That night, for the first time in almost two decades, I left the lights on when I went to bed. The last instance had been the night of my mother's death, when I turned to light in order to shun the Grim Reaper. My reasons on this night were no less absurd.
I wasn't exactly afraid of the dark, but I *was* afraid of the memories that might rush back when the bedroom was plunged into inky blackness. My prison had been a cell: without motion, without sound, without sensation, and without light. I'd been unable to reach beyond the smooth blank walls, or hear what was happening on the other side, because my body and all of its faculties had been stripped from me. All I could do was try and survive the mindless terror by shouting out for them with a soundless voice, in what I had feared was a futile attempt to avoid permanent entrapment... or oblivion.
I would never again be able to delete a file off my computer without wincing.
They had rescued me, they had seen my message and retrieved me from the soulless storage It had placed me in. After languishing in the infirmary for far too long, Janet had pronounced me fit -- remarkably so for someone who had been technically dead not so long ago. Daniel and even General Hammond had commented on how quickly I'd seemed to bounce back. But not everything about this *experience* could be organized and filed away as neatly as the mission report had. Maybe the others realized this, but then again maybe they were just so used to my being resilient that my own personal consequences didn't really cross their minds. I knew the nightmares would come. I knew there would be changes.
Not in twenty years had I automatically reached for the bedside lamp, and then paused with my finger on the switch, mind reeling in blind panic as I remembered that unnatural darkness. Empty. So empty that if I had had a voice, it would have echoed; if I had had a stone and a hand to throw it with, the pebble would never have landed. Travel through the Stargate was a mind-bending, stomach-churning, multi-dimensional roller coaster disorienting enough that you never *truly* got used to it. But this, this had been non-dimensional. It had been Nothingness. And if I turned off the light, I would be sending myself into that Nothingness again, the darkness skulking through my memories. And so my hand slipped from the switch, and I curled up under the heavy comforter in my brightly-lit bedroom, and hoped to facilitate sleep by leaving the lights on.
Finally giving into the impulse to shiver, I checked my watch by the glow of the porch light. Past midnight on a raw and bitter February night. No wonder it had seemed to be getting cold.
Why was I sitting out here? I'd come out hours ago, better to enjoy dinner in the company of nature instead of the television. But the cardboard microwave tray had long since been scraped clean, the empty bottle of Coors had become a permanent fixture in my hand, and the only thing between me and absolute darkness was the porch light. If I stayed much longer, my skin would start to freeze over.
But somehow I was still loathe to leave, and when I realized that my gaze had been fixed on the road since before the sun had dropped beneath the mountains, I began to understand why. A large part of me had hoped that she would take me up on my offer. Only a small part of me had thought she actually *might*, but it had been enough. It had been enough.
It had been foolish. While everyone else was commenting on how well she looked, on how quickly she was bouncing back, and how upbeat she seemed, I had all but implied that I thought she was unstable.
We'd shared an elevator to the surface, just the two of us and the sounds the car made along the runners. There had been none of the usual small talk or harmless jokes at Daniel's expense; *can* two people share a pointless conversation about the weather or hockey when one had killed the other not more than a week before? But stupid me, I'd felt the need to fill the uneasy silence.
"Carter, listen... if you need to talk or anything..."
"Hey, no 'sirs'. We're on stand-down for the weekend... this isn't an order. Just... if you want to."
I was the last person that she would want to talk to, of course, but once the offer had been made I couldn't help believing that she would take me up on it. My motives were less than pure. I knew that I wanted her to alleviate this guilt, I needed her to, but I couldn't exactly come out and ask for forgiveness. In every professional respect, I had done what needed to be done, and even while she had lain near death no one had seemed to blame me for it. But I had, and did, and I wasn't judging my actions in the context of common sense and military protocol. I was supposed to be her friend, damn it, and a friend shouldn't be able to brush this off and put it behind him just because it had been *necessary*.
Grudgingly realizing that tonight would bring me no visitors, I unfolded myself from the patio chair, retrieved my garbage, and shuffled towards the door. Stepping inside, my hand went automatically to turn off the outside lamp, but uncharacteristically paused on the switch. What if she *did* decide to come by? She'd have to know that I was up, that I was here, ready and waiting for her if she needed me; after what I had done I owed her that much.
My fingers slipped from the switch. I made a brief detour into the kitchen to trash the remnants of dinner, and another to the hall closet to grab a couple of extra blankets. One I put on the couch, neatly folded, before turning on the table lamp - one whose light could easily be seen through the front windows. Still feeling the chill of the night air on my clothes, I wearily lowered my body into my favorite recliner and covered myself with the second blanket. From my position I could still see the walk leading up to my door, and I knew that there would be no sleep for me tonight.
He was changing the bulb in his porch light when I first caught sight of him, standing on the seat of a patio chair with his back turned to the road and to me. I thought my approach up the footpath had been nearly silent, but when he clambered down, turned around and saw me standing in his driveway, he didn't look surprised.
"It's getting late," he observed, nodding up towards the dusky sky. "Why don't you come inside?"
I didn't move, didn't speak, merely shoving my hands deeper into my jacket pockets and flexing them for warmth. All night and all day I had been debating coming here, wondering if the Colonel's offer had been genuine or just something he'd thought that he *should* say. But I'd come to a certain peace with the issue that afternoon, blissfully soaking up the sunlight in my backyard and realizing, with a smile, that Jack O'Neill wouldn't say something like that and not mean it. He'd meant it before, only I hadn't realized the offer for what it had been worth.
Slowly, he started down the steps towards me. His lips were in a tight line, his eyes narrowed in an unconscious flinch. "Uh, Carter, if I made it sound like you *had* to come see me... I didn't mean it like that. I didn't--"
"I left the lights on last night," I said finally, feeling silly. "Thought that, um, keeping the darkness away would help me sleep. Sleep without Janet pumping drugs into me, at least."
O'Neill nodded as though he knew what I meant. Maybe he did. "Did it? Help, I mean."
"Not in the slightest," I admitted, ducking my head. A wry smile touched my lips and I nervously pushed my fingers through my hair. "I was still up all night."
"That makes two of us," O'Neill flippantly interjected, stopping about ten feet away and shoving his hands into his pockets, mirroring me.
"Thinking," I added.
"Well I didn't figure you ever stopped doing *that*."
Another fidgety smile. He was probably just trying to put me at ease, but engaging in this normal, lighthearted banter when my head was full of so many heavy thoughts was only making me more apprehensive. Finally, I simply blurted, "Sir, it wasn't your fault."
He winced again, his gaze falling briefly to his feet before bouncing back up to my face. "I'm sorry."
I frowned. Was it just me, or were we a little mixed up here? I took a few careful steps towards him. "You didn't know what It was trying to do. If It was trying to destroy the base. If It would have reinfested the computers. Sir, if I'd been able to, *I* would have been telling you to pull the trigger. Even with hindsight being what it is... you couldn't have done anything differently."
"I know that," he insisted gruffly. "But that doesn't mean I can't be sorry anyway."
"What are you really sorry for?" I countered, finally giving voice to the thoughts that had swirled through my mind long before sundown the previous day, and likewise feeling as though I was on the brink of insubordination. "For having to shoot me? Or for allowing me to try to make contact with It in the first place?" The way he spasmodically cringed told me that I was right. "Daniel... Hammond agreed with Daniel. And so did I. You disagreed. You came out and SAID you disagreed. There wasn't anything more that you could have done."
"And maybe that's the problem," he returned instantly, quickly changing the subject and leaving me to frown over the implications of his words. "But I don't think you came here to try and make me feel better, Carter."
I bit the inside of my mouth, not yet ready to tell him that in a way I had, because his happiness and peace of mind was mine, was the whole team's. He caught my hesitation and misinterpreted it. "You know, I meant what I said. Sometimes talking about it only makes it hurt more, but sometimes it helps, too."
"Sometimes the pain's a good sign," I murmured, finding my gaze drifting towards the road again. When my head snapped back up, I found him staring at me with a kind of unconscious intensity that made me squirm. "I don't know if I can," I said in response to his unanswered question. "To talk about it, I'd have to explain it. And that..." I paused, and started over. "There's lots of metaphors for being a Gou'ald host, right? Being trapped underground, or imprisoned in a cell. But this..." I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to capture the exact feeling, the specific sensations that had assaulted me, and then trying to match them to something O'Neill would understand. "I don't remember anything after the keyboard started to spark. Nothing. One second there was this tingling feeling in my hands, and the next... darkness. From what Doctor Frasier told me, I was essentially in a coma while It was communicating with you through my body. But when It transferred me into the computers..." I shook my head, still searching for that elusive analogy. "It was like... waking up one morning and going outside to find that everyone else on the planet has *died* during the night. That you're the only living being left on Earth... or in the universe, for that matter. Even before you see any bodies, you know, you can feel it in your bones... you're the only one who survived whatever wiped out everyone else. Your neighbors, your friends, you family... people you barely knew and people you loved. They're all gone and there's no way to start over, even if you had the will. Which you don't, because of the emptiness... the loneliness... it's unbearable. And then..." My voice caught unexpectedly in my throat. "And then the sun goes out... just goes out like it was turned off. Like someone just ripped it right out of the sky. And the ground opens up underneath you, no warning, opens up and you're falling and falling and falling; you keep expecting to hit bottom, you almost hope you will, but you never do. You just keep falling down this dark tunnel, Alice's rabbit hole, and the sides are too far away to touch and when you look up, all you see is the black sky. Only now it's worse, it's a living thing... tangible... and it's coming down the tunnel after you..."
I realized that I was babbling hysterically only seconds before my legs gave out under me as though someone had suddenly disconnected those muscles from my brain; I half sat, half fell to the rocky ground in a stunned and graceless heap. I could feel my breath rasping painfully in my throat, feel the panic descending into my mind again like a poison, but only in a half-aware, disconnected way. There was the sound of gravel crunching under scrambling feet, and then suddenly Colonel O'Neill was kneeling in front of me, his distraught voice echoing slightly in my overloaded mind as he repeated my name. He had his arms out, too, waiting to catch me should I keel over even further... but not if and until then. He wanted to touch me, I could see it in his eyes, and I could feel it like an energy in the air. But he wouldn't, he couldn't. His hands hovered over me as though our two bodies were separated by an invisible but infinitely powerful barrier. Which, in a way, they were.
Sam Carter sat in my driveway, legs folded up under her uncomfortably, her expression that of the quintessential 'deer in the headlights'. She was looking at me but she was also looking through me, and a plethora of highly undesirable scenarios catapulted through my mind. God, what if we'd been wrong... what if It hadn't left her completely? What if something serious had happened to her while she'd been stuck in the mainframe? Even though it had probably lost something in the translation, her metaphorical description of her experience there had literally chilled me. It had obviously been traumatic, to say the least, and she was bound to be reacting to that. Exactly how she was reacting, and what it would take it get her through it, was what was truly in question here.
She began to shiver slightly, and I redoubled my efforts to get through to her, glancing over my shoulder briefly and wondering if it would be wise to dash back into the house for the phone. "Carter! Sam... do I need to call Frasier?"
Peculiarly, that seemed to make her snap out of it. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them they were refocused on my face. "No," she said hoarsely. "She can't do anything for me."
That certainly didn't sound encouraging. Doing my best to school my features, I began to consider the idea of Sam's having an honest to God breakdown. Emotional collapse. I'd seen it before, in the faces of friends and the face in the mirror, and I certainly wouldn't have blamed Carter... but the mere concept scared the hell out of me. For crying out loud, what was Sam if she wasn't our emotional rock?
She shivered again, and as I realized that I was having trouble making out her expression in the waning light, inspiration struck. What did they call fear of darkness? Nyctophobia? "Come on... let's get you inside, turn on some lights, the TV, some music, get something to eat--"
"It's not that," she said so harshly that I almost bit down on my tongue mid-word. "It's not the dark that's doing this to me," she added vehemently, avoiding my gaze.
"I thought you said..."
Her breath was still coming in short, irregular, laborious gasps, and her hands were clenched tightly in her lap. Panic attack. "I was wrong. God... if it was darkness, if it was just darkness, why couldn't I sleep last night, even with the lights on? It was... it was dark where I was, yeah, but... but..."
"But you haven't been afraid of the dark since you were two," I cited.
She gave a bitter chuckle, finally meeting my eyes. "It was so empty there," she whispered. "It wasn't human. It wasn't even real *life*. And when I went home, and I was alone in that house... it was like being there all over again. Cut off from everything, everyone. I was just... lonely. I was alone."
The vulnerability in her voice hit me, hit me hard; I swallowed and shifted on my knees, sitting back on my haunches.
"See," she said softly. "Not your fault. This is something I've been putting off dealing with for a long, long time, and this just brought it to the forefront."
"Welcome," I answered, equally softly. I had to squint to see her expression in the growing twilight, but I could hear her chuckle again, this time with less bitterness. "You know you're not alone. Not really..."
"I'm as alone as you are."
I fell silent, mulling over this claim. Was I alone? Not technically. I wasn't technically *lonely*, either. I had Carter and Daniel and Teal'c, Hammond and Dr. Napoleonic Power Monger, and everyone else on the base who had somehow become integral parts of my life. I had my job, and hobbies, and generally enough distraction to keep myself busy. And maybe that was the key. I kept myself running around so much, between the SGC and our offworld shenanigans and hockey games and the like, that I was able to keep from thinking about that *other* kind of loneliness. Yeah, in one respect I was very much alone. As alone as she was.
Carter shivered again. No Frasier, I reminded myself, not that I could really blame the Major. "What can *I* do to help?" I asked, and as soon as the words passed my lips I knew, without a doubt, that it was what she had been waiting for me to say.
"I'm tired of being alone."
Each word was laden with her unspoken request, which I happily - and gratefully - granted her. Comforted by the starlight-punctuated night falling around our shoulders, hiding our actions from the road and from our own ashamed eyes, I reached out for Sam and gently pulled her towards me. On her part there was no hesitation; she responded automatically, slipping her arms around my neck and leaning into me with a shaky yet contented sigh. Scooting closer, heedless of the rocks poking my legs through my jeans, I returned the embrace. My arms circled her back and held her with a wanton abandon that was almost embarrassing; I felt slightly contrite as I dismissed my common sense in favor of this moment of need and fulfillment. But only slightly.
Slowly my eyes opened; quickly they closed, and one hand came up to further shield them from the unnatural brightness. For a moment, I thought that I was back in my bed, that I had actually fallen asleep with the light on, and that the last twenty-four hours had been one of my more tepid dreams. But as I turned my face away from the bedside lamp and opened my eyes again, I saw something that told me it had been no flight of REM fancy.
Even though I was still dressed in my jeans, T-shirt, and socks, I was buried beneath the covers of O'Neill's bed up to my neck. Smiling drowsily, I pushed the oppressive bedclothes down off my chest and risked another glimpse to my left, at the bedside table, at the digital clock. 1:07 in the morning. Then it had been almost six hours since we'd crawled into bed and immediately dozed off, and another six before we would even need to begin thinking about getting up and dealing with the consequences of tonight. I turned away from the light again.
On my right side, Colonel O'Neill lay sprawled *on top* of the bedspread, intentionally done to avoid any excessive physical contact through the night, I thought, smiling sleepily. He was on his back, his head pillowed and his slumbering face tilted slightly towards mine. One leg was stretched straight out, the other's stocking foot was flat on the bed and that leg bent at the knee. His right hand rested on his stomach, the left was flung up over his head. The fingers of that hand twitched slightly. He was never completely still, not even in sleep. And though he didn't touch me - he hadn't since we'd come into the house - he was close enough that we both felt that we weren't alone.
I reached over and lightly took his right hand in my own, and then rolled back onto my side, facing the table lamp. As expected, the sleeping man obligingly moved with me, turning on his left side as well. I wriggled back until my back was nestled against his front, albeit with the bedsheets preventing our bodies from fully touching, and his right arm was looped around my waist. Unconsciously, the restless fingers traced aimless patterns across my stomach. I placed my hand over them and they stilled.
For a second, I thought that I'd felt the feather-light brush of his lips against the nape of my neck, but I might have been wrong. Closing my eyes, I once again began to doze.
I opened one irritated eye, looking up at the bedside lamp, burning brightly. I knew I didn't need it on in order to sleep; I had all I needed right here with me. But to turn it off I would need to reach up and over to the table, which would require that I disentangle myself from O'Neill... and I wasn't quite prepared to do that. Not when it was him, rather than the light, that had helped me banish the demons thus far.
Mentally shrugging, I closed my eyes and buried my face into the pillow. In his sleep, the Colonel mumbled unintelligibly into my hair. I smiled. For the second time in as many nights, I left the lights on. For the first time in far too long, I slept soundly.
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