DISCLAIMER: Maca, Esther and the rest of the Hospital Central characters are the property of Telecinco. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Season 9, up to ep 9.08.

Long Way Home
By Indigo Star


Part 2


Chapter 4: Aftermath

A cold knot of dread had formed in Esther's stomach the following morning at the thought of having to go in to work and risk running into Maca. For the first time in ten years at Hospital Central, she contemplated calling in sick, but dismissed the idea. As chief nurse, she had certain responsibilities, and she couldn't allow personal issues to affect her work. Besides, if she took the easy way out today, it would just be all the more difficult tomorrow. Brushing her hair, she studied her face in the mirror. Two nights of crying herself to sleep had taken their toll: her eyes were puffy and bruised looking, while her face was pale and drawn. A quick application of makeup concealed the worst of the damage, but could not replace the missing sparkle in her eyes. But it would have to do.

The bus journey seemed interminable. Squashed against a window, and preferring to look at the street rather than the greasy hair of the passenger in front, she felt her breath catch in her throat each time a motorcycle passed. She couldn't stop herself from searching for a white helmet with long dark hair streaming out behind. The rattle of the bus's engine vibrated up through the floor and seat, laying the foundation of a killer headache, while the constant stopping and starting threw Esther backwards and forwards in her seat. Skipping breakfast had been a good decision, as she didn't think she would have been able to keep it down. It was a relief to get off and walk the last block to the hospital.

There was no sign of a motorbike at the entrance. She hurried in, anxious to get changed and start work before Maca arrived. Teresa was as usual on guard at the front desk.

"Hi Esther!"

"Hi, Teresa."

"How are you today?" The question was the same every morning, but Esther knew that her friend's sharp eyes were not fooled by her attempt at a smile.

"Fine. What's happening today?"

"Eh, the usual, oh and there's a meeting of the medical union at lunchtime today, Gutierrez wants everyone to go."

"Great," Esther sighed. The thought of having to spend half an hour listening to one of Gutierrez's diatribes against hospital management and the health service in general ramped her headache up a notch. In her experience, these meetings allowed people to let off steam, but it was a tedious process trying to get agreement or resolution on anything. She headed for the locker room in search of paracetamol.

The morning passed quickly enough. A traffic accident brought in four patients in serious condition, and Esther spent most of her time assisting Cruz and Javier in theatre. Focused on the patients, she had no time to dwell on Maca's whereabouts.

Teresa and Rusti, on the other hand, were both at the reception desk when Maca stumbled out of a taxi, half an hour late for the start of her shift. She looked even paler than she had done the day before, and fatigue drew fine lines on her forehead and around her mouth.

"Hi, Maca," Teresa greeted her gently.

"Hi. Where's Aime?" Maca's face was blank as she replied.

"I just saw him go into the doctors' office," said Rusti with a vague gesture in that direction.

Maca picked up her clipboard and left. As soon as she was out of earshot, Rusti let out a low whistle.

"The Wilson's returned," he commented, referring to Maca's upper class family.

Teresa sighed.

"It hurts just to look at the two of them."

Upstairs in the doctors' office, raised voices could be heard.

"You discharged him?" Maca's voice rose in disbelief. "What about the scan I asked for? Who's the paediatrician here?"

"Maca," Aime's usually calm voice was sharp, "I'm not going to argue with you about this again. The boy was fine. And I don't think it's a good idea for you to come in late for work and start ranting at colleagues who've been covering for you!"

"I had a problem with my bike. I had to call a taxi. I'll make the time back, don't worry." The disdainful tone masked the unease she felt at this lie. The problem with her bike was that she didn't trust herself to ride it after another sleepless night, and had spent half an hour agonising over whether she was in a fit state to work that day.

Aime looked at the tall woman in front of him. Her posture was defensive, arms crossed and a folder clutched to her chest as she leaned against a cupboard. Despite her arrogant tone, she seemed fragile, lines of tiredness etched into her face.

"Listen Maca, I know it's been hard for you lately, maybe you should take some time off to calm down, unwind…"

"You think so? Well maybe if everybody would just shut up and let me get on with my job I wouldn't need to calm down!" She turned and left, slamming the door behind her. Aime sighed. He had tried, but he was going to have to let Davila deal with this one.

Outside the door, unnoticed by the two doctors, Begoña smirked to herself.


Chapter 5: Untenable Positions

The meeting room was packed with doctors, nurses and auxiliaries, some trying to eat their lunch as they perched on any available surface, others sipping coffee as they waited for the union meeting to begin. The clamour of conversation died down as Gutierrez made his way through the room.

"Okay people, in the absence of Dr Vilches, I've called this meeting to discuss the intolerable situation here," he began.

"Yeah, there's not enough chairs here!" came a cry from the back, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Rusti. A few sniggers ran around the room but were quickly silenced by Gutierrez as he continued.

"We've been short staffed for weeks, and the situation is no longer bearable! Overtime isn't a choice any more, it's expected from us all, and without any extra pay! How many of you have stayed on after your shift, just to 'finish something off' because the paperwork needs done?"

A rumble of assent came from everywhere at once.

"Why are we putting up with this? Staff are leaving and they're not being replaced, at least not fast enough! We're all doing the jobs of two people here, and for the salary of one! Let the hospital pay for extra staff, let the government pay! How can we give proper care to our patients when we're run ragged?"

While Esther agreed with Gutierrez' point, she wished she didn't have to stand there and listen to him rant. His loud, hectoring voice was like a jackhammer inside her skull, and the room was growing increasingly stuffy due to the number of people crammed in. She waited for him to propose a course of action.

"No more overtime! We work the hours we're paid for, nothing more! The management has to start paying for agency staff to cover the shortfall. No more free rides on our backs!"

The room erupted. Cheers of agreement clashed with some cries of protest from those who relied on overtime to make ends meet. Esther groaned. As usual, the meeting broke up into argumentative groups and the noise level doubled. She wished she'd had time to take a couple of paracetamol before the meeting, but she'd been so busy in theatre, then arranging a shift swap for a couple of nurses, that she hadn't even had time to stop by her locker. She stood on tiptoes to see if it was possible to make her way to the door, but the room was jam-packed, and she didn't want to draw attention to herself by leaving halfway through. Gutierrez was not the type to let that pass without comment. Looking round again, she became aware of the absence of a certain paediatrician and felt a strange sense of disappointment. Not that she wanted to have to speak to Maca, but there was still a part of her that wanted to know where she was and what she was doing.

Gutierrez' parade ground yell cut through the disputes. "Enough, let's discuss this properly. Nolasco, you're the representative for the doctors, what's your position on the overtime ban?"

"Well, from the point of view of morale and the health of our staff, I would say, this is an important decision and we have to take into account many factors." Esther closed her eyes for a moment as the bald, middle-aged doctor from the oncology department began in a monotone. This could go on for hours unless Gutierrez kept a tight rein on things, but, she reflected, it was lunchtime and they would all have to get back to work soon, overtime or not.

"So you're in favour then?" Gutierrez summarised. "And we accept that waiting times and lists will increase until the staffing situation is resolved. Okay, who's here for the nurses?" Nobody spoke up immediately, and Esther realised she would have to step in. She caught Gutierrez' eye.

"Well, I agree we need more staff. But I don't think cutting out overtime will help, ER will collapse if we don't keep going with it. It's not like we can postpone operations like other departments, it's emergency surgery we have to do, and I don't think it will help anyone if we cut back our hours. At least not before we have extra staff in place…"

"ER always gets extra staff! You guys don't have anything to complain about!" someone shouted.

"That's not true! We are short-staffed the same as everyone else! I just don't think an overtime ban will help. But it should be paid, all overtime has to be paid to us in full!" she responded.

"Okay, noted," said Gutierrez, with an annoyed look at Esther. She knew he would come looking for her later to try and change her mind, but she would just have to deal with that when it happened. He wrapped up the meeting quickly after allowing the auxiliaries' representative a brief comment: the auxiliaries were the ones who worked most paid overtime, and usually through choice, so there was little enthusiasm for a ban from them. Further meetings for discussion and a vote would take place over the next few days, but Esther felt that she had done her part already, and would only attend when the vote took place.

She made her way back along the corridors to ER, contemplating the possible effects of an overtime ban on her department. The shift rotas would have to be reworked, and cover would be very thinly spread across the day. And no doubt something would go wrong, and she would get blamed for it as usual… Lost in thought, she failed to notice the tall doctor striding along the corridor towards her, until they collided.

"I'm sorry," she said, and looked up into a familiar pair of brown eyes.

"You could watch where you're going," said Maca coldly.

"Or you could move out the way!" Esther snapped back. But Maca was already heading off towards Davila's office and gave no sign of having heard her. Rolling her eyes, Esther went to grab some painkillers before somebody else came along to get on her nerves.

"Maca, it's clear to me that you're not well enough to work just now. I want you to take the next two days off, that's an order."

"But we're short as it is. I'm not ill, Davila, I'm perfectly capable of doing my job."

"Are you? Maca, there's something else I want you to do. Here, take this, it's the name of a counsellor. He's very good at helping medics through… this kind of situation." Davila slid a business card across the table to Maca, who looked at it without interest.

"And is that an order too?" she enquired with a raised eyebrow.

"No, Maca. I don't think either of us wants it to be an order. But you need to resolve this. If you can't handle losing a patient, then I don't think you can handle being a doctor." Davila's words were hard, but he spoke them gently, hoping that his best paediatrician would be able to overcome the demons that had beset her since Jaime's death. "Think about it, Maca, please."

Her expression dark and unreadable, she rose and left.


Chapter 6: I know Paris

Encarna sighed to herself as she chopped vegetables for the evening meal. Esther had decided to go to Paris alone, and Encarna couldn't understand it.

"If she was going to go with her friend, why doesn't she just invite another friend? Or cancel the ticket if she can't find anyone else to go? Why go all that way on your own, huh?" she enquired of the fruit bowl. "And what's gone so wrong in her life that she can't talk to me about it?" she added more quietly.

For three days now, Esther had come and gone in silence. She made only the barest attempts at conversation during dinner, and Encarna was convinced that this was only a ploy to stop her commenting on the fact that her daughter spent more time rearranging the food on her plate than she did eating. The rest of the time, she sat slumped on the sofa in front of the television, but, when asked, was unable to say what she was watching. Yet for some reason, she was determined to go to Paris alone.

The hotel was small and the room was fairly basic, but it was only a five minute walk from the Sacre Coeur. Breakfast was simple and Esther ate well, her appetite restored by the change of scene. Outside, it was a perfect day. The early autumn sunshine was warm without being oppressive, and the street bustled with people shopping at an open market. For a moment, Esther was filled with a sense of new possibilities, liberated by the knowledge that everyone in this city was a stranger to her. She could be anyone she wanted to be. Although she had dreamed of discovering the city with her lover at her side, Esther felt as if Maca was part of some other life that she had briefly managed to escape from. Her half smile faded at this thought. Soon enough she would be going home again. And thinking of Maca even at this distance was still painful.

She recalled her last contact with Maca, the day of the union meeting when she had walked right into her. Even though Esther had been annoyed at the time by Maca's reaction to her, she could see how fragile and vulnerable her ex-lover was beneath the arrogant façade she projected. Teresa had taken Esther aside that afternoon, to warn her not to pay any attention to the rumour that was circulating about Maca being sacked. Esther could easily imagine the source of that rumour, but she hadn't had the stomach to confront Begoña about it then. Teresa assured her that the paediatrician was on sick leave for a couple of days, information that she had heard from Davila himself.

As she walked down the steps of the Sacre Coeur, Esther wondered again what Maca was doing. It had hurt her so much to realise that she couldn't help her partner overcome the depression she had sunk into, and even more to realise that there was no longer a place for her in Maca's life, but she couldn't stop caring about the other woman. Esther sighed. She had been through more than one heartbreak in the past when boyfriends had left her. Now she was the one who had left, yet she was still heartbroken. She shook her head in frustration. No matter how hard she tried to focus on other things, her thoughts inexorably returned to Maca Fernandez Wilson.

The white marble colonnades at Retiro Park gleamed in the sunshine and light sparkled off the ripples in the lake. The air was filled with the excited shrieks of children playing hide and seek among the statues as their parents strolled along the paths. From behind her sunglasses, Maca observed the families in front of her. They seemed so carefree, oblivious to the potential for tragedy that waited around every corner: a fall, a speeding car, a dirty hand transferring germs to the mouth. She was powerless to prevent any of this: all she could do was try to repair the damage afterwards. A black well of depression opened up within her and she teetered on the edge. She forced herself to remember her conversation with the counsellor the previous day.

She had surprised herself by making the appointment in the first place, but after a day's forced inactivity with nothing to distract her from her own miserable, repetitive thoughts, she had picked up the phone and dialled. Ramon Santiago was a short, dark man who radiated an aura of calm. His office in the city centre was decorated in neutral colours, some plants on the windowsill and an abstract sculpture on his desk the only points of interest in the room.

"So Maca, tell me what you hope to get out of these sessions." His first question surprised her. She had expected an extended version of Aime's repeated injunctions not to blame herself for Jaime's death, rather than an active process where she would take the lead. Throughout the session, Santiago gently encouraged her to question the negative conclusions she had come to about herself as a doctor and a person. By the time she left, she felt as though the cloud of dejection that surrounded her had thinned a little. The memory of that now drew her back from the edge of depression.

Maca continued to wander through the park. Without conscious thought, she reached into her bag and took out her cell phone, but caught herself before dialling Esther's number. Maca longed to hear her voice, but her last two attempts to have a conversation with Esther had left the situation even worse than it was before, and she knew Esther wouldn't even answer if she saw her number displayed. Besides, Esther was in Paris, doing her own thing. Maca shook her head to try and clear the images of Esther being chatted up by handsome strangers. There was no point in torturing herself like this. She abruptly turned and left the park, heading home to put on her rollerblades and exercise herself into exhaustion.

"Et qu'est-ce tu fais ici toute seule, ma belle?"

Esther looked up at the voice. She understood his smirk, if not his words.

"I don't speak French."

"Italienne?" His grin widened to reveal tobacco-stained teeth.

"I don't speak French," she repeated, getting up from the bench in the Tuilerie gardens.

"Espanola?" the skinny little man persisted, starting to follow her. Esther turned and moved quickly towards a more populated area of the park. The man fell behind, spitting some insult at her back. Breathing hard, Esther walked rapidly out of the park and across busy streets until she found herself on the bank of the Seine. She felt completely alone, and unwanted tears filled her eyes. 'Why am I so upset by some sleazy little guy?' she asked herself, and the answer came immediately. 'Because if I was with Maca, that wouldn't have happened. And now I have to live my life without her, and I just don't know how.'

Esther began walking along the footpath beside the river. The stone embankments were a warm yellow in the afternoon sunshine, the path was busy with Parisians and tourists alike, and fragments of conversation in a babble of different languages filled Esther's ears. Slowly she felt herself starting to calm down again, although Maca's absence was still a ragged hole in her heart. She took a deep breath. It would be like that for a long time, she knew. The hardest thing would be to go through each day in the same place, doing the same job, having to work with Maca on a daily basis as though nothing had changed, when in fact everything had changed. Somehow she would have to find the strength to get through it.

Part 3

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