“You are a complete asshole,” Eli said as he stormed into Calden’s house. “Do you even realize that? Is that something you can comprehend?”
It took him no time to find Calden, sprawled on the sofa in his boxers and dressing gown, an arm curled over his face like a swooning regency heroine, his dark hair untamed and wild.
“I don’t know if I comprehend,” Calden said, his voice muffled by his elbow, “but I’ve been told often enough. What did I do this time?”
Eli bit back a curse and stood by the sofa. His glaring was completely lost on Calden, who still hid behind his arm.
“You know damn well what you did!” he exploded. “You’ve been hounding me to meet at the café for lunch for a week instead of just eating in the hospital cafeteria. I took time off especially for that—”
Got in an argument with my husband about it when I told him, but that part he only said in his mind.
“—I waited for you for an hour before ordering, with Lola giving me the stink eye the entire time because she’s still convinced I dumped you and you can’t be bothered to tell her we’ve never been more than friends. And the entire time you’re just here, lounging in your robe like…”
An awful suspicion rose inside Eli. Taking hold of Calden’s wrist, he pushed the sleeve up, exposing the inside of his arm. Nothing there, he was relieved to see.
“Let go,” Calden protested, trying to tug his arm free, but Eli wasn’t done.
Leaning in close, he sniffed Calden’s breath. No alcohol. Unless…
“Hungover?” he asked, too annoyed to even make it a proper question.
Calden gave another weak tug on his arm, and Eli finally let go, watching him cover his face again.
“I wish,” Calden muttered. “It’d mean there was at least something pleasant before this. To the risk of being boring, I’m sober in every sense of the word. I just have the most horrible headache.”
Eli was trying to hold on to his annoyance—if Calden wasn’t feeling well, he could at least have called him!—but Calden surprised him by peeking from under his arm and mumbling, “Sorry about lunch. If I’d realized it was so late, I’d have told you I wasn’t up for it.”
His eyes were bloodshot, his pupils contracted. Headache severe enough that not only he wasn’t whining but he was also apologizing. What else? Was that a cold sore at the corner of his mouth?
“Do you have a fever?” Eli asked, slipping into doctor mode. He reached past Calden’s arm to press a hand to his forehead. “Pain anywhere else? Did you take anything for it?”
“Fever, yes. No other pain. Out of aspirin.”
He shifted his head into Eli’s hand, maximizing contact. He definitely felt too warm, and not just because Eli’s hand was cool. And of course he was out. Medical supplies, even something as basic as aspirin, were hard to come by. The city was, after all, officially under siege.
“Right,” Eli said wryly, pulling his hand free. “I’m going to downgrade you from complete asshole to big baby who can’t take care of a little headache. And you owe me lunch when you’re better.”
Calden mumbled something, but Eli, on his way to the kitchen, did not understand.
“What did you say?” he called out as he ran a towel under cold water before wringing out the excess.
“Said it’s a big headache,” Calden said, slurring the words a little.
“Of course it is. Drop your arm. There you go. Does that feel nice?”
His forehead and eyes covered by the cool towel, Calden hummed something that might have been a thank you.
“I’ve got aspirin at my apartment,” Eli said, squeezing Calden’s shoulder once. “I won’t be long, all right?”
Calden made a vaguely affirmative noise.
As Eli left the house and climbed into his car, a little voice that sounded awfully like Bryce’s whispered in his ear.
He’s taking advantage of you. Like he always does.
But Calden hadn’t asked for anything, Eli replied to the little voice. In fact, he hadn’t asked Eli for his usual favors since Bryce had confronted him about taking advantage of Eli three weeks ago. Calden had stormed off then, and he hadn’t said a word to Eli at the hospital for days, until he’d asked to meet over lunch. He’d said he had something to tell Eli.
Eli knew better than to expect an apology. In all the years they’d known each other, Calden couldn’t possibly have uttered the word ‘sorry’ more than a couple of times, despite having cause far more often than that. Still, Eli had vaguely hoped for an acknowledgment from Calden that, yes, he’d been overly needy in the past months, both at the hospital and out of it. Something was up with him, but Eli couldn’t figure out what it was.
Needy was Eli’s word. Bryce called Calden’s behavior obnoxious. He couldn’t understand why Eli tolerated it from Calden when he’d have called anyone else on it. Eli had tried to explain that he’d been Calden’s best friend before they started working together at the hospital, and that he was used to his antics. Calden couldn’t be bothered to keep to his schedule, and he always tried to trade patients he considered uninteresting for more challenging cases, but the truth of it all was that he was the best surgeon the town had. Eli knew that firsthand and owed him, if not his life, at least his right arm. Whether Calden was needy and obnoxious or not, they needed him. Bryce had glared daggers at Eli when he’d said that.
As familiar as Calden’s behavior was, Bryce’s response had taken Eli by surprise. Others complained about Calden, doctors and nurses alike, but after seeing what he could do with a scalpel or needle, they grew more tolerant. Bryce, on the other hand, simply couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t even work with them directly, instead driving one of the ambulances that ran back and forth from the hospital to the walls that had been built to protect the city every time the demons attacked.
Calden had told Eli to ask Bryce about his ex-husband, that it’d explain why he was so suspicious. Eli had managed to hide from Calden that he hadn’t known Bryce had been married before. He had yet to ask Bryce if it was true. It probably was; Calden had a knack for discovering things about people.
His apartment wasn’t far. In ten minutes, Eli was there and back. Coming back into Calden’s house, Eli hung his jacket and stepped into the kitchen. He popped a pill from the bottle, filled a glass with cold water, and took both to Calden, who apparently hadn’t moved since Eli had left.
“Hey. I’m back. Sit up for a bit.”
He had to shake Calden’s shoulder before his body jerked, the towel sliding off his face. He blinked repeatedly, frowning up at Eli.
“Eli?” he said drowsily. “What are you doing here?”
“Got you aspirin like I said. Sit up.”
Calden did sit up, and he took the glass and pill Eli was handing him, but he sounded—and looked—downright confused. “Like you said? What? When?”
Eli frowned. “When I was here earlier. Don’t you remember? I called you an asshole and a big baby?”
Calden was beyond confused now and well into mystified territory. “You called me what?” he swallowed the pill, chasing it down with the glass of water. “God, but my—”
His body froze, his mouth becoming slack, the empty glass sliding from his grasp and onto the cushion next to him.
Eli’s eyes widened. He had to fight his instinct to shake Calden by the shoulders and grabbed his wrist instead. He took his pulse while leaning in close enough to watch his pupils; they weren’t dilated to the same degree, one a small dot in an ocean, the other wide enough to swallow most of the blue.
“Calden! Can you hear me?”
“—head hurts,” Calden said, blinking once, then again when he realized how close Eli was. “What… Eli?”
“You just had an absence seizure,” Eli said, releasing his wrist. “I’m taking you to the hospital. Don’t even think about arguing with me.”
The fact that Calden did not try to argue only added to Eli’s worry. Calden hated being in a hospital as a patient and would do or say anything to avoid that situation. His passivity now was disturbing, and he barely said a word when Eli went to find some clothes up in his bedroom and helped him into them.
When Calden had another absence seizure in the car, Eli drove a little faster, beginning to regret not having called an ambulance. The city wasn’t under attack at the moment, which meant that the streets were busy, small electric cars like Eli’s weaving around each other in near silence and making the ride to the hospital that much longer. There were talks of restricting traffic to preserve resources now that the demon attacks were becoming more frequent and making the supply roads unsafe.
Finally parking his car by the emergency entrance, Eli told Calden to wait in the car while he went to get a wheelchair. The fact that Calden actually listened to him didn’t bode well. As he wheeled Calden inside, Eli mentally reviewed the staff schedule. Being in charge of it, he knew who was on duty at the moment.
Doctor Bonneville was their neurologist, but she only had a few years of experience. Doctor Samford, an emergency doctor and surgeon, had been practicing longer than anyone else and still had the steadiest hands in the hospital, except for Calden. There was also the fact that she was one of the few people Calden didn’t try to antagonize on sight.
The nurse at the admission desk tried to insist they fill in the obligatory paperwork, but Eli gave her an icy look and found a room for Calden himself.
Within minutes, Samford was coming down to the ER from her office upstairs. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Calden was her patient, but she recovered quickly and listened to Eli’s description of Calden’s symptoms.
“He was complaining about a headache yesterday,” she said thoughtfully as she took Calden’s vitals. “I thought he was trying to get out of a routine appendectomy. You know how he is. But maybe it was more than that.”
Calden’s eyes were open, and he appeared to be listening, but he didn’t react in the slightest to Samford’s quiet words; Eli’s worry climbed higher.
“What do you think?” Eli asked, although he knew it was much too early for her to have a definite diagnosis.
Samford refused to say what she had in mind. Instead, with a gentle smile, she took Eli’s good arm and guided him out of the room, relegating him to the waiting room. She’d have let a colleague stay if he hadn’t known their patient, but he was there as Calden’s friend, so she kicked him out with a reminder that he’d need family permission to get access to records. Still, she couldn’t hide from him what kind of tests she was performing. MRI. CT scan. Lumbar puncture. She suspected encephalitis, Eli realized with a pang.
She was only following protocol—Eli knew that and he would have done the same in her place—but he still felt absolutely no remorse in giving a call to the one person who could cut through the red tape with a wave of her hand.
“This is Eli Wright. Calden’s in the hospital,” he said when Lana picked up the call. He hadn’t called Calden’s mother in a couple of years, not since his overdose, but he’d kept her number. It could always be useful to have a direct line to the person basically in charge of running the city. “I’m guessing encephalitis, but I’m not his doctor and don’t technically have a right to see his records because I’m not family.” He spit the word as though it tasted foul. After all this time, he and Calden were as good as family.
“Encephalitis,” she said after a brief silence. “That’s… serious, isn’t it?”
“It can be when it’s not treated quickly enough. I’m not sure how long he sat on his sofa with that headache. He might still be there if I hadn’t come by.”
He didn’t add the last of it, the part that made the acid in his stomach roil and burn his throat. He might have been in the hospital faster if I hadn’t been too annoyed to think like a proper doctor.
“Are you coming in?” he said instead.
“I can’t right now. I’m in the middle of a strategy meeting. But I’ll send someone to sort things out.”
Seventeen minutes later, a soldier breezed in, clad in his full parade uniform. Eli heard him demand to talk to the person in charge of Calden Hayes. When Samford asked him how she could help, he demanded that she accompany him to Eli’s direct supervisor. Eli had long since given up on being surprised at the way Lana and her people operated.
Whatever the soldier had to say didn’t take long. Five minutes later, he was marching back through the same corridor again. He paused briefly by Eli and recited, “You’re in charge of medical decisions regarding Doctor Hayes until General Hayes is able to come here herself. That should be tomorrow morning, unless the demon attack anticipated for tonight extends beyond sunrise. She wants you to call and leave a message with her secretary if anything changes. Not her private line, but her secretary.”
He handed Eli a card with a number and left without another word.
Moments later, Samford returned and gave directions for Calden to be transferred to a different room. He was asleep, or more probably sedated, and much too pale against the starched sheets. When Eli followed, no one stopped him, and when he asked for an update, he actually received answers. Samford was still waiting for final results to come back, although Calden had been given a first dose of medication. Waiting too long could prove critical. It was as Eli had supposed, but it felt different to know rather than guess.
He sat in Calden’s room, rewinding the afternoon in his mind, playing the ‘what if’ game. It wouldn’t help anything, of course, but he had to wonder. What if he hadn’t waited so long at the café? What if he had simply left when it had become clear Calden wouldn’t show up, rather than actually having lunch by himself in spite of Lola’s pointed glares every time she passed by his table? What if he hadn’t let his annoyance blind him and had realized sooner that this might be more serious than a simple headache?
Logically, he knew he’d acted as fast as he could in the circumstances. But this wasn’t a logical situation, this wasn’t a patient he could look at neutrally. This was Calden.
When his phone rang, he felt a stab of guilt that he’d forgotten to turn it off, despite the policy he was in charge of enforcing. At first he thought it had to be Lana, but when he saw it was Bryce, he slipped out to the waiting room to take the call.
“Where are you?” Bryce asked as soon as he picked up. “Our appointment is in ten minutes.”
Covering his face with one hand, Eli braced himself for the fight he knew was coming.
“Love, I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make it. I’m at the hospital.” He paused, and his voice was a little quieter when he said, “Calden is ill.”
Absolute silence answered him.
“We’re still waiting for the tests to come back,” he said, “but we’re pretty sure it’s encephalitis.”
“We?” Bryce said coolly. “Who’s we? Surely you’re not his doctor.”
“Then let his doctors do their job. I’m already there. I’ll tell her you’ll only be a little late for the appointment.”
Eli couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less at that moment than go talk about the state of his seven-month-old marriage to a soft-spoken therapist at least ten years younger than he was and who, he suspected, had never been in a long-term relationship herself.
“I can’t,” he said, his voice firming up as he clenched his fist at his side. “We’ll have to reschedule.”
“He could die, okay? Or he could get brain damage.” He knew which of these two outcomes Calden would think was worse.
“You watched him die once,” Bryce snapped. “Wasn’t that enough?”
Eli sucked in a breath and resolutely kept his eyes open. He didn’t need to watch Calden flatline on a hospital bed behind his eyelids yet again, not when Calden was in a hospital bed right now.
“I’m sorry,” Bryce said after a few seconds and even sounded like he meant it. “But honestly, why does it have to be you? It’s always you, Eli. That’s well beyond the call of duty of a friend or hospital coordinator.”
Eli knew he’d always gone above and beyond for Calden. It had never bothered him. Not even after Bryce had started pointing it out.
“His mother’s busy, and there’s no one else. I’ll give you a call in the morning. Love you.”
“Love you,” Bryce repeated. The words felt empty, recited by rote. He ended the call.
Eli turned off the phone completely before returning to Calden’s room. He was surprised to find him awake, not so surprised that he was drowsy and disorientated.
“Eli. I wanna go home. I don’t like hospitals.”
“I know,” Eli said with a slight smile, helping the nurse to get him to lie down again. “We’ll get you home as soon as you’re better, I promise. But for now you need to stay here. All right?”
“But what if there’s a demon attack?” Calden’s eyes burned, feverish. “What if I’m needed in surgery?”
“Well, you’re already in the hospital, aren’t you?” Eli played along in a soothing voice, patting his hand. “If need be, we’ll get you to the OR in no time. Until then…”
But Calden’s eyes were closed again. Eli sat down and got ready for what promised to be a long night.
Continued in Anterograde