Summary: Colima!Fic. Part of the Prompt 01 Stephen and Natalie challenge at livejournal.
Prompt: Fireflies (oo6);; Table 003
Disclaimer: I do not own Medical Investigation or the characters. As for the unoriginal title, that's all me.
Author's Note: And this is what I call throwing together a million streams of thought and getting nothing... Guh.


Change

Walking the tattered streets outside of Villa de Álvarez brought back an eerie sense of deja vu. The rich, red dirt tousled and mixed with the dirty brown of old, splintered wood painted a picture of ruin. Buildings that once stood on crooked beams had shattered as if they were thin glass, scattered haphazardly across the road and unmarked paths. Sweltering and heavy heat gave the sensation of suffocation, causing even the natives to breathe heavily in compensation for the humidity. The weight of the day was beginning to settle on tired shoulders like a thousand pounds of brick.

Natalie pressed a gritty hand to her sweaty forehead, her eyes focused on the dull blue sky. It wouldn't rain yet, although the dry dirt beneath her forgotten hand begged for it while the moisture in the air gave false promises of it. Her eyes were already unfocused, allowing the dirty blue sky to remind her of America's hot South West. If she could just tune out the fluent Spanish dialect around her, Natalie would be able to immerse herself in a fantasy of Phoenix or Santa Fe, where the heat was the same as Colima's but the country was not battered and her own.

The sound of stones grinding as a collapsed building fell in on itself drew Natalie's attention away from the dirt she was kneeling in. Just over her left shoulder a commotion had begun, an echo of frantic words that no longer caused stress or panic but an automated response to a repeated situation. There was a familiar feeling of guilt knowing that she was ignoring the workers caught in the ruins of the collapsed building as she turned her attention back to the ruble of the clinic she was kneeling in front of. If it was anyone who shouldn't be digging the helpless out of stone and wood graves it was her, but the knowledge that she wouldn't be allowed to didn't help sedate any of her remorse.

Mexico was no place for a blonde American woman. Men who had listened to her when Frank, Miles and Connor had stood beside her hadn't waited a second to dismiss her existence when they were no longer there. No one wanted to take instructions from a woman with no particular importance. She had learned quickly that rushing to the aid of even injured men could result in a dusty splattering of spit at her feet and scornful brown eyes. The urge to disregard her inferiority in this impoverished place left her ears ringing and cheeks burning as she dug deeper into the dirt, her fingertips brushing against the soft substance she had been told to look for but had been hoping not to find.

"Aquí," her voice was foreign to her, tired and dry as it manipulated a language she never wanted to speak again.

"¿Dónde?" Where? It was an unfamiliar voice, gruff but not unfriendly.

Natalie wiped her hand across her forehead, knowing the dirt would darken and spread, but was unconcerned. When the man neared her, she pointed to the small hole she had dug and began to turn away, "Muerto."

Dead.

Her eyes raised to the dull, blue Colima sky once more as she took a deep breath of the muggy air. Spanish accents filled the silent void around her as she looked at the men pulling bodies from the fallen buildings. With little concern for the familiar events unfolding around her, Natalie turned and walked toward her jeep.They would know where to find her if they needed her.

The day had just begun and she was already too tired to work.

As she started the vehicle, Natalie gave a sigh of relief. In the hot breeze there was the smell of moisture. By nightfall this part of Colima would see rain.


The old hospital creaked and groaned under the assault of the rainstorm. Filthy windows overlooked a small lot of mud that would dry around the wheels of the sinking American vehicles and gave access to the rolling gray and green clouds that covered the vast sky. Her workplace held one such window and smelled of flourishing mildew, promising Natalie a fungal infection of the lungs if she resided there for too long.

A dim fluorescent light hissed as it flickered once then died, bathing one half of the room in an unnatural shadow. Regarding the light with bored curiosity, Natalie closed her laptop and rolled her hands, not surprised to hear a faint crackling from wrists, a sign that she had spent too much time typing a report that wouldn't be read. Sighing, she stood from the uncomfortable stool and winced as her upper back popped and lower back throbbed. Spinal pain, only one of many conditions she had gained in her line of work.

The room door slammed shut just as she managed to find a bottle of water without the customary thin film of dust on top. Shurgging off her lack of shock as dulled senses, Natalie turn to be sure that no one had entered her office and blamed the phenomena on the broken window in the hall before twisting the cap off of the bottle.

Without a proper latch to hold the door closed, it creaked open again before slamming shut.

A stool under the doorknob solved the noisy problem.

Two months in the foreign country with more patients than she could handle had made the faces of those she treated blur into one. It turned three hours into six, and six into twelve. Checking the time, Natalie sat down and reached for her cell phone. She had a call to make before starting her tedious midnight rounds.

An anchor was needed to hold her in place before she faced the storm.


It surprised her how much she missed the Maryland sky and trees with vibrant green leaves. Even the restless sounds of Washington D.C. streets filled her daydreams when she wasn't careful to censor her homesick thoughts.

She missed grass. Green grass, brown grass, tall grass and short.

She missed the color.

Everything in Colima was four shades duller than in New England. The everyday blue sky was dingy, tainted by dirt that had been tossed high into the air by stray wind. The trees were thick and full of life, but they weren't oaks, elms, and willows. Their leaves were dark, fragrant and made her feel as if she had been tossed into the Amazon and left there to wilt. Even the dirt was duller, pale orange and light brown, and just the fact that she had noticed this made her wonder when she had become so perceptive.

The culture was different, the accent was tiresome, the heat felt like a burning furnace, and Natalie was tired of drinking bottled water. She wanted to know when she would be able to go a day without sweating or being caked in dirt, and when she would see a cloudy day without rain following. She looked forward to the day that she could turn the tap on in her own shower and sleep in her own bed with her own pillows and breathe in the familiar scent of her home.

Perhaps the worst part of being away for so long was how much she had grown to understand the people. So many who were displaced, hurt, ill, dying without good health care or medication. Or anything really. They had her. She knew that, but she was one doctor to one hundred patients. It wasn't fair to that the people had to share an exhausted American pathologist who spoke Spanish fluently but didn't sound, look, or live like them.

She missed feeling nervous around her patients not guilty.

In what would inevitably become the longest two and a half months of her life, Natalie became acutely aware that of all the things she did miss and think tirelessly about the NIH was not one. She had even stopped comparing the primitive equipment she was given to the microscope and slides at her lab, a habit she'd acquired in the first three weeks there. The things she would give her life to see again were not the glass walls, bright lights, and state of the art equipment in the NIH headquarters... but her apartment, her friends, even her neighbor's runt of a dog.

This world was nothing like Maryland; and although she had known it all along, she was just being to feel it.


"Kate called," her voice was raw, the sound of sandpaper on porous rock, a result of dry air and far too many hours of uninterrupted work, "the CDC is sending more treatment through the Red Cross, we should be seeing it in five days."

Light blue eyes addressed her in a way that promised an unattractive response. The firm set of his jaw foreshadowed retribution that the crease in his brow secured no escape from. Natalie braced herself against the flimsy desk, eyes glued to the laptop as she waited for his frustrations to become verbalized. Would he ask why Kate had called her before him, he was the leader after all, or would he skip to the point and tell her five days wasn't soon enough? And how would he respond when he found out she had already developed a reasonable response to both?

"The patients don't have that time..." he began, his tone of voice nowhere near the range she had projected, and he paused, gripping for something to hang onto before continuing, "She should have told me this herself!"

Had the mood been lighter, the situation and place different, Natalie might have teased him with an accusation of jealously, but instead she sighed and adjusted herself for a more comfortable slouch on her stool, "I think..." and not for the first time since this had begun, Natalie found herself having the profound desire to defend the director. It was, after all, the position --not the woman–that made the monster. Some things, however, had not been changed under the Coliman sun, and so her thought ended with a shrug and eyes that pleaded for him not to kill the messenger.

His silent anger was still there, heavier than the humidity that had settled in the room, crying for comedic relief from Frank but not being answered. Look on the bright side, she wanted to say, at least this time you won't have to hijack a government vehicle. At least this time the medicine will be shipped in neat brown boxes with perfect white labels and clean syringes. No delays, no paperwork, no life threatening means of retrieval.

Instead, she sat and read the epidemiology reports in the silence.


The patients were no longer looking at her for answers, no longer grabbing her sleeves in prayer for relief. Instead, they smiled, showing rows of white and brown teeth, and offered her appreciation in the form of one word.

Gracias.


Children played in the hallways, running in between the legs of doctors and adults, screaming, shouting, tossing old rubber balls and small wooden loops. Tag, hide and seek (driving the nurses crazy by squeezing into places just too hard to find), and Ring Around the Rosie.

A small girl with raven hair caught her watching one morning. With wide brown eyes, she grabbed her hand and kindly asked if she would like to join.


It rained again, and this time she watched from under the latched roof of a resident's home as the water came down in heavy streams. In her hand was a small paper sack, filled with the trinkets she had collected and hoped to send home to Miles, tucked into her lab coat as she tried to judge whether she could dash to the hospital or not. The elderly man behind her laughed as his wife grabbed her elbow and led her away from the door, explaining in broken English that even American doctors didn't deserve to drown.


Over the horizon, the sun peeked, greeting the land with brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges; she watched and listened as a dying patient told her she'd never see another display of life as satisfying as this again.


The sky was that traditional dull blue the day her phone rang with the news they had been expecting for three months. Natalie was outside in the shade, avoiding the humidity and hot breeze while enjoying the first lull in patient's they had experienced in two weeks. Her eyes took in everything. The tattered outside of the hospital looked sharper that day, more focused as she sipped on her first tea in a month. She could tell what windows had been cleaned that morning compared to the ones that carried years of dirt. A chuckle even escaped her when she looked at the fresh layer of white paint that only reached halfway up the backside of the building, as if the workers had simply gotten too tired to continue.

The lopsided tree she had seen, but never truly noticed before, looked as if it wanted to drop a branch or five onto the small dirt path that reached from the hospital's back door to the group of picnic tables she sat at. It would only survive one or two more thunderstorms before toppling over, but it didn't seem to mind.

She even watched the janitor taking drags of his cigarette. The tall, haggard man looked bored, tired, and flicked the ashes onto the light dirt before grinding the butt into the ground and moving back inside. People drifted by her in small groups, some talking, others not. Sounds from the market could be heard over the buzzing of the afternoon cloud of bugs as the sound of children's playful screams filtered from beyond the hedge.

This was Colima.

This was Colima before the earthquake, before the meningitis. This was the Colima that was a stranger to her, with culture and atmosphere that had been waiting behind illness and natural disaster, preparing to introduce itself to her with open arms and a luring, welcoming smile. And all those weeks spent waking up in the foreign nation hoping that the next day would be the last finally become worth it. Worth it to see this.

While she had been futilely trying to heal hopeless patients and praying for home, Natalie had forgotten that she was really only a part of healing a community; and that in the hospital courtyard and beyond its walls, it was beginning to live again. The truth was calming, comforting in the muggy air, and entirely hers.

Smiling, Natalie took another sip of her tea and reached for her ringing phone.

This was Colima, and perhaps she was the one who had been saved by it.


The lull lasted, the air lightened, and before Natalie knew it she was staring at the first day of Autumn through a dirty window. Her laptop sat closed on the desk she had learned to call her own, beside it was a stack of papers and the metal NIH equipment case, dulled by the Coliman elements, all scattered and all waiting to be placed in a symmetric row in celebration of their departure. They would have to wait.

A low roar of locusts thrummed from beyond the thin glass, reminding her of a Mid-Western summer night, and she smiled, watching as faint flickers of light flashed across her line of vision. There were some things you just couldn't see in Washington D.C., she had realized in her stay here, and the contrast between fireflies and a dark sky was one of them.

The swell of nostalgia overwhelmed her as she thought of a time so long ago it was almost a different life. She had been a child once and the fireflies had been jewels and no grit-covered window or standards of age had ever kept her from capturing them in her small hands. The memory made her fingers itch for the once familiar feeling of youth...

The flickers of pale yellow light were replaced by the dark shadow of Stephen against the window, closing the portal to a pleasant past and filling it with the dark vision of Colima and its people below–creating another memory in its favor.

"Penny for your thoughts."

Turning, she caught his eyes and noticed how they radiated his usual stoic calm, unchanged by the different world around them.

Then she smiled, lips curling up in a mystery all her own as she shook her head.