Someone Lost, Something Gained

★due★

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The airport is surprisingly busy for being so late in the night. It takes Veda half an hour to get to the front of the queue, and by the time she does, her panic has ratcheted to a height she hasn’t experienced in a very long time. She is angry at the situation, all of it, and the poor staff doesn’t deserve her wrath. But she can’t bite it back once they tell her that the next available flight won’t be until morning.

“Look, I… I have a family emergency, okay? I have to be on a flight tonight. Isn’t there anything you can do, maybe bump someone off a flight leaving tonight? Fuck, I’ll take a flight to Boston and drive the rest of the way, I don’t care.”

“I’m really sorry, ma’am, but the last flight for today to the East Coast just departed five minutes ago.” The man gives her a sympathetic smile that does nothing to placate her. “There are two flights directly to JFK in the morning that I might be able to get you on.”

Veda knows there is no point in arguing any more; it’s not like the man can just call back a fucking aeroplane. So she accepts the earliest flight and waits as he does his magic to get her ticket switched.

Her skin crawls with goosebumps, though she isn’t sure if it’s the cool air of the building or her fear. Once he assures her that she will be part of priority boarding, Veda thanks him as sincerely as possible then makes her way to the waiting lobby outside the terminal.

To: Ellie
No chance tonight. Will be heading out first thing in the am. I’m so so so so sorry for having to ditch so early.

From: Ellie
I’ll pass the message on to Elizabeth. Please be sure to send your grandfather our love. Love, Irene

To: Ellie
Thanks, Momma Hargrove

Veda curls into herself as she sits in the chair, stomach churning with anxiety. She is well aware that she can’t do anything from an airport almost three thousand miles away. It would have been a better choice to return to the hotel for the night, but the thought of going back to the festivities is hard to handle.

Hearing her granddad’s voice had done little to assuage her fear. In fact, hearing him so tired, so brittle and worn thin, works to convince her that she is going to be too late. Her throat tightens, eyes burning, as her mind replays the short conversation with him. A tear trickles its way down her cheek, but she doesn’t bother wiping it away.

Why waste the effort when more are just going in?

The hours drag on. Flights arrive, flights depart, but Veda stays stuck where she is in the corner. She rereads the texts from Patrice, though all that does is conjure up worst-case scenarios from every word the nurse has sent.

He’s sleeping right now.

He’s taken his medication and has eaten a little.

He’s having more difficulty breathing on his own, but the mask is working.

Patrice is a godsend, Veda cannot deny that. But that isn’t enough to ease the unadulterated terror that grows with each passing second.

“You look cold.”

Veda jolts at the unexpected Irish-accented voice, but before she can do more than blink at the newcomer, something soft is wrapping around her shoulders. She stares stupidly down at the zip-up hoodie the man has offered. It takes a second, then she realises: He’s right, she’s freezing.

He finishes plugging a charging adaptor into an outlet, and the phone in his hand lets out a soft ding as electricity runs through the cord. He sets it on his thigh and finally meets her eye. Contrition flits across his face.

“You, er, don’t have to use the jacket if you don’t want to. I just thought you might be cold.”

“I-I am. Thanks.”

He shifts awkwardly in his seat, brows drawn tightly together. “So… forgive me for this, but you seem upset. Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” she replies immediately then - surprising even herself - she admits, “Talking about it will make it real.”

He nods, slowly as if he’s mulling over her words, and Veda wonders if he truly does understand or if he is just attempting to empathise. Neither of them speak again for the rest of the hour, but Veda doesn’t care; she’s too caught up in her own thoughts.

When she barely manages to stifle a yawn, he suggests that she take a nap, promising to keep an eye on her luggage. She shakes her head with a forced smile and bites back the words that will only expose too much - sleeping will only bring terrifying dreams that are too close to real life.

Dawn arrives with little fanfare, heralding a new day, and Veda jerks to alertness as the flight is called overhead. The stranger dozes in his chair, head lolling to the side as he sleeps. Veda hesitates. Should she wake him?

She doesn’t give it much more thought, just reaches over and nudges his shoulder. His eyes peel open, and he blinks sleepily a few times before bolting upright. Veda fidgets with the zip of the jacket.

“I, I didn’t know if you were on the flight to New York, but it’s just been called, so…”

“Oh. Yeah, thanks.”

She reluctantly removes his jacket, suppressing a shiver when she is no longer surrounded by the warmth and pleasant aroma of spiced cologne. He takes the hoodie back with a smile, and she turns to grab her carry-on while he shoves the hoodie into his backpack. Before she can walk away, he apologises for falling asleep instead of keeping her company.

Veda hesitates but shrugs it off, hurrying to the gate. The flight attendant checks her ticket then gestures her forward with a scripted “Have a nice flight”.

Luggage stuffed into the overhead compartment and belt securely fasted, Veda lets her head fall back against her seat, swallowing hard to dislodge the lump in her throat. An internal countdown begins as the other passengers board and find their own seats. The stranger waves shortly before dropping into a chair five rows ahead of her.

It shouldn’t be comforting to see him on the same flight, sitting so near, but for some inexplicable reason, it is.

It’s far less comforting when he sits in the empty seat next to her a few minutes after the seatbelt lights go off. Veda honestly just wants to be left alone right now, but the pleasant smile on his face tells her she won’t get that isolation, the peace and quiet.

Shame twists in her gut at the realisation that he’s going to want conversation. She can’t find it in her to do anything about it, though, to start talking about mindless things. Her mind is firmly on the man waiting for her to come home. And whether he’ll even still be there when she does.

“I’m Niall.”

“Uh, Ve-Veda.”

“Well, Ve-Veda, what brought you to California?”

“My best friend got married.”

“Nice! I wish the best for the couple.” He squirms to get more comfortable, tapping quickly at the screen of his phone before turning it off. “Excited to get back home?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“You’re not a talker, are ya?” he asks on a quiet laugh when she doesn’t offer more.

“Sorry. I just, I have a lot on my mind right now.”

“Need a distraction? I’ve been told I’m rather good at blathering on and preventing people from focusing.”

His bright, innocent grin is enough to sway her, and Veda resists the knee-jerk reaction of telling him no. Instead, she nods and settles into her seat as his eyes take on a faraway glaze. The silence between them doesn’t last much longer.

When he starts speaking, it’s pleasant - or it would be if she wasn’t so caught up in the fears that have plagued her for the last few months. His voice has a steady cadence while he tells her that he’s been in California for two weeks to help a friend set up for a gallery opening.

Veda relaxes into the rising and falling of his voice as he describes the friends he has, the ones he lives with. He even goes so far as to show her a picture of his dog, an adorable puggle he affectionately calls an idiot who can’t find his way out of a wide-open box. The photograph is a nice touch, she thinks. Another sense to engage.

His words are softer, rounded with emotion, when he talks about his job as a nurse in the paediatric wing of a hospital surprisingly close to the home Veda shares with her granddad. She understands the conflicting views he confesses of his career. As a registrar, the only contact she has with patients is to get information about insurance from them, but spending any amount of time with people sick or broken is hard. She can’t imagine how much more difficult it is to actually be in charge of their care. Especially children.

The haunted darkness behind his eyes disappears after a moment, and Niall clears his throat. Veda is impressed with how quickly he slips back into someone so at ease with being open, talkative, personable. She barely manages to admit even to herself that listening to him chatter on is helpful.

It gives her something to concentrate on instead of the running mantra that tells her she’s failing. She can anchor herself to this conversation while pushing the worries out of focus. They’re not gone, not by a long shot, but they are fuzzier, less overwhelming. The best part is Niall doesn’t seem to expect a response. He appears to be content enough to just... talk without anything in return.

She idly wonders, as she stares out the window to the puffy sea of pink and gold, if he’s as uncomfortable as she is but better at hiding it. When he continues speaking with no sign of awkwardness, she pushes the thought from her mind and listens to him recount a story about his pup chasing a butterfly only to run face-first into a parked car’s tires. A reluctant giggle escapes her. Niall beams at the sound, like he succeeded in a goal he never uttered.

It feels like no time at all before the pilot is announcing the impending arrival to JFK, and Niall pats Veda’s hand gently and makes his way back up to his seat. She almost wishes he’d stayed when the landing is less than smooth, jostling passengers as it coasts to a stop on the tarmac.

Veda unbuckles her belt as soon as she can, stands to grab her luggage. Without thinking, she searches for him in the aisle ahead of her, but he is nowhere to be seen, already off the plane. She swallows down the unexpected disappointment and follows the line of passengers. It’s fine that he’s gone. She can handle this on her own.

“Need a lift?”

Veda huffs out a laugh when the already-familiar voice comes from her left, and she steps out of the way of the people still coming from the gate. Niall grins widely once he’s caught her eye and repeats his question. She bites the inside of her cheek as she deliberates.

He’s a near stranger, no matter the information he unloaded on her during the flight. For all she knows, he could be planning on taking her somewhere isolated to kill her and drop her corpse where it won’t be found. She sighs, the bail of her index finger picking at the plastic handle on her carry-on.

“Look, I appreciate you distracting me. I really do even though I, well, I most likely didn’t show it well. But -”

“I probably won’t kill you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He laughs at whatever expression her face pulls, but the sound is vibrant, not unkind. “No, I promise this isn’t an elaborate ruse to murder you. It’s just that my friend is outside in the car park waiting, and it really wouldn’t be a problem to drop you at yours on the way.”

“I can’t ask this of you.”

“Good thing you’re not. Seriously, Veda, it’ll be quicker than fighting for a cab or risking someone stealing your luggage on the subway.”

That alone seals the deal. Veda can’t argue with his logic, so she doesn’t try, accepting his offer without any further arguing. He gestures for her to follow him to baggage claim. She does, then trails behind him toward the exit. He repeatedly looks back over his shoulder as if to make sure she isn’t pulling a disappearing act, his smile brightening each time he confirms she is still there.

A heavy, wet cold engulfs them as they step outside. One thing Veda hasn’t missed about New York is the humidity that lingers no matter the weather. Niall wraps an arm around her shoulders as they dart through the line of taxis waiting along the pavement. Veda grimaces and waves in apology when a driver has to slam on their brakes, though it was totally the driver’s fault for trying to speed in the pick-up/drop-off lane.

True to Niall’s word, his friend is indeed parked in a stall, engine idling as his friend waits. A shiver unrelated to the chilly air runs down Veda’s spine when Niall tightens his hold on her, steering her toward the vehicle. He holds open the front passenger door, gestures for her to slide in, and she hesitates for a second then does as he’s asked. He slips into the backseat.

“Hey, mate, this is Veda. I offered her a lift back to hers. Ve-Veda, this is Harry, and this is David Barkie.”

Veda turns in her seat and stifles a giggle at the dog that’s currently bouncing all over his human. The pup lets out a soft yip then burrows into Niall’s chest. His fingers immediately start scratching behind the dog’s ears, which seems to be exactly what David Barkie wants. His tongue lolls out of his mouth, eyes drooping. She faces forward again, and her hands start wringing around themselves as she catches Harry’s eye.

“Thanks for this.”

“No problem. Where to?”

She gives him the address and hopes that he can get her home in time. Niall and Harry chat to each other about what has happened in their lives over the last couple of weeks, but she ignores them in favour of digging her phone from the side pocket of her carry-on. She turns it on and waits impatiently for it to boot up. She knows it’s a bad habit, but that doesn’t stop her from chewing at the corner of her thumb-nail.

Within seconds, fifteen notifications pour in, all of them texts. Ellie’s thank Veda again for coming to the wedding and making the start to her married life with Chris perfect, demands that Veda gives Granddad her love. Patrice’s messages are full of updates regarding Percy’s health since last night. Veda isn’t sure if it’s real that each message comes across as less hopeful than the last.

Harry pulls up to the kerb outside of her house, and Veda stares up at the weathered bricks and swallows thickly. This is it. Thanking him again in a soft voice that breaks, she grabs her luggage, steps out of the car. Niall carefully sets David Barkie in the front seat before sliding out of the back. His hand is cool from the air-con as he grabs her arm to pull her to a stop.

“Here, in case you need anything. I can’t promise much, but… as good of a talker as I am, I’m an even better listener.”

Veda takes the crinkled McDonald’s receipt, hands trembling. Now that she’s so close to being with Granddad again, all the anxiety and panic is catching up, and she could collapse under the weight of Niall’s comforting, reassuring smile. She blinks against the tears that fight to surface. She murmurs out a quick thanks then awkwardly walks backwards for a few steps. He opens the passenger door and moves the dog from the seat. She turns and hurries inside with the image of him kissing David Barkie’s nose imprinted in her mind.