Frankly, Ethan should have seen it coming.
Afterall, they were dealing with a lunatic who took a literal approach to what was clearly a sarcastic suggestion, and probably bankrupted himself on roses for half the emergency staff at St Ophie’s.
Ethan should have known that the same idiot might take Vegas’ other suggestion literally as well.
In his defence, Ethan was distracted: he had been called to the fifth floor for a VIP coronary revascularisation, just after he had changed out of his scrubs after a successful and drama-free operation with Ivy. From some miraculous combination of scheduling, extended leave and sheer chance, Ethan had never worked with Mr Besanko in the five years he’d been at the hospital. That, and the cardiac surgeon clearly preferred working with Neeharika.
He was about a million years old, but had hands like a bomb technician.
“Young man. You come highly recommended,” had been Besanko’s first words upon Ethan entering the OR, flat as an abandoned can of cola, “I hear Ivy likes you. A chip off the old block, she says.”
Ethan smiled awkwardly.
“Oh, that’s —”
“I also hear you fainted in Lim’s O.R.”
Ethan resisted the urge to emote. It was amazing how hospital gossip moved so fast. The head of cardiovascular surgery made a show of peering at Ethan’s V.M., which was glowing a steady lime green. Ethan stared at a spot on the wall, feeling very much like a horse who had just been found wanting on race day.
“Mr Pemberton has the vascular type of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” said Besanko, “so I need you for obvious reasons.”
“Ehler’s Danlos syndrome,” Ethan repeated, raising an eyebrow, “how old is Mr Pemberton? That’s been on the mandatory prenatal editing list for decades now, right? Or was it just the recommended list?”
“Mandatory. But our patient was born in the United States,” said Besanko, snorting, “one of the red ones.”
“Indeed. Now, unfortunately Neerihka is off dealing with some ER referral. So I’ll walk you through it.”
“I’ve assisted with delicate cases before,” he said, “we can just—”
Besanko raised both bushy white eyebrows. His bald head reflected the white surgical lights like a freshly boiled egg.
“I shall. Walk. You. Though. It.”.
“Of course, sir.”
In the end, the operation went off without a hitch — but was one of the more unpleasant surgeries that Ethan had ever assisted on because Besanko clearly trusted him about as far as he could throw him.
In most procedures, especially in emergency, best practice was for the Healer to only heal what was ‘critically necessary’ — whatever else was left to conventional medicine or the body to heal in its own time. The rationale was simple: there weren’t enough Healers to go around, and if you used them up half way through a shift by patching up cosmetic scars, someone else might pay for that with their life.
This policy had a few exceptions though: pre-existing conditions that introduced a high risk of complications or a large donation to the hospital. With this patient, it was both.
During the close, Ethan had both palms on the patient’s chest, feeling the incision in that familiar secondary first-person sort of way that was triggered whenever he was pushing hard. He wanted to go fast, to prove a point. There was no finesse when the site was clear, it all rested on sheer stamina.
“Watch what you’re doing,” the old surgeon had barked, when Ethan closed his eyes to concentrate, “this isn’t television!”
Ethan stubbornly kept his eyes shut, feeling the artery knit close beneath his hands, a phantom itch across his own chest. In the span of three slow exhales, it was over. Ethan had to force himself to break skin contact, before the skin incision could start to close. It always felt little jarring, like waking up mid-fall.
“Leave it, we need to monitor for complications. Don’t want to have to cut him open again.”
Ethan nodded and lifted both hands, pausing as a pianist might after a long fugue. He met the consulting surgeon’s eyes across the operating table. To his left, the surgical registrar shifted, uncertain.
Besanko cocked his head; nodded at his registrar. And that had been that.
It was close to seven by the time Ethan left the theatre. He considered just walking home in his scrubs — technically a no-no since they were the hospitals’ — but a glance out the window showed him that the evening was almost misted over with cold.
“Ugh,” he said to no one in particular.
There were several locker rooms scattered throughout the hospital complex, with assignments depending on where you were mostly based. For Ethan, whose job was a little more varied, it often meant trekking back down the second floor. Most of the ER team had their stuff here, and Ethan changed quickly, pulling on t-shirt and jeans; his favourite coat and a loose scarf.
“Oh, hey,” came a familiar voice.
It was Paul.
“Yeah,” said Ethan, “amazing, right?”
The ICU nurse laughed, full throated.
Ethan took a bottle of clear moisturiser from his pocket, pushing the dispenser twice before wiping the gel around the monitor tab on his temple. He pushed a fingernail beneath the edge of it, peeling the thing off with a wince. Ethan did the same with the monitor on his throat and on his chest. He peeled off the disposable adhesives, throwing them in the bin and slotting the plastic monitors back into their case. He would wash them at home.
“You’re still in tomorrow, right?” asked Paul.
“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” said Ethan.
He smiled; a habit.
Tucking his phone and monitor case into his bag, Ethan left the locker room and emerged into the polished corridor. He passed the mail-room and breakroom on his way out and saw Vegas with Lasya and two other nurses that Ethan didn’t recognise. She spotted him, and he heard a muffled hey! through the glass when Ethan did not stop.
They exchanged middle-finger salutes, and Vegas tapped her wrist with an exaggerated frown. Ethan snorted.
He was still smiling to himself when he entered the large open lobby, which was the main entrance to the Level 19 ground floor. It served as a general thoroughfare, a waiting zone and a shortcut to the street. It wasn’t as busy as the A&E side, but was still busy, especially at seven in the evening. Staff moved through the rows of chairs, chatting to new arrivals and directing some to the ER waiting room next door. The space was so large that there were two reception desks, one at each end.
Ethan made a beeline for the nearest exit, head down, shoes squeaking on the tiled floor.
Ethan’s heart sank. It was Ashley, manning one of the desks alongside three others.
“I’m actually off,” he said, reaching for his phone with a frown, “has someone called me? I’m not on the ER consult roster for the…time…being…”
Ashley wasn’t even looking at Ethan. She was making frantic ‘come here’ motions at someone over his shoulder. Ethan turned, confused, to see who she was trying to get a hold of. He froze.
It was Javier, making his way towards them on mile-long strides.
He was wearing a smile and socks, this time; pale green to match the colour of his shirt. The man looked as if he had walked off a runway; shoes gleaming and cuffs a sharp line at his wrists, overdressed in a dark grey three-piece, pea coat folded neatly over one elbow. He struck such a figure that people were turning to watch him pass, eyes tracking his trajectory to inevitably rest on the reception.
Ethan saw one of the nurses lean over to her friend, giggling.
Ashley says Paul heard that Brooke said you’re dating a florist.
He wanted to disappear into the floor.
“…you’ve got to be kidding me,” hissed Ethan, turning back to Ashley, “really? Really?”
Ashley gave him an innocent pout, raising both hands in an universal gesture of what can a girl do?
“He’s been waiting for an hour,” she said conspiratorial, “I said you should be out soon. He was very polite about it. A gentleman.”
“Wow,” said Ethan, sarcastically, “is he also responsible for that wine bottle you’re trying to hide behind the printer?”
Ethan closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose to rally his composure. Whatever you do, he told himself very sternly, do not blush. You’re a bloody professional. Have some self respect.
A thought struck him.
“Hold on,” said Ethan, “how did he even know I was clocking off at —”
“Doctor Faulkner! I’m so glad I caught you.”
Ethan stared at the countertop and wondered if Javier would just go away if he feigned obliviousness for long enough.
Probably not. Ethan took a deep breath, plastered on his best mild expression and turned around.
“Can I help you?”
Up close, Javier was a far cry from the harried, tearful wreck that Ethan had met three days ago. His eyes were no longer red rimmed, his hair was styled and there was not a single crease to be seen. He seemed taken aback at Ethan’s tone though, head tilted, appraising.
“You said I was a coward, for not coming in person,” he said, after a pause, “so. Here I am…do you have a minute?”
Ethan considered him.
Javier wore his collar open in the absence of a tie, but was otherwise buttoned up to the nines. It was at odds with the way he carried himself; a casual effortlessness that elongated the lines of his well tailored clothes. He had one hand in his pocket, showing off the blue satin lining of his jacket.
His smile, though, was uncertain. Ethan realised with a pleasant jolt that Javier was nervous.
“I was actually just leaving,” said Ethan, eager to escape his colleagues’ earshot. He pushed away from the reception desk and made towards his original exit without a backwards glance.
“I really must apologise,” he said, keeping pace, “I’m more sorry than you can imagine. What I said was totally out of hand, was very rude of me and I just wanted to..I wanted you to know. That I’m sorry.”
The cold night air hit Ethan full in the face, and he reached for his scarf, belatedly buttoning up his coat. He glanced at Javier, who was staring at Ethan with a sort of intense earnestness that apparently rendered him immune to the temperature change. The man made no move to put on his own coat.
“The flowers were meant to be sincere. I thought it would be a bit too much to just…turn up.”
“You thought flowers was the low-key option,” said Ethan, flat.
“I didn’t exactly count on death by faux pas. Should have just come in person, clearly.”
“Actually, it was my friend who texted you,” said Ethan, “to come, I mean. Pretty sure she was just kidding.”
Javier’s expression fell. The clear disappointment was very entertaining, and Ethan bit the inside of his cheek.
“Oh,” said Javier, rocking back on his heels, “I…that’s awkward. You — well I suppose she — told me you’d be clocking off at six.”
He pulled out his phone and held up the screen. And sure enough, there was Vegas, doing the exact opposite of what a good friend should do.
7:20:31 AM — Ethan: 6, maybe 6.30. Ask for me at reception. Ashley will know. 7:20:32 AM — Ethan: Do NOT be late.
Ethan rubbed a hand over his face.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered.
He scraped his nails through his hair, exasperated. Their breath was visible in the damp chill, like puffs of cigarette smoke. An ambulance screeched past, sirens blaring.
“Well, I’m sorry about that. You needn’t have come in—”
“No, no, I did,” said Javier, dropping the phone back in his pocket, “I’m truly…I feel awful, for what I said. It was completely out of line.”
When Ethan didn’t say anything, Javier shifted from one foot to another. His eyes were darting all over Ethan’s face.
Jokes on him, thought Ethan, delighted. Doctors’ deadpan.
“I can’t imagine what you must think of me.”
Ethan folded his arms.
“I thought you were on drugs,” he said, bluntly, “or otherwise mentally impaired.”
Javier went pink.
“…I wasn’t. It was just painkillers.”
“Then perhaps we should switch your prescription,” said Ethan, his previous ire flickering back to life.
It was an automatic defense mechanism against Javier’s attractive profile.
“Because that’s the only explanation I could think of for you to ignore expert medical opinion and transfer my patient barely half an hour post-surgery. She could have—! What possessed you to risk—!”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” said Javier, unclasping and reclasping his hands, “there’s…I was told if anything happened — that is to say, Corinna has certain contingency plans for—”
“Dying in transit?” finished Ethan, raising an eyebrow.
Javier looked miserable. It was a truly pitiful expression, and rapidly deflated Ethan’s reserve of righteous irritation.
“There was a Healer on board,” Javier said, “they assured me it would be alright…”
“Oh,” said Ethan, “I mean, if a Healer said so.”
Javier slapped a hand over his own eyes. It was so melodramatic that it startled a laugh out of Ethan; a hiccup.
“God, I’m so…I don’t know what to say,” groaned Javier, “I’m really…”
“Sorry? Yes, I got that part,” said Ethan.
Javier touched the back of his neck, then let his hand drop. To his credit, he had yet to run away. Javier was doing what Ethan himself could never pull off: which was to grovel with panache.
Ethan always tended to violent allergic reactions when made to grovel, and concluded that Javier owed half to his good looks and the other half to sheer persistence — one of which Ethan admired more than the other.
There was a long pause.
“Will you at least put your coat on,” said Ethan eventually, “I’m cold just looking at you.”
Javier blinked at him. He pulled on his coat.
“I really am sorry,” he said again.
“I don’t care about what you said. I’ve heard worse. I know it’s difficult, in the moment. For family.”
“No,” said Javier, “I mean…that too, but I’m sorry for transferring her. I was always told…well, it doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have done it and it would have been on my head, if anything had happened. I just wanted you to know it wasn’t a lack of confidence in your skills, or prejudice against—”
“I get it,” said Ethan, gently, “it’s fine.”
He thought of Doctor Nejiam’s severe disapproval; you could have caused a complication, or worse.
But he had saved her, thought Ethan, and that’s what mattered.
“There’s no point self flagellating about what-ifs,” Ethan said, “Just. Next time. Well, we hope there’s never a next time.”
They stared at each other for a moment, the light from the hospital bleaching Javier’s hair to white. He seemed at a loss, as if he hadn’t expected Ethan to forgive him in so little words.
“How’s your sister doing? Any chest pains? Shortness of breath?”
“She’s doing well,” said Javier, expression relaxing a little, “really well actually, it’s like nothing ever happened — thanks to you. She’s been tired, but that’s it.”
Ethan pinned him with a look.
“Thanks to me?”
Javier tilted his head.
“They told me it was almost impossible to tell she had any lung damage,” said Javier, “at Highgate. They patched up her ribs …and said we were very lucky to have such a skilled healer on hand, when it mattered most.”
“There were quite a few others involved,” said Ethan, too flattered to stay very annoyed, “but I’m glad to hear she’s okay.”
“Yes, right. She is, I mean.”
What remained of the tension bled out; until all that was left was barely enough to ink the shadows around their shoes. Javier leaned back and forth on his heels.
“I hope they liked the flowers. I branched out from roses, I don’t know if you saw. Thought I’d better hedge my bets, given the misses.”
Ethan snorted, tugging his scarf closer to his chin.
“Yes, thanks for that. Now all the nurses think I’m dating a florist.”
“And are you?” asked Javier, smile sliding across the slope of his bottom lip, “dating a florist.”
Ethan narrowed his eyes.
“I don’t have time to date.”
“But you have time for dinner?” asked Javier without missing a beat.
“I suppose,” Ethan said, casually, “I’ve got lots of free time now…since they fired me for allowing a patient to be transferred before being cleared.”
A look of utter horror swept across Javier’s face; a hot rush of adrenaline. It was pleasantly warm — and hilarious.
He was loud enough that two people paused as they walked by, and a security guard glanced curiously at them. Javier only had eyes for Ethan, brow scrunched in genuine dismay. Ethan struggled to keep a straight face, unable to decide whether he felt flattered or entertained at this genuine dismay from a stranger.
“I’m — I can fix this. I’m going to fix this, you don’t have to stay here. It’ll be easy, you’re a Healer.”
“I’m going to call Giulia right now.”
Javier actually went for his phone before Ethan started to laugh, the sound cutting Javier short.
“Sorry,” Ethan wheezed, “I just – your face, I didn’t think you’d — no, please, no more faces. Just look away for a second, look at something else. Can’t breathe.”
Jav obliging turned his face up to the sky, but his cheeks were red as the tip of his nose. He was pouting too, a solemn version of Vegas’ put-upon pout.
“That wasn’t very nice…” said Javier, after Ethan had stopped laughing.
“Honestly,” Ethan said, “as if they’d fire me.”
Javier stared at him, brow furrowed, eyes still wide. He looked vaguely concussed; like he’d been hit over the head by some realisation and not quite recovered.
“Though I’ve been put on mandatory leave for a fortnight. And I’ve been banned from the ER until bloody January. So you should feel a little bad about that.”
“But I told them to change the name of…” Javier trailed off at Ethan’s raised eyebrow. “…um. Nothing.”
“You’re a piss poor liar,” said Ethan.
“I’m usually quite good at it,” said Javier, earnestly.
The contrast was inexplicably endearing, and Ethan decided this was probably a sign that it was time to leave. He shrugged his bag more securely onto his shoulder.
“Well, I’m freezing, so,” said Ethan, starting down the wide steps towards the main road, “Really glad to hear your sister’s doing alright.”
“Thank you,” said Javier, falling into step beside Ethan, “…it’s not late yet — have you eaten?”
Ethan raised both his eyebrows.
“Nice try,” he said.
They passed the metal skeletons that were the only visible portion of the parking lot. It arched from the asphalt like the ribs of some half excavated fossil; where vehicles were rotated down into storage like cans in a vending machine. The spots closest to street level cost the most, though there were two narrow rows reserved for disability coded rides.
Over time, most of the available space had been converted this way. There was never enough.
“Perhaps later this week, then,” suggested Javier, both hands in his coat pockets; a lopsided smile on his face.
“I don’t need an apology dinner,” said Ethan, coming to a stop on the curb.
“Could just be a dinner,” said Javier.
Ethan side-eyed him; the cut of his shoulders and the sharp angle to his waist. Even with his coat on, it was a flattering silhouette; matching the clean line of his jaw. Ethan was perpetually tired, but he wasn’t blind.
The prospect of the two weeks ahead loomed, suddenly, and the abrupt cliff edge that was the weekend seemed very close.
“Alright,” said Ethan, tilting his head, “I’m free on Friday.”
Javier lit up like a lightbulb. He beamed, dimples appearing in full force and accompanied by a distinct jolt between Ethan’s ribs; a warm sugar rush. It was definitely time to head home.
“Fantastic!” said Javier, “where would you like to—”
The pedestrian light turned green and Ethan started across. Javier’s bright expression did not waver, cast briefly scarlet from the traffic light as they reached the other side.
“…well,” he said, “may I come pick you up from work?”
Ethan fought the urge to laugh.
“Before midnight, or I’ll turn into a pumpkin.”
Javier made a high-pitched noise at the back of his throat, like a cat being trod on.
“And no more flowers,” Ethan added.
“No more flowers,” agreed Javier.
“…the car park was back there,” said Ethan helpfully.
“Do you need a ride?” asked Javier, who was still at his shoulder like an imploring shadow, “it looks like it might rain—”
Ethan didn’t break his stride.
“Nope. Don’t follow me home please, we just met.”
At this, Javier braked hard. He made an aborted movement, as if he was reaching for Ethan’s arm and then thought better of it.
“Wait,” he called, heedless of the onlookers who were swerving around them like fish in a shoal, “at least let me give you my number?”
Ethan waved a hand, deliberately not looking around so Javier couldn’t see his grin. He tossed his reply over his shoulder.
“No thanks, Vegas has it already.”
It took only ten minutes to get back to his flat, and Ethan found himself smirking like a lunatic the whole way home.
© Frances Wren 2020, all rights reserved.
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