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Why Attending Surgeons Deserve Scotch

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“Please tell me you’re joking.”

 

Andrews threw his pen down and looked up at him, scrunching his face into one of the fakest, most insincere smiles his facial expressions could manage.

“I am your boss Dr Melendez, and I do in fact have every right to send you, and any members of your surgical team to attend whatever learning conferences I feel are necessary to enhance the efficiency of the hospital”, he said, before opening his eyes a little wider in a look of false concern.  “Unless you don’t believe your surgical skills can improve at all from some fresh knowledge?”

 

He scowled back at Andrews without speaking.

 

“I thought so”, said Andrews, nodding to himself and reaching to grab the short stack of A4 envelopes on his desk, dropping them with a thump in front of Melendez.  “One for you, and one for each of your team,” he said briskly, turning back to his computer.  “Flight and accommodation details are all in there, as well as current copies of the conference itineraries, though those will be subject to change.”

 

He scowled at the envelopes, scowled again at Andrews, and then stomped off without bothering with the usual departing niceties, slamming the door behind him. Then for good measure, he scowled at the door.

 

Grumpily dumping himself in his office chair, he made a face at the envelopes before grudgingly opening the one with his name on it and pulling out the week’s itinerary.

 

“I am leaving for another hospital”, he intoned flatly, scanning through schedule.

 

The empty room didn’t seem to care.

 

Rude.


 

Between a two and a half hour flight to Portland with all three residents and a 12 hour drive with the comfort of an empty car and his own CD collection, Melendez was seriously considering whether it would have just been easier to drive to Portland instead, and meet his terrible trio at the hotel.

 

Occupying a solid row of four seats toward the front of the jet, Jarred was teasing Claire about her apparent fear of heights, while Shaun, probably trying to be helpful was not-very-helpfully spouting off crash statistics and likelihoods of survival in cadence with Jarred, not seeming to notice that Claire was actually turning vaguely green, or that the people in the row behind them were staring at him in abject horror.

 

He settled firmly in his seat, resisting the urge to squirm further down so the other passengers couldn’t see him and connect him with the younger threesome.  After seizing a pair of headphones from a passing flight attendant, he wondered if it would be unprofessional of him to order a drink.

Probably. Shame.

 

Noticing one of the stewards polite glower in his direction, as he blatantly ignored the safety lecture, he gingerly lifted his headphones up just in time to hear Shaun announce that the brace position the stewardess was currently demonstrating would cause mild to severe damage to the cervical vertebrae should anything fall on them from overhead.

 

The paid smiles on the faces of the flight attendants slipped by degrees before freezing, determinedly continuing on with their demonstrations with an air of pleasantly constipated professionalism; as Jarred began to argue with Shaun that they were sitting in the middle of the jet and therefore the position wouldn’t matter.  While the people sitting under the luggage racks promptly looked up in horror, Melendez met the eye of the steward closest to him and re-flattened his headphones over his ears without ceremony.

 

It was going to be a long flight.


 

Shaun’s fondness for helicopters apparently carried over to airplanes, though on a smaller scale.  Relieved that the relatively short flight wasn’t going to upset his youngest resident, Melendez had naively assumed the other two would be fine and that they would get to Portland on time and with minimal shenanigans.

 

This kind of thinking, of course, was idiotic of him and he should have known better.  Claire’s neutrality toward helicopters did not extend as far as airplanes, as was made clear from the first small jolt of turbulence, whereupon Claire let out a terrified squawk and threw up both hands, gone of which unfortunately still contained an open cup of fruit salad.  To his credit, Jarred was a very good sport about suddenly having a crotch full of sticky fruit and syrup, gamely stuffing napkins down his pants and taking proffered wet wipes from the flight attendants.  Shaun, on the other hand looked like he was contemplating how he could force someone to swap seats with him, and he wasn’t about to offer his.  Claire had released his arm to try and help Jarred clean fruit produce off his lap, and Shaun had edged over in his seat as much as was possible, practically ending up in Melendez’s lap to avoid any future startled grabs Claire might make for him.

 

Jarred pulled a handful of syrup-soaked napkins out of his pants and handed them to one of the stewardess hovering at his elbow in dismay, dumping them unceremoniously into her hands as he tried to calm Claire down at the same time.  Melendez met the eye of the steward who had glared at him for not listening during the safety lecture, and the man looked sideways to where Jarred was trying to scrape pieces of kiwifruit off the seat before meeting his gaze and nodding respectfully in understanding, before helplessly offering him an eye mask.

 

At this point he would have been more useful if he was offering a mild sedative.  For him or Claire, quite frankly he would take either.  A moment later, when Shaun offered Claire the type of motion sickness tablets that cause drowsiness, he was ready to seize his youngest resident’s head and give him a kiss, and apologise profusely for ever doubting his place on the team.  Thankfully, he hadn’t succumbed to such insanity just yet, so instead he gave Shaun his most grateful look of approval before practically throwing the eye mask at Claire and letting his head fall backwards on his neck.

 

With only half an hour left to go on their flight, Jarred was playing an intense round of Angry Birds on his phone as Claire drooled on his shoulder, while Shaun was carefully reading through an article about lawnmowers from the inflight magazine.  With none of them paying him any attention, he let his head tip back to rest against the back of his seat and let a small, fond smile creep on to his face.  Lined up in a row, none of them speaking, wrestling, arguing, or throwing things at each other, he delicately admitted to himself that perhaps they weren’t so bad, as far as oversize child-residents went.  They had been compared from everything from squirrels to the human equivalents of Mario Kart competitors (Jarred had immediately claimed Bowser) and they were almost, dare he say it, quite fucking loveable, even if he would never admit that out loud to them or any other human being ever.

 

And then of course, the peace was shattered.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, if we by any chance have a doctor on board, please could you make yourself known to the nearest flight attendant immediately?  Thank you.”

 

Shaun’s head snapped up, Jarred jolted forward in his seat, and Claire’s head fell sharply off his shoulder, startling her into a dazed state of wakefulness just as Jarred’s phone pinged merrily to inform him that ‘game over’, his bird died.

 

He groaned, softly banging his head once against the headrest as Jarred’s arm shot up to catch the steward’s attention, as passengers began to whisper nervously to each other in a chorus of worry.

 

Fuck.

As he helped wheel the co-pilot’s stretcher through the airport, Melendez thought mutinously of peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, and all peanut by-products in general.  He supposed for the pilot’s sake that at least if you were going to have a fully fledged anaphylactic reaction, he’d picked the right flight to do it.  No less than 15 doctors had been on board, the majority heading to the same burns conference as his team, and each had reacted with all due speed to the overhead call.  Ordering Shaun and a half-asleep Claire to stay in their seats unless he called for them, he wedged first Jarred and then himself inside the cockpit with a crush of flight attendants and various doctors, all carefully trying to avoid stepping on the nearly unconscious co-pilot on the floor, whose throat, face, limbs and appendages were swelling beyond recognition as her skin raged with hives.  Epi-pens and oxygen canisters were produced from various places, as a flurry of hands worked urgently to restore her breathing, every movement requiring harsh extrication of your hand from between the packed bodies.

 

A trace of peanut oil in an otherwise harmless salad had the capacity to demand the attention of half a dozen of California’s best surgeons, a paramedicine team on the end of the pilot’s radio, and a simultaneously worried and irritated voice that appeared to be flight control, who demanded constant updates from the remaining pilot regarding his partner’s condition and their fluctuating ETA.  By the time they had hurriedly disembarked the plane and wheeled the pilot to the sanctuary of the waiting ambulance, picking up the other two members of their team somewhere on route, Melendez was ready for a drink, a hot meal, another drink, and a sleep, in that order.

 

So of course, he got exactly the opposite.

 

Who the fuck scheduled flights for nine o'clock at night after 36 hour shifts?

 


 

 

“I’m so sorry sir, we’ve had so many people booking in for the conference that it appears there has been a slight error in the number of available rooms-“

 

“But we were pre-booked,” he interrupted in frustration.  “I rang yesterday just to confirm it.”

 

“Of course sir, but I’m afraid the error must have been made since then, I simply don’t have four single rooms to offer you.  You have our sincerest apologies, and we would be delighted to offer you these vouchers to both the hotel and local attractions…” she trailed off as Melendez closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, letting a long breath out of his nose.

 

Ignoring the receptionist for a moment, he turned around to find his residents, who had voted him to be the one pick up the keys by way of his ‘seniority’.

 

In response, he’d told Jarred to find a public toilet and change out his fruit-covered pants so the hotel would actually let him through the front door.  Claire might have cringed a little, but Shaun actually gave a strangely short chuckle, and the smell of pineapple had finally stopped creeping up his nose every time Jarred turned around.

 

Looking at his residents now, he decided he should have possibly emphasized the upscale-ness of the hotel slightly more.  Shaun was standing guard over a pile of bags, twisting his fingers as he looked around the new surroundings but not otherwise looking particularly bothered or upset, whereas Jarred had seized Claire by the hands and was leading her in a mock waltz around piles of luggage and pot plants, keeping atrocious time to the admittedly dull background music.

 

He snorted as he watched Kalu fall backwards over a strangers bag, and turned back to the apologetic-looking receptionist so he could maintain plausible deniability if a fight started.

 

“What exactly can you offer me, in terms of rooms?” he asked politely.  The stuff up probably wasn’t her fault, it was rude to shoot the messenger.  His shoulders began to hunch slowly towards his ears as he heard rising voices behind him begin to argue, and he bounced lightly on his toes, desperate to get all three of his resident surgeons out of the lobby before a fight could break out, which on top of earning Jarred a swift eviction from the hotel, would probably raise other issues with Shaun, who got iffy around violence.

 

“I have two rooms that both contain two queen size beds each along with an ensuite bathroom”, the receptionist said brightly, looking like she too was purposefully ignoring the emerging conflict behind them, “Or I do have a room I can offer you that contains three sets of bunk beds, which many of our visiting student guests have found comfortable, and would give you a little more space for your belongings… ” she trailed off at the look Melendez gave her.  His facial expressions were currently exploring unknown territory, performing a combination of raised eyebrows and squinted incredulity that resulted in a near monobrow halfway up his forehead.

 

“Perhaps the rooms with two queen-sized beds would be more to your tastes,” she blanched, nervously tapping her nails against desk.  “Would that be suitable for you?”

Listening to the beginning of scuffling sounds behind him as two men began to push and shove at each other, Shaun’s mumbles raising in volume from agitation, he nodded quickly and hurriedly seized the keys the girl haltingly offered, scrawling an ineligible signature on whatever piece of paper was in front of him before calling his thanks over his shoulder as he picked his way through the crowd of bemused doctors in casual dress.  Grabbing Jarred by the collar of his shirt, he bodily hauled him away from the irritated man in hiking gear and dragged him toward the bank of elevators as Claire and Shaun scrambled after them with the bags.  Stabbing the up button, the doors opened in the nick of time to save his sanity and Jarred’s toes and he literally threw Jarred in by his shirt, stepping smartly past the tangle of limbs to hit the number for their floor, as Shaun huddled in the corner holding his bag in front of him like a defensive lightsaber, and Claire performed a leap worthy of an ungainly gazelle to angle her body through the doors without tripping over the bags before they shut with a pleasant ding.  Unable to keep her balance as she teetered precariously on her toes, she crashed heavily into Jarred, who having just peeled himself off the ground and onto his knees caught her around the waist only to go flying backwards into the mirrored wall behind him again.

 

Shaun was staring at the pair of them like he observing a heffalump exhibit at the zoo for the first time, and Melendez stared down at them with a single raised eyebrow as, winded, they began stammering out apologies.  As they picked themselves up, he gazed at the door as though it would explain to him why two of his three resident surgical squirrels were crawling on the floor of an elevator instead of standing on it, and since he was going for deep questions, why he wasn’t sinking into his own bed in a private room that he didn’t have to share with one of his baby surgeons.

 

When they finally reached the 10th floor, Melendez’s eyebrow was still judging the world from it’s position on high, but in a minor victory for the day, all four members of his team were standing on their feet once more.

 

He snorted.

 

Small mercies.

 

Clomping down the 13th floor corridor, he considered his options as far as roommates went.  Claire would easily be the best to share with by far.  As already proven, she did not snore, was neat and tidy and he could trust her to be awake and out of bed on time in the mornings.  What a shame she was already off limits and out of bounds.  Sharing a room with your only female resident was not a way to endear yourself to anyone, be it the boss, residents, or nosy hotel staff.

 

However, that left his other two options for roommates as either Shaun or Jarred.  All things considered, they were both equally undesirable. As they reached the first door, he turned to face them head-on and put his hands on his hips.  

 

“Which one of you snores?”

 

Shaun looked nonplussed, while Jarred looked guilty, and Claire snorted and pointed to Jarred behind his back.  Well that made his decision easier.

 

“Murphy, you’re sharing with me, Kalu, you’re in with Browne” he ordered, fighting the urge to drop kick the bag through the door and flop face first on the bed.  “At least try and behave.  We’re here for a whole week, and I have no intention of coming to pick you up from the caravan park, which is where you’ll be going if anyone gets kicked out for bad behaviour.”

 

Lecture delivered, he handed the adjoining room key to Claire, and turned around to get his own door open, pulling out his phone as he went.  As both men entered the room, Shaun shot past him to put his bag at the foot of the bed nearest the bathroom, and Melendez cursed exhaustedly at him in his head as he took the dozen extra steps it took to get to the far side of the room, before throwing his bag on the floor and letting all of his postural muscles go slack at once, falling backwards onto the bed.  He sent a quick mishmash of texts to Jess, which hopefully she interpreted to mean something along this lines of, ‘we got here, am exhausted, rooming with Murphy, must sleep, love you’ before inching further up the bed, putting a pillow over the top half of his face and letting himself black out.  

 

...

 

Since Melendez was an organised and efficient human being, his alarm began blasting merrily at half past seven in the morning, some god-awful concoction of twittering birds and harps and musical flutes that Jess had programmed in as a joke one day, and which he’d never quite been able to bring himself to change.  He was not in the mood to be organised and efficient this morning.  

 

As he rolled over with a groan, and nearly fell off the bed for his troubles, he realised that he was still completely dressed; shoes, socks and all, with a delightful smell of airplane interior and unwashed human to round it off.  Opening his eyes, he blearily squinted at where Shaun was still sleeping, under the covers and in pyjamas as well, before heaving himself out of bed and in the direction of the shower, swearing audibly as he tripped over his bag while trying to toe off a shoe and unbutton his shirt at the same time.

 

Thank god the kid was still asleep, his reputation was in a downward spiral.  

 

Once in the shower however, his brain remembered that it did know how to function and that he had a job to do, and he slowly began to wake up.  The water was blissful, and once he awake enough to keep both eyes open at once, he took a look around the bathroom and sent a vague thanks in the direction of the hospital’s HR team, or whoever it was that got them rooms in the same hotel the conference was being held in.  Even if said hotel lost the booking.

 

Clean, close-shaven and now sweet smelling (why must hotel soaps all smell floral?), he grabbed a fluffy white towel and dried himself off thoroughly, before wrapping it tightly around his waist and checking the tuck down was secure, lest he give Murphy a show and scare the wits out of them both.

 

Time for the real priorities of the morning.

 

Coffee.

 

Food.

 

Ring Jess.

 

Appear at conference.

 

Ugh.

 

Right then.

 

Shaun was waiting patiently outside the door when he finally came out, accompanied by a dramatic cloud of steam that in his younger years he had kind of hoped made him look like a supervillain.  Grunting a hazy good morning at his youngest resident as he slipped past him, he pulled out clean clothes and gave a soft laugh at the piece of paper that slipped out of his shirt.

 

You’re still a slow packer!  BTW, your dress shirts were all folded by me, hang them up and you won’t have to have the hotel steam iron them for you to wear, YOU’RE WELCOME    xxx

 

Doing as he was told, he carefully pulled the beautifully uncreased dress shirts out of the bag and hung them to one side of the closet, making sure to leave some room for any more of Shaun’s clothes, with only a meagre amount of his allocated space filled.  Observing the rest of the room, he looked at where Shaun’s belongings had been unpacked and placed in a neat line that ran along one side of the bed, the items on the bedside table carefully squared off to sit at right angles against the decorative glass.  He stared at it for a few seconds longer, purposefully ignoring his own splatter of clothes, pillow and bag on his side of the room before shrugging and deciding he really didn’t care.  Shaun’s attention to detail with his personal items might be bordering on the same obsessive care he paid to the medical details of his patients, but considering some of the slobs he had lived with through the first few years of college, Shaun was actually right up there in terms of acceptable people to room with.

 

It didn’t stop him half heartedly tidying up his side of the room so it no longer looked like his resident was completely outshining him.

 

Hurriedly yanking boxers on before Shaun burst out of the shower or his other two problems burst through the door, by 08:15 Melendez was as sharply dressed as was expected by the representing surgeon of San Bonaventure, and Shaun was, well, dressed, which fit the bill.  It was a lot easier to get away with wrinkled, old, or cheap clothing when you had a knee length coat buttoned over the top of it all, and he idly wondered whether Shaun’s clothing deficit was due to a hatred of shopping or insufficient funds.  Or plain not noticing, but that was unlikely.

 

Claire and Jarred had yet to appear, and he was reasonably sure he’d told them to come and get the visitor ID passes off him before breakfast.  The little voice in his head was marching up and down with a bass drum, demanding he fetch coffee this instant, so he decided to delegate, and sent Shaun to go and get them out of bed and downstairs in the next 15 minutes by whatever means necessary, even if he had to kick the door down.

 

Now on the route for coffee, waiting sedately by the elevator which was only a few meters away from all of their rooms he rather regretted that set of instructions.  His initial, polite calls for attention unanswered,  Shaun actually began to kick the hotel door, calling in his blunt, far-too-happy-to-be-awake-pre-coffee voice for them to get up and come outside because they were expected to be at breakfast.  A group of nurses shuffled out of their room at the other end of the hall in an orderly queue, looking at him in exhausted amazement, Shaun’s voice well above the allowed decibel limit at this hour of the morning in a hotel.  As he continued to give his best shot at literally kicking the door open, a dull, muffled thump indicated that at least one of the pair inside the room had fallen out of bed and was now crawling toward the door in order to shut Shaun up, and Melendez practically sprinted into the lift as it arrived just in time for him to escape, stabbing the button to close the doors just as Jarred wrenched the bedroom door open and began flinging his arm in Shaun’s direction to shush him, eyes still completely closed to ward off the glare of the corridor lights, while Claire wobbled out of bed in the background.

 

Plummeting downwards quickly enough to make his ears pop, he allowed a small smile.  

 

Bunk beds.

 

Not on his fucking life.

 

...

 

All in all, the conference was well worth attending.  All recent research regarding burn treatments over the last 3 years was presented, with the presenters from the subsequent research hospitals outlining the major advantages and challenges their patients had faced through the programs.  

 

At San Bonaventure, they all might have seen a hell of a lot of shit but it still could never compare to the exceedingly wide array of problems patients could present with country-wide.  

 

An unexpected area of focus was given to instrumentation burns, which Melendez appreciated, of issues with cauterisation or laser cutting surgical tools that had been potentially rectified with new and improved equipment that was currently being trialled in New York.  He took close notes on his provided papers, jotting down the observations of the researchers that he knew their instrument technicians and surgical nurses in particular would appreciate.

 

He was pleased but not terribly surprised to see the close attention the residents paid to the entirety of the lectures.  Claire and Shaun were both visibly animated as one team described their death-defying experimental treatment regime for burns that had travelled down to visceral organ level, Shaun’s hand flying across the page with a speed that few could have kept up with.  Jarred took up nearly half a dozen pages with his own notes when a different group came forward and presented their findings on skin grafts from donor tissue, key points raised around their experiments that had served to lower the rates of infection, as well as graft vs host disease.

 

...

 

On the third day, after the conference circuit had finished for the afternoon, he found himself in a ridiculous situation.  

 

“We were planning on going for a swim”, Claire said haltingly, looking at him like she was expecting him to say they couldn’t go.

 

Honestly, what was wrong with them.  It was January.

 

“But you can come too!” she suddenly said, her face brightening at what had to be the worst idea anyone had ever had since Jarred suggested that Shaun join the hospital’s basketball team.  

 

“No”, he said firmly, determined to squash that line of thinking like a bug.  “I was planning on lying down and reading a book for a bit, are the two of you taking Shaun?”

 

Yes, okay, he deserved that look of betrayal.  

 

With no small amount of pleading from Claire and outright manipulation from Jarred (‘I have a spare pair of swimming shorts you can borrow’) Shaun eventually agreed he would at least go to the pool with them, though Melendez noticed the young resident never actually said anything about getting into the water.  

 

He unwittingly noted with approval that Shaun was getting the hang of lying, or at least lying by omission. Baby steps.

 

He looked in disapproving disbelief at the lot of them to make his thoughts known, and wished them well on their quest to get hypothermia before turning around and making it back to the room, where he stood with his ear at the door, waiting until their voices vanished into the elevator and they disappeared.  

 

He grinned.

 

Snatching the little envelope with the enclosed voucher off the bedside table, he stripped off the smart shirt and trousers and got redressed in running shorts, before yanking a respectable t-shirt over the top.  He gave a quick thought of pity to the younger trio who in their madness would be undressing only to flounce around in swimming gear, giving an involuntary shiver before he left the room, pulling the door behind him to lock.

 

Speaking of, what the fuck Jarred, why do you have not only one but two pairs of togs in your suitcase, we came for a goddamn burns conference in January, what is this.  

 

Making a mental note to remind himself to give the rest of the vouchers to the younger surgeons, he headed for the first floor, where he was greeted by a young woman so polite and softly spoken that his ears nearly cried in relief.

 

Twenty minutes later, buck naked beneath a sheet and having sunk completely into a massage table with someone unknotting his every muscle one by one, he found he couldn’t even recall his resident’s names, and with that happy thought, he fell asleep as random fingers started laying warm stones in a trail up his spine, while another person began to knead his feet between smooth hands.

 

A couple of hundred meters away, after half an hour’s begging and pleading Shaun Murphy dipped one toe in the pool, announced that counted as getting in the water, and scrambled off to sit in one of the lounge deck chairs by the entrance to the sauna, where he could not be convinced to move again until they all left.  

 

...

 

In their kindness, the staff in the massage parlour let him sleep for an hour past the usual allotment of time, only coming in to wake him up when the next person arrived.  Coincidentally, the next person was also an overtired, overworked, overstressed surgeon who was escaping from her colleagues.  Directing him to the shower to wash of the multitudes of scented oil he was covered in, he scrubbed off the silky fluid in a bit of haze, his loose muscles making him feel like he could have passed for a jellyfish.  Leaving an extravagant tip for the masseuse in his gratitude, he floated all the way up to the correct floor before he was brought sharply back down to earth with a bump, as the doors slid back and the baffled faces of baby surgeons 1, 2, and 3 all stared back at him.  

 

“Hey!” Jarred said cheerfully, bouncing on his toes, undaunted by the fact Melendez was clad in running gear, standing in an elevator probably looking like he’d just orgasmed rather than lying on his bed reading a book.  “We were just looking for you, we’re going to go shopping, try and see some of the sights in Portland, none of us have ever been before.  Want to come with us?”  They were all wrapped up in jackets, faces peeking out from beanies and up from scarves, while Claire had gone the whole hog and worn one of those weird ear-muff things that he had never really grasped the point of.

 

His inner voice whined like a toddler at the thought of going outside.

 

“Sure,” his outer voice said without permission, as his inner voice winced in horror.  “Let me grab some stuff and I’ll come too, try and find a present for Jess.”

 

Gleefully, Claire and Jarred cheered while Shaun looked at least mildly pleased, as he trudged off to wrap himself up like a winter burrito.  Complete with a proper bloody woollen hat.

 

 

To his dismay, they had by some cruel twist of fate ended up in a large clothing department store.  

 

Claire had also noticed Shaun’s half a dozen outfits that he wore on rotation, and like him, she had also decided that he probably needed a helping hand when it came to buying clothes.

 

Shaun did indeed require a helping hand to buy clothes.

 

Surely he was not expected to stay with them?

 

He was indeed expected to stay with them.

 

For fuck’s sake.

 

...

 

Shaun’s main problem with buying clothes was not the store, the staff, or the other shoppers.  Shaun’s main problem appeared to be that he had far too many choices to pick from, and therefore had no idea what to pick.  

 

He was not entirely unsympathetic, but couldn’t really relate.  Black trousers, white shirts, grey trousers, blue shirts, black jackets, socks, jocks, a couple of pairs of shorts and a few t-shirts that seemed to have survived even from his college days.  Easy.  Done.  If Jess thought he needed something else, Jess went and found it and he bought it.  In general, he was pretty good at keeping himself neat, presentable, and on occasion, smartly dressed as was suitable for official functions and all out date nights.  

 

Though after that time he had worn a pair of unused scrubs to bed one night he was presented with a pair of Tweety Bird boxers and a matching yellow sleep shirt after work the next day.  It turned out there were limits to what Jess could accept as pyjamas, but he could work with that.

 

It was odd to hear a women cut down both savagely and completely unintentionally on her ability to match different articles of clothing, but not to be deterred, Claire took it entirely in her stride, whacking the offending shirt back on the rack as though it was the shirt’s fault it was the wrong colour.  For all that he didn’t seem to agree with a single thing Claire had picked out so far, Shaun looked to be enjoying himself, starting to grab out things on his own and brandishing them at Claire.

 

Embracing his childish side, Melendez let out a clearly audible groan and dragged himself off to where Jarred had claimed bench reserved for bored boyfriends and dads, though what that was supposed to make them he’d love to know.  

 

As he dumped himself down beside Jarred hard enough to make the couch quiver, Jarred looked up from his phone at Melendez’s irritated grimace.

 

“They just getting started?”

 

He grunted.  

 

“Want to take turns trying to beat my current high score on Angry Birds?”

 

Jarred was quickly becoming his top-ranked resident at the moment, favouritism be damned.  

 

...

 

Eventually he remembered he was a grown man and not at the mercy of the younger female he was not-really clothes shopping with, found his backbone and left the shop.  True it was only after of 40 minutes of dramatic duelling on Angry Birds and he only went one shop over, but it counted.

 

They had at least been left alone for almost the whole time.  As Claire and Shaun had cycled through the store, they had at one point been standing near enough to the Couch of Miserable Boyfriends that Claire had asked their opinion of the shirt she was holding.  

 

Jarred’s ingenious reply of ‘it’s bangin’!’ had seen them both dropped entirely as people with worthwhile opinions.  He could see Claire mentally writing them both off as completely useless, and he doubted Shaun would ever bother asking Jarred a question ever again.  

 

So there was that.

 

But if he was really, really, deep-down soul-searchingly honest with himself (which he never was, when the subject concerned his residents in any way), he actually didn’t mind clothes shopping.  He hated the actual shopping-for-clothes bit, especially the bit where it always seemed to take an hour, minimum, but following someone around the racks of clothes, that they took a delighted interest in had always been cathartic for him.  

 

He used to do it on weekends, when his mother was too tired to take his sister.  He would maneuver the wheelchair through the narrow racks for two hours to the dot, letting her point and touch and look at whatever she wanted, before they would go play the free video games in the movie arcade for as long as they could, until they would get kicked out.  It was one of the reasons he went shopping with Jess more often than was normal for a male partner, whether it was shoes, clothes, groceries or stationary, (her favourite) he was happy to just walk around with and listen to her talk out loud as she picked out things and held them up.  

 

However, sometimes bitching and moaning and dragging your feet was more fun, so really, what can you do.  

 

Thinking of his sister, he trawled around the bookshop for a bit, picking up a couple of titles that caught his eye, as well as grabbing something he recognised from an author that Jess had really liked, figuring he may as well have something more interesting than the paper to read on the flight home.

 

He ended up picking out a new fantasy box-set series for his sister, one that had only come out the following week, and took the set up to the cashier to ask if they had the large-print versions.  They did, which was a bit of a surprise, and he happily bought the entire set, tipping the man to wrap it up with pretty paper and an obscenely sparkly ribbon, before walking the five kilo pile of words to the post office and paying to have it sent via express delivery.  

 

Pleased to have accomplished that, he stuck half of his head back into the clothes store to check if the younger nuisances were done, and rolled his eyes when they clearly weren’t, although they did seem to be getting closer, disappearing again before Claire could catch sight of him.  

 

He ended up in a specialty shop that infused crystals reactive to UV light in everything they did, whatever that meant.  A simply enormous man whose cheerful smile overtook everything else about him was only too happy to explain when he saw Melendez’s confusion, walking him past various nail polishes, sunglasses, t-shirts and other odds and ends, explaining that they reacted under the sun and changed colour.  Getting rid of the alarmingly cheerful man was bit more difficult than getting his attention, but he eventually lumbered off to the nail polish station, where he began merrily painting his nails and sticking them under the blue light to demonstrate the qualities to a gaggle of teenage girls

 

He grabbed a couple of pens where the ink changed colour, hoping that the window behind Jess’s desk would let in enough light to showcase the display on her notepad.  Eventually, he wandered over to a stack of snarky t-shirts, thinking idly that he should probably bring his fiancée back a souvenir, and weren’t t-shirts the thing these days?

 

He knew he’d found the perfect one when he held it up to the overhead light, the simple outlines of the letters filling with a glittery purple that proudly spelt out -

 

I’m not bossy,

I have LEADERSHIP SKILLS

 

He gave a quick laugh out loud, and slung the white shirt over his shoulder, meaning to turn to go and pay when something else caught his eye.  The shirt was very dark grey, almost charcoal, which let the white letters stand out starkly before they turned a vivid yellow under the lights.

 

I do not have ducks.

I do not have a row.

I have squirrels,

and they’re at a goddamn rave.

 

He gave up.  Leaning over and catching his hands on his knees, he laughed, and laughed, and laughed, catching the attention of every single person in the shop and some more outside.  He laughed until his belly hurt and his eyes were watering, and than he began to hiccup, which failed to do anything useful and only made him laugh harder.

 

...

 

Eventually he finally got himself under a semblance of control and staggered up to the counter, doing his best to look like a serious adult capable of making a purchase, only to be greeted by the enormous man who was now beaming so hard the UV lights were actually causing his teeth to sparkle.  

 

Walking out of the shop still snickering to himself, he was now clutching the bag that held the shirt with the most appropriate description of his job he’d ever read. He had to stop by the bathroom to bring him back to proprietary state, splashing water in his face and staring into the mirror to reorganise his face into an appropriately sombre expression before he could go find his team.

 

The others were standing outside the clothes store, Shaun and Claire holding several bags between them, both looking rather satisfied.  They were finally ready to go, and Jarred was very definitely ready to eat, making sure they were all well aware of this fact.  

 

If Melendez had been suffering from any more lingering giggles, the blast of freezing air that hit them in the face as they exited the department store was more than enough to wipe that mood clean away.

 

Jarred had taken it upon himself to navigate them in the direction of hot food, promising there was an entire block dedicated for restaurants only a couple of streets away, though he didn’t seem to care if they all froze before they made it there.  

 

Taking care with his feet so he didn’t do some kind of idiotic fall, banana peel style, he yanked his hat as far down as he could without blindfolding himself, at the same time trying to tug his jacket up to an inch before it would meet the brim of his beanie, only to realise if he did that then he couldn’t breathe.  

 

The cold was currently singeing the inside of his nostrils off, and it became a case of lesser evils.  So he took turns breathing the stale air of his inner jacket and the icy-burn breeze attempting to knock him over.  The snowfall was only light, but snow in general had never been his thing, especially if he had to be outside in it.

 

He stomped on, not really looking at the others, only concentrating on his feet and the pavement in front of him before Jarred yelled out for him to stop, and he turned around with an irritated remark on the tip of his tongue that died even as he opened his mouth.

 

Claire was spinning around in circles with her mouth wide open, trying to catch the snowflakes on her tongue like a child does, which was, admittedly, very cute.  Shaun was standing as still as a statue, and was likely going to be the unfortunate victim of the snowball that Jarred was surreptitiously building behind his back, until at last the youngest member of his team poked his tongue out half an inch, looking for all the world like a blue tongue lizard.  Claire laughed and clapped her hands when she caught sight of Shaun, and Jarred dropped the carefully created snowball in shock before letting out an enormous burst of laughter, running over to stand behind Claire as he stuck his tongue out as well.  

 

“Honestly, where are you all from”, grumbled Melendez, tucking his chin deeper into the collar of his jacket.  “Surely this can’t be the first time you’ve all seen snow before?”

 

He got two intelligible answers, both of which came from adult children who should have known better, through their laughingly-open mouths.

 

He did not dignify the garbled mush with a reply.

 

He did tell them they all looked like the spinning clowns at a fairground amusement.

 

Shaun startled violently when a small flake finally did land on the sliver of his tongue that was still poking out, shaking his head frantically and putting his hand over his mouth while the other two howled with laughter.  

 

“I don’t like cold things on my tongue”, he announced to them all, brushing at his lips like he was trying to scrub the freezing tingle away.  

 

“What about ice cream?” Claire challenged, while Jarred looked up in interest.

 

Shaun thought about it for a moment.  “I prefer cake.”

 

Jarred snorted, and gave him a gentle shove in the shoulder, before bounding back to wrap an arm around Claire.  

 

“Let’s find somewhere for dinner then, and you can get cake for dessert, like the rest of the winter wimps,” he teased.  “I’m getting ice cream!”

 

...

 

The Italian bistro the rest of his team finally deemed suitable to eat at was, to be honest, very good.  The look on Shaun’s face as he had stared at the molluscs and other shellfish stirred through Jarred’s Mediterraneo Linguini had been priceless.  

 

It was also a treat to get to order, eat, and finish his own dessert, without having spoonfuls stolen by a certain blonde bombshell.  He apparently had a knack for ordering the best desserts, and no matter how many times he and Jess went for dessert together, she ended up stealing at least half of his.  

 

He actually slightly missed getting the chance to steal some of hers back in retaliation, not that he was likely to admit that to her this decade.  It was confusing, every time he went to take a bite of his cake he wondered why there wasn’t another fork carving away a chunk in front of his, blocking his own fork.  Shaun had indeed ordered molten chocolate cake along with Claire, while Jarred had proclaimed them both wimps for succumbing to the notion that cold foods couldn’t be eaten in winter and ordered the most elaborately decorated dish of ice cream Melendez had ever seen in his life.  Jarred put the sugar-flowered confection away with ease to Claire’s gentle teasing of having hollow legs, while Shaun ate his cake in neat, precise bites and Melendez chatted snarkily with them all as he enjoyed his own coffee and cheesecake.  

 

...

 

As they ambled back to the hotel in the twilight, cutting through a nearby garden park, Claire and Jarred pelted each other with snowballs using all of their strength.  They intermittently lobbed softer ones at Shaun’s chest or back, who looked like he didn’t know quite know what to do about the assault but didn’t take any offence, and was happy to be part of the shambles all the same.

 

Melendez was miserably shuffled so far down into his coat he could have been attempting to will a burrow into existence and no one would have noticed the difference.

 

Fucking snow.  Couldn’t be sent to Miami or Florida for a conference, it had to be bloody Portland and it had to be snowing.

 

Actually, forget the snow, fucking Andrews.

 

Something smacked into the small his back and his head flew up in shock as he swung around to face Jarred and Shaun 15 feet behind him, Shaun’s gloved hand still raised and covered in bits of snow from the snowball he’d just thrown.

 

“Did you just… hurl a snowball at me?” he asked incredulously.

 

Jarred shifted on his feet, nervousness getting the better of him while Shaun demonstrated some truly appalling lying skills, Claire bending over to hang on to her knees as she laughed on the other side of the pathway.

 

“No?”

 

Ending the fight to keep the grin off his face, he crouched on his haunches as he dumped the bags on the ground and scooped up a snowball, while Jarred started to chuckle besides his partner in crime.  “Oh you’re on Murphy,” he crowed, catapulting the first missile directly into the side of Jarred’s head.  “This isn’t a fight you can win with word-perfect memorisation skills!”

 

The following fight was quick, dirty and brutal, and everyone but Shaun shrieked with laughter.  Teaming quickly up with Claire they brought Jarred down to his knees, propelling snowball after snowball at him until he sank down begging for mercy, spitting snow out of his mouth as he laughed and tried to catch his breath at the same time, losing the ability to do either as a Claire yodelled a war cry and jumped on his back, pitching him face first into the drift that had banked up.  As Melendez helped him back to his feet, roaring with laughter at the look of his face full of snow he found himself attacked by his own ally, as Claire socked him with a surprise hit to the groin, her mortified squeal letting him know that hadn’t been her intended target.  All out war raged for several moments, his own skills and experience against the younger pair, before Shaun, getting the hang of making snowballs through Jarred’s shouted tutelage came to offer his dubious aid.

 

Shaun’s aim was good but his throwing arm was terrible, but nonetheless, the snowball that knocked Claire’s ear muffs off was a sight to behold, and he cheered, throwing both arms up to the sky both for the look of delight on Shaun’s face and the fact that the monstrosity against headwear had now been conquered.  Shaun came to regret it in a few minutes however, as both Claire and Jarred began to lob ball after ball at him, never aiming for his face, but forming an unrelenting attack until Shaun eventually ran away and hid behind a tree, where they let him be.

 

Left without an ally again, the two residents against Melendez escalated into a snowball fight crossed with a rugby match, the surgeons aiming with deadly accuracy for head and body shots that rarely missed.  He wheezed, the wind knocked out of him as Jarred leapt out from behind a tree and tackled him to the ground, the wheeze quickly turning into an affronted howl as Claire shoved a handful of ice down the back of his jacket, her deft fingers managing to work through his many layers so the icy sleet slithered down the bare skin of his back.  Rearing backwards, he exploded from the ditch he’d landed in, launching himself with enough energy to dump Jarred on his back behind him, before rolling off the taller man and sprinting over the ground, his cheeks glowing in the cold as he caught up with her.  Jarred was hurling snowballs at Claire from behind him even as she tried to swerve around the tree, overshooting it and appearing back in Kalu’s line of fire as Melendez seized her and dragged her into a loose headlock, reaching down for a handful of snow and rubbing it vigorously into her hair as she squealed and tried to bat him off, yelping as the freezing ice crystals began to work through the thick curls and melt against the skin of her head.  

 

Shaking with laughter, he eventually let her go just in time for Jarred to reach them, sinking to his knees as he tried to get himself under control and breathe as well as laugh.

 

Jarred scooped Claire up like she weighed no more than a teddy bear, bodily lifting her onto his shoulder and spinning around in circles as she screamed, crying and laughing at the same time, begging him to put her down.  Eventually, he gently flung her head first into another snow drift, grinning wildly at her flailing limbs and muffled whump of her body as it connected with the snow.  

 

Melendez sank onto his bum, still chuckling, half-falling and half-leaning back against the tree to recover even as Jarred collapsed beside the abominable snowman that was Claire, and yanked sharply on the back of her jacket to help her roll over onto her back, where she lay panting.  Shaun stuck his head out from behind his tree, and having surveyed the carnage began to traipse delicately over to the rest of them, suspiciously eyeing their hands before Melendez threw both his arms up and called the truce, and then let himself flop back completely.  

 

Now almost entirely dark, the four of them lay (or in Shaun’s case stood), panting and still letting out the odd chuckle, waiting until stitches had subsided and they could breathe uninterrupted again.  

 

Making his way back to his feet, he hugged the tree for help and began to sluice the snow and dirt of his clothes, the waterproof material making a loud crackling noise as he scraped his hands over it in great sweeps.  

He surveyed the mess before him with no small amount of fond amusement.  Claire had apparently given up on ever standing up or being dry ever again, and was starting to make a snow angel where she lay in an undignified heap.  Jarred was trying and failing to restore his hair to any kind of order, and gave up rather quickly, to begin helping Claire out by drawing a halo in the snow over her head, and then starting to add some horns poking out the top.  Shaun, as the most practically sensible of them all was currently wringing water out of as much of his clothes as he could reach without exposing more skin to the cold.

 

He was hit with such a rush of affection for the idiots in front of him he nearly said something about it out loud.  

 

Instead, he half-heartedly kicked some more snow in Claire’s direction before reaching down to grab her hand and haul her up, stopping for a moment to admire the snow angel, which was now sporting large satanic horns that curled out the top of it’s halo and a few more legs with clawed feet emerging out the sides of its dress.

 

Kalu might suck at math, but he clearly had quite a talent in drawing they hadn’t known about.  

 

The four of them all took a moment to duly admire the creation in front of them, Claire plucking her phone out of her pocket to take a picture with the four of them (five of them?), looking like a spectacular mess with their bright red cheeks and headful’s of snow.  Yanking hats and gloves and ungodly earmuffs out various snow drifts, the wind suddenly picked up and began firing snow into their face, and they made a unanimous decision to run for it, unceremoniously abandoning the artwork in favour of the hotel, snatching up shopping bags and hurtling through the last section of the garden as the snow began to come down harder.

 

...

 

Warm, dry, and free of abominations against clothing the next morning, a short break had been called in the midst of the morning’s sessions. It was an issue with the projector, causing a brief halt in the middle of the morning’s presentation before the next group could commence.  This was a problem, because his residents, already slightly antsy from whatever Jarred had spiked the coffee with that morning were now heading into fully-fledged boredom.

 

Shaun was reading his own notes through again and ignoring both of his neighbours, while Claire and Jarred had started a match of bloody thumb wrestling. Since Melendez was actually capable of using his manners and making boring but polite small talk with the other people, he struck up a conversation with the theatre nurse sitting next to him.

 

It ended rather abruptly, when a dull thud thunked into his eardrums and Claire let out a soft shriek, as he whipped around to find his young resident with blood all over the lower half of her face.  Dumbfounded, he looked to Jarred, but Jarred was dithering around in a state of flustered alarm, pulling Claire out of her seat and the two of them ran-walked in the direction of the bathrooms.

 

What the actual hell?

 

In lieu of anyone better, he turned to Murphy to demand an explanation.

 

Shaun looked up at him from his papers and shrugged.  “Maybe she gets epistaxis when it’s very cold outside?”

 

That had to be the most unsatisfying hypothetical explanation he had ever heard.  

 

The nurse next to him chuckled and tapped him on the shoulder, waving Melendez’s attention back to him.  “Your pair were doing the hand wrestling, yeah?  Saw it over your shoulder, he yanked his hand up to try and avoid losing, ‘cept he yanked his hand too hard, didn’t he?  Smacked her one right in the nose.”

 

Melendez gaped at him.  The nurse laughed again, turning back to face the front of the room as the next speaker began setting up at the podium, ready to begin.  “Always fun bringing the kiddies in, eh?  We bought a pair of residents one time that got into a full on brawl over some girl in the hotel bar…  Got evicted.  Could be worse.”  He winked at Melendez before getting out his own notes as the speaker began.

 

Melendez tipped his head back for a moment and prayed to the ceiling fan for strength.  

 

...

 

15 minutes later, when Claire and Jarred tiptoed back their seats, Claire still holding a folded square of paper towel to her nose, he gave them the best stink eye to have ever crossed his face.  

 

It took them awhile to stop looking at the floor in shame and back up at the speaker.

 

He was still considering how to make a homicide look like a surgical scenario gone horribly wrong when the conference broke for lunch and they slunk out of the auditorium as fast as their legs could carry them.  

 

He looked over at Shaun, who was busy putting his highlighters back in their case, carefully making sure the colours were going back inside in the same order that as they had come out, mimicking a rainbow.  

 

“Murphy.”

 

Shaun’s head bounced up to meet his eyes, though looking slightly concerned he was about to yelled at in place of the actual should-be victims.

 

“You’re now my favourite resident”, he denounced, and swept out of the room in a huff.

 

Shaun looked back at his belongings before smiling a little smile.  

 

“That was a nice thing to say”, he said to absolutely no-one, and continued to pack up the contents of his pencil case one by one, to keep it in perfect, uncompromised order.

 

...

 

Finding his elder two residents cowering on one side of the foyer, he wordlessly took Claire’s chin in his hand and tipped her head back, peering at her nose and the reddened skin around her mouth and nostrils.  He was very careful to keep his hands gentle, delicately tilting her head this way and that as he peered up her nose, gently pressing against the skin of her upper lip to feel for any teeth that had come loose.

 

After closely checking Claire’s nose for several minutes to make sure it wasn’t broken, finally nodding his acceptance that she was just fine, he then brought his wrath down firmly on top of both their heads, outright stating that if they kept that sort of behaviour up that they would both be wading through scut work for the next month or more, and then stomped off to lunch.  He wasn’t about to have rumours going around that he actually cared about his residents well being.

 

And if the three of them forgot they were all standing in a hotel lobby ringed with mirrors as they stared open mouthed at his retreating back, well, he wasn’t going to turn around and give them the satisfaction of admitting he might have had a heart for them after all.

 

...

 

Back on their best behaviour, in dual amounts of fear and awe at Melendez, Jarred and Claire were all too eager to show they could sit down nicely and listen as well as Shaun could, though he privately thought that would be a minor miracle.

 

The next speaker who stepped up to the podium was a pretty young woman, whose high necked but sleeveless dress showed that she herself had been the victim of a serious burns case in the last few years.  He didn’t think much of it, until Jarred, having finished perfecting his notes from the last presentation looked up and jolted so sharply in his chair he nearly tipped over backwards, only saved by the hand Claire shot out to grab the back of the seat.

 

“What’s the matter?” she whispered urgently, looking up to the platform in confusion.  “Who is she?”

 

Jarred had gone quite pale, and he leaned forward in his own chair, now also slightly worried, despite the earlier events.  “Kalu?  Something the matter?”

 

“She’s…” Jarred hesitated, licking his lips.  “She’s one of the former patients we had in our first year of residency, the night of that bus crash that held the entire wedding party.”  He looked slowly over to Claire, while Melendez’s brain jumped in leaps and bounds to make connections between the women in front of them and something that had happened a while ago.  Hang on, he did have a recollection of that night, a woman in a filthy wedding dress and her two, rather mean-spirited in laws.  Jess had been there that night, there had been a huge set of issues concerning-

 

“That was the night we made the fake femur”, Claire said quietly, ignoring Shaun’s muttered ‘not fake’ from the other side of her.  “Yeah I do remember that, you helped Andrews with a burns case, you were having a hard time with it…”

 

Wordlessly, Jarred nodded back up toward the podium.  “She was your patient?” Claire whispered, looking back to the woman as though it might help jog her memory.  Jarred nodded again, and sank back in his seat, his colour better but still looking a little bit shocked, and a lot more serious than he usually was.

 

Motioning for silence, the woman stepped up to the microphone and tapped it once, smiling to the audience before introducing herself.  “Good morning everyone, thank you for allowing me to speak today.  My name is Celez Graham, and while I do have some personal experience with an experimental treatments following second degree burns, I also wanted to present to you all an up and coming organisation, called More Than Skin Deep.”

 

Glancing again at Jarred, he relaxed in his seat and began to listen to Celez’s story, listening intently as the young woman took them through a detailed overview of the tilapias skin, and how it was used, originally in Brazil and then in the US to see if the difference in collagen types could help repair healing human dermal tissue faster than other animal or donor tissues.  

At some point in her explanation, while roving her gaze across the audience as all good speakers do, Celez happened to glance where the four of them where sitting.  She did the smallest double take as she took in Jarred’s tall frame, before moving on and continuing her speech with ease.

 

Eventually, having thoroughly described all the depersonalised data and outcomes, she arrived to the personal element of her presentation, and flicked the remote to display a new slide image on the screen.

 

It was Celez, swallowed by the hospital bed with her eyes closed, her burnt body stark against the sheets, only interrupted by a harsh black bar that censored her breasts, the burns visible down to her waist where they either stopped, or became swallowed by the thin sheet.  Pictured still, with her eyes closed and her skin burned or pale from shock respectively, it was a dramatic shot, and members of the crowd tittered in sympathy as the woman herself cleared her throat.

 

“Once I could breathe again on my own, I started to realise I was going to live”, she said quietly into the microphone.  “But with every hour that passed, I also started to wonder what kind of life it was going to be.”

 

He saw Jarred out of the corner of his eye, as he dropped his head down and frowned sadly at his shoes, before tightening his mouth into a straight line and looking back to the speaker.

 

“I gritted my teeth and screamed and watched as my doctors pulled my skin off my body,” she said clearly.  “I looked at this black and mangled mess that they were pulling off of me and wondered if I was still going to have a body left underneath.”  She took a deep breath.  “You don’t realise just how much you need your skin, even if it is blemished or freckled or has acne, until it starts to melt off your body, piece by piece.  As a woman, it was perhaps more difficult again.  I was on my way to a friend’s wedding that evening as a bridesmaid, we’d gotten dressed up, we’d spent the morning complimenting each other on how beautiful we looked.  Putting makeup on, making ourselves look perfect.  We had spoken about what we would like our own weddings to be like.  I gave in to despair, a little, in that hospital bed.  I’m not proud of it.  I was scared.  I saw myself in a mirror and saw Frankenstein’s monster, and I thought ‘my God, how on earth am I going to go home and have any kind of life looking like this?’.

 

She took another deep breath and shuffled her cards around, and Melendez folded his arms and sat back in his chair, genuinely interested in how she was going to finish this story, still keeping half an eye on Jarred.  Another picture of Celez appeared on the screen, still in a hospital gown and cap but now smiling shakily into the camera, proudly holding out her arm, wrapped intricately in the delicate tilapias skins.

 

“I was offered an experimental treatment in a clinical trial that involved covering the burns in fish skins.  The treatment itself, for me it was phenomenal, the pain eased and I was promised that they wouldn’t need changing for a least a week, but the thing that helped the most was that I didn’t have to look at my own wrecked skin any more.  It was covered away.”  Many of the medical and non-medical audience members both were smiling now, happily nodding along at what they knew would turn out to be a success story, where an experiment was tried and provided a better result than otherwise expected.

 

“I got angry while in the hospital,” Celez admitted.  “I was angry at my skin and angry at the people who couldn’t give me my skin back and I did take it out on them, at least a little.  But that anger was one of the things that drained away, at least for a little while after the tilapias skins were put on.  I could see myself again, and instead of thinking I looked like a monster, it just became funny.  I was wrapped in fish skins, but the rest of me was now recognisable as me.”  She took a small sip of water and eyeballed the area where they were sitting before quickly looking away and letting her gaze sweep the audience.

 

“After the skins had been put on, one of the doctors who I had snapped at came and sat down with me, to see  how I was going.  And at one point he joked with me that I looked tough, that I looked like Aquaman.”

 

He heard, rather than saw the pointed slap to Jarred’s thigh from a female hand, as he looked up to the roof and rolled his eyes, huffing at the ceiling before turning to raise an eyebrow at a suddenly sheepish looking Kalu.  

 

“From then on, whenever I had those thoughts creep back into my head, that I couldn’t have the life I wanted for myself because I was burned, I thought back to what the doctor had said, and I even whispered it to myself in the mirror.  I am tough.  I am Aquaman.  And every time I didn’t let those thoughts in, every time I made myself focus on the pretty blue colour of the skins or the bandages that replaced them rather than the wreckage I knew what was underneath them, I gained a little bit of my confidence back, and that confidence let me talk to my parents without crying, let me give my boyfriend a kiss on the cheek.”

 

Another photo flashed up on the wall, a recent photo of Celez, showing her wearing running pants and a sports bra, clearly about to go for a jog as she stood with her hands on her hips and smiled for the camera.  Like the photo’s subject, Celez’s arm and lower neck/upper chest was textured, covered in a riot of silvered lines and somewhat-mottled purplish red scars, a mess of colours that would continue to fade away, given time and sunlight.

 

“I got my life back”, the young woman continued, signalling to the hovering event emcee that she was about to conclude her address.  “But I came so close to giving in to anger and despair, and giving up on my dreams.  I had people leave my life because they couldn’t bear to look at me, and my ex-partner was one of those people.  There were still times when I couldn’t stand to look at myself, and I had to put towels over the mirrors at home.

 

“I started More Than Skin Deep because I realised how many people were in the same position as me, or worse, who didn’t have the ability to model themselves off a superhero or didn’t know how to continue living their life.  And that thought was heartbreaking.  And so I brought together a number of people, my very special team, and through a mix of donations and volunteering we worked out pathways to give as many people back their hope, their bodies and their lives as possible, whether it was through assisting payments for treatments and surgery, through counselling, through occupational therapy or physical rehabilitation, through friendly faces that have been where they have been, or even a decorative sleeve to hide a scarred arm.  My colleague Nerissa will go into more details about the many things More Than Skin Deep does in just a moment, but until then, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story and experience with this trial, and my gratitude to those who ensured that I could be here to speak with you, with both of my arms today.”

 

She stepped gracefully down from the podium as her colleague stepped up, returning to her seat in the front row on the other side of the room.

 

Jarred and Claire were speaking again in low voices, while Shaun still looked slightly put out about having the titanium femur called fake.

 

He blew out a short breath as the next woman began to speak in detail about the charity, beginning by thanking Celez for her tireless work as CEO and giving a short overview of her boss’s many moments of triumph with an exceptionally wide range of people they had worked to help since their creation.

 

Glancing back at Jarred, who still looked you could have bowled him over backwards with a cricket ball, he returned his attention to the podium.

 

This was unexpected.

 

Surprise former patients crashing the conference or not; breakfast was breakfast and he lounged comfortably in his chair the next morning, reading the newspaper and ignoring his residents completely from where they were having a passionate argument about whether toast or muesli had a stronger right to be the official breakfast food.  Shaun had attempted to interject his position on fruit and yoghurt, which Claire had scoffed at, and caused Jarred to look at him in disbelief before rapping him lightly over the head with the Times, and getting right back into the swing of it with Claire.

 

The argument came screeching to a halt when Celez appeared in the dining room and descended to their table with her plate in hand, Jarred falling over himself to make room for her while Claire looked at Shaun and rolled her eyes in Jarred’s direction, which got a small smile out of him.

 

“Ms Graham,” he nodded hello, politely offering her the plate of bagels that Jarred had nicked from the main buffet.  Jarred’s mouth was hanging slightly open, he didn’t seem to know what to say or what to do with his hands as he scrambled to pour her a cup of juice.

 

“Dr Melendez,” she smiled, hefting her own plate a little higher in acknowledgment, raising her glass in thanks at Jarred.  “I’m good for now thank you.”

 

“You gave a pretty great speech yesterday”, he complimented her, temporarily abandoning the paper and reach out to snatch a bagel from under Jarred’s nose.  “Have you had many people come forward looking to donate?”

 

“A couple,” she admitted, looking visibly pleased.  “A couple more have come to get our details so they can recommend us to people looking to volunteer, or to donate from home, which I’ll take.  But Nerissa said we’ve had emails piling in with online donations or people looking to help in other ways, stuff like donating pretty fabric for slings or sleeves, way more than we were actually hoping for, which is always nice.”

 

“That sounds pretty good for a start-up charity” he said, reaching for jam.  “Money and supplies in one go, how are you doing in terms of staff and personnel?”

 

“Not as great,” she admitted wrinkling her nose at her fork before turning to look at him.  “But quite a few of the hospital staff we talked with over the last day or so said they would definitely pass our information around their hospitals and their personal volunteering groups within the communities, so I’m hoping we get at least a couple more people who are willing around to stick around through that.”

 

Jarred was nearly vibrating in his seat behind Celez, and he purposefully stuffed his mouth with a large wedge of toast so he couldn’t answer her, nodding politely at her instead as she turned to say hello to Jarred.  

 

Much to the unfortunate blow of Jarred’s ego, she also had to ask his name.  

 

Nearly choking on his toast, he didn’t laugh, but he did come close.

 

...

 

As breakfast came to end, the rest of Celez’s colleagues began to rise from their table across from them, depositing their dirty plates on the dish trolley and pooling by the entrance to the foyer, not in any urgent hurry, but clearly ready to leave.  

 

Celez also noticed, and crossed her knife and fork on her plate, elegantly wiping a linen napkin across her mouth.

 

“I wanted to ask,” she said, shifting in her seat expectantly, from where she was facing Jarred. “I’m coming back to California in the middle of February, to open a new office for More Than Skin Deep.  I was wondering if you wanted to get a drink sometime?” She grinned. “Maybe go out for sushi?”

 

It was amazing, he could almost see Jarred’s brain stuttering to a halt.  Claire laughed through a mouthful of strawberries opposite him, clearly she could see it too.  

“I’d love to!” exclaimed Jarred, a ridiculous beam beginning to creep over his entire face.  Celez laughed as well, not mocking him, rather amused by the obvious eagerness that Jarred was openly displaying.

 

He shook his head as he returned to his bagel, having no intention of letting it grow cold, blossoming romance or not.  Letting breakfast go cold was one injustice he simply would not stand for, barring anything short of a complete, mass casualty emergency, or anything that might involve Jess’ wellbeing.  

 

Celez asked for Jarred’s number while waving a pen in the air, and he laughed internally as the other man practically leapt to attention.  Certainly no-one could accuse Jarred of playing hard to get.  

 

Grinning in amusement as he watched Jarred scramble frantically through his pockets for a piece of paper, nearly knocking the pitcher of water of the table in his mad dash.  Celez was also clearly holding back a laugh, and when Jarred gave up altogether on finding anything that resembled a piece of paper and offered out his forearm, she clapped her hands in glee before uncapping the pen and scrawling the numbers up Jarred’s arm, laughing all the while.

 

In the midst of exchanging goodbyes with everyone, Melendez promised he would pass her charity’s information on to the appropriate departments at San Bonaventure, while agreeing that he would stress Celez’s position not only as the CEO but also as a former patient, who had received the very help she was trying to promote.  

 

At a small explosion of noise, Jarred and Celez stopped smiling at each other and looked over to where Claire was now laughing hysterically at Shaun, who was concentrating hard and ignoring the rest of them, busily writing down his observations on his faithful spreadsheet.

 

Also beginning to laugh, he let the newspaper fall backwards to rest against his face, covering his mouth where he felt his breaths flutter the paper against the delicate skin under his nose.  As it started to slip down to his chest, he didn’t bother snatching it back to hide his smug grin, letting the smirk on his face be visible for the entire room to see.

 

Jarred’s skin tone was doing it’s best not to betray his blush, but he had a ways to go yet before they all missed that and Celez just looked a little confused, though she was still smiling.  Shaun carefully scribed the appropriate elements of Jarred’s flirting display into the Spreadsheet of Romance, as it had been dubbed, while Claire made no effort to be subtle and leaned over to point out the minor nuances Shaun had missed, while Jarred frantically tried to get Celez’s attention off the spectacle in front of them.   

 

Only after the young charity CEO had finally bade her last goodbyes did he hide behind the paper again, gleefully making a snotty remark the twitterpattering of spring coming early this year.

 

He got punched in the bicep for his troubles as Claire sniggered.  

 

Worth it.

 

Ordering the residents to go and pack up all their crap, he returned to actually reading the paper at last, leisurely sipping his coffee and enjoying the rare peace and quiet.

 

The weather for the flight home wasn’t expected to be great, which was a touch worrying, but with the minor amount of snow the airports were all still open and no flights had been cancelled.

 

And this time, they were drugging Claire before they even left the runway.

 

...

 

Running through the airport at breakneck speed, a death grip on his bag to prevent it tangling between his legs and sending him flying, he barrelled past various tourists, nearly knocking them over in his haste.  Claire and Shaun were panting heavily but were sprinting right behind him, burdened under the extra weight of their shopping bags, while Jarred was emulating a giraffe and was steadily overtaking them all.  

 

He cursed and spat against people who couldn’t bothered to use snow chains and mile-long traffic pile-ups as a pleasant female voice coolly reminded them every few minutes that US Airlines flight HK746 was preparing for take-off.  The crackling politeness from the overhead speakers was reverberating through his feverish brain like a song on a loop and was causing all of the muscles in his jaw to clench.

 

Holding his belt in between his teeth, with his bag in one hand and his shoes and the waistband of his pants in the other, they skidded into the final checkpoint like a toppling row of dominos.  He dropped the bag to seize Shaun by the back of his shirt as the youngest member of his team pitched past him, mostly able to stop him in time before he went crashing into Jarred.  Immediately lifting his hand away in apology for having touched him, he turned to deal with the bemused flight attendant with her hand held out for their tickets, trying to look as charming as possible to make up for their utter lack of decorum, before wincing and letting the belt drop out of his mouth so wasn’t grimacing like a psychotic Mr Bean through a mouthful of leather at the poor woman.

 

She hesitated for a moment, glancing at the large clock behind her that announced they were inexcusably late and she was well within her rights to deny them the right to board before shrugging and scanning his ticket through.  

 

He could have kissed her.

 

Hauling up his bag again, he grabbed a couple of Claire’s shopping bags and they bolted for the entry tunnel.  He did his absolute best to try and thread his belt back through just one loop of his belt, but after accidently stomping on it and nearly falling flat on his face, he executed a miraculous recovery/wall-grab/kept-both-legs-under-him-by-sheer-force-of-will that was nothing more than pure luck.  Claire shot past him only to come flying back and grab his hand, bodily hauling him up and pulling him after her as they scrambled, quite a bit of noise behind them letting them know that Shaun and Jarred had started racing toward them as well.

 

“Wait!  Please can you wait a second!” Claire started shrieking, directing her plea at the flight attendants who were starting to fold up the boarding ramp about 50 meters away.  

 

He added a wordless exclamation of ‘please!’, trying to be helpful without actually being able to speak through this bloody gag he’d imposed on himself.  Unsurprisingly, they looked rather apprehensive, not that he could blame them.  If he’d been at work and seen a possessed looking man sprinting toward him with a belt between his teeth and his hands simultaneously holding shoes and bags and keeping his trousers up, his first thought have been to yell for a sedative.  He could only hope they weren’t the poor fools that had been forced to deal with them all on the last flight.

 

...

 

“Excuse me sir, can I offer you anything to drink this afternoon?”, the steward said politely.  

 

He seriously thought about it for a single second before throwing all professionalism to the wind.  

 

Fuck it.  It wasn’t like Andrews was going to hear about it.

 

“Can I please get a scotch?” he nearly begged, a semi-pathetic look on his face.  “Actually… I’ll take a double scotch if that’s alright.”

 

“Of course sir”, the man nodded, reaching down into the cart.  “Coming right up.”

 

As the first trickle of alcohol slid down his throat, the frantic energy of the morning finally started to burn away, replaced with the musky scotch that he was deliberately refraining from belting back in one go.  

 

Claire had conked out 10 minutes into the flight, having nearly been force fed Dramamine by Shaun as soon as they all sat down, so she was now blissfully asleep with her head propped up against his own shoulder.  She had originally drifted off sitting straight upright, as all surgical residents learn to do somewhere between starting med school and finishing their first year of residency.  At one point, paralysed in the throes of a REM cycle her head had drifted towards Shaun, who had panicked and shoved her so roughly back in Melendez’s direction that she had woken back up.  

 

The boys were both working on a crossword together.  In what had to be the most thoughtful gesture he’d ever seen from Jarred, at some point he’d picked up a puzzle book of sudokus, crosswords, riddles and other such logic problems that he’d offered to work on with Shaun for the duration of the flight.  They were currently good-naturedly arguing about what could be a 10 letter word for a medieval chemist, since Shaun was flat out refusing to accept ‘pharmacist’ as the correct answer, and ‘physician’ wasn’t long enough.

 

Thank god they’d already drugged Claire into oblivion before the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

 

It hadn’t been too horrible when they’d taken off from Portland, but as they edged toward California, the snow had eased off and the wind became worse, the frequent jolts and bouts of turbulence bad enough that the seatbelt sign flashed up once more.  He gingerly reached over Claire’s lap to buckle hers up without waking her, snatching his hand back in askance when an unexpected bump caused his hand to accidentally brush against the top of her thigh.  

 

Jarred was still doing okay, chatting with Shaun while remaining rather watchful, but Shaun was starting to get a little antsy.  He wasn’t visibly upset yet that Melendez could pick up on, but he was rubbing his hands over and over against each other.  Throwing them up in a nervous little flourish whenever the plane jolted over a particularly large bump.  He tactfully tried to suggest to Shaun that he take a sleeping tablet as well, use the flight to stock up on a little rest before they got back, but was shut down.

 

“Dramamine makes me nauseous” mumbled Shaun, twisting his head to look around at the overhead lockers, which had started to rattle a little with the turbulence.  

 

A group of women near them were clearly nervous flyers, their exclamations becoming a louder and higher pitched with every shake that occurred, and as their twitterings grew still louder and more panicked, Shaun’s agitation increased.

 

He was slightly concerned the younger surgeon was not that far off from a meltdown, something he had little experience with, along with the added complications of a fully packed plane.  And then divine intervention came, the flight attendants switching on the movie screens in the back of the seats.  Jarred yanked his own ear buds out of his bag and offered the plane-issued pair of headphones to Shaun, who hesitantly took them and plugged them into his own armrest.  

 

First providing an short summary of Despicable Me, the two of them ended up watching the movie together, Jarred surreptitiously inching the volume up to cover the flustered female voices behind them.  

 

Pretending to fall asleep himself, careful not to jostle Claire any more against his shoulder, he watched the two of them through half open eyes, hazily observing Jarred’s frequent guffaws at the slapstick humour.  Shaun chuckled much less frequently, but when did it was weird, single syllable ha!, accompanied by a clap of his hands as he smiled.  

 

The turbulence eventually eased off into the steady, smooth ride that planes typically flew with, and he was so preoccupied with watching the other two watch their movie, that he didn’t notice when he too slipped into sleep, his head falling down to rest on top of Claire’s.  

 

...

 

He woke up all at once when someone tapped him on the shoulder, all of his limbs flying outward, accidentally smacking the nearby fool that had woken him, who let out an indignant “Ow!”.

 

Peeling his cheek off the top of Claire’s head at the speed of light, he looked around wildly for a minute, disoriented, before standing up so quickly Claire’s head slid down his chest before falling off of him, which caused her too to wake up with a start.

 

The plane was empty except for the flight attendants moving quietly through the rows, checking for lost belongings and returning the plane to order, while Shaun and Jarred were waiting in the aisle with all of their bags.  

 

Extracting himself from his seat with a grand air of dignity, as though he hadn’t just spent the last two hours asleep on top of his younger female resident who had drooled all his shirt, he haughtily grabbed his duffel off Jarred with a short thank you, blatantly ignoring the other man’s smirk even as Jarred turned away to help Claire out of the tight row of seats.

 

Blearily making it through to the main body of San Jose International Airport, he glared at a couple of people who were snickering at him behind their hands, before looking down at his chest and sighing.  Claire looked over as well and cringed, her entire face flushing bright red as they all took in the fist-sized patch of drool staining though his breast pocket, leaving the shirt sitting damp and rather sticky against his skin.  

 

Trying to spare Claire’s feelings, he waved off her mortified and stuttered apologies, calmly assuring her it was fine, certainly not the worst bodily fluid he’d ever had soak through a shirt.  

 

To his dismay, when he opened up the semi-rigid duffel bag to get out a clean shirt, almost all of his clothes were soaking wet.  He swore out loud as he plucked the lidless steel water bottle away from his clothes, only to splash what little liquid remained inside over the floor, perilously close the his knees.  

 

With a heroic effort, he swallowed the next set of swearwords and merely widened his eyes in frustration at the bag.  Pawing through to the bottom, hoping to find a least one partially dry shirt, even if it was dirty, his fingers came across a smooth plastic shopping bag.  

 

He pulled it out and started at it in confusion before it dawned on him.  

 

Well shit.  

 

In the end he figured he may as well go out with a bang, leaving Claire to babysit the bags as he walked off toward the toilet, Jarred making a strange hopping movement as he followed him, looking very much like a fairly stupid young man who had drunk far too much coffee that morning and now urgently needed to pee.  

 

He ducked inside a narrow cubicle as Jarred hopped urgently towards the urinals, now with his legs crossed, and pulled both shirts out of the bag.  

 

He had a brief thought of wearing the shirt he’d bought for Jess, which was far less likely to cause a stir, even though the underlings would still get a kick out of, but would stretch the material badly out of shape before she even got a chance to wear it.  

 

They weren’t really a well matched pair in terms of sharing clothing, not that that had ever stopped him, or even really slowed him down in an emergency.  He could still recall the one instance he’d been called in at 4 in the morning from home for one of his patients, and it wasn’t until after he’d pulled on his scrubs outside the theatre he’d realised he was wearing a pair of Jess’ black boy shorts, rather than his own pair of boxer-briefs he’d thought he’d grabbed.

 

Doing an emergency surgery while keenly aware that you’re wearing your fiancée’s underwear was not an experience he was all that keen to repeat.

 

Making a face at the back of the toilet door, he stopped stalling and pulled the saliva-sticky business shirt he was wearing off, balling it up so the wet patch was on the inside and depositing it on the toilet lid.  Biting the tag off his own new shirt, he snapped it out to get rid of the stiffness and pulled it over his head, stuffing various arms into the right holes and pulling it down to cover his stomach.  

 

On the way out of the bathroom he saw Jarred standing over the bags and Claire and Shaun coming over to take their turn at the bathroom run.  His wallet was in his trouser pocket, so he figured he may as well get a coffee before fighting through the tourists to get a cab back home, for whatever measly amount of time he was allowed before he was expected to be back on the floor.  

 

Breathing in the welcome steam of Starbucks, he debated over whether to just order a black cappuccino, though he didn’t really need the caffeine head start but it was a rare occasion where no-one here knew him and no-one was watching, so he ordered an elaborate caramel hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and chocolate shavings just because he could.  

 

Medical doctors were a judgy lot when it came to coffee.

 

Unfortunately, by the time he’d received the drink, hidden safely from view in a travel cup all three of his residents had gathered back by the terminal gate and were waiting for him.  

 

Straightening his shoulders, and putting on his best fuck-you-all-I-don’t-care face, he strolled back toward them doing his best to look like he didn’t have a care in the world, as first one, and then two, of his residents doubled over with laughter, while the third stared straight at his chest with an expression that indicated he was looking at the most absurd t-shirt he’d ever seen.  Eventually though, even Shaun succumbed to Claire’s infectious laughter, and began chuckling as well, glancing back and forth between the neon yellow writing on Melendez’s chest and where Jarred was bracing himself against a pole as his entire 6ft something body shook from laughing so hard.

 

Not looking directly at any of them, he stretched his arms behind him, the corners of his mouth twitching as the exaggerated pose stretched the t-shirt out wider across the planes of his chest, leaving nobody in any doubt as to what it said.

 

Fishing a pair of sunglasses out of the end pocket of his bag, he figured he may as well complete the look and had to stop himself from letting out a full-blown grin when Jarred brought his head up from where he’d been resting it on his knees and dissolved in fresh peals of laughter, immediately turning away again in a useless attempt to compose himself.

 

“Stop laughing, all of you” he grumbled, bringing the cardboard cup back to his lips so they couldn’t see him smile.

 

Shaun finally announced he was hungry and wanted to go home, so he helpfully slapped Jarred on the back a few times more than was strictly necessary and led his ridiculous parade out of the terminal.

 

As the procession slowed to a halt in the taxi bay,  Jared and Claire both slung an arm around his shoulders in what wasn’t quite a hug as he let out an indignant squawk, batting at them in affrontement while refusing to let a single drop of hot chocolate spill.  They shoved him towards the empty cab that had just pulled up, merrily waving and yelling goodbyes at him while Shaun clamped his hands over his ears at the excess of noise and twitched a single finger in a approximation of a wave.

 

Manfully resisting the urge to flip them all off, he looked upwards before deigning to call back his own amused goodbye, relaxing back against the seats and spinning his phone between two fingers as the cab pulled away.

 

For fucks sake.  Exactly how mean was he going to have to be to the little shits for the next several months until they forgot all this?

 

 

The next day he finished up his shift and made it as far as the couch before his legs gave out from under him, collapsed there while the tennis played in the background, until Jess got home.  Hearing the twin thumps against the hardwood as she ditched her heels in the entrance way, he let out a grunt of surprise a moment later when she came and dropped into his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.  

 

“Got an interesting email today”, she said slyly to the bottom of his jaw.  Twisting his head, he moved to kiss the side of her head.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mmmm”, she agreed.  “Aoki found something floating around the servers she wanted me to take a look at, forwarded it on for me.”

 

He tried to make a vague noise that conveyed some interest.  “What did you have to do with it?”

 

She squirmed on top of his thighs as she dug her phone out of her pocket, slipping down to sit next to him but keeping both legs draped across his lap as she opened her emails on her phone and scrolled through to find the right one.  He cracked one eyelid open, but otherwise didn’t really manage to move.    

 

“A jpeg file got mangled in an email to another doctor, so it was automatically sent for recovery to the IT department, as a precaution against losing data.  Aoki was already there when it came through, and after they unravelled it, she thought it was the kind of thing I should take a look at.”  

 

Jess’ voice was doing something weird, tight with strain as the muscles in her face twitched, and he looked at her with slight concern as she huffed and brandished her phone at him again.  

 

Clicking on the link, he let out a shriek that could have been heard on the same level as a dog whistle as the picture winked into view, immediately slapping a hand over his mouth as he shot forward on the couch in horror.  Jess fell back, slapping her thighs as she laughed, gleefully pointing at his horrified face as he stared back at the photo.  Jarred had taken a selfie on the plane, giving a large thumbs up to the camera as one of Shaun’s eye’s peered balefully at him from the edge of the screen. As pride of place in the center of the shot, Claire drooled against his chest while his own head lay sideways on top of her nest of hair, his mouth open a fraction as he snored, a sprig of her hair almost poking up his right nostril.  

 

Jess was still snickering at his face, showing absolutely no pity as he continued to stare at the image in terror.

 

“Who else has seen this?” he demanded, his voice still a little too high pitched to save his dignity.  Jess let out a happy sigh and took her phone back, smiling at the email before taking a screenshot.  

 

“Ah, you, me, Aoki, the entire IT department, the receptionist outside the IT department, the original sender and recipient of this email, and probably a few dozen more people beside”, she said airily.  She looked back at his face and choked trying to stop herself laughing, burying her face in between the cushions of the couch as he stared at the wall in utter betrayal.  

 

That was it, Jarred was doing scut work for weeks.

 

 

He was the brunt no less than two straight weeks of little jokes and snide comments from his co-workers; jabs asking if he’d slept well, how Jess felt about his bedroom skills, and whether Claire’s hair was soft or wiry, he finally let Jarred come back from his banishment to scut work.

 

Celez was going to be arriving in a few days, as he’d been forced to hear about since she’d texted Jarred with her plans, and he actually kind of needed all three of them back in full rotation. Thoroughly sick of hearing about his residents love lives, he considered scheduling Jarred in for a pre-booked surgery on the day on his date, he eventually decided to play nice and let him be.

 

And then he suggested to Shaun in front of all of them that he might like to go along as well, pick up some new data for his spreadsheet. Jarred blanched.

 

Shaun looked like he was thinking about it for a moment.

 

“NO.”

 

Shaun tweaked in his mouth in an ‘ugh’ motion, but left it alone. Melendez grinned at the patient file.

 

 

Jess had laughed at the t-shirt he bought her and threatened to wear it in bed if he suggested she wear it to work, to which he had promptly shut his mouth, and thrown it in the direction of the laundry basket without looking as he wriggled his eyebrows at her.

 

After laundry day, when he had been sorting through his own pile of things to put away, he came across his own shirt again.  Someone (no prizes for guessing who) had crossed out the word ‘squirrels’ with a single red line, making sure the letters were still visible, the word ‘residents’ scrawled in spidery female handwriting over the top of it in bright white metallic marker.  

 

He smiled.

 

She wasn’t wrong.


 

 

A month back from the Portland conference and Melendez was up to his wits end with hospital politics, absolutely done with listening to Andrews and Glassman bicker.  The old man might be old, but he was still kicking, and with Shaun the star prodigy that Aaron had promised he would become, his position as President of the hospital was as secure as it had ever been.  

 

Resigning himself to finishing off the last of the days paperwork, he headed back to his own office, where there was an unexpected addition to the usual piles of paper and filing folders on his desk.  There was a box on his in-tray, small and flat in size, a bit smaller than the electronic tablet he was usually carrying around, though it didn’t have any markings announcing it as postal or patient-related.  

 

He sank into his chair and pulled it toward him, dropping the lid to the side as he moved the single sheet of protective bubble wrap away.  

 

It was a simple photo frame, gleaming black enamel that housed a single photo of standard size, 4x6 inches in all.  The shiny frame provided a stark contrast to the subject; four red-faced, grinning people who all only just fit into the frame, crowding around a peculiar looking snow angel, all of whom were covered in melting snow and bits of leaf matter.  

 

A lump in his throat caused him to cough for a moment, vigorously trying to clear his airway from the phantom obstruction as he stared at where their laughing faces were poking into the picture.  He felt a similar rush of affection to what he had felt four weeks ago, just before this photo was taken and instead of ruthlessly tamping it down, he allowed himself just for once to sit there, and look.

 

Eventually, he lifted the frame out of the box, carefully placing his fingertips in the corners so he wouldn’t smudge the flawless enamel.  Opening the stand, he thought about it for a moment and then tucked it a little ways behind the only other picture he had on his desk, a much loved shot of he and Jess on a canoeing trip they’d taken a few years ago.  Angling it so that people wouldn’t see the photo without expressly crossing around to the other side of his desk to look, he fussed at it a bit before letting his hand fall away.  

 

Yeah.

 

Maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

 

He still wasn’t telling them that though.

 

In an effort to regain his sense of being an actual boss who was feared by his residents, he decided to schedule them all in to spend a few hours working on mock-up sections of the General Surgery Qualifying Exam, to get a taste for the type of content.

Yes, it was crap of him.

He was busy extracting the last of the lump from his throat.

Trusting them to do the exam in silence, he left them sweating over the papers and got on with it. It was a relatively quiet morning, touch wood, still in the early hours before people got out of bed and started breaking bones and getting into pileups. The minor trickle of people who came through the doors of the ER was almost soothing, not really requiring anything more than a few stitches here and there, a blood work panel for an upset stomach. The peace was temporarily shattered when not one but two pregnant women in labour turned up, accompanied by their nosier-still partners but they were not his responsibility, and he got to spend a pleasant 20 minutes chatting with the on-call staff, stealing a biscuit from the box someone had brought in.

Several hours later when he came back to collect the exam, he discovered Shaun hiding under a table while Jarred and Claire aimed rubber band slingshots at each other from opposite sides of the room.

 

You’d think he was a preschool teacher.

 

Banishing them out the door, under orders to go and invent something to do if no-one had a job for them, he shuffled together the papers as they traipsed out, though only after he had reassured Claire that the questions were just to give them a better idea of how prepared they were for their final qualifying exam, and he wouldn’t judge them too harshly for incorrect answers.

 

Probably.

 

The first surgery that was he was scheduled on for today wasn’t for a few more hours, so he took the chance while he had it and settled down to flick through their papers and see how they had gotten on.

 

Shaun’s section all had very precise circles drawn around the capital letter of his answer, nothing more, nothing less, and with no extra markings on the paper. In direct contrast, Jarred had scribbled explanatory details under many of the questions, marked ones he had apparently been unsure of, while many of the questions had words or sentences underlined, with a few of his options having been crossed out and rewritten in several times. Claire’s was nearly as messy, but not too bad, and all three of them had done pretty well, considering they were less than three years into the residency program.

 

Flipping them onto the desk to go through properly later, he was about to go an start prepping himself on his first case for the day when he caught sight of a chaos of pen on the last page of someone’s paper.

 

Highly amused, he looked at the elaborate drawings that covered the entire back page of the exam, Claire’s blue pen embellished with black pen where Jarred had come to help.

 

It was a comical sketch of man with dark spiky hair, on eyebrow ascending over the top of his sunglasses with a coffee cup in one hand and a scalpel in the other. For unknown reasons, said man had a tattoo on his bicep of an arrow stabbed through a cartoon heart. He was sitting on top of San Bonaventure rocking Melendez’s job description shirt as it had been before Jess edited it, while germs clad in hospital gowns were ablaze, running around screaming panicked profanities (written in black). Just peeking out from the collar of the shirt was a little mess of lines, which if he hadn’t known better, would almost think was part of an stag’s antler.

 

He grinned.

 

For creativity? Full marks.