That Space In Your Heart
PG-13, for language.
Through "When Night Meets Day" (s09e21).
Elizabeth and Robert come to their senses.
Chapter 1. Show me your face
She rolled over, facing the middle of the bed, trying not to slip out of sleep. A small hand slunk over her bare arm, leaving a trace of warm perspiration. Ella was chubby, she got very hot in these long summer nights.
--I have to change the sheets again today,
Realizing that she’d woken up, she willed her eyes to open to the dimness of summer morning and closed shades. Ella was behind her, whining, but she hadn’t the energy to roll over just yet. She looked at the smooth, statuesque face before her; the soft lips, lacking their fatuous curve in the slackness of sleep; the wild thatch of brown hair that Eddie always pushed back with his right hand when he’s flirting—
Sleep fled before the new worry. Eddie’d stayed the night. Damn him. He liked to fall asleep after sex, flinging his limbs every which way and reposing in blissful satisfaction. He’d wake up at two or three in the morning and sneak out, a habit both useful and, somehow, inauspicious.
She flipped over to face Ella, who must have seen him already. “Morning, sweetie,” she said in a calm voice, trying to act natural. “Give Mommy a second and I’ll come out and make you cinnamon toast, okay?”
“I want peanut butter,” Ella said.
“Okay. Okay,” she said, wondering frantically how to get Eddie out the door without letting Ella notice too much. She was getting too old now to be completely oblivious. They needed to be more careful.
Ella toddled out the door, thinking of nothing but peanut butter. Elizabeth sighed. She couldn’t keep worrying so much. There were so many more important things she needed to do for Ella. –Like making that peanut butter toast.
She slipped out of bed and, without changing from the thin clingy tank top and cotton PJ pants, padded softly into the kitchen. The floor felt icy after the lovely warmth of Eddie’s feet against hers in the bed.
But she didn’t want, she had never wanted him to keep the bed warm next to her. She’d never wanted to wake up to his face, as cute as that face was.
She slathered peanut butter thick on lightly-browned toast for Ella’s lavish tastes as the little girl sat at the table, looking at a book she couldn’t yet read. She was getting there, though; the other day she recognized the letter O. Quite a feat for a two-year-old. She’ll be smart, Elizabeth thought, no, brilliant.
The strong, fatty odor of the peanut butter started slithering out from the bread and Ella closed her eyes, pleased at the smell, as Elizabeth slapped it on a plate, and placed it in front of her daughter.
She looked surreptitiously back at her bedroom. He would be sleeping for awhile. Dorsett had an afternoon flight to tomorrow’s conference, she recalled; it was why they’d stayed up so late and why she felt so wrecked now, since they hadn’t gotten to sleep until about three hours ago.
She crept over to sit in front of the TV, but didn’t turn it on. Next to the couch was a phone book, which she considered, head tilted, for a few minutes before picking up.
She’d resisted this long, but she might as well call again. He might not have gotten her first message; it’d been three weeks since anyone at the hospital even saw him.
She dialed the number and waited, a little bit nervous. Although she’d seen him around since his operation, it would only be a quick glance of recognition as he headed towards the PT wing, pretending to be in a hurry. They hadn’t really spoken and she was glad, because she still didn’t know what to say. It just seemed wrong not to call him, after everything that had happened.
Three rings, and then the static of an answering machine. “Leave a message,” said the brusque voice, eschewing identification whatsoever. “I’ll get back to you.”
What a lovely guy, she thought, listening to the message. She almost hung up the phone. Her eyes kept drifting back to her bedroom, as if she needed Eddie’s permission to call a friend. Ridiculous.
“Robert,” she said, lowering her voice so Eddie wouldn’t wake up. “Uh… It’s Elizabeth. I – I was wondering how you were doing. No one at the hospital knows where you are, and you haven’t shown up for therapy, and…”
She was babbling, justifying her call (to Eddie? to him? to herself?), and she cut it off abruptly. “Well. Call me back.”
She hung up slowly and noticed herself looking guiltily behind her, yet again.
“Not at the conference, Elizabeth?” Carter said after Elizabeth rushed down to the ER for an MVA.
“Someone’s got to hold the fort while the other surgeons are away,” Elizabeth smiled.
He nodded across the hall. “Your guy’s a DOA,” he said. “Sorry we paged you for nothing.”
“No, that’s fine,” Elizabeth said. She yawned a bit and looked longingly at the Dunkin Donuts coffee steaming in Jing-Mei’s hand.
“Sorry,” Chen said with a laugh. “I need this one, but I think Susan made some coffee in the lounge.”
“They should have built a Dunkin Donuts over Doc Magoo’s, instead of another useless greasy spoon,” Elizabeth grumbled.
She sighed as she walked over to the lounge. Her legs felt weighted, as if she hadn’t already had two cups of coffee this morning.
The dusty mini-mirror hanging on the cupboard door confirmed her suspicions; the bags under her eyes were three shades of purple and her face was pasty. She bent over the sink to splash cold water on her face and behind her neck.
“You all right, Elizabeth?” Kerry said from behind her.
She shrugged and poured herself a generous cup. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Usually I can stay up all night and feel absolutely fine in the morning. But I went to sleep at two yesterday and for some reason I’m slowing down.”
“It could just be stress,” Weaver said, shrugging. “Or—” and her voice grew pointed -- “you could try to get sleep if you know you’ll be working in the morning.”
“Oh, bloody Christ, Kerry, give it a rest,” Elizabeth snapped. “Can’t you forget to be an administrator for a second and talk like a normal human being?”
Kerry lifted her eyebrows and looked down at the newspaper in front of her. At least she didn’t start crying this time.
Guiltily Elizabeth snatched a few minutes to sit by the counter and sip her coffee. Carter and Abby came in with their arms around each other’s waists, oblivious to the world.
Then the door slammed open and Elizabeth, who had been scrutinizing the scuff marks on the floor, heard a crusty, brusque voice say, “Hey, can we actually get some work done around here, instead of –”
As Elizabeth’s head snapped up towards the source of the familiar voice, he fell silent. For a moment dismayed surprise covered his features, until he smoothed them out again.
Elizabeth was still off-balance. “Robert! You’re – you’re – back.”
“It would appear so.” He looked quickly away from her and said, “Uh, Abby, right? You’re the head nurse, do you want to go out there and do some nursing?”
Abby shot him a glare that he returned with equanimity. Carter followed her out, most likely to continue what they hadn’t finished before Romano came in.
With the room silent except for the rustle of Kerry’s newspaper, Elizabeth could hear his measured breathing. She tried to drink her coffee but found her hands shaky, probably from all the coffee she’d already had.
In the months since she’d seen him, he’d gotten so much older. His eyes were deeper set, the bones of his face pressing more sharply through his skin. His jaw was grimly clenched, and every muscle in his face was taut.
“Well,” he said finally. “Dr. Corday.”
“Dr. Romano,” she said, archly imitating him. “You’re back.”
His smile was harsh enough to seem like a grimace. “Didn’t think I’d be able to show my face here again, did you?”
“You disappeared,” Elizabeth said without returning his intended smile. She was treading carefully around him, trying not to set off his anger or remind him of all the baggage of last year. He’d thrown her off-balance with the distant airs he was putting on. “I wasn’t sure what to think.”
“Well, don’t worry, Dr. Corday,” he said, with an odd, twisted smile as he uttered the formal title. “As long as you’re here, I’ll keep coming back.”
She returned his impudent expression. They’d hit their usual note for a moment, playfully sarcastic, parsing for weakness. “Glad to hear it,” she parried with a teasing edge to her voice. “Working here was starting to seem too pleasant without you around.”
He expelled a short breath through his nostrils, as if that passed for a laugh. “Yeah.”
She frowned, puzzled. The lightheartedness had vanished again into the twilight of an equilibrium shattered, a line blurred. It was easy to forget, until it had already happened, that they had the power to hurt each other now.
She wanted to make peace with a kinder joke, but Romano nodded his leave and strode out of the lounge, the black coat flowing behind him. She realized he still wore that coat, as if it would hide the lack of a left arm.
Elizabeth noticed Kerry looking up at her with a cool, evaluative stare. “What is it?” she asked, exasperated.
Weaver didn’t look away. “I was wrong about Romano,” she said reflectively. “He has evolved. In a way.”
Something about that sentence made Elizabeth want to cry. She clasped her hands together for a second, composing herself. “He has to,” she said.
Chapter 2: Home Again