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with a little help (from my friends)

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Lea sighed. “I’m... okay with change, I guess. Except then, I think, maybe I’m actually not. I moved back to Hershey to help save my grandpa’s auto shop with my brother – but we basically ran it into the ground.”

“I’m sorry,” Claire said. “That must have been pretty demoralising.”

“Yeah, it sucks. Now my brother and I aren’t speaking, and the rest of the family has pretty much declared us persona non grata because everybody loved Grandpa Rod and the shop he built. Oh yes, everybody loved that shop, but only my brother and I could actually be bothered to try and keep it going. It was heartbreaking to lose it. But we cared enough to do something, it failed, and now we get the blame. Families suck sometimes.”

“Mmm, I feel ya on that,” Claire murmured, sympathetically.

“I really don’t like San Jose much, to be honest,” Lea continued. “Silicon Valley is so dog-eat-dog.”

“So why’d you come back here?” Morgan asked, somewhat abruptly. “If you hate it so much?”

“Well, I left on good terms with my boss, for starters – there was still a job for me, if I wanted one,” Lea answered, “Pretty handy, in this economy.”

“Okay. And how much of your decision to return was based on the fact that Shaun is still here?” Morgan pressed.

Lea tossed her an incredulous 'Oh, you think we’re gal pals now? NOT!' look.

“She just cuts right to the chase, doesn’t she? Remind you of anyone we know?” Lea commented to Claire, who shrugged.

“You know, you and Shaun would either be a fantastic couple, or you’d murder one another. There is no in between,” Lea continued, now talking directly to Morgan. “Both of you have a real blunt way of speaking. Except, with Shaun, I inexplicably find his candour almost charming, but from you, Morgan – it just kinda... pisses me off.”

“Yeah, I’ve been told I’m abrasive. My attending before Melendez and Lim was the original male chauvinist pig and a hands-y creep — ”

“ — No, he was an unchecked, egotistical sex pest,” Claire finished, flatly.

Then she turned, accusingly, to Morgan. “You never told me Coyle tried it on with you, too!”

“You never asked,” Morgan calmly replied to Claire. “But I didn’t get it as bad as you, or some of the other residents he harassed. I was lucky. Park usually put himself in between Coyle and I as a kind of buffer. It kept most of the opportune tricks away. Deliberate actions, it couldn’t help, but for everything else, Park helped take the edge off. He used to be a cop — ”

“ — Wait, hold up, one of you surgeons used to be a cop? That is so cool!” Lea put in.

Surgical residents,” Morgan corrected.

“Oh, there’s the Morgan we know and love,” Claire quipped. “Know-it-all.”

“Wow, that is the freakiest thing. You speak to me, Morgan, and I feel like that’s exactly how Shaun would sound if he was a chick. But thinking about Shaun being a chick... kind of makes my head spin. In a bad way,” Lea observed, somewhat humorously.

“Anyway, because he used to be a cop, Park knew pretty well what Coyle was. I know he wanted to do more to protect me. We were both really relieved to join Melendez’s and Lim’s teams,” Morgan elaborated.

“I guess it never occurred to me that you were probably not born a — ” Claire started.

“ — ‘Heinous bitch’?” Morgan supplied. “You can say it. I’ve heard it all before.”

“No, but seriously, were you once actually a nice person, Morgan?” Claire asked, somewhat disbelievingly.

“Oh, I was never exactly nice, but I wasn’t as arrogant. I kept getting told I was gonna get walked over by men my whole career unless I started putting myself forward more. That’s how I knew your performance review would have focused on your lack of ability to assert yourself, Claire. I got the same speech earlier on in my residency.”

“Your bosses suck. Absolute cavemen,” Lea commented. “Is that the kind of B. S. Shaun puts up with, too?”

“It’s a different kind of prejudice, but no less insidious for it,” Claire said.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Morgan reminded Lea. “How much of a factor was Shaun, in your decision to come back?”

Lea sighed. “I remember – I’d never been so excited to see someone again in my life. His hair, his eyes, thinking back to what he looked like before he kissed me, I’ll never forget the look on his face, I swear. I had my mind made up to kiss him when I saw him. Honestly... I could think of little else other than how much I wanted to kiss him again. But it was a real record-scratch of a moment. He wasn’t happy to see me.”

“Just confirm for me – I’m curious. How many kisses have you two had?” Morgan asked, nosily.

“Three,” Lea said immediately.

“And how many more were on the table?” Morgan went on.

“Two more. So, five. We should have had at least four before I left, and we had one when I came back. Well, in loose terms, at least. He’d only just started to kiss me back, before he got up and ran out.”

“Didn’t you believe Shaun when he told you it was three?” Claire teased Morgan.

“Trust, but verify,” Morgan said, defensively.

“With Shaun? Honest-to-a-fault Shaun? Nah. You just wanted to make her say it,” Claire chided Morgan, gesturing to Lea.

“I’ll concede: That number was rattled off instantly,” Morgan said. “My earlier gut instinct said it was a pity kiss – I told Shaun as much — ”

“Why... the hell... would you think that, Morgan? Much less actually say it?” Lea asked, incredulously. “Hear it now, directly from the lips that have kissed that enigma of a man three times – you trail me by two, of course — ” she continued, bitingly sarcastic, frowning at Morgan, “ — I wanted to kiss Shaun. No pity. No charity. Just a girl who looked at a guy one night, and thought: ‘I would really like to kiss him.’” 

“Okay, got it — ” Morgan said. 

“ — And if I hear of you insinuating that I pity Shaun, ever again, God help you,” Lea added, emphatically.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Claire said.

Huddled against the wall, Shaun’s ears pricked up at Claire’s announcement, as he realised he wouldn’t be able to hide in time.

Sure enough, as Claire headed to the bathroom, she caught sight of Shaun, looking vulnerable and nervous sitting down there on the floor. He was absentmindedly fiddling with the scalpel. Claire had never seen someone in more dire need of a comforting hug. 

He locked eyes with Claire, and his gaze pleaded, 'Please don’t give me away'. To her credit, Claire simply nodded, and continued on her way to the bathroom as though nothing was out of the ordinary. 

Shaun breathed a sigh of relief, and put the scalpel away again.

Claire hid a smile as she pushed open the door. I wonder how much you’ve overheard, she thought.

When Claire returned, she debated whether or not to subtly say something to Morgan about Shaun’s presence. She decided to text her.

Don’t look now, but Shaun is in the same room as us. DON’T DRAW ATTENTION. DO NOT REPLY.

Morgan’s phone buzzed. She read the message, her face impassive, and nodded, almost imperceptibly.

Claire picked up the girls’ conversation where it had left off.

“After Shaun ran out on the most recent kiss, what’s happened since? I mean, Jake is a new arrival on the scene. Something big must have happened to cause you to completely lose hope about Shaun. What was it?” she questioned Lea.

“Shaun told me to go back to Hershey – or ‘anywhere other than here’, direct quote. Actually, he sort of shouted it. He looked nothing like himself. You ever see that old movie, Psycho? That expression on his face. It was kind of alarming,” Lea answered.

“Ouch,” Morgan said, sounding almost sympathetic. “Not Shaun’s most sensitive moment.”

Over in the corner, a full-body cringe shuddered through Shaun as he relived, in lurid detail, his entire heartbroken tirade towards Lea.

What on Earth had possessed him to yell at her like that? He wasn’t normally impulsive with his words. If anything, he was usually so measured and over-analytical that he ended up using the wrong words anyway, and offending people despite his best efforts not to. Not making himself understood was always a major source of frustration and fear for Shaun.

“Do you think he meant it, though?” Claire asked Lea, gently. “‘Cause Morgan’s right. Shaun is really miserable.”

Lea shrugged. “All I know is, things between us have not been the same since that argument.”

“But you got over it enough to live with him,” Morgan observed.

“Yeah, but I made it clear that we weren’t gonna be a couple. Ever.” Lea said, regretfully. “I guess I gave him consequences for treating me like that. It might have been short-sighted of me to cut him completely dead, though, because now I feel like I’ve totally torpedoed any chance of a relationship with him forever. When, maybe... I really only just... needed to be mad at him for a little while.”

“I’m sure it’s not forever,” Claire tried to soothe Lea. “You guys get emotional because you care. That’s all it is.”

“Yeah, but when is it just a bad idea all around? He’ll never change. My personality’s pretty well stuck on at this point, too.” Lea argued.

“Come on, Lea. Shaun’s changed a lot since you met him. Hell, he’s changed a lot since you’ve been back, come to that. And the ways we all think about him have, too. Don’t you think it’s time to forgive yourself – and him? He’s waiting for you, Lea. I know he is,” Claire said. 

“Well, maybe he should stop,” Lea snapped. “He’s not entitled to be with me just because he says ‘sorry’.” 

“Of course he’s not. Lea, we pushed Shaun into this idiotic plan tonight, okay? He didn’t want to do it. He said: ‘I don’t want to lie to Lea,’ and we kinda convinced him he wouldn’t be. Shaun followed our advice because we – Morgan and I – portrayed ourselves as experts in an area he really doesn’t know a lot about,” Claire explained. “Lea, I promise you, Shaun did this in good faith. Faith that Morgan and I took advantage of.”

“He respects our intelligence, and in turn, we respect his. So it follows that he would take our advice on other things too. Especially since he can’t exactly ask you about yourself,” Morgan added.

“Then maybe you are the girl for him, Morgan,” Lea said, her eyes sad, “Or you, Claire. The two of you... really understand what makes him tick. I’m scared I’m never gonna get Shaun like that. I hate that thought.”

“I wish you could have seen how charmed he was when he told me he’d met you, and how thrilled he became when he realised the two of you were flirting. It was like he’d unlocked a door. And how proud he was to tell me that he kissed you. You know Shaun at home, Lea, but we know him at work, and it is beyond obvious, to everyone who knows about you, that you make him so happy. He’s happy when he’s talking about you. Shaun doesn’t get that way talking to – or about – Morgan or me, but you can see a change in him when the topic shifts to you,” Claire said.

“I’m worried, because I’m the first girl he’s been seriously interested in. That’s a big thing for me to contend with,” Lea said. 

Morgan shrugged. “Someone had to be the first girl he’s ever truly wanted. Congrats. It’s you.” 

“... Thank you? I guess?” Lea responded, vaguely. She looked like she was in the midst of making some particularly weighty decisions, eyes down, not meeting anyone’s gaze now. 

“And on that note, I think it’s time Morgan and I were leaving,” Claire said. “You and Shaun have a lot to talk about.”

Lea remained silent.

“Lea?” Claire asked. “Are you okay?”

Lea looked up and her eyes were bright with tears that threatened to spill over.

“It’s been a big night,” Claire said gently. “Lots to absorb.”

Lea impatiently wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, but didn’t reply.

Morgan stood up from the couch and stretched. Claire got up, too, because it was pretty obvious that Lea wasn’t really up for any more talking. They left her sitting on the couch, hunched over, lost in thought.

Claire and Morgan gathered up their purses and prepared to let themselves out. 

Before they left, though, Claire dimmed some of the lights and turned off the hanging lamps over the kitchen island, creating a much more serene and intimate atmosphere in the apartment.

She winked at Shaun, who looked both shell-shocked, and beyond ready to abandon his post.

He was able to lip-read what she said: “Mood lighting. Good luck.”