My feet made no sound on the carpet; my shoes left no tracks on the fibers. I felt like a ghost, silent and snug in my favorite haunt, just waiting to scare the latest mark within an inch of his own life. Not that anyone was around these days to haunt. The front door lock had screeched from lack of use, and a veil of dust lay over every surface in the house.
No one had been here in some time, but there were still things to be taken care of. And I had volunteered to take care of them, though I wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the knowledge of the bittersweet memories that returning to this place would bring forth, or a way for me to reaffirm my own bravery, or maybe - just maybe - it was good old-fashioned kind-heartedness. As appealing as the last option sounded, I was forced to admit that the true answer was a lot more selfish.
And bittersweet it was.
We'd been here a few times since, of course. There were some things that shouldn't be left behind in an abandoned house; it was like asking someone to break in and rob the place. So Daniel had taken the microwave and coffee machine, Janet and Cassie had been bequeathed the VCR and Nintendo, and I had taken the rest of the valuables into my own home. The house had been just as silent that day, just as still, just as dead. A tomb of impersonal objects and cadaverous memories...
// "Hey, Carter, think fast!"
I turned at the sound of his voice, and instinctively caught the beer can that had been tossed across the room at me. "Thanks, sir," I responded, thankful for my reflexes and wondering at my new CO's sense of humor. //
His tax statements from years past, receipts, and a plethora of other financial paperwork were in the top drawer of the study. I tried to make a neat a stack as I could, gave up, and dumped the whole mess into the grocery bag to sort out later.
// "Feelings?" he asked incredulously. "For Carter?"
From around the corner I couldn't see Doctor Jackson's nonverbal response, but I could clearly hear the conversation that I'd unwittingly stumbled upon. "So you're saying I'm wrong?"
O'Neill said nothing of the sort, although I wouldn't realize the true significance of that for many years. "I'm saying that whatever was going on in this supposed alternate reality... it wasn't... real. It wasn't us."
"Plus," added Daniel, with a soft sarcastic edge I'd heard from him only rarely "it's against regulations."
"Exactly," said O'Neill, sounding relieved and, in his relief, totally missing the derision in Jackson's voice. Smirking, I breezed into the living room, startling both of them but giving no indication that I had heard their conversation. //
But in the end, I mused, our adherence to those binding regulations had only painted us cowards, as we slowly came to terms with the fact that, more and more, we were using them as an excuse. It had been hard, of course, but not as hard as it would have been to listen to our hearts, to acknowledge our deep and mutual desire. We'd taken the easy way out; the fact that the easy way had also been the legal way hardly seemed to matter when all was said and done.
// The sound of dinnerware clinking against glass was nearly drowned out by the din of conversation. In fact, no one even bothered to glance up from their respective discussions and refreshments until O'Neill's voice reverberated through the room. "May I have your attention!" he barked in a tone that left no room for argument. I turned from my discussion with Ferretti, and nearby Daniel and Janet's voices trailed off. For a few short seconds, the only sound was Siler munching on a carrot stick.
O'Neill stood before us in the entrance to the living room, wine glass held with surprising ease and grace in one of his big hands. "I've asked you all here today," he began with undue formality, "because we got a little sidetracked at the actual ceremony, didn't we?" The two-dozen people dispersed around the room nodded and chuckled. "Little gray men beaming me up, Gou'ald running all over the base trying to kill each other..." He waved his free hand. "I don't know... I didn't understand what was going on half the time anyway." More chuckles. "But I do know what was going on before that," he went on, his eyes locking with mine. "And that was Major Carter's promotion ceremony. From Captain... to Major. Oh, and anyone who might have missed it, Carter's a Major now."
I felt my cheeks burning hotter every time he emphasized my new rank and I looked down at my lap, grinning but at the same time embarrassed as hell. Daniel had the good sense to interrupt O'Neill's oration with some well-timed applause, and the other guests joined in. Ferretti gave me a good-natured thump on the back, and finally I lifted my head to smile sheepishly at them all.
"Let's hear it for cheap wine and long-overdue promotions!" proclaimed the Colonel over the rising clamor, a wry grin stealing over his face as he observed the smiling, talking, festive crowd that filled the space. Then he looked at me, and it was only at that moment that I realized I'd been staring at him. His mouth twitched again in a different kind of smile, and from across the room he raised his glass to me before lifting it to his lips and drinking deeply.
Another flush stole over me; the tumult of the party died away in my mind. There was an odd, warm feeling growing inside me that had nothing to do with the alcohol.
He was proud of me, and that knowledge felt a million times better than the weight of the oak leaves upon my shoulders. //
On the bookshelf was an assortment of Tom Clancy novels. I added several to the bag.
// "So. Glad to be home yet?" I asked. My voice was tart... but not tart enough. No words, no tone of voice could describe what I was feeling right now. Why had Hammond asked me to take the Colonel home anyway? Daniel lived closer. There were MPs who could have done the same job. But no. It had to be me.
What a set-up.
The Colonel just looked at me warily, squirming a little, probably less than thrilled that I'd overheard his parting comments to Laira. He'd been wearing a mask all night, a steely fašade of brusqueness that had only intensified during the drive down the mountain, but now that mask slipped a bit. And what should I see behind it but shame, a kind of humility that was almost alien to me. A sadness. A vulnerability.
I sure as hell couldn't stay mad at him when he looked at me like that. And I planned to stay mad at him for another three months at least. I turned to go.
My back to him, I froze. Damn it. What gave him the right to call me that? To expect me to stop? To know that I would? I didn't owe him anything.
My shoulders automatically stiffened, and then slumped. Without looking at him, I muttered. "All I did was bring you home."
"I know. Thanks."
Even now, I couldn't decide exactly what he'd been thanking me for. The ride home? The technology to return him to Earth? Something else altogether? Whatever his meaning, I'd left the house feeling a slight bit less homicidal than when I'd entered it. //
Not all the memories this place engendered were so bittersweet, of course. Some were downright rancid.
// I could hear Daniel clattering around in the bathroom, emerging now and then to throw toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletries into the overnight bag we were preparing. Opening random drawers and rifling through my C.O.'s closet, I came up with a handful of familiar outfits, messily folded them, and stuffed them into the tote. My head still spun. Nothing had quite caught up with me yet. Not the fact that O'Neill might have cancer, or the unspoken, illogical repartee we'd shared shortly after hearing this catastrophic news.
Surreal. It was just surreal.
So surreal that I almost didn't hear my cell phone ringing. Then I glanced up to see Daniel staring at me, his pale face even more washed out by the bathroom lights, and realized the significance of that shrill oscillation. I'd asked Doctor Mills to call me as soon as the results of the biopsy came in.
Swallowing back fear, I retrieved the phone from my pocket and pressed the small piece of cold plastic and metal against my ear. "Hello?"
Daniel didn't move. He hardly seemed to breathe.
The wind that had been whistling around the edges of the house died abruptly.
And when the phone slipped from my hand, it fell soundlessly to the carpeted floor. //
My key turned in the lock with an irritating screech.
Stepping off the porch, I stared up at the simple building that had been the setting for so many events, both petty and important. Eventually, practically, it would be sold; every time I came here I expected to find signs of robbery, and on a more provincial level the grounds-keeping alone was hell. We'd have to bring trucks and maybe a few extra sets of hands and we'd have to clean out everything. Furniture, linens, trinkets and trash. Dinnerware, wall decorations, the prized telescope. The floors would be swept, the paperwork signed, and a FOR SALE sign pitched in the front yard.
It hurt to think of, but it simply was the most sensible course of action.
He'd never told me that he loved me.
I paused in the process of unlocking the trunk of my car and wondered where the hell that had come from.
It was true, though. Of all the things he'd said to me - here, at the base, off-world - none of them had ever approached the irrefutable meaning of those three little words. The simple phrase that was supposed to be of such terrible importance to those of the female persuasion. Part of the blame was mine. We'd ignored it, hidden it, denied it, and by the time we'd finally accepted it, it was too late for anything to be said.
He'd never said 'I love you'.
He never would.
* * *
I set the paper bag down in the entryway, turning and locking the door behind me. The keys jangled first as I dropped them into my coat pocket, and then as I shed the coat and threw it over the back of one slatted chair.
The heavy bag was relocated to the kitchen table and I peeked inside to make sure nothing had gotten wet. From the window I could see the rain that continued to fall, fat and yellow in the glow of the street lamps, heavy drops splattering all over the sidewalk and against the siding. The white noise was a comfort as I swept the saltshaker and napkin holder out of the way made tidy stacks of novels, videotapes, and important papers on the kitchen table. Good. Nothing had been damaged. That called for a celebration... or at least a Coke.
There was a gallon of milk and a few cans of beer in the fridge, but the supply of soda hadn't been restocked. Sighing, I crossed the kitchen to the back door, the one that opened onto the garage; I kept an extra 6-pack out on the shelf for just such an emergency.
The doorknob turned easily in my hand and my good-natured annoyance turned to sickening anxiety. The garage door always seemed to freeze up during cold weather, so despite the rain I'd parked in the driveway. And since this door, the garage, and the tiny little plot of grass the real estate agent had the guts to call a backyard were all connected, I always made sure that it was locked. Otherwise, anyone with sufficiently ill intent could jump the back fence and be inside my house within minutes.
I let the knob slide back into place, my hand hovering over the deadbolt. Maybe I was overreacting, but if there was anyone in the garage, I sure wanted to keep them there. On the other hand, if there was an intruder in my house, I certainly didn't want to be locked in with them. On the THIRD hand - and my pulse quickened - I hadn't heard a sound since I'd been home, and that meant... oh god...
Someone grabbed my arm.
I jumped as though electrically shocked, I knocked the intruder's hand away and spun, my back hitting the door, not much room to defend myself but God damn it I would sure as hell try...
The 'intruder' took a few hasty steps back and stared at me in amused puzzlement.
Sickening anxiety evaporated with a swiftness that left my body weakened. I leaned against the door, hunched over to catch my breath. "Jack! Holy Hannah, you almost gave me a heart attack."
"That's not funny," I shot back, fighting off a chuckle of my own. "You told me you weren't going to wait up for me. That was the deal, remember? I'd go over to your place and get you something to do if you got some REST." Jack rolled his eyes comically; I knew he felt that he'd already done too much resting. "And even if you're not going to do that," I informed him, turning back and engaging the deadbolt, "the next time you go looking for my secret stash, remember to cover up the crime a little better. You could have let who-knows-what in here, and..."
I turned again and found him standing nearer than before and moving closer, body radiating warmth, eyes radiating a different kind of heat. Still not totally accustomed to this kind of attention from him, I bit my lip and took an automatic step away. Once again, my back hit the door; I could feel the cold from the garage seeping through the wood, through my shirt, into my skin.
Jack hesitated, seeing my apprehension, evaluating it.
Feeling foolish, wondering about my own nervousness, I took the moment of uncertainty to evaluate HIM. A lot of color had come back into his face since leaving the hospital, and his salt-and-pepper hair had a chance to grow back now that he was off radiation therapy. The frame beneath his T-shirt and sweats was still too thin, of course, and the slender line of pink scar tissue across his throat would always serve to remind me of the horrors of the past months. From the moment Janet's late-night phone call had roused me from sleep to the first shock of seeing him in the hospital, weary but brave. From the results of the biopsy - a malignant tumor that had already spread to other parts of his throat - to the dubious relief that the cancer hadn't yet metastasized to spread throughout his body. From the surgery and the radiation treatments, the sickness and pain, doubt and fear, balancing my obligations to my insistent job and those to my ailing friend, realizing that he WAS my friend and then realizing that I wanted him to be more. Realizing that could only happen if he beat this. If we beat it.
Time taken off from work that Hammond had gladly allowed, to Daniel, Janet and Teal'c as well as to myself. Time taken that others had questioned as again and again our expertise was needed and missed at the SGC. Questions that I hadn't thought twice about. How could I? Eventually the others, realizing that this would be a long haul, had tried to get back into the old pattern while at the same time devoting what time and resources they could spare to their friend and colleague. I, on the other hand, went for weeks without going anywhere near the mountain. At first it was just 'being a good 2IC', 'being a good person', 'being a friend'. Inevitably, it became a much more personal struggle.
A surgery or three later most of the tumors had been removed... but unfortunately this had required removing most of the larynx as well. No one had expected a case so advanced, but at the time, it hadn't really seemed to matter much at all. Death versus life as a mute was no contest. The doctors had attacked the remaining cancer with radiation therapy that had left him sick and weak, turned off to food altogether, and generally miserable. Jack had let me know more than once that if the disease didn't kill him, the cure probably would.
By the time the hospital discharged my commanding officer, giving him the tortured freedom of outpatient status, it didn't occur to anyone - least of all me - that he would be going anywhere but my house. That anyone else would be looking after him and driving him to and from therapy. There was no way we were leaving him to fend for himself, and I lived closer to the treatment center then the others. Besides, I'd been doing whatever I could right from the beginning. It was just a logical, natural next step.
Not that Jack didn't complain. But at least he was quiet about it.
To be serious, it was hard for him. Hard to have everyone seeing him so sick when all he'd ever wanted to give was stability and confidence. Hard to be treated - he thought - like a child, a helpless invalid, and to come to understand that we didn't want to belittle him... we only wanted to help him. Hard to listen to Daniel prattle on about his new rocks and the incredible planets they'd been found on when Jack couldn't even answer, much less see for himself. He relaxed more when the others left and it was just the two of us. At least we didn't have to talk. After we came home from the therapy treatments we'd both sit on my bed - Jack underneath the covers and me on top of them - and watch TV. Or read. Or some nights we'd just sit there, and the next thing I know, I would be waking up to the next day's morning.
And then the doctors said that the cancer was gone.
And he didn't leave.
And I had found that I didn't want him to.
My house had become home to him, and to me, he was an integral part of it.
He wasn't yet back to his old self; the shrinks said that even hoping for such a thing was pushing our luck, but I knew it would happen eventually. I still found myself addressing him as "sir" now and then, or thinking about court martial before the fulfillment of my own desires, even though Jack's retirement papers - the last set, he'd promised - were all but waiting to be signed. It was hard knowing that he'd never speak the words "I love you", or even another irreverent "Ya think?" ... at least not without more time, money, and surgery. It was also strange thinking of him selling his wonderful house to make up the medical bills... daunting to imagine the two of us starting a life together here. But we were taking things easy and taking them slowly, I no longer found him threatening and he no longer wondered what I knew... and now we both slept underneath the covers.
We lived in our own little world here, a world that included the sound of rain and the touch of warm skin, and not a sentence between us. I'd never been happier. Where before obscure motions, gestures, and slights of hand had been subjective and elusive enough to fill our needs, we now realized that words were the real fugitives, the real criminals. Saying one thing while you felt another. Helping you lie to others and yourself as well. So flimsy, so superficial and even hypocritical, so easy to say and not mean. It was the touches and smiles that said everything about us, especially now when there was no other way. It was the knowledge of things done that couldn't be recanted and denied. It was how we'd always operated best: without words.
So I stepped forward, smiled and let him kiss me, and then we went to bed, turning off the kitchen light along the way.
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----------------------------------------------------------------------- Hopeless romantics are only hopeless in the eyes of those who don't believe in romance. * Alli Snow: http://www.geocities.com/rainrobinson/ AIMSN: UST Calliope