Grace flopped herself on the couch with a tired sigh. For the second evening in a row she had overdone it with the running, pushing herself to the limit, and now, after a cold shower had given the adrenaline time to let up, her body was making a point of letting its discontentment be known. Then again, the pain in her legs and her feet distracted her from other places that were also hurting, parts of her that wouldn't be soothed by Tylenol. And that was good. Sort of.
She eyed her bedroom's door and felt a pang of guilt as she thought of Olivia's flash drive, that had been inside her purse for almost a week now. Grace had borrowed the pen drive from her former college roommate to make a copy of the audio recordings of an eating disorders seminar, planning to transfer the files to her own computer and return the pen drive safely to its owner before the end of the week. But she had forgotten about it for a couple of days, and then... Grace closed her eyes and heaved a weary sigh. And then there had been the perfect night, followed by the aftermath from hell.
"Sorry, Liv," she muttered, leaning forward to pick up the Chinese takeout box that sat on the coffee table, and groaning when the movement caused a renewed wave of pain to course through her right calf. Thank God it's Friday and I don't need to work tomorrow. Then again, Grace pondered as she popped open her soda can, now she had to find another way to pass the weekend, one that didn't involve any kind of physical exercise, but that also prevented her from mulling over things that would be better off left alone. Maybe a horror movie marathon, she thought, preferably with a couple of good friends who wouldn't ask questions if she told them not to.
Grace took a gulp of her soda while using her free hand to channel surf. She needed something light, something silly, something outright mind numbing.
"Family Guy" marathon. Thank God for small favors.
- x x x x x -
By the time Grace finally turned off the TV and stumbled to bed, Christian was arriving at his apartment after driving Sheryl home. He closed the door behind him and took off his jacket as he walked to the bedroom, feeling slightly nauseous for reasons that had nothing to do with the champagne he drank at "The Scene". He and Sheryl had traipsed from room to room at the swing party, and just like he had anticipated she had been very willing to try almost anything. After some point Christian had actually lost count of how many women he had been with that night, in different places and positions, in pairs and in threesomes, with relative privacy or before a cheering audience. He felt spent, and sated, and... yearning.
Christian was scowling as he hung his jacket on the back of a chair and proceeded to take off the rest of his clothes. He wouldn't be able to perform with another woman tonight if his own life depended on it, and yet... He angrily tossed his shirt over the jacket and cursed as he undid his belt. Damn that woman. Damn her to hell, popping into his mind at the most unexpected moments.
Then again, he thought while taking off his pants, it wasn't just that. He swallowed hard as he remembered the shock of seeing the woman he had mistaken for Julia walking arm in arm with Jude at the swing party. It turned out it wasn't her, after all, but for a moment he had been struck by such a sense of sheer panic that all thoughts of -- Grace -- other women had been momentarily pushed from his mind. The whole thing had made Christian feel exposed and abashed, and the sardonic look in Jude's eyes had left no doubt that the younger man had noticed it.
Christian sat on the bed and removed his socks and his shoes, the crease between his eyebrows deepening as he remembered the whole scene, the faces of Jude and Vivian Schiraldi, the woman he had mistaken for Julia, the sinking feeling he had experienced at the thought of Julia being there, Jude's knowing smile. It was official now, Christian thought as he took off his Speedo and headed to the bathroom: his life sucked.
- x x x x x -
Christian stopped at the door to his office, his hand resting on the doorknob unwilling to comply with his brain's command to open the door and enter the room, where Grace and his ten o'clock patient were already waiting for him. One week after their big falling out Grace still wasn't speaking with him: she didn't acknowledge his existence unless the presence of a patient required them to keep up appearances, and the civilness with which she addressed him then only made more poignant the cold silence with which he was treated afterwards.
Not that his own attitude towards her was any warmer, his conscience pricked him. Christian swallowed: they had been playing this game for a week now, a long, glacial silence punctuated by occasional flares of open hostility when no one was watching. And while they bickered over mundane things like who had left the refrigerator door cracked in the break room, neither one ever mentioned the one thing that was at the root of their quarrel. Christian let out a tired sigh: he didn't know about Grace, but he was feeling worn out by now.
Upset as he might be about the present state of things, though, he wasn't about to be the one to raise the white flag. Christian took a deep breath and pasted his best smile on his face before opening the door and entering his office:
"Good morning, ladies."
"Dr. Troy," Grace said with a geniality that fooled only the patient, nodding her head at him by way of greeting.
"Good morning, Dr. Troy," said Devon Greco, a blond woman in her middle thirties who was sitting somewhat stiffly on her chair.
"So, Miss Greco," Christian said after sitting across the desk from her, "tell me what you don't like about yourself."
"My nose," was the prompt response.
Christian just nodded his head and picked up the patient application form that was sitting on his desk; when Miss Greco didn't elaborate any further, though, he raised his eyes from the form and gently probed:
"Too big, too small?"
"Too much like my father's," she said curtly.
Christian blinked, puzzled; with the corner of his eye he saw Grace straighten up in her chair and give the other woman a curious look.
"Miss Greco," she said gently, "not to be presumptuous, but it looks fine."
"More than fine, Dr. Santiago," Christian said. "It's the gold standard; all the big models possess the aquiline slope," he added, smiling at Miss Greco. "Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington..."
"Yeah, well, I'm guessing that Christy Turlington's father didn't rape her," Miss Greco said dryly.
The room was silent for a beat as Christian and Grace sat frozen in place, both rendered speechless by the woman's words.
"But, hey, don't feel bad," she proceeded with mock nonchalance before either of them could regather their wits. "When I said I didn't feel like it, he'd give me money so that I could buy more Barbies," she told them, causing Christian to instinctively recoil in his seat.
"I thought that was love, you know," she added with a humorless smile.
"Did you report your father, Miss Greco?" Grace asked gently, leaning forward on the desk.
"When I was fourteen," Miss Greco said, nodding grimly. "My younger sister Janice had the room next to mine," she told them. "She was seven then. I heard him through the walls, whispering to her; I called the cops that night. We went to foster care."
"Are you currently in counseling, Miss Greco?" Christian asked in a composed voice, the short interplay between Grace and the patient having given him enough time to reestablish his defenses.
"Why does that matter to you?" -- Miss Greco frowned at him, casting him a suspicious look.
"You seem very angry," he told her mildly, the denial walls now securely based around the most dangerous areas of his mind. "You seem like you haven't really dealt with this."
Miss Greco straightened up in her seat, glaring at him.
"I've spent twelve years on a shrink's couch," she told him in a tight voice. "I'm sick of dealing with it. Every day when I look at the mirror, I see that man staring back at me."
Her voice trembled slightly and she stared defiantly at Christian's eyes as she demanded:
"I want him carved off my face."
Christian swallowed, Devon Greco's raw emotions causing his own demons to stir; he could almost feel them fluttering about in the darkest recesses of his mind like bats in a belfry. It took all he had to keep his composure under her burning stare, but he managed to proceed with but a slight tremor in his voice, averting her eyes as he opened his address book and quickly flipped through the pages:
"Miss Greco, I'd like to recommend a colleague of mine, Dr. Martin Hargrove."
"Wait a minute," she interrupted him, baffled. "You're blowing me off? Why?"
"I think you have unrealistic expectations," Christian said, a bit more harshly than he had intended to sound. But he couldn't stop now: he needed to get this woman out of his office, and he needed it now. "After you change your nose, then what, Miss Greco? Will you move on to altering your jawline?"
"Who the hell are you to tell me in what way I should properly heal?" she fired back, her voice trembling with outrage. "How dare you judge me when you have no idea what it's like to have a dick you can't say no to forced on you for years?"
Her words hit Christian like a physical blow, one that pushed all the air right out of his chest, and for a moment all he could do was stare back at her, the tight knot in his throat larger than ever. He felt naked and exposed, a sense of panic washing over him, feeling as if she could read his mind, everyone could read his mind, everyone knew.
When he felt Grace's hand suddenly close around his wrist, Christian nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Miss Greco, if I may...?" she said in a soothing voice that didn't trail off even when the patient's fiery glare was turned towards her. "What exactly do you expect your nose to look like after surgery? I'm afraid not like your father's is an awfully broad concept."
"I don't care," Miss Greco said tersely.
"As you've just mentioned," Grace softly reminded her, "this is the face you have to see in the mirror every day. As much as you don't like what you see today, at least now you know who this woman is; you don't want to be looking at the mirror every day for the rest of your life and asking yourself, who the hell is this woman and what's she doing in my life?"
"Does that mean I'm having the surgery," Miss Greco asked edgily, but in a slightly less aggressive voice, "or are you just stalling me?"
Grace hesitated; she was utterly surprised that Christian had let her get this far without cutting her off. Unlike during their visit to Children's Services a few weeks ago, when her hand and his wrist had practically held a conversation of their own while she spoke to the social worker, this time his forearm was just resting meekly on his desk. And yet she could feel his racing pulse beneath her fingers, like a rabbit caught in a snare.
"Miss Greco, I won't lie to you," she told the other woman, refraining herself from stroking Christian's hand, "the final decision isn't mine. Besides," she added after a slight hesitation, "right now I'm not sure this surgery is a good idea."
Devon Greco opened her mouth to protest, but Grace quickly held up her free hand to silence her:
"I'll be more comfortable adding my endorsement to your application if I'm assured that this isn't a spur of the moment decision that you'll have the rest of your life to regret." -- Grace paused, carefully choosing her next words -- "Miss Greco, we're talking here about breaking bones and cartilage in order to reshape your nose: if you don't like the final result, no surgeon will be able to undo the procedure just like he'd remove a silicon implant. They'd have to break it again and start anew. Trust me, you do care. And," she proceeded gently, "the fact that you haven't even considered this matter tells me that we should take the time to plan this surgery more carefully."
"Well, as you said," Miss Greco said dryly, "the final decision isn't yours to make. And I still haven't heard him" -- she motioned toward Christian -- "say that he'll perform the surgery."
Grace glanced at Christian, half expecting him to snap again, but the look in his eyes as he looked back at her was something she didn't quite know how to interpret. He looked like a man who'd rather be anywhere but here and who had absolutely no intention of being part of this conversation, but Grace could see the flicker of something else behind his composed, if tense, exterior: she just couldn't tell what it was.
"Right now," she said, almost unwillingly turning to the patient again, "I can see where Dr. Troy is coming from when he objects to this surgery. But if you agree to work with me on this matter, I might have a different point of view to present to him at your next consult."
Miss Greco shifted on her seat, not looking pleased, and Grace proceeded:
"That's the best I can offer to you now, Miss Greco, but think about it: as it is, the clinic's policy already requires you to have another interview with me before the surgery. So, even if Dr. Troy gave you the okay right here and now, we'd still be having that interview, whose sole purpose, mind you, is to ensure that the service we'll provide will actually meet your needs. We're only switching the order of the interviews here, with your interview with me taking place before your interview with your surgeon."
Grace held her breath and subconsciously held Christian's wrist a little tighter as Miss Greco pursed her lips, clearly pondering her options.
"I suppose I could give it a go," she finally sighed, looking less than enthusiastic.
"I'll walk you to the reception desk," Grace said with a smile before the other woman could change her mind, "and we'll set an appointment for you."
"Dr. Troy," she said, turning to Christian then, "if you have a few minutes after I set Miss Greco's appointment..."
"I'm late for surgery, Dr. Santiago," he cut her off, abruptly pulling his arm from her hand. "Miss Greco," he said curtly to the patient before standing up and leaving the room while the two women watched, agape.
After he was gone, Miss Greco was the first one to recover from the shock:
"There'd better be another surgeon in this place, because that man isn't getting anywhere near me with a scalpel."
- x x x x x -
"And," Grace said, angrily cutting her steak, "she was right, Liz. She was absolutely right: I wouldn't let that self-involved, arrogant, unstable, narrow-minded..."
"... jerk get anywhere near you with a scalpel either," Liz finished the sentence for her, knowing that, if she didn't, their lunch break would be over before Grace finished lining up insults before Christian's name.
"I was helping him!" Grace exclaimed indignantly. "He was lost there: he had absolutely no idea how to handle the situation, and I stepped in and brokered a compromise, and this is how he thanks me? Humiliating me in front of the patient?"
Liz watched in sympathetic silence as Grace huffed and shook her head, turning her eyes back to her meal.
"Why does he act like this?" Grace sighed before putting a forkful of steak into her mouth.
"Well," Liz said, playing with the croûtons on her Caesar salad, "it's hard to tell why Christian acts the way he does. Who knows?" -- she shrugged -- "Maybe he felt humiliated when you kept your act together whilst he was losing it, maybe he was mad at you for negotiating with a patient that he had already blown off. Or maybe he was just retaliating because you didn't hold the elevator doors for him on Monday."
"I was in a hurry," Grace grumbled.
"What kills me," she sighed when Liz smiled but didn't reply, "is this emotional roller coaster. If he has to be such a jerk, why can't he at least be a jerk all the time?"
Liz hesitated and took a mouthful of salad to buy herself some time. She had been watching those two's ups and downs for the last month or so, but she still wasn't quite sure of what to make of their relationship. It was easy to tell when things were good between them, and not just because they could be seen making small talk in the break room: Grace's mood was chirpier, and getting along with Christian was so much easier. But peace never lasted long, eventually giving place to somber periods like the current one, with Grace spending all her free time in her office, up to her elbows in patients' medical files, and Christian's sarcasm reaching alarmingly high levels.
Liz deliberately chewed her food, wondering what exactly had happened last Wednesday: she had left work early that day, when everything seemed to be fine between Christian and Grace, and had returned on Thursday to find them in full battle mode. But Grace still hadn't told her what happened, and Liz didn't feel comfortable asking.
"He doesn't act like a jerk one hundred percent of the time," Liz finally said, "because he's not a hundred percent jerk. Maybe not even a ninety percent jerk," she conceded, "but if you tell anyone I said this, I'll deny it."
She placed her fork back on her plate and leaned back in her seat with a sigh.
"The affection he has for Sean is sincere," she acknowledged, "and he's really sweet with kids. And I don't mean just Sean's children: most of our little patients believe Dr. Troy is the greatest guy since sliced bread with peanut butter."
"The problem is, Christian is like a hyperactive eight year old brat who tries to be good, but is easily distracted by pretty shiny things. He wants to do good, but he also wants to do what he wants, and he can throw a nasty temper tantrum if you remind him that the two things are not always compatible."
Liz stopped abruptly when she noticed the sad look on Grace's face.
"I upset you," she said contritely.
"You only said it like you see it," Grace said in a quiet voice.
"Honey," Liz said gently, "are you sure you don't wanna talk about it?"
"It's a long story," Grace sighed, not bothering to pretend she didn't know what the other woman was talking about.
"If you don't finish it over lunch, the drinks are on me after work," Liz offered with a smile.
Grace pursed her lips and stared at her food in silence for a moment, using her fork to roll a cherry tomato back and forth on her plate.
Finally, she turned back to Liz with a sigh:
"Throw in some Buffalo wings and you've got yourself a deal."