Title: Welcome Home, Stranger

Rating: PG

Spoilers: Only up to around 10-5. Ignore any and all spoilers you may have heard. This is a response to the OCOH November challenge.

Archive: You know it.

Feedback: Give it to me.

Disclaimer: If you believe these guys are mine, then you must believe the "Employees Wash Hands" sign is keeping the urine out of your Happy Meal (that was vivid, wann'it children?).

Author's Notes: If they're not up here...

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So, I heard Carter was back.

Well, back again, I should say.

Personally, I haven't seen him. I even heard that he was in the hospital at some point during my shift, and I still managed to avoid him. As of yet, I have no desire to see John Carter again.

I'm such a liar. If I do nothing else, I should stop lying to myself. It can't be healthy. Because I definitely do want to see Carter again. I just can't bring myself to see him yet. I'm not ready. And I'm still way too hurt.

You'd think, after all these months, I would have gotten over it, or at least begun to move on. Not so much, though. He's still the first thing I think of when I wake up, and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. They may not always be the most pleasant of thoughts, but the fact remains that I'm thinking about him. I can't get him out of my mind.

I've tried. I've tried so hard to clear my mind of all things Carter. I gathered all of his stuff that was in my apartment, put it in a box, and hid it in the back of one of my closets. Visually, there's nothing that reminds me of him. Except the hospital. And my entire apartment. My bed. Even my clothes because, sadly, I remember every outfit I wore on every date we went on. And, of course, there's nothing I can do about my damn memories. That's where Carter really haunts me.

It's just that I have no idea what to say to him at this point. How do you strike up a conversation with a man to whom you've devoted so much time and energy, a man you were sure you were going to spend the rest of your life with, but obviously thought so little of you that he broke up with you in a letter? I can't even fathom how I would approach that conversation. I mean, can we say awkward?

There's so much I want to know, so much I want him to tell me, but...I don't know if I want to hear the answers. I may be glutton for punishment, but somehow, I don't think I could handle hearing why he doesn't love me anymore and just had to break up with me.

So, I suppose that's why I all but hid in a storage closet when I heard that Carter was on the premises. I didn't want to bump into him and either have to deal with a strained conversation full of the typical, "Hi, how are you's" or have some sort of ugly confrontation with him or just break down from his mere presence.

I have no idea if he was looking for me or not, either. All anyone said was that he'd been at the hospital. I don't know if he, on the off-chance that he came in and was looking for me, thought that maybe I had the day off, or if someone told him that I'm back in med school and he freaked out or something or what. All I know is that he hasn't called me-not at home, and not on my cell phone.

I guess that should answer at least one question-he's not looking for me. One would think he would have called by now if he was searching me out.

I think I'm bordering on the verge of pathetic. I'm sitting in my apartment, in the dark because I can't be bothered getting up to turn any lights on, staring at the phone, fearing a conversation with him, and desperately hoping that he'll call me.

Moving on with my life does not seem to be a possibility.

In fact, I think I'm moving backwards, because I'm pretty sure this is the kind of thing you only do when you're in high school. Or, I'm on the verge of becoming psychotic.

I suppose I could be adult about it and actually be the one to make the first move, but you know what? I'm a girl, despite my very best efforts at times. Therefore, I can't help but feel girly from time to time, and I want him to call me. Despite the fact that he sent me that letter, I'd have to say the ball's in his court. He left. He should be the one to do something. I may be way off base, but I can't help the way I feel.

It's at that very moment that I'm yanked from my thoughts by my intercom buzzer. I slowly trudge over to answer it, stretching as I go because I haven't moved from my fetal position on the couch in a few hours. I figure it's probably Susan, either just making sure that I'm okay after hearing about Carter, or to tell me everything she knows about him and his return, or both.

I press the button and manage to croak out, "Yes?" kind of startled at the sound of my unused voice.

There's a brief moment of silence, and then I hear a staticy, "Abby?" My knees actually go weak. For the first time in my life, I feel like I may swoon. It's him. Instead of calling me or searching me out at the hospital, he's pulling out the big guns and cornering me at my apartment. Very slick.

I have to try a few times before I manage to say, "What do you want?"

"I need to talk to you. Just for a few minutes. Please."

Here it is. The moment of truth. Do I let him in, or send him away? In the end, it's not much of an inner battle because my finger is pressing the button to let him in before my mind has a chance to fully process the request.

But then I just stand there. I make no move to unlock the door-I just stand there, staring at it, unable to quite believe that I'm about to see Carter again after all this time.

Before I know it, there's a knock at the door, and I'm once again faced with a choice. I could unlock my door and let him in, or I could keep the door locked, and tell him I've changed my mind. I could just send him away. It could be that easy.

But I know it's not.

Nothing is ever that easy.

After an eternity, I turn all the bolts and remove the chain and pull the door open.

I don't know what I was expecting to see. Maybe I thought he'd look different, that his hair would be long and he'd have a beard by now. Instead, I'm faced with nearly the same John Carter that left me without looking back. He's thinner, if that's possible, and his eyes look different. But he still looks like my Carter.

I have to focus on breathing. I have to mentally tell myself to inhale and exhale for a few long moments. I have to make sure that my heart's still beating. And most of all, I have to stop myself from falling into his arms and forgetting that we were ever apart.

That last part is the hardest.

All I want is to hold him. I want to feel his arms around me. I want to remember what it felt like to be safe and loved. But even if he wants the same thing, it won't solve anything. I don't even know if we can ever have that again.

I do know one thing for sure. It took me less than a second to figure it out. I'm still in love with him. Hardcore in love with him. Crazy, head- over-heels in love with him.

Which is going to make things a hell of a lot more difficult when I find out that he's just here to get the rest of his stuff and wants nothing to do with me ever again. I don't know how long we stand there, staring at each other. It was probably a matter of seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. In those moments, I could see our past, our present, and our future. Everything that might have been if I hadn't managed to lose him. He manages to startle me again. "Can I come in?" It's barely above a whisper, and I almost have to strain to hear it, but it sounds louder than a gunshot.

I don't trust my voice to not betray me, so I just move to one side, opening the door a little wider. He's very cautious as he walks in, almost as if he's never been in my apartment as opposed to when he was practically living here less than a year ago.

"Why's it so dark in here?"

"I'm trying to lower my electricity bill?" When in doubt, deflect.

"I didn't wake you up, did I?"

I instantly shake my head "no," then mentally slap myself. If I'd said yes, then I'd have an actual reason for my apartment being dark. Instead, he probably thinks I'm drinking by myself in the dark or something.

"I was just kind of, uh...spacing out, I guess. I'll turn a light on."

I start to move toward a lamp, but his hand is suddenly on my arm, and I freeze. I haven't had physical contact with him in so long, I don't know how to deal with it.

"Don't worry about it. The dark is nice."

Awkward conversation it is.

We stare at each other for a while longer. I feel like I've never seen him before. I feel like I haven't known him for the better part of four years. He feels like a complete stranger to me. I used to be able to read him so well. I knew what every facial expression meant. So I can't stop myself from taking in every aspect of him, trying to somehow get to know him again. I think I finally understand the expression, "a sight for sore eyes."

I have to snap myself out of this. What gives me my jolt back to reality is his hand leaving my arm. I suddenly feel like a boat lost at sea.

He wants to talk? So, talk already.

"What do you want, Carter?"

He opens and closes his mouth several times, trying to say something. Well, at least I'm not the only one who's not handling this well. Eventually, he gives me a small, self-deprecating grin. "You know, I had this all planned out. I've been thinking for months what I'd say to you. I had everything memorized-every thought, every explanation, every reason. But, now, seeing you again...I can't remember a thing. You deserve something better than a rehearsed speech."

I stay silent. Not only do I not know how to answer that, but he still hasn't answered my question. So I wait.

"I'm so sorry, Abby. I never should have left you like that. And I sure as hell shouldn't have sent you a break-up letter. I don't know what happened with us, though. Suddenly, the thought of being near you hurt worse than the thought of being away from you, and I knew that wasn't where I wanted to be with you. I had to leave. I had to get away, find myself. And I thought I was doing the best thing for both of us by ending it. Especially how you reacted the first time I came back. I thought that we'd reached a point where we were better off apart."

That kills me. If that's what he thought, why couldn't he at least discuss it with me? That's not asking so much.

"Africa was amazing. Even more so the second time around. I did things there that I'd never dared to imagine here. But it didn't take me long to realize that it wasn't the same without you, even if you were on the other side of the world. I couldn't write you and tell you about things. I couldn't call you just to hear your voice. There wasn't a second that I didn't think about you, Abby. Not a second. No matter what I was doing. Even when I was asleep, you were all I could dream about. And I finally figured out that it's not worth it-nothing's worth it-if you're not there to share it with me."

Well. This is an unexpected development. I never thought he'd say anything like this. Hoped, yes. But I didn't think it would actually happen.

"I need you, Abby. I need you in my life, one way or another. Even if it's just seeing you at work, I need you there. And I realize that at this point, having you in my life at work is about the most I can ask for, and it's definitely more than I deserve right now, but I'll take what I can get.

"I do want to clear up that I'm not putting all of the blame on myself. But I'm not putting it all on you, either. We both messed up. Somewhere along the line, we just...stopped. And it was because of things we both did and didn't do. We didn't try hard enough, I guess. I suppose I just expected it to all just happen for us, and that things would just keep moving along and we'd move along with it. We forgot to work at it. At the same time, we expected too much and nothing at all. A relationship can't work like that."

I think I'm gaping. It feels like my mouth is hanging open, but I can't seem to figure out how to close it. This is a lot of information to take in at one time. I lose even more control when I watch him step closer to me and feel his hands come to rest on my arms.

"I'm not going to lie to you, Abby. I want you back. I want you back so badly it hurts. I don't expect it to happen, but it's what I want. I don't want us to go back. I just want us to keep moving forward. I want to be your boyfriend and your best friend again."

I finally manage to swallow, trying to wet my parched throat. When I speak, I can't believe the words that fall out of my mouth, in a soft whisper no less. "You want me back?" "More than anything. I never stopped loving you. I love you more now than I did the last time I saw you. I love you more than I did ten minutes ago. And I love you more every second."

I can't help myself. It's weak of me, but I simply can't fight it. I lean up a little and press my lips to his. Nothing excessively passionate; just a sweet, simple kiss. But it's enough.

Somewhat reluctantly, I pull my lips from his and lean back a little to look at him. He looks a little dumbfounded. Guess I managed to throw him for a loop.

Before I know it, he's pulled me close once more, his arms wrapped around me in a tight bear hug, and I can do nothing but reciprocate. This doesn't mean that we're automatically back together, or that everything is somehow magically all right. We still have a lot to deal with and even more to talk about. But now we know that we're both on the same page. We both want the same thing, even though we both realize that it's going to take us a while to get there. That's okay. I can wait. He's worth it.

"I've missed you so much," I hear him whisper in my ear. I'm not sure, but I think he might be crying. I have to confess that I am, too, a little. "It's so good to be back here, with you, where I belong, finally home. I love you, Abby."

A smile takes over my face and bury my head in the crook of his neck. He's still a little unfamiliar to me, but I still know the important things. And what I don't know, I'm willing to learn. "Welcome home, stranger," I answer, sniffling ever so slightly. "I love you, too."

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Author's Notes: So, I've never responded to a challenge before. For whatever reason, I've never been able to get into it. But this one was posted and ideas instantly started forming, so I didn't fight it. It kind of works, right?....Right? Anyway, crazy shout outs to the Whore and the Brothel, of course. Shout out to DaisyGreen215 for finally getting her ass on ff.net. Read her stuff; she's quite good ;) And while you're at it, check out brooksalexandra. She doesn't have much posted here, but she's another one of those good writers who doesn't write enough, so send her feedback and encourage her. One more shout...TinyStar, I'm still there for you, dude. And I still stand firmly by the belief that everyone needs to read her stuff. Go now. For the love of all that is holy, go now.

Author's Notes part II: reviews are really needed right now...if even just one person has something positive to say, I'll be forever in your debt. Thank you.