TITLE: This Thing With Women
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
RATING: R
CODES: Abby/Susan with shades of AL/JC, AL/LK, SL/JC
DISCLAIMERS: Those other people own these characters. Not me.

SUMMARY: Maybe it was all just John Carter's lesbian fantasy, even if he was long gone, but that didn't really matter anymore.

Again and again, for k. And for Jess, because she makes things beautiful.

*

It's not that I ever asked for a happy ending.

He was never a prince, and I'm certainly no princess. The last time I seriously expected to ride off into the sunset, I was seven and it seemed like my mother was going to get better, for real this time. But I think we all remember the moment when we realized that stories are just stories, and that fairy tales and real life don't mix.

All I wanted, honestly, was a clean goodbye, a clean break, where I could, I don't know, touch his cheek and feel superior and tell myself how I was better off without him. I had it all choreographed in my head, because life's taught me well enough to be prepared for goodbye at the moment of hello. I would touch his cheek, probably, or his forearm, and I'd shake my head in that supportive, disapproving, nostalgic-for-better-days kind of way, and I would tell him once and for all that I never really loved him.

But if I've learned one thing in this life of mine, it's that if anything ever goes the way I want it to, the whole world is going to come crashing down around my feet.

His grandmother died, first of all. She'd been getting frailer and frailer, ever since she hit that girl with her car, and Carter first diagnosed her. She lost consciousness so often that after a few months, it hardly seemed noteworthy anymore. They had an in-home nurse, of course, twenty-four hours a day, and since it was Carter, they had a doctor on call, too. When his parents split, right after the Christmas when Benton left, Carter's father came to stay with them, and he was always calling and worrying, and it was driving Carter crazy.

I found him a few times, out by the water, crying or trying to cover it up. To his credit, I guess, he didn't go back to the drugs, because even he saw how cliché it would've been, how easy, and a drug overdose would've just been overkill. He started smoking at some point, and I would catch him out near the El tracks, leaning against metal poles and emptying packs of Camels and Marlboro Lights. I would cup my lighter in the wind, and he would put his hands around mine, and it would be like we'd been doing it just like that for years, like we were old smoking buddies.

It was maybe overly moody and fodder for a movie on TNT or something, but for a little while, it seemed like it was something that made some amount of sense. He'd helped me when I was chasing my mother across the fucking country, kept me from completely losing my mind, and it felt like one of those karma things, where everything comes back again.

Of course, it wasn't the same, because Susan was there, and she was all over him, and I was engaging in some sort of temporary insanity with Luka. Overcompensating. Susan had practically moved in with him, and he was grateful, sure, but she never really understood that what he needed. He was falling apart and leaving pieces all over the place, he was practically bleeding through his clothes, and she was making him waffles and following him around like she was worried he'd jump.

The whole divorce hit him pretty hard, too. That was hard for me to figure out, and probably hard for Susan, too, because neither of us has the most well put-together family in the world. I pretty much think you're successful if, at the point, you can claim to know who your parents are at all, and if you've come to grips with the fact that you and your family are just not the same thing. Part of his whole self-identity was tied up with this little family ideal.

I mean, it's not like he didn't know that the whole thing was a ruse, with his parents, but he wanted so badly for it to be true. People are funny like that. We can fool ourselves into believing anything if we want it enough.

I guess it all really hit a sort of breaking point, at least a quiet one, when Benton left. So his parents were getting a divorce, and his grandmother was probably dying, and this guy who'd been his mentor since he was practically a teenager was leaving to go have some sort of normal life with his girlfriend and his kid. And this woman he'd been in love with for years came back and reminded him of what it was like to be young and swept away.

So he'd started sleeping with her, and they started coming in together in the morning. He forgot my birthday, got her a dozen roses for hers, laughed all the time and told me all the time that he was so glad he had me. So glad he had me, because I understood him. And I would nod, you know, and tell him that I was there for him. He started drinking his coffee like Susan, with enough sugar to make your teeth hurt, but he started smoking my brand of cigarettes, and that was something at least. I stopped trying to quit.

Maybe Benton got him thinking about all the opportunities he'd missed. I mean, just planted the seed, and it grew and grew, and Greene left, because of his kid and getting divorced from Dr. Corday and everything. So, it was Carter and a bunch of new people, and Weaver, and then she got moved upstairs to a bigger office with a lot of fanfare.

They were going to make him chief of emergency medicine, and one day, we were leaving at the same time, and we walked together to the El. He looked down the street and said to me, "I'm not going to take it."

I guess, in retrospect, I wasn't surprised. I mean, he loved County, as fucked up as it was. This was the kind of emergency medicine he wanted to do, with the blood and the guts, the GSW's and the stabbings, and all of it. But, I mean, it was like his parents. He thought they were perfect, and it was okay that he was this doctor in this inner-city hospital, because there were perfect things, put together things. He could be out there, because there was a core of sanity somewhere.

But that all went to hell, and Benton left, and Susan was a vegetarian, for God's sake, and I sort of nodded and said, "Yeah. What'll you do instead?"

He said, "I think it's time to make some sense of everything." The wind made it dramatic.

"Northwestern," I said. He nodded, and that was it. He asked me if I thought he was crazy, throwing it all away, and I told him that he was the only one who could decide if he was throwing anything away, but that if I ever decided to go to med school, for real, I would make sure to take his class.

He said I'd make a good doctor, called me Dr. Lockhart. Said I could be more than I let myself be, and even when he said it, he knew I was going to turn it around on him. So I didn't say it, and maybe I wish I had, just to let him know that I didn't actually approve of him running off.

I'd gone to his grandmother's funeral, and not just because it was the right thing to do. Or maybe it was just because it was the right thing to do, and Carter had seen me there, and then a month later, he'd told me he was leaving, and I guess that's how it was supposed to be.

Things don't work out like we expect them to. I never got to tell him how much better I was than he was, and by the end, I probably didn't believe it anyway, if I ever had. And I never got to tell him that I never loved him, or that I'd always love him, or anything, because he was so busy being his own source of drama.

So he left. And maybe you'll be surprised if I tell you that this story isn't really supposed to be about John Carter at all. It's about me, and it's about Susan, and the most depressing thing is that you couldn't tell a story about either of us without telling a story about him.

Because this story, of course, is supposed to be about what happened once he left.

So, Luka and Susan both were promoted to way out of their league, until they were masters of their domain, and they probably would've been sleeping together, just to complete the circle, if I hadn't gotten to him first. That's probably when it became some sort of serious competition between Susan and I, because she knew Carter had told me about his plans, and that I knew he hadn't told her.

I wasn't about to apologize for being more than nostalgia, and he sent me an email that said they'd put "John Carter, MD" on the door of his office, and that must mean something big, right? He emailed me and told me he was getting published again, and that his students were brilliant, and that he was happy, but I didn't believe him. Because I'd seen him at County when everything seemed the most hopeless, and he was always the one jumping in with every fiber of his being and trying to convince us all that he wasn't just some kid, even though nobody thought of him that way anymore. But he was still a first year intern somewhere in there, worrying that people were going to laugh at him or tell him he didn't know how to intubate or something basic like that.

So I couldn't believe that he was happy, but I took him at his word and told him we were all proud of him, when really people were angry because he'd run away. And one day, Susan came up to me at the end of my shift, and I was pulling on my coat because winter was just getting started again, the second winter since Carter left, and she asked me if I still talked to him.

I didn't lie, because it wasn't worth it, and because, honestly, I liked her well enough. She's a damn good doctor, and I've been here long enough to respect that above almost anything, because to be a good doctor, you've got to be a good person. It's one of those things they write inside a greeting card, congratulating you on your graduation from med school, but it's true.

She was leaving, too, and so I asked her if she wanted to go somewhere so that we could talk. She was dying her hair a darker color, and she was wearing a dark blue turtleneck, and even after a long shift, she looked sort of clean-scrubbed and rosy-cheeked. It was easy to figure out what Carter had seen in her. She said she knew a place, and it was a bar near the hospital that I'd never been to before because it had always been too great of a temptation.

She bought me a cherry Coke, with half a dozen maraschino cherries with stems floating in it, and she had a White Russian, and I wasn't even tempted. I was sort of afraid she would end up crying, and that I would have to comfort her, and I wasn't prepared for that. We sat at a table out of the way, and I smoked a cigarette, and she didn't say anything disapproving.

She said that I probably wouldn't understand why she'd come to me, after all of this time. She was wrong. I understood completely. She had fallen in love with Carter when she came back to County, and he hadn't fallen in love with her, and she wanted someone to remind her that she wasn't going crazy, that she was justified. She didn't really have any friends in Chicago, and I knew Carter probably better than anyone left did.

I told her that he hadn't left because of her or in spite of her. She hadn't factored into his decision either way, and that probably hurt her more than it did to think that he hated her and was just running away. She wanted to be at least that important, and she wanted to ask me why, but she didn't.

So we talked about John Carter, and that's how it started. She talked about how he was back when he was still a med student, when he was bumbling and adorable and brilliant, and how she'd had this tumultuous love affair with Mark Greene, and how she'd left to be with her sister and the baby. She told me how she came back because of Greene but stayed because of Carter.

I told her about Obstetrics, and how I was a med student for twenty minutes once, how Carter kept trying to get me to go back, maybe so he could be my Benton. And because it seemed like the right thing to do, I told her about my mother, and about how we chased her, and how Carter saved her life when she was trying so hard to get rid of it. I didn't cry, because there's no reason to cry about it. Because I'm too tired to keep crying about it, wondering when she's going to come back, on my doorstep or in a body bag.

But Susan understood running away, I guess. I was on my third cigarette, chain smoking, and she took it from me and put it out in the black plastic ashtray. She asked, but it wasn't really a question the way she said it, if I had been an alcoholic, and I said that I was still an alcoholic, I just hid it well. She toyed with a cherry stem I'd left on the table and nodded like I was sharing some sort of deep, dark secret. I asked if Carter had told her.

She said that he'd never wanted to talk about what happened to him and Lucy, or what happened afterwards, with rehab and everything. But that once he had said that if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have made it as far as he had, wouldn't have stayed clean for so long.

She turned to me, put her hand on mine on the table in this really Lifetime melodrama sort of way, and said, "I just wanted to know him like that." And I didn't want to feel bad for her, because I figured that I was already involved enough in the situation as it was, but she didn't give me a whole lot of choice, with her wet eyes and cold fingers.

All I said was that I was sorry, and then she kissed me, which in and of itself was pretty unbelievable, but even more so was the fact that I liked it and didn't stop her. It sort of made some sick kind of sense. Neither of us could get him, so we'd each try to get the closest thing, which just happened to be one another.

Her mouth had this twinge of alcohol, but I didn't want a drink as much as I wanted to keep kissing her. We were sitting on the same side of the table, looking out into the bar, and she slid her chair closer to mine. I thought of Carter's name on the door of his office and how he was bound to get a wife perfect enough to fit that picture, and I kissed Susan back harder, biting at her lower lip until she made this whimpering noise at the back of her throat that made my stomach twist.

I'd done this thing with women once or twice, and clearly so had she, and her fingers dug into my thigh. And when I couldn't help it anymore, I laughed, and she didn't even seem offended, just laughed along with me.

"If John Carter could see us now," I said, and sort of expected her to take a drink, nod, and that would be the end of it.

But of course, things rarely go as we expect. She touched my cheek, brushed the hair that had fallen out of my French twist back behind my ear. I was wearing these ugly black pants that I kept thinking I should get rid of, at that moment more than ever, and a purple shirt with white buttons, and right then, this seemed really important to me. I realized that I didn't remember the last time I'd shaved my legs properly above the knee.

She asked if I wanted to forget about it, found that spot under my ear with her fingers like she already knew the answer, and for a second I wondered what the hell was going on with this universe.

So I said, "No," and she kissed me again, but really softly, like it was a test. Her hand was still near my face, and I guess she was waiting for me to prove something to her, maybe that this wasn't just about John Carter or some sort of strange lesbian fantasy he might've had. She wanted to make sure this wasn't going to turn into something that we'd need to see a shrink about. I held her wrist, sucked on one of her fingers. Whatever hand lotion she was using tasted terrible, but it didn't really matter to me at that point.

And she moaned, quietly, but it was definitely a moan, and what could've prepared me for that? Her eyes closed, and her eyelashes were still really pale, even if her hair was dark, and she said, "Oh, Abby." And at that point, since I clearly was not going to take her, or whatever the proper term for it would be, on the table there, or in the bathroom, I stood up and asked if she wanted to pay for a cab because I didn't want to take the El.

She laughed, and we left and got a cab, and I was pretty much silent because I was too busy concentrating on the way she was sliding her fingers up the inside of my leg, and then I realized that the pattern she was tracing was her own name. That almost made me laugh, but she was teasing me, and I was wet, and I decided that laughing at her was probably not the best course of action.

So I turned towards the window and watched the lights as we passed them, blurring in to one another when we would get going, and then straightening themselves out when we hit a traffic light or a slow turn. I wondered if she would taste like the hospital in strange places, like her ankles or her bellybutton, and I wondered if I would find out.

Her apartment was nice, really clean and tastefully done. Her couch was forest green and overstuffed, and she had a cat that was afraid of strangers and ran under the bed, refusing to come out, even when Susan knelt down at the foot of the bed and tried to coax him out. I was standing in the door, halfway into her bedroom, and she had one hand up on the white comforter to keep herself balanced. And she looked up at me, and she said, "Well, this is interesting."

I helped her up from the floor and kicked off my shoes. I sat down on the edge of the bed, and she sat down next to me, and all of the sudden, she couldn't look at me without blushing. I asked her what was so funny, said that I liked her apartment, that it was just like her. She asked, "How's that?" and I told her that it was straight-forward.

She thought this was funny, and she laughed and looked down at her bare feet against the wooden floor. I told her that I didn't mean it as an insult, that after all this time playing games, it was an attractive feature. She didn't say anything, just looked up at me and leaned forward so that I would kiss her, and then she pushed me, but gently, back onto the bed and said she liked the way my hair was so dark against the sheets.

So that's how it happened. She did taste like the hospital some places, but between her legs, she was bright and sour, and I could still taste her under my tongue the next morning when I woke up, sprawled across her bed wearing nothing but my panties. She was sitting at her kitchen table, having a cup of coffee and wearing a tee-shirt from Old Navy, and she smiled when I walked in.

She said that she could get me some clothes, but I just stretched my arms over my head and said that I was fine if she was. She laughed, and it was this really low, honest laugh, and she asked if I wanted coffee.

So, we drank coffee like that, and we went back for our shifts, and though it didn't make any sense, it happened like that a couple weeks later, and again, until it was pretty much every other night, or every night. It was okay, because Luka and I weren't seeing each other anymore, but one day, this new doctor, a tall, pretty boy with a muted Brooklyn accent, asked me if Dr. Lewis and I were a thing, and all I could do was shrug and say, "Your guess is as good as mine."

She asked me about Carter one morning, over toast and the Sunday paper, asked if I'd talked to him recently, and I said that I hadn't. She smiled and said that she hadn't either, and I asked her what she was so happy about.

She looked down and said that she was glad that this wasn't just because of him, and then she asked me to pass the blueberry jam, and that was that. Our fingers touched when I handed her the butter knife, and she smiled really brightly with all of her teeth, and it was nice, because she didn't have to say, "I love you," and when I kissed her, she tasted like wheat bread and sweet coffee.

And it didn't even matter that this wasn't a real fairy tale, because I got to lick the jam off her fingers, and in the end, there isn't much more that you can ask for.

Back to the one-offs.