**** Author's Note: April/Stark. This initially picks up where "White Wedding" left off. ****
Despite his best efforts, Stark finds her creeping into his thoughts all the time. Tonight is worse than usual. The day was over, there was only a small amount of incomplete paperwork standing between himself and sleep, but his tired brain wouldn't stop replaying the scene on the stairs from earlier today. He pulled off his reading glasses, tossing them on the desk. His nagging conscience was making it impossible to focus.
He hadn't lied to her – he was trying his damnedest to treat her like any other resident. He'd meant it when he said sexual harassment wasn't his style. He was doing an excellent job of not favoring or disfavoring her in any way. Wasn't he? Perhaps too much so - he was being just as mean to her as he would be to anyone else, but April wasn't anyone else. Stark leaned back in his chair tiredly, wishing he could lean away from his own scattered thoughts. She was too sensitive, too caring. The same earnestness that had motivated her to risk his wrath to change his mind about Kyle - the very trait he should resent for ultimately resulting in his current sorry state - was also the reason that he felt vaguely guilty for treating her like any other idiot resident.
When he was being entirely honest with himself, there was a part of him that delighted in seeing the look of betrayal and hurt that she couldn't quite keep off her face. He wasn't proud of it, but there was a certain relief in knowing that even if it wasn't the one he wanted, he could still have some effect on her. With a sigh, he slumped forward onto his elbows, cradling the dull ache in his forehead with one hand and massaging the bridge of his nose with the other.
When she'd stopped answering his pages, he'd reluctantly resolved to be marginally nicer to her next time. She deserved to at least have reasonable certainty that he wasn't trying to retaliate after her rejection. He was treating her rudely not just because she'd hurt him but because ...well, because he was in the habit of being rude to most people. On days like these, he intensely regrets ever having made an exception for her, ever letting her know - ever letting himself know - that he could be different.
And maybe he couldn't be different - that habit had certainly taken over when he found her in the kitchen. It had mangled his attempt to express the concern he had over her HIV exposure, making April even more angry with him over what she interpreted as patronizing ridicule. He was still surprised - and a little impressed - that she'd snapped back at him so impertinently, but he couldn't really blame her for it. Hell, he couldn't even truly blame her for deciding he wasn't worthy of her.
It wasn't her fault that he was an unlovable crank, but he did blame her a little for the fact that he could no longer ignore how empty his life was. The contrast of her kindness and optimism - something he knew didn't come easy in their line of work - made it impossible to ignore how wretched he'd let himself become. And if she hadn't watered the dry seeds of hope in his heart with a glimpse of what it would be like to have something more, maybe he would have been able to just keep focusing on the work, the way that he had for years.
Catching himself moping, Stark straightened his spine and picked up his pen. Irritated, he chastises himself for even thinking of her feelings. It's ridiculous to be contemplating how his churlishness may have harmed a relationship that's never going to go anywhere anyway. Bending over his desk once again, he recommitted himself to the forms in front of him. He would just have to stay busy and continue to ignore her until this maudlin phase passed.
**** Here the story timeline skips to after the season seven finale, where April is named chief resident. ****
April had hidden her reflexive little cringe when Baily told her she would be on Stark's service today. It's the first time in weeks. That's how long she's had to get over it, but replaying the memory of Stark's seething anger at her first impulsive outburst still makes her cheeks flush with shame. She herself had called him the grinch for the way he treated his residents (and everyone else), she should have known better than to question whether or not he was treating her differently.
Instead, she had accused of him of acting unprofessionally, when it was she that had been acting unprofessionally. God, she had even been outright rude to him even when he'd had a legitimate reason to be irritated that she hadn't reported back to him about his patients.
Though she won't deny that the incredulous look on his face had given her – still gives her - a mean thrill of satisfaction. It felt good to slap at him a little, after feeling slapped around by him for so long. The thump from her fall out of his good graces had hurt more than she'd expected.
She missed him, she thought now as she picked up charts to go over before rounds. Not, she quickly insisted to herself, because she liked him as anything more than a friend. No, she just wished he would stop being so all or nothing about this. It would just be nice, for example, to have one person honestly happy for her over winning chief resident, instead of bitter and resentful. Not that she didn't appreciate Jackson trying - he'd been great, just after the news broke. But he was soon distracted by his continuing infatuation with Lexie, and wasn't interested in hearing about her struggles to meet all her new responsibilities.
But then, she doubted Dr. Stark would have much time for it either. Before she cancelled on him, he'd been an attentive listener, encouraging her to talk about herself and even giving her tips on surviving residency and becoming a better doctor. But his outrage at her accusation, and his scorn of her attempts to comfort Asha, had made it abundantly clear that he thought she was frivolous and immature. She sighs, pushing it out of her mind to focus on reading. The last thing she needed was for Dr. Stark to think she wasn't prepared for the work day.
Hours later, Stark breathed a sigh of relief as she walked away. He'd managed to have a morning with her that was as uneventful as it was long. Thankfully, he'd never broken his droll detachment. She'd been bland and professional, showing no hint of the quirky humor or tender compassion that, weeks ago, had made him feel perilously close to pining. Maybe, he thought as he headed toward his office for lunch, he was starting to get over this whole disastrous affair. It couldn't happen too quickly.
April blew out a breath in exasperation. She'd expended a lot of emotional energy being careful around Stark, and she'd been looking forward to a quiet few minutes of relaxation while savoring the daily special of chicken carbonara, but they were out already. She contemplated the remaining choices under the cafeteria heat lamps, finding nothing appetizing.
"I recommend avoiding the meatloaf if you can. Last time I got stuck eating it due to a late lunch, I thought it was worse than the gruel they fed us in the Army."
She turned around to see Dr. Hunt smiling good-naturedly at her, and flashed a smile in return. "I think I will," she said, serving herself some lukewarm roasted vegetables, lumpy mashed potatoes, and as an afterthought, grabbing a couple of yogurts for at least a little protein.
"Excellent decision, chief resident," he teased, over-enunciating the title. "No matter how high your station in life, you're never above taking good advice."
She laughed, and nodded in agreement as she swiped her meal card at the register.
"So," he continued, as he followed her to a table, "how are you enjoying your new-found authority?"
April hesitated, trying to figure out how best to respond. "Well," she said cautiously as she sat down and peeled back the foil on a yogurt cup, "I really appreciate the opportunity to try and implement some of the error-reducing methods I've been reading about."
"Why just try?" he asked, grabbing the condiment caddy. "Is there something you can't figure out about the administrative processes? I might be able to help with that."
"Oh, no," April stammered, cursing her word choice. "I just, um, you know, everyone's still transitioning to, to me having the job, but I'm sure - once they get used to it, I mean - people will be more, more conscientious about the checklists and things, once we're, ah, back to a routine."
Owen regarded her shrewdly as she nervously dragged a spoon around the cup in her hands, making a study out of thoroughly scooping out every corner.
"You know, I have to admit, when Dr. Stark first recommended you, I did wonder how you'd handle the discipline." Hunt swiped a french fry though ketchup and popped it whole into his mouth, briefly too focused on his food to notice April's mouth drop open. "You've never had Dr. Bailey's swagger." April's jaw clenched back shut at the implication that she was a pushover.
"But from what I hear," he said, sounding pleased, "you've been firm in all your decisions, and even reassigned Karev twice and threatened to put Christina on scut." He looked a little too happy about his wife's misfortune. "And I doubt Meredith's giving you a hard time, considering she's still on probation," he added, seemingly as an afterthought. "It won't take them long to figure out you're serious, and then I think you'll have an easier time of it than if you'd been more aggressive, because they won't have a real reason to resent you other than their own disappointment in not getting tapped for it themselves."
"I - yeah, probably," April agreed distractedly. "Did you say that Dr. Stark recommended me?"
"Yeah, he did," said Hunt, missing her expression again as he enthusiastically finished off the last of his fries and started working on the chicken nuggets. "I was a little surprised too, he's always seemed like a bit of a grouch, some of the things he says to you residents border on verbal abuse." He chuckled, clearly not overly concerned for their welfare. "But despite his attitude, he clearly has a very high opinion of you. He said - " Hunt broke off as his pager buzzed. Checking the display, he said, "Damn it, gotta run, sorry, can you take care of my tray?"
April just watched, feeling dazed, as he jumped up and exited the room at a light jog. Stark had recommended her? She could hardly believe that - and it had to have happened when he was treating her the worst, since the other residents had only fallen into disgrace shortly before Dr. Hunt's decision. She was dying to know just what he'd said - and she wasn't likely to find out anytime soon. Dr. Hunt probably wouldn't remember this conversation, let alone bring it up again even if he did, and April knew she couldn't ask.
April's pulse quickened as her mind continued to tilt at this revelation. How would she be able to act normally around Dr. Stark for the rest of the day, knowing this? But she didn't know anything at all. What did this mean?
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