Sara was a light sleeper, so when the mattress jostled at half past three, her eyes popped open. She held her breath and watched as Neal slid out of bed and made his way across the moonlit room. He disappeared into the hallway that led to the bathroom, and she drifted back off.
The sound of a wine cork popping open woke her the next time. She blinked her eyes open and tracked Neal's movements around the kitchen. He quietly pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured more than his usual serving. Then, he paced for a minute until he sat down on the couch and picked up his sketchbook.
He hadn't turned on any lights, so Sara wasn't sure what he was doing exactly, but she was worried. He'd been quiet all through dinner and had half-heartedly taken part in a make out session that didn't turn into anything steamier, much to her chagrin.
When she couldn't fall back to sleep, she crawled out of bed and flipped on a lamp as she moved to the couch to sit beside him. "Penny for your thoughts?"
Neal had barely flinched when she turned on the light. Now, he just sighed wearily and put aside his sketchbook. "I doubt they're worth that much."
"I beg to differ." She itched to reach out and brush an unruly strand of hair away from his forehead, but she didn't think he'd be open to the touch just yet.
"I dreamt about Ellen. Today marked a year since…"
He trailed off as she gasped, understanding why he'd been so distracted and distant. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He shrugged, and she took the opportunity to move closer to him and slip her hand into his.
They were quiet for several minutes. Sara didn't want to upset him, and he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.
Slowly, Neal leaned over until his head rested against her chest. She released his hand to put her arms around him while one of his hands moved to rest on her hip.
"You would have liked her," he said softly. "She was a lot like you. Strong, smart, pretty damn good with a gun."
Sara smiled and pressed a kiss into his hair. "Tell me more."
"She was a second mom to me, especially when my own mom was…" he gestured to his head and flapped his hand in a way that suggested she spent a lot of time mentally absent. "She helped me with my homework and made me tomato soup when I was sick. She helped me make almost all of my Halloween costumes. We won a contest one year; I think I was an elephant."
Sara laughed gently as she stroked her thumb across the chilled skin of his arm. "How old were you?" she asked, mostly to keep him talking.
"Five or six maybe. She took me to tee-ball tryouts and as many games as she could get to. My mom came to some too, but Ellen cheered the loudest of anyone's parent. She was always there – working on my science fair project, giving me advice about how to get Brittany Nicole to fall for me."
"Brittany Nicole. My first crush. She wouldn't give me the time of day, but I followed her around for months. It broke my heart when she started sharing her lunch cookies with Brandon Tucker every day."
"Ellen took me out for ice cream and promised me that I'd find someone that was prettier and nicer than Brittany Nicole."
"How'd that work out for you?"
Neal twisted just enough to be able to give her a kiss on the lips. "Well, you're definitely prettier."
Sara laughed and nipped at his lower lip with her teeth. "You're incorrigible."
He smiled sadly, pressing his forehead to hers. "That’s what Ellen used to say."
"It sounds like she was a great woman. I wish I could have met her."
"I wish you could have too."
"I'm glad that you had her, Neal."
He nodded and shifted so that he was leaning against her again with his eyes closed as he tried to relax.
Sara ran her fingers through his hair and across his back, hoping that he would calm soon. She wished she could take his pain away, but there was nothing more that she could do than what she was already doing.
They say that time heals all wounds, and that had been Sara's experience, but she wished time would move a little faster for Neal, who'd already lost too much. She hugged him tighter as they fell asleep, curled together in each other's arms.
Thank you for reading!