Rating: FRT (Fan Rated suitable for Teens and over) to start, but will most likely be FRM (Fan Rated Suitable for Mature persons) by story's end.
Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.
Content Warning: None, really. A little cursing, but that's it. For this chapter, anyway.
Spoilers: Everything up to 11.17, "Back in the World", with bits and pieces of Season 12, but mostly minor stuff.
Summary: AU post-ep to 'Back in the World'. What do you do when the world comes crashing to a stop and you go tumbling down with it? You look for a way to break the fall. [past GallantNeela, eventual RayNeela, and MorrisJane, with other assorted pairings]
I've been told by my fabulous beta (fc2001) that this needs a beverage warning. Again. :P So, swallow whatever you're drinking or eating before you click. Your monitor (and/or your keyboard) will thank you later.
Previous Chapters: Chapter 1|Chapter 2|Chapter 3|
Notes: Since there was no porch collapse, Benny didn't die. So I've used him in all his idiot glory as the band's drummer. :D And I apologize for any mistakes with the medical stuff. Did as much research as I could, but I'm not sure it's totally correct. If not, feel free to let me know so I can fix it and have it for later fics. :)
Ray spent most of that Friday night's rehearsal distracted. The band let it go until he missed the key change coming out of the bridge on the fourth song in the set. The sour note was too obvious to ignore.
"Dude," Nick asked, "what's with you?"
"Yeah," Bret agreed, "it's like you've been somewhere else all night."
Ray sighed. He'd planned to wait until after rehearsal to tell them, but considering he couldn't focus worth a damn if his life depended on it, he figured now was as good a time as any.
"Yeah, I have. I was gonna wait till later, but -” He sighed again and indicated the couch. "We gotta talk."
"Sounds serious," Riley observed as Benny set down his drumsticks and they all took a seat.
"It is." Ray took a deep breath. Now or never. "We can't rehearse here anymore." He paused. "And the equipment has to go too."
Nick's mouth dropped open. "You're kidding, right?"
His silence was all the answer they needed.
"What, is this Neela's rule?" Benny asked.
Ray glared at him. "No, mine." He turned back to the others with a sigh. "Look, she doesn't want it getting out yet, but she's having a baby, okay? She's gonna need her rest, not to mention room for all the baby stuff -"
Bret, Riley, and Nick just looked at him. Benny, as usual, was slow on the uptake.
"Oh my God, she got knocked up?"
Ray glared harder. "It wasn't like that."
The drummer's eyes widened as a light bulb seemed to click on and short-circuit what little was left of his brain. "Holy shit! You knocked her up?"
Ray blinked, surprised by the assumption. What the hell? He recovered after a moment and leaned across Bret to smack Benny.
Benny gingerly rubbed his head. "Ow! What'd you do that for?"
Bret and Riley just looked at him, and Nick shook his head. "You really don't know?" At Benny's blank stare, he shot a glance at his bandmates. "And you guys think I'm the dumb one."
Ray rolled his eyes, but he had to admit Nick kind of had a point. "Jesus, Benny, don't be such a bonehead. We're just friends, okay? It's all we've ever been. And anyway she's got a boyfriend. In Iraq."
"Yeah. Oh." Ray sighed, turning his attention to the rest of the guys. "Look, I know this is last minute and it puts us behind, but -"
Bret clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Hey man, don't sweat it. We'll figure something out."
"Yeah," Nick added, and Riley nodded in agreement, "anything for Dr. Neela."
Neela finished rinsing her mouth and straightened up with a groan. She felt like hell, and studying her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she had to admit she looked the part, too. Tired eyes stared back at her as dark hair hung limply at her shoulders to frame her face, pale despite her dark complexion - like coffee with too much cream.
Splashing cold water on her face, she patted it dry and applied her makeup in an effort to not look quite so much like the walking dead.
Not that it helped.
Frowning, she gave her reflection another quick glance and squared her shoulders with a sigh. Suck it up, Rasgotra.
Emerging from the bathroom, she found Ray at the counter, pouring hot water from the tea kettle into a couple of mugs. He looked up, eyes widening as he took in the sight of her.
"Jesus, Neela, you look like crap."
"'Morning to you too, Ray," she shot back tartly, folding herself into one of the kitchen chairs with a groan. "God, I'm never gonna make it through the next eight weeks."
He set a mug and the sugar bowl in front of her, then handed her a spoon. "Yes, you will."
"Easy for you to say," she retorted as she dunked the tea bag and added her sugar, "you haven't spent the last two puking your guts up morning, noon, and night."
He winced. "Good point. Sorry."
Neela closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, expelling a breath with a heavy sigh. "No, I'm sorry. It's just really bad this morning, and I'm not looking forward to spending eight hours - on a Saturday no less - with Morris of all people."
Ray shot her a teasing grin and crossed to the toaster, snagging the plain bagel as it popped up. He set it on a plate in front of her. "Well, look on the bright side." He grinned. "Maybe you'll get to puke on him."
Rolling her eyes, she ripped off a tiny piece of the bagel and sipped her tea, chewing slowly. "Don't joke. The way I feel this morning, I just might."
His expression sobered. "Maybe you should call in."
She looked at him. "What, for the next eight weeks? Come on, Ray, you know I can't do that."
"Then at least let me call the guys and tell them Monday's off."
Neela shook her head, emphatic. "No. You've rearranged your life enough for me already. And speaking of which, how'd it go last night with the band?"
He washed down his bagel with a mouthful of tea and looked thoughtful for a moment. "It went...okay."
She sighed and shifted her gaze to meet his across the table. There was something he wasn't telling her. She bit her lip. "They're mad, aren't they?"
Ray cocked his head. "Mad? No. Suprised, maybe, but not mad." He grinned. "To quote Nick, 'anything for Dr. Neela'."
"I almost wish they had been mad." Ray quirked a brow as Neela ripped off another small piece of her bagel and offered a sheepish smile. "Now I feel bad for complaining about them so much."
"And here you thought they were stupid," he smirked, as she laughed softly and shook her head. "So what time do you get off?"
"Don't take the El; I'll pick you up."
"In what?" she wondered, incredulous. "My car's having the brakes done and your van's in the shop."
"Actually..." Ray sighed. "Riley talked to me about the van at rehearsal last night."
Neela frowned. "That doesn't sound good. What did he say?"
"Needs a complete engine rebuild. It'd cost a couple grand, assuming he could even find the parts. If I'm gonna spend that much, I might as well get a new one. I mean, a new used one."
"Makes sense, I guess." She checked the clock, prompting a heavy sigh. "I'd better get changed and get ready to go."
"Okay. I'll meet you outside the bay at seven?"
Neela gave him a nod and a tired smile as she rose from the table. "Yeah."
Pulling the carafe from the coffeemaker, Jake wrinkled his nose and took a hesitant sniff. Satisfied that it probably wouldn't rot out the lining out of his stomach, he poured himself a cup and leaned against the counter with a sigh.
Between being late for his shift, the multiple trauma that arrived not even five minutes after he'd come through the door, and flat-out rejecting Abby's attempts to talk to him all morning, the day had progressed from bad to hellacious in record time, leaving him with a migraine for his trouble.
He looked up as Abby entered the lounge, and wondered - as he pushed away from the counter and headed for the door - who he'd pissed off to deserve the kind of day he was having.
He put up a hand, cutting her off and dismissing her all at the same time. " I'm really not interested in anything you have to say."
"Just hear me out." She took a breath. "I'm sorry."
He gave a bitter laugh. "And what? That's supposed to make it all better? I'm supposed to forget that you led me on? Treated me like a human blow-up doll? Sorry, but I don't think so."
She flinched at his words and met his eyes. "I made a mistake, Jake."
"Damn right you did. If you want absolution, Abby, you're looking in the wrong place. 'Cause you're not gonna find it here."
Her words were quiet - resigned. "I know. You don't think I deserve it and maybe I don't." She sighed and looked up at him. "Look, I made a mistake, okay? I'm sorry. I should've communicated better, been more honest with you. But it's been a month, we have to work together." She looked almost desperate now. "Can't we...I don't know...put this behind us and move on?"
The door opened and Sam poked the upper half of her body into the room, looking suspiciously between him and Abby. "Hey, Jake, films are back on your skateboard kid."
"Thanks, I'll be right there."
Sam acknowledged him with a short nod as she let the door close, and Jake turned back to look at Abby, watching him with expectant eyes, waiting for an answer to her question.
Tension hung heavy between them, and he looked at her for a moment, trying to remember what he'd ever seen in her. He couldn't, and it didn't really matter; whatever it was, it was gone now.
Her voice stopped him as he started for the door. "Can't we?"
He turned around to look at her as he reached for the handle, his tone, expression, and words carefully neutral. "I don't know, Abby. Someday? Yeah, maybe. But right now? I don't think so."
She nodded in defeat. "I really am sorry, Jake."
"I know." He jerked a thumb at the door. "I have patients to see."
"Yeah. Me too."
They went their separate ways as they left the lounge, and he met Sam outside Exam 2 with the first genuine smile he could remember in weeks; the resentment and bitterness he'd harbored toward Abby for the past month was beginning to ebb away, along with the pain and pounding in his head.
Sam raised an eyebrow and shot him a sidelong glance. "Someone's in a good mood."
Jake shrugged and offered a grin. "What can I say? I haven't been puked on in -" he consulted his watch, "two hours - and my shift's half over." He winked. "The day's looking up."
The steady whine of the monitor seemed twice as loud - punctuated by the rhythmic squeaking of the gurney as it rocked in time with the chest compressions. His arms ached with the effort, but he couldn't bring himself to stop.
"Morris." The other resident's voice was uncharacteristically sympathetic. "It's time to call it."
Threads of sanity wove themselves through the desperation as reality began to set in and he looked at the monitor.
Still in asystole.
Pratt's reply was somber. "Almost twenty minutes."
Even if they did get him back, he'd been down too long for there to be hope of viable brain activity.
Reluctantly, he ceased compressions and disconnected the ambu-bag. "Time of death, 1102."
"Hey." Pratt glanced over at him as they stripped off their gloves and trauma gowns, depositing them into one of the large biohazard containers sitting in the hall. "You okay?"
Morris sighed. "Yeah."
Pratt gripped his shoulder in what passed for a gesture of support. "We did our best, you know. We can't save 'em all."
"I know. It's just -" He shrugged and Pratt's hand dropped off his shoulder. "He had no friends; his family didn't even care enough to come in when we called them. He died alone, surrounded by strangers, and no one's probably even going to notice he's gone. He was only twenty-nine; I'll be thirty next week..." Another sigh escaped. "I guess I just - saw myself."
"It's not too late to change that, you know. Just because it's the way it is now doesn't mean it's the way it has to be." Pratt looked at him and it was his turn to sigh. "Look, some of us are living on borrowed time, some of us aren't. Nobody ever knows who's who until it's too late to do anything about it. That's why we gotta make the most outta the time we get."
Archie stopped to consider the other man's words and found them too true for his liking. He had nothing to show for his twenty-nine - soon-to-be thirty - years but a string of failures, surpassed only by the list of chances he'd never taken and things he'd never done. But Pratt was right; it wasn't too late to change it, and that was exactly what he planned to do.
It was long past time for him to start crossing things off his list.
And he knew just where to start.
Ray regarded the row of rusted out conversion vans with a frown. They weren't in any better condition than the one he'd just junked. The best of the bunch probably wouldn't last him the year - or the month.
And then there was Neela.
If he expected to drive her places, he needed to do it in something with a higher safety rating than a rusted tin can.
He'd always been more interested in how much his van could hold rather than how well it would hold up in a collision, but things had changed. There was a baby to think about now, and he couldn't afford to be that reckless anymore.
Glancing around the sea of used vehicles on the lot, he weighed his options. He needed something big enough to transport the band's equipment, but safe enough to drive Neela - and eventually the baby - around in.
Sedans and station wagons were too small to haul everything; trucks were too impractical - not enough room for a car seat or a stroller - and SUVs had a tendency to flip over. His gaze slid over to the rows of minivans. Making his way over to them, he peeked at the stickers on the windows and blinked. Even the cheapest of the bunch was about six thousand dollars more than he'd planned on spending. But he needed something safe and reliable, with enough cargo space to hold all the band's crap.
This 'being-a-responsible-adult' thing? Really sucked ass sometimes.
"Can I help you, sir?"
He turned to glance at the salesman and sighed. He didn't need that new guitar and amp right now, anyway, and the guys would never let him live it down - but like Nick had said, anything for Neela.
"Yes, actually. I need a new van..."
"You know," Neela said, gesturing to the chart in her friend's hands, "if you keep staring like that you'll burn a hole through it."
Abby shot her a deadpan look, nodding to the stack beside her. "Great. That'll be one less I have to worry about doing."
"Have you taken your break yet?"
Abby shook her head. "Haven't had time."
"Well I could use one, and there's time now. Come on."
After leaving word with Jerry to let an attending know where to find them, they made their way out into the ambulance bay, and a few minutes later they were seated on a bench, coffee - and chamomile tea for Neela - in hand.
Abby stared at the cup in her hands as her earlier confrontation with Jake rolled around in her head - knocking into walls and skittering around in circles with a force that made her head hurt.
A human blow-up doll? Had she really treated him that way? It hadn't been her intention, but then, a lot of things seemed to be happening lately that she hadn't intended.
Hurting Jake...this 'thing' with Luka -
She didn't even realize Neela was speaking to her until the other woman's voice cut sharply across her thoughts. "Abby." She glanced up, startled, and Neela sighed. "You didn't hear a word I said, did you?"
She looked sheepish, then sobered. "Sorry. My mind's somewhere else. I tried to talk to Jake about putting this whole thing behind us, and it...didn't go well."
"I don't mean to be unsympathetic, and I know it's been a month, but after the way you treated him, what did you expect?"
Abby sipped her coffee and averted her gaze with a sigh. "I know. The words 'led me on' and 'treated me like a human blow-up doll' may have been used."
Neela cringed. "Ouch."
Silence curled around them and they sat fidgeting with their cups until Neela's soft admission pierced the quiet.
Abby's eyebrows shot up. This was news. "I thought you weren't gonna say anything."
"I wasn't. But he figured it out and called me on it, and then I sort of had to." She looked at her. "Go on, say it. Say you told me so. You know you want to."
"Yeah, but that would be mean. And anyway I don't have to," she offered smugly, "you just said it for me."
Neela's lips twisted into a scowl. "Thanks, Abby."
"You're welcome," she grinned, then sobered. "So what did he say?"
She listened as Neela filled in all the details, glad to have something else to concentrate on besides Jake and Luka.
"And then he told the band they had to find somewhere else to rehearse and all the equipment had to go, too."
Abby snorted. "Bet that went over well."
"Actually, Ray said they weren't mad, just surprised." She smiled softly. "Apparently, they like me."
"Why wouldn't they? And for what it's worth, I think it's good you're not moving out."
"Well, I didn't really want to. I just - it's not fair he has to rearrange his whole life because of my stupid mistake."
Abby looked at Neela and gave her a soft smile which she returned. "If there's anyone he'll willingly do it for, it's you. Besides," she grinned, "a little responsibility'll be good for him."
Neela chuckled in spite of herself and checked her watch with a sigh. "Speaking of, we should get back."
"Yeah," Abby echoed her sigh and agreed with a reluctant nod. "X-rays are probably in on your slip and fall guy." She grimaced. "And I still have a mountain of charting to finish."
They stepped back into the bustle of the ER and Neela glanced down to skim over the bright green flyer someone had just shoved into her hand. She quirked a brow at Abby, holding up the paper for her perusal.
"Can't." She tried not to grin and failed. For once she was glad she'd drawn the short straw. "I'm on graveyard."
"Wish I was. Ray'll go because he feels sorry for Morris. And I'll end up going because I feel sorry for Ray."
Abby eyed the paper in Neela's hand. "Karaoke?" She rolled her eyes. "Ray's not the only one you're gonna feel sorry for. And you might wanna invest in some ear plugs. But hey, look on the bright side. At least there's free food."
Ray stared at the wall of books, overwhelmed. This had seemed like a good enough idea when he'd driven the new van off the lot. Now, though, he got the feeling he was out of his league.
He'd talked Neela out of moving, practically begged her to let him help her. The least he could do was read up on everything so he'd know what the hell he was doing when he tried to.
As a doctor, he knew more than enough about the clinical side of pregnancy. But as a friend, he wanted to be able to give Neela the emotional support she was going to need too - something more than tea and bagels and hollow words as she battled through morning sickness and fatigue for the next eight weeks, to say nothing of what would come after.
Taking a deep breath, Ray let his desire to support Neela center him and looked up at the wall of books, skimming the titles with renewed purpose.
Come on, Barnett, you can do this.
His gaze settled on a copy of What to Expect When Your Wife Is Expecting. Okay, so the wife part didn't exactly fit, but it was the closest he could get to roommate. Tossing it into his basket, he moved onto the next title that caught his attention.
She's Having A Baby - And I'm Having A Breakdown.
He tossed it into his basket as well. He'd already bought a freaking minivan. A breakdown couldn't be too far behind.
An hour later, he was headed for the check-out, surveying the contents of his basket with a frown. Ten titles, including some naming books for Neela, The Morning Sickness Companion, and a pregnancy cookbook.
It occurred to him that he might be going slightly overboard; he hadn't read this much since med school.
He stepped up to the first available cashier and placed his basket on the counter, unloading his purchases. The woman behind the register gave him a knowing smile as she rang up the sale.
"First one, huh?"
He floundered for a moment, caught off-guard. Was everyone going to make that assumption? "Oh, I'm not -"
She waved him off with a smile and a short laugh. "That's okay; there's no need to be embarrassed about it; I think most husbands go a little crazy with the first one." She grinned. "Mine bought more books than this."
Ray could only nod as she finished ringing up the sale. He handed his credit card over to cover the purchase and scrawled his signature on the receipt, watching as she tucked his copy into one of the bags and handed them over.
"Happy reading," she chirped, "and congratulations to you and your wife."
He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. It wasn't worth it to correct her; the truth was longer and more complicated than he had time for, and she probably wouldn't let him get it out anyway.
"Uh, thanks," he muttered, then quickly left the store.
The late afternoon sun dipped slowly below the horizon, taking the heat of the summer day with it. Sam folded herself onto an out of the way bench and leaned against the wall behind it, glad for the feel of the cool cement through her nursing scrubs.
She watched unseen as Luka and Abby stepped out through the bay doors together, talking and smiling about something. She knew she had no right to be upset; she was the one who'd broken it off, after all. But it stung that he could move on so quickly - like they'd never slept together, lived together. Like he'd never mentioned wanting to have a child together.
Pushing the thoughts away with a heavy sigh, she told herself that if nothing else, the fact that he'd already moved on meant that she'd made the right choice by ending things when she had. But the knowledge left her feeling worthless instead of vindicated; she couldn't bring herself to give him what he'd wanted, and she and Alex hadn't been enough.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a shadow cutting across the sun, and she shifted her gaze to find Jake standing over her with two steaming cups of coffee from the place up the street.
"Hey." Jake handed her a cup. "Thought you could use this."
"Thanks," Sam smiled and took a sip, savoring the taste. She cocked her head to the side after a moment and looked up at him, impressed. He'd gotten it exactly right and never even asked her. "Macchiato with a vanilla shot. How'd you know?"
Jake shrugged. "Same way I found out all the other secrets in this place."
She shot him a cheeky grin. "Asked Chuny?"
"Who else?" He laughed and grinned back, indicating the empty space next to her. "You mind?"
She shook her head and smiled. "Not at all."
Neela was thoroughly exhausted by the time she dragged herself out the ER doors and through the ambulance bay. As promised, Ray was waiting for her - hands in his pockets, leaning against the passenger door of a navy blue minivan.
She scanned up and down the street, but couldn't see any sign of the big conversion model she'd been expecting. She frowned. "I thought you were going to buy a van today."
"So where'd you park? Timbuktu?"
He pushed up from his spot and grinned, holding out a hand to the van behind him. "Not exactly."
Neela stared at him. "You bought a minivan."
"It was safer than a rustbucket," he replied with a shrug. The sidewalk was empty but he lowered his voice anyway and shot her a smile as he opened the door for her. "I can't be driving the two of you around in those things anymore, can I? Come on, try it out."
She put her stuff in the back and slid into the passenger seat as he closed the door.
It was a newer model, not more than four years old, in excellent condition. And no doubt way out of his price range.
"Ray..." she protested, "the payments -"
"Aren't really that much," he replied, and she was certain he was lying.
"But the band -"
"Will just have to live with it." He leaned in the passenger window with a grin. "So? What do you think?"
Neela looked at him through a blur of tears. "I think - that I don't know what I did to deserve you for a roommate or a friend," she swiped at her eyes, offering a watery smile, "but whatever it was, I'm glad I did it."
Ray smiled back at her and reached for the hand in her lap, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Ditto."
He turned away from the window, allowing Neela a clear view of Morris, heading toward them with Jane in tow.
Morris looked between Ray and the new van and laughed. "A minivan, Barnett?" he teased, "you planning for the future or is there something we should know?"
He looked at Ray expectantly, and Neela held her breath as Jane caught her gaze and narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
Oh God, she wasn't ready for this to be public knowledge. And not to Jane and Morris, of all people. Jane knew how to keep a secret - though they weren't exactly close. But Morris had a bigger mouth than Frank. And that was saying something; she'd seen the older man stuff an entire chili dog into his mouth in one sitting.
Neela tried to keep her expression as passive as she could manage, but her stomach churned nervously and it took every ounce of control she had not to heave all over Ray's new front seat. Jane held her gaze a moment more, then looked away, giving their Chief Resident a well placed elbow to the ribs.
"Oh can it, Archie." She tugged at his elbow. "Come on, I'm starving."
Morris looked over at Ray. "You guys wanna join us?"
Ray shook his head. "Can't. Got a rehearsal."
It was a lie, but Morris didn't know that.
"Okay. But you'll be at my party, right?"
Ray nodded. "Yeah, man. Absolutely."
"What about you, Neela? You coming?"
She thought back to what she'd told Abby the previous day and forced a bright smile, hoping she didn't sound as jumpy as she felt. "Wouldn't miss it."
Jane's curiosity was burning a hole through her head by the time she arrived at work the next morning. She'd known there was something up with Neela, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. After last night, though, she had a pretty good idea, and she could've kicked herself for not putting it together sooner.
Noticing movement out of the corner of her eye, she caught Neela heading for the ladies' room and followed her in. Now was her chance.
The sound of retching greeted her and Jane waited for Neela to come out of the stall. She emerged several minutes later, pale and shaky, and gratefully took the wet paper towel Jane handed her to wipe her face.
Jane watched as she leaned over to rinse out her mouth. "Don't mention it." She smirked. "So did Ray get the full service wash and wax when he parked his van in your garage?"
Neela choked on the water she was rinsing with and came up sputtering, shooting her a look. "Have you been smoking Morris's weed?"
Jane returned it with one of her own. "You know, for someone who watches as much poker as you do, you don't play very well. Your game face sucks; Archie only had to hint at the B-word and you gave yourself away."
A look of panic crossed Neela's face. She reminded Jane of a deer - usually right before it ended up splattered it all over the road - and she looked like she wanted to throw up again.
"It's - it's not Ray's," she answered thickly, "it's Michael's."
And she really had; it was fairly common knowledge to anyone who really knew her that Neela was far too upright and honest to be involved with one man and have something going on the side with another. And her crude comment about Ray had only been meant to get Neela's attention and call her bluff.
But Neela rambled on, apparently unable to stop the torrent of words once the dam had been opened.
"Ray, Ray's just - I mean - Michael's so far away, and I can't tell him yet in case something happens, and Ray's here, and he's a friend - a good friend - best friend, even, and we live together and he just wants to help until Michael comes home, and -" Her eyes went wide. "No one else knows except Abby - and Ray. You can't -"
Jane took pity on her. "Relax, Neela. I'm not gonna spill your secret; it's not mine to tell. But if I figured it out, it's only a matter of time before everyone else does." She shot her a look. "And you know what the rumor mill's like in this place; everyone already thinks you and Ray are sleeping together, so just wait till they find out about this."
She sighed, shoulders sagging in defeat. "I know. I just need some time to adjust, before everyone else finds out and starts talking."
Jane nodded. "Yeah, I can understand that." She hesitated, unsure of exactly how to say what she wanted to. "Look, I - uh - you've been - really good with the advice about Archie and everything, and I doubt I'll have anything as useful to say, but if you need someone to talk to, or vent at, or - whatever - and Abby's not around..." She ended her ramble, looking at the other woman with a nervous smile.
"Thanks," Neela smiled back, still a little green. The silence was awkward and she cleared her throat as she straightened her lab coat then broke into a grin. "Speaking of you and Morris, how's that working out?"
Jane laughed, relieved to feel the bubble of tension around them burst. "Moving slowly; too slow, almost. Only been out three times and we haven't even kissed yet. But good, I think. Now, anyway. But did I ever tell you what happened on our first real date?"
It was nearly six-thirty by the time Neela finally made it home - three hours late due to a couple of last minute traumas. Her secret was intact - thanks to Jane's quick intervention on a rule-out meningitis - but she was rapidly coming to realize that the younger woman was right; the day was fast approaching when her little secret wouldn't be so secret anymore.
She knew she'd have to say something soon - before it became embarrassingly obvious - and she promised herself she would.
After Coburn confirmed it.
It was a stall tactic, meant to keep her ethical alarm system from tripping. But like all stall tactics, it would only work for so long, and she had the sinking feeling that her time was nearly up.
She let herself into the apartment and set her things down by the door. Ray didn't look up or offer her anything in the way of a greeting, and as she came up behind him, she discovered why.
He was sitting on the couch, deeply engrossed in the book on his lap and surrounded by a bunch of others. Pregnancy books, she realized, as she looked down over his shoulder, her eyes scanning the pages of the one he was reading.
It slammed shut as she loudly cleared her throat, but she couldn't see the title with the way his arm rested over the book. Ray glanced up at her with something of a nervous smile.
"Hey. Didn't expect you home so early."
She folded her arms with a rueful grin. "I'm three hours later than I was supposed to be."
His smile faded. "Oh."
"What's all this?" Neela queried, indicating the books as she came around the front of the couch with a chuckle, folding herself into the space that Ray was making for her.
"I wanted to be able to help out with stuff. You know, in case Gallant can't get home for a while." He laughed nervously, wrinkling his nose. "And I don't know a thing about babies. Or pregnant women."
She blinked back the tears that had formed at the mention of Michael and laughed in spite of herself, pushing away the lonely thoughts. Her gaze fell across the book on Ray's lap and her laughter faded; his arm had since moved, giving her a clear view of the title.
"What to Expect When Your Wife is Expecting?"
Ray looked at her and shrugged. "It was the closest I could get to 'roommate'. Oh -" He handed her a stack of three books - two baby naming guides and The Morning Sickness Companion. "These are yours."
Taking the books, she looked down at her lap. Buying a minivan, buying pregnancy books, reading pregnancy books...he was going out of his way for her - more than she'd ever expected and far more than she deserved. Tears threatened again, but she blinked them away. God, these hormones. She felt like an over-emotional fool.
"Thanks," she finally managed, not trusting herself to say more.
But her voice trembled, betraying her, and he nudged her arm.
"Hey. What's wrong?"
Neela shook her head, sniffling and swiping at her eyes with the knuckles of her thumbs. She couldn't tell him the truth; he'd just brush her off and tell her it was no big deal. And maybe it wasn't. Maybe she really was over-emotional.
"It's nothing." More sniffles as she choked on a laugh. "Bloody hormones."
Ray laughed with her and picked up the remote. "Well, this should help."
He pointed it at the DVR and pressed a button. She watched as the title screens for the World Poker Tour started rolling.
"You recorded it for me." Neela smiled softly before leaning her head against his shoulder with a sigh. "Thanks, Ray."
"Yeah, well..." She could hear the grin in his voice when he spoke. "Anything for my Roomie."
Monday evening finally arrived and found Morris eagerly signing out his patients to Pratt, unable to contain his anticipation. He couldn't remember when five days had ever passed so slowly. They'd passed, though, that was the important thing - and in a little while he and Jane would be in the park, watching the fireworks and hopefully setting off some of their own.
Three dates - actually two, dinner the other night didn't count since they'd run into Malik, Haleh, and Chuny - and he hadn't even kissed her yet. The first date, his face had been too swollen and sore from the brawl in chairs to even think about it. The second, she'd spent half the night puking over the side of a boat on Lake Michigan - a definite mood killer.
This time, though, things were going to be different; they'd be on dry land and hopefully there wouldn't be any brawls until after he kissed her.
His thoughts were interrupted as she stepped up next to him, signing her own patients out. "You ready?"
"Yeah." It was already dark by the time they stepped out into the ambulance bay. "I just have to stop by my place and walk the dog. He hasn't been out since I left."
"So bring him with us."
He stopped walking and looked at her. "Really?"
Jane laughed lightly. "Yes, really. Animal lover, remember? And it's only fair; you've met my cats after all."
Morris wrinkled his nose. "Yes I have. Delilah hates me."
"Don't take it personally," Jane answered with a rueful smile. "Delilah hates all my boyfriends."
Boyfriends? As in plural? How many does - wait a minute. Did she just -?
He turned and looked at her, swallowing past the nervous lump in his throat. "All of them? How many do you have?"
She held his gaze, a delicate blush staining her cheeks. "Just one."
"Oh. Good." He grinned and fought the urge to kiss her right there; he wanted it to be absolutely perfect, and the middle of the ambulance bay was anything but. "'Cause I only have one girlfriend, myself. Jughead hates to share, too."
She looked at him. "Jughead? You named your dog Jughead?"
"Archie...Jughead..." He shrugged. "Seemed appropriate."
Jane shook her head, but her eyes sparkled with amusement. "You're crazy, you know."
"Yeah, I know." He shot her a grin. "Fortunately, my girlfriend doesn't mind."
"Thanks, Jake," Susan said as she, Carter, and Malik and wheeled the patient toward the elevators, "we'll take it from here. Pratt's running the board; check with him to see if he's got anything."
He nodded and made his way back to admit, where Pratt was clearing up the board of discharged and transferred patients. "Lewis said to check and see if you had anything else for me."
Pratt shook his head. "Board's clear. For now." He frowned. "How long have you been on?"
"Since noon. They asked me to come in a few hours early cause we were getting slammed."
"Why don't you go ahead and take your break then."
"Yeah." Pratt sighed. "Neela went home at three, but we've still got Abby and Babinski on, so it's fine, and if you don't take it now, you might not get one. We'll probably get slammed again later on; idiot kids and their fireworks. I'll page you if things get busy, just don't go too far."
Jake nodded and headed towards admit. Leaving word with Frank that he was going on break, he made his way across the street to pick up dinner. Ray was off and Morris had already left, so it looked like he was flying solo tonight.
Sam was sitting on a bench in the ambulance bay - the same bench from a few days before - when he made his way back to the hospital twenty minutes later, hot pizza and cold cider in hand. She'd been on shift as long as he had and looked like she needed a break just as much.
He approached her with a grin. "You know, we've gotta stop meeting like this."
She gave him a tired smile. "Hey."
"You on break?"
He nudged her with the pizza box. "Perfect. Come on." Sam stayed where she was and shot him a dubious look, so he tried another tack. "ER's dead. They'll page us if they need us. Or we could wait here for the next ambulance to pull up."
That got her moving and she followed him through the ER, back towards the elevators, turning to him as he jabbed the up button with the corner of the pizza box.
"Where are we going?"
"You'll see," he promised with a sly smile as the doors opened and they stepped inside.
"The roof?" she queried as he selected the floor.
"Fireworks'll be starting soon, if they haven't already." He grinned. "And it'll take us a lot longer to get back downstairs."
The corners of her mouth inched upward. "Good point."
They stepped out onto the roof and found a suitable spot. Jake set up the chaise loungers someone had left, putting the pizza box on the ground between them, along with the non-alcoholic cider he'd picked up at the Jumbomart.
"This is really nice, Jake," Sam said as she washed down a mouthful of pizza. "Thanks."
He waved her off. "You've been on as long as I have and you looked like you needed the break."
"Flattery will get you anywhere, Scanlon," she teased.
He swigged his cider. "You know what I mean. I'm starting to recognize the look. Same one Ray gets when he pulls a double." He smirked. "Or Dubenko starts writing on walls."
"Chuny tell you about that, too?" she grinned.
He laughed. "Well, I did ask for all the gossip, so I kind of walked into that one."
When the pizza was gone, they sipped their cider in companionable silence, reveling in the breeze that blew in off the lake. "So, you going to Morris's birthday party?"
"I hadn't planned on it. Was gonna use Alex as an excuse."
"But..." she sighed. "His carpool brought him here after school and Morris kind of invited him." She looked over at him. "And Alex told him we'd be there."
"Might be good for him," Jake offered. "Might be good for you, too."
Just like that, the shutters came down. "I don't need you to tell me what's good for me or my kid, okay?"
He remembered the rumors and gossip about her and Kovac and realized his mistake. Kovac had tried to tell her what to do and how to feel and how to raise Alex, too.
Jake sighed. Way to go, Scanlon. This was not the way he'd wanted to spend the evening.
"Look, I didn't mean to piss you off. I'm just saying they're –“ There was a defiance in the reference to their previous lovers. “ - obviously over us. Maybe it's about time we started thinking about being over them."
She looked out into the distance, watching as the fireworks display rained sparks of color down over the city below and seemed to be considering his words. Finally, she turned back to face him and held his gaze, holding up her plastic cup.
He echoed her words and tapped his against it. The tension lessened, just a bit, but didn't dissipate entirely and they sipped from their glasses, watching the rest of the fireworks in a silence that hovered somewhere between tense and uncomfortable - only too glad when their pagers intruded, calling them back downstairs.
Ray drained the last of the beer from his bottle and sighed. Neela was asleep and had been since she'd gotten home that afternoon. He'd offered to call the guys and tell them they'd have to watch somewhere else, but she'd refused, told him not to worry about waking her, and retreated to her room.
She was a much heavier sleeper now, so she was probably right about the noise not waking her as it used to, but he'd told the guys when they arrived that they had to keep it down anyway, and they'd been only too happy to oblige. Anything for Dr. Neela.
The umpire signaled a ball and Ray wanted to hit something in frustration. "What the hell kinda call was that?" he whispered harshly.
Bret groaned next to him. "Dumbass ump." He scrubbed a hand over his face and gestured angrily at the TV as yet another ball was called, but never raised his voice above the harsh whisper Ray had used. "Oh, come on!" he groused, and Nick and Reilly joined him in equally quiet complaint as the batter walked to first base.
"Why are you whispering?"
Her voice sounded too loud against the low volume of the TV and the general quiet of the apartment, and the four of them jumped, startled.
Ray whipped his head around to face her. "Jesus, Neela, scare the hell out of me why don'tcha."
She offered a cheeky grin, and her eyes sparkled with an amusement that told him she wasn't sorry at all. But it was impossible to be annoyed with her; it was the first sign of something other than exhaustion, morning sickness, or guilt that he'd seen out of her in more than a week.
He shot her a scowl, but the corners of his mouth were inching upwards and mischief danced in his eyes. "Yeah, right."
"Dr. Neela." Nick was up off the couch to greet her and eyed her worriedly. "We didn't wake you up, did we?"
"No," she smirked and glanced pointedly at Ray. "For once."
Ray rolled his eyes, but couldn't keep from grinning. "Ha ha, Roomie. You're killing me."
Riley waved by way of a greeting. "Hey. How you feelin'?"
"Better than the last time you saw me," she replied with a sheepish grin, and Ray shuddered, remembering the day he'd come home to find her literally passed out on the couch.
"Good." Bret said as he shot her a smile and patted the empty space between him and Ray. "You gonna join us?"
Nick had elected to move to the floor between the couch and coffee table, Ray noted - right next to the cooler of beer. He wasn't as stupid as he looked.
Neela smiled and lowered herself between him and Bret. "Sure."
Ray looked over at her with concern. "Don't you need to sleep some more, or something?"
Neela rolled her eyes as Riley turned up the volume on the TV. "I've been sleeping for the past three or four hours."
"I don't know, you still look kinda tired."
"I'm fine, Ray. Honest." She grinned. "Now, someone hand me a bottle of water and tell me who's winning."
Jane held onto the crook of Archie's arm as they walked towards the park, Jughead happily trotting along in front of them. She still couldn't quite believe what she'd said to him earlier; she'd actually flirted with him. She never flirted. At least she never used to, but Archie had turned her head completely upside down since he'd asked her out to Ike's that first time after his concussion, and it hadn't stopped spinning since.
But she couldn't say she'd change it. Even the date from hell. Sure, it was a perfectly horrible evening. But it let her know what kind of guy he really was. Most others wouldn't have bothered with her after that disaster, but he'd switched shifts, gone by her apartment to check on her, and asked her out again. She'd thought then she'd have been an idiot to refuse. She knew now she was right.
They arrived at the park a few minutes later, jarring her from her thoughts. It was already mostly full, but they managed to find a decent spot with a good view. Morris spread out the blanket he'd brought from his apartment, and the three of them settled in, waiting for the fireworks to start.
"You're kinda quiet," he observed. "If you've changed your mind, we can -"
"I haven't." She shot him a reassuring smile and picked absently at a blade of grass. "I was just thinking."
"Oh." He was silent for a few moments, as if he was waiting for something, then he grinned and spoke again. "Are you gonna tell me or should I start guessing?"
"This," she gestured between them with a laugh. "I mean, it's kind of funny, huh? The way it happened?"
He laughed, too. "Yeah, a little. But I don't regret it. And I wouldn't change it."
"Me neither," she answered with a smile.
She thought back to her conversation with Neela the other day. Well, almost. There was one thing she would change, and she chewed on her bottom lip, debating whether or not she should tell him what it was. On the one hand, he might think she was too forward - especially after earlier - but on the other, it wasn't like she was asking him home to bed.
She squashed that thought before it went too far, and finally decided to bite the bullet.
"Actually, there is one thing I'd change."
He looked over at her. His expression was calm, but there was a hint of apprehension in his eyes. "What?"
"The other night, at dinner." She knew she was blushing, but pressed on. "You would've kissed me."
It was his turn to blush now. "I wanted to, but Malik, Haleh, and Chuny..."
He trailed off and she caught his gaze, barely recognizing her own voice. "They're not here now."
His eyes changed, from apprehension to something else entirely, and he inched closer, careful not to squash Jughead, who was sleeping between them. "Is that an invitation?"
She shot him a teasing grin. "Well, I'm not gonna engrave it, so you better -"
Supporting his weight on one hand so he wouldn't overbalance and crush the dog, he covered her mouth with his. The world exploded into brilliant color - literally - as the fireworks began, and he slid his other hand up to cup her face, fingers tangling in her curls as she leaned into him and deepened the kiss.
They parted a few moments later, staring at each other in breathless wonder. The loud pop of a firework exploding startled them both out of their reverie and they looked up, watching as it exploded, raining red, white and blue.
Morris grinned and moved in for another kiss, muttering against her lips as they met again.
"God bless America."
To Be Continued..................
I apologize for the insanely long wait. Real Life has been so hectic lately...like Ray said, 'Everytime I think I've turned a corner...' *sigh* Anyway, here it is. And I hope the horrendously long chapter will more than make up for the interminably long wait. Feedback, as always, is cherished.