, and soon.)

However, there is one downside to Shaun’s refusal to give in this time: it means Neil’s left with genuinely no idea what to buy for this ludicrous gift exchange.

He idly casts his eyes around the room, wondering if he can save himself some trouble by regifting something he already owns…and he stops when he glances in the direction of his kitchen.

“Hey, you know that magnet Kalu got me?” He waits for Shaun to hum in acknowledgement. “Do you think there’s any world in which Marcus would believe it cost $20?”

“I think that would be perfect,” Shaun says evenly, and Neil’s confused by the encouragement until the younger man gives himself away by smiling. “Please let me know when you give it to him so that I can witness his reaction to your…thoughtful gift.”

He tries to sound stern. “Since when did you become an expert in sarcasm, Murphy?”

“I spend too much time with you.”

Neil brushes a kiss over his ear. “Never.”

Shaun’s still smiling. “It’s actually very easy: just say the opposite of what you actually mean.”

Neil thinks about that. “Huh, I guess it is that easy. But you’re forgetting one crucial aspect: you have to keep a straight face.” He presses his thumb to the corner of Shaun’s mouth, which only makes him smile all the more. “Gotta work on that last part.”

“I can’t help it,” Shaun says, and the stark honesty of it makes something catch in Neil’s chest. “Not around you.”

“Yeah,” Neil whispers, already matching Shaun’s smile with one of his own. “I can’t help it around you, either.”

XXXXXX

Two and a half days, approximately nine arguments with Shaun, and one serious reevaluation of his life choices later (he really should have become a dentist), Neil’s in one of the breakrooms with a stack of paperwork. Actual papers. That he has to write on with an actual pen. (Because even though they’re well into the twenty-first century, half the things he has to do still aren’t automated on their systems yet.)

The room had been empty, too – he’d like to emphasize that crucial point because the only reason he’d chosen it was due to the decided lack of his colleagues. It also has the benefit of not being his office, which is somehow where they always know to find him.

That’s why he’s irrationally irritated when one of his residents opens the door. (It’s like they put trackers on him or something – he’s in the pediatrics wing, for God’s sake!)

“Dr. Melendez?”

He fights to keep his voice neutral – it’s really not her fault that he can so rarely find peace around here. “Dr. Browne.”

“I’m glad you’re alone, I wanted to talk to you.”

He stops himself from saying that wanting to talk ‘alone’ typically never bodes well for anyone, because Claire might be one of the few exceptions to that rule. She’s the resident who tries to bother him the least, if she can help it. Park tends to follow protocols to the letter, running everything by him because he’s supposed to; Morgan likes to approach him with issues solely so she can argue the opposite of whatever he thinks; and Shaun, well Shaun just enjoys his company, being equally as likely to bring up some random topic as he is to discuss a patient. (And the feeling’s more than mutual – Neil has to admit that at least half the time, he’s the one seeking out Shaun, and not the other way around.)

“Dr. Melendez.”

Oh right. He’d never acknowledged her statement, so now she’s staring at him with mild concern. “Yes?”

She fidgets nervously in the doorway before fully entering the room and shutting the door behind her. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“That depends on the favor.” He’d learned the hard way that he should never agree to anything unless he knows specifically what someone’s asking him.

“You might say it’s…mutually beneficial.”

Now he’s intrigued. He closes his current patient folder and gives her his full attention. “I’m listening.”

“I wanted to know if you would switch people with me in our gift exchange.”

He can’t be hearing her right. “You want Andrews?” She nods and he decides he can’t be seeing her right, either. “Who are you trying to get rid of that’s worse than him? No one wants Marcus, with maybe the exception of Audrey, and that’s only because she’d enjoy trying to top her awful gift from last year. I already tried that argument with her, in fact, but she refused on account of how much joy she’s getting from the fact that I’m stuck with him.” (She’d even had the gall to say she would have taken Marcus off anyone’s hands except his, and Neil’s still plotting his revenge for that one.)

Claire takes a seat at the table opposite him. “I promise you, I’m not trying to ‘get rid of’ anyone. And if you agree to switch, then you wouldn’t have to get him anything – that’s where the ‘mutually beneficial’ part of this comes into play.”

He still doesn’t believe any reason could be good enough to merit her wanting to exchange names. “Is this some kind of…Christmas prank?”

“It’s not a – what’s a Christmas prank?”

“You know, like an April Fool’s Day prank. But you do it on Christmas, instead.”

“But…it’s not Christmas.”

His residents and their semantics – he might as well be talking to Shaun. “Fine, Claire. It’s a prank near Christmas.”

She furrows her brow. “Is that a thing?”

He narrows his eyes in suspicion. “You tell me.”

“Considering I’ve never heard of it before this strange conversation, I’m going to say no.”

“Alright,” he says cautiously, “then why don’t you try and convince me why you’d willingly get Andrews a gift?”

She rests her hands on top of the table, staring at them while she collects her thoughts, and it’s her obvious reluctance to speak that makes him begin to think she’s serious. “You know that Dr. Andrews and I have had a few…differences these past few months. Over a number of things.”

She could very well be describing their boss’s relationship with everyone. “We all have our ‘differences’ with Marcus.”

She grimaces slightly. “Yeah, but you know he’s been particularly hard on me lately.”

“One of the downsides to challenging him,” Neil reminds her. “He tends to take even well-reasoned arguments as a personal attack. And to clarify, I only know the general things that you’ve told me over the past few months – I don’t want you to think that he’s spoken to me about anything you two have discussed in confidence.”

“No, I didn’t think he had.” She shifts in her chair and sighs. “I was considering ways to get back in his good graces without him explicitly thinking that’s what I was trying to do. And then he brought up the gift swap at our meeting and I realized it’s the perfect excuse. It won’t seem odd that I’ve gotten him something if I ‘have’ to do so.”

He might be starting to understand her plan (but it’s never a sure thing when it comes to his residents). “So you think he’ll look upon you more favorably if you buy him a gift?” When she nods, he adds, “But how will that work if he knows it’s part of the gift swap, so you’re obligated to get him something?”

“Because unlike most people in our department, I plan to take it seriously. And even though he’d be aware that I ‘had’ to get him something, he’d still recognize that I put real thought into it. Especially if I get him something he appreciates.”

“Hey, I’m not arguing with your premise,” Neil says. “I think it’s a solid plan – if you can buy off anyone around here, it’s Marcus.”

She scowls, presumably at the way he’d worded it. “I’m not trying to buy him off. I’m trying to…reset our relationship. At least back to neutral ground.”

Neil absently flips his pen around. “He doesn’t dislike you, Claire.”

“No. Just a lot of my ideas.”

“Well. Yes.” He laughs a little when she smiles at that (against her will though it seems). “Look, even if I agree to this, Marcus already knows I picked him, which means he’ll know we switched names on purpose. So there goes your fallback excuse that you ‘had’ to get him a gift as part of the exchange; he’ll know it was orchestrated.”

“That’s the easiest part,” she says dismissively. “He knows you wanted literally anyone except him, so if you mention that you asked me to switch…”

“Oh, so he’ll believe the whole thing was my idea, forcing one of my poor residents to buy him a gift because I was so desperate to get out of it. You realize that means I’d be the one bearing the brunt of his disapproval and annoyance?”

She shrugs, unable to help her smile. “Is that any different from usual?”

Neil abruptly laughs at her accurate representation of things. “No, it’s not. And I can’t say I hate being a thorn in his side…”

“So you’ll do it?” she asks, increasingly hopeful. “And you’ll say it was your idea?”

“Of course I will.” He’d do pretty much anything to help his residents, even to his own detriment – and he’s pretty sure they all know (and take advantage of) that fact. But it’s balanced in the way they’d all do the same for him in return. (And not for the first time, he thinks that he might love them all too much.)

She claps her hands together, unable to contain her excitement. “Thank you, Dr. Melendez, I really appreciate this.”

“No problem.” He opens the folder in front of him. “As you pointed out, the benefit of not having to expend time and energy finding a gift for him more than makes up for it.”

“There’s one other thing.”

He arches a brow at her. “Another favor?”

“No. You forgot to ask who I got.” She slides a folded paper across the table to him, the same one she’d chosen a few days earlier.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, as he reaches for it. “Anyone’s better than Marcus.”

She’s watching him with excessive interest, which sets him on edge as he unfolds the paper.

Shaun Murphy

“Claire.”

She bites her lip in an attempt to keep her expression neutral. “Yes?”

He holds up the paper. “You should have led with this.”

“Why?” she asks innocently. “I thought it didn’t matter who I had?”

“Claire,” he steadily repeats.

“Or is Shaun the only one who matters?” she goads.

“You know he and I mutually agreed –”

“Not to exchange gifts, yes, I know. And may I just say, in my opinion, that it was a mutually absurd decision.”

He wonders where, exactly, he went so far astray that his residents feel safe enough to brazenly question his life choices. (Maybe it comes back to that whole loving them too much thing.) “It’s a sound decision based on logic. We both have enough money to buy whatever we want or need. There’s no point in swapping gifts of equal value that we bought just to ‘get’ each other something.”

“Is that how you sold it to him?”

Neil’s taken aback by her astuteness for the briefest of moments. And there’s really no point in arguing something she’s already figured out. “We haven’t been dating that long,” he reminds her. (And though it’s serious for Neil, they haven’t talked about the future – they haven’t even said they loved each other, though it’s never been a question for Neil that he does. He hasn’t wanted to push for things to become too serious faster than Shaun’s ready for, but if Neil had his way…)

“Just because it hasn’t been that long doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exchange presents,” Claire’s saying, with a hint of frustration. (Like she still doesn’t approve of this whole plan that has nothing to do with her.)

“That’s not – what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t want him to feel like he had to… I didn’t want him to feel pressured to get me the perfect gift. I don’t need that from him.”

Claire’s beginning to look sympathetic. Finally. “Yeah, I’d noticed that Morgan got to him.”

“Who could have missed her daily spiels about how important gifts are? How they can make or break relationships? How they speak volumes about what someone really means to you?”  

Claire can’t hide her wince. “She’s a little…materialistic, I’ll grant that.”

“And most of what she said went right over my head, as usual, because I tend to tune her out. But when Shaun started asking me about the exact same things, I realized he’d been putting actual stock in her advice. So we had an enlightening conversation wherein I pointed out all the ways Morgan is wrong, and it concluded with us agreeing not to exchange gifts.”

“I told her to tone down the rhetoric, too,” Claire informs him, which he hadn’t actually known.

“I appreciate that.”

She nods and then continues, hesitantly, “You know, she might have been trying to…help. In her own…convoluted…roundabout way.”

“Don’t tell me you’re actually defending her?” He’s not doing a great job of hiding his amusement. “Never thought I’d see the day, Claire.”

She laughs on an exhale. “You know she often means well. Even if that’s really, really, really –” she pauses, like she’s counting, “– really hard to see, at times. Gifts are important to her so she naturally assumes they’re equally as important to everyone else. Did you know she offered to go shopping with him?”

That’s news to Neil. “Shaun never mentioned it.”

“Of course he didn’t. Because she was going to help him shop for you. But that was before your ‘no gifts’ pact.”

“I’m glad I averted that crisis,” Neil says lightly, “God knows what she would have convinced him to buy me.”

“Something ridiculously expensive, I’m sure,” Claire agrees. “But still…”

He drops his joking tone. “It was kind of her, I know. Thanks for telling me.” He runs a finger over the paper still in his hands. “You know this throws a wrench into everything. How can I give him a gift when we agreed we wouldn’t get each other anything?”

“That was long before Andrews brought up the gift swap,” Claire points out. “Now you have to get him something because you have his name. All you’ll be doing is following the rules that our boss laid out for us. And we both know how Shaun feels about rules.”

“I don’t think he ever met one he didn’t like,” Neil agrees. He debates whether to share this next piece of information, before ultimately deciding if he can trust anyone with it, it’s Claire. “I’d actually already gotten him something, back before we made our agreement. I was going to hold off on giving it to him, but…”

Claire’s grinning so widely now that it must hurt. “You have to admit this is the perfect excuse.”

It really is, but he can’t help being wary of Shaun’s potential reaction. “I don’t want him to feel guilty that I got him something when he won’t have anything for me.”

Claire blithely waves him off. “You don’t have to worry about it.”

“You’re uncharacteristically nonchalant about this, which is never how you are when it comes to Shaun.” His suspicion is returning full-force (and to be honest, it never fully dies down when it comes to his residents). “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” she says, getting to her feet and inching towards the door like he’s not going to notice her trying to literally flee the conversation.

“Fine. What did one of my other residents do?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dr. Melendez,” she says breezily, stopping at the door to the breakroom. “You trust me when it comes to Shaun, right?”

“You know I do.” Besides Aaron and himself, Claire is the person he trusts most when it comes to Shaun. She’d never risk doing anything to hurt him, even if the chances of it happening were slight.

“Then I’ll repeat, don’t worry about it.”

He silently watches her for a minute, registering not only her resolve, but the promise inherent in her words. It’s difficult for him to let things like this go, to have trust in people other than himself…but lately, he’s finding it’s easier than it used to be. “Alright,” he gives in. “If you say not to worry about it, then I won’t worry about it.”

“Good,” she says forcefully, with a vigorous nod. “And you’re welcome.”

He laughs at that. “I don’t recall thanking you.”

“You don’t?” There’s that painfully wide smile again. “Maybe you should rectify that.”

“Get out of here,” he orders, more affectionate than anything else, “so I can get some actual work done.”

“Your wish is my command, sir.” As if the dry sarcasm isn’t enough, she actually bows to him before she leaves, and he hasn’t felt this thoroughly mocked since…well, since the last time all his residents ganged up on him. (Which happened to be three days ago.)

“And Claire,” he calls, a split second after she’s gone.

Her head pops back into view around the doorframe. “Yes?”

“Thank you.”

He smiles to himself when he hears her laughter echoing as she walks away.

Chapter Text

It’s almost 4 in the afternoon, and Neil and Shaun are enjoying a late lunch (or early dinner) in the cafeteria. Neither of them had gotten a chance to eat until now, but the one benefit of it being that vague time in between meals is that the lunchroom is as empty as it ever gets. A few other tables are occupied, but none around them, and they have a section of the room to themselves.

Neil knows not to take it for granted. The moment he does is inevitably the moment someone will come along to bother him or Shaun (and it will most likely be another one of his residents).

They’d been discussing various things – current patients, year-end evaluations, and yes, even the holidays. Because what Shaun had said a week earlier, in their staff meeting, was entirely accurate. Neil doesn’t hate this time of year – far from it, in fact. The only thing he despises is the hassle: the obligation to buy presents for people he dislikes, all the parties he’s expected to attend, and the fact that the actual meaning of the holidays – celebrating and appreciating friends and family – too often seems to get lost amidst the mad rush of it all.

He often wishes everyone would just…slow down.

(And he knows he’s in the wrong profession for that. But still. He can dream.)

So yes, Neil actually enjoys everything about the holidays – the warmth, the festivity, the love. He might be among the most sentimental people he knows and only a select few are aware of that fact – mostly his family and closest friends, because he’s always gone to great lengths to keep it a secret. Sentimentality is viewed by too many as a weakness, and although he knows it’s not, he’s acutely aware of the importance of perceptions. It’s also a fairly easy thing to hide behind a layer of jokes and sarcasm (and a relatively thin layer at that – it’s not like anyone bothers looking too closely). So at the hospital, only a handful of people know.

And one of those people is sitting across from him.

He’d never bothered hiding his true feelings about the holidays from Shaun. It wasn’t necessary, and more than that, he’d never wanted to, because he knows it’s not something Shaun would ever use against him. Nor would it change how Shaun views him. And besides that, Shaun is more similar to him than not: there’s a warm, quiet, somewhat hidden spot in his heart for Christmas. From the way he’s talked around it, Neil gathers it’s because the holidays are central to some of the few good memories from his childhood – and most of what he’s revealed has to do with gifts he exchanged with his brother over the years.

“Only two weeks until Christmas,” Neil says absently, wondering how yet another year has disappeared from him so quickly. (They go by exponentially faster the older he gets.)

“Yes. There isn’t much time left for shopping,” Shaun notes. “Have you decided what to get for Dr. Andrews?”

The question abruptly reminds him that Shaun has no idea he’d switched with Claire two weeks earlier – that he’s now going to give Shaun a gift and Claire will be getting one for Andrews.

He tends to share a lot with Shaun – almost everything, in fact, now that they’re in a relationship and have become as close as they have. But this is one thing he hadn’t told him, for one simple reason: he wants to surprise him. Shaun is notoriously difficult to surprise. He pieces together clues that Neil doesn’t even realize are clues, and he rarely misses anything. But in this instance, Neil had been given the perfect opportunity to do something for him that he’ll never see coming because they’d already agreed not to exchange gifts (and so Neil knows that for Shaun, the matter is already settled).

As it is, he knows that once Shaun opens his Secret Santa gift, he’ll know it was from Neil. But he’s pretty sure that, in the moment at least, he’ll be surprised. And Neil had also taken Claire’s words to heart and is determinedly not going to worry about Shaun’s reaction to receiving a gift from him – he knows it either means that Shaun told Claire he truly wouldn’t be upset if Neil got him something, or that Shaun would be willing to let it go because Neil would only be following the rules of the gift swap.

The press of Shaun’s foot against his, under the table, reminds him that his resident’s still waiting for an answer (and Shaun’s pretty used to him getting lost in thought). “No,” he says, choosing his words carefully, so that he’s not outright lying. “I haven’t come up with anything.”

There’s something in the way Shaun pauses a few seconds before speaking that makes Neil wonder if he’s picked up on the subterfuge anyways. “You haven’t?”

“No.” And if they keep talking about it, Neil might accidentally give himself away. “What about you? Have you found something for Morgan?”

“I have not bought her anything.”

Neil waits, but Shaun doesn’t elaborate. “Okaaay,” he draws out. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Not for Morgan.”

Neil doesn’t know if it’s his imagination because of his careful non-answers, but that sounds like a careful non-answer to him. “Why are you acting strange?”

“Why are you acting strange?” Shaun immediately counters.

“I’m not,” Neil says defensively.

“Neither am I.”

Neil studies him with overt suspicion. “Alright. Then we’re both agreed… Neither of us is acting strange.”

Shaun mulls that over. “…Yes?”

“Are you asking me?”

A smile pulls around the edges of his mouth. “…No?”

“This conversation is like pulling teeth, Murphy.”

Shaun laughs at his (incredibly accurate) summation, which confirms he’d been framing his answers to be difficult on purpose. “Are you buying gifts for anyone else?” he asks. Then clarifies, “Anyone else here. At our hospital.”

“Probably,” Neil says, because it’s another thing that’s not technically a lie. “But most of us who’ve worked here a while agreed a long time ago that we would stop getting each other gifts. It ends up being an empty exchange of candy, wine, or gift cards.”

“You do not like candy, wine, or gift cards,” Shaun echoes. “Noted.”

“It’s not that I don’t like them,” Neil corrects him. “It’s that they’re meaningless gifts. We might as well all swap money with each other. It’s why I hate the Secret Santa –”

“Secret Holiday Neutral Gift Swap,” Shaun interrupts.

“Whatever. But I don’t like it and I wish Marcus, or the board, would come up with something else to try and get us to bond. Though I suppose it’s mildly better than say…team building exercises.”

“That is on the agenda for January.”

Neil stares at him, taking a few seconds to realize he’s not kidding. “Oh, come on!”

“You should read our department emails ahead of time to prepare.” Shaun’s tone is one of mild censure and exasperation, both of which are common occurrences whenever they’re arguing about something (which tends to be all the time). “Like I do.”

“There’s no need,” Neil assures him. “That’s what I keep you around for.”

“You do not ‘keep’ me anywhere. I work here. I would be here whether you liked me or not.”

“You might have a point, but isn’t life infinitely better knowing that I do like you?”

“I don’t know about infinitely,” Shaun says, though his tone is light.

Neil takes out his phone and searches for the email in his inbox about January’s meeting, unsurprised when he sees that it’s still marked ‘unread’. And sure enough, right there on the agenda… “You were right. I can’t believe it.”

“You thought I was lying?”

“Not lying. Kidding. At least, I hoped.” He tosses his phone onto the table. “Sometimes I think a large part of my life is a cosmic joke.” He sees concern cross Shaun’s face, followed by the type of hesitation that means the other man wants to speak but isn’t sure how to voice his thoughts, and Neil instantly knows that his words could be too easily misconstrued. “Not my job, not us, and not you.”

Shaun smiles a little as his concern vanishes. “Not me.”

Never you.”

Shaun’s smile grows wider and Neil almost gets lost in his thoughts again (specifically, that he could get used to making Shaun smile for the rest of his life).

“I’m sure it will be better than you are imagining,” Shaun’s saying, and it aligns so well with his thoughts that Neil’s genuinely thrown. (Murphy might be a lot of amazingly exceptional things, but telepathic is not among them.) “You might even enjoy it. I could distract Dr. Andrews so that he leaves you alone.”

This time, Neil’s the one who smiles at his earnest offer. “I appreciate that, Shaun. But you realize that no matter how much you try to distract him, it’s going to be a disaster.”

“Why?” Shaun’s taking in his dismay. “You do not trust your colleagues?”

“With things outside of work? Absolutely not.” (He’s mostly kidding, but the mere idea of performing trust exercises with everyone is enough to make him recoil solely on principle.)

“If you do not trust them, then the exercises will be beneficial to you.”

“God, you’re a real traitor sometimes, Murphy. I can just see it now.” And the picture is horrible. “You know Andrews is going to pair me with him. You know it, Shaun.”

“You two could stand to bond further.”

“Trai–” Neil points at him. “–tor.”

Shaun’s decidedly unmoved by the repeated accusation. “Perhaps we need to strengthen the trust in our relationship, as well.”

“No,” Neil counters, because for all his teasing, his trust in Shaun is something he’s never actually questioned (and he knows, with certainty, that it goes both ways). “We’re good.”

Shaun’s smile reveals that he agrees with that sentiment, even though he enjoys harassing Neil to no end (another thing that happens to go both ways). He’s also not done, as evidenced by his lighthearted, “I suppose we will see in January.”

“Maybe. If I don’t call in sick that day.”

“You won’t,” Shaun hums. “I know you won’t.”

He’s right, too. The entertainment value of watching his colleagues try to get through a series of trust and bonding exercises as led by Marcus Andrews might just be enough to make up for the fact that he’d have to participate in the entire terrible affair.

Shaun isn’t out of suggestions, either. “Perhaps if you buy him a present he likes, he will show you leniency and let you choose your own partner.”

“Marcus. Show me leniency.” Neil barely stops himself from laughing. “We both know that’s highly unlikely.”

I will choose you, then,” Shaun offers. “He might allow it. After all, he likes me.”

“You’re right, he does.” Neil considers his offer before coming up with a much better one: “I bet with a well-placed suggestion or two, I could get him to choose you.”

Shaun (infuriatingly) nods, like that’s some kind of excellent idea. “That would be fine.”

“Murphy.” He thinks he’s whining again (seriously, these people) and attempts to regulate his tone. “You were supposed to hate it.”

“Why would I hate it?” Shaun asks, guileless enough that Neil knows his question is genuine. “Of everyone in our department, he and I are probably the only two that will perform any of the exercises correctly. Therefore, it would be less aggravating for both of us than if we were paired with someone like…” He wordlessly motions to Neil.

Neil’s not sure how much of an insult he should take that as – though since it’s coming from Shaun, he knows it’s not meant as one. Shaun’s just (again, infuriatingly) narrating the world the way he sees it…which just so happens to be truthfully.

“Hey, I can follow directions,” Neil says, in a poor attempt at defending himself. “When I want to.”

“So when it comes to Dr. Andrews and his trainings…you don’t want to?”

“Exactly. And mostly because my cooperation makes his life easier.” He tosses Shaun an easy grin. “Can’t have that.”

“You should practice self-discipline,” Shaun suggests, rather unhelpfully.

“Trust me, I excel at self-discipline.”

Shaun looks at him askance, and his obvious skepticism at that pronouncement is more than clear.

Neil decides Shaun could use some proof and leans forward a little. “If I had none, I’d kiss you much more than I do.”

Shaun pauses right before he can take a sip of his water, glancing at Neil over the top of it. “You kiss me a lot.”

“But am I kissing you right now?”

“We are at work.”

The slightly scandalized way he’d said it has Neil thinking things he definitely shouldn’t (at least, not right then). “Yup, I’d definitely be kissing you right now if I had no self-discipline.” (He should get a lot more credit for this than he does.) “I’m a veritable master at it.”

“…Kissing?”

No.” Sometimes he swears Murphy does this on purpose. “Wait, let me amend that, yes. But in this instance I was referring to self-discipline.”

Shaun sets his water down and says, seriously, “I, also, want to kiss you much more than I do.”

Neil shuts his eyes. “Not helping the self-discipline thing.”

“I am not trying to help you,” Shaun informs him, as Neil opens his eyes just to pin him with a glare. “I was merely stating a fact.”

Yeah, Neil had known that, too. Though now he’s wondering… “And why don’t you kiss me as much as you want to?”

“Because it’s not appropriate when we are working.”

“Not appropriate? That’s half the fun!” Neil exclaims, as Shaun sighs in what’s probably exasperation. “And we have kissed at the hospital before,” he can’t resist pointing out.

“Not where people can see.”

“Alright, that’s a valid point,” Neil admits. And it’s probably an unspoken rule they should keep up, because if Shaun suddenly decides he’d be fine with it, there’d be very little – other than professionalism – to keep Neil holding himself back. (And he doesn’t know if that’s enough, not when it comes to Shaun.)

He’s grateful when the discussion lapses, because this entire conversation has only made him want to kiss Shaun more, and that’s another thing that doesn’t help his self-restraint. He really doesn’t want today to be the day he breaks it, either, not after he made a big deal out of how well he can control himself. Shaun would never let him live it down (nor would anyone else who happened to witness such an exchange, and they’re still in one of the most public spaces in their hospital).

Speaking of which, they’ve been in the cafeteria long enough that the sun has moved, its light now stretching across their table, and Neil turns to look out the windows. Even though he’s a fan of the mild weather they enjoy in winter, there’s still a part of him…

“I wish it would snow here.”

“I know,” Shaun says. “You’ve said that before.” His words alert Neil to the fact that he’d spoken out loud instead of merely thinking it, which was what he’d meant to do.

“I don’t like living in a place that almost never gets snow.” Neil lets his eyes trace the splay of sunlight across trees that will never change color, then glances at Shaun, who’s examining his sandwich with undue interest. “Don’t you miss winter?”

“Snow is cold. And wet. And you have to shovel it. And it comes along with ice, which is a serious hazard accounting for a vast percentage of accidental –”

“Alright.” His resident would probably go on for an hour if he didn’t interrupt. “I get it, Murphy.”

“So no,” Shaun succinctly summarizes, “I do not miss it.”

“Okay, everything you said is true, but there’s still something about it…” He glances back at the trees outside, trying to picture them covered in a blanket of white. “It looks beautiful after it snows.”

Shaun seems to be thinking about that. “You are right that it looks nice. I’ll cede that point.”

Neil grips the table in feigned astonishment. “You’re ceding the point? You never do that with me!”

“Be right more often,” Shaun says, without inflection.

“You have to be joking. I’m right all the time.”

Shaun’s smiling, because this is an ‘argument’ they’ve had many times before, in a myriad of different ways. “Thinking you are right is not the same as being right.”

“It’s the same when it’s me we’re talking about.”

“Whatever you say, Dr. Melendez.”

He’s well-aware Shaun’s using his title to make a point, but he’s not going to acknowledge as much. “Yes. Whatever I say.” It’s not difficult for him to sound imperious. “That should be the motto of all my residents.”

“It could be,” Shaun allows, “if you got new residents.”

Neil pretends to seriously consider that before ultimately shaking his head. “Nah, I’m kind of attached to the ones I have. Even if they occasionally need to be reminded to afford me more respect.”

“We respect you,” Shaun says firmly, and there’s the slightest tinge of worry in it – the kind Neil’s used to hearing from him when he’s not entirely sure if Neil’s joking; the kind that manifests when Shaun’s concerned there might be some real misunderstanding between them.

“I know, Shaun,” he reassures him, tapping his foot against Shaun’s. “I was joking. Rest assured, if I weren’t, I’d have kicked you all off my team long ago.” Shaun sends him another questioning look and he laughs. “Yes, still joking.”

“I can often tell with you,” Shaun says (which is true, they spend enough time together that Shaun’s becoming well-versed in reading him), “but sometimes…I still cannot.”

“You must really like me to put up with it, then,” Neil says, hint of a smile still on his face.

“I do really like you,” Shaun confirms, with unnecessary gravity. (Or maybe it is necessary, given the emotion behind it, and the way Shaun’s closely watching him for his response.)

Neil inhales deeply and makes sure to match Shaun’s tone when he says, “I really like you, too.” (It’s not adequate, not even close, but he’s still trying to figure out how to tell Shaun about the depth of his feelings in a way that won’t potentially ruin whatever wonderful thing’s been building between them for the past four months.)

Shaun nods once at his steady pronouncement. “Good.”

“Good,” Neil repeats, and reminds himself…self-discipline. It sometimes takes everything Neil has to rein himself in. And he wonders if maybe Shaun feels similarly. (If it’s equally all-encompassing; if it runs just as deep.)

Shaun follows his gaze to the gorgeous, sunny day outside the windows of their hospital – it must remind him of their earlier discussion. “You agreed that there were many negative aspects of snow. The only positive you mentioned was the way it looks.” For such an innocuous topic, Shaun’s tone is unusually serious. “Is that the only reason you like it?”

Neil has to think about the question for a few moments, because he’s never given it that much in-depth thought before. (And the answer he finds surprises him.) “I think it’s more that I associate snow with the holidays: every iconic song, every classic movie, every image associated with winter and Christmas and everything else about this time of year tends to include snow.” He holds up his water bottle, which has changed with the season and has miniature snowflakes all over the label. “See? You can’t escape it. So I guess that, more than just looking beautiful…it feels like Christmas. To me.” He glances out the windows again. “I find it disappointing that we don’t get to experience it firsthand.”

Shaun’s studying him rather intently, and his next words genuinely surprise him. “You could live somewhere that has snow in the winter.”

“I… What?”

“You wish we had snow.” For some reason, Shaun’s not looking at him now. “So I am pointing out that you could always move somewhere else. Either now or when you retire.”

“We’re talking about retirement now? How old are we again?”

We,” Shaun gestures between them, “are not the same age.”

“Thanks for reminding me. And we’re not that far apart.” When Shaun opens his mouth, Neil beats him to speaking. “We’re not.”

“If we both chose the same age to retire,” Shaun says slowly, “then you should retire approximately fifteen years before me.”

Neil absolutely hates the thought of that. (And he honestly doesn’t know if it’s the thought of an aimless, purposeless life in retirement…or if it’s merely the idea that he wouldn’t get to spend most of his days with Shaun.) “Maybe I’ll never retire. Maybe I’ll just work until the very end, Murphy.”

“And would the ‘very end’ be…here?”

There’s a tense edge to the words that Neil doesn’t like. “Where else would it be?”

“We were talking about the possibility of you moving away.”

We weren’t talking about it,” Neil corrects. “You were.” He notes the way Shaun’s resolutely staring out the windows again – which he knows is more to avoid looking at Neil directly than it is because Shaun finds something fascinating about the same view they see every day. “You trying to get rid of me, Murphy?”

Shaun turns back to him so quickly that Neil blinks in surprise. “No, of course not. I don’t want you to leave.” He hesitates, then adds, “However, there are many reasons someone might want to leave our hospital. Or California. Such as if you wanted to advance your career through opportunities you don’t currently have here.”

So that’s what this conversation’s about. Neil hadn’t been entirely sure until now. And he wonders if Shaun’s come up with these fears on his own, or if he’s heard someone else talk about them – not that it matters, because Neil’s answer is the same either way. “I might love to live somewhere that there’s snow. And I’m sure there are other reasons to move, if I really thought about it. But it’s not something I’ve ever seriously contemplated.”

“It’s not?”

“No. I have a whole list of reasons to stay, Shaun, and they outweigh any potential reasons to leave.” Neil studies his face. “There’s too much keeping me here.”

Most of the tension leaves Shaun at that simple reassurance. “I’m glad.”

“I’m glad, too,” Neil murmurs, relieved when Shaun doesn’t question him further. (Or ask him what, exactly, is on his list.)

Because he hasn’t yet figured out how to tell Shaun that he’s at the very top of it.

XXXXXX

It’s been an excruciatingly long day – not the best, but not the worst, either. (And Neil knows that’s something to appreciate, considering the ‘worst’ days at their job tend to be truly horrific.)

It’s only 4 in the afternoon, but he’d had an overnight shift, so it might as well be 4 in the morning. He’d been scheduled until noon – clearly that hadn’t worked out for him. He’ll be heading home soon…once he works up the energy.

It’s overcast out and it’s been raining all day, so his office is dark despite all the windows. He skips the overhead lights, unwilling to deal with their fluorescence, and switches on his desk lamp as he collapses into his chair.

He puts his head in his hands for a moment, silently playing that game wherein he imagines all the things in his life he’d trade for some real sleep. You can sleep when you’re dead, he hears Marcus happily reminding him, in his head. (And it’s patently unfair that he has to deal with him even when he’s not around.)

When he finally lifts his head again, he sees something he can only gather he’d overlooked due to his tiredness: a perfectly wrapped present situated squarely in the middle of his desk. He glances around, as if the person who’d left it might suddenly jump out from behind a chair, but thankfully, he’s as alone as he was before.

Anyone could have left the gift because he leaves his office unlocked most of the time, and today had been no different. (If anyone who wanders in wants to steal some reference books or backdated medical journals, they can be his guest – it’d actually free up some much-needed room on his shelves.)

He also blames his exhaustion for why he’d temporarily forgotten that today was the day their gifts were due for Secret Santa (he absolutely refuses to call it the ridiculous name Marcus had decreed, even knowing that Shaun’s going to continue to ‘correct’ him until the end of time).

He’d left Shaun’s gift in his locker earlier that day and doesn’t know if he’s found it yet – he suspects not, because he’d seen Shaun many times since then and the younger man hadn’t mentioned it. (And as far as he knows, Shaun still has no idea who’d chosen his name.)

Neil also has no clue who gave him this present, and he only presumes it’s for the gift exchange because there’s no tag or card. (He can’t name a single one of his colleagues who would go to the trouble of buying him a gift and not want to get credit for it.) People are supposed to reveal who they chose, but only after another few days have passed so they can ‘all have fun guessing who it might have been’ – Marcus’s exact words, though he claimed they were from the board.

About the only thing Neil’s relatively certain of is that his gift isn’t from Audrey – not after her dramatic spectacle during their staff meeting. Unless…that had all been for show and she intended to trade around after the fact to get his name after all, with the sole intention of buying him something equally as terrible as she’d gotten Marcus last year. (He doesn’t put anything past his friends.)

That said, he doubts she’d put in as much effort as he can see just from the outside of the present. The wrapping is perfect, all neat, proportioned angles, to the point that Neil wonders if the person might have had it gift wrapped at the place where they’d bought it. The paper is festive, miniature reindeers flying over a red and white striped background, which is clearly meant to be reminiscent of candy canes.

It makes him smile (which has the secondary effect of reminding him it’s been too long since he did that today).

He carefully removes the paper only to find a nondescript, brown box. And after he opens that, he finds styrofoam, which means whatever’s inside is breakable. His interest is definitely piqued, and though he’s been careful already, he’s even more so now. He pulls out the styrofoam, cutting the tape holding two pieces together, and pulls them apart to find…

A snow globe.

His first instinct is to pick it up and shake it (which is maybe everyone’s first instinct upon seeing a snow globe). It also obstructs his view of the inside, but as the swirling, glittering ‘snow’ settles, he gets a clear view of the scene. It’s a forest of snow-covered firs and in the middle is a clearing with a cozy-looking cabin, windows lit up with a warm, orange glow. There are footprints in the snow, leading to the cabin and then out into the woods beyond, and a pair of snow angels near the cabin. And though the entire scene is picturesque, the focal point is the snowman prominently in the middle of the clearing. And is that – he laughs out loud, because upon closer inspection, he sees that yes, that’s a stethoscope around its neck.

The scene’s incredibly detailed, obviously hand-crafted, and if he hadn’t realized before this isn’t some generic, mass-produced snow globe, the stethoscope definitely would have given it away. Whoever had gotten this for him had put a lot of effort into finding something this specific. Either that, or they’d had it commissioned with the details they wanted.

He shakes it again. Then again. And again. It must have some kind of hypnotic effect on him, because he doesn’t know how long he sits there repeating the motion until someone says, “Do you like it?” and he raises his eyes to find Shaun standing in front of his desk.

Neil sets it down for the first time since he opened the box. Shaun’s question held a distinct edge of hope, and there’s a slight but obvious tension in the way he’s holding himself – and he’s watching Neil too closely.

But Neil hadn’t needed any of that to know.

“It’s from you.” When Shaun nods once, in confirmation that isn’t needed, Neil asks, “How could you think I wouldn’t love it?”

Shaun’s face breaks into a smile. “You love it?”

“Very much. It’s perfect, Shaun. Every detail.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Shaun picks up the snow globe to shake for himself, holding it at eye level as he swirls it around. “I cannot give you snow.” He waits for it to settle, then sets it back on the desk. “But I can give you this.”

Neil’s momentarily stunned into silence at the revelation of Shaun’s motivation for choosing this particular gift. No one else would have ever…

For the life of him, he can’t remember ever receiving a gift with so much deliberate meaning behind it. “Shaun…”

“Yes?”

“I…” Apparently, he’s still mostly speechless. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Shaun takes a step back, still studying the snow globe. “I know we were not going to exchange gifts, but I had your name.”

“You had Reznick.”

“I did have Morgan. But Alex switched with me. He said he had the perfect gift in mind for her.”

“Impossible,” Neil scoffs. “Who’d want to buy her a gift?”

“I just told you. Alex.” Before Neil can question him further, Shaun picks up a gift box from one of the chairs in front of his desk, and Neil recognizes it as the one he gave him – he must have set it there when he came in, before Neil realized he was in his office. Shaun sits and sets the box on his lap, tapping his fingers on it. “I know this is from you.” (And Neil had known he would know.)

“I had your name, too,” Neil says, in answer to the silent question Shaun had been asking. “Claire wanted to get something for Andrews, so I traded with her.”

He thinks there’s something off about each of their stories here (mostly that it’s the same damn one), but he doesn’t feel like dwelling on it, at the moment.

Shaun’s placed his hand on top of the still-closed gift box. “I’m not sure what to do with it.”

“You could start by opening it.”

Shaun exhales lightly. “I did open it. That’s how I know it was from you.” He does so again, pulling the top off the box and setting it underneath the bottom of it. He runs his fingers around the red leather collar in the box, stopping at the silver tag. “You know I do not have any pets.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

“Shaun. You have a cat.”

Shaun’s confusion clears away. “I can see why you might have misunderstood, but the cat I often feed is a stray. He is not my cat.”

Neil folds his hands on his desk and leans forward. “Yes. He is.”

“I think I would know if he were my cat or not.”

“You would think,” Neil says, archly.

Shaun’s growing visibly frustrated. “He is not my cat. He does not belong to me.”

“You might have a point there. I’ve always thought that we belonged more to cats than the other way around.”

Despite his best efforts, Neil’s teasing does nothing to alleviate the growing tension in the room.

“It does not matter if you joke about it,” Shaun says, tightly. “He is not my cat.”

“You can say it as many times as you like, but we both know you’re wrong.” When Shaun’s expression remains mutinous, Neil begins to feel some doubt creep in. What, exactly, is he missing? “Look, this isn’t going the way I thought it would.”

“You cannot – I do not – he’s not mine.”

Neil purposely keeps his voice calm, refusing to match Shaun’s rising tone. “Shaun. You take care of that cat. You feed him –”

“I don’t want him to be hungry.”

“You let him sleep inside half the time.”

“I don’t want him to be uncomfortable; it can get cool at night.”

“You took him to the vet last month.”

“To make sure he was healthy and didn’t need any medical care.”

“So I’ll repeat, we both know he’s yours in every capacity except an official one. And I don’t know why you haven’t taken that final step, but I think you should.”

“You do not understand,” Shaun says softly, and his voice… Neil’s never heard it like this before. With so much pain in it – it makes no sense, because everything Neil had said was true. The cat is Shaun’s in every way that matters…so he can’t figure out why Shaun doesn’t seem to agree.

He could step back from this. He could apologize and agree to return the gift and promise never to bring up the topic again. But something won’t let him. There’s something here that isn’t right, and the silence that’s fallen between them is near-deafening.

“If I don’t understand,” Neil begins, slowly, “then why don’t you explain it to me?”

Shaun’s taken the collar out of the box and is turning it around in his hands, maybe in a nervous gesture, maybe to try and calm himself. But whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to be helping. “I don’t know if I can.”

“You can try.”

Shaun doesn’t speak for a long time, simply staring at the collar in his hands. And when he finally does talk, Neil almost jumps at the breaking of the silence. “My whole life, I have… Things have disappeared. Places. Pets. People.” He looks up then, and Neil knows he’s never going to forget the haunted look in his eyes, not for as long as he lives.

Neil wants to say something, but it’s like he’s forgotten how to form any words.

And Shaun’s next statement sums up the absolute tragedy that was the first half of his life: “When you admit that you love something, that’s when you can lose it.”

If Neil could give anything he ever had to take away the suffering Shaun had lived through, he’d have done it in an instant, and without a second thought. But he can’t. (And it kills him that he can’t, but that’s not something he can ever change.)

The only thing he can do is try and help him now. Today. (And the future, too, for that matter.)

He makes sure to weigh every word before speaking. “Shaun, you’re a rational person. Maybe the most rational person that I know. Which means that you’re logically aware that your fears are not rooted in reality. It might feel like they are, because of a series of horrific coincidences, but that is not how the world works. Admitting you love something doesn’t mean it’s going to…” He replays Shaun’s words, feeling unnaturally cold when he realizes Shaun had been thinking of his brother when he said them. “…disappear.”

Shaun says nothing, nor does he look up from the collar, now resting in hands that have gone still.

“You can say it out loud.”

His hands tighten around the collar.

“You can.”

Shaun looks up, but he remains silent.

“You can say it,” Neil promises. “You can say it to me.”

Shaun takes a deep breath and shuts his eyes. “He is my cat.”

“He is.”

“I love him.”

Neil relaxes, dropping his shoulders that have been tense for this entire conversation. “I know you do.”

Shaun finally opens his eyes. “And I love you.”

Neil freezes, feeling like all the air has left the room. All he can do is stare at Shaun, who’s watching him with something that’s a lot like hope, but also a lot like fear.

“You…” Neil finally breathes. “What?”

“Do not disappear,” Shaun quietly pleads. “Even if you do not –” He breaks off before he can finish the sentence. “Please do not disappear.”

“I’m not going to disappear,” Neil murmurs, even as he feels like he’s not really in the room. He can’t process what’s happening. Or if this is really what it seems like. They’ve never said they loved each other and he has to know, for certain, how Shaun means it. “I need you to clarify this for me,” he says softly. “People can love each other in a lot of different ways. Do you love me like…like a friend? Or like –”

“Yes,” Shaun interrupts, before Neil can attempt to finish a sentence he hadn’t really known how to finish. “I love you like a friend. And like more than a friend. I love you like…everything.” He breathes out slowly. “You are everything to me.”

“It sounds like you’re saying you’re in love with me, Shaun. Is that what you’re saying?”

Shaun shrugs, somewhat helplessly. “That is part of everything. I never told you because…” He doesn’t have to finish – it’s obvious that Shaun thought saying something might be the catalyst that caused Neil to leave his life. When it couldn’t be further from the truth. “But then you said that admitting it doesn’t mean you will lose it, and I thought maybe you were…that you were trying to say…”

When it really comes down to it, Neil’s amazed by how similar both their thought processes had been, because he’d been equally as afraid of telling Shaun, for the sole reason that he’d worried it might scare him…maybe into walking away from this, altogether.

Neil comes around the desk to sit on the edge of it, directly across from Shaun. “Your uncertainty means that you have no idea.”

“No idea about what?” Shaun asks warily.

Neil takes a calming breath. “How much I love you. How long I’ve loved you.” He relaxes even further as Shaun’s eyes widen in surprise. “I thought about telling you so many times.”

“You did?”

Neil nods in confirmation. “I just never knew how. I didn’t want you to think we were moving too fast. I never want you to be uncomfortable with anything that’s between us, because I can’t… I couldn’t live with that, Shaun.”

After a beat of silence, Shaun says, “I love you. And you love me. We love…each other.”

Neil suppresses his smile. “That accurately sums it up, I believe. And I honestly can’t remember when it began. Believe me, I’ve tried – many times – to remember.” He tilts his head. “Do you know how long you’ve loved me?”

Shaun mutely shakes his head, maybe finding it as impossible a question as Neil always has.

He moves forward, putting his hands on the arms of the chair Shaun’s sitting in. “You and me, Murphy. We’ve always been…” He struggles to find the words before giving up. “We’ve just always been.”

“We have,” Shaun solemnly agrees. “We have always been…this way.”

Neil knows they’ll have to talk about this. He’s sure they’ll have plenty of questions for each other, and they’ll have to discuss what it means for their relationship: how this changes things and what they both want going forward. They’ll have to talk about the future, at some point. (And when Neil thinks about that, the one word that keeps coming to mind is forever. He could do this forever.)

Yes, there are a hundred things they could talk about, that they should talk about, right then.

But Neil kisses him instead.

After a second that seems infinitely longer than it is, Shaun leans up further into him, kissing him back in a move that’s somehow both familiar and brand new. If Neil had to describe the tangled, chaotic emotions within him, he’d swear it was an explosion of colors in his mind, spreading out further than he can see or feel. It’s everywhere, all around them, and Neil’s not one for dramatics (he’d left it behind about a decade ago), but this kiss seems different than all the others they’ve shared.

It feels like…more.

And he wonders if this is what being in love is truly like, when it’s out in the open: known and acknowledged and wholly reciprocated.

Neil’s loved people before, he’d even thought he’d been in love before, but now he’s beginning to wonder…because it had never felt like this.

He doesn’t think he’s ever loved anyone like this.

Maybe Shaun feels the difference, too, if the way he pulls back and stares up at Neil with widened eyes is any indication.

“Is that… Did you…” Neil has no idea what he’s even trying to ask. And he’s not moving further away either. It feels like he couldn't move even if he wanted to. “What was that?” he finally manages.

Shaun’s watching him with barely concealed concern. “That was a kiss.”

Neil laughs, and just like that, he’s back on solid ground. “I know, Murphy. What I’m trying to say is that it felt… I don’t know how to explain it. It felt different than before.”

“It did,” Shaun agrees, seeming slightly lost (and for all Neil knows, he looks the same way).

“Maybe it’s because we both know how each other really feels now?” Neil suggests. “Maybe we were both holding part of ourselves back before. Perhaps even subconsciously.”

“Perhaps,” Shaun echoes, then declares, “I think we should do it again.”

“You do, huh?”

“Solely to test your hypothesis.”

Neil laughs again, not buying it at all, but can’t help moving to kiss him, anyways. This time Shaun reaches up to press his hands to either side of his face, and it’s the same surge of affection and love and color. And while it’s incredibly similar to what he’s always felt with Shaun in the past, there’s still that indefinable essence of ‘more’ to it now.

“Yes,” Shaun says seriously, when they ease back from each other, though Neil’s still leaning over him, his hands on the arms of the chair. “I think this is being in love.”

“I think it is, too,” Neil whispers.

Shaun’s voice drops precipitously when he adds, “And you’re still here.”

It doesn’t take Neil long to register what Shaun’s referring to, and the moment he does, some piece of his heart breaks all over again. He recalls their conversation from a couple weeks earlier, the worry (the fear) in Shaun when he’d brought up the possibility of Neil potentially leaving their hospital someday. And it’s then that he realizes this has always been entangled for Shaun – love and longing and loss. But he overcame it; he overcame one of his greatest fears to tell Neil how he felt and Neil will never give him any cause to regret that.

“I’m still here,” he murmurs, in agreement.

Shaun moves his hands to Neil’s shoulders, maybe to ground himself, or maybe just to keep him there. “I…did not know what you would do when I told you.”

“Did you think I might not feel the same?”

Shaun nods hesitantly, refusing to look at him.

“Yet you risked telling me anyways.”

“I had to. You told me that love doesn’t make things disappear.” Shaun lets go of him so he can move back a little and they can see each other more clearly. “I believed you. And I trusted that…you would not vanish from my life, no matter my feelings. Or yours.”

“I am never going to vanish from your life,” Neil tells him. “And that’s not just a statement of fact, Shaun. It’s a promise.” (And more of one than Neil has made to anyone in a very long time.)

“I am making you the same promise.” Shaun loops an arm around his neck, pulling him closer again to lightly brush their mouths against each other, like he’s sealing his words. When Shaun lets go that time, Neil straightens and moves back a few steps, so he’s resting against the edge of his desk again. He needs a few moments to…just to take this in.

He has no idea how everything in his life can be simultaneously different and the same.

(But he knows that he loves it.)

“We should talk,” Neil says. “About…all of this.”

“We should,” Shaun agrees, “but not here. I’m ready to go home.” He carefully closes the gift box in his lap before standing. “Would you like to see what my cat thinks of your gift?”

“I can’t think of anything I want more,” Neil informs him. “Except maybe you.”

Shaun laughs, instantly dispelling the emotional atmosphere that’s overtaken Neil’s office, and presses a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth before relinquishing him so he can gather the rest of his things.

Yeah, Neil thinks, stealing glances at Shaun (who’s watching him while trying to make it seem like he isn’t), he could do this for the rest of his life.