A/U: This one-shot was written in response to a request from notchenford on twitter. It is set after 18x04. So spoilers for S18 ahead.

If the show had to reintroduce Megan and Nick (Narrator: the writers didn't have to), this one-shot is what I feel could have been interesting to explore with Merhayes in the short term. Basically, what I WISH would happen and not what I think will happen.

This is mostly a Merhayes story. Megan and Nick will remain on the periphery. Mentioned but scarce.

Hope you enjoy this labour of love. Thank you for all your continued feedback. I always have such fun reading your comments.

But we had time against us
And miles between us
The heavens cried
I know I left you speechless

- Adele

It starts with averting gazes. Subtle enough for him to dismiss at first.

But when he actively catches her spinning around a corner with a flustered look on her face just to avoid him, that's when he knows something is up; the shift from lingering looks, flirty texts and giggling phone calls too obvious to ignore.

He hates this limbo they're living in, one of his own making. But what choice did he have?

They might be in a weird place since he put a pin in their non-date dates, but this is bizarre—even for her. She's never been an open book about her life—and no promises were made for the future—but dodging him at every turn seems unlike the formidable Meredith Grey. Or what he knows of her, anyway.

He tries to catch up to her multiple times, but the world seems hell-bent on cutting him off at the pass. The answers he seeks seem so far out of reach, puzzling him and slightly tormenting him.

By the time he's ready to confront her, she's gone. Again... Back to Minnesota.

Despite the gaping hole left in the hospital, life inevitably goes on in Seattle. But her presence does linger, embedded in the fabric of this place and the hearts of its people.

It all comes to a head the week of Thanksgiving.

She's grounded in Minnesota, plans be damned by Mother Nature. She promised her kids she'd be back in time, and the blasted weather won't make a liar out of her.

Richard and Maggie don't have to twist his arm into helping. He's there because he wants to be. Every airline on speed dial trying to get any combination of flights out of Minnesota, every favour called in. It seems fate smiles down on them as Meredith's able to hitch a ride to Iowa and from there, a Medevac flight landing near Grey-Sloan Memorial.

Crisis averted, Maggie gathers the kids at the hospital and hastily prepares a Thanksgiving hodgepodge to welcome a late-arriving Meredith.

A few last-minute consults in the ER make it impossible for Hayes to greet Meredith when she arrives.

A warning, perhaps.

As he approaches the conference room's blinded window, he expects to be greeted by joyous squeals of laughter from the children, a paltry spread of food and a grinning Meredith.

But the sight he encounters robs him of breath. For all the wrong reasons.

In all the scenarios that ran through his mind, the picture before him was not an option: a tall man with his hand settled at the small of Meredith's back, like it belongs there, angling to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her closer to him.

Her bright smile and shining eyes drive a dagger through his heart.

And then, suddenly, he gets it. The evasiveness, the anxious looks, the withdrawnness...

As he stands there transfixed, physically unable to move his wavering legs, the thickness clotting his throat threatens to suffocate him.

Here he is again, haplessly on the outside looking in.

Perhaps feeling his presence, her eyes flit towards the window. As they're caught in each other's gazes, the air between them charges uncomfortably. In this moment, no one else exists but them.

She's usually such a closed book, her face never giving much away. Now, every minute detail feels like a roadmap to their drama. Her uncertainty, her fear and finally, her self-loathing.

He gives her a nod of acknowledgement and nothing more, shadows darkening his eyes.

Before he does something he'll regret, he turns away, retreating.

So much for a joyful Thanksgiving.

She feels a prickling sensation in the back of her neck, accompanied by a stirring in her gut. She knows. Deep down, she knows luck has never been on her side.

Will she remain a coward or finally glance his way?

She once said she's not afraid of much, but this moment...right now...frightens her more than anything has in a long time.

As her conscience battles her flight instincts, she finally sneaks a peek towards the window, her sense of right and wrong winning out.

There's a haunted, stricken look in his eyes she's never witnessed before. Never imagined it directed at her. That, combined with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, keeps her rooted in the conference room, breath trapped in her lungs. Everything she's worked for feels like it's slipping away, crumbling around her.

She works every muscle in her body to hold his gaze, but she wavers. The intensity making a coward out of her. She's seen this cool look on his features before, but seldom aimed her way.

There's so much going on in his expression, so much written right there for her to read.

Was she wrong to withhold the information for so long? To not even mention Nick? Buried deep in her heart, she knows. She should have told Hayes.

All her familiar, dark thoughts come surging back to life.

Has she become everything she hated in Derek? Arrogant and just stringing people along with barely any concern for their feelings? God!

It's too late now.

He's the first to break their eye contact, turning away from her. Squaring his shoulders, he probably takes a steadying breath if she knows him half as well as she thinks she does.


She hangs her head down, blinking away the prickling at the back of her eyes.

The universe has never been on their side. There's no other logical explanation for their luck. For a while, she worried maybe their moment had passed. It happens. Some relationships aren't meant to see the light of day, despite hopes and wishes.

Running into Nick again definitely feels like the universe's way of screwing with her. She thought of him so often after their initial, fleeting meeting. The one who intrigued her, who reminded her of Derek. But the odds of running into Nick again at the exact wrong time can only be attributed to her cosmic bad luck. Fate's way of laughing at her.

Did she even want to fall in love again? Is that why she didn't resist Nick's charms? Because it didn't feel dangerous to her heart? Did she take the path of least resistance to avoid heartbreak?

She might never find out.

Now, he avoids her. And she lets him. For a couple of days.

The chicken in her delays the confrontation as much as time will permit.

But destiny eventually conspires against her, as it usually does.

The tension in OR 3 can be cut with a knife. Clipped words and awkward silences interspersed with quick medical instructions. The scrub nurses clearly notice, if their knowing looks are anything to go by.

The only consolation prize she can find is their continued synchronized rhythm. At least they haven't lost that.

She's never cared this much before, wanted to apologize this much before, and it's unsettling.

Finally, their quasi-silent surgery comes to an end. As he closes the patient up, she escapes to the scrub room, letting out the exhausted sigh she's been holding in for three hours.

The breaths she's finally managing to suck in nourish her depleted body. Grabbing the soap, Meredith rubs the bar furiously against her hands, between her fingers and up her arms. If she washes hard enough and long enough, maybe she can scrub away the self-inflicted stain marring her heart.

"We need to talk."

So lost in thought, his command startles her, disrupting her frantic wiping.

She hasn't given him enough credit. He's never been one to dawdle for too long, unlike her.

No more running, Meredith.

Closing her eyes, she nods, accepting the fate awaiting her, the fate she most likely deserves.


"My office. Ten minutes."

Pressure builds up behind her eyes as she slowly exhales the breath fighting to escape.

"I'll be there." Off to the gallows she goes.

Helpless to stop the countless scenarios her mind conjures up, she doesn't know him well enough to guess how this will unfold.

As she arrives at his office door, that final step inside proves to be the hardest to take. She hasn't needed to knock on his door in a long time. She's not sure she'll be able to say that much longer.

Rapping lightly, only a few seconds pass before the door opens, Hayes's somber expression greeting her. The way his eyes no longer want to meet her gaze is the first dagger in her heart.

Lump of nerves stuck in her throat, she takes in his face, roaming over every inch. As he steps to the side to let her enter, there is no preamble before she blurts out, "I'm sorry."

"Aye, you should be," he mutters, closing the door behind them.

"I can explain." Like a child caught misbehaving, her words mean nothing.

Finally, their eyes meet, his withering gaze blazing through her core.

He doesn't offer her a seat, and he doesn't take one either. They're left standing, ready for their battle.

"Explain what? How you didn't have the decency to warn me?" The tide of frustration rising inside him is going to get much worse before it gets better. "You knew how I felt about you, Meredith. A blind person could tell!"

Felt, past tense. Another dagger to her soul. His seething anger explodes, all at once. No warning from tiny bubbles. Just an unexpected burst that surprises them both.

Standing here, bearing the full brunt of his condemnation is her penitence. Or so she thinks.

She lowers her head, uneasy with her guilty-party status. Words are hard to come by since there are no words to explain her shitty behaviour.

"It's just...maybe our timing wasn't right..." She tries to explain. But those are precisely the wrong words to say to him, simply restoking his exasperation.

"Bloody hell! Timing, timing, timing! I'm sick of hearing about bad timing." Chest panting, his hands tighten in fists as anger ripples through him. Being on the receiving end of his glare is not a welcomed feeling.

The power and fury he radiates signal her complete lack of awareness. Maybe she just didn't expect this from him because she's lived in a protective bubble, unaware of the depth of his feelings, hidden behind his usual mask of indifference. Did she just not pay enough attention to what his actions screamed?

Or maybe she just didn't want to see it, didn't want to contemplate the feelings burgeoning in her whenever she was near him. Home. She doesn't feel Derek's omnipresence when she's with Hayes, and to this day, that troubles her. The why plagues her.

He wasn't finished. "You told me practically everything about Minnesota, except the ONE thing that actually bloody mattered." He huffs out a panting breath. "You never told me about him. Why?"

Her face falls as his voice hitches at his last word. It fits her heart.

Chills erupt down her spine. This is a clear make-it-or-break-it moment. Her head is submerged under water, and she can't seem to catch a breath. She feels herself sinking, their relationship as she knows it along with it.

"I don't know," her voice croaks out, her eyes pleading with him to believe her.

He scoffs at that, the dam breaking inside him. "I doubt that! You thought nothing of humiliating me. Did you have a good laugh at me?"

The escalating indignation she's only ever glimpsed here and there is fixed on her.

Her eyes open wide, head shaking at his train of thought. "Of course not!"

"Then what? Why didn't you tell me?" The scowl marring his features is her dirty work, his face frozen in harsh lines.

"Did you get your kicks out of stringing me along?" His low, seething tone is unbearable, the clear disgust billowing out of him.

"God, no!" The tables turn, resentment now rushing over her. He should know her better than that by now. But if anyone understands that pain speaks louder than reason sometimes, it's her.

"The truth is...I don't know what it is. This thing with Nick." Her shoulders slump. "I met him a few years ago when he was here for a transplant surgery. We had one day together."

She tries to toe a delicate line. "When I saw him again, after COVID, after us...it helped a bit—that familiar feeling. Maybe I was living in the memories." Tears stinging her eyes, she rambles on, "You and I? We tried, and it didn't work out. Why I didn't tell you? I didn't want to hurt you. I don't know what this thing between Nick and me is or if it's even going anywhere. I was trying to spare your feelings until I knew for sure."

"He was here on Thanksgiving, with you and your kids." The disbelief lacing his words twists the daggers protruding from her chest, his chagrined consternation doing the rest.

"Because he helped me find a way to my kids. That's it." Meredith's trying to rationalize her actions in the face of sure defeat. She knows she should just apologize, but digging herself into a hole seems to come so naturally.

He snorts. "It sounds like you were trying to have your cake and eat it too. You thought I'd stick around, wallowing in the background, waiting for crumbs."

She's only ever seen him this riled up in defense of his patients. But her gall has manifested it in him.

Reaching the acceptance stage is in her best interest, but her pride will have none of it, determined to remain in the bargaining phase, overpowering her best intentions, the self-important bullheadedness in her rearing its head once again. Every little cut from his dagger ignites the fight in her, no matter how juvenile it is.

"What about you and Megan Hunt?"

His face scrunches up with incredulity, eyebrows knitted in confusion. "Excuse me? What's that supposed to mean?"

"People talk, Hayes." She's grasping at straws to justify her actions, and perhaps, assuage her own guilt.

Her Hail Mary fails, as she knew it would.

He steps back, turning his back to her, as if he can't stand to be near her. The atmosphere is taut with silence before the third dagger drops, pouring a handful of salt into her wounds.

"You're a coward, Meredith Grey." He spits out the words intent on injuring her, hitting her harder than any strike would and jabbing deeper than any blade ever could.

The words are out there, hanging in the air, never to be taken back. They'll always live between them.

When the anger passes, he'll realize he might have been harsher than intended with her, but by then, the damage will be done. A small stab of regret hits him in the chest at his uncharacteristic cruelness. He groans, covering his face with his hands, exhausted from everything.

She's not mad. She can't be. But the anguish accumulating inside her reaches a breaking point. After a lifetime of pain and tragedies, he was the one bright spot in her life. And now...she's managed to screw that up—royally.

The home they tentatively built together over a period of two years comes crashing down around them.

She swallows the words threatening to come out, thinking better of it. If their friendship has any hope of surviving, exiting now is her best bet.

His words linger with her long after their fight has passed. No matter what she's doing, the look of utter betrayal on his face stays at the forefront of her thoughts.

She's used to fighting with people, to her friends and family being mad at her, and usually, it bounces right off her. The thing is…as days go by, this one stays with her.

The next time they cross paths, it's back to Dr. Grey. The fact that he's reverted to calling her Dr. Grey, not even just Grey, stings most of all. She can deal with the uber-professional tone, the cold shoulder, the air of indifference he's perfected and the avoidance. But the genuine hurt in his gaze stabs her repeatedly. After a while, the pain becomes a welcomed retreat for someone who finds a twisted sort of comfort in it, like an old friend back home where they belong.

Catching glimpses of him in the hallways with Megan at his side, rubbing elbows and giggling, compounds Meredith's pain, feeling exactly like what she deserves.

Can she really be mad at him for moving on with Megan?

She was going back and forth between Seattle and Minnesota so often, Hayes was bound to forget her.

But why is his relationship with Megan working when theirs didn't? What changed?

How is it so easy for him to just move on from her?

What if she'd just waited a little while longer?

What if she'd told him about Nick from the start? Would his reaction have been different?

Nick is fun, but memories of the past swirl whenever she's around him. Is there really any hope of it lasting, though? Can she actually envision a future with him beyond the immediate one?

What if Hayes finds love with Megan? He deserves to after all the hell he's been through. Can Meredith really begrudge him that?

So many what ifs haunt her, never leaving her with a moment's rest.

Living in this new reality takes some adjustment. He no longer seeks her out just because. No more coffee and tea breaks together. No more yearning to bump into her, and now...just emptiness.

They used to tell each other the most random details about their lives, even the most meaningless. Now they can barely stand to look at each other, the pang so vivid and fresh in their minds.

Remembering the image of Meredith with him just burns his insides. His only saving grace is her lack of presence in these halls. And the fact that he doesn't have to see them together. One glimpse was more than enough to last him a lifetime.

Can he even really be mad at her? They didn't make any formal promises to each other. He told her not to wait. And yet...a rush of resentment surges within him at the picture embedded in his brain of the two of them together.

How is it so easy for her to just move on from their connection? From him?

In the back of his mind, hope had persisted, positive that this break was just a blip in the grand scheme of things. Now, he's not even sure they can recover from what they yelled at each other the last time they had a meaningful conversation.

Is it possible to come back from that?

She's usually able to let things rest, a champion at ignoring them. But in this instance, her heart won't permit it. She doesn't examine the reason why for too long. After losing so many people in her life, letting this lie is not a fathomable option.

And so, she inserts herself where she doesn't belong.

When he finds a folded piece of paper tucked in his cubby, an ominous chill runs down his spine. He's transported back to secondary school, before the advent of mobile phones, to a time when receiving a note in your locker had your heart pumping a little bit faster.

He unfolds the note, discovering the name and phone number of a child psychologist. No signature. The swirly handwriting, however, clues him in to the originator of the scribbling.

Inhaling deeply, his hand unconsciously crumbles the note in his fist, his recalcitrant anger and pain resurging. Blowing out a furious breath, his heartbeat calms even as distrust settles in.

Where was this benevolence weeks ago?

Does she truly think these gestures forgive her callousness?

It doesn't stop there.

The flood of guilt sweeps over her every minute of the day, never relenting, even for a moment. With her, it manifests itself in the strangest ways.

Like sending another general surgery attending in her stead when she's paged for a peds consult. Anything to alleviate his pain.

Or leaving a poorly-knitted scarf in his cubby accompanied by companion pieces for his boys. A day later, she sees them hanging around teddy bears' necks in the pediatric ward. At least, they weren't thrown in the trash.

The uphill climb she has to endure now lays solely at her feet.

Bailey's invitation to dinner gives him time to breathe and release his worries for one measly night.

As he helps her clear the table while Ben plays football with the boys in the backyard, Hayes has never been more grateful for the kindness she showed him all those months ago.

"Did I ever say thank you? For welcoming us."

Bailey laughs. "You did. But I'll never turn down a good dose of appreciation." Dishes are placed one on top of the other while she gathers the cutlery.

"Austin seems to be doing better," she remarks.

The soft hint of a smile spreads across his features, lighting his sad eyes. "Aye. A wee bit better. These dinners have really helped him. As has having friends his own age to talk to. He even agreed to talk to a psychologist next week."


Things might be going well with Austin, but Bailey recognizes the signs of a man with a heavy weight on his chest.

"So what's got you moping around my hospital, then?"

His head jerks up at her reprimand. "I'm not moping!"

Her pointed stare combined with that all-knowing glint in her eyes compel him to admit defeat.

"Fine...I'm moping." The disgust he feels for himself is well-earned. This can't be who he's become.

The lift of her brow forces him to elaborate against his wishes. He's always been a private person, and splaying his drama all out there goes against his very nature.

"I can't believe I'm about to say this..." His eyes turn to the ceiling, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.

"I'm frustrated," he finally manages to admit. Finally, it's out there. "I like Megan; I really do. She's lovely...she's...but..."

The irritated huff he blows out is confirmation of his self-directed anger.

Bailey finishes his thought for him. "But she's not the one you're in love with."

He can tell she's enjoying her position as all-knowing Chief. The smirk tugging at the corner of her lips is easy enough to catch. It might seem strange to talk to his boss about romantic drama, but they've formed quite a nice bond since she invited his family to her house for weekly get-togethers.

"No...she's not the one I'm in love with." The sorrow filling his heart pummels him. "And Megan feels it. She knows I haven't fully invested myself in this relationship or whatever it is. It's not fair to her."

He hangs his head, his hands resting on the dining room table, supporting his weight.

"No one likes being strung along. You, more than anyone, should know that." Bailey's words hang in the air, silently assaulting him with their accuracy. He's morphing into the very thing he lambasted Meredith for.

"She's still with him." He doesn't need to expand; Bailey knows who he's talking about. She always knows, he silently laughs.

Bailey snorts, mischief dancing on her features. "It's not going to last."

Intrigue and a smidge of optimism flash in his eyes. "How do you know?"

"Because I see all and know all," she jokes, a grin curling at the corner of her lips.

That cryptic reply leaves him feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time.

Gathering his half of the plates, he follows her into the kitchen. As he sets the dishes in the sink, Bailey tosses him a towel, nudging him to the side while she starts washing.

They settle into a nice, quiet rhythm before his unconscious sighs disturb her zen.

"Listen...the thing most people fail to see when it comes to Meredith Grey is she runs. Lord, does that child run!" Bailey raises her eyes high, shaking her head in the process. "Whenever she has a good thing going, she questions it. Constantly. In all the years I've known her, that hasn't changed. That man she's with now, he's a clone of her husband."

"Isn't that a good thing?"

Swivelling her head in his direction and lifting an eyebrow aimed at his question, her look practically answers his question. "Would you actually want to be with a copycat of your wife? Pfft. Please."

The shivers cascading down his back at the horror scenario confirm Bailey's hypothesis.

"Meredith has had a hard few years. Hard decade, really. This is her way of taking the easy road, reminiscing a little. But eventually, reality will settle in, and she'll realize what she gave up."

The glimmer in his boss's eyes warms him. He glances down, avoiding her keen gaze under his reddening cheeks.

He can always hope.

"What are you doing with that overly-coiffed, pretty boy?"

The question jars Meredith out of her groove. With her hands deep in the patient's abdomen, she can't jerk like she normally would at the invasive question.

It's also not like Bailey to want to wade into personal drama, especially not while in surgery.

Meredith takes a moment to pause, her gaze meeting her mentor's. She's thankful for the surgical mask hiding her flush, but the stammer that comes out can't be helped. "Uh…I...what?"

"You heard me. What in the world are you doing?"

"Is now really the best time?"

Rolling her eyes, Bailey snorts. "Stop fooling yourself. I've heard you talk about the nastiest things in the OR. The way I see it, there's no better time."

A quiet sigh escapes from under Meredith's mask. "It's better this way."

Undeterred, Bailey pushes her former star pupil for her own good. "Better for who?"

Backed up against the wall, Meredith gives voice to her doubts. "You know who..."

"Say it."

Their gazes lock in a fierce battle, the discomfort building up, and finally, bubbling over.

"For Hayes," Meredith whispers.

"Mmhmm. Keep going."

Egged on, the real root of her fear emerges. "Maybe it's better he has his firsts with someone else. Someone who isn't bogged down with baggage they can't seem to let go of. Someone fun like Megan." God! Who was she trying to convince?

The words are out there, not just for Bailey but for herself as well. It's a start. To acknowledge the reality, to better understand her misdirected motives.

"You're making about as much sense as my boys when they break curfew."

"You have the best marriage I know. You're literally the example everyone tries to emulate. Of course, you don't get it."

Glancing up at Meredith from across the OR table, Bailey's eyes soften. "I'm sure Megan and pretty boy are fine people. But there's something to be said for someone who was there for you every step of the way, even at your bedside, when he thought no one was watching. Someone who took care of you and consoled your kids when you were out of commission. Someone who understands he could never replace Derek and wouldn't want to. Someone you clearly formed a tight bond with."

"I think that's the most you've ever spoken to me about my love life. Voluntarily, anyway."

They exchange laughs as Meredith's words break the weight of Bailey's frank statement.

"Someone needs to knock some sense into you."

"Are you just saying that because you don't want me to go to Minnesota anymore?"

Bailey's chuckles redouble, mirth twirling merrily in her eyes. "You got me. I don't have anything better to do than play matchmaker for grown adults. All because I can't stand to lose you."

There might a fool muttered closely thereafter.

On nights like tonight, Meredith's happy she had a bench installed on the famous bridge that overlooks the hospital lobby.

Gazing at the snowy sky and Christmas lights illuminating the trees, the picture resembles an idyllic storybook drawing in all its serene glory. A perfect place for her to come and reminisce. Even with all its dark memories.

It's quiet this time of night, almost chillingly so. Only her and her thoughts and the falling snow.

The squeaking sound of the doors to her right opening interrupts her musings. But the person appearing does more than that. Her heart begins thumping out of sync, her rapidly-sweating palms gripping the bench, anticipating the warranted rejection coming her way.

As Hayes slowly approaches, they play the usual game. Will they acknowledge each other with a simple nod, or will words be uttered this time?

"Dr. Grey." Stinging words, it is.

He catches her flinch. When did he become this guy? Hurting someone just for the sake of it. He's better than this.

She doesn't say a word, just nods in his direction, offering him a strained smile.

He pauses, placing his hands on his hips while hanging his head, shame rolling off him.

Finally, he glances her way. Icy turmoil churns in the depths of his eyes. She put that look in his eyes—no one else—and she has to live with that knowledge.

Turning fully towards her, the midnight sky envelops him. He stands across from her on the bridge, keeping a safe distance for his heart. "Meredith."

The exhaustion of the last few weeks lives in the single utterance of her name. He's so damned tired.

He searches for the anger inside him, but can't find it. This soft spot for her will be the death of him. Even after all the chaos she's caused.

Finally, a glimmer of hope for Meredith. "Hayes."

He leans his elbows against the handrail, crossing his feet. The silent wait is excruciating to Meredith.

It's the first time in weeks they've been in the same vicinity with absolutely no buffer and no medical case to distract them.

Time has a way of amplifying or tempering issues. This friction between them…has elements of both.

His silence is intentional, she thinks, as awkwardness settles in. But at some point in her life, she just became comfortable in it. She never freezes, just moves forward, slithering her way through the muddy waters.

She recognizes, however, that she has to be the one to take the first step.

"How are you liking the snow?" That feels like safe territory.

A snort bubbles out of him. This is what they've been reduced to. Talking about the bloody weather?

"Better than the perpetual rain. Festive for Christmas. The lads are chuffed about it."

She decides to delve into decidedly less safe territory, but she'll never know unless she tries.

"How are you? How's Austin?"

His eyes pierce through her in that mysterious way of his. Alex used to say it was hard to get a good read on her feelings, but she's got nothing on Hayes. He takes cold indifference to a whole new level.

"He's getting there." It's a start, and right now, that's everything.

The door finally opens a crack.

"A little better every day. We've been going to Bailey's for weekly dinners. It's been good for him, you know. To make some friends and not be in his head so much." His chin dips, a clear burden lifted off his shoulders at his son's steady improvement. "And the therapist helped, as well. Thank you."

The mild thawing spreads warmth throughout her body, even if she doesn't remotely deserve it. There's a beaming force inside her that wants to be let out, but frightening him cannot be on her agenda today.

"And Megan?"

His head rises at a snail's pace, his eyes never leaving hers as a scowl comes to life. He blinks once, trying desperately to grasp for any sign of hidden motives. When he doesn't find any, his frown breaks.

"Can I ask that, or is it weird?" Her boundaries have never been particularly clear, a by-product of growing up without a functional parent.

"Weird is one word for it," he mutters.

He lets that linger in the air for a moment before adding on, "But you can ask."

"You can tell me to shove it. I know it's none of my business."

"You've never let that stop you before," he says, his deeply-buried emotions coming to the surface to play.

But always the adult and better person in the room, he doesn't let his sentiments sit for too long. "We got to know each other during Farouk's ordeal. But really, the kids became friends first. Things evolved from there…slowly." His shoulders shrug innocently. "She was kind, and I was lonely, you know. While you were in…" He cuts himself off before wading into the murky waters of suppressed resentment.

The ghost of a smile appears on her lips. "You don't have to justify anything to me. But for what it's worth, I'm happy for you. She's great. Awesome, kind, joyful. Just amazing." The manic ramble transports Meredith back to painful memories, filled with surprise-wives and doe-eyed nurses.

"She is." The admission comes at a cost for Hayes, chipping away at his heart. "But…"

Standing on hollow legs, they lead him closer to Meredith, taking the seat to her right. Regardless of what transpired between them, his heart recognizes a kindred spirit in her, one who's walked the path he's on.

"But?" She eggs on.

The lump clogging his throat is pushed back down through sheer force of will. "But she reminds me of Abby."

Turning his way, Meredith's eyes rise to meet his, welcoming this moment of reprieve between them. Their problems will still be there tomorrow. For now, she can help a friend.

"In what way?"

His eyes glaze over, going in and out of focus, as his brain compares and contrasts.

"She's so happy. ALL THE TIME." He punctuates the words. "It used to drive me nuts with Abby. But in a good way, I suppose."

His exasperation forces a short laugh, disguised as a cough, out of her. They're more similar than she thought.

"Has Megan told you about what she went through?"

"Aye. A bit."

"When you've been through something dark like that, I think you default to one of two modes. Endless pessimism or exuberant optimism. She chose the harder of the two. I think it's commendable." Was she seriously championing Megan Hunt? Again?

His scrutinizing gaze lets her know she definitely needs to have her head examined in the near future.

Meredith's not done giving brilliant advice. "Maybe that's what we both need in our lives…happy people to balance out the grief."

She's under the microscope of his stare now. His head slants to the side, brows drawn in concentration. Dawning comprehension creeps up on him.

He feels like secrets that wanted to stay buried deep are finally out in the open. Is he finally getting the highly sought-after reasons behind her motives?

"Are you happy?" He murmurs. Is he? Despite outward appearances?

A wistful smile graces her features. "Sometimes... With my kids, mostly." Silence weaves between them as memories whirl in their minds. "But nothing feels like home anymore."

Her whispered confession leaves a mark, calling to him in a familiar way. He feels that revelation go straight through his skin, past his ribcage, hitting him square in the chest. Despite their strained bond, his heart sings the same tune.

Silence stretches as they both gaze out on the snowy scene past the wall of glass, letting her admission settle between them.

His next words stun her. "I'm sorry…for what I said that day."

The remorse in his voice renders her momentarily speechless.

Sucking in a deep breath, she shakes her head frantically like she can't believe that she's hearing. In truth, she really can't.

How can he be nice to HER? So accommodating? She's done nothing to merit his kindness.

"Don't EVER apologize to me for what you said. I deserved it and more. You were right. About everything...I was a coward; and worse, I was selfish. I hurt you."

Her head tilts down, blinking away those pesky tears threatening to break free. "I'm the one who's sorry." A million apologies wouldn't suffice to erase the pain she's inflicted on him, a man who's survived more than his fair share of heartbreak, but the croak in her voice resonates in him.

Sitting quietly on the bench, something transpires between them. As her tear-stained face meets his, his heart begins to crack. Just a few moments alone with her and his heartache eases. He thought he was stronger than that, but clearly, immunity against her is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.

"Why?" The single word rasps out of him. After all this time, it still skulks in his mind. Why didn't she tell him?

She turns more fully towards him, respecting him enough to look him in the eye while she tries to cobble together what she's figured out.

"I avoid confrontation when it comes to my personal life. At all cost." The traumas of the past never truly leave us.

"Doesn't sound like the Meredith Grey I now." The fact that he cracks a joke gives her the strength to persevere.

"Did I ever tell you my husband was married when he first pursued me?"

The heaven-raised eyebrows give his answer. That elicits a wry chuckle out of her.

"Well, separated, apparently. But he never told me. His wife just popped up out of nowhere. I was a sitting duck, waiting for the firing squad."

Comprehension flares in his eyes…and a whisper of compassion.

She continues. "They got back together for a while, to see if they could make things work."

"So you know what it feels like to be blindsided? Why not tell me, then?" The question persists, even more so in light of this new piece of information.

"I thought not knowing was better than knowing. I enjoyed the bubble with Derek and when it burst, it was the most awful feeling in the world. But that's my baggage talking."

She adds on, exasperated with herself at this point, "And clearly, I haven't learned anything. The truth will always find a way to come out."

In her case, behaviours of the past have a way of normalizing terrible, present-day decisions.

"Maybe you can blame COVID for the brain fog?" He teases. Tentative smiles abound between them as hope doesn't seem so lost.

Even as he tries to relieve her shame, pain is never far away either. Despite what his brain tells him, his heart isn't ready to move on to forgiveness quite yet. Perspective has barely had enough time to set in and heal that wound.

"It still hurts. That it was so easy for you to move on," he shares, never one to shy away from difficult topics, as opposed to her.

Self-inflicted agony constricts her heart. "I didn't. Not really." It's hard to explain Nick. She's not even sure she understands her fleeting, nonsensical fantasy. It feels like revisiting her twenties…and Derek.

"I fell for the charm and was swept up in the nostalgia. And it felt good for a while to revel in it."

He looks down at her words before she pushes on. "There might have been a trauma response to surviving COVID hidden in there too."

Giving her head a quick shake, she confesses to him—and to herself, "But I don't think it's meant to last. It's not built on friendship like…" Her words trail off. She has no right to continue to try to pull Hayes into her orbit. Not after what she did.

"Are you still…" Curiosity beckons. Together is left unsaid.

"For now." The hedging response hints of changes to come. But he's not sure he's ready to wade deeper into it.

"He's also a cheery person," she grumbles, a chuckle spurting out of both of them at the annoyance echoed in her voice.

As their laughter fades, their eyes still, silent pleading in hers and familiar softness in his.

Despite his better judgment, Hayes feels himself being reeled back in.

"The thought of not having you in my life, in any capacity, makes it hard to breathe," he confesses. In truth, he's not ready to irrevocably cut the cord. "The days feel dark again without you."

Absolutely gut-wrenching. For a man with a lot of pride, she can only imagine the strength it takes to put those feelings out there.

She lowers her gaze, the intensity and honesty in his words knocking the breath out of her.

He's determined to leave her in a puddle by the time he's done with her. Her heart thunders against her chest, doing nothing to quell the persistent ache taking up residence in her body. She's never felt less worthy of him than at this very moment.

As she finally glances up at him, the tears prickling at the back of her eyes remain undeterred by her blinking, a few lone ones slipping past her defenses.

There's a wide chasm between what she deserves from him and what she gets—irreconcilable, really.

A tentative connection starts to weave itself together after the destruction she wrought. She can only pray it's possible to rebuild trust when it's been shattered.

As a bubble of intimacy wraps around them, there's still so much left unsaid that needs to be said, but it doesn't feel so imperative to say it all now. Not like it did before their conversation.

Weeks pass and the thaw continues.

A nod here, a smile there. The conversations aren't as tense as she'd feared they'd be. Catching glimpses of him with Megan, however, doesn't get any easier to bear the more she's forced to witness them together.

And bear witness she does as she's in Minnesota less and less, the project taking off without much fanfare once the FDA granted them approval for a clinical trial. Amelia's dealing with the day-to-day data collection, and Meredith's handling the logistics and data analysis. As a result, things with Nick decidedly cool. For the better, she thinks. Zola, Bailey and Ellis will always remain her number one priority, no matter what any man in her life wants.

The kids are over the moon with her increased presence at home, as are Bailey and Richard. Mostly to foist the residents off on her.

The closer they move toward Christmas, the merrier the hospital becomes. Trees, lights, over-the-top decorations plastered all over the halls. It feels like everyone is going the extra mile to make up for last year's subdued holiday.

Invitations to multiples parties come in, and that's how Meredith finds herself with her family and friends at Bailey's house.

The soft melody of Christmas songs plays in the background as the young kids run around the adults, and the older ones perch themselves on the couches.

It's been a long time since they've all gotten together to celebrate. Bailey and Ben really went all out. Ribbons, garlands, the gigantic tree, music, party games, food, desserts that would make Santa weep...

With a glass of eggnog for company, Meredith hangs back in the living room doorway, detached from the rest of the party, surveying the scene from the shadows. In normal circumstances, watching the ideal that are the Warrens would be nauseating. Huddled together, the glowing smiles, the hushed whispers, the hidden caresses... What was she doing here? The squeals of joy refocus her attention. Right, the kids.

There are a few new people in their fold. Link, Winston, Hayes, Megan, the kids... But it only adds to the festivities.

Sneaking glances around the room, groups coalesce together. Jo and Luna. Levi and Nico. Maggie and Winston. Amelia, Link and Scout. Owen and Teddy. Richard and Catherine. Bailey and Ben. Hayes and Megan...

The strength it takes not to linger too long on the last couple would merit Meredith a medal of valor. Longing stares when you're twenty are one thing. When you're forty, it's another thing completely. She's the odd woman out, and it's never bothered her. Before now.

"I'd like to give a toast," Bailey calls out, raising her glass.

Everyone gathers around, resounding joy filling their eyes.

"I know the last two years have tested us." Nods of agreement follow. "But we've survived. And I'd say this is a welcomed improvement on most of our get-togethers. No fires to put out or firefighters to call, no last-minute change of venues, no awkward silences, no surprise guests..."

The suppressed snickers in the room have Meredith narrowing her eyes. "Why is everyone looking at me?"

The chuckles turn into full-blown laughs, accompanied by snorts. "That fire wasn't my fault!"

"What about the great poisoning of 2012?" Richard throws out.

Tears of laughter stream down everyone's faces. There are a few looks of confusion, on the newbies' faces, but it only makes the others howl harder.

"Are we eating anything she brought?" Link asks.

Amelia snorts. "Good Lord, no! She's been banned from bringing anything that isn't alcohol or store-bought."

"SHE is standing right here! And you're one to talk, Amelia Shepherd!" The nerve of her family...

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Meredith's legendary glare does nothing to calm the cackling masses. "I need another drink."

"Try not to touch anything while you're in the kitchen," Maggie taunts.

"Ugh!" If not for the presence of the little ones, every single one of her friends would be gifted with a nice middle finger.

While filling up her cup, a necessity to endure the ribbing for the rest of the night, a clearing throat causes her to jump, sloshing her eggnog over the rim.

"Oops. I'm sorry," Megan says, rushing over to grab some napkins.

"It's okay. Just startled a little. How have you been? We haven't gotten to catch up since you've been back."

Resting her forearms against the kitchen island, Megan purses her lips. Never one to shy away from awkward topics, the redhead leans forward, broaching the common link connecting them. "I'm guessing you heard about me and Riggs."

"I did...I'm really sorry." And Meredith truly is. But surprised, she is not. After ten years apart, sometimes, you have to cut to grow. "His loss."

A beatific smile illuminates Megan's face. "Damn right!"

"I heard about Farouk. I'm really glad he's better." If anyone understands what Megan went through, it's Meredith. It's every mother's worst nightmare to see her kid suffering.

"Thanks. He did have a pretty good doctor."

Meredith glances towards the living room, spotting a grinning Hayes chatting with Owen. "The best," she admits, turning her gaze back to Megan lest she be accused of lingering too long.

"You know he's crazy about you, right?" The elephant has fully entered the room, intent on settling in. Megan looks at Meredith expectantly, urging the general surgeon to believe her.

"This is weird, right? Like I'm not crazy." Meredith looks around for someone to yell out "Sike".

"Oh! 100%!" Megan concedes.

"Aren't you two..."

Megan nods, cutting off Meredith from having to voice her question. "We are... But I didn't go into it with my eyes fully opened. Heightened emotions and all."

He saved her boy. He sang a song for him with her. Feelings of gratitude and companionship blended together where he was concerned. There's truly nothing more powerful than saving someone's kid.

Megan looks expectantly at Meredith. "I also think he found comfort in my family more than anything." Eyes earnest, the trauma surgeon adds, "I didn't know there was history between the two of you."

"It's ancient. You have nothing to worry about." Meredith's days of meddling and mooning gazes are long gone. Or so she tries to convince herself.

The glint in Megan's eyes suggests otherwise. "Not so ancient, if you ask me."

"This is not getting any less weird..." Meredith eyes Megan, trying to get a handle on her intentions. Her former patient has never been one to shy away from relationship messes.

Megan bulldozes through, ignoring Meredith's muttered outburst. "He mentions you a lot." The redhead smirks knowingly, eyes bright with mirth. "It's cute, honestly. He doesn't even notice he's doing it."

The twilight zone she's living in has Meredith shaking her head. "What is happening right now?"

"What's happening is I'm helping you two out. My son's surgeon and my surgeon. You put us back together. It's my chance to return the favour." Eyebrow raised and smirk out in full force, Megan adds on, "Plus, Farouk and I are going back to LA."

Cocking her head to the side, Meredith can't control her puzzled look. "Why?"

"It's home, you know?"

Meredith nods in understanding, her entire body softening. It wasn't so long ago she ran from home only to be lured back in.

"It's the place I found myself again… And Farouk misses his friends. This was never supposed to be long term."

"Does Hayes know?"

Megan bites down on her bottom lip, gaze shifting around. "Not yet."

Meredith's eyes open wide for a fraction of a second. "Megan!"

"I know, I know…" Megan cries, dragging her hands over her face. "I just don't want to ruin Christmas."

"Take it from someone who knows a thing or two about secrets… They ALWAYS come out, and it NEVER ends well," Meredith advises. Maybe she can learn from her mistakes.

"Will you do it for me?" Megan jokes, batting her eyelashes like a cartoon character, eliciting a snort-like giggle from Meredith.

As their laughter wanes, Meredith walks over to Megan's side, putting her arm around her. "Are you sure you don't want to stay in Seattle? Your family is here. And I don't just mean Owen and Teddy."

A grateful smile graces the trauma surgeon's lips. "I'm sure." Wrapping her arm around Meredith's waist, she leans in, asking in a hushed tone, "Take care of him, will you?"

An eerie sense of déjà vu is stamped all over this moment.

Reaching for Megan's hand, the squeeze shared between the two women speaks of acquiescence, verbalizing what Meredith's choked-up throat can't.

"Don't look now, but he's spotted us and the discomfort on his face is hilarious." Never a dull moment with Megan Hunt.

After last holiday season's chaos of COVID, the usual hustle and bustle of New Year's Eve is back in full force at the hospital. Meredith likes it that way. The flurry of activity keeps her mind busy.

Mostly stuck in the ER directing traffic and guiding residents through basic techniques, the page she gets from the peds floor breaks the monotony of her night, and for that, she couldn't be more grateful.

Putting Schmitt in charge while she's gone, she heads up to lend a helping hand.

"I was paged?" She asks the nurse behind the desk.


Meredith spins around at the call. Her heart pinches at the sight of Hayes. The pinch hurts less and less every day, but it's never gone.

His easy smile relaxes the coiled tension in her chest.

"Hey. You paged for general?"

"Aye. Didn't expect to see you, though. Surprised you didn't get New Year's Eve off."

She snorts, chuckles rising from her chest. "Bailey's revenge for Minnesota."

She shrugs her shoulders. "The kids are still young enough to not care about New Year's. Anyway, Maggie really wanted to spend time with them. So it worked out for everyone."

"Enjoy it while it lasts. My lads were practically pushing me out of the house."

This. This is what she misses most. The free-flowing conversations between them, the exchanges about family.

"I need an extra set of hands in surgery. If you're up for it..." His voice trails off, knowing there won't be much hesitation on her part when it comes to cutting someone open.

She proves him right, her tone reflecting the elation in her chest. "Yes, please."

He laughs at her childlike excitement. As he hands her the tablet to have a quick look, he starts rattling off the relevant information. "Kayla Martin. Age 13. Shards of metal piercing her liver and right kidney from a car accident. She's stable for now, but we need to get in there quickly to avoid the risk of pieces dislodging and wreaking havoc. OR 2 in 10?"

She nods, looking over the scans. "I'll meet you there. Just have to call down to the ER and give Schmitt some instructions."

By the time Meredith is scrubbed in and ready to go, the patient's been prepped, and Hayes is preparing to open.

"Sorry I'm late. Had to talk Schmitt down from his hyperventilating," she explains, amusement alighting her eyes.

"Surprised it didn't take you longer, then." They share a laugh at the resident's expense.

"Our little interns are growing," she notes.

Once she's finished gowning up, she settles across from him, and they're ready to begin.

Working furiously for the first hour to control any little bleed that arises, they settle into a comfortable rhythm, getting every piece of metal out.

The quiet of the operating room gives her mind the proper conditions to wander off. She can't help herself after what Megan told her.

Meredith tries to go for nonchalance, but the inquisitive pitch of her voice gives her away. "How was your Christmas?"

Narrowed eyes darting her way, a curious look flashes across Hayes's face. He's so on to her.

"She told you, didn't she?" There's no anger in his tone, just mild confusion. Meredith takes that as a win.

"She might have let it slip. Suction, please."

He hums under his breath, squeezing his lips even if she can't see it.

"How are you dealing with it?" She asks quietly, venturing deeper into close-off territory.

His eyebrows lift momentarily, doing their usual quirk of uncertainty. "Alright, I suppose. Better it happens now than when I'm more invested."

That feels like a dig at her, but nothing in his demeanour suggests spite. Her guilt has a sneaky way of manifesting itself to remind her of all her failures.

"Were you able to enjoy Christmas, at least?" She asks.

"Aye. The Hunts invited us over. It was grand. Experiencing those American traditions again." The wistful tone in his voice is one she's all too familiar with. "The lads had fun."

"That's what matters most."

His eyes catch hers, their gaze holding for a long, suspended moment. This is the one subject they can always agree on—the happiness of their children.



He clarifies. "How was your Christmas? Any visitors?" She knows what he's asking in his not-so subtle way.

"God, no." Her disgruntled grumble tells a story. "It's over."

"I'm sorry." The sincere sentiment nestles up against her chest, tugging at her heartstrings.

"Don't be," she murmurs, shaking her head.

Hayes deserves the truth, and she owes him that much. "He wasn't someone who would choose me over and over again."

Her words have the same effect as a defibrillator to his chest.

Jolted by the profound shift between them, they're frozen in a moment of silence, shattered only by the sound of their own deafening heartbeats. No one else in the OR understands the weight of her words, and they don't need to. They're just for him. Sometimes, it's not even about what is said but what is implied.

"Ten seconds 'til midnight," a scrub nurse joyfully announces.

Gazes locked, unbroken by the interjection, an understanding passes between them.

As shouts of "Happy New Year" resonate in their surroundings, their hands graze, fireworks exploding up and down their bodies.

"Happy New Year, Meredith."

"Happy New Year, Hayes."

In the room where common ground once arose between them, where they shared intimate details of their lives, the one place they've always felt most at ease in, she feels the foundation under their feet being rebuilt after she recklessly tore it down. Perhaps even sturdier than before.

And maybe, just maybe, she did want to fall in love again. With the right person.

There's a lot more work to be done to regain his trust. But life has prepared her for this fight, and she's finally ready to put in the work.

But now the sky has cleared and it's blue
And I see my future in you

- Adele

Note : I've received requests to continue this one-shot. That was sort of always my plan, but it will take some time. For now, I'm going to be focusing on my AU fic "Someday we'll know". Once that's done, I'll circle back to this one-shot, which I feel could also work well as is.