“Ian, oh my goodness!” Her voice pierced through the sound of the pub crowd, generally jovial, celebrating the game on TV. Ian felt a pair of arms wrap around him and hug him tightly.
He turned towards her on his stool, dropping his phone onto the walnut bar. “Hey R--”
“Dots, this is Ian, my friend,” she interrupted, her voice a little loud for how close they all stood. “I met him when we were both assigned to Bahir Dar, a year or so ago.” Rachel grinned wide, her eyes brighter than usual. “We both worked in the OR.” Her dark hair was pulled into two loose buns with flyaways that framed her face, a familiar hairstyle of hers, and she wore a white t-shirt and jeans.
Ian looked at Rachel appreciatively, even as he tried to hide his surprise -- and his joy -- at seeing her again. “We did.” A grin spread across his face despite himself, and he felt warm, as if he was out in the Ethiopian sun with her again, stealing rides in the agency’s Jeep and browsing marketplaces during downtime. She’d changed in the last six months, but only a little. She’d lost her tan, and maybe her hair was a little longer. She was more relaxed, too, free of the urgency and strain of their rural medical encampment.
The blonde woman in a dress next to her stuck out her hand. “You must be the Ian,” she said, dodging Rachel as she tried to elbow her in the ribs.
“ The Ian?” he asked, intrigued. He took a sip of his beer to hide his pleasure. When they’d both returned to the States after their assignment, they’d fallen out of touch.
“It’s nothing,” Rachel said quickly. “This is Dottie. She’s thinking of working with MSF, too. Has an interview.”
“A humanitarian, are ye? Congratulations,” he nodded to her, “For what position?”
“Ye look unsure.”
“I think she’s a bit frightened--” Rachel said, interrupting.
“--but like I keep telling her, she’ll do great. My brother is a reference, and you know how MSF fawns over him, she’s a shoo-in.”
“Ah, Dr. Hunter. Denny. How is he?” Ian asked, remembering her brother’s friendliness and his ability to make difficult decisions very quickly. Ian had once been part of the team to execute those decisions as a nurse who assisted in his surgeries.
“Oh, he’s fine. A bit tired. But when is he not?” Rachel laughed.
Ian turned to Dottie, trying hard not to think about how close Rachel stood to his knee and how her eyes sparkled in the pub lights. “How do ye know Denny, Dottie?”
“She’s only met him once,” Rachel cut in. “I introduced them.” She turned to the bartender and ordered a round of beer for the three of them.
“And ye think that will get past the powers that be? They’ll let all of ye work together?” Ian clicked his tongue, pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to slip into an easy-going conversation with her, despite their time apart.
“No,” said Rachel, not looking at him as she plopped down on the stool next to him. He swiveled so his body angled away from her. He hadn’t expected to run into her here and felt unprepared. She powered on. “But not only is Denny a reference, he’ll actually be there at the interview.”
“What?” Ian and Dottie asked at the same time.
“Mm-hm,” hummed Rachel, taking a sip of the beer that had been brought to her, as if she had all the time in the world to respond to their surprise. “He’s attending the interview. Well, perhaps not exactly ,” she said, reconsidering, “but he might… pop in.”
“What? You’re kidding!” Dottie rounded on Rachel. Clearly, there was a history there that Ian wasn’t aware of, and he watched the pair closely.
“Well,” Rachel hedged, casting about for an explanation. “I thought you guys hit it off really well the last time you saw him, and thought, you know, it might be convenient to…” she trailed off, met Dottie’s eyes, and flinched. “Dottie, you know you liked him! When you met him, the last time he was in town. God, you guys couldn’t keep away from each other.”
Red in the face, Dottie sputtered as if to deny it, but Ian saw her laughing at herself.
“Oh, you don’t?” asked Rachel, knowingly. “It wasn’t you, then, constantly asking me why I think Denny followed you on Instagram? It wasn’t you that asked me why he might’ve liked this post or that, and who, at one point, wanted to know if it would be appropriate to ‘pop in’ to the coffee shop he said he was at when he was working on that paper? Or how to exactly word your text messages to him when you finally got brave enough, hm?” Her voice rang with certainty, nearly shouting now. She exploded into a fit a burst of laughter at Dottie’s horrified face. “You should see yourself, Dots, you’re smitten! Smitten kitten! Isn’t that right, Ian?”
“Rachel, be chill, for Christ’s sake!” Dottie exclaimed.
Rachel turned to him, her face radiant with laughter and the teasing of her friend. “Don’t you think so, Ian?” she asked again when he didn’t answer.
“Well, I…” Ian hesitated, his eyes darting between Dottie’s anguished embarrassment and Rachel’s sparkling hilarity. “I can’t possibly know.”
Rachel sighed, her mood swiftly changing to something wistful. “Denny and Dottie… You guys would be so perfect together. And we’d be sisters!”
“Rachel,” Dottie hissed, though she smiled wide. “Hush, you’re ruining this.”
“So let me get this straight,” Ian said, leaning back on the bar now. Dottie still stood in front of him. “You both flew all the way from North Carolina to New York, just to feign interest in MSF, just so you can hook up with Denny?”
Both the women looked at him with disgust.
“How dare you, I am a nurse that cares --”
“Dottie is very good at what she does--”
“Alright, alright, calm down.” He rolled his eyes at them and switched gears. “So if you were to get in, where would ye want to be assigned?”
“Well,” Dottie said, “it doesn’t really matter to me. But I’m fluent in French so probably somewhere in Northern Africa, like Niger or something.”
“Mm, or Haiti,” he added.
”Wherever they need me, I’d be happy to work.” Dottie grinned, and Ian saw how the blonde hair, pale eyes, and soft features might strike someone like Denny. “I’m not an OR nurse like you guys; I don’t know how you stomach all the blood.”
“I don’t know how you stomach how your patients can still talk to you,” Rachel quipped, eliciting a startled laugh from Ian.
“There’s blood in your work, too,” Ian said to Dottie, happy to have an excuse not to look at Rachel. She was humming quietly beside him. He was attuned to her like he always had been, like something shimmered in the air around her that only he could see.
“Yuck, but not that much.” She made a face before she pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Oh my god!” she gasped, immediately showing the phone to Rachel, who grinned mischievously.
“What?” asked Ian, feeling a bit dumb.
“Denny,” the women breathed together, their heads bent over Dottie’s phone. Their faces glowed in the light from the screen as they tittered together.
“It buzzed, just now,” Dottie said breathlessly.
Rachel grinned. “That means he was thinking of you!”
“Of course it does, Rachel, don’t be silly, he can’t text me and not be thinking of me.”
“Oh, Dots! You and Denny! It’s really happening!”
“Nothing is happening, Rach, will you quit it?”
“‘Nothing is happening’? You can’t be serious.”
“But what does it mean?”
“What’s it say?” Ian cut in, unable to help himself.
“‘Dottie, I heard you’re in town, I’m in town too,’” Dottie read. She paused. “That’s it.”
“It means he’d like to see you,” replied Ian. “He knows you’re here for your interview.”
“It does? But he doesn’t say that!”
“Er, no.” Ian grimaced. “But Denny’s like that. Awkward, a bit.”
Dottie rounded on Rachel. “Why does your brother have to be so weird ?” she nearly wailed. “Rachel, how on earth am I supposed to respond to this?”
Rachel gave an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know, don’t ask me.”
“He’s your brother!”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how to flirt with him. He’s my brother !”
“You keep pushing us together, and now you won’t help me? Rach!” Dottie looked terrified, Rachel amused.
“Alright, alright.” Ian held up his hands as if he were surrendering. “I’ll help ye. Gimme.” He made a grabby motion for the phone, and Dottie handed it over.
“Do ye want to respond to this like a booty call or no?” Ian asked, his thumbs poised over the keyboard.
“Booty call?” Dottie asked.
“Well…” He nodded his head toward the front of the bar, where two large windows shone darkly in the night, streetlights were lit, and brake lights at the nearby stop light reflected on the glass. “It’s late. Do ye want to see him tonight?”
Dottie’s eyes flew wide. “No!”
Rachel laughed. Ian loved that sound.
“Aye, okay. Let’s see, then. We’ll be cool and casual.” Dottie and Rachel stood at either shoulder, their heads bent conspiratorially together. “‘What a funny coincidence,’” he narrated as he typed, “‘that we should be in the same city at the same time. What should we do about that, do you think?’”
“Send!” Rachel squealed and Dottie groaned, even as she laughed.
“Fine, fine!” Dottie grabbed the phone and sent the message along without bothering to glance at it. She saw Ian’s surprise and shrugged at him. “Why not?”
Ian laughed. “Glad I’m of some use.”
“You’re of use,” Rachel said, and even in her playful correction, her face was soft and appreciative as she looked at him. She was standing very close to him now, and he nearly backed away with the shock of realizing it.
“What’s this?” Dottie asked, her eyes darting back and forth between them.
“Nothing,” Ian and Rachel said together, but too quickly. They both looked at each other and laughed. Ian felt the strange impulse to embrace her, but he held back, fearing the awkwardness that could so easily spring between them.
“It’s nothing,” Rachel said again, placing a hand on Ian’s arm, the touch so brief he might have imagined it. “C’mon, Dottie, we should go.” She glanced back at Ian. “I’ll be in touch,” she said to him. “See you soon?”
She was still standing close to him, perhaps she had stepped even closer without him realizing it; he could feel the warmth of her, even in the crowded bar. Maybe it was just the beer. “I’ll be here.”
She smiled, and he wanted to kiss her, but before he knew it, she was gone as quickly as she had arrived, tugging an astonished Dottie away by the elbow.
Later that night, when Rachel was tucked into the starchy sheets of her hotel bed, her phone lit up with a notification that made her heart leap: Rachel, I heard you’re in town. I’m in town, too.