**** A few days later ****
Stark squinted at the paperwork, trying to concentrate despite his headache, but it was futile. He'd read April's summary twice now, and he felt like he understood the study, but he wasn't sure if he should sign off on Ben applying for it. Despite April's optimism, he just wasn't sure that it was his patient's best shot. Maybe conventional treatment would be less risky.
A knock sounded on his door, and he scowled at the interruption. Still, he grumbled, "come in," and the door opened to reveal Dr. Robbins again, this time looking worn out, her hair limp around her face.
"Sorry," she said quickly, tiredly. "I really don't have a reason to bother you this time. It's just - all of the on-call rooms seem to be taken, and I didn't sleep well last night, Sofia was up crying, so I have a killer headache, and the nurses are bickering, and I just - I just need one minute of silence, you know?"
Stark's annoyance lessened considerably. "It's fine, I get it, have a seat." Arizona did, moving to drop heavily into one of the chairs facing his desk. "This office is a good place to hide out, actually, kind of off the beaten track."
"I know," she enunciated wryly. "It used to be mine."
"Sorry," he sighed. "I'm distracted...headache here, too. Anyway, feel free to hang out." She nodded, weary, and let her head drop down to rest against the back of the chair.
They fell into a comfortable silence. Stark had been a little afraid Arizona would be a distraction, but she was so quiet, with her head back and eyes closed, that for all he knew, she'd fallen asleep.
Grateful, he pulled up the full research proposal on his computer, and read it with Ben's file open over his keyboard. His office seemed to disappear as he became absorbed in reading the details of the trial's methodology. Forty minutes passed, and he still didn't have an answer. Frustrated and frowning, he clicked the end of his ballpoint pen against the edge of his desk several times in quick succession without thinking about it.
"So why do you have a headache, anyway?" Arizona asked, startling him. He glanced quickly over, but she hadn't stirred, her eyes still closed and her head against the back of the chair.
For a second, he wondered if he'd just imagined her words. Then her lips moved again. "It's not like you have a teething four month old at your place."
"Someone moved into the apartment next to mine a couple of days ago," he said, mildly envious of the way she looked like she was dissolving into the lumpy stuffing of what he knew to be a rather uncomfortable office chair. "I've been working nights, and they've been thumping and banging on the walls during the day when I'm trying to sleep. And this morning, I woke up at 5am to a racket that sounded like marbles being put down a garbage disposal."
Arizona still didn't lift her head, but allowed a little incredulity into her voice. "And you can't go over and explain that you're a doctor who works odd hours and could they keep it down for the next six hours? I'm sure they'd understand."
Robert scowled. "I prefer not to be on speaking terms with my neighbors."
Arizona let out a bubbling laugh, and finally opened her eyes and sat up, looking a little less tired as her eyes danced. "Are you serious? I know you've got a reputation for being kind of a misanthrope, but really, you can't talk to your neighbors?"
Stark sighed, feeling needled. "I don't like having to say hello in the hallway, or worse, make conversation in the elevator. It's a farce, pretending you care about each other when really you just want emotional leverage for your next neighborly request."
Arizona laughed again. "Wow. Oh-kay. No wonder you don't fit in around here. You know, we've got kind of a thing for elevators." Stark rolled his eyes, not knowing and not caring what she meant by that. "Is that why you were banging your pen against the desk, your rage at the social convention of smiling at someone in the hallway?"
Robert blinked at that, and looked down at the pen in his hand, realizing he'd probably woken her up. "No," he said slowly. "It's about a case."
Arizona stretched absent-mindedly. "Which case?" she asked.
"Six year old with lung cancer," Stark said shortly. "I'm evaluating him for a clinical trial being run out of John Hopkins."
"The 3A kid?" Arizona asked, taking new interest. "What kind of trial is it? Having trouble deciding if he qualifies?"
"It's an especially aggressive combination of radiation and a new brand of chemo, and no," Robert said, "he qualifies, I'd have no problem recommending him to the trial board. I'm just not sure recommending the trial to his mother is his best shot."
"Ahh," she said, nodding in understanding. Her voice lost the teasing edge he'd gotten used to from Arizona, his friend, and suddenly became very Dr. Robbins, his colleague. "Well, if you want a second opinion, I could take a look at it."
Stark glanced up sharply, wondering if she was serious or just being polite. He'd been feeling the weight of responsibility lately, and this case wasn't making it any easier. The patient's chances could be improved with this experimental treatment protocol, or they could be reduced. Add an over-invested resident into the mix, and he couldn't tell if the decision he was leaning toward was because it was best for the patient, or because April thought so strongly that it was best for the patient.
Arizona looked serious, though, so he decided to take advantage of her offer. "I'd appreciate that, actually. Do you want to take my copy of the file home with you tonight to review?" he asked, flipping it closed and holding it out to her.
Her voice turned irreverent and flip once again. "God, no. Weren't you listening? Sofia's teething, and Callie's all wound up about the baby crying all the time, I'd never be able to concentrate. Besides, if I do you this favor, you have to do one for me."
Ah, there was the catch. Robert raised an eyebrow, wary. "What's the favor?"
Arizona grinned, suddenly impish. "Take me home and feed me dinner at your place. I've been needing a quiet night away from home for awhile now, but if I go to a friend's place to relax, then I'm trouble with Callie for not being a martyr mother like she is." She infused her voice with virtue. "But if I have dinner with cranky Dr. Stark about a case, then I'm subjecting myself to torture in order to save children. That makes me, like, a hero, and not in nearly as much trouble."
He tapped his pen against the desk again, this time without the frustration. Lips curling in amusement, he repeated, "Torture?"
"I mean, that's what she would think," Arizona amended in a nod to the fact that he wasn't the urchin everyone thought, but he still looked completely unconvinced, so she doubled-down. Earnestness slid over her face in apparent sincerity, but she couldn't quite hide the slyness and mirth in her eyes. "You wouldn't even have to talk to me, just feed me."
Despite himself, Robert smiled at her theater. "Fine. I'll finish up here, and we can head to my place in an hour."
Perfect," said Arizona, bounding up and out of his office, clearly not as affected as she'd been acting a minute ago. "See you then."
"This is an interesting building," Arizona said, her signature perk sounding somewhat forced, as they walked up to it. "What character."
He turned his head, raising an eyebrow at her as he found his key and unlocked the outer door, finding the sweet spot of the lock with practiced ease. "You can say it. It's a mess."
"Well - " Arizona hedged.
"It's close to the hospital," he said defensively.
"Uh-huh," she said dubiously, no longer concealing the doubt in her eyes as she took another glance around. But then she followed him inside, up the stairs, and down the hall, and had to admit she'd been a little too judgmental. "It is, actually," she said by way of apology, stopping behind him at another door. "The convenience must be wonderful. And the interior is gorgeous."
He squinted at her, suspicious of such flattering adjectives, but she seemed sincere, so he just shrugged, and motioned her through his apartment door and towards the couch.
They got an hour into their reading and discussion before deciding it was time for a break.
"I'll make dinner now. Hope you like lamb curry," Robert said, rising from the leather easy chair.
"Sure," Arizona chirped, "can I help?"
"No, no, not necessary," he said, already heading towards the kitchen. His words held an air of dismissal, as if he trusted her in the OR but didn't want to risk her involvement in the kitchen. Arizona shrugged, unoffended. It was fine by her if he wanted to do all the work.
"Okay. I'm just going to grab some fresh air, then."
Stark nodded, barely listening, already preoccupied pulling meat and vegetables out of the fridge. "Push the door hard, it sticks."
April jumped at a sound that was halfway between a bang and a thud. She heard someone say, "Jesus," under their breath, and then there was a scraping sound and another soft thud, followed by silence. April felt suddenly tense. She'd spent the last few days off in a whirl of the work it took to turn an apartment into a home, and was finally relaxing with that glass of wine she'd thought longingly about on the first night, but now she realized she hadn't even given a thought to her neighbors yet, much less met them. What if the tenant next door smoked cigarettes and cursed all night from his balcony? Suddenly, her own patch of concrete felt a lot less private and perfect, and she gazed out into the cozy tangle of the backyard, trying to ignore her unease and get back to appreciating the mild breeze and the hint of stars beyond the city lights.
Arizona sighed in appreciation of the same sight. "What a nice night," she said to herself, leaning against the railing.
To Arizona's surprise, she heard a relieved laugh, and was startled as someone said, "I was just thinking the same thing, you must be my new neighbor." Arizona turned her head to the right, following the source of the sound, and realized that behind the ivy- and moss-covered iron trellis was another apartment's balcony. She heard footsteps as the person walked closer to see around the ivy, and Arizona exclaimed in surprised recognition, "Dr. Kepner!"
"Oh," April said, coming to an abrupt stop as she briefly stumbled in shock. Recovering from feeling at sea, she floundered to react more quickly. "Oh! Oh my gosh, Dr. Robbins!" Her confusion at unexpectedly seeing Arizona outside the hospital had her leaning forward, resting the arm that was holding her wine glass on the railing between them. "I had no idea you and Callie lived in this neighborhood."
Arizona's own look of surprise was fading, and at first she grinned as if she had some secret, but she made an effort to smile normally as she said, "We don't, actually, the three of us and Mark live down in Belltown."
"Oh," April said, feeling even more confused. If Arizona didn't live in the building, what was she doing out on the balcony all alone?
"I'm here because," Arizona paused, trying to contain her glee about this interesting development, and find the best way to explain, "because I wanted to go over a case file and some research papers without getting distracted, and Mark has the baby at home, so we decided to come here, to -"
Just then, they heard the sound of the French door being wrenched open again, and a man's voice said, "The curry will be another few minutes, but can I offer you a glass of wine while we wait?"
April's breath stopped for a moment. Was that? No. It sounded familiar, but it couldn't be...although...Arizona had said something about a case file. Ohgod, ohgod, she thought, please tell me that's anyone other than -
"Dr. Stark!" The blond said cheerfully, clearly enjoying herself immensely even as April's pulse turned erratic with nerves and bewilderment. "I've met your new neighbor, you should come say hi!"
"Oh," Robert said, feeling a little grumpy. Hadn't he just told her that he preferred not to know anyone in his building? He hesitated, and then figured the quickest way out was to appease Arizona by going through the bare minimum of pleasantries, so he started towards the balcony edge, already forming his excuse for keeping this short. "Well, I actually need to keep an eye on the..." His words trailed off as he saw who was standing there.
There was a moment of silence as Robert struggled to make sense of the whole scene. A cool, humid breeze rushed past the skin on his face and hands and ruffled his hair, making the moment feel real for his body, but his mind still couldn't quite accept that April could be standing there, on the balcony next to his, dressed in street clothes, with a glass of red wine in her hand, looking almost as shell-shocked as he felt. A car blared its horn on the opposite side of the block, bringing him halfway out of his reverie, and on auto-pilot, he finally said, "Dr. Kepner. Welcome to the building."
"I - thank you," April replied, seemingly just as adrift as he was at this unexpected turn of events. Unable to look him in the eye any longer, she turned to Arizona, her mouth slightly open.
"Isn't this a crazy coincidence?" Arizona said brightly, completely unfazed. If the other two were just going to stand there, practically dumb, she was happy to take over the conversation. "I mean, what are the odds that April would even move into the same building as you, Robert? Let alone the apartment right next to yours."
He made a noncommittal sound in his throat, almost a grunt, and Arizona glanced between the two other doctors. Robert continued to stare in consternation at April, who seemed to be avoiding his eyes, still looking at Arizona instead as if waiting for some cue for how to feel about this.
"Actually, this is perfect," Arizona continued, characteristically upbeat, and had to struggle not to laugh as two puzzled and horrified faces turned toward her in synchronized disbelief. "We were just discussing Dr. Stark's stage 3A lung cancer patient, didn't I read that you're the resident on that case, Dr. Kepner?"
April's awkwardness suddenly disappeared, forgotten, and her gaze switched from Arizona to Stark, now meeting his eyes fearlessly. "You're talking about Ben?" she asked with a sharp focus. He pursed his lips, hesitating a second before nodding his head in confirmation, and even Arizona could see the clear warning in his eyes. April hesitated for an instant too, before asking another question, and this time the concern in her voice was smothered in professionalism. "Is Dr. Robbins consulting on the next step in his surgical treatment?"
"Actually," Robert said, "I'm using her as a sounding board to decide whether or not to recommend him for the John Hopkins clinical trial." April's eyes widened at that, but she said nothing.
Arizona asked curiously, "You told her about the trial already?"
Robert gazed at April for another long instant, then looked at Arizona and replied in measured tones, "Dr. Kepner is the one who first told me about the trial, in fact. She wasn't happy with the prognosis of the patient, and went looking for other options." He glanced back at April briefly during the stressed words, and her face fell a bit. Arizona wondered what part of this story she was missing.
"Oh, well, good work, Kepner," Arizona said enthusiastically anyway, "the trial is looking very promising."
April's eyes lit up, hopeful, and Robert frowned at Arizona and added, "Though I haven't decided whether it's the patient's best shot."
The words were dry, but his use of the singular pronoun was a clear, if mild, rebuke, and Arizona wanted to roll her eyes...but he was still technically her boss, after all. "Right," she said, her voice a bit more tempered, "the trial is impressive, but it's not yet clear if it's a good candidate for his treatment."
Feeling suddenly devilish, a bit rebellious from Stark's grumpy show of authority, Arizona turned to April and continued, "Actually, Dr. Kepner, if you're not busy right now, maybe you could come over, sit down with us. I'm familiar with the case from reading the file, but as the resident on the case, you'll have spent more time with the patient than Dr. Stark has, and I'd like to pick your brain about all the little things that never get coded into the file."
Robert's mouth dropped open slightly, but he recovered quickly and merely said mildly, "Not a bad idea. I'm sure there's enough curry for three." He turned to April as well, raising an eyebrow in question. He tried to keep his expression calm and detached, even as he imagined the various ways in which that stupid grin might get wiped off of Arizona's face.
"Oh," April faltered, glancing between them. Was something going on here? Robert looked mildly pissed, but then, he often did, and Arizona seemed as cheery as ever. "Um, sure, I guess. I mean, I'm not busy, I was just enjoying a bit of wine" - she lifted the glass, as if to provide corroborating evidence - "before starting dinner myself, so..." she trailed off.
"Good," Robert said brusquely. "That's settled, then. Well, I have to stir." And abruptly, he walked off the balcony through the still open door, leaving Arizona and April alone once more.
"Well," said April awkwardly. "I guess I'll just...take care of some things here, and...be over in a few minutes." She didn't move yet, hoping for some kind of guidance.
But Arizona just smiled impishly at her, and said, "This is going to be great."
**** Please review. ****