Title: A Step Ahead of You
Rating:
Teen
Characters/Pairings:
Sam, Sam/Jack
Season/Episode:
SGA season 4, episode 4x20 (The Last Man)
Summary:
In the chaos of battle, sometimes an instant might as well be an eternity.
Categories:
SG-1/SGA. In-canon AU/AT. Angst. Tragedy. Intermittent teeny tiny fluff.
Warnings: Spoilers through SGA 4x20
(The Last Man). Minor spoilers for The Ark of Truth. Character death. Massively liberal interpretation/extrapolation of Daedalus-class cruiser canon.

A/N: Very, very big thanks to a-loquita and binkii822 for beta reading, brainstorming, and general handholding.

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. - Albert Einstein


An instant provides all the time Sam needs to comprehend the gravity of the situation. A single overload deep in the ship turned into two, which turned into four more, a string of faults leaping from system to system just fast enough to beat her to the exact one she needs right now.

In the chaos of battle, sometimes an instant might as well be an eternity.

Did this happen on Prometheus? The thought flicks idly across her mind. They'd never known the precise details of the last few minutes of Lionel Pendergast's life. In spite of the heavy losses over the last several years, no one's quite worked out how to accomplish failure analysis on a vessel destroyed in the depths of space.

The situation is no different now, one of those bizarre cases of history repeating itself. No one will ever write the report about this particular catastrophic failure; the destruction of the Phoenix will be unambiguously filed under Wraith ambush, details unknown. The surviving pieces will never be gathered together and reconstructed into a shattered mock-up of the marvel they once were; there will be no pictures taken, no measurements made, no simulations run to pinpoint the exact cause of the chain reaction that's left Samantha Carter standing here with no way out for the hundredth but last time in her storied career.

Investigators will interview the crew, record some observations, make a few guesses, both educated and not; ultimately, though, there will be no comprehensive timeline constructed, no firm conclusions drawn. But Sam has a map of the ship's systems burned into her mind and her heart and maybe even her soul, born of night after sleepless night spent coaxing them to life. Data's not something she needs to make sense of what's happened here; neither is thought. For her the answer is as simple as breathing.

-x-

"We're ready, Sam," Daniel calls.

Sam places the last of the plates in the cupboard and closes the door. Dropping her hand to the countertop, she runs her fingers along the surface, then turns to survey the rest of the kitchen. There's nothing out of place; in fact, the room's far tidier than usual. The windows are dark, and the house has taken on a sleepy sort of stillness now that the cleanup is done.

"Sam?"

Pushing away from the counter, Sam heads toward the sound of Daniel's voice. She finds him standing by the front door with Teal'c, car keys already in hand.

"All set?" he asks.

She looks from Daniel to Teal'c and back again, then throws a quick glace over her shoulder. "You guys go on," she says after another moment's hesitation.

To his credit, Daniel doesn't show a single sign of surprise. "See you Monday?"

Maybe he isn't surprised, Sam thinks. She is, a little. "Yeah," she says, hugging his shoulders with one arm. "Goodnight, guys."

When she turns her gaze to Teal'c, he simply nods at her before preceding Daniel outside.

"Have a good weekend, Jack." Daniel's words are loud enough that Sam takes a step back, giving Daniel a grin; then she turns and heads down into the living room as he shuts the door.

"Hey!" She hears Jack's shout from the rear of the house, followed by a loud crash and a louder 'crap' as the man in question comes down the hallway. "Well, thanks for saying good night, there, folks," he says with a sigh.

Sam comes back around the corner, standing at the foot of the stairs. "Are you okay?"

He stares at her. "What?"

"The…" She gestures down the hallway behind him. "It sounded like something fell."

"What?" he says again, still staring; then he shakes his head. "Yeah, I'm fine. Didn't I hear Daniel leave?"

A little part of Sam isn't sure she can say yes without immediately following it with sir, so she nods instead.

"And wasn't Daniel your ride home?"

"He was."

A look Sam interprets as pained resignation flits across Jack's face, a brief moment of furrowed brow and pinched lips. "And you're here because …?"

For a moment, she considers backpedalling, inventing something she needs to talk to him about and asking him to drive her home afterwards, because that expression she's just barely seen worries her a lot. "I wanted to –"

She breaks off, looking down at her hands, the fingers of one pulling repeatedly on those of the other, running a fingertip over the spot where her engagement ring so recently sat.

His sigh is barely audible, even in the near-silent house. "You going to get it out this time?"

Her breath catches in surprise at the almost-gentle tone of his voice, and she drops her hands to her sides and lifts her chin, meeting his eyes. "Actually, I think I invited myself to stay the night."

For several seconds that pass far slower than seconds should, he's silent, his face betraying no reaction, and Sam can't manage to feel anything but painfully awkward. Then he smirks. "Okay. That's … subtle, Carter."

Her nerves bubble free into laughter, and she covers her face with her hands. "I'm sorry," she says into them; then, peeking out over the tops of her fingers, "I feel like an idiot. It's just that I don't have any idea how to …"

"Which makes exactly two of us." Taking a step forward, he reaches up and grasps her wrists, pulling her fingers away from her face. "So at least you've got company."

Sam stares at his hands where they're holding her arms; his skin is paler than it used to be, the cost of trading all those hours in the field for hours spent in a briefing room. Everything between them seems that way, as though at some point the sun stopped shining.

"Is this a bad idea?" She can't decide if she actually meant to say the words aloud.

His grip on her wrists loosens, hands sliding down to hers; as her fingers slip through his, he squeezes them once before letting go. "I can take you home," he says, shoving his fists in his pockets. "If that's what you want."

"What? No, I –"

"You just kind of look like you're having buyer's remorse."

He's looking off over her shoulder, and she's left wondering how they've gotten here yet again; she's sure that if they cross one more wire the whole damn circuitboard will short out.

"Jack," she says softly; a risk, perhaps, but his eyes shoot back to hers, his face serious. She bites at the corner of her lower lip, uncertain, and his gaze darts down to the tiny motion, then drifts up to meet hers again, his expression shifting subtly. If someone were to ask, she wouldn't be able to explain exactly what changed, but suddenly her heart is racing and her breasts feel heavy and her fingers itch to touch him anywhere they can.

It's a little like being transported in time, standing again in one of those moments that have happened less and less often over the years. If they could only capture this instant, she thinks, maybe they could somehow make sense of the rest of it.

Then he pulls a hand out of his pocket, lifting it slowly until his fingertips brush against her cheek, and she wonders if maybe they don't have to stop time after all.

She draws a deep breath, forcing air into her lungs. "I'd like to stay." The steadiness in her voice surprises her. "For a little while, anyway."

"Yeah?" He rocks forward a little on his feet, withdrawing his hand to rub at the back of his neck. "You know, I have more movies. I have," he continues, smirking again, "many, many more movies. Board games. Cards. Entertainment galore."

"Is that so?"

"Enough, in fact, to keep you here for quite some time."

She laughs. "Okay. That works for me."

-x-

Sam's movements are crisp and efficient as her hands move over the controls, confirming her suspicions; at this point it's a matter of form. Enough simultaneous impacts to the shields, and a seemingly unimportant switch burned out; without warning, half the nearby systems were flooded with too much power, while at the same time the other half starved.

It's the sort of scenario they've seen over and over again.

Power's always the problem in the end. There's an illusion of control wrought through finely-crafted distribution systems, rife with backups and fail-safes and fault-detection mechanisms; but if the right damage happens in the wrong place, the whole thing's guaranteed to tip over despite the most careful and diligent design. That much energy flowing around simply can't be made infinitely safe or completely stable.

Today, it took less than two minutes after the ship exited hyperspace for the process to start.

Perhaps the inevitable catastrophe usually wouldn't happen quite so fast or have quite so profound an effect; but the Phoenix hasn't undergone anything that can be called routine maintenance since they sewed her together in the first place. Sam's asked a lot of the ship since then, and even more of the crew to keep her flying.

Would she have done it anyway, she wonders, if she'd known how it ended? Try as she might, she can't see a single choice she could have made differently. Every road she can imagine having taken still leads right here.

-x-

"I'm bored." Jack shifts restlessly on the couch beside her.

"Until forty-five seconds ago you were asleep. How bored can you be?" Sam turns a page before she drops her hand to ruffle the hair on the top of his head. "Just let me finish this article."

She's discovered one or two things about Jack O'Neill in the last few months; for example, she now knows that the man renowned throughout the galaxy as the tough, fearless former leader of SG-1 really enjoys a nap after dinner. Sam isn't sure how she avoided learning this for the better part of a decade, but then again, it wasn't exactly a habit he could exercise while off-world. The reasoning behind resting mere hours before going to bed eludes her no matter how many times he tries to explain it to her; but in this case, being in possession of the information means more to her than making sense of it.

His head lifts from her leg, and he pushes himself up to sit beside her; Sam looks up at him with a smile. Jack smiles back, a frankly goofy sort of grin that causes her to forget completely the words she's been reading. Then his gaze drops to the page in her lap, and he arches an eyebrow. "You know, I'm pretty sure this qualifies as work," he says, pulling the journal from her hands.

"It's not." Reaching across him, she attempts to retrieve her lost property, but he moves it out of her reach.

"Oh, no." He bats her hand aside. "I distinctly remember you saying no work this weekend."

Sam considers mounting a more determined assault, then decides it's not worth her effort. Instead, she turns toward him, pulling her legs up and curling them beneath her. "Nowhere in my job description does it say I am required to read scientific journals. In fact, I'd say most of the time it's counterproductive."

"Ah. See, there you have it." He pokes her knee. "Most of the time. It's that part that's not most of the time that I'm concerned about. You can't go making rules if you're not going to follow them."

She rolls her eyes. "I promise you, that thing is not the least bit useful to anything anyone pays me to do."

"Carter, you're a scientist. You're running an R&D program. And I'm not, so maybe you'll have to explain this to me slowly, in little bitty words. How is a magazine made up entirely of a bunch of science papers not useful?"

"Journal." She draws out the syllables.

"Carter."

She raises an eyebrow in response to his tone. "Yes, sir?"

"Okay, that's it." He tosses the subject of the debate over the back of the couch and moves his hands to her waist, pulling her across him.

She laughs as she settles easily into his lap, her legs resting on the couch on either side of his.

"Where did you learn to be such a smartass?" he asks, but when she takes a breath to speak, he touches her lips with the tips of his fingers. "Maybe you shouldn't answer that."

She weaves her fingers with his as she pulls his hand away, moving it back to her hip. "Actually, I was going to say my father," she says softly, tilting her head to the side, her lips curving in a smile she's sure still looks a little wistful.

Jack's eyebrows draw together for a moment, and his eyes roam her face, cataloguing her expression. Sam's smile doesn't falter, though, and when she runs her hands up his arms to settle on his shoulders, his frown dissipates. "Always did like your dad."

Sam leans forward until her forehead rests against Jack's. As his fingers begin to move, kneading the muscles of her lower back, her eyes drift shut, and she sighs, shifting further forward to rest her head on his shoulder, relaxing as he sooths away the tension she didn't even realize she'd accumulated since she saw him last.

It's one more in a pile of stolen moments that they've been stacking one on top of the other, an attempt to build something that might last: time spent here in Nevada, or there in D.C., or once, so far, at his cabin in Minnesota. She's a little surprised at how well it works; maybe they both need some space to breathe after the sometimes suffocating closeness of the last eight years at the SGC, or maybe they're both too old to adjust to anything beyond this sporadic sort of intimacy, or maybe – and she barely lets herself think it – maybe they really have already learned each other this well.

His hands are slipping under her shirt now, distracting her from her abstract thoughts, and when his fingertips press just there at the base of her spine, she sucks in a breath, arching her back and pushing herself closer to him. Turning her head, she brings her lips to the skin above his collar and pulls gently, shivering a little when his low, murmured response rumbles against her lips. She traces the muscles up the side of his neck with slow kisses as his hands draw lazy circles up her back.

"The thing is," she says when she reaches his ear, "they're wrong most of the time."

"Hmm?" He's distracted, his fingers working at the clasp of her bra.

"The papers." Her voice hitches as he releases the catch and runs his hands down her sides, palms grazing the swell of her breasts. "In the journal. You remember?"

He leans back just far enough to see her. "Are you speaking English?"

"I think so," she answers. "Too much for you?"

Sam barely glimpses the smirk on his face before she tugs his head forward, catching his lips with her own; then for a long time she's not speaking much of anything.

She's gasping when he pulls away, tingling in every part of her body. When Jack pushes her gently from his lap, moving her to the couch beside him, Sam doesn't resist, but she does stare at him, bewildered.

"I'm going to bed," he says as he stands up. "You're welcome to join me if you'd like to stop channeling your father and be Sam for a while." Without waiting for an answer, he turns and saunters across the living room, disappearing around the corner.

Sam catches up with him on the landing at the top of the stairs, where he's waiting outside her bedroom door, grinning. She shakes her head, laughing a little as she moves to enter the room.

"English is overrated," he says in her ear when she passes him. "Don't you think?" His voice is low and dark, and as he speaks he lays a hand on the small of her back.

Sam triumphs over the jolt that shoots through her, trying to collapse her knees, but it's a close fight. She looks over her shoulder to meet Jack's eyes as she precedes him through the door. "Oh, yeah. Way overrated."

When Sam wakes, it's to the chill air typical of a fall night in the desert, cooler than she should be from the lack of shared body heat. She rubs the sleep from her eyes and pushes herself up on her elbows, surveying the room. The attached bathroom is dark, but a line of light shows through the nearly-closed door leading to the hallway.

She's staring at the door, trying to decide whether to get up and find out where Jack went, when it opens; she puts up a hand to shade her eyes against the sudden brightness.

"Sorry," he says, pushing the door closed behind him. "Didn't know you were awake."

"I wasn't." She scoots back on the bed, leaning against the headboard and running her hands through her hair as she takes in the uniform he's wearing and the bag he's obviously re-packed. "What's going on?"

He moves to stand next to the bed, opening and closing the cover of the cell phone in his hands. "Some new development with that crap Daniel dug up," he says with a shrug.

As explanations go, it leaves more than a little to be desired; sometimes he forgets she's not necessarily working from the same page he is anymore.

Her dissatisfaction with his answer must have shown on her face, because he holds up his hands as if to ward her off. "Not withholding information, I swear." He waves the cell phone. "It's not like they could tell me anything over this."

Sam nods slowly. It's petulant and unfair, but she can't help feeling it anyway. She left Stargate Command thinking they'd be scattered to the intergalactic equivalent of the four winds; no matter how important her work here may be, she hates that Daniel and Teal'c haven't moved on after all, that Jack knows everything they're doing, and that she's relegated to whatever dregs of information they're allowed to share with her. Whatever they remember to share with her.

"I'll call you later." Jack sits on the bed next to her, tugging at the sheet next to her hip. She lays her hand on his to still it. "You can head into base if you need to."

"Thank god for secure phone lines, anyway."

He gives her a lopsided grin, then leans in to kiss her. "Among other things."

-x-

Sam works to a checklist, like she always has: a habitual scorecard in her mind detailing what's gone before and what happens next, a little bit of rigor that keeps her moving to and fro and gives her someplace to put her adrenaline that doesn't result in panic. The decision tree changes with the situation, with assessed risks and probabilities, with her knowledge of the resources she has to hand.

On today's list, so radically altered in such a short time, Sam adds a mental checkmark next to the line item that says verify that you are in fact completely screwed before keying in the commands for the next best alternative to actually surviving this disaster. A few simple calculations, projection of vectors and computation of points of impact, and she lays in the ship's final course.

If she's right, the impact of the Phoenix in the heart of the closest of the hive ships will start a chain reaction, the destruction of the first taking the second along with it, the second taking the third, a single strike that will protect the population of the planet below for at least a little while longer. That part, at least, feels eerily familiar.

But she knows that this time there will be no SG-1-style last-minute reprieve, no apocryphal tale of yet another miraculous escape from death. In a matter of hours, she thinks, Major Lorne will have a cloaked jumper through the gate; they'll know the basics of what happened from the debris field and the notable absence of her transponder.

Not long after that they'll dial Earth. Her mind dwells for a long moment on that message, vanishing from one galaxy and appearing in another in little more than the blink of an eye.

For the first time, she finds herself wishing wormholes never existed.

-x-

"I still can't believe it's over," Sam says. She leans back, resting her hands behind her on the sun-warmed wood of the picnic table on which she's perched, tapping her feet idly on the bench below.

"What, you mean lunch?" Jack asks.

She turns her head to look at him; he's still gazing fixedly across the park as he sits next to her, over at the grassy area where the rest of SG-1 is playing something that passes for football. A smirk tugs at the corner of his mouth.

"Yes." She rolls her eyes. "Lunch. The turkey sandwiches in particular. I thought we'd never get rid of those."

"Well, it was a long lunch. And they were fairly tenacious turkey sandwiches. Funny-looking, too."

She stares at him, wondering if he's really trying to use sandwiches as a conversational stand-in for the Armies of the Ori. "Funny-looking sandwiches with glowing sticks that make long, boring, prosaic speeches?"

"Bad food'll give you that sort of nightmare, you know."

"Ah."

"I admit, I'm impressed that you managed to polish off this particular meal without Daniel … getting food poisoning."

He's still wearing the half-smile, pleased with his impromptu code, and she finds she can't resist. "Well, he did get himself turned into a turkey sandwich for a little while. That's pretty close."

"Can't keep Daniel completely out of trouble." The smirk fades to something softer, then vanishes altogether. "Nice work, though, Carter. As usual."

"Good team," she says quietly, briefly glancing at the others, smiling when she sees that Vala has just pulled Cam down to the ground, the ball flying from his hands and almost straight into Teal'c's. Turning back to Jack, she examines his face. Despite his joking, Sam sees a heaviness there that she can't quite explain away. "And we had good advocates," she adds, nudging his foot with hers.

His expression doesn't shift. "Oh, yes. All that time being yelled at by the IOA and the Joint Chiefs and Congressional oversight; and let's not forget the Commander-in-Chief. Very important stuff. Especially since it didn't keep certain individuals from interfering with your … turkey sandwich eating."

"Jack."

"No, you're right. If nothing else, it distracts them so that you kids and Landry can get the real work done." She digs an elbow into his side, and it's not meant in jest; he winces, shoving her arm out of the way with his own. "Geez."

His mood's not what she'd expected today. It's the first time in two years she feels like they should be happy, be free – but he's obviously not. "What's up?" she asks, pressing her shoulder against his.

When he doesn't answer, she closes her eyes, reviewing the last few days. Jack's barely had time to talk to her, and she'd accepted his explanation at the time, but now she suspects she's made an error.

She opens her eyes to find him watching her and meets his gaze steadily. "All those meetings this week – they weren't really follow-up, were they?"

He looks as if he's about to speak, but then he blows out a long breath instead. She can hear the exasperated Carter as clearly as if he'd said it.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have – "

"Nah. It's not that." He waves a hand in dismissal of her apology. "Let's just say we're making some decisions that Elizabeth Weir is going to be unhappy with."

Another galaxy, another enemy, she thinks. Another reason to put off that sigh of relief she's beginning to think will never come. Resting her elbows on her knees, she raises an eyebrow as she looks sideways at him, but he shakes his head.

"Don't worry about it yet. Landry'll brief you in later this week. We'd like your input on a few points."

She casts her gaze up at the sky, then around the park; they're surrounded by open air and people they don't know, and obviously this is too complicated a subject to cover with a cipher based on the contents of a picnic basket. Her eyes fix on the game across the grass, where Vala and Teal'c now appear to be thoroughly trouncing Cam and Daniel.

"Could be fun," Jack says, tapping her knee with his closed fist. She turns to look at him, confused, and he jerks his head at the spectacle she's been watching, then climbs down off the table and holds out a hand. "Wanna go help the natives out?"

Sam sighs, but takes his hand and allows him to draw her after him. "Oh, right," she says in an attempt to play along. "Give me the losing side."

He squeezes her fingers once, then drops her hand as they head across the field. "No, really. If you take them, and I play for the foreign team, that should about even the balance."

"See, I know that's not true," she says, turning her best Teal'c impression in his direction. "Because you'll cheat."

When he laughs, she remembers that they're supposed to be celebrating, and she tells herself that the little shadow in their conversation was simply a passing cloud and nothing to worry over.

But before she really knows what's happened, six weeks have passed, and she finds herself standing in Jack's kitchen, moments away from returning to Colorado for a brief stopover before leaving the SGC for her new posting in Atlantis.

"You sure you don't want me to come? See you off in grand fashion?"

She shakes her head.

"I could come to the Springs, at least."

"If you're that close to the gate, I don't think I'll be able to walk through it." The words come out in a rush, and she can't decide if it's the admission or the thought of his response that makes her nervous; but Jack only nods as he continues to clear the dishes from the table.

Sam turns away and leaves the kitchen, pacing across the living room floor, arms crossed tightly over her chest. She doesn't know how to interpret Jack's calm acceptance, though she thinks she ought to be accustomed to it by now. It's almost the only emotion she's seen from him since her name and the Atlantis command position were first tentatively put together in a sentence.

But she's not used to it; she can't quite look his quiet, unflinching support in the eye. Because she feels guilty, and anxious, and a dozen other emotions she doesn't even know how to name, and she thinks he has a right to feel those, too. And selfishly, she suspects she'd be coping a little bit better if only he were coping just a little bit worse.

The phone rings, and Jack emerges to answer it, speaking only briefly into the receiver before hanging up again. "Your car's outside."

Nodding, she moves toward the couch to pick up her briefcase, but he beats her there. They walk together to the door, and as they stand in front of it, Sam searches her mind but finds no words to say. She stares at his hands as he worries the strap he's holding, his thumb rubbing the rough surface over and over. The silence stretches out, and eventually she decides that neither of them has the skill to say this goodbye. It would be better to simply go, she thinks; but before she puts out her hand take the bag, Jack sets it on the floor at her side and reaches for her instead.

His hands hold her head immobile; his lips brush hers lightly, the barest breath of a caress, and Sam is certain her heart will break. But when he presses his mouth to the corner of hers, then pulls lightly at her lower lip, and finally begins to kiss her with urgent insistence, she has room for no thoughts beyond the familiar dizzying desire, holding tightly to his arms, trying to remain steady.

He releases her before she's ready, and she reaches out again, pulling him back. "I miss you already," she says softly.

"You only say that because you haven't met your first Wraith." His tone is light, but his hands flex slightly where he holds her.

"I'll come home, Jack."

"Breathing. In one piece. Preferably not invisible, infested by aliens, or otherwise rendered unfit for duty. In fact, consider those orders, Colonel."

She laughs, and he snorts softly, and somehow she finds the courage to step away and pick up her bag. "I'll talk to you soon."

Nodding, he opens the door, giving her a gentle shove when she hesitates. "Go, Carter."

She looks back once, when the car pulls away from the curb; he's still standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame with his hands in his pockets. He doesn't wave or smile, and really, she realizes, he never even said goodbye, but she somehow knows he'll watch until he can't see her anymore.

-x-

Sam's spent a lifetime drawn to the beauty of math and science, of carefully ordered rules concealing a mass of wonder and poetry; uncharted territories that, when explored, rewrite the rules that bound them in the first place, filled with answers that can never really be had and questions that must be asked nonetheless.

The bending of space and time, the touching of realities and the instant transmission of matter and information from here to there and then to now; altogether they make up the most fascinating mystery she never quite finished solving.

Funny, she thinks, what your mind conjures when you're waiting like this. How you can suddenly realize that your life's work is both far more intricate and far simpler than you ever imagined. Three million or so years will pass before Sam will even be a shadow on the ground back home; but the news will travel through an event horizon from here to there in almost an instant, all courtesy of the laws of physics.

She's devoted so much time to studying the behavior of the world around her, and so little time to considering the intersection of the curves made by the natural universe with those made by the people who live in it. She's never really realized precisely how wrong the laws of physics can be.

Teal'c, Daniel. Cam, Vala. Cassie. Jack. It's an idle wish, the ability to conjure any means at all to give them more time, a few more seconds or minutes or hours or days of ignorance, blissful or not. Just a bit of the space that she feels would be decent, especially for people who've already given so much. Like so many of the things she's wanted over the years, though, it's not in the scope of what's meant to be.

-x-

"I just think that you of all people ought to understand what we're trying to do." Sam reaches up to run a hand through her hair, forgetting that it's pinned up and sprayed into place. Frustrated, she drops her arm back to her side. "You know what's at stake here, Jack."

Jack shakes his head, and she catches the slight roll of his eyes as he turns away, loosening his tie with more force than necessary and tossing it on the table next to the jacket he'd discarded shortly after they'd arrived. "Might surprise you, but in this case I think I actually understand more than you do."

Somewhere along the way, Sam thinks, they've gotten a little off track. "Okay. Fine." More than a little off track, actually, but that self-awareness doesn't seem to stop the words she's saying. "Then why is it, on top of everything else I've had to deal with today, I've got you pulling stupid stunts that sabotage my credibility?"

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me." He pivots back to face her.

"The last thing I need right now is to look like some kind of unpredictable wild card."

"Gotta be honest, I don't see how my stupid stunts have anything to do with that."

"Seems obvious to me. To the people sitting in that room, everything I do reflects on you, and everything you do reflects on me, and before now that's never been anything but an honor, at least from where I stand." When Jack holds up a hand, looks as though he's about to speak, she shakes her head and keeps talking. "This is about a lot more than you and me, though, and you know it. If you can't – if we're going to – if ever there were a reason why you and I should never have –"

"Carter," Jack barks; it's that old commanding tone, and it's an old reflex that makes Sam fall silent.

It's an equally old response that prompts her to exhale a long, slow, calming breath even as her jaw clenches against the reprimand. In a corner of her mind that's not occupied with being furious, she's glad he stopped her from finishing whatever thought she was stumbling toward; but she can't quite forgive him for his habitual use of that power, or herself for her even more habitual response.

Jack's either unaware of her internal conflict, or unconcerned. "You might want to stand down for a minute, Colonel," he continues, his voice quiet and even now that he's gotten her attention.

The level and self-assured tone finally drives Sam to react. "Oh, don't you even – I tell you what, you picked one hell of a time to start abusing your authority."

"This from the woman who threatened to throw Richard Woolsey in a cell just for being a jackass."

Sam's not about to take his bait. "You can't go around having us beamed around the country just because you're pissed off at your bosses."

"Because I'm pissed off at – is that really what you think is going on here?"

"Isn't it?" she asks, suddenly unsure; in fact, Sam realizes, she's barely sure what they're talking about anymore.

Whatever conversation they're having, they shouldn't be having it; she is sure of that. They shouldn't be having it at all, really, but certainly not like this, and definitely not here. A cabin in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota, may be private, may be secluded and lonely and many other things, but secure is one thing it's not.

But Sam's long since passed the point of caring, and she's fairly certain Jack passed that point even sooner than she did. Probably, she thinks, right about when he was asked to excuse himself from the IOA's conference room in the Pentagon, unexpectedly removed from deliberation on whether and how the oversight agency and the Air Force would support Sam's bid to wrench the Pegasus galaxy back from Michael's control.

He'd certainly passed it by the time they'd reached his office, when he'd yanked the receiver of his phone off the cradle and curtly asked to have a line patched through to the Daedalus. Twice Sam had tried to break the silence that fell while he waited for the call to go through, but after being waved off the second time, she'd retreated from his desk, moving around the small conference table to stand facing the credenza by the door. She'd still been standing there, staring unseeing at a small collection of knick-knacks, when she'd heard Jack say he was calling in a favor, giving whoever was on the other line – she'd assumed it was Caldwell – very specific and very unsanctioned coordinates for transport.

They'd been going in circles ever since.

"It's not the Joint Chiefs that are the problem, Carter, or the IOA. Not any more than usual, at least."

Sam shuts her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose; with the other hand, she reaches out blindly and pulls a chair away from the table. "So what exactly is the problem?" she says as she sinks slowly onto the seat.

"You mean other than the obvious?"

Her hand drops from her face, and she looks up at him with an expression that she hopes reads something like with all due respect, cut the crap, sir, because that always seemed to work before.

Jack shrugs. "Mostly the problem is that I think you're nuts."

"I'm nuts?" Sam taps the table for a moment, surprised and uncertain. "I don't suppose you'd like to weigh in with a reason why?"

"Hey, it's your battle. Your life, your command, your …" He waves a hand. "Whatever."

"And when has that ever stopped you before?"

"In case you haven't noticed, no one's actually asking my opinion this go-round."

She grinds her teeth in frustration. "I'm asking, Jack."

He doesn't answer.

"So, what, I'm just supposed to guess?"

"No, you're just supposed to make your own damnfool decisions."

Sam takes a deep breath before she speaks, preparing to lash out with words she hasn't quite finished forming; in that tiny pause, however, his statement penetrates her brain, and she claps her mouth shut on the reflexive, angry response.

If there's one thing Jack O'Neill's never going to do, it's let her – or anyone he cares about, or anyone he's responsible for, or really anyone he even knows exists – hang out to dry simply because he's in a snit.

Assuming he's really got something to say, he'll say it. Eventually.

So she waits, staring at her hands where they're folded on the tabletop. And waits, hands clasped together so tightly that her skin pales where her fingertips press. And waits, minutely examining the lines near her thumbs and on her wrists and thinking about what made each one, about pulling triggers and digging in dirt and manipulating tiny little instruments in a darkened lab.

Doing nothing has never been an easy thing for Sam, even when it's the best decision. She raises her head to meet his eyes again. "So you're telling me that after all these years of trying to keep each other from making mistakes, you're just going to stand there and watch? Because a bunch of two-penny administrators told you to?"

It's a low blow, and she's at least not so clueless as to think it has anything at all to do with what's going on here, but she's also angry and frustrated enough that she doesn't particularly care.

And as a tactic, it proves successful.

"Fine. You want to know why I think you're crazy?" Leaning forward, Jack places his palms flat on the tabletop. "Because there's no way in hell we get the IOA and the Joint Chiefs to give us enough resources to really take the fight to Michael and his buddies; not this time. Not for Pegasus. And by trying to do it with whatever they're willing to give us? All we'll be doing is sacrificing the lives of every man and woman on that base in a war we're ultimately going to lose. It won't change the strategic position an inch, Sam. It makes no difference."

They're probably the first completely honest words either of them has spoken tonight; it's his 'we' that tips her off, unconscious though it almost certainly is. Sam sighs, feeling the tension slip from her shoulders. She can't even be angry at him for the catastrophic lapse in judgment he's just accused her of.

"Maybe if I can make a little headway, change the balance enough, they'll change their minds," she says softly.

His hands clench into fists on the table before he pushes off; he scrubs at his hair as he turns to face the kitchen, leaning on the counter.

The chair scrapes loudly as she stands. When she joins him, he won't meet her eyes, and he seems determined not to speak again. "We can't just walk away," she says, laying her hand near his arm, not quite touching. "There has to be another option."

"Sometimes there's not."

"There has to be. And anyway, where do you think I learned that from?"

"If you mean you learned it from me, you might want to remember that I was a cocky son of a bitch who got lucky a lot." He shifts, turning to face her. "You're supposed to be smarter than that, Sam."

Sam hears the resignation in his quiet words, and the concern, and even the sadness she doesn't want to notice. She sees the same emotions on his face, and the intensity leaves her feeling raw and more than a little exposed. "I'm sorry," she offers.

"Yeah." He pats the counter a few times, then pushes away. "I'm going to get some air," he says, jerking his head in the direction of the front door.

"Okay." Her throat feels tight and her voice sounds hoarse to her own ears. She breathes deeply, in and then out again, as she watches him go. After staring at the closed door for a long moment, she turns away, glancing almost absentmindedly around the room.

Sam's not sure if Jack's been here at all since the last time they were here together, a few weeks before she left for Atlantis. Regardless, she realizes, there are chores to be done, rituals they usually go through together when they arrive, preparing the place for habitation after a period of disuse.

Settling into the comfort of routine, she moves about the cabin, putting coffee on to brew, lighting a fire, checking the weather forecast and retrieving the extra blankets from the chest at the foot of the bed. They'll have to make do for breakfast in the morning from the dry goods in the pantry; or possibly Jack can borrow supplies from one of the neighbors. Or, she supposes, they can simply head back to D.C. the way they got here in the first place. Jack's still due in to work in the morning.

After ticking a few more items off the list, Sam returns to the bedroom, rummaging in a drawer that's half-full of clothes she brought up here on past trips, setting aside t-shirts and shorts until she locates a sweater and pair of jeans. It's a relief to change out of the dress uniform she's been wearing all day, to pull her hair out of the clips and pins binding it.

She relaxes onto the bed, folding her legs under her and leaning onto the pillows as she pulls out her phone and places several calls, to Cassie, to Daniel, to her brother and his family. After she hangs up, she snags another sweater from one of Jack's drawers and finally heads outside.

Predictably, Jack's sitting at the end of the dock, sprawled in a deck chair with his legs stretched out in front of him. Sam hesitates near the house, watching him, feeling wistful for times she didn't even realize were simpler.

For the last few years, this has been their safe haven; not untouched by the forces in their lives, but rather, where they came when one or the other couldn't bear those forces anymore, when walls needed to be rebuilt and public faces became impossible to maintain. That's probably all Jack had wanted for tonight. It's certainly what they both need right now.

Sam starts forward again, and she's sure he hears her coming; in fact, when she's still several yards away, he tips his head just enough to allow him to follow her progress. She holds out the sweater, and he takes it, pulling it over his head with a grunt that she assumes is thanks.

Since he's only brought one chair onto the platform, she settles on the ground next to him, refusing to consider that the absence of a second seat might be a deliberate request for solitude. "Cassie says hi," she says, making an effort to keep her voice light. "She's flying into Dulles tomorrow afternoon."

"So much for convincing you to go AWOL and stay here with me."

So much, Sam thinks, for pretending this is just another night in Minnesota. "Jack –"

"You want to talk strategy?" He sounds serious, but not angry. "Taking it as given that I'm not going to change your mind, I've got some suggestions."

She twists around to look up at him; he's staring out across the water. "In a minute," she says softly. "We've got time."

At his nod, she turns back to the pond, her gaze following his as she rests her head against his chair. Jack shifts beside her, seeming restless; waiting's never been easy for him, either. Sam wonders how they've both managed to do so much of it for so very long.

Jack breaks the silence first. "You know, they threw me out of that room because they think I'll automatically agree with you."

Sam's laughing before she really realizes it.

He lets loose a soft chuckle to match, and she can imagine him shaking his head above her. "Guess they don't really know any of us, do they?"

"Who can?"

Jack's hand comes to rest on her head, his touch so light at first that she wonders if he thinks she'll pull away, or if maybe he's considering doing so himself. Seconds pass, and Sam holds her breath; then his hand shifts, fingers winding into the loose strands and stroking the skin underneath.

"Probably better this way. I'm not sure we'd have survived saying those words in that room."

She shivers; his hands are cold, like the wind and the wood of the dock on which she sits, but she knows that's not the reason. "I love you," she says.

His fingers tighten in her hair, pulling a little painfully.

Before, those words always seemed so complicated, overburdened with meaning and full of promises she wasn't completely free to make; on the one hand, describing nothing approaching the connection they'd built through life and death, and on the other, committing her to a game of chance with her heart she can barely admit she's been a little afraid to play. Now she wishes she'd said them sooner.

His hand slides free of her hair, tracing a line along her jaw to her chin. His touch is gentle but firm as he tugs her head around until their eyes meet.

Sam's still a little awed by that way he has of making things right with a simple look.

After a moment, Jack's fingers drift up to caress her cheek. "Maybe we'd have made it after all," he says quietly.

He could be talking about the IOA and the Joint Chiefs, or all those years ago on SG-1, or some vague and beautiful what-if where they'd never walked around with the burdens of the universe slowing their every step. She finds she doesn't particularly care.

"I know we would."

-x-

Smoke drifts here and there on the bridge, making the air acrid; the barely-functioning life support system does little to lessen the harshness of the atmosphere. Just when she thinks she's finally run out of things to do, Sam finds that the simple act of breathing requires quite a bit of concentration and effort. She'll make the effort, though, because any scenario that doesn't end in facing death standing on her own two feet is quite simply unacceptable.

As she stares through the haze toward the viewport, peering out at the blackness of space punctuated by stars and ships and a tiny glimpse of the planet below, Sam's thoughts are hazy and drifting, too; from the rapidly dropping level of oxygen, perhaps, or maybe the result of too much adrenaline, or possibly just because all that remains now is waiting. There really aren't any problems left to solve.

Across the bridge, something catches her eye. The smoke mixes with shadows to form a shape that tickles her recollection. One remembrance leads to two which in turn lead to many, memories of dozens of times she's stood on bridges of ships almost exactly like this one, of conversations and strategies and desperate moments shared with people she loves in ways words really don't describe.

Each of them has stood in an instant almost exactly like this one and managed, somehow, to sidestep what seemed inevitable – or, in Daniel's case, to transcend it. Sam's definitely not Daniel; giving up this life for something greater is what she's built for, not some esoteric striving into infinity. And anyway, even Daniel would admit that ascension's not what they once might have thought.

Sam knew what she risked when she started this campaign; but even though she made her peace, accepted her choice and said her goodbyes, still, she finds herself left with a vague and lingering sense of guilt. And for once her regrets aren't about whether she could have done more or whether the decision she made altered the course of the universe in troubling ways. This feeling lodges far closer to her heart, so close, in fact, that she's refused to look directly at it before now.

Without warning, resolve and guilt and memory come together in an intuitive leap; though it's nothing more than an image in her mind's eye, the impression left behind is sharper and clearer than anything around her, and the stark edges speak something she's sure is truth.

Jack sits on the couch, resting his forehead on his folded hands, still and silent as he wages a private, internal battle against his grief.

The picture could easily end there, but Sam knows it doesn't. Her certainty strikes her as uncharacteristic, because her epiphanies aren't usually about people.

Vala's on one side of him, legs curled under her, shoulder and head leaning against the back of the couch, her hand resting on his back. Cam's leaning against the opposite wall, staring at nothing. Teal'c's preparing dinner in the kitchen, though it's doubtful any of them will eat. Daniel's in the hallway, on the phone with Cassie; every so often he heads farther from the room, as though he doesn't want the sound of his voice to intrude, but it never lasts.

Sam finds herself oddly comforted.

She remembers what it is to be the one left behind. What she envisions, it can never replace her for Jack or for any of the others. What matters, though, is if they can take the next step forward, and the next, and the next.

And for that, it will be enough.