I hear her before I see her, of course: the unmistakable tap of the crutch and the uneven footsteps. She stops beside me, but I still don't look.
"You should go home," she says softly, none of the usual command in her voice. I wonder if it bothers her that she can't sneak up on people.
"I'm working on it," I say, more sharply than I intended.
"This is a bit of a detour, isn't it?"
I don't bother answering. We're on my turf now, an out-of-the-way corner of the roof that I like to think of as my hiding place. We both know that to find me here, she must have come looking. It's the middle of the night, and neither of us are on night shift duty, so I'm not the only one who should have been home hours ago.
She leans forward so she can see my face, which means I can see hers too, pale against the dark air and city lights. I know she can tell that I've been crying. "It was nice of you to stay with her." Her hand settles briefly on my shoulder and gives a little squeeze before retreating.
"She didn't even know I was there."
"I think she did, Abby."
"Have they found her family?"
"No. They will."
She says this as if it should be comforting. As if it makes a difference. "Five years old, and there was no one there with her but a stranger."
"She wasn't alone."
She leans on the short, roof-skirting wall and peers over the edge at the people and traffic below. I make a half turn toward her and study her stooped profile, the curve of her cheekbone partially hidden by a fringe of her auburn hair.
"Do you think we value life more because of the work we do?" I ask, feeling insensitive as soon as the words are out of my mouth. She answer as if it's a normal question.
"I think I understand its fragility more than most people, but do I value it more? I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes." I wonder if she's thinking of Sandy. Or Kim. Or both. Or maybe just herself--her own mortality. Really, I have no idea what she's thinking--I never do, but her voice is thoughtful, soft and low, so I can make a guess at how she feels: sad, tired, glad the day is over. Same as me, more or less.
"What about you?"
"What?" Focusing on her presence there beside me, I've lost the thread of the conversation.
"Do you think you value life more because of the work you do?"
I should have been prepared for her to throw the question back at me. I try to think of something deep to say--I'd like for her to think I'm profound. But it's hopeless. "I guess I just try to really savor things I enjoy."
I shrug, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. "Good company. Stimulating conversation..."
"What happened to you and John?" she asks in the same tone of voice she might use to ask about the weather.
"What happened to your leg?" I fire back before I can stop myself. I figure I've blown it, expect her to turn on her heels and walk away, but she surprises me by chuckling softly.
"If you'd rather not talk about it, Abby, it's ok. You don't have to try so hard to change the subject."
I guess that means she's not going to tell me. "Sorry," I say. Then, "I'm taking some time off right now. From relationships."
She nods her head sharply in approval. "Sometimes it's good to be alone."
She's still staring over the edge. Her forearms and elbows are resting on the wall, and she's leaning on them, taking as much pressure as she can off her hips and legs without actually lifting herself off the ground. It's a posture that speaks of adaptation to chronic pain, and I hurt all over just looking at her. I know, for whatever reason, she lets me see her like this more often than most people, with her usual toughness, all that bluff and posture, stripped away. Whether she realizes it or not, it must take an enormous amount of energy to keep it up.
I move behind her, rest a hand lightly on each shoulder and give a little tug. "Stand up straight." She does what I say without comment, as if we're falling into the motions of an old routine. But I've never touched her before. Not really. At least not on purpose. She takes a moment to remove the cuff from her arm and prop her crutch against the wall. Her palms rest flat on the cement for balance now as I start with her neck, running my knuckles up and down the built up tension there. She bows her head and accepts my touch, the hair on the back of her neck soft as feathers.
"Shouldn't I be doing this for you? You're the one who had the hard day."
I don't want to make small talk as if this is normal. "Why don't you just shut up and enjoy it?"
I can hear the shadow of a laugh in her voice again. "Ok, then, I owe you."
I pull back the collar of her gray, button-down shirt far enough to expose the tight muscles at the base of her neck. I put my hands there, on warm, bare skin, and begin to press and knead. There's a sound from the city around and below us like distant, rushing water, and with our voices silent now, the only other sound is our own breathing. I work hard to keep mine slow and steady, even as my heart rate increases, and I listen closely to hers as it betrays her body's responses to my touch, the small gasps when I hit a tight spot, and then the sigh of released tension. There's a knot in her right shoulder just below her neck, and I work at it as gently as I can. At first she grunts softly in pain, but she breaths through it, tilting her head to stretch the muscle, and I feel the knot smooth out and her shoulders settle.
When I move my hands further down her back, I miss the feeling of her skin against mine, so I tug gently on her shirt tail, and when it comes loose, slip my hands beneath the bottom edge and slide them up against her, careful to keep my touch purposeful and firm. I half expect her to protest, but she pulls on the front of her shirt instead, until it's completely untucked. As my hands reach her shoulder blades, her shirt-tail lifts and exposes her lower back.
"Is that too cold?"
"No," she says softly, and I press my fingertips against the thin, smooth fabric of her bra, in a close pattern into the muscles around her shoulder blades. Again, the right side is much stiffer than the left, and I focus my attention there. Her shoulders aren't broad, but her body tapers to a narrower waist. She's no shorter than I am, but she's slight--slender enough that I'm sure if I put my arms around her, she wouldn't just feel embraced, she'd feel held and supported. I wonder how she'd feel if she knew I was thinking this. Probably angry.
I run my knuckles down either side of her spine, repeating the motion several times until I feel another small release of tension, another long, slow, sighing breath. The heels of my hands linger at the small of her back, a place where I know I hold so much of my own tension, and for a moment, I can feel her leaning into the pressure. Then I flatten my hands, move them to her sides, and let their downward progress continue until they slide from beneath her shirt tail onto the smooth fabric of her pants and come to rest on her hips. I hold my breath, sure that she'll move away immediately, but she allows the touch, and my hands begin to circle and press.
"That feels good," she says, "but don't."
I take my hands away fast. "Sorry."
"It's ok." Her voice is hushed, and I can tell she's not angry, just doesn't want to be touched there and isn't afraid to say it. I don't know what the hell I think I'm trying to do, but I know I don't want to move past this moment when it's ok for me to touch her, so I slide my hands beneath her shirt again. Immediately I feel her stiffen and lean forward, letting me know she's had enough.
"Thanks, Abby. That was nice."
"Don't mention it." I take my hands away and move to stand beside her.
She breaths another long, quiet sigh, then turns around so her back is to the wall and the view. So I'm the only thing to look at. "You have good hands," she says, then, "you're very good at taking care of everyone but yourself."
"I could say the same about you."
She gives a little shrug and then crosses her arms in front of her as if she's suddenly cold. "I forget sometimes how beautiful it is up here at night."
She's looking over my shoulder when she says this, but I can't help but think that she's also looking at me. I just nod. I hope she can't see that I'm blushing.
"Do you have much pain?" I gesture toward her leg.
She puts her hand on her hip where my own hand had just been. "Sometimes," she says. "Occasionally."
She nods. "Yeah, a little."
"On a scale from one to ten..." I begin, only half joking, but she cuts me off with a wave of her hand and then, holding onto the wall for balance, turns to look at the view again.
"It just aches, ok? It's no big deal. Nothing I can't handle."
"Is there anything you can't handle?" She gives me a sharp look, but then smiles, and we fall back into silence. I expect her to leave at any moment--she has someone to go home to, after all. But she stays.
After a minute or two, she draws in a breath as if so speak, but then doesn't.
"You and women...?"
I do my best to keep my voice casual. "Sometimes," I say. "Occasionally." If she realizes I'm mimicking her own response, she doesn't let on. "Why do you ask?"
"I see how you and Kim look at each other. I'm not blind."
I don't bother trying to argue with her.
"Have the two of you ever..."
I can't believe she's going to ask this question. "Ever what?"
"Ever... done anything?"
"Why don't you ask her about this?"
"Because it's easier to ask you." When I still don't answer, she continues. "She has so much energy--she's such a free spirit. Sometimes I feel it's wrong for me to want to... contain it all."
I shake my head. "It's not wrong."
"Or maybe just unrealistic."
I shake my head again. "You shouldn't think that way, Kerry." As if she's not enough for her.
"You still haven't answered my question."
"No, we've never 'done anything.'" I can't help but think this is an ironic conversation to be having when I've just had my hands on her body.
Is she asking me why I've never made a pass at her girlfriend? "Kerry, are you asking me why I've never made a pass at your girlfriend?"
She shrugs. "Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don't think she would have turned you down."
This is not the first time it's occurred to me that she's too perceptive for her own good. "She loves you," I say gently.
"I know that," she says as if it's both obvious and completely irrelevant.
"And I respect you too much."
She waves her hand dismissively. "Oh, come on--there's got to be a better reason than that." Amazing how easily she can discount her own importance in the cause and effect of human interactions, even the ones so close to her.
"She was my mother's therapist."
She shakes her head. "That was years ago."
I'm beginning to think I won't be able to find an answer that she'll accept. I can't tell her it was because I felt I was being trapped and manipulated. "Ok, then, I just didn't want to."
She looks at me like I must be crazy.
"She's all sparkle and shine," I try to explain. "Not my type at all." As I say it, I realize it's true.
"What is your type?"
"Dark and brooding."
I risk a glance at her and see the beginnings of a smile.
"'Dark and brooding,'" she repeats. "Luka, Carter...."
I reach over and circle my finger tips through the soft hair on the back of her neck, trying to speed along her train of thought. She ducks away.
"Quit it. That tickles."
We stand there through a silence that feels eternal, then she makes a half turn toward me. When she realizes how close we are, she takes a step back, but her eyes don't leave my face. "Abby..."
I just look at her.
"I'm not dark and brooding."
"Yeah, you are."
"No I'm not."
"You definitely are."
"Come on, I'm not 'your type.'" She puts it in air quotes to make it seem more ridiculous.
I throw my hands up in exasperation. "Ok, fine. You're not my type."
She's still staring at me, and I feel myself begin to sweat.
"Me?" She points a finger at her own chest, truly unbelieving.
I nod. I take a step toward her so we're standing close again, and it's easy from here to reach out and touch her. My fingers trace the line of her jaw, then my hand curls around her cheek, cradling and caressing. She tilts her head a little, into my touch. In her eyes I see surprise and confusion, but something else, too. I can tell she wants this as much as I do. I don't feel a surge of power this time, I feel a current between us. It feels good. I lean forward and our lips brush together.
When I draw back, she keeps her eyes closed. My hand lingers on her face, then moves around to the back of her neck. "Open your eyes, Kerry."
She does, and stares into mine. She takes a long, uneven breath.
"That can't happen again, Abby."
For a second, she doesn't move, and then she does. She leans toward me.
We meet in the middle this time, and I feel her lips part. When our tongues touch, we tighten our grips on each other, and her arms move to circle my waist. As our tongues continue to touch and explore, her hands press into the small of my back, holding me to her. She's so small in my arms, so slight. I slide a hand inside her blouse again, and up between us across the wonderfully smooth skin of her belly then her rib cage until my palm cups a soft breast. As I do this, I realize I've been wanting to do it for a long time. Her whole body stills at the touch, but I can feel her lips trembling against mine. My thumb brushes across a hard nipple then flicks back, firm and quick, and she moans softly into my mouth. In this single moment I can feel how electric it would be, how intense, the two of us together. I want it, want her.
I hear Kim's voice in my head: when she comes undone in my arms it's the most wonderful feeling in the world. I pull her closer, press my lips against her ear, and whisper to her. "You're beautiful, Kerry. I want to feel you to come in my arms."
I've said too much. Done too much. I feel her body go rigid. Her hand closes around mine through the fabric of her shirt and holds it for a moment, still pressed against her, but then she pulls away and steps back.
"No," she says simply. Her face is still flushed, but her eyes, staring into mine, have gone distant and wary. "This never happens again, Abby. Ever." Her old voice is back, the chiefs voice. She retrieves her crutch, fits the cuff to her am, turns without waiting for me to respond and begins to walk away. She covers about 10 yards quickly before she stops and turns to face me again.
An entire cityscape opens behind her, all the lights and buildings and people and motion, but when she speaks, she doesn't have to speak loudly to make me hear her.
"I want us to be friends, Abby. It's important to me."
I nod, mutely. It's all I can do.