A/U : For all the Merhayes fans powering through after the writers' messiness, I hope this fic finds you well. I know this season hasn't been an easy one for us. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for reading this, leaving a comment and/or kudos. It means the world :) Stay strong!
I apologize for the long wait between chapters. I was focused on my one-shot ("I'll be waiting") and it took some time to get back into my groove. I'll be concentrating on the AU for now. This chapter is kind of an in-between chapter before we get to the meat of the story.
A little reminder : the chapter titles reference the time and place of the meetings.
I appreciate any comment, fav or follow. Thank you!
"...sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?"
"Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are."
- Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Prove her wrong, Meredith.
It's funny how the words of a complete stranger have stayed with her for so long. Motivating her in a way she never expected, sustaining her during the hellish years of med school. And...finding her at the oddest of times.
But can someone really be a stranger if they linger in your body and soul like a hazy dream? She wonders.
In the grand scheme of things, that moment should seem insignificant as to not even warrant a mention. Less than twelve hours spent with a stranger. And yet...to her, that day with Cormac means everything. Her last carefree day.
Even as the physical details surrounding him have long ago elapsed no matter how much she's tried to hold on to them, his words remain embedded in her mind, comforting her when hope seems destined to fade into the past.
Maybe that's just the countless residency interviews filling her with despair. Three down, only eight more to go, she scoffs.
Sitting in the middle of a crowded Logan airport, an hour and a half early for her flight to Seattle, three days before Thanksgiving no less, Meredith's life choices are splayed before her. No friends or family to visit. Just a job interview waiting for her at the end of her plane ride.
So focused and busy on preparing the next step of her life, thoughts of visiting her mom have been shelved. Until now…when there's nothing better to do than wait.
Every trip to the nursing home requires a fallout day for Meredith. A day to recover from the feelings of absolute inadequacies of her life. The helplessness, the smallness of her being. The yelling, the dismissals, the judgment, the lack of interest in her own daughter's life during her mother's few lucid moments. Everything heightened by the disease. But worse than all that is the guilt gnawing inside Meredith like a rodent until there's nothing left but crumbs of emotions. The guilt she feels for not being more bothered, more devastated that her mom is basically a shell of her former self.
Meredith's learned to live with it, placating her mom—and in a way, herself as well—when she visits. It comes with the territory of raising herself as a child and not having those happy memories to fall back on. It hurts, but deep down, she knows it would hurt bounds more to feel forgotten if they had had a close relationship. As it stands, it doesn't feel much different than how her mom treated her before the diagnosis. For Meredith, at least.
Happy freaking Thanksgiving.
Finally through airport security, Cormac breathes easy.
Apparently, people in America revel in meeting an Irishman. Especially in Boston where jokes and impersonations abound. Passing through the TSA agents is no easy feat, especially with his lack of finesse and temper always lurking in wait at any perceived slight.
As he leisurely makes his way towards his gate, he takes in the numerous travellers all going home for Thanksgiving. Crying kids, screaming parents, the occasional businessperson.
And then there's him. An intruder on one of the most American holidays there is.
Hopefully, not an impostor for long.
You've almost made it, your dream within your grasp, he reminds himself when his doubts creep up and all his hard work seems for naught.
With no one to truly share it with, no one who actually gets it, reaching this pinnacle feels bittersweet. And inevitably, in moments like this, thoughts of a lonely girl and their night-long interlude materialize and invade his mind.
Meredith. No last name. The facts he knows about her can be counted on one hand, but he's had rotten luck trying to convince his head any of that matters. The things he shared with her, the things she told him...he yearns to find that ease again.
Engrossed in his reverie, Cormac bumps into a harried couple. As he turns around to mumble an apology, he does a double take, catching the reflection of golden locks out of the corner of his eye.
Transfixed, he stills, letting travellers rush by him. The sight of his never-forgotten, one-night confidant stalls the air in his lungs, his pulse quickening, a flurry of excitement swirling in his belly. Blinking an unnecessary amount of time, his usual visions of Meredith have a tendency to disappear in a gust of wind, a mirage puffing out of existence. This Meredith apparition turns her face ever so slightly in his direction, leaving no room for doubt. He huffs out a disbelieving laugh at his luck.
Her aura feels unchanged, the same sadness enveloping her like it did three years ago.
Bloody hell! The odds... Would it be completely bonkers to go up to her? Would she even remember him?
Carried by a force that abandoned him last time, his feet move of their own volition, determined to make the most of the chance fate has gifted him.
The sound of her name wrests her mind from her worries.
Features concealed by her hair, her heartbeats pick up rapidly, the rest of her frozen in a trance. That roguish, Irish lilt that still haunt her dreams is too unique to forget.
No. Freaking. Way.
There's no hesitation in his voice, like her name's been on the edge of his tongue forever, like he owns it.
Tilting her head up in slow-motion, her heart recognizes the playful gleam in his cobalt eyes—could pick it out in any crowded room. That glint has stayed seared in her mind, a soothing recollection pushing her on, even when the rest of him became hazy as the days, weeks, months and years went by. The feeling she got from his steadfast gaze...that never left.
Fluorescent lights cast a halo around him. Mouth agape, realization sets in and her eyes go round. She gives her head a quick shake, making sure the image before her isn't simply her tired mind playing a trick on her. As if conjured by a spell of reminiscence, he stands before her, backpack slung over his shoulder, hands dipped in his jean pockets, rocking back and forth on his feet. Almost like his nerves are taking hold of him.
"Cormac..." Meredith finally breathes.
The widest smile touches his lips. "You do remember. Would have been embarrassing if you hadn't."
Instantly at ease, a snort breaks free.
"Wha...what are you doing here?" She stammers, paralyzed in shock.
"You were in Boston for an interview?"
"Aye. MGH and Brigham and Women's."
Her brows lift in interest. "Impressive."
"Thanks," he says sheepishly, "you?"
"Same, actually." Flirty competition lines her eyes.
His grin broadens. "Glad to see you proved your mother wrong."
Time is a construct, a reflection of change. But at this moment, three years barely feels like two hours. Whatever initial awkwardness exists evaporates with only a few words and a smirk.
Gazing up at him, she doesn't want to let this moment slip. "Do you have time before your flight? To get some coffee?"
"Yes," he hums.
Maybe not such a bad Thanksgiving after all.
Five minutes later, they're sitting at a little round table in a Dunkin' Donuts express.
"You made it to America. Like you wanted." The genuine happiness in her voice tugs at his heartstrings.
"You remember that?" He whispers, head cocked to the side in astonishment.
Heat flames her cheeks as she takes a sip of her latte to hide her slip up.
Setting her cup down, she asks, "Is it everything you thought it would be?"
"Well...everything is jumbo sized and football's not really football, bloody pads and helmets... So it's a mixed bag, all things considered." The consternation lacing his words pulls a chuckle out of her.
Mindlessly taping his cup, he adds, "But I'll learn to adapt. I have to get a residency match, though. Or my dream will stay a dream."
"Ya think so?" He muses, the uncertainty in his jittery body palpable for her to see.
She nods, a conviction in her face he's not sure he deserves but wants to gobble up. "You're here, clearly confident enough to interview at two of the best hospitals in the country. That's pretty much all I need to know."
Biting down on his lower lip to stem his bubbling nerves, Hayes admits, "I wish I had your faith, honestly. How do you know I'm not just delusional?"
"Hospitals like Mass Gen do their homework. You don't get an interview unless there's interest. And if there's interest, there's a chance."
Gripping her coffee cup tightly, her eyes shift around, avoiding his stare. Confessing she probably only got the interviews because of her last name is too humiliating to divulge. Even to him, someone who's never shown her an ounce of judgment.
"That's mighty kind coming from the competition."
She snorts jokingly. "We're already rivals? I guess you're ready for the jungle of residency."
His rich, velvety laugh bubbles over, melting another inch of her defenses. "Have to be if I want to survive in this country."
"I think you'll do just fine. Where else are you interviewing?"
"I already interviewed at Hopkins, Columbia, Duke, Mayo and WashU. I still have UCSF, UCLA, Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt."
"Jeez! Way to make me feel like an underachiever," she scoffs.
"I'm sure you're no slouch. MGH and Brigham have shown interest, after all..." he says, throwing her words back at her.
If only she had his confidence in her abilities.
As the conversation flows, coffee is accompanied by donuts.
"Step 1 score?"
A growl that won't be contained escapes her chest. USMLE step 1 exam...the absolute bane of her existence for the past three years. At long last in her rearview mirror.
Her eyes narrow, the competition brimming in his tone too hard to ignore. "Why?"
He shrugs his shoulders in artificial indifference. "Just curious."
"Right..." she says, dragging out the word. "You first."
She feels a smug grin tugging at her lips. "Mmhmm. Congratulations. You should be proud of yourself."
"Oy! Come off it! I know a gloating smirk when I see it. Out with it."
"247," she shares, the earned self-satisfaction rolling off her. It's her one point of pride after pretty average med school grades. So partying and drinking weren't as left behind as they should have been.
Clasping his hand to his chest, he pretends to be wounded. "Bloody hell! What was that bollocks about underachieving?"
She purses her lips to the side. "Let's just say my med school grades leave a lot to be desired."
"Be that as it may, that's amazing. You could probably try for ortho or plastics with a step 1 score like that."
Her sneer followed by a healthy dose of disgust on the side leaves little room for doubt about the likelihood of his suggestion becoming a reality. "Ortho is a big fat no for me."
A lopsided smirk dances on his lips at the intensity of her response. "No bones for you. Got it! Still have that burning need to cut people open, uh?"
"It never left."
"Same," he breathes out.
Her gaze is pulled to his, logging every fleck of colour in his eyes and every emotion blazing through his face. It's weird to think that a stranger she met three years ago in a foreign country could feel like a familiar friend.
"What specialty are you leaning towards?" He asks.
"Anything but general surgery," she replies promptly. The words tumble out of her quick as lightning. The resentment runs deep, bloodying the waters of her love of medicine. She knows her vehement answer will tickle him—but that's a story she's not ready to share. Telling a fellow surgeon her mom is Ellis Grey will only open a big can of worms. "You?"
"General," he chuckles at her groan. "What's wrong with general?"
Not nothing...everything, really. All her demons. It always comes back to her mother. The field day therapists would have with her mommy issues if she ever gave them the chance, Meredith thinks.
"Where are you headed?" Cormac asks.
"Washington. Seattle Grace interview," Meredith grumbles, a disgruntled look on her face.
"Not your number 1, I take it?"
"Why?" The probing look aimed her way gives out notes of bewilderment.
Her baggage could fill an entire plane. "It's where my mom did her residency," she murmurs.
"Ah... And that's a bad thing because..." his words trail off, leaving room for her to fill in the gaps if she wants to, without being too presumptuous.
Slammed with a whirlwind of emotions, the words lodge in her throat, incapable of forging a path forth. The hesitation she clings to seem so juvenile with no context to back them up. It shouldn't matter what Cormac thinks, but for some inescapable reason, it does. As she remains quiet, thoughts emblazoned all over her face, only concern laces his features, his beckoning eyes trained on her promising a reproach-free zone.
"Because I don't want her shadow breathing down my neck," she rasps out, finally translating her deeply buried feelings into words. Is it cruel to feel that when your mother's sick? She worries.
He nods as his demeanor softens in sympathy. "I'm basically fleeing the continent to avoid my da's expectations of me." He laughs wryly. "No one will begrudge you fancying some space."
The tension in her shoulders falls away, a quiet sigh relaxing the tightness in her chest. The understanding flaring in his eyes warms her.
"So what about you? Where are you going?" She asks, volleying the conversation back his way.
Slanting her head to the side, a pensive look flashes across her face. "I don't see you in a sunny place."
He snorts as his eyes crinkle in confusion. "Thanks? I think..."
"No, I mean, I...it's just...you seem kind of jaded for the Golden State. If that makes sense..."
She tenses, fearful she's insulted him, but the amusement settling into his features reassures her. "You're not wrong. I can't really see myself living in California. I'd probably look like a lobster year-round."
Laughter blooms inside her chest at the picture painted.
"If not California, what's your number one program?"
"I'd be a right fool to pass up Boston or Hopkins. You?"
"Anywhere but Boston or Seattle," she tells hims a beat too fast, piquing his curiosity.
Ducking her head, the barest of whispers emerges, "Bad memories." It feels like she can say that about a lot of events in her life. The change of space and scenery can't come soon enough.
She's standing at a crossroads. Hoping to begin anew in fresh places free of baggage or trudging through endless memories in familiar places riddled with childhood traumas. Unfortunately, the choice doesn't lie solely in her hands as once again she's at the mercy of decisions outside her control.
"Your mum...how is she?" Cormac wonders curiously, pulling Meredith out of her rambling thoughts.
For a second, the question jars her, so used to being the only person in the know. But the fond memory of their easy conversation in that tiny Irish pub rushes in.
Cormac doesn't want their time together to be marred by sorrow, but the curiosity of this defining moment in her life ate at him for so long after their first meeting. How was her mother? How was Meredith handling it? Did she finally get help? Questions swirled in his mind whenever he thought of the American lass from the pub.
It feels like minutes go by, though it's only a few seconds.
"The disease is progressing faster than I expected," she shares, eyes welling up as a pained look clings to her face. "It's stupid. I'm studying to become a surgeon and I still had this idea that she was invincible, that nothing could derail her."
Meredith's voice turns thick as she blinks back frustrated tears. Her features betray her discomfort as her fingers clench back and forth and her entire body fidgets in her seat.
Patience has never been his strong suit, but he waits, giving her all the time in the world they don't have to come to terms with what is clearly eating her up inside.
"Every time I go visit her, she's reliving her glory days of surgical excellence," Meredith huffs out like a wounded cub, "never any memories with me." She scoffs, an eye roll following. "It's not like we had that many good memories together. I've never been her favourite person, but I never feel as insignificant as when I spend time with her. I hate it."
His heart cracks at the last, hoarse words. He reaches out across the table to touch Meredith's hand before stopping himself. The thought of touching once and never again feels too hard.
She scans his face, looking for any sign of disgust. Not finding any, she lets out the tension that's been silently building for years with no outlet of release. Maybe Cormac was on to something all those years ago. Unloading the words locked inside you for so long to a stranger can be good for the soul, she reasons.
"Any Thanksgiving plans?" He asks, reading her well enough to veer the subject towards safer territory.
"No. Big festivities aren't really my thing." Her fake nonchalance can be spotted a mile away.
From the look flashing across his face, he catches her lie, but gratefully doesn't call her out on it. No...she doesn't celebrate because she doesn't have anyone to celebrate with. God, the image she must be painting to him, she wonders.
"Fancy a turkey sandwich, then? Pregame and whatnot. Isn't that what Americans say?"
Her heart swells begrudgingly. His thoughtfulness designed to comfort only serves to destabilize her. So unaccustomed to kindness, she mulls over his invitation like she has anything better going on.
"Sure. We'll pregame. You have to start getting used to American traditions if you want to fit in here."
He recognizes the joke for what it is—a way to eradicate the heaviness encasing her. And he lets her, not wanting to spoil their time together.
Meredith sits back, eyeing him quietly as he chews on a piece of his turkey sub. "You know...I...I think a lot about the day we met. It helped." If she could convey to him the impact he had on her, she would. But it's hard to reconcile one word with what that day, his kindness, meant to her.
A cloud of sadness sweeps through him as he contemplates her dealing with her mother's care alone. "I'm glad," he acknowledges, "It helped me too."
"How did your family take the news of med school finally?"
A hint of a smile graces his lips. "They were chuffed about it...eventually. Now, they're mostly sad I'm moving thousands of miles away. But I'm excited."
It feels nice to let it out, with no fear of hurting anyone's feelings. Maybe he can tell Meredith things because they're strangers, because there is nothing at stake.
"I am nervous, though," he whispers.
Pushing strands of hair to the side, Meredith places her elbows on the small table, propping her chin over her laced fingers. "About what?"
"Of finally going for it. I've been dreaming of this for so long, but now that it's here...I don't know if I have what it takes to succeed. Especially in this environment. What if I'm making the biggest mistake of my life by leaving home behind?" The anxiety rolls off him during his ramble.
Sitting forward and focusing her entire gaze on him, she commands his attention. "You're here. The first step was the hardest, but you did it. Don't let anything stand in your way. Go for it with everything you've got. If you don't, the regret will eat you up."
He guards her encouraging words under lock and key, knowing that when the time inevitably comes when his residency tries to bleed him dry, they'll nourish and replenish him.
"Tell me something I don't know," he challenges.
She shudders briefly at his intimate question. Mulling his request over, her mind amazingly excavates through her life against her guarded heart's reservations.
"My least favourite rotation in med school was psych," she offers after a few seconds of reflection.
"Come on... I meant something personal," he pushes back.
"That is something very personal to me," she confides, beseeching eyes imploring him to understand the value in her revelation.
His gaze is unreadable for an instant as he simply scrutinizes her, taking in her statement.
After a long beat, he inclines his head in acknowledgment. "Alright. Favourite rotation, then?"
She gives him a haughty look. "Surgery. Obviously."
A smirk overtakes his features. "Ob-viously. Stupid question. Apologies my lady."
"You're forgiven. Your turn," she demands, "tell me something I don't know."
"I'm a sucker for grand sentimental gestures. Bloody into them, honestly."
A twinkle ignites her eyes at his sappy response. "Doing them or being on the receiving end of them?"
To see that bright, carefree look on her face, he'd embarrass himself a thousand times over. "Both," he supplies unabashedly, a wink not far behind.
"This, I have to hear. Don't leave me in suspense."
As a blush gathers around his cheeks, he racks his brain for the least embarrassing story in his arsenal to regale her with.
"I once decked out a barn with gold lights, balloons, a feast fit for a queen and my guitar for entertainment."
"What was this for?" She asks suspiciously.
He mumbles under his breath, forcing Meredith to strain her ears to hear, "A one-month anniversary back in secondary school."
She slaps the table, her eyes widening as chortles break out, "Oh, God! Did that cheese show completely freak the poor girl out?"
He finds her blossoming disdain amusing, because he starts to chuckle. "I'll have you know she enjoyed it. Not everyone is as repulsed by my romantic gestures as you seem to be."
"There's romantic and then there's cheesy. Want to take a guess where you land?"
"Guilty," he relents. "But one day, you might come to enjoy those sweet moments."
As they polish off the last of their sandwiches, Cormac leans back against his chair's backrest, studying Meredith intently. "Anyone special in your life?"
She shoots him a sour look, grunting out a self-deprecating snort. "When would I have had the time to meet someone?"
"You could have met in med school," he rationalizes the foreign concept to her.
She scrunches up her nose in distaste. "In between bouts of studying and partying? Anyway, what would have been the point? I'm about to change zip codes. "
Suppressing the chuckles wrestling to get out takes all the self-control he possesses. "I'm not sure we all shared that exact med school experience..."
"Altar boy." The muttered grumble is enough to force the stifled laugh out of him.
"My ma's hopes and dream coming to life. She'd be tickled pink to know I've finally joined the church."
"We're gonna need to get you some new expressions."
"She'd be SO happy," he mimicked in his best impression of an American accent. "Is that better?"
Meredith rolls her eyes, sitting back in her chair. "Loads. I can barely tell you're not from here," she offers dryly.
There's a brief lull in conversation sending Meredith off on a bizarre tangent.
Playing with the edges of her napkin, she catches her lower lip with her teeth. Words stay trapped inside her, until Cormac's lack of pushiness weirdly shoves her over the edge, her deeply-held worries pulled from the dark recesses of her brain.
"I'm afraid of being alone...like my mother," she confesses out of the blue, like there's no time to waste. And there really isn't. She feels the clock ticking in the back of her mind. Their time together is finite, a spelled moment just for them with a clear expiration date, unfortunately.
Her freely-given admission takes her by surprise, so uncharacteristic of her usually tightly protected skeletons.
"We're starting residencies filled with eighty-hour weeks. I feel like I'm bound to repeat my mother's mistakes or worse... At least, she met my dad during med school. I'm just going to be alone my whole life. I know it." Meredith huffs out a frustrated breath, clearing her head in a hurried shake. "I can't believe after everything I've seen and lived through, I actually want... If my mom could see me now."
"Meredith... When you find the right person, you'll make it work," he tries to reassure her. He's convinced what he's saying is true, but there's a voice inside her head refuting his claim, a voice that sounds eerily like her mother.
Meredith doesn't expect her snowballing word-vomit to continue, but it can't be restrained. "It's not like I had an example of a functional relationship. The only part I'm good at is se—" She clamps her mouth shut before wadding into awkward territory she won't come back from.
The mirth in his searing gaze isn't at all subtle. He totally caught her slip-up.
"Okay... No more about my disaster of a love life or lack thereof. Please. Tell me about you. Anyone making the journey across the pond with you?"
"No. Clean break. Land of opportunity and all," he says, wiggling his eyebrows.
"An Irishman through and through."
He chuckles lightheartedly. "Damn right! I had a girlfriend for a while. But we went our separate ways once I knew coming here was a definite possibility. " He exhales a steadying breath. "She'd have nothing to do here while I'd be working non-stop. I couldn't ask that of her. That's no life to live."
"I'm sorry." The genuine empathy she feels comes from a place of abject worry. That this is the future she has to look forward to.
"Do you want to stretch our legs a bit?" He asks.
Maybe that'll help banish her depressing thoughts of failed relationships.
As they walk around side by side, Cormac's brain screams at him not to broach the subject, but his curiosity needs to be fed. "Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn't left that night?"
Meredith hears the lie come out of her mouth before she can stop it. "No."
Her denial ripples through him. He shoots her a guarded look, one of his eyebrows forming a disbelieving arch. "Really?"
There's a small pause as she struggles to come to terms with the truth.
"Maybe a little...when I can't help it," she finally confesses.
The hesitation in her voice pushes him to explore. "If you can't help it?"
"If I start wondering, I might never stop. Might wonder all my life. I think I like not knowing."
"What do you mean?" The fierce belief in her voice intrigues him.
"Isn't that the beauty? To be able to wonder and not ruin. To have that luxury. I don't want to ruin one of my best memories. And I know I will." She dips her chin down before mumbling under her breath. "I always do."
In truth, it has crossed her mind a time or two. But she never dwells on it for too long. With all the upheaval she's lived through and all the chaos that follows her, keeping that memory intact, free of her usual messiness, feels like a blessing. Besides, there wouldn't be any point to wonder about it now. Especially for her. She's not ready for that yet, not with everything she still has to deal with.
Honesty spills over his lips. "I do...think about it, that is." Always so frank and direct about his feelings, he slowly threatens to breach the gates of her heart. She wishes she had that poise in her.
Their eyes bore into each other, memorizing everything that escaped their notice the first time around, cataloguing every detail for the future. Standing across from one another, the moment feels heavy and important. She's been more open with Cormac than anyone else at present in her life, but at this point in time, she's not mentally equipped to handle it. The abandoned kid syndrome that she has, or left-to-her-own-devices syndrome to be more accurate, has never been more felt than right now.
As if on cue, her flight is called through the intercom.
"That's me." Some part of her is disappointed. A part that she doesn't want to study too hard.
He nods, resignation painted across his face. "I'll walk you."
"You really don't have to."
"I want to, if that's okay?"
"All right. I'd like that," she answers, surprising herself by meaning it.
As they slowly make their way over to her boarding gate, furtive glances are stolen, shoulders are brushed and hearts are fluttering as their souls communicate.
Once in line, Meredith turns to Cormac. He feels like someone important to her life, even if she doesn't know who yet.
He gifts her with one last smile as he steps back to let the passengers line up. "See you again in three years?" He jokes.
Laughter coats her eyes, little wrinkles lining the corners. "You're that confident we'll see each other again one day?"
He shrugs. "More like hopeful... Doesn't hurt to put it out there, right?"
"I guess... See you when I see you, then." Maybe she can be an optimist every so often.
As he watches her pass her ticket and passport to the agent, everything is in order and Meredith moves towards the jetway.
Once at the gate door, Meredith turns back, a contemplative smile playing on her lips as her gaze locks on his. Standing there, only fifty or so feet apart, it might as well be a thousand miles as the prison of their circumstances defies their wants, enclosing them in isolated cocoons.
Right before she turns the corner, she offers him a longing wave as a weird sense of sadness overtakes her. She recognizes the feeling, feels it all the way from where she's standing only a few short distance away. And from the solemn look on his face, so does he. The intensity in his eyes gives all the unspoken explanations she needs. A kindred spirit is slipping away.
Maybe one day, a tiny voice in her head whispers.
Maybe, maybe, maybe… At the end of the day, it's the maybes that linger the most, crushing her under the weight of possibility.