Dare – an epilogue after the shot (1/4)


Disclaimer #1: This is fan fiction. “Terapia d’urgenza” belongs to Rai2. No copyright infringement is intended by borrowing its characters for a little while. No monetary gain whatsoever is being made. All I’m trying is to spread the love for velvet jackets, sort through the cliffhanger debris and prevent further lesbian parking lot trauma.

Disclaimer #2: This is a story about women. In love. With each other. But I guess you already knew that. – If this is not your cup of tea, rest assured that I prefer coffee and that you needn’t read this. If this is illegal where you live, please be careful. – Also, I can’t believe that after ten years of writing fiction online, I still have to apologize for my contents. If fuchsia bras qualify as NSFW in your book, I guess this story might rate as PG-13 upwards.


1

She had always imagined that she would be quicker in such a situation. Braver. But instead she stared at the small, metallic circle pointed at her and at the darkness it surrounded, unable to breathe.

She could see the finger tremble against the trigger, causing a flash of light to reflect off the side of the gun, and she jerked backwards instinctively. Images flashed through her mind in rapid sequences —

…looking down at her scuffed, dirty shoes as she hid among the wines that arched above her. She held her breath, feeling the sun on her bare arms while she waited, alert to every sound. The wines were dense enough to hide her small frame from her friends whose voices rang out from across the yard, in glee at having discovered another or in frustration at having been caught.

…her mother, chiding her for having ruined her new patent leather shoes in the vineyard.

…her parents, their backs towards her as they walked up to Giacomo, who held the car door open for them. Her mother’s heels on the gravel of the entryway, and then the limousine disappearing through the iron gate, Giacomo at the helm, to another ball or another ceremony.

…again, watching her parents being driven away, but the sensation of loss replaced with one of freedom. The sharp memory of the chloral scented water of the pool against her lips and Eduige, her French private tutor, on a chair by the pool. And later, Eduige’s legs wrapped around hers in the water and the steps leading out of the pool slipping from her shaky grasp.

…her father’s silence and her mother’s disdain, later that summer, and no more French lessons. Instead, preparatory classes in Latin with a priest from the library.

…the day after she had moved into her Milan apartment, her birthday in a new city, the hesitant sunbeams showing off the unwashed state of the windows, and she had watched them move along the floor, waiting for a call from her parents that never came.

…a few years later, that same room, another phone and, once more, watching the shadows shift along the walls while she waited. But Vera didn’t call, not the first night, neither the second. She had waited the whole week, refusing to believe that Vera would shun her not just in public, but also in private. They had always met with discretion, always away from work, something they could have continued that way. But the phone remained mute and she studied every scratch in its display. Vera’s call never came.

…that same phone and Esther, kicking the receiver off the charging station with a foot. The ringing stopped, or so Marina thought, distracted by the generous glimpse of Esther’s thigh bared by the movement. Her bathrobe was really much too short for Esther. – “Enough of that,” Esther declared with decisiveness, and Marina recognized the small, breathless chill that ran down her spine at the demanding tone. Then Esther’s arms were already around her, lifting her up from behind. She yelped in surprise and Esther’s laugh reverberated against her neck . “Marina, I lift men twice your size every day…”

— The metallic circle wavered slightly and through the fog in her limbs, Marina was aware of Esther next to her. She didn’t dare to turn to look at her now, but she remembered her earlier expression, the hurt in Esther’s eyes when she had brushed her off. But Marina couldn’t think of that now, or of herself. She couldn’t think about romance when others had died without ever knowing it, without being able to do something as normal as playing chess. Others, whose families were going mad with grief.

The mother’s eyes were as dark as the small round encircled by the metal.

The arms were wrapped around her before the shot rang out and she knew they were falling. It was dark and she wondered whether this wasn’t supposed to hurt – falling, and being hit. It was cold, but there were Esther’s arms, the scent of her that was more familiar already than she wanted it to be. She should probably tell her that the bathrobe was too short for her, but then, she didn’t want Esther to stop wearing it…

The scent of the muddy earth around her was something that she would remember to her last day. The thin leaves of grass were already sprinkled with dew at this hour and slick with something else, something too warm for this night. She couldn’t see, her face pressed against Marina’s neck, searching for that faint pulse over the sound of her hammering heart.

She hadn’t managed to tackle Marina in time, if only she had been half a second quicker… Her hands searched for the wound, an automatic move: identify, gauge size, apply pressure – but it was so dark out here, and there was a woman breathing nearby who held a gun and she needed to get help. If it wasn’t too late already, but that was a thought that was impossible.

Marina wouldn’t die.

That was not an option.

The blood that spilled from Marina’s mouth indicated a punctured lung and Esther had to stop the bleeding, she had to —

She cursed her own hands that felt stiff as she searched for Marina’s phone, crossing her fingers that Marina carried it in her pocket, and not in her bag.

Precious second ticked by until Esther became aware of the small, rectangular shape pressed against her thigh.

Pocket.

Never lessening the pressure on Marina’s ribs, Esther fumbled for the phone. Speed Dial #2 was the hospital admission desk, she knew that.

“We need help, damn it!”

Where were those teens that used to loiter around the hospital parking lot at night?

— “Do you want me to tell Teresa that you’ll be a little late for your shared morning coffee?” Marina, closing the clasp of her bra.

Esther answered belatedly. “Do you want to give her a heart attack?” And if Marina didn’t stop that slow, sensual movement of sliding the bra straps up her arms…

“Call her from my phone.” A thin blouse slid over Marina’s shoulders, the unbuttoned gap teasing Esther further. “Admission is speed dial #2”

“I only have the hospital on #8.” Esther picked up the phone without looking at it. “Well, at least you don’t have it at #1.”

Marina turned around and smiled. “#1 is something else.” A small mist of perfume clouded her features momentarily.

“Your family?” Esther guessed as Marina combed her hair behind her ears with her fingers.

Marina shook her head, still smiling. “The delivery line of Eduardo’s.”

Esther dragged her eyes up to Marina’s face. “You’re kidding.”

Marina shrugged. “You liked their food,” she reminded Esther while she drew a coffee from the silver, futuristic machine that occupied half the kitchen counter and had probably cost more than a car.

Esther looked at the barely unpacked three-course-dinner next to it. Ah, so that was where her shirt had ended up. “Marina, we barely tried it.”

“Next time,” Marina said with a wink. She held out a steaming cup of coffee to Esther. “I promise.” Her lips grazed Esther’s neck in passing, lingering for a moment longer.

Esther closed her eyes with a warning sigh. “Marina…”

Marina chuckled against her skin. “Do you think Teresa will be jealous if she finds out you share morning coffee with me now?”

— But Marina didn’t move. She hung limply in Esther’s grasp, long since beyond consciousness.

“Don’t you dare dying on me Marina.” Esther could feel the faint pulse in the blood pushing against her fingers. “Don’t you dare!”

She should have asked Marina out again instead of simply accepting her refusal. But no, she had let herself be sent away, and the next thing had been Vera waltzing in with her lawyer contacts and her 700€ leather briefcase and her elegant perfume.

So much like Marina’s.

“Don’t you dare,” Esther repeated, her wrist growing numb from the pressure. “I still need to ask you out again, and if I have to do it a hundred times until you say yes.” She took a shaky breath, unwilling to call it a sob. “I’ll spray-paint it across Terry’s reception counter if I have to!”

She wanted to believe that Marina would laugh at this.

But she wasn’t sure. Not anymore.

Oh, she knew that Marina could do cold. That was how they had met. But now, now that she had seen Marina’s softer side, had seen her tenderness, her vulnerability – now it was unbearable to be treated with that coldness again.

Marina, early in the morning, bare feet on the kitchen tiles and with deep shadows underneath her eyes, waiting as the water moved through the high-end espresso machine. And then, upon seeing Esther, a completely unguarded smile that warmed up the entire room.

Thanks, but I don’t feel like it.

Unthinkable that those should be the last words Maria ever said to her. That and “stay back, please.”

Esther hadn’t seen the gun at first, but she had seen the stiff posture of Marina’s shoulders, the tension that seemed to roll off her back and she hadn’t even thought about it, stepping up next to her as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

And it was, really.

It just took some getting used to.

Steps and voices came closer and Esther thought numbly that the shot must have alerted hospital security; didn’t they have surveillance cameras out here? She didn’t recall anymore whether she had called for help or not, she didn’t know how much time had passed.

“Help…” Her own voice crumbled. “Help, over here!” She didn’t dare to take her hands away from where Marina’s jacket had turned into an impromptu pressure bandage.

Hurried steps, helpful arms, the practiced moves of a stretcher being set down.

Hands pulled her away from Marina, her own fingers replaced by more nimble ones.

“Holy shit, it’s the Ranieri – for how long —”

“A gun, shit, someone get—”

Esther was dimly aware of the frozen figure of the mother to the side, but her eyes didn’t stray from Marina, whose hand fell limply to the side when the paramedics placed her on the stretcher.

Luigi’s mother still held onto the gun, but Esther didn’t even feel fear now. She only felt fear for Marina.

“Come on!”

Someone dragged her to her feet and then they were bodies in the night, running with the gurney between them, their own harsh breathing audible over the metallic sound of the wheels against the gravel.

“We need to get the blood out of her lungs, quick…” Esther wasn’t sure whether that had been her own voice.

She searched for Marina’s hand while they were running, closing in on the emergency entrance.

“Don’t you dare dying on me.”

The first one to arrive was Gandini, already dressed to leave – a shawl threatening to slide off her shoulder, her heels loud on the floor that was used to much more practical footwear. “What happened?” she shouted, running.

“Shot, close distance, hit her lung,” Esther stated a split second before the paramedic on duty said the same.

“Prep the theater, now!” Gandini was already running again, but still found that split second to give Esther a worried glance. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine.” Esther’s reply was automatic as she ran along.

“No.” That was Malosti, with a firm hand on her shoulder. “You can’t be in there.”

“Of course I can,” Esther protested. She had said that same phrase with that same professional kindness many times, but this was different. This was Marina.

“He’s right,” Gandini nodded in direction of the operating halls, pushing the gurney along. “You’re too involved.”

“Esther…” Malosti hesitated and his hand briefly squeezed Esther’s arm in a sign of reassurance. “We’ll take good care of your girl, I promise.”

Esther stared forlornly after the gurney that was wheeled into the operating hall. There was no last glance, she couldn’t see Marina’s face underneath the breathing equipment.

“She isn’t even my girl now.”

Her words echoed down the empty corridor.

The hospital air was unnaturally cold all of a sudden and Esther hugged herself in reflex. As the adrenaline wore off, she slid down the wall behind her, her legs finally giving way.

The doors to the operating hall didn’t move.

“Here she is! Esther…. Aaah!” Teresa’s scream and her sudden stop made Rocco careen headlong into her back.

Esther looked up at them, not sure how much time had passed. She knew that this was no time to giggle, but Rocco flailing to keep his equilibrium and Teresa’s shell-shocked expression amused her.

“Are you alright?” Teresa moved closer with caution and Esther thought that she had never seen her so pale. She glanced down her own body and realized what must have frightened Teresa so.

“It’s not mine.” Esther gestured at her bloody clothes. “It’s… hers…” Her voice broke.

In a split second, Rocco’s arms were around her, gently pulling her to her feet. “It’s going to be all right,” he promised, nodding at Teresa to help when Esther stumbled. “How about we get you cleaned up and out of these scrubs?”

Esther tried to resist. “I need to be with her…”

“You need to do that when she wakes up,” Rocco reasoned with practicality. “And just like poor Terry here, Marina would probably be frightened to death if she saw you in these bloodied scrubs.”

Teresa didn’t even bother to chide Rocco for the nickname, Esther noted. She had to look really bad. Her hands and her shirtfront were covered in blood, and her stomach lurched at the realization that it was Marina’s blood.

“What happened?” Teresa steered them around a corner.

“Luigi’s mother,” Esther said simply. Forming long sentences was too exhausting a task. “She had a gun. I tried to get Marina down… but I wasn’t fast enough…”

“A gun?” They had reached the admissions desk and Teresa shooed the nurse on duty away with a regal wave of her hand while she already reached for the phone with the other. “Security?”

Rocco gave Teresa a grateful nod and proceeded to seat Esther onto a chair. “Are you sure you are alright?”

“Sure.” Esther nodded, her head moving automatically, as if she were a doll.

“Wait, where’s this blood coming from…?” Rocco turned her hands inside out while she looked on with disinterest as drops of blood fell to the floor. “What’s this?”

Esther winced when Rocco touched the edge of her hand. “I tried to get Marina out of the way…”

“With that hand?” Rocco asked sharply. He began to dab at the blood.

“It’s just a flesh wound.” Esther looked at her hand as if it belonged to someone else.

“If she grabbed Ranieri around the shoulders, the shot probably grazed her hand,” Teresa interjected from where she was still on the phone with security. They didn’t need any more eerie encounters in the parking lot.

Rocco blinked. “And how would you know that?”

Teresa gave him a long look. “Please, I do watch police shows now and then.”

“Yes, when Alfredo isn’t hugging the remote to watch soccer all night,” Rocco muttered under his breath, but Teresa didn’t seem to have heard him this time. Or perhaps she simply chose to ignore it, unwilling to be reminded of a husband who hadn’t even shown up to her birthday party. “Esther, this needs at least two stitches.”

“It’s nothing.” Esther flexed her hand. She knew she should feel something, anything, but there was nothing. Not even pain.

“Still…” Rocco tried to move Esther towards one of the curtains.

“It’s nothing,” Esther insisted. “This is nothing. But Marina…”

“Sssh.” Rocco wrapped an arm around her as he tugged her along. “Don’t think about that now.”

“How can I not?” Esther didn’t resist when Rocco moved her into a chair and positioned her hand above one of the customary silver bowls. “I saw her spitting blood. And you know how chances are with a perforated lung –”

Rocco stilled her hand. “We need to clean this up.” His voice was gentle.

“It’s nothing,” Esther repeated over a sob.

“Hey.” Rocco tipped her chin up with two fingers. “You don’t want to miss her waking up because you’ve been knocked out by tetanus and can’t be there, do you?”

“No,” Esther admitted over a sniffle. She knew that Rocco was as aware as she was about Marina’s chances, but it was so incredibly comforting to believe his friendly lies for a minute.

Rocco held up the needle against the light. “As soon as we’re done here, we’ll head to the waiting hall, alright?”

“Alright,” Esther agreed gratefully.

Rocco even managed to get her to change her clothes, so now she sat in the corridor leading up to the operating hall – the waiting room was too far away, she needed to watch the doors, and Rocco had pulled her away from the window.

“You can’t see anything anyway,” he had pointed out and he was right. The only thing she could see were the masked faces and moving backs of her colleagues, Marina’s colleagues, and the blinking monitors in the background which display was too small to read from outside the window.

Everyone worked extra hours this night; other colleagues who were on shift came by once in a while to ask whether there were news, standing around awkwardly in their scrubs before they walked away again.

Esther was the only one who wore her private clothes, including a t-shirt of Rocco’s that was far too large for her frame. Part of her felt that she should be there, too, wearing her scrubs and doing something useful. But she wasn’t here as a nurse, she was here as someone related to a patient, however complicated that relation was at the moment.

Rocco didn’t move from her side. He had quietly called his wife, saying that he needed to stay, that a colleague had been shot, and she had understood, only asking whether she should stop by with some breakfast in the morning.

Marina would do the same, Esther thought. One time, just after they had gotten together, she had worked an unexpected night shift over a multiple traffic accident, and Marina had been there in the morning when she had left the hospital with bleary eyes, hours before her own shifted started, with a smile and a bag of fresh croissants – “I know a bakery that opens up at six already. Would you like some coffee to go with these?”

Esther stared at the doors, willing them to move. It was unthinkable that Marina would never buy croissants again. That she would never smile at her again. That she would never walk down these corridors again, with small toys for her patients stuffed into the pockets of her doctor’s coat.

Teresa arrived after midnight, bearing a plate with birthday cake and an apologetic smile. “It’s the only thing we have around, and you need to eat something… are there any news yet?”

“No.” Rocco reached for the plate. “Shouldn’t you have gone home hours ago?”

“I called the babysitter,” Teresa shrugged. “It’s not as if Alfredo would notice, anyway.” She sat down on the chair next to Rocco, kicking off her heels. “The last time he cared about my shifts was probably when we still had a Sforza ruling the city.”

Rocco cleared his throat. “Come on, Esther, a tiny bite of cake?”

Esther shook her head. “I can’t eat anything now.”

Rocco speared a piece of cake. “You’ll need all the energy you can get to help Marina after she wakes up.” He waved the fork in front of Esther’s face. “A tiny little bite?”

Before Esther could react, the door to the operating hall sprung open.

“Bloody goddamn…” A pale and exhausted Malosti interrupted himself when he saw the waiting group outside, Teresa having jumped to her feet, Rocco with a plate of cake in his hand and Esther, her face gray with fear.

Malosti’s scrubs were bloodied.

“Any results yet?” It was Teresa who asked, Esther was unable to speak.

“Nothing yet,” Malosti said tersely. He looked at Esther. “Sorry.” He waved over a nurse to help him with his scrubs and disappeared once more behind the white doors.

Malosti cursing was nothing unusual, but Malosti apologizing meant that things were bad.

Very bad.

Please, you can’t let her die. Esther wasn’t sure whom she was addressing in her despair. She had sat up straight in her chair, her back not even touching it. You can’t let her die.

If only Marina would make it, she would make amends with her father, although she still found that he was the one owing her an apology. She would apologize instead, if only Marina would make it.

She would accept Marina’s refusal to give her another chance, leaving her alone, if only Marina would be alright.

Hell, she’d even watch Marina walk off with Vera again, if only Marina would make it.

If only Marina would be alright.

2

Stable, but unconscious.

Unconscious, but stable.

Depending on the day, Esther found Marina’s condition something to be infinitely grateful for or something that drove her to despair.

Marina was alive and breathing, even if she wasn’t breathing completely on her own yet.

“Just a precaution,” that was what Gandini had said after they had maneuvered Marina through two calls after the operation, one of them critical.

Esther had run out of saints to implore and gods to pledge herself to.

Sometimes, it still seemed like an impossible marvel to be able to sit by Marina’s bedside, to feel the pulse in her fingers and stroke the hair away from her forehead, even though it hadn’t moved, of course.

The drainage was already gone and the tissue was healing nicely.

In addition, Marina had a broken collarbone, as a side effect of the shot, and torn tendon in her left leg, from the fall that Esther had caused.

And that had quite possibly saved Marina’s life.

Esther still remembered Malosti’s face after the operation, grey with exhaustion. “For someone who’s never held a gun before, that woman has an uncanny aim, damn it! Two centimeters lower, and she…”

“That’s enough,” Gandini had decided firmly, catching an unsteady Esther with her arm. “Don’t worry, Esther. Marina is stable for now, and she should be on a good way to recovery.”

Two centimeters.

Esther cradled Marina’s hand between her own like the most precious thing on earth, reveling in its warmth and in the quiet, steady pulse that ran through her fingertips.

Unconscious, but stable.

It wasn’t uncommon that a dedicated head nurse came on before her shift started and stayed longer after shift. In which room she spent that time was her own business, and the staff had quickly gotten used to Esther sitting for hours next to Marina’s bed in a set of ICU scrubs, quietly supervising the pediatrician.

Nobody asked her any questions and Esther never complained. Only in the late hours of the night, when she was supposed to go home – something that seemed little desirable these days – the still silhouette of Marina on the bed followed her, painting her image across the empty hospital corridors she walked down, time and again.

In one of those nights, it had occurred to Esther that she, as the ER head nurse, had a general locker key.

She could even justify having to open Marina’s locker – after all, there might have been something of value in there that Marina wouldn’t have left longer than a night at the hospital, or papers that needed to be filed, or perhaps some forgotten lunch snack that would rot away while Marina was recovering.

Esther still had felt like an intruder opening that locker, but the faint scent of Marina that clung to her coats and jackets had wiped that thought away. Her knees had buckled, and she had sat down with both a smile and tears in her eyes at the familiarity of everything: the way Marina had stacked her folders, the haphazard notes – “get tickets for horror movie night, Wednesday!” – taped to the inside of the door, the extra set of shirt and underwear in a bag, one thin strap in fuchsia peeking out of the package.

On a hanger, properly stashed away, Marina’s velvet jacket waited patiently for its owner to return. Esther hesitated, but then she reached out and brushed her fingers across the soft fabric.

A mild night out in the street, watching lovers close by and the dark green of Marina’s jacket making her eyes stand out even more… and that fabric brushing against the back of Esther’s hand as they walked, first accidentally, then on purpose, and the sudden realization how close to each other they walked, Marina’s shoulder almost touching her own.

Esther pulled the jacket of its hanger, crying helplessly as she buried her face in the familiar fragrance of it.

Only when she wanted to hang it back, she saw that something had slid out from one of the pockets, and even though she told herself that she would not look at it, she couldn’t help but recognize the paper slip – it was a cinema ticket, from that first movie they had seen together, some mainstream horror production. Esther hadn’t seen more than half of it, hiding her face against Marina’s neck the other half of the time, feeling the warmth of Marina’s arm through the thin shirt that she was crinkling between her hands.

At least Marina hadn’t thrown the ticket stub away. And Marina wore the velvet jacket a lot, keeping her car keys and chewing gum in the pockets. She would have noticed if there was anything in there that she wouldn’t want to have around any longer.

Esther smiled sadly.

It didn’t really make a difference now.

Had she knows that Marina, the Marina who treated her as if she wanted to hurt her as much as possible every time they talked, kept the tickets to their shared cinema evening, she would have insisted more when Marina had refused her invitation to go out again.

She would have been more daring, Esther thought, even though she wasn’t sure what exactly that might have been. It had always been boys asking her out, and to be daring had meant to look back too early and smile too openly, but how was one supposed to be daring as a girl wanting another girl?

She had asked Marina out, more than once. She had told her she missed her. Marina had rebuffed her every time, and Esther didn’t want to be an annoyance like Aldo who dropped to his knees citing bad poetry and baring cheap roses. Although she might even give that one a try if Marina returned to work and still refused to acknowledge her.

Despite the dire situation, part of Esther reveled in the long nighttime hours that she got to spend with Marina, uninterrupted, free to gaze at her, and knowing that Marina wouldn’t pull back her hand if she reached for it.

There were hardly any visitors.

Teresa had called Marina’s parents – leave to Teresa to find out the unregistered private number of an aristocratic wine estate – but they were apparently on a tour to close a business deal in South America and didn’t show any signs of being willing to interrupt their travels.

As the days passed, Esther noticed that no other relatives came by, either – no siblings, no cousins, very few friends.

Esther thought that some of them might not even know and she had looked for an agenda of Marina, first in her locker – that was now missing the velvet jacket, since Esther had found it safer to take it home with her, tightly wrapped in a plastic bag so it wouldn’t lose its scent – and then in her office.

Once more, she had felt like an intruder opening Marina’s cabinets and desk drawers and once more, she had found herself crying and smiling at the same time when she saw what Marina kept in her top drawer: a strip of cheap photo booth images of the two of them, taken the day after she had stayed over at Marina’s place for the first time.

A late, leisurely breakfast, a walk downtown, their hands brushing together with every other step, and an unexpectedly playful Marina pulling her into that photo booth and closing the short curtains.

“They can see us from the outside,” Esther had protested.

Marina had laughed. “Only our legs.”

“But if they see our legs like this, they can imagine the rest!” Esther warned.

Marina had already been throwing coins into the slot. “They won’t even come close.”

And in the end, Esther had insisted that they take a second set, so that she would get to take some home, as well.

On the last photo of Esther’s strip, their faces were blurred, oblivious of the camera.

Esther remembered the hard surface of the swivel footstool, Marina’s lips on her own, the weight of Marina’s legs against her thighs and the small movement of Marina’s fingers edging their way past her neckline underneath her shirt.

Esther bit her lip and crossed her legs tightly as she put the photos back in their spot.

Only belatedly she took note of the travel agency magazine underneath the photos. The Fiji Islands. Marina had wanted to whisk her away from work and her worries for a while, and Esther had refused, time and again, afraid that people would put two and two together if Nurse Bruno went on vacation with the lesbian doctor.

But people had counted two and two together anyway, and the fact that they had come up with four had not stopped the world from turning. In fact, Esther found, four was a perfectly normal number.

“Stupid,” she muttered to herself. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

It wouldn’t need to be the Fiji Islands, really. Esther would be happy with Bari, or Tyrol, or simply Marina’s apartment, locked in for a week.

She closed the drawer with yet more regret about not having given in back then. She had simply ignored Marina’s invitation and she hadn’t even been able to find the courage to tell her that didn’t want to go because she had been afraid of what the others might think. She had panicked, hiding behind weak excuses, and Marina clearly didn’t understand what was there to panic about.

That was one of the first things that she would tell Marina when she woke up, that it had never been about rejecting Marina, but about struggling with herself. Perhaps Marina never had had to struggle with liking women, or with her parents, or with other people’s opinions, but Esther couldn’t live up to that over night.

And it would still take some more time, but she was willing to try.

The only question was whether Marina would be willing to try, as well. Or whether Marina would prefer to hook up with Vera again.

Vera did stop by now and then. Esther’s nurses had quickly developed a habit of letting her know when Dr. Corradi was in the house. And Rocco usually found something related to Marina’s care that he or one of his friends up in the ICU unit had to do urgently. When Marina was moved to the regular trauma station, he had friends there, too.

“She just sits there, like you,” Rocco had reported back. “Sometimes, she talks to her, or she reads her newspaper…”

Sometimes, Esther found a good reason to have Marina being checked up on, no visitors allowed, when she found that Vera had overstayed her welcome.

But the late evenings and nights, when visiting hours were over, those belonged to Esther.

“I couldn’t get off shift earlier, Emma made a mess of the pharmacy orders,” Esther explained quietly as she slipped into the room. “Hey…” she brushed her fingertips across Marina’s brow, quickly scanning the equipment surrounding her even though it wasn’t her job.

“Tonight, I’m staying longer.” Esther sat down a small lunch bag and a blanket. “My father still isn’t talking to me and I prefer having dinner with you, anyway.” She faltered momentarily, uncertain whether she had smelled the faint trace of Vera’s perfume among the sterile scents of the hospital room. She shook her head, telling herself that it was impossible

“I’m not reading you the newspaper,” Esther added. “You might want to keep sleeping if you hear too much of it.” She stopped for a moment, gazing at Marina’s still figure on the bed. “Sleeping Beauty…” She refrained from kissing the corner of her lips that was uncovered by the artificial respiration, she wouldn’t do that unless she knew it was welcome, but she touched her lips to Marina’s forehead. “We’ll have to work around that part with the prince somehow…”

Esther pulled off her jersey, throwing it across the chair before she spread the blanket over herself, getting as comfortable as she could. “The other night, I told a fairy tale to Rocco’s little daughter – you would like her, she’s as cute as a button…”

She wasn’t aware of the time when she drifted off, only that it was bright daylight outside when the door opened and Rocco hurried in. “I knew I’d find you here.” He had a set of packaged scrubs in his hands. “Quick, we have a multiple accident coming in and we need you… Danieli called in everyone.”

Esther fumbled for her shoes, stumbling after Rocco with a last glance at Marina.

She was swimming in between thick, white clouds, ascending slowly, and with consciousness came the realization that she had been swimming upwards for a while. For how long, she couldn’t say.

There were sounds, far away, and then there was whiteness again.

The sensation of fabric against her legs.

Sounds again, sounds that turned into voices, far away.

The voices turned into words that slowly trickled into her mind.

Why were her eyelids so heavy?

It took Marina a long time to open them, time and again falling back into the deep, white fog that surrounded her.

The light was bright, but natural.

A window. Next to it, the silhouette of a woman gazing out into the day, her features blurry.

“Where am I?” she tried to say, but she couldn’t speak, gagging on the respiratory tube.

The woman at the window turned around. “There you are again.” Her face came closer and Marina recognized the curved chin and fox-blond hair. “Don’t worry, darling.” Vera smiled down at her. “Everything will be alright now.”

When Marina woke up again, she was alone. She stared across the room at the nondescript painting on the wall, the small table, the visitor’s chair.

Something was missing, even though she couldn’t put her finger to it yet.

Her throat hurt, a scratchy sensation, as if she was about to get a cold. It took her a moment to remember that it stemmed from the respiration tube.

Vera had removed it, and had waited while one of the Trauma nurses checked on her. Vera had been here afterwards, holding her hand as Marina coughed for breath and holding a water bottle with a straw while Marina drank.

But it wasn’t Vera who was missing.

There had been something thrown over that chair before, something colorful… a jacket. And something else, a blanket, crinkled as if thrown off in haste — Marina hadn’t consciously taken note of it, but now that she saw the empty chair, she remembered it.

Reluctantly, single images drifted up from her mind.

“You slept here?” she had croaked in disbelief, absurdly warmed by the thought.

Vera had reached for her hand. “You need to focus on getting better.” It had been a gentle admonishment, spoken with too much tenderness to be just doctor’s orders.

Marina blinked. “What happened?”

Vera looked down at her hands for a moment. “You gave us all quite a scare, that’s what happened, but you’re on the way to full recovery. – Thank God you didn’t hit your head when you fell.”

“Hit my head…” Marina frowned. She didn’t remember falling. But she remembered the sensation of being scared.

Her eyelids were already growing heavy again.

“I’ll let you get back to sleep.” Vera gave her hand another squeeze and for a moment, Marina was confused because Vera never allowed physical contact at the hospital. “And I promise we’ll get you out of here soon.”

“Vera.” Marina had called her back when she stood, in her tailored suit and with the bag over her shoulder, the bag that she knew was always filled with a set of patient files. Vera looked a lot like when they had first met. “Don’t forget… your jacket…” Marina mumbled drowsily. “’n blanket…”

“Oh, of course.” Vera picked the garments up from the chair. “Try to get some rest.”

Marina didn’t know whether she had said anything in reply, having drifted back to sleep immediately.

Now she blinked across the empty room. Her head felt a lot less woozy this time.

You gave us quite a scare.

Marina frowned, pushing against the thick cotton wool in her mind.

Vera didn’t do scared. She never lost control.

Marina tried to imagine Vera’s face with an expression of fear as another, frightened face moved to the foreground.

Esther.

She wasn’t with Vera any longer. Marina nodded slowly. But if the anesthetic hadn’t numbed her mind completely, it looked as if being with Vera was in reach again.

Marina smiled sadly. There had been a time where she would have given anything for much less of Vera, only to be with her again – even if it meant the same secrecy, calling her by her last name at work and never leaving her apartment together.

But Marina had grown tired of waiting, and of always getting less. She wasn’t with Vera anymore.

She wasn’t with Esther anymore, either.

“Stay back, please!” That had been her own voice. But Esther hadn’t listened. She had walked up right next to her, and then she had seen the gun.

“Oh my God…” Marina remembered that whisper and how Esther had only moved closer to her, and then she remembered everything.

Luigi. His mother. The gun.

Esther.

She remembered falling.

Reflexively, she tried to reach up to her chest, wincing when she realized that she couldn’t lift her arm.

Esther had thrown her arms around her, and they had been falling…

Marina jerked, and the nausea from having moved her shoulder briefly let black dots dance in front of her eyes. She clenched her teeth against the impulse to throw up and her heart raced in sudden fear.

Please. Let Esther be alright.

But there were no answers to her plea, just the daylight falling in through the window and the empty chair.

That jacket.

Marina was suddenly alert.

Very wouldn’t wear a jacket like that, not with those stripes and in not those colors, either. Besides, Vera had worn a jacket already. And she hadn’t looked as if she had slept in a hospital chair all night.

Marina knew that jacket.

She had first seen it on a mild autumn evening, walking out of her favorite bar, and next to her, on those long legs and with that graceful arch of her neck, there had been Esther, in that jacket that Marina would never even think of wearing, knitted and striped, but for every odd look Esther might have gotten in the upscale bar, there had been one of endearment from Marina.

Esther wore things because she liked them and not to look like something else. She ate things because she enjoyed them, and not because they were expensive. She drank Cinzano because she enjoyed the taste of it and she didn’t worry about what people might think of her if they saw her drink something less posh than an Amarone or a pricey Barolo.

If only Esther would worry just as little about other people’s opinions when it came to whom she was dating.

But she had been here, Marina told herself while exhaustion took over once more and her eyes closed on their own, with a last glance at the bare, pristine chair.

After everything she had done to alienate her, wanting to hurt her as much in return as Esther had hurt her, Esther had been here, and she had stayed long enough to take off her jacket and bring a blanket along.

Sleep was comforting like a knitted jacket this time. Perhaps even one with stripes.

“I suppose these are Esther’s.”

Teresa looked up from her computer screen and at the bundle of clothes being held out to her. A sleeve dangled against the reception counter and Teresa recognized Esther’s jacket.

“Yes, they are,” she replied and she let her gaze trail up Vera’s face before she accepted the bundle. Damn the woman for having the best hairdresser in Milan. Teresa wondered why highlights in the same blond didn’t look as natural in her own hair. It was just one more reason to treat Vera with reserve. “Where did you find these?”

“They were in Marina’s room,” Vera replied and Teresa arched a brow at the implied familiarity. “I imagine that she might be looking for them. Although I don’t suppose that she was actually sleeping in there. After all, as a head nurse she will know about protocol and infection risks with recovering lung patients…”

Teresa gave Vera a withering look. “I think Esther knows what’s good for Marina.”

“Perhaps,” Vera allowed. “But so do I.”

Teresa could have smacked the condescending smile right off Vera’s face. That woman breezed in here every day, spending an hour at Marina’s bedside and feeling entitled to God knew what.

Esther was there night and day and it had taken Teresa some effort to send her home with Rocco today when she had come out of long extra hours in the operating halls. If it weren’t for Teresa, Esther would have walked up to Trauma again, to Marina, even though she could barely keep her eyes open.

In between moving her things to Rocco’s place, still adjusting to her new job and watching over Marina, Esther hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep since the shooting, something of which her bandaged hand still served as a reminder. Five stitches, that’s how many there had been in the end.

Teresa decided that it was time Vera took her act elsewhere. “Have nice day then, Dr. Corradi.” She didn’t even bother to look up from her papers. If anybody in this hospital made remarks about Marina Ranieri, or Esther, or the two of them, it was Teresa herself, and not some arrogant Dr. Corradi who didn’t even work here. “I’m sure Esther will alert you as soon as Marina asks her to do it.” Teresa stressed Marina’s first name a little. She might not like the idea of Esther dating Marina, but she liked Vera even less.

“She must have been awake briefly earlier, they took her off the respiratory machine. Everything looks fine.”

Rocco had called in the early evening, his wife relaying the good news to Esther. And Esther had been on her way to the hospital, once more hours before her shift started.

She couldn’t help but feel like an intruder in Rocco’s apartment and she was afraid to overstay her welcome. Rocco’s invitation had been honest, as had been his wife’s, but their apartment was small.

Esther knew that a nurse’s salary didn’t allow for more, not even on the outskirts of town, but she had gratefully accepted the offer of their couch where she found toys between the cushions every night.

When Esther had to go in for nightshift, she helped Rocco bring the children to bed beforehand. Sometimes, she went on without him while he still waited. He never left before his wife had come home from her job.

Still, it was just two more nights now. Teresa had talked to Susanna from the ICU unit, who had a friend who was also a doctor and who was about to leave for six months in Honduras, Medics without Borders, and was looking for a house sitter for his apartment.

Esther had only been too happy to say yes.

The situation at home had become unbearable. Her father just wanted his “normal, little Esther” back and if he spoke to her at all, that was the only thing he said.

“Your little Esther grew up.” She had tried to talk to him, but he ignored all her explanations. She had even apologized for causing him so many worries, to no avail. She would not apologize for her feelings, though.

With a bad conscience and a last laundry done, she had finally packed two suitcases and accepted Rocco’s offer.

And in six months, when Honduras was over, Esther hoped to have a little place on her own. She had completely forgotten that the promotion to head nurse also included a decent raise of her salary. When she had first seen the new figures on her account balance, she had nearly passed out.

A little place on her own, to which she hoped to invite Marina at some point. Repeatedly.

Esther rounded another corner of the stairs, nervously holding onto the small, stuffed pet in her pocket. If Marina was awake, she didn’t want to come empty-handed. It was the only thing she had been able to grab on her way to work and she hoped that it would cheer Marina up. It had always cheered up her little patients, at least.

Another corner, another flight of stairs. Esther slowed down a little. She had chosen the stairs instead of the elevator to have a few more moments to organize her thoughts, but now that she was about to face Marina, she couldn’t manage a clear thought at all.

She had wished so desperately for this moment over the past few days, to finally see Marina awake again, but now that it was upon her, she wouldn’t have minded to wait a little longer.

If only Marina didn’t treat her that coldly anymore.

Esther took a deep breath, and then another, before she knocked on the door. There was no answer. Slowly, she edged the door open and slipped into the room, careful not to make too much noise. “Marina?”

But the room was empty.

And it wasn’t just that Marina wasn’t in the bed. The machines were silent and unplugged, there were no clothes in the closet and the bed had been stripped down.

After a first, horrible moment of fear, Esther fumbled for the phone on the wall and called the reception. “What happened to Marina, I mean, Dr. Ranieri?” she demanded to know. “She’s supposed to be up in Trauma, but the room is empty?!”

“Ah, Dr. Ranieri.” Teresa’s nightshift colleague, Massimo, called up a few files on the computer. Esther could hear the clicking of the mouse against her ear. “She got released…. no, transferred. About an hour ago…”

“Transferred?” Esther was flabbergasted. Marina had only just been hooked off artificial respiration and was still recovering from severe trauma. “Who signed that transfer?!!”

“I did,” Massimo said. “And Pellesino. He authorized it.”

Massimo would sign anything that came bearing Pellesino’s name. He wasn’t big on asking questions, anyway. And Pellesino had power of attorney when Danieli wasn’t in the house, but Esther couldn’t imagine why he would want to transfer Marina anywhere else.

“Where did she get transferred?” Esther asked and she didn’t care that she didn’t sound very friendly.

“Wait…” Massimo leafed through a few papers. “The Regina Elisabetta –Trauma Recovery, they have a special department for gunshot patients…”

But Esther didn’t listen to the explanations. “Who asked for this transfer?” It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t dare. “Did Dr. Ranieri asked to be transferred?”

“She seemed pretty absent when they wheeled her out of here,” Massimo stated without much interest. “The transfer was ordered by… wait… ah, yes. A Dr. Corradi. Vera Corradi.”

“She’s not a even trauma specialist!” Esther paced across the supply room. “She is a pediatrician!”

“And she’s dead,” Rocco added, stopping Esther in her tracks. “At least if looks could kill and if she was here right now.”

“Can’t say that I would miss her,” Teresa muttered from where she stood leaning against the wall, having turned on the spot and headed back to the hospital upon hearing the news. “She had this planned.”

“She simply can’t do that!” Esther was still fuming and when she crossed her arms over her chest, her hands were trembling. A little over an hour ago, she had found Marina’s room empty. “Since when do doctors transfer patients around town only because they want them close by?”

“Officially, it’s because they have the better equipped trauma ward,” Rocco pointed. “Danieli himself said that they do have two specialists for gunshot wounds.”

“But she didn’t do it because of that!” Esther protested. “She did it to move Marina closer to herself.”

Rocco nodded. “Only that we can’t prove it, and that nobody will believe us.”

“And that she’s only about the most sought after pediatrician of entire Lombardy and sits in at least three different committees in addition,” Teresa added.

Rocco nodded again. “And that it would make you sound like the jealous ex-girlfriend.”

“Esther is the jealous ex-girlfriend,” Teresa reminded him.

“Hey!” Esther complained. “On whose side are you two?”

“On yours,” Rocco assured her. “But I don’t think we can get Marina transported back here, at least not…”

“I don’t want her to be transported around town like a piece of cargo!” Esther interrupted. “I just want her to get better! – And I can’t believe a renowned whatever-of-Lombardy physician would transport a patient that shortly after a major operation.”

“And if it was such a sound medical decision, why did Corradi file the transfer ten minutes after I signed out?” Teresa asked. “And when neither of the two of you was on shift, either? – That woman knew exactly what she was doing, and when to do it.”

“I don’t even know where Marina is right now.” Esther’s shoulders slumped. “I need forty minutes over there with the metro and the tram, and with how my shifts are this week, I’m not even sure I’m in their visiting hours!”

“We’ll know where she is right away,” Teresa promised, still piqued by the stunt Vera had pulled on them. It was easier to rant against the presumptuous Dr. Corradi than to look at the tears that stood in Esther’s eyes and accept that it was the worry about Marina that caused them. “If she thinks an off-hour patient transfer throws us off track, she doesn’t know with whom she’s dealing.”

Esther sniffled. “Thanks.”

Teresa cleared her throat, uncomfortable with Esther’s gratefulness. “Just give me five minutes on the phone with their admission desk…”

“And in the morning, after shift, we’ll go there are soon as visiting hours start,” Rocco suggested. “That Dr. Corradi will still be at breakfast when you already talk to Marina.”

“If she will talk to me.” Esther muttered dejectedly. “I wasn’t there when she woke up… and what if she asked for the transfer?”

“Didn’t Marina tell you that she had bad memories of the Regina Elisabetta?” Rocco reasoned. “And didn’t she leave her post there because she didn’t want to be around Dr. Corradi any longer?”

Esther shook her head. “But that was before Vera wanted her back.”

Rocco took a step back, banging against a set of metal shelves in the process. “ Ouch… so what – you’re going to give up?”

“No.” Esther straightened. “I’m going to inform her that I want her back, too.” And if Marina then decided that she didn’t want anything to do with her any longer, then she would accept it. But not any sooner.

Still, her own bravado didn’t calm her doubts and throughout a long night shift, Esther found herself facing the same questions again and again. Whether Marina had asked to be transferred herself, whether she had wanted to get away from Esther like she had once wanted to get away from Vera, and whether Vera was now the more likely candidate to garner Marina’s affections once more.

The doubts were still there while she rode with an exhausted Rocco on the metro across town. He tried to cheers her up with jokes, but Esther was too nervous to even feel her own tiredness, staring at the note with Marina’s room number in her hand.

Nothing motivated Teresa to do her best detective work like feeling crossed by someone higher up in the ranks.

Still, it wouldn’t do any good if Marina didn’t want to see her.

Esther was almost relieved when, upon entering the Regina Elisabetta – “They have palm trees in the lobby?” was the first thing Rocco said. “Guess someone up in the board of directors is voting for the right party.” – they were told that Marina’s room belonged to a floor with restricted access.

“She is in ICU?” Esther asked with panic in her voice.

The nurse on duty looked at her across the rim of her glasses. “No, it’s just a special care unit. – Are you a family member?”

“I…” Esther hadn’t thought of this before. She wasn’t here as a nurse, she was here as a guest, as someone who had to adhere to visiting hours and needed to prove a relation to the patient she wanted to see.

“Yes, we are.” Rocco took over with a suitably worried frown. “Poor cousin Marina…” He slid an arm around Esther. “With her parents out of the country, my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to drop by. We don’t see each other much, but in such a situation…”

“Well…” The nurse in question still looked doubtful. “Go on up, then. House Three, the fourth floor. Second corridor down the right.”

“Thank you.” Rocco gave the nurse a blinding smile and then took Esther’s arm. “Come on, sugar bun, we don’t want to keep cousin Marina waiting…”

“I can’t believe you did that,” Esther mouthed as soon as they had turned around. “…sugar bun?!”

“Don’t complain, it got us in here.” Rocco stepped into the next elevator and pressed the button for the fourth floor. “Sorry if that puts a dent in your new reputation as a lesbian heartbreaker…”

“Rocco!” Esther blushed. “I’m not a… heartbreaker.”

“Oh sure.” Rocco looked up at the ceiling as the elevator moved. “Tell that to the cute blonde technician from the X-ray lab, she’s been giving you long looks ever since you went out with Marina, and even longer ones since you’ve stopped going out with her.”

Esther’s blush didn’t subside. “Stop it.”

“No really.” Rocco didn’t seem to be joking. “With all the X-Ray envelopes you have to sign these days, I can’t believe you didn’t notice it yet.”

“The blonde one? Really?” Esther was still doubtful, but there was a bit of a smile playing around her lips. “The one that started last year, with the really green eyes?”

“See?” Rocco gestured, drawing up his shoulders. “Just what I said. Heartbreaker.”

The light mood disappeared, however, when they stepped out of the elevator and found the station corridor where Marina was supposed to be locked off by a set of heavy doors.

This time, Rocco’s performance as cousin Ranieri didn’t pay off, since the nurse on duty – a woman who seemed to believe that there were taxes to be paid on smiles – had a list with names of relatives and there was no Rocco Ranieri on there, of course.

“Only the closest relatives,” the nurse reiterated and turned to disappear once more through the doors that kept Esther away from Marina.

“No, wait…” Esther held the nurse back. “You see, he’s just trying to help me. It’s just… I must see her, please.”

“And what’s your name?” the nurse asked without interest.

Esther swallowed. “Esther…” Even if the nurse wouldn’t let her in, perhaps Marina would at least know that she had been here.

Nope.” The nurse threw a cursory glance at the list. “No Esther on here. What do you want to be, another cousin?”

“No, I—“ Esther dug her nails into her palms. “I’m her girlfriend. Please… I need to see her.” She knew she was blushing crimson, but there was no way back now.

“The girlfriend.” The nurse grinned, but it was not a nice expression. “I didn’t know the Ranieri was seeing someone new.” She didn’t even look at her list. “Anyway, you’re not a family member.”

“But I… I need to see her.” Esther repeated, incredulous at the nurse’s refusal. “We had a fight… just before she got shot… I need to talk to her.”

“Are you a little slow, or what?” The nurse straightened. “No family. No access.”

“Not even if she’s my lover?” Esther all but yelled.

The nurse took her time in leveling her gaze to Esther’s before she slowly said, “No.” She seemed to enjoy it.

From behind her, Rocco tugged on her arm. “Come on, this is pointless.” He dragged an unwilling Esther away. “Sorry we took up your time,” he added in direction of the nurse and smiled at her for good measure.

“You really don’t need to smile at her,” Esther said between her teeth when Rocco pulled her around the next corner and towards a supply cart in the hallway. “She was mean!”

“But she has the law on her side,” Rocco replied with a grimace. “Technically, you could have lived with Marina for a decade, you still wouldn’t be family in front of the law.”

The image of Marina at her side, in an apartment with photos of the two of them, perhaps of children, momentarily distracted Esther. A decade with Marina. It sounded wonderful.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t react at first when Rocco took a sealed package off the supply cart and motioned towards the ladies room.

“Come on, we need to get you changed.”

“Changed?” Esther stared at the package in her hands. It was a set of scrubs.

“It’s the same color they wear in that top secret station, I paid attention.” Rocco looked left and right before he pushed both of them into the bathroom. “You are a nurse, so technically, you should have access…” He held a stall door open for Esther. “Come on, that jacket has to go. I’ll help you.”

He smiled when Esther threw his arms around him, scrub package and all. “You’re the best, Rocco.”

“You didn’t think we drove all the way out here to give up now, did you?” Rocco gave her a friendly squeeze. Then he took a step back, reaching for the scrubs. “Sweet. Much nicer than ours! – Hmm, do you think that color would look goods on me, as well? They really have someone in the right party around here…”

“Only that the right party never is the right party,” Esther muttered while she took off her jacket.

Rocco was right, though, the scrubs of the Regina Elisabetta were a flattering blue in a material that was a lot softer than their own scrubs. And with a set of bandages in hand and a cap on her head, it was ridiculously easy to enter the station and pass through the doors just as another nurse walked out, nodding at her in passing as if she knew her.

The corridor was relatively empty and there were no special care measurements that Esther could identify. It looked like a normal station, but it was clearly a place where someone higher up in the hierarchy of physicians, like a well-known pediatrics surgeon, could organize for someone to be kept conveniently hidden.

Esther didn’t even have time to be nervous about being caught. She was too nervous about seeing Marina. There was no time to wait and reason in front of her room, though. At any moment, someone could realize that she was not part of the authorized personnel and have her kicked out by security.

Esther took a deep breath and knocked lightly, opening the door and slipping into the room almost at the same time.

There was just one bed and Esther’s heart skipped a beat when she recognized Marina, her hair loosely spread across the pillow, breathing without artificial respiration. There was still a drip attached to her hand and she looked pale and a little gaunt, but other than that, she rolled a bit to the side and blinked her eyes open, just like she had done every one of the mornings that Esther had woken up next to her.

“Marina…” She stepped closer, somewhat hesitant. Only on second thought, she reached for the small, stuffed tiger pet that she hadn’t been able to give Marina last night. It was a ridiculous gift, but she had to hold onto something or Marina would be able to see how much her hands were trembling.

And Marina looked at her, a little slowly at first, but without reproach. She blinked once more, and for one fearful moment, Esther was afraid that she wouldn’t recognize her, but then Marina smiled in a way that warmed Esther all the way down to her toes.

“Esther…” Her voice was gravelly with sleep, but all that Esther could see was that smile, Marina’s smile, and her eyes. “How…” A tiny frown etched itself across Marina’s brow. “Did we change uniforms?”

It took Esther a moment to realize what Marina was talking about. “No,” she hastened to say, gesturing at the borrowed scrubs.

“No…” Marina turned her head a little more in Esther’s direction. “M’sorry— my brain is still a little slow… I don’t remember…”

“Don’t worry, that’s normal,” Esther said gently, while she made a mental note to kill Vera if she ran into her. It was more than obvious that Marina was still under heavy sedation, and that she had in no way been able to ask for her own transfer.

“But you remember those, right?” Esther held out the little tiger.

“Yes…” Marina swallowed. “Of course… I always just gave them away, and now I finally get one myself.” She lifted her hand – the one that was without the drip – to accept the small toy and there was that smile again. “Thank you.”

Esther felt as if she could run ten miles and then climb the Eiffel Tower in addition, lengthy nightshift and lack of sleep notwithstanding.

She stood close enough to the bed to touch Marina, but before she dared to reach out, Marina’s fingers slowly brushed against the thin fabric of the scrubs. “We did have other scrubs before…”

Esther took Marina’s hand in hers. “You’re not at the Morandini,” she explained gently. “They transferred you, to a specialized station.”

For a moment, Marina looked at her as if she hadn’t understood. Then, her gaze wandered around the room, taking in the colors, the equipment and the layout. “I know this.” Marina let her head sink back against the pillow. “The Regina Elisabetta.” She closed her eyes for a moment. Then she looked at Esther again. “How did I… let me guess. – Vera?”

Esther gave her a small smile. “You aren’t that slow.”

Marina’s gaze turned absent again for a second. “You transferred here, too?” she asked, and she seemed to like the idea.

“No.” Esther smoothed out the foreign shirt. “I just stole the scrubs to sneak in here.”

“You stole the scrubs,” Marina repeated slowly, and then a grin spread across her face, so broad that Esther was afraid it would crack Marina’s dry lips.

Happiness bubbled up throughout her as she stood there, in scrubs that were not her own and with Marina’s hand between hers.

Marina’s eyelids were growing heavy again. “Sorry… m’still… tired…” Her fingers closed around the small tiger Esther had given her.

“You should get some more sleep.” Esther couldn’t resist. She leaned down and stroked a whisper-thin strand of hair back from Marina’s forehead. “I could come back tomorrow again, after shift…”

“Mhmm…” Marina sighed drowsily. “I’d like that…” Her eyes were falling shut before Esther could say anything else.

With utter care, Esther spread the blanket over Marina’s hand one more, the hand that still held onto the stuffed animal she had brought her.

Fine, so she hadn’t said the important things. That she loved her. And that she would have given anything to see her smile once more, just like she had now. And that she would wait for her.

On her way to the door, Esther wondered whether Marina remembered what happened – Luigi, his mother, and the shooting – or whether she was still under so much sedation that she was blissfully unaware of the self-doubt and the anger that had eaten her up in those last few days before the attack.

But all that could wait, Esther decided. And when Marina remembered thing eventually, perhaps they could work through it together, even if as nothing more than friends. Perhaps Marina would let her help this time.

With how Marina had smiled at her right now, it was at least a possibility.

3

The days had turned into those with Marina, and those without.

The days without Marina were long hours of early autumn where gray skies seemed to hang low over Esther’s head. The days with Marina were filled with nervous anticipation, with fretting over what to wear at the end of the shift and with reading the same page over and over again without registering it while she sat in the metro.

Where Esther’s calendar once had been marked by early shifts, night shifts and off days, it was now scheduled to the visitor’s hours at the Regina Elisabetta, split in weekdays and weekends.

The first week, it had meant sneaking into the closed off ward in the scrubs that Rocco had ‘borrowed’ for her, afraid to be caught at any moment and at the same time knowing that she would risk far more for the chance to bask in Marina’s sleepy smile.

Marina was still on heavy painkillers, sedated to a mellow state, and usually slipped back into sleep after a few minutes, but Esther didn’t really mind. Like this she could look at Marina as long as she wanted. And as longingly as she wanted.

Part of her was afraid that Marina would stop smiling at her once she regained her cool and her control. It was with a guilty conscience that Esther enjoyed those few, unguarded minutes after Marina fell asleep, knowing that they might be a thing of the past when Marina recovered.

“How’s Sleeping Beauty?” Rocco tended to tease her after her visits. “…and I don’t mean you.”

“Very funny.” Esther glowered at him from eyes that were lined with dark circles.

“It looks like it’s really turning into a hundred years,” Teresa observed from where she was sorting through a pile of patient files. “Just like in the fairy tale, only that she gets all the sleep, and you get none!”

“Exactly,” Rocco chimed in. “If Esther kisses the princess awake and the first thing Marina sees are those dark circles, she’ll be scared right back into unconsciousness!”

Teresa leafed a bit more loudly through the next file while Esther blushed.

There were things that Esther didn’t mention to Marina.

And as long as Marina kept mixing up times and places, Esther was happy to leave the more difficult talks that awaited them for later.

After Marina was transferred to a normal station, with less sedation, talking became more difficult. To Esther, it seemed as if Marina’s smile was more reserved, although she always asked her to come back.

“Will you come by tomorrow again?” Marina was sitting up already and her expression was that of a child on the evening before Christmas.

Esther couldn’t help but smile. “If I don’t have to stay extra hours, I’ll be back tomorrow morning after shift.”

Marina’s eyes sparkled. “Good.”

And Esther could have kicked herself for giving in so easily to that smile. Underneath the relief of seeing Marina recover, she grappled with her fear of rejection, angry at the sensation, and angry at Marina, who smiled and asked her to come back, but never made any indication that she even thought about their past relationship.

Every time Esther stood in front of her door, the hand already lifted to knock while she tried to calm her raging pulse, she tried to make a promise to herself that she would bring up the issue this time, but then Marina smiled at her again and Esther didn’t want to lose those smiles.

They talked about their colleagues, about the weather and about Esther’s new job as a head nurse. They didn’t talk about Luigi or the shooting. And they didn’t talk about their relationship, although Esther’s visits and Marina’s smiles bespoke a confidence that implied a level of intimacy bigger than in the days after Luigi’s death.

Marina’s anger at Esther’s reluctance and the cold rage over Luigi’s death were two different things. Esther saw that now. She saw many things now, waiting with baited breath at times when Marina gave her a slightly longer look, hoping for something that would tell her that it was alright to take her hand and to tell her that she missed her, and that coffee break in the cafeteria without the slight hope that Marina would walk in, too, was terribly bleak.

The waiting was wearing her patience thin, especially as there was nothing that told her whether Marina would even contemplate giving her another chance. At times, Esther could have banged her head against the wall in frustration after leaving Marina’s room.

Oftentimes, she wondered whether this was what Marina had felt when Esther had tiptoed around the issue after their first kiss, or when she had refused time and again to talk things over with Marina.

She had been so scared for herself that there had been no space left for Marina’s fears.

She hadn’t been ready then, just like Rocco had told her. She still didn’t know whether she was ready now, but she would try it anyway.

And her doubts had lessened since she had moved out, first from her father, and then from Rocco’s couch. Even though the place she returned to after shift wasn’t hers, seeing Marina’s velvet jacket in wardrobe was like a warm greeting that soothed the silence of the apartment.

In the beginning, every creaking floorboard had awoken her and more than one night, Esther had stood up and checked the locks on the door. It was strange to live alone; to be able to leave the doors open and put on music and to walk down the hallway naked if she felt like a glass of juice right after her shower.

Marina didn’t ask about her father.

There was little that Esther could have said about him at the moment, except for that he was as stubborn as he had always been. Esther had left her new address on a note pinned to the fridge, but there had been no call and no visit yet.

At times, she had a bad conscience. Most of the time, actually. And then again she was angry with herself for missing him even though she was still mad at him. It was the complacency of an old habit that was difficult to break that had her miss him, not the actual sensation of living with him.

Something between them had been broken over her admission of being in love with Marina. A small, irreparable fissure that let in a draft of cold air, even if her father still put her favorite pudding onto the dinner table with a smile. Initially, Esther had thought that it was this – her father still seeing her as a five-year-old who could be bought with pudding and whose opinion could be brushed aside, nothing to take in earnest. But the image that persecuted her was not her father’s dismissal of her decisions, but the one of him yelling at Marina like a maniac, almost spitting at her. It was his mindless ire that Esther couldn’t shake off, the hatred and the way he had annihilated her by yelling at Marina in her name.

Marina didn’t ask about her father.

Esther didn’t ask about Vera.

She didn’t ask about the expensive flower arrangements that tended to sit on Marina’s nightstand, either. They could be from Marina’s parents, after all.

In all the times she had visited Marina, Esther hadn’t seen Vera even once. She could only guess that Dr. Corradi used the quiet hours after visiting hours were over.

Marina never mentioned her. And Esther didn’t ask.

At least Vera didn’t sleep in Marina’s room.

Esther knew that because she had come by one night in the wee hours of the morning, when Marina had still been in the closed off station.

A night shift with a multiple highway accident and three long surgeries, ending with three fatalities. Malosti had smashed a tray of sterilized glass containers afterwards. Esther only recalled sitting in the metro, just before dawn, the light pale as she changed into the foreign scrubs in the foreign bathroom stall with trembling hands.

Marina had been sleeping. And Esther had stood here for long minutes, just watching the gentle rise and fall of Marina’s chest. Marina’s breaths were the only thing that had held her together that night and she had stayed longer, much longer than cautiousness allowed, stumbling out just before the first morning check-up.

Marina hadn’t even known that she had been there.

But like this Esther knew that Vera didn’t sleep by Marina’s side, at least not every night, and she wished that it was also because Marina had refused the offer. There never was an extra blanket, no trace of perfume, but perhaps Vera simply had to be more careful in her own workplace. She had been afraid of gossip once before, even though Esther had the sneaking suspicion that Vera had evolved in that regard.

Still, if this were her working place, Esther would spend each and every night at Marina’s side. She had evolved, too.

It was a thought that made Esther smile as she rounded the corner, took the elevator and then walked down the hallway with its green linoleum towards Marina’s room.

She knocked, her smile broadening. “Guess who had the lowest error rate ever on a head nurse report this morn…”

Esther’s voice ran out of sound and a sensation of déjà vu washed over her.

The room was empty, the bed stripped of its linens, and Marina was gone.

For one horrifying moment, Esther feared that Marina had suffered a sudden relapse overnight, but then she told herself that it couldn’t be, Marina had been recovering so well these last few days, she had even mentioned that she wanted to start physiotherapy as soon as possible.

Fear for Marina made Esther push aside all caution. If something had happened to her, she needed to know. She needed to be with her.

The pediatric ward was easy enough to find and even though Esther had planned to knock and ask politely, the moment she saw “Prof. V. Corradi” on the office plate in big, important letters, she ran out of patience.

Vera looked up in surprise at her door being thrown open. Esther stood in the doorway, and her expression was of such wildness that Vera actually took a step back.

“Esther,” she acknowledged. “What…”

“Where did you ship her off to now?!” Esther had no time for preambles.

“I didn’t.” Vera blinked. “This time, I really don’t know. – She is not in her room?”

“No, she isn’t.” Esther pushed her hair out of her face with a shaky hand. “Please, just tell me… is she alright?”

Vera needed a moment to understand. “Oh no, dear God, no.” She shook her head. “She didn’t die. Of course not. I would be alerted immediately if anything happened, I have every change on call…” She trailed off, realizing that she had shown Esther more that she had wanted to.

“On call,” Esther repeated coolly. “How useful.”

Vera leaned back against her desk, crossing one pointed, expensive-looking boot over the other. “Yes,” she stated with equal cool. Then she reached for the phone and it only took her two buttons to have someone at the ready at the other end of the line. “She was supposed to be transferred to a clinic for physiotherapeutic recovery two days from now…”

That was something else that Esther had never heard of before, but knowing Vera, it was quite possible that Marina hadn’t known about this, either.

Vera ended the call and the click of the receiver against its cradle interrupted Esther’s musings.

“She was released two hours ago, while I was off shift…” Vera said in disbelief. “I don’t understand this.”

See, this is what it feels like, Esther thought, the fear of not knowing where she is. But seeing the anguish reflected on Vera’s face didn’t make Esther feel very triumphant.

“I don’t understand this…” Vera repeated.

Esther slowly shook her head. “She would be stubborn enough to release herself.”

Vera gave her a startled look. “That is true,” she admitted.

They shared a weirdly companionable chuckle, finding themselves on the same side with the knowledge of Marina’s stubbornness. It lasted but a second.

“I’ll try to locate her,” Vera said and it sounded like a challenge.

Esther nodded. “So will I.”

Vera gave Esther a skeptical look. “Who finds out first informs the other?”

“All right,” Esther agreed, even though she didn’t believe for one bit that Vera would actually inform her.

They parted like enemy forces negotiating a truce. Vera probably had more connections. Esther had to give her that. Esther, however, had Teresa.

“That woman?! Finding out before I do?!!” By the tone of Teresa’s voice alone, Esther knew the expression of strained patience that the receptionist was sporting at this very moment. “In her dreams! – Just let me make a few phone calls. And if that Dr. Corradi– “ Teresa spit out the title as if it were a repulsive insect “–if she’s covering something up and shipped Marina off herself, to some private recovery center or to her vacation home in some posh resort in Sicily, I’ll find that out, too.”

“Vera has a vacation home in Sicily?” Esther wouldn’t put it beyond Teresa to know such a thing.

“If she does have one, dear…“ Esther could hear how Teresa swiveled around in her chair. “…then we will know before her shift is over.”

It wasn’t Sicily in the end. But it was a posh private center.

“Merano?” Esther asked with disbelief. “They shipped her off to Merano?!”

“You don’t need to cross the Garda Lake by boat.” Teresa, who had been about to buff her nails on the lapels of her jacket, was disappointed with Esther’s reaction. “You can just drive alongside it, with a car, so I don’t think there was any shipping involved.”

“Of course,” Esther hastened to agree. “Teresa, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re the best. The very, very best.”

“I’ve done just a little digging.” Teresa waved Esther off, but when Esther hugged her with enthusiasm, she couldn’t smother a smile. “And the clinic is in no way associated with Dr. Corradi.”

The relief was clearly visible on Esther’s face. “Yes, if it was really her parents who transferred her there, they wouldn’t involve Vera.”

“Why not, actually?” Teresa frowned. “Just hypothetically speaking, of course,” she added when Esther opened her mouth to protest. “They’re old aristocracy with an upscale wine label that gets them into the society column sometimes… I’ve heard.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, Corradi should be right up their alley: money and connections. And I know the contracts a pediatrician can get in this city, I’ve had quite a few going across my desk, and she didn’t get the money for that chalet in Locarno by treating children with chicken pox.”

That was another piece of knowledge that Teresa’s research had unveiled. Vera had a private holiday home, in Switzerland, but thankfully, it seemed as if Marina wasn’t sharing that home with her at the moment.

“For such a family, someone like Corradi would be perfect.” Teresa was still puzzled. And, even though she didn’t want to admit it, she was still impressed by the chalet in Locarno. “I don’t understand why they would disapprove of her.”

“Because she’s a woman, Terry,” Esther said with annoyance. The idea that Vera would be a good fit for Marina was nothing she wanted to hear about in any context. It came to close to her own fears – Marina with her money, a woman who always knew what wine to get with a menu. Next to Vera with her expensive leather bags and her chalet, Esther had an apartment that wasn’t even her own and in her father’s house, open bottles of red were kept in the fridge.

“You’d think that with that much money and connections, they wouldn’t care.” Teresa shook her head. “Granted, I only had her father’s secretary on the phone, but it was a man, and he said ‘personal secretary to Count Ranieri.’ If people are only snobby enough, the Ranieris don’t seem to care about gender very much – really, who would hire a man as a personal secretary?!”

Still, thanks to that secretary, they knew that Marina’s parents were back in Europe, and that they had apparently taken the time to arrange a transfer of Marina to a private clinic in Merano before flying off to a fair in Southern France.

“I wonder whether they even visited her,” Esther said angrily. “And if they care about her, why didn’t they find a place in a clinic somewhere closer to them? There have to be pricey private clinics around Tuscany, too!”

“Instead they park her up in Tyrol…” Teresa pursed her lips. If her husband would have to go to a health resort, she’d make sure that it was one close by. “Well, at least they won’t interrupt you if you visit her. – You are going to visit her, aren’t you?”

“Of course.” Esther was already checking connections with the state railway on the same computer where they had just then looked up the expensive private health and rehabilitation center where Marina was right now. “Oh no!”

“What?” Teresa looked over her shoulder in alarm. “Merano has a train station, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but the trip is almost five hours,” Esther said unhappily. “And I only have Saturday off, I have to be on shift Sunday morning. With how bad the connections are, I will barely have time to see her.”

“It’s just a little over three hours with the car,” Teresa commented.

“And I’ve suddenly won a car, or what?” Esther was scrolling through the list of possible connections.

Teresa leaned against the desk and crossed her arms over her chest. “Actually…” She hesitated a little. “…actually, Alfredo could go to the weekend soccer match with the metro.”

It was hard to say who was more surprised – Esther at the offer, or Teresa at herself.

A little more movement wouldn’t be bad for Alfredo. And it wouldn’t hurt to remind him that they had bought that car with money that had been earned by Teresa, for the most part.

And thanks to that reasoning, early Saturday morning saw Esther behind the wheel of Teresa’s family car, three hours and a half in front of her, alone with herself and her thoughts.

In the end, Teresa had been reluctant about her own generous offer. Esther had noticed it, but she had chosen to ignore it. The chance to see Marina was too tempting. As were the daydreams of whisking Marina away from the clinic for a while in this car and driving them both to a quiet spot where they could talk. For now, just talk. Although Esther wouldn’t mind to seal that talk with a kiss.

She was still stunned that Teresa had offered up her family car. They hadn’t spoken about the period of hostility that Teresa had initiated between them and that had slowly vanished, albeit without ever addressing it. Perhaps it was easier for Teresa to accept Esther’s feelings for Marina when Marina wasn’t there, but somewhere conveniently away. Like in Tyrol.

And Esther running after someone, Esther had to admit that, was something that Teresa was familiar with. Only that this time, it wasn’t Aldo, or some other guy who dumped his laundry on her doorstep and called her “puppet”, but Marina. And Marina drove Esther home from work. She had bought her an expensive dress once. She invited Esther to dinner, or to the cinema.

At least Marina had done all those things. Like a perfect boyfriend. And now Esther was running after Marina like she had run after every one of her boyfriends, with the same lack of success.

To Teresa, things had to look pretty much the same as they always had.

Perhaps that was why Esther now sat in this car that steadily took the road, first out east to Verona and then up towards Tyrol. Hill slopes covered in vines seemed to rock the curvy street between them. The bright red of ripening apples shone in the clear mountain air and at times, down to her left, she managed to catch a glance at the slate-green ripples of the Adige River.

It was a mild, inviting scenery, made for recovery, and hopefully for new beginnings.

Esther’s confident mood began to wane when she approached the clinic areal. At least she assumed it was the clinic, since all she could see were big wire fences, thick hedges, and, at the locked entry gate, two framing palm trees that moved softly within the breeze, unsympathetic to her outrage at the note of “no visitors” on the gate.

The watchman on duty was equally unhelpful as the nurses of the Regina Elisabetta had been, annoyed already that Esther had dared to ring in the first place, and then even less courteous when Esther told him in no uncertain terms that she was here to see a friend. A friend and colleague. A really good friend. Goddamnit, her girlfriend!

“No visitors,” he repeated for the fifth time, in an unfriendly tone.

Esther couldn’t believe that she should be stopped so close to her goal. “But I just drove up the entire way from Milan!”

“You could fly in with a helicopter from Timbuktu, I still wouldn’t let you in.” The guard straightened his posture.

Esther supposed that the clinic was posh enough to have people arrive by helicopter, but if she had a helicopter, she would simply chop across the head of this arrogant prick.

“But it’s a special situation…” Esther tried again.

“Look, Miss, if you want a special situation, I can call my colleague over there…” The watchman pushed his hands into the pockets of his pants that were a little too small for him and nodded at a small cabin next to the gate. “And we can carry you off the grounds if you refuse to leave in peace.”

Esther shut her eyes tightly for a second, refusing to cry in front of this man. Somewhere behind those lines of palm trees and boxwood, there was Marina. “Could you at least deliver a message?” She hated having to ask him. “Let her decide whether she wants to see me or not. Just let her know that I’m here.”

“Do you see the sign up there?” The watchman pointed at the gate. “It still says ‘no visitors’. – This is a private clinic, for private recovery. We’ve had enough trouble with press and nosy tourists already.”

With that, he closed the small door in the gate he had opened to speak to Esther and walked back to the cabin at the side. He didn’t turn around as Esther called after him. He didn’t react at all.

Esther kicked at the iron gate, cursing under her breath. She hadn’t been driving three and a half hours on her day off, paying road charge at every other stop, to be sent away again by a guard without having seen Marina.

She wished Rocco were here with her. He would have an idea. Rocco always had an idea. He would even help her to climb the stupid fence. Perhaps they didn’t have guards on the other side, at the back. Esther returned to the car and drove around the next hill slope, out of sight, before she allowed herself to slump against the back of her seat and take a deep breath.

Then she reached for her cell phone. She had Rocco’s number already on the display when another idea occurred to her.

She still had Marina’s number. On speed dial, even.

Perhaps Marina had her phone with her.

Perhaps she would pick up.

Esther was by now so used to Marina not taking her calls – it was something with which she had collected quite a bit of practice in the weeks leading up to the shooting – that she nearly jumped when Marina answered after three rings.

“Esther, hello!”

She sounded much more awake, and happy about the call. And it seemed as if she still had Esther’s number in her agenda, which shouldn’t be a reason to sink into the car seat with a huge, goofy grin, but Esther didn’t care.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t even say goodbye,” Marina’s voice was pleasant, and warm, and vibrant, and Esther closed her eyes, allowing herself to revel in the coveted sound close to her ear. “My parents suddenly appeared and arranged to have me transferred, and I was still…” Marina interrupted herself for a moment and then continued in a whisper. “…I was still under sedation. – Sorry, but they’re a little picky with phones on the premises…”

“I can imagine,” Esther said wryly. “If the rest of the personnel are anything like the watchdogs at the gate, I wouldn’t stay, not even for the palm trees.”

“Yes, they are somewhat… stiff about protocol,” Marina agreed. “No visito… wait… how do you know that?”

“I just tried to convince them to let me see you, but they wouldn’t even give you a message.” Now that it was over, now that Marina was listening to her, the tears were coming. Hastily, Esther tried to wipe them away. “He just left me standing there. Jerk.”

“You… you were here?” Marina asked and she sounded shy. “Esther, what are you doing up here?”

It wasn’t really the question Esther had wanted to hear. “I heard this was supposed a nice holiday region,” she said lightly. “So I thought I’d have a look.”

“It’s a four hour drive from Milan!” Marina protested.

“But I heard it’s a really nice holiday region,” Esther insisted. “And it’s only three and a half hours.”

“You’re crazy,” Marina muttered. “Absolutely crazy.” But it didn’t sound as if she minded the fact very much.

Esther’s stomach had turned into jelly at the tone and for a few moments, there was just the shared sound of their breathing, suddenly loud across the line.

Then Marina spoke again. “Where are you?”

“Behind the slope of the next hill,” Esther replied truthfully and she had to press her fingertips against the bridge of her nose to hold back more tears.

“The backside to the garden has no fence,” Marina said, and she sounded like she had before Luigi and before the shooting. “There’s just trees and bushes, a little out of sight, where the wild ones of us smoke… If you park the car around the corner, we could meet there… if you’d like…” That last bit sounded a lot less confident, something untypical in Marina.

“I’ll be there,” Esther promised, and the phrase rolled off her tongue like an archaic promise. It was a timeless scenery, slow steps up the hill, a small trampled pathway and an autumn sun that was warm and golden at her back. High grass brushed against her pants and she could have walked here in any era, with that same solemn nervousness, towards that same goal: the woman waiting for her at the end of this path.

Marina sat in a wheelchair at the edge of a gravel pathway, still a little pale, but smiling at the sight of Esther. “I had to give Giacomo three cigarettes to wheel me out here,” she said by way of greeting. “I still can’t do it myself…” She gestured with her right hand at her immobilized left, at her heavily bandaged shoulder and her legs. “The therapists spend much more time with the torn tendon in my leg than with my shoulder.”

Esther crossed her arms over her chest. “Smoking’s bad for you.” She was close enough to see the small lines around Marina’s eyes and her fingertips echoed with the sensation of following their lines, soft skin upon soft skin, back in Milan – it seemed a lifetime ago – in the early light of dawn.

“I know,” said Marina and she looked up at Esther with a grin. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

And I can’t believe you aren’t with me all the time. But Esther didn’t say that. Instead, she shrugged. “These private clinics tend to have horrible nursing staff.” With Marina in the chair, she debated a second too long whether it was appropriate to bend down and hug her, but then the moment had already passed. She closed her empty hands. “I had to check on you, it’s a matter of professional ethics.”

“Of course,” Marina agreed. She looked up at Esther, a little longer than necessary. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you recover,” Esther replied quietly. The gratitude she felt at seeing Marina like this, awake and making jokes, with sunbeams dancing over her face, was a sensation she had no words for, just as she had had none for the numbing fear and the cold grass, the blood in the dark and Marina’s motionless body buried under her own.

Esther shuddered.

“Are you cold?” Marina asked immediately. “We can go inside. The room is a decent room, but it doesn’t have an espresso machine like back in Milan.”

Back in Milan sounded good. It sounded as if Marina had the intention to return.

“No phones, no smoking, and no espresso makers in the rooms? Really, and they call this a recovery retreat? ” Esther teased gently. “Ah, let me guess – I’ll be the one pushing you back inside in this chair? And here I thought this was my day off…”

Marina didn’t say please. “If you have three cigarettes, you can get Giacomo to do it.” Marina rarely said ‘please’. But the few times she had said it, breathlessly, her voice rough, her body trembling against Esther’s own, were instances that were etched permanently into all of Esther’s senses.

For a moment, she was relieved that Marina couldn’t see her face as she pushed her forward in the wheelchair. They talked about the weather and the mountain air while Esther enjoyed the way the sunlight played with Marina’s hair.

She would have loved to run her fingers through it.

“Don’t worry if anyone sees us,” Marina said when they approached a long building with small verandas to one side. “There’s an aging diva three doors down who has brought a secretary just to read to her, so I think I’m qualified to have the best head nurse of Milan for a visit.”

Of course, Marina’s room had a little veranda, too, with a view south into the vines, the panorama dotted with a few palms. Uphill, a little castle was set against the golden and reddish glow of autumn leaves.

“It’s beautiful,” Esther enthused, completely taken with the view.

Marina’s eyes wandered from the landscape to Esther’s silhouette, her features momentarily dark against the sun. “Yes, it is.”

Inside the room, an elaborate bouquet of flowers took up the entire coffee table. Esther frowned at it and Marina caught her look.

“Vera,” Marina said by way of explanation and it sounded like an apology.

So Vera hadn’t informed her, either, Esther thought. Aloud, she asked, “Did she bring them personally?”

Marina, who had rolled herself to the bedside with her right hand, stopped in her movements. “Jealous?” she wanted to know and her tone was light and joking.

Esther didn’t look away. “Yes,” she said firmly.

It was an answer Marina hadn’t expected, she could see that in the bout of breathless silence that followed. The old energy flared up between them, easily and completely unexpected. Esther didn’t dare to move.

Marina broke the moment, looking away. “No, it was a delivery service,” she admitted. “She said she might try to travel up next weekend.”

“Ah,” Esther said noncommittally, even though she was doing a jubilant dance inside of her mind. She was here and she had beaten Vera to it, flowers or not.

“I’m really happy you came,” Marina said.

Esther wished she could put that phrase in a box and take it back to Milan with her. “And I didn’t even have to steal scrubs this time,” she joked.

Marina cocked her head to the side. “But I think you would have.”

“I just might,” Esther agreed, and that seemed to please Marina even more. The tension between them seemed to stretch further, humming with than undercurrent of electricity that was at once familiar and removed.

Marina closed her eyes and shook her head. “Esther… I know we need to talk, but I need to work through some things first. I need to get my feet back under me, in every sense of the…“

Esther didn’t let her finish. “I came to see you, nothing else,” she said easily.

“All right,” Marina said and she sounded disappointed.

“Anything else can wait,” Esther added, and there was a small, awkward break as ideas of this ‘anything’ resounded within the small room. Esther decided to change the topic. “So is the food in this resort any good at least?”

“It would be, if I weren’t on a bland diet due to the medication,” Marina complained. “This is Tyrol! I’m in the middle of famous hams, wines and cheeses… and I don’t even get to taste them.”

Esther tried to hide her smile behind a cough. “I’m sorry.”

“Right up the next hill, they make a fantastic light red…” Marina sighed. “We’ll have to sample it sometime when I get out of here.”

The invitation was unexpected and Marina herself looked as if this had been a little too fast for her.

“I’d like that,” Esther acknowledged, but then she eased up. “Right now would be a bad idea, though, because I still need to drive and Teresa needs the car back before nightfall.”

Marina’s jaw dropped. “You’re here with Teresa’s car?”

“How do you think I found out that you were here?” Esther said with a laugh, and there was an odd sensation of pride.

“Teresa,” Marina concluded after a second. “Of course.”

“You have no idea how mad she was after Vera transferred you over to the Regina Elisabetta just after she had gone off shift.” Esther shook her head at the memory. “…not as mad as I was, though.”

“None of you authorized the transfer?” Marina asked.

“As if!” Esther snorted. “Neither Danieli, nor Terry, nor I. We were all of shift.”

“How is everyone?” Marina wanted to know.

“They miss you,” Esther said simply. I miss you.

Marina smiled somewhat sadly. “I miss them, too.”

“Will you be back?” Esther couldn’t refrain herself from asking, even though she knew that she might not like the answer.

“I don’t know yet.” Marina looked at her free hand that was toying with the corner of the bedcover. “They put me in consultation over Luigi,” she admitted. She gave Esther a lopsided grin. “Apparently I have control issues.”

Esther arched an eyebrow. “I’d never have guessed.”

“Ey!” Marina protested, and she pulled a little bit on the blanket with the impetus, accidentally baring a small, stuffed tiger that was peeking out from underneath the pillow now.

“But that…” Esther was momentarily distracted. “But, your dedication is part of what makes you so good at what you do.” Oh, and she did not just mean the job, not by far. Esther looked at the small tiger, and at Marina and just wanted to swoop her up into her arms and kiss the living daylights out of her.

“I’m working on a better balance,” Marina said in earnest.

“I’m working on that, too,” Esther agreed, even though part of her impulses weren’t balanced at all at the moment.

When Esther finally left, they hugged, Marina having to tip back her head and Esther bending down to the wheelchair and instinctively closing her eyes at the scent of Marina. The brush of her hair against Esther’s cheek felt like a firm touch and when Marina reached for her hand in a final goodbye, Esther’s first impulse was to hold onto that hand and spread it against her ribs in a try to transmit the urge Marina had created within.

But all this would have to wait.

On the way back to her car, Esther all but groaned in frustration. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” The first thing she would do at home would be to step under a very cold shower.

She was back in Milan in under three hours.

That last image of Esther stayed. The way she had turned around once more, smiling, waving back at Marina before she walked back through the garden, without hurry, and without turning around again.

Marina knew it because she didn’t take her eyes off Esther until she had disappeared behind the trees at the end of the greens.

If only she could jump up and run after her, her legs carrying her out of the terrace door, across the garden, the gravel moving below the soles of her shoes. To call out to her and reach for her shoulder before Esther had even turned around, and to embrace her tightly, forgetting the worries of what might happen.

With her good hand, Marina slapped the metal frame of the wheelchair and then couldn’t stifle a wince when the brusque movement pulled at her wound.

She wanted Esther back.

Actually, it was even simpler.

She wanted her.

The hug just now, given in friendly goodbye, had sparked a sudden rush of desire that left Marina dazed. She wasn’t even sure what she had said to Esther in goodbye, probably something that didn’t make much sense.

The only thing that made sense to her right now was the fleeting sensation of Esther’s cheek against hers in leaning down, the fragrant embrace of her perfume and the slight brush of soft curve against her shoulders that brought back images of Esther in an evening gown with a low neckline, walking next to her at a friend’s gallery opening, and Marina didn’t even remember whether the focus of the evening had been photography or panting.

Her personal focus of the evening had been Esther, Esther in that dress, and getting her out of it as soon as they reached her apartment.

In the end, they hadn’t even managed that, but faced with a disheveled Esther, breathless, the straps of her dress askew, Marina later had to admit that sometimes, losing one’s clothes was overrated.

She could have painted the tantalizing sight even now, the slope of warm skin against dark fabric, a teasing outline in the quiet light of the late hour.

Those first weeks, the only weeks they had shared, she had barely gotten any sleep, but still she had felt more energized and more alive than now, where doctors and nurses supervised her schedule, her diet and her sleep.

The white walls of the room towered over the wheelchair in its middle, leaving Marina adrift in its aseptic cradle. The room hadn’t felt this cold before Esther had come here, and had left again, seemingly taking all the colors with her. Even the bright Tyrol autumn was lackluster in comparison.

Hugging Esther had been the first vivid sensation since she had woken up again. Now that the sedatives had been replaced by simple painkillers and the endless hours of laying awake, her skin sticky against whitened sheets, had been changed for the frustrations, the aches and the sweat of physiotherapy, Marina seemed to be waking up for real.

She hadn’t known, not until that first, casual brush of Esther’s skin had sent her heart hammering.

And she hadn’t even been able to respond in kind, fumbling to hold onto Esther with her good hand and trying to grasp the fleeting moment between fingers that weren’t even good for a hug, much less for surgery.

Marina scowled at the metal frame of the chair, seeing only iron bars that blocked her from getting up, from walking out of the veranda door into the afternoon, and from Esther.

It was an unusual, unpracticed position for Marina – having to wait. Having to ask for help.

Marina didn’t like having to ask for things. It wasn’t that she preferred to be asked instead, she simply liked to make her own decisions.

Control issues, Piero called it. He was her counselor in this retreat and the only person who didn’t mollycoddle her for the money that had bought her this recovery stay. Everyone else was trying to cater to her, but Marina always had to ask.

Whether someone could wheel her out into the garden. Whether someone could help her change clothes. Whether someone could assist her with the stupid remote control she had been stupid enough to drop onto the stupid floor.

Control was something she didn’t have issues with. It was the lack of control that grated on her nerves.

And it didn’t matter how many times Piero would tell her that Luigi’s death wasn’t her fault; the fact remained that she could have saved him if only she had ordered a more thorough scan the first time.

She couldn’t have known it, Piero kept telling her. None of her colleagues, no other doctor, nobody would have ordered an extra scan under the circumstances.

But what others did or didn’t do wasn’t a standard that Marina applied to herself. She could have prevented this death, or at least given Luigi a better fighting chance.

So the standards of others wouldn’t apply to her. That was Piero’s observation, and when Marina had protested, he had pointed out that he was merely summarizing her position – that nobody else would have done it didn’t apply to her. And then he wanted to know whether she saw herself in general above rules, or with more right to control things than others.

Marina had been more than happy when her physiotherapist had interrupted. For the next two hours, the pain in her leg and the lack of balance had kept her from thinking of anything beyond the inches between her and the next handle to grab.

Control was not something with which Marina felt on a first-name basis at the moment.

Her parents and her ex-lover were shipping her around like a piece of cargo and even though she was a capable physician herself, now she had other doctors and therapists telling her what to do and it irked her, no matter how gently the people were phrasing their demands.

Marina knew that they were mostly right, which only irked her more. She had glimpsed pages of her patient file and had seen the scans. It was patience and physiotherapy, and even though her chest and shoulder were healing nicely, she knew that there was no way to predict whether her leg would be healing equally well.

If she got out of this with a limp, she would still be lucky.

Hell, she was lucky to be alive.

And even that hadn’t been her doing.

That had been Esther.

At the moment, all that Marina did was owing things to people. She owed Esther, she owed her parents, she even owed Vera. And most of all, she owed a little boy who had gone so young that he hadn’t even known all the wonders he would miss out on.

Why should Marina deserve second chance when she hadn’t been able to give one to him?

He hadn’t woken up again, and his mother had gotten a gun.

Marina had woken up, to the sight of Vera by her side. She had been touched without wanting to and even in retrospect, she was absurdly flattered. Even though things between them were over, at least as far as Marina was concerned, the old dream of waking up with Vera had still been a familiar and comfortable pattern for her sedative-addled brain.

It was what she had always wanted – only that now Marina didn’t want it any longer. She looked across the room at the elegant bouquet of flowers. For a surgeon, Vera had a horrible sense of timing.

Of course the bouquet was perfectly composed, with no bit of green or flower petal out of place.

So much like Vera herself, and so different from Esther, who once had smuggled a small bouquet of daisies in a test tube into Marina’s locker, and when Marina had wanted to know where she had gotten daisies, Esther had told her “outside”. Despite walking out into the stretch of green next to the parking lot nearly every day, Marina had never thought to stop and look down at the flowers.

A small bunch of daisies would warm up the room much more than all the floral art available on delivery.

It would be much easier to want Vera. Once more, separate season tickets, expensive restaurants out of town, stolen nights in remote hotels, no demands and no questions.

Esther, on the other hand, meant a whole lot of questions. Paradoxically, it also meant losing control. For a long time, Marina had thought that Vera’s elusiveness equaled a lack of control, but then Esther’s fears and rejection had hurt much more.

Still, it was Esther who had driven all the way up from Milan. It was Esther whose blanket had been strewn across the cramped visitor’s chair when Marina had first woken up. And it was Esther who had tackled her to the ground when the gun had been pointed at Marina.

The magnitude of the gesture still paralyzed Marina.

Esther had saved her life.

It wasn’t a comfortable knowledge. It wasn’t flattering, or reassuring, and most certainly not romantic, most of all because Marina knew that Esther hadn’t done it to prove a point. It was simply who she was.

Esther had risked her own life to save hers.

The knowledge was suffocating. It humbled her. And it left her alone with the question whether she would have done the same for Esther.

She hoped so.

Early on, when Esther had built up the courage to talk to her again after the sudden kiss in the elevator, Marina had felt so sure of what she was doing. She was the one who was showing a nervous, blushing Esther a whole new world.

Marina had called the shots. She had paid the dinners, she had knowingly dressed to catch Esther’s attention, and to see her blush again in that utterly endearing manner when she caught her staring. She had, not by accident, kept the perfect nightcap on the rocks at hand, and when Esther had finally worked up the nerve to lean in, she had been waiting for her.

Marina couldn’t pinpoint when exactly that dynamic had shifted, but with every time Esther refused to look at her at work or cited her father as a reason to not stay the night, Marina had turned into the one who was stumbling along, unspoken wishes on her lips.

It had been her decision to try and change Esther’s mind, from organizing a surprise vacation, which Esther rejected, to simply kissing her in front of half the hospital, her own body giving in to the impulse that had been denied again and again.

She had been the one to break up with Esther, struggling to be in control again. Only that this control hadn’t made her feel any better. She might have said the words, but Esther had been the one to push her away. And when Esther had, hesitant at first, tried to open up again, Marina had paid her back every rebuke and every rejection with interests.

And she had felt lousy during it. Petty paybacks were a pathetic thing to cling to.

But Esther hadn’t relented. She had kept asking, and she hadn’t even tried to hide her hurt at Marina’s continued rejections. And it had made Marina lash out even more, trying to get the upper hand on her own feelings and finally having to recognize that she had fallen too hard for Esther to simply get up, dust off her coat and walk on.

That she was scared enough to hesitate faced with Esther’s gentle flirtation told Marina all she needed to know and didn’t want to hear.

She was still in love with Esther.

She wanted daisies in test tubes and striped knitted jackets and the bout of breathless hunger low in her stomach when she stopped in front of Esther’s door to pick her up and Esther walked up to the car in those jeans that she knew drove Marina crazy.

Only it wasn’t Marina who was driving the car.

It was Esther who came up from Milan, who argued with the security guards and who had the guts to call her.

It was Esther who called the shots now. Esther had stolen scrubs and changed shifts to see her, yet she had never asked for anything. Esther came by, and Esther left again, and not once in all the past weeks had she seemed insecure or frightened or in need of something.

When they had first met, Marina had stood by and winced more than once as Esther’s kindness and honesty made her an easy target for abuse. Esther had been so damn vulnerable that all that Marina wanted was to shield her and protect her. And yet, it seemed that Esther was the stronger one of them.

And Marina didn’t know whether she had anything to offer up to Esther’s confidence. At the moment, she was glad to dodge Piero’s questions and couldn’t even get up on her own to give Esther a proper hug.

Slowly, Marina turned around with her chair and reached for the stuffed little tiger under her pillow. At first, she had placed it on her nightstand at the Regina Isabella because it annoyed the hell out of Vera to see the cheap toy outshine her own expensive floral greetings.

Now, it was the closest thing to Esther Marina had to hold onto at night.

on to Pt. 2/4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s