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Gentian Violets

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It rained in the night.

When Joan steps into her kitchen that morning, there are dappled shadows sprawled across her cream-colored cabinets, the scent of petrichor in the air. The blossoms have been shaken loose from her violets, dotting her lawn with vibrant splashes of color. Owen busies himself by the stove, his strawberry blond hair sticking up in tufts from where he’s nervously run his fingers through it. She hesitates by the door, watching him as he fusses with the pancake batter and ponders over the pulp ratio in the orange juice she’d stocked her refrigerator with. Given how long it’s been since she’s gone food shopping, it wouldn’t have surprised her if the juice had already expired, and sure enough, Owen dumps its contents discreetly into the sink, his brow creasing to reflect his thoughts on the revelation that the great and infallible Dr. Joan Bright has expired goods in her refrigerator.

Owen was never one for grand gestures. He always preferred to show his care by making sure Joan ate a healthy breakfast before they left for work and was getting enough rest between her shifts. His love was a single flower placed on her nightstand in the morning or pills with a cup of water for her headaches. It was the brush of his fingers over her knuckles when they crossed paths in the halls, a vanilla latte waiting for her on her desk after a hard day.

His touches were simple and they were beautiful, like sunlight streaming through raindrops.

She makes her way soundlessly to the kitchen table and pulls out a seat. There is a plate setting waiting for her, and a glass of water with condensation dripping down its sides. Owen urges her to drink with a stern expression.

“You can’t stay here forever, Joan,” he says eventually, when she stares at the glass without touching it. Joan thinks he is wrong. Where else is there for her to go?

She pulls in a shuddering breath, holds it. Her heart flutters behind her ribs. “We’ll be fine.”

Her voice is a hidden thing, rusty from disuse. It shatters the silence like a hammer taken to glass.

She does not want to speak again. She prays Owen won’t ask her to, but he shakes his head sadly. There is pancake batter on his apron, flour streaking his cheeks. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“I love you,” Joan says, because she hasn’t said it enough. Because she means it.

Because she wants him to stay.

The dollops of pancake batter Owen’s poured onto the grill have startled to bubble on the surface. Joan thinks of telling him that they’re ready to be flipped, but when she turns to look at him he’s leaning against the counter, meeting her gaze with a quiet adoration that takes her breath away. Owen has never been secretive when it comes to how much he loves her, and yet seeing it now, tinged with resigned acceptance and wistfulness and regret, is enough to drive her to tears.

His hand folds around her cheek. “You haven’t felt that way about me in a long time.”

She wants him to wrap his arms around her, to hold her and make her feel safe, but knows it won’t make a difference in the end. She can’t feel his palm, he can’t wipe her tears.

The pancakes on the grill are never going to burn.

“Please, Owen.” It sounds like she’s pleading. She is. “I want you to stay.”

His hand falls from her face, setting on her wrist. For a moment, his expression crumbles. He squeezes his eyes shut, takes a steadying breath, “And I need you to be happy.”

White-hot anger lances through Joan, evaporating the fog she’s lived in for weeks, enough that she can stand up and demand, “How am I supposed to be happy?”

She can still feel slick blood on her hands, impossible to wash off. The blood of a man who is so selfless, so good, that even in his final moments all he cared about was her health, her happiness. And even now…

Why doesn’t he hate her? Why doesn’t he blame her? Doesn’t he know that everything that happened was her fault? If she hadn’t let Helen out, if she hadn’t let herself be manipulated, then Owen and Dr. Sharpe wouldn’t have had to pay for her mistakes.

“I don’t forgive you.” Joan stops breathing.

Owen sees her eyes widen with shock and hurt, and rushes to continue, “Sorry, sorry, that didn’t come out right.” He takes a moment to slide his fingers through his hair, messing it up further. The familiarity of it almost brings a smile to Joan’s face. In another life, she would have grabbed his hand to keep him from fidgeting and combed out his hair until it laid flat. “You don’t need my forgiveness, Joan. You did the best you could. We all did.”

It doesn’t make her feel better. Should it? Should knowing she did everything she could and it still wasn’t enough make her feel better?

Her stomach twists, her throat constricts, her vision starts to swim. “I want to stay with you,” she whispers. It hurts.

Everything hurts so much she’s afraid she’ll forget what her world was like when it wasn’t filled with pain. She’s afraid to go outside, terrified to face a world she can’t change.

Owen’s lips press lightly against her brow. This time, she thinks she feels it, the warmth that spreads from his touch.

The doorbell rings with a pleasant chime. Mark’s voice calls out, "Good morning, Joanie! Sam and I brought bagels. Including those cinnamon raisin ones I know you like.”

Sam laughs, bright and uninhibited. “Mark already ate one on the way, but don’t worry. I made sure we bought an extra one just in case.”

Joan doesn’t get up to let them in. Owen is gone and her mind has stopped working. Owen is gone and Mark is here and Owen doesn’t blame her and Mark doesn’t blame her and why doesn’t anyone blame her?!

She doesn’t even have the strength to remember that Sam can pick locks before she’s breaking into her apartment. Distantly, Joan feels guilty about that. They must have been calling for a while if she’s resorted to making use of those skills.

Mark and Sam rush in to find her sitting alone in the kitchen. There’s no glass of water, no pancakes on the grill. Her milk and orange juice are long expired, but both are sitting in her refrigerator, untouched. When asked about the last time she’s eaten, Joan has to admit that she doesn’t know, and then Mark sits down in the seat beside her while Sam pours her a glass of water and Joan can smell cinnamon bagels, sweet and warm.

There’s a part of her that wants to tell them not to worry - that Owen’s been taking care of her - but that will make Mark look at her like... like he doesn’t know whether to take her by the shoulders and shake her or cry.

Whatever she says or doesn’t say, Joan is sure that Sam is going to call her therapist or Jackson or both. It’s not something Joan can control. However, she can lessen the pain in her stomach by taking a bite of a bagel, she can soothe the burning in her throat by taking a small sip of water.

Under her brother’s watchful gaze, she can try to smile.

The flowering violets in her garden fell from their stems during the storm, but violets are hardy plants. They will grow back when they are ready.

One blossom at a time.