Neil’s hands are still against her warm skin as she rests in his arms. When his movement quiets, she continues to smile up at him. Both are content to simply be, uncaring of exposing themselves like this to the world.
He can feel his energy draining, the inevitable bearing down on him. But he has this.
Every possible goodbye has been delivered – a crushingly heartfelt call to his sister; a distant phone conversation with his parents who had no hope of making it to his bedside in time. There’s a curt but genuine farewell from Marcus and an even more brief peppering of colleagues and nurses.
There are a few moments with Morgan Reznick, both lives forever changed in a few hours. Both reckoning with living – or not living – as something else. He assures her that she is talented, still full of so much to give no matter what. She assures him that she’s heard all he’s tried to teach and will pass along his last words of wisdom to Shaun and Park. And despite everything, she promises to be there for Claire, both knowing first-hand how horribly she could break.
There’s a warm farewell from Glassman, his mentor, then his boss and friend. Memories of their history. Things known but unsaid. A gentlemanly bet to keep their emotions at bay.
There’s Audrey. Another type of goodbye from a door they closed while acknowledging the window that remained open and welcome between them. The shadow of something cherished they shared and let go because it was necessary to go forward as their true selves.
There was a bitter, angry, false goodbye to the one person he wanted with him throughout. The person who’d been fighting for him, fighting against him and his own stubbornness, fighting through her own visible pain to give him even half a damn chance to survive. The person who made the goodbyes possible instead of him dying on the ground of the ER with no hope as he tried to help everyone but himself.
A parade of goodbyes amidst all the tests and waiting and accepting.
Claire’s tears seep through his gown. Another sign that this is real. She’s tragic and so damn beautiful leaning in with her entire heart so full of him. He hates leaving her. She will be okay, but he hates it. He can’t stop a tear from escaping as he imprints this image of her into his soul.
She caresses the wrist she has in hand to calm him. Nuzzles against his chest. It helps.
“Maybe,” she murmurs, her voice just above a whisper. “Maybe, I’ll go loot your office for a good keepsake.”
It does the trick and he grins, loving their banter and that they know just what to say to make the other smile, even if mostly in exasperation. His head is getting harder to move. But he doesn’t need to see much, only her.
“I’d suggest you take a picture of us,” he responds, “but I’m not at my best, I’m afraid.”
“And my arms are kind of indisposed,” she adds.
He glances down at where she’s holding on to him, now with both hands. “Your arm is going to be so sore.”
“I’ll live,” she replies without thinking, and her sweet smile evaporates into more quiet weeping.
“No, no more of that.” He slowly reaches up to wipe her eyes with his thumb while stroking her head once more. “You will, Claire. You’ll live and you’re going to be brilliant.”
She laughs through tears. “We’ve talked about this. I’m already brilliant.” Neil grins, the salve of the memory, of all his memories of her, dulling his pain for a little longer.
They’re silent once more, his thumb still stroking her cheek so she knows he’s there. Her eyes still laser-focused on him, memorizing every feature, hands gripping him soft but strong. Always strong.
“While you’re looting,” he starts to say, gathering his limited breath, “check my middle desk drawer on the right. There’s a few more of those caramel candies you like so much in there.” Claire smiles broadly, instantly igniting a smile of his own.
“I knew you were holding out on me.” She squeezes his wrist, an affectionate admonishment.
One breath. Two. Five.
“And in the top drawer. In the back. There’s a marble,” he continues, labored slow words folding into each other. “A blue one like my lucky bowling ball.” They both smile at that. “I was ten when I got it, playing outside with the kids in the neighborhood.” He laughs weakly and stops to catch his breath.
Claire moves to get off him, maybe reach for water but he gently holds her in place. There are other places she’s needed in this crisis, but he can’t let her go; doesn’t want her anywhere but lying there with him.
“My dumb best friend is playing around, gets the damn marble stuck in his ear and freaks out. I ran and got my dad’s tool box; popped the marble out with a screwdriver, a wrench, and some duct tape. And I knew right then I’d be a doctor. The best surgeon on the planet.” Claire’s smiling eyes prod him to continue. “I kept that marble through med school and residency. I look at it every day to remind myself of how much I love this. Love being here.”
A tear slides from the corner of his eye, and this time, Claire reaches up and wipes it away. He caresses her head once more in thanks.
“I want you to have it.” Looking into her face, he can see the wonder and the adoration in her reaction. He sees her conviction that matches his own drive. She nods.
“And when you look at it, I want you to know how incredible you are. Trust that brilliance. Every day. Rely on your compassion and your friends.” Another tear escapes his eye. “Remember how proud I am of you.” Her tears start anew as she sobs along with him. “Remember that without you even trying, I so easily loved you.”
Claire clings to him and he to her. And she rests there against him. Watches his gaze on her waver as his eyes close for longer and longer stretches. Time slows in the space they’d created together as if they are pushing it back to steal as many moments as they can hold. She lies against him as his breathing slows, the only indication of his consciousness the lazy brush of his fingers along the side of her face. She again moves to raise off of him, give him space to breath easily and rest. Her eyes question whether he wants her to send for anyone else: Dr. Lim or one of his other colleagues or friends.
With as much strength as he can, he urges her to remain against him. “Stay,” he whispers. Claire smiles shyly and relaxes against him once more. “Stay until…” He couldn’t bring himself to say it.
But he doesn’t need to say it. Claire already knows.
“Always,” she promises, her breath avowing that teasing across his chin.
He rests his head back on the pillow and feels himself smile again at the gift of her presence. As he savors her solid form, he accepts his contentment; understands that when he goes, it will be with someone who doesn’t make him think of yesterday or today but of tomorrow. The most terrifying and most cherished part of falling for her these past few months was seeing so clearly in her the promises he’d made to himself, of a loving partner and a home and children. If he has to go, he’ll do it like this – with exactly what he needs in his arms.
Staring down into her soft face, her eyes red-rimmed but warm, her cheeks flushed and soft, he begins to let go. The light recedes as he closes his eyes. But he doesn’t see darkness. He sees her in a white dress, flowers in her hair, her smile waiting to be kissed by him. He sees her petite but skilled surgeon’s hands holding tiny fingers, counting each digit before guiding him to feel what they've created. He sees bright sun bouncing off wild brown curls streaked in gray as she looks back and reaches for him, her eyes inviting him to follow.
And he does reach for her. Their fingers brush. It's another time. A different story of their lives. Another version of their truth. Together.
The light blinded him.
He’d forgotten his sunglasses in his office and now regretted it. The glare off the building was killing him. Another flare made him avert his eyes.
And then he hit a solid body.
“Hey!” a soft but stern feminine voice called out in surprise.
Neil backed up, his vision clearing. What he saw in front of him hit like a glare of another kind.
The tiny woman had a hell of a scowl across her glossy lips, a glower that only accented her striking beauty. He couldn’t quite tear his eyes from her, jacket draped over her arm, exposing clear, earthy brown skin. Her copper curls picked up the breeze, gently brushing along her shoulders as she pushed a few stray strands off her face. Expressive green eyes reflected her irritation but sharp curiosity.
“Sorry,” Neil stammered, recovering quickly to retrieve from the ground the folder he’d jostled out of her hands in the collision. “I didn’t see you. The glare,” he added, weakly pointing up toward the hospital’s glass structure.
Her frown softened as she followed his gesture, silently investigating the truth of his allegations herself. “It’s fine.” She smiled, a bit nervous. “I actually don’t quite know where I’m going so I probably wasn’t paying as much attention as I should.
Then the pieces fell into place and a tinge of disappointment flared. Today all the new residents started, and she must be one of them, although he didn’t recognize her from the interview process. Which must mean …
His smile, he could tell, unnerved her a bit. “You must be Dr. Browne.” If his odd behavior hadn’t alarmed her before, his familiarity did the trick. “You must be a new resident and one I don’t know. And the only two I didn’t meet during interviews were Glassman’s recruits for his special internship.” Smirking, he added, “and you don’t look much like a Shaun Murphy to me.”
The bewilderment in her expression struck Neil as absolutely adorable. And intriguing. But he needed to get that out of his system. He had a fiancée after all. While Jessica didn’t mind a small bit of idle flirting with other women, he surely appeared to be approaching a line right now.
He offered his hand. “Dr. Neil Melendez.”
She stiffened at hearing his name, but took his hand as she chuckled, nerves bubbling to the surface. “Dr. Melendez. Of course.” She shook his hand enthusiastically. “I really admire your work. It was a huge draw in my decision to do my residency at St. Bonaventure.” Although he reveled a bit in how starstruck she seemed, again he recovered quickly.
Neil flashed her a charming grin. “That’s always nice to hear. You’re quite impressive as well. Worked three jobs to get through college part-time. Top of your class at UCSF, references from Dr. Romeu Chaves and Dr. Melinda McGovern? Finalist for the Tohassan Prize twice and elected regional AMA student chapter representative.”
His detailed knowledge of her sprung a pretty blush across her cheeks. “Uh, that’s me.” She gripped her folder close to her and clutched the strap of her bag. “I, uh, I’m a little early so I thought I’d get my bearings.”
“Perfect. I’ll give you the tour.” She responded with a bright smile and relieved exhale, both of which amused him.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m Claire. But I guess you know that already.”
Grinning at her nervousness, he waved her ahead of him through the front door of the hospital. “I did. But nice it’s nice to formally meet you.”
He pointed out a few of the necessary spots on the first floor – the help desk and cafeteria and hidden elevator bank for staff.
Then he took her up to the surgical floor and showed her around there as well. They chatted as he pointed things out and he actually learned a few important details about her. She exuded warmth and an instant ease whenever he introduced her to someone new. Her curiosity and focus superseded any nerves or jitters she’d shown earlier about starting her residency. She asked smart questions. Listened and offered suggestions.
Frankly it irritated him. Now he definitely planned to have words with Glassman for snatching her away from him.
“You know,” he said as they headed toward the conference rooms where she’d start her orientation, “I lobbied pretty hard to get you on my team.” That seemed to shock her, but she smiled, a bit of pride showing through her humble response.
“Well, if we’re being honest, you were my first choice for attending. Not that I don’t want to work with Dr. Glassman,” she backtracked. “It’s such an amazing opportunity this internship.”
He grinned at her. “I have to admit that it really is. I trained under Dr. Glassman and you are in very experienced hands, and you’ll learn things you won’t be able to in any other program. It’ll make you incredibly marketable. And he’ll challenge you, but he’s an excellent teacher. Just look at yours truly?” She rolled her eyes at that, but joined in his laughter.
“I hope I get to work with you, though. I’ve read all the highlights of your rotation. It sounds exciting.”
Neil grumbled. “Glassman really shook things up when he decided to take on residents. But he’s got a young upstart nipping at his heels for the president position, and he’s pushing the envelope. You’ll rotate with two of the four surgical cohorts here, but mine won’t often be one of them. Although I imagine our paths will cross from time to time.” He flashed her another grin, just short of flirting; she matched his wickedness with a steady gaze.
Oh, she could get him into a lot of trouble.
He paused, glancing at her again as they walked. “And I don’t know if you were told, but your co-resident has a history with Dr. Glassman. And some pretty special needs.”
Claire turned sharply toward him. “You mean Dr. Murphy. Yes, I’ve talked to him some. He’s certainly…” she reached for an appropriate description, “…different. But we all have our challenges, and he’s very gifted. I look forward to working with him.”
Talking to her like this stirred something in him. She sounded pretty special herself. A complete package. Smart. Empathetic. Loyal. And he’d be lying if he didn’t admit all of it stirred an attraction.
Maybe he'd give Glassman a pass. Getting to know her made him rather glad she wasn’t his resident.
“Here we are,” he said, guiding her down a hallway to a large conference room where others had already begun to arrive. The meeting hadn’t started yet with people still getting the coffee set up at the back of the room and making their own introductions. As he and Claire followed suit grabbing their own cup, he pointed out a few people for her.
“The slick doctor over by the head of the table is Dr. Marcus Andrews. He’s your chief of surgery and would love to be the next president, so make sure you suck up to him just to hedge your bets.” Claire grinned and nodded. “The doctor talking to the two residents in the corner is Dr. Coyle.” He tried and failed to hide his frown. “He’ll be heading one of the cohorts you’ll be working with.”
Claire eyed him, assessing what he wasn’t saying. But she didn’t comment. Coyle got on his nerves with his cocky arrogance and borderline unprofessional manner in the O.R. He hated working with him, but the guy was good.
“Nurse Villanueva and Nurse Patringa are two people you need to know and get on the right side of today,” he emphasized pointing to the two women seated and chatting.
“The woman who’ll walk in right before the meeting starts, possibly still wearing her motorcycle jacket is Dr. Audrey Lim. Major pain in my ass since our residency together,” he smiled with familiar affection for his colleague, which Claire picked up on. “But she’s one of the best trauma surgeons in the country and you should learn what you can from her.” Claire nodded, likely having read up on her.
Neil realized that he probably should be keeping an eye out for his own residents and saving some wisdom for them. But he couldn’t quite seem to detach from Dr. Browne, probably never to see her more than a handful of times in passing as they both went about their professional lives.
It was a distasteful thought.
“Which residents are yours?” Claire asked, stirring her coffee – no sugar, one cream, he’d noticed.
Neil looked around, eyes stopping at a tall, dark, and handsome guy if ever there was one. He caught Claire noticing him too, eyes widening and a smile pulling at her lips.
The tightness in his chest signaled that he did not like that look one bit. Then he shook it off. He shouldn’t be getting this protective. She wasn’t even his resident.
Instead, he leaned into her ear. “There’s one. Dr. Jared Kalu.” Dr. Kalu must have felt their attention because he turned from the other resident he’d been talking with and headed towards them. “I can introduce you if you like,” he joked. She whipped back around to him and narrowed her eyes, that sweet blush once again flushing her cheeks.
A voice from behind distracted all three of them from any further conversation.
“Neil, I won’t have you trying to steal back my resident on the first day.” Dr. Aaron Glassman strolled next to them, a skinny young man fidgeting behind him, his eyes darting around as if tracking 50 thoughts in his head at one time. And from what he’d heard of Dr. Murphy, maybe the guy was. Neil didn’t know what to make of the newcomer, but it wasn't something he needed to worry about.
“Dr. Glassman!” Claire responded cheerily. “Dr. Melendez was kind enough to guide me to the right room.”
“I bet,” Glassman scoffed. “Get over it. You have your own residents, and I’ve made my choice. Good morning Dr. Kalu.”
“Morning, Dr. Glassman. Dr. Melendez," he added, nervously acknowledging his attending surgeon while trying not to stare so obviously at Claire. Neil would find it funny if it weren’t so irritating. Claire on the other hand, was doing a hell of a job playing coy, although he could tell that the young doctor’s accent and attractiveness had an effect on her.
“Nice to meet you in person, Dr. Murphy,” Claire said next to him, ignoring both Neil and Dr. Kalu.
“Hello,” Dr. Murphy responded, and left immediately to find a seat. Claire looked a little unsure but then shrugged and followed him to take a seat at his side. Glassman shook his head at Neil and also left to grab coffee and start the meeting.
Dr. Kalu, who had been following Claire with his eyes, probably without even realizing it, then turned back to Neil. “Uh, I’m looking forward to working with you, sir.”
“Me as well, Dr. Kalu.” He took Jared’s offered handshake. “You’ve got an interesting background and come with great credentials. I think we’ll work well together. And before you work up how to ask, that’s Dr. Glassman’s resident Dr. Claire Browne. I wouldn’t if I were you.”
Jared frowned. “What, why?” Then he caught himself. “I mean, uh…”
Neil pat his new resident on the shoulder, impressed by the man’s sturdiness. “She might be out of your league.” Chuckling, at Dr. Kalu’s bewildered reaction, Neil took a sip of his coffee and headed to the other side of the room to wait for Glassman to start the meeting. When Audrey walked in, with two minutes to spare, he raised a questioning brow and made an exaggerated effort to check his watch. Smirking in his direction, she made a much more casual but veiled gesture telling him what he could do with his judgement.
Switching his attention once more across the room to Claire, he smiled into his cup. No matter that she wasn’t his resident, he had a feeling the next five years would be way more interesting with Dr. Browne in his orbit.
No, not silence. Small sounds. A rustling of sheets. A sniffle. Confusion.
A question hanging in the air. A furtive glance. Explanations waiting to surface.
“And that was the first time you saw Mama?” a sweet, high voice asks, soft brown curls unsettled from a hard night of sleep.
“Yep, that’s the first time I met her. And like I said, we were friends right from the very beginning.”
“That’s not how Mama tells the story,” says another little voice, this one closer, coming from his lap. Green eyes stare up at him, challenging and oh so cute.
He laughs as he brushes her hair so he could weave in two braids, just how she likes it. “Is that so, hermanita.” Cecilia nods dramatically, until he holds her head still so he can continue styling.
Marisol sits on her bed watching her father brush her little sister’s hair and waiting for her turn. He’s only just gotten home after an all-night shift – just in time for them to wake and get their daily routine started. He’d head to bed soon, but longs for these moments where he can spend quality time with his girls, especially when he has to be away for so long at the hospital.
“Mama says mostly what you say, but also that you were very gossipy and wanted to tell her about everybody she was gonna work with.” Mari is slowly dressing herself as she hangs on her father’s every word. At eight years old, she considers herself the spokesperson whenever she and her little six-year old sister want more details than their parents want to give.
Neil chuckles, thinking back on that first encounter with Claire. “I wouldn’t call it ‘gossipy,’ but she has a point. I just wanted to spend time with her and help her make other new friends. Like when Joanna moved in next door and you walked around the block with her.”
“Yeah!” Mari giggles. “I made sure to tell her who keeps the good snacks in their house.”
“Henry’s dads!” Both Cici and Mari say at the same time. Neil shakes his head and laughs. His life is full of a lot of such laughter ever since these angels came into his life.
Cici fiddles with the ruffle on her sock. She’s going through a very girly phase, which is both hilarious and adorable. “Did you not see Mama at all at Santa Botavee before you got married?”
Mari winces at Cici’s mangling of the hospital name. “Saint Bone-Na-Ven-Ture, Cici” The younger girl ignores her, preferring her own pronunciation, apparently. Neil stays quiet. Cici’s version is close enough.
Neil begins Cici’s first braid. “I saw her sometimes when we would have lunch. But we were busy. And I had a different girlfriend and Uncle Jared was her boyfriend.”
“That is SO weird,” Mari chimes in. Neil can’t disagree, thinking back on it. Then again, his bias is clear.
“But then Uncle Aaron got real sick and me and Mama worked together for one year while he got better.”
Cici perks up. “I bet that was fun! Did you play a lot like you do with us now?”
Neil laughs. “Your mama and I argued all the time. She talked back sometimes and I didn’t like that. And I kicked her off my service for a few weeks.”
Mari very matter of fact asks, “Did she talk back because she had a good point? Mama says that sometimes you can talk back if you aren’t mean and you want to make a good point.”
“She would say that, because she was the one that liked to talk back.” Both girls giggle.
Looking up very earnestly at him, Cici asks, “Did you make up when you kicked her out?”
Neil leans down and kisses Cici’s worried little frown. “Of course, we did. She said she was sorry, and I can’t stay mad at your mama for very long.”
“Because you love her?” Cici confirms.
“Well, I didn’t know it then, but yes I guess so.” He ties off one braid and starts on the other.
Mari now jumps down from her bed and sits on the floor to pull on her shoes. “Why were you fighting so much if you loved her.”
Neil thinks about how to phrase it for their young minds. “I guess it’s like when Kevin kept kicking your chair in class. Because he liked you but didn’t want you to know it. So, he tried to get your attention and figure it out.”
Mari’s face scrunches up pondering the logic he presents and then she shrugs. “Grownups are very silly.” She nudges Cici’s foot with her own to make her sister laugh.
“Yeah, silly,” Cici agrees, although Neil is pretty sure she doesn’t understand quite what she’s co-signing.
He watches Mari retreat from her teasing of Cici and turn her attention towards the door. A bright, playful smile rises on her face as she stands to show her mother her outfit. “I am ready to go!” Mari exclaims.
Claire walks in, dressed in her running gear. Even so many years after that first day they’d met, she looks fantastic. He doesn’t think there’ll ever be a time when he won’t look at her and watch the world fade away to just the two of them for a few moments.
The timing worked out that she could squeeze an outdoor run in while he got the girls dressed for school. She’ll give them breakfast while he showers and then after they’ve left for school and Claire for work, he’ll crash for a few hours.
“I see, my love!” Claire walks over to Mari and takes her hand, giving her a twirl to show off. “Now come sit down so I can wrangle that hair.”
Mari obediently waits for Claire to take a seat on the little bed and then sits between her legs. “Can I wear it down today with a headband, please?”
“You certainly may. Do you want a purple one to match your shirt?” Mari nods and then holds still as Claire runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair, loosening her curls. She grabs what the girls call their “hair-do bucket” and picks out some product to help tame Mari’s wild mane, more similar to Claire’s texture than his.
Cici wiggles in his lap, getting impatient. He holds her still muttering that he’s almost done. “Mama, Papa said you used to fight all the time when you worked together at the hospital.”
Claire flashes him a confused look. “I was telling them my version of how we met. And that we only worked together for one year.”
Understanding smooths her features. “Ah, yes, he’s right, ladies. We fought all the time. But a lot of time, it was like play fighting.”
“That’s what Papa said too,” Cici explains. Finally finished with her hair, she shoots up to bring her shoes over so her father could properly latch them.
“Did you go away after you didn’t work together anymore?” Mari asks. “Did you not like that Papa had another girlfriend?”
Neil feels a little sheepish about the question, and Claire rolls her eyes but smiles at the memory. “No, I was not mad about Papa’s girlfriend. I liked your Aunt Audrey. She was way more fun to work with than grumpy ole Papa.”
Both girls crack up at that while Neil appears shocked. That makes them all laugh harder.
“Aunt Audrey was your girlfriend?” Mari shouted. “See Cici, weird grownups. So, if you weren’t mad, where did you go?”
“I went back to working with Uncle Aaron and Uncle Shaun. I missed them.” Claire digs through the bucket to grab a purple headband. After she slips it over Mari’s head, she tickles her. “And Aunt Morgan was very annoying to work with too.” All of them chuckle at that, too. The girls think Morgan is a hoot and laugh anytime she and their mother would bicker.
“Okay, Las Hermanas,” Neil says. “Mama’s gonna get you breakfast and walk you to Joanne’s to get the bus.”
“Papa’s gotta take a nap?” Cici says, a very serious look on her face.
“Exactly,” he replies, nodding equally as serious. “Papa’s gotta take a nap. Come here and give me a kiss. I’ll see you after school.” In a matter of seconds, he’s surrounded by tiny bundles of love and joy in his arms that he worships with every breath he takes. Letting them go, he watches them barrel down the stairs to the kitchen. “Be good!” he calls after them.
Claire follows them out of the room, shaking her head at him. “I don’t want to think of the liberties you took telling them that story.” Yet she pauses to reach up for a lingering kiss before heading downstairs to supervise their mostly good but sometimes destructive daughters.
Neil sighs, standing at the doorway of his daughters’ bedroom, listening to their chatter drift up along with giggles and Claire’s easy conversation. Although he’s tired, he can’t bring himself to move away from where he’s rooted, suddenly desperate to hold on to every second of this reality for which he thanks God every day of his life.
He does finally make his way down the hall to his and Claire’s bedroom and showers. By the time he’s finished and changed, he can tell the house is empty as Claire makes the quick trip next door with the girls. Checking the time, he figures she might even wait for the bus with them and then come back home to shower and head to the hospital to start her shift. These split shifts between them are brutal but necessary to handle the girls. And at least they usually have the weekends all to themselves.
By the time Claire returns, he’s crawled into bed sending one last email from the tablet at his bedside. She smirks as she comes into the bedroom and heads for the shower, probably laughing at the reading glasses he now needs on occasion. She likes to tease him about how sexy nerd-chic it makes him look.
The familiar sounds of his normal, quieter part of the morning lull him into a drowsy calm. The tinkling of water on tile stops and he hears Claire moving around in the closet as she dresses for the day. He’s doing his best to stay awake so they can have one adult conversation before she leaves, but that doesn’t look too promising the longer she lingers in the bathroom.
A gentle movement at the side of the bed rouses him. Smiling, he thinks that opening his eyes to Claire’s warm, loving face staring down at him is the best part of any day.
Kissing him softly, she strokes his cheek, apologetic about waking him up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to wake you,” she whispers. “I just wanted to say goodbye.” He responds by leaning up for another longer taste of her, deepening their kiss until he has her clutching his shoulder and matching his labored breaths to keep up.
“I’ll forgive you this one time,” he teases. “Good morning.”
She chuckles. “Good morning.” Another chaste kiss and she pulls back. “And good night. I have to run. My residents have been feeling a little unhinged lately with evaluations coming up. They need peak supervision.”
Neil chuckles. “I won’t miss that.” Neil is about to take sabbatical so he’s forgone another class of residents for at least two years. He strokes her hair, both reluctant to part. “You’re doing okay?”
Claire rolls her eyes, laughing at him. “You worry too much,” she says. “You should just be happy I let you talk me into number three.”
Neil lets his fingers waver down to her waist as he settles a hand over her stomach. They’re still in the early weeks and Claire’s morning sickness is already brutal. As always, though, she’s handling it like a warrior. Maybe he shouldn’t be so greedy as to want even more riches than he already has, but he can’t help the unbridled excitement over adding to their family.
From that moment when he first met her, he knew deep down she was everything he needed; could give him everything he ever wanted.
“What’s the matter?” She frowns and he moves his hand up to smooth out the harsh line across her pretty face. He sweeps her long hair behind her shoulder, noticing the streaks of gray that have started to weave themselves into her curls. “You looked so serious just now.”
He trails his fingers along her cheek. “It’s nothing. Just thinking about how lucky I am. Talking to the girls about when we first met made me realize how fragile this all is. I mean, what if Glassman hadn’t bothered with his internship program and you’d ended up as my resident. Maybe we would never have gotten here.”
“Because we would have killed each other,” she offers, laughing.
He snickers as well. “Probably.”
Recognizing some unidentifiable discomfort, Claire grabs his hand from where he’s been tracing along the new lines in her eyes and along her smile. She leans over to rest her head against his chest, looking up at him as he reclines against the lush array of pillows at the head of their bed. He in turn strokes along the crown of her head as he cradles her beautiful face and smiles softly down at her. She blinks up at him, so trusting. So damn loving. It moves him to gasp a little, which only makes her peer more brightly at him in the dim room.
She rests her hand along his as he holds her. “I guess there are a lot of what ifs in life,” she concedes. “What if I had been your resident. What if you’d never taken that stairwell and caught me breaking down after my mom died.” Reaching up to smooth his unruly hair, now fully salt and pepper, she adds, “what if you hadn’t been waiting for my shift to end the day of that earthquake so you could give me a ride to the brewery. You were so irritated at me for running late. But it may have saved you when that building collapsed.”
Neil feels a chill at that memory. She has a point. He’d at least been able to join the HURT team and they’d gotten there in time to save his former patient, Marta, from paralysis.
“That was a hard day.” There had been some traumatic experiences on his team. Park, Morgan, Shaun, all of them. “But I haven’t forgotten you making a cell saver out of a beer engine.”
Claire laughs. “Incredible, huh?”
“Definitely,” he agrees, stroking her face again and enjoying the weight of her against him. “And what if we hadn’t gone on that walk the next morning. Watched the sunrise together.”
Smiling, Claire closes her eyes, recalling those moments. “Too tired for a run but needing to get away.” She opens her eyes, reaching up to trace his lips. “What if you hadn’t kissed me on that hill?”
Neil turns his head to press his lips to her wandering fingers against his face. “I thought you kissed me,” he challenges, playfulness in his expression.
“Don’t even try it, Neil.”
Remembering that day, the feeling of her next to him. The fear in his heart over how terribly things could have turned out for him, well, he couldn’t hold back anymore. “You’re right, of course.” She pokes his chin, chastising him for his glib response, then again stroking along his cheek affectionately. “I couldn’t deny any more that I’d fallen so much in love with you. I didn’t want to deny it anymore.”
“You didn’t need to. Neither of us did.” Claire leans up to kiss him once more. “It’s a good thing you were so good looking, though” she jokes.
Shocked, Neil tugs on her hair. “Were?” I haven’t heard any complaints lately. Especially, a few months ago when we got ourselves into this this little sticky situation.” He once again reaches down to gently rub her only slightly rounded stomach.
After long moments, she pulls his hand away and brings it back up to her lips to kiss along his fingers. “I don’t want to live in what-ifs. We’re here. We’re happy. Let’s hold onto it.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” He yawns, his eyes a touch lazier than a few moments before.
They both know she needs to get to work, but it feels too good to be in each other’s arms. Claire rests soundly against his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heart. Neil cradles her precious, beautiful, brilliant face in his hands as they stare into each other’s eyes. Sometimes all you need to survive is having the one you love so close, stillness around you, the possibilities and comforts of knowing your other half is near with nowhere else in the world they want to be.
Claire looks over at the clock, not moving away, but letting reality slip back between them. He could have sworn they’d stopped time with the sheer force of their contentment.
“Stay,” Neil says, pressing her against him. “At least until I fall back asleep. It’s only fair,” he teases.
Squeezing his fingers in her hand and settling against him, his wife’s sweet smile beams directly into him, into his eyes, into his heart and soul.
Neil feels another shudder. A flash of pain, a deep ache of regret. Then flooded with love and gratitude. But with the constant solid feel of Claire in his arms, the pain subsides. He once again rests his hand against her stomach. And he feels peace.
He has this. He has exactly what he needs in his arms. He can let go.
Her heart and her body full of life. His mind clear of loss.
Her hand clinging to his wrist as he cradles her face. His eyes heavy with sleep, needing to rest.
Her hair coiled around his fingers. His soft caress along the crown of her head, not wanting her to go. Not wanting to leave.
A wish, a premonition of her eyes shining with tears. Thinking of their children’s potential, her thinking of him.
A memory, a vision of her face. A flower in her hair, a flower in her hand.
A breeze across skin, a weight of twirling his daughters in the air, of his wife's body in his arms.
All black. A shroud across her, a veil behind his eyes
The quiet morning beyond their window.
His eyes close.