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chasing shadows in the gallows

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It’s subtle, but the clues are all laid out perfectly, and Devon feels like a blind idiot for not picking up on them sooner. Everyone else, he can’t blame: they each have their lives, their jobs, their patients, and god knows if that’s more than enough. He, on the other hand, is just a first-year and his responsibilities, while infinite, are also a tiny bit less flooring; and he spends most of his days next to Conrad, attached to his hip, so how the fuck this has slipped from him, Devon doesn’t know.

He sits in an empty room, takes his spinning head in his hands, and thinks hard.

When did it begin?

He comes into Chastain as a doctor for the first time in his life, with an idiotic spring in his step and an even more idiotic tie around his neck. He shakes Dr. Bell’s hand, because he still doesn’t know anything, and the Chief of Surgery in his mind is equal to the image blown up larger than life on the billboards outside.

A new text pulls him back to the ground with a loud crash: Meet me in Physical Therapy. Try not to be a dick.

He sees a caduceus neatly tattooed on the inside of a toned forearm, he sees strong shoulders and a perfect head of blonde hair; his stomach descends a little further down than it should, in the same way it always does when Devon sees something—someone—he likes. He walks up to the stranger and can’t keep his hands to himself: he taps his elbow, quick and friendly. He hasn’t touched skin, just the man’s hoodie which is just the right shade of dark green to bring out his eyes, and yet, the moment the stranger turns to look at him, Devon wishes he could take that perfectly innocent touch back a million times, because this is suddenly a little overwhelming.

Who the fuck sculpted this guy’s face? He’s so chiseled and symmetrical and simply so incredibly, goddamn attractive that Devon thinks half the paintings in the world regarded as masterpieces should be ashamed of themselves.

And of course, this is Conrad Hawkins; this is his resident, and he hates Devon from the get-go.

Except it’s not true, is it? This is simply what he does to his interns the first few days, every time, without fail. This is how Conrad Hawkins teaches: he’s abrasive and bossy and cocky and demanding and an entire alphabet of flaws, and yet, he’s the best. Devon knows it, deep down, even as he starts asking around about getting a different resident. He knows that Conrad is the best, precisely because he’s exhausting and foolhardy and grumpy.

Throughout that first day, he catches glimpses of Conrad’s excellence: it’s in the way other doctors—younger doctors, older doctors, doctors with different specialties, and even surgeons—look up to him, look for him, ask for his advice and his opinion and simply seem to like to pick his brain about things. It’s in the way patients inevitably relax around him, and trust him, because he must’ve proved over and over again that he can be trusted.

But it’s not until the end of the shift that Devon really understands. It takes the worst fucking mistake in his life so far—pushing too hard on a patient, too absorbed in his own pain and selfishness to see what he’s doing, how much pain and damage he’s causing,— it takes the picture of a dead girl and a sad story half-said and half-bitten, to make him finally see.

Conrad is the best, despite everything, and because of everything. In this, he’s exactly like medicine.

Devon breathes out. This was the very beginning, between him and Conrad, but was everything going on already? He doesn’t think so. He didn’t know Conrad at the time, but he didn’t seem… anything but a brilliant, dedicated doctor who was trying to get over a recently failed relationship with a nurse he still saw every day. Not ideal, but not unheard of, either.

He presses a hand over his sternum, focusing on feeling instead of thinking for a second. It hurts, going back to those earlier days. Everything was simpler; his head wasn’t a scrambled mess, his career wasn’t hanging by a thin thin thread, his heart was safely tucked in bed with Priya. And now, look at him: hyperventilating in an on-call room like a dumb pre-med student.

The door handle turns, someone’s coming in. Devon gets on his feet and hides in the adjoining bathroom, turning the faucet on while he’s still wheezing. He squeezes his eyes shut, praying to any god he knows and doesn’t believe in that whoever came in, leaves quickly. The last time he was praying so desperately he’d make his mother proud, was during Mina’s hearing. See how well that turned out.

There’s a soft knock at the door. He doesn’t answer. Eventually, whoever it was—and it could only be Nic: she saw him run in here, she must know something’s up—gives up and leaves.

Devon listens for the clicking sound of the outer door; when he hears it, he breathes out. He washes his face with ice-cold water until he can’t feel his lips anymore, then wipes it dry with a couple of paper towels, scrubbing with a little more force than strictly necessary. When he looks at himself at the mirror, he can pretend his eyes are red because he’s been rubbing at them so hard.

He goes out into the thankfully empty room and goes back to the uncomfortable chair. There are exercises for this kind of situations, he studied it for his Psych certification. Just breathe evenly and try to think happy thoughts. It was probably more complicated than that in the textbooks, but right now that’s all Devon’s brain can come up with.

Happy thoughts. He wants to say that the last time he felt entirely alright was the very short week right after Hunter’s arrest, but he knows that’s not true. It’s definitely not. But he remembers a lot from those days, and Conrad is everywhere in his mind, so he figures: maybe that’s when it began. Maybe that’s where he has to look.

And so he does.

Conrad and Devon are leaning side by side on the balcony, elbows brushing, looking down as Dr. Bell storms out of an elevator and makes a beeline for the exit. Devon turns around, just a little, and grins at Conrad so hard it might split his face in two; he doesn’t care. This is their victory. Bell is still CEO, but he hates his life now. They made it happen. Conrad graces him with the most perfect fist-bump, but his mind is still miles away.

Devon is worried, and he puts a hand on Conrad’s arm: over his scrubs, over his undershirt, but he feels the hard curve of his bicep all the same. Conrad’s eyes go to Devon’s fingers first, then up to his face, and once again, something casual and meaningless and entirely unassuming spins on its head and turns way too intimate, real and important. Devon’s heart is in his throat.

Conrad looks haunted and insecure. Devon wants to hug him, and possibly become a telepath just to take a peek inside Conrad’s head and learn how to help him.

But Conrad smiles, casual and sexy, tips his head to the side like there’s nothing wrong in the world, and pulls away.

Devon follows him for the rest of the day. He feels like a kicked puppy but he can’t explain why, not even to himself. The hospital is supposed to be theirs; instead, it’s more of the same. Patient after patient after patient, hours trickle by or disappear in the rush of an emergency; they wait for surgeries to be over, for lab results to be delivered. They drown the occasional moment of boredom in caffeinated drinks that will eat their livers, and try to make it up to their abused bodies by binging on fruit. They sit in companionable silence, or maybe they’re simply asleep with their eyes wide open.

Conrad’s father doesn’t ever show his face in the wards. Devon thinks it might be on Conrad’s request, but he never asks. Conrad is jaded and keyed-up, completely lost; Devon wonders what’s going on, and then he finds out: it’s about Nic. The rubber band of their relationship has snapped once again, and for good—or so she says.

Devon is now as much of a friend of Nic’s as he is for Conrad, so he gets to hear her side of the story and drink him under the table instead of discussing his feelings. He puts the pieces together and feels like shit when he realizes that this reprise was doomed from the beginning and Nic knew it; Conrad keeps his silence, and buries the truth.

Nic has a life out of Chastain, some friends who’ll take her out and make her forget, while Conrad has his work and his colleagues and a best friend who was just deployed to the Middle East. That’s how Devon ends up siding with him rather than her, even if he thinks that in this break-up, like most break-ups, nobody is innocent and nobody is guilty.

Also, he works with Conrad, most of the time in extremely close quarters. Nic can afford the luxury to switch patients and steer clear of the corridors where Conrad is king, but Devon can’t. Devon doesn’t want to. Devon will never want to. He has so much to learn, and day after day he’s more convinced that Conrad is the best not only Atlanta, but the entire healthcare system has to offer.

One day, they get a patient with double vision and a whole encyclopedia of neurological problems; her physician is hopeless, and at his wit’s end, but the parents are relentless. The doctor actually apologizes for the nuisance when he hands over the charts. He’s right, it’s an impossible case. The girl tests negative for all and any of the diseases and kinds of cancer that might explain why her brain is misfiring so spectacularly. She will die. She’s burning like a furnace and seizing and her heart’s about to give out when finally, Conrad and Devon realize the only improbable explanation: she’s been adopted from Brazil at age twelve. She was never vaccinated properly, despite what her papers said. She has measles in her brain.

The girl lives.

That night, they drink the bar dry and it’s well deserved. Devon is truly, completely happy, and tequila has always made him stupid: he grabs the front of Conrad’s thin white shirt and pulls him in for a bruising kiss.

It’s the end of the world and the birth of the universe. There’s a moan, deep and throaty, and Conrad’s tongue on his bottom lip. Their teeth clash as they try a better angle—Devon bites Conrad’s top lip and Conrad’s whole body arches up and presses against his. Devon’s hand is in Conrad’s hair, holding and pulling a little. Conrad’s hands snake under his shirt, across his back and up his sides, riding high until his thumbs find Devon’s nipples and flick over them playfully.

It’s ridiculously late and the owner is asleep at the bar and they’re in a booth at the back of the room; they could start fucking right here and nobody would care, nobody would know. Devon tests his luck. He straddles Conrad’s hips and grinds down on his lap, gasping hard and wet when he feels Conrad’s hard-on through his jeans.

Conrad’s eyes are even more striking, this close. Only a thin rim of hazel-green remains around the black hole of his pupils; his lips are red and bruised and he’s entirely too magnetic, and naughty, and completely obscene. He draws Devon in for another kiss, grips his hips hard enough that Devon moans in pleasure and knows for certain he’ll bruise. Conrad is possessive. Devon loves it.

In the break-up of Devon and Priya, she is entirely innocent, and he is utterly, disgustingly guilty. He sleeps on a makeshift cot in Irving’s living room the first few nights, until Conrad finds out and goes ashen. Devon is worried for a second, because Conrad doesn’t say anything, then he realizes that there’s anger and jealousy and pain in Conrad’s neutral expression.

The gym bag with all his clothes is sitting on Conrad’s couch half an hour after the end of his shift.

Conrad is possessive.

Devon bites his lip hard enough to almost break the skin. He should’ve known after the break-up with Nic: they’d been drinking beer and Conrad got drunk too hard and too fast. If it even bothered him at the time, he’d chalked it up to a shitty diet of cafeteria salads and pretzels, and let it slip. He should have known at any point during the endless shifts spent together, he should have fucking known that something was wrong that first night, when Conrad took so easily a kiss from someone he knew was engaged, unavailable, stupidly drunk and desperately trying not to be in love with him—

He’s hyperventilating again, and he doesn’t even have an answer. He knows for certain it’s been going on the whole time they were together, and he was too dumb to see it. But he still has no clue of what was happening when Conrad was with Nic. When the fuck did it begin? It’s insane, but Devon feels that if he can pin-point that moment, he might be able to understand. And eventually fix everything.

The door opens and closes again softly. Devon hears Nic take a few steps, then she circles around him and goes to sit on the bottom bunk. She crosses her legs at the ankles, and seems unable to look at him properly. Good. Devon swallows back anger and spite. He waits for her to talk first.

“Are you okay?” she asks, quiet and gentle. It actually makes Devon laugh, mirthless and rough. Nic is wearing her best nurse expression: kind but determined, she’ll take no shit and she’ll never settle for anything less than the truth.

“I’m not,” Devon says. He leans forward, dropping his elbows on his knees. “Did you know?”

He’s so exhausted and terrified, that there isn’t even an accusation in his voice. Nic looks up suddenly anyway, like she was punched to the gut.

“No,” says her mouth, but her eyes tell a whole different story.

Devon starts laughing. Hysterical, desperate.

“That’s why you left him,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Of course you fucking knew, and you left him.”

Nic is red in the face. Ashamed, furious, and righteous. “I can’t—I have given him so many second chances, Devon. I was tired. I can be his friend, but nothing more. Can you understand?”

Devon nods, numb. He doesn’t understand, actually. Figures he’s in too deep now to see reason; to know what would be best for him, the same way Nic can.

Nic says, very quietly: “He’s awake now, if… if you want to talk to him.”

*

Conrad is quiet. His skin is pale and clammy, but he looks like the picture of health compared to when Devon last saw him two hours ago.

Devon is signing off the last of his patients, and can already taste Conrad’s mouth on his: it’s movie night, and nine times out of ten it ends up in clumsy, amazing, breathtaking sex on the couch. But nobody has seen Conrad for a while, and he’s not answering his phone. Devon drops by their favorite hiding spots—a closet next to the ER, the room of a comatose patient, the elevator nobody ever uses because it stops and opens its door halfway between floor—and finally sees something under the fire escape behind the cafeteria.

Conrad is passed out on the concrete, his pulse so slow it’s half-imperceptible, pupils shrinking to pinpoints and he’s breathing so little his lips and fingertips are tinged a pale blue. Devon shouts for help and then leans down to breathe air into Conrad’s depressed lungs; an army of nurses and doctors descends on them and they take Conrad away.

Devon runs after them for as long as he’s allowed, but suddenly Mina is in his way, pushing him back and keeping him out of the room. Some part of Devon knows that this is for his sake, but the bigger part of him—the doctor part—is screaming under his skin, he wants to barge in and take matters into his own hand. He can take care of Conrad better than anyone else, who the fuck do they think they are.

Except he’s been with Conrad for over a month, has known him for twice as long, and he never realized Conrad has a problem with opioids—a problem bad enough he’s overdosing.

Yeah. Maybe the doctors are right: he should step back. He can’t take care of anyone.

“Hey,” Devon says, walking up to the bed gingerly. He hates that he’s still in his white coat while Conrad is only wearing a tight black tank-top and a bunch of sensors. It’s wrong, somehow, to see him like this. Devon wants to give him scrubs.

Conrad is quiet. He’s restless, and stressed, and tense. Right now, he also looks upset.

Devon doesn’t know where to sit. His brain says chair, at a respectful distance. His heart screams bed, fuck it, just lay down and wrap yourself around Conrad. His stomach is debating between running out the door or out the window.

He settles for the edge of the mattress, far enough that he doesn’t intrude, but close enough that he could hold Conrad’s hand if he tried. He really fucking wants to, and it’s pathetic.

“Are you—?”

“We’re not having this conversation,” Conrad says, looking away. He’s the same way he’s been in these past few weeks. Volatile and wary, x-raying any word that gets thrown his way. He doesn’t want conflict, he wants to be left alone.

Devon isn’t a fan of letting Conrad get away with what he wants.

“We are,” he says, trying to sound as certain and firm as Conrad did, and failing only slightly. He really just wants to hold him for a little while, but he understands why he can’t. Nic wasn’t entirely wrong—she never is.

“Fuck it, no,” Conrad insists.

“When did you start?” he pleads, and Conrad’s only answer is to glare and keep his mouth shut. “Conrad, please. I’m—I’m going crazy, okay? Help me understand.”

“There’s nothing to understand,” Conrad says, softly. “I thought I was keeping count. Turns out that at the end of a thirty-six-hour shift, numbers get a little blurry.”

“Are you in pain?”

“’m not right now.”

Devon is angry. He doesn’t want to be, doesn’t think it would do any good to the conversation. Then, he thinks again. Conrad responds to insubordination, to biting back and righteous fury. Maybe kindness is the reason he and Nic have failed over and over again.

Devon gives in to the pain, then. Resentment washes over him like rain, disappointment and desperation kick him in the gut and he wants to give it back to Conrad as good as he got.

“Stop,” Devon says, very simply. He doesn’t quite realize he’s leaning in. “I want you to talk to me. It doesn’t really matter if you’re ashamed, or angry, or hurt right now. You said something to me, something important, and I need to know if you were high on painkillers when you said it.”

It’s working; Conrad looks like someone just slapped him across the face, and Devon feels like he did on Independence Day. They don’t have an audience, they don’t have the soft, colored lights of the bar; they’re alone under fluorescent neons, but it’ll do. Devon grabs Conrad’s hand and squeezes. He might be livid with him right now, but he’s not a monster.

“I was high,” Conrad says, with the tiniest voice he’s ever had. The room is so quiet for a little while that the sound of Devon’s heart breaking can be heard echoing off the walls and the ceiling. It’s deafening.

“That’s great,” Devon eventually says. He sees the muscles in Conrad’s jaw clench and he still wants to kiss him.

“I love you,” Conrad says, his eyebrows drawn together, his eyes suspiciously shiny. “I’m sober. And—even if I was high, I still meant it. Fuck, Devon, I think I’ve been in love with you since I met you.”

It’s becoming hard to swallow.

“When did the Oxy start?” Devon asks, and it’s a miracle his voice can find its way out of his empty lungs, and off his dry and useless throat. Conrad’s eyes flutter closed. This is hard on him, as much as it’s hard on Devon—but hey, hey, they’ve saved lives together. They’ve taken down Hunter together. They can do this, together.

“It was for my ankle, at first—after Lily’s death,” Conrad says, very quiet. Devon’s heart is shattering all over again. Fuck, that’s—that’s so long ago. And Devon was supposed to take care of that injury. He tried. He tried, but Conrad was so impossible, and impossibly charming, and he was so fucking weak and stupid. “The ankle healed quickly, pain was gone in a coupla days. But the Oxy helped. Nightmares, you know, and insomnia. My knee started flaring up again.”

“And you never had it checked out?”

Conrad smiles, all teeth and no glee. “Not at first. I was—you know, the entire mess with Nic. But then—before you, we, uh, before us. I went to Lynn, in Ortho. She said my knee’s in perfect shape. But the pain didn’t go away.”

So he did what no doctor should ever do. He self-medicated. And ended up OD’ing in front of the very same hospital where he works.

“Please,” Devon says, one right hand holding Conrad’s and the left pinned on the opposite side of his body. “Please, tell me you were careful—tell me you’re not risking your license for this.”

Conrad shakes his head. He leans back against the cushions.

“I wouldn’t’ve been caught,” he says; if it wasn’t for you, he doesn’t say. Devon rolls his lips together, unsure how to react.

Conrad does it for him. He curls a hand around Devon’s head and pulls him in, slow enough that Devon can slip away if he wants. He doesn’t. The kiss is tentative, and sweet, and careful, and it feels like a new beginning—yet another one.

Conrad is yielding. He is zipping down Devon’s pants, as well.

He’s an addict. He’s beautiful. He’s Conrad, and he’s Devon’s. Right there and then, Devon knows that he will give him an infinite number of chances.