A/N : This extra long chapter is set after the events of the season 14 finale, but before the season 15 premiere. I know some people love long chapters and others hate them. They don't always work, but hopefully, this one does.
A little reminder...this is an AU fic. I have taken liberties with plot. I have no idea how the Klausman Institute operates. I'm not sure the show does either since there are A LOT of inconsistencies lol. Is it run like a hospital or more like a medical research facility? Do they only do cardio or is there a peds wing? Basically, I used creative license to fill in the blanks. I straight up "borrowed" some medical talk from Grey's. Please don't sue me lol.
I hope you all enjoy. Thank you to all those who write and give me feedback. Your comments feed my writing soul.
"There are moments, when you're getting to know someone, when you realize something deep and buried in you is deep and buried in them, too. It feels like meeting a stranger you've known your whole life."
- Leah Raeder
Some realizations come in slow spurts, over time. Others hit you upside the head when you least expect them.
Running away to Switzerland with the lads...that decision was made quickly and decisively, the urge to flee and escape the memories necessary to his survival.
Did it help? Running?
It did...for a while.
He hung on to those words—Meredith's words—when that lost feeling grabbed hold of him, whenever thoughts of his former life invaded and latched onto his mind. "A while" feeling like everything in the aftermath of Abigail's death. He needed that little while to breathe, as Meredith had said, and figure out how to live without Abby—how to do everything without Abby.
Unlike Meredith though, his wife's slow decline made it so by the time she died, he was mostly angered out, Abby helping him come to terms with their fate. In a strange way, he knows he was lucky not to have to deal with the shock Meredith had faced. Even though the deterioration was gut-wrenching, by the end of it all, he was mostly just exhausted.
Nowadays, it's the loneliness that gets to him, the loneliness Abby couldn't have prepared him for, the loneliness Meredith had tried to warn him about in her own way.
One bright spot in his life...work. Work brings with it new challenges every day.
Sitting in his office, charting his latest case, he remembers with a smile the rushed pace of his quip-filled interview like it was yesterday.
His butt had barely touched his seat when Dr. Yang, the Director of the Klausman Institute, started shooting questions at him. That was his first introduction to the no-nonsense Yang, with a deadpan look affixed to her face and snarky comments always at the tip of her tongue. She had asked him just enough about himself to seem polite, but it was obvious her interest in his personal life was nonexistent. Until...until he mentioned why he was looking for a new job in a new country. Then, her veneer cracked just a tiny bit.
She tilted back in her chair, pursing her lips at him, the first pause in her rapid-fire interrogation. He'll never know if she wanted to ask him more since her phone rang, interrupting them.
That was the moment his world tilted—just a little. While she was barking orders at the poor soul on the other end of the line, he glanced around the pristine office filled with diploma after diploma of every imaginable achievement. Barely any personal items except for two lone picture frames on her desk that seemed so out of place for the serious Dr. Yang. He remembers trying to slyly lean to the right to get a glimpse. After just twenty minutes in her presence, he was surprised there were even pictures on her desk.
How naive he was to think that that was the most surprising thing about this whole scene. Scooching over, he struggled to contain his chuckle at the image of a grinning-like-a-fool Yang in baseball attire, so unlike the drill sergeant facing him. But it's the woman next to Yang that robbed his breath.
He blinked rapidly to make sure it wasn't a figment of his imagination. Questions swirled at tornado speeds.
Then, visions of a decade-old memory in a Hawaii bar slapped him across the face and placed Yang in his mind.
Meredith's best friend?
Jesus, what were the odds?
At this point in his life, he should have stopped asking himself that question. His fingers had itched to grab the picture and get a closer look, but he used every last ounce of his self-control to stay still. He's not even sure how he coherently completed his interview.
Yang didn't recognize him of course, still doesn't, their meeting too fleeting and too long ago. She did come close to figuring it out once.
"Have we met?" She had asked during their first surgery together. "You look familiar."
He hadn't known how to answer. So he obfuscated and shrugged a little. "Probably at some conference. You know how it is."
As months go by, they get to know each other as colleagues. He's not sure he would consider her a friend, nor she him. In the back of his mind, he wonders if he latched onto her in a pathetic attempt to create a surrogate friendship, a proxy-friend if such a thing exists, until he's ready to face the real thing.
But he can't stop. Not when he can catch glimpses of Yang's softer side when she talks about her former life and Meredith in particular. It feels wrong not telling Yang about his connection to her twisted sister as she likes to refer to Meredith, the guilt slowly gnawing at him. But it's fun to have something to distract him from his grief, a little secret only he knows. And as time goes by, his first instinct is to delay facing the fire-breathing dragon Yang will become once she discovers his link to her past.
He lives for all the random snippets Yang inadvertently lets slip about Meredith.
We used to dance it out.
She'd help me move the body.
She's the getaway driver. Or I'm the getaway driver. One of us is the getaway driver.
She's the one who'll push me down the aisle and cut me out of my dress if I need it.
She matches me drink for drink.
She's the type to sympathize with a death row inmate.
She scares the life out of me every time she dances with death.
I survived because of her.
The last one constricts his heart since he knows about plane crashes and shootings. But every little story gives him a new appreciation.
When he looks back, Switzerland feels like fate, like Abby intervening in some strange, miraculous way.
And he can't help but think maybe Yang is who he needs at this point in time. Someone to kick him in the butt when he wants to wallow, someone to get him back into the rhythm of things, someone to connect with—in a small way. Earth-shattering bonds are a bridge too far right now. At least, that's what he tells himself when he wonders why he hasn't reached out to the one person he really wants to talk to.
Some days, he looks at Yang and wonders what drew her and Meredith together. Circumstance, timing? Maybe Meredith has shown him a different side of herself, a more vulnerable side that she doesn't share with many. But other days, Yang will do something or say something so like Meredith, the whiplash threatens the stability of his neck. Sometimes it's the sarcasm and haughty snorts, other times it's the dark and twisted sense of humour, and then, he'll pinpoint exactly what brought them together and it doesn't seem so unlikely. And the more he gets to know Yang, the more it makes sense.
During those times, he can't help the pinch in his heart. Through Yang, he somehow feels closer to Meredith, like he can bask in her essence even without her being there. Until he's ready to reach out...which might be sooner than he anticipated.
"I need you to work next Tuesday," Yang barks while barging into his quiet office, nary a greeting in sight.
"Hello to you too, Yang. Beautiful weather we're having today," he quips back.
A deep eye roll follows his playful attempt at needling her.
"Hi," she says perfunctorily. "Tuesday?"
He leans back in his chair, twirling his pen between his fingers. "What for?"
He can sense the air blow out of her nose at being questioned. If they hadn't gotten friendly in the last few months, he wouldn't dare.
"My best friend is coming for a visit from Seattle. I'm taking a day off."
His heart picks up speed, thumping against his rib cage.
"Only a day off?" He asks.
"She'll deal with what I can give her. Serves her right for springing this on me at the last minute. Typical..." She mumbles the last word under her breath.
"Is this the same best friend who shares a weird moniker with you?"
Yang's eyes narrow in suspicion. "What's it to you?"
He deflects. "Nothing. Just think it'd be nice for you two to be able to spend some time together. Uninterrupted."
A sardonic smirk materializes on her face. "We're not sentimental like you."
"So?" She pushes.
"Aye, I can work on Tuesday. So you and your friend can have a swell time and braid each other's hair if you want."
She doesn't deign to respond to his teasing, her departing scoff answer enough.
Once doctors reach a certain level of experience, they no longer marvel at every new hospital. But walking into the lobby of the Klausman Institute, Meredith can't help but be in awe. They don't make them like that in the States. Always function over beauty.
Gawking at the glass windows surrounding her, the oasis of plants and water features, the extra-tall ceilings, the spiral staircase leading to the first floor, Meredith spins around slowly, consciously closing her gaping mouth.
"Finally decided to grace me with your presence. It only took you four years."
Cristina's sarcastic comment pulls Meredith's head out of the clouds.
"Nannies who will make the overseas trip with three kids under the age of eight don't grow on trees, Cristina. And they ain't cheap," Meredith quips back, a grin unfurling along her lips at her welcome committee.
"Boo-hoo! Cry me a river, Harper Avery winner." The familiar glint in her best friend's eyes brings Meredith right back to their intern year, like no time has passed.
God, she's missed Cristina.
Once they're face to face, their smirks widen and they draw each other into a hug—an extra-long one to make up for the years apart.
"Where are the monsters?" Cristina jokes.
A shock of laughter pops out of Meredith as she pulls out of their embrace.
"What? It's a term of endearment."
"Sure it is. I left them at the hotel with the nanny. Didn't think they'd be interested in a hospital tour. Not even your goddaughter."
Cristina bristles lightly at that. "Goddaughter... God, that'll never not be weird."
"If it makes any difference, you're her medical hero."
Cristina's mouth curves up to one side in a perfect smug grin. "Of course, I am. Can't fault her great taste."
Meredith rolls her eyes, shaking her head at Cristina's hubris. "You gonna show me around or did I come here just to hear you boast about yourself?"
"Come on. Prepare to be jealous."
For Meredith, the nostalgia sets in when Cristina pulls her arm around hers, dragging her around the hospital like they're back to prowling the halls for good surgical cases.
This is the robotics lab. State of the art everything! If we don't have it, we just buy it. No need to ask for approval.
This is the two-floor library, which we don't really need since they've digitized everything for us.
The cardio wing has 10 ORs. 10, Mer!
I don't need to see your 3D printing lab, Meredith wants to say. It's you I came to see.
But she lets Cristina brag and show off her baby.
As they're approaching the courtyard, a harried resident comes scurrying towards Cristina who puts her hands up to halt him in his tracks, "Meyer, I'm busy. Go find someone else."
Shoulders slumped, he turns around and hurries away.
"Some things do change. Miracles are possible," Meredith remarks, mirth dancing in her voice.
Cristina's eyebrows crease in confusion.
"You know residents' names now. Wonders never cease!"
Her best friend grumbles in explanation, "HR had a little talk with me."
"That makes more sense," Meredith snickers, bumping her shoulder along Cristina's.
"So here's the courtyard. They designed it for..."
As Cristina drones on, Meredith's skin slowly tingles with awareness, the weight of a stare tugging her out of her conversation. As subtle as her fidgety nature will allow, her gaze flits around before finally finding the source of the intensity. The full force of his lightning hits her as she locks eyes with him.
To say his stare doesn't affect her would be a lie of epic proportion.
Cristina's voice echoes in the background as her friend keeps talking, not noticing Meredith's shock.
What's he doing here? In Switzerland, of all places?
The astonishment won't let up, scrambling her usually-fast brain as she can't quite wrap her head around the fact that he's standing just a few feet away. Seeing someone you know in a place you didn't expect will do that to a person. Like finding your high school teacher moonlighting as a bartender.
Confusion settles into her blank mind like an old friend. He doesn't look surprised to see her and that alone multiplies her bewilderment. Scanning him from head to toe, she can't help but notice how his teal scrub shirt stretches across his shoulders.
Pull yourself together, Meredith!
He closes the distance between them, a faint smile pulling at his lips. His usually bright eyes filled with a heartbreaking hauntedness barely discernible to the unfamiliar eye. But she's not unfamiliar. The warmth has been dulled. From tragedy, from grief, from life in general.
Once he's close enough, Meredith feels herself snap out of her daze and really takes in all the changes in him.
She blurts out the first thing on her mind, like she's just noticed, "Your hair?!"
The shock of his lack of hair pales in comparison to seeing him here. In Switzerland. But it's the first thing that comes to mind.
Cristina turns around and finally notices the focus of Meredith's attention. Coughing to hide her mumble, she says, "Rude, Mer!"
Cormac laughs dryly at Meredith's innocent observation, but she can tell her comment pierces his heart. And then, it suddenly makes sense as Meredith's heart lurches in understanding. Abigail... She wants to smack her own head at her stupidity.
"Aye, a different look for me," he concedes, scratching the back of his head.
Shaking her head quickly, Meredith apologizes, "I'm sorry. I'm just—my head's all over the place right now. I—I didn't expect this."
"The hair or me?" He jokes, perpetually calming the waters and letting her off the hook.
"Both," she snorts out, eyes still slightly wide. "But mainly you." The surprise still hasn't settled. The two friends gaze at each other for a minute. Just a little too long for a baffled Cristina.
"Isn't this cozy... You two know each other? Cristina asks, hanging back with furrowed brows.
It seems Meredith's not the only one whose world has just been turned upside down.
"Cormac and I go way back," Meredith answers, still not breaking their stare, almost like she's afraid he might disappear if she so much as blinks. Then again, neither has he.
"Cormac?" Cristina mouths, her gaze volleying back and forth between her two friends.
A shrieking beep goes off, interrupting the trio.
Cristina pulls her phone out of her pocket to stop the noise. "Crap, crap! My patient's coding. This conversation isn't over," she says ominously, eyes narrowing at her person and her colleague before rushing off.
For the first time in over two years, Meredith and Cormac stand before each other, just gaping, so many emotions sweeping through them, so many years between them.
But curiosity only holds off for so long.
"Abby?" Meredith asks tentatively, dreading the news she feels in her bones is coming.
She thought about him an abnormal amount of time, hasn't stopped wondering all these years. The world is cruel, and it seems this situation isn't any different. Her chest squeezes at his forlorn expression.
The silence goes unfilled for a few seconds, the absence of a response answer enough, delivering the blow she's been expecting since their last impromptu meeting. At his solemn nod and his eyes glistening with tears, there's nothing for her to say, nothing for her to do but grip him around the neck and pull him into a fierce embrace. And he lets himself be dragged.
He hugs her back, enfolding his arms around her, and squeezes his eyes shut, trapping the tears battling to break free. She draws soothing circles along his back, helping him expunge the darkness. They stay like that for a good two minutes.
"I'm good," he whispers in her ear after a beat.
"I still can't believe you're here!" She exclaims, pulling back slightly. "And that you know Cristina!"
"Aye. A grand ball of fluffy joy, that one."
Meredith huffs out a laugh, "You know her well, then."
"Hasn't made it easy on me. She's a tough nut to crack."
"Did you know about me?" She wonders.
"Aye, baseball picture in Yang's office..."
"Softball," she corrects, murmuring through a small smile. "We got so drunk that day."
"Her stupid grin makes sense now," he notes teasingly.
"Harsh but fair."
"You have time to grab a bite? The cafeteria's not complete rubbish like in America."
Snickers bubble over. "Careful... You might be back before you know it and we don't take kindly to insults from snobby Europeans."
He smiles at that, a smile that seems hard to come by. So this feels like a victory to her.
He leads her past the courtyard and into the cafeteria that looks much more like a fancy mall's food court.
"Can we take it to go?" She asks softly, sneaking a peek at him. Empathy washes over her—as rare as that may be—and Meredith doesn't want to ignore and talk around the sadness surrounding him. He didn't with her. The conversation she wants to have can't be had in a room full of his coworkers. Truths and breakthroughs are hard enough to come by without nosy eavesdroppers.
"Aye. My office's not far." Her motivation doesn't go unnoticed as his tender gaze speaks volumes. He knows she's asking for his sake and he lets her.
"Come on. They make a mean rösti."
At her pinched brows, he explains, "It's like a fried potato pancake. You'll love it."
"You had me at fried."
"Pretty swanky office," Meredith says, glancing around his impressive digs. "Mine overlooks a parking lot."
A ghost of a smile graces Cormac's lips as he settles on his small couch, waiting for her to do the same. She sits by his side, grabbing her to-go box along the way.
They eat in silence for a while, her sneaking peeks at him, him seemingly impervious to her looks.
Silence has never been her strong suit, her need to fill it always winning out.
Finally, he saves her from the awkwardness and breaks the quiet with barely audible words, "You're the only person in my life I wanted to talk to."
He gazes at her like the simple sight of her fills him with hope for the first time in years. Her heart cracks as it cries at his confession.
"The only person I knew wouldn't placate me."
The only person who'd understand the overwhelming grief doesn't need to be uttered.
"If you knew about Cristina this whole time, why didn't you reach out?" She asks quietly.
"God, I wanted to. So bloody much. And yet..." He shakes his head gently, a rueful smile painted across his lips. "I wasn't ready. Plus, I'm a tiny bit afraid of Yang, if I'm being completely honest."
Chortles burst out of her. "She'll love that."
"I think I'll refrain from mentioning it, thanks. Don't need another thing going to her head."
There's another beat of silence as they both avoid the heavy topics for a little while longer, chewing silently. This time, the broaching of subjects lays at her feet.
"How long ago?" She asks, breaking the stillness hanging in the air. How long ago did Abigail pass? She doesn't need to form full sentences. They understand each other perfectly—unfortunately.
"Six months ago," he whispers, eyes welling up with unshed tears. "It was a long time coming."
"Doesn't make it any less painful." She pauses, turning her body towards him. "If anything, the years drained anything you had left, leaving you completed depleted for the after."
Sadness envelops his features, his gentle nod confirming her analysis. He grows thoughtful for a minute before confessing, cracks woven in his voice, "A part of me was relieved. How twisted is that?"
"Not twisted at all! Not even a little. You didn't want her to be in pain. It's harder to let them go, but it's the right thing. Willing them to live...it's our own selfish desires."
So many emotions are running through his crumpling face.
"Did you give yourself time to fall apart?" Meredith asks because she knows him. Knows his pragmatism, his singular focus, his need to be everything to everyone, even to his own detriment.
"Your strength pushed me through...when nothing else did." His admission hits her square in the heart, bypassing skin, bones and anything else in its way.
"I'm glad something helped. So, Switzerland?"
A hint of warmth surfaces in his eyes. He recognizes the change in subject for what it is. A way to deflect his praise and maybe a way to rescue him from the oncoming darkness she's surely gotten lost in time and again.
"I followed your lead, actually."
At that, her brows rise a few centimeters. "Really?"
"Aye. I thought it might help the lads. And me, truthfully."
"And did it?" She wonders.
He shrugs his shoulders, a rough exhale exiting his chest. His haunted eyes call to her, like a beacon in the ocean, a kindred spirit in the worst way possible. How they howl, how they bleed.
Grief wears many different masks, no two people experiencing it in exactly the same way. But once you've worn that mask, you can spot it from a mile away.
"You were right," Cormac says gruffly, "about love... It's just signing up for pain."
She hates this, just hates it. This role reversal... The despair clinging to him is one she recognizes all too well. For once, she sees his age in the fabric of his face, in the deep creases of his forehead, in the slump of his cheeks and in the dullness of his eyes. He's in the hole now and the climb seems daunting, impossible even. Maybe there can be a silver lining to all her suffering if she musters her strength to help restore him.
But the answers don't come easily, coherent sentences evading her as they often do when she needs them the most. Maybe it would be easier if he was having a full-body meltdown and turned into a bawling, blubbering mess. Then she could hug, comfort, reassure. But as it stands, the stoicism blanketing his face doesn't inspire hope.
"The last few months..." His voice trails off before he pushes forth and describes the hell he went through. The picture he paints of what his last few years were like digs the dull knife already stuck in her even deeper.
Moisture coats the edge of her eyes as she searches within her to find the exact right words to repay him for the guidance and kindness he showed her when she needed it the most. If such words even exist.
In this, they are unfortunately the same. They both mourn a loss so profound it cuts to the bone. She'd never wish it on anyone, least of all him—her fiercest cheerleader through it all.
"How did you go on?" The wariness marring his question nudges the blade that much deeper as her own memories of the immediate aftermath resurface, her compassion growing tenfold.
It's her turn to catch him before he plummets any further down.
"It won't always be like this." She wants to protect him from the pain, give him something to look forward to. "For now, your kids are your hope. You have their needs to think about, their love to get you through. You fight for them. Until one day, the despair isn't so overwhelming, so all-encompassing... Until one day, you find another reason to keep going and you don't think about her every minute of every day."
Her hand lands on his. She folds her fingers under his palm and squeezes tightly.
"It won't always feel this raw. With enough time, the wounds will close."
He takes refuge in her words as her honesty washes over him, leaving a trail of visible tremors flowing through his body.
"You will survive this. Hope is not a thing of the past."
Like a tide, the shadows lurking behind his eyes slowly retreat. Darkness will not win today.
As they finish their lunch, they share all the heavy things that can only be spoken by two shattered hearts beating in tune. He tells her about his fights with Irene about Abby's medical treatment, how he tries and fails to keep it together for his boys. She tells him about her fights with Amelia, her guilt over what she did to her sister-in-law, even her fears of dying and leaving her kids without a single parent.
"I didn't realize how lonely it would be, you know?" He admits.
"So lonely," she agrees forcefully, shaking her head at the worst-kept secret of widowhood.
She offers him some advice, "Whatever you do, don't join a widower club."
Eyebrows drawn in disbelief, he sputters, "That's a thing?"
Before she can formulate a reply, the buzzing of a sudden vibration stops her mid-sentence. She reaches for the phone in her pocket.
"Sorry. Just need to make sure the kids haven't killed the nanny."
It's not the nanny. Nor someone who would appreciate being compared to a nanny. Meredith opens her texts to read the latest message from Cristina.
Cristina : Where are you?
"It's Cristina. Give me a minute."
"Take your time." He grabs their nearly-empty containers and leaves her alone to go throw them out.
Meredith : Cormac's office
Cristina : Kinky
Visions of the shit-eating grin likely plastered on Cristina's face have Meredith rolling her eyes. She can even picture the erratic hand gestures her best friend is prone to.
She's going to be insufferable.
Meredith : What are you, 13?
Cristina : I don't know what you were doing at 13... And Cormac?!
The smirking emoji ending Cristina's latest text pulls a snort from Meredith's throat. Apparently, she takes too long to formulate a response as Cristina warns her.
Cristina : We WILL be talking about this. Come to my office.
Meredith : Fine
Cormac comes back just as she's grabbing her purse. "You're leaving?"
She nods, pulling the strap over her shoulder. "Summoned by Cristina."
"How long are you here for?" He asks, not ready to say goodbye.
"A few days. We're just passing through before Italy. Couldn't convince Cristina to take more than two days."
They smirk at the obvious. Yang, taking days off to vacation? About as likely as snow in the Congo.
"Italy's great this time of year," he remarks.
"Spent a year abroad there during my Baccalaureate."
"Parli italiano?" She questions.
"Certo," he replies, cocking his head to the side in wonder. Even after all these years, still so many quirks to unwrap.
"A man of many mysteries." They've dug so deep she sometimes feels him under her skin, but when it comes to all the superfluous details, she realizes they've barely scratched the surface.
"Where are you staying?"
"At the Storchen. It's near—"
"Aye. I know where it is," he interjects. "Are you free for lunch tomorrow? There's a great little place nearby."
He stares at her like a lifeline, like he needs her to say yes to subsist. "You can bring the kids. Three of them now, right?"
She nods. "Ellis is the youngest. I call her Ellie."
His penetrating eyes widen in surprise. "After your mother?" The whispers of curiosity seep into his voice.
"A hazy, C-section induced decision."
A wistful smile crosses his face, his eyes scrutinizing, searching for the truth behind the joke. This, she avoids.
"I'll see you tomorrow?" She confirms.
"Aye. I'll pick you up at the hotel at noon?"
She gives him a nod before heading towards the door. Hand on the handle, Meredith looks over her shoulder. His steady, piercing gaze is still on her as he's standing there, watching her leave.
"It was really good seeing you," she confesses.
Smiles aren't a thing of the past. Not when they're around each other. The slow quirk of his lips and the small glowing light radiating from him give her hope.
Meredith makes her way to Cristina's office, the signs for the Director of the Klausman Institute plastered on every wall. It's not too far from Cormac's office, just over the bridge into the cardiac wing.
Standing in front of her friend's closed door, she sighs a deep breath to steady her nerves and ready herself to face the inquisition likely to take place. Shaking her shoulders back and forth, she finally knocks.
"Just come in," Cristina barks out.
And into the interrogation room, she goes.
Meredith feels like a kid sent to the principal's office, about to be chastised. The roll of her eyes doesn't go unnoticed by Cristina, who will most definitely be milking this for all it's worth.
Barely seated, Cristina bulldozes right through.
"So, Cormac Hayes, huh?"
Meredith could do without the wiggling of the eyebrows. She just crosses her arms, waiting for the weird word vomit that awaits her before interjecting. Cristina doesn't disappoint.
"It feels weird calling him Cormac. He's Hayes."
Meredith can't help scrunching up her nose. "It feels weird hearing you call him Hayes. So professional." She cocks her head to the side, pursing her lips in thought. "It does have a nice ring to it, though."
"Stop deflecting. What is he to you?" Cristina doesn't mince any words.
Meredith hedges. "What is he to you?"
Cristina doesn't let her. "A colleague. A maybe-friend, at best. Now answer my question!"
Meredith relents, mumbling under her breath, "A friend."
Her best friend snorts at her clearly evasive answer. "You've never mentioned him before. Not to me, at least." There might be a twinge of hurt and confusion in her friend's voice, but it's gone before she can even blink.
Tingling sensation running down her back, a heavy sigh exits Meredith's squirming body. She glances down at her tangled fingers, fidgeting as they do when conversations tread a step too far into the deep waters of uncertainty.
She tries to stammer through, "I—He—I've met him a few times over the years. God, almost twenty now! Never on purpose." Her head shakes in wonder.
"Mmhmm... Just met him a few times over the years? Uh-huh." Cristina repeats her words, doubt lacing every single one. She goes in for the kill. "And yet, you've never told your best friend?"
"You saw him once!" Meredith tries to defend herself in vain, the questions getting uncomfortably close to her.
"I'd remember," Cristina exclaims confidently.
"In Hawaii! He had dark hair back then."
Eyes bugging out, the swivelling of Cristina's chair reaches a grinding halt. She wheels closer to her desk, resting her forearms on the table. "He's the guy from Hawaii?"
At Meredith's nod, Cristina slumps against her backrest. "I knew he looked familiar when I interviewed him. I didn't put two and two together. That little..." But then, Cristina just shrugs like it's not such a stretch that she wouldn't recognize him and continues plowing through.
"You never talk about him. Why is this the first I'm really hearing about it?"
Meredith senses this is just a puzzle to Cristina, something she can't figure out, with no real interest in the deeper emotions. Her friend is just curious as to the whys. In truth, so it Meredith.
"There was nothing to tell," she lies, forcing herself to look away from her friend's scrutinizing gaze lest she capitulates and becomes undone.
"Right..." Cristina draws out the word, believing Meredith as likely as she would a patient with nicotine stains on their fingers claiming to have never smoked.
Cristina doesn't let Meredith's lack of response deter her from barging in where she doesn't belong. "Fine, whatever. What is he to you now?"
"Now? We're friends. His wife just died!" She says, her voice dripping with comical incredulity.
Cristina huffs out an impatient breath. "Going forward, then?"
The answer isn't so obvious to Meredith. "Who knows?"
"Huh... But you're thinking about it?" Cristina slants her chin, examining her like she's a defective heart in need of fixing. Like she's seeing this situation in a whole new light.
Meredith is blissfully saved by rapid knocks on the door.
"What?" Her friend barks.
A familiar head peeks in. Meredith tries to keep her cool, but her fluttering heart disobeys her every command.
"Is that any way to greet your favourite attending?" Cormac says, greeting them with a quick nod.
Cristina scoffs at that, but the mirth in her eyes give her away. Staring back and forth between the two of them, Meredith wonders what it would be like to work with Cormac, to have him near her every day and not just during stolen pockets of time.
"Barely top 10," Cristina grunts. "Back so soon? I wonder why..."
He ignores the words, but Meredith can see the hints of red creeping up his neck. "I need a consult. Forty-year-old woman, vapes like a chimney. She's got a bleed in her oesophagus."
"Her lungs?" Cristina asks, her focus razor-sharp on the case.
"Like those of a sixty-year-old."
Turning to get a better look at him, Meredith interrupts, her curiosity getting the better of her. "I thought you were peds?"
Cristina finishes for him, "I have every attending do ER duty once a week. No matter their specialty. Keeps them sharp. Don't want incompetent doctors." That definitely sounds like something Cristina would implement.
"Show me the scans." He hands them over to Cristina. She holds them up to the light and frowns.
"Why do you need a consult? It's straightforward. You need to remove part of her right lung."
"That's why I'm here. I want to try coiling the artery. Give her more lung capacity. Less invasive."
Cristina shakes her head vehemently, "It will rebleed." The certitude bleeds through her tone. Always. Never unsure of anything.
Meredith glances between her two friends, staring at each other in a funny standoff, the impasse probably not unusual given their strong personalities.
Cristina looks down at her. "Mer, what do you think?"
Meredith opens her mouth a fraction of an inch before closing. The pairs of eyes glaring down at her don't apply any pressure... Not a single bit.
Finally, her voice finds her. "I think it's best to try deploying the coil. Gives her a better chance long term. But prep for an emergency thoracotomy in case a lobectomy becomes necessary."
Cristina narrows her eyes at her best friend as Cormac tries to stem the sly smirk emerging on his lips, but the puffing of his chest is a dead giveaway.
"What a surprise. You agree with him," Cristina says, drawing out her words a little too shamelessly.
Meredith throws daggers at Cristina, not an ounce of contrition in her friend's expression. "It's what's best for the patient!"
"The coil won't hold," an obstinate Cristina practically growls.
"It will," Hayes pushes back.
"We're wasting time! I'm scrubbing in."
"Can I watch?" Meredith's gleeful question pops the tension in the office, the junkie in her not able to resist.
Cormac and Cristina swivel their heads in perfect, farcical unison. His lips lined with a smirk, Cristina's with a scowl.
"You want to watch me be right for the millionth time? Be my guest." Like it's a regular, everyday occurrence, like it's nothing off her back.
With that last quip, Cristina discards her lab coat on her couch and starts pulling her hair back in a bun as she exits the room, leaving them in her trail. Continually leaving Meredith in her rearview mirror.
"You see what I have to deal with every day. And I thought you were bossy," Cormac jokes.
The smile tugs at Meredith's mouth. "You don't even know the half of it. Imagine her as an intern with that God complex, having to listen to average attendings..."
"I shudder to think."
They burst out laughing.
"Come on. I'll show you to the gallery."
"Did you know? This whole time?" Yang's eyes dart up to the gallery.
Cormac has the grace to look sheepish, even under his surgical mask. His gaze follow Yang's up to their mutual friend, sitting in the front row, on the edge of her seat.
He clears his throat. "Aye, I knew," he finally admits.
Yang harrumphs. He recognizes his mistake. If he knows her half as well as he thinks he does, she doesn't appreciate being taken for a fool.
"The baseball picture on your desk. Sorry, softball."
She snorts through her mask at that recollection. He'll have to ask her about it one day.
"You never mentioned it. Why?" She continues with her line of questioning.
It's clear there's something bothering her. Is it the fact that he never said anything? Or maybe Meredith didn't? Or both?
His eyebrows raise in a motion of slight shrug, eyes focused on the monitor in front of him. He's happy Meredith can't hear them right now. "I was stunned at first. Couldn't quite believe it, to be perfectly honest." He steadies his hands before inserting the coil. "I wasn't ready to share that piece of me. Then, when I was, too much time had passed and I didn't know how to bring it up."
"Steady deploying the coil," she advises. The words barely pass her lips before the machines start shrieking wildly, their patient crashing.
"Prep for a thoracotomy," Yang orders at the same time. "I told you so."
"Yeah, yeah. Let's just get her bloody prepped."
As the scrub nurses intervene in quick fashion, they switch positions for Yang to take the lead. They work in quasi-silence for a while, making sure the bleeding is controlled.
Yang breaks the ice once they've stabilized the patient. "She's a good friend to have in your corner."
He doesn't breathe a word, his mind going in a hundred different directions. But after too many breaths have passed in silence, Yang side-eyes him, expecting a reply.
"Aye. I don't disagree." He doesn't expand, uncertain of her motives.
"She can help you with...you know..."
"Aye, I'm aware." He's conscious of their position over a patient's open chest, and thankfully, so is Yang, as she's not usually prone to care for decorum.
"But maybe don't use all her coping mechanisms."
His right eyebrow lifts in curiosity, awaiting a follow-up.
"She's told you about some of the traumas?"
At his nod, Yang elaborates in rapid fire, "She's dark and twisty sometimes. But she's better at reigning it in these days. Age, kids, whatever. Sometimes, we have to pull her back."
"It's understandable, given everything she went through." His instinct to defend out in full-force.
"Specimen," she says, glancing sideways at him. He retracts the piece of the resected lung and dumps it into the steel basin the scrub nurse holds out.
"She's my sister. Twisted sister, but sister all the same. I like you, Hayes, but treat her right." He fumbles through his memories to think of a time he's ever heard that kind of steel in Yang's voice. Nothing comes to mind.
Implications stealthily creep up, as does a mortified, heating blush at the glint in Yang's eyes. He's never been more thankful for his surgical mask.
"You good to close?" He asks, his expression subdued by the desperate need to escape the bright lights of her interrogation. He's not ready for this. And maybe Yang's nosiness and bluntness explain why he never revealed his connection to Meredith. The wave of guilt threatens to submerge him.
Maybe she senses his emotions at the surface. She doesn't push him. "I'm good."
Escaping to the scrub room, he meticulously washes his fingers and nails with a bar of soap. Concentrated, he doesn't hear the door to his left open.
Meredith's voice startles him enough to drop the soap in his hands.
Her face awash with doubt, she lets it slide. For now. "Not too sad Cristina was right?"
He lets out a laugh through his nose, unable to hide his lighthearted irritation. "I'll live."
Cristina breezes into the scrub room, interrupting their tête-à-tête with her usual snark, "No need to be grumpy. You should both be used to me being right by now."
Eye rolls ensue.
"We still on for dinner tonight?" She asks Meredith.
"Zola's excited to see you."
"Of course she is." The seriousness in Cristina's tone draws a few chuckles."Who wouldn't be?"
"Owen, Bailey, Jo... Need I go on?" This. This ribbing is what he expected when he thought about what drew them together. He sees it now. How the two of them could be friends.
"You actually think Bailey likes you more than me? You've clearly grown more delusional over the years."
"Rude!" Meredith shouts, playfully offended.
"Are conversations always like this between you two?"
"Like what?" Cristina and Meredith parrot, completely oblivious.
His eyebrows raised to the ceiling is their answer.
The next afternoon, the air is pleasantly warm, a reprieve from the perpetual drizzle of Seattle. Meredith is waiting for him on the steps of her hotel.
As he nears her, a bright smile greets her, stirring long forgotten butterflies in the pit of her stomach. She closes the last few steps between them, catching him off guard, if the hitch in his breath is anything to go by, when she wraps an arm around his neck.
"Hi," she says, untangling herself quickly. "We have an hour, maybe two if we can push it, before my kids exhaust their nanny. Where are we going?"
He laughs at her boisterous, childlike enthusiasm. "A bloody amazing confiserie. A bit touristy, I'm afraid, but it's worth it. Delicious sandwiches, even more amazing desserts."
Her mouth waters just thinking about it.
Cormac's hand grazes her lower back to guide her in the right direction and it feels like his warmth touches the wide open space of her soul. She tries not to think too much about it.
"How was dinner with Yang?" He asks.
"She entertained Zola with talks of tumours and cardiomyopathy. You know, the usual for a seven-year-old going on thirty," she quips.
"Sounds like Yang."
"Cristina has a way of making everything seem amazing and groundbreaking to Zola."
"I'm sure a Harper Avery winner can find a way to captivate her own daughter's attention."
Biting her lower lip between her teeth, Meredith gazes down, concealing her emerging blush with her hair fanned around her face.
She ignores his reference to her accomplishment. "Talks of hearts and brains are more fascination to a kid than bowels, livers and pancreases."
The prickling feeling in her neck from his sideways glance lets her know her evasiveness didn't go unnoticed.
"You know it's incredible, right? The professional achievement of a lifetime. No matter how much you try to downplay it." The admiration lined in his words ripples through her.
He continues, "I—I didn't reach out at the time because—" The quiver in his voice stops him, fear of choking through the tears impeding his progress.
Meredith gently places her hand on his forearm, squeezing lightly in comfort even as he keeps walking. She hears what is left unsaid. Because it's around the time Abigail passed away.
The days and months after that, there is no space in your mind to think of anything else but your kids.
"I'm sorry," he finishes.
His eyes shoot up quickly to hers at her fierce repudiation of his regret.
"Just don't. Don't apologize. Especially not to me."
Staring at each other, so many things travel between them, things that need no words for understanding to settle in. They might have started at different points in life, but in this moment, they can both finally—sadly—recognize what is hidden in the other.
"Can I still congratulate you now?" He gives her a look that brooks no arguments. Congratulate her, he will. "We can see this as a little celebratory lunch and you can tell me all about the transplant."
"Fine," she grumbles ungratefully under her breath.
"Yang would be boasting about this until my kids had kids. Are you sure you two are best friends?"
And just like that, he eases the tension in the air and she bumps her shoulder into his.
"She was robbed once. She should have won for the seeded conduit." The seething anger for her friend will never lie still.
"We're here," Cormac informs her.
"They make amazing macarons."
Meredith glances through the glass windows at the confections presented on silver platters. Mouth-watering truffles displayed in the most unique way, mini-cakes seemingly designed by artists, colourful bonbons, towers of macarons.
"I think my kids will kill me if I don't bring them back anything."
Cormac chuckles at that. "Same. Come on. We won't forget the little ones when we leave."
After ordering their sandwiches and treats, they end up sitting on a park bench, ready to feast.
"Any more disaster movie events in your life?" He teases.
"Does being attacked by a patient postictal count?"
By his raised eyebrow and loud grunt, she gathers it most definitely does.
"Bloody hell, Meredith! That locked dungeon's looking pretty grand right about now, eh?"
She can laugh about it now. "Honestly, it was the six weeks in the hospital that were the worst. Being away from the kids. But I think my friends secretly liked me having my jaw wired shut." She takes a bite of her sandwich, saving herself from having to recollect too many gruesome details.
His quick subject change is as welcomed as a band-aid on a gushing wound. "How was it? Going back to Seattle?"
She ponders his question a little before answering, "It was hard at first. I had to move back into my mom's house instead of Derek's dream house." She shrugs like that was to be expected. "But Maggie moved in and our relationship has never been stronger."
"How are the boys?" She wonders. It's different for them. They're old enough to feel the pain, to reel from it.
"Okay one minute and terribly sad the next. Christmas was the worst." He bows his head, moisture glossing over his eyes. "Abby loved Christmas."
Meredith nods, remembering that little tidbit about his wife. "The nutcrackers," she murmurs.
A weak smile flashes across his face. "Aye, the nutcrackers."
They share a moment of silence, both of them deep in thought.
"I don't know if I'm doing enough for them," he admits.
He's just described every parent's dilemma, and she can't help but commiserate.
"I don't think there's a magic formula. Every situation is different. But at the end of the day, just be there for them. Not hovering, but near. Ask how they're doing and hope they come to you when they need help."
She thinks about her young kids, two of whom have no recollection of Derek. That's a whole other level of twistedness she still hasn't come to terms with. Probably won't for another few years.
She takes a sip from her water bottle to occupy herself. For his sake, she really hopes she's not screwing this up. He deserves better than her half-assing this talk.
They eat in comfortable silence, the sound of the bustling plaza drowning out her thoughts. She could get used to a view like this.
"Have you—" Snorting, Cormac quickly shakes his head, glancing up at the sky. Words evade, his discomfort plain as day when she glances at him. It's strange to see him so hesitant. But that's grief; taking pieces of your innocence you desperately miss and want back.
"Have you been with anyone since...?" He cuts himself off for fear of the embarrassment burning him alive.
A quickly suppressed smile tries to break through at the entirely normal question, especially from a recent widower. It takes all her energy to hold it off.
"I have. It—" A flustered puff of air leaves her body before she finally shares, "I tried. Twice. The first time was a complete fiasco. I'll save the details of that trauma for another time. Only one of us should be scarred. My friends kept pushing me, telling me Derek wouldn't want me to be alone for the rest of my life. But I wasn't ready. I just kept feeling like I was cheating."
A look of understanding flares across his features.
"I was a little more ready the second time around. But it's not like I have everything all figured out. Not even close."
Talking to her about this ignites embers of hope in him. That his grief won't always be so overwhelming, won't always be the only thing plaguing his mind until the end of his days.
Both their hands on the bench, his fingers edge ever so close to hers, the touch so light and tenuous. But her whole awareness zeroes in on it, shivers reverberating through her arm.
His brows pinch, his body fighting a clear internal struggle. He swallows, probably trying to keep his guilt at bay. But she doesn't want to push him too far, too fast. She pats his hand quickly before wrapping up her leftover sandwich. "It won't happen overnight. But that niggling voice of guilt in your head gets a little less loud over time."
Quietly, she adds, hoping to water a burgeoning grain of optimism in him, "It won't always be like this."
Treats for their kids wrapped in pastry boxes, they start heading towards her hotel, taking the scenic route back.
There's a peaceful lull in conversation, always the best time to drop bombs.
"I told Abby about you. Right before she died."
A shocked gasp escapes Meredith. Her rattled head swivels in his direction, eyes wide in a perfect impression of a deer caught in headlights.
She freezes in the middle of the crowded square, her feet suddenly carrying 30 pound lead weights. Cormac's stride doesn't falter, completely unaware of the impact of the grenade he just casually dumped in her hand. She stands there, looking at his retreating form, until he notices she's not following him and turns around. Through furrowed brows, he eyes her curiously.
Her voice is breathless. "Why?"
He straightens his back, her reaction the first hint this isn't something of little importance he can just gloss over.
"She was so worried. Frightened, really. About me retreating into my shell and having no one to talk to." He shrugs his shoulders, a cloud of sadness glazing over his features. "So I told her. To reassure her and give her peace before she died."
"And did it?" Meredith whispers, the curiosity much too clawing to shove back down.
He nods, "I like to think it did."
All manners of bouncing thoughts echo in the deep cavern of her mind.
How did he describe her to his wife?
Did it really bring her peace and comfort?
Was she mad he had never mentioned it before?
Would Abby have liked her?
"She asked a lot about you," he says, his voice snapping Meredith out of her internal musings. The strange hits just keep on coming, though.
He takes a few steps forward and waits for her to follow, giving her an out she's thankful for.
As they slowly approach the entrance to the hotel, she blurts out, "Do you want to have dinner tomorrow night? With me and my kids? You and the boys?"
It's his turn to be shocked.
"Fondue. Not the most kid friendly, but Zola really wants to try. And they'll try anything not made by me," she adds teasingly as an incentive.
A rare smile settles on his lips. "I'd love to. You have a place in mind?"
She shakes her head, "I was just going to ask Cristina for a recommendation."
"Leave it to me. We'll come by around 6 pm?"
At six o'clock on the dot the next evening, she sees him approaching her hotel with two boys trailing behind him.
"Lads, say 'hello' to Dr. Meredith Grey and her kids," Cormac says. Pointing them out, he continues, "This is Liam and this is Austin."
They offer relaxed waves, more interested in the kids behind her.
"It's nice to meet you," Meredith greets the boys with a smile. "This is Zola and Bailey. The little one tucked behind my legs is Ellis."
Ellis pokes her head out shyly, retreating quickly at the multiple pairs of eyes focused on her.
"You remember Dr. Cormac Hayes?" Meredith asks her two oldest.
Bailey lifts his hand weakly in greeting, while Zola nods confidently, her attention to detail the stuff of legend. "The pediatric surgeon."
"Great memory," Hayes states, impressed.
"Ellie-Belle, can you say 'hi Cormac'?"
"Hi 'Mac," Ellis squeaks out, tiny voice muffled in her mother's pants.
An easy smile lifts the corners of his lips. He crouches down to Ellis' height and whispers, "It's a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? No need for names. How about we just high-five?" A shy but glowing grin emerges on her youngest daughter's face as she nods.
Holding his hand up, she claps it vigorously with all the enthusiasm of an almost-three-year-old. For her own comfort, Meredith disregards the flutters in her heart.
Cormac straightens up and says, "Everyone ready to go? The restaurant isn't too far."
The boys set off, chatting with Zola and Bailey about the latest games and apps, while Ellis stays stuck to Meredith.
Meredith claps her little one's back and pushes her forward. "Come on, Ellie."
Cormac hangs back with Meredith. "You packed for tomorrow?"
She nods, "Didn't really unpack. The kids are excited about the beaches and the food."
As he nods in agreement, he feels something tug at his shirt sleeve. Glancing down, he sees Ellis' tiny hand try to slip between his. He opens his palm, letting her slide her hand in his.
A sorrowful yet warm feeling floods Meredith's nervous system.
"I miss when my boys were this age," he whispers to Meredith.
"Do you want to deal with her bedtime, then?"
Chortles bust out of him. "I wouldn't want to deprive you of such an honour."
They feel jerks from a frowning Ellis, dragging them to move more quickly, clearly unhappy with falling behind the older kids.
"Okay, Miss Ellie. No need to pout," Meredith apologizes, peering down at her youngest. But that just earns her a more pronounced pout.
Meredith bends down to her daughter's height and sneaks in a quick neck kiss, eliciting the giggle she wanted.
"Lads! Take a left at the next corner," Cormac calls out. "It's not much further. I made a reservation, what with this small army ready to invade."
"I didn't even think of that," Meredith admits.
"Restaurants are on the smaller side in Europe. You don't want to learn that one the hard way."
Peering ahead, she sees the older kids waiting in front of a quaintly decorated restaurant. Red curtains, faded gold lettering, dimly lit and tiny from the looks of it.
"Don't let appearances fool you. It's one of the best in the city. And pretty kid-friendly, all things considered."
"I'll take your word for it."
Dinner passes with relative ease, two adults always better than one with this many kids. Noise reaches high-pitched squeal levels; messes are made, but who wouldn't expect that with cheese and chocolate fondue and five kids.
"I'll be right back," Cormac says, nodding towards the bathroom.
Once his dad is out of earshot, Liam leans over to Meredith. "He has NO friends."
At Meredith's raised eyebrow, Cormac's eldest son adds, "He needs some. Like bad! So thank you." He says it like Meredith is doing them a big favour.
"My pleasure. But I don't think your dad has no friends."
Liam shakes his head vehemently. "He used to. But not since we moved here."
A mask of emotions falls over her face as Meredith tries to control her features. But the sadness creeps in through the cracks.
How could she explain this in a way Liam would understand?
"I—it—It's hard being left alone when you've been part of a team for so long. It's hard for friends to get that if they haven't been through it themselves. And I think that's what your dad must be feeling because that's what I felt when my husband died." She pauses for a moment to let her words sink in. "When you get sad, you have Austin to talk to. It'll take some time before your dad feels comfortable opening himself up again to friends."
Liam leans back, tilting his head to the side, his eyes narrowing in thought. "I never thought of it that way."
Maybe Cormac's not the only one she can help.
"What did I miss?" Cormac asks, pulling his seat out.
"Nothing," Liam and Meredith quip innocently, sharing a smile.
At Cormac's squint and pinched forehead, they can't contain their burst of laughter.
She senses more than sees a small tension lift from her old friend's shoulders. As he takes his seat, he gives her a measured nod of gratitude that she feels in the depth of her bones.
Isn't that what every parent wants? For their kids to be safe and happy through any means necessary?
On her last day in Zürich, Meredith can't stop herself from seeing him one last time, taking Liam's words to heart. She surprises Cormac in his office.
His door is wide open.
"Hey," she says, simply walking in when she sees him reading something on his computer screen.
His head spins her way, brows knitted at her presence. "I thought you were leaving today."
"We are," she tells him, approaching his desk. "But I forgot to do something last night."
"And what's that?" He asks, notes of intrigue in his voice.
"Give me your phone," she orders, holding her hand out.
After all these years, it's time. Time for her to stop being so stubborn. Time for her to put his needs above her own.
By the look in his eyes, he has an idea what's coming. Slowly reaching into his pocket, he unlocks it and gently places it in her hand.
She quickly taps her phone number in it, opening a text thread and texting herself. Passing it back to him, she reaches for her own phone, swiping across the screen to input his name.
He looks down at the screen and grins when he sees the name she tapped in.
Glancing up at her with a quirked eyebrow, he says, "'Meredith, your #1 stalker'? It's never too late to finally admit the truth."
"I didn't know how many Merediths you know. Just wanted to be thorough," she jokes.
"What am I listed as in your phone?" He wonders curiously.
"'Cormac, my #1 stalker', of course," she grins back at him.
"So now, you're not alone. If you feel lonely, if you just want to talk, use it," she instructs him, wiggling the phone in her hands.
He simply stares at her in that way of his.
For the first time in a long time, since before Derek, Meredith is held captive by her longing to stay put. Saying goodbye gets harder every time.
But she knows it's not their time. Not yet.
Shoving down the voice inside her that scream for her to stay, she slowly backs away, ignoring the temptation staring her right in the face.
"We'll talk?" She questions, voice brimming with hope.
"We'll talk," he promises.
She gives him one last fleeting glance before it's time for her to leave. Again. But not forever.