Author: EBStarr PM
COMPLETE. Cordano-Marsan, AU season 8. As Mark is haunted by his past with Susan, Elizabeth begins to wonder about a future with Romano.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Chapters: 20 - Words: 61,408 - Reviews: 138 - Favs: 23 - Updated: 02-17-04 - Published: 08-09-03 - Status: Complete - id: 1469927
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Title from "Almost Paradise" by Ann Wilson and Mike Reno. Song lyrics from Goo-Goo Dolls' "Iris" (thanks to the Lounge for providing them). And, thanks to "Moi" for the last-minute beta-read of this monstrously long chapter.
I also owe a lot of the plot and a little of the dialogue below to the corresponding canon timeline, but that will become pretty obvious.
Anyway, this is the last chapter. Thank you all so much for your reviews and encouragement along the way!
Chapter 20. Knocking on Heaven's Door
Mark woke in the middle of the night feeling very cold.
Despite aching muscles he turned over on his other side, reaching for Susan on the other side of the bed. His hands slid over flat blankets and found nothing.
She was supposed to be here till morning – she had to go to work at seven. But the clock next to his bed said it was only 2:15 AM. Mark found himself irrationally panicked and forced himself to make the effort to get out of bed, pull on the bathrobe he had hanging on the bathroom door, and walk downstairs, clumsy with pain.
As he rounded the landing he heard a small noise coming from the family room, and stopped. Listening more closely, he thought he heard a sniffle.
He tiptoed down the rest of the way, leaning heavily on the railing. The house still felt very cold, and every step sent a chill through his bare feet from the wood floor.
Another sniffle echoed in the silent house as he slipped over to the entryway of the den and peered inside.
It was dark, but he could make out a shape huddled on the side of the couch, against the arms, and now he could easily hear the muffled sounds of Susan's quiet crying. As his eyes adjusted, he made out the shape of a box of tissues that she wasn't using, and saw that her head was buried in her two hands.
He thought maybe he should go back upstairs. She hadn't wanted him to see this for some reason; she'd taken care to wait till he was sleeping, and then to retreat down here where he couldn't see or hear her.
But then he watched her take a deep shaky breath as if to calm herself, and then succumb to a hoarse little sob, and he realized that he couldn't leave her down here by herself.
Careful to be quiet, he stole across the room to take a seat next to her and touch her back. Susan started and lifted her face – she hadn't even noticed his approach, and her eyes were wide and held a glassy reflection of the streetlights trickling into the window. "Hi –" she whispered, trying to act casual in the darkness.
Tenderly he smoothed her hair away from her face and asked softly, "What is it?"
She shook her head helplessly and leaned in to sink against his chest.
"Is it Chloe?"
"No, it's… nothing." Mark could barely hear her voice as she spoke against his robe.
"You don't have to hide," he said, kissing the top of her head. "If you're sad, I mean."
She sat up, away from him, and wiped her face desperately. "I talked to Elizabeth today," she said. "She's worried about you, Mark. We're worried."
He frowned and said, "I just got mixed up, because I was so sleepy. I wasn't confused once I had woken up. It wasn't a big deal."
There was a long, aching silence. Susan wasn't stupid, Mark reminded himself. They were both doctors. They knew exactly what was going on.
He corrected himself. "Listen, we knew this was going to happen. The treatment is buying me time, but it couldn't work forever."
She still didn't answer. Mark realized something else.
"Hey," he said gently. "She told you I thought we were still together?"
Susan nodded, leaning forward and clasping her hands contemplatively on her lap. Mark tried to meet her gaze, but she was staring straight ahead. Then he reached out to touch her shoulder, but withdrew his hand without brushing her skin, stymied. He took a long time to speak, and the words came slowly. "When you left," he said, "when you got on that train to Arizona, you took everything."
"Mark—" she started, looking down and shaking her head.
"—No, listen," he said. "My whole life was over and everything after that day was – was – disconnected from who I'd been before. I got used to it, you know? This idea that you were gone and everything would get better, but it would never be the same. It broke my heart but I made myself face it."
"And then you came back. Sometimes it seems like I made all this up. A pretty dream before dying, a happy ending."
Mark saw that she was looking at him out of the corner of her eyes and grew quieter. "I've always loved you," he said softly. "You have to know that."
Susan let him pull her gently backwards against his chest and wrap her in his arms. "I do," she said. "I know." Her head nestled back into the hollow just next to his shoulder. "Mark?"
She hesitated. "How much time do they think you have?"
He tightened his hold on her. "Not enough."
Her body shook as if racked with rebellion for a moment, and then she sighed and they were still.
After a moment when he heard a leftover sniff, Mark reached over to hand her a tissue from the box. Susan stood up to throw the used tissue away and then smiled at him. "How about some breakfast?"
"It's 2:15," he protested.
"Late-night snack, then," she said, bending to kiss his ear. "Where's your sense of romance? Eating in dark, quiet houses is sexy."
"Hey, whatever floats your boat," he answered, chasing her lips to kiss her again.
Susan giggled and lifted him lightly to his feet, gracefully enough that Mark almost forgot that he needed her help. Drawing his robe tightly around him to protect against the chill air of the house, he sat at the breakfast table while she rummaged in the fridge.
"Hmm," she said, pushing jars aside to search with reckless abandon, and cataloguing her finds sarcastically. "Pickles… milk… weird shrunken grapes that you should've thrown away like a year ago… when was the last time you went shopping?"
He made a face. "Last week? Or… the week before?"
"Man. Okay. I would make you something, but you don't even have any eggs!" she sighed. "Cereal and milk?"
"Now that's sexy," he joked.
Susan slid a bowl in front of him filled to heaping with Cheerios and milk and kissed him lingeringly. "How's that for sexy?" she drawled with a grin before sitting down with her own cereal.
He twirled the fingers of one hand around hers. "Try it again and maybe I can answer."
She laughed and leaned over the table to kiss him again.
The milk was room temperature before they finally got around to eating.
The ceiling was white.
Romano registered the whiteness of it first as he tried to open his eyes against a wave of painful sleepiness. His ceiling at home wasn't like that.
Behind his eyelids a face took shape, Elizabeth's. "Lizzie?" he heard himself mumbling.
"Did you say something, Dr. Romano?" he heard a cheerful voice ask. Slight Spanish accent. Not Elizabeth.
He opened his eyes, hoping that whoever it was hadn't heard what he'd said. There were metal bars lining each side of his bed, and the room he'd woken up in was painted a sickly green, with tiles to match. And a woman in a crisp nurse's uniform was rummaging around in the cabinet.
"Ugh," he muttered, "I'm at County!"
The nurse laughed and said, "You sure are," and he recognized who it was.
"Chuny, right?" he muttered.
She closed the cabinet and turned to smile at him, one hand on her hip. "Good to see you don't have amnesia," she informed him. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Ummm…" He closed his eyes. Elizabeth's face, worried, peering out at him from a haze of returning consciousness – his confused question, "How did you get here?" – her unconscious scolding, "You didn't wear a seat belt!" – blood on her hands, coming from his scalp – that med student Gallant, running out to help Elizabeth with the passengers in the other car. "Car accident?" he muttered, gingerly lifting his hand to feel the cut at the side of his head.
"You have a mild concussion," Chuny said. "We kept you overnight for observation. Dr. Corday said you lost consciousness."
"For about a millisecond," he retorted. "Where's Weaver? I want to get out of here as quickly as possible. She owes me a favor."
"Well, she's not here today," Chuny said, still so cheerful it really enraged him. "Want some breakfast?"
"No," he said shortly.
"You need your food if you're going to get better," she sing-songed.
"You aren't tricking me into eating whatever it is that we call 'food' around here," he said.
"You're not a very good patient, are you?"
"I never need to be a patient. I don't get hurt." He peered outside suspiciously. "How many of you are outside dancing in glee over this?" he demanded.
"Hmmm…" She counted on her fingers jokingly. "Seven I think. But not Dr. Corday," she added with an impish look. "Sorry."
"All right, if Weaver's not around, send in that quiet kid," he directed her, ignoring the dig about Elizabeth. Nurses always thought they knew so goddamn much about people. He had no idea how Elizabeth had gotten in his car anyway; the last thing he remembered was leaving her in his office. He'd stood outside the door for one second, resisting the urge to slip back into the room and slide his arms around her neck and kiss her; and then he'd left for the parking lot. Hadn't he?
"The quiet one?" Chuny was saying. "That could be any med student ever to walk this hallway."
"Gallant," he said, exasperated.
"I'll see if he's around," Chuny said as she sailed away, leaving him alone to wonder about Elizabeth.
As Romano flopped backwards onto the pillow, he realized it was basically a brick wrapped in a pillowcase. Well, he was starting to have a little more sympathy for the patients who had to be treated here. Why hadn't he sprung for decent pillows when the budget talks came around last year? And where the hell were all the doctors, anyway?
He was eyeing the call button next to his bed when the door opened and Chuny poked her head in. "I was wrong," she said with another knowing grin. "Dr. Corday is here."
Romano had looked up warily when the door opened, but he relaxed when he saw Elizabeth slip in past Chuny, who quickly withdrew. "Come to bust me out of this joint?" he kidded her tiredly.
"No, a doctor has to sign you out before you can go home," she reproached him lightheartedly, sitting down in a chair next to his bed. "You wouldn't want to go home without making sure you're all right."
"What about… what are those three letters? … oh yeah, AMA?" he asked grouchily. "Give me the papers, I'll sign all the forms, and no one gets sued."
"Oh, stop complaining, at least you got to sleep," she said. "I've been up since six yesterday morning and I just finished a ten-hour procedure. That man who hit us was driving his wife in to have her baby, so she went up to OB and I had to remove his spleen and patch up the crushed bones in both his legs. Try that on for size."
"You win," he conceded. "So you're just here to bask in your victory then?"
"No, of course not." She opened her suitcase and took out a big brown bag. "I have contraband. How does Starbucks sound to you?"
"Ah, my knight in shining armor. Please say there's some decent coffee hidden in that bag."
"I wouldn't try to talk to you in the morning without giving you your caffeine first." She pulled out two strange, skinny little black cans and handed him one.
Romano examined it with a skeptical frown. "What the hell is this?"
"Read the label."
"Starbucks… double shot… espresso," he read mockingly. "Well, I guess anything's better than the slop they tried to give me before you got here."
"Here," she said, "blueberry scone."
"Thanks," he said. Then, taking a bite of the dry tasteless pastry, "What did they do, leave this out in the sun for three days to dry?"
"At least it's food," she said.
"Food? I think this is a weapon," he said, testing the rock-hard scone with the strength of his hands. "To bludgeon people with."
"Oh, shut up and eat," she said crossly.
"Keep practising that witty repartée and you might actually have a chance on a second-grade playground."
Giving up, Elizabeth opened her own can of whatever the stuff was and drained it in one gulp. "I'm terribly tired," she explained with a sheepish little smile.
"What're you sticking around this dump for, then?"
She gave him a look.
"Could it be me?" he said in feigned surprise.
"Not if you keep this up."
"Lizzie, I'm wearing a gown that doesn't fasten in the back. That isn't doing much to sweeten my mood." He took a taste of the canned espresso. "This isn't bad, though."
Elizabeth reached over to take the scone he was still holding. "If you aren't going to finish this…"
"Are you sure you want that?" he asked. "Because I have serious doubts that it's even edible."
She paused just as she'd been about to take a big bite out of his scone and said in a sultry voice, "Do I strike you as a woman who doesn't know what she wants?"
He chuckled as he drained his espresso. "Lizzie, I would never insinuate such a thing."
Elizabeth smiled broadly. "Good."
At seven in the morning Susan got Mark back up to his bed, after a night spent eating and then drinking several cups each of tea. Then she left, not without a few twinges of worry, to go to work. When she got there, she was assaulted by the normality of it all, after a night that had overwhelmed her with its sad beauty. She was trembling with exhaustion as she emerged from the lounge and prepared herself for twelve hours of drudgery.
Carter stomped out and came over to her as she checked the board, visibly seething with anger over something. "Romano wants you in curtain three," he said with a roll of his eyes.
"I thought Romano's last day was yesterday."
"Not as a doctor," Carter said with a significant smile. "As a patient. He bumped his little bald head, slow-moving MVA."
"Oooh," Susan said. "Everyone must be getting a kick out of that."
"Yeah, we made him gown up and everything. He's not happy about being here," Carter said. "I think the head injury made him grumpier than usual."
"Is that possible?"
"You wouldn't think so."
"Well, I won't keep his Highness waiting," Susan said, taking the chart from Carter.
"Wait," Carter said. "Did you hear how it happened?"
"You just told me. Slow-moving MVA."
"No, there's more," he said with a significant grin. "He was on his way out of the parking lot, with Dr. Corday in the passenger seat."
"That's the one."
"Oh, my God."
"I know. They were going home together."
"Oh, my God."
"Yeah. Oh my God is right." Carter shook his head. "Of all the guys to have a rebound fling with, she picks him."
"I can't believe I didn't see this one coming," Susan said. "I'm usually psychic about these things."
"Huh," he said with a hint of bitterness. "Not always."
"Oh, I know what you're thinking. Don't worry," she sallied, "Abby will come around."
Carter blushed like a kid, and Susan headed towards curtain 3 feeling quite touched over it. Her amusement only increased as she paused outside the door of curtain 3 and heard Elizabeth's voice ring out. "He was just trying to help, Robert."
"Trying being the operative word. He was the joke of the OR when he got here. Why do you think Anspaugh assigned Peter Benton to teach him?"
"I really couldn't say."
"Revenge for Benton's attitude, that's why. He got stuck with the student who would spill all the urine samples and faint during all the traumas."
"Really, I think he's all right now," Elizabeth said, but she was audibly stifling a laugh.
Susan chose this point to make her entrance. Pushing the door open she deadpanned, "Yeah, he hasn't fainted in at least a week."
"Lewis." His voice was almost mild. "What a sight for sore eyes." Before she could get offended he added, "I was beginning to think all the competent doctors had flown the nest."
"Hey, I'm still here," Elizabeth protested lightly.
"Fat lot of good it's doing me," he answered. "Susan, how fast can you get this done? I'd been counting on being out of this godforsaken place by today."
"Just call me Speedy Susan," she answered with a grin.
"Well!" Elizabeth stood up and teased, "I'll leave you two alone."
Romano feigned an ashamed face.
"I have to make a few phone calls," Elizabeth added.
On her way out she touched Susan's arm in an unusual gesture for Elizabeth and murmured, "See you later, Susan."
Left alone, Romano twisted his lips in a wry little smile as Susan crossed her arms and grinned mischievously at him. "Looks like I'm your doctor this morning."
"Don't enjoy this too much," he told her.
"Well, how much is too much?" she asked, bringing over a cart and sitting by the injured side of his head. The cut had been sutured, fairly neatly.
Romano winced as she touched the edges of the sutures with gloved fingers. "Hey."
He glared, but he was smiling.
"So," Susan segued unsubtly. "You and Elizabeth."
"It's not what everyone is saying. She needed a ride home."
"Look, whatever. Those nurses really can't be dissuaded, once they think there's something to gossip about."
"Besides." She made her voice light. "You totally wish it were true."
"No, I totally don't," he mocked her. "She asked for a ride."
"Stop doing that."
Susan put her gloves on with deliberate slowness. "You know, there's this story I like to tell Mark whenever…" (Whenever he's in pain and I want to make him laugh.) "Whenever we talk about the old times when we were residents." She gave him a wicked little look. "Mark and I ran into each other on the subway and went to work together in the morning. Then we met Carter while we were on the El. Three hours later, people started congratulating us on our new relationship. And now," she singsonged, "we're in love."
"You're not really comparing me to Mark Greene, are you?" he demanded, insulted.
"Watch what you say about my boyfriend!" she exclaimed. "I have the power to get you admitted for another twenty-four hours, and I'm not afraid to use it."
He smirked. "Good point. …Want a scone?"
"Bribery. I like it!" she said. Then, overcome by fatigue after her sleepless night, she yawned.
Romano's sharp gaze raked over her face. "You look like you haven't slept in weeks."
"I feel that way," she admitted.
"Is it Greene?"
Susan didn't answer, and Romano stared her down with an almost sympathetic look in his eyes. "He's lucky to have you," he flirted finally.
"Oh, save it for Elizabeth," she grinned. "Actually, I'm going to have to get you up to CT. Oh, don't pout, it doesn't hurt. After that if it's clear, you can go. Happy now?"
"So happy I could jump off the roof," he muttered.
"Chin up, little trooper," she teased as she got up to leave.
He paused and then lifted his hand to wave and said seriously, "You, too."
Susan closed the door, collected herself – don't think of Mark, don't think of him – and went to find Chuny, who was in triage.
"Who else is on?" she asked.
"Abby's around somewhere," Chuny answered. "Did you get any dirt on Romano?"
"Not really. But I do have to get him a CT and quickly, or he'll really –" Susan stopped as she caught a good glimpse of the crowd of would-be patients waiting in chairs. "Oh my God," she said, for what felt like the hundredth time that morning.
Chuny stared in the same general direction, trying to see what Susan was looking at. "What?"
Susan looked closer. There was a middle-aged couple sitting nearby, each cradling a small child. And even from here, she could see what was worrying the parents on their children's faces. "Damn…" she said.
"What is it?"
Susan found herself balking; it couldn't really be what it looked like. "How long has that family been here?"
"An hour at least."
She nodded and said slowly, her mind still processing, "Get Romano up to radiology, okay?"
Chuny groaned. "Can't you make Abby do it?"
"Don't worry, he's had his coffee, now he's fine," Susan said. After Chuny left, she was about to go see them when Elizabeth flew by and said, "We have a multiple-victim MVA coming in!"
Susan grabbed the arm of the nearest doctor she could find – Luka, who was standing at the desk – and murmured in a low voice, "Luka, can you get the family in chairs?"
"We have a trauma coming in."
"This is important," Susan insisted. "An infectious disease."
"What is it?"
She shook her head. "Don't know. But from the looks of it – could be smallpox."
Luka frowned, startled. "No it couldn't."
"Just check them out," Susan called and then went to the ambulance bay to help Elizabeth.
Mark woke seized by fear, from nightmares so gripping that he trembled in his bed. He spoke thickly, in a voice crusted by sleep – "Susan? Susan?"
She wasn't there.
He sat up and looked around, panicked. "Susan," he called more urgently, but the room was empty.
The motion of sitting had engulfed his body in pain and he lay back down, dizzy and moaning. Above him the ceiling stretched like white infinity; his vision was blurry and narrow, all his senses on fire. Where was Susan?
Slowly the answer came to him. The hospital.
He reached blindly next to him and almost knocked over the phone before managing to grip it in a weakened hand. The number was the first speed dial.
While the line rang and rang and rang, he tried to fight back against the pain that seemed to have grown exponentially since yesterday. "Please, please," he murmured to no one.
Finally someone picked up, but all he could hear was the roar of what seemed hundreds of voices on the other end. Then a shout: "Hello?"
"Jerry?" he asked weakly.
Mark repeated Jerry's name.
"I can't hear you," Jerry shouted. "Hold on a second."
After a moment another line picked up, and Jerry said more quietly, "Sorry, I had to move to another room. Who is this?"
"It's Mark Greene," he managed to say. "What's going on?"
"There's a rioting crowd trying to ram open the doors and escape the ER," Jerry answered pleasantly. "Did you want to talk to Dr. Lewis?"
"Yeah." He was slowly calming, realizing where he was, what had frightened him. Just a dream. Nothing real.
"I'll see if I can find her. Hold on."
Mark waited, too nervous to fall back asleep despite his exhaustion, for five minutes before Susan picked up. "Mark?" she said, her voice soft. "How are you?"
"I don't know…" he hedged, searching for words.
"Are you all right? You just wake up?" she said.
"I need you," he blurted. "I'm afraid. I don't want to be alone."
"Do you feel worse?" she asked. "Is that what it is?"
"I don't know, I don't know," Mark fretted. "I know I sound – but –" He stopped to catch his breath. "Please come home."
She sighed, shakily. "I can't."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm sorry. I would, I promise you. The hospital's been locked down, we had two cases of something that looks like smallpox this morning and the ER is contaminated. No one's allowed to leave yet."
"Smallpox?" he repeated, confused. "But…"
"I know, it's bizarre. But it's definitely something infectious; they've got evenly spaced pustules, in the same stage of development, with – well, never mind. It's just that we all need to be safe."
"Are you okay?"
"Oh, me, yeah, I'm fine. I wasn't really in contact with them. Kovac and Abby are in isolation treating them, though." She paused and spoke the next words with some difficulty. "It might be time to get you to a hospital."
"No!" he said vehemently. "I don't want to be there. I don't want to die in the hospital."
"Okay, okay, don't worry," she said soothingly, "you can stay at home. Don't worry." A few moments passed and when Susan spoke again her voice was carefully, glassily smooth. "I'll send Chloe and Suzie over, okay?"
"Okay. Be careful," he added.
"I will. And I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Yeah," he said.
They both stayed. Mark didn't want to hang up, unwilling to lose the sound of her voice. "I love you," he said after a long time.
"I love you too," she said. "Don't be afraid. I promise you won't be alone."
Gallant entered Romano's room hurriedly, as the yelling from the mysteriously large crowd outside grew louder. "Dr. Romano?" he said.
Romano had been dozing, but he snapped to attention, waking quickly and completely as always. "Yeah," he answered curtly, craning his neck to see what was going on outside to make everyone so loud.
"Your CT is clear."
"Let me see." He got up from his bed, took the paper from Gallant's hand and put it up on a board. "Yeah, okay."
"You can be discharged now, but you can't go anywhere."
"What?" he said.
Gallant shrugged. "Smallpox."
He'd heard whisperings of this, but hadn't paid much attention – he'd thought smallpox eradicated fifty years ago. "Christ," he muttered. "Is that why they're making so much noise out there?"
"Well, can't you quiet them down, or are you all too busy doing absolutely nothing?" he demanded.
Gallant straightened. "There's an infectious disease airborne in this place. Do you really blame them for being scared?"
He was developing a backbone. Romano approved. "So how long is this going to last?" he asked.
"We don't know."
"Great, that's just perfect. Man, am I glad Weaver inherited my job. She's got her work cut out for her." He examined the kid, who seemed faintly amused. "So is the consensus that she's an improvement over me?"
"I think she is, sir. Most people can't make up their minds."
Romano laughed at that one and Gallant exited with a nod. He got dressed and then stood at the doorway, observing the angry rioting with a detached kind of curiosity. They were really acting like animals out there. He wasn't crazy about the idea of hanging out too near the crowd of the unwashed masses.
Carter was yelling something stupid into a megaphone, tactful diplomatic nonsense, as Romano picked his way through, shoving people if he had to, and made his way to the lounge.
He opened the door to near emptiness and sighed in relief, muttering "Jesus" to himself.
A sniff took him by surprise. He looked around and finally noticed Susan sitting at the table by herself. There were lots of Kleenex crumpled around. He came closer, and Susan said quietly, "Hey, Robert."
"So this plague is really heartbreaking, huh?" he said when he saw she was crying. "Kinda like Love Story. Gets me every time."
She didn't answer. Romano crossed over to search the fridge for anything edible. "Nothing," he muttered to himself. "They must've raided it already to calm the nutcases out there."
"It took forever to get supplies down here," Susan explained.
He sat down in a chair near her. "You upset about Greene?" he asked.
She looked up as if surprised, to hear his voice was simple and straightforward. "He called me. He wanted me to go home and stay with him."
"And you can't," he filled in for her.
"Is he… in danger?"
"He seemed like he thought he was," Susan said. "I don't know, he – he gets overexcited sometimes, because he's sick; he goes into panics, especially when he's feverish. Maybe he is about to go, I don't know."
Romano looked down, waiting for her to talk it out, and felt suffocated. He wasn't used to this whole sympathy and friendship bit. Lewis had snuck into his good graces when he wasn't looking.
"I don't know," Susan repeated in a dull voice. "I just don't want him to die before I can see him."
After that they didn't speak. Romano leaned back, his eyes closed although he wasn't tired. She didn't seem to mind his presence. A long time passed, and their silence insulated them against the noise of chaos and rioting outside. Glass broke somewhere far away, and Susan just stared out the window.
The day passed. Susan dialed the phone once and got no answer. The second time, she seemed to be talking to someone other than Mark, and heard news that made her very still and sad after she hung up the phone. In the times between, their helpless waiting felt like a vigil.
In a golden afternoon, with the crowd quieter outside, Carter opened the door to the lounge. It was the first time anyone had disturbed them all day. "Hey Susan," he said, his voice gentle. "We've got everything under control now. If we give people vaccines, the Health Department says they can go."
"Well, Luka and Abby have to stay here for two weeks because they treated the kids for so long. Chen and Pratt have fevers, so they're also in quarantine for two weeks. But we're all scot-free, and we get two weeks' vacation."
Susan smiled a little. "Could go to the Bahamas."
"If we could afford it," Carter sighed.
"Just wait till you're an attending," Susan teased him. "Then you might sneak up above the poverty line. Believe me, I've been there."
"Me too," Romano offered cheerfully. "I was only a resident for three years, though."
"Think I could get that vaccine?" Romano asked innocently.
"If it means we can get rid of you," Susan said with a smile. She turned to Carter and said quietly, "Do you still need me here?"
Carter searched her eyes. "Is it Mark?"
"Then go," Carter said, his voice cracking.
He brought Romano out to the hallway where Gallant was already administering injections, quickly poked Romano with what seemed like a dozen needles in the same spot, and bid him godspeed.
Before he could go, Carter called, "Oh, and Dr. Romano?"
Carter seemed amused. "Elizabeth called down to leave you a message. She says come up to surgery before you leave. And she seemed adamant."
"Why do I get the feeling the universe doesn't want me to get the hell out of this place like I'd wanted?" he asked the ceiling as he switched directions towards the elevator.
Elizabeth emerged from her splenectomy on the MVA, feeling exhausted. Thank God, nothing could come along now; the hospital must have been almost evacuated by now.
"I'm going to my office," she told Shirley. "Can you take our splenectomy out? And let me know when the choppers come to take my diabetic."
Shirley nodded, and Elizabeth headed to her office, feeling as if at any step her legs would give way beneath her. She'd been up since dawn yesterday morning, when she'd gotten up to visit Mark, but it felt like years ago. They'd been interrupted by a call from Anspaugh while they were doing the MVA, to tell them the hospital was being evacuated because of smallpox. Of all the ridiculous things to happen. She'd been worried about Robert, but it turned out to be Chen and that young Pratt who were showing signs of fever.
As Elizabeth approached her office she realized that it was no longer hers; she'd packed up all her things yesterday, ready to be moved over to Romano's old office. She wondered if Robert had gotten her message – or, more importantly, if he had heeded it. But her office was empty.
In a last hopeful little impulse, she checked her new office, though the light was off. At the threshold of the open door she paused, and saw that Romano was there. He was standing by the window and drinking coffee from her "I Love Mommy" mug, a Christmas present from Ella and Mark this past year. His back was to her, and he didn't seem to hear her arrive. She could see the stitches from last night on the side of his head.
She stayed at the doorway and said, "You got my message?"
"Yeah," he said to the window. He was close enough that his breath might fog up the glass. Beyond his face, she could see that it was twilight in the city; everywhere else, the city was lit artificially. But inside, they were wrapped together in the dark.
"What's the latest story with the smallpox?"
"It's not smallpox, it's monkeypox, but they gave us a smallpox vaccine and let us go. Everyone but Chen, Pratt, Kovac and Lockhart. Quarantined for two weeks, which means County's closed, which means you get a nice vacation."
Kovac and Lockhart. There was enough material for a good story, Elizabeth thought. "What about the two little ones?"
"The girl died. The boy's okay. So far." He took another sip of coffee. "Are you leaving now?"
"Not quite. I have to take care of getting a few patients to Saint Rafe's, and then I can go." She paused.
Slowly he turned towards her and looked contemplatively at her.
Elizabeth crossed over to stand slightly behind him and said, "How's your head?"
He ducked away. "Fine."
Taking the hint, she backed away and stood at the other side of the room. "I was worried there for a second, yesterday. You went unconscious, and then when you woke up you tried to get out of the car and help me with the two in the other car."
"Instinct," he said with dull amusement.
"They had to pull you away from the trauma room to get your head looked at," Elizabeth said.
"Yeah, I remember. Don't remember much of how we got there though. Didn't I leave you inside last night?"
"At first you did," she said. "Then I came back out and asked for a ride home."
His exhalation hissed softly in the expansive silence. After awhile he said, "Why?"
"Because I'm afraid to let you leave," she said, determined not to let him slip through her fingers. "If I had let you go last night, you would have walked away and never gotten in touch again."
His voice was not unkind. "Probably so."
"Leaving County doesn't have to mean leaving people that you… are… friends with," she said, finishing lamely.
"I need that," he said suddenly, his voice quietly vehement, almost frightening her. "I can't stick around here anymore."
"Because. Every time I see you all the other things I thought I wanted, everything else that I have, all the other people in the world stop existing."
"You're leaving because of me?" she said, feeling empty and hurt.
"I think I'd been staying because of you." His voice dipped so low and soft that it almost hurt her. "Scratch that, I know I was."
Elizabeth waited for a long, long time. Romano didn't move. Finally she said, "You waited five years, and now you won't give this a chance."
"What do you think I've been doing for the last four months?" he snapped.
"Another chance, then," she said in a low voice. "You brought me food when Ella was sick and let me lean on you through the worst night of my life. You told me the truth before Mark did, you make me feel alive when everything else is too dreary to matter. You know me, you know my worst side, and I know the best side of you."
"There's not much of that," he said, finally facing her and standing with his hands in his pockets, wary.
"There's enough." She felt him waver and then resist again and said softly, "What are you thinking, Robert? I can't tell."
"After all this time, I'm not an open book?"
She lifted her hands, weary. "Not anymore."
"Ah." He bent to pick up his coat where it had been thrown over her desk. "I'm thinking it might be time to get going, now that I've obeyed orders and come up here. For a couple of hours, I might add."
"You don't trust me," she guessed.
"I don't have any reason to."
"Because I'm in love with you," he exploded, and Elizabeth's breath left her body in one rush, leaving her shaky and exhilarated and scared to death. He watched her carefully, and his voice was dry and brittle, but as shaky as she felt. "Fuck," he muttered.
"That wasn't what I'd meant to say."
"You said it."
He laughed to himself in scorn; she wasn't sure what he was scornful of. Probably himself.
"What is it?" she gasped, as her office door opened behind her.
Shirley took in the scene with curious eyes, Elizabeth trembling on the couch and Romano staring at her as if he could never look away, and then said, just soon enough that the pause didn't grow unbearably awkward, "Chopper's on its way."
Elizabeth stood up, feeling as if she had been caught in something illegitimate. She murmured to Robert, "I have to…"
"Yeah, I know," he muttered.
"Don't go anywhere."
"Where would I go?"
She turned to Shirley and said as composedly as possible, "How many did they say they'd take?"
"They need to take four." Elizabeth considered this a moment. "We'll send two now, since the chopper has room – but I'll let them know we're sending two more and they don't have a choice in the matter."
Romano's voice came from behind her. "Taking charge. I like that."
"I'll remember you said that," she said archly as she led Shirley out of the room. Then, the moment they were clear of the door, she muttered, "They'd better not think we're really going to treat our patients in a contaminated hospital. Honestly." But in the back of her head she was thinking of Robert and that last thing he'd said – what did it mean, coming from him?
Shirley nodded and examined Elizabeth shrewdly. Elizabeth said, "What is it?"
"Nothing." Shirley smiled to herself. "Only I'm glad you waited till now to make up your mind about Dr. Romano."
"Why?" Elizabeth said, astonished.
"Because Dr. Edson would have won a load of money if you had, and I don't want that man winning anything." Shirley shrugged. "I didn't bet in it, but there was an office pool going, whether you'd date Dr. Romano to get your fellowship back."
"Good Lord, that's horrifying," Elizabeth gasped.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Well, it's not your fault." She frowned as she thought this over further. Could she have gotten her fellowship back by dating him…? "My God," she muttered, "what am I thinking? That man!"
As they rolled their septic diabetic towards the elevator, Shirley answered, "People aren't usually thinking in times like this."
"I thought Mark over very carefully," Elizabeth said absently. There was a pause as Shirley raised her brows, her point made, and then Elizabeth said, "Oh."
They laughed as Elizabeth wheeled her patient into the elevator. Shirley stood back as the doors closed, and then the elevator started up towards the roof.
Elizabeth looked down at the patient, Monty, and ascertained that he was all right. Then she closed her eyes, picturing Robert. The deep-set, cryptic eyes; the low menacing brow; a smile never quite free of sarcasm or acidity. Not a beautiful face, not a beautiful person. But that didn't matter.
And he loved her.
She opened her eyes as the elevator bumped to a halt at the roof. As the doors opened, she could already hear the chopper whirring above.
Chloe was in the kitchen when Susan let herself in, with the key that Mark had given her a few weeks ago. She leaned back from the oven when Susan came in. "Hey Suze," she said in a stage whisper. "I'm making pizza."
Susan was a little nervous. "You're cooking?"
"Hey, I'm a good cook now," Chloe said.
No comment there. Susan assented, out of laziness.
"But," Chloe finished with a grin, "I'm just heating up leftovers from last night."
"Oh, good," Susan said, relieved. She'd never been fond of Chloe's "cooking."
"Have a little faith, Suze," Chloe reprimanded her lightly.
Suzie turned around from the table and waved at Susan. "Hey Aunt Suzie," she said, "I'm making you a picture."
"Thank you, honey! --Where's Chris?" Susan asked Chloe.
"Well, I sent her home because I knew you were staying here tonight."
"But what about Ella?" Susan said, looking around and seeing no child.
"Oh, she went down early," Chloe said.
"Chloe!" Susan exclaimed, irritated. "She'll be up in the middle of the night if you let her sleep this early."
"Sorry, Suze. God, calm down."
Susan promptly calmed down, with a superhuman effort. That was all you could do with Chloe. "How is Mark?" she asked finally.
Chloe shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know, I'm not a doctor. He was asking for you, though."
"I'll go up in a second." She went over to praise Suzie's Crayola picture of an unidentifiable four-legged green animal – apparently Susan had passed on her poor artisanship to her namesake – and then slipped upstairs.
Just as she was peeking in on Ella, to satisfy herself that the child was still alive and sleeping, she faintly heard Mark's voice ask hoarsely, "Susan?"
She stole out of Ella's room and down the hall to Mark's bedroom, whispering, "Hey."
His eyes were only half-open, she could see, and his lips pale. He must be dehydrated – she should have reminded Suzie to give him plenty of fluids – and she could hear his attempts to breathe, from all the way across the room. She tried to smile at him as she came over to the side of the bed.
He reached upwards aimlessly with his hands, so that she leaned down and kissed him softly. His hand slid around her waist. "Glad to see you don't have smallpox," he whispered.
"It turned out to be monkeypox," she said wryly, smiling at him though all she could think was that his lips were deadly dry.
He kept his hand on her waist as she stood up. "Monkeypox?" he repeated blurrily.
"I don't know exactly what the difference is… but if monkeys get it, I really don't want it."
"Yeah, me either." He nodded to the chair in the corner of his room and said, "Sit."
Susan pulled the chair close by him. "You need to drink some water," she told him. "Your lips are all chapped."
He took a plastic cup half-full of water from the nighttable by his bed, and the weight of it made his hand shake as he held it to his own lips, but he lifted his other hand to preclude Susan's aid. Then he took her face and brought it down for another kiss. "Better?"
"Wasn't so bad the first time," she said.
"Glad to hear it."
From the stairs, a voice sing-songed, "Anyone want pizza?"
Suzie dashed into the room and threw herself onto Susan, giving her a big tight hug. "Meee," she yelled.
"What did you feed her?" Susan asked Chloe jokingly, as she entered the room balancing four plates of pizza.
"Just a brownie," Chloe joked back.
Susan glared. "Not funny."
"I want a brownie," Suzie said obliviously.
Mark blew a kiss at her. "Me too, Suzie," he said with a little smile. "A big fudgy one. With chocolate frosting on top."
"And sprinkles," Suzie said.
Susan took two plates from Chloe and balanced one on Mark's lap. "Can you eat anything?" she asked him under her breath.
He shook his head just as subtly. "Don't think so."
Susan put the plate on the nighttable and started devouring her own pizza, realizing for the first time that she hadn't eaten all day while stuck in lockdown. Suzie jabbered through mouthfuls at no one in particular, and the three adults were quiet and indulging.
When Susan's first slice was gone, she looked at Mark questioningly. He laughed. "Go ahead."
"Thanks." She took his plate and started eating his pizza, too. "God, I'm so hungry."
"I can tell," Chloe said expressively.
Below them, the front door slammed. "That will be Rachel," Susan muttered.
"What time is it?" Mark said foggily. "Did school just get out?"
"I'll go down and talk to her," Susan said.
She left Chloe and Suzie with Mark and went downstairs. Rachel was slipping off her backpack, and jumped when Susan said her name. "Oh, Susan," she said. "You scared me."
"Sneaking in?" she said. "Did you think Mark was too sick to notice you were late?"
"No, I just – I had a meeting. Yearbook."
"You're on the yearbook staff," Susan repeated skeptically.
"Yeah," Rachel said, with aggravating wide-eyed innocence.
"Sure, and on Tuesdays you stay for the Just Say No club," Susan surmised under her breath.
Rachel didn't hear. "What?"
"Nothing." Susan came down a few more stairs. "Your father isn't doing very well," she said quietly.
The girl's eyes dilated, but she maintained her stony face. "Yeah, I know," she said with a sneer. "Brain tumor."
"He told me today he doesn't want to go to the hospital," Susan said. "He's getting ready."
Rachel hesitated. "Ready for what?"
Susan didn't answer.
Rachel sighed. "Does he know I'm late?"
"He's not clear on details."
She stalked upstairs and turned over her shoulder to say softly and vehemently, "Don't tell him anything."
"Wait a second," Susan said, catching Rachel's wrist as she brushed rudely by.
She shook Susan off. "What?"
"He loves you and Ella more than anything else in this world," Susan said quietly. "Do you understand?" He needs you to be his daughter. Just for a few more days.
Heavy lids closed over Rachel's dishonest eyes. When she opened her eyes after a long second, she was looking down. "No," she said, her voice still sullen but barely audible now. "I don't understand why."
She turned and fled up the stairs. Susan called Chloe and Suzie in a whisper from the stairs, "Come and help me do the dishes, you two."
They came out as Rachel slipped in. The door closed behind her, and Susan turned away.
Downstairs, Chloe said, "I would help you do the dishes, but Suzie has a sleepover at Georgina's house. They're going to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding tomorrow in the movie theater."
"Right, right, I completely forgot," Susan said. "Thanks so much for helping out today." She turned to Suzie. "Have fun tonight, honey."
Suzie wriggled in protest as Susan kissed her forehead goodnight. "I want to stay with you," she whined.
Susan picked her up to give her a big hug, smiling over the little girl's head at her sister. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said. "Mark needs somebody to stay here tonight, okay?"
After wrinkling her nose and staring hard at Susan, Suzie suddenly demanded, "Are you going to have sex?"
"Suzie!" Chloe gasped, whisking her daughter out the door. Suzie protested, something about "But Georgina told me…"
"I wish," Susan muttered aside to Chloe with a laugh. Then she told Suzie, "Don't forget I bought Oreos, you can have some when you get home, okay?"
Chloe kissed Susan on the cheek. "Call me if you need me," she said quietly.
Susan waved, putting on a cheerful face for Suzie, and shut the door, leaving herself alone in Mark's living room, which she had only begun to think of as hers.
Susan leaned back against the door, closing her eyes as tears gathered behind her lids. She heard a creak and saw Rachel's slim shape at the top of the stairs. She got down third steps and then suddenly bent over, her hands to her face.
When Rachel straightened, her eyes met Susan's in recognition. She quickly hid her tears, and Susan wiped her own face. By the time Rachel was all the way down the stairs, she had grown sullen again and said curtly, "He's asleep."
"Okay," Susan said softly.
When she got back upstairs, Mark was asleep again. She checked his forehead; no fever; and sat down by his bed, feeling lost. This morning, they had spoken of death as something certain, but not imminent. Now it had already marked his face. She hadn't been prepared for how fast the last descent might be.
She realized that things had managed to turn out exactly as she'd planned: a life with Chloe, with Suzie, and not Mark. Exactly the direction she had chosen a long time ago – but she couldn't face a future without him now. After all the other men who didn't matter, he was forever. But only for a little while, and then someday she'd come to terms with solitude the way she had before.
Susan touched his hand, needing to feel him. Something broke inside her.
"I can't do it," she said matter-of-factly, into the unhearing room.
He stirred at the sound, but didn't awaken, and she bent her head without shedding tears.
The gurney made a loud noise as they wheeled it hurriedly out of the elevators. Elizabeth looked down at Victor. His face was pale, and his arm – what was left of it – was spurting blood despite the tourniquet. Dried vomit around the mouth.
Footsteps skidded up to her, and sound echoed around her, refracted as through a prism. "Is that that med student?" she heard a man's voice say. And then a woman, "Oh my God…"
It was Chen and Pratt. Elizabeth collected herself. "He stepped into the chopper," she told them briskly, swallowing back her own nausea. "I need one of you to go to my office and get Dr. Romano."
"Romano?" Pratt said skeptically.
"Yes, get him!" she said. "Brennan needs surgery right away, we can't wait for ortho."
"Does he still have privileges?" Chen said.
"Do you see any other surgeons around here?" Elizabeth snapped. "I don't think anyone's going to sue us for saving this boy's arm. Go and get him, now."
"Too late, I'm here," said Robert's voice, never so welcome, as he dashed towards her already in the midst of tying on his own scrub cap. "Scrub in and I'll start," he said, and then caught a good look at the sight before him. "Jesus Christ," he muttered.
"Tail rotor," Elizabeth said.
"Horrifying." He snapped back into himself. "You have the arm?"
"On ice," she said, indicating the bloody severed appendage.
Victor's eyes fluttered open. "Victor," she said urgently, "Can you hear me?"
"My arm…" he muttered.
"Don't worry, Rocket and I are going to reattach," she said. "You're in the hospital, everything will be fine."
His face blanched with fear, and he went out again.
"Take him," Elizabeth told Romano as she dashed to the nearest sink. "Pratt, go up to the roof and help Kovac with his patient; I left them up there alone. And Chen, get that nurse from quarantine."
She started washing her hands, and immediately heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Abby, her face white. "What happened to Luka?" she gasped.
Elizabeth shook her head, startled. "Nothing. We were up on the roof and a med student stepped into the chopper rotors and lost his arm."
"Oh." Abby exhaled, shaky. "God. I heard that someone got hurt up on the roof—"
"Someone did," Elizabeth said briefly. "I sent Chen down to tell you, but I suppose rumors travel too fast even in an empty hospital. Your Luka is fine, but he needs to have some sense talked into him fast," Elizabeth said irritably, recalling the quarrel they'd had up on the roof over whose patient would get into the chopper first. "The man is a stubborn ass."
"You date Romano and you think Luka is a stubborn ass?" Abby said.
"Hey," Elizabeth protested, confused. She wasn't even sure she was dating Romano, yet.
"I'm a nurse," Abby said. "We know things."
Still bemused, Elizabeth asked, "Will you get a scrub cap and tie it on for me? I'm in a hurry."
"Sure." Abby got a cap – which was actually the old, plain light blue one that Peter used to wear – and stood on tiptoe to fasten it around Elizabeth's hair. "Sorry, I didn't mean to keep you. I was just worried about Luka."
Elizabeth lifted her eyebrows at the tone in her voice, but didn't comment except to remark, "You and he have two weeks together in quarantine, right?"
"Right." Abby laughed dryly. "Should be interesting, to say the least."
"Hey," Romano called over from the next room, through the window. "Would you ladies mind cutting the blabbing short? You're going to miss the spectacular save I've got going on here."
"If you're such a brilliant surgeon, you can save the arm all by yourself," Elizabeth retorted.
Abby finished tying the cap and laughed as Elizabeth started towards surgery.
"What?" Elizabeth asked.
"You and Romano." Abby shook her head, wry. "Match made in heaven."
By the time the ortho guys – well, a guy and a woman, both from Northwestern, who greeted Romano with recognition and deference once introduced – had shown up, it was fully nighttime, and Romano and Elizabeth were already finishing up with the kid's arm.
As Elizabeth stayed inside, Romano escorted his two new colleagues out to the ambulance with Victor and chatted lightly with them for a few minutes. "I couldn't tell your work from a specialist's," Ramsey said, with Varshisky nodding along.
He knew this was true; he also knew that they said it to flatter him. "Don't bother, I'm never gonna like you or anyone else who works for me," he said. "I'll be in later this week."
Bewildered a little, they said clumsy good-byes and took off in the ambulance. He turned back, squinting in the dark at the eerily unlit hospital.
When he got back inside through the employee entrance, he made his way over to the admit desk and his eyes immediately lit upon Elizabeth. She was sitting in chairs, staring at an unopened bag of Lays, and her eyes drifted closed while he watched, only to have her muscles jerk her back upright and her eyes fly open.
He approached and leaned against the edge of the wall that jutted out next to the vending machines, waiting for her to see him.
When she did, the sleepiness disappeared, replaced by a nervous, hazy-eyed alertness.
"We did good today," he said. "We saved the arm."
"Does it matter? He still can't be a doctor."
"Lab work for the rest of his life," he said. "I'd throw myself off the roof."
Elizabeth looked quickly up at him. "I haven't eaten since this morning," she said after a moment, to explain the bag she was holding. "I'm so hungry, but I don't even have the energy to open these stupid chips."
He walked over to her and deliberately plucked the bag of chips from her hand, tearing them smoothly open and dropping them back in her lap. "Go ahead."
She shook her head and tossed them in the general direction of the trash can nearby. They landed on the floor, flattening with a loud crackle of packaging.
"WNBA, look out," he said.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. He noticed that her hair was frizzing out of the restraints of her bun, and reached out to smooth a lock hanging down by her cheek, brushing it back behind her ear. She closed her eyes for a moment, disarmed. His breath and everything he'd been about to say left him. God, even like this, tired and messy and a little sad, she was so beautiful it hurt.
After a moment he dropped his hand. "You know," he said slowly. "I've never been much for other people. I like cutting, slicing, fixing things – surgery. It's a field where you know the answers, you know when you've won and when you've lost."
"It's tidy," she agreed.
"Right." He thought she probably knew what he meant. She did the same thing, Elizabeth, always running after men who were so much less than she was. Carefully he tilted her chin up to look at him. "I had no idea this was coming, but it did. And I wasn't ready."
She tilted her head, her eyes flicking down to his lips. "And now?"
For answer, he took her face in two hands and kissed her.
After a startled moment, she kissed back, making a small sound of pleasure or pleading. He leaned down over her, supporting his weight with one hand gripping the plastic seatback behind her. She slid her hand around his neck, her fingers cool and soft on the skin just under his collar. He kissed her again, softer this time, gently opening her mouth.
Some minutes later, when his free hand brushed the right side of her neck, she winced and jerked back.
"Seatbelt burn," she murmured.
They paused, a little awkward. He found his eyes irresistibly drawn to her lips, but instead he straightened up. Her hand slid easily off his neck and dropped to her lap.
Elizabeth nodded to the door. "Time to get out of here?"
"Yeah, about twenty-four-hours past time," he said.
"Tell me about it," she said. "I haven't slept since yesterday morning."
"You want me to call you tomorrow?" he asked uncertainly.
"No, no, let's get dinner at least," she said.
He lifted his eyebrows at the last two words.
"Oh, stop," she said, half reproving, half amused, and kissed him quickly after she'd stood up. "Your car went to the shop, right?"
"Don't remind me," he groaned. "My most vivid memory from that whole thing is how my poor Jag looked after you were through with it."
"It's not so bad," Elizabeth said. "You can share the trains with the hoi polloi or whatever, just this once, can't you?"
Laughing, he walked her out the doors and stepped out of the hospital, into the summery evening outside.
When Mark woke, he thought that his eyes weren't open. It was dark, very dark, the way sleep was.
Consciousness jerked at his muscles, and a warm weight became apparent on his hand. It was Susan's fingers. Gingerly, he reached to the dark blurry shape of her head. She was sitting in the same chair, her head bent down to rest on the covers by his side. It must be uncomfortable.
When he brushed his fingers over her short choppy locks of hair, she murmured, "You awake?"
"What time is it?" he murmured, as he always did.
"Late," she said.
"Did I wake you up?"
"No, I wasn't sleeping," she said. "Just watching."
"In the dark."
"Sure, it's atmospheric," she kidded him, her voice very tired.
"Where did everyone go?"
"Rachel is in bed, and Chloe and Suzie went home. It's just you and me." She paused. Out of the silence, a thin strain floated towards them. Mark's dormant parental instincts sounded the alarm as he recognized the distant sound of Ella crying, but it was Susan who rose. "And Ella, now." As she walked towards the door, he heard her mutter, "I told Chloe it was a bad idea to put her to bed so early."
A few seconds later, Susan came back holding Ella, and settled down in the chair again, with the baby in her lap. Ella was already quiet; she had grown attached to Susan quickly, although she sometimes still asked for her Mama, on those nights when there was thunder, when Elizabeth always rocked her and sang her the same worn verses of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
But tonight, Ella was curled against Susan's lap, her chubby arms around Susan's neck. Mark ran the back of his hand down her back. "Hey Ella," he whispered thickly.
She whimpered, too drowsy to really cry. Susan rocked and rocked and rocked, but the whimpering continued. Finally Mark started singing, forcing the notes out past the pain it caused to breathe. It wasn't Elizabeth's song but a different one he'd heard on the radio, this morning after Susan left. "And I'd give up… forever… to touch you—" he rasped.
Susan smiled and joined in. "'Cause I know that you'd feel me somehow," they sang together.
Mark gave up after his voice faded to a croaking whisper. Susan kept crooning, in Ella's ear, "You're the closest to heaven, that I'll ever be…"
He closed his eyes as Susan kept singing, her voice as soft as the hand that reached out to take his. After a few more lines Ella stopped whimpering, and Susan trailed off.
"She's sleeping," she whispered.
"Don't put her back in her crib just yet," Mark said.
"Maybe we'll just sleep here."
"That can't be comfortable."
"I did it all the time with Suzie." Susan paused. "God, though, Ella's heavy."
"Hey, she's not that big," Mark said.
"Yes she is," Susan giggled. "I was a chubby baby, but not this chubby." Ella made a soft contented noise and settled more comfortably against Susan. "Or this cute," Susan added, kissing Ella's forehead affectionately.
"Oh, I don't believe that," Mark said.
"You should see the pictures before you judge that."
"You have to show me them, sometime," he said.
"Yeah," she agreed. "Someday I'll bring you some pictures."
"I'm sure," he mumbled, "I'm sure you've always been beautiful. Always."
The moonlight was dim, but bright enough to illuminate the liquid blonde of Ella's hair and the smile on Susan's face. Mark held onto that image as he felt another wave of drowsiness wash over him and seduce him back into sleep.
Elizabeth had begun to feel like a teenager.
"How far till we get off this thing?" Romano murmured, as they sat tensely still next to each other. He hadn't laid a hand on her since they'd stepped outside, in public, which was why she felt like she was sixteen and on her first date, desperately wondering about the kiss at the end of the night. They'd grabbed a quick dinner at Doc's, and then gotten on the El, where they sat too close and too far apart.
"Thirty seconds," she shrugged as the train started slowing down at her stop.
"We're a little old to do the whole public display of affection thing," he muttered, "but I swear if it had been one more minute I couldn't keep my hands off you."
She stood, and he looked up at her with a little motion of the jaw as if he wanted to kiss her right then and there. "I know what you mean," she said with a smile.
He stood next to her. "Is that an invitation?"
"Yes, for a coffee at my house," she said coolly.
"Huh," he said, feigning chagrin. "Now, where's your apartment?"
They stepped off the train, onto the platform. Elizabeth nodded to the nearby building, her new home. "There. A three minute walk."
"Must get loud, so near the station."
"But no taxi fare," she said. "It works for me."
They took the walk in near silence, walking very close; she liked this new silence, alive and crackling, and warm. At her building, she said quietly, "Here it is."
"Not too shabby," he approved.
The elevator was already open to the lobby, which was deserted to weeknight stillness, only a security worker lolling sleepily backwards in his chair. Elizabeth stepped into the small, lushly carpeted car first, and Romano followed her, his eyes directly meeting hers in anticipation. "What floor?" he murmured, and she pressed the button for "28."
The doors closed. She looked up and noticed vaguely that the ceiling of the car was made up of a bright sharp mirror, before stepping into his arms.
Somehow they got up to her floor and to her apartment through a messy, hasty kiss, all hands and lips and tongue and clumsiness. She fumbled in her purse for her key without letting go of him, and they stumbled through the door and into the darkened hallway of a flat that was still unfamiliar to her, anonymous, undecorated.
She reached behind her with one hand and flicked on the light.
Startled, Robert backed away, blinking, disoriented. The sounds of their unsteady breaths bounced along the bare walls. He looked around, into the den, where the hall light was softly stealing along the outlines of starkly arranged couches, a table that would someday hold a television set, a coffee table without books. The carpet and the walls were light-colored, the furniture dark in contrast.
She felt embarrassed. "I haven't had time to settle in."
It looked like she wasn't planning to stay; like a hotel room, awash in impermanence. She knew what he was thinking, but he nodded noncommittally. Elizabeth walked by and flicked on the main light. The kitchenette became visible beyond.
Robert touched his thumb to the bags under her eyes. "Long day, huh."
"Long two days," she corrected him tiredly. "It felt like a week."
"You're not kidding."
She blinked lazily, and his voice returned to its normal comforting brusqueness as he said, "I'll get that coffee, I assume you keep the proper implements in the kitchen over there?"
"And the cups are in the cupboard over the sink," she added, too tired to play the proper host, and then went into the family room and sank into the black leather couch, the one that faced the spot where the TV would go when she got around to buying one. The slippery soft cushions cradled her exhausted body, and she was enveloped by a lovely warm drowsy feeling.
"I can only find instant coffee," Robert called from the kitchen.
"That's all I have at the moment," she retorted languidly, too sleepy to come up with anything witty.
As Robert prepared the coffee without addressing more words to her, Elizabeth listened to the water running, the kettle hissing, the cupboard doors squeaking open and closed. Comforting sounds. He belonged here, she thought. They both belonged, finally, in this new dark and alien place, in this rough-edged, sparsely furnished corner of the world that wasn't a home yet but could be.
She turned her head slightly, towards the window. This high up, the stars were clear beyond the polluted air of the city.
A small noise attracted her attention, and she looked back to the arched passage between den and kitchenette, where Robert was standing with two mugs in hand. She smiled, and he came to her, and his lips were soft on her mouth and neck as he slid the untouched cups of coffee onto the table beside the couch. They'd drink later.
Someday she would tell him what she had been thinking in that moment, about stars and home and him, and love. Someday, when she had the words.