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Meredith has another feeling that morning.

The feeling hits her when she opens her eyes and realizes, gradually, that the bed is empty aside from herself, though there is a persistent lingering smell of Someone Else having been there.

::Oh, god.::

She lies staring at the tousled sheets on the other side of the bed, the side she doesn't favour, as a growing feeling of horrible foreboding, along with a few other things, rises in her belly. Being reasonably sure that it's nothing digestive, she pulls the covers over her head and closes her eyes tightly and wishes fervently for death.

Izzy comes in some time around eleven.

Meredith hears her coming - more like feels her coming - a minute or so in advance, long enough for her to consider her options. She will never get the window open in time, and in any case she is on the side of the house with no eaves, and the fall will kill her. On the other hand, there is a strong possibility that whatever Izzy might do to her will not end up being appreciably more fun. She won't fit under the bed, and the closet is too small. From the sound of the footsteps, Izzy is already in the corridor. There is nowhere to run.

In the end, she opts for playing dead. Izzy is unconvinced.

She comes into the room with surprising quiet, and Meredith decides, lying very still and straining her ears and reminded inappropriately of Christmas morning, that the subject of impending conversation is downstairs and that Izzy is trying to be discreet. There are limits to Izzy's discretion, however, because after closing the door carefully behind her she crosses the room in what sounds like three steps and tears the covers off the bed. The cold air hits Meredith like a blow, which some part of her brain suggests might be good preparation for what might be coming.

"Are you stupid?" Her tone is bizarrely calm and reasonable.

Meredith blinks up at her. "I'm sorry?"

"Are you stupid?" repeats Izzy. "Are you brain-damaged? Did the close proximity to Asshat McSteamy damage your brain? Or was this just some kind of delayed post-traumatic stress reaction to getting almost blown up? Because at the moment I cannot think of any other really good reason not to throw you out that window," she finishes, in a harsh whisper. Her voice has actually gone down in volume with every syllable, and up in pitch.

Meredith reaches for a pillow and covers her head with it.

Izzy confiscates it and it goes the way of the covers. "Answer. The. Question," she says, punctuating each word by hitting the mattress with her open palm.

"I don't know," Meredith tells her, miserably.

"You are stupid," Izzy says, as if pronouncing it to a room full of people. They stare at each other, for something like twenty seconds, and Meredith is seized by the instinct to hold very still and thus render herself invisible.

Finally Izzy sighs and sits down on the edge of the mattress. She stares determinedly at the closed door. "This morning, I came down for coffee, and I found him sitting at the kitchen table staring at a bagel, tipping his head back and forth like it was going to talk to him. He was TALKING TO A BAGEL, MEREDITH. Now I can't be completely sure but I'm comfortable assuming this is your fault, and that the reason George didn't wake me up tripping on his way back from the bathroom at two this morning like he usually does is that he was in here."

She turns to glare questioningly at Meredith, and Meredith can only blink up at her, so Izzy snatches up one of the remaining pillows and sniffs it. "Hah!" she exclaims. "I knew it! You are STUPID."

She glares at Meredith again. "I am stupid," Meredith repeats obediently, flinging one arm over her eyes.

"The plan was so simple," says Izzy, rolling her eyes exasperatedly. "He was supposed to tell you, and you were supposed to let him down, GENTLY, and then he could feel like he'd accomplished something and maybe move on, and get laid, and then the pining would stop, and the anguish would stop, and the incessant talking to me about it would stop. You screwed up the plan, Meredith!"

"What plan? Nobody told me about a plan--"

"You screwed up the plan," Izzy reminds her, fiercely.

"I screwed up the plan," repeats Meredith, meekly.

"So," Izzy says, suddenly more cheerful, but with a still vaguely threatening demeanour, "what are you going to do?"

A while later, Meredith drags herself out of bed and goes downstairs and stands outside the kitchen door for a full minute, and makes several false starts toward the smell of coffee, and finally, on the premise that at least the coffee will have a fortifying affect, she bravely forges the threshold, makes the coffee pot, and pours herself a cup, all without actually looking at the kitchen table, where her peripheral vision soon tells her the object of her evasion is sitting, nodding over a plate.

"You want some coffee?" she asks, feeling courageous for the gesture towards eye contact.

George doesn't look up, so Meredith pours him a cup and crosses the kitchen, and sets it down on the table next to the plate. "Coffee is good," she says. "Coffee is helpful in mildly awkward social situations. There's things to hold and stir."

George is fiddling with the bagel on his plate, turning it around and around, and Meredith looks at it, and it looks back up at her.

There is a long moment of sensory delay before Meredith realises that there is an eye in the middle of the bagel, that it is blue, and that it is blinking.

Presently, the bagel says: "I'm getting dizzy," to George, and then looks at her, and smiles.

"Good morning, Meredith."

Meredith wakes up alone in bed. The window is open and the room is cold.

***

Meredith believes it is Saturday just long enough to be embarrassingly late for work, and long enough for George and Izzy to leave without her, but not long enough to avoid meeting Christina coming into the locker room thirty seconds after her.

"Is it bad that I miss us not getting along?" Christina asks, ostensibly of the thin air, but obviously to Meredith, as she is feverishly undressing and then dressing again in scrubs. "Because it was a lot easier to get out of the house on time when we weren't, and only one of us actually has to show up for role call." She slams her locker shut and begins un-knotting the laces on her shoes. "Not that the sex isn't great. The sex is great. It's just inconveniently great."

She only belatedly notices that Meredith is being very quiet as she gets one shoe tied and knocks the other under the bench. She glances up at Meredith, and then does a double-take and stares for a moment. She blinks, in a distinctly Christina-like, "oh-I-only-just-noticed-you-were-actually-there" way, and asks: "What?"

Meredith very quietly ties back her hair, and turns back to her locker.

Christina has gone tense, the way she does when a fascinating injury or gossip enters the range of her radar, and she stands, and puts one hand on the locker next to Meredith's, and says, rather than asks: "You had sex."

Meredith lets her head fall and it makes contact with the locker door with a loud clang. "Yes."

"But--" Christina's face goes contemplative, eyes searching the ceiling for information. "Not McDreamy, definitely not McSteamy, because you were way more morose than that when you left the bar, not..." Christina has been ticking down men on her fingers and her face freezes as her eyes dart back to Meredith's profile. "You slept with George!"

Meredith slams her locker shut. "What is that - an accusation?" she demands, and Christina, still frozen, unfreezes and shrugs, slowly, making an attempt at nonchalance, which fails, miserably.

"No. Yes! You slept with George?"

"Look--"

"With George?!"

"What's wrong with George?" Meredith surprises herself with a surge of protectiveness she simply doesn't know what to do with.

Christina blinks at her. "Nothing. Just-- you slept. With George."

Meredith heaves a sigh and slumps down onto the bench. Christina sits down next to her with a slightly more graceful gesture. "So," she says.

"Yeah," Meredith replies.

"He's got a cute butt," says Christina, meditatively. She drums her fingers on the bench. "I guess this is one of those times I'm not supposed to tell everyone, right?"

"Yes!" Meredith agrees, looking at Christina sternly, and with more than a hint of panic, though on whose behalf, she could not say.

Christina drums again, and then says, with detached pity: "This is pretty much going to kill him, isn't it?"

"Aughhhh," says Meredith, with feeling, and her eyes closed.

About a minute later Meredith skids up to the nurses' station, where Bailey is ignoring them with determination, talking very seriously to the baby, who is in turn ignoring his mother to stare at the kissy-faces Izzy is making. Derek is handing a clipboard back over the counter, and Christina is making a visible effort to avoid speaking. Meredith wills her strength, because she has a strong feeling of foreboding that revolves around this moment, of déja vu. When George comes skidding up next to her, bracing himself on the counter, and does a double-take that very skilfully evades eye contact, he takes a breath as if to speak and then takes a slow step to the left.

Meredith notices everything having gone momentarily still, but tries to dismiss the perception because just then, Derek starts explaining the morning rounds. She cannot dismiss the shrewd look Bailey has on her face, before she turns and disappears down a corridor, because the baby is crying, and she probably needs privacy to convince him to stop.

The patient assigned Meredith by pure chance is a miserable specimen of a human being, which she can tell from ten feet down the corridor from the sound of his voice. He is yelling at someone, and he is bad-tempered, and he is ten seconds from a Code White when Meredith makes the doorway, and he sees her, and he stops, and his face dissolves into a leer that is probably supposed to be a smile. The man is thin, and gray in every respect, and consumed of an obvious general nastiness, and Meredith has no idea why she keeps ending up with the sourpusses. The creepy sourpusses. She looks at the chart in her hands. Mr. Riordan smells of alcohol, even from this distance.

"New doctor," he says, the leer growing warmer. "Hope you're ballsier than this one." He jerks a thumb to his right, and Meredith realises with a jolt that George is already here, wrestling vainly with the cabling of the IV monitor. Meredith blinks, and then turns back to the patient with a raised eyebrow.

"Mr. Riordan," she greets him, looking down at his chart. "It says here you've been having chest pains and... embarrassingly explosive diarrhoea at socially inopportune moments...?" Meredith re-reads the chart. "It really says that. Wait--"

Mr. Riordan nods, suddenly pleasant. "I've also been experiencing periods of catalepsy and prolonged episodes of unexpectedly articulate verbal expression."

Meredith bites her lower lip and flips through the chart, eyes flickering across the bed to George, who is still struggling nobly with the IV monitor. Mr. Riordan carries cheerfully on.

"As the result of which, I thought I should mention, you're going to burn in hell."

Meredith clutches the clipboard convulsively, and asks: "Excuse me?"

"That's where the selfish go, young lady. People who exploit the vulnerable to fulfill their own whoring needs of the moment. This poor boy--" he jerks a thumb helpfully in George's direction, "--doesn't know what he's getting into, does he? Taking advantage of him like that." Mr. Riordan's tone has turned chiding, and George has just frozen in horror. Meredith feels her face growing hot.

"Look, this is really, really none of your business--"

"The hell it isn't!" Meredith turns to see Bailey standing in the doorway, and has only a moment to wonder why she's still here, because she enters the room, hands Mr. Riordan the baby, and rounds on Meredith.

"You'd better listen to him, Doctor Gray. All things considered his approach is a hell of a lot nicer than mine."

"Which is?"

"That's the part where I stick you in a food processor and you become my baby's first solid food."

"I'm sorry?"

"You heard me. You hurt that boy and I will mess. You. Up."

Meredith buries her hands in her hair and closes her eyes. "What is this - Unprovoked Attack on Meredith Day?" she asks of the air.

"Did it not occur to you that recent events and my charmingly awkward and yet protective attitude towards Doctor O'Malley might inspire me to take violent measures against you, Doctor Gray? Is your survival instinct in some way defective?"

Meredith sputters. "This is none of your business!" This time, she is addressing the room, but her voice carries, because beyond the window the entire ER has turned to stare at her. She freezes, blinks, and turns back to Doctor Bailey. "This is personal. It's not for public amusement!" She turns to George, who is still staring horror-struck at the wall behind Mr. Riordan's head. "Tell them, George!"

"I'd beg to differ, Doctor Gray," says Mr. Riordan. "We're all intimately involved in this."

"How do you figure?" demands Meredith, turning back to him.

"Because we're your subconscious," says the baby, sounding uncannily like Eric Idle. "Otherwise I wouldn't be talking."

This time Meredith wakes up flailing so hard she lands face-first on the floor. The bed is empty and the room is cold.

***

Meredith manages, somehow, to avoid eye contact throughout the morning, and slips suspiciously into a table near the back wall of the cafeteria occupied only by Alex. He and Izzy have been arguing all morning about something inconsequential and sitting with Alex should protect her from uncomfortably well-informed conversation. It seems her fears are unfounded, though, because Izzy and Christina are MIA for fifteen straight minutes, so Meredith ventures to look up from her lunch. "So," she asks Alex, "what did you do?"

Alex continues eating with concentration for a few seconds, and then sets down his fork with exaggerated care. "Lingerie," he says. "Is it really such a big deal?"

Meredith chokes a little, swallows, wipes her watering eyes, and looks at him. "Um. Context, I ask, with great hesitation?"

Alex glares at the tabletop. "I bought her a present. Not even a special-occasion present. Just a... Thanks For All The Good Sex present. I thought it was nice! It was... red."

Meredith nods, regretting asking with every passing breath. "...aaand?"

Alex fidgets with his fork. "Turns out it was something she'd gotten paid to wear."

Meredith blinks at him. "Ah."

"Yeah. And she puts it on, and then comes and walks up and down in front of the bed, and asks me: 'does this look familiar?'"

Meredith can only nod, with a vague feeling of impending doom. "Uh... huh?"

"And then when I didn't know what she was talking about, she screamed and threw the bag at me and stormed out."

"Oh," says Meredith, feeling enormously relieved that the story ends there.

"Yeah," says Alex, shaking his head, then he shrugs, and starts eating again. "She'll get over it."

"Sure."

"You don't think so?"

"I think you may be overestimating your... um..." George has just entered the cafeteria, and he is coming towards their table apparently without looking at them. He stops two tables away from where they're sitting, and studies his tray, flicking peas off his plate. Meredith bites her lip, then turns to look back at Alex: "Alex, do you think..."

Alex is smiling at her vacantly, with a slice of processed cheese perched jauntily on his head like a hat.

"I wear the cheese," says Alex. "It does not wear me."

Meredith awakes with a yell, throwing a pillow with one convulsive motion as if defending herself. When her vision clears, she is alone, and the room is cold.

***
Meredith is so tired by the end of her shift that day that when she hears the sirens from the ER entrance she almost weeps with exhaustion, but pulls on scrubs and digs in. She steps out into the ambulance bay to find no one else there but the paramedics. The woman in the gurney being unloaded has stabilized en-route, and Meredith is relieved because it seems almost like the hospital is empty but for herself.

She walks with the gurney through the bay doors, and looks around as she establishes that the patient is, indeed, stable, barring the thready pulse. "Cardiac arrest. She's stable, get her a bed." She looks up. There is no one at the admitting counter, and she realizes that the only people in the lobby are herself, the patient, and the young paramedic, who looks startlingly familiar.

"Where is everyone?" she asks the young woman checking vitals, reaching out to check pulse and respiration in only a moderate hurry. She reaches over the counter to call for orderlies, but there's Zydeco music playing on the other end like a hold-track. She's almost put down the receiver again when she remembers that there is no hold-music on the hospital telephone system. She raises it again to her ear.

"The telephone is playing Zydeco music. Why is the-- where is everyone?"

She turns around. The paramedic is filing her nails with deliberate care, and the patient is sitting up in the gurney with a crossword puzzle, and is her mother.

"They're all gone, dear," says her mother. "Didn't I warn you about sleeping with co-workers? Especially sweet, helpless ones like that nice boy."

"You did not warn--" Meredith has an unpleasant feeling low in her belly. It's a familiar unpleasant feeling. "This isn't real, is it?" she says, putting down the phone.

Her mother waves the crossword puzzle dismissively. "It's real enough to you. You drove them all away."

"What are you talking about?" The fact that her mother is lucid makes it easier to hate her, right now.

"That nice boy." She gestures. Meredith can see the back of George's head through a window, sitting at the foot of an empty bed. He is nodding, as if agreeing with her mother. "He offers you something so sweet, so unselfish, and you don't even think about his feelings, do you?"

"I... I..." Meredith points an accusing finger at her mother. "You are in my head! Imaginary people don't get to judge me!"

"Oh, of course I do, dear," says her mother. "I'm in your head." She scribbles enthusiastically for a moment, and then holds up the book with a puzzled expression. "What's a six-letter word for 'ganglia'?"

"Rutabaga," volunteers the paramedic, and Meredith's mother rolls her eyes.

"No, dear. That's a lymphatic organ."

"Okay," mutters Meredith to herself. "That's enough of that."

She closes her eyes, as tightly as she can, and pinches herself, and then she sits up.

She is sitting in bed, and the room is cold, and Derek is here.

"So here's the thing," says Derek.

This time she's sure she's dreaming, because Derek is here, in her bedroom, sitting at the foot of the bed, and Adison is nowhere to be found, not even present, not even the idea of her, except in Meredith's head, and in reality that wasn't the problem at all. In the real world the fact that she is always there, even when she isn't, would mean Derek could not be here. Which he is.

Meredith sighs.

"The thing is," he continues, kindly, "he's not me."

"That's a stupid thing to say," Meredith tells him. "Especially since you're not you, either."

"Okay, I'll give you that one," he agrees. "But I stand by my previous statement."

Meredith looks over at the other side of the bed. George is sleeping, facing away from her, and doesn't seem to hear either of them.

"He's George," she says, very quietly. When she turns back, Derek is smiling.

"That's sort of what I meant," says Derek. "You want to be fair."

"'Course I do," Meredith whispers, deciding not to wonder why none of this feels strange.

"So... he's George."

Meredith blinks at him. "And?"

"Everything he said was true," Derek tells her, softly.

Meredith glances over at the other side of the bed again. "Everything?"

Derek smiles at her, then stands up. "He's George."

"Yeah," she agrees. She looks at Derek again, suspiciously.

"You're staring," he points out, after a time.

"I'm just waiting to see if you turn into a talking bagel or something," she explains.

He smiles again. "Should I?"

She frowns. "I'd really rather you didn't."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure." She yawns. "I'm tired."

Derek comes around the bed, pulls up the covers. "Close your eyes."

"But what if I don't remember this? Won't I just act like myself and ruin everything and... and make it all comes true?"

He laughs. "Close your eyes."

She closes her eyes.

This time, she wakes up very slowly, but the border between closing her eyes and being aware of being awake is hazy and indistinct. Gradually she becomes aware of the give of the mattress, and the fact that her hair is in her eyes, and that she has an itch between her shoulder blades.

She has been lying with her eyes tightly closed for a very long time now, she thinks, eventually, because try as she might she cannot work out whether or not she is alone. Finally the bed shifts and she is sure, and she cracks open one eye and sees the outline of a shoulder. The opens the other eye, and gradually, as her sight adjusts to the dim light, the line of the shoulder resolves into the muscle connecting shoulder to neck, to an ear, to messy dark hair and--

--George is still asleep, although his eyebrows are drawn together high on his face, as if he's worrying about something despite being unconscious.

It's strange that having another person in the bed makes the room so warm. George is radiating heat, and the room is warm. Comfortable.

She can't think why it never occurred to her before. Why she's been looking at George, on and off, for a long time, now, and has never thought how much she likes his face - and the rest of him, come to think of it. There's something innocent in it, and boyish, sure, but she thinks she has been dismissing him simply because he is... George.

There is so much in George that she just never noticed, before. She does notice that he is awake, and that his eyes, half-open, are focused on her face, as if he can't quite believe what he's seeing, and she wonders if he's been having the kind of dreams she's been having.

"Hey," he says, softly, and there is a touch of panic in his features that seems to freeze him to the spot despite an apparent urge to flee that Meredith thinks, for a moment, that she has impressed upon him somehow via osmosis. At the same time there is an earnest, desperate affection in his eyes that terrifies her just as much.

"Hey," she says back, trying to smile, but she thinks it comes out more like a crooked grimace. "You're still here." She tries to say it with as little surprise as possible. She's repeating, inside her head, over and over, that she just needs to *lie still*, and everything will be all right. She's not quite sure what that means, but it seems to be working, because when George smiles, it's still terrified but isn't awkward at all. George is never really awkward - just so very sincere about everything that to other people that it seems excessive and stumbling when he meets up with the real world.

"So," she says. She can hear that the shower is running, and the sound of Izzy and Alex arguing carries down the corridor. The house is full of people, and it is Saturday, and none of them have anywhere to be, and George is smiling at her.

This time, she does not wake up.

Cross-posted to ga_fanfic.

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Chandri MacLeod
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