“I want you to know that you disgust me,” says Petra. “Like, really, you make me sick. Unimaginably sick.”
Nikhil hums in acknowledgement, which is all it takes for her to keep going. This isn’t a conversation, it’s Petra going on a tirade again.
“I mean it.” Petra props her chin on Nikhil’s shoulder, staring down at the table. “You’re a monster. A monster who sees someone’s unfinished crossword puzzles and finishes them.”
“The ultimate crime,” Nikhil intones, hoping to get a laugh out of her. Petra is weirdly intense about some things, and there’s a chance that he’s stumbled on one of them. “It’s been sitting here for three days, that means it’s public now.”
“I don’t think that’s how crosswords work.”
“You and I do crosswords differently.”
Petra snorts. “Yeah, you do the crossword on your breaks, and I don’t.”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Nikhil protests. “We work in a hospital, am I supposed to go shopping? I’m here sitting down for five minutes between patients, that’s not enough time to do anything.”
“You could do your own crossword,” Sally suggests. “I’ll pay for your New York Times subscription if it means you don’t steal someone else’s crossword.”
“If they didn’t want it to be stolen, they shouldn’t have left it in the break room for three days,” Nikhil says as primly as possible. Petra digs her chin into his shoulder, like she’s trying to warn him about something, and Nikhil rolls his eyes. “Both of you are being way too uptight about this.”
“You’d be uptight if it were the other way around,” Petra points out, which… isn’t wrong. “If you just left your crossword here-”
“I’d at least leave a note, or my name on it or something like that.”
“Nikhil is civilized,” Sally says, the way she says things that mean she’s laughing at him in the kindest way possible. Sally is a lot of things: she’s the head of oncology, she’s one of the most kindhearted and driven people Nikhil knows, she’s one of his best friends, and she’s also completely not afraid to tell people when she thinks they’re wrong. This is her way of telling him that she thinks he’s wrong.
“I am civilized,” Nikhil says. “And it’s uncivilized to leave a crossword unfinished.”
“I missed that lesson on chivalry,” Petra deadpans, but she finally stands up to wander away and do… whatever it is that interns do when they have a minute to themselves. “27-Across is ‘philanderer,’ by the way.”
Nikhil doesn’t even check before he fills it in. Petra tends to be right about these things.
“Doctor Morales,” Nikhil replies, trying to hide the fact that his stupid heart is definitely beating faster. His palms are probably sweating, too. His body never seems to get the memo that Mateo is just another colleague, just another person he can be normal around. He has a hard time being normal around Mateo.
“I have grave news,” Mateo says, gravely. Well, gravely for him, which means his eyes are still sparkling like it’s a joke, one that he’s telling just so Nikhil will understand the punchline. “I have experienced vandalism of my personal property.”
Nikhil raises his eyebrows. “What personal property was this?”
“Irrelevant.” Mateo waves a hand, trying to show exactly how irrelevant the question is, and Nikhil’s getting ready to crack a joke when the hand suddenly lands - oh, god, directly on his shoulder. “Somebody wrote all over something I left in the back room.”
“Something that was obviously yours?”
“And you want me to keep an eye out for the vandal?”
“Absolutely not!” Mateo clutches his free hand to his chest and squeezes Nikhil’s shoulder. “I could never ask you to put yourself or your things in the line of fire like that. No, I simply want you to be prepared.”
“Were they writing inappropriate things?”
“No, only appropriate things.”
Nikhil squints. Mateo only widens his eyes, the very picture of sincerity. “I don’t want your things to get written on, Nikhil.”
“You’re a very strange man, doctor,” Nikhil says eventually. Mateo beams at him, because of course he’s the kind of person who would take that as a compliment. “I’ll be cautious.”
“Excellent.” Mateo squeezes his shoulder again and then lets go. “We should do coffee sometime, Nikhil, I want to hear your pediatric stories.”
Nikhil has to blink a couple times to get his soul back into his body. It’s hard, when Mateo smiles at him like that. This is the worst kind of crush. “Only if you share surgery stories. The good ones.”
“All my stories are good stories.” Mateo winks and then brushes past him, bumping their shoulders together. “I’ll see you around, Doctor Sharma. Stay safe.”
“Stay safe?” repeats Petra. Nikhil jumps and spins around; she’s standing far, far too close behind him. “What’s the danger?”
“Mateo says that something of his got vandalized.”
She looks bemused at that. “Did he say what?”
“Said it wasn’t important.”
“Do you think he’s making up excuses to talk to you?”
Nikhil forces himself to laugh at that. It comes out loud and fake. Petra doesn’t look impressed. “Why- why would Doctor Morales-”
“I’m your intern because I’m smart, Doctor Sharma,” Petra says. Her voice isn’t kind, exactly, but she’s not calling him a goddamn idiot, so he’s going to call it a win. “You don’t have to pretend around me.”
“I’m not pretending around you.”
“Then you have to know that he has a thing for you.”
“It would be unprofessional to act on that.”
Petra hums. “You know, as long as he’s not your direct superior or subordinate, or you’re in different branches of the hospital, it’s totally kosher. According to the rules, that is.”
Nikhil raises his eyebrows. “Have you been looking up the rules about dating other hospital employees?”
She gives him a sickly sweet smile. “Now, Doctor Sharma, that’s between me and my date from last night. All I’m telling you is that the option is available, should you choose to take it.
“Mhm,” Nikhil says. Petra’s too sharp for him, and he kind of loves her for it. “I’ll put that under consideration, Ms. Marquez.”
“Why, that’s all I’m asking for,” Petra says, saccharine. “Let’s get back to work, shall we?”
“We shall,” Nikhil says, and starts down the hall towards the pediatrics wing.
It’s an accident, genuinely, no matter what Petra and Sally say. It’s just that Nikhil is in the middle of the crossword in his own newspaper and then Petra flies into the room with an emergency that they have to handle, and it’s not like his first priority is putting the newspaper safely away. He’s gone for some six hours, all told, and when he comes back to the break room just for some water, his newspaper is still there.
And the crossword is finished.
Nikhil has to hold it directly in front of his face to make sure. It’s definitely completed, and most of the handwriting isn’t his. It’s all one person, and he can’t figure out who it is. He knows it’s not Petra or Sally, knows them well enough, and he knows it’s not Dr. Roberts because god knows he’s seen her handwriting enough times to identify it on sight. But he thinks - no, he’s sure that it’s the same as the handwriting on that other crossword that he finished.
“You’re bugging out, Nikhil,” Petra says from behind him. He’s too tired to jump at her whole stealth routine, and she sounds exhausted, too. But apparently not too exhausted to take the piss out of him. “The news is the same as it was this morning.”
“My crossword’s done,” he says dumbly. “The whole thing.”
Petra makes a noncommittal noise. “That’s karma for you.”
“Whoever did this is brilliant.”
She peers over his shoulder, standing up on her toes. “I don’t know who did that. Did they leave a note?”
“Maybe that’s the vandal Mateo was talking about.”
Nikhil pauses. Mateo hadn’t said what got vandalized, but… “Petra, do you think I was the vandal? And it was his newspaper?”
“Probably.” Petra leans forward until her head is resting against the back of Nikhil’s shoulder, slumping onto him. “You gonna tell him?”
“That depends. Do you think he just reverse-vandalized me?”
“Karma,” she says again. One of her arms snakes around his waist, in what has to be the strangest hug he’s ever received. “You could always ask.”
Nikhil groans. “The thought of talking to another person-”
“I’ll ask tomorrow.”
“Good.” Petra squeezes his waist. “Did we do good today, doc?”
“We did great today, Petra.” Nikhil blindly reaches a hand back until he lands on Petra’s shoulder and pats her consolingly. “Being a doctor is hard.”
“You’re a doctor.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re good at it.”
“That’s how I know it’s hard.”
Petra makes a soft noise against his back. “I’m glad you’re my attending.”
“I am too, Petra,” Nikhil says. It’d be easier to sit down, or move, or be anywhere other than the break room. But for time being, he decides, there’s nothing wrong with standing still.
There’s paperwork, which there always is on days like this, and most of it can’t wait till tomorrow. So Nikhil sends Petra home, and it’s a testament to her exhaustion that she goes with only the most token of protests. It leaves Nikhil with a job well done and its aftermath, one of which is wonderful and the other is… less.
It’s nearly midnight by the time he stumbles into the elevator, on the way to the hospital parking garage. He’s so tired that it takes him a second to register the other person in the elevator, looking at him expectantly.
“What?” Nikhil says, and that’s when his brain helpfully tells him that this is Mateo, watching him with a smile that Nikhil can’t classify as joking or teasing or… or any of the other normal Mateo smiles. “Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’ve had-”
“I heard,” Mateo says gently. “All I said is hi, you’re not missing out on much.”
Nikhil nods. The adrenaline and caffeine are working their way out of his system. “Saved him.”
“I heard,” Mateo repeats, and the corners of his mouth curve up even further. “You’re good at that. Where’s the intern?”
“Sent her home early.”
“You’re too nice.”
“If I were any harder on her, she’d stage a revolt. And she’d win.”
Mateo laughs softly. He has a nice laugh. He looks tired too, but mostly he’s looking at Nikhil. “I dunno, I think you’d put up a good fight.”
“I’d try,” Nikhil says. And then, because Mateo is looking at him so gently that he almost can’t stand it and Nikhil has never been good at good choices, he says, “I think I was your vandal.”
“I think you were too,” Mateo admits, not looking too surprised. “I might’ve gotten you back today, though.”
“You did,” Nikhil agrees. “You’re very good at crosswords, did you know that?”
Mateo smiles. The elevator dings, and the doors slide open, and Mateo puts out an arm to hold them without moving to get out. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“I try,” Nikhil says, and takes a step closer to Mateo. “Doctor Morales?”
His smile widens. Nikhil can’t look away. “Yes, Doctor Sharma?”
“Would you like to go out for coffee?”
A laugh bursts out of Mateo, loud and genuine in the stillness of the elevator. “Yeah, you know what? I think I would.”
“Good,” Nikhil says, and steps closer. Mateo leans towards him, almost like gravity. “Did I mention I have coffee at my place?”
“Do you now?”
“Good coffee too.”
“Well,” Mateo says, so close that Nikhil can feel it against his lips. “How can I say no to that?”
Nikhil smiles. He’s still smiling when Mateo closes the distance between them and kisses him.