Dare – an epilogue after the shot (2/4)


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.


4

“She’s still in physiotherapy?” Esther tried to hide her disappointment. “Fine, I’ll try it again later… tomorrow, of course, tomorrow. During phone hours.” She closed the connection and scowled at her phone. “Phone hours, can you believe it?” she complained to Teresa, who was leafing through a set of patient folders nearby and had, by mere accident, listened in on the phone call.

“Yes, and they make them up anew every day,” Teresa stated dryly. She closed the file she had been perusing and turned to face Esther. “Shouldn’t she be calling you once in a while as well?”

“She never knows beforehand when she has her next physiotherapy session.” Esther crossed her arms in front of her chest. “And I could be called into an surgery at any moment…”

“She could still call you once in a while,” Teresa insisted. Under her breath, she added, “Unless she’s too lazy to even save your number, that is.”

Esther frowned. “What was that?”

Teresa cleared her throat. “I said then at least you’d be a little less unbearable.” She shot the smirking Rocco a warning look. “Both of you.”

“What can I say, Terry…” Rocco shrugged. “We’re both stuck here over the weekend with our girls out of town. What are we going to do?”

“Taking it out on me. Teresa.” Clearly, the receptionist was not in the mood for nicknames today. She gave Rocco another accusing glare. “And you, you’re usually glad to avoid your mother-in-law, and if you had gone along with your ‘girl’ and the children, you’d be whining about the bad cooking all of next week. – It’s not my fault that your wife wants to spend time with her mother,” Teresa pointed at Rocco. “Or that your…” She faltered briefly when she looked at Esther. “…your not-even-your-girlfriend-again-yet is too far away for a little afternoon visit!”

“I’ll drive up with the train again next week,” Esther said and she looked at the display of her phone again, just to make sure there hadn’t been an unnoted message coming in. “She says she’ll have her leg in a flexible brace by then, so we can go ‘hopping around the hills’ with her crutches.”

Teresa rolled her eyes. “All that money, and she can’t even hire a car to take you out for a nice stroll and some Tyrol lunch instead?”

“Ouch, Terry…” Rocco shook his head. “What did Alfredo forget now? The milk? Your saint’s day?”

“Very funny.” Teresa pressed her lips together. “In ten minutes, you’re both off the clock, and I want you out of here, both of you. Your sulking will put me in a bad mood, as well, and I still have another couple of hours to go.”

“But…” Rocco tried to protest.

Teresa cut him off. “No buts! Why don’t you two go out for a drink and cry into each other’s glasses instead of all over my counter?”

“Jealous”, Rocco mouthed at Esther behind Teresa’s back. “She’s just jealous.”

Esther had to chuckle, and then she looked at her phone once more. She wondered whether it was really so bad that Marina didn’t call. She hadn’t asked whether Vera would visit this weekend, where Esther’s shifts made any visit on her part impossible. She preferred to focus on the fact that last weekend, Marina had told Vera off to spend time with Esther instead and even though nothing had happened, Esther had found the afternoon well worth the lengthy train ride.

Fine, Teresa was right. She was a little anxious when it came to Marina. And perhaps a tiny little bit overboarding. But it felt too good to be talking to Marina again and to be the one who did the calls and the driving this time. She was traveling to see Marina, not the other way around. Last weekend, she had brought her a little bouquet of flowers, to have one surface less in Marina’s room that could be occupied by one of Vera’s floral arrangement, and Marina had immediately made place for it on the nightstand.

Still, perhaps it was time to stash her cell phone into her pocket for a few hours and stop waiting for a message from Marina. And Marina seemed to have gotten awfully used to Esther waiting on her. Just one more cursory glance at the display, and she would put her phone away. And then she looked again just to make sure, catching her own reflection on the small screen and not liking her expression one bit.

“So, what do you say?” Rocco leaned against the counter next to her. “If Terry kicks us out of here, should we go for a drink?”

“It’s been a long shift,” Esther hedged, still hung up on the dependent look on her features she had just seen mirrored back at her. Like this, she felt just as overwhelmed as the first time around, and she didn’t want Marina to be the one to sweep her off her feet again. This time, she wanted to do some of the sweeping herself, if it should ever come to that. “Well, perhaps one drink…” Rocco himself had told her back then, before Marina got shot, that she simply wasn’t ready for Marina and that she should wisen up if she wanted her back. Perhaps it was time to do just that. “Yes, let’s go for a drink. – I already have a place in mind…”

“But none of those posh bars where Marina took you,” Rocco protested. “I’m still just a poor nurse.”

“And the head nurse is going to pay you the drink,” Esther promised, but the street she steered Rocco down less than an hour later only earned her a raised eyebrow.

“You want to take me to a gay bar?!” Rocco asked, putting his hands onto his hips.

“They have drinks like everyone else,” Esther said defensively. “It’s supposed to be a nice bar. I asked Luisa.”

Rocco stopped in the middle of the street. “Luisa?!”

“The blond technician, from, X-Rays?” Esther prompted. “Really green eyes?”

“You…” Rocco gave Esther a disbelieving look. “You heartbreaker! The poor girl probably thought you’d take her out, and instead you’re here with… well, with me.”

“You will come in with me, won’t you?” Esther gave Rocco her most helpless look. “Please?”

“Oh, all right.” Rocco couldn’t hide his grin, or his curiosity. “At least in such a club my wife won’t be worried about other women hitting on me.”

“Alright then.” Esther squared her shoulders and marched towards the closed door. When she turned around again it was so sudden that Rocco stumbled into her.

“What now – a change of heart?” he questioned.

“What if there’s someone from work in there?” Esther hadn’t thought about that before. “Someone who recognizes us, someone from the hospital?”

“Well…” Rocco looked down the empty street. “No need to worry then because they’re here for the same reason?”

Esther blinked nervously. “They’re after Marina?”

“Esther…” Rocco reached out and tousled Esther’s hair. “You’re a lost cause.”

“Hmm.” Esther pushed her hands in her pockets and stared at the door.

“Esther?” Rocco prompted. “It’s cold out here.”

Esther nodded. “Yes, it is.”

“And I think you should open the door,” Rocco pointed out. “Being the lesbian and all that – besides, if I’m the gay man now, shouldn’t you be the man, and I the girl?”

“Just follow your feelings, you said,” Esther grumbled as she reached for the door handle. “Be honest about it, you said. Where in the small print did you hide all these complicated things?”

“Page three,” Rocco said and he was glad to see a second, inner door open where a male bouncer gave them a scrutinizing look, lingering a little on Rocco, and then let them pass with a nod, leaving the cold autumn evening outside.

It was a bar, with music loud enough to dance, but not too loud to talk on the side. The light was warm, but somewhat lower than in most bars Esther had visited. Some people wore sunglasses and it took Esther a moment to realize that it had to be because they were afraid to be recognized on some wacky cell phone photo, outside of these cushioned walls in the brighter light of day.

But apart from the occasional sunglasses, the people looked oddly normal, not at all what Esther had expected. She couldn’t have said what she had thought to be facing instead, but it had been something different, something that justified her queasiness, not this image of evening drink normalcy. The men were well dressed, but no more than those who strolled down Via della Spiga on Saturday mornings with upscale shopping bags in their hands.

And the women… Esther wished she had brought sunglasses, too, so that she could have had a look without being seen. Perhaps those women weren’t gay, either, and had just come with a friend, like she had come here with Rocco. Only that in her case, Rocco was the friend, and Esther herself didn’t even know what she was.

There was no sensation of sudden recognition, and no obvious difference that set the women in this bar apart. If Esther didn’t know better, she wouldn’t have recognized them as lesbians at all. Well, perhaps the two that leaned against the bar right now, with broad shoulders and short hair, who were waving at the bartender for a drink. Esther couldn’t help staring as Rocco tugged her towards a small table in a corner. That woman there who talked on the phone against the music, absently stirring a transparent drink – she didn’t look gay. She looked like any manager or office woman who had stopped for a drink on the way home after work, the suit jacket unbuttoned and her feet heavy against the matching heels.

Esther supposed that there were gay office women, as well. It just didn’t show and she couldn’t make out a common denominator for the women she saw in here. She had expected something palpable, like the intimidating decisiveness that both Marina and Vera emanated. But the two young girls, perhaps around twenty, who were sharing colorful drinks in the middle of the room, oblivious to anything around them, had nothing decisive. They looked like any young couple in love. Further along in the room, a blonde in a corduroy jacket and jeans had her hands wrapped around a mug, indicating some kind of hot beverage. Esther looked at her a little longer because she recognized the jacket, it was a model she had almost bought herself a few weeks ago. The woman seemed to be about her own age, sipping at her drink with a relaxed expression that didn’t change when she caught Esther’s look. She nodded with a smile, making Esther blush furiously.

Thankfully, Rocco chose that moment to interrupt. “Are you going to get us a drink?”

“Yes, yes…” Esther muttered while she took off her jacket and unwrapped the shawl from around her neck. It was warm in here. She looked over at the bar and the line of women leaning against it. “Can’t you get the drinks?” she pleaded with Rocco.

“If you always send Marina to get the drinks, you don’t have to be surprised when she keeps paying.” Rocco shook his head. “Don’t worry. Look, the bartender is a man.”

He was right. Esther concentrated on him as she walked across the room and hurried past the table of the blonde who wore her jacket. She was convinced that everyone was staring at her. Surely she was walking wrong.

She counted the money in her purse as she waited for her order.

“Can I pay you that drink?” A voice to her left asked, making Esther jump. She looked up to find the office woman who had been talking on the phone earlier smiling at her. “I was just getting another Martini and I thought perhaps you’d like to have one with me.”

“Nno, no thanks,” Esther stammered. “I’m here with a friend of mine…” She turned to look at Rocco who smiled and gave her a little wave.

“I see.” The woman was still smiling at Esther. “My friend just stood me up, and drinking alone is not a good habit.”

“Perhaps some other time,” Esther heard herself say. The woman looked like she had been through a bad day at work and Esther didn’t want to add to that. “But thanks for the offer.” She accepted the drinks the bartender handed her, handed him a bill and didn’t even wait for her change.

“Five minutes in here, and you’re already making friends,” Rocco observed. “Perhaps there is something that only lesbians see about each other, and perhaps you have it, too… and that woman noticed it?”

Esther made the mistake to look back towards the bar, where the office woman had now received her Martini and raised her glass in a little toast when she caught Esther’s look. “I don’t have anything like that,” she said to Rocco. “And if I have it, I don’t know what it is, or how to use it!”

Rocco nodded, still looking at the woman who was now chatting amiably with the bartender. “She looks nice, though.”

“Marina looks much better.” Esther took a sip of her beer.

Rocco sighed. “Lost cause, just as I said.” Then he motioned at a table further to the right. “Hey, did you see that? – That one smiled at me!”

It was a group of young men, probably in their early twenties. “Which one, the green shirt?” Esther asked and she tried not to stare too openly.

“Not that one, the good-looking one in red, to the right,” Rocco said impatiently. “See, he did it again!”

“He did,” Esther had to admit. And he was really attractive.

“I’m at least ten years older,” Rocco observed, clearly flattered. “And he smiles at me! I never get that kind of smile from women that age. – The next time I had a really bad day at work, let’s come back here. This is good for me.”

Esther laughed and in between Rocco’s banter and the beer, her nervousness slowly ebbed away. In the end, it was a bar like any other. “Thanks for coming along,” she said over the thumping of the music. Somebody had turned up the volume and in the middle of the hall, a few people had started to dance.

“What did you say?” Rocco yelled

“I said, thanks for coming along!” Esther repeated and she threaded her arm through Rocco’s placing her head on his shoulder. “It’s just like a normal bar.”

“Apart from the girls kissing on the dancefloor,” Rocco observed, “And good-looking men staring at me. – Uhm, Esther?”

“Hmm?” Esther looked up at him, still distracted by the image of the kissing girls and more so by how much it resonated with her.

Rocco cleared his throat. “Your arm. Us. – People stare at us because we look like a straight couple.”

“Oh, of course.” Esther moved away, blushing once more.

Rocco laughed. “How about I get us another gay drink?”

Over the music, Esther just gave him a thumbs up. She watched him make his way to the bar and caught more than just the good-looking man in red gazing at him.

“He gave them to me as a gift,” Rocco said upon his return, setting a second bottle of beer down in front of Esther with a flourish. “And that the only thing he wanted in return was my phone number!” He had to yell now, the thumping music had turned into a hammering noise.

Esther winced instinctively. “What did you say?” she called back.

“I said thank you!” Rocco retorted, but before he could say anything else, a loud crash of glass drowned out the music.

Esther realized what happened a split second before the bouncer stumbled into the room, blood streaming down his cheek. The hammering hadn’t been the music. It had been the door that just then gave way to a throng of black-clad figures who threw over tables in their wake, streaming into the bar like a crowd of ants.

“Damn faggots!” The cry was audible over the music, as well, and the music continued to play as two men in black jackets tried to drag the bartender over the counter. The woman who had offered Esther a drink was the first one to react as she emptied first her glass on the nearest attacker and then reached for a bottle from behind the bar.

When an attacker with a scarf pulled up to his nose took a swing at the woman, Rocco stood and threw himself into the melee, followed by the group of young men who had been looking at him earlier.

Esther remained frozen to the spot. It was ten, perhaps twelve attackers, and then the lights went half out. The sound of breaking bottles cut through the music and Esther could only think that they looked young in their black clothes and scarves, not older than the men who had tried to flirt with Rocco and who had merely been sharing a drink after work.

One of the two girls she had seen kiss earlier stumbled her way, a hand pressed to her chin. Her girlfriend followed close behind, and when the shape of a black jacket appeared behind them, Esther had thrown her own table in the way before she could even make a conscious decision. She tried to make out Rocco in the sea of bodies. The police had to be here soon, somebody had to have called the police. The commotion would draw attention from outside, and didn’t everybody have a cell phone, or even two?

Esther pulled a young man with a bleeding eye behind her, surprised to find his frame taller, but faltering. She reached for another one, the air leaving her lungs as a blow rained into her side and the man crumpled at her feet, his carefully starched shirt torn at the collar.

Esther was about to call for a doctor in sheer reflex, but this wasn’t the Morandini and the worst they’d had there were drunk soccer hooligans, but the medics had been right here, and security, and a seriously pissed off Teresa.

The attackers seemed to take out their ire on the entire bar. The sound of broken glass continued to ring out and Esther hesitated for a second too long, suddenly careening into a set of stairs in her back and for a second of panic, she found herself on her back, struggling for control like an upended beetle. Another body was pushed into her and Esther recognized the torn shirt. She tried to drag the man off the dance floor with her. Something wet was dripping down the side of her face, but she had no time to think about that now. She didn’t even have the time to be afraid.

Any moment now, there had to be the sound of police sirens in the background, there had to be.

The music was still playing.

“Quick, in here,” a voice to Esther’s right called out and the dead weight of the unconscious man in her arms suddenly lessened. When Esther turned her head, she found herself face to face with the blonde in the corduroy jacket.

Esther hadn’t noticed that they had ended up in front of the ladies’ room. The blonde woman opened the door and reached in to shut off the light to draw less attention before she pushed the door open fully and helped Esther to hoist the unconscious man across the threshold.

The young couple that Esther had caught kissing earlier hurried into the room behind them. One of the girls still held her hand to her chin.

“They will kill us, they will beat us all to death!” her girlfriend shouted hysterically and in the dark, she ran into Esther and her heavy cargo.

“I need light,” Esther ordered, raising her voice. “And close that door!”

The tone interrupted the oncoming panic attack and actually made the nervous girl hurry over to the door and close it, dimming the sounds of the ongoing riot in the main room. She couldn’t be more than twenty, really, Esther thought as the light flickered on and cast a chilly neon glow across the girl’s frightened face. Her girlfriend still held her hand to her chin.

“I’ll take a look at that as soon as we have checked on him,” Esther said while she carefully bedded the still unconscious man onto the tile floor. She kept his head cradled in her hands and nodded at the blonde who had knelt down beside them. “Your jacket. Fold it up and put it under his head.”

She didn’t want to know when these tile floors had last been swiped properly. Two open stall doors yawned at them in the back, making the space feel even more cramped. Esther saw that the blonde followed her order with a simple nod. The way she folded her jacket and placed it under the man’s head looked as if she had done it before.

Esther walked over to the paper towel dispenser and unceremoniously tore it open. Thankfully, someone had restocked it recently. She took a stack of papers, ran some cold water over it and gave it to the girl who held onto her chin and had a bleeding lip. “Put this against it, and keep the pressure.” The girl’s hand was limp when Esther positioned it on top of the makeshift compress. “Keep it on. That’s it.” She turned to the girlfriend, the one that had shouted earlier and that now just kept shaking her head, her back pressed against the wall and her eyes wide with fear. “I need you to calm down and help her.” Esther tried to sound as calm as possible, even though she was scared herself, particularly that something was happening to Rocco out there. “Can you do that for me?”

The girl’s shoulder was rigid with tension under Esther’s hand, but after a moment, Esther felt her relent and move to help her partner.

“A window! We may get out here after all.” The blonde pointed above the two girlfriends where a small window was let into the wall. Her eyes crossed the room at the same time as Esther’s and settled on the metal trash bin that was overflowing with used paper towels.

“That should work,” the blonde decided.

“Not for him.” Esther knelt back next to their unconscious patient. “He’s been out for almost a minute. We can’t transport him out of a window.”

The blonde looked at her while Esther probed at the man’s temples and checked his pulse. “Medic?” she guessed.

“Nurse,” Esther answered without looking up.

“Thank God,” the blonde breathed.

Before Esther could reply anything, the door was yanked open. Esther heard the two girls by the wall scream before she looked up herself to make out the figure in black that was scowling down at them.

Esther never even had a chance to get over her own state of shock. Before she could move, the blonde had gotten up, whirled towards the man and kicked him squarely in the stomach, making him stumble backwards with the momentum. The door trembled on its hinges as she threw it shut again and leaned herself against it. “Shit.”

Esther blinked. “And you…?”

The blonde’s knuckles were white on the door handle and when she had to chuckle at Esther’s incredulous stare, her voice was trembling. “No, I’m not a bouncer.”

“Athlete?” Esther guessed while she opened the water tap again with an elbow to wet some more paper towels.

“Social worker,” the blonde stated, her voice still shaky. “With a grudge.”

“Thank God,” Esther echoed dryly, repeating the woman’s earlier statement. She dabbed with a wet towel at a cut in the unconscious man’s brow. “This doesn’t look good.” As if in reaction, the shoes of the girls behind her shuffled against the floor in fear.

“Are the girls fit enough to leave?” the blonde asked. She eyed the window once more. “Shouldn’t be too much of a jump on the other side… There’s a backyard, open to the next street.”

The shuffling behind Esther got louder. “We have to jump?” The frightened girl started to cry again. “All we did was dance with each other…”

“All they did was dance…” The blonde shook her head where she knelt next to Esther and held the paper towels against the bleeding brow as instructed. She gave Esther a sad look. “As if it needed a reason. – And the day they realize that all it takes to be beaten up in this country is being a little different, they’ll end up just as jaded as we are.”

“All we did was dance…” The girl repeated, sobbing helplessly.

“You should both get checked by a medic,” Esther said. “There isn’t much I can do in here. You’re both conscious and standing upright, and you’re probably safer outside. – Just check into the next emergency room…”

“No, nothing official.” The girl had stopped crying and shook her head with vehemence. “No, no. If my parents find out, they’ll kick me out and cut me off, and I will have to drop out of university and…”

“Hey… hey… ssshh…” The blonde stood and slowly made her way over to the panicking girl. In the narrow space, there was no room for a hysterical attack. “Nothing like this will happen… I don’t even know your name. What’s your name?”

“Mabbienna,” the girlfriend supplied, when the girl herself didn’t react. From the sound of her voice, her nose had gotten a hit and some swelling in addition to her chin and her split lip.

“Mariella?” The blonde gauged. When the girl focused on her in reflex, she nodded. “All right, Mariella. Nobody will know about this. Only your girlfriend here…”

“Sandra,” the frightened Mariella said over a hiccup.

“Only you and Sandra, and me – I’m Giovanna, by the way – and the capable nurse here…”

“Esther,” said Esther and she was relieved that the blonde – Giovanna – obviously managed to calm down the girls. The man in front of her was still unconscious and the fact that she couldn’t make out a reason made Esther tense in return.

“And we won’t tell anyone, right, Esther?” Giovanna continued in a gentle tone while she deftly put the metallic trash bin upside down and tested its stability with a foot.

“We won’t,” Esther agreed. Her hands stilled when she saw blood on the jacket underneath the man’s head. “But you need to get checked out, both of you,” she added without looking up. “I know it’s a drive, but if you head to the Morandini – up in Bovisa – and tell them I sent you… Ask for a Dr. Gandini, she’s on call tonight. Your parents won’t need to know.”

That seemed to calm Mariella and her girlfriend more than anything that had been spoken before.

Giovanna made quick use of the momentary calm. “Ready?” she questioned. “Good. Mariella, you first, then you can help Sandra.” She stretched out her linked hands, indicating for Mariella to step into them, supporting her other foot on the upended trash can. “First, open the window, and take a look outside… Then we’ll try to get you out legs first, to make the jump shorter.”

Esther held her breath, afraid that the window was closed, but it opened with a squeak that indicated that it hadn’t been opened in a long time.

Giovanna, too, heaved a sigh of relief, but before she could actually hoist any of the girls up to the window, a loud knock resounded against the door, as if someone had kicked at it.

Esther saw the handle being pressed down in slow motion, her heart in her throat. Behind her, Mariella was frantically scrambling for the window ledge, sending the trash bin flying with her flailing legs and scattering used paper towels and tissues across the room.

Just for the blink of an eye, Esther saw the familiar flash of silvery hair when the door gave way, then Giovanna had already crossed the room and thrown herself against it.

“Oh, fuck.” Giovanna winced and reached up to her shoulder.

“Let him in, he’s with me, he’s a nurse!” Esther cursed the situation that didn’t allow her to jump up herself and pull Rocco into the room, into at least temporary safety. Instead, she tried to gauge the wound on the back of the man’s head with fingers as calm and gentle as possible.

The unconscious man had short hair with a bit of gray at the temples. Fine lines framed his eyes and lips and Esther wondered how old he might be and whether he had a partner out there in the melee who worried about him.

“Esther, thank God you’re in one piece!” Rocco stepped into the small room with a prone figure in his arms and Esther recognized the office woman who had wanted to invite her for a drink. “What do we have here?”

“Man, probably late thirties, unconscious, cut in the brow, unidentified head wound in the back, light bleeding,” Esther summarized while Giovanna shut the door again. “And you?” When she looked up at Rocco, she could see that his knuckles were bloodied. His hair was tousled and for some unfathomable reason, a chain of lights that had been part of the decoration had ended up around his shoulders.

“Woman, thirties, multiple contusions, probably a broken jaw,” Rocco replied while he was kneeling down with the woman in his arms, gently laying her alongside the other patient.

“Shit,” Esther muttered, both at the diagnosis and at recognizing the woman. The smile was gone, replaced by a pained grimace.

“Not good?” Giovanna guessed from where she was watching the door.

“Not good at all,” Esther stated grimly. The woman’s face was ashen, and a white trail down her neck and elegant blouse indicated that she had thrown up with nausea while Rocco had carried her here, but she still hung onto consciousness.

“Don’t worry, Grazia, we got you off the battlefield.” Rocco barely had space to crouch down in the small, tiled space.

“Can’t… Remember… The last time I lay that close to a man…” Grazia bit out between her teeth. “Hurts,” she added, her voice garbled with pain. Her stylish heels were utterly at odds with the dull tile floor.

“We’ll take care of that now,” Rocco promised, but the look he gave Esther was tense. “Grazia here took two goons out with a bottle of whiskey, but then she got hit with a barstool across the face.”

“Sorry… ‘bout the Single Malt,” Grazia mumbled. “Wasted.”

“We need space,” Esther stripped of her own knitted jersey to provide Grazia with a makeshift pillow, careful not to jar her head with any movement. “Rocco, can you help the two girls out of the window?”

Between Rocco and a one-armed Giovanna, they hoisted first Mariella and then Sandra up to the window and out into the night.

“The ambulance is taking far too long.” Esther gave Rocco a worried look while the hurried steps of the two girls disappeared outside. “The police should be here already…”

“As if.” Giovanna chuckled without humor. She still cradled her shoulder with a hand. “A couple of gays getting beaten up, no reason to hurry.”

“Call our paramedics,” Esther fumbled for her phone with one hand. “I can monitor him, but if he flutters, there’s nothing we can do, and those lunatics can barge in here at every moment!”

Rocco had already dialed the station. “Eva? – We need you out here. – Two critically wounded, one unconscious, one fractured jaw and multiple contusions, and no police or ambulance in sight…” He caught sight of Giovanna gingerly probing at her shoulder. “And one sprained shoulder. Be careful, the site is not cleared yet.”

When he hung up, he nodded at Esther. “They’re on their way, checking whether somebody is already headed here.”

Still, long minutes passed between silently changing the bloodies paper towels against the unconscious man’s neck and monitoring his unsteady pulse and trying to clean Grazia’s face without touching her jaw, while Giovanna tried to keep the door closed. Esther’s knees hurt from kneeling on the tile floor.

When the sound of police sirens finally cut through the open window, Esther and Rocco looked at each other with something closer to disbelief than to relief. The shouts and the blunt noises next door seemed to lessen, and then the music was suddenly gone, leaving the bathroom in a startled silence where only their breaths seemed to echo off the walls.

Just when Giovanna moved to open the door an inch, it got thrown into her face and four figures in dark blue stormed into the room. Despite the red epaulets on their shoulders, Esther instinctively ducked away. She only saw black boots, and the door swinging towards her. “Careful!” she tried to shout, mindful of their patients, but before she could move to shield them, somebody dragged her to her feet by her shirt collar. She stumbled, her legs having fallen asleep from kneeling on the floor for so long. The last thing Esther saw before she got unceremoniously shoved against wall was the door careening into Grazia’s legs.

“Are you crazy?” Esther yelled over the strangled guttural sound that Grazia made in reaction before she passed out. “Do you know how much it cost us to keep her conscious? Her jaw is broken, goddammit!”

“Hey, quiet there, all right?” Esther got pushed more firmly against the wall and when her temple ended up against the cold tiles, she remembered with a wince that she had taken a hit against her head earlier.

Hands roamed along her sides and down her legs.

“Clear.”

Esther got turned around and her first sight was of Rocco, his arms pushed behind his back by a burly policeman on each side. Another one held onto Giovanna, whose right arm was hanging down limply now. Grazia lay sprawled unconscious on the floor, next to the man whose name they didn’t know.

“What happened here?” One of the men holding onto Rocco demanded.

“We tried to monitor his vitals and keep her conscious,” Esther retorted angrily and the grip on her arm tightened again. Across the room, she saw Giovanni giving a minuscule shake off her head, as if to signal her that protesting would only make things worse.

“Please,” Rocco said softly. “Those two are in urgent need of medical attention; we tried to stabilize them, but we need help.”

Esther tried to swallow her fury at seeing Rocco held like a criminal, the broken string of lights still around his neck, but his tone seemed to register with the policemen.

Through the open door, Esther could see upended tables and broken glass. Someone had found the switch for the emergency lights. The black clothes of the attackers had been replaced by the blue of uniforms, mixed with the red jackets of the paramedics.

“Eva! In here!” Esther yelled when she thought to see the familiar shock of reddish hair. The grasp on her arm tightened once more, but was suddenly gone when indeed Eva and Franco appeared in the doorframe, a stretcher already between them.

“Esther… Rocco… are you all right?” Eva looked worried from one of them to the other and the typical frown on her forehead was so welcome that Esther had to blink against sudden tears.

“We’re all right.” She rubbed at her arm. “Just a few scratches. – Take care of those two. He’s been out for more than ten minutes; pulse is fluttering. She was conscious until a minute ago, probably broken jaw, suffered a blow to the head.”

“All right.” Eva knelt down, while Franco, who was visibly uncomfortable with being inside a gay bar, looked at Rocco for a moment longer. “We need their help,” he said then to one of the men who were still holding into Rocco as if we was about to do something harmful. “They’re both qualified nurses. Colleagues from the Morandini.”

“And she?” The man holding onto Giovanna spoke up.

“She’s with us,” Rocco announced before Franco could reply anything. “She probably sprained her shoulder, though, she’ll need medical attention next.” Giovanni slumped to the floor next to them as two more paramedics whom Esther didn’t know appeared in the doorway with another stretcher.

“We need space to work,” Eva said, and the policemen withdrew.

“We still need your names and data,” the one who had held onto Esther said. “And we have a few questions for you once you finish up here.”

The officers left the door open in their wake and Esther could see the deserted, broken room. Only two figures in black were seated on chairs, one of them struggling against the officers. The shawl that he had drawn up to his eyes had fallen away and Esther could see the beardless face of a young man who couldn’t be older than Mariella and Sandra. His cheeks were red with anger, perhaps with alcohol, and spit was running down his chin as he kept yelling, “Fucking faggots!”

Esther flinched.

“So much for voting down the hate crime law,” Giovanna muttered next to her. “That would have taken him off the streets for a while at least.”

Esther still stared at the empty room. “But where are all the others?”

“The other attackers? Probably escaped.” She looked at the door. “After all, it’s more important to round up the gays than the attackers.”

“And the other guests?” Esther still tried to understand how the crowded room had emptied all of a sudden.

“Afraid to be recognized, afraid to be called as witnesses by the police.” Giovanna said tiredly. “You’ve seen what happened – can you blame them?”

Esther reached up to her temple, probing the budding headache that had built against it. “No. I can’t.”

In the end, she didn’t even have time to wash her face or look at herself in the mirror when the same policeman who had held onto her earlier was back and asked Rocco, Giovanna and her to follow him outside. He didn’t touch any of them this time.

“Can you tell me, in your own words, what happened here tonight?” The policeman asked Esther. He seemed to shy away from asking Rocco, whom he had to think was gay, and from Giovanna, whose stance was little inviting.

“We were having a drink,” Esther said and she shivered in the cold of the street. She only wore a t-shirt; her jersey had ended up with Grazia on the stretcher. Three police cars were parked in front of the entrance and one last ambulance van remained, taking care of the bartender. “There was music, some dancing, and then the door flew open, and the doorman stumbled in, bleeding, with a whole group of figures in black storming in behind them… Someone crashed a window…”

“Did you do anything to provoke this attack?” The policeman looked up from his notepad.

“Provoke?” Esther didn’t understand at first. “We were inside, having a drink, and the attackers suddenly stormed in…”

“But was there something outside?” the officer continued. “A few smokers, perhaps some guys kissing?”

“We were just having a drink,” Esther repeated with annoyance.

“You should have gotten that drink elsewhere,” the officer retorted while he turned the page and Esther couldn’t decide whether his tone or the way he looked at her had been more patronizing.

“Hey, Michele, are you finishing up there?” One of his colleagues called out to him and Esther saw that it was a woman in the same uniform who was closing the car door behind the uncooperative young attacker.

“Forget it,” Giovanna muttered under her breath when Esther looked at her askance. “Fascist with uniforms, fascists without uniforms…”

“I will need all of your IDs, please,” the officer announced. “That will be all for tonight, but we may have more questions during the next few days.”

“We’re happy to help if it can make you find those attackers faster,” Giovanna replied, now in a loud tone and with a broad smile, as she handed over her ID. It didn’t look like she was doing that for the first time, either.

Even though she knew that she hadn’t done anything wrong, Esther watched with discomfort as the officer wrote down her own name and address and phone number.

“We’re leaving,” that was Franco again, pointing with a thumb at the ambulance van in the back. “You’re the one with the sprained shoulder, right?” He looked at Giovanna and Esther heaved a sigh of relief when he gave her a genuinely kind look. “Can we give you a ride back to the hospital?” When Giovanna nodded gratefully, he turned to Esther. “Will you get back on your own?”

“Sure,” Esther answered, still distracted by the way officer Michele was scrutinizing her ID. Perhaps he expected “lesbian” to be stamped into a corner, and Esther would add “in love with Marina” to it in even bigger letters.

From the windows of the neighboring houses leaned figures in the dark, curious about what had happened to “the gays”. Esther wondered why none of them had called the police earlier.

“That’s it.” The officer named Michele held her ID out to her. “Thanks, Ms. Bruno.” He looked from her to Rocco and back. “Do any of you girls need a ride downtown?”

In the background, Esther could hear his female colleague snicker.

“No, thanks,” Rocco replied with aplomb. He held the string of lights between his hands now and Esther thought that she would have liked to take it from him and throw it around Michele’s neck for a change.

The police cars drove off, leaving Esther and Rocco alone in the street.

“I’m sorry,” Esther said, putting an arm around Rocco’s waist.

“It isn’t your fault that there are jerks walking this planet,” Rocco replied as he drew Esther into a tight hug. “I can’t believe that people do this to other people. And that yet other people only look on and don’t even bother to call the police. And all just because some people fall in love with guys, and not with girls. – What do I do when one of my daughters comes home with a girlfriend one day? How do I tell her that there are other people willing to beat her up, just because she fell in love?”

He was crying, and he didn’t bother to hide it. Esther pressed herself closer to the comforting warmth of his body, and even more the warmth of who he was. “By then, these attacks will be a thing of the past,” she said, and she really wanted to believe it.

“You must be freezing to death in that shirt,” Rocco noted after a minute. He shrugged off his own jersey and placed it around Esther’s shoulders. “Could you give me your phone for a minute?”

“Are you calling your wife?” Esther asked, handing over her cell phone. The display had a large scratch in one corner that hadn’t been there before.

“Susanna? Oh no.” Rocco shook his head. “I don’t want to frighten her.” He dialed a number. “Besides, both you and I should get checked as well. Your temple looks nasty and I feel as if I’ve gone three rounds with a rugby team.”

Before Esther could answer, somebody answered the phone.

“Terry? – No, it’s me, Rocco. Esther is okay.” He winked at Esther who stared at him with wide eyes. “Listen, are you off shift already? – On your way out? Oh, that’s great – Could you do us a favor and make a little detour to pick up Esther and me?”

Esther held her breath.

“Where we are?” Rocco looked at Esther.

When he answered, there was one second of startled silence, but then, Esther could hear the incredulous yell perfectly well, even though her phone sound wasn’t the best, and even though she stood a meter away from Rocco.

“You are WHERE?!!”

“What did you get yourself into now?!”

Those were Teresa’s first words as she opened the car door.

Rocco and Esther, sitting huddled up on the curb, exchanged a wary glance.

“We went to have a drink, Terry, just as you suggested,” Rocco replied tiredly.

“Yes, but I didn’t suggest that you get it here!” Teresa kept looking over her shoulder as if she expected someone to appear behind her in the empty street. Glass shards on the pavement crunched beneath her heels and it was only after she took note of the police tape across the broken bar windows that she got a first look at Esther and Rocco herself. “Holy God, what have those gays done to you?!”

“They gave us drinks.” Rocco stood and held out a hand to Esther who pulled herself gingerly to her feet. “And it was a really nice evening until a bunch of ultras decided to storm in and beat everyone and everything to pieces.”

“And you couldn’t have gotten those drinks anywhere else!” Teresa reached for the hand that Rocco cradled awkwardly to his chest. Her gesture was a lot gentler than her tone let on. “”These clubs are dangerous! – You need the get the dirt out of this and disinfect it. – Don’t you see what happens with making that lifestyle too public, with bars and parties? People feel provoked, and then outsiders like you get beaten up in the end!”

“I’m not an outsider.” It was the first thing Esther said. She didn’t look at Teresa as she walked past her towards the waiting car.

“And neither am I, at least tonight,” Rocco added to cut into Teresa’s startled silence. “The bartender gave me the drinks for free, in exchange for my phone number.”

Teresa looked at him in shock. “You gave your number to a gay man?”

“No, I gave him yours,” Rocco said earnestly.

Teresa sputtered. “You did what?!”

“Well…” Rocco pretended to think about it. “He looked even better than your beloved Dr. P. and he was younger, too. Nice smile, and I don’t think he’s interested in watching soccer. – What’s not to like?”

“You didn’t!” Teresa protested.

Rocco sighed. “Of course I didn’t.” He gave Teresa a pointed look before he motioned at Esther, who stood next to the car without looking up. Streetlight was scarce, but the swelling and the dried blood along her temple were clearly visible.

Teresa swallowed. “Get in the car, both of you!” She opened the driver’s door for herself. “Image what people would say if they saw our family car here!”

“Terry…” Rocco slumped against the backseat with a groan, with Esther following suit. “If someone around here actually knew your car, they’d probably think you scared Alfredo away from the soccer channel and that he came here in search of sympathetic male company.”

“Very funny.” Teresa maneuvered the car back onto the street with a brusque turn. She could hear Esther trying to suppress a hiss as the security belt cut into her bruised side. With her fingers spread against the steering wheel, Teresa exhaled slowly. Then, carefully, she rolled up to the curb again. “Esther, please come sit in the front.”

Rocco leaned forward against Teresa’s seat while Esther rounded the car. “Quit being a jerk,” he whispered angrily. “Tonight was the first step into something new for her, trying to accept what she feels beyond just Marina. – And what does she get? Beaten up by jerks, left to take care of two seriously wounded patients in the middle of the brawl, and to top it off, someone who’s supposed to be her friend treats her as if she were leprous! What are you afraid of, catching the lesbian flu?!”

“I…” But before Teresa could answer properly, the car door on the other side opened and Esther slowly maneuvered herself into the passenger seat. She didn’t even glance at Teresa, who in turn forced herself not to look away. Esther’s temple had taken a nasty hit, that much was sure. Teresa had to wince internally when she witnessed how slowly and how carefully away from her side Esther fastened the seatbelt.

“Wait a moment.” Teresa reached blindly onto the backseat, finding her older son’s sweater just where he wasn’t supposed to drop his clothes after training. Esther’s slender frame would easily fit into it. “Take this,” she said, holding the garment out to Esther. “It’s cold, and it will cushion your side a little.”

“Thank you,” Esther said, but she still didn’t look Teresa in the eye. It took her an excruciating minute to get rid of the seatbelt again and to then, slowly, turn in the seat and slip into the sweater.

“Wait…” Teresa reached out to pull the collar in the right position, just as she always did with her son. She pulled away quickly before she could touch Esther’s skin, and then she paused when she caught her own motion.

“Thanks for picking us up.” Esther leaned back against the headrest, only to move forward again with a grimace. “Damn, my head.”

“It looks pretty ugly,” Teresa commented, squinting at the street. It was so much easier to focus on the driving. “I’m taking you back to the Morandini.”

“You want to drive all the way up there again?” Esther made a motion to shake her head, but then thought better of it. “Really, you can just drop me at my place. I need a shower and two aspirin, I’ll be fine.”

“What’s that? The new gay bravado?” It was easier to say while ranting, Teresa noted. “You know this needs to be checked out. And then, yes, you should take a shower. Both of you.”

“Some of the wounded might have ended up at our place, anyway,” Rocco commented from the backseat. “Giovanna went on the last van with Franco and Eva, and I think they transported Grazia to the Morandini as well.”

Esther nodded. “And I hope Mariella and Sandra really went to have someone look at that blow.”

“Looks like you’ve been making friends already,” Teresa observed coolly.

“We helped them escape through the bathroom window,” Esther said, and she sounded exhausted. “Mariella didn’t want to go to an ER because she was afraid her parents would throw her out if they found out where she had been.”

Teresa stared at the streetlight above them. “Really, is there a reason why they keep the streetlights in red for so long at this hour of the night?!” she yelled.

But the next streetlight was green, and so were the next ones after that. When they arrived at the Morandini, they weren’t the first patients from the brawl. Esther recognized more than one face from earlier in the evening, only that now instead of nursing a drink in the cozy glow of a bar, their bruises and their tired faces were exposed under the neon lights of the emergency room.

The conversations around them died down as Esther and Rocco and, a distancing step behind them, Teresa entered the hall.

“You take care of him, he’s one of them…” Franco was arguing with Eva over the treatment of a very well dressed young man, but he fell silent when he saw who had arrived. “Rocco!”

All the eyes were on them, every single one of them. Esther could feel herself shrink away under their scrutiny and she wished she could hide behind Rocco. If only she had insisted that Teresa drop her off at her apartment. She would prefer the hammering headache to the looks she was receiving.

“Yes!” Rocco declared loudly and stepped in front of Esther. “Yes, I was in that brawl. In that GAY brawl, in that GAY BAR. – And I can’t tell you how pissed off I am that I got interrupted in the middle of the nice number I was doing in the men’s bathroom!”

Behind them, Teresa made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a giggle.

“Right – and can we now please all switch our brains back on and get back to work?!” That was Gandini, making her way through the crowd that suddenly had found other things to look at. Even at this hour of the night, she looked as if she had only just started her shift, with a smile on her face and barely a hair out of place. Her gaze wandered from Esther to Rocco. “Rocco, that hand is with me.”

“I do the bruised temples tonight,” a gruff voice announced behind Esther and she turned around to face Malosti whose bedside manners clearly hadn’t improved with the late hour.

Esther recognized the young man he was treating and who sported a bloodied eye. She vaguely recalled drawing him out of the way just before their unconscious bathroom patient had crashed into her.

“Esther, what’s this – Gay chic?” Malosti gestured at Esther’s temple with a sigh and then turned back to stitching the brow of his current patient. “Did you have to get yourself into a brawl? – We can’t afford more people on sick leave!”

“I know, I drew the schedules,” Esther replied and then she thought that only weeks ago, she wouldn’t have dared to give Malosti such a curt answer. “And shouldn’t you be off work, anyway?”

“Oh yes,” Malosti grumbled. “But I’m still here, to stitch up you guys!”

“And to take me to dinner later,” Gandini reminded him casually as she walked by. She actually managed to leave Malosti dumbfounded for a moment.

“Hrrrm.” He cleared his throat and Esther tried to smother her smile when he looked at her again. “I’ll take a look at that.” He motioned for the young man to move of the chair he had occupied. “You’re done. As good as new! – Since this nurse here got herself into a riot, we need someone else to clean you up. Just ask the lady in red over there.” Despite his gruff tone, his fingers were gentle when he assessed Esther’s wound. “You won’t get around a stitch or two,” he declared. “The wound isn’t big, but it’s a little deep…”

Esther winced. She hadn’t even seen herself in the mirror yet, but from how it felt like, she had to look adventurous to say the least.

“Couldn’t you have skipped a lesbian cliché or two?” Malosti muttered while he handled disinfectant and scissors. “Getting into a brawl…”

“Yes. And too bad I don’t look good with really short hair because that would really take the cake, wouldn’t it?” Esther bit back.

“Heh.” Malosti chuckled next to her. “You’re bossy girlfriend must be rubbing off on you.”

Esther was about to point out that Marina wasn’t even her girlfriend at the moment, but then she saw no need to repeat that again. Instead, she just smiled.

“This will hurt like hell around that bruise,” Malosti advised while he lifted the needle.

“I know,” Esther muttered and then she sucked in the air between her teeth because it really hurt.

“You know what sucks the most about taking a shiner like that?” Malosti asked, trying to distract Esther even though small talk was not one of his fortes. “If the girl you want to impress isn’t even around to comfort you.”

It had been a companionable phrase, but the thought of Marina and the acute sensation of missing her had Esther tear up, surprising both herself and Malosti.

“Oh shit…” Malosti moved the needle out of the way of Esther’s shaking head. “Damn, I’m sorry.”

“It just hurts,” Esther lied through clenched teeth, clamping down on her tears. This was not the time or the place for them.

“I bet,” Malosti agreed, reaching for a syringe on the side. “I will give you something to numb that right away…” The minuscule sting of the needle was followed by an immediate feeling of comfortable numbness. “But no lesbian car races tonight,” Malosti added sternly. He returned to the stitching. “Bugger of a cut… I hope you paid back the jerk who did that to you!”

“I was in the bathroom, stabilizing patients,” Esther replied, but she smiled. Part of it was the fading ache against her skull, but another part was the oddly companionable talk with Malosti.

“You worked with that temple?” Gandini, who was walking past them again, stopped and turned to look at Esther. “I saw them both being wheeled in. Good work, Esther.”

“Thanks,” Esther said, but then she had to flinch when Malosti’s coat brushed against her side when he moved to put away the needle.

He noticed it, too. “Wait, let me see that…” He raised the borrowed sweater and Esther’s shirt to get a look at her side and then cursed when he saw the angry bruise that was beginning to form along her side.

Esther herself was feeling a little queasy at the sight, even though from her vantage point, she couldn’t see it very well.

“Shit!” Malosti whirled around, wiping a tablet with sterile instruments of its table with the motions. “Why can you lock up every man in this country who does something like this to his wife, but you can’t be bothered to lock up a bunch of jerks who think it’s a Saturday party to beat up women because they won’t sleep with them?!”

“Let me take over here,” Gandini placed a soothing hand on his shoulder and Esther was amazed by how she stopped right into Maolsti’s ire and made it dissipate. “You could use a few minutes, and I’m done with Rocco’s hand.” She ignored Esther’s stare and probed at the wounded side instead. “No fractured rib, you would have noticed that. But you probably bruised a few of them.” She pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Esther. “Two days off. At least!”

“I can’t…” Esther tried to protest.

Gandini tapped against the prescription pad in her pocket. “But I can.” And her grin indicated that she wasn’t exactly remorseful about ordering their head nurse off duty for a few days. “Come on, move over here.” She padded the medical bed at their side and then offered Esther a hand to pull her to her feet. “I want to make sure this is just a bruise. Still, you’ll be feeling like you got hit by a train for the next couple of days.”

But Esther didn’t react right away, distracted by Gandini’s grin. She wasn’t sure whether she had ever before noticed the exact color of Gandini’s eyes like this and the warmth of Gandini’s hand against her own suddenly made her feel embarrassed. She tried to stretch out on the medical bed, but Gandini’s fingers against her side and the way her head was bent over Esther’s stomach, examining the bruise, brought back memories of other situations, and another pair of hands on her body.

Esther blushed a bright shade of crimson. At the same time, the realization that Marina was far away and perhaps would never be that close to her again made her blink against tears. It was the distance she felt to Marina in contrast to Gandini’s soothing presence that had her cry openly.

“Hey…” Gandini placed a hand on Esther’s shoulder in a manner that was so typical for her, but added to the sudden embarrassment for Esther. She wasn’t supposed to notice that Gandini was beautiful. Also, it wasn’t as if that was anything new. She had always admired the warmth and the friendliness the older doctor seemed to radiate in such an effortless manner. But now, after having been with Marina, the women around Esther were shifting in her perception, drawing her attention to things she never had been conscious of before. It made her feel as if she was doing something forbidden.

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Gandini said and of course she already held out a tissue to Esther. It only made Esther cry more. She couldn’t deal with that much warmth directed at her, not when she was craving it so desperately from Marina instead, and not when she had just spent an evening being denied to find a way towards it again. She had tried to enter that world that still seemed strange and frightening to her at times, and that she had unknowingly become a part of the moment she kissed Marina. Perhaps already the moment she had found herself looking at Marina’s hands with that odd sensation of vertigo in her stomach.

“Was it a club you had gone before, together?” Gandini asked and Esther wished she wouldn’t notice the faint, flowery scent of the pricey conditioner Gandini apparently used. “I mean, you and Marina?”

“No, we never really went to a bar like that.” Marina had never asked her, but Esther realized that she hadn’t been inviting such a suggestion, either. With Marina, it had been upscale bars, high brow exhibitions and independent theatre events that always seemed to attract many gays and lesbians even though they hadn’t been explicitly gay events.

“I’m really sorry that your night turned out like this.” Gandini reached for some disinfectant.

“All we did was have a drink,” Esther said and she didn’t know whether she talked because she felt the need to defend herself or because it was so easy to talk to Gandini. “There were teenagers in there, holding hands, wide-eyed, just being in love… and I had to help them escape through a window! One of them was hysterical with fear that her parents would find out and kick her out of the house… Did two young girls come by here, by chance? Mariella and Sandra, perhaps about twenty. I told them to come here and try to see you, that you could help them keep it confidential.”

“Of course I would have,” Gandini reassured her. “But I haven’t treated any couple of young girls tonight.” When she saw Esther’s dejected expression, she added, “Sorry.”

“Damn.” Esther flinched at the cold of the ointment that Gandini was generously slathering across her side. “Damn those parents!”

Gandini nodded while she placed a large sheet of gauze on top of the bruises. “You should lock them up right next to the attackers.”

“Most of the attackers escaped,” Esther said bitterly.

Gandini said nothing for a moment. Then she shook her head. “Sometimes I understand Riccardo wanting to beat things up.”

“I take it things are going well between you two?” Esther had never seen Malosti listen to anyone as easily as he listened to Gandini, who now leaned closer to Esther with a smile.

“Surprisingly well,” she admitted on a whisper. “And what about you and Marina? She must be getting bored without you up there in Tyrol.”

“I don’t know.” Esther was surprised at Gandini’s question. Sure, she had known Gandini a lot longer than Gandini knew Marina, but the two doctors shared a lot more of a personal bond. If Gandini were on anyone’s side in this, Esther would expect it to be Marina’s. “I couldn’t make it up there to visit her this weekend.”

“I’m sure she’s missing you.” Gandini helped Esther pull the shirt and the boys’ sweater back into place. “I’ll give you a prescription for something to reduce the swelling. And some painkillers – ”

“I’m not sure she’s missing me.” Esther took the prescription without even looking at it. “She asks me to visit, and I think she enjoys seeing me. And I know she has to deal with the attack, with her attitude when it comes to Luigi… but even if it is just us, there’s no indication of anything… more…” She shrugged forlornly.

“There isn’t?” This seemed to surprise Gandini. “But she had such a difficult time keeping her distance after you broke up…” She seemed pensive for a moment and then shook her head. “Look, I don’t want to meddle in this, but I don’t think that things between you are over for good. Marina may decide not to act on her feelings, but you can’t just switch them off, not with how much in love with you she was.”

“You think so?” It felt so good to simply be able to talk about Marina, and to be reminded of the fact that at least at one point, Marina had been very much in love with her.

“Of course I do.” Gandini gave Esther an encouraging smile. “She may reject you now, but it’s not as if you haven’t rejected her in return, hmm?”

Esther stared at the tips of her shoes. “No,” she admitted and she could still see Marina’s smile crumble the day she had rebuffed her vacation idea with a really lame excuse. “I just needed some time…”

“And you figured things out eventually.” Gandini stashed away the used instruments. “Now it’s Marina who needs some time to figure things out. Just be patient.” She held Esther back by a shoulder. “And be persistent! – With how Marina always…”

But Esther didn’t get to hear what Marina always had said or done, since a distraught looking man suddenly stood in between the closed off curtains. It was the same young man whom Malosti had treated earlier, the one with the bloodied eye whom Esther remembered from the gay bar.

“Are you Esther?!”

His voice was strained and Esther instinctively took a step back even as she answered. “Yes…?”

“Where did you take Ernesto?” The young man asked and took the step closer that Esther had just moved away. “Where is he?”

His hands were fidgeting at his sides and for a moment, black metal between his fingers shone in the overhead lights and froze Esther on the spot. The smell of the earth, the parking lot, and Marina didn’t move…

“Who is Ernesto?” Gandini stepped in between the two just as Esther realized what the young man was clutching in his hand: a cell phone.

“He’s my…” The man hesitated, looking from Esther to Gandini, and then back to Esther.

“I’ll take it from here,” Esther said, guessing the source of the young man’s discomfort. She winced at his subsequent look of gratitude, thinking that one visit to a gay bar shouldn’t gain her that much trust.

Gandini had obviously figured as much and gave Esther a nod. “Let me know if you need anything.” Her hand rested lightly against Esther’s back for a second before she walked off.

Esther tried to shake off the fleeting sensation of warmth and focused on the young man in front of her who was still nervously hanging onto his cell phone.

“I’ve tried to call him,” he gestured with the phone, one of those slim, metal models that never went with the kind of contract that Esther had. “Several times, but I only get his voice mail… and now his voicemail is full and hangs up on me, and I don’t know where he is, and…”

“We’ll find out,” Esther promised and held out her hand. “In here, people aren’t really allowed to use their cell phones, so it’s possible that he simply had to switch it off and will call you back any minute.” This was easy. This was what she did every day on the job, and it was no different now. “I’m Esther Bruno. – And you are…?”

“Tommaso.” He shook her hand on autopilot. “Tommaso Molinari. I saw you earlier…” He looked away from her face for a moment. “In the fight. You were in the fight.”

“Actually, I think we were all just trying to have a drink,” Esther said gently and she was surprised to see Tommaso blush. He couldn’t even be thirty yet, with a clean-shaven face and thick, dark eyelashes. “So, Ernesto…?”

“I haven’t seen him since they put him in an ambulance car, they didn’t let me go with him,” Tommaso hastened to explain. “I tried to call out to him, but everything happened so quickly, all those paramedics, and he was on a gurney… He didn’t answer. I think he didn’t even see me, but I heard them shout that he was stable. – Stable is good, right?”

The look he gave Esther was so hopeful that she didn’t have the heart to correct him. “Yes, that’s an important thing.”

“And then I asked around where the van went, and they told me: to the Morandini,” Tommaso continued with a bit more calm. “But nobody tells me anything, but the blonde woman – Giovanna, I think – she said that you are a nurse, that you could tell me…”

“If he’s here, we’ll find out right away,” Esther said soothingly, even though she had a sinking feeling as to who the man that Tommaso was looking for might be. “Can you tell me what Ernesto was wearing, what he looks like?”

“Short black hair, a little gray at the temples. He hated the gray at first, but I think it makes him look even better.” Tommaso smiled a little. “He wears a light blue shirt, a good one. It was my birthday gift this year… He’s a lawyer, he always needs new dress shirts.”

“A shirt with a very stiff collar, really starched?” Esther asked, and when Tommaso nodded immediately, she cursed her own luck. “I’ve seen him. He wasn’t in much of the fight.” That was about the only positive thing she could say about Ernesto’s state. She remembered the torn collar of the pricey dress shirt and she wished she could simply storm off like Malosti, cursing everyone in her wake. “We managed to pull him into the Ladies’ room early on, he had been knocked unconscious and I monitored him…”

“Monitored?” Tommaso asked with wide, scared eyes and it made him look even younger. “You mean he didn’t wake up again?!”

“That can happen with a blow to the head,” Esther explained. “What’s important is that his state was stable and that he didn’t get pushed around any further.”

“But I got a blow to the head, and I didn’t pass out!” Tommaso said with panic in his voice. “You, you got a blow to the head yourself, and you are already working again!”

“I’m not on duty,” Esther tried to say and reached for his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “From what I heard both patients I treated in the bathroom were stable when they got here… perhaps they’re already out of the operating hall again.”

“Operating hall?!” Tommaso turned white around the nose. “I… I don’t understand this…”

“We just needed to make sure,” Esther said and she hoped that this was indeed what had happened. “He had a small head wound, and if he was still unconscious when he got here, they will check every minimal risk to make sure he gets the best possible care.”

“Can I see him?” Tommaso asked.

“Actually, you could be of great help,” Esther said and she felt guilty for evading his question. If Ernesto had ended up in the ICU ward – and after such a prolonged period of unconsciousness that was likely – there would be no visitors allowed. “If you know whether he has any allergies, or takes any medication…” She waved at Tommaso to follow her, steering them towards the reception area where Teresa had taken over the reins from the receptionist on duty, who was smart enough not to protest.

“Teresa, we need some information about a patient from tonight’s incident.” Esther walked behind the counter out of habit. “Ernesto…” She realized that she didn’t know his last name and looked at Tommaso.

“Lombardi. Ernesto Lombardi.” Tommaso spoke so quickly that he swallowed the name the first time. “Please, how is he?”

Teresa gave him a glance from underneath arched brows. “…and you are?”

“Tommaso.” He swallowed. “Molinari. – Is he all right?”

“Are you a family member?” Teresa asked coolly and ignored the incredulous stare that Esther directed her way.

“Yes.” Tommaso nodded nervously. “I mean, no. But I…”

Teresa interrupted him. “If you are no family member, I cannot divulge any information.”

“But his family doesn’t even live here!” Tommaso protested.

In the background, Massimo, whose shift this actually was, looked up from the file cabinet to follow the exchange more closely.

Teresa straightened a little. “If you know where his family lives, perhaps you can tell me how I can contact them.”

“Can’t you just tell me how he is doing?” Tommaso pleaded.

“I’m afraid I can only tell that to his family,” Teresa said, sounding very professional, but when she caught Esther’s disapproving glare, she lost her calm. “It’s the law!” she said angrily. “What do you want me to do?”

“I know it’s the law,” Esther said very quietly. In the background, Massimo nodded, even though nobody had asked him for his opinion.

“Ernesto’s family hasn’t talked to him in years,” Tommaso said and his voice was on the verge of breaking. “I’m his family.”

Teresa started taking notes on top of a patient file, ignoring him. Esther couldn’t believe her own eyes. In retrospect, she would have preferred to walk to the Morandini and perhaps even to walk up to Tyrol instead of ever having set foot into Teresa’s car. She tried to make eye contact with the desperate Tommaso while she was already calculating where she could organize him a pair of borrowed scrubs.

“If that was me, and if Marina was somewhere in the ICU, I would strangle you right about now,” Esther muttered, too low for Massimo to hear, but Teresa heard her alright.

“And I hope you wouldn’t be so stupid to ask the receptionist in earshot of a tattletale who’s sucking up to the hospital bosses in the Catholic League,” Teresa replied under her breath, motioning towards Massimo with her head. Aloud, she said, “Please, if you would move on now? Why don’t you go have a drink in the cafeteria until I have located the family?” She stepped back and bumped into Esther, and when Esther took a step to the side, Teresa bumped into her yet again.

Only then did Esther notice that the file Teresa had opened in front of her and that their joint bodies were now concealing, read “Ernesto Lombardi” on a scan print. Quickly, Esther tried to memorize the data she could see.

“But… at least let me tell you about his medical condition, if he didn’t get a chance to tell you…” Tommaso tried again.

Teresa lay down her pencil and looked at him again. “Is he HIV positive?”

“No!” Esther could see tears pooling in Tommaso’s eyes. “He has a little high blood pressure,” he explained. “And he gets hay fever, every spring…”

“I’m sure none of that will be a problem,” Teresa said dismissively and she made a movement as if she were about to pat Tommaso’s arm in comfort.

Esther blinked when she saw Teresa trying to slip the note she had been writing across the counter. Before the surprised Tommaso could say anything, she had taken both his arm and the note and drew him away with her. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a hot tea now.”

Only when they had turned around the two next corners, Esther dared to look down at the note.

ICU, Trauma Ward, Room 372. – Careful: Aldo is on duty until 1 a.m.

“Thanks, Terry,” Esther sighed. Then she checked her watch. They still had half an hour to kill. “How about some peppermint tea?”

“What does this mean?” Tommaso was still confused. “Who is this Aldo, will he help us?”

“Not at all.” Esther chuckled without humor at the thought of her ex-boyfriend. “Never mind. It’s a long story. – We need to wait until he is off shift, then I’ll get you some scrubs and take you up so you can see your Ernesto.”

Tommaso reached for Esther’s hands. “Thank you, thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” Esther said uncomfortably. Tommaso shouldn’t have to be thankful that someone helped him into the ICU ward so that he could see Ernesto. He should be sitting there already, being the first one to be informed. “Teresa let me take a glimpse at Ernesto’s file. He’s still unconscious, but because they sedated him. They’re trying to monitor a small brain swelling that he got from the blow to his head, but they didn’t need to intervene and things look pretty good.”

For a second, Tommaso just stared at Esther, only to wrap her in a big hug. Esther could feel his shoulders beginning to shake. Now that the nescience and the fear ebbed away, the tears came.

“He doesn’t like hospitals, you know.” Tommaso was still sniffling as he sat down across from Esther and accepted the mug of tea she handed him. “He knows they won’t let me see him.”

“But you’re going to see him,” Esther reminded him. She didn’t want to imagine what she would have done if nobody had told her how Marina was doing after the shooting. Going stark raving mad sounded like a probable outcome.

“But I get to see him because you and your receptionist have a heart, not because I have a right to it.” Tommaso stared into his tea. “You always have to beg, and to fear, and oftentimes they’ll simply kick you out.”

“Being a nurse has its perks,” Esther admitted. The sleepness nights in the visitor’s chair next to Marina’s bed, listening to her breathing, seemed completely idyllic in retrospect. “But when my girlfriend got hurt recently and she was here for treatment, her ex had her transferred to another clinic and I had to sneak in there with stolen scrubs, too.”

“Her ex transferred her?” Tommaso asked with disbelief. “What a bitch!”

“Yes,” Esther agreed wholeheartedly.

“But is your girlfriend alright now?” Tommaso took a sip of tea.

“Yes.” Esther nodded. Apart from the tiny detail that Marina wasn’t her girlfriend at the moment, things were just peachy.

Later, when she left him with Ernesto, she almost envied them. Even though Ernesto was in the ICU ward, he was not alone. Tommaso – his brother, as she had told the nurse on duty – was sitting by his side in a set of oversized scrubs, carefully cradling Ernesto’s hand between his own.

They were no different than any loving couple Esther had observed over the years in here, with the same initial shock faced with the ICU equipment and the same gestures of closeness an injury allowed: a kiss to the forehead and holding onto the warmth of their partner’s hand.

Esther wondered how Marina was doing. Certainly she was asleep already, exhausted from another day of physiotherapy. Perhaps Marina had already been ‘limping around the garden’, like she had jokingly suggested, and for a moment, Esther was happy about the high fences and the security guards. Nobody could storm in there and try to beat her up.

The thought struck Esther that perhaps it hadn’t only been her own reluctance that had kept Marina from taking her to a gay bar some evening or other. She shook her head, willing the images of an ambushed Marina aside. At least shaking her head didn’t hurt any longer. Part of her face still felt comfortably numb. Esther had no idea what Malosti had given her, but it was working like a charm. She didn’t even feel tired, even though she should probably head home and try to get some sleep.

Still, the images of Marina in Ernesto’s place kept running through her mind. And Esther didn’t want to be at home alone with those thoughts. Aimlessly, she strolled back towards the emergency room, checking the curtained beds as if she were on the clock.

“Esther!”

She turned around to fund Giovanna walking towards her, her right arm immobilized by a professional sling.

“Don’t tell me they make you go on shift after the night you’ve just had,” Giovanna said skeptically. “I’ve heard that the market for medical personal is tough, but that tough?”

Esther pulled a curtain properly to the side. “As you can see, it’s desperate.”

“What’s desperate are your scrubs, then.” Giovanna motioned at the sports sweater of Teresa’s son. “I liked your other outfit better.”

Esther needed a second until the implied compliment registered. “Thanks…” She could feel another blush coming on, so she hastily gestured at Giovanna’s sling. “How’s your shoulder?”

“It hurts,” Giovanna admitted. “But I’ve had worse.”

“The social worker with a grudge,” Esther remembered while they walked towards the reception area. “Do you throw yourself a lot against doors?”

“More onto mats,” Giovanna replied and when Esther stared at her without comprehension, she added, “I do some karate.”

“Thank God you were around.” Esther pushed her hands into the pockets of the sweater. “I don’t want to know what would have happened if that man had entered the bathroom.”

Giovanna shook her head. “I just closed the door. – You were the one who took care of the patients.” She threw Esther a sideways glance. “Could you tell Tommaso who Ernesto is doing?”

“I just left him at his bedside,” Esther said and it was the only thing about this evening that really made her feel good. “The nurse on duty thinks he’s the brother. I know her, she won’t ask questions.”

“Thanks a lot,” Giovanna said and Esther found it odd that the woman would be thanking her. “I’ve worked in several Aids projects and I’ve seen enough cases of estranged family members at someone’s bed while the partner sat crying in the cafeteria,” Giovanna explained. “I know that what you just did is not in the books. So thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, thank our receptionist,” Esther said.

Giovanni looked at her as they rounded the corner. “The fierce redhead at the front desk?”

“That would be the one.” Esther nodded in the direction of Teresa, who was watching a squirming Massimo do his work that would, in a few hours, be her work again. “She gave him the room number.”

“A woman with a great heart… and great legs,” Giovanna observed as they walked closer and Esther didn’t know whether she spoke loud enough to have Teresa hear it one purpose.

Teresa turned around and gave Giovanna a reserved look. “These legs are straight, taken and married,” she pointed out.

Giovanna smiled. “That doesn’t make them any less attractive.” She threw in a wink for good measure and for the first time in years, Esther actually saw Teresa blush.

“With the shoulder sprain you have, the only thing you should be serenading is a mug of chamomile tea,” Teresa retorted, but her voice was without animosity. For a second, Esther wondered whether the painkillers might make her prone to hallucinations.

“Are you up for a tea, Esther?” Giovanna’s attention was suddenly directed towards her, but Esther was too distracted by Teresa’s arched brow to react. “You heard her. Receptionist’s orders.”

Esther only knew that she didn’t want to go home yet, to a place where Marina’s jacket greeted her in the hallway, but where everything else seemed to be made up of missing her.

“Did you just move here?” Giovanna asked when they had settled down at a table in the deserted cafeteria. “I haven’t seen you around the scene before.”

“Kind of,” Esther said vaguely.

Giovanna didn’t ask for details. “I’ve only lived here for two years myself.” She shrugged over a sip of tea. “I used to work in a youth project in Bologna, a dream job. But the funds were partially church-sponsored, so when the manager in charge found out I was gay, I was out of a job.”

“A member of the League?” Esther guessed, remembering her father’s reserve against the populist conservative right.

“You bet.” Giovanna nodded with chagrin. “It sounds like you’ve had a few run-ins with them over the years, as well? – How about swapping anecdotes over a coffee sometime?”

“…sure.” Esther’s agreement was a second late, but if Giovanna had noticed it, she didn’t let it on. Esther typed Giovanna’s number into her phone, underneath the new, large scratch across her display. A small envelope blinked in one corner and Esther hurried to open the message, only to curse herself for her stupid enthusiasm when Rocco’s name appeared on the screen.

“I hope you’re already asleep! Teresa didn’t seen you leave. Susanna came to pick me up, I’ll call you tomorrow, if she leaves me in one piece. PS. The next drinks are on me.”

“Bad news?” Giovanna questioned. She had a way of sounding sympathetic without coming across as intrusive, something that was probably useful in her line of work. That, and her knowledge of martial arts.

“Rocco’s wife came to pick him up,” Esther explained.

“Gay, but married?” Giovanna guessed.

“No.” At first, Esther was offended at the implication, but probably it was a common scenario. “Straight, and the best friend you could have.”

Giovanna nodded. “Lucky you.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest as well as she could. “Would you have one of those scrub shirts for me?” Giovanna gestured at her bare arms. “I have no idea where my jacket ended up, and it’s a little too cold to walk home in a t-shirt –”

“Your jacket probably ended up with Ernesto’s things,” Esther mused. “But a set of scrubs won’t keep you warm.” She looked at Giovanna, taxing her. She was almost as tall as Esther herself, but with a more solid frame. “I’ve got a poncho I could lend to you, though.”

“And how will you get home?” Giovanna asked immediately. “And don’t tell me you plan on sleeping here. – Forgive me for saying so, but you look like hell.” With a grin, she amended, “Well, hell on nice legs.”

“You sure know how to make a girl feel better,” Esther observed dryly. It was an absurd situation, sitting with a stranger in the hospital cafeteria at two in the morning, sharing bad coffee from the vending machine and engaging in flirtatious banter. But perhaps it was exactly what they both needed to ignore their wounds, the visible and the invisible ones, and to make this world feel normal again, at least a little. “I have more than one jacket in my locker.”

Giovanna laughed, only to wince. “Right, you’re the head nurse. Special privileges?”

Esther nodded. “And you’re lucky, they include lending jackets to social workers with grudges.”

Giovanna promised to pay her back in coffee – “Not that road tar from your vending machine. No offense.” – when she walked out into the night in Esther’s poncho. Esther looked after her, surprised to find that she had actually stopped worrying for a while. She knew she should be going home herself, but the solitude of her borrowed apartment still didn’t appeal to her.

Ambling back down the hall and disappearing into the corridors was so much easier, with lives other than her own reflected back at her. She didn’t know how much time had passed when she found herself once more in the ICU ward. Quietly, she walked up to the window of Ernesto’s room.

Tommaso was still sitting by his side. He had fallen asleep, his head resting on the blanket, Ernesto’s hand still held between his own.

Esther gazed at them for a long minute, until a renewed pounding in her head signaled that the narcotic Malosti had given her was wearing off. Her movements were stiff as she walked back out of the ward. A few steps down the next corridor, she stopped.

Was this what her life was going to be? At risk of being beaten up when she went for a drink, having to lie to be with a loved one at the hospital and risking to lose her job or her own family only because she was in love with Marina?

Esther leaned against the wall with her back, closing her eyes against the headache. Before she realized it, she was sliding down the wall. Something hard pushed against her backside, and Esther remembered her cell phone that she had stashed into her pocket earlier. When she tried to reach for it, her side protested and she had to use her other hand, needing another two tries to retrieve it.

The scratch across the display had turned into a crack.

And right underneath the crack, there was the blinking envelope icon again. Exhaustion slowed her movements as she accessed the message, only to see that this one had been sent long before Rocco had written to her earlier.

23:28, the screen read, which had probably been when Teresa had picked them up.

The name next to the date read ‘Marina’.

I should have passed out an hour ago, but I can’t sleep. The pet tiger has petitioned for new quarters, apparently I’m unbearably grouchy this weekend. I blame it on having to limp through the garden without you. Sleep well. M.

Marina never cared whether she exceeded the 160 signs mark. She was usually over the limit.

For long seconds, Esther’s finger hovered over the option of “call sender now”. It was tempting, so very tempting. But it was also past two in the morning, and Marina was long since asleep. And Esther was able to take care of herself.

There was no need to call Marina just because she had gone for a drink, to any bar she damn well pleased. Fine, so her first try to visit a gay bar had ended in a brawl, but she had gone there, on her own, and she had made it out in one piece, and she didn’t need anyone’s blessing or comfort about it.

She didn’t need Marina to tell her that everything would be alright.

Esther would be okay on her own.

It was a bleary-eyed Teresa who found her half an hour later, the phone still in her hand, her head on her knees and crying despite the headache it gave her.

“Come on.” Teresa stretched out her hand, struggling to pull Esther’s lanky frame up from the floor. “You’re going to get another analgesic, and then I’m driving you home. You’ve had enough for tonight, and so have I.”

Esther sniffled. “But I can’t sleep.”

“If you took the painkillers Gandini prescribed, you’d be asleep already,” Teresa pointed out. She nodded at the phone that Esther was still clinging to. “Did you call Marina?”

“No,” Esther said defiantly. “And why do I need to call Marina every time something happens? It’s not like she calls me to tell me how her day went, or to tell me that she misses me…” It had to be the tiredness that made her admit to her frustration, and it was definitely not the things that an equally exhausted Teresa wanted to hear at this hour.

“I’ll drive you home,” Teresa repeated, carefully wrapping an arm around Esther’s waist. “And you’re damn right, Marina should be calling you. Not the other way around.”

The alarm clock went off when Esther had barely fallen asleep, or at least that was what if felt like to her. She rolled over to shut off the device on the nightstand, only to be reminded that this movement was not an option at the moment.

“Oooouch.” The pain that shot up her bruised side chased all gentle remnants of sleepiness from her mind with one single punch. “Oh, damn it…” Someone might just as well have torn away her blanket and left her exposed to the cold air.

“Not… good…” Esther summarized and blinked with heavy eyelids at the half-open window across the room. Her left eye seemed to refuse to open at all and she had reached up to touch her fingers to it before she could curb the reflex. “Mmmhbbh…” For a moment, violet dots danced in front of Esther’s eyes.

She winced at the brush of her own fingertips and the subsequent nausea made her move to get up. These were her sheets, but it wasn’t her bed, not really, and if she was going to throw up, she would prefer to reach the bathroom in time.

But sitting up wasn’t as easy as it should be. Her stomach felt like she had done an excessive sit-up routine, her ribs she didn’t even want to consider and somewhere above that eye she couldn’t blink open, the headache was rushing back.

“Bad… idea…” Esther surmised between short breaths, feeling like a beetle trapped on its back. She remembered Gandini’s words from the night before: that she would think she had been hit by a train. Part of Esther wondered whether the always poised Gandini had ever ended up with bruised ribs, to be able to describe the sensation so well.

Right now, even sitting up felt like an otherworldly challenge. But she had the day off, thanks to Gandini, and she didn’t really have to get up just yet.

With the free Sunday in front of her, she could have traveled up to Tyrol to see Marina, although she didn’t envision herself crossing the apartment in her current state, much less walking out of the house, catching a train and hiking through the hills of Meran to break into Marina’s residence from the garden side.

They could have limped around the garden together, possibly one leaning onto the other to be able to walk. Esther smiled at the idea.

For a moment, she wondered whether Vera might be visiting again this weekend. Marina had known that Esther couldn’t make it. Still, last weekend Esther hadn’t seen a single leaf of fancy floral bouquet in Marina’s room. Perhaps Vera had finally gotten the drift and left Marina alone. Perhaps she had gone to sulk in her holiday chalet at Lago Maggiore instead. For all that Esther cared, Vera could remain there infinitely, although she feared that once Marina was back in Milan – and Marina would be back, Esther told herself – Vera would find reasons to appear around the hospital, with her €400 shoes and matching leather briefcase.

Just as Esther was imagining how someone might accidentally spill a salty drip over all that primed leather, the alarm went off again. This time, Esther reached over with measure care, but the ringing didn’t stop.

Esther frowned, which she immediately recognized as another bad idea when her expression pulled at the stitches at her temple. “Damn it!”

The ringing stopped, but then went off again and Esther finally realized that this wasn’t her alarm clock. This was the door bell.

It was an unfamiliar sound; Esther hadn’t gotten any visits at this place yet. The only one she could imagine to be visiting was Rocco, probably before his shift. Esther squinted at the alarm clock, noting with surprise that it was almost noon. Or perhaps it was Teresa, who had said she would check on her when she had dropped her off late last night, walking her up the stairs step by step. Esther couldn’t remember much of it. Between the exhaustion and the medication, she had been pretty much toast.

The ringing insisted.

Esther groaned. She needed both hands to push herself upright and when she was sitting, she needed a few seconds to let the dizziness subside. Hopefully, the nausea was an effect of the medication and not of the state of her ribs and temple.

Again, the ringing stopped, only to commence once more with yet more impatience.

“On my way, for God’s sake…” Gingerly, Esther pulled herself to her feet, but what propelled her down the corridor, on unsteady legs and with one hand against the wall for balance, was not as much her wish to get that damn ringing to stop than a sudden, wild idea.

Teresa wouldn’t ring like that. Neither would Rocco, he had been with her last night and knew that she was reasonably okay underneath the bruises. That left only one more person, someone who’s impatient worry Esther had been privy to more than once. Someone who wasn’t supposed to be walking, much less driving around the countryside, but it would be such a Marina thing to do…

With her heart in her throat, Esther fumbled with the lock and pulled open the door without even bothering to check the spyhole.

“You…”

It wasn’t Marina. It wasn’t Rocco or Teresa, either.

On Esther’s doorstep, a plastic bag in one hand and his face red from the cold, or from hurrying up the stairs, stood her father.

“Dad…” Esther held onto the door for balance. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, what does it look like?!” her father huffed. “If I have the police on my doorstep first in the morning, asking about your whereabouts, and that they still have to ask you some questions, I’ll damn well go looking for you!”

With a sinking feeling, Esther recalled the image of her own hand, giving her ID to officer Michele. Of course her change of address was not reflected there yet. It hadn’t even crossed her mind to have that detail changed.

“And they tell me that they picked you up in a gay bar! In that riot that was on the radio!” Perhaps the color of his face was due to ire, Esther mused. Or due to embarrassment. “What did you get into now?”

“Nothing,” Esther said tiredly. “We were just having a drink.” She stepped to the side to let her father enter, causing the daylight that permeated the apartment to fall across her face.

“Did that wom…” Esther’s father stopped himself when he got a first look at Esther’s face. Taped stitches and an angry bruise ran along her left temple, one eye was swollen shut and with how she held onto the door, she didn’t seem very stable on her legs. “Little one… what have they done to you?”

The tenderness and the shock in her father’s tone didn’t let her speak; she merely managed to shrug against the tears that suddenly sat in her throat. She didn’t see him, her vision blurry, but the next thing she felt were his arms around her, drawing her into a hug. Her sore ribs protested the embrace, but everything else about her reveled in the familiar, comforting hold that once had been a safe haven to keep all evil away.

By now, she was taller than he was, but his arms were the same, the scratchy skin of his face and the simple, spicy aftershave that he had used for as long as Esther could remember. The zippers of his jacket pressed against her bruised side, making her flinch, but she didn’t withdraw.

It was her father who moved away, looking at her side with watchful eyes. “What… what happened?”

His question was oddly shy and Esther didn’t want to explain. She simply lifted her pajama shirt, exposing her bruised rib cage. When her father had to suppress a gasp, she was ashamed, having to admit that she had also wanted to confront him with the bruise to shock him a little, but the shared pain in his eyes was more than she was comfortable with right then.

It only lasted a second, then the lines of his face hardened again.“Who did this?”

“I don’t know.” Esther shrugged again, suddenly feeling tired. “A bunch of jerks, I didn’t see their faces. Most of them escaped.”

Her father pressed his lips together. “In that bar for the faggots?”

Esther let a moment pass before she answered pointedly, “In that gay bar, yes.”

Her father looked down at the threshold for a moment, hesitating. Then he nodded past Esther at the apartment. “Is she here?”

“Who?” Esther needed a moment to understand. “Marina?” she asked, and the situation was so absurd that she could have laughed. “She’s still at a recovery clinic. Up in Tyrol.”

“Some private resort, I bet.” Esther’s father couldn’t suppress the disdain in his tone, but perhaps he didn’t even try to do that. And when Esther didn’t protest, he added, “We have clinics here, too. Good, public clinics.”

“I know,” Esther said coolly. “She works in one of them.”

“Yes.” He had enough integrity to admit when he had lost an argument. “Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Esther stepped to the side, although her tone hadn’t been exactly cordial.

Her father looked around with a skeptical look, taking in the wooden floor and the high ceilings. “So this is the place of another doctor?” he asked and Esther could see that he felt uncomfortable in this spacious hallway that was probably bigger than half the apartment her father had been working towards for so many years.

“He’s currently working in Honduras,” Esther explained briefly. “Medics without Borders.”

“Ah.” Her father nodded, clearly not having expected that someone who could afford such a place would go do honorary work in another country. He didn’t look at Esther when he asked, “Is he one of… those… as well?”

“Whether he’s gay?” Esther asked, knowing that her father didn’t like to hear the word. “No.” After a moment, she corrected herself. “Actually, he might be. I have no idea, we didn’t talk about whom he might be dating.”

“That one needs are dressing.” Esther’ father pointed at her wounded temple. “I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen my share of work accidents and brawls.” He walked next to Esther towards the kitchen and Esther found herself looking at his hands when he held a clean towel under cold water. His palms were big and callused, belonging to the hands of a workman, and yet his fingers were gentler than Esther’s own had been earlier. “Why do you have to associate with those people?” he asked while he dabbed at the skin around the stitches. “It’s bad for you. You get hurt.” He reached for the salve that Esther had put on the kitchen table. They were both silent while he tended to Esther’s wound and Esther waiting for the inevitable question. “What were you even doing in that bar?”

“Having a drink,” Esther answered petulantly.

Her father shook his head. “Why?”

Esther had the phrase “I was thirsty” on her lips, but she didn’t say it. She didn’t want to fight again. He had come, he was worried about her, and if she was honest, she had missed him – his slightly austere presence, his rants about politics, the dishes he cooked and the way he never managed to sort the laundry right. She knew where his question came from and she hesitated before she addressed it. “You wonder whether I was there to pick someone up, don’t you?”

He shrugged, uncomfortable with her assessment. “Everyone knows that those people don’t keep long relationships.”

The sting Esther felt had nothing to do with the fingers that were touching her temple. Doubt was nagging at her as she remembered her brief months with Marina. They hadn’t even managed three. “Last night, I stabilized someone who has been with his partner for over six years,” she finally said, remembering the sleeping Tommaso by Ernesto’s side. “And the boyfriend isn’t even thirty yet. He was waiting all night to see him, even though he had gotten hurt himself. And they didn’t want to let him into his room.”

“It’s still wrong,” Esther’s father insisted, his jaw tightening. “It’s against nature.”

Esther all but rolled her eyes. “Yes, and unions are against the nature of bourgeois entrepreneurs.”

“Don’t get sassy on me!” When it came to matters of politics, Esther’s father had quite a temper.

“It’s just that you never buy into rules and ideas of ‘nature’,” Esther said, now with more patience. “All your union work is questioning things they sell you as ‘natural’, why not this one?” She shook her head. “Only because you think it’s gross, that doesn’t mean it can’t be right for others.” After a moment, she added. “And I wasn’t there to meet other women. I was there to have a drink after work, nothing else.”

“Your side.” Esther’s father pointed at her night shirt and she could see some of the prior tension leaving his shoulders. “That needs to be treated as well.” He waited while Esther stood, leaned against the table and drew up her shirt. The shirt didn’t match the pajama pants, he knew that because it was a set he had given her many years ago. They were blue, with a pattern of moons and stars and it was his little girl wearing those pants, but then he saw the faint outline of her ribs against her bruised skin, and for a second, he imagined a slender pair of female hands on Esther’s lithe torso. It still felt wrong. He couldn’t help it. “She dragged you into this!” He needed two times to unscrew the small tube of ointment. “She took you away.”

“Marina didn’t drag me anywhere.” Esther suppressed a hiss at the sensation of cold cream against her side. “And I went with her on my own, just like I went to have that drink last night.”

Esther’s father didn’t answer. Only when he screwed the lid on again, he asked, “Is it because your mother left?” His voice was uncertain, something rare for him. “Just being around me, did that make you want to be a man?”

Esther smothered a smile at his endearing show of insecurity. “Dad,” she said softly. “Do I look like a man to you?”

“No,” he hastened to say, and there was fatherly pride in his gaze when he took a step back to consciously look at her. “You still look like a princess.” He blinked and looked to the side and Esther hurried to spare him the embarrassment of being caught with tears in his eyes.

“A princess with a shiner,” she joked dryly. “Some fine princess I am!”

“You need to cool this.” Esther’s father busied himself in looking through the foreign doctor’s fridge. “This guy has to have an ice package somewhere!”

Esther looked with fond tenderness at his broad back that was already slightly curved with age. “Last night, the paramedics used the ice cubes from the bar for impromptu ice packages…”

“On the radio, they mentioned drugs,” Esther’s father held up an icepack and proceeded to wrap it in a kitchen towel before he handed it to her. “Some attack by left-wing extremists, they said. Or perhaps foreigners.”

“Oh, that’s bullshit!” Esther protested. Gingerly, she held the icepack to her temple.

“I know,” her father agreed. “Always blame it on the left first. – They said the same when our meeting hall got burnt down.”

“Neo-fascists,” Esther muttered, and she remembered Giovanna saying the same thing last night.

“No. The neo-fascists are the government.” Esther’s father wasn’t a staunch union worker for nothing. “Those goons who burnt the union pub and never got caught were just some hired ultras from the right corner who don’t know how to use the pea of a brain between their ears.”

Esther had to snort at the comparison and then winced at the pull in her stitches. “Ooouch, please don’t make me laugh…” She put the icepack back into place. “I don’t think they were hired last night,” she said finally. “But they were from the same corner. Ultras.”

Esther’s father crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Let me guess – they didn’t manage to catch a single one of them!”

“Two.” Esther held up the corresponding fingers.

Esther’s father leaned next to her against the kitchen table. “Last time we got into a tiffle with ultras during a union demonstration, they didn’t catch a single one of them.”

“Tiffle.” Esther had to chuckle, but this time, she wisely held the icepack at a length. “And even though police didn’t apprehend a single attacker, there were ultras with broken noses stumbling into the ERs all over the city for days.”

“Serves them right.” It didn’t sound as if Cesare Bruno regretted a single thing about the incident.

“We could have used you and your pals last night,” Esther admitted.

Now her father had to grin. “Nah, I don’t think they would walk in there.” But then he seemed surprised by his own remark and instead picked up a small paper box from the table. “Are those pills you have to take?”

Esther looked at the package. “Yes.” Given the return that her headache was making, taking some painkillers was probably a good idea.

Esther’s father moved to draw a glass of water from the tap. “We used to put steaks on that, you know,” he said with a nod at Esther’s temple. It was an old anecdote he had told her many times and that indicated that he was a lot more at ease with his daughter than he had been ten minutes ago. “I hope that won’t scar.”

Esther stood and walked over to catch her reflection in the polished surface of the fridge. “Ugh…” She hadn’t looked at herself yet since the attack, and the angry red and purple that ran along the left side of her face was a ghastly sight.

“You will scare off that Countess of yours,” her father muttered under his breath and Esther knew that this was as close to an apology for attacking Marina as she would get from him.

“A the moment, I’m scaring myself,” she said lightly, but there was a tingle that moved down her spine at the ‘Countess of yours’, for reasons that had nothing to do with her father at all. For a moment, she wondered whether he was perhaps even more uncomfortable with Marina being an aristocrat than with her being a woman.

“Do you have to work today?” Cesare Bruno wanted to know.

Carefully, Esther shook her head. “Gandini put me on leave.” Her hand was growing numb from the chill of the icepack.

“Good. So you don’t scare the patients,” her father teased.

“Eyy!” Esther pretended to protest, but the familiar give-and-take with her father was the most comforting sensation she had had in days. “I probably should get back to bed,” she said, reluctant to break up the moment, but afraid that one of them would break the fragile truce they had managed to establish.

“Right you are, and take that icepack with you,” her father admonished her. “I’ll go get a few steaks. – If you like, that is,” he hastened to add. “You need proteins.”

Esther decided that perhaps they were ready to try and keep this truce during a whole meal after all. “All right,” she agreed.

on to Pt. 3/4

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