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Never a Lovely So Real

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“Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

- Nelson Algren

 

Max is here. He's been in Chicago for almost two weeks. He's doing a survey of the ER, evaluating the feasibility of a dedicated pediatric emergency unit.

She thinks it's a good idea, and Max has told her he thinks so too.

But the ER isn't the only thing that's being surveyed.

He's made no secret of his reasons for coming to Chicago, and as irresistible as Doug Ross thinks he is, it's not for him.

Max is clean. He's been clean for more than a year. He's got a chip to prove it. And sober, stable, and secure he says he still can't get her out of his head. So he came here, because he needed his fix. She's not sure she's entirely flattered to be compared to drugs, but at least he's being metaphorical now when he makes this observation, instead of literal.

And if she's honest, she's been thinking about him a lot, too.

He meets her after her shift with take out in the lounge. Cheese steaks. How the hell did he find them? She's been looking for the better part of a year, and even John, with his infinite knowledge of the city hadn't known where to look. Of course, he didn't know what they were, either, which may have factored into his failure.

But Max has them waiting for her in the lounge.

They're hot, and she savours the richness of one on her tongue as she bites into a it. Some poor transplant from Philly made these. Must have, because they're perfect. Exactly how she remembers them; how she remembers home.

“God, I've missed this,” she groans, around a mouthful of cheese steak.

“Me too,” Max says. His hand stretches across the table to cover hers.

It reminds her of when she was an intern in Philadelphia, and she would spend her lunch hour with Max, initially brought together by their shared enthusiasm for this hometown delicacy. They'd made a survey of the city then, to find the best recipe. She doesn't remember every cheese steak, but she remembers each season, their companionship morphing first into friendship, and then love. She remembers these shared meals, and the comfort of Max's easy, honest nature. She remembers the calm joy she felt working beside him in the pediatric ward, the quiet warmth that he exuded, confident without being arrogant. The steadiness of his hands, the surety of his care, and how simple it was to go home with him at night. It had been effortless to love him. More than that, it had been obvious. Nothing at all like things had been in Chicago.

It's good to be home, at last.

“I invited John to stay,” Max says, breaking her meditation. “He...was less than enthusiastic about the idea. I think he was a bit jealous.”

“Probably,” she replies. If they want to turn this into a competition, it's nothing to do with her. It's not going to spoil this reunion.

“He denied that, of course.”

“Well, he's not an idiot. In spite of the evidence.”

“He's very protective of you. Sounded a lot like Joe, actually. Told me –”

“Look, can we not talk about Carter? This is my first cheese steak in a year. Can we not spoil it, please?”

“Sorry. You're right.” He gave a sharp nod, and reached for his own meal, chuckling. “I can't believe I was infringing on the sacred worship of the cheese steak. It's been a while for me, too. You forget these things.”

“Mm,” she sighs, taking another bite. “Never again. You have to tell me where you got these.”

“And give up my only advantage? Not likely. How else am I supposed to lure you back to me?”

“I haven't gone anywhere.”

“You sure?” He sounds skeptical, his eyes drift to the door, unconsciously tracing John's exit. He's still trying to get a read on that whole thing, which Anna herself has only just managed to write off, and only by ignoring it.

She squeezes his hand, swallows, and looks him straight in the eye.

“I'm sure.”

“Good,” he grins. “Because I have a confession to make: I didn't come down here for Doug Ross.”

John is driving her crazy. Or he would be, if she was paying him any attention. But she's not. So he's not. Thank God. Because he's making this whole thing incredibly difficult.

He hasn't spoken more than three or four terse sentences to her all week, and all of them either work related, or otherwise dismissive. He ducks out of the lounge whenever she catches him in there, not even trying to hide his irritation, and he hasn't called her even once.

If he weren't twenty-six, she'd call it sulking.

Max, however, has been a dream. He takes her out to the movies, and to the Pier. They've gone on a boat cruise, which made him seasick, and made her laugh. And he even made her a three course, gourmet meal on the ancient, shitty stove in her apartment.

But his time at County is coming to an end, and so is her year of internship. Decisions have to be made.

Max wants her to come back to Philadelphia. With him.

She can finish her residency there, he says. Find a hospital with a pediatric emergency department, one that doesn't include the double-edged, and unwieldable sword of Doug Ross, and get her double board.

Just think of that.

An emergency department that doesn't include John Carter.

But an apartment that does include Max Rosher.

That's the offer. He's couched it in the Liberty Bell, and family, and cheesesteaks, but that's what he means.

It's a tempting prospect.

She's tired of fighting, tired of the politics, and games. Tired of greedy physicians who only react to the promise of insurance claims, tired of supervisors with poor impulse control and wildly exaggerated self-importance, tired of patients that suspect her of everything but of trying to help. Tired of trying to pull the truth from lying mouths. Tired of poor county hospitals.

In fact, she's tired of emergency medicine altogether. She doesn't like it. She doesn't like what it's doing to her. She's irritable when she wakes, annoyed when she arrives at work, and livid when she goes home. She's becoming hard, and cold, and she doesn't like it. She doesn't want to do this anymore.

Her old hospital in Philly has an opening. It's not in the ER, but in pediatrics. She could take it. Go back to what she knew, with who she knew, and try to recover that sense of contentedness she once had. It's tempting.

So tempting, in fact, that she doesn't even think of what she's giving up when she tells Max she's going home with him less than a day after he asks.

So promising, in fact, that she doesn't even tell John that she's leaving. Why should he care, anyway?

She tells Kerry Weaver, though. It's not two weeks notice, but they won't be short staffed. John can take her place. He can take her match.

Her last shift is quiet, as if the city has given up its stranglehold on her, and is happy to let her go in peace. Doug isn't on. John isn't on. And all the nurses make every effort to have the time pass as easily as possible. They're there with instruments, and drugs, there anticipating her orders. No disimpactions, no abcesses, and no pelvic exams. Mark Greene, who has been preoccupied by Kerry Weaver's paranoid concerns over Dr. Ross, even manages to spare her a few scattered moments in the day, stopping her between trauma rooms to tell her how much they value her, how much they'll miss her, and wouldn't she please reconsider her decision to leave?

But her mind is made up. She smiles at him, pretending to wrestle with a choice she's already made.

“Don't do that, Mark,” she says. “I can't call them back and cancel. They've already booked the caterer!”

At the end of the day, she's totally unsurprised to find the lounge filled with people she loves, but can't wait to leave, though they're all reminding her exactly what made her choose County in the first place. Mark's by the lockers, glasses glinting, and his close-mouthed grin preventing any Hail Mary negotiations from slipping out. Maggie's at the fridge, digging in the back and lifting two beers in invitation. Chuny, Malik, and Haleh stuck around, or came back. Carol's there, crying, her voice hoarse as she mourns the many bottles of wine she'll have to drink alone now. And Elizabeth has sneaked down from upstairs, grabbing her by the shoulders, and rocking her in a tight squeeze.

“I gave Romano the slip for this, you know,” she teases.

“I'm flattered,” she squeaks out through the embrace.

Elizabeth's grip relaxes, as she pulls away, holding Anna at arm's length and scanning the room.

“Where's Carter?” she asks. “Drowning his sorrows in the cafe? I didn't know it was licensed.”

“He's not here,” she replies.

Elizabeth's devilish grin fades. Her brow creases, and her lips push forward in that look of concentration she wears during the most challenging of cases.

“Does he know you're leaving?”

“I'm sure someone told him,” she says.

“Anna.” Her tone is firm, hanging on the edge of disappointment. “Did you tell him you were leaving?”

Anna tilts her chin, tossing her ponytail over her shoulder.

“It's none of his business.”

“He cares about you, Anna,” she urges. She's not intimidated or at all put off by Anna's demeanour.

“Well, he shouldn't,” she declares. “I didn't ask him to.”

“He's your friend.”

“He hasn't spoken to me in weeks.”

Elizabeth's mouth bends to match her brow, her lips pressing together. Anna's determined. Her mind is fixed, and she won't be chastised for something she wants nothing to do with. There's no use in trying to convince her otherwise.

“It doesn't matter, Elizabeth,” she says. “I'm going to Philadelphia.”

“Of course,” she replies. Her somber look falls away like satin, revealing smooth, marble joy beneath. “And best of luck. I hope you're very happy, there.”

She doesn't add “with Max”, and Anna feels it like a purposeful slight.

“I will be.”

Elizabeth smiles, and it's so open, and sincere that it burns through Anna's defenses like the sun. She squeezes her hand, and Anna pulls her back into another quick embrace.

“Thank you,” she whispers. “For everything.”

“You're welcome,” Elizabeth whispers back. And then she's gone, racing towards the elevators, then taking the stairs when it takes too long to answer her call.

Carol is back to say goodbye – she's got a date with Doug, and Anna wishes her luck, though they're both so besotted by each other she doesn't think they need it.

“You'd better come back and visit,” Carol warns. “I'm really going to miss you!”

“I will,” she vows, and means it, though an hour ago, she had no intention of ever coming back. Now that the moment has arrived, she's filled with regret, that nostalgia in a rush of dopamine that reminds you only of the good, even if the majority of the experience has been torturous.

The party is dying down. Max is waiting for her at home, she says, and everyone cheers, and whistles suggestively.

“You go, girl!” cries Haleh.

“Already domesticated, and house-trained,” seconds Chuny. “What are you still doing here?”

They usher her out the door, draping her jacket across her shoulders, and hanging her bag from one arm, wrapping her stethoscope and lab coat around another. Someone drops a lei made of tubing and gauze flowers over her head before she can protest, and then she's standing in the hallway on her own.

“See you around!” echoes after her, as the door swings shut, and she collects herself in the rare silence of the admit area, the doors to the ambulance bay awaiting their own farewell.

The monitors from the few occupied beds chirp the constant, even rhythms of life, and Randi sits at the desk, absorbed in a game of Tetris. The theme song rings out its tinny melody, accompanying the image of the emergency room emptied of all emergencies. It's such a strange anticlimax that even now, she's not certain she should go, afraid she's forgetting something, or being prepared for one final prank or surprise. But nothing comes.

“Bye, Randi,” she says, throwing a casual wave toward the desk.

“See you.”

The bubble bursts, and she wrangles the remnants of gum back into her mouth, chewing, and preparing for the next attempt.

Anna turns, the doors sliding open as she approaches. It's a clear, cool night, and there's something peaceful about the ambulance bay right now. She can see her breath fog in the air, occluding the stars and moon as she looks above her. Bordered by the arms of the hospital, and the skeletal framework of the El, she's held in one last embrace, the constellations hovering overhead in an iris of industry, watching her as she watches it.

“You can't see the Big Dipper from here,” comes a voice from behind her. “I looked, but I think it's stuck behind the hospital.”

She grins before she can remember that she's supposed to be mad. Or indifferent. Or something.

“Are you sure you know what you're looking for?” she asks, turning to face him.

Sitting on the bench outside the door, John nods.

“I know what I'm looking for.”

He's in a wool coat, with his hands tucked deep into his pockets, his collar pulled high, and his head ducked low to cover his ears and cheeks. His knees are jumping, trying to increase circulation, and generate some heat to counteract the chills that periodically run along his spine. She crosses over to sit beside him, dropping her bag, coat, and stethoscope on the ground next to her.

“How long have you been waiting here?” she asks.

“Long enough to get cold,” he teases.

“You should have worn a hat.”

“It's supposed to be May.” His pockets flare as he gesticulates helplessly, his hands still hidden in the fabric.

“You live on the edge of a lake,” she counters. Really, it's his own fault.

“I have a steep learning curve.”

He nudges her, knocking any desire to scold him further right out of her. She laughs, and leans into him. Shoulder to shoulder, they gaze out over the bay. She's not entirely sure how to begin this farewell. She's not entirely sure she wants to quite yet. So she goes another way.

“Did Elizabeth call you?” she asks. There's a little bit of prejudice in her question, already prepared to be annoyed with her friend, and take it out on him.

“No,” he says. “Chuny did.”

“Oh.”

She would. Well, that kills that thought.

When he speaks again, his voice crackles like someone woken from a deep sleep. It's reluctant to be sounded, and not quite ready to be heard, but it's earnest, and deliberate.

“You were going to leave without even saying goodbye.”

She closes her eyes, exhaling through her nose.

“Yes,” she says. “I was.”

She can see him nod in her periphery, his legs resuming their convulsions as another shiver chatters through his teeth.

“Why?”

“I don't know,” she says.

He sounds so young, so confused. It's not the pointed blame of a spurned lover, or the disdain of a scorned friend. It's just the honest curiousity of a child, matter of fact and sure of an answer, as though if they know that, the solution will come just as easily.

“I don't know,” she repeats. She hates to disappoint him.

He nods again. She glances over at him, surprised that his interrogation has ended so quickly. He's watching his feet scuff against the concrete sidewalk, and his next question, when it comes, comes with great difficulty.

“Are we friends?” he asks.

“Of course.” Her reply is swift, and unthinking.

“Still?”

“Yes,” she says. “Yes, John, we're still friends. You're one of my best friends.”

“Oh,” he says, nodding again. She wonders if maybe he's doing it partly for the warmth of movement, because she's not sure it's entirely indicative of sound comprehension at this point.

She waits for him to speak again, to ask something else, even though she knows that he won't. He'll just let it go. Finally, after minutes of silence, the cold slowly creeping through the thick leather of her jacket to claw at her chest, she stands.

“Well, anyway,” she says, collecting her things with a cheerful smile. “I've got to go. Max is waiting for me.”

“Right,” he says, standing with her, ever the gentleman. He adjusts the strap of her bag, untwisting it, and smoothing it flat over her shoulder. “Say hi, for me. And good luck in Philadelphia.”

“I will,” she promises. “And thank you.”

“Yeah,” he grins.

They're toe to toe again, and she remembers seeing him like this before. She remembers Christmas eve on her couch, and watching his dark eyes brim with joy. She remembers dinner with her family, the light of her dining room erasing all the sorrow she thought she'd seen in them the night before. She remembers his miraculous diagnoses, his playful mockeries, his evasive and defensive stories that he couldn't quite say to her face. She remembers laundry, and pop-tarts, and journal club. She remembers his stupid Jeep, and that stupid benefit concert. She remembers the remarkable doctor, the devastated cousin, the elegant host, and the almost lover. She remembers standing here like this, with him, and dancing.

She remembers kissing him.

She closes her eyes to shut him out, but he's still there, pinpricks of him emblazoned across the darkness of her lids like the constellations.

“Well,” he says, clearing his throat. “Goodbye.”

She opens her eyes in time to see him leaning towards her, and she freezes. But then she feels his lips graze her cheek, and pull away, and she almost can't find her voice beneath the layers and layers of disappointment she feels.

“Goodbye, John,” she murmurs.

Then, her eyes still wide, and her mouth open, fighting for air to clear the dizziness from her head, she turns, and heads out of the ambulance bay.

She climbs the stairs, and slips a token into the gate for the El. It's her last one. She'd been saving it specifically for tonight, rationing them out so she wouldn't be forced to buy more, only to hold them in her wallet, useless except as nostalgia in Philly. It's not that late, but it's a Thursday, and the platform is nearly empty, the heavy traffic of rush hour long past, and the evening rush of party-goers significantly diminished now that most of the students have gone home for the summer, or are still studying for finals.

The train is waiting, but she feels heavy, and slow, and she doesn't have the energy to race for it, squeezing through the doors just in time. So she stands, and waits for the next one.

With every passing minute, she feels further and further away from Chicago, even though she's not gone anywhere yet. It's strange, she thinks. She's untouchable now. People's faces are already fading from her memory, and the party in the lounge must've ended months ago.

Except for John.

Him she can still see clearly. She hasn't talked to him for weeks, but five minutes of strained conversation, and now she can't get him out of her head. Perfect.

There's laughter at the base of the steps – evidently not all the students are as dedicated to their work as she recalls herself being. Then, feet thunder up the stairs, landing heavily with an impact that can only indicate the ambitious haste of skipped steps. She tries her best to shut them out, and maintain the fragile image in her mind.

“Anna,” she can hear him speak.

And even her imagination isn't that good.

She starts, and looks up.

There's a group of teenagers, probably frosh, swarming the platform, loud and brash as though the station is their own. But at the head of the steps, pushing through the crowd, is John.

She smiles, and shakes her head.

Of course, he followed her. Of course he did.

“Anna,” he says again, approaching her. And she's got deja vu.

“You're going to freeze your ass off out here, Carter. You're already halfway there.”

He's not listening. He doesn't acknowledge her little reference to their own mythology because he has to say this now.

“Don't go to Philadelphia,” he says.

“What?”

“Don't go,” he insists. “Please, just – don't go to Philadelphia. Stay here.”

Her breath lodges in her throat, and it takes a conscious effort to expel it. She'd be lying if she said she hadn't half expected this, and she is lying when she tells herself she didn't half want to hear it. But it's too late. She's made up her mind. Philadelphia is waiting. Max is waiting. And all of John Carter's prosaic little romances can't change that.

“I can't,” she says. “Even if I wanted to, I can't.”

“Do you want to?”

“Carter –”

“No, just –” His jaw clenches, compressing his mouth into a single, bloodless line, and he waves his hands to dispel her rehearsed dismissal. He's very clear when he gathers himself and starts again. Slow and deliberate. “Do you want to stay?”

She stares at him, frozen. This is it, she realises. This is it. This is her choice. He's laid it out for her: a yes or no answer, and it's very easy for him to say, but not for her. She drops her gaze, and speaks to him in the most reasonable tone she can muster.

“It's not that simple,” she says. “I've already made my decision.”

“That's not what I'm asking,” he states, shaking his head, denying any implication she might be throwing on him.

He makes it so fucking hard. It's not fair. He's pushing for something that she doesn't even know if she wants to say. She doesn't even know if she can say. And he wants it without having to sacrifice anything of his own. This is why she's leaving. This tangled, defensive game of evasion and denial. She hates it.

“What do you want me to say, Carter?” she asks, her voice rising to smother his. “What exactly are you expecting me to do right now?”

“I want you to stay!” he shouts. He doesn't even hesitate. “I want you to say that you want to stay, and I don't want you to go to Philadelphia with Max.”

Shock. She can't believe he voiced that. She can't believe he has the audacity to expect that, and she can't believe he thinks he has any right to talk about Max at all.

“Excuse me?” Her voice is low, and he knows he's in danger. But he doesn't care. He doesn't so much as flinch as she takes a step closer to him, threatening his space. “Is that what this is all about? Just some pissing contest with Max? Who's man-enough to get the girl? Is that it?”

“No!” he hisses, just as vehement in his denial as she is in her accusation. “That has nothing to do with it. I don't care about Max, I don't care about Philadelphia, I care about you!”

“Really, Carter? Because you haven't talked to me in weeks,” she says. Over his shoulder, she can see the cluster of teens ogling them, wide-eyed and totally engrossed in the drama before them. “Why the fuck do you care where I go?”

And suddenly, he shuts up. The thoughtlessly candid expulsion of words ends with the elastic kick of a cut rope. He shuffles his feet, trying to feel them under him, trying to ground himself as she forces him back against the wall.

“What, you don't know? Or you don't care? Or can you not think of a lie that fast?” she hounds him. “Come on, Carter! I'm so tired of this. Tell me why you suddenly care what I do?”

“Because I love you,” he says. Easy. Simple. This revelation is delivered so earnestly he can't be serious. Maybe she's hallucinating.

“What?” she breathes, the air rushing out of her like a vacuum.

“I love you,” he says. Then he shrugs, throwing out his arms as if to say, this is it.

And it definitely is.

She thrusts her jaw out of alignment, and blinks at him, trying to gauge his sincerity. The awful thing about it is that she knows he's totally serious. Behind her, the train pulls into the station. She turns to it as the doors slide open, and people disembark.

“I'm going home, Carter,” she says. “You should, too.”

“Anna.” Her name is small and plaintive on his lips.

But she gets on the train anyway.

After dark, the El only reminds her of Christmas, so she stands, she doesn't sit, in order to distance herself from that context as much as possible. It's only a few blocks to her apartment, but every shuddering stop and start of the carriage throws her from one recollection to the next. They're all to do with John Truman Carter. The Third. Ridiculous. She sees him laid out like an art exhibit. Carter at dawn, Carter in repose, the chiaroscouro of Carter. Breakfasts with Carter: dollar pancakes; scrambled eggs; orange juice and toast. Pop-tarts. Lunch – soft-serve ice cream from the caf, and whole carton of milk. Dinner. Chinese take-out from that same old place. Champagne and canapes. Christmas. As she nears home, she's smiling at the thought of bail, and the wild relief that overcame him when he realised she'd posted it.

She looks up as the train grinds to a halt. This is her stop. There's a girl in the window who looks happy, but when she catches Anna looking, her joy fades, dropping into an expression Anna understands, on a face Anna knows. She's almost surprised she couldn't recognise herself.

See? That's a sign she should go. When you're shocked by the presence of joy on your own face, that's a sign that something's wrong with your life. It makes sense to want to change that, and it makes sense for her to leave Chicago. It makes sense.

Which is weird, because it sounds like she's trying to talk herself into it. What remains to be convinced?

She steps off the train, and onto the platform, looking out into the darkness towards her place. She can't see the building, but it's like any of the other flat, brick buildings of the 70s that dot the streets from here to there. To her, they all look the same, but she bets John would be able to tell them apart.

John.

Again.

And again, Max is waiting for her. In one of those dull, unremarkable buildings that can't be distinguished from one another.

Before the doors close, she's retreated behind them, back on the train.

She rides it to the end of the line. Then back.

Her pager goes off. The number is Max's. She looks at it, hoping the numbers will say something to enlighten her as to why she feels no urge to find a payphone.

She misses her stop again, and then she's back at County. She gets off. Her feet carry her across the platform, down the stairs, and around the corner into the ambulance bay. Gazing up, she can still see the stars, but the brightest light is shining through the doors to the ER.

She's walking like she has a plan, like she knows what she's doing, but that's the thing about tunnel vision – it's detachment framed as intense focus. Because she has no idea what she's going to do when she gets there.

But she has a vague thought that maybe she'll find one inside.

She knows he's not on – hadn't been at all – but maybe he went back to the party, maybe he had a sudden attack of altruism in the face of emotional devastation, maybe he lives in the ER and his apartment is just a front. Maybe she's not quite ready to admit to the fact that she is looking for him just yet.

After the streetlights, and cheap illumination of the El, the emergency department is blinding, and she feels like she's on the wrong end of a film noir interrogation. Randi's still there, she's still playing Tetris, and Anna checks her watch. She left here three hours ago. Nothing has changed.

When she was young, maybe five years old, she was afraid of going to sleep. For a period of time, she thought, like all young children do, that the world vanished when she closed her eyes. From her work with children, and her rotation in psych, she knew this was normal. That the concept of object permanence was learned, not innate, and for infants under two, it did not exist at all. But she'd clung onto the idea for a long time, well past the age most children give it up. Long after she knew that objects existed without being observed, she still felt responsible for their continuation. And at night, the logic of the day was more difficult to see. So she tried to stay awake, every night, for as long as possible, because even though her mom and dad told her that everything would be fine without her for a few hours, how could she know? How could they know? How could she be sure if she couldn't see that for herself? So she stayed awake. For as long as possible, until she'd outgrown that childhood arrogance.

Today, she'd left County. Two hours ago, she'd closed her eyes to it, but here she was again, and here it was, waiting for her just as she'd left it. As if, without her there to observe it, it had just shut off, bookmarked for her convenience, resuscitated now that she's back.

“Hey,” she says to Randi. She wants some response, some recognition of her presence here, and some proof that this odd stasis won't last. Some acknowledgement of it's strangeness, or some reassurance of her belonging.

“Welcome back,” Randi says, no more or less enthused than before.

“I'm not back,” she says, her lips curling cynically, like smoke.

“Whatever.”

Anna shakes her head, and bites off the beginnings of a smile. The beds are still mostly empty, and nobody else is around. Perhaps the dredges of the party are still swirling about in the next room. Perhaps there are still people thinking of, and talking about, and waiting for her. She should go check.

She turns toward the lounge, her hand pressed against the laminate wood of the door. Her shoulders hunch, and she's braced against the swinging flat, but she doesn't push through. Through the thin, glass inset she can see it's dark inside, the only light coming in broken tracks through the blinds on the windows at the back. Someone might be sleeping. Or it might be empty. Or if she goes in, she might run into someone else, and she doesn't want to get caught in another goodbye now.

So she checks herself, and doubles back to the desk. The strap of her bag slips down her arm, and she crosses herself to hike it up. Randi's absorbed in the game, but she hopes that maybe she can help her. She hopes she can spare enough attention to be informative, but not enough to be suspicious.

“Hey, um,” She begins, then stops, trying to hit on a tone that's just casual enough. “Have you seen Dr. Weaver?”

“No. She went home about an hour ago. Actually left on time.”

Randi's gaze doesn't deviate an inch from the screen.

“Oh, right.”

She drums her fingers on the counter top, and pinches the soft, loose skin at her wrist, idly noting she's dehydrated. Carol's right. She should drink more.

“What about Mark?” she asks.

“Asleep in Exam One.”

“Hm. And Carter?”

At this, Randi looks up. She folds her arms across the upper ledge of the desk, and grins at Anna, one eyebrow lifted in devious comprehension.

“Carter?” she asks. “He's not on tonight.”

“Right. No, I know, I just thought -” she stumbles over the words, twisting away and gesturing toward the door. She's got to go. She was just on her way out, and “I forgot. I wasn't – I've got to go.”

Her right hand moves to stroke her neck self-consciously, but she diverts it to sweep aside the fall of hair that drapes over her shoulder. The back of her neck prickles. She lifts her ponytail, hoping some small, empathetic draught from outside can make it through the cracks of the door to cool her off. There's nothing for it, now. She clears her throat, and Randi watches, not fooled at all.

“Well, goodbye,” she says. Her feet glide over the tiled floor. She hardly notices she's moving, but the exit keeps growing, and growing. She can feel the fragile jets of springtime blast between the doors, as she turns away, heading out.

“He just left.”

“What?”

“Like, twenty minutes ago. Came back cause he lost his wallet,” she grins, and her eyes widen as she lifts her brows. “Dropped it in the ambulance bay. Chuny wouldn't let him leave until they'd looked everywhere. Couldn't find it.”

“Oh.”

“Turned out it was in his pocket the whole time. He's probably home by now.”

“Oh.”

Randi waits.

“Do you need his address?”

“No, thanks,” Anna says, Randi's leading questions prompting her to action at last. “I know where I'm going. Not that – I'm going now.”

So, it's back out the ambulance bay, back past Magoo's, and up the stairs to the El. She's got to pay for a ticket, this time. There's a little sign listing prices. The more tokens you buy, the more you save. But she pays in cash. One ticket. She only buys one ticket.

She gets back on the train. The ride is brief, and too short to talk herself out of, or into anything. At this point on the line, she's committed to at least the destination. She gets off at his stop. She walks up to his building, sneaking in the door behind another tenant – one who recognises her, even without her beautiful dress – and rides the elevator up to the third floor in silence. Her pager goes off, and the number comes up as Max. Her heart stalls in her chest, skipping a beat with a heavy twist of guilt so immediate there's still a chance of avoiding it. If she just went home now, nothing would change. John would never know, and Max would never know, and Philadelphia would still be there. But instead, she approaches his door, and she starts bargaining with herself. If he's here, she swears. If he's here, it's a sign. If he's here, then I'll stay.

So she knocks. And he opens the door. And her confession comes stumbling out, and when he reaches for her, she falls into his arms, and into his bed, and forgets to call Max back.

No, she doesn't.

She leaves the bay, passing by Magoo's and up the steps, and she buys one ticket and gets on the train. She gets off at his stop, and she slips in the doors, and when she gets in the elevator her pager goes off, and it's Max. His number flashes on the little screen, and she feels so stupid. Max is waiting. He's got old movies, and dinner, and her bed is warm in the cardboard box of an apartment she's determinedly called “home” for a year, even though it's not.

It's not quite defeat, but it's not quite victory when the bell dings, and she's back in the lobby. Back on the train. Back home. Max is waiting when she gets there. He called her, he says, and his concerned face shifts quickly into pinked lines of confusion when he sees she's uninjured, and contrite. But he doesn't ask. Instead, he pulls her toward him, pressing her forehead to his chest.

Their flight is early the next morning, and she hasn't finished packing. So when they get back to her place, instead of going to bed, she distracts herself with things. And he helps. She hadn't brought much, hadn't bought much, and there's not much to show for a year that feels heavy and cramped, despite the fact that technically, it's only May. But she doesn't go by the calendar.

They toss the dishware (some cheap, dollar store clay fired into porcelain), empty the fridge, and throw a few remaining pieces of detritus into her suitcase. She sits on it, while he zips it shut, the teeth biting against the straining jaws of the case. Together, it takes no time at all, and before the night has a chance to weary her, it's morning.

And then Max is hailing a cab, and they're already at Midway, and she gets the window, and he gets her lunch, and she gets his shoulder, and she falls asleep against his arm, and she doesn't wake up until she's back in Philadelphia, with his ring on her finger, and a nine-to-five practice, and she's right back where she started again.

No.

She doesn't.

She does get on the train, and she does get off at his stop, and she slips through the doors behind someone who does recognise her even without her dress. Max does call, and she doesn't know what she's thinking when she ignores it, but she can't worry about that for long, because when the doors open at his floor, he's standing outside his own door like a guest.

She watches as he searches his pockets for a key, trying to balance a box of pizza in one hand, and leaning at an absurd cant trying to keep the strap of his satchel from sliding down his opposite arm. He doesn't see her at first, which is all right, because she wants to get a good look at him. John Carter, unaware. John Carter, on his own. John Carter.

What is she doing here?

She doesn't love him, she doesn't need him, and she doesn't owe him anything. Not one cent.

But she's standing right here, and the thing that's brought her all this way is that she kind of wishes she had. She kind of hopes she can.

Because for all that he's lied, and hedged, and sulked, and run, and generally been a pain in the ass, there's a reason he ignored her for two weeks, and there's a reason it pissed her off, and it's not because she's as indifferent as she ought to be.

This could be stupid, she thinks. This could be really, really dumb.

But every second that passes pulls her back towards regret, and every second that passes she uses to convince herself that this moment isn't being governed by stupidity, but by bravery. She's not ashamed. She's frightened. And she's pretty sure she's heard at least one proverb justifying fear as a consequence of care.

The lock tumbles over, and John leans into the door with his palm, and his shoulder. He's almost vanished, his dark coat, and dark hair evaporating over the threshold. The thought he might disappear completely distracts her from her study, and lends her something like courage. Something that, in any case, makes her call out to him.

“John,” she says.
“Anna?”

She nods when his eyes lock on her, but that's it. 

“I thought you'd be home. It's after two.”

“I was hungry,” he replies, lifting the box to her.

“Randi said you left the hospital an hour ago.”

“I did,” he confirms. His eyes traverse the length of the hall, along the walls, and doors of the other homes, looking for some reason for Anna to be at his door. But the space is empty, and silent. “You followed me home?”

“I did.”

He nods. The keys on his chain jangle together, the metal ringing out as he flips them up into his palm, searching for the right one. He knows it by touch, and his eyes remain fixed on hers as he approaches his door.

“What for?” he asks. The closer he gets, the more uncertain he becomes, her presence strong enough, and desired enough to make his knees buckle and finally, his gaze lowers in deference. Only his voice reflects the turmoil he feels at seeing her there. “Where's Max?”

“At home,” she says. “I think.” Her hands come together like a little girl, and she bends her fingers back at the knuckles, eliciting small, cathartic cracks from her joints. “I wanted to see you.”

He snorts.

“We already said goodbye.”

“Look,” she starts. “I can't stay.”

“I know,” he says, then repeats by rote, “I know this. You're going to Philadelphia. You're going back with Max.”

His voice is punctured, shot through with gusts of air, as he tries to retain hold of his temper. Why does she feel the need to beat this out? To tell him again and again? It's crazy, it's sadistic. He's said everything he can. He doesn't want to talk about it anymore.

But she's shaking her head, kicking off his accusations like they never talked at all. Like she didn't just come from her own surprise goodbye party that wasn't really a surprise at all.

“No, I can't stay here,” she insists.

“I know.”

“I can't keep doing this, John.”

“I know!” he shouts. They've probably woken everyone by now. “I'm sorry.”

“No, can you just shut up, and listen to me for one second? This is...it's not County. It's the ER,” she says, then huffs in annoyance, because that's not it. “It's emergency medicine.”

“What? I don't -”

“I like the rush of traumas, but I can't stand the rest of it. I can't stand the pettiness of people, and the waiting for consults when someone needs to be redlined, but doesn't have Blue Cross. I hate that everyday I go to work I have to fight with my patients, fight with their families, and fight with my colleagues, and I hate that it's making me into someone I'm not. I'm not like this, John. This isn't me. So I can't stay here.”

She's spoken so quickly that her words have consumed all the air in the room, leaving her gasping, and him gaping. His mouth works around a voice he hasn't managed to find in his confusion, and the anxiety that creeps up her legs prompts frantic afterthought: “And also, you can't keep saying you love me, cause I don't know what you mean by that.”

Of all things, it's that which spurs him. It's that which threads sound through his vocal cords, at last, which she thinks is kind of irritating, because she'd said lots of other important things.

“Okay,” he says. “But I do love you.”

“John –”

“No, I mean, hm.” He clears his throat. “I mean, if this isn't what you want, then you have to go.” he says, as though he can't quite believe her, as though he can't quite believe that someone wouldn't want this. But he knows how insistence on a point can drive people even farther away from it, so he's careful not to be that sort of person when he continues.

“I don't want you to, but you have to be happy. So go back to pediatrics. Go back to doing what you love. Leave the ER. Or even if it's County that you hate, then find another place at Mercy, or Our Lady of Sorrows, or anywhere. But don't go to Philadelphia. Please.”

“You're at County.”

Yes, he thinks. And she can see him yearn to say that, but he holds still, frozen, like a prisoner awaiting the gunshot.

He's trying so hard, right when she's ready to bend, trying to be upright, and fair. And she's begging him to fight dirty, manipulate her. Lie, she thinks. Tell me why I should stay. Make something up, make it big, and make it great, and commit. Lie like I believe you.

It's absurd they're now fighting each other for a pyrrhic victory that neither of them want. They've changed sides, valiantly flying the colours of their enemy, happy to martyr themselves for the benefit of the other. And it's so stupid.

Then, finally:

“I don't hate County,” she whispers. She can't look away from him. He needs to hear this, as much as she needs to say it.

“If you hate County, don't stay,” he says. “Don't stay.”

She grits her teeth.

“I don't hate County,” she says. “You're not listening.”

Like it was on the train, she feels herself slipping beyond reach. Untouchable. He can't hear her from where she is, or where he is, and it's hopeless to try. Philadelphia. Max. God, it's all right there.

“Sorry,” she says.

Her shoulder brushes his as she passes by him, her back a slim shield for her heart, which she can feel beginning to slow to a resting rate. As she nears the elevator, her tongue seems to curl up, and choke her, coiling in the back of her throat.

There is a solution, and it's so easy, and so plausible that she nearly feels guilty for having withheld it. But she didn't want to be the one to solve this. She didn't want to rely on herself for salvation. She'd wanted some connection, some other person to call to her, and draw her back from her own isolation of independence. She wanted him to compel her.

But in that second, she knows that's not fair. She's not that sort of person, and there's nothing he could have said to convince her. No one could have.

Only herself.

She's been stubborn, and silly, and it's melodramatic, and cliche, to go back on it now, but she's made her decision. So very quietly, almost afraid of drawing attention to herself, she speaks.

“John?” She doesn't have to turn to know he's still facing her, still caught up and confused. She doesn't have to hear him respond before she continues. “Max thinks a dedicated pediatric unit is a really good idea. He's put in a recommendation, and Doug - well, Doug's obviously going to want to be there, but he also mentioned...he said that means they'll be short a doctor in peds. Upstairs.”

After a moment, he conveys his understanding with a gossamer, “Oh.”

"So," she says. She smiles, and turns to him. The crook of her mouth is infectious, and in spite of the agony, and exhaustion her last day at County has brought, he smiles, too.

And right then, she means to have it both ways. Logic, and sentiment at once.

Her hands swing away from her sides, reaching for him, and prompting him to speak, as she shuffles towards him.

“Can you just...ask me again?” she says.

“What?”

He's still a little bemused, and she laughs. The clarity of her own insight gives her a lightness, and she thinks it's funny, now, how messy this whole thing has become. It's time to be direct; to be the headstrong girl his grandmother knows she is, so she forges boldly on.

“Could you ask me one more time? To stay.”

He hesitates.

“To stay?”

“Yes,” she concurs. “But ask me. Don't make it an order.”

“Anna,” he begins.

The pizza box topples in his hand, and he stoops, dropping it and his bag to the floor. It falls sideways in his haste, and she winces as she imagines pizza slices folding over on one another, congealing in the corner of the box. He straightens, his fingers tugging at the pressed line of his pants, straightening them, and then his coat next. Throwing back his shoulders, he faces her in an approximation of military attention, happy to fall in line under her demand not to make it a demand.

“Anna,” he says again, and now her name sounds painfully formal. “Please, won't you stay in Chicago?”

“Yeah,” she says, taking his hand. “Yeah, I think I will.”