Her place was (or, at least, ought to be) next to him, holding his hand, but instead she was sitting next to his eldest daughter, simultaneously trying to comfort her and draw comfort from her. On her other side, Stella’s head kept dropping suddenly onto her shoulder, exhaustion winning the war. For what seemed like the hundredth time in this endless night (was it really only four o’clock?), Leelee gripped her hand tightly, looking up at her trustingly and asking if her dad would be alright.

Stevie answered yes with a clear voice, somehow absent of all the doubts and worries that kept her mind ill at ease. Of course. Of course he would be alright. He was strong. And stubborn. And healthy.

The teenager fell silent again and she simply stared at the opposite wall, the colors and patterns irritating her as they spun and shifted and merged. Her head hurt and she bit down on her lower lip - hard -, blinking rapidly as she felt the tears trying to escape again. Not now. It was stupid, really, getting this upset. After all, they’d said it had only been mild, that things could’ve been much worse, especially considering his family medical history. He would probably be home within a day or two, being his usual asshole self. She should be thankful. Instead, Stevie had spent the past hour nearly jumping out of her skin every time she head a strange noise in the vicinity of the room Lindsey was currently in. Every doctor or nurse who walked out of there with a concerned expression on their face was someone she cursed the existence of merely for making her heart beat faster.

Will returned from a lengthy bathroom break, clutching his iPhone tight in his hand. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes wet. Stevie smiled gently at him and he made an effort to do the same before sitting back down beside his sister, his legs restless and constantly jiggling up and down. Usually she would find that annoying but the overarching emotion towards Will she felt right now was gratitude.

"I was right to ring you, yeah?" he said in a hesitant manner far from his usual confident tone.

"Yeah," Stevie agreed. "I… Well, thank you. I know your mom probably doesn’t want me around right now, but…"

"She didn’t mean anything by what she said earlier when we picked you up. She’s just stressed about Dad."

"Understandably so."

"Right. Um, I’m going to go and get some coffee," he said, obviously still unable to sit still and wait. "Did you want some?"

"Uh, no. I’m fine. Thanks, though."

He nodded awkwardly and strode off down the corridor, his shoulders hunched over and his hands jammed in his pockets. Stevie was fairly sure he’d grown another inch or two since she’d last seen the boy - when they’d stepped out of the Buckingham’s car in the parking lot, she’d been taken aback by how grown-up he appeared. On the short trip to the hospital, she’d been far too intent on ignoring the occasional conflicted glances from Kristen and answering the nervous, worried questions from Stella to concern herself with observing physical changes in the children. The fact that she could notice such a marked change in Will’s appearance made her slightly unsettled really. Because she shouldn’t be surprised by things like that, not at all. She should know Lindsey’s children better than that. But she didn’t.

She tucked a few loose strands of blonde hair back behind Stella’s ear, smiling down at the young girl. Still in her pajamas under one of her brother’s jackets, she looked so small and vulnerable to Stevie and she found herself searching Lindsey’s daughter’s face for signs of distress. God knows she wouldn’t be surprised if she herself had nightmares about tonight at some point in the next week or so. The sound of footsteps coming closer permeated her little bubble of care and concern and she immediately looked towards the direction of Lindsey’s room. Kristen was walking slowly back towards her children, her arms wrapped around her middle protectively, eyes shiny with tears. Oh god. She moved to get up but Leelee beat her to the punch, practically running across the white floor to her mother, burying her head against Kristen’s chest. Through the quiet sobs she could make out enough of the conversation to ascertain that Lindsey was doing better, that the kids could go in and see him now. She kissed Stella’s forehead softly in thanks.

"Sweetie, time to wake up," she said, a hand on the girl’s slim arm. "It’s time to go see your daddy."

"Wha?" She looked around, obviously confused. "Oh." She jerked away from Stevie’s touch (and that hurt more than it should) and walked on unsteady legs over to Kristen, arms outstretched for a hug which was quickly given. Will’s return only seconds later meant that she was soon sitting on her own, watching Lindsey’s family drawing strength and comfort from each other, only several feet away.

Lindsey’s wife nodded to her in acknowledgement, a small, weak smile on her face and Stevie closed her eyes, leaning back against the stark wall. Sometimes she forget where she now was in the pecking order and the visual reminder in the shape of Kristen and the children walking through the door together, arms around each other, was more than enough to weigh heavily on her heart. She didn’t begrudge them their visit to Lindsey, no. It was as it was meant to be. It was just… Stevie was careful not to label her relationship with him anymore - they certainly weren’t just ex-lovers, or bandmates, or friends. They weren’t just anything. But right now she wanted a label, wanted a claim, wanted a hold on him.

She needed to see him. Desperately. This wasn’t goodbye, not even close (NEVER) but she needed the reassurance of his handsome face and his beautiful smile. Stevie needed his familiar voice to tell her the last chapter hadn’t even been written yet, that they still had time.

Sometimes she dreamed about the end. Some nights it was his end -

 

gasping for breath, his pale, wrinkled hand clung to hers. he stroked her palm with a weak finger and she smiled gently at him, bending down to kiss him on his chapped lips. it ll be alright , she said. ill be alright'. she wouldnt, of course, but she could be strong for him for a few last moments. she swallowed down the bile as he opened his mouth to speak and nothing came out. leaning closer to hear him, she could smell the antiseptic and the drugs and the hospital and she hated that he didnt smell like him anymore. he squeezed her hand, once, twice and told her in a voice that no longer resembled his (a mere croak, he struggled for every word) he loved her. she nodded. she knew. i love you too, lindsey. his breathing changed. his eyes closed. the noise from the monitor was nightmarish. she was in a nightmare.

 

Sometimes she dreamed about an end. Some nights it was her end -

 

the doctors had told her there was nothing left they could do. so she d gone home last week. he lay beside her on the bed, on top of the blankets (she still couldnt stop shivering), his hand covering hers. lindsey, this is my last ever mattress , she said, her laugh catching in her throat at the odd thought. he smiled wanly and kissed her cheek. pity we cant enjoy it more, he whispered conspiratorially, winking at her. she tugged at his white hair and grinned as she winced. i still have a little strength, mr. buckingham, dont tempt me. and he wouldnt, she knew that. she closed her eyes against the pain that was a constant reminder that the end was growing near and she felt his fingertips run lightly down her cheek. he was so gentle with her. im so sorry, stevie, he said and she could hear his grief. i wish…’ so did she.

 

She woke up when she heard someone calling her name. Leelee was watching her with a concerned expression and suddenly the girl’s hands were on her shoulders and she was being peered at curiously. “Stevie?”

"Yeah, um, sorry. I just…"

"Did you want to go and-"

"I can?"

"Yeah, Dad was asking for you. Mom asked if I’d mind coming to get you."

"Is he awake?"

"He told me I looked like the living dead," Leelee laughed. "Wait til you’ve seen him. It’s worse than last Halloween."

"Are you okay?" Stevie asked, taken slightly aback by the joke.

"No," she said somberly, blinking rapidly as she glanced back at her father’s room. "It’s, um, it’s weird. Awkward. I don’t know what to say."

"Just say you love him. That’s all you ever need to say."

A spare chair had been pulled up beside the hospital bed and Kristen vacated it as Stevie walked in, giving Lindsey one last kiss on the forehead before herding the kids out of the room. She was thankful. She loved Lindsey’s children in a way she couldn’t really explain but she needed this moment alone with him. Just with him.

His hand lay limp on the bed and she winced at the machines he was hooked up to. “I’ll be fine, Stevie, they just need to monitor me for a night or so, the doctor said.”

"Yeah, I know," she agreed, lifting his hand up and enclosing it in hers. It was cold. "I…" She cleared her throat and looked at him intently, needing him to understand her next words. "Don’t do that to me again, okay?"

"Do that to you?"

"Scare me," she said emphatically.

"I can promise it wasn’t on purpose?"

"I know, dumbass," she said, loosening her grip as she saw his face growing even paler. "Um, I just… I don’t know what to say here."

"You don’t have to say anything, Stevie. You don’t have to be here if you don’t want."

He looked slightly hurt and she resisted the urge to berate him for his apparent stupidity.

"Look," he said, trying to wrest his hand away from hers. "I’m okay. I’ll be home soon. If you want, you can come check on me later this week?"

"You’ll be lucky if I’m not there 24/7 for the next month, Linds," she replied, scowling at him. "You’re not allowed to die yet, okay?"

"It’s not exactly in my plans. Certainly, Kit didn’t write it down on my iPhone calendar. The kids haven’t even graduated yet. I mean, I’m not the youngest, coolest dad ever but I’d still like…" She watched as he trailed off.

"You’ll be there. And you’re going to be forced to walk those beautiful girls down the aisle too. You’re going to hate wearing those tuxedos."

Grinning, he looked up at her, eyes still so blue and yet missing a little light. “At least I’ll get to see you in a color other than black. I’ll make sure to say it’s not allowed on the invitations.”

"Because you’ll be in charge of the dress code?" she mocked.

"Well, of course. My specialty."

Stevie relaxed and leaned forward slightly in the chair. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Lindsey,” she said, sombre now as she examined him more carefully, noting his pallor and the way he kept scratching at the itchy blanket. “I can’t lose you, you know.”

"Not yet, anyway."

"Not ever."

"It’s going to happen one day, baby," he replied, smiling sadly at her. "It just is."

"Not if I go first."

"Statistics and family history say that’s unlikely."

"Fuck statistics. Fuck you," Stevie spat bitterly, wincing as she heard a gasp from behind her. Oh god. Perfect timing as always. She turned hesitantly to see Kristen and all three Buckingham children staring wide-eyed at her. Not missing a beat, Lindsey (he really was a devil) replied that he loved her too. Giving his family an apologetic grimace, she got up from the chair, pressing a quick kiss to Lindsey’s forehead before straightening again. God, her back hurt.

"Stella’s nearly asleep, darling," Kristen said, drawing her near to the bed. "I think we need to get back home now. We’ll come see you later, okay?"

Lindsey smiled lovingly. “Gimme a kiss, then, before you desert me,” he said, puckering up. His wife complied and Stevie couldn’t look away. She found it strange watching women being intimate with Lindsey. Even though he had been married for such a long time, she always felt a strange possessiveness run through her and the sense that this was wrong, that those kisses and looks were hers and hers alone. But of course they weren’t. They weren’t hers at all anymore. She watched from the open door as each child gave their father an awkward one-armed hug and kiss. “Alright, I’ll see you all tomorrow, then?” he said.

She wondered if she was included in that and felt her heart beat slightly faster as he lifted his head slightly off the pillow and searched her out.

"You too, okay, Stevie? Anytime you want. Sulamith will have to be deprived of your company for once."

"I think she’ll cope. She’ll be too busy messing up the garden to even notice I’m gone."

"Ah, that wonderful optimism, Miss Nicks. It’s really no wonder I can’t seem to stop loving you."

And it didn’t matter how platonic she knew those words were intended. It didn’t matter that his wife and children were in the room. It didn’t even matter that he’d said those words with a wry grin on his face.

"I’ll always love you. Always," she responded fiercely, owning the emotion, looking him right in the eye, letting him know she meant it. "Make sure you don’t annoy the nurses too much, okay?"

She left the room, not looking back at the reactions of his beautiful, perfect family. She knew Kristen would respond predictably anyway, pretending the words away. If they weren’t acknowledged or acted on, they didn’t matter, it seemed. But it mattered to her. And by the way his eyes had searched hers and the vulnerable expression on his face, she had all the confirmation she needed that those words mattered to Lindsey as well.

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