After Claire had woken up from the sleep her experiment on time travel had put her in, the doctor had been every optimistic about proclaiming her stable after checking and re-checking every other detail and wound. He appeared impressed, called it a miracle, and Claire remarked in an off-handed manner how it would have never happened if Hershel hadn't been there to fret about her, causing the aforementioned man to colour. Hershel trusted the doctor's judgment, however, although he still kept a very cautious eye on Claire. She could try to hide her injuries all she liked, but he was observant enough to see her wince every time she raised her left arm too high.
'They won't last, Hershel,' she said on her third day in the hospital as she and a nurse were applying fresh bandages. 'I'll be my cute old self soon.'
'I'm not worried about the scars that will linger,' he answered, glancing at the highly visible bruises on her collar. 'I'm just worried about the pain it gives you.'
'I feel perfectly fine,' she said cheerfully. 'You really don't have to worry.'
Before Hershel could reply, the nurse shooed him out the door so that she could continue bandaging Claire in peace. He didn't mind and once outside in the hospital corridor, he took out a small box from his coat pocket and opened it.
Inside sat a simple but elegant ring. Several days before he had been bestowed with the title of 'Professor', he had struggled to bring up the subject of marriage with Claire when he took her out to dinner. This had not worked very well. He hadn't even gotten as far as actually mentioning it before his nerve failed him. Afterwards, he had gone out and bought a ring in the hopes that its physical presence would make the task seem more pressing, but it hadn't been working very well so far.
'Hadn't been' as in it was lately looking even more urgent than ever. One of his biggest fears when he saw Claire's body rendered limp and near lifeless only three days ago (had it only been three days ago? He felt as if it had been three years) was that Claire would die without ever knowing how much she truly meant to him. In his gentlemanly way, he did his best to remind her that she had a very special place in his heart, but if she became his fiancée, their relationship would be elevated to a different level.
It was difficult to explain why it was so hard. He could imagine a hundred different reasons for her to say no, but he couldn't see her using any of them. He would very much like to spend the rest of his eternity with her, but no matter how he tried to tell himself he had seen nothing that might imply reluctance in Claire's feelings, he simply didn't have the nerve to open his mouth and say it.
He sighed and put away the box just as the door opened and the nurse stepped out. She gave him the usual reminder to make sure Claire didn't exert herself before leaving, and he re-entered the room.
Claire was sitting on her knees on her bed, looking out the window. Hershel couldn't see her expression, but he guessed it was wistful. She had been wanting to go out ever since she had woken up, but the doctor was stern on this point. Winter was settling in, and Claire was far too delicate for it.
'Claire?' he said, shutting the door behind him. 'Are you alright?'
She turned around and smiled at him before settling back on her bed. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and said 'Oh I'm fine. I just miss the outdoors.' As he had expected, there was a hint of longing in her voice despite the smile she was giving him. 'And I want ice cream.'
He walked over to her and kissed the top of her head affectionately. He then sat down saying 'I'll bring you some tomorrow if the doctor allows it.'
She pulled a face. 'I don't want it tomorrow. I want it now!'
The outburst gave him some confusion as he could understand in the least why sweets would be so important, but was perfectly ready to go out for some if it was that terribly urgent; and besides, it was probably what a true gentleman would do. Seeing the look on his face, however, Claire sighed and said 'Never mind, Hershel. I'll wait for tomorrow.'
'Alright,' he said, throwing her an anxious glance, worried he was taking the hint wrongly.
They lapsed into silence, Claire gazing into space forlornly, Hershel fidgeting, the latter's mind on the ring in his pocket. After a moment of contemplation, several glances at Claire, accompanied by attempts to speak, he finally took a deep breath, sternly told himself to be sensible and began to say 'Claire...'
Claire snapped to attention and looked around at him. He struggled to look straight into her dark, warm eyes, and once he did, found himself gaining courage from them. 'Yes?' she said.
'You know... on the day of the... accident...' Claire nodded to show she understood, and he continued. 'That morning, you mentioned going out to dinner with me that night to celebrate my new job.'
'Oh I haven't forgotten,' she said promptly. 'We'll make up for it later, alright?'
'I don't mind we missed out,' he answered, adjusting his hat slightly. 'What I mean to say is... well... later... you – you got into the –'
'A-and while I was waiting for you to – I mean, even before, because I heard about it from one of the university students, and when he told me it involved your lab, I was immediately worried – and later, when I saw you with – when I saw Dimitri – I – I –' His voice and courage were beginning to falter. He dropped his gaze, choosing to look at his hands instead. 'I felt – if –' He couldn't possibly stop now, he had to tell her and even if shedid say no, it wouldn't be the end of the world; she would simply still be unready for commitment – and he certainly couldn't blame her – and whywas this happening to himnow it had been so easy for Claire to confess to him, and she hadn't been sure of an inkling of his true feelings except that he thought of her as a very good sort of person –
His hands were suddenly clasped in Claire's paler ones, and she looked up at him concernedly. 'Hershel? Are you alright?'
'Claire –' Perhaps it was the physical contact, but his mind was suddenly wiped blank. All he knew was If I don't tell her now, she'll never understand. He blurted out 'Claire, will you marry me?'
A silence fell onto the room. It occurred to him that he hadn't given her the ring. Colouring deeply, he withdrew his hands and began to fumble around to take it out. 'I'm so sorry, that was –' Claire's silence was beginning to scare him a little. He was finally able to extract the box and opened it, presenting it to her. He kept his eyes fixed on the ring.
'Hershel, look at me.' He reluctantly met her gaze and was alarmed to see tears in her eyes. 'Will you put it on for me, please?' she said sweetly.
He nodded, feeling almost envious of her steady tone of voice. Despite the time he'd had it, Hershel had never actually taken the ring out of its box before. He did so now with a hand he imagined to be trembling, and reached out for Claire's hand. He slid the ring onto her finger carefully as if afraid of breaking either Claire or the ring.
'It's beautiful,' Claire breathed, taking her hand from him to admire the thin band that now adorned her hand, blinking back her tears.
He only watched her for a moment before saying hesitantly 'So you... you agree...?'
She looked up at him, the tears beginning to spill. 'Agree – why wouldn't I agree, Hershel?'
'I don't know,' he said in a small voice.
She flung her arms around him, burying her face in his shirt. He hugged her back tightly, hardly even noticing that she was making the front of his shirt very wet. 'Yes, Hershel,' she cried, clutching him. 'Yes, of course I'll marry you – oh thank you so much Hershel, I love you, I don't know what I'd do without you, you're so much more than I deserve – oh Hershel, I –'
Relief and joy were coursing through Hershel so fast, he could have staggered underneath its weight. 'Thank you,' he sighed, taking her face into his hands and kissing her tenderly. When he pulled away, he wiped away her tears and said 'I'm sorry I sounded like such a fool.'
'Nonsense,' she hiccoughed. 'I couldn't ask for any better.
Neither could he.