Title: "Steady Now"
Word count: 4700
Notes: Everybody has to write one of these, right? This is my attempt. Thanks to K., J., and J., who looked this over for me.
Neela was surprised when Abby picked up on the second ring. "Hi, I expected to get voice mail. Have you got a minute?"
"I can squeeze you in. You're not calling me from O'Hare again, are you?"
"No. I am calling you from my new office. In Baton Rouge."
"Good for you!"
"Thanks." She wrinkled her brow. "Although that was a bit condescending, actually."
"I'm sorry. I just meant, you know. Good for you."
"It's all right, I was a total spaz last night, I'm sure it didn't inspire a lot of confidence."
"Oh, that's just your process. I never doubted for a second."
"Neurotic. So how's it going? Have you made a horrible mistake?"
"I don't think so? So far I've signed a lot of paperwork, had a tour, and met about a hundred people. The past few hours are sort of a blur."
The conversation hung there until Abby let out an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for God's sake, I know you didn't call to discuss your new dental plan. I can't believe you're going to make me ask. Did you see Ray yet?"
"Yeah, first thing, actually."
"Of course. And?"
"And...we just said hello, really, he was working. He looks...good." She paused, and Abby waited. "Can I tell you something crazy?"
"I had all those doubts, but when I saw him... It was like I was calm and excited at the same time, and just...happy. You know? I thought, is this what people mean when they say they're happy? It was only a few minutes, but... I don't know. I keep thinking about it. That's crazy, right?"
"Neela. I think that's one of the least crazy things you've ever said to me. So what happens now?"
She stared at her new walls, trying to decide if she liked the paint color. "He's going to meet me up here when he gets off work, and then...I guess we're going back to his place."
She grimaced. "That sounds-- It's not-- I'm staying there until I find a place. I don't know. I don't know. Maybe. I mean, yes, eventually, but I didn't expect..."
"You want to climb him."
She closed her eyes. "I've been thinking about it."
"For how long?"
"An hour or so." She tapped the desk with her fingernails. "Five years. Somewhere in that general timeframe."
"I thought the plan was to take it slow."
"It is. It was. It was more of a notion than a plan." She chewed her thumbnail for a second. "Abby, he looks...really good."
"Aww. You love him." She was teasing, but she wasn't really teasing.
Neela bit her lip, and exhaled, and the air leaving her body felt like years of weight lifting off her back. Years of waiting. "Yeah, I do."
"Well then hallelujah..."
She missed the end of Abby's sentence as Ray appeared, as if on cue, in the doorway and rapped his knuckles on the glass. "Nice digs," he said as he came in to look things over. She pointed at her phone, and he leaned against the desk next to her to wait. His little finger brushed against hers, and she seemed to feel it in every nerve.
She started a little when Abby said in her ear, "Hey, is that him? Can I talk to him?"
"Just let me talk to him, I'm not gonna tell on you."
She turned to him and asked, "Want to talk to Abby?"
She handed him the phone, and he said brightly, "Hey, Lockhart. How's the big time?"
Abby's voice was still faintly, indistinctly audible through the phone's speaker, but Neela couldn't make out her side of the conversation. So she just watched Ray―as if she could stop looking at him, anyway―as the two of them chatted and joked, easy and familiar.
"Good," he said, in response to an unknown question. He looked directly at her, and said, "It's a good day."
A little piece of her heart clicked quietly into place.
"Slow lane? Hey, the pace might be a little more laid back down here, but we like it that way. No, I mean 'we' like―
"Whatever. Yeah, I know. Look, you're not my attending, you don't get to boss me around." He laughed, fidgeted a bit, and looked away from Neela. She saw the pulse beating in his neck, and wanted to put her fingers to it. "I do not―maybe a little."
He smiled, and said, "Same here. Yeah, I'll tell her. You too." He gave her the phone back and said, "She got paged."
"And she says good luck."
"What else did she say?"
He shrugged, which wasn't really an answer. "Looks like you could fit a couch in here," he observed, evaluating the limited space as if he were contemplating furnishing a dorm room. "Maybe a fridge."
She raised her eyebrows. "Anticipating hanging out here a lot, are you?"
"Maybe." He caught sight of the faded Thomas Kincade print looming on the far wall and made a disgusted face. "You're going to get rid of that, though, right?"
She nodded. "I'm going to replace it with dogs playing poker."
They looked at each other in silence for what felt like a minute, but couldn't have been more than a second or two, until nervous laughter broke the tension. She thought she must be blushing.
"So Abby seems cool," he said, as she walked around the desk to gather her things and slip her iPhone into her purse. "I guess she and Kovac are doing okay and everything."
"Yeah," she said cheerily. "I think Boston agrees with her. Oh," it occurred to her, "I have some pictures of Joe I can show you." It wasn't just something to say, either; she really wanted to share that with him. "He's so big, you won't believe it."
She looked up with a smile, and he was staring at her. Unabashedly, in a way she'd never quite seen before. In a way, she suspected, he'd never let her see.
There was nothing to do then but put her arms around him.
For a moment as he enfolded her, her feet actually left the ground.
She gathered the fabric of his t-shirt between her fingers. She inhaled him, as if she hadn't really breathed all day. "I've missed you, you know."
His chest hitched, and he asked, "Since three hours ago?"
"Shut up," she told him. Her eyes began to burn. "This whole time, I mean."
"Yeah," he whispered. "Me too."
She didn't want to let go. She felt light and thrillingly untethered, like if his arms weren't around her she might just float away. He was so strong; strong enough to bear up everything between them after all this time.
One of his hands traveled up her back and brushed the nape of her neck. If she didn't let go, she might just end up doing something very unprofessional in her brand new office.
She released him, reluctantly, and the way he held on a second longer before doing the same made her reconsider entirely. Flustered, she picked up her coat, purse, and the stack of portfolios she'd acquired during her orientation. "Ready to go?"
He was already standing at the door, his hand on the light switch. "Never been readier." The way he said it made her skin prickle.
They decided in the elevator that he'd take his car home and she'd follow in her rental. Somewhere on their way through the corridors, he ended up carrying her coat. As they made conversation, she couldn't help stealing glances, still so terribly impressed with him just as she'd been last fall. It felt natural to be beside him. As soon as they stepped out the main doors, her free hand grabbed for his. He closed his fingers firmly around hers, and squeezed.
In the visitors' parking lot, she stood with her back to the driver's side door, conscious of the warm sunlight, the open space, and especially of his hand resting lightly upon her hip.
"Ray…" she began. She struggled for a way to say I'm so proud of you that didn't sound patronizing. What came out was, "I kind of miss the floppy hair."
"Yeah?" He briefly touched his scalp. "You know..." The hand on her hip moved higher, and he ran his thumb up and down over her ribs. "One of my patients asked if you were my girlfriend."
She stood a bit taller and plucked at the seam on his shoulder as if she'd seen a stray thread. "And what did you say?"
"I went out on a limb―" He stopped short, and laughed to himself. "Sorry, figure of speech, not amputee joke."
She rolled her eyes, and shoved him a little, though she didn't move him at all. "Well?"
He leaned closer. His voice was low and quiet; her own heartbeat seemed louder. "I said yes."
Her lips parted in anticipation. "In that case...I think you're supposed to kiss me."
So he did, and oh, yes, he was supposed to kiss her; it was absurd that she'd ever thought otherwise. She didn't care that they were in public, or that they'd barely spent ten minutes together. His hand was in her hair and she kissed him, the way she was supposed to. It wasn't slow, but it didn't feel like rushing ahead at all.
It felt like catching up.
When he ushered her inside his ground floor apartment, it was like the place had been expecting her. He watched her walk into his space and immediately become the center of it; everything else seemed to orbit around her. He'd thought he was settled in, but he could suddenly see little spaces he'd left open for her without even thinking about it: gaps on the shelves, the whole right side of the coffee table. He wondered if she saw them, too.
She made sense there. She made everything else make sense.
She threw her coat over a chair, looked around a little, smiled and said, "Nice place."
"It's all right. It's close to work."
He'd pretty much been running this scenario for weeks, ever since she'd told him she might be coming. Before that, even, if he was being honest. Sometimes it happened on the couch, or the desk, or the kitchen counter, or on the couch the other way...
She put her hands on the back of the couch, but she glanced over her shoulder toward the open door at the end of the hall. Toward his room.
She belonged in his bed, and that decided it.
It took them a little while to get there. He gave her the guided tour, hovering behind her with his hand on the small of her back. They put her bags in the spare room. She appraised the obviously new, haphazardly placed furniture he'd had delivered yesterday, and asked, teasing, "Did you go to Ikea for me?"
"Something like that."
They stood in the doorway, looking at the creased sheets and bare walls, and she said, "Looks comfortable."
"Yeah," he agreed.
"I like the curtains."
"My mom picked them out."
She leaned back against him, small but substantial, solid and real. He curled his arm around her waist, and she sighed. "It's been a long day." At first he thought she meant she was tired, but she closed her hand over his, and when she tilted her face up to him, her eyes were wide and shining.
He knew what she meant. All that time, trying to be patient, not because he was noble or anything―it wasn't like he'd been a monk, after all―but just because he knew he could live to be a hundred and never meet anyone he liked as much as her… Yeah. It had been a lot of long days.
He kissed her temple and murmured, "You know, you don't have to stay in the guest room..."
She stepped out into the hall, never dropping his hand. "Oh, God, I was hoping you'd say that."
She wondered if he could see her shaking, if she transmitted it with her touch. She felt like she was vibrating with joy; like she was a tuning fork and she rang every time he touched her, and the only way to still it was to hold him so tight.
She wasn't the first woman he'd been with since his accident, she knew that. In a way it was a relief, but she couldn't deny it was also a bit of a blow to her tender vanity. It made her feel a little jealous and sad. She ought to have been there. She ought to have been selfish about him, six months or two years or however long ago.
But he looked at her now as if she were the only woman he'd ever seen, and it knocked the breath out of her. She remembered when she'd called him on the phone weeks ago, after she'd applied for the position at Le Chatelier. Terrified, her throat tight, she'd stammered out something like, "Would you possibly...? Do you think you might still...?" Want me? She'd been too cowardly to fill the pause. "Are you there?"
He'd said, so serenely it had almost driven her mad, "Neela, you know where I am."
She knew where she was, now, too. And she was going to be selfish about him for a good long time.
He was pretty psyched at how insistent she was on getting his shirt off. That was a nice little ego boost to get things started. Soon his back was bare against the inside of his closed bedroom door, and they spent some time easing into it, exploring, less frantically than their giddy, spontaneous makeout session in the hospital parking lot.
She kissed his chest, and her face was wet. He wiped her cheek with his thumb and said, "God, Neela, don't cry. Please stop crying."
She pressed against him, her hands at his waist, and said into his mouth, "Make me." Then the angle changed, the kiss deepened, her hips were right against his. It felt so good, it took him a minute to realize she was taller suddenly.
He pulled his head back and looked down toward the floor, laughing. "Are you standing on my feet?"
She hopped off, with that sheepish expression of hers, one of the million amazing things she did with her incredible face that he'd never forgotten, that he loved so damn much. "Sorry."
He shook his head. "That's okay." He pushed off the door and advanced toward her. She grinned, and started to unbutton her blouse.
He sat sideways at the head of the bed and leaned back, and she helped him slide out of his jeans. He didn't need the help, but she didn't need help getting her top off, either, and they did that together, too. He was almost eye level with her breasts, but he looked up at her face as he unzipped her and slipped his hands in next to her skin. She inhaled sharply, and he pushed her pants and underwear down her legs in one swift motion. She supported herself with a hand on his shoulder as she kicked them off, and then she was standing in front of him, naked.
The late afternoon sun bled through the blinds, making the room hazy and golden, and she was there, sleek and bronze and...God, just fucking perfect. He took her hand, and it was trembling faintly―or maybe that was him. He touched her hair where it flowed over her bare shoulders, and said, his voice cracking, "I just wanna look at you." Of course that lasted all of three seconds, because he loved to look at her, he always had, but he'd never just wanted to look at her.
First he kissed her in places he'd always wanted to, between her breasts, just beside her navel, all the semi-hidden little patches of skin that used to tease him around the edges of her clothes. She answered with fluttery breaths, and the gentle pressure of her fingertips on the back of his neck. He flattened his palms and surveyed her body, the way her muscles laid over her bones, the way she quivered and shifted as he moved his hands over her, mapping her response. Her hands grew bolder, and she touched him, too, like she wanted him just as much.
He grasped the backs of her thighs and drew her closer. Her knees bumped into his as she adjusted the position of her feet, and he flinched, because he expected her to. She tensed, just for a moment, and then stepped forward. She caressed his head and said his name, said his name and it was a whole new sound, it was like a brand new word.
There was still too much space between them, even with his hand between her legs, his mouth at her breast, even with her fingers bruising his shoulders as she gasped they still weren't close enough. She started to push him backward, but while he still had the control to do so, he resisted, held her in place. "Wait."
She pulled back, dazed. "Wait," he said. "Can we do this…? Let's do this right, okay? Just you and me, I mean."
She looked down at his legs, and understood. For an instant something sad flickered across her features, but then she smiled softly, so openhearted, so unbelievably beautiful... "Okay." She kissed his forehead, and climbed onto the bed beside him. "You and me."
She almost said it right then, while she knelt behind him, naked and pressed against his long, smooth back. Her arms wrapped around his middle as he sat on the edge of the mattress and removed his prosthetics. She opened her mouth, tasted the clean, salty skin where his shoulder met his neck. I love you. She made the shape of the words with her tongue.
When he was ready, she laid her hands on his thighs and he turned, and she was on top of him, finally, finally, and words would wait.
It took a few seconds of adjustment, hurriedly shifting pillows. She touched him, they guided each other, she tilted her hips, he pushed off the headboard, and then...they fit. They fit so beautifully, and he was so beautiful; she put her right cheek to his so he couldn't see her cry. He stroked the back of her head. They found a rhythm.
She almost said it as her arms were locked around his neck. His beard scratched her jaw. She opened her mouth to let the syllables out, and he said her name against her throat. Her back arched and she surged forward, her forearms laid flat against the headboard.
She bit down on his bottom lip and made a sound, but it wasn't a word at all.
There'd probably be a time when every little movement she made wasn't the sexiest thing he'd ever seen, but watching her roll her shoulders and stretch out on his bed, sliding her right foot up and down her left leg…yeah, that wouldn't be today.
She sighed, and the rise and fall of her chest was amazing.
He reached out to comb back her hair, and the look she gave him when she turned her head into his hand made him think for a minute that for the rest of his life this might be all he'd ever need: her, slightly smudged and disheveled, beaming drowsily at him. Neela Rasgotra in the goddamn afterglow.
She twisted her fingers around his, and frowned when she saw the shimmery stain on his thumb. She leaned over him for a moment and rubbed at the makeup smears on his chest. "Oh no, am I a raccoon?"
"Kind of. Doesn't matter."
She wiped at her eyes with her wrist. "Waterproof eyeliner is a joke."
"Tell me about it."
She laughed, loudly, and it was the new sexiest thing he'd ever seen. Then she looked away for a second, as if she were shy. "Can I confess something?"
He tried not to guess what she was thinking. That never got him anywhere. "Sure…"
"I was a little nervous," she admitted. "Just a little! Just at first."
"I couldn't tell." He sort of could, though, a little. Just at first. "Could you?"
"You weren't nervous," she said. But she looked down, and smiled to herself. "Anyway, according to all the literature it gets better with practice, but if that was our baseline..."
He pushed up onto his elbows and stared at her. "'According to the literature'?"
"I...did some reading." She pursed her lips defensively.
"Of course you did." He grinned.
She smacked his shoulder. "Don't laugh at me!"
"You did sex homework!"
"Shut up." She turned away, pretending to pout, but he heard her giggle. "I hate you."
He moved closer to her side of the bed as she wriggled under the sheet. She rolled over and draped her arm across his chest, covering them both. "Yeah, obviously."
She nestled in close, and he liked the warm weight of her body on his. He never used to like that kind of thing, or want it, but it was different with her. He'd known it would be.
Everything always was.
She hadn't meant to sleep, but she must have been exhausted. The last she remembered was seeing the shape of their bodies under the bedsheet and thinking back to that horrible day, when she'd been too shocked and heartbroken to say the right words, even if she'd known them. She didn't want to think of that, not now, but she couldn't help it. Those makeup marks had reminded her of bruises.
She'd closed her eyes and curled into Ray's side, felt his fingers trailing lightly up and down her arm, and found herself tongue-tied yet again.
When she woke, it was dark, and she thought for a second he was still there, until she realized she had her face mashed into his pillow. She laid there for a few minutes, conflicted. She was awfully comfortable. But she missed him. Which was sort of ridiculous, really, they'd been together less than a day, and he was only down the hall, but...
She found him in his kitchen, standing at the range stirring a pot of red sauce. "Hey," she said. She touched his shoulder and leaned up to kiss his cheek. "What's for dinner? I'm starving."
"Just spaghetti. I was going to take you out, but it's like ten o'clock already, and you were pretty knocked out, so..." He shrugged. "You sleep okay? I didn't want to get up, but..."
"But you get antsy." She scratched his back, just to keep touching him. "That's all right. I'm well rested."
He stopped stirring and turned to put his arms around her. "I'm glad."
She heard the sauce pop, and reached around him to poke at the wooden spoon. "Can I help?"
"You mean, can you sit on the counter with a beer and watch? Yeah, go for it."
"I meant make a salad or something, actually, but okay." She gave him a peck on the lips and went to the refrigerator. It was one of those side-by-side models with the ice water dispenser in the door, and when she opened it she found that, aside from a couple empty bottom shelves, it was pretty well stocked. She smiled as she pulled out a Red Stripe. He'd gone shopping.
When she shut the door she paused to take inventory of his filing system, trying to get a feel for his everyday life. His work schedule, a Chinese takeout menu, a VA newsletter, three DIY band flyers―he must stop and take one from every hopeful face he saw―and a little promotional calendar from an insurance agent.
On the top right, under a magnet from their old pizza place in Wicker Park, was a printout of a photo of the two of them. It was only a few years old, but they both looked so much younger somehow. She touched the corner of the paper, and tried not to wonder what had happened to the original.
She hoisted herself up onto the counter and watched as he added the pasta to boiling water, and then started clearing up. There was nothing at all sexy about it, or shouldn't be, except that her eyes were drawn to every little motion of his hands, as if with her new knowledge there were secret messages there she could suddenly read. She watched his arms when he reached for things, and got funny little thrills at glimpses of his tattoos.
"It should be about ten minutes," he said. "Do you think we could come up with a way to kill ten minutes?"
"Possibly," she replied, and he smiled at her from across the narrow kitchen.
She glanced at the old photo on the fridge, and had to stifle an urge to run and get her phone and take a new picture right now. She laughed a little at herself. Twenty-four hours ago this had been a terrifying leap into the unknown, and now here she was, utterly smitten, and impatient to update her Facebook status. Although as far as pictures went, it would probably be wise to wait until she didn't have obvious bed head.
"Nothing," she said. Her fingernails clicked against the beer bottle, and she wished it had a label she could peel. "Ray, you...you know why I'm here, right?"
"You're too cheap for a hotel?"
She rolled her eyes. "No, I...maybe this is too heavy for day one, I don't know."
"If you want to talk..."
"I do, but... I mean, there are things I want to say... Coming here was..."
"I get that it's a big adjustment for you."
She boggled a little at that. On the scale of difficult life adjustments, compared to the ones he'd had to make this hardly even rated.
"And I know it's probably not the best job you could have had..."
"I think the job will be good, actually. I get to teach, treat patients, and be in the OR as much as possible. That's all I want, really. Lucien tried so hard to talk me out of it, though."
"Yeah, I bet he did." She looked up in surprise at his tone. He obviously had more of a grasp on the complicated shades of her mentor-mentee relationship then she'd thought.
"Anyway, I've got plenty of time to develop my career. Being some kind of surgical superstar before forty...that's not a priority for me. I guess it just took me a ridiculously long time to figure out what was. And when I looked at all my options..."
"After you made your Excel spreadsheet of pros and cons," he teased.
"With weighted evaluation factors." She hadn't really. But she'd considered it.
"So..." He swallowed, paused, asked quietly, "What are your priorities?"
She sat there with her mouth open for a while, not sure what was coming next. You, it's just you. I was so scared and so stupid, and this is too much for the first day, but the most important thing was to be where you are, just to try, because I couldn't not be anymore, because-- "I love you."
In two seconds flat he was in front of her, his hands on her knees. She looked down, her face hot with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that's-- It's too soon, isn't it? I'm so bad at this."
He laughed incredulously. "No, that's-- Too soon? Are you--? Neela." She raised her head to meet his eyes―she'd always thought he had such lovely eyes―and his elated expression filled her with a dizzying pride. She'd say it all the time if it made him look that way.
He took her hands and kissed her, so tenderly. It made her think of the first time. She clasped his wrists, and rested her forehead against his.
"I tried like hell to get over you," he told her.
Her voice caught in her throat. "I'm glad you didn't."
"I didn't really want to," he admitted.
"I'm glad," she repeated.
"I love you."
She nodded, because she didn't think she could speak, and pulled him nearer.
Dinner was delayed.