The call comes mid-afternoon. Leorio is with a patient, and misses it, or is shadowing the doctor on-duty, and still misses it. He misses the second one too, probably when he’s hollering down a back hallway to know whose job it was to order the new vaccines since their current stock expired yesterday and someone else is on his ass about it, or when that kid comes in with a split forehead and hurling, and really, really should be taken to the emergency room instead.
“We’re regular patients,” the father insists. “We want to see our regular doctor.”
“What,” Leorio says, as carefully as he can, since apparently his ‘talking sense into parents’ voice could use some improvement, “is the problem with the emergency room doctors?”
Still needs work. The kid wobbles, even with her dad’s hands on her shoulders, then throws up on his shoes. It’s fine.
“It’s fine!” he says to the parents, who are looking at him like he had something to do with it. It’s fine. He turns to yell back at the front desk. “Can I get some wet paper towels and an ice pack?”
The throw-up’s mostly saliva and bile, stomach was probably emptied the first few times she hurled. Poor kid. He crouches; no sense in making her look up. She’s trying to track, but not doing so good.
“Hey buddy,” he says, and she’s looking towards him at least, squinting like it’s too bright. “Can you tell me your name?”
Someone taps him on the shoulder, then hands him a stack of damp paper towels and one of the gel freezie packs. Perfect. He’s folding some of the paper towels around the ice pack when she wobbles again. Her dad is an idiot and has jostled her shoulder to get her to answer.
“Don’t do that,” Leorio says, scowling up at him as she says, “Nita.”
“Nita, huh? Nice name.” He offers her the pack. “Nita, can you hold this for me? We’re gonna go sit right over there.”
When she reaches uncertainly for it, he folds one of her hands around it, gets it up to her head before giving his shoes a quick wipe. Then he stands to steer her towards the seating area. Several of the waiting patients stand as they approach, and he points to one of the chairs on the end. “If we could just get that one, that would be great.”
The person clears out to hover near the magazine rack, and he gets Nita settled. She got here fine, she’s standing fine; a little more sitting shouldn’t hurt.
“Whoops!” he says as the ice pack slips, and readjusts it, waits for her to get ahold of it again. Kind of late for it, but best to do a quick check. No light, but he can get the basics down. “All good? Okay. Nita, you know what today is?”
“Great, Tuesday’s great. You have school today?”
“Good for you! Do you have a favorite subject?”
She squints at him and says slowly, “Math.”
Cute kid. “Math’s good. Math’s great! Now I need you to do some counting for me. Nita, how many fingers am I holding up?”
She tracks, face scrunching a little, partly from effort and partly from what looks like annoyance. “Two.”
“Good work. Can you sit here quietly and keep that on your head for me? Tell me if it’s too cold.”
Meanwhile the dad is hovering at his elbow, trying to barge into the conversation once he thinks diagnostics are over. “When can we see a doctor?”
Leorio adjusts the ice pack again, the mom at his other elbow, clearly itching to swoop in, and Nita is looking grumpier by the second. “Not right this second.”
“We came here--”
“Uh, no,” Leorio says, then stands. He’s supposed to trying for polite yet firm, but all he’s really got going for him is firm and not blatantly rude. It’s fine. He’ll work with it. “We’re sitting here, and I am calling you an ambulance.”
“We’re here already--”
“We don’t do any surgery here, so we’re not equipped for stitches,” Leorio interrupts, ticking off points on his fingers. “If she needs additional scans for brain damage, we haven’t got equipment for those either, and she’d have to move anyway. The staff in the ER have seen way more cases like this, and can give you a better idea of what’s going on. You have to go to the emergency room. If you want to schedule a follow-up with us now, that’s fine, but we’re just not the right place for Nita now.”
“But you’re the hospital!”
Leorio pauses, takes a second look. The guy’s shoulders are way too tight and his mouth is pinched beneath his mustache, complexion pretty good but still a little too pale. Really, he should know better by now. Most of that bluster’s hiding a real rattled parent, who got one idea in his head because it was familiar and can’t let go of it.
“Yeah,” he says. “We are a hospital. Who do you see?”
“The short woman,” he says. “Doctor Gladgood.”
“Gladwell,” Nita says, clearly gearing up for a big sulk once this is all over.
“Gladwell!” the mother says, then shakes her husband’s arm. “Dr. Gladwell.”
“Great,” Leorio says. He turns to the front desk. “Hey, can we get Dr. Gladwell up here real quick?”
She’s in the waiting room in five, like… like…
It should be like a movie star hero, swishing labcoat, clicking heels, steely eyes, but really, she just looks like a mom. Not his mom, she’s way smaller and aged better, but she’s got that same measuring look in her eyes, like she doesn’t know what the problem is, but she’s got her two hands and something’s getting done.
She spots them in an instant, beelines right over.
“Lemme take a look,” she says. Definitely not like his mom, who would’ve never let her kids get away with talking that sloppy in a hospital.
Leorio hands over the icepack and shuffles to the side.
“What happened?” she says, carefully adjusting Nita’s wrist to take a look at the slapdash bandage on her forehead. Soaked through, but no leaks.
“She was playing in the backyard,” the father says. “On the trampoline.”
Dr. Gladwell shakes her head, mutters, “Those da-- dang trampolines.” Then she lowers the icepack back onto Nita’s forehead. “Careful, lemme know if it hurts.”
“It’s cold,” Nita protests, intercepted by her mom when she tries to swat the icepack away.
“It’ll keep you from getting a giant egg on your head,” Dr. Gladwell says. “Can you just keep that on three more minutes for me?”
Nita grumbles, but she nods carefully and keeps the icepack in place. Dr. Gladwell fishes a penlight out of her pocket and says, “Neets, can you look at me? Tell me if it’s too bright.”
Nita heaves a sigh and doesn’t protest as she goes through the diagnostics again. She can remember the date, her name, her birthday, the bus she takes to school every day, which is good, really good. Dr. Gladwell clicks off the penlight, then looks up at Leorio. “What do you think?
“Tracking’s not bad, little sensitive to light but it looked like her pupils were fine. She’s a little dizzy, but her memory’s okay,” Leorio says. “Lightly concussed, should have a follow-up as well as monitor for any new symptoms, but we shouldn’t need any imaging. That cut could use stitches, though.”
Dr. Gladwell nods firmly once, says, “I agree,” then stands again to talk to the parents. She talks to them the way she talks to Leorio: simple, straight-forward, always calm but never impassive. “Nita’s gonna be just fine,” she says, and the dad is hanging on her every word. “If it bled this much, it could use a couple stitches, just to make sure it heals right, and the ER staff can do a more thorough check. You can even do urgent care, but I really think the main thing is just stitches and lots of rest. No bright lights and really limit screentime for a few days. Think you can do that?”
The dad’s already back with Nita, both hands on her shoulders and looking her over like he’s checking to make sure she’s still in one piece. “She’s okay?”
“She’ll be just fine.”
“Really?” the father says, and Dr. Gladwell nods again, zero hesitation.
“Really. We can even schedule your follow-up now, just so we can make sure we’re keeping an eye on her recovery.”
“Please, yes,” he says, sagging with relief.
“C’mon up with me to the front desk, then, and we can get that sorted out now,” she says, putting a hand on his elbow. To Leorio, she says, “Can you get logistics arranged with Mrs. Ruwani?”
“You bet,” he says, then turns back to Nita and her mom, who’s now perched like a bird on the seat next to her. “Mrs. Ruwani?”
“Yes, I heard,” she says, still shaken, but doing a lot better than she was. She’s clutching her daughter’s hand, and Nita is slouched back in the chair, looking bored with the entire scene. “Where can we go for stitches?”
“Well, there’s the emergency room, which is not as scary as it sounds, or we can call over and see if someone can take you at an urgent care clinic.”
She’s looking up at him, gaze level, hand tight over Nita’s. “Who do you think is better?”
“Well, emergency does way more of these in a day, so they have more practice. They’ll do a really good job. Once it’s healed, you’ll hardly know it’s there.”
She nods thoughtfully, seems like one of those people who get their bearings once they start getting the pieces of a solution, probably a big fan of actionables. “Then we’ll do that.”
“Sure. Can we call you an ambulance, or do you wanna drive there on your own?”
“We don’t need an ambulance, so I will drive,” the mom says firmly, though she still looks rattled. She nods towards where her husband is standing by the front desk. “He drives like a maniac.”
He likes her. “Great,” he says, starting to get up, but then she holds out her free hand. He hesitates, then carefully holds it between both his own. “Don’t worry. This is all gonna be just fine.”
She grips his fingers, mouth tightening, then nods to him and says, “I think so too,” and lets go. Then she says, “Let’s go, Nita,”and steadies her daughter as she stands.
Her husband meets her at the door, then turns and offers his hand to Leorio, who takes it for a solid handshake, little on the tight side of firm, but not at all painful.
“Thank you,” he says, then, “Keep studying with Dr. Gladwell. She is the best.”
Leorio grins, says, “You bet,” then waves them out the door.
He waits until the door shuts behind them before heaving a sigh, shoulders unknotting, then turns and heads back to the exam rooms. It’s nice that it worked out, but there’s no time to feel good about it. He has to keep moving, otherwise the backlog builds up and appointments run long and then they really have to rush and the work gets sloppy.
He comes back to a stack of prescriptions to fax and two more kids who need their vaccines. Thankfully those are still ones they have in stock, so at least those are two awkward conversations he gets to avoid. He grabs an undergrad and points him towards the stack, then starts drawing up the vaccines. Sometimes he forgets it’s only been three months since they made it back from the Dark Continent. For better or worse, he doesn’t know how to freeze anymore.
He clocks out an hour and a half later than usual, doesn't bother changing out of his scrubs. No infectious diseases, no blood, no one else barfed on him, so he's tired but presentable at exactly 7:30 P.M. Weird to be tired with a set schedule. It’s like there was a constant hum in his bones the whole past year that’s just gone. Feels emptier that way.
Adrenaline, he thinks, sighing as he reaches into his jacket pocket to check his phone, readjusting the bag slung over his shoulder. Did he have dinner plans? He doesn’t remember. Stupid to be complaining about less death-defying stress.
The phone buzzes once as his hand brushes the screen and he pulls it out to take a look at the messages, resigned. Must’ve stood someone up. Two missed calls, one voicemail. Whoops.
He swipes to take a look, then stops in the middle of the sidewalk.
All three are from Kurapika.
The voicemail is only two seconds long but he goes to listen anyway, fumbles his password the first time and swears before trying again and bringing the phone to his ear. There’s a sharp inhale, and then the hang-up, and he exits voicemail without deciding whether or not to delete it. Then he calls Kurapika back.
Three rings, and then a click.
“Where are you?” Kurapika says immediately, before he can start. No greeting, no preamble. His voice sounds faded, maybe just because of the connection.
“Better question!” Leorio says, angry already. Who does he think he is. “Where have you been?”
“That’s not important. Where are you now?”
Oh, he knows this one. Give a little, get a little. Kurapika’s spent too long with the mafia. He grits his teeth, then says, “Seventh and Westwood, I was just heading home. Kurapika, what’s this about?”
There’s a short pause, then Kurapika says, “I’ll see you soon,” and hangs up.
“Excuse you?” Leorio demands of his silent phone, doesn’t feel any better for it. He redials, glaring up at the streetlights as it rings, once, twice, three times, keeps ringing.
He hisses when he hits voicemail, the automated message calmly informing him that the user’s voicemail box is full, because of course it is. “I know you were just on your phone, asshole!”
A passerby gives him a look, keeps walking, and he sneers at their back before glowering at his phone again. No use in texting, he knows that already. May as well head home.
Kurapika’s waiting for him in the lobby. Leorio halts, trading glances with the concierge before giving him a little wave, then goes to stand in front of Kurapika, slouched in a chair along the wall, duffel at his feet.
He’s cut his hair again, short and choppy, still hasn’t given up on the button-down and slacks though he’s lost the blazer and tie, added a peacoat that almost gives him the right silhouette. He looks about as tired as Leorio feels, only moving his eyes to glance up, contacts in, head leaned back against the wall.
“How do you know where I live?”
Kurapika just blinks, lowers his gaze again to look steadily at the far wall and the concierge desk. “You’re not a hard man to find,” he says, a faint note of reproach in his voice.
“Unlike some people, I like to make it easy for my friends to find me,” Leorio replies, settling into the chair beside him.
Kurapika doesn’t even look over. Leorio frowns, shifting forward to look into his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he says, tone flat and gaze steady, but that’s all. No other movement. Liar.
Leorio tries again. “What’s this about? You called twice. You even left me a voicemail.”
“I did not intend to leave you a voicemail.”
“Long one, too. Must be real important.”
Kurapika remains silent for a moment longer, just breathing, then says, “Is there somewhere we can speak in private?”
He should say no. Or demand more details. Or make Kurapika explain even a fraction of what he’s been doing and where he’s been all this time. Instead he sits there, looking at Kurapika in profile, the stillness of his face, the shadows beneath his eyes, the set of his mouth, and how he stares. After a while, Kurapika turns slightly to look back at him, eyes dark and unreadable. Damn it.
“Sure,” Leorio says, heaving himself out of the chair and jerking his head towards the elevators. “Come on up.”
“Here we are,” he says, sweeping one arm out as he opens the door and turns on the lights. “Home sweet home.”
He shuts the door behind them, scuffing out of his shoes and dropping his bag on the floor. Shrugging out of his jacket, he heads towards the kitchen, drapes it over one of the stools at the island. Kurapika is still by the door, glances from living room to kitchen to the three doors further back before turning his attention to the intercom by the entryway. Weird thing to look at. Just a standard model. He’s seen them before.
“What’re you waiting for? Come on in.”
When Kurapika starts in, he makes a quick gesture with both his hands. “Ah, hey, no shoes. We’ve talked about this.”
Kurapika glowers at him before toeing off his loafers, which is probably a good sign. Leorio opens a cabinet by the microwave and rummages through it, pretending to ignore him.
Kurapika doesn’t head for the kitchen immediately, instead takes a slow, wandering circuit around the living room, examining table, windows, lamps, the TV. As he drifts closer, he glances at the first of the doors to his left.
“My study,” Leorio says, leaned back against a countertop, halfway through a glass of water. He’s used to it now, a whole separate room, just to himself, just for his books and chair and desk. And a fold-out cot so it can double as a guest-room. No sense in wasting space.
Kurapika considers it a moment longer, then approaches the kitchen, sets his bag down by one of the stools. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
Leorio snorts. “Don’t sound so surprised. You want anything? Water? Juice? Coffee?”
“None, thank you. No landlines?”
“Who uses landlines anymore?”
He comes around the kitchen island to reach past Leorio and rummage around in the same cabinet for a glass. Leorio rolls his eyes, doesn’t comment as Kurapika shuts the cabinet, turns to the sink for water. He’s still holding his mouth like he has something else to say, but if he hasn’t spit it out by now, it’ll be a back-and-forth ordeal to get him to spill anything at all.
Leorio puts his own glass aside, folds his arms. “Listen, it’s been a long day. What’s up?”
Kurapika takes a drink, glances at him. “I need a favor.”
“So now he needs a favor,” Leorio says to the ceiling. “Can't text in three months, but he can ask a favor. Okay, I’ll bite. What kind of favor?”
“I have all the eyes.”
“Would you--” Kurapika begins, then exhales, folds one arm close, hand tucking into the opposite elbow as he holds his water like he’s at some fancy cocktail party, not in Leorio’s kitchen, talking about how he’s spent the last three years doing something nearly impossible. “Could I ask for your help… in bringing them home?’
“I-- Of course I’ll help,” Leorio says. What a ridiculous question.
Kurapika is examining his glass. “It may be dangerous.”
“Could have started with that,” Leorio grumbles, tapping his fingers as he thinks it over. If Kurapika says it’s dangerous, it probably is. “How bad could it be? Bunch of jars. No problem.”
“The value on the black market is… significant,” Kurapika says, putting his glass on the counter. “A good target for anyone looking to get rich quickly.”
“Are you serious? Don’t answer that.” Leorio sighs, and rubs the bridge of his nose. Gentler, he says again, “Of course I’ll help you. What do you need?”
“I just need some help with transportation. I’ll take care of everything else.”
“Sounds like you,” Leorio says, scowling at him. “Anyone else?”
“Just us, then?”
Kurapika flicks him a glance that’s just a shortened eye roll. “Obviously.”
He frowns back. “Why me, if this is so important? Why not get someone stronger, like one of the other Zodiacs? Or Killua. What about Killua? I’m sure he knows plenty of people, too. Or someone from Nostrade?”
Kurapika holds his gaze, doesn’t answer.
Leorio takes a step forward to stare down at him, expression and stomach sinking. “Wait, let me guess. I was last on your list.”
“I’ve only asked you,” Kurapika says, looking up at him without batting an eye; he’s never been impressed by looming. They’re nearly toe-to-toe, haven’t been so close since… well. “Please.”
Leorio considers him, then relents. It’s official. He’s a sucker. “All right. When do we leave?”
“Are you fucking kidding me,” he demands. Kurapika tenses, but Leorio’s already brushing past him, waving him off. “Forget it, forget it, I just have to go pack and send some emails, sit down, make yourself at home, hey why are you like this?”
Halfway to his bedroom door, he wheels and marches back to the kitchen where Kurapika is eyeing him with something approaching alarm. He stops on the other side of the island and says, “What’s the weather like over there anyway?”
Kurapika hesitates, then says, “Warm.”
“Okay but. How warm?”
“I don’t know. Warmer than here. Look it up.”
“Fine. Where was it again?”
“Lukso,” Kurapika says, shoulders lax but both hands pressed flat on the countertop before him. “Lukso Province.”
Too far to see clearly, but Kurapika has his contacts in anyway, is staring dead ahead like he is daring further comment. Leorio considers, then gives it up. “Sure,” he says, then retreats.
He can take a week, probably. Travel time shouldn’t be too long, and he double-checks the map and the weather forecast. Hardly any major terminals or stations, but Kurapika should know the way. He opens his email, does a quick scan to make sure he’s not missing anything major (useless admin announcement, useless club announcement, advertisement, and that one email from a classmate he’s been ignoring for two days now), then starts a new email to one of his professors.
He copy-pastes it three times, then checks his phone. Probably too late to bother Dr. Gladwell. He’ll leave a message tomorrow, maybe send another message or two later. The more pressing concern is that he hasn’t eaten since noon.
He gets up and goes to poke his head through the door. Kurapika’s moved from kitchen to couch with his jacket and bag, doesn’t look like he’s doing much of anything while he waits. Honestly, it’s shocking he’s still here. He must really need the favor. “Did you have dinner? I’m getting pizza, what do you want?”
The pizza arrives as he’s cramming a final shirt into his bag. Leorio emerges to sign for it, motions for Kurapika to stay on the couch as he brings it over. He uses the box to butt the remotes out of the way before settling it on the low table in front of the TV, flipping the lid open before sitting on the floor. Kurapika already has the best access spot on the couch, and he’s too lazy to grab a plate.
He’s starting his second slice before Kurapika’s gotten even halfway through his first. Weird. He is hungry, but Kurapika’s not necessarily a slow or picky eater. Now though, he’s eating like a robot, or maybe like a robot would if it could eat. The only time his face changes is when he drops a pepperoni on his lap and just looks down at it with something like mild concern before picking it up and eating it.
“Hey. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Kurapika says, looking more engrossed in creasing the last of his pizza slice in half to eat like a taco. “And you?”
“I still think it’s weird when you do that. I’ve been better.”
Kurapika takes another slice, doesn’t ask. Asshole. Leorio frowns at the last bit of crust he’s holding before cramming it in his mouth. What else was he expecting, though.
“So,” he says, crunching then swallowing. “You made it back, huh?”
Kurapika is apparently absorbed in looking over his new slice. “So it would seem.”
“How long you been back?”
“Long enough.” He glances up to meet Leorio’s glare, then sighs and relents. “A few days. It’s not important.”
“It’s kind of important,” Leorio mutters to himself, then says, “It’s only been a few months for me. How’re you holding up after all that?”
“You know. The Dark Continent.” The end of that weird business with the princes. Everything they said before leaving the ship on separate teams. “Spooky shit.”
“Well enough,” Kurapika says, and it’s easy to tell what that tone means. No more answers on that front.
“Well,” Leorio says, then exhales. “Good thing you’re here. Cheadle was pretty pissed when you went MIA.”
Kurapika just shrugs, takes another bite, nearly drops another pepperoni.
“Where’d you go anyway? What have you been up to?”
“Excuse me for wanting to catch up after months,” Leorio says, stung.
“Try six. We lost comms for a hot second, remember? For a little while, I wasn’t even sure you’d gotten off the Dark Continent!”
“I’m here now,” Kurapika says, face calm and still, like this is all normal.
“So talk to me!”
Kurapika puts his half-eaten piece down, reaches for a napkin to wipe grease and grit off his hands. There’s just a flicker of his old annoyance, but then it passes and he just looks tired and small.
“Leorio,” he says quietly. “I’m so close to the end.”
Yeah. Okay. That’s… fair. Leorio sighs, then turns back to the pizza and starts pulling off another piece carefully, to keep the cheese at the end from sliding off. “All right. Talk later, then.”
They finish dinner in silence. Or he finishes, at least. Kurapika seems to have no intention of picking up his half-eaten piece again. It’s fine. Someone’ll probably eat it in the morning, Leorio figures, and it’ll probably be him.
He goes to put the leftovers in the fridge, then washes his hands before going to rummage in the hallway closet. Guest stuff is up top, not much of a reach, and towels are on a middle rack. He bundles it all up, then takes a few steps back.
On the couch, Kurapika looks up, then frowns. Leorio realizes his mistake.
“Uh,” he says, then squashes the urge to drop his armload and pretend it never happened. “So. Where are you staying tonight?”
Kurapika continues frowning. Not annoyed at him, just confused and annoyed about that. Classic. “I’ll find a hotel--”
“Because you can stay here if you want,” Leorio blurts. If he says it fast enough, it just might seem unplanned. “Doesn’t make sense, if we’re leaving early. Which I bet we are. You have your stuff with you, right?”
“Yes,” Kurapika says slowly. He makes a quick motion, then settles his hands back on his knees, like he was about to fidget then stopped himself. “I didn’t intend--”
“Like that matters. Listen, this works. Just stay.”
Kurapika doesn’t look away from him, but isn’t really looking at him either. It’s more like he’s unfocusing his eyes to stare somewhere past him. Finally, he says, “Thank you,” and stands, picking up his bag and jacket, slinging both over his shoulder.
“Any time,” Leorio says, then opens the door to his study. “Guest room’s here.”
Kurapika follows him over, waits in the doorway while he puts the bundle of sheets, towels, and pillow on the desk before going to fold out the cot. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“I appreciate it.” Kurapika steps past him to set his bag on the bed, begins searching through it.
Leorio hesitates, then says, “I’m glad you made it back.”
Kurapika considers him, then returns to rummaging through his bag. “Thank you. Again.” He pulls out a phone charger, then looks over the pile of bedding on the desk. “I can take care of the rest.”
That’s it, then.
“Sure,” Leorio says, and retreats to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him. He has some emails to finish writing.