TITLE: What Work Is
PAIRING: Susan Lewis/Abby Lockhart
RATING: barely NC-17 for barely explicit f/f sex
SPOILERS/CONTINUITY: Happens right after "A Simple Twist of Fate." Bears little resemblance to the events of subsequent episodes.
SUMMARY: Susan tries to put Abby back together.
FEEDBACK: You betcha. I prefer private e-mail at email@example.com
ARCHIVE: Yes to list archives and ER Femslash. Others should ask permission and leave my disclaimers as written.
DISCLAIMER: ER is the intellectual property of Constant C Productions, Amblin Entertainment, and Warner Brothers Television. This original work of fan fiction is copyright 2002 Mosca, and I'm not making any money off of it. Therefore, it's protected in the USA by the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed. Where have you gone, Carol Marin?
NOTES: Thanks to k and Katisha, the wonder betas. The title is from a Philip Levine poem.
"So I go to the trouble like a light
Or like a dare
Trouble is just like a friend to me
I know it'll always be there"
-- Shawn Colvin, "Trouble"
Abby Lockhart is asleep on my couch. The pull-out bed turned out to be uncomfortable, so she's sleeping on just the couch, the blankets dripping off of her and onto the floor. The TV is tuned to an infomercial, because that's what's on at 5:30 in the morning. I'm worried that if I turn it off or change the channel, I'll wake her. I put on the coffee and go take a shower.
When I am washed and dressed and blow-dried, she has rolled over to face the back of the couch. I can only see the part of her face that is least bruised. She looks like there's nothing wrong. I have my Special K and coffee in the kitchen, but the whole time, I'm watching her through the door that separates the kitchen from the living room. I'm a little bit afraid to leave her alone. Yesterday, Weaver let me take the day off, since I covered all those shifts two days ago. I mostly ran errands and slept, but still, it feels different, leaving Abby alone for 13 hours while I go try to do my job. She can take care of herself, and I know that. She gets annoyed when I try to do anything for her. But I have this reflex that says that nobody can really take care of themselves, especially people who are hiding from their neighbors who kicked the shit out of them.
I put on my makeup, and it feels like I'm covering something up. I am wondering what I would look like, bruised. Nobody has ever hit me in the face. Chloe's husband got close once, when he was drunk and angry with me for something I've since forgotten, but he thought better of it. I broke my nose playing tetherball (does anyone play that anymore?) when I was twelve. That's it for facial trauma.
I'm heading out for work. I realize that I've stopped. I'm watching Abby sleep. I am having to tell myself not to touch her. The blankets have mostly fallen away from her, and I pull them up around her. She doesn't look warmer now, just safer. I'm pushing her hair back from her face and thinking that she looks angelic. She stirs, and I jump back.
"I'm gonna get going," I say, in case she is awake. "Are you sure you're all right by yourself?"
"Yeah... fine," she mutters half-consciously.
"Page me if you need me," I say.
It is really fucking cold out, but clear. I'm amazed that my car starts. The weather seems to be confusing everyone, because the roads are full of people making bizarre mistakes and stopping for no obvious reason. All these people thinking that where they're going is important, that the rest of us are just getting in our cars at sunrise because we enjoy making traffic.
It's one of those surreal days at work. Every single ER employee has to march up to me, separately, to ask how Abby is doing. I say that she's fine, but really, I have no idea. She hasn't said much to me. Meanwhile, John is Dealing With His Mother, and not really in much of a state to Deal With Anyone Else. He is technically my boyfriend, which is weird enough in the first place. Our relationship feels less and less real. He is worrying about other things, because I am the only thing in his life not creating trouble.
So he is dealing with it by fighting with Deb Chen all day. Deb Chen hasn't grown out of being an asshole. She might be flirting with him, but I don't think he's in a state of mind to pick up on it. It's probably my imagination. I am making excuses, because my relationship with John has cooled. And because this morning, I was looking at someone else, and I was not thinking about the consequences.
There are shifts that go on forever, and there are shifts that fly by so fast I can't believe it's been twelve hours. Today I stare at every clock and will the hands to move. Every patient seems like an obstacle. It's one of those days where everyone, from the ear-infected preschoolers to the withering old men, wants to get some personal problem off their chest. I've been told that I have a listening face. People look at me and want to tell me their life stories. I want a sign like Lucy Van Pelt, from the Peanuts. The Doctor Is Out. Go lay your troubles on someone else.
When I get home, Abby is still on the couch, although it looks like she's gotten dressed. She's watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "I got dinner," I say.
"I'm not hungry," she says.
"Have you eaten anything all day?"
"I had some crackers," she says, "and some tea."
"You need to *eat*," I say. I'm scooping Thai food onto a plate for her, and we both know I'm going to hover over her shoulder until she eats it.
"You don't need to do this," she says.
"I'm doing it anyway," I say.
She turns the TV off. "I've been watching it all day," she says. "That's all I've been *doing*."
I sit with her in the quiet, and we eat and don't talk. Her hair is falling into her face, covering up the bruises. When she pushes it out of her eyes, she winces.
"Do you need some more Tylenol?" I say.
"Oh, God, I've had so much Tylenol," she says. "I don't think it's doing anything anymore. I should have taken that Vicodin when I had the chance."
"I could still get you a scrip."
"That's okay," she says. "I shouldn't."
"Well, let me know."
She eats her noodles. The guy downstairs is listening to hip-hop. The refrigerator and the heat are running. There are cars going by.
"Why are you doing this?" she says.
"I don't know," I say. "I think it's what I do."
"Take on pity cases?"
She brushes her hair from her face again, and she winces again. "Yeah, me too."
"I came back to Chicago because I was going to quit doing it," I say. "I was going to stop bailing out my sister all the time, and I was going to stop feeling responsible for when she screwed up. And then I got here, and I just started... feeling responsible for everyone else."
"Sounds familiar," Abby says.
"And then I wonder why I'm so tired all the time."
"Well, you have my permission not to feel responsible for me."
"Somehow, I don't think it's that easy."
"I *know* it's not that easy," she says. "If it was..."
"You wouldn't be using up your sick days on my couch?"
Abby shakes her head and smiles weakly. "It hurts to *smile*," she says.
"I know," I say, and I'm holding her, rubbing her back slowly.
She sniffles. "It hurts to cry, too."
"I know," I say. "I know." I kiss the crown of her head like I am kissing a child. I tell myself that all I'm doing is comforting her. But she is kissing my neck, and I know that comforting her is not what I am doing. "We can't do this," I say.
"I know," she says.
"It hurts to kiss, anyway."
I cant help laughing, and then she starts. "Doesn't it hurt to laugh?" I say.
"It hurts to do anything," she says. "It hurts to breathe. It hurts to eat. If I roll over onto my stomach, it hurts to sleep. The only thing it doesn't hurt to do is sit on the couch and watch soap operas."
"It'll get better," I say.
"Right," she says.
She gets quiet again, and I don't know what to say to her. Eventually, I excuse myself, telling her I have things to take care of. I shut myself in my bedroom. I read the mail, check my e-mail, lie on my back on the bed for a long time not wanting to face her. It isn't the first time I've kissed a woman. It isn't exactly something that happens all the time, but that wasn't the first time it's happened. But it's the first time I've kissed a woman who needed me to keep myself from kissing her.
When I go back to the living room to check on Abby, she's in the kitchen, doing the dinner dishes. "I was feeling useless," she says.
"*Don't*," I say. "Let me."
"No, God, let me do *something*," she says. "I've got all this... energy. I'm not used to sitting around all day."
"Fine," I shrug. She can do my dishes if she wants to do my dishes. I am not going to stand there and watch her. I am not going to stand there and think about touching her hair.
What I should do now is call John. I should remind myself why I'm seeing him, and why I'm keeping my hands off of Abby. What I do instead is sit down on the couch and flip TV channels.
Abby turns off the faucet and comes into the living room. "Is the news on?" she says.
"Oh, I always watch the one with the pregnant anchorwoman."
"What, is she pregnant all the time or something?"
"No," she says. "But one of the anchorwomen is always pregnant. It's, like, one of the laws of Chicago."
Sure enough, the blonde on channel 7 is starting to show. "That's one way of making a decision," I say.
"They're all pretty much the same. I mean, since Carol Marin left channel 5."
"Carol Marin *left*?"
"Journalistic integrity," Abby says. "Or something."
After the news, my exhaustion hits me. I'm not just tired from work-- not just the everyday tired that days off never quite compensate for. I realize that I didn't sleep well last night. I'm not used to having other people sleep in my home. Even when I was so tied up in my sister's life, I had my own place, where I could account for all the noises. If I put something on the table in the morning, it would still be on the table at night.
But here, now, Abby, who leaves the TV on all night. She will wake up to use the bathroom, and I will think someone has broken into my apartment. And who knows how long she will be here? She will be here until they catch that guy. Her neighbor. It's like a stalemate: Abby and her neighbor's wife not in their apartments because he could find them there too easily, but then, he's not there either, because the police could find him there too easily. Kovac went to Abby's place yesterday, to bring some of her things over here. The longer she has to stay here, the more of her things will move to my apartment.
I tell her I'm tired. It's been a long day. I know I won't sleep well-- I'll keep waking up nervous-- but I don't tell her this.
She says, "Good night." She looks like she is about to cry.
"Are you all right?" I say.
She looks at me like I've lost my mind. "Oh, God," she says. "Not at *all*." I don't know what I look like, reacting, but it's enough to make her backtrack: "But don't worry about it. You've done enough." She stands up, and for a second I think she is going to collapse into my arms. She is holding herself together. She looks like hell. I feel like I should see bruises, but instead of the red swelling and the dark blue sleepless circles I am looking at her eyes, into her eyes. Her eyes are brown-black and perfect. I am looking at the way her breasts rise under her sweatshirt, and I am looking at the way she breathes. And I know that no matter how many times we say we can't do this, that we can and we will. We shouldn't, but that's a whole different word. She needs to find somewhere else to stay, because I am going to kiss her. And I am going to keep doing it until she leaves my apartment.
She is kissing me so hard that I'm sure it must hurt her. When she came to the ER, after she got hit, she had a split lip. Not bad enough for stitches, just a shallow cut. Still, kissing her, I can taste it opening up, taste her blood in my mouth. I can see us running around the apartment looking for the one box of Kleenex so she can put pressure on the wound until the bleeding stops. But this doesn't happen. It's been a couple of days, and she's fine.
While I am kissing Abby, I am so tired that I'm thinking about stopping so I can go to bed. I am dying for sleep. Sleep seems like the easiest thing in the world, even though I know every little sound will wake me. I feel more like I am taking advantage of her, because I want to be doing something else.
"Is something wrong?" she says. "I don't know, you seem like..."
Yes, obviously, things are wrong. I feel like asking if she wants a list of reasons to stop what we are doing. Itemized, maybe. Roman numerals. A Power Point presentation outlining the wrongness of it all. "I... yeah. Sorry."
"I thought you wanted--"
"Yes. That's the problem," I say. "The problem is that you're right." I shut myself in my bedroom, and I know I am leaving her stunned. I change out of my clothes into a t-shirt and sweatpants. My mind is racing. I turn off the lights and pull the covers around myself. It is so quiet in my apartment that I could be alone. I wonder what Abby is doing. I can't sleep.
Abby knocks softly at my bedroom door. Either Abby or some strangely considerate burglar. I tell her to come in, and when she closes the door behind her, it is so dark that she could be anywhere. The bed creaks where she sits down.
"You should probably find somewhere else to stay," I say.
"Right," she says.
"If you have other friends, or..."
"Yeah," she says. "There are people I could call."
"You don't *have* to," I say. Just to make that clear.
I am all prepared to say something stupid. Miraculously, I don't say anything.
"Do you *want* me to stay?" she says.
"I... I don't know," I say.
"Then I shouldn't," she says.
"You should at least stay *tonight*."
"Obviously," she says.
"Well... good night," I say, and she says good night, but she is not getting up from my bed. I think it might be nice if she slept next to me. I also think it's a terrible idea, for that list of reasons with the Roman numerals and the Power Point. "Stay," I say. "Stay here."
"What do you want me to..."
"Sleep here," I say.
She crawls under the covers next to me. I spoon behind her and hold her tight against me. I tell myself that I'm making her feel safe. I sleep soundly, and when I wake up the next morning, she is lying with her arm across me. I don't want to disturb her, so I lie there with my eyes closed. I stroke her hand gently.
"Oh, are you up?" she says.
"Yeah, I thought you were still..."
"I was just thinking," she says.
"Nothing. Nothing I... want to talk about."
"All right," I say.
While I kiss her, I promise myself that this will be the last time. If it stops at kissing, it doesn't mean anything. It isn't cheating. The phone rings.
I keep meaning to buy a phone for my bedroom, but that hasn't happened yet, so I run to the living room. "Hello?"
It's John. "Susan?"
"We-- we need to talk." Yes, John. Yes, we need to talk. I need to tell you that when the phone rang, your best friend had her tongue down my throat, and no matter what I promised myself at the time, we're probably going to start again as soon as I hang up the phone.
"Is this-- are we-- are we going anywhere, Susan? Is this working out?"
"What do you mean?"
"I-- There's been a lot going on in my life lately, and I'm not sure... I'm not sure I can do this right now."
He's dumping me. I should be upset about this. Instead, it feels like I'm getting out of jail free. "What are you..."
"I think we should... back off for a while," he says. "Maybe see what happens later on, but for now..."
"Maybe you're right," I say.
"I'm sorry. I just can't... What?"
"I've kind of been thinking the same thing," I say. "Maybe it's just bad timing."
"Are you... really?"
"Yeah, like we haven't had a lot of time for each other lately, and..."
"Well, I guess it's for the best, then," he says.
"I just want you to know that I still care about you."
"Me too, John," I say. "Me too."
"I'll see you tonight, John."
"Yeah," he says. "See you tonight."
I run back into the bedroom. "He just dumped me," I tell Abby.
"Who?" she says. "Carter?"
"You sounded kind of... giddy," she says.
"I was trying not to."
"Maybe he didn't notice."
"I hope not," I say.
"I doubt he did," she says. "He's so wrapped up in himself."
"He *is*, isn't he?"
She laughs. "Yeah." She kisses me to fill the silence. I feel free, kissing her.
"Susan," she says between kisses, "was it because of me?"
"I think... we'd been needing to break up for a while," I say.
"That's good," she says. "I wouldn't want to think that I..."
"But I'm *happy* about it because of you." I kiss her hard, trying to avoid her swollen nose. The rest of her bruises are starting to fade, but her nose is still pretty bad. And I want her to feel as beautiful as I see her. She is wearing this loose kind of tank top thing, and under it her breasts are soft. When I go down on her, she seems familiar. I realize that even during the rape exam, I was looking at her, paying attention. She tastes clean because I know that no one has touched her. I signed the charts to prove it. When she comes, my tongue is busy on her clit. She is saying my name.
I get up to take a shower. "Don't you want me to..." she says.
"I've got my period," I say. "It shouldn't bother me, but it always feels all... ick."
"I'm the same way," she says.
"I guess... that means you'll have to stay a few more days," I say.
She smiles and lies back on my bed. Under the bruises, she is glowing.
I'm off until the night shift tonight, and I insist on getting Abby out of my apartment. She's turning into a hothouse flower. She gets a bath started-- the water pressure from the shower hits her face and hurts-- and she locks herself in the bathroom. "I can't go out," she shouts through the door.
"What are you going to do, spend another day watching General Hospital?"
"That was the plan," she says.
"I'll take you somewhere," I say. "I'll pay."
"Susan, I look like--"
"An assault victim?"
There's a long pause. "Yeah," she says.
After her bath, she tries to put some makeup on to cover up the bruises, but that hurts. I lend her a hooded sweatshirt. When we go out for sandwiches, she hides behind the hood and her hair. Nobody is actually looking at her, but I know that's not how it feels. "I could say I lost a boxing match," she says. "If anyone asks."
"No, it should be more dramatic," I say. "Like, you were saving a baby from a burning building."
"Slaying vampires," she says. "I'll say I was slaying vampires."
I laugh. It's kind of true, anyway. Making the world safe for the innocent.
She wants to go to the movies, because it's dark there. It's too cold to do anything else, anyway. I hold her hand during the show, and doing that seems strangely daring. She rests her head on my shoulder. After we leave, I realize that I can't remember much of the movie.
Work is a long, quiet night shift, just me and Weaver and a handful of residents who spend their evening playing wheelchair hockey. They seem like little kids. Weaver is walking around disconsolately, not even bothering to yell at people. Part of me wants to tell her everything: Abby's hair and Abby's breasts, that strange conversation with John. How Weaver is so convinced she is the only one in the world, when she is not even the only one on this shift. But this is off limits, and maybe it ought to be. Maybe our tendency to let our personal lives seep into the professional is unsafe. It could be easier for everyone if we all wrapped those troubles inside ourselves and let work be work.
When I get home, Abby is asleep in my bed. It looks like the swelling has gone down a lot, or else I am remembering her worse than she was. Her eyelids flutter as she sleeps. She's clutching the blankets tight around her, and I am going to have to fight her, probably wake her, to get them back. It is almost eight in the morning. There's not much point in going to sleep now, even though I've got another graveyard shift tonight. I go to the kitchen to fix myself a cup of coffee and wait until she wakes up.
Over the next few days, having Abby around gets more natural. Her bruises fade, and she gets prettier and prettier. She decides she's ready to go to work again, and suddenly it's strange to have the apartment all to myself. I turn on the TV when she's not around so I won't have to hear all the quiet.
When I finally let her go down on me, after my period runs dry and I run out of excuses, she says she is sorry that she is being so technical. All those years as an OB nurse. I don't notice anything but the way she makes me come. I spend my days thinking about her hands and her tongue. I resign myself to the fact that it's not going to stop, and I resign myself to the fact that I don't want it to.
She wakes me before dawn with kisses. We've both got to be at work by seven. She flicks my clit with her fingers before I'm all the way awake. I tell her we shouldn't, but I've said that so many times that it doesn't mean anything anymore. We'll shower together like we always do when we make ourselves run late, and we'll say that we're only doing it to save time. And we're doing all of this to save time, because we've decided that this is going to stop when they find the guy and she moves out.
She says that she knows when I feel good because I purr. Not like a kitten, she says, but like a full-grown cat, stretching its claws out. I feel like I'm digging my claws into her. I am hurting her, and she is taking it, maybe out of some illusion that I've been sweet enough to her that it's okay. I tell myself that she's strong enough that I don't have to blame myself for this. I don't believe anything that I tell myself.
Three weeks after she came to stay over at my place, they find the guy who beat her up. He hopped a Greyhound bus to Virginia, and he was hiding out with some old high school buddy. He's a flight risk, since he crossed state lines, and the judge sets the bail high. We pack all her stuff into my car and take it back to her apartment. Between the stuff she's had Kovac bring and the stuff she's bought, I can't see out of my rear windshield. "So I guess this is it," she says.
"Huh?" I say, busy trying to get into the left lane on North Avenue.
"I mean, we're over. Because what else are we going to do? Are you going to be my girlfriend? Because we both know that's not going to work."
"I guess not," I say. And I'm disappointed in myself, because I feel like if we tried hard enough, it could work. We could live in the magical fantasy world where everything would be just fine and peachy with the two of us together. In the world where I love her, instead of just wanting her.
"It's been fun," she says.
"Yeah," I say. "It has."
Now, when I see her at work, I have to look away from her. We go through all the motions of being friends, but the restraint is killing me. That, and the lies of omission that pile up while everyone goes about the business of not knowing. I can't hold it in anymore. I stop John one day in the staff lounge. He, at least, deserves to know.
"I slept with Abby," I tell him, and the words seem unreal. Maybe because I have been rehearsing them all day.
"You slept with... *what*?"
"I... slept with Abby," I say again. "*After* you and I broke up." This is not technically a lie.
"You mean... you..."
"We had sex."
"Just once? Or..."
"A lot of times."
He looks at me for a long time, incredulous and sad. He and Abby have the same kind of sweet puppy eyes. "Why are you telling me this, Susan?" he says.
"I... I thought you should know."
"Well, you were wrong," he says. "I didn't need to know that." He walks away from me, and I know I've lost him.
The next time I've got a break, I go up to the roof to clear my head. Abby is up there, having a cigarette. "I thought you quit," I say.
"I did," she says. "I guess I un-quit."
"Can I have one?" I say.
She fishes one out of the pack in her coat pocket, and she lights it for me. It's been a few years since I've had a cigarette. I remember why I liked smoking in the first place. It feels good. We are both leaning over the guardrail and breathing smoke, and we are not talking to each other because we have nothing to say. We both know already: we want, and we shouldn't, and we won't.
She stamps out her cigarette. I am not watching her, but I can hear the sole of her shoe scrub the concrete. "I should go back in," she says.
"Yeah, I'll... see you later."
"Yeah," she says. She turns to go, but she doesn't move. "Susan?" she says.
"Yeah," I say, and I've finished my cigarette. I grind it into the floor. She is standing, waiting for me, her breath hitting the cold in visible puffs. Her face is healed and perfect. I pull her close to me and kiss her hard.
She breaks off the kiss to breathe. "This isn't going to stop, is it?" I say.
"No," she says. "I don't think it is." She kisses me back. We keep kissing until we realize that we might be missed down in the ER, and we hurry back, hoping that we can shed the scent of tobacco and kissing before anyone gets curious.