(Five years later)
Clear blue sky above me, I let my eyes slowly close, lulled by the rush of wind through the trees and the sound of water lapping at the lake shore.
My heart feels full and peaceful. The kind of peaceful that sinks into your bones. I feel it more, the more time that passes. Acceptance, growth… It's a process. It ebbs, and it flows, highs and lows.
Irina told me once that trauma leaves a scar. And she's right. Sometimes it's physical, but more often than not, it's not visible. It's a mental burden you live with, day after day. It seeps into the most mundane of everyday things; the smallest of things triggering painful memories.
Most of the time you have no choice but to carry on. Responsibilities stop you from crumbling under the weight of everything. It would have been easy to. Medication helped to an extent. Therapy is better.
I try to work through bad memories and negative thoughts, rather than bottling them up, now. No matter how painful it is, it only hurts more in the end if I don't.
Caius, James, Alec… Masen.
All people who changed parts of me. Had a profound impact on the person I am now. Some for the better, some for the worse.
I think I lived off adrenaline alone for months, after. I had Max to think about. I had different sides of law enforcement that needed answers. I had hours of explaining myself over and over. What happened. Why I did what I did.
Coming to terms with killing Alec has been difficult; mostly because I feel no remorse. None at all. It was the only choice I had, and I'd do it again.
The fact Masen had been listed as being an informant in an active investigation meant that they decided not to pursue any charges; a silver lining, I guess.
I still dream about it though. That night. My brain still trying to come to terms, for it to make sense; even now, years later.
My memories are hazy. I don't remember the EMTs arriving; I don't remember the journey to the hospital. If I try really hard, I can hear the sirens wailing. Snatches of urgent voices, but nothing concrete.
The things I do remember I've replayed over and over in my head, so many times.
The look I got from a couple as I stood in the corridor outside resucitation, the horror on their faces. How bright and harsh the fluorescent lights were overhead. I remember looking down at myself; seeing what they saw... My clothes, my hands, soaked and smeared in dark red blood.
My husband's blood.
His life literally all over me.
I remember the nurse who hoisted me up from my knees as I buckled, distraught. She took me by the arm into a cubicle and cleaned me up as best she could. Her kindness swallowed up in everything that followed. I vaguely remember her telling me that the hospital was a level one trauma centre, that he was in good hands.
"Do you have someone coming?" she asked, over and over. "Do you want me to call someone?"
I couldn't think straight enough to give her an answer.
Demetri turned up not long after. Elizabeth and Carlisle not long after that.
I'm distracted as footsteps get closer to where I'm lying on my lounger, soaking up the sun. I can't help but smile. Max. His tell-tale giggles; the slapping of his feet on the wooden boards of the dock as he runs down it and throws himself into the water with a shriek and a huge splash.
The world is still dim underneath sunglasses as I open my eyes, propping myself up on my elbows to watch. Even at seven, I know he's going to be a heartbreaker; tall, with a mop of dark hair, he's the image of his daddy.
I remember the surgeon's face swimming as he told me Masen had gone into cardiac arrest whilst they were working on him. That they had to open his chest up and physically massage his heart to get it beating again.
"You need to prepare yourself for the worst," he said.
And I remember sinking into a seat and thinking how can anything prepare you for losing the person you love?
I remember seeing Masen for the first time in the ICU, hooked up on life support, in an induced coma, ventilator breathing for him. So many wires and tubes and machines beeping.
God, the beeping.
Minus his spleen and left kidney, I remember being told that even if he made it through the next few hours, there were new complications that could arise from clamping an artery during surgery; sepsis, gangrene, amputation.
I remember how long each hour was of those first critical twenty-four. I spent every one I could by his side, holding on to him for dear life, as he did the same.
Two more surgeries, a secondary infection, so many days and nights that blurred together. I lived between the hospital and his mom's, the cops still carrying out forensics on the house.
I barely slept, I didn't eat. I felt guilty for leaving Max, guilty for leaving Masen.
I don't believe in God, but I prayed. I prayed to whatever deity would listen during those first few hours, the days that followed, and then for weeks after.
And they didn't go unanswered.
My eyes find Masen now, cheering Max on, his head just visible as he treads water in the lake. I push my sunnies up, and when our eyes meet, he winks, my heart stuttering in my chest.
He was lucky. We were lucky.
He swims towards the deck, Max latched round his shoulders and I smile wide as he hauls them both up, muscles rippling, tan from the weeks we've spent here at Papà's lake house in Arizona, on our annual vacation from our lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle has more rain than Chicago, but it was time for a fresh start, for all of us. Six months after Masen got the all clear from the hospital we hired a U-Haul and left Chicago for good.
Life is quiet; any lingering threats under lock and key.
"C'mon Mom, ain't you gonna do a cannonball too?" Max asks enthusiastically, running up to me, tugging on my hand.
"I can't," I smile at him, moving my book, standing and stretching as Masen towels off. I peek at him, the white scar on his torso, the scar down his chest. They're forever the reminder of another trauma we went through, another thing we survived.
We joke that we match now. My scar and his.
"Oh." Max frowns at me. "Is it cos of the baby?"
I glance down at my tummy where I'm rounding out nicely now at twenty-six weeks. Planned, this time.
"Yeah, baby, wouldn't want your little brother or sister getting scrambled in there, huh?"
Masen drips water on me as he pulls me in for a kiss.
"Yuck," Max complains, nose wrinkling. "I'm gonna find Nana. Are Nonno and Uncle Dem coming down soon?"
"Soon. Sunday," I tell him, sighing as he runs full pelt inside the house.
Papà and Demetri coming down is something me and Max have been looking forward to. Masen? Not so much. Tension thick between Papà and him. The first time they met in person, a few years ago, almost ended up with them fighting. I tell them both it's because they're so similar, but they're just too pig-headed to acknowledge it, even now.
Tolerance is where they're at, I think, and only for my sake. Nothing more.
"You OK?" Masen asks, fingers tugging at my bikini bottoms.
"Just… remembering." I swallow, feeling tearful, his eyes softening. "We're so lucky you're here," I whisper.
"I know," he murmurs.
"It's stupid because I'm really happy right now." I almost feel guilty for it. For being this happy. "Hormones, huh?"
He looks me over and smiles.
"Mmhm.You are burning." I press the tips of my fingers into the tops of red shoulders before I lace them around his neck. Dark eyes twinkle, warm lips finding mine again.
We stay like that for a while, and I close my eyes feeling blissed, content as he holds me, as baby kicks his hand and he pushes gently back.
Max runs out to us again, a whirlwind of energy as he wraps his arms around us both. My hand finds his wet hair, brushing it back off his face as he puts his hand on my belly too.
"Here, buddy." Masen moves Max's hand underneath his so he can feel. His eyes grow wide when he feels his sibling kick out, beaming up at us.
"That's so… weird," he says, his voice low. Masen and I laugh.
I think baby is another boy, but Masen and Max are convinced it's a girl this time, and in a matter of months we'll find out for sure.
Right now though, I breathe in my little family, enjoying the normal I always craved; living each day, because we know how lucky we are to be here. Despite it all.
We focus on what matters most.
Us, together, as a family.
It's all we ever wanted.
And everything else?
Everything else is just...
The End! For reals.
Thank you so much for all the love and support this story has received, I really appreciate it so, so much. This fic has never been about quiet moments. It's all about the angst, the cliffies, the drama and it's been so much fun, I really hope you've enjoyed the rollercoaster as much as I have!
Biggest thank you to Monica who's spent hours of her time beta-ing and to Heather and Maria for pre-reading. Couldn't have done this without you guys!
LittleEva:If this clearly takes place in Chicago, why use British grammar and construction? It always jolts the reader from the story and makes me question where this is taking place.
Just going to answer this here as I can't respond to guest reviews.
It's simply a case of not knowing any "better". I'm British, my natural instinct is to write with the grammar and construction I know. I didn't want this set in the UK so I've tried to Americanize things where I can (sweaters rather than jumpers, nail polish rather than varnish, etc.) but it isn't the easiest. My beta is American, as are my pre-readers and they catch most things (I mean, do you know how difficult it is to retrain yourself to put z where it doesn't belong? Haha.) I'm sorry if it jolts you out the story, if there's something specific then please PM me and I'll change it! No matter how much time I spend binge watching American TV series on Netflix, I'm not American so you know, let me know… I won't bite, promise :)
Till next time!
Ps. Any nasty reviews won't see the light of day. You want to criticize? Go for it! Just do it constructively. I don't deserve abuse for writing as a hobby. I NEVER claimed I could write even remotely well. Don't like? Don't read. (Also, nowhere near being a boomer, Sam. Closer in age to you. Thanks for the lols.)