She’d have guessed she’d hear again about this one violent, abusive, terrible ex she had had in med school. She knew it. She knew it was going to end badly for someone, her or someone else related to her in some way or another. She was afraid it’d be her mom, or her best friend, or other relatives she’d still have the misfortune to be in contact with…
But little did Valerie know who was going to take the fall for her.
The more she thought about it, the less it made sense for him to attack this person in particular. Who’d even attack people’s workmates to get revenge on them? What if they had a terrible relation together? Sure, she’d have felt guilty if someone she wasn’t fond of got assaulted because she once dated an asshole, but it wouldn’t be the same as if that attacker hit someone she cherished. She’d feel terrible if that happened! She had chosen to save lives, not help people almost lose theirs.
And… then, out of nowhere, it’d start making some sense again. Of course someone out for her life and happiness, apparently desperate for her to come back to him by hurting people she loved until she broke down and let herself down, would decide to hurt the persons she spent the most time around: her partners, her colleagues, no, her friends and companions of misfortune. They had lived through operating in a remote Alaskan hospital, moving to Los Angeles, getting into Caduceus USA’s Maryland branch, getting kidnapped, operating on war casualties in South American countries, meeting a famous surgeon and his fellow nurse (Valerie was pretty damn sure these two were secretly married, there was no other solution to the puzzle), saving the world from a worldwide lethal danger answering to the name of Stigma, everything.
Of course that guy would try attacking either Elena or Markus.
Elena seemed, despite how much Valerie appreciated her both as a colleague and a dear friend, to be an easy victim for him to pick up on. She was young, petite and rather frail, charming eyes but with little physical strength. She’d be easy to trap in a dark street corner, untrained to self-defence techniques (albeit she had since then started learning some of those on Cynthia’s advice) and too kind for her own good, especially if she was walking Pepita and had one hand unavailable to hold a leash in. Just thinking about that made her skin crawl, truly.
When he started to make himself heard from again, starting with ominous messages from a blocked phone number and her mother’s more and more frantic calls, Valerie had prepared herself to fight against him and protect Elena. She wouldn’t let her friend get hurt because some psycho was still after her years later, still potentially armed with a scalpel he’d have managed to slip out of the facility. It felt like her right duty, the one she had to fulfil as a slightly older figure and close friend. It felt natural, rather than right, genuine and strong, but it wasn’t passionate. Her mind wasn’t swept away by a storm of emotions and impulses whenever someone even remotely suspicious approached Elena.
She had gotten her guards up. She’d protect, she’d attack, like a guardian angel turning into a hound. She’d be the body’s immune system. She had killed Stigma, she’d manage to make her former boyfriend land up behind bars in case he decided to jump into action again. She was ready, especially once she had warned Elena about it. The latter had taken it well, despite trying to assure her she’d be all fine and not to worry for her (it was difficult not to worry for someone with whom you’ve lived through so many catastrophes). It’d be all fine. She could do this.
But, in the end, she hadn’t seen it coming.
It had been a pure coincidence. She was walking from her place to the nearest general store to pick up some dishwashing soap she had just realized she had run out of, nothing out of the ordinary. It was the comfortable rhythm of life, filled with all these little moments where nothing much happened, when it was just a succession of habits and customs. The contexts in which even someone like her, who had saved the world from a lethal pandemic, had most of their guard down.
A critical error, she’d soon discover.
Valerie simply happened to take a shortcut, that day. She had lived in Maryland for just long enough for her to know about a few passageways to shorten the routes of daily life, to go faster because losing time had never been her specialty. She’d only take these during daytime, for obvious reasons, which made it all the more shocking when what she thought could only happen at night and in her darkest dreams turned cold-sweating nightmares was unfolding right before her eyes.
There, in an alley, were two familiar figures. One of them, turning her back at her, was the man she had feared for so long, whose aura was filling her with dread, dishevelled hair, two hands lifted. The other, face turned towards her, back against a wall, fingers wrapped around the neck, an eye almost shut and a mouth striving for air, was her colleague. Her friend. Her companion of misfortune. A person she’d have never wanted to see hurt because of her.
But it wasn’t Elena.
It was Markus.
Heart filled with a whirlwind of panic, anger, fear and the forbidden child of the three combined, Valerie couldn’t say not to the primitive impulse inhabiting her body. Rushing almost blindly, unconcerned by most of the consequences for her own sake, she ran to the assailant and, without giving him the proper time to react, kicked him right in the weaker spot she had available on hand. Old reflexes she thought she didn’t have anymore activated: she slammed him against a wall, making sure his hands were locked behind his back, as she grabbed her phone and called nine-one-one without hesitating.
In her voice, calm fury. She was angry at the world, angry at herself, angry at this garbage dump of a human being. This wasn’t meant to be, she knew it, it had slid right under her nose despite her preparations and self-training. Dammit, that wasn’t supposed to be!
She remained frustrated. On one hand, she couldn’t let go of the ex unless she wanted to risk him causing more damage than he had already done to her friend or her; but on the other, she wished she could help Markus breathe properly, instead forcing herself to hear him hack in an attempt to regain his proper breathing. All she could do was wait and make sure the guy wouldn’t escape from her grip. This was terrible element over terrible element, cumulating into an Everest of problems.
In the end, Valerie chose to make her worst decision to this day pass out by merely using a simple technique learnt during self-defence classes with Elena. Did her friend protect her better than she protected Markus? For sure. Was it awful? Yes and no. She was forever grateful for Elena now, but all she had left was now to face the biggest consequence of her halfway-thought-out plan.
Clearly, if these two always worked together, it was for a reason.
Kneeling down next to Markus, putting her hands on his shoulders as if it wasn’t too late to protect him from the dangers she had cast upon herself while they waited for enforcement to do something about their situation, the details only kept adding up to her conscience: he already had two strong red hand-shaped bruises on his neck, traces of an event never meant to be, an incarnated reminder of her terrible solo-plans.
To be honest, she was simply used to Markus’s terrible sense of humour and his unpractical habit to tease her on everything he could find with the force of a thousand snickers. She was used to clashing with him lightly, like friends picking up on each other, never to truly hurt the other but more to play on the few parts they were allowed to ridicule each other on. Nothing big, nothing big… but something precious nonetheless. Something precious she had almost just lost, would she have not taken this route, would she have not noticed it.
Passion had saved the both of them.
Waiting for help to arrive, all she could do was to care for him as much as possible. A thousand questions went through her mind at the speed of light, too quick for her to grasp and say out loud. A storm in her mind, ravaging everything in its course, and no question uttered by a disturbed mind. Ironic, coming from her loud mouth.
“It’s… gonna be alright, Markus,” she whispered, more to reassure herself than him. “It’s… really gonna be alright. We’ve always been alright, why wouldn’t we be this time?”
“Wish I hadn’t dragged you in this mud, but I…” She gulped. “I’m sorry. For him. For this. For everything. Just… sorry.”
“If I had been more careful… Or clever… Or better, all things considered… You wouldn’t be there…”
“Sorry, I really am…”
Pulling the still mute Markus against her chest, as if that was going to keep him alive, she watched the familiar sirens fill the air and senses in the darker corner of a street until then safe. Only then did Valerie understand why she shouldn’t have expected Elena to be hurt in the process because, as it stood, she had never been the enemy the beast was hunting.
And for that she could only accuse herself of being the cause of it all.
A strained whisper reached her ears, prompting her to look at her colleague’s face where a tired smirk was painted.
She was unable to reply, too busy retaining herself from crying from the shock and the guilt.
“I forbid you to blame yourself… Only I can do that… Didn’t give you permission… as far as I’m concerned…”
“You shouldn’t speak, Markus…”
“And let you bawl your eyes out…? Yeah, no, fuck that…”
“You’ve just almost died! Can’t you just… be quiet for once, when you need it?!”
He snickered at her reaction. Ah, what could have she expected other than that from him, after all…
“Sure seems like it, huh… Seriously, stop crying now, I’m alive…”
Valerie brushed her tears away with her sleeve.
“…I’d have killed everyone in the room and then myself if you had died.”
“Yeah. I know…”
Watching the paramedics come to them, she realized that maybe, just maybe, a nightmare had just ended.