Max had his back turned at the door when he heard it creaking open, followed by the soft tapping of her heels on the floor.
He'd been up there on the roof for nearly half an hour, leaning against the railing, feeling the cold wind sneaking between the open lapels of his coat very much like certain icy fingers had skimmed through his ribs, running over his racing heart, in this unforgettable night just a couple of nights prior. Scrolling through his phone's gallery, switching from one video to another then going back – pause, rewind, repeat, his chest tightening for each of Luna's smiles he managed to capture on camera up until this very moment. She'd showered him in giggles and kisses just before he left her that evening, and in all the way to New Amsterdam all Max could think about was how he should've thought of recording it before hugging her so tight to his chest he'd felt her little heartbeats like they were his own and her sweet sweet belly laugh, ringing in his ears.
For every non registered moment was a moment lost, he'd quickly gotten used to thinking the second after she was born. With every growth spurt, every milestone conquered, Max recognised his time ran as fast as Luna grew, perhaps even faster, his mind seemingly never capable of properly processing and cataloging all the little moments sprinkled through their days the way he knew he was supposed to . Too many incerties had and continued to stand between him and Luna's future, after all, and recently, he'd taken to viewing that perspective under such a realistic light that surprised even himself. So day after day he took all he could, devouring every new aspect of her personality that unfolded before his eyes hungrily, every bit of her that proved to be more of Georgia's , more his, more of her own tiny independent self.
He never imagined his time might be swept away like this, however – the clock ticking faster and faster as he found himself talking lawyers and custody technicalities with Georgia's parents over the phone, out of pretty much nowhere and barely a second after nearly dying, nonetheless. The moment Gwen's words registered, after she'd hung up on him that night just three days prior, Max had felt as if cold water washed over his body all over again, like the moments he remembered in terms of feeling only, awful and freezing and almost floating inside Helen's trembling embrace in the decontamination shower. He had locked eyes with her then, closed his fingers tighter around her wrist not only to keep her there anymore, but also to keep himself grounded as well. As she immediately worried and asked and he murmured explanations he barely understood himself – feeling suddenly very tired, old, drained of the hope he'd started to feed barely seconds before the phone rang, the imaginary clock ticking only to his ears as he saw his own fear reflected in her eyes.
The multiple phone calls ignored that night were made with Helen still by his side, as she somehow convinced him to stay the night when all he wanted to do was jump into the next cab straight to Georgia's parent's house. As she somehow made him understand that if in person talking was off the table, if Luna's grandparents were as serious as they sounded, then the legal talk should start by him speaking with a lawyer first thing in the morning if he ever intended on getting ahead of the situation at all. Helen delivered the reasoning objectively, determined as she paced the room – the almost-thing previously in between them pushed aside as she turned into the Deputy Director and friend he learned to trust with his life, as she grounded and centered him merely by staying , which she did, all through that night.
Within the next couple days that followed came the legal nightmare, the rushed decisions, and then time suddenly seemed to fast forward, his days shrinking, minutes gone by at a speed he felt unable to follow, with every second spent worrying and strategizing over the many, sometimes terrifying, possibilities lying ahead. He and Helen texted, but barely and anxiously, for he hadn't stepped foot back in the hospital before today. Tonight, he came in for what was meant to be a quick trip, meant for document-signing that could no longer be ignored, done by avoiding as many people as possible through the corridors, just to somehow end up sitting inside his office for a time he did not have to spare, lost in thought afterwards. His mind blank and his chest heaving, until his fingers moved and a single text let her know he stopped by – have a minute to talk? Our spot.
It took Helen more than expected to come. More than he should've waited if there was any hope of getting the bare minimum sleep tonight before tomorrow's meeting, granted, and yet , there he was, knowing she'd come as certainly as he knew he'd see her face when he woke up in that hospital bed. Her steps behind him came rushing, the door closing sharply in a metal clang before he turned, pocketing his phone, shivering and immediately searching for her eyes.
"Hey" Helen called, closing the distance between them in a beat, clearly just finishing tying her coat around her waist. "I'm sorry I took so long. Had a patient-"
"It 's fine." Max rushed, cold air filling the little space between their bodies as he shook his head, smiling tersely. "I needed some time to think, anyway."
Helen frowned, searching his face. "I doubt it. Last thing you probably need right now is any more worrying."
Max laughed humorlessly, "You're right. Mostly trying not to think, then." he shrunk his shoulders, felt his body swaying naturally towards her, up close to the point he'd be able to stare down into the glimmer of her eyes. "The wind sure makes it easier up here."
She nodded, rubbing her own arms. " Can barely hear my own thoughts. Or feel my face, already." she scrunched up her nose, which he registered vaguely as adorably pink in the cold, passing by him to go and lean against the railing herself, arms wrapped around her middle. She sneaked a glance back at him, her lips pressed, her petite frame swallowed in the background's buildings blurred lights. "So, tomorrow? How you feeling about it?"
Max felt himself squint, a queasy sound escaping his lips. Helen sighed, blowing cold air as he came to stand by her side.
"Sorry, that was a stupid question. I guess what I mean is, well," as close as they were, she had to press her shoulder slightly to his side to stare at him fully, breathing deeply in to whisper, "how can I help?"
The wide-open willingness written all over her face felt like a punch to the guts. Max smiled, swallowed through the lump stuck at the back of his throat, and chose to stare ahead and blink rapidly over risking her realizing just how goddamn close he felt of breaking down right then and there. He hummed in response, clearing his throat. "You, ugh, are , already. Helping, I mean, just by being here."
Helen snorted, pushing him playfully.
"That doesn't sound like much at all."
Max risked a glance at her, searching her eyes. "Hey, not being alone does help. Never underestimate that."
She blinked up at him. "I know. I know. Just… wish I could do more. Help more. Give you some reassurance, at least."
"You can." he inhaled, averting his gaze, a little unsure. "Well, you could, perhaps... pray. If you can. Could you ?"
He didn't look, but felt Helen smile. She reached for his arm, hesitated, squeezed softly. "I could. Yeah, of course. But I thought you didn't believe…?"
"I, well, since-" Max stammered, frowning, not knowing exactly how to put it in words.
It wasn't that he suddenly started believing in religion, in the miraculous aid of an invisible force, but more that Helen's praying had somehow stuck to his memories so strongly after that night, in such a fresh sense of safety, that he couldn't help but feel just a little bit better knowing she'd sent her thoughts out to him, to Luna, when they needed the most. He had dreamed , just the day after his minor near-death situation, of still hearing her voice, her words calling to him as his conscience slipped on and off, his fingers distanly trailing her collarbone, feeling the vibrations at the base of her throat as she spoke, almost like a lullaby…
He blew a nervous laugh, shaking his head – glad it was dark enough so that she hopefully couldn't notice him flustered of all things, but damn if heat didn't creep up his neck and warmed his chilly bones on the spot. The temptation of lingering on the memory, of reaching out for more as it stood right there in the form of Helen's surely welcoming arms, felt bordering uncontrollable and suffocating all of sudden. And yet, Max stood still. The risk of falling apart and never pulling his act back together fit for tomorrow's ordeal held a stronger pull, after all, as he felt certain he wouldn't be able to bear the luxury of touching her just once in this lifetime.
"I-I guess, it's not so much about believing." he finally explained, staring down at the spot where her fingers curled into the fabric of his coat. " And more about knowing someone is rooting for us, you know. Sending word out there, on our behalf…" he glanced at her, a tiny smile teasing his lips. "Pretty sure that if there's a list of people the Universe's bound by contract to spare a moment to hear, Helen Sharpe must be right up there, no?"
Helen pulled a face, but snorted. "You're cute, mocking my beliefs shamelessly like that."
"I swear, I'm not." he quickly sobered up, keeping the cheeky gleam to his eyes, only – he was minimally joking out of nervousness alone, after all. "You put up with me every single day. Quite literally saved me, more than once. C'mon, if there's any cosmic debt out there, it's definitely pending in your favor and counting."
"When you put it like that," Helen squinted, her eyes also gleaming, her lips pursed. "I did walk on poison just to remove your dumbass out of the way, didn't I? How selfless of me."
"Indeed." Max nodded, chuckling self-deprecatingly under his breath. "All eternal gratitude on my part and the very obvious debt forever to be repaid left aside, I could definitely use some of this thing you got going on… whatever it is, good karma, a strike of luck-"
" Faith? " a touch of hope in her eyes.
"Yeah." Max softened, breathing in, giving in , to whatever it was he just seemed to have conceded to her without fully intending to. "Faith, then. I could use some of yours, if you have to spare."
Helen slid her hand all the way from his forearm to his hand, in one long, easy touch that made him hold his breath and resist the urge to close his eyes under the seemingly impossible, magnetic pull of hers. She rubbed her thumb over his knuckles, and he shivered, suddenly not only from the cold.
"Always do. For you. In you. It even surprises me," she laughed softly, low and brokendly and tearfully. "how much faith I've put in you from the start, you know."
Helen spoke as if the words didn't hold the power to knock the wind out of him, as if they felt as easy as they sounded wonderful, rolling off her tongue.
"And it's not even like I make it easy ," Max choked out, his grin spreading bittersweetly, his vision more than a little blurred on the edges as he shook his head, all but completely baffled by her once again, "or am charming about it, at least. Wow, how come you've never punched me in the face before, huh?"
For the life of him, he did not know where the hell the teasing came from, when his head was so lost in Helen's soft lips stretched in that tearful smile of hers, in how could her eyes outshine all the lights around them the way they did, in the sound of his own precarious heartbeats and that free-falling sensation that came with the tantalizing thought of what it'd feel like if he were to step in and press his words mutely deep into her mouth, instead-
But Helen giggled adorably, making his stupidity pay off.
"Other people keep getting ahead of me." she said. "But I am constantly tempted, so who knows."
"Maybe I should start praying, then."
"Maybe you should." her voice was as soft as her smile, though her eyes grew pensive. She retrieved the hand that grasped his to dig into her pocket, a little hesitant when his eyes followed, curious. Max's eyebrows rose when she once more took his hand, palm up and fingers uncurled, to deposit something on it.
Her rosary . No, not a rosary, she'd said-
"It 's a tasbih." Helen clarified, hand still in his, keeping the beads warm between their skins. "I don't know if you remember, but in the, uh, shower , I was telling you-"
"I remember." Max nodded, voice hoarse. Remembering how he dreamed of her voice by his ear, her lips so close they nearly shared the same air . "You hold them, and you pray, right?"
"Yeah." She closed his fingers around it, squeezing his fist. "You hold each bead and pray, basically." she paused "I'd like you to keep it."
It sounded more like a request. Max frowned, looking down at their joined hands, not really knowing how to answer.
"Helen, I can't… I-I don't even know how -"
"I'm not expecting you to pray. Or pretend to believe in something you don't." she sighed, searching his face, seeming a little unsure herself. "It's just that, this is something that has calmed me down, recently. A lot. Just holding it, touching the beads. I-I think, maybe, it could help you too, tomorrow. To... have some faith in yourself, as well. Like I do." she held his gaze, holding her breath. " Okay? "
"I…" Max breathed, closing his hand fully, feeling the smooth beads entangle between his fingers. They felt solid to the touch, much like Helen's whole being "Yeah. Okay . I'll keep it safe for you."
Of course he agreed, because how could he not, with her looking at him like this?
"Good." she grinned, her dimples flashing their way to his heart in one efficient glimpse. She parted her lips, as if to say more, but frowned as her phone buzzed in her pocket – as Max lamented both the interruption and the loss of contact when she pulled her hand away to check on it, Helen scowled deeper, typing her answer quickly.
When she looked up, Max knew she had to get back to work.
"It's my patient," she said, reluctant. "I need to check on them."
Max smiled through his disappointment.
"It's fine. Couldn't hold you up on a busy shift anyway. Go. I'll go home, try and get some sleep." he tilted his head to the side, catching her eye to try to convey how much he actually meant it. "Thank you, you know. For coming, and for this."
He noticed he was still rolling the beads in between his fingers as he spoke, absentmindedly. She was right, as usual, about the calming effect – probably due to the fact he got to keep a part of her on him even as she left, he suspected.
The smile Helen offered him was hesitant and worried, though.
He'd proven himself to be quite terrible at hiding his true emotions from her in the past, after all, but tonight the fact that she could read him as an open book came within a rush of relief, instead of vulnerability alone. With his anguish and fears laid bare between them, Max supposed it was about damn time he quit losing so much time pretending and started working on those better views he seemed to have so grossly overlooked along the way.
"I'll let you know how it goes, tomorrow." he offered instead of putting on his bravest face, letting her see him struggle – letting her see that he wasn't about to give up under the weight of it, at all.
Letting her see the little faith she stirred inside of him, hopefully, as well.
"Please." Helen nodded, seeming a little more at ease. She exhaled deeply, certainty growing both in her eyes and her tone as she tipped her head back, as if to convey all of her belief within the next words. "Everything will be alright. You'll get her right back where she belongs, Max."
"I will." He agreed, because he would. There was no room for other options in his mind. Despite his fears, despite the constant voice of doubt that whispered to his ear that he'd never be good enough of a parent without Georgia on almost a daily basis… He knew he loved his daughter more than anyone else in the world, and after coming to terms with making mistakes, he also knew she couldn't possibly be better off without him.
So he'd fight, and he'd win. And then…
"After I bring her home tomorrow," he smiled wishfully, catching her lips curving in mirrored conviction, "we'll talk. Alright?"
The long overdue, pushed aside talk they should've had a year ago, by his own fault mostly. Max expected it to be the equivalent of ripping his insides open for her to see, finding the prospect both frightening and terribly exciting at the same time.
" Alright ." Helen's whole face seemed to lighten up.
Like in the hospital, when the unspoken tension in between them exploded with her giddy smile, her dimples, her heart-fluttering laugh for the briefest, most fragile moment bound to be replayed in his mind an unhealthy amount of times so far.
"But we don't have to rush it," she added quickly, impossibly considering and understanding as she was. "because I'm sure Luna misses you just as much. You should take your time with her, hold her, so this, uh, thing can absolutely wait-"
And he never heard the rest of it, because last thing he knew, he found himself swallowing the rest of the sentence within a lightheaded kiss.
Chapter 2: Us
So I really came back just to right that damn kiss huh.
Max hadn't meant to do it.
His body, on the other hand, seemed to act under completely independent plans. Next thing he knew, there he was breathing into Helen's sweet perfume with not a single clear thought left in his short-circuited brain, let alone his previous doubts. There he was, pausing for a second of hesitation, wavering before her completely exposed, his hands hovering just centimeters from cupping her face, her beads entangled between his trembling fingers as her wide eyes rose to his face, her still parted lips frozen mid-sentence – when he waited , hopeful and fearful, for her reaction to follow through.
There he was, eyes closing and heart cracking open in his chest, when Helen brought his hands to her face herself, her own warm hands keeping his palms to her smooth skin as she stood on her tiptoes until they were almost nose to nose. Close enough that the darkness inside her eyes felt deep enough for him to drown in it, pulling him in to the point Max fell, hopeless and willingly, meeting her halfway through.
Their lips met, crashed, hesitantly at first and then eagerly, warmth coursing everywhere their bare skins touched, regardless of the cold wind rushing all around them. Max's hand slid to her waist to pull Helen closer, the void inside his belly expanding with a hunger that nearly begged him to wrap himself around her body and never let go, craving the strangled noise she made at the back of her throat when his teeth scraped her bottom lip briefly, craving the way her fingers mapped his face, her fingernails running deliciously over his beard, his hair, his hands following suit, moving to her hip, the small of her back then bellow-
Helen was the one to pull away first. Panting, they separated only minimally, still cradling in each other's embrace even as she swayed back on her heels, half chuckling and pressing her forehead to his sternum briefly, hands coming to rest over his chest as if to center herself, somehow. Max laughed, too, the sound bubbling out of his lips as he shook his head, realizing impossibly giddy and carefree despite the many what ifs and unspoken words still hanging between them.
Smiling hard enough that his cheeks hurt, he searched for her eyes, moving his thumb to wipe a stray tear away from her lashes as Helen blinked up at him, biting her lip shyly.
"So." He breathed, tracing her cheekbone softly.
"So," Helen followed, the corners of her lips turning upwards teasingly. "You didn't plan this at all."
"Not even remotely." Max chuckled softly, wondering if she could even hear him over his galloping heart. His knees still felt wobbly, and he fought against the need to bring her even closer, still lured by orbit she ruled over his body with no less than a look. He sighed, trying to organize the jumbled words inside his head. "Helen, I-"
"Don't." She silenced him with a look, albeit soft. She sighed, too – a resigned sigh. "I don't think we should do this right now."
Max's stomach dropped. His face must've translated accordingly, because Helen rushed to add:
"I don't mean ever, just, not right now. Like you said, we need to talk about this… thing between us. Now more than ever." She smiled, eyes shining, and he melted a little. "But it doesn't feel like the right time to discuss us , with everything else you're going through. Once you have it figured out… I meant it, when I said it can wait."
Max inhaled brokenly, still cradling her cheek with the same hand that held the beads she'd given him – and cautiously, tremulously, he pushed past the fear that she'd vanish like a dream in thin air if he ever let her go and weighted in with that little bit of faith . "Will you still be there then?"
Helen pressed against his heart.
"I'm not going anywhere." She promised. "Believe me, I have a lot of things to say to you, Max Goodwin. Lots of things to unpack too. May even have some yelling involved, depending on how we take it, so once I'm done you might get tired of hearing my voice in general."
"Highly doubt it." Max scrunched his nose, smiling a little. He pulled himself a little closer, towering over her, in an attempt of resisting the urge to lean in for another kiss "I've a lot to say too, you know. Have gathered all of my top, too-dumb-to-speak-up moments up here," He tapped his temple. "So be prepared to have an old-fashioned compilation coming on your way soon."
"Oh wow." Helen teased "Cheesy as they get, huh?"
Their little giggly bubble popped as soon as Helen's phone buzzed again. She pulled a face as Max pulled away at arm's reach, creating an annoying amount of space in between them that allowed the shared warmth to dissipate. He shivered, resigned in the cold.
"We're lucky my patient is stable." Helen murmured, frowning slightly "Lauren, on the other hand, is not . She'll hunt me down if I don't come out soon."
"Yeah." Max agreed. "You go. We'll… do this, us , soon. Properly, this time."
"Soon." Helen nodded. Then she stepped in, again on her tiptoes to press her lips briefly to the corner of his mouth in a feather-like kiss. She was back on her heels and out of his reach before Max's eyes could close all the way through in response, "When you get our Miss Luna back home, give her an extra squeeze for me, okay?"
Max pursed his lips, his knuckles lingering dumbly on the spot she'd just touched."Will do."
He caught the positively radiant smile she threw his way from over her shoulder before closing the door behind herself, leaving him, once again, alone.
But he felt warmer this time, his thoughts centered on the small beads as he rolled them between his fingers, his heart wrapped ever so carefully around that sparkle of faith she'd left behind her way. Amidst the wind he found the words he'd been searching for, the ones he'd deliver to Georgia's parents when the time came tomorrow – fighting words, angry words, words meant for claiming his daughter back. He made peace with them, then made peace with the ghost wife that shimmered for the blink of an eye as he turned to leave the roof, as well, this figment of imagination and guilt that this time around felt more memory than solitude alone.
Upon descending the stairs, Max's mind wandered towards that soon moment yet to come, another fight ahead of himself he actually could not wait to go through, bearing a clear mind and an open heart.
This time, to fight for them , as he should've a long time ago.