I was still riding the high from yesterday's and this morning's passionate hours of lovemaking, even as I sat ankles-crossed with Josephine on the opposite couch. As usual, Lucas had been right.
Make-up sex was the best kind.
I fought the lingering smirk as Josie asked me, "how was your day? Better than the last time we saw each other, I hope?"
"Oh, definitely. I daresay my depression has been cured."
She sent me a blank look. "Har har. And why do you say that?"
"No reason," I picked at the fringe of a pillow. "Just good old fashioned sex, no big deal."
"A temporary fix, unfortunately."
I was happy that she wasn't fazed by my dirty little confession, which made my respect for her increase. A true professional.
"Yes, I know," I conceded. "But who am I to complain?"
She smiled, appreciating my humor. "I'm still a bit surprised to find you were eager to see me again so soon."
"My husband had a lot to do with it." I shrugged one shoulder. Honestly, I was a sucker for that man; it made me laugh to myself. I could be stubborn sometimes, and he knew it. If he ever wanted to make me consider something, he only needed to get me in bed and I'd happily do his bidding.
Like this morning. I was having second thoughts about seeing Josephine again, afraid she'd just anger me all over again. But all David had to do was slide his strong hands up my naked inner thighs and whisper 'go to therapy.' I was too turned on to even argue.
So here we are.
"Let's pick up where we left off. Your job."
I started descending from my high at the speed of light. "What about it?"
"Well, I know it's not one that you enjoy. Tell me, when did it start to become clear that this dream job just might be a nightmare?"
I sighed, fidgeting with my fingers and hating that she could see right through me. "I... refused to perform a surgery I couldn't do. For a little girl around my daughter's age. The job was a nightmare for longer than that, of course, but that was the day I actually realized it. And how could I not?" My gaze fell down to my hands. "That child wasn't mine, but she'll always be my burden. Always."
"Avery Weppler, what happened to you?" I breezed through the open room door after Lyanna led me there. Only I was expecting the Avery that had been discharged not too long ago.
Instead, the man in the bed was a sickly shell of him. He wore a nasal cannula, his eyelids seemed to droop with heaviness, his cool-toned brown complexion lost its glow and his usual smooth lips were now chapped.
I rushed to his side and grabbed his hand. He squeezed mine weakly, smiling softly. "I've been taking care of myself, I promise."
I shook my head. "Someone should be taking care of you."
He looked away like a child being scolded. Then he perked up, never resisting a reason to flirt with me. "Well, I'm here now, so maybe you can be that someone."
My lips tightened, but I eventually gave in with a sigh. "Of course I will."
I picked up his chart and studied it like a test. "Okay, you're having trouble breathing which explains the cannula. How long has this been a problem?"
"I guess since I was discharged. But it got serious pretty quickly."
I shook my head, pinching the bridge of my nose. "That panic attack you had before you left... it wasn't a panic attack at all," I realized. "You were practically gasping for air."
"Let me guess, I have lung cancer."
I sent him a blank look. "No. We would know. Says they ran a test and your scans are clear. I'm sure this has everything to do with the mets located in your brain stem." I sighed, shaking my head.
"Great. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh?"
I pouted sympathetically. "Don't fret. You'll be fine as long as you have oxygen. Have you been experiencing any other symptoms?"
"No, not really. I mean, I've been feeling weak but I'm assuming it's from the shortness of breath thing."
I nodded. "I'll still add that in. Can't be too careful."
"I'm not gonna get better, am I?"
"Avery, that's a stretch—"
"Is it?" He looked frustrated, and with good reason. "I feel like every doctor who sees me is withholding something."
"We just don't want to raise an alarm when there's no reason to."
He wouldn't accept that explanation. "I have cancer. The alarm is already raised, trust me. I'm a grown man; I can handle knowing if my life is worth living. Casper, I watched you break down in tears and I told you it's okay to be human in front of me before you have to go back to being a robot. So I think we're way past the point of lying to each other. Just tell me what I could be facing."
I swallowed. He was right, but I still didn't want to scare him. If anything, I wanted to protect him. "You already know it's inoperable, right? The brainstem is essential to life; it controls the most basic functions and if we even attempt to surgically remove your rapidly growing cancer, we'd be killing you."
"I got that part. What else?"
I sighed. "Avery."
"What else? Tell me."
I walked over to the chair beside his bed and sat down. After a beat of silence, I confessed, "I have a feeling that your sudden breathing problems are only the beginning."
"Beginning of what exactly?" His voice was firm. "Be honest with me."
I squared my shoulders. "The new cancer is in your medulla. You're looking at potential compromised cardiac function among other things, and your cancer is aggressive. If it spreads too far, I can't even begin to tell you the host of problems you'll have."
His lips pressed together as he stared at the sheets covering his body. "Okay."
My shoulders fell at his defeated tone. "Don't give up, Avery. I definitely won't. You still have options and I'm going to go bury myself in books and labs to find a way to fight this."
Avery just nodded without another word, not meeting my eyes. I felt so helpless. I was a doctor for goodness sake. I should have better answers for him. I should have a damned cure.
But that was wishful thinking and we both knew it.
"Could you go?" He whispered, so quietly that I thought he'd take the words back.
When he didn't, I sighed softly, standing up and squeezing his hand. "Please just... remember that I'm here. Always."
I knew it would be suicide to walk into the OR where I was supposed to be assisting Dr. Naiman. He hadn't bothered to page me, so I couldn't say if I was somehow off the hook for skipping out on surgery or if I was going to get my ass chewed out.
So I joined Lyanna and Lorenzo at a table where they were eating, knowing I'd probably get nagged for being an idiot. Still, it was better than being embarrassed in an O.R.
The moment I sat down, it was awkward and I regretted it instantly.
"Wow, this feels like college," I grumbled. "Okay, you two. Spit it out."
"I got nothin'," Lyanna said with a shrug.
"Heard your boyfriend's back," Lorenzo spoke up, sounding a little more spiteful than I was sure he intended.
I rolled my eyes. "Avery's not my boyfriend."
He snorted. "Sure, okay."
"Don't listen to him," Lyanna said, always in my defense. She was loyal. Though I was sure she was judging me in a million ways mentally, she was always on my side in the end.
"It's okay. I'm used to dealing with his kind," I responded with an unbothered smirk. Lorenzo's eyebrows furrowed.
"What's that supposed to mean? And aren't you supposed to be in surgery?"
I sighed. "Yes, and?"
He almost dropped his fork. "Are you begging to be fired?"
"Oh, don't be dramatic. I'll explain to Dr. Naiman that my patient needed me. He doesn't have a support system."
"Casper, your 'patient' or boyfriend or whoever was stable. And you're not here to be anybody's support; you're a surgeon. You fix their problem and move on to the next person who needs your care."
"Wow, it's like sometimes you make really good points but you're so tactless that it just ruins everything that comes out of your mouth," Lyanna butted in.
"Look, it's whatever." Lorenzo focused on his food. "Don't take my warning; it's your career not mine. I'm just saying, you're giving that Avery guy way too much of your attention. Don't complain when it starts to cost you."
"I'm not listening to this." I stood up. Lyanna tried to call me back but I just ignored her. "No, okay? I'm not gonna sit here while he lectures me on how to be a surgeon. I know what I'm doing, and if I need your advice, Lorenzo, I'll ask."
I spent the next two hours busying myself with other patients, teaching my interns, and running tests.
When I noticed Dr. Naiman coming down the hall with my intern Hazel in tow, I held my breath and tried to stand taller, hoping I didn't appear too defeated.
When he caught my eye, his gaze was set on me—his target—and he dismissed Hazel with a flick of his wrist.
"You were a no-show," he stated the obvious. I swallowed, unable to get a word in. "I took the time to shape you. Mold you. Teach you. I've given you opportunities others would kill for! And you—you don't even show up to a surgery you were expected to assist on."
"Dr. Naiman, I'm incredibly sorry. I was—"
"Being sorry doesn't bring Elena back!" He growled. I snapped my mouth shut as my face fell into total shock. What did he just say?
"What... I-I don't understand." I blinked, feeling my chest rise and fall heavier than the second before.
"That little girl is on her way to the morgue. And you're sorry?"
"That's not possible." I shook my head. "That surgery was supposed to help her; how could..."
He held up a finger, silencing me. Then, in a low voice, he said, "You're off my service." He was gone within seconds as I stood there, shaken.
No. This wasn't supposed to happen.
Elena was only seven. She was supposed to get the surgery and recover and go back home with her parents...
Oh, God. Her parents.
I felt a constricting feeling in my chest as my head spinned. I needed to move. I needed to be anywhere but here. I needed to cry—where could I cry?
My immediate instinct was the safety of David's arms, where nothing could hurt me, but he wasn't an option here. My friends weren't an option, obviously. I could just imagine Lorenzo's 'I told you so' expression, and the thought of it made me seethe.
I wanted to break something.
I was supposed to be in that operating room. Just like I should've operated on Lysa. Both times, I wasn't there. And they both died. Was it my fault somehow?
Of course it was. It was all my fault. I could've saved them. I should've been there. I failed as a doctor.
I glanced up, finding myself in Avery's room and his concerned eyes locked on mine. I let out a shaky breath, tugging at my wispy, light brown hair.
"I fucked up," I cursed.
"Hey, hey. Whatever it is, it's okay. Come here, talk to me."
"No. No, it's not okay." I walked further inside, feeling the tears coming. "I'm sorry, I just—I needed to cry so..."
"Of course. Whatever you need," he understood.
I sat down in the chair at his bedside, bowing my head and breaking down. I felt his comforting hand on my shoulder and I squeezed my eyes shut, letting out a pathetic sob. "I don't think I can do this."
"I thought you said you weren't giving up," he tried to joke, but I wasn't in the mindset to receive any form of humor. When my body trembled, he grew serious. "What's wrong? How can I help?"
Even if he could help, I was too busy crying to say anything. I raised my head just slightly, furiously wiping my cheeks. "She was just a child..." I whispered, staring into nothing. I could barely make out the sound of Avery's voice promising that he was here for me, as I was focused on one thing.
She was just a child.