Put Your Hands Into the Fire

At Grand Rounds Meredith tries to focus on the patients and their surgeries, as well as the attending surgeons and their rapid-fire questions. Normally the competitive challenge of Rounds is one of the highlights of a working day, but today thoughts of Derek - his house plans, the OR nurse he kissed, their latest (and maybe last?) break-up – shatter her concentration.

Two days ago Meredith had mustered all her courage to tell Derek that at last she was ready to be exclusive with him, for them to date only each other. She didn't say "let's go for the white picket fence" but she knew that he wanted the dream of home, children, and growing old together, and by asking that he not date other women she was taking her first step toward sharing that dream with him. She was ready to phase out the "sex & mockery" that frustrated him so, to make progress towards the relationship he deserved.

But shortly before she took that momentous step (and for her it was momentous), Derek kissed his OR nurse, a flirting kiss witnessed by several colleagues. When Meredith talked to Derek about dating only each other, he seemed happy, but he didn't tell her about that kiss, the giant conflict he'd just created in their new and exclusive dating relationship. Meredith learned about the kiss from George a day later, in the afternoon of the morning Derek showed her plans for the dream home he planned to build for them. It was too soon for Meredith to think about house plans and Derek knew that really. He was testing her, and giving himself an out if the prospect of a house was too much for Meredith's fragile resolve. When Meredith confronted Derek about the kiss (which demonstrated more resolve than either of them realized) he was armed with his usual defense. Yeah, so he'd kissed the nurse, but Meredith couldn't trust him or anybody! And the momentous step she'd taken the day before seems to have been over a cliff instead of into the arms of the man she loves.

When Rounds are over and Meredith begins working on the patients assigned to her, questions pop into her mind like balloons in a cartoon: ("He kisses his nurse one afternoon, shows me house plans the next morning, and wonders why I don't trust him?" . . . "Do I want to have that argument again? We can't have it again if we never had it once!" . . . "Who is that nurse anyway?")

Neither her work nor the questions swirling inside her fill the bleak black hole where she suffers the pain of losing what she finally knew she wanted, which she asked for only minutes after she lost it.

Does Derek think he can have his dream house and kids and life with . . . anybody? Any woman he hasn't lied to, or left, or blasted with his cruel temper yet? She'll be bright and shiny now, because she and Derek haven't had a problem. Yet.

Meredith knows this dream won't materialize for Derek if he tries to have it with someone else. It's a fact of life, like gravity or the weather, that Meredith and Derek love each other. Despite all that's happened to them, they love each other. Their love hasn't weakened since the night she told him her of her mother's Alzheimer's and he was ready to tell her he was married, but separated. It didn't weaken in the six months they were separated while he and Addison tried to resuscitate their marriage. Since he and Addison finally divorced, Derek and Meredith have been together and apart, he's walked away, she's tried to move on. They've hurt each other and themselves but, as self-destructive as they are, even they can't destroy the love they'll always have for each other.

Derek thinks Meredith has a problem trusting him; he doesn't think about the times he betrayed her trust. They never talk about it. He yells at her, but he doesn't talk to her. Meredith has avoided their history and her own problems, but Derek has never tried to talk about the past with her. Neither of them has tried to do that.

Meredith gets a pause in her work and time to catch up on charts, but her mind keeps wandering back to Derek, their on/off relationship and their always-on love, and she wonders: why can't she and Derek just talk? Things could be sorted out, cleaned up and filed away if they could just talk. Not sex, not flirting, but plain and honest talking. They never do that, they've never really tried, but they should be able to talk. And she could start it.

Meredith told Derek the night he re-met her at Joe's, the night he wanted to start over, that it was too late, there was a lot of water under the thing, or whatever, but she was wrong, that isn't the problem. The problem is that the water isn't under the bridge; it hasn't flowed downstream. It's a dammed up jumble of anger, hurt, distrust, misunderstanding, and it's keeping Meredith and Derek apart, despite their love.

They are doctors – doctors who figure out their patient's problems and think up remedies. If they can do that for their patients, they should be able to do it for themselves. A little over a year ago, on Meredith's first day at Seattle Grace, Derek asked all the interns to help diagnose the cause of Katie Bryce's seizures, because Katie wasn't responding to medication and could die in one of her seizures if he didn't identify and solve her problem soon. Meredith was the intern who figured it out. Meredith had had to listen to more of Katie's inane chatter than the other interns, still, she recognized the meaning of the one clue they all had in the chart – that Katie had fallen and hit her head. Meredith, on her first day as an intern helped Derek Shepard MD, the world-class brain surgeon.

Meredith is used to thinking she's inadequate and immature compared to Derek. He's more than ten years older than she, but since her mother's death she sees life through a cleaner lens and she knows now that her life has been harder and harsher than his. She's been tempered in a hotter fire; she's tougher and stronger. Their problems have mounted up like wall of fire that separates them; they've both been singed, but he can't handle the heat and she can. She's going to have to put her hands into the fire to reach out to him.

Meredith is on call tonight, and Derek has a late shift. The pace of the hospital slows down after the patients eat dinner. She'll page him then. She's not sure what she'll say. She hopes it makes sense when she says it.

At the post-dinner break Meredith checks the board to make sure Derek isn't in surgery. Then she buys two coffees, finds the loneliest table in the cafeteria and pages him. Her heart's pounding so hard she pictures it bursting from her chest like the creature in Aliens. The hot coffee soothes her a little but she knows she looks panicky. When she sees Derek walking toward her, when their eyes meet, she has to fight the urge to run, but she controls it. Time stretches like it does in emergencies before the outcome is known, but before she's ready he reaches the table, sits down and picks up his coffee.

"I have to say something."

"OK, say it."

"It's not that easy."

"How bad is it, on a scale of one to ten?"

"It's not bad, it's just complicated and I don't know if you'll listen long enough to understand what I'm trying to say."

His face registers condescending patience. "I'm listening. If I get paged we can finish later."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Meredith pauses, tries to collect her rambling brain to find a beginning.

"Remember 'all the water under the thing or whatever'? Remember that? – at Joe's? – when you introduced yourself like we hadn't met before because you wanted to start over? After you guys went fishing? And I said it was too late, too much water under the thing or whatever."

"I remember that night. The water under the thing, that sounds like you, but I don't remember it specifically. I remember waiting for you to shake hands and give me another chance."

"Ok, well the water under the thing . . . I mean we have all this history, stuff happened and it could be water under the bridge, but it isn't, it's all dammed up in front of the bridge, and that's why it hasn't worked out, starting over. We didn't start over, we didn't even start, we just continued what we were doing, and it wasn't working then and it isn't working now." Derek starts to interrupt, his expression turning hostile, but Meredith doesn't stop. "No, let me finish. Please. I'm not saying it can't work, I'm saying it's not working now, because of all the water dammed up. We have to take down the dam before it can be water under the bridge. We have to clean it up."

Derek leans back in his chair, pauses, relaxes a bit, and says "OK. I can see that." He looks cautious but no longer condescending.

Meredith takes a deep breath, drains her coffee, wishes it was hotter and that there was more. Derek passes his coffee over to her, and she smiles, the smile that is one of the many things that binds him to her so tightly.

After another deep breath she says "OK, that's kind of part one. Now, remember Katie Bryce? Our first day at the hospital?"

"Of course. You know I hold onto very fond memories of that day. Morning and afternoon, but especially morning." The McDreamy look starts to twinkle in his indigo eyes, but she resists the attraction.

"I'm serious. Seriously, I am."

"OK. I'm serious too." He doesn't look serious though. He does harbor very McDreamy memories of that day; they lighten his mood and his face.

"I'm not bragging, you said I helped save her life with very little training, and it made me think, even if we're not equals in medical knowledge or age or status at the hospital, maybe we're not so different when it's just life. I mean, I've never had a real relationship before, and you had a relationship, a marriage, but it wasn't a good one. So, we're not so different there. I'm not the immature intern and you're not the world-class neurosurgeon when we're talking about relationships. And I've got my family problems, but you have some too, don't you? Your sister Nancy says they don't know anything about you except you've got a trailer, a divorce, and a slutty intern. So you haven't been a part of your family since you came out here, and that's a problem, isn't it? We're not so different when we're talking about family problems either."

The McDreamy look has faded and now he just looks tired.

"It's just a backlog, that's all I'm saying, a backlog of arguments we never had that we should have, and things we haven't apologized for that we should have, and lies we didn't admit to that need explaining, and stuff we haven't told each other that we need to know. If we don't clear out the backlog, we can't move forward."

"I really don't want to argue with you anymore."

"I don't mean arguments as in getting mad at each other. I don't want you to get mad at me; you're mean when you're mad. And I don't want to get mad at you, because I can't think when I'm mad."

"I'm mean when I'm mad?"

"Focus. I'm trying to talk about the backlog and that we're both the same, equals, when it comes to stuff like that. I'm not the only one with issues. We both have issues in general and issues with each other. And if we want the dream, the McDream with the house and the kids and the dog (there has to be a dog) then we have to clear up the issues. You can't say 'Do you really want to have that fight again?' about a fight we should have had but we haven't."

"I thought you said you didn't want to argue and now you want to fight?"

"I don't want to argue and I don't want to fight. I don't want to get mad and I don't want you to get mad. I just want to talk about everything that's dammed up, why you can't wait for me to make the commitment, soon, when I'm ready, and everything that makes me wonder if I can trust you to stay with me after all the times you've walked away."

"I'm mean when I'm mad?"

"Do you need me to answer that, so you can pay attention to what I'm saying?"

"That would be nice"

"OK" she says, exasperated, "Yes. You are mean when you're mad. Now focus."

"You're very, very bossy."

"I have to be; it keeps you in line."

She isn't nervous anymore. "Seriously, I'll never stop loving you, never, but I don't want to be with you if we can't talk like this. Seriously. You said you wanted me to put you out of your misery if I didn't see a future for us. I didn't see where this was going when I paged you but now I get it, I do . . we don't . . . there isn't . . . um, we don't have a future if you can't talk about these things, from not telling me about Addison to kissing your OR nurse. You never asked me about the dock and the water, I know you want to know, but you don't ask so I don't tell. We wanted to be shiny and bright, and how long did that last, one shift? We don't have to talk about this stuff forever, it's just, we have to talk about it now, to clear the dam so we can both move on. Together."

She is sure now. She will never not love him, she can't not love him, but she doesn't want the relationship they've been stuck in since the day after Derek told her (a little late) that he'd been in love with her forever. And the relationship they had before that was based on a lie; it can't be resurrected. There's no life together for them if they can't talk.

Derek leans on the table and stares at his beautiful hands for a long time. Meredith looks at him kindly now, steadily, memorizing his face in case she never again looks at him with his tacit permission to stare, to probe, to store up memories. If she ends his misery (his words, not hers) they won't be intimate or even friends ever again. She won't respond to the McDreamy twinkle; she'll take the stairs if they're alone in the elevator, at least until he accepts that their relationship is strictly professional. He's stubborn, so it will take a long time for him to accept it, and maybe she will leave Seattle before he does accept it. She knows now that she will have no regrets, no what-ifs, no glances behind. This time she will be able to move on, alone if she has to. Without tequila.

At last Derek looks up and says "When Addie came out for the TTTS case she cornered me in the NICU. She had two ideas for getting back together. One was she would apologize and I would forgive her. The second was the same as the first, except I could bring it up to use against her whenever we had a fight. I could use it against her that she cheated on me in my own bed with my best friend. Is that what you want?"

"No, I don't – I don't know how to explain any better – that's not what I want."

Meredith starts to lose her composure and her thoughts scatter. Derek wants to give her a moment to collect herself so he stands up. "Do you want some water? More coffee? Something fizzy? I'm getting water for myself." She mumbles something that sounds like "fizz" so he ambles off, slowly, in case she needs time. He's never as considerate with anyone as he is with her, she knows this about him, but it's not enough for the day-to-day grind of the marriage he wants, and she knows that too. Apparently he doesn't. But she's seen failed marriage from the outside in, so maybe she knows more than he does. She's seen cheating from the outside in, even though she was only five years old. Hospital staff are always surprised at how perceptive the young patients are. Maybe Meredith's experience of her mother cheating on her father means she knows more about cheating than either of them thinks she does.

Then she realizes Derek doesn't know about her mother and the Chief, not unless the Chief told him. Her thoughts scatter again, but when Derek returns she's regained a shaky serenity, which seems ominous to him. She either expresses or represses emotion and in either case the effort produces nothing like serenity.

She doesn't know how to start again, but their pagers have been mercifully silent through her rambling, and she can't expect much more time before patients reclaim their doctors.

"Where was I?"

"There's a dammed up backlog of issues. You don't want to argue, but you do want to talk. We don't have a future unless we clear up the backlog. We're equals in maturity outside the hospital. I'm mean when I'm mad, and there has to be a dog."

She laughs, that adorable cascading laugh that's more than just mirth, there's irony and ruefulness as well. "You gave me the bullet - I can't believe it – you boiled down everything I said into a couple of sentences. What did I use, like, a couple thousand words?"

"I couldn't keep count."

She smiles at him, the second time today, but his face starts to get McDreamy and she's not having that, so she reiterates, "I'm serious. Seriously."

"I remember."

"If you really forgave Addison you wouldn't want to use it against her."

"That's what I thought too."

"My mother had an affair with the Chief, for a long time but I don't know how long. I was with them when they broke up. I was on the carousel at the park and I kept waving to them while she and Dr. Webber argued. Then she kicked my father out and we left for Boston."

He looks more and more horrified as she recounts this history as if it were an everyday memory, which is what it has become to her. For the first time ever, she sees him speechless. He shakes his head, like he's trying to rattle some words out of his brain, but nothing emerges. There's only horror on his face, though, no incredulity, so she asks, "Did you know?"

"Richard – em – the Chief said something once – um – but no details. Does he know you know?"

"He does now."

"How did you find out?"

She ignores this question and continues, "I had a point . . . if I can remember it . . . yeah, my point was . . see, my mother never forgave me. She thought Dr. Webber left her because of me, because she had a daughter, and she never forgave me for breaking up her relationship, for even existing. As long as she was alive, alive and still angry at me, I couldn't forgive her either. But she's dead now, and you know, I don't have much sympathy for her, well, any sympathy really, but I'm starting to forgive her. It's not the same as forgiving somebody when they apologize and you can let it go in that moment, but it's still forgiving. You have to have forgiveness if you want peace. Q'est-ce que c'est kind of peace."

Her gaze shifts to his hands now, because she doesn't want to see whether shame or anger will take over his eyes as she says, "I didn't tell you this, but George apologized to me about that night with me. He said he knew I didn't feel what he felt but he let it happen because he thought once was better than never with me – I guess he had a crush on me but I didn't realize - and I should stop apologizing to him when it was really his fault." Now she can't stand watching his hands either, tension grips them and he can't stop them from trembling, so she closes her eyes, but continues talking softly.

"We were each sorry and we both let it go. If you and I were together we would have to have that, agreeing on what happened and who did what that they shouldn't have, and being sorry and forgiving each other. Then you wouldn't want to use anything against me or I against you. We would have peace. Addison couldn't have understood what she was saying that you could forgive her for cheating, but still use it against her."

She doesn't know whether she should speak her final thought but decides that ambiguity sucks; she's had enough ambiguity. She blurts out, "Or we could co-exist in the hospital like my mother and the Chief, but there'd be nothing personal. And eventually I would go."

If they were in a TV show their pagers would both beep 911 then, but this isn't TV, so the pagers make no sound. Derek is quiet too, so silent and so still that she feels she'd be intruding just to look at him, but she can feel herself beginning to doze off, which would be worse, so she speaks as apologetically as she can.

"I'm afraid I'm going to doze off if we don't talk, or I could go back to work if you'd rather - I'm pretty much – I can't think of anything else to say . . ."

Meredith's voice trails off but there's no response, so she has to look at Derek. His eyes are so intense she almost can't bear his gaze, it's like looking at the sun. He'd used a silly line on her the night they met for the first time – he was "hiding his pain" he'd said – but he's hiding nothing now. Tonight Meredith punctured and shattered the shell of self-absorption and self-pity that had shrouded him, a shroud neither of them had been aware of before. Without that shroud Derek cares more, far more, about Meredith than he cares about himself. The love that never weakened is stronger now, and on his side, less about how she makes him feel, and more about what he wants her to feel.

He reaches across the table for her tiny hands.

"I can't co-exist with you on the same planet. Whatever you say we have to do, we'll do it. How do we start?"

Then the pagers really do go off, postponing further discussion, just like life on a TV show.