Chapter 7

BETWEEN THE LINES

"SHUT THE HELL UP!"

The hand struck her before she even realized it had been raised. Unprepared she staggered backward, nearly losing her balance and grabbing onto a chair back to steady herself. She could taste the blood in her mouth.

She stared at Jonas in disbelief, a mixture of anger and grief boiling up within her. Her defense training kicked in and she immediately threw up her guard, but it didn't help the inner part of her that was also wounded by the blow.

He jeered at her.

"What's this? You think you can take me on? Go ahead, just try it…!"

His eyes had a glazed, crazed look, like he couldn't wait for her to come at him. Sweat was forming little beads around his hairline and his skin was mottled and flushed with heat.

Sam stared at him for a minute and then dropped her hands. Still breathing hard from the ten minutes of shouting that had preceding him striking her, she shook her head.

"You know, Jonas. You're just not worth it." And although she had been trained never to turn her back on an enemy, Sam deliberately turned on her heels and headed toward the door.

"Don't you dare leave, Sam! So help me…. You can't walk out on me! You're mine!"

He came up behind her in a rush. Sam turned with a round kick and swept his legs out from under him so he landed on the tile floor with a sickening thud. She took momentary satisfaction in seeing the stunned look on his face, but it was fleeting. The whole scene was too ugly to find anything good in it.

"Don't—" she held up a finger warningly. "Don't you ever, EVER, touch me again. It's over, Jonas. Accept it. And leave me the hell alone."

Turning again, she reached the door and left. Even as she hurried down the stairs and out to her car she could hear him yelling obscenities at her through the closed door. It was only when she was several miles away that she pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Leaning her head on the steering wheel she let out her fear and anger and loss.

She'd seen this coming. Ever since he'd gotten back from the Middle East he was different. More controlling. More volatile. More violent. The violence had never been directed at her—until now—but it didn't mean there hadn't been times when she'd been afraid. He'd followed her to her graduate classes, to make sure she was where she told him she'd be. He called her in the middle of the night and accused her of being with someone else. He'd even gone so far as to insist that she resign her commission from the Air Force because he didn't want to risk them being assigned to different postings after they were married. When she'd refused, he'd sworn at her, called her names she had never thought to hear coming from the mouth of the man who supposedly loved her. Sam knew then that she couldn't marry him—that the young lieutenant she'd fallen in love with had somehow transformed into a foul-mouthed, manipulative powder keg that she was afraid would go off at any moment.

Like the episode back at the house had just proven.

She was well rid of him. She touched the tender spot on her lip and tried to wipe away the smear of blood that had trickled down the side of her chin. She'd never tell anyone about this. Especially not her dad, who probably wouldn't be too terribly disappointed to learn that the marriage was off. He'd never particularly liked Jonas. Which wasn't surprising, really, as she and her father rarely ever agreed on anything these days.

"Why didn't you tell me what he did to you?"

Sam whirled around. The car she was in vanished and she was standing…where was she standing? It was dark and echoing. A room? A cave? The floor was hard. Smooth. Man-made then. A room. And the light…it was faint. But what was its source? Nothing from overhead. Nothing from any direction. It was just…there.

And into it stepped a person.

Her father.

"Dad?"

Jacob gave her a little smile.

"Hey there, kiddo."

Sam gaped in amazement.

"Dad—what are you doing…where am I? What is this place?"

He didn't answer right away but simply continued to gaze at her.

Realization struck her.

"Wait a minute…I thought…you're…you're supposed to be dead."

Jacob nodded in acknowledgement.

"I am."

Sam looked around, panic rising inside of her.

"Then that must mean that I'm…."

Jacob cut her off.

"Not necessarily."

"So you're saying, I'm not dead?"

Jacob shrugged.

"Does it matter?"

Sam looked at him in disbelief.

"Does it matter? It sure as hell does matter!"

Jacob mulled this over for a moment.

"Okay. Well, if it matters, then you're not dead."

"If I'm not dead, then what am I?" asked Sam, even more confused.

"It's…complicated, Sam."

Sam closed he eyes and shook her head.

"This has to be a dream. I could have sworn a minute ago I was…"

"With Jonas Hansen?"

Sam's eyes flew open.

"Yes!"

Jacob nodded.

"You were…kind of. Why didn't you ever tell me what he did to you? I'd have…"

"That's exactly why I didn't tell you. What the hell was that, anyway?"

Jacob shrugged again.

"A memory—in a way."

Sam studied him, wondering. She'd seen too many strange things, encountered too many false realities to take anything at face value. Fifth had tried to make her believe things that weren't real. This could be just another alien technology at work.

"A memory," she repeated, suspiciously.

"Look, Sam. I know what you're thinking. That maybe you're dealing with Replicators or the Ori or something that's making you see things that aren't real. I swear to you, Sam. That's not the case."

"And I'm supposed to believe you?"

Jacob shook his head in frustration.

"I knew you'd be reluctant to go along with this."

"With what, exactly? So far you haven't explained a damned thing. Not even where that—" she flailed helplessly, still shaken by having relived the scene with Jonas. "That memory came from."

Jacob sighed.

"Okay. Listen. I know this is going to be difficult for you to believe. I know you don't trust me. But it really is me, Sam, and I'm here to help you."

Sam's eyes narrowed.

"Help me how, exactly?"

Jacob looked at her sadly.

"Okay. Look. Maybe this will help you understand."

The darkness was suddenly replaced by an incredibly bright light. Sam had to blink several times before her eyes became accustomed to it. She realized it was coming from a bright lamp shining directly in her eyes. She stepped out of its direct beam and recognized where she was. It was the SGC's OR.

"Dr. Lam. Report." Said a disembodied voice. Sam looked up and saw General Landry above in the observation room, speaking into the intercom.

Next to him was Jack.

One of the gowned figures standing next to her spoke.

"Her injuries are extensive. We'll do our best, sirs"

Sam glanced down and noted there was a patient on the table, but her eyes quickly returned to Jack. He was staring intently down at the room, his face drawn and ashen, looking suddenly a lot older than she remembered.

Jacob was next to her.

"Dad…what's going on?"

"You're dying, Sam."

She turned and gaped at him. He shrugged and indicated the operating table.

"That's you. You were hit by an Ori lance blast."

For the first time Sam paid attention to the inert form on the table and felt fingers of fear creep up her spine as she realized the person on the table was herself. That would explain Jack.

She blinked, still uncertain.

"Then this is, what, like an out of body experience?"

Jacob nodded.

"Yeah. You could call it that. Look, you said it yourself, Sam. You've given your whole life in pursuit of answers. Scientific answers. Even now, in the middle of this," he indicated the surreal scene before them, "You're still trying to figure out the whys and hows, rather than just accept what you see. But there's more, Sam. So much more. And you'd just started to realize it when you knew you were going to die back there on that planet."

The pain. Was dull. Constant. Like a low. Frequency. Hum. That wouldn't. Go away. Breathing was. Hard. She could feel. Her own. Rasping breaths. Becoming. Shallower. Cam. Was having. A hard time. Looking her. In the eye. He knew. She was dying. So did. She. Breathing was. Hard.

Letters. She'd told Cam. About the letters. Cassie. Jack. Had she said. Jack aloud? No. She didn't. Think so. Jack. She'd never. Been this. Close. To death. Without. Jack. By. Her side. Jack. He'd grieve. A lot. Too much. Maybe. Her letter. Would help. She hoped. It would. She wished. She didn't. Have to. Leave him. So soon. It hurt. Worse than. Dying.

Cam. Was talking. She couldn't. Focus. Thoughts. Words. Jumbling.

"…well—we lost Jackson. I can't lose you too."

She struggled. Focused. Fought for. Lucidity. She batted back. The pain and the morphine. A few moments of clarity came.

"I spent my entire life dedicated to science," she managed. " Last ten years. Trying to convince people they believed in false gods."

The breathing was. Harder again. She was. Losing. She tried. Again.

"I don't feel like science is going to help me," she confessed, finding the breath. "Right now. I'm just hoping. Somewhere. One of those gods…."

Cam's face blurred and became Jacob's. The pain ebbed. She could breathe again with no difficulty. They were back at the SGC and she was standing next to Dr. Lam, watching her blood-soaked gloves work their way deep into the gaping, oozing wound of the Sam Carter who lay on the operating table.

She looked up at her father. He wore the same look of sympathy he had when he'd told her he was dying. But it was aimed at her, not the form on the table.

"How do you do that?" she asked. She had, for those few moments, been back on the planet, dying. It had felt as real as Jonas' hand striking her face.

"It's not me, Sam. It's you. You're the one who has these memories stored up. I'm just here to walk you through them."

"Yeah—but why? Why these memories? I still don't…

"Okay, Sam. I'll lay it out for you as plain as I can. Your body there might live or it might die. In either case, you need to be prepared for what comes afterward, whether it's in life or in death."

"And how, exactly, do I do that? Get prepared, I mean?"

"You ever hear the saying 'life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward'?"

Sam shook her head.

"No—."

Jacob looked disappointed.

"Oh. Well. In a way, that's what you're going to get to do. Be ready to go forward by going back."

"Back--you mean, like into those memories?"

Sam shuddered inwardly. They were worse than memories. They were worse even than the Tok'ra memory recall devices. They were living the experience over again, complete with sight, sound and sensation. It was…unnerving.

"Pretty much, yeah."

Great. Just what she needed.

"So—do I get to pick the memories?" she asked, half joking, but Jacob nodded.

"In a way, you do, since you're the only one who knows exactly what it is you need to find in those memories that will let you move forward."

"And then what?"

Jacob's mouth made a funny twist that was a half smile.

"Then you live. Or you die. But you'll be ready, either way. That is, if you're willing to do this."

"Kinda my life passing before my eyes?" Sam asked.

Jacob smiled fully.

"You could say that."

Sam took a deep breath. She glanced at herself on the table and then up at Jack.

"What if I don't want to do this? What if I decided to just, I don't know—wait?"

"Well, that's up to you, Sam. I'm not here to force you to do anything. I'm just saying, I think you'll be better off if you take this little trip down memory lane than if you don't. It made all the difference in the world for me."

"You did this when you died?"

"Not this last time, no. But I did before—before you took me to the Tok'ra. When I was in the hospital and you were off-world."

Understanding was beginning to come.

"You were different after that. I just assumed it was Selmak's influence."

"A lot of it was. But for Selmak to talk, someone had to listen. And believe me, I was a much better listener after I died than before—I think you'll agree."

Sam looked at he dad with a whole new understanding. The mellowing, the reaching out, the willingness to embrace change—all the things she'd attributed to Selmak—had really come out of her father's brief brush with death. All these years and she had never known.

"Who was there for you?" she found herself asking, although she already knew the answer. A warm smile spread across her father's face.

"Your mother," he said gently. Sam felt her eyes swimming and she turned away—back to the window where Jack still stood, stock still. There were others in the room now, she could see. Teal'c. Vala. Cam. A deathbed vigil. Except she wasn't dead yet.

Jacob was beside her again, following her gaze.

"They're worried about you."

"Yeah," said Sam, in a husky voice.

"They care about you," Jacob continued. "Especially Jack."

Sam cleared her throat.

"Yeah. Dad…Jack and I…."

"I know, Sam. I always did. Not that I thought it was a good idea—not at first, anyway. But I came around. There's nothing quite as appealing to a father as a man who's absolutely devoted to his daughter."

"I don't want to hurt him." She couldn't take her eye off Jack, who, in turn, hadn't taken his eyes off of her motionless form on the table next to her.

"Yeah. Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

There was violent movement on the table next to her and Sam instinctively jumped out of the way. She thought of Merlin's phase-shifting device and how this wasn't a whole lot different—able to see and hear everything but unable to touch or interact. A painful sort of limbo.

All around her a great deal of commotion ensued. Monitors were sounding. Lam was speaking in a loud, urgent voice while others scurried about for various items. She heard the whine as the defibrulator began to charge and Lam shouting:

Clear!

Sam watched her body arch with the shock that followed and heard the rhythmic pulse of the monitor start up once again.

Even though she could hardly bear to, she looked up at Jack. His face had gone completely blank, as it did when he was shutting down, trying to force the emotions down to some deep place where no one, not even himself, would find them.

This was not fair. Not fair at all. She was tired of it. There was always something interfering. Something causing one or the other of them pain. Goa'ulds. Replicators. Ori. His doubts. Her fears. Not for the first time she wished there was a place they could go to leave it all behind.

Except there wasn't.

They'd dealt with near-misses before. Knew in their hearts that the odds were one day going to come up against them.

But she never thought she'd ever be forced to watch Jack witness her own death. Dying was bad enough. Seeing it reflected in his eyes….

It was not fair.

"No one said it ever was, Sam," said Jacob gently.

She wheeled on him, her eyes stinging, her anger beginning to seethe.

"Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making me see this?"

"I'm not," replied Jacob simply. "You are."

"What?!"

"We wouldn't be here if you didn't want to be," he explained.

"What—you think I want to be here?" cried Sam, incredulously.

"We can leave whenever you like."

"Yeah—well, how about right now."

The OR vanished and Sam was back in the blackened room with the dim, sourceless light. She let out a long breath and realized she was shaking. Anger. Agony. Maybe fear. She didn't know why. She didn't care. At least she didn't have to watch Jack watch her die.

"See?" said Jacob from behind her. "You're in control here. Not me."

"If I'm in control, then let's just end this now. No memories. No out-of-body journey through my life. Really, Dad. I just want to go back."

"I know you do. And if that's what you want, I won't stop you. In fact, I can't stop you. But I'm telling you, Sam. You'll be missing an opportunity that won't come again. And it could make a difference in what happens next, regardless of what's going on back there."

Dimly in the distance a hazy view of the OR appeared, like lights going up on a stage. And just as quickly, the light faded and Sam found herself staring at the darkness.

She closed her eyes and tried to quell the turmoil inside. All she wanted to do was to go to Jack. To put her arms around him and tell him it was okay. She was okay. But it would be like trying to embrace a hologram. And he would never know she was there. He would only see the physical part of her; the part that was balancing precariously on the line between life and death.

Sam opened her eyes and looked at her father.

"If I do this, then I can go back, right? Be back in my own body for a little while? Even if I eventually—you know—die?"

"Absolutely."

Sam took a deep, resolute breath.

"Okay. Sure. Fine. Let's do this. The quicker the better."

"Well, I don't know how quick it will be. That's up to…."

"Me. I know. I'm starting to get the picture here, Dad."

"Hey. Don't get mad at me. I don't make the rules."

"About that—who does?"

Jacob looked at her indulgently.

"You were the one who asked for help, Sam. You figure it out."

"I thought you were supposed to help me?"

"I'm supposed to guide you, Sam. The answers you have to find for yourself."

"Yeah. Starting to get that,." she said wearily. "So—what do I do next? And don't…" she held up a finger warningly at her father. "Don't you dare tell me it's up to me…."

Jacob grinned at her.

"Actually, I was going to say anytime you're ready."

Sam bit her lower lip and took a deep breath.

"Now, I guess."

"Mark—don't do this." She was pleading mostly to her brother's back, but at the moment it was the only part of him she could see. He had kept it to her through the whole conversation. Well, conversation wasn't exactly what she'd call it. More of a monologue really. Her talking. Him ignoring her.

Two huge suitcases sat opened on his bed. One contained the contents of his closet, the clothes haphazardly thrown in and crushed down to make as much space as possible. The other held an odd assortment of his belongings. Cassettes. Books. His journals. A chess trophy. An assortment of posters, carefully rolled. Their mother's picture. More telling was what was being left behind. Sports awards. Model planes. Everything that had any attachment to the Air Force or their father. It all sat in a discarded heap in the corner. Even, Sam noted, the last family picture they'd had taken a couple of months before Mom had died.

She stooped to pick it up.

"Take it," he told her, the first words out of his mouth since she'd entered the room. "I don't want it."

Smiling out of the photo were her father and mother, herself and Mark, three years younger than they were now. Clueless, she thought. Happy and naïve and clueless. They'd never all smile like that ever again.

"Why are you doing this?" Sam asked for the dozenth time, not expecting an answer. But to her surprise Mark turned to her. At fifteen his growth spurt hadn't quite finished and being older, she was still taller than he was. But there was a maturity to him that his height couldn't match and a burden in his eyes that shouldn't have been there. Sam knew it was in her own as well. The wariness that sudden loss brought; the fear that any moment something else might vanish without warning and start the pain all over again.

"I can't live here anymore, Sam. Not with him. And not with you, if you're going to be just like him."

A lump formed in Sam's throat. Her acceptance into the Air Force Academy had precipitated this. When the letter had come Mark's face had paled and gone blank, a coldness settling over him. Silence had followed, then his announcement: he was going to go live with Aunt Carrie, their mother's sister, in San Diego. Their dad had tried talking to him, but Mark's mind was made up, and in the end Jacob had relented. Sam didn't know who she was more angry at: Mark for leaving, or her dad for letting him go.

But she hadn't realized that his blanket hatred of their dad and the Air Force had now expanded to include her.

"Mark—this isn't about Dad. I've always wanted to do this."

"No!" replied Mark sharply. "You've always wanted to be an astronaut. Not an Air Force officer."

"I can still apply to NASA. And I'll probably have a better chance this way. Dad says…."

Mark cut her off.

"It's the Air Force, Sam. Don't kid yourself. And don't try to make me believe that this is your best path to space. The only reason—the only reason you're doing this is to please him. You've done it all your life—trying to keep up with him. Trying to measure up to his expectations of you. You're brilliant, Sam. Absolute genius. You could go anywhere: Stanford, MIT—but no, you're going to follow him into the military—to have the same kind of life he's had—and pass that same miserable existence on to your kids, if you even ever have any. Look at what he's done to us, Sam! Look at how we've lived! No place longer than a couple of years. No friends that lasted longer than his last posting. The only thing that made it in any way tolerable was Mom. And he took her from us too."

"That's not fair, Mark. It was an accident." Sam interrupted, stinging under her brother's words and the tone of his voice.

"I don't want to hear it Sam. He screwed up. She got in that taxi. She died. If he'd have been there for her—but he never was. Never. And now you're going to be just like him."

The finality of his tone told her that he was done talking. Mark turned his back to her once more and resumed his packing. Even though a hundred responses jetted through her mind, Sam clamped her mouth and kept them all within. Mark had divorced himself emotionally from their dad the day Mom had died and now he was divorcing himself from Sam in the same way. Looking down at the picture of the smiling family, a wave of grief flooded her from the very pit of her stomach. It wasn't just her mother who had died that horrible day three years ago; it was her entire family. The images swam and blurred and she knew there was no point in talking further. Hugging the frame to her chest and deliberately stifling a sob, she left Mark to his packing, the anguish of her mother's death and her brother's disownment washing over her in nauseous waves.

"He really hated me then," remarked Jacob, sadly. Sam spun to look at him, the memory of her brother's room fading so suddenly she felt a certain sense of vertigo. The nausea of grief still stayed with her and her stomach roiled in protest of the added sensation of displacement.

"And me," she added, still trying to keep her gorge from rising. Oh this was way worse than the Tok'ra's device. Exponentially worse.

"Honestly, I thought he'd be back home in a month. That's the only reason I let him go," Jacob confessed. Sam was momentarily distracted by his admission.

"I always thought you just gave up on him," she said, surprised. Jacob shook his head.

"Not for a long time. I hoped…but, hey. It turned out okay, you know?"

"Because of Selmak," Sam pointed out. It was the Tok'ra who'd prodded her father into trying again with Mark.

"Yeah. Sure. Selmak gave me the push. But I couldn't have done it without you coming too."

"Life's too short," said Sam, and suddenly realized how true that old cliché was. All she had to do was think about that OR table and Jack's grieving face.

"It is, isn't it?" was all Jacob said, although he smiled slightly.

"I was angry at Mark for a very long time," Sam finally owned up. "It was bad enough to lose Mom; but when he left—suddenly we weren't a family anymore."

"Then Selmak did us both a favor," Jacob pointed out. Sam had to concede the point.

"Mark was right about one thing," her father went on . "You did join the Air Force to please me."

Sam was silent. She had mulled Mark's accusation over and over in her mind many times, trying it on for size. Her mother had always guided her, but her father had been the one who challenged her. Do more. Be more. Reach higher. Run farther. She had admired him for as long as she could remember—at least until the accident. Then the admiration had slipped a little. But he had tried—reached out to her through her grieving and offered her the only thing he knew: the Air Force. And, desperate to not be alone, desperate to meet that challenge he had put before her, she had accepted.

"Yeah, I did," she acknowledged. "I thought…."

She hesitated, not sure she was ready to have this conversation.

"You thought what, Sam?"

"I thought that if I worked hard enough, accomplished all those things we used to talk about, that maybe…." She couldn't go on.

"Sam?" Jacob's voice was solicitous. Sam wiped the back of her hand across her nose. Damn. She wasn't actually crying was she?

"That maybe…I wouldn't disappoint you."

Jacob knit his brows, as if trying to comprehend what she said.

"How, in God's name, could you ever disappoint me, Sam? I've been proud of you since the moment you were born."

"Could've fooled me."

It came out before she realized it, and if she could have taken it back, she would have. But it hung out there between them as if it echoed in the dark chamber. Jacob looked stunned.

"You're serious?" he said, in disbelief, his features pained.

Too late now, thought Sam. Might as well forge ahead.

"Yeah. I guess I am. I never thought anything I did measured up—until you found out about the Stargate Program. Even when I earned the Airman's Medal and you had no idea why, it still didn't measure up to your expectations. You should have just accepted that my work, whatever it was, was important to me and not tried to shoehorn me into the space program without even talking to me."

"That was a long time ago, Sam. I'm not the same person I was then."

"No—you're not," Sam conceded, trying to soften her tone. She hadn't meant to dig up all that frustration from so many years ago, but the memory of her brother's departure had dredged up old emotions. "And I loved how you changed. But it wasn't always that way, Dad. We both know it."

Jacob smiled ruefully.

"Yeah. I guess I could be an SOB some of the time. I guess I should be grateful for second chances."

Sam tried to smile warmly back. The anger was fading.

"I am. And I know Mark was too."

"Good. At least I wasn't a total failure as a father—at least not in the end, anyway."

The tok'ra stepped back out of the way as Sam hurried into the room and over to the bed. His breathing was shallow, filled with effort. She could see him trying to form words with breath that would not come.

"I…love…you…."

"No!" Sam protested loudly. "Not that one. I won't live that over again."

The image, mercifully, vanished.

"Told you. You're flying this plane, Sam."

"Am I done yet? Wait—don't say it. It's up to me."

"Medic! Medic!"

Daniel's voice reached a level of panic Sam had never heard before, but she hardly did more than register it as an anomaly. A cold terror squeezed her that had nothing to do with the staff blasts and the P90 fire that was ripping the air about it. One blast landed close by, shattering a boulder and sending shards of rock spraying in all direction. She hunkered down over the fallen body she knelt beside and tried to shield it from any further assault. A piece of stone grazed her cheek, but she ignored it. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that she cared anything about at that moment was the body of Jack O'Neill and the enormous gaping staff blast burned into his combat vest.

More shrapnel. She threw herself over him again. Somewhere she registered Daniel's voice over the radio, panic turning to despair. So not-Daniel. Something must be wrong. Very, very wrong. As wrong as Jack lying beneath her protective stance, not moving.

With shaking hands she tried to find a pulse, but either her own inability to control her muscles or the lack of one to find made it impossible. She leaned her face close to his, trying to feel some sensation of breathing, but the air was too charged with weapon blasts to feel anything that slight. Finally she fumbled with his vest, prising it apart to lay her ear against his chest, her own heart in her throat, trying to listen for his. Too damn much noise. She couldn't tell…she just couldn't tell….

"Medic! Fraiser's been hit! Oh God! She's dead!"

Daniel again. Daniel…?

She struggled to find her radio and finally flipped the switch.

"Daniel?" she shouted into it. "Say again?"

"Sam? Oh, God, Sam! It's Janet—he shot her. A Jaffa—she's dead!"

Sam threw herself away from Jack and vomited. Pulsating waves of nausea surged over her until there was nothing left. The bitter taste in her mouth lingered long after the dry heaves had left her shaking even more violently than before. Janet… Oh God. Janet. Jack. What the hell had gone wrong?

The sounds of the firefight were lessening. The battle was moving away from her. She swirled, weapon raised, as a crashing noise sounded close to her, but dropped her weapon point when she saw it was Teal'c. His frown of concern told her he had seen Jack fall. In a moment he was by her side.

"What is his condition?" he asked breathless, as close to panic as Sam had ever seen him.

She shook her head.

"I…I don't know. I can't tell…there's too much…" but Teal'c was leaning over him, ear pressed to his chest. Now that the fighting was moving off, he might hear something. A moment later he straightened up.

"He lives, but I believe it would be prudent to get him back through the gate as quickly as possible."

Sam nodded.

"Yeah. But how are we going to do that? They've got us cut off."

The big Jaffa studied the area. Sam could see the bodies of several of the Jaffa lying amidst the rocks and bushes. There must have been a lot of them to lose so many and still give three SG teams a run for their money.

Teal'c seemed to have reached a conclusion.

"Remain with O'Neill," he told her. "I will reconnoiter and see which route is best back to the gate."

And with that he left. Sam stared down into Jack's unconscious face. His forehead was spattered with mud and his chin had a thin line of dried blood to one side—probably a shaving accident, not a wound. Sam placed her hand to his cheek and gently turned his head toward her.

"Colonel—Sir—can you hear me?"

But his head lolled to the side and there was no indication of any awareness of her whatsoever. She leaned her head down to his chest again, hoping to hear what Teal'c had. She had an overwhelming urge to rest her head on his chest, to gather him in her arms and hold him, to stroke the silvering hair, cut so close to his head as he seemed to prefer wearing it these days.

Her radio crackled, causing her to jump. The thoughts vanished.

"Major Carter!" Teal'c's voice rumbled through. "The Jaffa are retreating. We will be able to retake the gate momentarily. When we succeed, I will return the same way I came. Watch for me."

"Copy that, Teal'c. Hurry," she added, worriedly eyeing Jack. The vest had prevented the killing blast, but who knew what type of neurological damage the charge has caused. Janet….

Oh God. Janet.

She thumbed her radio.

"Daniel? Daniel are you there."

There was a long moment before the static burst heralded his reply. Sam couldn't help but notice the abject weariness in his voice.

"I'm here, Sam."

"What's your status?" she asked. Maybe she had heard him wrong. Maybe he was mistaken….

"We're okay now. The jaffa have gone. I've got a medic treating Wells. We'll bring him back with…" his voice choked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "We'll bring him back with, ah, Janet as soon as Jack gives the all clear."

Sam hated to do it to him, but she had no choice.

"Daniel—the Colonel's been hit. He's down. We know he's still alive, but we need to get him back to the SGC ASAP. Teal'c and Colonel Dixon are clearing out the way back. Be ready for the signal."

"Copy that," came Daniel's voice, muffled. Sam waited a moment and commed him back.

"Daniel—you okay?"

It was several seconds before he answered, quietly and desolately.

"No. No I'm not." And with that he went silent.

His simple and honest admission broke through Sam's last barrier. Jack's face swam before her eyes as the tears filled them and spilled down her cheeks. Janet. Oh God. Janet. Cassie…poor Cass! What was she going to do? Jack—an inch lower—she'd be calling for a body bag for him as well.

She wiped the tears away, angrily. What the hell was she doing? Crying? She'd lost colleagues and friends before. Whole SG teams had died. Martouf. Narim. Skarra and the entire population of Abydos. Where were her tears for them?

But God! Janet! Sam's gut hurt, just thinking of it. No. Janet should be back in the infirmary, fighting virus' and infections and the occasional over-dressed goa'uld, not a bunch of jaffa in the middle of an ambush. How screwed up could this day get?

She looked back down at Jack and felt a fist of fear grab her heart. What if he didn't survive this? What if Dr. Lee's ceramic polymer only postponed death, not prevented it? A future without Jack in it…her future without Jack in it…the reality of it brought her up short. She thought she'd been prepared to step away from him. This Pete Shanahan her brother had introduced her to had made it easier. Pete was romantic and funny and he had absolutely no problem telling her and showing her how he was feeling about her. No guess work involved.

It was one thing for her to step away from Jack; it was another to have him wrenched away from her—forever.

She didn't know what she'd do.

She looked at his face, unmoving and yet somehow blissfully peaceful. She had never particularly considered whether he was handsome or not—although, she had to admit, even here, he was. It was Jack himself, his self-deprecating humor, his keen ability to size up a person or a situation in nothing flat, his feigned denseness—all classic Jack. Along with what lay hidden beneath. Sam didn't begin to understand the layers to the man, and in the seven years they had worked together, she had seen plenty of them. But there were deep places in Jack's soul where no one was allowed—not even, she thought, himself. And although she knew she would never ever see those depths, they were still part of what made Jack, well, Jack.

The bushes rustled and Sam went on alert. A jaffa stick appeared. Teal'c? The glint off a metal skullcap. No. A stray jaffa. She lined up her "Carter special" as Jack called it, and took aim. The jaffa dropped with the first shot and Sam breathed a sigh of relief.

"Major Carter, come this way."

Sam nearly jumped out of her skin. Whirling she saw Teal'c behind her, squatting again next to Jack.

"I will carry O'Neill. You may take point."

She didn't mind taking orders from Teal'c. Her brain was too numb to think, anyway. She just wanted to get Jack back through the gate, make sure he was going to be okay, check on Daniel. Verify that Janet….

She felt sick again.

Just get to the gate. The rest she would worry about when she got there.

"Sam?"

Vertigo again. The brightness of P3X-666 vanished and she felt momentarily blinded by the darkness. Jacob was looking at her with concern. Her whole body was trembling, uncontrollable waves of spasms, as if she were in shock.

"Dad?" she asked, unable to moderate the panic in her voice.

"It's okay. You're okay. Just let it go," he said soothingly. Easier said than done, Sam thought, trying to calm her muscles. They would not respond, which was odd, she thought, since she really wasn't corporally here, but back on that operating table.

"Actually, you're in recovery now," Jacob corrected her. "Jack's with you."

"Then I'm going to be okay?" she said, pushing aside how disconcerting it was to have your father able to read your thoughts.

Jacob shrugged.

"I didn't say that. It's still touch and go. For a while longer, anyway."

Sam closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, focused on relaxing. After a moment her body stilled and she opened her eyes again, to see her father studying her.

"I never wanted to live that day again, ever," she said, trying to tone down the anger in her voice. "Why did I have to?"

"There must be something there you needed to see, Sam."

Sam shook her head.

"What? My best friend die? Jack nearly get killed? How is that supposed to be helpful?"

Jacob just looked at her and she knew he wasn't going to help her.

"Okay, okay. I know. I have to figure this out myself."

"So tell me, what happened after that?" Jacob asked her.

"You know what happened…the NID launched an investigation, that Bregman guy finished his film. We had a memorial for Janet…."

"No. I mean, what happened to you," he made a gesture of actually pointing at Sam. She looked directly at her father and said the first thing that came to her.

"I was afraid."

The silence that followed was absolute. In all her life Sam could not ever remember making that admission aloud. With the emotion of the memory seeping away, it was easier to understand. And what stood out over everything else, the grief, the anger, the confusion, was the lingering fear.

Jacob let her stew on this for a moment. Then he spoke.

"You've been afraid before; you've been in fire fights, hand to hand, trapped on exploding ships, faced overwhelming odds, hunted by goa'uld and replicators, concussed and alone aboard a ship lost in some nebula…why was this any different?"

Sam furrowed her brow. Everything he said was true. They'd come up against death many times. But this had been different.

This time, death had won.

"We weren't invincible anymore. Janet's death…I suddenly realized, we could lose people. People close to us. We weren't always going to beat the odds, no matter how resourceful we were. We'd scraped by so many times by the skin of our teeth, it became almost a cliché. I had gotten to where I'd taken it for granted. But not this time. And not ever again."

"What about Jack?"

Sam was confused.

"What about him?"

"You almost lost him too. I would have thought that might have, you know. Had some impact on you."

Sam thought back to that time. It was a blur. A jumbled, confusing collage of events and emotions.

"I thought I needed to move on. Jack and I…I mean I tried. But then Anubis attacked and Fifth showed up—there just wasn't time. And besides, Jack has this funny way of pushing people away if he thinks something he does might hurt them."

"I don't think he's the only one."

Sam was perplexed.

"What—you mean me?" she asked, finally.

"Look, Sam. I'm just saying, you've done a pretty good job at keeping people at arms length yourself. Just look at all these memories you've dredged up. What do you see when you look at them all? What's the same in every scene?"

Sam gave him a tight smile.

"I understand, Dad. I do."

His look was indulgent.

"Sam…"

"I get it, Dad. Really."

"I don't think you do." He sighed. "Okay. Think, Sam. Why didn't you tell me about Jonas?"

Sam shook her head.

"I don't know—I was ashamed, I guess, that I'd made such a huge mistake. It was my problem, not anyone else's."

Jacob pondered this.

"I see. And when Mark left, where did you go with that?"

Sam shrugged.

"No where. I was as angry at you as I was at him. It was a family thing."

"What about Janet?"

"I had Cassie."

Jacob cocked an eyebrow at her. Sam backtracked.

"Okay, technically, I guess, Cassie had me. I had to be strong for her sake. I couldn't give her my pain too."

"So basically, when Janet died, you grieved alone?"

"No—I mean we all grieved for her—but it was just something we all sucked up. We didn't talk about it. Like when Daniel died—ascended. Whatever."

"So, like I said, you were pretty much…."

"Alone. Yeah. I guess."

She finally saw where Jacob was leading her.

He held up his hands in a "well?" gesture.

"I guess I do kinda keep things to myself too," Sam admitted.

"Always did. Even as a little girl. Your mother would find you crying over something and she could never get you to tell her what it was about. You kept it all bottled up inside you, and you wouldn't let anyone in. I blame myself, actually."

"You? Why?" asked Sam, confused.

"I think I gave you the 'good little soldier' speech a few too many times. You applied it to everything, Sam. Your professional life—your personal life—even your emotional life."

"Yeah," Sam tried a half-hearted grin. "Sometimes that 'way of the warrior' crap really sucks, Dad."

Jacob tossed her a mirthless smile in agreement.

"I almost found that out too late," he admitted.

"Look, Dad, I see where all of this is going. And the thing is, I think I'm a different person than I was when all these things happened. I finally figured out that I didn't have to keep the wall up all the time—it was like you said. I'd let rules stand in the way of what I wanted. Once I got beyond that—I've been happy. Really happy. Now…can I just get back to my life—or death—please?"

"To be honest, Sam, I don't think you're ready."

Sam stared at him. This was ridiculous. She'd gotten the point. What more was there?

"What? How much more of this do I have to go through? Look, Dad. I'm tired, okay. I just want to be back there…" The room did the stage-lights up again, and this time she saw the recovery room, herself hooked up to a half dozen monitors and Jack, sitting by her bedside, his hand holding hers. He looked even more tired that when she'd seen him last and his eyes, dark and withdrawn, seemed a million miles away. She couldn't bear it and willed the image to vanish. Mercifully, it did.

"Trust me, Sam. You're close. You really are. But you haven't quite filled in the blanks yet."

This was too hard. She felt worse than she imagined she would lying in that bed she had just seen. At this point a little physical pain would have been a welcome relief from this gut-wrenching trip through her emotional past.

"Don't give up now, kiddo. Believe me. You're going to thank me for this. I promise."

Sam regarded her father with suspicion.

"You know something."

He shook his head.

"I know nothing for certain, Sam. Just…possibilities"

Sam chewed her lip and finally nodded. Obviously, the only way she was ever going to get to go back was if she saw this through to the bitter end. She had come this far. She might as well complete it. Steeling her gut for whatever remaining onslaught her mind could unleash, she nodded.

"Okay, then. Let's finish this."

She could not make herself pull away from his kiss. The warmth of his mouth on hers was a sensation she would never tire of. The intimacy of this connection, the physical aspect of it, never failed to surprise her; each time was as the first time.

His hands held her shoulders, refusing to let her go, pulling her closer to him. She wanted to stay, to rest in the comfort of his arms, to hear his voice whisper against her ear as they lay in the sand under the rising suns. To pretend that they had all the time in the world to look at each other, to taste each other, to tell each other things that they knew in their hearts but had never spoken aloud. But it would only be pretending. Their time had run out. As surely as the first sun rose above the distant horizon and spread its blood red tendrils across the still sea, their time together was over and she must leave.

"Wait," said Sam abruptly. "This never happened. I never spent…." She stopped in mid-thought. "This isn't my memory. It's Jolinar's."

Jacob gazed at her, unfazed.

"So…?"

"So? I think I have enough to deal with in my own past, why do I have to go into her memories too?"

"Like it or not, Sam, Jolinar will always be a part of you. I think you know that."

Only too well, thought Sam, throwing her father a warning look. Don't you dare bring that up, she thought at him.

"I'm only saying," he replied aloud.

"Great. Two pasts to sort though."

"We will miss you." It was Lantash's voice but Martouf's eyes. Jolinar loved them both, as did Rosha. They had been blended for so long they were nearly indistinguishable from one another—their thoughts, their feelings as one.

"And we shall miss you as well," she answered back, her hand pressing against his cheek. He smiled sadly and she understood that he knew. Knew that this was a mission from which she most likely would not return. "I will be well," she told him anyway. "Do not fear for me."

"Any time you are out of my sight I fear for you," he replied. "As I know you fear for me. But it is something we cannot change. We have chosen this life. We have chosen this fight. If we withdrew from it, we would be less than who we are."

She smiled at him, her heart laden with heaviness she knew she could not let him see.

"It will be fine. You will see. My plan is well laid; it will just take...time."

He leaned forward to kiss her again and she allowed herself one last time to be lost in Rosha's response to his touch. After too few moments she reluctantly pulled them both away.

"My transport awaits," she said quietly. Martouf's eyes glistened with tears even as he smiled.

"I know. I will walk with you to the chappa'ai."

"No," her response was swift. "Please. Do not come with me. I would rather you remain here."

They understood, and Martouf nodded. Standing, she brushed the sand off her leggings and gazed across the water at the second sun that was now rising. It was a fair walk to the chappa'ai and she would need to hurry. She had stayed longer than she should have, but it had been most difficult to say good-bye.

She felt him behind her and she turned to him once more, her eyes, in the new light of the day, drinking in every feature, every curve of his face, every sense of his touch, as if she had not already had nearly two hundred years to know his face as well as she knew her own.

Neither spoke, but as she turned to leave he took her hand and held it briefly, allowing hers to slip through it as she stepped away until only their fingertips touched. Refusing to turn around, she set off across the dune, the sand slowing what she had hoped would be her swift departure. She could feel him watching her, knew he would not move from where he stood until she vanished from view, but she kept her eyes fixed on the distant ring and did not look back.

"I never had the full memory before," Sam said quietly. "Just bits and pieces, that time we came to Neytu." She shuddered as the other memories she'd dredged from Jolinar's past came back to her.

"What happened after she left?" Jacob asked her. Sam closed her eyes and focused her thoughts. The memory flooded her.

"She had a transport ship. Flew it all the way to Neytu so she could infiltrate Sokor's operation. It was dangerous. Both she and Martouf understood that. But it was necessary."

"I mean, what happened to Jolinar?"

Sam winced.

"Dad, don't make me…"

"You have to go there, Sam. I'm sorry." And he seemed to really mean it.

Sam shook her head, trying to fend off the memory, but it came anyway.

Great snorting sounds reverberated from his ugly mouth as he slept. It was this way every night when, exhausted, he would collapse and fall into a deep slumber. She could hardly stand the smell of him on her, and her skin burned everywhere his hands had been. She longed to scrub herself with soap and water, to wash off any trace of him, but water was a scarce commodity in this hell, and she knew she stank of sweat and heat and Bynar's unquenchable passion. The first thing she would do when she escaped would be to bathe. Hours and hours on end soaking in water until she felt clean. If that were even possible. At this point she wasn't sure. She knew a part of her would never be rid of this vile being. His cruel and repulsive features would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life.

It had taken weeks to get to this point; endless hours of his company for him to trust her enough to not tie her to the bed before he sank into his slumber. For five days, now, she had been free and for five days she had simply found the furthest corner of the room from him and curled up in it, watching until he stirred and then returning to the bed. By the third night he had forgotten to threaten her life if she left his side. By the fourth he had sent her to bring him some wine so he would have it when he woke. By the fifth night he trusted her completely. Which was why her fingers were now curling around the medallion and her feet were running to the hidden panel, why she was activating the device and why rings were suddenly enveloping her and transporting her to Sokor's planet even as his roar of betrayal rang in her ears.

An unmanned ring platform. A handy zat'nik'tel. Three dead jaffa later she was aboard a cargo ship, performing a cold start and heading skyward, her breath coming in short bursts as her human host pushed herself to her limits. Clear of the atmosphere, she jumped to hyperspeed and locking the controls in place stripped herself of the clothes she wore and fired the zat'nik'tel three times until they vanished. It helped only a little. Shivering and naked she retrieved a tunic from the ships supplies and returned to the helm. It would take her a month to get home in this vessel. A long time to think. Maybe long enough to forget. No. Forgetting was something she would never be able to do. But she could pretend. She had to. Martouf and Lantash must never, ever know. Such knowledge would irreparably devastate them, would irrevocably damage what they'd had together for so many years. She would act as if everything were normal, and everything would be normal in their eyes. But as much as she loved him, she knew that it would be a very long time before he touched her and she didn't feel Bynar's touch, kissed her, and she didn't smell Bynar's breath, held her and she didn't feel the iron grip of muscles holding her down.

She would return to Martouf, to Lantash, but they were lost to her. And she feared she would never have them back again.

"Easy kiddo," Jacob's voice was caring and solicitous. Sam was bent over double, sick in her stomach, her head throbbing.

"Oh God!" she moaned. Jolinar's pain burned inside her. "Oh God."

"I'm sorry, Sam. Really. I'm sorry."

"Why?" asked Sam raspily. "Why did I have to go there?" She had broken out in a cold sweat. She could feel her clothes damp against her skin, rivels trickling down her side.

"It was the only way. The only way you'd finally understand."

"Understand WHAT?" cried Sam in frustration. "What am I supposed to understand?"

"There are things worse than death, Sam," Jacob cautioned her. "And loss can take on many different forms. You needed to be prepared. No matter what happens in that infirmary."

Sam sank to the floor and rested her head on her knees, hugging them. She deliberately willed the images from Jolinar's past out of her mind, but the sickening sensation remained.

This was taking too long. If she were dying, if her body was losing its battle, she wanted to be in it, looking at Jack through her own eyes, not from this distant spectral vantage point. She wanted to hear his voice, feel his touch, tell him she loved him. Tell him good-bye. And she couldn't do that if she were here trying to figure out this puzzle of images.

Life has to be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward. That's what Jacob had said.

Jonas. Mark. Janet. Martouf. She'd lost them all. In different ways, granted, but lost them, just the same. Disillusionment. Estrangement. Death. Withdrawal. So, this was about loss? Accepting it? Dealing with it? Surviving it…moving on…?

Because she'd been able to move on every time.

Every time but once. Nearly.

The frigid darkness of the elevator shaft caused her to shiver in her memory. She didn't need to replay that. It was too near. Too recent.

She'd survived losing everyone except Jack. Believing he was dead—and that she was responsible—well. She had all but prayed that the cable would snap.

"Loss is about fear, Sam," her father said quietly. "And I know what your greatest fear is."

The tears spilled down Sam's cheek. Damn. It wasn't fair, having someone inside your head like that. Jacob eased himself to the floor next to her

"You've faced it many times," he continued. "But you've never had to fully deal with it."

"Yet." She supplied the word for him. Deal with it yet. But she had always known that one day, one horrible, God-awful, gut-wrenching day, she would. She had just never figured it would come quite like this. Sam wiped her face. Her nose would drip, even here.

"The time will come, Sam, when you will. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not for years and years. I honestly don't know. But you need to understand this: whenever it is, however it comes—in whatever form it takes—remember. You have survived before; and you'll find a way to survive even that. No matter what the pain. The strength is inside of you, Sam. It always has been. It always will be."

Sam looked up at him.

"And if I die?"

Jacob's face was sympathetic.

"Loss is loss, Sam. It doesn't matter which plane of existence you're on."

She rested her head on her knees again, squeezing her eyes shut. Every muscle in her body ached.

"So—what now?" she asked wearily, her voice sounding muffled, even to he own ears.

"So. I think it's time for you to go back…for a while at least," he replied.

She looked up again and he was smiling at her. It gave her some courage.

"Will you be here when I'm ready?" She asked, half hopeful, half afraid.

Jacob gave her a knowing look and leaning forward, kissed her on her forehead.

"If you need me, I'll be here. But you know what, kiddo? I think you're going to be okay, however it turns out. Trust me."

He stood up and took a few steps back. The sourceless light was dimming.

"Dad—wait…" she started, scrambling to her feet, but he was gone.

o-o-o-o

This is it, thought Sam, as she watched Dr. Lam and her team scramble around her bedside. Her body was convulsing and the monitors were going wild. Jack stood next to her, his dark eyes wide and fixated on the activity in front of him. She had been talking with him just a few hours ago. Holding his hand. Feeling his touch. Trading lame jokes. It would be for the last time. This was what Jacob had prepared her for.

An overwhelming sorrow filled her. It was too soon. No matter what her father had told her, she wasn't ready. Leaving Jack…she couldn't do it. She wouldn't. Not yet.

With every ounce of determination she could muster, Sam fought back.

o-o-o-o

She was back in the dimly light room. But not alone. He stepped forward into the sourceless light, the silver in his hair shimmering. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets, like they always were when he was assessing a situation; appearing casual but ever so watchful and observant. When he saw her he stopped, his head tilted, one eyebrow raised.

"Hey," he said, not seeming surprised to see her. She smiled.

"Hey," she said back at him. She watched as a cloud of wariness passed over his eyes. He'd come to some conclusion and was steeling himself against it.

"You're leaving me, aren't you?" His voice was husky, raw with emotion.

Sam furrowed her brow.

"Why would I do that?" she asked him.

"Because you're going to die," he answered simply, although there was nothing simple in the tone of his voice.

"Someday," she told him. "But not today."

A look of cautious surprise from Jack.

"No?"

She smiled again and shook her head.

"No."

She could see relief spread over him, the tautness in his face relaxed. His look softened, his eye grew warm.

"When you die, do I get to go too?" he asked, in his innocent Jack sort of way. She thought of everything Jacob had shown her, everything he had reminded her of.

"We all have to find our own path, Jack," she replied. Better to let him find out when his time came. No need to burden him now. The light in the room brightened. Jack seemed to glow.

She saw a look of panic darken his eyes. He didn't understand..

"You're not going to do that ascension thing, are you?"

She offered him a reassuring smile.

"Not this time."

He relaxed again. His relief showing in the way he adjusted his stance and let his lips curve into a little smile.

"So—you coming back, or what?"

She nodded.

"Yeah. I've still got work to do. A galaxy to save. You know."

He grinned.

"Getting old yet?"

She shook her head.

"Nope."

"Good," he said enthusiastically. "Cuz I really need you."

Sam cocked her head.

"You or the galaxy?" she asked, as if she didn't already know what he would say.

"Both, actually," he replied. "But mostly me. I think."

She grinned.

"I know. Don't worry. I'll be around for a long while yet. You will too."

The look of relief on his face filled her with boundless joy.

EPILOGUE

Sam stared out the window of the observation room at death in slow motion. Every day for fifty years she had gazed on the same sight, the same burst of light that would, inevitably destroy them. But not, in all likelihood, until long after they were already dead.

Like General Landry.

Like Cam, considering how his memory was failing these days.

Like herself, if the scan she had done a few days ago was accurate.

Perhaps the radiation had affected Daniel and Vala as well. She didn't have the heart to tell them. Better, probably if they didn't know.

So in the end it might only be Teal'c left alone to face the final assault. He would do it nobly and with honor, she had no doubt. Probably standing on this very spot as the glass shattered and….

No. She would not allow her imagination to take her there. It was too much. She was too old and she had grieved too much for what already had been lost. She would not allow herself to grieve for what was yet to be.

She would have given up long ago, but she couldn't. Even after all this time the others still expected her to figure it out. Save them. Save the ship. Save the Asgard technology. Save the universe. Pull one final miracle out of her…brain.

But so what if she solved it now? It was too late. Jack—her Jack—would be only a few heartbeats older than when she'd left. She, on the other hand—well, all she had to do was look at her reflection in the window to see. Silver haired. Features softened to wrinkles. Stiff fingers that some days could barely enter the formulas on the keyboard. To have grown old with Jack would have been one thing; to return to him old—she could not. Better to stay here. Better to grow old and die and let the Ori's blast take out the ship. No one would ever know what they had done. No one would ever suspect that in the space of a few seconds their lives had spanned decades. It would be better that way. Better for Jack. He would never know how very much she had missed him.

But she knew. Every bone in her body knew. Every beat of her heart knew. Every breath she drew knew. Losing him was the ache that reverberated to her very soul, like the bass strings of the cello she could no longer play. And that was loss too. What she could not say aloud, what she hardly dared think, she had poured into that instrument. It became a vessel for her pain, a voice for her heartache, a vehicle that could, for a few precious moments, transport her off this ship of the damned to a concert hall where his rapt profile had filled her with as much emotion as the music itself. A brief respite before the sickening return to the reality that they were living forever in a mere moment of time.

It was how she had survived. Risen above the loss. From some deep place within her, the music had come, at once mathematically precise and yet still capable of mood and nuance and interpretation; scientific perfection and human imperfection in harmonious union. There were days when it was the only thing that kept her sane. The others had come to know when it was time to leave her alone. They never interrupted her when they heard the strains of the music coming from her lab; they never asked why she took her meals in her room on those days when the music had poured from her fingers as copiously as the tears had flowed from her eyes. They simply let her be until she was ready to face them again, knowing that her wave of grief would ebb for a while.

But now the cello was silent. Fingers would not obey, and there was no where to take the pain. Except that the pain no longer pierced her as it had for so many years, but merely throbbed, like a perpetual ache, like the ache in her fingers. Reminding her.

As if she would ever forget.

If she could turn back time, undo what she had done, erase this timeline, she would do it in a heartbeat, even if it meant instantaneous death.

If she could do it and find a way to avoid that death, it would be even better. It was the only way left. The only option she would even consider. The only way she was willing to go back.

But she had so little left to offer. One last idea danced on the edge of her brain, amorphous, as most of her ideas had begun. This one too would probably take her nowhere but back to this very spot, staring at the inevitable creeping toward her.

"There are things worse than death," her father had told her once. She knew that too well now. Loneliness. Guilt. Regret. Vows unspoken. Children unconceived. Holidays uncelebrated. Life, unlived.

There were things worse than death, but she had survived them. To what end, she was not sure, but—at least for a while longer—she was still here. She didn't know how, but she had found the strength to endure. Somehow she'd known it was within her and she'd used it to rise above the crests of pain. But that strength was nearly gone, now. She had enough left for one last attempt—one last theory. After that—well, staring out this window wasn't so bad. She would come here and look at death everyday for as long as she could. And when it finally came, in whatever form it came, she would welcome it with open arms. After all these years, it finally seemed like a friend.

Oddly comforted, Sam slowly rose from the chair and took the long way back to her lab. By the time she got there, the shadow of an idea had taken full corporal form and Sam allowed herself to feel something she hadn't felt for a very long time.

Hope.