DISCLAIMER: I own nothing of Grey's Anatomy. Written with the understanding that the start of S6 will likely spoil this scenario. (Well, that and the fact I'm pretty sure Brooke Smith won't be guest starring on Grey's Anatomy any time soon.) This is also femslash (lite) and there are some bad words and taking of the Lord's name in vain. If any of this bothers you, please don't read this story.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm speculating again this summer, and more's the pity, because it was lots more fun last summer. Still, I wanted to give Erica a chance to see Callie again, though it's the worst reason for a reunion. Fair warning to Hahn/Torres fans: This isn't Callica. Thanks to my Mighty Editor Goddess Brenda S. and to Jules 68, who always provides an honest, objective opinion. Written in July, 2009. This is my sixteenth Grey's Anatomy story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Shadow and the Real
Erica sat numb, her cell phone open on the desk before her, the rest of the world falling away. It could not be. This wasn't happening. Callie did not deserve this. No one deserved this, but especially not Callie. It wasn't fair.
But it had happened and Erica knew it was neither fair nor unfair; it simply was, a fact that offered little comfort. For the fourth time, Erica listened to the voicemail message that had brought her world to a standstill.
Doctor Hahn this is Arizona Robbins. Calliope asked me to call you right away to tell you what's happened. I'm afraid it's terrible news, and I wouldn't normally leave a message like this on a phone, but there's so much going on here right now, and I need to get back to Callie and it's George Doctor O'Malley .he's, I'm so, so sorry George was in an accident. He he stepped in front of a bus to save a woman and he was badly hurt and and he didn't he didn't survive his injuries. I'm afraid George died last night
Doctor Robbins stopped talking, interrupted by a great deal of background commotion that Erica couldn't readily identify, except to say it included weeping that sounded too much like Callie. And then the doctor was back on the line, her voice filled with a false strength that Erica immediately recognized as a tactic many in the medical profession used to shield themselves from pain. Erica cursed cell phones with their spectacular technologies that picked up every sound, every nuance, good and bad.
George's mother and brothers have already arrived, but as you might imagine, George's mother is inconsolable. Karev tells me his brothers are uncharacteristically subdued, but I wouldn't know about that, and Karev is in his own pain with Izzie right now, so I didn't want to question him further. Arrangements uh funeral arrangements haven't been made yet. Calliope asked me to ask you if you would come to the funeral. Please call Callie's cell when you get a chance. Don't worry, she won't be alone; I'll make sure of that.
Erica heard more commotion, the sound of other people crying in the background, and then in the foreground she heard what she knew was Callie sweet, precious Callie lamenting in what could only be her native tongue. The call ended abruptly as she heard Callie moan Madre de Dios, no, no, no, no.
The sound of a double knock on her door brought Erica back to herself, to her sixth-floor office at the Johns Hopkins Heart & Vascular Institute in Baltimore. Her assistant, Rosalie, opened the door and popped her head in. Erica must have looked pretty bad, because Rosalie's normally cheerful demeanor changed immediately to one of concern.
"Doctor Hahn? What's wrong?" She opened the door wider, but didn't come any further into the room. "You're white as a sheet! What's happened? Is it Marjorie?" Marjorie Richardson was one of Erica's more critical patients.
Erica inhaled deeply and employed the very tactic Arizona Robbins had used, infusing her voice with strength she did not feel. While Rosalie had truly become an "indispensable" assistant in the months since she'd been working for Erica, and the two women had become friends, Erica had not shared much about herself, and Rosalie had never pushed. "No, Rosie, Margie's fine. There's there's been a death of one of my former colleagues at Seattle Grace. Sudden. Unexpected. I have to I'm going back to Seattle for a while." Belatedly, she realized Rosalie was still standing in the doorway. "Come in, come in," Erica said, waving Rosalie in, "I didn't mean to frighten you. I need your help."
Rosalie came to sit in the chair opposite Erica's desk, her ever-present notepad at the ready. "Right, then. I'll call John Samson first," Rosalie started, all business, leaning forward and making notes on the pad. "I know he's available to cover for you for as long as you need. If not, Karen Withers is. We can cancel next Tuesday's lecture. The interns will be relieved. Do you want me to call the airlines? How soon do you need to be there? Have arrangements been made? Is there a funeral home I can" And here Rosalie looked up, shut her mouth, and sat back.
Erica's world had faded again, thinking about the sound of Callie crying. Calliope. Arizona had referred to Callie as Calliope. Erica knew this was Callie's given name, but she had never used it, mainly because Callie thought it made her sound more like a bellowing steam instrument than a "beautiful-voiced" Muse of Greek mythology. Erica, of course, disagreed with Callie's assessment, but out of respect for the woman she had been falling in love with, had never addressed her as Calliope. Yet the name had sounded perfectly natural coming from Arizona Robbins. Musical, even
It was another moment before her desk top came back into focus and Erica realized Rosalie had been quiet for a while. She looked up and offered a wan smile. "Rose, I'm sorry."
Rosalie stood, her notepad tucked in the crook of her arm. "No, Doctor Hahn, I'm the one who should apologize. It's clear this is affecting you more than you may realize. I think we need to get you on a plane sooner rather than later. Let me go take care of that right now."
Erica sighed and nodded, her head filled with images of Callie Torres and what must be going on at the hospital. "I think you're right. Thank you."
Entering her apartment a few hours later, Erica went immediately to her couch and pulled out her cell phone, pressing the number that was still on speed dial. The phone rang twice and then she heard someone say hello in a hoarse whisper.
"Callie, is that you? What's"
Callie had no such question as to who was on the line, starting in full throttle, her torment apparent in a rush of words. "Erica? Oh, my God, Erica. He's dead. George is dead, and I-I don't want to believe it. I can't. The idiot, he stepped in front of a bus to save some girl. God, he signed up, did you know? He signed up to go be a doctor in Iraq and we were all going to stop him. We were going to do that after he got out of his surgery, but then the Chief told us he gave George the day off to go be with his mom, because he was supposed to leave the next day, and then this John Doe came in, this g-guy who'd been dragged by a bus and w-we never connected it, I mean, why would we? And then Meredith figured it out because of that stupid, stupid double-oh-seven nickname
"Louise is here, his mom, ya know? I can't get her to stop crying. Ronny and Jerry are here, too, and thank God they're keeping their fat mouths shut or I'd have to break some bones. But no one no one can Christ!" Callie spit, her voice rising in agony. "No one can fucking function, Erica! What am I going to do? The funeral's Wednesday here in Seattle, but there won't be a viewing because George was he was can you come? Will you come?"
Intent as she was on following Callie's uneven discourse, it took Erica a moment to realize Callie had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. "Yes, Cal, that's why I'm calling. To tell you I'll be there tomorrow. My plane's due in at 10:38 AM, Seattle time. I'll take a cab to the hospital, would that be all right?" It felt all wrong to be talking to Callie like this, like they were discussing some patient, but just as Erica was about to ask after more personal things, another voice came on the line.
"Doctor Hahn? This is Arizona Robbins. Calliope's not doing too well; none of them are. I think they're counting on those of us, well, those of us 'outside the circle' to maintain the strength. Will you be able to make it?"
Erica stumbled on Arizona's words. Calliope. Outside the circle. "Iuhyes. I'm sorry. Yes. My plane gets in at about 10:30 tomorrow morning and I have a room at the airport Hilton. I-I told Callie I'd get a cab to the hospital, but if there's someplace else I'd be needed, I'll go there." A stray question surfaced, and Erica felt disconnected, as if she were standing outside herself, listening to a conversation someone else was having. "Doctor Robbins, you mentioned before something about Karev and Izzie? What else is going on? Callie told me Izzie had cancer that had spread to her brain, but what else has happened?"
"Call me Arizona. When was the last time you spoke with Calliope?"
"It's been a while, and except for just now, it was the only time I've talked to her since I left Seattle. Aside from her telling me about Izzie's cancer, we didn't really say much more to each other than 'I'm sorry for being such a shit.'"
Arizona snorted lightly in appreciation of Erica's frankness. "Right."
"We promised to keep in touch, but you know how it is" Erica faltered, unsure how to continue.
"Yeah " There was a pause before Arizona continued, and when she did, she was back to the tone Erica well recognized. "Izzie's been in a coma for a week. She flatlined, and even though she signed a DNR, everyone, well, everyone basically ignored it. But she hasn't regained consciousness, and her doctor's not sure she ever will."
"Jesus." It did not for one minute surprise Erica that "everyone basically ignored" a DNR, but the rest of the news about Izzie was truly hard for Erica to hear and left her feeling grateful she was already sitting down. She felt hollow, empty, and unable to catch her breath, as if someone had taken the sharpest instrument on the tray and just sliced everything out.
Erica started at the sound of her name and sat forward, her deflated lungs aching for air, and decided right then that she would attempt at least a façade of professional distance, if nothing else. She was unaccustomed to feeling this emotionally adrift and knew it would not do to come unraveled at this point. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she said, "Call me Erica. I'm here. Sorry."
Erica felt her stomach tighten, hearing professional distance mocking her, and said darkly, "Go ahead."
She heard Arizona take a measured breath, as if she'd also made a decision. "You know, DoctorEricajust for the record, I don't feel like I'm the right person to be telling you all this, but there really isn't anyone else right now, and you should probably know everything before you get here."
Erica nodded to the empty room. "Yes. I appreciate that, and you're probably right. But go ahead, what else is there?"
"Not all of it's bad," Arizona said, in a lighter tone. "Did you know Izzie and Alex got married?"
This was certainly unexpected news. "You're kidding me!"
Arizona chuckled. "Nope. They used the wedding Izzie had planned for Derek and Meredith from her hospital bed, but I have to admit, it was pretty incredible, and Izzie looked beautiful. But you can see why Karev is a mess now."
Erica thought of Karev, amazed he'd managed to accept the inevitable with Izzie, and of Izzie herself, lying in a hospital bed hooked up to all manner of pumps and drips. Imagining if it were someone she loved in Izzie's place, Erica knew immediately how Karev might be feeling.
But Arizona had said not all of it was bad, which meant there was something else that was bad. Erica wondered why Arizona would be holding back, didn't want to think about what else there could possibly be, and then heard herself say a little too harshly, "Yes, I can see why. What else?"
Arizona, either not noticing Erica's brusqueness or pretending not to, took another calculated breath. "Calliope's father was here a while ago. Have you met him? He's something else, let me tell you. Anyway, Calliope well Callie decided to come out as a lesbian to him, which I thought was really brave, but her father went ballistic. He tried to force her to go back to Florida with him and when she refused, he threatened to cut off her trust fund. They had a huge fight and he stormed out of the hospital. A day later, all her accounts had been closed. She hasn't heard from her family since then, doesn't even want to tell them about George, and she's struggling for the first time in her life about finances. It's just ugly."
"God Almighty." Erica sat numb again, trying to process what she'd just heard, bewildered at the notion that someone's father would do this to their child. Erica had never met Callie's father, and during the time she and Callie had been together, Callie had not said much about her family. But it had always been clear that Callie's relationship with her family was solid and strong, especially with her father. That he would act this way toward a daughter he supposedly loved was unbelievable.
For the first time in a long time, Erica thought of her own parents, both gone now, and was thankful she would not have to 'come out' to them. It occurred to Erica that being gay in a predominantly-straight world was not an easy thing, and wondered why anyone would think it was a conscious choice. Who would choose to be hated by their own dad? It was absurd.
The sound of Arizona's voice brought Erica out of her woolgathering with the realization that she'd come straight into her apartment without closing the front door, removing her coat, or even putting her purse down. The leather strap still hung over her shoulder.
"Listen, DocEricayou should know that Callie and I, we"
Erica spared Arizona her obvious discomfort at disclosing this particular bit of information. "It's okay, Arizona. I know you and Callie are together." It crossed Erica's mind to tell Arizona about her girlfriend, if for no other reason than to reassure Arizona that she was not a threat to Arizona's relationship with Callie, but she held her tongue. Her brain was telling her to mention Veronica, but her heart was resisting, saying she owed Arizona no such reassurance. The disparity was unsettling and confusing, and it only added to the hollowness Erica was already feeling. It didn't help when Arizona took their already-bizarre conversation in another direction entirely.
"Doctor HahEricaI know this is awkward and a terrible reason to be getting together, but would it be all right if Calliope and I met you at your hotel tomorrow? Maybe we could have lunch or a drink or something? She and I haven't been dating very long, and truth be told, things are so sad here that I think it would be good for Calliope to get away from it for a while. I mean, here's the thing. Yours was one of the first names she said after she heard about George, so I figure it's important you two see each other in a setting that's not filled with so much grief. These next few days are going to be hard enough as it is. I think Calliope should take the time away while she can. A-and Erica?"
Now Arizona came to a full stop, clearly gearing up. "I know this is going to sound really strange coming from me, and I honestly can't believe I'm going to say this to you, but Calliope's not letting me in. Well, she's not letting anybody in, but, I mean, I see her grief and I know she needs to be comforted, a-and I am doing that, but this is something more. She refuses to take anything that would help her calm down; it's like she wants to feel all the pain, and it's breaking my heart. Like I said, this is going to sound very strange, but for lack of a better way to put it, I think Calliope needs you."
Erica pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. Am I in my own life? At no point during their phone conversation a few months ago had Callie given any indication that she might need Erica ever again and since then Erica, with Veronica's help, had accepted that.
Now, though Erica had never given thought to the day when she might see Callie again or what she'd do when she did, Erica found herself caught between her past and her present. Intellectually, Erica knew Callie's need was only Callie's sorrow manifesting itself, seeking familiarity, reaching out to be comforted by those who had comforted her in the past, but her heart continued to insist it was more. Erica knew without doubt she was happy now. She was in a new city, with a new job, and a fantastic new lover. There was no arguing that every bit of it was fantastic. This this whatever she was feeling was just a gut response to a tragic situation, a perfectly normal response, even. It would be unwise to think it was anything else.
Returning the phone to her ear, Erica was set to decline, to tell Arizona it would be better if they met at the church or at the hospital. Instead, she heard herself say, "I'll meet you in the hotel lobby at 12:30, okay? I'll call if my plane is late."
Erica heard distinct relief in Arizona's response. "Thank you, Erica. We'll see you tomorrow." Arizona provided her cell number and closed the connection. Erica shut her phone and sat a moment, unable to quell the feeling that she was an actor in a stage play. Any second she would hear applause and the show would be over. All that had happened during the performance could be reset and done again and again without harm to anyone.
Christ, life is such an unbearable load of bullshit sometimes. Tossing the phone onto the coffee table, where it landed with a discordant clunk, Erica heaved herself to her feet, closed her apartment door, and headed to her bedroom to pack, shedding shoes, coat, and purse on the way.
Standing in front of her closet, Erica spent a full five minutes shoving hangers back and forth before she realized she wasn't getting anywhere. Sitting on the edge of the bed, teeth caught in her lower lip, she wondered why this simple task seemed so hard. She felt drained, without a shred of motivation, and her stomach hurt.
Shock. I'm in shock. But what good does knowing do me? At that moment, she heard a couple of sharp knocks on her outside door, and it took conscious effort for her to get up and go answer it.
In the open doorway stood a tall, slim, redheaded woman. This was Veronica Taylor, the woman Erica met in the airport bar in St. Louis, on her way to Baltimore. Veronica had become Erica's first friend in Baltimore and was now her lover and an even better friend. At present, the two were in the "should-we-or-shouldn't-we-move-in-together" phase. For now, it was still "we shouldn't." Veronica was flanked by two beautiful chocolate labs, littermates, aptly named Hershey and Syrup. "Ronnie, thanks for coming. Hi guys."
Veronica addressed her dogs, who were staring adoringly at her, tongues hanging out the sides of their mouths. "Mind, best behavior " The dogs squirmed and whined, but didn't move. "Okay, go ahead." They flew to either side of Erica, sat wiggling at her feet, shoving their noses against her hands.
Erica, who had never cared much for dogs, found herself very fond of this pair, and not just because they were Veronica's. They were well-behaved, well-groomed, and loved whoever Veronica loved, so it was hard not to be. Erica bent over to give them proper attention and found her spirits lifted by their uncomplicated, unconditional love.
Veronica strode around the mutual admiration society into the apartment, carrying a bag of what smelled like Chinese take-out, her emerald eyes dark with compassion. "Oh, hon," she said, pecking Erica's cheek as Erica's straightened up, "you look like hell on toast, and speaking of toast, I'll bet you haven't eaten in six years. C'mon, let's break out the chopsticks and then you can tell me what happened. Oh, and where's that whisky? Kids, go lay down." The dogs went immediately to the rug in the living room, circled a couple times, then lay down with twin sighs that sounded so human strangers might've had to look twice.
After a healthy shot of single malt, chased by Szechuan Chicken, Erica admitted to Veronica that while she didn't exactly feel better, she did feel less jittery and her stomach no longer ached. Her blood sugar must have been in her toes. "Thanks, Ronnie. That was just what I needed."
Ronnie reached over and covered Erica's hand with her own. "Of course it was, my darling. I'm brilliant when it comes to matters of sustenance." She leaned back and gave Erica a solemn look. "Geez, hon, I know it's not enough, but I'm so sorry."
"Thanks." Erica shook her head and tsked. "This sounds ridiculous, but I can't figure out what to feel right now. I didn't know George all that well, but, Lord, Callie was married to him. In truth, he seemed inept at times, but for the most part, I think I think he was a decent soul."
"Do you know what happened?"
Erica told Veronica what she knew about George's accident, about what Callie's father had done, and about meeting Callie and Callie's girlfriend, Arizona, at the hotel tomorrow. She was at first not going to say anything about what Arizona had said about Callie needing her, but even as she was deciding not to, she found herself talking.
"Arizona Doctor Robbins is a pediatric surgeon at Seattle Grace. She said Callie was in bad shape and that she needed me. I-I didn't know how to respond to that. Or, well, I-I, responded, but it was the wrong response, and then I just got mad at myself, and oh, Christ!" Erica threw her hands up in frustration. "Listen to me. I sound like an idiot!"
Veronica studied Erica a moment, lips pursed. "Doc, you're hardly an idiot. More like human. C'mon, you and Callie haven't had a second's chance at closure since you left Seattle." Veronica put a hand up against Erica's attempt to protest. "Yeah, and don't start about the phone call, because that barely counts. I know you can't see it, but I can. Callie's grief is just compounding a wound that's been festering in you since you got here. You're a great doctor, but you can't heal it from here. You have to go back and see her, talk face-to-face. I know a funeral isn't exactly the greatest time, but it's the only time you've got. I'm not saying you'll get it all worked out, but believe me, I know from this. It's the seeing part that's important to you, and probably is to Callie, too. I think it's because you guys are surgeons; you prefer the um hands-on approach, so to speak. Know what I mean?"
Erica sat blinking. She had learned early on that nothing got past Veronica Taylor, and it was silly to think it would be any different this time. In fact, it was one of the things Erica loved about Veronica. She was kind but tough. She didn't mince words and she didn't suffer fools, even when the fool was her own lover. Relieved as Erica was to have made her confession, she knew it'd be a waste of time to argue or make it sound like it was something Veronica hadn't nailed. "You are right."
"'Course I am!" Veronica said, slapping the table for emphasis, causing both dogs to lift their heads and Syrup, the more vocal of the two, to emit a soft woof.
"But, Ronnie, aren't you worried?"
Veronica frowned, clearly puzzled. "Worried about whaoh," she said, cutting herself off, "you mean, worried that when you and Callie lay eyes on each other again, all your troubles will disappear and the two of you will run off to a private tropical island, pop three kids each painlessly and without stretch marks and live happily ever after?"
Erica snickered. "Something like that, yes."
"Well, listen, here's the thing. I won't say I'm not a little worried about you seeing Callie again, but I trust you, and besides, from the dykes' point of view, the pool's too small for you and Callie to do anything but reconcile."
Erica had yet to become accustomed to the way Veronica worded things. "Honest to God, Ronnie, every time I think I've gotten used to the way you talk, you go and say something new! How 'bout we start with the 'pool' part, and get to the 'trust' part later?"
"Works for me," Veronica said, launching into her explanation. "The 'pool' part is simple, really, and I can't believe I haven't told you this already. When straight girls break up with their boyfriends, they go running to their girlfriends to cry. The two worlds are completely separate, and they're huge worlds. But the lesbians don't have that luxury. With us, the lovers are the girlfriends; the world is much smaller. We can't afford to be on the outs with each other, at least not for very long, because there just aren't that many of us. Many dykes remain friends with ex-lovers, even if the break-up was painful and messy. It's not like the straight girls, who might never see an ex-boyfriend or a monster truck rally again. Jesus, the lesbians see each other all the frickin' time because they travel in the same circles, go to the same bars, see the same gynecologists, march in the same damn parades!
"You know the women we did the mailing with? You'd be surprised at how many of them are each other's exes. Incestuous, I suppose, for lack of a better word. But that's the way it is. Moving across the country might widen the field for a while, but it'll catch up with you sooner or later. So 'reconciliation' is the word of the day."
Erica had by this time sat back in her chair with her arms folded over her chest. Now she quirked an eyebrow and delivered one of her patented Hahn looks.
"What? You look like you don't believe me."
Erica produced a snort, unfolding her arms and pointing a finger at Veronica. "Got it in one, Ron. Don't lie to me; you just made that up, didn't you?"
"No, I swear to God, I did not!" Veronica feigned affront and then quickly backed down. "Okay, yeah, some of it's bullshit, but I promise you I didn't make it up, because it happens. Cross my, er, your lovely surgeon's heart." Veronica waved a finger in the vicinity of Erica's chest.
"You said you trusted me."
The leap to the "trust part" didn't faze Veronica. "I sure do."
"But what if I don't trust myself? I already told you I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be feeling."
"I got that, sweetheart. But I already told you you're not going to figure it out from this distance. I'm just glad you're getting a chance at all, because I've known women who've carried around this emotional open sores for decades not counting the ones who preferred it that way and I really didn't want you to be one of 'em, because I'm pretty sure you don't prefer it that way." Veronica, obviously not finished, pushed her chair back and came over to Erica, drawing Erica up into her arms. Hershey and Syrup raised their heads, collar tags jingling.
"Okay, so what would you think about this, Doc?" Veronica tucked a loose blonde curl behind Erica's ear and softly cleared her throat. "I'm crazy about you. I want you to go George's funeral and I want you to talk to Callie, but I want you to come back to me. If we end up as exes doing mailings together, so much the better." Veronica moved her hand into the hair at the back of Erica's head, drawing her closer. "Babydyke of mine, you may find this hard to believe, but you've become such a a force in my life that I'm not sure what I might do without you. And by the way," she continued, keeping up their running joke, "I don't say that to just anybody I pick up in airport bars, you know."
This was not the first time Veronica had made a declaration of love, but while previous times had included her usual skewed humor, they had not included such particulars, and it was the first time Erica found herself fighting tears in response. It would have been easy to blame it on the cyclone of emotions coursing through her since she'd gotten the news about George, which was certainly true enough, but Erica didn't think that was all there was to it.
Swallowing hard past the lump in her throat, Erica brought her hand up to stroke Veronica's cheek, staring into green eyes, allowing Veronica to pull her closer, feeling Veronica's fingers gentle against her scalp.
"Aw, hon, I see those eyes, I see that chin wobbling. Don't you cry now. I want to kiss you and that would surely spoil it."
Erica smiled, said thickly, "Then kiss me already," and closed the distance between them.
The kiss, tender, familiar, and unhurried, contained assurances that words could never convey. In the living room, the dogs, sensing a shift in the atmosphere, stood and shook themselves, the tags at their collars ringing like church bells. When the kiss ended, Veronica drew back and sighed heavily, but remained within the circle of Erica's arms. "That was very nice. Saltier than usual, but still very nice."
Erica sniffled in amusement and swiped at her eyes, the urge to cry subdued. The dogs came over to arrange themselves on the floor as close as they could to the two women.
"So tell me, my darling," Veronica asked, "what is your plan?"
"Well," Erica began with a shuddering breath, organizing her thoughts, "Rose managed to get me on a morning flight to Seattle, but, you know, I can't seem to remember how to pack a suitcase. I have to make a connection in St. Louis, of course, because there was nothing earlier and no direct flights from Baltimore to Seattle. This airport is so small." Out of nowhere came a burning desire to research other available flights. Erica broke from Veronica's embrace, startling the dogs, and headed for her laptop on the coffee table in the living room. "You know, it never occurred to me to ask Rose to check Dulles. I wonder I wonder if I should see if there's a flight leaving tonight?"
Veronica reached out and grabbed Erica's wrist, effectively halting her progress. "Whoa, Doc, wait. It's okay. The flight tomorrow is fine. That way, the dogs and I can stay with you tonight, we can help you pack and won't that be a riot and we can take you to the airport in the morning. Whaddaya say? That work for you?"
Erica, looking down at Veronica's hand around her wrist, came back to herself with the realization that Veronica's plan made sense. She back-stepped to Veronica and offered a weak smile. "I'm sorry. I'm all over the map tonight, aren't I? Your plan sounds brilliant, even the dogs' part. My God," she added in mock awe, "wherever did you come from, anyway?"
"Why, the airport bar in St. Louis, where else? So c'mon, sit back down here and tell me more, because there's gotta be more. You want another soda? May I use this bowl for the dogs?"
"Yes and yes."
Veronica filled the bowl for the labs (who immediately began making a big production out of having a drink), then fetched two sodas from the refrigerator and returned to the table. "So George O'Malley was married to Calwait a minute! Are you kidding me? Callie O'Malley?"
"Yes," Erica said with amusement. "She never really used it, for obvious reasons, but, yes, that was her name for a brief while. Very brief."
"Lord have mercy. So, okay, George and Callie were married. How'd that happen, anyway? From what I know so far, they seem like the perfect mismatch. Tell me, dearest, I'm all ears."
Erica recognized Veronica's attempt at redirection and was grateful for it.
She began sharing more of what she knew about George O'Malley, about when she did the valve replacement on his dad, about his dad's passing, and of course about the whirlwind rebound romance he and Callie went through in the aftermath of Harold O'Malley's death. She briefly mentioned what Callie had said about George going to Iraq, but couldn't say much about it, because she didn't know much. Once again, Erica recognized that it still seemed surreal to her that George was gone, and that it probably wouldn't become real until she got to Seattle.
Until I get to Seattle.
Realization of what was ahead of her hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. Her mind's ear heard with stunning clarity Callie's Spanish lament, and the floodgates opened. Covering her face as tears began to fall, Erica heard Veronica's chair move again, heard the dogs whining softly, and soon felt Veronica's arms circle her from above. Erica reached up and wrapped both her arms tightly around one of Veronica's, clinging to her, finding solace in Veronica's nearness, whispering an apology like a prayer. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry "
If Veronica knew all the reasons why Erica was crying and apologizing, she gave no indication of it. Instead, she offered only her support. "Aw, hon," she said, smoothing Erica's hair and kissing the crown of her head. "You're as tough as nails at Hopkins, this I know, but when it comes to your own little butch heart, you've got a ways to go yet. No, you just cry, and don't you worry." Veronica tightened her hold. "I gotcha."
Syrup woofed in solidarity.
In the morning, Veronica took Erica to the airport, the two women waiting in one of the terminal's ubiquitous cafes until it was time for Erica to head to her gate. Erica knew she should contribute more to the small talk Veronica was valiantly attempting, knowing how unfair she was being to her lover who was only trying to help, but she just couldn't summon anything more than one-word answers. After ten minutes, Veronica finally gave up, saying only, "All right, hon." The two passed the remainder of the time in silence, sipping bad coffee.
Once on the other side of security, Erica looked back and waved, which Veronica returned, but then Erica turned and hurried down the wide corridor, not looking back again. She did not see the concern etched on Veronica's face or hear her murmur come back to me.
Erica's flight from Baltimore to Seattle was uneventful, except for a second of uncertainty while waiting in St. Louis for her connection to Seattle. Walking past the bar where she first met Veronica surprised to see it open at this hour of the morning Erica paused and considered going in for a mimosa. Again torn between her past and her present, she went instead to the coffee bar in hopes of securing a drinkable brew, and from there to the gate to wait for the plane.
Touchdown in Seattle brought a knot to Erica's stomach, and she was thankful she had not agreed to meet Callie and Arizona at the airport. The plane was early, giving Erica more than enough time to get to her hotel room, freshen up, and chew a few antacid tablets before going down to the lobby at the appointed time.
As it turned out, Erica was more than just thankful she hadn't agreed to meet Callie and Arizona in any more public a place than the hotel lobby. In spite of the antacid, Erica's stomach churned at the sight of Callie coming through the hotel's revolving door, and it was all Erica could do not to run to her. Instead, she rose carefully from her seat, willed her feet to remain in place, and waited as Callie approached, a petite blonde Erica figured for Arizona following a few steps behind.
Callie stopped just outside Erica's personal space, her face reflecting a troubling mix of grief, doubt, and joy, her black eyes red-rimmed and brimming. She swallowed hard and smiled crookedly, her lower lip quivering. "Erica?"
Erica did what anyone would've done in response to such raw heartache, ex-girlfriend or not. She held out her arms. "Oh, Callie " This was all Callie needed to fall into Erica's arms. Erica tightened her hold, squeezed her eyes shut, and inhaled profoundly, the familiar smell and feel of Callie igniting sweet, painful memories of their intimate time together.
It also ignited the realization that this was wrong on many levels, but Erica found she could not loosen her grip.
It was Callie who initiated release, but it wasn't to let Erica go. Callie pulled back slightly to look Erica in the face, reached up to touch her cheek as if she couldn't believe Erica was real, and said in a ragged whisper, "I'm so glad you're here." Without any more warning than that, and as naturally as if nothing in the world were amiss about it, Callie leaned in and placed her lips on Erica's.
Alarms blared in Erica's head, but her heart paid no heed, instead responding to Callie exactly as she had that fateful night in the parking lot so long ago. The kiss deepened of its own accord, sending sparks to Erica's lower regions, and as this occurred, Erica knew many things: she knew Arizona was watching them, knew there were others in the lobby probably also watching them, knew this should not be happening that it was only Callie's grief and need for comfort expressing itself inappropriately but even knowing all that, she was unable to stop, and not sure she wanted to. Erica was, in fact, amazed at her body's response, that it could not (or would not) tell the difference between this kiss and others she had received from Callie in days gone by.
Callie again did what Erica could not, but this time it was only because her grief had begun to overwhelm her, and her lips could no longer maintain the connection. She collapsed against Erica, crying in deep, gasping sobs, struggling to gain a decent breath, and clearly losing the battle.
It was this that brought Erica to ground. She pulled away and held Callie out at arms' length, shaking her gently. "Callie, honey. Callie? You've got to breathe, okay?" Callie ignored the suggestion and continued to weep, gulping air, reaching blindly for her. At this, Erica's stern professionalism finally found purchase. "No! Callie! Look at me. Look. At. Me." It took another shake, firmer this time, before Callie's eyes focused on Erica, her sobs diminishing with the effort of attention. "Good, that's good. Do what I do, okay? C'mon, you know this. Take a breath." Erica inhaled and exhaled deeply and evenly, nodding when Callie mimicked her. "Good girl. That's good. Keep breathing. Let's forget lunch for now. We'll go up to my room for a while, all right?" With no intention of waiting for Callie to agree or not, Erica turned them both and began walking to the elevator, her arm linked tightly through Callie's.
Erica could not imagine what Arizona Robbins might be thinking, but she knew she would forever be grateful that all the small blonde did was come up on Callie's other side and take her arm.
By the time the trio entered Erica's room, Callie was noticeably calmer. Erica sat her on the edge of the bed and knelt in front of her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Arizona take a seat in the chair by the desk. "Cal, how you doing?"
Callie nodded, then stretched over to the nightstand for a tissue. Blowing her nose and tossing the tissue back towards the nightstand, she said, "Better. I'm better. I'm sorry, you know? For for what I did downstairs."
"It's okay," Erica said, a little too quickly. "I'm sorry, too." This of course didn't seem like nearly enough to cover what had happened in the lobby, but Erica had absolutely no idea what might qualify as enough, so she said nothing more.
It was Arizona who rescued them, her smile strained, but revealing dimples nonetheless, and Erica got her first real clue as to why Callie found her so attractive. "Uh, hello. I don't think we've been formally introduced. I'm"
Before she could get it out, Callie spoke up. "Oh! Erica, this is Arizona Robbins, m-my, uh, my"
If the situation hadn't been so rocky, Erica might've laughed out loud at Callie's falter, thinking about the "coming out" lessons she'd been learning from Veronica. She wondered if Callie's hesitation stemmed from saying this to her specifically or just saying it in general. Whichever, Erica let her off the hook. "Your girlfriend?"
Callie smiled, caught. "Yes, my girlfriend." Abruptly, Callie's smile faded, replaced with a countenance similar to the one she'd had in the lobby. She looked around the room, then down at the bedspread, smoothing it under her hands as if it were made of fine silk. "This is nice. It's nice to be here. Away away from "
As Callie's eyes filled and her voice broke, Erica stood quickly and looked at Arizona. "Did you happen to bring the sedative with you?" She'd barely had time to register Arizona's affirmative response before she felt Callie's arms go around her waist, felt the vibration of sobs against her stomach. Erica stroked the top of Callie's head, breathing in the floral scent of Callie's shampoo, her fingers remembering the feel of Callie's hair. "Oh, Callie. I'm so sorry. I wish there was more I could do."
"You're here. That's enough," Callie managed.
It might've been at this point, though Erica would never be able to pinpoint the exact moment, that Erica realized her feelings for Callie had undergone a quiet but significant change, lobby kiss notwithstanding. Certainly, she would always have affection for this beautiful woman, her first lesbian lover, but Erica knew as she continued to run her fingers through Callie's hair, that she would never again feel the almost-desperate desire for Callie that had once consumed her.
What made this knowledge all the more liberating was the fact that it was not simply a new desire that had replaced it. What she had with Veronica though desire figured in was something more, something deeper, than she'd ever had with Callie. Perhaps Callie had been more right during their phone conversation than Erica had wanted to believe at the time: maybe it was meant to happen the way it did to give us perspective for the next time.
Judging by the way she felt now, it clearly was.
By this time, Callie had stopped crying. She was still holding on to Erica, but in a manner that suggested she might finally be giving in to her exhaustion. Arizona, Erica came to notice, was standing beside her with a capped syringe in her hand. "It's very mild," she said sotto voce. "Barely narcotic at all. But she won't let me give it to her. She won't let anybody. But maybe she'll let you." Arizona reached out as if to touch Callie, but at the last moment drew her hand back. "She needs undisturbed sleep so badly."
Observing this, Erica understood at once how difficult it was for Arizona to see Callie this way and to admit such defeat to the woman who had been Callie's former lover. Nodding, Erica carefully took the syringe from Arizona. "Yes, maybe she will." Erica gently disengaged Callie, relieved when Callie allowed it, and was further relieved when Callie turned on her own to lie on the bed, her eyes falling closed. Erica took Callie's arm and pushed up her sleeve, afraid at first that Callie would fight her, once more relieved when she did not. Still, Erica's stomach churned. She wasn't going to force Callie she couldn't do that any more than anyone else could. She could only hope Callie's current compliance would extend to this. In her peripheral, she saw Arizona walk around to sit on the other side of the bed.
"Callie, honey? You gonna let me give this to you? Arizona tells me," she cast her eyes briefly to the blonde, "Arizona tells me you haven't slept much these last few days, but you won't take anything to help you with that. I think you'll feel better if you sleep for a while, don't you?"
Without opening her eyes, Callie whispered "Yes," turned her arm out and made a fist. Callie looked forlorn, her dark hair standing out in stark contrast to the white pillow, her face blotchy from crying and pale, if such a thing were even possible with a person of Callie's coloring. It made Erica doubt her ability to give Callie the shot, and she was about to hand the syringe to Arizona when she chanced to actually look at Arizona.
It looked like the young woman was about to take up the crying that Callie had left off, and that was enough to dispel Erica's doubt. With speed and precision, Erica took Callie's arm and administered the sedative.
An hour later, Erica sat with Arizona on the little couch on the far side of the room, finishing sandwiches from room service, watching Callie sleep, and talking.
"Thanks, Erica." Arizona cast her eyes to Callie. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do if she hadn't let you give her that sedative."
Erica wiped her hands on a thick linen napkin and took a sip of soda*. "Believe me, I wasn't sure what I was going to do, either. In fact, I was all set to give you the syringe, until I actually looked at you, that is." Arizona pinked and her dimples briefly appeared, giving Erica further insight into Callie's attraction.
"Did you see her? Well, of course you did. But she looked so bad. I mean, I didn't realize how bad until I saw her there, with her arm out and her dark hair against that pillow." Arizona looked again at Callie. "At least her color's coming back. She needs this so much." Arizona stood and gestured toward the bed. "Do you mind if I just just sit with her a while?"
"Arizona, why would I mind? I'll just clean this up and get some more ice." Erica gathered the lunch trash onto the tray, along with the room's little ice bucket, picked it up and took it out to the hallway, letting the door close softly behind her. As she returned to the room a few minutes later with the ice, she paused to study Arizona. The blonde was sitting on the bed, holding Callie's hand and murmuring in a voice too low for Erica to hear.
With a vague echo of Veronica's voice in her head, Erica asked sternly, "Do you love her?"
Arizona looked up, startled at first, and then smiled, getting off the bed carefully so as not to disturb Callie and coming back to the couch. "I can tell you this," she said, sitting down. "I know I'm falling in love with her, but I'm a little worried the feeling's not mutual, you know?"
"Oh, yes, I know. She's not your first, is she?"
"God, no. Wait," Arizona said, shaking her head, "that came out wrong. No, she's not my first. Or second, or third, for that matter."
This time there was no question of Veronica's influence; Erica heard her lover's voice clearly in her head. "So you're saying you're no babydyke, then."
Arizona's blue eyes rounded, but she laughed. "Wow, now there's a classic. Where'd you pick that up?"
"My girlfriend, Veronica, called me that when she first met me, and she still calls me that. I suspect she'll call me that when I'm ninety." It amazed Erica how easy it was for her to say this. She had not been convinced when Veronica first suggested it, but perhaps what she'd said was true: hanging with the lesbians in Baltimore was making her more comfortable in her own skin, less afraid to be who she was.
"You and Callie were each other's firsts, weren't you?"
Erica dropped her eyes to her lap, wondering why this question should be any harder to answer than the one before. "Yes."
Arizona nodded with empathy. "Yeah, they're tough. Unless you're lucky enough to stay with your first, it hurts the most when it ends, and it's a long time getting over it, even though it's almost a given that you will, eventually. Can't afford not to, really."
At first Erica thought she had misunderstood. Had Arizona Robbins really just said nearly the exact same thing Veronica had said about reconciliation? Wanting to be sure she hadn't erred, Erica said, "Straight women have boyfriends, and when they break up with them, they run to their girlfriends to cry, never seeing the boyfriend again. But with the lesbians, the world is much smaller. The lovers are the girlfriends; they see each other all the time. Reconciliation almost has to occur, or there wouldn't be any lesbians. Is that what you mean?"
Arizona cocked her head and winked. "That Veronica of yours, she must be quite something."
"That she is."
"You sound happy."
This was one comment Erica had no trouble responding to. "I am. Very much. And that reminds me, you know, that kiss in the lobby. I just wanted to say I'm sor"
Arizona shook her head and waved a hand in the air. "No apology necessary. In fact, I think you handled it better than I would have in your place. No," and here Arizona stole another look at Callie, "I can't thank you enough for giving Callie the refuge she needed." She turned back to Erica. "Now all we have to do is get through the funeral."
Erica sighed. "Right."
Arizona spent the rest of the afternoon at Callie's side on the bed, while Erica busied herself checking her e-mail and reading a few chapters of the best-seller she had purchased at the airport. At one point, Erica left the room and went down to sit by the waterfront, watching the world go by. She tried once to call Veronica, but did not leave a message when she was unable to reach Veronica live.
Callie came awake naturally after about eight hours, feeling rested but very hungry, which both Erica and Arizona took as a good sign. Erica declined a dinner invitation, and Arizona and Callie left, with Erica agreeing to meet them at the church the next day.
Exhausted herself, Erica was asleep in the bed barely an hour later.
The funeral itself was a solemn affair, attended by nearly all the staff of Seattle Grace who could get away for the hour, many of whom didn't even know George O'Malley, but were attending out of respect for a fallen colleague, much the way police officers did. George's mother and brothers sat in the first pew, his brothers unmoving and silent, his mother openly weeping.
Erica sat with Callie and Arizona in the pew just behind them, and Erica knew many eyes were on them. As arranged the day before, Erica had not gone to the hospital at all, but instead met Callie and Arizona in the church parking lot and walked in with them.
To say a hush fell over the room at their entrance would be like saying Lady Godiva was a bit underdressed.
Erica actually saw Cristina Yang poke Meredith Grey, and she bit back the urge to make a stinging comment about mature behavior, knowing that would only make her sound just as immature.
Callie sat dry-eyed and stoic throughout the service, and she did so without medication. At one point, Callie leaned forward to pat Louise O'Malley's shoulder. When Mrs. O'Malley reached up to cover Callie's hand with her own, Erica could plainly see it was all Callie could do to keep from breaking down. Callie and Louise stayed that way until the service ended, even though Erica knew Callie's awkward position had to have been killing her lower back.
When the final poem was read and the last hymn sung, the pastor gave the benediction, announced there would be a "social time" in the fellowship hall on the top floor, and left the pulpit. People began to stir from the pews, many in hospital scrubs leaving quickly to make their shifts. Erica mentally prepared herself to face a few people she really didn't want to face.
As they moved into the aisle, she on one side of Callie, and Arizona on the other, no one approached them, which was just fine with Erica. She turned her head to find Arizona's eyes on her. Moving around Callie, who had turned to hug Louise, Arizona came to Erica's side and said in a stage whisper, "Looks like we've got the plague, doesn't it?"
"Yes it does, but I'm not complaining. I am curious as to why. You'd think after what happened between Callie and I, Mark Sloan at the very least would be ready to burn me on one of these crosses."
"It's the three of us. People are disappointed there are no fireworks."
"Tell me you're joking."
"I wish I was. Listen, I know this isn't the time or place, but here's the thing. I arrived at SGH just after you left. Callie was a mess, and from the stories I heard, you were a green-skinned witch. To people like Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang, you and I should be at each other's throats. Because we're not, people don't know how to act, which of course works in our favor. Trust me, I know from this."
Erica chuckled softly. "There you go, sounding like Veronica again. Is there some kind of handbook?"
Arizona dimpled. "Yes, I believe there is."
"And I can order this from Amazon?"
Arizona snorted in amusement. "Seriously, if you think about it, it's really no different from straight couples and exes."
"Uh huh. Except it's not straight couples, which makes it so much more interesting, and the last any of these people saw of me, I was storming away from Callie in the hospital's parking lot. Unless Callie's done some recent sharing, none of them know what's happened since then."
"Right. And wouldn't you prefer it that way?"
"You know, now that you've explained it, I'm not sure. Certainly I don't want any confrontations in front of George's mother, but I wouldn't mind slapping Yang."
Arizona chuckled. "I like you, Erica. How 'bout we see what happens when we get upstairs. Hold on. You are coming upstairs, aren't you?"
By this time, they had reached the church's foyer and found themselves quite without Callie, who had gone to George's casket with his mother, where they were standing together with heads bowed. Ronny and Jerry were nowhere to be seen.
Observing Callie and Louise, Erica asked absently, "I wonder what would have happened if Callie had stayed married to George?"
"Are you asking me or just asking the cosmos? Because if you're asking me, I'd say neither of us would have had the chance to love Calliope, and I'm not sure I like that idea."
Erica couldn't disagree.
Erica didn't go upstairs with Arizona. Instead, she waited until Callie and Louise were finished at the casket and met them in the aisle at the halfway point. Erica expressed her condolences to Louise, who did not need to be reminded of who Erica was (that is, former Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Seattle Grace and the doctor who had performed her husband's valve replacement surgery), and then Erica and Callie slipped into an empty pew.
"How are you holding up?"
Callie sniffed and rubbed her nose. "Okay, I guess. Better than I was." Callie cast her eyes to the casket. "I still can't believe he's gone, and I figure it's gonna take a while until I do. I think I'm gonna miss him forever, but there's something to be said for funerals. They provide closure."
Erica struggled to keep her face from reflecting her gut reaction to this comment, knowing Callie had not meant it the way it had sounded. That she'd been unsuccessful was evident in Callie's immediate reaction. "No, no! Oh my God, I didn't mean that as a dig, okay? We had we're having our closure, aren't we? God. I'm sorry." Callie scrubbed a hand over her face.
"Callie, relax. I know what you meant. And yes, we're having closure. Not to change the subject, but what's going on with your father? Arizona said he went nuts when you told him about the two of you."
"Man," Callie said, rolling her eyes, "I knew you two talked while I was asleep yesterday. That's not fair, you know."
"She's worried about you, Callie. That's all. Besides, it sounds rotten, what he did."
Callie sighed and looked down at her hands, picking at a cuticle. "It was all ridiculous, really. He decided Seattle had 'corrupted' me and he was going to take me home. To Florida! Honest to God, I just lost it. I mean, I love my dad, but he was being impossible! So we yelled at each other a lot. In Spanish. And in the end, he threatened to cut me off, which I didn't believe he'd do and I told him that, but, well, he did. So now now I have to think about every penny I spend, and I never really had to do that before. It's weird, and I know it sounds pretentious and all, but to me it just means my dad hates me."
"Callie, I'm so sorry."
Callie waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Nah, don't be. I'm okay with it now. Arizona says I have to give him time. Unfortunately, there's no magic number as to how much time, but Arizona says I have to be patient, which isn't one of my strong points, as you know. I haven't heard from my mom or my sister, either, which makes it worse, but for real? I've been all through it, and I've cried and cried and now I'm just done, ya know? Really, I'm not exactly destitute. I thought I was at first oh, you shoulda heard me, like I was a step away from the shelter, but I'm honestly not. It just hurts that my family has apparently disowned me for for being me."
Erica nodded, but couldn't think of a word to add. Callie filled the silence with another subject, though it wasn't anything better. "Did Arizona tell you anything more about Izzie?"
Erica spoke instinctively, without thought to tone or content. "She told me they ignored Izzie's DNR, which doesn't surprise me, but aside from that, she didn't say much."
Callie at least had the good grace to wince. "Erica"
"Callie, I'm sorry, that was unfair," Erica said quickly. "I mean, okay, you know how I feel about that kind of disregard, but it's all right, and I swear to God I mean it. Seattle Grace is what it is, and I've come to terms with it. The hospital was running fine before I got there and continued to run fine after I left. Tell me more about Izzie, please. Forget the rest, will you?"
Callie heaved a great sigh, clearly relieved at being spared this particular quarrel. "Okay, well, she's still in a coma and Alex took a leave to stay with her. Wait. Did you know they got married? Alex and Izzie, I mean?"
Erica nodded. "Yes. Arizona told me."
"Okay, well, they brought another bed in the room for Alex, so he's basically living at the hospital now. Izzie's doctor isn't very optimistic about her recovery, and she's being careful not to give Alex false hope, but he still has hope, ya know? He reads to her, plays music, cleans her, tells her stupid jokes, does all her physical therapy; he's pretty much devoting every waking hour to taking care of her." Callie shrugged. "That's about it. We're all sort of in a holding pattern now, just waiting." There was another stretch of silence before Callie pointed to the ceiling and gave Erica a knowing look. "You're not comin' upstairs, are you?"
Erica shook her head. "No. I don't see the need."
"Are you sure? Because there's going to be some awesome food up there. Bailey ordered from Twelve Baskets, and they're the best. They even have something called Memorial Receptions. Can you believe that? I think that's what Bailey got. You should come upstairs. Please come upstairs. How long are you in town?"
Erica put aside Callie's plea in favor of answering the easy question. "I'm flying back Friday. I thought maybe I'd spend a day sightseeing, you know? I didn't really do much of that while I lived here, and Ronnie's since taught me the benefits of being a tourist in your own town."
"Ah, right. Veronica." Callie gave Erica a stern look. "Does Ronnie make you happy?"
Erica smiled, recognizing Callie's protective tone as the same one she'd taken with Arizona the day before. "Yes, she does. Very much so. And I know for a fact you make Arizona happy."
Callie rolled her eyes again, made a moue of grudging acceptance and pointed to herself, saying, "This is me, accepting the fact that you and Arizona talked about me while I was asleep and couldn't defend myself. I'll bet Arizona wonders if she makes me happy, huh?" Without waiting for Erica, Callie answered her own question. "S'okay, because she does make me happy. Trouble is, I've only recently realized that, and I'm not sure how to actually tell her."
"Callie, that's easy. Just tell her. Do it with flowers, or chocolates, or edible underwear, but just tell her."
"Edible underwear?" Callie's familiar, full-throated laughter echoed in the cavernous sanctuary, until Callie realized where she was and slammed her hand over her mouth. "Oh my God," she said through her fingers, "if I hadn't heard it with my own ears, I'd've never believed it."
But Erica was secretly glad she'd invoked Callie's laughter and was only sorry it had ended so abruptly. "I blame that on Veronica, and I'm sure if I gave it some thought, I could come up with worse. But my point is, don't waste any more time, got it?"
"Good. Now listen," Erica said firmly, "please don't make me go upstairs. You're the only one I wanted to see. Truth of it is, I just want to go home."
Callie nodded. "I get it. Home is Baltimore now, huh?"
"What'm I gonna tell everyone?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm sure you and Arizona will think of something."
Callie gifted Erica with one of her fifty-megawatt smiles, and it was almost as good as the laughter. "Me and Arizona, huh?"
Erica nodded and returned the smile, knowing hers didn't attain nearly the same wattage. "Yes, 'huh.' And you better get up there, or she'll think of something on her own and you'll miss out on all the fun."
Callie sighed, suddenly somber. "I'll miss you, you know."
"I know. I'll miss you, too." Erica reached out and took Callie's hand. "Callie, it's okay."
"No, it's not," Callie said, shaking her head and looking away. "I-I don't want you to leave. How selfish is that?"
"Pretty darned, I'd say. But I think I understand."
"Good," Callie said, returning her eyes to Erica's, "then explain it to me."
"Nope. Go ask Arizona. Ask her about the handbook."
Callie blinked in confusion. "Huh?"
"Never mind. Just go on. I'll call when I get home to let you know I made it back in one piece."
"And you'll call regularly after that?"
"I promise to try, if you'll do the same."
"Deal." Callie stood and Erica followed suit. Callie, with her hand still in Erica's, pulled Erica into a hug before Erica had a chance to consider the propriety of it. Once in Callie's arms, however, Erica relaxed against her, knowing without quite knowing how, that this embrace was one of genuine friendship, wholly free of the conflicted emotions of the day before. They separated, and Callie made her way to the staircase in the rear of the sanctuary, turning back once to wave.
Erica returned the wave and then lingered until Callie had disappeared up the steps, recognizing the bittersweet irony of the moment. Looking around the sanctuary, Erica allowed her eyes to rest briefly on George's flower-covered casket. Closure, indeed. She didn't really believe in the afterlife, per se, but she hoped George was happy and pain-free, wherever he was.
Gathering her things, Erica exited the church to call for a cab.
That evening, Erica sat at the nearly-empty gate and pulled out her cell phone. It rang only once before Veronica answered. "Erica?"
The relief in Veronica's voice was unmistakable. "Hello, hon, it's so good to hear your voice. You tried to call once before, didn't you?
"Yes. Sorry I didn't leave a message."
"That's okay. I'm just glad you tried. So how'd things go?"
"Really, fine. I talked with Callie, I talked with Arizona, I went to the funeral and sat with Callie and Arizona, sang the hymns, and offered condolences to George's mother. I did not speak to anyone else, and I don't feel the least bit sorry about that."
"Uh huh. And I'll bet my dogs all those 'anyone elses' avoided the three of you like the plague, didn't they?"
"How 'bout I tell you all about it when I get home?"
"Any chance you can get an earlier flight?"
"I'm way ahead of you, Ronnie. I'll be there in a few hours."
I got blue sky by the ocean,
I got a bluebird singing freedom,
And I'm happy to be living,
I believe I'm myself again.
-- Janis Ian, from the song, "I Believe I'm Myself Again"
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