The shrill cry of an ambulance siren cut through the air over the rush of a running faucet. As she watched red-tinged water swirl the drain for what felt like the hundredth time that night, Freya Lavellan heaved a sigh. She muttered to herself as she shook her hands and dried them on a paper towel.
“Become an ER doctor, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.”
Slamming her hand against the disinfectant dispenser on the wall, she turned away from the scrub sink, spreading the gel over her hands and between her fingers.
The driver walking through the automatic sliding door from the ambulance bay looked mercifully calm. She walked toward him, holding her hand out for the incident report.
“Vehicle collision, doc,” he explained. “No other cars involved, so this should be the only injury from the scene. Male, human. Thirties. Pretty good laceration on his upper lip and some heavy bruising on his head. High temp, vitals are kinda whack. He’s not critical, but he needs attention pretty fast.”
“Thanks, Mal,” she told him, looking over the chart. The other two EMTs were busy prepping the stretcher behind the ambulance. Glancing back up from the clipboard, she gestured toward the exam rooms. “Put him in six.”
She walked back to the nurse's station and grabbed her laptop, opening the charting software the hospital used.
The emergency department had been chaos that night. All her nurses and the other two doctors were busy, so she began filling in the patient’s information herself. It was fortunate for this guy that it was only a minor car wreck. She’d only just finished digging a bullet out of another man’s shoulder. Looking down, she saw that there was a small splatter of blood on the leg of her turquoise scrubs.
Thank the gods for Tide pens, she thought to herself as she typed.
The stretcher clattered past the desk behind her, heading toward the exam room with a large number six on the glass door. She finished entering the EMTs’ notes into her system and got up, slinging her stethoscope around her neck again and bringing the laptop with her.
By the time she got to the exam room, the patient had been helped into the bed. His shirt was soaked in blood, and she saw a pair of red-spattered dog tags hanging from his neck. Sweat poured from his temples, leaving wet blonde curls matted against his forehead. Still more blood covered his chin, spilling from a deep gash on his upper lip. Mouth injuries always seemed to bleed like a stuck pig. A colorful bruise on his temple told her he’d probably knocked his head pretty good, as well. She also noticed that, underneath all the carnage, he wasn't hard on the eyes at all.
She thanked the EMS team as they took their leave, wheeling the bright yellow stretcher between them. Then she turned toward her patient.
“Evening, Mr. Rutherford,” she said with a small smile, taking a seat on the wheeled stool next to the bed. “Looks like you’ve had better nights.”
“That’s an understatement,” he told her, shifting slightly with a wince.
She took a fingertip probe from the machine next to the bed. He'd obviously used one before, because he stuck out his pointer finger for her to clamp it on.
“I’m Dr. Lavellan. Normally one of my nurses would handle this part, but we’re short staffed and up to our eyeballs in idiots who can't hold their tempers tonight.”
“Sounds like a typical Kirkwall Saturday," he replied.
She smirked, reading the machine’s data.
“Well,” she told him as she fit a large blood pressure cuff around his muscular arm, “your oxygen saturation is good. But that’s about all that is. You’re tachycardic. And it’s been a while since I had to take board exams, but I seem to recall 104 being outside normal limits for human temperatures.”
“Does it vary by race?” he asked, realizing that she’d specified his in her sarcastic remark.
“Mmhmm,” she replied. “Dwarves are a bit lower than everybody else, elves are usually about the same as humans, and Qunari run hot.”
The blood pressure cuff beeped and deflated.
“Eighty over fifty-five,” she said. She was typing his vitals into his electronic chart, and all the fields that were outside their proper ranges had been highlighted in red by the program. At this point, it was most of them.
“Is that normal?”
“No,” she said, pursing her lips. “It’s low. Which tells me your heart is working hard because your blood volume isn’t adequate. I’m assuming based on your damp condition that you’ve been sweating?”
“No, although I’ve certainly felt like it.”
"Any major medical conditions I should know about?" He shook his head, and Freya frowned. “Well, Mr. Rutherford—”
“Cullen,” he interjected. “Just Cullen is fine.”
“Okay, if that's what you prefer. Cullen, we need to get an IV set on you, and I’m going to give you some acetaminophen for that fever. Then we’ll get a good look at that lip.” She took a penlight out of her scrub pocket. “I should check and make sure you didn’t bang your head too badly."
Leaning over him, Freya aimed the beam at his eyes. They shone brightly amber under the light. His pupils didn’t contract. She clicked it off again, taking her stethoscope off her neck and putting the earpieces in. Brushing his dog tags to one side, she read the engraving on them as she listened to his heart and lungs.
CULLEN S H/AB+
USMC - TEMPLAR
She brought her eyes back up to Cullen’s.
“Templar division, eh?” she asked quietly. He shifted his gaze away. “Well. You’re dehydrated and nauseated. You’ve spiked a high fever. I’d be willing to bet you were sporting a walloping headache even before that accident, since your eyes are letting in too much light... Those are all symptoms of lyrium withdrawal if memory serves.”
He looked back up at her, almost defiantly.
“And what if they are?”
“We both know it’s illegal for you to operate a vehicle when you’re not on lyrium.”
Cullen let out a mirthless snort of laughter.
“Does it never strike anyone as ironic that civilians can’t drive a car if they are under the influence, but Templars can’t drive a car if they aren’t?”
“There are a lot of things about the Templar division that I find completely and utterly baffling,” she said, standing up and rolling up the sleeves of her undershirt a bit. Cullen could see a colorful tattoo peeking out from under the white fabric on one arm. She was getting out an IV bag full of fluids and a set of sterile tubing. “In fact, I think the whole program is probably a gigantic human rights clusterfuck. But that doesn’t make what you did any less illegal.”
“You going to call the cops on me?” he asked her.
“No, I’m not. But you were in a motor vehicle collision. They’re already here, somewhere.”
“So why haven’t they come in to question me?”
“Because,” said Freya, spiking the bag with the sharp end of the tubing and hanging it on a pole, then threading it through a pump as she talked, “you have the right to medical treatment, which means that the priority is to get you stabilized before anyone comes in here who isn’t in scrubs. They don’t get to have a turn with you until I give them the all-clear.”
She was opening drawers now, taking out catheter supplies and disinfectant wipes.
“I’m going to set this IV now so we can get your body functioning better.”
He watched as she snapped on a pair of bright blue gloves and tied a thin strip of stretchy rubber around his upper arm.
“Make a fist,” she told him. Not that it was necessary. The veins on his well-toned arms stuck out like thin ropes threaded beneath his skin.
“You set IVs often?” he asked.
“Occasionally,” she replied. She cocked her head and gave him a confused look, tapping her finger against his bulging blood vessel. “It goes in here, right?”
He smirked. She wasn’t like any of the doctors in the military, that was for sure. It was refreshing to have someone talking to him like a normal person, someone without a stick so far up their ass that they spit splinters. And she wasn’t bad to look at, either, he thought to himself. A draft in the room chilled his skin where she was wiping him with an alcohol pad in growing circles.
She placed the stylet easily and slid the catheter in, taping it in place and attaching the primed line. Setting the pump controls, she glanced at the clock. It read half past midnight. The pump whirred into action, and a steady drip from the bag into the line started flowing. Cullen could taste the fluid as it slid coolly through his veins, a vague salt flavor at the back of his throat.
“I’ll have to go get you something for that fever, and I’m going to grab some suture while I’m out there. That lip’s going to need stitches.”
She brushed a loose coil of red hair out of her eyes with her forearm as she peeled her gloves off. Typing quickly with practiced fingers, she entered the information about the catheter placement into her computer, then stood to leave.
“Be back in a minute.”
Cullen watched her open the sliding glass door of the exam room and step out into the main area of the ER, a thick braid bouncing between her shoulders as she walked briskly away.
Outside, Freya headed for their suture supply cabinet. Someone called her name from behind her, and she turned, recognizing the familiar voice.
Dorian Pavus, her charge nurse, was walking toward her, wiping his brow.
“Hey, what was the ambulance about?” he asked. “Tell me it wasn’t another gunshot.”
“No,” Freya said, shaking her head. “Car accident.”
“Thank the Maker. I’m about tired of these assholes trying to kill each other off every night. Almost makes you wish they'd be more successful at it.”
“Do me a favor, will you Dori?” she asked, opening the cabinet and scanning the rows of boxes for the right kind.
“Whatever you need, doc.”
“Can you get me six hundred and fifty migs of Tylenol? It’s for room six. Just have him take it and tell him I’ll be back in a sec.”
“Sure thing,” he said, turning.
“I appreciate you!” she called after him, and he gave her a thumbs up over his shoulder.
Nearly three years on this hellish shift together, and not once had she ever seen Dorian miss a day. She could still remember their first night working together, her first shift on her own in her last year of residency and his first day on the job. They were both nervous wrecks. Now, they were both confident, capable, and thoroughly done with all of Kirkwall Memorial’s bureaucratic bullshit—but that was the story at any hospital, they knew.
She returned to the exam room with a packet of suture and a little glass bottle of lidocaine. Dorian was still in the room, chatting pleasantly with the patient and leaning back against the counter.
“Meds done?” she asked, and Dorian nodded.
“Want me to hang out and help?”
Freya considered this. She pursed her lips, weighing the options. She didn’t want to implicate Dorian in anything, but all the same, this patient’s case was tugging at something in her core.
“Let me talk to you for a sec,” she told him, nodding toward the hallway. They walked out together, and she slid the door shut.
“What’s up, Freya?” he asked her, cocking an eyebrow. “That’s a helluva look on your face.”
“Mr. Rutherford is a Templar,” she said under her breath, glancing around to make sure nobody else was in earshot. “And he’s off his lyrium.”
“Oh, shit,” said Dorian. “And he was driving...”
“Exactly. Now, I’m charting his vitals and symptoms accurately. But I’m not typing the word ‘lyrium’ into that report, and I’m sure as shit not ordering a blood test.”
He let out a long breath through his nostrils.
“Wow,” he said. “I know how you feel about the Templar program, but... you could lose your job over this.”
“I’m willing to play stupid and pretend I didn’t connect the dots,” she said, shrugging. “But I don’t want you to put yourself on the line here. I just… I dunno. Something about this guy tells me he doesn’t deserve whatever the Marine Corps has in store for him when they cotton on to what’s happened here.”
“I appreciate you looking out. But... if you’re that certain about this, I think I’d like to help.”
“You’re positive, Dori?”
He nodded again.
She took a deep breath. Knowingly withholding this kind of information was illegal, and with a division as controversial and dangerous as the Templars to deal with, she didn’t like to think about the possible consequences. But she’d also taken an oath, and she was doing what she felt she was obligated to in order to fulfill that promise.
“Well, I’m glad your boyfriend is a fucking lawyer,” she said to Dorian. She pulled the door back open and walked back in.
“Dorian’s going to start cleaning up your lip and I’m going to get this suture prepped,” she said. Dorian slid past her and began getting out supplies. Freya washed her hands thoroughly, then opened a package of sterile gloves and slid them on.
“Our suture supply is low right now, and we didn’t have any five-ought,” she told Dorian. “So I had to settle for six.”
Cullen looked from one to the other.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“Six-ought is a little thinner than five, so the sutures will be a little more fragile than I’d like on something that moves a lot, like your lip,” she explained. “So, you know… try not to get punched in the face in the next two weeks.”
Dorian smirked, wiping the now-clean skin around the large gash with a swab covered in iodine. Then he opened the syringe and handed it off to Freya, holding the bottle of lidocaine so she could fill it sterilely. He stepped back once she’d drawn enough out and walked cautiously past her, careful not to bump her hands.
“You got lucky, Mr. Rutherford,” Dorian said as Freya injected the area around the cut with the clear fluid, “This is deep, but it’s not quite all the way through. You’ll have quite the dashing scar, though.”
He opened an autoclaved pair of needle drivers as she worked, and when she was done, she carefully took them out of their paper package. Dorian then peeled the suture pack open, and Freya grasped it with her gloved hand. Sitting down in front of Cullen, she gently touched the cut with the curved edge of the needle.
“You feel that?” she asked. He shook his head. His whole upper lip was numb. “Good. This is going to feel weird.”
She wasn't wrong. He couldn’t feel the needle going in and out, but he could feel the tension as she looped the suture across the gash, pulling it closed. After about ten minutes of stitching, she had finished. Knotting the end of the thread, she snipped it with the scissor at the joint of the needle drivers and leaned back.
“There. All done.”
No sooner had the words left her lips than the sliding glass door banged open behind her, making all three of them jump. Four men wearing fatigues barged into the room.
“Excuse me!” said Freya, jumping off her stool and throwing her instrument on the counter. “This is a patient’s room, and you’re violating about a dozen—”
“Restrain the elf,” said the man at the front.
Freya could never keep military insignia straight, but he had several colorful bars on his lapel and the air of someone in a position of authority. Buzzed greying hair peeked out from beneath his cap. One of the other soldiers grabbed her upper arms, his fingers digging cruelly into her and practically lifting her small frame off the ground. Dorian had slipped out, and she could hear his footfalls as he ran off, she assumed, to call hospital security.
“That’s Doctor Elf to you,” she spat as the man in charge approached Cullen.
“Quiet!” hissed her captor into her pointed ear.
“First Sergeant Rutherford,” said the grey-haired man. “We’ve been looking for you for weeks. Thought you could just slip away and blend in, did you?”
“Colonel Samson,” Cullen growled, glaring.
The Colonel reached out and viciously flicked Cullen’s IV site.
“What are they pumping into you?” He turned to Freya. “Doctor Rabbit?”
Cullen visibly bristled at the slur. Freya just fixed the man with an icy stare.
“Read the bag, genius. Lactated Ringer's solution. It's like IV Gatorade. And if you touch my patient again—”
“And why would Sergeant Rutherford need that?” he cut in. He glanced at the man holding Freya's arms, and he tightened his grip even more.
“Dehydration,” she replied curtly.
The Colonel turned to Cullen, smirking. “Dehydration,” he repeated. “From?”
“I guess I didn’t get my eight glasses of water today,” he responded, shrugging.
Colonel Samson frowned.
“You know what happens to Templars who don’t follow orders,” he said, “don’t you?”
“We lose our allowance?”
Samson’s arm shot out, and Freya bucked against her captor's vice-grip, briefly afraid he was going to hit her patient. But instead, he grabbed the dog tags around Cullen’s neck, yanking them hard and snapping the ball chain they hung on.
“Consider this your dishonorable discharge, Rutherford,” he said, tossing the dog tags onto the floor. “Expect a court date in your near future. I’d look into getting a very capable lawyer, unless you like the idea of living in a cold, lonely prison cell for the rest of your good years.”
The man gripping Freya let go at last, and the four Marines turned and walked out of the room. Dorian returned as they exited, panting. He watched them go, his eyes wide.
“Security wouldn’t touch it!” he exclaimed once they were out of earshot, walking in and closing the door, then drawing the privacy curtain. “Said those men had clearance from a higher authority than the hospital. What the fuck does that mean?”
Freya was at Cullen's side in an instant, examining the IV to make sure it hadn’t blown. “You were AWOL?” she asked him, concern etched on her features.
“For good reason. It’s a long story. And I’m sorry I dragged you into this, doctor.”
“Me?” she asked. “What… what does that mean? Dragged me into what, precisely?”
“AWOL and off lyrium?” Cullen replied, a sardonic smile on his face. “You heard him. I’ll be court-martialed. And you have all the evidence of my withdrawal in your computer. You’ll be called to testify. Maker, I’m so sorry. Forgive me for doing this to you.”
The IV pump beeped, signaling that his fluid bolus had ended.
“Dorian, hook up another bag, will you? Calculate a maintenance rate. Two hundred and twenty pounds ought to be close.”
“I’m two thirty-five as of three weeks ago, actually,” Cullen told her.
“There you go then,” she replied. “Listen, Mr. Rutherford, do you have anyone who can pick you up? A safe place to stay? After another half a bag of fluids or so, you should be okay, but I don’t just want to turn you out on your own. Not after that.”
“I have a place to sleep, but no. Nobody close by to get me there.”
Freya looked at Dorian, who was punching numbers into a pocket calculator.
“What do you think?” she asked him. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“You know Bull will gore us both,” he told her, his mouth thin. “But… shit. I don’t see how we have much choice. He can’t stay here.”
“Cullen,” she said, turning back to face him, “I cannot believe I’m saying this, and I wouldn’t if I didn’t have Dorian and a gigantic, very scary Qunari as roommates. But I think it would be best if you stayed on my couch tonight.”
The muffled blare of more sirens from the ambulance bay reached their ears.
“I don’t want to impose,” Cullen said, looking hesitant. He didn’t know these people from Shartan, but after what Colonel Samson had pulled, he had to admit that he was shaken, too. And she seemed genuinely concerned.
“Freya will insist until she wears you down, so you might as well give up now,” Dorian told him, setting the IV to start again. “I’m going to go find out what’s being wheeled in this time.”
He left, and Freya turned back to Cullen.
“Really, I mean it. You need someplace safe to go. It’s just a few blocks away, I’ll give you a ride and you can get some rest and relax until you’re feeling up to going home.”
He met her gaze. She had lovely, kind eyes. Green with little flecks of gold around the irises.
“If you’re sure it’s not a burden,” he said, “I would be grateful.”
“I’ll let you stay in here until my shift is over. I’m on until three. I’ll be back to check on you in just a bit.” She turned to leave.
“Are you hurt?” Cullen asked her, worry evident in his voice, and she looked over her shoulder.
“I’ll be fine,” she replied. “And about the lyrium… I really don’t know what you’re talking about. These seem like flu symptoms to me.”
She gave him a small smile and a shrug, then walked out the door, sliding it shut behind her.