Soon after their graduation, Dr. Burke and Dr. Hahn meet for a goodwill dinner. Hahn has this unbecoming little smirk that arrives at times like this. "Have to make business dinners interesting somehow, don't we?"

Reaching a Higher Level

He is Preston Burke (newly Dr. Preston Burke, soon to be the Preston Burke, famed surgeon) and he cleans up very well, if he may say so himself, though it's rare to find him not clean. Exactness is Burke's defining virtue, and the exactness of his tenblade, his mind, and his hand is exactly why he will soon be the foremost cardio-thoracic surgeon in the country.

Burke sees no reason to not aim high. If you aim high and work hard, you're guaranteed a satisfying share of mediocrity at the very least, if you must settle. He has no intention to settle.

He sweeps the smoke from the smokers at the bar from his face. It's not a minute before he spots Erica Hahn (Dr. Erica Hahn, he reminds himself, though she's always had that air around her, doctorate or not) walking into the lobby of the Thai restaurant. She looks almost the same as on any given day except for the dress, a plain and demure dress in the same blue shade as her cold eyes. She approaches him directly.

"I think you're late," Burke notes with a smile.

"I'm not late. You're early," Hahn says, a faint grimace of satisfaction rising at the challenge.

His shrug maintains the line of his suit, his second-best suit. (His first is, of course, at the cleaners, as there's no point in dressing up for your rival.) "Timeliness is relative. But I was first," he adds, aware of the irony.

Hahn makes a face at the comment. "It doesn't matter. This isn't a date," she mentions with purposeful tactlessness.

Burke tries not to look as astonished as he feels at the idea. "I didn't think so. You date?" He examines her dress with amusement.

She pulls at the dress and grimaces. "No, but that doesn't mean I have no nice clothing. Stop looking," she adds. "People will think this is a date."

"This isn't a date," he agrees. "I don't bring my dates here. Well, our table should be ready."

"This isn't a date because I don't date," Hahn reminds him, briskly leading the way to where the hostess stands (and she doesn't look bad at all, but Burke is too much of a gentleman to flirt with another woman even on a non-date date).

"And I wouldn't date you," Burke assures her, turning a smile to the hostess, who seems surprised at hearing this man make that sort of comment towards his female companion. "Hello..." He glances at her nametag. "Marian, our reservation is under 'Burke,' table of two. It's a professional dinner. She doesn't date," he adds. Marian smiles uncertainly.

"Forgive Dr. Burke, he's suffering from ego overinflation," Hahn says dryly. "You can go ahead and seat us, he'll be back for your number later."

"Some women appreciate a gentleman, Dr. Hahn," Burke responds with a smile.

A pink-faced Marian reaches for two menus and sends them off with a waitress. "That was unnecessary," Burke says, striding ahead of her.

Hahn catches up and gives him an unladylike punch in the arm. "Has Preston Burke lost his thick skin? I'm disappointed."

"Don't worry, I am as unaffected by you as I always have been." He takes a seat, accepting the menu from the waitress and scanning it with a discerning look. Hahn does the same, and silence passes between them for a long, thoughtful moment, before she speaks confidently.

"I'm getting Level 4."

Burke raises his head from the menu to give her a long, calculating look. "You are not."

"Yes, I am. What are you getting?" Hahn smiles at him with what looks like triumph.

Not today. Not after graduating first just above her, no. "Level 5," Burke says pleasantly.

Her eyebrows flick up. "I'm not sure they're prepared for Level 5 here, Dr. Burke. But if they are, I'm sure they can make two."

He considers stopping this competition before it begins, but Hahn is not the sort of woman who will accept a truce. You win or you lose, they both know that. "Good. I hope you can handle that kind of heat," he adds, with a bright, challenging smile.

Hahn leans on the table and looks straight at him. "I can handle any kind of heat."

Burke simply shrugs. "We'll see."

Hahn has this unbecoming little smirk that arrives at times like this. "Have to make business dinners interesting somehow, don't we?"

He is Preston Burke, and he is managing to keep a straight face. So far.

His plate is half-full. He always was an optimist. He tries to focus on this, and on the determined line of Hahn's mouth, instead of the searing pain in his mouth.

Whose idea was Level 6, again?

"You're sweating," she says, a bit hoarsely.

"I think the sweat in your eyes is fooling you, I'm fine," he manages.

She looks down at her plate and gathers a forkful of food, chewing it with more bravado than gusto. "When are you going to give, Preston?"

"Surrender isn't interesting, Erica," Burke quips, and grimly makes himself have another forkful. He swallows with a manly determination; if he loses she will never forget it, ever. Her success in making the third in their class, Kim Miller, cry after a final exam made Hahn's poker face and tactlessness legendary, but he has no intent of being beat (especially after making a fairly final win at their graduation).

Hahn coughs into her hand and offers a wide, fake smile that could be a grimace of pain. "I'm done. Full," she clarifies. "Full. And this was fun. Thai food's my favorite."

"Do you always chatter when you're nervous?" he shoots back.

She drops her fork, looking away with a pained look. "I'm just making pleasant conversation with a former classmate and rival."

Burke clears his throat, fixes his tie to stall. "I think we've both suffered enough," he begins.

"Is that surrender I smell?" Hahn wonders.

He pauses after the interruption. "I'm not surrendering. I'm suggesting a truce."

The look she gives him is almost comedic in its deadpan surprise. "A truce. Between you and me?"

He folds his hands patiently and turns a benevolent smile on her. "Well, I didn't want to say this, but I would hardly want to humiliate you for a second time in a week..."

Hahn snorts. "Please, you're just trying to blackmail me into giving up."

Burke gestures to their plates. "We can keep on going, if you want."

She takes only an instant to consider the deal. "Best to stop while I'm ahead."

"And not sick to your stomach," he adds under his breath.

"Don't start with me, Dr. Burke, I've got at least three bites left in me."

He gives a swift nod and sticks his hand across the table. "Truce."

She shakes it with a firm grip. "Truce."

"... Until next time."

"Naturally. I won't be so easy on you next time."

"I hope not."

They split the check down the middle and take no doggybags. On the way out, the newly Dr. Preston Burke grabs a mint (for the sake of his mouth) and Hostess Marian's number (for the hell of it).