She entered to find him standing at the window, staring into the darkening night outside. He must have been standing there for some time; he hadn't bothered turning on the apartment lights as it had grown dark. The last of the sunset coming through the glass mixed with the streetlights, casting what she could see of his features in a sickly glow. Only she was fairly sure there could be but one reason for him to suddenly and unexpectedly make the trip from D.C. to Nevada. And she feared not all she saw was a trick of the light.

"Hi, honey.. I'm home." She tried to keep her tone lighthearted, to hide her growing concern.

He turned to face her. The firmly set jaw below hollow, haunted eyes confirmed her fears, and she knew what he was going to say before he spoke. "Landry wants you back at the SGC. He's thinking of attaching you back on SG-1 to help Mitchell deal with this Ori mess."

"Well, that makes sense." She'd been expecting this, but that didn't make his obvious pain any easier to bear. She hoped he hadn't heard the catch in her voice.

"Yeah." He turned back to face the window, his back and shoulders rigid, a barrier between them.

She stepped forward, reaching out to him, "Jack…"

His voice, when he spoke, was barely above a whisper, but it stopped her dead in her tracks. "I don't know if I can do this, Sam."

The world froze around her. And then it tilted. Blood pounded through her ears though her heart had stopped beating. She couldn't breathe and, while she'd thought she'd known fear before in her life, for the first time she was truly terrified. Because she'd believed him when he'd said… And she'd trusted him that he'd never… And of all the ways she'd imagined this scenario playing out , this was not it.

She hadn't thought herself capable of movement or sound, but he must have sensed or heard something, because Jack suddenly turned around, eyes focusing on her in the darkness. And she'd only thought he'd seemed anguished before. "God. Sam…. No." In three swift steps he had crossed the space between them and folded her into his arms, crushing her against his chest. Face buried in her neck, words muffled by her hair, he continued. "Not that, Carter. Never that. You're the one thing I am sure of."

She clung to him in return for several long moments, while the world righted itself around them. Breathing returned to normal, body no longer trembling against his, she finally managed to ask, "Then…?"

"The job, Carter." And to her relief his voice had returned to nearly normal, too. "I may have been wrong. I may still be too close."

She nodded against his shoulder, understanding completely. Because if their situations had been reversed, if she were being asked to sit behind a desk while he left through the 'gate to face beings who this time really did seem to have godlike powers, she wasn't sure she could do it, either. And she couldn't imagine being the one with the final authority to stop it, to bring him home and keep him home when the reports and the briefings grew too much to take, yet knowing that that was the one thing she could not - must not - ever - do.

Only, in some ways, Jack was stronger than she was. Though he'd never understand that, and certainly never admit it, she knew it was true. And she also knew that, as awful as it was for him now, being removed from that position - from knowing and at least being able to be there doing something - would be infinitely worse. So she pushed away from him, just enough to be able to look him in the eye, and trying to keep her voice even, she asked, "Would it be any easier from here?"

He sighed heavily, but she felt him relax in her arms. "No. Dammit."

"So, what choice do we have?" It was rhetorical, because they both, unfortunately, knew the answer, so she quickly continued, 'Besides… If you step down, they'd only replace you with someone much worse…"

And he chuckled - sort of - and pulled her back into his embrace. For now, at least, and at the moment that was all that really mattered, they were going to be alright.

-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-

He stared up at the ceiling, sleep having proved impossible. He couldn't even close his eyes. Her pain and terror in that moment she'd misunderstood him so completely, her face drained of color, her eyes dimmed in shock, lurked just behind his lids.

He'd hurt her. Once again, he'd let his own fears and his own pain blind him to hers and he'd spoken without thinking, without pausing to realize the full impact of his words. Her fears ran just as deep as his - he knew that - and yet it was easy to forget that no words of his, no promises made or paper signed or ring on her finger, would ever completely erase them. Only time could prove to her the truth of his words and of his intent and of them. Time which they never seemed to get enough of.

His arm tightened around her as she lay curled against his chest, her neck pillowed on his shoulder, one arm slung across him, holding him tight. As if afraid, even in sleep, that she might wake to find him gone. Not that she ever would. Not that he even could. In the short time they'd been together - really together, and not just pretending their professional relationship was all either of them actually wanted - she'd become too much a part of him to even imagine letting her go.

Or of losing her.

And yet, he knew he could; it had happened before. It was the chance he'd taken, willingly, when he'd finally understood he was losing her anyway. When, as her father lay dying, he'd known she was hurting despite his best efforts to spare them both the pain of loss. And although the pain of letting her walk away then would have been nothing compared to that of losing her now, he could not regret that decision. Any other choice would have been impossible. Even if - God forbid - he lost her tomorrow, he could not have stood by then and let her suffer alone. Let her continue to suffer alone. Not when he was hurting just as much himself.

Besides, it wasn't the end of the world. Not yet, anyway. As he'd told Daniel, they'd come through worse situations than this, or at least through situations almost as bad. Which was why, of course, he had to let her go. If they - the collective they, the whole world and galaxy and everyone - had even half a chance of making it through okay, they were going to need Sam. Not in a lab, or behind a desk, but out on the front-line showing Mitchell and the rest of them how Saving the World was done. Landry was right about that.

Of course.

Which was why, in the morning, Sam would be getting orders to report back to Hank at the SGC. The world needed her just as desperately as he did, and as much as he wished it were otherwise, his was not the stronger claim. So she would go, and she would fight, and he would do everything within his power to ensure she had every resource necessary to do so. That was his job now.

He glanced back down at her as she slept against him, safe and secure and his. No matter how much he might want to, he couldn't keep her there, and he couldn't keep her safe. But wherever she went and whatever she did, he intended to spend the rest of their lives proving to her that she was his. Because that was also his job. Now.