Disclaimer: All mine. Go me! (Except…not.)

The song used is 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy' by Sarah McLachlan.

A/N: Allo? Remember me? Probably not, but I apologize anyway. I have this little affliction to deal with known as a thesis, and it's sort of taken over my life.

To my favorite twelve-across-six-letter-word-for-buddy, Meg: thanks for the help. I'll be your sixth wheel any day, tater.

To everyone who reviewed, thank you so much. I'm sorry this has taken so long. As always, I'll try to do better.

CHAPTER 6: FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY

o-o-o-o-o

"All the fear has left me now.

I'm not frightened anymore.

It's my heart that pounds beneath my flesh;

it's my mouth that pushes out this breath…"

o-o-o-o-o

She slowly makes her way down the steps onto the patio, following the sound of laughter. Rounding the corner, she smiles at the scene in front of her.

The little girl bounces in her father's arms, her red swimsuit standing out against the blue of the water, the green of the garden behind them. Her arms wave as she greets her mother. The man holding her turns, smiling, beckons her to join them.

"Mommy, watch! I can water-ski!"

Her husband throws her a wink, as he bends his knees, their daughter standing on top of them.

"Ready, Maddy?"

The little girl grins and nods, leaning back and extending her arms, holding her father's hands so that she is braced out away from him.

With a shriek of laughter from her, and a puttering noise from him, the pair begins to move around the pool, he taking small, careful steps backwards, while the "skier" calls out for him to go faster.

She grins at the sight, and turns to go back to the house.

"Abby!"

"What?"

Despite his daughter's protests at the break in action, he pauses to give her that slow, achingly sexy smile that she fell in love with so many years ago.

"Stay."

She pretends to think about it for a moment before giving in, reaching out to take the little girl as she eases into the water…

The buzzing of the alarm startles her out of her dream, much to her disappointment. She squints as the morning Chicago light winds its way around the curtains behind the bed, and swipes at the window, attempting to block the light. She finally settles on throwing an arm over her face and rolling over, groaning.

"Carter…"

"Mmm?"

He stirs next to her, burying his head deeper into the pillow without opening his eyes.

"John…"

"Hmm?"

"The alarm."

This time, the only response is a muffled "mmph," so with an enormous early-morning effort, she reaches across him and slams the power button. It's their day off, after all. The damn thing never should've been set in the first place.

Some old habits do die hard, she supposes.

Shutting her eyes once more, she finds his neck with her lips, and drifts back to sleep.

o-o-o-o-o

"And if I shed a tear, I won't cage it.

I won't fear love.

And if I feel a rage, I won't deny it.

I won't fear love…"

o-o-o-o-o

She was always a restless sleeper. As a child, she had to stay near wakefulness, for Eric's sake. There was no telling when Maggie would burst into their rooms, or what her mission would be when she did. It was always a toss-up; would she want to bake cookies, or would she be drunk and raging, a knife and bottle in hand?

So it was best to stay on guard, able to wake up and deal with things immediately. Best not to get too comfortable.

Lately, though, she's found herself sleeping through the night. At first, she was tossing around less, but then one morning she found herself in the same position from the night before, the sheets smooth over her, heartbeat slow, breathing even.

And him next to her, of course.

Now that's a regular occurrence. She knows he's noticed it too, but neither has said anything, not exactly. He once commented on the lack of bruises on his legs, said that he was glad she'd stopped practicing her punt on his shins, and she'd playfully asked him if he was also enjoying the lack of cover stealing. But for the most part, it remained one of those things that they both silently understood to be a step in the right direction.

There had been more and more of those steps over the past few months. He'd begun asking for her opinion about foundation plans. She'd come to him with concerns about Eric moving back to Florida.

Now, she opens her eyes and is met with a familiar sight, but one that never fails to make her smile.

For as long as she's shared a bed with him, he's been a deep sleeper. His features relaxed, hair tousled, sleep always seemed to set him back a few years.

Before, the first time they were together, when her recurring insomnia often drove her from their bed, he would sometimes wake as well and seek her out. Usually he would find her on the couch, chain-smoking and reading or taking in late-night infomercials. He'd settle down beside her with a yawn and fall back asleep while she sat, still awake, waiting for morning.

She can't say she misses those times. Because, really, it's much nicer to just sleep next to him.

She moves closer under the sheets, kissing his chest, neck. The corners of his mouth turn up, telling her that he's conscious.

"Hello…" His voice is raspy with sleep.

She grins. "Are you awake?"

He nods against the pillow, eyes still closed.

"Uh huh. Come on, wake up."

"Since when are you such a morning person?"

She pushes her hair out of her face, looks over him to the clock.

"Hardly 'morning', Carter…it's almost noon."

He snorts. "That's what days off are for. Come on."

She gives an exasperated sigh, and so he opens his eyes, to find her shooting him a good-natured glare.

"Indolent," she taunts.

"Neurotic."

"Somnolent."

"Obsessive."

She laughs at this. "That's really the best you can do? All those years of private school, and all you can come up with is 'obsessive'? That's just sad, Carter."

"Hey, you're the one who studied English lit, you walking thesaurus."

This earns him a groan and a poke in the ribs, at which he clutches his side in mock agony. "What happened to 'First, do no harm', woman?"

"You know, that's not actually in the Hippocratic Oath."

"Trust you to know that."

This time, it is she who laughs, and as a reflex, he reaches out to her, only to find that she's already there, curled up against him, and they both wonder when it became this easy.

o-o-o-o-o

"Peace in the struggle to find peace,

comfort on the way to find comfort…"

o-o-o-o-o

In keeping with her – albeit former – inability to sleep soundly, she's never been one to just lie around. There's always been something to take care of: errands to run, bills to pay, laundry, dishes, Eric, homework, shifts, AA meetings.

But today, even if any of those need to be dealt with, she's not paying attention.

Lying on her side, with him leaning over her, they're equally concentrated on the crossword puzzle in the paper that she'd brought, when the need for coffee had driven her from the bed. He reaches across to her bedside table for the mug they're sharing, taking a long gulp and wordlessly offering it to her.

She shakes her head no, and goes back to number fourteen across. Four letters, 'to endure or persist, to wait'.

"Stay."

She looks up. "What?"

"Fourteen across. Stay."

She blinks at him, her mind racing back to her dream, the pool, the little girl. "Stay"...

"Abby? You alright?"

She shakes her head, snapping herself back to the present. "Yeah, of course. Nice job," she tells him, filling in the answer quickly, still somewhat surprised.

As he reaches back around her, she unconsciously eases back in his embrace. Realizing this, she glances down at their bodies, at how naturally his arm rests in the curve of her waist, at how his hand splays comfortably across her stomach.

In that moment, she decides that there might be something to all this comfort and peace after all, and that maybe it's time she took another risk, that maybe there's a reason they've never been able to stay apart from each other. That they fit together this way, so naturally.

"Carter?"

"Hmm?" He's still reading over her shoulder, blissful, unaware. Taking a deep breath, she gathers her nerve, and leaps, hoping he'll catch her.

"Marry me?"

She feels him freeze against her. "Wha…what?" His voice is almost a whisper, timid, as if he's scared that he's misunderstood her.

She rolls over onto her back, knocking the paper to the floor. Looking up at him, she sees his eyes are wide, shocked.

Shocked…but still warm, exuberant, giving her the encouragement to repeat herself with greater conviction. Her voice gentle, perhaps even slightly playful,

"Marry me."

A smile slowly spreads across his face, as he takes in what she's said. She reciprocates his joy, a matching grin lighting her features.

He leans down to kiss her softly, to whisper against her mouth,

"Yes."

o-o-o-o-o

"And if I shed a tear, I won't cage it.

I won't fear love.

And if I feel a rage, I won't deny it.

I won't fear love.

I won't fear love."

o-o-o-o-o

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