"Large coffee, small Caesar salad, banana, chocolate pudding. That'll be $3.75, Dr. Weaver."
"Thank you, Delia." Kerry dropped her change onto the tray, balanced the whole thing on her left forearm and surveyed the crowded cafeteria for an empty table.
No such luck. A boisterous group of third years were practicing suture patterns and hand ties on the day's special, roast chicken. Anxious-looking PGY-1s grilled each other, brandishing sheaves of photocopied journal articles, probably in preparation for April's in-service examination. White coats, pink and blue scrubs and civvies were scattered in twos and threes all over the room.
Except at one table, a prime corner window location presided over by a single occupant.
"Robert. Mind if I join you?"
"Kerry. By all means; I'm sure the pleasure's all yours. To what do I owe this intrusion?"
"I figured the sound of one giant ego sucking wind would be easier to ignore than a tableful of students."
"You should do what I do and just sit wherever the hell you want. A few disparaging comments, a withering glance or two later and the table's yours."
"Then why doesn't it seem to be working?"
"Kerry, you wound me. As it happens, I was about to leave. I have a duodenojejunostomy in ten minutes, thanks to an overenthusiastic resident's Spica cast application."
"Not one of ours, I trust."
"No, yours have been relatively unburdened by incompetence lately. This was courtesy of one of the wonder boys up in Medicine."
"You're going to make him be your bowel retractor for two hours, aren't you?"
"Have a little faith, Kerry; of course I am. He also had the privilege of giving the patient an enema and shaving him before prep."
"I'm glad you'll never be in need of proctological attention, Robert."
"Meaning I'm a perfect asshole? Nicest thing anyone's said about me all day. Did I hear that Greene's coming back to work this week?"
"That's right. He'll be starting Friday."
"Is he ready? It's only been a little over a month since he got lobotomized. It would reflect rather badly on us to have him stumbling around the ED in a crisis."
"Mark says he's ready, and Burke's latest neuro evaluation checked out. He's to start on half-shifts only, with at least one other attending on duty."
"On your head be it, then. Well, to the victor -– or at least the only other person in this room with balls -– goes the table. Good day, Kerry."
Kerry shook her head as the bantam Chief of Staff strutted off. Much as she deplored Romano's arrogance and belittling attitude toward his colleagues and juniors, she had to admit that it was refreshing not to have to pull her punches or edit herself with him -– and she suspected he liked it that way.
Her back to the room, she sensed rather than saw the presence behind her. With the impression of movement came the hint of a familiar perfume.
" 'Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron' und Schweif?' "
recited Kim as she folded herself into the chair Romano had just vacated.
Kerry nearly choked on an errant crouton. Grabbing the glass of water from Kim's tray, she downed half of it in an irregular series of gulps until her coughing was finally under control.
"If I develop aspiration pneumonia I'm sending you the bill," Kerry rasped, wiping her mouth and nose with a napkin.
"Couldn't help it. I get that piece in my head every time I see the little troll."
"Be fair. I don't think he's ever killed a child."
"That you know of."
"True; could be one of his many clandestine hobbies. Sorry, I'll get you some more water. What are you doing here at this hour?" Kerry asked as she returned from the beverage station.
"Thank you. Figured you'd be here before your shift started so I waited to come down for a late lunch."
"Very balanced meal: salt, fat, sugar and caffeine."
"Don't forget chemicals, preservatives and dyes. And ketchup, although that's actually a vegetable, according to Reagan."
"You're going to take nutritional advice from a man who was in early-stage Alzheimer's at the time?"
"Of course not. I'm going to poison my body with full cognizance. I read 'The Jungle' in seventh grade, I know how they make hot dogs. And yes, you can have some of my fries; don't think I can't see you eyeing them."
"Kim, how can you eat that crap? And where the hell does it go?" Kerry waved her hands, vaguely encompassing the slim figure dressed in another of an apparently endless supply of tailored blouses -– she had yet to see the same one twice; today's was peach silk -– over form-fitting black pants. If Kim carried an ounce of excess weight, it was spread out in a molecule-thin layer.
Kim shrugged. "Burns like cellophane, and I can always run it off if it hangs around. But I don't eat junk food all the time."
"The way you can cook, I certainly hope not."
"This is nothing. I'll have to introduce you to Harold's one of these days."
"Heart attack on a plate. Best fried chicken in town, smothered with barbecue sauce and hot sauce on top of flabby white bread and crinkle fries. You walk out of the place covered in a film of grease. There's a branch a few blocks from my house -– I go at least twice a month."
"Um... I'll have to give you a rain check on that. What's your cholesterol level?"
"101 last time I checked. Mostly HDLs."
"Okay, it's official: I hate you now," Kerry said. She poked resignedly with her fork at the limp remains of her salad, then reached over to steal a French fry.
"All in the genes. Wouldn't last long in a famine, though. Get some rest?"
"Not bad. I doubt I even have a circadian rhythm any more, after all these years. I'd probably do well in space. I did have an interesting conversation with Joseph last night."
"Eng the Mouse? He didn't run and hide when you flipped on the lights?"
"He's a nice kid. Just a little quiet."
"Now there's a ringing endorsement."
"What can I say? He's bright and well-read and articulate, but as a med student, well... he's a place-holder."
Kim's eyebrows climbed up into her hairline. "I'm surprised at you, Kerry. That would seem to be exactly the type of student you'd try to infuse with your love of medicine."
"The ones who actually want to be here and are just a little unfocused, yes. I knew he was different when he didn't continually pepper me with questions about cases and procedures and research advice, like every other tenant I've had."
"So why is he here?"
"He wants to be an accountant but his parents insist on his becoming a doctor. So he's going through the motions. He'll probably be a perfectly adequate and perfectly unhappy GP one of these days."
" 'I wanna be a dentist!'" Kim giggled in a strangely nasal voice.
Kerry looked blankly at her.
"Don't tell me you've never seen the Rudolph Christmas special, with the claymation puppets. Disgruntled elf gets labeled a misfit because what he really wants to be is a dentist."
"Must've missed that one. I've seen 'It's a Wonderful Life.' "
"Kerry, watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' at Christmas is a requirement for citizenship in this country. But the Rudolph thing is one of the few pure joys in existence. I think we need to expand your pop culture frame of reference; I'm sure I have it on tape somewhere at home."
"Yes, but can you find it?"
"I can find it. There is a system, you know."
That cute little divot had appeared just above the bridge of Kim's nose and Kerry was overtaken by an inane desire to kiss it. Stick with sarcasm, Weaver. "Yeah, it's called entropy."
"Do you ever throw anything away? I don't think I've ever met anyone who has so much stuff."
"Just because I like to keep reminders of... significant events in my life..." One of the sculpted brows hitched up into a circumflex and there was a definite impish gleam in the clear blue eyes.
Okay. They'd been dancing around the issue for weeks now. "Um... Kim, how many... significant events are we talking about here?"
"Do you want an actual number?" Kim's mouth curled.
Kerry was a little taken aback. "I guess... no."
The lazy smile stayed but Kim's expression was suddenly serious. "I've had fun, and I've been bored, and I've had my heart ripped out of my chest more times than I care to remember. And I have been in love, crazy in love, to the point where I can't tell if I want to shout it from the mountaintops or bash my head against a wall."
"What... category do I fall under?"
"Well, you're definitely not boring. And I've enjoyed being with you so far but you're a little too much work to be strictly 'fun,' Kerry Weaver."
"Thanks a lot."
"That's a compliment, by the way. Backhanded and sideways, I'll admit, but a compliment. Nothing worth having is ever easy."
"Am I? Worth having?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out. If you'll let me."
Kerry let out a long breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Do you think I'll hurt you? Rip your heart out of your chest, as you say?"
Kim's eyes closed for a moment; when they opened again, Kerry was stunned by the naked vulnerability in them. "I think you could, yes."
"Because you don't think I can get past the sexuality issue?"
"That's a small part of it. I know that being attracted to a woman is difficult for you, that you're dealing with a fundamental shift in a lifetime of assumptions and conventions. I know that's not easy. But if that were the only problem, I could wait forever."
"If that were the only problem... ?"
Kim inhaled deeply. "Kerry, can you appreciate how very rare it is to find someone who resonates with you on every possible level? Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically? Someone who likes the same things you do, laughs at the same stupid stuff, respects your idiosyncracies?"
" ... Yes."
"Think how much more rare it is, then, to find someone like that and realize that you... care... for them. And how exponentially more rare still that they could care for you in return. Most people spend their lives trying to fulfill that possibility. Sometimes it's not meant to be: the timing is all wrong, the expectations are wildly disparate, the levels of desire are out of synch. In cases like that, you pick yourself up, work out a few bruises, maybe bleed quietly by the roadside for a little while, but you move on.
"But if two people do somehow manage to make that kind of connection, I believe that they have a responsibility to cherish and nurture it. Because it is so inherently precious and fragile, and because the odds of finding another like it are infinitesimal. That's the only way a relationship has a chance, if both people treasure it for the extraordinary gift that it is.
"Imagine if one of them, when offered that gift, constantly pushes it away. Or takes it for granted that the other person will always be there to do the nurturing, to be visited once in a while and then shunted aside when inconvenient.
"What can I do for you, Julian?"
Kerry was utterly speechless; every word had hammered home and it took her a moment to gather her wits enough to realize that Kim had addressed that last sentence to someone else. The transformation into what she recognized as her friend's professional mode was almost as palpable as a slap to the face.
"J-just need you to sign off on these, Dr. Legaspi," said the painfully earnest young man as he handed Kim a pile of charts.
"Thank you. Any criticals?"
"No, all outpatients."
"Okay. Give me time to look through them, then we'll go over your discharge plans together. My office in an hour?"
"Sure, that would be gr -– uh, that's fine. Um... see you there."
"See you, Julian."
Kerry was unexpectedly glad for the diversion; she was still feeling a little raw. "Your resident's got a crush on you."
"You think?" A trace of a smirk played around Kim's lips.
"Let's just say I recognize the signs," Kerry said dryly. "It doesn't bother you?"
Kim rolled her eyes. "It's amusing, in a galumphing puppyish way. The only ones who bother me are the guys who think it's 'totally hot' that I'm 'into chicks, and you know, I was wondering if you would be interested in getting together with me and my girlfriend...' "
"Getting back to what we were talking about before -– or at least, what I was preaching from my soapbox. I think you could hurt me, yes, possibly more than I could hurt you. But that's the risk you take in any relationship that's worthwhile, because in the end the rewards eclipse the risks."
"So you do think this... could be worthwhile?"
"Kerry, I wouldn't have stuck around if I didn't. Believe me, I know when to cut my losses."
"Yes, I remember. Good thing you've had so much practice at it."
An uncomfortable silence settled between them. Kerry toyed with her pudding, drawing patterns on its surface with her spoon. Kim held onto her coffee cup with both hands as if it were a lifeline.
"I guess I deserved that," said Kim at last.
"I'm sorry. But I can't help wondering if I'm just another challenge to you."
"That's rather insulting," Kim said quietly, but her eyes blazed.
Kerry felt her own temper rising. "Because you have a history of such meaningful relationships?"
"I won't deny that I've had my share of purely physical flings, when the mood was right and there were no obligations on either side. Don't you dare suggest that because of them, the importance of my other attachments is somehow discounted.
"Kerry, I don't know if what we have will work out. I can't predict the future -– hell, sometimes I can't even see what's right in front of me, I'm so confused. What I do know is, being with you makes me happy. And frustrated, and exhilarated, and furious, and giddy, sometimes all at once."
"Sounds kind of exhausting."
"It is. It's also fascinating, in theory. But you can't live a theoretical life. Or anyway, I can't."
"Put out or get out, is that it?"
"Crude, but yes, essentially that's it. I'm not talking about sex. If that were all I were interested in, I daresay I could have found a way to persuade you into bed. That's not what I want. Well, not all of what I want."
"What is it that you do want, then?"
"I want to know what you think, what you feel. What delights you. What makes you mad. What you most desire. What you most fear. I want to be as much a part of your life, conscious and unconscious, as you have become of mine. And most of all, I want to know that you won't forsake me in the harsh light of day only to come running when the shadows fall again."
Kerry didn't know whether to laugh or cry; the sound that eventually escaped her throat came out as a sort of strangled sob. "Don't want much, do you?"
"It isn't much. When you have an idea why it's so hard to let me in, drop me a clue, will you?" Kim stood up, starting to gather together charts, papers and her ever-present clipboard.
Kim's severe expression softened a degree at the pleading note in Kerry's voice.
"Are... are you free after work tomorrow?"
"Actually, I'm on call until midnight. I'd better not make any plans. We're coming up on the full moon, you know."
Kerry smiled ruefully. "Mardi Gras on the Psych ward again?"
"Add in the fact that tomorrow's Valentine's Day and you get a pretty volatile mix. This might get a little hairy."
"Thursday, then. I'm off at seven."
Kim held her gaze for a long moment. "All right. That'll be a good time to show you something I found the other day."
"What is it?"
"You'll have to see." A suggestion of the usual cheerful insouciance fleeted across Kim's face. "Call me tonight?"
The world righted itself on its axis again. Kerry tumbled over her words in a rush. "Sure. When's a good time? I mean, I don't want to wake you up or anything, and I'd hate to disturb you if you were planning to -– "
"Kerry. It doesn't matter. I'll wait."