He could still see her.
Still see the pain frozen in place on her face, the drizzle of blood trickling from her mouth, a stream in comparison to the river that seeped from the bullet wound in her stomach.
No matter how many lights he turned on, no matter how many times he washed his face with the coldest water he could find, he could still see her.
The mental image wouldn't fade.
The nightmare refused to let go.
So it was half impulse, half madness that had him reaching for whatever clothes came to hand, searching his jacket pockets with an almost frantic edge for the keys to his truck and slipping on a trainer and a shoe - on one level he knew they didn't match but it didn't register in his brain.
He had other things to think about. More important things.
The look on her face. The blood pooling beneath her, staining her hands, staining his, as they both tried to stem the flow.
Trying to save her when she was already dead.
His hands clenched on the steering wheel and he ground his teeth against the memories.
It was only a dream, only a nightmare.
It wasn't real.
Still, knowing that didn't slow the pounding of his heart or ease the nausea coiled in his stomach.
Only knowing she was alive would do that, and that was why he was on his way to her house, at 0200 hours, acting on a whim.
He wasn't planning on knocking on the door, whether the lights were on or off. He knew she probably wasn't alone and it was one thing facing her at this hour with his irrational need to make sure she was okay but it was another facing him.
The detective would think he was nuts - probably more than he already did. Jack thought back to their first 'official' meeting at the engagement party and winced. He'd managed to hide his turmoil behind an easy grin, drawing strength from the brunette woman at his side, maybe even drawing a bit of malicious pleasure at the dull hurt in Carter's eyes when he'd made it clear he didn't care.
When he'd lied.
That was how many times he went passed her house in his truck, squinting out of the window. It took two times for him to realise that she was sitting alone on her porch - and that it was pretty clear she wasn't expecting anyone to join her.
On the third time, he gave in and pulled up, the truck bouncing against the curb and jolting him out of his thoughts.
It was stupid.
He was stupid.
If he hadn't seen her move her head to look over at the noise he would've driven away. Again.
Instead he wiped clammy hands on the material of his pants and switched off the engine, taking his time in getting out of the truck, locking it behind him and casually - or what he hoped was casually - sauntering up the path through the gate and passed the bushes up the steps to her porch.
His eyes narrowed when he reached the top step, his keen gaze falling on the bottle of scotch on the small table in front of her, the half-full, half-empty glass, the open packet of cigarettes - and the lit half-smoked cigarette in her hand.
"You don't smoke."
Even as he said it he knew it was stupid. If she didn't smoke why did she have one held expertly between her fingers.
As if proving a point, she drew the cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply, her reply exhaled on a cloud of smoke. "Used to."
Shrugging, Jack moved to sit beside her, reaching out to take the cigarette from between her fingers and lifting it to his own lips before attempting to continue the conversation. If it could be called a conversation. He inhaled the familiar nicotine and was taken back to the days when he easily got through a packet a day. The good old days.
"So what's up?"
"Nothing much." The shrug that accompanied the words suggested otherwise. As did the way her gaze landed on the scotch on the table. "It's over with Pete."
"Don't be. It was okay. We're still going to be friends."
Another shrug accompanied her words. Jack watched her take the cigarette back off him, drawing on it once more before stubbing it out on the arm of the chair with a not-so-steady hand, reaching for the tumbler of scotch after discarding the butt on the already littered table. "Is that enough?"
She swirled the golden liquid in the tumbler before lifting it to her lips and sipping it lightly. Her voice was hoarse when she answered. "Yep."
"'Cause it doesn't look like you're happy from where I'm standing."
"Technically you're sitting," she pointed out with a humourless smile, her eyes meeting his briefly before skittering away back to the tumbler clutched in her hand. Her knuckles turned as white as her fingers against the cool glass. "I'm fine."
Another pause, another sip.
He found his gaze wandering to the bottle, measuring up the contents. His eyes scanned the table and the surrounding floor, looking for any trace of another bottle. Finding none, he reached out and took the tumbler from her hand, unconvinced she could hold it for any longer without dropping it. "How many have you had?"
Sam shrugged and motioned to the tumbler in his hand with a nod of her head. "That's my one and only."
"Yep." A small, humourless smile slipped over her face. "Really can't stand the stuff."
A frown creased his brow as he sniffed the drink before taking a sip, sighing appreciatively as it burned its way down his throat. "It's the good stuff. The expensive stuff. Why'd you buy it if you don't like it?"
She cleared her throat and looked away, faintly embarrassed. He thought it was because he'd caught her staring but knew it wasn't when she answered quietly. "It your Christmas present."
"Oh." He took another sip, savouring the taste. "Christmas isn't for months, Carter."
"Last year. Christmas last year."
The frown deepened. "So why didn't you give it to me?"
A deep sigh accompanied another shrug and he watched her watch the shadows play at the other end of the porch. "Didn't think it was appropriate, given the situation."
'The situation' was one he was all too aware of.
After all, she had been engaged and he'd been dating Kerry at the time. That reminded him. Did she know that was over?
She snorted. "Liar."
Definitely, but she didn't say it aloud. The look of confusion on his face was testament to her triumph.
A triumph she took no joy in.
They'd known each other once. A long time ago. She wondered if too much had changed, if it was too late to go back to what they'd had and see if there could be more.
Another sigh escaped her and she let her eyes slide shut.
It was too late to make amends, too late to try again. She was single again but he wasn't. As far as she knew he was involved with Kimberley or Kerry or whatever her name was. The woman whose name she wouldn't let herself remember; the woman she wanted to pretend didn't exist.
Did it hurt him, she wondered, this much when she'd been with Pete? And if it did, why hadn't he said something when she'd given him the chance?
She snorted softly.
Because he wanted her to be happy.
Just like she wanted him to be happy.
Which was why she wasn't going to say anything, why she was going to let him make his own choices and hope for the best.
Hope he found his way back, so that they could start again with no complications. No more than usual, anyway.
A sigh turned into a yawn. She should really open her eyes, should really finish the conversation and let him leave so she could give in and go to sleep.
Funny how she hadn't felt tired before he'd got there.
She tried to open her eyes, tried and failed. Within a matter of minutes, she was drifting off to sleep, lulled there by the sound of their breathing.
By the sound of silence.
A while later, carefully, so not to disturb the blond head snoring softly at his side, slumped to rest on his shoulder, Jack leaned forward and grabbed the bottle with his spare hand.
It still had the gift tag entwined around its neck.
Curiosity got the better of him. He turned the label and read the familiar scrawl, understanding dawning in his eyes as a small smile broke across his face. He glanced to the sleeping woman behind him and settled back beside her, leaning a margin closer than he had done before.
Love always, Sam.'