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What Life Is For

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Nic takes another swing of beer with her eyes fixed on the blond man playing pool even though his game lacks skill. He and his friend have hogged the table for the past two hours and she grows increasingly tired of waiting. All she wanted after the shift was to nurse her recently broken heart with alcohol before leaving for her empty house to sleep in an equally empty bed. Pool has always been a socially acceptable way to unleash frustration, at least if she hits the balls with more force than required no one will notice or complain.

He fills the crowded space of the bar with more confidence than necessary and an arrogant smile firmly in place. The fact that she finds him handsome is only secondary to the inflicted irritation. Her eyes roam involuntarily over his well-defined muscles, lingering on the tattoo on his forearm. He has all the attributes of a bad choice but that rebel part of her that was not entirely subdued after the wild days of her adolescence is captivated by him.

The immediate attraction diminishes only slightly when he does a terrible attempt at rapping. Her eyes roll at their own volition, a reflex that will become a frequent reaction to most of his actions in the years to come.

“What a pair of clowns," Jessica states with a snort despite not having taken her eyes off the man with the black beard for at least twenty minutes. “Why do we even like men?”

Fair question, Nic muses, especially watching such primitive displays of ego, but in truth most are conditioned to behave as such and she often lacks immunity against it.

The blond perches on the table and both his feet leave the floor.

“That is enough.” Her bottle hits the table before she marches in their direction committed to stop the game.

Jessica chokes briefly on her own beer and calls out to Nic. “What are you doing?”

Nic is personally offended by the blatantly illegal move and steals the ball before he gets the chance to gloat. They exchange a long, undisturbed glance while circling each other. An entirely parallel conversation unfolds silently through their eyes while they banter back and forth. When he fires back a challenge, she takes it.

The shot is performed flawlessly, one foot on the ground at all times, and her chest swells with pride when his eyes widen in amazement. Her lips press into a triumphant smile knowing she is particularly effective at subverting male expectations.

Even as she stands her ground with matching self-confidence, cue in hand, her heart quickens, her cheeks burn hot with the rush of adrenaline provided by their clash. The moment is only broken when he notices the card hanging from her purse.

Unable to help herself, Nic gets the last words in and he concedes with a surprisingly kind smile. Though she is still annoyed, he leaves her feeling irresistibly eager to see him again on Monday.

Chapter Text

After she beats him at three consecutive pool games, a glorious smile growing with each win, Conrad finally capitulates and they move to a table to toast in celebration of the past three years. Though sometimes it may feel like they met only yesterday, both carry the weariness of those years on their minds. Time is not always relative.

He stares with unfocused eyes at the pool table for a while, wrapped in a quiet self-absorption, and she wonders if his mind is lost in the same memories that followed her all day long.

“Conrad, did I lose you?” Nic asks. Her hand covers his and feels the cool metal of the ring against her palm.

Blinking repeatedly, blond lashes catching the light above, the memory seems to recede until he is back to the present commotion of the 404 Tavern. When his gaze meets her it is carrying the same intensity as before, that look is familiar and she prepares to listen.

“I’m sorry for the way I acted here on the night you broke up with me...”

In the pause that follows Nic wonders if recalling that night is just as painful for him as well, or if he even remembers the entire flow of events despite the blind anger he felt then.

He goes on, his gaze never shifts away. “You were right to be afraid of me.”

Realization dawns on her. The bottle stops halfway to her mouth then returns slowly back to the table.

“I was never afraid of you, I was afraid for you. All that pain bottled inside made you emotionally unpredictable and I feared it would consume you and take me as well, but I’ve always trusted you, no matter what.”

Conrad relaxes visibly as if he had waited a long time to hear those absolving words. The brief sigh of relief tells her that indeed he has.

“Can you be patient with me? I trust you too Nic, but it might take me a while yet to be open.”

Despite the loud surroundings the question still reaches her clearly, the knot on her throat only allows her to nod in response. She leans over and kisses him instead, hoping to convey what words can’t.

There was a time when he was full of a protective anger on her behalf, nowadays his energy diffuses more rationally even though that instinct might never stop.

The depth of her love is sometimes terrifying, akin to a throbbing emptiness that only he can fill, and by giving him a second chance she is inviting potential pain. But his change is noticeable, so her love remains strong. When weighting their relationship on a metaphorical scale, both good and bad, the final balance is always positive.

“I've never loved anyone else this much in my life.” Nic finally manages when their lips grow apart. “You have my trust and my heart, don't break either.”

“And you will always have mine.” He seals the promise with another kiss.

Chapter Text

A storm rages outside his apartment, rain lashes relentlessly against the windows and the bedside lamp flickers with each strike of lightning. Angry words were exchanged earlier, shouts and accusations had been loud enough to rival the sound of thunder. When disappointment was all that was left in her, Conrad found himself alone in the bar with a heart full of regret.

His bed is emptier than ever before, he needs her, needs to fix what was so carelessly broken in a moment of uncontrollable rage. Disregarding the late hour, he leaves in search of forgiveness.

Inside her bedroom there is a heavy, almost drowsy silence, yet sleep eludes her. Shadows grow thicker by the hour. Nic reaches towards the empty space beside her, the purple sheet is smooth and cold under her palm, his absence is tangible. Habit makes her lay on the left side, on the right there is only room left for memories and sadness. Nic no longer recalls the last time she slept alone, somehow, she cannot imagine life without his constant presence, yet she doesn’t believe there is salvation for them after tonight.

The knock on the front door is familiar enough to prompt her out of the bed instantly. Conrad stands on her porch shaking, drenched and struggling for air as if he had run all the way there, a romantic gesture if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

Conrad opens his mouth but no apology comes out, only thunder fills the silence between them, he doesn't know where to begin excusing his behavior. In that moment, Nic has the distinct notion that her heart might never be fully hers again, not when she gave it away so freely. She will have a hard time claiming it back. Pleading silently, Conrad remains rooted in place with eyes that contain a storm of their own.

Her resolve flees, so does the last rational thought in her mind. Their lips collide, hungry for one more touch, they taste the rain, the bitter guilt, the heartache.

Nic pulls him inside the house by the collar of his shirt. He drips all over the floor, paving a path to a terrible decision that ends in her bedroom, all the way soaking through the nightgown that doesn't remain on her body for much longer. Conrad shivers, their bodies are hot and cold and they tangle in bed until their temperature becomes equal. Anger rises within her, she bites and scratches his skin in retaliation for awakening all those feelings she swore against on her way back home, her nails leave red marks that will remind him of her in the lonely days ahead.

Later, when their bodies are sated, Nic clutches the sheet against her breasts like a shield. The smile he gives her is confident, they have been here before.

She wants to be strong but her voice cracks instead. "We can't do this anymore."

Those final words shatter the illusion of happiness and break his heart all over again.

Chapter Text

Conrad logs into her streaming account on a Saturday afternoon with a clean schedule and swears this is not a desperate attempt to hold onto her essence now that they are no longer together. The first movie selected is long-overdue. Nic couldn’t believe he had existed for about thirty years on earth without seeing them, but as a man of science he always resisted the ridiculous idea of lightsabers. Even though Conrad has the distinct notion he will not enjoy them, he doesn't want to die pop-culturally ignorant, so he settles comfortably for the journey ahead.

The yellow text starts scrolling across the screen accompanied by epically loud music and that is when her absence becomes nearly palpable. Nic should be there watching his reaction. He misses their domestic dates, the way she murmurs the lines of her favorite movies, her odd love for the 80´s, and even her adorably terrible Yoda impression. Conrad is about to suffer through the movies alone but at least he avoids disappointing her again with his lack of appreciation for science fiction.

It's Sunday night when he finally, finally, reaches the end of the saga in the correct order. There is no longer a comfortable position to be found in the couch, his body aches, mostly his ass, and his eyes burn severely from the unhealthy number of hours staring at the tv. Yet, he's quite proud of himself, having enjoyed the movies more than expected.

The plots are not particularly inventive, though they are entertaining. Father issues, siblings separated at birth, masters and apprentices, a disturbing number of limbs being cut. Good versus evil. He sees plenty of that and more in his daily life at the hospital too, there is no shortage of drama there, it's just not happening in space.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell Nic about this accomplishment, least she awards him with a "I told you so" in that exasperated tone he secretly loves.

That night Conrad dreams he walks into Chastain wielding a red lightsaber and it is terrifying.

Early on Monday they gather around the nurses’ station in the ER while Irving effusively relays his patient's symptoms. He cannot seem to place the pieces together at first, even when gently prompted by Conrad, who is being infinitely patient for someone experiencing burning retinas and running solely on caffeine. Nic is silent throughout, biting her lip, having reached the correct diagnosis minutes ago but allowing space for Irving to learn by himself.

“This seems like a surgical case. I should page Mina but…” Irving pauses then adds in a murmur, “I'm a little afraid of her.”

“Fear is the path to the dark side,” Conrad interjects casually with his eyes fixed on a tablet.

Irving laughs somewhere in the periphery of Conrad’s attention, but all he watches is Nic’s eyes widening almost comically, her mouth hangs in shock as she catches the meaning behind those words. Conrad winks at her before moving to the next patient.

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In the dim light of the candles spread around the room, their shadows project across the walls and flicker as silent witnesses to their presence. Conversation is held in low voices, so fragile is their time alone. They sit opposite each other on the table, he smiles, gentle and overflowing with love, and she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear while blushing under his gaze. It has been a while since they were on a date, except nowadays dinner dates go only as far as their kitchen table while their baby daughter sleeps upstairs.

To keep their love burning like the surrounding candles, they carefully extract these moments from the constant flow of family and work in a silent commitment to each other and as a reminder that they are more than just parents.

Then the moment is lost, broken by a loud cry, also echoed in the baby monitor beside them.

"Stay here, I'll check on her," Conrad stands up, kisses her forehead and disappears up the stairs.

While the cries grow more desperate over time so does the relentless pull of motherhood towards her daughter. Nic is about to yield when Conrad comes down holding Gigi against his chest. Her small chin is quivering and her cheeks are red with the effort to make the neighbors aware of her unhappiness.

“She is fed, the diaper is clean and there’s no signs of physical harm. I don’t know what else she needs.” His voice has the tense undertone of a father in despair.

Nic gives him a kind smile, the one reserved just for him, like a warm light in the darkness. “I know exactly what she needs.”

She approaches Conrad, moves one arm around his neck while the other surrounds Gigi still in his hold, and starts singing.

“Oh, my love, my darling… I've hungered for your touch… a long, lonely time.”

The words float in the air around them in Nic’s soft tone. Trapped between their bodies, Gigi stops and stares at her mother with tears glistening in her wide blue eyes.

His hips sway first, then the rest of his body follows and takes hers into a well-known movement that has become a part of the tapestry of their life. They dance barefoot across the wood floor to the same rhythm of the inflections in her voice.

“I need your love, God speed your love to me.”

His beard prickles her cheek as he moves to her mouth and tastes the last notes of the song in it.

“You're still a swayer,” she whispers against his lips.

Conrad chuckles faintly, mindful of Gigi that has fallen asleep on his shoulder halfway through the song, then his gaze shifts towards their cold dinner. “So much for our romantic date.”

 “You, me and our daughter dancing, it feels very romantic to me.” Nic rests her forehead against his and they carry on dancing with no music, surrounded by pictures of happy memories hanging on the walls.

Chapter Text

 

A sense of impending annoyance intensifies, her head begins to ache and not even a second cup of coffee is preventing the galloping pain. Nic blinks several times trying to focus on the letters that flicker on the screen, her eyes are having trouble grasping the words, though by no fault of the computer itself.

Despite being extremely careful, she woke up that morning with a contagious eye which forced her to begrudgingly switch from contact lenses to glasses. Having been relegated to desk duty, her hands burn raw from disinfectant and she is bored out of her mind. There are only so many charts and inventories a person could do, even at a hospital.

Nic moves the glasses to the top of her head, giving her eyes a much-needed break. She rubs the healthy eye to compensate for the itch felt in the other and tries to trick her brain into relief, but to no avail.

There is a valid reason for having refused to wear glasses after high school and nowadays they are only used for emergencies or in the safety of home. Very few people have seen her with the thick black frames in the many years she has worked at Chastain, so her colleagues spend the day gasping in surprise, others laugh, some even stare for an inconvenient amount of time. Mina had the worse reaction of all, her explosive laughter was so loud that it brought even more attention to Nic's unusual look. For the rest of the day, Mina was solely focused on delivering as many eye-related puns as she could remember, much to Nic’s growing annoyance.

A hazy figure, which may or may not be Conrad, approaches the nurses' station. Nic squints and the eye stings, she winces with the effort. He leans forward until she is finally able to see his worried face.

“Your eye is getting worse, Nic. Are you sure you don't want me to wash it again with antibiotic drops?" He asks for the third time that day.

His hand reaches out to closely inspect her face but she flinches away quickly.

 “You can do that later. I need to finish these charts first.”

With blurry vision Nic pats the desk in search of the glasses.

"On your head." He points out with a chuckle.

“Go away, Conrad!” Nic grumbles while pulling the frames back to the bridge of her nose. The laughter, the stares, the jokes, she can take them all from anyone else except from him.

He backs away slowly still trying to control the laughter, his hands are up in the air as an exaggerated attempt to protect himself against what she hopes is a menacing stare behind the lenses, pink eye and all.

“For the record, you look very sexy with glasses,” he says casually over his shoulder, grinning at her before vanishing down the hall.

Nic smiles to herself and considers that perhaps wearing glasses more often will not be so bad after all.

 


 

Nic closes the front door, hangs the keys on the wall hook and crosses the hallway into the living room. The house is uncharacteristically quiet even though it looks like a small sized hurricane swiped through the open space in the past twelve hours. Dirty dishes pile in the sink, a bundle of clothes is still waiting to be folded, toys cover most of the hardwood floor and mismatched socks of different sizes lay in the least expected places. She sighs not knowing where to start cleaning the mess her family created during her absence and lacking the will to do so.

A high-pitched giggle cuts the silence followed by a flurry of clucking. Nic peeks through the window and finds Conrad in the backyard with their youngest daughter trying to feed the chickens while stopping them from escaping. Their oldest is strangely missing from the scene considering Gigi is usually the one that enjoys spending Sunday afternoons chasing the chickens around the yard, much like her father.

Abandoning all thoughts of house chores for the time being, Nic climbs the stairs in search of her daughter. Her attention is caught by an object on the floor glinting in the dim light, she picks it up and inspects the purple frame for damage.

Muffled cries come from the nearby room and she opens the door to find Gigi lying in bed with her face buried in a pillow. An ache grows in her heart, her maternal instincts are immediately triggered. Nic sits down in the small bed, back against the headboard, and strokes her daughter’s silky blond hair.

“What's wrong sweetheart?”

Gigi turns around while trying to catch her breath, her round cheeks are swollen red. Small teardrops hang from the long lashes that frame a pair of blue eyes overflowing with sadness.

“I look ugly with glasses, Mom. Everyone in school will laugh at me.” She manages through sobs.

“You are beautiful with or without them, and if anyone says otherwise they are wrong.”

 “You only say that because you’re not the one that has to wear them.”

Nic leaves the room briefly and comes back with a thick photo album that she opens across her lap.

“I used to think the same way,” Nic says pointing to a photo of her younger self. “See? I had glasses too, now I mostly wear contact lenses. When you're older you can have them as well, but neither have anything to do with how beautiful you really are.”

Nic places the frames back on her daughter’s face and kisses her forehead lovingly. “The glasses make you look even more like me.”

A new sense of awareness rises inside Gigi as she relaxes in her mother’s embrace. Her little hand flips through the pages of familiar faces, then stops suddenly, her eyes widen and she gasps.

“Mom, you had blue hair?”

“Don't even think I will let you do that.” Nic answers firmly, though there is a smile tugging at her lips.

 

Chapter Text

Conrad is exhausted, all his energy was spent on a long shift and he now resembles a mindless amalgamation of flesh and bones. On nights such as this, his body moves automatically without registering the length of space and time between hospital and home.

Nic always leaves the lamp by the door on, like a vigil candle glowing in the dark, waiting for his safe return. Following its light, Conrad manages his way upstairs, dragging his feet and barely avoiding stumbling by some miraculous trick of muscle memory. Most of his clothes are discarded somewhere on the bedroom floor.

He is vaguely aware of Nic's presence in bed engulfed by a mountain of blankets, only her blond hair is visible. She mumbles something incoherent but otherwise remains asleep.

Conrad falls in bed and into a dreamless sleep almost simultaneously, only awaking much later sprawled in the same position he had taken when his head found the pillow.

The melodious cadence of Nic’s voice, soft and sweet, is the first thing his mind registers. The smell of milk prickles his nose shortly afterwards, followed by baby sighs of contentment. She speaks to Gigi in whispers of heroic princesses and odd lands that find no match on earth, and his thoughts begin to scatter as the familiar scene lulls him back to sleep.

By the time his mind resurfaces again, the room is quiet and the sun is shining outside. Yawning and stretching until his limbs crack, Conrad senses movement in bed, a rustle of sheets, then a light weight lands on his shoulder. When he opens his eyes, his vision is flooded by a blond head of hair with some of its silky strands caught in his beard. Gigi had curled to his side and her small but chubby body has molded to his easily.

Conrad wants to savor the moment, stop time for as long as possible before they have to trade this cozy place for more mundane matters and before his daughter grows up too fast and no longer fits in the curve of his arm.

Then he notices Nic smiling at him from the other pillow.

“I think she stole your spot,” Conrad tells her quietly.

“I will allow it,” Nic responds with a chuckle and her hand moves to pat Gigi lightly on the back. “But only because she is my new favorite person in the whole world.”

Harmony grows between the three of them, they remain still and their breathing eventually fall in sync. Nic and Conrad continue to regard each other in a comfortable, intimate glance born from years of perfect understanding and time is only still until Mr. Giraffe hits his face.

Conrad silently curses Gigi’s accuracy, remarkable even during sleep. Though his eye may sting, he does not mind being a target when he is holding his family this close. They are all the balm he needs for pain, all wounds of body and soul are healed in the presence of their love.

Chapter Text

“Ready to go?” Conrad asks after sliding into the driver’s seat of his car. The night has stretched late at the bar before their morning shift and he still needs to drive Nic back to her house.

When silence appears to be the only answer, he shifts his gaze towards her. Nic has yet to reach for the seat belt, he notices, though he won't drive unless she has it on. Instead, Nic plays nervously with her necklace, her fingers brush over the butterfly wings in absent circles.

“What's wrong?”

Nic sighs loudly and bites her bottom lip for a moment while completely unaware of the enticing effect it has on him. “We've been dating for a few weeks and it's going well, but-”

“Oh, that can't be good.” He cuts in. “Have I done something wrong?”

“No, it's just that you don't seem like the kind of guy that doesn't jump at the first opportunity to invite a woman to your bed.”

He is stunned into silence, not because of the question itself, he’s used to her blunt honesty, but by her accuracy at reading his actions.

“Why haven't you?” She presses. “Don't you want to be with me like that? We're always flirting, so I thought you might be interested in more than dates.”

Nic shifts her eyes down to her hands, seemingly aware of his piercing stare in the confined space, and finds a distraction by picking the skin on her thumb. “Maybe I read too much into whatever is going on between us...”

Conrad grabs both her hand and attention in one swift move. “It's not that I don’t want to. Believe me, I’m very, very interested in being naked with you on the nearest available surface.”

“Then what’s preventing you from doing it?”

Their eyes finally meet. Nic has that intuitive gaze again, when she pierces through the layers of protection, reaches his very essence and exposes all weaknesses.

Conrad met his previous girlfriend on a bed, someone he picked up at a bar last year. As expected, it didn’t last long. But once he met Nic, he knew without a doubt that she would mean more to him than anyone else that came before. Now that he is with her, his mind is no longer filled with revolting seas and wild winds.

“I want this relationship to work and I don't want to pressure you into something you are not ready to do. I’ll wait for you, even if it drives me insane with want,” he tells her at last and even in the dim light from the street lamp he notices a deep blush creeping up her neck and exploding in her cheeks.

“If you had asked, you would know I want to be with you just as badly. Now, take me to your apartment,” Nic states calmly while fastening the seat belt.

Conrad turns the key, igniting both the car and his desire for the woman in the seat next to him.