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An Encore to my Swan Song

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She had sworn she’d never do surgery again.

 

She really was serious when she became a forensics agent, never looking back on her decision, running away from the blood running away from the scalpel on a living person’s skin. She really thought she’d never walk into an OR again, never face the living approaching death, never need to face her sins in the wrong position possible – never. She was definitive and firm in her decision when she put down her scalpel for the last time.

So why is she here, about to operate once more?

 

It started in the calmest, most innocuous way possible. She was merely visiting a long-time friend who had helped her up after the Rosalia epidemic and the ensuing events on a day where said friend wasn’t busy with literal everything else going on in America’s less-than-ideal healthcare system, enjoying a nice day off in Maryland.

Sure, she didn’t feel easy in the corridors of Caduceus East Branch because she remembered GUILT, her association to Delphi and her disease all at once every single time she tried to focus on anything in it, whether it be the beeping noises of electrocardiograms or discussions of the latest procedures. In the staff room, she briefly overheard two surgeons and a nurse discussing their experiences with the latest bioengineered disease (thank God she hadn’t been involved with this). It was business as usual in Caduceus, so she tried calming herself down, tried moving on once and for all for one more time, and reached the Director’s Office before she could fully do either.

 

As always, when she knocked on the door, she heard Irene’s calm (yet stern) voice telling her to enter her office. Of course, when she did so, the Director’s frown came back on her porcelain face, and she knew all she had to expect was a light scold, the usual. (She was starting to have a sort of routine again. She didn’t like the feeling).

“How many times have I told you that you could enter without knocking, Naomi?”

“Good morning to you too, Madame Director.”

The stern composure soon crumbled into dust as she heard her friend chuckle. It always felt a little odd to see someone so overly sophisticated – French cuffs and everything – do something as mundane as chuckle, but it’s not like it was the first time. Tell that to the Dr Kimishima of 2020 who, already crumbling under so many feelings she didn’t quite understand what she was supposed to do with, didn’t know where to put herself in front of Madame Director even after directly working under a graded man in the military.

 

They did have some sorts of habits. Whenever she’d come, Naomi would take the guest’s seat of the desk, facing Irene who, as always, would be dressed so sharply she could have most likely cut through diamond if she’d tried to do so. Irene would hand her a second cup of coffee which she wouldn’t even pretend to have picked on purpose and based on Naomi’s ever-changing tastes in dispenser-level coffee (truth be told, she was only doing this because she wants to one day checkmate her, not that she’d have ever admitted to it). For some reason, these habits didn’t get to her as much as others, like going out for a coffee with Little Guy once every two weeks when they’d have the “dreaded Sunday shift” (and then fearing Delphi would catch up to them, bring them back into the brood, choking them again–). She’d figure it, eventually.

So, as always, Naomi took “her” seat, picked up the cup of coffee with a “thanks”, and they just slipped in the kind of chit-chat they’d always get into. Yes, it was just the usual, the soothing sort of usual: Irene telling her about what Caduceus was up to, the latest stupid pranks Dr Vaughn and Dr Blaylock got into, the latest nice thing Elena did for everyone, the latest argument Dr Tsushi got into with her colleague, kidney stones, that sort of things, while Naomi would usually be evasive on her work, mostly because it was frankly boring these days to tell (yes, she could have told her about the fourth case of someone who didn’t have their papers at the time of death having overdosed, but that wouldn’t be of much interest to someone like Irene Quatro of Caduceus East Branch, would it?).

 

Except something out of the ordinary then happened, bringing back the familiar smell of blood and gunpowder, and, no matter how she saw it as, Naomi can only conclude one thing: she couldn’t have seen it coming, as much as she’d have wanted to, and it’s been poisoning her mind ever since.

It shouldn’t have happened, but it still did, and she now faces the consequences of her inaction.

 

They were casually chit-chatting (a thing she, frankly, has never really been used to, albeit it’s gotten better thanks to Irene and Little Guy’s incurable thirst for small talk when they’re not busy investigating) when a shrilling alarm resounded in the entire building, almost deafening the both of them from how obnoxiously loud it was.

Irene jumped out of her seat before she could, immediately calling someone on the phone, never skipping a beat (this woman, despite dressing so fancily, ran incredibly fast). Thinking something along the lines of “may as well go with her, I don’t have much to do today,” Naomi followed, quickly remembering why she’d usually not wear heels to a running competition, until they arrived on the site of carnage.

 

Ambulances were already there because of the proximity to Caduceus East Branch, their sirens blaring in bright electric blues. There was that smell, the one of disaster and tragedy, of lives being lost and of those who needed an urgent save, and she’d be able to provide none of it. Her hand was already on her phone, despairing at the idea of once more hearing the dead call out to her, being reminded of having been the “Corpse Whisperer” at some point in her life – a flurry of terrible emotions which shouldn’t have overwhelmed her, but did anyway, in some capacity.

The situation went by so fast that she barely registered most of it. There was this armed gang leading a guerrilla for a cause she can’t remember in the slightest (something about fraud? It’s so blurry, so smudged inside her mind…), shooting at some people, and she had to step back when she almost walked on a twitching hand belonging to someone dying from blood loss on the floor, and at that moment, she remembered wishing she could still operate, trying to call for her Healing Touch, for the gift which had poisoned her life – but nothing came and, instead, she found herself in the way of a stray bullet, the last one to be shot, the gang’s last resort as the authorities’ sirens blared in reds and blues, adding onto the scenery.

 

Life didn’t flash before her eyes, far from it. Once upon a time, it may have had and, after that, at some point, she might have welcomed death with open arms – but in that moment did she realize she liked the life she was currently living, with her smartass of an assistant whose presence she didn’t mind as much as she’d pretend, with her daughter whom she didn’t want to abandon, with her friend whom she didn’t want to be separated from, and all the people who needed answers to the crimes that affected them –

And then the bullet didn’t come.

 

Instead, she found herself suddenly losing her balance, getting shoved to the ground, hitting it with some force but not enough to result in a broken bone (or any real injury, for that matter). She gasped for a moment, as if her lungs had been filled with dust, as if she had been drowning for a moment, leaving her senseless for a second. Reflexes and instinct kicked in, allowing her to recover enough to put herself back up on her feet, and only then did it dawn on her.

In front of her was Irene, breathing heavily, hair dishevelled, pristine white suit now covered in gunpowder, dirt and, most alarming, fresh blood.

 

Naomi didn’t know what to say, at first, left stunned. The shock of the scene and, after that, the realization of what happened while she stayed inactive and overwhelmed with herself suddenly gave stead to mechanical reflexes, as if she was taken over by someone’s else spirit all of a sudden, leading to her calling for a paramedic nearby, screaming on top of her lungs so she’d be hear by at least one person, one saviour.

Things sped up incredibly fast after this. One minute she was numb with shock, the next she was running, already thinking of the unthinkable as soon as she realized no surgeon was going to be available due to the urgency of the situation, the number of victims and the general state of affairs in this place, grabbing scrubs where she could. She found herself pleading to be made operating surgeon on this procedure, to do something to repair her mistake, to amend for her weaknesses – to her surprise, despite her reputation and despite her sins, they let her because, in their words, Director Quatro trusted her.

 

She swore she’d never do surgery again.

 

The air is tense in the OR and, for a second, she figures she’ll need to swipe dust off her surgical skills on her own and that makes her nauseous. She can’t fail Irene, not after what she did for her so patiently, so carefully. She needs to save her like Irene saved her when she was at one of her lowest points, when only Alyssia’s smile was keeping her going. This emptying feeling of loneliness is so familiar to her, smelling just like the heavy ambient air of secret labs of Eidoth, biting at her in ways she didn’t think it still could. She’ll have to do all of this alone, as she’s always done—

“Dr Kimishima, do you need help?”

 

The unfamiliar, calm voice startles her a little from how unexpected it is. She figured anyone would go to the furthest OR, the only one still available in fact, let alone someone who’d propose their help. But, sure enough, when she turns, she sees a young woman in scrubs and her – what? – early twenties stand before her, firm in her stance. What a strong person.

“My apologies, I didn’t introduce myself,” the woman says as she walks up to her. “My name is Elena Salazar. I’m a nurse here at Caduceus. I want to help you during this procedure.”

Naomi can sense tenseness in her voice (who could blame her, honestly) but also what sounds like a diamond-sharp resolve.

“I imagine I’ll be in need of an assistant. Thank you very much for the offer, Ms Salazar.”

“Please call me Elena,” she adds with a soft, small smile.

 

Despite how much the question burns her tongue, Naomi absolutely doesn’t have the time to ponder on it. Instead, she watches as Elena finishes preparing the patient, her golden hands working with precision not unlike elite surgeons and, for the first time since the sirens blared, she feels a bit of relief knowing this nurse very much knows what she’s doing.

“The patient is a fifty-one-year old woman in good condition.” Elena’s voice is steady and professional despite talking about her director, how slick. “She was shot in the chest. The bullet is still in there and is very much near the heart and the main artery, so we’ll need to be careful. I’ll be ready when you are, Dr Kimishima,” She ends with before going to stand right in front of the tools.

She breathes in and out one last moment and, preventing herself from running away from her old professional title, she finally takes her resolve.

“Let’s begin the operation.”

 

The beginning is fairly simple, as it always is with surgery: drain the excess blood pouring from the wound, apply some antibiotic gel, and make your cut. Usually, you could remove a bullet by simply taking it out with the forceps and patching things up before the patient would bleed out to death, but today, the thing’s lodged inside the patient’s body, so she needs to get access to it. To her relief, however Elena hands her the tools as soon as she asks for them without skipping a single beat.

Once they get to the site of the crash, however, her hope takes a dive for the worse. As Elena said during their short pre-operation conference, the bullet is lodged in a very inconvenient place: right next to so many important blood vessels and organ tissue a single mistake could mean the end. Her hands are starting to tremble, she can feel and see it, and as much as she’d like to keep steady, this isn’t a good way to get back to surgery, the context is nerve-wracking, she remembers Delphi—

“Doctor, just be careful, okay? I know we’re in a dire situation, but you can do this! You just need to focus and do your best!”

Elena’s words are a little too sweet for her own taste, but Naomi is going to take them. If Irene really believes in her, then there must be some potential in her for success. All she’s got to do is to believe a little in the skills that made her unhealthily famous at some point.

 

Let’s proceed with a concise, easy-to-follow bullet list.

-Guarantee visibility and access of the affected zone.

“Drain.”

-Carefully remove the external object.

“Forceps.”

-Make sure the zone is still accessible for the next step.

“Drain.”

-Keep the patient alive.

“Syringe and stabilizer.”

-Do something, anything against the shrilling sound of the EKG flatlining.

“I’ll just… massage the heart… until it beats again.”

 -Don’t panic.

“Come on, please beat again…”

-No matter what happens, do not panic.

“Please, don’t do this to me Irene…!”

A star.

 

The EKG resumes its steady pace as the heart pumps again between her hands. Her assistant’s eyes sparkle.

“Dr Kimishima, was this…”

“We’ll talk about this later, Elena. Membranes and forceps, please.”

It should be smooth sailing from here on out.

 

-Close up the wound.

“Antibiotic gel.”

-Make sure nothing is damaged before closing up the patient.”

“Another membrane. Forceps.”

-Make sure that won’t go away either.

“Antibiotic gel.”

-Close up the patient once and for all.

“Sutures.”

-Bless your work.

“Antibiotic gel.”

-Feel a rush of relief.

“Bandage.”

 

As soon as the operation is technically finished, she staggers a little backwards, releasing the deepest breath she’s ever made (or something alone those lines).

“You did it Doctor! I knew you could do it,” Elena squeals with smiling eyes. “Dr Quatro should be fine now, all thanks to you. You can go get some rest, now.”

“I’ll take you up on the offer,” she barely replies before she loses her balance on her heels and, quickly thereafter, her vision turns to nothingness.

 

 

When she comes to, the first thing she’s greeted with is the ceiling, and then Elena’s soothing face.

“Welcome back, Dr Kimishima. How are you feeling?”

She doesn’t reply, at first, because she needs to wind back everything that happened. The chit-chat, the sirens, the bullet, the surgery – that’s right, she did surgery. On someone she cared deeply about. Did…

“Where’s Irene?”

Elena gets startled by the suddenness of the question.

“S-she’s in Room 105. I can guide you there if you want…”

“I’ll be fine. How long was I out for?”

“Oh, for about five minutes, but then you just slept for around two hours, Doctor.”

“I’m very grateful for your assistance for earlier, Elena. I wish we had time for chatter, but—”

“I understand,” she smiles back. “We can always talk later.”

 

Despite the lingering drowsiness of her earlier power-induced blackout and the fact she’s just woken up from this, she quickly puts on her shoes (which were neatly put next to the bed she was resting on, most likely Elena’s caring intentions) and rushes out of the room, heading straight into the corridors without a word or other thought than wondering if she really did succeed or if there is going to be something much more sinister to greet her in Room 105.

Something must have gone wrong somewhere; it can’t be otherwise. She hadn’t operated in ten years. She was under pressure from the circumstances and emotional baggage that comes with operating on someone you care about. Sure, she didn’t expect to melt under the meaning of the situation like this young nurse did ten years ago when she was still working for Caduceus Europe, but she’d really be astonished if everything had gone right. It’s just not something that ever happens with her and, if it did, then she’s just fixing mistakes she’s left behind.

Well, in a way, she supposes she did fix a mistake on this one.

 

She knocks on the door and, once more to her surprise, receives an answer telling her to enter.

 

She slowly makes her way into the room, taking the time to get used to the scenery. The room itself must be one of the biggest they have with these big windows bringing him a lot of the late afternoon lights, but that’s not the point, far from it. The thing she’s bracing herself for the most is her very work.

Irene is lying in bed, clearly frustrated by her inability to do anything (there is a nurse right beside her, or it’s a surgeon, she doesn’t know the Caduceus East Branch staff very well), fiddling with her watch. Her hands stop moving when she notices the visitor’s finally here, at which point she smiles as she always does, would one ignore the paleness of her skin and the sudden tired expression.

 

“I see my surgeon has come to pay me a visit,” she starts off with. “Don’t concern yourself over the check-up, Dr Blaylock has taken care of it already. I’m in good health.”

The short-haired woman next to the bed then takes her leave, shaking hands with the not-surgeon in the room before closing the door and leaving two people in there. (She should have guessed said woman was a doctor from the lab coat she was wearing but, frankly, she didn’t pay much attention to that).

“That’s good to hear, then.”

“Don’t stand around like that, take a seat.”

 

Well, may as well obey.

“Elena told me about everything when she visited me earlier. You produced a little miracle like you do from time to time, did you?”

For someone who just got out of heart surgery, Irene sounds like she’s still got some energy left. Even her voice isn’t that groggy, her hair isn’t askew, her aura of power and authority still shines all around her – a beautiful woman if she’s ever seen one, even in the disgraceful state that is immediate surgery recovery.

“I’m mostly relieved it went as smoothly as it did.”

“Do you think you’ll go back to surgery again, then?”

“This procedure reminded me of how… unfitting I feel in the OR. I’ll stay in the forensics department for the next years to come, thank you.”

“At least your fears didn’t get the best of you, Naomi. That’s what matters.”

 

Because she doesn’t know how to reply, Naomi lets the conversation come to a crawl for some time. The silence itself wouldn’t be too uncomfortable if something wasn’t festering inside her mind like fungi in a hot and humid environment. Better ask before it gets out of control.

“Why did you do that, earlier?”

Irene loses her serene smile.

“What do you mean?”

“You shoved me out of the way of that bullet knowing you’d get shot in the process. Why do such a reckless thing? It’s not like you to try such stunts. It’s more something that I’d see good old Derek Stiles try pulling.” (God, what a name that brings back such bittersweet memories. The man whose life she saved who then contributed to help saving her. What a ride).

For the first time in forever, oh-so-put-together Madame Director loses some of her composure.

“I simply couldn’t stand seeing you in the way of harm, Naomi. Not when I could do something about it. It was reckless on my part, I’ll recognize it, but my intention went through at least. I knew you could save me if it came down to that.”

“What a hazardous gambit.”

“Sometimes, the world of medicine requires sacrifices. If it meant keeping someone like you walking among us, then I’d have given my life.”

 

This oddly sounds like she’s not really talking about medicine, but let’s just ignore that, sounds too good to be true. She needs to remember where her place is: amongst the damned.

“I’m grateful for it, then, Irene; but I’d advise you not to do such a thing again. You almost died on us.”

“I know. Elena told me about how your “gift” came back to help you. I wasn’t thinking on ever going through surgery again.”

“A good idea, if you want my opinion. I don’t want to see you on an operating table ever again.”

 

A soothing, serene silence settles in, light like the gentle wind brushing against chimes, as the sun slowly sets, drowning the room in warm lights.