By JuneBug <email@example.com>
Please see Page One for Disclaimers.
Consider the end of chapter thirty-three my homage to season four. Sort of. There weren't too many good things to come out of season four, but mendhi was definitely one of them.
Thirty-One - Ruminations on a Theme by Pergolesi
Kai stirred, feeling the warmth of sunlight on her face and shoulders. Damn - what time is it? Bleary eyes opened grudgingly as her body found itself in the waking world, the senses sluggishly re-manifesting themselves into her consciousness.
It told her one of three things. The sun was indeed up much higher than usual, indicating a somewhat delayed start to her day. The second was the near-automatic realisation that it was a Sunday, so there was no immediate cause to rise. The third fact Kai noted was that the warmth on her upper body was not entire due to the sun alone.
She angled her head slowly, neck muscles voicing their protest at having been forced into an unfamiliar position during her slumber on the couch, and focused on the weight beside her.
It was Piersen. The blonde woman's body was folded into a foetal crouch, knees to chest with arms secured around them. Her hair was somewhat unruly, sticking up in some places and merely fluffed in others. Her face was unseen, though Kai's awareness signalled to her that it was burrowed into her shoulder, the quiet breaths against her shirt indicating deep slumber.
What is she... Kai's mental question stopped in their tracks as memory caught up, bringing to the fore the events of the previous night.
I was going to drive her home after a short nap - it was only going to be a few minutes...
The taller woman sighed, carefully flexing her outstretched legs so as to not wake the woman beside her. Damn. I can't believe I forgot to wake up. She snorted slightly at herself in disgust, chiding her recalcitrant body. She usually woke up cleanly, efficiently, and invariably five minutes before on-time...
Which heralded a fourth realisation. It had been five minutes since she awoke, and still her muscles refused to allow her up from the couch. Setting her jaw, she rose to her feet with what stealth she could muster, supporting the smaller body in its descent to the horizontal plane. Kai held her breath as Piersen shifted a little, drawing herself closer into a ball, and let it out slowly as no further movement came.
Standing beside the couch, Kai could not help but look back on the curled-up figure that lay so pale in contrast to the stark leather. The delicate profile of Piersen face now revealed itself, ivory against black like a Grecian urn; her nose that swept in a fine, straight line to sensuous lips and a strong chin.
Kai was no reader of faces; but she was struck by the fragility and the strength that seemed to be there all at once - determined features softened by the innocence of sleep. Fallen hands seemed to cup invisible water to her face; hands of someone weathered by experience - unadorned, well-kept, with practical nails. The skin hid strong tendons, and fingertips held suggestions of callouses - from her painting, from sculpture, who knows...
The only other defining feature was the faint tan-mark on her left ring finger, the skin so silvery-white as to be almost a scar.
The hand twitched, jerking Kai from her quiet observation. Hey, you in the front row - stop ogling and get yourself cleaned up. Smiling to herself, she raked her hair into some semblance of order and turned away to the kitchen. Not to be diverted from her routine by an unexpected sleep-in, she started up the breadmaker, measuring out various grains and flours from the neat row of earthenware jars lined against the counter, then made her way to the bedroom upstairs.
Her thoughts wandered without will to the previous night. The experience had been - cathartic. It seemed that they had talked the night through - words that were so difficult gradually evolved into a stream of conversation that passed between as the night turned into twilight. Kai felt a tiny internal cringe in retrospect, somewhat ashamed at displaying such weakness and disquietened by her nocturnal revelations - Secrets are told more easily in the dark and after the witching hour; the light of day sometimes brings... regret?
Yet something else bothered her, more than any feeling of unease over her own discomfort. Though it seemed that Piersen had mainly been asking questions, Kai had learnt a few things about Piersen that had emerged between her friend's almost-considered answers.
Kai sighed out of a mixture of exasperation and concern, quickly divesting herself of her clothing and stepping into the shower. It was strange, the more she thought about it. The undeniable attraction aside, she had felt herself warming to the curator's vivacious, earnest nature - that candid, unwavering gaze that saw through to the beauty, to the heart of so many things. It was something she wondered if she herself had ever had, something she wished that she had within herself...
Last night - when her grief and frustrations were so carefully siphoned away, when she was free to let go of the mask that seemed so deeply ingrained into her skin - was...
Kai drew in a breath and let it out in a rush, unable to find the words. She had never known anything like this. There were colleagues; some were people she wouldn't object too much to a quick coffee with, others like David who transcended work and moved closer to her personal sphere. Others - Kai grated sardonically, scrubbing her skin with little delicacy - Try just David. And Giselle. Sort of.
It wasn't that she minded. Socialising was hard work, after all - with all that effort, it was probably better spent in the laboratory. Friends just got in the way of what little personal time I have.
Kai snorted to herself in disgust. Yeah. Right. "Personal time" for you is almost an oxymoron.
Since when did you want a personal life anyway?
The answer came to her almost as soon as she asked herself the question.
Piersen doesn't get in the way. It was like she slipped into her life between one breath and the next - her presence touching her so deeply it was hard for Kai remember ever being without her. And therein lay the original irony: where Kai seemed to desire more and more of Piersens company, the blonde woman seemed to open up while paradoxically hiding herself away.
Bloody hell - I just keep going round and round in circles. She scowled, turning the water off abruptly before drying herself off. Like a bloody washing machine, or whatever she said it was. Spin cycle. Wrapping a silken plum-coloured robe around her for decency, she left her bedroom to take a quick glimpse downstairs, spying the diminutive figure still huddled asleep on the couch.
Good - maybe I've got some time to work this off.
Kai changed into her workout gear, slipping on her dark, slightly baggy trackpants and form-fitting singlet. Before leaving, she quickly grabbed a blanket from her wardrobe and moved silently downstairs. Her bare feet fell softly against the polished wood as she walked up to Piersen and laid the covering gently over her body, resisting the desire to brush the muddled blonde hair from her face.
Hands to yourself, Kai Jamieson. Leave the poor girl some space to sleep. She wiped the smirk from her face with a twinge of delicious guilt, setting her face to its sombre self. As an afterthought, Kai headed to the kitchen and rummaged for pen and paper, scribbling a quick note before making for the basement.
The ritual was familiar as soon as she stepped past the heavy doors, her body folding itself into stretches while she tied up her loose, damp hair into a neat, compact club. Mindful of the presence one floor above her, she closed the heavy doors to her gym and adjusted the volume of the sound system before stabbing "play" on the controller.
The choral voices of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater filled the echoing silence of the airy basement, mingling with the morning sun that reflected off the pool surface and cast the lonely air aglow. Kai was only half-listening, however, as she worked the bandages around her hands, eyeing her punching bag with a baleful glare. It would not help her answer any questions - only Piersen could do that - but it could certainly help subdue them for a few blessed moments before she had to return upstairs.
Taking a breath, Kai began.
Piersen jerked into wakefulness, her eyes a little wild as the veil of her dreamscape was torn from her consciousness.
Blast... She exhaled hard, finding herself safely outside of her nightmare, and buried her head in her hands for a moment. She breathed in deeply, trying to anchor herself in her body. It's been a while since I dreamed about that one. Her head pounding, she slowly allowed her eyes to open, and finally observed her surroundings.
I'm still here? She yawned and stretched with languid decadence, squeezing her eyes closed and blinking them open again. The black leather couch was empty save the light woollen blanket that covered her, with no further suggestion that there was anyone else in the immediate vicinity. 'Just a nap' becomes 'staying the night'. Well, I guess we were more tired than we first thought...
"Do you see that?
Kai pointed beyond the windows, her long finger directing Piersen's green gaze under the dramatic reach of the Harbour Bridge to the jewel-like cluster of lights at Circular Quay. The room was dark, focusing and intensifying the senses down to sight and sound - the sight of glowing city rising from the blackess, and the mellow sound of Kai's voice, dark chocolate melting into the night.
Squinting a little, Piersen curled up closer against her friend on the couch and searched the faraway darkness for the object of interest. Her feet were neatly tucked beneath her into the soft leather of the sofa, and her arms strained slightly as they bore her weight, causing her to sink further into the comfortably sprawled figure of the neurosurgeon.
"I think so. That orangey block near the water?"
Kai nodded. "That's the MCA."
Her voice grew with unravelling wonder. "Of course - I didn't even realise. I've never seen the city from this perspective before." She remained silent for a moment, taking in the spread of lights before another realisation dawned.
Piersen pointed. "Hey, that's my house."
"Right opposite us. See how there's that hill that rises over the Rocks, just in front of the Observatory? That's my house there, in the middle of that row of terraces on the crest of the hill."
Kai seemed to obseve with some amusement. "You left the light on."
"Bathroom light. It's got the best view in the house." Piersen smiled ruefully. "Good thing I left it on this morning."
The comment struck an unexpected thought in Kai's mind. She shifted, her body already reacting to her questions, and the expected answers. "Am I keeping you? Did you want to go home?"
The blonde woman seemed surprised for a moment, then gave a considered reply. "Would it be awfully rude if I said no?"
"Not at all." The brief confusion gave way to an internal glow that warmed her from within, and Kai allowed the rest of her fumbling words to escape unheeded: "I enjoy your company."
"Thank you - " The latter half of the sentence was obscured in a wide, stuporous yawn, one which Piersen tried her best to stifle. Kai looked on, her crooked smile tinged with a peculiar mixture of warmth and regret.
"Though I see we may have overstayed someone's bedtime."
"Nnhhat reehy. Af hhd laahrr -"
The doctor's smile grew into a chuckle. "I think we should get you home. Get you to bed."
Piersen wiped at her teary eyes, smiling in apology. "Sorry about that. I get these all the time - when I yawn, it always comes in patches..."
"Come on. I'll drive you - " Kai's voice was cut off by a yawn of her own, blending into a disbeliving chuckle. She made a move to rise. "Boy - it's contagious."
"Or maybe it's just that you're tired as well?" Piersen chided gently, reaching for her friend's arm to pull her down.
"You are being counter-productive," Kai noted, fighting the lethargy that seemed to weight down her limbs in retribution for trying to move at all.
"I think I'm being sensible, Kai. You're probably exhausted, with everything that's happened tonight..." She smiled, suppressing an yawn effectively this time. She gestured the coffee table, where an empty bottle of shiraz and two glasses stood, quietly reflecting the dark sheen on night. "Besides, we polished off that bottle of wine between the two of us. Why don't we just - take a time out. Close our eyes a bit, take a nap. Might have slept away the alcohol by then."
The taller woman's eyes were already falling shut. "Sounds good."
Piersen settled into the couch, leaning further into the softness. "Five minutes should do it."
Kai's voice was blurry. "Five minutes..."
Piersen's was hushed, intimate. "Good night, Kai."
Green eyes lingered on the shadowed features for a moment longer before Piersen finally allowed them to close.
With that recollection, Piersen found the events and emotions of the previous night wash over her with startling proximity, as if the entire sequence of events had been concentrated into one instant and fused into her mind. Every hard-earned smile, every fleeting glance - every moment of painful hesitance that had hung between them in an unyielding shadow.
She was like a rock, willing itself not to shatter...
It was an involution that Piersen was not willing to allow; not now, not after she had seen and experienced the richness of Kai's presence. It was as if her sudden, strange friendship had placed a warp in her fabric of life, giving texture and gravity to something that had been ambiguously meandering before. She's added a dimension to everything I know -
She snorted, chiding her own thoughts. Gee, Piers. Without being dramatic or anything. Sitting up, she bundled the blankets closer to her and looked around the sitting room, her vision slowly starting to adjust to the light.
"Oh golly - will you look at that..." Piersen's mouth stilled to silence as she looked out the expansive windows and the harbour view beyond. The risen sun was a Midas touch that turned everything to gold - glowing skyscrapers rose sleepily from a lingering fog while the harbour bridge yawned over the waters interwoven with light. She spent a quiet moment, tracing the white foam trails left in the wake of passing ferries; churning wavelets that mingled with the glare reflected from the water's surface, like diamonds scattered on holy ground.
If this is what she wakes up to every morning, no wonder she can drive through Sydney and not gawk at the sights.
Tearing her eyes away from the view, Piersen took in the remainder of the house, laughing at herself as she noted the starkness of the interior. And here I was lecturing her on minimalism. I don't think it can get much more minimalist than this. The house was all unyielding white, wood, air and glass - the cavernous room seeming to take in and trap the light within its walls, concentrating a gentle luminosity that glowed in the air itself. The ceiling extended high past the second floor in a soaring atrium, the clean white lines blending into the sun streaming in from a fringe of windows high above her.
It was something Piersen did not quite expect, having only known these walls cloaked in darkness. The looming shadows that kept them company last night seemed to complement their dark, sombre tenant; who proved to be as surprising as the airiness had surprised her now...
I wonder where she is. Feeling out of place, Piersen had begun to search for the elusive doctor when a note on the coffee table caught her eye. It was addressed to her - the message written in thick, terse strokes:
Good morning. The bathroom's to your left, the kitchen to your right. Help yourself to the fridge and pantry.
Piersen smiled, absently folding away the note. She rose groggily to her feet, feeling a dull ache burn across her shoulders and sides.
Oh blast... I knew all that rowing yesterday was going to catch up to me sometime. Doubling her efforts, she forced her body into a stretch and folded the blanket neatly behind her. She made a show of considering her choices.
"Kitchen first, I think."
Making somewhat stiffly for the granite-topped bench, she extracted a glass from the dish strainer and filled it with water, sipping as she explored aimlessly through the room. The kitchen was painfully neat, so devoid of clutter as to appear unused. A large teak dining table stood empty between the kitchen and a vast balcony, with a matching low cabinet that sported an orderly file of CDs and a compact sound system. Making her way over, Piersen ran her fingers along the spines of the plastic cases, her thoughtful green gaze following their path. Bach sonatas, Shostakovich symphonies, La Boheme, Rosenkavalier, Tristan und Isolde... It was a litany of classical repetoire, some which were familiar to her, and others less so. Golly, Kai - do you listen to anything not classical?
As if in answer to her question, a faint echo of music winded its way to her ear and caught the periphery of her hearing. Piersen cocked her head as she listened intently, resolving the sound of voices - a ghostly haze of choral harmonies that drifted from somewhere - downstairs...
Following the music, she left her glass on the bench and found the stairs, moving with an unconsciously cautious stealth. The steps ended in a short corridor that led to three closed doorways, and a large set of double doors which were slightly ajar. This is where the music's coming from...
Tentatively pulling open the door, Piersen looked through the narrow gap. What she saw took her breath away.
The room was almost as large as the living room, and just as spartanly furnished. Despite the recurring presence of large glass panes looking southward, most of the sun's rays were caught by the overhead balcony, leaving only slivers of light to be concentrated and reflected against the narrow lap pool that ran along the windows.
Kai was there. Her silhouette was like a dancing shadow amidst the solid hulks of exercise equipment, a piece of dark poetry that spun in and out of darkness. Her sweeping movements spoke of tight control and explosive strength; yet there was a fluid artistry that ran its way into Piersen's heart and left it aching. The dull sound of flesh meeting leather brought a violent rhythm to the sublimely resonant music, a dichotomy that Piersen realised wasn't really such a dichotomy at all.
It was in the middle of a reverse-spin kick that Kai saw an outline at the doorway. Stopping suddenly, she felt her heart startled into erratic beats before resuming its measured post-exercise rate, though her eyes still betrayed some residual surprise. Another instant passed when she simply stood, watching and being watched, before she abruptly grabbed a towel and switched off the music.
A somewhat breathless, embarrassed greeting came from the tall figure. "Good morning."
Piersen nodded her reply, stepping gingerly between the doors and into the room. A soft smile coloured her features, highlighted by a measure of something else that brought a note of wonder to her voice. "You know, one day - I'd just love to get my hands on a brush and..." Her perusal found impossibly blue eyes. "Paint you."
The words hung like a vapour between them for several of Kai's rapid heartbeats. Swallowing, she braved a moment of scrutiny, shifting slightly on her feet. "I don't sit still very well. I'd be a terrible subject."
The words seemed to restore momentum to the fractured instant. Piersen laughed briefly, losing some of her previous sobriety. "Sitting still would defeat the purpose, Kai. I want to paint you in motion."
Smiling awkwardly, Kai checked her pulse against her watch before drying off her sweating forehead. "Perhaps another time, then. I should be finishing up anyhow."
The blonde woman nodded. "How long have you been up for?"
"About two hours. I'm sorry I didn't wake up to take you home last night."
"I think we both needed to sleep yesterday off." Another smile, broader this time. It faded quickly, however, when Piersen noticed the bandages around the doctor's hands. "Are they alright?"
"Oh, these? Yeah. They're just for support." She quickly unwound her hands, folding up her bandages and placing them neatly on a bench. "Feel like breakfast?"
"Oh yeah." Piersen grinned, impishly. "Do you need to ask?"
Kai laughed, moving into her stretches as she felt her muscles beginning to protest. "Well, I've had some bread baking for a little while - that should be ready soon. Just give me a moment to warm down and clean up, and I'll join you in the kitchen." She raised her arms and braced her hands above her head, popping out her shoulder joint with some satisfaction.
"Okay." Feeling a sudden rash of goosebumps, an involuntary shiver skittled up and down her spine. Piersen rubbed her arms without thought, a movement that did not escape Kai's notice.
"It does get a bit colder down here in the basement. Here - take this." Kai handed her a folded sweatshirt. "That dress you're wearing can't be too warm."
Piersen accepted the bundle and pulled it over her head, noting a familiar perfume that filled her nostrils. Yep - the same one... She was about to inhale again when a chuckle startled her out of her thoughts.
"That is much too big for you." Kai indicated the hem of the garment, which had threatened to engulf the light summer dress Piersen had been wearing. The smaller woman glanced at her reflection in the glass, and could not help laugh aloud.
"Hey! Some of us aren't gifted in the vertical stakes." She retorted with mock-indignation, hands on her hips. "For that comment, you might not get this jumper back."
The taller woman grinned, drawling lazily as she returned to her stretches. "My my, someone's tetchy. I made absolutely no reference to height whatsoever."
Blonde eyebrows arched dangerously, though the menace was offset somewhat by a broad smile on Piersen's lips. "You may laugh now, Kai, but remember - the taller you are, the harder you fall."
Kai nodded laughingly, the words striking a resonance within her beyond their intent. "I'll remember that."
"Good." With a triumphant nod, Piersen flopped her way up to her statuesque friend and threaded an arm around her elbow. "Now I believe you mentioned something about breakfast. I may be short in stature, but it definitely doesn't affect my appetite..."
The two silhouettes left the room together.
Thirty-Two - Back at the Ranch
Several days pass.
Kai sat at the head of the conference table, clad in sombre black pants and granite button-up shirt with sleeves partially rolled up, baring ropy forearms. Her legs were neatly crossed with a stack of papers balanced on one knee, while her piercing blue gaze looked over the frame of her glasses intently. The muted Thursday afternoon sun gave the room a hazy, stuffy feel, reflecting and accentuating the non-descript pastels into hothouse-humid tones.
The Chairman of Neurology had her attentions focused on Kevin Anderson, her Administrator, who was currently presenting the proposed strategies to be implemented in the upcoming financial year. It's a bit early to start discussing this, but at least they won't be accusing me of springing any surprises on them this time round.
Indeed, the situation had been quite different the last time such changes were made. The department was much worse for wear and required decisive intervention - something that lengthy discussion and debate with her somewhat argumentative colleagues did not allow. The resultant actions had branded her as an autocrat; and while some had forgiven her in the wake of positive results, others were not so willing to forget.
"Wait - what's with this drop across all the units in July next year?" Graham Rickson, the hulking director of the Clinical school, accused a graphic in his meeting notes with a thick finger.
"Well, I was getting to that, Graham, but seeing as you've brought it up..." Kevin turned his benedictine features to the woman at the head of the table, an inquiring look in his eye.
Kai sat up a little in her chair as she evaluated her choices, and decided to address her colleagues. "That, gentlemen, reflects a proposal that was presented to the Hospital Trustees a month ago. It has been suggested that this department be further subdivided."
The nursing unit manager looked up. "Into what?"
"Into Skull Base surgery and an Epilepsy program - focusing on medical and surgical intervention."
Graham frowned. "That doesn't explain the drop in figures. If anything the overall admissions and resources should increase."
"It does - but that's one half of it. There are plans to expand as well as subdivide. There has been an expression of interest to have the otorhinolaryngologists..." Kai paused, searching for a term. "...'partake in our bounty', if you like."
There was a laugh from one end of the table. "We're hardly that bounteous."
The large man shot a flat glare at Kai. "And whose idea was that? Yours, I presume."
"Actually, it was from the otorhinolaryngologists. Funnily enough." She replied with a calm, pointed look, then turned her gaze to the people gathered. "These figures are a projection of the effects should both proposals be implemented. In a nutshell, gentlemen, we would have to share. I don't expect the proposed subspecialties to come with any spectacular increase in funding, which means it will essentially have to live off its own revenue and whatever external funds can be raised to help it settle in."
Lawrence Taylor shook his head. "We're already stretched as it is without having to add new players into the scheme."
Kai nodded. "Yes, but by forcing the redistribution of the budget, it is anticipated that it will in fact favour a more efficient use of resources."
"Strangle, you mean." Rickson spat, distaste evident in his scowl.
"Choose whatever adjective suits you best, Graham." Kai took off her glasses and laid them gently, deliberately on the table. "I'm sure many of you will be less than pleased with this approach. And you are more than welcome to voice your critique on the matter. In my mind, it's an opportunity for us to expand our patient base and stem the ever-burgeoning costs all at once."
The final statement was almost an invitation for rebuttal, and the focus of the table suddenly shifted to Geoff Sanders. The Vice-Chairman was always the most vocal in any opposition, but had remained uncharacteristically silent during the course of this meeting.
Feeling the weight of the collective attention, Geoff carefully voiced his opinion after some thought. "I don't feel that expanding patient base alone is not enough reason for such a drastic change. In the past week since your work on Parkinson's was publicised, we've had an hundred-and-fifty percent increase in applications and referrals to the Movement Disorders program. I can understand the logic behind adding Skull Base surgery, but the Epilepsy program is mainly long-term treatment, and this can put enormous pressure on resources."
Kai indicated dissent. "Almost sixty percent of our inpatients are surgical, Geoff. The average length of stay is five days. I'm not sure if adding a service that is primarily outpatient will put such a dent in our daily operations."
"What I'm saying is that we can't predict what the effect of the extra strain will be."
"If we demanded foolproof estimates for every opportunity, we would never get anything off the ground." Kai regarded the personnel gathered around the large conference table for a moment, then addressed tham all. "I understand the cautious reception. And I agree with the need for careful thought on the matter. Which is why we're opening this up here for discussion. Anyone with suggestions - get it to me in writing, and I'll take it along to the Board meeting next week."
The tall surgeon leaned back in her chair, turning to her administrator. "But it seems that we've jumped ahead of ourselves. If you would like to continue, Kevin...?"
The scholarly-looking man nodded, and continued to talk. Feeling a gradual ebb in the tension, Kai let out a silent breath and followed the remainder of the meeting in earnest. With her attention trained on the report, however, she failed to see the silent exchange between two members at the conference table.
"So, it's all set to go?"
Piersen stood beside her desk in her office with hands on hips, examining the desktop computer with a critical frown. Her somewhat dubious tone of voice was picked up on by James, whose tall figure lounged easily beside her with a pleased expression on his face.
"Yep." He replied, folding his arms as he watched his friend gingerly rest her hand on the mouse. "MCA management has finally caught up to the internet phenomenon."
The museum director laughed. "You know, if I didn't know you better, I'd think you were teasing me."
"I simply cannot believe that you've never sent an e-mail in your life, Piersen."
"James, I'm lucky to have touched the internet at all. Call me old-fashioned, but I simply prefer putting pen to paper." Piersen sat in front of the benignly glowing monitor, eyeing it for a few uncertain moments while her hands fidgeted in her lap.
"Alright, Old-Fashioned - who's going to be your first?"
She looked up at him. "Excuse me?"
"Your first." The flat look remained, and James was compelled to elaborate further. "E-mail recipient."
"Oh." Piersen mentally shook herself awake. "My first. Right." She sorted through her desk, bringing up a several letterheads. "Well, I thought I'd try Kai - I haven't managed to get a hold of her since last weekend..."
"Good idea," James interjected with a grin.
"... But I have this Andrew Bryant from Pacific Energy who seemed interested in participating in a sponsorship package."
James was about to convey his dissent when comprehension dawned. "Pacific Energy?"
"Yeah. The multinational. He was one of the guests at the exhibition opening, and I got a letter from him on Monday saying that he liked what he saw."
"Are you kidding? That's - that's brilliant!" The dark-blond man paused, busy integrating this new knowledge. "It's exactly what you said the exhibition would do: to bring the business to us.... My god, Piersen - you are a clever one."
Piersen smiled. "He wants me to get in touch with him by phone or e-mail. I guess I should take advantage of that and organise a lunch meeting sometime next week."
"Am I invited?"
"No James, I think I should deal with this one-on-one for now. He sounds pretty easy-going in the letter, so I think it should be fairly manageable."
He nodded with a broad grin. "Alright - but don't mind me if I decide to take a neighbouring table."
A blonde eyebrow rose in a pointed look. "What makes you think you're going to be at the same restaurant?"
"Piers, businessmen from the other side of the CBD commute here to cut deals at the MCA Fish Cafe. Do you mean to say you won't even suggest the restaurant on our very own doorstep?"
She laughed, shaking her head. "Alright, you win. Get back to work, you - I've got a meeting to plan."
"Yes ma'am." James bowed with aplomb and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Piersen sat alone at her desk, pondering the sheet of white screen before her. A few mental decisions made, she straightened and set fingers to keyboard.
Associate Professor Graham Rickson walked down the carpeted corridors of St. Vincent's Clinic alongside the somewhat slighter, bookish form of Professor Lawrence Taylor. The two were conspiciously silent, having remained so since their departure from the conference room. Their footfalls chafed the carpet in relentless, impatient bursts, highlighting the lack of words between them.
"What are you thinking?"
"Need you ask?" The burly figure rumbled, the sound coming from somewhere near his stomach.
Lawrence nodded, deep-set eyes lost in the carpet. "Are you going to tell her what you think of her idea?"
"You can count on that. Though I doubt she'd even turn a hair."
"What about Sanders? He's always vocal with his opinions, and she's more willing listen to him."
"That's what she pays him to do, Lawrence - lip service. We've tried Sanders before, remember? A few weeks ago he said that he brought our complaints to her attention, but she obviously hasn't responded. Do you think she'd give a pig's ass about what we think?"
A tense silence passed as Graham directed a piercing look at his colleague, giving his question an immediacy mere rhetoric lacked.
Taylor removed his glasses, "What can I say? She's won over the Sisters, and the other board members love her for all the sponsorship and funding she reels in. Like it or not, she's a keystone in this whole scheme now."
The words seemed to sink into the large doctor, who grew increasingly seething in response. "This isn't right. Our ward is turning into an advertising billboard, and she is happy to see it that way - to have us eventually pawned to the pharmaceutical giants and technology companies while she slashes more and more from the budget." They walked into the overpass linking the Clinic and the main hospital building, under a sign cheerfully sponsored by Pfizer.
Thick fingers tapped at it in disgust, sending the loose polystyrene swinging idly in their wake. Rickson continued. "When she first introduced this whole sponsorship scheme, seven people on the departmental board that were against it. So how is it that her plan has been implemented throughout the hospital?"
Taylor shrugged, unable to answer.
"She pitched it directly to the Trustees, Lawrence. She knew they'd jump at the chance to save a buck. So she practically rammed her proposal down their throats until they agreed to implement her plan. That's how she cuts her deals." He snorted in disgust as they crossed the busy main foyer en route to the wards.
Taylor was startled. "Where did you get this information from?"
"Board minutes. Evidently no one really cares to read them properly around here - I doubt anyone on this entire floor knows how she managed to get around our votes."
Lawrence Taylor was quiet for a long spell, apparently deep in thought. "You've been digging deep, Graham. What are you hoping to find?"
Graham Rickson's eyes remained focused somewhere beyond the stretch of corridor before him, his voice calm with conviction.
"That Kai Jamieson is not infallible."
Taylor's eyes widened. "You mean you're..."
Rickson cut in smoothly. "I will not see the running of this department rest on luck. That's what it is - luck. Being gifted in research does not make her a miracle-worker in management. No one seems to understand this basic fact."
Lawrence shook his head with some resignation. "But as long as she yields good results, no one's going to care. As far as they're concerned, she is a miracle worker."
If Graham Rickson was unperturbed by his friend's remarks, his voice betrayed none of it.
"Miracles don't last forever. We've seen her rise - now we're preempting her fall."
Kai sat alone in her office, working to full lights while cars and their headlights streaked past in the darkened streets below. A small pot of Earl Grey sat steeping peacefully between a chaotic stack of radiology folders and her computer monitor, which displayed a series of laboratory reports in several windows. It was fast approaching midnight, but the doctor did not appear to take notice of the time as she spoke quietly but clearly into her dictaphone.
"...Successive scans have shown complete removal of the tumour, comma, and early signs promise satisfactory recovery of near-normal function with time, full stop. Please refer again in six weeks for monitoring, full stop. Yours Sincerely, et cetera, Kai Jamieson.
"Thanks, Adrian. That was the last of it." She completed her dictation with a neat click, stopping the tape, and finally allowed her body a long, feline stretch. Her shoulders and spine popped with satisfaction and she sighed, smoothing out her loose scrubs before pouring herself a cup of tea. I think I deserve this - just a quick break...
Kai leaned back in her chair, closing the computer reports with a quick sweep of her mouse. She was about to fully devote her attention to the patient teacup when her email indicator caught her eye.
"Bloody hell - all these messages..." She brought up her mail browser, half-heartedly scanning the titles for something that might be of immediate interest.
Evans, P Subject: Christening
A double-click quickly ensued.
Wow. This email thing is terrific. Would you believe it, we're at the dawn of the 21st century, and Piersen has yet to send her first email?
Before this, the museum had the one email address, which was checked probably once in a blue moon by the public relations department. Yes, "woefully inadequate" would be the term. I thought it might be nice to open access to the senior staff, at least, so we can get some improvements in efficiency of communication. Though if everyone was following my example now, productivity would probably be at its lowest for the past month.
Call me crazy, but I've had the website people put my email address on the public pages. I thought it might "de-spook" the MCA as an institution if the general public could reach me with a "click of a button", literally. If you don't hear from me in the next few days, I'm probably drowning in my mailbox. I guess that's when I'd love to get my hands on that communications technology we talked about.
It's just, well, I remember you had an email address on your business letterheads, so I thought I'd drop you a note. I'd much rather send my first email to a friend, rather than some business partner, with me trying to pummel a good deal out of him/her. Besides, this might be the only way I can reach you short of coming to the hospital. I tried to get in touch a few times. Nothing important enough to leave a message or anything, really. Just wanted to see how you were - you know, after last weekend. I guess it's been a busy time for everyone - it's getting that way here, though tomorrow morning will be some relief for me. My office is up here with the rooftop gallery, and since the exhibitions don't open till 10am or so I get the terrace to myself for a few blessed hours. I guess that's one incentive to wake up early tomorrow morning.
Before I sign off, Kai, I'd like to... thank you. "Thank" is such a tiny word - who could have imagined so little can mean so much? But that's what I want to say; in the truest, fullest sense. I had a fantastic time last weekend. I haven't been in this country long, but thanks to you, it finally feels like home to me.
Hope you haven't given up on me as a rowing partner. I'll wake up on time this Saturday, I promise.
Kai read over the message again, and once more, blue eyes lingering over every line, every word. She had a good time.
A fantastic time. Her internal voice corrected, with a generous degree of smugness. She smiled, loving the quiet sensation that came from the message. Hanging onto the residual warmth that coursed in her blood, Kai opened a new mail message onscreen and was about to reply when a knock at her door interrupted her task. "Come in."
The familiar grey-bearded face of David Foster appeared, wearing a somewhat gruff frown. "What are you doing still here?"
She smiled broadly, pleasantly surprised at her friend's presence. "Maybe I should be asking what you're doing here on my floor. You never come up here."
"I know. I was just picking up the car when I saw your lights on. I'm coming to tell you off, Kai. Get yourself home."
The neurosurgeon shrugged and took a drink from her cup of tea. "I'm almost done, anyway. Want some tea? It's been a while since I've run into you."
David considered his watch for a moment. "What the heck." He unceremoniously dumped his bag on her couch and, following her gesture, gathered a cup for himself before pulling up a spare chair.
"So," He settled in his seat with a sigh, a gleam in his eye. "I heard you took off overseas again a while ago."
"That's why I've been having to catch up on work." Acknowledging the subtle pride in his voice, Kai nodded and leaned back in her chair. "Yourself?"
David's beard twitched in an ill-concealed smile, and his hands gestured vaguely. "Oh... you know - good. Busy, but good."
The neurosurgeon eyed him for a long moment. "Did I just see David Foster being... coy?"
The gruff frown returned with magical immediacy. "I don't do coy."
"Whatever you say." Kai nodded with an enigmatic smile on her face, allowing the slip to pass. "What's kept you late tonight?"
"Nothing. I finished like any normal human being at six, then went out to dinner. Which I doubt you've even had."
"Dinner? God, what time is it?" Kai frowned, and glanced at her watch. Then looked at it again.
David folded his arms, a trifle smug. "See what I mean?"
"I see. Good morning." A quirked grin. "You can go home, if you like. I shouldn't have kept you."
"I'm not leaving this office without you." He shook his head with the dismay of the long-suffering. "Damn, Kai - you wouldn't have known the time until the sun was rising outside your window."
Kai finished her tea in a quick gulp, and poured herself another. She dodged the subject without preamble. "Dinner anything special?"
David shrugged. "Just Giselle."
"Ah, but she's always special, isn't she?" She chuckled with some indulgence. "How is she going?"
"Good." He nodded, his head bobbing like a wayward cork in water. "Good."
Kai subtly caricatured his movement, though her voice had a touch of teasing drawl in it. "Well, that's - good, David."
"You know, she was saying we should meet up for dinner again sometime." He scratched at his beard. "You free a month from now? Saturday night?"
Kai pursed her lips, half in surprise and half in thought. "Uh, sure. I don't think I have anything planned that far in advance."
"Good." He fiddled with his cup, then placed it on the table. "Why don't you bring, uh, that friend of yours? Piersen Everett?"
"Evans." Kai corrected absently, then nodded. "I'll ask her."
"Great. I'll let you know the details. Giselle wanted to plan everything, apparently."
Kai inclined her head briefly, mimicking with a slight smile. "Gr-reat." What are you up to, David?
His expression set once again into its customary half-frown. "Well. I'm going. Don't forget to ask Piersen." He stood abruptly and grabbed his bag, disappearing into Adrian's office leaving the doors slightly ajar behind him. Kai watched his exit with a mixture of amusement, puzzlement and concern, and was about to reach for her notes when a voice interrupted her work. Again.
"Hey, are you coming or not? I said I wasn't leaving without you."
Kai laughed with some extravagance, surprised by her friend's persistence. Noting the message window still opened, she quickly typed a short note and sent it before shutting down the computer, gathering cups and teapot as she rose to her feet. Her voice drifted richly from behind the double doors.
"Alright, alright - I'm coming."
Thirty-Three - Interruption
Friday morning had begun like any other day for Piersen; a brisk walk from her home to the harbourside, breathing in the faint scent of sun and salt that drifted in the air like the weightless seagulls. She had abandoned the power suit in favour of a long sleeveless summer dress of watercolour azure, knowing that she would be spending most of her working day slaving over new proposals for exhibitions and the catalogue which was nearing completion.
Unlocking the door to her office, she quickly left her sandals by the door and make her way to her desk, running through her morning preparations; unpacking her bag, checking her phone messages, switching on her dormant computer monitor. It was then that, amongst all that was familiar, something new greeted her; something that had never quite happened to her before.
On her awakening monitor was a neat window heralding in bold 14 point Arial:
You Have New Mail.
"Wow, already?" Piersen sat herself down, ignoring the slight jump of anticipation in her pulse, and opened her mailbox.
12:43am Prof K Jamieson <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Re: Christening
She smiled, oblivious to the warm rush that spread along her skin as she read the headline. And finally noted the time with dismay.
"Oh Kai - up so late... I would have guessed you were a nightowl." She opened the message.
Free for lunch?
The petite blonde couldn't help but laugh aloud, almost sensing her friend's presence in those short words. Not one to mince words, is she? Then again, she certainly got her message across... She extracted her wallet and was searching for Kai's office number when her phone began to ring.
She picked up the handset, answering in her somewhat deeper, more responsible voice. "Hello?"
"'Morning. Are you free?" The velvet voice was touched by the crooked grin that she knew so well.
"Kai!" Piersen exclaimed in surprise, her whole body becoming animated as thoughts competed with each other to be spoken. "I was just -- I just got your e-mail. How are you?"
"Just wondering if you have time for breakfast, that's all."
"Uh, sure. What happened to lunch?"
"I had a last-minute re-scheduling at theatre. One of my sessions was brought a few hours ahead, so I wouldn't have been able to make it."
"But what about now? Shouldn't you be at work?"
"I woke up a bit earlier than usual and got out a few things out of the way. So, if you don't have pressing matters this morning..."
Piersen had noticed the timbre of the surgeon's voice changing somewhere in that sentence, but it wasn't until she heard her door open that she felt compelled to investigate its significance.
And found Kai standing in the doorway with cell phone in one hand and an armful of food held against her, cutting a well-tailored though somewhat ungainly silhouette in her midnight-blue suit. Speechless, Piersen stared with a laugh frozen on her face, her mind furiously catching up with the sudden development.
She managed to stammer a greeting. "Uh, Good morning."
Smiling blue eyes remained intently on her as the doctor slowly approached her desk. Her voice was softer, a low caress that seemed to stir the air with deep resonance."Good morning."
Piersen heard both voices at once, and became aware that she was still speaking into the phone. She hung up quickly with an embarrassed laugh and wiped her hands on her dress. "Golly. Faster than a speeding bullet, huh?"
"Traffic was good."
The curator rose to her feet. "How... How did you get up here?"
"Quite serendipitously - I ran into James, who got me past security. He didn't seem to want to join us for breakfast, though." Kai continued in the same leisurely lope, finally stopping two steps short of the desk just as Piersen had stopped in front of her. Clutched in the crook of her arm were two baguettes and a large paper bag that seemed to be full of tantalisingly packaged parcels.
There was a ghost of a smile in the doctor's coloured lips. "Hungry?"
"Always." Piersen reached out, relieving Kai of the bread while she continued to look up at her friend with a quiet wonder. "Wow. This is a surprise."
"Well, that was the plan. Disappointed?"
"Never." Piersen laughed, shaking her head helplessly as she tugged on Kai's jacket-sleeve. "Come on, superhero - let's get you and all that food out on the terrace."
Kai obliged with a smile, allowing herself to be led out of the offices to the neighbouring gallery. Oh boy. You did very good, Kai - that look on her face... Chuckling softly, she followed the smaller woman's form, which moved with an unconscious grace under the light, clinging material of her dress, her bare feet seeming to caress the ground as she walked.
Bare feet? Kai's eyebrows twitched in a quizzical frown. "Should you be walking around here without shoes?"
"Shoes?" She looked down at her feet, and smiled with a touch of bashfulness. "Oh. I only do this when the gallery's closed. At this time in the morning, I usually get the floor to myself."
A brief chuckle. "I only say this because I have seen too many children coming in to Cas after stepping on a tack in art class."
Piersen laughed. "Oh dear. Well, that must be the reason why we don't use thumbtacks here. Saves on the insurance."
They continued into the gallery space where they had been only a week ago, both feeling a strange significance in returning. This time, however, their surroundings appeared dramatically different from the last - the empty floor, the light that seemed to bleach the white mounting to an even starker brightness, the sculptures that now seemed to act as silent chaperones to the two women that entered the expansive room. Kai waited as Piersen unlocked the sealed wooden partition before stepping outside to the stone terrace, both gravitating to a familiar stretch of balcony.
They busied themselves with laying out their items on the broad stone surface in silence, until there was nothing more to be done. They stood in the morning sun, feeling a touch awkward as they searched for points of interest in the granular sandstone.
Piersen began, quietly. "You know, you didn't have to do all this..."
"I wanted do." Kai forced her eyes upwards, watching the faraway gaze that now followed an idling finger on the ledge. "Sorry I've been so hard to get hold of the past few days."
"Well, it's not like you had to make it up to me. I just wanted to see how you were, that's all." She smiled, then added as an afterthought, "I figured you've been busy."
The dark head nodded. "The department is undergoing a few changes - we're at the stage where we're trying to plan around people, so it gets a bit time-consuming trying to accommodate everyone." Remembering something, Kai fished inside her jacket pockets for a few moments and extracted two wineglasses, which caused Piersen to laugh aloud.
"Golly. Have you ever seen 'Sabrina'?"
"Oh yes. No back pockets in these pants, thank you." Kai grinned, setting the glasses carefully on the ledge.
"Good - 'cause, you know, you're the doctor here, and if anything happened to you..." Piersen trailed off meaningfully, giving her friend a look before surveying their breakfast selection. "You are so well prepared... and I didn't even think to grab a knife from the kitchenette."
Kai took in a breath, pursing her lips. "Well..."
"Oh wait - that's in the inside pocket, right?"
Kai smiled a touch sheepishly, producing a chesse knife as prophesied. "I'd better learn some new tricks. I'd hate to become predictable." The knife was laid beside the compact smorgasbord, and Kai broke off a piece of baguette, offering it to the blonde woman beside her.
"Nah... I like you just the way you are." Piersen needled with an affectionate poke, then accepted the bread. "Though you've really got to learn to relax, Kai. There are only 24 hours in day, you know."
"You're joking." The doctor deadpanned, the barest trace of a smile in her eyes. "I'll have to talk to someone about that."
Piersen chuckled, tearing a strip of bread and dipping it into a small pot of hommous. "I wouldn't be surprised if you did get another a few hours squeezed in the day somewhere, Kai. Just so you could work twice as hard as you already do."
Surprisingly, Kai shook her head. "Nah - I'd save them up for a holiday. I've always wanted to travel." God, Kai - when was the last time you had a holiday?
There was a mental frown as another question arose. When was the last time you wanted one?
The curator's disbelieving voice was slighly muffled by food. "Travel? You seem to fly overseas with frightening regularity, as I recall."
"That's different. I'm there to work." Kai took a thoughtful bite from a slice of brie, the muscles in her jaw jumping as she chewed. Yet another thought came to her - though much less pleasant - and she swallowed quickly, her throat feeling somewhat dry. "Which reminds me. I'm due to make a few lectures in Cambridge in two weeks."
A pause. Piersen looked up into the angular face for a long moment, her voice becoming sober. "Oh. How long will you be gone for?"
"It usually takes a week or so. They probably want me to stay around for a few thinktank sessions, and run a few rounds at the hospitals." Sensing a change in her friend's mood, Kai made a subtle effort to draw the conversation away from the subject. "You know, they like to keep me busy. In fact I don't think I've even seen much of the East Anglia countryside since I was working there full time."
Piersen shook her head. "If you think that's beautiful, wait till you come to Derbyshire. One day I'll show you around the grounds back home."
"The grounds?" Kai enquired, amusement playing on her lips. "And have Jeeves bring me my G and T, yes?"
"Hey! It's not like that at all." The blonde woman laughed, playfully jabbing her friend's arm. "My great-grandfather liked to hunt, so he bought a manor house, supposedly so he could bring his London friends hunting on the weekends."
She shuddered, her distaste evident. "My father stopped the practice. He preferred to take hikes in the woodland and look after the grounds. He loved to explore all the old trails that wove through the woods that ran into the estate. When I was younger, he used to take me along this one track that I loved, skirting along a low promontory that scored into a valley and lake - it became my own place, my sanctuary..." Her commentary stopped, feeling her lips grow numb and an echo of a pang in her heart.
Kai looked on, noting the past tense and the shadow of discomfort in the porcelain features - an expression she had seen before. One she wanted to understand, to take away. An old pain... chronic, deadening - I can almost see it... It was against her better judgement, but everything in the moment seemed to cry for some attempt at resolution, to breach the reticence that had descended between them like unyielding crystal.
She took a breath. "Has it been long?"
A few heartbeats passed between them - long enough for Kai almost to regret her choice, when a low reply came from a face downcast into shadow.
"A few weeks now. An accident - the trail he was hiking was worn, and he lost his footing on the edge of a cliff face."
The doctor's concerned gaze left her and looked ahead into the harbour, granting her friend some measure of privacy. "I'm sorry."
Piersen shifted, leaning against the sandstone ledge. She felt this surreal moment seem to pass her by yet stop at the same time - leaving her in the wake of both foreboding and regret. I'm sorry too... I don't think I can ever say how much -
"It's in the past." Darkened green eyes glanced up a moment, forcing a smile before turning away. Her voice, however, continued - its timbre detached, matter-of-fact, as if she was speaking out of her own body, from a memory that had been buried too long.
"His skull was cracked on the right side, and his leg was broken in three places. They said that he would have felt no pain, just a sharp blow to the head, then nothing more." The emerald gaze turned to the taller woman, finding her eyes with unsettling calm.
"Is that true?"
Kai held the contact for a long moment, searching that intimately distant regard for something that revealed the veiled emotions, but found nothing. She shook her head, helpless. "I can't really answer that, Piersen - not without reading the post-mortem report..." She paused, yet felt the need to continue. "The head injury... I think it would have caused a haemorrhage - he would have lost a lot of blood. It would have been like falling asleep - a gradual descent; a slow, gentle surrender."
Kai knew it was a weak projection at best. But somehow, it was enough.
Piersen nodded, grateful, but did not look up at her. "Thank you. I've always wanted to know..."
Then, in an instant, it seemed that she had gathered herself. Piersen looked up, bright eyes smiling their apology while the curve of her lips hid away the lingering shadow of vulnerability. "Now look what's happened. I'm trying to get you to relax, and you're working again."
The doctor's smile did not reach her eyes. Will we pretend that this conversation never happened? "This isn't work, Piersen."
"Yeah - if you were a psychiatrist, I'd be paying you $200 an hour."
"Aren't you lucky I'm a friend, then?"
The statement hung in the air between them - Kai's richly textured voice beckoning her friend to meet her eyes, to see the earnestness behind the neutral bantering joke. The curator could do nothing else; she accepted the statement and all it entailed with a slight nod, wishing she had the words to express just how lucky she felt she was.
Piersen smiled, playing with the rim of her glass with restless fingers before looking up at the taller woman with a severe expression. "But I'm serious - relax, okay? I'm willing to bet my house that you were up at the hospital when you sent me that email in the middle of the night."
"Touché." A brief chuckle, which died away as another thought came to her. "Though I think I'm doing pretty well with the relaxing thing right now."
"Yeah. You should come for breakfast more often. Several hours a week, multiple repeats." Piersen needled gently, regarding her friend with a speculative look. "Want a script?"
Kai beamed, feeling the weight of the moment truly disappear. "Well, I'm not a clinician, so I don't carry a prescription pad with me, but..." She reached into her jacket again and pulled out a pen, offering it to the smaller woman beside her.
Piersen laughed affectionately. "You keep a pen in your pocket - you nerd."
"Oh, and I suppose charcoal isn't."
"It's an artist thing - that's cool. There's a difference." Laughing, Piersen accepted the pen and took Kai's hand, holding it close to her body. "Did you ever write things on the back of your hand, so you'd remember?"
Kai shook her head. "I'm a surgeon. I wash my hands about a hundred times a day."
"It always worked for me, even if it washed off. It's the act of writing that cues the memory." Without further ado, the curator began writing intently on her hand, every fine stroke a palpable sensation that stirred something deeply ingrained in her skin. There was a profound solemnity in the sweeping, curling script, lines parting and connecting to form a single, intricate word. Kai found her mind scattering to collect the sensations, trying to gather them like dandelion seeds that hovered weightlessly on a breath of air before vanishing.
"Here." Piersen smiled as she returned the hand to its owner, watching with interest as Kai turned her wrist this way and that, trying to interpret the symbol on her hand.
"What does this mean?"
"Sattva. It's a sanskrit word that means..." She trailed off, a gleam dawning in her eyes. "You know what? I'm not going to tell you. Let's see how well Professor Jamieson does her homework."
"Homework?" Kai raised her eyebrows, thoroughly amused. "And when is this homework due, Ms Evans?"
"I'll give you till tomorrow, when we go rowing. Feel free to report anytime, or if you are having difficulties at all..." The curator's lips pressed together in a smug grin, a condescension that she knew her friend could not pass up on.
"You're on." White teeth bared in a wolfish grin before tearing off another hunk of bread with vicious deliberation.
Thirty-Four - Differential Diagnoses
Kai emerged from her afternoon theatre session exhausted, but satisfied. The list had been completed mostly without complications, and her final patient was now being closed up by one of her surgical registrars. Still clad in her scrubs, she removed the binding that kept her hair in place as she walked through the hospital complex, now relatively quiet as the day approached seven o'clock.
The lone voice drifted down the length of the corridor, and Kai stopped to greet it. "Adrian - what are you doing here at this hour?"
"You had a lot of reports to type up." He laughed, then trailed off as he hefted his bag with a slight twitch of his fingers. "How was theatre?"
"Good. I just finished with George Montrose." She was about to break off the conversation on that note, but found the expectant pause remaining. "I'm heading back to the office."
"You've been going all afternoon, then. I don't suppose you've had lunch yet either."
"No, not yet." A smile edged across her lips. "Hadn't crossed my mind. Thanks for reminding me."
"Well, you should get some food into your system." He hesitated, adjusting his glasses. "Did you want to... uh - grab something to eat?"
A sudden beep from her pager interrupted Kai's response. Unclipping it from her waistband, the doctor pressed a few buttons and glanced at the the display - Lauren's number. Her brow furrowed into a frown, the call entirely unexpected. Her shift finished at five o'clock...
Shaking her head, she replaced her pager and gave Adrian an apologetic smile. "Perhaps another time. I had a big breakfast this morning." She felt a rush of warmth at the memory; the sun and sandstone, and her golden presence...
She curbed her wayward thoughts. "I had better take this call. I'll see you on Monday, Adrian."
He smiled - coloured with something else that Kai couldn't quite read. "Have a good weekend, Doc."
She made an about-turn and headed for the lifts, quickly arriving at Cahill 18. The ward was clattering with the meal service trolleys trundling along the corridor, filling the air with the stagnant weight of bad stew as unfinished dinners were collected. Checking the nurses' station only to find it empty, Kai was about to search for her registrar when they happened upon each other in the doorway.
"You wanted to see me, Lauren?"
"We've just received a notification from microbiology for bed 23. I think you should take a look at it." The slim doctor handed her a folded sheet of paper, noting the furrow that appeared between her brows as her consultant took it from her. There was silence as blue eyes scanned the sheet, then widened for a heartbeat into shock-cobalt.
That explains it - all the signs, the brisk reflexes... Kai's face hardened as it looked up, quick fingers creasing the paper with a sharp motion. "Go get him some penicillin, and notify public health right away." She felt her heart inexplicably freeze, then pick up to double-time. It was a reaction that was distinctly foreign to her in her clinical practice, but its significance was lost in a blur of treatment guidelines and dosage calculations buzzing through her consciousness.
Lauren nodded quickly as she headed down the corridor, stopping a moment as she enquired with a curious frown. "Mr. Stamford... he was married, wasn't he?"
Kai faltered in her steps, her body brought to standstill as she caught up with her thoughts.
Feeling everything shift in her mind, Kai quickly called out new instructions to her registrar. "Lauren - I'll do the notifying. Get him 500 mgs of procaine penicillin IM, and get in touch the microbiology registrar." Turning on her heel, she paced towards the nurses station with loud, cracking footfalls, her mind burning with all the implications and consequences of the revelation. Stay focused. You need your head when you make this call - this is no time to fall apart.
Her precise steps broke into a brisk, urgent rhythm as she felt her nerves snap taut to high tension.
Piersen stepped out from her bedroom freshly changed into her home clothes - a frayed, faded pair of too-short denim shorts that defied disposal, and an old wine-red Cambridge sweatshirt - walking to the kitchen with dinner on her mind. Not that I really feel like cooking, she grumbled, indulging herself this minor gripe. An uncharacteristic lethargy had descended on her body during the course of the evening, as if the sky itself was bearing down on the part of forehead just above her eyebrows.
It's that meeting, she accused with a mental growl, green eyes narrowing into glowering slits. If it was any company but Pacific Energy, people wouldn't be so worked up over it.
Rumours tended to defy all attempts at containment in an institution that was as close-knit as the MCA, and the news of a large corporate sponsor entering into negotiations with the museum was of no exception. Especially not when James is the one fanning the flames... Piersen sighed, despairing a little. Returning to her office after her lunch break was like wading through a gauntlet of back-slaps and well-wishes before a title fight, with her staff urging her in good humour to 'do us proud'.
Which was all very nice and gratifying, she quickly allowed, anxious to be appropriately grateful for the support. Except it's not me that makes the difference, in the end. It's the figures that speak for themselves.
As a result, her afternoon had been spent feverishly preparing for the lunch meeting on Monday, reviewing and annotating the portfolio she was to present to the company representative, Andrew Bryant. I guess I really should be a lot more worried about this - I mean, I know we need this money desperately, I'd just rather go about this whole thing without looking like I'm on my knees begging for his help.
She shook her head, trying to dislodge the train of her thoughts. Enough of this wallowing. Go make yourself some dinner.
Rummaging through the cupboard, Piersen spent a few fruitless minutes searching for culinary possibilities before giving up entirely; instead unwrapping the sourdough loaf she had picked up from the bakery on the way home. Man cannot live on bread alone, but I'm sure Woman can. Grasping the hilt of her breadknife, she began deliberately slicing thickly through the loaf, allowing her mind to wander to less pressing matters. Surely there were some high points of the day.
Of course. With a smile, she remembered. Breakfast.
The memory of it was a dawn in her gloomy reverie; the very thought of the tall, quiet woman sending an echo of her comforting presence shivering through her. It was like she just appeared out of thin air, like some strange dream. There were times when she looked back, and felt it was, indeed, all a peculiar dream - a strange spell that would lift at the preordained hour, leaving her in the vacuum of fancy and madness.
One word from her; one smile - they seem to say more than a thousand words ever could. Her language was in the shape of her lips, the inflection in her eyes - so subtle as to be undetectable at first, but was now a whole world unto itself. I had mistakened her silences for reticence once, but now they are richer than poets - making me laugh one minute, and breaking me open the next -
She stopped, feeling the truth of her thoughts catch her unawares. No... that's not it. That's not what she did at all.
There was no breaking apart, no tearing asunder. Only a question - and a simple one - yet it had shifted her keystone so dramatically the rest seemed to tumble in its wake. It's funny, isn't it? After all these weeks, that was all it took for me to start...
Talking about her father had always been easy for her when she was a child. Charles Evans had been an indulgent father, and Piersen had been the apple of his eye - there was a gentleness that complemented her flighty nature, one that stood in stark contrast to her brother's bluff and bravado, and her mother's fiery independence. Their walks along the woodland trails were their time together - when Piersen would prattle off fanciful stories as she scampered ahead while her father followed close by. By the time father and daughter returned to the house by sunset Piersen would be with her mother, babbling excitedly about her father and what they had done that day until suppertime.
That was so long ago...
Piersen closed her eyes, breathing deeply and quietly. Strange that she was now struck dumb whenever she thought of her father - for weeks she had borne her burden in silence, feeling the tear in her heart slowly begin to heal around the cold steel of grief. There was always a distraction; the move, the new job, new projects - anything that would push the unbearable from being spoken except in the deepest recesses of her slumber.
It was impossible to speak with her family. Everyone had been so intimately involved, so overcome in their own personal grief, coloured by their own memories. Strange that they shared the one father, husband, friend - yet chose to lose themselves in their own ocean of loss. Piersen was drowning - knowing that behind the distance were accusations that were unspoken. Even Crispy... he tried to be kind - I know he did. But I saw it in his eyes; every time he looked at me, he was asking if I felt anything at all...
"Right. We need to fax the obituary out to the Times before five o'clock, and I've drafted copies of the order of ceremony to be sent to the printers - I just need need to get a copy of it before you send it off, alright?"
Chris watched his sister bustle around the room, bearing armfuls of folders and paper as she powered from one end of their father's study to the other. The room was in disarray, broken up into crates and boxes that organised his late father's life into numbers, dates and business divisions.
"While we're on photocopying, we might as well get copies of the death certificate for the files. What is important is that we organise an appointment with Edward Haversham about the will-reading. I need you to go and make a few copies of these letters for me before I go see him tomorrow."
A wad of papers was thrust in front of him, and he took it with unfeeling fingers. His eyes remained on Piersen, who was still speaking with agitated purpose, her hands busy with carrying folders, sorting out notes and keeping her hair from her face all at once.
"I got a call from the funeral directors this morning asking for Dad's clothes, so I'll have to drop off one of his suits this afternoon - I'll be stopping by the church as well, just to check with Pastor Matthew and make sure everything is fine for the funeral. Richard gave me a call from London this morning - he's sorted out the memorial service, which is going to be at St. James' after all - he's just busy notifying all of Mum and Dad's friends out there. The announcement to the company went fine. All I have to do is confirm the catering for the wake - Mum's insisted that I have Salinger's do it, so I have to give them a call and make sure they can get it together alright. Most of the people have indicated that they would come, but I haven't been able to get in touch with the Daltons or the Twickenhams - but they weren't that close to Dad, and he wasn't that fond of them anyhow - "
Piersen stopped, finally looking up to observe her brother for the first time. "Did you hear a word of what I've just said?"
Chris opened his mouth, but nothing came out. There was an awful moment when the footsteps, the rustling of papers stopped, and the two siblings faced each other in complete, utter silence.
"How do you do it?"
"They 'weren't". They 'didn't'. He 'wasn't'. For god's sake, do you even realise?" He took a shuddering breath, struggling for eloquence. "Our father has been relegated to past tense, past tense, and you say it all so bloody easily..."
There was a fading of the anger in his voice, leaving only a withering note of bewildered dismay. "How do you do this, Piers? How can you just..."
He trailed off, inexpressible feelings lost in a heavy shake of his head. Piersen's green eyes flickered away in a blink, a tense betrayal of heartbreak before settling on Chris' broad slumped shoulders.
"Chris - " She reached out, but was unable to finish. Swallowing, she instead gathered the mantle of unfeeling closer around her. "Please, just photocopy these for me, alright?"
Is remembered pain a shadow of an injury once suffered, or a lingering scar waiting to heal? The yesterday that would never leave, the tomorrow that never seemed to come. The terrible purgatory between night and day, waiting for the endless dawn that remained too low below the horizon...
"We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Charles Piersen Evans; devoted father, loving husband, loyal friend. His life was one of triumphs..."
A tentative touch brushed against her elbow, and she ignored it.
"... over hardship, of gentleness in times of harshness, of steadfastness in times of need..."
The touch came again, and she finally turned to face Richard, whose dark brown eyes seemed soft with discomfort and concern. Laying a hand on her arm, he mouthed three silent words. Are you alright?
Piersen looked away.
It was a question posed in all innocence - so why was there no answer? He had given her what she needed - there was no expectation, no judgement - only logic, reasoning; a detached evaluation of the facts that left no room for feeling. He understood her version of grief - yet when he tried to comfort her she still turned away.
But today, on the sun-drenched balcony by a busy harbour, there was no turning away. The moment had seared itself into her retina and she could remember everything; the blue-grey eyes that were so warm, so calm - no demands, just a quiet readiness to accept whatever came. There was nothing else for her to do but feel her own heart crack again - exposing that naked core that had been overprotected into vulnerability.
And I told her.
There was something innately devastating in the act that shook her into stillness, as if everything had been frozen in the light of truth. She could barely recall the words she had spoken, but the resonant chord they struck still tugged on the strings of her heart. How long has it really been, Piers? Seven, eight weeks? Seems like yesterday.
Piersen's head fell slightly, casting the pale features into shadow. Feels like yesterday.
Suddenly, the telephone rang, jolting Piersen from her morbid thoughts. She took a few steps to the handset, taking a breath to steady herself. "Hello?"
"Piersen? This is Kai."
An involuntary smile curved across her lips, feeling the heaviness lift a little at the sound of her friend's voice. "Hello, stranger. Been a while."
There was a slight laugh, followed by a brief pause, a faint swallowing sound. "Do you have a minute?"
"I have an evening. What do you have in mind?"
"Would it be alright if I dropped by for a little while?"
"Of course." Piersen glanced at her front door, half-expecting the familiar silhouette to be there, waiting. "When will you get here?"
"About fifteen minutes."
"Great. See you then."
Piersen hung up, feeling her evening suddenly becoming less unbearable.
Continued - Part 13
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