"You'd be smart to get yourself pregnant right away," Marnie tells her over coffee a month before the wedding. "Nothing keeps those boys in line when they're over-seas like knowing the wife is waiting at home for them barefoot in the kitchen."

The sound of children shrieking and laughing floats like sunshine through the open screen door.

Emily-soon-to-be-Young smiles politely. Marnie is the wife of Everett's commanding officer, and Emily's not really sure how this whole military spouse hierarchy works just yet.

Marnie takes a drag from her cigarette as the sounds from the back yard turn to more shrieking and less laughing. "You know how it is when they've been gone a whole tour and the only pretty face they see is the guy serving their grits in the mess each morning." She walks over to the kitchen window and pulls the curtain aside. "Eddie! Stop poking your brother!" She grabs the coffee pot on her way back to the table and pours a warm-up. The shrieking quiets somewhat.

"Once they see their girlfriends waiting on the tarmac, some of those boys can barely make it to their cars."

Emily's had enough coffee, but she sips the fresh cup anyhow. "I think we'll be okay," she says to make conversation. "This isn't Everett's first tour."

What she doesn't say is that they're not a pair of reckless eighteen-year-olds, fresh out of school and high on love and patriotism, but she holds her tongue because she doesn't want to make waves. She doesn't know anybody on the base yet, and she's going to be flying solo soon enough once the deployment orders come through.

"You say that now, hon- " She can see the pity in Marnie's eyes, but whatever she was about to say is interrupted by the baby monitor squawking. Emily makes a tactical retreat with an excuse about meeting the florist.

"Just think about it," Marnie tells her at the door, raising her voice over young Eddie's complaints at being hauled inside to wash up.

As she steps around a platoon of Tonka trucks and ride-on toys that litter the front yard, Emily tells herself that she and Everett are above those games.

When Everett comes home from Kosovo, they make it to the car just fine, thank you very much.

They even make it three miles down the main highway before she's sneaking a glance at him here and there under the guise of shoulder-checking, enjoying how wisps of his hair are just starting to touch his collar, even though he's always been meticulous about the uniform. She's telling him about painting the apartment while he was gone when he puts his hand on her knee, and the speedometer needle jumps.

She eases off the accelerator in time to slip under the radar from the highway patrol car parked on the shoulder. Everett doesn't even try to hide his smirk.

"Miss me much?" he asks and slides a finger under the hem of her sundress and along the back of her knee.

She adjusts her speed again. "Maybe a little," she says. "Wasn't much of a honeymoon before you left." She hears the disappointment that creeps into her voice.

His finger eases a little higher, and with it, her dress. "I don't have to be back for at least a week," he says. She's watching his eyes follow the bend of her knee.

Emily shoulder-checks once more, this time it's legitimate, and pulls onto a service exit, and from there, a county road insignificant enough that it'll never make the acquaintance of a black-top machine. She barely remembers to put the car in park before she's leaning across the center console, kissing him fierce and deep, and his hand is now all the way up under her dress.

She curses the awkward angle, hears the power locks release, and feels him pull away.

"I just spent seventeen hours crammed in a C5 Galaxy with a hundred other guys, and I'm getting too damn old for the back seat of an import," he says when she catches up to him at the back of the car. He backs her against the trunk and she's breathless as his tongue finds the hollow of her throat. She can hear the cicadas buzzing in the ditch and it's hot and her dress sticks to her back, but not for long because he's got both hands under it now.

The gravel crunches under his boots as be pushes a knee between hers and she's got her hands in his hair and she's kissing him, drinking him in, because it's been so long and he's not the only one whose gone without. But he's home and he's safe, and they'll make up for lost time and missed chances.

He lifts her and the trunk of the car is hot, but she barely notices because his fingers are pushing her panties aside and she's pulling him tight against her. She decides that she's glad the Civic doesn't have a spoiler, but she won't remember thinking that until later, when they're home and Everett is gently laying cool, wet washcloths on her reddened skin.

Eighteen was never this good.

They realize afterwards that the keys are still in the ignition, but the doors are locked. It's two miles back to the highway and they walk it hand in hand. Along the way, she tells him about the promotion at the bank that she's been keeping as a surprise, and he tells her about how beautiful the countryside was and how it's been forever ruined by the bombs and the mines. She hears the sorrow in his voice, and it saddens her that something of him has been taken away and spoiled.

He's still wearing his uniform, so it doesn't take long to flag someone down. They're home by sunset, and this time, they remember to slow down.

Everett's home for over a week, and at first she has trouble adjusting. She's not used to sharing the small apartment with anyone. Half his things are still boxed up from the move. She's been waiting for him to get back so they could figure out where they all fit, only he's been gone so long that the space is no longer a fifty-fifty split.

She apologizes each time he has to dig through a box for a pair of jeans… his collection of half-finished Louis L'Amour paperbacks with the dog-eared pages… his hooded pullover she'd bought him on that last trip they'd taken, the one where he'd given her his jacket in a sudden rainstorm. He tells her it's no big deal, and she believes him. He's been bunking in shared quarters for months and having this much personal space is like finding oneself wandering the Mojave. He's a little bit lost and a little bit clingy.

One morning she snaps at him when he crowds into the shower. He's hurt, she can tell, as he mumbles, "Sorry, Em," and pulls the curtain shut when he leaves. She rinses and wraps herself in a towel, but the apartment is empty.

She calls in sick to work and spends the morning sorting through the boxes, making the space less 'hers' and more 'theirs' so he's got some place to anchor him. She still can't find the pullover.

He shows up at noon with a new haircut and a bag from the deli down the street, making a big show of knocking first. It's his attempt at pacification, but Emily still feels suitably chastised.

"Thought you had to work today," he says as he doles out the sandwiches. His head is bent over the task of plating the food, but his eyes keep cutting over in her direction. Passive engagement. Giving her an opening to make that first strike, should she so choose.

"I called in sick."

He stops and looks at her. "Feeling okay?" His concern is genuine.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just…" She waves her arm to the pile of empty boxes by the door. She wants to tell him that she's still learning how to have him back, but she doesn't know which words will burn and which will be a balm. Phone calls are easy; contained and sanitized because privacy in the call room is rare to non-existent. A quick chat where the words are lost in the pleasure of simply hearing his voice.

Everett is probably one of the few who still practices the lost art of letter-writing. He always signs them 'all my love, E.' But letters allow themselves to be put down and stepped away from when the honesty feels as though it's enough to choke her.

This real-time, instantaneous connection is almost too intense after months of being filtered. She takes her time because there is no 'undo' button here.

"You found the shirt," she says as he takes a step towards her, lunch forgotten.

He looks down at himself, surprised at where the conversation has meandered, and shrugs. "It was in your dresser, same drawer as your underwear." He's got a hint of a smile and the quirk of an eyebrow that suggests he's been thinking about why it was in that particular drawer to begin with. It makes him look boyish again and smoothes out the lines around his eyes that seem deeper than before he left.

It's making her warm in ways that no letter or phone call ever could.

She finds herself standing in close enough that she can reach up and run her fingers over his newly buzzed hair, though she doesn't remember taking a step.

"Orders came in?" she asks.

"For Monday." Three days away.

She breathes out a quiet 'Oh' and lets her hand fall away.

"They're sending me back to school. Figure they can teach this old dog a few new tricks." He's playing with her, trying to coax out the smile she's already biting back. "There's talk of a promotion… bigger paycheck." He glances at the boxes by the door. "Maybe we can find someplace with a little more room?"

"Does this mean I'm going to have to have supper waiting on the table when you get home?" she teases.

"As long as you're wearing nothing but my shirt when you do."

On Monday, she actually does.

As the smoke from 9-11 clears, Emily gets the first true taste of what it means to be a military family.

There are rumors about deployment orders, and talk of dates and numbers, and the logistics of how to get that much equipment across the world without access to a sea port. Everett doesn't talk much about the details, but he does tell her about the people.

His people.

He's got his own squadron now. He's up late most nights, often on the phone, sometimes over coffee at the kitchen table with a nervous Lieutenant who's just proposed to the girlfriend who thinks he's about to ship out and never come back.

Emily stays out of it, for the most part, but she makes sure to always have plenty of coffee on hand. He doesn't have to do this for his men, but he does because he genuinely cares for each and every one of them. He knows them all by first name, knows the names of their spouses, how many children they have, and where their folks live, because when it comes down to putting boots on the sand, it's important to remember who you're fighting for.

She knows the orders will be coming soon. There's a packed duffle sitting in the front hall closet, and Everett spends his Saturdays checking things off the to-do list. He buys new tires for her car, even though there's probably another three months of tread left on them, and gets the squealing dishwasher motor repaired.

Emily wants to remind him that one person doesn't make much of a mess that can't be washed by hand, but he's doing it as much for himself as for her. He doesn't need to be worrying about things back home when he's looking after his boys in Kabul.

She's in the middle of giving a presentation when Bob interrupts with the news.

"It's on CNN," he whispers to her while the people around the boardroom table pretend they're not trying to overhear. "Friendly-fire. No word on the body count. Yet." Bob's got that almost perverse excitement of someone who thinks reality TV is synonymous with legitimate journalism.

Emily runs through the rest of the Power Point deck and then excuses herself from the meeting. She thinks she did a decent job of keeping the tremor out of her voice as she wrapped up the presentation.

She knows that if Everett were involved, the Air Force would have notified her before it hit the news, but she goes straight home to wait for the call anyhow. As she sits in the darkened townhouse with the muted television as her only companion, she thinks, for the first time, that maybe Marnie might have been just a little bit on the mark.

The smell of his after-shave as she pulls on the hooded pullover is tenuous at best, but it's all she has right now.

She longs for something more substantial of Everett to hold on to.

The phone rings some time after midnight, and she picks up before the first ring falls silent.

At first there's only the static of an inter-continental connection, and then, "Emily? You there?"

She realizes that she's forgotten to say 'hello'.

"I'm here, Ev." Suddenly, simply holding the phone is almost too much. "Yeah, I'm right here." She swallows and just listens to him breathe on the other end of the line. There might not be a more beautiful sound.

"I'm okay," he says finally. There's probably a line up for the phones, but he doesn't rush. "We were still on the tarmac when word came in."

She bites her lip to keep from choking on the guilt that she's thankful it was somebody else today.

"Em?"

"Yeah, yeah. Still here."

She tries to sound brave. He's got his boys to take care of, after all. He doesn't need to be worrying about her.

"Emily," he says firmly, "I am going to make it home."

It's the first time in the last twenty-four hours that she actually believes it.

"It's a good career move," Everett tells her.

"It's Colorado." And it's half a continent away from her friends and her family. She doesn't say it, though, because she knew she what she was signing up for when she married him. She's just been spoiled that they've been on the east coast long enough to put down a few roots.

And it's not like he can really refuse. He's got a few more years before he can retire with a full pension, but he's young enough that he'd be restless and bored trying to settle into civilian life.

"How soon?" she asks as she takes a pair of mugs from the dishwasher and puts them in the cupboard. She doesn't look at him as she squeezes past in the narrow kitchen, as it it's his fault that she's already performing a mental tally of the number of boxes she'll need to order from the moving company.

He takes the next pair of glasses out of her hands so she doesn't have to push past him again. "A month, give or take. Sooner, if we can swing it."

"I guess I can see if there's an opening at one of the branch offices out there," she stares out the kitchen window and knows it's useless to fight it. A transfer out west might be good for Everett's career, but it's a step down in hers. There are other companies she can apply to, of course, but she's been with the bank a long time, and to start from scratch somewhere else… the prospect is more than a bit daunting.

"And my dad's not well," she throws it out there like a buoy to a drowning man already too weak to lift his arms. She hears him set the glasses on the counter. He rests his chin on her shoulder, and sighs because he knows that she's looking for excuses.

"Planes go in both directions, you know." He brushes her hair back and nudges against her ear. "You can always stay here… fly to the Springs on weekends."

"That's the stupidest idea ever." The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them. He's trying to work a compromise and she's shooting him in the foot. But he doesn't walk away, doesn't shout, doesn't storm out of the kitchen. He's still got a hand on her hip, and while he's breathing a little heavier, his voice is still calm. He's faced down tougher than her.

"Emily…"

"I'm sorry," she says, and she really is. "I didn't mean it like that."

His fingers clench in the fabric of her jeans. "So," he sounds a bit husky to her. "How did you mean it?"

For a moment she wishes he would have shouted because anything she says right now is going to cut him regardless.

"Em?"

Finally, she turns, but he backs away a step. She dries her hands with the dishtowel to stall for time. "How long?" she asks. She's got nothing to argue with anyhow. She always knew was she was marrying into.

"At least a year. Could be longer." He leans back against the counter, hands in his pockets, and waits for her reaction. He's going to go. She knows this as certain as she knows she can't hold water in her closed fist.

Whether she follows, or not, is up to her.

Yet she still hesitates. They're at a pinnacle, a tipping point. Whether they stumble and fall, or continue to climb is up to her.

Except, it never was entirely up to her. She's just always let him take the lead.

"I've got some vacation time coming up," she finally says. "I could go out there and take a look at some rentals when you go."

It's not the first compromise she's made for this marriage, but it's the one she'll think back to when she's sitting alone at her father's bedside, watching the unsteady rise and fall of his chest and wondering when it all started to go wrong.

"Does he ever tell you where he goes?" Emily asks Angie Dixon as they sit on the picnic table and watch the gaggle of kids chase each other around the field, weaving in and out of the lazy game of football being played by their fathers and a handful of other officers from the SGC in the hazy early evening sunlight.

"No… but I don't ask either." Angie pokes a straw into a drink box and hands it back to her youngest child. "Don't push it in all the way this time," she warns, but the child has already run off to join the swarm on the field blocking the offensive rush. "I don't want him to have to lie to me about it."

"You don't wonder, though?" Emily squints into the setting sun and she can easily pick out Everett standing on the sidelines chatting with another man, the beer in hand an excuse not to get too involved in the game. The officers stationed at the SGC - and Emily can only guess at what the initials stand for - are a close-knit group. Everett's not a shy man; he wouldn't have gotten as far as he has if he were. He just prefers to hang back and get a read on the people around him. Emily gets the feeling that he's waiting to see how everyone here fits together before he calls for a pass in the end zone.

Angie shades her eyes with one hand, takes a quick head-count, and shakes her head as Dave runs up the field with the football under one arm and the drink-box-carrying offspring under the other.

"Sometimes. Not as much as I used to." Angie reaches into the cooler, fishes past the drink boxes, pulls out a couple of bottles and wipes the water off so they don't drip. She hands one to Emily and twists the cap off her own. "He wouldn't be doing whatever it is they do if he didn't think it was important."

Emily uncaps her own bottle and realizes that for the first time since they moved out here, she feels like she can make it a home here. Angie has gone out of her way to make sure she feels included; from calling her up and inviting them over for supper the first night they moved into the new house so they didn't have to scramble to find cookware and dishes, to roping Emily into help organize the bar-b-queue today. Angie remembers what it's like to be the new kid on the block, and wasted no time doing something about it.

"You know anything about the new guy?" Angie changes the subject.

Emily follows her gaze across the field to the man standing next to Everett. She can read the tension in her husband's stance, the way he holds the bottle in his fist and not between his fingertips, and how he sticks his chin forward, like he's unconsciously trying to look broader. "Telford?" she asks. "No, Ev hasn't said much."

"Dave neither." She frowns. "Usually means he's not going to be around for long."

Things are good for them in Colorado for a while. It's practically a nine-to-fiver for Everett most of the time, and the days that aren't, he usually knows in advance. The odd time something unexpected - the something that nobody talks about - comes up, Emily gets a call. Not one of the official ones that every military family dreads, but an informal courtesy from one of his fellow team leads.

"Everett says to tell you he's having a fabulous time, but he won't be home for supper, and don't wait up for him."

"Thanks Dave," Emily says. She's at work, so there's not much she can say without being overheard. She convinces herself that Everett's not in any mortal danger; he just can't make it to the phone himself. "Tell Angie I'll call her tonight about the weekend."

In the meantime, she's frustrated with work. Handling residential mortgages is a big step backwards from corporate finance, and she's bored. She supposes that she could use her newfound spare time to take up a hobby, but before she can get really involved in putting in the garden she's been planning, she's back on a plane to Virginia.

"They called from the hospital. Dad's been admitted, and they don't think he'll be leaving this time." Emily tells him in a rush as he closes the front door. She's so busy telling him about the doctor's diagnosis and how she's got a flight booked for first thing in the morning that she doesn't notice the bruises or the butterfly closure along his hairline until he sags against the kitchen doorframe.

"You want me to come with you?" he asks, but he looks like he'd really rather not. He hasn't changed into his civvies. Emily notices the blood on his collar for the first time. She also hadn't noticed that it was almost eleven o'clock.

"What happened?" she asks as she catches his chin with her hand, pulling him into the bright lights of the kitchen so she can get a better look.

Everett shrugs. "It was a … training accident." His tone is light, but he's not putting much effort into the cover.

"Bullshit." And suddenly wants to hit him. It's not his fault her father's in the hospital, but she's been pacing the floor half the night, imagining all sorts of dire scenarios, each one worse than the next, and waiting for Everett to get home because she so badly needs him to tell her everything will be fine.

And instead, he's making a joke about the fact that he looks like he'd been elected goalie in a no-holds-barred street hockey match that he can't tell her a damned thing about. And the worst of it is that he's not even arguing back. He just stands there and rubs his eyes, wincing when his fingers get too close to the sticky tape. He takes a step back so he can lean against the counter while the side of the refrigerator keeps him upright.

"What do you want, Emily?" he says in that aggravatingly calm voice of his. He looks up at her finally, forcing her to meet his eyes, and she can see how tired his really is. "I can make a few calls... I've got personal days I can use up. If I can't get on the flight you're booked on, I can probably catch the next."

And like that, her anger drains away. The man can barely stand up, but he's offering to drop everything and fly across the country to hold her hand at her father's bedside. He has always been able to disarm her so easily. She hates that she doesn't even get to hold on to her acrimony. It was so much easier being mad than admitting she was scared.

"No, stay," she tells him. "I can call you once I get there and I know more about his condition."

He nods. There isn't much fight left in him anyhow. "Okay."

Emily takes him by the hand and leads him upstairs. They undress in the dark so she doesn't have to wonder about the bruises she knows are there; he stiffens each time her hands graze a particularly tender spot. Their lovemaking is perfunctory. More obligation than emotional connection, though whether from exhaustion or familiarity, she isn't sure.

It seems to play out that way more often than not, lately.

In the morning, when she kisses his forehead before she leaves to catch her flight, he barely stirs. Her suitcase catches on the doorframe as she leaves the room, banging loud enough that he rolls over.

"Emily?" he says in a sleep-muddled voice. "Call me when you get there, 'k?"

In the harsh early morning light, she can see all the wear and tear to his body that she missed last night. She can only bite her lip and nod.

Everett makes it to the funeral, but just barely. It takes Emily three days to track him down to tell him that her father has passed away. Three days of re-routed phone calls, excuses, and missed messages. Three days of worrying and wondering what the hell is going on when she needs to be focused on funeral arrangements and florists, and figuring out who is going to make sure Aunt Patty gets picked up from the airport because the woman refuses to go to the expense of calling a cab.

Three days when she really needs her husband to be her rock.

On the fourth day, she's sitting at her father's kitchen table with her head resting on her arms like a first-grader enduring their after-lunch nap when he startles her with a hand on her shoulder and a soft "Emily?"

She jumps, turns on him, and strikes. She hadn't even heard the door open. Everett catches her arm easily, and just as quickly, lets her go. She's not sure which of the two of them are more surprised.

"It's good to see you, too," he says softly.

"God, Everett, where have you been?" she says when she's caught her breath. "I've been trying to track you down for days and nobody could tell me anything. They couldn't even tell me if you'd gotten the message. Where the hell have you been?" She doesn't like the frantic pitch her voice has risen to, but she's helpless to stop it.

"I'm so sorry, Emily. I was off-world… I didn't get the message until this morning. I hopped the first flight I could get." He avoids looking at her, but she'd already caught the slip. Before she can wonder what he's talking about, he pulls her into his arms and smoothes back her hair. "I'm so, so sorry, Em."

She lets herself melt into him and that's when the tears really start to fall. She hadn't cried at the hospital because she'd already spent the last six weeks grieving for him, knowing each time she got on a plane to go see him might be the last. She hadn't so much as teared up while she waited on hold indefinitely for somebody from the Air Force to tell her that Everett had at least gotten the messages she'd left because she'd been too busy trying not to shout at the person on the other end of the line who probably knew less about her husband's whereabouts than she did.

But as he holds her in the empty kitchen of her now-late father's house and whispers nonsense words of comfort in her ear, she cries because she's just so tired of all the uncertainty, all the not knowing, and all the waiting and wondering if she's ever going to hear from him again.

The next day, Everett stands beside her in full dress uniform at the funeral and holds her hand as the minister recites the final blessing at the graveside. As the first handful of dirt is tossed onto the casket, he wraps an arm around her shoulders so she can lean on him. She doesn't fall, doesn't break in front of everyone present, but even if she did, he's there to catch her.

He talks in his sleep sometimes.

It's what finally gives him away.

She'd have had no reason to suspect that he was cheating otherwise. She doesn't see enough of him these days to catch any of the so-called classic signs. There's no lipstick on his collar, no dead-silence hang-up phone calls. Those few days when he is home on leave in between these new short-term assignments, he's actually home and not sneaking off for some illicit rendezvous. She's had no reason to doubt his fidelity to anything other than his job or to her.

Until he wakes her up one night as he calls out another woman's name.

He's gone through restless periods like this before, usually right after he returns from seeing action over-seas and his subconscious hasn't had time to decompress. She'll hold him in the dark as he wrestles with his dreams, or sleep in the spare room at night when he needs his space until he works through it, but his nightmares have been happening more and more frequently since the move out to Colorado.

Emily lies beside him in the dark early morning hours with her heart racing and her insides twisting themselves into knots as he tosses and thrashes in his sleep. At first she's not entirely convinced of what she's heard, but as she listens, he calls out again. The low, throaty way he says the name - so much like the way he's murmured her own as he nuzzled along her neck and nipped at her earlobe - feels like a fist tightening around her lungs, squeezing the air out of her chest.

She's hesitant to wake him - there have been times when he's lashed out as she's tried to shake him out of his nightmares, but this dream of his does not have the quality of any nightmare she's held him through. He rolls over and drapes an arm across her. She feels him move against her, hard and wanting in his sleep.

Emily slips out from under his arm, and without a sound, retires to the spare room where she stares at the ceiling and waits for the alarm clock to sound.

She watches him at the breakfast table. He lingers over his coffee while he reads the newspaper with a half-eaten slice of toast forgotten in one hand. Emily's never known him to follow any one particular team, even though he studies the sports section daily. She suspects he's memorizing draft picks so he has yet another subject to bond over with his young captains and lieutenants.

"Sleep okay?" she asks from behind her own coffee mug.

Everett looks up at her and pauses like he's searching his memory to see if he had actually did. "Did I wake you up again?"

"You did."

"Sorry about that," he says sincerely. He takes a bite of his toast goes back to the box scores.

It's not unusual for him not to talk about his dreams; he's always worked hard to protect her from the less palatable aspects of his job. She could ask him if he's all right, but he'd just brush off the question and tell her he was fine, nothing to worry about, just a dream. She could let it slide, but there would always be that niggling uncertainty hanging between them, that tiny seed that would sprout tendrils of doubt and leave her questioning every empty silence in their phone calls, every space between the letters he still writes.

Or she could just clear the air right here and now. Emily takes a deep breath. She's tired of the secrets.

"Who's Tamara?"

Everett falters, toast crust half way to his mouth.

His hesitation is all the proof she could want. He's never been very good at hiding things, at least not from her. His eyes have always been the real giveaway.

He swallows, carefully puts the toast on his plate, but still doesn't look up from the newspaper spread across the table in front of him. Emily's heart is racing again, her hands shaking so badly that she has to put her coffee mug down so it doesn't slop and burn her. The only sound in the room is breathing; his too slow and measured, hers sounding like a freight train racing in her ears.

"Who is she, Everett?" she asks, her words measured out carefully.

"Emily…" At least he does her the courtesy of not playing dumb.

"Are you sleeping with her?"

He pushes back from the table, walks over to the sink, and stands there with his back to her, hands braced on the edge of the counter like he needs it to keep from falling. "Emily." He drops his head and she can only wonder if he's trying to find the right words, or the ones he thinks she wants to hear. "I'm sorry."

Those were not the words she was expecting from him. An excuse, maybe, a denial, more likely, but not this bare-faced apology. It wasn't supposed to be this easy.

"Excuse me?" she asks for lack of anything better.

Everett is still studying into the depths of the kitchen plumbing. "TJ… Tamara is- "

"Don't," she interrupts sharply. "Don't. I don't need to know who she is. I don't want to know anything about her. I don't… just… don't." Emily shakes her head, as if that's all it will take to sweep away the mental image of Everett propped on his elbows with some woman that isn't her beneath him. "Just tell me you slept with her."

She can hear him exhale from across the room, drowning out the steady tick-tick-tick of the kitchen clock on the wall above him.

"Yes."

Her stomach clenches as he says the word. She turns so she doesn't have to meet his eyes when he finally does look at her.

"Why?" It's possible that her voice doesn't crack like she thinks it does. She's still trying to figure out where they took the wrong turn that got them to this place.

"I didn't set out to have an affair, I promise you that, Emily. I… I never tried to cheat on you."

"It didn't stop you," she says. "You did it anyhow. Why? Were you bored out there in the desert? Needed something to pass the time? Or did you decide to trade up for something younger?" The words taste bitter, bilious, and she yet doesn't want to swallow them back. How many nights has she lain awake worrying about him when she needn't have bothered because he was sharing a bed with somebody else who might?

"Not the desert… that's not it. Emily," he crosses his arms and stares at his feet while he picks his defense. "There was… couple months back… we lost some guys… "

"I remember that. Training accident, you said."

Everett grunts. "Only it wasn't. But that's not the point. I wasn't sleeping- "

"No kidding."

"Am I telling this, or not?" he looks up at her. Emily shrugs. She opened this can of worms, after all. "So I went to the infirmary to maybe get something to help me get to sleep," he continues. "Only, the doc's not in because it's the middle of the night, and I'm not going to pull him out of bed for a few bad dreams."

He comes back to the table, pushes the plate and the newspaper to the side, and folds his hands in front of him as if he's getting ready to beg. Or maybe pray.

"So the doc's not there, but this medic's on duty. She can't hand out drugs without a doctor's order, but she can talk… get you talking. TJ's…" he says her name, doesn't let Emily hide from it, "Tamara's good at listening… getting people to talk. Anyhow… one thing leads to another… and I screw up. I screw up big time." His voice is so low she almost can't hear him say "God, I'm sorry, Emily."

She has no doubt that he is.

But it doesn't mean that she can just forgive his transgressions. For all the times she's watched him suffer, for all the times they've been nothing more than ships passing in the dark, and when he needs a beacon, it's not her that he turns to.

She's cold, shaking, as she pushes back from the table. She's not sure she can stand being in the same room with him right now. All she knows as she makes her way up the stairs to get dressed so she can get out of the house is that she's glad, so very glad, that she never took Marnie's advice.

The bottom falls out of the economy and the bank decides to downsize and close her branch. Accepting the transfer back east is a no-brainer; it's that, or fill out her un-employment application. For once, though, it feels like the decision is actually hers.

Everett sits on the edge of the bed and watches her pack. He doesn't say anything as she sorts through the closet, tossing clothes into piles on the bed - stuff to take right away, and stuff to box up and have the movers take care of. She's become efficient at the whole process over the years.

Everett's shirts are still on their hangers, untouched.

"We should sell this place," he says and lets it hang there, inviting her to take a shot, to engage him, to just say something. Emily doesn't quite trust herself yet.

"There's still six months left in this posting, so there's no point keeping it if you're in Virginia," he adds. She can feel his eyes on her back as she moves from the closet to the box in the hall, back to the closet, over to the suitcase. "I'm not going to be home much."

She strikes below the belt. "Not like you have been much anyhow."

"Emily, you knew it would be like this."

She pauses, a stack of t-shirts in one hand. Yes, she did know, and that's why she'd hung in there, despite everything. Everybody had warned her. Hell, they'd even warned her that he'd end up sleeping around on her one day, too. She's not sure what she hates more - that everyone was right or that she'd thought she was so special that it wouldn't happen to her.

"It wasn't supposed to be forever," she says. There's tremor in her voice and she bites back her next words so she doesn't have to hear how hopeless she sounds. She'd expected to grow old with him. Just him, and not with the whole damned Air Force waiting just outside their bedroom door.

"Six months. That's it and I'm done." He gets up, takes a pile of sweaters off the shelf and walks over to her suitcase. "Let me just finish this posting. Close off this job. Then I'll be home so much you'll want to get rid of me."

The thing is, he's always done that. He's always come home to her. She really wants to believe him, but she knows the pull of ambition, the thrill of success. She wouldn't blame him if he decided to extend the posting and forgo resigning. Hate him for it, sure, but she would understand it.

"Talk to me about it in six months," she says and goes back to packing.

When she unpacks her suitcase in the hotel back east, Emily finds the hooded pull-over in with her clothes, now worn and threadbare after all these years.

She doesn't recall packing it.

The story is so outlandish that Emily has no doubt that it's true.

It certainly explains some of the some of the things she's seen and heard over the last few years. The story the Air Force liaison tells her, that Everett is god-knows-how-many light years away, marooned on a space ship and able to visit her by means of swapping consciousness with a volunteer is too rich in detail not to be fact. It's far easier to buy into than all the times he's told her he's been sent over-seas.

So when he comes to her door wearing another man's body and tells her that she's all he has to hang on to, she's all that's keeping him going so he can find a way to get home to her, it's not his words that convince her. It's his voice. It sounds slightly off; the tone is not quite right, sounds being made with an unfamiliar larynx, but the cadence, the timing of the words… the hesitation; that's all Everett. Nobody can fake that.

And he sounds so damn lost.

She's heard it in her own voice before, when she'd spent the whole night waiting up for him to call her from Afghanistan to tell her that he was still alive. She recognizes the desperation. Something painful twists inside her as she realizes how the tables have been turned.

"How long do you have here?" she asks as she closes the front door behind them. Everett stands in the front hall with his hands in his pockets as if he's afraid she's going to toss him out in the street again.

He shrugs, but it doesn't look right; David Telford is taller than Everett, and built different. Leaner, lighter on his feet. Again, it's only his voice that reminds her that Everett is here.

"I don't know. Probably ten… twelve hours?" He takes a step towards her. "I was hoping that we could talk… that maybe you'd be able to forgive me, because if something happens and I don't make it back," he uses the same tilt of the head, like a puppy imploring her not to kick him. He takes another step. "I just want things to be like they used to be between us, Emily. Before I screwed everything up."

God, she wishes it were that simple, because she can't ignore the despair she hears in those words, like he's expecting something catastrophic to happen sooner, rather than later. She takes a step, then another, and meets him at the foot of the stairs. She touches his cheek; the skin is rougher than Everett's.

He buries his head in her neck and apologizes again and again, making promises that she knows he doesn't have a hope in hell of keeping while he's somewhere on the other side of the known universe with no way of getting home.

But she wants to believe him. She really does. She wants to forget all the times she's waited for him, scared half out of her mind that he wasn't coming back, all the times she's turned a blind eye to the bruises and the cuts and scrapes that he can never properly explain. She wants to ignore all the times he came back so broken but couldn't tell her enough to let her soothe him. She wants to forgive him for choosing his job over her.

That much would be easy.

But she can't forgive him for choosing to let another woman hold him when he was hurting. Somebody who hasn't made him any promises, who hasn't given up anything for him the way she has. Somebody who hasn't moved halfway across the country and back to make a home with him, who hasn't sacrificed both career and family all these years so she could be his touchstone while he went off to keep his country safe.

She can't forgive Everett for that.

His hand under her shirt, stroking the small of her back sends chills up her spine and lights a fire in her belly. It's been so long since he's touched her like that and she wants more. She runs her hand through his hair, and though David wears it short too, it doesn't quite feel right - it's not as soft.

How easily she's forgotten that Everett's not entirely here.

How quickly he's forgotten that it's not entirely him. Emily stiffens. She's not sure she can do this with him.

"Hey?" he asks as he kisses her ear, is lips lingering while he breathes her in. "It's me, Emily, I swear."

And he's right. It is him, but it isn't. She remembers thinking, once upon a time, that they wouldn't play these games with each other; that she wouldn't need to look for an excuse to make him stay.

But that was a long time ago, when they were still so young and, yes, a little high on love and the promise of a solid future together. Maybe they'd come through the years a little worse for wear, but with so much between them that she could forgive his indiscretion. Maybe.

But she can't help but want him to understand how much he's hurt her. When he's sitting alone in his quarters and thinking of home, she wants him to remember what it was like to see her, to be right there in the room at that very moment with her as she makes love to another man; to hear her call out his name while he watches somebody else's hands touching her body and he can't do a damn thing about it … It's a petty thing, but it's all that she has.

Emily closes her eyes and listens to his voice.

She kisses him.

David calls and asks her to dinner. Emily figures she owes him that, considering how she used him.

She's met him a few times over the years, so when she answers the door she knows it's definitely David, and not Everett on her front step. The way he stands is what gives it away. He slouches a bit; like he's as worn as the jeans he's wearing, and comfortable with the fact.

"I didn't know if you preferred red or white," he says as he hands her a wine-bottle shaped paper bag. "So I decided to play the odds and got a blush."

"No it's fine. Perfect, actually. Thank you," she says. She pulls the bottle from the bag and checks the label. Not top shelf, but not cheap either. He's trying to impress her.

Emily invites him in. His eyes slide over her as he steps past her into the hallway and she feels the proverbial goose on her grave.

"Nice place," David says as he makes a show of checking out the living room. His smile is quick, maybe a little awkward, like it's been a long time since he's made a social call on a woman. Maybe she imagined the look just a few seconds ago.

"Thanks," she says as she leads him into the dining room where the plates are already waiting. "It's been a few months, so I think this place is finally starting to feel like home."

They chat amicably over dinner. Emily feels relaxed around David, whether from the wine, or because she finally has a chance to talk to someone without the conversation being censored. A little bit of both, she supposes. He actually answers her questions about the Stargate program and what they were doing on another planet, or at least as much as he's allowed to, given her newly-acquired level of clearance. Everett would never have told her so much. He was always trying to protect her.

She has a sudden twinge of guilt for thinking of him in the past-tense. She hasn't entirely given up hope of him making it home. You don't give up on that many years of marriage easily.

Emily looks up to see David watching her again. He's wearing a hint of a smile which disappears when he speaks, but something cold settles in the pit of her stomach. She takes another sip of wine.

"We've only know each other a short time," David leans forward. "But I'd like to feel I can call you a friend."

She's not sure where he's going with this, but says "Yes, of course you can."

"And as such," he meets her eyes, "I feel a certain… obligation to tell you some things… about your husband."

He's studying her. Emily waits for him to continue, and when he speaks, she only half-listens to what he's telling her about that woman also being on the ship with Everett. She can't ignore the feeling that she's being assessed, that's he's waiting for her reaction. He's not speaking the words as a friend… he's testing her commitment.

Despite all assurances to the contrary, David had been there. He knows how she used him to get back at her husband.

Suddenly, hurting Everett doesn't feel much like victory after all.

.end