All surgeons, Meredith Grey decided, were, at their core, artists. She had been a painter in high school, spending all of her free time in the cement-floored art room, splashing acrylic onto canvases. She'd had paint permanently stuck under her fingernails, lots and lots of black eyeliner, and a taste for music that everyone else in her private high school despised. She'd gotten by on her brains (not that she'd used them) and the fact that she loved to party and her mother was never home. She still loved painting and drawing; her doodles were a testament to that. Somewhere she even had some of her best work from high school.
Most of the rest of her friends had some form of art in their background, too: Burke played the trumpet and was a serious jazz aficionado; Cristina had seriously considered a career in ballet and could play classical piano; George had taken clarinet lessons all through school and hated it. Alex was the son of musicians; he could pick up most instruments and play them by ear. He was especially good at guitar. Izzie had taken dances classes, on and off throughout her childhood, and had a natural grace that had led to a career as a backup dancer, which had led to the modeling gigs. Even Bailey had once revealed to Cristina that she had been an ice skater from the time she was three to the time she was thirteen. It was as if they unconsciously set out to be surgeons, their hobbies and passions training them, teaching their hands and bodies the delicate, graceful moves and molding their fluid, almost melodic motions that surgery—which was really the perfect marriage of technical skill and graceful movement—required. Surgery was tough; becoming a surgeon was almost tougher. That extra training in balance and precision and grace really helped.
The only one who had no background in art or music was Derek—ironic, because the brain was the most delicate, most precise specialty there was. He'd been an affable nerd, the sort of kid who joined things but didn't stand out, was smart but didn't apply himself, was popular but never pushed. The drive and the aggression necessary for a surgeon hadn't kicked in until med school, and even then he was the laid-back mild one, seemingly just in it for a hell of a ride.
A wistful smile on her face, Meredith was jerked back to reality as the tinkly piano music stopped and the abrupt applause of the audience kicked in. She caught Cristina's eye over Nelle's head, and smiled and nodded encouragingly. Avery was standing at the front of the church's sanctuary, smiling and bowing a little before practically running back to sit with her family. Burke opened his arms, letting her climb over his lap, and she snuggled in between her mother and father. Both quietly congratulated her; her first piano concert had been a success.
Avery had been towards the end of the program; the piano teacher believed in mixing up the beginners with her most advanced students to give the younger ones a sense of awe and the older ones a sense of appreciation. Two students later, Meredith was able to stand and stretch. It was a good thing, too; she was beginning to feel creaky just sitting there and zoning out.
"That was so much fun!" Avery exclaimed, "And I didn't even mess up, hardly. Didn't I, Mom?"
"No, Aves, you did a great job." Cristina smiled fondly at her daughter, and Meredith smiled fondly at Cristina. She remembered the engagement, how Cristina had sworn that getting married didn't mean she became less of a surgeon and more of a housewife—she wasn't going to have kids or do any homey crap, and if she was going to have kids, it was going to be in the far, far future, because she wanted surgery first. Then, barely a year after the wedding, she'd found out she was pregnant. She was actually more surprised than excited, she'd once confided to Meredith, since she hadn't expected to get pregnant, while using protection, with only one fallopian tube. She'd been ambivalent the whole pregnancy; freaked, she'd once explained to Meredith, since she was pretty positive she was going to suck and screw this kid over. She didn't like kids (she still didn't like most kids, really only her own) and she would never give up surgery, and neither would Burke. Everyone had been fairly apprehensive as to how they would handle the screaming bundle of joy.
Now, five years later, they were making it work. It was difficult and stressful—Cristina, had, of course, not given up surgery, had still managed to complete the program with the highest marks and get a smashing fellowship with Bailey and Webber about liver tumors. But they'd had Avery, and Cristina had—adapted. She was still Cristina, hard and steely and blunt—even more so now that she had the mother tigress thing going— but she filtered things differently; she processed things differently. Three years after Avery came Nelle, planned, according to Cristina, because she'd been an only child and it had sucked, so she was going to give Avery a sister. Their third child, Cooper, now three months old and at the hospital day-care, was as unplanned as Avery had been. Izzie and Meredith had dubbed Cristina the Golden Ovary after she announced—six months along, though Mere had suspected at two—that she was pregnant, again, even though everyone had told her it would be extremely hard to have children. There was a nanny, Kariin, but Preston and Cristina went to as many activities as they could and basically scheduled their entire lives around their children.
"I did really really good." Avery was practically skipping. "I didn't mess up at all, besides two tiny little mistakes. Much better than Kelsey." Her voice was slightly disdainful. Kelsey was a friend of Avery's; she had gotten stage fright and her mother had had to go up front to walk her down.
Burke exchanged a significant look with Cristina, who rolled her eyes before saying, "Aves, you know that's not nice, to talk about other people like that." Almost as if she couldn't help herself, she added, "Besides, it's not a competition. Only compete against yourself, babe—not with the others."
"You're right. That gets boring anyways. Nobody likes to win all the time. I need new goals." Avery walked carefully in front of her mother, pulling Cristina along by her hands.
Burke threw another significant look at Cristina, who raised her shoulders and smiled. "Avery, babe, remember what we talked about? About being gracious and humble?" He tried.
"We need to know that we have lots of talents, and we don't tell people who aren't that we're better than them." The little girl's voice was almost comical, with a tint of sullenness. Burke sighed, knowing that was the best he was going to get out of mini-Cristina, and shifted Nelle from one hip to the other.
Mrs. Pearson, the piano teacher, approached the small family. "Avery, great job." She smiled, opening her arms for the girl.
Avery dashed over and hugged her. She'd adored the elderly pastor's wife since she'd started taking lessons ten months ago. "I didn't mess up once! Well, two little mistakes. And it was a two-hand song!"
"Yes, it was very hard, wasn't it?" she smiled. "Dr. and Dr. Burke—you must be extremely proud."
"Yeah, she did really well, didn't she?" Burke smiled. "She really enjoys it, too—hardly ever have to make her practice, she always does it on her own."
"She's very talented." Mrs. Pearson said earnestly. Avery listened, wide-eyed. "Really a treasure to teach."
"Thank you." Cristina said. "Both, you know, for the lessons and for the concert. It was very enjoyable, for the most part."
"Couple of kids screwed up." Avery explained.
"Aves," Cristina warned. "Remember what Daddy just said."
"Right." Avery said. She looked up at her parents. "Can we go get cookies? Mrs. Pearson put them downstairs."
Burke looked at his watch. "I left O'Malley with my bypass; I better get back and check up as he closes up. No pages; he should have gotten through everything else all right. I have some paperwork to pick up, too." He handed Nelle—who was being cranky and refusing to walk—to his wife and kissed her on her cheek. "And I'll pick up Cooper on my way home." He promised.
"Kay, we'll order the Thai." Cristina smiled, wincing as she shifted Nelle's weight.
"Pizza," Avery corrected her mother.
"See you, Meredith." Burke nodded, acting like he hadn't heard Avery's comment. "Thanks for coming."
"Yeah," Avery echoed, wonderingly, it suddenly occurring to her to use manners. "Thanks, Meredith."
"Well, thank you, Avery. It was very wonderful."
"Yeah, it was." She grinned.
Meredith looked up to Burke. "Say hello to that crazy husband of mine."
"Will do." Burke kissed his wife again and then both daughters before striding towards the back of the church.
"Mom, can we go get cookies?" Avery asked again, impatiently.
"Sure. Just one, though, okay?"
"Yes!" Avery shouted, letting go of her mother's hands and dashing downstairs.
Mrs. Pearson smiled and laughed, watching Avery take off. "She's really quite remarkable, Dr. Burke-Yang. Just naturally talented, plus she's taken to it very quickly. Some children take years to develop things that just come naturally to her."
Cristina smiled. "I think she does really enjoy it, I'm sure that helps."
"Yes." Mrs. Pearson affirmed. "If only she was less competitive—less harsh on both herself and others. I don't think I've ever seen a more competitive, perfectionist five-year-old before. Maybe it will tone down with age."
"Oh, I really doubt that." Cristina smiled. "Her dad and I are some of the most hardheaded, most stubborn and competitive people around. Hopefully her father's crusade for tact will start to kick in soon."
Mrs. Pearson smiled—an awkward mix of discomfort and benevolence—and replied, "Well, you never know. Still very young."
"Yeah." Cristina said, clearly done with the conversation. "I better go find her before she eats five cookies. It was very nice to see you again. She'll be there Tuesday."
The two women started towards the stairs. "Let me take Nelle. I need to practice," Meredith said. Besides that, Cristina had hurt her back during her latest pregnancy, and it was still sore quite a bit.
"You wanna go with Meredith?" Cristina checked with her daughter, who nodded slowly. Nelle was much more like Burke—Avery was obviously mini-Cristina—and more likely to take things slowly, deliberately, and quietly.
"Yeah. Yeah." The little girl stretched out of her mother's arms towards Meredith's. Meredith had been in the girl's life since she was four hours old; she was probably the fourth most-recognizable adult to Nelle, after her parents and Kariin.
"Come on, Nelly, let's get a cookie." Meredith wound her way down the stairs as Cristina stopped to talk to some other parent. They passed Avery, who had two cookies in her hands and another in her mouth. A guilty look passed over her face, quickly replaced by a conspirational one.
"Want one, Meredith?" she held out her hand.
"I'm good, Aves, but you might want to listen to your mother more often."
"Yeah, she catches things like this a lot. Kariin said mothers know these things. I think Derek puts a brain chip in them once they have babies."
"You'll have to check with him on that one. He's pretty sneaky."
"Yeah he is!" Avery brightened, her natural high from playing the piano well even more alleviated. "He—wait! I can't tell you! He's being sneaky and I'm not allowed to tell you."
"Yeah. You just have to wait a little bit. But it's good-sneaky, like when Dad wakes me and Nelle up early and has us bring Mom breakfast in bed, not bad sneaky."
"I'm really excited for that then."
"Cookie." Nelle said. The concert had interrupted her nap; she was being cranky.
"You want one, Nelly?" Avery held out her cookie. "I took three."
"Avery Angela Burke-Yang" Cristina's voice, clear and crisp, cut through. "I told you one cookie."
"See? I told you. Mom's sneaky."
"Yeah. Busted." The little girl sighed, her voice resigned. "It's that brain chip."
"Cookie." Nelle said louder. "Choco-chip cookie. Not sugar." She looked at her sister's choice and turned her head.
"Yeah, I promised you a cookie." Meredith said. "Let's go." She threw a look at Cristina, who nodded, and walked towards the long table set at one end of the hall. "Chocolate-chip? Do you want lemonade too?"
"Yeah. They go good together." She reached for the cookie on the table. Meredith quickly maneuvered to keep the girl from falling out of her arms.
"What a gorgeous baby!" a woman behind her exclaimed. "Such an unusual look. Where did you adopt her from? She's simply adorable."
Meredith turned to find a woman slightly older than herself standing behind her, wearing a long dress and matching coat. "I didn't." Meredith smiled. "She's my friend's. She's part Korean, part black. And 100 joy."
"Oh, I'm sorry—I just assumed." The woman seemed generally contrite.
Meredith waved her hands. "It's okay." She said reassuringly. "I get it."
"Great." The woman sounded relieved. "I'm Kathleen McCormick, Daisy's mother. She played a selection from Kinderscenen." Meredith nodded, though she didn't have a clue what that meant. "Which child is yours?"
"Oh—none of them. My goddaughter is Avery; she went third from last. This is Avery's younger sister, Nelle."
"Well, you'll be here in a few years then." Kathleen nodded towards her belly. She seemed genuinely friendly, just in a blunt way. And a more-positive blunt way than Cristina's. "When are you due?"
"I'm at twenty weeks, but that's long enough already. I can't wait."
"Do you know what you're having?"
"Yes, it's a girl. We're just stuck on names."
"Oh, it's fine. You won't pick one until after she's born. That's the way it happened with us. Daisy was supposed to be a Belinda. Donovan was supposed to be a Henry. And Darcy was supposed to be Mackenzie. Just, when they were born—the names didn't fit. So we chose new ones."
"We're making lists, checking them twice, all that jazz. My husband likes Ellen since our mothers are Ellis and Helen and that's a combination of sorts. I'm leaning towards Jacqueline because it always sounds elegant, or Austen since I love Jane Austen's books but hate the name Jane."
"Austen has a very elegant ring to it. And it sounds quite trendy, right now."
"I think it's very cool and unique, but my husband thinks it sounds like a boy's name and doesn't have any nicknames that will go with it. I say nicknames certainly don't have to match the names—his certainly don't. We have time, though. At least the nursery's done. And we're getting plenty of practice with this one and her little brother."
"Is your husband here?"
"Oh, no. We're both surgeons; he's in surgery right now. Avery's parents are surgeons, too, her father slipped out to go finish up a bypass. What are you in?"
"Oh, I was in marketing, but Darcy's still only four. Perhaps I'll go back to it one day. Are you planning on working after your baby's born?"
Meredith nodded. "I'm a surgeon. A brain surgeon. It's not feasible for me not to, after all those years of school—it'd be ridiculous. Plus, you keep with it for a reason. Mine is I love it too much to give up and pick an easier specialty." She fed the baby bits of cookie and carefully poured lemonade down her throat.
Kathleen smiled knowingly. "Well, I wish you the best."
Cristina walked up then—Meredith's saving grace. She held Avery's hands, and was wet-wiping them as they walked. "Mom says we get to go to the park until Dad finishes the bypass and picks up Cooper and then we can go for pizza!" she said joyfully. She was way too happy about her performance. "It's cause I did so well!"
"No, it's cause Mom feels like relaxing and you like the park. We don't tie rewards to performance." That was another one of Burke's things; making sure their children knew that both parents loved them unconditionally, even though Burke tended to set unrealistic expectations and Cristina could put a lot of pressure on them. Burke had lots of theories and ideas and plans; Cristina tended to roll her eyes and claimed that their kids were going to be brilliant, regardless, so freaking out and over planning wasn't going to help anything. Meredith knew that Cristina's mother had been just as difficult as her own and that Cristina was trying extremely hard not to mess with her kids' heads as much as her own mother had.
"It was nice to meet you. Daisy did wonderfully." Meredith said, wracking her brain trying to remember Kinderscenen.
"Thank you. Likewise. Good luck with the rest of your pregnancy." They smiled and parted.
"We're going to the park. We're going to the park." Avery sang the words and skipped out of the church.
"Aves, you better run off some of this energy before we get home." Cristina said tiredly as they reached the car. She opened the door and ably slipped the straps of the booster seat over Avery. Meredith struggled a little bit with Nelle's car seat, but was eventually successful.
"How long are we going to the park?" Meredith asked, sliding into the passenger seat.
Cristina checked her watch. "Burke should be an hour, then we can run by Venzetti's and pick up some dinner, and then we can drop you off. Unless you guys want to eat with us?"
"No, thanks, I'll pick up our own dinner at Subway. Don't forget, Izzie's housewarming is tonight."
"Crap, I'd forgotten. Why are they having a housewarming now? They moved in three months ago."
Meredith shrugged. "It's a great way to get gifts? I don't know, but we already RSVP'd and agreed to help set up. You remembered a babysitter right?"
"Yeah, the McKilligan girl from next door is coming over. At least she's eighteen; I don't like the younger babysitters. Burke's always trying to convince me to hire Dr. McNeal's girl, but she's only fourteen and then there's the whole driving them and everything, and Cooper's still so young. I think Burke wants to bring him tonight and just bring the bassinet too. I should call Izzie—"
"Mom, why do you call Dad Burke? Isn't that all of our names? And isn't he Preston?" Avery called from the back seat.
"Well, yeah, it's his last name. But I call him that cause I like it better. It's my nickname for him. Like, how I call you Aves and Nelle Nelly and Cooper Coop. and you know not to interrupt Meredith and I." Nelle looked up at her name.
"Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Meredith. But, it's his last name. Not a short name. Why don't you call him Presty or something? Since his first name's Preston?"
Cristina shrugged and met her daughter's eyes in the rear-view. "I just like it, sweetie."
"Okay." She seemed sated for about a second. "How come you call Derek McDreamy?"
Meredith chortled. "How did you hear that one, Aves?" Cristina asked, grinning.
"You and Meredith call him that. Well, you call him that when you're making fun of him. And you called Alex 'Spawn of Satan' once to Izzie and she got mad. Who's 'Spawn of Satan'?"
"Are you listening at the bedroom door again when Mom and Dad have friends over?"
Avery, caught, turned away and shrugged. "Maybe sometimes."
"You know you shouldn't do that. Your dad and I already told you about eavesdropping."
"Sorry." She said. She started the conversation over. "Why do you call Dad Burke, though? Why did you start?"
"Well, for a while he was my boss. He still is, I guess. And we called him 'Burke' for short when we were talking about him, and Derek was 'Shepherd' and Miranda was always 'Bailey.' And—you don't remember him, but he's your godfather—there was another doctor, named 'Webber.' We just always dropped the title 'Doctor' from their name. We weren't friends so we didn't call them by their first names. That's how I met your father."
"Was I born then?" Avery asked innocently.
"No, Aves, this was—" she turned to look at Meredith-"This was ten years ago. Meredith, we're old."
Meredith shrugged. "Yeah. You've been married for seven years. I've been married for four."
"We're old. When did this happen?"
"I don't know. I still feel like I'm fourteen half the time. And I'm having a baby, at thirty-eight. We're old parents but I still feel like I'm playing house half the time. Our kid's playmates' parents will be like twenty-nine, and we'll be forty-five and I'll feel like their parents. At least you've got Aves; you were thirty-four when she was born. That's more normal. How did you become the one with the normal life, married and three kids and you've even got a dog, first? Izzie was always supposed to be first."
"Yeah, she wanted it more." Cristina replied, sliding into a parking spot. Avery and Nelle visibly got more excited in the back seat. "Swings first, guys?"
"Yeah!" the both shouted excitedly.
"Mere, can you grab Nelle's jacket? It's getting cold." Cristina said, unbuckling herself and trying to grab Avery before the girl shot out of the car.
"Yeah, got it." Meredith swiftly grabbed the baby and twisted her into the pistachio microfiber jacket. "Like that?"
"Yeah. You wanna make me swing?" Nelle said eagerly.
"Let's go." They hiked to the swing set, where Avery and Cristina were already swinging away. Halfway there, Nelle started fussing like she wanted to walk, so Meredith set her down and she toddled towards her mother.
"Sure, sure, walk for Meredith but not for Mom," Cristina picked up her daughter, kissing her and setting her in a swing. "Meredith's going to push you, okay?"
"Not too hard," Nelle cautioned. "Just little ones."
"Alright sweetie, I've got it under control."
They were pushing away and laughing with the girls when Cristina said, "So what time do we have to be at Izzie's?"
"I promised her that we'd be there to set up at about six. The housewarming doesn't start till seven."
"So I have till seven." Cristina said, satisfied.
"I…sort of indicated that you'd be there at six, with us, to help set up. And I was there when she reminded Preston—that's the time she told him."
"See, Meredith calls him Preston!" Avery called triumphantly. "It's just weird that you call him Burke."
"Chalk it up to a Mom-and-Dad thing." Cristina said. "You know, one of those things that parents do that's special and that you're going to roll your eyes at when you're a teenager."
"Whatever." Avery said.
"You are way too good at saying that." Cristina replied, more to herself than her daughter.
"Hey, Mom, watch this!" Avery shouted, jumping off the swing. Limbs flailing, she flew through the air. When she landed, it was knees down, palms out. "Owe," she said, more to herself than her mom.
"Aves, you okay?" Cristina flew to her child's side.
"Yeah. It's fine," she had pulled herself into a kneeling position and was inspecting her knee.
"What's the damage?" That was the question Preston always asked her; the replies were always comical.
"It looks like a couple of abrasions on the right patella, with the possibility that contusions are coming." She delivered it all in a perfectly serious tone.
"What's the prescribed method of treatment?"
"Probably rest. A Band-Aid is probably necessary too."
"Probably? Do we deal with probably? Lives are on the line."
"No, we don't. Band-Aid necessary; the knee will be rested."
"Good diagnosis. Now how do we go about treatment?"
"First Aid kit is in the car."
"Let's go. Good job, Dr. Burke-Yang."
"Mom, you can't call me that! That's your name!" the professional, serious attitude was replaced by a giggly five-year-old.
"We better get going." Cristina called over her shoulder. "It's pretty much time to go anyways."
"Do you want to carpool to the party tonight? It'll be easier, and then we can all use you as a designated driver." Cristina suggested as they pulled up to Meredith's front door.
"Yeah. We'll be over about five-thirty. That gives you an hour."
"No problem. See you then." Cristina and the Land Rover roared off, both girls waving from the back seat.
Meredith smiled at their vanishing backside before walking the path and unlocking the front door. She didn't see the Escalade, but maybe it was in the garage. She hoped he was home—she didn't want to run after food.
Hearing noises in the kitchen, she headed in that direction. She was pleased to find Derek in there, puttering around and humming along to his iPod. She laughed as he danced around, putting the dishes away and taking out groceries.
Her laughter burbled louder after he turned to find her in the doorframe. He recovered quickly, though. Taking out the ear buds, he said, "How was the concert?" in an extremely normal tone of voice.
She laughed some more. "Pretty good. Aves did wonderfully. What were ya listening to? Duran Duran?"
"The Ramones." He replied smoothly. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Let's see." She crossed to the takeout menus. "Sandwiches."
"Sandwiches? We can do that here."
"But then it's no fun." She remembered something. "You know, Avery told me the weirdest thing today."
"You trust something that comes out of the mouth of the child of Cristina Yang and Preston Burke?"
"She's a regular font of intelligence these days. First, she said that you implanted brain chips in mothers so that they had a sixth sense about what their kids were up to. Then she said that you were up to something sneaky."
Derek's expression slipped into something unreadable. "Something sneaky, huh? I wonder what that could be."
"Me too." Meredith smiled. "You wouldn't have an inkling, would you? Considering you know that if your wife gets surprised, she hates surprises?"
"Yes, I do remember a certain thirty-fifth birthday fiasco. But, no, I can't think of anything 'sneaky.' I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled for you. I'd hate for you to get surprised since you hate surprises so much. Maybe I should pump Avery. That kid knows too much."
"She does. Today she fell of the swing and diagnosed contusions and abrasions on the patella and prescribed treatment."
"She's the only five-year-old I'll ever know that enjoyed her Jr. Chemist set more than the American Girl Doll that looked like her."
"You're just jealous she liked my gift best."
"Maybe a little," he grinned saucily.
"So the food. That we should order."
"We can make sandwiches."
"I want subs. I'm pregnant. I'm your wife. This is what happens. I want subs, we do subs. I want Cherry Garcia with pickles at two o'clock in the morning, we do Cherry Garcia with pickles at two o'clock in the morning."
"You don't like Cherry Garcia. So I win, and I'll make sandwiches."
"Fine." Meredith honestly didn't mind that much; she'd been a great non-complaining wife the entire pregnancy. "I told Cristina we'd carpool to the housewarming tonight, and I told Izzie that we'd be there to help set up around six."
"Izzie would flip if she found out how many people have forgotten. I had to remind Cristina today. She's got three children under the age of five to keep track of. What's your excuse?"
"I was in spine surgery with an infant whose spine was detaching with Izzie all day today and she didn't mention it."
"Excuses, excuses." Meredith grinned, swiping a piece of turkey from the counter. Tonight would be a good night, she could tell already.