He doesn't stop breathing when the plug is pulled. He doesn't stop breathing, and she has no idea what to do. She prepared herself for him to stop breathing. Not for him to keep breathing. He sucks air through the endotracheal tube, again, again, again, without assistance, and his heart plods at a slow, determined pace. She stares at the monitors, jaw slack. The air in the tube whistles. He keeps breathing.
"Derek?" she says, the word a soft, hopeful clot of syllables.
But of course he doesn't respond. Doesn't move. Doesn't give any indication that he's heard her.
She grabs his chart and reviews the tests that were done to determine whether he is, in medical terms, dead. All of them are standard tests. All of them say he shouldn't be breathing, now. Brain dead people are dead, dead. They only continue to look alive because of mechanical assistance.
Grief makes her eyes burn, and she realizes she's shaking. He's breathing, and his heart is beating, and nothing is helping him do either of those two things. Breathe. Pump blood. She can't stop trembling. She reads the test results on the chart over and over and over again until the words blur, and she can't comprehend them anymore. The doctors did five separate checks to determine absence of brain stem reflexes. Five. And this chart, which is signed by three different doctors, says he failed every single one of them.
She starts with the first test listed on the chart. She doesn't even make it to the second test before she's confirmed his chart is all wrong. She has no penlight with her, so she grabs the lamp by his bed, pulls it close to his face, peels his left eyelid back, flips on the lamp, and she sees his pupil adjust. She repeats the test with his right eye. Same result. He has a pupillary response.
Derek isn't dead.
She bursts into tears and grabs his hand, squeezing it for all she is worth. She wonders if his doctors did the tests wrong, or if they even did them at all. She has no idea, but she doesn't have time to worry about that, now.
Derek Shepherd isn't dead.
A vegetative state, they determine. Not brain death.
She does all the tests herself, this time. Amelia and Dr. Mike Weller, both rockstar neurosurgeons, help her confirm it. Derek's not brain dead. He's in a vegetative state. His recovery is unlikely but not... not impossible.
She's not sure what to do. He's alive in the barest sense of the word. And she knows Derek. She knows what his advance directives say. She knows he wouldn't want this. To live like this, alive but not alive. His recovery isn't impossible, but... it's improbable. And Meredith Grey knows quite a lot about getting kicked in the ass by bad odds.
She should let him go. She knows it. He would want her to let him go. But she can't. Not yet.
Derek Shepherd isn't dead, and she tries to intersect her hope with his wishes at a reasonable midpoint.
Meredith has Derek transferred to Seattle Grace. She sends Derek into surgery with Mike Weller to fix what the other neurosurgeon broke, or at least failed to fix. Amelia wanted to do the fixing, but Mike is more than competent, and Amelia is too close to this to be objective. If Owen hadn't forbidden it, Meredith would have.
Meredith and Amelia both sit in the waiting room, hip to hip, for six hours. Alex stays with Meredith, too, sitting to her left, a quiet bastion. Miranda, Owen, and Richard pop in and out, but they're too busy with emergencies to stay for more than a little while at a time.
The minutes crawl like snails.
When Mikes comes out of the OR, his face is grim. "I fixed what I could, Meredith," he says. "The damage was, as you know, extensive."
Meredith swallows. "What... what do you think his chances are? To recover?"
Mike looks at her with sad eyes. "I don't know," he begins slowly. "I've seen a woman go back to her normal life from a vegetative state, but it was a long, hard recovery that took years, and I've never seen anyone recover from something like this without deficits."
"He means it'll take a miracle," Amelia says, the words bitter and hating.
For a moment, Meredith can't breathe. She can't breathe. "Derek believes in miracles," Meredith says in a panicky sort of way that's more denial than anything else. Someone squeezes her shoulder, and she looks up through a blur of tears to see Mike hovering over her, his expression concerned. "Thank..." She hiccups with grief. "Thank you for trying," she manages to say despite the crushing pain in her chest.
"There's a chance, Meredith," Mike says. "A small one. Yes, it would be a miracle if he finds his way back to being who he was, but there's still hope he'll heal enough to have some sort of life. You just need to give him some time."
She looks at Alex, wordless, and he gives her hug, but he doesn't say anything. She thinks there's nothing he could say to make it better, anyway.
When Meredith sits with Derek after his surgery, she holds his hand, and she's grieving the Derek she knew. She won't ever see him again. She knows it. But, maybe, she'll be gifted with a new Derek, if she just freaking waits. Three months is the usual window for determining whether some amount of recovery might happen. She decides to give him four.
If there's no improvement in four months, she'll consider withdrawing care. She'll consider letting him go, like she knows he'd want to go. But she can't consider it, now. Not yet. She isn't ready.
Wait for me, he said.
She can wait. She can wait, but she refuses to hope. If she has her hope crushed again like Dr. Weller and Amelia crushed it today, she probably won't survive it.
Derek Shepherd isn't dead, and she's going to give him every chance to live.
After some detective work, Meredith finds out that all three doctors who signed off on the tests confirming Derek's supposed brain death were interns. Untrained interns. The resident in charge had been called away to deal with an emergency, and interns had been left alone to handle a case they simply weren't ready for. Everything involving Derek's care from start to finish was one heartbreaking mistake after another, and she's tired of thinking about it.
Derek Shepherd isn't dead, and she chooses to spend her time focusing on that, instead.
She's reading The Sun Also Rises to him. She doubts he can hear her. She knows that she won't ever hear him say, "I love you," again. But she visits him every day, and once a week with the kids.
She can't decide whether it's easier having him suddenly ripped away from her in a car accident, or easier having months to prepare for the inevitable. This is worse, she thinks. This slow rot, knowing what's coming. Knowing the difficult decision she'll have to make. Knowing his death might be at her hands instead of at Fate's.
But he still has two months to improve, she tells herself, resolute. She promised herself four months, and she'll stay with him until the end, no matter what that end may be.
Derek Shepherd isn't dead, and she refuses to give up on him, yet.
His eyes open, and he looks at her. Not through her. Right at her. Her heart gets stuck in her throat, and she gasps.
He doesn't speak. He just looks.
She picks up his hand and squeezes it. He doesn't squeeze her fingers in return—his hand is limp, like it has no conscious owner. His palm is warm, and she strokes his thumb. "Derek, can you hear me?"
He blinks. But he doesn't speak.
He's opened his eyes before, but not like this. Not like... there's somebody there. People in vegetative states can respond to stimuli, sometimes, but they don't interact with their environment. When he's opened his eyes before, all he's done is stare at wherever his face was pointing.
Her heart is thumping in her ears like thunder when she gets up, and she moves. Just to see. She walks to the foot of his bed and around to the other side. His head doesn't move, but his gaze follows her. The whole way.
The horrible countdown clock in her head stops ticking. Her eyes brim with tears and overflow. She touches his face. "Hi," she says. He's still looking at her. "Oh, my god, hi."
He doesn't say anything back to her, but she doesn't freaking care, because he's looking at her, and the hope she's stifled blooms like a rose.
"I've missed you," she says.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and Meredith Grey hopes.
She has Derek moved to a rehab facility that specializes in traumatic brain injuries. He can move. He can respond to simple commands. He can't talk, but he clearly recognizes her, and he brightens when she's in the room with him.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he knows her.
He has to learn how to do things again. Simple things most adults take for granted, like speaking. He starts slow. Single syllable words, at best, like yes, no, stop, ow, and things of that nature. He can't make sentences, yet, and he sounds like he's speaking with food in his mouth, but he knows enough to communicate a little.
The first time he shakily says, "Mere...dith," when she visits, she thinks her heart might burst.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he can speak her name.
She has no idea how much he remembers, if anything, because he can't string more than four words together, and he can't understand complicated sentences, but his recuperation seems to be gaining momentum. He's learning old skills with increasing ease. He can't walk, yet, but his fine motor skills seem to be returning, and when he speaks, he no longer sounds like his tongue is too big for his mouth. He knows her. And he knows Zola and Bailey and the rest of his family and his friends from Seattle Grace who visit him. This is more than she ever could have hoped for, and she finds herself hoping for even more. Because he's alive, and he's talking, and it feels like she's noticing things getting better on a daily basis.
Today, when she visits him, for instance, he's sitting up, and he has the television turned on. She's not sure how much he's comprehending, but he's got his hand clutched around the remote, and he's pressing buttons with clear intent to change channels, or the volume, or something. It's a level of problem solving that she finds amazing, a level she hasn't witnessed before from him. Her jaw drops when she turns to see what he's watching. A baseball game. Not just any baseball game. The Yankees.
"Do you know what you're watching?" she says when she sits down beside him in the chair by the bed.
He looks at her for a long moment. His mouth opens and closes. From the look on his face, he's struggling to remember the word or words he wants to say. She doesn't push. She gives him as much time as he needs.
"I like... this," he says.
She blinks, wiping tears from her eyes. "Yeah, you do. Do you know what those people are doing?" she says, gesturing at the television.
"No," he says.
"It's called baseball," she says.
He is silent. Another struggle. "Base...ball."
She picks up his hand and squeezes it. "Yeah. Your favorite sport."
"A... sport," he says. There is a question in his eyes, even though there isn't one in his tone.
She nods. "Yeah," she says, "like a game."
"Go Fish," he says. His lips turn up in a smile.
"Yeah, like Go Fish," she says, sharing his grin. This is a complex connection for him to make, and that's... amazing to see. "Exactly like Go Fish." They've been playing that with an old deck of playing cards to help him with recognizing numbers and with counting sets. He's not very good at it, yet, but he tries.
Out of the blue, she remembers Before. Him and her and Zola playing Go Fish at the dining room table in their house on the cliff. She remembers the way he laughed. Your mother's a card shark, he accused when she stripped him of his sixes to win the game. Zola giggled. The night was so... mundane, spending it at home, and yet... special. The memory shanks her like a serrated knife, and she has to look away. Derek is so much better, but... she doesn't think she'll ever see that Derek again.
"Why... sad?" he says, yanking her out of spiraling thoughts.
She blinks. She didn't realize he could understand concepts like "sad" anymore, at least not enough to verbally identify them. She wipes her eyes and sniffs. "I'm sorry. I just remembered... something."
He nods. He watches the baseball game for a few minutes. She doesn't like baseball, so she lets her thoughts drift, content simply to spend time with him.
"Me?" he says.
She frowns at him. "You, what?"
"The rem... mem... ory." He struggles with multisyllabic words and conjugations, and she can't figure out what he's trying to say.
"What do you mean?" she says.
For the first time today, he looks frustrated. The edges of his eyes pinch, and he makes a sound deep in his throat. Almost like a growl. "You... mem... mem... memory. Me."
A lump forms in her throat, and she swallows when she realizes what he's asking. She's not sure what to think. The fact that he has the presence of mind to even ask... Maybe, he does remember before. Maybe, he just doesn't know how to process it or communicate about it. She's not sure whether to tell him yes or no. She doesn't want him to feel bad. If she tells him yes, and he knows about before... would that make him feel bad?
"I know," he says as if he's read her mind. He's staring into space. "Not... not..." He closes his eyes, thinking for an interminable moment. "Not same."
She bites her lip. With his limited vocabulary, this might mean anything, but... it sounds like he's trying to tell her he knows there was a before. "Derek, do you remember before your accident?"
But this is too much for him. She's confused him. She can tell from the quizzical, nonplussed look on his face. And then she's lost him. He's back to watching the television, whether to retreat from a conversation that makes him uncomfortable, or... because he doesn't have an attention span anymore, she doesn't know.
It's more than she can bear. She swallows, rubbing tears out of her eyes. "Derek," she says, pulling him back to her. She touches his arm for emphasis. "Derek."
His gaze flicks back to her. "Me."
She smiles despite the pain in her chest. "Yes, that's you."
"Can I..." She swallows again. She can't think of how to ask what she wants. Not in a way he'd be able to comprehend. But she needs this. She needs him. Even if he's different, now. Even if he's different, now, he's still Derek. Her Derek. And the fact that he's alive in any capacity, well, that's... a gift that makes her heart hurt. She's been given a gift. She puts her hand on his shoulder. "Say no if this is bad," she tells him. A simple directive that she's used with him before.
He watches her, expression wary. She sits on the lip of his hospital bed. The mattress sinks. He says nothing. She kicks off her shoes, pushes the blanket down past his knees, and she crawls into the hospital bed with him. She's jammed between the bed railing and his hip, and everything pinches, and she's not sure she'll be able to stay like this very long. But then he shifts. Not away from her, as in to get away from her, like she first thinks. When he resettles, he's given her about four extra inches, and she can breathe.
She scoots away from the bed railing, closer to him. He doesn't say no, and she knows he can. He does that when something is happening that he doesn't like. She's seen him do it. So, he must... at least... not dislike this.
She rests her head against his chest, and she pulls a tent of his t-shirt between her fingertips, curling up against him like a cat. His skin is warm, and she sighs against his body. She listens to his heart beat. Listens to the rustling sounds of his breaths filling his lungs and then emptying from them. She hasn't done this in ten months, hasn't been this close to him in ten months, and she's missed it more than anything.
"I love you," she says, trembling. She kisses him through his shirt.
She feels like scum for it, the kiss, because she's taken advantage. She knows it. She's not even sure he understands concepts like love anymore. She doesn't think he knows what marriage is or that she's his wife. She doesn't think he gets that Zola and Bailey are his children. He recognizes her, but she still doesn't know if he knows her as a vague recollection from before, or if he knows her because she was there when he woke up.
For a moment, he doesn't interact with her, and the scummy feeling feels worse and worse as the moments pass. He doesn't say no, but he doesn't do anything to indicate he likes her where she is, either, and she is. She's scum, and she's taken advantage, and now she's dripping tears and snot on his shirt.
"I'm sorry," she says. She has been selfish. She tries to pull away.
But then he wraps his arm around her, and he holds her like he used to.
"I..." He struggles for words. His grip tightens. He runs his palm up and down her shoulder and then through her hair. Just like he used to. "Here. Mere...dith."
I here. Meredith.
I'm here, Mere.
She realizes what he's doing. Trying to comfort her. Just like he used to. And she falls apart all over him.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and she's pretty sure he can remember at least some of what came Before.
Derek has learned to walk again, though he needs a walker, and he moves like a turtle. He can dress himself, including zipping zippers and buttoning buttons. He can use the bathroom. He's learning to read and write again. He's re-attaining all sorts of simple skills that Meredith never thought she would be ecstatic about, but she is. She's ecstatic.
The rehab center thinks he might be ready to go home, soon, since he no longer needs constant supervision, and she wants him home. She wants him home so badly. He'll still need to spend a lot of time at the center, but she wants him in her bed at night, so she can hear him breathing. She wants her kids to know their dad with more familiarity than a couple hours a week can grant.
The days until his release ooze like molasses, and she thinks she might go crazy waiting.
In the meantime, she tries to figure out what he can remember. If she can figure out what he remembers, she might get a better idea about how much more he's likely to improve before the improving stops, but it's hard to explain something so abstract to him when she's limited to such basic vocabulary.
She walks with him down the long main hallway of the rehab center. He is curious, and he stops to look at things and ask what they are. Little mundane things she never would have noticed. He stops at the nurses' station, and he asks her about staplers, staple removers, whiteout, paperclips, folders. Pens and pencils are familiar to him, so he skips over those, but there's so many new things for him to see and quiz her about. Figuring out how to explain them all is a challenge, even with two small children giving her practice each day, even with Zola in the why, why, why phase, where she asks about everything until the only remaining explanation is, "Because I said so, Zozo."
The rehab facility has a neurologist on staff. Dr. Larson. His office is empty, but the door is open. Instead of continuing down the hallway, Derek tries to walk into the dark space, his walker creaking as he shifts forward, but she puts a hand on his wrist, staying him. "We can't go in there," she says.
He looks at her. "Why?"
"Because it doesn't belong to us."
Derek blinks. He looks at the hallway. "This... belong?"
"No," Meredith says. "But it's public." It's not exactly public, but she doesn't want to get too complicated for him.
"Public is... I can... go."
"Yes," she says. "Anyone can go to a public place."
When Dr. Larson trots up behind them with a medical chart in his hand, Derek freezes, and he stares. "Dr. Shepherd, Dr. Grey, good to see you," Dr. Larson says in a pleasant tone. He looks at Meredith. "Can I help you with something?
"No," Meredith says. "We're just wandering."
Dr. Larson nods. He turns to Derek, his smile widening. "Ready to go home soon, Dr. Shepherd?"
"Home," Derek says. He nods. "Yes." But he's staring at Dr. Larson's chart with an unblinking gaze. He lifts a palm from his walker to reach for it, and his weight shifts as he struggles to keep his balance. "I..."
Dr. Larson frowns. He gives Derek the chart. This is somewhat of a privacy violation, but Derek can't even read at a primer level, yet. He's still working on learning the alphabet. He's not going to understand what he's looking at. Meredith thinks this is okay.
Derek stares at the folder in his hand, like he doesn't know what to do with it now that he has it. Meredith pulls it from his fingers and opens it for him so he can see inside the sleeves. She's careful not to read the chart, since it's not her patient. Derek stares at the pages inside with rapt interest, though. Particularly the pictures.
"I... did this," he says, and both Meredith and Dr. Larson share a surprised look.
Derek touches one of the pictures, and he stares at it. His index finger rests on a stick figure, the kind on charts that doctors use to quickly indicate problem areas. The head of the figure is circled, and so is the lower back.
"Derek, you remember charts?" Meredith says, dumbfounded.
She's lost him. He frowns. "What is...?"
Meredith shakes the folder she's holding. "This is a chart. A patient chart. Do you remember this?"
He stares at it for a long, long time, and she watches the thoughts churn behind his eyes. He has that look on his face again. The look that says he wants to tell her something, but he has no idea how to say what he means. He doesn't know the words anymore. His eyes crease in what can only be annoyance. She doesn't want to push him. She doesn't want to frustrate him. But she can't stop herself.
She jiggles the chart again. "This, Derek. A patient chart. You remember it?"
Another interminable silence. "Yes," he says, but he doesn't look happy with how he's answered the question, which... is odd. His breaths funnel into something tight. Disturbed. He looks away from the chart, upset, and Meredith hands it back to Dr. Larson, just as Derek starts to hobble with his walker. Down the hall. Away from Dr. Larson's room. Dr. Larson waves at them and disappears into his office.
"Derek, what's wrong?" she says, chasing after him, not that he's made it very far.
He stops, and he looks at her. He shifts from foot to foot, walker creaking as his weight redistributes. "I don't..." He pants, and he squeezes his eyes shut. "I..." His face turns red. She can't tell if he's embarrassed or if he's pissed or... what.
She rubs his back. "It's okay," she assures him. She hugs him, frustrated. Frustrated because he wants to talk to her. He clearly does. He just has no idea how. And she's burning with curiosity. She yearns to know what he remembers. "I didn't mean to push. It's okay."
"Sorry," he says, the word rasping and bare and raw.
"Don't apologize," she says.
She pulls her fingers through his hair. She doesn't miss how he leans into her. How he seeks her out for comfort. He's not affectionate, not like he used to be. He never kisses her. She's not sure he has the emotional capacity anymore to... do that. To love. Not in the sense of a man loving his wife. But the mere fact that he associates her with comfort... she'll take that. She'll take this closeness, even if it's all he'll ever be able to give.
Her eyelids droop, and she rests against him. He rests against her. He smells like his aftershave. He can shave, now. And he can talk. And walk. And hold her. This is so much better than she thought she'd ever have again. She holds on tight, and she doesn't let go for a long time.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and, now, he's starting to live.
She takes Derek home. The kids are staying with Maggie, because Meredith doesn't want to introduce Derek to too much too fast. He knows them. He likes them. He's been seeing them once or twice a week for a year, now. But she's not sure how well he'll adjust to living with them 24/7. The nanny she's hired says she doesn't mind looking after Derek, too. Derek is self-sufficient, he just needs somebody around for emergencies or unexpected issues. He is still easy to confuse.
There will be a lot of adjustments to make, Meredith thinks.
He stands in the living room, leaning on his cane. He blinks as he peers at his surroundings. There is... recognition in his gaze, and Meredith holds her breath.
He swallows. "This is my home," he says. He's getting much better with words. He can make sentences. Still nothing complex, but... he's doing much better than before.
Meredith nods. "Yes," she says. "Do you remember this place?"
He doesn't answer. Instead, he glances at things. His face ticks as he thinks. He smiles at the couch. What he remembers about the couch that's smile-worthy, she has no idea. But she loves that he remembers even just a little.
He picks up a picture from the end table next to the couch, and he stares at it for a while. She walks to him to see what he's look at. His finger is tracing Mark's face, and her heart squeezes.
"Do you remember Mark?" she says.
He nods. "Where is he?"
She swallows. "He's gone, Derek."
Derek nods again. "When will he come back?"
For a moment, she can't think of what to say. "He's not coming back." She's not sure Derek understands death, anymore, and she doesn't want to upset him so soon.
But Derek presses the issue. "Where did he go?" he says.
She wraps her arms around him, and she kisses his back between his shoulder blades. "I'm so sorry, Derek. He's dead."
"Oh," he says.
"Do you know what that means?" she says.
His breaths tighten in his chest, and his eyes glisten, but he says nothing, and she doesn't want to bombard him with troubling things if he doesn't want to talk about it. She doesn't say anything else about it, but she does give his shoulder a squeeze.
She wonders how patchy things are in Derek's head. What kind of holes are in his memory. Derek knows that he used to be a surgeon. He has a general concept of what kind of surgery he used to perform. He even seems to know he's not like he used to be.
"Lexie died, too," Derek says out of the blue. There is no picture of Lexie on this table. He pulled that out of his own tangled head.
Meredith swallows. "Yes. She did."
"And George," he adds. "And your mother. And my dad."
He looks at her for a long moment. His blue eyes are fathomless. She lets herself get lost in them, imagining he's Derek again. All of him, not just this partial remnant. When his eyes are all she looks at, she can bamboozle herself without much effort. He might not know all the words, anymore, but he's always been this expressive. This... deep.
"I... promised you... I wouldn't," he says.
She blinks, shocked out of her fantasy. "What? You what?"
I'm not gonna die. I promise.
He kisses her forehead. It's the first time he's ever done something like this since the accident. Kissed her. He's held her when she's been upset. He's offered her comfort. He's allowed her to kiss him chastely. But...
He tips up her chin with his hand so he can look at her. His cane falls to the floor, crashing into the hard wood as he rests against her, cupping her shoulder with his other hand. He presses his lips to her and drinks her down. He's not skilled at it, anymore. He fumbles. He's awkward. It's like he's on his first date, and he's never kissed a girl before in his life. But she doesn't freaking care.
He kisses her, and time stops.
"I'm sorry," he says, panting as he pulls away moments later.
She blinks, dumbfounded. She licks her lips. They taste of him, and she cherishes it. "For what?"
"I almost... broke it," he says. His eyes pinch as he struggles for words. He looks off into space with a troubled expression on his face. He flinches. Like he's remembering something awful. "I... did..." He shakes his head like he knows that's not what he means to say. "I... didn't... mean to."
A lump forms in her throat. In that moment, he's her Derek. She doesn't have to imagine anything. It's him. Maybe, he can't say words like malignant glioblastoma anymore. Maybe, he can't use a scalpel anymore. But that's not the part of him that she needs. This is.
"I'm glad you're home," she says.
If he understands her double meaning, he doesn't give her a hint. He kisses her again. Like he's discovered he likes it. Like he wants to do it some more. And when he pulls away from her, this time, he's smiling, and all he's doing is catching his breath, so he can kiss her again. She hopes he gets even better, after this, but she doesn't need anything else. She's happy with just this.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he can still love Meredith Grey.
He likes Zola and Bailey. He likes to watch their television shows with them and sing the songs. He likes to play boardgames like Candyland. He likes Zola's tea parties and Bailey's matchbox car races. Derek did those things with them, before, and he liked doing them for the sake of spending time with his children, but he didn't enjoy the activities themselves. He faked it.
He isn't faking, anymore.
Meredith watches Derek playing Chutes and Ladders with Zola, wondering what's going through his mind as he counts spaces, meticulous and slow, because that's the way his brain seems to work right now. Meticulous and slow. He moves his game piece up a chute.
Like he senses her eyes on him, he looks up, and he smiles.
"Want to play?" he says. "We can..." He thinks for a moment, formulating what he wants to say. "Start over."
"Play, Mommy!" Zola adds, looking up from the board. "Play! Please?"
Meredith sits at the table with her coffee, and she shrugs. "Sure, why not?"
They reset the pieces back at the beginning and start over. She scoots closer to Derek. Their shoulders brush. She leans over to give him a kiss, and he grins and returns the gesture of affection.
"I played... this," he says when his lips part from her skin.
She raises her eyebrows. "When you were a kid?"
"Yes," he says. "I... think."
"You used to play this with Zola, too. Do you remember?"
He looks at the board. And then back at her, frowning. "I..." He swallows, thinking. "I'm playing... now."
"We are," she says, nodding. "But do you remember before?"
"I played with... Mark," he says.
She bites her lip. She thinks, maybe, she's found another hole. She finds them now and then. Things that are just... gone. So many things are gone. But he's still here. He's still here, and he's alive, and he's okay. They'll make new memories, she thinks.
She grabs his hand and squeezes it as they watch Zola count out her first move.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he's moving forward.
Rekindling their romance has been a slow process. She lets him choose the pace, and she's careful not to push him. She never wants him to feel like he's been pressured into something he isn't ready for. Every time they broach a new level of intimacy, he is the one who initiates it. They did nothing but kiss for four months before he wanted to try other things. He spent another two months getting comfortable with nakedness with her, and another two after that learning how to pet and how she liked to be touched.
The first time they make love after the accident is something she'll never forget. Derek's not a virgin by any stretch of the imagination, but... in essence, he is, and that's a special thing to her. She has the unique opportunity to give him his second first time, and she does her best to make it as special for him as being this close to him again feels to her.
"I love you," he says, breathless against her ear as he pulls out, and she wants to freeze this moment forever.
He hasn't said those words to her in nearly two years, and she didn't realize how much she needed to hear them. She cards her fingers through his sweaty hair. Nothing separates them but skin. She blinks tears out of her eyes. "I'm so glad you're alive to tell me that," she says.
He gives her a soft smile. "Yes," he says. "Me, too."
They sleep in a sated stupor.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he's remade Meredith whole.
She hasn't noticed an improvement in a long time, and she thinks the Derek she has now is the Derek she'll be keeping forever. And that's... okay. She's okay with that. Completely okay, she realizes with surprise, because she has what's important to her back already.
He doesn't need a cane anymore to walk, though his right side is weaker than his left, which makes his gait a little funny. He can carry a conversation. He can drive. He can do everything for himself that he needs to be able to do to function as an independent human being. He's even taking care of the kids without help. They've long since let the nanny go. If something ever happens to her, if she ever forgets everything, she knows he'll be okay, and she knows her kids will be okay with him, too.
He's a slow thinker, now, though. He's sensitive to noises and bright lights, and he's prone to debilitating migraines. Every once in a while, the word he wants to say escapes him, and he gets frustrated. But the core of who he was... he's found that again.
He's sweet. And he makes snarky jokes and teases her. He laughs about her snoring. He loves his family. He loves his kids. He loves her. He likes to fish and go hiking and camping and to do all the nature-y stuff he used to enjoy before the accident, and he's gotten a kick out of teaching the kids to like those things, too. He's lost his competitive, driven edge, the edge that made him world-renowned, but she thinks that might be his choice, and not something his injuries have stripped from him.
She wonders what he might do with his life, now. She thinks, maybe, he could still do something in healthcare, though she's not sure what, yet. He can't do something that requires fast thoughts under stress, but, maybe, if he takes some refresher courses and studies hard enough to bring himself back up to speed, there's... something?
When she asks him one night if he has aspirations beyond being a stay-at-home dad, though, all he says is, "I like it here with you, Mere." And that makes her smile in spite of herself.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and Meredith Grey finds herself believing in miracles after all.
Derek isn't a surgeon anymore. He can't be. The accident has obliterated too much of his skill set. But he finds fulfillment in other ways. He works at the rehab center, counseling TBI patients. He helps people come to terms with catastrophic injuries, and he's good at it, because he's done it himself. He understands the frustrations and triumphs of learning to be a part of the world again from scratch. Even better, his flexible hours allow him to take care of the kids when Meredith is busy, and even with them both working again, they have no need for a nanny.
Things aren't how they used to be, but he's happy. They're happy. And life goes on.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he has purpose again.
"Dad, seriously, stop. You're embarrassing me."
Derek blinks. "Stop what?"
"Looking at me!" she says. "You keep staring."
He swallows against the lump in his throat. Zola stands next to him, decked head to toe in white. She's an inch taller than him, thanks to her heels. Her long, slender lines make her lithe and full of grace. She's holding a colorful bouquet full of lilies and other things.
She takes his breath away.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," he says. He swallows. The lump is getting bigger. "You're just so—"
He doesn't have a chance to finish. The organ in the other room begins to play, and she hisses at him to shut up. "Oh, my god," she says. "Oh, my god, oh, my god."
His tuxedo rustles as he shifts to lock his arm with hers. "Ready?" he says.
She looks at him with her large brown eyes. "Dad," she says, "I'm scared."
He nods. "This is a pretty scary thing."
She swallows. "Were you scared?"
He doesn't remember his first wedding. A lot of his life before his accident is a jumbled box of unassembled puzzle pieces. He's given up trying to make more than passing sense of a lot of it. He doesn't remember the aborted wedding that Meredith gave to Izzie and Alex, though Meredith has told him of it. He does remember the Post-it, though. Bits and pieces of it, anyway.
I want to be with you forever. And you want to be with me forever. In order to do that, we need to make vows.
"Yes, I... think so," he says, the words soft, "but don't tell your mother."
"Really?" Zola says.
"It's a big deal," he says. He struggles to think of how to say what he feels. The moments pass, and Zola waits for him to assemble his thoughts into words. "Offering your life to... to... to somebody else. But I'll tell you one thing."
He smiles, thinking back on many, many years. "I don't regret one minute of it."
Zola's eyes are wet, and she blinks. "I really love him, Dad," she says.
"Well, then," he says. He raises his eyebrows and makes a grand gesture toward the double doors that lead into the church. "Shall we?"
She takes a deep breath and nods. The ushers push open the doors, and Derek straightens.
Zola's eyes fixate on Matt, who's waiting for her by the altar. Derek's gaze shifts to the first pew. Meredith is watching them with a misty look on her face. Bailey's sitting beside her with his boyfriend Roger, and all three of them are grinning ear to ear.
Zola takes her first step, and Derek moves with her. His right foot drags a little, but he's gotten used to compensating for it, and he doesn't limp.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he can walk his daughter down the aisle.
He finds his wife sitting on the deck overlooking the cliff, staring at the scenery. The land stretches for miles, verdant, alive. Birds drift on the air currents, floating in lazy circles. Wispy pink stratus clouds declare the sunrise imminent.
She rests on a wicker love seat, an afghan wrapped over her bony shoulders. He's old and gray, and nothing works quite right anymore, but he can still bring her coffee. He carries two mugs and joins her to watch the morning arrive.
She smiles at him in a way that makes him know he's loved.
"Good morning," he says, grunting in discomfort as he sits beside her. His knees are old. His body is old. He's grateful to surrender to gravity, despite having woken up only minutes ago. He dips his head to kiss her cheek as he settles.
"Hey," she says, leaning into him. She rests her head on his shoulder and takes a sip of the steaming coffee he's brought her. "Since when am I the morning person?"
He shrugs. "I have to let you win, sometimes," he says, and she snorts with amusement.
"I love you," she says.
"I love you, too," he replies.
They sit quietly on the deck of the house they've lived in almost fifty years. A sliver of blinding light peeks over the eastern horizon. Derek squints and turns away to look at his wife instead. He thinks she's much prettier, anyway.
Derek Shepherd is alive, and he's well on his way to 110.