It’s only after - after, when the party is in full swing, with Bernard and Kitty dancing on the bar and drawing everyone’s fascinated (horrified) attention - that Eleanor and Rachel actually sit down and talk to each other again. Eleanor’s ensconced in the VIP lounge, hiding from the relentless noise, and Rachel ducks in with two glasses of champagne and a bright, genuine smile. “Hi.”
“Hello, Rachel,” Eleanor says. It’s still formal, clipped, but there’s a little more warmth than before. There’s more respect there, recognition of something fought and something lost against a worthy opponent. She accepts the glass Rachel hands to her and raises an eyebrow when Rachel proceeds to sit beside her and drink from her own. “Party not suiting your taste?”
“If I have to watch one more second of Bernard and Kitty making out against the bar I may actually throw myself off Marina Bay Sands,” Rachel says drily. “It’s that or spectate Colin and Alistair’s dance-off.”
Eleanor stares at Rachel. Rachel gives her a ‘what-can-you-do-with-boys’ look that’s unexpectedly charming. “Want to go watch them?”
“Please, no,” Eleanor says. Rachel laughs out loud, bright and genuine, and takes a long sip of her champagne. “Guess we’ll both be hiding in here, then.”
They drink in companionable silence. It’s a marvel how they got here, Eleanor thinks, her eye catching on her own ring settled firmly on Rachel’s finger. It’s not her favourite sight in the world, but - she feels at peace, now. She can trust Rachel. And that is enough. “You’re staying in Singapore, then?”
Rachel hums thoughtfully. “In all honesty? I’m not sure. I know I said I didn’t want to take him away from you, and I meant it. But Nick makes his own choices, too. And you know he loves New York.”
Eleanor steadfastly pushes away the twinge of jealousy and pain that evokes in her. “I know.”
“But if he wants to stay…” Rachel trails off, setting her glass down and turning to meet Eleanor’s eyes. “I would be willing to call this place my home. There are things I love enough, here.”
In hindsight, there is - or will be - more to that than Eleanor hears. But in that moment, it is enough - that promise, that pledge - and Eleanor smiles, slight but real. “All right.”
Nick does still end up going back to New York. He sits down with Phillip and pitches a proposal where he brings the business there and spearheads the entry into the American market. Phillip says yes far faster than Eleanor expects him to, but she supposes some things take on a new perspective when your son comes that close to abandoning the family entirely and leaving it without an heir.
“And the wedding?” Phillip asks as they’re closing the discussion. “The business is one thing, Nicholas, but if you have a courthouse wedding in New York with one witness to sign the certificate it will break your grandmother’s heart. There are limits.”
“Yes, Dad, I know,” Nick says soothingly. “We will come back for that, I promise. We just need to get other things in order first. I’m not leaving forever. Singapore is still my home.”
I know, Eleanor thinks, watching them quietly from where she’s going through some accounts. Her gaze shifts to Rachel, who’s standing shoulder to shoulder beside Nick, facing Phillip as an equal. But what happens when you have two?
By the time Rachel and Nick fly off, Phillip’s off in Lucerne for business, Araminta and Colin are still gallivanting around Australia for their honeymoon, and Astrid’s dealing with the aftermath of her divorce, so it’s just Oliver, Peik Lin and Eleanor sending them off. Rachel and Nick go off to settle the checking in and leave Eleanor alone with the two of them. Peik Lin is evidently still not entirely over the Gardens by the Bay escapade, and pointedly ignores Eleanor in favour of bantering with Oliver. Eleanor supposes she deserves that, and tries to be good about it.
It’s still a relief when Nick and Rachel return, and Rachel shoves her fiancé into Oliver and Peik Lin’s conversation so they can talk. “You’ll be alright, yeah?”
Eleanor blinks, surprised. “Of course. Why do you ask?”
“I know you’ll miss Nick,” Rachel says patiently. Eleanor doesn’t snap back because there isn’t a hint of pity in her voice, just calm surety. “We’ll be back soon. Keep in touch.”
Keep in touch. There’s almost a promise in that.
The happy couple leave them at the departure hall. Peik Lin hugs Rachel for five minutes and doesn’t let go, insisting she come back soon. Eleanor gives Nick a kiss on the cheek and a hard look. “Take care of yourself. And of Rachel.”
“I can take care of myself,” Rachel grins - of course, of course. “See all of you soon.”
nick sleeps like an animal
i cant believe i agreed to marry this
To say Eleanor is surprised by Rachel’s text is an understatement, but if you twisted her arm she’d admit it’s not an unpleasant one. Rachel’s attached a very unflattering video of Nick sleeping with his mouth open and snoring in first class, and Eleanor almost laughs out loud.
They’ll be alright.
The text messages become a thing. Eleanor remains frequently updated on pretty much every aspect of their lives. Rachel sends pictures of Nick hard at work, or Nick buying groceries, or Nick sprawled on the couch shoving ungodly amounts of pizza in his mouth. Rachel always accompanies the pictures with little comments poking fun at her fiancé, but Eleanor knows this is what she meant by keep in touch - keeping her promise. Keeping Nick, in some way, by Eleanor’s side.
She sends her own updates, of course, after they get a little more comfortable. She asks Eleanor for healthier recipes that are lighter on the stomach, and she complains about how heavy everything seems to weigh at the gym nowadays, and one time she wakes up late for work and Eleanor gets a series of scrambled texts about how she can’t believe she’s just broken a streak that’s run for over five years.
Sleep earlier, Eleanor advises, and doesn’t realise she’s smiling until five minutes later.
She would never have believed it if you’d told her when she first got to know about Rachel, but they get close. Eleanor feels like she knows Rachel as well as any of the others that have married into the family, a year on, and at some point she even finds herself thinking about how their wedding will be like, in the near future. The day she passes a store and sees a gorgeous, floor-length dress and thinks that might look nice on Rachel, she decides it’s time to nudge Nick into coming home for a proper wedding.
Three hours later she gets a call and his name is on the screen. Perfect timing. “Hello, Nick.”
“Hi, Mom,” Nick says, sounding strangely distant. “There’s something I need to tell you.” There’s a minute pause, a hesitation that Eleanor almost doesn’t catch. “Rachel and I are coming home next week.”
Finally. The timing is truly impeccable; Eleanor can barely believe it. “For the wedding? It’s about time. Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
She expects Nick to laugh sheepishly and make light of it. Not for him to go totally quiet to the point Eleanor thinks he’s hung up. “Nick?”
“It’s not for the wedding,” he says, and for the first time she really hears the tremor in his voice. Eleanor straightens up, the worry suddenly flooding her veins. “Nick? What’s going on? Did something happen? Are you hurt?”
He laughs, short and mirthless and voice breaking at the end. “No. I’m fine. Something’s happened, Mom. But not to me.”
And the words fall like stone, almost unthinking. “Nicholas. What’s happened to Rachel?”
It’s called adrenocortical carcinoma, he tells her - cancer originating in the cortex of the adrenal gland. Incredibly rare. It’s far gone enough that she will be lucky if she makes it a year. The prognosis says less.
It’s a lot of long words and medical terms that all come down to one thing.
Rachel is dying.
And there is nothing any of them can do about it.
“I’m bringing her back,” Nick says, hard and determined over the line. “I don’t trust the healthcare here. I want to consult Uncle Malcolm. Peter and Gladys and Sophie too. And anyone else I can find; I know I’ve still got contacts with some of my JC friends who went into medicine. I know there are one or two academics researching on ACC - I want to see how we can fund the research, speed up the process, see if there’s anything they can figure out. I’m going to fly Kerry in too, so she can be with Rachel. I’m getting her checked straight into Raffles the minute we’re back, so they can do a full diagnosis, and we’ll - “
“Nick,” Eleanor cuts him off, overwhelmed. “Nick, slow down. You’re just going to drop everything and come back?”
“Of course I am! What are you - if this is about the business, Alexander’s flying in to take over for me for now. I know Auntie Felicity won’t be pleased but I really couldn’t care less. I need Rachel back in Singapore. I need her to get the best care she can.”
“And Rachel?” Eleanor prompts. “What does she think?”
Silence, as Eleanor expected, before Nick huffs a frustrated breath. “She’s not - it doesn’t matter right now. I’m not going to let her die. I’ll send you the flight details soon. Just - so you know.”
“Nick,” she says, but the line’s already gone dead. Eleanor puts the phone down and covers her eyes, exhaling a breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.
Rachel still looks in the pink of health two weeks later when Nick texts her and Eleanor goes down to Raffles Hospital. She’s got a ward to herself and is dressed in something that looks miles better than the usual drab hospital wear and she doesn’t look in the least pleased about it.
Nick isn’t there to receive her. “Gone to talk to yet another specialist,” Rachel says, sounding like her patience’s been worn very thin. “I think the nurses have seen him more than I have the past week I’ve been stuck here.”
“Rachel,” Eleanor begins, and Rachel groans. “No, please, don’t you start. Yes, it’s cancer; yes, it’s going to kill me; yes, apparently I’m exhibiting the rarer symptoms so my voice isn’t getting deeper and I’m not putting on weight, I’m just getting these bitches of headaches every day. Any other questions?”
“Yes,” Eleanor replies crisply, because Nick has told her more about the situation in bits and pieces, and she will not be cowed by Rachel again, not in this. “Why are you refusing surgery?”
Rachel rolls her eyes, and if things weren’t so dire in the moment Eleanor might actually smile from how typical she is, even in the face of certain death. “Did Nick not tell you exactly how invasive the tumour has become? At this point undergoing the surgery itself could kill me, not to mention the literal cancer. If I’m going to die, I’d really not like the last thing I see to be an anaesthetist.”
“Chances of success are approximately nil, and also, I’d really like to keep my hair.”
Eleanor gives her a look. “Really? Vanity, at this time?”
Rachel snorts, grinning. “Well, you know, if it’s all I have left…”
Lying there in a hospital bed, snapping wit back at Eleanor, Rachel doesn’t look like a dying woman. She looks strong and beautiful and healthy and part of Eleanor doesn’t want to believe that this is real.
You can’t die, she wants to say. Don’t leave him. You fought so hard to keep him. Don’t go. Not like this.
Instead, she folds her arms and sighs. “Do me a favour and go through with the wedding while you can still walk down an aisle. If Ah Ma doesn’t get to see her beloved grandson get married none of the Youngs will ever live it down.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” Rachel says. She’s smiling. It’s got a hint of mirth in it, more than usual. Eleanor narrows her eyes. No. Nick promised. They wouldn’t. They didn’t. “You didn’t.”
Rachel gives her a faux-innocent look, and Eleanor doesn't even know what they expected - of course they did. “Ah Ma will never know. We’ll just have the ceremony and it’ll be gorgeous and we’ll have wedding certificates from two countries.”
“I think that might be illegal,” Eleanor retorts.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Rachel shoots back, and laughs, and Eleanor thinks no, please, you can’t, don’t go, not like this.
She doesn’t expect to, but she ends up at the hospital again two days later after Nick gives her a frantic text and tells her Rachel isn’t speaking to him. The door to her ward is shut when Eleanor arrives and Nick is standing outside looking equal parts morose and frustrated. Eleanor sighs. “What have you gone and done now, Nicholas?”
Nick’s expression becomes downright miserable and Eleanor regrets her tone immediately. She steps closer and touches his arm, gentling it. “Nick. What happened?”
“I flew Gladys in,” he mumbles. “I asked if she’d take a look at Rachel for me, give me a second opinion.”
“Which, at this point, I presume would be more like a tenth,” says Eleanor. Nick winces, so she supposes she’s right. “Nick, denial isn’t going to help anything. If she’s got the cancer, she’s got it. Another ten more diagnoses isn’t going to change that.”
“She won’t agree to surgery,” Nick snaps back. “There’s a twenty percent chance of success and she’s saying no.”
Twenty percent? Eleanor hides her shock - that’s worse than she expected. Something curls uncomfortably in her chest, inhibiting her breathing. “And the chemo, too, I heard.”
He runs his fingers through his messy hair, looking exhausted. “I’m still trying to get her to come around on that one. Less danger, and even if it can’t cure her, it’ll still extend her lifespan.”
“What are the chances of success, for chemo? To get rid of it?”
Nick lets out this strangled sob and scrubs a hand across his face. “Zero, Mom,” he whispers. “ACC is incurable if they can’t remove the tumour entirely. There’s only delaying it and easing the pain. And she’s not letting me do either.”
Right there in front of her, Nick breaks down, burying his face in his hands and crying, and Eleanor pulls him close because it’s all she can do, her mind whirling, because just a month ago everything was fine and Rachel was still sending texts about awful assignments and whatever new book she’d read and the latest dinner Nick had managed to burn and she doesn’t want to believe that this is real, but it is.
She sends Nick off with Gladys for a calming cup of tea and knocks on the door.
“I’m not going to go out there and get poked with another needle or go for another CT scan,” comes Rachel’s muffled shout.
“It’s not Nick,” Eleanor says.
Silence. A minute later Rachel peers out from behind the door, glaring hard, only softening when she sees Eleanor alone. “Oh, thank god. Where is he?”
“I shooed him and Gladys off.” Eleanor makes her way inside and lets Rachel shut the door again and walk back to the bed. “Ugh. If he makes me go for one more blood draw - “ She shakes her head irritably. “I don’t even know why he’s bothering. I have maybe months left, and there’s so much I still want to do, and I’m stuck in this stupid ward bored out of my fucking mind. You’d think after dragging me all the way back to Singapore he’d let me see what I missed out on the last time I was here. I was hoping to see Tiong Bahru and the Night Safari and the Peranakan Museum but no, all I get is the view from Raffles Hospital.”
“Tiong Bahru is overrated,” Eleanor says mildly, and is rewarded with Rachel’s amused laugh. “That’s not what I’m hearing. I want to visit that cool bookstore everyone seems to talk about.” She heaves another sigh. “I just… I’m going to die, Eleanor. I’ve made my peace with it. This thing, it can’t be cured, and I know it. I don’t want to waste the time.”
They’re big words, and Rachel’s voice doesn’t waver once, not that Eleanor expects it to. But she’s no fool. For all the fronting, Rachel is as scared and desperate as Nick is. She doesn’t want to die. Why would she? But she knows her odds. Rachel, of all people, knows that sometimes it’s the wars you don’t fight that you truly win. Eleanor knows that.
But she also loves her son, and her son loves Rachel. Eleanor can see clear as day Nick’s face a couple months down the road, when Rachel begins to waste away, and if she can put that off a little longer, she wants to. “You fought so hard to be with him. You just want to let that go?”
“I was willing to let him go once,” Rachel replies, but there’s no bite in it. She gives Eleanor a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d be pleased. Once I die, you’d all have him back.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“I know,” Rachel sighs, putting a hand to her forehead. Her eyes are clear and determined. “I’m still not getting the surgery.”
“Chemotherapy, then,” Eleanor says softly. “Just one try. What do you have to lose?”
Rachel rolls her eyes and leans back against the pillow. “Fine. One try. For the Youngs,” she says, words layered with exaggerated sarcasm, and beneath Eleanor thinks maybe, just maybe, she hears for you.
Nick is overjoyed when Rachel grudgingly agrees to attempt a round of chemotherapy. She remains in hospital, and Eleanor visits every few days. The change is quick and startling. Rachel doesn’t lose her hair, as she poked fun about, but she does get very weak, very fast. The mitotane they put her on makes her throw up, and her appetite takes a huge hit. Some days Eleanor arrives to see her struggling not to cry because her joints hurt bad and she can’t summon the focus to complete anything beyond the most basic of tasks. She starts falling sick a lot, always plagued with the common cold or a hacking cough. They run more tests and confirm that Rachel’s among the seven percent of the population who suffers leukopenia as a side effect to the chemo. Rachel snorts when she hears that, laughing in between hoarse coughs. “God, I get all the rare shit, seriously. I should be a case study.”
Nick spends more time with her, fussing over her and doing everything he can to ease the pain that comes with the side effects. Kerry comes every day, making sure Rachel eats enough to keep her strength up even when she can’t keep a lot of it down. A lot of the others cycle in and out to visit her, until Sophie points out that it’s probably increasing the chances of Rachel getting sick, and then Nick puts a ban on everyone who isn’t medical staff except Kerry, Eleanor and himself.
A month later the report comes in to say that the smallest of improvements have been seen, but nothing substantial - the CT scans still look bad. Rachel is pale and tired and spends half her day hunched in the bathroom throwing up and she puts her foot down and says no more.
“Take me home,” she says to Nick. “I’m done.”
“Rachel, no, please,” he begs. “We’ll try something else. There’s radiotherapy. There are other drugs. There has to be something. I’ll do anything, Rachel, please.”
She gives him this small smile, fond and patient but firm. “Nothing’s going to work, Nick, and you know it.” She cups his face, pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek. “I'm tired. I have so much else I want to do but waste away within these four walls. Please, Nick. Let’s go home.”
“I’ll book a flight,” Kerry says, and Rachel shakes her head. “No. Not that home. We’re staying here.” She turns her gaze to Eleanor and inclines her head, and Eleanor remembers a promise, over a year ago, to stay, because there are things I love enough here. “Eleanor?”
Eleanor nods, and tries to ignore what feels like relief sliding through her veins.
Rachel is moved into Tyersall Park. Off the mitotane, she starts regaining her strength and gets more colour in her cheeks, but the damage has been done. The cancer, as it is, is already raising her blood pressure and affecting her immune system. She can’t walk around for extended periods of time - she gets tired, her headaches come with a vengeance, and she bruises for weeks at the slightest injury.
A day after they get her settled in, Rachel turns to Eleanor, who’s calling for one of the maids to bring Rachel’s suitcases to a storeroom, and says, “I want to go to Jurong Bird Park.”
Eleanor looks at her. “Of all the places, you pick the bird park.”
“Yes,” Rachel says stubbornly. “I want to see the parrots.”
“Have you never seen a parrot in your life?” Eleanor shoots back, but mentally starts sifting through who to contact for a guided tour.
Mostly, it’s Nick or Kerry who take Rachel out on her excursions. Sometimes Colin or Araminta or Astrid or Oliver tag along; sometimes Peik Lin comes and steals Rachel away instead; and once in a while, Eleanor goes when nobody else can. It’s mostly the times when Rachel wants to check out interesting cafes or go to a museum or some historically significant location. Eleanor starts to realise this about the fourth time they go out alone. “Are you deliberately only going to museums and heritage locations when I’m the one taking you out?”
“Well, I wasn’t about to ask Eleanor Young to take me to the zoo,” Rachel replies, contentedly sipping her flat white. “God, this is fantastic. I’m going to make Nick buy me Atlas coffees every day.”
Eleanor sighs. “Contrary to popular opinion, I have nothing against the zoo. The Singapore Zoo is one of the best by international standards. And we have the largest captive colony of orangutans in the world.”
“Alright, damn,” Rachel says. “I didn’t know you were so passionate about the orangutans. Look, I just thought you would like these places better. Didn’t think you’d want to be spending your day sweating at the Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve or something.”
Eleanor would not, in fact, like to be spending her day sweating at the Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, but the thought of Rachel wanting to go somewhere and not going there because the only person who can take her is Eleanor and she thinks Eleanor wouldn’t want to go makes her angry, somehow. Rachel’s clock is already ticking down so fast. If, for Eleanor, it means just taking one day out to take her wherever she wants, she’d take it. “Just tell me next time. It’s the least I can do considering the situation.”
Rachel goes still, her eyes flashing, and she puts her coffee cup deliberately back down onto the table. Eleanor wonders for a second what she’s said wrong. When Rachel speaks again, it’s obvious it’s taking an effort to keep her voice level. “Look, Eleanor. Everyone around me, including my own husband, has been treating me like I’m made out of porcelain and I’m going to break with one careless touch. I have fucking cancer, not osteoporosis, Christ. I don’t want pity and I don’t want to be treated like I’m a fragile fucking doll. If I’m going to die, I want to die as me. With dignity. As I lived. I don’t want pity and especially not from one of the smartest, most rational, level-headed people I’ve met on this island. Okay?”
Eleanor stares back. For a second, all she can do is be amazed that she ever thought this girl was selfish or naive or weak. If she’s ever in the same situation, Eleanor hopes she could be as brave - as willing to look death in the eye and choose exactly who she wants to be.
“Message received,” she says calmly. “But I still wouldn’t be adverse to nature outings.”
“Sure,” Rachel says, but she’s grinning as she clinks her cup to Eleanor’s. “Finish your espresso. I want to check out this other coffeehouse Oliver told me about.”
“I don’t know if this many coffees a day is good for someone with high blood pressure,” says Eleanor dubiously.
“Pfft, life is short, coffee is good. Nylon, then Pacamara, let’s go.”
“Americans,” Eleanor sighs, and drains her cup.
Nick thinks she doesn’t know, but he’s been quietly taking loans from Phillip to pay off all the specialists and researchers he hired when he was still desperately trying to find a cure. His final loan goes to wedding planning instead. October sees Rachel in a gorgeous dress walking down the aisle of Our Lady of Lourdes on Kerry’s arm to a beaming Nick, where they’re pronounced man and wife - for the second time.
“This one isn’t legal,” Rachel murmurs to Eleanor later at the reception - far more toned down than Araminta and Colin’s, thank god. “Only you know. And Peik Lin. And Oliver, and Colin, and Araminta, and Astrid. And my mom.”
“That’s not ‘only me’, then,” Eleanor points out very drily. “You certainly know how to keep secrets.”
“Ha ha, funny. At least Ah Ma got what she wanted.” She smirks over where Ah Ma stands, fussing relentlessly over Nick, still in his bespoke suit. “I can’t wait to see the pictures, I bet I look so good.”
Eleanor rolls her eyes. “Yes, you look lovely in that ten-thousand dollar dress, no need to fish for compliments.” Rachel laughs, but Eleanor’s chest hurts, just a little, because Rachel doesn’t look as radiant as she should be, and they both know it. The cancer is getting worse. Rachel’s getting sicker, and there isn’t a lot of time left.
A year ago Eleanor would never have imagined that thought would make her feel so angry, but here they are.
Not too long now, a voice whispers in the back of her mind, and she tries to quiet it, but deep down she knows it’s going to get louder, the words truer, until soon -
Soon comes quicker than expected. Five days after the wedding-for-show, Rachel passes out while heading up the stairs, falls half a flight down, and sprains her wrist. Thankfully it isn’t serious - a lot of the cousins are there for dinner, including Sophie, so she gets Rachel’s wrist iced and elevated and whatnot and orders Rachel on bed rest for at least a week.
The mood is sober when Sophie returns to the sitting room, where everyone’s waiting to hear if Rachel’s all right. Astrid’s the first to approach, hanging on to her arm, looking concerned. “Oliver’s texting to ask if she’s badly injured. He wants to fly back if she is.”
“Tell him she’s fine. She’ll be here when he’s back next week,” Sophie says, loud enough so the rest can hear. Araminta exhales in relief. “God, that scared me!”
From where he’s lounging on the couch, drink in hand, Eddie scoffs. “All that fuss over a sprained wrist? Unbelievable.” He raises his eyebrows in Nick’s direction. “I would have said she should have stayed in hospital where they’d have people watching her, but then that would be even more money coming out of the family vault.”
Nick’s jaw twitches, but he doesn't move from where he's seated and doesn't say anything. Eddie takes this as an invitation to continue. “Just how much did you get from Uncle Phillip, Nicky? God, if I’d asked Dad… I can’t believe he actually gave you all that money when she’s just going to die on you anyway. You’d think he can’t wait for this relentless gold-digger to just kick it and for you to finally come home - “
Nick moves so fast he’s almost a blur before Eleanor’s eyes, and the next moment Eddie is on the floor, pinned beneath Nick’s weight. Nick’s punches land so viciously Eleanor hears unmistakeable thud of knuckles against bone and Eddie’s agonised howl. Astrid and Alistair scramble forward in a desperate attempt to pull Nick off Eddie. “Nick, Nick,” Colin shouts, trying to get between them. “Nick, stop, you’re going to kill him - “
“Damn right I am,” Nick roars back, not stopping in his assault. “I’ll fucking kill him, I’ll fucking - “
“Nick,” Eleanor says, and Nick finally pauses for one brief moment. It’s just enough time for Colin to grab Eddie by the collar and drag him away from Nick’s reach. Her son - her gentle, pacifist, good-natured son - looks up at her with wild eyes, brimming with despair and rage, and it makes Eleanor want to cry. “Nick, go to Rachel. Please.”
There’s a long, tense moment where Nick just meets her gaze and doesn’t move an inch, and Eleanor wonders if the next person he’ll punch is her. Then he staggers to his feet, clenching his bloodied fists, and goes down the hall to his wife. Alistair lets out an audible gasp of relief and falls back onto his haunches. “Holy shit. I didn’t even know Nick was capable of beating the shit out of someone that bad.”
“He almost killed me!” Eddie shouts from the far corner of the room, where Colin’s put him on an armchair and is checking to see how badly injured he is. “He broke my fucking jaw!”
“Shut the fuck up,” Araminta cuts in, with a voice like steel. “You should count yourself lucky that’s all he broke. If he hadn’t I’d break it myself.”
“And you’re talking just fine, so your jaw is intact,” Colin adds unsympathetically. “He didn’t even knock out your teeth. I think most of the blood on his hands is his own. Araminta’s right. You got lucky, you cowardly, cruel piece of shit.”
Eddie stares at him, shock evident on his face. “You can’t talk to me like that. You can’t - did I lie?” He narrows his eyes, glaring around the room. “You think anyone in the family except you bleeding hearts wants Rachel Chu around?” His gaze settles on Eleanor. “Auntie Eleanor. Surely you agree. Surely we’d all be better off once we’re finally rid of her!”
There are no words in any of the languages Eleanor knows to describe the total, all-consuming fury that rises up inside her, sharp and hot. Before she can even process what she’s doing, she’s crossed the room in five paces, standing right in front of Eddie. The slap she gives him ricochets against the walls, thunderous.
For ten seconds, there is absolute silence. Eddie clutches his reddening cheek, and Colin just looks up mutely from where he’s leaned against the chair. Astrid, Alistair, Araminta and Sophie are frozen where they stand. It’s a resplendent thing.
“Edison Cheng,” Eleanor says, low and quiet and dangerous, and is pleased to see Eddie shudder. “I will say this only once. Don’t you ever presume to speak for me. Don’t you ever think you have that right.”
He looks more bewildered than angry, when he responds. “I thought you hated her. You of all people - “
“Rachel is family,” says Eleanor, raising her voice. “Whether any of us like her or not has no bearing on the matter. Nick is the heir of this family, and Rachel is the woman he has chosen to spend his life with. She is as much a Young as you are, or Fiona or Tony or Gladys, or anyone who has married one of us. And you will show her the same respect you show to your cousins, your parents, to Ah Ma.” She looms over him, not backing down. “Am I clear?”
“Yes,” Eddie mutters, thoroughly cowed. Eleanor steps back and turns to fix her gaze on the others in turn. “It’s getting late. You should head home.”
Alistair is out like a shot, taking Eddie with him. Araminta, Sophie and Colin exit at a slower pace, talking in hushed whispers, but it’s Astrid who stops and takes Eleanor’s hand in her own. “Nick will be all right, Auntie Eleanor,” she says. “So will Rachel.”
She won’t. Eleanor knows it, and she knows Astrid does too. But the Youngs have never been very good at accepting things as they are. Eleanor squeezes Astrid’s hand gently. “Good night, Astrid.”
“Good night,” Astrid says softly, and leaves.
Later, she corners Nick in the kitchen where he’s getting Rachel another glass of water. His brows are still knitted, anger evident in every inch of his face. Eleanor sighs, gently placing her hand on his, where the split of his knuckles is still evident. “Nicholas.”
Nick doesn’t look at her. “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t have punched Eddie? Because I’m sorry if I disappoint you, but I don’t regret it, and I would do it again.”
“I suppose Colin hasn’t told you how I slapped him, then,” Eleanor replies mildly, and is rewarded by Nick’s expression shifting to surprise, then an almost childlike delight. “Oh my god, Mom. Really?”
“He was being disrespectful and cruel,” she says, by way of explanation. “I only stopped you because you were going to get hurt. And I didn’t want Rachel to hear the commotion. She just got injured on top of being sick - she has enough to worry about without you going around getting into fights with your cousins.”
Nick has the grace to wince at that. “I know, I know. I just - “ He clenches his fist, pressing his forehead against the wall. “I feel so - I feel so useless, Mom. I should’ve realised earlier that she was sick. I should’ve brought her back here earlier. And now - I know she’s always going out, and she always puts up this brave face, but when she thinks I’m not looking she seems so sad, all the time, and the chemo didn’t work, and she just gave up - “
Eleanor frowns. “Rachel didn’t give up, Nick. What are you talking about?”
He looks at her despairingly. “She made me stop the chemo after a month and check her out of hospital and not try any other treatments. She's just letting herself die. What part of that isn’t giving up?”
Eleanor’s chest aches. Her son is intelligent, generous, compassionate, brilliant - but there are some things that even he doesn’t understand. Eleanor won’t claim to, either, but she went up against Rachel in home turf and lost. Rachel carries determination and courage and sharp, steady strength in every inch of her - her own person to the end. She will go out in a blaze of light the way she chooses to, and this is her choice.
And she can see what Nick can’t, too blinded by his own love for Rachel, his own desperation - that this is still putting Nick first. This is still wanting him to have his freedom - not wanting him to be shackled to a dying woman for years, paying out of the nose for ineffectual treatments. Eleanor is not so stupid that she can’t see that. For that alone she would step aside and let Rachel choose exactly how she wants to live for the few months she has left.
“I just don’t get it,” Nick whispers. “I just don’t get why she won’t fight - if not for me, if not for us, for herself.”
“Nick,” Eleanor says, as gently as she can. “This is the fight.”
It is. Rachel is fighting, and Eleanor sees that in every moment they’re spending together - when they go out, or when they’re at the dinner table, or some nights when Rachel sits in the living room and they read side by side in silence, just keeping each other company. It’s getting harder. Rachel’s focus is lessening, her muscles weakening, her headaches almost constant now. She’s always tired, stumbling on her words, her steps. She hides it as best as she can, keeps going about as normal, but it’s getting painfully easy to see.
Still she tries. Still she wakes up every day and drags herself out of bed and keeps to whatever plans she makes, dares her death to just come to her like that. Her tongue’s still sharp, and her mind as well, even now that the sickness is making it foggier. Rachel will be nothing but herself until the end, and Eleanor knows it. She tries to take comfort in it, because there is so little else she can do.
Oliver flies home from London a week later and drops in to say hello and chat with Rachel. Eleanor remains in the sitting room and edits some memos, not looking up when Oliver enters the room - at least, until he pours her a glass of some wine he brought back and slides it right in front of her nose. Eleanor sighs longsufferingly. “Hello to you too, Oliver.”
“You saw me come in, don’t pretend you weren’t ignoring me first.” He settles down beside her and - to his credit - goes straight to the point. “Quite a bit of family drama last week while I was away, I heard?”
Eleanor knows she shouldn’t be surprised that gossip is going around, but the irritation comes anyway. Truly, rich people have nothing better to do. “What have you been hearing?”
“Oh, everything,” he says, raising his glass to her. “Goodness, Auntie Eleanor. Haven’t we had a change of heart? It wasn't that long ago you were airing all of Rachel's dirty laundry in front of Ah Ma at the Gardens by the Bay.”
Eleanor gives Oliver a scathing glare, to which he just shrugs and holds up his hands. “I wasn’t the one who gave Eddie a verbal beatdown for disrespecting Rachel Chu.”
“Eddie’s an idiot,” Eleanor replies tersely. “God knows how two people like Alix and Malcolm could produce such a waste of space. Do you know what he said?”
“Oh yes. Araminta took great delight in giving me a blow-by-blow of the exact events.” Oliver puts his drink down and turns to look at her proper. He’s got the serious face on, now - the one Eleanor’s wary of. Every time Oliver gets serious, she knows something is really wrong. “Look, Auntie Eleanor. Jokes aside - I’ve been concerned. People are talking.”
Eleanor barely resists the urge to roll her eyes. “I think people will talk about Nick until the day he’s buried. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Not about Nick. About you.”
She gives him a withering stare. Oliver doesn’t flounder. “People are talking about you and Rachel.”
“That I gave in to her gold-digging wiles too easily and have now jeopardised the Young family line and the family dies with Nick and his cancer-stricken wife? Good Lord, you’d think Henry, James and Eddie don’t exist.”
Oliver looks at her like she’s being the idiot here. “No. I mean, people are talking about you and Rachel.”
It takes maybe a full minute for this to click solely because of how painfully little sense it makes. “People think I am romantically involved with my son’s wife?” She almost laughs out loud but for her unwillingness to acknowledge something this high on the scale of absurdity. “Oliver, you can procure anything - perhaps buy them some brains.”
He remains sombre. “I wouldn’t even be bringing it up to your face if I didn’t think there was some grain of truth to it.”
Eleanor glares at him - she thought Oliver was smarter than this level of inane gossip. “Oliver. I’m twice her age, I have a husband, and she is married to my son. Not to mention she is quite literally dying. You cannot possibly believe I want to engage in a romantic relationship with her of all people.”
“It’s not about whether you want to be in a relationship with her,” Oliver says quietly. “You’re right - everyone who’s gossiping is an idiot and just wants to stir the proverbial shit. But I also think you and I both know that some things aren’t as far off the mark as we’d think they might be.” He leans forward and doesn’t shift his gaze. “Tell me honestly. All cards on the table. When you really dig deep, when you really think about it - really, truly - are you in love with Rachel?”
Obviously not, what are you talking about, are you insane? Eleanor opens her mouth to basically give it to Oliver, and ask if he’s lost his mind, when -
It means nothing, nothing, but Rachel’s face pops into her mind, briefly - Rachel stern and dignified at that mahjong table, so long ago; Rachel euphoric and a little tipsy at Ce La Vi, that night after; Rachel smiling gentle and accepting of the inevitable in her ward at Raffles Hospital - and for a moment Eleanor is silent.
Rachel, her son’s wife; Rachel, her daughter-in-law; Rachel, who is dying.
“No,” she says, a long ten seconds later, and she doesn’t think she convinces even herself, let alone Oliver, whose gaze is sharp and incisive and painfully empathetic. He doesn’t say anything. Eleanor sets her jaw, putting a bit more edge into her tone. “Oliver, she is going to die.”
“I know,” he says, and that’s all, because what else is there? What else can there be?
She doesn’t tell Rachel. She’s not that stupid or selfish. She doesn’t even acknowledge it on the best of days. What’s the point? Nothing could ever happen, not between them. God knows she doesn’t even want it to. There is not a single odd that isn’t stacked against her in this, and Eleanor knows better than to hope for something she shouldn’t even be wanting.
She has been lucky enough to get what she has now. A year ago she almost took everything from Rachel, and Rachel almost turned around, got on a plane and didn’t look back. She was lucky enough to realise her folly in time, entrust Nick with that ring, have him manage to propose and bring her back into both their lives. Not for forever, but for just this time - this precious few months of time.
What more can she ask for? What more could she deserve? Eleanor quashes everything else very firmly and just keeps staying by Rachel’s side, exchanging intelligent conversation and just letting Rachel be.
It’s enough. For a while, it’s more than enough, because the tumour’s growth is constant but relatively slow and Rachel is visibly deteriorating but even Peter’s least optimistic prognosis states she has at least some months left.
Then the cough starts. The chest pain gets worse, and the fever comes and doesn’t go. It gets to a point where Rachel can’t get out of bed. Sophie does some checks and the colour drains from her face when she has to tell Nick what’s going on.
“It’s pneumonia. Viral,” she whispers, barely audible. She looks terrified. “I can start her on antivirals, and she needs bed rest and fluids and all the usual, but we’re going to need to watch her. She’s already sick. She might not be strong enough to fight it off.”
“Whatever you can do, Soph. Anything you can think of.” Nick pleads. “Just don’t let her die.”
They all know it’s too late to ask for that, but Sophie nods and flees - Eleanor doesn’t miss the tears beginning to well in her eyes. Nick goes straight back into Rachel’s room and Eleanor stands in the door, trying to remember how to breathe.
The antivirals don’t work. Rachel’s condition worsens, and she starts sleeping a lot more than usual - a lot more than is normal - and she isn’t wholly lucid when she’s awake. Eleanor prays it’s not the worst, but Peter’s got the grimmest of looks a week later when he does another checkup and she knows even before he speaks. “She’s not getting any better. Her body’s just starting to shut down.” He grits his teeth and takes Nick by the shoulders. “Nick. I know it’s hard to hear this. But I think she’s not going to hold on a lot longer now.”
Nick’s eyes are wide, hunted, his breathing laboured. “How long?”
Peter avoids his gaze. “Weeks, maybe. At best.” He looks like he’s bracing himself before he speaks again. “It might be days, Nick. I think you need to be ready.”
How could we be ready for this? Eleanor wonders, watching Nick’s face crumple. How could anyone?
Another week on and Rachel’s barely able to speak any more. She slurs when she talks and it’s hard for Eleanor to catch every other word.
No hospitals, she manages to catch, no resuscitation, and I want to stay here.
“Okay,” Eleanor says. “Okay.” She tries to remain composed in front of Rachel but it’s getting so much harder. Rachel called her rational, level-headed, but right now it’s becoming a struggle to remain that way. She’s starting to really understand the raw anguish Nick carries with him every moment of the day, flailing desperately out in every direction for anything, any way to keep Rachel alive just a bit longer.
Rachel goes into a coughing fit midway through a sentence and Eleanor’s entire body seizes, mind going blank. Rachel’s maybe another week away from never waking up again and no, Eleanor doesn’t want to deal with that reality, she doesn’t -
I love her I love her I love her I know that now I can admit that now please please don’t let her die -
She keeps her mouth shut and breathes through it and waits until Rachel’s coughing subsides and she can even draw breath again. Her own chest is tight with the words she so badly wants to say but can’t. They will die with Rachel, with Eleanor herself. She cannot ask for any more.
She was optimistic to think a week, Eleanor realises, three days later, when Rachel goes unresponsive. She’s still breathing but she won’t wake up, and her heartbeat gets slower and slower - too slow. Everyone cycles in over the course of the day, most of them eventually stopping and staying, waiting - waiting for the inevitable. Kerry holds Rachel’s hand for the entire day, unmoving. It’s an hour before midnight when she finally gets up and goes to face Eleanor with nothing but peaceful acceptance on her face. “It’s time.”
“No,” Nick strains, darting to Rachel’s side and tangling his fingers in hers, cupping her cheek, looking down at her, eyes wet. “Not like this, please. Rachel, please, wake up, don’t go, don’t leave me. Rachel, please,” Nick whispers. The devastation and agony is written so clear on his face and oh, Eleanor wants so many things in this moment, too many to count, but the one thing she would give up the entire universe for would be to wipe that pain away. For that - anything. She would give anything.
Please, he says, and please, Eleanor thinks, and the universe doesn’t listen.
There’s a moment - just one moment, when Nick is begging, when half of them are crying, when Eleanor is praying - and then the room is suddenly quieter than it has been in months, the air colder. There is no EEG machine beeping an insistent flatline, no heart monitor going to zero,
but Eleanor knows.
And Nick knows, too. He does - she sees it in the way his eyes go dead, his shoulders slack, but his grip on Rachel’s hand doesn’t waver. “Rachel?” His voice breaks on her name, and he sounds scared, helpless, lost. “No… Rachel. Please, please, don’t leave me, don’t - please - “
“Nick, she’s gone,” Sophie says softly, as she takes her hand from Rachel’s wrist. “I’m sorry but she’s gone.”
Nick doesn’t move. Nobody says a word - nobody dares - until Colin takes a step forward and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Nick - “
Nick lets out a hideous sound - a howl, a scream, something that tells of total, utter despair. It makes Eleanor freeze where she stands. Astrid flinches like she’s been struck, and Araminta looks like she’s going to break. Nick curls in on himself, still screaming, and Phillip’s there, wrapping his son in his arms, talking quietly into his ear, and Eleanor just stays still where she is. She thinks the world will fall apart around her if she moves even a step.
The funeral is a blur.
She doesn’t know a thing that happens over those three days. Eleanor’s sure she was there, and she helped with the arrangements and the rites and with keeping Nick on his feet, but everything is a jumbled mess in her head, in her heart.
Kerry is stoic, accepting condolences with a grateful smile and steady voice. Eleanor watches her do it and is genuinely terrified by the woman’s sheer strength. Nick’s eyes remain red-rimmed and he barely speaks. A veritable crowd turns up to pay respects - even Amanda and Eddie keep their mouths shut as they follow the bus to Mandai.
Eleanor stands by Nick’s side when they cremate her. He’s right at the front of the viewing gallery, fingers wrapped around the railing, knuckles white, jaw clenched, silent, shaking. He watches the coffin disappear into the crematorium, and Eleanor watches him fall apart.
Neither of them cry. All Eleanor feels is numb.
Two days after the cremation, Peik Lin gathers a handful of them at the house and presents an assortment of boxes and envelopes. “It was Rachel’s last request to me. She left something to everyone,” she says. Her tone is apologetic when she turns to Nick. “She made me swear not to tell you. I’m sorry, Nick.”
Nick looks too exhausted to do anything but incline his head in a brief gesture of understanding and take what’s handed to him. Peik Lin goes around the circle and ends at Eleanor, who gets a tiny box and a plain white envelope with her name on it. One single word in handwriting that’s heartbreakingly, terribly familiar.
She doesn’t shed a single tear until she returns to the privacy of her own room. She will not - not in front of all of them. She can’t.
But then she opens the box and inside lies a single mahjong tile - an 8 bamboo. Intricately carved and absolutely beautiful. Eleanor takes a long, steadying, shuddering breath, and removes it from the box to hold it in her hand - to feel the weight of it, run her thumb against the design.
She doesn’t want to let go, but eventually it falls to her to open the accompanying letter. When she does, a single piece of white card falls out, with another short, handwritten message.
Not in this lifetime.
Eleanor’s breath catches in her throat. Rachel’s final message to her, in her hand - for the very last time. As close to a declaration of love as she will ever possibly get.
And it’s not enough, it’s not, it’s not -
But it’s all she’s ever going to have, and it’s stupid, but it’s only in that moment that it hits her, really hits her, that Rachel is dead, and Rachel is gone, and she is never coming back. She’s never going to see her again.
Eleanor doesn’t realise she’s crying - actually, full-on, soundless crying - until Peik Lin knocks on the door and lets herself in and stops short. “Shit. Um. Uh, Mrs Young?”
Eleanor doesn’t respond - can’t - and Peik Lin just shuts the door behind her and moves closer, awkward and tentative. “Mrs Young? It’s me. Peik Lin.”
It is with a massive effort and five minutes of Peik Lin just hovering, unsure, that Eleanor finally manages to calm herself down enough to let the muscle memory kick in and be the poised, polished wife of Phillip Young she’s trained herself to be. “Just Eleanor will do.”
Peik Lin doesn’t reply, and Eleanor follows her gaze to Rachel’s note, still sitting on the table in plain sight. She pushes it aside hurriedly and glares right at Peik Lin - this might be Rachel’s closest friend in Singapore, but those words are still for her and her alone. “Can I help you?”
“So she really decided to tell you,” Peik Lin says, instead, soft. “I wasn’t sure she would.”
Eleanor goes cold. “What?”
Peik Lin has the good grace not to insult her intelligence by explaining herself any further. Eleanor feels the ache deepening beneath her ribcage, her chest tight. “She knew?”
“Of course she knew. Rachel’s not stupid.” Peik Lin must notice the flash of sudden awful fear in her eyes, because she continues, tone gentler. “Nick didn’t. Nobody else did, I think. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“She loved Nick,” Eleanor says, and that doesn’t hurt. That feels like saying that the sun rises in the east, that a compass points north - it was a truth. It still is. Peik Lin nods in agreement. “She did. But Eleanor - you can love more than one person in your lifetime.”
And Eleanor tightens her grip on the 8 bamboo, lets it grow warm in the heart of her fist. “No,” she says, like a finality, like a farewell. “Not in this one."
The world continues to turn.
Nick comes home. Even the mention of New York makes him go quiet and withdrawn for weeks, months, years after. He takes the reins of the business and eventually adopts a little boy he names Phillip, for his father. Eleanor watches Ah Ma coo at him and pat Nick lovingly on the cheek and feels nothing but pride and happiness for her son.
“So the family will have their heir, after me,” he says ruefully, one night when he and Eleanor are in Phillip’s bedroom, Nick rocking him to sleep. “Even if I never marry again.”
“Which you won’t,” Eleanor says, and Nick laughs softly. “No, I won’t. How could I ever?” He looks at her uncertainly. “Are you disappointed?”
Eleanor reaches out to hold her son’s hand, gives it a gentle squeeze. “No, Nick,” she says, and means it, like she’s meant everything she’s ever said in her life. “I’m not.” She thinks of her desk, in her room, piled high with papers and files and her laptop perpetually open. She thinks of a single mahjong tile holding pride of place alongside family photos and certificates of achievement. An 8 bamboo - fortune, wealth, prosperity. Happiness, red thread, and a thousand lifetimes beyond this one.
Another day, she thinks, another life, and Eleanor finally lets herself say goodbye.