TITLE: After (2/2)

AUTHOR: C. Midori

EMAIL: Carter/Abby

RATING: PG

SPOILERS: None

DISCLAIMER: I don't own ER. (But if I did there sure as hell wouldn't be as many helicopters.)

AUTHOR NOTES: Written for the Holiday Carby Secret Fix Exchange 2004. Three elements: (1) candy canes, (2) nail polish remover, (3) the roof of the hospital.

SUMMARY: For undo them a child was born. Twelve days of Christmas, Carter/Abby-style. AU.

For Nora.

The Birth

j'aime et j'espère

1.

There is a white wooden church in a small town in Minnesota and it stands out like a star on the darkest night of the year. Snow blots out most of the landscape, but you can still make out the pines whose trunks are like dark strokes inked onto a blank canvas, and the wishing wells whose heads emerge in the drifts like signposts guiding three weary travelers.

The town is gray with smoke and age, but coal trains still roll by to stoke the fire that made Prometheus a thief and gave man a light in his dark cave of a world. Here the light lingers a little longer in the winter; all the neighbors shine lamps in their windows. Here the blankets are hand sewn and stuffed with eiderdown, and here the snow stays white on the ground. Here you were birthed, here you were baptized. Here is all you know, and here is where you call home.

2.

They painted the kitchen, found a dog that spares birds' lives. The bathtub stands on clawed feet and each stair creaks in a different key. In the summer they hang laundry out on the line to dry, in the winter coffee cups rattle in their saucers and there's always a warm place to come in from the cold.

Nights, they hold each other close, their breaths mingling, a bare shoulder, a smooth thigh, her eyes the color of walnut shells, dark and polished.

3.

They drive back roads, a day out, the two of them drinking coffee and talking, watching the sky for signs. It reminds them of Oklahoma: another place, another time. Another version of them. They almost miss the For Sale sign hiding in a field of dandelion stalks waist-high.

Horses look up, startled, as he stops the Jeep and hops out the driver's side. He can see the whites of their eyes, the nervous twitch of their tails, before they decide he is harmless. (They remind him of her.) Their heads drop back out of sight, their necks arching like a bow in the sun as they graze.

Guess they're not used to visitors, she remarks, pointedly. He hears the Jeep door slam behind him as she follows more slowly.

We're not visitors, he says, with a look at the house and then back at her.

She stares back. The sun is setting, lighting the freckles on the bridge of her nose. Only in the summer.

Absolutely not, she says, her voice firm. But she's still following him up the dirt road.

Less traffic, he points out, hopefully.

Less running water, she scolds. Less air conditioning. She reaches for the front door. The knob comes off in her hands.

More time, he says.

She says nothing, just purses her lips.

That's when he knows he has a foot in the door.

4.

Happy Birthday, he says, when he shows up at her door, a gift in his hands, potted roses and a suitcase at his feet.

She doesn't say anything, just steps out into the hallway and wraps her arms around him. They sway in place, like an old house in the wind.

Later, he watches her get dressed for her shift. He thinks the sight of her bare leg dangling over the edge of an unmade bed is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.

5.

They spend a couple of hours on the boardwalk. She insists on paying for her own dinner, so he buys her ice cream from a vendor. They ride on the merry-go-round and play arcade games. He's surprised, she's a better shot than he is. She's not, Richard gave her plenty of practice.

Dusk is curling along the edge of the horizon when they find a place to sit. The bench is old and rotting, with initials and hearts carved into the wood. The street light is flickering, her eyelashes fluttering, when he leans over and kisses her.

She draws away. I don't want to be that kind of person.

He keeps his expression carefully neutral. What kind of person?

The glances at him sideways is hard, accusatory. No bullshit about it. She doesn't flinch when she speaks.

You'll leave me, she says. (Again.)

He shakes his head never.

He kisses her, kisses her again over her bruised mouth, and he hears the bewildered catch her breath. It's not quite love, yet, it's not quite what they used to be or what they expected. But it's something.

6.

She washes her hair in rainwater and calls him John. In the dark her teeth flash white as chalk, and her eyes are big and beautiful in her small face. Narrow little thing. Her collarbones, like her syllables, are sharp, articulated, betray her European upbringing. He can read his future in the open curve of her palm, and then of her belly.

He doesn't remember a life with running water, newspapers with crisp folds in them, the endless aurora of traffic lights. The things from his old life, they're gone, they're ghosts. All the better; he doesn't miss them.

But Chicago is cold, colder than it has any right to be, and so they bury their child with the elements: over the river, sky laced with weather, heart burning like a funeral pyre. Water, air, and fire. Her eyes are huge in her peaked face, her hands curled into tight little fists. Her angular body fits awkwardly into his.

Prometheus gave man other gifts before he gave man fire with which to make his sacrifices: ships and sails to make their way across the waters, numbers to measure the miles from home, healing drugs for science and signs in the sky for faith, the alphabet for remembering things. But he remembers this moment well enough without the words. She's going to leave him, and the knowledge of it is a hard cramp in his gut.

7.

I want to marry you.

She's lucky; on the rooftop of the hospital, with helicopters overhead, she can claim she never heard him. He looks half-crazed, anyway.

Back in her apartment, she collapses into bed, exhausted, exhilarated at the thought of seeing her brother again. She falls asleep like that, curled up into a little ball, facing out into the darkness, and she doesn't stir when he walks into the bedroom.

He watches her sleep for a moment before retreating to his side of the bed. It's oddly fitting that she sleeps with her back to him. Sometimes it feels like a war, and there are sides. But it's not them against life, the two of them against the madness that runs in her family or the money that seems to run his. Instead, it's her against the world, and he knows where he fits in that equation. He can't help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

8.

There are several reasons why she regrets ever coming in the first place. One is the pink dress she's wearing, two is the ex-husband with the blonde bombshell on his arm, three is the uneasy realization that she is aware, very aware, too aware, of his hand on the small of her back.

She whispers stories into his ear, telling him about her prom and her first cigarette. He laughs, takes her for a spin around the dance floor. She reminds herself that she's taken, already, she's on loan tonight; she reminds herself that she's never stopped wanting, ever, and she's a little ashamed of her unrealized greed.

9.

Come on, she says, with a little smile on her face. Splurge with me.

10.

When the day comes and it's time, the first thing she does is get her hair cut. A quick cut at a no-frills salon. Twelve bucks, plus tip. A small one. (Surgery is expensive.)

Her new cut is dark, short. Looks just like Maggie's. Good, it'll remind her. Some people weren't meant to be mothers.

The clinic smells like newspaper, and nail polish remover. There's a girl sitting next to her who can't possibly be more than fifteen, her small bones folded into the hard plastic chair, and she's gnawing at her nails. Idly, Abby glances at her hands. Small and work-worn as they are, she's never bothered to invest the time, energy, or money into polish. What's the point? It'd just chip off in the end, anyway. Probably get ingested by one of the babies in OB, and then she'd really be fucked. More so.

Lockhart, Abigail.

This is it, she thinks to herself. And it is it, in more than one way, though by the time she realizes it it's too late.

11.

When Zeus learned of Prometheus' trespass, he was so angry that he sought to undo all the good that had been done in the shape of a girl named Pandora.

But the part she liked to remember, days when Maggie refused to get out of bed and Eric held her hand as she cooked dinner, is what was left after Pandora was emptied of her curse.

12.

Midnight Mass: bright, beautiful, the streets full of strangers and the church full of light. Worshippers bearing candles spill out onto the little narrow road leading away from the double doors. The cold stripes their faces red and white, like a candy cane.

They have hugs for you, gifts, enough to embarrass you. Everyone knows you, here. Everyone knew your parents. You did, after all, pick up where they left off, the only doctor within a fifty mile radius in the backwoods of Minnesota, not too far from where your mother grew up. Here is all you know, and here is where you call home.

That's why you're leaving it.

As you make the drive to Chicago, in the Jeep your father left you, the land you leave is covered with snow but you know every inch of it better than the map folded open in the passenger's seat. Here is the church that baptized you and bade you farewell, here is the creek where you played as a kid. Here is the house your parents painted one summer, here is the place your parents are buried.

Then the landscape becomes unfamiliar.

You drive into the city, over a river you only know because your parents made it important, somehow. Here, at last, is undiscovered country. Here is Cook County General Hospital, and you are not the first Dr. Carter to come walking through its doors.