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Caveat

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When you announce that you’ll be spending the shift up on Keller, you feel a collective sigh ripple through the ward, and you know you’re not imagining the knot of tension on AAU dissipating, even at the thought of being free of you for only a shift.
You’re awake all days and most nights, and you’ve long since passed from social niceties, to professional distance, to aloof and hard. You can’t help it, and you don’t really remember what it was like any other way. Before is a blur in your periphery, the fragment of a fractured memory, barely clinging on.
Morven approaches you just before you leave the ward, and though she blanches a bit at the stony expression you can’t bring yourself to change even for her, she reaches out her hand, shoves something in your pocket, and presses a solid kiss to your cheek. She shuffles off, probably afraid that if you open your mouth you might progress to actually swallowing people half-full.
You’re sorry, always sorry, but too exhausted to do anything about it.
Sometimes, before roars up from the periphery, dances wild and free right in the middle of your eyes until your breath is stolen with the force of remembering, and you have to hold something, anything, to keep yourself upright.
Just as soon as it appears, it’s gone. Sometimes, it bolsters you, gets you through the last hour of a shift without coming undone completely or making anyone cry, keeps your heart just warm enough when Serena sends you back to your own flat.

Sometimes, it almost breaks you completely.

~0~

“Jesus, they weren’t lying,” is the greeting you receive, not unkindly, as you step onto Keller.
“Thank you, Dr. Copeland,” your smile barely touches your lips let alone reaches your eyes. You can well imagine what they have been saying about you; it’s one of the reasons you rarely meet your own eyes in the mirror. Resolutely ignoring Dr. Mayfield’s eye roll and Dom staring back unashamedly, you soldier on. It’s all you know.
You soldier on, until your presence is solidified by your expertise and not your pain, and you feel justified enough in seeking the sanctuary of the office. You have just enough time to breathe deeply, hands in your hair, before a swift knock that you barely have time to acknowledge interrupts, and you’re again face to face with Dominic.
Twin sighs fill the room. He holds out his arms and tugs you gently, and quite unexpectedly, you find yourself tucked into his arms, your own coming up to cling tightly to his back as though, at last, you’ve found something to stop you from drowning. You don’t cry – “this is not what we do, is it, so no unsightly dark patches on the uniform, please,” – but you heave a few lungfuls of air, appreciating the safety and comfort of Dominic, before your grip loosens and he nudges you to arms length to study you.
“Any time, Ms. Wolfe. Do you understand?” his earnest face searches yours and you manage a wan version of what a smile is.
“Thank you, Dr. Copeland,” utterly sincerely this time.
He squeezes your shoulders. “I think you’ll live. But, I heavily suggest a few hours in the on call room. It’s also there, anytime.”
Some semblance of a witty retort forms in your brain, but like a lot of things these days, it falls short of making it out of your mouth. He smiles, though, as though he’s read it in your eyes, and shuts the door softly behind him.

Sometimes, rarely enough to leave you wondrous, you find a little bit of hope in the now.

~0~

 

You try to keep a handle on the temper that has built inside you. You know it’s irrational; that it wasn’t so much Isaac and Dom’s apparent sloppiness in their diagnosis that was causing your gut to clench, rather Isaac and Dom, full stop.
“Very good, Dr. Copeland, but you see, my question is this; why you two very capable surgeons are only now making this diagnosis?”
“My patient; my fault,” Dom starts, swiftly interrupted by Isaac.
“That’s not true. Look, we had no reason to suspect this, but if I had listened to Dr. Copeland’s instincts… we would have caught it sooner,”
Words that used to flow easily out of you now feel quite alien, and you have to dig deep to find them, and even deeper for the energy to get them out.
“Thank you, Mr. Mayfield. Do you need my assistance?”
The look they share causes your heart to clench. You remember days like this; days where you and Serena, before you’d even pulled yourselves together enough to admit anything to yourselves, would communicate completely non-verbally. Days of eye chats over charts, unconscious patients. The frustrated ones, the sad ones, the mirthful ones. And the teasing ones. You almost want to scream with the force of the longing for those looks that hits you then.
Or maybe, it’s not exactly a longing for the looks, so much as the whole of that now seemingly blissful period of discovery, the one you’re seeing play out in front of you with Dom and Isaac, almost as though the universe couldn’t resist another slap in your face. Before… before dances in front of your eyes, again. Before… Well, before Kiev and dead children.
You make the least conspicuous departure you can manage, but when you turn, you feel Dom’s eyes on you.
“I’ll be in the on call room,” you manage, haltingly. He nods and you turn from the sympathy in his eyes before your tenuous grip on your resolve breaks.

The room is already blacked out, and it’s more of a cupboard, really, but you’re grateful for the tightness of the space, the bed wedged tightly against the wall.
You’re awake all days and most nights, and all around you, endless space, vast silences and constantly something out of reach. This tiny room allows you to gather the threads you weave at night, trying to piece them together long enough to keep your daylight hours functioning. It’s a necessity, your being up and active from dawn to dusk. A necessity for work, and since Serena had taken to burying herself away during daylight hours, you pick up the usual routines, plus the unusual things that come with having to deal with death and funerals and grief. It’s a need, when you’re in your own flat because Serena needs space and you’ve vowed to give Serena anything she needs, but you’ve been all but banned from entering the hospital, and you can’t, you just can’t not do anything because everything is just too silent.

Serena is silent, most of the time, and frequently asleep most days when you wake and set about trying to keep Jason’s routine as close to normal as possible. You take mugs of tea and coffee to her periodically, when you’re at home; send her inane, inconsequential texts when you’re not, even when she has sent you away. You can bear that silence, as heartbreaking as it is, because Serena still feels like home, even if it’s dark inside.
Sometimes, you go back to the bedroom as evening sets in, and you find her sitting up on the bed, curtains already drawn and the bedside lamp illuminating the pillow creases on her cheek, surrounded by photo albums. She’s categorised and labeled every photo she’s ever taken, of course she has, and if it wasn’t for the haunting look on her face as she caressed the pages, you would smile.
Sometimes, you hear her footsteps on the stairs, and you falter in whatever menial domestic task you’ve immersed yourself in, itching with the need to check up on her, to follow her, to shower her with words and kisses and everything that would keep the pair of you safe, here, together, forever. But you just watch surreptitiously as she disappears into the living room, don’t imagine the deep sigh that reminds you to breathe, too.
Sometimes, she comes into the kitchen with an empty mug, or rubbish for the bin. She’ll let her hand linger somewhere on you, then; on your arm, your back, your hand as she immerses her mug in hot water and captures your fingers in the suds on the way back out.
When it’s finally time for bed, she’s often already back in it, and when you slide beneath the duvet, she quickly curls into you. She’s left bruises occasionally, and indents where her too-long nails have clung to you, anywhere they can find purchase. It’s like she’s trying to crawl inside you; to embody you and your life, and your living children. You let her cling, murmur nonsense words sometimes, but mostly you just listen to her cry.
Sometimes, she’ll play with strands of your hair, watching them change colour in the beam of streetlight as she lets them fall through her fingers. She’ll trace the corners of your eyes, your lips, wrap her fingers in knots around your pyjama top. Let it fall and start again. Anything so that she didn’t have to be completely still.

On nights like these, you wish fervently that she would just say something.

One night, she clings to you, her head leaning on your chest, one arm tucked tightly underneath you and the other with fingers clenched tightly around your bicep. Your fingers mindlessly run through her hair, peppered with the occasional press of your lips to her head.
“Imagine if you’d never come back,” Serena says, and her voice, almost alien to you and the house by now, jars you a little. You know you don’t imagine the discordant melody of it; love, with notes of bitterness and wistfulness. “Imagine what life would be like.”
You see exactly what’s playing through her mind, as though hell has put a trailer on the ceiling. You, in some nameless grey trauma unit, carving out the intricacies, building it up, leaving it settle. Moving on. Repeating the process until the only constants in your life are your kit bag and questionable foreign alcohol.
And Serena. Upset at first, during Kiev. Confused. But then, there’d be Elinor, and Jason, and because there’s be no you, there’d be no petty, ridiculous argument that would lead Elinor to storm off and… Well. Maybe there would always be the drugs, and maybe Serena would always carry a Bernie-shaped burn, but Elinor would be alive and if Serena knew… if that Serena could know the consequences of having you back, you know there wouldn’t be even a question of living happily with that burn.
“I used to pray, nearly every night, for you to come back,” Serena says softly, as though you’re watching this trailer together. “Not to God, specifically, but probably to any higher power, the universe, anyone or anything that could do something about it and just bring you back.
I didn’t realise there’d be a caveat.”
You grit your teeth, squeeze your eyes tightly together. Squeeze her against you. You want to get angry, upset, to ask “is that what you really think?” but you’d had much the same conversation last week, and she had said, in the longest sentence you’d heard from her for days, “You’re here, and she’s not. Maybe…. Yes, maybe I do, sometimes.” As if that explained it, as if that wasn’t the biggest admission of your own failure that you’d had ever, ever felt.
“I’m so sorry, Serena,” you manage to whisper, altogether too thickly around the lump in your throat. She squeezes you right back, in the spots she’s already bruised with the force of her grief, but you allow it, as a reminder.
“I know,” she answers, her voice equally as thick as yours, but distant, as though she’s forged ahead with with the morbid, alternative universe film playing out on the ceiling, where she holds chubby grandchildren and spends lazy afternoons with someone that didn’t inadvertently kill her child. “Me, too.”
You stroke her hair until you feel her grip on you slacken, then you allow boiling tears to fall into it.

Sometimes, you wish she wouldn’t speak at all.

 

You lie on your back on the tiny, creaking bed, biting down on your wrist to try and reign in the sobs. You’re awake most days and all nights, and try to keep absurdly busy to make Serena’s life a bit easier, to make it more manageable for Jason. To avoid this. Time, where there’s nothing else to occupy your thoughts except for the what if’s and maybe’s and could have been’s. You’re so tired, always so tired, but too wired to sleep for any length of time, wide awake nightmares mingling with dreams too beautiful to be anything but terrible anymore. You draw a great, heaving, ragged breath, ball your fists into your stomach to try to make the painful knot more physical.

Your body is as restless as your brain, and instinctively, your right hand fumbles with the fastenings of your jeans, wrestling impatiently with the tight material before you can shove your hand unceremoniously between your legs. Historically, this is how you’ve always dealt with overwhelming stress. Lying on your issued bunk in between traumas, bone weary but keyed up so much that you were shaking, it was the only way sometimes, that you could tune out, turn off and get some rest. Always alone, always as still and perfectly silent as you could manage. Until Alex… Alex watching you from her own bunk, the rhythm of your fingers and two huge brown eyes your only point of focus. Alex whispering hurried encouragement in your ear, her own hand as frenzied as yours.
Serena... Serena, looking up at you from between your thighs, awed, as she watched you bring yourself to the edge.
You run your left hand through your hair with a growl, and focus intently, solely, on the feeling of here and now. Your finger parts your folds and though you wince at the initial intrusion, the wetness quickly follows, enabling you to easily circle your clit, fingers moving rapidly within seconds. You’re too tired, too fraught to play this as anything other than release, so when you feel the tension building, you allow your legs to go with it, knees bending, hips canting, your left hand coming to apply more pressure than the tight waistband of your jeans can manage against the palm of your hand. Your nose is assaulted; the sterile scent of the room you occupy; Serena’s bedroom, all Chanel no. 5 and Apple Yankee’s; arid desert heat; dry, cloying, almost-chemical, you can smell it all, want all of it, but none of it, and you press harder, your fingers moving furiously, until you’re almost folded completely in half around your hand, your fingers still moving fast, but light, and your entire body bucking, twitching, humming.
At last, when your thighs stop clapping together every time you try to move your hand, your whole body goes limp and you take a lungful of air without them trying for a dance track rhythm.

You have a moment of clarity, where you realise there’s two options now, both involving doing your jeans back up and wiping your hand on the underneath of the mattress (God, if Serena knew, the extent of the hygiene lecture would be awesome, in the literal sense of the word, you think) and because you’ve thought that, it leads you straight to your second option: You could force your eyes to stay open, to lay there and trace nonsensical patterns on the wall as you remember Serena, and everything she was, is, and could have been, that you both could have been now, if you’d have acted sooner, if you hadn’t run away, if twelve years ago she had turned left instead of right, chosen Elinor over and above all else, but then… then she wouldn’t have met you, because where does it start, and where does it end, this fervent wishing of things to be different? You could lie here and think about it all, tie yourself in knots all over again, but that… that isn’t the point of what you’ve just done. Never was. Your rapidly cooling skin and sated arousal is starting to needle at you, at your shame and need and embarrassment, so you resolutely flow with the first option. Pointless thinking of things that aren’t, right now. You do enough of that, in your awake days and often awake nights, watching Serena, worrying about her, wanting to consume her completely so she wouldn’t… so she wouldn’t feel anymore.
And yes, give her your body to cling to, your neck to get buried in, and your skin to lave, because it’s Serena, and Serena can ask without words, and you will always be awed because to you, it’s always gone without saying, this cuddling and holding thing.
You curl onto your side, jeans done up, and close your eyes, because they’re heavy anyway, and this option is what you need, to be able to carry yourself through another interminable amount of time. So you let the tears fall into your mouth and your hair as you finally allow yourself a fragment of restful sleep.

 

Dr. Copeland doesn’t wake you until it’s time for you to leave, and you don’t bless him out loud, but you do exchange smiles you both understand. You immediately check your phone, and, as expected, a message off Serena, succinct but there, and it’s all you worry about these days, her keeping in touch when she won’t have you close, because what if…. What. If?
But you resolutely put those what if’s to the corner of your mind, in the corner of your mind, because she replies, she’s alive, and though she’s not alright, she’s ok for now, so when you go back to your own flat, you’ll be able to breathe a little easier.
You go to retrieve your things from the locker, and as usual, check the pockets of the garments you’re leaving behind. When you shrug into your coat, you hear a rustling, and suddenly you remember Morven standing in front of you, her hand pressing into your side with a crinkled sound. Gingerly, you wrap your hand around the paper/ plastic bag and shimmy it out of your pocket, until you’re standing, blinking rapidly but still worryingly unfocused as you study the bag. You smile, wanly, but genuinely.

Napoleon cake.