ER and its characters don't belong to me; this fiction is for entertainment purposes only and isn't netting me a dime.
Through "Chaos Theory" (s9e01).
PG-13. Some strong language, mild adult situations.
AU season 8. As Mark is haunted by his past with Susan, Elizabeth begins to wonder about a future with Romano.
Our story begins an hour or so after “Damage is Done” ends. Time: Spring 2002. Ella: comatose. Rachel: snotty brat. Mark and Elizabeth: mindlessly hanging on to patently doomed relationship. Carter and Susan: ditto.
Chapter 1. Separate, Not Alone
Susan sighed, making the surface of her tiny cup of bitter Turkish coffee into a miniature whirlpool. How much he had gone through. A divorce, a tumor, one daughter heading straight for a juvenile correction facility and the other very possibly heading nowhere ever again. And his wife! A handful, if she’d ever seen one. What had either of them been thinking…?
—Heading into dangerous territory, Lewis. You have your boyfriend, and he comes prepackaged with less baggage, more hair, and a prettier face. That better not have been jealousy talking just now.
The coffee scalded her mouth. She was just spitting it back ungracefully into the teacup when the door opened to reveal heavy blonde curls and a petite, stylishly clothed body.
“Rachel!” Susan exclaimed without thinking, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’s past midnight!”
The expression on Rachel’s face was not unfamiliar to Susan, who had spent a good deal of time in her own childhood climbing in and out of her bedroom window. “Uh… hi, Dr. Lewis,” she said. “I was just… I mean, my dad is with the baby, they’re busy, and I just thought I’d come here on my own.”
“This café is a life-saver,” Susan agreed noncommittally. “The only good coffee you can get this late at night.”
“I was going to get something to eat, actually.”
Susan nodded. “Does your dad know where you are?”
“I didn’t want to bother him,” she hedged before going up to the counter to buy a big chocolate cookie and hot cocoa.
Didn’t you used to be cute?
Susan wondered as she fumbled in her bag for her cellphone.
After she finished the call, she put on a friendly smile and waved Rachel over to her own table. Reluctant to be completely uncivil at a time like this, Rachel accepted the invitation with grudging silence and sat across from Susan with a sour face.
Mark arrived within twenty minutes, taking Rachel by surprise. When she saw her father and understood Susan’s motives, she shot a glance of pure evil across the table.
But Susan had only concern for Mark. His face was drawn and almost lifeless. He could hardly look at Rachel as he approached them. “Hi,” he said quietly to Susan.
“I’m sorry to call you away from the baby,” Susan said, “but I thought you might need to know where she was.”
“It’s good that you called,” he said. “And Ella’s got Elizabeth with her, so it’s all right.” He looked at her, almost pleading for comfort, and his voice broke. “Susan—”
“God, Dad, I didn’t run away or anything,” Rachel interrupted, reminding them of her presence. “I just needed something to eat besides stupid hospital food… I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“All right,” Mark said curtly. He slid into the booth, next to Susan, leaning his head back in fatigue. Rachel flounced off to the ladies’ room.
“How’s Ella?” Susan asked softly when they were alone.
“She hasn’t woken yet,” he said, his voice cracking again. “There’s nothing we can do now.”
She silently watched as he searched his exhausted mind for words to form his next sentence. “We’re helpless now,” he said. “But we weren’t when Rachel was bringing home cigarettes and condoms and drugs…”
There were tears in his eyes. Susan said, “You’ve done your best, Mark. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I could have prevented this,” he insisted. “I could have been a better father to Rachel. I could have done
She put a friendly hand on his shoulder, unable to express the sympathy that flooded her own eyes with tears. His body was racked with almost invisible trembling that calmed at the touch of her hand, leaving him limp and defeated.
Mark clasped her hand tightly, acknowledging that sympathy, but there was no comfort to be had in a touch tonight. As they waited for Rachel to return, they held on to that inadequate connection and quietly, separately wept.
Romano climbed the stairs holding paper bags full to bursting with the Chinese food he and Lewis had bought. He had picked it up from the restaurant because they wouldn’t deliver to the hospital, and Susan didn’t have a car. Cautiously he stepped into the room where Ella was and asked softly, “Hello?”
There was only one person by Ella’s side: Elizabeth, resting her forehead wearily on the bars, all alone. He could see only the silhouette of her bent head and slumped back. She didn’t move, and Romano approached almost timidly.
He had no idea what he would do with the food, if she was asleep, but the rustling of the bags seemed to wake her. She lifted her head. “Mark?”
“Sorry, just the delivery guy,” he said. “We thought you might be too worried to leave and get food.”
“I am. I mean, we are.” She rubbed her forehead. Her face was white and ghostly. “Mark’s other daughter disappeared somewhere. He went to get her, not food.”
“Well, if you’re hungry, I’ll leave these with you.”
She shrugged without looking at him. “I don’t know how much I can keep down. Stay – you can have some.”
He hesitated a few seconds. It seemed rude of him to barge in where there was so much pain, especially when so many ulterior motives clouded his judgment – and yet – she needed someone there with her, it didn’t matter who. Finders, keepers. “All right,” he said. “Smells too good to resist.”
Romano started working on the lo mein, but Lizzie only took half-assed nibbles at white rice. Eventually she said dully, “Thank you for getting rid of Babcock today.”
“He shouldn’t have been there,” Romano said gruffly. He had felt overwhelmingly, senselessly protective the instant he saw Elizabeth yelling at the man she knew for a murderer. He wanted to smack the guy, but Elizabeth needed to be calmed down. (Man, but that woman could screech! He’d have smiled at this oddly endearing trait, if his throat didn’t ache at the sight of her ravaged face.)
Elizabeth reached companionably over into the container he was holding to fish out a piece of broccoli. Trying to swallow it, she coughed quietly.
He almost reached over to pat her back, but she waved him off. “I’m fine. My throat is parched, that’s all.”
“You’re probably dehydrated,” he said. “There’s water in here, if you want it.”
He fished the bottle from the bottom of the paper bag and handed it to Elizabeth, who took it and immediately tilted her head back to take a long, greedy draught. Unconsciously Romano watched the working of her throat as she swallowed eagerly. He never got used to the magnetic attraction he felt when she was this close.
“Thanks,” she said, closing the bottle and placing it on the ground. Her eyes met his, and he knew his expression had given him away.
Robert focused back on his lo mein. For once he was determined to ignore that oft-recurring desire for her – at least tonight. They ate for ten more minutes in pensive silence, until Elizabeth’s gaze suddenly fell on the baby again. “Where is he?” she whispered to herself.
The catch in her voice made his body weak with the urge to lean over and put his arms around her, but instead he reached over and touched the back of her hand in the most friendly, innocuous way he could. There was nothing to say, and if she wanted easy platitudes like it’ll be okay,
she could wait for her wet rag of a husband to come back.
Without warning Elizabeth leaned her head on his shoulder in a slow, natural, friendly movement, and all of his mental wisecracking powers disappeared. He froze, wondering what to do and fighting the instinct to close both arms around her and make her forget all about her precious Mark. She needed to be comforted – but he needed to kiss her, to make love to her, and he scarcely trusted himself just to be her friend.
Sensing the stiffness of his muscles, she shifted, molding her body against the shape of his. Her shoulder nestled under his arm, her face against his chest. He gulped shallow breaths and leaned his cheek on her head, putting one arm tentatively around her shoulders, relaxing slowly against her.
He had fallen asleep so many times, imagining this body in his arms – not generally with so many clothes on, admittedly, but the reality was both more earthy and more dreamlike than what he could conjure up himself. The bones of her face sharp against his chest, the back of her hand brushing the outside of his thigh, the softness of curls brushing against his chin.
She was still feverish. He could feel the perspiration lightly layered on her skin. Every breath that left her mouth pooled in a tiny circle of liquid heat, burning through his scrubs to sear his flesh. He closed his eyes, sitting very still, his breath slowly regulating to the rhythm of that burning heat on his chest. They rested together in weary, simple companionship and watched Ella’s motionless slumber.
Chapter 2: The Aftermath