Summary: A mishap at work makes Martin reflect on past, present and future. This story is set in late season three, after "Off the Tracks." Therefore, Martin has recently broken up with Sam, and Viv is out on medical leave because of her heart condition.
Characters: Mainly Martin, with hefty Danny doses and appearances from Jack, Sam and Martin's family.
Rating: PG-13 (Genfic). A bit of cussing, a bit of gore. Nothing too bad, though.
Disclaimer: Don't own them. Not making money off of them.
"Technical" notes: Asterisk marks (*) denote a character's internal monologue.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to Rhiannon for her beta-reading services. She made some great observations and suggestions that really enhanced this story. Thanks, Rhiannon! And, as always, thanks to Nancy for archiving my stories.
If only every case went this smoothly.
It had taken less than eight hours to track down Becky Spenser, an 11-year-old girl who'd disappeared while walking to school. The frantic mother had correctly accused her ex-husband as the culprit, and Special Agents Martin Fitzgerald, Danny Taylor and Samantha Spade had found Hank Spenser at his sister's recently purchased Manhattan home. Peeking out from behind a lacey white curtain on the locked front door, the unarmed man had explained that he'd been frustrated with his limited visitation rights. He'd taken Becky because he was going to skip town with her, but he'd spent the past several hours wrestling with his conscience. It hadn't taken much effort to convince the man to release his daughter and surrender.
As the local police cuffed Hank and guided him into a patrol car, Martin watched Sam's vehicle pull into traffic. She was taking Becky back to the office to reunite mother and child.
"Wish they were all this easy," Martin mused, eyeing the grey afternoon sky as he and Danny walked down the driveway toward their government-issued car. It had rained hard an hour ago, leaving a chill in the air that made him wish he'd brought his trench coat.
Danny cocked his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. "If they were all this easy, the cops would handle everything themselves, and we'd be out of a job. Then what'd we do?"
Nearing the end of the rain-slicked driveway, Martin chuckled. "Sell shoes?"
It was an old joke between them, one that had originated when OPR had investigated the team not long after the Anwar Samir case. Things had been far different then. He'd been an overeager rookie, mistake-prone in his quest to right the wrongs of the world. During that first year with the Missing Persons Unit, he and Danny had spent a fair amount of time butting heads.
He and Sam had fared better, although he'd certainly never suspected just how good things would eventually get between them.
Or how quickly they'd go downhill.
Danny fished his keys out of his pants pocket. "Wanna stop for some coffee on the way back in?"
"Sure. Let's -- "
Before Martin could finish the sentence he slipped, and his feet flew out from under him. He had no time to brace himself as he went backward, hitting the driveway hard. While the impact knocked the wind out of him, he barely noticed in the wake of the sharp agony that erupted in his skull as his head smacked against concrete. He stared dazedly up at the clouds, and then at Danny's worried face leaning over him.
"Martin? You okay?"
Before he could answer, his brain folded in on itself, and a familiar, quiet darkness settled over him.
Two-and-a-half years earlier ...
The first time he woke up, it felt as though someone was bludgeoning his head with a sledgehammer. Dragging his eyes open, he tried to ascertain his whereabouts, but the roaring in his ears and blurry images surrounding him were of no help. He could deduce only that he lay face down on something hard. A floor, maybe? A man softly called his name from somewhere far away, but he couldn't stay conscious long enough to respond.
The second time he came to, he lay on his back, that damned sledgehammer continuing its assault. Eyeing the ceiling of wherever he was, he noted that his vision seemed sharper, and the roaring in his ears, quieter. A man he didn't recognize leaned over him and shone a light in his eyes, and suddenly an ice pick had joined the sledgehammer, prompting a sharp gasp and wiping everything out in a hurtful, blinding flash.
The third time he regained consciousness, he again found himself lying on his back, more upright than before, his head turned to the left. While the edges of his vision were fuzzy, he could nonetheless identify his immediate surroundings as the inside of an ambulance.
Which meant that the sadist probing at the back of his head must be a paramedic.
Frowning, he tried to remember what had happened. How he'd wound up here. Concentrating proved difficult, though, what with the buzzing in his ears and the pain beating on his skull. It felt like someone was using his brain for batting practice.
He shifted left to escape the pounding, but a gentle hand on his right shoulder pressed him back in place.
"Just stay still," the paramedic ordered from behind him, speaking entirely too loud, as far as he was concerned. "You took a bad blow to the back of your head. Looks like you've got a concussion, and you might need some stitches. We're taking you to the hospital in a few minutes."
The hospital? A concussion? What --
Martin hissed as the paramedic pressed on a particularly sensitive spot on the back of his head, about an inch from his right ear. Something tickled his nose, and he reached up, touching smooth plastic tubing. A nasal cannula.
"Can you tell me your name?" the paramedic asked.
"Martin Fitzgerald," he replied softly, in deference to his horrendous headache. Using his hands, he carefully eased himself more upright, turning his head to stare past the open ambulance doors. Police officers and bystanders stood a few yards away, attention trained on an apartment building.
"Can you tell me what day it is, Agent Fitzgerald?"
Pausing, he tried to wrap his brain around that ridiculously simple and yet staggeringly difficult question. The date ... What day was it? Bits of information came to him and he spoke hesitantly, struggling to piece everything together. "Umm ... September ... 2002 ... " He blew out a sigh and closed his eyes, wincing. It didn't seem fair, asking a man with a concussion to figure out what day it was.
Damn, but his head hurt.
Before the paramedic could push the issue, Special Agent Jack Malone stepped in front of the ambulance, looking utterly disgusted and gripping a Styrofoam cup in his hand. As Martin stared at the furious man before him, things started clicking into place.
He'd gone to Bart's apartment, spotted Maggie's backpack on the floor, and realized that the man was responsible for her disappearance. And then ... and then things went blank, as though he'd been at a movie theater and someone had turned the projector off in the middle of an important scene.
Given the raging pain in his head, though, Bart had obviously hit him with something. Hard. Hard enough to knock him out. Hard enough to require an ambulance to come haul his sorry ass to the hospital.
Martin stifled a groan as his stomach somersaulted. God, he'd screwed up. On his first case, he'd walked right into the perp's lair and been coldcocked. What would his father say? The FBI's deputy director would be deeply disappointed, no doubt.
As he silently cursed his ineptness, Danny appeared and spared him a brief glance before turning to address their boss.
"Is he going to be okay?"
"So stupid," Jack muttered.
Martin swallowed hard at the anger in the older man's voice. Did Jack think what he'd done was stupid, or that he was stupid?
Did it matter? Either way, he'd pissed his boss off. Failed to save the girl --
Oh, God. What about Maggie? Had they found her? Was she alive?
"Jack ... " he started, voice weak from pain. "Maggie going to be all right?"
"Yeah, no thanks to you," the older man seethed, eyes flashing. "You almost got her killed. You never should have gone in there alone."
Martin was silent as the paramedic continued working on his head. What could he say? Jack was right. Danny had told him to stay put, but he'd gone off on his own anyway.
"Take him to the hospital," Jack ordered Danny. "Make sure he gets his head checked."
"Yes, sir," the younger man replied, hoisting himself up into the ambulance and settling onto a bench.
As if on cue, the paramedic patted Martin's shoulder and informed him the bleeding had stopped, and they were ready to transport him to the hospital. The ambulance doors closed, and he flinched as the sound slammed against his brittle skull. Leaning back, he pressed his lips tightly together as the wound contacted with the gurney's thin mattress. Feeling Danny's eyes on him, he carefully tilted his head toward the other man, who sat with his arms crossed, frowning.
"Don't," Martin murmured, grimacing as the engine turned over and the resulting sound and vibrations jarred his senses.
"I know I screwed up, all right? Just ... leave it. Please."
Danny snorted and shook his head. "We're gonna talk about this, Fitzgerald. I'll back off for now, but we're definitely gonna talk."
"Fine," Martin sighed, closing his eyes and trying to ignore his churning stomach, pounding head and wounded pride.
Ninety minutes later, Martin lay in a small cubicle in St. Vincent's busy emergency room. Light-blue curtains on either side of his bed separated him from other patients who were being evaluated and hauled back and forth for tests. He'd already endured a fair amount of poking and prodding himself.
After arriving at the hospital, he'd been whisked into the ER and thoroughly checked over. While his vital signs were taken and recorded, a woman who'd introduced herself as Dr. Jones had probed the lump on his head and asked several questions, including how he'd been hurt and how he felt now. A few minutes later, the nasal cannula had been removed, and he'd been informed that he didn't need any stitches. Instead, a small bandage was placed over the cut.
Dr. Jones had then sent him for a CT scan. When that had been completed, he'd been brought back to the ER. A middle-aged nurse -- Elaine, according to her nametag -- now stood next to him, checking his vitals and apologizing that she couldn't give him any pain relievers until the doctor reviewed the CT scan. Her blonde hair, streaked with shocks of gray and cut into a chin-length bob, bounced slightly as she leaned in to take his blood pressure.
Staring at the ceiling, Martin tried to focus on something besides the merciless pounding in his skull. His senses were on overload. Nearby sounds, like the nurse's pen scrawling on his chart, seemed overly loud. The lights over his bed, overly bright. Sighing softly, he reached back to touch the bandage behind his ear. The material rubbed unpleasantly against the tender, swollen lump underneath, and he hissed at the contact.
Noting her patient's actions, Elaine frowned as she grasped his wrist and gently lowered his hand to rest on the scratchy bed sheet. "It's best if you leave that alone," she suggested with a kind, but firm, smile. "You'll only make it hurt worse."
"Yeah, no kidding," he mused, wincing as his voice grated on his ears. He made a mental note to speak more quietly until his head no longer felt as if it would split open.
Dr. Jones arrived then, attention fixed on an open file folder in her hand. Her appearance contrasted strongly with her colleague's. In her mid thirties, she stood several inches taller, and had the kind of thin frame and angular face Martin usually associated with models. Her ebony hair had been pulled into a low-hanging ponytail, and when she looked up from the folder, her hazel eyes were warm.
"Your CT scan didn't show any fractures, or bleeding under the skull or into the brain, so it looks like we're just dealing with a concussion," Dr. Jones reported. "You'll probably have headaches for the next day or so." She paused to study him, head tilting to the side. "Looks like you've got a pretty good one going right now. We'll get you some Tylenol for that."
He thanked her, grateful that some respite from the pain would come soon.
"In addition to the headaches, you might have some dizziness and nausea. Memory lapses, confusion and difficulty focusing on tasks are also common side effects." The doctor took the chart from Elaine and perused it while continuing to speak. "What you need to be concerned about is if those side effects don't decrease over the next few days, or if they become worse." She looked at him. "If either of those things happen, you need to come back here. All right?"
Nodding, and then grimacing at the sharp pain the movement elicited, Martin agreed.
"Okay. We're going to keep you overnight for observation. It's standard procedure when the patient has experienced a loss of consciousness." Dr. Jones handed the chart back to the nurse. "We'll have a nurse come in periodically to check on you. She'll ask you some basic questions and make sure you're able to wake up throughout the night. If everything goes all right, which I expect it will, then we'll get you out of here tomorrow morning. You'll need to follow up with your regular doctor to determine when you can return to work. Sound good?"
"Yeah," Martin reluctantly agreed, wishing he could go home tonight. He'd never been sick or hurt enough to require a hospital visit, and didn't want to endure one now. Didn't want strangers watching him and invading his personal space for hours on end. Still, he'd heard enough about head injuries to know that "better safe, than sorry" applied in this case.
"Do you live with someone?"
"Uhh, no," he replied, unsure why she'd asked.
"Well, it's best if you spend your first twenty-four hours with someone who can keep an eye on you. Since you won't be feeling great, and you may get confused or disoriented, you won't be the best judge of your physical condition. Someone else can better tell if you experience any symptoms that require a trip back here." Dr. Jones paused. "Is there anyone who can come stay with you? Or can you go stay with someone else?"
The question bothered Martin, because it made him realize just how empty his personal life was at the moment. He couldn't call any friends, because they were all in Seattle. He didn't have a girlfriend. His parents, who lived in Washington, were out of the question for more than one reason, the most significant being he didn't want his father to know what had happened. Not yet, anyway. Not until he felt well enough to withstand the deep disappointment that would surely taint the other man's voice.
No friends, no girlfriend, no immediate family members.
No immediate family members ... but extended family ...
"My Aunt Bonnie lives not too far from here, and she's a nurse," Martin suggested, resisting the urge to rub at the throbbing lump on his head. "She works part-time, so she might even have tomorrow off." At least, he hoped so. He didn't want to inconvenience her, but he had no one else to call.
Dr. Jones' lips curved up as she nodded. "That sounds like a plan worth working on." She turned to the nurse. "Let me know if the aunt pans out, and let's get him moved to a regular room." Taking one last look at her patient, she wished him well and excused herself.
"Do you know your aunt's phone number?" the nurse asked, handing Martin a phone.
"Yeah," he replied, although it took him a moment to recall the last two digits. The line rang twice before his Uncle Roger picked up. "Hey, Roger, it's Martin ... Is Bonnie there? I need a favor."
Soft rapping at the door.
Martin dragged his eyes open and turned toward the sound, wincing as the movement stoked his never-ending headache. He'd taken Tylenol almost a half hour ago, but it hadn't taken the edge off the pain yet. If he could sleep a bit, it might help, but he just couldn't relax.
"Can I come in?" Danny asked, leaning halfway into the small, sterile room, expression inscrutable.
"Sure," he agreed, surprised to see his co-worker and feeling a little self-conscious in his hospital gown. He tugged the sheet up a bit higher. "What are you doing here?"
The other man entered the room and leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. "Jack said to take you to the hospital and make sure you got checked out, remember?" His eyes narrowed. "Or do you have temporary amnesia?"
"I wish," Martin muttered, and then cleared his throat. "I figured once you knew I was in good hands, you'd take off."
Danny snorted derisively. "And wait until tomorrow to chew you out for making such a stupid-assed move? No way." A scowl twisted his lips, and when he spoke his voice was low, but angry. "You know how lucky you are that you didn't get Maggie, or yourself, killed?"
Martin sighed, not wanting to get into this right now. His head hurt. His pride hurt. If he could start this day over, he gladly would. But he couldn't.
"Yo! Anyone in there, Fitzgerald?" Danny demanded.
"Look ... I'm sorry. I don't know how many times you want me to say it, but I screwed up ... I should have listened to you, and stayed put." Martin blew out a long breath, trying to ignore the queasiness in his gut. The same sensation he'd had when Jack had chewed him out earlier.
A few seconds of silence ticked by, and then the other man spoke softly, his words laced with frustration, but not as harsh as before. "Yeah, well ... The next time we work a case together, maybe you'll pay more attention to what I tell you. You might learn something."
With that, Danny left. No "See you in a few days" or "Hope you feel better soon." Just a final, irritated glance before letting himself out of the room.
Groaning, Martin rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. This was so not how he'd expected his first case to go. Making a crucial mistake. Endangering the very person he was supposed to save. Pissing off his boss and co-worker.
Hopefully, by the time he returned to work, Jack and Danny would have cooled off some, and they could put this little incident behind them. Then he could focus on proving himself. On showing everyone, his father included, his father especially, that he could contribute to the team. That he could do this job as well as, or better than, anyone else.
He'd work his ass off, do whatever it took, to make sure that Jack never regretted hiring Victor Fitzgerald's kid.
Walking into his aunt and uncle's two-story house the next morning, Martin felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him.
The Tolands had lived here for eight years, and he'd spent many a three-day weekend enjoying their hospitality. Bonnie would cook huge meals that left everyone groaning about how stuffed they were. After dinner, Martin would help clean the dishes, and then retire to the library, where Roger would break out his expensive Basil Hayden bourbon. They'd sip their drinks and catch up on sports, politics and world events.
But while the food, drink and conversation were always exceptional, what Martin most appreciated was how his aunt and uncle always welcomed him so warmly.
"Did you want to go up to your room?" Bonnie asked, breaking into his reverie.
Not "the guest room." "Your room." Such a small, and large, distinction.
"Yeah, if you don't mind," he replied. The headache was more tolerable when he was lying down, and he was eager to stretch out on the queen-size bed.
Smiling, Bonnie patted his arm. "Not at all, Marty. Now, I'm not sure when you usually eat lunch, but whenever you're ready, I can heat up some chicken noodle soup."
"Homemade, I take it?" he asked, grinning knowingly.
"Of course! And I used some wonderful free-range chicken to make the broth. Got it from a new specialty market that opened last month." She made a shooing motion toward the stairs. "Go on and get off your feet. Can I bring you anything to drink? Lemonade? Water?"
"A glass of water would be great. Thanks."
A few minutes later, Martin had propped himself up in bed, two firm pillows stuffed behind his back. Pain pulsed steadily in his skull, but it was more bearable than it had been last night, thank God.
Surveying his surroundings, he smiled as he took in his aunt's décor choices. While she'd used lots of yellow downstairs, she'd gone with blues and grays in this room, with pewter accents here and there. His cousin, Jamie, had once said that Bonnie had chosen everything specifically to suit his tastes. That revelation had touched but not surprised him, given the bond he had with his aunt.
Sighing, he considered how different things would be with his parents if he had the kind of warm, comfortable relationship with them that he had with the Tolands. He felt more at home here than he did at his parents' house, that was for sure.
The door opened and Bonnie entered the room, smiling as she handed him a glass of water. He thanked her and took a sip, massaging the back of his neck. It must be almost time for some Tylenol.
"How bad does it hurt?" his aunt asked, green eyes concerned.
"It's better than it was yesterday." Martin shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "I thought my head was going to split open last night. Right now, it just feels like a really, really bad headache."
"Well, you're due for some more meds." Retrieving the bag he'd laid on the nightstand, Bonnie reached inside and shook out two Tylenols from the small bottle he'd been given on release from the hospital.
Martin accepted the pills and washed them down with the water. Sighing, he smiled and looked up at his aunt. "In case I haven't said it yet, I really appreciate you letting me crash here."
"You don't need to say it at all," Bonnie replied with stern affection. "You're always welcome here. Sick or healthy, I'm always happy to see you." Pulling a blue suede chair next to the bed, she sat down and studied her nephew for a moment before speaking. "You didn't tell me much about what happened yesterday. Just that you got on the wrong end of a baseball bat. Want to talk about it?"
Nodding and then wincing a bit -- he had to stop moving his head like that -- he told her the basics about the case, ending with his decision to talk to the perp by himself, and Jack and Danny's angry reactions.
"I don't blame them," he mused ruefully. "That was a pretty boneheaded move on my part. I guess I was trying too hard to compensate for being the new kid." And for being the deputy director's son, he added silently.
Bonnie reached over and laid her slight hand on his much larger one. Squeezing it, she smiled sympathetically. "I know how much this job means to you, Marty, and I know you wanted to do everything right on your first case. But there are very few people who get everything right the first time. And just because you messed up yesterday, doesn't mean you won't make a big break on the next case. Or the one after that." Squeezing his hand again, she looked intently into his eyes. "You'll make a real difference in this job. One day, you'll look back on this mistake and it'll mean nothing compared to all of the people you've saved."
The words were better medicine than the Tylenol, soothing Martin's wounded pride as well as his headache. His aunt had always had faith in him, but it had never meant more than at this moment. "Thanks, Bonnie," he said, voice thick with emotion.
"You're welcome," she replied, leaning forward and puling him into a gentle hug.
When they broke apart, she brushed a hand over his cheek and cocked her head to the side. "You look tired. Why don't you rest for a bit? I'll come back in an hour, see if you need anything."
Bonnie got up and headed for the door, turning around when Martin called her name.
"Will you do me a favor?" he asked. "Please don't tell my dad about this."
Shaking her head, Bonnie frowned. "Marty, you don't honestly think you can keep this a secret from him, do you? He's the deputy director, and he's probably keeping close tabs on you."
"Yeah, waiting for me to screw up," Martin murmured, the words slipping out before he could censor them.
He cringed at the soft but stern reprimand. His aunt hadn't used his full name in almost fifteen years, since that afternoon when he'd broken her car window playing touch football.
"You listen to me," Bonnie ordered, crossing her arms. "He's not waiting for you to screw up. He wants you to succeed. Maybe he wants it too much." She sighed. "I know he's put a lot of pressure on you over the years, but he loves you very much. Don't ever doubt that."
Now it was Martin's turn to sigh. He didn't doubt that his father loved him, in his own stiff-upper-lip way. But he was sure that his dad would seize on this little mistake as proof that the FBI had been a bad career choice. That he should have gone into politics, as planned, and begun working his way toward the White House.
His head began throbbing anew, and he grimaced. "Aunt Bonnie ... " he began quietly, blue eyes pleading. "I'm just not up for dealing with him right now. I know he'll find out about this sooner or later, but I'd like it to be later. So if he calls and asks how I'm doing at work ... could you not mention this?" he asked, motioning to his wound.
A few strained seconds ticked by, and then Bonnie's features softened. "I won't tell him. I promise." Sadness flickered in her eyes. "I just wish that you two could find some middle ground more often. I hate seeing you at odds like this."
She turned and left, her words hanging heavy in the air.
Side to side. Up and down. Lurching.
Squeaking. Rumbling. Wailing.
Tilting and nauseating and crushing and ...
Much, much too bright. Blinding.
A weak cry, familiar somehow.
Other voices, then.
" ... pupils are unequal ... "
*God, too loud.*
" ... can you hear me? Martin?"
*Please ... stop. Too loud.*
" ... ETA is two minutes. Patient is not ... "
A sledgehammer dropped, driving everything else out. Smashing the world into dust.
Beeps and clattering and crisp, professional voices above and next to him.
Martin pulled his eyes open and groaned, squinting at his surroundings, which consisted of blurry, bright lights overhead. Lights that might as well have been a thousand finely honed knives, the way they sliced into his brain. Hissing, he covered his eyes and slowly rolled to his right, curling into himself, trying to escape the sharp agony.
The booming voice startled him and he flinched, then jerked as someone touched his arms, guiding him to lay flat, pulling his hands away from his face. He wanted to resist, but couldn't. Between the harsh lights and ear-piercing sounds, he could barely hold onto consciousness. Wasn't sure he wanted to, certainly not when his head settled into the pillow and the entirely too firm surface almost shattered the back of his skull into a gory jigsaw puzzle.
Someone asked him something, but the words got lost in his misery. A gentle but firm hand cupped his chin, and the question came again, this time understandable.
"Agent Fitzgerald, can you open your eyes?"
Open them? When had he closed them?
"Agent Fitzgerald, can you understand what I'm asking? Can you open your eyes?"
As much as he wanted to ignore that voice, he felt sure it would hound him until he obeyed, and so he did, groaning at the stark whiteness above him. It reminded him of how overly bright everything looked after getting his eyes dilated at the optometrist's office. Thankfully, a blur quickly moved into his line of vision, providing welcome shade. The human-shaped form had dark spots where eyes, nose and mouth would be, and dark fuzz at the top that must be hair.
The blur introduced himself. "I'm Dr. DuMont. You're in the emergency room at St. Vincent's. We're treating you for a head injury. Do you remember how you got hurt?"
What the hell was up with the yelling? He wasn't deaf, after all. Far from it.
He didn't know how he'd been hurt, and he didn't care. He just wanted to escape the nameless, faceless sadist drilling holes through his skull. Answering the doctor's question with a slight shake of his head, Martin moaned as the movement heightened his agony. He instinctively tried to roll away from the pain even as he reached toward its source.
"Agent Fitzgerald, please. I need you to answer a few questions."
Someone restrained his efforts to flee, holding him on his back, preventing him from grabbing his head. His breathing quickened. Didn't they understand how much he hurt? Weren't they going to help him?
God, he needed help.
Maybe they were punishing him. Had he done something wrong? He couldn't remember. Couldn't focus past the searing, pounding, crushing assault that threatened to annihilate his very existence.
"Agent Fitzgerald? Do you know why you're here?"
Who was sucking the air out of the room?
"He's hyperventilating -- "
Somebody needed to stop stealing his air. And for God's sake, stop the drilling. You weren't supposed to drill holes in people's heads.
"You need to calm down, Agent Fitzgerald," a woman ordered loudly. "Just take deep breaths."
The harsh tone raked over hypersensitive nerve endings, and he rocked hard to the right, gasping, desperate to free himself of his torment. Hands latched onto his arms and thighs, swiftly pushing him back over. The movement jarred his head, and he cried out as pain slammed into his skull.
And then he fell. Down, down, down he went. Really far, and really fast. He landed broken and bloody in a colorless, soundless place where no one touched or talked to him anymore.
He awoke to a strange, plastic smell and cool air whispering into his nose. Reaching up, he encountered a nasal cannula. Lowering his hand, he noted his surroundings. He lay on a gurney, bright lights above him and a light-blue curtain separating him from the noises that drifted into his consciousness: beeping and humming machines, murmuring and urgent voices, wheels rolling by on the floor.
A short, pretty brunette nurse with an oval face and large, chocolate eyes stood to his right, tapping a pen against her teeth as she studied a chart. The clicking hurt his already throbbing head, and he opened his mouth to ask her to stop. She saw the movement and brightened as she pocketed the pen, placed the chart on a table near his gurney, and stepped closer.
"Welcome back, Agent Fitzgerald. I'm Marissa, your ER nurse." She flashed an impossibly white smile at him as she removed the nasal cannula. "Your vital signs are good, so I think we can get rid of this now ... How are you feeing?"
He frowned as he assessed his condition. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn someone had perched beside him on the gurney and was beating him over the head with his 1,150-page hardback copy of "The Stand," which he'd just finished reading the other night. That same someone also seemed to have infested his stomach with several handfuls of wriggling maggots. They squirmed and twisted in their warm, moist confines, wanting out.
He didn't share those details with the nurse, though. Didn't trust himself to speak much at all, because he had a sick suspicion that if he opened his mouth for too long, the maggots would shoot out, along with an obscene amount of vomit.
A simple answer seemed best.
"Head hurts," he murmured. "Stomach's upset."
The nurse eyed him pensively, and turned around. Sliding open a bright yellow drawer on a stainless steel rolling cart, she withdrew a kidney-shaped plastic basin. "If you think you're going to be sick, you can use this," she suggested, settling the tan-colored object next to his right hand.
Martin had the ridiculous urge to laugh. He didn't need something to puke in, for God's sake. He needed something to make the pain and nausea go away.
He didn't laugh, though, leery of doing anything that would require moving his head. Even the tiniest movement seemed like a bad idea, like it might just make his brain burst.
"Dr. DuMont should be here any moment," the nurse informed him. "He's reviewing the results from your CT scan."
Martin's eyebrows drew together. CT scan? He didn't remember having one done.
Apparently recognizing his confusion, the nurse patted his hand. "You were unconscious during the scan. Dr. DuMont ordered it to make sure you don't have anything more serious than a concussion." She leaned over to pick the chart back up, fished out her pen, and made a few notations.
A concussion. That explained the ungodly pain that started in the back of his head and fixed like a vise around it, pressing ever inward. Reaching back, Martin found a large, golf ball-sized lump at the base of his skull and gently touched it. Or at least, he meant to be gentle. Apparently he didn't know his own strength, though, because that slight brush of fingertips set off an explosion of agony which, in turn, spurred the maggots to start burrowing right out of his gut.
Hissing and squeezing his eyes shut, he fumbled for the basin, knowing he needed it, and needed it now. But his blindly questing fingers grasped at the edge and succeeded only in flipping it away. The basin hit the floor with a clattering sound that startled him. His eyes flew open as his head jerked toward the noise. The movement ignited a new torrent of pain in his already battered skull.
"I'll get that," the nurse offered, setting her clipboard aside and crouching to retrieve the basin.
But Martin knew she'd be too late. Even as she started standing up, basin in hand, the maggots erupted from his stomach and into his throat, and then shot forth and splattered the wide-eyed nurse.
Chunky, hot vomit clung to her eyelashes, cheeks and nose, ran down her lips, and dripped off her chin. She straightened up, mouth gaping, and then calmly called over her shoulder for some help.
Martin swallowed hard, humiliated that he'd not only thrown up in front of this woman, but on her. Every last drop had hit her. None of it had landed on him, or the sheets, or the gurney.
Letting his head fall back on the pillow, he groaned at the contact. As his brain swelled, trying to escape the brittle shell that imprisoned it, he grimaced at the hot, acid taste that clogged his throat, mouth and nose. Closing his eyes, he tried not to think about the smell that burned his senses, fearing that while the maggots were gone, it wouldn't take much to set his stomach off again.
God, he wanted nothing more than to wake up in his own bed and find out that this was just a really, really bad dream.
Reluctantly opening his eyes, he saw a sandy-haired male janitor starting to mop the mess on the floor while Marissa wiped vomit off her face with a hand towel. The soiled brunette motioned toward another young nurse, this one with bleached blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail high on her head.
"Gail here is going to watch you while I clean up."
Martin nodded slightly, grimacing as the pain spiked. "I'm sorry," he murmured.
Marissa gave him a strained smile. "No problem. This isn't the first time this has happened to me, and I'm sure it won't be the last."
She disappeared, and Gail approached the gurney, pink-frosted lips pursed and smoky eyes roaming his face. "You going to be sick again?" she asked curtly.
Her sharp voice was like nails on a chalkboard, but he tried to ignore it. "Don't know."
She fished another basin out of the rolling cart and wrapped his hand firmly around it. "I hope your aim's better the second time around."
Martin said nothing. Had he felt better, he might have called her on her lousy bedside manner. But he was more miserable than he'd ever been in his life, and lacked the strength or desire to speak up for himself. He was at her mercy for now, and he didn't want to get her riled up. For all he knew, she was in league with the sadistic jackass who was still gleefully hitting him over the head with that damned book.
"You want to rinse your mouth out?" the nurse asked in a bored tone.
"Please," he replied. The lingering taste of vomit was making his stomach turn.
Gail poured a small amount of water into a plastic cup and lifted it to his lips. He let her tip the liquid in, and then swished it around for a few seconds before spitting it back into the cup. They repeated the process three times before he felt like he'd washed away some of the acrid taste.
"Is your stomach feeling better?" the nurse asked.
"Yeah," he replied, relieved that it did.
Knowing that the nurse was thinking more of herself than him with that statement, Martin rubbed his temples. He wanted her to go away almost as much as he wanted respite from the pain.
Gail glanced behind her as the janitor left, soiled mop and murky water in tow. Turning back around, she cocked her head to the side. "Sometimes it helps to empty out your stomach, get rid of all that crap." She lifted her chin toward her patient. "Headache still bad?"
He nodded and grimaced, mentally kicking himself as the movement threatened to bounce his brain right out of his skull.
"You shouldn't move your head around like that right now," the nurse smugly suggested.
"No kidding," Martin murmured, longing for Marissa's return so Gail could go torture somebody else.
Ten minutes later, Marissa had relieved Gail and the doctor had arrived to discuss the CT scan results.
Dr. DuMont was a lean, towering man in his late fifties, with close-cropped, jet-black hair that failed to match his bushy, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. His brusque manner reminded Martin of his father.
"The CT scan showed no fractures and no bleeding," the doctor reported. "You've got a good-sized lump, but no laceration. That means no stitches or chance of infection. You're a lucky man, all things considered." He thoughtfully studied his patient. "Now, can you tell me how you got this concussion? I asked you when you were first brought in, but you weren't very oriented."
Martin's brow furrowed. "We've met before?"
"Yes, although I'm not surprised you don't remember. Now, let's talk about what you do remember."
"Uhh ... " He tried to think past the pounding that jarred his brain. "I got hurt at work."
Nodding, the doctor motioned for him to continue.
"Someone hit me ... " Martin paused as a ying-yang symbol popped into mind. "It was Bart. I saw Maggie's backpack on the floor at his apartment, and I realized he'd taken her. He must've known that I knew, and he coldcocked me." He frowned as he realized how badly he'd screwed up by going to talk to Bart alone. He now had two strikes against him at work: being Victor Fitzgerald's son, and making a big-time mistake on his first case. Martin's frown grew as he observed Dr. DuMont's reaction to his recollection of recent events.
Raising a bushy eyebrow, the doctor briefly rubbed a thumb over his lower lip. "Can you tell me what day it is?"
A chill crept up Martin's spine. He'd remembered something wrong, hadn't he? Or not remembered something at all ... Amnesia. Did he have some kind of amnesia? He gripped the side of the gurney, straining to focus despite the merciless headache. The Maggie Cartwright case had been in September 2002, but ...
It wasn't 2002, was it?
Fighting through the hurt, he latched onto the piece of information the doctor had requested. "April 18, 2005," he murmured, sure of the answer but perplexed by it nonetheless. "Why did I think it was 2002?"
"Think of your brain like a computer that crashed," Dr. DuMont suggested. "It's rebooting right now, starting to make connections. But sometimes, it accesses the wrong files. In your case, you associated this concussion with one you'd received before." The doctor paused. "Now, think carefully. Do you remember how you were hurt?"
Sighing hard through his nose, Martin closed his eyes. Frustration mounted as he tried to recall the day's events. At first, his memories were like faded photographs, smudged and grainy and utterly useless. But as he willed himself to be calm, to be patient, they sharpened. "We were working on a case, trying to find a little girl ... Becky Spenser. We went to her aunt's house to question her father ... " He opened his eyes. "I remember getting out of the car, but that's it. Nothing else until I woke up here."
Dr. DuMont eyed the chart and scrawled on it while speaking. "With concussion patients, it's not unusual to not remember the moment of injury, or the hours leading up to it. It's also not unusual to be confused for a while afterward. You might wake up and have difficulty remembering where you are or why, or what day it is. In fact, some concussion patients have problems for weeks, or even months. "
Martin hadn't thought his misery could deepen, so greatly did the pain drag on him, but the doctor's words made him sharply suck in his breath. Memory lapses for weeks, or even months? It'd keep him out of the field, maybe even out of the office, for far longer than he cared to consider.
Looking up from the chart, Dr. DuMont shook his head. "Try not to worry about it too much, Agent Fitzgerald. You remembered the date quickly, when prompted. There's a good chance that your confusion will be minor and clear up sooner rather than later."
Coming from this no-nonsense man, the words carried some weight. Martin relaxed a bit, his grip on the gurney finally loosening. He started to nod, but caught himself just in time, wary of aggravating the beast that still perched alongside him, merrily beating on his skull. "Okay," he replied, squinting against the headache.
The doctor handed the chart to the nurse. "You look like a man in need of some pain relief. How's the stomach? Think you can keep some water and Tylenol down?"
"Yeah." He was fairly desperate for something to take the edge off the pain. His head felt dangerously close to exploding. But despite the headache, the doctor's earlier question, still unanswered, nagged at him. "So what did happen to me? How'd I get hurt?"
"Apparently, you slipped and fell on a driveway."
Martin's jaw dropped. Slipped and fell? He had a concussion because he'd been clumsy? Damn. That was downright embarrassing. It ranked right up there with puking all over his nurse.
"One of your co-workers said there was a small oil spot on the concrete. The rain made it extra slick, and you stepped on it just right."
Well, that made it a little more bearable. It hadn't been totally his fault. And it sure as hell was better than getting hurt because he'd made a serious error that put himself and the missing person in danger. Still, it would have been nice if he'd been injured while doing something incredibly heroic.
"We'll get you some Tylenol now, and move you to a regular room," Dr. DuMont said. "We're keeping you overnight for observation. We'll wake you up periodically, and provided your condition doesn't deteriorate, you'll go home tomorrow. Once you're released, it's best if you have someone stay with you for the first 24 hours, or maybe longer, depending on how you feel. Is there someone who can do that?"
Sighing, Martin winced, not at the unrelenting headache but at the question. Had this happened a few weeks ago, he knew exactly who would have taken care of him. And she would have been more than happy to nurse him back to health. Now, however ... Well, he'd have to go with Plan B. "Yeah, there is. It shouldn't be a problem."
"Good. One more thing, Agent Fitzgerald. " The doctor crossed his arms over his chest, expression stern. "This is your second concussion in less than three years. Repeat concussions, especially this close together, aren't something I recommend. The more you have, the harder it is to recover. So do yourself a favor. Try to make your next work injury to a different part of your body."
Martin nearly rolled his eyes. As if he had control over getting concussed.
Well ... theoretically, he could have avoided the first concussion by not going to talk to Bart alone. But the second one? How could you guard against an unexpected moment of clumsiness?
The doctor moved to leave, paused, and turned back around. "I almost forgot. There are two federal agents here, waiting for information on your condition and asking to see you."
"Two agents?" Martin was sure Danny was one of them, but wondered about the other's identity. He had a hard time picturing his gruff boss rushing to the hospital just because he'd fallen and knocked himself out. But would Sam race over, given the rather public and not exactly sensitive way he'd broken up with her? "Is one of them a woman with long, blonde hair?" Dr. DuMont nodded, and the confirmation both touched him and made him apprehensive.
"Should I ask the front desk to send them back? It'll be fifteen or twenty minutes before we have your room ready."
Martin wanted to say no. He simply didn't feel up to seeing Sam. Things had been strained between them lately, and he didn't want to feel guilty or worried or frustrated right now. His head hurt badly enough as it was. But he couldn't ask to only see Danny. He didn't want to be that rude to Sam.
It was either see both of them, or neither of them. And turning them both away seemed a bit childish.
Still, the less talking he had to do, the better.
"Go ahead and send them back, but can you fill them in on my condition first?"
The doctor nodded and left.
Closing his eyes, Martin raised his hands to cup his forehead and waited, hoping the visit would be less awkward than he anticipated.
Pound. Pound. Pound.
Martin squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his lips together, wishing the Tylenol he'd taken five minutes ago would magically start working right ... about ... now.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
"Stop hitting me," he moaned softly, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.
He'd loved "The Stand," he really had. He'd loved it so much he'd read it three times. But never, ever again. In fact, he was seriously considering burning it when he got home.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
"Bastard," he mumbled to his unseen tormentor.
"Uh, uh, uh," Danny's amused voice gently reprimanded.
Martin peeled his eyes open and lowered his hands to reveal his smirking partner standing just inside the curtain.
"Careful, Fitz, there's a lady present."
And there was. Standing next to Danny, Sam looked nervous, her lower lip caught between her top and bottom teeth, worry lines around her eyes. She also looked beautiful. Her long, blonde hair fell in gentle waves around her shoulders, and her black slacks, black top and white jacket fit attractively over her curves.
Her beauty was almost painful, a vivid reminder of everything he'd had and rejected. Martin knew he'd made the right decision in ending their strained relationship, but it didn't make this moment any easier.
Trying to set aside his emotions, he raised one hand in a small wave. "Hey, guys."
Sam managed a tight smile in return but said nothing, instead tucking a length of blonde hair behind her ear.
Danny, on the other hand, moved alongside the gurney, cocked his head to the side, and quipped, "You look better than the last time I saw you, which isn't saying much."
Martin snorted softly. "Your bedside manner sucks, Taylor."
As Danny grinned, Sam took a tentative step forward so that she stood at the foot of the bed. "I'm glad you're going to be okay," she said.
"Thanks," Martin replied, noticing her reluctance to get too close to him. He wondered if they could ever put what had happened behind them. Could they go from friends to lovers to friends again? Or would they always be this awkward around each other?
It felt like minutes passed as they stared at one another, the busy ER's sounds fading until he swore all he could hear were his heartbeat and soft breathing.
His nurse broke the moment, poking her head in to announce that she'd be back in five minutes to move him to his regular room.
Sam glanced briefly at Danny before looking at Martin again. "I should get going. I uhh ... I have some things to take care of at the office." She offered a small smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "You take care of yourself, Martin. Feel better soon."
"Thanks," he replied softly, watching her go. When she was out of sight, he released a long sigh. The visit had been as uncomfortable as he'd expected. Closing his eyes, he briefly pinched the bridge of his nose against weariness and pain. Hearing Danny pull a chair next to the gurney, he blinked and watched his friend sit down and rest one ankle on top of a knee.
"Well that was awkward," Danny murmured, rubbing at his chin before dropping his hand in his lap. "You two have been acting weird around each other for the past few weeks, but after what happened in the waiting room and then here, I guess I was wrong."
"Huh?" He really wasn't up to following his partner's meandering train of thought.
"Well, I thought you guys were just having a fight. But it's more than that, isn't it? I mean, when we were talking to the doc, he mentioned how you'd need to stay with someone for the next day or two. I thought Sam would jump right in and tell him she'd take you home, but ... she didn't."
The observation made Martin wince. He could picture how uncomfortable Sam must have been at that moment. She would have been acutely aware of Danny's eyes on her as she failed to volunteer to play Florence Nightingale.
"Martin?" Danny prodded gently.
He sighed. He didn't want to discuss Sam or anything else right now. He just wanted to stay very still and wait for the pills to work. Wait for an end to the incessant beating on his head.
"Hey," the other man said, "you don't have to give me any details if you don't want to, all right? Just ... I know how much you cared about her, and if you need to talk ... I'm here."
Grateful for the reprieve, and the words of friendship, Martin smiled. "Thanks, man. I appreciate it."
"You're welcome." Danny tilted his head to the side. "So. Who are you gonna stay with when they spring you? Your uncle?"
"I would," Martin agreed, "but he and my cousins are out of town on vacation." He paused. "I was wondering ... If it's not too much trouble -- "
"Say no more," the other man interrupted, grinning. "Mi casa es su casa."
"You sure? I don't want to put you out."
"No problema, bro."
"Thanks." Shutting his eyes, Martin took a deep breath and released it, wincing at the relentless pounding in his head. A gentle pat on his arm brought his focus back to Danny, who stood over him, smiling sympathetically.
"You look like hell, Martin. I'm gonna take off and wrap up some stuff at the office. I'll drop by later tonight."
"You don't need to do that."
"I don't mind." Danny's expression grew serious. "Sam's not the only one who's glad you're gonna be okay, you know. You scared the hell out of me back there." He shook his head. "I couldn't get you to wake up ... Don't ever do that to me again, all right?"
"I'll try not to." Martin massaged the back of his neck. "Believe me, I don't want to go through this again, either."
Marissa arrived then with another nurse, pleasant smiles on both women's faces. "You ready to go, Martin?"
"Yeah," he replied wearily, the pain draining his reserves.
"He'll be in room 509," Marissa informed Danny.
"Thanks." Danny reached out to pat his partner's leg, eyes soft with concern. "I'll be back later, all right? Get some rest."
Smiling faintly, Martin closed his eyes as the nurses pushed him toward the elevator.
The whole world had gone quiet and still for a while, as if time held its breath. But then things started moving again. Started waking up.
He woke up.
And had no idea what the hell was going on.
He saw dim lighting in what was clearly a hospital room. The small space housed his bed, a chair, a clock and a small table to his right. As he surveyed his surroundings, he registered the deep hurt that had lodged in his skull and rattled his brain. He hadn't had a headache like this since Bart had used him for batting practice on his first case with the team.
But that had been years ago, hadn't it? Why was he here now? What had happened? He tried to remember, but nothing made sense amidst the pain and grogginess. His heart began thumping hard, and his breathing quickened.
The door opened with a soft creak, and a short, slender nurse with large emerald eyes and glossy red hair in a sleek French braid entered. Her lips curved up when she saw him. "Well, look who's awake."
Martin's heart raced as he tried to place the woman, who looked close to his own age. Her nametag said "Colleen," but nothing about her struck him as familiar. Wiping his suddenly sweaty palms on the bed sheet, he took a shaky breath and tried to gain some control over the panic that was creeping over him.
The nurse's smile faded as she approached him. "Are you all right?"
"I ... I don't know. I'm kinda confused here."
Colleen's expression softened. "Do you know where you are?"
"Do you know which one?"
Martin's lips parted as he considered the question. Thinking hurt, exacerbated the pain that wrapped around his brain like steel bands, and so he was relieved when the answer came quickly. "St. Vincent's."
Smiling encouragingly, the nurse nodded. "And your first name?"
"Do you know what day it is?"
His breathing hitched and his brow furrowed as he realized he didn't know the answer to her question.
She squeezed his arm once. "It's okay, Martin," she soothed. "We'll take it slow. Let's just concentrate on the year first. What year is it?"
It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, the pieces all looking the same size and shape until he forced himself to calm down. To really see what was before him. "Umm ... 2005."
"Uh huh. Now, what month is it?"
Only a second ticked by this time. "April." "And the exact date?"
Another puzzle piece slid into place, interlocking with the others. "April 18."
The nurse's lips curved into an approving smile. "Very good. Now, can you tell me why you're here? How you got hurt?"
"Umm ... " Martin found and moved another piece where it belonged, relieved that the memories were returning. "The doctor said I slipped and fell. In a driveway. I don't remember it, but ... that's what he told me."
"That's right." The nurse rewarded him with another warm smile. "You're doing great. I know the confusion can be extremely frustrating, but it really is perfectly normal for concussion patients."
Martin closed his eyes as Colleen checked his vital signs. "I just hope it passes soon," he murmured.
"Just try to be patient."
While his head hurt less with his eyes closed, he forced them open to consider the nurse again. He remembered waking up in the ER and being moved up to this room, but he still couldn't place her. "Have we met?"
"Nope." Colleen wrote a few things on his chart before tucking it under an arm. "I just came on duty an hour ago, and you were already asleep."
That's right ... Once he'd arrived at his new room, he'd been awake only a few minutes before the Tylenol had finally kicked in and he'd relaxed enough to drift off. Martin drew in a deep breath and let it out, glad that he hadn't lost another chunk of time.
"How's your head?"
"Better," he allowed. "Not great, but better." The pounding had eased, not as much as he would have liked, but enough to give him hope that it would eventually go away. More importantly, the sadistic jackass who'd been beating him with what used to be one of his favorite books had apparently gotten bored and left.
"Is your stomach up for some food?"
Martin frowned. "Umm, I don't know."
"Do you feel queasy?"
"No," he admitted. "But I'm not exactly hungry, either."
"Well, you haven't eaten in several hours, and an empty stomach will eventually make you feel queasy, which isn't a good combination with a concussion. Why don't I bring you some chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers? You don't have to eat them, but I'd like you to try."
Martin nodded and then swore at the resulting spike of pain.
Frowning sympathetically, Colleen shook her head. "You should try not to do that."
"I know," he replied through gritted teeth. "I keep forgetting." He let out a shaky breath. "My head didn't hurt this bad the last time I had a concussion."
"Well, your brain obviously doesn't like having multiple concussions," the nurse lectured good-naturedly. "So let this be a lesson to you."
Smiling wryly, Martin recalled Dr. DuMont's earlier admonition. "Maybe I should start wearing protective headgear at work."
Colleen chuckled. "I'm going to get that soup. I'll be back in a few minutes."
A few minutes grew into almost fifteen, not that Martin minded. While he waited, he used the time to get his bearings. He checked the clock and saw that it was a bit after 7 p.m. Normally, he'd be at home now, or on his way there. A few weeks ago, he might have been headed over to Sam's.
Cutting off that train of thought before it got too far, he reached for the remote control attached to his bed. The largest button had a nurse's hat symbol, and below it were smaller buttons to raise and lower the bed, turn the TV on and off, and adjust the volume up and down. Keeping the volume low so as not to inflame his headache, he searched through the five stations available to him, quickly going past the maternity station. He had no interest in learning about the various breastfeeding positions, thank you very much.
Failing to find anything worth watching, he shut the TV off, tur
ing his attention to how he'd gotten this damned concussion. He pictured how ridiculous he must have looked as his feet went out from underneath him and he landed on the concrete. Just how many of his fellow agents had witnessed that stellar move?
A few minutes later, Colleen returned with the promised soup and crackers. She helped him raise the bed into a sitting position, which triggered dizziness and a white-hot flash of pain. After he regained his equilibrium, she swung the table over his lap and deposited the soup and crackers on it, then left him alone to ponder the mysteries of hospital food. How patients were supposed to get better when the meals sucked so bad was beyond him. The crackers were slightly stale, and the soup tasted like a watered-down version of Campbell's, replete with soggy noodles and vegetables and whitish, spongy lumps that resembled chicken. He poked one of the lumps with his spoon, face screwing up in disgust.
The door opened and Danny strode in, smiling broadly and holding a small paper bag in one hand. "Hey, man!"
Resting the spoon in his bowl, Martin smiled back. "Hey."
"How you doin'?"
"So far, so good." he replied, deciding not to share the details of his earlier confusion. He curiously eyed the paper bag. "What's in there?"
Danny lifted the sack, pointing to it with his best Vanna White impersonation. "In this bag, we have a large serving of Mrs. Katz's matzo ball soup, steaming hot and ready for your enjoyment." He peered into his partner's bowl. "Unless you'd rather eat that."
"Don't tease an injured man," Martin chided, mouth watering at the smell of his favorite matzo ball soup. Not even his relentless headache could deter his lust for Mrs. Katz's house specialty. "I might feel like crap, but if you don't give me that soup right now, I swear that when I'm feeling better, I'll kick your ass."
The other man snickered. "You don't scare me, Fitzgerald."
"Oh yeah? Well how about I tell Gina in accounting that you canceled your date with her so you could wine and dine that lingerie model in your apartment building?"
Danny paled. "You play dirty, you know that?"
A few minutes later, Martin was happily downing Mrs. Katz's liquid gold as his partner sat next to him, jaw resting on his hand, eyes twinkling.
"What's up with the noises?"
"What noises?" he asked around a mouthful of matzo ball. "You're doing this weird humming thing. It's almost like ... like little moans." Danny grinned mischievously. "It's like you're having a food orgasm."
Lowering his spoon, Martin scoffed. "Shut up, Danny."
"No, really. I think you're having a food orgasm."
"There's no such thing, you moron."
Danny laughed. "There is now." He closed his eyes and started moaning. "'Mmm. Ohhh. Souuuuup. Yes, yes, yes!'"
Martin's lips twitched, and a chuckle escaped before he could stop it. "You're an ass."
The other man opened his eyes and pointed at his friend. "Hey, you leave my ass out of it. My ass is sensitive, and adored by legions of hot women. Show it some respect."
Chuckling again, Martin realized how lucky he was to have Danny as a partner. And a friend. Although fatigue was starting to pull hard on him, and his head ached so much his teeth hurt, his heart was light. Putting the spoon back into the bowl, he studied the other agent, reflecting on how much their relationship had changed over the years. They'd gotten off to a tough start, and not just because he'd messed up on the Maggie Cartwright case. When OPR had investigated the way the team had handled the Anwar Samir investigation, Danny had accused him of getting preferential treatment because he was Victor Fitzgerald's son.
"Ask your father why we're under this scrutiny," Danny had said. "About the free ride you get around here."
The words had stung. He'd worked hard to prove himself, to make people stop gossiping that he'd been hired simply because his father was the deputy director. But in that moment, looking at the fire in Danny's eyes, he'd felt like it had all been for nothing.
"Penny for your thoughts," Danny murmured.
Blinking, Martin realized his partner was studying him intently. He hadn't meant to get lost in the past, and flushed slightly. "Sorry, man. I was just thinking about some stuff." He paused, considering his next words. He wanted to thank Danny for the friendship they'd built over the last few years, but they weren't prone to sappy moments. He didn't want to say anything that would make either of them squirm. "I uhh ... I really appreciate you bringing the soup over, and hanging out for a while. It's nice to have someone here to take my mind off things."
The other man's lips curved up. "Glad to be of service." He chuckled. "You know, this is a lot different than the last time I visited you in the hospital. You remember?"
Martin groaned. "How could I forget? You were pretty pissed."
"And rightfully so, considering what happened." Danny's expression sobered. "I have to admit, I had some serious doubts about you working out on the team after that whole thing went down. But you really proved yourself. And not just as an agent." Leaning forward, he clasped his hands between his knees. "I don't know that I really thanked you for helping me out last month when Rafie was missing."
"You don't need to thank me, man," Martin dismissed, grimacing at the pounding headache that stubbornly refused to ease and wishing it was time for some more Tylenol. "That's what friends are for, right?"
"Yeah, but I'm saying it anyway. Thanks."
Danny extended his hand and Martin took it, shaking firmly before releasing it.
They engaged in some small talk for a while before the injured agent let out a jaw-popping yawn.
"Sounds like Sleeping Beauty needs some rest," Danny teased, swinging the table out of the way so the other man could get settled.
Smiling wearily, Martin reclined the bed and adjusted his pillow, a long sigh issuing from his lips. A yawn followed. He craved a few hours of shut-eye, but wondered if the persistent headache would deny him slumber. Would torture him by keeping him awake and hurting ... "Martin?"
Opening his eyes, he realized he'd actually drifted away for a moment. "Sorry, man. Didn't mean to fall asleep on you."
Danny shrugged. "No biggie. The doctor said you'd be pretty wiped out." He got to his feet. " I'm gonna take off. Call me tomorrow when you know what time I should pick you up, all right?"
"Mmm hmm," Martin murmured, eyelids drooping. Just before he slipped away, he heard the other man whisper, "Take it easy, Fitz," and felt the sheet eased up a bit higher over his chest.
The next several hours proved highly irritating. Martin would fall asleep for what felt like a few minutes, and then Colleen would gently urge him awake, asking him who he was, where he was, and why he was there. The first few times she did this, it took him awhile to sort through the lingering headache and confusion. At one particularly groggy point, he dragged bleary eyes open, spotted red hair, and mistook the nurse for his Aunt Bonnie. Upon realizing his error, his heart clenched, aching for the woman who'd died a year ago, memories gripping him with brutal clarity. The last conversation they'd had, when she'd been so out of her mind with pain that she hadn't known him. How she'd looked as she struggled through her final breaths, skin grey, sunken eyes open and unseeing.
By the time 7 a.m. rolled around and the day nurse breezed in, he felt lousy. He hurt, and was tired and cranky from having his sleep repeatedly interrupted. Still, he was showing definite signs of improvement. He was able to immediately place himself and his surroundings, and the headache had gone from pounding to throbbing, a welcome difference.
Dr. DuMont stopped in at 9 a.m. for a quick examination, pronounced him ready to leave, and started the discharge process. Immense relief flooded through Martin at the news that within the hour, he'd no longer have to endure strangers poking, prodding and interrogating him around the clock. Once home, Danny would have to wake him periodically for the rest of the day, but it would be tolerable compared to what he'd experienced in the hospital.
He called his partner with the good news, and the sleepy-sounding man said he'd be there at about 10 a.m.
Martin had barely hung up when the phone rang. Answering it, he was caught off guard at hearing his father's voice on the other end. He hadn't talked to his dad in over two months.
"I just heard what happened," Victor Fitzgerald said in his usual crisp, professional manner.
Martin didn't bother asking how his father had heard about the accident. It could have been from any number of the deputy director's many FBI resources. He wondered if the other man had all the details, most specifically the embarrassing ones about how he'd been injured because of sheer clumsiness. To his surprise, he realized he didn't care all that much. He wasn't as hung up on gaining Victor Fitzgerald's approval as he'd been a few years ago. A fair number of successfully solved cases had apparently boosted his confidence where his father was concerned.
"Are you being released this morning?" the deputy director asked.
"Yeah. Danny will be here soon to take me home."
Silence followed, lengthy enough that Martin wondered if the line had gone dead. But then the other man spoke again, voice gentle.
"How are you feeling, son?"
Martin paused, touched by his dad's concern. "I feel good, thanks." He didn't, not really, but his stoic father had long ago ingrained in him a tendency to downplay injury and illness. He vividly remembered the first time he'd seen his dad pretending to be all right when he clearly wasn't.
He'd been seven years old and had come home from school to find his mother nervously watching her husband, who sat hunched over in a high-backed chair, a white-knuckled grip on the wooden arms, face pale and pinched with pain. "It's just indigestion," the ailing man had insisted. But three hours later, he was undergoing emergency surgery because his appendix had burst.
Victor Fitzgerald's voice, all business again, returned Martin to the present. "I'm glad you're doing well. I have to get to a meeting right now, but I'm sure your mother will call later to check in on you."
"All right ... Thanks for calling, Dad."
"Take care of yourself, son," the older man replied, and hung up.
Eyebrows drawing together, Martin replaced the receiver in its base. His father's call had left him a bit bewildered. It wasn't that he thought his dad wouldn't care that he'd been hurt. It was just ... he hadn't been hurt that badly, and they weren't normally given to warm, fuzzy family moments. And that phone call, by Fitzgerald standards, qualified as warm and fuzzy.
Not up to puzzling out the complicated relationship he shared with the other man, he opted instead for a shower. He got out of bed slowly, pleased that he experienced no dizziness, and padded into the bathroom. After adjusting the water's temperature to where he liked it -- steaming hot -- he removed his hospital gown and stepped into the small shower. He sighed happily as the wet warmth sluiced over his body, and lingered longer than he'd anticipated.
Once done, Martin dried off, taking special care when he ran the towel over his throbbing head. He then reached for the clean hospital gown the nurse had given him, at his request. He didn't want to put on the clothes he'd worn when he'd been admitted, as Danny was bringing him something else to wear. After slipping into the gown, he tied it tight to avoid flashing the medical staff.
He'd just sat down on the bed when the day nurse entered his room. She had him sign his discharge papers and reviewed his home-care instructions, which included a reminder to follow up with his general practitioner, who would decide when he could return to work. While Dr. DuMont had said he could probably go back in a couple of days, it would most likely be for desk duty only.
After the nurse left, he called and arranged to see his general practitioner, Dr. McNair, at 11 a.m. the next day. A few minutes later, Danny arrived and handed over the change of clothes Martin kept at the office in case of emergency.
Eyeing his partner's blue jeans, black T-shirt and boots, Martin frowned as he realized what day of the week it was. "You're supposed to be working today. I didn't even think about it last night, that today's a work day." He unfolded his tan dress slacks, blue oxford shirt, white undershirt, boxers and socks. "Is Jack okay with this? I mean, he's already short-handed with Viv out on medical leave."
"We don't have any cases pending right now, so he's cool, " Danny assured him. "If something comes up, he's going to borrow someone from organized crime. They've got an extra body there right now since Bailey's training his replacement before he retires in two weeks."
"Cool." Noticing his partner donning a pair of sunglasses, Martin raised an eyebrow. "Too bright for you in here?"
The other man grinned. "It will be if the sunlight hits your skinny white ass when you take off that hospital gown."
Snorting, Martin slowly got up and headed toward the bathroom. "Like I'd let you see my ass, now or ever," he called over his shoulder. He let himself inside and then closed the door before stripping off the hospital gown.
"You know," came the disembodied voice from the other room, "there are some great tanning salons in Manhattan that could help you with that pasty complexion of yours."
"I'm not pasty!" he retorted, pulling on his clothes. Opening the bathroom door, he came out and grabbed the dress shoes Danny handed him. Sitting down on the bed, he checked to make sure no oil remained on them from his little fall. It looked like someone had wiped them clean, probably one of the nurses when they'd learned how he'd been injured. Satisfied, he slipped the shoes on and tied the shoelaces. Eager to get home, he stood up quickly, only to see the room tilt crazily and feel the floor drop from under him. His hand shot out and clamped onto his partner's arm. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and shakily released it as he waited for the seasick sensation to pass.
"Whoa, you wanna sit down?" Danny asked worriedly.
Keeping his eyes shut, Martin replied, "Yeah," and allowed himself to be gently guided into a chair. "Just straightened up too fast," he murmured as he lowered his head between his knees. The position eased the dizziness but intensified the throbbing in his skull. Groaning softly, he carefully sat back up. "This sucks," he muttered.
"You know how you said you're not pasty?"
The still-woozy man cracked his eyes open and tried to focus on Danny's face. "It'll pass, man. Just give me a minute."
"Maybe I should get a nurse. You look really pale, even for you."
"I said just give me a minute!" Martin snapped, and then sighed, instantly contrite. "Sorry. I didn't get much sleep last night."
"It's all right ... Look, you've got two minutes, and if you're still the same color as Casper the Friendly Ghost, I'm getting a nurse."
But two minutes later, color had returned to Martin's face, the dizziness had abated and the headache had eased a bit. Danny still called a nurse, but merely so she could bring the wheelchair that St. Vincent's required all patients to use upon discharge. Martin didn't bother grumbling about the contraption. Arguing would only delay his escape, and at this point, the only thing he wanted was to go home, crawl into bed and sleep for a day.
Or maybe two.
Once he was ensconced in the wheelchair, he glanced up at Danny with a weary smile. "Let's get the hell out of here."
The feeling of being watched brought Martin up from the drowsy netherworld between sleep and wakefulness. He'd been drifting on the edge of consciousness for a while now, reluctant to leave the soft absence of pain for the hard edge of reality.
But the awareness that someone was near, and staring at him, made him uncomfortable, and he dragged his eyes open to see his partner leaning into the bedroom.
"Hey, glad you're awake," Danny greeted, pushing the door open and approaching the queen-sized bed. "You've been out for four hours, and I needed to get you up and torture you with some questions."
Martin sighed and spoke in a bored tone. "My name is Martin Fitzgerald. It's Tuesday, April 19. We're at my apartment. I have a concussion that I got when I slipped and fell in a driveway yesterday. Happy?"
"Good." Carefully sitting up, he yawned and glanced over at the vertical blinds that blocked out the afternoon sun. The room was dark enough that he had to check the digital clock on his nightstand to confirm the time: almost 3 p.m. Looking up, he saw his partner scrutinizing him. "What?"
"Just wondering how you're feeling. You look better."
Martin paused, assessing his headache. The throbbing was still there, but less insistent than before. "I feel better. Head doesn't hurt as much."
Danny nodded approvingly. "Cool. So, you hungry?"
"Definitely." Shoving the sheet aside, Martin sat up slowly, leery of making himself dizzy by going vertical too quickly. He then swung his legs out of bed and headed toward the bathroom. "I'll be out in a minute."
After relieving himself and washing his hands, he changed into some grey sweat pants and a white T-shirt. He'd been so tired when they got to his apartment that he'd burrowed into bed still wearing his dress shirt and pants.
Ten minutes later, he finished polishing off the chicken-salad sandwich Danny had made. After rinsing off the plate and loading it into the dishwasher, the two men headed to the navy blue couch, Danny with a diet Coke and Martin with a glass of water and two Tylenol for when the pain got bad enough. They turned on the TV and flipped to ESPN. Just as a report on the Phoenix Suns' championship hopes began, Danny's cell phone rang.
"Taylor ... Hey, Jack ... He's doin' good. He's awake right now, actually ... Yeah, I know where those files are. Are you on my computer right now? ... Okay, go to the 'unsolved cases' folder ... "
Martin tuned out the rest of the conversation and instead rubbed his temples. The pain was quickly increasing, so he washed the Tylenol down with a gulp of water. Shifting on the couch, he caught sight of the books in his entertainment center. Eyes narrowing, he carefully got to his feet and approached the top row of novels, found the one he wanted, and slid it out.
Stephen King's "The Stand." The novel that he would forever associate with yesterday's crushing headache.
He went into the kitchen, opened up the cupboard underneath the sink, and tossed the book into the trashcan. Smirking in satisfaction, he returned to the couch, noticing Danny's curious stare as the man hung up his cell phone.
"Everything okay at the office?" Martin asked casually, trying to deflect attention from what he'd just done. He knew his actions would seem a little ... extreme. And probably silly.
"Umm ... yeah. Jack just needed help finding a file on my computer." The curious agent's eyes flicked to the kitchen and then back again. "Everything okay with you?"
"All right. " Danny shook his head slightly, an amused expression flitting across his features. "Jack said he's glad you're feeling better, and to take it easy. He doesn't want you coming back to work too soon and, and I quote, 'falling on his ass again.'"
Martin chuckled at his boss' familiar gruffness, something he'd learned to appreciate. "He's all heart."
Grinning, Danny put his feet up on the coffee table, and then dropped them back to the floor after receiving a hostile glare. "You're so anal, Fitzgerald."
"No, I'm tidy."
"Screw you," Martin retorted good-naturedly.
They settled into a companionable silence, attention returning to the television. Well, Danny's, anyway. Martin's eyes strayed to the now-empty slot in the top row of novels, and then to the pictures on the shelf above it. To one picture, in particular. In it, his Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Roger stood on a sandy beach, heads close together, hair mussed from the ocean breeze, leis around their necks. The Hawaii trip two years ago had been a special anniversary celebration.
God, he missed his aunt. Missed everything about her, from her warm smile to her inventive cooking to her steadfast support. She'd been his champion for so many years, encouraging him not only to join the FBI, but to have faith in himself when he needed it most.
Martin sighed heavily. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his partner look at him.
"You all right, man?" Danny asked.
He lifted his chin toward the picture. "They had no idea how much their lives were about to change."
Danny was quiet for a moment. "It's been a year now, right? Since she passed away?"
"Yeah. It doesn't seem fair, you know? She was such a good person, and when I think of my uncle all by himself now ... " Martin shook his head, sadness turning his eyes a deeper blue than usual. "They had such an amazing marriage. I always hoped ... " He trailed off, glancing at his partner, unsure he wanted to reveal such private thoughts. While he considered Danny a good friend, they didn't usually engage in deep discussions about love.
"Hoped what?" the other man prompted, looking genuinely curious.
Deciding that he could always blame this conversation on the concussion, Martin shifted to face his partner, took a deep breath, and plowed ahead. "I always hoped that my own marriage would be like theirs." He arched an eyebrow. "Not that it looks like I need to worry about marriage anytime soon."
Danny's expression grew pensive. "So it's really over between you and Sam, huh? No chance that you guys can work things out?"
"No." Martin massaged the back of his neck as the headache began wearing him down. "It's done."
The other man nodded. "It was your decision, wasn't it? The breakup."
"Yeah ... How'd you know?"
"Because of the way you two have been acting at work the past few weeks. You seem awkward, but pretty mellow. Sam ... " Danny blew out a quick breath. "Well, Sam either looks pissed off or like she's just lost her best friend. "
Martin winced. "I wasn't trying to hurt her. It just got to the point where it was pretty clear that it wasn't going to work. And I thought it was better to end it now than let it drag on, you know?"
"Yeah. But I gotta tell you, man. For a while there, I really thought you two were going to have it all. A wedding. Some kids. The white picket fence."
Martin sighed through his nose, tired and hurting and wishing things could have turned out far differently between him and Sam. "Guess I'll just have to wait awhile longer for all of that." He frowned thoughtfully. "Hopefully not too much longer. I'm already behind."
Danny's forehead wrinkled. "Behind?"
"Yeah ... When I was eighteen, my dad sat me down a month before high school graduation and showed me a piece of paper where he'd mapped out the rest of my life. He'd written down exactly what I'd be doing at each ten-year interval." At the other man's incredulous expression, Martin grinned sardonically. "Nice, huh? He'd created his own little road to the White House for me." Pausing, he remembered the hot rush of anger he'd felt that night at the kitchen table. "God, that pissed me off. Anyway ... After we had a little ... discussion ... I stormed off to my room and made out my own plan."
Danny's eyebrows rose. "Tell me you didn't use ten-year intervals in your plan."
"Nope." Martin gingerly touched the aching lump on his head, winced, and then crossed his arms. "I used five-year intervals."
The other man laughed. "Anal."
Martin chuckled. "So anyway ... at age thirty, I was supposed to be married, and at thirty-five, I was supposed to have two kids." He smiled wryly. "But I'm thirty-three years old, and nowhere near getting hitched. At the rate I'm going, I'll be in my mid-forties with a newborn keeping me up all hours of the night."
Danny shook his head, expression confident. "Nah. You'll get the wife and kids sooner than you think. You have that whole Mr. Right vibe going on, and women love that."
Lips twitching, Martin arched an eyebrow. "Oh they do, do they?"
"Oh yeah." Danny's eyes lit up. "In fact, I know this hot little number at the bookstore by our office who just oozes 'Looking for Mr. Right.' I should hook you two up."
"You know, I think I'm better off finding my own women."
The other man huffed. "You sayin' I don't have good taste in women?"
Smiling and closing his eyes, Martin gently leaned his head on the couch. The Tylenol was starting to dull the headache and make him drowsy. "I'm saying that we don't have the same taste in women, so I'm not sure I trust you to pick out my dates."
"Well, you're missing out, my man. I have an incredible eye for quality."
Snorting, Martin gave his partner a pointed look. "And by quality, are you referring to beauty or brains?"
Danny gasped and placed a hand over his heart. "You wound me. You really do."
"Beauty or brains?"
Danny grinned. "Screw you."
Smirking, Martin let his eyes drift closed and felt the couch give as the other man got up. A second later, he startled when he felt his feet lifted onto the cushions. Opening his eyes, he saw his partner shrug.
"Thought you'd be more comfortable this way."
Chuckling, Danny went to sit down at the dining room table, where he spread out "The New York Times" and opened up the sports section.
Martin watched his partner for a moment before his eyelids again grew heavy. As he relaxed every inch of his body, his muscles and joints melting into the couch, he reflected on his life since joining the Missing Persons Unit. He'd suffered heartache, losing his Aunt Bonnie to cancer and coming to the painful realization that he and Sam couldn't build a life together. But he'd been blessed, too. He had family he dearly loved nearby, co-workers he not only trusted and respected, but considered friends, and a job that allowed him to make a dramatic difference in people's lives.
No, he didn't have the wife and kids and white-picket fence. Yet.
But he had a hell of a lot.