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On Sunday night, a man died at County General, convulsing and collapsing as an artery impacted in his chest. His corpse, lubed and tubed and splayed and fondled by too many latex-coated hands, lay in state in the glassy green trauma room. It was unattended for the moment.
Carter stripped off his gloves and let them fall into the HazMat bin. He kneaded his bare hands together to get rid of the powdery feel and sauntered slowly down the tiled hall. As he neared the front desk, voices began to drift into his ears.
"I gotta tell you," Randi was saying, "They're hot when they're like this."
It was fairly quiet, but there was a crowd jostling at the front desk. A neurotic woman whose toddler had a mild fever, a pair of pregnant fourteen-year-olds from the South Side, and a drunk with lacerations looping his left arm clamored for attention. Frank triaged them halfheartedly, glancing without interest at their anxious faces. Next to him, Susan and Malik and Haleh stood shoulder to shoulder, elbows on the countertop, peering through the open doors into the ambulance bay. Randi lingered over the phone, one onyx fingernail poised above the flashing hold button. Carter let his gaze follow theirs.
Luka and Abby were standing about ten feet outside the doors, about three feet apart from each other. Their faces were contorted by the shimmer of heat and the tension of anger, and their voices were loud enough for Carter to pick up the pitch, if not the words. He watched Luka's hands leap and stutter in the humid air, underscoring his distant voice. Abby was closer to the wall and less visible. Her glare radiated out under the stray locks of hair that clung to her forehead.
"I'm telling you," Randi murmured, "they must be having some really fantastic sex."
"All those who really didn't need to hear that, raise your hand," Malik said, and put his hand in the air. Frank grunted his support.
"Hey, if they want us to mind our own business, they could get a room," Haleh countered. "They must not give a damn by now."
"So, wait," Susan interrupted. "They do this a lot?"
Carter rested his shoulder against the wall, tuning the voices out as Haleh and Randi took turns recounting the saga, blow by blow. He had learned in med school to look attentive when he was bored. Now he was straining to pull off the reverse.
Luka had learned in his childhood to be wary of people watching him. Now he was struggling to seem oblivious. His eyes slid sideways to the doors to confirm what he already knew. Beyond the bobbing heads of the patients and the clerks, beyond the new attending and the pink-scrubbed shoulders of the nurses, Luka saw the familiar angles of arm and neck and jawline, the white lab coat tailored to Carter's body. Then Luka was looking at Abby's face again, watching sweat bead on her forehead and tears brew in her eyes.
"I don't understand you," she was saying. "I try to get away and you pull me back in."
It sounded like a line from a movie, the way she delivered it with a self-conscious ironic snort. Luka rolled his eyes, although it was true. A few hours after these fights he would apologize, win her over, and there would be brief, bruising makeup sex. He didn't remember why he'd started it, breaking dates at random, crashing at her apartment in the middle of the night without warning or explanation. It wasn't as if they were married and had that many reasons to argue. It wasn't as if there were any meaning. Luka realized that he hadn't been listening for more than thirty seconds.
"...fucking her, that's fine, but just own up," Abby said.
"I'm not," he retorted. He hadn't caught who she was talking about, but he was pretty sure he knew where his dick had been.
Abby threw her head back and growled through her teeth at the clouds, exposing her throat. Luka felt Carter's stare, unflinching and unyielding, penetrate the distance to make contact with his skin. He took a step toward Abby, narrowing the space between them, shifting his hips forward and lowering his chin to his chest. With one hand, he reached out and flicked a finger at her damp hair. "You're a mess," he said quietly.
"Don't, don't," she was saying, but she let his hand roll over her face.
They were tethered to the ER by the steady gaze framing them, pinning them to where they stood. Luka's mouth crinkled into a smile. He squared his shoulders and stroked the underside of Abby's chin. Her muted groan hung in the air as he leaned in closer.
The technicalities of the death in Trauma One had been recorded by long, curving motions of the pen. The swelling of the heart, the liters of blood spilling, the needles and drugs and the scalpel strokes that slit his thorax open; these were set down in detailed blue ink on the black and white Xeroxed chart. Carter was holding the clipboard at an angle, so that someone might think he was absorbed in reading the scrawls. His eyes and ears were, of course, focused elsewhere.
"...But does he live on the second floor?" Susan was asking, as outside Luka captured Abby's mouth with his own.
"What?" Frank growled, trying to decipher the stream of Spanish from a patient's lips.
"My name is Luka," Susan hummed.
Randi chuckled. "Yeah, we pretty much covered that the first week."
Carter looked over them, past them, through them like glass or thin air. Luka's right hand was pressed into Abby's waist, his knuckles wrinkling her jacket and pulling it tight against her shoulder. His left hand was hidden on the other side of Abby's throat. The kiss looked sticky and awkward, and lasted for too long. Carter was sure Abby couldn't be comfortable. He wondered why she didn't pull away and storm off. But she didn't, so she must be getting something, some sustenance from the embrace.
"Carter? Earth to Dr. Carter."
His chest ached. He forced the stale air out of his lungs. "Yeah?"
Susan craned her head over her shoulder, spikes of bright blonde hair framing her face. "Were you going to call the guy, the Prasciunas guy, his family?"
He nodded his head, then shook it at her look of concern and her offer to take over for him. Randi twirled out of the way as he reached for the phone with his free hand, dialed the number on the chart. It rang on the other end. From this angle, he could see more of Abby and less of Luka. He watched Abby slip her hands between their bodies, clutching at the blue fabric of Luka's shirt, her hands tightening, turning into talons. An answering machine clicked onto the line, and Carter spoke in his most practiced tone of compassion, bending forward slightly over the counter. His voice was low, sober and calm.
The muscles in Abby's arms tensed and Luka knew to brace himself, so that when she shoved him away he only shifted his weight instead of staggering back. She wiped her mouth on the cuff of her jacket and wrapped her arms tightly around her middle. It made her hunch forward, hiding her breasts. Her expression was somewhere between a pout and a snarl. It wasn't one of her more attractive poses, Luka thought.
"You think you can just make me like you?" she was asking, scowling up at him through strings of dull hair.
"No," he replied honestly.
"You think you can just be pretty and win me over every time, and it won't matter that you're an asshole and I'm a smart woman who shouldn't take this?"
"No." Luka knew she wasn't wrong. It was thin and threadbare, this game that tired people played at the end of days that were long, filled with broken bodies and alcohol and constantly washing your hands. He took her home because it was easier to sleep with someone next to him, someone who didn't matter any more than he did.
"You're disgusting," she whined. "And I can do better."
She glanced toward the hospital for the first time, trying not to look directly at Carter's bowed head. Luka studied her puffy, chapped lips, the purple smears digging into the skin below her eyes. He picked up one of her hands in both of his, not to hold it, but to feel the points of bone beneath the skin. To know she had a skeleton, he thought, and said, "So do it."
He dropped her hand at the same moment as she yanked it away.
Carter set the phone down in the same instant that Abby shouldered Luka aside. She disappeared beyond the doorway. Carter could picture her anyway, head down, squeezing her own arms until she winced, then delving into her pocket to draw out a cigarette. Every couple of days she told anyone who would listen that she was going to quit, after this last pack, that she was done. But she was more predictable than that.
"Have the decency to at least look busy," Weaver scolded, snatching the chart out of Carter's grasp. She surveyed the small group milling through Chairs. "Malik, you want to help me with this guy before he bleeds out?"
Malik rolled his eyes and made his way to the drunk man with the serrated wounds on his arm. As he went, Luka stopped staring after Abby and came in from the ambulance bay. He did not storm through the doors; his walk was smooth and dipping and nonchalant. He narrowed his eyes toward the desk, a scathing glint in them. Everyone avoided the glance, except Carter, who quirked an eyebrow upward and bit the inside of his lower lip to keep from smiling.
Kerry hustled her patient out of the waiting area. "Some things never change, I guess," Susan sneered. She elbowed Carter's arm. "You okay?"
She tilted her head. "Don't you think you should go talk to your friend?"
He considered this, lacing his hands together and rapping them against the counter. He knew Abby was leaning against the rough wall by now, her face wet and her body trembling. It occurred to him that Susan didn't know Abby at all. Susan bobbed her head encouragingly. Carter nodded back. He put his hands in the pockets of his white coat and strolled past the board, the smile dancing behind his eyes. He rounded the corner, away from the doors, and started down the hall.
Behind him, he heard Susan click her tongue incredulously. "So what's happened with him that I don't know about?"
"Oh, girl," Haleh began. But Carter was too far away to hear the rest.
Luka hovered over the sink farthest from the men's room door. He turned on the tap and wrinkled his nose at the sulfur smell as the water splashed onto the porcelain. The water slowly grew colder as it trickled over his hands. He rubbed his fingers together without soap, then ran them over his face and through his tousled hair. He coughed at his reflection in the spotted mirror, bracing his hands on the edges of the sink and throwing his weight forward.
"You're not sterile," Carter scolded. He crossed his ankles and leaned on the door frame. "If you were a surgeon, you'd have to start over."
Luka scoffed mildly without turning his head. "I'm not a surgeon."
"I was for a while." He pushed off the door and sidled over to Luka. He stood by the neighboring sink, his back to the mirror. "Good one, too."
"You lost a patient today." Luka straightened his back.
"Pot, kettle." Carter let his teeth grind together slightly. "Three-hundred pound guy who went through a carton of eggs every morning. Can't always be responsible. Seriously, you shouldn't treat Abby that way."
"Yeah, I know how much you care about her."
It occurred to Carter that he ought to care, that he ought to want to leap to Abby's defense. But the impulse simply wasn't there. This thing had been happening, this Abby and Luka thing, for a year. Before that, there had been Carol Hathaway at her saintly peak. And Lucy Knight--he felt the familiar twinge under his scar when he thought of her name. There had always been these women around. "One of these days she won't just roll over under you."
Luka thought about Abby's hands, grabbing him and then pushing him away. He thought about making her come and making her cry, and how neither one seemed either hard or important. "So what happens then?"
There had always been these women around, Carter thought, and next to Abby now there was Susan Lewis. "We'll see," he said, and casually laid his hand on top of Luka's, drumming his fingers on Luka's skin.
It seemed to Luka that he ought to want to pull his hand away, come back with a punch. But the impulse simply wasn't there. He let his head come up. Their eyes met, as the moisture evaporated between their hands. Carter was smirking, and Luka felt himself grinning back. "She thinks she can do better," Luka said, started by the sudden unevenness in his own voice.
"Oh, she can." Carter nodded emphatically. The contact between the underside of his hand and the top of Luka's was starting to warm. He pressed his fingertips down. "She can do much better. Word on the street is, so can you."
"Who's word on the street?"
"Randi." Carter noticed a tinge of coral lipstick at the corner of Luka's mouth. Then he noticed that his throat was dry. He swallowed. "She also thinks you're hot when you're fighting with Abby."
"That's the word on the street?" His breath caught as Carter's nails pressed crescents into his hand.
Carter laughed quietly. "You shouldn't fuck with people just because they let you."
Luka edged over so that his face was closer to Carter's, so that they were looking directly at each other, their eyes only inches apart. "Pot," Luka said. "Kettle."
Then Carter took his hand away. "Wash up," he said, and strode out of the men's room still laughing.
Luka didn't move for a few seconds. Then he turned the water back on and ran it over his tingling hand. He offered his own reflection the brightest smile he could muster, flashing his teeth, standing still, staring himself down. He didn't have to hurry back to work; it was a Sunday night.
Carter stopped outside the doorway of Trauma One, watching Chuny ease an IV out of the swollen arm of the corpse on the table. He frowned deeply, his face hollowed and whitewashed except for a flush along the cheekbones. But the smile ghosted behind his eyes, even as he studied the dead man whose wounded, damaged, bloated heart had failed not an hour earlier. He left the deserted mountain of flesh to Chuny's ministrations, and rambled back toward the front desk, rubbing his hands together with each step.
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