Disclaimer: All material related to the ER is not of my creation and does not belong to me.
Author's Note: It's been widely speculated that Season 14 will be ER's last season. The way I see it, there's no way that the writers can tie up all the loose ends they seem to be in the process of creating, so I have an urge to tell them how it should be done. So how about this for an ending?
Spoilers: Massive spoiler warning. Did you see that? I cannot warn you enough, this contains major spoilers. This piece of writing gives away what is rumoured to be the Season 13 finale, so if you haven't read the spoilers, don't read this (much as I would like you to). Honestly, if you don't know them, turn back now, but please feel free to come back at the end of the season, as it doesn't go beyond that. Sorry to be so repetitive, but I don't want to get shouted at for spoiling anyone; I don't think I can make the warning clearer than this.
It was a warm spring evening, not late, but late enough that a few stars had begun to shine somewhere way above the city streets. There were flowers out in the park as they walked along, Neela wasn't sure what they were but she savoured their sweet scent appreciatively, and the first breath of summer was in the still air.
She and Lucien were on their way home from dinner together. It wasn't the first time he had taken her out. In fact, they had been out so many times now, dinner, lunch, the odd theatre trip, art galleries, to visit his sister, even a weekend away in Vancouver last fall, that she supposed she should know by now what they were doing, but she still wasn't sure. Others would call it a relationship, but they preferred not to put a label on it, for fear of… she wasn't sure what they were afraid of. Everything probably, past, present and future. Especially the past.
They had been out no less than seven times before he first tried to kiss her, and four more after that before he had actually managed to touch her lips without stalling and pulling himself away before he reached them. The first time he kissed her, she hadn't been surprised; she had known from the several false starts that it was coming, so she had plenty of time to decide whether or not to let him.
In the end, she did. And it wasn't so bad. In fact, it had been quite nice, nice to be held again, nice to feel a little less horrible than she did most of the rest of the time. And now it was nice having someone to come home to at night. She had lived alone since she had left… Well, for a long time, and she had found the companionship surprisingly welcome. He might not be the greatest passion of her life, but she liked him, more than liked him, and was grateful to him. He was a lot more than she deserved.
They were strolling hand in hand, taking their time. Nothing they did, except at work of course, was in a hurry. It was as if he knew that she couldn't manage much at a time. As they were walking, Lucien paused in his stride, bringing her to a halt also. They were under a tree, and near enough to a street lamp to be bathed in its soft glow.
She sensed there was something amiss; he had been unusually quiet and pensive all evening, so turned to look at him. 'Lucien, is everything okay? You've been subdued all evening, it's not like you.'
He let out a weary sigh. He had hoped that she wouldn't have noticed his mood, but he should have known that she knew him well enough now to realise there was something going on.
'Neela, I…' He stopped, not knowing what to say, how far to go.
Her dark eyes gazed up at him, a flicker of fear lighting their haunted depths. 'Lucien, what is it? You're scaring me.'
'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to.' He took both her hands in both of his. 'Neela, I've been wanting to say this to you for a very long time, but I didn't know how, or even if I should. But I think it's time now.
'I never thought I would meet someone, have someone in my life. And then you came along, and you're beautiful and intelligent and one of the best surgeons I have ever met, and I'm… I'm in love with you.' She parted her lips to speak, but he gave her a slight shake of his head, and she stopped herself. 'I love you, but I don't expect you to feel the same. I know what you've gone through, everything that's happened, and I understand all that. I know I'm not… I know this is different to what was before. But I was wondering if, just maybe, you would…'
He paused in his speech, and fumbled in his pocket for something. Slowly, he drew out a small, navy blue velvet box, and opened it, revealing a very simple, very stunning diamond set in a platinum band. 'I was wondering if you would do me the very great honour of marrying me?'
Neela was dumbstuck. She felt like a truck had just hit her, knocked her right off her feet. Not in a bad way, but just, the shock. Even though he had never said it before, she had known he was in love with her. They had an easy understanding as a couple, and didn't need words to express things like feelings. Words were too hard anyway.
But she hadn't expected this. At no point so far had she regretted her relationship with Lucien, she had been more than happy to be swept along by the status quo, but this was… big. So many decisions she had made in her life had gone so terribly wrong that she never wanted to make another decision again. So far, she had been doing well on that front, but not anymore. This definitely required a decision.
Lucien was a good man, one of the best she knew; a kind man, and she respected him a lot, possibly more than anyone else she had ever met. The tiny part of her soul that wasn't still buried in her wrecked past did love him, but there wasn't a lot left of her heart to love with. Her heart wasn't hers to give away anymore. She didn't feel that fiery passion that lit her up from the inside out, she didn't get breathless when she saw him, but he made her feel, well, maybe not whole again, but a bit less broken. As if although life wasn't entirely worth living, it wasn't quite worth dying either. It was a balance that with his unending help over these last years, she had learnt to live with.
She looked at him waiting, his hopeful eyes fixed down on her. Seeing his upright stance, his honest, open look she was suddenly stuck by a similarity with someone else she had once known. Someone who was all the things that Lucien was; a good doctor, a kind man, who she respected, loved, liked. Someone who would make a fabulous husband. Any girl would be lucky to have someone like that, certainly a girl that had done all the things; she had would be very lucky indeed.
And if she said yes, there would always be someone to come home to at night. Someone to hold her in the darkness when the nightmares and memories that haunted her ceaselessly overwhelmed her and the sobs racked her body so hard she thought she would shatter into a million pieces. She didn't know if she could cope alone anymore, and it would be nice know that she wouldn't have to feel that cold, debilitating loneliness ever again.
Oh, and the gratitude. Not that that was a good enough reason to marry someone, but surely it ranked high enough to be considered a component part in the decision? It seemed so long ago, half a lifetime, that Michael had carried the can for her and saved her from getting fired. He had saved her career in medicine, and this man standing opposite her now had made her career in medicine. He had been the one to pull the strings, to offer her the surgical residency when there was no position open. He had carefully, painstakingly taught her everything he had learnt from his countless years of experience. He had made her into someone who, even in modesty she had to admit, was one of the best surgeons around. Her single minded dedication helped of course, but she knew it was down to him, to his patience, and his love.
Caring, patient, good. Yes, she had married that man before. Lucien and Michael were so similar in so many ways. And so different from… someone else. She cut off that line of thought. There was nothing to be gained from that.
She had taken the safe option when she married Michael. Okay, so on the surface, it might not have been that safe; getting married in a whirlwind on the same day he proposed, but at the end of the day, it had been safe, he had been safe.
And the safe option had been the wrong one then. It hadn't seemed so wrong when she did it, but time soon showed her that it was as far from being right as it was possible to be. So many people had been hurt, devastatingly, irreparably hurt. She had ruined lives by marrying Michael. Ruined her own, not that that mattered, but ruined… she couldn't even think his name.
People knew not to mention him anymore. Not that it was much of a problem; three years on, and half the people in the hospital didn't even know him. Abby and Luka lived in Croatia. Since Pratt left, the closest thing she had to a friend, other than Lucien, was Sam. They had never been particularly close before, but in a place full of new staff, they represented an older era that in a sea of changing faces didn't seem to exist anymore.
Her eyes had slid away from him, into the middle distance, and he knew she was lost in thought. Thoughts of the past. He knew she could never truly leave them behind, she had been through too much for the scars to ever heal.
Although she couldn't see him standing before her anymore, she knew he was there, still waiting, patient as always.
These last years had stretched into one blurred disaster of tragedy after tragedy. She had made so many mistakes that she couldn't even remember them all. But one thing, one shaft of light that pierced through the gloom, that had come to her was that there was no point in making mistakes if you didn't learn from them.
Everything had gone wrong before when she married a good, kind man who she thought, rather than felt, would be her mate for life. That was where it all started. She had always thought that her wedding day would be the beginning of a new life, and she had been right, but not in a way that she had ever imagined.
And now she was faced with the same choice again. This was her chance for atonement. She could never make everything, or even anything, okay again, but she was being given a chance to do the right thing, and this time, she would do it. This time, she would learn from her mistakes.
Finally, she looked up at him, meeting his steady, empathetic gaze, his gentle blue eyes.
'Lucien, I'm sorry. You're amazing, you're unbelievable, and I would never have lived through what I have without you. And I mean that in many ways. You're all I've got left in the world, but I can't marry you.'
Once she had finished her empassioned speech, she had to look away, unable, unworthy, to continue to meet his eyes. She didn't know what sort of reaction she expected from him, he was too dignified for tears she knew, and she couldn't see him being angry either, and she wasn't sure what that left. But what he did say took her by surprise.
'I know.' He snapped the lid of the box shut, trying to force to the back of his mind that he was closing the lid on his last chance he would ever have of being happy, of a normal life. He loved her, and that was why he was willing to sacrifice himself for her happiness. 'That's why I made a few calls.'
He saw a little frown of confusion pass across her face, which cleared when suddenly, in the silence of the still evening, Neela heard an unfamiliar noise. Sort of like…wheels. She felt Lucien put his arms gently on her shoulders and her turned her around.
Before she had even spun all the way round, her heart was beginning to race, and her chest somehow constrict at the same time. This couldn't possibly be happening. He couldn't possibly be here. Her mind was full, but not a single thought formed coherently.
And even though she couldn't believe what she was seeing, through the haze of tears that had sprung to her wide, frightened eyes, he slowly came into focus.
Apart from the wheelchair, he looked exactly the same, the same old jeans, the same scruffy t-shirt, the same beautiful, beautiful face. When she looked in the mirror, the reflection looking back at her looked ten years older than her years, yet he didn't seem to have aged a bit. If there had been lines of pain and suffering, they had either faded with time, or in her myriad of feelings at him being just ten feet away from her, she couldn't see them. And just as it always had, the sight of him made her knees weak and the blood pump heavily in her veins.
'Hello Neela.' Three years in Louisiana had accentuated the southern drawl that used to be only barely detectable in his voice.
'Ray, I…' Even if she hadn't been in too much shock to speak, she didn't know what to say. She didn't know what she could say. For the first few months, she had actually believed that he would return her calls, and for several months after that, she still hoped he would. But he didn't, he never did. And she had come to see that if he didn't want anything to do with her, then that was his choice; a choice he had every right to make.
So why now?
She didn't know how long they stood there, staring at each other. She felt like something was spinning, but she wasn't sure if it was just her head, or the entire earth rotating around its axis at a whole new speed. When she came out of her reverie, she could no longer feel the light pressure of hands on her shoulders, and a quick look around confirmed that Lucien had gone.
Ray had wheeled himself closer to her, and he was looking up at her expectantly. Using the chair annoyed him, he hated having to crane his neck up at people.
'Umm, do you want to go and sit on a bench or something?'
She could see the way he had to angle his neck to look up at her, and immediately agreed. When she was perched on the edge of a bench, and he was parked up next to her, they waited, unsure of how to begin. Even if they could begin.
When the silence had gone on so long that Ray began to feel it burning in his ears, he made himself speak, trying not to let his voice shake like his hands, buried in his lap so she couldn't see them, were. 'So, how have you been?'
She was glad to hear he sounded as nervous as she felt.
'Good,' she lied. She didn't know what else to say. Obviously he knew about her and Lucien. 'I umm… I went to visit Abby and Luka in Croatia last summer. It was good to see them again; Joe's really growing up, he's starting school soon.'
Ray nodded. It was only small talk, but he guessed they had to start somewhere. 'That must have been great, I've heard that Croatia is really beautiful.'
'Umm, yes, it is.'
There was another silence while they searched for more. She didn't feel brave enough to ask him how he had been, what he had been doing, even though she ached to know.
It saddened Ray that they couldn't seem to find the ability to talk to each other. If he could turn back the clock, to any point in his life, it would have been the heady, carefree days of rooming together. Of beers and poker and endless banter. Of waking up in the morning and knowing, at some point, she would be there to brighten his day. Given the choice of having all that back, or his legs, he knew which it would be.
'So, how's the old place? County?' He added, when she looked unsure of where he meant.
'It's the same as always. Different faces mainly, but still the same. I'm a surgical attending now.' She couldn't help a note of pride creeping into her voice at that. Work was all she had left to be proud of.
He looked across at her, impressed. 'Wow, an attending. Well done. You must be on a nice juicy salary with that gig. Better than a disability allowance.'
If she hadn't been too guilty, too ashamed, to look at him, she would have seen the sparkle in his eyes, teasing her. But she didn't, and soon he realised that she thought he might be serious.
He gently nudged her, and let out a brief laugh. 'Neela, I'm joking. I have a job, I'm still a doctor, an attending now as well.' He saw the relief flow into her features. 'I work in the ER of my local hospital. I have prosthetics I use for work, the chair bugs the hell out of me, but it's kind of a long way here from Baton Rouge, and they were beginning to pinch a bit, so I had to use this old thing. Not quite how I wanted you to see me again, but still.'
He had been trying to keep things light, but he saw that joking about his accident troubled her. He hadn't meant it to, but he was able to joke now. It had taken him the longest time, but it hadn't ruined his life, his world hadn't fallen apart around his ears like he had thought it would. In fact, he was happier now than he had been for a full year before he had left Chicago.
When his mother first took him home, he had been in shock he thought, and stayed that way for a long time. Then came the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, all of it in turn. He knew it was over limbs, and not a life, but he went through the stages of grief all right. Acceptance had been a long time coming. But when his mum had slipped out of the house one afternoon, and returned from a trip to the airport with a shaggy rocker, tired from his flight from California, things had begun to get better. Brett had bullied, cajoled and persuaded Ray out of his dark pit of depression and self loathing. It was Brett who dragged his sorry ass to the hospital for physiotherapy, prosthetics fittings, counselling, the works. He didn't know what hole he would even now be wallowing in without him.
He hadn't left until a fully fit Ray, standing as tall as ever, had accepted the job they offered him at the local hospital that had been his second home for the previous months. After the party he had thrown for him, Brett had jumped back on a plane, with a solemn entreaty to call him, whenever, and Ray's heartfelt, emotional thanks ringing in his ears.
Once his life had been rebuilt, Ray began to think about what he had left behind. He didn't like to dwell too much on the past, not knowing how much he could take without slipping back into the mire that he had so nearly drowned in, but there was someone who he knew deserved thanks.
Katey had come when he called, not complaining that it was a full year without a word after she had packed him into a car headed southwards. And when he asked her to stay, she said yes, transferring her internship across three states to be with him. And for the first few months, it had been as good as it ever was, better. She didn't patronise him, and she kept him on his toes, so to speak. But in the end, he couldn't do it. When he looked at her, it wasn't her he saw looking back at him, and he knew that someone as fabulous as she was deserved to be loved with a whole heart, someone who loved her for who she was, not who he wished she was. The memories were too great to overcome, and when he told her, she understood that too. She was in New York now, and loving it. The work was hard, but she was thriving on it. She was in her penultimate year of a surgical residency at a private hospital, and she said it suited her well.
So now he was here, back in Chicago, with no ties. Well, no ties beyond those he was here to see whether or not were still in existence. He hoped they were, but he had no expectations. He had learnt the hard way that that road led only to disappointment.
The minutes ticked away, the sound of traffic far away and nearly drowned by the breeze rustling the leaves of the tree overhead.
Finally, she turned to look at him. 'Ray, I –'
Her voice had purpose, and he knew what it was. He stopped her, reaching out to take her hand.
'No Neela, don't say it. Don't say any of it.'
'But I have to.' It hurt him so much to see the look in her eyes that he almost had to look away. There had been all the pain, all the suffering that he had managed to eradicate from his own eyes, but mixed with a horrific, terrible guilt as well.
'No, you don't. It was my fault as much as yours. All this. If I had had the courage way back when, before Michael, before everything, to tell you I loved you, we would have never have come to this. You would have thought that after watching you push me away and seeing what came of that, I wouldn't make the same mistake, but I guess I did.'
He paused, but she didn't say anything.
'I'm sorry I didn't return your calls.'
She couldn't believe he was sitting here, next to her, apologising to her. After everything she had done to him, he was saying sorry. He was trying to take her blame off her shoulders, trying to make things better. It had always been that way, she thought.
'I'm sorry you didn't want to.'
They were quiet again, but still holding hands. He began to stroke the back of hers with one cold thumb, moving almost imperceptibly, but it was enough.
Again, she was the first to break the silence. She sounded incredulous, as if she was in a dream and she wasn't sure if she was awake or not. 'I can't believe you're here.'
He was quick to reply. 'I can't believe I didn't come sooner.'
'I have to ask Ray, why now? Why did you come back? Did Lucien really call you?' It was typical Lucien, she thought. Always the greater good, always. What other man would propose to a girl, so sure that she would say no that he had already arranged for the love of her life to be waiting in the shadows for her?
'Yes, he did. But he wasn't the first.' He didn't know if people here knew Katey had left Chicago to come to him. Knowing her discretion, he suspected not. But he wasn't talking about her.
Neela looked sharply at him. She hadn't thought anyone here was still in contact with him. They certainly hadn't told her they were. Maybe someone had had some foolish notion that to keep it from her was for the best.
'What do you mean? Who?' She hoped he wasn't going to say Katey. She knew it was a hope she had absolutely no right at all to have, but she couldn't help a little leap of jealousy in her heart.
'When Pratt left to take the Chief of Medicine position over at Northwestern, he called me to say there was an attending position coming free at County. If I was interested.'
She looked at him in disbelief. But… It wasn't possible. He couldn't be coming back. It had been ages since Pratt had gone, so he can't have accepted it. Could he?
'Greg left three months ago.'
'And his job hasn't been filled yet, has it?'
Slowly, Neela shook her head, holding her breath.
'They've been keeping it open for me while I worked out my notice and helped them to find a replacement for me back in Baton Rouge.'
'Are you saying that you're…?'
'When Dubenko called me, it was initially in an official capacity. Greg put my name forward to him as his replacement, and he called me to offer me a job. But we soon got talking. I don't know if he meant to or not, but he made me realise that no matter what mistakes have been made, there is always a chance to learn from them.'
'That's funny, he made me realise the same thing.'
His hazel eyes locked with hers, looking into her soul. 'What have you learnt from your mistakes Neela?'
She took a deep breath, and drew confidence from the squeeze of his hand. She had never put the deep realisation that she had gradually come to into words before.
'That… That no matter how far or how fast I run, it will never be far enough or fast enough to forget about you. What about you?'
His heart suddenly began to beat so hard in his chest that he felt it was going to explode. He hadn't expected her to make an admission like that so soon; he knew only too well how hard it was for her to admit her feelings. But then, he supposed, they had both been through so much that all layers of pretence and evasion had been stripped away to this moment. Only honesty would do now.
And so he gave her an honest answer. 'The same.' He flashed her a cheeky grin. 'Although my running these days is distinctly metaphoric.'
She couldn't believe that he was able to joke about things. She hoped he wasn't using humour to mask deeper wounds, but however deeply she looked, there was no hidden hurt in his eyes; they were full of an unhaunted light. God, his eyes. She felt like she could drown in their depths.
She couldn't imagine laughing about what he was laughing about, but then, he had had three years to get used to the loss of his legs, and he was strong. Far stronger than she ever was.
She had to say something about it. 'Ray, I can't believe you lost your legs and you can make jokes about it.'
'Legs are overrated,' he answered flippantly. Then, seeing that she had asked a serious question, he returned her gaze, all traces of frivolity banished from both his eyes and his tone. 'They only help you to run, and look where that got us. It's the heart that matters.' He gave her an enigmatic smile. 'Not that I've got one of those either. That belongs entirely to you.'
Her whole world had stopped, and focussed in on this one moment, this one bench in a park on a spring evening. She thought her heart might have stopped as well. She hadn't thought that after so long he would still have this phenomenal, unbreakable hold over her. And she would never have dreamed that she would still have that hold over him.
'To you Neela, always to you. From the first moment I saw you, every moment I saw you.'
She had been fighting the tears ever since she saw him, but now they welled up and flowed freely down her cheeks, glistening in the lamplight. They were different tears to those late night sobs that Lucien smoothed away. They were… tears of relief. Relief that he was okay, relief that he didn't hate her. They might even be tears of happiness, although it was so long since she had been happy that she didn't think she'd recognise the feeling if it jumped up and slapped her in the face.
He reached out and wiped away the moisture. His touch sent shock waves through her.
'Would you like me to give it back?' she asked softly, referring to his heart, knowing from the look in his eyes his answer.
'Only if you're willing to do an exchange.'
Finally, for the first time since she had seen him, a smile crept across her face, and seeing it, it brought one to his as well. She was beautiful to him, but when she smiled… Man, it took his breath away. It always had.
'Nope, I don't think my heart's in a safe enough state to be moved from where it is.'
He raised a questioning eyebrow. 'And where is it?'
She took one of his hands, and placed it on her chest, over her heart. 'In your hands, Ray. Exactly where it's always been.'
'Neela…' he began, and then stopped. For a minute, they were sitting in a car, across town on a snowy night a long time ago.
He leaned forward slowly but decisively, and she came to meet him. Their lips brushed together softly at first, then, when she didn't pull away, he leant closer, kissing her more confidently. It was slow and sensual, and had their whole souls in it. Just like it had been before.
When, after an eternity, they broke away, breathless, and rested their foreheads against each other's, Neela saw that Ray now had tears on his cheeks to mirror her own.
'Ray, are we going to be okay?'
'I don't know if we can be. I really don't. But I've accepted the job; I'm coming back to Chicago. I want us to be okay.'
Her heart sang. She had never thought she would see him again, let alone have him back in her life. And she had definitely never allowed herself so much as the briefest flight of fancy that he would ever again touch her lips with his, run his hands through her hair and over her skin, kiss her in that way he did, like no-one else in the world.
And now he was here, here to stay.
But she had to warn him. They had to go into this with their eyes open. 'There's a long way to go. I'm still a mess Ray. I've been a mess for so long I don't know if I'm ever going to be any other way. I've been a mess since I married Michael, since before that even.'
He smiled his love at her. 'I'm here now. I'm here to help you.'
That sounded wrong to her. Fabulously, deliciously appealing, but not right. 'It shouldn't be this way round. I should be helping you.'
'Does it matter? As long as I'm here, and we're together, does anything else matter?'
'No,' she said eventually, leaning forward to kiss him again. 'Nothing matters in the world to me except you.'
Just before she met his lips, she slipped her mouth past them, and leaned towards his ear. What she whispered in it was so soft, so gentle, that he felt, rather than heard her words. But it was enough.
'I love you too Neela.'