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Private Universe

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I look up from my newspaper and catch you unawares. Curled in a ball in the corner of the couch with your book, you could be half your actual age. You have your thumbnail between your teeth as you study the page with a little frown of concentration. You've let your hair grow long again since you've been back. You have to keep running your fingers through it to keep it off your face. I don't think you even realise you're doing it.

You tip the book toward the lamp, hoping to clarify some point that only you can see. You turn back a page, and check something, flipping between the two pages for a moment, so engrossed in your comparisons that you forget yourself.

I see the second you remember.

Your face - so expressive and mobile usually - goes blank, like shutters being closed over windows. Your eyes shut for a second, then open again with a depth of pain you've never been fully able to express.

And that's when you see me.

I smile as gently as I can and try to scour any trace of pity from my expression. It took me a while to understand that you hate that more than anything.

You look wary, like you've been caught. As if you shouldn't have let me see your sorrow. As if you've failed in some way.

I can't bear to see that, so I stand and ask you if you'd like a drink. You tell me yes, and return my smile cautiously, but whatever happiness there is in the gesture doesn't make it to your eyes.

I go to the kitchen and make coffee, standing by the counter while it drips into the jug. From here I can watch you without you knowing. I see you put down the book and wipe a hand over your face. Maybe you're tired, or maybe your lapse has caused some physical symptom that I don't know about. It's not like you'd admit it, even if it did hurt you. You always were too damn stoic for my liking. And, now you have an excuse for your silence, it's become a point of honour with you.

I think the price you paid was too high.

Some days, I think you do too.

And some days I think I'll never be able to fully repay the debt I owe you.

Of all the conditions they could have demanded of you, this seems to me a strange and brutal choice.

I'll remember the day we found you for the rest of my life. I've never been a man who was comfortable with expressing much emotion. I must have seemed pretty underwhelmed to you, but inside I was alight.

I didn't care that you seemed afraid, that you couldn't recognise us, that you didn't say anything. I was so ecstatic to have you back and so certain that you only needed to be home to be returned to your old self. It was only in the days after you came back, when the measure of your losses became apparent that I understood what they had done to you.

You smile your thanks when I hand you your coffee, and I ask if I can sit beside you. You don't say no, so I sit, far enough away that I'm not crowding you, but close enough that you can reach over and touch me if you want to. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don't. I'm sorry it took me so long to understand that.

You pick up your book from the couch between us and open it up, flicking through pages until you find the one you need. You show it to me - a picture of Glastonbury Tor - and raise your eyebrows.

I turn the pages to the end of the book. On the endpaper is a depiction of the world and I point to Great Britain carefully - it's not a large scale, and it makes you pissy if I'm not precise.

I can see you have other questions. I see what it does to you that you can't ask them.

Of all the things they could have demanded as a price for your safe return, the ability to communicate was the most harsh. Your beloved languages are all lost to you - written, spoken or understood. You can't tell me what it's like when we speak to you, but I can tell from the way you blink and shift your weight that it's distressing for you.

Your sarcasm, amusement and eloquence are things that only I can now recognise. They're in the way you tip your head or arch an eyebrow, in the way your hands describe a shape in the air.

Bach is playing softly on CD. I know how much you miss other types of music, and I know that lyrics distress you and make it impossible for you to listen to anything but instrumental works now. I love it when you play the piano I bought for you - you look more content when you play than at any other waking moment. And the skill with which you mimic what you've heard is astonishing, as even musical notation is no good to you.

At first they thought it was just something that would take time to recover. It worked with your memory - it was obvious that you knew who we were even though you couldn't say our names. Then they thought that the problem was likely psychological rather than physical - that you had been so traumatised by your return to the mortal plane that you were somehow blocking all forms of communication as a kind of barrier or denence. But I think I already knew.

We tried everything. You worked so hard. I could see that you were fighting to understand when people talked to you in every language we could think of. I watched you trace your fingers over written words as if you could draw their meaning into your hands. I watched you fail over and over and still keep battling to understand.

I really thought the hieroglyphics would work. They were the thing that got you into the Stargate programme in the first place - I felt it would be fitting that they would be the thing that allowed you to participate again, but that's when the medical experts began to realise that what they'd done to you was far more subtle than simply remove your ability to read and speak. They had taken your ability to make the connections that allow complex communication. So although you could recognise the pictograph of the sun, you couldn't understand any abstract from that like day or light or tomorrow.

It was the same with signing - the signs for a, b and c mean nothing to you, but you understand the signs for eat, drink and sleep, because they look like what they are. But the signs for night or like or understand just get a blank look and a wave of your hand that I've learned means no or stop to you for some reason.

I knew what was coming next before the doctors even said the word. They had exhausted everything they could think of, and I could see that you were exhausted too. I knew the next step would be long-term care in a government-approved facility. And I knew that I would never, ever allow that to happen to you.

So you came home with me. Of course it wasn't that simple in practice. It took some fast-talking, retirement, some subtle threats, eleven weeks and every favour I'd ever been owed, but it was worth it. It was obvious to me that I was the person who knew you best, and therefore the one most likely to be able to understand what you needed. And you came, so I guess you felt the same.

It's taken a while, and we've made some mistakes along the way, but I've never regretted my choice. Not even when it got really bad those few times. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for you, of all people, to be trapped inside your head like that. I don't blame you for lashing out from time to time.

We even have a pretty good vocabulary going on now - and a good life out here together. You like the solitude of the cabin - it's hard for you to be around people. I still can't get you to come fishing though.

So you have your music, your books and books of photographs and pictures. You help me work on the cabin. We walk or run almost every day. You like to cook - which works well, because I like to eat. You draw, which I never knew before - planets we've visited, the lake, the loons, strange abstracts and combinations of things that don't make sense to me, images of places I don't know that I guess must be from your childhood. Our days are pretty well filled.

I know people think it's unusual, and that's one of the more polite descriptions I've heard. I guess it is a little odd, if you go by appearances - two grown men, miles from the closest town, sharing a life of silence. I'd be lying if I said I didn't need my weekly trip for supplies. Sometimes you come too, but you leave me to chew the fat with the locals, mysteriously reappearing when I'm all talked out. You do the same when friends call on the phone, just take yourself off somewhere until it's done. Then you'll sit down and I'll give you the edited version of their news, always a little sad because of how much you're missing.

You're still flicking through your book, images of archaeological sites around the world. You smile at some, and draw my attention to others, tapping your chest in a gesture that means you've been there.

You stop on a picture of a green hillock, and touch it once. I lean over and read the caption, then flip to the back and point to Ireland. I see you understand, but you continue staring at the page.

You look up at me after a minute with a determined look in your eye that means I have to concentrate hard, because you're about to tell me something.

You tap my chest and then the picture. I shake my head, out of habit - it's not a gesture you understand. I copy your sweeping sign for no - I've never been there.

You look back at the picture again, thinking, then look me in the eye, tap your chest, tap my chest, then point to the book in a way that plainly conveys motion.

A grin breaks across my face. Not only because I've understood, not even because you want us to go there, but because you've expressed a desire to do something in the future. You rarely communicate anything beyond your immediate needs and wants these days.

I put my palm out flat and curl in my fingers in the way I have learned can mean give or yes or come. You smile, and with one last glance, close the book.

You press your cheek with your hand and close your eyes, signing that you want to sleep, then tip your head at me and wait. Still high on our last exchange, and wondering how early I can call for flight bookings, I miss your intent, and you have to grab my sleeve and take a few steps backwards towards the bedroom for me to understand that you're asking me to come to bed too.

I smile a yes, and you turn and disappear into our bedroom, leaving me to lock up and make the fire safe for the night. I'm firmly not speculating on what your invitation means. This part of our relationship is probably the one I understand least. Some nights you sleep tight against the edge of the mattress, although if I try to leave you alone, you'll clutch at my hand until I stay. Other nights you'll climb into my arms, and fall asleep to the beat of my heart. And some nights, well… Some people have described your ability to interact socially as childlike. I think I'm in a unique position to be able to refute that.

You call the shots here, Daniel. Who am I kidding? You've always called the shots in this friendship.

Your eyes are half-closed when I come into the bedroom, and you watch as I strip down to t-shirt and boxers before heading for the bathroom.

I switch off the lamp when I return, minty-fresh and freezing cold, and you roll onto your side to face me when I lay down. We never close the shutters in the winter - the stars are always too beautiful to miss - so the stark, blue light of the moon streams in over your hair and skin, turning it into a surreal study in silver and shadow as you twine your fingers through mine on the pillow.

I wonder if you know what you are to me. I never told you before you went - thinking there would always be a better time. I've tried to show you, but you don't have a gesture for need or love or forever. So I have to rely on my smile to tell you you're loved, for my touch to say that I'll never leave you and for my eyes to let you know that I'm happy here, with you.

You squeeze my fingers and watch me steadily for a few moments before you grin and kick my foot beneath the blankets. I smile in return and you close your eyes.

Yeah. You know.