He finally, simply, shatters.
He sobs into the curve of her neck, gripping her shoulders like a lifeline, digging bruises into her flesh. His body shakes. He's gasping for breath between choking cries.
She's holding up his entire weight. Her hands are as tight on him as his are on her. She has surprising strength. He had always known that; known that she was the strongest person he'd ever had the privilege of meeting. It isn't just the brilliant mind, the free, curious spirit trapped in a frozen body. It isn't even her ability to overcome a devastating disability. It is purely who she is. This is who Amanda Perry is and there's just a tiny part of Nicholas Rush that grieves for her even as he grieves for his own losses.
For what she and he might have had if things had been different. If he hadn't been a grief-stricken wreck; if she hadn't been trapped first in a paralyzed body and then in the body of a woman he didn't like but had to live and work with. If…If…If…
As the waves of grief and trauma and exhaustion flow through and finally past him, he lifts his head to meet her eyes. They are Camile Wray's eyes and yet they are truly Mandy's eyes. He can see her through the surface. Camile would never look at him with such gentle understanding, such tenderness, such honest concern. With love.
"Mandy," he whispers, cupping her cheek in the palm of his hand. Her hand flutters up to cover his. She's still awkward with the use of hands, being able to move them, use them. Her fingers caress the back of his.
"I'm sorry," he tells her.
"No, no, Nick, you have nothing to be sorry for," she tells him. It's Camile's voice and yet it's not. It's Mandy's voice. He can hear the familiar cadence of her tones in the sound.
"You deserve more," he responds, his thumb brushing the corner of her mouth. He's lost any image of Camile now. His mind is somehow seeing only Mandy now, his Mandy. "You deserve so much better than me."
She shakes her head this time and reaches up to cradle his cheek in her hand.
"You still see me Nick. You are the only person I've ever known who never even saw the chair. Some learn to see past it, but you… Nick, with you, I felt like a person, a woman, first, rather than a disability. Do you have any idea how precious that is?"
He shrugs ever so slightly. Everything he had said in the corridor previously still held. For him it is her mind, her brilliance, her inquiring spirit that matters. She shares his desire to learn, to explore, to break the boundaries of human knowledge and leap into the unknown. She shares his desperate need to know. What else is there?
She smiles softly at him, fingers fluttering against the high, sharp arch of his cheekbone.
He can't help himself. He leans forward just enough to kiss her again. This time the flare of passion, of connection, is more intense, more demanding. They stay locked in it, lips caressing, tongues exploring, breath mingling, her need matching his. And it is with a different kind of sorrow that he finally lifts his mouth from hers and meets her eyes.
She presses a fingertip against his lips before he speaks.
"I understand," she says. "This body isn't mine and I don't have the right to do this to her or to you. As much as I want to, oh Nick, I want to so much. I feel like I'm living a dream, a fantasy come true, but it's selfish of me to ask this of you."
"No!" he insists. His voice instantly softens. "Mandy," he says softly, tenderly, "you deserve this and so much more. If it wasn't Camile; if I didn't have to face her every day afterwards… It's just that the situation here is so complex, so unstable. Mandy, if only… I wish things were different." His voice trails off; he can't find the words. Expressing himself that way has never been easy for him, even with Gloria, even with Mandy herself.
"So do I," she says, giving him her sweet, sad smile.
He kisses her forehead, lingers over it, and then enfolds her in his arms again. She clutches him just as tightly. They stand there in silence for a while, just holding each other.
She steps away but takes his arms and leads him to the bed, to sit facing each other.
"Some things, I know, are not appropriate under the circumstances," she glances up at her unfamiliar reflection in the wall mirror again, "but within limits, perhaps, we can take some time for us."
He finds himself remembering how to smile again, as he has only since she came onboard, and this smile brightens his eyes, lightening their dark intensity.
"Yes, I'd like that," he says.
There are, by unspoken agreement, only tender kisses and words to exchange, but it is enough.
You make do with what you have.