“Wither darkness lay waste unto my soul, Love will mend regardless the toll, repair all that was stole,” He read the words, intently, giving meaning like a great romantic poet. They weren't his words. The words belonged to his patient, a 14 year old girl with one too few eyes now and not quite a whole jaw anymore, but they weren’t in the ICU anymore. He nodded, smiled.
She watched him the way children do, with an innocence and hope that wanted to will goodness into being, even if it wasn’t there. It was a trait he’d never really grown out of.
“It’s very good,” he said, handing her her phone back. “What did you think of Lord Byron?”
“Don’t like,” she typed back. “I want to read Mary Shelley! I want to love... like heart on my desk!”
Liberty’s face twitched. He’d seen enough hearts to know he didn’t want one on his desk. That was a nope. Straight up nope. “I’ll see if I can get you books on her. Want your sleeping meds now?”
Zahara still managed to look aggrieved. Expressions could be much more intense after injury. A car takes out half your face and a leg, and everything gets more intense. After a moment, she nodded.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll do my best to have you a new book.” He smiled as he injected the meds into her IV. In the most authoritative and caring voice he had, he smiled and said, “Everything is going to be okay.”
She rolled onto her side, reached for the fluffy brown bunny on the nightstand, which he handed her, then she typed, “Heart. On. MY. desk.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Sweet dreams, Zahara.”
From the doorway, the night nurse hissed at him, “Dr. McBride!”
He stayed just a moment more, smiling at Zahara until the meds clearly started to close her eyes, then he dropped the syringe into the sharps container by the bathroom and went back into the fray. “Yes?”
Ji-Woo had been a charge nurse probably longer than Liberty had been alive. She wasn’t the most warm and fuzzy person, but she got things done, kept things on track, and patients had a tendency not to die when she was on shift. Half the staff whispered that they were just afraid to do it while she was there. The night belonged to Ji-Woo and Liberty, at least at the hospital. Or maybe they belonged to the night.
“There is a stranger, out of towner, head injury,” she said, “Room 4. Strange man.”
Liberty took a deep breath. Strange men, like fortune cookies, were always better before you opened the door. The hospital itself wasn’t big. The town around it wasn’t big. There was a big down a thirty-minute train ride away, but that wasn’t this town. He had a two bed ICU and if those patients had serious insurance they got transferred up to the bigger hospital. He had one OR, one MRI machine and it was ten years old. The patient rooms, all five of them, were on the west side of the building and the exam rooms were on the east. The accounting and office folk worked upstairs and there was a disused parking garage below.
He paused right before going in to meet his strange new patient, passed his watch over the terminal beside the door and picked up his files, such as they were. The watch displayed the files so they looked like they projected above his wrist, most important information first, but he was the only one who would see them. The rest of the world was on its way to Hell, but patient confidentiality was still a thing.
All the files told him was that his new patient was mixed race, black hair, blue eyes, declined to give identification or his name, so probably no insurance. Liberty rubbed his eyebrows, tried to push away the tension. They had to have some income or they weren’t going to be able to keep the air conditioning on.
He straightened the ten-year-old stethoscope around his neck. It had been his first real one. He liked it, better than a heart on a desk, anyway. For just a tiny moment, he imagined he was a handsome doctor from a romance novel, with ginger hair that didn’t need any regular haircuts because those took time and money, odd violet eyes, slender build, scrubs and coat a little rumpled, well-worn, but he imagined them virtuous in some way. The mirrored glass on the door to room four said he was all that and less. Just an overworked doctor in a small town with a cat that got fed by an automatic feeder.
Pulling a spare smile out from between his remaining spoons for the day, he knocked then let himself in, “Hello! How are you?”
The man who sat there waiting for him was definitely not from a small town. He looked up at Liberty and the world stopped for a moment. He started with dark hair, short and spiky, with some kind of iridescence at the very tips, then there were blue eyes like a southern summer sky, dark and hard to look away from. His eye shape was somewhere between Japanese and Chinese, with his skin color refusing to claim a label too, but smooth and warm. He wore black slacks of a material that clung to the firm strength of his legs. His shirt was also black, but lacy across one shoulder, and while Liberty had never seen anyone dress quite like that it was more rave-like than business-like.
He was a body mechanic, taking them apart, putting them back together, explaining why things couldn’t go back together, and on the whole, he’d seen enough bodies that they weren’t enough to make him forget to breathe. Bakers don’t go crazy over cupcakes, usually.
“Hi,” his dark stranger said, soft lips just slightly darker, slightly rosier, slowly lifted into a smile.
When those eyes slid over him, Liberty felt like he was being weighed, tallied. Nonsense. That was nonsense. He grabbed a touch scanner from the counter. “I’m Dr. McBride,” he said, formally, bouncing the soft end of the scanner against his palm. “But everyone calls me Liberty.”
“How very American of you. It’s nice to meet you Liberty.”
Mouth dry, Liberty nodded. “I’m going to take your temperature, get your basic info, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, smiling bigger now, sitting up on the exam table, even leaning back a little. “Do you believe intelligent people should help each other?”
“Yes, of course,” Liberty said, now more concerned by the man’s health statistics. His temperature was a little low, but then his heart rate was low too, but his oxygenation was fine. He did kind of look like he could be an athlete. “What’s your name?”
When someone hasn’t thought their lie though, sometimes there’s a moment of hesitation. Liberty hated that moment. He hated it extra seeing it pass through those very pretty blue eyes.
“Fai Talbot,” Fai said. “Do you like the world?”
“Okay.” Liberty gritted his teeth for a moment, flipped the settings on his scanner. “I want to look in your eyes now, okay?”
“Yeah,” Fai said, drawing the word out. “Okay.”
His lashes were dark, thick, and there was an intelligence in those eyes, such that Liberty almost felt like a mouse examining a cat. “Now, please be completely honest with me. Have you used any drugs or other substances tonight? Please tell me about legal, recreational, and illegal substances you’ve used in the last 24 hours.”
“Oh,” Fai said, leaning back a little, biting his lower lip. “I haven’t taken any local drugs yet. I just got to town, after all.”
“Well, just don’t. It’s dangerous. People die every day.”
“People do die every day. Don’t you think that’s just tragic?”
Liberty puffed out his cheeks, as if that would give time for all the things he wanted to say, the debate he wanted to have, but wasn’t going to have with a patient, for those words to settle themselves down. “I have more pressing tragedies You’re in good health, Mr. Talbot, as far as I can tell. Are you in any pain?”
“No,” he said shaking his head.
“Why are you here?”
There was that hesitation again, but sometimes it was when someone was about to tell the truth too. “If you want to know a community, go to where health gets taken care of.”
“Are you a journalist or something?”
“Something,” Fai said. “Do you like food?”
“I do like food, but I don’t date patients and I don’t date people who do ‘something’ for a living.”
“Morals. I like that,” Fai said with a smile that made him way more cat to Liberty’s mouse. “I’m a businessman, a trader, a connoisseur of all things strange and wonderful.”
“Yeah?” Liberty said, eyes narrowing. “Well, I guess you won’t have any trouble paying your bill then.”
“Have I offended you in some way, Dr. McBride?” Fai asked, following him out to the main counter.
“Doctor! What you doing?” Ji-Woo snapped as he sat own at the admin computer, flexed his fingers, glared at the dark-haired patient, then set about logging in.
“I’m just going to help Mr. Talbot here with his bill. He’s just passing through, so I don’t expect he as a forwarding address, and I am sure,” Liberty said, glaring at Fai across the counter, eyes trying to push the dominance level back in his favor, “he likes to pay his bills on time.”
“Of course,” Fai said, turning that charming smile on Ji-Woo. He followed it up by holding out his hand to shake. His smile and charisma glowed like the summer sun in the south and no one could live with that these days.
Sunburn was definitely not Liberty’s thing.
Ji-Woo fluttered, slowly extending her hand out shake. Then the blue-eyed monster shifted into full, and flowing, Korean as if he were some mislaid pop star. Ji-Woo blushed and smiled so warm and friendly and vulnerable that the ghosts of all those that had waited till the end of her shift to die threatened to reincarnate right there in the central nursing station.
The printer spit out an 8x10 paper invoice, generating it on a printer that was maybe older than Ji-Woo. Liberty folded it and nearly smacked at their still locked hands. “Here you go! I wouldn’t want to hold you up or anything. I’m sure you’ve got places to be. Important people to see!”
That this guy looked at him with amusement did nothing whatsoever to sooth Liberty’s irritation. The smile that followed let them both know who was the cat in this situation. Fai straightened out the paper, an eyebrow arching as he read the list of charges. “Is this... standard?”
When Ji-Woo moved to take a look at the invoice, Liberty stepped between them. “That’s your invoice.”
“Okay,” Fai said, stroking the computer he wore on his wrist, “I think you may owe me services still.”
“You come collect if you’re ever back in town.”
“Okay,” Fai said, his grin moving to full on hungry tiger.
There was a slight clicking sound and the clunky main computer printed out his receipt. Blushing then, flushed, and unsettled, Liberty grabbed the receipt and handed it over. “Thank you for your visit and your payment.”
“I’ll see you soon, Liberty,” Fai said, strolling out into the dawn.
Liberty watched him walk away, feeling like the skin was being peeled from his heart. It was stupid. Hearts don’t have skin and people don’t have hearts like... like poetic hearts, no souls, no hearts, and sudden attraction to sexy strangers was clearly some kind of pheromone trap. Rich city boys were getting less and less human all the time!
“Check the pharmaceutical stocks,” Liberty snapped, still trying to bandage up the heart he didn’t think he had.
“You charged him ten thousand dollars for a cursory exam? You charged him a seven thousand dollar convenience fee!?”
Sagging down in a chair, elbow on the counter, legs out straight, Liberty smirked. He ignored the slight sheen of nervous sweat. “He paid, didn’t he? We can keep the air conditioners on for another month.”
“Jealous doesn’t suit you.” Ji-Woo chided.
Shrugging, Liberty scrubbed at his face. “Nothing suits me, Ji-Woo. You know the world is ending, right? It’s just a matter of time. All I can do is put on bandages and keep people from overdosing. Tell me about how it was when you were a kid?”
She pointed at him. “That is the trigger for sending you home to sleep. You work too hard. Go home. Dr. Catherine will be in in two hours.”
“Bullshit,” Ji-Woo snapped. “You just charged the cutest gay boy to cross our threshold an unholy amount because he got you flustered.”
Liberty looked up, face scrunching up a bit. “You think he’s gay? Why so?”
“Listen to granny,” she said, a hand on her hip. “I know things. You go home.”